Power’s main concern is the ability to conceal itself, writes Jonathan Cook. Instead of making itself visible, it depends on ideas that enslave our minds.
If one thing drives me to write, especially these blog posts, it is the urgent need for us to start understanding power. Power is the force that shapes almost everything about our lives and our deaths. There is no more important issue. Understanding power and overcoming it through that understanding is the only path to liberation we can take as individuals, as societies and as a species.
Which is why it should be simply astonishing that no one in the media, supposedly a free marketplace of ideas, ever directly addresses matters of power – beyond the shadow play of party politics and celebrity scandals.
And yet, of course, this lack of interest in analyzing and understanding power is not surprising at all. Because the corporate media is the key tool – or seen another way, the central expression – of power.
Very obviously power’s main concern is the ability to conceal itself. Its exposure as power weakens it, by definition. Once exposed, power faces questions about its legitimacy, its methods, its purposes. Power does not want to be seen, it does not want to be confined, it does not want to be held accountable. It wants absolute freedom to reproduce itself, and ideally to amass more power.
That is why true power makes itself as invisible and as inscrutable as it can. Like a mushroom, power can grow only in darkness. That is why it is the hardest thing to write about in ways that are intelligible to those under its spell, which is most of us, most of the time. Because power coopts language, words are inadequate to the task of describing the story of real power.
Ripples on the Surface
Notice I refer to power, not the powerful, because power should be understood more as an idea made flesh, an ideological matrix of structures, a way of understanding the world, than a set of people or a cabal. It has its own logic separate from the people who are considered powerful. Yes, politicians, celebrities, royalty, bankers and CEOs are part of its physical expression. But they are not power, precisely because those individuals are visible. The very visibility of their power makes them vulnerable and potentially expendable – the very opposite of power.
The current predicaments of Prince Andrew in Britain or Harvey Weinstein in the U.S. are illustrative of the vagaries of being powerful, while telling us little meaningful about power itself. Conversely, there is a truth in the self-serving story of those in power – the corporate executives of an Exxon or a BP – who note, on the rare occasions they face a little scrutiny, that if they refused to do their jobs, to oversee the destruction of the planet, someone else would quickly step in to fill their shoes.
Rather than thinking in terms of individuals, power is better visualized as the deep waters of a lake, while the powerful are simply the ripples on the surface. The ripples come and go, but the vast body of water below remains untouched.
Superficially, the means by which power conceals itself is through stories. It needs narratives – mainly about those who appear powerful – to create political and social dramas that distract us from thinking about deep power. But more fundamentally still, power depends on ideology. Ideology cloaks power – in a real sense, it is power – because it is the source of power’s invisibility.
Ideology provides the assumptions that drive our perceptions of the world, that prevent us from questioning why some people were apparently born to rule, or have been allowed to enclose vast estates of what was once everyone’s land, or hoard masses of inherited wealth, or are celebrated for exploiting large numbers of workers, or get away with choking the planet to the point at which life itself asphyxiates.
Phrased like that, none of these practices seems natural. In fact, to a visiting Martian they would look pathologically insane, an irrefutable proof of our self-destructiveness as a species. But these conditions are the unexamined background to our lives, just the way things are and maybe always were. The system.
True, the individuals who benefit from the social and economic policies that uphold this system may occasionally be held to account. Even the policies themselves may occasionally be held up to scrutiny. But the assumptions behind the policies are rarely questioned – certainly not in what we are taught to call the “mainstream.”
That is an amazing outcome given that almost none of us benefit from the system we effectively sanction every time we turn out to vote in an election. Very few of us are rulers, or enjoy enormous wealth, or live on large estates, or own companies that deprive thousands of the fruit of their labors, or profit from destroying life on Earth. And yet the ideology that rationalizes all that injustice, inequality and immorality not only stays in place but actually engenders more injustice, more inequality, more immorality year by year.
We watch this all unfold passively, largely indifferently because we believe – we are made to believe – we are powerless.
Regenerating like Doctor Who
By now, you may be frustrated that power still lacks a name. Is it not late-stage capitalism? Or maybe neoliberalism? Globalization? Or neoconservatism? Yes, we can identify it right now as ideologically embedded in all of those necessarily vague terms. But we should remember that it is something deeper still.
Power always has an ideological shape and physical structures. It has both faces. It existed before capitalism, and will exist after it (if capitalism doesn’t kill us first). Human history has consisted of power consolidating and regenerating itself in new form over and over again – like the eponymous hero of the long-running British TV sci-fi series Doctor Who – as different groups have learnt how to harness it, usurp it and put it to self-interested use. Power has been integral to human societies. Now our survival as individuals and as a species depends on our finding a way to reinvent power, to tame it and share it equally among us all – and thereby dissolve it. It is the ultimate challenge.
By its very nature, power must prevent this step – a step that, given our current predicament, is necessary to prevent planetary-wide death. Power can only perpetuate itself by deceiving us about what it has done in the past and will do in the future, and whether alternatives exist. Power tells us stories that it is not power – that it is the rule of law, justice, ethics, protection from anarchy or the natural world, inevitable. And to obscure the fact that these are just stories – and that like all stories, these may not actually be true, or may even be the opposite of truth – it embeds these stories in ideology.
We are encouraged to believe that the media – in the widest sense possible – has authority alone to tell us these stories, to promote them as orthodoxy. It is the lens through which the world is revealed to us. Reality filtered through the lens of power.
The media is not just newspapers and TV news broadcasts. Power also exerts its hold on our imaginative horizons through all forms of “popular” entertainment, from Hollywood films and YouTube videos to social media and video games.
