Cohen and Rogers on Noam Chomsky II

William S. Lear rael at
Sun Dec 6 19:14:11 PST 1998

kind. In particular, we assume that a stable democratic socialist scheme must ensure continuing relative equality among the participants in the order. It might be the case, for example, that considerable portions of the surplus generated in some enterprises would be used to benefit those in others. But how is a concern to preserve such equality of condition to be encouraged among citizens, assuming (what seems obvious) that it could not be counted on to emerge *spontaneously*?

Presumably the idea is that citizens acquire a sense of justice and a willingness to act on that sense through the normal course of their maturation. But if organic groups, based in particular workplaces or neighbourhoods, provide the basis of political cooperation, then it would seem natural that the principal allegiance of citizens would be to those organic groups. And if that were true, then a sense of justice supporting the distributive measures required to maintain the order would not be likely to form. One of the virtues of less organic and more "alienated" political forms that are abstracted from everyday life --- political parties, territorially defined representative bodies, and specialized organizations for making and enforcing collective decisions --- is that they plausibly encourage the members of society to regard one another as equal *citizens*, deserving of justice whatever the particulars of their aspirations, class situation, or group affiliations. It seems likely that some such more cosmopolitan sense of citizenship, encouraged by less organic forms of political association, is necessary to provide the motivation needed to sustain the egalitarian background required of a genuinely democratic society.

Of course it may be that the establishment of specialized political bodies to address these problems would engender a concentration of power, and that such a concentration would produce greater threats to human freedom than those resulting from the absence of specialized political arrangements. This is, clearly, an empirical issue, and one about which we can only hope someday to have data. In the absence of more compelling evidence than we now have, however, Chomsky's anarchism seems to stand on relatively shaky grounds. This limits its appeal even to those who share his commitment to eliminating unnecessary constraints on human beings, and in particular constraints deriving from economic inequality.

III What, If Anything, May We Hope For?

Setting these particular criticisms aside, Chomsky's account of human nature and the social conditions appropriate to its full expression naturally suggest two questions about contemporary societies. First, why are present social arrangements and the distribution of basic material resources and political power they provide so distant from the arrangements and distribution appropriate to human nature?[36] Second, given the distance between the actual and ideal, what reason is there for maintaining even the hope that current arrangements will


come to approximate this ideal more closely? In this final section, we consider these questions in turn.

At least at an abstract level, Chomsky's answer to the first question is clear. Once an unjust order exists, those benefiting from it have both an *interest* in maintaining it and, by virtue of their social advantages, the *power* to do so. Maintenance is of course not in the interest of those who do not benefit from the order. So, dominant groups must use their power against subordinate ones to ensure the latter's consent or acquiescence to the unjust scheme. The basic mechanisms for achieving this are force and fraud. Either those who do not benefit must, in effect, be frightened and beaten into submission, or they must be distracted from their real interests and deliberately confused about the way the world works.

More particularly, Chomsky believes that the relative importance of force and fraud to social reproduction depends on the specific scheme of unjust distribution in place. Fascist orders and Stalinist "socialism" are marked by the denial of liberties of expression, association and participation. Thus, while they feature well-developed propaganda systems, they rely primarily on force to suppress the natural aspiration to freedom. Capitalist democracies, by contrast, provide at least formal rights of expression, association and participation. While they feature considerable use of force, the availability of channels of expression and association increases the importance of what people think, and fraud accordingly plays a more central role in preserving order.[37] In capitalist democracy, the real "enemy" of governing elites, their "ultimate target", is the human mind itself.[38] The preservation of unjust advantage requires thought control, the deliberate "manufacture of consent".[39]

In elaborating these themes, Chomsky has focused principally on the role of the mass media in capitalist democracies, and then almost exclusively on the case of the media in the United States --- a case marked, in comparative terms, by an apparently paradoxical combination of extreme media servility and minimal state control of those media.[40] These writings, some authored jointly with Edward Herman, present a "propaganda model" of the media's operation --- not, it may be stressed, of its *effects* on consciousness or behaviour (see discussion below, p. 20) --- with two component parts.[41]


The Propaganda Model

The first component is the contention that the principal propagators of ideas in capitalist democracies (again, and throughout, particularly in the US) advance ideas that conform to elite interests. More specifically, the range of positions featured in the media, the issues that receive emphasis, the timing of stories, the sources that are treated as respectable, and the interpretation of the role of the media itself, are all "*highly functional* for established power and responsive to the needs of the government and major power groups" [emphasis added].[42]

The second component of the model is an account of the mechanisms of social power, and the particular organization of the media, that explain this "highly functional" pattern. Here, in an account of why the media operates as it does, general propositions about the organization of capitalist democracies are fused with specific contentions about the role of four broad groups of social actors within such systems.

