Propaganda Techniques of Empire

by James Petras / October 2nd, 2016

Washington’s quest for perpetual world power is underwritten by systematic and perpetual propaganda wars. Every major and minor war has been preceded, accompanied and followed by unremitting government propaganda designed to secure public approval, exploit victims, slander critics, dehumanize targeted adversaries and justify its allies’ collaboration.
In this paper we will discuss the most common recent techniques used to support ongoing imperial wars.

Role Reversal

A common technique, practiced by the imperial publicists, is to accuse the victims of the same crimes, which had been committed against them. The well documented, deliberate and sustained US-EU aerial bombardment of Syrian government soldiers, engaged in operations against ISIS-terrorist, resulted in the deaths and maiming of almost 200 Syrian troops and allowed ISIS-mercenaries to overrun their camp. In an attempt to deflect the Pentagon’s role in providing air cover for the very terrorists it claims to oppose, the propaganda organs cranked out lurid, but unsubstantiated, stories of an aerial attack on a UN humanitarian aid convoy, first blamed on the Syrian government and then on the Russians. The evidence that the attack was most likely a ground-based rocket attack by ISIS terrorists did not deter the propaganda mills. This technique would turn US and European attention away from the documented criminal attack by the imperial bombers and present the victimized Syrian troops and pilots as international human rights criminals.

Hysterical Rants

Faced with world opprobrium for its wanton violation of an international ceasefire agreement in Syria, the imperial public spokespeople frequently resort to irrational outbursts at international meetings in order to intimidate wavering allies into silence and shut down any chance for reasonable debate resolving concrete issues among adversaries.
The current ‘US Ranter-in-Chief’ in the United Nations, is Ambassador Samantha Power, who launched a vitriolic diatribe against the Russians in order to sabotage a proposed General Assembly debate on the US deliberate violation (its criminal attack on Syrian troops) of the recent Syrian ceasefire. Instead of a reasonable debate among serious diplomats, the rant served to derail the proceedings.

Identity Politics to Neutralize Anti-Imperialist Movements

Empire is commonly identified with the race, gender, religion and ethnicity of its practitioners. Imperial propagandists have frequently resorted to disarming and weakening anti-imperialist movements by co-opting and corrupting black, ethnic minority and women leaders and spokespeople. The use of such ‘symbolic’ tokens is based on the assumption that these are ‘representatives’ reflecting the true interests of so-called ‘marginalized minorities’ and can therefore presume to ‘speak for the oppressed peoples of the world’. The promotion of such compliant and respectable ‘minority members’ to the elite is then propagandized as a ‘revolutionary’, world liberating historical event – witness the ‘election’ of US President Barack Obama.
The rise of Obama to the presidency in 2008 illustrates how the imperial propagandists have used identity politics to undermine class and anti-imperialist struggles.
Under Obama’s historical black presidency, the US pursued seven wars against ‘people of color’ in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Over a million men and women of sub-Saharan black origin, whether Libyan citizens or contract workers for neighboring countries, were killed, dispossessed and driven into exile by US allies after the US-EU destroyed the Libyan state — in the name of humanitarian intervention. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs have been bombed in Yemen, Syria and Iraq under President Obama, the so-called ‘historic black’ president. Obama’s ‘predator drones’ have killed hundreds of Afghan and Pakistani villagers. Such is the power of ‘identity politics’ that ignominious Obama was awarded the ‘Nobel Peace Prize’.
Meanwhile, in the United States under Obama, racial inequalities between black and white workers (wages, unemployment, access to housing, health and educational services) have widened. Police violence against blacks intensified with total impunity for ‘killer cops’. Over two million immigrant Latino workers have been expelled – breaking up hundreds of thousands of families — and accompanied by a marked increase of repression compared to earlier administrations. Millions of black and white workers’ home mortgages were foreclosed while all of the corrupt banks were bailed out – at a greater rate than had occurred under white presidents.
This blatant, cynical manipulation of identity politics facilitated the continuation and deepening of imperial wars, class exploitation and racial exclusion. Symbolic representation undermined class struggles for genuine changes.

Past Suffering to Justify Contemporary Exploitation

Imperial propagandists repeatedly evoke the victims and abuses of the past in order to justify their own aggressive imperial interventions and support for the ‘land grabs’ and ethnic cleansing committed by their colonial allies – like Israel, among others. The victims and crimes of the past are presented as a perpetual presence to justify ongoing brutalities against contemporary subject people.
The case of US-Israeli colonization of Palestine clearly illustrates how rabid criminality, pillage, ethnic cleansing and self-enrichment can be justified and glorified through the language of past victimization. Propagandists in the US and Israel have created ‘the cult of the Holocaust’, worshiping a near century-old Nazi crime against Jews (as well as captive Slavs, Roma and other minorities) in Europe, to justify the bloody conquest and theft of Arab lands and sovereignty and engage in systematic military assaults against Lebanon and Syria. Millions of Muslim and Christian Palestinians have been driven into perpetual exile. Elite, wealthy, well-organized and influential Zionist Jews, with primary fealty to Israel, have successfully sabotaged every contemporary struggle for peace in the Middle East and have created real barriers for social democracy in the US through their promotion of militarism and empire building. Those claiming to represent victims of the past have become among the most oppressive of contemporary elites. Using the language of ‘defense’, they promote aggressive forms of expansion and pillage. They claim their monopoly on historic ‘suffering’ has given them a ‘special dispensation’ from the rules of civilized conduct: their cult of the Holocaust allows them to inflict immense pain on others while silencing any criticism with the accusation of ‘anti-Semitism’ and relentlessly punishing critics. Their key role in imperial propaganda warfare is based on their claims of an exclusive franchise on suffering and immunity from the norms of justice.

