Chomsky; the importance and limitations of his political writings and philosophy

The following essay is written by a local and dear friend to the archive, and was described recently to us by the author as “quite a harsh critique (concealed inside many compliments) of Chomsky”. It was originally published in Anarchist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, April 1995, and is reprinted here because,..well, for no other reason than because we want to !


Current grass roots campaigns and movements for self-determination can be interpreted as part of a general questioning of State authority and the imperious logic of global capitalism. Noam Chomsky’s analyses of US foreign policy and its news media rationalisations complement his academic studies of language and philosophy. Throughout, he insists that the common sense rationality of ordinary people is crucial for resisting the blandishments of propaganda and as a creative, potentially libertarian basis for political mobilisation against the New World Order.

This paper critically evaluates Chomsky’s political writing and affirms its force and relevance. However, his class analysis of news propaganda as the ‘manufacture of consent’ is judged too crude to grasp the contemporary entanglements of power and knowledge. The complex functions and effects of professional intellectuals cannot be assessed outside of the power networks that give their activity coherence. In general, giving individualised forms of rationality a natural biological or transparent social status tends to preclude attention to the social and cultural contexts in which common sense, as well as power, operates. Those in struggle don’t need distracting by universal truth or rationality when mobilising the collective, physical, motivational, discursive, rhetorical and intellectual resources available to them.


The idea that the common sense of ordinary people has a part to play in political change seems to be making its way back into political debate. The category of ‘common sense’ entails some kind of basic, everyday intelligence, unpretentious and requiring no specialised qualifications save the mature assimilation of general life experiences. As we shall see, however, questions such as what kind of intelligence counts as common sense, and who can claim to embody or use it, resist authoritative answers. But perhaps common sense seems attractive now that it’s becoming so clear that the terms of conventional politics are unable even to get to grips with the problems, let alone offer solutions, to the state of the world, the environment, the continuing and intensifying degradation of the lives of millions of people. Many people cannot sustain the belief that progressive change is possible; history as linear progress is increasingly seen to be a myth, both from the usual criteria of liberal social democracy (mixed economy, State guidance and the march of science), and from the ‘historical materialism’ of Marxism (which tried to transform an analysis of capitalism into a tool of revolution).

As these grand political narratives lose their way, we have nowadays a variety of populisms and pluralisms. Popular movements, campaigns and modes of organisation appear to be the only means for the mass of populations to express dissatisfaction with the status quo, and to translate into active effort the desire for change. In such a context, ‘common sense’ might be more fruitfully seen as a multiple, culturally situated, dynamic, process, rather than a singular, transhistorical, universal potential waiting to be arbitrated on by experts. Waves of ‘people’s power’ undermine the illusion that the masses of populations must stay passive and cede trust and control to experts, leaders, politicians and parties, scientists and bureaucrats – in Eastern Europe from the 1950s to the late 80s toppling of Stalinism, Paris 1968, Portugal 1974, the American anti-Vietnam war movement, Iran, the Philippines against Marcos (and now Aquino), 1970s and 80s Latin American struggles, South African Black township committees. Further struggles in the 1990s reinforce the point that success, however measured, doesn’t require arcane, expert knowledge, methods, techniques or guidance (which are just as likely to hinder grass-roots self-organisation); as in the British Anti-Poll Tax rebellion, the Somali rejection of US ‘aid’ in 1993, and the January 1994 ‘Zapatistas’ insurgency in Chiapas, Mexico. So even in the context of communal and ethnic violence, where sections of starved and abused communities turn on each other, renewed attraction is found in Noam Chomsky’s conclusions that, given appropriate conditions, people are well fit and able collectively to make all decisions about their lives, and to be effective in dealing with normal human aspirations and the sensible organisation of public affairs. Some kind of fundamental human rationality is assumed to make it possible for everyday, practical common sense to be an adequate ground for meaningful participation by all in political decision-making and, in principle, to be sufficient basis for the degrees of planning and complexity necessary in advanced societies which have the required techniques and resources to satisfy reasonable and attainable needs (1).


Such an optimistic assessment of the potential of ordinary people is important, and extraordinary, for several reasons. Chomsky’s academic studies of the structure of the linguistic apparatus of individuals, building into a theory of a universal logic of human language development, decisively rejected the reactionary pretensions of behaviourism to be a general social theory. Furthermore, his speculations in linguistic philosophy have also, from the beginning, been articulated with a political sensibility variously described as libertarian socialist or even anarcho-syndicalist (2). His political critiques of US foreign affairs complement these concerns and are explicitly tied to them (3). Chomsky’s overall project may be the first comprehensive expression of a modern anarchist philosophy in political theory and practice. A careful examination of Chomsky’s work is certainly called for insofar as it requires a faith in classical liberal virtues based on individualism and rationalism.

A notion of natural rationality has been intrinsic to radical and libertarian socialist ideas for centuries, although opinions have differed as to its source, significance and content. But with the success of scientific and administrative modes of rationality this century, and the corresponding and accelerating complexity of Western capitalist society, it has become increasingly difficult to locate the common sense of the single, isolated, individual mind as having the capacity to counter centralised power and control of resources and knowledge. Large organisations and institutions corner the market in instrumental, administrative rationality – forms of knowledge which give the capacity to concentrate and mobilise resources in order to achieve immense but highly controlled effects. These hide the values and interests behind policy and strategy decisions, and measure their effectiveness in ways that ignore any subsequent material impact on ordinary people’s lives. The sheer proliferation of discourses of knowledge and truth, expertise and objectivity make the question of what might count as common sense difficult to ask, especially in the light of mass communication and commodified media.

The specialisation, sophistication and hierarchy of know-how are now remote from any one individual’s life, except in the piecemeal techniques and complacencies of the self-absorbed, sceptical professional. Indeed, a modern characterisation of rationality could well be that it is a commodity which, by definition, ordinary working class people do not possess. Every humdrum aspect of our privatised lives, not to mention public conduct, now has its own specialist, expert, counsellor, or, more ominously, monitor – in an influential and extensive network of ‘guardians of the soul’ – to whom we are urged to turn because we simply cannot handle it ourselves, and are bound to make a mess of it. Contemporary efforts to understand the politics of knowledge (4) – for example as historically contingent conflicts over what counts as rational or ideological – compound such difficulties.

