Tag Archives: George Orwell

‘fake news’ is the new blackwhite

“The keyword here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”

— George Orwell from ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ 1

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Update: WMDs Revisited

Please note that the original post began after the purple asterisk.

Before reading on I encourage readers to follow this link to an article published by wsws.org also on February 20th. An extended extract is reposted below:

Fifteen years ago, on February 5, 2003, against the backdrop of worldwide mass demonstrations in opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq, then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell argued before the United Nations that the government of Saddam Hussein was rapidly stockpiling “weapons of mass destruction,” which Iraq, together with Al Qaeda, was planning to use against the United States.

In what was the climax of the Bush administration’s campaign to justify war, Powell held up a model vial of anthrax, showed aerial photographs and presented detailed slides purporting to show the layout of Iraq’s “mobile production facilities.”

There was only one problem with Powell’s presentation: it was a lie from beginning to end.

The World Socialist Web Site, in an editorial board statement published the next day, declared the brief for war “the latest act in a diplomatic charade laced with cynicism and deceit.” War against Iraq, the WSWS wrote, was not about “weapons of mass destruction.” Rather, “it is a war of colonial conquest, driven by a series of economic and geo-political aims that center on the seizure of Iraq’s oil resources and the assertion of US global hegemony.”

The response of the American media, and particularly its liberal wing, was very different. Powell’s litany of lies was presented as the gospel truth, an unanswerable indictment of the Iraqi government.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who rushed off a column before he could have examined Powell’s allegations, declared, “The evidence he presented to the United Nations—some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail—had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool—or possibly a Frenchman—could conclude otherwise.”

The editorial board of the New York Times—whose reporter Judith Miller was at the center of the Bush administration’s campaign of lies—declared one week later that there “is ample evidence that Iraq has produced highly toxic VX nerve gas and anthrax and has the capacity to produce a lot more. It has concealed these materials, lied about them, and more recently failed to account for them to the current inspectors.”

Subsequent developments would prove who was lying. The Bush administration and its media accomplices conspired to drag the US into a war that led to the deaths of more than one million people—a colossal crime for which no one has yet been held accountable.

Fifteen years later, the script has been pulled from the closet and dusted off. This time, instead of “weapons of mass destruction,” it is “Russian meddling in the US elections.” Once again, assertions by US intelligence agencies and operatives are treated as fact. Once again, the media is braying for war. Once again, the cynicism and hypocrisy of the American government—which intervenes in the domestic politics of every state on the planet and has been relentlessly expanding its operations in Eastern Europe—are ignored.

The argument presented by the American media is that the alleged existence of a fly-by-night operation, employing a few hundred people, with a budget amounting to a minuscule fraction of total election spending in the US, constitutes a “a virtual war against the United States through 21st-century tools of disinformation and propaganda” (New York Times).

In the countless articles and media commentary along this vein, nowhere can one find a serious analysis of the Mueller indictment of the Russians itself, let alone an examination of the real motivations behind the US campaign against Russia. The fact that the indictment does not even involve the Russian government or state officials is treated as a nonissue.

While the present campaign over Russian “meddling” has much in common with the claims about “weapons of mass destruction,” the implications are far more ominous. The “war on terror” is exhausted, in part because the US is allied in Syria and elsewhere with the Islamic fundamentalist organizations it was purportedly fighting.

More fundamentally, the quarter-century of invasions and occupations that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union is rapidly developing into a conflict between major nuclear-armed powers. The effort of the American ruling class to offset its economic decline using military force is leading mankind to the brink of another world war. As the National Defense Strategy, published less than a month before the release of the indictments, declared, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.”

Click here to read the full article entitled “The Russian meddling fraud: Weapons of mass destruction revisited”.

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In Doha last week I watched on TV an utterly contemptible speech by Theresa May in which she grasped for ideas to shore up the increasingly eroded Establishment control of the political zeitgeist. Yet more pressure would be put on the social media companies to curtail the circulation of unauthorised truths as “fake news”. Disrespectful questioning of the political class will be a new crime of “intimidation of candidates”. The government would look for new ways to boost the unwanted and failing purveyors of the official line by some potential aid to newspapers and their paid liars.

In short I did not merely disagree with what she was saying, I found it an extraordinary example of Orwellian doublespeak in which she even referenced John Stuart Mill and her commitment to freedom of speech as she outlined plans to restrict it further. I found myself viewing this dull, plodding agent of repression as representing a political philosophy which is completely alien to me.

The words of former UK ambassador Craig Murray published in a blog post entitled “Scared of my Own Thoughts”.

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‘Corbyn was a Soviet spy’

When two million protesters assembled in London in the bitter cold on the February 15th 2003 to call on Blair not to go to war against Iraq, Jeremy Corbyn marched at the head of the largest protest this country has ever seen. Speaking afterwards from the platform at Hyde Park, Corbyn forewarned us:

“Thousands more deaths in Iraq will not make things right. It will set off a spiral of conflict, of hate, of misery, of desperation, that will fuel the wars, the conflict, the terrorism, the depression and the misery of future generations.” [from 4:15 mins]

Fifteen years on, a war sold entirely on the basis of lies that were in turn rubber-stamped by our already sold-out mainstream media (the honourable exception was the Daily Mirror) grinds on indefinitely. Corbyn meantime has been elected not once but twice to lead the Labour Party, and his party continues to run neck and neck in the polls with the Tories.

In response, the purveyors of those lies which carried us into the perpetual darkness of an endless “war on terror” have found new ones to spin. Yesterday’s fake news warned us of the threat of Saddam’s WMDs. Today the same press tells us, and again with no credible proof, that Corbyn and other backbench Labour MPs were once on the payroll of Czech secret service.

I hesitate to engage with such arrant nonsense, but the plain fact that these absurd allegations that Corbyn was once a Soviet agent refuse to die quietly demands a response – even while every response automatically puts defenders of Corbyn on the back foot; proving a negative being impossibly hard to do. Of course, these extraordinary claims ought to demand extraordinary evidence, but instead we see the rumour mill being given extra impetus by so-called respectable and nominally impartial broadcasters. For instance, here is what the BBC reported on Monday 19th:

Jeremy Corbyn should be “open and transparent” about his alleged contacts with a Communist spy during the 1980s, Theresa May has suggested.

Asked about claims a Czech intelligence officer met and tried to recruit Mr Corbyn during the Cold War, she said MPs must “account” for past actions.

The Labour Party has said claims he was an agent were a “ridiculous smear”. 2

Thus, snide innuendo dreamed up by our gutter press (in this case The Sun) is reported on without any attempt at all to drill down into the facts. And this coming from the BBC which laughably portrays itself as some kind of a last bastion against the spread of ‘fake news’. So allow me to set the record straight. The source of this particular canard is a man called Jan Sarkocy, who, as former editor of Tribune (1986– 93) and deputy editor of the New Statesman (1993–96), Paul Anderson, reminded us in his article “Corbyn’s spy connection and me”, was “anything but a spymaster”:

Quite a lot of the serious media have steered clear of the Sun’s story of Jeremy Corbyn’s meetings with a Czechoslovak spook in the 1980s, and it’s not hard to see why. The Sun never knowingly under-eggs any pudding, but this one was really over-stirred. Its splash – “CORBYN AND THE COMMIE ”, as the headline put it on 15 February – promised something it simply did not deliver.

The paper had discovered from east European archives that a member of the communist Czechoslovak secret police, the StB (Státní Bezpečnost, State Security), acting under diplomatic cover in London, had met Corbyn on several occasions between 1986 and 1989, including at the House of Commons.

And, er, that was it. No suggestion that Corbyn, then the rookie backbench Labour MP for Islington North, had handed over state secrets for money. Nothing at all incriminating, in fact. Corbyn responded that he had met a Czechoslovak diplomat in the late 1980s but not one called Dymic, the name on the documents obtained by the Sun.

End of story? Not quite. The Mail and Telegraph picked it up with enthusiasm. It turned out that the StB man who had met Corbyn was only codenamed Dymic and was really Jan Sarkocy (as I’d guessed), now 64 and living in obscurity in Slovakia – and Sarkocy has given interviews to all and sundry, saying that Corbyn was paid for information and that other Labour left wingers, including the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were on his contact list. Cue outraged Tories saying that Corbyn was a traitor and furious denials from the Corbyn camp with accusations of red-scare tactics by the right-wing press.

Corbyn (like many others on the Labour left, myself included) was a contact of Jan Sarkocy in the 1980s, and Sarkocy was StB – but that’s about it. Sarkocy was anything but a spymaster. He was a low-level intelligence-gatherer for a state that had long ago lost all authority with its citizens and was now losing the support of its geopolitical master, the Soviet Union.

He was employed to take people out to lunch who knew something of what was going on in British politics, drink beers with them in the evening, and write reports on what they told him. And what he got from his efforts was probably little better than any half-compos-mentis reader of the UK press would have gleaned. 3

Click here to read the full article at Little Atoms.

Of course, the real reason behind the latest smear campaign against Corbyn is no less blatant than those more despicable lies which soon led to the deaths of a million innocent Iraqis. The very same blood-soaked special interests that have reaped such staggering profits from the West’s otherwise nonsensical policy of war without limit instigated by Bush and Blair and pursued by respective successors now need Corbyn removed. It hardly requires a genius to join the dots up on this ludicrous story. Obviously this is fake news, just don’t expect the corporate media to tell you so.

Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn issued this statement today:

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‘Russia hacked the election’

Whenever Donald Trump barks “fake news” in avoidance of some nagging news reporter’s questions it comes across as a tacit admission of guilt. Subsequently the brush off is indeed reported upon as a tacit admission of guilt. And doubtless, more than half the time, it was a tacit admission of guilt: Trump has a great deal to be guilty about. However, it does not automatically follow that even the vile and corrupt Trump is guilty in every case.

‘Russiagate’ has dominated the US news cycle for well over eighteen months in spite of the fact that after several investigations there has been an embarrassing failure to uncover substantiating evidence pointing to an actual Russian plot to “hack the election” as was so vigorously claimed. But the latest twist in the saga is arguably the lamest to date. It involves Robert Mueller’s indictment of thirteen Russian nationals for purportedly creating sockpuppet accounts on behalf of Trump (or else disparaging him – presumably for added confusion!), as well as (still more bafflingly) bolstering the campaigns of progressives Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein in the 2016 election. Missing altogether are any claims that Trump knew anything at all about the alleged Russian meddling, or that in fact “Russia hacked the election” – the very pivot about which Russiagate started spinning. As even the Guardian admits in its wholly uncritical account of Mueller’s findings which is excitedly titled “Putin’s chef, a troll farm and Russia’s plot to hijack US democracy”:

The indictment does not allege that any American knowingly participated in Russian meddling, or that Trump campaign associates had more than “unwitting” contact with some who posed as Americans. Trump quickly claimed vindication, noting in a tweet that the interference efforts began in 2014 “long before I announced that I would run for president”. He added: “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!”

Nor does it have anything to say regarding the origins of ‘Russiagate’:

The indictment does not mention the hacking of Democratic emails, which then turned up on WikiLeaks. It does not mention the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. It does not mention the four Trump associates who are facing charges that range from money laundering to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russia’s ambassador. America, and the world, is waiting for Mueller to join the dots. 4

Real News today spoke with independent journalist Max Blumenthal about the indictment and the overblown reaction which has prompted comparisons to Pearl Harbor and 9/11:

I shall come back to Trump in a moment. But first please note how Mueller has been given a free pass by the media. This is the same Robert Mueller who was appointed FBI head by George W Bush literally one week prior to the September 11th attacks and who thereafter, as former FBI special agent and whistleblower Coleen Rowley points out at length, alongside then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey, “presided over post-9/11 cover-ups and secret abuses of the Constitution, enabled Bush-Cheney fabrications used to launch wrongful wars, and exhibited plain vanilla incompetence”:

I wanted to believe Director Mueller when he expressed some regret in our personal meeting the night before we both testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He told me he was seeking improvements and that I should not hesitate to contact him if I ever witnessed a similar situation to what was behind the FBI’s pre 9/11 failures.

A few months later, when it appeared he was acceding to Bush-Cheney’s ginning up intelligence to launch the unjustified, counterproductive and illegal war on Iraq, I took Mueller up on his offer, emailing him my concerns in late February 2003. Mueller knew, for instance, that Vice President Dick Cheney’s claims connecting 9/11 to Iraq were bogus yet he remained quiet. He also never responded to my email. 5

Click here to read Coleen Rowley’s full article entitled “Russia-gate’s Mythical ‘Heroes’”

What is not in dispute, however, is that Trump has undeniably dirty ties with Russia as elsewhere. Seldom discussed are his related dirty ties to Israel. Indeed, if you take a cursory look online you’ll quickly discover that during the time of the US election “Trump: Make Israel great again!” posters were trending in Tel Aviv:

 

Please note: the original image was removed so I have embedded a similar one published by abc news.

The image above was published by New Europe and is captioned:

An Israeli cyclist passes placards proclaiming ‘Trump Make Israel Great Again’ in Tel Aviv, Israel, 12 November 2016. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the first foreign leaders to call and congratulate Donald Trump November 9 after he won the US presidential election. In a Wall Street Journal interview Trump called the Israeli – Palestinian conflict ‘the war that never ends’ and added that ‘as a deal maker, I’d like to do…the deal that can’t be made. And do it for humanity’s sake.’

While the same article further reminds us:

During the campaign, Trump committed to [move the US embassy to Jerusalem] in more than one occasions. He first made the promise during the primaries in an AIPAC event in March. AIPAC is the US-Israeli lobby. 6

Click here to read the full article.

In fact, both presidential candidates bent over backwards to secure the backing of AIPAC, the most formidable foreign lobby group in America, but that doesn’t count as meddling apparently.

Meanwhile, the bizarre claim that a handful of Russians threw the election process into confusion via social media platforms is an already laughably pathetic allegation, made worse for the simple fact that it is next to impossible to validate, since, as Mueller knows perfectly well, those named will never be extradited to face trial. And for what crime are they to be indicted exactly? For not being American citizens but writing about an US election without registering as a foreign agent. That’s certainly the precedent Muller is setting here. Moreover, the contention is not that this alleged ‘troll farm’ has been spreading falsehoods as such, but that they cunningly redeployed truth in order to deceive the ignorant masses.

The following extract is the opening to a recent article [Thurs 15th] published by the Washington Post entitled “Russia used mainstream media to manipulate America voters”:

Russia’s disinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election relied heavily on stories produced by major American news sources to shape the online political debate, according to an analysis published Thursday.

The analysis by Columbia University social-media researcher Jonathan Albright of more than 36,000 tweets sent by Russian accounts showed that obscure or foreign news sources played a comparatively minor role, suggesting that the discussion of “fake news” during the campaign has been somewhat miscast.

Albright’s research, which he said is the most extensive to date on the news links that Russians used to manipulate the American political conversation on Twitter, bolsters observations by other analysts. Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent who is now a disinformation expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said that by linking to popular news sources, the Russians enhanced the credibility of their Twitter accounts, making it easier to manipulate audiences.

“The Kremlin, they don’t need to create a false narrative. It’s already there,” he said. “You’re just taking a narrative and elevating it.”

As the article confesses, it’s not about truth or falsehood anymore but who controls the agenda:

“These trolls didn’t need to retweet RT and Sputnik,” Albright said. “All they needed to do was pick out certain themes and push them.” 7

This is what the corporate news media does day in, day out of course. It tells the public what to believe in and what to dismiss. If Trump says “fake news” then we are to presume that he lying. If the media use it then we are to presume they are protecting us from the liars.

As historian Jackson Lears wrote in an excellent and detailed piece entitled “What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking” published by the London Review of Books in January:

Epistemological nihilism looms, but some people and institutions have more power than others to define what constitutes an agreed-on reality. To say this is to risk dismissal as the ultimate wing-nut in the lexicon of contemporary Washington: the conspiracy theorist. Still, the fact remains: sometimes powerful people arrange to promote ideas that benefit their common interests. Whether we call this hegemony, conspiracy or merely special privilege hardly matters. What does matter is the power to create what Gramsci called the ‘common sense’ of an entire society. Even if much of that society is indifferent to or suspicious of the official common sense, it still becomes embedded among the tacit assumptions that set the boundaries of ‘responsible opinion’. So the Democratic establishment (along with a few Republicans) and the major media outlets have made ‘Russian meddling’ the common sense of the current moment. What kind of cultural work does this common sense do? What are the consequences of the spectacle the media call (with characteristic originality) ‘Russiagate’?

[…]

The Democratic Party has now developed a new outlook on the world, a more ambitious partnership between liberal humanitarian interventionists and neoconservative militarists than existed under the cautious Obama. This may be the most disastrous consequence for the Democratic Party of the new anti-Russian orthodoxy: the loss of the opportunity to formulate a more humane and coherent foreign policy. The obsession with Putin has erased any possibility of complexity from the Democratic world picture, creating a void quickly filled by the monochrome fantasies of Hillary Clinton and her exceptionalist allies. 8

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‘Russian Influence’ is actually a commercial marketing scheme

Click here to read a detailed breakdown on Mueller’s published indictments by Moon of Alabama. Here are a few excerpts pointing to significant facts the corporate media is entirely failing to cover, and beginning with an overview of why “The indictment is fodder for the public to prove that the Mueller investigation is ‘doing something’”:

Yesterday the U.S. Justice Department indicted the Russian Internet Research Agency on some dubious legal grounds. It covers thirteen Russian people and three Russian legal entities. The main count of the indictment is an alleged “Conspiracy to Defraud the United States”.

The published indictment gives support to our long held belief that there was no “Russian influence” campaign during the U.S. election. What is described and denounced as such was instead a commercial marketing scheme, which ran click-bait websites to generate advertisement revenue and created online crowds around virtual persona to promote whatever its commercial customers wanted to promote. The size of the operation was tiny when compared to the hundreds of millions in campaign expenditures. It had no influence on the election outcome.

[…]

The Justice Department indictment is quite long and detailed. It must have been expensive. If you read it do so with the above in mind. Skip over the assumptions and claims of political interference and digest only the facts. All that is left is, as explained, a commercial marketing scheme.

