Editor’s note: This article by Juliet de Lima, “On the Imperialist Cultural Offensive,” was first delivered as her keynote for the Commission 14 Workshop of the Fifth International Assembly of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS) on November 14, 2015.
Colleagues and friends!
A long-standing war exists between imperialism and oppressed peoples in the cultural arena. This has been ongoing ever since colonial masters realized that swords, bayonets, guns and bombs were not enough to quell armed resistance or wipe out entire rebel villages to effect the subjugation of a people. Since then the war for hearts and minds have continued as conquered peoples resist their subjugation in the cultural arena even before they themselves pick up the gun and fight back.
It is my pleasure and honor to speak on the imperialist cultural offensive before this workshop to help set the framework for the topic “People’s Cultural Resistance Against Imperialist Cultural Offensive.”
We are all aware that the imperialists are still the dominant force, growing ever more sophisticated with their comprehensive so-called counterinsurgency campaigns using bombs, bullets and deception, the latter not only against resisting peoples but also against the people in their own heartland. On the other hand wars of resistance produce battalions of cultural activists to buoy up the revolutionary spirit of the fighters and the people.
While the term “cultural activism” has come often to mean alternative or protest-oriented themes and forms in literature and the arts, the arena of cultural activism is actually much broader. As we might have learned in our humanities and sociology courses, culture does not only include literature and the arts, but also language—first of all, economic systems, socio-political systems, customs and traditions, religion, and science and technology. It encompasses a wide range of systems of thought, communication and behavior as expressed in people’s daily lives. Culture is both material and nonmaterial and includes first of all the language and symbols we use in communicating, our food, shelter and clothing, technological instruments and technology, our entertainment and sports activities, our attitudes and values, ideologies, and many more.
Progressive social science as a whole, especially Marxist theory, ascribes a crucial role to culture in the workings of society.
In analyzing a society and deriving its laws of motion, Marxism proceeds by studying its economic base, then also its superstructure (politics and culture) both in their particularity and in their interaction. The class that controls the economic base and appropriates the surplus product is the determinant factor in the long run, producing its own framework of political rule and dominant cultural precepts.
As Marx aptly said in The German Ideology:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. … Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.
However, the superstructure can become crucial in intensifying contradictions within the economic base or in breaking deadlocks towards resolution and general advance. Thus to be a cultural activist, one must understand the underlying contradictions and define one´s class stand. On whose side are we? As cultural activists, we stand with and for the people. We expose and criticize oppression and obscurantism in any or many aspects of this vast mental, communication, and behavioral complex that we call culture, and espouse revolutionary changes in society in that same space.
In the past two or three decades now, the world’s countries and peoples have been facing a renewed cultural offensive by the foremost imperialist powers. This offensive advances in parallel with their economic and political-military offensives. This cultural offensive is led by US imperialism. It is the “soft power” aspect of the US ambition for full spectrum dominance in the economic, political, military, social and other spheres, including outerspace.
The other workshops will probably be providing the bigger context of this imperialist ambition for full spectrum dominance and how it is expressed in the various arenas of conflict. But in this workshop, we will focus on the themes, messages and forms of the imperialist offensive in the cultural arena.
Its biggest themes are emblazoned slogans looming before us. The following are just a few examples of such slogans, and their central messages:
- Neoliberalism – The owners of capital should be free to profit where, when, and how they like, and should not be shackled but should be supported by state laws and regulations in this regard. However, state or inter-state regulations affecting the god of profit are anathema as they supposedly distort the operation of the “free market” (read: monopolies).
- Globalization – National barriers are obsolete and should be smashed wherever they still exist. Finance capital, goods and services must flow freely throughout the globe for everyone –read: for monopoly profit-taking.
- Capitalism as End of History – Other countries have tried alternative systems, and all have failed and have returned to capitalism. Capitalism may not be perfect, but it can reform its defects. A variant of this theme is: There Is No Alternative. People must suffer exploitation and oppression.
- War on Terror – All kinds of “terrorists” have proliferated throughout the world. They oppose or fight the US push for neoliberalism and globalization, and so they are enemies. Thus, it is right for US to launch wars against them wherever they are. It is the US global mission to invade countries, overthrow governments, and kill people that breed or coddle the “terrorists”.
- American Exceptionalism – Americans have the right to do all of the above, because the USA has the best democratic system in the world.
Under these central themes are a relentless stream of axioms and icons glorifying global monopoly capitalism. These cultural themes, messages, and symbols are constantly produced, reproduced and disseminated by the most technologically powerful media systems ever known: print, broadcast/cinema, and Internet/multimedia systems that encompass practically the whole world, 24/7 in real time, and with the capacity to manufacture so-called realities that fit the goals of imperialist domination.
