Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries were created to be viewed by an audience in closed theaters.
Hitler’s mass-rally appearances were constructs of words, military symbols, architectural backgrounds and nationalistic emblems designed to have maximum effect on giant mobs gathered in the open air.
Propaganda today isn’t the same. It has evolved to an entirely different level. We no longer are propagandized exclusively as part of an audience that attends the showing of a documentary or that listens to a demagogue’s speech (e.g., Donald Trump’s rallies). Rather, with the advance of electronic communications, television, and computerization, society itself has become the propaganda-deliverer to such an extent that even rebellion is shaped by the propaganda that it (rebellion) claims to reject. And since we ourselves are part of society, our status as Americans is ironic at its core: one of our functions is to propagandize ourselves.
Such self-propagandizing is rooted in the fact that propaganda is no longer a type of false consciousness promoted by a few major institutions (state, the educational system, the church, etc.) in support of a dominant elite. Rather, it has become a way of life, a method of interaction between individuals, groups of individuals, bureaucracies, leisure activity organizations and so on. Although the division between those without power (workers, minorities and other disempowered groups) and those with it (owners of the means of production and communications, political leaders, top-level managers) remains central to U.S. life, the old ways (e.g., unions, established social-justice organizations, etc.) of combating that division and the false consciousness that supports it are no longer viable because those ways have become part of the problem, in that they create the illusion of opposition without in fact opposing the way of life/social order that is the problem incarnate.
Unions that allow the state to determine the number of strikers who can assemble at a plant gate are unions that have conceded the right to control union dissent to the state and big money. This is the very right that the original struggles for unionization refused to concede. As a result, they adopted a variety of unallowable/illegal tactics in order to achieve their ends, an approach today’s unions long ago relinquished.
Similarly with large civil rights organizations which gained their credentials during the civil rights/black power struggles of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Except for the occasional token demonstration against inequity, they concentrate almost entirely on legal issues that, although important, concede the status quo’s right to decide judicially what is and isn’t fair to blacks and other minorities. Only the re-emergence of urban unrest in the form of spontaneous (not controlled by major civil rights organizations) demonstrations against the police killings of unarmed blacks offers hope (under the Black Lives Matter banner) of a new era of racial justice struggles.
One could go on and on, giving examples from the feminist, antiwar and other movements of our era. They are crippled at almost every step by their enslavement to the concept that challenging the powers that be is best accomplished by first granting the powers that be the right to determine how, when, in what location and under what circumstances these formations are allowed to publicly protest.
In each of these behaviors, we propagandize each other by reinforcing our roles as bottom-tiered players in a game controlled by big money and the state.
In this way, we surrender our potential and become more politically emaciated daily. Inevitably, this leads to a new state of mind. Invisibility becomes our new vanity. Nothing pleases us more than to have grown so thin and weak that we are for all practical purposes unseen. In our own world, of course, in the shadows at the base of the Power World to which we have no access, yes, here we still can be seen by those who, along with us, play-act at leading meaningful lives. But to those in power, we are invisible as individuals. To them, we are nothings, beings of no consequence except as part of the gluttonous mass which throbs outside society’s power-centers, panting for everything capitalism sells — commodities, wars, myths of freedom, love of the homeland and its flag at all costs.
In keeping with advanced capitalism’s suffocation of our collective spirit, we have become fantasy images of the selves we’d like to be, not incarnations of them. Consequently, in the U.S. no left revolutionary is a left revolutionary and no anti-capitalist is anti-capitalistic.
We’re not radicals, we’re fashionistas. We don’t buy into a political vision but instead buy a way of looking, an appearance, a style. But there is more to it than this. Worship/purchase of style is itself a political vision, one rooted in an ontology which begins with the premise that decoration is the ultimate real. As a result, political goals have changed.
Eradicating poverty is no longer the issue: getting the poor to dress up in the right sneakers and enough bling to seem to have gotten out of poverty is. Being antiwar is no longer the issue either. Instead, the issue is dressing and talking in certain ways and in general surrounding oneself with the cultural artifacts (t-shirts, bumper stickers, peace jewelry, wall posters) of being antiwar. In this manner one becomes antiwar while participating in the dismantlement of an existing antiwar movement, then joining a self-labeled progressive contingent to elect a president (2008, 2012) who as a candidate helped redefine antiwar to mean let’s continue to go to war but in a different location, Afghanistan, than the one, Iraq, in which we’re currently waging war.
