QUESTION: The past decade has witnessed a trend toward what some observers described as “neo-conservatism” among some self-proclaimed former members of the liberal intelligentsia. How do you analyze this trend?
CHOMSKY: You’re thinking of people like Nathan Glazer and Patrick Moynihan and so on. Well, I think these people were very much frightened by the mass politics of the 1960s, which for a time really threatened to engage substantial parts of the population in the democratic process and to threaten elite domination. And, of course, as in the case of any mass popular movement, there were aspects of it that were ugly and unpleasant. But that’s not what bothered them. What bothered them was particularly the democratic aspect of it, the fact that previously repressed and quiet and apathetic groups were finding a voice and searching for and sometimes finding ways to struggle for their rights. I think that there’s been a general tendency, not only among the neo-conservatives but among others, to try to find an approach to contemporary society which would eliminate these democratic strivings.
QUESTION: As an intellectual yourself, how do you see your role in relation to the state?
CHOMSKY: By and large, it is not a point of principle, but I would see myself as quite antagonistic to any form of concentrated power. Concentrated agglomerations of power, whether state or private — and in our society that’s hardly a distinction — will tend to use their power for their own perceived benefit and quite often for the harm of others. And since I’m against the existence of such concentrations of power, I also tend to be opposed to the actions they carry out in the exercise of their power. So I would say that my general position would be adversarial. As far as mass popular movements are concerned, if they existed, I would like to do something that could be of service to them.
QUESTION: Does the Carter Administration concern for human rights indicate some sort of shift in American foreign policy?
CHOMSKY: You’re begging the question there. I don’t agree that the Carter Administration has any concern for human rights. I think it has a human rights rhetoric that is perfectly consistent with supplying armaments for some of the world. On the other hand, it was, from a propaganda point of view, very effective to suddenly raise the human rights banner in 1976, at a period when there had been a great deal of revulsion over the obvious American role in repressing human rights throughout the world.
What’s interesting to me is that that public relations exercise can succeed. And it certainly has succeeded. That is, there are people who will say that the Carter Administration’s policy is inconsistent or indefinite or this or that, but in general it is assumed that there is a human rights policy. Now, as far as I know, no great power in the world, in history, has ever followed a “human rights policy” — certainly not this Administration.
QUESTION: Should a power follow a human rights policy?
CHOMSKY: I don’t think that any power ever will. I think that the only way in which more humane policies can be imposed on the great powers is by mass popular movements of their citizens. So, for example, the peace movement was one of the factors that forced the United States to restrain what would otherwise have been a much more intensive assault against Vietnam. The civil rights movement caused American power to make moves that ameliorated the situation of oppressed minorities. That’s the way to press power towards human rights concerns. There’s no other way.
QUESTION: How do you explain reports that the Administration’s “human rights policy” has at least appeared to achieve some progress toward democracy through promoting free elections in several Latin American countries?
CHOMSKY: Well, first of all, some of the side effects of the human rights rhetoric have in fact been beneficial. In some cases, for example, the Dominican Republic, the Carter Administration did apply pressures which allowed a conservative land-owner, a businessman, to be elected in place of the fascist dictator who we had installed years earlier. And, in fact, the United States would generally prefer what looks like a liberal democratic government; that would be preferable to having, let’s say, a murderer or a torturer. The trouble is that to achieve the kinds of aims to which American policy is directed, for example to improve the investment climate, it is repeatedly necessary to introduce doses of terrorism and repression. So, of course, we’d much prefer to have a democratic facade, but it’s very hard to maintain that.
QUESTION: What about the point that the United States has to curry the favor of Third World countries by aiding their military and police if it wants to maintain its influence with them?
CHOMSKY: If the United States wants to maintain a favorable climate for investment and exploitation, it will have to impose a leadership, or back a leadership, which supports those aims. If we allowed independent development to take place in countries, and in fact supported such independent development, it would harm precisely those interests that dominate American foreign policy: business interests. So we’re not going to do it.
QUESTION: What do you think of the argument that some repression is necessary to raise standards of living in the Third World?
