Noam Chomsky believes that propaganda is to democracy what violence is to a dictatorship. But he hasn’t lost faith in the power of common people to speak up for the truth. He is known around the world for his revolutionary work on the structure of language, studies he has persued at MIT since 1955. But he is most controversial as a freelance critic of politics and power.
In part two of his 1988 interview with Bill Moyers, Chomsky talks about the power of corporations, true democratic values and his book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, in which he discusses the role of propaganda in a democracy.
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BILL MOYERS: Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. What’s more dangerous; the big stick, or the big lie’? Governments have used both of them against their own people. Tonight I’ll be talking with a man who has been thinking about how we can see the developing lie. He says that propaganda is to democracy what violence is to a dictatorship. But he hasn’t lost faith in the power of common people to speak up for the truth. Join me for part two of a conversation with Noam Chomsky
He’s one of America’s most brilliant men, but in some circles, he’s treated as if he were a pariah, an intellectual leper whose ideas might prove dangerously contagious. Noam Chomsky is a scholar of linguistics at M.I.T. His breakthrough work there revised how we think about language; but it’s been his criticism of power that has earned Noam Chomsky so much disdain in establishment circles.
Angry over the U.S. role in Vietnam he starred speaking out 20 years ago, and he’s never let up. He’s blunt and unyielding, and gives no quarter to comfortable pieties.
Take his newest book, Manufacturing Consent. It suggests that unlike a totalitarian regime, a democracy doesn’t stoop to violence to control its citizens; it uses propaganda, instead. We talked about this subject during a recent conversation in Boston.
[interviewing] You have said that we live entangled in webs of endless deceit. That we live in a highly indoctrinated society where elementary truths are easily buried. Elementary truths such as’?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Such as the fact that we invaded South Vietnam. Or the fact that we are standing in the way of significant- and have for years- of significant moves towards arms negotiation. Or the fact that the military system is to a substantial extent, not totally but to a substantial extent, a mechanism by which the general population is compelled to provide a subsidy to the high-technology industry. Since they aren’t going to do it if you ask them to, you have to deceive them into doing it.
There are many truths like that, and we don’t face them. We have an interesting political system in the United States. It’s different from those of the other industrial democracies. This is a very free country. I mean, the individuals are- by comparative standards, the state is very restricted in its capacity to coerce and control us. There’s very little they can do. Police can’t come in and stop us from talking or anything remotely like that. In fact, even as compared with other industrial democracies, we’re very free in this respect. On the other hand, the practical limits on those freedoms are unusually high.
BILL MOYERS: Practical limits?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, there are sophisticated mechanisms that have been devised to prevent us from making use of those freedoms; and, furthermore it has been understood for a long period that, in a society that’s free, in a society where the state does not have the power to coerce, other mechanisms must be found to ensure that the population doesn’t get in the way.
BILL MOYERS: Other mechanisms being’?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Indoctrination, elimination of secondary organizations; say, unions and other political clubs. For a single, isolated individual to participate in a meaningful way in the political system is almost impossible. I mean, you have to have means to inform yourself, to have ideas, to interchange those ideas with others, to tum them into possible programs, to press for those programs.
Now, that takes access to information. It takes independent media. It requires what sociologists call secondary organizations, means by which isolated people can group together, active political parties, political clubs, unions, have often played this role in many countries. The United States is unusual in the extent to which all of these structures are weak, so the level of unionization is extremely low. and under the Reagan period has declined even further.
Furthermore, the American unions have always been, basically, apolitical, or largely so.
The political system is also unusual. We’re the only major industrial democracy that doesn’t have a political party which is, basically, labor-based. We only have one political party with two factions. It’s the business party. We have two factions of the business many called the Democrats and the Republicans, and that’s unusual. In fact, this perception is transmuted in an odd way into political terminology. So, for example, in each election in the 1980s, the Democrats have been accused of being the party of the special interests. And then they hotly deny it and they say, no, they’re not the party of the special interests.
But who are the special interests’? Well, take a look behind the rhetoric and you find that the special interests are women, labor, youth, the elderly, ethnic minorities, the poor, farmers- in fact, it’s the entire population. The entire population are the special interests. Now, if you look closely, there’s one group that’s never identified as being among the special interests, that’s corporations.