In the U.S., for example, almost all media is owned by a handful of corporations that have diverse interests related to power. Power expresses itself in our modern societies as wealth and ownership. And corporations stand at the apex of that power structure. They and their chief functionaries (for corporate executives do not really control power, it controls them) own almost all of the planet’s resources, they hold almost all of the wealth. They typically use their money to buy attention for themselves and their brands while at the same time buying invisibility for deep power.
To take one example: Rupert Murdoch’s power is visible to us, as are his negative personal qualities and occasionally the pernicious influence of his newspapers. But it is not just that his media outlets play a part in shaping and controlling what we talk about on any given day, for good or bad. They also control – all the time – what we are capable of thinking and not thinking. That is true power. And that role will never be mentioned by a Murdoch organization – or any of his supposed rivals in the corporate media. It is the preserve of blogs like this one for very obvious reasons.
That makes media corporations a key pillar of the matrix of power. Their journalists are servants of corporate power, whether they know it or not. Mostly, of course, they do not.
The Veiling of Power
These thoughts were provoked by a rare comment from a prominent corporate journalist about power. Jonathan Freedland is a senior columnist at the supposedly liberal Guardian, and a British equivalent of Thomas Friedman or Jeffrey Goldberg. His job is to help make deep power invisible, even as he criticizes the powerful. Freedland’s stock-in-trade is using the ephemeral dramas of political power to veil true power.
It was therefore intriguing to see Freedland actually try to define “power” in a recent column intended to dissuade people from backing Senator Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee. Here is what he writes in reference to power:
“If recent events have reminded us of anything, it’s that in politics, power is the whole ballgame. …
Most significant of all, a [political] party in power has the ability to create the conditions that ensure it keeps it. …
It’s understanding the power of power, a truth so obvious that it should barely need stating, that is driving some battle-hardened veterans of past left campaigns to despair. “Nothing. Without power, there is nothing,” fumed James Carville, who ran the last successful Democratic effort to oust a sitting Republican president when he masterminded Bill Clinton’s victory back in 1992.
But the first step is to accept its importance, to recognise that winning power is the sine qua non of politics, literally the thing without which there is nothing.”
Notice that from the outset Freedland limits his definition of power in ways that are designed to assist power rather than examine or scrutinize it. He states something meaningful – the importance of “understanding the power of power, a truth so obvious that it should barely need stating” – but then resolutely obscures the “power of power.”
What Freedland addresses instead is a lesser form of power – power as visible political drama, the illusion that we, those who currently have no real power, can exercise power by voting for candidates already selected for their ideological subservience to power, in a political and economic system structured to serve power, in a media and cultural landscape where those who try to address or challenge real power either end up being dismissed as “conspiracy theorists,” or “tinfoil hat-wearing” leftists, or crazed socialists; or end up being locked away as subversives, as a menace to society, as has prominently happened to Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange.
A small hint that Freedland is veiling power – from himself too – is his unthinking reference to Bill Clinton’s election adviser as running a “left campaign.” Of course, stripped of a narrative that serves power, neither Clinton nor his campaign could ever have been described as of the left.
While Freedland frets about how political power has moved to the right in the U.S. and U.K., he also indulges the deceptive consolation that cultural power – “the media, the Academy, entertainment,” as he refers to it – can act as a liberal-left counterweight, even if an ineffective one, to the right’s political power. But as I pointed out, the media and entertainment world – of which Freedland is very much part – are there precisely to uphold power, rationalize it, propagandize for it, and refine it so as to better conceal it. They are integral to the shadow play, to the veiling of real power. The left-right dichotomy – within the severely circumscribed limits he and his colleagues impose – is part of that veiling process.
Freedland’s seeming analysis of power does not, of course, lead him to consider in any meaningful way the most pressing and vital issues of the moment, issues that are deeply entwined with what power is and how it functions:
- how we might upend economic “orthodoxy” to prevent the imminent collapse of a global financial system fallaciously premised on the idea of infinite growth on a finite planet,
- and how, if we are to survive as a species, we might deal with a corporate power that is polluting the planet to death through the aggressive cultivation of rampant, profit-driven consumerism.
These issues are only ever addressed tangentially in the corporate media, in ways that do not threaten deep power.
Glitches in the System
The kind of power Freedland focuses on is not real power. He is interested only in taking “power” away from President Donald Trump to give it to a supposedly “electable” candidate for the Democratic Party, such as Pete Buttigieg or Michael Bloomberg, rather than a supposedly “unelectable” Sanders; or to take “power” from Prime Minister Boris Johnson through a “moderate”, pliable Labour Party reminiscent of the Tony Blair era rather than the “alienating” democratic socialism he and his colleagues worked so relentlessly to undermine from the moment Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader.
In other words, for Freedland and the entire spectrum of the corporate media, the only discussion they care to have is about who might best serve a superficial, ephemeral political power – without actually defining or even alluding to real power.
There is good reason for this. Because if we understood what power is, that it depends on ideas that we have been force-fed our every waking moment, ideas that enslave our minds and are now poised to kill us, we might decide that the whole system of power, not just its latest pretty or ugly face, needs to be swept away. That we need to start with entirely new ideas and values. And that the only way to liberate ourselves from our current pathological, self-destructive ideas is to stop listening to the loyal functionaries of power like Jonathan Freedland.
The current efforts to stop Sanders from winning the Democratic nomination do at least help to open our eyes.
The Democratic Party is one of the two national U.S. parties whose role, like the corporate media, is to conceal deep power. Its function is to create the illusion of choice, and thereby keep the viewing public engrossed in the drama of politics. That does not mean that there are no differences between the Republican and Democratic parties. There are, and for some people they are meaningful and can be vitally important. But those differences are completely trivial from the perspective of power.
