The world watched in varying states of mind as the Davos set enjoyed its annual turn on the world stage, supping on sumptuous Atlantic crab and fresh Iberian pork, sustainable Norweigian cod, and the best Italian coffee.
When not tucking into a lavish feast, they bandied about their ideas for how the world ought to exploited (the key euphemisms here are “sustainable,” “stakeholder,” and “impossible beef.”)
Some revile and protest the annual ruling class summit, but many millions more embrace it, even gaze admirably at the mandarins of the new world order as they flit across mobile screens and offer uplifting quotes to curious media attendees.
Indeed, few seem to care as the cabal of monied interests chat amiably about centrally managed digital currencies, consolidating global health authority in unelected bodies, collapsing the world economy, generating needless food shortages, unpopular fake meat, and other new market opportunities. Fewer still see the implicit threat of globalist agendas to the rule of sovereign states.
There is such little resistance largely because billions of people believe what they read and what they are told by the news media. A healthy dose of distrust would serve the global populace well, if only it could release itself from the grip of mainstream corporate news.
In this respect, it’s worth remembering two quotes from the incomparable muckraker Upton Sinclair–author of the startling expose The Jungle.
In his book The Brass Check, Sinclair betrays the great lie of modern media, namely that it is independent. This easy falsehood is widely accepted. Millions of Americans believe that the truly deceitful media are the ones that YouTube labels as “state-affiliated media,” a damning modifier that instantly discredits every outlet so identified.
But Sinclair reminds us that “[Media] represents private interests, not public interests.” He could have gone farther and said mainstream media represents the private interests of elite capital. Marx said that every state serves a particular class. So does corporate media.
Sinclair later writes that, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
This second quote explains why so much of the MSM go along quite happily with the prescribed narrative from Washington. Their livelihoods depend on it. Occasionally a pious mainstream journalist will fiercely declare his independence from any malign editorial influence.
But as Michael Parenti responds,
“They like what you write because you write what they like.”
The principles of American exceptionalism are a prerequisite for any journalist hoping to earn a slot at a high-paying MSM outlet. They have long internalized the values of power. Put together, these quotes tell us that we are subjected to an official narrative that serves the interests of elite capital and is dutifully disseminated by a cabal of right-thinking stenographers.
The same elite interests that own the government own the media. Hence the narrative consistency.
Given that elite interests are largely out of step with the interests of the vast majority of Americans, we often find ourselves living in an alternate reality. The war in Ukraine is just the latest iteration. Most of the reality of the conflict has been obscured from view, sins of omission that ensure the public is largely misled. Fierce and ‘principled’ op-eds reinforce the bias. For instance, little attention is paid to:
Economic motivations underlying the conflict: arms sales for American defense contractors; oil and grain profits by crisis-oriented commodity monopolies; and broader agricultural profiteering by Monsanto and Dupont via a post-coup IMF agreement; the foreclosure of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from the Baltic Sea into Germany, which opens the door to western consortiums supplying the shortfall.
Ukrainian academic Olga Baysha gave a telling interview to The Gray Zone. She noted how Volodymyr Zelensky’s neoliberal policies were sold as “westernization” and “modernization” to the Ukrainian public. But these were camouflage for privatization, deregulation, and downsizing of the public sphere, all commonplace neoliberal prescriptions for wealth extraction by global corporations. To secure this narrative, Zelensky shuttered opposition media channels and political parties, including sanctions and repression before the final step.
Zelensky was following the post-coup government’s deployment of ultranationalist battalions to violently extinguish the anti-coup resistance in Donbas. That “anti-terrorist operation” was really the beginning of a civil war by Kiev against its own population, including tanks and artillery, gunships and warplanes. The subsequent Minsk peace agreements were likewise largely ignored by the aggressive Kiev action against the East.
All of these political and national conflicts seem to evolve from—and devolve into—imperial economic relations. West against East, with Ukraine as a battleground. War is a revenue stream in capitalism. War is a profit center for the elites that own the media; it is only carnage for the lower classes. This distinction is rarely made.
Why Social Media Has Abdicated Its Role
What is relatively unique in the propaganda about the Ukraine war is the degree to which social media has advanced its repressive apparatus in line with state directives. Social media became a serious thorn in the side of state power and corporate media when it consistently exposed falsehoods about the 2016 election, Russiagate, and the pandemic.
Though much war propaganda has been uncovered by scrupulous independent journalists (with a working class bias), the success of the Ukrainian narrative has been stupendous. Social media is falling in line, censoring or discrediting wrongthink whenever it appears.
What Google and YouTube and others are doing at the behest of the federal government is as Brett Weinstein said of the pandemic narrative, “They are infantilizing a huge fraction of the population. They are making certain discussions off limits.” We must “…adhere to certain pre-digested conclusions and we pretend that they emerged from evidence, which they do not.”
