Half a year into Obama’s second term, it has become clear what has been done under his watch. He brought to the world continued and unprosecuted massive banking fraud, drone attacks, indefinite detention, assassination of US citizens and an unprecedented war on whistleblowers. The rhetoric of hope and change has finally and undeniably revealed its true colors. Prominent dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky remarked how Obama’s assault on civil liberties has progressed beyond anything he could have imagined. All of these telltale signs mark the slippery slide toward totalitarianism that seems to now be escalating.
Edward Snowden’s NSA files unveiled to the world mass global surveillance and that the USA has become the United Stasi of America. The decay of democracy in the United States is now undeniable, as all branches of the federal government have begun to betray this country’s foundational ideals. The exposed NSA stories have had serious global impact, challenging the credibility of the US on all levels. Under a relentless secrecy regime, the criminalization of journalism and any true dissent has become the new norm. In recent months, a pattern of attacks on journalism has unfolded. Examples include the AP scandal of the Department of Justice’s seizure of telephone records, the tapping of Fox News reporter James Rosen’s private emails and the British government’s detention of David Miranda, partner of the Glen Greenwald, who was the primary journalist breaking the NSA story. On top of these recent developments, a media shield law has moved forward in Washington. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill that narrowly defines what a journalist can be, thus removing First Amendment protection from new forms of media. This all points not only to deep threats to press freedom, but to a general trend toward excessive state control through centralizing power.
The American corporate media takes all this in stride with a business-as-usual attitude that carries the meme of “Keep Calm and Carry On.” After the NSA revelations, author Ted Rall posed the question, “Why are Americans so passive?” Obama’s blatant violations of the Fourth Amendment have reached far beyond Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal in 1974 that led him to resign under threat of impeachment. In the midst of Obama’s aggressive persecution of those who shine light on government crimes, where are all the courageous Americans? How have the people allowed such egregious acts by the government against the Constitution? As scandals of the NSA continue to shed light on a further subversion of basic privacy within the internet, the drumbeat of war seems to be no coincidence. Obama’s preparations for an attack on Syria certainly changed the national conversation. Although Snowden’s revelations began to stir up debate and efforts for reform across the country, compared with mass protests breaking out in countries like Turkey and Brazil, the scale of the response has been relatively small and hasn’t reached the level needed for meaningful change. One can ask – do Americans even care – or are they so defeated and disempowered by a corporatized war machine they feel there is nothing they can do?
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The Slowly Boiling Frog and the “Good American”
One of the reasons for public passivity is the normalization over time of radical politics. A frog does not jump out of a hot pot if the temperature is slowly increased over time. The frog’s instinctual reaction to boiling water can be compared to an innate sense within us that detects dangerous, radical or controlling agendas and blatant unconstitutional and illegal actions of governments or corporations. Our ability to feel the changes of temperature in the habitat of this supposed democratic society has dulled and eventually incapacitated by subversion and perception management.
This control of perception is seen most blatantly in US politics with the manufactured pendulum between a faux right and a faux left. For instance, the handling of the issue of raising the federal debt ceiling in 2011 illustrates this machination of perception control. Michael Hudson, president of the Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends spoke of how the rhetoric of crisis is used to rush through otherwise impossible, unpopular agendas:
“Just like after 9/11, the Pentagon pulled out a plan for Iraq’s oil fields, Wall Street has a plan to really clean up now, to really put the class war back in business … They’re pushing for a crisis to let Mr. Obama rush through the Republican plan. Now, in order for him to do it, the Republicans have to play good cop, bad cop. They have to have the Tea Party move so far to the right, take a so crazy a position, that Mr. Obama seems reasonable by comparison. And, of course, he is not reasonable. He’s a Wall Street Democrat, which we used to call Republicans.”
The definition of liberal can move as opponents shift views. There is a false partisanship that slowly makes the public feel comfortable with what are quite radical and inhumane ideas and actions. This subversive form of perception management appears to have reached its height with the current presidency. This administration, with its crafted image of the “progressive Obama” has successfully co-opted the putative left and marched them into supporting neoconservative policies that they once claimed to reject. Greenwald described Obama as much more effective in institutionalizing abusive and exploitative policies than any Republican president ever could be. Hepointed out, for instance, how “Mitt Romney never would have been able to cut Social Security or target Medicare, because there would have been an enormous eruption of anger and intense, sustained opposition by Democrats and progressives accusing him of all sorts of things”. On the contrary, he continued, Obama would “bring Democrats and progressives along with him and to lead them to support and get on board with things that they have sworn they would never, ever be able to support.”
