As a communicator, I’ve always been fascinated by the ongoing verbal battle for the mind--by the use (and misuse) of propaganda to mould people’s beliefs and shape public opinion. If you look at this “war of words” as a political contest between the right and left, or as a socioeconomic contest between capitalism and socialism, or even as an ideological contest between the forces of good and evil, you can see that the “evil right-wing capitalists” have been winning most of the battles. So far. Whether they’ll win the war is still uncertain, but they clearly possess the biggest “weapons of mass deception.”
Many years ago, when I was analyzing what seemed to me to be the takeover of Canada by the big corporations, I observed that this coup d’état had been accomplished quietly, stealthily, and incrementally, over a 25-year period.
“The first and most important step,” I wrote, “was to influence public opinion. The CEOs knew from their product marketing campaigns that people’s preferences could be shaped by slick advertising. They knew that people’s thinking about economic and social issues could be similarly swayed by the same technique. Repeated and heard and read often enough, the biggest lies become unquestioned beliefs.”
I went on to list the other main steps in the right-wing corporate takeover. They included:
- Setting up conservative think-tanks. The corporate agenda had to be given academic credibility. This became the primary role of the C.D. Howe and Fraser Institutes, whose officers and researchers became adept at giving economic statistics the requisite conservative spin.
- Developing articulate spokespeople. This was easy, given the dozens of prominent politicians, CEOs, academics, and media pundits who were eager to spread the free-market, free-trade, freebooting gospel.
- Creating and manipulating the terminology. The glib terms coined by the neo-cons--e.g., “big government,” “the nanny state,” “tax-and-spenders,” “the debt/deficit crisis,” “welfare cheats,” “free trade,” “free market,” “competitiveness,” “globalization,” “downsizing,” etc.--came to dominate public discourse, forcing those of us on the left to debate key issues in the language of the right.
- Controlling the media. Given that the newspapers, magazines, private TV and radio stations were almost all owned by the corporate brass, it was a cinch to ensure that the corporate agenda was strongly promoted and advanced in the commercial media, and that dissenting views got little space in the newspapers or on the airwaves.
It’s a tribute to the communicators on the left--in civil society, in unions, in academe, in the NDP, in the CCPA--that we haven’t been completely routed and our heretical voices drowned out by the loud and incessant trumpeting from the right. We can take encouragement (if not credit) from the public opinion polls that now consistently show a sharp divergence of views on key issues between the élites and average Canadians. If we’re not winning the battles in terms of influencing business and government policies, we may be more than holding our own in the overall struggle for the minds and hearts of our fellow citizens.
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the United States. Granted, almost as many Americans voted against George Bush as voted for him in the 2004 federal election, but the forces of regression and individualism are still very much in control south of the border, and in both the major political parties.
The extent to which the United States is fast becoming a neo-fascist state is scathingly described by Lewis Lapham, the acerbic editor of Harper’s, in its October issue. In his Notebook column, he explains why the American fascists are finding it easier to promote and implant fascism in the U.S. than Hitler did in Germany:
“We don’t have to burn any books. The Nazis in the 1930s were forced to waste precious time and money on the inoculation of the German citizenry, too well-educated for its own good, against the infections of impermissible thought. We can count it a blessing that we don’t bear the burden of an educated citizenry. The systematic destruction of the public-school and library systems over the last 30 years, a program wisely carried out under administrations both Republican and Democratic, protects the market for the sale and distribution of the government’s propaganda posters. The publishing companies can print as many books as will guarantee their profit (some of them even truthful), but to people who don’t know how to read or think, they do as little harm as snowflakes falling on a frozen pond.
“We don’t have to disturb, terrorize, or plunder the bourgeoisie. Thanks to the diligence of our news media and the structure of our tax laws, our affluent and suburban classes have taken to heart the lesson taught to the aspiring serial killers rising through the ranks at West Point and the Harvard Business School--think what you’re told to think, and not only do you get to keep the house in Florida or command of the Pentagon press office, but on some sunny day the compensation committee will hand you a check for $40 million. . . As surely as the loyal fascist knew that it was his duty to serve the state, the true American knows that it is his duty to protect the [corporate] brand. . . We are blessed with a bourgeoisie that will welcome fascism as gladly as it welcomes the rain in April and the sun in June. No need to send in the Gestapo or the NKVD: it will not be necessary to set examples.
“We don’t need to gag the press or seize the radio stations. People trained to the corporate style of thought and movement have no further use for free speech, which is corrupting, overly emotional, reckless, and ill-informed. It is to our advantage that free speech doesn’t meet the criteria of the free market. We don’t require the inspirational genius of a Joseph Goebbels; we can rely instead on the dictates of the Nielsen ratings and the camera angles, secure in the knowledge that the major media syndicates run the business on strictly corporatist principles.
“We don’t have to murder the intelligentsia. Here again, we find ourselves in luck. The society is so glutted with easy entertainment that no writer is troublesome enough to warrant the compliment of an arrest, or even a sharp blow to the head. What passes for the American school of dissent talks exclusively to itself in the pages of obscure journals, across the coffee cups in Berkeley, in half-deserted lecture halls in small Midwestern colleges.”
These quotes, as lengthy as they are, don’t do justice to Lapham’s sardonic prose, and I urge anyone reading this page to get hold of a copy of the October issue of Harper’s, if you haven’t already done so, and read his entire jeremiad. It’s the starkest (and scariest) outline of the rebirth of fascism in the U.S. that I’ve seen so far.
It must be galling to Canada’s neo-fascists--who throng our boardrooms, legislatures, universities, think-tanks and newsrooms--that they haven’t been nearly as successful as their American counterparts in entrenching this right-wing extremism in Canada. But they aren’t at all discouraged by Canadians’ stubborn retention of free speech and thought. They have two future fallback scenarios that they are doing their best to implement. The first is to push, pull, or manoeuvre Canada into a much tighter economic relationship with the United States. They call it “deep integration,” and it would result in the Americanization of not just our economy (which is already mostly owned by U.S. corporations, anyway), but also our social, cultural, military, and eventually political systems. Canada would in effect become a U.S. colony to which fascism could be exported as easily as any other American product.
Failing this cross-border coup d’état, Canadian conservatives may be content simply to await the complete transformation of the United States into a fascist state, which they think may not be more than a few more American elections away. A full-blown fascist superpower still wielding vast military and economic might would not long tolerate the existence of an independent non-fascist state on its northern border. The invasion and occupation of such a nation--especially one with lots of oil, gas, and water--would surely not be too long delayed.
Our élitist Quislings will be waiting to greet the American invaders with open arms. They will be quite pleased to have imposed on their country by force a radical right-wing regime that they could not persuade their fellow Canadians to embrace voluntarily.
Of course, this dismal prospect is not inevitable. Maybe the many millions of Americans who have not yet been brainwashed will be able to mobilize a resistance movement strong enough to reverse the slide into fascism. Maybe the military and economic excesses of the Bush administration will cause the incipient empire to collapse before its fascist leaders consolidate their internal takeover. Maybe their dream of global domination will be turned into a nightmare by the large countries in the United Nations that don’t relish becoming American satellites.
These are all possible eventualities that could halt the resurgence of fascism in North America. It could even be stripped of its current popularity among CEOs and would-be political autocrats, and driven back to its former status as a fanatical cult.
At present, however, fascism (though they would never call it that) is the ideology of choice among the most powerful, wealthy, and influential élites. Those of us committed to preventing their 1984-style society from being created have our most challenging battles still to fight. They will be fought primarily with words, not guns or tanks, but their outcome will be no less decisive.
(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor. He can be reached at [email protected].)