6: Misinformation and Ideology


The general orthodox explanation for misinformation in American politics stalls because it fails to fully appreciate history and ideology. The prime example is ‘Russia-gate’, a state-sponsored event where Russian ‘active measures’ sought to interfere in the 2016 US elections through seeking to limit Hillary Clinton’s campaign, boost Donald Trump’s campaign, and otherwise enflame existing social discord in that country. Russia-gate subsequently became a prolonged media event with several looping effects that reveal many of the deep cleavages in American society. While considerable attention is given to online protocols to safeguard against misinformation (e.g. Claesson, 2019), as the foundations for these cleavages do not lie in the event itself it is doubtful whether these protocols will be successful, even on their own terms.

My goal in this chapter is to argue that misinformation practices are products of modernity. By this I mean that American modernity is characterized by contradictions between its basic social forms. By forms I have in mind some of the entities Marx refers to, like the money form, the commodity form, and so on. The contradictions create a bind for rulers. On the one hand, these contradictions mean that their rule is never stable. On the other hand, acknowledging the contradictions risks courting redress that also threatens their minority rule. Due to the imperative to mystify these contradictions, social problems are subsequently treated as anomalies or otherwise externalized; they can never be features of the capitalist political economy itself. Misinformation is a common by-product of this externalization as the capitalist ruling class uses it to weld together pacts and alliances that preserve the social hierarchy.

The general orthodox explanation for misinformation in American politics stalls because it fails to fully appreciate history and ideology. The prime example is ‘Russia-gate’, a state-sponsored event where Russian ‘active measures’ sought to interfere in the 2016 US elections through seeking to limit Hillary Clinton’s campaign, boost Donald Trump’s campaign, and otherwise enflame existing social discord in that country. Russia-gate subsequently became a prolonged media event with several looping effects that reveal many of the deep cleavages in American society. While considerable attention is given to online protocols to safeguard against misinformation (e.g. Claesson, 2019), as the foundations for these cleavages do not lie in the event itself it is doubtful whether these protocols will be successful, even on their own terms.

My goal in this chapter is to argue that misinformation practices are products of modernity. By this I mean that American modernity is characterized by contradictions between its basic social forms. By forms I have in mind some of the entities Marx refers to, like the money form, the commodity form, and so on. The contradictions create a bind for rulers. On the one hand, these contradictions mean that their rule is never stable. On the other hand, acknowledging the contradictions risks courting redress that also threatens their minority rule. Due to the imperative to mystify these contradictions, social problems are subsequently treated as anomalies or otherwise externalized; they can never be features of the capitalist political economy itself. Misinformation is a common by-product of this externalization as the capitalist ruling class uses it to weld together pacts and alliances that preserve the social hierarchy.

To begin, I will outline the broad argumentation offered by securocrats, reactionaries and technologists on Russia-gate. Here I look at the proof put forward, the ethical reasoning invoked and the emotive appeals employed. I will also look at why these explanations fall short. In developing this point, my aim is tangential to weighing in on the actual, presumed and symbolic threat presented by authoritarian regimes in the international system as they use digital tools to pursue their agendas. Neither am I interested in assessing the technological efficacy or foreign policy utility of ‘active measures’, nor the lapses in media ethics as American cable news organizations happily partook in perpetuating unevidenced plots involving ‘active measures’, with those spreading falsehoods achieving professional success (see Taibbi, 2019). I will leave those critique to others more steeped in the specifics of those debates.

