If you consider yourself a centrist, you’re being played. (I assume I’m addressing ordinary people here who pride themselves on being one of the “adults in the room,” and not members of the establishments of either major party, leading figures in the military-industrial complex, affiliates of mainstream think tanks like Brookings, or talking heads like David Brooks or Chris Matthews. If you fall into any of the latter categories you’re one of the players, not the played.) Today I stumbled across some frank analysis by the players’ strategists — meant purely for internal consumption — explaining exactly how they play you (Steve Horn, “Divide And Conquer: Unpacking Stratfor’s Rise To Power,” MintPress News, July 25, 2013; Part 2 “How To Win The Media War Against Grassroots Activists: Stratfor’s Strategies,” July 29, 2013).
Pagan, the predecessor of Strategic Forecasting, Inc., or Stratfor (Stratfor was the private intelligence analysis and PR contractor hacked in 2011 by Jeremy Hammond of LulzSec), included two retired Army covert intelligence operatives among its founders. The co-founder it was named for, Rafael Pagan, was a career high-level intelligence officer. Of course that’s nothing new. Edward Bernays, the founder of modern public relations, had previously been in charge of the Wilson administration’s efforts to manage public perceptions during WWI. Since the people running the state and the people managing big business are pretty much the same group, shuffling around the interlocking directorate of corporations and government agencies, the process of “engineering consent” to rule by the powerful is also pretty much the same all over.
Among Pagan’s clients was Nestle, which between its infanticidal baby formula marketing in the Third World and its global looting of water commons, probably belongs on the Top Ten Most Evil Corporations list.
As a public relations strategist, Pagan outlined a divide-and-conquer approach to public perception management heavily influenced by the military’s counter-insurgency doctrine: First isolate the “fanatic activist leaders” from everybody else, and then carefully direct the efforts of the “moderates” into “productive channels” (i.e. into accepting policies compatible with the interests of the industry groups under attack).
Ronald Duchin, who was mentored by Pagan, continued to develop his divide and conquer approach at Stratfor. For Duchin’s purposes, the public can be divided into Radicals, Idealists and Realists. Radicals, he said in a 1991 speech to the National Cattlemen’s Association, “want to change the system,” “see multi-national corporations as inherently evil,” and do not trust any level of government “to protect them and to safeguard the environment.” Idealists want a perfect world; but because of their altruism and naivete they are easier to manage. “If they can be shown that their position is in opposition to an industry … and cannot be ethically justified, they [will] change their position.” And Realists are willing to “live with trade-offs; willing to work within the system; not interested in radical change; pragmatic.”
Duchin’s strategy, first of all, was to isolate the Radicals and destroy their credibility. “Second, ‘cultivate’ the Idealists and ‘educate’ them into becoming Realists. And finally, co-opt the Realists into agreeing with industry.”
The same approach to deflecting radical attacks on industry is recommended by PR specialist Richard Telofsky in Insidious Competition: “Demonize” the radicals by pointing out all their unsavory “extremist” left-wing ties, and then expose the public to “sound” (i.e. industry-sponsored and industry-friendly) “science.”
This counter-insurgency or psy-ops approach of treating the public as an enemy is, in fact, quite common in industry. At a fracking industry conference in 2011, one industry executive recommended his colleagues download the military’s counter-insurgency manual (Eamon Javers, “Oil Executive: Military-Style ‘Psy Ops’ Experience Applied,” CNBC, November 8, 2011). And it’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to suppose that a similar approach is being taken to managing public perceptions of the Dakota Access Pipeline standoff. In fact, for those of the generation that still gets its news primarily from TV and newswire stories in their local paper, there really is no public perception.
To see how successful this approach is on a broader, society-wide level, you need only look at the framing of issues by self-described “Progressives” in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. You can’t hang out in such circles on social media without repeatedly seeing bullet-pointed Internet memes on the lines of “Liberals don’t hate big business, we just… Liberals don’t hate the rich, we just…,” and so on, basically calling for a world that’s dominated by the same exact corporate and military institutions as at present, but with a little tweaking around the edges.
The so-called “moderates” are the textbook example of Duchin’s “Realists,” because a “moderate” position by its very nature defines itself by the minor extent of its structural deviations from the status quo. By definition, a moderate is the same as Duchin’s Realist, in that the “reforms” she envisions are entirely compatible with continued domination by the institutions that currently dominate, and can be implemented by the kinds of people currently running those institutions.
