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What is the state?

September 17, 2017 Leave a comment

“The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine. It can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.” – M.K. Gandhi

When looking at the US government today, one can barely fathom the tiny government it started with. The US became such a powerful and destructive government by constantly enlarging the scope of its action. Since the beginning of the federation it has expanded, from the westward march of federal government jurisdiction to the cause of the Civil War: the president’s war on secession. All told, 50 states were incorporated into the union. Now the government controlled resources on an entire continent, like China and Russia. Once the land was conquered, the US government expanded its ability to capture the wealth and challenge the sovereignty of other countries. Sometimes it used trade agreements; sometimes it used guns. There were many civil liberties, and a productive free market, but as the economy grew, the state grew. That is the state’s purpose: to expand the power of those who control it. Liberty quietly slipped away.

Max Weber defined the state as that organisation that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given (national) territory. “Legitimate” here merely means legal, as actual legitimacy is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. That is why Albert Jay Nock countered Weber by saying the state “claims and exercises a monopoly of crime” over its territory. Statism is the belief that this monopoly of crime is good or necessary. David S. D’Amato explains its effect: “the state’s principal manner of acting is to make peaceful interactions crimes while protecting the institutional crime of ruling class elites.”

After all, what does the state do? It steals, but it calls its theft taxation. It kidnaps, but calls kidnapping arrest. It counterfeits, but refers to state counterfeiting as monetary policy. It uses force and compulsion which it calls the rule of law. It commits murder on a wide scale, but prefers terms such as war and execution. The state claims to act to protect person and property, but in practice claims ownership of both (through, for instance, laws that tell you what you can and cannot put in your body). It claims to protect freedom while taking it away. It claims to aid the less fortunate when in fact it benefits the powerful at the expense of everyone else. If I go to another country to kill people I do not know, I am a murderer. When the military does it, it is fighting terrorism and promoting democracy. This sleight of hand and clouding of truth is how the state manufactures legitimacy.

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The state pursues petty criminals partly because they threaten the stability of the system the state has erected and the security of the wealthy, but also because it claims a monopoly of crime. Mafia organisations are even more dangerous, as they pose a more fundamental threat to the state as competitors for plunder and dominance.

I think it is fair to include any state-protected monopoly as part of the state. Monopolies are a large part of the problem. Monopolies tend to lead to abuse, and they destroy the wonderful benefits of spontaneous order. A monopoly is always held together by force, except in the rare case of companies like Standard Oil, which was so popular because it lowered the price of heating oil to a fraction of what it had been (and competitors—not customers—used the state to break it up). In a communist society or even just a freed market, monopolies cannot exist, at least, not for long.

Anarchy is, in fact, the destruction of monopoly. Nearly all monopolies are created by the state. Monopolies and oligopolies, whether on patented medicine, oil supplies or national security, are protected by law. The state thus gains a measure of control over the distorted market and the government works for those rich people it creates. The relationship is symbiotic. The Federal Reserve system is not technically part of the government but a cartel institutionalised by the state. By my definition, it is part of the state.

I also consider the people behind the scenes who pull the strings part of the state. For example, what might be called the US foreign-policy establishment is not merely members of the State and Defense Departments. It includes high-ranking businesspeople. Executives, directors and shareholders in large oil companies probably have far greater influence over the use of the US military than, say, a couple of senators taking stands against war. It includes the Council on Foreign Relations and other influential think tanks, academics and “consultants” (often retired officers) affiliated with those who craft US foreign policy. Intelligence agencies—and not only those in the US government—influence the process as well. Andrew J. Bacevich points out “‘Military-industrial complex’ no longer suffices to describe the congeries of interests profiting from and committed to preserving the national-security status quo.”

This is the world behind the curtain, detailed in the work of Bacevich, among others, that can be described as the permanent foreign-policy establishment. The faces of the state change, but the clear continuity of US foreign policy reflects the interests of those truly in power. The same is true, to one extent or another, for all areas the state attempts to control.

