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Modern Propaganda: The long durée of the Western world

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Michel Foucault/Noam Chomsky
Michel Foucault/Noam Chomsky

The world is run by autocratic power.  The modern nation state is by nature autocratic. This is not about being in charge of the tools of coercion as the sovereign. But rather the violent pursuit of selfish interests by those—often lawyers and merchants—controlling the state.  On the one hand, autocratic power is individualised, while on the other, it is institutionalized.  Where it is individualised, especially in African and Muslim societies, power rests in the hands of individual persons (kings and queens, former rebel leaders, coup makers, or “democratically-elected” presidents), oftentimes extending to their families, clan members, friends and close associates. Thus, the practice of absolute power makes itself so visible, arrogant, ugly and thereby detestable. In its often-ugly manifestation, individualised autocratic power throws itself in the face of its victims with a ‘face of a person’, prompting the victims to ask “What makes this person think themselves special?!”

On its part, institutionalised autocratic power so deftly disguises itself, turns itself into a set of laws and technicalities, thereby depoliticising and de-personifying itself. Its victims are met with constant reminders about “that is the system” or “that is how the bureaucracy works” or “that is the law.” Technocratized and institutionalised autocratic power renders itself appreciable as either the bureaucracy or the law—often seen as having institutionalised through parliamentary legislation for the common good. It actually ends up conscripting its victims into their own plight, as they find it “civilised,” and “ethical,” or even cool to obey, and intellectualise the genius of the rule-based world.

Either way, the interests of autocratic power remain the same: selfish and dangerous to their subjects, sometime extending beyond borders of individual countries as “foreign policy” and, sometimes, “international law” guided by the United Nations and subsidiary UN organisations. As Marx tells us, in either cases, for what it is, the state, often composed of lawyers and merchants, individually or collectively—forming the bureaucracy or the system—will go after their interests however grievous they maybe to their compatriots or to other nation states. Indeed, it is simply these aesthetics and technicalities—and lack of them—that have managed to sustain the illusion of the Western world as the beacon of civil liberties where political actors are supposedly freer than their counterparts in the subaltern world because they aren’t subject to the ugly authoritarianism of individuals.

On freedom of speech

In a comparative essay, “Islamic and Western Values,” Ali Mazrui (citing examples from his close engagement with Africa, the Islamic, and Western world) strongly and carefully suggested that, as far as interests go, there was no difference between the autocratic power in the Islamic or African world, and the autocracies of the Western world. The difference was in method: while autocratic power in the Western world is hidden inside and behind things such as the law, market forces, science, claims of objectivity, etc., and the execution is more elaborate and sophisticated, the Islamic and African worlds tend to execute their autocratic power crudely, shocking entire worlds in the process. So, Saudi Arabia would openly eliminate journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while the Western world chooses to lock up Julian Assange in Belmarsh prison. While both actions aim to violently suppress dissent, the ugliness of open violence allows the Western world to claim a reputation as exemplars of freedom of speech and rule of law even as their undoubtedly more sinister violence is simply hidden under the gymnastics of language and law.

In fact, even when the Western world violently pursues its colonial, economic interests, (in Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and now Palestine) they are aesthetically couched in the language of spreading or protecting democracy, “Right to Protect” (R2P), or “fighting terrorism,” that journalists and academics will chant on end. Once this veil is removed, however, it becomes clear that the Western world has actually been more openly and crudely violent, in ways that the Muslim and African worlds can only dream of. This confirms what Mazrui implicitly suggested: that the autocracies in the Western world were more efficient, more lethal, and more total than anything the Islamic and African worlds can ever approximate. Mazrui signalled to a highly efficient network of narrative control that nips dissent in the bud before it could be provoked. It is in the work of Noam Chomsky and Hermann – especially the discussion of propaganda—that one finds a glimpse of how this network of controls reproduces itself especially in the mass media. In what follows I briefly map the political economy, and long durée of control in the Western world, entirely lacking in Africa and the Middle East.

