Alienation, Falsity, and the Legitimation of Capitalist Society


"This conflict (within capitalist society) has the following form: on the one hand, the priorities set under economic imperatives cannot be allowed to depend upon a discursive formation of the public will—therefore politics today assumes the appearance of a technocracy. On the other hand, the exclusion of consequential practical questions from discussion by the depoliticized public becomes extremely difficult as a result of the long-term erosion of the cultural tradition which had regulated conduct and which, until now, could be presupposed as a tacit boundary condition of the political system. Because of this, a chronic need for legitimation is developing today." [1]

From where do our thoughts emerge? When we engage in linguistically-grounded thinking, are the ideas that we entertain original abstractions; or are they, as John Locke once suggested, directly informed by the social, material, and historical contexts of our lives? “External objects furnish the mind with the ideas of sensible qualities,” Locke noted, “which are all those different perceptions they produce in us.” [2] In other words, if we follow Locke on this, our engagement in the activity of thought requires that we must do so not only through the constraints of our physical structure, but also through the constraints and the entailments of our native languages, our socio-economic positions, and the historical pressures entailed by the polities to which we belong. Such constraints are, in essence, formative.

“Men make their own history,” Karl Marx observed, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” [3] Marx went on to note, famously, that, “[t]he tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” [4] What Marx perceived here was that individuals within societies do not necessarily think and act in political and economic vacuums as discrete autonomous agents; they act, rather, as societies and in concert with a lengthy lineage of activity, thought, and discourse. Both history and the world itself thus shape our minds. And, as such, when we think linguistically, we can do so only in cooperation with the history of ideas, the lexicons, and the idea-structures which have been given to us by our antecedents.

In situ, there are, following the linguistic theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein (§243 - 256), no “private languages” apart from those shared within societies [5] and within the species at large. That our ideas emerge not only from the world itself, but from and in concert with our families, our societies, and our histories is, in part, the lesson of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (§514 - 520), where “the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts” [6]; the artifacts, of course, being the shadows and the voices of our families and predecessors, as well as the shadows cast by those who deign to inform our thought. Thus, if we attempt to consider ourselves free agents, we can only consider ourselves free to act within the ideological and material constructs into which we have been born. While free, we are, as such, profoundly unfree. [7] But what if we are not only unfree in relationship to our material and historical circumstances, but also in relationship to a purposeful crafting of our ideological circumstances as well? Would Marx’s Bonapartian nightmare then not only emerge from the traditions of dead generations, but also from those of the living?

That we are, both in thought and in deed, a product of our times, our societies, and our geographies should be a fairly safe assertion. On this, the philosopher György Lukács once commented that: “As the products of historical evolution [societies] are involved in continuous change. But in addition they are also precisely in their objective structure the products of a definite historical epoch, namely capitalism.” [8] Capitalism—holding, as it does, an epochal political-economic hegemony over international materials exchange, production, and distribution—informs not only the objective structure of our societies but our thoughts which have been formed from our immersement in such societies as well. As a mode of production, [9] [10] and following the work of the political philosopher Louis Althusser, [11] capitalism must not only legitimate its material relations of production, it must reproduce itself ideologically if it is to survive a continually-critical, evolving, and emergent public—best represented by an abiding youth who seek, perpetually, to free themselves from the constraints of the past; futile as this may in fact be.

In the United States—the beating heart of the dictatorship of capital—ideological reproduction occurs by way of the influences of both state and social class over the internal discourses of politics, economy, populism, and iconography. Such a reproduction is not simply historical; it also takes shape through the purposeful ideation and action of living people. This is the crux and the open secret of political legitimation: that the formation and careful tending of our ideas about the society in which we live and participate is, for not only the U.S. but for every society, a crucial component of political existence. [12] A society will not long survive if its abstractive superstructure and the ideas of its constituents work against the internal cohesion of the state. In political science, this cohesion is known as legitimacy, [13] and the act by which polities sustain themselves ideologically is—not only through the Marxist lens, but the normative lens as well—known as legitimation. As an area of investigation, political legitimation is not a new topic of inquiry; rather, as the sociologist Morris Zelditch has observed, scholarship on legitimation dates back at least to the writings of Thucydides in 423 BCE. [14] On the unique phenomenon of legitimation under capitalism, however, the political philosopher Jürgen Habermas recognized that:

"Recoupling the economic to the political [...] creates an increased need for legitimation. The state apparatus no longer, as in liberal capitalism, merely secures the general conditions of production [...], but is now actively engaged in it. It must therefore—like the precapitalist state—be legitimated." [15]

That there is, intrinsically, something of a crisis in the modern-day legitimation of capitalism is not only an a priori political assertion; it can be aposteriorily evidenced by the great and historical lengths undertaken by the various apparatuses of the state in manufacturing legitimacy through direct manipulation, internal and external propagandizing, discourse hijacking, media scripting, and so on. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s influential work, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, commented on this with the observation that the legitimating apparatuses, such as the mass media, in the United States "are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions and self-censorship, and without significant overt coercion.” [16] In liberal-capitalist democracies—with their alleged Lockean emphases on individual freedoms and personal identities [17]—the endemic problematic elements of capitalism, such as poverty, exploitation, racism, social stratification, homelessness, and starvation must be explained-away through an all-out ideological assault on our minds: through the continual and long-term manufacturing of political, economic, social, and iconographic consents, as well as through the purposeful crafting of systemic excuses and intellectual discourses. Such a manufacturing of cohesive ideation—a forced legitimation—is the panem et circenses, or the bread and circuses of the great Juvenal who, in his Satires, lamented the shaking off of the “public [politically-involved] spirit” [18] in favor of the state-crafted spectacle.

