Noam Chomsky is one of United States most prominent political dissidents. A renowned professor of linguistics at MIT, he has authored over 30 political books dissecting such issues as U.S. interventionism in the developing world, the political economy of human rights and the propaganda role of corporate media.
AN AMERICAN DISSIDENT
Chomskys central belief is that propaganda plays the same role in a democracy as violence plays in a dictatorship. In the United States, therefore, you need to be less afraid of the National Guard and more afraid of the manipulation of information by governmental, corporate and academic sources. According to Chomsky, the elites who control and benefit from the American political system preserve that system by marginalizing alternative political views, selectively reporting on the consequences of United States foreign policy, and creating political apathy among the general populace by encouraging them to watch professional sports and TV sitcoms rather than actively participate in the political process.
Chomsky is fond of quoting John Jay, the president of the Constitutional Convention and the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who expressed the conviction that, - The people who own the country ought to govern it. In Chomskys view, that is exactly what has happened. Due to enormous corporate control of both national media and government, true participatory democracy does not have a chance of flourishing in the United States of America.
THE TREND TOWARD OLIGOPOLY
Recent reports of mega-mergers in the information industry, such as the one between AOL and Time Warner, make Chomskys political theories all the more poignant. But according to Chomsky, it is not just consolidations of media corporations that we have to worry about. - There is a general tendency for the whole system to move toward oligopoly, a small number of huge corporations which dominate one or another area and usually interact, Chomsky says. The same is true in all the corporate system. The pharmaceutical corporations are also getting enormous public subsidies, and they are moving towards monopoly.
For Chomsky, though, there are particularly grave implications for democracy when narrow private powers control the distribution of information to the populace. The media are using public property, he says. It is the public who owns the airwaves, and [the corporate media] are basing themselves on publicly created technologies like the Internet. So we are living in a system of massive public subsidy for private tyrannies that are moving toward oligopoly. I think it is dangerous everywhere, but particularly in the media information systems.
The reason for this is that Chomsky believes that private corporations skew the information they present to the public to prop up a system which protects their vested interests. Since the institutional structure of this country leads to a kind of integrated system of brainwashing, individual reporters working within the mass media may not even be aware that they are presenting an unbalanced view of the world to their audience. The end result is that atrocities are often not reported in the national media, or are under-reported or given a favorable or neutral slant, if they are committed by dictators who are friendly to American business interests. This was true, for example, of media reporting on East Timor and several Latin American states ruled by pro-U.S. dictators.
WHAT TO DO
When asked what we should do about this disturbing state of affairs, Chomsky says- I do not think these institutions even have a right to exist. So the question is where we go between undermining particular forms of tyranny ... and constraining or limiting them, which is a narrower objective. The more restricted moves are the ones on the immediate agenda, but the long-term moves should not be far from our minds.
According to Chomsky, one long-term goal should be to transform the media into public instruments, as opposed to tools employed by private power. Back around 1930, he says, there was a major conflict over whether radio - which was just then coming along - should remain in public hands as a device for interaction, information, education and so on, or whether it should be handed as a gift to commercial, private power.
Ultimately, radio was handed over to private power in the U.S., but this was not true in other countries. In every other major industrialized country, Chomsky says - radio remained primarily public, which means that it was as free as the country was. So, if it is a dictatorship, it is not at all free. If it is Canada or England, it is reasonably free. The United States was essentially alone in handing it over to private power.
When television came along about 20 years later, it automatically went over to private power without discussion, while in other countries it remained public. And ever since then, says Chomsky private power has been chipping away at it. They do not stop. They want to buy it up. Just like any tyrannical system, it wants to expand, and if the public does not resist, that will happen.
That is why the mass media in the U.S. exhibits a much narrower range of ideological opinion than that of other free societies. Since huge private corporations have absolute control over the mass media, it should not surprise anyone, says Chomsky, that the ideologies expressed therein generally tend to reflect the interests of the business world.
Yet Chomsky would be the first to admit that the system of indoctrination he describes is not monolithic; he simply believes that his description holds true in most cases.
Most people go to work and do not ask a lot of questions about what they are doing, Chomsky says. They do not look very far beyond their desk or tomorrows job prospects. He believes that there is a great effort made by this countrys elites to keep people complacent and out of touch:- The rabble has to be kept in line. That is the ideal of the business world, the public relations industry, the advertising industry and so on, he says - to separate people from one another, because they are dangerous when they are together. They get ideas. They start to do things. Much better for them to be working very hard, the U.S. has the longest work week in the industrial world, and when they come home, exhausted, to turn on the tube and get brainwashed.
