Consent Without Consent
excerpted from the book
Profit Over People
by Noam Chomsky
Seven Stories Press, 1999
... Over the years, popular forces have sought to gain a larger
share in managing their affairs, with some success alongside many
defeats. Meanwhile an instructive body of thought has been developed
to justify elite resistance to democracy. Those who hope to understand
the past and shape the future would do well to pay careful attention
not only to the practice but also to the doctrinal framework that
The issues were addressed 250 years ago by David Hume in classic
work. Hume was intrigued by "the easiness with which the
many are governed by the few, the implicit submission with which
men resign" their fate to their rulers. This he found surprising,
because "force is always on the side of the governed."
If people would realize that, they would rise up and overthrow
the masters. He concluded that government is founded on control
of opinion, a principle that "extends to the most despotic
and most military governments, as well as to the most free and
Hume surely underestimated the effectiveness of brute force.
A more accurate version is that the more "free and popular"
a government, the more it becomes necessary to rely on control
of opinion to ensure submission to the rulers.
That people must submit is taken for granted pretty much across
the spectrum. In a democracy, the governed have the right to consent,
but nothing more than that. In the terminology of modern progressive
thought, the population may be "spectators," but not
"participants," apart from occasional choices among
leaders representing authentic power. That is the political arena.
The general population must be excluded entirely from the economic
arena, where what happens in the society is largely determined.
Here the public is to have no role, according to prevailing democratic
... The founding fathers repeated the sentiments of the British
"men of best quality" in almost the same words. As one
put it "When I mention the public, I mean to include only
the rational part of it. The ignorant and vulgar are as unfit
to judge of the modes [of government], as they are unable to manage
[its] reins." The people are a "great beast" that
must be tamed, his colleague Alexander Hamilton declared. Rebellious
and independent farmers had to be taught, sometimes by force,
that the ideals of the revolutionary pamphlets were not to be
taken too seriously. The common people were not to be represented
by countrymen like themselves, who know the people's sores, but
by gentry, merchants, lawyers, and other "responsible men"
who could be trusted to defend privilege.
The reigning doctrine was expressed clearly by the President
of the Continental Congress and first Chief Justice of the Supreme
Court, John Jay "The people who own the country ought to
govern it." One issue remained to be settled Who owns the
country? The question was answered by the rise of private corporations
and the structures devised to protect and support them, though
it remains a difficult task to compel the public to keep to the
The United States is surely the most important case to study
if we hope to understand the world of today and tomorrow. One
reason is its incomparable power. Another is its stable democratic
institutions. Furthermore, the United States was as close to a
tabula rasa as one can find. America can be "as happy as
she pleases," Thomas Paine remarked in 1776 "she has
a blank sheet to write upon." The indigenous societies were
largely eliminated. The U.S. also has little residue of earlier
European structures, one reason for the relative weakness of the
social contract and of support systems, which often had their
roots in pre-capitalist institutions. And to an unusual extent,
the sociopolitical order was consciously designed. In studying
history, one cannot construct experiments, but the United States
is as close to the "ideal case" of state capitalist
democracy as can be found.
The main designer, furthermore, was an astute political thinker
James Madison, whose views largely prevailed. In the debates on
the Constitution, Madison pointed out that if elections in England"
were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors
would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place,"
giving land to the landless. The Constitutional system must be
designed to prevent such injustice and "secure the permanent
interests of the country," which are property rights.
Among Madisonian scholars, there is a consensus that "the
Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed
to check the democratic tendencies of the period," delivering
power to a "better sort" of people and excluding those
who were not rich, well born, or prominent from exercising political
power (Lance Banning). The primary responsibility of government
is "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,"
Madison declared. That has been the guiding principle of the democratic
system from its origins until today.
In public discussion, Madison spoke of the rights of minorities
in general, but it is quite clear that he had a particular minority
in mind "the minority of the opulent." Modern political
theory stresses Madison's belief that "in a just and a free
government the rights both of property and of persons ought to
be effectually guarded." But in this case too it is useful
to look at the doctrine more carefully. There are no rights of
property, only rights to property that is, rights of persons with
property. Perhaps I have a right to my car, but my car has no
rights. The right to property also differs from others in that
one person's possession of property deprives another of that right
if I own my car, you do not; but in a just and free society, my
freedom of speech would not limit yours. The Madisonian principle,
then, is that government must guard the rights of persons generally,
but must provide special and additional guarantees for the rights
of one class of persons, property owners.
