Ideological Warfare: Lessons For Us

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James Scott describes the general phenomenon as “symbolic jiujitsu.” Prophetic rebellious movements in non-state spaces “appropriate the power, magic, regalia, and institutional charisma of the valley state in a kind of symbolic jiujitsu in order to attack it.” [145]

And symbolic jiujitsu has become especially important in the ideological wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Every major popular uprising against a pro-Soviet regime in Eastern Europe after World War II framed itself in Marxist ideological terms, and adopted basically libertarian communist organizational forms. The East Germans in 1953, Hungarians in 1956, Czechs in 1968 and Poles in 1981 organized workers’ councils in the factories and put themselves forward as a socialist movement—a movement fighting for genuine workers’ power over state and economy—contending against a state capitalist ruling class.

At Center for a Stateless Society, we make similar use of free market concepts as an ideological weapon against corporate power. Classical liberalism and classical political economy were originally, to a great extent, attacks on the established class interests of the Whig landed magnates and mercantilists of early industrial Britain. It was only after the rising industrial capitalists had won their victory over the older agrarian-mercantile capitalist establishment and established themselves as a part of the ruling class that “free market” ideology became a conservative apologetic for ruling class interests (“hired prize-fighters” and “vulgar political economists,” in Marx’s colorful terminology).

But even in the time since, there has never ceased to be a genuinely radical free market critique of capitalism. It has been expressed in the thought of Thomas Hodgskin, Herbert Spencer at his more radical, the American individualist anarchists (the “Boston Anarchists”), and Henry George and radical Georgist critics of capitalism like Bolton Hall, Franz Oppenheimer and Ralph Borsodi.

We at C4SS are very much in this tradition. One of the most powerful weapons against neoliberalism and corporate rule is to demonize big business interests in terms of their own “free market” rhetoric. Dean Baker does this regularly. Baker skewers the “free trade” rhetoric of Tom Friedman by pointing out the real mercantilist nature of phony “free trade agreements,” in which so-called “intellectual property” plays the same protectionist role for transnational corporations as tariffs did for the old national industrial trusts. RFK Jr. regularly points out that all the “free market” rhetoric conceals a real-world practice of externalizing costs on the taxpayer. And we on the libertarian left, who really believe in free markets, are doing this kind of thing every day.

According to Bryan Register, “the maintenance of state power requires that the populace acquiesce in state actions. This requires the development of hegemony in civil society.” [146]

One of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal is the ideology of the ruling class. Almost nothing is as brutally effective as contrasting the reality of their power to the pretensions of their legitimizing rhetoric.

The cynicism of the taped Oval Office conversations in the Nixon White House was a devastating blow to the public transcript claim to legality and high mindedness. Similarly, the poorly concealed existence of special shops and hospitals for the party elites in the socialist bloc profoundly undercut the ruling party’s public claim to rule on behalf of the working class. [147]

The most efficient system of power is one in which the actual exercise of power approaches most closely to invisibility. The ideal is for the system of power to appear to its subjects as little like a system of power at all—in the sense of a system requiring deliberate human design and intervention—but rather as spontaneous or natural. That’s especially true of the traditional American ideology of “Free Enterprise,” which—as Jurgen Habermas describes it—requires capitalism to appear to have an “unplanned, nature-like” character. This is undermined, in late capitalism, by the increased need for state involvement for the realization of capital to occur, and for state involvement to become progressively more direct and visible.

