John Pilger: Washington is flying the flag and faking the news on Iraq

Loud noises from Washington about a US pull-out from Iraq are a poor disguise for America’s determination to control.

Edward Bernays, the American nephew of Sigmund Freud, is said to have invented modern propaganda. During the First World War, he was one of a group of influential liberals who mounted a secret government campaign to persuade reluctant Americans to send an army to the bloodbath in Europe. In his book Propaganda, published in 1928, Bernays wrote that the "intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society", and that the manipulators "constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power in our country". Instead of propaganda, he coined the euphemism "public relations".

The American tobacco industry hired Bernays to convince women that they should smoke in public. By associating smoking with women's
liberation, he made cigarettes "torches of freedom". In 1954, he conjured a communist menace in Guatemala as an excuse for overthrowing the democratically elected government, whose social reforms were threatening the United Fruit Company's monopoly of the banana trade. He called it a "liberation".

Bernays was no rabid right-winger. He was an elitist liberal who believed that "engineering public consent" was for the greater good. This could be achieved by the creation of "false realities" which then became "news events". Here are examples of how it is done these days.

False reality The last US combat troops have left Iraq "as promised, on schedule", according to President Barack Obama. The TV news has been filled with cinematic images of the "last US soldiers", silhouetted against the dawn light, crossing the border into Kuwait.

Fact They have not left. At least 50,000 troops will continue to operate from 94 bases. American air assaults are unchanged, as are special forces' assassinations. The number of "military contractors" is 100,000 and rising. Most Iraqi oil is now under direct foreign control.

False reality BBC presenters have described the departing US troops as a "sort of victorious army" that has achieved "a remarkable change in [Iraq's] fortunes". Their commander, General David Petraeus, is a "celebrity", "charming", "savvy" and "remarkable".

Fact There is no victory of any sort. There is a catastrophic disaster, and attempts to present it as otherwise are a model of Bernays's campaign to "rebrand" the slaughter of the First World War as "necessary" and "noble". In 1980, Ronald Reagan, running for president, rebranded the invasion of Vietnam, in which up to three million people died, as a "noble cause", a theme taken up enthusiastically by Hollywood. Today's Iraq war movies have a similar purging theme: the invader as both idealist and victim.

False reality It is not known how many Iraqis have died. They are "countless", or maybe "in the tens of thousands".

Fact As a direct consequence of the Anglo-American-led invasion, a million Iraqis have died. This figure, from Opinion Research Business, follows peer-reviewed research by Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, whose methods were secretly affirmed as "best practice" and "robust" by the Blair government's chief scientific adviser. This is rarely reported or presented to "charming" American generals. Neither is the dispossession of four million Iraqis, the malnourishment of most Iraqi children, the epidemic of mental illness, or the poisoning of the environment.

False reality The British economy has a deficit of billions which must be reduced with cuts in public services and regressive taxation, in a spirit of "we're all in this together".

Fact We are not in this together. What is remarkable about this PR triumph is that only 18 months ago, the diametric opposite filled TV screens and front pages. Then, in a state of shock, truth became unavoidable, if briefly. The Wall Street and City of London trough was on full view for the first time, along with the venality of once-celebrated snouts. Billions in public money went to inept and crooked organisations known as banks, which were spared debt liability by their Labour government sponsors.

Within a year, record profits and personal bonuses were posted and the "black hole" was no longer the responsibility of the banks, whose debt is to be paid by those not in any way responsible: the public. The received media wisdom of this "necessity" is now a chorus, from the BBC to the Sun. A masterstroke, Bernays would surely say.

False reality Ed Miliband offers a "genuine alternative" as leader of the Labour Party.

Fact Miliband, like his brother and almost all those standing for the Labour leadership, is immersed in the effluent of New Labour. As a New Labour MP and minister, he did not refuse to serve under Blair or to speak out against Labour's persistent warmongering. He now calls the invasion of Iraq a "profound mistake". Calling it a mistake insults the memory and the dead. It was a crime, of which the evidence is voluminous. He has nothing new to say about the other colonial wars, none of them mistakes. Neither has he demanded basic social justice - that those who caused the recession clear up the mess and that Britain's fabulously rich corporate minority be taxed seriously, starting with Rupert Murdoch.

The good news is that false realities often fail when the public trusts its own critical intelligence. Two classified documents recently released by WikiLeaks express the CIA's concern that the populations of European countries, which oppose their governments' war policies, are not succumbing to the usual propaganda spun through the media.

For the rulers of the world, this is a conundrum, because their unaccountable power rests on the false reality that no popular resistance works. And it does.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial

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The free market? There's no such thing

There's no such thing as the free market - it's a delusion of left and right, argues Bryn Phillips.