Chris Hedges in “Death of the Liberal Class” called the election of Obama as “triumph of illusion over substance,” “a skillful manipulation and betrayal of the public by a corporate power elite.” He pointed out how Obama was chosen as Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008 and that “the goal of a branded Obama, as with all brands, was to make passive consumers mistake brand for an experience.”
This subversive form of control seems to have evolved beyond the political tactics of the past. During the Bush era, manipulation was more open. Naomi Klein, author of “Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” outlined the state’s use of public disorientation after massive shocks for manipulation. Calling this “the shock doctrine,” Klein argues how from natural disasters to terrorists attacks, the state exploits crises by taking advantage of the public’s psychologically vulnerable state to push through elite agendas. A prime example was the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. After the 9/11 implosions of the Twin Towers, a climate of fear was manufactured with the “war on terror” rhetoric, accompanied by the repeated images of those Towers collapsing. This was followed by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s shameful performance – lying at the UN Security Council about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Before the public recovered from the horrendous tragedy, the nation was railroaded into an illegal war.
Obama’s manufactured brand has been effective in hiding his real intentions and those of the corporate overlords to effectively crush any meaningful opposition. The late comedian George Carlin pointed to the emergence of creeping total government control, saying “When fascism comes to America, it will not be in brown and black shirts. It will not be with Jack-boots. It will be with Nike sneakers and smiley shirts.” Under the guise of a Democratic president, Nobel peace prizewinner and constitutional scholar, Obama seems able to get away with policies unheard of since the last attempt at a large totalitarian state. The pretense of liberal normalizes the most radically rightist policies with glib rhetoric of national security and it neutralizes oppositional force. In responding to recent NSA leaks, Obama justified it as a vital part of the government counter-terrorism efforts and remarked that privacy is a necessary sacrifice for assuring security.
So many people have been fooled by fake campaign promises and friendly smiley faces, they are oblivious to what is really going on. Most destructive systems and murderous deeds are normalized and enacted in our name without the true consent of the governed.
What has unfolded in the US political and social landscape is a kind of numbing of the senses. The machinations of public relations, tawdry distractions and manufactured desires create an artificial social fabric. It is as if a layer of skin has been added around the body that prevents us from having direct contact with the real fabric of our immediate environment. Entertainment and corporate ads desensitize us. These create a lukewarm feel-good political bath replacing real human experience with pseudo-reality. This artificially installed skin intermediates our experience of actual events. It misinforms those inside the boiling pan, and prevents them from coming to know the world out of direct experience.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of good people”. History has shown how many people remain silent while witnessing the most egregious crimes against humanity. During the rise of Hitler in Germany, it was the “Good German” that became a bystander, supporting by default horrendous acts.
At the ceremony of the prestigious German whistleblower prize in Germany, the acceptance speech from Edward Snowden was read by security researcher and activist Jacob Appelbaum. Appelbaum spoke to the audience of how he now lives in Berlin because in his home country of the United States, true journalism has become a dangerous trade. He relayed the importance of not forgetting history and asked all Germans to share with Americans their experience with totalitarianism.
Numbed people of nations in the grip of fear easily lose connection with reality. Once we are divorced from our own senses, we come to rely on signals from outside and regard them as our own. No one person or nation is immune from this and Americans are not an exception. As Snowden said, we now live in a global turnkey tyranny. The key to overt fascism has not yet been turned, but smiley faces are everywhere. In the slowly coming-to-a boil water of the United States of Amnesia, it may be that many are now becoming the “Good Americans” who won’t speak up before it is too late.
The Empty Self and Representation as a New Authority
How have the American people lost touch with reality? What made us so vulnerable to manipulation and political and media misinformation? No doubt the corporate media played a large role in the controlling of perception, yet there is something deeper at work.
The root causes of passivity and apathy of the populace can be better understood by looking into a particular configuration of self that has emerged in Western history.
Psychoanalyst Phillip Cushman in “Constructing the Self, Constructing America” analyzed how in post-World War II United States, modern industrialization broke down traditional social bonds and restructured the reality of community and that out of this, a specific configuration of self emerged. He called it “the empty self,” “the bounded, masterful self” and described how it “has specific psychological boundaries, a sense of personal agency that is located within, and a wish to manipulate the external world for its own personal ends.” He characterized this empty self as one that “experiences a significant absence of community, tradition and shared meaning – a self that experiences these social absences and their consequent ‘interiority’ as a lack of personal conviction and worth; a self that embodies the absences, loneliness, and disappointments of life as a chronic, undifferentiated emotional hunger.”
