History is Not Over

Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Cogswell

April 18, 1997

Are you working on a political book right now? I noticed in the Barsamian interview that you said you thought you had pretty much saturated the market for a little while.

I have a few things I’m supposed to be working on, but I have them on hold for the moment. Partly it’s “saturated the market” and partly it’s just that the kind of heavy books I don’t know if people read a lot any more. I notice after a talk now, if people come up with things to sign, it tends to be usually by now the kind, well, like your book or things that David Barsamian does, the small interviews, the Odonian series. It doesn’t seem to me that people are reading the more documented, lengthy, heavy stuff. Huge mobs, lots of people want to hear things and want to do things, but somehow it’s becoming less of a reading culture. I see this with even graduate students. There is plenty of technical work that they read, but — for example, this is reflected in my own experience: a couple of years ago there was an Op Ed piece in the Boston Globe by someone who teaches an introductory freshman writing course. This guy had been teaching this course for about 30 years and he was describing the changes. He said the first assignment that he gives to incoming freshman at Harvard was always to write about a novel that they had read on their own. Not something that was assigned in the 11th grade. Not Silas Marner or whatever, but just something they picked up and were interested in. That was the first thing to break the ice. He said there used to be a fair variety of things, interesting things. He said now it’s almost all Stephen King or one or two other authors. In airports – – I spend a lot of time in airports, I’ll get stuck — it used to be the case that if you went to the news stand or the bookstore there was always something, classics or at least something around that you could kill a couple of hours with. Not any more. There’s nothing I’d even take off the shelf. I’d rather do almost anything. It’s just changing. It’s the Barnes & Noble phenomenon, too. If you go into a bookstore in most places, fairly educated, professional towns, there were bookstores, which were the owners’ bookstores that expressed the owner’s personality or something like that, quirky somehow, but interesting. Now it’s bestsellers.

So around the Boston area there aren’t many good bookstores anymore?

Take a look at Harvard Square, that’s a very lively intellectual area. When I was here as a student in the 1950s, it was just dotted with little bookstores, which again were very personal and individual and interesting and you just felt like hanging around them. You could spend days going through the bookstores. Now there’s a little but not much. You can get what you want, if you want a textbook you can get it, if you want a bestseller you can get it. If you want a specialized book, if they don’t have it they’ll order it for you. But there are very few places where you’d want to browse.

You’ve mentioned the great triumph of the propaganda system. It sort of seems to be the same thing.

It’s part of the same thing. There’s an image that the P.R. industry has and it’s understandable: people should be passive, they ought to be subservient, and isolated from one another and not have too many thoughts, to be kind of semi- traumatized and be able to do their work on command and listen to a big poll and buy things that they’re told they want. That’s the perfect world. Of course the huge entertainment industry and the advertising industry and television and so on are geared to that. It’d be astonishing if they were geared to anything else. How else will these people gain money and power?

I remember when I worked in Barnes and Noble in about 1980 seeing a book that was about some sort of fictional nuclear disaster, and the blurb on the cover said, “First it was The China Syndrome,” (which was a movie), “then Three Mile Island… it had to happen — the…” then the title of the book. There was this very offensive blurring of the difference between a movie and the real world.

I was at a college in the midwest over the last couple of days and was talking to some people roughly my age on the faculty, and one of the women told me that she had just not gone to the movies or watched television for about 40 years. She couldn’t stand them. And she happened to be somewhere where she was watching television and she was struck by the level of violence that people took for granted, or didn’t even notice. If you think about it, in the films of the 1930s and the ’40s there wasn’t a lot of violence. It was shocking to see violence. Now we watch and we see people being killed — really live, we follow police going out and killing people, we watch hideous tortures.

It’s pretty incredible the degree to which the special effects of violence and death have been technically perfected in fiction films. As you say, in the early movies it was very formalized, somebody might punch someone…

In the Humphrey Bogart movies, the James Cagney movies it was formalized. You didn’t feel like you were participating really in violence.