At the top are various interconnected elites, predominancy business elites (including those who own the media) and government elites (often the same as the former).[43] These actors, or at least important segments of them, appear to be relatively "free of illusion", a freedom explained by the fact that a clear understanding of the world is essential to maintaining their privileged positions within it. ("The propaganda may be what it is, but dominant elites must have a clearer understanding among themselves." [44]) Thus, capitalists need to know how the world works in order to compete successfully, and state managers need to know in order to serve the interests of business. Understanding their own interests and what is needed to advance them, and recognizing that their interests are commonly opposed to the interests of the rest of the population, the elites sow illusion outside their ranks.[45] In this connection, it should be noted that Chomsky thinks that "[m]ost people are not liars",[46] and that a low tolerance


for cognitive dissonance leads most propagators of falsehood to self-deception; they tend to say what they believe, having first come to believe what they say. But Chomsky seems to except at least certain crucial elements of elites from this generalization, since he holds that they both know the truth and regularly deceive others about it.[47] Given his assumptions about normal people, such behaviour, which on his view was, for example, characteristic of the "stunning lunatics and liars" who prosecuted the US effort in the Vietnam War, must be termed "pathological".[48]

A second group is composed of journalists and the "secular priesthood" of (primarily) academic experts.[49] Members of this class typically attain their positions by propagating views that serve elite interests. But, displaying the normal human intolerance of conscious deception, they commonly come to believe what they say.[50]

A third group of actors is composed of the educated and politically active middle classes. They provide the "primary targets"[51] for propaganda, since elites recognize that they could and would do enormous harm to existing arrangements of authority if told the truth. That they could do such harm is a function of their resources and political activism. That they would is a function of the fact that, as Chomsky puts it, "most people are not gangsters".[52] He believes, and believes clear-minded elites believe, that the middle class would not support immoral US policies if it knew the truth about them, which is why elites seek "to prevent any knowledge or understanding" of those policies.[53]

A fourth group is composed of the politically immobilized lower classes. Members of this group benefit least from the operation of the system, and thus might be thought to pose the greatest threat to its continuance. But their lack of resources and difficulties with collective action ("They are not part of the system; they just watch."[54]) in fact make them less threatening than the middle classes; they are as a consequence only a secondary target of the propaganda machine. Moreover, while the fact that members of this group are less highly


"educated", and thus less indoctrinated,[55] than other elements in the population, they are effectively discouraged from political activity by such distractions as spectator sports, lifestyle preoccupations, and "religious fanaticism of an almost Khomeinist variety".[56] Often profoundly alienated from the operation of the system, and thus susceptible to the attractions of "charismatic figures who promise to lead them out of their problems and to attack either the powerful or some other bogeyman, the Jews or the homosexuals, or the communists, or whoever is identified as responsible for their troubles,"[57] they typically "can be satisfied, it is hoped, with diversions and a regular dose of patriotic propaganda, and fulminations against assorted enemies."[58]

As these last observations may suggest, Chomsky does not study the secondary target or popular culture in any detail. His work concentrates instead on the "dominant intellectual culture and the values that guide it"[59] --- the interactions among the first three groups just noted. To summarize, his claim is that the functional pattern of media propagation of ideas conforming to elite interests (the first component of the propaganda model) reflects a relatively conscious policy of deception pursued by elites, who act with the willing if unwitting support of intellectuals and journalists, and who are concerned to forestall the emergence of opposition to their power that would likely arise from a (middle class) population that knew the truth about their immoral aims and actions. Before assessing the force of this conception, two clarifications of its aims may be helpful.

