On Propaganda

Noam Chomsky interviewed by unidentified interviewer

WBAI, January, 1992

… [T]his became a part of contemporary political science, the founder of the modern field of communications, one of the leading american political scientists, Harold Laswell he explained a couple of years after this in the early 1930’s that should no succumb to what he called democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests, because they’re not, they’re not the best judges of their own interests, WE’RE the best judges of their interests and we have to therefore just out of ordinary morality make sure that they don’t have an opportunity to opt to act on the basis of their misjudgements and the way we nowadays in whats nowadays called a totalitarian state/military state or something, it’s easy you just hold a bludgeon over their heads and if they get out of line you just smash them over the head, but as societies become more free and democratic you lose that capacity and therefore you have to turn to the techniques of propaganda.

The logic is clear — propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state and that’s wise and good because again the common interests elude the bewildered herd, they cant figure them out. The public relations industry not only took this ideology on very explicitly but also acted on it, that’s a huge industry, spending hundreds of..by now probably on the order of a billion dollars a year on it or something and its committment all along was to controlling the public mind.

In the 1930’s big problems arose again as they had during the first world war. there was huge depression, there was substantial labor organizing, in fact in 1935 labor won its first major legislative victory, namely the right to organize with the wagner act, and that raised two serious problems for one thing democracy was misfunctioning the bewildered herd was actually winning legislative victories and it’s not supposed to work that way, the other problem was it was becoming possible for people to organize and people have to be atomized and separated and alone.

They’re not supposed to organize because then they might be able to actually exert some, they might be something beyond spectators of action they might actually be participants if many people with limited resources could get together to enter the political arena, that’s really threatening and a major response was taken on the part of business to ensure that this would be the last legislative victory for labor and that it would be the beginning of the end of this democratic deviation of popular organization and in fact it worked that was the last legislative victory for labor and from that point on, although the no of people in the unions in fact increased for a while from the second world war it started dropping, the capacity to act through the unions began a steady drop. and it wasn’t by accident.

We are now talking about the business community which spends lots and lots of money and attention and thought into how to deal with these problems through the public relations industry and other organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable these days and so on. They set to work immediately to try to find a way to counter these democratic deviations, the first major effort, the first trial was a year later. In 1936 there was a major strike, the Bethlehem steel strike out in Western Pennsylvania, Johnstown, the mohawk valley and business tried out a new technique of destruction of labor which worked, worked very well, it was through propaganda.

Not through goon squads,breaking knees and all that kind of business which wasn’t working very well anymore but through the more subtle and effective means of propaganda. The idea was to figure out ways to turn the public against the strikers, to present the strikers as disruptive, harmful to the public, against the common interests and the common interests are those of US, the businessman, the worker, the housewife and so on, that’s all US, and we want to be just together, we want to have things like harmony, and Americanism and working together and so on and then theres those bad strikers out there who are kind of disruptive and causing trouble and breaking harmony and violating Americanism and we have to stop them so we can all live together, the corporate executive and the guy who cleans the floor who all have the same interests. we can all work together and work for Americanism in harmony, liking each other, that was essentially the message and a huge amount of effort was put into presenting it.

Recall after all this was the business community, so they control the media and have massive resources and so on. And it worked very effectively, in fact it was later called the mohawk valley formula applied over and over again to break that strike and these were called scientific methods of strike breaking and they worked very effectively. Mobilize community opinion in favor of vapid empty concepts like americanism – who can be against that? or harmony, who can be against that? Or to bring it upto date, Support our troops – who can be against that, or yellow ribbons – who can be against that?

Anything that’s totally vacuous and diverts, after all what does it mean to be in favor of .. suppose somebody asks, do you support the people in Iowa, can you say I support them or no I don’t support them. It’s not even a question it doesn’t even mean anything. And that’s the point of public relations slogans like support our troops is that they don’t mean anything, they mean as much as whether you support the people in Iowa.

Of course there was an Issue — the issue was do you support our policy but you don’t want people to think about the issue that’s the whole point of good propaganda, you want to create a slogan that nobody is gonna be against and I suppose everybody will be for because nobody knows what it means because it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s crucial value is it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something. Do you support our policy and that’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.

So you have people arguing about do I support the troops, of course I don’t? etc and then you go on. That’s like Americanism and harmony, we’re all together, empty slogans that somehow join in and lets make sure we don’t have all these bad people around who disrupt all of our harmony with their talk about class struggle and their rights and that sort of business. Well, that’s all very effective, it runs right up to today and of course it is carefully thought out. You know the people in the PR industry aren’t there for the fun of it, they’re doing work, they’re trying to instill the right values, infact they have a conception of what a democracy ought to be, it ought to be a system in which the specialized class are trained to do their work for the service of the masters, the people who own the society, and the rest of the population ought to be deprived of any form of organization because organization just causes trouble.

They ought to be just sitting alone in front of the television set and having drilled into their heads daily the message which says the only value in life is to have more commodities, or to live like that rich middle class family you’re watching and to have nice values like harmony and americanism and that’s all there is in life. You may think in your own head that there’s got to be something more in life than this but since you’re watching the tube alone you assume I must be crazy because that’s all that’s is going on over there, and since there’s no organization permitted, that’s absolutely crucial, you never have a way of finding out whether you’re crazy and you just assume it because it’s the natural thing to assume. That’s the ideal and great efforts were made into trying to achieve that ideal and there is a certain conception of democracy behind it.