To overcome the crisis of democracy and reaffirm our autonomy, we first of all need to liberate our empty self from mindless consumerism and conformity.
Half a year into Obama’s second term, it has become clear what has been done under his watch. He brought to the world massive banking fraud, drone attacks, indefinite detention, assassination of US citizens and an unprecedented war on whistleblowers. The rhetoric of hope and change has finally and undeniably revealed its true colors. Prominent dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky has remarked how Obama’s assault on civil liberties has progressed beyond anything he could have imagined. All of these tell-tale signs mark the slippery slide toward totalitarianism that seems to now be escalating.
Edward Snowden’s NSA files unveiled to the world mass global surveillance and the fact that the USA has become the United Stasi of America. The decay of democracy in the United States is now undeniable, as all branches of the federal government have begun to betray the very ideals this country was founded on. The exposed NSA stories have had a serious global impact, challenging the credibility of the US on all levels. Under a relentless secrecy regime, the criminalization of journalism and any true dissent has become the new norm.
In recent months, a pattern of attacks on journalism has unfolded. Examples include the APA scandal of the Department of Justice’s seizure of telephone records, the tapping of Fox News reporter James Rosen’s private emails and the British government’s detention of David Miranda, partner of the Glenn Greenwald, the primary journalist breaking the NSA story. On top of these recent developments, a media shield law has moved forward in Washington. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill that narrowly defines what a journalist can be, thus taking away First Amendment protections from new forms of media. All of this points not only towards deep threats to press freedom, but to a general trend toward excessive state control and a centralization of power.
The American corporate media takes all this in stride with a business-as-usual attitude that carries the meme of “Keep Calm and Carry On”. After the NSA revelations, author Ted Rall posed the question on everyone’s lips: “Why are Americans so passive”? Obama’s blatant violations of the Fourth Amendment have reached far beyond Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal in 1974 that led him to resign under threat of impeachment. In the midst of Obama’s aggressive persecution of those who shine light on government crimes, where are all the courageous Americans? How have the people allowed such egregious acts by the government against the Constitution?
As scandals of the NSA continue to shed light on a further subversion of basic privacy within the internet, the drumbeat of war — as Obama prepared for an attack on Syria — seemed to be no coincidence. Although Snowden’s revelations began to stir up debate and efforts for reform across the country, compared with mass protests breaking out in countries like Turkey and Brazil, the scale of the response has been relatively small and hasn’t reached the full swing needed for meaningful change. One can ask: do Americans even care or are they so defeated and disempowered by a corporatized war machine they feel there is nothing they can do at all?
The Slowly Boiling Frog and the ‘Good American’
One of the reasons for public passivity is the normalization over time of radical politics. The metaphor of the slowly boiling frog comes to mind. A frog would not jump out of a hot pot if the temperature slowly rises over time. The frog’s instinctual reaction to boiling water can be compared to an innate sense within us that detects dangerous, radical or controlling agendas and blatant unconstitutional and illegal actions of governments or corporations. Our sense to feel the changes of temperature in the habitat of this supposedly democratic society has been rendered dull and has eventually been incapacitated altogether by subversion and perception management.
This control of perception is seen most blatantly in US politics, with the manufactured pendulum between a faux right and left. For instance, the handling of the issue of raising the federal debt ceiling in 2011 illustrates this machination of perception control. Michael Hudson, President of the Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends, spoke of how the rhetoric of crisis is used to rush through profoundly unpopular and otherwise impossible agendas:
Just like after 9/11, the Pentagon pulled out a plan for Iraq’s oil fields, Wall Street has a plan to really clean up now, to really put the class war back in business … They’re pushing for a crisis to let Mr. Obama rush through the Republican plan. Now, in order for him to do it, the Republicans have to play good cop, bad cop. They have to have the Tea Party move so far to the right, take so crazy a position, that Mr. Obama seems reasonable by comparison. And, of course, he is not reasonable. He’s a Wall Street Democrat, which we used to call Republicans.
The definition of liberal can move as opponents shift views. There is a false partisanship that slowly makes the public feel comfortable with what are actually quite radical and inhumane ideas and actions. This subversive form of perception management appears to have reached its height with the current presidency. This administration, with its crafted image of the ‘progressive Obama’, has successfully co-opted the left and marched it into supporting neoconservative policies that they once claimed to reject.
