Propaganda, false consciousness, and the normalization of marginalization

Posted on: February 16, 2024 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Hydra "privileging forces"


[updated 8 June 2024]

“Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

-F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

K. Marx, The German Ideology

“Families and churches and schools adapt to modern life; governments and armies and corporations shape it; and, as they do so, they turn these lesser institutions into means for their ends.”

C.Wright Mills, The Power Elite 

“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”
― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Starting any chapter with four daunting quotations is always a risk, but I am inviting you, kind reader, to join me in understanding perhaps the most important topic related to Critical Hydra Theory (CHT), namely, how systems of oppression are created and sustained. Restated, what insights can we gain from interrogating the slow motion process of the normalization of marginalization(s)? The four thinkers referenced above are diverse in their approaches and ideologies, but I feel their perspectives intersect powerfully as we attempt to more clearly understand how we know and experience our chronically and deeply unjust social worlds. So, let’s begin.

Confronting toxic othering by understanding false consciousness
When acts of toxic othering are obvious and open, confronting this behavior can be straightforward, though difficult. But such is rarely the case. Both individual and organizational acts of toxic othering are more often disguised, candy-coated, and remain unseen or unpercieved even by those who are trained social observers. To make full use of CHT we must understand the nature of false consciousness. Briefly defined, false consciousness is a lack of awareness regarding one or more structured social inequalities impacting one’s life. Synonyms include delusion, fantasy, and misconception. The concept of false consciousness was originally used to describe the impacts of classism, and indeed classism is part of what I have described as the ‘evil trifecta’ of toxic othering, namely classism, racism, and colonialism/paternalism.

How do so many people down through the ages -and especially now- blindly and/or passively accept the impact of the many privileging forces that shape their lives? How is it the false consciousness making this acceptance possible is so pervasive and hard to recognize? In sociology we refer to the Thomas Theorem which states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” The question at hand is how do people come to define situations the way they do and whose interests are served by these definitions? Restated, how can we better understand the normalization of marginalization and how this contributes to toxic othering?

The critical Hydra theorist addresses this question head on, presenting the radical idea that in all epochs the rich and powerful have created a cult-like mentality among the masses such that they believe extreme inequality is inevitable, that it is necessary and natural there are be rich and poor, and that the rich absolutely deserve their positions of power. The central questions addressed below include, (1) how is false consciousness created and sustained, (2) how can we understand the mechanisms by which those in elite positions of power have perpetuated and benefitted from false consciousness, and (3) are there steps which can be taken to effectively reverse false consciousness, to confront toxic othering and the social structures upon which the many privileging forces depend. Ultimately, critical Hydra theory is about understanding oppression and, whenever possible, listening to the voices of the oppressed to more deeply understand this phenomena and how it can and should be addressed.

See here for attribution controversy:

Unpacking begins
Below I unpack and interweave insights taken from the four quotations above, making the argument that what is happening at this moment in Gaza and the West Bank, to use a current example, can best be explained by interrogating how a weltanschauung [world view] justifying genocide and apartheid has been created and sustained by a relatively small number of elites residing in the US, Great Britain, Israel, and elsewhere in the so-called ‘Global North’.

Restated, I will examine how the classic sins of gluttony, greed, and the obscene pooling of wealth and power have been normalized and even glorified down through modern history to the point where calling out this behavior is viewed as deviant, wrong, and even ‘unpatriotic’. This process of normalization can be likened to ‘death by a thousand cuts’, though more effective because the individual cuts have been so subtle as to be virtually unnoticed or, ironically, even welcomed. To wit, historically and even now defining what is ‘good’ and ‘normal’ has been the purview of the powerful. Metaphorically, layers of gauze have been put over the eyes of the many, distorting their realities. It is more than an analogy to liken this situation to the rise of a cult, or, more accurately, an interconnected cabal of cult leaders stretching back to the origins of state societies thousands of years ago.1

