Communication, Contagion, and Conspiracy

Social contagion is an age-old process of collective behavior. It has been studied by sociologists in the U.S. for decades. In the economic sphere, stock market bubbles that end in a furious crash that reflects the contagion of panic. Economists cite the infamous

Tulipomania

A tulip, known as “the Viceroy,” 1637

collapse of the “Tulip Mania” in Holland in 1637 as the classic example of stock-market contagion gone suddenly reversed. The U.S. financial crash of 2008-9 had elements of contagion, but calculated actions by financial elites artificially drove the market in mortgage derivatives to collapse.

The New Contagion

Today, socio-political contagion has achieved new heights of both intensity and extension through social media. When life is relatively stable, most people behave in routine and mostly traditional ways. They find comfort in the predictability of everyday life supported by a regular paycheck, manageable debt, and hope for a better future. Only when things get dicey do conspiracy theories proliferate and extreme political movements grow contagious and threaten the established order.

Of course, we can always find social outliers in society. Dreamers, artists, and explorers of the unknown chafe at the constraints of social habit. They are restless seekers of new ideas, new images, new frontiers, and vindication for their fertile imaginations. Most of us live in a world where our habitual behaviors are far more important to us than any deviation from social norms. However, that is rapidly changing. As “normalcy” disintegrates and economic and social stability dissipates, fear of the other rises, resentments follow growing instability, and many more people become subject to manipulation by political demagogues.

Conspiracy of Concordance

Today’s socio-political contagion does not result from the imagination of dreamers. Instead, it results from increasingly unstable conditions of life in the last stages of the industrial era. Most people in the industrialized societies of Europe and North America know in their guts that things are not exactly as claimed by the economic culture or dominant institutions. Opportunists such as Steve Bannon quickly exploit the chance to use fear and resentment to their advantage.

The rise to power by neo-fascists, white nationalists, and outright political scam artists rides on the hatred they can generate toward the scapegoats they blame for the conditions brought on by extractive capital and its agents. The societal failures of an industrial system designed to concentrate wealth and power by exploiting land, air, water, and people provide the grist for their mill of hatred. The real conspiracy is between these political opportunists and the super-rich who bankroll them, not among refugees or racial minorities. The political elite rewards their benefactors by tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy and de-regulation for their corporations, then find scapegoats to blame for the painful consequences.

Science and Sanity

The evidence of increasing instability mounts, as the average citizen’s ability to make a living and avoid danger, grows ever more difficult. The evidence of reaching the limits of

highwaterline_miami1

High water coming to Miami soon.

plundering Nature becomes more obvious as the health effects of polluted air, water, and land reach new heights. More frequent and more intense extreme weather events penetrate our emotional shields even as many cognitively deny their human causality. Active suppression of scientific findings by the Trumpists and their financial backers attempts to hide the solid evidence of growing planetary danger. The absurdity of “climate denial” grows with each new report of accelerating glacier melt, drought, superstorms, and species extinction.

It really does not matter whether we prefer to attribute “conspiracy” to the forces of extractive capital, political demagoguery and the culture of hate. These forces need not meet in a smoke-filled room to plot strategy and coordinate their behavior. Their cultural beliefs and economic interests result in coordinated action to gain more and more power.

It is up to the rest of us to find ways to turn our lives away from the destruction they foment and shape a world in which we can live. Little time remains to resist hatred, restore ecosystems, and re-establish our resilience. We must combine human civility with scientific rigor to take the drastic steps needed to dampen the chaos that grows daily.

The Deeper Deep State

The “Deep State” is deeper than you think. I first ran across the concept when I read an essay by former senior analyst for congress, Mike Lofgren on Bill Moyers’ website, posted in 2014. Lofgren was apparently the first to use the term. He spent many years working for Congress, the last sixteen as a senior analyst on the House and Senate Budget committees. He knows the federal government from the inside. The essay and interview with Bill Moyers evolved into a book, titled The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, published in 2016. That was all before the extreme right Trumpists appropriated the term to attack all but the most authoritarian elements in the federal government.

Deep.State.book.jacketLofgren’s use of the term “deep state” referred to the complex web of coordinated entrenched interests both inside the US government and outside, especially on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, that profit heavily from congressional “defense” and other major budget decisions. Despite their appropriation of the term, the Trumpists support many aspects of the “deep state” as Lofgren describes it. Lofgren argues convincingly that the U.S. has become an oligarchy in fact if not in name.

The idea of a deep state, as Lofgren deployed it, is very similar to the phenomenon of “inverted totalitarianism” that Sheldon Wolin describes in his heavily documented study, Democracy, Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Wolin, a highly respected political scientist, argues that American democracy has morphed into a strange hybrid consisting of a shell of democratic formality surrounding a core of bureaucratic totalitarianism. He distinguishes between the traditional notion of totalitarianism, which involves overt authoritarianism by a dictator, and the emergent bureaucratic form that involves a complex merging of corporate economic interests and the entrenched powers of the state. Others may call this complex the “corporate state.”

Lofgren experienced the corporate state from the inside; Wolin examined it from the outside. Both conclude that the result is a fundamental loss of democracy. Now, the appropriation of the term, “the deep state,” by the extreme white nationalists and neo-fascists aligned with the Trump administration, is a political propaganda tactic used to attack any element of government that serves the public interest instead of the interests of the oligarchic elites that Trumpists serve.

The Trumpist use of “the deep state” is an element of the demagoguery that attempts to turn the public against any element of the government or the media that does not serve their interests. Any accurate reporting of Trumpist dissembling or destructive executive orders he deems “Fake News.” Notice that Trump’s appointments to his cabinet and agencies such as the Environmental Protection Administration, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Education, are all politically opposed to the very mandates of those departments and agencies. These neo-fascists are not so much interested in destroying the deep state as in taking it over.

The overwhelming majority of appointments to key posts Trump has drawn from Wall Street, the Military, and far-right politicians. He has attempted to turn the intelligence agencies into political operations. The deep state has become an even deeper penetration of oligarchic interests into the center of federal government operations. The deep state is now much deeper and more corrupt than before. Corruption is the essence of destroying democracy.