Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.
At this point we find ourselves confronted by a very disquieting question: Do we really wish to act upon our knowledge? Does a majority of the population think it worth while to take a good deal of trouble, in order to halt and, if possible, reverse the current drift toward totalitarian control of everything?
In the United States and America is the prophetic image of the rest of the urban-industrial world as it will be a few years from now -- recent public opinion polls have revealed that an actual majority of young people in their teens, the voters of tomorrow, have no faith in democratic institutions, see no objection to the censorship of unpopular ideas, do not believe that government of the people by the people is possible and would be perfectly content, if they can continue to live in the style to which the boom has accustomed them, to be ruled, from above, by an oligarchy of assorted experts. That so many of the well-fed young television-watchers in the world's most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent, is distressing, but not too surprising.
"Free as a bird," we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unrestricted movement in all the three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo. Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded. Something analogous is true of human beings. If the bread is supplied regularly and copiously three times a day, many of them will be perfectly content to live by bread alone -- or at least by bread and circuses alone.
Considering how little they knew and how poorly they were equipped, the Grand Inquisitors of earlier times did remarkably well. But their successors, the well-informed, thoroughly scientific dictators of the future will undoubtedly be able to do a great deal better. The Grand Inquisitor reproaches Christ with having called upon men to be free and tells Him that "we have corrected Thy work and founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority."
But miracle, mystery and authority are not enough to guarantee the indefinite survival of a dictatorship. In my fable of Brave New World, the dictators had added science to the list and thus were able to enforce their authority by manipulating the bodies of embryos, the reflexes of infants and the minds of children and adults. And, instead of merely talking about miracles and hinting symbolically at mysteries, they were able, by means of drugs, to give their subjects the direct experience of mysteries and miracles -- to transform mere faith into ecstatic knowledge.
The older dictators fell because they could never supply their subjects with enough bread, enough circuses, enough miracles and mysteries. Nor did they possess a really effective system of mind-manipulation. In the past, free-thinkers and revolutionaries were often the products of the most piously orthodox education. This is not surprising. The methods employed by orthodox educators were and still are extremely inefficient. Under a scientific dictator education will really work -- with the result that most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution. There seems to be no good reason why a thoroughly scientific dictatorship should ever be overthrown.
Meanwhile there is still some freedom left in the world. Many young people, it is true, do not seem to value freedom. But some of us still believe that, without freedom, human beings cannot become fully human and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them.
But when they plunder from these miners, these children, my fellow citizens, countrymen, thrown out on the highways and mother insulted — do you think that they will be good citizens when they grow up? I don't. The revenge and resentment will be buried there if they grow into manhood, it will develop, they will kill, they will murder to get even with those who robbed them. I want you to stop that. I don't want it to go on. Your Governor may, but I don't. I want the children to have the best of influence, I want the children to have good schooling, I want women to know nothing but what is good, I want to leave to this nation a nobler manhood and greater womanhood. Can I do it? No, I can't, boys, with the administration you have got, I can't do it.
I can do it if you men and women will stand together, find out the seat of the disease and pull it up by the roots.
Take possession of that state house, that ground is yours. (Someone interrupted, and the speaker said "Shut your mouth.")
You built that state house, didn't you? You pay the public officials, don't you? You paid for that ground, didn't you? (Cries of: "Yes," "yes.")
Then, who does it belong to? Then why did the militia chase you off? You have been hypnotized. The trouble has been that they wanted the slave system to continue. They have had a glass for you and your wives and children to look into. They have you hypnotized.
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."Column in Newsweek (21 January 1980)
The way to overcome this situation is to create real political parties. To have real political parties, the people must participate and make decisions, not just come together every four years to pull a lever. That is not politics. It is the opposite of politics. If you have mass popular organizations that are functioning all the time - at local, regional, and international levels - then you have at least the basis for democracy. Such organizations existed here in the past.
Before the US invaded Iraq, when the President was talking about mushroom clouds and the Secretary of State delivered a PowerPoint about bio-weapons to the United Nations, I gave our leaders the benefit of the doubt.
