Tangentially Speaking: Chris Ryan & Abby Martin

In July, Abby Martin was a guest on Christopher Ryan’s podcast Tangentially Speaking.

“Abby Martin speaks truth to power with a snarl. She is an American journalist who asks questions and challenges assumptions in a way very few journalists ever dare. You can see her show, The Empire Files on TeleSur and YouTube.”

“Tangentially Speaking is dedicated to the idea that good conversation is spontaneous, organic, revelatory, and free to go down unexpected paths with unexpected people. Come hang with comics, porn stars, bank robbers, drug smugglers, scientists, authors, and world travelers.”

 

Propaganda and the Engineering of Consent for Empire

PROPAGANDA BUYIt’s been estimated that an average American living in cities sees up to 4,000 ads a day. This toxic culture of mindless consumption exploits our innermost insecurities and desire to meet impossible standards. The corporate PR machine is enormously successful due to model created by a man named Edward Bernays nearly a century ago.

The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays is considered the father of modern propaganda, or public relations. An Austrian aristocrat, Bernays first contribution to the United States was helping President Woodrow Wilson sell the idea of World War I as a noble mission to spread democracy in Europe. In order to create the engineering of consent, Bernays argued, you must appeal to the unconscious mind. 

And on behalf of numerous corporate clients, Bernays helped perfect the tools of manipulation and conditioning that are used today. To understand more about the history of propaganda and the collusion between the U.S. Empire and the fourth estate, Abby Martin sits down with Professor of Media Studies at NY University, Mark Crispin Miller, who wrote the intro to the new edition of Bernays 1928 seminal book, Propaganda.

 

Propaganda and the Engineering of Consent for Empire with Mark Crispin Miller

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Marxism 101: How Capitalism is Killing Itself with Dr. Richard Wolff

CAPITALISM SCREENSHOTIn a country that declared the end of socialism, a major poll released in January 2016 revealed something unexpected. 43% of people under 30 in the US view socialism favorably compared to only 32% who view capitalism favorably. This shows that despite a concerted effort to smother the ideas of a man who died 133 years ago, the analysis put forward by Karl Marx remains extremely relevant today.

Marx is considered the most influential philosopher to ever live. With his co-thinker Friedrich Engels, he developed a way of understanding the world that has not only greatly contributed to the understanding of philosophy and economics but also history, anthropology, political science, biology and many other fields.

As a young man in the mid-19th century Marx embedded himself in the workers’ movement in his home country of Germany and in France from where he was exiled to London for his political activity. In addition to dedicating himself to the scientific study of capitalism and social change, Marx was also an organizer and he convened the very first international organization of socialists with the goal of overthrowing capitalism, known as the Communist League whose slogan was “Working men of all countries, unite.”

His work Capital is regarded as the premier dissection of the economic system we live under. His discovery of dialectical materialism redefined the world of philosophy and his rallying call the Communist Manifesto is considered the most influential political document in the world.

As the US Empire thrashes to survive the current global capitalist crisis, and with rejection of capitalism clearly growing among young people, I wanted to find out what it was about Marx’s work that has had such a profound impact, from peasants in Asia to miners in Africa, to workers in the US alike, so I talked to someone who has been teaching students and the public about Marxism for years, Dr. Richard Wolff, Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Marxism 101: How Capitalism is Killing Itself

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ABBY MARTIN: You’re a Marxist economist. Let’s start with the basics. What is Marxism? And what does it mean to have a Marxist lens with which to view the world?

RICHARD WOLFF: I think the best way to understand it is that the difference between Marxism and other things is that it wants to go to the root. It is radical in that sense. It wants to see these problems: homelessness, inequality, an economy that bounces around having a recession or depression every 3 to 7 years, a society that concentrates political power in the tiny number. These recurring problems of capitalism, Marxism says, are built into the system, and if you want to solve them you can’t do that within the framework of the system. You have to face the fact that this system itself is the problem, which is why Marxists tend to be people who abide by the idea that we can and we should do better than capitalism. We should reorganize society because that will be a better way to deal with all those problems than dealing with them individually as if you could solve homelessness or solve inequality by a quick fix, by a marginal adjustment. No, the problems are systemic, so you have to understand how capitalism as a system works in order to begin to work your way to a solution.

AM: Can you give a brief explanation of dialectical materialism?

