U.S. Defense and Corporate Social Responsibility?

Noam Chomsky interviewed by an anonymous interviewer

C.P. Otero (ed.), Language and Politics, Black Rose, 1988, pp. 300-1 [April 8, 1981]

CHOMSKY: I am asked “to address the subject of U.S. defense responsibility for the rest of the world and why America need not perpetuate this role.” The question is unanswerable; there is no such role. States use their power to defend “the national interest,” a mystification devised to conceal the special interests of those with domestic power. Typically, this policy is disguised in high-sounding rhetoric, which we dismiss with contempt when the official enemy “defends freedom and socialism” by sending tanks to Berlin, Budapest, Prague or Kabul, while solemnly reciting it when our own state acts in a similar way. When the U.S. Air Force began the systematic bombardment of rural South Vietnam in 1962, it was defending those who were concerned over the “domino effect” of a successful nationalist-Communist revolution that might be emulated elsewhere. The aggression was masked as defense against “internal aggression” by Vietnamese, indeed South Vietnamese. In 1947, Truman announced that the U.S. would “support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures,” specifically the Greek royalist elites and Nazi collaborators restored to power by the British army, by then unable to repress the rebellion caused largely by British-backed terrorism. The U.S. proceeded to defend the Greeks from “internal aggression” by supervising a program of massive repression, tens of thousands of political prisoners and exiles, political executions, re-education camps, forced population removal, etc., exactly as any rational person reading the Truman doctrine would have predicted. In this case too what was feared was the domino effect. When the U.S. backed an invasion force in Guatemala in 1954, overthrowing a mildly reformist democratic government and installing a regime whose descendants still adminsister a huge reign of terror, it was defending “the national interest” but nothing else. The same is true of the destruction of the peasant society of northern Laos, the arming of mass murderers in Indonesia and El Salvador, and on and on.

In each case, the propaganda system invokes the threat of the superpower enemy, exactly as the U.S.S.R. does. The cold war has been highly functional for the superpowers, providing each with a framework for carrying out its designs within the reach of its power. Hence its persistence, despite the threat of mutual annihilation.

The world, however, is not what it once was. The relative decline of Soviet and American power brings forth new and increasingly assertive rivals. The EEC [European Economic Community] is moving slowly towards a more independent role, which may engage it in conflict with the U.S. in the Middle East and elsewhere. Similarly, Japan. Before long, pursuit of “the national interest” may require new programs, new forms of violence and terror, and new rhetoric.

From Spring 1978:

QUESTION: Is corporate responsibility a dead issue?

CHOMSKY: I’m afraid that I cannot discuss the question as put, becuase I do not accept some of its presuppositions, specifically with regard to the legitimacy of corporate power. Suppose, for example, that I were to ask, with regard to some political oligarchy, whether or how such centralized power might be exercised in a more “socially responsible” way. The point is that such concentration of power is illegitimate in the first place; and what is more, whatever doctrine anyone proposes, it will be used for the benefit of those who wield it, primarily. Apart from random exceptions, they will act in a socially responsible way — as benevolent despots — when social strife, disorder, protest, etc., induce them to do so for their own benefit. The situation is not materially different when we turn to the economic domain. I see no more justification for concentration of private power here than in the political domain, or any reason to expect it to be differently employed.

In a true capitalist society, if such an object were to exist, socially responsible behavior would be penalized quickly in that competitors, lacking such social responsibility, would supplant anyone so misguided as to be concerned with something other than private benefit. In a real capitalist society, with only limited competition and substantial state control, as is and has always been required to safeguard social existence in the face of the destructive forces of private capitalism, it is possible for those who have concentrated power in their hands to be more or less benevolent in its use. But the central questions seem to me to be the ones that I have just mentioned, which are not addressed, but rather begged in this inquiry.