(Chomsky is still one of the greatest minds of the 21st)
But they didn’t really get along. They disagreed on a number of issues that were key to their respective ideologies and had some pretty intense debates on these issues. In fact even today some supporters of Foucault tend to dislike Chomsky (whereas most supporters of Chomsky tend to not give a shit).
One of the major issues of disagreement related to power, its expression and its perpetuation.
Chomksy believes that power is directed from above (in western democracies this means via influence over institutions of power, particularly politics and the media).
Foucault believed that power arose from below, through the ways in which the things we say endlessly feed off and reinforce each other in the collective communication process that results in the arising of a Discourse.
So Chomsky believes that the powerful tell us what to think while Foucault believes that we all tell each other what to think.
Clearly these two approaches are different, but which is right? Both of these men are geniuses and both of these ideas are brilliant.
Well, I actually think that they are both right, and that if you put their ideas together you can gain a much better understanding of the way the world really works.
Let’s first do some Chomsky. In his classic book ‘Manufacturing Consent’ Chomsky laid out the ways in which the Western (particularly US American) media is controlled by powerful interests.
Like I said above: the book is a work of absolute genius. It’s one of those things that seems completely obvious once you hear it but you could never come up with yourself.
If you don’t want to read the book then everyone, everywhere should at least watch the documentary that was made about it.
Get it, in any way you can.
I can’t really do it justice but I shall try anyway.
In fascist regimes like Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia or Apartheid South Africa the government exerts direct control over the media. Government officials will write reports for newscasters to read out or send scary looking dudes to literally stand there and watch them to make sure they tow the party line.
The problem with this way of doing things is that it’s obvious, so people tend to ignore it and resist it. Ironically this ties in with something Foucault said: if power is to be effective then it must go unnoticed.
So in the Western democracies the methods of control are far more subtle.
I’m sure we all remember when Bush was caught writing reports that news stations aired completely uncritically, or paid former military commanders to be interviewed and say what he wanted them to say. This stuff is surprisingly common, but it’s obvious and because it’s obvious it often gets caught.
Fox News is quite visibly merely the propaganda wing of the Republican Party, and because of this visibility its effectiveness is limited. This form of bullshit only works if no one notices it, and people often do notice.
What Chomsky was talking about was very different, a lot harder to spot and far more disturbing.
It boils down to a low level bias that permeates the entirety of the news structure, and is reinforced at every level by the level above it.
The fact is that you simply will never get hired by CNN unless your beliefs are pretty similar to those of their owners. They will not hire people who are socialist, or anarchist, or even activist. Furthermore, they will not hire people who are sufficiently critical of the US that their reports would annoy the viewing public. These ideals spread throughout the system but they all start at the top.
The shadowy group of businesspeople who own the company that owns the company that owns CNN will not hire someone to head the channel if they feel that person will threaten the company’s financial future; I mean that just makes sense.
But in the age of modern media a news channel’s financial future rests on advertising, so you end up with leaders who were selected because they won’t annoy the mega corporations who pay for the adverts on the channel.
These people in turn hire presenters and journalists who they know won’t annoy the advertisers. Naturally, for any news channel to stay in business it has to produce news so being advertiser-friendly is not the only factor.
But it is the deciding factor.