[…]

The indictment then goes on and on describing the “political activities” of the sock-puppet personas. Some posted pro-Hillary slogans, some anti-Hillary stuff, some were pro-Trump, some anti-everyone, some urged not to vote, others to vote for third party candidates. The sock-puppets did not create or post fake news. They posted mainstream media stories.

Some of the persona called for going to anti-Islam rallies while others promoted pro-Islam rallies. The Mueller indictment lists a total of eight rallies. Most of these did not take place at all. No one joined the “Miners For Trump” rallies in Philly and Pittsburgh. A “Charlotte against Trump” march on November 19 – after the election – was attended by one hundred people. Eight people came for a pro-Trump rally in Fort Myers.

The sock-puppets called for rallies to establish themselves as ‘activist’ and ‘leadership’ persona, to generate more online traffic and additional followers. There was in fact no overall political trend in what the sock-puppets did. The sole point of all such activities was to create a large total following by having multiple personas which together covered all potential social-political strata.

[…]

There was no political point to what the Russian company did. Whatever political slogans one of the company’s sock-puppets posted had only one aim: to increase the number of followers for that sock-puppet. The sole point of creating a diverse army of sock-puppets with large following crowds was to sell the ‘eyeballs’ of the followers to the paying customers of the marketing company.

[Highlighted as in original]

And the conclusion:

The Mueller investigation found no “collusion” between anything Russian and the Trump campaign. The indictment does not mention any. The whole “Russian influence” storm is based on a misunderstanding of commercial activities of a Russian marketing company in U.S. social networks.

There is a danger in this. The indictment sets up a new theory of nefarious foreign influence that could be applied to even this blog. As U.S. lawyer Robert Barns explains:

“The only thing frightening about this indictment is the dangerous and dumb precedent it could set: foreign nationals criminally prohibited from public expression in the US during elections unless registered as foreign agents and reporting their expenditures to the FEC.”

[…]

“Mueller’s new crime only requires 3 elements: 1) a foreign national; 2) outspoken on US social media during US election; and 3) failed to register as a foreign agent or failed to report receipts/expenditures of speech activity. Could indict millions under that theory.”

[…]

“The legal theory of the indictment for most of the defendants and most of the charges alleges that the “fraud” was simply not registering as a foreign agent or not reporting expenses to the FEC because they were a foreign national expressing views in a US election.”

Author Leonid Bershidsky, who prominently writes for Bloombergremarks:

“I’m actually surprised I haven’t been indicted. I’m Russian, I was in the U.S. in 2016 and I published columns critical of both Clinton and Trump w/o registering as a foreign agent.”

As most of you will know your author writing this is German. I write pseudo-anonymously for a mostly U.S. audience. My postings are political and during the U.S. election campaign expressed an anti-Hillary view. The blog is hosted on U.S, infrastructure paid for by me. I am not registered as Foreign Agent or with the Federal Election Commission.

Under the theory on which the indictment is based I could also be indicted for a similar “Conspiracy to Defraud the United States”.

(Are those of you who kindly donate for this blog co-conspiractors?)

When Yevgeni Prigozhin, the hot dog caterer who allegedly owns the internet promotion business, was asked about the indictment he responded:

“The Americans are really impressionable people, they see what they want to see. […] If they want to see the devil, let them see him.” 9

Click here to read the full and carefully documented analysis by Moon of Alabama.

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Drilling down into ‘Russiagate’ to find the origins of ‘fake news’

‘Fake news’ as a meme has befuddled millions. To paraphrase Orwell: like so many Newspeak words, this phrase has two mutually contradictory meanings. Used by the mainstream it represents a shield against deception. Used by an opponent, however, and it merely confirms the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts.

Presumably for this reason, an oddly prevalent misapprehension has grown, especially amongst liberal-minded Trump opponents, that the term ‘fake news’ was coined by Donald Trump himself as a vain attempt to defend himself against regular attacks from the press corps. However, as soon as we retrace the breadcrumbs that lead back to ‘Russiagate’ reality becomes clearer.

‘Fake news’ was manufactured not by Trump, but by opponents. It arose from the ashes of the original ‘Russiagate’ scandal that had been concocted to divert attention from electoral rival Clinton in light of the leaks of campaign director John Podesta’s emails.  After her defeat, however, ‘Russiagate’ quickly resurfaced to spare Democrat blushes and with it came this new meme ‘fake news’.

As a reminder therefore, I return to historian Jackson Lears and his piece “What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking” published by the London Review of Books in January:

For the DNC, the great value of the Russian hack story is that it focuses attention away from what was actually in their emails. The documents revealed a deeply corrupt organisation, whose pose of impartiality was a sham. Even the reliably pro-Clinton Washington Post has admitted that ‘many of the most damaging emails suggest the committee was actively trying to undermine Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.’

And Lears takes pains to show in considerable detail why the Russian hacking charge (now widely forgotten) has always been unfounded:

[T]he hacking charges are unproved and may well remain so. Edward Snowden and others familiar with the NSA say that if long-distance hacking had taken place the agency would have monitored it and could detail its existence without compromising their secret sources and methods. In September, Snowden told Der Spiegel that the NSA ‘probably knows quite well who the invaders were’. And yet ‘it has not presented any evidence, although I suspect it exists. The question is: why not? … I suspect it discovered other attackers in the systems, maybe there were six or seven groups at work.’ He also said in July 2016 that ‘even if the attackers try to obfuscate origin, ‪#XKEYSCORE makes following exfiltrated data easy. I did this personally against Chinese ops.’ The NSA’s capacity to follow hacking to its source is a matter of public record. When the agency investigated pervasive and successful Chinese hacking into US military and defence industry installations, it was able to trace the hacks to the building where they originated, a People’s Liberation Army facility in Shanghai. That information was published in the New York Times, but, this time, the NSA’s failure to provide evidence has gone curiously unremarked. When The Intercept published a story about the NSA’s alleged discovery that Russian military intelligence had attempted to hack into US state and local election systems, the agency’s undocumented assertions about the Russian origins of the hack were allowed to stand as unchallenged fact and quickly became treated as such in the mainstream media.

Meanwhile, there has been a blizzard of ancillary accusations, including much broader and vaguer charges of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. It remains possible that Robert Mueller, a former FBI director who has been appointed to investigate these allegations, may turn up some compelling evidence of contacts between Trump’s people and various Russians. It would be surprising if an experienced prosecutor empowered to cast a dragnet came up empty-handed, and the arrests have already begun. But what is striking about them is that the charges have nothing to do with Russian interference in the election.

In the same piece, Lears continues:

So far, after months of ‘bombshells’ that turn out to be duds, there is still no actual evidence for the claim that the Kremlin ordered interference in the American election. Meanwhile serious doubts have surfaced about the technical basis for the hacking claims. Independent observers have argued it is more likely that the emails were leaked from inside, not hacked from outside. On this front, the most persuasive case was made by a group called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, former employees of the US intelligence agencies who distinguished themselves in 2003 by debunking Colin Powell’s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, hours after Powell had presented his pseudo-evidence at the UN. (There are members of VIPS who dissent from the VIPS report’s conclusions, but their arguments are in turn contested by the authors of the report.) The VIPS findings received no attention in major media outlets, except Fox News – which from the centre-left perspective is worse than no attention at all. Mainstream media have dismissed the VIPS report as a conspiracy theory (apparently the Russian hacking story does not count as one). The crucial issue here and elsewhere is the exclusion from public discussion of any critical perspectives on the orthodox narrative, even the perspectives of people with professional credentials and a solid track record.

Both the DNC hacking story and the one involving the emails of John Podesta, a Clinton campaign operative, involve a shadowy bunch of putatively Russian hackers called Fancy Bear – also known among the technically inclined as APT28. The name Fancy Bear was introduced by Dimitri Alperovitch, the chief technology officer of Crowdstrike, a cybersecurity firm hired by the DNC to investigate the theft of their emails. Alperovitch is also a fellow at the Atlantic Council, an anti-Russian Washington think tank. In its report Crowdstrike puts forward close to zero evidence for its claim that those responsible were Russian, let alone for its assertion that they were affiliated with Russian military intelligence. And yet, from this point on, the assumption that this was a Russian cyber operation was unquestioned. When the FBI arrived on the scene, the Bureau either did not request or was refused access to the DNC servers; instead it depended entirely on the Crowdstrike analysis. Crowdstrike, meanwhile, was being forced to retract another claim, that the Russians had successfully hacked the guidance systems of the Ukrainian artillery. The Ukrainian military and the British International Institute for Strategic Studies both contradicted this claim, and Crowdstrike backed down. But its DNC analysis was allowed to stand and even become the basis for the January Intelligence Community Assessment. 10

Click here to read the full article at the London Review of Books.

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One of the leaked emails from Clinton stated:

“We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” 11

As a report published Yahoo! News explained at the time:

In her email to Podesta, she goes beyond this [accusing individuals], saying the Saudi and Qatari governments themselves are funding ISIS — a far more serious allegation with potentially more dramatic diplomatic implications. And one that has riled up critics of Saudi Arabia here in the U.S.

Still more embarrassingly:

Clinton sent the email to Podesta when he still worked for Obama as counselor. He became Clinton’s campaign chair in January of 2015. Adding to the potential awkwardness for her campaign, Podesta’s brother, Tony Podesta, runs one of Washington’s biggest lobbying firms, which in September 2015 signed a contract to lobby for the Saudi government.

A few weeks later, Tony Podesta held a Clinton campaign fundraiser, attended by John Podesta, and has since been listed as one of the campaign’s chief “bundlers” or premier fundraisers. The Clinton campaign did not return a request for comment about whether the candidate believes it is appropriate to accept campaign donations from someone who has lobbied for a government she believes is sponsoring terrorism.

However, in the same report we then hear from Glen Caplin, senior Clinton campaign spokesman, who tells us:

“These are hacked, stolen documents by the Russian government, which has weaponized WikiLeaks to help elect Donald Trump”

And the article adds that:

Some former top U.S. national security experts last week warned that the Russians may seek to “doctor” leaked material, but the Clinton campaign has yet to offer evidence that any of the WikiLeaks emails were forged or tampered with. 12

Click here to read the full Yahoo! News report entitled “In leaked email, Clinton claims Saudi and Qatari governments fund ISIS”

The link above embedded in the article is still more instructive. It takes us to a previous Yahoo! News story where we learn that:

The Obama administration today publicly accused the Russian government of cyberattacks against U.S. political organizations and prominent figures that are “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”

The extraordinary move comes after months of disclosures stemming from the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and other groups — cyberattacks that the U.S. intelligence community is now “confident” were directed by the Russian government.

In other words, we find the origins to what would soon become ‘Russiagate’: a story transparently devoid of any substantiated facts at all and based solely on allegations in turn determined baseless by a range of independent experts (read earlier post) and then widely forgotten.

This had followed from a joint statement made by the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security claiming:

“The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations…

“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process…

“Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

This clumsy yet effective scapegoating of Russia quite deliberately switched the attention of our gullible and obedient press away prying any further into Clinton’s emails, and there was more…

Earlier Friday, a group of former top national security officials and experts warned that Russian intelligence agents may “doctor” emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and other political groups as part of a sophisticated “disinformation” campaign aimed at influencing the 2016 election.

The group, including former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, urged the news media to be “cautious” about publishing such material lest they play into Russian hands.

“What is taking place in the United States follows a well-known Russian playbook: First leak compelling and truthful information to gain credibility. The next step: Release fake documents that look the same,” the group said in a joint public statement.

Much more…

“The Russians aren’t coming. They’re already here,” said Tara Sonenshine, a former undersecretary for public diplomacy under Clinton and one of the organizers of the joint statement.

The fear that more embarrassing emails may be coming is especially acute among Democratic operatives and loyalists, who have become convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin is more favorably disposed to Trump and doing what he can to assist his candidacy. And perhaps not surprisingly, most, if not all, of the 16 former officials and national security experts who signed the statement — including Chertoff, who served during the Bush administration — have endorsed Clinton.

Sonenshine insisted that the purpose of the letter was not to pressure the news media to refuse to publish any leaked emails. Instead, she said, it is only to inject a cautionary note into the review of such material given the Russian propensity to fabricate documents.

“You can’t put out a red stop sign to journalism,” she said. “But you can put up a yellow flag.”

Sonenshine and another organizer of the letter, Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress, said there is evidence that the Russian intelligence service has fabricated or altered documents to further its political aims in Ukraine and elsewhere. And the joint statement warns that such actions appear to fit into a larger strategy of using “cyber tools” targeting Western democracies. Similar concerns about Russian “information warfare” were raised in a recent U.S. intelligence report, disclosed last week by Yahoo News, that cited the activities of Russian Internet trolls and the broadcasts of RT and Sputnik, two state-sponsored media outlets. 13

Click here to read the full Yahoo! News story entitled “U.S. accuses Russia of cyberattacks ‘intended to interfere’ with election”.

Follow the link and still the list of allegations goes on…

Another tactic of the [Russian] trolls is to inject blatantly false stories into the media, forcing public officials in Europe and the U.S. to respond, according to Weiss and other experts. A New York Times Sunday Magazine piece last year documented how Russian trolls based in the St. Petersburg office had swamped Twitter with hundreds of messages about an explosion at a Louisiana chemical plant that never took place, setting up dozens of fake accounts and doctoring screenshots from CNN and Louisiana TV stations to make the pseudo-event seem real. (The trolls even created a fake Wikipedia page about the supposed explosion, which in turn linked to a phony YouTube video.) 14

From another Yahoo! News story by Michael Isikoff.

But still, September 2016 is prior to the full launch of the meme ‘fake news’ and so this story (like the ones quoted before) describes the ‘injection’ of “blatantly false stories” in an increasingly aggressive “information warfare” campaign with the ‘spread’ of “pro-Kremlin messages”. The Cold War overtones are unmistakeable. We are faced with the deliberate corruption of our free and democratic society that is as insidious as any viral infection: a corruption that needs naming and shaming. Finally, then we come to the manufacturing of the buzzword ‘fake news’ and to the appearance of PropOrNot.

This shadowy ‘group of experts’ which insists on complete public anonymity first made the headlines with the release of ‘a report’ in November 2016. Dramatically, it claimed to have identified more than 200 websites that were agents of Russian propaganda. ‘Fake news’ was about to become a fully-fledged trope.

So here is the Washington Post providing an uncritical platform (the editor’s note was added later) for the PropOrNot’s neo-McCarthyite blacklist:

The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.

It continues:

PropOrNot’s monitoring report, which was provided to The Washington Post in advance of its public release, identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans. On Facebook, PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times. 15

Listed amongst these ‘Russian agents’ were WikiLeaks, Truthout, Black Agenda Report, Truthdig, Naked Capitalism, Antiwar.com, the Ron Paul Institute, Zerohedge, Corbett Report, Global Research and Counterpunch. In other words, pretty much anyone who’s anyone in alternative news.

As Glen Greenwald and Ben Norton wrote in The Intercept:

This Post report was one of the most widely circulated political news articles on social media over the last 48 hours, with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of U.S. journalists and pundits with large platforms hailing it as an earth-shattering exposé. It was the most-read piece on the entire Post website on Friday after it was published.

Yet the article is rife with obviously reckless and unproven allegations, and fundamentally shaped by shoddy, slothful journalistic tactics. It was not surprising to learn that, as BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel noted, “a lot of reporters passed on this story.” Its huge flaws are self-evident. But the Post gleefully ran with it and then promoted it aggressively, led by its Executive Editor Marty Baron:

Greenwald and Norton continue:

In his article, the Post’s Timberg did not include a link to PropOrNot’s website. If readers had the opportunity to visit the site, it would have become instantly apparent that this group of ostensible experts far more resembles amateur peddlers of primitive, shallow propagandistic clichés than serious, substantive analysis and expertise; that it has a blatant, demonstrable bias in promoting NATO’s narrative about the world; and that it is engaging in extremely dubious McCarthyite tactics about a wide range of critics and dissenters.16

I will not link here to the Washington Post article because I am disinclined to direct others to waste their time on execrable clickbait. However, for anyone who wishes to check the above quotes, the link is available as always in the footnotes.

Click here to read Greenwald’s article in The Intercept.

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Additional: What everyone is missing about ‘Russiagate’

Embedded below is an incisive overview by James Corbett entitled “What EVERYONE is missing about ‘Russiagate’”. As he says:

Yes, America interferes in elections all the time. And yes, the Russian ad buys happened after the election. And yes, the DNC really did rig the primaries for Hillary. But if you believe the truth then you’re a dirty Russian!

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1 From Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part II, Chapter 9 by George Orwell in which he quotes passages from “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism” written by enemy of the state Emmanuel Goldstein.

