It's Propaganda Time
This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
by Ben Chatterton
The arrival of the global COVID-19 pandemic looks to be the opening act in the eventual collapse of the American empire. An economic depression that is certain to overshadow the original Great one is underway. Chaos and panic surrounding the April 2020 rent default are guaranteed to deepen through the rest of the summer, if not the rest of the year. Recovery appears unlikely, even in the long term. The failures of capital and the state are obvious to anyone with any amount of class consciousness, especially when noting lack of Personal Protective Equipment for nurses, grocery workers, and other “essential” workers, and the bully tactics of the US state in stealing medical supplies intended for other countries.
Unfortunately, it’s clear that isn’t very many people.
The crisis of this moment presents us with a monumental challenge: We must raise class solidarity among people who are suffering. The challenge is not to have a fully-formed blueprint for overthrowing capital and the state. The time has come and gone for well-laid plans, and the US Left has failed in that regard. If that reality has settled for you, there are only three options: a) to continue to build in the slow, halting manner of the post-Occupy left, pretending without hope that we still have time to enact an electoral revolution, somehow materialize an armed struggle, or do some kind of meme-anarchism, even if it’s not fully-automated, luxury, or in space; b) to perish like a dog or c) to propagandize the universe.
If it’s not clear, I believe option c) presents the most chance of success, because both the timeframe and the likelihood of building a large project is depressing almost to the point of self-annihilating; because the history of leftist struggle in the world has presented us with projects that either have limited success in geographical scope or betray the people as soon as they gain power; because our experience with the struggle in the US in the 2010s has been project after project imploded by interpersonal conflicts, a dozen tiny 1969 SDS Conventions firing off every year, tapping to the beat of the Twitter timeline; and because projects that meet people’s working or living needs—with a definite, achievable goal—have a long and obstinate history of success in our time. We also desperately need numbers on the left if we’re going to have a chance of ever doing anything. In short: it’s propaganda time.
Let me clarify before I continue that I am not recommending that everyone engaged in an organizing project should put down the bullhorn, recycle the spreadsheet, and pick up the wheatpaste. Far from it—in fact, most organizing projects that have definite, achievable goals or meet the needs of tenants, workers, neighbors, and the marginalized are absolutely crucial to the goal of propagandizing the universe because of their inherent value to the people served and the inherent threat to the people engaged in the work of oppression. This service helps us draw a line between them.
How will we propagandize the universe, though? People aren’t looking at subversive messages pasted to telephone poles and bus stops. Overpass banner drops are lost to harried commuters. The film and television industries are utterly captured by capital interests, and people are stubbornly capable of enjoying art without understanding even its clearest messages. If you want a picture of the future, imagine Obama glibly recommending Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, forever. Left Twitter and Leftbook are closed systems. Performative protest is usually ignored or written off as an annoyance. I actually don’t have solutions here, but it’s worth considering that The- Way- Leftists- Have- Always- Done- Things is, without a doubt, a dead end.
And that’s also not to say that there aren’t novel ways to approach time-honored mediums. Consider how you might approach signage (for example) that would actually get attention and hold it. This might be different in one place than it is in another. It might influence your medium, and it might influence your message. The use of projectors during the middle years of the last decade was one such innovation of medium, and there have been many innovative messages, but we need to mutate faster. We need a hearty ecosystem of media and messages, while steadfastly avoiding the stale, and rejecting any messaging that implies an alliance between the left and fascism. If we don’t build that ecosystem, and if we don’t get those potentially beneficial mutations out and growing, our species of leftist messaging will be wholly destroyed by capitalist predators.
We need to talk about staleness and failure in messaging. Without minimizing the effect of literally the most face-value, glaringly direct approach to building class consciousness in the history of the US Left, that is the messaging of communism qua communism on social media, and through the public protests that accompanied the abject failure of the Democratic establishment in 2016, we need to learn and pivot. The mid-2010s were a moment in time dependent upon messaging from the right that any social program was communistic, the failure of the Democrats to enact social reforms, the great consciousness bloom time that was Occupy Wall Street, and the ineffable trend currents of social media. We will not get that back; conditions have changed, are changing. Again, the answer to this is not to flit from one flower of theory to the other, sucking up a nectar of dense jargon, then to present that, regurgitated like some fucked up anarcho-communist mama bird, to whomever. The public is not an eaglet dependent upon you for its sustenance. Mostly, it doesn’t know you exist.
Some of you fight tooth and nail when a message or a presentation is too “corporate” or too “normie”. Some of you do the same but for propaganda that is too “edgy”. Some of you like the messy circle A and some of you like the neat one. Some of you even like the lowercase one. I’m here to tell you there’s a big fucking world out there, and most of that world doesn’t give one shit about circled A’s, messy or not. Consider if you will, that there’s still room for both “normie” and “edgy” presentations, but to reach everyone, we are going to have to stop leading with words like “communism”, “anarchism”, “class consciousness” and every other academic and impersonal jargon term. I can hear the wailing already, but that’s just because you know it’s true.
