The Great Circus

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Celebrities, whether politicians or entertainers, have one thing in common: as very rich people [a fact frequently downplayed], they live lives untouched by the frustrations, limitations and stresses that beset ordinary people.  It’s a self-contained world of total privilege, and it’s highly toxic when it implants its deformed self-serving priorities and sensibilities on the rest of the population. Here [multi-millionaire] Ted Danson at a rally for [multi-millionaire] Hillary

BY JOHN STEPPLING |  [print_link]

A few thoughts on the electoral theatre that is upon us.

First, the most obvious and glaring reality of US politics is that only the very, very rich participate. This single fact really should give one pause, should give everyone who actually works for a living pause. As one old Wobbly put it, there are two kinds of people in the world, those who work and those who don’t.

Now, John McCain, like Kerry, got most of his money via his second wife …. after dumping his first one. Cyndi is a beer heiress, and if McCain were to be elected, and I think he will be, he will the first US president to have signed a pre-nuptial agreement. Anyway, the McCains spend, for household employees, $273,000 (in 2007), according to John McCain’s tax returns. The butler and maid budget for a single year exceeds a decade’s income for most Americans. 

McCain is the son of an admiral, and finished near bottom of his graduating class at Annapolis. I’m just stringing together a few details here. And now Obama has chosen among the creepiest and most vile men in American government as his running mate: Joe Biden. Both Biden and Obama are millionaires by the by, albeit minor league—so far. Anyway, Biden is a longtime foreign policy hawk. A big supporter of the Clintonian bombing of Belgrade, and the guy who tossed off the idea of creating three small statelets in Iraq — partioning the country along ethnic and religious lines. He was also guilty of plagiarism a while back, and if you want a better look at Joe, watch the fine documentary on Waco, and see his craven apology for ATF actions that resulted in the burning to death of children and women. The man is a ghoul. Also, check out Cockburn’s piece on Biden here:

What strikes one about this carnival is the degree to which this narrative has become entrenched — the political follies, the circus of conventions and empty speeches. Now, let’s also note the increasingly draconian policing of these conventions ( So we have a theatre of abstract rhetoric and managed perceptions, of jillionaires who pretend there is a real difference between what they say.

Now, if you asked me do I think Obama would be less harmful than McCain, I would answer yes. In the sense that liver biopsy is better than root canal. And I do grant that at the least, and this about all I will grant, his black face is the first genuine or authentic black face in US politics (well, maybe Marian Berry). Yes, I do. But again, why do people accept an elite class telling them what to do? Why is there a nostalgia for the Romanovs, or for a Kiplingesque colonial landscape? Why? One sees countless reflections of this in popular culture, certainly. The nostalgia for colonial empire is reflected in every Harry Potter spinoff one can find, and certainly in films like Sex & the City or even Dark Knight. The rich are deserving of our attention, and the rich are what *we* wish we could be. A list of top political figures, Rudy Giuliani, Dick Cheney, the Bushes, Kerry, Romney, Biden, Clinton,  Gore, McCain; what do they share? They share extreme wealth.


The stage is ready for the main actors in a national theater with an unwittingly captive audience.


In film today Bruce Wayne is exactly one of these men, except he gets tricked out in tights and mask at night to practice vigilantism, to take the law into his own hands…..well, sort of like Cheney and Bush, actually. I return again and again to the simplistic narrative at work. For a film like Dark Knight it’s almost (as Le Colonel Chabert put it on her blog) a high school drama with the rich jock and the outcast nerd (the Joker). One might additionally see The Joker as something of a collective unconsious projection of self loathing. This comic book level narration is carried on regards Russia/Georgia and even Iraq and Iran. It’s the total failure of class consciousness. It’s the result, now, of the absolute destruction of public education (not that US education, or even western education, was ever much more than a control mechanism) and of the satisfying of *needs* by advanced capital — or in part, the illusion thereof. The relations under monopoly capital are increasingly relations of the market, and not really work.

