Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
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The five chapters that follow are modified versions of the five 1988 Massey lectures I delivered over Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio in November 1988. These lectures suggest certain conclusions about the functioning of the most advanced democratic systems of the modern era, and particularly, about the ways in which thought and understanding are shaped in the interests of domestic privilege. Following these five chapters are appendices that are intended to serve, in effect, as extended footnotes amplifying some of the points raised, separated from the text so as not to obscure too much the continuity of the discussion. There is an appendix, divided into sections, for each chapter. Each section is identified by the part of the text to which it serves as an addendum. These appendices should be regarded merely as a sample. As references indicate, some of the topics touched upon in the text and appendices are explored in further detail elsewhere. Many of them merit serious research projects.

The issues that arise are rooted in the nature of Western industrial societies and have been debated since their origins. In capitalist democracies there is a certain tension with regard to the locus of power. In a democracy the people rule, in principle. But decision-making power over central areas of life resides in private hands, with large-scale effects throughout the social order. One way to resolve the tension would be to extend the democratic system to investment, the organization of work, and so on. That would constitute a major social revolution, which, in my view at least, would consummate the political revolutions of an earlier era and realize some of the libertarian principles on which they were partly based. Or the tension could be resolved, and sometimes is, by forcefully eliminating public interference with state and private power. In the advanced industrial societies the problem is typically approached by a variety of measures to deprive democratic political structures of substantive content, while leaving them formally intact. A large part of this task is assumed by ideological institutions that channel thought and attitudes within acceptable bounds, deflecting any potential challenge to established privilege and authority before it can take form and gather strength. The enterprise has many facets and agents. I will be primarily concerned with one aspect: thought control, as conducted through the agency of the national media and related elements of the elite intellectual culture.

There is, in my opinion, much too little inquiry into these matters. My personal feeling is that citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for more meaningful democracy. It is this concern that motivates the material that follows, and much of the work cited in the course of the discussion.

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