The Limits of Thinkable Thought

Scott Burchill


societies which like to call themselves free and open, liberty is usually

defined in contrasting terms. State propaganda and indoctrination, for example,

are said to be exclusive characteristics of unfree or totalitarian states at

both ends of the ideological spectrum.


danger of defining our society in opposition to less desirable ‘others’ is that

it relieves us of the burden of internal vigilance and introspection. It is

comforting and sometimes reassuring to know that other communities are

demonstrably less privileged than ours but it can also lead us to complacent

assumptions about our own capacity for free thought and expression.


Orwell offered a preliminary explanation of how thought control also operated in

liberal democracies. In an unpublished introduction to Animal Farm Orwell warned

that "the sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is

largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept

dark, without any need for an official ban".


liberal societies, voluntary censorship is certainly more effective than the

coercion practiced by dictatorships, which only encourages resistance to

authority and ruling ideas. In democratic societies, ruling elites cannot

control the population by violence and fear. They must therefore use more subtle

and sophisticated mechanisms to maintain what Orwell called "smelly little

orthodoxies". But how does voluntary censorship operate in open societies?


line of argument claims that the challenge for elites is to combine effective

indoctrination with the impression that society is really free and open. This

can be done by setting the intellectual boundaries within which ‘legitimate’

ideas can be ‘freely’ expressed. According to Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky, these

boundaries are most effective when they are implicit and presupposed, and rarely

when they are openly dictated by the state. According to Chomsky, "a

principle familiar to propagandists is that the doctrine to be instilled in the

target audience should not be articulated: that would only expose them to

reflection, inquiry, and, very likely, ridicule. The proper procedure is to

drill them home by constantly presupposing them, so that they become the very

condition for discourse".


presuppositions then act as the framework for ‘thinkable thought’ instead of

being assumptions which deserve critical evaluation. The debates and dissent

which we believe characterise our freedom are permitted and even encouraged, but

within tightly prescribed and largely invisible boundaries, leaving us with the

satisfying impression that our societies are ‘open’ and ‘free’. As Milan Rai

argues, "we can no longer perceive the ideas that are shaping our thoughts,

as the fish cannot perceive the sea".


the spectrum of permitted expression is a highly effective form of ideological

control. There are many contemporary illustrations which deserve fuller

analyses, but here are just a sample.


is presupposed that the free market, or more accurately state capitalism, is the

superior configuration of political economy. The collapse of centrally planned

economies in Eastern Europe reinforced the argument that liberal capitalism is

the endpoint of humankind’s ideological evolution: that it has no serious

rivals. What passes for economic debate and comment in the Western media,

therefore, centres on the question of optimal policy settings – which policies

will produce economic ‘success’ defined in state capitalist terms – high growth,

high profits, low inflation, free trade, international competitiveness, etc,?

The debate over the ‘correct’ policy ‘mix’ is relatively free and open, but

questioning the system of state capitalism itself, and in particular whether it

is characterised by unjust class divisions, is beyond the bounds of expressible

dissent. Economic analysis and commentary sticks rigidly to ‘problem-solving’,

where prevailing economic arrangements are assumed to be immutable, and the only

challenge is to make existing institutions work more efficiently.


controlled dissidence, or what Chomsky calls "feigned dissent", which

occurs within the parameters of legitimate thought, has the effect of

reinforcing existing economic arrangements by appearing to oppose elite

interests, while not actually challenging them. The claim that within free

societies a great battle of ideas is taking place is in fact an illusion because

views which are genuinely outside the elite consensus are voluntarily censored

from any discussion of policy options. ‘Free trade’, for example, is an article

of faith amongst Western policy makers and media commentators. Protectionism is

demonised as if it were, in Edward Luttwark words, "sinful". And yet

protectionism was a fundamental pre-requisite for the transformation of Europe

and the United States into industrial societies, just as industry policy was

crucial to economic development in East Asia.


the popular expression "a shareholding democracy", an oxymoron which

has entered our political discourse without obvious challenge. In a democracy -

at least in theory – the principle of ‘one vote one value’ ensures that no

electoral advantage is conferred on the wealthy and that the poor have an equal

say in the determination of a government. However, at a company AGM individual

shareholders soon discover that a very different principle operates.

Institutions, which maintain a controlling interest over executive and board

appointments in most large corporations, go through the motions of allowing the

‘mums and dads’ to let off steam about executive salaries or plummeting share

prices, but it is well understood that an individual’s influence over these

issues is directly proportional to their stockholding. Votes, and therefore

influence over company business, are purchased in shares with the wealthiest

having the most say, the very opposite of the democratic process.


can two antithetical principles be conflated in the one phrase without howls of

derisory laughter?


the way foreign policy towards Indonesia was framed by successive Australian

governments over the last two decades. Defenders of ‘good relations’ with

Jakarta claimed that in human rights advocacy the only alternative to what was

called "quiet diplomacy" was "hectoring " or "megaphone

diplomacy". In other words, there was no middle ground between what was

effectively appeasement (though never conceded as such) and counter-productive

moral lecturing from the sidelines. In reality, the debate was framed in this

way to give the impression that responsible and effective representations were

being made by Canberra in Jakarta – and this was the only way progress could be

made – when in fact virtually nothing tangible was ever achieved. "Quiet

diplomacy" only enhanced Canberra’s moral culpability for ongoing human

rights violations perpetrated by the Suharto regime, which in official circles

was never referred to as a "dictatorship" until after it was safely

consigned to history.


warned that in a democracy an orthodoxy was "a body of ideas which it is

assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question".

Dissenters may not share the personal risks faced by their counterparts living

under dictatorships, but their voices may meet just as much resistance.

"Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with

surprising effectiveness".


metaphor may be anachronistic, but Orwell’s warning has contemporary relevance

for all modern liberal democracies. "To exchange one orthodoxy for another

is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not

one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment".



Lecturer in International Relations

School of Australian and International Studies

Deakin University

Burwood Victoria 3125



a critical analysis of current international issues and events visit IR Online

at: http://arts.deakin.edu.au/IR/


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