Propaganda: Power and Persuasion at the British Library: Reading between the lines

Although we might be confidently distant from the Orwellian imagination, systems of information control are still being perpetuated. How can we continue to read this age-old manipulation, as it appears in ever more insidious forms?

The essential tenor of the British Library’s provocative exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is that the age of propaganda persists in our age of globalisation. Although we might be confidently distant from the Orwellian imagination, the systems of information control are being perpetuated. How then, can we read this age-old manipulation, as it appears in ever more insidious forms?

Quietly hidden away behind more familiar exhibits such as Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and the infamous Iraq War playing cards issued by the US Military, the curators have found space for an Occupy Wall Street poster. Emblazoned with the bold Occupy aphorisms, “Fight Back Worldwide: capitalism is the crisis” and “the 99 per cent have no borders; decolonize globally”, the poster’s protagonists emerge from radiant sunlight. At first glance, the Occupy Wall Street poster phenomenon seems to be illustrative of the particular fusion of bold graphic design and protest rhetoric in the age of social media activism. The curators are not giving away much either, merely observing the ways in which Occupy imagery subverts the iconography traditionally associated with the state. In doing so, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion misses out on telling the critical narrative of propaganda as it exists in the 21st century. Of this, more anon.

In many ways the most compelling argument of the exhibition is how it searches for a more neutral portrait of propaganda, scraping away the extreme negativity surrounding it. The origins of the term in papal text are documented here, in the literature produced by the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), a committee founded in the 17th century by Pope Gregory XV to counter the Reformation. Within this singular argument lay the seeds of our wholly oppositional understanding of propaganda, and through both world wars the emotional charge of the word was reduced to pure deception. And yet the global history of propaganda has been far more complex. In China, ‘propaganda’ (xuanchuan) cannot be distinguished from the more innocuous ‘publicity’. Instead it is a legitimate mechanism for the Party’s construction of society. The question the exhibition poses is essentially: can you engage in rational dialogue with a mass audience? Is propaganda more than just persuasion dialogue, but rather a mechanism aiming to elicit action, in which the ‘truth’ is no longer the logical endpoint? In getting to grips with the very essence of propaganda, the Aldous Huxley quotation resonates through the exhibition chamber: “The propagandist is a man who canalises an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water he digs in vain.”

The sources upon which the curators draw on, from Josef Goebbels’ ‘Volksempfänger’ radios designed for Nazi broadcasts through to the iconic imagery of Mao kindling the flames of revolution in Anyuan in the autumn of 1921, are breathtaking in scope. At the exhibition’s heart are the Norman Rockwell posters The Four Freedoms, aimed at Americans buying war bonds in World War II by appealing to core familial and religious values. Above all, this exhibition excels in showcasing state propaganda, whether in the form of Boer War board games, Cold War imagery or even public health campaigns. Exploring themes of ‘nation, enemy and war’, the wash of propaganda reaches for increasing sophistication.  But nuance is looked for in the explorations of a ‘national branding’ project that was implicit in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, a side perhaps missed out when compared to the unambiguously aggressive glorification of the state that so thoroughly informed the previous 2008 Beijing Games, in which regulated spectacle celebrated ‘shengshi’, an age of prosperity.

While the exhibition may be aesthetically impressive, from the opening floor of projected viral imagery through to the close in which a wall forms a cascading screen of twitter streams reacting to the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony and Obama’s re-inauguration, by the end we are no closer to really grappling with propaganda today. In the age of social media, “everyone is a potential propagandist”, we are told. But what is constantly alluded to but never properly addressed is perhaps the untold story: the elision of systems of state propaganda, modes of dissent and the framework of advertising. In the wake of the Tiananmen protests, the Chinese Communist Party looked to the West for new sources of inspiration, and found it in Coca-Cola. By 1996, a Party textbook proclaimed that the soft drink brand was the example par excellence to be followed: “if you have a good image, any problem can be solved.”

The iconic Occupy Wall Street pamphleting, in its stylistic borrowings from the romantic well of Russian Revolutionary and Soviet propaganda, is the perfect evocation of how 21st century activism embodies all the trademark hallmarks of marketing. The French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote of this process in his 1981 Simulacra and Simulation: “The whole script of advertising and propaganda comes from the October Revolution and the market crash of 1929”. Baudrillard went on to observe that “both languages of the masses, issuing from the mass production of ideas, or commodities, their registers, separate at first, progressively converge. Propaganda becomes the marketing and merchandising of idea-forces, of political men and parties with their ‘trademark image’.” The Occupy poster is the epitome of this convergence of the worlds of advertising and activism.

In one of the many video portraits scattered across the exhibition space, the journalist John Pilger recalls a Czech dissident telling him during the Cold War: “You believe everything you see on the TV or read on the papers, but we’ve learnt to read between the lines.” Deploying everything from money to stamps and charting the shift from print to social media, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion offers a powerful insight into state influence and the flows of information that fashioned the 20th century political landscape. With Nazi propaganda nestled next to Britain’s own war campaign imagery, the exhibition never shys away from foregrounding the monsterization techniques behind audience appeal. Its co-curator David Welch argues that the danger only lies in a monopoly of propaganda, as seen in totalitarian states. But the sorry truth is that we can no longer afford to make political and commercial distinctions in propaganda today, when faced with a real loss of meaning, reading between the lines becomes all too urgent.

The White-Haired Girl. A Chinese film poster from 1950. Image: British Library.

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times