CHOMSKY: Well, I think we can say the following: that a lot of repression is necessary to raise the standards of living for the elites in the Third World. And the historical evidence seems to be conclusive on that score. The actual argument that’s put forth is that, in the short run, you have to have repression and lowering standards of living in order that, in the long run, there can be growth. And the argument, which is a very weak argument, I think, is that that’s the way it worked in the industrial West. If you look at the industrialization of the West, it did involve enormous brutality. Even in England, the most privileged country in resources, it did involve quite possibly an actual lowering of the standards of living for a very large part of the population, over a long period, maybe fifty or a hundred years. Now, a couple of questions arise: for one thing, is it necessary for development to have that enormous human cost? The other question is: in the Third World countries, which are by no means as privileged as England and the United States were hundreds of years ago, will that model ever work? What reason is there to believe that they can duplicate our experience? In fact, there are very strong reasons why they can’t. They’re industrializing in a totally different world and facing much more onerous conditions.
QUESTION: Do you think development in the Third World is possible under an autarchic model which stresses independence of the economy from Western influence?
CHOMSKY: I wouldn’t want to try that for certain. I don’t think one can make rash statements about that. It’s certainly a possible model of development, and it might very well turn out that that’s the right one. However, what I’m saying is that there will be no possibility of exploring this model because the outside pressures against it will be so harsh unless we change the behavior of the industrial countries.
QUESTION: Is that possible?
CHOMSKY: Yes, I think it’s possible. Again, just as in the case of the peace movement, by developing forces within the industrial democracies that will assist meaningful development. This happens in small countries. For example, take Sweden. Now, Sweden has in fact a very constructive program supporting Third World development. Of course, one can argue that it’s much easier in Sweden than in the United States because Sweden is only marginal in the mansion of capitalism and that, no matter what happens there, if it doesn’t happen in the United States it doesn’t make a great deal of difference. So while those Third World countries integrated into the capitalist system wouldn’t care that much about Sweden, they would care about the United States. Of course, the opposite side of that argument is that we all care about what happens in the United States. These are human institutions. We can affect them. They’re not laws of nature we’re talking about.
QUESTION: One major focus of your book is the role of the American press, The New York Times, the wire services, and so on, in filtering the information that reaches the American public about repressive regimes. Several times you compare the the information reaching Americans with that reaching the Soviet people through a system of strict state censorship. With an uncensored media in the United States, how is this possible?
CHOMSKY: Well, first of all, notice that we don’t say, and it wouldn’t be correct to say, that the devices are the same, or even that the impact is quite the same. The American system, however, does have the same effect in many cases as the system of state censorship. It is more diverse, and far wealthier, and operates by entirely different mechanisms. The way it works here is far more subtle: it works by a system of shared interests. The media are major corporations, and they share the ideological commitments of the core capitalist elite that controls most of the economy and most of the state as well. And, in fact, if they ever began to deviate from these commitments, they would probably go out of business. Furthermore, for individuals to work their way up into the media system, with rare exceptions, they must share these professional interests or they are not going to make it in this system of indoctrination. And the sort of backing for this is that the intelligentsia as a whole tend to share the doctrines of the state religion so that the pool of people you have to select from is already pre-selected. They would never have worked through the educational system and made it into positions of academic power or professional power if they hadn’t worked pretty much within the framework of these assumptions. Now, always there are a few exceptions. But this whole system of conformity is so overwhelming that, simply allowing that it operates by its own dynamism, there’s going to be a very narrow spectrum of opinion expressed, and also a very narrow interpretation of current history which will conform to that of the state propaganda system.
QUESTION: Could you give an example of this self-censorship by the media?
CHOMSKY: Well, maybe the most dramatic example is the case of the U.S.-backed Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which has probably led to the massacre of several hundred thousand people in the past three years. The Indonesian army is 90 percent armed by the United States and there is a continual flow of arms to make sure that the massacre continues. Right now, the part of the population that’s alive is mostly starving to death under conditions that American aid officials privately say are quite comparable to what exists in Cambodia. And the media refuse to publish a word about this. A few of them have published what is for the most part Indonesian government propaganda but the majority of them haven’t said anything at all. Now, in this case, the American media are behaving precisely in the manner of a totalitarian state-controlled press. But they’re doing it for their own interests.
QUESTION: You have acknowledged that some information about American-backed fascist regimes does get through the media’s system of self-censorship. What role does this information play in the formation of American opinion?