In fact, power’s goal is to magnify those trivial differences to make them look like major differences. But whichever party gets into “power,” the corporations will keep despoiling and destroying the planet, they will continue driving us into profit-making wars, and they will carry on accumulating vast wealth largely unregulated. They will be able to do so because the Republican and Democratic parties’ leaderships rose to their current positions – they were selected – by proving their usefulness to deep power. That is the power of power, after all.
That is not to say there are never glitches in the system. Mistakes happen, though they are usually corrected quickly. The system is not all-powerful – not yet, at least. Our situation is not necessarily hopeless, though the struggle is immensely difficult because most of us have not yet worked out what power is and therefore have no idea how it might be confronted.
Power has had to make historic compromises, to take defensive actions in the hope of maintaining its invisibility. In the West, it eventually conceded the vote to all adult men, then women, to ensure its legitimacy. As a result, power shifted from expressing itself through implicit or overt threats of physical violence to maintain order and moved towards manufacturing an ideological consensus – our current passivity to our imminent self-destruction – through education systems and the corporate media.
(The threat of violence is only veiled, and can be made explicit against those who doubt the legitimacy of power or try to stop its descent into self-destruction, as Extinction Rebellion will increasingly find the more it pushes for deep and systemic change.)
Power’s relentless drive to feed the insatiable appetite it has created for us as consumers, and its obsession with technological fixes as a way to maximize efficiency and profits, sometimes create these glitches. They open up new possibilities for exposing power. One recent example is the information publishing revolution embodied by social media. Power is now desperately trying to stuff that genie back into the lamp with self-serving narratives about “fake news” on the left (made more credible by conflating it with power-serving fake news on the right), as well as making drastic changes to algorithms to disappear the left’s rapidly emerging counter-narratives.
And most importantly, power is struggling to maintain the illusion of its benign nature, of normal service, in the face of real-world facts, such as the planet heating up, runaway fires in Australia, balmy winter temperatures in the Antarctic, the mass die-off of insects, and the tide of plastic choking the oceans. Its efforts to exploit the wealth-generating opportunities offered by the climate and wider environmental emergencies, while refusing to acknowledge that it is entirely responsible for those emergencies, may yet backfire. The question is not whether we wake up to the role of power, but whether we do so before it is too late to effect change.
The Sanders Threat
Sanders is one of those glitches. Just like Jeremy Corbyn was in the U.K. They have been thrown up by current circumstances. They are the first signs of a tentative political awakening to power, sometimes dismissed generically as “populism.” They are the inevitable outcome of the ever-greater difficulty power faces in concealing its self-destructiveness as it seeks to remove every last limit to its voracious acquisitiveness.
Once upon a time, those who paid the price of power were out of view, in disenfranchised, urban slums or far-off lands. But the accelerating contradictions of power – of late-stage, global capitalism, if you prefer a specific name – have brought those effects much closer to home, where they cannot so easily be ignored or discounted. Growing sections of Western societies, the central locus of power, understand that there needs to be serious, not cosmetic, change.
Power needs to be rid of Sanders, just as it previously had to rid itself of Corbyn because both are that rarest thing – politicians who are not imprisoned within the current power paradigm. Because they do not serve power cultishly like most of their colleagues, such politicians threaten to shine a light on true power. Ultimately, power will use any tool to destroy them. But power prefers, if possible, to maintain its cloak of invisibility, to avoid exposing the sham of the consumption-driven “democracy” it engineered to consolidate and expand its power. It prefers our collusion.
The reason the Democratic Party establishment is trying to bring down Sanders at the primaries stage and crown a power-functionary like Buttigieg, Biden or even Elizabeth Warren – or if it must, parachute in a billionaire like Michael Bloomberg – is not because Sanders would on his own be able to end the globe-spanning power of pathological capitalism and consumerism. It is because the nearer he gets to the main shadow play, to the presidency, the more power will have to make itself visible to defeat him. (Language makes it difficult to describe this dynamic without resorting to metaphors that make power sound fancifully human rather than structural and ideological.)
As the other candidates increasingly look unsuited to the task of toppling Sanders for the nomination, and rigging the primaries has proved much harder to do covertly than it was hoped, power has had to flex its muscles more publicly than it likes.
So narrative is being marshalled to destroy Sanders in the same way that the anti-Semitism and Brexit narratives were used to halt Corbyn’s grassroots movement in its tracks. In Sanders’ case, the corporate media is preparing a readymade Russia narrative against him in case he gets nearer to power – a narrative that has already been refined for use against Trump.
(Trump’s relation to power could be the basis for an entirely separate post. He is not an ideological threat to power, he is one if its functionaries. But he is a potential Harvey Weinstein or Prince Andrew. He can be sacrificed if needs be. The Russiagate narrative has served two purposes useful to power. It has tamed Trump’s ego-based politics to ensure he does not threaten deep power by making it more visible. And it has created a compelling political drama that channels and dissipates the “resistance” to Trump, satisfying much of the left’s own need to feel they are doing something, when in fact they are simply strengthening Trump and deep power.)
Caught in a Trap
Late last week, as the landslide in Nevada for Sanders was imminent, the Western media uncritically reported claims, based on unnamed “U.S. officials,” that the Vermont senator is seen by the Russians as an “asset,” and that the Kremlin is trying to help either him or Trump to get elected. No one making that claim was identified, no explanation was offered of how Sanders could serve as an asset, nor was evidence cited for how the Russians might be able to help Sanders win. Power doesn’t need facts or evidence, even when its claims are self-evidently disruptive to the democratic process. It exists chiefly in the realm of narrative and ideology. This is a story, just like Corbyn’s “anti-Semitism crisis,” that is made true simply through repetition.