In the light of all this, it’s refreshing to hear that we already have the necessary mental tools to sort out not only ourselves, but the whole world – that it is really only a matter of common sense, once the lies and hypocrisy, and the vested interests of our rulers have been stripped away. But perhaps it is also worrying when our ignorance, meaning lack of access to ‘true knowledge’, is posed as the problem – so that the provision of ‘value-free’ information appears as a centrepiece of progressive strategy. Implying that the civilising mission of ‘knowledge specialists’ and the benevolence of scientists and other intellectuals has a clear and positive role, loses the insight that knowledge always comes with in-built ideology. Knowledge masquerading as disembodied and objective conceals the structures and frameworks within which it gains its status as truth. This threatens an appreciation that useful knowledge is forged in action, and that only the widest possible participation in the activity that uses and develops it stands a chance of avoiding the tendency for private-interest elites to emerge. Armed with a privileged and specialised grasp of truth, such groups will alienate and passify the rest. This is not due to anyone’s desire for it to happen, but because the entanglements of power and knowledge resolve into discourses that, in practice, offer positions of power for those who know, and subordination for those who are ignorant and need to be known – and hence disciplined so as to be able to make the best use of truth. The question is: what makes Chomsky’s enlightened common sense different from conventional bourgeois and Marxist discourses? Liberalism and Marxism need ‘the people’ to occupy a position of tutelage, under the theoretical, scientific, administrative and political guidance of elites (5). This applies to liberal democracies, States run with Marxist programmes, and in oppositional movements and campaigns with prominent inputs from full-time political, professional and party activists. As with discourses of modern science in general (6), relying on common sense may have more in common with romanticism and naturalism than with some mythical hard-nosed objectivity, plain speaking and materialism. By making problematic Chomsky’s use of common sense, the discussion that follows aims to develop an idea of its limitations as well as its potential as a feature of radical politics.

Once enlightened by being given the truth, our natural common sense can prevail – but for Chomsky this only works because other ‘innate’ characteristics of the human species also operate (7). As well as being fundamentally rational, humans are said to be naturally creative, moral and inclined towards freedom. These dispositions combine with the logical and rational basis of language and cognitive development so that, if not overlain with unnaturally coercive and hierarchical social institutions, they would allow a non-exploitative, truly democratic and free society to emerge. That such a society does not exist must, therefore, result from the arbitrary imposition of private interests and forces. Uncovering the ‘truth’ of this state of affairs is thus a subversive process. Spreading the word in opposition to the lies and deceit of ruling groups is a primary task of those wishing for progressive change. This sounds like classic idealism: ideas can shape history, irrespective of their physical or material origin or context.

Chomsky’s philosophy tries to temper this idealism by presuming that these basic human dispositions towards creativity, rationality, morality and freedom are rooted in biology, in the human genetic endowment which controls brain processes and hence places the limits of language structure and mental development. Modern science has yet to prove the existence of this particular picture of human nature – it is argued that it is reasonable to expect that this will eventually be found to be ‘true’ (8). But what science offers in the way of beliefs about human nature is very much determined by the uses, for particular purposes, that such knowledge might be put to. Worse, the boundaries between nature and culture are not straightforward – whether of primates, humans and machines, or the presumed sanctity and cultural ‘innocence’ of living bodies themselves (9). So the projection into the future, as part of the onward march of science, of the sure and certain biological materialism of Chomsky’s linguistic philosophy is, at best, hopeful, and at worse naive, ignoring as it does the highly partisan and instrumental history of scientific knowledge, developed for the benefit of powerful institutions, class sectors and professional groups. Enlightening our common sense capacity with truth about the world, is to be based on a faith in inherent human ‘goodness’. Before assessing the implications of this idealism for political practice, we need to examine how it informs Chomsky’s critical and political writing.


In a superb series of studies from the 1960s onwards, Chomsky has laid bare the aims and methods of American foreign and economic policy (10). These books are object lessons for anyone wishing to understand the development of Western liberal democracy and modern capitalism in its global context. The scope is breathtaking, conclusions are clear and unremitting – as much of the material drawn upon comes from the ‘public’ record and government documents, revealing the appalling effects of US – and other Western governments’ – policies and actions on subjected populations around the world. Banned from the mainstream press for decades in America, Chomsky’s political writing also exposes the underlying logic of events which otherwise remains hidden for years – only emerging in shock horror terms later when the actual sequences of cause and effects appear to be lost in the mists of time, of interest only to historians. So in questioning some of Chomsky’s political analysis and conclusions in what follows, this should in no sense play down the importance of his work in bringing to the historical record such vivid and comprehensive accounts of the workings of American imperialism, late capitalism and affairs of State, and the effectiveness with which he demolishes the pretensions of those who speak for our rulers, and the representations of their views. There is no comparable source of information on the subject, written with such integrity, in existence.

Showing how the domination of Western capitalism is perpetuated, the media’s role is stressed in relaying government rationalisations and justifications, and the intelligentsia, journalists and academics who limit debate to a narrow range of favoured options – manufacturing ‘consent’ (11). This gives a grim picture of how modern political history and its effects have developed, and of what is in store. The populations of Western democracies have allowed this state of affairs to continue due to the effective falsification of facts. Government statements are filtered and elaborated through the media, emerging as pure ‘propaganda’ which conceals how the real aims, interests and methods of powerful institutions operate – substituting abstract generalisations about freedom, democracy, and what is needed in order to run the world properly (or at all).

Herman and Chomsky’s five media filters are: (i) the economic interests shared by media owners and controllers with other rich and powerful groups; (ii) the need to deliver better-off audiences to advertisers; (iii) the need for the media to speak to the agendas of government and powerful sources; (iv) so-called requirements of ‘balance’ between powerful and well-resourced oppositional voices; and (v) the policing function of anti-communist rhetoric (12). The combination of these forces leads to the validation and legitimation of very narrow interests represented as the limits of possible debate.

Playing up the claimed benevolence of our rulers, what government policy and the media present is basically the reverse of the truth – the horrific and continuing effects of over a century of State and capitalist inter-collaboration in dominating most of the world’s population, serving the interests of ruling elites. The consent of the population is achieved firstly by consistently lying about aims, methods and results, but equally importantly by convincing them that there are no alternatives or that the few admissible and thinkable alternatives are far worse (usually also ‘evil’) or even by being persuaded to identify their interests with those of the ruling elites (via appeals to nation, culture, religion or tradition).

