The divide-and-conquer strategy of the CIA in France 1985-style

A good friend sent me a document that was released under the US Central Intelligence Agency’s rules about archives. The CIA has established a fabulous ‘Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room’ where all sorts of stuff is released after they deem it benign to current security concerns. The 1985 CIA document – France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals – written by CIA operatives, provides an analytical summary of the leading lights in the French left-wing intellectual thought in the 1980s with a view of promoting ….. It is redacted but only marginally. There is no doubt as to what the message is. It helps us understand the forces that were mounted against the progressive Left by right-wing, pro-market forces and how the public was manipulated to reject This is part of the research I am currently doing on the way literature, particularly fiction, is used to advance the neo-liberal ideological position – to make it look as though the ideas about governments running out of money and the like are just extensions of our usual individual experience in families and households. That research will be disseminated in a paper that Louisa Connors and I are giving at the upcoming MMT conference in Kansas City.

Regular readers will know that I have written extensively about the so-called austerity turn that the Mitterrand Socialist government took in 1983, which has been used, in addition to James Callaghan’s British Labour Conference speech in 1976, as the turning point in a progressive Left acceptance of the ‘market’ and the alleged limitations on the capacity of the state to maintain full employment and prosperity.

At the time (and since) Mitterrand’s decision, driven by the increasingly Monetarist Jacques Delors, who was on his way to leading the charge to Maastricht, was constructed as being the only alternative (an application of what Margaret Thatcher would term the TINA option).

Any coherent analysis the situation in 1983 makes it clear that Mitterrand did have an alternative, just as the British Labour government had an alternative in 1976. Their respective embrace of what we now broadly term neo-liberalism was a choice not an inevitability.

France could have attenuated its chronic problems by breaking the nexus with the dominant German mark (under the European ERM) and floating the franc, a choice which would have freed domestic macroeconomic policy from its recession-prone bias (given the relative trade strengths of the German and French currencies).

The point is that the austerity turn was an explicit decision to embrace neo-liberalism and abandon the Socialist roots of the PS. The alternative, to remain faithful to their roots and to reject the growing Monetarist, ‘free’-market putsch was ignored.

In my soon to be published (September 18, 2017) book with Thomas Fazi – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World – we analysis these turning points in detail and provide coherent accounts of the alternative paths that the various governments could have taken.

But the CIA document provides an interesting view of the same events (especially the way the French Left was coopted).

There was also an interesting Op Ed written about the same issue (February 28, 2017) – The CIA Reads French Theory: On the Intellectual Labor of Dismantling the Cultural Left – which appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

I urge you to read the CIA document though if you are interested in this topic.

The ivory tower in France became a focus of the CIA in the 1980s.

Sayre’s law tells us that:

In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake … That is why academic politics are so bitter.

A US political scientist, Wallace Stanley Sayre coined the term in the 1950s.

His version was “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low”.

Sayre’s Law was popularised by Henry Kissinger in 1997 during a speech where he was putting the boot into academics at Harvard.

But the point is that the public perception is that arcane debates are the norm in academic life and members of the academy bring all our intellectual force to bear on matters relating to, say, the hierarchical implications of car parking permits and tea room locations (true!).

But the CIA clearly thought the French intelligentsia was arguing about more than the petty.

As Gabriel Rockhill writes in Op Ed (cited above):

As a matter of fact, the agency responsible for coups d’état, targeted assassinations and the clandestine manipulation of foreign governments not only believes in the power of theory, but it dedicated significant resources to having a group of secret agents pore over what some consider to be the most recondite and intricate theory ever produced … its operatives …[studied] … the complex, international trend-setting French theory affiliated with the names of Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes.

His account of “American spies gathering in Parisian cafés to assiduously study and compare notes on the high priests of the French intelligentsia” is amusing.

He documents how the CIA had set up “fronts” to support cultural events and institutions (“prestige magazines, was involved in the book industry, organized high-profile international conferences and art exhibits, coordinated performances and concerts, and contributed ample funding to various cultural awards and fellowships”) to advance “US interest around the world”.

The CIA Paper on the French Left, first published internally in December 1985 and released publicly on May 13, 2011 in ‘sanitised’ form, documents how the CIA manipulated the French intellectuals.

It is a chilling account of the forces that were at work in compromising the Left into surrendering to neo-liberalism.

The CIA wrote:

Intellectuals have traditionally played an influential role in French political life. Even though they have seldom sought a direct part in formulating policy, they have conditioned the atmosphere in which politics are conducted and have frequently served as important shapers of the political and ideological trends that generate French policy. Recongnizing that their influence on policymaking is difficult to measure, this paper focuses on the changing attitudes of French intellectuals and gauges the probable impact on the political environment in which policy is made.

That is a clear enough intent.

The CIA noted that at the time of Mitterrand’s austerity turn, a new wave of “anti-Marxism and anti-Sovietism” was infecting the intellectual opinion in France.

They noted that “no longer can his Socialist Party rely on the intellectuals to provide a rationale for its policies and actions and to sell that rationale to a French public that has customarily placed great store in the explanations of its intellectual elites”.

