Changing Minds: The Role of Ruling Ideas in World History (Part 3 of 6)

By Willie Baptist, Charon Hribar and John Wessel-McCoy

This is part 3 of a six-part series published by The Journal of the University of the Poor. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Historically, beginning with their inception, economic class-based societies have been defined and pervaded by major and minor, open and hidden conflicts. Even in prehistoric times, conflicts have often interrupted primitive tribal societies. They have assumed many forms of struggle and organization—military, economic (i.e., commercial competition, speculation, trade wars, economic blockades, boycotts, lockouts and strikes), and political (electoral campaigns, protests at every level of government, pre-war diplomatic maneuvers, revolutions) or of any combinations of these forms. Whatever forms these conflicts have taken, they have all been mediated through the mental terrain of the human brain upon which the old ideas, belief systems, public opinions, and political wills have been established.

Today the unprecedented micro-electronics technological revolution in general and the information revolution in particular have brought us into a new era of “many-to-many” multi-media, which, at least as far as the internet is concerned, is now more accessible to all, including the poor secured collectively through their organization. This is a period unlike the past when the press, radio, movie theaters, and TV were the most advanced media. These once-prominent older forms of media were “one-to-many” means of communication, very expensive, and for the most part inaccessible to the lower classes. Under these new conditions of struggle, the political strategists of the ruling class are adopting network forms of organizations and netwar forms of conflicts and control to ensure the maintenance of their ruling ideas or narratives. They are proving to be far superior to the old ways and means. This is compelling the emerging struggles worldwide of the poor and dispossessed to adapt accordingly if they are to win the battles of ideas and of contending narratives.

Matt Chessen in his 1998 essay, “Netwar: A New Paradigm for the Future” states,

The mind is not only the ultimate weapon, it is the preeminent battleground.[1]

Consider human ‘will.’ The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “The mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides on a course of action.” Ultimately this is the arena in which war, indeed all conflict, is waged. People decide to fight. If enough do so, there is war. Simplistic perhaps, but valid nevertheless. Interestingly enough for us, the converse is also true. Cause the enemy to loose his will to fight, end the war. Or better yet, destroy his will before violence breaks out and win a bloodless battle.”[2]

Moreover, as the English military historian B. H. Liddell Hart once noted, in terms of military conflicts, “Loss of hope rather than loss of life is what decides the issues of war.”[3] In terms of social conflicts or opposing social movements generally, throughout history problems are resolved first in people’s thinking, and then in fact. This is why organizing a fight is more than mobilizing bodies. It is essentially moving minds. For instance, in the struggle against American slavery, people first had to end mental slavery, that is, pro-slavery beliefs and attitudes, in order to then end actual slavery. In this respect, we can understand the subversive Biblical message of Jesus’s ministry in the early Christian movement and the revolutionary slogan of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his launching and organizing of the 1967-68 Poor People’s Campaign. That message meant and that slogan preached the “revolution of values.” In other words, they recognized the necessity of changing hearts and minds so as to bring about fundamental changes in society. Dr. King’s analysis was especially clear on this when he stated in mid-1967,

We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement…But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power…this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others…the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.[4]

There is a “mind war” or a “battle of ideas” constantly taking place in our minds. Daily people’s mental processes are being bombarded with ideas, images, messages, music, movies and the premises and subtexts of the omnipresent advertisements. These bombardments are delivered through all kinds of social and personal interactions — radio, TV, Internet, individual and group encounters and social media. In order to understand the nature of “mind war” and what we’re up against, we must first be aware of these continuous and multi-faceted mental bombardments, which appeal to and strengthen long-established ideas and cultural traditions. Those who own and dominate the advanced corporate media understand this and are good at manipulating public opinion and misdirecting social psychology. For the existing economic and political status quo to be fundamentally transformed, the ruling media messages and prevailing narratives of the ruling class (or the Powers That Be) must be successfully countered. To accomplish this, the mastery in one way or another of existing media is required. This mastery has always been indispensable to raising the social consciousness necessary to organize and build a mass movement for social transformation. Organizing is about more than simply mobilizing bodies. It is essentially about moving minds.