Because power is power, its narratives can defy the most elementary rules of logic. After all, how could an unverified, evidence-free narrative about Russian interference on behalf of Sanders’ campaign be more important than actual interference by anonymous “U.S. officials” intended to damage Sanders’ campaign? How could such undemocratic, unaccountable efforts to interfere in the outcome of the U.S. election be so readily peddled by the media unless the entire press corps is incapable or unwilling to engage their critical faculties in favor of the democratic principles they claim to uphold? Unless, in truth, they are not there representing us, the people, and our interests, but are instead simply servants of what amounts to a power-cult.
As I have documented many times before, Corbyn found himself caught in a trap of the kind now faced by Sanders. Any supporter (including Jews) who denied that the Labour Party Corbyn led was anti-Semitic, or argued that the anti-Semitism claims were being weaponized to damage him, was cited as proof that Corbyn had indeed attracted anti-Semites to the party. Concluding that Corbyn’s Labour Party was not anti-Semitic, based on the evidence, was treated as evidence of anti-Semitism. But as soon as Corbyn agreed under media and party pressure to accept the alternative – that an anti-Semitism problem had taken root on his watch – he was also implicitly forced to concede that something about him and his values had allowed anti-Semitism to take root. He found he was damned either way – which is precisely how power makes sure it emerges the winner.
Unless we can develop our critical faculties to resist its propaganda, power holds all the cards and can play them the way that best suits its interests. The Russia narrative can be similarly written and rewritten in any way needed to damage Sanders. If he dissociates himself from the Russia narrative, it can be cited as proof that he is in the Kremlin’s pocket. But if Sanders supports the claims of Trump’s collusion with Russia, as he has done, he confirms the narrative that Vladimir Putin is interfering in the election – which can then be twisted when necessary to present Sanders as another of Russia’s assets.
Sen. Bernie Sanders: "Let me tell this to Putin — the American people, whether Republicans, Democrats, independents are sick and tired of seeing Russia and other countries interfering in our elections." pic.twitter.com/ejcP7YVFlt
— The Hill (@thehill) February 21, 2020
The message is: A vote for Trump or Sanders will put Putin in change of the White House. If you’re a patriot, better to choose a safe pair of hands – those of Buttgeig, Biden or Bloomberg. (Paradoxically, one of the glitches might be a U.S. presidential election campaign between two billionaires, a “choice” between Trump and Bloomberg. Should power become too successful in engineering the electoral system to serve its interests alone, too successful in allowing money to buy all political influence, it risks making itself visible to a wider section of the public than ever before.)
None of this should be seen as sinister or conspiratorial, though of course it sounds that way to those who fail or refuse to understand power. It is in the logic of power to exercise and consolidate its power to the greatest extent possible. And power has been accumulating power to itself over centuries, over millennia. Our failure to understand this simple truth is really a form of political illiteracy, one that has been engendered by our submission to, our worship of, power.
Those caught up in the drama of politics, the surface ripples – which is almost all of us, almost all of the time – are actors in, rather than witnesses to, the story of power. And for that reason we can see only other actors, the battles between the powerful and the powerless, and between the powerless and the powerless, rather than power itself.
We watch the drama without seeing the theater in which that drama is unfolding. In fact, power is much more than the drama or the theatre. It is the unseen foundations on which the theatre is built. To employ another metaphor, we are like soldiers on the battlefields of old. We slaughter – or are slaughtered by – people no different to us, defined as an enemy, cheered on by generals, politicians and journalists in the service of a supposed ideal we cannot articulate beyond the emptiest slogans.
Power is the structure of the thoughts we think we control, a framework for the ideologies we think we voted for, the values we think we choose to treasure, the horizon of imaginations we think we created. Power exists only so long as we consent to it through our blind obedience. But in truth, it is the weakest of opponents – it can be overcome simply by raising our heads and opening our eyes.
Jonathan Cook is a freelance journalist based in Nazareth.
This article is from his blog Jonathan Cook.net.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
Please Donate to Consortium News.
Before commenting please read Robert Parry’s Comment Policy. Allegations unsupported by facts, gross or misleading factual errors and ad hominem attacks, and abusive or rude language toward other commenters or our writers will not be published. If your comment does not immediately appear, please be patient as it is manually reviewed. For security reasons, please refrain from inserting links in your comments, which should not be longer than 300 words.
What I treasure about Consortium News, in addition to the authors who post here, are the comments posted. I have not found the quality of respectful dialogue in any other place. The Intercept utterly wears me out. With CN I find myself taking notes and feeling I am part of a group having a discussion . I now find myself writing this and saying thank you….
I think a way to “disassemble power” has to do with bringing it down to the smallest scale and then breaking it! Break it up. Challenge it on the family/community level as long as you don’t hurt the family or the community. It runs that deep and it must be challenged at that level if anything is ever going to change for the better.
In other words, on the smallest scale, pushing “seeming power” aside to show what it really is – helplessness or haplessness as the case may be. This “power” is an illusion. It traps us in certain ways of thinking that become habit. It keeps us from reaching our potential. Individually and collectively. Historically “power” is a spell cast upon the masses by false media getting stuck in our brains so to speak, but it does not need to be always so. Power in and of itself is not harmful. It is just power – the ability to sway. I don’t know about you, but I’m always open to a new idea.
Just now the scales are in the balance because some of the “ripples” are holding onto what they think they are entitled to because they must figure they are “superior”. They are incorrect. What matters is MERIT.
Merit earns power and this power is deserved.
“…the media, supposedly a free marketplace of ideas, …”
Replace “supposedly ” with “formerly” and / or “no longer”.
