In the winter of 1941, a Jewish gravedigger from Chelmo, the western province of Poland, appeared in Warsaw and desperately sought a meeting with Jewish leaders.
He told them the Nazis were rounding up Jews, including the old, women and children, and forcing them into what looked like tightly sealed buses. The buses had the exhaust pipes redirected into the cabins. The Jews were killed with carbon monoxide. He had helped dig the mass graves for thousands of corpses until he escaped.
On the way to Warsaw, he had gone from village to village, frantically warning the Jews. Scores of Jews, in the villages and ultimately in Warsaw, heard his testimony of horror and dismissed it.
A handful of listeners, however, including Zivia Lubetkin, who two years later would help lead the uprising by 500 armed Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, instantly understood the ultimate aims of the Nazi state.
“I don’t know how we intuitively shared the same horrible conviction that the total annihilation of all the Jewish communities in Nazi-occupied Europe was at hand,” she wrote in her memoir, “In the Days of Destruction and Revolt.”
She and a handful of young activists started planning a revolt. From that moment forward, they existed in a parallel reality.
“We walked along the overcrowded streets of the Warsaw Ghetto, hundreds of thousands of people pushing and rushing about in fright, antagonistic and tense, living the illusion that they were fighting for their lives, their meager livelihood, but, in reality, when you closed your eyes you could see that they were all dead …”
The established Jewish leadership warned the resistance fighters to desist, telling them to work within the parameters set by the Nazi occupiers. The faces of the established Jewish leaders, when they were informed of the plans to fight back, she wrote, “grew pale, either from sudden fear or from anger at our audacity. They were furious. They reproached us for irresponsibly sowing the seeds of despair and confusion among the people, for our impertinence in even thinking of armed resistance.”
The greatest problem the underground movement faced, she wrote, was “the false hope, the great illusion.” The movement’s primary task was to destroy these illusions. Only when the truth was known would widespread resistance be possible.
The aims of the corporate state are, given the looming collapse of the ecosystem, as deadly, maybe more so, as the acts of mass genocide carried out by the Nazis and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The reach and effectiveness of corporate propaganda dwarfs even the huge effort undertaken by Adolf Hitler and Stalin. The layers of deception are sophisticated and effective. News is state propaganda. Elaborate spectacles and forms of entertainment, all of which ignore reality or pretend the fiction of liberty and progress is real, distract the masses.
Education is indoctrination. Ersatz intellectuals, along with technocrats and specialists, who are obedient to neoliberal and imperial state doctrine, use their academic credentials and erudition to deceive the public.
The promises made by the corporate state and its political leaders—we will restore your jobs, we will protect your privacy and civil liberties, we will rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, we will save the environment, we will prevent you from being exploited by banks and predatory corporations, we will make you safe, we will provide a future for your children—are the opposite of reality.
The loss of privacy, the constant monitoring of the citizenry, the use of militarized police to carry out indiscriminate acts of lethal violence—a daily reality in marginal communities—and the relentless drive to plunge as much as two-thirds of the country into poverty to enrich a tiny corporate elite, along with the psychosis of permanent war, presage a dystopia that will be as severe as the totalitarian systems that sent tens of millions to their deaths during the reigns of fascism and communism.
There is no more will to reform, or to accommodate the needs and rights of the citizens by the corporate state, than there was to accommodate the needs and rights of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. But until the last moment, this reality will be hidden behind the empty rhetoric of democracy and reform. Repressive regimes gradually institute harsher and harsher forms of control while denying their intentions. By the time a captive population grasps what is happening, it is too late.
The elaborate ruses set up by the Nazis that kept Jews and others slated for extermination passive until they reached the doors of the gas chambers, usually decorated with a large Star of David, were legend. Those taken to death camps were told they were going to work. Unloading ramps at Treblinka were made to look like a train station, with fabricated train schedules posted on the walls and a fake train clock and ticket window. Camp musicians played. The elderly and infirm were escorted from the cattle cars to a building called the infirmary, with the Red Cross symbol on it, before being shot in the back of the head. Men, women and children, who would die in the gas chambers within an hour, were given tickets for their clothes and valuables.
“The Germans were quite courteous when they led people to be slaughtered,” Lubetkin noted acidly.
Jews in ghettos, awaiting deportation to the death camps, were divided by those who worked for the Nazis and therefore had certain privileges, and those who did not. This division effectively pitted the two groups against each other until the final deportations. And collaborating with the killers, in the vain hope that they would be spared, were Jews themselves, organized into Jewish Councils, or Judenrat, and formed into units of the Jewish police, along with what Lubetkin called “their cronies, the spectators and profiteers, the smugglers.”
In the death camps, Jews, to stay alive a little longer, worked in the crematoriums assonderkommandos. There are always those among the oppressed willing to sell out their neighbor for a few more crusts of bread. As life becomes desperate, the choice is often between collaboration and death.
Our corporate masters know what is coming. They know that as the ecosystem breaks down, as financial dislocations create new global financial meltdowns, as natural resources are poisoned or exhausted, despair will give way to panic and rage.
They know coastal cities will be covered by rising sea levels, crop yields will plummet, soaring temperatures will make whole parts of the globe uninhabitable, the oceans will become dead zones, hundreds of millions of refugees will flee in desperation, and complex structures of governance and organization will break down.
They know that the legitimacy of corporate power and neoliberalism—as potent and utopian an ideology as fascism or communism—will crumble. The goal is to keep us fooled and demobilized as long as possible.
The corporate state, operating a system Sheldon Wolin referred to as “inverted totalitarianism,” invests tremendous sums—$5 billion in this presidential election alone—to ensure that we do not see its intentions or our ultimate predicament.
These systems of propaganda play on our emotions and desires. They make us confuse how we are made to feel with knowledge. They get us to identify with the manufactured personality of a political candidate. Millions wept at the death of Josef Stalin, including many who had been imprisoned in his gulags. There is a powerful yearning to believe in the paternal nature of despotic power.
There are cracks in the edifice. The loss of faith in neoliberalism has been a driving force in the insurgencies in the Republican and Democratic parties. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, of course, will do nothing to halt the corporate assault. There will be no reform. Totalitarian systems are not rational. There will only be harsher forms of repression and more pervasive systems of indoctrination and propaganda. The voices of dissenters, now marginalized, will be silenced.
It is time to step outside of the establishment. This means organizing groups, including political parties, that are independent of the corporate political machines that control the Republicans and Democrats.
It means carrying out acts of sustained civil disobedience. It means disruption.
Our resistance must be nonviolent. The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, condemned to imminent death and alienated from a Polish population steeped in anti-Semitism, had no hope of appealing to the Nazi state or most of the Poles.
But we still have options. Many who work within ruling class structures understand the corruption and dishonesty of corporate power. We must appeal to their conscience. We must disseminate the truth.
We have little time left. Climate change, even if we halt all carbon emissions today, will still bring rising temperatures, havoc, instability and systems collapse to much of the planet.
Let us hope we never have to make the stark choice, as most of the ghetto fighters did, about how we will die. If we fail to act, however, this choice will one day define our future, as it defined theirs.