The Chinese revolutionary and strategic thinker, Mao Tse-tung once observed, “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed”.[5] In other words wars, and social conflicts generally, are essentially mind wars, that is, a struggle over the political will, over the “hearts and minds” of the people. This definition is even more the case in this new technological era of the internet and netwars or what is also called the new age of the information revolution. Today what must be considered foremost and decisive strategically and tactically is the mental battlefield on which all the ideological fortresses are established and around which conflicts are fought out with the available legal, political, artistic, religious, philosophic weapons, etc. Consequently the main objective of all military and political strategies and tactics is to defeat the adversary on the mental terrain.

Today we are living in a period of an unprecedented information revolution, a new technological era of network forms of organization and netwar forms of conflict. This is a period where battles of images and the war of ideas are becoming instantaneously globalized, 24/7, and inescapable facts of reality. The new technological and economic conditions of social conflict should remind leaders and teachers today not fall prey to the old saying that most “generals lose by fighting the last war.”

It is important to note the instructive observations of John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt. They are from the major military think tank the RAND Corporation and are among the most noted originators of the term and concept of “netwars.” In the compilation of essays entitled, In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age, they define netwar as “societal-level ideational conflicts waged in part through internetted modes of communication.”[6] Arquilla and Ronfeldt continue,

Netwar refers to information-related conflict at a grand level between nations or societies. It means trying to disrupt, damage, or modify what a target population knows or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it. A netwar may focus on public or elite opinion, or both. It may involve public diplomacy measures, propaganda and psycho-logical campaigns, political and cultural subversion, deception of or interference with local media, infiltration of computer networks and databases, and efforts to promote a dissident or opposition movements across computer networks.[7]

Further in their book, Networks and Netwars, they point out,

As with other new modes of conflict, the practice of netwar is ahead of theory…The deep dynamic guiding our analysis is that the information revolution favors the rise of network forms of organization. The network appears to be the next major form of organization—long after tribes, hierarchies, and markets—to come into its own to redefine societies, and in so doing, the nature of conflict and cooperation. …The term netwar calls attention to the prospect that network-based conflict and crime will be major phenomena in the years ahead…The strongest networks will be those in which the organizational design is sustained by a winning story and a well-defined doctrine, and in which all this is layered atop advanced communications systems and rests on strong personal and social ties at the base…In netwar, leadership remains important, even though the protagonists may make every effort to have a leaderless design. One way to accomplish this is to have many leaders diffused through-out the network who try to act in coordination…Perhaps a more significant, less noted point is that the kind of leader who may be most important for the development and conduct of a netwar is not the “great man” or the administrative leadership that people are accustomed to seeing, but rather the doctrinal leadership—the individual or set of individuals who, far from acting as commander, is in charge of shaping the flow of communications, the “story” expressing the netwar, and the doctrine guiding its strategy and tactics.[8]

The new and advanced media have in an unprecedented way enabled the newly emerging leaders of the arising struggles and organizations of the poor and dispossessed globally to coordinate and synchronize their thinking and actions against the newly globalized and dominating capitalist class. In other words, this era of netwars has particularly made it possible and necessary for these leaders to globally coordinate and synchronize their research, analyses, and struggles not only in matters of tactics but also in matters of strategy. This poses a new and fundamental threat to the Powers That Be in the battles, campaigns, and overall war for the mental terrain of the masses of the people.

Strategy as Counter-Strategy

Lessons of military warfare and military strategy are often alluded to as analogies and metaphors to illustrate and help explain the nature of social conflicts and political strategy in general. But here we are not only talking about military strategy. We are talking about the all-encompassing political strategy or what some elite political scientists call, “grand strategy” or “geopolitical strategy,” which under certain circumstances includes the use of military strategy and tactics. The basic problem of political strategy today is the existence of two fundamentally antagonistic social forces. For instance, today there are, on the one side, the social forces or propertied class who have vested interests in the newly globalized economic status quo and utilize the varied, long established, and powerful ideas and institutions to maintain that status quo. While on the other side, there exist the growing ranks of the newly arising social forces or class of the poor and dispossessed worldwide that has little or no stake in the status quo. With little or nothing to lose, it is in fact the primary social force for social change. Its economic and political position is such that it is compelled to kill the status quo before the status quo kills it.

Political and military strategies are unlike ordinary planning and plans because they deal with an opposing enemy’s strategic plan. The well-known boxer Mike Tyson was basically right when he stated, “Everybody has a plan until he is punched in the mouth.” Thus every strategy must in essence be a counter-strategy requiring a constant study and anticipation of the strategic and tactical maneuvers of the adversary. As indicated before, social conflicts, including wars, are products of class societies and the ongoing class struggles between the exploiters and the exploited, the propertied and the property-less. Therefore political strategy is first and foremost the estimate of the counter position of class enemies.

