On Democracy

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Tom Morello

Summer, 1996

Tom Morello: Hello, Noam? Hi and welcome to Radio Free Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being on the show. I want you to know that you are probably the, ah, Noam Chomsky books are the ones most prominently featured on the rage tour bus. So it is a privilege.

Noam Chomsky: So I’ve heard. Glad to hear that.

TM: First question is, in this election year, I thought we would talk a little bit about democracy. One of the unquestionable ideas that were force fed from our first days in school is that we do live in a democracy. In your opinion, in what sense is our society democratic?

NC: Well, I should say that if that is true an awful lot people don’t believe it. A Gallup poll for years has been regularly asking people who they think the government works for, and it has usually been running about 50% saying “the few and the special interests, not the people.” Last year it went up to 82%.

TM: Wow

NC: So that’s what at least the public thinks about it.

TM: Wow

NC: As to whether it’s a democracy, I don’t think that there is a simple answer to that. Democracy has lots of different dimensions. I mean, basically the question is to what extent do the people have a meaningful way of developing and articulating their own ideas and putting them forward in the political arena and controlling decisions. That’s the general question. Now if you look at the United States, well, in some respects that’s true but in many respects it just isn’t true at all.

So for example in the political arena, first of all there is one huge segment of social and economic life which is simply excluded from public control, in law and in principle, and it’s the most important part. It has to do with what’s produced and how its distributed, and so on and so forth. That’s all in the hands of what amount to huge private tyrannies, of which are about as totalitarian in character as any institutions that humans have so far concocted. Mostly their only accountability to the public is through quite limited regulatory mechanisms — I mean the whole corporate system. And they have extraordinary power over not only what happens in the workplace but the nature of our lives, and, given their resources, over the political system. And you can’t say that they control the media, because they are the media. That’s an enormous, a huge sector of life that is out of public influence and control in a manner which would have absolutely appalled someone like, say, Thomas Jefferson, who already condemned the very early stages of it that he saw and said that they would bring an end to democracy and restore the worst kind of aristocratic rule.

So that’s one sector. Well, what about the public arena, the technically public arena, the government? There the fact is that in practice there happens to be at the higher levels very little way, right now at least, for the public to influence anything that goes on. As you move down to the lower levels, when you get to say your local community, the school board and so on, then there is much more of an opportunity. Incidentally at the intermediate levels, say the state level, although you would think superficially that the public could influence things more, the opposite is the case. The reason is that at the state level business power is far more dominant. Even a middle size business can have huge influence over state governments by, for example, such measures as threatening to move across the border whereas only the bigger guys can control the federal government. That’s part of the reason why there is such pressure on the far right, the so called “conservatives,” to devolve power from the federal to the state level which they know they could control a lot more easily.

When you get to the federal government, we’ve been sold a line you know for 50 years of intense corporate propaganda that the government is the enemy — there cannot be a government that’s buy for and of the people. Well in practice the description is not inaccurate. The government is to a large extent the enemy, but the reason is that its so largely under the control of the private tyrannies that are excluded from, sort of off in the corner somewhere you know, you’re not suppose to see them. But the reason for the anti-government propaganda is obvious enough. The purpose is to remove decision making from the public arena where the public does, in principle, and sometimes even in practice have ways to participate in it and take part in it, and shift it over to the private arena where it is totally out of control.

TM: Right

NC: So when you ask about the government, it’s a complicated story. Potentially the instruments and mechanisms are there by which the public could, if organized and controlling resources and so on, could play a significant, in fact dominant role in what happens. But in practice it doesn’t work. So like in the current election, you know, there’s two moderate republicans running — well almost, but pretty hard to distinguish.

TM: Right, and so that’s why the majority of eligible voters just stays home on election day.

NC: Yeah. In fact, even the things like say the, I read recently that even the measures to increase voters registration are mostly drawing in wealthier people. Poorer people apparently just don’t see any point. In fact the primaries were kind of interesting in that regard. There was only one candidacy contested, although there was a huge amount of money spent, way more than before. But people just stayed away. I mean Dole won, in I think it was around 20 primaries which put him over the top and in that fifth about one million people voted for him. In one state New Hampshire, participation reached 25% and the other states I think it was below 10%, 10% or below.

