Erich Fromm once said, “Anyone who will think about it knows the machinations of propaganda, the method by which critical judgment is destroyed, how the mind is lulled into submission by clichés, how people are made dumb because they become dependent and lose their capacity to trust their eyes and judgment. They are blinded to reality by the fiction they believe.” This goes some way to explaining why, although many people seem to be aware that history repeats itself, few really seem to react when they actually witness it happening. With the rise of the internet and alternative news sources, often the fiction is proven to be just that, a fabrication. And yet the machine of propaganda continues on, its power lying in the repetition of “the Big Lie,” and the same fictions are tweaked slightly and once again resold to the public as absolute truths.
A recent example of this is Iraq’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction” and Iran’s alleged “nuclear weapons program”: the same repetitious, baseless fear-mongering across the spectrum of the mainstream media, then finally (in the case of Iraq after the country had been invaded) the admission that there was no evidence after all. This is a striking example of propaganda 101 – ratchet up the fear without worrying about facts and send any contradictory evidence to the propaganda down the memory hole. Often, “the fear” is generated by completely vague and essentially meaningless stories, such as this BBC report regarding the “terror threat level” being reduced from “severe” to “substantial”. There is no explanation for this change in the threat level but nevertheless the article serves to remind readers both that there is a threat and that, since it has been downgraded, the security services are doing their job fighting it. It’s all part of a strategy of tension which has been used by Western powers for centuries.
It’s not difficult to find numerous striking parallels between the world today and the world in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War 2. The “terror threat” level, with its blanket demonization of the “other” – this time the Muslim world – recalls the increasingly irrational, emotionally-laden rhetoric which emanated from the fascist nations of the 1920s and 30s, a world of increasing polarization of political opinions where debate is stifled and drowned in vitriol and ad hominem, where there is no longer any room for Fromm’s “self-affirming process of human reason”. As the world becomes more complex, the world-view propagated by power elites and the mainstream media becomes increasingly simplistic, a black and white world of good and bad, right and wrong, which serves to protect their interests and further their goals while, crucially, obfuscating the reality of their crimes and duplicity from the public; a world where their own ideologies and prejudices are projected onto a crudely defined enemy figure – the threat, for example, of a “rising tide of Islamofascism” spoken of without a trace of irony by those who sit on the far right of the political spectrum.
The response from the state domestically to these fabricated threats has become so sweeping and draconian that even the most politically apathetic can’t avoid noticing it. No longer is it those on the “fringe” alone who speak of the Western nations turning into police states; the steady yet inexorable introduction of new repressive measures is becoming so pervasive that a growing mass of the populace are becoming aware of their rights, and how these rights are being stripped away. Around the globe mass movements are emerging, the streets are filling with people from all walks of life, as the economy tumbles from deep recession into the Greatest Depression.
Increasingly in the US and UK, protesters and activists are categorized by governments and the media as “agitators” and “radicals”, or more popularly “violent anarchists”. Their mental health is called into question while the political aims they represent are ignored or distorted into something dangerous that the general public should be fearful of. Speaking out is no longer a right, it is a sign of a “bad citizen”; the authorities consider banning protests altogether, pre-crime arrests and detention without charge occurs with increasing frequency. Acts framed as being necessary to “protect” the people are passed which further erode the rights of the people such in the US with the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007, using vague terms to define “homegrown terrorists” which could easily be applied to political activists seeking genuine, positive social change.
While the government and media denounces the “troublemakers” in the public eye, behind the scenes the intelligence agencies engage political movements through subversion and infiltration. Perhaps the most well known example of this from recent history is the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which targeted numerous political groups throughout the United States with extensive surveillance, infiltration, disruption, wrongful arrest, media smear campaigns and assassinations. While the justification for this was the standard “national security interests”, the nature of many of the groups target paint a clearer picture of the FBI’s program existing to protect the political establishment from its opponents, including those activists who were non-violent. Women’s rights groups, black activists, anti-war protest movements and more were all targeted by the program. Dissident lists swelled rapidly, secret and permanent with no distinction between violent groups and peaceful activists.