The sad result of this institutional structure, says Chomsky, is that people who might challenge the nastier outcomes of U.S. policies at home and abroad are turned into consuming automatons of - invented wants - who do not have the time or energy to contribute to the shaping of our society. The apologists like to talk about how there is no alternative. You know, it is just kind of like cosmic forces pushing us, but it is not true. There are specific decisions made by particular institutions. It could be different decisions made by different institutions. It is all a matter of choice.
DEMOCRACY IN NAME ALONE
Even if the Bill Gates of the world believe that what they are doing is for the good of humanity and that free market capitalism is the best system we have got, Chomsky says this does not matter. The results of their voracious desire for more and more of the worlds natural and human resources are global violence, economic inequality and tight restrictions on the ability of ordinary people to shape the world in which they live. - Ask who is making the decisions and who is making the gains, says Chomsky. And you will notice a remarkable correlation. It does not mean that they wake up in the morning and say, Look, I am going to rob everybody. Even Hitler, I presume, had some system of justification. You can convince yourself you are a nice person. That is not hard to do. Everybody does that in their ordinary lives.
Chomsky does not have a lot of faith in the electoral process to change our society for the better, arguing that ties between government and big business are simply too tight. - There are big barriers to overcome, he says. As things now stand, the electoral process is a matter of the population being permitted every once in a while to choose among virtually identical representatives of business power. That is better than having a dictator, but it is a very limited form of democracy. Most of the population realizes that and does not even participate. ... And of course elections are almost completely purchased. In the last congressional elections, 95 percent of the victors in the election outspent their opponents, and campaigns were overwhelmingly funded by corporations.
Though heralded as a new tool to enhance democracy just a few years ago, there are numerous signs that the Internet is being taken over by commercial interests. In the early years of it, the term Information Highway was the buzz word, Chomsky says. That is being dropped and now the word - e-commerce - is the buzz word. That makes a lot of sense. The information highway is exactly what corporate power does not want and e-commerce, meaning you are glued to the tube and they try to sell you things - that is exactly what they do want.
Yet Chomsky does not see a corporate takeover of the Web as inevitable. Nothing is inevitable, he explains. The idea of keeping the Internet as a real means of communication and interaction and democratic organizing and so on - that can be done. After all, it is public property. In other words, the Internet does not have to go the way of radio and television. Chomsky believes that the fight to maintain public access and control over the Internet has become a central issue for those who value democracy in America.
CRITICIZING THE CRITIC
It is not at all ironic that Chomskys political ideas have been marginalized in the U.S. Critics have accused Chomsky of overstating and exaggerating his case, of descending into a kind of moral relativism that favors the left wing over the right wing, and of failing to provide adequate, practical alternatives to replace existing institutions.
To be fair, Chomsky has said repeatedly that no one should automatically accept his analysis of Western capitalism. He merely suggests that people should discover for themselves, through rational inquiry, whether his description of the world is accurate. What his critics call a conspiracy theory, Chomsky calls - institutional analysis. In dozens of books, he has meticulously documented the historical development and specific abuses that have led to the corporate-controlled democracy Americans currently enjoy.
Agree or disagree with his political theories, Noam Chomsky always stimulates the kind of lively debate we do not get enough of in this country. Chomsky is a radical democrat and humanist who believes wholeheartedly that freedom and democracy not only improve our lives but may actually be essential for the survival of our species. His personal conviction is that any society based entirely on profit-mongering and acquisition is destined to self-destruct. It is a conviction that regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum might be worth giving some serious consideration.
Profit Over People - by Noam Chomsky (Seven Stories Press, 1999) - Excerpts
.. Over the years, popular forces have sought to gain a larger share in managing their affairs, with some success alongside many defeats. Meanwhile an instructive body of thought has been developed to justify elite resistance to democracy. Those who hope to understand the past and shape the future would do well to pay careful attention not only to the practice but also to the doctrinal framework that supports it.
Theses issues were addressed 250 years ago by David Hume. Hume was intrigued by the easiness with which the many are governed by the few, the implicit submission with which men resign - their fate to their rulers.
This he found surprising, because force is always on the side of the governed. If people would realize that, they would rise up and overthrow the masters. He concluded that government is founded on control of opinion, a principle that extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.
