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The political divide: Capitalism vs. Socialism

Quite a lot for a year-old whose main gig is at a fledgling think tank he co-founded, Data For Progress. But still, what is he? Sean McElwee is one of many young activists articulating a far-left vision of the Democratic Party. Many came of political age in the decade following the financial crash of , and many are disillusioned by a Democratic Party they think has been ideologically hollowed out.

Now they find themselves holding greater purchase than ever before in the formal Washington political process. This new group of activists wants to capitalize on that shift.

Its goal is to remake our economic system — and the Democratic Party.

Apparently the New Republic and The Nation both had parties that evening, McElwee told me later, so the turnout was pretty decent, all things considered. The young left is a loose confederation of like-minded activists organized in like-minded groups rather than a monolithic movement with explicit goals.

Organizers work for both established and emerging left-wing groups, but all share an ethos of pushing mainstream Democratic politics in a more explicitly progressive direction.

Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America grew exponentially during the first years of the Trump administration, thanks in part to the invaluable PR that was the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Many young left activists think the time has never been more right, the culture never more ready, to move left-wing politics into the mainstream. Shahid is even-keeled, if intense, and a card-carrying member literally of the Democratic Socialists of America. He graduated from college in and worked for the Sanders campaign in , followed by stints with Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon.

It was a group that had voted for the Democratic president but found themselves disappointed by many of his policies.


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Maurice Mitchell, is the leader of the Working Families Party, a progressive organization founded by a coalition of left-leaning voices. Mitchell, 38, is the first person of color to head the Working Families Party. Mitchell spent years as a community organizer on Long Island and most recently worked at Blackbird, a communications firm he co-founded that is closely allied with the Movement for Black Lives.

Alexandra Rojas is the executive director of Justice Democrats, a group of Bernie Sanders campaign alumni working to recruit more diverse working class candidates to run for Congress. That childhood naivete was shed over the next decade, and the events of those years left an indelible impression; Rojas, McElwee and so many of their activist agemates were shaped by an early exposure to the potential dangers of the free market. Complicated financial products crumpled the U. While banks and investment firms failed, none of their heads were jailed for wrongdoing.

Detroit, where the foreclosure rate is about one in every homes, is one of several cities where anti-eviction groups, aided by Occupy, have successfully kept people in their homes when threatened with eviction. All these struggles reflect the onslaught of austerity and privatization that hurts people of color the most. What is missing is the unity of these movements from practice with the movement from theory into an overall philosophy that can form the foundation of a totally new social order. The question arises: Where is the total view? Again and again, struggles arise from the grassroots but are carried out without raising a banner of a totally new society, with new human relations in production, between the sexes, and more.

Union bureaucrats succeeded in diverting the struggles in Wisconsin and Michigan into electoral channels. And at the very time that large numbers of U. There is no end to war in sight so long as capital drives society. President Obama has set for the end of the war in Afghanistan.

Yet many look forward to the departure of an occupying force that has committed all too many atrocities, including bombings that killed children with their families, and the yet-to-be-punished massacre by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales of nine children and seven adult civilians in Panjwai one year ago. There is no shortage of new vistas for war as the U.

With special forces and drones already based in East, West, and Central Africa, the new war in Mali accelerated the long-planned entry of the U. Saber-rattling over Iran by elements of the ruling classes of the U. Iraq, more than a year after Obama declared the war over, remains the poster child for the ruinous effects of U. Iraq still suffers from the sectarian and ethnic violence stimulated by the U.

Prime Minister Maliki has exploited those divisions and shut out Sunnis to centralize power around himself. The country is torn by violence, with frequent attacks on religious processions, political gatherings, and independent media. On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the invasion, 56 people were killed in 19 bombings in Baghdad.


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  • Fifty people were killed in one day leading up to the April 20 elections. Al Qaeda, which had little or no presence in Iraq before , regularly murders rivals now. But why should capitalism, whatever its deficiencies, be in crisis at all if it no longer has any opposition worthy of the name? Even today, after , the Old Left remains on the brink of extinction everywhere, while a new New Left has up to now failed to appear. The masses, the poor and powerless as much as the relatively well-to-do, seem firmly in the grip of consumerism, with collective goods, collective action and collective organization thoroughly out of fashion.