In a general field of lies, hypocrisy and deceit about the implications of government actions and capitalist logic, the mass of populations inevitably become passive, with no avenues for their participation in large scale decisions of national or economic policy – not even any meaningful public forums for regional, local or community affairs. The cocktail of falsity and moral degeneration of public life is packaged and compounded with indoctrination about the altruism of political and business leaders, that capitalist economics are the best possible, and that we must adapt to the ‘realities’ of the world – i.e. the status quo or alternatives virtually indistinguishable from it – using the favoured methods of the ruling classes in bourgeois democracy. Manufacturing consent via media lies and propaganda to maintain political and social relations is cheaper than using coercion and physical aggression. The latter are kept on tap for local unrest, but are mainly reserved for external resistance to Western business interests, and sometimes for patriotic adventures when the masses at home look like seeing through the lies. We might add that serving up an impoverished range of narrow ideological choices through the media has the material corollary of commodity consumption, where the populace is enlisted as a crucial link in the profitability of the economic system itself.

In essence, this view sees the masses’ common sense in Western democracies as having been fooled, given no access to the truth, but instead given a network of corrupted and distorted pseudo-truths which leave no gaps, no forum, no opportunity for what might be a reasonable way for people collectively to organise their lives to operate. Not only are people fooled by the lying propaganda, but their failure to know the truth is itself the crucial element in maintaining the status quo. If ordinary people did know what was being done in their name, it is assumed, then they would rise up and stop it, once the veils of propaganda were lifted.

This stress on the possession of truth leads to conclusions as to political tactics and strategy. Once the truth is known, it is assumed that people’s capacity for rational, practical everyday common sense would guide them in moving against our rulers and the mess they’ve made. Unfortunately, the normal everyday language that might be employed in this process is also degraded by the media onslaught. Notions of democracy, decency, freedom, truth – and common sense – have become next to meaningless, except as symbolic of a kind of discourse employed to justify our submission. Aiming for passivity – to allow business to continue as usual – governments, businesses, media and other centres of knowledge use these concepts at the centre of the webs of lies they spin. Is it realistic to pursue their ‘real’ meanings, trying to mobilise around them in opposition to the status quo, if this risks instant recuperation into conventional discourses already saturated with them? Herman and Chomsky’s sketch of a class analysis of the operation of propaganda in modern liberal democracy shows that this understanding of common sense, and the possibilities for action by the mass of the population, occupy a specific class location. Partly resulting from particular aspects of the American social and political situation, which are simplified for the sake of clarity in his analysis, it is nevertheless revealing.

Rich and powerful elites are in control of the economy, the State and the media, and are seen as principal instigators and propagators of ideas in capitalist democracies. So, not surprisingly, most well-supported and well promulgated ideas conform to their interests. To some extent these people know what they are doing, and why – and naturally have a strong interest in maintaining such wide inequality of wealth, resources and power. Chomsky’s second class sector consists of media professionals, civil servants, other government spokespeople and academics. These achieve and sustain their privileged positions by helping to propagate views that serve elite interests, and they tend to believe what they say about the world – thus are to some extent unwitting servants of elite interests. The precise composition of this sector varies in Chomsky’s writings, depending on the period and issue involved. To start with, a ‘secular priesthood’ was said to consist of virtually the whole of the intelligentsia and knowledge professions. Nowadays it is characterised as consisting of a narrower range of media executives and journalists, and government spokespeople and academic experts favoured by them (or a more realistic, if vague, term – ‘respectable professionals’ (13)). The elasticity of this category, including varying professional interests, groups and representatives, gives some reason for scepticism as to its coherence as a separate class sector. But anyway, these groups are distinguished from the main body of the middle classes, described as educated and potentially politically active – and are therefore primary targets of propaganda. If the middle classes knew the truth and effects of capitalism and State action, so the story goes, then they would withdraw support. Because they control potentially large resources, their level of education and presumed capacity for political activism could quickly cause huge problems for elite control if their consent were withheld.

So, the main body of the middle classes is seen as the main threat to bourgeois democracy. The propaganda output of the media is directed mainly at preventing middle class people from knowing or understanding government policies, actions and their effects throughout the world. On the other hand, a smaller sector of the middle classes responsible for the spread and reproduction of ideas, are the prime producers of propaganda aimed at the rest of their class on behalf of the ruling elites. The lower classes are politically inactive, and at the same time benefit least from the status quo. Having few resources, and difficulties with collective action, they are less of a threat to ruling elites than are the middle classes, and are therefore only a secondary target of the propaganda machine. It may be easier for lower class people to see through the lies, but in the absence of a practical ability to do anything about it, they find comfort in the distractions of popular culture, spectator sports, religion, and other modes of alienation from public life. Final safeguards against their self-organisation can be found in charismatic figures promising escape from misery, patriotism, moral hysterias, a susceptibility to paranoia about external enemies – a panoply of social forces leading the lower classes to remain immobilised and politically diverted.

Of course there is considerable accuracy in this account of the structure and functioning of conventional media output. Compared with what actually happens in the world it is undoubtedly fair to describe it as ‘propaganda’, and indeed as lies. The ways that illusions and myths serve, and simultaneously conceal, the elite interests are also eloquently and convincingly argued. Furthermore it is vital to examine the ways that conventional knowledge targets particular class sectors in different ways. But the guiding focus on the possession and withholding of truth as the weak point in the system when exposed, may be inaccurate and misleading, leading to dubious conclusions about the possibilities for opposition. What this focus misses are precisely the ways that specific knowledge produces specific results. Therefore how and why propaganda is effective can only be answered in general terms. If all that is looked for is possession or otherwise of truth, then all other effects, irrespective of their significance, may be missed.

