With the rise of industrialism and the creation of modern technology, governments have gained the ability to impose virtually all-encompassing control over their populations. This has been shown in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, North Korea, and the other regimes that have used their modern surveillance and military powers to tightly police millions of people. But open repression from the state makes people hate their rulers. So, throughout most Western nations, and in countries like Israel and Japan, despots have balanced their violent enforcement tactics with an effort to make people believe they live in a free society.
In addition to how these countries-Israel especially-are enamored with authoritarian policies and the persecution of disfavored ethnic groups, most of them are characterized by historic economic inequality. Neoliberalism, the extreme doctrine of corporate capitalism that calls for the destruction of the public sphere and the reduction of human beings to their value in the marketplace, has become dominant in much of the industrialized world during the last half-century.
After several decades of industry monopolization, the privatization of essential services, shrinking social safety nets, loss of workers’ rights, and systematically engineered mass personal debt, neoliberalism has redistributed much of the world’s wealth upward. This year, Oxfam reported that the world’s richest 1 percent have gained 82 percent of the recently produced wealth, while the bottom 50 percent of humanity has gained nothing.
Like many hierarchical societies, this one is divided between the ruling elites, between a relatively privileged middle-class, and between a vast majority of people who are too poor to engage with politics. With the system ultimately being designed to serve the 2000 or so billionaires in the world, and with the global top 1 percent consisting of over seventy million people, politics and world affairs are mainly thought about by a select amount of economically secure people. And their views of these issues are shaped by the ruling elites.
All of these details are important towards understanding the propaganda of the corporate oligarchy. To maintain control, the plutocrats who run the U.S./NATO empire need to convince the citizens of countries like America, Britain, and Israel that their governments are democratic and well-intentioned. And to create this illusion of freedom, they need to broadcast messages to media consumers that portray a sanitized picture of the society they inhabit.
This inversion of the West’s political and social realities is the most striking in the United States. With the domination of corporate money in electoral politics, an enormous military budget that’s used to enrich defense contractors, an unparalleled prison population of 2.2 million, and an all-encompassing mass surveillance system, America qualifies as the most corrupt country in the world. It’s effectively a police state, with 233 officers for every 100,000 people and a police force that’s largely impune and highly militarized. It’s also the most economically unequal country in the world, with most of its population now lacking more than $1000 in savings while its top 0.1 percent have as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Yet to those who subscribe to the worldview that the ruling class has constructed, America is completely democratic, always acts morally abroad, and has a fair and prosperous economy.
While Democrats and Republicans constantly attack each other over social issues, the belief in American exceptionalism and the flawlessness of America’s capitalist “democracy” are never questioned in mainstream politics. This comfortable pro corporate view of the country has always been central to America’s white supremacy and imperialism. But as America and its allies have been taken over by mass surveillance, high-tech police intimidation networks, and the other aspects of modern state oppression, the ruling class’ propaganda system has had to become more sophisticated in order to maintain the facade of liberal democracy.
The indoctrination program is vast, and it’s controlled from the top-down by a circle of corporate and intelligence entities. The Washington Post, which has served as an outlet for propaganda like the PropOrNot “fake news” list, is owned by the billionaire Jeff Bezos, who’s involved in a $600 million Amazon deal with the CIA. On numerous occasions, the New York Times has been shown to directly collude with the CIA in order to advance the U.S. government’s narratives. And the publicly known relationship between the CIA and the other branches of the American mainstream media is extensive.
This fusion between the press and the state is overlaid by a network of Washington think tanks and “independent” research groups, which supply statements to the media whose real purposes are to prop up intelligence narratives. Early this year, a series of dubious but alarming-sounding claims about Russia were spread throughout the media by the Atlantic Council, the shadowy foreign policy influence group which gets funding from NATO and large corporations.
During this springs’ debate over whether Trump should talk with North Korea over a potential peace deal, media reactions to the idea of detente were overwhelmingly negative. This was partly because the Atlantic Council and other think tanks had supplied narratives among the news networks which reinforced this hostility to ending the nuclear tensions. Then this September, the Western media unquestioningly reported the claim from Bellingcat that the Skripal poisoning suspects are Russian intelligence operatives, despite the extremely inadequate methodology that Bellingcat used to come to this conclusion. (Bellingcat’s operator Eliot Higgins, unsurprisingly, is tied to the Atlantic Council).
These are among countless pieces of propaganda that the state constantly exposes Americans to. It’s a perpetual addition and revision to the story that the corporate oligarchy wants the world to believe. The effort to manufacture consent needs to be frequently engaged in and (at least usually) consistent, because these messaging practices make people loyal to the narratives of the state.
This endless piling-on of propaganda is shown in the anti-Russia campaign of recent years, which has consisted of frequent media sensations around claims about Russia that intelligence operatives “leak” to compliant media outlets. The latest Russia “bombshell” exemplifies this pattern of Western cold war propaganda; the two reports about “Russian interference” that were recently submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee are both based in dubious claims which lack substantiation, and which come from the intelligence community-tied organizations New Knowledge and Graphika. But the reports have served their purpose of inflaming hatred towards Russia among the Western public, which is being used to delegitimize the anti-war, anti-capitalist, and racial justice movements that Russia’s purported messaging efforts are linked to.
All of this creates a reality where the West’s adversaries are always responsible for the world’s wars, where the intelligence officials and major media outlets should always be trusted, and where inequality, Western conquest, and corruption within one’s own government are ignored. Stories like Russiagate serve to distract people from these evils in the system, and to stigmatize those who bring up these evils as foreign spies who want to destroy Western society from within. “Undermine confidence in our democratic institutions” is how the media has tended to describe these supposed subversion efforts.
The underlying message is that ignorance equals strength. People are told that to keep society strong, they need to believe what people in power say. Under this logic, any action from the state should be supported. Click To Tweet Whether the government has created an enormous network of unaccountable intelligence agencies, or reignited tensions with Russia, or partnered with online companies to censor political speech that they decide is “Russian propaganda,” the population must accept it as necessary to keep civilization intact.
But to convince people of this, people need to not be experiencing the violence and cruelty of neoliberalism. This is why the messages that the oligarchy produces are mainly received by those in the upper class and the professional class, who can both easily consume media and can afford to support the system. The global one percent are convincing themselves of their own rightness, while the poorer people are kept unaware of the workings of the global corporatocracy that keeps them down.
This order isn’t sustainable. Neoliberalism inevitably creates economic bubbles, like the one that burst a decade ago with the Great Recession. And when the next one bursts, no amount of monetary manipulation will be able to stave off its consequences. When this crash comes, capitalist authoritarians like Donald Trump will try to preserve the hierarchy by dismantling the people’s remaining liberties, while using police violence to stop a popular revolt.
It will be a manifestation of the vast, high-tech totalitarian system that Orwell and others foresaw would emerge from modernity. But with the inequality now being so extreme, neither propaganda power nor police power may be able to stop the people from rising up.
“When my country, into which I had just set my foot, was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir. It was time for every man to stir.” ―