Public Enemy Number One: the Public


It’s important, when listening to the official shapers of opinion in the media, to ask ourselves what they really mean by the words they use. As Orwell pointed out in “Politics and the English Language,” those in power use language to obscure meaning more often than to convey it.

A good example is the recurrence of phrases like “endangered our national security” and “aided the enemy,” from people like Eric Holder, Peter King and Lindsey Graham, in reference to leaks by people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Now, they certainly intend to evoke certain associations in the minds of listeners with their word choices. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself responding in just the way the users intend — allowing their words to conjure up in your mind homes, families, neighbors, churches, a whole way of life, threatened with invasion and destruction by a nameless, faceless enemy — in the words of Orwell’s Two-Minute Hate, “the dark armies … barbarians whose only honour is atrocity.”

But if you look behind the words, their actual meaning is something entirely different. To the kinds of people who throw around such words, “national security” is a corporate-state world order enforced by the United States, run by people like themselves, which enabling global corporations to extract resources and labor from the people of the world and live off unearned rents. “The enemy” is you. And the danger is that you might figure out what’s going on and disturb their cozy little setup.

Alex Carey, historian of propaganda, argues that the central pillar of elite rule in mass democracies is the engineering of consent. In the late 19th century two phenomena emerged simultaneously: First, the giant corporation and the power nexus between corporation and state; and second, the threat to that power nexus from universal literacy and universal suffrage. Hence the importance of propaganda, of managing public opinion, in formally representative political systems.

Samuel Huntington wrote in The Crisis of Democracy, in 1974, that the United States in the two decades after WWII had been the “hegemonic power in a system of world order” — a state of affairs possible only because of a domestic power structure in which the country “was governed by the president acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the Executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private establishment.” And this, in turn, was possible only because of the acquiescence, the passivity, of the American people, and their acceptance of it as a natural, inevitable, and perfectly legitimate state of affairs.

The Sixties, as you might expect, scared the crap out of these people. Until then the “New Deal social contract” had worked fairly well (at least for middle class whites): We’ll give you a suburban home, a TV, a new car every five years, and a secure union job with benefits and periodic pay raises. In return, you’ll show up for work in between contract renewal times and let us manage the factories as we see fit without bothering your pretty little heads about it. And you’ll let us manage the world in the interests of GE, GM and United Fruit Company, and look the other way when we install genocidal fascist regimes or fund death squads in Indonesia, Nigeria and Latin America.

The 1960s was the first time since WWII when it seemed to dawn on a significant portion of the public that “another world is possible.”

Since then, management of public opinion to engineer consent has been doubly important to them. That’s why the “national security” community engages in psychological operations to manage public perceptions, the same way they’d manage the perceptions of a wartime enemy — in both cases,  the goalbeing to manipulate the desired reaction out of us.

See, we really are the enemy. Every once in a while one of them slips up and reveals that all that stuff about government representing the sovereign will of the people is so much buncombe. For example, former Clinton Press Secretary Sandy Berger’s statement in 2004: “We have too much at stake in Iraq to lose the American people.”

That’s why they get so bent out of shape when people like Manning and Snowden tell the enemy — people like you and me — the ugly truth about how their sausage is made. Their power depends on keeping us — the enemy — in the dark.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.

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