Popular rhetorics of misinformation

Although they have somewhat abated following the release of the Mueller Report and Trump’s impeachment hearings in March 2019 and February 2020 respectively, American national security analysts’ popular writings on Russia-gate are replete with astonishment and dire emotive warnings about authoritarians upending democratic life (e.g. Wittes and Hennessey, 2017; Rosenberger, 2019; Boot and Bergmann, 2019).1 Here misinformation is a tactic in the theatre of information warfare, itself set within geopolitical contests (see Theohary, 2018; Maréchal, 2017).2 Even the New York Times wades into this territory in their Operation InfeKtion documentary series (Ellick and Westbrook, 2018). In this genre, elected representatives tend to be framed as woefully technologically illiterate thus lessening the effectiveness of their oversight abilities. Conversely, the US national security establishment is depicted as morally and factually correct on longstanding Russian aggression. An associated trope is reliance upon nameless intelligence professionals whose judgement is impeccable and above reproach, and who serve a higher purpose on the front lines of a global information war to preserve democracy. Hereunto theirs has been a rearguard defence; although now, the aesthetics of the genre suggest, these security forces must be permitted to actively intervene to prevent an intrusion of unwanted foreigners into American domestic politics.

Similarly, on enough occasions to become a broad pattern, there is an insinuation that Trump’s erratic political behaviour stems from him being a Russian intelligence asset, beholden to debts accrued over 40 years of real estate financing and money laundering (e.g. Chait, 2018). In the same vein, members of Trump’s base are framed as ‘deplorable’ partly due to their bigotry and partly due to their continued support of Trump despite his geopolitical concessions to Russia which are said to jeopardize American economic and political predominance the world over. Herein misinformation is understood as a weapon of the weak deployed against the US by its geopolitical adversaries. From the orthodox standpoint, the traction of misinformation is explained as certain Americans lacking patriotism, resilience, media literacy and as otherwise being psychologically predisposed to manipulation.3

Unable to admit to Russian meddling as Trump believes it would undermine his electoral victory, from another vantage he and his base construe that the leadership of American intelligence agencies repeatedly sought to undermine his administration, even before it took office. Among other happenings, this metanarrative has been mythologized in two events. The first was supposedly started in June 2016 by intelligence agencies seeking to marginalize the Trump campaign by suggesting it was a beneficiary of Russian state assistance and cyber-sabotage. In this narrative Obama apparently pushed the agenda, forcing Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid to write a public letter in September wherein they stated that ‘the states face the challenge of malefactors that are seeking to use cyber attacks to disrupt the administration of our elections’ (2016, 1). Similar statements came from the Obama administration in October and December of that same year (see Sanger and Savage, 2016; Obama, 2016). The second event is the 6 January 2017 meeting between Trump and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers, where they briefed Trump on the Steele Dossier and Russian ‘active measures’ (see Perez et al, 2017). Again, as per the narrative, in this meeting these officials sought to convey that Trump was beholden to their dossiers on him, an invention of the ordinary Russia-gate kompromat story. Herein, the subsequent firing of James Comey, as but one example, is read as Trump asserting his formal legitimacy that derives from electoral victory over Clinton, a candidate perceived to be preferred by those ‘inside the beltway’. In just over a year all four officials were replaced.4

For Trump, Russia-gate is a clarifying divisive issue, an encumbered narrative with villains who hinder democratic will. His demonization of Democrats, government officials and the press undertaken to galvanize his base, these being white socially conservative working-class people, underscore that he is the only person who can address the perceived deficiencies in American life. As he conducts his politics on platforms, his base revels in how institutional struggles, once behind closed doors, play out in public. In addition to a theatrical component, to his constituents this performance gives credence to Trump’s otherwise dubious remarks that “there has never been, ever before, an administration that’s been so open and transparent” (White House, 2019; also see Jacobson, L., 2019). For them, misinformation arises from elite corporate media and holdover Obama government appointees like Preet Bharara and Sally Yates who seek to thwart their due democratic will.

Lastly, another set of interrelated concerns involve how it is not in the business interests of platform companies like Facebook to curb the spread of misinformation. Doing so would acknowledge that they view themselves as responsible for third-party content and thereby alter their status under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a subcomponent of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This means platforms would lose immunity from liability from the effects of the content third-party users post. This is primarily why Mark Zuckerberg argues that “Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online” (Halon, 2020). But platforms do already have rules for truth on a variety of content.