I always find myself wanting to ask: What can you offer to people who don’t really need to be convinced anymore that this basic sort of control system is in effect, but don’t know what they can do about it?

One aspect of the whole system of propaganda is to convince people that everything’s hopeless. That goes pretty much across the spectrum. So this stuff about globalization, the triumph of the market, it’s all invisible forces, there’s nothing we can do… you read that even by critics. And that does induce hopelessness, resignation, despair, narrowing of the set of political alternatives, it’s all big forces beyond us… None of that is true. I mean it’s true if we let it be true, if it becomes part of people’s psychology.

There was a very interesting article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, a front page article in the Week in Review section. It was called something like “Morning in America Again.” If you haven’t seen it you should read it; it was interesting. It started by saying, well you know there are all these people who are saying wages are going down, people are hungry and so on and so forth, but, he said, the real fact of the matter is that things are looking up and people’s attitudes are improving. Then it goes on mostly to quote the head of the International Association of Manufacturers. He talks about how good things really are and it’s great, and this is perfectly true: If you’re in the top five percent of the population, you’re really off in the stratosphere. Then the writer, who’s a good writer, says that it’s not only the few percent who are really benefiting, but even the millions of people who are suffering from the new economy, they are also feeling better about it. And he quotes [the head of the International Association of Manufacturers] again who says, these people now have a better set of priorities and preferences. He quotes the head of the University of Michigan Research Bureau, who does polls on people. He says nowadays people tend to say, “Look I know I can’t get by and I have to work too hard, and I don’t get enough food, we can’t live and so on, but it could be worse.” Years ago people used to have the feeling that life maybe could be better and maybe we can do something about it, but now they’ve given up. So they say, “Well I’m getting by, it could be worse.” So it’s morning in America again. I don’t know if this was intended to be ironic or not. But if it had been written by Jonathan Swift he couldn’t have done a better job. Unfortunately I’m afraid that it was not.

It sounds like the Orwell thing, too, of two opposing concepts that cancel each other out. Those who are suffering are now benefiting.

Because they’ve given up hope. It could be worse, so we’re hopeful.

When I think of action that one can take: given the description you gave a few minutes ago about the system being designed to induce hopelessness and despair, then anything that counters that would be a good action.

It just isn’t true. Even without any big changes, the mechanisms that exist allow these things to be controlled. So for example, you talk about globalization, it’s happening, but is it out of control? The transnational corporations almost without exception rely on their own home state, for subsidy, for protection, for markets, which means they are under political control in their own state, if it’s more or less democratic. Where are they? Overwhelmingly in Europe, Japan and the United States, that is in countries where there isn’t going to be a military coup. And there are formal mechanisms that control what they do. Furthermore their interactions are mostly in these three areas. Seveny- five percent of their interactions are in these three areas and they rely very heavily on the home government to save them. Newt Gingrich, who’s actually the biggest welfare freak in the country if anyone wants to tell the truth, gets more federal subsidies for his rich constituents than anyone. The biggest employer in his district is Lockheed. They never made a dollar on the market in their lives. They are publicly subsidized. That means the public can determine what they do, or for that matter whether they exist.

Going back a little ways, the very right of the corporations to carry big command economies is perfectly tyrannical and totalitarian. They didn’t have this right a century ago. It’s not like they’re graven in stone. It was given to them by courts and lawyers and changes in the legal structure. And people can change it back. Go back to the 1870s, the New York Times was denouncing wage labor. The standard of the Republican Party around 1870 was “We’re the party who opposes slavery and who opposes wage slavery.” The Republican Party, you know, we’re not talking about wild radicals. It doesn’t take much to go back to those days.