RW: Marx was a philosopher, so being a rigorous and systematic thinker, he didn’t want to jump into economics, which is what he focused on, without grounding it in philosophy, so he begins as a student of Hagel, the great philosopher. When he begins his academic life—Marx began as a professor—he taught philosophy. His doctoral dissertation was on ancient Greek philosophy. He wasn’t an economist when he began. He ended up thinking he had to study economics because of how philosophy got him there. And to be quick in a way of an answer to your question, he comes out of a school of thought that believed that ideas were the supreme achievement of human beings. Ideas are what you get from the most refined reflection that the human brain can do. If you’re religiously oriented, ideas are what you get from God, from the spiritual realm, and so the world is really shaped by something prior to the world, namely ideas, so the notion is, sometimes called idealism, that the real world is the product of ideas, and if you want to really understand the real world, go to the ideas that make it what it is.

Religiously, in the beginning there was nothing. Then there was first God which is a non-material idea and that creates the world. In Genesis, in seven days God, a spirituality, creates the materiality of the world. Marx rejected that. For him the material is just as important as the ideal. If you want to see where the material comes from, it is shaped by ideas. But here comes his radicalism. It runs the other way too. The ideas don’t come from nowhere. They come out of the real world. The ideas we have as people have to do with the real material problems we have as human beings, and how we solve them. Where do we get our food? Where do we get our shelter? How do we get protection as little children from the elements from our parents? All of these real material matters of life and survival are shaping our ideas every bit as much as our ideas shape the reality. Dialectical materialism is the name for a point of view that says if you want to understand the world, you need to look at how ideas shape the material, but the other way too, and the two interact. That’s the way to see the world, and for that reason when it came to explaining the problems of capitalism, he never could and never did suggest it’s all because of the ideas of people about capitalism. It’s the real way human beings make their food, solve their clothing problems, their relationship problems, that shape their ideas as much, and he was going to analyze capitalism through that lens of the interaction of ideas and concrete material reality back and forth.

AM: Marxists take a particular view of history called historical materialism. How does the current era of capitalism fit into the long history? I think you’ve mentioned this before—how this is just the latest chapter in a long history of economic development.

RW: The basic idea is that every economic system has in it conflicting forces. The language in Marxism is internal contradictions. The system has in it problems it is constantly struggling with because they are built into the system, and for long periods of time it finds solutions, but in the end, historical materialism says, the internal contradictions become unmanageable, and then there’s a kind of explosion. The system dies, and a new one is born, so we had slavery, for example, in various parts of the world. It was born. It evolved. It had its contradictions. For example, there was the contradiction that the only way a slave system can continue is if you replace the slaves that reach old age and die. That became a big problem for many slaves societies, so eventually slavery couldn’t solve its problems and it died, replaced by feudalism in Europe which went through a parallel process, and then it blew up because it couldn’t solve its problems. So historical materialism begins to look at capitalism through the same lens. What are the internal contradictions? How do they bedevil the system? What solutions, for a while, had they found? When and where might we get to a level of internal contradiction that makes the system tremble, makes it vulnerable? And at that point, if revolutionaries can see and understand what’s going on, they can intervene to move to the next system, to get beyond this. Just like rebels overthrew slavery, rebels overthrew feudalism. The expectation of Marx was that capitalism would generate the contradictions, then the tensions, then the failed solutions that would then bring into being the rebels with the ideas of criticism, Marx himself being one of those, who would eventually move to the next system.

To illustrate it as concretely as I can, let me give you an example of the kind of contradiction Marx found in capitalism that has been crucial for everybody else. And I pick it because it’s so relevant right now in the United States and around the world. Every capitalist… I think most of the folks watching know this, just from their personal life… every capitalist is always trying to either make more money or survive competitively by saving on his labor costs. One capitalist does it by substituting machines for working people, automating, getting a computer to do what he used to have fifty people do etcetera. Another capitalist does it by trying to get cheaper workers in place of more expensive ones, hiring women, if they are less expensive, to do the job that they used to pay men more for, hiring immigrants rather than native folks, moving to another part of the world where wages are much lower. We all know that. So capitalists are always trying to save on labor costs because they can make a better profit if they do that, but here comes the contradiction. If all capitalists are reducing the number of workers they pay, or reducing the pay they give to their workers, what will result is that the working people have less and less money, and if they have less and less money they can’t buy what the capitalists are producing to sell. The capitalists therefore are destroying themselves, but they have no choice. They have to save on the labor outlay, and then that comes back and bites them in the rear end because there’s no demand. You’ve been so successful becoming rich as a capitalist, but you’ve killed yourself.