Unless anti-imperialist forces, including cultural activists, develop a people-oriented consciousness and conduct a cultural revolution by doing their own mass work among the people to draw from, and raise awareness of their concrete needs and interests, the insidious cultural messages of imperialism in their myriad forms can easily spread and diffuse among them and clamp like parasites or bad habits into their daily lives. We are all witness to this malady, as confirmed by anecdotes, case studies, and statistics. We confront the most insidious messages of US-led cultural imperialism:
- from its crudest forms, such as McDonald diets, publicly accessible porn, fashion and consumer whims that change from season to season and more sophisticatedly Starbucks and the like with their banner of corporate social responsibility so enticing to the intelligentsia;
- to its mainstream forms, such as TV crime series and reality shows, movie blockbusters, NYT bestseller lists and virtual reality games that mostly distract and misinform; and
- all the way to high-level purveyors of imperialist ideology, such as the fine arts and literary elites, top-level universities, academic journals, policy think tanks, and new philosophical schools with outputs that pretend to being progressive or radical but are actually mere repackaging of self-indulgent petty bourgeois sensibilities in the service of the same rotten profit-ruled system.
All the above, including sports, movies and other forms of entertainment that take a great deal of time to preoccupy large masses of people are used by the ruling class to preclude or counter criticism of the system, shut out and pro-people ideas and sentiment and give free rein to pro-imperialist and reactionary ideas and sentiments.
This cultural offensive is not simply one that is planned and implemented among the ideological and cultural elite of US imperialism, i.e., in the CIA-funded and big business-funded think tanks and media corporations, but more significantly, it is wired into all the economic, political-military, and cultural/media agencies of the US government and MNCs, and in the international bodies where the US exercise significant influence.
Neoliberal globalization and US global military presence are intentionally designed to drive forward this cultural offensive. Globally and especially in third world countries, MNC conduct CSR ad or cause marketing campaigns; while US special forces undertake disaster, rescue and medical missions traditionally done by the Red Cross and charitable foundations to deliver more strongly than the latter the subliminal propaganda messages favoring US imperialism and its military forces embedded into seemingly humanitarian or charitable endeavors.
Furthermore, due to global labor mobility, even overseas contract workers and poor students on scholarships often become unwitting carriers of this cultural offensive when they bring or send home so-called “goodies” of their stay abroad, underscoring the massive influx of “superior” goods and lifestyles generated by global capitalism.
Let us look further at some examples of common themes and messages carried by this imperialist cultural offensive:
- Extreme individualism is justified in the name of “freedom” but always in the context of upholding the monopoly capitalist system that rewards the few at the expense of the many. This individualism is sometimes sugar-coated with a veneer of do-good charitable work a la Bill Gates.
- Closely related is the dream of getting rich—for example, by riding on capitalist financial/venture schemes (thus, the many success stories of small entrepreneurs or innovators rewarded big-time by the system), or by selling one’s artistic talents to instant stardom via Internet virality.
- Consumerism, or a crass type of individualist or hedonist materialism focused on satisfying personal wants and whims, devoid of any sense of responsibility to the collective and long-term needs of the poor and oppressed classes and sectors, of society at large, and of the planetary environment.
- Obsession with fantasy or futuristic worlds and superheroes (in novels, movies, TV series, comics, and digital games), mostly to lull people with dreamland scenarios and distract them from a full and concrete understanding of real-world problems and from exploring viable solutions or alternatives to the current rotten system.
- Covert or overt racism, as packaged in elite and white-dominated lifestyles (e.g. in fashion and fads, as reflected in advertising). Related to this is the notion of superiority of the cultural outputs of Western imperialist countries, whether it is a new piece of technology or research or novel. This cultural racism is often sugar-coated with ethnic tokens (as in films and music), which represent selected and safe icons of third world or non-elite cultures that have been “mainstreamed”.
- Glamorization of war, specifically on the use of high-tech weapons and individual superpowers, prettifying imperialist domination of small and weak peoples. Note that even in Hollywood movies that seemingly celebrate the victory of the small, the weak, and the native who persevered in resistance (e.g. Star Wars, Hunger Games, etc.), the victory is still due to class reconciliation after the worst villains are defeated and overthrown.
Let us also take a closer look at the role of language. In the way this is used, especially the terminologies and catchwords that seep down to common usage, language serve as actual and potential packaging tools of cultural imperialism. We must be aware and wary of pitfalls in this particular area. For example, among agencies of the UN, OECD, and private donor institutions a distinctive development policy jargon has been spinned and spread to civil society NGOs and a few radical organizations. Using such jargon to engage with some NGOs within the narrow UN development framework may have some special uses. But simply adopting such jargons that hide the reality of exploitation, oppression and impoverishment can trap progressives and anti-imperialist propagandists into the UN development framework primarily serving the diminishing top one percent of the population that continues to dominate society. A huge challenge to all anti-imperialist writers and other cultural activists is to study the language of the masses and adopt their style accordingly. In this regard, Mao Zedong had a lot to say in his “Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing”.