CHOMSKY: Well, the effect on American opinion is very slight. But for individuals like me, say, the difference is fantastic. For example, living in a so-called totalitarian state, I couldn’t begin to do the things I do here. Even if for some reason I wasn’t put in jail, it would be too hard to get information. But for individuals who want to act politically and to sort of work their way through the system of indoctrination, it’s incomparably easier in a democratic system of state control than in a totalitarian one. On the other hand, this is almost politically meaningless because for the mass of the population it has no consequences. They can’t take the time or the effort to devote to the fanaticism that’s required to find out the truth about these matters.
QUESTION: As American citizens, what can we do about our support of repression and state terrorism in the Third World?
CHOMSKY: Well, I think we know the answer to that. There’s a short range answer and a long range answer. The short range answer is to try to develop popular movements like the peace movement of the 1960s, which happened completely within the framework of American institutions as a challenge from below but nevertheless impeded the terrorism of the American state, and did so significantly. The long range answer is to change those institutions significantly enough so that they won’t use this built-in tendency to support repressions and immiseration in the Third World.
QUESTION: Do we have any special leverage as members of the university community?
CHOMSKY: As members of the university community, we are highly privileged. We’re privileged economically, we’re privileged in our class background, we’re privileged in the freedom that we have, we’re privileged in the facilities that we have available. So there are all sorts of possibilities that university people have to act — students, faculty, maybe staff — I think, in a way which will be humane and effective, that less privileged people don’t have. Consequently, when we don’t use these possibilities, there is just no gain from them.
Read more Activist, Scholar Chomsky: On Human Rights and Ideology
QUESTION: The journal has approached this particular publication on Shadow Economies in an effort to explore the socioeconomic aspects of the subject. General themes have emerged that reveal instances of economic imbalances stemming from political, legislative and commercial action that enriches some and impoverishes others. These implications of shadow economies, which is in many cases a marginalization of the masses, relate to much of your work on the politics of power and justice among nations and people.
CHOMSKY: In everything I have read about it, there are properties that are rather common in discussing this topic. Whether we are discussing terrorism or crime or anything else, there is a strong tendency in the literature to focus on what you might call the retail rather than the wholesale aspects. In the case of criminal activities, for example, on terrorist activities of the weak rather than terrorist activities of the strong. And I think that the same is true in discussion of the shadow economy.
There are overwhelming elements of non-informal economies that are not discussed much. Tax havens for example, are probably a substantial element of the international economy. But these elements of “informal economies” are part of the world of the strong and privileged, so not very much is known about them. They are not the focus of a great deal of attention and investigation, like drugs. In fact there are major factors in the drug system that are much too little discussed, such as the reasons why peasant farmers turn to coca production. They are being driven to it by the very politics that the powerful states advocate. For example, if you try to drive peasants to agro-export and you undercut the conditions for production for local markets by massive imports, and also establish conditions under which export of major commodities undergoes sharp price fluctuations, then peasants will not have many choices. They are likely to turn to production of commodities for which there is always demand. And that has happened. Colombia is a good case. Colombia had, and has, possibilities for non-drug agricultural production, but they have very substantially been undercut by external intervention. One of the more important cases involves efforts to stabilize commodity prices. For large-scale agribusiness it is not all that important if prices oscillate. But if you are a small peasant farmer, you cannot say, “I am not going to feed my children next year because the price is too low.” Prices have to be stable if you want to be a small coffee producer.
There were Third World efforts to introduce commodity stabilization, but they were simply undercut by the rich countries. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in a core part of what was called “the new international economic order” back in the early 1970s, tried in one of its first major efforts to introduce measures to stabilize commodity prices. This would be analogous on an international scale to the ways every rich country stabilizes agricultural prices internally — by market interventions. The rich countries would not allow it — primarily the United States. That drives peasants away from coffee production.
Take Food for Peace Aid. In Colombia back in the 1950s, it sounded like a nice idea, except that it undercut domestic wheat production. So that eliminates another possibility. Once various possibilities are cut away and massive state terror is introduced — which happened, in no small measure from US initiatives to prevent efforts to ameliorate deplorable socioeconomic conditions — you end up with the drug culture. Those are massive factors in drug production, but they are not the ones that are being addressed in policy or much discussed, outside of specialist literature. The current drug war is not aimed at stabilizing commodity prices for coffee production, just to take one example of many. In fact even support for alternative crops is a very marginal aspect. Judging by the programs that are not on the agenda, the real motives can hardly be the professed ones, for many reasons.
QUESTION: How does the consumer and corporate power of wealthy nations contribute to shadow economies around the globe?
