The Disinformation Age: The Collapse Of Liberal Democracy In The United States – Book Review


I owe it to a wonderful teacher of Translation Studies, Prof. DR, for having introduced the class to The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan (1991) by Eric Cheyfitz. I recollect an American student who said that his life changed after reading this book. Perhaps, he is not the only one.

I have read the book more than once and taught it to different groups of students. It’s one of those books I almost by default recommend to research students as a model on how to conduct research along with Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1985) by James Scott. Cheyfitz writes with a certain kind of passion; it’s impossible not to see how deeply he feels with the oppressed of the world. He belongs to the category of academics for whom teaching and research is not only about interpreting but also changing the world.  

The reason I wanted to respond to this book is because I could see the importance of the concept of ‘disinformation’ for an analysis of Indian media and politics. Cheyfitz’ book, although in a distinctly American context, throws light on quite a few things that are of global relevance. The premise is simple: an author might write a book keeping a specific situation in mind. It does not mean that what he or she says will not apply to other places and other situations. The part where Cheyfitz deals with disinformation in relation to the history of the United States needs an entirely different response, which I intend to undertake separately. Here, I am looking at disinformation in the Indian context.

Disinformation as a concept is of tremendous importance. By the time I finished reading the book I found the term for what the ruling party and the media are doing in India: they’re disinforming the masses. “Disinformation and information exist side by side…But whereas information is something we must consciously process through research of one kind or another (reading, listening, observing, and comparing what we gather), Disinformation processes us like a dream in the classic Freudian sense, where the dream is a structure of contradictions in which the dreamer never recognizes the contradictory structure. Information requires dialogue. Disinformation is a mesmerizing monologue, often masquerading as dialogue” (22). That’s what Indian politics has gradually been reduced to since its independence from British rule: “a mesmerizing monologue.” There is nobody listening to the masses. There is nothing that reflects Indian reality except in a vague manner. The movies, the news, television, social media, discussions related to religion, politics, tradition, popular culture – all have been reduced to a caricature. The Indian reality is that people are to a great extent poor, unemployed or underemployed, socially and emotionally repressed, along with bone crushing income inequality.  

Cheyfitz makes important distinctions between misinformation, ideology and disinformation – although sometimes we tend to use them as if they shared the same properties. 

“Whereas misinformation is merely a mistake in reportage that is typically retracted in the next day’s news or a distortion of the truth, conscious (spin) or unconscious, for particular ends, such as the Bush administration’s fiction of “weapons of mass destruction,” Disinformation is a deep, historical process of erasing history itself, culminating in a disruption or blockage of critical thinking in which particular fictions, through repeated and widespread use in our major institutions (schools, media, government, and political parties), substitute reflexively for facts. But, and here is the crux of the matter, Disinformation is not ideology. It is, rather, ideology’s mirror image. Disinformation appears as ideology’s double and like the double is the reverse of ideology. Whereas ideology is a narrative that retains certain ties to reality, Disinformation is rhetoric utterly detached from, while substituting for, reality. That is, ideology bears a relation to reality even as it displaces reality. I am using reality here in its most material sense: who eats; who starves; who has health care; who sickens and dies without it; who is tortured; who for reasons of privilege (a matter of location, whether material or geographical or ideological) escapes torture; who works at a living wage; who cannot find work or works for wages at or below the poverty line; who receives an education that helps propel him or her into or secures them in the materially advantaged classes; who is denied such an education, etc.” (23) (my emphasis)

In India we don’t see any discussion of real issues on public platforms. Political parties have a single-point agenda: how to divide the masses, how to win elections, how to stay in power after winning elections, how to loot the country. Lying, cheating, deception and broad daylight robbery in the form of corruption are the order of the Indian day. In fact, corruption is so normal that for an Indian it’s like drinking water to quench thirst. A country where dishonesty is normalized is a country on a suicide mission. The suicide is not for the rich and the powerful. The suicide is for the diminishing middle classes, the expanding ranks of the poor and the powerless. Political parties talk of religion or caste in an abstract, disconnected way; no one talks about the poor and the unemployed as poor and unemployed. By reducing every other equation to religion and caste, they make it impossible for any honest debate on what needs to be done in order to bring the poor out of their misery. Both the ruling BJP and the main opposition the INC have nothing substantial to offer the masses. 

