Phantom Monsters: Nationalism, Paranoia, and Political Control

The deeper I delved, the more it appeared that this panic was, to some extent, kept alive by the governments of the day. I also became aware of the degree to which the presumed need to safeguard the political and social order facilitated the introduction of new methods of control and repression.”

– Adam Zamoyski, Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty 1789-1848

The Study of Political Paranoia is inevitable in our time, and reading Adam Zamoyski’s work brings us back to another moment when a convergence of nationalism, paranoia, and panic seemed to pervade every aspect of social life of the elite and power brokers who waged war against any and all who threatened their status and power. Watching the stagecraft of current U.S. media-blitz polarity in which panic and terror of both Trump and Russian invasive strategies, along with the internal Deep State paranoia surrounding much of the history of U.S. secrecy, etc. promotes panic in the common world of the masses, stirs up political unrest and secures a sort of ongoing insecurity that allows the powers to enforce oppression and control while distilling a grand narrative to invent a new order. More interesting as Zamoyski’s study shows is that this has all happened before under other skies and other nations:

“The reordering of the Continent by those who triumphed over Napoleon in 1815 was intended to reverse all this. The return to a social order based on throne and altar was meant to restore the old Christian values. The Concert of Europe, a mutual pact between the rulers of the major powers, was designed to ensure that such things could never happen again.

Yet the decades that followed were dominated by the fear that the Revolution lived on, and could break out once more at any moment. Letters and diaries of the day abound in imagery of volcanic eruption engulfing the entire social and political order, and express an almost pathological dread that dark forces were at work undermining the moral fabric on which that order rested. This struck me as curious, and I began to investigate. The deeper I delved, the more it appeared that this panic was, to some extent, kept alive by the governments of the day. I also became aware of the degree to which the presumed need to safeguard the political and social order facilitated the introduction of new methods of control and repression. I was reminded of more recent instances where the generation of fear in the population – of capitalists, Bolsheviks, Jews, fascists, Islamists – has proved useful to those in power, and has led to restrictions on the freedom of the individual by measures meant to protect him from the supposed threat.

A desire to satisfy my curiosity about what I thought was a historic cultural phenomenon gradually took on a more serious purpose, as I realised that the subject held enormous relevance to the present. I have nevertheless refrained from drawing attention to this in the text, resisting the temptation, strong at times, to suggest parallels between Prince Metternich and Tony Blair, or George W. Bush and the Russian tsars. Leaving aside the bathos this would have involved, I felt readers would derive more fun from drawing their own.”

And, so we shall, for we live in an age between ages, a time of the in-between, a moment between acts in a grand farce in which the very structure and dynamism of our temporal order in moving into chaos by way of personal and social paranoia and revolutionary politics. Discovering parallels between the dark worlds of Nineteenth century political and social distress, panic, and terror and our own would be an interesting task but one that I’ll not try to pursue in this post, rather I’ll seek to bring together some of the extreme aspect of the paranoid mind-set as its shadows fall across our singular age of political and social breakdown.

Richard Hofstadter in his classic The Paranoid Style in American Politics once suggested he used the term “paranoid style” much as a historian of might speak of the baroque or the mannerist style. It is, above all, a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself. Webster defines paranoia, the clinical entity, as a chronic mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions of persecution and of one’s own greatness. In the paranoid style, as I conceive it, the feeling of persecution is central, and it is indeed systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy. But there is a vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, over suspicious, over aggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others. Insofar as he does not usually see himself singled out as the individual victim of a personal conspiracy,  he is somewhat more rational and much more disinterested. His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation.2

This distinction between the clinical paranoid whose oscillations between persecutory delusions and delusions of grandeur, and the political style or stance of paranoia as representative of national and collective panic and paranoia seems to walk a fine line and can at times drop into that abyss when the boundaries no longer hold. The political world of our ages has dropped the boundaries altogether and the strange and eerie, even uncanny realization that we are not only in the midst of a general paranoical crisis but that we are entering a dangerous era of oppression and control is without doubt the central diagnostic task of any socio-cultural critique of our age.