The state’s raison d’être has had different pretexts as times have changed. It was originally a tool for conquering and controlling territory around a kingdom. Social scientists studying the emergence of states note the state began with the divine right of kings: the sovereign, or totalitarian king, kept his subjects in awe of the wrath of gods. Franz Oppenheimer, in his sociological survey of the state, describes its origins.

The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution, forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad. Teleologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors. No primitive state known to history originated in any other manner.

As European states grew in technological power, they spread outside Europe as overseas empires. The ambition of conquering and subjugating the weak had not ended. To demarcate their possessions, states drew lines on maps. Countries are only countries today because of the movements of empires. States are products of conquest. Borders are the geographic limits to the power of individual states. States owe their existence and their growth to war. That is why Randolph Bourne called war “the health of the state” and Charles Tilly said “war made the state and the state made war”.

An empire is simply the growth of a state beyond its previous borders. A look at the pre- and post-imperial world gives us no reason to believe that uninterrupted rule by indigenous elites would have been any better than by empires. The liberation of most of the world from the colonial yoke was heralded as a new era of freedom, but in most cases results were very disappointing. Government by locals and foreigners alike leaves the governed wide open to abuse.

Today, states are still about a monopoly of crime over a given territory, but the humanist direction of the moral evolution of society has demanded new functions of the state. Due in part to the pressure from anarcho-syndicalist unions and the supposed alternative to capitalism in the USSR, for example, Western states felt compelled to mitigate the worst aspects of capitalism and introduce the eight-hour work day, the five-day work week, breaks, vacation time, and so on. It is now expected that, since society is rich enough to afford education, housing, health care and so on for everyone, those things will be provided by the state, the organisation with the most resources. The only reason people believe the state is necessary for social programmes, scientific research, relations with other states and so on, is because it has taken on those functions. The state does not exist to provide social programmes; it provides social programmes so it can continue to exist.

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The state is not about social programmes and emergency rescue. It is about domination, power over others. People who believe otherwise do not know how to think like the state.

Thinking like the state

What does the state want? In a word: power. Power could be defined simply as the ability to enforce one’s will on another. A further definition is the ability to carry out violence on another if necessary to get one’s way. An abusive husband and father is violence on a family level. The state threatens and employs violence on a local, national and global level.

Its power to carry out violence everywhere exists in the form of local, national and international police; armies, navies, air forces, spy drones, national guards and special branches; intelligence services, surveillance cameras, wiretapping, reading mail, reading email, reading instant messages and collecting data on everyone; and spy satellites in case you try to escape Earth without authorisation. The state has evolved from the small confines of localities to go global. It has a measure of power over us everywhere we go. Such power over so many concentrated in the hands of a few is dangerous.

The state is a monopoly on force, but the constant expansion of the state has led it to take on other monopolies over time. Modern states came to control land, the money supply, infrastructure and the security of the streets. As it has grown, the state has created new monopolies and oligopolies. Having a monopoly on the provision of law, it has created corporations, which relieve their owners and operators of responsibility; granted patents, enabling some of the biggest corporations, from Disney to the pharmaceutical giants, to attain their current size; and used complicated and unnecessary regulations, tax codes and barriers to foreign trade to prevent competition for the big players in the market. The state creates monopolies. Monopolies promote abuse, because they grant power and power corrupts.

Thinking like the state means understanding it expands its power in every direction by every means. If it can close a loophole enabling a citizen’s freedom, it does; if it can write a new one for its friends, it does. But instead of thinking like the state, most of us think the way we are told.

Thinking like the state wants us to

“The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion.” – Edward Bernays

“They don’t want a population capable of critical thinking. They want obedient workers, people just smart enough to run the machines and just dumb enough to passively accept their condition.” – George Carlin

An even subtler power is the state’s ability to shape our thinking. Through its control of primary and secondary education, its influence over tertiary education and the media, the state sets the agenda for what we are to think and believe. The prevailing norms of any statist society are those that benefit the ruling class, until that brief interval of revolution which, so far, has inevitably led back to statism. What kind of person does the state want to create?

