Propaganda in the Age of Fascism
“In the absence of an equally compelling counter-narrative, a significant portion of the masses will also embrace fascism, and history will be left to repeat itself.”
Political and aesthetic theory, from Alley Valkyrie
Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs.
– Guy Debord
One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in France last summer is that battles were being waged on multiple fronts.
There was the most obvious battle, the one that the media was covering, a nationwide uproar over a set of controversial labor reforms that were widely viewed as a betrayal of the working class on the part of a supposedly left-wing government.
There was a secondary battle playing out alongside that uproar, a guerrilla battle against capitalism and international finance waged by leftists and anarchists in the form of smashed bank windows and repeated violent confrontations with police.
And then there was the battle for the imagination, the battle of dueling narratives that leftists and fascists alike were waging on every blank surface imaginable, from street poles to mailboxes to the walls of boarded-up buildings. As opposed to the aforementioned battles, the battle for the imagination was one that the leftists were obviously and solidly winning.
The words and imagery that adorned pretty much every conceivable surface passionately and effectively reflected the world that could be, the world that they were trying to build. With stickers and graffiti and street art, those who believed that ‘another world is possible’ were successfully appealing to the hearts and minds of the populace.
That success was reflected not only in the physical presence of a leftist culture, but in the widespread public acceptance of many of their ideas and visions and how those ideas manifested in the physical world. Actions that would be almost universally condemned in the United States, such as the repeated destruction of ATMs, were met with an attitude that ranged from indifference to gleeful acceptance.
Even those who disapproved often expressed their sympathies with the sentiments behind such actions, even when criticizing the actions. They understood why the battle was being waged, and their understanding was in part closely connected to the consistent anti-capitalist messaging that they were exposed to on a daily basis.
Politicizing the Aesthetic
“The distracted person, too, can form habits. More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses.”
– Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’
In the above-quoted essay, arguably his most well-known and influential work, Walter Benjamin characterized a primary component of fascism as the politicization of the aesthetic and argued in favor of the revolutionary potential of art. Written in 1936, and grounded in his observations of the role of aesthetics as employed in Hitler’s rise to power, Benjamin detailed the transformation of art as a medium through the technologies of reproduction.
He explained how such modernization had created the potential for the utilization of art as a means to influence the masses, but also pointed out how that potential would be used for repressive and totalitarian purposes when the means of reproduction was concentrated in the hands of the few. When the means of reproduction were democratized, art could hold the same power as a tool of resistance that it held in Germany as a tool of manipulation.
While his point had always resonated with me, the truth of his statements became plainly evident after my interactions with the countless propaganda-covered street poles that I constantly encountered throughout France. But there is American precedent for this too.
“More than anything, Hillary [Clinton] forgot that Obama owed his first victory to an image, to an idea.”
I heard the comment as I walked past an art student, talking on the phone as he was waiting for the bus outside of PNCA in northwest Portland. I knew immediately what he was referring to: Shepard Fairey’s iconic ‘HOPE’ poster, which was a near-ubiquitous image during the 2008 presidential campaign.
While his actual campaign promises and proposed policies were undoubtedly a factor in his success, one cannot underestimate the degree to which his victory was on account of his winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of a disillusioned populace through the ideas of ‘hope’ and ‘change.’ The strength of Fairey’s image and the resonance of the message inspired voters to hit the polls in record numbers.
It was many of those same voters, especially those from rural areas, living in poverty and once inspired by the ideas of ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ who switched parties and voted for Trump eight years later.
They flipped in large part because the changes that they had hoped for and expected did not materialize for them, and their hearts and minds were then subsequently captured by a very different but equally captivating message.
But this time, instead of abstract concepts like ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ this message provided not only concrete promises but definitive scapegoats.
The Intoxication of Narrative
“The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.”
– Walter Benjamin
Among other factors, fascism gains its traction on account of a compelling narrative.
Fascism takes advantage of crumbling social conditions, evokes a false nostalgia for the ‘good old days,’ and frames the current material conditions as a ‘fall’ from that greatness. It then scapegoats specific parties as the cause of the fall, and promises a restoration to greatness if and only if the people place their trust in an authoritarian leader and give that leader free rein to rid us of the scapegoats that are responsible for the ‘problems.’
To its credit, liberal democracy also presents a compelling narrative. The promise of ‘freedom’ and ‘prosperity’ and ‘rights,’ especially as it is contextualized within the idea of the ‘American dream,’ has captured hearts and minds for generations now. While it is a narrative that realistically has only ever applied to certain segments of the population (mostly able-bodied white people), over the past few decades the promises of that narrative have repeatedly failed even those who had previously been granted that dream .
The ideology of fascism was birthed out of the ashes of World War I, birthed of the anger of a generation in which working-class people throughout Europe were brutally slaughtered in a war that was mainly fought in the interests of the ruling classes and in the name of democracy. It was the betrayal and failure of the narrative and the promises of liberal democracy in Europe that caused large segments of the population to embrace the narrative of fascism.
