We the Sheeple: the Blind Reading the Blind
Shortly after the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, made a candid confession to the Army Times, “I’m running out of demons, I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.” Amid the general bonhomie of the military interview, Powell nicely encapsulated a central truth of empire: it doesn’t want peace. Never did. Imperialism, the monopoly stage of capitalism, is based on conquest. Peace is little more than an aftermath in the imperialist vision. It is the dusty rubble-strewn silence that descends on Aleppo when the jihadists have been bussed out. It is the silent pollution of the Danube when the NATO jets have flown. It is the quiet that settles on the Libyan square once the slave auction has concluded. Peace is an interlude between the birth of avarice and the advent of aggression. Little else.
If Powell confessed empire’s disinterest in peace, he also expressed the need of the imperials state for a steady supply of new enemies. Conflict is the lifeblood of imperial capitalism. It is how the ruling class further enriches itself. It is how the global elite expand their dominion over the planet. Those who will not pay tribute under threat of menace, must ultimately face the menace. But this truth, that the imperial state is the carmine tip of elite expropriation, must not be aired among the hoi polloi. It is the unseemly underbelly of power and if it were widely understood it would hack away the legitimacy of the state, which is only justified by its nominal commitment to the welfare of the nation. That claim only appears legitimate in the face of some grim and ghastly threat. Powell understood that with the nasty specter of the evil empire crumbling to ash on an Asian plain, a spine-chilling new antagonist would have to be invented to replace it.
Enter the specter of Islamic terror. Islamic terrorism is largely the product of American terror. It is wittingly conjured into being throughour wanton destruction of Muslim societies. We did not attack Muslim nations in order to produce a new enemy. We attacked them to extend our control of natural resources, shape the trade routes of the future, and expand the reach of global capital. But the epiphenomenon of terrorism was both predictable and embraced as a casus belli. It is the hobgoblin used by ruling class media to frighten western populations into acquiescence with the west’s warlike vision for global hegemony.
But western populations have of late grown weary of the terrorist scourge and the endless storylines of restive migrants doing the dirty work of mysterious jihadists on the Disneyfied streets of western capitals. Jets into skyscrapers. Cars into crowds. Backpacks in corners of concert halls. High-rise shotgunners spraying bullets into public squares. Terror fatigue is spreading across a western world that could only sustain permanent stress levels for so long. Thankfully, for the managers of empire and its media flacks, a reborn Russian state, rising from the ashes of a capitalist looting spree, has provided a second narrative front in the war for the mind of the west. A different visage emerges. Not the bearded votary narrating a death wish to a shaky cam. But a Muscovite in a bespoke suit with a supercilious grin on his sly poker face. The optics are different, but in a media environment of constant overexposure, that is a good thing.
Both terrorism and a revanchist Russia represent figments of horror in the minds of western citizens. They are the bête noire with which we can shape our worldview and pepper our cocktail conversations. We do not realize that Islamic terror is largely a product of American terror. We do not see that American aggression provokes Russian self-defense. As such, these orientalist caricatures represent the hypocrisy of imperial neoliberalism, which is forever flying the false flag of economic justice and democratic freedom over its just-conquered capitals. Inhabitants of those broken cities know better, as their standard of living plummets and their dictators are replaced by juntas. They know the west is like Joseph Conrad’s sepulchral city, where an alabaster exterior hides a crypt of rotting flesh. That is the real vision that western media works so feverishly to disguise, one no sane person could stomach. That’s why the media must craft fresh Frankensteins at such a feverish pace. Fairy tales of secular missionaries bringing the gift of free-market democracy to the benighted tribes of the east.
Globalization and Its Discontents
The terminology of that fairy tale is telling. The term ‘globalization’ has been used as a portmanteau containing all of the sly nuance of neoliberalism. Globalization is the rush of capital into every conceivable crevice of the planet in search of profitable new ventures. Unfortunately, markets must be pried open with war when rhetorical picklocks don’t suffice. The term ‘humanitarian’ is the masque we now affix to the gruesome face of war whenever we must attack some recalcitrant socialist backwater. What we used to call a ‘civilising mission’ in Africa, we now call a ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the Middle East. Historians call that ‘progress.’
