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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Media and Matrix Reality

On his Cyberjournal email list, Richard K. Moore made this comment about the mainstream press's coverage of the Iranian nuclear "crisis":

In any case, from reading the minuscule [San Francisco] Chronicle coverage, I became more convinced than ever that an attack on Iran is soon on the agenda. The Chronicle serves as a portal to Matrix reality. It doesn't have room for any breadth, so you get the straight Matrix line. So what do you read about Iran? ... a gradual but persistent demonization program. Day after day we see the 'international community' losing patience with Iran's stubbornness regarding it's 'nuclear program'. After a while, you can't help but think, "Why don't they do something about it?" Thus are the American people, and the rest of us as well, led to accept what elites have been long planning for their own purposes.

Their purposes, following a long tradition, are to maintain their control over global finance, by means of dominating oil sources and controlling the currency in which oil is traded. Their current urgency arises from the fact that Iran is about to launch a Euro marketplace (bourse) for global oil sales. That would start a run on the dollar like you've never seen. "It's not nice to threaten Mighty Dollar...bad boy, Uncle Sam get mad, cut off head, you learn lesson."

I place considerably less emphasis than does Moore on conspiracy as a moving force. Nevertheless, I agree with him that there is a "Matrix reality," and that the mainstream media are an excellent approximation to it. No conspiracy is required. Through a virtually automatic filtering process, the mainstream press comes to reflect the world-view of the corporate and state power elites and the court intellectuals who serve them. They implicitly adopt the goals and assumptions of the foreign policy establishment regarding "our national interest," and see the solutions it adopts to "problems" (which actually exist only from the perspective of this elite's interests) as necessitated by objective reality.

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, in Manufacturing Consent, put forth a "Propaganda Model" of how the media promotes the interests of a ruling class. Here's an excerpt (from Third World Traveller):

The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.

In countries where the levers of power are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, the monopolistic control over the media, often supplemented by official censorship, makes it clear that the media serve the ends of a dominant elite. It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent. This is especially true where the media actively compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and governmental malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest. What is not evident (and remains undiscussed in the media) is the limited nature of such critiques, as well as the huge inequality in command of resources, and its effect both on access to a private media system and on its behavior and performance.

A propaganda model focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects on mass-media interests and choices. It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public.... The raw material of news must pass through successive filters, leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print. They fix the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the definition of what is newsworthy in the first place, and they explain the basis and operations of what amount to propaganda campaigns.

The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news "objectively" and on the basis of professional news values. Within the limits of the filter constraints they often are objective; the constraints are so powerful, and are built into the system in such a fundamental way, that alternative bases of news choices are hardly imaginable.

Chomsky and Herman list several filtering mechanisms by which the world presented in the media comes to reflect the interests of the ruling class. The most important, for me, is this:

(3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power....

The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest. The media need a steady, reliable flow of the raw material of news. They have daily news demands and imperative news schedules that they must meet. They cannot afford to have reporters and cameras at all places where important stories may break. Economics dictates that they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs, where important rumors and leaks abound, and where regular press conferences are held. The White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department, in Washington, D.C., are central nodes of such news activity. On a local basis, city hall and the police department are the subject of regular news "beats" for reporters. Business corporations and trade groups are also regular and credible purveyors of stories deemed newsworthy. These bureaucracies turn out a large volume of material that meets the demands of news organizations for reliable, scheduled flows. Mark Fishman calls this "the principle of bureaucratic affinity: only other bureaucracies can satisfy the input needs of a news bureaucracy."

Government and corporate sources also have the great merit of being recognizable and credible by their status and prestige. This is important to the mass media. As Fishman notes,

Newsworkers are predisposed to treat bureaucratic accounts as factual because news personnel participate in upholding a normative order of authorized knowers in the society. Reporters operate with the attitude that officials ought to know what it is their job to know.... In particular, a newsworker will recognize an official's claim to knowledge not merely as a claim, but as a credible, competent piece of knowledge. This amounts to a moral division of labor: officials have and give the facts; reporters merely get them.

Another reason for the heavy weight given to official sources is that the mass media claim to be "objective" dispensers of the news. Partly to maintain the image of objectivity, but also to protect themselves from criticisms of bias and the threat of libel suits, they need material that can be portrayed as presumptively accurate. This is also partly a matter of cost: taking information from sources that may be presumed credible reduces investigative expense, whereas material from sources that are not prima facie credible, or that will elicit criticism and threats, requires careful checking and costly research.