Kill your teevee!
“Merit earns power and this power is deserved.”
Ideology is immersive, akin to a swimming pool – when you start to emerge from it you still carry water droplets.
A factor of immersion is an assay of projection of frames of the social relations which are sought to be transcended.
Your exposition illustrates various such frames including that the purpose is power, that power is earned (not imposed), and consequently power is deserved.
Among the conflations that the social relations which are sought to be transcended are facilitated is the conflation of power and agency (antithetical since the power of some seeks to preclude the agency of others) and the conflation of agency with representation (antithetical since representation by some seeks to preclude the agency of others).
Power is necessary in implementing coercive social relations, whilst agency of others in increasing assay is necessary to engage in co-operative relations – hence an ongoing lateral process of transcendence is necessary and in process, part of which is a way you illustrate.
Sorry, Jonathan Cook gets it wrong. He doesn’t see the bigger picture and I think he doesn’t really understand US/Empire politics.
I wonder if he really cares to look deeper.
Sure, he says some interesting things about power – things that some young people need to hear – but he fails to see that Sanders has proven himself to be a useful tool of the power establishment and that Sanders’ call for Party unity and his declaration that he will support the Party nominee – whomever that may be – are betrayals of those who support his insurgency (it’s not a proper Movement).
One stark example is that Cook also fails to note that Russiagate is simply warmed-over McCarthyism. Sanders could and should call it out as such. But as Jimmy Dore has noted, Sanders reinforces Russiagate instead of debunking it.
Cook makes it seem as though debunking Russiagate is too difficult when, in fact, it’s easily done: Russiagate is Hillary’s excuse for losing in 2016. The 18-month, $20 million Mueller investigation found no real basis for Russiagate.
That Sanders goes along with the Democratic Party Russiagate farce is further demonstration of his making Democratic Party interests paramount.
Apologists say that Sanders HAS TO play the game. But then they tell us that as a socialist/progressive he’s the real deal. That’s bullcrap. We’ve already seen Sanders betray his movement in 2016 (giving Hillary a pass on character issues like when he declared: “Enough with your damn emails!”). If he wants our trust, he’s got to show that he deserves it.
His continuing deference to Hillary and the Party is a big red flag. Compare Sanders reaction to Hillary’s attack:
with Tulsi Gabbard’s:
Excellent summary of why I distrust Bernie. I also believe it is why Bernie is allowed media coverage. He is the metaphorical “sheep dog” to round up the liberal herd only to betray us in the end. Hopefully enough people wake up after it happens again in 2020 (because TRUMP!), and they find a new standard bearer, and even a new party.
“… that Russiagate is simply warmed-over McCarthyism.”
Apple and orange above.
The McCarthyism is rather: potus’ et alia responses to Putin’s meddling ~ attacking american legal and congressional institutions and attacking citizens seeking to uphold such foundations.
Impeach Again – and convict.
Nice article. Very important. Thanks.
I think a deeper question that needs to be asked and answered is why the truly powerful love democracy. I think it is because it is so easy to detract people from power by getting them to argue about say, abortion, gay rights etc. Trivial things, during the election process. After the election the people are instructed that the elected representitives are free to excercise their conciense for 4 or 5 years during which time those representatives duly serve the interests of power. A citizen can`t argue against their representative because his constituents have given him the power to make decisions for them. The truly powerful only have to buy these representatives. Guaging from the results of polling in the Western World, people are waking up to this flaw in democracy and now more than 50% of the populations of the West have negative views of the democratic process. The truly powerful have used democracy to not only accumulate vast wealth for themselves but also to legitimise not only their wealth but their power.
You are describing the difference between a democracy and a republic. Direct democracy requires no “representatives”. The truly powerful have used the “republic” to subvert democracy by corrupting the “representatives”. “Power”, as Jonathan describes, abhors direct democracy. It is too messy. Under such circumstances they could only hope that their propaganda machine controlled the masses’ minds sufficiently for them to “have their way” with us.
Here in Arizona they have “propositions” on the ballot. It is a form of direct democracy, bypassing the representatives. It is why we have legal medical marijuana, for one example. Our “representatives” in very conservative Arizona were stunned by this proposition passing, and initially tried to “jigger the numbers” to say that it failed. The oversight was too effective for that effort to succeed.
It would be fantastic if we could have “federal” propositions so the public could make policy directly. In this internet connected world, there is no reason for it not to be, except that it would be a tool for subverting the ability for “power” to corrupt.
Hello Jonathan, Are you familiar with Louis Althusser’s work “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses?”
Thanks for your essay and very best wishes.