Hume surely underestimated the effectiveness of brute force. A more accurate version is that the more free and popular a government, the more it becomes necessary to rely on control of opinion to ensure submission to the rulers.
That people must submit is taken for granted pretty much across the spectrum. In a democracy, the governed have the right to consent, but nothing more than that. In the terminology of modern progressive thought, the population may be spectators but not participants apart from occasional choices among leaders representing authentic power. That is the political arena. The general population must be excluded entirely from the economic arena, where what happens in the society is largely determined. Here the public is to have no role, according to prevailing democratic theory.
..The founding fathers repeated the sentiments of the British - men of best quality - in almost the same words. As one put it - When I mention the public, I mean to include only the rational part of it. The ignorant and vulgar are as unfit to judge of the modes [of government], as they are unable to manage [its] reins. The people are a Great Beast that must be tamed, his colleague Alexander Hamilton declared. Rebellious and independent farmers had to be taught, sometimes by force, that the ideals of the revolutionary pamphlets were not to be taken too seriously. The common people were not to be represented by countrymen like themselves, who know the peoples sores, but by gentry, merchants, lawyers, and other - responsible men - who could be trusted to defend privilege.
The reigning doctrine was expressed clearly by the President of the Continental Congress and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay - The people who own the country ought to govern it. One issue remained to be settled. Who owns the country? The question was answered by the rise of private corporations and the structures devised to protect and support them, though it remains a difficult task to compel the public to keep to the spectator role.
The United States is surely the most important case to study if we hope to understand the world of today and tomorrow. One reason is its incomparable power. Another is its stable democratic institutions. Furthermore, the United States was as close to a tabula rasa as one can find. America can be as happy as she pleases, Thomas Paine remarked in 1776, she has a blank sheet to write upon. The indigenous societies were largely eliminated. The U.S. also has little residue of earlier European structures, one reason for the relative weakness of the social contract and of support systems, which often had their roots in pre-capitalist institutions. And to an unusual extent, the socio-political order was consciously designed. In studying history, one cannot construct experiments, but the United States is as close to the ideal case of state capitalist democracy as can be found.
The main designer, furthermore, was an astute political thinker James Madison, whose views largely prevailed. In the debates on the Constitution, Madison pointed out that if elections in England were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place, giving land to the landless. The Constitutional system must be designed to - prevent such injustice and secure the permanent interests of the country - which are property rights...
...Among Madisonian scholars, there is a consensus that - the Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period, delivering power to a - better sort - of people and excluding those who were not rich, well born, or prominent from exercising political power (Lance Banning). The primary responsibility of government is - to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority, Madison declared. That has been the guiding principle of the democratic system from its origins until today.
In public discussion, Madison spoke of the rights of minorities in general, but it is quite clear that he had a particular minority in mind the minority of the opulent. Modern political theory stresses Madisons belief that - in a just and a free government the rights both of property and of persons ought to be effectually guarded. But in this case too it is useful to look at the doctrine more carefully. There are no rights of property, only rights to property that is, rights of persons with property. Perhaps I have a right to my car, but my car has no rights. The right to property also differs from others in that one persons possession of property deprives another of that right if I own my car, you do not; but in a just and free society, my freedom of speech would not limit yours. The Madisonian principle, then, is that government must guard the rights of persons generally, but must provide special and additional guarantees for the rights of one class of persons, property owners.
Madison foresaw that the threat of democracy was likely to become more severe over time because of the increase in - the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. They might gain influence, Madison feared. He was concerned by the - symptoms of a leveling spirit - that had already appeared, and warned of the future danger if the right to vote would place power over property in hands without a share in it. Those without property, or the hope of acquiring it, cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its rights - Madison explained. His solution was to keep political power in the hands of those who come from and represent the wealth of the nation, the more capable set of men, with the general public fragmented and disorganized...
.. New Doctrines have been crafted to impose the modern forms of political democracy. They are expressed quite accurately in an important manual of the public relations industry by one of its leading figures, Edward Bernays. He opens by observing that the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. To carry out this essential task the intelligent minorities must make use of propaganda continuously and systematically, because they alone - understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses and can - pull the wires which control the public mind. Therefore, our society has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda, another case of consent without consent.
Propaganda provides the leadership with a mechanism to mold the mind of the masses so that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction. The leadership can regiment the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers. This process of engineering consent is the very essence of the democratic process, Bernays wrote.
by Z Magazine