The magnitude of the public-information operations of large government and corporate bureaucracies that constitute the primary news sources is vast and ensures special access to the media....

To consolidate their preeminent position as sources, government and business-news promoters go to great pains to make things easy for news organizations. They provide the media organizations with facilities in which to gather; they give journalists advance copies of speeches and forthcoming reports; they schedule press conferences at hours well-geared to news deadlines; they write press releases in usable language; and they carefully organize their press conferences and "photo opportunity" sessions. It is the job of news officers "to meet the journalist's scheduled needs with material that their beat agency has generated at its own pace."

In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media's costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become "routine" news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers. It should also be noted that in the case of the largesse of the Pentagon and the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy, the subsidy is at the taxpayers' expense, so that, in effect, the citizenry pays to be propagandized in the interest of powerful groups such as military contractors and other sponsors of state terrorism.

Because of their services, continuous contact on the beat, and mutual dependency, the powerful can use personal relationships, threats, and rewards to further influence and coerce the media. The media may feel obligated to carry extremely dubious stories and mute criticism in order not to offend their sources and disturb a close relationship. It is very difficult to call authorities on whom one depends for daily news liars, even if they tell whoppers. Critical sources may be avoided not only because of their lesser availability and higher cost of establishing credibility, but also because the primary sources may be offended and may even threaten the media using them.

The key to Matrix reality is to see policy, not as the arena for a conflict of visions, or for pursuing different interests, but as the application of technocratic expertise. An attack on Iran is not necessary from the perspective of some concrete interest, like (say) the state capitalist nexus of corporate and government power, the great bankers and industrial cartels, that Moore describes above. An attack on Iran is made necessary by objective necessity, and the only thing left is for those disinterested experts in the CFR foreign policy establishment to decide on the most efficient way to promote the "national interest."

From the perspective of the New Class managerialists who dominate both the neoconservative right and New Republic liberalism, the National Interest in foreign policy is kind of like the Public Interest as seen by liberal urban planners, in Sam Smith's great quote from William O. Douglas.

It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled . . . The experts concluded that if the community were to be healthy, if it were not to revert again to a blighted or slum area, as though possessed by a congenital disease, the area must be planned as a whole.

Urban planning doesn't benefit the local growth machine, the chamber of commerce, or the real estate interests. Oh, my, heavens no! It benefits the Public Interest, which is beyond class interest, and is best promoted by the selfless engineering of those disinterested technocrats. There's a "problem" that exists, not from some concrete perspective, but from the general nature of things. And those experts, faced with this objective "problem," will figure out the best way for "us" to solve that problem.

The mainstream press's orientation toward this Matrix reality is reinforced by the nature of journalism as a New Class "profession," which predisposes journalists to share the assumptions of policy elites. Recalcitrant regimes which refuse to take direction from U.S. foreign policy elites and from the global financial interests they uphold, are seen as "problems" for "us" to "manage." It never occurs to an AP journalist to ask, "a 'problem' from whose perspective?" And who's this "we" and "us" they keep talking about; are they carrying a mouse in their pocket?

A famous example is the cliched defense of the atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945 as "necessary" to prevent hundreds of thousands of American deaths in an assault on the home islands. Now, the unspoken assumption behind this claim is that unconditional surrender was the only possible war objective that "we" could accept, and that Truman was justified in doing anything necessary to achieve it. In fact, unconditional surrender was a characteristically mid-20th century objective, quite understandable for a totalitarianizing "democracy" unconsciously reenacting the imperial Athens of Thucydides. It's the kind of thing one might expect, as a matter of course, from any of the great superstates of the period, whether those of the Axis or those represented at Yalta. What's astounding, though, is to hear this "argument" repeated by World War II vets. Those of them who use such arguments, perhaps unknowingly, have adopted the same frame of reference as the elites who once prepared to send them to die. But what about the possibility that sending half a million American soldiers to die on the beachheads of Honshu was just as immoral as incinerating a couple hundred thousand Japanese civilians?

Another, more recent example is an op-ed piece posted by Kevin McFarlane on the Libertarian Alliance Forum, entitled (in part) "...war with Iran may be a necessity":

THE UNIMAGINABLE but ultimately inescapable truth is that we are going to have to get ready for war with Iran.