As a result, platform companies are publicly raked over the coals (see House Financial Services Committee, 2019). Ritualistically, like it has for a decade now, Facebook offers apologies for privacy violations (Yglesias, 2018) and donates funds to the elected representatives charged with oversight (Open Secrets, 2020b). In the meantime, the company steadfastly refuses to ban microtargeted untruthful political advertising (Ortutay and Anderson, 2020), proposing instead a system of fact checkers. But even setting aside thorny first-order normative questions about moral facts, truthfulness and democratic theory, the fact-checking partners have limited resources. Besides which, under corporate policy claims by politicians and political parties are exempt from this evaluation. Facebook defends this position by invoking commitment to core American values, like ‘free expression’ and a ‘respect for the democratic process’, even while legislators remain unconvinced.5

Yet altogether these partisan rhetorics about, and struggle over, political description, like misinformation, can be greatly improved through a discussion of ideology. Capital is a good starting point for a theory of ideology, namely the comprehension of subjective experience as it relates to the tacit acceptance for the reproduction of the mode of production. In the opening pages, Marx proposes that understanding capitalism requires moving beyond the ‘immense accumulation of commodities’ (1976, 125). With brevity in mind, a commodity has both a use value and exchange value, but the fetishism of the latter and the neglect of the former demonstrates how the market comes to structure conceptualizations of society, which in turn factors into how social relations are legitimated and naturalized. Instead the market, as an appearance, is the manifestation of production, the ‘hidden abode’ (Marx, 1976, 279) as it were. As an example, supposedly workers are nominally free to sell their labour power, but as a commodity labour power ‘becomes a mere form, which is alien to the content of the transaction itself, and merely mystifies it’ (Marx, 1976, 729–30).

Labour is not the only ‘mere form’. There are many appearances in capitalism. They arise because of the wider contradictions between the basic forms in capitalist society. Consider how the US economy requires extensive cross-sector cooperation, but as the means of production are privately held it creates a suboptimal economic configuration, the parts of which frequently work at cross purposes from one another. Moreover, despite this extensive cooperation between many people, the benefits of production are returned to a few people in the form of private profit. Additionally, commodity fetishism comes to shape the parameters of these social relations. Fetishism has two consequences. The first ‘makes the actual relation invisible’, while the second establishes the parameters by which ‘all the notions of justice [are] held by both worker and capitalist’ (Marx, 1976, 680), namely that, notwithstanding cooperation in the production process, it is deemed fair that profits exist and go to just a few people.

Effectively, Marx’s analysis surrounding commodity fetishism is less about the manipulation of persons to act against their interests, and more an illustration about the character of subjective experience when social life is only understood through the lens of the exchange value which guides material reproduction. In short, ideology is a factor in the formation of the subject as well as how subjects come to comprehend experience. From these insights, in the late 20th century there were several projects to expand upon how communication and culture was related to subjective experience. Stuart Hall’s (1988) articulation is one of the most notable efforts to establish the boundaries and capabilities communication has for reinforcing or altering existing social relations, in addition to reinforcing or altering how societies and persons come to understand the meaning of these social relations. He has another point worth relaying, which is that race and class relations are not autonomous from one another, and that indeed what is treated as robust concepts are but the ossified by-products of weak distinctions (Hall et al, 2019; see Chapter 5) As such, Hall concludes that subjects are always in the process of forming. Accordingly, it is vital that we look at subjects in the totality of the social process and its history, with media environment aiding in that ongoing formation.

Ideology and politics

With these points in mind, I now turn to the issues involving ideology and politics within capitalist societies. To begin, in formal American electoral politics the two parties are both committed to a programme which prioritizes the protection of capitalist interests. Still, Noam Chomsky describes the Republican Party as a candidate for the ‘the most dangerous organization in human history’ (Goodman and Chomsky, 2016, 1), while Kevin Phillips (1990) understands ‘the Democrats as history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party’. Chomsky means that Republicans’ unrestrained enthusiasm for capital accumulation enables war-capitalism and petro-capitalism that has and will kill millions of people in the 21st century alone. Philips means that Democrats collude with this imperative, raising narrow questions to temper revolts from the working class when that imperative is questioned. Due to this loyalty to capital, W. E. B. Du Bois was adamant that ‘there is but one evil party with two names’ (1956).