CHOMSKY: What I just mentioned was a case in point. That is not consumer power, it is corporate power. When the United States and other rich countries undermine the efforts by the G77 group of countries to work through UNCTAD to develop commodity stabilization programs, which would allow small peasant production, that is corporate power having a huge effect on shadow economies. But it is also much bigger than that. Take tax havens again. Nobody knows the scale of their use because it has not been studied much, but chances are that tax havens are a major factor in the international economy; probably well beyond drug money laundering, as pointed out by political economist Susan Strange in her most recent book.
In fact, even the gross statistics, which as far as I know have not been much investigated, reveal what appear to be significant effects of these devices. The Commerce Department publishes detailed quarterly reports on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Out of curiosity, I was reading them regularly during the recent period of enthusiasm about “new emerging markets” in Latin America. For the Western Hemisphere (excluding Canada), roughly 25 percent of FDI was regularly going to Bermuda, maybe 10 or 15 percent to the British Caribbean Islands and roughly 10 percent to Panama. This reflects one aspect of corporate power: about half of FDI was going to what a benign view might consider as tax havens. The less benign view would be that the category of FDI covers methods for laundering criminal money — drug money or something else. But it is certainly not building steel mills. They do not do that in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands.
Fifty percent is not a small number. That is a big part of the economy. During this period of enthusiasm about emerging Latin American markets and the importance of FDI, I did not find a single paper in the professional literature that even talked about these points (although they were discussed by Doug Henwood in his invaluable journal, Left Business Observer). Perhaps there were papers — I do not know the technical literature that well — but I could not find them. Certainly there must be specialists who know a lot about it, but compared with the problems of the shadow economy that are discussed, this one seems substantial. So, that appears to be a case in which corporate activities are having a significant effect on the international economy, within “shadow economies” — violating the rules. Of course, wherever this money is, it is redistributing wealth, income and power upward, toward the richest sectors, apart from the effects it has everywhere else. The World Trade Organization recently ruled against the United States for permitting corporate use of what amount to tax havens as a technique of export subsidy. That apparently is a small fraction of this behavior on a global scale.
QUESTION: Is the shadow economy today the same as it has always been? Or, is it taking on new characteristics and evolving with globalization?
CHOMSKY: Globalization is a phenomenon that is new in some respects but quite old in others. As many have pointed out, by gross measures the global economy is not much different from what it was before: the First World War. Upon closer look, however, there are important differences. For example, the scale of speculative financial flows and short-term financial flows, is astronomically beyond anything it has ever been before. The distribution of production around the world, mostly administered by international enterprises, is also sharply different.
I think Barry Eichengreen pointed out one of the most striking differences. He was not really talking about this, but there are implications about it in his history of modern financial systems. He pointed out that in the late 19th century, economic decision-making had not yet been “politicized” by the rise of parliamentary labor parties, unions and universal male suffrage. The general public could be more or less excluded from decision-making. As a result, the costs of financial rectitude — keeping currencies stable and so on — could be simply imposed on the population. It was possible to have a situation where there would be no special constraints on capital flow and yet, still have a relatively stable economy.
By the 1940s, things had changed. There were unions, parliamentary labor parties and, in principle, large-scale suffrage. In order to compensate for this politicization of decision-making — meaning the public has a voice — it was necessary to institute capital controls and relatively fixed exchange rates. The luxury of imposing the costs on a defenseless public was no longer available, as it still is in the Third World through structural adjustment programs and other devices. The Bretton Woods system instituted regulated currencies and the option of capital controls to compensate for the inability to impose the costs on the population, as before.
There is a corollary relating to what is now called “globalization.” Since the mid 1970s, we have seen a system in which exchange rates float and limitations on capital flow have eroded. Following the same reasoning as before, we would expect a significant impact on popular sovereignty, on the ability of people to participate in economic decision-making through government economic management and social policies. These are options that erode under the threat of capital flight and attacks on currencies — under the “veto power” of the “virtual parliament,” as the process is sometimes called. That has happened, noticeably. There also has been a slow-down in growth and deterioration of other macroeconomic indicators. This is called “globalization,” but it is a particular form of integration of international society.
