On apathy and the masses

One of the biggest perceived obstacles for anarchism, or any similar movement which has as its base the working class or popular masses, is apathy. The notion is that generally, unless their quality of life is particularly terrible, most people simply do not care about anything beyond the day to day aspects of their life.

There is some truth to this. However, in my opinion, it is far from an absolute truism, and the reasons usually attributed to it are erroneous.

The problem that any person or group attempting to mobilise the masses faces isn’t so much a lack of concern as a lack of awareness, on several levels. Not only are people largely unaware of the problems that we face as a civilisation, but even when told about them they remain unaware as to why these issues are problematic at all. This is the end result of a systemic domination of education and the media by elite interests in order to cement state-corporate power.

The 1911 Liverpool general transport strike was proof not only that the working classes were not always apathetic, but also of the power that the masses hold when strongly organised

The 1911 Liverpool general transport strike was proof not only that the working classes were not always apathetic, but also of the power that the masses hold when strongly organised

The working class are not, by any stretch, apathetic or unmobilised by their nature. Indeed, the working classes developed a rich intellectual culture, and led the “war of the unstamped” in the 1800s, publishing illegal periodicals in a determined and radical effort to bring political knowledge to the poor. Such concerted worker organisation and activism continued until well into the 1980s and the unions’ war against Margaret Thatcher, but has subsequently declined. The vibrant, radical intellectual culture of the masses survives now only in the margins, such as the anarchist movement.

So, what happened?

It was in the 1960s that the rapid decline of the working class press came about. The Daily Herald, despite being the largest-circulation daily in the world, was forced to close in 1964 because its working class reader base was not considered a valuable advertising market. The News Chronicle “finally folded, inappropriately, into the grip” of the Daily Mail in 1960. By the 1970s, the media was firmly in the grip of corporate and monopoly ownership, with Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s propaganda model defining content;

The media typically comprise large conglomerates – News International, CBS (now merged with Westinghouse), Turner Broadcasting (now merged with Time-Warner) – which may belong to even larger parent corporations such as General Electric (owners of NBC). All are tied into the stock market. Wealthy people sit on the boards of these major corporations, many with extensive personal and business contacts in other corporations. Herman and Chomsky point out, for instance, that: ‘GE [General Electric] and Westinghouse are both huge, diversified multinational companies heavily involved in the controversial areas of weapons production and nuclear power.’ It is difficult to conceive that press neutrality would not be compromised in these areas. But more widely, press freedom is limited by the simple fact that the owners of the media corporations are driven by free market ideology. How likely is it, then, that such owners would happily allow their own newspaper, radio or TV station to criticise systematically the ‘free market’ capitalism which is the source of his material wealth?

The second filter of the propaganda model is advertising. Newspapers have to attract and maintain a high proportion of advertising in order to cover the costs of production; without it, the price of any newspaper would be many times what it is now, which would soon spell its demise in the marketplace. There is fierce competition throughout the media to attract advertisers; a newspaper which gets less advertising than its competitors is put at a serious disadvantage. Lack of success in raising advertising revenue was another factor in the demise of ‘people’s newspapers’ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is clear, therefore, that for any publication or commercial radio or TV station to survive, it has to hone itself into an advertiser-friendly medium. In other words, the media has to be sympathetic to business interests, such as the travel, automobile and petrochemical industries. Even the threat of withdrawal of advertising can affect editorial content. A letter sent to the editorial offices of a hundred magazines by a major car producer stated: ‘In an effort to avoid potential conflicts, it is required that Chrysler corporation be alerted in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial content that could be construed as provocative or offensive.’ In 1999, British Telecom threatened to withdraw advertising from The Daily Telegraph following a number of critical articles. The journalist responsible was suspended.

A 1992 US study of 150 news editors found that 90 per cent said that advertisers tried to interfere with newspaper content, and 70 per cent tried to stop news stories altogether. 40 per cent admitted that advertisers had in fact influenced a story. In the UK, £3.2 billion is spent on newspaper ads annually and another £2.6 billion on TV and radio commercials, out of a total advertising budget of £9.2 billion. In the US, the figure is tens of billions of dollars a year on TV advertising alone. An advertising-based system makes survival extremely difficult for radical publications that depend on revenue from sales alone. Even if such publications survive, they are relegated to the margins of society, receiving little notice from the public at large. Advertising, just like media ownership, therefore acts as a news filter.

