the limits of thinkable thought

The Australian Financial Review (Review Section), 18 February, 2000

 

In societies which like to call themselves open and free, 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.

One danger of defining our society in opposition to less desirable 'others' is that it relieves us of the burden of internal scrutiny and introspection. It is 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.

George Orwell offered an 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 In an unpublished introduction to Animal Farm Orwell warned that "the sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.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."

In 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?

One 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."

The presuppositions then act as the framework for 'thinkable thought' instead of being assumptions which deserve to be challenged, or at least critically evaluated. 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 comforting 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."

Defining the spectrum of permitted expression is a highly effective form of ideological control. There are many contemporary illustrations which deserve fuller analyses, but here is just a sample.

It 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 Francis Fukuyama's 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 or growing disparities of wealth and income, 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.  

Paradoxically, 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 untrue because views which are genuinely outside the elite consensus are voluntarily censored from any discussion of policy options. Free trade is an article of faith amongst Western policy makers and media commentators. No-one in the mainstream media challenges its principles. Protectionism, on the other hand, 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 state co-ordination of industry was crucial to economic development in East Asia.

Consider 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.

How can two antithetical principles be conflated in the one phrase without howls of derisory laughter?

In theory, the citizens of liberal-democratic states such as Australia get to choose the policies they desire at parliamentary elections. In practice the choices are very limited. Critics argue that the function of the two-party system is to offer voters the illusion of choice while essentially maintaining the status quo. The ideological convergence of the two major parties means that the spectrum of available policy options is so narrow, it is really not accurate to speak of a meaningful choice at all. In the US voters get to choose between rival factions of the business party.

Take 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 or even attempted. "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.

Orwell 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."

The 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."

An earlier version of this essay was published as Exposing the Limits of Thinkable Thought, Australian Financial Review (Review Section), 18 February, 2000 and as The Limits of Thinkable Thought, The Galt Global Review (Vancouver), Issue 7, August 2000.

 

References

George Orwell, Animal Farm (Secker & Warburg, London - 50th anniversary edition 1995 - containing previously unpublished introductions), 180 pages.

Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (Vintage, London 1995), 432 pages.

Noam Chomsky, Letters from Lexington: Reflections on Propaganda (Common Courage Press, Monroe 1993), 167 pages.