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Australia’s forgotten Chomsky

A UNSW psychology professor inspired Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent. Why do so few remember him?

Alex Carey, centre, speaking at an anti-Vietnam War rally at the University of Sydney in 1975. Source: State Library of NSW archives.

If you are, like many young leftists, an owner of a well-thumbed copy of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent you may have noted with disinterest the person to whom the book is dedicated: Alex Carey, a senior lecturer of industrial psychology at UNSW who had died the year prior to the book’s publication.

Chomsky credits Carey with having “tremendous influence” on the book. The dedication, he later stated, was a “bare and inadequate way to express our indebtedness to him for his uniquely important work on the ‘ideal of a propaganda-managed democracy’”. “Alex Carey draws the veil of deceit and imposed ignorance in the struggle for freedom and justice,” Chomsky writes in his introduction to Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, a collection of Carey’s essays published posthumously.

Though credited by the world’s leading leftist public intellectual as a leader in the study of corporate propaganda, very few would recognise his name. Who is Alex Carey? Why don’t we remember him?

***

It is not as if Carey had never been a public intellectual. Trawling through the Sydney Morning Herald’s and Tharunka’s archives, his name is a precurring presence. Truda Gray, Alex’s long-term partner and friend, tells me that after a while editors would stop accepting his letters and he began asking a ring of friends to send them in for him. She had once collected the letters, housed in 10 binders organised by topic (ranging from “anti-communism” to “divorce”).

Until his work on corporate propaganda was collated posthumously by editor Andrew Lohrey, it’s in these opinion sections that much of his work on corporate propaganda was first publicly available. Inside corporate Fairfax pages, Carey attacks the propaganda undermining unions, political think tanks and their funding and the newly minted ideology of neoliberalism.

Carey was perhaps better known as an anti-Vietnam War activist. Gray first began corresponding with Alex when she was tasked with summarising the long transcripts he would send home to anti-war student activists from Vietnam after he travelled there for his sabbatical.

Gray was a student in the “very conservative” Science Department at the same time as Carey was lecturing. She suggested he speak at a conference on South-East Asia to a student advisory committee that the Faculty was holding.

“There was total outrage when I suggested Alex,” she tells me. But students persisted, launching a months-long campaign to have him speak at the conference.

In one of exceedingly few photographs of Carey (he largely avoided cameras), he is sitting on the Quadrangle lawns at the University of Sydney, speaking to a small crowd of students via megaphone. I was able to identify him with the help of his daughter Gabrielle Carey, and his iconic long hair and thongs. In a history of UNSW’s early years, Alex is described as having “disguised his considerable intellectual attainments with his thongs and brief tattered shorts which would do a hobo discredit” to which the “short-back-and-sides” faculty members “sniffed at”. 

It seems to me like a very lonely place to be.  Though Carey was respected by colleagues, including the head of the Psychology Department despite his “total opposition” to Carey’s work, Carey’s radical work isolated him.  “He was used to [that],” Gray says.

Importantly, Carey was one of few academics who spoke out against the Vietnam War, particularly in the early years. Though photographs of tens of thousands at Vietnam Moratoriums are now iconic, most early protests were far smaller. Public support for the war was very strong until about 1968 and, in the midst of the Cold War, many academics were cowed by threats to their career if they were labelled a dissident. 

“‘Australians are like sheep,’ Dad bleated regularly, as his earnest anti-war appeals fell on deaf ears,” Gabrielle, who is better known as one of the authors of the iconic Puberty Blues, has written in the Griffith Review. “I wouldn’t use [the] adjective bleak,” Gabrielle tells me when I ask about his world outlook , however. “It’s just that if he thought most Australians thought that way, it wasn’t their fault.”

But it would be too pessimistic to view Carey’s isolation a tragedy.  “We can go on about poor Alex this, and poor Alex that, but there’s excitement in being an initiator,”  industrial historian and a student anti-Vietnam War activist, Rowan Cahill, says. “Alex was a fucking hero!” Though Cahill did not know Carey personally, both were active in the anti-Vietnam War movement at the same time. Cahill had been conscripted in the first call up. He, and others launched a legal challenge objecting to their conscription on the grounds of conscience. Indeed, though they never met, Carey was sentenced for encouraging young men not to register for conscription by the same judge that sentenced Cahill.

“He taught me to take risks for the sake of my values,” Gabrielle tells me.

***

In 1976, Carey and Gray travelled to MIT on the invitation of Noam Chomsky for a year. Carey and Chomsky had begun exchanging writing about the Vietnam War, and had kept in contact. There, in snowy Massachusetts, was one of the few times in his adult life Carey was pried away from his thongs, Gray laughs.

