Mao’s Study Groups and Mass Media

This is a compilation of a few Twitter threads I wrote in mid 2019, summarizing my thoughts on how the MK ULTRA program and the CIA’s interest in “mind control” emerged from their study of “thought reform” (more commonly known as “brainwashing”) techniques deployed by the Chinese Communists during the Revolution and the war in Korea, and how these techniques were eventually incorporated into a capitalist platform for mass-influence known as the Internet.

So the MK psychologists who studied Chinese Communist organizing considered the group discussion to be a form of mass media. This is maybe the insight that ties it all together?

When Mao first began organizing the peasants, the Soviet leadership condemned him for adventurism.

(from “Coercive Persuasion” by Barker, Schein and Schneier)

Mao’s crucial insight was that the discontentment of the peasants over their situation could be directed towards Communism if the peasants could understand how their participation in a Communist movement would benefit them. A certain amount of decentralization was necessary both during the guerrilla war and leading up to it. Party members had to be taught how to do their own outreach autonomously. This required strict adherence to proper methods and practice combined with the independence to act appropriately according to whatever the local circumstances were.

Rural China in the mid 20th century didn’t have any “mass media” the way we think of it today or even how we would have thought of it in the West at the time. This was a huge region with no real radio or telephone coverage. Even if you could produce books and newspapers in a city, they don’t do you any good if you can’t get them into the village for people to read, which would only happen if you had trains and roads and trucks, which you didn’t really have. And it would have been a moot point since most of the people couldn’t really read.

To overcome these circumstances, Mao created a distributed peer-to-peer mass communication platform in the form of Party-led group discussions. Literate cadres, bearing books and a thorough understanding of Marxist theory, would be sent into the countryside to help the masses to better understand critically what they already knew intuitively from experience.

It was important that everyone engage with the material and relate it to their own life experience in order to internalize the teachings so they could incorporate it into their practice and be both autonomous and effective:

Mao’s intent wasn’t to “mind-control” people — the “indoctrination” process that’s described in “Coercive Persuasion” was meant to unify everyone’s practice so that they could autonomously build socialism locally, within the same framework.This was necessary because there was so little mechanical infrastructure for issuing directives and getting feedback. The feedback had to happen as close to the work as possible. The directives had to come from the workers, with the Party only separating noise from signal.

What’s remarkable to me about “Coercive Persuasion” is that it was written at a point when the imperialists were scared to death of what the Communists had achieved in China. They had to look at the situation practically and honestly in order to not be defeated again. Schein etc can’t engage in ideological combat. They cant create a strawman Communism to mock or substitute a critique of postmodernism or something that wasn’t Chinese Communism. They had to understand the Chinese Communist Party and describe accurately how it worked so that they could reverse-engineer and weaponize the tactics that were used to defeat them.

“A narration of an endless number of stories drawn from the participants own experiences…one of the most significant factors is the mere knowledge that one’s experiences in these groups are being shared by virtually everyone else in China.”

Isn’t that all of us, in our group chats and our news feeds and our discords? Social media is just the electronic version of the discussion platform that Mao built in the 1950s, retooled to guide people to internalize capitalist theory values and put those values into action. The power of this technology was in creating a narrative that would incorporate the whole society and providing the tools for each person to find a place to act effectively to further the vision (here called an “image”) of that narrative.

This idea of the “image” would be explored a decade later by a group of California Futurists in their “Changing Images of Man” study.

This is the study which begat Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which begat Star Wars (a chivalric romance about class anxiety set in outer space) which was the first movie to become the dominant cultural narrative for the it’s young audience at premier.

So the Internet wasn’t really the first distributed mass communications platform, or the first effort to coordinate an entire society in a project of reshaping beliefs and social conditions, down to the individual. It’s just the capitalist manifestation of that technology. Internalized theory is replaced by behavioral triggers.
Autonomous action is replaced with individualist consumer choice.
Socialist construction by entrepreneurship and capital accumulation, if not of economic capital, then accumulation attention and influence.

“Socialism” reverse-engineered into “social capitalism.”

