An open space for global conversation
In 2004 a small group of young activist met with their invited guest in a small hall, somewhere in Hungary. The hall holds about 25-30 people, but on this occasion its packed with about 50, mainly young people. They'd come to ask their guest some individual questions about society and activism. In some two hours they asked their guest fourteen questions. This quiet unpublicised meeting was recorded by one of the activists on video and later edited into fourteen segments, each being a question and its answer. So far as I'm aware these fourteen segments are the only record of that meeting, and this blog is a verbatim transcription of the answer given to the tenth question, which was about the veracity or otherwise of movements of dissent when they had no ideology and no science upon which to base themselves.
Their guest answered the question thus -
“First of all I think we have to recognise that there never have been movements that were ideologically or scientifically based, they never existed. So the Marxist movements claim to be ideologically and scientifically based, but there was no science and there was no ideology, this was just a mass of authoritarianism. So what was the science or ideology in the Marxist movement for example?
I don't think you can find it. You can find a lot of pretension and there's a whole intellectual tradition of trying to discuss the science and so on, but its just not there. And the ideology basically was mostly 'just follow me'.
That's not much in the way of ideology.
The contemporary movements are I think much sounder in this respect, much more resilient. They don't have false beliefs or non existent ideologies or fake science. They vary so much that you can't really generalise about them but many of them are committed to very serious work on real issues.
Does that make them susceptible to control by centralised power?
I mean centralised power is not giving it up easily, they're going to fight back by every means they have, and there are many means. Marginalising people through directing them to consumption is a major means of control, and we shouldn't underestimate how extreme it is.
The United States is the most advanced country in this respect, because its the most free country. I mean its a credit to the American people that they're the most propagandised. The efforts to control them have to be much more extreme because there's so few ways (comparatively) to coerce people, thanks to previous triumphs.
But advertising in the United States, I mean it amazes me when you study how it works, if you're interested. For instance there's a a major field of Applied Psychology which is concerned with 'nagging' by children . . “
(he pauses to explain to his Hungarian audience that the term 'nagging' is when children keep on at their parents to do something which they (the children) want – and then he continues . .)
“So there's a field devoted to nagging, and there's a logic behind it. Corporations had been concerned for a long time about the fact that there's a big part of the population which couldn't purchase things, that doesn't have any money.
So there's a big mass of people who are children who you could somehow, by advertising, coerce into buying things, but they don't have any money, so you can't do it. Well a brilliant thought came to 'someone' that the way to do it is to get them to 'nag' their parents. So now they (the psychologists) have discovered around a dozen different kinds of nagging and so advertising for children is carefully designed and controlled to elicit the kind of nagging that might get the child to get their parents to buy whichever particular goods.
Incidentally the industry do not call them children, they're called?
So the question is then how to get evolving consumers to torture their parents into buying them something just to shut them up! (he gives examples of his own grandchildren seeing something propagandised on television which makes them believe they've got to have it or life comes to an end! And of course what it costs is of no concern to the children, after all what's money, parents have infinite amounts of it, so they nag.
Well these are techniques of control, and they start from infancy. I sometimes watch television with my grandchildren and from infancy they are deluged with propaganda which is aimed at making them perceive their own identity in terms of the number of goods that they have. There's nothing in your life except the goods that you have.
Actually if you watch American television programs, these have a very destructive effect in much of the world, especially in the third world, but even in Europe, and American television programs, you know, comedies and so on, they give a picture of life, which is designed of course to be like that. Its a picture of life in which nobody works, nobody has a job, nobody has problems, nobody's in jail, nobody's poor, everybody has everything you can imagine, the only problems you have are having problems with your girlfriend or something like that. That's life! And there are plenty of people who are seduced by that vision of life. You get plenty of people from all over the world who say well why can't I live like that, I have to work and I have all of these problems and so on. But they're not in that marvellous country, they don't have any of those things. Its not a picture of reality but it is a seductive picture and it affects children, it affects people around the world – and its a technique of control and its very carefully contrived. A huge amount of effort goes into this.
Are popular movements subjected to this?
Sure they are and they're subjected to enormous propaganda to make you feel your own individual - what are called 'rights' - which usually means right to consumption - is supreme, and nothing else exists. There are plenty of people within the popular movements who are quite often subject to the efforts to destroy any social organisation within the society, like say, schools. Public schools are a social commitment and are based upon the idea of solidarity. Public schools are based on the idea that you're supposed to care whether some child somewhere else can go to school – while you have, driven into your head, day after day, that you're only supposed to care about yourself, its none of your business if that kid across the street doesn't go to school. Its his problem or his parents problem, but you have no reason to pay taxes so someone else can do something - that's the government stealing money from you. That's presented as the government stealing your hard earned money to give away to someone and why should you agree to that. The amount of propaganda behind that is enormous and it affects people all over the place.
And there are other techniques of control. So for example since the 1960's there's now a lot of concern about controlling young people, students, student activism. One of the best ways of controlling people is to drive them into debt. So now, as distinct since the 1960's, when a student comes out of college they're often deeply in debt. Tony Blair knows exactly what he's doing when he's increasing tuition, demanding a tuition increase at British Universities. That's not for economic reasons, I mean he'd get way more than that by making corporations pay taxes instead of fleeing them – but it is a way of coercing students and if students have to pay tuition to get into schools, for one thing it has the obvious class effect, keeps out the poor students, but the other thing for those who do get in they're going to end up with a big debt burden. So suppose you graduate as a lawyer, let's say, and you decide you want to work on public interest law, environmental law or something. But you come out with a huge debt, and the only way to deal with it is to go work for some corporation and become a corporate lawyer, and then you get trapped into that and can't get away from it.
Those are techniques of coercion that constantly work, So sure, everything from that to 'the Iraqis are going to come and kill us' is a way of coercing people. In the United States for example, if you look at the economy for the last twenty-five years, just the internal economy, its a very unusual period in the American economy, in fact unique. Its the first time, aside from major depression , that there has been stagnant real incomes. So for about 90% of the population of the United States, and this is pretty much true in England too, real incomes, the actual money you have to buy things with, is either stagnant or declining. Also work hours are going up, so people work much harder, and they're much more insecure. That's a crucial part of the economy, to make people insecure and there's a name for it in the economics literature. Its called 'Linked Flexibility of Labour' and if you take an economics course they teach you that's a good thing, you should have flexible labour markets. Flexible labour markets is a phrase that means when you go to sleep at night you don't have to have a job the next morning. And that's good for the economy - because if you're insecure you're not going to try to get higher wages and you're not going to join the union and you're not going to do all those terrible things and you're not going to ask for benefits and that's healthy for the economy. And there's a way to say that in academic graduate school prose and there's a way to say it in simple words, but that's what it comes down to.
Well these are all techniques of control.
Are people subject to them?
You can't help it.
Will they break up the social movements?
That depends upon the commitment of the people who are in them. First of all they have to become aware of all these things, which is not so simple, and then you have to be willing to struggle against them – and to create alternatives.
But that's what social struggle is about” Chomsky. N. (2004)