The Cartoonification of the American Mind and the Return of the Red Scare

Why the Unwoke Needs to Woke UP

A childish pranksterism captivates politically tribalised adults who, more and more, are seeking out public venues in which to vent their rage. The younger ones have been adults for at least a decade, and, because of their arrested development or just generally unfulfilled life, they still can’t cope with the reality that their adult bodies didn’t bring them Marvel Comics superpowers. But joining QAnon can change all that. You can become part of a cultish team (with all the benefits afforded you by giving yourself over to the supernatural) dedicated to taking down the Deep State led by a centuries-old Satanic cabal of paedophile cannibals that has taken over the Democratic Party. You can have your photo taken with colourful figures such as Michael Flynn or the camera-ready rabble-rouser known as the Patriot Streetfighter, who will arrive at your next church event on his Harley Davidson, clad in leather chaps, and sure to be carrying his signature tomahawk on stage as he rages against corrupt school board members and local woke politicians. If you play your cards right and can master the internet like your teenagers do, you, too, can have your own following, perhaps even your own grassroots army. It’s better if you have a gimmick like a tomahawk, but, if you can find some other way to attract people desperate for a life, then you might build up a large fan base. And that might merit having your tattoo artist design for you an impressive personal logo for your bicep that you can reproduce on your Facebook page.

Yes, we all are angry at the government and the way society is organised to reproduce, generation after generation, the asymmetrical relations of power and privilege that keep the vast majority in the working and middle classes in economic bondage. Some of us examine this through the lens of the social sciences while others, whose capacity for discernment appears to be congenitally dormant, utilise a more colloquial argot such as ‘owning the libs’ or the ‘libtard elite’ who are keeping powerless people even more powerless, and ruining the country by letting foreigners into our towns and cities, pushing off to the side true and blue ‘blood and soil’ white American patriots (i.e., ‘legacy Americans) while at the same time being hoodwinked by tyrannical communists and cultural Marxists who have disguised themselves as social justice warriors. But, deep in their QAnon-saturated minds, they know that these leftists carry with them a toolkit of political correctness ideology designed to destroy America.

The real problem is that the internet is creating a massive fascist subculture of Americans who haven’t benefited from a critical education, have identified liberals as the enemy in the culture wars, and who get their emotional relief and entertainment needs from trolling those whom QAnon has designated as the enemy – which is most likely to be you and me.

There are those who have figured out the formula that will get feckless firebrands and peevish provocateurs elected to public office in certain districts or entire states, where the well-oiled Republican machinery is steadfastly in place, where gerrymandering has been cheerfully successful, and voter repression is an accepted way of political life. Extremism is selling big these days for Republicans. Politics has become political entertainment, and the bar is set so low that instead of arranging debates in the public square, progressives are simply dismissed as perverts, groomers, Marxists, heathens or communists.

Far-right extremists have uncanny powers these days (mostly through narratives based on disinformation and polemics) and can direct their hyper-partisan audiences to harass school-board members and target school board officials when they visit their local restaurants. Or they can openly advocate for violence.

How much the political landscape and political temperature would be different today if students graduated from high school having been taught by teachers committed to critical pedagogy is not easy to judge, but I remain convinced that it is important for students to graduate with an understanding of the nature of capitalism’s social universe, particularly the substance of labour itself, from the perspective of Marx’s critique of political economy. And, of course, it would be important for teachers to welcome criticisms and encourage debates over Marx’s theories. What the far-right gets wrong about critical pedagogy is that ideas are not imposed on students. Critical pedagogy is fundamentally problem-posing and teaches through dialogue. Students are encouraged to challenge ideas and to create counter-arguments to those that may be presented by the instructor.

Marx has been blamed for the moral panics that have been ignited by America’s current culture wars, and this is largely a result of the lack of knowledge about Marx and his critique of political economy. If the illiberal critics writing today had actually read Marx, they would be in a better position to appreciate Marx’s genius and his humanism and in a better position to make criticisms of his ideas. But, no, Marx is attacked for being responsible for everything wrong with America. I am reminded of the opening lines of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, written by Karl Marx in the mid-19th century, where he writes: ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ The second line could now be amended in terms of his own historical legacy thusly: ’ He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, and the third as the inciter of moral panics in acts of partisan political gamesmanship. I remember how embarrassing it was to listen to the debate over cultural Marxism between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek on YouTube. Peterson clearly had read little of Marx beyond The Communist Manifesto. Stephen Marche said it best when he wrote about Peterson’s lack of preparation, ‘Watching him, I was amazed that anyone had ever taken him seriously enough to hate him.’

