Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. November 2003
  Plenum | Plenary Session | Séance plénière  DEUTSCH | ENGLISH | FRANCAIS

Collateral Language

Noam Chomsky (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)


Language is the way we interact and communicate, so, naturally, the means of communication and the conceptual background that's behind it, which is more important, are used to try to shape attitudes and opinions and induce conformity and subordination. Not surprisingly, it was created in the more democratic societies.

The first coordinated propaganda ministry, called the Ministry of Information, was in Britain during World War I. It had the task, as they put it, of controlling the mind of the world. What they were particularly concerned with was the mind of America and, more specifically, the mind of American intellectuals. They thought if they could convince American intellectuals of the nobility of the British war effort, then American intellectuals could succeed in driving the basically pacifist population of the United States, which didn't want to have anything to do with European wars, rightly, into a fit of fanaticism and hysteria, which would get them to join the war. Britain needed U.S. backing, so Britain had its Ministry of Information aimed primarily at American opinion and opinion leaders. The Wilson administration reacted by setting up the first state propaganda agency here, called the Committee on Public Information.

It succeeded brilliantly, mainly with liberal American intellectuals, people of the John Dewey circle, who actually took pride in the fact that for the first time in history, according to their picture, a wartime fanaticism was created, and not by military leaders and politicians but by the more responsible, serious members of the community, namely, thoughtful intellectuals. And they did organize a campaign of propaganda, which within a few months did succeed in turning a relatively pacifist population into raving anti-German fanatics who wanted to destroy everything German. It reached the point where the Boston Symphony Orchestra couldn't play Bach. The country was driven into hysteria.

The members of Wilson's propaganda agency included people like Edward Bernays, who became the guru of the public relations industry, and Walter Lippmann, the leading public intellectual of the 20th century, the most respected media figure. They very explicitly drew from that experience. If you look at their writings in the 1920s, they said, we have learned from this that you can control the public mind, you can control attitudes and opinions. That's where Lippmann said, "We can manufacture consent by the means of propaganda." Bernays said, "The more intelligent members of the community can drive the population into whatever they want" by what he called "engineering of consent." It's the "essence of democracy," he said.

It also led to the rise of the public relations industry. It's interesting to look at the thinking in the 1920s, when it got started. This was the period of Taylorism in industry, when workers were being trained to become robots, every motion controlled. It created highly efficient industry, with human beings turned into automata. The Bolsheviks were very impressed with it, too. They tried to duplicate it. In fact, they tried throughout the world. But the thought-control experts realized that you could not only have what was called on-job control but also off-job control. It's their phrase. Control them off job by inducing a philosophy of futility, focusing people on the superficial things of life, like fashionable consumption, and basically get them out of our hair. Let the people who are supposed to run the show do it without any interference from the mass of the population, who have no business in the public arena. From that come enormous industries, ranging from advertising to universities, all committed very consciously to the conception that you must control attitudes and opinions because the people are just too dangerous.

It's particularly striking that it developed in the more democratic societies. They tried to duplicate it in Germany and Bolshevik Russia and South Africa and elsewhere. But it was always quite explicitly a mostly American model. There is a good reason for that. If you can control people by force, it's not so important to control what they think and feel. But if you lose the capacity to control people by force, it becomes more necessary to control attitudes and opinions.

That brings us right up to the present. By now the public is no longer willing to accept state propaganda agencies, so the Reagan Office of Public Diplomacy was declared illegal and had to go in roundabout ways. What took over instead was private tyrannies, basically, corporate systems, which play the role of controlling opinion and attitudes, not taking orders from the government, but closely linked to it, of course. That's our contemporary system. Extremely self-conscious. You don't have to speculate much about what they're doing because they're kind enough to tell you in industry publications and also in the academic literature.

So you go to, say, the 1930s, perhaps the founder of a good bit of modern political science. A liberal Wilsonian, Harold Lasswell, in 1933 wrote an article called "Propaganda" in the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, a major publication, in which the message was, "We should not [all of these are quotes, incidentally] succumb to democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests." They're not, we are. And since people are too stupid and ignorant to understand their best interests, for their own benefit because we're great humanitarians we must marginalize and control them. The best means is propaganda. There is nothing negative about propaganda, he said. It's as neutral as a pump handle. You can use it for good or for evil. And since we're noble, wonderful people, we'll use it for good, to ensure that the stupid, ignorant masses remain marginalized and separated from any decision-making capacity.

The Leninist doctrines are approximately the same. There are very close similarities. The Nazis also picked it up. If you read Mein Kampf, Hitler was very impressed with Anglo-American propaganda. He argued, not without reason, that that's what won World War I and vowed that next time around the Germans would be ready, too, and developed their own propaganda systems modeled on the democracies. The Russians tried it, but it was too crude to be effective. South Africa used it; others, right up to the present. But the real forefront is the United States, because it's the most free and democratic society, and it's just much more important to control attitudes and opinions.

You can read it in the New York Times. They ran an interesting article about Karl Rove, the president's manager basically his minder, the one who teaches him what to say and do. It describes what Karl Rove is doing now. He was not directly involved in the war planning, but neither was Bush. This was in the hands of other people. But his goal, he says, is to present the president as a powerful wartime leader, aimed at the next presidential election, so that the Republicans can push through their domestic agenda, which is what he concentrates on, which means tax cuts they say for the economy, but they mean for the rich tax cuts and other programs which he doesn't bother enumerating, but which are designed to benefit an extremely small sector of the ultra-wealthy and privileged and will have the effect of harming the mass of the population. But more significant than that it's not outlined in the article is to try to destroy the institutional basis for social support systems, try to eliminate things like schools and Social Security and anything that is based on the conception that people have to have some concern for one another. That's a horrible idea, which has to be driven out of people's minds. The idea that you should have sympathy and solidarity, you should care whether the disabled widow across town is able to eat, that has to be driven out of people's minds.

We thank Noam Chomsky, Z-Net and the Interviewer David Barsamian.

© Noam Chomsky (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Plenum | Plenary Session | Séance plénière

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu

For quotation purposes:
Noam Chomsky (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Collateral Language. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003.

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 20.11.2003     INST