Lying as a Political Weapon

Image: Steve Pancrate


The functionality of the lie for the political domain

“The danger of a half truth is that you say exactly the half that is a lie” (Millôr Fernandes).

In our time, we are witnessing the spectacular emergence of the lie as a political weapon. Digital media, algorithms, social networks and platforms only enhance the depth and dimension of the effects of falsification of facts, untruths and manipulations. They are, therefore, a new form under which an old content is covered.

Aristotle, back in ancient Greece, stated that politics was fundamentally the highest association to guarantee a full life. He believed that all association would be guided by nature, from the association between man and woman for procreation, master and slave for everyday life, to the association between free beings in -Polis, as a superior form of association capable of going beyond immediate animal life.

In this way, Aristotle's philosophical understanding of life presents itself as an ideology, that is, it hides the determinations of a particular form of production and reproduction of life, justifying and naturalizing, presenting the particular interest of a slaveholding aristocracy as universal.

But ideology is not a mere lie, it is the inverted expression of an inverted world, it is the ideal expression of a materiality founded on the domination of men over women and masters over slaves. In this sense, it is real and effective. However, according to Terry Eagleton, lies are a component of every ideology and not a mere contingent factor. That is, despite expressing the real materiality from which it starts, every ideology implies inversion and falsification.

For example, Aristotle's slavery ideology expresses a materiality in which women submit to the domination of men and the Greeks subdue barbarians and enslave them, but it blatantly falsifies when it justifies this domination by stating that nature created some for the command and others for the obedience, some for full life and others for work. This is, in a nutshell, a lie.

Here, what interests us directly is not the general meaning of ideology, but the functionality of the lie for the political domain. The transition from classical politics to modern politics, which emerges with the particular bourgeois dominance and the capitalist mode of production, replaces the question in other terms.

Classical politics can ideologically hide political dominance under the deceptive cloak of the virtue of good government or rulers, guided by the idea of ​​an innate superiority of the dominant classes, while modern reason has to equate the contradiction between individual interests and the called general interest, which leads to an initially more pragmatic form.

Before it was coated with thick layers of ideology, modern political reason was brutally expressed in Machiavelli as a game of force and interests, in which the main virtue is to conquer and maintain power. Therefore, it must be the skillful game that makes use of good or bad actions, truths or lies that must be judged by the efficiency or otherwise of maintaining power.

Machiavelli said that a prudent ruler must be a good simulator and dissimulator, but he must “disguise this quality very well”, he must learn to be bad and use or not use this quality according to need. The Florentine warns that the ruler does not actually need to have all the virtues, “as long as he appears to have them”. Here is the emergence of the separation between public and private morals that would later be studied by Max Weber.

In this way, we are informed that the exercise of politics is not only authorized, but must use lies in the political struggle for power. A citizen cannot lie, but a ruler can, for example, state that there are weapons of mass destruction to justify an attack on another country or say that exploring a little oil in the equatorial Amazon does not necessarily harm nature. From Getúlio stating that a state of siege would be necessary to fight an imminent communist insurrection in the famous Cohen Plan to the judge of Paraná who arrested a former president for buying a triplex that was not his, we have countless historical examples of lies and their functionality for political struggle.

However, if, on the one hand, the use of lies has been constant, it is also undeniable that it has taken on a particular form at the present time. We are experiencing a kind of pandemic of lies empowered by powerful platforms for the dissemination and massification of what has been euphemistically called fake news. Sure, newspapers already lied, television lies, as well as radio and other media have always lied, but digital media seem to have an advantage over their ancestors in the art of lying. We are convinced that it is not just the enormous potentiated capacity for ramifications and direct contact with receptive ears that makes the current media powerful vehicles for lies. Let's take a closer look.

Platforms and apps are nothing more than the modern version of advertising vehicles that have specialized in capturing attention so that algorithms can direct advertising with an astonishing degree of certainty. The ethical dilemma of technical agents on attention-grabbing platforms is presented when they realize that manipulation can go beyond the imposition of goods, but also induce political behavior.