Although its been mostly forgotten in the mainstream retelling of history, the present turn of events in the United States is not the first time that the narrative of fascism has captured the interest of the American public. Fascism first rose in America in the years after the Great Depression, the last time that the narrative and promises of liberal democracy were proven to fail en masse throughout the North American continent.
While there were multiple factors that were able to overpower the pull of fascism in America that first time around (such as the effects of the New Deal), it was ironically the economic boost that came from the war against fascism in Europe that acted as the nails in the coffin for the power of the fascist narrative in America.
Out of that war came the resurgence of liberal democracy in even greater forms, from the recognition of the United States as a global superpower to institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union.
It is the crumbling and decline of those powers in the present day which has ushered in the current wave of fascist tendencies. History demonstrates very clearly that when the contradictions of liberal democracy start to weigh heavily enough to crack the foundations of that system, those who have profited from that system and its contradictions will inevitably embrace fascism in order to secure their wealth and their safety.
In the absence of an equally compelling counter-narrative, a significant portion of the masses will also embrace fascism, and history will be left to repeat itself.
Il est interdit d’interdire (It is forbidden to forbid)
– Situationist slogan, May 1968
In the summer of 1968, revolutions and revolutionary tendencies echoed throughout the Western world, with varying degrees of success and lasting power. Among the most well-known uprisings of the time was the series of events in May of 1968 in France, which at its peak brought the entire French economy to a standstill and nearly toppled the national government. While history generally characterizes the French uprisings as being fueled by violence and physical resistance, the underlying current which sustained the uprisings was based in artistic expression, most notably the tactics and aesthetics of the Situationist International.
The SI was formed a decade earlier, a fusion of libertarian Marxist ideas and the ideologies and aesthetic expressions of the surrealist and dada art movements. Arguably the strongest idea to come forth from the situationists was the concept of the ‘spectacle,’ which Guy Debord described and defined as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”
The concept of the spectacle was in itself a deep critique of capitalism, specifically the ways in which commodity fetishism had shifted society away from social relations based on direct experience and instead created an arena where individual expression was primarily exercised through the consumption of commodities. The aim of the SI was to reverse that trend, to prioritize and emphasize direct experience and to replace the manufactured desires of capitalism with actual and authentic desires.
This philosophy was central to the artistic and symbolic expressions that fueled the uprisings of May ’68. The emotional appeals of the SI, which stressed personal freedom, social authenticity, and political liberation, created a climate in which many believed that a new world was truly possible. Despite the eventual failure of the uprisings to foment an actual social revolution, the ideas and tactics of the SI left its mark on an entire generation of French youths, who continued with and passed on those ideas into the modern day.
The propaganda and messaging that is currently seen throughout every major urban area in France, as well as the understandings and philosophies behind it, is a direct and often obvious descendant of the imagery and emotion that characterized the SI and the events of May ’68.
Fascism: Liberal Democracy’s Shadow
When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany;” it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism.”
– Halford E. Luccock, as quoted in the New York Times, 1938.
Many tend to position liberal democracy and its inherent values as the antidote to fascist tendencies, just as they consider the same system to be inherently opposed to the narrative and the promises of fascism. The values expressed in fascism are framed as the antithesis of democracy, and it is stressed that it is the failure to uphold the values of democracy that inevitably will lead to fascism.
But in reality, they are two sides of the same coin.
Liberal democracy is the clothing we put on to hide the obscene nature of the body exposed, so to speak. When the actualized brutality and obscenity that is necessary to uphold liberal democracy is revealed, such as the violence recently witnessed at Standing Rock, it is demonstrated for all to see that the emperor is wearing no clothes.
In that moment, liberal democracy is then maintained and upheld by the portion of the populace that continues to praise the emperor on the beauty of his garments.
“The system is broken,” they say, when the actual truth is that the system is being exposed for its true and brutal nature, momentarily stripped of all its trappings and distractions.
It is in those moments that fascism and anti-capitalist leftism are actually in agreement, united in contradiction to the liberal democratic narrative, that in fact the system is working exactly as intended. The fascist praises and encourages the mechanics of empire as a justified means to an end, while the leftist argues that the means do not justify the ends and that the only ethical response is to abolish the system altogether.
When the lies of liberal democracy are exposed for what they are, when the child comes forth and finally points out to the crowd that the emperor is naked, it is the narrative of either the fascist or the leftist that holds the potential power to define what is accepted as reality.
Which side actually gains power in that moment is dependent on many factors, but among the strongest factors is the ability of their respective narratives to capture the imagination.
Logical arguments do not hold much sway in those moments. Instead it is a matter of which side wins the hearts and minds of the masses.
Absurdity and Spectacle
The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is, rather, a Weltanschauung which has become actual, materially translated. It is a world vision which has become objectified. 6. The spectacle grasped in its totality is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production. It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society.