2 From an article entitled “Jeremy Corbyn should be ‘open’ over spy’s claims, says Theresa May” published by BBC news on February 19, 2018. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-43111794

3 From an article entitled “Corbyn’s spy connection and me” written by Paul Anderson published by Little Atoms on February 19, 2018. http://littleatoms.com/corbyns-spy-connection-and-me

4 From an article entitled “Putin’s chef, a troll farm and Russia’s plot to hijack US democracy” written by David Smith, published in the Guardian on February 17, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/feb/17/putins-chef-a-troll-farm-and-russias-plot-to-hijack-us-democracy

5 From an article entitled “Russia-gate’s Mythical ‘Heroes’” written by Coleen Rowley, published in Consortium News on June 6, 2017. https://consortiumnews.com/2017/06/06/russia-gates-mythical-heroes/

6 From an article entitled “The President-elect intends to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” published by New Europe Online on December 13, 2016. https://www.neweurope.eu/article/trump-move-us-embassy-jerusalem/

7 From an article entitled “Russia used mainstream media to manipulate American voters” written by Craig Timberg, published in the Washington Post on February 15, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/russia-used-mainstream-media-to-manipulate-american-voters/2018/02/15/85f7914e-11a7-11e8-9065-e55346f6de81_story.html?utm_term=.f1c18d3c326e

8 From an article entitled “What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking” written by Jackson Lears, published in the London Review of Books on January 4, 2018. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n01/jackson-lears/what-we-dont-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-russian-hacking

9 From an article entitled “Mueller Indictment: ‘Russian Influence’ is commercial marketing scheme” published by Moon of Alabama on February 18, 2018. https://popularresistance.org/mueller-indictment-russian-influence-is-commercial-marketing-scheme/

10 From an article entitled “What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking” written by Jackson Lears, published in the London Review of Books on January 4, 2018. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n01/jackson-lears/what-we-dont-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-russian-hacking

11 https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/3774

12 From an article entitled “In leaked  email, Clinton claims Saudi and Qatari governments fund ISIS” written by Liz Goodwin and Michael Isikoff, published in Yahoo! News on October 11, 2016. https://www.yahoo.com/news/in-leaked-email-clinton-claims-saudi-and-qatari-governments-fund-isis-221758254.html

13 From an article entitled “U.S. accuses Russia of cyberattacks ‘intended to interfere’ with election” written by Michael Isikoff, published in Yahoo! News on October 7, 2016. https://www.yahoo.com/news/u-s-accuses-russia-of-cyberattacks-intended-to-interfere-with-election-214628799.html

14 From an article entitled “Russia steps up trolling attacks on the West, U.S. intel report finds” written by Michael Isikoff, published in Yahoo! News on September 28, 2016. https://www.yahoo.com/news/russia-steps-up-trolling-attacks-on-the-west-u-s-intel-report-finds-203421008.html?soc_src=mail&soc_trk=ma

15 From an article entitled “Russian propaganda effort helped to spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say” written by Craig Timberg, published in the Washington Post on November 24, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/russian-propaganda-effort-helped-spread-fake-news-during-election-experts-say/2016/11/24/793903b6-8a40-4ca9-b712-716af66098fe_story.html?utm_term=.a1008a7fedcf

16 From an article entitled “Washington Post Disgracefully Promotes a McCarthyite Blacklist From a New, Hidden, and Very Shady Group” written by Glen Greenwald and Ben Norton, published in The Intercept on November 26, 2016. https://theintercept.com/2016/11/26/washington-post-disgracefully-promotes-a-mccarthyite-blacklist-from-a-new-hidden-and-very-shady-group/

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Corbyn v. Smith is a bigger than Labour and bigger than Britain

There’s always a new way
A better way that’s not been tried before

Ben Okri 1

This leadership contest is a battle for the soul of the Labour Party, we hear – repeatedly. Often enough that it has become something of a cliché. But that doesn’t make it any less true. It simply means we tend to stop thinking about the deep and inherent truth of it.

Here’s another cliché: it’s about a movement, not a man (a slogan better associated with Bernie Sanders’ campaign although more fitting in Corbyn’s case). Corbyn, after all, is actively committed to the building of a movement, fully aware that without massive popular support, the core policies he advocates would be both too radical to institute and could not possibly endure.

But then Corbyn is an instinctive democrat. So he recognises something others on the left habitually forget. That socialism and democracy must travel hand in hand as equal partners (for without democracy, socialism is rapidly debased and sinks to be as oppressive as any system it challenges). Fortunately – and here is the crux – social justice and genuine equality are what the majority would unfailingly choose if clearly presented with such an option, and if only because social justice and greater equality serve the self-interest of the majority.

Orwell put this perfectly:

“Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already.”

Since, as he goes on to point out:

“The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.” 2

So here’s a third and final thought – perhaps it can become a cliché too (certainly it is not original). That those who today stop at nothing to stop Corbyn are ultimately intent on stopping us all. Denying the vast majority of us basic rights, a modicum of social justice, a functioning NHS, pensions for all, and set solidly against any levelling up of what is now grotesque inequality. Okay, that’s too long to be a cliché – so reduce it; sloganise its kernel of blazingly obvious truth.

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Corbyn, like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, is part of the new popular resistance that is rising up from the ruins of neoliberalism and globalization to fight the international banking system and American imperialism.

wrote American journalist and political commentator Chris Hedges in an article entitled “where is our Jeremy Corbyn?” published shortly after his leadership victory last Summer.

Hedge’s subtext is that Bernie Sanders is no Corbyn – and Hedges is correct, of course. Sanders capitulation to Clinton was the final proof, if proof was needed. However, Syriza and Podemos are no Corbyn either. Sadly, and in different ways, the wheels have now come off both these alternatives. Of the serious contenders then, Corbyn is the last man (currently) standing – and the only one who has a tested record.

Hedges also astutely foresaw today’s lamentable situation almost precisely a year ago – this is what he wrote then:

Corbyn’s ascent to the head of the Labour Party has already triggered a backlash against him by the forces of the neoliberal political order. These forces are determined to prevent him from becoming prime minister. The entrenched elites within his own party—a number of whom have already resigned from party leadership positions in protest of Corbyn’s election—will seek to do to him what the Democratic establishment did in 1972 to George McGovern after he won the party’s nomination. The rhetoric of fear has already begun. Prime Minister David Cameron on Sunday tweeted: “The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.” This battle will be ugly. 3

Ugly is the word!

Here is Corbyn delivering a recent speech [August 21st] to a 4,000-strong crowd packed inside Ruach City Church, Kilburn in London – his central theme is real democracy: giving power back to the people…

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Style over substance

“Politics is showbusiness for ugly people” Jay Leno 4

Owen Smith isn’t Superman, but he’s borrowing his poses.

The Labour leadership contender almost certainly can’t fly, and can’t boast of X-ray vision.

But he’s been snapped adjusting his glasses in the same fashion as the Man Of Steel’s alter ego, Clark Kent.

And this being the age of the internet, the iconic pose has not been overlooked. 5

So oozes a puff piece written by Mikey Smith (presumably no relation) and published by the shamelessly sycophantic Mirror at the beginning of Smith’s already faltering campaign for Labour leadership back in mid July.

For the record, here is another superhero lookalike with the same iconic pose…

Groovy baby, yeah!!!

Which is the trouble with politics that obsesses over synthetic charisma and spin. Not only that these are extremely shallow attributes, but that the public has grown weary of them. We see through the sophistry and are turned off by the plastic presentation. Like Austin Powers, Smith’s act is dated and outmoded, but worse still, it lacks any modicum of charm.

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Normality v. Reality

“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” — Martin Luther King 6

Owen Smith’s ineffective charm offensive is one side of former Pfizer-mans latest rebranding exercise. The other side is more revealing: that Owen Smith is ‘normal’!

We know this because he said so, over and over again, during a Sky News interview. The offhanded inference being, of course, that Corbyn is not as ‘normal’ as he is. But what does Smith even mean with his claims to be ‘normal’ (besides presumably not being “a lunatic”)?

Here is a closer analysis of Smith’s Sky News performance: a study of the dormant ratiocination betrayed line by line in his overwrought protestation of normalcy:

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In this post-ideological age, Corbyn stands out as exceptional on many counts. Although the quality that singularly distinguishes him from political rivals is simply his sincerity. That he holds principles and values we do not need to test him on. In fact no-one ever seriously challenges his good faith – his voting record alone attests to honest dependability.

We know, for instance, that Corbyn opposes the wars. He opposed the war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the war in Libya, opposes airstrikes in Syria and Yemen, and served as chair of the Stop the War Coalition (2011—15). He is against Trident too.

Likewise, we know that he actively supports refugees including the two million living in Palestinian camps on the West Bank and inside the Gaza Strip and three million other displaced Palestinians living in camps in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. 7 He is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Equally we know that Corbyn is fiercely anti-austerity. That he is pro-workers’ rights, union rights, women’s right, LGBT rights, and human rights in general. That he is a staunch advocate of a fairer and more caring society with well-funded public sector services, universal welfare (though he says he prefers the less loaded term “social security”) and free healthcare provision for all. And we know that Corbyn is a committed environmentalist. Indeed, it is a delightful revelation to hear any modern politician who speaks so freely and so frankly on all these issues. But then, sincerity comes easily when you have integrity, as does remaining truthful for those who live in accordance with their own stated beliefs.

Tony Benn once explained how he divided politicians into one of two camps: weathercocks and signposts:

 “The signposts say this is the way you should go. You don’t have to follow them but if you come back in ten years’ time the signpost is still there. The weathercock hasn’t got an opinion until they’ve looked at the polls, talked to the focus groups, and discussed it with the spin doctors. I have no time for weathercocks, I’m a signpost man”

Benn was certainly a signpost. Corbyn is too. So how about Owen Smith and the PLP ‘rebels’ who back him…?

Smith says he is as passionate as Corbyn when it comes to all the important matters: housing, education, welfare, NHS. He’s a progressive, and always was anti-austerity and the rest. The main difference, he says, is that Corbyn is ‘unelectable’. That’s right – as any PR man will tell you – if you just repeat something often enough, it becomes true.

Smith hopes we will overlook how under Corbyn’s leadership Labour now enjoys the largest membership of any political party in Europe. And that at Corbyn’s rallies thousands regularly turn out to cheer. Smith does well if he manages to corral a few dozen onlookers (even with an ice-cream van parked nearby). No-one is excited by Smith: not even his supporters.

But then Smith’s copycat routine lacks the very thing that actually counts: authenticity. He is not the real deal. Corbyn is. And Corbyn’s authenticity is the fundamental reason why the focus of political debate in Britain is steadily swinging back again. Why anti-austerity, pro-public services rhetoric is becoming de rigueur. After less than a year as leader, constantly hobbled by those inside the party (very much including shadow cabinet colleagues like Smith), Corbyn has dragged the debate around regardless, and Owen Smith’s campaign inadvertently serves as further proof that Corbyn is winning. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Meanwhile, the PLP’s Blairite inner circle knows that as the desire for real change grows and with it distrust in the established political class, their unstinting efforts to undermine Corbyn are failing, because he is indeed electable. This keeps them awake at night.

For as hopeless as Smith is, he was the best challenger they could muster. The rest of the 170+ ‘rebels’ have mostly preferred to keep their heads down for obvious reasons. Smith is more reckless and, even as politicians go, morbidly ambitious: a character flaw that totally clouds his judgment. He believes his own spin. Meanwhile, the only other challenger to step forward was sillier even than Smith. Angela Eagle was evidently advised to step aside again asap. Both have very likely ruined their political careers for good.

Here is an audio clip from BBC Radio Stoke covering Jeremy Corbyn’s 1000-strong rally in Stoke-on-Trent on Thursday [September 1st] which includes an interview comprised of typically inane questions:

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Ultimately, this fight – possibly to the death given how the embedded Blairite entryists are so willing to sacrifice the party they hijacked two decades ago – pits the prevailing politics of style and spin against the long abandoned politics of content and real change. Hence the relentless mudslinging. Having nothing alternative to say, but with the might of the media behind them, slurs and innuendo is all Corbyn’s opponents can offer. Negative campaigning is all they’ve got.

This works up to a point (and sadly always will) but their stocks of ammunition are gradually being exhausted. Which is one reason the attacks have suddenly intensified – this challenge from Smith, though utterly inept (more in a moment), is certainly a blitzkrieg operation. They want to win quickly, not necessarily in this ballot, but in the hope of spoiling Corbyn’s long-term chances, especially as, following the grand slam in the party’s recent NEC vote, his supporters now look set to dig in. So the stage is set for act 2, scene 1. As for how many acts will follow? This we can only guess.

Smith says that he will heal the party, but again literally nobody believes him. Likewise, when he parrots the refrain that Corbyn is ‘unelectable’, he trusts that few will be able to spot the irony. Yet even while the media keeps its hounds at bay, he still manages to make gaffe after gaffe. For a man with such a relatively low-level of public exposure (basically unknown to most people just two months ago), his track record is mind-bogglingly incompetent. His latest one so cringeworthy that it might have been gabbled forth as the lewd punch-line to the crassest of David Brent’s unguarded ejaculations:

Not that uncontrolled outbursts of casual sexism are anything new to Smith’s repertoire. In May 2010, literally days after first entering parliament after a narrow victory in the Labour safe seat of Pontypridd, he found himself apologising for publishing the following remark:

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

Feeling the heat after making such a thoughtless and insensitive comparison between the relations within the newly-formed coalition government and domestic abuse, Smith afterwards ‘apologised’ with a big wavering ‘if’, writing:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing.” 8

So does anyone seriously imagine Smith would survive long once the press have stopped comparing him to Clark Kent and marked him down rather more perceptively as just another “Welsh windbag” (with the majority of Labour party members nodding sorrowfully in accord)?

Surely, no matter how rigged – and this vote is enormously rigged, as we know – Smith will be defeated by the end of this bitter and ridiculous leadership challenge.

As Aaron Bastani of ‘Novara Media’ sums up in the video below “Smith’s candidacy is a farce…”:

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A new dream of politics

“Politics is the art of the possible” Otto von Bismarck 9

If politics is the art of the possible, as Bismarck once said, then what does this mean? Well, it all depends on where you decide to place the emphasis. Bismarck, who was famed for his realpolitik, would have placed the emphasis on ‘possible’. What is possible becomes, according to this idea, the prime constraint. And Bismarck’s conviction is today’s orthodoxy.

Others, however, may prefer to place the emphasis earlier, on the word ‘art’ instead. The constraint then falls not solely on practicability, but on the collective imagining of how a better future can be made possible. A politics grounded no longer in mere expediency – although there is a great deal to be said for pragmatism, of course – but held in check by values and moral principles, whilst elevated by human creativity.

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On the day Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, he shunned the journalists and ignored the cameras and headed off instead to speak about some of the people who had inspired him. He said “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love.” These words were in fact stolen from Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri. Afterwards, Okri repaid the compliment with a poem dedicated to Corbyn, entitled “A New Dream of Politics”.

Then in July, Corbyn and Okri – who met sometime later – decided to stage a joint event at the Royal Festival Hall. United by a desire to make our world a kinder, fairer place, they spent a leisurely hour exploring a range of subjects encompassing history, world affairs and literature along with the personal journeys that made them who they are. A curious mix of readings, conversations and word games: they let politics take a backseat to the art of the possible – as it should:

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Additional: worst example of BBC bias yet?

On Friday night [Sept 2nd] BBC’s flagship political show Newsnight closed as follows:

Emily Maitlis: In the week that JK Rowling went to war with the Corbynistas on Twitter over who should lead the Labour Party. Getting into a scrap with one of the country’s most influential authors probably isn’t a good idea though, as we discovered when Warner Brothers gave us a sneak peak of the next Harry Potter movie.

Given that the party is in the midst of a leadership campaign, I raise two points.

Firstly, is “Corbynistas” acceptable language for a publicly funded organisation with a commitment to maintain impartiality? Has the BBC ever used the term “Blairite” in an equivalent manner during this leadership campaign or on any earlier occasion?

Secondly, although the BBC will defend itself on the grounds that this is a joke, it has already been harshly criticised by former chair of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons, who said there had been “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party”.

Click here to read a Guardian article published on May 12th entitled “BBC may have shown bias against Corbyn, says former trust chair.”

More recently, the BBC was declared guilty of “marked and persistent imbalance” in a report released by the researchers from the Media Reform Coalition and Birkbeck, University of London, which found that “almost twice as much unchallenged airtime was given to people criticising Mr Corbyn than his allies on the BBC”.

Click here to read an Independent article published on July 30th entitled “Media ‘persistently’ biased against Jeremy Corbyn, academic study finds”

Given that the BBC is already under suspicion of bias, how does it now see fit to portray Corbyn as, in effect (and regardless of context), the Prince of Darkness?

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Update:

On September 1st, Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell spoke at Cardiff City Hall, and offered a candid and entertaining blow-by-blow account of the PLP coup against Corbyn. (Unfortunately the audio is quite poor throughout and so I advise turning the treble down and the bass up):

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1 

Final couplet from Ben Okri’s poem “A New Dream of Politics” which he dedicated to Jeremy Corbyn. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/12/ben-okri-politics-poem-jeremy-corbyn

2 Extract taken from The Road to Wigan Pier, Part 2, Chapter 11, written by George Orwell, published in 1937.

3 From an article entitled “Where Is Our Jeremy Corbyn?” written by Chris Hedges, published in Truthdig on September 13, 2015. http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/where_is_our_jeremy_corbyn_20150913

4 Quote often attributed to American comedian and TV host, Jay Leno, although perhaps first used by Clinton-Gore strategist Paul Begala. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/reliable-source/2010/12/who_says_washington_is_hollywo.html

5 From an article entitled “Owen Smith posed for this picture and now the internet is convinced he’s Superman” written by Mikey Smith published in The Mirror on July 27, 2016. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/owen-smith-posed-picture-now-8508455

6 From Strength to Love, Ch. 2 “Transformed nonconformist”, written by Martin Luther King, Jr., published in 1963. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_strength_to_love_1963/

7

Palestine refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

UNRWA services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. The descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children, are also eligible for registration. When the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.

Nearly one-third of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.5 million individuals, live in 58 recognized Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

From the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) official website. http://www.unrwa.org/palestine-refugees

8 From an article entitled “MP Owen Smith sorry for domestic violence comment” published by BBC news on May 25, 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10156864

9 Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen. (Politics is the art of the possible) Otto von Bismarck

From an interview (August 11, 1867) with Friedrich Meyer von Waldeck of the St. Petersburgische Zeitung: Aus den Erinnerungen eines russischen Publicisten. 2. Ein Stündchen beim Kanzler des norddeutschen Bundes. In: Die Gartenlaube (1876). Reprinted in Fürst Bismarck: neue Tischgespräche und Interviews, Vol. 1, p. 248.

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Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen is “straight from the American playbook”

In his essay entitled, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell says, “political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell, whose writings are more prescient with each passing year, would wince at the words of Saudi Arabia’s Brigadier General Asiri, who, in a recent press conference, defended Saudi Arabia’s unprovoked war in Yemen by saying, “all we are trying to do is to make sure that there is security in Yemen.” Bombing an already desperately poor country’s infrastructure, destroying its armed forces (the same armed forces that were equipped and trained to fight al-Qaeda by the US), air dropping weapons (now being sold in Yemen’s arms markets), blockading Yemen’s ports (Yemen imports 90% of its food), and hobbling an already struggling economy are hardly ways of ensuring security.

