By Noam Chomsky
The role of the media in contemporary politics forces us to ask about the type of world and society in which we want to live, and what model of democracy we want for this society.
Let me start by contrasting two different concepts of democracy. One is the one that leads us to affirm that in a democratic society, on the one hand, people have at their disposal the resources to participate in a meaningful way in the management of their particular affairs, and, on the other, the media are free and impartial. If you look up the word democracy in the dictionary, you will find a definition quite similar to what I just formulated.
An alternative idea of democracy is that the people should not be allowed to take charge of their own affairs, while the media should be tightly and rigidly controlled. This may sound like an outdated conception of democracy, but it is important to understand that, if anything, it is the prevailing idea. In fact it has been for a long time, not only in practice but even theoretically. Let us also not forget that we have a long history, dating back to the modern democratic revolutions of seventeenth century England, which for the most part expresses this point of view. In any case I am going to stick simply to the modern period and about the way in which the notion of democracy develops, and about the way and why the problem of the media and disinformation are situated in this context.
First historical notes of propaganda
Let's start with the first modern propaganda operation carried out by a government. It happened under Woodrow Wilson. This was elected president in 1916 as leader of the electoral platform Peace without victory, when the equator of the First World War was crossed. The population was very pacifist and saw no reason to get involved in a European war; however, the Wilson administration had decided that the country would take part in the conflict. Therefore, something had to be done to induce in society the idea of the obligation to participate in the war. And a government propaganda commission was created, known as the Creel Commission, which, in six months, managed to turn a peaceful population into another hysterical and warmongering that wanted to go to war and destroy everything that smelled of German, to tear apart all Germans, and thus save the world.
An extraordinary success was achieved that would lead to an even greater one: precisely at that time and after the war the same techniques were used to stoke what was known as Red Fear. This allowed the destruction of unions and the elimination of problems as dangerous as freedom of the press or political thought. The financial and business power and the media fostered and gave great support to this operation, from which, in turn, they obtained all kinds of benefits.
Among those who participated actively and enthusiastically in Wilson's war were the progressive intellectuals, people from John Dewey's circle.These were very proud, as you can see from reading his writings of the time, for having shown that what they called the members The most intelligent of the community, that is to say, they themselves, were capable of convincing a reluctant population that it was necessary to go to war by terrorizing it and arousing in it a jingoistic fanaticism. The means used were very broad. For example, lots of atrocities allegedly committed by the Germans were fabricated, including Belgian children with limbs ripped off and all sorts of horrible things that can still be read in history books, much of which was invented by the British Ministry of Propaganda, whose real purpose at the time - as reflected in its secret deliberations - was to direct the thinking of most of the world. But the key issue was to control the thinking of the most intelligent members of American society, who, in turn, would disseminate the propaganda that was being crafted and drive the peaceful country into wartime hysteria. And it worked very well, while teaching us something important: When state-emanating propaganda is supported by high-cultural classes and no deviation in content is allowed, the effect can be enormous. It was a lesson that Hitler and many others had already learned, and whose influence has survived to this day.
The democracy of the spectator
Another group that was directly marked by these successes was formed by liberal theorists and prominent figures in the media, such as Walter Lippmann, who was the dean of American journalists, an important political analyst - both domestic and international affairs - as well as an extraordinary theorist of liberal democracy. If you take a look at his essays, you will see that they are subtitled with something like A Progressive Theory of Liberal Democratic Thought. Lippmann was linked to these propaganda commissions and admitted the achievements, while maintaining that what he called revolution in the art of democracy could be used to build consensus, that is, to produce in the population, through the new techniques of propaganda, the acceptance of something initially unwanted. He also thought that this was not only a good idea but also a necessary one, because, as he himself stated, common interests completely elude public opinion and only a specialized class of responsible men who are intelligent enough can understand them and solve problems. derived from them. This theory holds that only a small elite - the intellectual community that Dewey's followers spoke of - can understand what those common interests are, what is in the best interest of all of us, as well as the fact that these things escape people in general.