The shared agenda between the Republican and Democratic parties is longstanding. For example, in the Gilded Age, Grover Cleveland had close connections to big financiers (see Welch, 1988) while Democratic presidential nominees in the 1920s – James Cox, John Davis and Alfred Smith – followed the same pattern. Smith even opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal (Anon., 1936). These joint ventures arise because under capitalism government becomes an apparatus for capitalists to protect their ability to continue exploiting labour and appropriating the surplus value of labour as profit. This involves ‘the creation of “order”’. The imperative of this order is to mediate the legalization, perpetuation and moderation of class conflict, while adopting a rhetoric in which it is the mechanism for the alleviation and reconciliation of class conflict (see Lenin, 1999).

Due to this project, loyal parties of capital are limited by how much they can provide sustained and permanent relief to the social issues that arise from subordination in a stratified class system. Instead they must contrive divisive political issues to motivate their voters. Ignoring the role of capitalism, these contrivances paper over and distract from the fact that both parties are generally prohibited from doing anything substantive about the main forms of oppression, the stratified economic system, the forms that enable it and the resultant maldistribution.

Put simply, American political parties must distract citizens from the primary causes of oppression and alienation. Subsequently, matters that are apolitical, even technical, become venues for politics, proxy sites for contest between the parties, like the various culture wars that have been waged in the neoliberal era (see Hartman, 2019). While the intensity of these proxy wars may wax and wane, polarization is nevertheless a key component in the differentiation required for electoral success. As a result of differentiation, certain practices and beliefs become coded as either the province of the Democratic of Republican Party, even if this signification ostensibly has little to nothing to do with those parties’ politics or platforms.

As this template applies to Russia-gate, irrespective of the degree and kind of Russian espionage, from the beginning Trump framed the issue as a last-ditch effort by Democratic-aligned elites to delegitimize his presidential victory thereby hindering his legislative agenda. It does not matter that in practice the Democratic Party has for the most part endorsed his agenda. What matters is the appearance of conflict. Through uncritically parroting this narrative, the right-wing media benefits by continuing to position itself as counter-elite programming, which relies on contrarianism to sell advertising to conservative audiences. Accordingly, this information fits with those audience members’ beliefs. Explaining how these beliefs have been made requires turning to selected issues in American modernity in the next section.

Reactionary racial agendas

Poor whites have been active and passive participants in their own oppression. It is not surprising that ‘one of the finest historians ever developed in the United States’ (Robinson, 2000, 185), Du Bois, provides the preeminent analysis of that subject, tracing the alliances that consolidated during the 19th century, a set of implicit bargains the consequences of which still reverberate in the early 21st century. Initially, ‘the opportunity for real and new democracy was broad’ for the masses of European migrants fleeing European autocratic states before and after the revolution (Du Bois, 2013, 14). In America, these migrants found power loosely associated with landholding, while the needs of an economic form generated an adaptable workforce able to acquire wealth and the ability to change station more easily than in Europe, Du Bois noted. This subjective experience was only possible because of the spatial fix whereby Indigenous genocide and colonial dispossession on the frontier created ‘free land’ that underwrote the suspension of capital’s contradictions for the first century of the ‘American experiment in self-government’. This meant that white workers ‘were not willing to … regard itself as a permanent labouring class’ (Du Bois, 2013, 14). This was the material foundation upon which white workers began to affiliate with the class interests and practices of capital.

Over several decades these subjective ideals increasingly clashed with free black urbanization which among other things reduced wages for whites, thus threating social mobility. Fighting over scraps, race riots were a common occurrence throughout Northern cities between the 1820s and 1840s, with new white migrants blaming black labour for the prevailing misery. In the decade prior to the US Civil War, notable labour organizations like the Congress for Trade Unions tended to ‘ignore the Negro’ and explicitly emphasize race over class, thus leading to skilled labour establishing closed shops that had racial boundaries (Du Bois, 2013, 19). ‘They wanted a chance to become capitalists’, Du Bois writes, ‘and they found that chance threatened by the competition of a working class whose status at the bottom of the economic structure seemed permanent and inescapable’ (2013, 15).