Surely the military, the CIA, the NSA, the NRO, and the President must have secret information they cannot share with the public to justify the horrors of war.
Turns out I was wrong. It was a pack of lies, half-truths and poorly-substantiated rumors to justify a predetermined agenda.
After the 2007-2008 financial meltdown, when the President and the Secretary of the Treasury threatened the end of the world as we know it if the richest corporations aren't given direct cash infusions, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.
Surely our elected officials would never directly transfer hundreds of billions of dollars to the richest of the rich unless the alternative was truly grave.
Turns out I was wrong. It was a pack of lies, half-truths and poorly-substantiated rumors to transfer wealth from working people to the ownership class on an unprecedented scale.
So when the President stands before us today and speaks for 45 minutes without saying anything of consequence, without providing any evidence that the threat is so dire, so imminent, so cataclysmic that we must relinquish our freedoms to preserve our freedoms, I can no longer give him the benefit of the doubt.
No more vague threats. No more fear. No more intimidation. No more secrecy. These are fatal to a political system that relies on an informed citizenry.
You have to remember that in democratic societies citizens talking with each other is very important. We've lost a lot of that with the mass media. Now we have an opportunity for citizens to create their own communications with each other. So when these big deals with the big companies and the big governments carve up this new territory, I feel it's very important that we keep a kind of "social green belt", that we keep the ability for citizens to talk amongst each other.
Secrecy has nothing to do with democracy. It kills it. (And that seems to be the goal, lately.)
I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please; and if they can but prevail to get these contrivances established by the show of public authority, which is considered as the representative of the whole people, then they are accounted laws."Utopia" (1517)
Those captive to images cast ballots based on how candidates make them feel. They vote for a slogan, a smile, perceived sincerity, and attractiveness, along with the carefully crafted personal narrative of the candidate. It is style and story, not content and fact, that inform mass politics."Empire of Illusion"
Behind the technological veil, behind the political veil of democracy reality shows itself: the universal servitude, the loss of human dignity with prefabricated freedom of choice. And the power structure does not appear 'sublimated' anymore in the style of a liberalist culture, not even hypocritical (so that it at least retains the 'formality', the husk of dignity), but brutal, in that it abandons all claim to truth and justice."Konterrevolution & Revolte" (1973)
My own opinion is that Snowden should be honored. He was doing what every citizen ought to do, telling. He was telling Americans what the government was doing. That’s what’s supposed to happen.
Governments as I mentioned before always plead security no matter what’s going on. The reflexive defense is security. But anyone who’s looked at– first of all, you take a look at what he exposed. At least anything that’s been published, it’s not any kind of threat to security, with one exception, the security of the government from its own population. And in fact if you look at anyone who’s spent any time poring through declassified records– I have, I’m sure many of you have– you find that overwhelmingly the security is the security of the state from its own population and that’s why things have to be kept secret.
"Where's Waldo" is a simple concept that most people can understand and have an opinion about. A country spying on its own citizens is an important thing to deal with, but sufficiently complex that most people would rather just ignore it.
No matter which slogan they write on their banners, once they feel they are no longer under the strictest and most vigilant control of those they purport to represent - they will behave the same. Once the relationship between citizens and the government changes from owner/hired manager to subject/ruler, there's no other way it can go.
Most wars in the 20th century have started as a result of lies. Amplified and spread by the mainstream press. And you go, well that is a horrible circumstance, that is terrible that all these wars start with lies. And I say no, this is a tremendous opportunity, because it means that populations basically don't like wars and they have to be lied into it.
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows.
Nowadays, all you do is hear the media's description of what the candidate is saying, and one of the strange things about it is that politics is now presented in terms of politicians and not politics. I don't think the media is interested in politics, they're interested in politicians, which is a wholly different subject... who's doing this, about their private life, about their background, about what they must be thinking, might be thinking when they said something, why did they say it; but what they say is very, very hard to hear. And I think this is, in a sense, indeed quite deliberately, destroying the genuine democratic base on which people are elected.
The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.
Naturally, one does not want to confront enemies that can fight back, but even much weaker enemies must be destroyed quickly, given the weakness of the domestic base and the lessons that are to be taught.