The old joke about the fish not knowing about water until somebody throws it on dry land seems apposite when it comes to the importance of understanding capitalism. We take capitalism for granted, and this is an unpardonable sin, given that it affects everything we think and do. Marx’s work takes on important significance when we understand how capital grounds all social mediation as a form of value, and how human beings have been transformed into human capital, with the logic of capitalist work (as essentially congealed labour) informing the very core of our social being and, in fact, informing all forms of human sociability. Different types of labour take on different forms within capitalism, which is why we need to examine value as a social relation, as an abstract social structure than needs to be unpacked. Labour as a value form constitutes our very social universe, one that has been underwritten by the logic of capital. Value, as Mike Neary and Glenn Rikowski once put it, is the very matter and anti-matter of Marx’s social universe. Value emerges whenever labour assumes its dual character as concrete labour and abstract labour.

According to Claude Bitot, communism was supposed to have died in 1991. Raya Dunayevskaya claims that the Soviet Union was never communist in the strict sense, as argued by Marx. Rather, it was a state capitalist regime. Bitot writes:

A question arises, however: did the ex-USSR demonstrate that it was communist, that is – if such a word has any meaning – classless, Stateless, without wage labour, creating a human community in which the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all? The fact that exploitation, oppression, corruption, privilege and a host of other alienations held sway in the former USSR proves that there was not a trace of communism there. This proclaimed demise of communism is therefore without any basis: something that does not exist cannot die.

But these are debates that are off the table for students. For some, just hearing someone utter the word ‘Marx’ is enough to initiate their fight or flight response. For many otherwise inquisitive college students in the United States, investigating any part of Marx’s oeuvre would be considered a fundamental breach of patriotism, something that should rightfully spark the ire of tried and true Americans, causing a firestorm of protests from their parents and relatives as well as hardened MAGA advocates they might know, perhaps even their favourite Little League coach. Let’s contrast this with the way some Europeans respond to Marx’s legacy. In 1989, Karl Marx topped a BBC News Online poll to find the greatest thinker of the millennium. Albert Einstein ranked second. The top 10 included philosophers Immanuel Kant and Rene Descartes as well as twentieth-century scientist Stephen Hawking.

But cultural Marxism, specifically critical race theory, has been the source of inexhaustible card hands for Republicans to play during the culture wars game over the past decade. Excoriating Democrats as Marxists is the royal flush that is destined to beat all the other hands. And the most dominant high roller in the Casino of Lies is, in this case, Donald Trump, an expert in the construction of narratives based on disinformation and polemics.

Brian Doherty writes:

The list of developments for which ‘cultural Marxism’ has been blamed includes the following: the LGBT rights movement, especially the legal push to eliminate sodomy laws and legitimise gay marriage; activism for transgender acceptance and recognition; the increase in divorce at the end of the 20th century and a decrease in nuclear family formation; African Americans protesting police abuse; art and music that fails to follow familiar genre conventions; increased depictions of a variety of races, genders, and sexualities in popular media; acceptance of immigrants and the cultural pluralism they bring; a lack of tolerance for non-liberal ideas on college campuses.

Doherty crafts a politically loaded explanation of why Karl Marx, the father of communism, has been dragged into this fix by the far-right via an agreed-upon narrative for all that is wrong with today’s America: ‘After the horrific deaths of millions, global communism may have been discredited as a viable economic system, but its proponents want to sneak it perniciously through the back door via cultural decadence. Thus, political correctness is part of a lefty long con to take over America.’

The far right’s cultural Marxist conspiracy cult just found the perfect scapegoat to scare the bejesus out of most of Middle America. Doherty is correct in tracing the ‘ur-sources’ of the culture wars to Michael Minnicino, author of the infamous ‘The New Dark Age: The Frankfurt School and Political Correctness,’ and thinkers such as Patrick Buchanan and William Lind, and their warnings against the vast intellectual production of the Frankfurt School members such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin and others. According to Doherty,

The story goes that these eggheads saw that Marx’s predictions about the contradictions in capitalism producing a proletarian revolt were failing to come true. They decided that traditional Western culture was keeping the masses from their revolutionary mission and needed to be annihilated. Religion, the family, traditional sexual mores, belief in objective truth – all had to be overturned. So, they launched ‘critical theory’ to demolish the sacred principles that made Western civilisation great and pave the way for communist tyranny and an eventual stateless utopia.