Commenting on Habermas’s astute work on the legitimation crisis within contemporary capitalism—summed up as the conflict and contradictions between the decline of natural public acceptance and the increase of state-enforced legitimation tactics—the political philosopher Raymond Plant (F.K.C.) observed that:

"The problem posed by legitimation crisis is how the growing intervention of the state in economic activity can be rendered legitimate to those who are affected by the authority of the state in this sphere. The central question is: are there normative resources in society on which the state can draw to justify and sustain the degree of intervention required to avoid some of the dysfunctional effects of the economic market while at the same time securing the conditions necessary for the market to operate?" [19]

In other words, Plant here points to a pressing question not only for scholars of legitimation but for the constituents of capitalist society in general: by what avenues, and with what tools, might the so-called democratic state intervene to shape our ideas? Is it a leap in logic to assert that such resources, for the state, already exist?

One such example of this type of resource might lie bound up within the media organs of society—the traditional panem et circenses—which, to quote Herman and Chomsky, “[divert] the public from politics and [generate] a political apathy that is helpful to preservation of the status quo.” [20] Another example might lie in the overt intervention of the state within intellectual and scholarly discourse—an interesting instance of this being the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) [21] funding, during the 1950s, the Congress for Cultural Freedom [22]: a collective of allegedly left-leaning intellectuals and literary scholars dedicated to the publication of socialist journals, such as The New Leader, Der Monat, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, The Partisan Review, Encounter, Mundo Nuevo, and other such publications. [23]

There is an odd, yet not unexpected, logic at work in the cooption—and repressive tolerance [24]—of academic socialists operating as agents of state-sponsored anticommunism. This logic—the logic of weaponizing socialist theorists against existing communist-run states—continues to this day in the polemics of magazines such as Jacobin, where writers and theorists continue to polemicize against all existing forms of socialism except for the most utopian and western (read: white). The state tolerates, and in fact promotes, this type of socialist scholarship simply because it does not, at root, come anywhere close to harming the state itself or the state's property relations; the main target of these polemics are other anti-capitalists, anti-imperialists, and those engaged, most specifically, in real-world geopolitical struggles against the capitalist west. Such a tolerance appears at once both “weak and pleasant.” [25] And, further, it is incredibly effective when used as a tactic of internal legitimation against actual dissent. This is the true character of the Marcusian totalitarian democracy of capitalism: it is a toleration and cooption of all revolutionary ideas so long as they do not advocate, realistically, against the democratic state itself.

Writing on the Congress of Cultural Freedom, the CIA official and CNN co-host of the show Crossfire Thomas Braden wrote, in a 1967 article entitled, “I’m Glad the CIA is Immoral,” that:

"The fact, of course, is that in much of Europe in the 1950's, socialists, people who called themselves 'left'—the very people whom many Americans thought no better than Communists—were the only people who gave a damn about fighting Communism." [26]

The literary historian Allison Graham, in her 2001 book, Framing the South, touched upon the importance of iconography, film, and mass media in the crafting of public opinion, and indeed media’s power to “rewrite and even—literally—erase history altogether.” [27] What drives such iconographies, films, and examples are precisely the ideological components derived from the productive, distributive, and cultural structures of society itself. Yet these drivers are, following Graham’s analysis, not purely deterministic in nature. Rather, there in actu exists a dialectic of both determinism and malleability; such drivers holding the ability to be shaped by those who understand the mechanisms of shaping; an example of living ideas influencing living ideas; Plato’s puppeteers [28] come to life. And the puppeteers have been busy.

For evidence, we might look not only to the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom, but toward the United States Central Command’s (CENTCOM) Operation Earnest Voice, [29] David Brock’s super-PAC Correct the Record, [30] The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, [31] the restructuring of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) from a bipartisan nine-member board to a single, presidentially-appointed CEO, [32] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, [33] Radio Free Asia, [34] the Middle East Broadcast Networks, [35] and pan-stational news scripting. [36] All of these seem to suggest that, to answer Raymond Plant’s earlier question about the potential avenues of existence for state-centered tools of legitimation, that such normative and legitimative resources already exist for the state. And, further, that these have always-already existed. [37]

That the engineering—as well as the resultant social alienation—of the ideas of the public occurs wholeheartedly and on a wide and insidious scale in the United States is not a new phenomenon, and was in fact argued for, publicly, as far back as 1952, where, in an issue of Fortune magazine, the Princeton-trained sociologist William Whyte asserted that:

"Only through social engineering i.e., applied groupthink—can [the public] be saved. The path to salvation, social engineers explain, lies in a trained elite that will benevolently manipulate us into group harmony." [38]

For Whyte, Groupthink—a term lifted from George Orwell’s lackluster and anti-communist opus, 1984—entailed a recognition that human societies tended to think together: “a rationalized conformity—an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.” [39] Here Whyte echoed, and hoped to exploit, an anthropological sentiment. He scoffed at naturalistic and unmodified groupthinking as “a perennial failing of mankind.” [40] An implicitly racist and colonial notion, Whyte's groupthink posited that societies could not, aside from the careful intercession of white capitalist nations, decide for themselves the best forms of society; the best social structures. For Whyte, the engineering of a “rationalized conformity” seemed to maintain for the Leviathan of capitalist society a Hobbesian salus populi, or “public safety,” where “the wealth and riches of all the particular members are the strength,” and where “civil war [is] death.” [41]