The position of ruling elites in the system is examined in relation to their interests, involving their monopoly of control over resources and influence over political executives and media. But the positions of their lackeys in the knowledge professions are only interpreted in terms of the ruling elites’ interests – not of their own interests. Yet middle class sectors responsible for propaganda are, as noted, rather permeable. It might be more accurate to say that many or even all middle class sectors do, or could potentially, occupy this sector. This would leave the ‘main body of the middle classes’ – supposedly the repository of radical hope – rather exhausted of membership, both producers and targets of their own propaganda. The middle classes are also said to constitute a threat to elite interests via control of resources. Now, ruling class interests largely reside in their control of resources. But there is no analysis of middle class resources in terms of their interests. This is because the model requires that possession of truth, not resources, determines the position of other groups in relation to ruling elite interests.

Leaving aside criteria of knowing truth, all middle class sectors have some interests in maintaining the status quo – whether these are deciding interests in any social formation remains to be identified. But surely, it is only in a liberal democratic environment, or some other social structure producing inequality, hierarchy, bureaucracy and complex administration, that present forms of their particular skills, abilities and practices would have a useful function? Also, it seems wholly arbitrary to isolate media professionals and experts – those who directly package and transmit the propaganda. Other middle class groups are the principal targets and users of the propaganda, transmitting it indirectly and informally through their networks of knowledge, their professional discourses and practices, to colleagues and peers, institutional subordinates and external targets of their work. General and specific interests of middle class groups may not depend on anyone involved seeing ‘the truth’, although exact forms of knowledge will be directly implicated. But Chomsky’s conclusions on the political significance of propaganda as denying truth cause him to see preventing middle class political mobilisation as its main task, and other functions escape attention. That propaganda in more subtle ways may produce, not prevent, middle class mobilisation (though not in a form preferred or even acknowledged by Chomsky) is ignored.


With these substantial reservations in mind, we can agree that the purpose of propaganda is the manufacture of middle class consent to liberal democratic capitalism – although the ‘serious’ media probably have several equally important and complexly inter-related other functions. Once the class locus of this consent is acknowledged, however, it brings into relief the question of lower class consent, said to be achieved by their distraction from engagement with the terms of public decision making and political life. But following the artificially restricted view of the media and propaganda (and thus an incomplete analysis of its workings), no attempt is made to understand how and why lower class people are so ‘distracted’, beyond passing references to the attractions of popular culture and demagoguery – what we might call manipulating passion rather than rationality.

And yet, looking at examples of large scale political change or potential in recent decades, it’s clear that only when lower classes mobilise is any real change possible. Lower class mute resistance turns into coherent civil disobedience, finally transformed into aggressive and organised direct action. This is a recurrent phenomenon even when those ‘in the know’ are unable to predict, understand, take part in or have access to the groundswell. The failure of last resort co-option or coercion from the State trying to head off defeat, gives chances for progressive change. In the process a concrete form of practical rationality manifests itself among the poor and oppressed, associated with a history of support and necessity in deprived circumstances. What role has truth and its middle class carriers, in such situations? It’s true that amid the prospect of social upheaval, middle class sectors may come to articulate their interests differently – as the tapestry of elite propaganda begins to unravel. Furthermore, these voices can be taken up as the most important political expressions of the movements concerned. A clear example of this pattern was seen in Czechoslovakia in 1968, as the aims of technocrats and planners usurped popular sentiments, after the constraints of the imperial USSR were weakened (14). Repeatedly since then, political and social changes desired by middle class sectors – technocrats, co-ordinators, academics, management and cultural professionals, planners and bureaucrats – have blended with the preparedness for direct action of the lower classes. But the desires of the latter become submerged under the struggles for prominence and security of middle class groups. Lip service may be paid, but the general push by the middle classes for a prominent role in social change is conducted in a belief that their interests are the same as for those of the mass of the population. This bears an uncanny resemblance to the operation of bourgeois propaganda during social ‘peace’, in that sectoral interests are proposed as general interests. It will not console the masses of Eastern Europe that newly-triumphant professional elites are freer from illusion, and that truth has, in any sense, come out. The new truths, as already known from privatised Poland, simply make new developments possible, and the limits of the possible are provided by the limits of that knowledge, just as in the illusory electoral choices in Western liberal democracy.

Arguing that political change comes from middle class mobilisation, throwing off their propaganda blinkers, does no justice to Chomsky’s marvellous analyses of US foreign policy and its reflections in the media. Propaganda articulates underlying discourses, producing truth, and simultaneously producing networks of subjects who speak that truth. Valorising objective knowledge, exemplified in scientific discourse but in principle in all power systems, overlooks the point that what matters about knowledge is not its relation to truth, but what action is made possible or easier – what practical and material effects follow using the knowledge. In the political realm, configurations of social forces will have the capacity and resources both to commission the knowledge in the first place, and to be in a strategic position to exploit its range of effects. Any scientific discipline, throughout its history, has to discard perceived truths when they do not permit the requisite instrumental action. Who knows to what monstrous uses the current ‘truth’ of the structure of the universe will be put – revealed by modern physics as some combination of chaos, charm, entropy and the probability of multiple dimensions and parallel universes?

The state of scientific knowledge, technology and resource control are factors which strongly influence which projects it is possible to conceive of and plan for. Knowledge subalterns rise and fall according to how useful and exploitable their ideas are. The interests and positions of engineering, bureaucratic and academic groups will correspondingly wax and wane. In the long term of history and political relations, the truth of scientific knowledge has been largely irrelevant. But claims of truth have been very significant in allowing special interest groups to recruit and canvass for institutional and private support. In modern Western democracies this of course involves professional disciplines, co-ordinating bureaucrats and managers of workforces, and political groups with special constituencies to protect. Rather than grounds for optimism, the political activism of the enlightened middle class seems like ‘more of the same’. Of course, newly articulated middle class interests could coincide, accidentally and momentarily, with wider interests (leaving aside questions of longer term prospects). But there are good reasons for doubting the efficacy of this. Historically, the transition from feudalism to capitalism was characterised by much passionate talk around ‘rights’ and suffrage, against the arbitrary total power of the monarch. There is no doubt in retrospect whose interests were really served. Later in capitalism’s tyrannical development, came the variants of Leninism and State socialism, which can be accurately described as the ascendancy of very narrow fractions of the intelligentsia and other marginal middle class groups – from the start nurturing the bureaucratic potential of Stalinism. More pertinent here is the past century’s development of the modern advanced capitalist system, with the integral mushrooming growth of new middle class sectors concerned above all else with the monitoring, control, policing and disciplining – in fact the shaping – of working class lives. In managing the lower classes for the ruling classes, the discourses of welfare, reform and administration have allowed (in fact, have required) the emergence of most of the modern middle classes.