The idea here is that students advocating for the right to be treated with dignity have been deceived by critical theorists and must be rescued by Breitbart and Fox News hosts. So, it’s not uncommon for far-right pundits to decry so-called ‘woke’ educators and to describe their motives as a desire to overturn the state. There is some irony here, given the attack on the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, by the far-right and the fact that progressive educators are neither ‘communist’ ideologues nor insurrectionists and may not in the least be inspired by Marx (I would hazard a guess that many progressive educators have never even read Marx).

Marx’s work has indeed inspired some educators who call themselves critical theorists or who work in the field of critical pedagogy, but, even in this case, it’s a small number. And the fact that it’s a small number is a bad thing in my view, not a good thing. No Marxist educators that I know desire a communist society of the sort that occurred under Stalin or during Soviet times. Most, like myself, identify as socialists and are horrified by the crimes of Stalin and the regimes that followed in the footsteps of the Soviet Union.

What many Marxist educators I know appreciate most about Marx is his pathfinding critique of capitalism. Most Marxists that I have worked with are humanists, many are democratic socialists, and, yes, you will always find some militant activists who describe themselves as old-school Marxists. Yes, there are different schools of Marxism, and yes, I gravitate towards the International Marxist Humanist Organisation. Please note that the word ‘humanist’ here does not refer to the word ‘atheist’; I happen to be a Catholic who supports the field of liberation theology which was made possible by reforms of the Catholic Church during Vatican II, as summarised by Fr. James Martin, the editor-at-large for the Jesuit publication, ‘America,’ when he writes how the Second Vatican Council changed the church ‘from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to ongoing, from passive acceptances to active engagement, from fault-finding to appreciation, from prescriptive to principles, from behaviour modification to inner appropriation.’ It wasn’t a bad start. But clearly not enough.

Many left educators that I know will say that while they are not Marxists, they are grateful for Marx’s critique of capitalism. Bernie Sanders has done much to spark an interest in students to know more about socialism. As a result, students all over the country have expressed a hunger to understand capitalism in a deeper way. They readily admit that it is well and proper to critique the history of both communism and capitalism. It is the far-right politicians that are holding these students back.

It is fundamental to my approach to critical pedagogy that students engage in criticisms of American capitalism and imperialism, settler colonialism and slavery – whether they are influenced by, say, Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalism inside the US or from Lenin’s writings – or from Richard Wolff’s prescient warnings about impending economic crises or the work of political economists who have no particular political affiliation, or from the works of Cornel West or bell hooks. These thinkers are then challenged by those who defend capitalism. But such an approach is anathema to the far-right pundits who believe that even modestly entertaining socialism as a viable model of organising society is equivalent to an attack on America.

In order to deflect from the crimes of US imperialism, slavery and the extermination of America’s indigenous population, far-right pundits who openly advocate for white Christian nationalism have pointed to the so-called crimes of communism as responsible for the objects of their own loathing, which includes multiculturalism, radical feminism and gay rights.

Doherty writes:

American right-wingers hate multiculturalism and gay rights and radical feminism for their own sake, not because they were designed to pave the path for communism. But the story has the emotional advantage of allowing them to imagine that the trends they despise didn’t arise from a long history of the social abuse of blacks, gays, women and immigrants, but from sinister machinations of commies striving to enslave us. Never mind that the unstoppable traditionalist ‘cultural decline’ of the last several decades has not gotten the United States any closer to public ownership of the means of production.

There is some irony in the fact that the very source of the far-right’s attack on the scourge of political correctness – members of the Frankfurt School – are, by-and-large, critical of both communism and capitalism.