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The ideal citizen is one who believes he or she thinks for him or herself but does not. Our socialisation comes, to a great extent, from the state. The ruling class has certain ideas it benefits from: statism, nationalism, militarism, consumerism, fear, and to a lesser extent in today’s world, religion. We are surrounded by these ideas and bombarded with “evidence” they are correct. As such, we take so many things as given that we have considerable trouble thinking independently. But those who are told they are free believe it, while they fall in line with the orthodoxy of the ruling class without question. They come to love the symbols of the state: the flags, the uniforms, the songs, the slogans, the language of family, honour, duty and sacrifice. They come to think of them as representing the family of the nation, rather than the institutions of the state. They chastise those who go against the truth they have been given. How dare you question democracy? You are unpatriotic! As George Orwell said in 1984, “Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

On the other hand, people who do not follow conventions are bad citizens. H.L. Mencken described these people.

The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is apt to spread discontent among those who are.

The state exists to establish a social order that benefits the ruling class, protect that class and its property, expand its power and wealth wherever possible, fool the people it rules into believing this is all for their own good, and subdue those who do anything counter to its interests. I think we need more bad citizens and less state.

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Why our world is so harsh for so many

March 11, 2015 Leave a comment

The world is a complex place and any simple description of it will be incomplete, but I think it is fair to say we are the subjects of an artificial system of theft and oppression that continues to make the world harder to live in.

Look at the sources of power in the world. Look at government, corporations and the media. Laws written for rich people have created a system where it is necessary for us all to sell our labour to the owners of businesses. They own the land, the factories, the offices, the infrastructure. We need to earn money to survive and the best and sometimes only way to make money is to work for a large corporation. We make money for the people who own and run the corporation and they give us back some of it. Next, the government takes its share, claiming it needs it for roads, schools, hospitals, pensions and security, and gives as much as it can (for example through contracts) to corporations. It does not give people a choice to keep that money, decide what to do with it themselves and get what they need through mutual aid (helping each other) like they used to. Some people work their whole lives making others rich and still end up penniless. Why? Because they didn’t work hard enough? Because they were evil in a past life?

The media tell us to consume. The remaining money we have earned, the last bones we have been thrown, we are encouraged to spend on things that make us feel rich: nice houses, cars, furniture, decorations, restaurants, two-week vacations and fancy coffee. Consumers spend their lives working for corporations and giving most of their money back to them. Instead of pursuing their dreams, they work hard in order to spend hard.

I understand people who do not do anything about it. Politics can be pretty boring. I disagree with people who say you should pay attention to politics even if you are not interested in it. You should not be compelled to pay attention to the news and what it tells you the people in power are doing. If they do not have your consent, they should not spend your money or pass laws over you. Moreover, most of the people who expect you to follow politics pay attention to the wrong things. They watch party nominations and election results and contribute to political parties and candidates who never make any real changes. But the media tell us those are the important things. That is how we can make a difference. There are no alternatives, except competing warlords or some USSR/North Korea nightmare. The system works. Stop questioning the system.

Enormous power is thus concentrated in the hands of only a few thousand people, most of whose names you and I have never heard before. A few million or so more wield power on the national level in different parts of the world with some autonomy (think the generals in Egypt) but they have mutually beneficial relationships with members of the upper ranks of the global elite. Look at what the elite do with their power. In the old days, a king would send soldiers somewhere and thousands of people would die. They had power over small parts of the world. Nowadays, power has become global, and as such the crises it leads to have gone global as well. Look at all the (supposedly unintended) consequences of all the wars the US government has been leading, all the people who have been tortured and killed, or who lost their homes and their livelihoods, and continue to do so even after the foreign militaries have left. And yet, consider who has got rich from those wars. Look at the economic carnage from the last financial crisis. Look how many people lost their jobs, homes and all their money, all around the world. And yet, the people who caused it actually made more money from it. And they tell you not to worry, because there will be an economic recovery. Do you believe them? Where is the justice?

