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The closing of the liberal mind

The folly of the masses has replaced the wisdom of crowds as the dominant theme of our politics.

All that seemed solid in liberalism is melting into air. In Europe the EU struggled for over seven years to reach a trade deal with Canada, one of the most “European” countries in the world; at the same time, banking crises are festering in Italy and Germany and the continuing migrant crisis continues to strengthen far-right parties. In Britain Jeremy Corbyn’s strengthened hold over Labour following an ill-considered attempt to unseat him has reinforced a transformation in the party that reaches well beyond his position as leader. At a global level, Vladimir Putin is redrawing the geopolitical map with his escalating intervention in Syria, while the chief threat to the repressive regime Xi Jinping is building in China appears to be a neo-Maoist movement that harks back to one of the worst tyrannies in history. A liberal order that seemed to be spreading across the globe after the end of the Cold War is fading from memory.

Faced with this shift, liberal opinion-formers have oscillated between insistent denial and apocalyptic foreboding. Though the EU is barely capable of any action, raddled remnants of the old regime – Ed Miliband, Clegg, Mandelson, “the master” himself – have surfaced to demand that Brexit be fudged and, in effect, reversed. Even as the US election hangs in the balance, many are clinging to the belief that a liberal status quo can be restored. But Trump’s presidential campaign has already demolished a bipartisan consensus on free trade, and if he wins, a party system to which his Republican opponents and Hillary Clinton both belonged will be history. Dreading this outcome and suspecting it may yet come to pass, liberals rail against voters who reject their enlightened leadership. Suddenly, the folly of the masses has replaced the wisdom of crowds as the dominant theme in polite discourse. Few ask what in the ruling liberalism could produce such a debacle.

The liberal pageant is fading, yet liberals find it hard to get by without believing they are on what they like to think is the right side of history. The trouble is that they can only envision the future as a continuation of the recent past. This is so whether their liberalism comes from the right or the left. Whether they are George Osborne’s City-based “liberal mainstream”, or Thatcherite think tanks, baffled and seething because Brexit hasn’t taken us closer to a free-market utopia, or egalitarian social democrats who favour redistribution or “predistribution”, an entire generation is finding its view of the world melting away under the impact of events.

Today’s liberals differ widely about how the wealth and opportunities of a market economy should be shared. What none of them question is the type of market globalisation that has developed over the past three decades. Writing in Tribune in 1943 after reviewing a batch of “progressive” books, George Orwell observed: “I was struck by the automatic way in which people go on repeating certain phrases that were fashionable before 1914. Two great favourites are ‘the abolition of distance’ and ‘the disappearance of frontiers’.” More than 70 years later, the same empty formulae are again being repeated. At present, the liberal mind can function only to the extent that it shuts out reality.

It is not surprising that there is talk of ­entering a post-liberal moment. The idea has the merit of grasping that the liberal retreat is not a revolt of the ignorant masses against enlightened elites; it is mostly the result of the follies of liberals themselves. But the revulsion against liberalism is not all of one piece. There is a world of difference between the May government inching its way towards a more intelligent way of ­living with globalisation and Trump’s dream of globalisation in one country. The creeping advance of anti-liberal forces across the European continent is something else again.

Accepting that this is a post-liberal moment does not imply that we should give up on values of freedom and toleration. Quite the contrary: the task at hand is securing the survival of a liberal way of life. But the greatest obstacle to that end, larger even than the hostility of avowed enemies of liberalism, is a liberal ideology that sees state power as the chief threat to freedom. Liberal societies have a future only if the Hobbesian protective role of the state is firmly reasserted. Balancing the claims of liberty against those of security will never be easy. There are many conflicting freedoms, among which political choices must be made. Without security, however, freedom itself is soon lost.




Nothing illustrates the decay of liberalism more vividly than the metamorphosis of the Labour Party. There has been a tendency to interpret Corbyn’s rise as a reversion to the Trotskyite entryism of the early 1980s. Some in the party – possibly including the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell – may see their role in terms of converting Labour to some type of neo-Marxism. That does not explain why so many of Labour’s new members seem to want to bury the party in the form in which it has existed throughout its history.

