Radical Democracy

Noam Chomsky interviewed by John Nichols

Capital Times, March 3, 1997

QUESTION: You live in Lexington, Mass., which 220 years or so ago was the first battleground of the American Revolution.

CHOMSKY: You could put it that way. There was actually a massacre on the Lexington Green, in which four people were killed.

QUESTION: Do you see much evidence of a revolutionary spirit in the America of the 1990s?

CHOMSKY: You didn’t find evidence of it in the America of the 1790s. The Revolutionary War was an important event. But it was in the first place, to a significant extent, a civil war, as most revolutionary wars are. And it was a war of independence, as opposed to a revolution against the social structure. The social structure didn’t really change significantly. There were problems right after the war was done. For example, Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion and so on were challenging the social structure, and there were efforts on the part of radical farmers to take seriously the meaning of the words in the revolutionary pamphlets, but that was pretty well quieted down.

If you go back to the record of the Constitutional Convention, which took place in 1787, almost immediately after the end of the war, you see that they are already moving in another direction. James Madison — who was the main framer, and one of the founding fathers who was most libertarian — makes it very clear that the new constitutional system must be designed so as to insure that the government will, in his words “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” and bar the way to anything like agrarian reform. The determination was made that America could not allow functioning democracy, since people would use their political power to attack the wealth of the minority of the opulent. Therefore, Madison argues, the country should be placed in the hands of the wealthier set of men, as he put it.

QUESTION: Isn’t that erection of barriers to democracy woven through the entire history of the United States?

CHOMSKY: It goes back to the writing of the Constitution. They were pretty explicit. Madison saw a “danger” in democracy that was quite real and he responded to it. In fact, the “problem” was noticed a long time earlier. It’s clear in Aristotle’s Politics, the sort of founding book of political theory — which is a very careful and thoughtful analysis of the notion of democracy. Aristotle recognizes that, for him, that democracy had to be a welfare state; it had to use public revenues to insure lasting prosperity for all and to insure equality. That goes right through the Enlightenment. Madison recognized that, if the overwhelming majority is poor, and if the democracy is a functioning one, then they’ll use their electoral power to serve their own interest rather than the common good of all. Aristotle’s solution was, “OK, eliminate poverty.” Madison faced the same problem but his solution was the opposite: “Eliminate democracy.”

QUESTION: Madison actually expected more of the rich, didn’t he?

CHOMSKY: Madison was sort of pre-capitalist. He was a person of the Enlightenment, kind of like Adam Smith. And his picture of what the wealthy would do with their power was very different from what they did do. He thought they would be enlightened gentlemen, benevolent philosophers and so on. By the early 1790s, he was already very upset, and he was deploring the depravity of the times. He saw people becoming the tools and tyrants of government, as he put it. They were using state power for their own ends. That’s not the way it was supposed to work. But the opposition had already been pushed back by then. Although there were radical democratic elements, they were pretty much marginalized pretty fast.

QUESTION: We really see that happening across history, don’t we?

CHOMSKY: It’s a battle right through history. It’s not just the United States, of course. It was the same struggle in the English Revolution, which came before the revolution in the United States, and in every popular struggle since. And it’s going on right in front of our eyes today. It’s a never-ending struggle.

QUESTION: In that never-ending struggle, where do we stand today?

CHOMSKY: My feeling is that there’s a kind of a cyclic pattern and it generally spirals upward. So we happen to be in a time of attack on human rights, an attack on democracy, even an attack on markets in my opinion. A lot of basic, elementary rights are under attack — including the rights guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the other hand, if we compare this period to the 1920s or the 1950s even, it doesn’t look bad. For example, right now there’s a big problem about how to protect the limited kinds of public health care that are available. There was no problem 40 or 50 years ago because there was no health care. Now there are problems about getting OSHA safety and health regulations enforced, and about enforcing the laws that permit union organizers to operate. In the 1920s there were no such problems because there were no such regulations or laws. The same is true on any issue that you think of — women’s rights, rights of minorities, concern for children, pick it almost at random. Although there’s plenty to object to, and a lot of struggle that has to be conducted, you do start from a higher plain every time in the cycle.