Cushman argued how this new configuration of self and its emotional hunger was indispensable to the development of US consumer culture. Stuart Ewen, in his classic, “Captains of Consciousness” explored how modern advertising through its functioning as an instrument for the “the creation of desires and habits”was used as a direct response to the needs of industrial capitalism. “The vision of freedom which was being offered to Americans was one which continually relegated people to consumption, passivity and spectatorship,” Ewen saw this in the shift of the economy from production to consumption and of personal identity from citizens to consumers.
It did not take long for this covert manipulation of desires to be widely used for advancing certain economic or political agendas. Through unpacking his uncle Sigmund Freud’s study of the unconscious, the father of modern corporate advertising, Edward Bernays, gained insight into the power of subterranean desires as a tool for manipulation. In “Propaganda,” Bernays postulated that “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.” This deliberate work of controlling perception came to be understood as propaganda, and has been identified as “the executive arm of the invisible government.”
How does the invisible force of this governance work? How is effective manipulation of desires on such a mass scale accomplished? It has to do with a mechanism of the unconscious; desires and drives that most people don’t even know exist. Psychologist Carl G Jung took Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and examined the phenomena he identified as projection. Jung described how one meets one’s repressed materials in the form of projections outside and that this projecting is carried out unconsciously (as cited in Storr, 1983). In “Projection and Re-collection in Jungian Psychology“, Marie-Louise von Franz, an analyst who worked closely with Jung, explained how Jung likened projection to a “hook” upon which one hangs an object in a similar way one hangs a coat on a coat hook.
The Ad and PR industry channels our desires, then convert them into the desires for certain products or political candidates. This manipulation of desires relies on the ability to craft effective images of products that would induce the involuntary process of projection from individuals. Whether it is images of elected officials or celebrities, the latest laundry soap or high def TV, images outside present themselves as something that speaks to internal desires. They quickly appear before us as desirable objects – the representation of unconscious desires. Representation becomes simply an externalization of those unconscious and internal desires and emotions that are mostly unknown to us. Manipulation of desires in a form of representation squashes our capacity to create images and instead images are imposed upon us from outside. We lose connection with our own desires and not knowing the real roots of our emotions and drives, we are cheated in the act of determining our own actions. The activity of imagining is interrupted and cut short to a finished product as multiple ways of manifesting our desires are narrowed down to simple act of consuming. We become passive and end up carrying out the will of others.
Representation places the source of legitimacy outside of oneself. Whether it is a corporate brand name, political party, an ideology or slogans, one looks for objects of representation through which something inside can be projected out to the world. A good example is seen in the US political system, in the so-called representative form of government. This is the idea of electing officials to whom power is delegated to enact changes on behalf of the people. Another is found in the operation of corporations, where individuals, through purchase of a company’s stock become shareholders and supposedly indirectly influence the direction of the corporation; the theory is that the corporation represents their economic interests. Many began to regard these outer forms as possessing intrinsic authority, giving them power to govern and influence their own lives, when in reality what underlies both examples is simply something that represents what lives in us unconsciously and it is all about our interaction with that. The mechanism of representation harvests a mindset that makes people believe real solutions to problems can come from somewhere outside only.
With the advent of consumer culture and apparatus of image manufacturing that further reinforced the condition of the empty self, the notion of representation has come to form a new authority. Unlike the traditional authority of churches and the nuclear family, in representation, an authority is internalized and its force of control becomes more unrecognizable to those under its governance. “The only way corporate capitalism and the state could influence and control the population was by making their control invisible,” Cushman noted, “that is, by making it appear as through various feelings and opinions originate solely from within the individual.” This is seen most clearly in electoral politics, where candidates are pre-approved and outcomes are manipulated, yet we are made to think we are making independent and individual decisions about who best represents our common interest. In reality, there is no real choice and we often end up voting against our own self-interest.
Freed from the previously identified external authority, now there appeared to be a potential for individual freedom in a way never before possible. Yet, beneath the promoted idea of freedom was a false freedom of the illusion of choice. We no longer connect with the source of our desires. Intermediated and manipulated by corporate interests, what is engineered in the guise of individualism is conformity. When the force of control became invisible through merging with oneself, it became much more difficult for us to challenge its legitimacy, or even to recognize its governing force.
