Capitalism as a Totalitarian System

In an interesting article entitled “Popular Culture as a Weapon of Mass Distortion” the author points out:

Although the term “propaganda” is often associated with so-called “undemocratic totalitarian systems”  … the extent of propaganda in the so-called “civilized and free democratic world” has actually reached an exponent much higher than in any other system.

This is a conclusion I have also reached while researching and writing my book on the anticommunist black legend.

One of the stock accusations against communism is mind control. People are brainwashed by incessant propaganda. The press is state controlled. The media are tightly censored. Communism is a prison-house of the mind.

Actually, this is all nonsense. Yes, communist societies do attempt to shape the beliefs and loyalties of their populations, but not any more than other societies.  Mind control under capitalism is worse, arguably much worse. This can be clearly seen by looking at two pervasive features of liberal democratic capitalist societies: advertising and popular culture.

Advertising is absolutely everywhere in capitalist societies. You cannot escape it short of digging a hole in the ground and jumping in. TV, magazines, billboards, the Internet, smartphones. Everywhere that people exist and have their being is aggressively filled with advertisements.

And ads truly are propaganda in the full and complete sense of the term. The fact that most of them are not about politics is irrelevant. Each ad is a kind of mini-utopia. Buy this product and a problem in your life will be solved. Consume and be saved. Taken all together, ads are unending propaganda for consumerism and thus for the market and for capitalism. This type of propaganda is far more effective than explicit arguments for capitalism, which would bore most people.

Advertising is a major industry in capitalist societies for the simple reason that capitalism needs it. Capitalism lives by selling commodities. Survival depends on persuading consumers to buy your product rather than your competitor’s. The science and technology of influencing people, of finding how to appeal to their needs, wants, and fears in just the right and most efficient way, has been developed in capitalist societies beyond anywhere else in all history. Just as other forms of modern science and technology are vastly more powerful and far-reaching today than ever before, so with the science and technology of controlling what people think, feel, believe, and want.

According to another article,

In total, Americans spend a little more than 20 days a year just watching television commercials. From the age of 3-80, an average American will spend 1,540 days watching commercials. Divide this number by 365 days and you get 4.2 years.

That’s equivalent to a four-year college education.

Advertising is pervasive, aggressive, powerful, extremely sophisticated, and deliberately aimed at shaping thought and behavior. Is there any reason not to call this totalitarian?

But capitalist mind control is not limited to advertising. Arguably an even more powerful form is popular culture. Take a look at the entertainment media. This too, like advertising, simply envelops us. We watch TV, movies, surf the Internet, play video games. Some of us actually read books. It is said that the human mind is inherently moved by stories. A story can grip us and shape feeling and thinking more profoundly than argument and evidence.

This is why the philosopher Plato would ban poets from his ideal society as outlined in the Republic. By “poets” he meant storytellers such as Homer, the author of the Iliad and Odyssey. The problem with storytellers is that they can lie. They can make things up. A skillful storyteller can construct a believable story based not on rational argument but on imagination and invention. A story might be very convincing but utterly false.

Plato went too far but he had a valid point. We are submerged in a fictional world of stories told to us by the entertainment media. We all consume great quantities of these. But what is there to guarantee these stories are true? That they paint a realistic picture of the world? Here is the answer: nothing.

On the contrary, there are powerful forces that guarantee these stories will often not be true at all. Marx famously said, “the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class.” He might also have said this about the ruling stories.

Take just one tiny example. The TV series Parks and Recreation has an episode in which representatives from Venezuela visit the little city of Pawnee as part of a cultural exchange. They are dressed in some sort of gaudy military uniforms. From the moment they step out of their limousines they are arrogant and rude. The scorn and ridicule American culture. They try to tip city officials as if they were baggage clerks. They ask where to find prostitutes. They attempt to bribe city officials to say something good about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. They brag about their corruption and wealth back in Venezuela. As viewers can see for themselves, Venezuelan socialism must be a joke.

This sort of malicious defamation of character is pervasive in the media. Following the US defeat in the war against Indochina, a whole series of movies came out neatly reversing roles. The US spent decades destroying Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, wrecking those countries and killing millions. But in these movies, it is communists who are subhuman monsters inflicting torture on innocent American soldiers. One example is The Deer Hunter, a highly acclaimed movie, in which Vietnamese communists hold American POWs in half-submerged cages. The POWs are fished out of the water one by one and forced to play a game of Russian roulette. The Vietnamese commander stands by and laughs maniacally. Similar themes appear in the enormously popular Rambo movie series and its many imitators. Victim and oppressor are reversed.

Okay, all this is just entertainment. Just stories: humor or horror. But we are immersed in these images. Lies are injected into the vast production of entertainment “experiences” that fill our minds. These stories and images are a form of mass produced consciousness. Those who control production control the production of our consciousness.

These images collect in our minds. Without our even realizing it, they become the “normal” background of our understanding of the world. We are slowly poisoned. Slowly we accumulate a world view that fits with the interests of those who rule society. Anything which challenges that rule is portrayed as stupid, vulgar, vicious, laughable. Or as evil — as horror beyond horror.

In George Orwell’s famous anticommunist novel 1984, the protagonist Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth where history is rewritten. Smith edits history to fit the current ideological requirements of the Party. This is supposed to be a cautionary tale about communism.

Winston Smith rewrites history.  But what if history was never written truthfully to start with? What if the stories we are told about ourselves and about our “enemies” are lies from the very inception? We are immersed in stories that tell things the way the ruling class wants us to hear them. These stories start out this way. There is no need for a Department of Truth to rewrite them into lies. They start out as lies.

Capitalism produces commodities. It stacks commodities up to the sky. We are buried in commodities. We live our lives inside vast accumulations of capitalist commodities. Entertainment is a commodity. These entertainment commodities tell us stories that shape our view of the world. They rain down on us. They carpet-bomb our consciousness.

This is systemic. It cannot be otherwise. Capitalism must produce expanding masses of commodities. And this production will include great masses of stories that shape our consciousness during an entire lifetime.

To be immersed in convincing stories that are lies and that promote an agenda is totalitarian. This is the reality in capitalist societies. Capitalism is totalitarian.

Categories: Communism

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