Manufacturing Consent Was Too Optimistic
John M. Bunch
July 20, 2022
Manufacturing Consent Was Too Optimistic John Milton Bunch 4 July 2023 In his June 20, 2023 essay entitled “Beyond Manufacturing Consent,” Douglas Lain notes both the current influence of the Herman-Chomsky public information/media model on the left, and the seeming failure of this model to account for the rise of a codified government effort to curate and control public discourse. In this essay I’m going to present, from as strong of a cognitivist’s perspective as Chomsky himself would attempt, what I see as a flaw at the core of the model. A flaw that explains why Douglas Lain makes the observations he does, and gives us a path to move beyond Manufacturing Consent . Any social theory, including the Hermann-Chomsky model, must have a model of the individual: a proposed collection of attributes that make us human, some theory of cause-and-effect relationships between the individual and the external world, and some concept of individual agency. When the theory has a political end, such as to identify a specific, undesirable state of affairs and propose a change, it’s using in no small part its model of the individual to make specific predictions. This model of the individual is often called the subject , and at the core of any political, social or moral philosophy exist specific claims about its nature. In this essay I will argue that it’s these very claims that need to be revised. The Hermann-Chomsky model itself references and effectively builds on the model of information control presented in Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion , while at the same time railing against Lippmann’s low estimation of the “bewildered herd” – that large swath of the population in need of having their consent manufactured by a specialized class of responsible professionals who act in the best interest of all. The important point here is that Lippmann’s model is largely Chomsky’s model with one crucial difference: Lippmann, writing early in the 20th century and at the dawn of the electronic information age, argued that his model should be implemented; while Hermann and Chomsky, writing some 60 years later and just prior to the Internet age of interactive media, recognized the existing reality of Lippmann’s vision and argued for its destruction. Chomsky vs Lippmann on the Nature of the Subject It’s the model of the subject that separates the two. Lippmann views the subject as in need of social hierarchy to thrive – from his perspective, most people have little interest in maximizing their unique human potential. Rather, the common good comes from the creation by the smart of an information infrastructure for the less smart to operate within. While Lippmann’s proposal can be called a scientific approach to public policy, it’s important to remember that assumptions about what’s best for the subject are not. While science can inform our answer to such a question, the choice we make is beyond its scope. Chomsky, on the other hand, views the individual as a collection of potentials waiting to be explored, but constrained by arbitrary social forces that prevent it. Chomsky’s goal, then, is to create the conditions (libertarian socialism) under which an individual may best be empowered to explore and develop these potentials. In stark contrast to Lippmann, Chomsky considers the dismantling of Lippmann’s form of social control the moral choice. As a scientist, Chomsky doesn’t deny the reality of individual differences and the influence of innate factors on conscious thought and behavior. As a social critic and philosopher, he recognizes that while science can inform our response to questions of ethics and morality, and by extension social organization, it cannot answer them. In What Sort of Creatures Are We , Chomsky explicit references the Enlightenment subject as the appropriate moral perspective on the individual. In summary, much like Rousseau’s noble savage is uncorrupted by civilization, Chomsky’s subject is a creature with both the potential and desire for a transcendent freedom, but this potential is thwarted by existing social, economic, and information structures. Thus, by recognizing and dismantling the information model described in Manufacturing Consent , the individual is freed to better maximize their unique human potential. It's this particular view of the subject that both defines Chomsky as a leftist and delineates his particular leftist philosophy. While he holds the Enlightenment subject as the beneficiary of social progress, his epistemology is that of the post-positivist cognitive scientist. He rejects any tabula rasa arguments and understands that people can be fundamentally different, and this difference results in part from physiology. He also understands that human rationality is, as noted by Herbert Simon, quite bounded. In other words, people have limited capabilities, cognitive and otherwise, and we need to develop an understanding and appreciation of that. This is not meant to be cynical; simply a statement of fact that we must come to terms with if we are to truly progress as a species and work toward the common good. However, while the human animal has limits, within those limits the possibilities are infinite. Chomsky uses the example of English as being infinite, yet not limitless as it doesn’t include Greek. To Chomsky, it’s enough to foster the maximization of whatever potential humans have, limited as it may be. And the best way to foster this is to create conditions that remove barriers to the expression of those potentials (i.e., transition from capitalism to libertarian socialism). While Chomsky acknowledges the empirical observation of innate, individual differences in ability and potential, he quite clearly locates the maximizing of these potentials as the driving force behind his political philosophy. He assumes the universality of the benefit of No Master (absence of non-anarchist social and economic hierarchy) across all individuals, and by doing so is making a specific fact claim: it’s the nature of all subjects to thrive outside the boundaries of arbitrary subordination and domination. Lippmann’s subject has neither the desire nor potential for Chomsky’s freedom (Or at least most individuals