Something like a blueprint for the shift of power in the party was set out in Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism, first published in 1961. Miliband’s attack on the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) anticipated the Corbynite strategy with uncanny prescience. Cautioning his comrades on the left who wanted to use Labour as a vehicle for socialism, Miliband wrote in a 1972 postscript to the book:


The kind of political changes at the top which a good many socialists hope to see one day brought about in the Labour Party, and which would signify a major ideological shift to the left, would presumably, given the nature of the political system, have to be engineered from within the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party. But to say this is surely also to indicate how unrealistic that hope is. It is unrealistic because it ignores the perennial weakness of the parliamentary left. That weakness is not accidental but structural . . . There have been some exceptions: a few Labour MPs have, so to speak, slipped through the net. But they have remained isolated and often pathetic figures, bitterly at odds not only with their leaders but with that large and permanent majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party which entirely shares its leader’s orthodox modes of thought.


Ralph Miliband condemned the PLP as an obstacle to fundamental change and looked to a mass movement outside Labour’s core structures. But history has proved more fertile than his imagination. In a strangely poetic turn of events, an anti-parliamentary party of a kind he believed Labour could never become was brought into being, more than 40 years later, when, by changing the membership rules, Ed Miliband created a historic opening for one of
its most isolated and insignificant figures. Promoted by moderates as a modernising move, on a par with Tony Blair’s revision of Clause Four, this accidental reform has altered Labour structurally and irreversibly. Corbyn’s rise to power could not have occurred if the party’s moderates had not been so devoid of new thinking. They realised that Ed Miliband’s social-democratic moment had failed to arrive and knew that Labour faced an uphill task in becoming electable again. But all they had to offer were empty slogans that reeked of the past. As a result, Labour has become unelectable in any foreseeable future.

Anyone who imagines the party’s electoral fortunes could be revived by a new leader – a charismatic figure from across the water, perhaps – has not taken the measure of the change that has taken place. Although parts of Labour remain outside Corbyn’s control, including much of local government – most importantly, Sadiq Khan’s London – the chief power base of any future leader of the party will be the mass movement that Corbyn has built. Realigning Labour with the electorate can only be done against the opposition of most of the party membership. In these conditions a campaign of the sort Neil Kinnock waged against Militant is no longer feasible. Internecine warfare will continue and may intensify, but Labour’s moderate tendency has no chance of regaining control.

In one sense, Corbyn’s Labour is the practical realisation of Ralph Miliband’s dream. Yet it is not a party Miliband would recognise easily. Labour has become not a retro-Trotskyite sect, but a contemporary expression of formless discontent. Trotsky was a vain and pitiless figure, who crushed a workers’ rising in Kronstadt in 1921 and rejected criticism of the practice of hostage-taking that he implemented during the Russian Civil War as “Quaker-vegetarian chatter”. But, even at his worst, Trotsky could not have proposed anything as inane and intrinsically absurd as retaining Trident submarine patrols while removing the missiles’ nuclear warheads, as Corbyn did in January.

The party Corbyn has created is not easily defined. Aside from the anti-Semitism that is a strand of its make-up, it has no coherent ideology. The legacy of Marxism is notable for its absence. There is no analysis of changing class structures or any systematic critique of the present condition of capitalism. Such policies as have been floated have been plucked from a blue sky, without any attempt to connect them with earthbound facts. The consensus-seeking values of core Labour voters are dismissed as symptoms of backwardness. As for the concerns about job security and immigration that produced large majorities in favour of Brexit in what used to be safe Labour areas, the Corbynite view seems to be that these are retrograde attitudes that only show how badly working people need re-education.

Corbyn’s refusal to specify any upper limit to immigration at the last party conference in Liverpool illustrated his detachment from electoral realities. But far from being a debilitating weakness – as it would be if Labour were still a conventional political party – this rejection of realistic thinking is the principal source of his strength in the new kind of party he has created. From being a broad-based institution that defended the interests of working people, Labour has morphed into a vehicle for an alienated fringe of the middle class that finds psychological comfort in belonging in an anti-capitalist protest movement. While a dwindling rump of trade union barons continues to act as power-broker, Labour’s northern fortresses are crumbling.

The defining feature of Corbynite Labour is not an anachronistic utopian socialism, but a very modern kind of liberal narcissism. Looking two or three general elections ahead, the party could well reach a membership of over a million even as it struggled to elect a hundred MPs. The party’s role would then be one of permanent opposition, without the privileges that go with being an alternative government.