The particular form of globalization that has been imposed has specific consequences. It is not a matter of simply increasing interactions among countries; rather, of doing so in a particular fashion that happens to be geared to rights of investors and lenders, and concentrated private power generally, supported by the most powerful states and the international bureaucracies they have established. These are particular modes of “globalization” that are, in basic respects, incompatible with popular sovereignty in socioeconomic decision-making and with social programs concerned for the welfare of the general population; not maximization of profit and market control. Popular sovereignty is undercut by the focus on maximization of profit and control and financial liberalization that is a core element of contemporary “globalization.”
The same is true of the distribution of production, which enables a lot of so-called trade really to be interactions that are internally or centrally managed within a basically totalitarian structure. We call it trade, but certainly a large proportion of it is centrally managed. It is not trade in any serious sense. I think economist Jeffrey Sachs is on target in calling these facts about cross-border flows “stunning.”
A common estimate — it is really a guess, since there is little careful investigation — is that roughly 40 percent of cross-border transfers are intra-firm, and that leaves out a significant amount. Outsourcing, for example, is in essence centrally managed. And if we were to count in the effects of strategic alliances we would find that, according to some estimates, 70 percent of world trade is in substantial degree centrally managed. That is a particular form of administration of markets by highly centralized systems that have various strategic alliances with one another and rely very heavily on powerful states to socialize cost and risk. It is one kind of globalization, with specific effects. But you cannot call that in itself “globalization;” it is one particular form of the design of international integration in the interests of corporate power. It tends to marginalize large numbers of people, which tends to lead to what are called shadow or informal economies. These terms are used for people bartering without paying taxes, but not for the massive use of tax havens to shift the burden to the general population and away from the rich, along with all of the other effects that it has on economies. I think that one has to be careful about these terms.
QUESTION: Frequently, terms having negative connotations are used in reference to informal economic activity — words such as shadow, gray, underground and black market. Do you feel that these are appropriate for understanding the dynamics of informal economies?
CHOMSKY: Yes, if you want to understand them, sure. Every social system, whether it is a family or an international economy, has some kind of norms. If it is an organized system, like states, the norms turn out to be enforceable rules. Sometimes they are backed by state force, or other forms such as Mafia force. If we consider the rules that are more or less codified in the state and interstate systems, economic behavior that does not conform to those rules could be called a “shadow economy.” The major component of that is activities such as tax evasion on the part of major corporations or money laundering, and so on. But since these are the prerogative of the powerful, they are not what are usually meant in discussion of “shadow economy.”
There are other aspects of interactions that violate rules and norms, which are carried out by the poor. That is what is commonly called the “shadow economy.” But if we are to be clear about it, they are all violations of the norms and rules, and those norms and rules themselves are designed in the interests of the powerful.
I think it is a good analytic tool, but we should use it without bias; that is, without a bias that leans away from the rich and powerful and towards the poor and defenseless. Which is not only true here; as I mentioned, it is true in other domains too. Take crime. Every criminologist knows that corporate crime — white-collar crime — is enormous in scale, and well beyond street crime in scale and effects. Since nobody really studies it in close detail, we do not have reliable numbers, but probably in orders of magnitude the numbers that are given in in any criminology texts are more or less accurate. According to some estimates, property crime carried out by corporations is maybe on the order of five hundred times as high as street property crimes. It is hard to count killings because we do not know how many of the worker-related deaths to attribute to willful negligence or violations of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, but the numbers are surely high. It probably overwhelms the number of street killings.
The US is roughly similar to other industrial societies in level of crime, but it is quite different in terms of fear of crime and punishment of crime. That has been dramatically so since the onset of “globalization.” The US is, by now, off the spectrum in both of those respects. If we look at punishment, we find that it is not directed at those who are involved in major crime, but at those who carry out retail crime. In fact by now many of them are not involved in crime at all, except by newly-devised standards that criminalize certain victimless activities — typically those carried out by the poor, the “dangerous classes” as they have been called. The whole culture, the political and social culture of fear of crime, and harsh punishment of crime — both unusually high by comparative standards during the “globalization” era –focuses on the weak and defenseless, not on the rich and powerful, who are responsible for most of it.
I think we see a similar phenomenon when we talk about the shadow economy. It is not that the topics discussed are not important, they are. If we take a country like India, rough estimates are that the black economy may be one-and-a-half times the size of the formal economy, maybe more, so it is not small. On the other hand, what is called the black economy very often is not considering the fact that a multinational corporation has its corporate base in the Caribbean islands or Mauritius.