Glenn Greenwald, for instance, has described Obama as much more effective in institutionalizing abusive and exploitative policies than any Republican president could ever dream of being. He points out, for instance, how “Mitt Romney never would have been able to cut Social Security or target Medicare, because there would have been an enormous eruption of anger and intense, sustained opposition by Democrats and progressives accusing him of all sorts of things.” On the contrary, Greenwald continues, Obama would “bring Democrats and progressives along with him and to lead them to support and get on board with things that they have sworn they would never, ever be able to support.”
In his Death of the Liberal Class, Chris Hedges called the election of Obama a “triumph of illusion over substance”, and “a skillful manipulation and betrayal of the public by a corporate power elite.” Hedges points out how Obama was chosen as the Advertising Age’s marketer of the year in 2008 and that “the goal of a branded Obama, as with all brands, was to make passive consumers mistake a brand for an experience.”
This subversive form of control seems to have evolved beyond the political tactics of the past. During the Bush era, manipulation was much more blunt. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, outlined the state’s use of public disorientation during crises and catastrophes for purposes of manipulation. Klein shows how, from natural disasters to terrorists attacks, the state exploits crises by taking advantage of the public’s psychologically vulnerable state to push through its own radical pro-market agenda.
A prime example of this Shock Doctrine was the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. After the 9/11 implosions of the Twin Towers, a climate of fear was manufactured using the rhetoric of a “war on terror”, accompanied by the repeated images of those towers collapsing. This, in turn, was followed by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s shameful performance of deceit at the UN Security Council about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Before the public recovered from the horrendous tragedy, the nation was rail-roaded into an illegal war.
Obama’s manufactured brand has until now been quite effective in hiding its real intentions and those of its corporate overlords. The late comedian George Carlin pointed to the emergence of creeping total government control, saying that “when fascism comes to America, it will not be in brown and black shirts. It will not be with Jack-boots. It will be with Nike sneakers and smiley shirts.” Under this guise of a liberal president, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and constitutional scholar, Obama seems able to get away with policies unheard of since the last attempt at building up an imperial totalitarian state. The pretence of liberalism normalizes the most extreme policies with glib rhetoric of national security, thus neutralizing any oppositional force. In responding to recent NSA leaks, Obama justified the state’s espionage campaign as a vital part of the government’s counter-terrorism efforts, remarking that privacy is a necessary sacrifice for assuring security.
What has unfolded in the US political and social landscape is a kind of numbing of the senses. The machinations of public relations, tawdry distractions and manufactured desires create an artificial social fabric. It is as if a layer of skin has been added around the body that prevents us from having direct contact with the real fabric of our immediate environment. Entertainment and corporate ads desensitize us. They create a lukewarm feel-good political bath replacing authentic human experience with pseudo-reality. This artificially installed skin intermediates our experience of actual events. It misinforms those inside the boiling pan, and prevents them from getting to know the world through direct experience.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of good people.” History has shown how many people remain silent while witnessing the most egregious crimes against humanity. During the rise of Hitler in Germany, it was the ‘Good Germans’ who became bystanders, supporting by default the horrendous acts of one man and allowing him to dictate life and death within an entire nation.
At the ceremony of the prestigious German whistleblower prize in Germany, the acceptance speech from Edward Snowden was read by security researcher and activist Jacob Appelbaum. Appelbaum spoke to the audience of how he now lives in Berlin because in his home country of the United States, true journalism has become a dangerous trade. He conveyed the importance of not forgetting history and asked all Germans to share with Americans their history and experience with totalitarianism.
Numbed people of nations in the grip of fear easily lose connection with reality. Once we are divorced from our own senses, we come to rely on these signals from outside and regard them as our own. This creates a blind obedience to perceived outside authority, and in face of abuses and injustice it is all too easy to become passive and silent. No one person or nation is immune from this and the American people are far from an exception. As Snowden put it, we now live in a global turnkey tyranny. The key to overt fascism has not yet been turned, but smiley faces are everywhere. In the slowly boiling water of the United States of Amnesia, it may be that many are now becoming the ‘Good Americans’ who won’t speak up before it’s too late.
The Empty Self and Representation As a New Authority
How have the American people lost touch with reality? What made them so vulnerable to manipulation and political and media misinformation? No doubt the corporate media played a large role in the controlling of perception, yet there is something deeper at work. The root causes of the passivity and apathy of the populace can be better understood by looking into a particular configuration of self that has emerged in Western history.