Here is Marcuse, circa 1972:

The Western world has reached a new stage of development: now, the defense of the capitalist system requires the organization of counterrevolution at home and abroad. In its extreme manifestations, it practices the horrors of the Nazi regime. Wholesale massacres in Indonesia, the Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Sudan are unleashed against everything which is called *communist* or which is in revolt against governments subservient to the imperialist countries. Cruel persecution prevails in the Latin American countries under fascist and military dictatorships. Torture has become a normal instrument of interrogation around the world. The agony of religious wars revives at the height of Western civilization and a constant flow of arms from the rich to the poor countries helps to perpetuate the oppression of national and social liberation.

Remember, this was written over thirty years ago. Was also written the year Joe Biden began his career in US government.

So, in light of Joe Biden’s  VP appearance, in light of crazy John McCain and whatever rich prick he chooses to run with, we have, essentially, more of the same. Even if an Obama actually wanted to change something, he couldn’t.

The populace internalizes the accepted comic book narrative; the rich are rich because they are virtuous, and the poor are poor because they are stupid. Oh, some of the poor might one day *make it*, one out of a million, and this narrative will also be held up and included in the managed reality of today’s western world. The master discourse says we all have a chance to become Sam Walton, we could all become President, if we only had an Admiral for a father or married an heiress, or were telegenic enough and compliant enough to do the bidding of the military industrial complex. 

Monopoly capitalism defuses change via the narrative it continues, ever more hysterically, to thrust upon the public.  I often ask myself why anyone actually fights in Iraq? Do people actually believe they are spreading democracy? Whateverthefuckever that is. Or do they think they are protecting the United States from an evil Islamic scourge, a future caliphate? Is that possible? I suppose it is, since people also believe every other narrative at work in this giant spectacle of counterrevolution that is modern American culture. Gaither Stewart’s fine piece here at TGJ on Stalin is a worthy attempt to counter these received *truths*. If Ronald Reagan can be enshrined as a great man — a hack actor, a reactionary and prematuraly senile sock puppet, can actually find traction as a *great man* then anything is possible.  Churchill was an elitist colonial racist pig — but how many people have bothered to read some of Winnie’s speeches to Parliament from his early years. He advocated the gassing of natives, as a perfectly reasonable policy. Saddam is a monster because he *gassed* the Kurds (assuming he did) but Churchill is considered one of the great leaders of the 20th century. The western appeasement of Hitler is totally forgotten, and the new re-write of history has Stalin and those horrid Soviets as the evil Empire.  Mao is a monster who didn’t bathe enough, and Castro is dictator, much like Chavez.  Dropping nuclear bombs on civilian cities in Japan actually *saved* lives, so the narrative goes. Anything can be marketed, apparently.  Saakashvilli as courageous democrat, the Mau Mau as crazed barbarians treated with firmness but fairness by the British, and Israel as an outpost of tolerance and progress and democracy in a sea of Muslim backwardness. Just color in the accepted storyline. 

Actress Sally Field and other celebs rooting for Hillary. Many just saw gender and “woman solidarity”—easy identifications for people who only understand politics at the superficial level. 

Today the individual in advanced capital is totally fragmented yet integrated (if we look at the broader perspective). He serves the system during both work (if he has it) and during leisure. Putting aside the growing and severly punished underclass, the modern individual is provided with (as Marcuse put it) “steered satisfaction of material needs*. The administered reality, the master discourse, serves to create a populace that produces and reproduces the values of the ruling class, of the system of domination. So, today we have the political party conventions, the illusion of real choice, and a further continuance of near complete servitude. The problem is that growing underclass.  Advanced capital is finding it harder and harder to know what to do with them. In Kigali, or Lagos, in Jakarta or Mexico City, in Calcutta or Sao Paulo, the vast barrios and ghettos grow and grow again. In the US itself major cities find a spike in homelessness, and in the rural wasteland where agribusiness has destroyed all community farming and culture, there is an equivalent surplus populace with little to do but cook meth and strike out in random violence … hence a prison population that exceeds any in the world. But then, prison construction (and privatizing) is a rare growth industry.