TM: Wow. Well another unquestionable idea is that people are naturally competitive, and that therefore, capitalism is the only proper way to organize society. Do you agree?

NC: Look around you. In a family for example, if the parents are hungry do they steal food from the children? They would if they were competitive. In most social groupings that are even semi-sane people support each other and are sympathetic and helpful and care about other people and so on. Those are normal human emotions. It takes plenty of training to drive those feelings out of peoples heads, and they show up all over the place.

It’s true that you can say the humans are competitive, but humans are anything you like. Humans are mass murderers, humans are courageous and honorable and magnificent in many of the things that they do. The whole spectrum is there. Particular institutions and modes of education and so on bring out one or another characteristic of people. There has been a tremendous effort, its been going on for a couple of hundred years now, to try to emphasize particular traits, mainly, the sort of, “Look out for Number One” trait. Well that’s sort of hidden there in all of us. I’m sure under certain circumstances it would probably come out along with others. But that’s the tendency in human character that is enormously supported and amplified by institutional structures, by the propaganda system, by education, by the entertainment industry, by everything. So sure, people are naturally competitive, and they’re naturally cooperative and eager to give up what they have for the benefit of others.

TM: The way that we make a living, by receiving wages for work, we rent ourselves in order to survive. It used to be known as wage slavery, where people line up to beg to enrich this boss or that boss. Why do people accept this and submit to it?

NC: That hasn’t been easy. Its kind of interesting to read the working class press in the 19th century, the mid-19th century, which was very substantial in size I should say. It’s kind of like the scale of the commercial press in those days. And it was organized by ordinary people. I mean, artisans, what they called “factory girls,” young women off the farms who were working in the textile industry around where I lived and so on. There are definite themes that run through it and one of them is strong opposition to wage slavery which they didn’t regard as any different from chattel slavery. In fact, after the civil war, there were bitter complaints about the fact, look we fought down slavery and now we are being driven into another form of slavery.

The idea that people should have to, uh, it was just taken for granted that, in their words, that “those who work in the mills should own them.” If we have to labor at the command of others, we have lost our freedom — the freedoms we have fought for in the American revolution and that they thought that they were fighting for in the civil war. We’ve lost them. In fact, they also bitterly opposed, to get back to your earlier comment, what they called “the new spirit of the age” back in 1850, we “gain wealth forgetting all but self.” Back then that was the new spirit of the age which they considered an utterly degrading doctrine that no honorable person would accept.

I should add that this was also a very standard theme of the real classical liberal works that were suppose to revere, like Adam Smith the others. The idea that people should subordinate themselves to the command of others was regarded as highly offensive and it has taken well you know a long long time to get that out of people heads. Right into this century, it was quite broadly felt and articulated for example by Americans leading social philosopher, John Dewy who comes right out of the mainstream, that unless the working people control their own institutions they are simply tools, there not people. And I don’t think that understanding is very far below the surface. It could come out very quickly.

TM: You’ve noted that 82% of the population regard our economic system as inherently unfair. Is the gap between rich and poor increasing now and why?

NC: It is definitely increasing. There is no questions about that. Inequality has been increasing steadily. It declined a bit from the second World War up until the early 70’s. Since then it has been increasing — its now back to the level of before the Great Depression. It has not been a period of much growth since around the last twenty years. But there has been some and it is very highly concentrated in the wealthier sectors. Profits, incidentally, have been going through the roof. I mean the business press can’t even find adjectives any more to express how marvelous things are. They have run out of stupendous and dazzling and are looking for some new ones. For the general population, things are at best stagnant, and for most people actually are declining. Around 1980, the United States was, among the industrial countries, it had one of the higher levels of inequality but it wasn’t off the spectrum. Now its way beyond any other country. Any other industrial country. In fact, in a city like New York its about the level of Guatemala which is about the worst state in the world in equality.

TM: Right.

