• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Aug 17, 2002

Manufacturing Controversy or Manufacturing Consent?

For those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the system of 'brainwashing under freedom' to which we are subjected and which all too often we serve as willing or unwitting instruments. - Noam Chomsky

Earlier this week, an indignant Michael Fraser, the UFCW's Canadian Director, accused the Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily newspaper, of "manufacturing controversy". From his petulant letter to the editor it would seem more likely that Fraser is trying to manufacture consent.

Dissident writer Noam Chomsky has written extensively about Manufacturing Consent - a strategy employed by powerful elites to undermine democracy and erode freedom in democratic societies. It is a subtle, insidious way of oppressing the majority where more overt means - like violence or terror - just won't do. "Manufacturing consent" means doing what you want and getting away with it by creating the impression that it's what everybody wants you to do in the first place.

At the core of Chomsky's thesis about manufacturing consent, is the premise that the "unwashed herd," the general population, must be trained and manipulated, by the manufacturers of consent (the media in the service of corporate/state elites), to form their opinions based on the pronouncements of "qualified experts" acting in their (unquestioned) best interests. The antidote for this manipulation of the public by a small, elite cadre is providing the people with the analytical skills to question authority and the concept of authority.

There are a number of key elements in the manufacture of consent:

Necessary Illusions:

Organizations, processes and activities must create the illusion of democracy. They must appear on the surface to be democratic even though they really are not. This is important. In a democracy the people rule. So if the people are not objecting to your activities, it must be that they are consenting to them. If they are consent, then what you are doing is their will. Nothing can be finer - or more democratic. These illusions of democracy are called Necessary Illusions - necessary, because the existing order could not survive without them.

Restricting discussion:

This involves censoring or restricting discussion by setting boundaries to what can be discussed and on the range of opinion that can be expressed about certain issues. There may be lots of opportunity to debate about certain - approved - subjects, but others are off limits. It is quite acceptable to debate the shortcomings of our enemies but talking about our own is considered disloyal or self-interested. Restricting discussion can be accomplished in a number of ways: Ignoring views that are off limits is one. Discrediting or disparaging those who hold them is another.

Enemy blaming:

Labeling certain people or organizations as enemies has multiple uses. You can use the "enemy" as justification for your questionable or unpopular actions. Blame can be heaped upon the enemy for your own shortcomings (if you must acknowledge that you have some). The enemy label can be applied to dissenters, rivals and all manner of troublemakers to keep them quiet and invisible and to discourage others from questioning your wisdom.

Defining things our way:

Defining ideas, people and actions as good or bad based on what serves your purpose. We are good by definition; our enemies are bad, by definition. Concepts and actions can be redefined to make them more or less palatable. We are freedom fighters, our enemies are terrorists. War is necessary so that we can have peace; restrictions on freedom are needed so that we can have more freedom. Conforming=unity. Compromise=loyalty. Blind allegiance=support.

There are plenty of examples in this week's MFD forum of these concepts hard at work for the powerful elites. In the US, restricting dock workers' right to strike is needed to protect the economy. Citizens will be expected to spy on their friends and neighbors to protect the country. Public service workers can be fired at will to fight terrorism. Those who have anything to say about it are called anti-American.

Brainwashing in the Biz Union

That's what's happening around us today on a macro level. If we drill down into the powerful institutions that support the existing order, we find lots of examples of manufacturing consent. In the mainstream labour movement, brainwashing under freedom goes on all the time. Powerful men decide what's best for millions of disempowered workers. Union members are expected to sit quietly on the sidelines, periodically vote for their leaders' preferred candidates and line up behind their leaders on issues that the leaders consider important. Dissent is discouraged. Those who question the wisdom of their leaders are labeled malcontents, traitors to the cause, management sympathizers and worse.

In this thread, Scott McPherson presents an excellent example of a fundamental necessary illusion of the mainstream labour movement: Union democracy. No loyal mainstreamer would ever acknowledge it but a lot of unions are not democratic, even though their members sometimes get to vote on ... some stuff.

One-man-one vote??????? I thought you said you knew the UFCW constitution and understood the inner workings of the UFCW?

The UFCW despots in Wash. D.C. need only the big 65 (locals) to run this union any damn way they see fit. They can "ensure" loyal greedy trough feeders control these locals, send them off to the International convention and each of these guys can vote for the entire delegation their local is allowed. Any members that go to these drunken free-for-alls go as a reward for "loyalty" to the Pres and we've all heard about the closed door "this is how you vote on this issue" meetings that take place throughout the party. A guy in my store went to Chicago and he bragged about the free drinks, the White Sox and Cubs games he seen and the tour of the city, the leather jacket etc. and during an in store meeting proudly thanked everybody for paying for it all.It's clear to me that if you don't understand this very basic and simplistic "loophole" in that rag the UFCW tries to pass off to the public as a constitution you haven't the slightest idea what the "real world" looks like with UFCW goggles on. Wake up and grow up.

What Scott is talking about is the proportional voting system that the UFCW and many unions employ, at least when it comes to votes on issues that really matter. Locals appoint delegates based on the size of their membership. Delegates attend at various union meetings and conventions and vote on the issues of the day. The official story is that they are voting on behalf of the members they represent - so that makes it democratic. The unofficial story is that they vote the way the union's leaders want them to or - no more conventions. Not really democratic at all. But that's just one example.

Mike Fraser's snippy letter to the TO Star is rich in the elements of manufacturing consent.

