Four notes for an essay
by Robert Bohm
Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries were created to be viewed by an audience in closed theaters.
Hitler’s mass-rally appearances were constructs of words, military symbols, architectural backgrounds and nationalistic emblems designed to have maximum effect on giant mobs gathered in the open air.
Propaganda today is different. It has evolved to an entirely different level. We no longer are propagandized exclusively as part of an audience that attends the showing of a documentary or that listens to a demagogue’s speech (e.g., Donald Trump’s rallies), but rather, with the advance of electronic communications, television and computerization, society itself has become the propaganda-deliverer to such an extent that even rebellion is shaped by the propaganda that it (the rebellion) claims to reject. And since we ourselves are part of society, our status as Americans is ironic at its core: one of our functions is to propagandize ourselves.
Here is what this means.
Propaganda is no longer a type of false consciousness promoted by a few major institutions (state, the educational system, the church, etc.) in support of a dominant elite. Rather, it has become a way of life, a method of interaction between individuals, groups of individuals, bureaucracies, leisure activity organizations and so on. Although the division between those without power (workers) and those with it (owners of the means of production and communications, political leaders, top-level managers) remains central to U.S. life, the old ways (e.g., unions, radical organizations) of combating that division and the false consciousness that supports it are no longer viable because those ways themselves have become part of the problem in that they create the illusion of opposition without in fact opposing the way of life/social order that is the problem incarnate.
Unions that allow the state to determine the number of strikers who can assemble at a plant gate are unions that have conceded the right to control union dissent to the state and big money. This is the very right that the original struggles for unionization refused to concede. As a result, they adopted a variety of unallowable/illegal tactics in order to achieve their ends, an approach today’s unions long ago gave up.
Similarly with large civil rights organizations which gained their credentials during the civil rights/black power struggles of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Except for the occasional token demonstration against inequity, they concentrate almost entirely on legal issues that, although important, concede the status quo’s right decide judicially what is and isn’t fair to blacks and other minorities. Only the re-emergence of urban unrest in the form of spontaneous (not controlled by major civil rights organizations) demonstrations against the police killings of unarmed blacks offers hope offers hope (under the Black Lives Matter banner) of a new era of racial justice struggles.
One could go on and on, giving examples from the feminist, antiwar, etc. movements of our current era. They are crippled at almost every step by their enslavement to the concept that challenging the powers that be is best accomplished by first granting the right of the powers that be to determine how, when, in what location and under what circumstances these formations are allowed to publicly protest.
In each of these behaviors, we propagandize each other by reinforcing our roles as lower-tiered players in a game controlled by big money and the state.
In the aftermath of Trump’s election win and his first weeks in office, two things already have occurred that show, in spite of the left’s railings to the contrary, how glued the left is to the status quo.
The first is the left’s inability to extract itself from the mainstream media’s obsession with Trump as the end-all of what ails the nation. What the left should be doing instead is relegating Trump to his actual role in what currently is going on in the nation. The message should be: Don’t fall into the trap of over-focusing on Trump and don’t let Democratic Party leaders control the post-debacle dialogue.
We don’t need to analyze the recent election and the beginnings of Trump’s presidency to construct a framework within which to study the U.S. political system’s long-building decline into a two-party caricature of democracy. Trump didn’t start the crisis. He’s merely one part of it.
Look at what spawned him.
An April 2010 Harris poll concluded that 32 percent of Republicans believed Barack Obama was a Muslim, 20 percent thought he was pursuing Nazi strategies for social reorganization, and 16 percent considered him the Antichrist as defined in the Book of Revelations. Precisely because such facts seemed preposterous to liberals, the Harris poll provided those liberals with information they could employ in their attempts to establish the irrationality of those folks who swear by such facts. The Republican party’s right wing was viewed by many liberal pundits as a horde of marauding primitives laying waste to the achievements of western philosophy. In the words of New Yorker columnist George Packer, the Republican Party’s right wing was proof that we’re living in a time characterized by “the overwhelming force of unreason. Evidence, knowledge, argument, proportionality, nuance, complexity, and the other indispensable tools of the liberal mind don’t stand a chance these days.”
Unfortunately for those who disdain the right, the right’s beliefs don’t establish the right as the sole holders of unverified ideas. A 2006 Zogby International poll showed that between 50%-56% of Democrats believed the 9/11 Commission, in collusion with the CIA and unknown government officials, covered up U.S. involvement in the attacks. A Scripps Howard poll taken in July of the same year found that 36 percent of the U.S. public, regardless of political persuasion, believed “it is ‘very likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ that federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them ‘because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.’”