It is time to stop accepting the *accepted* narrative. Political conventions are pure dog-and-pony shows. Protesters will be shuttled into holding tanks and cages, and corporate media will spin these orgies of meaningless abstraction as providing evidence of US democratic ideals and our shining exceptionalism.

Look at what is before you:

John McCain is insane. Literally and by any standard one could find. Barry Obama has revealed his lack of genuine or meaningful integrity by choosing bag man Joe Biden. Look at the speakers lined up for these circuses: Mark Warner, Rudy Guiliani, Al Gore and Dick Cheney. Look at these men. Check their bank accounts, and how they made that money. Look back at the Bush family, look all the way back to Prescott Bush. 

Colonialism never ended. Fascism is alive. NATO is an organ of Imperialism, and the defense budget is over two billion a day. So when we get up in the morning to go to a job we don’t like, and to get paid a wage that barely, if it all, can support our family, and when ghouls like Cheney or Biden or Bush or Gordon Brown, or Sarko, or Angie Merkle are held up as anything other than what they are, empty cardboard cut outs created to mouth the platitudes of the prevailing class interests, try to look for the places where real change might take place. The police are there to protect property, not to protect you. Same with the military, which is there to further the economic hegemony of the imperial class. Trust none of it.


Senior Editor John Steppling currently resides in Lodz, Poland, where he teaches at the Polish Film Institute. The main archive of his articles may be found at VOXPOP, Cyrano’s blog area devoted to theater, cinema and politics, which he co-edited with Guy Zimmerman. 

9 comments on “The Great Circus
  1. H,

    Marx defines class by its relationship to the means of production–i.e., one’s class is not determined by what kind of Scotch he drinks, or SUV she drives, or who makes her suits, or how much money (s)he has. One’s class is the reflection of just how one reproduces one’s life, how one stands in relation to the means of production (e.g., does he own them or is he one of them?).

    To homogenize Bush (reasonably old WASP money), Cheney (Philistine nouveau riche), Biden (not very clever but well-patronized politician of working class origins), and Obama (self-made by a highly imaginative unto artistic imagination) into belonging to the same criminal class does no credit to your analysis because it obscures more than it illuminates. — If class considerations are at all pertinent to your analysis.

    And to imagine that the sort of reforms (in education and health care and the monopolistic consumer credit system) that Obama is proposing are really the latest issue of Marcuse’s ‘counter-revolution’–as if feudalism had ever been reorganized or even diminished by a slave revolt without subversive elements of the privileged classes playing important leadership roles–and therefore categorically unworthy of your support–even of your consideration–, further brittlizes, fragilizes your critique.

    Obama has always spoken for the interests of the working class, the proletariat, even the lumpen proletariate of The Wire, the poorly housed, the overworked and the unemployed, those for whom there is no decent healthcare or education. And the riches he has recieved in his political career have failed in their primary intention effectively to separate him from this, his real constituency.

    I don’t see what is served by preemptively declaring him incapable of bucking the scleroticly corrupt political system that is govering the US and a good part of the rest of the world to death.

    And the fact that he has brought himself to a position where he might actually achieve the Trotzite nightmare of being a leftist with state power is the real testiment to how profoundly humane and imaginative his intelligence really is–so profound and so scrupulous as to make the seemingly venal characters of his running mate or any of his ‘appointed advisers’ superfluous.

    It is a suicidal longing for feudalism (like in The Lion King: It’s good to be prey!) that has led us to the verge of self-annihilation.

    Politicians have long been investment opportunities for the gangster class. And that industry we work(ed) in has always been a money laundry for various criminal syndicates. Politics is how the booty is distributed. That’s just the way it has always been and still is.

    But if this very different sort of politician, this very different sort of man can, by his own cunning, navigate the mine field of media lies and hysterical, reactionary ad hominem, there is a very real chance that all this criminality can be brought under control, if not altogether eliminated.