    As the only game in town, why should capitalism not carry on, by default if for no other reason? At first glance, there is indeed much that speaks against pronouncing capitalism dead, regardless of all the ominous writing on the historical wall. As far as inequality is concerned, people may get used to it, especially with the help of public entertainment and political repression. Furthermore, examples abound of governments being re-elected that cut social spending and privatize public services, in pursuit of sound money for the owners of money.

    Concerning environmental deterioration, it proceeds only slowly compared to the human lifespan, so one can deny it while learning to live with it. Technological advances with which to buy time, such as fracking, can never be ruled out, and if there are limits to the pacifying powers of consumerism, we clearly are nowhere near them. Moreover, adapting to more time-consuming and life-consuming work regimes can be taken as a competitive challenge, an opportunity for personal achievement.

    Cultural definitions of the good life have always been highly malleable and might well be stretched further to match the onward march of commodification, at least as long as radical or religious challenges to pro-capitalist re-education can be suppressed, ridiculed or otherwise marginalized. My answer is that having no opposition may actually be more of a liability for capitalism than an asset. Social systems thrive on internal heterogeneity, on a pluralism of organizing principles protecting them from dedicating themselves entirely to a single purpose, crowding out other goals that must also be attended to if the system is to be sustainable.

    Capitalism as we know it has benefited greatly from the rise of countermovements against the rule of profit and of the market. Socialism and trade unionism, by putting a brake on commodification, prevented capitalism from destroying its non-capitalist foundations—trust, good faith, altruism, solidarity within families and communities, and the like. Could it be that victorious capitalism has become its own worst enemy?

    Markets, however, have an inherent tendency to expand beyond their original domain, the trading of material goods, to all other spheres of life, regardless of their suitability for commodification—or, in Marxian terms, for subsumption under the logic of capital accumulation.

    The Young Left’s Anti-Capitalist Manifesto

    Unless held back by constraining institutions, market expansion is thus at permanent risk of undermining itself, and with it the viability of the capitalist economic and social system. This is what seems to be behind the search currently under way in all advanced capitalist societies for a new time regime with respect to labour, in particular a new allocation of time between social and economic relations and pursuits; for a sustainable energy regime in relation to nature; and for a stable financial regime for the production and allocation of money.

    In all three areas, societies are today groping for more effective limitations on the logic of expansion, footnote 22 institutionalized as one of private enrichment, that is fundamental to the capitalist social order. As of the s, deregulation of us financial markets had abolished the restrictions on the private production and marketization of money devised after the Great Depression. Once let loose, however, the money-making industry invested a good part of its enormous resources in lobbying for a further removal of prudential regulation, not to mention in circumventing whatever rules were left.

    Concerning nature, there is growing unease over the tension, now widely perceived, between the capitalist principle of infinite expansion and the finite supply of natural resources. Neo-Malthusian discourses of various denominations became popular in the s. Whatever one may think of them, and although some are now considered prematurely alarmist, no one seriously denies that the energy consumption patterns of rich capitalist societies cannot be extended to the rest of the world without destroying essential preconditions of human life.

    What seems to be taking shape is a race between the advancing exhaustion of nature on the one hand and technological innovation on the other—substituting artificial materials for natural ones, preventing or repairing environmental damage, devising shelters against unavoidable degradation of the biosphere. One question that no one seems able to answer is how the enormous collective resources potentially required for this may be mobilized in societies governed by what C. Thirdly, the commodification of human labour may have reached a critical point.

    Deregulation of labour markets under international competition has undone whatever prospects there might once have been for a general limitation of working hours. At the same time, deregulation and the destruction of trade unions notwithstanding, labour markets typically fail to clear, and residual unemployment on the order of 7 to 8 per cent has become the new normal, even in a country like Sweden. Sweatshops have expanded in many industries including services, but mostly on the global periphery, beyond the reach of the authorities and what remains of trade unions in the capitalist centre, and out of view of consumers.

    As sweated labour competes with workers in countries with historically strong labour protections, working conditions for the former deteriorate while unemployment becomes endemic for the latter. Moreover, global mobility enables employers to replace unwilling local workers with willing immigrant ones. It also compensates for sub-replacement fertility, itself due in part to a changed balance between unpaid and paid work and between non-market and market consumption.

