Renewing Tom Paine's Challenge

by Noam Chomsky

from the book

Our Media, Not Theirs

by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols

Seven Stories Press, 2002, paper


Two hundred years ago, Tom Paine issued a call to "recover rights" that had been lost to "conquest and tyranny," thereby opening "a new era to the human race." The call to action that follows renews Paine's challenge. The rights that an aroused citizenry must recover, in the present case, are among those most essential to a truly functioning democracy: the right to information and to free and open discussion, not filtered by the state-corporate nexus that has effectively shaped the major media into instruments of class power and domination.

Recovering rights has never been an easy course. Paine died with little honor in the country he had helped to free from British rule, condemned as an "infidel" who had "done much harm." As his call to recover rights was published in 1792, James Madison expressed his concerns about the fate of the democratic experiment. He warned of "a real domination of the few under an apparent liberty of the many," deploring "the daring depravity of the times" as private powers "become the praetorian band of the government-at once its tools and its tyrant; bribed by its largesses, and overawing it by clamors and combinations." Thomas Jefferson feared the rise of a "single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations" that would enable the few to be "riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry." His thoughts were echoed by Alexis de Tocqueville, who perceived the dangers of a "permanent inequality of conditions" and an end to democracy if "the manufacturing aristocracy, which is growing up under our eyes,... one of the harshest that has ever existed in the world," should escape its confines. A century later, during a period not unlike today's, America's preeminent social philosopher, John Dewey, called for a recovery of basic rights to reverse the decline of democracy under the rule of "business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda, " casting over society the shadow called "politics."

The vision of democracy that has inspired such concerns, and the popular struggles to advance the hopes and realize their promise, has been challenged in thought as well as deed. Madison's own attitudes towards democracy were ambivalent. During the Constitutional Convention, he urged that power should be vested in "the wealth of the nation," the "more capable set of men," who recognize that it is the responsibility of government "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. " To perform this necessary task may be difficult, he anticipated, with the likely 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." Measures to combat their "leveling spirit" were basic principles of the constitutional order of which he was the leading framer. There should be no conflict with high principle, Madison believed, because the men of property who would hold power would be "pure and noble," each an "enlightened statesman" and "benevolent philosopher." Reality was harsher, as he soon came to appreciate. Hence his forebodings a few years later.

Similar illusions animated Wilsonian progressivism. Wilson's own view was that an elite of gentlemen with "elevated ideals" should govern in order to sustain "stability and righteousness." The intelligent minority of "responsible men" must control decision making, Walter Lippmann held. The dean of twentieth-century American journalism and a respected progressive democratic theorist, Lippmann was convinced that for democratic forms to function for the general welfare, public opinion must be shaped, and policy set ~ and implemented, by this intelligent minority-self-designated, and owing their authority to their services to authentic power, a truism kept in the shadows by the elite intellectuals who find these ideas attractive. The general public, "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders," must "be put in its place," Lippmann added. Their place is remote from the centers of power. They are to be "spectators of action," not participants, though they do have a "function": The public is to act "only by aligning itself as the partisan of someone in a position to act executively," in periodic exercises called "elections." One of the founders of modern political science, Harold Lasswell, instructed the intelligent minority to be cognizant of the "ignorance and stupidity [of]...the masses" and to dismiss "democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests." They are not; we are. The masses must be controlled for their own good. As societies become more democratic, and force is no longer available as a means of social control, the "responsible men" must turn to "a whole new technique of control, largely through propaganda, " he urged.

The ideal is what the academic democratic theorist Robert Dahl calls "polyarchy," not "democracy." Like Tom Paine, those who seek popular democracy "do much harm," according to prevailing elite doctrine.

Not surprisingly, the world of private power agrees. The modern public relations industry was strongly influenced by Wilsonian progressives who advocated "the engineering of consent," a technique of control employed by the responsible men for the benefit of their flock, the ignorant masses whose minds must be "regimented" much as an army regiments their bodies. The stupid masses must be trained to abandon any dangerous and destructive ideas about controlling their own lives. Their task is to follow orders while focusing their attention "on the more superficial things that comprise much of fashionable consumption." They are to adopt a "philosophy of futility," business leaders explain, abandoning their fate to the gentlemen of "elevated ideals" who manage the political system, and to the concentrations of unaccountable private power that are the "tools and tyrants" of government. Their lives are to be restricted to a narrow private sphere, where consumption of commodities and individual wealth maximization are the reigning values. Much of the right-wing fervor behind the drive to destroy Social Security and public schools, and to block efficient and popular programs of public health care, reflects the understanding that such programs rely on values that must be extirpated: the natural and deep-seated values of sympathy and solidarity, the conviction that one should care about what happens to the child or disabled widow on the other side of town. These pernicious ideas must be driven from the mind. People must be atomized and separated if they are to be ruled by the responsible men, for their own good.

