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The perils of fooling the people

The Iraq war has already left a significant mark on the British political scene. The Labour government, whilst floundering around trying to drum up support for its weak excuses for war, found itself obliged to submit a resolution authorising war to the House of Commons. Historically, the decision to commit troops has been the exclusive preserve of the executive branch of the British government, a hang-over of Crown prerogative, with the Monarch as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

In the Kosovan adventure in 1999, the government stoutly refused to permit a vote in the Commons, sure that it could use its authority to unilaterally commit the air-forces to the bombardment of Serbia. The argument runs that the Commons cannot have a vote, because before war the government requires the freedom to manoeuvre and negotiate and to use the threat of violence as a part of diplomacy; and when troops are committed, it would be stabbing them in the back, damaging to morale, were any MPs so villainous as to vote against the war.

Of course, what is an innovation in Britain has been long practice in other powers. The USA has it written into its constitution that declarations of war are the preserve of Congress, whereas control of the armed forces is the preserve of the President. The War Powers Act, further stipulates that the US cannot commit forces for more than sixty days to a war-zone, without the permission of Congress, to prevent Presidents engaging in the 19th century practice of in effect declaring war by invading a neighbouring country. Despite all this legal finagling, during the Kosovan business, the Congress managed to simultaneously refuse to give consent to war, and yet voted war credits. The pretence to respecting the law was only saved by the fact that the war only lasted sixty-three days.

The British government's recent concession to parliamentary democracy, then, is hardly a leap into the democratic control of the armed forces. British MPs, concerned with keeping their government in place, with pleasing the leader that may prefer them, desperate to keep their jobs and places, sought around for reasons to support their government, for an apparently honourable excuse for supporting the executive's war drive. These self-same MP's are the ones now bleating that they were deceived by the “Dodgy Dossier” and trembling with fear lest they be implicated in the mendacity.

The significance lies in the breaking down of the secret preserve of government cliques over military policy. Whilst these still have absolute command over the deployment of murder as a tool of policy, increasingly, they have been compelled to submit to public opinion. Where before, the lies they told to justify war were mere bureaucratic formalities, blatant excuses for doing what those in power were going to do anyway, now they are the bedrock of mass politics for gaining the necessary public support for slaughter.

Although the powers that be feel confident about their capacity to deploy the mass media in order to dominate the ideas of the electorate, this capacity is not absolute. The machinery of ideology does not run smoothly, and different parts jar and clash; whatever Orwell thought, people do have memories and can spot a shift in the line. The ideas being broadcast by the power-mongers and the mass media have to conform with the expectations of their intended audience, or they won't work. So, a party that has come to power trumpeting justice and freedom can only sell its wars to the consumers of the justice and freedom line, in those terms.

Hence why the government felt the BBC weren't supportive enough (even though many outsiders felt that it was overwhelmingly broadcasting to a war agenda, without criticising the government). The relative independence of a media organisation from government means it has to act as the best interpreter of the information to hand, which may not be to the exact liking of state officialdom. If the government cannot give a resolutely clear line – as this one could not – then the media has to flail around in confusion. The biases and structures which help co-ordinate élite control of media are structural predispositions, rather than an automatic chain of command, and there is nothing to prevent one part from accidentally (or otherwise) undermining another.

This is further hampered by the relative freedom of information that the capitalist state requires to function, meaning that embarrassing documents and memos can be uncovered, dodgy deals unearthed. To keep the vast mechanism that is the modern state functioning requires massive flows of information to move around relatively easily. This means that it is difficult to keep the circle of knowledge tight, or to prevent media outlets (and others) from obtaining information from different sources and thus confusing the picture the executive clique want to project. Also, it may not be easy to obtain counter-facts, but they can be found by trying – particularly by determined opposition groups.

What this amounts to, is that to embark on a game of mass deception is becoming increasingly precarious for governments, and each time it is embarked upon, the power of its deception tools wears. People begin to see that they have been lied to, begin to mistrust decisions made by small groups of people in darkened rooms, and the mystique of rule by cabal begins to wane. Mass politics, in short, negates the old style government of the 19th century type that so many prominent politicians admire.

While mass politics – that is, small bands of leaders using the population as an undifferentiated lump to reflect their ideas and policies off – has seen tremendous concentrations of power into the hands of élites, it has also seen these leaders increasingly hamstrung by their need to keep their followers. It has meant moving more and more of politics into the open as the various factions appeal to “the mob” for support on which they can base their careers.

Thus, Blair and his cohorts could not quietly knife the BBC in some darkened room, but were forced into public to rebuke them and openly try and exert power upon them. That is, politics is moved into a level of public consciousness, where the people know what is going on, and feel moved to comment and act upon that knowledge. The old way was of an unconscious politics, where people were kept from power by simple ignorance. The more power is made conscious, the more it highlights those parts – such as the use of secret intelligence briefings by Blair and Co – that are secretive, of which we are kept unaware.

The goal of a genuine democracy would be to make all actions by the community and its bodies consciously controlled by the community as a whole. Our present society clearly falls short of this, with government manoeuvring in the hugger-mugger more appropriate to a military campaign than the life of a community; and unequal electors hiding their votes for fear of retaliation. There cannot be democracy where there is social inequality. Nor can there be democracy where some have access to information denied to others; and can make decisions based on that secret information – able to go on protesting the correctness of their decisions, despite evidence of false claims, because they have more secret knowledge, which they – alas – cannot share with us.

Socialism, as a society of equals involving a common knowledge of what resources are available and the clearly communicated opinions of the members of the community, would remove any possibility of such rule by mendacity. Genuine open democracy means the common voice will be heard, rather than passively echoing the principal characters like the chorus of a Greek tragedy. Taking the decisions away from cliques and into the hands of a community controlling its own world via commonly owned means of production, means we would finally move into a collectively conscious, democratic society.