The claim that what has emerged from Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party is an inchoate and extreme type of liberalism may seem perverse. He and his followers never cease to inveigh against neoliberal economics – a blanket term that seems to include every market economy in the world – even as they show a consistent bias in favour of tyrannies in their protests against military action, their anti-war campaigns focusing solely as they do on the policies of Western governments. It might seem that Labour under Corbyn has abandoned liberal values altogether, and there are some who talk of a new left-fascism.

Yet this is too easy an analysis of the change that has taken place. Corbyn’s Labour is no more crypto-fascist than it is Trotskyite. In some respects – such as his support for unlimited freedom of movement for people – it embodies a hyperbolic version of the liberalism of the most recent generation. In others, it expresses what liberalism has now become. There have always been many liberalisms, but the mutation in liberal thinking over the past few decades has been deep and radical. From being a philosophy that aimed to give a theoretical rationale to a way of life based on the practice of toleration, it has become a mindset that defines itself by enmity to that way of life.

Corbyn’s “inclusive” attitude towards Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA fits in with a left-liberal world-view that supports ­anti-colonial struggles in a general embrace of identity politics. Fashionable nonsense about cultural appropriation may not matter much, as it has been largely confined to increasingly marginal universities. However, it expresses what has come to be seen as a liberal principle: the right of everyone to assert what they take to be their identity – particularly if it can be represented as that of an oppressed minority – by whatever means are judged necessary. If free speech stands in the way, the practice must be discarded. It terrorism is required, so be it. This represents a fundamental shift in liberal thinking.

The overriding importance given to rights – a selective reading of them, at any rate – is one of the marks of the new liberalism. In one form or another, doctrines of human rights have been around for centuries, and a conception of universal rights was embodied in the UN Declaration of 1948. But rights became central and primary in liberal thought only in the 1970s with the rise of the legalist philosophies of John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, which held that freedom can be codified into a fixed system of interlocking liberties that can be interpreted by judges. On the libertarian right, Friedrich Hayek proposed something similar with his constitutional proposals for limiting democracy.

Protecting liberty is not just a matter of curbing government, however. Rolling back the state in the economy and society can have the effect of leaving people less free – a fact that was recognised by liberal thinkers of an earlier generation. Maynard Keynes understood that free trade allowed consumers a wide range of choices. He also understood that freedom of choice is devalued when livelihoods face being rapidly destroyed on a large scale, and partly for that reason he refused to treat free trade as a sacrosanct dogma. He never imagined freedom could be reduced to a list of rights.

The move to rights-based liberalism has had damaging effects in many areas of policy. A militant ideology of human rights played a part in some of the worst foreign policy disasters of recent times. The ruinous military adventures of the Blair-Cameron era did not fail because there was not enough post-invasion planning. They failed, first, because in overthrowing the despotisms of Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gaddafi they destroyed the state in both Iraq and Libya, leaving zones of anarchy in which jihadist forces could operate freely. More fundamentally, they failed because human rights cannot be imposed on societies that have never known them and where most people may not want them.

Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal will provoke spasms of righteous indignation. Liberals cannot help believing that all human beings secretly yearn to become as they imagine themselves to be. But this is faith, not fact. The belief that liberal values are universally revered is not founded in empirical observation. They are far from secure even in parts of continental Europe where they were seen as unshakeable only a few years ago. In much of the world they are barely recognised.

That liberal values belong in a particular way of life was the central theme of the ­essays collected in my book Post-Liberalism (1993). Modern liberalism is a late growth from Jewish and Christian monotheism. It is from these religious traditions – more than anything in Greek philosophy – that liberal values of toleration and freedom have sprung. If these values were held to be universal, it was because they were believed to be ordained by God. Most liberals nowadays are secular in outlook, yet they continue to believe that their values are humanly universal.

It has never been clear why this should be so. A common response conjures up ­Enlightenment values against the demon of relativism, somehow forgetting that modern relativism emerged from the Enlightenment. Others invoke cod-theories in social science which claim that only liberal societies can be modern. Francis Fukuyama’s thesis is the best known, but they all assert that globalisation is producing a worldwide middle class that is demanding political freedom, as the European bourgeoisie is supposed to have done in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In fact, the European middle classes threw in their lot with authoritarian regimes as often as they supported freedom and democracy, and the same is true at a global level today. Much of the middle class in Russia appears wedded to a combination of consumerism and nationalism, and in China most seem to want nothing more than rising living standards and freedom in their private lives. In the United States, on the other hand, unchecked globalisation is destroying the middle classes.