— Guy Debord, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’
While most corporations and retailers used Black Friday as a way to convince people to buy tangible items at rock-bottom prices, the folks at Cards Against Humanity had a different idea.
They decided to dig a literal hole in the ground for three days straight, with an appeal to the public to pay for the digging by the minute. They had a live video feed of the hole, and a running tally that looked no different from any other crowdfunding campaign.
Despite its absurdity, the stunt resonated with people on several levels, not only as a commentary on consumerism and the existential bleakness of the modern day, but as a painful and arguably hilarious example of what people were willing to actually spend money on. Excerpted from the website’s FAQ:
What do I get for contributing money to the hole?
A deeper hole. What else are you going to buy, an iPod?
Why aren’t you giving all this money to charity?
Why aren’t YOU giving all this money to charity? It’s your money.
What if you dig so deep you hit hot magma?
At least then we’d feel something.
In the same country where thousands are dying on the streets without aid and thousands more are suffering from lack of medical care, after three days, the ‘holiday hole’ brought in over $100,000. As has been shown countless times before this one, the plight of the suffering has nothing on the draw and the temptation of the spectacle.
Aside from the obvious resonance in terms of the current sociopolitical climate, my first thought was of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies showering Wall Street with dollar bills and then laughing while the hapless traders on the floor abandoned their tasks in order to scramble for every dollar, disrupting the machine of capitalism with the very substance that fuels it.
While such tactics and stunts owe an certain debt to the situationists and the idea of the spectacle, its important to recognize that the theatrical tactics of the American ‘New Left’ were arguably responsible for replacing and displacing the last vestiges of actualized radical struggle in the United States. Once political theater became mainstream in terms of both public acceptance as well as expectation, militant tactics were for the most part abandoned by the mostly white, college-educated left in the United States. This eventually led to a massive loss of political power and social capital, which contributed to the rise of neoliberalism and the post-civil rights era conservative movements that now dominate the political landscape and control much of its discourse.
Moreover, the movements and organizations that did not abandon militant radicalism, such as the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, were left standing alone and subsequently targeted and destroyed from both within and without by the likes of COINTELPRO.
While the humor of such political theater doesn’t lead to direct and actualized change, the potential effect that such humorous spectacles can have on the masses should not be understated. Cards Against Humanity just proved that to the tune of $100,000, and while part of me winces at that reality, another part of me wonders if and how that tendency can be manipulated in favor of a spectacle that creates an actual means to an end.
Towards a New Propaganda
“Propaganda is a soft weapon; hold it in your hands too long, and it will move about like a snake, and strike the other way.”
– Jean Anouilh
We tend to interpret the word ‘propaganda’ as information that is inherently untrustworthy. We refer to “Soviet propaganda” or “anarchist propaganda” with the understanding that those folks likely aren’t telling the ‘truth.’
Historically, propaganda was generally regarded as a neutral force, holding true to its Latin roots. ‘Propaganda’ derives from propagare, meaning ‘to propagate,’ and propaganda was recognized as a powerful weapon that could be wielded in the name of countless agendas. It was only with the rise the phenomenon that Benjamin observed, of authoritarian governments that disseminated mass propaganda through the means of mechanical reproduction in order to manipulate the public in favor of repressive tendencies, that the word took on a permanently negative connotation.
While our tendency is to distrust anything that we consider to be propaganda, we place a rather impressive amount of trust in the great corporate propaganda machine known as advertising. The assumption is that the unsanctioned graffiti or flyer or poster is trying to pull one over on us, but we tend to accept that four out of five dentists recommend Crest without much thought or criticism. We generally grant the benefit of the doubt to the claims made by advertising, despite widespread knowledge of the degree to which that medium is manipulating us.
And yet, just as the only true difference between ‘militarism’ and ‘terrorism’ is legitimatization on the part of the state, the only difference between what we consider to be ‘advertising’ and what is disparaged as ‘propaganda’ or ‘graffiti’ is legitimatization on the part of society and our acquiescence to the various ways in which the state and capital control the commons. Our trust in one over the other is rooted not in fact or substance but in our cultural programming, in our tendency to trust authority.
Those who condemn political graffiti generally do not reserve the same criticism for corporate and/or political advertising, and in that inconsistency they further strengthen the power that capital has over the commons and by extension over our thoughts and our minds.
While the idea of ‘reclaiming the commons’ is usually centered on occupying public space and ‘commoning’ activities such as community gardens, reclaiming and rewriting the messages that currently define the modern commons is an overlooked and necessary component of creating a narrative that has the potential to challenge that of the status quo.
If fascism relies on the aestheticization of politics, fascism needs to be fought by politicizing the aesthetic.
Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw whatever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet.
Alley Valkyrie is an writer, artist, and spirit worker currently living in Rennes, France. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals and has been interacting with a wide assortment of both gods and radicals for nearly twenty years now. When she’s not talking to rivers and cats or ranting about capitalism, she is usually engaged in a variety of other projects. She can also be supported on Patreon.