Power, Corruption and Lies
One of my favorite music album many years ago was edited in 1983 by the British group “New Order”. I still now often recall that album and its title.
The title of the album was indeed not invented by New Order. It comes from a German artist called Gerhard Richter who vandalized the wall of an art exhibition in Cologne, using those words. Interestingly Richter was born in East Germany and flew to the West some time before he tagged this in Cologne.
“Power, Corruption and Lies” are clearly related to the realities of the world, where three concepts are put together. Most of us, looking at those three words, immediately understand or guess that there is a link between them. Can there be Power without Corruption? Can there be Corruption without Lies? Can you get Power without Lies? Many more questions can come to your mind involving one, two or three of those words, and there shall be even many more answers, depending on your moral values, beliefs and culture. But by all means those three terms are in many cases the instruments used by men to dominate others and satisfy their hunger for wealth and domination.
Although those concepts are valid and intensively used across all activities of men from the dark ages of history until our present days, I would just spend some time today playing with those three words in the area of politics, at local level but also at the level of international relations.
The order of the words tagged by Richter is in fact very right historically speaking.
In old models of society, Power was basically the only instrument to achieve domination. And Power here mainly refers to pure physical force and the fear generated by such force. Nothing else was very much needed to establish and maintain domination in most models of society we can see in history. The fear of God came as a complementary tool to stabilize those societies. The dominant elites could decide to go to war against other elites and simple people (peasants) just went to war without question, as it was the Will of God and the will of the local Lord or whatever his name was. In most cases simple soldiers fought and died without knowing why there was a war, and well possibly without really knowing who were the guys being killed on the other side. The idea to ask and to discuss those questions was totally outside of their area of knowledge and initiative.
Such a situation remained for many centuries, but changes in society put an end to that. The major one was the progressive alphabetization of the population, that became generalized in most of western Europe in the 18th and 19th century. The proliferation of books and the apparition of the Press completely changed the rules of domination. Sending people to war or asking them exorbitant taxes to finance a war or the construction of a new castle could not be achieved by force and fear anymore, or it proved very difficult and unreliable. A new concept appeared that would play a key role in the way countries had to be ruled: public opinion. Even before the birth of the first modern democracies in Europe, public opinion started to be important and the elite needed to address that. To make the issue even more complicated, another consequence of alphabetization was the decline of religion, fast or slow depending of the region in Europe. Using the Will of God also became problematic, and often impossible.
Other arguments had to be invented to make people march in battalions and attack their neighbors. Patriotism became a key element and was instilled very early into the brain of the population – at school. Patriotism is by far not always a negative state of mind fueled by the hate of the neighbor, and often can be a positive force in society, helping to keep it together and strong. But it was mostly used in the negative way in order to prepare population for the next war. Children in France at the beginning of the 20th century were educated at school to get revenge against the “boches” (Germans) who “stole” Alsace and Lorraine from France during the 1870 war. Entire books were edited for adults and children explaining how Germans behave like beasts and cut the hands of innocent children.
For God, Homeland and King
All was done to maintain the hate of the German in the population, and when WW I started, although for reasons not at all linked to those lost French regions, people went at war convinced that they were fulfilling the sacred task of getting those martyr regions back to France. They mostly never heard about or did not understand the tectonic changes that were happening between the European superpowers of that time.
But the genuine patriotism of the start of the 20th century had limits, as demonstrated by the growing demoralization of the troops, especially during the second half of the conflict. German and French soldiers on each side of the trenches tended to fraternize and understand that the war was not theirs. Many French soldiers were court marshaled for that and shot, a fact that was kept secret for many years.
A new, terribly effective tool had to be invented, and the new raising totalitarian European powers used it as a fundamental building block of their universe: propaganda. Both the Nazi and the Communist regime had specialized groups and ministries working on propaganda, literally building a virtual reality for their population.
For both of them, patriotism (of a negative type) was not enough, and by far. Although it was clearly apparent in their propaganda, it was only a part of a much bigger picture. The Lie had to be enormous and subjugate the crowds. As Goebbels clearly stated:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
Above, two unique pictures of Goebbels in 1933. He just went through a good photo session (first picture) with a photografer (Alfred Eisenstaedt) but then looks at him with a load of hate, seconds after learning Eisenstaedt was jewish. Showing his real soul...
However, the two regimes worked here as well on two different modes. The Nazi regime used a very modern - even in todays terms! - form of propaganda, taking full advantage of all available techniques, including a new technology called radio diffusion. It also made intensive use of esthetically refined techniques, using music, sounds and visual effects to make the demonstration of force not only physically impressive, but also fascinating. The uniform of the Waffen SS were designed to be not only frightening for the enemy, but also elegant and in their own way beautiful for the German public. The soldiers and officers had to be proud to wear it, the public had to be proud to be watch them. Enormous evening events were organized in stadiums with lights, music and a sense of "design" until now never equaled...