Going beyond Althusserian structuralism, I would like to ask Jonathan if he is familiar with Nicos Poultantzas’ “State, Power, Socialism” (1983). Poulantzas critiques the Lacanian/Foucaultian observation that power is “everywhere and nowhere”, which is implicit in what Jonathan is saying here. I often read Jonathan’s despatches from Palestine and as part of the international solidarity movement respect his courage and politics in that regard, as well as his generally critical view of mainstream media and the US empire. However, his theory about power is problematic. It is problematic from a scientific theoretical position as Poulantzas has shown, leading us into a mystical presence called “power” that we can’t usefully identify in a set of politico-economic practices. And it is problematic from a practical political perspective because the power he speaks about is the power of the dominant classes in contemporary capitalism articulated through the global political economy, under the hegemony of US Imperialism – but he doesn’t say so, preferring to simply refer to a mystical, underlying power that somehow seduces even the best of us and sets the society up for its current road to disaster. We need to be clear that power is a social relation, i.e. it is only real through the projection and domination of one social grouping by another, or many social groupings by a few. In short the problem with Jonathan’s analysis is that he doesn’t call a thing by its name, namely that the profit-seeking corporations and individuals he speaks about are acting rationally and consistently in respect of the laws of motion of capitalism. Once we are clear about that we will have a political-economy framework within which to debate the agents propelling specific problems and try to identify the social forces whose underlying interest might make them have a long-term commitment to struggling against these forces. This is no easy task. This is traditionally a left weltanschaung, based on Marx and Engels and others’ views. Some have depicted a pure class antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Others have a more nuanced picture of the dominant and the dominated classes, and the locating of “nations” in this matrix of power social relations. Racist and sexist ideologies and real power relations have also been analysed within a capitalist political economy framework. The Left’s history has been zig-zagged by Stalinist-type statism, welfare capitalism and also the more recent Blair-Clinton-Schroeder Third Way, which is really a management of neo-liberal capitalism and betrayal of the working classes. My point is not so much about the strategies a resurgent Left might adopt, but rather clearing the theoretical confusion. Before we can start to think about what we could do we need to clarify the is-ness of the situation. And that, sadly, is not what Jonathan’s article does …… I think Jay Gordon’s comments (later) also pick up on the problematic of Jonathan mystifying “power”. …..
I always look forward to reading your blog. Thanks for all you good work.
Bravo. This, exactly. I pray that we are on the cusp of a global enlightenment about power, which this article illustrates so clearly and eloquently. Because, whether we know it (or are allowed to express it) or not, an examination of power is the very thing what lies beneath the moment we are living in, where corporate media narratives are finally being unmasked and disingenuous political narratives are losing steam in the democratic primaries.
I pray we are waking up to the very real personal power we could each and every one of us possess – and unite around – as citizens of the world. We are the vast majority. We largely want the same things by overwhelming majority. And we are largely united in our hearts against the immorality of power and it’s ill effects on our local and global neighbors, even if we can’t identify or articulate it as well as has been done here. The current prevailing form of power in this moment has a real chance to change – and change hands, if we would only take what is right in front of us. Citizens of the world unite.
Parenti’s book from the late 1970s, “Power and the Powerless” is the finest work on this subject. The first 3 or 4 chapters are bit dense, but after that he really gets rolling. Don’t miss it.
An excellent examination of how power and propaganda intertwine much to the detriment of humanity.
When exposing a crime, is treated as committing a crime – you are being ruled by criminals. – Albert Camus
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. — H. L. Mencken
It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise. – Joseph Goebbels
Excellent quotes. What feeds into this alarming credulousness of the population is what Erich Fromm covered in his book variously called The Escape from Freedom and Fear of Freedom. People are eager to give up worldly decision making to an authoritarian father figure and concentrate on their daily concerns, whether by choice or necessity. Unfortunately, the authoritarian father figures on offer are the few who want to wield the reins, all of them deeply flawed power seekers, often psychopathic. The populace, having (foolishly) ceded their power to these people to avoid the labor of self-governance, defend them or bury their heads in the sand. And here we are now, weakened, with the labor it would take to reclaim our rightful, appropriate citizens’ responsibilities magnified to a degree that only few – like Assange – dare make the effort.
One of the tricks “power” likes to play is known in intelligence jargon as “limited hangout.” Tell the truth, okay, just not the whole truth. The worst part of the story remains hidden. People hearing the ugly news assume that they are being treated to the full story, when they are not, so they are deterred from drilling deeper. It seems to bear its heart on its sleeve, so we believe its intrinsic ideology.
Unfortunately, this remarkable essay is a good example of that tactic. There are many good points, just like you find in any limited hangout. It is spot on regarding ideology. Hannah Arendt tackled this problem when she pointed out that all isms are bad, in that they cripple the mind’s ability to function in any critical thinking problem. It did a good job of relating to the present day allegory of the Sanders campaign, making itself invisible while it creates an unaccountable narratuive that needs no evidentiary support or rationale.
It’s precisely when we are delivered a hangout of this depth and insight that we who possess critical thinking skills must be on our constant vigilence against it being a cynical limited hangout. A hangout that mocks its own premise trying to show everyone that it outfoxes us. Unfortunately that is what Cook has done. His thesis posits that power is undetectable and thus tries to hide itself in a cloak of invisibility by making it nameless.
Yet that is exactly what Cook himself is doing here, right under our noses where we can be made to look like fools for buying it. He is making the visible itself invisible by not identifying it or giving it a name or presence, an ineffable nameless ubiquitous presence that can never be actually identified. It is just “power.” “Power” cannot be called out or deposed if it is nameless. That is the strategy we see here whether Cook intended to or not.
This is utter nonsense. The power he is talking about has names and can be identified. It exists in several tangible forms and has names of real institutions and people we can identify. Who else is he talking about? Satan? The Devil? Start with MI-6 or the CIA, which Allen Dulles turned into a permanent bureaucracy in the post-WWII US. We know who they are. Some historians would say, the modern British neo-colonial Empire. A permanent bureaucracy, aka “federal bureaucracy” or “deep state,” that undermines elected presidents by insinuation and now seeks to enthrone itself without guise or pretense by subversion, assassination, and insubordination. Presidents come and go but the deep state continues and exerts power in secret, in the self-righteous certainty that they are smarter and better informed than any of the rest of us.
They react to exposure by violent counterinsurgencies when there is no other recourse, such as occurred in Chile in 1973, and could occur here in the US if Sanders gets closer to power. That is what both the right and left fear most, because like the Mafia they hold the final say by dint of implicit state terrorism.