Though it was not until Marx and Engles coined the term ‘false consciousness’ in the mid-1800’s, all modern epochs before and since have been marked by this mass ‘insanity’, i.e., an inability to see clearly the forces of power and privilege maintaining a status quo benefitting (mostly) the cult leaders and their toadies, the ruling classes. An extremely, though not unusual, outcome of this false consciousness is the apotheosis -elevation to the status of a god- of many leaders at the apex of past and present civilizations. We know now that the pharaohs for whom tens of thousands of slaves worked and died to create massive pyramidal monuments were not gods but mortal humans. The same can be said for the rulers who commissioned the terracotta warriors in Xian, China; history provides us with many examples of apotheosis. A contemporary example might be Elon Musk who owns hundreds of communications satellites that can be controlled to impact the lives of millions (billions?) of people across the globe, god-like power to be sure.

How is it that people have so many truths (e.g., our rulers are gods) that “…just ain’t so“? A first answer might be these (false) truths benefit them in some way. Let’s revisit this insight at the end of this [chapter] after addressing the quotations above and the questions they raise.

Aphorism 156 in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil states, “Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” Frustratingly, Nietzsche offers no elaboration on this statement, and we can only take educated guesses at what he meant.2  Using another quotation, this time from Frankfurt School scholar Erich Fromm, perhaps we can unpack Nietzsche’s thought about insanity. Fromm wrote, “Most people die before they are fully born.” Not inconsequentially, the title of the book from which this quotation comes is The Sane Society. Published in 1955, this book proposes that in modern society most of us are insane, or at least emotionally and existentially unwell, and certainly affected by delusions. Not being ‘fully born’ here equates to languishing in false consciousness, gauze over one’s eyes. Twentieth century American social critic Neil Postman would say we are “amusing ourselves to death”, an idea he outlines in his book by that title. Though a misused and overused trope at this point, the word ‘woke’ comes to mind as we think about what is means to be fully born. More recent rhetoric would use the phrase ‘decolonizing the mind’ as a process of addressing one’s false consciousneses.

Ruling ideas
Though Nietzsche does not elaborate on his ‘insanity’ comment in Beyond Good and Evil, he does deepen this idea in his next book On the Genealogy of Morals, pointing out almost exactly what Marx posited in The German Ideology, namely,

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”  He goes on, “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”

Those in power have always used their positions to control ‘mental production’ and to foster a worldview among those over whom they have power that normalizes their marginalization; the rich are ‘good’ and the poor are ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. But more insidiously -and to the point- they perpetuate a false consciousness which leads the poor to accept or simply not recognize as such the existence and scope of inequality, exploitation, and oppression.

Critical Hydra theory (CHT) posits that all privileging forces are interconnected and the privileging force of classism paved the way for all other social forces which marginalize various aggregates of people sharing similar social statues (e.g., females or the poor). For most of human history -hundreds of thousands of years- our species lived an egalitarian lifestyle, not perfectly so, but a generally accepted assumption among archeologists and anthropologists is that significant structured social inequality did not exist during those times. Only relatively recently (perhaps the last 10,000 years) have multiply stratified cultures been the rule, and it is the narratives pushed by the powerful “in every epoch” that defined the worldview of the masses, creating ‘mass insanity.’

Same song, different verse
When talking about those in power (“the ruling class”) it is easy to oversimplify, but the reality, though not complicated, is quite nuanced. In his 1956 book The Power Elite American sociologist C.Wright Mills posits that there are three main pyramids of power in the United States, namely the military, business and industry, and the government. The tops of these three realms are the ‘power elite’, essentially pulling all of the levers of control over both domestic and foreign policy and financial matters. In his 1959 farewell speech President Eisenhower explicitly agrees with Mills’ model, warning of a ‘military-industrial complex’. He spoke this warning,

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”   

Mills describes a circulation of these elites at the tops of the three pyramids, with generals and admirals becoming politicians (a former Army general, President Eisenhower is a perfect example) and then sitting on the Boards of major corporations. Not incidentally, with rare exception these elites are white males, typically from affluent families. Above I use the word cabal to describe these elites, a description I see no need from which to back away. This relatively small group of individuals in the US interact with their counterparts in other nations, many having the same elite, white, male composition; they are like minds.