And that’s correct, they are the national interest, and both parties are basically beholden to them, whereas the special interests have to be marginalized – the population. So, everyone denies that they represent the special interests, that is, the people. And they don’t say who they do represent. But there is a group notably lacking in this list of special interests and, in fact, it’s the group that anyone with his head screwed on knows has inordinate power in controlling economic decisions and setting the parameters for political life and controlling the ideological system and so on. They are not among the special interests.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think it is corporations, or is it the capitalist business system whose first priority is the well-being of profit-making for the general welfare, as it is said’?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, of course, ask the chairman of the board and he’ll always tell you that he spends his every waking hour laboring so that people will get the best possible products at the cheapest possible price, and work in the best possible conditions, and so on, and so forth.
Now, it’s an institutional fact- independent of who the chairman of the board is- that he’d better be trying to maximize profit and market share; and if he doesn’t do that he’s not going to be chairman of the board any more. If he were ever to succumb to the delusions that he expresses, he’d be out. Now, he can hold those delusions as long as he performs his institutional role, and the same is true across the board.
So, for example, you can be, say, Walter Lippmann’s specialized class, the experts; some of them are candid enough to tell you the truth, like Henry Kissinger, who defined an expert as a person who is capable of articulating the consensus of people with power. That’s what made him an expert. That’s true. If you want to be an expert, part of the specialized class, you have to be able to serve the interests of objective power. That’s an institutional role that has to be played, and if you can do that, you can be in it. If you want to be a journalist, let’s say, you have to accord the needs of the institutions, and the institutions have very definite needs. I mean, the major media are-
BILL MOYERS: They’re all corporations.
NOAM CHOMSKY: -major corporations. Like any other business, they have a product and an audience, a product and a market. The market is other businesses. They sell their product to advertisers- that’s what keeps them going- and the product is audiences, and, in fact, for the elite media, privileged audiences, because that improves advertising rates. So what the media are, fundamentally, as far as institutions are concerned, they’re major corporations selling relatively privileged audiences to other businesses.
It’s not very surprising to discover that those are the interests they reflect. Furthermore, if you take a look at the managing positions – the managerial positions, the cultural managers, more or less, editors and so on- they are, first of all, very privileged themselves. They share associations and concerns with other privileged people. There’s a close interaction and, in fact, a flow of people even, between corporate boardrooms and government decision-making centers and media and so on.
And there are many other factors, in fact, which yield the consequence that the independent media, without government coercion- there’s also some of that- but even without government coercion, tend to accept and adopt as the framework for discussion the interests and concerns, and the perspective of the privileged sectors of the society. That’s true of the information system; it’s true of the political system. The distribution of resources alone determines it. As other modes of organization and articulate expression and so on have declined, isolated individuals find themselves marginalized, and they end up voting for a ceremonial figure, if they bother to vote at all.
BILL MOYERS: Are you suggesting that there’s a conspiracy’? That there are people who gather and decide we’re going to eliminate unions’? That we’re going to eliminate popular participation in political parties’? We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that? Is there a conspiracy’?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, my point is, in fact, exactly the opposite. I mean, I think, and stress again, that these are institutional effects. These are the ways the institution functions.
Let’s go back to the chairman of the board. There’s no conspiracy in the world of managers to try to raise profits and market share. In fact, if the world of managers didn’t pursue that program, they wouldn’t be in business any longer. It’s part of the structure of the social system, and the way in which the institutions fw1ction within it, that they are going to be trying to maximize profit, market share, decision-making capacity and so on.
BILL MOYERS: Doing what comes naturally.
NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s not that- you might say it comes naturally, because they would never have gotten to that point unless they had internalized those values, but it’s also constrained. If they stop doing it, their stocks start to decline and so on and so forth, then somebody else- it’ll be bought up and so on. Now, pretty much the same is true of these other institutions. If some segment of the political system- suppose we had an authentic political party reflecting the needs of the special interests, the population, it would no longer be supported. It would be denounced by the information system. It would be condemned for being anti-American or subversive and so on. It would not even have the minimal resources to keep functioning. And since we don’t have a network of popular structures to sustain it, it would disappear.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve said that the primary function of mass media is to mobilize public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector. That’s not how the media see it. They claim, we claim that our news judgments rest on unbiased, objective criteria. That’s how we see it.