There, Chomsky and Carey became incredibly close, travelling to Chomsky’s rural cabin. As Gray went sailing, the two would chat for hours. Chomsky pointed out to Gray that it was sitting on a crate, using the cabin’s bed for a desk, where he had written his Syntactic Structures. “That was how Chomsky worked, but that was also how [Alex] worked,” Gray says. “They were very alike in that way.”

Chomsky’s prominence is an important point of comparison for Carey. Though there was heavy repression of those with real and perceived sympathies for communism or opposed to the Vietnam War in the United States, there was also a critical mass of leftists that elevated his work to a position of prominence. Because of that, “Chomsky had a better chance of getting up and running than Alex,” Cahill says.

Chomsky’s approach had a tremendous effect on Carey, Gray says. “He was idiosyncratic in having total laser focus,” she says. “I remember he was once talking about folk music and he said ‘show me any person who has changed the world with a guitar’.” “He became more extreme, in that sense, as he grew older.”

“He was the kind of person who put his activism before everything else, and his children, because he was thinking in that very rational kind of way of what is the most useful thing I can do with my time, and it’s trying to stop things like the Vietnam War even if it’s at the expense of things like a relationship with my children,” Gabrielle tells me. 

***

Manufacturing Consent is not the only book dedicated to Carey. In My Father’s House, written by his daughter Gabrielle, is too. The book centres on their relationship and Alex’s early death. He had committed suicide, one day before Gabrielle’s returned home from Mexico after several years around, her new baby in tow.

It would be naive to think that the way Alex died did not play an important part in the reasons for Careys posthumous erasure. “There could be no celebration of Alex immediately after because of the way he died,” Gray says. The stigma surrounding suicide — which viewed it as a moral failing rather than a symptom of mental illness — still remained, but was far stronger at the time of his death than it is now.

“We couldn’t give an explanation over why he would commit suicide,” Gray says. “It was hard to say what or who he was referring to [in his suicide note],” Gray says. “Every one of us who was associated with Alex has a different theory about it.”

An alternative theory was his loneliness. Gabrielle’s book paints a picture of a father and daughter struggling to communicate, but finding connection between shared letters. Only after his death did Gabrielle realise he had taken so seriously her passion for Beethoven, that the two had discussed over letters. “My kids will often read my books and tell me, ‘You’ve never told me that,’” she says. “I find it easier to write than to speak to someone. I think in a lot of ways me and my father were similar in that way.”

Gray’s view differs. She and Carey had separated, but remained close friends at the time of his death. Carey had a wide network of friends across the country “who loved and valued him,” at the time of his death, she says. “I’m completely mystified.”

Speculation around the reasons for Carey’s suicide was also used to undermined the contributions he’d made to leftist thought. In a caustic review of Gabrielle’s book, conservative commentator Gerard Henderson argues that the book shows him to have been undone by the stock market crash. “In fact, his wealth was so substantial and his portfolio so diversified, that he could have survived the crash with the kind of wealth that others merely dream of. But in the end he could not live with himself.” “Alex Carey lived a lie and, in the end, was exposed by his own loving daughter,” he concludes.

For Carey’s political opponents the theory has an intuitive pull: there is a sense of sadistic karmic justice in seeing the downfall of an uppity, moralising leftist, caused by the very capitalist structures he had critiqued.  “The imputation that it was because Alex had lost money in the crash was used to undo Alex’s genuine commitments,” Gray says. “Some people interpreted it as having put and lost money on the stock exchange, but he wasn’t. He was giving to people to make films and all sorts of things.”

“It got so muddied after he died that the movement of him being an academic of note got knocked off the shelf, I think,” Gray says. “It was a bit like chucking water on the fire of who Alex was. It left a bad taste in peoples’ mouths.”

*** 

Carey didn’t live to see the full impact of his work. The study of the relationships between corporations, the state and media is central to modern political scholarship. Writing this now, I am struck by how incomplete this article is. So many of Alex’s key writings are hidden away in binders or letters to the editor under someone else’s name. Its incompleteness speaks as much to my own failings as a writer as it does to the difficulties in unearthing histories and figures the powerful would prefer to ignore. A critical mass of the left didn’t, and still doesn’t exist in Australia in the way it did for Chomsky in the US. Far too few have worked to share his work and guard his legacy.

In many ways Alex’s story is the story of the left. It will forever be told piecemeal: interviews, pub stories, letters to the editor in university newspapers. That key figures in the development of this thought disappear should be no surprise. If Carey’s work though, shows readers anything, it is that our history is a contested space. Who we remember, and who we are allowed to forget, always indicates who holds power. If there is any way to honour Alex, it is to remember him.