These conflicting visions are in constant tension, and there is considerable ebb and flow in the struggle to recover, sustain, and extend rights and freedom. Victories by the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders inspire fear, often panic, among business leaders, who warn of "the hazard facing industrialists in the rising political power of the masses" and call for increased vigor in "the everlasting battle for the minds of men." Liberal intellectual elites ponder the threat of the "excess of democracy" as normally passive and apathetic populations seek to enter the political arena to press their demands, forgetting their proper place in the democratic order. Deeply concerned by the "excess of democracy" of the 1960s, the Trilateral Commission intellectuals, representing liberal internationalist sectors of the industrial world, urged "more moderation in democracy," perhaps even a return to the days when, according to Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, "Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers." T

reverse the excess of democracy, they advised, it will be necessary to overcome the failures of the institutions responsible for "the indoctrination of the young," perhaps even to institute government regulation of the press if its leaders do not impose "standards of professionalism," curtailing the occasional departures from orthodoxy and obedience.

The "crisis of democracy" perceived by the Trilateral analysts became more severe in the years that followed as large-scale popular movements developed from the ferment of the 1960s, interfering with elite control: feminist, environmental, solidarity, antinuclear, and others. These democratizing tendencies have been countered by important developments in domestic and international society. One fundamental element of the neoliberal programs of the last quarter-century is to restrict the public arena, undermining the threat of democracy by transferring decisions to unaccountable private tyrannies, under the slogan of "minimizing the state." The basic idea was captured by David Rockefeller, who founded the Trilateral Commission and shares its general liberal internationalist perspective. He expressed his approval of the trend towards

lessening the role of government, something business people tend to be in favor of. But the other side of that coin is that somebody has to take governments' place, and business seems to me to be a logical entity to do it. I think that too many business people simply haven't faced up to that, or they have said, "It's somebody else's responsibility; it's ~, not mine."

Crucially, it is not the responsibility of the public.

The program of "minimizing the state" is nuanced, however: State functions are to be modified, not minimized. The state must at least continue to serve its "tools and tyrants," ensuring that the world is well-ordered for their needs, and at home, maintaining the traditional mechanisms for socializing cost and risk to protect "the minority of the opulent" from market discipline.

The financial liberalization that is a central component of neoliberal programs also undermines democracy, as has been well-understood for half a century. It creates what some international economists call a "virtual Senate" of investors and speculative capital, who hold "veto power" over governmental decisions and can punish "bad policies" that might benefit the population rather than improving the climate for business operations. Leaving nothing to chance, those who wage "the everlasting battle for the minds of men" have also established influential think tanks and other devices to constrain the limited public space allowed by corporate media. Consolidation of media and restriction of any public service function is a natural concomitant of these programs, quite apart from independent factors that are leading to oligopoly in many sectors of the economy, controlled by a small number of conglomerates linked to one another by strategic alliances and to the powerful states on which they rely, and over which they cast their shadow.

The public is aware of the growing "democratic deficit." One of the topics addressed below is the coverage-or perhaps "cover-up" would be more apt-of the November 2000 elections in the corporate media. It is also worth noting that on the eve of the election, well before the Florida shenanigans and Supreme Court intervention, three-quarters of the population did not take the process very seriously, regarding it as a game played by financial contributors, party leaders, and the PR industry, which crafted candidates to say "almost anything to get themselves elected" so that one could believe little they said even when it was intelligible. On most issues citizens could not identify the stands of the candidates, not because they are stupid or not trying, but because of conscious efforts to direct voter attention away from issues to "qualities." Many issues of great importance to the public could not even enter the electoral agenda because popular attitudes are so strongly opposed to the elite consensus: Among them are issues related to international economic affairs, including the "free trade agreements" that the business press, more honestly, terms "free investment agreements." Even a decade later, the position of the U.S. labor movement on NAFTA and the conforming conclusions of Congress's own research bureau have yet to be reported outside of dissident sources-for good reasons: They predicted rather well the harmful effects of these agreements on working people in the three countries concerned and proposed constructive alternatives. These might have received considerable popular support had they been made available, but are opposed by the elite consensus that sets the bounds for the electoral arena and media debate. A Harvard University project that monitors political attitudes found that at the time of the November 2000 elections, the "feeling of powerlessness has reached an alarming high," with more than half saying that people like us have little or no influence on what government does. The figures have risen steadily through the neoliberal period, not just in the United States but internationally, including Latin America, where the spread of formal democracy has been accompanied by a steady decline of faith in democracy...

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