I’ve been dipping into the introduction to a slim book entitled Propaganda by Edward Bernays. It’s the story of a long slow con, the main text written by one of its key proponents, who cites the enormous benefits of propaganda to the politician and the corporation.
The book has me wondering about the rise of shifting shape of propaganda over the last century. I’m no expert but here are a few thoughts.
Many would agree that Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) was spot on in identifying paradigm shifts in science. His insight is so powerful it has been used as a metaphor with much explanatory power in history and the social sciences ever since.
I’m hardly alone in recognising a fairly recent paradigm shift that is affecting the entire world, one rooted in the economics of neoliberalism.
When I was immersed in Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery I kept thinking that the protagonist, Simone Simonini was a typical unscrupulous self-serving totally amoral toad who was happy to do the bidding of various secret services who, in order to accumulate power, were keen to besmirch the Jews and the Freemasons, both groups used as scapegoats.
The events in The Prague Cemetery took place in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Much has changed. Not least a scientific revolution, or paradigm shift in which the new science of Quantum Theory has challenged the old Newtonian physics and a new age of science and technology born. Everyone recognises that.
In contrast the neoliberal paradigm shift is subtle, covert and involves the manipulation of collective thought and emotion. Propaganda is no longer simply about convincing citizens to go to war, or to buy a particular model of washing machine, and it no longer solely serves to promote the various hegemonic ideologies of the day, for example beefing up nationalistic pride.
From Abbott’s “team Australia,” and “death cult” slogans, the overt use of propaganda is screamingly obvious to anyone who paid attention in Year 10 English. These are simply the techniques used by all politicians since 1915, when governments, “systematically deployed the entire range of modern media to rouse their populations to fanatical assent,” (Propaganda p 11) in the build up to World War I. The author of the introduction to Propaganda, Mark Crispin Miller, states that propaganda was used before and with success, particularly by Napoleon, but not systematically and it was this systematic use of propaganda that enabled governments to so successfully manipulate their people.
The hidden use of propaganda functions differently. More covert still, it operates far behind the scenes and is obvious only to those who really look. This is the sort of propaganda deployed by the likes of Eco’s Simonini.
When people dismiss conspiracy theory holus bolus as quackery for the paranoid and teenage boys with runaway imaginations, they overlook, as many conspiracy theorists themselves also overlook, that conspiracy is a methodology not a theory. All conspiracy theories are a product of this methodology. Conspiracy, in other words, is a modus operandi, a conspiracy theory generator on the one hand, and much much more besides.
Existing within the thick complex fabric of the world, at work in this country and that, responding to matters arising while seeking to influence those matters, choosing how best to proceed to achieve short and long term goals, employing any shady Simonini to do their bidding, are what might be called the Conspirators. I suppose we can imagine their existence in the inner sanctums of ASIO and embedded in various think tanks and elite groups such as the Leo Strausseans.
It could be argued, and with some force, that the vast social, cultural, political and economic web unfolds chaotically, unpredictably, guided by numerous agents who respond to conditions and make decisions, that this vast complex is impossible to control since there are unexpected consequences at every turn.
Yet this very chaotic complexity has opened up new opportunities for a certain kind of navigation, in part involving the manipulation of dissent. It’s as if Simonini’s ilk have stumbled on a smoke screen generator, one so persuasive and deceptive it can be used at will to both burn up the energies of dissenters and deflect the attention of the populace from unpalatable, if or when scrutinised, policies. Toxic policies that are neatly packaged in spin so as to appear entirely virtuous.
Diversion tactics are hardly new. Nothing these Simonini people do is new. What is new is that in Simonini’s day such types operated on behalf of one nation’s secret service or another, to serve various geopolitical ends and to enhance the power of one country over another, or one group, such as the Catholic Church.
Today, in a globalised world where it can be easily argued that 147 corporations run (or rule) the world, geopolitics itself is a smoke screen. All social unrest, including war and terrorism, and the consequences of war – refugees and asylum seekers, are smoke screens. Anything that occurs and is reported on in the media and seems terribly important at the time, is part of the haze.
This haze is cognitively toxic. For those who do not recognise the toxicity, the damage is invisible. For those who enter the haze with values and beliefs that are counter to it, who contest the injustices, the haze might be deadly.
Today, for humanity, there can be only one fundamental reality and everything is in service to it. Profit. The social or common good is long gone. We have passed the tipping point and entered a new age of the corporation and all that remains is the tying up of a few structural loose ends.
The new paradigm is one in which the Conspirators have taken centre stage in a dark theatre thick with haze, haze so dense spotlights create mirrors. We have entered an age in which, as many of us are saying, 1984 and The Castle are being used as instruction guides, and heinous acts are choreographed, everyone is watched and our leader’s read from double speak scripts.
An age in which in Australia a joker card (Abbott) is played with a straight face that makes the progressives among us rise up alarmed that we are sliding backwards into gross societal unfairness.
Welcome to the age of the Conspirator, the conman and the adept. A new age of narcissism and happy pills. An age of spells and labyrinths and trickery.
An age where mental health equals fantasy. An age ruled by giants who look down, foot poised, on a colony of sugar ants. An age in which defecation is used as syrup to further corrupt our souls.