One Man’s View

Noam Chomsky interviewed by an anonymous interviewer

Business Today, May, 1973, pp. 13-15

QUESTION: Do you think that within our society as it is now composed there should be a direct relationship or any direct ties or responsibilities between the university and the corporations?

CHOMSKY: Under the present conditions, if there is no relationship between wealth, however expressed, and the universities, the universities will collapse. This is obvious, because the universities exist on the basis of the supply of funds that come from the government, and basically from the wealthy. So in that sense there has to be a relationship. I think that’s unfortunate myself, but that’s the fact of social organization.

QUESTION: By their very nature, it often seems that the faculty assume a liberal or radical or critical view of the society.

CHOMSKY: I don’t agree. I think the faculty is a very conservative group. That is, it is considered liberal within the spectrum of American opinion, but American opinion on the whole has shifted so far to the right as compared with, say, Western Europe, that by the general standards of the Western European democracies, the faculties in American universities are really quite conservative.

QUESTION: Then, do you think faculty are failing in a role that they might play of supplying a liberal thrust in society — one of positive criticism?

CHOMSKY: Well, I don’t care what kind of opinions people have. I think the university should tolerate a large diversity of opinion, which it does not. I think there is a severe failure — the failure is one of honesty, in my opinion. That is, I don’t believe that scholarship within the university attempts to come to grips with the real structure of the society. I think it is under such narrow ideological controls that it avoids any concern or investigation of central issues in our society. And this is not merely a matter of opinion; I think this is easily demonstrable.

QUESTION: Is it possible within the society as it is now constructed to let the faculty have a more free role?

CHOMSKY: I don’t think that anyone is stopping the faculty from doing it. Because of their profound conservatism, the faculty in the ideological subjects such as history, political science and so on, find ways to avoid studying basic issues about the nature and exercise of power in our society. Or if they do study them, they do it in a perverse and confusing fashion. In fact, the very nature of academic specialization contributes to that. For example, consider the study of political economy — there’s a specialization of fields which makes it very difficult to investigate the central topics in the structure of American society within some academic department.

I think the most striking example of this that I know of is the study of foreign policy. There was a recent survey that appeared in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. The author investigated two hundred major works in what he called the respectable literature on international affairs and foreign relations, and he discovered that more than 95% of them make no mention whatsoever of the relationship between corporations and foreign policy, and that less than 5% give the subject passing mention. Now of course it’s obvious to any 10th grader that that’s a central issue. And the fact that academic scholarship so systematically avoids what is a central issue is just a very dramatic indication of the ideological controls under which it operates.

QUESTION: From what I’ve read myself, that article itself seems pretty conservative in its considerations.

CHOMSKY: You see, what’s striking to me is two things. First of all, the fact that he was able to unearth it; namely, that within the mainstream, everybody avoids this topic like poison. And secondly, his own attitude toward that fact. That is, having noticed that there’s a mass of literature that avoids the central issue. I think there’s a periphery that touches the real issue. It never occurred to him that maybe its the periphery that’s the respectable literature, and the mass — that’s the literature of advocacy. He himself is so caught up in the ideological structure of the society that he can’t see what his own data suggests to him.

QUESTION: Considering the whole nature of society, as you see it, is there a way that faculty members and corporations can try and solve some of these problems?

CHOMSKY: We’re looking at it rather differently. I think faculty and corporations are communicating beautifully. The corporations plainly want academic scholarship to create a web of mystification that will avoid any public awareness of the way in which power actually functions in the society, and the faculty has caught the message and they do it magnificently. They spin confusions and mystifications beautifully, and they do things like refusing to study the questions of corporations and foreign policy. I think the communication is working excellently. Of course never good enough. For example, Agnew is not satisfied that only 92% of the press supports Nixon — it’s got to be 100%. In this respect, too, I’m sure that corporations aren’t satisfied that only more than 95% of the major foreign policy works failed to mention this issue; they’d rather have no one mention it. But the communication is going pretty well.

QUESTION: What about in the political sphere? It seems to me that faculties were solidly for McGovern, at least at Princeton and the Ivy League schools. Now I don’t know if this is pervasive in the country, but it seems to me that on the political front, these faculty are not going along with your analysis. I don’t think the comparison between the faculty and the press is really valid here.

CHOMSKY: I think it’s a good comparison. I don’t know the actual statistics, but I suspect that if you took the newspapers read by Princeton professors, you’d also find that they are atypical in the country as a whole. But if you take the faculty at large I think you would discover that rather like the press it’s a conservative institution — very tightly tied to the ideological controls of modern society. I should mention that supporting McGovern really doesn’t prove very much; McGovern is also a conservative.

QUESTION: What do you think the general trend in the university community is? Is it to continue this conservative trend, or do you think that the periphery is becoming more vocal?

CHOMSKY: I think there was a brief period in the 1960s when, largely as a result of disillusionment with the Vietnam war, a student movement developed and there was something like a mass movement of dissent. In the wake of that, there were some efforts at opening up the universities slightly to permit a wider expression of opinion than the conservatism that dominated the ideological subjects had allowed. But I think these controls are being reasonably effectively reestablished. I don’t think that it’s likely that the major universities at least will tolerate much diversity of opinion. For example, take a case in point: Harvard has just fired four of its major radical economists — refused to grant them tenure, that is. Of course, a couple of them did get jobs elsewhere, University of Massachusetts and so on. But I think that’s what I’d expect.

QUESTION: This hiring policy has come up quite a bit. Conservatives often accuse universities of having hiring policies against conservative professors. Do you think this might be true?