In a way, this reminds me of the attitude of Who Moved My Cheese?, which you guys are probably getting heartily sick of. The "national interest," like "change," is something that just happens, and that we're supposed to respond to as an inevitable force of nature. Nobody in a position of authority wants to take responsibilility for it, or admit that the "national interest" looks suspiciously like their interest.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent. This is especially true where the media actively compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and governmental malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest.

James Donald, a frequent poster to alt.anarchy, nails this analysis. He says that socialists have to see free societies as conspiracies so that they can argue that they can run the conspiracy better. Chomsky is saying that free and competing media companies are just as much propaganda instruments as Pravda, a ludicrous lie. But it's a lie he has to tell in order to argue that he, Noam Chomsky, should control the media, through his "anarchy" state. If the media are already controlled and propagandised, then Chomsky ought to be the one running it.

On a local basis, city hall and the police department are the subject of regular news "beats" for reporters.

I don't know what local news he's watching. In Cleveland and Philadelphia, the local news is fire-murder-fire-murder-fire-murder-weather-sports.

- Josh

February 06, 2006 5:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where do the reports of "fire-murder-weather" come from? From the government (at least at first).

Anyway, since Kevin seems to like the Matrix theme, did you see the advertisements for the new movie by the W. brothers? It's called Vendetta, and looks likes they took Zorro and stuck him in a near-future fascist England.

The advertisement shown during the Superbowl includes memorable quotes such as "The people should not be afraid of the government; the government should be afraid of the people."

February 06, 2006 5:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI,V for Vendetta.

Regarding Chomsky's theory of the media, I don't think that he argued that the American media is equivalent to the Soviet media, and I'm not aware of him calling for greater government control over the media.

Based on the above passage, he acknowledged that control of the American media is much more diffuse and than control of the Soviet media was. This follows the typical American model of power, which is distributed among a much larger group of individuals, often with conflicting interests. However, this is not the same thing as power being evenly distributed, or even being distributed based on merit.

Even in America there still are a number of individauls who have exceptional influence over our communication networks, meaning that their point of view gets a lot more attention than others. I think that's Chomsky's point, and the solution involves changes in our behavior as information consumers, not government control over the media. Maybe Chomsky would like some state-funded media, but at best that would create a marginal increase in the diversity of voices heard, and wouldn't solve the fundamental problem.

February 06, 2006 6:00 PM  
Blogger Don Elkins said...

Oh, the stories I could tell you would make your hair stand on-end. By the way, really liked the concept of the "cockroach caucus" -- gonna do some research on that here. They own my life, and I'm about sick of it.

February 07, 2006 9:15 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Don Elkins,

Welcome! Nice to have a local guy stopping by. I can't take credit for the "cockroach caucus" idea, though. If you click the first post on that topic, you'll see that Michael Bates of Batesline came up with the term to describe the Tulsa subspecies. His description of them sounds *exactly* like our local mafia of the Northwest Arkansas Council and the Jim Lindsey real estate empire, though.


You pretty much got the local news thing down pat, except you left out the obligatory story either about a cute kid or dog, or the Gestapo's heroic raid on a meth lab. And the sequence should be fire-murder-holdup-wreck....

But I don't think Chomsky's general picture of the media is a lie, or that it requires a conspiracy. Once you posit that this isn't a "free society," to the extent that the centralized corporate and state power structure reflects state intervention, it's a fairly straightforward argument that this structure filters information flow.

Although Chomsky probably favors some kind of state action to break up media conglomerates and devolve them to control by local NGOs and the like, I think his analysis of the present situation is pretty much on the mark. And as I see it, the only thing necessary is to break up the centralized state (and, as a result, its outgrowth, the centralized corporate economy), and there won't be any filtering mechanism left.

Unlike Chomsky, who sees a temporary strengthening of the state as necessary to break up "private concentrations of power," I'd say if you take care of the state the private concentrations of power will take care of themselves. The difference between the anarchists and Marxists, as F. Engels once described it, was that the anarchists said "get rid of the state and capital will go to the devil." The Marxists, Engels said, proposed the reverse. In this, Chomsky's closer to Engels than Bakunin.


I've heard some good things about V for Vendetta, and I certainly like that slogan about the government fearing the populace. But from what I hear, the story got considerably dumbed down in the transition from print to celluloid. In the original version, the fascist Britain of the future grew directly out of increasing domestic statism (which Bliar's cameras, national ID, and "counter-terror" legislation makes pretty friggin' plausible). The movie, on the other hand, makes it result from a foreign occupation.