These kinds of contradictions for Marx are the beginning of the end of a system. It papers it over. For example, when people couldn’t buy in the 1970s, the capitalist system kept going anyway. How did it do that? How did it keep going when the people didn’t have enough money from their wages to buy? The solution was credit. We loaded the world up with house credit: your mortgage, car payment credit (nobody buys a car except by paying on credit), credit cards, which didn’t exist before the 1970s for anything but traveling businessmen, and a small number of them, and then when that was not enough, we loaded up for the first time in American history, an entire generation of students who can’t get a degree without loading up with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. We kept this system going. People could buy stuff even though their wages didn’t pay for it by borrowing, and in 2008 the predictable happened. It turned out your fix only lasts for a while. You really have to ask this, in a way that many of us as Marxists haven’t done for most of our lives: the problems of capitalism now are so severe, so systemic, so global, that we’re beginning to wonder whether this system is going to find a way out. The Marxists are not the only ones wondering whether this system is coming to an end. The people on the other side of the political fence are very worried too.

AM: You have billionaires writing op-eds: “The pitchforks are coming for the plutocrats!” because they know what’s coming. Let’s talk about the bubbles. You talk about the housing bubble, and I think this is a really interesting indication. The housing crisis, the crisis of overproduction, the fact that we have more [empty] houses than we do homeless people, but because you have this crisis of overproduction, too much of something was produced and people couldn’t utilize it. Talk about that concept and why this is an inescapable phenomenon under capitalism.

RW: Starting in the 1970s, American businesses began to have what I like to call a eureka moment. They realized that in the West, North America, Western Europe and Japan, a hundred, two hundred years of capitalism had built up impressive factories, offices and stores, but they were built up in the places where capitalism was born, Western Europe, North America and Japan. That’s where they had concentrated everything and that’s where they had drawn workers in off the countryside to become urban, industrialized working classes, and along the way the workers, noticing how productive capitalism was since they did the work, demanded for themselves a rising standard of living. So roughly from 1820 to 1970, particularly in the United States, but elsewhere, wages rose. That’s why over that time capitalists were doing so well that they could raise the wages of their workers and still make out like bandits, so it was a system in which people began to get the idea capitalism works. It delivers the goods because it raises wages. You have to not look at what was happening where most people in the world lived—Asia, Africa, Latin America—because for them the situation was horrible, but if you concentrated on where capitalism was born, you could fool yourself into thinking, “Wow, this is a system that works.” And capitalists, of course, and the people who like it, celebrated all of that.

Then in the 1970s capitalists had this eureka moment. They said to themselves, “Wait a minute. We are in North America, Western Europe and Japan where the wages are now very high. Workers are now very happy, but why are we here?” In the rest of the world which has been savaged by the growth of capitalism in those privileged areas, wages are very low. So in this eureka moment capitalists said, “What are we doing here in Western Europe, North America and Japan? It’s much more profitable if we produce in China, India and Brazil.” And there begins what we’re still in the middle of: the exodus, the abandonment of the places of origin of capitalism by the capitalists, so there’s a massive move to China, India, Brazil and all those places, producing what? Well, what every capitalist wants, which is to make a bundle, so they build big factories imagining that they can sell all of this stuff like they used to, but they forgot something. If you go from high wages in the United States to low wages in China, the bottom line is that the people earning wages are earning a lot less than they used to. It’s not just that they’re not Americans; they’re Chinese, but they can’t buy back what you’re building. They can’t manage to consume what you have the capacity to produce. Right now China is slowing down. It’s scaring the whole world, but it’s not China that’s slowing down. It’s the inability of China to sell to the world because the wages of the world’s workers have been depressed now for years as we move out of Western Europe, North America and Japan into these lower… and the system totters as it encounters a very old contradiction in its current form for which they have no solution. And right now when it’s happening on a global scale… Europe is having it. North America is having it… Japan. These are the centers of capitalism. They’re in the most trouble right now and they don’t see a way out, and I don’t either, which makes it possible for the first time in my life to begin to see a capitalism that is in fundamental, shaking difficulty, and if I were to explain to someone why you get bizarre politics unlike what we’ve had for a century, I’d say it’s because of this.

And here in the United States you see the kind of theatrical buffoonery, but there’s more to it. Why is Trump such a character in the Republican Party? Why is that party literally tearing itself apart? Because it can’t cope. And even the Democratic Party [can’t cope], suddenly confronted with a socialist who isn’t marginalized simply because he gives himself the name “socialist.” In fact, it makes him attractive. What Bernie Sanders is proving is that the interest in socialism has captured millions of Americans.

AM: So I think a lot of people are aware of socialism, now especially since you have a self-proclaimed democratic socialist running for president, but they don’t actually understand what it means. I think they’re taking little bits and pieces—free health care, free education… Talk about the means of production and how a socialist economy would actually be structured.