This history has preserved and transformed the wealth and power of ruling elites, and has allowed these interests – along with the pre-eminence of middle class positions and privileges – to advance and become further entrenched. The techniques and forms of knowledge in which this wielding of power over the lower classes has been elaborated use the same kinds of instrumental, scientific, bureaucratic rationality invoked as the justification for the status quo in the wider sense of the economy and governance that Chomsky otherwise demolishes so effectively. Unless the media and its propaganda are seen as an entirely separate social formation, it surely can’t be the case that science, education, management, health, welfare, cultural industry and other service and knowledge specialists can, by seeing the truth about propaganda, suddenly come to act in the interests of the mass of the population – of the lower class ‘objects’ of their disciplines – when the aims, methods and effects of their professional practice cannot be distinguished, in principle, from those of the operation of the media. No, professional groups can be expected to continue to act in their own interests by and large dovetailing with those of ruling elites. Thereby they help perpetuate a system of inequality and hierarchy outside of which the structure and organisation of their careers and institutions, and their skills and discourses, would make no sense. The kinds of truth any professional or academic discipline stands for may, to be sure, appear as common sense – especially when in fashion, or during periods when the particular uses it can offer fit the needs of other powerful institutions. But such knowledge will be viewed very differently, much more suspiciously – by groups objectified, measured, targeted for action and otherwise affected by professional action.

Beliefs about what people generally are, or of what people need in their lives, will also vary enormously between the lower classes and those with professional interests. Like the output of the media about matters of global political economy, views of middle class groups can be expected to share many characteristics of those of ruling elites, because it is in the interests of both to perpetuate the system in which they, in their diverse ways, thrive. However, it is misleading to portray in an absolute and unified manner the interests of entire social groups and classes. The growth and dominance of the modem middle classes, their expansion, privilege and security, are to an extent dependent upon wider economic and political imperatives. But there may be significant differences of interest within and between class sectors.

Some professional groups benefit if State sectors take greater executive and planning power, at the expense of commercial institutions, or more established but outmoded public bodies. There may also exist substantial differences of interest among fractions of the ruling class as to both short and long term needs. In particular there is a familiar tendency for national or regionally-based economic sectors or institutions to agglutinate in the guise of ‘national’ or international blocs – even to the point of war, if not dispersed or exported to colonies or proxy conflicts. There is little reason to believe that middle class struggle against ruling class constraints will lead to a general progressive change for the lower classes. Often quite the contrary – witness the resurgence of explicit white racism among EEC bureaucrats, previously perceived as liberals, in their preparations for ‘Fortress Europe’. Unless, that is, instincts for morality and freedom, as well as for rationality, hold sway. But if middle class groups can come to act against their own class interests for these reasons, presumably so could ruling class groups. We’ll surely neither doubt their tenacity, nor expect their support.

Chomsky’s analyses of American government action and the mainstream media’s treatment of it are powerful and convincing descriptive accounts. But his explanation of how and why this system works, and its political significance, tends to reveal only the philosophical principles started from. The belief in instincts for truth, freedom and morality are necessary to provide his conclusions that political change depends on the successful enlightenment of the middle classes. If the truth can be told persistently enough, they will somehow act against the elite interests with which they have hitherto acted more or less in concert, and which have historically given their class positions their conditions of existence, coherence and privilege. Presumably then, the newly radical middle classes will lead (guide, co-ordinate etc.) the lower classes in action for change, or even in revolt. Or at the very least, the different character of lower class action (such as it is, given our lack of resources and difficulties with collective action) will dovetail in some way with the middle class mobilisation.

This may be a fairly accurate representation of the limited successes of recent American political movements outside of mainstream politics (e.g. campaigns against US involvement in Latin America, the sanctuary movement, etc.). The question is whether or not such action causes mere adaptations by the highly flexible ruling classes, never fundamentally threatening the status quo. Middle class political action of this type might even carry the unspoken proviso that whatever its successes, it must not result in basic changes that would jeopardise middle class positions. Or if basic changes do become viable, that these must allow increased opportunities for professional groups to consolidate or extend their influence. The political action of some sections of the middle class would likely have conditions unpalatable to other sections of the middle class. But even more damaging to building a cross-class movement, the discursive expression of middle class political action will follow the terms of middle class discourses in general – which tend to be predicated on the resistance of working class lives to their ministrations and their influence.

The general flaw in the idea of exposing lies, and so allowing common sense and decency to prevail, is that it should in principle apply to all humans. It is very artificial to describe middle class consent to the system as resulting from inaccurate information, whereas the lower classes are led astray by fantasy. As discourses of control over, and shaping of, their own and lower class conduct and identity, professional rationality seems equally fantasy-ridden – or even more so. Lower class common sense may include using fantasy to articulate the possibility of change. When unrest does spread, expressions of community and solidarity which readily result can be counterposed to middle class trends towards ruthless, isolated self-interest and competitiveness. When we acknowledge that prospects for change depend on the mass participation of the lower classes, we might see the morality and rationality of the middle classes as more of an obstacle than a help, considering its effects on our lives in the present routine. As for middle class instincts for freedom, we may guess that they’d have their own freedoms in mind, not ours. Middle class leadership can have straightforwardly negative effects on the mass direct action that we know, in practice, makes the difference.

The convergence between the falsifications of elite propaganda, on the one hand, and discourses of professional control and management, on the other, shifts the focus from combating false truth with real truth in order to leave rationality free to pursue moral aims. The significance of the organisation of power, knowledge and resources may be that it keeps the middle class securely in their positions with respect to the dangerous masses of the lower classes – in a social formation stitched together by middle class practices of management, administration, welfare and discipline. The mystifications of the media thus function to prevent the middle classes from turning against their masters and taking the reins themselves. Eastern Europe recently shows shifting allegiances and interests of proto-middle class groups crystallising into decentralised nations. But these groups hardly conceive of the interests of the masses of their populations, let alone act accordingly. Networks of control over resources and patterns of social power unravelled when the legitimacy of previous elites was not sustained. But focusing on the ‘truth’ of the need to demolish Stalinist structures has not opened any space for the lower classes to pursue their interests – instead merely clearing the ground for the middle classes to impose a regime amenable to their needs.