Now, the relationship between advertising and politics is not exactly new, as can be seen from Nazism, Weber's analysis of American politics subjected to instrumental rationality, the Estado Novo or the lucrative market of marketers in electoral campaigns. What is particularly new is a specific type of mass propaganda blatantly founded on lies and, above all, the frightening efficiency of such methods.

The prominent role of Steve Bannon, in the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and Bolsonaro in 2018, enshrined the method of lying and its efficient digital medium, but the appearance of the phenomenon led many analysts to highlight the means more than the content of that that one sought to understand, ending up blaming the instrument.

I believe that the effectiveness of lies as a political weapon is due to two aspects that are little appreciated. To understand them, we must focus our attention, at first, on the receiver. Machiavelli himself already knew that “he who deceives will always find someone who lets himself be deceived”, or as my mother-in-law says more directly: “when a fool thinks he is smart, he always finds a smart one who thinks he is a fool”.

The lying message finds receptive ears and on this we must focus our attention. Minimally enlightened people should not believe that any government could distribute bottles with nipples in the shape of penises to induce homosexuality in children or that the People's Republic of China would have created a pandemic, included microchips in vaccines to control people in a Machiavellian plan so that communism took over the world. But the favorable reception has nothing to do with the manifest content of the lie.

The fear is not of the bottle of dick that doesn't exist, but of his own repressed sexuality and the insecurity that comes with it. Likewise, the fear is not of a chip hidden in a vaccine that makes good people understand the Marxist dialectic by becoming communist homosexuals who sing the Internationale and copulate outside the sacred bonds of marriage. There is an even deeper dimension, the fear that a greater power dominates us and can affect us without our knowing it.

You see, this power exists and not only can it, it does that, that is, it controls your life and makes you do terrible things. However, this power is not the abstract “system” or “everything that is there”, this power is bourgeois society and the capitalist mode of production and reproduction of life based on merchandise and capital. This is the materiality to which we are all subsumed and which produces a sociability in which the social being was split between the private individual in bourgeois civil society and the collective (political) being alienated in the State as a citizen.

Ideology, as well as its constitutive component which is the lie, to use Louis Althusser's term, challenges this content and produces recognition. But, it is necessary to clarify that from the subjective point of view this materiality that conforms us does not reveal its determinations since it is internalized in the abstract form of values, affective charges and representations and that, therefore, can be questioned by different triggers that seek recognition in the abstract substance of captured subjectivity. Put bluntly, political manipulation uses my fear of being a pawn of the system and presents in place of what it hides (the society of capital) the symbolic figure it wants us to hate.

The strength and conviction of the one who believes in the lie and moves against the object of hatred is usually surprising and I think that this surprise is due to the bias of our rational thinking that believes that we can fight the lie by offering rational arguments that demonstrate the truth.

The problem is that we tend to disregard that the interpellation of alienated and reified subjectivity is associated with the mobilization of basic impulses, as well as the repression and repression of these impulses that return in the form of a symptom, as defended by Freud and, more precisely, Wilhelm Reich. We are in a societal form that is in antagonism with desire, not just in the way Freud thought, according to which all civilization and culture are only possible with the repression of impulses and desires, but the society of commodities in the form of capital that results in a society in which the relationship between human beings presents itself in the phantasmagoric form of a relationship between commodities (Marx), which leads to the repression of desire and basic impulses to a paroxysm.

As Wilhelm Reich analyzed when dealing with Nazism, we cannot understand the strength of the ideology and the adhesion of workers to the order that oppresses them, if we do not understand that this domain appropriates the repression of sexuality as a form of domination. It is no coincidence that the so-called conservative values ​​dialogue with common sense, mobilizing the defense of the family, masculinity and religious values, invoking the dangers of free sex, homosexuality and the abandonment of the moral precepts of good Christians.

The energy that is manipulated by the lie is not just the order that imposes itself and controls us, but this economic, social, cultural and political order that, internalized as an instance of our psyche in the form of a superego, represses our primary impulses in the name of norms. of a civilization. In political theory, this fact is expressed in the Hobbesian fear of the war of all against all in which property, life, liberty, monogamous marriage and respect for people who wear uniforms would succumb.