Both sides of this conflict are compelled to out-smart and out-fight each other in implementing the time-worn truth articulated by the ancient Chinese philosopher and strategist Sun Tzu in his masterpiece and classic, Art of War, over 2,500 years ago, “Know your enemy, know yourself and in one hundred battles you will never be defeated.” This knowledge includes an estimate of the strong and weak points of the opposing forces. Sun Tzu states that one must “avoid the enemy’s strength and attack his weakness.” This statement sums up one of the basic principle of the art of strategy that must be mastered if one is to out-maneuver and out-fight the adversary. 

The newly arising social forces, at their initial stage of resistance, have no institutions and organizations comparable to those of the social forces that are in power, that is, the ruling and exploiting class. However, the currently crisis-ridden and changing objective economic conditions are causing the weakening and breakdown of the once unquestioned powerful influence of the old institutions and corresponding old ideas of the rulers. It is revealing strong and weak points in the respective social and political positions of the two basic social forces. So the protests and struggles against these economic conditions and the social and political institutions must be turned into schools for raising mass consciousness. This effort must include, most strategically, the preparation and positioning of these fights to take advantage of the possibilities afforded by the conditions. This preparation requires the appropriate strategic outlook and tactical operations and corresponding organizational formations.

Just as military strategy requires the formation of both an army and a united group of generals, a political army with its united and leading officer corps and general staff must be formed to ensure the formulation and implementation of political strategy. The network of think tanks, such as that centered around the powerful Council on Foreign Relations, consists of the most experienced political analysts, ideologists, and strategists. This formidable and sophisticated network of leaders serves as the united core of political generals, which represents and serves the basic economic and political interests of the ruling class of big and globalized capital. It provides today mostly the doctrinal leadership and not simply administrative leadership. Their doctrinal leadership consists in the maintenance of the rule over society of the ideas and narratives of the ruling class in ongoing netwars against the mass of the exploited, excluded, and oppressed.

For the struggles of the poor and dispossessed to attain the class-consciousness and unity necessary to fundamentally change society, they must produce their own united group of generals. Antonio Gramsci’s statement in this regard must be deeply understood and firmly followed,

One speaks of generals without an army, but in reality it is easier to form an army than to form generals. So much is this true that an already existing army is destroyed if it loses its generals, while the existence of a united group of  generals who agree among themselves and have common aims soon creates an army even where none exists.[9]

One of the main differences between military strategy, tactics and organizational formations and those of political strategy is that government places at the disposal of military strategy largely already formed armies and generals.  However, the corresponding organizational formations for political strategy and tactics are placed at its disposal by history in the course of class struggles. Having already constituted itself as the ruling class wielding economic and political power, its organizational and institutional formations have been established far in advance of those of the rising class of the exploited and oppressed. The early stages of the emergence and development of the struggles of this rising class necessitate the formation of a united group of political generals who are formed out of the leaders newly emerging out of the ranks of these struggles. The unity of these political strategists in turn ensures the education, creation, and direction of the political army of the poor and dispossessed class. The first step in the formation of a political army was identification, education, and training of leaders who can then form a united group of political generals.

To carry its task this united group of political generals must master the science of social psychology, it must know the mental terrain and how to effectively defeat the mental fortresses that ideologically uphold the disunity and disorganization of the poor and dispossessed. In other words, it must be educated and trained to effectively utilize the changing conditions and daily struggles, to un-educate the masses of the people, particularly the poor and dispossessed, to un-learn the old and debilitating ideas, so as to educate and impart the new and transforming ideas. More than anything else, political strategy is concerned with the possibilities of fundamental social transformations in material and mental life. All strategy is carried out through the use of tactics, which are part of strategy like steps in a staircase.

In general, political strategy and tactics direct the carrying out of the necessary agitation and education campaigns aimed at either constructing or preventing the formation of powerful organizations that are inimical to the current economic system. They consciously hasten or hold back (but not determine) these objectively conditioned possible and necessary transformations. Further in “The Modern Prince,” Antonio Gramsci speaks to this problem of strategic and tactical leadership.