Read more The Shadow Economy
Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s leading linguistic thinkers, is also one of its leading political dissidents. A professor of linguistics at MIT (where he has taught since 1955), he has consistently spoken out about abuses of power, particularly those involving US corporations. He has been arrested several times and was on Richard Nixon’s infamous enemies list. Chomsky makes countless speaking appearances around the world each year; his schedule is so tight that it took 15 months to get this interview. Now 70, Chomsky is still energetic and expansive; he is also quiet-spoken, somewhat shy, and exceedingly sincere. Always quotable, Chomsky has said: “If the Nuremberg laws were applied today, then every postwar American president would have to be hanged.” He has also said: “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies.”
This interview took place in his MIT office.
Q: As you tell it, the main components of power and control in America seem to be corporations, the government, the media, and the public-relations industry. But many people apparently find it hard to go along with your explanation because they don’t feel that control could be that monolithic.
A: What you just described is not monolithic. I mean, you mentioned four things, and within each of these things there’s a lot of conflict. First of all, corporations disagree. And corporations and government are not the same thing.
Q: But I get the impression that a lot of people think that you’re saying that it’s a massive conspiracy.
A: That’s true maybe of people in the Harvard faculty, but that’s because for them conspiracy is a curse word.
If something comes along that you don’t like, there are a few sort of four-letter words that you can use to push it out of the sphere of discussion. If you were in a bar downtown, they might have different words, but if you’re an educated person what you use are complicated words like conspiracy theory or Marxist.
It’s a way of pushing unpleasant questions off the agenda so that we can continue in our own happy ideology.
Q: So would you say that the elite groups are not so much coordinated in producing the system as they are unanimous in protecting it?
A: There are matters on which they tend to be in overwhelming agreement. There are other matters on which there are internal differences. And in fact, when you investigate the media product, what you typically find is that on topics on which there is very broad consensus, there’s no discussion. On topics where there’s debate, there is discussion.
A dramatic recent case was the Multilateral Agreement on Investments [a proposed global economic treaty]. On that there was near-uniformity in the corporate sector, the government, the media component of the corporate sector, the international financial institutions. They were all in favor of this treaty, overwhelmingly. They all understood very well that the public is not going to like it, so for years they just kept it secret. On that issue, no discussion.
The same happened on NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. The same sectors were overwhelmingly in favor, but they knew the population wasn’t going to like it — which in fact remained true right until the end. So they simply would never allow debate on it.
To their distress, the issue broke through because of popular activism and because of Ross Perot, who just made a fuss about it. So it was impossible to suppress it totally. And what happened then is extremely interesting. What happened is, the major press — the New York Times, let’s say — simply never allowed it to be discussed. The labor movement, for example, had a position, but it was never allowed to be presented. The labor movement was condemned by curse words: it was “old-fashioned,” “crude,” “tough,” “blundering,” a long series of curse words. Here you have a consensus among the elite.
And this is true on many other issues. Let’s take an international issue — say, the Vietnam War. There’s a pretense now — the press like to pretend that they were opposing the war and being courageous. That’s complete nonsense. If you look back, they supported the war overwhelmingly. I mean, not even a flicker of disagreement. And then when a debate did develop among the real power sectors as to whether it was worth pursuing or not — like, is it costing us too much? — at that point [the press] divided also. Some of them said yes, it’s costing us too much. Others said it wasn’t.
On the other hand, the position of the American population was never expressed. And we know what that position was. We have extensive polls. From about the time that they started being taken, the late ’60s, into the early ’90s, about 70 percent of the population said that the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral. Try to find that view anywhere in the press. I’ve been through it. The view of 70 percent of the population was inexpressible.
And it is not just in the media. Pretty much in the scholarly profession, intellectual journals, business sectors, and so on. There are some questions you don’t ask, as was pointed out by George Orwell years ago. He wrote an essay, an important essay, maybe the most important one he ever wrote — and it was not published, incidentally. It was the introduction to Animal Farm, which everybody’s read in school. But you didn’t read any introduction. The introduction was about censorship in England. He said, “Look, this is a satire about a totalitarian state, but we shouldn’t be self-righteous — it’s not that different in free England.” He said in free England there are many ways in which ideas that are unpopular will just not be able to be expressed. And he gave two ways. One, he said, is that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. And second, he said, if you have a good education, you have internalized the fact that there are some things it just wouldn’t do to say.
