The American Empire and the Weaponization of Entertainment
  • Eric M. Fattor


The world has witnessed with great interest, in the last few years, the growing power of digital media capabilities and the political consequences of their use. Aside from the well-known events of the Arab Spring—especially the so-called Facebook Revolution in Egypt—digital media and social networking have been essential tools in all sorts of political activity.1 Barak Obama’s shrewd use of social media capabilities played a pivotal role in his electoral victories in 2008 and 2012.2 Outside of mainstream American politics, antiausterity campaigners in Great Britain have used Twitter to announce and coordinate direct action against banks and business they accuse of not paying sufficient tax. Students in Chile, Montreal, and California take digital cameras everywhere they go and post all their interactions with each other and with authorities on YouTube for public viewing. Even slum dwellers are finding ways of using Facebook and other social networking platforms to challenge attempts by local governments to relocate them to more distant peripheries of the city.3 Given these events, it is easy to conclude that the digital capabilities of the twenty-first century are radically changing the world before humanity’s eyes.


Coercive Force Motion Picture Soft Power Slum Dweller Imperial Power 
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  1. 1.
    The term “Facebook Revolution” can refer to any of the revolts that took place in the Middle East or Central Asia beginning with the Iranian uprisings of 2009, but Egypt tends to be the event most closely associated with the term. See Wael Ghonim, Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater than the People in Power (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Rahaf Harfoush, Yes We Did: An Inside Look at How Social Media Built the Obama Brand (Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2009).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For more on these specific examples, see Paul Mason, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (New York: Verso, 2012).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    While the idea of an American Empire has long been present in the critical literature of American foreign policy, it started to receive a positive analysis from more mainstream scholars at about the time of the invasion of Iraq. The most widely circulated of these newer works include Max Boot, “The Case for American Empire,” The Weekly Standard, October 15, 2001; Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004); andGoogle Scholar
  5. Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite: Nation Building on Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan (New York: Random House, 2010).Google Scholar
  6. For a more rigorous academic treatment of the question, see Daniel H. Nexon and Thomas Wright, “What’s at Stake in the American Empire Debate,” The American Political Science Review 101, no. 2 (May 2007): 253–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 5.
    Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Rex Warner, trans. (London: Penguin, 1972), 400–408.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    For examples of states where governments have been toppled through some sort of American action, see Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2006).Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    This theme is explored more deeply in John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, Terror Security and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits and Costs of Homeland Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Penguin, 2011).Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    See Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality (American Political Science Association, 2004). Scholar
  12. 9.
    According to Cox, clear understandings of the structures of power at the global level cannot be reduced to single variable like material capability, states and institutions, or the conviction of ideas. Rather, all three of these aspects of power mutually constitute an assemblage of command and authority that represents a harmony of social, political, and economic interests that come to define a particular era of history or “historic bloc.” These historic blocs, however, are constantly in a state of flux, as different formations of power representing the different sets of values and interests of different social groups and alliances of states struggle with each other for dominance until one emerges as triumphant. The measure of this victory is made by the ability of the prevailing interest group to control not only the political apparatus of the nation, but also the cultural, moral, and persuasive instruments of the nation as well. Victory at the international level emerges when this assemblage of power becomes internalized in the minds and imaginations of diverse subject communities in the form of a shared understanding of “common sense” or “conventional wisdom,” even when this conventional wisdom in not in the interest of the specific communities. Once the conventional wisdom is established, recourse to coercive discipline is less frequent. See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds. and trans. (New York: International Publishers, 1999), 258–276; andGoogle Scholar
  13. Robert Cox, “Gramsci, hegemony, and international relations: an essay in method,” in Stephen Gill, ed., Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 137–139.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    This book does not attempt to explain why entertainment has the psychological effects that it does on the mind and the collective consciousness of an audience. The argument here focuses on the political consequences for these psychological effects. For more on the psychology of entertainment, see Dolf Zillmann and Peter Vorderer, eds. Media Entertainment: The Psychology of Its Appeal (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000).Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    The theoretical assumptions being expressed here follow a substantial body of work by critical theorists who have been interested in the relationship between media and structures of power. These include Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theater (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964);Google Scholar
  16. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 2002);Google Scholar
  17. Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, “The Quality of Monopoly Capitalist Society: Culture and Communications,” Monthly Review 65, no. 3 (July–August 2013): 43–64;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. C. Wright Mills, “The Cultural Apparatus,” in The Politics of Truth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 203–212; andGoogle Scholar
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  20. 12.
    Herbert Marcuse called this inability to conceptualize better alternatives to the prevailing arrangement of power “one-dimensionality.” Much of his analysis focused on the triumph of technical and instrumental rationality, though parts of his analysis incorporated discussions of media and communications. One aspect of the argument this book makes is to give entertainment media a larger role in bringing about this one-dimensionality. See Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).Google Scholar
  21. 13.
    In this interpretation, media triggers frenetic activity on the part of the audience, but only to emulate the images of lifestyle and celebrity. This usually entails a rush to purchase the various consumer goods associated with the desired lifestyle on display. See Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Donald Nicholason-Smith, trans. (New York: Zone Books, 1999); andGoogle Scholar
  22. Benjamin Barber, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007).Google Scholar
  23. 14.
    Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).Google Scholar
  24. 20.
    Ibid., 137. For an analytically richer variation of this argument, see Jack Donnelly, “Sovereign Inequalities and Hierarchy in Anarchy: American Power and International Society,” European Journal of International Relations 12, no. 2 (June 2006): 139–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 21.
    George Creel, How We Advertised America (New York: Harper Brothers, 1920), 5.Google Scholar

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© Eric M. Fattor 2014

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  • Eric M. Fattor

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