So begins an article by Middle East analyst Michael Horton published in Counterpunch a fortnight ago. Horton writes:

To sum it up: an autocracy with a deplorable human rights record (Saudi Arabia’s Sharia courts routinely behead criminals and flog victims of gang rape as well as recalcitrant bloggers) and its partners—which includes the US—are endeavoring to reinstall an ineffectual exiled government of questionable legitimacy and ensure security in Yemen by bombing and starving it into submission.

[President Abdu Rabbu Mansour] Hadi and his exiled government are supporting the bombardment of their own country and calling on the Saudis and their allies to intensify air strikes and launch what will likely be a disastrous ground invasion. Of course, these calls for more bombs, more weapons, and more war are being made by men who fled Yemen aboard private jets and are comfortably ensconced in villas in Riyadh. They do not have to worry about being incinerated in their homes, finding food or water, or burying their dead. It is worth citing another quote from Orwell who wrote in Homage to Catalonia, “all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.” 1

Click here to read Michael Horton’s complete article.

On Thursday [April 23rd], Democracy Now! invited Toby Jones, Associate Professor of History and Director of Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, to discuss the Saudi bombing campaign and the resulting humanitarian crisis, which the International Committee of the Red Cross has already described as “catastrophic”.

Asked about “Operation Decisive Storm” and the obvious parallel in its naming to “Operation Desert Storm” (of the Gulf War), Jones replied:

Well, Adel al-Jubeir [Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US] said it very well, right? The Saudis are interested in destroying and degrading Yemen’s military capacity, particularly those of the Houthis. But they have a series of mixed objectives that we shouldn’t be persuaded by. One is the stated claim that they want to protect their borders in any threat to Saudi Arabia. The reality is, the Houthis have never represented a threat to Saudi Arabia, and they still don’t, even though they enjoy control over much of Yemen. And the other is to restore the legitimate government of President Hadi. In reality, Hadi was—his position in power was orchestrated by the Saudi and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] after the Arab uprisings.

I mean, the bottom line is this: Yemen has long been the backyard of Saudi Arabia. It’s a deeply impoverished place that the Saudis believe they should assert political authority in, that they should influence outcomes.

Reality on the ground is they’ve accomplished very little. The Houthis have retained political authority. They’re even operating in Aden, which the Saudis said they hoped to preempt. It’s not clear what they’ve accomplished. They’ve declared victory, but they’ve done little more than actually kill almost a thousand Yemenis and degrade what was already, you know, a troubled infrastructure and environment.

Regarding claims of Iranian involvement in the conflict, Jones says:

Well, there’s no clear coordination between Iran and the Houthis. Let’s be clear: There’s absolutely no evidence that Iran is operating on the ground in Yemen or that it’s directing orders to the Houthi rebels.

And Washington’s role?

As far as the American role goes, the Americans view Yemen as a Saudi backyard, and they’re going to defer to the Saudis here. I mean, there’s lots of geopolitical sort of moving parts here, as well. While the Americans are chipping away on a nuclear arrangement with Iran, they understand and they’re very clear that the Saudis are uncomfortable with all of that. So they’re making concessions on Yemen, because it’s easy for the Americans to do so, providing small-scale cover and other kinds of material support, including putting warships close by the Port of Aden and elsewhere. I mean, this is simply a matter of the Americans making choices about where they can support the Saudis and where they can oppose them elsewhere, or at least where they can work at odds with them.

Yemen is and has for a long time been the most deeply impoverished place in the Middle East. But it has also been a political football in the region that the Saudis and the Americans have kicked around. This is a place where we talk about catastrophe and the environmental and humanitarian consequences of the recent campaign. This is not new in Yemen. Very little has been done to address it. And in spite of all of that, the U.S. has almost always pursued Yemen as a place to drop bombs and to target what they call militants. And with that in mind, it’s easy for them to support the Saudis, who are claiming to do the same thing.

After a fortnight’s bombardment and close to a thousand deaths, Michael Horton published a follow-up article (also in Counterpunch) reporting on what he describes as perhaps the most ill-advised of all the “three decades of ill-advised wars in the Middle East.” And the ghost of Orwell is there in the background once again, to furrow his brow and shake his head in disbelief:

“Operation Decisive Storm,” the ironic name for Saudi Arabia’s aerial campaign in Yemen, has led to nothing decisive in Yemen beyond ensuring that the country remains a failed state and fertile ground for organizations like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Long before the commencement of “Operation Decisive Storm,” Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, was grappling with a host of problems ranging from severe water shortages, food insecurity, and a moribund economy, to a long running multi-front insurgency. Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has exacerbated all of these problems and could well be the coup de grace for a unified and relatively stable Yemen.

On Tuesday April 21st, the government of Saudi Arabia abruptly announced that it was ending “Operation Decisive Storm” and that it would be scaling back its aerial campaign in Yemen. “Operation Decisive Storm” will be replaced with “Operation Restore Hope,” an unfortunate name for a military operation given that it was also the name for the US’ ill-fated 1992-3 intervention in Somalia. It is unclear what “Operation Restore Hope” aims to achieve; however, the first phase of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has been disastrous.

From all the carnage of “Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war”, Horton says, there is just one victor, al-Qaeda:

AQAP has, so far, been the only beneficiary of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. In south east Yemen, in the governorate of the Hadramawt, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken over Yemen’s fifth largest city, Mukalla, and has also taken control of the city’s airport and port. “Operation Decisive Storm” targeted the Houthis, a Zaidi militia that is the sworn enemy of al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia’s aerial bombardment also focused on those elements of the Yemeni Armed Forces that are allied with the Houthis and former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. These same military units, including the Yemeni Air Force which has been largely destroyed, were also critical to fighting AQAP and its allies. “Operation Decisive Storm” has effectively neutralized the two forces that were responsible for impeding AQAP’s advance across large sections of southern and eastern Yemen. 2

Click here to read Michael Horton’s complete article.

As Toby Jones summed up:

The Houthis didn’t call for war, and they coordinated closely with actors on the ground. They’re the ones who were being attacked, even though they’re the ones who have been calling for a political settlement to a deeply broken system all along. The fact that the Saudis have recast this in a language that the Houthis are the villains and the ones acting dangerously is remarkable, as is the fact that the Saudis can drop bombs while calling it a humanitarian mission. In reality—I mean, in many ways, it’s a play straight from the American playbook.

Click here to read the full transcript or to watch the interview on the Democracy Now! website.

1 From an article entitled “War is Peace in Yemen” written by Michael Horton, published in Counterpunch on April 10–12, 2015. http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/10/war-is-peace-in-yemen/ 

2 From an article entitled “Saudi Arabia’s Disastrous War in Yemen” written by Michael Horton, published in Counterpunch on April 22, 2015. http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/22/saudi-arabias-disastrous-war-in-yemen/  

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Filed under al-Qaeda & DAESH / ISIS / ISIL, analysis & opinion, Saudi Arabia, Yemen

the unreal thing

The following article is Chapter Eight of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

*

Advertising is the rattling stick inside a swill bucket”

George Orwell

*

“Take a card, any card, it’s your choice… but don’t let me see what it is.” The magician fans the cards flamboyantly. We know it’s a trick of course. “Three of Clubs,” he tells us. We shake our heads dismissively – after all, we’re part of the act. The magician seems momentarily perplexed. “Do you have anything in your jacket pocket?” he asks as if desperately trying to turn our attention away from his apparent failure. We feel inside and find a sealed envelope. It’s the one we’d signed earlier in the performance. “Is the seal broken?” he asks, knowingly. “Open it – what’s inside?” We scratch our heads and quietly applaud. Somehow the magician has diverted our attention just long enough to construct the illusion of an altered reality. In truth his method was to “force” the card, and so his illusion relied on the simple fact that we really hadn’t a free choice at any stage. But we applaud because we admire his harmless deception. It amuses us to be deceived once in a while.

*

I saw an advert the other day. It read “Say No to No” which is the kind of quasi-Zen mumbo-jumbo that advertising executives get paid a small fortune to write. What was the effect of that advertisement? Well, it had suddenly interrupted my original train of thought. I’d probably been looking for the cigarette lighter or wondering how the living room table was so heaped up in junk again, but now I was reading on about how negativity gets in the way of progress. And which company, I kept wondering as I’d read down, would attach themselves to such a manifestly new age positive-thinking banner? I read on and came to examples of human achievements that left to the nay-sayers could never have happened:

“Yes, continents have been found…”, it read.

Found? By Columbus in 1492, presumably, and then Australia by James Cook. And no human had set eyes on them before? Obviously this is a rhetorical question. I read on…

“Yes, men have played golf on the moon…”

American men to be more precise. And it was indeed an incredible and truly awesome achievement – not the golf, but the travelling to the moon. When it comes to golf, there are obviously far superior facilities a lot closer to home. I read on…

“Yes, straw is being turned into biofuel to power cars…”

Well, hardly in the same league as exploration to such distant lands, but finally some inkling to where they were leading me…

I studied the picture more carefully. The words “Say no to no” are in thick capitals near the top of a blackboard already filled with images of progress and science – molecular structures, conical sections, a diagram showing a spherical co-ordinate system, graphs, line drawings of electron orbits and DNA, of animals and a ship and of course the ubiquitous pie-chart. A girl, her long straw-blond hair tied back into a pony-tail, and wearing a bright red tank top, has her back turned toward to us. She is reaching high, almost on tip-toe, into the black and white and adding the upward flourish of a spiral. Perhaps I was looking at one of those recruitment adverts for teaching, yet something told me otherwise…

And there it was – I’d found it at last – deliberately placed outside the main frame of the picture; a small, emblematic containment for all that progress: a remote, red and yellow scollop shell. The message was far from loud, but that was the point. And once spotted it was very clear, yet it had been intentionally delivered at a subliminal level – out of picture, unobtrusive, easily missed. Its instruction surreptitious and beyond the margins. Why? Because they wanted me to attach the ideas of positivity and progress to the symbol of a multinational oil corporation just as surely as Pavlov’s dogs associated lunch with the ringing of their owner’s bell. They wanted me to feel good things the next time I saw the scollop and to never even think about why.1

*

Advertising is simply another act of illusion and as with the performing stage magician, the audience is well aware that they are being tricked. But in advertising the illusion runs deeper, so that aside from the obvious aim of persuading us to buy Coke instead of Pepsi or whatever, it very often constructs a host of other frauds. Take again the advert mentioned above as an example, with the girl reaching up on tip-toe. Here nothing is accidental, with all parts and relationships operating together to reinforce our idea of progress as a constant striving toward a better world, whilst in the background, it only quietly dismisses any “nay-sayers” who disagree. Like many predators, advertisers work by stealth, often, as here, offering glimpses of Utopia, or of wonderful and perpetual advancement, to draw us on and in. The carrot on a stick swinging endlessly before the eyes of the befuddled donkey.

But then, on other occasions, they will take a different tack, and get out a proper stick. They’ll make us uneasy about our looks, or our lack of social status, before offering a quick fix for these problems so frequently of their own devising. There are many ways to ring our bells: both carrots and sticks are equally effective.

And then everyone says this: “Adverts don’t work on me.” So these companies spend literally billions of pounds and dollars on refining their illusions, posting them up all across our cities and towns, filling our airwaves with their jingles and sound-bites, not to mention the ever-widening device of corporate sponsorship, and yet still this remains as our self-deluding armour against such unending and ever more sophisticated assaults. I’ll bet you could find more people who’d say David Copperfield can really fly than would actually admit to being significantly influenced by advertising.

*

There probably never was a time when advertising was just that: a way to make products and services more widely or publicly known about. In such a time, adverts would have just showed pictures of the product and a simple description of its uses and/or advantages. “This is the night mail crossing the border…” – that sort of thing.

Though, of course, here immediately is a bad example, because the famous post office film is not only reminding us of what a jolly useful and efficient service our mail delivery is, but how wonderfully hard the GPO work whilst the rest of us are asleep. So on this different level Auden’s famous homage is a feel good thing, encouraging us to connect our good feelings to the postal service; it is an early example of public relations although still harmless enough in its quiet way.

But audiences get wise, or so we like to imagine, and so today’s advertisers have had to up the ante too. Gone are the days of telling you how to have “whiter whites” or advising everyone (with only a hint of surrealism) to “go to work on an egg”. Nowadays you’re far more likely to choose to eat a certain chewy stick because “it’s a bit of an animal” (without even noticing the entirely subliminal reference to your feelings about being carnivorous) or drink a can of soft drink because “image is nothing” (which presumes a ridiculous double-think on the part of the targeted purchaser). And where once a famous Irish beverage was just “good for you”, now it’s better because it comes “to those who wait”. Here you’re asked to make an investment in the form of time; an investment that is intended to add personal value to the brand.

Adverts are loaded with these and other sorts of psychological devices – cunningly latent messages or else entertaining ways of forging brand loyalty. They prey on the fact that we are emotional beings. They use tricks to bypass our rational centres, intending to hard-wire the image of their products to our feelings of well-being, happiness, contentment, success, or more simply, the image we have of ourselves. They use special words. LOVE for instance. Just see how many adverts say “you’ll love it”, “kids love it”, “dogs love it”, “we love it”, and so on and so on…. one I saw recently for condoms said simply “love sex” – talk about a double whammy!

Advertisers also like to scare us. When they are not showing us washing lines drying over the Fields of Elysium, or happy pals sharing time with packets of corn snacks, or elegant cars effortlessly gliding down open highways; they are constructing worlds of sinister dangers. Germs on every surface, and even in “those hard to reach places”. Threats from every direction, from falling trees to falling interest rates. I once saw an TV advert that showed a man desperately running from a massive and menacing fracture. It was a crack that seemed to be ripping through the very fabric of space and time, an existential terror relentlessly chasing after him through some post-apocalyptic nightmare. After a minute or so the threat abated and a solution was offered. Get your windscreen checked, it calmly advised.

And the government get in on this too. Watch out, watch out, there a thief about! Just say no to drugs! Sex is fun, but take precautions and don’t die of ignorance! In these ways, they ramp up fears of the real dangers we face, whilst also inculcating a sense of trust in the powers that be. The world is a perilous and unjust place, they say (which is true); fortunately, we are here to help you. Trust us to guide you. Obey our instructions. To protect you and your loved ones. To help you to realise your dreams. Together, we will make the world a fairer place. The constant PR refrains: “Believe”, “Belong”, “Trust”, and more recently, “Hope and Change”. O, ring out those bells!

*

Right now, there’s something refreshingly honest about smoking. Those of us who refuse or are unable to quit are left under absolutely no illusions about our little cancer sticks. We know perfectly well that each drag is bringing the grave that little bit closer. And it’s certainly not cool to smoke. Our clothes stink, our breath stinks, and stinking, we huddle outdoors, rain or shine, cluttering up the office doorways with our toxic fumes and heaps of fag-ends. But it wasn’t always so. Smoking had its golden age. A time when cigarettes were an accoutrement to style and when sharing a fag with a dame was nearly as great as sex.2 During this period, the tobacco industry invested a small fortune in maintaining their myth. They paid to lobby politicians, they made funds available for favourable medical research, and perhaps most significantly of all, they hired the best PR man in the business.

It can be fun to speculate on who were the most influential figures in history. Who would we wish to include? Great statesmen, formidable warriors, innovators, engineers, scientists and artists, when lists are polled for, the public generally take their pick from these, chucking in the odd saint or celebrity just for good measure. They choose between Churchill, Washington, Alexander the Great, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein, and if the criteria are widened to include villains as well as heroes, plump for Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tong, and Joseph Stalin. A selection, if you like, of the stars of the show. But what about people whose work involves them behind the scenes? What of those whose greater skill was to remain invisible or simply unnoticed? Edward Bernays was just such a man.

*

To say that Bernays was a great PR man is to do him a considerable disservice, for Bernays, who happened to also be a nephew of no lesser light than Sigmund Freud, is nowadays regarded as the father of modern PR. He wrote the book. Rather candidly he entitled it simply Propaganda – the word deriving from the Latin for “propagation” was less sullied back in 1928. In the opening chapter Bernays lays out the situation as he sees it:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

But Bernays is not warning us here, far from it. This is merely the way the world works, spinning along in a fashion that Bernays regards are both inevitable and to a great extent desirable. Better an orderly world of unseen manipulation than a world of ungovernable chaos. And it’s this point which he makes perfectly explicit in the very next paragraph:

“We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”3

We should perhaps not be surprised to learn then that Bernays’ book was one that didn’t make it onto the bonfires of the Third Reich. Instead, Joseph Goebbels publicly praised Bernays’ work as especially influential, saying that it had formed the blueprint for his own Nazi propaganda machine. Certainly, it is a very practical guide. It delves into a great many areas and asks important questions. One of the most significant questions it asks goes as follows:

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it?”4

And the answer, as Bernays went on to prove with his amazing success in promoting everything from bacon and eggs to soap powder and political candidates, was HELL YES!

Working for the American Tobacco Company, Bernays had even piggy-backed a ride on the women’s rights movement. Offering encouragement to the fairer sex, for whom smoking in public was still very much a taboo, to keep on lighting their “Torches of Freedom.” Not that any similar strategy could work today obviously… well, not unless those torches were organically-grown by fair-trade tobacco farmers and rolled in chlorine-free paper supplied by sustainable forests, or whatever.

Bernays was the great promoter, perhaps the greatest, and he was keen to promote his own product, modern advertising, or as he called it propaganda, above all else. For Bernays, just as for his acolyte Joseph Goebbels, the future was propaganda:

“Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.”5

*

Following Bernays, advertising no longer stops at breakfast cereals, toothpaste and petrochemical companies, having extended its parasitic tendrils throughout all areas of life, so that image becomes everything. Newspapers and magazines are glossier than ever. They radiate forth into the empty void of secular consumerist existence, visions of earthly fulfilment that can be bought (at preferential interest rates) – holidays, home improvements, house moves (especially abroad), fast cars, and millionaire lifestyles.