Although theoretically any of the beliefs just cited might have been true, there was no critical mass of evidence that established that any of them was true. Also, although some of the conjecture required to arrive at such conclusions exemplified a capacity to think outside the box, tragically this effort stopped short of actually getting there (i.e., outside the box) and therefore ended up as fantasy and not analysis. A previously evolving trend was further reinforced. The spouting of partisan opinions replaced critical thinking. The end result: the news as sideshow. More than ever before, well-paid Republican conspiracy buffs and Democratic conspiracy buffs (all of whom lived in similar gated communities, sent their kids to similar schools and celebrated important events at similar country clubs) debated each other on op-ed pages and TV newshows for those interested in the carnivalization of the news.
Meanwhile, the one thing that should be analyzed was (is) never analyzed: what to do about the fact that the U.S. needs, far more than cigarettes do, a warning label announcing that it is “hazardous to your health.”
Gangsta slang-slingers – a.k.a., hip-hoppers, rappers, etc. – all these trash-rhymers are language’s ruination.
Or so some say. I agree up to a point. But why? Have I entered the censorship business? No. What exactly is their crime, then? Many self-proclaimed moralists and politically correct commentators have castigated rap for its language (bitch, nigguh and so on.) But these pontificators mostly miss the point. They just don’t get it. They don’t know what rap’s real crime is.
So what is it?
Rap’s main crime (and it has committed a crime) isn’t repeating words like fuck and ho ad nauseum, thereby insulting the nation’s ears, but rather that it has ruined fuck et al as powerful outsider words and turned them, through the machineries of faddishness and mass production, into marketplace goods designed to excite prefabricated forms of community on the one hand and moral outrage on the other. This is done in such a way as to create for some of us the fantasy that we are rebels (outcastes, outsiders) daring to fight the system when in fact we’re only quoting rap lyrics to our fiends. For others, rap presents them with the opportunity to confront evil (all that “bad” language) without having to endure the process of actually fighting evil. Actually doing so would mean organizing mass insurrections against things like government data-falsification in the creation of illegal wars, the total outmodedness of the United States’ 2-party political system, and going beyond questionable demands for censorship and instead getting involved with fighting white supremacy and patriarchy wherever we find it.
But rather than look inward at our own psychologies or at the internal operations of the institutions that shape our lives, we instead, even when we are theoretically rebelling against society’s wrongs, dump our anger on socially sanctioned substitute targets that, although they may truly offend in certain ways, are useless targets because they are not crucial to the political system’s more offensive/intrusive crime: Its status as the cover of a vast bureaucracy dedicated to draining the human spirit of its capacity to think for itself so that they (big money, government elites, technocrats) can do society’s thinking for the rest of us. In U.S. democracy as it currently exists, we the people’s role is to guarantee the state’s existence while simultaneously enduring permanent exclusion from those activities that would allow us to actually reshape or reinvent the state in our own image.
In the U.S. no left revolutionary is a left revolutionary and no anticapitalist is anticapitalist.
We’re not radicals, we’re fashionistas. We don’t buy into a political vision but instead buy a way of looking, an appearance, a style. But there is more to it than this. Worship/purchase of style is itself a political vision, one rooted in an ontology which begins with the premise that decoration is the ultimate real. As a result, political goals have changed. Eradicating poverty is no longer the issue: getting the poor to dress up in the right sneakers and enough bling to seem to have gotten out of poverty is. Being antiwar is no longer the issue either. Instead, the issue is dressing and talking in certain ways and in general surrounding oneself with the cultural artifacts (t-shirts, bumper stickers, peace jewelry, wall posters) of being antiwar. In this manner one becomes antiwar while simultaneously joining a movement to elect a president (2008, 2012) who as a candidate helped redefine antiwar to mean let’s continue to go to war but in a different location than the one in which we are currently waging war.
The idea of politics as fashion isn’t new. It is, however, more prevalent than in capitalism’s previous stages. The evidence is everywhere: the New York Times’ “Styles” section, red carpet fashions that gain almost as much news coverage as the awards ceremonies that they are a prelude to, TV shows like Make me a Supermodel and America’s Next Top Model, and the makeover syndrome which has turned into a craze. Even tattooing, once a minor form of body decoration, has evolved in the west from a type of in-your face nonconformity into an indispensible fashion statement for those anxious to convince the world of their bona fides as “outsiders.”
