Sunday, 2 March 2008

Manufacturing Consent : Noam Chomsky and the Media

Synopsis from Wikipedia: Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992) is a documentary film that explores the political life and ideas of Noam Chomsky, a linguist, intellectual, and political activist. Created by two Canadian independent filmmakers, Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, it expands on the ideas of Chomsky's earlier book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which he co-wrote with Edward S. Herman.

The film presents and illustrates Chomsky's and Herman's propaganda model, the thesis that corporate media, as profit-driven institutions, tend to serve and further the agendas of the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society. A centerpiece of the film is a long examination into the history of The New York Times's coverage of Indonesia's invasion and occupation of East Timor, which Chomsky claims exemplifies the media's unwillingness to criticize an ally.

Until the release of The Corporation (2003), made by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan, it was the most successful documentary in Canadian history, playing theatrically in over 300 cities around the world; winning 22 awards; appearing in more than 50 international film festivals; and being broadcast in over 30 markets. It has also been translated into a dozen languages.

Chomsky's response to the film was mixed; in a published conversation with Achbar and several activists, he stated that film simply doesn't communicate his message, leading people to believe that he is the leader of some movement that they should join. In the same conversation, he criticizes the New York Times review of the film, which mistakes his message for being a call for voter organizing rather than media critique.

Quotes from the film

“In a totalitarian state, it doesn't matter what people think, since the government can control people by force using a bludgeon. But when you can't control people by force, you have to control what people think, and the standard way to do this is via propaganda (manufacture of consent, creation of necessary illusions), marginalizing the general public or reducing them to apathy of some fashion.

“It's the primary function of the mass media in the United States to mobilize public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector.

“If you want to understand how a particular society works, you have to understand who makes the decisions that determine the way a society functions. In the U.S., the major decisions over what happens in a society (investment, production, distribution, etc.) are in the hands of a relatively concentrated network of major corporations, conglomerates, and investment firms. They're also the ones who staff the major executive positions in the government, and they're the ones who own the media, and are the ones who are in the position to make decisions. They have an overwhelmingly dominant role in the way life happens, what's done in this society.

“War is a serious business, and in a totalitarian society, the dictator simply says 'we're going to war' and everybody marches.

“These are not just academic exercises. We're not analyzing the media on Mars, or in the 18th century, or something like that. We're dealing with real human beings who are suffering and dying and being tortured and starving, because of policies that we are involved in – we as citizens of democratic societies are directly involved in and responsible for. And what the media are doing is ensuring that we do not act on our responsibilities, and that the interests of power are served, not the interests of suffering people and not the needs of the American people who would be horrified if they realized the blood that's dripping from their hands because of the way they're allowing themselves to be deluded and manipulated by the system.

“I think what used to be called centuries ago 'wage slavery' is intolerable. I don't think people ought to be forced to rent themselves in order to survive. I think that the economic institutions ought to be run democratically by their participants, by the communities in which they exist, and so on. And basically through various kinds of free association.

“My work is not directed to intellectuals, but to what are called 'ordinary people.' And in fact what I expect from them is exactly what they are, that they should understand the world and act according to their decent impulses. And that they should try to improve the world.

“I'm helping people develop intellectual self-defense... I don't mean go to school, because you're not going to get it there... It means that you have to develop an independent mind, and work on it. That's extremely hard to do alone... The beauty of our system is that it isolates everybody. Each person is sitting alone in front of the tube. It's very hard to have ideas or thoughts under those circumstances. You can't fight the world alone. Some people can, but it's pretty rare. The way to do it is through organization.”

“I do not think that the state ought to have the right to determine historical truth and to punish people who deviate from that truth. I'm not willing to give the state that right [...]. If you believe in freedom of speech you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like. Göbbels was in favour of freedom of speech for views he liked.. so was Stalin. [...] If you are in favour of freedom of speech, that means you are in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise - otherwise you're not in favour of freedom of speech.”

“The point is that you have to work. And that's why the propaganda system is so successful. Very few people are going to have the time or the energy or the commitment to carry out the constant battle that's required to get outside of Lehrer, or Dan Rather, or somebody like that. The easy thing to do, you know, you come home from work, you're tired, you had a busy day, you're not going to spend the evening carrying out a research project. So you turn on the tube, you say it's probably right, or you look at the headlines in the paper, and then you're watching sports or something. That's basically the way the system of indoctrination works. Sure the other stuff is there, but you're going to work to find it.

