Renewing Tom Paine's Challenge
by Noam Chomsky
from the book
Our Media, Not Theirs
by Robert W. McChesney and
Seven Stories Press, 2002,
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
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."
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
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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