NOAM CHOMSKY: But, in fact, the chairman of the board also sees what he is doing as service to humanity.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, are we like a lobster in a trap- we can’t see it close behind us?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, the point is that no one would even make it to a high decision-making position in the media, whether as columnist or managing editor or whatever, unless they had already internalized the required values.
BILL MOYERS: Internalized?
NOAM CHOMSKY: They believe them. There are a number of things you have to believe to make it to top managerial positions. You have to believe that the United States is unique in history in that it acts from benevolent motives. Benevolent motives are not properties of states, whether it’s the United States or any other one. It’s meaningless to talk about it.
BILL MOYERS: You’re saying that the United States can act for-
NOAM CHOMSKY: I mean it acts because of the interests of groups that have power within it, like any other society. But anyone who believes this truism is already excluded. You have to believe that whatever the United States does is defensive. If we bomb South Vietnam, we’re defending South Vietnam. If the Russians invade Afghanistan, that’s not defense. Now, of course, I suppose if you go to the Politburo, they’ll tell you they’re defending Afghanistan.
They’re defending it against terrorists supported from the outside. And, of course, we know that they’ll, in fact, even tell you they were invited in- and there’s kind of an element of truth to all of that, but we naturally dismiss it as nonsense.
On the other hand, when we create a government in South Vietnam to invite us in, and we attack the population of South Vietnam and we bomb people and drive them into concentration camps to separate them from the guerrillas who we can see they’re supporting, and so on, we’re defending South Vietnam. And anyone who doesn’t agree with this is not part of the system.
BILL MOYERS: You’re equating the Soviet Union and the United States, and the Jeane Kirkpatricks and others would say, of course, that’s the fundamental fallacy of Dr. Noam Chomsky’s approach, is that he’s saying there’s a moral equivalency-
NOAM CHOMSKY: I don’t say anything of the kind. These notions are, in fact, inventions of the Jeane Kirkpatricks and other reactionary jingoists. The Soviet Union and the United States arc at opposite poles among contemporary political systems. What I’m saying is that even though they are at opposite poles, in some respects they behave alike, and that’s for deep-seated reasons that have to do with the exercise of power and institutions and so on. And that has nothing to do with moral equivalents.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you do admit that we are a free society, then?
NOAM CHOMSKY: I not only admit it, I insist upon it. I insist that we are a free society and that the Soviet Union’s a dungeon, and, therefore, we have completely different methods of population control- completely different methods. In fact, I’ve written a lot about this. There’s no moral equivalency.
The totalitarian- I mean, no state is truly totalitarian-, but as we move toward the totalitarian end of the spectrum, the technique of control is roughly that satirized by Orwell. You have a center of truth; you have a Ministry of Truth. It announces official truths. People can believe it or not, nobody cares very much. It’s sufficient that they obey. Totalitarian states can be more or less behavioristic. They don’t really care what people think, because they always have a club at hand to beat them over the head if they do the wrong thing.
BILL MOYERS: They forced people to do what they want them to do.
NOAM CHOMSKY: So, “They can think what they like in private, but they better do what we tell them in public.” That’s the model towards which totalitarian states tend. As a result, the propaganda may very well be not too effective. On the other hand, the democratic slate can’t use such mechanisms.
BILL MOYERS: Can’t force anybody
NOAM CHOMSKY: It can’t force people. Therefore, you have to control what they think. Since power is still concentrated, but in different hands- in our society, largely in private ownership- and you can’t control people by force, you’d better care what they think, which means you have to have other forms, and, in fact, more sophisticated forms of indoctrination.
BILL MOYERS: I did an interview once with Edward Bernays, who is considered the pioneering figure in American business public relations, and he talked through there about the engineering of consent.
NOAM CHOMSKY: That’s his phrase, yes. And he thinks it’s a wonderful thing. In fact, he described it as the essence of democracy.
BILL MOYERS: He said, the consent of the government presupposes efforts in persuasion, in trying to persuade people to see things your way.