The depiction of ruling elites as little more than cynical liars is also oversimplistic. Although in control of immense resources, they are constrained by their own discourses – which give them knowledge of their own superiority, historic mission, and something like a divine right to own the world. This leads to weaknesses both in adapting in their own interests and in orchestrating the production of knowledges outside of their narrow circles. However they are consummate parasites of the labour of others, including the mental labour of professionals.

This reveals a different functionality of media propaganda, and gives a different perspective to the ‘consent’ manufactured – a symbiosis of interests and methods between ruling elites and middle classes. When threatened, tried and trusted (expensive) methods of brutal coercion are proposed and supported energetically by most of the middle classes – they are not an important line of defence against repression, on moral and rational grounds, that Chomsky’s analysis suggests. Third world fascism, as Chomsky himself has convincingly uncovered (15), is relatively congenial to middle classes as well as elites – offering a margin for exploitation through Western business interests that would not otherwise exist. As fascism spreads once again in Europe we should not be misled by the appeal of charismatic figures combining with lower class dissatisfaction. Racist and nationalist fervour helps prepare the ground for social upheaval, but in developed capitalist countries it is the support of the middle classes for the right which clinches its victory – as the last bastion of defence of their positions amid the manoeuvering of the ruling elites and the unrest of the lower classes. Whether we are looking to guard against further regression, or to build for a better future, focusing on universal truth or morality can be just as dangerous and just as fatal as would be a decline into mysticism, paranoia and hate.

Even if these reservations were unfounded, it is intuitively clear that appealing to ‘progressive sections of the middle classes’ must be rejected. The West European experience with its Communist Parties and single issue media campaigns shows conclusively that such tactics are quite hopeless in bringing even minor change – and lead directly up the garden path of the better management of capitalism, as with Britain’s Labour Party. Maybe this is less obvious in US experience, but a concentration on moral posturing and the presentation of truth in publicity hype result in increased passivity and pre-empt physical direct action. Indeed it is difficult to see how other outcomes are possible, within the limits of these tactics. Such campaigns do however become more palatable to the middle classes, quite large numbers of whom may be drawn in, to no observable effect. Whereas the British anti-Poll Tax rebellion generated its own potential only by completely ignoring and bypassing such methods.

The common sense of the middle class Left (and the government which believed it could implement the Poll Tax), was that direct action based on non-payment – breaking the law – would not work. This supports the idea that middle class rationality generalises its own positions, believing them to be true for everyone. So the only hope was the familiar litany of ‘protest’ and a focus on the Poll Tax as unfair – one intention of the Poll Tax was to wreck what remained of local council influence – not responsive to business or central government needs, and retaining local executive control in the hands of professional bureaucrats. Organised middle class political groups, including Trotskyists, could only view these prospects from the point of view of their interests – to protect town hall careers and to monopolise and bureaucratise anti-Poll Tax groups for their leaderships (16). In many regions they succeeded in these aims, such that the movement in these places was doomed to ineffectiveness.

The grass roots Can’t Pay/Won’t Payers took no notice whatever of the middle class Left and used their own common sense. The tactic was to warn all poor people about the material effects of the Poll Tax, and to propose a community solidarity that could make the Tax unworkable. Victory, such as it was, only came because sufficient areas resisted the organised middle class takeover, keeping grass-roots local control (17). ‘Passive’ non-payment by itself was not enough, due to local council and government interests which lead, even years later, the media to vastly understate its dimensions. But the climate of resistance forged in local areas, reinforced by riots and other aggression, transcended the ability of government and its propagandisers to ignore it.

In the anti-Poll Tax movement middle class input was positive, such as in legal defence work, where it was subordinate to mass physical direct action and participation. Exposing the lies and obfuscations of government propaganda was an integral part of the movement’s activity, but this wasn’t in the interests of truth or morality. Starting from anger and resistance to an attack on material conditions, our propaganda relied on the common sense of the mass of lower class people who were quite able to interpret accurately the rhetoric of their superiors – if this bore some relation to their own lives and activity. In developing (rediscovering) the power of community networks, information was used practically once the intention to act, derived from passion not rationality, had started the process.

This implies that if idealistic notions of human nature, or the relevance of truth, have any role in radical discourse, that this will depend on what activity is already underway – who is acting, how, and from what motivations. It will not be the case that the truth liberates the proper direction for an instinct for freedom. Rather, action for change may utilise particular truths, and specific knowledges, in a process of producing and limiting possible future courses. Truth is much more ambiguous than Chomsky’s philosophy would suggest, always depending on which truth, how used and by whom, and what its use makes possible according to its social understanding, material context and creative mobilisation of resources.


Where do Chomsky’s compelling analyses of US imperialism stand? In detaching himself from his writings, the self-presentation is as a humble scholar, following an ethical dictum that intellectuals have a responsibility “to tell the truth and to expose lies”. Anyone could do the work – given the required mental tools and research skills, and presumably the time and money for their exercise. But given that tens of thousands, or more, of Western academics share these gifts, how come so few even conceive of it? The most compelling of his critical writings concern the massive differences between the impact of US government policies and actions on the populations of other countries, and the accounts given of this action inside America. Chomsky assumes the perspective of the Third World (if this term has any meaning left in the context of the current global economy) looking at the effects of America from the outside. And yet his methods belong to a classical Western rationalism, scientific and empirical.

This aims to avoid usurping any authentic Third World position by being essentially neutral with respect to indigenous interests, but implacably opposed to any assertion of US elite interests. The strategic importance but political weakness of calls for ‘self-determination’ are clear, in a New World Order whose governing discourses can concede no autonomy or inter-dependence outside the control of Western business and financial interests. However it does not allow for the likelihood that special interests within regional or national populations may be equally incompatible – even though no interests, other than the tiny client elites, are served by Western domination. This corresponds to an analysis of social forces internal to Western societies which gives determining status only to the interests of the ruling classes.