QUESTION: So is there a place for optimism?

CHOMSKY: If you look over a long stretch, I think there is agonizingly slow progress, with plenty of suffering that doesn’t have to be going on. What is important to remember is that this kind of period — which they refer to as “the end of history” — we’ve been through that at least a half a dozen times since the early 19th century. Every time it was wrong. For example, there’s a very good book by one of the best labor historians, Yale’s David Montgomery, which is called “The Rise and Fall of the House of Labor.” But bear in mind that the fall of the House of Labor that he’s talking about was in the 1920s. That’s when the labor movement was completely crushed in what Montgomery calls a very undemocratic America. In the 1920s, there was a lot of euphoria about how the end of history had been achieved, about how everything was perfect — that labor had been smashed and that circumstance would not change. A couple years later everything was totally reversed.

QUESTION: At this point, what do you see as the greatest threat to democracy?

CHOMSKY: The greatest threat to democracy right now is the transfer of decision making into the hands of unaccountable private power. It’s done by a lot of ways, but one of them is what they call “minimizing the state.” This is kind of paradoxical for me. I’m an old-time anarchist from way back. I don’t think the federal government is a legitimate institution. I think it ought to be dismantled, in principle; just as I don’t think there ought to be cages — I don’t think people ought to live in cages. On the other hand, if I’m in a cage and there’s a saber tooth tiger outside, I’d be happy to keep the bars of the cage in place — even though I think the cage is illegitimate. I think that image is not inappropriate. There are plenty of good arguments, in my opinion, against centralized government authority. On the other hand, there’s a much worse danger right outside. The centralized government authority is at least to some extent under popular influence, and in principle at least under popular control. The unaccountable private power outside is under no public control. What they call minimizing the state — transferring the decision making to unaccountable private interests — is not helpful to human beings or to democracy or, for that matter, to the markets. In this time when we are told there is “a triumph of the market,” the markets are threatened themselves, aren’t they? What’s developing is a kind of corporate mercantilism with huge centralized, more or less command economies, integrated with one another, closely tied to state power — relying very heavily on state power, in fact — and enforcing social policies and a conception of social and political order that happen to be highly beneficial to the interests of the top sectors of the population, the richest sectors.

QUESTION: This is fundamentally changing not just developing nations but even the most powerful nations in the world, including the United States, isn’t it?

CHOMSKY: For some years now, about 20 years — this actually goes back before the Reagan period — there have been very detectable and I think increasingly obvious efforts to turn the United States into something that structurally more or less resembles a Third World society. It’s so rich that it won’t be like Egypt, but it has many of the structural similarities — an enormous gap between rich and poor, getting rid of “superfluous” people, a lot of what you find in a Third World structure.

QUESTION: How best do individuals respond?

CHOMSKY: The same as they have all through history: by educating themselves, by organizing, by developing constructive alternatives. We have many ways to do it. We don’t face a military coup, we don’t face brutal repression, it’s a very wealthy society, there’s a lot of privileged people, there are all sorts of options available — from political options to changing institutions.

QUESTION: On the political front, you’ve loaned your name to the New Party?

CHOMSKY: That’s one of the options.

QUESTION: Is that because they integrate both electoral and activist strategies?

CHOMSKY: Of course. As a general strategy I don’t even think that’s debatable. We don’t live in a military dictatorship. There are plainly political options. Therefore, any reasonable tactical proposal will integrate political options with the kinds of organizing and activism and institutional construction that enables it to succeed. So, yeah, the only question is what’s the mix? Where do you put your emphasis? Let me give you an example: Putting through a meaningful health care program involves a political strategy. Of course, that won’t happen without lots of organizing by public interest groups, protests, activism of various kinds. These things are all integrated, but at some point it could lead to popularly supported legislation that would improve people’s lives — that’s happened plenty of times in the past.

QUESTION: We began by talking about the revolutionary spirit in America’s distant past. How have you maintained a revolutionary spirit, a radical spirit, across the decades?

CHOMSKY: When you see suffering and oppression and terror, what’s the question? It has seemed to me kind of obvious, since early childhood, that if people are suffering and if there’s something you can do about it, well, you try.