Shadows of Paranoia: Sociopathy, Panic, and Terror

We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and good will to everything that hurts or pleases us. —David Hume

Before wandering into the sub-worlds of American Paranoia I shall heed the admonition of Jesse Walker who in her  The United States of Paranoia admonishes us that the conspiracy theorist will always be with us, because he will always be us. We will never stop finding patterns. We will never stop spinning stories. We will always be capable of jumping to conclusions, particularly when we’re dealing with other nations, factions, subcultures, or layers of the social hierarchy. And conspiracies, unlike many of the monsters that haunt our folklore, actually exist, so we won’t always be wrong to fear them. As long as our species survives, so will paranoia. Yet we can limit the damage that paranoia does. We can try to empathize with people who seem alien. We can be aware of the cultural myths that shape our fears. And we can be open to evidence that might undermine the patterns we think we see in the world. We should be skeptical, yes, of people who might be conspiring against us. But we should also be skeptical—deeply, deeply skeptical—of our fearful, fallible selves.3

As Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Fear remarked people fear the loss of security over their love and need for freedom, and will allow themselves to be enslaved by harsh controls and oppression as long as they feel secure in both their work-life and home-life.4 As Adorno once surmised ‘philosophy must come to know, without any mitigation, why the world – which could be paradise here and now – can become hell itself tomorrow’.5 Spinoza, in the Theological-Political Treatise once suggested that at the heart of fear and dependence was the sovereign paranoia of absolute control:

Were it as easy to control people’s minds as to restrain their tongues, every sovereign would rule securely and there would be no oppressive governments. For all men would live according to the minds of those who govern them and would judge what is true or false, or good or bad, in accordance with their decree alone. But … it is impossible for one person’s mind to be absolutely under another’s control. For no one can transfer to another person his natural right, or ability, to think freely and make his own judgments about any matter whatsoever, and cannot be compelled to do so. This is why a government which seeks to control people’s minds is considered oppressive…

Yet, since Spinoza’s time the political elite in collusion with their corporate benefactors have struggled to overcome this obstacle to absolute control through the convergence of propaganda, media, and both behavioral and neuroscientific experimentation. As Joseph Goebbels saw it:

Political propaganda in principle is active and revolutionary. It is aimed at the broad masses. It speaks the language of the people because it wants to be understood by the people. Its task is the highest creative art of putting sometimes complicated events and facts in a way simple enough to be understood by the man on the street. Its foundation is that there is nothing the people cannot understand, rather things must be put in a way that they can understand. It is a question of making it clear to him by using the proper approach, evidence and language. Propaganda is a means to an end. Its purpose is to lead the people to an understanding that will allow them to willingly and without internal resistance devote themselves to the tasks and goals of a superior leadership. If propaganda is to succeed, it must know what it wants. It must keep a clear and firm goal in mind, and seek the appropriate means and methods to reach that goal. Propaganda as such is neither good nor evil. Its moral value is determined by the goals it seeks.6

To be effective, propaganda must harness a rich affective range beyond negative emotions such as hatred, fear, and envy to include more positive feelings such as pleasure, joy, belonging, and pride. Here we are indebted to the political theorizing of Slavoj Žižek, who has analyzed the operations of ideology; for Žižek “ ideology has nothing to do with ‘ illusion, ’ with a mistaken, distorted representation of its social content,” since people usually are able quite effortlessly to see through tissues of lies.  Shifting from a cognitive register to a psychological one, Žižek emphasizes how ideology works by affect, fulfilling a comforting function to protect us from the overwhelming chaos of undifferentiated signification. We want and need to be told what things mean. For Žižek, ideology is not confusing but reassuring. Rather, it is the absence of ideology that would be disorienting. In the 1960s Jacques Ellul made a similar point about propaganda, echoing earlier assessments by Walter Lippmann in the 1920s that the public dissemination of information had grown too complex and confusing for citizens to master on their own. For both Lippmann and Ellul, this need for order and security in the face of such media saturation carried primarily negative associations, exposing the vulnerability and alienation of modern life. As a result, people were perpetually at the mercy of bogus truth claims and demonized depictions of adversaries. But for public relations guru Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s nephew), also writing in the 1920s, the yearning for clarity instead bespeaks the importance of desire in shaping our beliefs. Appreciating desire as a central fact of capitalism, Bernays unrepentantly sought to understand and tap the underlying psychic mechanisms that motivate consumers to buy commodities. Like Žižek after him, he appreciated how such forces of desire were linked to pleasure, which in the rush to deem mass persuasion as manipulative, deceitful, and immoral, has been a dimension largely overlooked in propaganda studies since World War I.7