Your money in the pole position

From what we can discern, it all began a few months ago when Brian Noonan, a UFCW official and racing car buff, crossed paths with a down-on-his-luck Toronto area racecar driver named Kerry Micks. Noonan arranged for the UFCW to sponsor Micks and his racing crew to the tune of $300,000 over three years. At least that's what was reported in this story in the London Free Press just after the deal was done. The rationale behind the hefty outlay of funds was that having the union's name emblazoned on the side of Mick's racecar would boost the union's profile and bring in new members. As an additional benefit, it was expected that some funds from the UFCW's partnership with Micks would trickle down to the Leukemia Research Fund of which the UFCW is a supporter. Mick's pit crew became UFCW members and Noonan become the union's Motorsports Coordinator. An enthusiastic announcement on the UFCW Canada official web site, announced the new partnership and bubbled about Micks' second place finish in some race or other.

That's when the shit hit the fan. UFCW members - obviously not as enthusiastic about struggling race car drivers as their leaders would like them to be - turned up in an article in the Toronto Star, asking questions about the wisdom of this investment of their funds at a time when many of them can barely make ends meet.

Earlier this week, a piqued Michael Fraser, UFCW Canada Director, shot off a terse letter to the editor. Fraser's letter is a study in manufacturing consent - or trying to at any rate.

The Star's reporting is inaccurate and poorly researched Fraser stated without really explaining why. If the Star had sought him out - rather than his appointed spokesperson, Noonan - it would have had the full story: This is not about giving money to racecar drivers, it's all about leukemia research. This, notwithstanding that Fraser's Motorsport Coordinator, Noonan, and Micks himself said it was about raising the union's profile and attracting new members.

Members' dues are not being used to fund the race car Fraser stated although both Noonan and Micks quite clearly state that the 300 large is going to Micks from the union. Where's the heaping pile coming from? Well, "we are currently negotiating with a number of co-partners* in order to reduce the net cost of this partnership.". The co-partners are companies whose workers the UFCW represents. Cutting through the verbal gymnastics, it sounds a lot like the moolah comes from the members and the UFCW is hoping that their corporate pals will help them replenish the treasury. Wonder how much they'll get from the compassionate community-spirited folks at Loblaws, at Safeway, or at OFG?

But if that doesn't put your mind at rest, Micks, Fraser proclaims, is a racing star and a UFCW partner. This we presume should be enough to make him a worthy destination for $300,000. Hell, it might even make him an honorary "brother" or titular "unionist" or something.

Finally, Fraser heaps the blame on some familiar enemies. The Toronto Star is "manufacturing controversy" and the Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove is lurking suspiciously in the wings. The Star is obviously up to no good with him as he was contacted for comment in connection with the article and made the inflammatory statement: We build our reputation by negotiating good contracts. That's what brings in new members.

Boiling it all down, what Fraser is saying - in response to an article that was mainly about discontented members - is how dare anyone cast aspersions on the UFCW's support of leukemia research? By taking this tack, Fraser attempts to redefine the issue in a way that makes him golden and his actions beyond reproach. Anyone who criticizes the 300K gift to Kerry Micks is now criticizing leukemia fund raising.He has trivializes his members' concerns as a "manufactured controversy", the product of inaccurate reporting and sloppy research.

Fraser is trying really hard to "manufacture consent" for his generous donation to racecar driver Kerry Micks. By making it sound like the donation is to leukemia research, he stands a good chance of minimizing opposition. If there is not opposition - or no credible opposition - there is implied consent.

Our greatest weapon against manufactured consent is an understanding how this concept works and being able to spot it when it's being used. Whenever something doesn't add up, that should be our first clue. When something doesn't make sense, usually it's because it make sense.

Even a cursory analysis of the facts surrounding the UFCW's race car crash would suggest that the union gave $300,000 to a race car driver to finance his racing career. Believing that the 300 large is a donation to leukemia research would be about the same as telling the boss your wage demands are really a fund raising campaign for charity because if you get a raise you might just throw a beggar a dime.

Manufacturing consent. See how it works?

  • Start with a basic necessary illusions like "unions are democratic therefore they only do things that their members want them to do".
  • Redefine questionable things so they look golden. "We didn't give the money to a guy we're big fans of, we gave it to charity."
  • Control the discussion so it doesn't stray into any uncomfortable stuff.
  • If it's a hard sell, blame the enemy.

    Thanks for the educational material Mike and for helping us understand. We'll be looking for more.

    Here's Scott again, thinking independently and refusing to get on the bandwagon:


    Unions only become strong in numbers and anything that negatively affects those numbers attacks the protections of all rank-and-file members.

    I agree. These guys spend the members money like a bunch of drunken sailors on shore leave. It's absolutely unconscionable anyone calling themselves "a trade unionist" would authorize [for any reason] the spending of over 300K on a stupid meaningless race car when Thunder Bay employees are out of a job and most likely in need of retraining and assistance. When Loman workers will soon be joining them and Lord only knows who else. When Fortinos employees could use and extra 100 bucks a week in strike pay to win a better deal etc etc etc etc etc etc etc. I can't think of anything that has a bigger negative impact on the welfare of union members than the mismanagement of union funds.

    I also can't believe anyone would be so gullible to bite on that penny's a member crap.'s not their money to spend!!

    Some good reading from links posted in this week's forum:

    Our contributors' "words to live by" returns next week.

    * - is that a word?

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