What we need is rational discussion. The answer to bad speech is more speech, not less. One would expect Google and YouTube and Facebook and Twitter to know this. In fact, it is very likely they do know this. As the venerable linguist politico Noam Chomsky once derisively commented, there’s no point in speaking truth to power: they already know the truth, and don’t care.
What has happened is what happens to all new media in a corporate fascist state: it is threatened until it complies with the official narrative being disseminated by the government, which is effectively owned by elite capital. Congress may have a word with Justice, and Justice may on a quiet Tuesday open the preliminaries of an antitrust investigation.
Suddenly the bright horizons of the Silicon giants are considerably dimmed. It is similar with the news media. The MSM rely too heavily on the gossip and good favor of well-placed officials; they bend too easily to the unspoken preferences of the advertisers who line their coffers; they keel too readily at the unctuous general who cavils over the soft treatment of a geopolitical rival. These perverse incentives are nicely modeled in Manufacturing Consent.
Elite capital may be loosely defined as those groups that are making enormous amounts of money off the status quo, even as many more millions are harmed by the same status quo. Elite capital used to be called “special interests.”
They are the rich and powerful billionaires who can be seen at Davos, on the boards and membership lists of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation; the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations; and in important think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institute, RAND Corporation, Cato, Hoover, CSIS, and Center for American Progress, among a proliferation of others.
They are thus not a monolithic or discrete coalition of individuals, but rather intertwined interests that share a common desire to uphold the existing establishment, by force or fraud.
Masters of Myth
Our current experience—in which we are terrifically afraid of a mild seasonal respiratory virus and terrifically xenophobic toward Russians—is reminiscent of the heyday of the Bush administration, when the neoconservative believers were riding high on a surfeit of manufactured intelligence.
Abetted by the ghoulish founder of Blairism, who claimed kindly London burghers might be liquidated by Arab WMDs in just 45 minutes. From launch to impact. From Baghdad missile shed to Kensington glade in less than an hour. Around that frightful time, George Bush’s svengali Karl Rove, educated a stunned reporter about what reality truly meant at the Metropole, in the imperium itself,
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
That reality is what Henry Giroux called, “…the deadening unity and totalizing narratives that now marks dominant neoliberal and instrumental ideologies of the West.”
More than any moment in recent American history, we find ourselves under the spell of these reality makers, who have over the past five years produced a breathtaking array of crises that have utterly enthralled the population.
From the stunning election of a reeling madman, to chilling revelations of foreign influence, feckless investigations, failed impeachments, lethal pathogens launched from fog-draped bio labs in polluted Sino capitals, and finally to the good news of a redemptive election, only to be circumscribed by fatal new “variants” spread by pathologically stupid Trumpists.
And finally, the plague is swept from the marquee by Russian imperialism on the march in Europe. The masses automatically swap their masks for Ukrainian flags. The fear and anger remain, but are merely redirected.
Wage Slavery and Public Consciousness
The indoctrination of individuals into the doctrinal system of American exceptionalism is driven not only by media consolidation but also economic enslavement. First a couple of figures—as if we need more—from a John Steppling’s essay on his Aesthetic Resistance blog. He notes that in 1870 some 67 percent of Americans were self-employed, probably artisans or farmers of some kind.
Once industrial capitalism particularly in urban areas grew, that number plummeted. Today it stands at 6 percent. The point being that the independence of millions of Americans has been compromised. Now they work—millions of them—not for themselves but for vast faceless corporations.
Companies that are essentially fascist constructs, whose decisions are inscrutable to most employees, and which typically sweep the scythe of cost cutting through the ranks every few years, and increasingly turn to automated processes that are merely overseen by an incrementally deskilled workforce.
This alienation from our own work was not unaccompanied by attendent catastrophes. Alongside the vast migration of men and women into wage labor came first a rise and then a fierce destruction of union representation. That too stands at around 7 percent today, once as high as 35 percent in the early to mid 20th century, when there were socialists roaming the untamed streets and word of a Bolshevik Revolution rippled through bourgeois mansions.
The currents of the time were not overlooked by the managers of the economy. The bankers bought the papers. The president created a commission for public information. The business roundtable sketched anti-labor plot lines. Sigmund Freud’s nephew invented the dark arts of public relations.
A similar phenomenon occurred after the cultural explosion of the Sixties. The neoliberal rollback of the so-called welfare state on one hand (happily embraced by hippies as they tossed aside their tasseled suede for wide lapels and polyester pantsuits) and the co-optation of counterculture on the other.
As hippies reproduced, they found themselves suddenly needing the money on offer from the corporate monoliths they once defaced the logos of. No longer able to sustain themselves as village artisans or independent producers, they succumbed to the economic pressures and joined the rat race.
