On “False Flags” and Agents Provocateurs

“There have already been many astonishing and horrible provocations against the FN by the Sorathic powers; but these have so far failed to evoke any escalation from that side.  Therefore, I think that the 2023 provocations will be directed against the West.”

Bruce Charlton, “What Will Be the 2023 Early Year Offensive Against Western Civilization . . .” Bruce Charlton’s Notions (Jan. 7, 2023)

Bruce is here predicting a dramatic escalation of the Ukrainian War by means of a staged atrocity or “false flag” operation.  Russia,  which he calls FN or the Fire Nation, has so far declined to lose its temper, overreact, and therefore furnish the pretext for its own destruction.  So Charlton expects the “Globalist Establishment” will dress up as a Russian and commit the atrocity for them.  Covertly “poking the bear” is Provocation Level 1, the purpose being to make the bear bellicose, thus providing a pretext to destroy the bear. Provocation Level 2 is dressing in a bearskin and conspicuously eating some widows and orphans.

Provocation Level 2 actually has two variations which can be employed separately or in combination.  The first is to dress in a bearskin, conspicuously eat some widows and orphans, and thereby trigger horror and hatred for the bear.  The second is to dress in a bearskin and persuade the real bear to perpetrate an outrage it would not have perpetrated on its own.  Although perpetrated by the bear, this outrage is also a staged outrage at Provocation Level 2.  The phony bear who incites such a staged outrage is called an agent provocateur.

It appears very likely that the January 6th riot was the work of agents provocateurs (see here and here).  It is certainly possible that ground-level manipulators like Ray Epps were themselves manipulated, but the outrage was almost certainly staged for political ends.  The technique of the agent provocateur is to join an enemy group and persuade its members to perpetrate an outrage that will serve as the pretext to crack down on that group.  It is to “poke the bear” from behind.

Jack London neatly described Provocation Level 2 in The Iron Heel, a 1908 novel that many consider the firstborn child of dystopian fiction.

“These emissaries of the Iron Heel disguised themselves as artisans, farmers, and farm laborers . . . . In mobs composed wholly of themselves, they fired and looted buildings and factories.  They worked the people up until they joined them in the pillage . . . . And then, when all was ready, appeared upon the scene, the soldiers of the United States, who were, in reality, the soldiers of the Iron Heel.”*

What London describes is a “false flag” or staged outrage that is amplified by agents provocateurs, and that provides the pretext for a crackdown by soldiers of the “Iron Heel.”

* * * * *

It is very difficult to know when you have reached the center of a labyrinth of deception, for an outrage that is said to have been staged may in fact have been real, and an outrage blamed on the agitation of an agent provocateur may in fact have been planned in cold blood.  I am myself particularly suspicious of “rogue elements” and think “rogue elements” are very often fictitious fall guys on which official but unpopular acts are pinned.

However difficult it is to know when you have reached the center of a labyrinth of deception, you can at least be confident that you are in such a labyrinth.  This is not what Shakespeare meant when he said “all the world’s a stage,” but we can nevertheless use his line to remind ourselves that much of what we take to be the world is in fact a show staged to manipulate our opinions.  An early report on Bolshevist Russia called this a “system of provocation.”

“The Head of the Petrograd Cheka proudly told a meeting of the Chekas of the Northern Region that was held during the October of 1918 that  ‘My Cheka looks with disapproval upon the methods of the old Secret Police, and particularly disapproves of the employment of agents-provocateurs’: whereas  the truth is that . . .  the workings of the Cheka’s ‘punitive apparatus’ was carried on exclusively by means of an officially (and clumsily) organized and sanctioned and operated system of provocation.”**

Agents provocateurs engineer pretexts for the “punitive apparatus” to crack down.  Genuine rascals also cloak their rascality by saying it is nothing but false flags and outrages staged by agents provocateurs.  I sometimes wonder if the labyrinth of deception has a center.

* * * * *

Every government this side of the Millennium will have a “secret police.”  This is because every government this side of the Millennium will have “domestic enemies.”  Universal contentment does not exist in any human polity, and governments must therefore spy on domestic malcontents in order to anticipate and interdict domestic attacks.  The only honest people who complain about the secret police complain because the secret police is spying on them.  As an excellent article on political spies written a century ago explained.

