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.

RCH: Cassius Clay as the “greatest American” of the 20th century

My latest at RealClearHistory:

It was also the heyday of the Cold War, a nearly 50-year struggle for power between the liberal-capitalist United States and the socialist Soviet Union. The struggle was real (as the kids say today). The United States and its allies were losing, too, at least in the realm of ideas. The Soviet Union was funding groups that would today be considered progressive — anti-racist and anti-capitalist — around the world. One of the sticks that Moscow used to beat the West with was racism in the United States, especially in the officially segregated South.

It is doubtful that most of the African-American groups who took part in the struggle for liberty were funded, or even indirectly influenced by Soviet propaganda. The clear, powerful contrast between black and white in the United States was enough for most African-Americans to take part in the Civil Rights revolution. Yet Soviet propaganda still pestered Washington, and Moscow wasn’t wrong.

Please, read the rest.


  1. The dark side of war propaganda Bradley Anderson, American Conservative
  2. Is internationalism liberal or imperialist? Arnold Kling, askblog
  3. Internationalism is federalist, Arnold! Brandon Christensen, NOL
  4. ISIS and Sykes-Picot Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon

Eye Candy: Japanese anti-Russian propaganda

NOL map Japanese anti-Russia
Click here to zoom.

This dates from the late 19th or early 20th century. The Japanese won the Russo-Japanese War, but a quick glance at the casualties suggests it was more a pyrrhic victory for the Japanese.

The Power of Propaganda and the Japanese Empire

Economist Kurt Schuler has a fascinating post on the various currencies that were used in mainland East Asia during World War II over at the Free Banking group blog.

Unfortunately, there are three paragraphs in the post that attempt to take libertarians to task for daring to challenge both the narrative of the state and the narrative of the nation regarding that horrific reminder of humanity’s shortcomings. He is writing of the certainty of the US’s moral clarity when it came to fighting Japan (the post was published around Pearl Harbor remembrance day):

The 1940 U.S embargo of certain materials frequently used for military purposes was intended to pressure Japan to stop its campaign of invasion and murder in China. The embargo was a peaceful response to violent actions. Japan could have stopped; it would have been the libertarian thing to do. For libertarians to claim that the embargo was a provocation is like saying that it is a provocation to refuse to sell bullets to a killer.

Then, in December 1941, came not just the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, but an attack on the whole of Southeast Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, what is now Malaysia (British colonies), Indonesia (a Dutch colony), the Philippines (scheduled under American law to become independent in 1945), Thailand (independent). In 1942 there followed the invasion of Burma, a bit of India, and a few of the Aleutian Islands, plus the bombing of Darwin, Australia.

With that history in mind, how can anybody think that the United States could have made a durable peace with Japan? It would have lasted as long as would have been to Japan’s military advantage, no longer. Japan was hell-bent on conquest. Nothing since its emergence as a major international power suggested a limit to its ambitions. It only ceded in the face of superior force. Even as Allied forces retook territory, Japanese fanaticism was such that the government did not surrender until after the U.S. military dropped two atomic bombs. To ignore the long pattern of Japanese aggression as quite a few libertarians are wont to do is not just historically ignorant but dangerous, because it closes its eyes to the hard truth that some enemies are so implacable that the only choice is between fighting them and being subjugated by them. It took a prolonged U.S. military occupation to turn Japan from the aggressor it was to the peaceful country it has become. (source)

This is an unfortunate mischaracterization of what went on in World War 2, but it also does a fairly good job of demolishing some of the arguments that libertarians have come up with in regards to this debate. You see, the issue of World War 2 is one that is usually foisted upon libertarians as an example of the benevolence of the State: Washington crushed two powerful, evil war machines in one fell swoop and then stood up to a third evil empire for forty years.

Libertarians often get confronted with this interpretation of history and they get bothered by it. This argument gets under their skin. They often make up excuses for Japan’s actions, or they avoid dealing with what actually happened in the time period. This response is also unfortunate because the general principles of libertarianism – individual freedom, strong property rights, internationalism – explain the events of World War 2 well, but only once the facts are looked at clearly and thoroughly. The power of propaganda is immense. The fact that so many people believe that the United States was the good guy in the war against Japan is astounding, and I think the heavy weight that is placed upon the shoulders of those who dare to defy the standard account of the US’s war with Japan flusters the seeker of truth.

Even though libertarians get hot-headed on this issue and stumble, thus making Schuler right in a sense, his argument is absolutely wrong. What follows is an attempt to calm things down, and to explain why Schuler is wrong and what libertarians need to get right.

