Propaganda, Power, And Moral Truisms

The New Obedience

Chemistry teachers have long delighted students by showing how near-perfect symmetrical structures can be produced simply by pouring a stream of small balls into a square box, whereupon a pyramid inevitably forms. The balls either settle in a pyramid-building position or bounce out. The resulting shape – like crystalline structures found in the natural world – appears to have been carefully designed; in fact it is merely a consequence of the random flow of spherical objects over a square framework.

In a roughly analogous way, we believe, elite managers establish and protect the framing conditions of modern society: elite management of ‘stable’ economic growth generated by maximised corporate profit, fuelled by mass production and mass consumption. By ‘pouring’ news, information, and ideas into this political and economic framework, a version of reality suited to the requirements of the system emerges without the need for conspiratorial control.

Much of what we believe about ourselves and the world, then, is conditioned by a ‘pyramid’ of individuals who accept a range of “necessary illusions” and who are therefore selected for positions of influence within an establishment framework. Because these journalists, politicians and academics all believe what they’re saying, and because they all say pretty much the same thing, their version of reality has every appearance of being simply the Truth.

As a result, like the air we breathe, many of us take for granted that a corporate press is a free press; that we are a basically compassionate society pursuing rational, humane policies; that profit maximisation leading to economic growth is the proper, rational goal of society; that success and happiness are best defined in terms of high status conformist production and high status conformist consumption. Crucially, we also tend to assume that we freely choose these beliefs and goals, that our consent is volunteered, not manufactured. Psychologist Erich Fromm described the reality:

“From the fight against the authority of Church, state, and family which characterise the last centuries, we have come back full circle to a new obedience; but this obedience is not one to aristocratic persons, but to the organisation. The ‘organisation man’ is not aware that he obeys, he believes that he only conforms with what is rational and practical.” (Fromm, Beyond The Chains Of Illusion, Abacus, 1989, pp.157-158)

Recently, we suggested to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, that his newspaper is very much subject to, and the product of, the framing conditions and social filters described above. More specifically we proposed that the Guardian should be willing to acknowledge and debate the significance of Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model – which explains the mechanics and effects of social filtering in the media – as part of an honest debate on the extent to which our ‘free press’ truly is free. Rusbridger recently responded:

“Dear David,

I continue to be very pressed. You make an nteresting critique of the general position regarding the funding of newspapers – and you draw the implication you choose to draw. That’s an interesting debate, if hardly a new one. I’d be interested to know what alternative business model you propose for newspapers which would sustain a large, knowledgeable and experienced staff of writers and editors, here and abroad, in print as well as on the web. Do you prefer no advertising lest journalists are corrupted or influenced in the way you imagine?  If so, what cover price do you propose? Or, in the absence of advertising,  what other source of revenue would you prefer?

These are all interesting debates, and I wish you well.  I can only answer as to my experience. alan.” (Email to David Cromwell, February 6, 2004)

Rusbridger acknowledges that our critique is interesting and worth discussing. He even suggests that the argument has merit by moving onto the issue of possible alternative sources of funding. He points out, however, that the argument is “not new”.

We checked how many times the Guardian has discussed the propaganda model in the sixteen years since it was published in 1988. We found that it has been mentioned, in passing, once. In fact, according to the Lexis-Nexis media search engine, the model has been mentioned by name in UK newspapers some ten times since 1988.

The significance is clear – even the most rational and important ideas about ourselves and our world can be subject to near-totalitarian levels of suppression in the absence of conscious planning or deliberate censorship. Crucially, we believe, this suppression extends to the most elementary and important moral truisms of human culture.

The Principle Of Universality

In his latest book, Hegemony Or Survival, Chomsky outlines “a few simple truths”:

“The first is that actions are evaluated in terms of the range of likely consequences. A second is the principle of universality; we apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others, if not more stringent ones.” (Chomsky, Hegemony Or Survival, Hamish Hamilton, 2003, p.187)

In other words, it is, for example, not reasonable or moral for Britain and the United States to condemn al-Qaeda for terrorist actions while themselves employing violence and terror in pursuit of state policy. Chomsky quotes the former director of Human Rights Watch, now a professor of law at Emory University, Atlanta:

“I am unable to appreciate any moral, political or legal difference between this jihad by the United States against those it deems to be its enemies and the jihad by Islamic groups against those they deem to be their enemies.” (Ibid, p.201)

In fact the principle of universality is consistently ignored in Western culture – we forever apply to others standards that we would not dream of applying to ourselves. To take only one example, in April 1999, Jonathan Freedland wrote:

“Future historians will spend long hours and write fat books working out this phenomenon. Why have the Serbs not risen in outrage at the unspeakable horrors committed in their name?” (Freedland, ‘A long war requires patience, not a search for the door marked “Exit”‘, The Guardian, April 14, 1999)

Freedland, like most other journalists, had not himself “risen in outrage” at the effects of US-UK sanctions on Iraq – effects that dwarfed Serbia’s “unspeakable horrors”. Future historians will doubtless not write fat books about the phenomenal version of events published by the New York Times last week:

“In response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and its defeat the next year by an American-led military coalition, the United Nations Security Council imposed oil export restrictions [on Iraq], a ban on the import of weapons and potential weapons ingredients, and a series of disarmament requirements to be monitored by aggressive international inspections.” (‘A Success Worth Noting’, Leader, February 8, 2004 http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/08/opinion/08SUN1.html)

There were problems, the Times notes, but “the totality of these measures, particularly the prohibitions on importing weapons and their ingredients, now appears to have worked surprisingly well”.