They tell us what is right to think about: beauty, health, fashion and that oh-so elusive of attributes, style. They tell us “how to get on”. They tell us what’s worth worrying about. DO worry about your wrinkles. DO worry about your waistline. DO worry about your split-ends. DO WORRY – because you’re worth it! Just as importantly we get to learn what is worth thinking about: success, fame and glamour, which when multiplied together make celebrity. Celebrity: from the Latin celebrare meaning to celebrate, or to honour. So whereas the ancients believed that the fixed and eternal heavenly stars were gods, we instead are sold a parallel myth revolving around “the stars of today”.

But newspapers and magazines are nothing, for their influence pales into insignificance when set in comparison to that flickering blue screen in the corner of the living room. It is our gateway to another world, a parallel dimension, where we are welcomed back each day by our virtual friends. It is a fire to warm us. A shadow-play of mesmerising potency. And here, the ever-tantalising jam of tomorrow has finally slopped over from its earlier containment within commercial breaks, to become what is now a mainstay for entire broadcasting schedules. Carrots and sticks for us to nod along to, 24/7, and three hundred and sixty-five days of the year.

It’s not even that all television is bad. Some is excellent. I would cite as an exemplar the consistently superior content of BBC wildlife documentaries, which far exceed any comparable alternative whether offered by books, radio, or at the cinema. Here is television at the very pinnacle of its achievement.

A great deal on television is produced just to amuse us, or amaze us, and occasionally, actually to inform us, and much of this merits credit too, but I do not feel it necessary to waste time pushing an open door. We all know that television can sometimes be marvellous. But we also know that most of it is junk. Junk that, with the influx of multiple digital channels, is spread ever more thinly and widely. In a modern world television certainly has its place, but we will do well never to forget its unprecedented powers:

“Right now there is an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break president’s hopes… This tube is the most awesome God-damn force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if ever it falls in the hands of the wrong people…

And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome God-damned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network. So you listen to me – Listen to me – Television is not the truth. Television’s a god-damned amusement park…

We’re in the boredom killing business… But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colours, creeds – We’re all you know – You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You’ll do whatever the tube tells you. You’ll dress like the tube, you’ll eat like the tube, you’ll raise your children like the tube. You even think like the tube. This is mass madness. You maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing – we are the illusion.”

Of course, if you’ve seen the film Network, from which this extraordinary rant is taken, then you’ll also be aware that these are the words of a madman!6

At the top of the chapter I quoted Orwell’s no-nonsense assessment of advertising, and advertising is indeed as he describes it: the rattling stick eliciting the same Pavlovian response in the pigs, as advertising executives wish to implant in our human minds. Their main intent to push their client’s products by making us salivate with desire. This was no different in Orwell’s time. Whilst advertising’s still more ugly parent, propaganda, has always aimed to change minds more fundamentally. It treats ideas as products and sells them to us. But the techniques in both advertising and propaganda have come a long way since Orwell’s time.

This power to propagandise has grown in large part because of television. The blue screen softly flickering away in the corner of every living room having opened up a possibility for thousands of ‘messages’ each day to be implanted and reinforced over and over. Unconsciously absorbed instructions to think in preformed patterns being precisely what Aldous Huxley thought would be needed if ever the seething and disorderly masses of any ordinary human population might be replaced by the zombie castes of his futuristic vision Brave New World. “Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth”, he wrote.7

Which is a joke, but like so much in Huxley’s work, a joke with very serious intent. Huxley’s vision of a future dystopia being subtler in ways to Orwell’s own masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, not least because the mechanisms of mind control are wholly insidious. Huxley showing how you don’t have to beat people into submission in order to make them submit. Yet even Huxley never envisaged a propaganda system as pervasive and powerful as television has eventually turned out to be.

*

Advertising involves “the art of deception” and it has never been more artful than it is today… sly, crafty, cunning, scheming, devious, sneaky, and totally calculating. However, it is increasingly artful in that other sense too: being achieved with ever greater creative skill. Indeed, the top commercials now cost more than many feature films, and, aside from paying small fortunes for celebrity endorsement, the makers of our grandest and most epic commercials take extraordinary pains to get the details right.

Engineered to push the buttons of a meticulously studied segment of the population, niche marketing techniques ensure precise targeting with optimum impact. Every image, sound and edit honed, because time is money when you’re condensing your ‘message’ into thirty seconds. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that these commercial ‘haikus’ as regarded by some as the works of art of our own times. A view Andy Warhol (himself a former ‘commercial artist’) espoused and helped promote – though mostly he made his fortune espousing and promoting his own brand: a brand called Andy Warhol.

Warhol wrote that:

“The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s. Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet.”8

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky is credited with a far better joke, having once remarked that “lesser artists borrow, but great artists steal”. As with Warhol’s quip, it fits its author well. Stravinsky here downplaying his unrivalled talent for pastiche, whereas Warhol could never resist hiding his gift for nihilism in plain sight.

But actually, advertising isn’t art at all, of course. Do I need to continue? It is a bloodless imitation that neither borrows nor steals, to go back to Stravinsky’s aphorism, but directly counterfeits. Feigning beauty and faking truth is all it knows, with a passing interest in the first in so far as it is saleable, and a pathological aversion to the second, since truth is its mortal enemy.

For if selling us what we least require and never thought we desired is advertising’s everyday achievement (and it is), then pushing products and ideas that will in reality make our lives more miserable or do us harm is its finest accomplishment. And the real thing? Like the stage magician, this is what the admen assiduously divert your attention away from.

Which brings me a story. A real story. Something that happened as I was driving to work one dark, dank February morning. A small thing but one that briefly thrilled and delighted me.

It was at the end of Corporation Street, fittingly enough I thought, where someone had summoned the courage to take direct action. Across the glowing portrait of a diligently air-brushed model were the words: “She’s not real. You are beautiful.”

That some anonymous stranger had dared to write such a defiant and generous disclaimer touched me. But it didn’t end there. This person, or persons unknown, had systematically defaced all three of the facing billboards, saving the best for last. It was for one of those ‘messages’ that is determined to scare some back into line, whilst making others feel smug with a glow of compliant superiority. It read: “14 households on Primrose Street do not have a TV licence” (or words to that effect).

The threat, though implicit, was hardly veiled. In Britain, more than a hundred thousand people ever year are tried and convicted for not having a TV licence. Some are actually jailed.9 But now this message had a graffiti-ed punchline which again brought home the hidden ‘message’ perpetuated by all of advertising. The spray-canned response read simply: “perhaps they’ve got a life instead.” A genuine choice the admen wouldn’t want you to consider. Not buying into things isn’t an option they can ever promote.

To add my own disclaimer, I in no way wish to encourage and nor do I endorse further acts of criminal damage – that said, here is a different piece of graffiti (or street art – you decide) that I happen to walk past on my way into work. In a less confrontational way, it too has taken advantage of an old billboard space:

the best things in life

Next chapter…

*

Addendum: a modest proposal

We are all living under a persistent and dense smog of propaganda (to give advertising and PR its unadorned and original name). Not only our product preferences and brand loyalties, but our entire Weltanschauung10 fashioned and refashioned thanks to a perpetual barrage of lies. Fun-sized lies. Lies that amuse and entertain. Lies that ingratiate themselves with fake smiles and seductive whispers. And lies that hector and pester us, re-enforcing our old neuroses and generating brand new ones. These lies play over and over ad nauseam.

Ad nauseam, the sickness of advertising, is a man-made pandemic, with modern commercials selling not simply products per se, but “lifestyles”. And think about that for a moment. Off-the-shelf ideals and coffee table opinions that are likewise custom-made. Beliefs to complement your colour-coordinated upholstery, your sensible life insurance policy, your zesty soap and fresh-tasting, stripy toothpaste.

Thanks to television, we inhale this new opium of the people all day long and few (if any) are immune to its intoxication, but then advertising operates at a societal level too – since by disorientating individuals, society as a whole becomes more vulnerable to the predatory needs of corporations. So cuddling up to the box and laughing along to the latest blockbuster commercial on the grounds that “adverts don’t affect me” just makes our own delusion complete.

I might have ended on a lighter note, but instead I’ll hand over to the late Bill Hicks at his acrimonious best (and apologises for his foul and abusive language, but unfortunately here it is fully warranted):

“By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising kill yourselves…”

Bill pauses to absorb any cautious laughter, then quietly continues: “Just a thought… I’m just trying to plant some seeds. Maybe, maybe one day they’ll take root… I don’t know, you try, you do what you can…”

Still scattering handfuls of imaginary seeds, but now sotto voce for suggestive effect: “Kill yourselves…”

Another pause and then completely matter of fact. “Seriously though – if you are – do!”

And now Bill gets properly down to business: “Ahhh – No really – There’s no rationalisation for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers okay… Kill yourselves. Seriously. You are the ruiners of all things good. Seriously. No, No, this is not a joke… Ha,ha, there’s going to be a joke coming… There’s no fucking joke coming! You are Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage. You are fucked and you are fucking us – Kill yourselves – It’s the only way to save your fucking soul – kill yourself…”

Then he comes to the crux of the matter: “I know what all you marketing people are thinking right now too: ‘Oh, you know what Bill’s doing. He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market. He’s smart…’ – Oh Man! I’m not doing that! You fucking evil scumbags! – ‘You know what Bill’s doing now. He’s going for the righteous indignation dollar. That’s a big dollar. Lot of people are feeling that indignation. We’ve done research – huge market! He’s doing a good thing.’ – God damn it! I’m not doing that you scumbags…! Quit putting the dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!”

If we are ever to break free from the mind-forged manacles of the advertising industry then we might consider the option of broadcasting Bill Hicks’ rant unabridged during every commercial break on every TV channel on earth for at least a year – the obscenities bleeped out in broadcasts before the watershed!

While we’re about it, we will need a screening prior to every movie (during the commercial slots obviously) as well as key phrases rehashed into jingles and those same sound bites written up in boldface and plastered across every available billboard. Now, if you think this would be altogether too much of an assault on our delicate senses then please remember that is precisely what the dear old advertising industry does day-in and day-out. So wouldn’t it would fun to turn the tables on those in the business of deceit? And not simply to give them a dose of their own snake oil, but to shock us all with repeated jolts of truth instead.

*

Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.

*

1 Incidentally, my young nephew had added a few scribbles of his own to this advertisement and it is interesting to note where he directed his pen marks, five places in all: one over each of the girls hands, one on the back of her head and another on her ponytail. And his only scribble that was not on the girl was on top of the scollop. Bullseye!

2 Of course in Hollywood films of a bygone age when censorship was strict, sharing a fag was also used as a metaphor for sex itself.

3 Taken from the opening to Chapter 1 entitled “Organising Chaos” of Propaganda, by Edward Bernays (1928).

4 Ibid. Chapter 4, “The psychology of Public Relations”

5 Ibid. Chapter 11, “The mechanics of propaganda”

6 “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” These are the words of anti-corporate evangelist Howard Beale, taken from the film Network (1976). A satire about a fictional television network called Union Broadcasting System (UBS), with its unscrupulous approach to raising the ratings, Network was written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. Most memorably, it features an Oscar-winning performance by actor the Peter Finch, playing the part of disaffected news anchor Howard Beale. Beale, having threatened to commit suicide live on air, is given his own show. Billed as “the mad prophet”, he steals the opportunity to angrily preach against what he sees as the corporate takeover of the world, and steadily his show gathers the largest audience on television. The consequences are, of course, inevitable.

7 “One hundred repetitions three nights a week for four years, thought Bernard Marx, who was a specialist on hypnopædia. Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth. Idiots!” From Chapter 3 of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, published in 1932. 

8 Quote taken from Chapter 4 “Beauty” of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), published in 1975. 

9 “According to the most recent figures, about 70 people a year are jailed for TV licence fee offences. But the scale of prosecutions for licence fee evasion is far higher and now accounts for one in nine of all Magistrates Court cases. More than 180,000 people – almost 3,500 a week – appeared before the Magistrates Courts in 2012, accused of watching television without a valid licence in, with 155,000 being convicted and fined.”

From an article entitled ‘Dodging TV licence will not be a crime’ written by Tim Ross, published in The Telegraph on March 7, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/10684639/Dodging-TV-licence-will-not-be-a-crime.html

10 Weltanschauung: a particular philosophy or view of life; the world view of an individual or group.

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Filed under analysis & opinion, « finishing the rat race »

the clouds of not knowing

The following article is Chapter Ten of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting, beginning today, chapter by chapter throughout this year. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

*

According to the postmodernists there is no such thing as absolute truth, so why should we believe them?”

question submitted to the regular Notes & Queries column in The Guardian.

*

Postmodernism is a slippery subject and one I’ve long endeavoured to get to grips with.

For a while I just tried asking dumb questions (applying a method of inquiry recommended by physicist Richard Feynman). “What exactly is postmodernism?” seemed like a good starter, although as I soon realised such a front-on assault wouldn’t get me very far. Quasi-mathematical answers floated back about ‘signs’ and ‘signifiers’ from the arcane sub-discipline of ‘semiotics’, or else esoteric reference to the foreign fields of ‘post-structuralism’ and ‘deconstructionism’. I also had to understand such important issues as ‘false consciousness’, ‘the death of the author’ and ‘the end of the grand narrative’. Slowly then, I learnt about this complex spaghetti of postmodernist theory, a theory more beloved by English Literature professors than readers of philosophy, yet a theory pushed by its outspoken advocates who regard it as the only rightful context for all other intellectual inquiry.

*

After years of discussion with defenders and proponents of postmodernist theory I have come to an understanding that there are basically two main strands often twisted into one. Here, however, I must confess that I find the majority of writings on postmodernist thinking to be dense, jargonistic and for the most part unintelligible, so I do not claim to be an expert by any means. But, in this regard I was very happy to discover that I was sat in the dunce’s corner with, amongst other dullards, that otherwise academically esteemed professor of linguistics, Noam Chomsky. Here’s what Chomsky has to say:

“Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I’m missing, we’re left with the second option: I’m just incapable of understanding. I’m certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I’m afraid I’ll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don’t understand – say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. – even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest – write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures.

“I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of “theory” and “philosophy” to justify their claims – to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.”1

*

With this in mind, please allow me to unravel the two strands of postmodernism (as I find them).

i) postmodernism as a contemporary aesthetic.

On the one hand postmodernism promotes the idea of a new aesthetic. An aesthetic born from the ashes of modernism that it usurped. The fall of religion, of classical physics, as well as of other established and seemingly apodictic systems, had sparked a fin de siècle revolution around the turn of the twentieth century, and in consequence, artists looked for new modes of expression. The aftermath of two world wars heightened this need for a new awakening. One artistic response has been to recognise that the loss of a grounding on the basis of some kind of universal referent is intractable, and thus to turn inwards. To search for inspiration in the exploration of relationships between the artist and the subjective unreliability of their own account. To elevate context above meaning, subtext above text, and to make style and form themselves, the primary subjects of the artist.

Now I think that this is a perfectly reasonable place for artists to go. Artists after all are free to go as and where they choose (as are all citizens in any healthy political climate). Within the bounds of legality and, aside from the important issue of earning a living wage, artists are bounded only by the development of their creative and imaginative faculties. Choosing to explore the world as they find it (in realism), or of their own emotions (Romanticism), or what is discovered in the unconscious (surrealism), or even ideas in and of themselves (conceptualism) is therefore a matter wholly at the discretion of the artist. Whether they take on board styles from the past or other cultures, manipulate and meld them into a new eclecticism, or else, like Duchamps, point with irony at the question of what is art itself, then good for them. And if this is the current fashion, then so be it. Whether or not these pursuits are deemed in any way successful will be judged both here and in the future, as always. Fashions in every field coming and going as they do. All of this I accept.

Now if this is all postmodernism ever had to say, then let it be said, but let it also be said that there is nothing particularly ‘modern’ about it, let alone ‘post’…

Shakespeare made many allusions to the theatre itself, and liked to include plays within his plays. Shifting the audience’s perspective with reminders that we are another part of a performance and long before Berthold Brecht had snapped his fingers to wake us to our own participation. Lawrence Stern’s Tristam Shandy, one of the earliest novels in the English language, is a work more famous and celebrated for being so self-referential. More recently, Rene Magritte’s paintings challenge relationships between images, words and the world; whilst in early cartoons we can also find such ‘postmodern’ devices, as, for example, when Bugs Bunny becomes Daffy’s animator in the splendid Duck Amuck. Such is the success of these games of form and reference within purely comedic settings that even that most hackneyed of old jokes “why did the chicken cross the road?” relies on an audience who understands its cultural reference to jokes more generally – that jokes have a punchline, and so the joke here is that there isn’t one. Context has become everything, and what could be more ‘postmodern’ than that?

ii) postmodernism as a theory against absolutes

My first brush with postmodernism happened almost two decades ago when, as a postgraduate student, I’d suddenly begun to mix within altogether more literary circles. During my three years of studying physics in London I’d never once encountered any reference to the ideas of Saussure, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault or Baudrillard, but suddenly I had a few English post-grads telling me that physics, and indeed science in general, was just another theory, and one holding no special claims to finding an understanding of nature than any other. At first this seemed hilarious. How, I wondered, could those who knew next to nothing with regards to, say, Newton’s laws of motion, be so smug in their opinions about the truth or otherwise of quantum mechanics and relativity. Studying science had at least taught me not to be so presumptuous. So just what had gotten into them?

Jacques Derrida2 famously wrote that “there is nothing outside the text”, which is an extraordinary thing to write when you think about it. I mean is Derrida quite literally saying that nothing exists beyond the text? Why of course not, you dingo! For if nothing existed beyond the text, then there couldn’t be any text, since there’d be no one to write it in the first instance. Surely that’s obvious enough! So what does he mean?

In my handy guide Postmodernism for Beginners3, which at least has the good grace to include plenty of nice pictures, there is a section entitled ‘Deconstruction’, which was (according to the book) Derrida’s method for waging “a one-man ‘deconstructionist’ war against the entire Western tradition of rationalist thought.” His new approach of deconstruction, the book goes on to say, being an attempt “to peel away like an onion the layers of constructed meaning.” But of course if you peel away the layers of a real onion you’re eventually left with nothing… which is something the book’s analogy fails to mention.

