Thursday, August 09, 2007
Democracy's invisible line
DM: Let's start with the media issue. In the May 2005 referendum on the European constitution, most newspapers in
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
The main political parties in either country do not defend this view either. If
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
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 dictatorships.
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
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.
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
When it comes to propaganda (though in a sense nothing has changed since the days of
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.
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,
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 we live.
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
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