I think Jay Gordon hits the nail on the head, and I earlier articulated a political economy framework of capitalism as a concrete and specific way of locating and understanding social relations of power. What’s interesting is the development of these ideas that “power is everywhere and nowhere”. The assumptions implicit in Jonathan’s description of power are congruent with the ideological framework develop[ed by philosophers like Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze. Poulantzas (referred to in my earlier comment) noted that these philosophers “seriously underestimate the importance of classes and class struggle and ignore the central role of the state” (State, Power, Socialism  p.44). And therein lies the significance of this postmodern, deconstructionist thought. Rather than recognising the concentration of power in and through the state apparatus, it scatters power “towards a pluralism of micro-powers”. I would argue that it is the philosophical basis for a declassed identity politics that has been encouraged and engaged in by the liberal political class for the past 30 to 40 years. Within this political paradigm an Obama can both be the First Black US President and at the same time betray the material and ideological interests of the African American community in the US, and become the President to have deported the most immigrants ever.
The “blessing” of “civilization” is that power becomes hidden behind the trappings of golden myths of cultural superiority and glorious vapulations of blind and unthinking patriotism.
When voting is, possibly, understood by the many to be a rite, merely an empty ritual, as was intended from the beginning, that the franchise in no significant way may influence policy, hoi paloi might come to realize that “official history”, THE narrative, effectively delimits what most individuals think, perceieve, and understand about the world, about society, and about their own lives.
“Learned Helplessness” was the term which the architects of the U$ torture program, Mitchell and Jesson, used to describe what they intended to achieve in the minds of their subjects.
Learned Helplessness is what power always intends for the many.
Brutal ruthlessness is not limited to physical subjugation, to clubs and firing squads.
It does not even require water boarding.
A consistent deminishment of agency from childhood onward, in school, in the workplace, in the circuses of spectatorship, in the process of being passively “entertained”, of the “happy hour” release, and of digital entrancement, all contribute to frozen response and a sense of narrow option, of coming to know one’s “place”.
Examples are “made” and the message is clear, even as critical thought is ridiculed and courage, tolerance, understanding, and imagination are denigrated and maligned.
Were all this “Western Idealism” not long wrapped in democratic pretense, it might be far more readily perceived for what it actually is.
Always shadows strivings for absolute power.
Which is precisely what we now behold.
Teetering, as we are, on the precipice of extinction.
Shall we follow the lemmings and move relentlessly “forward”?
Or, ought we hold back and seriously consider what future, if any, might better serve the interests of life on this planet?
“it depends on ideas that enslave our minds. ”
Focus is a form of myopia and hence a facilitator of misrepresentation.
Power/control is a re-enforcing matrix assay of many coercive components including but not restricted to ideas that enslave our minds, all in attempt to preclude qualitative challenge to and qualitative change to specific social relations.
Social relations facilitate the experience of social relations and their assumptions, hence afford opportunities to test hypotheses including but not restricted to “ideas that enslave our minds”.
Attempt to preclude/delay such testing of hypotheses/assumptions include but are not restricted to encouragement of belief to bridge doubt to attain comfort (as presently illustrated in Woolwich Crown Court) and resort to force in other ways.
The opponents particularly when immersed in an increased level of vindictiveness tend to be drawn to Mr. Stalin’s maxim – no man;no problem viewed through the prism of “the individual”.
Resort to violence gives opportunities to those subject to violence to be coerced, or to emulate, or to transcend the source of violence; the transcendence being the lateral option – qualitative challenge to and qualitative change to specific social relations.
The reliance on a re-enforcing matrix affords many opportunities and portals of qualitative challenge to and qualitative change to specific social relations to others using the source of violence as accelerator of such lateral strategies.
Your final paragraph seems to be a paradox, where indoctrination can be defeated by a rejection of indoctrination, but indoctrination prevents a rejection of indoctrination.
Those of us who do understand, or come close to understanding power, as it is, know full well that understanding is far different to avoiding being murdered by the thing we oppose, as so many have been before.
When the problem is clear, action, is a whole other thing.
To overthrow power requires large numbers of us who understand, and indoctrination and power act exceptionally well to prevent this. The war for the understandings of the many, pits psychopathic global behemoth machinery against the few who’s weapons are merely reason and ethics.
Even if there were numbers, they would mostly reject the conclusion that we are in a fight for life itself, on earth, and that the fight requires us to meet brutality in kind, in defense of life. Few who consider themselves ethical, are willing to accept that power, as it is, can not be reasoned with, only fought.
So, do you understand, Johnathan? Those who understand, and who strive for a grander, more human ethical narrative, refuse to fight, lest they become the monster they abhor, and perpetuate it. There is still no plan to convince enough of us, that there is more to see than staring at shadows cast on the cave wall.
So it goes.
If the “enough of us” which you refer to are the inhabitants of the U$, the U.K, Canada, Australia, and, very likely, New Zealand, then it is probable that the indoctrination, including the fragmentation and the breakdown, both of societal bonds and a broader sense of social responsibility within the individual isolation of the profit-generation of “self”, has achieved learned helplessness of such magnitude that very little may be expected of the English speaking cohort.
Most of the people of these nations, with the exception of the young, should not be counted upon to rise to a purposeful sense of self agency, for they are seriously identified with childish myths not only as reality but as the essence of themselves; they are the ones who believe themselves superior to all other persons of differing cultural heritage and perspective, most are yet wedded to notions long ingrained, indoctrinated as you suggest, to unquestioning embrace of imperial hegemony as birthright and chosen-ness and cannot imagine a world where their dominance is either diminished or even nonexistent.
It is possible that the people of certain European nations, despite their own histories of empire might find, as mayhap have the French, the courage to dare to recognize the hidden power, which both the author of this article and Pepe Escobar (in an article above) are describing with rare clarity and typical courage.