Finally, “education” tells us what to think. I’m sure you can think of reasons why the system we live under is the best possible system. You learned it in school, and if you learned it in university like I did (political science major), you have even more reasons why it works best. We need leaders because without people making our decisions for us, society would collapse. We need rich people because without them, who would start businesses for us to work in? We need police to protect us from all the bad people around us. We need hierarchy: all societies have hierarchy, right? All other ways of living go against human nature. Don’t think too much about it: watch TV instead.

As far as I can tell, most people are neither interested in understanding the system nor willing to take the risk of fighting it. Again, I understand and I don’t judge. I just think they should understand it better than they do. If they choose to do something to change it or to change their circumstances, that is their choice and I will support them. I warn you, however, if we do not fight back, one day it will be too late.

Second edition is published

July 9, 2013 Leave a comment

The second edition of the Rule of Freedom: the Manifesto of the Sovereign Community has been published. The full volume is now available for free here.

How appeal to national ideals sold Operation Iraqi Freedom

December 6, 2012 1 comment

Drawing on sources from political science, history, media and the psychology of nationalism, this paper explains how the Bush administration used what Americans perceive as the virtues of their nation and its foreign policy–freedom, democracy, peace, humanitarianism and God–to win support for its invasion of Iraq.

The Rule of Freedom is published!

October 31, 2012 2 comments

The Rule of Freedom: The Manifesto of the Sovereign Community (the book) is now available as an ebook from Amazon here.

The book discusses all the subjects dealt with on this blog but in greater detail, with more examples and full references. Any feedback you have please write on this post or on the book’s Facebook page here. Enjoy!

Principle versus expediency: how to save the world

June 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Billions of poor people. Wars without end. Torture, disease, genocide, starving children. There are some major problems in the world. The question is, how do we do something about them? We have options. Some people say we need to take control of governments and force the changes rapidly. After all, people are dying now. This post will argue against hasty action.

We have become accustomed in the modern world to doing things fast. We want things now. This trend is reflected as much in activism as with everything else. How will we change everything? Revolution! Slow down. What kind of revolution? A revolution is a major event involving many people. It is impossible to predict the outcome of a revolution, and it is rarely (perhaps never) as the original revolutionaries envisaged. And the kind of revolution that takes place in the street inevitably means violence. Is an uprising, violent or non-violent, the best way to change the world? Let us continue with our options before deciding.

Another effect of wanting immediate results is a focus on elections. We need to field new candidates, ones that will do the right thing. Are there people like that? Look at the hopes of the Tea Party. After the Tea Party got some of its members elected on a small-government ticket, the newly elected voted for all the same big-government legislation as the other Congresspeople, and have even ended up with all the same campaign contributors. It turns out that a few new people could not make radical changes. One does not simply walk into Mordor.

How about putting pressure on existing politicians? That can work. As little hope as I see in the political process, enough letters or enough protesters can force the hands of the elected. But what is the political solution? Remember, government is based on force. Every law passed is an order. If one does not follow the law, one risks arrest and all the violence that it results in. What we want to force on others may not be the best thing for them.

When we consider working through the system of force, we want to use the existing tools to do so. The state system has two basic tools at its disposal: taxation, which could be used to redistribute wealth, and law, which could be used to force people to act right. I am opposed to the idea of using the state on moral grounds. And as I will demonstrate, morality is not only an end; it is a means.

As I write in greater detail elsewhere, a simple but powerful moral rule is the non-aggression principle (NAP). The NAP states that the initiation of force or violence, including the credible threat of violence, against unwilling adults who have not initiated force themselves is immoral. Laws force entire populations. If we could opt out of laws, we would be free, but we cannot. Laws based on the NAP are moral but laws regarding what we wear, eat, drink and smoke, for example, are not, because those things do not harm others. There should be no law regarding victimless pursuits. Taxation means forcing populations to pay for whatever the government decides on. But not everyone in the population has aggressed against another, or is being taxed commensurately to his or her aggression.

Many anarchists believe in the NAP on philosophical grounds. They argue that, whatever is done with the money raised by taxation, whatever someone’s idea of virtue that informs the wording of a law, it is wrong to force peaceful people. More importantly, however, force is a terrible tool for solving problems, and tends to cause far greater ones.

