Semiotics in national dialogue: an observation

One thing the Notes on Liberty community may not know about me is that I worked for a while as a research (and writing) extern for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Because of my academic background in history and the arts, most of my work focused on historical communism, especially as related to propagandist representations from inside communist countries. The experience provided me with an opportunity to immerse myself in the documentation and wording of communism.

Most people know how the Soviet and Maoist propagandists portrayed their own people: the moral, brave underdogs who are hated and despised by rich, corrupt weaklings. Any of the sufferings connected to communism – famines, shortages, economic instability – these were all the fault of external forces. Except in the case of the Chinese, to whom Mao refused to offer explanation and simply told the people that their sufferings were glorious and were sacrifices to the revolution. Hua Yu in his memoir China in Ten Words conveys quite poetically exactly how “glorious” everyone’s sufferings were. Even today, we are still treated to a modern iteration in the form of Nicolás Maduro and his wild accusations regarding the cause of Venezuela’s collapse. Most of the time, the perpetrators are the White House and CIA, though in August 2018 he blamed Colombia and some unidentified Floridians and in December 2018 he threw in Brazil, along with the traditional “White House did it” trope.

What is less commonly known – outside of film and literature aficionados – about Cold War era portrayals is their representation of those who live on the other side of the divide, i.e. in capitalism. Across the board, the portrayals were fairly simplistic – the rich were evil, the poor were good. The premise was always that the former were useless and the latter were meritorious, belonging in a socialist workers’ paradise, instead of in a system that metaphorically chewed them up and spat them out. The propagandists were masters of imposing this interpretive paradigm universally, from traditional Western literature (or even their own traditional literature in the case of China) to news items. For example, the failed yachtsman and minor-league conman Donald Crowhurst became a proletariat hero in the Soviet film Race of the Century in which he is driven to his death by a greedy, capitalist sponsor (in real life, Crowhurst’s angel investor). The propaganda point being that in capitalism human life is expendable. One has only to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to see under which system an indifference to human life was, and still is, ingrained.

There is a reason that Marxist and post-structuralist theory and criticism focus on the concept of “the other.” It is because communism can only arise from chaos and conflict. In order to justify its existence and explain its ills and failures, there must be an “other” which opposes it. The other can be the White House, foreign intelligence services, or foreign bankers. “Othering” can be imposed on practically any person or group of people, and the dynamic can be read into any relationship. If one wants to find an “other” in Solzhenitsyn, a very good candidate is Fetyukov from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. For a literary criticism standpoint, Ivan Denisovich Shukov’s contempt for Fetyukov is a case of the former “othering” the latter. “Othering,” while a development of Marxist thought, is not a domain exclusive to communist writing. Ian Fleming used the paradigm, consciously or unconsciously, in his James Bond series, with their black-and-white portrayals of who was the good and who was the bad party.

Study of the language and structures of Marxist thought and propaganda is both lacking and overwhelming today. Yes, on the one hand, our universities have been overtaken with grievance studies and criticism classes. But on the other, the tropes and thought processes of Marxism have subtly appeared in contemporary American dialogue. More insidiously, they are not coming necessarily from the overt socialists, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but from figures that identify as center and right. Ocasio-Cortez and her idol Bernie Sanders might be pardoned for regurgitating Marxist tropes, given that at least these politicians have had the decency to acknowledge their ideological leanings, but for “Conservative” [note the big “C”] intellectuals to do so is indicative of either ignorance or manipulation, both of which are unforgivable.

Consider what Michael Lind, a prominent neo-conservative, wrote in an article titled “Classless utopia versus class compromise,”published in American Affairs in summer 2018,

Democracy, then, requires strategically strengthening institutions that working-class people can control or at least influence. That means, among other things, defending the institutional independence of diverse religious communities, while sometimes favoring pragmatic municipal socialism. Whatever form an authentic grassroots working-class movement might take in the twenty-first-century United States, it is likely to look like historic precedents, including old-fashioned Milwaukee-style “sewer socialism” (municipal ownership of public utilities) and the Salvation Army. It will not look like the campus-based social justice and climate-change NGOs of progressive upper-middle-class professionals or, for that matter, free-market agitprop groups funded by the libertarian rich.

Lind has had a decades-old, well-publicized bugbear with libertarian thought, and to some extent his language reflects this. What is concerning about his words is the justification of localized socialism (history shows that this would not remain local for long) using the language of agency. The entire argument is built upon the fundamental Marxist assumption that the proletariat has no agency, wants it, and must collectivize to have it. In Marxist speak, Lind’s acceptance of the laborer-has-only-his-labor paradigm effectively “others” everyone on the other side of an indeterminate class line – upper-middle-class professionals (progressive or not), college students, free-marketeers, oh, and rich libertarians (one wonders where poor student classical liberals and middle-class libertarians fall in this equation).

In old fairy tales, a common theme is a beloved plant, usually a tree, that begins to wither away. The tree is externally healthy, and no one can discern a logical reason for it to be dying. After a long search, consulting of necromancers, and other typical fairy tale activities, the hero digs around the tree’s roots and discovers that there is a repulsive, venomous animal, usually a snake or a toad, living there, and it is the cause of the plant’s slow decline. Marxist thought and paradigms, not Marxism as an ideology, have become that snake for American Conservatism and center-right politics. Its poison is exacerbated by the fact that its acolytes and proselytizers appear to be unconscious of its presence as they argue that their only desire is to preserve the American Republic through preventing class conflict. But if they are doing is to hurl us faster and faster, more inexorably toward this very breakdown, as their ideas begin to overlap with those of the acknowledged far-left.

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