If the liberalism that has prevailed over the past generation was a falsifiable theory it would long since have been abandoned. There is no detectable connection between advancing globalisation and the spread of liberal values. Liberals resist this because it empties their lives of significance. For them, liberalism is a surrogate religion, providing the sustaining illusion that their values express the meaning of history.

These may seem arguments far removed from everyday politics, but they have important practical implications. Liberal societies cannot depend on history for their survival. They need to defend themselves, and here the cult of rights needs deflating. Human rights may have value as symbolic barriers against the worst evils, such as genocide, slavery and torture. Where they are not backed by state power, however, ­human rights mean nothing: less than nothing, in fact, if they encourage people to believe they will be protected when (as in Srebrenica and now in Aleppo) the power to protect them is lacking. Human rights cannot serve as a template for world order. When they are used to promote evangelical military campaigns they endanger the way of life they were meant to protect.



Popular revulsion against established elites has produced some curious responses. There is constant talk about reason being junked in an emotional rejection of experts, as was supposed to have happened in this year’s EU referendum campaign. Yet the record hardly justifies any strong claims on behalf of those who claim special insight into economics or politics. Much of what has passed for expert knowledge consists of speculative or discredited theories, such as the sub-Keynesian ideas that support quantitative easing as a permanent regime and the notion that globalisation benefits everybody in the long run. When rattled liberals talk of the triumph of emotion over reason, what they mean is that voters are ignoring the intellectual detritus that has guided their leaders and are responding instead to facts and their own experiences.

What British voters are not doing is repudiating the society in which they live. For some critics of liberalism, what is needed is a rejection of individualism in economics and culture. This is the message of John Milbank and Adrian Pabst in The Politics of Virtue (reviewed by Rowan Williams in this paper on 14 October). The book promotes a neo-medievalist vision of organic community that would be familiar to Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton, whom Milbank and Pabst cite approvingly. Post-liberalism of this kind is, in my view, a dead end in politics. Most people in Britain do not want to live in organic communities. They are not nostalgic for an imaginary past, and show little fondness for the claustrophobic intimacy of unchanging, homogeneous neighbourhoods. They want what Thomas Hobbes called commodious living – in other words, the amenities of modern economy – without the chronic insecurity that is produced by unfettered market forces. Rather than rejecting market individualism, they are demanding that it be constrained. They would like to inhabit a common culture but are happy for it to contain diverse beliefs and lifestyles.

A post-liberal society is one in which freedom and toleration are protected under the shelter of a strong state. In economic terms, this entails discarding the notion that the primary purpose of government is to advance globalisation. In future, governments will succeed or fail by how well they can deliver prosperity while managing the social disruption that globalisation produces. Obviously it will be a delicate balancing act. There is a risk that deglobalisation will spiral out of control. New technologies will disrupt settled patterns of working and living whatever governments may do. Popular demands cannot be met in full, but parties that do not curb the market in the interests of social cohesion are consigning themselves to the memory hole. The type of globalisation that has developed over the past decades is not politically sustainable.

To expect liberals to comprehend this situation would be unreasonable. For them, it is not only the liberal order that is melting away, but any sense of their own place in history. From being the vanguard of human progress, they find themselves powerless spectators of events. But they insist that the solution to the crisis of liberalism is clear. What is needed is more of the same: a stronger infusion of idealism; an unyielding determination to renew the liberal projects of the past. The notion that any of these projects needs to be revised or abandoned – global free trade, say, or the free movement of labour across national borders – is unthinkable. The only thing wrong with past policies, they will say, is that they were not liberal enough.

Adamant certainty mixed with self-admiring angst has long defined the liberal mind and does so now. Yet beneath this, a different mood can be detected. All that really remains of liberalism is fear of the future. Faced with the world they thought they knew fading into air, many liberals may be tempted to retreat into the imaginary worlds envisioned by left-leaning non-governmental organisations, or conjured up in academic seminars. This amounts to giving up the political struggle, and it may be that, despite themselves, those who embodied the ruling liberalism are coming to realise that their day is done.

John Gray’s latest book is the new and enlarged edition of “Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings” (Penguin)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind