A Twitter friend of mine recently recounted a conversation with another friend — not a self-described anarchist — who spontaneously concluded that voting was useless. “I think it’s insane to think that people who are in the kind of power that only government and capitalism provide would willingly allow their stability to be up to CHANCE.”
Exactly! You might be forgiven for thinking “the enemy” our ruling circles always talk about is somebody with a strange language and religion on the other side of the world. But in fact “the enemy,” for the ruling class, is anyone capable of disrupting its goals or undermining its power — including us. The American people are potentially a far greater threat to their power than any foreign government.
Australian scholar Alex Carey argued, in a book of that title, that the purpose of the corporate-state propaganda machine was “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy.” The modern institutions of concentrated corporate power and universal suffrage democracy, he said, both date from the late 19th century. This meant the most concentrated system of economic power in history faced an unprecedented danger of disruption from the caprice of a majority.
That power structure wasn’t willing to leave its power to chance. Alongside corporate power and mass democracy, a third modern phenomenon arose in the early years of the 20th century: Propaganda as the science of “engineering consent.” People like Edward Bernays in the US, and their counterparts in Britain, oversaw Anglo-American propaganda efforts during WWI (remember those bayoneted babies in Belgium?). Afterward, Bernays went on to found the modern discipline of public relations.
The corporate economy, with its monstrous concentration of political and economic power, was no spontaneous or inevitable outgrowth of modern technology. It resulted from massive top-down social engineering by the state. But a system of power can only survive if it’s seen as natural and inevitable by the ruled.
So since the beginnings of mass democracy, there have been carefully orchestrated efforts to ensure that, by the time the public plays out the ritual of its “sovereign” power in electoral politics, most everything of importance has already been decided. In 1991, for example, by the time Operation Desert Storm began, the prior deployment of troops under Bush’s claimed authority as “Commander-in-Chief,” combined with a relentless barrage of propaganda about Kuwaiti “incubator babies,” guaranteed the actual launch of the war as a given.
You may be tempted to think that’s mainly a practice of the Bad Old Republicans, that Democrats and Progressives are “different.” You may believe, with Thomas Frank, that the unsavory aspects of government under Republican control are an aberration, and that “the government” normally — in Soccer Mom parlance — “is just us.”
Not quite. Back in 2004, Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said of the growing unpopularity of Bush’s war in Iraq: “We have too much at stake in Iraq to lose the American people.” If the allegedly sovereign American people are not “us” — if the corporate-state nexus constitutes a separate “us” — well, that really says it all.
But what about Saint Barack? Obama, who last year greenlighted Bahrain’s crackdown on its own pro-democracy movement while simultaneously grandstanding over Libya’s Gaddafi, has actively supported the regime’s detention of Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye for the “crime” of photographing crashed drones stamped “Made in USA” — thereby revealing American complicity in extra-legal, unaccountable assassinations by remote control and the hundreds of innocent civilians murdered in the process.
You might think, after all this, that explicitly legalizing the use of propaganda to manipulate the domestic public would be redundant. After all, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman pointed out, the American mass media adhere for the most part to a state propaganda model of reporting foreign news (did you get even the slightest whiff, from news coverage in August 2008, that Georgia might have done something to provoke “Russian aggression?”).
Nevertheless, they’re doing it. A bipartisan amendment proposed by Mac Thornberry and Adam Smith would repeal the Smith-Mundt Act of 1947, which prohibits State Department and Pentagon propaganda services from disseminating messages for domestic consumption. Thornberry complains that existing law “ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible way.” What sort of “credible ways” does he have in mind? They include US government sock puppets participating in online social media discussions, under false pretenses, to prop up support for failed US foreign and security policies.
What new levels of crudeness and mendacity can we expect from state propaganda, once it’s explicitly authorized in law? Your safest strategy, as before, is to continue assuming everything you hear from the state is either a misleading partial truth or an outright lie. You can’t go far wrong that way.