Mass ideological factors always lag behind mass economic phenomena, and that therefore, at certain moments, the automatic thrust due to the economic factor is slowed down, obstructed or even momentarily broken by traditional ideological elements—hence that there must be a conscious, planned struggle to ensure that the exigencies of the economic position of the masses, which may conflict with the traditional leadership’s policies, are understood. An appropriate political initiative is always necessary to liberate the economic thrust from the dead weight of traditional policies….[10]

Clearly it is in the interests of the Powers That Be to by any means necessary hold back or maintain the lag of the mass consciousness necessary for “liberating the economic thrust” for the transformation of society. Gramsci underscores why the newly emerging leaders of the poor and dispossessed must be educated and trained in strategy and tactics to counter the Powers That Be’s efforts to build on “the dead weight of traditional policies.”

Guided by scientific analysis, strategy and tactics are the “art of the possible” in social and political conflicts. As Marx states later in his Preface,

 Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.[11]

“The course of formation” of the “material conditions necessary” for the solution to a social problem develops in stages. Therefore each stage of development presents a different set of possibilities in the direction of the ultimate solution and social change. History shows that the initial stages of social movements make possible and necessary the identification and development of leaders who emerge out of the newly arising social forces in resistance to no longer livable exploitive and oppressive conditions. This is due to the fact the newly arising forces start their fight on what is called the strategic defensive, which means they cannot in this period out-might, out-money, and out-mass the Powers That Be. They can however out-maneuver the more powerful class enemy by understanding the stages of development, what they make possible, and what is required in the initial stages for creating in the later stages the critical mass necessary for fundamental change in the status quo. In other words, although being on the strategic defensive in the initial stages, the poor and dispossessed and their leaders can none-the-less take tactical offensives. They can by taking advantage of the possibilities afforded them at these initial stages through choosing those battles and conducting protracted campaigns that expose and oppose the points of critical vulnerability and weak arguments of the Powers That Be.

Frederich Engels in his 1890 Preface to the Communist Manifesto sums up a history of experiences as to how a change in thinking of the exploited and oppressed masses takes place. Engels outlined the process of how old ideas and “universal panaceas” or what can be called “mental fortresses” were overcome. He states,

Marx relied solely upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily has to ensue from united action and discussion. The events and vicissitudes in the struggle against capital, the defeats even more than the successes, could not but demonstrate to the fighters the inadequacy of their former universal panaceas, and make their minds more receptive to a thorough understanding of the true conditions for working-class emancipation. And Marx was right.[12]

Today’s economic life is undergoing an unprecedented, rapid, and comprehensive technological revolution making all prior agricultural and industrial technological advances combined look like storms in a coffee cup. The current cyclical and chronic crises in the globalized economy are products of this ongoing technological revolution. They present both tremendous dangers and tremendous opportunities. Today these opportunities represent unheard of possibilities. Of strategic significance, they involve an increasingly widespread questioning of old values and complacent views. This is especially true of the leaders newly emerging from the ranks of the masses who asked deeper questions that go beyond the leaves and branches of the problem to approach its roots. United struggles and education campaigns, if conducted with strategic and tactical efficiency and with networked and netwar types of organization, can now take advantage of these necessities and possibilities to overcome the mental fortresses of old and obsolescent ideas to move hearts and minds of the majority of the people and thereby build a mass movement for fundamental social change.

In the next installment we examine six “mental fortresses” that deal with people’s basic outlook—reality, rugged individualism, religion, race, and redbaiting.  The descriptions are not talking about what’s objectively true external to people’s consciousness, although conditions are inextricably connected to consciousness.  Mental terrain can’t be understood apart from conditions. As the term “mental fortress” suggests, these concepts are prevailing influences on the American people’s perception of the world. As conditions change, there is a relationship to shifts in people’s consciousness. Any attempt to build a social movement must have a leadership that has a mastery of this relationship between conditions and consciousness.

[1] Matt Chessen, “Netwar: A New Paradigm for the Future,” (1998).

[2] Matt Chessen.

[3] Liddell Hart.

[4] Report to SCLC Staff (May 1967).

[5] Mao Tse-tung, “On Protracted War,” Selected Works, Vol. II, (1938), 152-153.

[6] John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age, (Rand, 1997), 27.

[7] Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 28.

[8] John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy, (Rand Corporation, 2001), 311.

[9] Gramsci, SPN 52-53.

[10] Antonio Gramsci, SPN 210-11 “Prison Writings: 1929-1935,”in The Gramsci Reader, ed. David Foracs, (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 220.

[11]Karl Marx,“Preface,” A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977).

[12] Friedrich Engels, “Preface,” Communist Manifesto, 1890.

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