“It will be a very long time before either Europe or America will be able to forego the use of secret agents for the discovery of plots against the existing fabric of society.”***

These secret agents are political spies, and in a democracy they are more often “informers” than they are salaried employees of the state.  An informer is a secret agent embedded in a suspect organization to spy on its activity and feed information about that activity to his handler in the salaried secret police.

Here is an interesting remark from the memoir of a retired veteran of Britain’s Scotland Yard, noting the natural tendency of an informer to become an agent provocateur.  (In the argot of the British underworld, a “narc” is a police informer.  The word comes from the Gypsy word for a nose and denotes a sensory organ of the state).  Former Chief Inspector Littlechild writes:

“I have to confess that the ‘narc’ is very apt to drift into an agent provocateur in his anxiety to secure a conviction, and therefore requires to be carefully watched.”†

Every informant wishes to inform the police (civil or secret) of outrageous crimes (committed or planned) because this makes him an important informant.  The rewards of an important informant are greater, whether they be monetary, legal, or psychological rewards, and this is why every informant has a strong incentive to “drift into an agent provocateur.

* * * * *

Every government this side of the Millennium will have a “secret police,” liberal democracies not excepted.  All we can ask is that the secret police of a liberal democracy distinguish between speculative malcontents and practical revolutionaries, that they do not radicalize speculative malcontents with agents provocateurs, and that they do not manufacture pretexts for crackdowns with “false flags” and staged outrages.  As that excellent article on political spies from a century ago put it:

“Just as in cases of civil crime there are limits to the employment of detectives, so there are limits to the use of political spies.  In neither case can it ever be right to employ agents-provocateurs or persons who use any of the devices of the agent-provocateur.  It is no more right to encourage men who hold treasonable views in the abstract to do treasonable acts in order that they may be more easily brought to justice, than it is to encourage members of the criminal class to steal or murder in order to make sure of a conviction.”††

*) Jack London, The Iron Heel (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1908), pp. 241-242.
**) Sergey Petrovich Melgounov, The Red Terror in Russia (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1925), p. 258.
***) “Political Spies,” The Quarterly Review (July-October, 1893), pp. 235-264, quote p. 235.
†) John George Littlechild, The Reminiscences of Chief Inspector Littlechild (London: Leadenhall Press, 1894), p. 96.
††) “Political Spies,” p. 237.

18 thoughts on “On “False Flags” and Agents Provocateurs

    • That’s certainly the American usage, and maybe British usage by now. But in Britain the word first meant a police informer.

      • Thank you. I’d always assumed (deriving from the American usage) that ‘narc’ as informer came about because narcotics units were popularly known to employ police informers to a more comprehensive degree than other sections of police-work (except perhaps organized crime units, but those two sectors overlap heavily).

        For what it’s worth, the OED distinguishes between narc and nark with the latter being ‘informer’ and with an uncertain but possible derivation as you have described; it seems likely that with two very similarly-spelled homophones in close proximity some spelling drift has occured, especially because populations speaking underworld argot are not known for rigorously prescriptive orthography.

        Another possible derivation which I appreciate because French criminal argot is also widely expressive and little known:

        E. Partridge Dict. Underworld (1949) at cited word suggests that the word may be shortened < French narquois (adjective) mocking (1842), cunning, deceitful (1694; earlier in sense ‘slang’ 1653), (noun; now archaic) vagabond soldier (c1590), (obsolete) thief, crook (1620; also in sense ‘slang’ (1611)), of uncertain origin.

      • Thanks for the alternate etymologies. I took the spelling from the memoir I quoted, but slang often has irregular spelling because it is learned from oral communication.

      • “[S]lang often has irregular spelling because it is learned from oral communication”

        The same thing happens a lot with words of Dutch origin:
        Baas – Boss
        Donderbus – Blunderbuss
        Koekje – Cookie

        Particularly in place-names:
        Breukelen – Brooklyn
        Conyne Eylandt – Coney Island, lit “Rabbit Island
        Vlissingen – Flushing (Queens)

      • Because you and I are literate, there are many words we know how to spell but not pronounce. This is at least true of me (although my spelling is nothing to write home about). It’s the other way round in a culture that is primarily oral.

