When we think of propaganda we tend to think of that associated with the worst totalitarian regimes of the 20th century; and the impression we then have is of a sort of Orwellian slogan-bombing which operates on the principle of getting people to assent, by threats of violence, to overtly admitted falsehoods so frequently and protractedly that they forget how to know what they knew. On the level of social psychology that is deeply frightening; our idea of it is nevertheless of something of a blunt instrument. It functions like a schoolyard bully, albeit a diabolical one.
By contrast the manner of Madison Avenue is that of a conman, a sophisticated one who might have made for a delightful crime farce screenplay had the actual historical result not been so calamitous. Like a swindler of this sort, these heirs to Edward Bernays assemble their teams of shills, plants, and stooges, assigning to each a specific role. They refrain from using words like “glawrious” and are instead rather self-effacing, speaking as they do by convoluted kinds of ventriloquism through voices apparently other than their own. Thus had they perfected what is today called astroturfing long before there was a word for it. Thus also had they developed their particular knack of dreaming up centuries of history and time-honoured traditions in the space of an afternoon.
To catalogue the full ambit of this would require a work far greater than this. In the field of urban design alone one could list the White Picket Fence as the age-old symbol of a sort of quiet, insular domesticity which only became practical with the automobile-based dormitory suburb after the mid-1930s. One could list the notion, strangely popular, that the roads infrastructure development painstakingly devised by state planners in response to the labour and output-consuming requirements of industrial policy was no more than the formalization of ancient cow-paths by successive paving-over. One could list the idea that cities were always things comprised primarily of office blocks, or at least precursor places of employment in the wage system, and that the homes of their citizens had always lain, strictly speaking, outside them. One could list all these things and not know where to stop.
My point in this instance is none of these things, but rather the way this presentation as ancient of things which are in historical proportion quite recent seems to be habitual. I encounter it often in debates and discussions of all kinds. I am saying nothing specific about the role of Madison Avenue in this: I should not hazard a guess as to who caught the disease from whom.
As an example, when yet again I sought to elaborate in a Facebook comment the systemic mechanisms of environmental degradation intrinsic to capitalism, I was met with the fairly standard reply that the problem was that people didn’t “respect nature” and, equally standard, that this has come along all the way from Abrahamic monotheism. Genesis 1:28 says, “fill the earth and subdue it,” and ever since we’ve all been doing our utmost to dump more toxic waste into more rivers than the next person. Of course the primary and overwhelmingly salient objection to this should be that if the structural aspects of the situation are properly understood it should be clear that they do not in any significant way hinge on an aggregate of what people respect or do not respect: moreover that if one were actually to go out and ask people one would learn that they respect a great variety of things, including “nature,” very intensely; and that it still makes no difference. At that moment all that was overshadowed by the fact that someone who claimed to be learned in the history of ideas should so underestimate the complexity of the concept “nature” — especially in a historical context.
In 1686, Robert Boyle endeavoured to list the senses in which the word “nature” was used in his time:
For sometimes we use the word nature for that Author of nature whom the schoolmen, harshly enough, call natura naturans, as when it is said that nature hath made man partly corporeal and partly immaterial. Sometimes we mean by the nature of a thing the essence, or that which the schoolmen scruple not to call the quiddity of a thing, namely, the attribute or attributes on whose score it is what it is, whether the thing be corporeal or not, as when we attempt to define the nature of an angel, or of a triangle, or of a fluid body, as such. Sometimes we take nature for an internal principle of motion, as when we say that a stone let fall in the air is by nature carried towards the centre of the earth, and, on the contrary, that fire or flame does naturally move upwards toward heaven. Sometimes we understand by nature the established course of things, as when we say that nature makes the night succeed the day, nature hath made respiration necessary to the life of men. Sometimes we take nature for an aggregate of powers belonging to a body, especially a living one, as when physicians say that nature is strong or weak or spent, or that in such or such diseases nature left to herself will do the cure. Sometimes we take nature for the universe, or system of the corporeal works of God, as when it is said of a phoenix, or a chimera, that there is no such thing in nature, i.e. in the world. And sometimes too, and that most commonly, we would express by nature a semi-deity or other strange kind of being, such as this discourse examines the notion of.