These lessons are directed to several audiences. For the Third World, the message is simple: Don't raise your heads. A "much weaker" opponent will not merely be defeated, but pulverized. The central lesson of World Order is: "What we say goes"; we are the masters, you shine our shoes, and don't ever forget it. Others too are to understand that the world is to be ruled by force, the arena in which the US reigns supreme, though with its domestic decline, others will have to pay the bills.
There is also a lesson for the domestic audience. They must be terrorized by images of a menacing force about to overwhelm us -- though in fact "much weaker" and defenseless. The monster can then be miraculously slain, "decisively and rapidly," while the frightened population celebrates its deliverance from imminent disaster, praising the heroism of the Great Leader who has come to the rescue just in the nick of time.
These techniques, which have familiar precedents, were employed through the 1980s, for sound reasons. The population was opposed to the major Reagan policies, largely an extension of Carter plans. It was therefore necessary to divert attention to ensure that democratic processes would remain as "hypothetical" as the peace process. Propaganda campaigns created awesome chimeras: international terrorists, Sandinistas marching on Texas, narcotraffickers, crazed Arabs.Z Magazine (May 1991)
The most effective way to restrict democracy is to transfer decision-making from the public arena to unaccountable institutions: kings and princes, priestly castes, military juntas, party dictatorships, or modern corporations.
What has been created by this half century of massive corporate propaganda is what's called "anti-politics". So that anything that goes wrong, you blame the government. Well okay, there's plenty to blame the government about, but the government is the one institution that people can change... the one institution that you can affect without institutional change. That's exactly why all the anger and fear has been directed at the government. The government has a defect - it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect - they're pure tyrannies. So therefore you want to keep corporations invisible, and focus all anger on the government. So if you don't like something, you know, your wages are going down, you blame the government. Not blame the guys in the Fortune 500, because you don't read the Fortune 500. You just read what they tell you in the newspapers... so you don't read about the dazzling profits and the stupendous dizz, and the wages going down and so on, all you know is that the bad government is doing something, so let's get mad at the government.
In the United States, the political system is a very marginal affair. There are two parties, so-called, but they're really factions of the same party, the Business Party. Both represent some range of business interests. In fact, they can change their positions 180 degrees, and nobody even notices.Interview by Adam Jones, February 20 (1990)
Modern industrial civilization has developed within a certain system of convenient myths. The driving force of modern industrial civilization has been individual material gain, which is accepted as legitimate, even praiseworthy, on the grounds that private vices yield public benefits, in the classic formulation. Now, it has long been understood, very well, that a society that is based on this principle will destroy itself in time. It can only persist, with whatever suffering and injustice that it entails, as long as it is possible to pretend that the destructive forces that humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, and that the world is an infinite garbage can.
At this stage of history either one of two things is possible. Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests, guided by values of solidarity, sympathy and concern for others, or alternatively there will be no destiny for anyone to control. As long as some specialized class is in a position of authority, it is going to set policy in the special interests that it serves. But the conditions of survival, let alone justice, require rational social planning in the interests of the community as a whole, and by now that means the global community. The question is whether privileged elite should dominate mass communication and should use this power as they tell us they must - namely to impose necessary illusions, to manipulate and deceive the stupid majority and remove them from the public arena.
The question in brief, is whether democracy and freedom are values to be preserved or threats to be avoided. In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured; they may well be essential to survival.
Personally, I'm in favor of democracy, which means that the central institutions of society have to be under popular control. Now, under capitalism, we can't have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control. Thus, a corporation or an industry is, if we were to think of it in political terms, fascist; that is, it has tight control at the top and strict obedience has to be established at every level - there's little bargaining, a little give and take, but the line of authority is perfectly straightforward. Just as I'm opposed to political fascism, I'm opposed to economic fascism. I think that until the major institutions of society are under the popular control of participants and communities, it's pointless to talk about democracy.
As inspection of its domestic programs makes clear, the Administration has no intention of addressing such problems; rightly, from its point of view. Any serious measures would infringe upon the prerogatives of its constituency. For the executives of a transnational corporation or other privileged sectors, it is important for the world to be properly disciplined, for advanced industry to be subsidized, and for the wealthy to be guaranteed security. It does not matter much if public education and health deteriorate, the useless population rots in urban concentrations or prisons, and the basis for a livable society collapses for the public at large.
