Propaganda and the Fall of the Western Empire

This painting by Konstantin Vasiliev (1942–1976) celebrates the great patriotic war of 1941–1945 (Вели́кая Оте́чественная война́). It is a good example of Soviet propaganda at its best: sometimes it could produce stunningly beautiful images. But, on average, propaganda in the Soviet Union was primitive and heavily based on censorship, eventually turning out to be unable to keep together the Union in a moment of crisis. In the West, propaganda was much more sophisticated and, for a while, it managed to convince Western citizens that they were told the truth by their governments. That phase is now over and the Western propaganda system has moved to a fully “Soviet-style” censorship system. With this development, the Western Empire may well have sealed its doom: no government can survive for long if the people it rules don’t believe in it.

From “The Seneca Effect

“The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.” Charles Baudelaire

I distinctly remember when I was a child and my father saw me reading a small book illustrated with images showing red flags, sickles, and hammers. Worried, he took it from my hands, looked at it, and gave it back to me. “It is all right,” he said. “It is our propaganda.”

What I had in my hands was an anti-communist pamphlet of the 1960s, issued by the Christian Democratic party. I remember it well, it was full of images of evil Soviet Communists slaughtering their own dissidents, part of the general anti-communist propaganda in Italy of the post-war period.

At that time, it was still fine to state openly that something was propaganda. And it was normal in a bi-polar world to be expected to believe in the propaganda issued by one’s political side while despising the symmetrical propaganda issued by the other side.

Things changed over the years. With the Soviet Union spiraling down into a crisis from which it would not survive, its propaganda system revealed its limits. It is the basic problem of censorship: if you have to suppress contrasting opinions, it means that you have something to hide. The Soviet public understood that very well and it maintained a healthy dose of skepticism toward anything that their government was telling them. They still do.

In the West, instead, the propaganda system evolved into a more and more sophisticated instrument that even managed to elevate itself into a “non-propaganda” system by abandoning censorship. In this way, it managed to convince most people that propaganda did not exist in the West (the devil’s finest trick, according to Baudelaire).

Consequently, Westerners started to believe that their “free press” was providing them with objective and trustworthy information, unlike the state-controlled press of those evil Soviets. That was truly a triumph: still today, the naïve trust of Western citizens in the media baffles the people who lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

But things continue to change, as they always do. The apparent triumph of the West turned out to be hollow. Now, the West faces the same problems that the Soviet Union faced at the time of its demise: how to maintain the cohesion of a large group of states and populations which don’t find it attractive anymore to be part of an empire?

One consequence is the return of rather primitive propaganda methods to support the military control of the Western sphere of influence. During the past few decades, the West started using a series of “shock and awe” propaganda campaigns designed to demonize foreign governments, and to open the way for their military elimination. Saddam Hussein was the first victim, others followed. The mechanism is still in operation, although it seems to have become less effective in recent times.

During the past two years, the Western propaganda system underwent a further evolution. Under the banner of fighting “fake news,” it started to enforce a pervasive Soviet-Style censorship system over the Web, coupled with the complete government control of the media. Propaganda has become truly all-encompassing and brutal, at present taking as a target for demonization the so-called “anti-vaxxers.”

Why this evolution? Everything that happens, happens for a reason. And it is clear that the West is reacting to a major economic, environmental, and resource crisis. As it happens to all societies in crisis, it reacts by trying to tighten the links that keep the system together. But these “solutions” may well be worsening the problem.

It is a well-known story, noted perhaps for the first time by the founder of System Dynamics, Jay Forrester. When people find themselves in trouble, they can normally identify the elements that cause the problems: the “leverage points” of the system. And almost always they tend to act on these points in such a way to worsen the problem.

In this case, the evolution of the Western propaganda system into a censorship-based Soviet-style apparatus may temporarily be effective, But, in the long run, is destined to have disastrous effects. Eliminating dissent looks like a good idea by the elites in power, but it has a deadly consequence: it “freezes” society into a rigid structure. Rigid means fragile, as those who work in materials science know very well. In this case, it becomes impossible for society to adapt to new problems except by collapsing: it is the “Seneca Effect.”

Most Westerners have been taken by surprise by this rapid change in the management of a communication system that, up to just a few years ago, glorified “freedom of speech.” They seem to refuse to believe in what’s happening, even though they see it happening in front of them. They still have to develop the memetic antibodies against propaganda that the Soviet citizens had developed long ago. But, as they are fed more and more blatant lies, eventually they are going to develop a certain degree of immunity.

And that’s the basic problem: no government can exist for long if the people it rules don’t believe in it. That was the doom of the Soviet Empire and it may well be that the Western Empire has sealed its own doom by destroying its free press system of which it was justly proud. Without an internal method to critically evaluate the government’s decisions, huge mistakes — even deadly ones — are unavoidable.

What form the doom of the Western Empire will take, and how fast it will come, is difficult to say. We may just remember Seneca’s statement that “increases are of sluggish growth but the way to ruin is rapid.”

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