‘Manufacturing consent’ and the nature of society

Nothing is worse than active ignorance.

 – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Ignorance, the root and stem of every evil.

 – Plato

The great masses of the people will more easily fall victims to a great lie than to a small one.

 – Adolf Hitler

Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media.

 – Noam Chomsky

The view of the world presented in the mass media doesn’t always correspond to reality. In fact, quite the opposite, it’s often rather false. In general terms, the media worldview presented in industrialised western countries is framed in a way that’s desirable and pleasant for the intelligentsia, since it subjects the vast majority of common people to a comforting illusion they enjoy, while concealing that we’re ensnared by a machinating plutocracy, instead of the democracy they feign to represent. Though this process is complex enough that it can’t be quickly explained or proven here, Herman and Chomsky’s co-authored book, Manufacturing Consent, resoundingly substantiates the claim. Fortunately, though, in the interest of fleshing out the issue somewhat, the chief consequence is much simpler and easier to discuss: powerful institutions – government, corporate and otherwise – are able to wantonly behave however they choose, provided they’re supported by the intellectuals and elites by and upon whom the media propaganda industries are maintained and dependent. In sum, so long as the media, intellectuals and elites behave this way, complicit institutions have unlimited opportunity to do whatever they like without repercussions, including, as has been shown in recent history, terrible corruption and atrocities.

The facts of history presented by Herman and Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent establish that this use of media propaganda is possibly the most important source of the world’s problems since the end of World War II, as it’s allowed powerful and ostensibly democratic states to become neo-imperialists with foreign policies defined by state-sponsored terror. Though this claim may, perhaps, seem outlandish, it’s supported by the record of U.S.-orchestrated military campaigns throughout the world, such as in Indochina – during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s – from which Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam may never fully recover. For an account of the historical record of these atrocities and media complicity in suppressing them, see the section, ‘The Indochina Wars’, in Manufacturing Consent.

Thus, the pseudo-democratic states of the world have been generally disinterested in the libertarian ideals they claim to be guided by, and in fact readily violate them. Moreover, these states are meanwhile committed to concealing the truth of their crimes by utilizing the startling subservience of the mass media to government programs and propaganda in order to keep the public unaware of reality and thereby manufacture its consent. This is an issue which might at first seems implausible, but has been confirmed by Herman and Chomsky beyond all reasonable doubt. Indeed, the fact that it at first seems ludicrous to a good many people illustrates the effectiveness of the propaganda system by which we and recent recorded history are deceived and distorted.

However, I most believe in this thesis, putting aside for the moment Herman and Chomsky’s sheer reasoning and scholarship, because I choose to believe that people are fundamentally good, with belonging, social welfare and moral justice as some of the precepts most important and inherent to the human condition. However, if this is true, there must be something which accounts for why people are capable of perpetrating injustices and atrocities against one another, and of allowing them to be perpetrated. One such explanation, I believe, is that in a monetised world probity is often tenable only so long as it does not challenge financial security. Generally, monetised societies impose a set of priorities which is not always in keeping with moral principles. For example, the monetary state-capitalist system on which the world is founded venerates economics, commerce and consumerism, which people must therefore also venerate in order to survive, which significantly reduces their ability to factor in moral decency and social justice. This, to me, is a fundamental explanation for why good people do bad things: the world compels them to behave that way, and offers few viable alternatives. Small wonder that some people become capable of propagandizing publics, and harnessing state power to design and implement campaigns of terror, when the world allows and even impels you to do so. Further, due to the hastening speed, multiplying responsibilities and growing atomization of life in our monetised world, people are vulnerable to being deceived by ongoing propaganda campaigns, providing another way in which the nature of life facilitates corruption, ongoing propaganda and atrocities. Moreover, if the propaganda stands without serious challenges for long enough it will eventually become an accepted reality, whereafter it’s even more difficult than before to convince people that they’re victims of propaganda and that their supposed and vaunted democracies aren’t as august as they suppose. These principles, I believe, explain why and how the kind of atrocities Herman and Chomsky document are committed, and are entirely consistent with the arguments for media propaganda systems that they outline in Manufacturing Consent.

Thus, I think that the world being monetised and the media becoming propaganda systems are the fundamental factors which enable and compel states to deceive and manipulate their populations in order to perpetrate, maintain and profit from some of the world’s great crimes. This can explain why good people allow governments to commit horrendous atrocities, such as the Indonesian genocide against East Timor, financed by the U.S. and done without objections from the American people who were never properly informed about it. Though it’s unpleasant to entertain that we’re deceived by the institutions of authority that we’re made to believe we can trust, it’s true nonetheless. Fortunately, though, while many democracies aren’t what they presume to be, the principles of democracy are enshrined in law, waiting to be utilised. Therefore, even though states and corporate institutions are amoral entities by nature, governments are legitimized by popular consent and corporations require support from populations to survive, meaning that they are both ultimately answerable to ordinary people. Thus, if publics are informed and organized, they can impose moral standards on powerful institutions, forcing them to commit to decent causes. And as publics can indeed be informed and organized – though slowly and arduously due to the effects of sophisticated, prolonged propaganda – the fundamental problem which Herman and Chomsky illustrates can certainly be addressed. This, I think, ought to be what we do to fight corruption and atrocities: disseminate information within our available media, seek out and join likeminded groups of people, and organise populations at large. This’ll seem slow and unavailing, but it’s the only way great moral victories have ever been achieved. In the end, the problems are daunting, but if we want to call ourselves good people, action’s required. We therefore can accept the tasks incumbent upon us or, as Chomsky says, “If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.”

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One thought on “‘Manufacturing consent’ and the nature of society

  1. Pingback: The Reality of Israel-Palestine: Part 1 | Matthew Williams-Spooner

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