Manufacturing consent

Print edition : May 26, 2017

A screen grab of President Donald Trump’s twitter feed. By appealing to emotions in a way that sidelines balanced debate, Trump has undeniably created a world of post-truth politics of deflection, says the author. Photo: J. David Ake/AP

A hard-hitting book coming at a time when the dismal reality of our times casts a shadow on democratic institutions.

“Those who control the present control the past. Those who control the past control the future.”

—George Orwell

GEORGE ORWELL’s notion of propaganda and the power to manipulate public opinion through the state machinery, particularly by using the media, launching political campaigns, deploying lobbyists and rewriting history, and by means of secrecy, constant surveillance and harsh punishment, underscores the absolute mechanism of control over the subjects’ every action and thought. How the public thinks and reasons depend on the propaganda that the state uses to “manufacture consent”.

Focussing on the United States, Jason Stanley argues in his book that propaganda is a salient feature not only of authoritarian states but also of democracies where, to use the Althusserian expression, the “ideological state apparatus” successfully manipulates thought. “Authoritarian propagandists are attempting to convey power by defining reality. The reality they offer is very simple. It is offered with the goal of switching voters’ value systems to the authoritarian value system of the leader,” he says. Indian democracy today blatantly uses the propaganda machinery in the same manner that Goebbels used it in Nazi Germany.

Demonising totalitarian regimes for their use of propaganda is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Demagoguery, it has to be understood, survives with the help of public support, which is maintained through appeals to nationalism, patriotism, racism, greed and fear. Hermann Goering, the Nazi propagandist, explained this stratagem from his cell in Nuremburg: “People can always be bought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” Stanley corroborates this idea of the rabble-rousing oratory that uses language to signify the support of liberal democratic ideals in “the service of undermining these very ideals”.

Stanley carries out a perceptive analysis of propaganda and its working in neoliberal democracies, underscoring the ideological oppositions or conflicts inherent in society. Interestingly, in democracies ideological warfare is allowed to seep imperceptibly into the system, which distinguishes them from authoritarian states and their visible designs of carrying out a perpetual onslaught on the impressionable minds of the public. Nazism, therefore, is no different from democracy where, paradoxically, propaganda coexists with the notional idea of justice and equality. “Democracy is a system of self-rule that is supposed to maximise liberty. Freedom of speech, especially public political speech, cannot be restricted in a democracy. But the unrestricted use of propaganda is a serious threat to democracy,” Stanley says.

Moving from Platonism to contemporary philosophy, Stanley dissects the social structures underpinned by language to show how propaganda shapes public opinion or consciousness. How propaganda undermines individual consciousness is clear from the affirmations of democratic values by protesters who end up ignoring the necessity of rebuilding labour movements, dismantling prisons or dispossessing the ruling elite. The use of peaceful dialogue displaces the dire need to underscore the violence of capitalism and the egalitarian requirement of ushering in a system that fights for redistribution of power and wealth.

Post-truth propaganda

In a post-truth world, lies overtake truth while the ideology of American exceptionalism, ultranationalism, racism and class distinctions overpowers any rational view of civil society, which opposes discrimination against immigrants and the dispossessed. Stanley, therefore, makes a case for a democracy that can stand the test of material equality. However, he finds inequality the overriding feature of contemporary democracies. Pervasive but subterranean propaganda sustains this material inequality. This, he feels, can finally threaten the institution of liberal democracy.

Stanley, however, argues that propaganda is not necessarily false or insincere. To him, what is termed as “supporting propaganda” openly exhibits its intentions and does not hide the ideals it wants to promote. On the contrary, “undermining propaganda” strategically promotes an agenda while undermining it. For instance, issuing a policy for the public good can be designed to actually favour only a particular section of society. Take the case of an ideology that intends to promote meritocracy. On the face of it, the ideology of distributing resources on merit stands the test of egalitarianism. But often this is not the case, and the ideology of the elitists who control the resources remains essentially inconsistent.

Interestingly, the deprived lot accept the flawed ideology and remain blind to their state of oppression. “Inequalities thus stir up a flawed meritocratic ideology, which constitutes the breeding ground of the propaganda that imperils … any democracy. Doctored news and misinformation become the norms of the world we live in, a resonance of Hitler’s democracy,” Stanley says. Therefore, the dominant ideology of meritocracy becomes the ideology of the oppressed. Hitler’s Mein Kampf emphasises the appeal of propaganda “to the feelings of the public rather than to their reasoning ability”. Intentionally biased and one-sided arguments that are repeated continuously become the truth. And if all accept the lie, then the lie passes into history and becomes the truth.

Trump and lies

This is true of President Donald Trump’s administration with its daily lies and flip-flops. While the American tragicomedy unfolds, the tweeter-in-chief befuddles, obfuscates and distracts, all the while tweeting about his delusory promise of making America Great Again, about eliminating Islamic State from the face of the earth, and about using his well-honed negotiation skills to bring China, North Korea, Russia, Iran and Syria to their lowly knees. It is nothing but politics of deflection. Stanley defines this as propaganda that is “characteristically part of the mechanism by which people become deceived about how best to realise their goals, and hence deceived from seeing what is in their own best interests”. Stanley points disdainfully to the doublespeak of Trump in a recent article: “Trump engaged in rhetorical tactics unprecedented in recent American electoral history… and repeatedly endorsed obviously false claims [through] odd comments, retractions, semi-retractions and outright false statements.”

By appealing to emotions in a way that sidelines balanced debate, Trump has undeniably created a world of post-truth politics of deflection.

Stanley’s book is indeed timely and hard hitting and comes at a time when the bleak and dismal reality of our times casts a dark shadow on the democratic workings of our institutions. Inequalities and racial injustice are unremittingly perpetuated with the “misuse of democratic vocabulary for ideology’s selfish purpose”. Coming to grips with the art of propaganda thus becomes a sine qu a non of not only safeguarding liberal democracies across the globe but also invigorating political philosophy through the understanding of the close relationship between language and politics.

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