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Democratic Unfreedom — Social Technique and the Manufacture of Control

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress. – Herbert Marcuse

As Noam Chomsky pointed out, in both “old” and “new” world orders the central goal has pivoted around the issue of control: “Control of the population is the major task of any state that is dominated by particular sectors of the domestic society and therefore functions primarily in their interest …”[1] Such “particular sectors” as referred to are the minority elite, who pursue controlling strategies to “engineer” national and international affairs in line with their aims. And these aims are for the most part based on greed and power; and the need to keep the masses contented and docile.

The construction of what Marcuse refers to as democratic unfreedom is often implemented through scientific rationalism. The pattern often adopted is in parading rational thinking as the vehicle in which to present specific agendas most suitable to hierarchical power structures. And it is through the rationalism of the elite technocratic establishment that global governance has found its most articulate expression. One of these forms is corporatism and the rise of the conglomerates (media conglomerates were explored in a previous Truthout article). A particular example of corporatism and social control can be found within global food systems, the ways they are monopolized and managed.

The control and management of global food supplies has been a corporate and political priority for decades, with US-based conglomerates leading the charge. As elite establishment political figure Henry Kissinger remarked in 1970, “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.” Recent research places multinational corporations behind the push toward controlling global food supplies.

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The 1974 UN World Food Conference in Rome outlined the necessity of maintaining sufficient world grain reserves, especially since the price of world grain had shot up dramatically via the huge increase in oil price during the early 1970s oil crisis (at one point world oil prices had risen by 400 percent). US export strategy in the 1970s was to further control food supplies. This led to moves to consolidate power as 95 percent of all grain reserves in the world were under the control of six multinational agribusiness corporations – Cargill Grain Company; Continental Grain Company; Cook Industries, Inc; Dreyfus; Bunge Company; and Archer Daniels Midland – all US-based companies. The US long-term strategy was to dominate the global market in grain and agriculture commodities, as outlined in the early 1970s by Richard Nixon. This policy coincided with taking the dollar off the gold exchange standard in August 1971 to make US grain exports competitive in the rest of the world. However, in order for the US to become the world’s most competitive agribusiness producer, it had to replace traditional American family-based farming with the now-widespread huge “factory-farm” production. In other words, traditional agriculture was systematically replaced with agribusiness production through changes in domestic policy. For example, domestic farm programs that had previously protected smaller farm incomes were phased out during Nixon’s term in office. This policy was then exported to developing countries in a bid to make US agribusiness more competitive and to get a hold into foreign markets:

The Nixon Administration began the process of destroying the domestic food production of developing countries as the opening shot in an undeclared war to create a vast new global market in “efficient” American food exports. Nixon also used the post-war trade regime known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to advance this new global agribusiness export agenda.[2]

In Henry Kissinger’s 1974 report “National Security Study Memorandum 200” (NSSM 200), he directly targeted overseas food aid as an “instrument of national power.”[3] The policy shifts during the 1970s were toward increased deregulation, which meant increased private regulation by the large and powerful global corporations. This led to an increase in corporate mergers and the rise of transnational corporations (which today often have larger gross domestic products than many nation states).[4]

As large corporate agribusinesses were creating their food production, storage and distribution monopoly, smaller domestic farms were going bankrupt and closing. (Although this trend was predominantly occurring within the US, it later spread to other developed nations, which were forced to “modernize” their agricultural industry to compete with global trade.) For example, between 1979 and 1998, the number of US farmers dropped by 300,000 and by the end of the 1990s, the agriculture (in the US at least) was dominated by large commercial agribusiness interests. The US also operated a foreign policy of offering financial assistance “to developing countries via the World Bank in return for these countries to open their markets up to cheap US food imports and hybridized seeds.”[5]

By the beginning of the 21st century, world supplies of cereal were under the control of a few US-based monopolies. Four large agrochemical/seed companies – Monsanto, Novartis, Dow Chemical and DuPont – controlled more than 75 percent of the US’s seed corn sales and 60 percent of soybean seed sales. By the merging of giant agrochemical and seed companies, livestock could be fed on a huge diet of drugs in order to stimulate increased growth. It has been estimated that in recent years the largest users of antibiotics and similar pharmaceutical products are not humans, but animals, which consumed 70 percent of all pharmaceutical antibiotics. Statistics show, quite shockingly, that the use of antibiotics by US agribusiness increased from 500,000 pounds to 40 million pounds (an 80-fold increase by weight) from 1954 to 2005. As a consequence, the Center for Disease Control in the US has reported an “epidemic” rise in food-related diseases in humans as a result of eating meat containing large quantities of antibiotics. One Harvard University researcher, Ray Goldberg, who set up a research group to examine the revolution in agribusiness (including genetically modified organisms), reported: “the genetic revolution is leading to an industrial convergence of food, health, medicine, fiber and energy business.”[6]

Corporatism and the rise of the conglomerates is just one example of the social institutions’ centralization that allows the enactment of their agendas within our societies. Global food supplies are only one aspect of a range of covert structures, operating both within and between nation states that serve to bring a democratic unfreedom into our lives. Other structures include, but are not limited to, financial institutions and central banking, energy cartels, pharmaceutical monopolies, communication and media empires and data-collection centers. Our increasingly restricted social environments are now managed by a highly organized form of social technique.