Do taxation and regulation lead to a redistribution of wealth? Yes: from the lower classes to the rich. The basic reason for that is that the lower classes, including the middle classes, have no power over the state. The state has power over them; and in every society, it becomes a vehicle for transferring wealth from the people who are outside it to the powerful people who control it. We have had social welfare policies for decades and poverty still exists. But why are they still poor? Welfare policies actually entrench poverty by making people dependent on the state.

The best cure for poverty is, in fact, a free market. The free market just means free people trading with each other out of mutual benefit, without force. Tearing down the endless regulations and taxes that are designed to benefit the wealthy would give opportunities to everyone else to work as they like. How we could do that by using the state I do not know, because, again, laws benefit the powerful and the powerful control the state. It is impractical to use the state to solve society’s problems.

Could we use laws to force virtue? It depends what is virtuous. I agree with Penn Jillette on this one.

It’s amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral, self-righteous, bullying laziness.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we’re compassionate we’ll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

The other question is, can the state actually be reconfigured to work for the greater good? Can it be sustainable if done by force and not spread throughout the population as common values? I am inclined to say no. If people can be led to believe in taking care of each other and taking care of the poor, they will do so voluntarily, as of course many do already. If they cannot, forcing them to do so could lead to a backlash. Look, for example, at the plight of some of the people in the democratic world who are most vulnerable: immigrants. Immigrants are people like everyone else, so surely they should all be permitted the same rights and freedoms. Letting immigrants into the US, Europe and the rest of the rich world meant giving them a chance to help themselves and their sending countries. But anti-immigrant forces first controlled the discourse and then the relevant areas of the state, and 400,000 people were deported from the US in 2011 alone. People escaping horrible conditions in Africa are left to drown in the Mediterranean. I take the sum of these and similar actions and indifference toward them to mean the people are not ready to be forced to take care of everyone else.

The state may be a lost cause, but we are not out of options yet. The problem is that the more viable solutions are long term. They require patience, not quick fixes. I think there are two basic things we could do. The first is to educate people—particularly ourselves—on the issues and how to solve them. We can keep the real issues foremost in the minds of people, so that we are the media and the teachers. That doesn’t just mean Facebook, of course. It could mean street protest and symbolic action to raise awareness. This process is neverending, so it is incumbent on concerned people to educate to the extent that others become the media and the teachers as well. The main downside to this option is that not everyone will be interested. But that just means they have better things to do, and I do not blame them for that.

But not everyone has to join us. The second thing is to organise with like-minded people. That means being leaders, working together, helping each other and doing things ourselves. The revolution does not have to be violent. Look at what Occupy did. They were entirely voluntary, working on consensus, anticapitalism, mutual aid, equality and solving their own problems. They showed everyone that we can have a voluntary society, that we can build a new society, based on compassion and helping each other, out of the shell of the old. It is called prefigurative politics. These values also inform the philosophy of the sovereign community, meaning new communities outside the reach of the state. Voluntary institutions show not only the morality of the NAP, but also that we can solve the world’s problems without force.

Propaganda

June 8, 2012 Leave a comment
‎”If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” – Malcolm X

“When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.” – Dresden James

“If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.” – Noam Chomsky

Many people live in a world of comforting illusion. They harbour the impression they are in charge of their democracy; they think the police protect their rights from bad guys; they think the military defends their freedom from foreigners; they do not want to challenge their own ideas; and they are convinced they are thinking for themselves. They are offered these illusions on a silver plate from every corner: governments, corporations, religious leaders and mainstream media. The collective term for the lies we choose to wrap ourselves in—or get caught up in—is propaganda.

The word “propaganda” is a widely used and potentially libelous term, so it requires definition up front. For the purpose of this post, propaganda refers to all lies and misleading images the government, corporations and the media tell you in order to control you. As you can imagine, there is plenty of it out there.