NC: So sure that is increasing, there is no question about it, people are well aware of it. People are aware that they are working longer and with much less security and for lower wages and with rather dim prospects. That’s an unmistakable feature of American life. No one doubts it. The peoples attitudes of what should be done are interesting. I mean for example, Business Week just ran a poll which frightened them very much. They found that 95% of the population, which is just an incredible figure for a poll, you just don’t get that on anything, 95% of the population thought that corporations had a responsibility to reduce profits because of the needs of their own work force and their communities. Its kind of interesting — that’s a striking figure — it is interesting to compare that with a general understanding of working people in say, you know, the textile industries in Massachusetts 150 years ago. They were not asking for the autocrats to be more benevolent the way people are asking now. They were saying that they just have no right to be there at all. Not please treat your subjects more kindly, but that you have no right to rule. That’s a big decline in sensibility but its still dramatic that almost the entire population condemns the practice of business enriching itself.

TM: One of the more provocative statements of yours that I have read is that if the standards of the Nuremberg Trials were applied, then every post World War II American president would have been hanged as a war criminal. Take us briefly through the war crimes committed by each president.

NC: I’ve done that in print a couple of times. Well, with Truman you could start with, shortly after he entered office there was the bombing of Hiroshima, which maybe one could give an argument for — well, I don’t think so — but it is almost impossible to give an argument for the bombing of Nagasaki. That was mostly just trying out a new weapon to see if it would work. Then there was an utterly gratuitous bombing, a one thousand plane raid at the end of the war — right in fact after Japan surrendered — called the “finale,” the grand finale. Then comes, for example, the support for the brutal counter-insurgency campaign in Greece, which killed about 150,000 people to basically restore Nazi collaborators and demolish the resistance. And then we could go on from there.

Eisenhower. The Eisenhower administration, the Truman and Eisenhower administration, the bombings — whatever you think about the Korean War, and there is a pretty complicated story when you really look at it, but nevertheless the bombings in North Korea in 1951 and 1952 was just an outright war crime. You can read in the Air Force history about how in the Eisenhower years they had nothing left to bomb, everything was flat, so they just bomb dams, which they exalt how wonderful it was to see the water flooding down and killing people and wiping out the crops and so on. Well people were hanged for that, for less than that. They were hanged for opening dikes in Nuremberg. And then again we can proceed with what happened in Guatemala and elsewhere where it was a terrible crime in the Eisenhower years.

Kennedy is not even worth discussing. The invasion in South Vietnam — Kennedy attacked South Vietnam, outright. In 1961-1962 he sent Air Force to start bombing villages, authorized napalm. Also laid the basis for the huge wave of repression that spread over Latin America with the installation of Neo-Nazi gangsters that were always supported directly by the United States. That went on and in fact picked up under Johnson.

In the Nixon years, for example, the bombing of inner Cambodia in 1973 was a monstrous crime. It was just massacring peasants in inner Cambodia. It isn’t much reported here because nobody paid attention, but it was quite a part in helping create the basis for the Khmer Rouge. Well, the CIA estimate is that 600,000 people were killed in the course of those US actions, either directed or actually carried out by the United States.

In the Carter years there were major crimes, for example the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which happened to start under Ford and led to the nearest thing to genocide since the holocaust, maybe 1/3 or 1/4 of the population has been slaughtered. That was using 90% US arms. In the Carter years, when the Indonesians were actually running out of arms in their attack on this country, Carter actually increased the flow of arms in 1978, which was the worst peak of the slaughter. Carter was backing Somoza and his national guard, openly and with direct military and diplomatic support at a time when they had killed about 40,000 people in the terror of the last days of their regime. Again, that’s a sample.

Going on to the Reagan years, its not even a question. In fact the US was condemned by the World Court during the Reagan years for its “unlawful use of force,” meaning aggression in Nicaragua. In Central America alone, maybe 200,000 people or so were slaughtered in a very brutal fashion by US run programs. In southern Africa about 1.5 million people were killed and over $60 billion of damage were done according to the UN commission which reviewed it later from 1980 to 1988. That’s from South African atrocities that the US was directly supporting. Then, again we could go on. Well Bush, we’ve already talked about him, but the invasion of Panama for example was simply outright aggression. It was condemned internationally — the US was able to veto the security counsel condemnations, that doesn’t change the fact that they were there.