First, and as emphasized above, the propaganda model is offered as an account of the operation of the major media, not of its effects. The model *in itself* neither states nor implies that ideological conformity in the target group(s) is actually produced by propaganda, or that ideological conformity is the principal cause of obedient behaviour, or even that ideological conformity exists. So the propaganda model would not be falsified if it were established that propaganda was unsuccessful in generating false beliefs, or that it was irrelevant to the production of consent, or that consent was produced by means other than illusion (such as self-interest or cynicism).[60] Nevertheless, the propaganda model is advanced in aid of understanding the *actual* manufacture of consent in capitalist democracies, and not simply as an account of the functioning of major media in them. Its interest and importance thus does depend on there being some real and significant effects of propaganda on social action,[61] and Chomsky in fact holds


the view that propaganda efforts are successful in generating both illusion and consent.[62]

Second, it is no objection to the propaganda model to observe that the distortions featured in the major media are not complete fairy tales, utterly at odds with the facts. On the contrary, attention to the model's underlying mechanisms would suggest that distortions will be more often a matter of framing and emphasis than simple fabrication.[63] As already noted, for example, governing elites need to understand the world. But since they in part rely on the major media for information about the world, this imposes some truth constraints on reporting in those media (constraints more severe than those exerted on more "yellow" or "tabloid" journalism).[64]

An Overstated Case?

Even with these qualifications noted, however, our assessment of the propaganda model is mixed. Chomsky presents reams of evidence for the model, most of it addressed to the first of its two components --- that media representations are highly functional for elite interests. With copious documentation, he effectively makes the case that the bulk of information provided by the major media is extremely and systematically biased toward the maintenance of existing arrangements of power and advantage; that departures from orthodoxy, particularly among those who threaten to reach a more than miniscule audience, are deliberately sanctioned; and, above all, that debate about US foreign policy commonly proceeds within a set of presuppositions about the role of the United States in the world that are quite distorted but rarely even noted, much less disputed. With all this we are in agreement.

The recent Gulf war, for example, provided an advanced display of all these phenomena. Information supplied to the press was sharply restricted by American diplomatic and military personnel, while the restrictions themselves were barely noted or challenged. Accordingly, press "coverage" of events, particularly in the US, consisted largely of canned human-interest stories, military briefings, and pool reports from sites selected by military authorities. Information unfavourable to the official US position --- on, for example, the details of Iraqi peace initiatives before the war, or the destruction of Iraq during the war --- was generally dismissed or not reported at all. Even the slightest departures from orthodoxy --- for example, the fact that the Cable News Network actually offered reports from inside Iraq on war damage --- were objects of high-ranking political attack. And the most preposterous and cynical statements of public officials --- for example, George Bush's repeated declaration that "America stands where it always has, against aggression, against those who would use force to replace the rule of law" --- were repeated and amplified without critical comment.[65]


All in all, then, this was an almost laboratory-perfect demonstration of manipulation of and by the media.

Nonetheless, Chomsky's view of the media and the manufacture of consent seems overstated in three ways. First, the claim that business people and state managers are in the main relatively "free of illusion" seems overdrawn, at least when that claim is offered (as Chomsky usually offers it) without substantial qualification. There is of course ample reason to believe that business and state elites are on the whole better informed about their interests than ordinary citizens, since they have more resources to acquire information, and, as a rule, greater incentives to ensure its accuracy. But they are not immune to "ordinary" failures of human understanding (such as shortsightedness, excessive attention to the status quo), evidence of which is legion in the ranks of business and the state. Nor, critically, are they immune to the distortions of ideology, which not uncommonly grips elites with at least the force that it grips other citizens.

On the latter point, Chomsky himself provides evidence for a more complex picture in his essay on the "Backroom Boys" who administered the US war on Vietnam.[66] The history he discusses there suggests that during and immediately after World War II, US policy-makers *did* operate with a relatively clear understanding of their interests, the requisite elements of a world order that would conform to those interests, and the content of the ideology needed to provide popular support for their imperial designs. Once the terms of the postwar world were set in place, however, political and economic elites themselves accepted the terms of postwar ideology, and clung to that ideology even when it no longer served their material interests. In particular, we find that by the 1960s, "other and more irrational considerations (than the economic interests of US capital) may have come to predominate" in the prosecution of US policy in Southeast Asia,[67] as United States policy-makers were "caught up" and "trapped" by the "fantasies" they had earlier devised as illusions for the public.[68] The lesson to be drawn from this example is, we think, straightforward. During some periods --- for example, the ascendant period of a new world power --- elites may be relatively free of illusion about their interests. During others, however, they may be much less so. But at no time does it seem warranted to assume that elite understanding, however clear about the short term, extends much beyond that.

