When capitalism and empire are threatened, the partisans of the established order always respond by doubling down. This goes for those among these partisans who are supposedly progressive, making for the saying “you scratch a liberal and a fascist bleeds.” This is a piece of common sense among Marxists. But it’s not any less shocking when you experience one of these reactions firsthand, when you’re confronted with the pathologies that come to the forefront amid a moment of class confrontation.
These politically motivated pathologies can be summed up as paranoia, herd mentality, and hostility towards the unknown. All emotions that are inevitable in the human experience, but that are now getting deliberately exploited by the system and turned towards the erosion of free thought. Confronted with the destabilizing aspects of late-stage capitalism, the powers that be are playing on people’s deepest fears to build up an ideological defense mechanism against potential revolution. We’re witnessing a social engineering project whose purpose is to bring about the 2020s version of McCarthyism.
This is what the demonizations of China and other rival superpowers are about. This is what the absurd right-wing efforts to paint the Democratic Party as communist are about. This is what the suppression of political speech under the guide of fighting “foreign disinformation” and “fake news” is about. In the face of the decline of U.S. hegemony, the collapse of the economy, a pandemic that’s killed a quarter of a million Americans, the slow but accelerating march towards climate catastrophe, and the prospect that a class uprising could emerge from these crises, it makes sense for the powers that be to encourage paranoia among the populace.
Because this sense of paranoia, despite its energy-wasting effects, serves the purpose of stamping out any person or thought which poses even the remotest possibility of threatening the status quo. Thus the endless suggestions from Republican hacks that Democratic politicians are secretly radical socialists who aim to bring down America, or that these politicians somehow empower the forces of radicalism. Neither are true of course, but the assertion has functionality. It creates an ideological buffer between the loyal Americans and the dangerous extremists by making the anti-communist rhetoric completely overkill.
It also serves to reduce the likelihood of class consciousness spreading by completely twisting what language related to class and imperialism means. If Biden is painted as a Chinese puppet even though he’s packing his cabinet with anti-China hawks, Biden’s imperialism is ignored. All that’s talked about is a manufactured piece of partisan outrage that stands in the way of serious discussions about the workings of empire, geopolitics, and the new cold war. This tactic of obfuscating any objective assessments of geopolitical issues is used interchangeably by the two ruling class parties, with the Democratic side now seeking to exploit it towards an unprecedented suppression of critical thought when it comes to such matters.
The Biden administration will accompany its cold war escalations with an internal propaganda war and a campaign towards censorship. Biden’s team understands even better than Trump’s team does that controlling the flow of information is crucial to controlling geopolitics; it’s the Democrats and their aligned anti-Trump Republican neocons who’ve been using the bogus “Russiagate” scandal to enact censorship throughout these last four years, and they’ll expand upon this clampdown as the Biden administration seeks to restore Washington’s damaged global influence.
They’ll utilize the Countering the Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, a law that Obama passed at the end of his term which allowed the government to directly counter messages deemed to help America’s adversaries. As Lambert Strether observed four years ago, the law left a loophole for the Global Engagement Center (which was created as part of the law) to target information sources that can’t just be found abroad:
Because the drafters meant “foreign countries and foreign non-state actors,” they did not write “foreign countries and non-state actors,” as did the drafters of the Act…If “non-state propaganda” can be produced by domestic entities, then clearly the Act does not apply only in “other countries,” as Senator Murphy would have it, and, contra Snopes, could very well apply to “American independent or alternative media.” The second ambiguity is the source of the propaganda which, after all, has to come from somewhere. The origin of state propaganda is clear: The state. But what is the origin of non-state propaganda?
This deliberate ambiguity as to who’s supposed to be targeted, who’s a malicious source of “disinformation,” who’s a “bad actor,” has been a common way for the U.S. National Security State to expand its reach throughout the War on Terror. The Patriot Act, with its enabling of the government to carry out incredibly broad acts of surveillance all under the vague guise of “fighting terrorism,” is one example. And since this era of perpetual war expanded into a great power conflict during the early 2010s, these kinds of loopholes for repression have become especially oriented around the control of information. The repealing of a domestic propaganda ban in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which has since allowed for the government to covertly flood U.S. media with war propaganda like never before, represented a prelude to the even more far-reaching information policing law that Obama passed.
Whereas the Trump administration lacked the money and full political will to utilize the Global Engagement Center, Biden’s team, with their self-appointed mandate to restore U.S. imperial hegemony, will exploit it to its full potential. This will mean taking advantage of the loophole that allows them to go after internal anti-imperialist outlets and journalists, a project that will go along with efforts by the administration to make Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube expand their censorship against these “illegitimate” information sources. Richard Stengel, the head of Biden’s U.S. Agency for Global Media, has outright advocated for the government to use propaganda against its “own population” and has said the country should start “rethinking” the First Amendment. So we can expect the incoming administration to focus on narrative management in a more competent way than the current one has.
In the short term, these suppressions of dissenting journalism and portrayals of disfavored speech as “foreign” or “extremist” propaganda will serve to manufacture consent for the Biden administration’s foreign policy projects. Biden’s secretary of state Tony Blinken plans to create the illusion of an end to America’s forever wars by largely switching U.S. warfare over to proxy conflicts, and towards “discreet” operations that are carried out by “special forces.” This will require the anti-imperialist media outlets to be heavily censored so that they don’t expose the Biden administration’s hidden atrocities. Biden and his team also plan to forsake diplomacy with north Korea in favor of tighter sanctions, entailing further U.S. efforts to militarily build up against the DPRK and other countries which are disobedient to the empire. This will require an intensification of the propaganda Americans are fed about the DPRK being a tyrannical dictatorship, China “detaining a million Uyghurs,” and so on.
In the long term, all of these measures will be used to fight an escalating class war within the core of the empire. All the tactics the empire uses against its enemies abroad-bombings, drone strikes, economic strangulation, massacres of thousands of innocent people-will eventually be used against the poor within the U.S. should our class conflict become extreme enough. So it’s no surprise that already, tools like covert state propaganda, heavy-handed censorship, and the Global Engagement Center are being increasingly used against us. Will the masses be able to break out of the prison of hate and lies that’s being built around them?
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