      • Good point.

        I have noticed pronunciation has got more phonetic over the years, since I was a boy.

        More people sound the “t” in often, formerly pronounced “awfen,” with a long “a”, the “l” in falcon, formerly “fawcon,” again long “a.” They also pronounce conduit as three syllables, rather than “cundit.”

        However, the English still do not sound their “rs” ; “Iron” and “ion” sounds the same, which is why they accuse the Scots of rolling their “rs.”

        I find the new pronunciation less euphonious, but that may be a personal prejudice.

      • I seem to remember Kingsley Amis commenting on this change, and maybe even parodying it in his novels. I think overly precise pronunciation also has something to do with status seeking and the desire of parvenus to sound educated. My social experience is not especially wide, but the lower and upper classes have not joined the middle in eschewing a drawl.

  1. The opposite problem also arises, where people are so sure that it’s all a set up by their government that they won’t believe in a real atrocity. GK Chesterton mentions that because it was impossible to verify German atrocities during the war people became skeptical that they were just propaganda from their own government. In the 20s many English pacifists claimed outright that there had been no atrocities in Belgium and the Netherlands by the Germans. But by that time the evidence was in, and atrocities had indeed taken place. GKC predicted – accurately – that England’s next opponent would be shielded by English public opinion, people too clever by half and refusing to be “taken in” by the propaganda this time.

    That didn’t work out well.

    I worked with both sexual victims and perpetrators, and with a little practice, you can learn to believe no one and everyone until you have more information, and hold the line against those jumping to conclusions.

    • You are quite right. An awareness of deception all too easily leads to universal mistrust, suspicion and doubt. We Americans have long enjoyed a high-trust society, and have too seldom appreciated that this is not the human norm. The internet has eaten like acid into the foundations of trust, but this culture of suspicion has been developing for a long time. I suppose one might go back to the 1920s and books like Winesburg, Ohio and Spoon River Anthology, but the culture of suspicion really got started with movies post-Watergate and post-Vietnam. I also think the “critical theory” they were teaching in the graduate schools in the 1980s has percolated down to institutions of general education. Whatever its origins, this culture of suspicion is probably here to stay since trust is more easily destroyed than created. As you say, one can ferret out truth in a world of deception, but that’s a lot of work for something that is free where there is justified trust.

      • One recalls Talleyrand’s maxims: “Nothing is what it seems; everything is connected; there are no coincidences.”

        His great opponent, Prince Metternich seems to have been of the same mind. On hearing of Talleyrand’s death, he mused: “I wonder what he meant by that.”

    • Yet again, a holiness spiral-dialectic due to the Sacramental status of WW1/WW2. So I guess we’re going to war with Russia because otherwise it’s Neville Chamberlain and Munich all over again.

      • “Kick the Dog Until It Bites, Then Shoot It”
        It may or may not be reasonable to kick it, lately it seems ever more unreasonable, but shooting the dog so it never ever bites us again is the West’s preferred form of barbarism, one that conveniently from Chesterton down to today is called “democratizing.”

        At least the ancients killed the body with the soul when they destroyed a city, the West has learned that zombie nations are much more useful. The banner of “Freedom” now heralds a joyful slavery the Persians or Romans could not imagine.

      • If to conquer is to give laws – to impose one’s own manners and morals on the vanquished – the Romans were quite remarkably successful at it.

        In the Social War (91-87 BC), the Italian “friends and allies of the Roman people” fought, not for independence, not even to preserve the “Home Rule” they already enjoyed, making their own laws and choosing their own magistrates; they fought to become Roman citizens.

        Like their Roman masters, they had learned to hate work, despise commerce and hoped to thrive by plundering and enslaving other peoples. Citizenship meant sharing in the government, which is to say, in overseeing the sharing of the spoils and the most honourable as well as the most lucrative professions were those of the soldier, the politician and the jurist.

        That such an ethos should be congenial to the so-called “barbarian invaders” is obvious enough; in fact, most of them, like Clovis and Theodoric, were second- and third-generation commanders of barbarian Auxiliaries in the Imperial army. Likewise, it is hardly surprising that it should commend itself to their successors and descendants, the military aristocracies that ruled Europe for the next twelve hundred years.


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