Among people who read non-mainstream newspapers, much has been made of a recent bill working its way through Congress, which Barack will probably threaten to veto again and will sign anyway, making psychological operations, meaning secretive propaganda, legal for use by the government within the US. It should frighten everyone, of course, that what was once used for war on third-world populations is soon going to be the norm for US citizens. But I wonder how much this bill will change what has been the norm for so long.

Because governments take as much of your money as you are willing to put up with, they can afford large “communications” teams. They use them to shape your views on their policies, to make you support their policies for all of their reasons. (Find some examples here.)

But most people realise that the government lies. The real key to understanding how the ideology of statism is disseminated is to listen to intellectuals. Public intellectuals are the ones who come up with the ideas that the people end up taking for granted. Originally, it was the clergy that rationalised the state, and got its share of public revenues in return. Now, the state enlists experts to sell its ideas in the media, and why those experts debate what kind of sanctions or bombs to use against Iran and none of them suggest leaving Iran alone. It pays for public education, giving public-school teachers a stake in the status quo. It subsidises professors to sell its ideas to the best and brightest, which is why few ever teach anarchist philosophy or Austrian economics in school. The apologists for the state are rewarded with jobs, prestige and high positions in the planning of the state. It co-opts the people with the intellectual power in society to spread propaganda.

Propaganda, in its broadest conception, creates what Antonio Gramsci called hegemony. The various elements of society influence our consciousness, but the ruling class has the most influence. Since government requires not simply coercion but also some degree of consent, the ruling class projects an image of what the world is, turning what it wants us to believe into “common sense”. It is common sense that we need to be governed, for instance, and that democracy means the people are in charge. I studied government for years before I realised that it was based on the threat of violence, rather than consent and collective decision making. Hegemony is the pervasive belief in this common sense conception of the world that enables the ruling class to acquire the consent of the governed. The masses accept the morality, customs and rules handed down to them. Only by learning to think beyond the supposed universal truths imposed on their consciousness can the people shatter the illusions and break free of the ruling class.

Consider the national-security narrative we are exposed to over our lifetimes. We are all Americans/British/Chinese/Turkish. When one of us is under attack by foreigners, all of us are under attack. When foreigners attack or threaten to attack us, it is justified to attack them. When attacking them, whatever needs to happen to subdue them is justified. If innocents get killed, that’s the price of it. It is right to take huge amounts of money to build up militaries to enable these things. We are entirely moral in doing all these things, and if you disagree, you hate our country. We take all these things for granted, but why? This and other accepted wisdom is part of the hegemony.

Think of the images associated with this paradigm. Take the photo opportunity. Politicians love going to Afghanistan to get a photo with the troops. It makes their poll numbers rise. Do you think they add that to their calculations when they decide whether or not to prolong the war? But people have been told they are citizens, these are their representatives and their representatives’ visiting soldiers they sent to Afghanistan for a few minutes on their world tour helps those soldiers. As long as they believe all that, the politicians have their mandate for war. A magician will tell you his job is about what the eye sees: illusion, not truth. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Take David Cameron’s posing with protesters in Tahrir Square in February 2011. All people who yearn for freedom were there in spirit with the protesters. What the shiny smiles hid was the fact that David had just come from touring other restive Arab states with a delegation of British arms dealers. But people do not see beyond the photo op, and are led to believe their government supports freedom.

Terrorism is massively overblownEveryone is a potential terrorist now. We are programmed to be afraid. How does the use of the word “terrorism” affect us? When we are told that the people killed were terrorists, we are given the opportunity to presume the good guys, the soldiers, are killing the bad guys. Our consciences are assuaged, and the killing can continue. The word militant, for instance, really means anyone who was killed by the US military, such as 16-year-old Abdelrahman al Awlaki. Did more than a handful of people speak out against it?

Could they use another word that would give it a different meaning? Why didn’t they use that word? Why do we undergo ‘liberation’ or ‘intervention’ instead of invasion? Why do we kill “militants” instead of people? Does it change how we think about the thing? When detention and torture without trial are labeled “extraordinary rendition”, most people turn away in boredom. The most despicable acts are cloaked in jargon and made mundane. Do not worry about it: we don’t torture men, women or children; only insurgents, terrorists and the Taliban.

