We know what comes next. We know why it takes root and how it metastasizes. And I’m afraid that, if we extrapolate from current trends, if nothing changes significantly for the better, then artists, innovators and intellectuals are all screwed.
Worse than that, we’ll collectively and individually do nothing effective to prevent it, even though we had the power and capacity to do so, all along. We’ll watch it all unfold, paralysed by fear, disorganisation and the vain hope that if we keep our heads down and simply comply, we’ll be spared. The truth is: nobody will be safe.
How can we be so sure? We have the Soviet Union to thank for providing us with a blueprint for how outcomes develop, for thinking people, under any tyrannical reign. In particular, we have the writings of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, who described in insightful, uncomfortable and unflinchingly accurate detail how the lives of free-thinking, critical, creative people changed inexorably, in the face of mass irrationality.
His courageous analysis was a work of rare integrity, based on observation and a deep understanding of people’s fears and motivations. Given that the same forces and characteristics are, today, in play once more, we can say, with reasonable certainty, that the same bleak prognosis will apply in our own time.
Tyranny creeps up on us slowly, disguised as something benevolent. Those with eyes to see it, however, recognise its vicious nature from the outset. To quote Solzhenitsyn, “Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence”.
Few listen, though, because the promises made, if kept, would transform the miserable lives of so many. Sadly, there is no serious intention to keep those promises; a reality which becomes immediately apparent if you watch what they do, instead of believing what they say.
The divided are easier to rule, so the first tell-tale sign is language that overtly appeals to the idea that there are in-groups (“people like us”) and isolated out-groups, who pose a grave threat to progress, or so goes the demagogic rhetoric. If giant red flags haven’t been waving furiously at you, in the past year or so, you are either in a persistent, vegetative coma or else believe you’re guaranteed life membership of the in-group. But you’re not. Nobody is. (Well, you may be, but your life is likely to be much shorter than you think).
My family survived the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s Terror and accompanying famine, life under a fervent, national independence movement, Soviet occupation, surviving under Nazi rule, two World Wars, fleeing as destitute refugees, lived as nominally free citizens in a land of unfettered Capitalism (but as distinctly second class citizens), toiled as working class, manual labourers and experienced the opulence of living as privileged, comfortable, upper middle class elites. Our family history is testament to what the critical thinker Chris Hedges writes: “The more despotic a regime becomes, the more it creates a climate of fear that transforms into terror. At the same time, it invests tremendous energy and resources in censorship and propaganda to maintain the fiction of the just and free state.”. Believing the lies obediently will get you killed.
There are two simple techniques for keeping everybody in line, when the tyrants come to power. The first is fear. The other is false hope. They work in tandem to ensure that nobody challenges the ruler.
Fear is the easiest to grasp, at a visceral level. Resisting despotism is often a lonely, solitary act, exposing the dissident to the full, violent force of those that protect the tyrant. Solzhenitsyn tells the tale of a rebellious prisoner, in the Siberian gulag, who used his training as a soldier to overwhelm and kill his guards. Upon seeing this, his fellow prisoners immediately sat down, in horror, waiting for the replacement guards to come and place them under their supervision once more. Far from seeing themselves as liberated, their fear of retribution made them act like cowardly captives, even though their immediate oppressors were now dead.
As much as the courageous rebel cajoled and shamed them, they would not join him in rebellion. Had they joined him, the entire state gulag apparatus could have been decisively defeated and surely would have crumbled. Their lack of courage condemned all of them to continue to endure continued, unspeakable torments, for years to come (if they didn’t succumb and die first).
In truth, people fear their freedom and release from whatever holds them captive, every single day of their lives. Granted their true freedom, the responsibility of determining their own fate and the burden of having to make their own moral, ethical decisions in ambiguous scenarios, people overwhelmingly prefer to defer to a governing ruler, however malign and malevolent. This tendency has a name: “Stockholm Syndrome”. Tyrants know this and exploit it ruthlessly.