Noam Chomsky in Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies once argued that manufactured consent is the essence of democracy. In the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the leading figure of the public relations industry, Edward Bernays, explains that “the very essence of the democratic process” is “the freedom to persuade and suggest,” what he calls “the engineering of consent.” “A leader,” he continues, “frequently cannot wait for the people to arrive at even general understanding… Democratic leaders must play their part in… engineering… consent to socially constructive goals and values,” applying “scientific principles and tried practices to the task of getting people to support ideas and programs”; and although it remains unsaid, it is evident enough that those who control resources will be in a position to judge what is “socially constructive,” to engineer consent through the media, and to implement policy through the mechanisms of the state. If the freedom to persuade happens to be concentrated in a few hands, we must recognize that such is the nature of a free society. The public relations industry expends vast resources “educating the American people about the economic facts of life” to ensure a favorable climate for business. Its task is to control “the public mind,” which is “the only serious danger confronting the company,” an AT&T executive observed eighty years ago.8

Gilles Deleuze once remarked that societies of control were in the process of replacing disciplinary societies. He’d suggest that “Control” is the name Burroughs proposes as a term for the new monster, one that Foucault recognizes as our immediate future. Paul Virilio also is continually analyzing the ultrarapid forms of free-floating control that replaced the old disciplines operating in the time frame of a closed system. Instead of a need to lock people within physical structures and institutions as in discipline societies ours has become an open prison system of absolute surveillance and technological invasiveness. To live in such a society is to become fragmented and sucked up into the electronic void where one is marked and indexed as dividual rather than an individual. In such a world of electronic traces to which data is attached one is generally regarded to be living in a state of anguish. As Crandall, quoting Bataille, reflects, ‘since one is always in a state of anticipation, one is always more or less in a state of anguish, for one must apprehend oneself in the future, through the projected results of one’s action’ (2010, 88– 9). This state of anguish, irrespective of whether we accept that it is deliberately produced (Massumi 2009), is what characterizes not simply the life of the dividual, but the life of society in general. Central to the production of that anguish-panic-paranoia, at the very least indirectly, is the explosive growth in control technologies, and I mean ‘control’ here in the broader use of the word, not simply in terms of the negative connotations associated with surveillance technologies.9

To ensure anguish modern democracies have entered the era of catastrophism in manufacturing panic through the medi-tainment-industrial-complex by promoting risk, insecurity, and fear of climate change, war, famine, disease, conspiracy, threats from within and without, etc. In such an era democracy is to be seen as an inverted totalitarianism which represents the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry.10 As Chris Hedges tells it,

Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism, and the Constitution while cynically manipulating internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions.11

In this sense capitalism or corporate power is slowly disconnecting itself from the old statist monopolies, divorcing itself from the bureaucratic control mechanisms of nationalism and its panic policies and regulations. In our time  psychological terror is not the essence, “but the punctuation mark of the new totalitarianism’s meaning. The money-and-consumption command channel is the secret of the movement’s success because it avoids responsibility for its failures. Wall Street prescribed market failures to provide for societies are, instead, always attributed to transcendental forces of “the invisible hand” punishing these societies for alleged sins against “market laws.” Thus as catastrophes increasingly befall the majority of the world, the victims are blamed for their new deprivation, misery and oppression. This is a far more effective mode of rule than jackboot terror, which is more overt, but it exposes the system to another form of resistance. To keep the majority in a continual state of inner anxiety works because people are made too busy securing or competing for their own survival to co-operate in mounting an effective response.12

War, famine, and disease have been central to social control and fear for centuries, and have been used to promote anguish, panic, and dependency as part of this dominion society we live in. The great influx of migrant flows into the rich nations of the North in the past few decades is a tool of manipulation of such anguish and panic. England’s Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and a prominent globalist, may have revealed the views of the global elite when in 1981 he told People magazine, “Human population growth is probably the single most serious long-term threat to survival. We’re in for a major disaster if it isn’t curbed—not just for the natural world, but for the human world. The more people there are, the more resources they’ll consume, the more pollution they’ll create, the more fighting they will do. We have no option. If it isn’t controlled voluntarily, it will be controlled involuntarily by an increase in disease, starvation and war.”

