Monday, September 7, 2009

Don’t let your mind fool you. Go with the senses…

I referred to cultural (neo-) imperialism in my first post. This time I would like to take my thoughts in a different direction and look back at the Soviet Union, and what the example can, potentially, show to an observer now.

Being “hegemonic” the USSR did, indeed, try to indoctrinate all the people living in its sphere of influence, and justifiably so: after all, there is no other way control can be effectively retained over a long period of time.

At first, though, control has to be established through aggressive means (be it military or not). Then, there is a pressing need to build a more or less functional economy, accompanied by, just as Gramsci suggested, building of schools, religious bodies, and an effective mass media to relay the message and the “right” culture.

The Soviet regime attempted to do exactly that. First, they had the Red Revolution, sweeping through Eurasia and slowly building up into an empire. Then, of course, the economic plans started to emerge, desperately trying to build some sort of a system that would function “union-wide.” This all was galvanized by the communist propaganda, creation of a Soviet educational system, and of course a religious institution of a kind (religious, yes; not ecclesiastic): religion – Communism; Gods – Marx, Engels; Prophets – Lenin and Stalin; clergy – The Party. And being a very modern religion, Communism made an active use of the modern media – radio and, later, TV – with the sole goal to opiate the very masses it claimed to be saving from the tentacles of religion. And just as the fundamental sociological principle of reality construction states (reinforced by many communication theorists), whatever they presented as symbolically real, eventually became real in its consequence, through psychological and cultural processes, as well as through socialization [i.e. indoctrination] and fear. Although the process was somewhat reversed, the symbols used as a representation for reality eventually became representations of the reality, to speak in Carey’s terms.

Too bad the USSR invested too much in the idea of foreign expansion and the fight of the “Evil Capitalists”, rather than successful internal reform early enough. The Secretaries of the Communist Party apparently had not read Gramsci closely enough; otherwise, they would not have missed the principle of pressing need to continually reproduce the process of communication hegemony, in order to ensure that the “periphery’s” interests are still in line with those of the ruling core in Moscow, and to minimize the probability of challenge. Instead, they were very haphazard in their “reforms”: changes were introduced inconsistently and over-cautiously, and could be withdrawn half-way through and followed by a period of hesitant repression of the very same reform. This process of freeze and thaw widened the cracks in the system, and once in power, Gorbachev made it worse.

Yes, it was not the only reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, but it was definitely among the major ones. The policies of glasnost and perestroika shattered the society (fundamentally based on coercion and oppression), and although they were supposedly intended as a reform for further extension of power, I could say they played a critical role in bringing down the Soviet system. In other words, the clergy of the religious institution gave up their monopoly of knowledge and their power to define reality, allowing alternative ideas to be considered as “legitimate”: self-determination, freedom of speech and association, openness, systemic reform… The periphery, meanwhile, did not lose the opportunity. Helped by the very same media that used to oppress them – radio and TV – as well as fuelled by the influx of these alternative ideas through Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (or VoA for that matter), the masses that had been alienated for so long stood up to challenge the empire and played into its demise.

Apparently, the Soviet regime failed to oversee a successful transformation of communication from “transmission” view, to that of a “ritual” and gave way as soon as the cracks got sufficiently wide.

This is just one example, which, I think, shows the importance of “ritual communication” in building a reliable foundation for a strong empire. Nowadays, we would like to believe there are no empires per se. Yet, no one can deny that there is a prevalent ideology [yes, take your pick: “Western,” “American,” “European,” “Capitalist,” “Protestant”…] forcefully spread throughout the world. The very ideas promoted by the so-called international organizations, international civil society, and universal human rights do a great job in terms of ritual communication to bring about a “global” culture. But they cannot be regarded as isolated from transmission communication, as eventually they extend control over time and space, just as in the Soviet example.

No matter how attractive the idea of “horizontal global communication” may sound, it inevitably results in a paradox. For some reason, the ideas accepted in this information flow are very culturally biased and do not seem to be showing real cultural sensitivity. And the result? We end up having the same dilemma all over again: “influence over” [i.e. control derived from universality of values] vs. “hostility” [an inevitable result when strong local cultures meet universality]. I’m still to see convincing proof that a truly “flat world” can actually exist…

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