Madison Avenue, a Cyclopean beast capable of the most astonishing mimetic performances, quickly absorbed the counterculture and regurgitated rebellion as offbeat consumerism.
Everything became a style code. Facing down a lynch mob or jackbooted police cordon was replaced with wearing Chuck Conners sneakers, running marathons in ‘Just Do It’ Nikes, or donning a Coca-Cola tee shirt with a sardonic grin. At the radical end of the spectrum, burning draft cards were replaced with ‘buy nothing’ anti-consumer holidays.
Irony supplants resistance, a concession of the educated classes to the diminished prospects for revolution.
And so, having been alienated from their work, having had their counterculture killed, gutted, dressed, and stuffed, the average person has little recourse for independent thinking. At work, he is conditioned by a corporate culture that esteems ‘yes men’, pathologizes optimism, and encourages virtue signaling on behalf of the corporate charter, the values of which one is welcome to adopt as one’s own.
Away from the office, he encounters an ersatz ‘culture’ of media news and entertainment that reifies the values of the corporate state, which ostensibly include diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusion. The news instantiates the tropes of the corporate news hour, which feature the sly demonization of other societies under the guise of national security and the banner of freedom.
Then entertainment reinforces them. One reads of new sanctions levied against a rogue regime in Caracas, and then watches a new action series on Netflix in which an earnest American thwarts a diabolical scheme by the brown Venezuelan with an unquenchable thirst for yanquee blood.
Ideologies and Sub-Ideologies
But should one spy the troubling contradictions between our professed values of inclusion and our foreign policy of exclusion, there is nowhere to turn. Unless one knows about marginalized progressive websites, Noam Chomsky primers, or a nearby Communist Meet Up, one is left with the cardboard caricatures of corporate media, which go to great lengths to convince you those contradictions are all a misunderstanding—your own, to be sure.
Without ‘comrades’ to confirm your natural mistrust, it will tend to fade as the omnipresent corporate conditioning takes over.
Louis Althusser, the French Marxist philosopher, wrote that we are all conditioned by the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) and repressed by Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs). He said we are ‘interpellated’ by the ISAs into the helpful groupthink that sustains the status quo. Perhaps to keep his readers from guzzling Drano, he did concede that ‘interventions’ were possible in which a sub-ideology breaks through a crack in the dominant ideology.
What this intervention produces, though, is indeterminate. A riotous uprising that is brutally put down by some frightful caudillo general? Whose leaders are liquidated in the bowels of some rusting soccer stadium held over from the Pan Am Games? Or perhaps the glorious, dreamed of Revolution (capital ‘R’) that guts the capitalist oligarchy, assumes its productive forces, and achieves a breathtaking synthesis of revolutionary theory and worker power? The pipe-puffing Althusser declined to say.
Reality Repeats Itself: Amor Fati?
It is no surprise when we see such little resistance in the population to the supplying of $40 billion in lethal aid to Ukraine, or to aggressive authoritarian mandates of the government regarding the pandemic. For all of the aforementioned reasons, the dominant response is unquestioning compliance and even gratitude.
After all, having never been taught the past, or having deliberately compartmentalized those troubling histories, we digest the official narrative like a child accepts the spoonfuls of baby food from a doting mother. Tens of millions of doses of soma shoveled down the hatch at daybreak or dusk, or both, do their numbing best to aid and abet digestion of those sometimes thorny narratives, so thick with intrigue and, not occasionally, senselessness. The reward of the incurious is consensus.
Within the official narratives themselves, there is at least one constant: the demonization of the other. We can easily see parallels in the gross caricature of unvaccinated individuals as pathogenic threats in need of the needle and the demonization of Russians as barbaric hordes in need of European refinements.
These depictions are not far from the efforts of German National Socialists to segregate non-Aryans, mostly of Jewish origin, from the righteous population of pure-blood Volk. Yet one needn’t leave one’s own history to see this blatant segregationist behavior. The dark era of Jim Crow, and the modern version of the carceral state, evince the deep hostility of society for the other, those that differ in skin color, sex, gender, sexual preference, religion, ideology, economic model, or worldview.
Edward Said notes in Orientalism how the western Orientalist needed to whittle down Islam to the caricature of “tent and tribe” in order to fit it into his orderly cosmology, in which the rationalism of the European Enlightenment prevailed. Today the West performs the same reductionist act on Eurasia.
Reclining in his sumptuous country estate, the elitist Marquis tells Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities, “Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery…will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof shuts out the sky.”
Like Sinclair, Charles Dickens historicized his novels, and it might be noted that the Marquis’ venerable roof would soon fall with the collapsing scenery of the French Revolution. Whenever we are sold those confident, end-of-history tales from the corridors of elite power—be it a French chateau or a chalet in the Swiss Alps—we’d do well to recall the timeless warning of every marketplace and bazaar: caveat emptor.
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