The Soviet Union and communist regimes around the world were guilty of crimes against humanity on a vast scale and should be condemned for those crimes. Labour camps, the creation of famines, torture, mass executions and the suppression of freedom cannot and should not be tolerated. Marx would never have approved or tolerated these governments, given their legacy of committing some of the most heinous crimes of the last century. (In a disagreement with Guesde and Lafargue on ‘revolutionary phrase-mongering’ and downplaying the value of reformist struggles, Marx famously remarked that, if their politics represented Marxism, ‘ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste’ [‘what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist’].) Marx’s humanism could be one of the reasons why Marx’s works were banned in North Korea and why the portraits of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin were taken down from Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang in 2009. The vestiges of Marxism-Leninism in the country were suddenly gone with Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism, becoming ‘the only guiding idea of the Party.’ However, Communist symbols and an emphasis on communist ideology seem to be returning. The Communist Manifesto was banned from 1848–2013 in Turkey and Germany. In the United States, the ban was unofficial in that Marx’s works were highly censored during the second ‘Red Scare’ begun by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. Aditi Kumar et al. write that ‘During this era, over a hundred American journalists were accused of being communists or communist sympathisers and had their lives examined in great detail by government organisations.… McCarthyism caused the censorship of a significant amount of leftist media due to the fact that people were afraid of being labelled as a ‘red’ for fear of losing their job, or worse. Works such as the Communist Manifesto are in direct conflict with the American ideals reinforced by McCarthy during the 1950s, which is the primary cause of its censorship in the United States. Over thirty-nine states forced teachers and other public employees to take loyalty oaths.’

I grew up in the 50s and 60s and remember all too well dinner conversations about the dangers of communism. But can the same logic that is used by the far-right to criticise Marx be applied to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount? I’m referring to those militant atheists who are so hardened against religion that they blame Jesus and the Christian religion for the Crusades? Should we not blame the Crusades on the followers of Jesus rather than the founder of Christianity? And it is interesting to note that during the financial crisis of 2007-2008, mainstream economists were recommending the works of Marx to help explain it. Consider this 2008 report from The Guardian:

Karl Marx is back. That, at least, is the verdict of publishers and bookshops in Germany who say that his works are flying off the shelves. The rise in his popularity has, of course, been put down to the current economic crisis. ‘Marx is in fashion again,’ said Jörn Schütrumpf, manager of the Berlin publishing house Karl-Dietz, which publishes the works of Marx and Engels in German. ‘We’re seeing a very distinct increase in demand for his books, a demand which we expect to rise even more steeply before the year’s end.

Most popular is the first volume of his signature work, Das Kapital. According to Schütrumpf, readers are typically ‘those of a young academic generation, who have come to recognise that the neoliberal promises of happiness have not proved to be true.’

Bookshops around the country are reporting similar findings, saying that sales are up by 300%. (Though the fact that they are not prepared to quote actual figures suggests the sales were never that high).

The scrupulous scholarship of José Porfirio Miranda infallibly indicates that many interpretations of Marx’s work – even by those calling themselves Marxist – cannot be reconciled with Marx’s own thought. For instance, Miranda reveals that Marx is not the positivist that some of his critics claim him to be. Nor is he an economic determinist. Marx does not reduce everything to economic categories. In the last instance, not all historical causes are reducible to the economic factor, just as not all factors which alter the base are economic. Economic categories for Marx are, Miranda emphasises, forms of being of the subject that is society. Human beings determine economics and not the other way around. In this sense, we should not talk about production but about the producing subject. Similarly, we should not talk about culture but rather the cultivated subject. These categories are, according to Miranda, ‘merely ways in which the subject exists.’ The subject is the living source of value; the subject is the labourer as living labour power. Workers are subjects that cannot be treated as objects in their production of surplus value. Workers must use the instruments of production for their own human ends and defeat the dominion of labour as object over labour as subject. This Marx makes resoundingly clear. Miranda is correct in concluding that no materialism that denies the existence of the subject or subjects would appeal in any way to Marx. History is made by human beings making choices. Theses by so-called Marxists, in many instances, fail to dovetail with Marx’s own interpretations. In many instances, these common assumptions about Marx’s work directly contradict the essence of Marx’s ideas. Marx’s work was driven by prophetic umbrage, and critics often mind-numbingly ignore the moral content of Marx’s economic analysis. He was a humanist whose work reflected a profound moral obligation to the liberation of humanity. Far-right politicians and education official would rather have their assessments of Marx marked by calumny than give students a chance to engage in a dialogue about his world-historical work.