We saw something similar in China, when that brave, unknown man halted the tanks in the square, by the simple act of steadfastly standing in their way, daring them to run him down. Instead of his fellow protesters joining him, in solidarity, they watched helpless, paralysed, and mortified. Had they joined forces with him, then by sheer weight of numbers they would have rendered the military forces impotent and toppled the precarious power structure. By standing alone, though, he was easily disposed of and erased from history. The inaction of the rest of the protesters sealed his fate. There are, today, vast electronic machines deployed to ensure that no mention of the incident is ever rendered to Chinese computer screens. The people in charge, “invest tremendous energy and resources in censorship and propaganda to maintain the fiction of the just and free state.”
In journalist Chris Hedge’s words, “Rebels will be persecuted, imprisoned or forced to become hunted outcasts, much as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are now. A public example will be made of anyone who defies the state. The punishment of those singled out for attack will be used to send a warning to all who are inclined to dissent.” This is how fear works as a tool of control.
A close cousin of fear is intimidation. Threats and menaces can be used to discipline a populace that dares to think critically of the tyrant. Consider the so-called press conference held by president elect Donald Trump on December 11th, 2016. In this encounter, Trump refused to answer questions posed by reporters representing news organisations that had run stories he didn’t like, or who were critical of him and his agenda. The message is clear. Publish stories that are favourable to him, or risk being frozen out and hence, run out of business as a publisher. Pure intimidation.
His audience was loaded with paid staffers, who jeered the media and cheered at his pronouncements, to give the false impression that the media are evenly divided between those for and against him and his policies. To reduce public confidence in the reporters’ words, he baldly asserted that the media was dishonest. Individual news outlets were singled out and labelled “fake news”, or “piles of garbage”. All of this intimidation cleared the path for him to utter demonstrable lies, such as claiming he gave news conferences every other day, when he hadn’t, in fact, given one for literally months. He also took credit for successes, such as Chrysler and Ford announcing that they would produce more cars within the United States, which actually had nothing to do with him. Chrysler had been planning this for over a year and Ford attributed the decision to an agreement with the United Auto Workers union.
False hope works in different ways. It turns ordinary people into willing, complicit, culpable collaborators of the tyrant. They commit evil, at the expense of their fellow man, in order to take actions they believe will save their own necks. If you feel pride in your position and possessions, you will hope that by complying obediently with a tyrannical regime, you will get to keep your position and possessions. We all know that, under tyranny, everything you own, your status and your standing within society can be swept away at a stroke, on the flimsiest of pretexts. There is no amount of compliance that can protect you from this, even though people imagine they’ll be OK.
The tyrant also offers false hope of a better future, but that always seems to be just out of everybody’s reach. In the mean time, privations must be endured a while longer, in order to reach the promised Nirvana. To deny your forbearance is treasonous.
Any artists that openly and steadfastly defy the state, or who continue to produce dissenting works, are easily liquidated and decapitated, one by one. Their fellow artists do not stand by them, at times of threat, in mutual solidarity, to emasculate the violence of the tyrant’s willing tools. Instead, the dissident is left to stand alone. Even though every artist is, in a very real sense, already condemned, a forlorn hope that the state will ignore us if we comply will cripple and passivate many who have already been damned. In Solzhenitsyn’s analysis, “Universal innocence also gave rise to the universal failure to act. Maybe they won’t take you? Maybe it will all blow over. The majority sit quietly and dare to hope. Since you aren’t guilty, then how can they arrest you? It’s a mistake!” Even if you are arrested, then surely justice demands that the error will be swiftly and efficiently discovered and redressed. This wilful ignorance and innocence, born of false hope, is fatal.