One of the things it wouldn’t do to say is that actions the United States government is taking might be fundamentally wrong or immoral. It just wouldn’t do to say that. And it wouldn’t do to think it. And if you’re a well-educated, respectable type, it can’t occur to your mind. For the 70 percent of the population who don’t have the benefits of a good education, they can see it. Because it’s obviously true. This is true on issue after issue, including unimportant issues.
Let’s take an unimportant issue, namely the one that has dominated the news for the last year: the silly scandals in Washington. Now, they’re an absolute obsession with elites. Educated elites across the spectrum have been completely obsessed with it. Journals, television, everything. The public was not interested; they wanted them to stop it a year ago. In fact, the split between public opinion and elite obsession became so extreme that it even aroused some commentary, which is unusual. But that was extremely clear. The elite could not get enough of the soft porn, and the public didn’t care. If they wanted soft porn they could find it somewhere else. And they wanted Congress and the executive to get on to some serious business. I mean, who cares if some guy had an affair?
Q: So was that a victory for distracting people from systemic corruption?
A: I wouldn’t call it corruption. I mean, corruption takes place, but what’s far more significant is what’s not corrupt. Like ramming through NAFTA the way they did. That was not corrupt. Fighting the Vietnam War was not corrupt. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 gave away maybe a hundred billion dollars’ worth of publicly owned property — namely the digital spectrum — to a few megacorporations. That wasn’t corrupt. It was highway robbery on a massive scale, but not corrupt.
The question arises: “Why was it an elite obsession when the public didn’t want it?” Well, okay, now we have to speculate, but I think a plausible speculation is exactly what you’re saying. In a sense, that would make it on a par with the years of censorship to prevent people from knowing about the MAI and the refusal to allow opposing positions on NAFTA even to be articulated.
Now, the press will tell you they had a debate about that. They think they had a wonderful debate. They even had a town meeting with Gore or Perot or something. But Perot is a good person for them to have a debate with, because they can make fun of him. It was going to be a little harder to make fun of the labor movement and the Office of Technology Assessment and the economists who were giving the same arguments, so therefore they were out of it. And a debate was set up, but only one that you could treat as a comic act. And they were very proud of it.
Q: You’ve said that true capitalism doesn’t work and no one really believes in it; so bogus capitalism is what’s going on in America, and communist and socialist systems seem to get co-opted by self-serving elites. What sort of economic and governmental system do you think is viable?
A: Systems like capitalism and socialism and communism have never been tried. What we’ve had since the Industrial Revolution was one or another form of state capitalism. It’s been overwhelmed, certainly in the last century, by big conglomerations of capital corporate structures that are all interlinked with one another and form strategic alliances and administer markets and so on. And are tied up with a very powerful state. So it’s some other kind of system — call it whatever you want. Corporate-administered markets in a powerful state system.
Actually, the Soviet Union was something like that. They didn’t have General Electric, they had more concentration of the state system, but apart from that it worked rather like a state-capitalist system. And do these systems work? Yeah, they kind of work. For example, the Soviet Union was a monstrosity, but it had a pretty fast growth rate — a growth rate unknown in the Western economies. In the 1960s the economy started to stagnate and decline, but for a long period they had a growth rate that was very alarming to Western leaders.
Does the US system work? Yeah, it works in some ways. Take, say, the last 10 years. One percent of the population is making out like bandits. The top 10 percent of the population is doing pretty well. The next 10 percent actually lost net worth, and you go down below and [it gets] still worse. I mean, it’s such a rich country that even relatively poor people are still more or less getting by. It’s not like Haiti.
On the other hand, it’s an economic catastrophe. The typical family in the United States is working, latest estimates are, about 15 weeks a year more than they did 20 years ago — just to keep stagnating, or even declining, incomes. That’s a success in the richest, most privileged country in the world? But it works. I mean, you and I are sitting here and we’re not starving, so something’s working. It’s a little unfair in my case because I’m up in that top few percent who, like I said, are making out like bandits. But most people aren’t. So it’s a mixed success.
Q: But do you see a way that will . . .
A: Yeah, sure. I don’t see why we have to have a system in which the wealth that gets created is directed, overwhelmingly, to a tiny percentage of the population. Nor do I see a system that has to be as radically undemocratic. I mean, remember how undemocratic it is. A private corporation, let’s say General Electric, is, in fact, just a pure tyranny. You and I have nothing to say about how it works. The people inside the corporation have nothing to say about how it works, except that they can take orders from above and give them down below. It’s what we call tyranny.