NOAM CHOMSKY: You notice the picture. The picture is, certain people are in a position to persuade, and the essence of democracy is that they have the freedom to persuade. Now, who has the freedom to persuade? Well, who runs the public relations industry? It’s not the special interests; they’re the targets of the public relations industry. The public relations industry is a major industry, closely linked to other corporations, and those are the people who have the power to persuade. That’s the essence of democracy. And they must engineer the consent of others.
BILL MOYERS: There was a vice-president of AT&T in 1909 who said that he thought the public mind was the chief danger to the company.
NOAM CHOMSKY: -to the corporation, exactly. The general public might have funny ideas about corporate control. For example, you know, people who really believe in democracy, people who take 18th-century values seriously, people who might really merit the term “conservatives,” that much-abused term, are against concentration of power. Remember that the doctrines of the enlightenment held that individuals should be free from the coercion of concentrated power.
Now the kind of concentrated power that they were thinking about was the church and the state and the feudal system and so on, and that you could son of imagine a collective population of relatively equal people, at least equal white male property owners, who would be not controlled by those private powers. But in the subsequent period a new form of power developed, namely, corporations with highly concentrated power over decision making in economic life. That is, control over what’s produced, what’s distributed, what’s invested and so on and so forth is very narrowly concentrated.
BILL MOYERS: So this is why the vice president of the large corporation will say that the public mind is the chief-
NOAM CHOMSKY: The public mind might have funny ideas about democracy which say that we should not be forced simply to rent ourselves to the people who own the country, and own its institutions. Rather, we should play a role in determining what those institutions do. That’s democracy. If we were to move towards democracy, and I think democracy even in the 18th-century sense, we would say that there should be no mal-distribution of power in determining what’s produced, what’s distributed, what’s invested an so on. Rather, that’s a problem for the entire community.
In fact, in my own personal view, unless we move in that direction, human society probably isn’t going to survive.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, we now face the most awesome problems in human history- problems such as: the likelihood of nuclear conflict, either among the superpowers or through proliferation; the destruction of a fragile environment, which finally we’re beginning to recognize, though it was obvious decades ago that we’re heading for disaster; other problems of this nature. They are of a level of seriousness that they never were in the past.
BILL MOYERS: But why do you think more participation by the public, more democracy is the answer?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Because more democracy is a value in itself, quite apart- because democracy is a value. It doesn’t have to be defended any more than freedom has to be defended. It’s an essential feature of human nature that people should be free; they should be able to participate; they should be uncoerced, and so on. These are values in themselves.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think, if we go that route-
NOAM CHOMSKY: Because I think that’s the only hope that I can see that other values will come to the fore. I mean, if the society is based on control by private wealth, it will reflect the values that it, in fact, does reflect; the value that the only real human property is greed, and the desire to maximize personal gain at the expense of others. Now, any society- a small society based on that principle is ugly, but it can survive. A global society based on that principle is headed for massive destruction. And that’s what we are. We have to have a mode of social organization that reflects other values that, I think, are inherent in human nature that people recognize.
BILL MOYERS: And that would be? I want to see exactly what you mean.
NOAM CHOMSKY: I mean, what are human beings? In your family, for example, it’s not the case that in the family every person tries to maximize personal gain at the expense of others, or if they do, it’s pathological. It’s not the case that- if you and I are, say, walking down the street, and we see a child eating a piece of candy and we see that nobody’s around and we happen to be hungry, we don’t steal it. If we did that, we’d be pathological. I mean, the idea of care for others and concern for other people’s needs and concern for a fragile environment that must sustain future generations; all of these things are part of human nature. These are elements of human nature that are suppressed in a social and cultural system which is designed to maximize personal gain.
And I think we must try to overcome that suppression and that’s, in fact, what democracy could bring about. It could lead to the expression of other human needs and values which tend to be suppressed under the institutional structure a system of private power and private profit.
BILL MOYERS: Do you believe that, by nature, human beings yearn for freedom, or do we settle in the interest of safety and security and conformity – do we settle for order?
NOAM CHOMSKY: These are really matters of faith rather than knowledge. On the one hand you have the Grand Inquisitor who tells you that what people, what humans crave is submission, and, therefore, Christ is a criminal and we have to vanquish freedom. That’s one view.
