By Patrice Greanville and Herbert I. Schiller
Second in our special communications series--
Introduction by Patrice Greanville
The lore of laissez-faire capitalism has given rise to many self-serving myths, and nowhere have they found a more hospitable soil than in America. The reasons for this are many, and probably deserve a separate article, but suffice it to say here that the upshot has been a dismal state of comprehension of contemporary realities. And here's precisely the rub. For the backward political consciousness and naivete of the American nation is today's main obstacle to the construction of a more just and humane social order.
WITH WHAT IS PROBABLY the lowest political consciousness in the industrialized world, Americans live the paradox of being media-rich and information poor. Major clues to this bizarre situation can be found in the national mythologies and techniques of miscommunication favored by the U.S. media. While no nation can claim today to be fully exempt from the ravages of false political consciousness or sheer historical confusion, in some nations the publics are more deluded than in others, and the myths sustaining the whole edifice of lies far more difficult to detect and expose. Sad to say, such is the case in the United States.
As we write these lines, this deeply-ingrained popular ignorance, so often deliberately cultivated by those in power, has finally translated itself in the postwar late-industrial period into a major engine for constant war, and a threat to all living things on this planet. How did such a grotesque situation arise in the United States? What are the major ideological pathways routinely utilized by the system for the dissemination of outrageous falsehoods, or, when the case recommends it, subtle distortions? How is this system maintained? Some of the answers may be found below.
Herbert I. Schiller, professor emeritus of communication at the University of California, San Diego, who documented key shortcomings in the new information economy before anyone called it that, died Jan 29, 2000 in La Jolla, California. Schiller warned of two major trends in his prolific writings and speeches: the private takeover of public space and public institutions at home, and U.S. corporate dominance of cultural life abroad, particularly in developing nations. His eight books and hundreds of articles made him a key figure in both communication research and in the public debate over the role of the media in modern society. He was a frequent and much sought-after contributor to leading journals of opinion, including The Nation and Le Monde Diplomatique, and a firm supporter of Cyrano's Journal. Given his importance to the formation of true journalists, Schiller should be required reading in all J-schools in America, but, of course, he isn't.
Note: The above introduction was penned expressly for Cyrano's Journal's premiere issue, Fall of 1982. If anything, the situation is worse today than thirty years ago.
The Packaged Consciousness
By Herbert I. Schiller
The Myth of Individualism and Personal Choice
Manipulation's greatest triumph, most evident in the United States, is to have taken advantage of the special historical circumstances of Western development to perpetrate as truth a definition of freedom cast in individualistic terms. This has enabled the concept to serve a double function. It protects the ownership of [social] private property [factories, land, etc.], more or less absolutely, while simultaneously offering itself as the guardian of the individual's well-being, suggesting, if not insisting, that the latter is unattainable without the former. Upon this central premise an entire scaffolding of manipulation has been erected. What accounts for the strength of this powerful notion?
There is evidence enough to argue that the "sovereign" individual's rights are a myth, and that society and the individual are inseparable. As the research of many sociologists, anthropologists and other scientists and historians has shown, the very beginnings of culture were rooted in collaboration and ethical values, economic logic and political arrangements of capitalism are regarded to this day by a wide variety of cultures as socially unacceptable, morally inappropriate or downright criminal.
The basis of freedom as it is perceived in the West is the existence of substantial individual choice. Personal choice has been emphasized as highly desirable and attainable in significant measure. The origin of this sentiment is not recent. The identification of personal choice with human freedom can be seen arising side-by-side with seventeenth -century individualism, both products of the emerging market economy and the expanding economic power of the new mercantilist entrepreneurial class, still largely stifled in its social ambitions by the dead weight of a declining but still contemptuous nobility. 1
For several hundred years individual proprietorship, allied with technological improvement, increased production and thereby bestowed great importance on personal independence in the industrial and political spheres. The view that freedom is a totally personal matter, and that the individual's rights actually supersede the group's and should provide the basis for social organization, gained credibility with the rise of material rewards and leisure time. Note, however, that these conditions were never distributed evenly among all classes of Western society, and could not be, given the nature of income and wealth distribution under capitalism, and that no real benefits accrued to most inhabitants of the capitalist periphery for quite some time.
The success of a new class of entrepreneurs seemingly confirmed the workability and desirability of their system. Individual choice and private decision-making were, at that time, functional activities--that is, constructive and useful in the achievement of the higher outputs, increased efficiency, and soaring profits of the business unit. The solid evidence of fast economic and military development in Western Europe helped the self-serving claims of individualism, personal choice, and private accumulation to take root and flourish.
In the newly-settled United States, few restraints impeded the imposition of an individualistic private enterprise system and its accompanying myths of personal choice and individual freedom. Both enterprise and myth found a hospitable setting. The growth of the former and consolidation of the latter were pretty inevitable. How far the process has been carried is evident today in the easy (though hardening) public acceptance of the giant multinational corporation as an example of individual endeavor worthy of awe and admiration.