RW: They came up with the following idea: that the problem of capitalism is two fundamental things. One, that private individuals own the means of production. They own the land. They own the factories. They own the stores, the machinery, and the people, the owners, are really a very small part of the population, 1%, 2%, 5%, maybe even 10%, although rarely did it get that high. But that means the vast majority of people are never part of the owners, and the basic socialist idea was if you allow a small number of people to control the means of producing all the goods and services we all need to survive, they’re going to use that control to make the system work for them, and they’re not going to worry about the rest of us. In other words, it’s a recipe for a society that produces wealth for the top 5 to 10%, but not for everybody else. It gives power, political and other power, to those at the top, and not to everybody else, so the socialist idea was this is fundamentally unjust, fundamentally undemocratic. This is what’s wrong with capitalism, and how do you solve it? You make collective ownership, not private. The society as a whole should own the means of production—the factories, the offices, the stores, so that they are good for everybody, so that what they produce is distributed roughly equally, so that the influence on the decisions are made social. It’s why it’s called socialism. It’s the society that should own. It focuses on the workplace. Its idea is that the way you make sure that the government never again becomes an institution over the people, but rather simply an instrument of the people, is by making sure that at the base of society, where people live and work, the wealth, the productive capability, is in their hands.

If you want the slogan of 21st century socialism, it’s this: democratize the enterprise. End this process where there is a handful of people who make the decisions. In most American corporations… and corporations do the bulk of the business in modern capitalism… a tiny group of what are called major shareholders, the people who have big blocks of shares, select the board of directors. 1% of Americans own 3/4 of the shares. It’s highly concentrated. A tiny number of people, the 1%, own the bulk of the shares. How do you run a corporation? At the top is something called a board of directors, usually 15 to 20 people. How do you get on the board of directors? There’s an election every year to get on that board, and the way the election works is if you own a share of stock in the company, you get one vote. If you have 10 shares, you get 10 votes. If you own a million shares, you get a million votes. If you have no shares, that’s how many votes you get. There is no pretense of democracy, so if a handful of people own the bulk of the shares, they control everything. They select the 15 or 20 people on the board of directors. The board of directors decides what the company produces, how the company does it, where the company is located, and what’s done with the profits. Everybody helps produce the profits. The employees have to live with the decision, but have no influence on it. It is the opposite of democracy, and if you don’t have democracy at the workplace, you can’t ever have it real in politics, either, because those at the top will buy the political system, something which we see in the United States so starkly every day that everyone knows.

If workers took over a factory that had a workers’ co-op instead of a top-down [management], and the workers together decided what to do with the profits, do you think they would give a few executives $25 million so they would have more money than they would know what to do with while everybody else has to borrow money to send their kids to college? It’ll never happen. Do you think a collection of workers, say 400 in a factory, considering that you could make more money if you moved production to China… Are they going to vote to get rid of their own jobs? They’re not going to destroy their community by having an empty factory. They’re not going to deprive their local government of the tax revenues to run the schools and the hospitals and they’re not going to deprive themselves of jobs. So what we’ve had in the last 40 years—all those jobs leaving—they would never have left if it had been the collective decision of the workers where this production is going to take place.

AM: And I wanted you to also just counter another argument that I hear constantly: “I earned it! We earned this money!”

RW: The best way to describe this is to go back to Karl Marx and his analysis of capitalism so that we all understand what earning is about. Let’s imagine you are a person looking for a job, and I’m the employer that you’re looking to get hired by, so you come in and you sit down. You fill out your application form and I look at you, and I describe to you the kind of work we’d like to have you do. You come, you do your 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, and you’ll sit over there and you’ll do this kind of work. And we get through all that. You’re OK with that, and then we get to that big question: how much are you going to get paid? And let’s say we go back and forth and we agree on $20 an hour, so I’m going to pay you $20 an hour, and at this point Marx enters with a smile on his face and says, “I’m now going to show you, the reader, that when that deal is done, something is going on that you actually know, but you don’t want to face, but I’m going to show it to you. When I hire you for 20 bucks an hour, I know that for every hour that you give me your work, your brains, your muscles, I’m going to have more stuff to sell at the end of the day because you were added to my work force. You’re going to help me produce more goods or more services, or better quality goods and services than I would have if I didn’t employ you, so I’m going to say to myself, “It costs me to get Abby $20 an hour. What do I get out of it?” I’m going to have the output that Abby adds by her labor. That has got to be more than 20 bucks, so the only way I’m going to hire you for $20 an hour is if you produce more in the hour than I give you. So when you feel in a vague way at the end of the day as you walk home that you’re being ripped off, you’re absolutely right. Or in Marx’s language you’re exploited, so what does the capitalists say? “I earned it.” No you didn’t. You just ripped people off.