“Modern industrial civilization has developed within a certain system of convenient myths. The driving force of our 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's 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 it entails, as long as it's 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, and 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 elites 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.

The Corporation

In short, THE CORPORATION explores the nature and spectacular rise of the dominant institution of our time. Footage from pop culture, advertising, TV news, and corporate propaganda, illuminates the corporation's grip on our lives. Taking its legal status as a "person" to its logical conclusion, the film puts the corporation on the psychiatrist's couch to ask "What kind of person is it?" Provoking, witty, sweepingly informative, The Corporation includes forty interviews with corporate insiders and critics - including Milton Friedman, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Michael Moore - plus true confessions, case studies and strategies for change.


The film is based on the book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Baka

Further below is the film review I wrote on first seeing this film. Regardless of my class analysis of the film, I still maintain it is one of the best documentaries ever made and a must-watch if you really want to know the nature of the beast.




The Corporation
Approx 145 minutes
Directed by Mark Achban, Jennifer Abbot, Joel Bakan

The Corporation begins with a little US political history, observing how, in the 19th Century, corporations as we know them were “benevolent” associations of people with government charters to serve the public good. When, in the late 1860s, the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution recognised the slave as having human rights, the nascent corporate elite of the times had their lawyers stake their claim to the same rights with the Supreme Court. They fought and won and the state henceforth recognised the corporation as a human being, a person in law, with the same right to life, liberty and property.
This leads us to one of the big questions of the film: if corporations are legally defined as people, then what kind of people are they? One way the film addresses this question is to call in the FBI’s Consultant on Psychopaths, Dr Robert Hare. Hare, proceeds to run through a check-list of the traits of your run-of-the-mill psychopath before concluding that the modern corporation, bearing no moral responsibility for its actions, is very much the prototypical psychopath.

Much of the remainder of the film is given over to proving this claim beyond all reasonable doubt and many authoritative witnesses are wheeled in to testify. And what a selection of witnesses there are! – Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein, Anita Roddick, Vandana Shiva, Michael Moore; experts from every field and all manner of labour rights organisations and grass roots activists, economists such as Milton Friedman and many CEOs. Their statements amount to a damning examination of the nature and personality of the modern corporation, charting its growth, its extending influence and downright indifference to democracy and how, as one commentator observes it has turned into a “monster, trying to devour as much profit as possible at anyone’s expense.”

What we are presented with is an image of all powerful organisations running wild, rabid with greed, superpowers, for whom there is “no such thing as enough” (Moore), for whom “everything is legitimate in the pursuit of profit” (Roddick). Modern corporations are presented as the “new high priests”, more powerful than governments and accountable only to their stakeholders, their brand labels protected by more legislation than covers the rights of the children who sew them onto their overpriced merchandise.

The film pits competing ideas on the modern corporation against one another. We are at one stage shown the offices of the National Labour Committee and hear Executive Director Charles Kernaghan revealing the level of exploitation of workers in the Dominican Republic (who for instance earn 75 cents for each Nike jacket that sells for $178 and 3 cents for a tee shirt that retails at $14.) We are shown the living conditions of those same desperate workers and hear their own testimony as to the level of their destitution and then listen to Michael Walker of the corporate think tank The Fraser Institute expounding his views on the role competitive markets play in providing for the economic and social well-being and how he believes firms such as Nike are an “enormous godsend” to people in the Dominican Republic

The film contains much that is totally fascinating. One section looks at big business and its penchant for the dictatorial regime. We are shown how a punch card system devised and regularly maintained by IBM (operating out of New York) processed millions of concentration camp victims and how Coca Cola, faced with the possibility of having its operation curtailed in Nazi Germany, simply changed its name to Fanta. Much evidence is presented as to how corporate allegiance to profit transcends its loyalty to national flags and we are presented with one startling fact: that in one week 57 US companies were fined for trading with enemies of the US. Contemplating big business’s links to tyrannical regimes, one commentator asks “is it narcissism that compels them to seek their reflection in the regimented structure of fascist regimes?”

One of several cases studies the film presents is that relating to Monsanto (famous for Agent Orange and 50,000 birth defects in Vietnam) and its manufacture of Posilac. This was a drug which, when injected into cows, increased their milk yield. That the world was awash with milk did not concern Monsanto; they were far more interested in profits and eventually were supplying a quarter of US dairy herds with the product. But because cows were not meant to produce so much milk, their udders went into overdrive and became infected with mastitis, the puss from which infected the milk. Not only were humans suffering the effects of the chemicals injected into the milk, their milk was now infected with mastitis puss. Monsanto’s reaction was to deny all allegations and to lie like condemned murderers.