    Public intellectuals of the world wake-up–you have nothing to lose but your outdated zoot-suit cynicism. h

  2. I think it useful to answer this.

    Obama has voted in accordance with Democratic collegues 96% of the time, not counting the 45% of times he didnt vote at all.

    Obama said “(Israel)one of our strongest allies in the world,” would feel hugely threatened given threats by Iran’s hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to wipe the Jewish state off the world map.

    “My job as president is to make sure we are tightening the screws on Iran diplomatically… to get sanctions in place so that Iran starts making a different calculation,”


    “”I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything in my power. Everything.”

    Now, I could go on here, but the point is made — but wait, there is more…..
    Here is Pat Buchanan on Barry:
    “Why does Barack think a surge of 10,000 troops will succeed in winning a war in which we have failed to prevail after seven years of fighting? How many more troops is he prepared to commit? Is the Obama commitment open-ended?

    For, without any visible strategy for victory, Barack is recommending the same course LBJ took after the death of JFK. Johnson bombed North Vietnam in 1964, landed Marines in 1965 and built U.S. forces from 16,000 advisers on Nov. 22, 1963, to 525,000 troops in January of 1969.

    Gradual escalation, which is exactly what Barack is recommending.”

    Not exactly an anti-war position, is it?!

    Here he is (via a John Pilger piece) on Latin America;
    “Again, Obama went further than Bush. He said the United States had “lost Latin America”. He described the democratically elected governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua as a “vacuum” to be filled. He raised the nonsense of Iranian influence in Latin America, and he endorsed Colombia’s “right to strike terrorists who seek safe-havens across its borders”. Translated, this means the “right” of a regime, whose president and leading politicians are linked to death squads, to invade its neighbours on behalf of Washington. He also endorsed the so-called Merida Initiative, which Amnesty International and others have condemned as the US bringing the “Colombian solution” to Mexico. He did not stop there. “We must press further south as well,” he said. Not even Bush has said that.”
    and here is a link on his Iraq votes
    Now, Obama is clearly quite liberal in many of his positions — he said he would meet with various leaders that McCain said he would not. …though he has stated quite clearly he would NOT meet with Hamas (despite 63% of israelis favoring this idea).
    We could go on and on regards what Obama *really* meant, or what he *has* to say and do to get elected. But this is exactly the problem. Once elected, would Obama somehow, magically find new advisors who would explain the wisdom of immtediate troop withdrawl and a lifting of sanctions against Cuba, and a reduction in defense spending>? Would he stop his support for the death penalty? Would he be able to even if he wanted to?

    I would argue that support for Obama, in the version just written above, is the true cynicism — for it apologizes away what really cannot be apologized away.

    Now, I also sympathize with those who want to vote for Obama — as a way to prevent McCain from taking office. And there is a real argument here I suppose. I would be the first to recognize that Obama is not John McCain. However, to try and sell Obama as anti war or a *different kind* of politician is a losing game. The only way to actually believe this is to trust that you can read minds and to guess what the limits of his real politik gestures might be.

    Why this love fest for Obama, then? The only thing i see in Obama is that he is black, and would soften the Imperialist expansionist posture to some degree. Thats about all. Maybe its enough to vote for him, because an argument exists that McCain might just WANT nuclear war. I dont doubt it. To justify anything by saying this is politics and its the way its always been is the true defeatist position. A tactical vote for obama has a certain logic, but lets be sober about what his positions actually are.

    I also think, as Gary Younge has pointed out, that Obama has a certain symbolic relevance. And I think this must be acknowleged. But again, what are the limits of this symbolism? I would return again to Obama on Chavez. Here we run smack into a very concrete example of his Imperialist backsliding. And add to this Joe Biden as a running mate. Do we really need to go into detail on Biden’s record? I didn’t think so. No, this was a very strategic choice, by a strategic minded politician.

    I await any sign that Barry wants to buck the system. When someone can show me that, I am willing to listen. For now it is delusional to attemp any portrayl of Obama as somehow linked to a revolution of any kind. The Clintonian advisors, the pro-war stance, the pro-Israel stance, and the choice of a hack running mate add up to business as usual.