Robert Harris' *Fatherland* got similarly dumbed down for an American audience. In the movie, the alternate history's point of divergence was a failed D-Day invasion, rather than a successful 1942 German offensive in southern Russia. And Joe Kennedy was made a lot less of an ogre than he was either in the book or in real life. So American egos got massaged about the central importance of their WWII effort, and the Kennedy Cultists' feelings were spared. I *seriously* doubt the Germans could have reversed their fortunes after June 1944 to the extent of pushing back to the Volga. Shifting all their western forces east, they might barely have squeaked by and stabilized the front along the Vistula.

February 07, 2006 10:09 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

BTW, Don, if you really want your hair to stand on end, do some looking into the Dennis Flowers case. My dad was a cop in Springdale 30 years ago, and he said the regular Mafia couldn't get a foothold here because the competition from city hall and the chamber of commerce was too stiff.

February 07, 2006 10:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And the sequence should be fire-murder-holdup-wreck....

Well, I never watched the hour-long local news. =)

I have to disagree that Chomsky isn't postulating a conspiracy. He starts off with the disclaimer, "Well, it certainly doesn't look like Pravda!" and then takes great pains to explain how the conspiracy is so vast, and so sinister, that good and righteous journalists don't even know they're a part of it. The fact that journalists often savage politicians and governments is just more evidence of how secret the conspiracy is!

To him, free and competing media are just as controlled by conspiracy as Pravda was, except the free and competing media are controlled through a more intelligent, more sinister cabal.

Once he establishes that there is a conspiracy behind free media, Chomsky can argue for the strengthening of "the people's" power to control this cabal. Of course, under "the people's" power it will be run by the wise and the good like himself, and done so in the name of the public. And like all the communist experiments before him, it will end in mass murder and tyranny.

- Josh

February 07, 2006 1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did some more reading on V for Vendetta (wikipedia article) and discovered that the story isn't as pro-freedom as I had originally suspected (even the original comic). It seems that the story juxtiposes the extremes of freedom and control--suggesting that both are destructive (a common theme).

Anyway, even if this is not a clearly pro-freedom piece of propaganda, it can still be helpful in spreading anarchist ideas. For example, the link to anarchism is prominantly placed in the Wikipedia article. Maybe this is something worth Google-bombing. As publicity for the movie increases, we may be able to direct traffic to that Wikipedia article by getting a lot of folk to link to that article rather than to the WarnerBrothers site.

February 07, 2006 6:53 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Josh: "To him, free and competing media are just as controlled by conspiracy as Pravda was, except the free and competing media are controlled through a more intelligent, more sinister cabal."
But if they are controlled, they're not 'free and competing'...
See, this is the point of disagreement, whether or not you see our media as 'free and competing'. I definitely don't.
OTOH, I certainly don't think the answer is to replace one set of archons with another, and I can see some of that in Chomsky. His criticisms are pretty solid, it's just his solutions that kind of suck.
He'd probably answer that there's no possible way of having free and competing media; that seems to be his general answer to the free market - that it can't possibly exist.
However I don't take the opposite view either that the free market exists right now. It doesn't. There is no free market anywhere right now.

February 08, 2006 9:00 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

And like all the communist experiments before him, it will end in mass murder and tyranny.

Like it did in Yugoslavia? Oh wait.. it didn't.

Speaking of mass murder and tyranny, pick up a copy of "King Leopold's Ghost" for your reading pleasure.

You really should have made not sounding like an idiot one of your New Years' resolutions for '06, Josh.

February 08, 2006 1:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like it did in Yugoslavia? Oh wait.. it didn't.

Power Kills, Chapter 9

Tito's government killed about 500,000 people post-war.

You really should have made not sounding like an idiot one of your New Years' resolutions for '06, Josh.

You were saying?

- Josh

February 08, 2006 2:45 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Power Kills,

But I thought we were talking about Communism... oh, well -- can't blame you for moving the goalposts.

Tito's government killed about 500,000 people post-war.

That is not on the same magnitude as Stalin or Mao, and that was my point. I suppose it's a waste of my time to also point out the fact that there were a lot of conflicts during this era, and you had groups of all sorts competing for power. That you would focus on the statistics of only one of the combatants -- and not address the context of the violence of that region and period in history -- shows obvious bias on your part.

You were saying?

Um, is it safe for me to assume you haven't read the Manifesto? Commenting on an ideology without reading the blueprint of its proponents strikes me as beyond idiotic. But hey, if you like your information second-hand, go nuts.

February 09, 2006 2:57 PM  

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