Interview for Polish Outlet

I was recently interviewed for Polish publication about matters of media manipulation, etc.

1) Recently I’ve realised that very important thing in Poland is special kind of censorship. Its dangerous because most people are not aware of this. Before 1989 when the ‘communism’ has collapsed censorship was rather simple and easy to identify. Now it’s much more subtle. I would like to talk with you about techniques of control of public opinion. One of them, in my opinion, is calling people who are talking about social issues ‘populist’. In Poland there is a politician called Andrzej Lepper. I doubt that he is honest but he use to talk about poverty, umemployment, corruption, etc. And when you start to talk about these social issues in different ways than in mainstream media you could be sure that you would be called, without any argument, ‘populist’ and somebody will say that you are just another Lepper, which means that you are not smart and not serious. And most of the people in Poland are afraid of being called so. Is this the same in the USA?

Are there subtle and not so subtle mechanisms in the U.S. by which what appears in mainstream media is bounded and how it is presented is biased? Yes, on both counts. Arguably more so, and with more success at curbing public understanding of actual social relations than in any other country in the world. There are a great many studies and presentations dealing with this matter. I recommend, as but one example, “Manufacturing Consent,” by Chomsky and Herman. As to using labels or inuendo or other means to disparage individuals, yes, that occurs as well. In the U.S., however, calling someone a populist would not seriously disparage them in any respect because most people wouldn’t know what the word meant, and for those that did, it would be complimentary. There is an attempt to make words like progressive, or leftist, or even liberal convey, however, an image of lack of seriousness, yes.

2) Another techinque is, I think, that people in Poland have something that I would call ‘anti-communist bias’. Of course communism was a totalitarian system and many people were imprisoned, victimized, opressed, there was censorship and so on. But in Poland it’s not possible to talk about others, more positive aspects, for example that unemployment didn’t exist, you didn’t have to pay for education and health care, etc. I think that people in Poland have similar attitude to communism and USSR as people in Latin America to USA and capitalism. Could you comment this? Do you think that this bias could be used as a tool to limit social spendings and social security?

I don’t know Poland. If I had to guess I would say the mechanism would be to identify social spending and even just public concern wrongly with support of communism, and support of communism more or less justifiably with leaning toward totalitarianism, and thus social spending with totalitarianism. In this way one can make it appear there is what is called a slippery slope from being concerrned about poverty and injustice to being totalitarian in the old Polish sense. If that were true, people would of course not want to be on that slope. It is false, of course.

I actually don’t think there is an analogy to Latin America, however. Criticism of the U.S. there, only in some instances extends to criticism of capitalism per se, and when it does it does not enlarge to wrongful dismissal of positive attributes. Elites in Latin America certainly cannot manipulate criticism of the U.S. into opposition to desirable socail programs and policies.

3) It is easy to see how this ‘anti-comunist bias’ is working when you start talking about situation on Cuba. I think that we both agree that Castro is a dictator but, after discussion with you, I’ve check some facts and I was quite suprised. I’ve found that many social and economic factors are similar to this in the USA. For example, both in Cuba and in the USA, at the same level are such rates as infant mortality rate, live expectancy at birth, literacy. Unemployment is even lower than in the USA (4,1% in Cuba, 5,8% in the USA). But when you start talking about these facts you will be called ‘comunist’ and that’s the end of the discussion. Would you like to add something about social and economic conditions of living in Cuba? Does ‘anti-communist bias’ exist in the USA?

I would be surprised if infant mortality wasn’t comparable if not better in Cuba, and likewise life expectancy. These are remarkable facts. Remember, this is a third world country, a little island society, with very limited resources, largely banished from international exchange and barraged by terrorist assaults for essentially its entire existence, and emerging from draconian and anti social, impoverishment via the revolution fifty years ago, compared to the world’s super power, pursuing its social structures at the expense of others elsewhere for over two centuries. I would bet that literacy is higher in Cuba, as is broad public knowledge of world and even national relations.