    Im not in the habit of responding to comments, and don’t want to enter a long debate about Barry — I think however the coming election certainly raises questions, first among which is do such electoral events really much matter?

  3. Elections have never before mattered to me, either. I have yet to vote in a presidential election.

    In ’68 I was convinced that US politics were a meaningless dumb show to keep the already-zonked-out public amused with a false sense of participation–in between playoff games and acid trips.

    After observing the Duma elections last December in Moscow, I decided that democracy was possible in the media-dominated world–in the society of the spectacle.

    The Russians worked very hard to get ballots into the hands of as many voters as possible–including the infirmed and the imprisoned.

    I remember how contrary to the American system this sort of extension of the democratic franchise seemed to me. 60+% of the Russian voters voted for Putin’s United Russia because he had an 80% approval rating among the Russian people. The voice of the majority was sought, and the majority was heard.

    This could not happen in the US for any number of reasons. In the past in the US, voters lists were vetted of felons (real and imagined) and important numbers of ballots were either lost or spoiled through arcane voting technologies–only made more obscure with the advent of a computer in the booth.

    And through the electoral college and the endless media circus, the majority was shattered and alienated from the election, and its voice was stifled.

    Now, I agree completely that Obama has made every possible misstep on foreign policy–and not because of his Clintonian advisers (the Clintons, like the Bushes and Kerrey, are Yales) but because Obama’s counselors are linked to an arguably more vile and more violent Harvard-based ‘loyal opposition’ or shadow cabinet (the Kennedies, Kissinger, Jeff Sachs [who brought AIDS to China] and the Brzeezies are all Harvards).

    Yet Obama has tactically sought to create a large popular consensus of support for himself–rather than for his policies–by refusing govt funding and large corporate contributions and fighting media interviewers to a draw.

    If this consensus, reflected by the enormous amounts in small contributions he has garnered and his exponentially greater internet popularity, can be maintained and defended against all manner of media subversion (e.g., Recreate ’68, indeed), then a very real revolution in the way the US practices politics is possible.


  4. Mesrrs Collins and Steppling make important points here, and I, for one, am ipressed (and grateful) for their tremendous stock of knowledge about these issues. What a nation (and world) this would be if this kind of mind populated our media instead of the excrement we see everywhere. In any case, I believe that at this point, although (with a powerful microscope) one ca detect some distinctions between Obama and McCain as regards fundamental policy postures, they remain distinctions without a difference because both Obama and McCain are simply creatures of a system whose interests and proclitivities they must serve, and which, in the end, decides what the boundaries for action will be. This is not to deny that personality plays a role in human affairs; it’s just that when we look at it in structural terms of class, capitalist system evolution, etc., such variations tend to recede while granting the stage to the system’s perceived imperatives.

    Thank you for a truly thought-provoking article.

    R.T. Cooper, San Diego, Calif.

  5. Couldn’t agree more with Mr Steppling. He’s 100% correct in his diagnosis of what ails this nation (and the world). The line below should be taught and discussed everywhere in this nation, until people”get” what it really means and mobilize to end this scandalous system of organized manipulation.

    “Monopoly capitalism defuses change via the narrative it continues, ever more hysterically, to thrust upon the public.”

    Thanks for a terrific article. Gives me hope to see that there are people out there who see clearly what’s going on, who can’t be bought, and who continue to fight despite ridiculous odds.

  6. Agree with Rick that words like “defense” should be used in “quotes”. I would extend this usage rule for us to question when they say “our” this or “our” that. Like “our policy,” or “our troops,” or just “the White House” instead of “the Corporate White House.” Itmay be at times a bit boring, but eventually it drives the point that “American” policy is not driven by our desires nor interests.

  7. Many thanks for a well-argued article, which embraces in a few paras all you need to say about the terminal decay of this culture as it continues to marinate in capitalist juices. What else could we expect?

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