The Southern experience was slightly different. Du Bois argues that Southern planters were driven primarily by desires to consume, to keep themselves in the habits resembling the ancien régime, with little interest in productive innovation, leaving that to Northern industrialists. ‘The planter wanted results without effort. He wanted large income without corresponding investment’, is how Du Bois describes the circumstances (2013, 32). There is another factor. In the corresponding struggles with Northern industrial finance and its attempts to create a national competitive economy, because Southern planters held their capital as the enslaved, they aggressively resisted any and all economic changes that threatened to devalue their wealth and holdings. At the same time, through items like the Three Fifths compromise, the enslaved were one means to inflate Southern congressional representation to somewhat match Northern representation. Yet this balance of power was weakening. With the rise of industrialism, bonded labour was being replaced by contract labour. Indeed, Steven Hahn summarizes how Southern planters well understood that ‘amid a deepening crisis of colonial and monarchical regimes, the bonds of servility were steadily weakened, while the contours of political authority were refashioned’ (1990, 75). When the Confederacy was formed, only Cuba, Brazil and Puerto Rico maintained systems of slavery in the western hemisphere.

Concurrently, Du Bois relays how in 1860 5 million Southern whites held no slaves. Certainly 2 million did, but ownership was largely concentrated among 8,000 slaveowners (2013, 22). This in no way excuses these 5 million persons, and they certainly benefited from the enslavement of other people. Rather it is to point out that there were class tensions between Southern whites, and that these differences help explain why class relations deteriorated during the Civil War. For example, the Confederacy conscripted poor whites using the Second Conscription Act of 1862, while that same act provided an exemption for slaveholders who owned more than 20 slaves. With the Union permitting a $300 commutation fee, there is a degree of truth to the adage that the conflict was ‘a rich man’s war, a poor man’s fight’ (see Martin, 2003). Still, while some of these whites were ‘united in interest with slave owners’, the ‘mass of poor whites’, Du Bois explains, ‘were economic outcasts’ (2013, 28).

In the lead-up to the Civil War, as a way for planters to shore up support for their otherwise tenuous position, they sought to justify racial hierarchy through the church, school system and periodicals. ‘In order to maintain its income without sacrifice or exertion, the South fell back on to a doctrine of racial difference’, and these beliefs were ‘primarily because of economic motives and the inter-connected political urge necessary to support slave industry’ (Du Bois, 2013, 34). Through affective, motivational and cognitive elements, the project of whiteness cashed out in giving poor whites higher status offsetting their low economic wage. This civic ascription served as a recruiting device for a cross-class political alliance between rich and poor whites, while also positioning them as antagonistic against blacks (also see Roediger, 1999).

During Reconstruction, Civil War planters were institutionally marginalized as the Union oversaw the formation of new state governments. As one means of their power was curtailed, planters also feared the rise of cross-racial labour unity which could oppose their interests. To stall this type of consolidation, planters sought to intensify racial prejudice. It did not matter if there was black political representation in Washington, in state legislatures or even in new constitutions. What mattered was relationships on the plantation, on the farm and in town. Planters used divisive tactics to stoke racial resentment in the wake of abolition to try and preserve their place in the economic order and fragment any nascent class solidarity. In effect, class solidarity was replaced by racial solidarity. Poor whites took up this invitation and became important enforcers of the pact. John Calhoun understood this very well, saying that ‘With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals’ (quote in Robin, 2018, 54). The result is that the Reconstruction Era further institutionalizes an American racial order predicated upon an alliance between poor white workers and capitalists.

