Expanding the Floor of the Cage

Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Barsamian

Z Magazine, April, 1997

I know you’ve just been on a month-long trip to Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. I want to tell you about a little trip that I took with Howard Zinn to Florence.

Florence, Italy?

I wish. Florence, Colorado, the home of a new maximum security prison. It was about the same time that I read that classrooms in New York City schools are so overcrowded that students are meeting in cafeterias and gyms and locker rooms. I found that quite a juxtaposition, this building in Colorado, brand-new, high ceilings, glass everywhere, tile floors, and then what’s going on in the nation’s largest public school system.

There are several reasons for it. They’re certainly related. Both of those activities target the same population, a kind of superfluous population there’s no point in educating because there’s nothing to do with them. You put them in prison because we’re a civilized people and you don’t send death squads out to murder them. But it’s not in the rich, professional suburbs that kids are sitting on the streets. They have classrooms. They’re not going to prison, either, even if they commit plenty of crimes. For example, the prisons are being filled by mostly drug-related crimes, usually pretty trivial ones. But I haven’t seen any bankers in there, although probably more than half the narco-money passes through U.S. banks. I think they’re not only related, they’re the same phenomenon. They’re targeting the same population, which is useless from the point of view of short-term profit making. They’re treated differently in different societies.

There’s another factor, too. Prison construction is a state industry, and by now it’s a fairly substantial stimulus to the economy. It’s not on the scale of the Pentagon, but it’s growing. For some years now it’s been growing enough that the big financial institutions like Merrill Lynch are interested in floating bonds for prison construction, and even high-tech industries are interested. High-tech industry has for some years been turning to the idea of administering prisons with high-tech equipment, meaning supercomputers and (maybe some day) implanted electrodes and so on. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if we find that prison incarceration levels off and that more people are imprisoned in their homes. Because if you think about the capacity of the new technology, it’s probably within reach to have surveillance devices which will control people wherever they are.

There’s a lot of attention to crime in the streets. The FBI estimates that it’s about $4 billion a year, a figure that’s been fairly stable in the last few years. Ralph Nader talks about “crime in the suites,” white-collar crime. Multinational Monitor estimates that it’s somewhere around $200 billion a year.

First of all, crime in the streets, you say there’s a lot of attention to it. That’s correct, but the question is whether crime in the streets is high. Fact is, it hasn’t changed much for a long time. Although it’s high by the standards of comparable societies, it’s not out of sight. There’s only one major domain in which the U.S. is off the map. That’s murders with guns. But that’s because of the gun culture. If you look at other crimes, the U.S. is sort of toward the high end of the industrial societies. That hasn’t changed much. So why the attention?

I think it’s not because of the problem of crime. It’s because of the problem of social control. There is a very committed effort to convert the U.S. into something which has the basic structure of a Third World society, meaning sectors of enormous wealth and a lot of people without security or benefits or jobs and a lot of superfluous people. And you have to do something with them. First of all, you have to make sure that they don’t notice that something is wrong and do something about it. The best way to do that, traditionally, is to get them to hate and fear one another. Every coercive society immediately hits on that idea. Crime is perfect for that. So, you get people to worry about crime, not the fact that their salaries are going down and that somebody else has got money coming out of their ears. You get them to focus on the fact that they don’t want to get robbed by the kid from the ghetto, or the welfare mother who is having too many children. That’s a technique of social control.

Another technique is needed for those that you don’t have any use for, whose jobs you can more easily send out to Mexico. That gives you a superfluous class, and they have to be controlled in another way, sometimes by social cleansing, sometimes by incarceration. So the attention on crime certainly serves a purpose. It’s striking that the U.S. is perhaps the only society in which crime is considered a political issue. Politicians have to take a stand on who’s tougher on crime. In most parts of the world it’s a social problem. It’s not something you fight about at elections.

Most of the incarceration by now is drug-related, certainly a very high percentage of it, targeting mostly small-timers. On the other hand, if you can believe the international estimates, like the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development), more than half of the dirty money, the narco-money, goes through U.S. banks. The last estimate I saw was over a quarter of a trillion dollars a year. There’s something rather suggestive, at least, about the figures on foreign investment. The latest figures that I’ve seen from the Commerce Department for foreign direct investment in the Western Hemisphere, excluding Canada, which is part of Europe, but the rest of the Western Hemisphere, are for 1994—that was when there was all the excitement about emerging markets. It turns out that in 1994 about a quarter of the foreign direct investment went to Bermuda and another 15 percent or so went to the Cayman Islands and other tax havens, some more to Panama and the rest mostly short-term speculative money picking up assets in Brazil and so on. That means something close to half of what they call foreign direct investment is some sort of dirty money. They’re not building manufacturing plants in Bermuda. The most benign interpretation is it’s some form of tax evasion. A less benign interpretation is it has to do with handling the flow of narco-capital, which is conceivable.

