The US writer Noam Chomsky talks about the mechanisms behind modern communication, an essential instrument of government in democratic countries – as important to our governments as propaganda is to a dictatorship.
By Noam Chomsky and Daniel Mermet
DM: Let’s start with the media issue. In the May 2005 referendum on the European constitution, most newspapers in France supported a yes vote, yet 55% of the electorate voted no. This suggests there is a limit to how far the media can manipulate public opinion. Do you think voters were also saying no to the media?
NC: It’s a complex subject, but the little in-depth research carried out in this field suggests that, in fact, the media exert greater influence over the most highly educated fraction of the population. Mass public opinion seems less influenced by the line adopted by the media.
Take the eventuality of a war against Iran. Three-quarters of Americans think the United States should stop its military threats and concentrate on reaching agreement by diplomatic means. Surveys carried out by western pollsters suggest that public opinion in Iran and the US is also moving closer on some aspects of the nuclear issue. The vast majority of the population of both countries think that the area from Israel to Iran should be completely clear of nuclear weapons, including those held by US forces operating in the region. But you would have to search long and hard to find this kind of information in the media.
The main political parties in either country do not defend this view either. If Iran and the US were true democracies, in which the majority really decided public policy, they would undoubtedly have already solved the current nuclear disagreement. And there are other similar instances. Look at the US federal budget. Most Americans want less military spending and more welfare expenditure, credits for the United Nations, and economic and international humanitarian aid. They also want to cancel the tax reductions decided by President George Bush for the benefit of the biggest taxpayers.
On all these topics, White House policy is completely at odds with what public opinion wants. But the media rarely publish the polls that highlight this persistent public opposition. Not only are citizens excluded from political power, they are also kept in a state of ignorance as to the true state of public opinion. There is growing international concern about the massive US double deficit affecting trade and the budget. But both are closely linked to a third deficit, the democratic deficit that is constantly growing, not only in the US but all over the western world.
DM: When a leading journalist or TV news presenter is asked whether they are subject to pressure or censorship, they say they are completely free to express their own opinions. So how does thought control work in a democratic society? We know how it works in dictatorships.
NC: As you say, journalists immediately reply: “No one has been exerting any pressure on me. I write what I want.” And it’s true. But if they defended positions contrary to the dominant norm, someone else would soon be writing editorials in their place. Obviously it is not a hard-and-fast rule: the US press sometimes publishes even my work, and the US is not a totalitarian country. But anyone who fails to fulfil certain minimum requirements does not stand a chance of becoming an established commentator.
It is one of the big differences between the propaganda system of a totalitarian state and the way democratic societies go about things. Exaggerating slightly, in totalitarian countries the state decides the official line and everyone must then comply. Democratic societies operate differently. The line is never presented as such, merely implied. This involves brainwashing people who are still at liberty. Even the passionate debates in the main media stay within the bounds of commonly accepted, implicit rules, which sideline a large number of contrary views. The system of control in democratic societies is extremely effective. We do not notice the line any more than we notice the air we breathe. We sometimes even imagine we are seeing a lively debate. The system of control is much more powerful than in totalitarian systems.
Look at Germany in the early 1930s. We tend to forget that it was the most advanced country in Europe, taking the lead in art, science, technology, literature and philosophy. Then, in no time at all, it suffered a complete reversal of fortune and became the most barbaric, murderous state in human history. All that was achieved by using fear: fear of the Bolsheviks, the Jews, the Americans, the Gypsies – everyone who, according to the Nazis, was threatening the core values of European culture and the direct descendants of Greek civilisation (as the philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote in 1935). However, most of the German media who inundated the population with these messages were using marketing techniques developed by US advertising agents.
The same method is always used to impose an ideology. Violence is not enough to dominate people: some other justification is required. When one person wields power over another – whether they are a dictator, a colonist, a bureaucrat, a spouse or a boss – they need an ideology justifying their action. And it is always the same: their domination is exerted for the good of the underdog. Those in power always present themselves as being altruistic, disinterested and generous.
In the 1930s the rules for Nazi propaganda involved using simple words and repeating them in association with emotions and phobia. When Hitler invaded the Sudetenland in 1938 he cited the noblest, most charitable motives: the need for a humanitarian intervention to prevent the ethnic cleansing of German speakers. Henceforward everyone would be living under Germany’s protective wing, with the support of the world’s most artistically and culturally advanced country.
When it comes to propaganda (though in a sense nothing has changed since the days of Athens) there have been some minor improvements. The instruments available now are much more refined, in particular – surprising as it may seem – in the countries with the greatest civil liberties, Britain and the US. The contemporary public relations industry was born there in the 1920s, an activity we may also refer to as opinion forming or propaganda.
Both countries had made such progress in democratic rights (women’s suffrage, freedom of speech) that state violence was no longer sufficient to contain the desire for liberty. So those in power sought other ways of manufacturing consent. The PR industry produces, in the true sense of the term, concept, acceptance and submission. It controls people’s minds and ideas. It is a major advance on totalitarian rule, as it is much more agreeable to be subjected to advertising than to torture.
In the US, freedom of speech is protected to an extent that I think is unheard of in any other country. This is quite a recent change. Since the 1960s the Supreme Court has set very high standards for freedom of speech, in keeping with a basic principle established by the 18th century Enlightenment. The court upholds the principle of free speech, the only limitation being participation in a criminal act. If I walk into a shop to commit a robbery with an accomplice holding a gun and I say “Shoot”, my words are not protected by the constitution. Otherwise there has to be a really serious motive to call into question freedom of speech. The Supreme Court has even upheld this principle for the benefit of members of the Ku Klux Klan.