It is imperative to appreciate the power dynamics in the construction of this racist pact. Southern capitalists had resources to mobilize and strategically deployed their wealth to divide the working class. Born before the Civil War and to planters, Ben Tillman’s political career in South Carolina exemplifies the decades-long project to form a cross-class consistency united by white supremacy, a project that involved terrorism and massacres of blacks by Red Shirts throughout Reconstruction (see Kantrowitz, 2000). As Elaine Frantz Parsons notes:

White Southerners still had immense advantages over their black neighbours: they owned the vast majority of land and other capital; as a group they were considerably more literate and numerate; they had experience controlling and working within institutional structures such as local government, the military, and other voluntary organizations; and they had important allies. (2015, 1)

Considerable effort and propaganda by Redeemers went into undercutting poor workers from forming a political movement. Notwithstanding their more secure positions, ‘white southerners shared a widespread fear that their former slaves would rapidly overtake them’ (Parsons, 2015, 1). By contrast, despite good efforts, due to poverty, their place in the social order and having been recently enslaved, blacks had fewer resources to counter the planters’ project. This project was helped, in the broader context, by tensions with the Republican Party. Conservative Republicans balked at the Radicals’ aim to remake the South as well as pursue a Great Reconstruction that included the West. Liberal Republicans, on the other hand, had a more limited agenda which prioritized restoring the Union over making sure freed people could practice their rights. It also did not help that ‘many Radicals and most Republicans were racist’, Richard White writes. ‘It would have been astonishing had they not been’ (2017, 61).

These are enduring, categorical inequalities. In short, the intensification of prejudice made cross-racial working-class organizing more difficult, if not impossible. But it also ensured that poor whites perpetuated their general conditions of exploitation, oppression and domination through an acceptance of racial othering. Du Bois spoke to this point when he wrote that ‘race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers’ (2013, 626). Likewise, he adds that ‘there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest’ ((2013, 626). And so strategically Ignatiev is programmatically correct to note that ‘the fight against white supremacy becomes the central immediate task of the entire working class’ (Ignatin and Allen, 1976, 28).

These episodes from Reconstruction are emblematic of reactionary politics which directly target what Corey Robin calls ‘the emancipation of the lower orders’ (2018, xi). For Robin, conservatism is ‘a meditation on – and theoretical rendition of – the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back’ (2018, xi). Herein contemporary rhetorical tenets, like refrains for limited government and the like, are by-products of an ‘animating purpose’ that ‘has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders’ (2018, 16, 8). For example, in Robin’s reading, Burke’s objection to the French Revolution has less to do with its gratuitous violence and more to do with the overhaul of established deference and command. Indeed, conservatism claims that unequal relationships need to be preserved, as they are necessary for the advancement of civilization. Thus, a politics that even tangentially threatens these hierarchies is said to be a threat to civilization itself, a signal of grand decline. While conservatism may have intellectual elements, the primary desire is to keep the relationship between the subordinated and the superior intact. So, a good portion of these intellectual elements are post hoc justification for predetermined ends.


During modernity, conservatives came to understand that preserving minority rule in mass industrial society required fostering alliances with segments of the masses. Selected subordinated groups could be co-opted through borrowing from the Left’s repertoire of contention, asserting agency, duty, redress and rights as it suited their purpose. But they could also be petitioned through an array of rhetorics of perversity, of futility and of jeopardy, while identifying scapegoats that have caused immanent loss (see Hirschman, 1991). Here reactionaries insist that they, and only they, are the political force that can restore any number of things lost, whether that be dignity, standing or safety. This is very much evident in rhetoric used during the 20th-century ‘Red Scares’ and against the civil rights movement.

To comprehend the politics informing the Red Scares, it is important to note how during the 20th century capitalism became synonymous with ‘the American way of life’ in the popular social imaginary; by extension this support became a prerequisite of patriotism and civic mindedness in general. It also cloaked an economic system predicated upon the exploitation of wage labour. In combined operation with the naturalization of a private property rights regime for the means of production, social inequality was intensified. To account for the evident structural failures, American ideology made the virtues or vice of the individual person the primary explanation for social success or failure. As such, this conflation meant that in one way or another all the primary values in American life came to justify and enable exploitation.

