Ideological Hegemony Part IV


1 Introduction
2 The Media
3 The Education system
4 Newspeak
5 The Objectivity Myth


Newspeak is the manipulation of language to reinforce the dominant power structure.  The term comes from George Orwell’s book 1984 in which newspeak is created by a totalitarian government in order to control the population.  Newspeak is not unique to modern society but has existed in many other hierarchical societies.  In many societies language tends to be manipulated in such a way so as to reinforce the dominant power structure (which benefits the elite).  For example, there are many pejorative terms to refer to women (bitch, whore, cunt, slut, etc.) but few that refer to men.  This both reflects and reinforces part of the power structure, patriarchy (men having more power than women).  Language manipulation that benefits those with more power tends to come about because those with more power control the means of communication and because in many societies there is a strong tendency to see everything in terms of one’s own society.  In the US the media and education system help perpetuate newspeak but it is not limited to just these institutions, it is used by most people on a regular basis as part of their normal speech.  In some cases governments or corporations intentionally create elements of newspeak to further their agendas, in others it evolves without conscious intentional manipulation.  Newspeak works in many different ways to inhibit thought processes and reinforce the current system.

One common way this works is giving terms of political discussion an ‘official’ dictionary definition while using the term in a different way.  Words and phrases are thus constructed so as to conceal their actual meaning.  For example, look at the phrase “conspiracy theory.”  Officially, this refers to a theory that attempts to explain something as the result of a conspiracy – of certain people intentionally working together in secret to achieve some goal, usually an immoral or illegal goal.  This is not how the term is actually used, however.  In practice the term “conspiracy theory” applied only to theories not supported by the government as a way of discrediting them.  The official explanation for 9-11, that Al-Qaeda did it, is a conspiracy theory.  Al-Qaeda is allegedly a network/group of evil Muslims working together in secret to launch attacks against the United States and other targets because they “hate freedom.”  This is the very definition of a conspiracy theory, if anyone other then the government put forth this Al-Qaeda theory it would be labeled a conspiracy theory.  Whether it is true or not is irrelevant; a conspiracy theory that is true is still a conspiracy theory.  But the Al-Qaeda theory is never referred to as a conspiracy theory; only theories not backed by the government are called conspiracy theories.  The term “conspiracy theory” in newspeak thus has a double definition: the official dictionary definition and the unofficial definition, how it is actually used.  “Conspiracy theory” is a term applied a theory that clashes with the official government version as a way of discrediting that theory.  Even theories that aren’t conspiracy theories in the technical sense, such as institutional theories (theories which explain certain events as the result of the set up of the social system rather then individuals working together in secret), are sometimes called “conspiracy theories” by their critics as a way of shutting off thought.

The term “terrorism” is another example of newspeak.  In practice this is just a pejorative term for any group that happens to oppose the US.  The CIA has engaged in assassinations, arson, bombings, overthrowing governments, targeting of civilians and numerous other acts which would be considered terrorist if engaged in by an official enemy yet the CIA (outside of radical literature) is never called a terrorist organization.  When Muslim fundamentalists, including Bin Laden & co, were fighting the USSR (and client states) they were called “freedom fighters.”  Now that they have started fighting against the US (and client states) they are now called “terrorists.”  While fighting the USSR they would target civilians, assassinate government officials and throw acid in the faces of unveiled women.  They did similar atrocious acts while fighting against the US.  Yet it was only when they started fighting the US that they were called terrorists, before that they were called freedom fighters.  They went from ally of the US government to enemy of the US government, and thus went from freedom fighter to terrorist.  What changed was whose side they were on, not what methods they used. [54]

The use of euphemisms can also become a form of newspeak.  By substituting one word with another word that sounds better the power structure can make certain things sound better.  For example, during World War Two the United States had a “department of war” which played a big role in organizing the US war effort.  As the Cold War started it was merged with the department of Navy to form the “department of defense.”  Most of what the department of defense does isn’t really defense; it’s the use of military force abroad.  They switched from “department of war” to “department of defense” because defense sounded better and made it easier to gain public support.  The term “defense” is commonly used as a substitute for “military” or “war” in a manner like this (and not only by the US).  For example, talk of “military budgets” today is rare; instead the term “defense budget” is used.  This euphemism puts the state and military in a more positive light.

When referring to US satellite states the term “ally” is used instead of “satellite state” to obscure the fact that the US is dominating other countries, making US imperialism look like something other than imperialism.  This is not done with official enemies – the USSR’s satellite states were always (correctly) called satellite states.

The term “communism,” has also been subjected to newspeak, especially during the Cold War.  In common usage this is a vague term used to demonize all sorts of different ideas.  It is a generic bogeyman that during the Cold War was used to describe most US enemies.  In practice any person or group that believes the government has direct responsibility for the welfare of the people it rules, and which opposed US government policy, is likely to be labeled “Communist.”  They can be church groups, student unions, or whatever but if they subscribe to this heretical idea and oppose US policy they’ll be called Communists.  It is not necessary to be a Marxist, have a favorable disposition towards the USSR, or advocate central planning to be labeled a “Communist.”  Even groups that explicitly support capitalism can be labeled Communist.  For example, the Arbenz government in Guatemala, which was overthrown by a CIA coup in 1954, explicitly called for the creation of a modern capitalist economy - yet it was labeled Communist.  None of the countries commonly called “Communist” (USSR, China, etc.) ever claimed to be Communist – they claimed to be in a transition to Communism called the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”  The term “communist” in common usage is just an extremely vague term used to demonize a large set of groups who disagree with American policies.