In reality, this approach dates back hundreds of years, it is also a typically Leninist approach, so there is a strong resemblance to the idea that a vanguard of revolutionary intellectuals seizes power through popular revolutions that provide them with the necessary strength to This is to lead the stupid masses to a future where they are too inept and incompetent to imagine and foresee anything for themselves. Thus, liberal democratic theory and Marxism-Leninism are very close in their ideological assumptions. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons why individuals, over time, have observed that it was really easy to move from one position to another without experiencing any specific sensation of change. It's just a matter of seeing where the power is. It is possible that there will be a popular revolution that will lead us all to assume the power of the State; Or maybe there isn't, in which case we will simply support those who hold the real power: the finance community. But we will be doing the same: leading the stupid masses into a world where they will be unable to understand anything for themselves.
Lippmann backed up all this with a fairly elaborate theory of progressive democracy, according to which in a well-functioning democracy there are different classes of citizens. First of all, citizens who take an active role in general matters relating to government and administration. It is the specialized class, made up of people who analyze, make decisions, execute, control and direct the processes that occur in ideological, economic and political systems, and who also constitute a small percentage of the total population. Of course, anyone who puts the ideas cited into circulation is part of this select group, in which they talk primarily about what to do with those others, who, outside of the small group and being the majority of the population, constitute what Lippmann called the bewildered herd: we must protect ourselves from this bewildered herd when it roars and tramples. Thus, in a democracy there are two functions: on the one hand, the specialized class, the responsible men, exercise the executive function, which means that they think, understand and plan the common interests; on the other, the flock also bewildered with a function in democracy, which, according to Lippmann, consists in being spectators rather than actively participating members. But, since we are talking about a democracy, the latter carry out something more than one function: from time to time they enjoy the favor of relieving themselves of certain burdens on the person of some member of the specialized class; In other words, they are allowed to say we want you to be our leader, or, better still, we want you to be our leader, and all this because we are in a democracy and not in a totalitarian state. But once they have freed themselves of their burden and handed it over to a member of the specialized class, they are expected to lean back and become spectators of the action, not participants. This is what happens in a democracy that works as God intended.
And the truth is that there is a logic behind all that. There is even an entirely compelling moral principle: people are simply too stupid to understand things. If individuals tried to participate in the management of matters that affect or interest them, all they would do would be only to cause trouble, so it would be improper and immoral to allow them to do so. You have to tame the bewildered herd, and not let it roar and trample and destroy things, which comes to contain the same logic that says it would be wrong to let a three-year-old child cross the street alone. We don't give three-year-olds this kind of freedom because we start from the assumption that they don't know how to use it. For the same reason, there is no facility for the individuals of the bewildered herd to participate in the action; they would only cause problems.
So we need something to tame the puzzled herd; something that becomes the new revolution in the art of democracy: the manufacture of consensus. The media, schools and popular culture have to be divided. The political establishment and decision makers have to provide some tolerable sense of reality, although they also have to instill the right opinions. Here the premise not explicitly stated - and even responsible men have to realize this on their own - has to do with the question of how the authority to make decisions is obtained. Of course, the way to obtain it is by serving the people who have real power, which is none other than the owners of society, that is, a fairly small group. If members of the specialist class can come and say I can be of use to your interests, then they become part of the executive group.
And they have to keep quiet and behave well, which means that they have to do everything possible so that the beliefs and doctrines that will serve the interests of the owners of society penetrate them, so that, unless they can exercise masterfully this self-training, they will not be part of the specialized class. Thus, we have an educational system, of a private nature, aimed at responsible men, the specialized class, who have to be deeply indoctrinated about the values and interests of royal power, and the corporate link that it maintains with the State and what it represents. If they can do it, they can join the specialized class. The rest of the bewildered herd will basically have to be distracted and turned their attention to something else. Let no one get into trouble. It will be necessary to ensure that they all remain in their role as spectators of the action, releasing their burden from time to time on the occasional leader from among those available to choose.