— Robert Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature
Boyle could, of course, have missed one or two senses, but not if those senses had been so dominant as that implicit in my above critic’s charge to be the primary, ordinary sense of the word. Yes, “nature” was personified commonly enough; yes, it was sanctified even when not actually deified. But while there is prior historical precedent for the use of “nature” for something which specifically excludes all that is human, that usage was rare and eccentric enough for Boyle to think it not worth mentioning, if indeed he had ever encountered it. Of that sacred realm of the verdant, sylvan, and wild, “untouched by human hands” and allegedly disrespected by all and sundry since the 9th century BCE, there was no sign at all.
This is of course by no means to suggest that a better appreciation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “All things counter, original, spare, strange” would not be a very good thing. It is rather that calling all that “nature” would have been slightly odd even in Hopkins’ time. But that isn’t my point either.
My point is that it is remarkable, when one actually goes and hunts down the historical origins of many things popularly purported to be as old as the hills, how often one finds one’s quarry somewhere in a scatter pattern centred around the year 1750. As remarkable is how often one finds Jean-Jacques Rousseau mixed up in the business somehow, if only indirectly.
In this case, Rousseau’s role is quite central, as it was he who popularized this specific sense of “nature,” if he didn’t actually invent it. Over the next two centuries this sense would become so prominent that today everyone knows that that is what we mean when we talk about “getting close to nature.” It could be argued that taken to extremes this idea of the human being as intruder in nature, the idea that “we don’t belong here,” accounts at least in part for all the dodgy cults and philosophies premised on humanity having had an extraterrestrial origin.
But the principle is important: if we are to tackle ecology we need to be able to get our heads around the way the Medievals had a conception of “nature,” even of “Great Mother Nature,” as something which governs cities and property rulesets as much as bacteria and avian flight — this regardless of whether or not we credit notions of natural law. It would, for instance, enable us to see the soil build-up resulting from traditional riverbank agriculture not as a “human intervention,” with all its overtones of disastrous “interference” or “meddling” — i.e. “disrespecting nature” — but as a (possibly) valid ecological function: possibly because it should be judged according to the ecosystems which emerge, not according to whether or not humans are involved.
Anyone familiar with the work of Kevin Carson should be able to see here an echo of the way the actual historical origins of capitalism have been obscured by similar fables of ancient provenance. John Locke’s talk of a prehistoric “propensity to truck and barter” appears at as early a point in our scatter pattern as Rousseau appears late (and unsurprisingly Rousseau’s name appears in the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page on Locke!) Events like the Inclosure Act of 1773, the first of a series of Parliamentary Inclosure Acts which were crucial in establishing the economic relations which made industrial capitalism possible through dispossession of much of the English and Welsh populations, fall well within our range. And it is events like these which are today commonly denied, ignored, or trivialized in order to present the economic relations underlying capitalism as eternal and inevitable.
The same pattern emerges when we try to place historically the origin of racism as a developed ideology, as opposed to mere instances of jingoistic bigotry or incidental contempt or convenient identification. Thorough analyses keep coming back to the first half of the 18th century, despite a number of possible precursors. In “How to be an Anti-Racist” (2019) Ibram X. Kendi would have us believe that racism goes back at least to Portuguese chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zurara, and insists that proof is to be found in his mid-15th-century chronicles. Despite my broad support for Kendi’s programme I find no evidence at all in my own reading of those works that he had a concept of race anything like what we know from the 19th century on. He characterizes some assemblages of Africans as pathetic and others as admirable, but there is barely any suggestion beyond the most hesitant and tentative that all Africans have an identity in common, nor that he has an identity in common with Norwegians or Greeks. He does have a conception of “Christendom,” as we should expect at the mid-15th century, as something with basically elastic boundaries, such that he has no compunction about including African Christians in it. There is one passing reference to the “Curse of Ham,” an idea which had cropped up sporadically and marginally during the Middle Ages, not always applied to Africans, and often signifying bad luck rather than inferiority. And being dependent on his royal patronage, Zurara was keen to flatter Prince Henry the Navigator in typically extravagant terms, at almost anyone’s expense. If we are looking for the roots of the idea-complexes which enabled the subsequent emergence of the likes of white-man’s-burdenery, geopolitical imperialism, scientific racism, racial eugenics, Fascism, Nazism, and apartheid, we won’t find them in Zurara — at least not in the sense of the discourse after Zurara being any different from what it had been before.