Second, and closely related, the model's claim that elite-generated ideologies are always "highly functional" for elite interests seems exaggerated. The "Backroom Boys" example just given indicates otherwise; there, elites were not only trapped by illusions dysfunctional for their interests, but were as a consequence propagating such illusions. How


often and how significantly dysfunctionality is produced by such illusion (or by other mechanisms) is, of course, an empirical issue beyond the scope of this discussion. It seems plausible, however, to think that such investigation would yield other examples of elite propagation of ideologies that are not "highly functional". In the area of foreign policy, for example, the conviction that world "order" must be supplied chiefly by the US --- a notion that postwar elites did their best to encourage among the general population --- now arguably inhibits rational elite response to a range of military and economic concerns occasioned by political transformation in Eastern Europe, turmoil in the Soviet Union, and abiding economic challenge from Western Europe and Japan.

Consider, for example, the Gulf war's effective definition of "collective security" in the New World Order as the raising of foreign subsidies to pay for American military force. This might seem a perfectly rational US elite response to problems of military management after the decline of American hegemony. Crudely put, if a nation is less competitive in machine tools than in bombers, it makes sense for it to "trade" in bombers. Collectively underwritten but American-led, such an arrangement might help stabilize the US comparative advantage in military power by defraying its costs, while offering continued US influence in the world disproportionate to its economic power.

It might. Or it might not. The underwriting project could get bogged down in ways that military threats themselves could not overcome. Celebration of the comparative advantages of American military power might lead to the neglect of other sources of power. First World needs for the submission of the Third World (against which force is most readily applied) might simply diminish, leading to a decline in the demand for American Hessians. And even if none of these things happened, the choice of the bomb trade may simply not be the best, or even close to the second-best, strategy for maintaining US dominance. It might after all be the case that more constructive uses of US resources --- to educate its children or train its workforce, clean its environment or nationalize its health-care system, rebuild its material infrastructure or invest more in basic research --- would benefit American elites substantially more than adoption of the mercenary route. At the very least, this question seems open.[69]

Third, we think Chomsky exaggerates the importance of the media's informational bias in explaining consent and stability in capitalist democracies. In entering this objection, a word of caution is in order. As noted earlier, commitment to the propaganda model itself does not imply commitment to the view that the media's informational bias is the fundamental source of ideological conformity, nor that ideological conformity is the fundamental source of consent (at least for the target


groups). Nevertheless, Chomsky's writings do suggest, at least as a general matter, commitment to both of these claims.[70] So it seems worthwhile to register our objection to the claim about the importance of ideology in producing consent.[71] Since, however, this is not a claim to which Chomsky is committed by the propaganda model, and is not a claim he makes *explicitly* in his work, we use the name "Chomsky*" in the following paragraph to underscore our uncertainty about attributing these views to him.

Ideology and Consent

The source of our objection to Chomsky*'s emphasis on the importance of ideology in producing consent is simple. Chomsky uses the term "ideology" in a pejorative sense; the term denotes a system of false beliefs about the world, popular action in accord with which is favourable to the realization of dominant interests.[72] In our view, however, such false beliefs ("false consciousness") play a less central role in explaining consent than Chomsky* suggests. Even individuals who know the ugly truth may consent for reasons of, for example, material self-interest, cynicism, fatigue, or simple lack of concern, and much evidence suggests that many *do* consent for some combination of these reasons. Survey data in the US (the country that has been the primary focus for Chomsky's political writings) regularly confirm a very widespread (exceeding the bounds of the "secondary target") public conviction that public officials are corrupt, that the country is run in an undemocratic fashion, and that many public policies are immoral.[73] But this confirmation is provided in a context of profound *political stability*. This suggests that something other than illusion and ignorance are producing that stability.

An expansion on this suggestion may be used to conclude our discussion of the propaganda model. Consider the case of capitalist democracy, the social system in which, on Chomsky's view, propaganda plays the greatest role in producing stability. There, instead of explaining the generation of consent chiefly by reference to ideological mechanisms, one might rely on two, arguably more central, features of that system. First, the private control of investment featured in a capitalist democracy subordinates the interests of workers to those of capitalists (without profits there is no investment, and without


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