Many others have developed this point of view, which, in fact, is quite conventional. For example, the prominent international theologian and political critic Reinold Niebuhr, sometimes known as the system theologian, guru of George Kennan and the Kennedy intellectuals, claimed that rationality is a technique, a skill, available to very few. : only a few have it, while most people are guided by emotions and impulses. Those with the logical ability have to create necessary illusions and emotionally accentuated simplifications in order to make the naive goofballs more or less pull off. This principle has become a substantial element of contemporary political science.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, Harold Lasswell, founder of the modern communications industry and one of America's leading political analysts, explained that we should not succumb to certain democratic dogmatisms that men are the best judges of your particular interests. Because they are not. We are, he said, the best judges of public interests and affairs, so, precisely from the most common morality, we are the ones who have to make sure that they are not going to enjoy the opportunity to act based on their wrong judgments. In what we know today as the totalitarian state, or military state, this is easy. It is simply a matter of brandishing a truncheon over the heads of individuals, and, if they stray from the traced path, beating them mercilessly. But if society has ended up being more free and democratic, that capacity is lost, so attention must be directed to propaganda techniques. The logic is clear and simple: propaganda is to democracy what the bludgeon is to the totalitarian state. This is wise and convenient since, once again, public interests are beyond the comprehension of the bewildered herd.
The United States created the foundations of the public relations industry. As their leaders said, their commitment was to control public opinion. As they learned much from the successes of the Creel Commission and the Red Fear, and from the aftermath left by both, public relations underwent an enormous expansion throughout the 1920s, with great results in achieving a total subordination of people to directives from the corporate world throughout the 1920s. The situation reached such an extreme that in the following decade congressional committees began to investigate the phenomenon. A good part of the information that we have today comes from these investigations.
Public relations is an immense industry that currently moves amounts that oscillate around a trillion dollars a year, and its task has always been to control public opinion, which is the greatest danger they face corporations. As during World War I, great problems arose again in the 1930s: a great depression coupled with an ever-growing working class in the process of organizing. In 1935, thanks to the Wagner Act, workers achieved their first major legislative victory, namely, the right to organize independently, an achievement that posed two serious problems. In the first place, democracy was working pretty badly: the bewildered herd was winning legislative victories, and that wasn't the way things were supposed to go; the other problem was the increasing possibilities of the people to organize themselves. Individuals have to be atomized, segregated and alone; it cannot be that they intend to organize, because in that case they could become more than just passive spectators.
Indeed, if there were many individuals with limited resources who came together to intervene in the political arena, they could, in fact, go on to assume the role of active participants, which would be a real threat. For this reason, the business power had a forceful reaction to ensure that this had been the last legislative victory of the workers' organizations, and that it would also represent the beginning of the end of this democratic deviation of the popular organizations. And it worked. It was the last victory of the workers in the parliamentary field, and, from that moment - although the number of union members increased during the Second World War, after which it began to decline - the ability to act through union was decreasing. And not by chance, since we are talking about the business community, which is spending enormous sums of money, while dedicating all the necessary time and effort, on how to face and solve these problems through the public relations industry. and other organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable, and so on. And its principle is to react at all times immediately to find a way to counteract these democratic deviations.
The first test came a year later, in 1937, when there was a major strike in the steel industry in Johnstown, western Pennsylvania. The employers tried a new technique for destroying workers' organizations, which turned out to be very effective. And without hired thugs to spread terror among the workers, something that was no longer very practical, but through more subtle and efficient propaganda tools. The question was based on the idea that the people had to be pitted against the strikers, by whatever means. These were presented as destructive and harmful to society as a whole, and contrary to common interests, which were ours, those of the employer, the worker or the housewife, that is, all of us. We want to be united and have things like harmony and pride in being American, and working together.
But it turns out that these evil strikers out there are subversives, making a ruckus, breaking the harmony and undermining the pride of America, and we have to stop them. The executive of a company and the boy who cleans the floors have the same interests. We must all work together and do it for the country and in harmony, with sympathy and affection for one another. This was, in essence, the message. And a great effort was made to make it public; After all, we are talking about financial and corporate power, that is, the one that controls the media and has resources on a large scale, which is why it worked, and very effectively. Later this method became known as the Mohawk VaIley formula, although it was also called scientific methods to prevent strikes. It was applied over and over again to break strikes, and it worked very well when it came to mobilizing public opinion in favor of empty concepts of content, such as pride of being American. Who can be against this? Or harmony. Who can be against? Or, as in the Persian Gulf War, support our troops. Who could be against it? Or the yellow bows. Is there anyone who is against? Just someone completely foolish.