Like most subjects related to government, there is a double standard at work with propaganda. Surely a society that believed in basic freedoms would not criminalise speech. It grants us the freedom to be wrong and to lie, as long as we do not violate the non-aggression principle. The government is wrong (as when it said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction). The government lies (as when…well, all the time). It suffers no consequences when caught. Citizens, however, do. Muslims, the new enemy, are targeted in the US all the time for spreading “terrorist propaganda” by speaking out in favour of anti-US-empire terrorism. The US Department of Justice arrested Jubair Ahmad for uploading a video to Youtube that the DOJ considered “material support” for terrorists. He might be locked up indefinitely. The FBI called what he posted propaganda. One wonders how much of what the FBI says is not.

But who is the real terrorist? Anarchists frequently point out the hypocrisy of the state in its justification of everything it does as criminal (and immoral) for everyone else. In the words of Stefan Molyneux,

I can’t go next door and threaten my neighbour with force in order to get him to pay for my child’s education, but the government can through property rights and the educational system. I can’t find some guy in my neighbourhood who’s smoking some herb that I find objectionable, lock him up in some basement and then call myself an armed warrior for justice through the War on Drugs. I can’t print money based on nothing and use it as legitimate currency; the government can. And I can’t create debt that other people have to pay without any choice in the matter. That’s called fraud. But for the government it’s called deficit financing and it goes to future generations. So government, by definition, is that social entity which legalises whatever is criminal for everyone else in the population…. Law is an opinion with a gun.

(Stefan forgot to mention that invasion and occupation are called democracy promotion and nation building, but then he was in an interview, so we can forgive him.)

Yes, words matter. We are flooded with words like “national security”. Those two words have been used to justify everything from aggressive (sorry, “preventive”) war to secret meetings between politicians and lobby groups. The UK government told the world Afghanistan’s Helmand province is vital to British national security, presumably for the same reasons Guam is to that of the US. The term is ambiguous, because it is used for every priority of the ruling class. It is used so often as to be meaningless.

It is used to glorify military service, along with words like “sacrifice”, “duty” and “honour”. Militaries market themselves to the populaces that support them by various channels. The US military has been in bed with Hollywood for decades. The Pentagon provides moviemakers with real aircraft, tanks and soldiers for all manner of movies, in return for a favourable image. It has created an exciting, video game-like perception of what it does, instead of the reality of raining fire on villages in distant parts of the world to kill one person deemed a “high-value target”.

It is not only in security matters that the state lies. It misinforms and distorts the truth at every turn. Take, for instance, how it has skewed employment figures (in this, an election year) by quietly removing 1.2m unemployed people from the list and celebrating it as a win. People can believe the economy is picking up, even though they see no evidence of it, and will vote for the incumbent, even though Barack has made things worse.

But the state is not the only source of propaganda. Any medium that produces disinformation, lies, coverups, or deliberately misleading images and words is propaganda. The media have been lying to us about war for a hundred years. (Lots of examples here.) Look at the way some of the most popular media soften up the language of the war for Afghanistan. While Afghans protested the repeated killing and descration of their friends and family, media like the New York Times said they were protesting the burning of Qurans only. “Armed with rocks, bricks, pistols and wooden sticks, protesters angry over the burning of Korans at the largest American base in Afghanistan this week took to the streets in demonstrations in a half-dozen provinces on Wednesday that left at least seven dead and many more injured.” Not only were the protesters “armed”; as As’ad AbuKhalil observed, “notice that there is no killer in the phrasing.” People reading do not have to blame the killers—perhaps protesting killed the people. They portrayed the protests as irrational acts of outrage, just anger over a book.  Glenn Greenwald gives an apt analogy:

[J]ust imagine what would happen if a Muslim army invaded the U.S., violently occupied the country for more than a decade, in the process continuously killing American children and innocent adults, and then, outside of a prison camp it maintained where thousands of Americans were detained for years without charges and tortured, that Muslim army burned American flags — or a stack of bibles — in a garbage dump. Might we see some extremely angry protests breaking out from Americans against them? Would American pundits be denouncing those protesters as blinkered, primitive fanatics?