Bringing down the empire in a timely fashion was always too tall an order, so to our well-earned horror, systems collapse will eventually do that for us. What will happen is that we will move from crisis to crisis, and systems will collapse until the systems that created these crises are gone. It will be long and ugly, but with every crisis comes a solemn opportunity for us to build the new world in the exploded mortar shell of the old. But we must attempt this without unnecessarily alienating ourselves from the people we’re trying to reach. In most (not all) instances, that’ll mean tamping down the desire to go directly into leftist theory, or even letting on that we’re pushing leftism at all. Scoring points in a battle of ideological factions is of no consequence when compared to the prize of having a functioning and kind society at the end of all this.
To that end, I very humbly propose the following three points as an outline for future work in propaganda:
- This crisis is not your fault.
- It IS the fault of an industrial complex.
- We can change this if we all work together.
You can work this into any kind of propaganda you like, and I can guarantee it will work better than saying “socialism” really loud at people who have already considered and rejected the word “socialism” as a political identifier to associate with themselves. I’ll explain why.
Point One is essential—a central feature of neoliberalism is the abuse psychology concept of “DARVO”: Denial of harm, Attacking victims, and Reversing Victim and Offender. This is a term used to describe the behavior of individual abusers, but it applies to capitalism: capitalists deny that the system is harmful, attack those who claim that it is or call for reform or replacement, and blame the effects of their destructive practice on individual consumer or aggregate behavior. This is prevalent in the environmental world, where consumer choice is blamed for catastrophes that are direct effects of states’ and corporations’ allegiance to capital, and neoliberal solutions begin and end at consumers experiencing major or minor privations to barely mitigate these disasters.
The effect of this is a complex feeling of pervasive personal sin, a woke Goodman Brown wandering through the wicked night forever. This has a function! This keeps people from fully identifying as opponents of the state and of capital—after all, don’t we all have a share in the oppression? We can free the people from this with a simple message, whether that’s an ironic “You Didn’t Build This” or simply: “It’s not your fault”. And if we can focus on these crises to do it, so much the better as they’re very very clearly no individual’s fault. All the while, we should encourage people to overcome their individual flaws that will eventually cause structural damage to any emerging movement, but more about this in Point Three.
Point Two is tricky in one way—we need to identify the perpetrator, and when we’re talking about systemic problems, that perpetrator is an aggregate of entities. It’s not so easy to fashion that into a single villain, though stories have used hiveminds like IT from A Wrinkle in Time or Star Trek’s Borg as interesting potential parallels. Ultimately we need to directly address the fact that we fight against both systems and individuals and that tackling one but not the other will be insufficient, but that may not be a finer point necessary at the level of the watercooler chat or street action. The level and depth of your explanation will be best if tailored to your audience.
Point Three is the only complex sentence in the bunch. Originally I had it as “we can do something about it” but that had two major flaws. First, it did not give the proper amount of hope. We can change this. Not just that we can respond to it. We can build that new world in the unspeakable mess we have right now. Second, it neglected the importance of solidarity. We have to work together, so you’re gonna have to put aside your bullshit: personal racism, sexism, queerphobia, nationalism and all the fucking rest are gonna have to die if we’re going to do a damn thing. You can get to “how the ruling class uses those things against us” and other systemic critiques very quickly with this as a starting point. We’re also going to have to put aside personal complaints and non-oppressive biases as well. The need for restorative justice in our world is enormous. (Their history of failures to implement restorative justice processes will make it difficult to do this work through traditionally-structured organizations.)
That need for restorative justice is such a looming monolith and such an undeniable concern that addressing it is going to require so much more than what can be done by this article, and what is presently being done by any given organizational entity, to be truly addressed. It is one of the most vexing problems we face as we try to create fundamental change. As such, it may be wise to organize efforts with a mind to averting this (a large coalition of existing organizations at a local level, for example, may bring people into contact with those they currently avoid). We don’t presently have a good solution to this, but if millions of people are convinced of the need to work together, surely that influx of brains won’t hurt our chances of reaching one quickly.
As for positive practical advice, I suggest we learn from our enemy, the virus—each of us should find a way to turn the social cells we find ourselves in, from our workplaces to our organizations to our neighborhoods, into self-replicating propaganda machines with at minimum some variation of that simple message. That may mean focusing on verbal communication at first (while convincing people that a more permanent propaganda effort is the primary need), and it will probably mean holding off on theory discussions with “initiates” until after they start broadcasting the basic message to their own. The more people you can convince that the message is a correct analysis and that they need to share that, the more you free yourself and others experienced in the fight to tackle higher-amperage projects. Viruses don’t sit around wondering how to organize.
Now, go, get the word to absolutely everyone, however you can. There’s no time to waste!
- DSA membership numbers, a centerpiece of organizational messaging through 2017, were not even available (when asked for point-blank) at the 2019 National Convention. Other left organizations seem to have similar retention and recruitment problems.
- Change this for “landlords”, a specific industry, or whatever you like, but the thrust should be “corporations and government working to enrich themselves at our expense”, and you better not put any fash shit here.