And just what is Derrida’s method of deconstruction? An attempt to look for meanings in the text that were “suppressed or assumed in order for it to take its actual form”. I’m quoting from my book again. But then how is anyone supposed to do this? Well, here again I confess that I really don’t know – and the book is only a beginners’ guide so unfortunately it doesn’t say. I can however recall the story told by a friend who was studying for a degree in English Literature. He told me that his tutor had once asked a seminar group to read a selected text with the express intention of misunderstanding the author. So I guess that’s one approach.4

Now I concede that all critical readers must have due entitlement to read between the author’s lines. Anyone with a modicum of sense must recognise that an artist will at times disguise their true intentions (especially if they involve dangerous political or religious dissent); dressing their concealed truths in fitting uniforms. Of course the author may also wish to veil themselves for altogether more personal or private reasons. But then why precedent the latent above the blatant anyway? As if what an author tries to hide is more important than what they are, more directly, seeming to say. To address this question, postmodernists broaden their case, saying that ‘meaning’ itself is wholly dependent upon ‘authority’ or ‘power’. This is to say that the artist is nothing more than a product of the cultural context of his or her time. According to such reasoning, whatever it was they’d meant to say becomes irrelevant. A depressing claim, and one that lacks any obvious foundation. And where is the broader point to all of this? What does it have to do with science for instance?

Well, Derrida contends that the word ‘text’ must be understood in “the semiological sense of extended discourses.” Any clearer? No – try this: “all practices of interpretation which include, but are not limited to, language.” Got it yet? I’ll put it more picturequesly. Away from the leafy seclusion of literature departments, Derrida is declaring that this same approach (his approach) must be applied to all avenues of thinking. Any special privilege for methods of reason and objectivity is to be absolutely refused on grounds that once we are agreed that all discourse (in the semiological sense) is necessarily a cultural, historical or linguistic construct, then all ideas must be seen to hold the same indeterminate value. Therefore, to raise science above other disciplines of enquiry is merely “a value judgement” borne of European prejudice and vanity.

So what finally does this all amount to? Does Derrida really claim that astronomy can be judged to be no better measure of our universe than astrology? Or that when Galileo proposed the idea that the earth moved around the Sun, the pope was no less right for saying that it did not? Or if we proclaim that the world is round, are we no closer to any kind of truth than the legendary flat-earthers? And when we build rockets that fly to the moon and beyond, that this does not prove Newton’s ideas over those of Aristotle? The same Aristotle who thought that the moon was made not of rock, since rock would inevitably crash to earth, but from a fabulous unearthly material called quintessence! And what if Jacques Derrida were to have taken some leap of faith from his window, might he have hovered in the air like Road Runner, or would he more surely have accelerated toward the ground at 9.81 metres per second per second? I certainly know where my money’s riding.

*

Now in case you think my objections are unfounded, and based on either my lack of knowledge of the subject or else a deliberate and calculated misinterpretation of postmodernist thinking (whatever that means given the postmodernists’ own refusal to privilege an author’s intentions on the grounds that these are unrecoverable and irrelevant), I feel that I must draw attention to an incident now referred to as The Sokal Affair.

In 1996, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, feeling frustrated by the nihilistic claims being made by the postmodernists, decided (as any good scientist would) to perform an experiment. His hypothesis (if you like) being that he could convince a reputable journal in the field to: “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” On this basis he submitted a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the journal Social Text. To give you a flavour of Sokal’s admirable hoax, here is an extract from that paper:

“Derrida’s perceptive reply went to the heart of classical general relativity: The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability – it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something – of a center starting from which an observer could master the field – but the very concept of the game… “

Outlandish nonsense, of course, but (and no doubt to Sokal’s great delight) the journal mistook his fun for a work worthy of publication5. Then, on the same day of its publication, Sokal announced his hoax in a different journal, Lingua Franca, calling his published paper “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense”, which was “structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics”6. Here is what Sokal himself had to say about his reasons for perpetrating the hoax and his underlying concerns regarding the influence of the Social Text editors. He has a great deal to say and so I feel it is fitting to give over the remainder of this section to Sokal’s own justification and conclusions (after all, why have a dog and bark yourself):

“Of course, I’m not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment. Professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust. But it is important to understand exactly what I did. My article is a theoretical essay based entirely on publicly available sources, all of which I have meticulously footnoted. All works cited are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none are invented. Now, it’s true that the author doesn’t believe his own argument. But why should that matter? … If the Social Text editors find my arguments convincing, then why should they be disconcerted simply because I don’t? Or are they more deferent to the so-called “cultural authority of technoscience” than they would care to admit? […]

“The fundamental silliness of my article lies, however, not in its numerous solecisms but in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the “reasoning” adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity — the still-speculative theory of space and time on scales of a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter – has profound political implications (which, of course, are “progressive”). In support of this improbable proposition, I proceed as follows: First, I quote some controversial philosophical pronouncements of Heisenberg and Bohr, and assert (without argument) that quantum physics is profoundly consonant with “postmodernist epistemology.” Next, I assemble a pastiche – Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity – held together by vague rhetoric about “nonlinearity”, “flux” and “interconnectedness.” Finally, I jump (again without argument) to the assertion that “postmodern science” has abolished the concept of objective reality. Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.7

Why did I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. …

“In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? …

“Social Text’s acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory – meaning postmodernist literary theory – carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn’t bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and “text,” then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and “language games,” then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre. …

“Politically, I’m angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We’re witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful – not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage…

“I say this not in glee but in sadness. After all, I’m a leftist too (under the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua)… But I’m a leftist (and feminist) because of evidence and logic, not in spite of it.”8

*

It has long puzzled me too, why many once dyed-in-the-wool Marxists have increasingly drifted over to Derrida. I mean these two systems are supposedly in direct contradiction. Marxism is a ‘grand metanarrative’ par excellence, and so postmodernism is presumably its willing nemesis. So why would those who had invested so heavily in Marx suddenly jump into bed with Derrida et al? Well, it might be supposed that the fall of the Berlin Wall was of key importance here.

With the end of the Soviet experiment, it wasn’t simply a political regime that had given way. In its wake the whole Marxist ideology was rocked, since, and whatever its adherents may have then believed, this rapid and extraordinary sequence of events signified the catastrophic end to that particular alternative world vision.9

It’s not even that Marxists were still looking longingly toward Russia for their answers – most had already long accepted that the Soviet dream died with Stalin if not before – but just as with the death of a friend, it’s not until the funeral that we can finally say farewell. For those who’d searched for answers under the lens of Marxism, a time was rapidly approaching when most would be forced to admit defeat. That finally there was nothing left to halt the rising tide of global capitalism. Unless…

But lo! Could some new theory, of revolutionary hue, if significantly altered, replace the discarded doctrines of Marxism? Perhaps there was still something yet that might save the world from the savagery of unchallenged global capitalism. Soon these were the hard questions facing not only the Marxists but all those with Socialist leanings. And as a Leftist too, I shared in the same concerns.

Not that Marxism is dead of course. Not quite. Though Marx appears to be a spent political force, his spell, if diminished, is still potent inside the faculties of academia, living on in the alcoves of English departments for instance (and often side by side with Derrida and the others). But my question is how did Derrida step into Marx’s boots so comfortably? Is there any deeper reason why Marx and Derrida have made such good bedfellows? Is there anything that these adversaries might actually share?

*

I recently came across a review of philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell – his inquiry into the origins of religion (a popular subject these days) – and have since been considering whether or not to include any mention of it (perhaps with reference to my thoughts in Chapter One). Well, as you will know already, presuming you’ve read everything thus far, I have so far avoided making any direct reference to Dennett’s book as such. Instead, and by way of a brief and hopefully interesting digression, I have decided to present a review of the review itself. Quite aside from being in-keeping to offer such a meta-narrative, the review itself, which happened to feature on a website otherwise dedicated to “world socialism”, helped to shed light on the current theme of the odd convergence between postmodernist theory and Marxism. But before I can progress, I first need to briefly outline the main thrust in Dennett’s book itself, which, when stated most succinctly, is that religion is a natural phenomenon.

There is an evolutionary advantage, Dennett says in Breaking the Spell, conferred to those who adopt “the intentional stance”: our very reasonable presumption that the other creatures one encounters are also “agents”. It is easy to understand then, by extension, Dennett continues, why natural forces in general might also be presumed to act rationally and with specific desires in mind.

Combined with this, as Dennett also points out, the offspring of many species, including humans, are innately trusting toward their parents, because, happily, this also confers a survival advantage. These factors taken together then, it is easy to understand how a worship of ancestors might have arisen as a useful bi-product of human evolution. Whilst, on the cultural level, as the earlier hunter and gatherer communities gave way to agricultural settlement, this opened the way to more formalised and stratified forms of religion that must have slowly arisen – religion then, according to Dennett, is a piece, if you like, of mankind’s extended phenotype (yet another natural/cultural artefact, and, as such, somewhat akin to the motor car or Aswan Dam, none of which are any less “natural” than say a bird’s nest or a beaver’s lodge). And thus, being natural in origin, religion itself becomes a proper subject for scientific investigation, just as all other natural phenomena lie the within the province of scientific analysis.

The spell that Dennett finally wishes us to break from being that religion is fundamentally no different from any other kind of human behaviour or enterprise. That much is all Dennett – at least according to our reviewer.

Dennett’s approach is not really to my taste. It leans too heavily on the speculative theories of evolutionary psychology, whilst in doing so, stretching the concept of “natural” to such a degree as to render the word close to meaningless. But worse than that, he leaves little or no room for the insoluble cosmic riddle itself, when this is surely a vital component in any proper understanding of what drives the religious impulse. So this is my review, second hand of course (since I am not intrigued enough to read Dennett’s original words).

Firstly, our reviewer acknowledges that much of the book is admirable, in so far as it goes, but then he insists that Dennett misses the main point. And the main point? Well, from the reviewer’s perspective Dennett simply isn’t being Marxist enough. Remember, this is a Marxist review!

In order to grasp the infernal bull of religion properly by the horns you need to understand Marx, the reviewer goes on. Why? Because Marx recognised how religion retards “class consciousness” amongst the proletariat, famously calling it “the opium of the masses” and “the sigh of the oppressed”. Religion then, according to Marx, is a comforting but ultimately false light: its promises of heavenly paradise, a necessary distraction from the injustices of the real world. At root, it is a necessary means of mollifying the proletariat masses. And who can doubt how often religion has and does serve precisely such ends – although we didn’t we actually needed Marx to tell us so. Thinkers back to Voltaire (and long before him) have repeated proffered that same opinion.10 Which is where I’ll finally come back to postmodernism, deconstruction and Derrida.

Here’s the actual sentence in the review that snagged my attention, causing me to make a connection that had perhaps been obvious all along:

“[But] Marxism does recognize that material factors are ultimately to be found at the root of all ideology, of which religion is a part.”11 (Emphasis added.)

Soon afterwards the reviewer backs this same assertion with a quote taken directly from Engels:

“Still higher ideologies, that is, such as are still further removed from the material, economic basis, take the form of philosophy and religion. Here the interconnection between conceptions and their material conditions of existence becomes more and more complicated, more and more obscured by intermediate links. But the interconnection exists.”12

Suddenly, it can all be fitted together. Since for the Marxists too, not just religion, but all “higher ideologies”, might be whittled back to their cultural and historical constructs. A deconstruction almost worthy of Derrida, with the difference being in the placement of emphasis: for Engels the cultural and historic conditions being “material”, whereas for Derrida they are “semiotic” – whatever that exactly means.

Marxism is an entirely Capitalist heresy, said the late political satirist Gore Vidal, adding, just as Capitalism was itself a Christian heresy. Not that these ideologies are by essence one and the same, no more than it automatically follows that since a frog develops from a tadpole, both creatures are inherently identical and indistinguishable. Vidal’s point is simply that these three mutually antagonistic doctrines, Christianity, Capitalism and Marxism, are closely related by origins.

Following on then, postmodernism ought to be understood as a Marxist heresy, and thus, by extension, just another in a line of Christian heresies. It is, to extend Gore Vidal’s insightful analysis, a cousin of Christianity twice-removed. Or look at it this way: when Derrida says, “there is nothing outside the text”, is he saying anything so radically different from “The Word is God”? The circle, it seems, is complete.

*

But I cannot finish the chapter here. For though it is certainly fair to draw comparisons between the “social constructs” of postmodernism and the “false consciousness” of Marx, it is unfair to judge them as equals. Marx never denied the possibility of “true consciousness”, since this is, broadly speaking, his goal. Derrida’s approach is altogether foggier, whilst rejoicing in the rejection of all “logocentric” reason. So determined to escape from every possible kind of absolutism, the dangers of which are evident enough, he finally leads himself and his followers into the shifting sands of relativism. Once there, and afraid to face up to truth in any shape, this nihilism is thinly veiled by obscurantism and sophistry.

In 1966, when Jacques Derrida met Paul De Man they quickly became friends and colleagues. Independently and together, they continued to develop their theories of deconstruction. However, you won’t find any reference to Paul De Man in my Postmodernism for Beginners guide, because in recent years De Man has slipped a little off the pages. Why is this? Perhaps because after his death, evidence came to light that during the war he had been an active promoter of Nazism.

Some articles penned for the Belgian collaborationist newspaper, Le Soir, during the first years of the war, had indeed been explicitly antisemitic, referring to the “Jewish problem” and how it was “polluting” the contemporary culture. More shockingly, De Man had continued producing his albeit modest contribution to the Nazi propaganda machine, when he must surely have known that a genocide was taking place on his doorstep. In the wake of the first expulsion of Belgian Jews, as thousands were crushed into the cattle wagons, and driven from homes in Brussels to the horrors of Auschwitz, De Man had continued to peddle such poisonous nonsense. When news of De Man’s Nazi sympathies first came out, this story actually made the front page of the New York Times, generating a furore that seems a little surprising today. It provides a measure of how much De Man’s star has faded.

But then, in the aftermath of such shocking revelations, Derrida defended his old friend – as well as the reputation of their shared child: deconstruction. Aside from the appeals to justice and fairness, Derrida made use of his own deconstructive methods in articles such as the poetically titled “Like the sound of the sea deep within a shell: Paul De Man’s war” and then (in response to further criticism) “Biodegradables: Six Literary Fragments”. De Man must be understood within his cultural context, Derrida insisted throughout13.

In later years, Derrida quietly admitted that some texts (and ideologies) were more equal than others, even attesting to a Marxist element within his own branch of deconstruction (at least if Postmodernism for Beginners is to be believed). Whatever the case, in his defence of De Man, Derrida clearly understood how his slippery theory might profitably be used to paint black as grey and grey as white.14

It was precisely this same lurking danger that George Orwell had understood so well, and which he laid out so clearly within the covers of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His [Winston Smith’s] heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yes he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien [an Inner Party official], and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote [in his secret diary]:

‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.’”15

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So much for the murk of postmodern unknowing. There are other ways to challenge logocentrism – that pursuit of certainty through reason that Derrida so detested. So I’d like to finish this chapter by dispelling the Occidental mists a little with thoughts from abroad.

The teachers of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism from centuries past also impressed upon their students that proper understanding cannot be grasped by the indelicate gloves of verbal or logical reasoning. However, in contrast to Derrida and the others, they did not confuse reason with objectivity.

One such teacher, Dofuku said: “In my opinion, truth is beyond affirmation or negation, for this is the way it moves.” Here then, to finish, a few alternative words on the complex relationship between language and the world. The first of these are lines taken from the Chinese tradition of Ch’an, from a collection written down in the thirteenth century16:

Words cannot describe everything.

The heart’s message cannot be delivered in words.

If one receives words literally, he will be lost.

If he tries to explain with words, he will not awaken to the world.

And here, a later Japanese Zen story called “Nothing exists”17 that cautions the student against the ever-fatal error of “mistaking the pointing finger for the Moon” by confusing any description of reality with reality itself:

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realisation, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”

Dokuon, who had been smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”

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1 BEYOND NATIONS & NATIONALISMS: One World, Noam Chomsky on Post Modernism and Activism

From a discussion that took place on LBBS, Z-Magazine‘s Left On-Line Bulletin Board, 1997.

2 “So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood.” Ibid.

3 All quotations without footnotes in this section are drawn from “Postmodernism for Beginners” by Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt, Icon Books Ltd. Whether or not these are the words of Jacques Derrida is not always made clear, but then why should we worry about authorship when as Bartes pointed out: “readers create their own meanings, regardless of the author’s intentions: the texts they use to do so are thus ever-shifting, unstable and open to question.” (p.74)

4 “As for the “deconstruction” that is carried out… I can’t comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies – of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren’t, a possibility to which I’ll return.” Noam Chomsky, source as above.

5 Published in Social Text #46/47 (spring/summer 1996) pp. 217-252. Duke University Press.

6 Sokal, Alan (May 1996). A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies. Lingua Franca.

7 He adds here that: “It’s understandable that the editors of Social Text were unable to evaluate critically the technical aspects of my article (which is exactly why they should have consulted a scientist). What’s more surprising is how readily they accepted my implication that the search for truth in science must be subordinated to a political agenda, and how oblivious they were to the article’s overall illogic.” Ibid.

8 For publishing Sokal’s original paper, the journal Social Text received Ig Nobel prize for literature (1996).

9 “The fall of the Berlin Wall did more than any of the books that I, or anybody else, has written, to persuade people that that was not the way to run an economy.” quote from free-market economist, Milton Friedman.

10 Voltaire, who was an outspoken critic of religious and, in particular, Catholic fanaticism, clearly understood and bravely acknowledged the relationship between church authority and political power more generally. In his Dictionnaire philosophique (1764), the main target of which is the Christian church, and its doctrinal belief in the supernatural, he wrote dryly: “As you know, the Inquisition is an admirable and wholly Christian invention to make the pope and the monks more powerful and turn a whole kingdom into hypocrites.”

11 “Dennett’s dangerous idea”: a review written by James Brookfield (6 November 2006) of Breaking the Spell: religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett, Viking Adult, 2006. Review taken from World Socialist Web Site published by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI).