When we move on to the Clinton years, one of his first acts within a few months was to send missiles to bomb Baghdad. Well, he didn’t kill a huge amount of people, only I think 8 or so. But there was absolutely no pretext, there wasn’t even a pretext. I mean it was to show what a tough guy he is. In fact the pretext was so ludicrous, it’s embarrassing to repeat it. The pretext was that this was self defense against armed attack, because two months earlier there had been a failed attempt by someone who might or might not have been Iraqi, no one knew at the time, to kill Bush or something like that. I mean, it’s just ridiculous. About half of military aid and training to Latin America under Clinton was going to Columbia, which has absolutely the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, killing thousands of people in a horrifying fashion. These are all crimes. I don’t think it’s hard to set up a bill of indictment if somebody wants to.

TM: You’ve also written that our education system is a system of indoctrination designed to induce obedience and passivity. Explain how this works.

NC: I think we all know that from our own experiences. Starting with kindergarten and first grade, the main requirement is that you do what you’re told. For example if you object, if people don’t, if they use their independence, if they question what they’re told what to do, if they try to think for themselves and suggest that something else ought to be done, they usually get into trouble pretty quickly. It’s not uniform, but try it out on your history teacher in high school, saying “I think that’s a dumb assignment, I’d rather do something else.” There isn’t much, uh, its a rare teacher who will give even an opportunity to discuss that option. And that goes on through college and career and so on.

There is kind of a filtering for obedience and subordination and various penalties for independence. Now, it’s not that we should have chaos and people should do anything they feel like and shouldn’t pay any attention to the circumstances in which your fellow students and teachers have to exist. Of course you should, but that’s quite different from imposed obedience. The kind of mechanical character of a good deal of education, which is not only unnecessary but even harmful, also contributes to that. In fact, it is kind of striking when you go on to, well say take where I teach at MIT, which is a science university. There it happens to be quite different, and the reason is because you can’t do science that way. You have to encourage students to challenge, they’re expected to, they’re expected to be independent, they’re expected to say “Look, I don’t think that’s right, we should do it a different way” and so on. Otherwise there won’t be any science. But that’s unusual.

TM: Having a poor self image seems to be far more common in today’s society. Is that a misconception, and if not, why is modern society breeding insecurities?

NC: Well the society is definitely breeding insecurities, but that’s perfectly objective. It doesn’t have anything to do with self image. For example, take the rise of temporary workers, what’s called “increasing the flexibility of the labor market.” Well, that breeds insecurity. As workers lose the rights that they won after a long struggle, including, one of those rights that they are losing is the right to go to sleep at night and know you’re going to have a job tomorrow. Well, that definitely breeds insecurity for a perfectly objective reason. Nothing about self image.

Some of the fastest growing American corporations are the ones that, as they put in the business press, sell workers. So Man Power Incorporated is just booming. And the reason for the turn to temporary workers is perfectly straight forward. They can be treated just as goods, as material goods. If you want to throw them out, you throw them out. You don’t want to pay them benefits, you don’t pay them benefits. Outsourcing has the same character. One of the major reasons for outsourcing by big corporations is that they don’t have contractual arrangements with the labor force in the places that, say, make door handles or whatever it may be. They’re tools of production brought in when they’re needed, thrown out when they’re not wanted. The decline of real wages and the increasing of working hours has exactly the same effect. There are many things happening in the whole society that breed insecurity for perfectly clear objective reasons. I don’t think it has much to do with self image.

TM: Explain the two concepts of “manufacturing consent” and “necessary illusions.”

NC: Actually both of those are terms that we, my colleague Ed Herman and I, we didn’t invent them. Manufacturing consent comes from Walter Lippman, the Dean of American Journalism and one of the most highly respected public intellectuals of the 20th century. The other, necessary illusions, that comes from Reinhold Niebuhr who was the guru of the Kennedy intellectuals and George Kent and others, again highly respected. Both of them said that manufacturing consent, in Lippman’s case, and imposing necessary illusions is the central feature of a democratic society. The “responsible men,” as they called them, the small elite that has the talent and the ability — the major talent being to know how to serve people with real power, but they didn’t say that — but those who enter their category of skilled responsible intellectuals, they have the duty of making sure that the stupid and ignorant masses stay out of their way. They are “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” as Walter Lippman put it. They don’t have the intelligence or ability to care for or run their own affairs, and we’re only doing them a favor if we control them, and since we can’t do it by force then we have to do it by imposing beliefs. This is a very widely held doctrine. Incidentally these are not reactionary people. There are sort of on the center to left. And I should add that Marxism/Leninism has exactly the same view. The Vanguard party of Lenin very much acts on the same doctrine. The people are just too stupid to be able to run their own affairs and we’re smart enough so we’ll run it for them. And they better do what we say or else.