CHOMSKY: I suspect that’s true as well. I think the universities tend to be what is called liberal. It’s a pretty narrow orthodoxy; how you place it in the spectrum of opinion depends on which spectrum you’re using. If you use the spectrum, let’s say, of a Western European democracy, it seems to me our faculty is quite conservative. If you use American opinion, it’s more or less on the left. But it’s still pretty narrow; it doesn’t tolerate much dissent. It’s not merely political constraints that are imposed; as I mentioned before, academic specialization itself, and the particular manner in which it worked, functions in such a way as to eliminate great areas of research that would tend to give us some sort of integrated view of the way society functions.

QUESTION: About ethical investing by the university, do you think this practice will have any effect within the corporation? Will it play any role in reform or cause any sort of change?

CHOMSKY: It is very minor, although it might affect something. Right now in England, for example, there’s a great turmoil over practices that have recently been exposed of British investing in South Africa, and it’s possible that that will raise the level of wages slightly of black workers in South Africa — probably only temporarily, though, until people forget about it. But these are not things which can have much impact. Power and wealth is too centralized to affect. It has to respond marginally to turmoil of the periphery.

QUESTION: What then do you really think the goals of society must be?

CHOMSKY: Personally I’m in favor of democracy, which means that the central institutions in the society have to be under popular control. Now, under capitalism we can’t have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control. Thus, a corporation or an industry is, if we were to think of it in political terms, fascist; that is, it has tight control at the top and strict obedience has to be established at every level — there’s a little bargaining, a little give and take, but the line of authority is perfectly straightforward. Just as I’m opposed to political fascism, I’m opposed to economic fascism. I think that until major institutions of society are under the popular control of participants and communities, it’s pointless to talk about democracy. In this sense, I would describe myself as a libertarian socialist — I’d love to see centralized power eliminated, whether it’s the state or the economy, and have it diffused and ultimately under direct control of the participants. Moreover, I think that’s entirely realistic. Every bit of evidence that exists (there isn’t much) seems to show, for example, that workers’ control increases efficiency. Nevertheless, capitalists don’t want it, naturally; what they’re worried about is control, not the loss of productivity or efficiency.

QUESTION: Turning to the British attempt within the system to socialize: is that still touching on the periphery or has it been effective?

CHOMSKY: The British approach was to take over marginal and defunct industries that were no longer profitable and make the public bear the cost of them. That’s called “socialism.” It has no bearing on anything; as far as I know, the concentration of capital and the degree of control by private capital over the economy and the distribution haven’t changed significantly; there’s merely been a little softening of the structures.

QUESTION: How do you view the possible transition of the economic system to libertarian socialism?

CHOMSKY: One can imagine it happening by a series of very radical reforms, imagining it happening by social revolution, but it would be a fundamental change in the nature of social organization however it happens. I don’t think it’s very likely to happen unless there’s at the very least considerable awareness of the possibility of another kind of organization and a real commitment to achieve on the part of a large mass of the population — of course, that’s nothing like the case here. And the universities and other ideological institutions are working very hard to prevent it from being the case. This is the respect in which they are very loyal servants of the corporate state. For example, the questions that I’ve just been discussing aren’t dealt with in the university curriculum. To my knowledge, up to until about two or three years ago, I know of one book on workers’ control in the United States, a very hostile one. In the last two or three years, again as a result of the activity of the 60s, there has been a little discussion that will subside if the ferment subsides.

QUESTION: All the Communist revolutions have been in basically non-capitalist societies.

CHOMSKY: I don’t think they’re communist revolutions. I think what are called communist revolutions are authoritarian — are revolutions of development that introduce structures which are politically authoritarian and socially egalitarian, and basically they take a do-it-yourself kind of approach to development. That’s what we call “communist.” It has nothing to do with what we call communist in the tradition of Western European socialism, so I don’t think there are any communist revolutions, at least in the traditional sense.

QUESTION: Do you think that strict Marxist development is still viable in the way capitalism has developed since the mid-19th century?

CHOMSKY: Well I think it would be very surprising if the analysis given by Marx a century ago would be directly relevant to problems of capitalism today; I think it is only marginally relevant. In some general way, though, I think his point of view is useful to our consideration.

QUESTION: Is there any up-to-date analysis in any country which deals with this? Does Lenin come much closer?

CHOMSKY: No, Lenin is much farther away. Lenin was merely a kind of authoritarian, although one can say that what he said was of some validity for developing societies. But it has no bearing on the advanced industrial societies, and if anything it would be a step backwards for those advanced countries.

QUESTION: Is there any appropriate analysis?

CHOMSKY: I think there is a very significant, if undeveloped, tradition that grew out of Marxism and anarchism. It presents a range of opinion which is important but hasn’t been developed, since it’s been carefully excluded. Anyone’s chances of airing this viewpoint in the universities or elsewhere are pretty slight, so there’s been very little advance.

QUESTION: What possibilities do you see for the future?

CHOMSKY: Well, for example, I think one can imagine perfectly well a movement developing for combined worker and community control of industry. I think it makes a great deal of sense. Why should workers agree to be slaves in a basically authoritarian structure? They should have control over it themselves. Why shouldn’t the communities have a dominant voice in running the institutions that affect their lives? If such a movement develops, it could take a variety of forms: a parliamentary system, with a new party developing that would be outside the structure of the Republican and Democratic consensus; or it could take direct action forms, like simply taking over economic institutions.

QUESTION: So you feel it’s possible to work within the parliamentary system?

CHOMSKY: Yes, theoretically. My guess is that the possibility would not be realized. Those who really have power in this society tolerate democracy only so long as it doesn’t infringe on their power. If, through the parliamentary system, we ever began to expropriate industry, then the people who have wealth and power would destroy the parliamentary system. In this respect there probably wouldn’t be any way within the system. But any revolutionary I’ve ever heard of must prefer peaceful non-violent means if these are possible. But it’s rarely been possible because of the resistance by those who want to preserve their privileges.