Modern techno-societies are progressively more orchestrated around the central issues of power and control. Consequently, technology (the product of social technique) is required to further regulate and manipulate the free expression of human activity. Historically, social discipline was instilled within the masses by public executions and very overt physical threats. Nowadays, this has shifted to more covert forms of control and influence. The ultimate dystopian future, for example, could be described as:

It will not be a universal concentration camp, for it will be guilty of no atrocity. It will not seem insane, for everything will be ordered and the stains of human passion will be lost amid the chromium gleam. We shall have nothing more to lose and nothing to win. Our deepest instincts and our most secret passions will be analyzed, published and exploited. We shall be rewarded with everything our hearts ever desired. And the supreme luxury of the society of technical necessity will be to grant the bonus of useless revolt and of an acquiescent smile. [7]

We should be careful, therefore, to note that the illusion of liberty can be used as a powerful form of control and domination. Such as the “democratic right” to “free and fair elections,” as the “free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.”[8] Joseph Goebbels (Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister) was acutely aware of this potential when he stated: “You are at liberty to seek your salvation as you understand it, provided you do nothing to change the social order.” This amounts to nothing more than running around within our own playpen. The extreme expression of this is a society where a revolutionary/reactionary potential ceases to exist. With many new laws coming into effect (in the US and elsewhere) that restrict public gatherings and the right to protest, that may not be far from our current social reality.

As suggested by a prior discussion on media, there is a great emphasis upon who has access to what information. Information is crucial to the management of a social control matrix. Many countries are so sensitive about this that they prioritize the control, availability and flow of information. This applies not only to overtly restrictive regimes such as China (“The Great Firewall“), but also to so-called democratic nations such as the United States, Australia and European states. The recent attempts to regulate Internet activity such as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement and the Stop Online Piracy Act are examples of this very dangerous creeping appropriation of the free flow of information. Despite the rapid growth in independent and alternative news sites (thanks mainly to the Internet), the sad truth is that the majority of people are still living within a highly managed information embargo.

Control over the flow and content of information is a feature of social technique and characterizes any society that is moving toward increasing digitization. To a large degree, the manufacture of social control is about the management of information. That’s why, in subtle and ingenious ways, modern societies are racing to establish ever more efficient structures of information embargo. Such institutional behavior is not restricted to developed societies, but also appears in developing societies:

Technology serves to institute new, more effective and more pleasant forms of social control and social cohesion. The totalitarian tendency of these controls seems to assert itself in still another sense – by spreading to the less developed and even to the preindustrial areas of the world. [9]

The critical role of technology for social control of the masses was laid out very clearly by the one-time US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski discussed how the information society would have to provide an “amusement focus” such as “spectator spectacles” like mass sports and mainstream media in order to provide “an opiate for increasingly purposeless masses.” He went on to say, “New forms of social control may be needed to limit the indiscriminate exercise by the individual of their new powers.”[10] Brzezinski, as a high-ranking expert on political affairs, was aware of the rise in the consciousness of the people and how this would affect the capacity of power structures to maintain the mask of democracy. Brzezinski wrote that a “global human conscience is for the first time beginning to manifest itself” but that “the new global consciousness, however, is only beginning to become an influential force. It still lacks identity, cohesion and focus.”[11]

The aim of open information and the free flow of thought should, therefore, be to establish a genuine civil society that manifests identity, cohesion and focus. Not to do so would be to play directly into the hands of social technique that plans our pacification, purposelessness and disempowerment. I hope that our agenda is not to play ball and to seek instead empowerment, individual and collective integrity and a real sense of civic purpose. While our communication channels remain open … for now … let us use them to those ends.


[1] Chomsky, Noam, “World Orders, Old and New,” London: Pluto Press, 1997.

[2] Engdahl, F W, “Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation,” Global Research, 2007.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rockefeller and Ford Foundation funding of the Harvard University study titled “Harvard Economic Research Project on the Structure of the American Economy” (led by Wassily Leontief) helped to identify US corporate interests and expansions.

[5] Engdahl, F W, “Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation,” Global Research, 2007.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ellul, Jacques, “The Technological Society,” New York: Vintage Books, 1964.

[8] Marcuse, Herbert, “One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society,” Oxford: Routledge, 2007/1964.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Brzezinski, Zbigniew, “Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era,” New York: Viking, 1970.

[11] Ibid.