On Freedom of Press and Culture

An interview with Noam Chomsky

by Nikos Raptis and Takis Fotopoulos



1Q: You have frequently stated in the past that you consider the USA as the freest society on earth in the sense, for instance, that (as a result of past struggles) the right of free speech is today more protected in the USA than in any other country on earth. Marxists used to dismiss this kind of freedoms as a kind of formal freedoms, following Marx for whom “equal right is still a bourgeois right” in the sense that it presupposes inequality. On the other hand, some anarchists similarly used to dismiss such freedoms on the grounds that they are derived from institutions of power. In view of today’s absolute control of the mass media by economic and political elites, which you accurately described in Manufacturing Consent, what meaning can we assign to the right of free speech in the USA and particularly to the freedom of press when, at the same time, every really dissenting voice from the prevailing consensus is effectively denied access to the mass media and is silenced or marginalised? What do you think of the view that the freedom of press is in fact a fagade which, though arguably meaningless for the vast majority of people, is very significant for the elites in manufacturing consent and generally in covering their real role in reproducing the ideology of an exploitative and hierarchical society?

A: For clarity, we should distinguish freedom of speech from freedom of the press. Thus even if freedom of press were a facade, freedom of speech would be worth defending and expanding. And I think it is a fact, and an important one, that by comparative measures the US has achieved high standards in protecting freedom of speech.

As for freedom of the press, while there is no doubt that the extreme concentration of economic-political power has an overwhelming influence on the mass media (and every other aspect of life), I would not want to call it “absolute control.” Even in a totalitarian state or military dictatorship or slave society, control is never absolute. In societies like ours, freedom of press is far from just a facade. There are many possibilities to pressure the media, and there are openings within them. There are also many other options beyond the mass media, some of which have been exploited very effectively.

One recent and instructive illustration is the Multilateral Agreement on Investments. The MAI was negotiated at the OECD for almost 3 years, effectively in secret thanks to the complicity of the major media, which surely knew about the plans and understood their significance. The basic facts were accurately captured by a headline in “Business Week” early this year: “The Explosive Trade Deal You’ve Never Heard Of.” It was indeed “explosive,” and the population had indeed “never heard of it.” Activists and grassroots organizations were finally able to unearth information, to circulate it and to organize opposition. That reached such a scale that the major power centers, state and private, were compelled to put the project aside, to their great distress. They were overwhelmed by a “horde of vigilantes,” as the grim outcome was reported in the international financial press. It also quoted the concerns of “veteran trade diplomats” that with “growing demands for greater openness and accountability,” it is becoming “harder for negotiators to do deals behind closed doors and submit them for rubber-stamping by parliaments”; they now “face pressure to gain wider popular legitimacy for their actions by explaining and defending them in public,” a task they naturally dread. Of course, this is a “defensive victory,” and only a partial one: the institutions of power will seek other ways to achieve similar ends. But it is nonetheless a very significant victory. The corporate world understands that well, and popular forces should also understand what they have achieved, even with extremely limited resources and coordination. That is only one example, of many.

It is important to emphasize, as you do, the role of educated elites “in reproducing the ideology of an exploitative and hierarchical society.” Understanding that is a prerequisite to constructive action—and for that, opportunities are many.

I am also uneasy about dismissal of “bourgeois rights” and rights “derived from institutions of power.” The rights that have been won by popular struggle are, necessarily, embedded within the existing society—“bourgeois society,” if one likes, with its specific institutions of power. But these rights are not insignificant. Furthermore, they are not “derived” from the institutions of power. However flawed, these rights were won by struggle AGAINST those institutions. The partial victories and the rights that have been won should be cherished, not scorned; and greatly extended, as part of the dismantling of illegitimate institutions.

Turning to the US, the power of the state to coerce is limited, by comparative standards, at least for those with some share in privilege—a large majority of the population in a very rich society. That is a primary reason, I think, why control of opinion and attitudes has been honed to such a high art. One can trace the thinking back to the origins of the country, and they have taken new forms as civil and political rights were won— not granted. That has been well-understood by the “experts in manipulation.” One of the founders of the modern public relations industry, Edward Bernays, reminded his associates that with “universal suffrage and universal schooling, at last even the bourgeoisie stood in fear of the common people, for the masses promised to become king”—a tendency that the industry has labored to reverse with new methods “to mold the mind of the masses.”

Private power can coerce and control, but in indirect ways. An aroused public can bring about significant changes in the functioning of power systems, and has often done so. That includes the mass media. The ferment of the 1960s, for example, had a noticeable effect on the way they operated, and they became considerably more open and responsive as a result. The relative weakness of means of real coercion opens all sorts of opportunities, as does the very wealth of the society and also new technologies. Again, there are major efforts on the part of institutions of power to restrict the opportunities, but that is no reason for despair, any more than it ever has been in the past

2Q: If we accept that ownership of mass media and particularly radio and television is crucially important with respect to freedom of information and freedom of speech generally and that, as History has amply shown, neither state ownership nor capitalist ownership can secure this freedom what are the alternatives? What could the role of the media be in the society of your vision, as touched upon in your last book, “Power and Prospects”?