Lying and manipulation in its conservative and reactionary aspect also has an advantage. By presenting the enemy who expresses abstract subjugation to an abstract order or system, targeting traditional values ​​(family, religion, property, patriarchy, etc.) the system that conspires against you) and as civilized controls that keep your core impulses locked in the closet. As a result, I feel liberated and protected from myself.

The digital form of this rebuke, not by chance called “social networks”, “community” or “groups”, allows mass lies to challenge these subjectivities, which are recognized as common sense, leading to the feeling that this would be the truth, because we all think so. Freud already noticed this phenomenon when dealing with a group situation, the father of psychoanalysis said: “Groups have never longed for the truth. They demand illusions and cannot do without them. They constantly give the unreal precedence over the real; they are almost as intensely influenced by what is false as by what is true. They have a clear tendency not to distinguish between the two things” (Freud, 1976, p. 104).

We must add to these findings a more general aspect that contains and determines it. We are not talking about a capitalist order only, but about the capitalist order in the most acute moment of its crisis and this has a decisive impact on our topic. Marx and Engels, in the german ideology, they say that at the moment of crisis, when the advanced productive forces accuse their contradiction with established social relations, it is natural that the ideas that corresponded to this order lose their correspondence and become mere idealizing formulas, or in the authors' terms, a hypocrisy deliberate.

The more they are contradicted by life, follow the authors, “the more they are resolutely affirmed, the more hypocritical, moralistic and holy becomes the normal language of the society in question”. For our reflection what we want to highlight is that in the revolutionary period of the bourgeoisie this class could invoke the values ​​of progress, emancipation and reason since it presented in its ideology the bourgeois emancipation as if it were human emancipation, but in the period of its crisis and decadence, in which its abstract universality is brought back to its mediocre particularity, it is forced to abandon reason, its historical teleology, and take refuge in irrationalism and hypocrisy. It is natural that at this moment arguments, reason and science are replaced by prejudice, irrationalism and lies, taking the explicit form of deliberate hypocrisy, a conscious illusion.

We are all caught up in our time and this is the time of the crisis of capital society. However, workers and those who want to have the right, privilege and responsibility to represent them must be guided by ethical principles that make them differentiate from the order that agonizes and point out the possibility of a new order that is announced. For us communists, as Gramsci defended, the truth is revolutionary, as we are interested in revealing the determinations, demystifying what ideology presents as natural and revealing the particular interests that are hidden in alleged universalities.

We cannot give in to the temptation, once the efficiency of manipulation has been verified, of falling into the illusion that we can use the same means to achieve our goals. This is not just an ethical deviation, but mainly a big political mistake. Historical experience has sad examples of falsifications and lies as weapons in the internal struggle, with known and tragic consequences.

When the right mobilizes the masses through lies, it achieves a passive adherence, moved more fundamentally by passions and instincts and less than by reason. This can lead to momentary commitments and effective action against their opponents, however it reinforces alienation and dependence on mystified leaders who can make these masses follow, many times, against their own interests.

Allow me a personal example. The extreme right in the year following the elections in which I was a candidate for the PCB, taking the quote from a poem by Bertold Brecht out of context, transformed me into a dangerous communist who proposed to shoot all believers and conservatives. Once spread on the networks and reproduced ad nauseam, I started receiving thousands of threatening messages from people who had never met me but who had very strong convictions about my character and propensity for murder.

There was an evident manipulation of the generic fear in relation to caricatured communism, far from the whole foundation of the political and programmatic debate that the PCB had carried out a year before, in the same way the attacks (against me was just one of many similar cases, recently the comrade Sofia Manzano suffered attacks of the same type) produce the cohesion of the conservative field around the mythologized leadership that would win the elections in 2018.

The extreme right used the fear of communism to arrive at a catastrophic and genocidal government. The pandemic left 700 thousand dead, in 2021 alone the police killed 6145 people, 84% black and several people were murdered by Bolsonaristas. As of the moment I write this column, I haven't shot anyone.

Well, lies run fast, but the truth never tires.

* Mauro Luis Iasi He is a professor at the School of Social Service at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of The metamorphoses of class consciousness (popular expression).

Originally published on Boitempo's blog

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