There is no reason to trust the New York Times or the Washington Post. Their kowtowing to power in the run up to Operation Iraqi Freedom should have put them out of business and led their heads to hang in shame. Both papers issued apologies (here and here)—over a year too late—and no one in the newsrooms suffered any consequences. Why would we pay attention to them at all anymore?

Various estimates of the real death toll of that war have come out in the hundreds of thousands; the number may have reached a million. But mainstream media outlets do not report a million. They report low-end estimates of tens of thousands, sometimes adding the words “at least”. Regardless, people are more affected emotionally when shown a human face and story. Which Iraqi humans did the media choose to profile? The insurgents. All the more reason to dig in one’s heels and keep fighting.

The mainstream media benefit from the status quo and often end up the lapdogs of the powerful. Even when one TV station appears relatively right wing or left wing, that simply means they will defend a different party when it takes power. However, the task before the media is to give us the information we need  in order to understand and question power, not to serve it. All corporations receive legal protection and indirect subsidy; in addition, the media that pander best to the powerful get access to top officials for interviews and sources. Media types socialise with government types. Instead of holding them to account through investigative journalism, many of them accept what the government says without question. They also need to fill in blanks due to deadlines, and may embellish or simply quote an official to complete their stories. Those poor people who cannot turn off their televisions are exposed to news that makes them think crime, terrorism and diseases are everywhere. They see one police drama after another, drinking in the image of the heroic cops catching gang leaders and stopping terrorists.

When all these things are taken together, they become our narrative, what we believe without questioning. It does not benefit us to leave this situation unquestioned; it only benefits the ruling class.

A fixation on the news is not conducive to understanding. Most news media focus on what is happening now. What is happening is a consequence of what has happened before. However, it is easy to forget or not know about what happened before. How many Americans understand the causes of any of the wars their rulers start? Or of 9/11? How many understand why Iran might want to build a nuclear weapon? We do not ask “why?” enough.

I have heard both Al Jazeera and Russia Today called propaganda. Perhaps that is because the angles from which they view the news and the people they interview are less commonly found in the more mainstream news outlets. To close one’s mind by calling something propaganda without having considered it is not wise. The reason we can safely call government communications propaganda is that they are consistently proved to be so. Critical thinkers consider various viewpoints. And in contrast to the records of the mainstream US media, the foreigners have more credibility.

Then there is Fox News. Wait. It’s too easy. (You may want to watch Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism for a look at how Fox has erased the line between journalism and propaganda.) Suffice to say, studies indicate Fox News viewers are less well informed than anyone else who watches television. Whatever Fox News says, I object to attacks on Fox from people who believe what they hear on CNN, MSNBC or other corporate news stations. Do you really believe any one of these channels consistently tells the truth? That they do not try to influence your point of view and subtly manipulate you? Why should we trust this source? Do they know what they are talking about? Why would they tell us what they are telling us? Might they have an ulterior motive? Can we speculate what that might be? Why do we only have the choices we are presented with? Why is it only either intervene militarily in Syria or let genocide take place? Why, why, why? We need to consider why they show what they show and what we are missing that they do not show.

When I am asked which news source I think is most reliable, I reply “none”. Take a look at the sources for this blog: they are from a variety of people and media. (However, I sometimes repeat some I perceive to be informed or wise. I must admit, I am more likely to believe Democracy Now than Fox News.) To truly understand a phenomenon is to know it from various perspectives. To understand a news story, it helps to read various accounts and ask ourselves several questions about what we read.

Without having witnessed an event ourselves, we do not know what happened. Every source has its own reasons to manipulate the facts, though probably not all do all the time. The best we can do is listen to varying accounts, consider carefully each one’s possible motives and assume we cannot be sure about any of them. The worst we can do is listen to accounts that do not vary significantly, pretend each source confirms the other and accept the information as given. At a more fundamental level, we need to question the entire hegemony and move away from thinking the world is as we are told it is.