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Chomsky: The Most Powerful Country in History Is Destroying the Earth and Human Rights as We Know Them

"Sophisticated westerners" are currently standing in the way of trying to find a sustainable and humane approach to organizing human life.

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The grim forecasts of the tragedy of the commons are not without challenge.  The late Elinor Olstrom won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for her work showing the superiority of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins.  But the conventional doctrine has force if we accept its unstated premise: that humans are blindly driven by what American workers, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, bitterly called “the New Spirit of the Age, Gain Wealth forgetting all but Self.”

Like peasants and workers in England before them, American workers denounced this New Spirit, which was being imposed upon them, regarding it as demeaning and destructive, an assault on the very nature of free men and women.  And I stress women; among those most active and vocal in condemning the destruction of the rights and dignity of free people by the capitalist industrial system were the “factory girls,” young women from the farms.  They, too, were driven into the regime of supervised and controlled wage labor, which was regarded at the time as different from chattel slavery only in that it was temporary.  That stand was considered so natural that it became a slogan of the Republican Party, and a banner under which northern workers carried arms during the American Civil War.

Controlling the Desire for Democracy

That was 150 years ago -- in England earlier.  Huge efforts have been devoted since to inculcating the New Spirit of the Age.  Major industries are devoted to the task: public relations, advertising, marketing generally, all of which add up to a very large component of the Gross Domestic Product.  They are dedicated to what the great political economist Thorstein Veblen called “fabricating wants.” In the words of business leaders themselves, the task is to direct people to “the superficial things” of life, like “fashionable consumption.” That way people can be atomized, separated from one another, seeking personal gain alone, diverted from dangerous efforts to think for themselves and challenge authority.

The process of shaping opinion, attitudes, and perceptions was termed the “engineering of consent” by one of the founders of the modern public relations industry, Edward Bernays.  He was a respected Wilson-Roosevelt-Kennedy progressive, much like his contemporary, journalist Walter Lippmann, the most prominent public intellectual of twentieth century America, who praised “the manufacture of consent” as a “new art” in the practice of democracy. 

Both recognized that the public must be “put in its place,” marginalized and controlled -- for their own interests of course.  They were too “stupid and ignorant” to be allowed to run their own affairs.  That task was to be left to the “intelligent minority,” who must be protected from “the trampling and the roar of [the] bewildered herd,” the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” -- the “rascal multitude” as they were termed by their seventeenth century predecessors.  The role of the general population was to be “spectators,” not “participants in action,” in a properly functioning democratic society.

And the spectators must not be allowed to see too much.  President Obama has set new standards in safeguarding this principle.  He has, in fact,  punished more whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined, a real achievement for an administration that came to office promising transparency. WikiLeaks is only the most famous case, with British cooperation.

Among the many topics that are not the business of the bewildered herd is foreign affairs.  Anyone who has studied declassified secret documents will have discovered that, to a large extent, their classification was meant to protect public officials from public scrutiny.  Domestically, the rabble should not hear the advice given by the courts to major corporations: that they should devote some highly visible efforts to good works, so that an “aroused public” will not discover the enormous benefits provided to them by the nanny state.  More generally the U.S. public should not learn that “state policies are overwhelmingly regressive, thus reinforcing and expanding social inequality,” though designed in ways that lead “people to think that the government helps only the undeserving poor, allowing politicians to mobilize and exploit anti-government rhetoric and values even as they continue to funnel support to their better-off constituents” -- I’m  quoting from the main establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, not from some radical rag.