“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
― Noam Chomsky, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda
In 2008, a private sector financial crisis caused by an unregulated, unethical, global financial services industry was turned into a public sector financial crisis by the banker’s bailout. Since then, a broad toolkit of propaganda techniques has been applied to rewrite this history. Political and Corporate efforts seek to divide sections of the poor and middle class to fight one against the other; to see enemies in our midst which do not exist; to see the free market and the idea of competition as the solution rather than the cause of our problems. We must become critical thinkers, if we are not to succumb to the DoubleThink that had 2 + 2 equal 5 in George Orwell’s novel 1984.
What Is Propaganda?
- 1 [mass noun] information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view: he was charged with distributing enemy propaganda
- the dissemination of propaganda as a political strategy: the party’s leaders believed that a long period of education and propaganda would be necessary
At its root Propaganda is the art of persuasion. It is not necessarily corrupt and to some degree any word written, picture painted, or sentence spoken can be reduced to propaganda. However, where propaganda becomes an issue is when it is a dominant, singular voice. If ‘trusted sources’ become corrupted by propaganda, while challenge and diversity of thought are relegated to ‘alternative ideas’, we have a problem. I assert that we have that problem.
Former US president George W Bush best summed up the prevailing attitude of modern, corporatized politics when he said in 2005:
“See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda” (Bush: The Dark Knight of America – G. P. Geoghegan p.174)
The Myth of Austerity
Across Britain, Europe and the US governments are promulgating the myth of austerity; this word ‘austerity’ carefully chosen to invoke the spirit of post war ‘all in it together’ frugality. The political consensus is that we all need to ‘tighten our belts’; apparently we all had it too good for too long and now we need to pay the price. In reality, austerity only exists for the masses.
The Sunday Times Rich List 2012 showed that the UKs richest 1000 people expanded their wealth by 4.7% to £414bn last year. Meanwhile, the Forbes Guide in the US revealed the richest Americans had expanded their wealth by a whopping 13% in the same year, to $1.7trn. Meanwhile, the bottom 90% of UK workers experienced a real terms 1.2% cut in wages and the US worker is now paid less in real terms than in 1969.
In the UK, Corporation Tax was cut at a cost of £2.6bn over the next two years and the income tax of the highest earners has been cut at the cost of £3bn a year. Meanwhile, non income based taxes which impact the UKs poor and middle classes are on the rise. The Bedroom Tax is set to see 660,000 of the poorest in the UK, including 420,000 people living with disabilities with up to a 333% rise in their council tax contributions.
This is the reality of the situation: an enormous wealth transfer from the taxpayer to private interests in 2008 leaving the state finances depleted, and a bogus ideological austerity programme instigated which seeks to continue the trend. But how do you sell such a thing to civil society?
The Method Behind the Madness
Our media and politics are full of propaganda techniques to, as I imply in the title of this post, make us believe two plus two does indeed equal five.
Attach a negative label to a person or a thing. People engage in this type of behaviour when they are trying to avoid supporting their own opinion with facts. Rather than explain what they believe in, they prefer to try to tear their opponent down.
In Britain, a ‘Back to Work’ programme, described as ‘Workfare’ by critics saw unemployed people to work for 30 hours a week for years at a time for corporations, in order to receive their social security payments (to which they are already entitled as part of the social contract). The majority of people no doubt see the issues of such a plan: compelled labour, competition in the already poor jobs market by pitting waged labour against free labour, the change in social contract to ‘work for your benefits’ when in fact we all ‘work for our benefits’ already by paying taxes and national insurance.
The government’s response was to launch a media attack on opponents of the plan, and the victims of it, branding them as ‘Job Snobs’. Unemployed geology graduate Cait Reilly, who was forced to give up her volunteering position at a museum to stack shelves and clean at Poundland, won her case against Workfare at the Court of Appeal. After several of the programmes were struck down by the court, Iain Duncan-Smith (Secretary for Work and Pensions) appeared on television stating the following:
“The next time these smart people who say there’s something wrong with this go into their supermarket, ask themselves this simple question: when they can’t find the food on the shelves, who is more important: them, the geologist or the person who’s stacked the shelves.”
Cait Reilly has said throughout the case that she did not see herself as too good to stack shelves, simply that she had paid thousands of pounds on her degree and spent several years working towards her chosen vocation, and being compelled into unwaged labour prevented her attaining her goals. The Department of Work and Pensions is literally badmouthing aspiration. But the language sets out to play on working class prejudice against these ‘snooty’ graduates and people getting ideas above their station.
In this technique, an attempt is made to transfer the prestige of a positive symbol to a person or an idea. For example, using the national flag as a backdrop for a political event makes the implication that the event is patriotic in the best interest of the country.
The Diamond Jubilee, the Royal Wedding, the London 2012 Olympics, all these events were designed and stage manage to give us all the feel good image about good ol’ Blighty. Corporations which have committed the most egregious acts were invited by the government to transfer the generated national pride onto their own brands. BP, found criminally responsible for the largest oil spill in history in 2010, was Sustainability Partner for the London 2012 games. Rio Tinto, a mining firm guilty of exploiting its workers and polluting communities around its mining operations provided the metal for the medals. Adidas provided the Team GB outfits, despite the finding that they had exploited child labour in far eastern sweatshops to produce their clothing. Thousands of local people were displaced from their homes in order to make way for Olympic ‘redevelopment’ so their social housing could be turned into private property with a higher return for developers. But the flags kept flying.