The urgent question that plagues all education – the question of capitalism – is still not raised in our school curricula. Why don’t school officials and politicians, even to this day, want students to have an opportunity to discuss capitalism in public school? The answer goes beyond fear and loathing. During the Red Scare in 1952, in a 6-3 decision, the US Supreme Court upheld a New York state law known as the Feinberg Law that prohibited communists from teaching in public schools. Anyone who called for the overthrow of the government was banned from the teaching profession. Far-left propaganda was outlawed. We are back in those days of the ‘Red Scare’ today, but this time the surveillance state is better equipped to monitor its citizenry.

Recently, former President Donald Trump lashed out at the House Select Committee investigating the January 6th Capitol riots in a video in which he accused the committee members of being ‘Marxists.’ ‘These are sick people; these are Marxists!’ he charged. ‘And they’re very dangerous and very bad people!’ He also exhibited his habit of referring to himself as one of the greatest presidents of all time (‘Better than Lincoln, better than Washington’).

Let me direct some words to Mr Trump. Yes, former President Trump, some of us who opposed the tabloid-press-presidency that you occupied for four intolerable years are, indeed, Marxists. Yes, we did push back against the hot pink headlines of your celebrity-gossip-magazine-time-in-office, and we rejected your world of spycraft, ideological delusion, the lead-lined coffins you presented to our ‘enemies of the state’ filled with copies of the New York Times. And, most of all, we resented your collusion with fascists that contribute mightily to the way in which today’s reality is defined. Yes, liberals now are thought to be sexual deviants, oppressive elites who are coming to get us all. Mr President, you have been in goblin mode since you left office. You dined at your Mar-a-Lago palace with Kayne West (now ‘Ye’), an anti-Semitic musician and admirer of Hitler and Nick Fuentes, an American white supremacist and a neo-Nazi political commentator and live streamer. Looks like you haven’t changed much since you left the White House.

What is the real challenge posed by capitalism that so intimidates far-right politicians? Marx points to the contradiction between the drive to increase material wealth versus the drive to augment value. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be distracted by secondary issues such as the greed of the owners of the means of production or the lack of control that workers have in decision-making. We will not find the answer by itemising capitalism’s social sins: the savage decline of employment in the agriculture sector; the incessant focus on profit and the bottom line; the attack of the green ooze hedge fund hucksters; the uneven distribution of wealth, the manic emphasis on growth, crony capitalism and legalised money laundering; the stink of the estuaries, the poisoned lakes and oceans, the melting of the glaciers, the carbon dioxide and methane in our atmosphere, and so on.

The answer lies in our ability to separate out the contradiction between the material form of labour versus the value form of labour from real-world class struggles at the point of production and at other accumulators along its circuitry. This distinction between material wealth and the value of the labour embodied in a commodity (the value of which is determined by the average amount of time used to produce the commodity) is what enables us to distinguish what ‘is’ from what ‘ought’ to be. Because it deals with the extraction from living labour of all the unpaid hours of the worker’s life of toil that amounts to surplus value or profit for the employer.

There needs to be more analysis of the fetishism of the commodity form. Hence, when we begin to analyse the commodity form, we are able to ascertain that the value of commodities is created by abstract labour, utilising the labour-power of the workers. Labour power is itself a commodity owned by the worker and sold in the marketplace (the human slave trade) in exchange for a wage which makes the worker subservient to the authority and sometimes the sadistic whims of the employer. The worker is compelled to participate in value production (producing wealth in monetary form, or surplus value) for the capitalist whose main drive is to augment value and thereby create a profit that will serve the capitalist well in driving out fellow capitalist competitors. But the wages paid to the worker, the demon seed of exploitation, are lower than the value produced by the worker, which allows the capitalist to make a profit, but which alienates the labourer during the process of production. The only real power of the workers is their ability to refuse to sell their labour power for a wage (which comes at a dire price). A worker’s labour is forced to conform to an abstract average (known as socially necessary labour time) that functions by means of the laws of competition and thus is out of the worker’s control, and it is this (global) metric that forces the worker to produce commodities whose social average varies according to the impact of technological innovations that increase the productivity of labour. Abstract labour comes to dominate concrete labour.