COINTELPRO: The FBI’s War on Black America
In the UK, the increasing use of CCTV cameras, automatic number plate recognition tracking systems, compulsory census data gathering and national databases goes some way to ensuring that the entire populace falls victim to state surveillance techniques; with the advent of unmanned drones provided by defense contractors, the authorities have widened the surveillance net even further, and in a truly Orwellian move CCTV cameras are already being installed in private homes. Data from personal emails and phone calls are being stored as part of the government’s £2 billion Communications Data Bill; Forward Intelligence Teams gather data on protestors and store them on the Crimint database regardless of whether or not they have committed any crimes.
In the US, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, Obama’s appointee to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, outlined detailed plans for infiltrating and undermining political groups, sowing discord and paranoia amongst group members and encouraging violent actions from otherwise pacifist groups. Of particular note is Sunstein’s emphasis on tackling “conspiracy theorists,” for which he suggested some possible responses from the government:
(1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).
And if (3) (4) and (5) don’t work no doubt they’ll try the first two far more ominous proposals.
None of this is new, and while to some it may be alarmist to draw comparisons between contemporary propaganda and the emergence of police states in so-called “liberal democratic” countries today, and the tactics and behaviour of fascists and dictators of the past, it’s impossible to deny the existence of these ominous parallels. Those who do invariably do so as a consequence of irrational denial of empirical evidence that disproves the fiction sold by the mainstream – and let’s not forget the fundamental tenet of this fiction, being the overarching benevolence of the state – or through cognitive dissonance or what some refer to as the “backfire effect,” when evidence contradicting a person’s views actually reinforce those views. They understand on a basic level that history repeats itself, but for many it’s much easier to swallow “the Big Lie” than it is to face up to the reality of their predicament and deal with it honestly.
Are enough people “waking up” from Fromm’s propaganda fiction? Or is the propaganda and the endless torrent of banal mass entertainment and prescription drugs creating apathetic non-thinkers obsessed with superficial images? It’s almost impossible to get a truthful impression of how “awake” humanity actually is, but Zbignew Brzezinski’s speech at the Council on Foreign relations in Montreal last year sheds some light on “their” perspective, providing some hope that perhaps people are waking up quickly enough pose a significant problem for the elites:
For the first time in human history almost all of humanity is politically activated, politically conscious and politically interactive… The resulting global political activism is generating a surge in the quest for personal dignity, cultural respect and economic opportunity in a world painfully scarred by memories of centuries-long alien colonial or imperial domination… The worldwide yearning for human dignity is the central challenge inherent in the phenomenon of global political awakening… That awakening is socially massive and politically radicalizing… The nearly universal access to radio, television and increasingly the Internet is creating a community of shared perceptions and envy that can be galvanized and channeled by demagogic political or religious passions. These energies transcend sovereign borders and pose a challenge both to existing states as well as to the existing global hierarchy, on top of which America still perches…
The youth of the Third World are particularly restless and resentful. The demographic revolution they embody is thus a political time-bomb, as well… Their potential revolutionary spearhead is likely to emerge from among the scores of millions of students concentrated in the often intellectually dubious “tertiary level” educational institutions of developing countries. Depending on the definition of the tertiary educational level, there are currently worldwide between 80 and 130 million “college” students. Typically originating from the socially insecure lower middle class and inflamed by a sense of social outrage, these millions of students are revolutionaries-in-waiting, already semi-mobilized in large congregations, connected by the Internet and pre-positioned for a replay on a larger scale of what transpired years earlier in Mexico City or in Tienanmen Square. Their physical energy and emotional frustration is just waiting to be triggered by a cause, or a faith, or a hatred…
Brzezinski’s next point, however, should serve as a disturbing reminder as to how our “leaders” think:
[The] major world powers, new and old, also face a novel reality: while the lethality of their military might is greater than ever, their capacity to impose control over the politically awakened masses of the world is at a historic low. To put it bluntly: in earlier times, it was easier to control one million people than to physically kill one million people; today, it is infinitely easier to kill one million people than to control one million people.
If there’s one thing that the repetition of history should teach us, it’s that the elites of this world have absolutely no qualms about killing people in the millions to achieve their ends …