Entertainment Spectacles on Military Platforms

Entertainment spectacles glorify militarism. Imperial propagandists link the public to unpopular wars promoted by otherwise discredited leaders. Sports events present soldiers dressed up as war heroes with deafening, emotional displays of ‘flag worship’ to celebrate the ongoing overseas wars of aggression. These mind-numbing extravaganzas with crude elements of religiosity demand choreographed expressions of national allegiance from the spectators as a cover for continued war crimes abroad and the destruction of citizens’ economic rights at home.
Much admired, multi-millionaire musicians and entertainers of all races and orientations, present war to the masses with a humanitarian facade. The entertainers smiling faces serve genocide just as powerfully as the President’s benign and friendly face accompanies his embrace of militarism. The propagandist message for the spectator is that ‘your favorite team or singer is there just for you… because our noble wars and valiant warriors have made you free and now they want you to be entertained.’
The old style of blatant bellicose appeals to the public is obsolete: the new propaganda conflates entertainment with militarism, allowing the ruling elite to secure tacit support for its wars without disturbing the spectators’ experience.


Do the Imperial Techniques of Propaganda Work?
How effective are the modern imperial propaganda techniques? The results seem to be mixed. In recent months, elite black athletes have begun protesting white racism by challenging the requirement for choreographed displays of flag worship… opening public controversy into the larger issues of police brutality and sustained marginalization. Identity politics, which led to the election of Obama, may be giving way to issues of class struggle, racial justice, anti-militarism and the impact of continued imperial wars. Hysterical rants may still secure international attention, but repeated performances begin to lose their impact and subject the ‘ranter’ to ridicule.
The cult of victimology has become less a rationale for the multi-billion dollar US-tribute to Israel, than the overwhelming political and economic influence and thuggery of billionaire Zionist fundraisers who demand US politicians’ support for the state of Israel.
Brandishing identify politics may have worked the first few times, but inevitably black, Latino, immigrant and all exploited workers, all underpaid and overworked women and mothers reject the empty symbolic gestures and demand substantive socio-economic changes – and here they find common links with the majority of exploited white workers.
In other words, the existing propaganda techniques are losing their edge – the corporate media news is seen as a sham. Who follows the actor-soldiers and flag-worshipers once the game has begun?
The propagandists of empire are desperate for a new line to grab public attention and obedience. Could the recent domestic terror bombings in New York and New Jersey provoke mass hysteria and more militarization? Could they serve as cover for more wars abroad …?
A recent survey, published in Military Times, reported that the vast majority of active US soldiers oppose more imperial wars. They are calling for defense at home and social justice. Soldiers and veterans have even formed groups to support the protesting black athletes who have refused to participate in flag worship while unarmed black men are being killed by police in the streets. Despite the multi-billion dollar electoral propaganda, over sixty percent of the electorate reject both major party candidates. The reality principle has finally started to undermine State propaganda!

James Petras is author of The End of the Republic and the Delusion of Empire, Extractive Imperialism in the Americas: Capitalism’s New Frontier (with Henry Veltmeyer), and The Politics of Empire: The US, Israel and the Middle EastVisit James’s website.


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Oct 20, 2016 4:28 PM

Role reversal – like accusing Gaddafi of slaughtering his own civilians, when actually you, the western imperialists, have sent terrorists to his country Libya to slaughter his civilians. Ditto Syria. Accuse Russia of not fighting terrorists in Syria. Calling Kagame the man who ended the Rwandan genocide, when in fact he is the cause of it…The list goes on and on and on and…

Nov 6, 2016 11:36 AM
Reply to  cuew

I also call it gazing in the mirror. But the gazer is conscious of the fact that millions gaze at him (or…). It’s thrilling. This kind of perversion is thrilling to those who have self-modified into believers in violence and inequality. They are freakish self-worshippers. They are God… for now.