    The result is a secular weakening of social counter-movements, caused by a loss of class and social solidarity and accompanied by crippling political conflicts over ethnic diversity, even in traditionally liberal countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden or Norway. The question of how and where capital accumulation must be restrained in order to protect the three fictitious commodities from total commodification has been contested throughout the history of capitalism.

    It is not only with respect to fictitious commodities that capital accumulation may be hitting its limits. On the surface, consumption of goods and services continues to grow, and the implicit premise of modern economics—that the human desire and capacity to consume are unlimited—would seem to be easily vindicated by a visit to any large shopping mall.

    Still, fears that markets for consumer goods may at some point become saturated—perhaps in the course of a post-materialist decoupling of human aspirations from the purchase of commodities—are endemic among profit-dependent producers. This in itself reflects the fact that consumption in mature capitalist societies has long become dissociated from material need.


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    • This is why industry practitioners find themselves paying more than ever for marketing, including not just advertising but also product design and innovation. Nevertheless, in spite of the growing sophistication of sales promotion, the intangibles of culture make commercial success difficult to predict—certainly more so than in an era when growth could be achieved by gradually supplying all households in a country with a washing machine. Capitalism without opposition is left to its own devices, which do not include self-restraint.

      How do patriarchy and capitalism jointly reinforce the oppression of women?

      The capitalist pursuit of profit is open-ended, and cannot be otherwise. The idea that less could be more is not a principle a capitalist society could honour; it must be imposed upon it, or else there will be no end to its progress, self-consuming as it may ultimately be. At present, I claim, we are already in a position to observe capitalism passing away as a result of having destroyed its opposition—dying, as it were, from an overdose of itself. I call them stagnation, oligarchic redistribution, the plundering of the public domain, corruption and global anarchy.

      Six years after Lehman, predictions of long-lasting economic stagnation are en vogue. A prominent example is a much-discussed paper by Robert Gordon, who argues that the main innovations that have driven productivity and economic growth since the s could happen only once, like the increase in the speed of transportation or the installation of running water in cities.

      What is astonishing is how close current stagnation theories come to the Marxist underconsumption theories of the s and s. At the imf Economic Forum on November 8 last year, Summers confessed to having given up hope that close-to-zero interest rates would produce significant economic growth in the foreseeable future, in a world he felt was suffering from an excess of capital.

      The power elites of global capitalism would seem to be resigning themselves to low or no growth on aggregate for the foreseeable future. This does not preclude high profits in the financial sector, essentially from speculative trading with cheap money supplied by central banks. Few seem to fear that the money generated to prevent stagnation from turning into deflation will cause inflation, as the unions that could claim a share in it no longer exist.

      The only inflation in sight, however, is that of asset-price bubbles, and Summers took pains to prepare his audience for a lot of them. For capitalists and their retainers, the future looks like a decidedly bumpy ride. Low growth will refuse them additional resources with which to settle distributional conflicts and pacify discontent.

      Bubbles are waiting to burst, out of the blue, and it is not certain whether states will regain the capacity to take care of the victims in time. The stagnant economy that is shaping up will be far from a stationary or steady-state economy; as growth declines and risks increase, the struggle for survival will become more intense. Rather than restoring the protective limits to commodification that were rendered obsolete by globalization, ever new ways will be sought to exploit nature, extend and intensify working time, and encourage what the jargon calls creative finance, in a desperate effort to keep profits up and capital accumulation going.

      Turning to the second disorder, there is no indication that the long-term trend towards greater economic inequality will be broken any time soon, or indeed ever. Inequality depresses growth, for Keynesian and other reasons. But the easy money currently provided by central banks to restore growth—easy for capital but not, of course, for labour—further adds to inequality, by blowing up the financial sector and inviting speculative rather than productive investment.

      Redistribution to the top thus becomes oligarchic: rather than serving a collective interest in economic progress, as promised by neoclassical economics, it turns into extraction of resources from increasingly impoverished, declining societies. Countries that come to mind here are Russia and Ukraine, but also Greece and Spain, and increasingly the United States. Under oligarchic redistribution, the Keynesian bond which tied the profits of the rich to the wages of the poor is severed, cutting the fate of economic elites loose from that of the masses.

      Oligarchic redistribution and the trend toward plutonomy, even in countries that are still considered democracies, conjure up the nightmare of elites confident that they will outlive the social system that is making them rich.