The use of tattooing, as with the employment of other forms of body art and symbolic images and gestures to signify identity, has become part of a process in which a symbol (tattoo, nose ring, etc) which supposedly symbolizes some aspect of our character (our rebelliousness, our defiance of fashion, etc.) ends up substituting for the very attitude it theoretically rejects. It is no longer actually necessary (or, it often seems, possible) to be rebellious or unfashionable, but only to own the symbols of rebellion and anti-fashion, all of which are readily available as products at the local mall or online at Amazon, E-bay or niche sites catering to the needs of specific groups: foot fetishists, Lutherans, gays, Lions Club supporters, anarchists, transvestites, Minnesota Vikings fans, Green Party members, etc. No form of dissidence or conformity leads away from the existing political system but instead all lead, albeit by different routes, back to the system – i.e., to the marketplace where one buys whatever is necessary in order to establish who one is. Just as Move On and the Tea Party, in spite of yelling at each other across the ideological divide while claiming to be radically different from each other, both lead us to the same voting booth that is owned lock, stock and barrel by big money and the two mainstream parties, so all fashion statements from avant-garde to proletarian to conformist lead to the same place: the feeding of the capitalist maw. This is one of the senses in which propaganda has become a way of life, reducing everything we do, no matter how much we insist otherwise, into a reinforcement of and an advertisement for the very system we claim to see through and rebel against.
In this way, we have become the agents of our own indoctrination. As such, our actions help to fine-tune a society in which Nietzsche’s “revolution in values” has become not a revolution in insight but rather a way of transforming every one of our biological needs and mental curiosities into economic signals that provide capitalism with the guidance it requires in order to provide an endless slew of new products (e.g., battery-powered dildos) and new entertainments (e.g., reality shows, digital gaming) back to us in such a way that it (capitalism) sells us ourselves in order to keep going. This is “who you are is what you buy” raised to the highest possible level. It is capitalism’s ultimate destruction of and mockery of Marx whose working-class revolution, long ago devitalized by the system’s effective crushing of all movements for the radical expansion of democracy, has degenerated into a frenzy of coupon-cutting, shopping sprees, and dreams paid for with credit cards whose exorbitant interest rates bury us in anxiety while claiming to elevate us to consumer heaven.
Such an analysis may seem pessimistic or cynical to some. It isn’t. It is merely a description of a specific phenomenon: life at the center of the Empire, life in what used to be called “the belly of the beast.” It is not, therefore, a description of the whole world or of all of humanity or of what the philosophers like to call “human nature.” It is merely a description of advanced capitalism/imperialism experimenting with ways to turn everything under its immediate influence into a smoothly functioning part of the apparatus that it is. What this picture does NOT indicate is what cleverly made tools eventually may be developed, then used to wreck the apparatus. Such a wrecking is entirely possible. What doesn’t seem possible, however, is that the source of this wrecking will spring from within the apparatus’ core, the U.S. The apparatus owns too much of us for us to topple it. To do so would be the equivalent of toppling ourselves, a form of self-dethronement, a suicide. No population, certainly not ours, is likely to do this en mass.
But it could happen. Doing so, however, will require rejecting our current governmental/economic structure and creating a mass movement for radical people-oriented change that is beyond the grasp of any of today’s major companies or institutions, including the two main political parties.
If such change does occur, it won’t be nice and we certainly won’t be able to look to the government for advice. We’ll have to produce our own advice and carefully choose our international allies from similar movements around the globe.
Robert Bohm is a regular contributor to Radius.
There is a great deal of understanding of our situation here. And it includes for me useful reference to our loss of working class institutions and the loss of independence in the working class institutions we have left. Our left is now grounded largely in print rather than concrete struggles against the wealthy who control our societies across the globe and here at home probably as much or more than any other. And, as it begins: there may be no legal way out.
And yet, even our conventional thinking holds keys and maps to some routes. The ideal of democracy and conception of creating a movement of liberation together, through better understanding of who and what we are lives along wit the struggle for social equity. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense began by heading in that direction, before it was crushed by the state’s police. And by fulfilling some obvious concrete needs, it was able to grow into a popular movement before it was trapped within its own limitations or race and class. And one thing its micro-moment of social revolution may still hold for us is that by getting out of our cars with the tools we have available and actually applying them in practice, beyond theory, is the only way to move ahead.
I think we already know a good deal about where and how to go, and our failure at this moment lies mainly in our inability to find the resolution to act on what we know. We need to find ways to break out of the page and to organize our unions in the street around concrete demands we can an do act on.