Cheyfitz offers an example for disinformation when he says, “The “war on terror” is a prime example of a fiction of Disinformation. The “war on terror” has no particular object or end; it is everywhere and can be anything…to the extent that misinformation is grounded in Disinformation, as the misinformation of “weapons of mass destruction” was grounded in the Disinformation of the “war on terror,” it can remain exceptionally resistant to information” (24). When we analyze the information produced as news on a daily basis what we see is the barely disguised blatant use of force: I have the power to crush you and I will because it suits me to do so. That’s the message that comes out loud and clear. On one fundamental issue the political parties are in complete agreement; whatever be our differences, keep the masses backward and let them be without means to challenge the government except through elections. Rhetoric and reality have no connection to one another. 

In the early 1980s I remember as a boy waiting for a bus one late night. No bus turned up for more than a couple of hours. Eventually I walked home. Those days the bus was the cheapest form of public transport. I remember telling myself that this situation should not continue and people should have better means of life. Maybe there are other means of transport now and the roads are slightly better. That does not change the fact that we are not on the path to change. There is no trace of real transformation except in a superficial sense. Everyone with a professional degree has one aim in mind: how fast to get out of this country. I blame them and I don’t blame them. With the kind of income inequality that we see in India it is impossible for any normal person or family to have a life of basic dignity. Dignity comes from material independence. When that is absent people become insecure and treacherous, the insecurity justifying the treachery. 

The British MP George Galloway, following his recent victory at Rochdale, said that, “Keir Starmer (Labor) and Rishi Sunak (conservative) are two cheeks of the same backside.” This is true of the Republicans and the Democrats in the United States and the ruling party and the opposition in India; both represent the same backside; both speak in a language that has no connection with material reality. They are not addressing the basic issues: the almost unbridgeable chasm between the ones who have and the ones who do not, the reinforcement of the status quo inversely proportional to the disempowerment of the masses, pollution that defies the imagination, absence of decent healthcare, lack of security for children and the old, especially from socially weak backgrounds and lack of a decent meal for everyone living in this country. Unfortunately, these things are outside of the “nation’s imagination” (36), which is also “capitalism’s imagination” (14) or the neoliberal imagination. Why is it that an average Indian does not think that he or she deserves better? Why do we put up with corrupt politicians who cheat and oppress people? Why do we bear with a police that does not serve common people? Why do we have to endure backwardness as if it is our karmic destiny? Why is the corporate lobby so powerful that they control the pulse of the nation? Disinformation makes it possible for this to happen. As Cheyfitz observes in the American context:

“Disinformation, then, is the dead end of ideology. It is the place where ideology no longer serves as a unifying national force, but reality does not intrude or only intrudes in fragments like pieces of a puzzle the polity cannot solve…virtually every U.S. citizen learns in school, from the mass media, and the two major political parties (or the one corporate party if you prefer), we live in a classless society where individual effort (not historical access to wealth tied to race, gender, and class) is the sole engine of success. Thus disinformed, we are taught implicitly to blame ourselves individually if we fail to succeed. Critical perspectives on the violent and unequal ways wealth has been distributed historically in the U.S. (beginning with the Constitution itself, Native American genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, the subversion of the union movement beginning in the 1980s, globalization, etc.) are substantially erased from mainstream public discourse as ongoing issues and thus from public policy decisions that might otherwise focus on the central issue of economic inequality substantially rather than rhetorically.” (39-40)

The preamble of the Indian constitution begins rhetorically with the promise of a “socialist” republic (that’s the only time that the word ‘socialist’ is used in the constitution); there is no mention of “class” that is at the heart of justice, equality and liberty. Freedom of expression is freedom from repression; but repression is about economic inequality. You cannot prioritize political and social equality and put economic equality on the back burner. If people have to be politically and socially equal, they must also be economically equal. The writers of the Indian constitution ensured that class equality remains outside the purview of the constitution. Instead, in principle, we are all supposedly equal before law. What does it mean to be equal before law? How is an illiterate man from the slums equal to the owner of an apartment complex? 