The imperialist cultural offensive has short-term and long-term impact on the world’s peoples, whether in the underdeveloped third world or in the most developed capitalist countries. It has become so pervasive worldwide that even the Western bourgeois academe has come to recognize its most obvious aspects, giving it the name “cultural imperialism”, the McDonaldization or globalization of culture, and producing extensive literature to explore its many ramifications among third world countries. Let us remember, however, that this offensive likewise impacts on the countries and peoples of the advanced capitalist countries as well as the US itself.
The most debilitating long-term effect of this cultural offensive is in creating obstacles—big and small—towards the development of revolutionary or socialist class consciousness among the workers and other toiling masses, and towards a militant national and democratic consciousness among oppressed peoples. If not countered and eventually defeated, such cultural offensive will produce a slew of petty-bourgeois subcultures that will numb the masses of working people.
Among other adverse effects on Third World countries, one particularly damaging impact of the imperialist cultural offensive is in the erosion and full-scale commercialization of local cultures in the guise of tourism. Selected and safe artifacts of local cultures are re-packaged into commodities and icons of a so-called “ethnic” but actually bourgeois-cosmopolitan culture. In the Philippines, to mention just one example, young wealthy urbanites have taken to seasonal treks to the Cordillera region to get native tattoos, buy antique artifacts, and climbing up to sacred mountain sites in their carloads to take selfies, without even an iota of understanding of Cordillera indigenous people’s struggles for land and life.
Let me conclude by stating that your Commission does not deserve to be No. 14. Your concern ought to have a much higher valuation in the hierarchy of ILPS concerns. It directly relates to Concern #1 and suffuses all the other ILPS concerns. It may be moved up to number 4. Marshalling the arguments to justify such a higher prioritization may be a topic in your current workshop and the subject of an important resolution for consideration by the assembly.
As cultural activists of the anti-imperialist movement let us take serious and comprehensive measures to counteract the imperialist offensive on all fronts, including measures in the cultural field that will serve as the basis of our tasks. In this regard, let us reflect on what has been accomplished and not accomplished over the last four years since the ILPS 4th International Assembly. While this keynote cannot preempt the workshop discussions that should produce those measures in the form of resolutions, may I suggest for the body to address the following concerns, which I see as pivotal in enhancing our capability to deliver the revolutionary message to the hundreds of millions of the masses:
- We must train ourselves to understand and deal with facts and events, as these unfold in the real-world conditions experienced by the masses. Let us not confine ourselves in ivory towers, honing our individual imaginations and crafts, away from the real world and the masses, but let us study current events, study history, immerse ourselves with the masses in their struggles, and in the course of our struggle develop, together with them the peoples´s culture based on concrete realities.
- Let us organize among the masses. It is good that we develop our various progressive, anti-imperialist and democratic guilds along literary and artistic crafts or professions. But these should not result in small and exclusivist (because self-limiting and in-bred) groups. Rather, let us must find various ways of embedding ourselves, individually or as teams, within workers’ unions, peasant associations, and other grassroots organizations of women, youth, children, LGBTQ, and other sectors, and in the process, find ways of developing anti-imperialist and democratic culture as a mass movement in a real sense, instead of being the output of small and scattered collectives of writers and artists.
- Lastly, let us all contribute our utmost to a unified cultural offensive of the people against imperialism, aware that the overwhelming dominance of imperialism necessitates strong organizations with strong leaderships guided by the ideology, politics and methods of a party of the most advanced and most productive class in our society today. Especially in this age of the Internet and multimedia, let us also help build powerful counter-media—powerful in that they are able to support the people’s struggles and effectively amplify the people’s voice, and in turn find resonance in and draw the concrete support from the masses in their millions. It is not enough for us to compete with the imperialists in such superficial terms such as trending hashtags, viral Youtube views, and TV ratings. More important to us are the long-term results, as measured in the sustained growth by leaps and bounds of the anti-imperialist mass organizations and mass movements at the national and the international level. Let us help build many channels, going in one general direction. At this point, one apt analogy is that of the people’s struggles as many small rivulets eventually conjoining into one endless current of strength to swamp the cultural strongholds of the enemy.
The essential task of progressive and revolutionary forces all over the world today is developing unity, cooperation and coordination of all peoples and raising the level of struggle against imperialism and reaction, in particular against imperialist plunder and war led by US imperialism the No.1 terrorist power.###