Corporate crime, however, is not really considered crime. If you take, say, the S&Ls, is that crime? Only a very narrow part of it is considered crime. Most of it is just picked up by the taxpayer with bailouts. If we look at things that actually fall under the category of crime, they are mostly not investigated and not prosecuted. Is that surprising? Why should rich and powerful people allow themselves to be prosecuted?

You mentioned that the U.S. ranks very high in gun deaths, 24,000 a year. Russell Mokhiber of the Corporate Crime Reporter has written about this, contrasting these two statistics, 24,000 gun deaths a year, 56,000 Americans die from job-related accidents and induced diseases.

In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration essentially informed the business world that they were not going to prosecute them for violating the law. One of the things that happened is that OSHA, the Office of Safety and Health Administration, regulations were either not investigated or prosecuted. The number of industrial deaths and accidents went up rather high. That’s the state telling you, Look, commit any workplace crimes you like. We’re not going to bother with it. If it kills lots of people, fine.

The same is true of environmental issues. If you weaken the regulatory apparatus on, say, toxic waste disposal, sure, you’re killing people. On what scale? The effort to deregulate, decrease infrastructure spending harms people, a lot of them, to the point of killing them. It harms a lot of them in other ways. Is it criminal? Well, that’s a doctrinal judgment, not a legal judgment.

In the last few years you have taken some major international trips to Australia, India, and, recently, South America. How have these trips informed your understanding of what’s happening to the global economy?

It’s actually possible to sit in Boston and find out pretty much what’s going on.

But that’s statistics, right? You’re dealing with books and papers.

It’s one thing to read the figures about poverty in India and another thing to walk through the slums in Bombay and see people living in hideous, indescribable poverty.

If you walk through downtown Boston you also see appalling poverty. I’ve seen things in New York which are as horrifying as anything I’ve seen in the Third World.

Comparable to the favelas in Brazil?

It’s hard to say “comparable.” But conditions which are about as horrifying. Remember, how bad conditions are depends on what else is around. You could be a very happy Stone Age person and not have a computer or a television set. No doubt the people in the favelas live better than in the Stone Age, although probably not by nutritional or health measures. Even if you look at things like effects on health or life expectancy, the relative position that people have in a society plays a big role. So if you’re much poorer than other people, that harms your health. But I’d say that there are parts of New York or Boston which are not unlike what you find in the Third World. Black males in Harlem, it was discovered a couple of years ago, have roughly the mortality rate of Bangladesh. On the other hand, going back to your question, seeing things first hand you discover a lot of things that are never written about.

For example, there’s very little written about the way in which popular struggles are dealing with problems. You can only discover that by being there. And there’s plenty of it. I’ve seen things in India and South America that I wouldn’t have known about if I hadn’t been there.

In Brazil you met with the Workers Party.

I met with the Workers Party, but I also spent time in slums and meeting with people who are doing things directly. Meeting with the Workers Party was extremely interesting. Lula in particular is a very impressive person.

There are now formations in Brazil of landless peasants.

There’s a very big landless workers movement which probably has settled about 150,000 people or so on land takeovers. They happened to be having a conference, some of the activists in the landless workers movement near Sao Paulo when I was there. They’re a very important and substantial popular movement. They have close links to the favelas, because the people in the favelas are mostly driven off the land. Brazil has an enormous agrarian problem. It’s got a very high land concentration, an enormous amount of unused land, basically being held as a hedge against inflation or for investment purposes, but not really used. It’s got a very brutal army and military history, especially since the coup of 1964. There was a lot of violence against peasants. When I was there there were informal judicial proceedings taking place—because the judicial system didn’t work—involving the murder of a couple of dozen peasants in a land takeover operation this past April in one of the northern regions. There’s plenty of killing and violence. But there has also been very substantial organization. And there’s integration of some kind, I can’t say how much, between the landless workers and the groups working in the slums, the favelas, the shantytowns that are scattered all over the place. It’s linked in some fashion to the Workers Party, but I don’t think anybody can say exactly how. One thing that is agreed on is that most of the landless workers do vote for the Workers Party and support it, but organizationally they’re separate.