So opposing wage labor means…

…means they were in favor of free labor. The standard position right through the 19th Century was that we’re against slavery, but renting yourself isn’t that different. It’s legitimate only as a step towards free labor which means you’re not rented. But in itself it’s unacceptable. That was a standard view right through the American mainstream through much of the 19th Century. And it remains the case in militant sectors of the labor movement today. In fact you go into the 1930s, what was really scaring employers was sit-down strikes, because a sit-down strike is one gray cell away from saying, “What do we need the owners for anyway? Let’s just take it and run it.”

So do you think it’s more or less essential to change the legal structure of the way corporations exist?

I don’t think corporations should exist any more than fascism should exist. They are similar totalitarian institutions. In fact, fascism, Bolshevism and corporations came out of pretty much the same intellectual background: these kind of Neo-Hegelian ideas about the rights of organic entities over and above the rights of the individual. This kind of thing was more or less formulated in the late 19th Century and moved into the American legal system, not by legislation, but through court decisions, lawyers and intellectuals and so on pretty much early in this century.

What is the essence of the corporate idea or concept that is wrong?

Just go back, think what corporations were in the mid-19th Century and on back. A corporation was a partnership. The corporation had no rights. It was an artificial entity. The partners had rights. The corporation was incorporated to carry out a specific task, got a state charter to do something, like build a bridge over the Charles River. The partners had the rights of people. They were allowed to carry out that task, given to them under the state charter, period. That’s a corporation. The change was that the corporations became natural entities, not artificial entities. The corporation got rights, not the individuals. So the corporation has the rights of immortal persons. The corporation has the right to purchase, like Ruppert Murdoch has the right to purchase another business. It’s not even incorporating him to do that. And they have the rights of free speech. With fifth amendment rights they can advertise. Why should a corporation be allowed to advertise, that’s not freedom of speech? They’re not people. The traditional view is that rights are natural rights. They’re rooted in the nature of people. Not in the nature of totalitarian institutions. They don’t have rights. The Bolshevik state has no rights. And GE is no different. Just the tyranny and control from the top down. Meanwhile the legal system slowly began changing the conception of the corporation so that it wasn’t the individual participants but it was the board of directors. That’s the corporation. And that’s kind of like shifting power from the people to the central committee in a Bolshevik system as when Lenin was in power. It’s very similar. And the thinking behind it is rather similar.

And furthermore if you look back again a century ago, you know there are very few conservatives and the United States doesn’t have a conservative tradition, but there were some. They were very much opposed to corporations. For one thing because they were attacking individual liberty. But also because they were attacking markets. A corporation, its purpose is to undermine the market. Internally it’s not a market system. So internally a mom and pop grocery store doesn’t work by the market, it works by the decisions of whoever runs it, two of them or one of them or whatever. It’s the same when you get to GM. Internally it doesn’t work by the market. It makes its decisions the way you do inside a command economy. It’s also completely hierarchic. Orders go from the top down. And this uncertainty is all along the line. A mid-level executive can be tossed in the street tomorrow. You do what you’re told, tell the other guy what to do, if you don’t do it, goodbye.

So here we have tyrannical systems with enormous power. They are allowed to do all sorts of things, like they can propagandize. And they are granted freedom of speech to propagandize. All this fuss about campaign funds… The United States has actually been criticized for that in international human rights forums because although the U.S. does protect freedom of speech, it considers money to be speech. Certainly that’s not an Enlightenment idea. It would have scandalized any of the Enlightenment thinkers that money should be speech. If money doesn’t get the protections of speech, then it’s the end of buying ads on television for a campaign. The problem isn’t the people in China, it’s the communications industry buying Clinton, or whatever it is. These are all assumptions that we make that are not graven in stone. We should rethink them. I don’t think most of them are legitimate and like other illegitimate institutions they can be dismantled. It’s happened all through history. History is not over. You’re made to think that it’s permanent. It is kind of like Orwell, you equate tyranny with freedom, so corporations are tyrannical command economies and you equate them with freedom. And that’s straight out of Orwell. It makes about as much sense as Stalin calling these things of his “people’s democracies.” It’s about like that. In the communications system, information system, the media and so forth, it’s a bad joke. The media and the bookstores and the rest of them are just huge corporations whose perfectly obvious purpose, perfectly understandable: they’re not there to make people think things like what we’re talking about. Is that their business? No. Is that their interest, where they’re going to put their money? No. They’re going to shape a picture of the world that makes you feel hopeless, makes this look permanent, makes it look like freedom, and makes you feel you can’t do anything about it anyway, so you might as well go on to survival strategies. Sure they’re going to try to do that. That’s close to a hundred percent of what reaches people. So you ask what you can do, well, free yourself.

