Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
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Chapter Three

The Bounds of the Expressible

While recognizing that there is rarely anything strictly new under the sun, still we can identify some moments when traditional ideas are reshaped, a new consciousness crystallizes, and the opportunities that lie ahead appear in a new light. Fabrication of necessary illusions for social management is as old as history, but the year 1917 might be seen as a transition point in the modern period. The Bolshevik revolution gave concrete expression to the Leninist conception of the radical intelligentsia as the vanguard of social progress, exploiting popular struggles to gain state power and to impose the rule of the "Red bureaucracy" of Bakunin's forebodings. This they proceeded at once to do, dismantling factory councils, Soviets, and other forms of popular organization so that the population could be effectively mobilized into a "labor army" under the control of far-sighted leaders who would drive the society forward -- with the best intentions, of course. To this end, the mechanisms of Agitprop are fundamental; even a totalitarian state of the Hitler or Stalin variety relies on mass mobilization and voluntary submission.

One notable doctrine of Soviet propaganda is that the elimination by Lenin and Trotsky of any vestige of control over production by producers and of popular involvement in determining social policy constitutes a triumph of socialism. The purpose of this exercise in Newspeak is to exploit the moral appeal of the ideals that were being successfully demolished. Western propaganda leaped to the same opportunity, identifying the dismantling of socialist forms as the establishment of socialism, so as to undermine left-libertarian ideals by associating them with the practices of the grim Red bureaucracy. To this day, both systems of propaganda adopt the terminology, for their different purposes. When both major world systems of propaganda are in accord, it is unusually difficult for the individual to escape their tentacles. The blow to freedom and democracy throughout the world has been immense.

In the same year, 1917, John Dewey's circle of liberal pragmatists took credit for guiding a pacifist population to war "under the influence of a moral verdict reached after the utmost deliberation by the more thoughtful members of the community,...a class which must be comprehensively but loosely described as the `intellectuals'," who, they held, had "accomplished...the effective and decisive work on behalf of the war."1 This achievement, or at least the self-perception articulated, had broad consequences. Dewey, the intellectual mentor, explained that this "psychological and educational lesson" had proven "that it is possible for human beings to take hold of human affairs and manage them." The "human beings" who had learned the lesson were "the intelligent men of the community," Lippmann's "specialized class," Niebuhr's "cool observers." They must now apply their talents and understanding "to bring about a better reorganized social order," by planning, persuasion, or force where necessary; but, Dewey insisted, only the "refined, subtle and indirect use of force," not the "coarse, obvious and direct methods" employed prior to the "advance of knowledge." The sophisticated resort to force is justified if it satisfies the requirement of "comparative efficiency and economy in its use." The newly articulated doctrines of "manufacture of consent" were a natural concomitant, and in later years we were to hear much of "technocratic and policy-oriented intellectuals" who transcend ideology and will solve the remaining social problems by rational application of scientific principles.2

Since that time, the main body of articulate intellectuals have tended towards one or the other of these poles, avoiding "democratic dogmatisms" about people understanding their own interests and remaining cognizant of the "stupidity of the average man" and his need to be led to the better world that his superiors plan for him. A move from one to the other pole can be quite rapid and painless, since no fundamental change of doctrine or value is at stake, only an assessment of the opportunities for attaining power and privilege: riding a wave of popular struggle, or serving established authority as social or ideological manager. The conventional "God that failed" transition from Leninist enthusiasms to service to state capitalism can, I believe, be explained in substantial measure in these terms. Though there were authentic elements in the early stages, it has long since degenerated to ritualistic farce. Particularly welcome, and a sure ticket to success, is the fabrication of an evil past. Thus, the confessed sinner might describe how he cheered the tanks in the streets of Prague, supported Kim Il Sung, denounced Martin Luther King as a sellout, and so on, so that those who have not seen the light are implicitly tarred with the brush.3 With the transition accomplished, the path to prestige and privilege is open, for the system values highly those who have seen the error of their ways and can now condemn independent minds as Stalinist-style apologists, on the basis of the superior insight gained from their misspent youth. Some may choose to become "experts" in the style candidly articulated by Henry Kissinger, who defined the "expert" as a person skilled in "elaborating and defining [the]...consensus [of]...his constituency," those who "have a vested interest in commonly held opinions: elaborating and defining its consensus at a high level has, after all, made him an expert."4

A generation later, the United States and the Soviet Union had become the superpowers of the first truly global system, realizing the expectations of Alexander Herzen and others a century before, though the dimensions of their power were never comparable and both have been declining in their capacity to influence and coerce for some years. The two models of the role of the intellectuals persist, similar at their root, adapted to the two prevailing systems of hierarchy and domination. Correspondingly, systems of indoctrination vary, depending on the capacity of the state to coerce and the modalities of effective control. The more interesting system is that of capitalist democracy, relying on the free market -- guided by direct intervention where necessary -- to establish conformity and marginalize the "special interests."

The primary targets of the manufacture of consent are those who regard themselves as "the more thoughtful members of the community," the "intellectuals," the "opinion leaders." An official of the Truman administration remarked that "It doesn't make too much difference to the general public what the details of a program are. What counts is how the plan is viewed by the leaders of the community"; he "who mobilizes the elite, mobilizes the public," one scholarly study of public opinion concludes. The "`public opinion' that Truman and his advisers took seriously, and diligently sought to cultivate," was that of the elite of "opinion leaders," the "foreign policy public," diplomatic historian Thomas Paterson observes5; and the same is true consistently, apart from moments when a "crisis of democracy" must be overcome and more vigorous measures are required to relegate the general public to its proper place. At other times they can be satisfied, it is hoped, with diversions and a regular dose of patriotic propaganda, and fulminations against assorted enemies who endanger their lives and homes unless their leaders stand fast against the threat.

In the democratic system, the necessary illusions cannot be imposed by force. Rather, they must be instilled in the public mind by more subtle means. A totalitarian state can be satisfied with lesser degrees of allegiance to required truths. It is sufficient that people obey; what they think is a secondary concern. But in a democratic political order, there is always the danger that independent thought might be translated into political action, so it is important to eliminate the threat at its root.

Debate cannot be stilled, and indeed, in a properly functioning system of propaganda, it should not be, because it has a system-reinforcing character if constrained within proper bounds. What is essential is to set the bounds firmly. Controversy may rage as long as it adheres to the presuppositions that define the consensus of elites, and it should furthermore be encouraged within these bounds, thus helping to establish these doctrines as the very condition of thinkable thought while reinforcing the belief that freedom reigns.

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1 New Republic, April 7, 1917.

2 For quotes, references, and background, see my Towards a New Cold War, chapter 1, and sources cited.

3 For some examples, see Manufacturing Consent, 343n.

4 American Foreign Policy (Norton, 1969).

5 Thomas Paterson, Meeting the Communist Threat (Oxford, 1988, 82-83), quoting a Truman official and political scientist Gabriel Almond.