This becomes clearer when we understand the contradictory nature of the commodity form and the expansive capacity of the commodity known as labour-power. It is in this sense that labour-power becomes the supreme commodity, the source of all value. As Glenn Rikowski would put it, it takes the form of value-in-motion (value is always in motion because of the increase in capital’s productivity that is required to maintain expansion). Raya Dunayevskaya (1978) notes that ‘the commodity in embryo contains all the contradictions of capitalism precisely because of the contradictory nature of labour.’ Abstract universal labour linked to a certain organisation of society, under capitalism, is what creates value. This becomes clearer when Marx addresses the dual aspect of labour within the commodity (use value and exchange value). This is precisely what enables one single commodity – money – to act as the value measure of the commodity. Money becomes, as Dunayevskaya notes, the representative of labour in its abstract form. Wealth is a form of value in monetised form. Wealth is distinct from the idea of value as a social relation. Thus, the commodity must not be considered a thing, but a social relationship. So, when we talk about value, we are referring to the value form of labour. Value that makes profits for the employer while exploiting the employee. To rid ourselves of this value form of labour, we need an internationalist socialism.

Richard Wolff writes:

A truly internationalist socialism would not tolerate the inequalities within and among the nations of the world. Drastically reducing those would be the top priority. Providing full guarantees of food, clothing, and housing for all – across each individual’s lifetime – would be the second-highest priority. Democratising not only political life (one person, one vote for all major community decisions) but also economic life (ensuring each employee has one vote on all major workplace decisions) would be the third key priority. A world committed to these goals – the concrete meaning of ‘going beyond capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ – could overcome causes of capitalist wars and hopefully also of wars in general.

Questions arise about the viability of capitalism and prospects for an alternative. Ecologists remain doubtful about the potential of capitalism to create viable strategies to halt its impending collapse, thereby resigning themselves to the idea that the crisis of capitalism is a permanent condition. This is largely due to their view of the unstoppable potential of multi-national corporations to expand appropriations of value by poisoning the biosphere such that new life-saving technologies will need to be invented in order to mend what has been so utterly decimated – and these inventions will need to occur in increasingly narrower time frames. Political scientists scramble to explain how capitalism can reproduce itself as a global system of exploitation without decimating civilisation as we know it. We need to further consider the interminable threat that war inevitably poses to the geopolitical alignments of countries who are consolidating their move from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Political scientists fear that the contradictions internal to both capitalism and political systems premised on democracy (sustained through the continued expansion of fictitious capital) will move the United States towards a nation-state system that increasingly embraces authoritarian populism and fascism. It is possible but unlikely that a digitally-driven productive expansion of capitalism will be able to restore even temporarily sustained economic growth. Educators worry that the new McCarthyism that has resulted from the culture war against ‘wokeism’ could permanently weaken a teacher’s ability to teach about the crisis of world capitalism and help prepare the next generation for both resolving some of the dimensions of the crisis and developing alternatives that would better serve the bulk of the world’s population. It will leave future generations without the necessary strategies and tactics to successfully pressure the ruling class to engage in a massive redistribution of wealth from the top 10 per cent of Americans to the bottom and the middle classes.

As Richard Wolff and others have argued, we have transitioned from the feral hinterlands of a neoliberal global economy to a viral form of economic nationalism. We have ventured to undertake such a transition, not because of the vast inequality that neoliberalism has produced, which has been staggering, not because of the record unemployment and the rampant destruction of both lives and livelihoods, but mainly because neoliberalism is no longer able to function as the bodyguard for the state’s wealthiest oligarchs. Free markets that once were the lynchpin of laissez-faire economics have given way to record government interference, malfeasance and social control. The captains of capitalism are imposing brutal austerity programs and engaging in the evisceration of what is left of social welfare programs. The government’s state managers are exercising a ham-fisted control of trades and tariffs as finance capitalists, and hedge fund slime masters engage in a speculative free-for-all. It subsidises those industries that it deems necessary in order to win trade wars that it mostly starts. Robinson argues that the globalisation stage of world capitalism that closely follows what Robinson calls ‘the 1970s’ crisis of Fordism–Keynesianism, or of redistributive capitalism’ has positioned ‘the transnational capitalist class and its political representatives to reconstitute its class power by breaking free of nation-state constraints to accumulation.’ Declining profits and investment opportunities were offset by new opportunities for capital accumulation made possible by globalisation’s ability to break free of nation-state constraints on accumulation and by the revolution in computer and information technology (CIT).