Nov 6, 2016 5:37 PM
Reply to  Arrby

Devices of guilt deflection are part of the mind by which truth is denied in favour of the personal sense of power in manipulation and control – in which communication is ‘weaponised’ or indeed ‘marketised’ – same thing really. One can study the dark arts in pursuit of power from deceit or one can uncover such device as having no attraction or meaningful function – and every destructive influence – within our own accepted reality. The point is that uncovering such as if it ONLY applies in the perpetrator – is liable to throw stones of righteousness by which to hide our own hidden deceits. The collective urge to hate and attack such deceit unmasked operates at the point of opening a deeper communication, embodies the very same energetic of hating our own ‘sins’ on the other and killing them. This is old magic that keeps a sacrificial system in… Read more »

Oct 20, 2016 12:52 PM

For some obscure reason – the logic of which escapes me – the fact that not all the media outlets in the west are state controlled and funded, is taken to mean that our media is ‘free’ – this in the sense that it is not subject to censorship by public authority. Actually, this is not wholly true, but this is not the point at issue. In fact, in many ways the corporate media more restrictive than the state media. Newspapers in the UK are openly partisan in the political reporting than the BBC. The real point at issue, however, is the de facto bias of the media if not the de jure. I remember as a student reading Ralph Miliband’s book ”The State in Capitalist Society” in which he made the observation that the political spectrum of the UK press ranged from ‘ … soundly conservative to utterly reactionary.’… Read more »

Oct 20, 2016 3:15 PM
Reply to  Frank

I appreciate your points raises – but is there not a tacit conspiracy of collective ‘tacit agreements’ or definitions given currency. The training in self censorship has to imprint itself first and then the imprint serves the function of the shackle. I watched an interview on ‘organic’ (sic) biosolids in which the scientist who was sacked for whistleblowing recounted the shift in science (censoring to conform to consensual ‘responsibility’ along with the setting up other bodies charged with passing studies designed to present an apparent wealth of false evidence whereby to then disregard the warnings of those in the regulatory body and market toxic waste as if it was safe and ‘organic’. While your points can account for corporate arrogance and a willingness to outsource pain rather than lose profit or power of mindshare – it would be foolish to present it as without knowing intent of harm and so… Read more »

Oct 19, 2016 9:34 PM

See also:
„Geo-Politics: The Core of Crisis and Chaos and the Nightmares of the US Power Elite“ https://wipokuli.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/geo-politics-the-core-of-crisis-and-chaos-the-nightmares-of-the-us-power-elite/

Oct 19, 2016 7:40 PM

A well written and articulate article. Many can intuit a significant unease but without an articulation assign it to a resignation and thus are depressed without knowing quite why. My desire is to drop illusion of objective dissociation and recognize we are focusing upon our human consciousness and communication – albeit as exemplified in socio-political aspects of our cultural consciousness. As long as we operate out of a disembodied consciousness – that operates as mind control – we are divided and ruled. If we use the examples to recognize the underlying psychological defence and its underlying shock instead of focusing in guilt at persona level – or group persona level – then more information of practical transformation becomes available. The fear of ANYONE identified in struggle or war is that ANY diversion from the guilt and illegitimacy of the OTHER is a weakening of power. But I question whether such… Read more »

Oct 19, 2016 6:45 PM

Can anybody find the video of Samantha Power hysterically ranting at the UN General Assembly meeting about the US Air Force attack on Deir Az Zor? I’m not having any luck finding it, but would like to watch it. Cheers.

Oct 19, 2016 8:27 PM
Reply to  deschutes

This one:

Oct 19, 2016 3:40 PM

My cat walked across my keyboard just as I finished writing a comment and somehow erased the whole thing. Anyway, one of the most lucid points this article makes is that promoting a minority individual to positions of power within an inherently oppressive system does not make the system itself any less oppressive towards the other members of the same minority group. Capitalists are intelligent and preserve their position of power by making oppressed groups feel as if they have a chance to rise within a system that is designed precisely to prevent them from doing so. In our current neoliberal era they do this by incorporating what superficially appear to be the interests of minority groups into mainstream capitalism and marketing aggressively to these groups, i.e. “smash racism and the patriarchy by shopping at Spencer’s and Hot Topic!” Hence we arrive at the fantastic contradiction of having t-shirts and… Read more »

Oct 19, 2016 4:23 PM
Reply to  Alessandro

Just something else to add to my first point (not the cat one): on social media and the pages of the Huffington Post and the like, having minorities represented in American media – TV, movies, comics, books, etc. – is a major priority for young liberals. I think these people have good intentions, as the way American culture was represented in the media in earlier decades was entirely unrealistic and misrepresentative of the makeup of the country. The idea is that once minorities are consistently represented and said representation is “done right” (a definition that of course is constantly changing and highly disputed) it will lead to greater social change in the U.S. However, again, media in the United States is entirely a capitalist enterprise, with the exception of NPR and PBS (the latter of which included minorities in regular roles in its programming years before “more representation!” became the… Read more »

Amer Hudson
Amer Hudson
Oct 19, 2016 2:44 PM

Nice to see a sensible critique of the whole enchilada. Unfortunately, I am old and worn. I hope to see change. I argue for it and offer support where I can. But it seems a desperately uneven struggle.