I should say that I was asked on a national television press conference why I thought that people voted against their class interests by not voting for the Workers Party. My feeling is that that’s not necessarily against their class interests. A vote for the Workers Party, given the social structure of Brazil, is a dangerous vote because one possible consequence is a huge capital flight from Brazil, which is devastating for the economy. Remember that these societies have a very serious problem: They don’t control their wealthy, and the wealthy have virtually no social obligations, from paying taxes to keeping their money in the country. That’s their core problem, the state is subordinated to the wealthy. If you look at the major problems they face, from what’s called debt to the agrarian problem to violence, it essentially goes back to that. Unless that problem is dealt with, you can understand why a poor person would vote for an oppressor. Because voting for someone who has your interests at heart may harm you, since that will bring on violence by the rich.

It’s exactly the same if you’re a poor person in Central America. If voting for your own interests will bring on you the terror organized and directed by the superpower of the hemisphere, that’s a good reason not to do it, in fact, a rational reason not to do it. There are Central America societies which are so weak that they can’t really solve their internal problems in the face of U.S. power. But in South America that’s not quite true. They have resources, potential, and probably could deal internally with some of their major problems. But they haven’t done it, for all kinds of reasons, historical, and so on.

Should one be careful to extend this analogy to U.S. workers, why they are voting against what seems to be class interest? If they’re voting at all.

I’m not sure that’s true. The vote is only between two class enemies. There’s no one who’s presenting themselves as representing their class interests. But if there were, you can imagine reasons for not doing it. Suppose there’s a candidate who represents my interests. I trust the person and think they would try to do exactly what I want. There would still be good reason not to vote for them if the consequences would be that people with real power would make my life much worse, for example, by disinvestment or by capital flight. Capital flight isn’t so much of a problem here. It’s a different sort of situation, but take, say, Brazil or Argentina or Mexico, anything south of the Rio Grande. All of these countries are supposed to have a debt problem. That’s what’s limiting social spending and equitable, sustainable development. Any decent project that might be carried out is instantly constrained by the need to pay off the debt. The argument is that’s why they have to obey the orders of the international financial institutions and impose neoliberal, free-market solutions of the kind that the rich never allow for themselves but are happy to impose on other people. That’s the argument. But why is there a debt problem?

First of all, is there a debt problem, say, in Brazil? Brazil is maybe the biggest debtor in the world, by official figures. Is that true? If I borrow money and I send it to a Swiss bank and then I can’t pay my creditors, is it your problem? Or is it my problem? Economists have no answer to that question. That’s a question of moral values and doctrinal judgment. The people in favelas didn’t borrow the money. The landless workers didn’t borrow the money. The money was borrowed by the generals and their friends and the super-rich, who sent most of it abroad as soon as interest rates went up, leaving a crushing debt that is being paid by the poor people.

It’s interesting that this issue isn’t raised much. But when the point is raised, they very quickly understand it. I don’t think that would be true here. I don’t think that in educated circles here you could even get the point across. That’s one of the striking differences you notice as soon as you get out of the First World into the Third World. Minds are much more open. We live in a highly indoctrinated society. That’s part of the prerogative of wealth and power. You really don’t have to think. You can be self-righteous. Even wealthy and powerful people in the Third World tend to have much more open minds.

Here’s a matter of breaking out of doctrinal shackles, which is not easy. As long as they accept the principle that Brazil has a debt and that the poor people who didn’t borrow the money have to pay it, it’s perfectly true that they can’t do anything to solve their own problems. If you look at the figures, capital flight from Latin America was not much below the debt. This is one of the interesting comparisons between Latin America and the Asian growth areas. They’re constantly comparing themselves to the Asian growth areas, and rightly so. But the two are very different in many respects. One is that whatever you think about Japan and South Korea and Taiwan, they not only control labor and the poor, but they also control capital and the rich. In Japan they didn’t allow export of capital until 1972, when its economy had already reconstructed. I think South Korea probably still doesn’t. They have debt, but not the kind that Latin America has, because they control their wealthy. They have internal investment rather than export of capital. That shows up in other respects, too. So in Latin America, which has the worst inequality in the world—East Asia has maybe the least—you not only have the capital exported, but you have luxury goods imported, whereas in East Asia typically the imports are for capital investment and are controlled. These are differences between societies that have, for one reason or another, handled their internal problems differently. Unless the potentially rich, powerful Latin American countries like Brazil and Argentina, can handle problems internally they’re always going to be in trouble.

When I say, “they’re” going to be in trouble, that’s a little misleading. There are people there who are very happy with all of this. There’s a sector of extreme wealth. But that’s true even if you go to central Africa. You can see it anywhere in the world. It’s possible to live in the poorest countries and be in very wealthy and privileged circumstances all the time, just as you can live in New York and somehow not pay attention to the fact that there are homeless people sleeping in the streets and that a couple of blocks away there are children hungry. You can do it. We all do. In the Third World, you can also do it. They are more grotesque because the dimensions of the problem are larger, but qualitatively not different.