The way most corporations work is 4 times a year they take the profits they’ve made in the preceding 3 months and they distribute a portion of them to their shareholders. These distributions are called dividends, so if you own a lot of shares because, say, you inherited them from your grandma, or you stole money and bought them on the stock market. There are lots of ways of getting them, but if you have them, 4 times a year you go to your mailbox in the morning and you get an envelope and you tear it open and inside is a check for your share of the profits that have been distributed to shareholders. For rich people this is millions of dollars. They have all that money. What did they do exactly to earn that money? Nothing. Those people are going to tell me they earned? Do they ever set foot in the factory? No. Do they have any idea what this company does? No. They don’t care! They are simply sitting there collecting. Well let’s now do a little logic. If there are people like shareholders who get a lot of goods and services they didn’t help produce, then there must be elsewhere in that system people who produce what they do not get, so that means if we allow that, we are saying to some people your job is to produce a lot more than you get so that these people can get a lot more than they produce. Marx stands up and says, “I rest my case. This system sucks.”

AM: Famous socialist Rosa Luxemburg once said that it’s either socialism or barbarism. Here we are 100 years later. In what ways have you seen that play out today?

RW: One: the 62 richest people in the world, most of whom are Americans… not all of them are, but most of whom are US citizens… the 62 richest people together have more wealth than the bottom half of the population of this planet—roughly 3.5 billion people. That’s beyond obscene. I don’t have an adjective that captures this, but I can describe what it means. If you look at all the statistics of the World Health Organization, the bottom half of our population are people who die way earlier than they need to. Why? Because their diets are no good, or they don’t have enough food in the first place. Or they can’t get to a clinic. They have little problems that are easily solved by modern medical methods. It’s unspeakable what happens to the lower half. If we took half the wealth of the richest, they would still be the richest, and if we made it available to the bottom half, it would transform their lives, literally. Now there is no moral or ethical justification for this situation.

Number 2: it is well known all over the world, despite a few deniers that are still around, that the way capitalism has evolved has compromised the ecology and environment of this planet, literally threatening us with 27 diseases and 57 losses of fundamental resources. This is crazy to permit this to go on. This is another way capitalism confronts us with barbarism.

And the third one is—and here the United States plays a particular role—is this notion that the Western world, the world that has the wealth and the military might, is in a war, an endless war against something as vague as terrorism, whatever exactly that is. And this is used to justify an endless use of resources not available for people’s needs but to combat one enemy, real or imagined, after another, so we literally confront an endless military warfare state, a cataclysmic destruction of our natural environment, and a level of inequality that has no justification.

Our entire economic situation would have been completely different the last 30 years if we had had a movement, if we had had organizations to make these demands because I haven’t the slightest doubt that the majority of Americans will support all of them.

It used to be at this point in an interview I would have to look at a skeptical interviewer saying, “Ah, Americans support this kind of socialistic stuff?” I don’t have that problem anymore because Mr. Bernie Sanders has done me a favor. By throwing his hat in the ring in the democratic primary and running around the country, as he’s been doing as a socialist, he has proven for all Americans to see that the support for something other than capitalism has now captured millions of Americans, and we don’t know how many millions because that still has to be shown. And the argument that was heard when Occupy Wall Street emerged in 2011: this is a tiny group of people who don’t represent anything—all that’s gone because Mr. Sanders has said, “Well, let’s see.” Let’s see how many people are critical of the 1% vs 99. How many people will support a candidate who says that every day and even accepts the label “socialist”? And the answer is millions.

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Transcript by Dennis Riches

Noam Chomsky & Abby Martin: The Empire’s Election Extravaganza

ChomskyWorld renowned linguist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky, joins Abby Martin to discuss the so-called War on Terror, the warped political spectrum in the United States, and how power functions in the Empire.

Chomsky argues that both the Democratic and Republican party have shifted to the right, with Republicans going “off the spectrum”, dedicating themselves to the interests of the extremely wealthy and powerful, and today’s Democrats becoming what used to be called moderate Republicans.