The third of Herman and Chomsky’s 5 filters relates to the sourcing of mass media news: ‘The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest.’ Even large media corporations such as the BBC cannot afford to place reporters everywhere. They therefore concentrate their resources where major news stories are likely to happen: the White House, the Pentagon, No 10 Downing Street, and other centralised news ‘terminals’. Although British newspapers may occasionally object to the ‘spin-doctoring’ of New Labour, for example, they are in fact highly dependent upon the pronouncements of ‘the Prime Minister’s personal spokesperson’ for government-related news. Business corporations and trade organisations are also trusted sources of stories considered newsworthy. Editors and journalists who offend these powerful news sources, perhaps by questioning the veracity or bias of the furnished material, can be threatened with the denial of access to their media life-blood – fresh news.

Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, points out that ‘Professional journalism relies heavily on official sources. Reporters have to talk to the PM’s official spokesperson, the White House press secretary, the business association, the army general. What those people say is news. Their perspectives are automatically legitimate.’ Whereas, according to McChesney, ‘if you talk to prisoners, strikers, the homeless, or protesters, you have to paint their perspectives as unreliable, or else you’ve become an advocate and are no longer a “neutral” professional journalist.’ Such reliance on official sources gives the news an inherently conservative cast and gives those in power tremendous influence over defining what is or isn’t ‘news’. McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, warns: ‘This is precisely the opposite of what a functioning democracy needs, which is a ruthless accounting of the powers that be.’

The fourth filter is ‘flak’, described by Herman and Chomsky as ‘negative responses to a media statement or [TV or radio] program. It may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, law-suits, speeches and Bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat and punitive action’. Business organisations regularly come together to form flak machines. Perhaps one of the most well-known of these is the US-based Global Climate Coalition (GCC) – comprising fossil fuel and automobile companies such as Exxon, Texaco and Ford. The GCC was started up by Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest public relations companies, to rubbish the credibility of climate scientists and ‘scare stories’ about global warming (see Chapter 4).

In her 1997 book Global Spin, Sharon Beder documented at great length the operations of corporations and their hired PR firms in establishing grassroots ‘front movements’ to counter the gains made by environmentalists. One such coalition, the Foundation for Clean Air Progress, is ‘in reality a front for transportation, energy, manufacturing and agricultural groups’. The Foundation was established to challenge the US Clean Air Act by ‘educating’ the public about the progress made in air quality over the previous twenty-five years. As Beder notes, the Foundation’s ‘focus is on individual responsibility for pollution, as opposed to the regulation of industry to achieve further improvements.’ The threat – real or imagined – of law-suits can be a powerful deterrent to media investigation. In the UK, environmental journalist Andrew Rowell notes that, ‘Britain’s archaic libel laws prevent much of the real truth about the destructive nature of many of [the] UK’s leading companies from ever being published or broadcast. Very few people within the media will take on the likes of Shell, BP or [mining company] RTZ’.

The fifth and final news filter that Herman and Chomsky identified was ‘anti-communism’. Manufacturing Consent was written during the Cold War. A more apt version of this filter is the customary western identification of ‘the enemy’ or an ‘evil dictator’ – Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, or Slobodan Milosevic (recall the British tabloid headlines of ‘Smash Saddam!’ and ‘Clobba Slobba!’). The same extends to mainstream reporting of environmentalists as ‘eco-terrorists’. The Sunday Times ran a particularly nasty series of articles in 1999 accusing activists from the non-violent direct action group Reclaim The Streets of stocking up on CS gas and stun guns.

The demonisation of enemies is useful, essential even, in justifying strategic geopolitical manoeuvring and the defence of corporate interests around the world, while mollifying home-based critics of such behaviour. The creation of an ‘evil empire’ of some kind, as in postwar western scaremongering about the ‘Soviet Menace’ or earlier talk of the ‘Evil Hun’, has been a standard device for terrifying the population into supporting arms production and military adventurism abroad – both major sources of profit for big business. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein has been a useful bogeyman for US arms manufacturers who have notched up sales of over $100bn to Saddam’s neighbours in the Middle East. The fifth filter also applies to media demonisation of anti-globalisation protesters – often described as ‘rioters’ – and anyone else perceived as a threat to free-market ideology.

As a result, the range of thought and opinion available to ordinary people is very narrow and, through the five filters of the propaganda model, debate is rigidly defined within a narrow spectrum.