To the extent that the class relationship itself has been repoliticized and the state has taken over market-replacing as well as market-supplementing tasks…, class domination can no longer take the anonymous form of the law of value. Instead, it now depends on factual constellations of power whether, and how, production of surplus value can be guaranteed through the public sector, and how the terms of the class compromise look. With this development, crisis tendencies shift, of course, from the economic into the administrative system. [148]

The more visible force becomes, the more the system is seen as an extension of the will of those who govern it, the more its legitimacy is undermined in the view of the public. And as James Scott notes, the more a system is compelled to resort to open force in order to secure obedience, rather than eliciting obedience as a response to a natural state of affairs, the less the values of the system are internalized—and hence the more dependent the system becomes on open coercion and intimidation for its stability. [149]

A system that depends on open shows of force or constant surveillance to coerce obedience from a population that does not recognize its legitimacy is an extremely costly and inefficient system. That’s why slavery was such an inefficient method for extracting surplus labor. In the American south, “the semiclandestine culture of the slaves encouraged and celebrated theft from the masters and morally reproved any slave who would dare expose such a theft….” [150]

And when such deligitimization and consequent increased need for surveillance is combined with increased opacity to surveillance, the situation for the ruling class becomes very dangerous indeed.

When the legitimating ideology serves to maintain ruling class morale and espirit de corps, such contrast may undermine their own cohesion. Vinay Gupta has argued that the capitalist security state cannot afford to be honest with itself—to operate in the full knowledge of what its real goals are —because the true nature of those goals is too abhorrent. As a result, most subordinates within the state repression apparatus operate with the protective blinders of cognitive dissonance, relying on official doctrines about promoting “peace and freedom” around the world to conceal the truth of enforcing global corporate rule through drone assassinations, repressive states and death squads. An evil cause will be weakened by cognitive dissonance among its functionaries.

By stripping away this protective cover, and confronting lower-level state functionaries with the real nature of the system of power they serve, we can undermine the security state’s morale and cohesion.

The Bolshevik victory in Petrograd was sealed when the Winter Palace Guards defected. Throughout its history, the U.S. military has been plagued by soldiers firing over the heads of their enemies. Even firing squads must be issued one blank round so each member can reassure himself it wasn’t him that killed the prisoner.This isn’t just history. As you may recall, a fairly large number of NYPD officers called in sick on the day “Bloomberg’s army” shut down the Zuccotti Park encampment. We see a proliferation of groups like Oath-Keepers and Occupy Police whose members are clearly less than single-minded in their allegiance to the regime.

Our side can make use of our full potential because we can trust our members to use their own judgment without permission. We can act with our eyes open and in full awareness of the real situation, because we are not serving an evil cause that requires us to conceal the truth from ourselves. Our enemies, on the other hand, cannot. Let’s exploit these advantages for all they’re worth. To quote Gupta:

The implication is that a moral side – even a smaller one – could out-compete the Great Powers because moral ground = intellectual clarity. The strategic advantage of a moral war is the ability to think clearly about the ends required to meet a genuinely justified end….

This is important, even though it seems simple, because it’s a moral asymmetry in warfare – it’s a reason to believe the good guys do win. In a conflict, the side which can bear to define it’s goals clearly can then plot a strategy to attain them. It can win. You can’t win a war who’s purpose you cannot bear to define: the Americans in Iraq defined fighting with their eyes closed: empire narrative. [151]

If anything, the official ideology is probably more important in justifying the ruling class’s power in its own eyes than in those of the ruled. Scott refers favorably to arguments that

the ideological effect of Catholicism was… to help unify the feudal ruling class, define its purpose, and create a family mortality [sic] that would hold property together….

The importance of the dominant ideology and its manifestations for the elite would surely help explain political ceremony that is not even intended for nonelite consumption. [152]


145 Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed, p. 307.

146 Bryan Register, “Class, Hegemony, and Ideology: A Libertarian Approach,” POP Culture: Premises of Post-Objectivism (2001) <>.

147 Scott, Domination and the Art of Resistance, p. 11.

148 Jurgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Polity Press, 1988), p. 68.

149 Scott, Domination and the Art of Resistance, pp. 109-110.

150 Ibid., p. 188.

151 Kevin Carson, “Vinay Gupta: The Authoritarian Cause Will Be Defeated by Its Own Cognitive Dissonance,” P2P Foundation Blog, January 17, 2012 <>.

152 Scott, Domination and the Art of Resistance, pp. 68-69.

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