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 In an unpublished introduction to Animal Farm Orwell warned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
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
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
Burwood Victoria 3125
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