You said something about the system waging war on about 75 percent of the population, so that’s a pretty huge latent power.

Most people are pretty unhappy. Just look at polls. More than 80 percent of the population think that the political system doesn’t function, it just works for the few and the special interests. The same percentage think that the economic system is inherently unfair. About 95 percent — which is an unheard of percentage for polls — think that corporations should sacrifice profits for workers and community, which is really the wrong position in my view. What they are saying is that the autocrat ought to be more benevolent, which is okay. It would be nice if the king were more benevolent. But that’s not the real question to ask about a king, or a slave owner. But why should they be there? That’s the question you should be asking. And you don’t have to go very far back in American history when that is exactly the question that ordinary people were asking. So again, it’s right below the surface. And I think when it’s discussed with people, they’ll come to that view.

Do you think there’s any progression in the last 500, 1,000 years in terms of individual liberation versus tyranny or is it just sort of an ongoing back and forth?

I think if you look over time there is a progression towards freedom. Things are better than they were, but it’s not linear. There are countercurrents. We happen to be in a regressive period. It’s not the first one. The 1920s, let’s say, were much worse than now. And then you heard the same things you hear now about the end of history, it’s wonderful and it’s all over. They’d smashed up the labor movement, the rich were richer than ever. Very much like now. Ten years afterwards the whole thing fell apart.

Do you thing there’s a little labor momentum developing now?

No question about it. I don’t know how far it will go, but it’s certainly there. You just have a completely different feeling than a couple of years ago. And that’s not the whole thing. There’s a lot of organization going on. And not all of it’s constructive. So some of it takes the form of militias and ultra- right fundamentalist groups and so on. It’s a very disorganized society. And under those conditions a lot of things can happen. Some of them are good; some of them are pretty ugly. Take Germany in the 1930s. It’s not an exact analogy, but similar in this respect: a lot of unhappy and angry people looking for something to blame everything on. There was a lot of constructive development, big class movements, but there happened to be something bigger.

I had the opportunity to go to Russia a few weeks ago, which was a fascinating experience but very disturbing and frightening because it’s hard to imagine how people can endure that kind of economic calamity for very long. There was something like a 7,000 to 9,000 times ratio in their inflation.

By 1993 — and it’s worse now — UNICEF estimated half a million extra deaths a year from the effect of the capitalist reforms, which they supported. They thought they were great. But they did say about half a million deaths a year. By now it’s probably higher. The life span has gone way down, especially for men. It’s now down below 60 years. Under those conditions you could very well get Nazi-like movements.

It’s such a state of desperation, I can’t imagine how they get along. Walking the streets, people seem surprisingly okay. But I had a sense in places like hotels, people who were there working just seemed hopeless.

And of course what makes it worse is that in the midst of it, there is super wealth. In fact, all these guys around the government, all these gangsters who we support have money coming out of their ears.

I got a sense that the people don’t trust any government.