In Constructing the Self, Constructing America, psychoanalyst Phillip Cushman analyzed how in the post-WWII United States, modern industrialization broke down the traditional social bonds and restructured the reality of community. Out of this, he argues, a specific configuration of self emerged. Cushman called it “the empty self” — “the bounded, masterful self” — and described how this empty self “has specific psychological boundaries, a sense of personal agency that is located within, and a wish to manipulate the external world for its own personal ends”. Cushman further characterized this empty self as one that “experiences a significant absence of community, tradition and shared meaning — a self that experiences these social absences and their consequences ‘interiority’ as a lack of personal conviction and worth; a self that embodies the absences, loneliness, and disappointments of life as a chronic, undifferentiated emotional hunger.”
Cushman argued how this new configuration of self and its emotional hunger was indispensable to the development of US consumer culture. Stuart Ewen, in his classic, Captains of Consciousness, explored how modern advertising was used as a direct response to the needs of industrial capitalism through its functioning as an instrument for the “the creation of desires and habits”: “The vision of freedom which was being offered to Americans was one which continually relegated people to consumption, passivity and spectatorship.” Ewen saw this in the economic shift from production to consumption and in the personal identity shift from citizens to consumers.
It did not take long for this covert manipulation of desires to be widely used for advancing certain economic or political agendas. Through unpacking his uncle Freud’s study of the unconscious, the father of modern corporate advertising — Edward Bernays — gained insight into the power of subterranean desires as a tool for manipulation. In Propaganda, Bernays put forth the idea that “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” This deliberate work of controlling perception came to be understood as propaganda, and has been identified as “the executive arm of the invisible government.”
How does this invisible force of governance work? How is such an effective manipulation of desires on such a mass scale accomplished? It has to do with mechanisms of the unconscious; desires and drives that most people don’t even know exist. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung took Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and examined the phenomena he identified as projection. Jung described how one meets one’s repressed materials in the form of projections outside and that this projecting is carried out unconsciously.
The marketing and PR industries channel our psychological needs, then convert them into specific desires for certain products or political candidates. This manipulation of desires relies on the ability to craft effective images of products that would induce the involuntary process of projection from the individual. Whether it is images of elected officials or celebrities, the latest laundry soap or high definition TV screens, images outside present themselves as something that speaks to internal desires. They quickly appear before us as desirable objects and the representation of unconscious desires. Representation thus becomes simply an externalization of those unconscious and internal desires and emotions that are mostly unknown to us.
The manipulation of desires in a form of representation squashes our capacity to create images. Instead, images are imposed upon us from the outside. We lose connection with our own desires and, not knowing the real roots of our emotions and drives, we are cheated in the act of determining our own actions. Activity of imagining is interrupted and short-circuited to a finished product as multiple ways of manifesting our desires are narrowed down to the simple act of consuming. We become passive and end up carrying out the will of others.
Representation places the source of legitimacy outside of oneself. Whether it is a corporate brand name, political party, an ideology or slogan, one looks for objects of representation through which something inside can be projected out onto the world. A good example is seen in the US political system, in the so-called representative form of government: the system of electing officials to whom power is delegated to enact changes on behalf of the people. Another example can be found in the operation of corporations, where individuals, through the purchase of company stock, become shareholders and supposedly indirectly influence the direction of the corporation. The theory is that the corporation as an entity could represent their economic interests.
Many began to regard these outer forms as possessing intrinsic authority, giving them power to govern and influence their own lives, when in reality what underlies both cases is simply something that represents what lives in us unconsciously. The mechanism of representation harvests a mindset that makes people believe real solutions to problems can only come from somewhere outside, often from those very people who are divorced from and not really affected by any of those problems.
With the advent of consumer culture and the apparatus of image manufacturing that further reinforced the conditions of the empty self, the notion of representation has come to form a new authority. Unlike the traditional authority of churches and the nuclear family, in representation an authority is internalized and its force of control becomes more unrecognizable to those under its governance. Cushman noted that “Tte only way corporate capitalism and the state could influence and control the population was by making their control invisible, that is, by making it appear as though various feelings and opinions originate solely from within the individual.”
This is seen most clearly in electoral politics, where candidates are pre-approved and outcomes are manipulated, yet we are made to believe we are actually making rational, independent and individual decisions about who best represents our common interest — when in reality there is no real choice and we often end up voting against our own self-interest.