By contrast, socialism was coded as a foreign threat to the American way of life. Therefore, American citizens who advocated for socialism were deemed treasonous, as in the first and second Red Scares. Indeed, anything that threated relentless exploitation – or sought to upend hereunto naturalized orders and hierarchies – was labelled as socialist even if it ostensibly had little to do with that political philosophy. As such, the Red Scares are not moments of irrationality in the history of American political life. Rather, they were purposeful attempts by conservatives to marginalize advocates for redistributive politics by associating them with Soviet espionage for instance (see Storrs, 2013). Accordingly, as Marxism provides an alternative explanation for the development of American social life, by its presence alone it is deemed a threat. Marxism is therefore not something to be debated, but something to be defeated. Again: if socialism is a threat, then capitalism must be protected.

In graphing capitalist social relations on to American cultural values, and marginalizing other kinds of sociological accounts, American capitalist ideology sought to reinforce the idea that national identity trumped class solidarity. And as Coates argued, in this context national identity is a white identity. As it manifested on the shop floor, the ideological message to workers was that foreign socialists were the problem, not those that exploited them. Like in Reconstruction, this project sought to stall a cross-racial working-class solidarity while also obscuring class interests through inducing affiliation between workers and their oppressors. In effect, cultural projects became useful protections of the exercise of power in the public space, so that these could later protect power in the private realm.

Conservatism has two expressions according to Robin. First, as a ploy to gain power reactionaries indict the existing rulers for permitting egalitarian groups to form and organize, gain public traction and claim rights. Second, reactionaries are very willing to repurpose the motifs of revolutionary politics, as well as mobilize the associated grievances to push for power. For example, in 1968 and 1972 Republicans expanded their constituents by emphasizing national themes and downplaying commercial interests. There were popularist rhetorical attacks on inflation and big government, civil rights and the liberal establishment. Through embracing outside politics and an anti-elite stance it used these issues to intensify exploitation and the concentration of wealth, in doing so ending the radicalism and unrest from the 1960s and kicking off the neoliberal era.

Like in the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties and the Reagan–Bush years before, these techniques were on display in Trump’s 2016 election. He famously indicted Republican Party leaders during the 2016 Republican primary, arguing that these elites had bargained away standing and privileges. He also mobilized rhetorical attacks on neoliberalism, pointing to Democratic and Republican elites’ positions on trade deals, foreign wars and economic inequality. In the three years since the 2016 US election, the Trump administration has hardly followed through on any of these projects; this should not be surprising because the point is to use grievances to attain power. This is what, in Robin’s view, makes Trump the ‘most successful practitioner of the mass politics of privilege in contemporary America’ (2018, xi). Trump’s skill has been to harness an affective charge by mobilizing slights then connecting them to a reactionary agenda. In that way Trump is a conventional figure in the conservative tradition. His racism, his authoritarianism, his inconsistencies and his behaviours are quintessentially counter-revolutionary.

As this applies to the contests over power and Russia-gate, Trump’s supporters believe that they are defending the American way of life, a system that is actively oppressing them. They are poor and miserable because at a general level poverty and misery are the inevitable outcomes of relentless accumulation. Capitalists and their political agents must rationalize and redirect criticism away from fundamental social relations and otherwise obfuscate the harm capitalism causes. They do so by providing scapegoats for misery because it can never be the inherent fault of capitalism. Tactically, it repeats the dynamics in Reconstruction and the Red Scare. It can only be these scapegoats who are hindering the extension of market relations and the rigid hierarchies required to reproduce these relations. Yet by not being able to mention any of these dynamics, the loyal parties of capital turn to polarizing issues as strategy – because of this, the comprehension of public issues are partial, based upon appearances, and are not tamed by good faith efforts at discursive engagement. As a result, misinformation is the status quo.

It is not a coincidence that there is more of an appetite by progressive neoliberals to attribute Trump’s electoral success to fake news than efforts to delve deeper into the politics of race and gender, the nature of the public or the efficacy of institutions among other items on a rather long list. Similarly, media workers can advance their own lay pet theories about the dynamics of their industry rather than consult the research into these more difficult and complex topics, topics that if given the treatment they deserve may well lead to diminished viewers or readers as audiences themselves confront the longstanding ramifications of their horrible politics. Essentially, attributing current politics to fake news allows these groups to avoid confronting how endemic and institutional racism is perpetuated in American politics. It is much easier to suggest that social media manipulation is destroying democracy than to acknowledge the horrors of neoliberalism. Arguably the disproportionate emphasis on the role of fake news as an explanation reveals some of the broad contours of American discourse, a discourse that aggressively seeks to abstract itself from material politics.