Do not believe please that I turned into an admirer of the Nazis, but I bet most of us would have been shaken and impressed to be in the Nuremberg stadium in 1938 or 1939. This was the purpose and it worked so well that until 1944, the Nazi regime was never really forced to use a lot of brutal force against its Arian population. It did not need to, and all the hate was focused on the external enemies of the Reich. The German population lived in a virtual world, totally overwhelmed by the formidable propaganda engine, and when they understood, they were already in hell.
In the Soviet Union, the propaganda engine was less sophisticated, and the use of force ( basic power) and fear played a much bigger role compared to Third Reich Germany. This was also due to other differences between the two regimes, Nazis being focused on hating other groups, generally based on ethnic criteria, while the Soviet Union was mostly killing its own population including its own elite. I recommend on that subject the exceptionally detailed study published in 1973 by Hannah Arendt: The Origins of Totalitarianism.
But Lies and propaganda had still an important role in maintaining the Soviet power in place, although its influence on people slowly diminished to be almost a caricature of itself in the stagnation years starting in the 70's, at a time when Corruption became a more important role to keep the system working.
After the end of WW II, the role of propaganda in Europe at least decreased a lot, except behind the Iron Curtain. However governments in western Europe had to deal with a new technology that would prove much more powerful than the paper press or even radio broadcasting: television.
The new media was immediately put under control of the governments just like Radio by the way, that since its first days before the war was strictly under state control. I remember as a child listening to the French "Minister of Information" Alain Peyrefitte . He explained for example at the occasion of a restructuring of the State Radio and TV company what was the role of the news bulletin on TV every evening and what types of messages the government was expecting to be brought to the public. Those were by the way not words only, and the content of each evening news edition had to be validated before diffusion. I also remember the name of the “pirate" UK radio in the 60's, that was broadcasting from international waters in the English Channel: Radio Caroline. It was broadcasted from a ship, always in fear of being chased by French or UK authorities, and probably remained on-air because of its focus on music and not politics.
The political power had understood that giving full freedom of speech on radio and TV could be dangerous for them. Probably one fear was to see soviet style propaganda being massively broadcasted. But my guess is that they simply were afraid to lose control and see critics build up against them.
But the 80's (earlier in Italy) saw the end of such state control and the rapid proliferation of independent radios, and the slower development of independent TV's, partly because of the high cost to launch a TV channel.
Started a period of real freedom on the air, and by the way also on state TV. France for example saw the success of very critical programs and humorists like Coluche or Deprosges, who had virulent texts and stories to tell about politicians of all sides. The press also followed the same trend with edition groups like Liberation. Similar tendencies took place in Germany, Italy and other countries.
What we have seen over the past 20 years or so is however a very different evolution.
The control of the media is today at least as efficient as it was under state control with Alain Peyrefitte, but on a completely different manner. Corruption took over the role of state censorship, a very complex and vicious type of corruption, by far not as simple as the traditional kick-back system.
Most media are now controlled by large financial or industrial groups, or media groups linked to the business world. Journalists have now a very limited freedom of speech and anything not in-line with the interests of the "system" may lead to a loss of job, with very little chances to find a new one. The state censorship of the 60's was replaced by self-censorship.
In parallel we saw a regain in propaganda, not on systematical manner like in the middle of the previous century, but ad hoc, based on the needs of a crisis. The arms of mass destruction given as a reason to invade Iraq are the most blatant Lie that we saw over the past years, although many other cases could be listed. This case is by far not only a Lie. It is also a deliberate effort to fabricate proofs that were displayed at the infamous UN meeting in February 2003 by General Colin Powell, who never recovered from it, feeling very bitter about being used in that way. Did we get explanations on why the famous proofs were just inventions? Of course no. Powell himself asked the CIA and the Pentagon in 2011 for explanations on how comes he was provided with false information. Did he get answers? Probably not.
The words of Richter and the album by New Order (interesting name by the way…) have never been more timely then today.
Power, Corruption and Lies
The potential for a larger dissemination of truth in books and journals was quickly put under control with censorship. The same happened to radio and TV, initially through censorship, replaced after it became unsustainable by lobbying and self-censorship. Internet is too open and counts too many actors to be controlled in the same manner, but attempts are done to bring it under control, like the RSA scandal demonstrated. However many technical tricks make such control very difficult. Shall Internet survive as a freedom space? Nobody knows, but the answer is in the hands of each of us!