12 Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Part 4: Marx, by Friedrich Engels, First Published: 1886, in Die Neue Zeit, and translated by Progress Publishers in 1946.

13 “First, Derrida argues, de Man is not responsible for all of the many evils of Nazism or for the Holocaust. To compare him to Mengele, as one writer did, is unjust. Second, it is unjust to read de Man’s later writings as an admission of guilt or responsibility – or as an attempt to deny responsibility – for what he did during World War II. Third, although de Man wrote a series of articles expressing the ideology of the occupation forces and one article which is blatantly antisemitic, it is unjust to judge his whole life based on that one episode in his youth. Fourth – and this is the most controversial point in his argument – Derrida suggests that de Man’s articles are not as damning as one might be led to expect when they are read in the appropriate context. According to Derrida, the explicit antisemitism of the worst article is equivocal, and it is hardly as bad as many other articles in Le Soir. …”

“Nor can one object that these two articles do not discuss deconstruction or employ deconstructive techniques. In fact, both possess interesting and sustained discussions of deconstruction and its place in the academy, as well as many passages explicitly offering and rejecting possible connections between deconstruction and justice, or between deconstruction on the one hand and fascism or totalitarianism on the other..” passages taken from Transcendental Deconstruction, Transcendent Justice, originally published in Mich. L. Rev. 1131 (1994) by Jack M. Balkin.

14 Jack Balkin, respected academic and defender of deconstructionism, acknowledges the dangers of following its relativistic course when it leads toward nihilism. He explains how Derrida betrays his own theory to avoid this error: “[First] Derrida offers deconstructive arguments that cut both ways: Although one can use deconstructive arguments to further what Derrida believes is just, one can also deconstruct in a different way to reach conclusions he would probably find very unjust. One can also question his careful choice of targets of deconstruction: One could just as easily have chosen different targets and, by deconstructing them, reach conclusions that he would find abhorrent. Thus, in each case, what makes Derrida’s deconstructive argument an argument for justice is not its use of deconstruction, but the selection of the particular text or concept to deconstruct and the way in which the particular deconstructive argument is wielded. I shall argue that Derrida’s encounter with justice really shows that deconstructive argument is a species of rhetoric, which can be used for different purposes depending upon the moral and political commitments of the deconstructor.”

This perfidy, Balkin celebrates, suggesting that Derrida’s new form of “transcendental deconstruction” be universally adopted: “Yet, in rising to respond to these critics, just as he had previously responded to the critics of de Man, Derrida offered examples of deconstructive argument that were not wholly consistent with all of his previous deconstructive writings. They are, however, consistent with the practice of deconstruction that I have advocated. This is Derrida’s perfidy, his betrayal of deconstruction. Yet it is a betrayal that I heartily endorse. …”

15 Quote taken from Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 1, Chapter 7.

16 Ibid, p.123. Extract taken from The Gateless Gate by Ekai, called Mumon. Transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps. [I have modified the final line to render a more poetic effect. The original reads: “If he tries to explain with words, he will not attain enlightenment in this life.” In making this small alteration I have tried to maintain the spirit of the original.]

17 Extract taken from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, an anthology of Zen and pre-Zen writing compiled by Paul Reps, published by Penguin Books, reprinted in 2000, p.75.

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Filed under analysis & opinion, « finishing the rat race », Noam Chomsky

the rise of the far-right – nothing new under a black sun

A friend recently sent me a link to the latest episode of the BBC news programme “Our World” in which correspondent Katya Adler examines the rise of far-right extremism in Germany. Adler reports on the public outrage after it came to light that a group of three neo-Nazis had been able, in spite of being well-known to the authorities, to go on a ten-year killing spree of racially-motivated murders.

The programme is available here.

Watching it has caused me to reflect again on that biggest of all historical questions, which is how so many Western democracies — including Germany of course — surrendered to the spell of Fascism during the middle part of the Twentieth Century. My own modest attempt to address this enormous issue had been intended to form the basis for one chapter of a book – a book that I’ve been trying to complete for many years. The chapter, provisionally titled “Into The Abyss”, was to have been one part of a larger section that I have since decided to abandon. Looking through the drafts again, I came to the conclusion that much that I’d already written about was perhaps more pertinent than ever. Having updated and edited those thoughts one last time, I have therefore decided to present them in the form of the following extended post.

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1. Not all Fascists look alike

Nazism, some claim (and I have encountered this claim on a number of different occasions), should not to be properly regarded as Fascism at all, but was precisely what it claimed to be, National Socialism. A casual inspection indeed gives credence to this contention.

Aside from the superficial facts that the Nazi flag was of a vibrant red, a colour it evidently shares with the flags of both Communism and Socialism; and that the Nazi Party (known in German as NSDAP) was, albeit prior to Hitler’s takeover, the German Workers Party (DAP); there is also, and more surprisingly perhaps, support for the argument on the basis of Hitler’s original manifesto, which is well-peppered with traditional leftist rhetoric1.

Actions, however, speak much louder than words, and Hitler and the Nazi Party did not wait around too long before revealing their true intent. So rather than pursuing policies that might have brought about a fairer redistribution of wealth, as any Socialist government is supposed to, the Nazis immediately set about protecting a select group of private corporate interests against the interests of the majority, and rather than promoting the rights of workers, they instead made fervent attacks against the trade union movement.

Apart then, from the flags and banners of fake solidarity, Nazism paid absolutely no heed whatsoever to the ideologies of Socialism, but was fixated instead with a much more ancient system of politics – a fixation that it shares with all Fascist ideologies – the belief that aristocracy in the literal sense of “rule by the best”2 is the only legitimate form of government. The trick with the Nazis having been one of camouflage, of using what might nowadays be described as ‘left cover’. A ploy that is necessary whenever any self-select elitist clique wants to ingratiate itself with the plebs it secretly wishes to oppress.

So it comes as little surprise to discover that today’s more openly neo-Fascist groups are also employing the same old strategy of over-stressing their tremendous concern for the plight of the common man. I have even heard reliable accounts of how our own Fascists, the British National Party (BNP), have sometimes tried to drum up electoral support in key constituencies by lending a hand, mowing the lawn or fetching the shopping. Al Capone made comparable efforts to increase his own popularity within the Italian community of Chicago by providing soup kitchens, Christmas meals and so forth. The parallel is hardly accidental.

Orwell, who wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, was also quite aware of how the Fascism of Germany had ridden piggy-back on the youthful Socialist movement. He had named the central party in his book Ingsoc and this gesture was obviously intended to provoke a reaction from both left and right alike. To clarify his own position, however, he later sent two press releases to counter claims from American reviewers (especially those working for Time-Life Corporation journals) – as well as objections from certain Communists – that Nineteen Eighty-Four was intended as an explicit attack on Socialism. The warning he delivers in the second of these statements (quoted below without abridgement) I think is clear enough — and especially so in the second paragraph:

“George Orwell assumes that if such societies as he describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four come into being there will be several super-states. This is fully dealt with in the relevant chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is also discussed from a different angle by James Burnham in The Management Revolution. These super states will naturally be in opposition to each other or (a novel point) will pretend to be much more in opposition than in fact they are. Two of the principal super states will obviously be the Anglo-American world and Eurasia. If these two great blocs line up as mortal enemies it is obvious that the Anglo-Americans will not take the name of their opponents and will not dramatise themselves on the scene of history as Communists. Thus they will have to find a new name for themselves. The name suggested in Nineteen Eighty-Four is of course Ingsoc, but in practice a wide range of choices is open. In the USA the phrase “Americanism” or “hundred percent Americanism” is suitable and the qualifying adjective is as totalitarian as anyone could wish.

“If there is a failure of nerve and the Labour Party breaks down in its attempt to deal with the hard problems with which it will be faced, tougher types than the present Labour leaders will inevitably take over, drawn probably from the ranks of the Left, but not sharing the liberal aspirations of those now in power. Members of the present British government, from Mr Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps down to Aneurin Bevin, will never willingly sell the pass to the enemy, and in general the older men, nurtured in a liberal education, are safe, but the younger generation is suspect and the seeds of totalitarian thought are probably widespread among them.”3

2. You don’t have to be mad to be a Nazi but it helps

The Nazis promoted all the usual extreme right-wing dogma about nationalist supremacy, militarism, and the Triumph of the Will (‘will’ in this context meaning only ‘the Will to Power’), with these hardline ideals then baked (or perhaps that should be ‘half-baked’) together with much odder and more exotic ingredients, such as the pseudo-scientific claptrap about a pure Germanic ancestory descended from the Aryan “master race”; archeological evidence supposedly washing up from the entirely mythological land of Thule. Thule being a sort of chilly Atlantis of the Arctic.

Justifications for the Nazis obsession with racial purity were also greatly assisted by dedicated (although now very obviously) quack scientists who went around measuring and cataloguing human skulls amongst other things; going to enormous efforts in order to sort out the “great races” from the “untermensch”. With hindsight, it’s all-too easy to see how the red of Nazism never symbolised the life-blood of the ordinary people, but had actually always represented blut of altogether more Aryan hue.

At this point it is important to realise how Nazism, like all other forms of Fascism, owes a very great legacy to the wrong-headed but persistent pseudo-Darwinian belief which chews up “survival of the fittest” and spews it back as “the fittest ought to survive”. Might becomes right, more or less by Fascist definition. Advocates of this view had found convenient support in the works of ‘Social Darwinists’ like Herbert Spencer, who viewed society as a larger kind of organism with its own parallel course of evolution. Society, the Social Darwinists argued, must be run on the basis of the natural order of the world itself: thus encouraging and not ameliorating the constant battle for survival, the Hobbesian “war of all against all”, because it is this perpetual striving that ensures strength both within species and, purportedly by extension, within races and societies.

With this in mind we can see that all of the preposterous racist pseudo-science was an attempt to prove solidly what was already so abundantly apparent (at least to the Nazis): that the master race was destined to rule the world. But did the Nazi elite actually believe any of this self-glorifying codswallop? Well, it seems very certain that many did, along with other beliefs that are far stranger again.

For instance, there was a secret order known as the Thule Society (an organisation that had adopted the swastika as its own signifier long before Hitler rose to power), and which had ties to Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophists. The Thule Society included some of the highest ranking Nazis, Rudolf Hess being one such, and behind the scenes many of the Nazi in-crowd were also drawn to the mysterious black light of the esoteric. Nor is it a mere Hollywood fantasy that the Nazis were on a quest to secure the Holy Grail, since, and as bizarre as it may sound, there seems little reason to doubt that one member of Heinrich Himmler’s elite SS, a man called Otto Wilhelm Rahn, was recruited with precisely that objective in mind4.

Inside Himmler’s SS headquarters Castle Wewelsburg, Hitler’s second-in-command and the other SS commanders, also played out their other fantasies, very earnestly believing they were the new Knights of the Round Table. It remains unclear as to whether or not the Fuhrer himself regarded such arcane escapades with any degree of seriousness, but that occult and ritualistic Nazi goings-on took place is beyond all reasonable doubt. It has even been reported that Churchill, learning of this Nazi foible for dabbling in the supernatural, planned to send false astrological reports in one of the more surreal attempts to trap his enemy. One report allegedly translated as follows:

“Mars is in the ascendant, so now is an auspicious time for meglomaniacal Taurians to press full-steam ahead with their schemes for absolute dominion. The world will soon be your oyster, and there could hardly be a better time to mount an invasion of Russia…”

*

Embedded below is the excellent German documentary “Schwarze Sonne” (Black Sun) written and directed by Rüdiger Sünner (released 1998) in which he explores the importance of esotericism and occultism in Nazi ideology, ceremony and ritual:

The video above was taken down so here’s a different upload:

3. Not all Fascists goose step

Needless to say I was taught nothing of this at school. Perhaps none of it was considered relevant for some reason. What they taught me instead was that the rise of Nazism was due in a great respect to the severe reparations inflicted on the German people after their defeat in the First World War: a form of extortion that had left the hungry and huddled masses desperate for a quick fix to make their country strong again. It’s a version of history that holds more than a grain of truth.

Times were unimaginably tough during the depression years of the 1920s and 1930s, and especially so for a German people, held to ransom by the victors of the Great War and suffering from economic meltdown caused by unprecedented hyper-inflation. At the height of this crisis, prices were doubling every two days, and so, in less than two years, the Mark had been devalued by a staggering trillion to one. More than enough to bring any people to their knees.

Yet the question hangs: why the special appeal of Nazism? Why too, the steady growth of other Fascist movements all across the Western world? The simultaneous rise of Benito Mussolini in Italy, of General Franco in Spain, of the largely forgotten dictator António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, and also, we should never forget, of Oswald Moseley back home in Blighty, and the simultaneous reawakening of white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan in America. The German depression had surely opened the wound upon which Nazism could gorge itself, but it must have attracted a whole variety of competitors, Communism being an obvious rival, alongside other more benign forms of Socialism, similar in kind to Roosevelt’s New Deal in America. So why the appeal of Fascism? The history I was taught in school failed even to speculate on any alternatives.

No less importantly, my high-school history lessons failed to inform us about how Nazism had appealed to so many from the ranks of the British ruling classes. We learnt about appeasement, which was an altogether more cross-party affair, but no special emphasis was ever given to the Cliveden Set, led by Lord and Lady Astor, with Lord Brand and Lord Halifax amongst the disreputable others, guiding the hand of Nevelle Chamberland as he signed that infamous piece of paper. Nor was there any mention of the more secret and scandalous affection of Edward and Mrs Simpson, and their romancing of the Third Reich.

Moreover, the history lessons had failed even to distinguish the ill-advised pacifistic motives of many who wished only to avoid more war (which is naive but understandable given such recent shadows cast by “the war to end all wars”), from the active support of Hitler by the so-called British Fascisti and the British Union of Fascists. There was no mention of either of these organisations or of their close ties to the British Conservative Party, which was, and of course remains, very much the political arm of the ruling classes. We also learned nothing of the Anglo-German Fellowship founded in 1935 by English merchant banker Ernest Tennant, with a membership that included the Governor of the Bank of England, Norman Montague alongside Hitler’s finance minister, Hjalmar Schacht.

Indeed, lessons in history stopped well short of pointing accusing fingers anywhere toward the leading industrialists and businessmen in Britain and America. Failing to record mention that companies like Standard Oil, Du Ponts, and IBM all made enormous profits from collaborating with the Nazi regime, whilst perhaps the greatest American industrialist of all, Henry Ford, had even been awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, a medal given to foreigners sympathetic to Nazism.

Nor was any part of our syllabus devoted to Prescott Bush and the helpful part he played in Hitler’s rise to power. Prescott was the father to George Bush snr, who during the time I was learning the history of WWII had himself risen to become Ronald Reagan’s Vice President. However, and almost exactly a half-century earlier, his dad, then a managing partner of ‘the world’s largest investment bank’ Brown Brothers Harriman, was providing the American financial base that supported German industrialist, Fritz Thyssen. For his part, Thyssen was one of Hitler’s main financial backers; very probably his most important.

You can read more about how the Bush family became so fabulously wealthy in an article entitled “How Bush’s grandfather helped Hitler’s rise to power” published by the Guardian in 2004.5

Back in school we were not even taught about how the British and American news media (with a special mention here to the Daily Mail) had consistently praised Hitler in glowing terms throughout the pre-war period. The clamour for Fascism being apparently just something like a noxious gas that had bubbled up unexpectedly from the depths – this was at least the impression I’d been given. But then perhaps the bigger truth is always a little too complicated for the classroom. After all, we were also taught that the First World War was the result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajavo. Comedian Rob Newman dismissed that particular theory with his own blunt and wholly rhetorical question: “I mean, just how popular can a guy be?”6

4. Fascism is more than just a swearword

By the early decades of the twentieth century, the Fascists had spread their obscene ideology across much of the industrialised world. But what precisely is Fascism? Is it even a useful term? It may come as a surprise to discover that Orwell, who was of course staunchly anti-Fascist, considered the term itself to be unhelpful, writing in 1944 (so just a few years after fighting against Franco) that:

“The word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else… almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’.”7

This is widely quoted – and as a matter of fact I’ve lifted the above quotation deliberately unaltered from the pages of wikipedia.8 My purpose here being to illustrate how Orwell’s intended meaning is often significantly altered by abridgement. The complete passage revealing that Orwell is not in actual fact saying the word ‘Fascism’ has no meaning whatsoever, but only that different opponents of Fascism confuse the same term in different ways. Allow me then to reveal what was left clipped out by way of the ellipsis:

“…Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning. To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic. Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others. Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.”

Just as importantly, Orwell’s remarks are taken entirely out of context. For he is not advocating that we abandon the label of ‘Fascism’, but merely offering his account of why its nail is so hard to hit. Though it is only in his conclusions, laid out in the subsequent paragraph, where this finally becomes apparent:

“[But] Fascism is also a political and economic system. Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it? Alas! we shall not get one — not yet, anyway. To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make. All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.”

5. Being Fascist means never having to think for yourself again

Whereas there are no doubt a few corners of academia in which the debate continues regarding whether or not Hitler and the Nazis were Fascist in any strict sense, there can be no argument at all when it comes to Mussolini. The blackness of Mussolini’s shirt is never seriously questioned. It was Mussolini, after all, with help from his propagandist Giovanni Gentile, who had together outlined the first formulation of the political doctrine of Fascism. It was Mussolini indeed, who coined the term ‘Fascism’, drawing it from the Latin word ‘fasces’, a symbol taken from the Roman Empire which employed a bundle of sticks tied around an axe to signify “strength in unity.” So what then, did Il Duce have to say for his bastard child?

To begin with, in his “Doctrine of Fascism”, Mussolini states that Fascism is fundamentally anti-individualistic, going on to explain that:

“The Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man as a historic entity.”9

In other words the Fascism he describes directly contends with, and flatly contradicts the Enlightenment vision of man, to the fundamental extent that it denies the individual even the basic right to be the self-possessing justification of their own existence. The state is everything, Mussolini is saying, and you are nothing unless it decrees otherwise, and he backs all this up saying later:

“The Fascist conception of the State is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value.”