The modern corporation is perhaps most vilified for its total lack of respect for the environment and the point is stressed in the film that the biosphere is dying, that every living system is in decline. Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface Inc, who has won much acclaim promoting the idea that environmental responsibility makes good business sense, is seen addressing an audience of business leaders in North Carolina. Greeting them as “fellow plunderers” he goes on to tell them that there is “not an industrial company in the world that is sustainable.”

Robert Weismann of Multinational Monitor reminds us that the cost of getting caught for their corporate transgressions – i.e. environmental pollution – is, more often than not, less than the cost of complying with existing environmental legislation. Dr Vandara Shiva, physicist and ecologist, despairingly contemplates the suicide gene built into new strains of cash crop seeds, the new terminator technology that makes the third world farmer dependent ever on the seed supplier (instead of traditionally putting aside a portion of the harvest as seeds for the following year), and calls them inventions of a “brutal mind”

For the multinational, nothing is sacred. Even the US Patent Office has conceded defeat in its attempts to halt corporations patenting life forms and bear out Roddick’s sentiments that every means is legitimate if the end be profit. Climbing down from one seven year battle with big business, they had this to say: “You can patent anything in the world which is alive except a full birth human being.”

The film nears an end with a case study of the privatisation of the water supply of Cochabamba, Bolivia, at the bequest of the World Bank, focusing particularly on the residents of Cochabamba and their run in with the forces of the state on behalf of Bechtel, a San Francisco based company who bought the water company. So adamant were the powers that be to force the people to bow to the power of Bechtel that they demolished their homes for non payment of their exorbitant water rates and made the collecting of rain water illegal. The frustration spilled onto the streets with huge demonstrations and riots and violent clashes with the police. Eventually, though, Bechtel were forced to pull out of their Bolivian venture, but not before they had put in a claim for $25 million in compensation.

It is from this case study and other cited instances of green activism that we are meant to draw inspiration; the message being that the corporation should not underestimate the power of the people, that “the workers, united, can never be defeated.” Of course, corporations are advised to tidy up their act too. Michael Moore tells us that there should be more governmental controls and the film ends with Moore hoping the film will prompt people “to do something, anything, to get the world back in our hands”. This clearly suggests that Moore, and others who promote similar ideas in the film are missing the point. Granted, it is commendable, tragic even, that workers are prepared to often risk life and limb to defend basic rights and to confront the most harrowing injustices perpetrated by corporations. But it is a dangerous to believe that such grassroots action amounts to wresting control of the world away from its current owners.

If anyone considers this film a trumpet call for social change, a reveille for revolution, they are mistaken. The capitalist system is left unscathed. Nowhere is the logic of the market-driven profit system challenged. Nowhere are all of the case studies and criticism of corporate power and abuse rooted in a wider context. Nowhere does a commentator lambast the global “can’t pay, can’t have society” that consigns the greater portion of the planet to lives of abject misery. And no interviewee comes near to demanding the abolition of the capitalists system and its replacement with a system of society based on free access. Capitalism is taken for granted as being immutable and all that is being asked at the end is that corporations wear a smiley face and stop behaving so horridly.

Moore may well contemplate why such films are broadcast by TV corporations, in spite of the fact that they attack corporate power – for the record, he suggests it is because there is profit to be made by them and he may partly right – but he fails to grasp that this, and similar films like Fahrenheit 911, nowhere query the basis of class society - the setup that allows the ownership of property by one privileged class, and the consequent enslavement of one class by another is in no way threatened and the TV company broadcasting programmes revealing corporate crimes is aware of this.
I’d really hate to rubbish this film but, in truth, The Corporation simply echoes the sentiments of the anti-globalisation movement – the demand for greater corporate responsibility, reform of international institutions, expansion of democracy and fairer trading conditions, for instance – while allowing capitalism to carry on perpetrating every social ill that plagues us.

The Corporation is undoubtedly a remarkable expose of the modern corporation at its ugliest, at the lengths multinationals will go to and the depths they will stoop to in the search for profit. The film stands as a brilliant critique of corporate power and everything we associate with it and is a much needed resource in revealing the insanity of the present system. And as far as enthusing green revolutionaries and lending weight to the anti-globalisation cause is concerned the film is a powerful tool. But that is all.