Madison foresaw that the threat of democracy was likely to
become more severe over time because of the increase in "the
proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of
life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings."
They might gain influence, Madison feared. He was concerned by
the "symptoms of a leveling spirit" that had already
appeared, and warned "of the future danger" if the right
to vote would place "power over property in hands without
a share in it." Those "without property, or the hope
of acquiring it, cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently
with its rights," Madison explained. His solution was to
keep political power in the hands of those who "come from
and represent the wealth of the nation," the "more capable
set of men," with the general public fragmented and disorganized...
...The National Security States installed and backed by the
United States are discussed in an important book by Lars Schoultz,
one of the leading Latin American scholars. Their goal, in his
words, was "to destroy permanently a perceived threat to
the existing structure of socioeconomic privilege by eliminating
the political participation of the numerical majority," Hamilton's
"great beast." The goal is basically the same in the
home society, though the means are different.
The pattern continues today. The champion human rights violator
in the hemisphere is Colombia, also the leading recipient of U.S.
military aid and training in recent years. The pretext is the
"drug war," but that is "a myth," as regularly
reported by major human rights groups, the church, and other who
have investigated the shocking record of atrocities and the close
links between the narcotraffickers, landowners, the military,
and their paramilitary associates. State terror has devastated
popular organizations and virtually destroyed the one independent
political party by assassination of thousands of activists, including
presidential candidates, mayors, and others. Nonetheless Colombia
is hailed as a stable democracy, revealing again what is meant
A particularly instructive example is the reaction to Guatemala's
first experiment with democracy. In this case the secret record
is partially available, so we know a good deal about the thinking
that guided policy. In 1952 the CIA warned that the "radical
and nationalist policies" of the government had gained "the
support or acquiescence of almost all Guatemalans." The government
was "mobilizing the hitherto politically inert peasantry"
and creating "mass support for the present regime" by
means of labor organization, agrarian reform, and other policies
"identified with the revolution of 1944," which had
aroused "a strong national movement to free Guatemala from
the military dictatorship, social backwardness, and 'economic
colonialism' which had been the pattern of the past." The
policies of the democratic government "inspired the loyalty
and conformed to the self-interest of most politically conscious
Guatemalans." State Department intelligence reported that
the democratic leadership "insisted upon the maintenance
of an open political system," thus allowing Communists to
"expand their operations and appeal effectively to various
sectors of the population." These deficiencies of democracy
were cured by the military coup of 1954 and the reign of terror
since, always with large-scale U.S. support.
The problem of securing" consent" has also arisen
with international institutions. At first, the United Nations
was a reliable instrument of U.S. policy, and was greatly admired.
But decolonization brought about what came to be called "the
tyranny of the majority." From the 1 960s Washington took
the lead in vetoing Security Council resolutions (with Britain
second, and France a distant third), and voting alone or with
a few client states against General Assembly resolutions. The
UN fell into disfavor, and sober articles began to appear asking
why the world was "opposing the United States"; that
the United States might be opposing the world is a thought too
bizarre to be entertained. U.S. relations with the World Court
and other international institutions have undergone a similar
... doctrines ... have been crafted to impose the modern forms
of political democracy. They are expressed quite accurately in
an important manual of the public relations industry by one of
its leading figures, Edward Bernays. He opens by observing that
the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits
and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic
society. To carry out this essential task the intelligent minorities
must make use of propaganda continuously and systematically,"
because they alone "understand the mental processes and social
patterns of the masses" and can "pull the wires which
control the public mind. Therefore, our "society has consented
to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda,"
another case of "consent without consent." Propaganda
provides the leadership with a mechanism "to mold the mind
of the masses" so that "they will throw their newly
gained strength in the desired direction." The leadership
can "regiment the public mind every bit as much as an army
regiments the bodies of its soldiers." This process of "engineering
consent" is the very "essence of the democratic process,"
Bernays wrote ...