Hope, rather than giving you strength, can, counter-intuitively, weaken a person. Solzhenitsyn asks. “If the condemned man in every cell had ganged up on the executioners as they came in and choked them, wouldn’t this have ended the executions sooner than appeals to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee? When one is already on the edge of the grave, why not resist? But wasn’t everything foredoomed anyway, from the moment of arrest? Yet all the arrested crawled along the path of hope on their knees, as if their legs had been amputated.” It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
In societies that are about to surrender to rule by a tyrant, those that can see it coming emerge as a stratum of wise, thinking people, who are that, but nothing more. They’re mocked and laughed at. Their truth, expressed through their writing or their art, sticks in the craw of people whose deeds and actions are single-minded and narrow-minded. Like a flower that blooms too soon, emitting a delicate fragrance, they are mowed down. Solzhenitsyn said, “These people were particularly helpless in their personal lives; they could neither bend with the wind, nor pretend, nor get by; every word declared an opinion, a passion, a protest. And it was just such people the mowing machine cut down, just such people the chaff-cutter shredded.” It’s a career-killing contagion.
Chris Hedges puts it this way: “The machinery of the security and surveillance state, the use of special terrorism laws and the stripping of civil liberties become ubiquitous. The lofty rhetoric of liberty and the reality of the chains readied for the public creates magic realism. Reality and the language describing reality are soon antipodal. The pseudo-democracy is populated with pseudo-legislators, pseudo-courts, pseudo-journalists, pseudo-intellectuals and pseudo-citizens. Nothing is as it is presented.” The wise, thinking people are steadily replaced by impostors, posing as wise, thinking people, but being, in truth, the exact opposite.
Demagogues, Solzhenitsyn reminds us, are stunted and shallow people. “Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty,” he writes.
“The overall life of society comes down to the fact that traitors were advanced and mediocrities triumphed, while everything that was best and most honest was trampled underfoot,” he observes. Phoney artists, innovators and intellectuals, surrogates, “for those who had been destroyed, or dispersed,” take the place of real artists, innovators and intellectuals.
The right response to despotism, tyrants and demagogues is, according to Solzhenitsyn, something he calls civil-valour. It’s a species of valour that requires a moral courage that is more difficult than the physical courage encountered on the battlefield. “This unanimous quiet defiance of a power which never forgave, this obstinate, painfully protracted insubordination, was somehow more frightening than running and yelling as the bullets fly,” he says.
Chris Hedges, commenting on the prevailing political climate in 2017 in America, says: “Self-interest alone should have generated sweeping protest, should have made the nation as a whole more conscious. We should have understood: Once rights become privileges that the state can revoke, they will eventually be taken away from everyone. Now those who had been spared will get a taste of what complicity in oppression means.”
Compare this to Solzhenitsyn’s testament: “The traditional image of arrest is also what happens afterward, when the poor victim has been taken away. It is an alien, brutal, and crushing force totally dominating the apartment for hours on end, a breaking, ripping one, pulling from the walls, emptying things from wardrobes and desks onto the floor, shaking, dumping out, and ripping apart—piling up mountains of litter on the floor—and the crunch of things being trampled beneath jackboots. And nothing is sacred in a search! During the arrest of locomotive engineer Inoshin, a tiny coffin stood in his room containing his newly dead child. The ‘jurists’ dumped the child’s body out of the coffin and searched it. They shake sick people out of their sickbeds, and they unwind bandages to search beneath them.”
“Resistance,” he writes, “should have begun right there, at the moment of the arrest itself. But it did not begin.” And so the mass arrests were easy. And so we take our shoes off at the airport on command and submit to radiation exposures and cavity searches, conducted theatrically by the TSA, in the name of protecting us from an anonymous enemy. Everybody knows that these measures are, risibly, wholly ineffective against real terrorists, but none dare level the accusation.
How can you win, against such a massive, oppressive regime, in which people engage in sublime insanity collectively? Solzhenitsyn provides this answer:
“From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you,” he writes. “At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: ‘My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die—now or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.'”
“Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble,” Solzhenitsyn writes. “Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.”