A: The alternative to state or private power is democracy. Really functioning democracy presupposes relative equality, a truism as far back as Aristotle. It also requires the dissolution of concentrated power, state or private. Like other institutions, the media should be under the control of the workforce and the communities in which they function. They should be as varied as the interests and concerns of the general population, and should also seek to extend and deepen those interests and concerns: to challenge and to explore, to both offer and stimulate popular participation.

As for detailed plans for “the society of our vision,” I have always been somewhat skeptical, and remain so. We have only limited understanding of human affairs and human potentialities. We can learn about ourselves and others by imaginative exploration and experiment, which should be encouraged. Some of these experiments seem to me really inspiring. For example, a few years ago I had a chance to see community-organized TV in public squares in very poor and working class areas in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The programs were written, directed, and acted by local residents, and there was lively participation by the audience. The successes, which seemed to me very real, were achieved after a series of failed efforts, something that should not be at all surprising. We can expect the same with other models. We should look forward to it in fact, since that is the only way to gain insight into our own inner natures and the possibilities for meaningful liberation.

3Q: How do you see the transition to a society of democratically controlled media? The question takes a particular topical significance today in view of the fact that it is now obvious that small collectives, although doing an admirable job in creating alternative networks of information, are hopelessly and inevitably inadequate in fighting back the huge economic organizations which control today’s mass media. Shall we just continue supporting these efforts, or shall we perhaps direct our striving towards integrating such attempts in a struggle to build a new political and social movement that will fight for alternative systems of social organization, beyond the totalitarian control of the economy and of mass media in statism, and also beyond the oligarchic control of them in a market economy?

A: It seems to me that the possibilities you describe are all worth pursuing, and should not be regarded as alternatives. We should support small collectives, help them to grow and flourish and form broader associations with others, in the longer term to displace the institutions that are dedicated to “control of the public mind.” At the same time, we should be taking part in popular movements that seek to construct forms of social organization that are more free and more just. Individuals will of course have their own priorities. Time is finite. Abilities and interests are diverse, fortunately for all of us. But these are not conflicting goals; rather, mutually supportive efforts, all of which should proceed.

4Q: The word “culture” seems to have a rather “broader” meaning in your writings and lectures than in mainstream use, since you emphasize the political, social and intellectual dimensions of it. Could you elaborate a bit on this?

A:  I am not aware of using the term “culture” in any special way, but I certainly would want to emphasize political, social and intellectual dimensions.

5Q: What in your opinion is the relationship between class and culture? Can the elites force their culture on the rest of society?

A:  Continuing to use the word “culture” in the broad sense, I think it might be misleading to say that elites want to impose their own culture on the rest of society. The political culture of elites is active and participatory. They want the great majority to be passive, apathetic, marginalized, and obedient, diverted to insignificant concerns. The social and intellectual culture of the elites is to be rich and rewarding. The great majority are to understand that their lives are basically worthless. They must be taught to perceive their needs in terms of consumption of goods rather than quality of life and work. In the 1920s, business leaders explained (to one another) that they must act to “nullify the customs of the ages,” much as the enclosure movement had done in England centuries earlier. That has been a major goal of the advertising industry in particular, but of doctrinal institutions generally. And understandably so. How else can they overcome the threat of democracy and freedom, with the decline of measures of direct coercion.

6Q: A related question refers to the debasing of culture as a result of its commercialization in a market economy. Dennis Potter, the late British TV playwright, used to say that he would never have been able to reach the public had he not been given the opportunity by a state-owned channel (BBC) which supported pioneering works-something that private owned channels would rarely-if ever-will attempt to do. The trivilisation and debasement of world culture, as a result of the present monopolization of the production and distribution networks by US privately owned conglomerates, may be taken as a clear vindication of this view. What do you think are the chances for the creation of an alternative culture in a capitalist society?

A: I doubt that US conglomerates are different from others. For example, I have been told that Brazilian soap operas, which dominate a good part of the Latin American market, are perhaps even more ridiculous than the US ones.

As for alternatives within a capitalist society, the possibilities depend on the usual factors: how people make use of available opportunities, which are rich—including the opportunity to dismantle the coercive institutions of existing state capitalist societies.

7Q: A question following the previous one is, assuming that the creation of an alternative culture is possible, how do you see the way to create it. Idealists used to believe in the past -a belief still held today by many people in the ecology movement-that even with no change in the existing institutional framework, a change in culture is still possible. The alternative view is that a new culture can only be seen as part of an interactive process of attempting to create alternative institutions within the present society, which will be intrinsically linked with alternative values. What is your opinion on this?