Democracy is an example of what is called a glittering generality.  It's an extremely vague term that sounds good but doesn't mean much at all.  Almost everyone says they advocate democracy.  North Korea claims to be a democracy, so did Saddam's dictatorship and so does the USA.  All of these countries had elections and all are actually ruled by a small elite.  The US is always identified as a democracy but enemies of the US are never called democracies, even when their political system is very similar to the US.  At the time of the CIA coup Guatemala’s government was partly inspired by the US’s government but it wasn’t called a democracy – it was demonized as a “Communist dictatorship.”  Israel is usually identified as a democracy but Iran is not, even though both have very similar forms of government.  Both are theocratic republics that hold semi-free elections, abuse human rights and have a limited degree of civil liberties.  But only Israel is identified as a democracy, because it is US client state, while Iran is not called a democracy because it is opposed to the US.  Advocating democracy is like advocating "good things" - it's a vague term that sounds nice but means little.

Another way newspeak works is through simply defining terms in such a way that it becomes very difficult to think about certain ideas.  For example, take capitalism.  Capitalism is an economic system based on wage-labor.  In capitalism the majority of the population has to sell their labor (usually through working at a job) in order to make a living.  They sell their labor to the capitalists, those who own the means of production, either directly or through an organization controlled by capitalists (such as a corporation).  This can be differentiated from other economic systems, such as feudalism where most people don’t have to sell their labor but are serfs subordinated to a lord or slavery where most don’t sell their labor but are completely owned (and bought and sold) by a master.  Newspeak obfuscates this by confusing capitalism with trade (or markets).  In newspeak ‘capitalism’ becomes synonymous with ‘trade’ or ‘markets.’  Trade has existed in many societies from primitive villages societies to slave states to industrial capitalism.  To claim they are all practicing the same system is absurd.  There is obviously a great deal of difference between the economic systems of the United States, a capitalist country, and the Roman Empire, a slave society, even though both had a great deal of trade.  The newspeak definition of capitalism equates these two very different economic systems.  By taking such an overly broad definition of capitalism the newspeak definition of capitalism makes it very difficult to talk about capitalism in the non-newspeak sense (an economic system based on wage-labor).  By equating capitalism with trade, and denying us a term to describe an economic system based on wage-labor, newspeak makes a critique of capitalism much more difficult to talk about, thus protecting the status quo.

Similar to capitalism, newspeak also gives the state (or government) an overly broad definition, which has the effect of making it difficult to talk of abolishing the state.  The state is an organization with a monopoly (or near-monopoly) on the legitimate use of violence.  It is a centralized hierarchical organization that uses armed bodies of people with a top down chain of command (such as police and militaries) and coercive institutions (such as courts and prisons) to force those within its’ territory to obey it.  The newspeak definition equates the state with organization, thereby obfuscating what exactly the state is and making critiques of it difficult to conceive.

Newspeak also defines the term ‘anarchy’ to mean complete chaos.  Anarchy comes from the great and literally means ‘no rulers.’  There is a well-developed body of anarchist theory that advocates not chaos, but a society organized by voluntary non-hierarchical associations.  The equation of anarchy with chaos is nothing more than a smear used to discredit a radical philosophy.      Most who equate anarchy with chaos have read little or no anarchist theory and do so only because ideological hegemony pushes that equation (through the media, schools, newspeak, etc.).  Several centuries ago democracy & republics were also equated with chaos, just as anarchy is today.

An unusual case of newspeak is that of “political correctness.”  Many movements seeking to break down certain hierarchies, such as the women’s movement or the black liberation movement, recognized that language is constructed in such a way so as to reinforce the hierarchy they are fighting against and, as part of their attempt to weaken that hierarchy, attempted to modify language so that it does not reinforce the hierarchy they are campaigning against.  For example, anti-racist movements have succeeded in making the term “nigger” no longer acceptable for whites to use and getting most people to acknowledge it’s racist meaning.  With a few exceptions, however, these goals have not been achieved.  Most of the successful modification of language intended to weaken newspeak (and it’s reinforcement of the power structure) has been on minor things that don’t really threaten the hierarchies they are attempting to undermine.  Most have been limited to racial and sexual hierarchies as well; newspeak that reinforces class and statist hierarchies (such as the selective use of the term “terrorism” noted earlier) has been virtually untouched.

The phrase “political correctness” was originally a term used by leftists to make fun of each other.  It referred to following the party line of one of the various left-wing, usually Marxist-Leninist, sects.  It didn’t become popular among the mainstream until the right seized on the term.  They used the term to refer to the (mostly unsuccessful) attempts of various liberation movements to modify language so it did not reinforce the hierarchies they were fighting against.  The right claims that “political correctness” is an attempt by “totalitarian leftists” to engage in thought control, and portray it in a manner similar to how newspeak has been portrayed in this essay.  Virtually any group campaigning for greater racial or sexual equality will be accused of being “politically correct.”  Some on the right use the term so broadly that it refers to anything they disagree with.  In practice the accusation of “political correctness” operates in a manner similar to how they claim supporters of “political correctness” behave – as a way of demonizing certain actions and a form of thought control.  The manipulation of language to support the power structure (such as the selective uses of the terms terrorism, communism and defense) is never identified as “political correctness” outside of radical circles.  Newspeak is the manipulation of language to reinforce the power structure, while “political correctness” (outside of dissident circles) is a pejorative term for reducing newspeak or any other modification of language the user does not like.