Notes from Consequences of Capitalism

Consequences of Capitalism: Manufacturing Discontent and Resistance, Noam Chomsky and Marv Waterstone, 2021

Chomsky is the legendary linguist-philosopher. Waterstone is an emeritus professor in the School of Geography, Development, and Environment at the University of Arizona. He currently co-teaches the course called “What Is Politics?” with Chomsky that led to this book. Waterstone describes himself as a “Marxist Geographer” who focuses on Gramscian notions of hegemony and “common sense”.

Gramsci’s idea of Cultural Hegemony involves government with the consent of the governed. (26) So it’s preferable to military domination, but maybe that isn’t saying that much. The other concept, “Common Sense”, deals with “truths” that “need no sophistication to grasp, and no proof to accept.” (quoting Kate Crehan, who borrowed the idea from Gramsci, I think, 13) So these are ideas it is expected (or hoped) we will accept uncritically, without resistance. Things that “anyone of normal intelligence” will simply get.

Waterstone begins his first lecture with these ideas and expands them to include British sociologist Anthony Giddens’ idea of Practical Consciousness, which he distinguished from “discursive consciouness” in terms that remind me of Kahneman’s System 1 and 2. (15) Giddens also talks about what he calls Structuration, which is aprocess people use to create and reinforce their rules, but along the way they forget that these rules are artificial. They begin to believe that the status quo is inevitable, rather than contingent and human-made. Waterstone stresses (and I agree) that this blindness also helps obscure the fact that “not everyone is in an equal positiuon in making these rules and making them stick.” (16) Waterstone also cautions us that these problems are exacerbated as more and more of the information we get about the world is not from direct experience, but is mediated through media. The aculturation of common sense acts as an invisible filter of the data we are able to perceive.

One of the common sense ways we understand the world, Waterstone says, is that:

In America, if you don’t succeed, you are either not working hard enough, or you are not playing by the rules, or both. So if you don’t succeed, and this is the obverse of thinking about the American dream as it’s laid out, essentially, your failure is your own fault. This is another corollary of the individualized notion of how society works. All the opportunities are there. If you fail, it is your fault. There is nothing structural or systemic or unfair getting in your way, either historically, contemporaneously, or into the future. (23)

Some potentially useful sources on inequality might be Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed or the Center for Budget Priorities’ study Born on Third Base.

Waterstone says that having “one’s view of how the world operates become predominant is a very potent form of political power. If you can convince people that your sense of how the world ought to operate is the way it ought to operate, this is an extremely powerful political tool.” (25) An important part of this is legitimacy: “The ruled must believe that the rulers are operating in their interest”. (27)

The point is that in order for there to be “fundamental social change…there needs to be cultural transformation. That is to say a new common sense, and with it a new culture that enables subalterns, that is those who are ruled or governed, to imagine another reality.” (quoting Crehan again, 29) This has generally been done to the people’s detriment, although sometimes under the claim that it was for theirt own good. In 1928, Edward Bernays said, “Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.” (29) Bernays was a nephew of Freud’s whom Walter Lippmann had recruited into the Creel Commission to change the minds of the American public about participating in the Great War. In his 1928 book, Propaganda, Bernays had these things to say:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country.

We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of.

In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons … who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

Truth is mighty and must prevail. And if anybody, and any body of men believe that they have discovered a valuable truth, it is not merely their privilege, but their duty to disseminate that truth. If they realize, as they quickly must, that this spreading of truth can be done upon a large scale and effectively only by organized effort, they will make use of the press and the platform as the best means to give it wide circulation.

Propaganda becomes vicious and reprehensible only when its authors consciously and deliberately disseminate what they know to be lies, or when they aim at effects which they know to be prejudicial to the common good.

The imaginatively managed event can compete successfully with other events for attention. Newsworthy events involving people usually do not happen by accident, they are planned deliberately to accomplish a purpose to influence our ideas and actions. (32-33)

As Hannah Arendt said, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies … is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed”

A couple of decades after Propaganda, in “The Engineering of Consent” Bernays said freedom of speech sanctifies the right of persuasion, which allows the “media [to] provide open doors to the public mind.” Fast forward to today, when according to Waterstone, “six corporations control 90 percent of what we read, watch, or listen to.” (35) This is a dramatic change from 1983, when this percentage was spread out between fifty businesses.