Both Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making (2009) by David Rothkopf and Giants: The Global Power Elite Paperback (2018) by Peter Phillips stand on the shoulders of Mills,  extending his model to include a global elite numbering in the low thousands. That this power structure exists flies directly in the face of the illusion that we are a planet dominated by democracies which listen to the voices of their citizens. This illusion is part of our global false consciousness.

Mills offers us a way to understand how this is done, pointing out that, “Families and churches and schools adapt to modern life; governments and armies and corporations shape it; and, as they do so, they turn these lesser institutions into means for their ends.”  Complicity and illusion (read: false consciousness) are perpetuated in our homes, schools, and places of worship. Control over what is taught in our public schools serves the powerful in sustaining narratives favorable to their ends. Indeed, for example text book references to slavery and/or how the US government handled the “Indian wars” are carefully curated by politically conservative school boards all across the United States; “they [those in power] turn these lesser institutions into means for their ends.” 3

Propaganda = contempt for facts
Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) makes powerful use of the term propaganda as she details the rise of Nazism and other totalitarian political movements. She writes,“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” This statement affirms ‘ruling ideas’ theme presented by Marx and makes powerful use of the Thomas Therom mentioned above, arguing that those in power fabricate fact, i.e., produce propaganda which create mass delusion. Arendt, for example, posits that racism (including antisemitism) and colonialist imperialism were perpetuated by the propaganda spread by elites toward the end of gaining popular support for pogroms and colonial/capitalistic expansion by totalitarian leaders wielding god-like power.

Arendt’s observation evokes this passage from Lewis Carroll’s 1871 Through the Looking Glass.

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less. ‘

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things. ‘

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

Arendt argues that totalitarian rulers act as ‘masters’, creating propaganda which normalizes and justifies various unjust ideas and actions, i.e., fosters false consciousness and makes oppression possible.

In sum, by controlling the media, education, and using religion (and hence, the family) as propaganda tools, the power elite control the mental space of the masses and normalize marginalizing social structures, laws, and policies.

What is truth?
What is ‘true’ is an epistemological question, and in any population there can exist several kinds of ‘truth.’ Truth version #1 is, well, fact, empirically and historically accurate. Truth version #2 is ‘my truth’ as in ‘strawberry ice cream is the best flavor’ or ‘my god is the only true god.’ Truth version #3 is propaganda or political disinformation. ‘Gauze over the eyes’ is perpetuated by those in power using propaganda to deny objective facts and sway personal truths to be in line with their lies. False consciousness is believing Truth version #3 and obeying the demand to ignore or deny Truth version #1 and, in many cases, having a comprised version Truth version #2 which supports Truth version #3.

Arendt illustrates this process perfectly in her book: “…what is taken as fact” is, in fact, propaganda, the fuel that perpetuates false consciousness.

What is truth? One answer comes from American journalist and activist Abby Martin. She writes, “Truth is the ultimate resistance.” Here she is referring to Truth #1 arrived at through critically analyzing all information, alway seeking objective sources grounded in empirical fact and historical accuracy. This kind of truth is arms us to defend against falsehoods and skewed narratives pushed by those who seek to disguise injustice.

Palestine never existed?
Though a more thorough discussion will come in the next chapter, we can use the current situation in the Middle East as an example of the above. Here are the three ‘truth versions’ in the context of understanding the Israeli- Palestine war.

Truth version #1 is that the political Zionist movement, with support from the United Nations, enabled the creation of a Jewish state in 1948 leading to the forced displacement of over 700,000 Palestinians, an event know as the ‘nakba.’ This displacement continues through the 20th and now deep into the 21st century, the Israeli controlled land ever expanding through continuous and, according to international law, illegal settler colonialism. Palestinian resistance to this expansion has been seen in decades both before and since 1948. Through actions by the Israeli government the political Zionist movement systemically marginalizes Palestinians and most recently has led to the charge of genocide against Palestinians by Israel.