The forms remain the same — the small, loosely-moderated, free-flowing discussions. Isolating people from what is familiar to reshape their perceptions. Internalizing ideas through repetition and application. Feedback loops between audience and content. Social software is engineered for “dopamine feedback loops” to keep people addicted to their particular narrative and their particular clique. The genuine feeling of liberation that comes from understanding your oppression, and developing the means to change your circumstances are substituted with literal chemical addiction to a tailored ego trip. That’s the whole trick.

Narratives are knowledge embodied in the social practices of transmission Remember how the CIA considered Mao’s study groups to be a form of mass media technology even though there were no electronic systems involved in how they propagated information?

What happens when you add capital to the already-built already-working peer-to-peer education platform? You’re not just having these discussions on a capitalist platform, you’re creating capital by letting the platforms’ surveillance mechanisms psychologically profile you.

You lock yourself in a group DM all day hotboxing ideology but it’s all been tainted with capitalism because the whole thing is made of capital.

Think about it. The user experience of distributed social media *technology* existed 70 years ago, in rural China. The Communists built it, without using capital. They built it to destroy capital, and it worked. All the other stuff — the LCD screens, wireless transmission of data, packet networks, big data aggregation of behaviors — that’s just capital that’s been added to the system to constrain and direct the user experience to further the production of capital.

This is why the Nick Land acolytes and the Deleuzian cybergoths are bullshitters. They fetishize fascist machinery and machine aesthetics, dead matter animated by dead energy, and can’t see technology as being a social practice first and foremost.

Nihilists like Nick Land who believe that global economic coordination can’t be achieved without surrendering the body to some kind of mechanistic process. It’s this capitulation and this fetishization that makes Land fascist — there’s no need for it unless you love violent futurist aesthetics.

Supplant Communism with metaphysics. Like a belief in benevolent extraterrestrial visitors. The system, as designed and implemented by the Communists was a mass media platform for the transmission of self-replicating processes of liberation. Adding electronic interfaces to this system and tying it to commodities is what enabled the deployment of pervasive monitoring and behavioral conditioning feedback loops to repurpose the system for propagating self-replicating processes of enslavement.

In a weird way, when I first read Coercive Persuasion, I felt like I had been “given permission to think about” (something Morton Feldman talks about when encountering a radically new work of art) how these tools could be used against capitalism, because I could see what the non-capitalist manifestation of these tools looked like.

Dopamine loops are powerful, but they aren’t the truth, and that might go a long way to explaining why the capitalists need so much machinery to maintain something that, like everything else in a healthy society, used to run entirely on people and their good intentions. This “decentralization” isn’t anarchist horizontalism or some kind of Deleuzian thing. The Party was highly centralized, but this was an adaptation to having a very constrained command infrastructure.

You needed to be sure that the people out in the field, away from supervision and guidance, could still implement the big plans without making too many mistakes. This is why it was important to have the regular group meeting where you came clean about your faults and shortcomings — the group only had each other to keep opportunism and deviations in check. Working with the masses on specific initiatives to improve their situations locally meant that you got feedback right away on the correctness of your theory, your plans and your leadership. Leadership was put to the test in small ways every day, with measurable results.

If this sounds like “agile methodology” it’s because that’s where Silicon Valley stole the idea. Capitalists weren’t going to invent a worker-directed iterative process on their own. Advanced capitalist doctrine in the high-tech industry in the mid 20th century was the slave labor camp at Nordhausen. IMO the bourgeois mentality of influence-mongering permeates everything on social media so pervasively that even the Very Well Read Marxists who argue Very Correct Lines are engaging in idealism because nobody puts their ideas into practice so there’s no validation of correctness Nobody’s putting anything into practice online in a way that will improve people’s circumstances, online or offline. But there’s endless time + energy for goal-seeking activities like policing and gatekeeping. It’s all Criticism-Criticism-Criticism.

Look at what the imperialists’ own agents said about the successes of Chinese Communism — people didn’t join or support the Party because the Party had the most correct understanding of Marxism, they supported the Party because the party could give them a convincing narrative of a better future, provide a plan that had a place for everyone, and give concrete results in improving people’s circumstances, validating the plan and the narrative. What’s missing from the capitalist version of this equation is meaningful work. Activities that will produce something measurable that a person can use to validate their understanding and implementation of a theory. Instead people look for validation in gatekeeping and peer approval, and they look for measurable results in the contrived metrics of likes and shares and follower counts.