TM: How does the mass media play in this?

NC: The mass media are simply part of the corporate system and their goal is roughly that of what you read in the manuals of the public relations industry, which is very frank about it. We have a very class conscious business community. The leaders of the public relations industry, which is the aspect of big business that is concerned with manufacturing consent, they talk quite openly about the need to “control the public mind,” to “fight the everlasting battle for the minds of men,” who have to be “indoctrinated with the capitalist story.”

The leading manual of the public relations industry was written back in the 1920’s, incidentally by a good Roosevelt/Kennedy liberal, highly respected in Cambridge where he lived. The book opens by saying something like this, that the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the attitudes and behavior of the masses is the central task of the democratic system and we, the business classes, the responsible men, we have to do it. Well the mass media are just being imbued with that conception. Not just the mass media, the entertainment industry, the schools and everyone else. That’s a leading and understandable doctrine on the part of the elite sector, and they do it in various ways.

Now how it works out is complex. For example, in the media, say, there is an internal contradiction, several internal contradictions, as in schools and universities which lead to some degree of complexity. So the contradiction is the clearest, you see it very clearly in the business press, directly. They must present a tolerably realistic picture of the world to their audience because those people have a big stake, they run the world and they make decisions and the decisions they make matter for their own interests, so they better have some understanding of what is going on. And the same is true in the media generally in different ways and to a different extent. And the same is true in the schools and universities. That is not consistent with manufacturing consent, so there is an internal contradiction. And aside from that there after all are people with just plain professional integrity and honesty who want to try and do with what they can. So there is plenty of internal contradictions. But if you try to look at the overall performance, the degree of subordination to power and authority I think is pretty remarkable. We see dramatic examples of that everywhere we look.

Take, say, the primaries. Maybe the most dramatic part of the primaries, apart from the fact that nobody showed up, was the change in the way the media were presenting the problems of the country in, say December 1995 and January 1996, right after the primaries started. So at the end of 1995, it’s even hard to remember, the top issue in the world was balancing the budget. The government was closing down every couple of days, both political parties had it as a priority, you read everywhere that Americans voted for a balance budget, you have to do it, so on and so forth. Well by January and February that was over. No more talk about balancing the budget. The candiates weren’t talking about it, the press wasn’t talking about it.

What happened? Well what happened is that they had to face the public. The public was, contrary to what was being said, the public was opposed, strongly opposed to budget balancing on any realistic assumption. When you looked at the cuts that would have to be made they were strongly opposed. Now the press sort of knew that but was all suppressed, up until the point when you suddenly had to face the public. When the politicians dropped it like a hot potato the first candidate to drop out was Phil Graham, the one representative of the Congressional Republicans who supposedly won by a great landslide. He disappeared instantly. And not just the deficit, the whole set of proposals disappeared. Well of course, the proposals were still being implemented in the background, but quietly. But that changed from the top priority in the country to something we dare not even talk about. It’s very illustrative of the way the information system works. When you have to face people you have problems. When you could just order them around you can put it a different way. And we could go on with case after case.

TM: In the last 10 years there have been some frenzied attempts to censor certain kinds of music and certain artists. Do you think that within the realm of entertainment that there are things which are threatening to the system of domination and the veil of disinformation?

NC: There is, well, I should say that I don’t know much about this part of the world. But there can be no question that part of the revival of independence and dissidence and breaking of constraints, much of which was extremely healthy, which took place in the 1960’s, was very closely tied to the developments in the music world, and that frightened people. Elites want to put things back in control and order.

TM: What sort of society do you envision as one that would not be based on exploitation or domination and how would we get there from here?

