There's An Alternative World...
If Only We Can Find It
Democracy's invisible line
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Le
www.zmag.org, August 9, 2007
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. Noam Chomsky interviewed by
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
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
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 fulfill 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
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
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.
Translated by Harry Forster
Noam Chomsky page