In fact, what if someone asks you if you support the people of Iowa? You can answer by saying Yes, I support you, or No, I do not support you. But it's not even a question: it doesn't mean anything. This is the question. The key to public relations slogans like Support Our Troops is that they mean nothing, or at best the same as supporting Iowans. But of course there was an important question that could be have resolved by asking the question: Do you support our policy? But, of course, it's not about people asking things like this. This is the only thing that matters in good propaganda. It is about creating a slogan that cannot be opposed, quite the contrary, that everyone is in favor. Nobody knows what it means because it means nothing, and its crucial importance is that it distracts people's attention from questions that do mean something: Do you support our policy? But about this you cannot talk. So we have the whole world arguing about supporting the troops: I will certainly not stop supporting them. Therefore, they have won. It's like the American pride and harmony thing. We are all together, around empty slogans, let's take part in them and make sure that there will be no bad people around us destroying our social peace with their speeches about class struggle, civil rights and all this kind of thing.
Everything is very effective and until today it has worked perfectly. It certainly consists of something thought out and carefully crafted: people who do public relations aren't there for fun; you are doing a job, that is, trying to instill the correct values. In fact, they have an idea of what democracy should be: a system in which the specialized class is trained to work in the service of the masters, of the masters of society, while the rest of the population is deprived of all forms of organization to avoid the problems that it could cause. Most individuals would have to sit in front of the television and religiously chew the message, which is none other than the one that says that the only thing that has value in life is to be able to consume more and better and to live just like this class family media that appears on the screen and showcase values such as harmony and American pride. Life consists of this. You may think that there must be something else, but the moment you realize that you are alone, watching television, you assume that this is all that exists out there, and that it is crazy to think that there is another thing. And from the moment when organizing is forbidden, which is absolutely decisive, you are never in a position to find out if you are really crazy or just take everything for granted, which is the most logical thing to do.
So this is the ideal, to achieve which great efforts have been made. And it is evident that behind it there is a certain conception: that of democracy, as has already been said. The bewildered herd is a problem. You have to prevent him from roaring and trampling, and for this he will have to be distracted. It will be a matter of getting the subjects that form it to stay at home watching football games, soap operas or violent movies, although from time to time they are pulled out of slumber and called upon to chant nonsensical slogans, such as Apoyad a. our troops. They have to be kept in permanent fear, because unless they are duly frightened by all the possible evils that can destroy them, from within or without, they might begin to think for themselves, which is very dangerous since they do not have the ability to do so. That is why it is important to distract and marginalize them.
This is an idea of democracy. In fact, if we go back in time, the last legal victory for workers was actually in 1935, with the Wagner Act. Later after the outbreak of World War I, the unions went into decline, as did a rich and fertile working-class culture directly linked to them. Everything was destroyed and we were transferred to a society dominated in a singular way by business criteria. This was the only industrial society, within a state capitalist system, in which the usual social pact that could occur in comparable latitudes did not even take place. It was the only industrial society - other than South Africa, I suppose - that did not have a national health care service. There was no commitment to raising the minimum standards of survival for segments of the population who could not follow prevailing norms and guidelines or achieve anything for themselves on an individual level.
On the other hand, trade unions practically did not exist, as was the case with other forms of association in the popular sphere. There were no political organizations or parties: it was very far, therefore, from the ideal, at least on the structural level. The news media constituted a corporatized monopoly; they all expressed the same points of view. The two parties were two factions of the party of financial and business power. And so most of the population did not even bother to go to vote since it was totally meaningless, being, therefore, duly marginalized. At least this was the goal. The truth is that the most prominent figure in the public relations industry, Edward Bernays, came from the Creel Commission. He was part of it, learned his lesson well, and went to work to develop what he himself called consensus engineering, which he described as the essence of democracy.
The individuals capable of building consensus are those with the resources and the power to do so - the financial and business community - and we work for them.