In 1974, the U.S. National Security Council issued a classified study entitled “National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 200: Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests.” Known as the Kissinger Report, the study stated that population growth in the so-called Lesser Developed Countries (LDCs) represented a serious threat to U.S. national security. The study was adopted as official government policy in November 1975 by President Gerald Ford and its implementation assigned to Brent Scowcroft, who had replaced Kissinger as national security adviser. NSSM 200 outlined a covert plan to reduce population growth in LDCs through birth control, and what many have interpreted as war and famine. Then CIA director George H. W. Bush was ordered to assist Scowcroft, as were the secretaries of state, treasury, defense, and agriculture. This policy may even have supported the many wars and airstrikes in the Middle East leading to a decimation of the populations there.13

In his study Dark Age America, John Michael Greer reminds us that “extreme depopulation is a common feature of the decline and fall of civilizations, with up to ninety-five percent population loss over the one to three centuries that the fall of a civilization usually takes”.14 He also admits that the primal potential for ethnic conflict, especially but not only in the United States is an issue worth discussing, and not only for the obvious reasons. Conflict between ethnic groups is quite often a major issue in the twilight years of a civilization, for reasons we’ll discuss shortly, but it’s also self-terminating, for an interesting reason: traditional ethnic divisions don’t survive dark ages. In an age of political dissolution, economic implosion, social chaos, demographic collapse, and mass migration, the factors that maintain ethnic divisions in place don’t last long. In their place, new ethnicities emerge. It’s a commonplace of history that dark ages are the cauldron from which nations are born.

In fact a cursor study of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire one discovers that the demographic contraction was overlaid by civil wars, barbarian invasions, economic crises, famines, and epidemics. The total population decline varied significantly from one region to another, but even the relatively stable parts of the Eastern Empire seem to have had around a fifty percent loss of population, while some areas of the Western Empire suffered far more drastic losses—Britain in particular was transformed from a rich, populous, and largely urbanized province to a land of silent urban ruins and small, scattered villages of subsistence farmers where even so simple a technology as wheel-thrown pottery became a lost art. (Dark Age America, KL 775)

Of course it might go another path rather than into decline and fall, some suggest we already have the resources to move out of energy depletion which is at the root of our planetary conflicts or, as some term them “resource wars”.  In the race for global resources, tensions inevitably emerge. There are flashpoints everywhere—high food prices, for example, had a role to play in the violent political upheavals of the 2010–2011 Arab Spring. The world needs the sea lanes to stay open for trade, but maritime boundaries are a constant source of friction, and piracy adds an unwelcome element of danger for mariners. The oil and gas reserves of the South China Sea, for example, give an extra edge to China’s territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and other Asian neighbours over island groups such as the Senkaku, the Paracels, and the Spratlys. India has its own territorial issues with China over Aksai Chin on the Tibetan Plateau, and resource-rich Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas. In 1953, India’s then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared after a trip to China that the Chinese people cherished in their hearts the greatest of love for India, and wished to “maintain the friendliest of relations” with it. Nine years later, the two countries would be at war. While China–India economic ties have strengthened considerably since then, the edginess continues. At the same time, the United States, Europe, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, and half a dozen big, emerging economies such as Indonesia, Iran, Turkey, Mexico, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia have their own interests to promote and protect.15

As Hiscock remarks worldwide, energy is the key requirement to keep economies growing and living standards improving. But the era of easy energy is over. The cheap and easily accessible oil of past decades is used up or locked up in strategic reserves. Now the world has an energy choice, but what a choice. The remaining oil is too political, coal’s too dirty, nuclear’s too dangerous, wind’s too fickle, solar’s too expensive, hydro’s too dislocating, geothermal is too hard to wrangle, and fracked gas is too divisive. Even so, many of the world’s top resources companies see gas as the great savior over the next 20 years, in what the International Energy Agency calls the impending “golden age of gas” in its World Energy Outlook. Russia already sends Siberian gas to Germany via a 1,200 km undersea pipeline in a foretaste of how that golden era may play out. Something similar is happening in Central Asia, where gas is being piped to China from Turkmenistan, with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan soon to follow as suppliers. Elsewhere, we’re in the era of deepwater drilling in pristine Arctic environments, and getting to grips with the logistics of “pre-salt” geology off Brazil’s coast in the South Atlantic. Some energy companies see potential in the tar sands of Canada and Venezuela, though this unconventional oil comes with its own set of environmental challenges. In the United States, technology investors are busy pouring molten salt into the pipes of solar concentrators to store energy overnight, or creating giant offshore wind farms that won’t run out of puff at an inopportune moment. China pumps out solar panels at a rate and cost that has bitten deep into the viability of German producers. In Europe, the focus is on integrated power grids that will make the best use of renewable energy’s potential. And all the time, we worry about the Pacific Ocean’s volcanic ring of fire—or where best to put our next earthquake-proof and tsunami-proof nuclear power stations. (Hiscock, KL 261)