Tokyo did not want to expand beyond a certain point, due to the ideological consensus of the governing party at the time. The narrative of the governing party was that great civilizations had natural territories over which they naturally lorded. For the Japanese, this natural territory (which was, of course, entirely arbitrary and ahistorical) was called, amongst other things, the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It included the Korean peninsula, Manchuria, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, coastal China, Mongolia, Malaysia (including Singapore and Brunei), and a separatist region in India known as Azad Hind. Any territory beyond these lands were inhabited by – again according to the ideology of the dominant political party at the time – peoples who did not conform to the standards set by the Japanese people (and those ranked directly beneath them; the ones I just mentioned). These foreign peoples were treated accordingly, especially in Melanesia.

What this suggests is that, contra Schuler, the Japanese were not “hell-bent on conquest.” Rather they simply wanted to carve out a territorial space that has obvious parallels with the German conception of Lebensraum. This is not a coincidence, by the way, for the ideologies of the dominant parties in Germany and Japan were cut from the same racist cloth.

Hawaii might have been a target for the Japanese military eventually, due to the large number of people living there with Japanese ancestry, but even this is stretching the limits of generosity. Hawaiians of Japanese ancestry considered themselves to be Hawaiians, or Americans, before Japanese (this probably due to the fact that the Japanese government sent some of its citizens over to Hawaii by force, but that is another story for another day; hopefully you can see why loyalty to Hawaii and the US was a given to people of Japanese ancestry on the islands). A Japanese invasion of the US mainland is simply an incredibly silly notion, which is why I think Dr Schuler relies upon the irrefutable fact of Japanese lust for conquest. Can you not see where propaganda is at work here?

Now, obviously the Japanese were warmongering at the time. There is no doubt about this. However, it hardly follows that the Japanese were a threat to the American republic.

For instance, look at what the Japanese military ended up attacking:

  • European and American colonies (which were burdens rather than boons for both the colonized and the colonizing)
  • Thailand, a kingdom with a long history of playing foreign powers off on each other
  • and parts of China (which could hardly lay claim to much of its territory anyway)

If I’m not mistaken, Europe and the United States are thousands of miles away from Japan, and yet they had militaries occupying foreign lands in East Asia. Again, Japan was certainly an aggressive state in the early 20th century, but it seems extremely unfair to ignore the military occupation – by Western states – of Asian lands and the Jim Crow-esque political regimes that they enacted and enforced. Notice, too, that the military incursions of the Japanese Empire do not stray too far from the official ideology of the governing political party. This is also true of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It was also true of Soviet Russia, but for different reasons. The Soviets engaged in worldwide imperial ambitions (“spreading the revolution”) after solidifying their rule at home, and this imperialism was part and parcel of the dominant ideology of Leninism. I am digressing.

Japan did declare war on the US, so I think Washington’s war was just, but it hardly follows that Japan was “hell-bent on conquest,” or that its military would have invaded the United States, or that Tokyo’s decision not to curl up in the fetus position and simply accept US economic warfare was “unlibertarian.” Suppose Japan had conquered the US. What would its armies have uncovered?

Think of it this way: What incentive would Japan have to conquer the United States? Where were the plans to do so? Doesn’t it make more sense to look at Japan’s war on the US as part of its broader effort at creating and maintaining its hold over the territory it deemed to be the natural lord over? Why waste so many resources invading and occupying a territory dominated by people who were part of another race (as per the prevailing ideology of Tokyo at the time)? Oh, that’s right: Because Japan was “hell-bent on conquest.”

Propaganda is very powerful, but it’s also important not to label everything you disagree with as propaganda. That makes you sound like a crackpot. For instance, I don’t think anything Dr Schuler argues is driven by pure propaganda. Such an insinuation on my part would simply be garbage, and (rightly) treated as such in the public sphere. However, the notion that the US military stopped a war machine “hell-bent on conquest” is a product of propaganda. This notion is strengthened by personal and cultural narratives, and in time it takes on a life form of its own.

One last thing: Dr Schuler argues that the embargo Washington placed on Tokyo “was a peaceful response to violent actions,” but surely you can see how that policy was actually a violent response to violent actions. Whether that violence to counter other violence was a good thing or not is a question that cannot be answered in this already-too-long post.

(One more last thing: Here is an excellent essay on ideology in developing states that might be worth checking out; it doesn’t deal directly with the Japanese Empire but does deal with some of the concepts [especially nationalisms] that confront us when thinking about the rise of the Japanese Empire.)