For such reasons, it is important to distract the domestic population. They must join their betters in admiring "the stark and vivid definition of principle...baked into [George Bush] during his years at Andover and Yale, that honor and duty compels you to punch the bully in the face" -- the words of the awe-struck reporter who released the Policy Review explaining how to deal with "much weaker enemies."
The principle that you punch the bully in the face - when you are sure that he is securely bound and beaten to a pulp - is a natural one for advocates of the rule of force. It teaches the right lessons to the world. And at home, cheap victories deflect the attention of a frightened population from domestic disasters while the state pursues its tasks as global enforcer, serving the interests of the wealthy. Meanwhile, the country continues its march towards a two-tiered society with striking Third World features.
The same Times reporter goes on to quote the gallant champion himself: "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." The second national newspaper joined in, applauding the "spiritual and intellectual" triumph in the Gulf: "Martial values that had fallen into disrepute were revitalized," and "Presidential authority, under assault since Vietnam, was strengthened." With barely a gesture towards the dangers of overexuberance, the ultraliberal Boston Globe hailed the "victory for the psyche" and the new "sense of nationhood and projected power" under the leadership of a man who is "one tough son of a bitch," a man with "the guts to risk all for a cause" and a "burning sense of duty," who showed "the depth and steely core of his convictions" and his faith that "we are a select people, with a righteous mission in this earth," the latest in a line of "noble-minded missionaries" going back to his hero Teddy Roosevelt -- who was going to "show those Dagos that they will have to behave decently" and to teach proper lessons to the "wild and ignorant people" standing in the way of "the dominant world races." Liberal columnists praised "the magnitude of Bush's triumph" over a much weaker enemy, dismissing the "uninformed garbage" of those who carp in dark corners (Thomas Oliphant). The open admiration for fascist values is a matter of some interest.
On British television, anti-Saddam Arab intellectuals in London, including the prominent Kuwaiti opposition leader Dr. Ahmed al-Khatib, were unanimous in calling for a cease-fire and for serious consideration of Saddam's February 15 peace offer. In October 1990, Dr. al-Khatib had stated that Kuwaitis "do not want a military solution" with its enormous costs for Kuwait, and strenuously opposed any military action.
The silence here was deafening, and most instructive. Unlike Bush and his associates, the peace movement and Iraqi democratic opposition had always opposed Saddam Hussein. But they also opposed the quick resort to violence to undercut a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Such an outcome would have avoided the slaughter of tens of thousands of people, the destruction of two countries, harsh reprisals, an environmental catastrophe, further slaughter by the Iraqi government and the likely emergence of another murderous US-backed tyranny there. But it would not have taught the crucial lessons, already reviewed. With the mission accomplished, the disdain for Iraqi democrats continues unchanged. A European diplomat observes that "The Americans would prefer to have another Assad, or better yet, another Mubarak in Baghdad," referring to their "military-backed regimes" (dictatorships, that of Assad being particularly odious). "This may account for the fact that thus far, the administration has refused to meet with Iraqi opposition leaders in exile," Jane Friedman reports in the Christian Science Monitor. A diplomat from the US-run coalition says that "we will accept Saddam in Baghdad in order to have Iraq as one state," which might be interpreted as meaning: to prevent Iraqi democracy.
A totalitarian state simply enunciates official doctrine -- clearly, explicitly. Internally, one can think what one likes, but one can only express opposition at one's peril. In a democratic system of propaganda no one is punished (in theory) for objecting to official dogma. In fact, dissidence is encouraged. What this system attempts to do is to fix the limits of possible thought: supporters of official doctrine at one end, and the critics -- vigorous, courageous, and much admired for their independence of judgment -- at the other. The hawks and the doves. But we discover that all share certain tacit assumptions, and that it is these assumptions that are really crucial. No doubt a propaganda system is more effective when its doctrines are insinuated rather than asserted, when it sets the bounds for possible thought rather than simply imposing a clear and easily identifiable doctrine that one must parrot -- or suffer the consequences. The more vigorous the debate, the more effectively the basic doctrines of the propaganda system, tacitly assumed on all sides, are instilled. Hence the elaborate pretense that the press is a critical dissenting force -- maybe even too critical for the health of democracy -- when in fact it is almost entirely subservient to the basic principles of the ideological system: in this case, the principle of the right of intervention, the unique right of the United States to serve as global judge and executioner. It is quite a marvelous system of indoctrination.