So, taking a political position external to conventional American interests, the knowledge produced tells truth from the point of view of a schematic and generalised ‘Third World’. This is accomplished from a discursive position at the heart of liberal democracy – indeed from the centre of US academia, as a world innovator in linguistics and philosophy. The intellectual work of a prominent rationalist scholar, with the ability to conduct exhaustive research, the scope of mind to analyse and integrate overwhelming amounts of information available from libraries, press and government records and so on. In short, with access to mental and physical resources usually open only to those with strong pre-existing private interests and allegiances which would not be expected to lead them in such subversive directions – and then, to be able to resist the pressure to ‘shut up or get out’ from such a position of privilege. Chomsky’s integrity, and rare humility, lead him to play down the uniqueness of his own position. But the effect is also to conceal the role of professional, academic, or even personal interests of someone in his position – after all it is simply a matter of objective scholarship in pursuit of the truth.

Chomsky’s own biography indicates how unusual his career has been – from a lower class, radical, socialist and Zionist family and cultural background, and then almost ‘accidentally’ tumbling into increasingly senior academic posts without having to traverse the usual highly disciplined stages of the academic career path (at least not in the conventional manner). Slipping through a series of fault lines in the institutional environment, culminating in the post of Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT – one of the world’s most prestigious centres of learning) having overhauled and revolutionised Anglo-American linguistics in the process. This might help us understand why, on the one hand, Chomsky’s political practice is as a ‘scholarly guerrilla’, and how the usual institutional taming of originality and autonomy has failed in his case – and on the other hand, how it is that few others are able to follow such a course. When Chomsky, and other prominent ‘independent radicals’ such as Edward Said, see implacable criticism of official discourse as the role of old-fashioned public intellectuals, we may welcome their activities at the same time as doubting their claims concerning the political centrality of the forms of knowledge they propose. ‘Lesser’ voices share neither the relative immunity from damage (under Western democracy) nor the individual intellectual experience or opportunity to be able to afford such confidence in the power of such knowledge. For us, to maintain a faith that it was ‘common sense’ might tend to be disabling, as a source of despair, given our own paltry individual capacities.

His biography may also partly explain why it is a Third World position, rather than any American sector, that Chomsky assumes – in the light of the intellectual imperialism of liberal scholarship and its real world analogy in the global political economy. To have carried out an equally thorough analysis of the domestic structures of knowledge and power would have required a fine-grained reference to the historical development of American capitalism and class, race and gender relationships, via the mobilisation of discourses and resources for a whole mess of competing and combining centres of institutional influence where claims for the status of truth are crucial points for the sedimentation and stratification of power and privilege. This puts so thoroughly into question the possibility of universal truth, and hence the political neutrality of those who might speak it, that Chomsky’s crude analysis of the media as propaganda fails completely to address the complexity of the situation, and his own position in it. But it does work perfectly well from the perspective of the net direct effects of American dominance on other populations.

This is why we can read such importance into Chomsky’s political writing without accepting the philosophical basis he believes underlies it. As a descriptive expression of the effects of historical imperialist oppression and exploitation, by the USA and analogously by Europe in general, the work has clarity and coherence – something of the ‘conscience’ of Western rationalism, perhaps. But Chomsky’s view of the significance and meaning of rationality and common sense would tend to preclude specific Third World political responses, whether struggles for ‘self-determination’ or other less favoured political programmes. Western rationalism has trouble conceptualising how any oppressed group arrives at a collective understanding of its situation which rejects the dispassionate, scientific, individualised attitude to truth. So Chomsky’s kind of common sense, if incorporated into the practice of grassroots political movements, could cancel out their rhetorical power (stemming for example from the rituals and dynamism of culture) – a power crucial for galvanising their own natural support away from its otherwise surly, bitter and divided misery.

This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of Chomsky’s championing the cause of Third World self-determination. His attitude towards the transparency of reason, and his belief in the potential universality of Western understandings of what counts as common sense knowledge – leave no room for the political or cultural expressiveness of non-Western (and other) movements – which in their cultural authenticity rarely engage with, let alone share, such a perspective on the question of truth and its relationship to politics or the desired ‘good life’. The definition of self-determination proposed may disallow what Third World grassroots organisations (supposedly being supported) might themselves understand by the concept or intend by its use, and neither does it imply any political generalisation or connection to be made between political developments abroad and those at home. Essentially, there may be no distinction being made between a charitable kind of support for Third World populations, in principle, and strategic or specific support to particular political efforts and organisational forms.

Whenever required, Chomsky is in fact very clear indeed on these kinds of questions, never speaking on behalf of those in struggle or claiming to know what is best from their point of view (18). But if self-determination represents a clear principled opposition to the forms of geographical domination that history gives us plenty of data about, its stress on the cognitive and moral apparatus of separated individuals is a travesty (perhaps a disabling one) of the indivisibly social nature of grass roots human culture everywhere which, ironically, is often fully self-understood as such. The difficulties faced by dominated populations struggling to maintain cultural integrity and creativity while avoiding their traditional fates is difficult to appreciate from a position of emphatic Western rationalism. This is a conceptual blockage in Western philosophy generally, prominent in attempting to repress its unacknowledged foundations in oppression and colonialism, and in denying the historical material grounding of language written in class complexity, and in the body and discourse (19).

Maybe this helps explain how individually powerful intellects can be relatively blind to the politics of knowledge itself – a politics which makes possible and conditions the development of, and the conferral of status upon, specific kinds of intellect. Perceiving truth as potentially universal, natural, and accessible both to the common sense of any individual who cares and wishes to know, and, in principle, to all – may, in fact, be accurate, just as human life may conceivably involve biological urges towards morality and freedom. But these philosophical questions are not at stake, diverting energy and attention, in concrete struggles where the passions of participants have already provided the directions for action, and where everyday common sense operates at a different level – from the heart and gut. In building upon solidaristic feelings and collective support, facilitating the striking out into the insecure unknown that radical change requires, and in providing practical confidence, from hard experience, that what needs to be done can be done – this creates a truth that conventional sources of knowledge regularly tell us is impossible. Chomsky’s writing is indispensable when it can be used as part of this ‘irrational’ process of refusal and creation.


