For what I imagine must surely be the few uninitiated, House of Cards is a Washington-set political drama series produced by Netflix starring Kevin Spacey. In it he plays the ruthless party hack Francis Underwood who from humble origins in rural South Carolina masterfully manipulates, lies and even kills his way to the Presidency. In recent years it has been one of the main shows to popularise the practise of binge-watching. An entire season is released once a year and impatient fans devour the entire 12 hours or so of high end production values over the course of a weekend, only to be left with another cliffhanger moment which ensures they’ll be back next year. If nothing else the show has certainly changed the way we perceive narrative and the way in which we consume media. Gone is the old business model of captive advertising audiences who would tune in week after week to the same program. In that sense it is an exciting development, potentially giving audiences, rather than advertisers, greater influence over the creative direction and control over the content they choose to commit to.
Getting back to Season 3, and the question – Does it represent really existing politics?
*Warning – Spoilers ahead – proceed at your own peril!*
It picks up with Claire and Francis settling into their routine as President and First Lady. Their Macbeth-like collaborative relationship, defined as it had been by the ruthless pursuit of relative power over others has finally paid off, and they have arrived. However all is not well in the house of Underwood. Having ousted the do-nothing President Walker (who I can’t help but see shades of Obama’s rhetoric of “caution” and “balance”) in a Machiavellian coup executed at great political and personal risk to them both, they are wracked with stress due to internal pressures of the office, a hostile Congress which refuses to send Frank even a single piece of legislation to sign into law, and record low approval ratings – worse even than Walker’s due to public opinion which views the coup as a sordid affair. Frank’s strategy to revive his flagging leadership is a radical employment and welfare reform bill called America Works. Here it is abundantly clear just how total his (and the entire “Bluedog” conservative faction’s) abandonment of the Democratic Party’s working class base of support is. For comparison a true Leftist party which would reject this conservative austerity-driven logic can be read about in my recent post here about Podemos, lead by political scientist Pablo Iglesias. The bill if implemented would involve demolishing the Welfare State established by FDR’s New Deal legislation. In many ways this is already being incrementally killed by a thousand cuts, but the image is pretty raw nevertheless. Medicare, medicaid, unemployment benefits, pensions, healthcare – everything must be defunded. This is essentially the Scott Walker / Koch Brothers / Tea Party approach to welfare reform, but proposed by a so-called Democrat.
On the other hand the logic for what the $500 billion raised from these cuts could achieve is compelling. It is repeatedly emphasised throughout Season 3 that America has 10 million people who desperately want a job but no matter how hard they try or how many applications they make simply can not get one. The program’s purpose is to put every last one of them to work through expanding government subsidy of 3 areas of the economy: infrastructure (great), the military (terrible idea, America already spends as much on it as the next 8 countries combined for God’s sake Frank! More Bluedog “patriot” politicking) and subsidizing every private sector job that’s created through “AmWorks”.
One way in which this does not represent reality is that, due to technological unemployment ie the jobs lost not only to countries with cheap labour and no environmental regulation like China and India or in draconian free trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership written by corporate lobbyists, but also those lost to exponentially improving automation and artificial intelligence. Some estimates show technological unemployment to already be as high as 200 million people worldwide and that it can only increase as technology is estimated to destroy 50% of global employment across a range of today’s industries by 2030. A Universal Basic Income is one policy that is never discussed in the program, despite its growing popularity in both progressive and conservative policy circles. Occupy organizer and anthropologist at the London School of Economics David Graeber has an excellent article in Strike Magazine describing the long term phenomenon of creating “Bullshit Jobs” in order for the ruling elite to impose a degree of social control over the general population in the wake of popular rebellions and uprisings for greater democratic participation in the 1960s-70s, despite no technical, economic, environmental or social “need” for everybody to remain employed in a world in which machines already create an abundance of everything needed for not only the survival but the prosperity of every human being on the planet.
In a great many ways Underwood illustrates the meaninglessness of the two party system, incorporating elements of “Democrat” Clinton’s “3rd way” strategy (which is essentially the Neoliberal program of financialization and deindustrialization of the economy, beginning to cut back the Welfare State under the guise of preventing “welfare cheats” and subsequently abandoning the working class to self destruction), Republican Bush II’s militaristic adventurism (the spontaneous invasion of the Jordan Valley to chaotic reactions from various states and the UN) and “Democrat” Obama’s Orwellian surveillance and drone-war policies. In other words it doesn’t matter who is in office, the ruling class and its state consistently accrues greater power and control over the population, causing.
Finally I want to talk about an article in Foreign Policy magazine (the great diplomat propagandist promoter of the “Realist” dogma I describe in my recent post here) which reviewed the latest season of House of Cards. In their article they complain that it failed to make the Vladmir Putin-proxy character (Petrov) enough of a Hitlerian villain, demanding that the HOC writers “study up on Russia”. To not portray him in such a light, especially in relation to his military aggression in Eastern Ukraine which was notably omitted from the show in favour of the fictional Jordan Valley military intervention, was unrealistic, supposedly.
At this point it is useful for all of us, including the Realists of Foreign Policy, to take stock of just who is the aggressor in the NATO/US versus Russia conflict in order to determine what is a realistic understanding of events there. I
Just imagine if along the entire Mexican and Canadian borders with the US, Russia had methodically placed military bases, missile facilities, aircraft carriers, navy fleets all pointed directly at adjacent US cities. Well this is exactly the situation in which Russia really does find itself today, with hostile military buildup at the periphery along its entire European and Eurasian borders. It is surrounded on all sides by an aggressor who keeps pushing it to bark or bite back.
On top of this, in the Ukraine, the US utilized a now perfected strategy (repeated many times especially in Latin America, but perhaps no more – see current coup attempts in Venezuela) of astroturfing anti-government organizations, financing them, secretly providing arms to them, and finally encouraging them to confront and overthrow the hostile government, so that a US puppet regime can be swiftly put in place – typically to secure the flow of capital or resources to US corporations. In this case, under the leadership of former US State Department insider Petro Poroshenko.
Now I’m not a fan of Putin’s autocratic centralization of power by disbanding the longstanding practice of regional local government, his KGB style of silencing or just contracting out the deaths of all political opposition in his country, his alliance with corrupt oligarchs, or indeed his homophobia. The character Petrov on HOC is pretty much a mirror image of this incidentally. But he is no Hitler, bent on an expansionist and bloody strategy of taking over the world. At the very most he aspires to resurrect ad-hoc parts of the former Soviet Empire which are culturally, functionally and economically part of Russia in all but name today. If we are to avoid WWIII it is US military aggression and not that of Russia (despite its despicable autocratic President) that will need to be tempered.
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