Despotism: A warning from 1946

Archive dot org, which I’m sure many of you are already familiar with, has been able rescue films that record history, like the films shot during and after both of the World Wars, and of course it has rescued countless a-historical but highly entertaining Noir films from the 40s and 50s (some of my favorites among them!).

But probably one of the most important films for us today is a slightly damaged version of a film entitled Despotism. It was made by Encyclopedia Britannica Films, in those days the top informational filmmaker for schools and universities. And it made the film Despotism to inform the upcoming generation of the perils that exist in the world we live in, and to show them how to recognize despotism when it is on its insidious path to take over the democratic system.

Unfortunately, as events in the present are showing us, this film has not been shown in enough schools since 1946, otherwise we might not be in the situation we are in today.

You can view Despotism yourself here and here – and I encourage you to do so. The first link is to the Prelinger Archive collection and has an extensive shotlist and transcript from which I have gathered some important shot and narration information for this article – which is, by the way, only written as a quick guide to the film, not intended as an exhaustive review. The Prelinger Archive version of the film has some sync problems, but is still OK to view. The second link is to the Community Video site, and it has a version of the film with no sync problems, but is bereft of the shotlist. So if you need to, you can copy the shotlist from the one site and watch the film on the other.

In a no-holds-barred beginning to the film we are shown a sliding scale (00:14) which slowly goes from top to bottom:

Public Domain

And carefully chosen words follow from narrator James Brill, who stands in front of a wall chart with a big map of Europe behind him:

“Well for one thing, avoid the comfortable idea that the mere form of government can of itself safeguard a nation against despotism. Germany under President Hindenburg was a republic. [outline of Germany] And yet in this republic an aggressive despotism took root and flourished under Adolf Hitler. [maps, flags, swastika]

Because is an open system, many negative or near-negative comments about the film have been posted on the Prelinger Archive site by people who call it everything from “obvious Jewish Marxist propaganda” to “accurate and frightening”. Why? Well, you have seen how the film begins, now look at the shocking follow-up to that beginning:

“When a competent observer looks for signs of despotism in a community, he looks beyond fine words and noble phrases.” (00:54) Then you see a picture of a group of people reciting the pledge of allegiance, saluting the flag, hands over hearts: “… for which it stands, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” And while they speak the words “with liberty and justice for all”, the crossfade comes and shows a hanged man. (00:58-01:09)

Public Domain

Many Americans were not and are still not able to emotionally deal with the juxtaposition of the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance ritual with the picture of someone hanging from – perhaps – the branch of a tree that has an uncanny resemblance to a scaffold. And, if you study the picture of the shadow figure hanging from the rope (which undoubtedly has a hangman’s noose), you can discern the typical forelock that was so popular among young whites of post-war America. Does that forelock rescue the picture from a racist bent?

It’s a shocking juxtaposition in its own right, even if you are not American. And it comes so early on in the film that it sets a tone, a tone that will continue throughout.

Despotism is only a ten-minute film. It was meant to be shown in a History class or a Political Science class or in a class that in my day used to be called Civics. (I just had a look to see if Civics still exists, and it does!) Although Civics seems to be obligatory in the high schools of most states, it is hardly ever taught for more than half a year. Only 16 states require a Civics exam to graduate. One of those states is Colorado, which seems to have a rather comprehensive course for its students: “Because all Colorado high schools must teach one year of civics, teachers are expected to cover the origins of democracy, the structure of American government, methods of public participation, a comparison to foreign governments, and the responsibilities of citizenship.”

I wonder what effect it would have if some high school teachers in Colorado took 10 minutes to show their students Despotism. (What effect would it have on you if you were stoned while watching it?)

Pretty quickly after the shock, a quick explanation of how despotism can come about, once again using the sliding scales we have been introduced to, but this time with the titles RESPECT and POWER.

“A careful observer can use a respect scale to find how many citizens get an even break. As a community moves towards despotism, respect is restricted to fewer people. A community is low on a respect scale if common courtesy is withheld from large groups of people on account of their political attitudes; if people are rude to others because they think their wealth and position gives them that right, or because they don’t like a man’s race or his religion.” (01:26)

Skillfully woven into the narration is a short clip of two khaki-clad men in jackboots and military-style caps, strutting down a city street, guns on their hips and obviously harassing people on the street. That is followed by a boss entering his office and walking quickly past his employees without uttering a word of greeting before going into his office, which is marked Private. And then the clincher, an reservation form for a holiday resort:

Public Domain

And immediately we are at the heart of the matter of what is extremely relevant for us today, because our whole world is getting lower and lower on the RESPECT scale. Common courtesy is withheld from people all the time, and not only because of their political attitudes, their lack of wealth, their race or gender, but for any number of perceived travesties, in public spaces, on busses, subway trains, in traffic – too many horror videos to mention just one – and on social media. You’ve all seen the crappy moments that are filmed for likes or LOLs or just to elicit rage. And this rage spreads through social media channels and fuels acts of violence. And then the acts of violence are filmed and passed along as well.