As Vaclav Smil describes it the enormous disparity in access to energy is most impressively conveyed by contrasting the national or regional share of the global population with their corresponding share of worldwide primary energy consumption: the poorest quarter of humanity (including most of sub-Saharan Africa, Nepal, Bangladesh, the nations of Indochina, and rural India) consumes less than three per cent of the world’s primary energy supply while the thirty or so affluent economies, whose populations add up to a fifth of the global total, consume about seventy per cent of primary energy (Figure 30). The most stunning contrast: the US alone, with less than five per cent of the world’s population, claims twenty-seven per cent of its primary commercial energy.16

Due to the demands of energy in the emerging economies of China, India, and other industrializing nations Smil says we have three choices if we wish to keep on increasing energy consumption while minimizing the risks of anthropogenic climate change (due mostly to rising combustion of fossil fuels) and keeping atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases from rising to as much as three times their pre-industrial level: we can continue burning fossil fuels but deploy effective methods of sequestering the generated greenhouse gases, we can revive the nuclear option, or we can turn increasingly to renewable energy. None of these options is yet ready for large-scale commercial adoption, none could be the sole solution, and all have their share of economic, social, and environmental problems. … Because capital investment considerations and infrastructural inertia mean that it takes several decades for any new energy source or conversion to claim a substantial share of the market, we should not waste any time in aggressively developing and commercializing suitable renewable options. (Energy, KL 2647)

All this is optimistic and hopeful, registering a possible world that if cooperation and collective will emerged might actually create a planetary society worth living in, and yet in the background is the drag of the shadow worlds of panic, paranoia, and manipulation promoted by the current ideologues, elites, and corporate profit pirates of the global nexus who do not wish to see their empires of energy and control fall away so are busily working against the very counter-worlds of hope and a promising future that could very well become possible. Humans are prone to manipulation and deception, our senses are always bound to biases and errors of judgement regarding data, information, and the worlds around us. Our brains frame a world that is itself a convenient lie, a nice little narrative between survival and sex that evolution worked out eons ago and served us well up to the emergence of Agricultural civilization. Since then and especially now that we’ve disconnected our natural connection to the outer environment of the world for an artificialization of life in the urban jungles of civilization and technology we are losing the very thrust of our evolutionary heritage.

Now more than ever we are losing contact and entering the fold of that schizophrenizing process of which the work of Deleuze/Guattari was but a beginning choreographic display. For them this process tended toward either revolutionary emancipation or paranoid manipulation and dependency. Our need for security and safety seem to outweigh our need for freedom and independence so that we allow our leaders to bind us into worlds of hellish and fatalistic traps in which war, famine, and entropy rule. And, we, the victims are portrayed as the very culprits of this dark world. It’s time to wake up and reverse this entropic process into revolutionary change, to dissolve the delusionary world of the elite, the powerful, and the controllers. Will we? That remains to be seen…


  1. Adam Zamoyski. Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty 1789-1848. William Collins (August 27, 2015)
  2. Richard Hofstadter. The Paranoid Style in American Politics And Other Essays-Harvard University Press (1996) (Kindle Locations 135-144). Kindle Edition.
  3. Jesse Walker. The United States of Paranoia (Kindle Locations 5490-5496). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  4. Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Fear (Kindle Location 3386). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  5. Adorno, Theodore W. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Society. Routledge, 1991.
  6. Goebbels, Joseph. Goebbels on the Power of Propaganda (Kindle Locations 19-26). Shamrock Eden Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  7. Jonathan Auerbach; Russ Castronovo editors. The Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies. Oxford University Press; 1 edition (November 13, 2013)
  8. Noam Chomsky, Necesary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (Boston: South End Press, 1989), p. 18. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Random House, 1950).
  9. Savat, David. Uncoding the Digital: Technology, Subjectivity and Action in the Control Society (p. 152). Palgrave Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
  10. Wolin, Sheldon S.. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Kindle Locations 239-240). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
  11. Hedges, Chris. The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress (p. 3). Nation Books. Kindle Edition.
  12. Estulin, Daniel. Tavistock Institute: Social Engineering the Masses (p. 3). Trine Day. Kindle Edition.
  13. Jim Marrs. Population Control (Kindle Locations 134-141). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  14. John Michael Greer. Dark Age America (Kindle Locations 738-740). New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  15. Hiscock, Geoff. Earth Wars: The Battle for Global Resources (Kindle Locations 243-252). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  16. Smil, Vaclav. Energy (Kindle Locations 2587-2592). Oneworld Publications (trade). Kindle Edition.

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