In France and Britain, and I believe the rest of Europe, the definition of freedom of speech is more restrictive. In my view the essential point is whether the state is entitled to determine historical truth and to punish those who contest such truth. If we allow the state to exert such powers we are accepting Stalinist methods. French intellectuals have difficulty admitting that they are inclined to do just that. Yet when we refuse such behaviour there should be no exceptions. The state should have no means of punishing anyone who claims that the sun rotates around the earth. There is a very elementary side to the principle of freedom of speech: either we defend it in the case of opinions we find hateful, or we do not defend it at all. Even Hitler and Stalin acknowledged the right to freedom of speech of those who were defending their point of view.
I find it distressing to have to discuss such issues two centuries after Voltaire who, as we all know, said: “I shall defend my opinions till I die, but I will give up my life so that you may defend yours.” It would be a great disservice to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust to adopt one of the basic doctrines of their murderers.
DM: In one of your books you quote Milton Friedman as saying that “profit-making is the essence of democracy”.
NC: Profit and democracy are so contrary that there is no scope for comment. The aim of democracy is to leave people free to decide how they live and to make any political choices concerning them. Making a profit is a disease in our society, based on specific organisations. A decent, ethical society would pay only marginal attention to profits. Take my university department [at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology]: a few scientists work very hard to earn lots of money, but they are considered a little odd and slightly deranged, almost pathological cases. Most of the academic community is more concerned about trying to break new ground, out of intellectual interest and for the general good.
DM: In a recent tribute, Jean Ziegler wrote: “There have been three forms of totalitarian rule: Stalinism, Nazism and now Tina [the acronym from British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s statement, “There is no alternative” – that is, to economic liberalism and global free-market capitalism].” Do you think they can be compared?
NC: I don’t think they should be placed on the same footing. Fighting Tina means confronting a system of intellectual control that cannot be compared with concentration camps or the gulag. US policies provoke massive opposition all over the world. In Latin America, Argentina and Venezuela have thrown out the International Monetary Fund. Washington can no longer stage military takeovers in Latin America as it did 20 or 30 years ago. The whole continent now rejects the neo-liberal economic programme forcibly imposed on it by the US in the 1980s and 1990s. There are signs of the same opposition to the global market all over the world.
The Global Justice Movement, which attracts a great deal of media attention at each World Social Forum (WSF), is hard at work all year. It is a new departure and perhaps the start of a real International. But its main objective is to prove that there is an alternative. What better example of a different form of global exchange than the WSF itself. Hostile media organisations refer to anyone opposed to the neo-liberal global market as antis, whereas in fact they are campaigning for another form of global market, for the people.
We can easily observe the contrast between the two parties because their meetings coincide. We have the World Economic Forum, in Davos, which is striving to promote global economic integration but in the exclusive interests of financiers, banks and pension funds. These organisations happen to control the media too. They defend their conception of global integration, which is there to serve investors. The dominant media consider that this form of integration is the only one to qualify as globalisation. Davos is a good example of how ideological propaganda works in democratic societies. It is so effective that even WSF participants sometimes accept the ill-intentioned “anti” label. I spoke at the Forum in Porto Alegre and took part in the Via Campesina conference. They represent the majority of the world’s population.
DM: Critics tend to lump you together with the anarchists and libertarian socialists. What would be the role of the state in a real democracy?
NC: We are living here and now, not in some imaginary universe. And here and now there are tyrannical organisations – big corporations. They are the closest thing to a totalitarian institution. They are, to all intents and purposes, quite unaccountable to the general public or society as a whole. They behave like predators, preying on other smaller companies. People have only one means of defending themselves and that is the state. Nor is it a very effective shield because it is often closely linked to the predators. But there is a far from negligible difference. General Electric is accountable to no one, whereas the state must occasionally explain its actions to the public.
Once democracy has been enlarged far enough for citizens to control the means of production and trade, and they take part in the overall running and management of the environment in which they live, then the state will gradually be able to disappear. It will be replaced by voluntary associations at our place of work and where we live.
DM: You mean soviets?
NC: The first things that Lenin and Trotsky destroyed, immediately after the October revolution, were the soviets, the workers’ councils and all the democratic bodies. In this respect Lenin and Trotsky were the worst enemies of socialism in the 20th century. But as orthodox Marxists they thought that a backward country such as Russia was incapable of achieving socialism immediately, and must first be forcibly industrialised.
In 1989, when the communist system collapsed, I thought this event was, paradoxically, a victory for socialism. My conception of socialism requires, at least, democratic control of production, trade and other aspects of human existence.
However the two main propaganda systems agreed to maintain that the tyrannical system set up by Lenin and Trotsky, subsequently turned into a political monstrosity by Stalin, was socialism. Western leaders could not fail to be enchanted by this outrageous use of the term, which enabled them to cast aspersions on the real thing for decades. With comparable enthusiasm, but working in the opposite direction, the Soviet propaganda system tried to exploit the sympathy and commitment that the true socialist ideal inspired among the working masses.
DM: Isn’t it the case that all forms of autonomous organisation based on anarchist principles have ultimately collapsed?
NC: There are no set anarchist principles, no libertarian creed to which we must all swear allegiance. Anarchism – at least as I understand it – is a movement that tries to identify organisations exerting authority and domination, to ask them to justify their actions and, if they are unable to do so, as often happens, to try to supersede them.
Far from collapsing, anarchism and libertarian thought are flourishing. They have given rise to real progress in many fields. Forms of oppression and injustice that were once barely recognised, less still disputed, are no longer allowed. That in itself is a success, a step forward for all humankind, certainly not a failure.
"IN TIMES OF UNIVERSAL DECEIT, TELLING THE TRUTH WILL BE A REVOLUTIONARY ACT." - George Orwell
“If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn’t we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?” - Eduardo Galeano
A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves. -- Edward R. Murrow
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