Chomsky’s first-week lecture also focuses on Gramsci’s idea of hegemonic common sense. He begins with a passage from David Hume’s essay “Of the First Principles of Government” in which Hume points out that the “governed” always have “Force” on their side, so the rulers rely on managing popular opinion.

Chomsky talks about the refugee crisis at the US-Mexican border, and says many of the refugees are from Honduras, which has become the “homicide capital of the world” since a 2009 military coup that was not recognized as such by the Obama-Clinton administration because that would have required them to stop providing military aid to the ruling junta. “The US role in the flight of refugees is not secret,” Chomsky says. “It’s all public. You can easily find out about it–except on the front pages of newspapers” in the United States. (42) He then mentions the assassination of Oscar Romero in El Salvador, the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala, and the neo-Nazi regime in Argentina (all of which he has described in greater detail in other books like Deterring Democracy).

Chomsky then turns from Hume to his friend Adam Smith, who criticized the “merchants and manufacturers” of Britain who were the “principal architects” of government policy, which they controlled to insure their interests “are most peculiarly attended to”, despite the “savage injustice” to the empire’s colonies. (46-7) Smith accused the “masters of mankind” of pursuing their “vile maxim: all for ourselves and nothing for anyone else.”

Returning to Bernays, Chomsky points out that one of his claims to fame was that he helped convince women to smoke. Then in the 1950s, he went to work for the United Fruit Company and created the cover story for the Guatemala coup, suggesting that the communists wanted to install a Soviet military base in our own backyard. In his 1947 article, “The Engineering of Consent”, Bernays said:

This phrase quite simply means the use of an engineering approach—that is, action based on thorough knowledge of the situation and on the application of scientific principles and tried practices to the task of getting people to support ideas and programs…. The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest…. A leader frequently cannot wait for the people to arrive at even general understanding … democratic leaders must play their part in … engineering consent to socially constructive goals and values…. The responsible leader, to accomplish social objectives, must therefore be constantly aware of the possibilities of subversion. He must apply his energies to mastering the operational know-how of consent engineering, and to out-maneuvering his opponents in the public interest. (50)

Chomsky says B.F. Skinner agreed in Beyond Freedom and Dignity that “Ethical control may survive in small groups, but the control of the population as a whole must be delegated to specialists—to police, priests, owners, teachers, therapists, and so on, with their specialized reinforcers and their codified contingencies.”

The term “manufacture of consent” was coined by Walter Lippmann, another progressive whom Chomsky calls a “Wilson-Roosevelt-Kennedy liberal, like Bernays”. Lippmann believed the “public must be put in its place” so that “the intelligent minorities” could benevolently direct “the trampling and roar of the bewildered herd,” the public. The role of the public was to be obedient “spectators of action,” not “participants.” (53)

This disdain for the general public was even expressed by religious leaders like liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who said that due to “the stupidity of the average man”, the “responsible intellectuals” who were their betters were forced to lead them using “necessary illusions” and “emotionally potent simplifications”. (54) These elites were sometimes opposed by “the wild men in the wings”, a term used by McGeorge Bundy in a 1968 Foreign Affairs article to describe malcontents like Chomsky.

Chomsky returns to the idea of common sense and quotes Orwell that the “sinister fact” is that censorship is “largely voluntary”. This is mainly accomplished by a good education, Chomsky says, during which “you have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things it wouldn’t do to say, or…even to think. It all becomes part of your being. And if you’re a good student and have properly absorbed the lessons, you can become a responsible intellectual.” (57)

Chomsky also mentions that, according to John Coatsworth in the Cambridge History of the Cold War, from 1960 to 1990, there were more political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent dissidents in Latin America than in the USSR and the eastern bloc. This is one of those facts that I really appreciate Chomsky and Waterstone citing a source for. Also interesting are the quotes from “Enlightenment” thinkers. A final one from Locke: “day labourers and tradesmen, the spinsters and dairymaids” needed to be led by the wise because “the greatest part cannot know and therefore they must believe.” (66)