Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Empire of Lies - Reloaded

Something made me go back to this post that I wrote two years ago. And some things I wrote at that time look to me even too much prophetic today. So, here it is again (with some minor modifications)

The Empire of Lies
by Ugo Bardi - Feb 8th, 2016

The Trajan Column was built in order to celebrate the victories of the Roman Armies in the conquest of Dacia, during the 2nd century AD. It shows that the Romans knew and used propaganda, although in forms that for us look primitive. Here, for instance, an image on the column Dacian women torturing Roman prisoners in a brazen "perception management" operation. In those times, just as in ours, a dying empire could be kept together for a while by lies, but not forever.  

At the beginning of the 5th century AD, Augustine, bishop of Hippo, wrote his "De Mendacio" ("On Lying"). Reading it today, we may be surprised at how rigid Augustine was in his conclusions. A Christian, according to him, could not lie in any circumstances whatsoever; not even to save lives or to avoid suffering for someone. The suffering of the material body, said Augustine, is nothing; what's important is one's immortal soul. Later theologians substantially softened these requirements, but there was a logic in Augustine's stance if we consider his times: the last century of the Western Roman Empire.

By the time of Augustine, the Roman Empire had become an Empire of lies. It still pretended to uphold the rule of law, to protect the people from the Barbarian invaders, to maintain the social order. But all that had become a bad joke for the citizens of an empire by then reduced to nothing more than a giant military machine dedicated to oppressing the poor in order to maintain the privileges of the rich. The Empire itself had become a lie: that it existed because of the favor of the Gods who rewarded the Romans because of their moral virtues. Nobody could believe in that anymore: it was the breakdown of the very fabric of society; the loss of what the ancient called the auctoritas, the trust that citizens had toward their leaders and the institutions of their state.

Augustine was reacting to all this. He was trying to rebuild the "auctoritas", not in the form of mere authoritarianism of an oppressive government, but in the form of trust. So, he was appealing to the highest authority of all, God himself. He was also building his argument on the prestige that the Christians had gained at a very high price with their martyrs. And not just that. In his texts, and in particular in his "Confessions" Augustine was opening himself completely to his readers; telling them all of his thoughts and his sins in minute details. It was, again, a way to rebuild trust by showing that one had no hidden motives. And he had to be strict in his conclusions. He couldn't leave any openings that would permit the Empire of Lies to return.

Augustine and other early Christian fathers were engaged, first of all, in an epistemological revolution. Paulus of Tarsus had already understood this point when he had written: "now we see as in a mirror, darkly, then we'll see face to face." It was the problem of truth; how to see it? How to determine it? In the traditional view, truth was reported by a witness who could be trusted. The Christian epistemology started from that, to build up the concept of truth as the result divine revelation. The Christians were calling God himself as witness. It was a spiritual and philosophical vision, but also a very down-to-earth one. Today, we would say that the Christians of late Roman times were engaged in "relocalization", abandoning the expensive and undefendable structures of the old Empire to rebuild a society based on local resources and local governance. The age that followed, the Middle Ages, can be seen as a time of decline but it was, rather, a necessary adaptation to the changed economic conditions. Eventually, all societies must come to terms with Truth. The Western Roman Empire could not do that, It had to disappear, it was unavoidable.

Now, let's move forward to our times and we have reached our empire of lies. On the current situation, I don't have to tell you anything that you don't already know. During the past few decades, the mountain of lies tossed at us by governments has been perfectly matched by the disastrous loss of trust in our leaders on the part of the citizens. When the Soviets launched their first orbiting satellite, the Sputnik, in 1957, nobody doubted that it was for real and the reaction of the US government was to launch their own satellites. Today, plenty of people even deny that the US sent men to the moon in the 1960s. They may be ridiculed, they may be branded as conspiracy theorists, sure, but they are there. Perhaps the watershed of this collapse of trust was with the story of the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" that we were told were hidden in Iraq. It was not their first, nor it will be their last, lie. But how can you ever trust institutions that lied to you so brazenly? (and that continue to do so?)