Truth version #2, taught in Hebrew schools all over the world, but most significantly so in the United States and Israel, is that Zionist ownership of what was Palestine, now Israel, is normal, just, and how things must be to insure the safety of the Jewish people. All Palestinians are ‘terrorists’ and only want death to all Jews; as an existential threat to Jews they must be controlled and/or defeated. Of key relevance, in the United States Christian Zionism is very strong, many believing that having Jews in Israel is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy showing we are getting closer to the return of Jesus Christ.

Truth version #3 is that a colonialist, Zionist expansion in Israel is right, natural, and worth any cost in Palestinian lives. This truth is spread in many forms, especially in Israel, the United States, and most of the Western World. The current war in Gaza is just and must end in an absolute Israeli victory allowing for further expansion free from any threat from Palestinians.

As stated above, false consciousness is believing Truth version #3 and obeying the demand to ignore or deny Truth version #1 and, in many cases, having a comprised version Truth version #2 which supports Truth version #3. A key element of this false consciousness is the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Israeli government actions with antisemitism.

One can self-identify as Jewish either by religion, by ethnicity, or both. Antisemitism is a bias against those who identify as Jewish. Antisemitism is wrong and should not be tolerated in any context.

Zionism is a political ideology and being Jewish refers to religion/ethnicity. The Israeli government is a political entity, not a religion/ethnicity. I do not doubt that antisemitism has risen across the US, even on college campuses, but a reasonable question to ask is to what extent is this at least in part due to the intentional conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Israeli government action with antisemitism?  Here’s a second question, is the epithet ‘antisemitic’ being used too broadly in some cases?

One irony I am sensing is that some of the most powerful, passionate, and articulate voices pointing out that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism are Jewish men and women around the world, including in the US and Israel, many of them arguing that Zionism itself is antisemitic. Many Jewish spokespersons, including perhaps the most prominent person in my discipline of sociology, Judith Butler, assert that Zionism is not Judaism and what the IDF is doing in Gaza is an out-and-out war crime, and is based on an inherently racist colonial-settler ideology. Here is a concise article by a Jewish author Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of Jewish Currents, which further clarifies the distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. As additional background, this letter to the New York Times published in December, 1948 was signed by Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Sidney Hook, and many other Jewish intellectuals and activists. It explicitly calls out as ‘terrorism’ the actions being taken at the time by the leaders of the new Israeli state driven by an overtly political Zionist ideology. Israel’s actions and ideology remain unchanged since then and have lead to the current conflict.

Propaganda supporting political Zionism and conflating anti-Zionism and antisemitism has been systematically and successfully perpetuated by proponents of Zionism, both Jewish and non-Jewish and on both sides of the Atlantic. The “Hasbara Handbook” is systematically employed to deflect, redirect, and create an illusion of rational discussion. We are now circling back to the line from Mark Twain, many ‘know for sure what just ain’t so.’

To be crystal clear, through the lens of critical Hydra theory I support the Jewish religion, those ethnically Jewish, and those who otherwise self-identify as Jewish. I do not support a political ideology or a government  driven by same which systemically marginalizes any humans, in this case Palestinians. I agree with the November 10, 1975 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 which states clearly that, “…Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”

Here is what a wise philosopher colleague of mine offered as a framing of the question and response,

Is it important to distinguish between: (1) being anti-zionist in 1879, (2) being anti-zionist in 1947, (3) being anti-zionist in 2024?

Several points—first, it is far easier to insist that anti-zionism in 1879 and in 1947 is distinct from anti-semitism.  But, given the political reality of the state of Israel (UN recognized, etc), one can legitimately worry about the implications of being anti-zionist once the political reality of the state of Israel is established.  Jews could legitimately ask what the practical implications are and what grounds the motivation to be anti-zionist in contemporary times.  Back when the PLO was explicitly and overtly calling for the eradication of the state of Israel, their anti-zionism looked indistinguishable from anti-semitism.   

