Let's stay chummy, Chomsky

The intellectual behemoth may need to re-shape his views on the influence of popular culture if he is to retain his influence, Pat Kane warns

If radicalism ever had a top brand name, it would have to be Noam Chomsky. As an academic - the long-time professor of linguistics at MIT - he is encrusted with superlatives: the most quoted living scholar, and eighth on an all-time list (including Marx and Freud). His achievements in his work on the human capacity for language are frequently compared to those of Galileo or Newton. But it is as a radical critic of the American (and Western) imperium that Chomsky has become something of a media icon.

In a torrent of publications since the late Sixties, and via a seemingly permanent global lecture tour, Chomsky has sought to challenge the operations of elite power and illegitimate authority - which, by the light of his anarchist politics, means almost all authority. In the world according to Chomsky, South Vietnam was invaded by America, not North Vietnam; East Timor saw a veritable genocide supported by Western democracies, yet barely reported in their press. For Chomsky, democracy is something the West deters worldwide, not promotes; and the most effective propaganda machines don't exist in authoritarian societies, but in the free-speaking nations of liberal capitalism, the US most of all.

If this seems like the world turned upside-down, Chomsky tries to keep the picture that way with an exhaustive (and rarely refuted) body of research derived from his readings of the media of the day. It is this singular approach - combining the purest principle with the hardest facts - that has made Chomsky into something of a counter-cultural superstar, particularly among the alternative tribes of American youth.

The rather reverential new biography of Chomsky by Robert Barsky - A Life of Dissent - provides some useful personal insights into his background: the fascination with Spanish anarchism of the Thirties, the deep immersion in socialist-Zionist politics in his youth. And there are enough pictures of Chomsky the plain man - drinking beer in a Glasgow pub, for example, associating with the "riffraff" ("the kind of people I like and take seriously") - to reinforce his image as the most accessible radical intellectual.

But it is Chomsky's role as a media critic, not a media icon, which repays the most attention. On the cover of the 1994 Vintage paperback edition of Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media (co- written with Edward Herman), there is a tantalisingly blurred montage. The materials used seem to be a Labour Party pamphlet, and a broadsheet report on the abandonment of Clause IV. And if any phenomenon deserves a good Chomskyan pummelling - at least to relieve the boredom - it is the way that New Labour has managed its media impact over the past four years.

Manufacturing Consent outlines what Chomsky and Herman call the "propaganda model" - a framework for understanding how information is shaped as it passes through the mass media, commercial and public. They identified five institutional "filters" that do the shaping: these are ownership, advertising, "sourcing" (PR, spin-doctoring), "flak" (libel suits, letter campaigns, complaints to broadcasters), and finally anti-Communism (now recast as the "almost religious faith of the elites in markets"). In a recent piece Herman clarified how the model worked in Western democracies: "Propaganda campaigns can only occur when consistent with the interests of those controlling and managing the filters."

Beginning with the media spectacle of Clause IV being shorn of the principle of "common ownership", the New Labour "propaganda campaign" would seem to be almost entirely explicable by Chomsky and Herman's model. The filter of ownership was neutralised by Blair's explicit promise to lightly regulate domestic media empires: and as for advertisers, their sanction was removed by Blair's meritocratic, "nation-of-millionaires" rhetoric, which certainly assured them that (in Chomsky's words) they had a "supportive selling environment".

In terms of sourcing and flak, the control of information about the Party, the Maoist organisation of New Labour's PR machine could hardly be bettered. Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell constructed a miasmic network of computers and pagers, large and small spin doctors, long seductions and short bullying tactics - all designed to ensure that party representatives stayed "on-message" (indoctrination by any other words), and that journalists received that message unequivocally.

The fifth filter - the ideology of market virtue - was, again, almost immaculately conformed to by New Labour in its bid for political power. The "religiosity" about the market which Chomsky and Herman identify - where "regardless of evidence, markets are assumed benevolent and non- market institutions suspect" - is more distinctly American. Yet Blair's warm embrace of business leadership and corporate "dynamism" couples perfectly with his disdain for the trade unions, and his aim to "reform" what Chomsky calls "the hated contract" of the Welfare State.

However excessive you find Chomsky's left-libertarian politics, it is rather bracing to discover how well his "propaganda model" accounts for the media success of the New Labour project. In his contribution to the current 25th anniversary edition of Index on Censorship, Chomsky (talking about the US elections) makes this axiomatic point: "The public is not to see where power lies, how it shapes policy, and for what ends. Rather, people are to hate and fear one another" - whether it's welfare mothers driving Cadillacs or corrupt unions whose demands "deny their workers freedom". Meanwhile, General Electric and Merrill Lynch are presented as "ordinary folks just like us". Muse over that the next time New Labour's spin doctors orchestrate an attack on unemployed single mothers, and the embrace of another industry captain, in the same media moment.

Yet there is more media beyond news media - and it is just as important in the "manufacture of consent", or at least of our moral and emotional identities. Chomsky's puritan empiricism - partly derived from his thoroughly scientific view of language and the brain - becomes faintly comic whenever he considers the carnival of popular culture. I once interviewed him for the BBC and, after 45 minutes of stunning political and economic criticism, I ventured to ask him about what the American masses were actually watching. Wasn't a sit-com like Roseanne (with its gleeful deconstruction of right- wing "family values"), or a cartoon show like The Simpsons (as profound a satire on the emptiness of everyday capitalist culture as you could get), in some way progressive? Wasn't this radical popular culture? Quietly, as ever, Chomsky swept this idea aside. "This isn't real popular culture, the real art of the people. This is just stuff which is served up to them to rot their minds. Real popular culture is folk art - coalminers' songs and so forth."

As Barsky gently hints in his biography, Chomsky's severely rationalist mind-set could be something of a blind spot in his theory of how the media affect the masses. Maybe there's more to our consumption of culture than just a compensatory fantasy for powerlessness. Our desire to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster, even though we tolerate "high levels of personal restriction" in our lives as citizens and workers, is "arguably a phenomenon of considerable complexity", says Barsky. And perhaps it's exactly that kind of complexity which fails, or at least modifies, a Chomskian reading of New Labour. Even though the agenda was (and remains) painfully neo- Thatcherite, why did that large minority of the popular buy the ticket - and in exactly the right cinemas - to see Blair: The Movie? Chomsky remains a powerful brand, reliable and long-term. But we need more than the ascetic anarchist - and the cognitive scientist - to understand these thoroughly mediated times

`Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent' by Robert F Barsky is published by The MIT Press, pounds 17.95. The 25th anniversary issue of `Index on Censorship', including Noam Chomsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wole Soyinka and others, pounds 7.99.

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