The fact that on many levels politics is reducible to fashion isn’t new. It is, however, more prevalent today than in capitalism’s previous stages. The evidence is everywhere: the New York Times ’“Styles” section, red carpet fashions that gain almost as much news coverage as the awards ceremonies that they are a prelude to, TV shows like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, and the makeover syndrome which has turned into a craze. Even tattooing, once a minor form of body decoration practiced only by so-called primitive societies and those individuals labeled as outsiders in our own society, has evolved in the west from a type of in-your-face nonconformity into an indispensable fashion statement for those anxious to convince the world of their bona fides as “outsiders.”
The use of tattooing, as with the employment of other forms of body art and symbolic images and gestures to signify identity, has become part of a process in which a symbol (tattoo, nose ring, etc) which supposedly symbolizes some aspect of our character (our rebelliousness, our defiance of fashion, etc.) ends up substituting for the very attitude it theoretically rejects.
It’s no longer necessary, for instance, to be rebellious or unfashionable in order to be considered rebellious or unfashionable. One must only own the symbols of rebellion and anti-fashion to accomplish this, which is easy since all of them are available as products at the local mall or online.
In fact, the internet is itself a mall, a digital marketplace available at every hour of the day, no matter the time zone. As such it’s the biggest advancement in consumerism’s/capitalism’s march forward since the birth of modern advertising in the wake of the assembly line’s invention in the early twentieth century. Consequently, at Amazon, E-bay, craigslist, iTunes, and niche sites catering to the needs of specific groups, there’s a place for everyone to shop or browse: foot fetishists, Lutherans, gays, Lions Club supporters, anarchists, transvestites, Minnesota Vikings fans, Green Party members, welders, domestic workers, etc. There is no escape from this phenomenon. No form of dissidence or nonconformity leads away from the existing political system but instead all lead, albeit by different routes, to the system – i.e., to the marketplace where one buys whatever is necessary in order to establish who one is.
Just as Move On and the Tea Party, in spite of yelling angrily at each other across the ideological divide, both lead us to the same voting booth that is owned lock, stock, and barrel by big money and the two mainstream parties, so all fashion statements from avant-garde to proletarian to conformist lead to the same place: the feeding of the capitalist maw. This is one of the ways in which propaganda has become a way of life, reducing everything we do, no matter how much we insist otherwise, into a reinforcement of, and an advertisement for, the very system we claim to see through and rebel against.
It is in this way that we have become the agents of our own indoctrination. As such, our actions help to fine-tune a society in which Nietzsche’s “revolution in values” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ and The Genealogy of Morality) has become not a revolution in insight but a prod to maxing out our credit cards. By tracking our buying habits and intellectual curiosities, digital systems transform each of our biological needs and mental interests into economic signals that provide capitalism with the data required in order to provide us with an endless slew of new products (e.g., battery-powered dildos, a talking toilet equipped with foot-warmer) and new entertainments (e.g., reality shows, digital gaming) in such a way that it (capitalism) sells us ourselves in order to keep going.
This is “who you are is what you buy” raised to the highest level. It is capitalism’s ultimate mockery of Marx whose working-class revolution, long ago devitalized by the system’s effective crushing of all movements for the radical expansion of democracy, has degenerated into a frenzy of coupon-cutting, shopping sprees, and dreams paid for with credit cards whose exorbitant interest rates bury us in anxiety while claiming to elevate us to consumer heaven.
This analysis may seem pessimistic or cynical to some. It isn’t. It is merely a description of a specific phenomenon: life at the center of the Empire, life in what used to be called “the belly of the beast.” It’s not, therefore, a description of the whole world or of all of humanity or of what the philosophers like to call “human nature.” It is merely a description of advanced capitalism/imperialism experimenting with ways to turn everything under its immediate influence into a smoothly functioning part of the apparatus that it is.
What this picture does NOT indicate is what cleverly made tools eventually may be developed, then used to wreck the apparatus. Such a wrecking is entirely possible. What doesn’t seem possible, however, is that the source of this wrecking will spring from within the apparatus’ core, the U.S. The apparatus owns too much of us for us to topple it. To do so would be the equivalent of toppling ourselves, a form of self-dethronement, a suicide. No population, certainly not ours, is likely to do this en masse.
But it could happen. Doing so, however, will require rejecting our current governmental/economic structure and creating a mass movement for radical people-oriented change that is prepared to bring corporate power to its knees and to prevent any of society’s major institutions, including the two main political parties, from interfering with our goals.
If such change does occur, it won’t be nice and we certainly won’t be able to look to the government for advice. We’ll have to produce our own advice and carefully choose our international allies from similar movements around the globe.