In part, this is because the “young renegages” in the French Left intelligentsia “have been distancing themselves from socialism”.

These “New Philosophers … have rejected Marxism” and become hostile towards the Soviet system, which has had the effect of:

… weakening the traditional anti-Americanism of the leftist intellectuals and allowing American culture – and even political and economic policies – to find new vogue.

Note the “economic policies” reference.

These New Left intellectuals were seen as being capable of driving a wedge between the French Socialist and Communist Parties and
also destablise the Socialist Party from within.

The CIA Report provides a detailed analysis of the role of the French Left intellectual tradition in shaping French government policies and public attitudes.

They argued that this accelerated during and after World War 2 because of the role “French conservatism” (the ‘right’) played in terms of:

… its xenophobic nationalism, its antiegalitarianism, and its flirtation with fascism in the prewar years … but also by the participation of many of its leading exponents in the collaborationist Vichy regime … the left had stood squarely against fascism and the occupation. It formed the backbone and largest block of fighters in that Resistance, and among these the Communists played a commanding … role.

We learn how the ‘Left’ “tried in two ways to establish and perpetuate … a leftist ‘intellocrasy'”

1. “they financed numerous journals, reviews, and newspapers through which intellectuals could channel their torrent of invective against the regime in French society”.

2. “they help to institutionalize the leftist intellectual establishment and to make it self-perpetuating by underwriting the unionization of the university and secondary schools faculties”.

Which all sounds like the strategy employed by the Right in the 1970s to advance their neoliberal ambitions.

The Report then documents how this Leftist influence in French politics and society started to wane in the 1980s as the new wave of intellectuals “rejected the teachings of their former academic Masters and lead the charge against the left.”

We read that ” intellectual showed signs of lapsing into an uncharacteristic silence”, which led many “to question whether intellectuals were ‘always of the left'”.

The ‘New Philosophers’ distance themselves from the Mitterrand government at the same time. They were, allegedly, ex-Communist party loyalists who become disaffected by the events of 1968 and the growing awareness that the Soviet Union had departed from what they considered to be a legitimate Communist path.

The CIA claimed that these intellectuals came to realise that:

… all Marxist thought is ultimately totalitarian.

We read that the “ageing Marxist mandarins … Sartre, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Louis Althusser … came under relentless fire from their former protégés”.

A divide and conquer strategy was being deployed by the CIA in this regard:

… the New Philosophers – have been highly successful in persuading the present generation of the ‘foolishness’ of Sartre, the evils of Marxism, and the barbarism of Soviet Communism.

Which had the effect of breaking up the Communist Youth Movement and splintering resistance on university campuses to a US-centric view of the world.

The CIA Report that the Mitterrand’s failure to “socialize France” further turned intellectuals away from Marxism and resistance.

It quotes Alain Touraine (a “leftist socialist and sometime editorialist for the Socialist daily Le Matin“):

The essential merit of the leftwing government has been to rid us of Socialist ideology.

This was reinforced by the observation that “The Soviet state is proof that ‘Marxist Revolution is a myth'”, and despite Mitterrand’s anti-Soviet rhetoric, this failed to lure the New Philosophers back into the French Socialist fold.

There was also a shift away from the study of philosophy towards business and technical degrees in French universities as students were increasingly urged to “think of careers in science or business”.

Taken together the CIA considered these changes and shifts in sentiment:

… have permitted the younger generation of French intellectuals to adopt a more open attitude towards the United States. This in turn has given rise to a new wave of genuinely pro-American sentiment, rooted in the vogue of American popular culture, in respect for the American economic vitality of the 1980s, and in admiration for the new image of self-confidence that the United States now projects in the world.

The CIA considered this shift in the “climate of intellectual opinion” would give them cover in the pursuit of US policies in Central America, as an example.

While the Report is a descriptive narrative and assessment of how French intellectual opinion shifted, the CIA’s own involvement in this shift of opinion remains murky.

Gabriel Rockhill writes that the CIA had an “overall strategy … to dismantle the cultural left in Europe and elsewhere.”

He says:

In recognizing it was unlikely that it could abolish it entirely, the world’s most powerful spy organization has sought to move leftist culture away from resolute anti-capitalist and transformative politics toward center-left reformist positions that are less overtly critical of US foreign and domestic policies … the Agency went behind the back of the McCarthy-driven Congress in the postwar era in order to directly support and promote leftist projects that steered cultural producers and consumers away from the resolutely egalitarian left.

The CIA thus sought to set what they considered to be the more ‘moderate’ leftist intellectuals against the ‘hard-liners’.

They highlighted the effectiveness of “those intellectuals who set out as true believers to apply Marxist theory in the social sciences but ended by rethinking and rejecting entire tradition”.

Among the names mentioned are those within the structuralist school associated with Claude Levi Strauss and Michel Foucault, who provided a “critical demolition of Marxist influence and social sciences … as a profound contribution to modern scholarship both in France and elsewhere in Western Europe”.

The CIA saw some sort of rapprochement occurring between the emerging “New Right intellectuals” and the New Philosophers of the Left, such as Michel Foucault.

It considered the old hard left was dying out and the New Philosophers were more sympathetic to the conservative thinking.

Promoting this blurring in the ideological divide was, of course, call CIA business.

The CIA considered the shift in the French Left intellectual tradition helped them accelerate the promotion of the ‘New Right’.

Gabriel Rockhill sees an irony in the way the English-speaking world considered the work of the New Philosphers to have a “radical chic veneer” – remember when progressives used to carry Foucault books around with them and quote him profusely – and the way in this literature has been used to critique the ideas from the “socialist, Marxist or anarchist traditions”.

The CIA loved the take-up of the Left of this literature by so-called progressives and the evisceration of the traditional Leftist ideas.

Gabriel Rockhill writes:

According to the spy agency itself, post-Marxist French theory directly contributed to the CIA’s cultural program of coaxing the left toward the right, while discrediting anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, thereby creating an intellectual environment in which their imperial projects could be pursued unhindered by serious critical scrutiny from the intelligentsia.

The sort of strategy outlined by Lewis Powell in his 1971 Manifesto is clearly important here.

Please read my blog – The right-wing counter attack – 1971 – for more discussion on this point.

The CIA knew that by influencing what was happening in the ‘cultural institutions’ – “universities, publishing houses and the media play” – they could manipulate political shifts in opinion away from the left.

In the economics profession the difficulty in traversing an academic career for someone running against the mainstream tide is manifest.

The sort of shifts the CIA was promoting in France in the early 1980s is an on-going agenda.

Having ‘experts’ come out in favour of something remains powerful. So the never-ending parade of neo-liberal economists who support austerity or deregulation or some such provide the authority and cover for governments to pursue such policies.

As the film “Inside Job” noted, the role played by academic economists as consultants in the lead up to the GFC was a major reason the collapse occurred and was not predicted.


This particular enquiry of mine is on-going also. Tracing how literature and intellectual thought supports ideological regimes is the theme.

I will report more when I have more to write.

I might see a few of you later today in Sydney (see below).

Sydney Event – Future of Work and Welfare

For those living around Sydney, Australia, I will be speaking on Thursday afternoon at a Workshop – Right2Work Sydney: Future of Work and Welfare – which has been organised by the Right2Work Coalition and Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union.

The event will run from 14:00 and finish at 16:00.

The location is at the Unions NSW offices, level 3, 4 – 10 Goulburn Street, Sydney, Australia 2000.

I will be debating well-known sociologist Eva Cox, who considers a UBI to be the way forward. I will be discussing employment guarantees in that context.

Crowdfunding Request – Economics for a progressive agenda

At time of writing 65 per cent has been raised with only 4 days left.

I received a request to promote this Crowdfunding effort. I note that I will receive a portion of the funds raised in the form of reimbursement of some travel expenses. I have waived my usual speaking fees and some other expenses to help this group out.

The Crowdfunding Site is for an – Economics for a progressive agenda.

As the site notes:

Professor Bill Mitchell, a leading proponent of Modern Monetary Theory, has agreed to be our speaker at a fringe meeting to be held during Labour Conference Week in Brighton in September 2017.

The meeting is being organised independently by a small group of Labour members whose goal is to start a conversation about reframing our understanding of economics to match a progressive political agenda. Our funds are limited and so we are seeking to raise money to cover the travel and other costs associated with the event. Your donations and support would be really appreciated.

For those interested in joining us the meeting will be held on Monday 25th September between 2 and 5pm and the venue is The Brighthelm Centre, North Road, Brighton, BN1 1YD. All are welcome and you don’t have to be a member of the Labour party to attend.

It will be great to see as many people in Brighton as possible.

Please give generously to ensure the organisers are not out of pocket.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2017 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Ex-CIA agent John Perkins disclosed many of these tactics in his book ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman’. several years ago.
    Govt and Politicians have been manipulated , corrupted,bribed and blackmailed to further the exploitive NeoLiberal agenda, that is the reality many can not face.

  2. @Salford Lad

    Much of the problem of neo-liberals infecting society is, on one side are the neo-liberals (and their mainstream media, MSM,) and on the other side are those labelled by the Neo-liberal MSM, “conspiracy theorists.”

    Anyone hoping for MSM support of anti neo-liberal protest, or the like, will just be buried by the apathy of ageing voters, viewing or reading their MSM and then duly delivering a plate full of their neo-liberal ignorance via the ballot box. Take the recent UK Gen election, (search: Brenda too much politics,) for an idea of the behaviour that manifests itself in your typical ageing voter.

    Anti status quo thinking will be shut down in the MSM along the lines of “they’re all just conspiracy theorists that don’t know what they want…” Remember Anonymous?

    Docile, voters can’t even be bothered to do their own thinking any more. When you effectively want someone else to do THAT for you, like a government……you’re in big trouble!

    (It should be obvious, but in case others may read this and be in any doubt….the people are supposed to choose their government based on what they think. Not the other way round, i.e where the government (and its crony CIA type security service,) chooses itself based on what it wants you to think!)

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