Likewise we will find in various American legal contrivances of the early 17th century little more than barefaced attempts to dispossess certain specific people in certain specific situations according to arbitrary distinctions of appearance. The characteristic concepts of ideological racism were simply not there, not even where we should expect casually to find them. Decades later at the Cape of Good Hope, the diary of Jan van Riebeeck shows by turns affection and contempt towards Autshumao of the ||attaqua, and later impatience driven by shameless greed, but the racist categories we might have expected to be overtly abundant are conspicuously absent. Yet barely half a century later we begin to see the core ideas of racism being enthusiastically exchanged in certain European intellectual circles. We find Immanuel Kant considering them; we find G.W.F. Hegel building grand cosmic castles out of them, a nefarious box of Lego for Arthur de Gobineau to play with at the middle of the 19th century. After that, plain, palpable, unmistakable racist positions come thick and fast: a torrent after three centuries of hints and shadows, if that.
The lesson to be learned from all this is that the European colonial project and the slave trade which was an essential component of it predates the invention of racism, through the construction of “race,” by several centuries. Racism did not cause the slave trade; the slave trade caused racism, and that at some historical remove.
This is important to understand today, when the world is faced with the unexpected rise of dangerous Fascist-like ethnic essentialist ideologies among communities hitherto counted among the victims of racism. I think of Hindu nationalism in India, and the concomitant violent heavy-handedness which is only to be expected once it is realized that these are movements of the right, very much and nothing other than movements of the right. But I think also of disturbing currents here in Africa, which unquestioningly embrace wholesale the structure and much of the fabric of European colonialist ideology: the belief in eternally distinct “races” in constant conflict for survival through dominance, of which individual persons are mere semi-real emanations; which necessitates the idea that racism has not only always existed but that it was the primary motivation for the European colonial project, arising out of the “essential hatefulness” of the “white race.” Thus it gets all the causality backwards, every last bit of it. It is content to repeat “race is a construct” as a mantra, but its account of the mechanics of the construction of “race” presupposes the prior (indeed the eternal) constructedness of “race.” That is like laying the blame for the invention of the myth that there is such a thing as the Tooth Fairy on the Tooth Fairy!
And indications are that there is more to it than Steve Biko’s work to counter the dehumanization of black identity gone horribly, unrecognizably wrong. For here we return to Madison Avenue, at least in spirit: to the 2016 activities of now-defunct British PR outfit Bell Pottinger and their introduction of the expression white monopoly capital into South African political discourse, in efforts not only to legitimize the kleptocracy of the Zuma administration but also to create a popular conflation of capital with the “white” demographic at large, regardless of whether or not this specific white person or that specific black person actually owns any significant capital. It should be obvious how this relies on a myth of “ancient race” and therefore “ancient racism,” in order to carry the idea that capital is controlled not by persons or by organizations, nor by the structures of systemic function Marx so whimsically called “classes,” but by “races.” That makes it unimportant that I am without a bean — indeed that I have a very real Bakuninian interest in furthering the practical economic liberty of my black neighbours and in wiping any such thing as a separate white identity from the face of the earth: if Anton Rupert has billions, then any mass of flesh might legitimately be cut from my rump. And worst of all, it leaves extant structural racism emphatically intact.
I think we’ve dodged that one, for the most part: but the enabling ideas remain.