Today, every statement from a government, or from an even remotely "official" source, seems to generate a parallel and opposite statement of denial. Unfortunately, the opposite of a lie is not necessarily the truth, and that has originated baroque castles of lies, counter-lies, and counter-counter lies. Think of the story of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Somewhere, hidden below the mass of legends and myths that have piled up on this story, there has to be the truth; some kind of truth. But how to find it when you can't trust anything you read on the Web?

Or think of peak oil. At the simplest level of conspiratorial interpretation, peak oil can be seen as a reaction to the conspiracy of oil companies that hide the depletion of their resources. But you may also see peak oil as a scam created by oil companies that try to hide the fact that their resources are actually abundant - even infinite in the diffuse legend of "abiotic oil". But, for others, the idea that peak oil is a scam created in order to hide abundance may be a higher order scam created in order to hide scarcity. Even higher order conspiracy theories are possible. It is a fractal universe of lies, where you have no reference point to tell you where you are.

Eventually, it is a problem of epistemology. The same that goes back to Pontius Pilate's statement "what is truth?" Where are we supposed to find truth in our world? Perhaps in science? But science is rapidly becoming a marginal sect of people who mumble of catastrophes to come. People whom nobody believes any longer after they failed to deliver their promises of energy too cheap to meter, space travel, and flying cars. Then, we tend to seek it in such things as "democracy" and to believe that a voting majority somehow defines "truth". But democracy has become a ghost of itself: how can citizens make an informed choice after that we discovered the concept that we call "perception management" (earlier on called "propaganda")?

Going along a trajectory parallel to that of the ancient Romans, we haven't yet arrived at having a semi-divine emperor residing in Washington D.C., considered by law to be the repository of divine truth. And we aren't seeing yet a new religion taking over and expelling the old ones. At present, the reaction against the official lies takes mostly the form of what we call "conspiratorial attitude." Although widely despised, conspirationism is not necessarily wrong; conspiracies do exist and much of the misinformation that spreads over the web must be created by someone who is conspiring against us. The problem is that conspirationism is not a form of epistemology. Once you have decided that everything you read is part of the great conspiracy, then you have locked yourself in an epistemological box and thrown away the key. And, like Pilate, you can only ask "what is truth?", but you will never find it.

Is it possible to think of an "epistemology 2.0" that would allow us to regain trust in the institutions and on our fellow human beings? Possibly, yes but, right now, we are seeing as in a mirror, darkly. Something is surely stirring, out there; but it has not yet taken a recognizable shape. Maybe it will be a new ideal, maybe a revisitation of an old religion, maybe a new religion, maybe a new way of seeing the world. We cannot say which form the new truth will take, but we can say that nothing new can be born without the death of something. And that all births are painful but necessary.


  1. Brilliant, Ugo! And somewhere, some rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem (we hope).

  2. I just put on line what I believe to be the best analysis ever made of how people can be deceived and enticed into war:


    Vernon Lee wrote it over a hundred years ago, at the beginning of the Great War (World War Two, and the current wars in the Middle East, are just a footnote to that war).

    She later wrote a much longer commentary to this short text, which is also well worth reading.

    The rough beast is truly slouching, not far from Bethlehem.

    1. MM, your comment: "... the current wars in the Middle East, are just a footnote to that war." Vernon Lee got it right: she was writing at the time our core civilisation already failed from internal contradiction. Seems a brief century ago - my father was 14 in 1915.

      And who we know was the 'Father of Lies'?

      Drum beats for war – in this case for actions ‘pushing the envelope’ - have been sounding in Britain for a while. Our 'liberal' newspaper, the Guardian, might be the best indicator; most of the others are outright 'right-wing'. The anti-Putin campaign in the G has been going for a long time, well before the coup in Ukraine, but of course is accelerated since Trump. When you consult some leading British experts on Russia (I did consult 2 years ago): "… about Russia the Guardian just makes it up". (I needed to check for example that I had got my Ukrainian history in the right order. And that uprisings / wars – and 'interventions' - in MENA were as I remembered them. As Putin said at the UN in 2015 regarding MENA, "Look at the mess you have made"). The G's anti-Trump campaign has been in synchrony with its anti-Russian campaign, which I assume is significant. Most recently the nerve agent poisoning in England, and the most recent 'chemical warfare' in Damascus, have been accepted as 'provocations by Putin' – the Guardian along with the rest. This is despite Russia - or the Syrian government - having strong reasons not to offer up such propaganda coups to our governments.