Delving into libertarianism and the role of predatory capitalism, Chomsky discusses the institution of neoliberal policies, which have pushed for things like major financial institution bailouts, and government subsidies to energy corporations. The contention that markets provide choices is farcical, argues Chomsky, as the market focuses you on individual consumption of consumer goods. “New libertarians”, according to Chomsky, are deeply confused as to the meaning and history behind classical libertarianism, and what they propose would lead to society collapsing,

Describing the Iraq war as of one of the last century’s greatest atrocities, Chomsky asks what right the United States has in bombing or invading a country, for whatever reason. While there is a lot of criticism in regards to the US killing civilians inside Kunduz hospital, “what about killing [Taliban members]”, asks Chomsky. “What right do we have to kill somebody in some other country?”

Abby Martin once again takes up beyond the headlines and brings us to the very heart of the issues in this episode of The Empire Files.

 

Noam Chomsky & Abby Martin: The Empire’s Election Extravaganza

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Panopticon Fatigue – Life, Sex and Death under the East German Stasi

[This article originally appears in issue #14 of White Fungus magazine, reprinted with publisher’s permission. Subscribe to White Fungus here

For five decades, the Stasi managed to painstakingly craft what was at the time the world’s most sophisticated surveillance state. The secret police of the German Democratic Republic’s Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (shorthand: Stasi) induced an era of fear among the East German population.

Not because they were killers, although some definitely were, but because of their manipulation capabilities. They could remove any chance for your future employment, ban your child from entering college, ruin one’s art career and even drive one to suicide. What made the Stasi particularly unique was that they had their surveillance and tracking methods down to a science. The Stasi were able to monitor and judge a situation from a far covertly and then ‘guide’ it towards an outcome they desired.

Most of the Stasi’s ‘successful’ operations were on specific targets, rarely ever were ‘legitimate threats’ detected or thwarted through massive sweeps. One senior Stasi official said their main weakness was that they could “listen in on everything”. In practice, spying on everyone simultaneously had a fundamental flaw – excesses of records made it tedious and time consuming to find the needle in the haystack. Almost all East Germans felt the presence of the Stasi in some way, but a surprising amount of former GDR citizens explain that they ‘never did anything wrong’ and therefore presumably never attracted Stasi attention. It’s this disparaging view that gives us insight into what soft totalitarianism in the form of mass surveillance does to the psychology of a society.

What happens to a collective group who are conscious of their privacy being removed? An obvious answer is that people behave differently, adapt or change their behavior in accordance to being watched, even erasing a free thought that threatens the state before it’s even fully formed. When rumors ran rampant in the GDR of Stasi cameras in private bedrooms and bathrooms and the exploitation of one’s private sexual practices or orientation had become regular fodder for blackmail, Stasi presence was probably even felt in the bedroom. The GDR hid damning suicide statistics to present a preferable image to the outside world, and finding any surviving psychological surveys of the population as a whole is virtually impossible. Only by piecing together personal stories, media and documented history of daily life under the Stasi does it become clear the unsettling side effects blanket surveillance can create in the lives of an entire population.

Instead of outright killing (for attempting to cross into West Berlin) or harshly imprisoning (for dissent), the Stasi’s preferred methods reveal an institutional and operational belief that their target’s actions could be vulnerable to influence or even prediction via total observation and control. For a man whose son was killed by GDR guards for trying to steal scrap metal off a base, it meant being monitored for over a year to make sure he didn’t raise too much of a stink about the murder. The expensive operation’s justification: his sister-in-law had spoken to a West German media outlet about the killings, which had subsequently cascaded into a worldwide story. Fearing further negative media attention, the Stasi staked out his apartment from across the road, made themselves a copy of his key, tapped his phone, and then settled in to await anything that piqued their interest. After a year of this sphere of surveillance which had now expanded to include his relatives, save for a few angry remarks about the murders, it was clear his interest had waned. The Stasi were finally satisfied that he wasn’t angling to attract media attention or escalate his cause. This is just one example of the ridiculous amount of resources dedicated to predicting the behavior of a single person suspected of merely being capable of causing embarrassment for the GDR.

the-stasi-museum-berlin[Stasi Museum : Germany. Reprinted with permission from White Fungus

Typically if someone was found to have anti-GDR sentiments, the Stasi would try to recruit a co-worker or loved one (possibly themselves already a part-time informant). In the absence of a loyal informant, the Stasi would resort to exploiting fracture points between family members. In some instances, Stasi agents would emotionally manipulate people wanting to flee to the West by convincing their parents to beg them to stay. If a dissenter continued unabated under Stasi prying eyes, then things in his or her personal life could and often did start to go awry such as losing employment, and in rarer instances mysterious failing health.