A: I do not personally regard the hope for change in culture within existing institutional frameworks as “idealist.” That has happened throughout history, including our own lifetimes, sometimes to very good effect. Such changes have often formed part of conscious efforts to undermine and displace the existing frameworks. Bakunin was surely right in calling for efforts to create the elements of a future society within the present one. Values and institutions change in complex and intricate ways. There are no simple formulas, at least none that I know of. To be more exact, there are simple formulas, but they are typically and probably intrinsically formulas for establishment of new forms of coercion and domination.

8Q: A very recent phenomenon emanating from religious movements in the USA is the proliferation of Christian TV networks etc in the West, whereas in countries like Greece there is a similar enhancement of religious frenzy promoted by the media, especially the state-owned TV channels. Why does this phenomenon appear now? Is it just that the collapse of state socialism has created an ideological vacuum that religious movements rush to fill, or do you think that this phenomenon represents a conscious attempt by the US (and other elites) to control the population in view of the explosion of inequality that the internationalization of the market economy implies?

A: The collapse of “state socialism” should have been welcomed by the left as an important victory, which eliminated barriers to authentic socialism. It is not worthwhile to spend much time debating traditional terminology, and perhaps it has all been so debased that it should be abandoned. But if the term “socialism” meant anything at all, it at least implied control over production by producers and elimination of wage labor. There wasn’t even a trace of this in the so-called “state socialist” societies, not to speak of elementary freedoms that had been won elsewhere.

I do not think that the proliferation of religious fanaticism can be understood as the consequence of the collapse of the “state socialist” societies. The timing alone shows that. In the US, religious extremism has always been a powerful force, and there has been no noticeable change relating to events in the Soviet Union, China, or the international arena generally. Its roots lie elsewhere, and the state plays little role. The business world has always been ambivalent. It has sometimes sponsored fundamentalist tendencies as part of the effort to marginalize and divert the general public. But it also fears these tendencies. Corporate elites tend to be what is called “liberal” with regard to social and cultural issues. They also demand a powerful and interventionist state. They did not hide their concerns when a ultra-right wave sought to dominate Congress in 1994, with ideas about a “revolution” that would attack “big government” and institute religious fundamentalist values. The upstarts were quickly made to understand that their electoral victories would not make it possible for them to introduce significant policy changes, and before long they retreated, with considerable dismay, as they learned the facts of life.

In Latin America, the growth of evangelical movements has been related to the success of Washington’s murderous wars against the Latin American Church after it broke sharply from its oppressive history and adopted “the preferential option for the poor” in the 1960s. A conference organized by Central American Jesuits a few years ago concluded, very plausibly, that the long-term effect of the “culture of terror” has been “to domesticate the expectations of the majority with regard to alternatives different from those of the powerful.” The violent crushing of hope can lead to the growth of irrational cults. In Latin America these have also been sponsored with extensive funding and manipulation from fundamentalist groups in the US. In the Islamic world and India, the rise of fundamentalism on the ashes of secular nationalism is in some ways similar.

Throughout, there are indigenous sources. There are substantial differences in origins and development, and a good deal of historical specificity. I think one should be wary of far-reaching generalizations.

9Q: Finally, how do you see the present homogenization of culture, where cities become more and more alike, people all over the world listen to the same music, watch the same TV operas on TV, buy the same brands of consumer goods etc? Do you think that this phenomenon is related to the liberalization and deregulation of markets and its by-product, globalization, and, if so, is homogenization reversible within the framework of the market economy?

A: The particular kinds of “globalization” that are being instituted are surely a major factor in the very visible homogenization of culture. But counterforces are also quite visible. In Europe, for example, there has been a significant growth of regional cultures, and pressures for devolution to a “Europe of the regions,” probably in part a reaction to the centralizing forces of the European Union and the “democratic deficit” that follows from them. Religious fundamentalism is also in part a reaction to homogenization of culture and centralization of power, and there are other manifestations— some healthy I think, others sometimes ugly.

The specific form of administered markets that largely prevails is an unstable structure. Its own most dedicated enthusiasts are greatly concerned that it might collapse. The vast increase in the power of financial capital has been recognized as a “crisis” in past months because it is now threatening the interests of the rich and powerful, not just the usual victims. The ideological pretenses of the past few years are being challenged in high places, as the problems hit home. The effects are no more stable or permanent than the institutional structures themselves.

The record of prediction in human affairs is hardly very impressive; in reality, it is often comical. In part this is because human affairs are so poorly understood. In part it is because one crucial factor escapes the realm of prediction: human will. Claims about “inevitability” or “irreversibility” or “historical laws” should be regarded with considerable skepticism, to put it mildly. It is understable that concentrations of power should seek to induce feelings of helplessness and resignation in the face of historical forces beyond our control. One can choose to succumb to these pressures, but it is a choice, not a necessity by any means.