Obama collage. Berlin, 2011.

Mega media-scholar Robert McChesney has been accused, with some justice, of being an over-producer. His histories of American media going back to the founding of the Republic pretty much set the tone for that area of scholarship in Communications, sending him around the country and sometimes around the planet with severe critiques and dire warnings.

McChesney’s several volumes with Nation regular (and MSNBC semi-regular) John Nichols have been on the academic best-seller cross-list, 20,000 or so sales on any work, and he only a year ago abandoned a widely-heard weekly radio show from an NPR station in Illinois. Perhaps he was a bit exhausted.

Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century should be seen as an effort to combine his various notions on communications, politics and economics under a roof of his own. With good reason. “In the coming decades,” he writes in the Introduction, “we are almost certainly going to see a society the likes of which has never existed and can scarcely be imagined…if that new society is going to be one in which we want to live…capitalism as we know it has got to go.” No overblown and tired rhetoric, no calls for a fresh Vanguard Party or even an unfathomed deconstructive truth here. He has the conceptual tools to explain what he means. And he does. These are mostly reworked essays of recent years—the economic essays done in collaboration with John Bellamy Foster–but they are well reworked.

The most surprising, make that daunting, angle of vision for the self-trained essayist is doubtless economics. McChesney has been working with experts for years, but the freshness of his analysis of US military spending, of the “penal” (some call it carcereal) state and the failure or perhaps non-existence of a new New Deal under Obama take us to charts galore, and observations about the operations of the state within the economy. We learn a lot very fast because McChesney is so lucid—very possibly because, perhaps, because he is not a trained economist.

The lessons are clear: society has gone off the rails, when only fifty or so years ago, the New Deal seemed to have offered a way out of familiar depressions. The operative word, “seemed,” naturally takes us back to problems that had been evaded not solved. But, still: with sensible controls of the powers of wealth abolished, supposed productive economy has been heading down, down and down.

The critique of the Democratic Party in its transition downward from New Deal coalition to financier-corrupted and barely functioning political machine borrows from John Nichols’ keen journalism, but sets down points clearly in the triumph of the penny wise and pound foolish. The Democrats become what they accused the Republicans, for more than a century, of being: the party of the plutocrats. Not entirely and certainly not in rhetoric, but in an administration where Wall Streeters shuffle back and forth as opportunity and prestige offer, the expected takes place again and again.

McChesney looks back to the 1984 Mondale campaign, where insider campaign strategies to reach the poor and minorities were abandoned for the sake of reaching the reliable party electorate (especially white males), as a turning point. The gray-faced Minnesota protégé of hawkish Hubert Humphrey had the look of a sure loser and no willingness to learn anything from the Vietnam War, but the attempt to create a constituency for the shifting demography might have been set the pace for the future.  They didn’t try and, with exceptions, they still don’t make much of an effort.

For veteran McChesney-watchers, the last section, on the media, will be the most familiar. The almost-forgotten newspaper savant Walter Lippman (he was once a young socialist in Rochester, New York!) becomes a sage, in his judicious independence and warnings, compared to what has followed. Or perhaps McChesney himself is Lippman reincarnated?

I most enjoy “My Career in Public Radio,” stretching from 1995 to recently, guest host elevated to a perch that he called “Media Matters.” This recollection of week-by-week expert commentary on the sad state of affairs ends with an observation yet sadder: when McChesney quit his show, no other NPR station took up the challenge.


Robert W. McChesney, Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty First Century: Media, Politics and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy. New York:  Monthly Review Press, 236pp, $28.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit