- the undermining of the power and authority of an established system or institution.”the ruthless subversion of democracy”
- Subversion (from Latin subvertere: “overturn”) refers to a process by which the values and principles of a system in place are radically changed, often by deceptive and indirect methods such as by weakening the moral support for the system, and often with argued widespread negative effects.
Subversion (from the Latin word subvertere, ‘overthrow’) refers to a process by which the values and principles of a system in place are contradicted or reversed in an attempt to transform the established social order and its structures of power, authority, hierarchy, and social norms. Subversion can be described as an attack on the public morale and, “the will to resist intervention are the products of combined political and social or class loyalties which are usually attached to national symbols. Following penetration, and parallel with the forced disintegration of political and social institutions of the state, these tendencies may be detached and transferred to the political or ideological cause of the aggressor”. Subversion is used as a tool to achieve political goals because it generally carries less risk, cost, and difficulty as opposed to open belligerency. Furthermore, it is a relatively cheap form of warfare that does not require large amounts of training. A subversive is something or someone carrying the potential for some degree of subversion. In this context, a “subversive” is sometimes called a “traitor” with respect to (and usually by) the government in power.
The word is present in all languages of Latin origin, originally applying to such events as the military defeat of a city. As early as the 14th century, it was being used in the English language with reference to laws, and in the 15th century came to be used with respect to the realm. The term has taken over from ‘sedition‘ as the name for illicit rebellion, though the connotations of the two words are rather different; sedition suggesting overt attacks on institutions, subversion something much more surreptitious, such as eroding the basis of belief in the status quo or setting people against each other.
Subversion — “A destructive, aggressive activity aimed to destroy the country, nation, or geographical area of your enemy… [by demoralizing the cultural values and changing the population’s perception of reality].
Tools and practices
Subversive actions can generally be grouped into three interrelated categories:
- Establishing front groups and penetrating and manipulating existing political parties
- Infiltrating the armed forces, the police, and other institutions of the state, as well as important non-government organizations
- Generating civil unrest through demonstrations, strikes, and boycotts.
Other factors, while not specifically falling into these categories, may also be useful to subversive dissidents. Additionally, many tools may overlap into other groups of tools as well. As an example, subversives may infiltrate an organization for cultural subversion more so than for control. Civil unrest may be used to provoke the government into a violent response.
Infiltration and establishing front groups
In order for a group to be successful in subverting a government, the group itself and its ideas must be seen as an acceptable alternative to the status quo. However, groups that work toward subverting a government, in many cases, follow ideas and promote goals that on their surface would not receive the support of the population. Therefore, “to gain public credibility, attract new supporters, generate revenue, and acquire other resources, groups need to undertake political activities that are entirely separate, or appear separate, from the overtly violent activities of those groups. Sometimes this is achieved by infiltrating political parties, labor unions, community groups, and charitable organizations.” Infiltrating organizations is an important tool because these institutions are already seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people and provide a platform to express their ideas. When infiltrating, the dissident identifies needs of the organization and then links those needs to solutions that his ideology can provide. This was a technique that the Communist Party USA employed. Once the organization has been co-opted, the dissident can then move on to establishing ties with other groups. Furthermore, in addition to gaining possible legitimacy for its ideas the infiltration of these groups can “bolster political allies, attack government policies, and attract international support.” If some organizations are too difficult to infiltrate, it may be necessary to create new organizations that appear to be independent but are actually under the direction of the subversive group.
The infiltration of state organizations can provide subversive groups the opportunity to do many things to achieve their goals. The infiltration of security forces can provide information about the government’s capabilities and how they plan to address the group’s activities. Infiltration also provides the opportunity to plant false information, lead the government to misallocate resources, to steal funds, weapons, equipment, and other resources, and ultimately aid in weakening and delegitimizing the government. The targets of infiltration are not limited to the groups and institutions mentioned above. Economic industries and universities have also been the target for infiltration. In the case of universities, the liberal arts departments are more prone to subversion than the hard sciences.
Bribery is one of the most common tools of subversion. Most societies see bribery as a form of corruption, and it used as a subversive tool because it “implies the undermining of existing rules of political or moral conduct.” It can also be one of the less reliable tools as well. Bribed officials are only useful if they take action. However, actions taken over a period of time draw suspicion from the public. The official must be able to carefully conceal their actions or perform only key functions and action. For these reasons, bribed officials are most effective when they are asked to take immediate action. In the case of external subversion, bribery is usually used for influence rather than for actions.
Subverting cultural hegemony
Recent writers, in the post-modern and post-structuralist traditions (including, particularly, feminist writers) have prescribed a very broad form of subversion. It is not directly the parliamentary government which should be subverted in their view, but the dominant cultural forces, such as patriarchy, individualism, and scientism. This broadening of the target of subversion owes much to the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, who stressed that communist revolution required the erosion of the particular form of ‘cultural hegemony‘ within society.
Theodor Adorno argued that the culture industry and its shallow entertainment was a system by which society was controlled through a top-down creation of standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression; in 1938, he said that capitalism has colonized every aspect of life so much that “every pleasure which emancipates itself from the exchange-value takes on subversive features.”
Using culture to bring about change to a political system through integration of political warfare and political action and the targeting of cultural vehicles and institutions is another tool of subversion. The use of the arts or more broadly culture is primarily a tool for external subversives, as internal subversives are generally citizens of the country and share the same culture. It is a tool that takes a longer period of time to implement and its effects are revealed over time, as opposed to those of a terrorist attack or civil unrest. Therefore, one could classify this tool as an element of strategic subversion. The targets of cultural subversive activities are traditionally film, literature, popular music, educational institutions, mass media, religious organizations, charitable organizations, and other forms of art. The intended results of these activities are to persuade or co-opt publics, discredit the ideas of enemies and splitting factions within the enemy’s camp.
The state is charged with the protection of the civilizational values of society (liberty, equality, comradeship, compassion, democracy, education, the family, religion, rule of law, human and civil rights, etc.), “including the cultural/aesthetic values that enhance the quality of life and maintain its legitimacy.” In situations where the government is not being a good steward in protecting these values, the use of tools like literature, film, music can be used as a reminder of these values, as well as a forum to protest and question the government’s legitimacy. Additionally, art and culture allow people to connect on an emotional level that could soften negative perceptions one may be believed to have. Once the stigma has been removed, the target may be more receptive to other messages conveyed. This individual or group would no longer be seen as being completely different from them. Another example of how culture can be subversive is seen in Iran. Western culture, media, art, etc. is popular among the country’s youth, but certain elements are banned or curtailed. As the exportation of Western culture continues, conflict between the state and its citizens is created. The government is then seen as unresponsive or out of touch with its people.
- the action or process of lessening the effectiveness, power, or ability of someone or something, especially gradually or insidiously.”the greatest threat of all is the undermining of our Constitution”
- lessening the effectiveness, power, or ability of someone or something, especially gradually or insidiously.”the last straw was an undermining comment questioning my skills”
- 1.the action of entering or gaining access to an organization or place surreptitiously, especially in order to acquire secret information or cause damage.”the army fenced parts of the border in an effort to stop militant infiltration”
- 2.permeation of a liquid into something by filtration.”improved water infiltration into the soil”
The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory – Cultural Marxism