do not – perhaps a case could be made that some do, and these are the ones who end up in the executive class). Rather, the bewildered herd is happy to remain willfully ignorant on real public affairs, preferring instead to create their own universes of stereotypes and superstition while attending to their day-to-day work. The moral act, then, is to create a system that allows them to do just that, within the context of pro-social boundaries defined by an elite class. The Internet as Empirical Test of Assumptions About the Subject In the pre-Internet era in which it was released, Manufacturing Consent seemed a powerful, explanatory model of information control. Post-Internet, however, Douglas Lain is correct – the model no longer accounts for what we’re seeing. The Internet was an empirical test for Manufacturing Consent : Internet technology offered an inexpensive and universally available tool for communication and learning, bypassing the need for the corporate media at the heart of the Hermann-Chomsky model. The death knell of the old, centralized media of newspapers and TV networks could be heard by anyone listening before 1995. And the old media syndicates have largely died away. But rather than seek out their own education and information, the bewildered herd used Internet technology to create personal information bubbles where intellectual growth could stop forever, replaced by a never-ending stream of self-selected information chosen to stoke the personal pleasure furnace of confirmation bias and self-righteous indignation. It’s difficult not to see Lippmann’s assumptions about the nature of the subject in this observation. Neither politicians nor most large corporations understood what the Internet was in its early days, and were in no position to direct its development. Rather, it was driven by the twin processes of technical innovation and user demand. By the turn of the 21st century this new, interactive information landscape was in place, enabling a new era of direct discourse and information access and completely bypassing Lippmann’s executive class. But that’s not the direction the people chose. What happened to Chomsky’s subject? Are we truly willing to invoke the argument that the weight of history/capitalism is so utterly oppressive and total that people simply could not recognize an exit door and instead wrapped themselves in cable news, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, etc. to replace what was removed? If true, it would mean that individual agency is so utterly subservient to external forces that there is no potential to “free” anything – it’s simply a battle over the content of the information environment. On the other hand, this seems to be the exact state of affairs described by Douglas Lain. The Enlightenment Subject is Dead. Long Live the Enlightenment Subject It’s becoming increasingly difficult to agree with Chomsky’s assumption that the subject is striving to be free of domination. In fact, it’s my contention that we need to extend our understanding of individual differences into this dimension. I firmly believe that some people would and do thrive under the very conditions Chomsky (we could invoke Marx here as well, as Marx makes the same error - a fact claim about universal attributes of of the subject that may not be accurate. But let's save that for another adventure). However, I seriously doubt we can make such assumptions about everyone. In other words, I am rejecting a specific, factual claim Chomsky makes about the nature of the subject – that it contains a striving to maximize its potential beyond the arbitrary constraints of others. Specifically, I’m reducing this claim from a universal attribute of the human animal to a preference among some individuals. In other words, it’s an attribute of a phenotype, not the entire species. While the development of the Internet alone seems a powerful argument against the Enlightenment subject, at least as conceived by Chomsky, empirical data suggests that political choice is influenced by unconscious processes such as physiological differences in neural response to the same emotionally-laden stimuli (see for example Woo-Young, et al., 2014, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.050 ), and there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that biological factors make a real impact on political belief and choice (this Wikipedia page gives a reasonable summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biology_and_political_orientation ). Certainly, none of these things are proof positive that the Enlightenment subject was a mere ghost. Rather, the upshot is that it may very well be the case that hierarchy-loving Christian conservatives are biologically predisposed to that state, while the Sublation Magazine reader may be biologically predisposed to prefer the rarefied version of the Enlightenment subject presented by Karl Marx. One cannot thrive under the conditions of the other. This perspective runs contrary to specific leftist agendas, such as that of Bhaskar Sunkara as described in his The Socialist Manifesto . In this work, Sunkara is clearly under the spell of the Enlightenment subject as he details a hypothetical socialist near-future in which individuals either actively participate in the full operation of corporations, or otherwise pursue their own unique, self-selected interests unencumbered by an unfair economic and social hierarchy. It’s just a matter of changing laws and creating conditions in the near and immediate term that will unlock the door to the socialist future. Sunkara makes an enormous assumption here: The majority of citizens will happily participate and thrive once they recognize the benefit of these new social and economic structures. I hope this essay has encouraged the reader to deeply question such assumptions. So where does this leave us, dear leftist reader? The Enlightenment subject is in grave danger, attacked from all sides (as Douglas Lain observes), and we’re going to have to do some serious self-reflection in order to save it. I’m afraid I can’t offer an alternative grand narrative. In fact, perhaps we need to focus less on grand narratives and more on real people. They might be different than what our grand narratives assume.