The measures that “worked surprisingly well” were responsible for one million civilian deaths in Iraq, including hundreds of thousands of children under five. Not one word was said about this vast cataclysm by the editors of America’s leading liberal newspaper.

Equalising Self And Other

Like the suffering of Iraqis, indeed like the propaganda model itself, an understanding of the rational basis and importance of the principle of universality has been almost completely filtered out of our culture. As a result, we are left with a shell of rhetoric that serves to camouflage and protect a ruthlessly self-serving reality.

The consequences are appalling. An Egyptian academic describes how hatred of the US is rooted in its support for “every possible anti-democratic government in the Arab-Islamic world… When we hear American officials speaking of freedom, democracy and such values, they make terms like these sound obscene.” (Quoted Chomsky, op., cit, p.215)

The Financial Times reports, “while only might can destroy al-Qaeda, its expanding support base can be eroded only by policies Arabs and Muslims see as just”. Destroying al-Qaeda will therefore have little effect if “the underlying conditions that facilitated the group’s emergence and popularity – political oppression and economic marginalisation – will persist”. (Editorial, Financial Times, May 14, 2003)

Two political scientists comment:

“Delicate social and political problems cannot be bombed or ‘missiled’ out of existence… Violence can be likened to a virus; the more you bombard it, the more it spreads.” (James Bill and Rebecca Bill Chavez, Middle East Journal, autumn 2002)

No surprise, then, that a 2003 UN report indicated that al-Qaeda recruitment accelerated in 30 to 40 countries as the US prepared for war against Iraq.

Ami Ayalon, the head of Israel’s General Security Service (Shabak) from 1996 to 2000, suggests that “those who want victory” against terror without addressing underlying grievances “want an unending war”. (Quoted, Chomsky, op., cit, p.213)

The benefits of respect and compassion for others extend far behind political concerns. In Buddhist philosophy, a version of the principle of universality is described as “equalising self and other”. At a time when Britain languished in the Dark Ages and warrior kings battled Viking invaders, the 8th century Buddhist philosopher, Shantideva, asked:

“Since I and other beings both,
In wanting happiness, are equal and alike,
What difference is there to distinguish us,
That I should strive to have my bliss alone?” (Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.123)

It is, after all, an undeniable fact that our own happiness is +not+ more important than the happiness of others, much less many others. Thus, the reasonable and fair-minded person who is outraged, say, at the thought of a well-fed adult stealing food from a starving child, must feel similar outrage at his or her own selfish behaviour in neglecting the fate of others:

“I indeed am happy, others sad;
I am high and mighty, others low;
I am helped while others are abandoned;
Why am I not jealous of myself?”

Indeed, if it is admirable to stand up for the weak against the strong, how much more so to stand up for the weak against +ourselves+!

It is not just unreasonable to be biased in our own favour, it is also naïve. On closer inspection, Shantideva insists, we will find that selfish needs – by nature insatiable – are the source of endless craving, anxiety, boredom, depression and strife. Happiness, peace of mind and fulfilment are instead found in compassion, generosity and altruism. Is this mere sentimentality?

Reviewing a vast array of research studies across the world, American psychologist Tim Kasser of Knox College, reports:

“Existing scientific research on the value of materialism yields clear and consistent findings. People who are highly focused on materialistic values have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic pursuits are relatively unimportant. These relationships have been documented in samples of people ranging from the wealthy to the poor, from teenagers to the elderly, and from Australians to South Koreans.” (Kasser, The High Price Of Materialism, MIT Press, 2002, p.22)

Kasser adds:

“Almost everyone believes that getting what you want makes you feel good about yourself and your life. Common wisdom, as well as many psychological theories, says that if we reach our goals, our self-esteem and satisfaction with life should consequently rise…” However “people who are wildly successful in their attempts to attain money and status often remain unfulfiled once they have reached their goal.” (p.42)

Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at Pennsylvania University adds:

“In the laboratory, children and adults who are made happy display more empathy and are willing to donate more money to others in need. When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers. When we are down, though, we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of well-being.” (Seligman, Authentic Happiness, Nicholas Brealey, 2002, p.43)


The propaganda model, the principle of universality, and many other issues will be discussed at a one-day conference:


Conway Hall (Main Hall), 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R. http://www.distortingdemocracy.com/

Guest Speakers: Yvonne Ridley, David Miller, Richard Keeble, Fuad Nahdi and Hilary Wainwright.

Tickets are £5 (+ booking fee) ticket only event. Tickets must be pre-booked 9.30am-5pm. (doors open 9am)