The effect of this noble-minded fustian is to pacify a population and to marginalize anyone who attempts to reveal the true character of imperial action. Who would oppose a globalizing force of open markets that promise to bring ‘developing’ and ‘emerging’ nations online and on par with our post-industrial west? Those who do can hardly explain the extractive nature of neoliberal globalization or its deindustrializing effect on developing economies before they are skewered by the flagbearers of humanitarianism. Who would deny the righteous cause of intervening to halt imminent genocide? One has barely called into question whether genocide is actually imminent before being fleeced by the rhetorical guardians of the west’s civilizing mission. The righteous R2P. One has hardly breathed a word of how the ‘war on terror’ is largely generated by the state terror we inflict on other nations before being rubber-stamped a traitor and told to leave the country (if you don’t like it).
The fable must be accepted. We are spreading freedom and equality. Simple as that. End of story. Say that the United States is the greatest counter-revolutionary force in the world, and be branded a traitor–by the counter-revolutionaries. Wherever democratic freedom rears its ugly head, you can be sure that U.S. media flacks, as well as special forces, drones, proxy terrorists, and battalions are on hand to crush what they claim to defend.
Softening the Blow
The fairy tales are told by the mainstream media, shamelessly so. The Wolf Blitzers of the world devote themselves to the slavish production of fresh threats. The liberal MSM is represented today by outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CNN, MSNBC, and NPR. These ciphers take the crude evasions of the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and intelligence agencies, and camouflage them. They dress them in muted tones that dampen the drama of blast craters. They massage the story to elide the facts that might produce introspection or taint the purity of our self-image. Self-criticism is inappropriate, but the righteous condemnation of other nations is a moral mandate. Print everything in classic fonts, with well-designed column widths, and add in world-class photography that turns ruination into artistic representation. This is the manna consumed by the acolytes of exceptionalism.
Nothing better embodies the empty ruse of liberalism than the bulky deadwood of the Times. There is of course the elitist coverage of mini-breaks in distant villas, where war-torn peasant societies repair their communities round a communal table. There are the heady profiles of the latest restaurant trends, where the bearded Brooklyn chef with neck tats touts his vegan currywurst to the gentrified hood. There is the fastidious theater review and the effusive real estate forecast. Filler aside, readers will be reminded that war is necessary when America wages it; globalization is inevitable when it means free markets, and free markets mean individual freedom; multiculturalism and mass immigration are desirable to all, irreversible, and a moral imperative; and inscrutable new alien threats are profiled with an Orientalist’s hopeful but ultimately worrisome and mystified gaze. Little mention is made of the fact that our conflicts are provably imperial resource wars; that in nearly every port of call our country wages counter-revolutionary battles that stifle liberation and independence; that globalization has wrecked the American standard of living through labor arbitrage and offshoring; that immigration ought not to be coupled with austerity unless the objective is race wars; that the lives of women, LGBTQ, and people of color are collateral damage in the crosshairs of empire; or that American capitalism has no interest in delivering jobs, living wages, or upward mobility to its extant population, let alone its newest members.
When these mostly taboo subjects are noted, they are presented as a perplexing side effects of a noble project of laissez faire globalization. They are unfortunate but must not be rashly addressed. Better to endlessly maintain the status quo as one wrestles with the philosophic implications of global capitalism. This was Obama’s favorite tactic. Open a dialogue, but don’t change anything important. This dissembling attitude was beautifully expressed in a recent Twitter thread which detailed seventy years of Times articles proclaiming a dizzying succession of reform-minded princes in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where the patriarchy’s misogynist grip on power is as firm as ever, as is Washington’s backing. The last post in that thread noted Thomas Friedman’s sycophantic paean to the new idol of Saudi imperialism, Mohammed Bin Salman, or ‘MBS’ to his fawning admirers. Friedman’s article was printed last week.
