We have recently been very ‘exposed’ to Brexit to the point that there is now little left to say until the three and a half year period since the referendum in June 2016 either is further extended or ends. What the conclusion and aftermath will be remains to be seen. What is perhaps becoming more pertinent is the lesson to be learned, especially by the 27 member states of the EU that will one way or another feel the reverberations of this experience.
There are two distinct issues that need to be taken seriously. One of them we might just call propaganda although it is a modern and multifaceted version of an older form. The other is the effect on democracy or, at least, what remains of it.
At present the UK no longer has sufficient time to resolve the problems of online political advertising influencing voters in the forthcoming election. Social and news media have been found to be a major contributor the increasing propagandisation of election campaigning which, by its very nature relies on propaganda by contesting parties. Campaigners have suggested it should be voluntarily suspended by Facebook and Google until at least after the election. That is a matter of goodwill and loss of some revenue. It is well enough known that Russian interference in the Brexit referendum was very influential by propagating misinformation through both fake social media accounts and state sponsored media outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik. They clearly intervened in the 2016 presidential election in the USA; Russian trolls made fake claims of election fraud in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland. They have also tried to increase the public impact of terrorist attacks in the West. Theresa May accused the Russians of ‘…deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.’
The problem with democracy is that it is self destructive
We are now in a period when serious political discussion is almost unknown, replaced by sound bites that avoid directly informing us or responding to important questions, supplemented by carefully worded slogans, cleverly designed logos and well staged photo opportunities. In Europe particularly we are always quick to refer to Athenian democracy as the basis of modern democracy. Participation in it was inspiring, except that we tend to overlook the exclusion of women and slaves who were by far the vast majority of the population. It has only really been the last two centuries in which the modern version has been acclaimed, initially as a credible political system, then a victorious one in the wake of highly destructive wars that have, in some but not all instances, ended what have been considered undemocratic regimes. There are still some people who regard democracy as a ‘magic potion’ which will solve all problems and steer us toward a world in which peace and tranquillity will conquer all evils.
That overlooks the fact that all democracies have, by their very nature, a great deal of potential for self destruction. Followers of the belief in it as the perfect human condition tend to overlook its frailties and just how precarious it can be. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, said that it ‘will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed’. Thus, democracy, if we take Goebbels seriously, is exactly that which can bring it to the point that Robert Moss the Australian historian, wrote in 1977, “democracy can be destroyed through its own institutions.”
Hitler rose to power in a democracy that had a very liberal constitution, some people even say it was too liberal (if such a thing is possible in a true democracy), by using its democratic freedoms to chip away at and then destroy democracy. It was democracy that was established in 1919 as an outcome of defeat in war then attempted revolution that was never accepted by most of the elite, conspicuously the formerly powerful military, Junkers and large scale industry. It was founded with ideals that never overcame irreconcilable political, social and cultural divisions from the onset that saw a period of stability from 1924 to 1928 that was almost immediately destroyed by the Wall Street crash of 1929.
In 1951, philosopher Hannah Arendt looked back at what had happened in the country of her birth in her book ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ in which she said:
‘In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true… The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.’
It is naturally understandable that individuals who oppose all forms of injustice, including defending the very important right of free speech, often become cynical about democracy as it is understood and practised across Europe. Whenever we are lectured about our supposedly ‘inalienable rights’ by political leaders who constantly manipulate if not attempt to do away with them, it can seem like democracy is a hollow word that is not worth much.
What is democracy now?
Since the beginning of the Cold War after the initial peace in the wake of WW2, many of the notions of democracy we have seen have been based on what was seen to be the dominant form of politics and regime for the population in the USA. There people believed they saw democracy that was composed of popular control, equal rights, freedom of speech and of the press, the right to protest, all things considered to be keystones of the struggle to create a new and harmonious world. A blind eye was turned to political witch hunts and purges, the unequal rights of people of ‘white’ European origin over those of African origin particularly, but also indigenous people and other minorities who were not classifiable ‘white’ and when it came to the protest period of the 1960s how oppressive the means of dealing with that protest became. In fact, and it often seems strange unless examined very closely and in contradiction to right wing propaganda that claims to be democratic, Karl Marx had almost the same opinion of democracy as the founding fathers of the USA. He was, contrary to common belief, not at all dismissive of democracy when it was in the hands of the people for whom it is intended. The political structure of the USA is not and has never been a democracy. It was never the intention of the USA’s founding fathers who perceived democracy as a disease. In his 1807 ‘An Essay on Man’s Lust for Power’, John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the USA used words written to him in a letter from his wife Abigail in which she warned, ‘All Men would be Tyrants if they could…’ In his essay he goes on to conclude: ‘No simple Form of Government, can possibly secure Men against the Violences of Power. Simple Monarchy will soon mould itself into Despotism, Aristocracy will soon commence an Oligarchy, and Democracy, will soon degenerate into an Anarchy, such an Anarchy that every Man will do what is right in his own Eyes, and no Mans life or Property or Reputation or Liberty will be secure and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral Virtues, and Intellectual Abilities, all the Powers of Wealth, Beauty, Wit, and Science, to the wanton Pleasures, the capricious Will, and the execrable Cruelty of one or a very few.’