      I can remember since the 1950s being regularly lied to about the Middle East by our government. Remember Mossadegh anyone?

      By a curious parliamentary mix-up Britain did not support Obama's proposed 2013 bombing in Syria and Obama apparently took the opportunity to cancel that action. I live in a relatively empty part of England. All the previous UK bombings including that one were prefaced by night-flying exercises over our heads. So far it is quiet. Britain might just sit this one out.


    2. For an update ...
      The British Royal Navy is said to have moved submarines firing cruise missiles into Eastern Mediterranean. These have been used before against Afghanistan (Taliban), Serbia, Iraq and Libya in support of the USA.

  3. The quality of Guardian reporting (which isn't saying very much, as it is a very inferior publication these days- so many clueless columnists!) on Russia changed after that curious incident when British Intelligence visited them and supervised the destruction of computers in the basement - reported on fully by the Guardian at the time. Since then they follow what we must assume to be the the official line, with some distraction articles thrown in.


    1. Opinion The Guardian
      The Syria strikes show the west is serious about chemical weapons
      Martin Kettle


    2. Ugo
      Just for the record I just noticed - your clock as I see it on my screen looks weird! 2:10 AM which even allowing for time zones is very odd? I last posted sometime after 10.00 AM GMT.

      Thanks for this post and for Miguel Martinez and his link to his own posting of Vernon Lee's play. Sometime we should catch up on why she is very dear to many in Florence.


    3. Not sure. But sometimes I do suffer of insomnia!

  4. Ugo

    The central myth of the classical age was Zeus toppling the Titans and then imposing order upon the world. By Imperial times this myth had been secularized into the Divine Emperor imposing the order of the Pax Romana upon the world. In time this whole myth turned into a sick joke, as one usurper after another reduced the world to chaos for the sake of their own ambition. ( under Honorius there were 13 recorded usurpations ) And the said order had become that of the Imperial aristocracy. By then the mass of the population had deserted the temples and filed into the Christian churches. Without faith in the Olympian mythos, the Roman Empire had become like the Soviet Union after the population had lost faith in communism, a hollow shell that could be smashed by any storm. That day came and the ruins of Rome were rebuilt as Medieval Christiandom.

    The new myth was that of an orderly world created by a perfect God and of Man reunited with divine perfection by the sacrifice of the Savior. This was in turn secularized into the myth of salvation of humanity by the secular state. Ultimatly that became the USA as the city on the hill and the World last and best hope. But who believes in salvation today when that means damnation for the masses in order to save the powerful? When the masses feels .We are all Damned anyway!. Toays Western Civ is a dead corpse rotting on its throne surrounded by a court of the criminally insane its institutions political, sacial, economic have turned into so many dragons of Chaos. Another empty shell. What will it be rebuilt as when it collapse?

    My own experience sees the world of Helheim, a world without sin, without salvation, were nothing is ever quite as it seems and world shaped into order by the power of the Queen of the Underworld, were all are equal before her.

    The above doesn't mean that we'll be dead, it is simply the way I represent that new world Mythos, it sould not be read literally.

    As for the Collapse itself, why should it feared? The Fall of Rome was simply the fall of of its ruling elite, it wasn't the death of the population. Without the deadweight of its dysfunctional rulers, the people we now free build in new directions instead of an Absolute Emperor, Magna Cartas, parliaments, Estates and new concepts of human dignity. Instead of slaves in the ergastula, the great markets of Medieval Bruges and Venice, a new facination with machines, mills in every villages and ultimatly the Industrial Revolution. Instead of the slave agents of the Roman elite, the emergence of a free bourgoisie. The Roman elite could never have conceived such things, they had to fall so the rest of population could be free.

    Now how much will be accomplished once the Western is gone and it becomes possible to strike in new direction, when the enormous waste of talent and resources used to enforce a crumbling system is ended?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)