Other issues that need to be debated have to do with government policies that can tighten control over technology companies, requiring platforms to align their content moderation and recommendation systems with pro-government policies; the problem of the global police state and global civil war emerging as a result of the digital transformations linked to capitalist social relations of exploitation and domination which are related, as William I. Robinson points out, to the structural crisis of capitalism and the political crisis of social reproduction. It’s a crisis of overaccumulation or the lack of outlets for the profitable absorption of surplus value, with unprecedented amounts of predatory finance capital that Robinson argues is destabilising the system. Further challenges identified by Robinson include the forced precarisation of labour, the creation of a massive surplus humanity and attacks on the working and popular classes.

Surplus capital means surplus people, after all, and the threat of nuclear war. The transnational capitalist class are looking to new digital technologies to create a new round of expansion and prosperity, which will lead to a new social contract with workers that basically amounts to little more than slavery where 80% or more of humanity can’t consume with the inequality that exists. But because the US no longer dominates the world market, because neoliberalism no longer is an effective guardian of the rich, because globalisation and neoliberalism have been dramatically undercut by countries moving their production to China, we have embraced an economic nationalism with all the benefits that such protectionism affords. The United States continues to engage in economic warfare with China through tariffs, trade wars, bans and subsidies and China’s alliance with Russia has called into question Europe’s role as an ally of the US. The COVID-19 pandemic intensified the crisis of capitalism and catalyzed prior trends of suffering and deprivation for billions of people worldwide. The ruling classes have profited from the worst of the pandemic and used the pandemic as a prime opportunity for increasing their wealth and tightening their control and capacity for surveillance. In the words of William I. Robinson, ‘centralisation of emergency powers in authoritarian capitalist states was used to deploy police and military forces, to censure any criticism of governments, to contain discontent, heighten surveillance and impose repressive social control – that is, to push forward the global police state. In country after country, emergency powers were used to selectively ban protests on the grounds that they spread COVID-19, harass dissidents, censor journalists and scapegoat minority groups. At least 158 governments imposed restrictions on demonstrations.’

And China now has a mixed economy under the overall control of the communist party. They have a fast-growing private, capitalist bloc and a government-controlled and owned bloc – ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – that is facing off against the US and its allies, and Europe and its allies. The US will soon be known as ‘the former’ hegemonic power and is now preoccupied in trying to hold back China and its ally, Russia. The irony is that it was the greed of the US capitalists who accelerated the decline of the American empire by moving their factories to China. As Robinson and Wolff, and others have argued, the rich are trying to adjust to this inevitable decline by forcing the masses to bear the burden of this new, multipolar world order by means of a massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom and the middle to the top 10 per cent of Americans. Big banks and major corporations continue to be bailed out by the government while small businesses receive scant, if any, support as less profitable forms of capitalism are driven out of existence. The capital that they accumulate cannot be reinvested profitably in a world threatened by stagnation and inflation and a growing surplus humanity created by the crisis of capitalism. This surplus accumulation seeks outlets for its accumulated surplus in its war economy. After World War II, military Keynesianism prevailed as the state purchased weapons systems and military equipment from defence subcontractors in order to subsidise private capital and fight stagnation. Today we have turned to the Pentagon and the threat of foreign dangers to help justify an intensified militarised accumulation. Oil and gas price inflation has skyrocketed as a result of the war in Ukraine. Countries of the Global South are increasingly aligning themselves with China and Russia. Nobody can escape this new multipolar world that is moving apace within a single, globally integrated economy that is prone to both devastating cyclical and structural crises.

Adequate answers to these questions cannot be generated without an engagement with Marx and Marxist critics. The key to the survival of humanity depends upon a well-rounded critical education. Yet the prevailing censorship in public schools and universities and the endless attacks on Marx and critical theory works as a meaning-subverting form of ritual violence, leeching away the liberatory potential of critical analysis and cutting short potentially innovative contributions by the current generation of young intellectuals to the survival of humankind. Furthermore, it is denying them the opportunity to engage in the world more critically, thinking for themselves, and creating a world that opposes their dehumanisation. By denying our youth the opportunity for creating a new ontological vocation of becoming more fully human outside of the messy and often bloody precincts of capitalism’s masters of war, politicians and far-right activists might be getting more than they bargained for when capitalism can no longer sustain the human population, and there are no viable alternatives.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2023). The Cartoonification of the American Mind and the Return of the Red Scare: Why the Unwoke Needs to Woke UP. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.