In the time of the GDR, if you were concerned about the penetrating effect of the Stasi into everyday life, suspicious of your communication being monitored, or concerned that your wife was an agent, you wouldn’t be crazy, you’d be savvy. But, the very nature of a society like this makes bringing up these concerns in public or even among friends and colleagues an untenable risk. A citizen with a tendency to go after young women behind his wife’s back would be ripe pickings the Stasi, and blackmail was often used to coerce such people into becoming a spy for the state. In one specific case, a suspected pedophile was allowed to remain free as long as he became a full-time informant for the Stasi. Generally speaking, the worse your secrets were, the more the Stasi could milk you for all you were worth.

Exploiting hidden sexual appetites was just one tactic used to swell the ranks of non-voluntary informants. The Stasi collected many genres of compromising material beyond the sexual. Blackmail was a surefire way to inevitably push any individual into indentured servitude. Records show that 1 in 60 citizens were officially on the Stasi payroll, but unofficial reports estimate that as many as 1 in 6 citizens either were passing information to the Stasi or informing in some capacity on the people in their lives.

This machine belonged to the postal inspection department of the Stasi. It automatically resealed envelopes

[This machine belonged to the postal inspection department of the Stasi. It automatically re-sealed envelopes. Reprinted with permission from White Fungus]

On January 15th, 1990, during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Stasi Headquarters was overtaken and shut down by activists. It reopened shortly thereafter as Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Normannenstraße, a Stasi museum open to the public. Visitors could now walk through the same spaces in which protesters had angrily breached the “‘shield and sword of the party’s” threshold and found Stasi officials still attempting to destroy incriminating files, even as they had run out of working shredders. The museum plays up the gadget aspect of Stasi spycraft reminiscent of crap films like James Bond. Necktie and pen cameras or wrist watch microphones may seem generic or crude by today’s standards, but it’s the oddities — cameras mounted in bird houses or car headlights, or hidden cameras inside tape recorders, and microphones inside watering cans and other garden accessories that leave the strongest impression. Keeping in mind that the GDR was economically isolated from the West, the miniature camera and microphone technology is in and of itself impressive.

The Stasi did indeed think outside the box, so considering the very unorthodox spy gadget concealment locations and how often and well hidden in public view they were, it’s not surprising the paranoia they instilled. The GDR in the 1980s was even able to reverse engineer an early IBM computer by procuring smuggled and cloned parts. Of course the main motivation was not to integrate programming or computer education into the GDR, it was to have cutting edge technology to database and catalog as much of the population as they possibly could. One of the strangest types of data they hoarded on the populace was olfactory, presumably to be used for police dogs. Scents were collected from clothing and personal effects and stored in labeled sealed jars. A storage room filled with these glass jars must have resembled a psychosexual experimental art installation.

gdr-stasi-museum-leipzig-2010-10

[Stasi Museum: Germany. Reprinted with permission from White Fungus]

Even more outrageous methods of tracking targets included a special kind of radioactive dust sprinkled into vehicles or clothing to give agents the ability to ‘spy’ with radiation detectors on top of microphones and cameras. Much more sinister, however, is the rumored Stasi method of assassination via highly targeted radiation poisoning. One involved a prolonged exposure emanating from an innocuous-looking  black box sitting on a table. It’s long been widely speculated that well known East German writers Jurgen Fuchs and Rudolf Bahro were assassinated by the Stasi in this way – given a carefully calibrated dose of radiation so that their deaths seemed natural and not immediate. The concept of a portable cancer box is not only bizarre, but justifiably terrifying. Even if this technique were rare, the whispers about such a punishment would undoubtedly inspire intense fear and panic in those that heard about it.

I stumbled upon this comment by a former citizen of the GDR, one Sabine Bohm on, of all places, Youtube (ironically in some ways Google, the company who owns Youtube makes the Stasi’s surveillance technologically seem quaint):

“I am glad I got out of this disaster in 1985. We were young creative, artistic people that was not wanted in the former GDR. Even without having done anything i had to sit 24 hours [in] jail and my diaries had been studied by the Stasi, who had broken into my flat and kept them with them. I was of course not so stupid to write my inner thought into it. The time was not easy”

Surveillance photo of a bedroom of a teen with alleged pro-Western sympathies simonmenner-stasi-125[Surveillance photo of a bedroom of a teen with alleged pro-Western sympathies. Reprinted with permission from White Fungus]

Sabine was aware the Stasi regularly read diaries. Although she kept one, Sabine simply made a conscious choice not to write certain thoughts down.  If you extrapolate this concept, the decision to change one’s behavior out of a fear of surveillance in other forms, it could create devastating psychological ripple effects. From the book Stasiland, another former GDR citizen, Julia, said,

“You’d go mad, if you thought about it all the time.”