Crisis of Representation and Autonomy of Self
State-corporation centralized control and its power of coercion lies in the ability to sustain the image of representation through careful manipulation and for it to create a strong emotional bond with that image within individuals. This gives those in power access to unconscious desires and tends to create an irresistible force. Those who control representation can then generate motives and impulses and govern the will of a mass of people. Media has been playing a crucial role in the control and distortion of images of representation, hiding the real actions of those who claim to represent us. TV commercials allure us with images of perfect products and suitable political candidates; it sells products as a solution to everyday problems.
Yet now, some signs of deep change are arising. Images of representation are no longer so easily held. Many who use social media and information sharing are challenging the monopolized image and single message echo chamber of consolidated media. When one is surrounded by multiplicity of images that are not produced or mediated from outside, projections that have mesmerized can no longer exercise such great power.
After the Iraq war was sold to the “Good American,” a series of wars in the Middle East have marched over the lives of millions. The Obama administration is engaged in full PR battle, selling a new war against Syria with the image of humanitarian intervention as it did with Libya. Firedoglake reported how Obama, in trying to win support for military strikes on Syria, has launched an information operation, a kind of psychological operation to sway approval of Congress. Administration officials showed members images of victims suffering from chemical attacks in classified briefings. Former US Congressman Dennis Kucinich called it “War marketing in the YouTube era” using horrifying graphic videos of people suffering and dying to move the American people. Despite Obama’s seemingly desperate attempts, the public is no longer so easily swayed by a hypocritical rhetoric of humanitarianism. A recent poll shows that most Americans strongly oppose a US attack against Syria. Along with Congress, the key ally the UK is not supporting the US this time.
The legitimacy of this authority is now being challenged. Waves of whistle-blowing that have emerged in recent years, from Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden, combined with the power of social media and courageous journalism like WikiLeaks are counteracting propaganda.
Trends of protests and movements around the world have been challenging the perception of authority of the nation-state and its governance models. The year 2011 marked the beginning of global uprisings. Like The Arab Spring and Spanish protest, movements abroad resonated in North America. Inspired by people’s struggles overseas, the disfranchised American rose up, taking to the streets at the centers of wealth and corruption. Occupy Wall Street began in the fall of 2011 and captured the imagination of the public across political lines. Though this – one of the largest mass movements in US history – wound down after police and the Federal and local government coordinated efforts to shut it down, from Brazil to Turkey, Egypt to Bosnia and Bulgaria, new insurgents are still rolling in, challenging the legitimacy of corrupt governments worldwide. What these movements from below reveal is how in virtually every corner of the globe, democracy as we have known it is in crisis.
Jerome Roos, PhD researcher at the European University Institute synthesized the waves of revolutions since the Arab revolutions of 2011 and saw them as a symptom of “the global legitimation crisis of representative institutions”. Pointing out one of characteristics commonly shared in those seemingly isolated events as disengagement from the existing power structures and the end of political parties, he suggested “only radical autonomy from the state can take the revolution forward.”
People are moving more and more outside of the electoral politics. A call is arising for a new type of governance, for a real democracy where each person participates directly and manifests their own voice. This is a political act, but it is also much more. The current crisis of democracy is a crisis of representation. Images that perpetuate illusions about ourselves can no longer sustain our humanity. From Mubarak to Morsi, from Bush to Obama, the false images and masks of leadership are beginning to fall away as people begin to disengage from the charlatan faces of recycled puppet leaders. The mirror that has for too long reflected back false promises is now being shattered. What happens when people’s faith in institutions crumble? We are seeing chaos and destruction as never before. August 14 marked the bloodiest day in Egypt’s recent history when clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi unleashed mass violence.
In the crisis of representation, for the first time we are left with ourselves, empty and hollow, yet truly with ourselves. In this nakedness lies the possibility for a true freedom. Only when our emptiness is fully confronted and accepted can we find our true autonomy. With emotions and desires that are truly our own, we can guide the world into a future that springs from the depth of our imagination.
Who am I? Who are we? What do we want? The rejection of false representation is a rejection of artificially imposed identity. Around the world, the message is loud and clear. People are saying we are no longer to be mere consumers, passively accepting the commercialized visions of a future handed down to us, with corporate values and political candidates sold to us like many brands of toothpaste. This is a voice resonating in all these movements around the world and calling for deep systemic change.
The thirst for real democracy is a thirst to be free. It is the spirit that drives us to find our true aspirations within. Our self is empty. When society loses its grip and leaders become devoid of morals and compassion for humanity, we need to declare autonomy from all those outside that try to allure us and promise to fulfill our dreams. Through connecting with our own desires and passions, we can fulfill the void of the empty self and transform empty slogans into real action. Only then will it be possible for us to become the authors of our own lives, transform history and take charge of our common destiny.