The good news is that this rule by “moderates” and “Realists” is doomed. On a systemic level, we’re in the early stages of a phase transition in which the power structures that support them will disintegrate. The artificial abundance on which they rely — subsidized, artificially cheap energy and raw material inputs — is coming to an end both because of the declining ability of fiscally strapped states to subsidize them, and the growing crisis of what amounts to Peak Everything. And the artificial scarcities on which they are equally dependent — artificial scarcity of information behind “intellectual property” barriers, and scarcity of productive capital for the producing classes — are being destroyed by the unenforceability of digital copyright and by the proliferation of cheap, open-source micromanufacturing tools several orders of magnitude cheaper than mass-production machinery.
In the realm of public perception… well, take a look at what I said above about #DAPL not even existing as an issue for folks who get their news from CNN, Fox, the CBS Evening News or the local birdcage liner. If you belong to the generation that gets its news mainly online, and follow the news on social media, you’ve almost certainly heard of things like the pipeline issue and the ongoing prison strike, that almost nobody relying on the old-line corporate media is aware of.
And in the political arena itself, the neoliberal consensus of the two major US political parties is being destroyed. On the Right, the old GOP establishment with its consensus on the Washington Consensus and on the US as global enforcer of it has run up against the rise of Donald Trump’s base — a xenophobic, racist and “anti-globalist” movement comparable to the neo-fascist movements of Europe. Much of the surviving remnant of the “moderate” GOP establishment and its neoconservative allies are fleeing the Republican Party and supporting Clinton. The good news here is that Trump is the candidate of a shrinking demographic. Since the rise of Gingrich-Limbaugh New Right in the ’90s and of the Tea Party after Obama’s election, the Republicans have been on their way to being a regional party of angry white men. Trump’s candidacy is bringing that process to a head, and the collapse of his movement may telescope that generational transformation into a few years.
On the Democratic side, far from representing the fragmentation of the old establishment, this year’s presidential candidate is the very personification of that establishment. And even among those who find Clinton’s neoliberalism distasteful, many feel driven to vote for her simply because the prospect of a Trump presidency is so scary in comparison. But here, too, there is good news. Assuming Clinton wins and averts the immediate threat of neo-fascism, the centrist establishment of her own party will soon join that of the GOP on the ash heap of history. Around 80% of people under thirty supported Bernie Sanders, and are voting for Clinton only grudgingly if at all. They remain highly networked and politically active. Clinton’s strongest base of support is the baby boomers who actually run all the institutional power structures Clinton is so friendly to. And every presidential election cycle, the Democratic electorate will experience the replacement of a four-year cohort of the type who support Clinton with a four-year cohort of the type who support Sanders.
So, to recapitulate. Late capitalism, and the corporate and state institutional structures that define it, are experiencing terminal crises that will culminate in a world based on decentralized, horizontal, self-managed alternatives. In the United States, the political parties that represent the two major wings of the class running the old institutions, are likewise crumbling. The old GOP is fragmenting and turning into a regional party of racial Apartheid, like the Democrats after the Civil War. And in another couple of election cycle the majority Democratic Party will be dominated by people who voted for Sanders.
This new generational cohort that will dominate American politics has, on average, an attitude fundamentally at odds with the institutional assumptions of the old system. And its attitudes correspond fairly well with those of the kinds of human beings who will be needed in a post-capitalist system of networked organization and re-localized production. It laughs at “anti-songlifting” propaganda and takes file-sharing for granted as a fact of life. It was the primary organizing base of Occupy, Black Lives Matter and the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline. It sees Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden as heroes, not traitors.
This is the generation that registered to vote for Obama, and then registered its sense of betrayal by occupying Zuccotti Park. As a result, it is fundamentally skeptical of solutions that are implemented through established institutions. It may not be made up of doctrinaire anarchists, for the most part, and will likely continue to act through the state in part. But the kinds of state solutions it seeks to implement will likely be outside the box of the old neoliberal state capitalism and bureaucratic state socialism models, and be open to comparatively decentralized and non-statist alternatives like Basic Guaranteed Income and taxing economic rents and negative externalities as an alternative to the old welfare and regulatory states. And far more important than the character the state takes on under their management will be the nature of the institutions they build outside the state. These prefigurative counter-institutions — local currencies, commons-based peer production, Permaculture, micromanufacturing, alternative energy, community alternatives to government law-enforcement — will be the building blocks of the society that emerges when the old state-corporate order finally fades away.