NC: I don’t really understand the question. It’s kind of interesting. I’m asked that question constantly in sort of privileged circles. I’m never asked it when I go to talk to poor people. Or say either here or abroad. They tell me what they’re doing. Maybe they ask for a comment, but they don’t ask how they do it. How you do it is very straightforward: you go out and do it. If you want a more free and democratic society, you go out and do it. Take just our own, or at least my own lifetime, maybe you’re too young. Say the last 30-40 years there have been big changes in the country. The civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the sharp critique and breakdown of illegitimate authority in all sorts of domains which took place since the 60’s, the environmental movements, the feminist movement, the solidarity movements in the 80’s — all of these things changed the society a lot. Well how did they do it? Well they just did it. People get together, they organize, they pressure, they try to learn, they try to help others to learn. That’s the way things change. That’s why we don’t live under feudalism and slavery. That’s why we have by comparative standards a very free society in the United States, with a lot of opportunities and options and very limited capacity on part of the state for force control. Well that’s been gained by struggle.

People are now fighting to preserve workers rights and Social Security and medical support and some sort of health program and so on. People are now fighting to preserve these things. Well they were not there not long ago. They were achieved by plenty of popular struggle and there are no limits to this. There’s no reason why corporate tyranny — which is a fairly recent development, its institutional form is from the early part of this century — there’s no reason why that form of tyranny should not be dismantled just as other kinds of totalitarianism were dismantled. Fascism and Stalinism for example. And there are no particular limits to this.

Any kind of illegitimate authority that exists, whatever it may be, from interpersonal relations up to huge states and transnational corporations, every such form of authority has to demonstrate legitimacy. They have the burden of proof, and we should understand that usually, very often, almost always that burden can’t be met. When it can’t be met, it should simply be dismantled. And that’s the way to move more towards a free and just democratic society. I don’t think there’s any sphere of life where these questions don’t arise. There’s different answers in different places and that depends on the circumstances, but the mechanisms are always the same. It’s engagement, education, organizing, pressure, building new institutions. Those are the ways. In a country like ours they’re much more available then in a place like Haiti or Columbia where you might get murdered for it. It won’t happen here. But it’s the same mechanism.

TM: I’ll ask you just a quick question, and I’ll let you get on to your summer vacation.

NC: [Laughs] Back to work I’m afraid.

TM: It seems in some of the things that I’ve read that the institutions of the IMF and the World Bank are kind of “the man behind the curtain.” What are they and should we be worried about them?

NC: Well, we should be worried about them, but they’re not so much “the man behind the curtain” as the agency that is carrying out certain actions. These international financial institutions which were set up after the end of the second World War have changed their functions over the years, but in effect they are essentially the agency of the major transnationals and the great powers. So what’s called the G7, the seven big states, and the big transnational corporations which are on the scale of states and the financial institutions and so on, they are trying to organize a certain kind of world. The agency for carrying out those plans to a significant extent, not totally, is the World Bank and the IMF.

Sure we should be worried of the kind of world that they are trying to create and hence about the institutions by which they are doing it. And also about something very crucial about the nature of all these institutions, they are basically unaccountable. In order to know about what the IMF is doing, even, you would have to dedicate an awful a lot of energy and effort to put into it. You have to be a specialist. For most people that’s hopeless — you can barely know about their existence, let alone what they are doing, even when it’s public, which it often isn’t. And they are making decisions which have an enormous impact on people. Well that itself is illegitimate. So any unaccountable exercise of power is in itself illegitimate. If you look further at what they are doing I think there is good reason to be concerned about it, but they are not acting on their own. They express what in fact is called in the literature the “Washington consensus” and it’s the “Washington consensus” because it’s forged in Washington, which is not only the home of the World Bank and the IMF for the most part, but also of the world’s most powerful state and the representatives of the major sectors of corporate power which either congregate there or send their representatives there. It’s not called the “Washington consensus” for no reason.

TM: Are you a fan of any particular kind of music, and can we play a request for you?

NC: If I told you what my tastes where, it would shock you.

TM: Oh no, you go right ahead. Shock me.

NC: Almost nothing. I am very much restricted to things in my childhood or before. Far before.

TM: Our CD catalog is pretty large, try me.

NC: I wouldn’t even know what to say. Beethovens Late Quartets.

TM: Anything in R&B or pop music. Anything that rings a bell?

NC: I am so ignorant, it isn’t even worth asking me. I sort of knew something when my kids were around, but that’s a lot of years ago.

TM: Well, Noam, thank you so much for being on the show and have a great summer.