“The will to the truth”

According to French theorist Michel Foucault, crafting a single nationwide opinion—controlling public opinion and or manufacturing consent—is as old as the late 1500s.  The question here is this: why do people in the western world—almost entire populations—come to have a homogenised worldview on phenomena such as Islam, democracy, capitalism, Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Iran, Russia-Ukraine, Africans, etc., and oftentimes without explicit displays cobbling them into such a worldview. Besides the political economy of the mass media which Chomsky and Hermann deftly explored, upon what does mass media thrive to cobble singular narratives about things? With minor, often ignorable exceptions, opinion makers from the Western world tend to begin from a point of consensus over the badness or goodness of specific things. For instance, in the Euro-American worldview, “democracy is the best thing to ever happen,” it can only “have failings,” and there are “different versions” but it is inherently good. Thus, if one has to say a good thing about countries such as Iran or Russia – that are not considered democracies by these opinion makers – they have to start from the premise that Iranians or Russians are “evil”.  How does this hegemonic worldview become so widespread to the extent that even seemingly radically anti-establishment individuals come to embody the same worldviews—with minor criticism, of course—oftentimes without questioning the base itself?

The answer is this: control is a network that requires immense sophistication, organising and, in many cases, regimes of violence, and big monies.  It grows over a long period of time integrating networks of knowledge production and dissemination. These range from the schools, the university, book publishers, media houses, and street names and signages. Once this (intellectual, popular cultural) network is thriving, and the infrastructure established, there is no turning back. There is no need for outright violence, but simply a reproduction of knowledge that is appreciable as ideology, as Slovenian theorists, Slavoj Zizek has put it in several of his writing.  This is loosely nowadays called “controlling the narrative.” But Foucualt, in a lecture in 1973, on discourse and the truth, called this “the will to the truth;” not the truth itself, but the highway to the truth – which had replaced the truth as early as the late 1500s.

It begins with the stockjobbers—nowadays Liberals or Capitalists—through their institutions ranging from public universities (which determine curriculums, canons, and citations), their publishing outlets, the so-called prestigious “university presses”, which then determine who gets published and thus appointed or promoted in the same university or public service.  It then comes to media houses (the mainstream outlets especially in our time, the BBC, The New York Times, The Economist, CNN), through which news items get framed and reported, and analyses or discourses generated.  These became the controllers of Foucault’s “the will to the truth,” in the sense that if any piece of knowledge, news items, story, science, is not ‘filtered’ (to use Chomsky and Hermann’s word) through these units of control, it was not anywhere near the truth.  At some point, they became loosely called “gatekeepers.”

In this process, these different units work to reinforce and reproduce each other. The traditional publisher—reputed as invested in the rigours of science, facts and objectivity—publishes a book by a person named Bernard Lewis, who then gets promoted to the level of professor at a university. The sum of this is that Lewis’ speech is legitimated as educated and informed speech. Lewis then appears in the media outlets or is endlessly quoted. Curriculum developers integrate Lewis’ positions into curricula, and at the end of the day, and entire network of sophistries and conjecture perforates entire nations. This network is difficult to build and takes years and a great deal of money to put together.  And as Foucualt dates it, right from the 1500s hundreds, this model has been developing and finetuning itself.

This is how government institutions, official or mainstream broadcasters, and university publishing houses come to be perceived as free of selfish interests. But governments, just by their nature and composition are always telling lies, ironically, in ways that don’t even bother the people with actual power.  Chomsky reminded us recently that, in 1741, David Hume expressed surprise at how people had absolute faith in their governments/state yet it is endlessly fleecing them.

In our time, while it seems clear that this entire network of control is falling apart – which is why liberals and lefties, capitalists and stockjobbers are in absolute panic – it is also true that such a sophisticated network has never existed in the Muslim and African worlds. Being that all power wants absolute control of freedom of speech, and public perceptions, it becomes evident that even when the African and Muslim autocrats would prefer to be as autocratic, technical and depoliticised as their counterparts in the Western world, they are encumbered by the cost of establishing such mega-industries and infrastructures of control. Even when they have the means (especially in the Middle East), they have not developed the aesthetic and intellectual infrastructure for these elaborate modes of control. But this is also, and most importantly, because the African and Muslim worlds have never been invested in colonial projects of domination and control—accumulation by dispossession—which tends to stoke resentment and resistance, requiring absolute control over public perceptions and narratives.

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