The American model is wrong
The founding fathers of the USA were set against any form of democracy because they simply believed that the common people were incapable of governance and said that they were by nature ‘capricious’. Therefore they created a politic of a ‘simple monarchy’ by creating an electoral system that uses an Electoral College that is actually a relic of 19th century slave owners, that allows for the disenfranchisement of the most vulnerable members of society and total alienation of almost half of all people who should be eligible to vote after all the restrictions that exclude others. In their ‘simple monarchy’ they elect a president who is in reality an ignorant autocrat who needs to be prepared to quash any right he can or is advised to do, who is supported an administration consisting of handpicked bankers, unconditionally loyal generals and leading party ideologues who in reality represent only the richest and most dyed-in-the-wool margins of society.
Furthermore, using that much admired model, the modern state under capitalism, although somewhat less under neoliberal governance, is concerned with political democracy but not economic democracy. Even where there are classic models of representative democracy, even the most liberal governments have no formal power over private capital. That remains the privilege of a small minority of usually male tyrants. With the greater part of all wealth available, they also control propaganda, thus have enormous influence over who governs us. This is a model often idealised, that has been assimilated into European political practice in modified forms to suit the national political identity of each country.
I own a book first published in 1957 that was reprinted to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2007 and has been reprinted and sold successfully again since. That book ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ is Vance Packard’s pioneering and farsighted work that revealed how advertisers used psychological methods to tap into our unconscious desires in order to persuade us to buy their products. The 1950s advertising world was a step on from when it became big business on Madison Avenue in New York in the 1920s. The creative directors watched the power of political propaganda in the young Soviet Union, as time when fascism grew into the 1930s, in turn offering inspiration to Goebbels and other specialists in the field of exerting influence on people through attractive words and images. There is in fact no real difference between advertising methods and propaganda since both use messages that are often subliminal and certainly need to be persuasive to ‘sell’ us something. Packard’s ‘book was an exposé of new techniques of mass manipulation that were developed by 1950s advertisers, techniques that still work today in the age of big data, by using psychology. One thing that Brexit, particularly since Johnson became prime minister, is that no matter how much we realise that a great deal of what we are fed is not the truth, we are now no longer able to separate what is made up with what is real. Therefore, we operate within a zone of doubt in which that which either appeals to our own prejudices or has a greater ring of truth than the actual truth forms our opinions. When governments use that tool to steer us toward a political goal, especially when dressed up as, on the one hand democratic and on the other to our advantage, then the elements of hidden persuasion work exceedingly well. As soon as we add the use of social media to press home targeted messages, particularly subliminally, which will include the sitting government, its opposition and other parties, as well as the known Russian contribution and not forgetting the likelihood that other states with a vested interest, for instance the USA, we will be bombarded with influences we often do not even notice. The 2014 independence referendum in Scotland was ‘interfered’ with as we know now, the 2016 referendum on EU membership in the UK more so, since then it has maintained support for Brexit despite the fact the campaign for the referendum was based on untruths and exaggerations and now the election campaign is probably already permeated with those methods. If Packard had lived until the present and still able to work as he had in the 1950s, he would have been able to reprise his work with the output being what I believe would be far more shocking than his original work still is.
Where do we stand right now?
Europe is in a precarious state at present. Politics and economics are at a crossroads between post WW2 closeness to electorates and the almost totalitarian control by a small number of oligarchs who in some cases have greater private wealth than a few nation states. Through their people implanted in parliaments, particularly directly in government, growing influence over administration as government departments are sold off to become ‘independent’ agencies in the hands of executives and shareholders and last, but not least, all kinds of media, the few hold power over the many. Whilst there are clearly people in the political sphere in our European political institutions that are fighting against this takeover, the wealthy owners have the greater access to the propaganda that persuades populations that they are growing richer in the best interest of those who may be poorer in real terms or perhaps whose economic lives have simply stagnated. They sell the lie that their wealth will carry those less well off with them. Thus the word democracy has been appropriated to serve a particular purpose that appears to gloss over all that is far from democratic by presenting it differently. At present the UK is the most easily seen example of what has happened, continues and may be the precedent for nations that follow that those of us who look see, but that we would wish many more people across our continent to see and stand firmly against.