She describes her experiences telephoning her overseas boyfriend,

“When I hung up I’d say goodnight to him, then I’d say, ‘Night all,’ to the others listening in, I meant it as a joke. I didn’t let myself really think about whether there was another person on the line.”

Julia felt that somehow she was actually able to tune out the worry. Calling it ‘paranoia’ would be inaccurate since, statistically speaking, the chances of the Stasi monitoring a telephone call between a foreigner and a GDR citizen was extremely high. I failed to find diagnosed cases of PTSD from people who lived under the Stasi and wondered about the philosophical underpinnings that might explain if it was a reaction to cognitive dissonance that lead to this, or if it was something else entirely.

“The Stasi Persecution Syndrome”, a 1991 research paper, makes the case that people under the Stasi experienced a unique type of PTSD that was more nuanced and harder to diagnose than typical PTSD.  The paper concludes that over 50,000 people who lived in the GDR could suffer from “persisting and paranoid anxieties, re-arousable by specific situations…persecution dreams, mood disturbances, [and] lack of confidence”

I decided to speak to a mental health professional who was well versed in the differences between genuine delusional paranoid schizophrenic thoughts and anxiety issues brought on by the prolonged fear of being watched. I spoke with Matt Likens, a licensed psychotherapist in California. Matt regularly deals with patients who have varying degrees of schizophrenia and upon my request familiarized himself with the Stasi.

Our correspondence is as follows:

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Robbie Martin: “If you aren’t doing anything wrong you don’t have anything to hide” ← what does this statement tell you about the psychological state of the person saying it?


Matt Likens: This statement presumes wrongdoing in and of itself.  It’s leading, and it’s meant in a way to intimidate, and if perpetuated, “wrongdoing” is manifested in some way, shape, or form, thus fulfilling the projected belief.  The paranoid individual trusts nobody, certainly not himself.  He is so terrified of literally not existing, annihilated.  Having oneself consumed by fear and dissolution, he must project that upon his environment.  This character structure exists not only in the individual, but is internalized by the state, and enacted in its systemic sense of omnipotent control over the masses.

RM: Some people under the Stasi who kept diaries would self-censor their thoughts in case the Stasi ever confiscated it. If that’s not ‘paranoia’, how would you describe that?

ML: Denial of one’s sense of self expression and spontaneous gestures both physically and cognitively causes pathology by definition. The formation of all repressive regimes are a result of the pathological incapacity and intolerance for the individual. Sexuality in particular is denied in these societies.  Wilhelm Reich wrote that, “..the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation.”

RM: There is something inherently narcissistic about imagining that you have been targeted for surveillance and reacting as if its actually happening in the absence of any evidence.  These are characteristics of delusional schizophrenics, but in the GDR where the likelihood of being surveilled was very high, what coping mechanisms could someone use to to stop worrying? 

ML: One of the most common and well utilized psychic defense mechanisms of an unconsciously paranoid individual is a thing called “reaction formation.”  In this mechanism, the individual is capable of defining real and actual feelings towards a threat into its polar opposite, rendering it less threatening to the ego.  Individuals under the rule of repressive organizations such as the Stasi understandably utilized reaction formation to minimize paranoia.

RM: Reaction formation sounds like the opposite of willful blindness, what segments of the population do you think fell into these opposing camps?

ML: Poor, sick, and psychologically fragile individuals have a vested interest in willful ignorance, as they live with day to day stress that more privileged individuals need not worry about as much.  I think that parents in particular naturally became far more likely to act in accordance to Stasi rule and law to protect the emotional health of their children.

RM: What about people labeling themselves as ‘not important enough’ to be surveilled, what kind of psychological side effects could a thought like that have? 



ML: Labeling oneself as “not important enough” to be watched is a powerful way of eliminating real and legitimate concern for one’s safety. This individual feels intense insecurity within himself for various reasons. I also like to think that individuals who minimize their sense of self importance as “the poor me Narcissist.”

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The Stasi kept such detailed records that citizens today can go to a special facility and request any records that were compiled on them, and then sit and read their dossier. Undeniably this access provides some catharsis because it attempts to answer the ever burning question in the back of many a GDR citizen’s mind, “was I being watched?”. Many former GDR citizens were surprised to find that the answer was yes, they were indeed being watched, and some of them far more than others.

What about the people who didn’t care to inquire even after being given the privilege? Perhaps many of them had already decided long ago that they were “not important enough.” The lingering after effects of mass surveillance continue to reverberate long after the Stasi’s demise.

written by Robbie Martin with contributions from Laurie Kirchner

follow Robbie on twitter @FluorescentGrey
 

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