What might be salvaged of common sense, once the desires and imperious logic of intellectuals are rebutted? The most striking attribute of common sense is that no validating chain of logic is necessary – simply being held in common, by some substantial social group, is enough. Common sense thus escapes any attempt to pin it down to rationality. Its common-ality is due to its emotional, affinitive dimensions – the preparedness to feel-think-act passionately in ways which will be affirmed collectively as common sense. These vary with people’s circumstances and experiences, so that there can never be a singular common sense. Searching for a universal truth can only lead to the desire to impose one, or to hopeless confusion and mystification.

Theory can’t be purified so as to express common sense, or even to parallel it, as some marxists seem to think, because the collectivity of common sense has no direct relationship to rationality, or with theory per se. As Richard Gunn points out (20), philosophers, dictionary compilers and marxist theorists choose to employ a quite different concept of common sense from everyone else – perfectly sensible for those whose notion of collectivity is shared with other intellectuals. Their common sense – sharing definitions or logical cognitive propositions – is merely a random, statistical commonness, which says nothing about whether it matters or not to those who share it. Free and equal discourse based in shared communicational competence (21) tends to be an ‘ideal speech situation’ for those who have lost the passion and commitment to make life worth living, where emotion spoils the purity of thought.

Seeing things as obviously true, if only the necessary information and its connections are revealed, can be a diversion from what is necessary to achieve desired political effects – because emotional resonance is always crucial, whatever the facts of the situation. Common sense is a matter of political struggle, rather than a prerequisite in individual consciousness or at stake in polite philosophical debate (whether on the left’ or not). Critical social theory, as a network of ideas grasped by the cognitive activity of theorists, might not yield progressive changes in common sense or political action if it relies purely on the rationality of middle class intellectuals. But if ideas, aims and intentions become embodied in people’s collective, habitual gut responses and associated thoughts and actions, then they can be said to be common sense. Any existing ‘common sense’ tends to reflect a comfortable, superficial consensus, built up in uneasy coexistence with domination, oppression and exploitation. To say it reflects the degree of personal and collective harm and cruelty people will tolerate at that time, shouldn’t underplay the creative possibilities such coping tactics may open up (22).

Common sense can’t exist without social, cultural and political content and context, which because of its rationality has a strategic function in itself. Radical politics has to fashion itself around common sense meanings, changing these in action rather than by avoidance, dismissal or confrontation (23). The most urgent role for common sense (24) may be that it can give ordinary people resources to resist further encroachments by knowledge-specialists – as mediators of our discursive, cognitive lives, and as arbiters of social and cultural potential and action. Much of what matters most to us is bound up with our bodies and emotions. No longer experiencing the visceral quality of common sense, intellectuals compensate by valorising its rationality.

Contemporary political strategy can aim to rearticulate as common sense those aspects of working class experience that the Left’s theorists and intellectuals have colonised, explained away, or abandoned as ‘backward’. It’s no use attributing the malign power of propaganda to specific new middle class fractions, against which the common sense of other, supposedly ‘rational’ liberal-left fractions can fight – if the deeper historical significance of middle class discourses is ignored. But if actual common sense notions energise political action, serious change can result, despite contradictory logics underlying them. Any moral justifications for action generated will not come from appealing to universal, eternal human rights, justice or dignity – the Enlightenment ideals beloved by liberal politics generally. Instead it would be a local, dynamic, and active process – developed from the inside rather than depending on the contributions of specified intellectuals or leaders.

This kind of common sense, feeding back into the struggle, could shape action without falling foul of traditional bourgeois discourse – where narrow class interests are universalised to apply to all people at all times, such that their preferred discourses also become generalised, imposed and self-imposed on all. We might then be freed from debates about the extent to which ‘correct’ ideas have been identified, ‘ideology’ or false consciousness avoided, and whether or not present conscious manifestations of struggle are ‘rational’ or not. Such anxieties are, after all, only relevant to the ‘common sense’ of certain groups – and of passing interest, at most, to the rest.


1. For example: Albert et al (1986), Cohen and Rogers (1992), Kelman (1990, 1992).

2. Collections of articles, essays, interviews and commentary can be found in: Chomsky (1973, 1981, 1987, 1988a and b, 1992).

3. Chomsky’s recent books have tried to place US foreign policy in a more general political and historical context than earlier case studies tended to: see Chomsky (1991c, 1993b, c, d, 1994). This development was facilitated by efforts to relate this history to its media coverage, for example in ‘Manufacturing Consent’ (Herman and Chomsky 1988) and later essays such as Chomsky (1991b). Studies of US media and politics are belatedly following Chomsky’s lead, for example: Broadbent (1993), Williams (1993).

4. Such as: Barrett (1991), Laclau and Mouffe (1985).

5. See: Gane and Johnson (1993), Rose (1985, 1989).

6. For example: Aronowitz (1989), Woolgar (1988).

7. Chomsky (1988a), Chomsky and Foucault (1974).

8. But see Timpanaro (1980), Brittan (1989).

9. Butler (1993), Haraway (1991, 1992).

10. Chomsky (1983, 1986. 1989a and b, l991a, b, d. 1993a, 1994b, 1995a), Chomsky and Herman (1979a and b).

11. Herman and Chomsky (1988).

12. See discussion of propaganda filters in Cohen and Rogers (1992).

13. Chomsky (1995a).

14. For example: Cerny (1976), Fisera (1978), L.O.S. (1987).

15. Chomsky and Herman (1979a).

16. See for example: Barr (1994), Gordon (1994).

17. The best discussion is Burns (1991). See also Dickie (1992).

18. See: Chomsky (1988h, 1992, 1993c. 1995b).

19. Some attempts to tackle these concerns are: Bourdieu (1984), Jennings (1993, 1994), Szczelkun (1993), Walkerdine and Lucey (1989), and Young (1991).

20. Gunn (1991).

21. Habermas (1984, 1987).

22. Bourdieu (1991), de Certeau (1984), Stallybrass and White (1986). Some academics, such as Fiske (1987), spuriously correlate this culturally derived subversive potential (such as in the interpretation of images by media audiences) with an assumed consequent intentionality and even political agency. For a corrective, see, for example, McGuigan (1992).

23. As does Gunn (1994), for example. Ross (1989) critiques this tendency.

24. And the most poignant, given Chomsky’s romantic, or even spiritual, rationalism. See: Cohen and Rogers (1992), Timpanaro (1980). Also see Castoriadis (1984, 1987) for a different reworking of the political potential of rationality and imagination.
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Tom J.

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