Neoliberalism: Attacks on the ABC and academia are entirely logical.

Funding attacks on the ABC and the social sciences in academia by Scotty from Marketing: they fit perfectly with Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model.

Marketing and propaganda use the same psychological tools. Indeed, marketing was once regarded as commercial propaganda. In their famous book “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media”, Chomsky and Edward Herman argue that the mainstream US media is manufacturing propaganda for the benefit of the economic elite.

In this frame, the government’s funding attacks on some elements of academia and public broadcasting are completely predictable. Both the ABC and social science academics have the potential to contradict, with authority, neoliberal propaganda.

Chomsky and the propaganda model

The model argues that corporate media bias arises through five “filters”. One, concentrated ownership by corporate media conglomerates; two, advertising as the primary income source for media outlets which exposes them to the wishes of corporate advertisers; three, the uncritical choice of “political-economic elites” as primary sources of news; four, the use of “flak” from governments and others to suppress views that are critical of political-economic elites; and five, the framing of news in “anticommunism” terms meaning that a market-based, capitalistic system is a given and therefore beyond questioning.

Chomsky, linguistics professor at MIT, was raised as a “practising Jewish atheist” by Hebrew teacher parents. His early experiences led to a deep mistrust of elites and unaccountable power. In his view, “any form of authority requires justification”. He regards laissez-faire capitalism and state control of production alike as autocratic and non-democratic, since both involve the domination of productivity and human creativity. Neither system puts control in the hands of ordinary people, so neither system can be associated with freedom or the opportunity for self-fulfilment through one’s labour.

Journalists and the media also come in for sustained criticism. In the face of the claim that we, in the West, enjoy a “free press”, Chomsky maintains that media organisations are private conglomerates motivated by the profit motive and not a set of moral imperatives. Far from being the “fourth estate” characteristically free and adversarial towards entrenched and unaccountable power, as media organisations are fond of claiming, they are in the business of selling audiences to advertisers.

What’s allowed and what’s not

Robert McChesney, long-time friend and academic collaborator, expanded on the propaganda model. He wrote that neoliberal democracy, in a nutshell, is trivial debate over minor issues by parties that basically pursue the same pro-business policies regardless of formal differences and campaign debate. Democracy is permissible as long as the control of business is off-limits to popular deliberation or change; i.e., so long as it isn’t democracy. Neoliberal democracy therefore has an important and necessary byproduct — a depoliticised citizenry marked by apathy and cynicism.

In the US, the richest one-quarter of one percent of Americans make 80 percent of all individual political contributions and corporations outspend labour by a margin of ten to one. Under neoliberalism this all makes sense; elections then reflect market principles, with contributions being equated with investments. As a result, it reinforces the irrelevance of electoral politics to most people and assures the maintenance of unquestioned corporate rule, McChesney wrote.

But neoliberalism differs from authoritarianism. While autocratic regimes forbid criticism of rulers, neoliberalism encourages criticism of governments and politicians because that reinforces the neoliberal narrative that politicians are subject to populist pressures, or are incompetent, and that important economic functions, including central banking, should be “independent” of elected government.

Another world is possible”

Chomsky wrote in 2010 about globalisation: “History shows that, more often than not, loss of sovereignty leads to liberalisation imposed in the interests of the powerful. In recent years, the regime thus imposed has been called ‘neoliberalism’. It is not a very good term, as the social-economic regime in question is not new; nor is it liberal, at least as the concept was understood by classical liberals. The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct attack on democracy.

“The central doctrine of neoliberalism is financial liberalisation, which took off in the early 1970s. Some of its effects are well known. With the increase in speculative capital flows, countries were forced to set aside much larger reserves to protect their currencies from attack. It is striking that countries which maintained capital controls – among them India and China – avoided the worst of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

“In the United States, meanwhile, the share of the financial sector in corporate profit rose from just a few per cent in the 1960s to over 30 per cent in 2004. Concentration also increased sharply, thanks largely to the deregulatory zeal of the Clinton administration. By 2009, the share of banking industry assets held by the 20 largest institutions stood at 70 per cent.

“Among the consequences of financialisation is the creation of what an analysis by the investment bank Citigroup calls ‘plutonomy’. The bank’s analysts describe a world that is dividing into two blocs: the plutonomy and the rest. The US, UK and Canada are the key plutonomies: economies in which growth is powered by – and largely consumed by – the wealthy few. In plutonomies, these rich consumers take a disproportionately large slice of the national pie. Two-thirds of the world’s economic growth is driven by consumption, primarily in the plutonomies, which monopolise profits as well.”

“This pandemic can lead us to highly authoritarian and repressive states”

In April this year, Chomsky said that the first big lesson of the current pandemic is that we are facing “another massive and colossal failure of the neoliberal version of capitalism,” which in the case of the US is aggravated by the nature of the “sociopathic jesters who run the government” led by Donald Trump.

It was obvious after the SARS epidemic in 2003 that other pandemics, probably of the coronavirus variety, would come, he said. “It would have been possible to prepare at that point and address it as it is with the flu. But it wasn’t done.”

“Pharmaceuticals had resources and are super rich, but they don’t because markets say there are no benefits in preparing for a catastrophe around the corner. And then comes the neoliberal hammer. Governments can’t do anything. They’re being the problem and not the solution.

“America is a catastrophe for the game they bring in Washington. They know how to blame everyone but themselves, even though they’re responsible. We are now the epicenter, in a country that is so dysfunctional that it cannot even provide information about the infection to the World Health Organization (WHO).”

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John Tan was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. He has been foreign editor and business editor.

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