Along with a graphic depiction of the POWER scale as it goes down from shared to concentrated, we get the following narration:

“A power scale is another important yardstick of despotism. It gauges the citizen’s share in making the community’s decisions. Communities which concentrate decision making in a few hands rate low on a power scale and are moving towards despotism. Like France under the Bourbon kings, one of whom said, ‘The state – I am the state.’ Today democracy can ebb away in communities whose citizens allow power to become concentrated in the hands of bosses. (03:13) ‘What I say goes. See, I’m the law around here. Ha ha ha!’ The test of despotic power is that it can disregard the will of the people. It rules without the consent of the governed.” Does that I’m the law around here. Ha ha ha! sound familiar?

Public Domain (03:40)

The sequence that comes after, about voting and how votes are treated, has a cleverly crafted flag that adorns the wall, with the math symbol (≠) in what we can assume – even though the film is in black and white – is a red circle. And here we also have the re-emergence of our khaki-clad keepers of order from a previous clip, with official armbands and eagles on their military/policeman caps.

Symbols of power are extremely important today, as they have always been. Some are external, like flags, badges, guns, vehicles, uniforms (brown, green, camouflaged, dark blue, black); some are only there if you look for them – watches, cell phones, jewelry, shoes – and some are kept hidden and shown only to the select few who are privy to the halls of power in whichever system they exist. Those are the people who are allowed to view TOP SECRET, EYES ONLY documents, and other such private and sensitive material (like the photos of a dead Bin Laden? or snapshots of a dead Khashoggi before he is disposed of?).

Voting is a process that even despotic regimes like to use to show the world that they are not so bad after all. Now whether or not your vote has any meaning is totally dependent on the form of government you are under. In nominally democratic societies, people have a tendency to believe their vote is meaningful. In some European countries turnout is high. And from time-to-time there is a change of direction away from despotism toward democracy. But these days, as Noam Chomsky once showed us, our consent to be governed is often manufactured through the power of advertising and propaganda perfected first by Edward Bernays, the “double nephew” of Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and then refined by Joseph Goebbels and later by the Mad Men on Madison Avenue.

The makers of Despotism are no slouches when it comes to giving maximum visual effect to the words that come after we have had a quick visual and aural dose of Hitler and his saluting minions.

“In a downright despotism, opposition is dangerous whether the despotism is official or whether it is unofficial.” [this all comes over a montage of pictures showing a sign which reads Camp 33 for Political Offenders, then a man with a hood over his head and a noose around his neck, which is followed by what are obviously Ku Klux Klan men backlit by the flames of a burning cross. (04:13-04:23)]

The film is around its halfway mark now. So to keep this readable, I’ll give you a quick run-through of what comes next.

First we get the ECONOMIC DISTRIBUTION scale that can go from balanced to slanted. Income and land ownership are dealt with first: “Where land is privately owned, one sign of a poorly balanced economy is the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a very small number of people.” Taxation is also addressed: “Another sign of a poorly balanced economy is a taxation system that presses heaviest on those least able to pay.” All of that illustrated by stacks of coins and pie charts. (04:48-06:30)

The INFORMATION scale comes in at 06:35 and goes from uncontrolled to controlled with these fine words: “A community rates low on an information scale when the press, radio, and other channels of communication are controlled by only a few people and when citizens have to accept what they are told.” And when these last few words are spoken, under uncontrolled a little subheading appears: critical evaluation. Next, we get the subheading for controlled which reads: automatic acceptance.

So now you can conclude for yourself what it means when we know that only 5 major corporations control all the media in the USA. Not that other western democracies are that much better off.

A quick covering of how teachers are trained, how propaganda is woven into school systems and how the general public can be persuaded to believe what the government wants them to believe ends with a depiction of how official censorship works.

Public Domain

Today’s censorship works more subtly than that because it takes place in the head of the journalist and is linked to career opportunities and political affiliations. But the power of money was well-known in 1946 as well. “It is also possible for newspapers and other forms of communication to be controlled by private interests. ‘I thought I told you to kill that story. It’ll cost us a lot of advertising.’”

Then comes a final review of the most important points covered in the film, with the main question being: “What sort of community do you live in? Where would you place it on a democracy/despotism scale?” The RESPECT and POWER scales are next, followed by the ECONOMIC DISTRIBUTION and INFORMATION scales and we are told that the lower these are, the closer we come to despotism.

The end is a curious collage of images which begins with this crossfade:

Public Domain

You see how the United States blends in as the scale reaches its nadir, toward despotism, in a perhaps not so subtle message that there is something wrong in a country which, even in 1946, is giving signs of concentrated wealth and power, concentrated land ownership, intolerance, and a voting system that does not conform to the important aspects of democracy: all discernible signs of a slow and steady march toward despotism.

So tell me: Where would you put the US and other western democracies in relation to despotism today?


Democracy, the companion film, is from 1945:


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