A very long time ago, some wide-eyed utopians dreamed a seductive dream. A dream of a perfect world. A world without coercive constraints on economic activities, where the intrusive hand of government would be eliminated. They conceived of an economy governed by the same laws that operate in nature. And they called it the free market. And over time the left began to believe in this fantasy as much as the right. For the right it is a call to arms against the domination of the ‘villainous’ state; for the left it is the rot at the heart of our ‘inequitable’ economic system. Yet while they disagree on its desirability, both positions assume that a ‘non-regulated’ market can even be possible. One of the key insights of the Hungarian philosopher Karl Polanyi, however, is that there is no such thing as a free market. There never has been, and there never can be. Let me explain.

The concept of an economic sphere completely divorced from government and civil society institutions, Polanyi argues, is a “stark utopia”—stark, because the attempt to bring it into being is destined to fail and will inevitably bring about dystopian consequences for human beings and nature alike. However, there is a gulf of difference between a market and what Polanyi calls a market society. The first is a necessary part of any functioning economy, one of many different social institutions on which the common good depends; the second imperils human society by attempting to subject almost everything that social life depends upon to market principles: health care, legal security, and the right to earn a wage. When these ‘commodity fictions’ (Polanyi’s words, not mine) are treated as if they are genuine commodities, produced for sale in the marketplace, rather than inherent rights, our social world is thrown before the lions and major crises inevitably follow on. The financial crisis of 2008 and the Wall Street Crash, arguably being just two examples. 

The flip side to all this, Polanyi argues, is that human beings tend to mobilise in response to such crises, but the resulting resistance is not always necessarily democratic (think the New Deal)—it it is just as likely to be authoritarian and nasty. For all their wickedness, the Nazi Party came to power on a protectionist ticket, promising to restore order in the face of the social chaos created by the crash of the early 1930s. Looking at today’s world through this prism, isn’t free market ideology the common thread that links many of today’s problems too—global warming, rising anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and economic instability?

To any rational thinker, then, the very idea that markets and governments are independent and autonomous institutions is clearly dangerous nonsense. Government action is not some kind of Orwellian “interference” in the autonomous sphere of economic activity. In simple terms, the economy just cannot exist without the mediating influence of government and social institutions. It’s not only that society depends on schools, a legal system, and other public goods that only government can provide. It is that every major input the economy needs in order to function—land, labour, and money—originate and are maintained through sustained government action. The supplies of money that enable us to purchase goods, the employment system, the arrangements for buying and selling land, all are supported and organised through the exercise of government’s authority, rules, and regulations. Put simply, there is no such thing as a “free market”.

In light of this doesn’t the quixotic left need to stop tilting at windmills and see the world as it really is? It’s time we changed the terms of political debate and made it clear that the frustrating economic problems we face today are exclusively political problems. This means rejecting the illusion of a deregulated economy altogether. Instead of parroting the fallacious ideology of the free market, we need to close the book on this myth and tell an alternative story. 

As the academic Margaret Somers has pointed out, what happened in the 1980s in the name of “deregulation” was, in truth, simply “re-regulation”, this time by laws and policies completely opposite to those of the mid-twentieth century—of Attlee and Roosevelt. Those older regulations laid the foundations for greater social equality, a thriving middle class and increased economic and political security. The reality is that, between the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986 and the present day, government continued to regulate, but instead of acting to protect workers and customers, it devised novel policies aimed to help multi-national corporations and the financial services industries maximise the returns on their investments, by reforming anti-trust laws, putting obstacles in the way of unionisation, and handing out bank bailouts without any conditions attached whatsoever. In 2008, 1.3 trillion pounds were transferred to the banks in the UK overnight—the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in history—but nothing was asked for in return. You get the picture. 

The implications of Polanyi’s critique for the left are critical. If regulations are necessary features of markets, then surely we’ve got to stop fixating on the ‘regulation versus deregulation’ debate that has distorted political discourse for the last thirty years, and instead discuss what kinds of regulations we want to see put in place? Those designed for the exclusive benefit of capital and the billionaire class? Or those that jointly benefit workers, customers, and businesses? We must not ask whether the law should intervene in the market but rather what kinds of rules and rights should be expressed in these laws—those that recognise that it is the expertise and experience of employees that help make firms profitable and productive, or those that rig the race solely in favour of employers and centralised capital? 

The truth, of course, in the 1930s as now, is that the poor have always struggled to keep their heads above water in the face of forces that overwhelm them. Confronted by the economic failures and instabilities brought about by what political philosopher Maurice Glasman calls “market utopia”, we must be relentless in guarding against the threats which the advocates of free market ideology unwittingly present to democracy and peace. Unless there are some serious initiatives to chart a new course, we can only expect that the threat from the nationalist right and the anti-Semitic hard-left—that is currently growing across Europe— will grow stronger.

“Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves,” says Don Quixote, as he advances towards the windmills on the plain. Taking Polanyi seriously means the left needs to confront reality. Or the economic inequities it rallies against will prevail. Another major crisis will become inevitable. And we may well have no say in our destiny at all.