What kind of contact did you have with the media in Brazil and Argentina and Chile? Did you see any new developments that might interest people?

First of all, as anywhere outside of the U.S., I had a lot of contact with the elite media.

State television and radio?

And commercial, too. They’re just a lot more open. On the other hand, I also did see some interesting things which I knew nothing about. For example, the structure of a Latin American city is that the suburbs are mostly where the poor people live. It’s not that you don’t find shantytowns and slums in the city. You do. But that’s the basic structure. Outside of Rio, there are huge suburbs, basically cities with a mixture of millions of poor, working-class, unemployed, and landless peasants. I went out to the biggest one, called Nova Iguacú, a couple of miles from Rio. I went with some friends, but also with an NGO, which originally consisted of some professionals, artists, people in television, and so on, who wanted to try to find a way to bring popular media to the communities for their own benefit.

These are artists, professionals, intellectuals who wanted to have something besides commercial television destroying people’s minds. They got some equipment. They spent a couple of years designing television programs that would be shown on a big screen in a public place in the poor community. The idea is, a truck will drive in with a huge screen on it. They will find a public area and they will show these skits or documentaries dealing with real problems and try to get people to watch and participate. They planned very well, with church people and community leaders and others. There’s a lot of popular organization going on. They went to the leaders of the popular organizations in the community to which they were going, and spent a fair amount of time working on texts and figuring out how to make it accessible to people and how to put some humor in. I hadn’t seen them, but apparently they were very well done. Then they went out to try it.

It completely bombed. People came around because there was something going on, watched, looked for a while, and then walked away. They then did some wrap-up sessions to try to figure out what had happened. They discovered that although the leadership groups were coming from the community, they did not represent the views of the community, even though they lived there. The way they put it was, they spoke a different dialect than the people in their own community, with intellectual words and Marxist ideas and whatever goes along with the people who are considered intellectuals, even though they were coming from the community.

So they went back, and this time they avoided the community leaders and went to the groups themselves. They tried to get people right there, 16-year-old kids, to get interested in filming, script writing. That worked. It wasn’t easy. A couple of years later we went out to Nova Iguacú. The NGO at this point is doing nothing but bringing in the equipment. So they moved in the truck and the big screen. These are supposedly very high-crime areas, and everybody warned us you can’t go there. You’ll get murdered. It’s totally untrue. They were perfectly friendly. So we went out there. Big screen in the middle of the public area. Little bars around. The actors in the film were people in the community, mostly young. They had written the scripts. They had done the filming. They got a little technical assistance, but essentially nothing else from the urban professionals. There were a lot of people around. It was prime television time, nine o’clock in the evening. Lots and lots of people from the community, very racially mixed—children, old people. Obviously they were very much engaged in what was happening. I couldn’t understand a lot of the dialogue—it was in Portuguese—but you could understand enough to see that they were really involved. There was a skit on racism. There isn’t supposed to be any racism in Brazil. In theory it’s all been overcome. They’d have some black person in the community going to some office and asking for a job and show what happens, and then some white person redoing it and of course being treated totally differently. Everybody recognized what was happening. They were laughing and making comments. There was a segment on AIDS. There was something about the debt. That was mixed in with humor and clowns and other things. One of the actors, a kid who looked about 17, maybe, who was quite good, she had a microphone and she was walking around where the people were and talking to them. After the skits ended she interviewed people who were sitting around, asking them what they thought about it, did they have some comments and criticisms. That was all being filmed. So they were watching themselves being filmed discussing the content of what they had just seen.

This is very impressive community-based media of a sort that I’ve never seen before in an extremely poor area, done with an initial failure of the kind I described, and finally success when it did actually have roots in the community.

What about the independent press and radio?

There is a sort of independent left journal published in Sao Paulo. It’s in Portuguese, so I have only a superficial sense of what’s in it. But the material is extremely interesting, very well published. It looked  a lot better than Harper’s or the Atlantic, physically. Complicated, interesting articles. Quite left wing. I don’t know who reads it. I couldn’t find out.