And when those institutions also control the government, the framework for popular decision-making very much narrows. In fact, that’s the purpose of shrinking government. It’s so that the sphere of popular decision-making will narrow and more decisions will fall into the hands of the private tyrannies.
“Government” is a kind of interesting term in American political mythology. The government is presented as some enemy that’s outside, something coming from outer space. So when the IRS comes to collect your taxes, it’s this enemy coming to steal your money. That’s driven into your head from infancy, almost.
There’s another way of looking at it, which is that the IRS is the instrument by which you and I decide how to spend our resources for schools and roads and so on. Whatever faults the government has, and there are plenty, it’s the one institution in which people can, at least in principle and sometimes in fact, make a difference.
So government’s shrinking, meaning the public role is shrinking. And business — that is, unaccountable private power — has to take its place. That’s the dominant ideology. Why should we accept that? Suppose someone said, “Look, you’ve got to have a king or a slave owner.” Should we accept it? I mean, yes, there are much better systems. Democracy would be a better system. And there are a lot of ways for the country to become way more democratic.
Handing over the digital spectrum, or for that matter the Internet, to private power — that’s a huge blow against democracy. In the case of the Internet, it’s a particularly dramatic blow against democracy because this was paid for by the public. How undemocratic can you get? Here is a major instrument, developed by the public — first part of the Pentagon, and then universities and the National Science Foundation — handed over in some manner that nobody knows to private corporations who want to turn it into an instrument of control. They want to turn it into a home shopping center. You know, where it will help them convert you into the kind of person they want. Namely, someone who is passive, apathetic, sees their life only as a matter of having more commodities that they don’t want. Why give them a powerful weapon to turn you into that kind of a person? Especially after you paid for the weapon? Well, that’s what’s happening right in front of our eyes.
Could the system be different? Of course it could be different. This [the Internet] could remain what it ought to be: just a public instrument. There ought to be efforts — not just talk but real efforts — to ensure Internet access, not just for rich people but for everyone. And it should be freed from the influence of Microsoft or anybody else. They don’t have any rights to have anything to do with that system. They had almost nothing to do with creating it. What little they did was on federal contract.
And we can say the same across the board. There are a lot of changes that can be made. Now let’s take, say, living wages. There are now living-wage campaigns in many places. They’re very good campaigns, it’s a great idea. But if you had a free press, what they would be telling you is the following, because they know the facts. If you look at American history, since, say, the 1930s, the minimum wage tracked productivity. So as productivity went up, the minimum wage went up. Which, if you believe in a capitalist society, makes sense. That stops in the mid-’60s.
Suppose you made it continue to track productivity. The minimum wage would be about double what it is now. Now, to say that we should continue doing what was done for 30 years and what just makes obvious sense — there’s nothing radical about that. If you had a free press, this would be all over the front page. But you’re not going to find it on the front pages, because the corporate media and their leaders and owners, they don’t want that to be an issue. Well, you know, this doesn’t have to remain. We’re free agents. We’re not living in fear of death squads. We can organize to change these things. Every single one of them.
Q: With respect to that, you seem to be someone whom a lot of people listen to. Could you do some things that make the media focus on you?
A: I’ve done all that. I’ve been in and out of jail any number of times for organizing. I organized national tax resistance; I was one of the people who organized national draft resistance. I mean, I was up for a long jail sentence. It was so close that my wife went back to school because we figured we were going to have to have somebody who’d take care of the three children.
It’s true that I don’t spend a lot of time in organizing. I used to, but there came to be a sort of division of labor at some point. And I think we all figured that I’m more helpful when I go out giving talks and show up at fundraising events and so on.
Q: Do you ever get exhortative in your lectures? Do you try to stir people up?
A: No. People say, “Look, he’s not a good speaker,” and I’m happy about that. If I knew how to do it, I wouldn’t. I really dislike good speakers. I think they’re dangerous people. Because you shouldn’t be exhorting people by the force of your rhetoric. You should be getting them to think about it so they can figure out what they want to do. The best way to do that, that I can imagine, is to say, “Why don’t you think about these questions?” Quietly, not screaming. “Think about these questions. Figure out for yourself what’s the best way to deal with them.”
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