Here is still another example along the same lines. Look at this quotation from the Washington Post, a paper that is often regarded as the most consistent critic of the war among the national media. This is from an editorial of April 30, 1975, entitled "Deliverance":
For if much of the actual conduct of Vietnam policy over the years was wrong and misguided - even tragic - it cannot be denied that some part of the purpose of that policy was right and defensible. Specifically, it was right to hope that the people of South Vietnam would be able to decide on their own form of government and social order. The American public is entitled, indeed obligated, to explore how good impulses came to be transmuted into bad policy, but we cannot afford to cast out all remembrance of that earlier impulse.
What were the "good impulses"? When precisely did the United States try to help the South Vietnamese choose their own form of government and social order? As soon as such questions are posed, the absurdity becomes evident. From the moment that the American-backed French effort to destroy the major nationalist movement in Vietnam collapsed, the United States was consciously and knowingly opposed to the organized political forces within South Vietnam, and resorted to increasing violence when these political forces could not be crushed. But these facts, easily documented, must be suppressed. The liberal press cannot question the basic doctrine of the state religion, that the United States is benevolent, even though often misguided in its innocence, that it labors to permit free choice, even though at times some mistakes are committed in the exuberance of its programs of international goodwill. We must believe that we "Americans" are always good, though, to be sure, fallible:
For the fundamental "lesson" of Vietnam surely is not that we as a people are intrinsically bad, but rather that we are capable of error - and on a gigantic scale....
Note the rhetoric: "we as a people" are not intrinsically bad, even if we are capable of error. Was it "we as a people" who decided to conduct the war in Vietnam? Or was it something that had rather more to do with our political leaders and the social institutions they serve? To pose such a question is of course illegitimate, according to the dogmas of the state religion, because that raises the question of the institutional sources of power, and such questions are only considered by irrational extremists who must be excluded from debate (we can raise such questions with regard to other societies, of course, but not the United States).
Those who really have power in this society tolerate democracy only so long as it doesn't infringe on their power. If, through the parliamentary system, we ever began to expropriate industry, then the people who have wealth and power would destroy the parliamentary system. In this respect there probably wouldn't be any way within the system. But any revolutionary I've ever heard of must prefer peaceful non-violent means if these are possible. But it's rarely been possible because of the resistance by those who want to preserve their privileges.
Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.
Mass education was designed to turn independent farmers into docile, passive tools of production. That was its primary purpose. And don't think people didn't know it. They knew it and they fought against it. There was a lot of resistance to mass education for exactly that reason. It was also understood by the elites. Emerson once said something about how we're educating them to keep them from our throats. If you don't educate them, what we call "education," they're going to take control - "they" being what Alexander Hamilton called the "great beast," namely the people. The anti-democratic thrust of opinion in what are called democratic societies is really ferocious. And for good reason. Because the freer the society gets, the more dangerous the great beast becomes and the more you have to be careful to cage it somehow.
I mean, what's the elections? You know, two guys, same background, wealth, political influence, went to the same elite university, joined the same secret society where you're trained to be a ruler - they both can run because they're financed by the same corporate institutions. At the Democratic Convention, Barack Obama said, 'only in this country, only in America, could someone like me appear here.' Well, in some other countries, people much poorer than him would not only talk at the convention - they'd be elected president. Take Lula. The president of Brazil is a guy with a peasant background, a union organizer, never went to school, he's the president of the second-biggest country in the hemisphere. Only in America? I mean, there they actually have elections where you can choose somebody from your own ranks. With different policies. That's inconceivable in the United States.Interview by Wallace Shawn, October 19, 2004