Adding a little later again that:

“Fascism, in short, is not only a law-giver and a founder of institutions, but an educator and a promoter of spiritual life. It aims at refashioning not only the forms of life but their content – man, his character, and his faith. To achieve this purpose it enforces discipline and uses authority, entering into the soul and ruling with undisputed sway. Therefore it has chosen as its emblem the Lictor’s rods, the symbol of unity, strength, and justice.”

In other words then, Fascism, at least according to Mussolini’s formula, is totalitarian to the extent that it imposes a collective weltanshauung – one all-embracing philosophy for all – a worldview that claims to guarantee absolute escape from the burden of individual freedom, with all the worry and responsibility that being free entails. But the price is high, of course, at least for those of us in the common herd, for what Fascism ultimately demands is nothing less than our souls:

“The Fascist conception of life is a religious one, in which man is viewed in his immanent relation to a higher law, endowed with an objective will transcending the individual and raising him to conscious membership of a spiritual society. Those who perceive nothing beyond opportunistic considerations in the religious policy of the Fascist regime fail to realize that Fascism is not only a system of government but also and above all a system of thought.”

Above all a system of thought… Yeah, yeah!

6. Fascists hate liberals, lefties, do-gooders, peacemakers and women (obviously)

“State ownership! It leads only to absurd and monstrous conclusions; state ownership means state monopoly, concentrated in the hands of one party and its adherents, and that state brings only ruin and bankruptcy to all.”

These are the words of Mussolini too. Old Mussolini, the bringer of Fascism, and not of course, Mussolini the young Communist. By this point Mussolini despised all things socialistic. He despised leftist ideologies just as whole-hearted as he despised liberalism and democracy, and he was unabashed in saying so:

“After socialism, Fascism trains its guns on the whole block of democratic ideologies, and rejects both their premises and their practical applications and implements. Fascism denies that numbers, as such, can be the determining factor in human society; it denies the right of numbers to govern by means of periodical consultations; it asserts the irremediable and fertile and beneficent inequality of men who cannot be levelled by any such mechanical and extrinsic device as universal suffrage.”10

And yet for many trapped within the lower social echelons, Fascism promises glory in the grandest terms. Why? Because firstly it says you can forget about your own sad and pathetic lives, which will in any case amount to nothing. For so long as you remain as individuals, acting in desperate isolation, you are nothing, and just as helpless as children. Not that you are about to be given much choice in any case, because the other promise of Fascism is that any who imagine otherwise and attempt to stand in the way of progress, will, of necessity and for the greater cause, be crushed like insects. There is no choice and yet Fascism demands that you choose: to sacrifice your nothingness to the greater triumph of the nation – although, I say ‘nation’ simply because historically Fascism has always wrapped itself in national colours, but actually flags of any kind might equally serve the same ends.

The impulse here, as Mussolini rightly claims, is a religious one. Religious because it offers meaning in exchange for sacrifice. A twisted religious meaning, certainly, in which the teachings of Christ are totally up-ended, so that the weak are condemned and Caesar anointed. And whilst Mussolini wishes merely to eradicate the meek and the feeble, he prefers to cast all the peacemakers straight to hell:

“Fascism does not, generally speaking, believe in the possibility or utility of perpetual peace. It therefore discards pacifism as a cloak for cowardly supine renunciation in contradistinction to self-sacrifice. War alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it. All other tests are substitutes which never place a man face to face with himself before the alternative of life or death. Therefore all doctrines which postulate peace at all costs are incompatible with Fascism.”11

Mussolini said that he owed much to William James, and in particular James’s famous essay “The Moral Equivalent to War”. Yet he must have read it badly. Perhaps the title of his own copy had been mistranslated to read: “morality is equivalent to war”. But then war is always a splendid diversion for tyrants, whilst also a clearing of the way for the proper redistribution of wealth in the Fascist sense: from the poor to the rich obviously.

7. Fascists see Fascism as natural

“The maxim that society exists only for the well-being and freedom of the individuals composing it does not seem to be in conformity with nature’s plans, which care only for the species and seem ready to sacrifice the individual. It is much to be feared that the last word of democracy thus understood (and let me hasten to add that it is susceptible of a different interpretation) would be a form of society in which a degenerate mass would have no thought beyond that of enjoying the ignoble pleasures of the vulgar.”12

You have no doubt already guessed that these are also the charmless words of Benito Mussolini. Laying down a challenge to what he regards as the innate decadence of liberal democracy, leading to “a degenerate mass [that] would have no thought beyond that of enjoying the ignoble pleasures of the vulgar”. Had Mussolini only had the opportunity to watch “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent”, he would no doubt have cited both as exemplary footnotes.

In the same paragraph, Mussolini is also claiming support for his ideology on the basis of Science, or more specifically what was then the comparatively new theory of Darwinian evolution. What he says is nonetheless scientific gobbledegook, although sadly it is gobbledegook that a great many will still inevitably mistake for truth. So to redress the matter succinctly, nature does not have any plans: that’s what Darwin actually said, and what modern biologists still believe. Whether the scientists are right or wrong is beside the point, the point being only that Mussolini and the other Fascists can derive no validation or justification from Science whatsoever.

I have also selected this passage because it shows Mussolini as ‘the improver’, and it is very likely the case that Mussolini, and Hitler, and Franco, and the rest of the wrecking crews regarded themselves as true social improvers 13. This should probably be our gravest concern about Fascism: that its main advocates are also ardent believers. They have come to love the smell of their own farts so much that they genuinely mistake them for perfume.

8. Fascism offers a diseased form of escapism

“If we want to fight Fascism we must understand it. Wishful thinking will not help. And reciting optimistic formulae will prove to be as inadequate and useless as the ritual of an Indian rain dance. In addition to the problem of the social and economic conditions which have given rise to Fascism, there is a human problem which needs to be understood.”14

These are the words of the great social psychologist and humanist, Erich Fromm, writing in 1941. The problem, Fromm argues, has to do with our need for belonging. A basic human need, that if unsatisfied, bursts out as an unassailable urge to sacrifice all else in order to secure it:

“The kind of relatedness to the world may be noble or trivial, but even being related to the basest kind of pattern is immensely preferable to being alone. Religion and Nationalism, as well as any custom or belief however absurd or degrading, if it only connects the individual with others, are refuges from what man most dreads: isolation.”15

Fascism actually has two faces, which is one of the reasons Orwell and others have found it such a brute to nail down. On the one hand, it is simply a highly effective way for the ruling class to maximise their control over the lower orders – Fascism being an extreme form of oligarchy, and one in which the oligarchs frequently prance around truly believing they are the new gods. Meanwhile, the ordinary Joe Fascist is given to understand that their own subservience makes them greater in a different way. In this it taps deep into unconscious desires, offering a quick fix to plug up a sometimes festering ‘God-shaped hole’:

“Brotherhood implies a common father. Therefore it is often argued that men can never develop the sense of a community unless they believe in God. The answer is that in a half-conscious way most of them have developed it already. Man is not an individual, he is only a cell in an everlasting body, and he is dimly aware of it. There is no other way of explaining why it is that men will die in battle. It is nonsense to say that they do it only because they are driven. If whole armies had to be coerced, no war could ever be fought. Men die in battle — not gladly, of course, but at any rate voluntarily — because of abstractions called ‘honour’, ‘duty’, ‘patriotism’ and so forth.

“All that this really means is that they are aware of some organism greater than themselves, stretching into the future and the past, within which they feel themselves to be immortal. ‘Who dies if England live?’ sounds like a piece of bombast, but if you alter ‘England’ to whatever you prefer, you can see that it expresses one of the main motives of human conduct. People sacrifice themselves for the sake of fragmentary communities — nation, race, creed, class — and only become aware that they are not individuals in the very moment when they are facing bullets. A very slight increase of consciousness and their sense of loyalty could be transferred to humanity itself, which is not an abstraction.”16

These are the words of Orwell again, a man who knew perfectly well what it feels like to be facing bullets. He also understood more clearly than most political thinkers, how virtues such as loyalty and courage can be coerced and corrupted to the detriment of all. So he writes in a review of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”:

[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades…. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.17

9. Fascism never went away

All of which finally brings me to an article I found on the Channel 4 website entitled “What is fuelling the rise of the far right?”18 Here is a pertinent extract:

While the far right movement means different things in [different] countries, these groups share a nationalistic cultural identity. However, perhaps surprisingly, it is also characterised by traditionally left-leaning economic policy.

The Demos study found that respondents were anti-establishment, anti-capitalism and supportive of the welfare state – but only for the country’s citizens.

Dr Erik Jones, Director of the Bologna Institute for Policy Research and Professor of European Studies at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Centre agreed.

“All of these groups have another thing in common – they are anti-traditional elites,” he told Channel 4 News.

But the main point being missed here, as in most, if not all, of the mainstream analysis, is that in Europe, America and much of the rest of the Western world, the political system has already been captured by a version of the extreme right. Not the old-style right of Hitler or Mussolini, which was built upon the foundations of bombastic nationalism, but a new brand of increasingly far-right extremism that cleverly disguises itself as non-ideological, tolerant and even moderate – I heard political commentator Tariq Ali recently refer to it as “the extreme centre”.

This new extremism chooses new methods to promote and protect its crony insiders. It says sorry but you really have no choice, these other chaps are simply too big to fail, adding, almost as an aside, that democracy wasn’t working in any case. And it finds new justifications for engaging in aggressive foreign wars that we are told have absolutely nothing to do with conquest and exploitation. War being nothing more than a matter of preemption, or if that fails to impress the populous, of humanitarianism. However, the new extremism finds old and very well-tested excuses when it comes to clampdowns on our individual freedoms, with the main one being, ironically enough, to protect us from ‘extremists’. The other, to protect us from ourselves, what else!

Bush and the rest of the neo-cons appeared to many (myself included) as a gang of Fascists, whereas Obama was supposed to bring ‘hope and change’. The sad truth is, however, that under Obama there has been an almost uninterrupted continuity of agenda.

It was Obama, not Bush, who recently passed into law the right to indefinitely detain without charge, and granted tacit but executive permission for security agencies or the military to torture and assassinate American citizens. It was Obama who expanded the wars into Pakistan, Yemen and Africa by increasing the use of mercenaries and drone strikes. Meanwhile, and as the US policy of ‘extraordinary rendition’ continues unabated, Guantanamo not only remains open, but is about to be upgraded.

The British government, which is soon to flood the streets of our Capital with military personnel all in the name of security, is also getting ready to grant legal permission for warrantless surveillance and secret trials. As the clampdown accelerates, Western governments far and wide are also selling off their national assets and much else besides: the prisons, police forces and even the military. All these are being corporatised. They are being made ready for a fuller merger of corporation and State, almost exactly as Mussolini had conceived in his own Fascist system.

At the same time, our governments which, wretched as they are are, nevertheless form some kind of insulating democratic buffer from pure totalitarian rule, are deliberately surrendering their own independence, and with it, our national sovereignty. A clique of unelected, and thus untouchable, ‘technocrats’ steadily taking over the reins to better serve the special interests of that small, offshore globalist elite they actually represent. So the truth is that our creeping case of Fascism (since this is the only valid description – totalitarian is too polite) did not arise from the kinds of fringe movements identified and surveyed by the trendy lefties at Demos, but is being rammed down our throats by the powers above.

Back down at street level, the new attraction of the far-right should come as no surprise to anyone at all. When times get tough, Fascism of all kinds has an unerring habit of rearing its filthy head and trying to look respectable. And it will automatically seem like an appealing final solution for some stuck at the bottom of the current social scrapheap, whilst appealing as strongly to many in ‘the squeezed middle’ who are suddenly feeling as abandoned as those they had previously despised for being beneath them. Free to throw-off any last pretenses of liberalism, they can relish the licence granted to fully unleash their always latent bigotry.

To those who sympathise, the allure of Fascism will always appear like a new kind of freedom, although it ought to go without saying that the low-ranking Fascist cheerleaders are greatly deceived. Any appearance of new freedom being a complete illusion, and if licence is ever fully granted to release the full furies of outright Fascism, they are almost as likely to become fresh victims as the staunchest of anti-Fascists.

Fascism only actually serves the special interests of the dominant and already established minority. It elevates the rule of the old aristocracies, the mega-wealthy and the super-connected, alongside the most powerful financial and business leaders of the major corporations. Such an absolute consolidation of political power in the hands of the few depends upon the thorough trampling down of the overwhelming majority, and this is really the essence of Fascism. Traditionally, as well as economically, Fascism also relies on the maintaining of a ceaseless and expansionist war.

Obviously Fascism tries to look radical and new, and in this reincarnation the more sophisticated front has audaciously stolen the gown of multiculturalism. Even elements of street-level Fascism now pretend to be all-inclusive; the outstanding example being the English Defence League, which has stepped forward to replace worn-out whites-only clubs of the old National Front and the BNP. Fascism has gone postmodern, so beware… beneath the thinnest of disguises nothing has really altered. Fascism, whether at street level or within the highest echelons of our societies, is always the oldest and most reactionary game in town.

1 The party program of the NSDAP as proclaimed on 24th February 1920 by Adolf Hitler at the first significant party gathering was subsequently summarised as 25 points. Point 13 states that: “We demand the nationalization of all associated industries (trusts). Point 14 states that: “We demand profit-sharing in all large industries. Point 15 states that “We demand an improvement in old age welfare. Point 20 states that: “We demand the education at the expense of the State of outstanding gifted children of poor parents without consideration of station or occupation.” Point 21 states that: “The State is to care for the elevating of national health by protecting the mother and child, by prohibiting child-labour…” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Socialist_Program#German_Party_program

2 Aristocracy deriving from the Greek aristokratia with aristo- meaning ‘best’.

3 The first press release read as follows:

“It has been suggested by some of the reviewers of NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR that it is the author’s view that this, or something like this, is what will happen inside the next forty years in the Western World. This is not correct. I think that, allowing for the book being after all a parody, something like Nineteen Eighty-Four could happen. This is the direction in which the world is going at the present time, and the trend lies deep in the political, social and economic foundations of the contemporary world situation.

Specifically the danger lies in the structure imposed on Socialism and on Liberal capitalist communities by the necessity to prepare for total war with the USSR and the new weapons, of which of course the atomic bomb is the most powerful and most publicised. But danger lies also in the acceptance of a totalitarian outlook by individuals of all colours.

The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”

Both press releases are recorded in Bernard Crick’s essay “Nineteen Eighty-Four: Context and Controversy” published in “The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell”, edited by John Rodden, p.154.

4 Rahn wrote two books: Kreuzzug gegen den Gral (Crusade Against the Grail) in 1933 and Luzifers Hofgesind (Lucifer’s Court) in 1937. Following publication of the first of these, Rahn’s work came to the attention of Hitler’s second-in-command and Head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. Rahn was invited to join up as a junior non-commissioned officer and then became a full member of the SS in 1936.

5 “How Bush’s grandfather helped Hitler’s rise to power” written by Ben Aris and Duncan Campbell, published by the Guardian on September 25, 2004. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/sep/25/usa.secondworldwar

Although not attributed, the original research can actually be traced back to Webster G. Tarpley’s “George Bush: The Unauthorised Biography” which was published more than a dacade earlier in 1992 and that is available for free online at http://tarpley.net/online-books/george-bush-the-unauthorized-biography/

6 Here is a report taken from the Guardian newspaper (29th June 1914):

“The Austrian royal house has had enough tragedies in its history, and facts might well have spared it another. It was not to be. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Francis Joseph and heir to the throne, has been most cruelly murdered at Sarajevo, and his wife, Duchess Hohenberg, has shared his fate. Two attempts were made on their lives in the course of the day, a fact that would seem to point to conspiracy. What its motives may have been we do not know, nor do they greatly matter. Had the archduke been a cruel tyrant, and had the records of Austrian rule in Bosnia been as bad as they have in fact been good, the murder would still have been an abominable crime. It is a difficult and at present an ungracious task to speculate on what influence the crime may have on Austrian politics.”

This is the original version as republished a few years ago. For some reason it has since been slightly altered but a version can now be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/1914/jun/29/fromthearchive

I find the report interesting for two main reasons. Firstly, it highlights the likelihood of some kind of conspiracy – and clearly journalists of the day were unafraid of using the c-word. Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, there seems to have been little concern about the wider repercussions outside of Austria.

7 “What is Fascism?” essay by George Orwell, first published in Tribune. — GB, London. — 1944. http://orwell.ru/library/articles/As_I_Please/english/efasc

8 I can no longer find any entry on wikipedia that precisely matches the quote with ellipsis as stated although I can find other truncated versions in a number of wikipedia articles in which Orwell’s full statement has been abridged to produce the same effect.

9 A translation of the Benito Mussolini “Doctrines” section of the “Fascism” entry in the 1932 edition of the Enciclopedia Italiana. From the publication “Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions”, by Benito Mussolini, 1935, ‘Ardita’ Publishers, Rome. All quotes have been taken from the only complete official translation I can find on the web. http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/mussolini.htm

10 ibid.

11 ibid.

12 ibid.

13 “The Fascist negation of socialism, democracy, liberalism, should not, however, be interpreted as implying a desire to drive the world backwards to positions occupied prior to 1789, a year commonly referred to as that which opened the demo-liberal century. History does not travel backwards. The Fascist doctrine has not taken De Maistre as its prophet.” Also taken from Benito Mussolini “Doctrines” section of the “Fascism” entry in the 1932 edition of the Enciclopedia Italiana.

14 “The Fear of Freedom” by Erich Fromm, published by Routledge, 1960. Extract taken from Chapter 1, “Freedom – a psychological problem?”, p3.

15 ibid, p15.

16 From “Notes on the way” by George Orwell, first published in Time and Tide. London, 1940. http://orwell.ru/library/articles/notes/english/e_notew

17 From a review of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, written by George Orwell, published in New English Weekly, March 21st, 1940.

18 From an article entitled “What is fuelling the rise of the far right?” published November 14, 2011. http://www.channel4.com/news/has-the-euro-crisis-fuelled-a-rise-of-the-far-right

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