We spent some time in a shantytown in Buenos Aires. It’s kind of like the favelas. We went in with some friends who were from the university, but who are also activists who work there. These are places that are really in trouble, very poor communities in a very rich city. It’s being organized by women. That’s very typical in such communities. There are some mothers who are trying to start an organization. They have what they call a cultural center. Somehow they managed to find an abandoned concrete building and somebody built a roof. One of the main things they try to do is bring in children. Children are thrown out of schools very quickly. Technically there are schools, but the facilities are so awful that any kid who’s slightly problematic is kicked out. An enormous number of the kids never make it through school. They try to bring them in and teach them literacy and numeracy, then skills, a little artwork. Other people come in and help. Even a pencil is a gift, the provisions are so awful. They’re also trying to fight off the drug gangs who are coming in. They’re trying to protect children and the community. In this case, they get help from the church. That varies, depending on who the local priests are. These are mostly people who are Guarani, indigenous people, originally. They came from Paraguay to the slums of Buenos Aires. They have their own journal. It’s for the community, so it’s written by people there.

You wouldn’t sell it on a newsstand, but it has information which is relevant to the people in the community about what’s going on there, what the problems are. Some of them write themselves. They try to get high-school-age kids to do some of the writing. The women, several of them, are becoming educated. There are a few who are close to college degrees in things like nursing and professions. On the other hand, they all say they won’t ever get out of the shantytowns because of the way they’re dressed and the way they look when they try to get a job somewhere. But they’re dedicated and they work hard, and they’re trying to save the children. And they get some support from outside, like these friends of ours.

Here’s another difference that struck me. There happens to be a very lively anarchist movement in Buenos Aires. I met with other anarchist groups as far as northeast Brazil, where nobody even knew they existed. They showed up and we had discussions. They were sort of libertarian people, outside the Bolshevik left, whatever you call that, kind of anarchist to libertarian socialist. There was a lot of discussion about the question of minimizing the state. That’s the big neoliberal line. People there understand that they have to protect the state. Even if they’re anarchists who regard the state as totally illegitimate, as I do, they realize that it is necessary to protect the public arena, which means state power. The reason is, when you eliminate the public arena and the one institutional structure in which people can, to some extent, participate, namely the state, you’re just handing over power to unaccountable private tyrannies that are much worse. So you protect the public arena, recognizing that it’s illegitimate in its current form, and that you ultimately want to eliminate it. That’s an idea that’s very hard for people up here to understand.

I don’t know if you recall that in a previous interview with you I made some comment about how, in the current circumstances, devolution from the federal government to the state level is disastrous. The federal government has all sorts of rotten things about it and is fundamentally illegitimate, but weakening federal power and moving things to the state level is just a disaster. At the state level even middle-sized businesses can control what happens. At the federal level only the big guys can push it around. That means, that if you take, say, aid for hungry children, to the extent that it exists, if it’s distributed through the federal system, you can resist business pressure to some extent. It can actually get to poor children. If you move it to the state level in block grants, it will end up in the hands of Raytheon and Fidelity—exactly what’s happening here in Massachusetts. They have enough coercive power to force the fiscal structure of the state to accommodate to their needs, with things as simple as the threat of moving across the border. These are realities. But people here tend to be so doctrinaire. Obviously there are exceptions, but the tendencies here, both in elite circles and on the left, are such rigidity and doctrinaire inability to focus on complex issues that the left ends up removing itself from authentic social struggle and is caught up in its doctrinaire sectarianism. That’s very much less true there. I think that’s parallel to the fact that it’s less true among elite circles. So just as you can talk openly there about the fact that Brazil and Argentina don’t really have a debt, that it’s a social construct, not an economic fact—they may not agree, but at least they understand what you’re talking about—whereas here I think it would be extremely hard to get the point across. Again, I don’t want to overdraw the lines. There are plenty of exceptions. But the differences are noticeable, and I think the differences have to do with power. The more power and privilege you have, the less it’s necessary to think, because you can do what you want anyway. When power and privilege decline, willingness to think becomes part of survival.

I know when excerpts from that interview we did were published in The Progressive, you got raked over the coals for this position.

Exactly. When I talked to the anarchist group in Buenos Aires, we discussed this. Everybody basically had the same recognition. There’s an interesting slogan that’s used. We didn’t mention this, but quite apart from the Workers Party and the urban unions, there’s also a very lively rural workers organization. Millions of workers have become organized into rural unions which are very rarely discussed. One of the slogans that they use which is relevant here, is that we should “expand the floor of the cage.” We know we’re in a cage. We know we’re trapped. We’re going to expand the floor, meaning we will extend to the limits what the cage will allow. And we intend to destroy the cage. But not by attacking the cage when we’re vulnerable, so they’ll murder us. That’s completely correct. You have to protect the cage when it’s under attack from even worse predators from outside, like private power. And you have to expand the floor of the cage, recognizing that it’s a cage. These are all preliminaries to dismantling it. Unless people are willing to tolerate that level of complexity, they’re going to be of no use to people who are suffering and who need help, or, for that matter, to themselves.