Yes, of course anti-communism played a pivotal and powerful role in U.S. history, and to a degree still does, though much less so since the fall of the Soviet system. The dynamic was similar to what you describe. There is, again, a large literature about the role of anti-communism as a means of dismissing all dissent, not even just communist inspired dissent, in the U.S.

4) Another mechanism of social control is to make people say what other people (most often those with power) want to hear. If you want to finish studies, be a manager, professor, director or politician you mustn’t be honest. Honest people are being eliminated. Obedience and discipline are the most important things. You probably know this mechanism very well. Could you give us some hints how to avoid this?

If you are asking how to avoid being dishonest. Isn’t there only one answer to that question — tell the truth as you know it, and take the time and trouble to investigate so the odds are good that you do know it, and of course also always realize that maybe you don’t, so you need to be open to hearing and assessing contrary views. If you are asking how to go through a perverse educational system and occupy repressive jobs that incorporate a degree of responsibility and power in society, and yet also remain honest and caring — that is a more complex issue. I cannot answer for accomplishing that in Poland. I don’t know nearly enough about the context.

5) Today if you want to be scientist, for example an economist, you have to have very narrow specialization. You must spend all your time doing very particular tasks. You are not supposed to talk about such general things like ‘globalization’. Do you think that this is another technique of social control?

It could be, of course. But I have my doubts it is true in quite the form you are describing. I suspect you can be an economist in Poland and talk often and loudly about globalization. Your career will only be hurt if what you say is contrary to reigning ruling class agendas. I can’t imagine that there aren’t economists in Poland who attend to issues of international trade, the IMF, and so on. Of course there are. There are things you can’t talk much about, however, such as the structure of corporations, or the dynamics of profit making, or, yes, the actual and diverse effects of globalization, or even ecological dissolution, much less the actual workings of markets — but the issue that separates what is permissible from what isn’t isn’t wide or narrow, the issue is serviceable tor contrary to the interests of power.

6) What are the social conseqences of advertising and consumerism, in your opinion? What are the reasons that consumption is supposed to be the most important thing in our lives?

Advertising exists to win market share regardless of the broader social and economic implications. It imposes gigantic waste and biases choices, but it nonetheless persists because from the point of view of individual firms it is a necessity if one is to avoid being crowded out and if one is to try to win ever greater market share. Consumption is touted because (a) the system is able to produce large quantities of output but meager dignity, for example, so naturally the emphasis is on the outputs not the dignity, and (b) because it is the exchange of products that makes the wheels of commerce turn to the advantage of profiteers — and it is profiteers, owners, who determine what is and what isn’t emphasized in social life.

That said, consumption is in fact one of the most important things in our lives — try to imagine not consuming. But as you rightly imply, it is not alone important, nor should all things be channeled through consumption much less market norms and dyanmics. What is the consequence of the cash nexus of exchange gobbling up all sides of life — I suppose, in a nutshell, that anti social competition becomes ever present, that pursuit of income becomes myopically primary, and that not much is really sacred.

7) Do you agree that such expressions, which we often hear in Poland, like ‘market flexibility’ and ‘efficiency’ are often used as a ideological constructions which main aim is to rationalize conducted policies? It is often said that labour unions makes that unemployment is higher and this is theirs responsibility. How could comment this?

Of course it is mere hand waving and propaganda. Markets are a horrendous blight on humanity, imposing anti social behavior, mispricing almost all goods, violating ecology, commercializing what ought to be free from exchange norms, remunerating unjustly, imposing class division, and so on. They are arguably flexible about generating different brands of soda pop, yes, but they are inflexible about permitting dignity, self management, equity, and solidarity. They inflexibly obstruct this. They are arguably efficient about allowing owners to maximize profit and maintain the conditions of doing so, but are horribly inefficient about utilizing human and natural assets to meet needs and develop potentials, instead squandering and violating both. To say that unions are responsible for unemployment is like saying that efforts by slaves — or by workers in the old Poland — to achieve some degree of income and dignity were responsible for the tactics of slave owners and commissars (or of the very institutions of slavery and one party coordinatorism) to maintain repressive hierarchies. It is elite serving propagandistic lying.

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