You have the other view of, say, Rousseau in some of his moments, that people are born to be free, and that their basic instinct is the desire to free themselves from coercion, authority and oppression. The answer to which you believe is, more or less, where you stake your hopes. I’d like to believe that people are born to be free, but if you ask for proof, I couldn’t give it to you.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve dealt in such unpopular truths, and have been such a lonely figure as a consequence of that, do you ever regret either that you took the stand you took, have written the things you’ve written, or that we had listened to you earlier?
NOAM CHOMSKY: I don’t mean, there are particular things which I would do differently because you think about things a little differently. But, in general, I would say I do not regret it.
BILL MOYERS: Do you like being controversial?
NOAM CHOMSKY: No. It’s a nuisance.
BILL MOYERS: Because this mass medium pays little attention to views of dissenters, not just Noam Chonmsky, but most dissenters do not get much of a hearing in this medium.
NOAM CHOMSKY: No, in fact, that’s, again, completely understandable. They wouldn’t be performing their societal function if they allowed favored truths to be challenged: because, after all, their role, their very institutional role, is to establish certain truths and beliefs, not to allow them to be challenged.
BILL MOYERS: Society does, in order to cohere, it does need a consensus, does it not?
NOAM CHOMSKY: I think it needs tentative assumptions. But we should remember what Justice Holmes said in one of his famous dissents, that fighting faiths have repeatedly been seen to be false. We should recognize that. Yes, we need tentative assumptions in order to continue with our lives, but we also ought to be open to a healthy society; not only tolerate but encourage challenge.
That’s what happens in the sciences. In the sciences, where the world is keeping you honest and you can’t be dishonest, fundamentally, not only is challenge tolerated but it’s stimulated. A student comes along with a new idea that threatens established beliefs, you don’t kick him out of your office. You pay attention. You’re struck.
BILL MOYERS: But in politics?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, political life is preserving the privilege and power. But that’s not a value that should be protected. That’s a property that should be overcome. I’m not saying question everything, always. That’s hopeless. You know, I walk out the door and I don’t think the floor is going to collapse. Of course, you accept things. You have faith; you have beliefs, and so on, and you operate on the basis of them.
But you should, if honest, recognize that they are subject to challenge, and that if the past is any guide, they’re probably wrong. Because beliefs have generally been wrong in the past. Also, we understand more. We understand more about ourselves as history continues. It’s hard to look at the 20th century and be an optimist, but, still, there’s some moral progress in history. Now take, say, slavery. It wasn’t very long ago that slavery was considered moral, not just that we wanted to do it. Slave-owners didn’t normally say,
“Look, it’s nice for me so I’ll do it.” They offered a moral basis for slavery. Nobody does that anymore. That’s an improvement. Just in our own lifetimes this has happened. Take the issues raised by the feminist movement.
BILL MOYERS: Women do have equal rights by nature.
NOAM CHOMSKY: These were things that many people simply did not see 30 years ago. Now, if the problems are still there. at least we see them. That’s greater insight into our own nature. It’s insight, it’s discovering the forms of repression and authority that we know we do not accept as moral human beings, and we ought to try to overcome. And, I think, you can sense such progress. At the same time, you also have decline. I mean, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia
BILL MOYERS: -the genocide of this century, the holocaust, all of that.
NOAM CHOMSKY: – indescribable. So, that’s why I say it’s hard to look at the 20th-century and say that you’re an optimist.
BILL MOYERS: What about the 21st-century?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, I don’t think we’re going to get far into the 21st-century unless these problems are overcome, because the problems are no longer localized. I mean, Hitler’s genocide was probably the worst moment in human history, but it was still, in a sense, localized. It was a huge massacre, but it was bounded. The problems we’re now facing are not going to be bounded. Nuclear war, for example. If there’s a superpower confrontation, or even a confrontation among lesser nuclear powers, that’s not going to be bounded in any sense that wars were in the past.
BILL MOYERS: Or if we all unplug the environment?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Or if we continue to act on the assumption that the only thing that basically matters is personal greed and personal gain, the commons will be destroyed. We didn’t have to worry about that too much in the past. It was happening, but now it is clear that they are going to be destroyed. Other human values have to be expressed if future generations are going even to be able to survive.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From Boston, this has been a conversation with Noam Chomsky I’m Bill Moyers.