My grandfather was held in captivity by the Communists, up to his knees in freezing water, for days. He lost everything he owned. In fact, over his lifetime he lost everything at least three times over. I’m sure, standing in the freezing water of a dark, underground cellar, he doubted he would ever see his wife and family again. Somehow, he clung on to his spirit and his conscience. He survived, so that his son might inherit that spirit and conscience. My father, in turn, passed that legacy on to me, as I hope to pass it on to my own children and their children.
Expect the tyrants to, in Chris Hedge’s words, “use the familiar tools that make possible the authoritarian state: mass incarceration, militarized police, crippling of the judicial system, demonization of opponents real and imagined, and obliteration of privacy and civil liberties, all foolishly promoted by the political elites on behalf of corporate power.”
Ellen Schrecker, the foremost historian of McCarthyism, said that, “the rise of Trump has been in the making for four decades. Corporations funded and established institutions to close the cultural, social and political openings made in the 1960s, especially in universities, the press, labor and the arts. These corporate forces turned government into a destructive power. America was pillaged and cannibalized for profit. We now live in a deindustrialized wasteland. This scorched-earth assault created fertile ground for a demagogue.”
The late Lewis Powell, a general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and later a Supreme Court justice (and an evil bastard, in my view), in 1971 wrote an infamous eight page memo outlining a campaign to counter what the document’s title described as an “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” The memo established the Business Roundtable, which generated huge monetary resources and political clout to direct government policy and mould public opinion. The Powell report listed methods that corporations could use to silence those in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals” who were hostile to corporate interests.
We can readily observe the reality of this prolonged campaign for ourselves. Academics have been denounced; their opinions denigrated as the pronouncements of untrustworthy experts. The church no longer has the authority over morals and ethics it once had, in no small part due to its scandalous and predatory behaviour toward vulnerable children and desire to cover it all up. The media is fully bought and paid for by corporations, with journalisms on life support, struggling to remain viable and with newspaper business models in free-fall collapse. The media more resembles entertainment and distraction, than being a clarion of truth, holding the powerful to account. Intellectual and literary journals have, largely, retreated to publishing behind expensive pay walls, their papers no longer accessible to the general public, as the public library system is slowly dismantled.
None of this was accidental.
Powell called for the establishment of lavishly funded think tanks and conservative institutes. We have them today, though they often conceal the true nature of their funding and patronage. Their agendas remain hidden.
As part of his memo, Powell proposed that ideological assaults against government regulation and environmental protection be directed at a mass audience. What are people, today, encouraged to vote for? The Brexit vote was unashamedly framed in terms of removing European control over UK laws. The desired result is deregulation of business, suspension of human rights legislation and exemptions to environmental protections. Powell advocated placing corporate-friendly academics and neoliberal economists in universities (in much the same way that Solzhenitsyn documented the replacement of those who had been destroyed, or dispersed, with traitors and triumphant mediocrities) and banishing from the public sphere those who challenged unfettered corporate power—especially Ralph Nader, whom Powell cited by name. Organizations, masquerading as grass roots movements, were to be formed to monitor and pressure the media to report favourably on issues that furthered corporate interests. Pro-corporate judges were to be placed on the bench.
Academics were to be controlled by pressure from right-wing watch lists, co-opted university administrators and wealthy donors. Under the prolonged assault the universities, like the press, eventually became compliant, banal and monochromatic.
“He spelled out a need for an alternative to academic knowledge,” Schrecker said of Powell. “He felt the academy had been undermined by the left. He wanted to establish an alternative source of expertise. What you’re getting in the 1970s is the development of things like the American Enterprise Institute [in existence since 1938] , The Heritage Foundation, a whole bunch of think tanks on the right who people in the media can go to and get expertise. But it’s politically motivated.”
“It was unbelievably successful,” she said of the campaign. “It’s pretty bad. What we’re seeing today is an assault on knowledge.” Today, we speak of a post-truth society. “What came out of this are the culture wars of the late 1980s and 1990s which created a set of stereotypes of professors as deconstructionist, raging feminists who hate men, cross-dressers, and, worse, who are out of touch with reality.”