Obviously, Assange, Manning, and others have presented sufficient evidence of criminality and corruption to have enlightened or confirmed any who have dared look beyond the unexamined assumptions which most people within any culture embrace without question or qualm.
Despite serious doubts about the capacity of far too many descendants of the Western Tradition, from the “Age of Discovery” onward, over the last more than 500 years of ruthless dominance owing to the simple possession of superior killing power and the pathological mindset to make brutal use of it, not just by the leaders but also among the many enthralled by the “beauty” of such technologies and the “do or die” mentality of the mercenary underlingsall too willing to kill or be killed in some romantic (or enforced) “crusade” for God, country, empire, or “greater good”, it is possible that more than a mere few may come to understand the thrall in which they are entranced.
Of course, we U$ians are at a severe disadvantage for we’ve never really had to rue our excesses nor paid, as yet, any price for our murderous and enslaving ways. And yet, in a very real sense, those chickens, which Malcolm X foretold as “coming home to roost” do indeed seem to be doing so with a vengeance and with absolutely no “outside” help, as the hidden (yet blatantly obvious and even manifest in specific individuals) power structure is mindlessly plundering our own society and generally extracting everything not welded to the floor of conscience and principle, while the concept of both those aspects of moral compass are claimed, by power, in word, and shown, in deed, to neither exist nor result in consequence for those who wield absolute power, or so they imagine, with the corruption of absolute impunity – at least thus far.
Still there are those, let us call them celebrities or Important People who are now urging the many to “take it to the streets”, while still embracing the indoctrination sensibility of “lesser evil-ness”. Yet who among them has ever, really, risked their own lives, limbs, or livelihoods in the streets?
What might be the “measure” that could indentify those who lead from behind?
Perhaps it might be reflected in their monetary worth.
Would ten or eighteen or twenty million dollars be enough to guarantee safety and a certain degree of impunity and “fame”?
Would it take more?
In contrast, how much might Assange or Manning, for example be “worth”?
There is a genuine difference between the worth of courageous example and and the comfortable safety of virtue signaling while avoiding any real personal danger or jeopardy.
There is a vast difference between the courage of a Martin Luther King and self-serving piety of a Barack Obama who claims to be furthering King’s legacy …
At this time those who dare reveal power for what it truly is are few.
There are, however, quite a few more who are willing to look behind the imperial curtains and mesmerizing mechanations and honestly describe what they see.
There are a few more of those people every day.
And, even in the bellies of certain of the beasts, there are still yet even more who are willing to look upon what is being revealed.
However, the real mass of changed consciousness will come from those places in the world which have long been pillaged and plundered, for many, many of the peoples living in such places, places subject to war and to sanction, have a far more intimate and personal experience of the brute power imported to break them in spirit and purpose, and they’ve no illusions, no myths, no rewards to excuse, justify, or ennoble such power. Their lived experience speaks most eloquently of their understanding.
Such solutions as humanity may manage to build toward sustainability and continued existence will likely not arise from the nations and societies now dominant for they are all far more vulnerable than they imagine.
A society that cannot make or grow what it needs is vulnerable.
A society beset by pandemic is vulnerable.
A society oblivious to environmental collapse is vulnerable.
And all the nuclear weaponry in the world, does not change any true vulnerability even a tiny bit.
As we watch “our” empire lashing out in reckless decline, more dangerous and deranged by the day, as power realizes its own vulnerability, in the persons of impunity who are wielding the power, while watching it drain away on the world stage and even within the political economy of the “Homeland”, we shall witness great anger, expressed ever more violently at home and “over there”.
When “things” no longer “work”, who will have the knowledge and wisdom to serve as genuine example in those times?
Could it be that “enough” people have actually been preparing for that moment for much of their lives?
Are you such a one?
Might you consider the possibility?
What might that look and feel like?
Otherwise, what choice is there?
Are we not all vulnerable?
Who can imagine that they are safe?
Are beyond consequence?
Or, are these things which we should not consider?
DW, There is too much there to address.
I remain unconvinced that third-world-ism (this is what you mean?), where colonized nations will be the instigators of widespread systemic revolt against plutocratic hegemony, is more likely than revolt at the heart of empire. The US has killed near indiscriminately, in the nations which resist, many times. The murder of millions, to defend and expand imperial plutocracy, is more difficult to do in the core. I also suspect that the common wisdom, that systemic change occurs in times of stability rather than of upheaval, is not likely. The great depression was a huge social catalyst, forcing the powerful to bribe the many with social security in order to defend the structure from open popular revolt.
I think when there is another such moment, due to the growing instability of “the narrative” perhaps, or the inherent instability of factional plutocratic power, or climate volatility… there is opportunity for structural transformation. I hope the people do not take the bribe this time, and remember how most of their hard won rights were slowly but inexorably dismantled because the structural power was left intact. The disease was not cured.
The US may implode in such a way that the vassal states of the empire may gain room to write a more sane cultural narrative, and whilst picking up the pieces, maybe even an economic/power structure which recognizes the physical limits of the world. I guess I think hardship can plausibly break indoctrination. I suspect quite a few became radicalized during FEMA failures in New Orleans, and “we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet” regarding nature’s wrath. The cultural myths that declare power can be trusted, that it is even virtuous, can be broken. In those times, ears can open, views can change.
It seems likely that any structurally transformational outcome will involve vast and grave suffering sooner or later… but changing nothing will too.
(note: Power is transnational, global, but enforcement of obedience to it, is still usually national, which is why I single out the US as the heart of the empire, the enforcer of financial servitude as well as the “canyon” of acceptable thought in macroculture.)