Something I keep coming back to is how I came to Marxism thru “conspiracy theory.” Which can fall into the trap of goal-seeking research for its own sake and influence-mongering contrarian takes. You don’t need Marxism to expose a lie but you need it to get to the truth. You’ll tear off one mask only to uncover an endless parade of Globalists, Jews, Lizard People, Russian Agents ready to lead you astray again. You can get trapped over and over in new cycles of suspicion and unmasking, from Zeta Reticulans to your own social media acquaintances. I found those ideas repulsive, but the stuff sneaks in at the margins because sources are so polluted — it’s hard to even me a pseudo-left “progressive” without being led astray by either Larouchians or some CIA-backed mystifying anarchist techno-cult.

One technique the Chinese Communists used was to put politically un-advanced people in a study group with people who were only a little bit ahead of them, so the un-advanced could still identify with them, and see a path forward. New information was introduced gradually. People weren’t bombarded with all of the critiques and correct ideas at the outset. The process of changing somebody’s mind is understood as a path along a gradient, no as the flipping of a binary switch. The “Lone Conspiracy Theorist On the Hunt for The Truth” is one narrative and the “Vanguard Party” is another. But there isn’t really in interstitial narrative to show the transition from one to the other. But there are plenty of fake narratives of contrarian enlightenment there.

Mao’s study groups were about changing people’s relations to each other so that the could engage in productive economic activity — changing the relation to the means of production by either further building the party, fighting the guerrilla war, or building an industrial project. Concrete things with goals that could be assessed, so the group would have immediate feedback to understand its own understanding, and apply its own theories. Less fighting over social capital and correctness because correctness could be concretely demonstrated. Relating knowledge back to your local circumstances, and bringing up the people who were just a little bit behind you was what generated that gradient of interstitial narratives of transformation that could be used to bring somebody to the truth.

But in the Western implementation you get the cult. Even in the therapy group, it’s just people intensifying their intimacy with strangers, turned inwards, no concrete affirmation of whose ideas are correct. It recapitulates the toxicity of the bourgeois family unit. And the arbitrarily-delineated social media social unit (“these people are important to be me because we all post in the same group chat”) just transfers the cult dynamic onto all mediated social interactions.

Talking about Base and Superstructure without incorporating or validating Marx or Marxist theories. Compare the periodic lagging-behind of the “Operational Image” to how the Superstructure lags behind the Base during periods of revolutionary change.

Changing Images of Man, 1974 — “Behavioral Science…promoted as the most appropriate basis for man’s next era…now needing incorporation into a larger synthesis.” That larger synthesis? Human as “goal-directed adaptive learning system.”

Incorporate behavioral science into a larger synthesis of a goal-directed adaptive learning system. That “image” — grounded in class struggle — had reached its “takeoff point” in China decades earlier.

Marxism can’t be wholly deterministic or wholly materialist. There is such a thing as a life force that capital feeds on. There is an ethical imperative to end suffering. There are such things as ethical imperatives.

Postmodern relativism leads to paralysis and opens the door for fascists to substitute a critique of postmodernism’s ineffectiveness as a critique of the failures of Marxism, while postmodernism can conflate the democratic centralism of Marxism with fascist enslavement and tar them both as “totalitarian.”

One last random thing — the model that Schein uses to describe personal change in a group context is one of “unfreezing, changing, and refreezing”

This is what Mao described as the Unity-Criticism-Unity principle in groups — the group begins in a “frozen” state- but with an imperfection in the form of an incorrect idea or behavior.

In the process of ideological struggle, the social boundaries of the group are unfrozen, or melted down — criticism and emotions flow freely. But the aim is for the imperfections to be removed from the group so the group can return to a unified state stronger than before. Apply heat to an alloy — hammer out imperfections — cool down the alloy. Now you have forged metal. Building a decentralized network of local steel furnaces allowed people to do with their hands what they had already been doing with their minds.



I only came here to pawn books and pull weeds. And I’m all out of books.

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M Mabeuf

I only came here to pawn books and pull weeds. And I’m all out of books.