Quoting Chris Hedges again, “The ideological attack was accompanied by corporate campaigns to defund public schools and universities,” (and privatise them), “along with public broadcasting and the arts.” There is abundant evidence to show that the arts and artists have been left to fend for themselves, in a winner takes all economy, purpose-built to favour the rentier and the asset stripper, rather than the creatives and dissident artists. Hedges goes on to say, “The humanities were eviscerated. Vocational training, including the expansion of the study of finance and economics in universities, replaced disciplines that provided students with cultural and historical literacy, that allowed them to step outside of themselves to feel and express empathy for the other. Students were no longer taught how to think, but what to think. Civic education died. A grotesque kind of illiteracy—one exemplified by Trump—was celebrated. Success became solely about amassing wealth and celebrity. The cult of the self, the essence of corporatism, became paramount.”
Schrecker said that during the McCarthy era, most of the Red baiting, blacklisting and censorship emanated from the government, especially J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover and McCarthy, along with Richard Nixon and Roy Cohn, left ruined lives and reputations in the wake of their vicious inquisitions. They effectively shut down freedom of speech and freedom of thought.
Freedom of thought is what is at stake, for artists. Without the freedom to allow their imaginations to roam where they will, an artist becomes a flightless bird.
“There is an attack on the American mind,” Schecker said. “A lot of what we’re seeing with Trump is the product of 40 years of dumbing down.” Deliberate dumbing down, not accidental.
In Chris Hedges’ view, “All dissent will be criminalised. Institutions, fearful and weak, will carry out purges of those few who speak out. Most of society, intimidated by a war psychosis, will be compliant to avoid being targeted. Resistance will often be tantamount to suicide. We must not become preoccupied with the short-term effects of resistance. Failure is inevitable for many of us. Tyrants have silenced voices of conscience in the past. They will do so again. We will endure by holding fast to our integrity, by building community and by spawning new institutions in the midst of the wreckage. We will sustain each other. Perhaps enough of us will endure to begin again.”
With such a bleak prospect our likelihood, it begs an important question. What can be done to end the oppression? How can it be stopped and reversed? If history is cyclic, as it has indeed been to date, then what causes the cycle to revert to the mean?
At what point do people snap and revolt against their oppressors? Solzhenitsyn suggests, “So many deep historians have written so many clever books and still they have not learned how to predict those mysterious conflagrations of the human spirit, to detect the mysterious springs of a social explosion, not even to explain them in retrospect,” He goes on to say. “Sometimes you can stuff bundle after bundle of burning tow under the logs, and they will not take. Yet up above, a solitary little spark flies out of the chimney and the whole village is reduced to ashes.”
How can artists prepare for the coming years under tyrannical rule? Here is Solzhenitsyn’s considered advice:
“Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position; all is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing.” We are rather obsessed with attaining personal happiness, in modern society, yet Solzhenitsyn suggests we have higher priorities, under despotism.
“It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, and if both ears can hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted in their memory!”
It isn’t about you. All we have is each other. And we have love, spirit and conscience. Do what you can to remain sound of mind and body, but defy quietly, steadfastly and constantly. Obstinately remain subtly insubordinate. Do not stand alone, waiting to be mown down singularly in a blaze of brief, but spectacular glory. Maintain your understated dissent and do not lend the oppressors your consent. Remain faithful to your own judgement, ethics and morals and refuse to submissively obey, but play the intellectual mediocrities that inhabit positions of power skilfully, so that you and those you love can survive, intact, unharmed.
Both of my grandfathers managed to get every single member of their immediate families to safety, beyond the reach of their oppressive tyrants. Sadly, their extended families did not fare so well. To escape with their health and their lives, my grandparents used their wit and guile and their agile thinking to, time and again, escape situations of great danger, without compromising their essential humanity. I’m very proud of them. There are lessons for every person and especially every artist that must, through circumstance and the political indolence of their society, live under tyranny. Create.
Love each other and stay safe.