Beneath the universally celebrated idea of freedom lies the false freedom of an illusion of choice. We no longer connect with the source of our desires. Our human needs have become intermediated and manipulated by corporate interests. What is engineered in the guise of individualism is actually a new form of conformity. When the forces of control became invisible through the merging with the self, it became much more difficult for us to challenge the legitimacy of unequal power relations, or even to recognize them for what they are.
Crisis of Representation and Autonomy of Self
The centralized control and coercive power of the state and corporations lies in their ability to sustain the image of representation through careful manipulation, by creating a strong emotional bond within individuals. This bond of representation gives those in power access to unconscious desires. Those who control the image of representation can then generate motives and impulses and govern the will of a mass of people seemingly without exercising direct control over them. The media have played a crucial role in the control and distortion of these images of representation, hiding the real actions of those who claim to represent us. TV commercials allure us with images of perfect products and suitable political candidates — products and politicians are sold as a solution to everyday problems.
Yet some signs of deep change are arising. Images of representation are no longer so easily held. Many who use social media and who are used to sharing information are suddenly beginning to challenge the monopolized image and single-message echo chamber of the consolidated media. When one is surrounded by a multiplicity of images that are not produced by or mediated through outside powers, the projection that once mesmerized us can no longer exercise its traditional power. As a result, the legitimacy of these external forms of authority is now being challenged. Waves of whistleblowing have emerged in recent years, from Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden, combined with the power of social media and courageous journalist like those at WikiLeaks, who continue to counteract the propaganda.
Recent protest movements around the world have been challenging the perception of authority of the nation state and its governance models as well. The year 2011 marked the beginning of worldwide uprisings. Movements from abroad found resonance in North America. Inspired by people’s struggles overseas, the disfranchised American rose up, taking to the streets at the centers of wealth and corruption. Occupy Wall Street, which began in the fall of 2011, captured the imagination of the public. From Brazil to Turkey, Egypt to Bosnia and Bulgaria, new insurgencies are still rolling in, challenging the legitimacy of “representative” governments worldwide. What these movements from below reveal is how in virtually every corner of the globe, democracy — as we have known it so far — is in crisis.
Jerome Roos, a PhD researcher at the European University Institute, synthesized the waves of revolutions since the Arab Spring of 2011 and sees them as a symptom of the global legitimation crisis of representative institutions. Pointing out a number of characteristics commonly shared in those seemingly isolated events — such as disengagement from the existing power structures and the end of political parties — he suggests that “only radical autonomy from the state can take the revolution forward.”
People are moving more and more outside of electoral politics. A call is arising for a new type of governance, for a real democracy where each person participates directly and manifests their own voice. This is a political act, but it is also much more. The current crisis of democracy is a crisis of representation. Images that perpetuate illusions about ourselves can no longer sustain our humanity. From Mubarak to Morsi, from Bush to Obama, the false images and masks of leadership are beginning to fall away as people begin to disengage with the charlatan faces of recycled puppet leaders. The mirror that has for too long reflected back false promises is now being shattered. What happens when people’s faith in institutions crumble? We are seeing chaos and destruction as never before.
In this crisis of representation, for the first time we are left with ourselves, empty and hollow, yet truly with ourselves. In this nakedness lies the possibility for true freedom. Only when our emptiness is fully confronted and accepted can we find our true autonomy. Only with emotions and desires that are truly our own can we guide the world into a future that springs from the depth of our imagination. Who am I? Who are we? What do we want? The rejection of false representation is a rejection of artificially imposed identity. Around the world, the message is loud and clear. People are saying we are no longer to be mere consumers, passively accepting the commercialized visions of a future handed down to us, with corporate values and political candidates sold to us like many brands of toothpaste. This is a voice resonating in all these movements around the world and calling for deep systemic change.
The thirst for real democracy is a thirst to be free. It is the spirit that drives us to find our true aspirations within. Our self is empty. When society loses its grip and leaders become devoid of morals and compassion for humanity, we need to declare autonomy from all those outside who try to allure us and who promise to fulfill our dreams. By connecting back with our own desires and passions we can fulfill the void of the empty self and transform empty slogans into real action. Only then will it be possible for us to become the authors of our own lives, transform history and take charge of our common destiny.
Nozomi Hayase is a contributing writer to Culture Unplugged. She brings out deeper dimensions of socio-cultural events at the intersection between politics and psychology to share insight on future social evolution. Her Twitter is @nozomimagine.