As such, ‘fake news’ is an easy explanation for progressive neoliberals. It explains Trump’s appeal without asking them to undertake introspection about their complicity in the alienating effects of at least 25 years of mature aggressive neoliberalism, an agenda that to a greater degree they have endorsed and facilitated the implementation thereof. So while there is something to the adage that ‘Fox News invented fake news’, I do not think this is a sufficient explanation for the rise of American authoritarianism. Nor do I think one needs complicated studies to understand that people share fake news not because of supposed truthfulness and believability but because it fits discursive partisan frames thereby signalling affiliation and identity.

I endorse Robin’s argument that reactionary politics seeks to define a new era in a political system through decisive action just as the current settlement is crumbling. This involves the application of various forms of violence – physical, slow and symbolic – to restrain emancipatory politics and counter specific social movements located in specific places and times with specific agendas. Misinformation then is a slow, symbolic and methodical set of manoeuvres used to legitimate subordination to the market; it conveys the naturalism of capitalist social relations. Accordingly, anxieties about American citizens’ susceptibility to Russian ‘active measures’ arises because these same citizens have been conditioned by misinformation for several centuries. Despite all the stress on technologically novel forms of misinformation, the role and meaning of misinformation in a capitalist society are not matters of technology, but of politics.

Let me bring my argument into focus. Due to the various contradictions between the basic forms in capitalist society, ideology shapes the parameters of social relations and identity. The larger point of the episodes I have described – Reconstruction, the Red Scares and the neoliberal revanches – is to illustrate the role of white ideology in the formation of subjective identity and the comprehension of subjective experience. Each episode involves a politics of misinformation whereby class solidarity is fragmented by obfuscating the first causes of harm in a capitalist society. While the capitalist polity tends towards frequent revolutions in the means of production, it has a reactionary character insofar that it seeks to preserve the hierarchy of bosses over workers. But whereas these groups do not share strategic interests or goals, misinformation is deployed by rulers and their agents to form the requisite alliances needed to preserve this basic inequality. Misinformation, then, is certainly promoted by communication technology, as it is in commodities, politics and other forms. To put it as plainly as I can, misinformation is not an engineering problem. It is not even a social problem. It stems from an active avoidance of the social question. Granted, the explanation I have advanced for misinformation may very well not fit ‘the interested prejudices of the ruling classes’ (Marx, 1977), but that is to be expected.


By Russia I mean to signal the state as opposed to the country in general or its citizens in general.


From Catherine Theohary’s perspective, synonyms for ‘information warfare include active measures, hybrid warfare, and gray zone warfare’, while ‘the types of information used in [Information Operations] include propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation’ (2018, i).


For a critical genealogy of the roots of this anxiety, see Jeffrey Whyte (2018) on the emergence of the American security institutions’ concern with psychological warfare through news and information, and the vulnerability of US citizens to these practices in the lead up to the Second World War.


Clapper and Brennan retired on 20 January 2017, the same day as Trump’s inauguration. To public alarm Comey was fired by Trump within a month, on 9 May 2017, and Rogers retired in May 2018.


While it is not a mainstream view, in part because their views are verboten on cable news, democratic socialists are wary of the state, party and market. They judge Russia-gate to be a face-saving exercise pushed by Democratic Party operatives considering Clinton’s defeat by Trump, an electoral race these operatives believed they would win with ease. Moreover, given the debacle around the pretext of using weapons of mass destruction to invade Iraq in 2003, to give a recent example, democratic socialists do not automatically give credence to US intelligence agencies (see Marcetic, 2019).

Content Metrics

May 2022 onwards Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 18 4 0
Full Text Views 47 47 4
PDF Downloads 58 58 4