In this technique, two things that may or may not really be similar are portrayed as being similar. When examining the comparison, you must ask yourself how similar the items are. In most false analogies, there is simply not enough evidence available to support the comparison.
The most bogus false analogy applied by cheerleaders for austerity in the UK, Europe and the US is the comparing of the national economy, to the domestic economy of the home. The analogy provides some common sense sounding axioms which, if you aren’t lucky enough to know much about economics, are easy to fall for. Of course the analogy is economically illiterate. Most homes cannot print money, devalue their currency, adjust their trade tariffs, and so on. UK and US politicians alike are commonly heard to crow ‘You can’t borrow your way out of debt’. Not only is this untrue (the whole point of debt in the economy is to allow for investments which promote growth when there are not available funds. This is how sensible government’s use debt) but while using this argument in defence of public sector cuts, the Bank of England has printed £375bn of new money (as debt) for Banks in the last year, whilst growing the national debt to pay down the annual budget deficit.
In short, instead of using debt to invest in people and supply/demand factors in the real economy, the UK government (and other austerity governments) is using debt to gloss over the failures of its own economic policy and buoy up the financial services sector.
This term comes from stacking a deck of cards in your favour. Card stacking is used to slant a message. Key words or unfavourable statistics may be omitted leading to a series of half-truths.
Nowhere has card stacking been better applied by the UK government than in its workers versus shirkers campaign to make the unemployed poor suffer equally to the working poor. The UK government recently made the decision to, for the first time, cease to raise social security payments in line with inflation. It chose to restrict social security inflation to 1% for the next three years despite real inflation rising at 2.7%. This was a government decision to make the poorest poorer. The government instead argued the policy was about fairness, and defending the worker. The argument ran: why should benefits rise faster than wages? In fact, the Conservative Party ran attack ads ahead of the vote that read like so:
They did not unpack the reasons why wages have stagnated. They did not emphasise that social security is means tested to ensure that the payments meet economic reality whilst wages have failed to keep track with the cost of living for some time.
The UK government has also grossly inflated the issue of benefit fraud to support such actions. Speaking at the 2012 Conservative Party conference, Chancellor George Osborne invoked this perceived injustice powerfully:
“Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?”
The reality is, by the Department of Work and Pensions own figures, that benefit fraud costs the UK economy just £1.2bn a year; the cost of tax evasion if 100 times higher at £120bn. Yet, no government figure is using such strong imagery to set the public against the tax evaders, and certainly not any substantive policy, quite the opposite.
This technique is also called “black-and-white thinking” because only two choices are given. You are either for something or against it; there is no middle ground or shades of gray. It is used to polarize issues, and negates all attempts to find a common ground.
The austerity programme has certainly been sold as a fait accompli. It is austerity or financial failure. Politicians endorsing austerity are quick to tell us we don’t want to end up like Greece, but do not any longer tell us we don’t want to end up like Iceland. Why?
Greece has implemented all of the austerity measures required by the central banks and neoliberal economics. The results have seen Greek unemployment rise to 30%, pensions cut by 60%, wages slashed 45% on average, and widespread civil unrest as a result.
Iceland refused to use tax payer cash to honour debts run up by the private sector, jailed the bankers responsible, kicked out the Prime Minister and put him on trial for his part in the crisis, and invited its citizens to write a new constitution.
Iceland now has a 5.7% unemployment rate (UK is at 7.7%), while pensioners receive back around 96.5% of their average net income as pension, wages have continued to climb since 2011 and are now at an all time high. Iceland society is peaceful and free of social strife.
Speaking of what kept him focussed, despite enormous pressure, on his plans to bail out the public rather than the banks or the bankers, Icelandic president Olafur Ragnar Grimsson says:
“Europe is and should be more about democracy than about financial markets. Based with this choice, it was in the end, clear that I had to choose democracy.”
Speaking at Davos, Grimsson stated unequivocally that his nation recovered from the financial crisis precisely because it ignored the economic orthodoxies of the last 30 years, namely neoliberalism, and found its own way.
Despite this, governments across Europe are using an example of failed austerity, as the argument for austerity. In essence ‘Do what we did to Greece or you’ll end up like Greece!”. Iceland meanwhile has fallen off the mainstream news agenda entirely.
Breaking the Spell
The fact is that propaganda works, but only so long as we refuse to engage critically with the information set before us. So far, the battle is being consummately won by the propagandists. Disability hate crime is up by 25% after the government’s attacks on alleged benefit fraud by people pretending to be ill to avoid work. A recent TUC study in the UK revealed people’s perceptions about the scale of the welfare bill and welfare fraud were entirely unrelated to the reality.
We need to confront the propaganda with the facts, but also with a compelling narrative of our own.
Austerity isn’t working. We are the 99%. Banks got bailed out, we got sold out. You can afford a war, but not feed the poor.
We need to embrace these narratives and ensure that people get the missing story. We can do it and we must do it. Otherwise, we abandon the truth to the propagandists who argue austerity works and two plus two equals five.
UK Uncut – going after the tax avoiding corporations and individuals with effective and exciting campaigns and protests.
Boycott Workfare – cutting through the white noise to tell the reality of workfare and working poverty.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) – the most exciting group of disability campaigners I’ve had the pleasure to come across. Follow them, donate to them, join them.
Occupy London – the movement is still going, despite not being in the news. It’s a great way to meet and think with others about a more effective means of social, political, economic and environmental organisation.