The "five filters" of Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model

The "five filters" of Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model

The same is true on a similar scale within the education system. If media coverage of events truly is the first draft of history, then we can see the propaganda model filtering through into the education of our children. Suffice to say that an in-depth study of this effect would take far more space than a single blog entry. But, as an example of what I’m referring to, tell somebody who only did high school history that the Vietnam War was conducted against South Vietnam rather than North Vietnam, that dropping Fat Man and Little Boy was unnecessary because Japan had tried to surrender on exactly the same terms as were eventually agreed months earlier, or that the United States of America has a consistent record of support for Nazi-collaborators (such as in Greece) or neo-fascists against social democracies. They’ll look at you like you’re mad.

Necessary illusions prevail, and with them a culture of apathy or at best controlled debate. People can be readily mobilised in the name of a cause, but the propaganda model and the rigid spectrum of “mainstream” opinion serve to ensure that such mobilisation is never too subversive or too strongly in the interests of the masses.

A perfect example of this is the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Popular opposition to the war was grounded in opposition to US imperialism, arguing that the only purpose of the war was to cement US influence and control of resources in the region. The protests by the masses were based on solid anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist principles. The debate permitted in the media, by contrast, was one of tactics and approach.

In the media, we could read plenty of arguments against the Iraq War. Debate raged as to whether invasion or diplomacy was the best way to resolve the crisis, whether the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should be given more time to find Weapons of Mass Destruction, whether it really was the most appropriate security concern of the War on Terror. That the “crisis” was one entirely of US-UK construction for the purposes of justifying an invasion, that the IAEA was bound to find nothing and that even the Bush administration had conceded, pre-9/11, that Iraq’s WMD program had ended prior to 1990 when Saddam was still a loyal US client, and that the War on Terror – like its Reagan-era precedent – had little to do with security or stopping terrorism remained utterly off the agenda.

In other words, popular opposition to the war was largely ignored, unless it was required for point-scoring by the dovish end of the political mainstream. Only elite dissent mattered, and massive, grassroots protests were reported without any context of the radical politics which gave rise to them.

Despite the largest popular opposition to the war since Vietnam, media debate over the war in Iraq was contained within the framework of elite interests

Despite the largest popular opposition to the war since Vietnam, media debate over the war in Iraq was contained within the framework of elite interests

One truly could publish endless volumes on how the voice of the masses is either ignored, or directed in controlled dissent. Such examples might be the growing “disillusionment” with the government’s “too soft” approach to asylum and immigration as controls get tighter and the system ever more brutal, the uproar over the “banning” of St George’s Day that never occurred, or the protest votes going to the British National Party despite it being the logical extreme of the mainstream spectrum. This latter example was summed up quite aptly by the anarchists of the Brighton Solidarity Federation;

The BNP believe in much of the worst in society. Thugs in uniform kicking down immigrants doors at dawn and forcing them into detention camps without trial. Attacks on the organised working class. Playing one racial community against the other. Christian fundamentalist bigots in charge of communities. Destroying social institutions such as the NHS. These are some of the dreams of the BNP. They are also new Labour policy, and currently ongoing before our eyes.

The BNP merely represent the logical extreme of all the mainstream parties, as they compete against each other to be the most anti immigration, the hardest on the unions, the toughest on “waste” in the public sector. For these parties, the BNP become convenient pantomime villains – “Nazis” whose policies are completely alien to their own. No matter how much they in fact coincide.

The threat of the BNP isn’t that they will recreate the holocaust (they wouldn’t) or seize power and destroy democracy (they never will), but that they represent the culmination the same official policy that has left our communities divided and in tatters. It will push a minority of resentful angry people down the stupid zero-sum-game of racial politics, and away from politics which could serve to find real solutions to these problems. The real problem is not that one community or another gets too much, or that one race is underrepresented – but that communities are divided up by race in the first place!

The situation in the past, with the working class being largely alert, aware, and involved, was not good for those attempting to hold onto power. It led to concessions like universal suffrage or the right to organise. Compare the vibrant rebellions of such times to the attitude now, as our civil liberties are slowly but surely eroded and the response is a collective “who cares.”

The knowledge and the freedom that it brings is there if you’re willing to seek it out, but the lack of such willingness is precisely the problem. The culture of apathy didn’t always exist amongst the masses. It was fostered by the propaganda model to protect the self-interest of the ruling classes.

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  1. […] have written before on the problem of apathy, and I intend to look at the inactivity of even the politically minded and how movements can foster […]

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