When not absorbing the high culture of the Times literary supplement, one finds the corporate liberal Democrat happily digesting bite-sized reports from the National Public Radio (NPR). Here the adherence to the state view is no less vigilant than in print. Thus when NPR interviews a CIA psychologist who tells us that whistleblowers are either psychopaths, narcissists, or lingering in some irresponsible adolescence, the “national security correspondent” fails to challenge these claims. And when Australian broadcasting interviews Hillary Clinton, it allows the venal egotist to smear WikiLeaks as a Kremlin tool and call Julian Assange a narcissistic opportunist without the slightest resistance. Questions about the shady dealings of the Clinton Foundation are feebly set aside at the merest sign of discomfort by Madame Secretary. And Times op-ed writers like Friedman can happily call for support of al Qaeda, destroying target societies, and cheerlead more global wage leveling by chastising workers for not falling in lockstep with the elitist program.
These are the signs of a dead discipline. The mainstream media is no longer adversarial. It takes the official story at face value. It has abdicated its proper role in a democratic society, which is partly why we are no longer a democratic society. As Princeton University has explained, we are effectively a plutocracy. Thanks to the MSM, though, most of us continue to believe the rhetorical platitudes of our corrupt leaders. Media is one of our numberless emasculated institutions, which are now authoritarian and warlike. (See liberal faith in the Mueller investigation, led by a neoliberal imperialist who fought to crush Vietnamese socialism and led the FBI, one of the most regressive and criminal organizations in the world.) Like readers who still place a naive faith in the government, MSM writers continue to believe they are doing independent journalism in the service of truth (“Democracy dies in darkness,” the Post implores us). But real journalism accepts nothing at face value. It is the Socratic voice that unsettles the consensus.
Instead of incisive journalism that digs, defies, and holds power to account, we get self-censoring media automatons pampering oligarchs and pretending that all good-thinking people care deeply about the state of the state. Listen to the soothing language of the New York Times on the supposedly earth-shaking Russian influence campaign on social media. It hits all the right notes without seriously challenging the narrative. Note how it bleeds concern. This kind of journalism is a palliative for the conscience of a liberal. Ah, the “thorny debates” inside Facebook, no doubt had “in good faith,” and subject to “fateful misunderstandings,” if Ken Burns were documenting it. “Executives worry” and there is considerable “hand-wringing” afoot in good faith efforts to wipe out “fake news.”
Even the protagonists of the story are usefully quoted. Facebook lawyers, commenting on the miniscule purchase of ads over a two-year period from accounts with even the most tenuous Russian connection, much of it after the election, much of it not even mentioning presidential candidates, and the creation of bots to grow click farms, recoiled in horror and called the knowledge “deeply disturbing” and “an insidious attempt to drive people apart.” This is theater for the masses. Cue the organ grinder.
The goal of this domestic conditioning is to remove the democracy from democracy. The objective is to create a hollow shell of a democratic society, representative on the outside, plutocratic on the inside. The marble tomb inhabited by necrosis. This is deliberate. Read Alex Carey’s Taking the Risk Out of Democracy for a nice overview of how America’s collective conscience has been shaped by corporate forces. Why? Because we are the enemy. The enemy is our freedom of thought and speech, because that is what inevitably leads to democratic, socialist, or communist change that benefit the people as a whole, not just the vanishingly small margin of corporate elites who promote and profit from war, conquest, and rule. The problem with democracy is that it isn’t very profitable for capital. Socialist countries tend to emphasize social services. It is extremely hard to make money delivering quality social services to the poor. Really, the only way to make money off of social services is to deliver inadequate social services to the middle class for extravagant fees. See Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act for a master class in this technique. Monopoly capitalism is incompatible with actual democracy. To the degree that a truly democratic society can have free markets, they must be strictly regulated, prevented from reaching monopoly status, and completely walled off from public institutions. Otherwise, they will cannibalize those institutions, reshaping them as rubberstamp organs of elite profit.
As it is, democracy is merely the mask that disguises the engines of imperialism. It is useful in this regard because, unlike socialism, democracy makes no serious claims on the means of production. It depoliticizes the most political issue of all: economics. Thus the manufacture of enemies, job one for the ruling class media, always targets socialist-leaning nations that sense the need for economic justice alongside social justice. Even if they are mixed economies that provide space for open markets, like Venezuela. It makes no difference. We mustn’t tolerate the slightest majoritarian impulse in the economic arena. All such beliefs must be terminated. We must be refashioned as foot soldiers of exploitation. To this end, western propaganda outlets have made psychologist Erich Fromm’s warning sound less like prophecy than predestination, “The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.”