As I understand it, contemporary anti-zionism is a call for fairness and justice for the Palestinian people, (both in terms of historic reparations and in terms of full and fair political and human rights  today) and is NOT a direct call for the elimination of the state of Israel.  But–again—that is a highly nuanced and sophisticated point of view.  It is reasonable for Jews and Israelites to worry that ordinary folks might struggle to keep these nuanced claims distinct from unacceptable antisemitic beliefs and claims.

Second, I completely agree that the Zionist notion of there being a “Jewish state”, inherently invites a 2nd class status for all non-Jews.  That is an a-priori premise that is built into the foundations of Zionism.  And is the basis for the sound claim that Zionism = racism.  Because when played out, Zionism entails that non-Jews necessarily are 2nd class. 

Rational, measured and productive discussions on this topic demand an agreement on how words are being used, to be sure. That said effective propaganda uses the opposite, namely conflated definitions and oversimplification.

Removing the gauze
One truism is that you can’t take the gauze off of someone’s else’s eyes.4 False consciousnesses are woven into one’s self concept and any challenge to one’s worldview is often perceived as an existential threat. In our efforts to confront toxic othering generated by false consciousness, the best we can do is repeat, clarify and make access to Truth #1 as easy as possible. By doing this, we promote the preconditions that make it possible for some to peel off, layer by layer, the gauze over their eyes. The voices of those who were blinded by propaganda but have now woken to Truth #1 -The political Zionist movement is inherently racist against Palestinians- must be heard and amplified by those seeking justice. This will serve to encourage more to have a like transition, ideally.

Using the words and ideas of various thinkers we have explored how propaganda and false consciousness are employed by those in power in the perpetuation of oppression. The contemporary example of Palestine is only one of countless stories with exactly the same theme, the oppressor controlling the mental space of the oppressed. But humans are smart and resilient, and those who suffer marginalization eventually see the eternal truth that all humans deserve access to lives of dignity. There is some irony to the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed in the United Nations in 1948, the same year as the nakba. The first lines are critical,

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

Systems of oppression which deny human rights will be recognized and challenged by both the oppressed and all those who truly believe in these rights. Employing critical Hydra theory to confront toxic othering begins by understanding the layers of gauze over one’s own eyes and then partnering with others who are undergoing the same liberating process.

As final note, we must be ever aware of the fact that each of us is prone to internalizing untruths, half-truths, and outright propaganda regarding any of the heads of the Hydra. The process of pulling off layers of gauze is a constant effort, likely never completely accomplished. We must remain humble in our quest to understand and confront oppression, always open to new information and alternate perspectives based in empirical fact.

Just like any social scientist striving for objectivity and for the truth, I must ask myself, ‘what do I know for sure that just ain’t true?’ This all at the same time realizing the fight for a more just world for all is ongoing and full of push back from those who are entrenched in propaganda and false consciousness themselves.

I began this chapter with a series of quotations, so I’ll end with one. Antonio Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks warned us, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.”5  

1This thesis has been explored and affirmed in recent books. See Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making (2008) by David Rothkopf and Giants: The Global Power Elite Paperback  
by (2018) Peter Phillips. Both cite and stand on the shoulders of C. Wright Mills.

2Indeed, many Nietzsche scholars believe he used this technique of purposeful ‘cryptic’ writing, demanding that the reader think about and wrestle with the ideas he presented.

3For good treatment of this phenomena take a look at ‘Lies my teacher told me’, And How American History Can Be Used As A Weapon (2018) by James Loewen.

4 Here is a good example of someone who took the gauze off of their own eyes. The Jewish made 2023 documentary Israelism tells several similar stories of young Jewish people who shed their Zionism and now support a free Palestine.

5A thank you to my colleague Kerem Morgul for reminding me of this Gramsci quotation. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian sociologist, was one of the core thinkers that made up the Frankfurt School, the birthplace of modern critical theory and the direct inspiration for critical Hydra theory.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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