Reservations, which are largely based on social parameters, are no guarantee that we are heading towards an equal society. On the contrary, reservations create a section within oppressed groups who are only too happy to do the job of suppressing their own people in order to strengthen the arms of a repressive state. This is apart from the social envy that is created dividing people along the lines of caste and religion. Economic equality is not merely about preserving the constitution. The constitution has to be rewritten in local dialects in a way that the poor understand what is at stake for them. It cannot be too long either because the poor must be able to both read and interpret it. The current Indian constitution written in 17th century English prose, which, with my PhD in English from an American university I cannot sometimes figure out, is not really the recipe for an egalitarian society. Constitutionality in essence must be about economic equality. That’s how we empower the poor: with information that helps them fight injustice through knowledge. “Ignorance never helped anyone! Never!”, protests the young Marx in Raoul Peck’s beautifully made historical drama film, “The Young Karl Marx” (2017). To condemn people to live in ignorance of a law that they are subjected to on a daily basis is sinful to say the least. 

The absence of economic equality creates a form of subservience among the masses who are ready to support a status quo led by a strong leader who is forceful and assertive, in short, a dictator. What we are witnessing in India is the politics of brute power – a police state. From the Nehruvian mixed economy-based state in the 1950s which favored the rich industrialists and land owners, we evolved to a state corporatized to the extent where elections seem more like a charade than anything else. What does the political party at the helm of affairs have to do? Use the instruments of state power, especially the executive and the judiciary, to harass people who are critical of the government. The state does not need an ideology any longer because it doesn’t need to connect to reality. What it needs is how best it can disinform the masses. 

As Cheyfitz puts it: 

“Whereas ideology, however imaginary, retains a certain relation to reality, Disinformation severs that relation, precisely because it is constructed outside the realm of referential speech. It is, in fact, a species of hallucination. It is this airless invisible dome of Disinformation that currently marks the limits of the United States. Outside the dome reality is happening in various forms of production and destruction. Hallucinations of course produce shock waves in reality, fields of deadly force at home and abroad. The question remains: when will reality shatter the dome and what form will it take?” (45)

People need to be injected with hallucinations on a daily basis. Disinformation drugs them with a false sense of reality. India’s limits as a nation-state are the limits of the corporate imagination. The limits to our thinking are prescribed by the corporate-based imagination. We don’t have to think about others. We only have to think of ourselves. We have to blindly obey without asking questions. This is the time-honored recipe for a fascism rooted in disinformation: Repress people physically and emotionally, incite them to hate others who are perceived as weaker than them. Indoctrinate the majority on a daily basis that those “others” are responsible for all our problems and that without those others, we would be living in a golden era. In this era of disinformation, the most successful since India’s independence, the political party heading the government is using every means available in a majoritarian democracy to crush opposition of any kind. 

The amorality of the average Indian is the amorality of India’s politics and society. One party – the BJP – projects itself as the savior of the majority community; another – the INC – projects itself as the savior of lower castes and minorities. Both do nothing to uplift the poor within the groups that they claim to represent. Instead they indulge in the language of disinformation by engaging with the masses in discussions about virtually nothing that matters; by making sure that there is no discussion of anything related to redistributive justice. What can be better for the ruling classes than a nation-state where the masses are disinformed enough to be speaking about everything except income inequality!

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is an independent scholar who, until December 2022, was a professor at The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India. He was “removed from service” for making allegations of corruption against an unscrupulous university administration and is currently challenging his dismissal in the court of law.

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