They’re all thugs. They’re buying up all the resources of the country and selling them. In fact they are hugely involved with the huge criminal syndicates, the criminals themselves. It’s looking more and more like a standard third world country. The kind of places we run all over the world. For them it’s a shock because whatever you think about the place, it did pull out of the third world. It industrialized, had a functioning economy, reasonable health standards and so on. Now it’s all collapsing. It’s becoming like a third world country, a country that’s been under imperial rule. And that’s indeed what they were up until 1917. That’s the original third world. Goes back to the fifteenth century. It was Europe’s third world, deeply impoverished, a source of raw materials, cheap labor. There was investment in Russia, but it was Western. The railroad the French built. The educated sectors, the types you read about in Tolstoy’s novels spoke French.

Peter the Great was trying to hook up with Europe.

He hooked up, but he turned it into a colony. It was just deep poverty. So there was a sector that joined with the west, the aristocracy, the educated. But that’s true of every third world country: Egypt, India… There are very wealthy sectors, very privileged. You can land in the Cairo airport, take a limousine by the highway down to the Nile that takes you to your five-star hotel on the Nile, meet your friends and go to an elegant restaurant and barely know that there are poor people in Cairo. It’s a third world country. That’s what Russia’s like.

I did a presentation recently in which I looked at a New York Times article about Peru and suggested that you didn’t have to be an expert on the subject to see from the language in the text that you are being led to certain conclusions. Afterwards a friend of mine told me that people don’t get this and they don’t really care about what goes on in other countries. He said that it would be better to show them what’s going on in their own country. He said you really have to take into consideration this enormous factor of self interest.

I think there’s a lot of brainwashing about that too. Most people here –if you look at polls — think we give away all our money to foreigners and then they rob us and do bad things to us. Very few people know that the United States has the most miserly aid program in the world. Of all the developed countries we’re last and about half the level of the next lowest. In fact even that’s a joke because the bulk of our aid goes to a rich country, Israel. Take that away and nothing’s left. But people have that feeling, just like how they think all their money goes to welfare. And so why should I worry about those people over there? But that’s propaganda. I think when people see things, when something is shown to them, like famine in Ethiopia or murder in Rwanda, they generally care. In fact support for U.S. involvement in peacekeeping forces is very high.

He was saying that there is plenty going on here that I could talk about.

What he says is correct. I’ve noticed it too. I used to talk a lot about the places that are under our control and domination in the third world, but now people are more interested in here. That’s why there’s that book “Class Warfare.”

He was talking about that book and saying that you don’t have to look overseas to see these things. And something you had pointed out, that the third world is becoming the model here too. Once you start to see that, you can understand how it connects to their own struggles for survival. I really think that these people, like the seniors, perhaps some of them are doing well, I don’t know, but I think a lot of them are getting hurt and a lot of them are scared.

They have every reason to be scared.

And if someone could point out to them how these things are working… When you think of action, awareness is the very large first step. When I read your words it’s such a clear picture, it creates such a conversion and you can start to put everything in a different framework. If people could have it keyed to them, to something right there in their lives and then begin to understand how those things are working… I’m reading your “Class Warfare” with that in mind.

Well it is true, people are frightened and they’re worried about themselves and their children and what will happen to them when they are older and will their children have a future and will there be a world around that their children can live in. These are reasonable fears. In fact the same things are going on elsewhere even worse, but it’s hard to think about that when you yourself are under a lot of pressure. If you and your wife are working each 50 hours a week to put food on the table to get by, you don’t have a lot of emotional energy left to worry about people starving somewhere else.

The way that we have evolved from goods to currency to data is frightening. Somebody suggested that if there was a financial crisis a hundred years ago people didn’t lose their homes, but today the banks own all the homes so if there is an economic change, you can lose everything in a stroke. There is very little security in that regard. It’s a frightening reality. If one is in a system, like say in Russia, no matter how well you personally could manage things, no matter how superior you may be in terms of economic management, if you’re currency goes down to one 9,000th of what it was, what can you do?

There are people making a killing out of it. There are plenty of rich Russians. There are plenty of rich Russian tourists right here in Boston. But sure, for the greater part of the population it’s like the third world and this country looks more and more like it too. There’s a lot of work to do.