On Democracy in Italy

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Domenico Pacitti

May, 2002

Noam Chomsky is a linguist, philosopher, and political activist. He has long been an indefatigable human rights campaigner and has written more than 30 books and countless articles attacking and exposing United States foreign policy.

PACITTI: Billionaire media magnate Silvio Berlusconi was elected premier at Italian general elections last May, despite serious criminal accusations and conflicts of business and political interests. It would appear that Italian voters are less interested in moral issues and more interested in what they thought he could do for them.

CHOMSKY: Well, why do you think that’s different from Britain and the United States?

That’s what I was hoping you would explain.

Well, the answer is that it isn’t different.

Can you elaborate?

There is a project at Harvard called The Vanishing Voter Project. It does extensive polling analysis to try to determine why the voters have been losing interest in elections over the past 20 years. One of the things they measure is the sense of helplessness; that is, that you feel you cannot do anything that will affect the political process. It hit a new high last year, far beyond anything before. Right before the election about 75 percent of the population felt that there was no election at all, that it was just some kind of game being played by rich contributors, party bosses, and the media. The whole public relations, or advertising, industry was crafting candidates, training them to use certain gestures and produce certain words that the research industry showed might increase the number of votes. But they didn’t mean what they said and you weren’t supposed to be able to understand what they said and it was all meaningless, just some kind of public relations game.

Do you feel then that what is happening in Italy is similar?

As far as I can tell it is very similar, but I don’t know Italy as well. This is a tendency that was led by the United States and Britain and goes back to the early part of the century. The British Conservative Party (we have their internal records) realized by the First World War that there was no longer any way to keep the general population out of the electoral system. They realized they were part of a union that was going to be broadening the franchise and therefore they had to turn to what they call political warfare. It’s called public relations, meaning propaganda, to try to control people’s attitudes and thoughts and direct them to other concerns and keep them out of the political arena, since you could no longer control them by force. The same was done in the United States. There was a huge growth of the public relations industry right around that same time for the same reasons. In the most advanced, more democratic societies, there is good reason to believe that, as a society gains more freedom, propaganda takes the place of violence as a means to control people.

In 1990, Berlusconi was found guilty of perjury for denying his membership of the P2 Masonic lodge, an anti-Communist organization that used Italy’s security services for political ends. His conviction was one of many later annulled by a general amnesty. Alleged U.S. backing of P2 would appear to confirm what you’re saying.

Exactly. Italy, as far as we know, has been the main target of U.S. efforts to undermine democracy since the Second World War. In 1948 particularly, there was concern that the Left, which had a lot of prestige—it supported the resistance against fascism and it had backed labor unions—was going to win the elections, and the U.S. had plans. The National Security Council’s first planning body, NSC1 was concerned with how to undermine democracy in Italy. That was considered to be the problem at the time. They concluded that they could undermine democracy by withholding food, reinstating fascist police, which they did, undermining unions, and a whole variety of techniques of that sort were used. Then it was concluded that if this doesn’t work, if Italy nevertheless has a Left political victory, the U.S. will call a national mobilization and begin to support paramilitary activities in Italy against the government. The National Security Council won and that continued until the 1970s and maybe beyond. We only know until the 1970s because that’s where the documents stop. That includes supporting P2.

There’s more than a suspicion here in Italy that Berlusconi obtained heavy backing from the Sicilian Mafia at national elections.

Yes, but where did the Sicilian Mafia come from? The Mafia was, as you know, destroyed by Mussolini. The Mafia got reconstituted as the American and British armies moved first through Sicily, then southern Italy and southern France, and it was reconstituted as an agency to undermine the resistance and undermine the Left. Not just in Italy. It was a worldwide phenomenon. It affected Japan when the United States reinstated Emperor Hirohito after the Second World War as part of the effort to support fascism and undermine the Left.

So traditional Italian forms of corruption are far less serious than the U.S. variety?

In France, there was a powerful anti-fascist resistance and a strong labor movement. The south was immediately hit with one of the first activities, second only to Italy, to try to undermine the unions and undermine the Left. To do that they restored the Corsican Mafia, in southern France and that is the source of the heroin traffic in the world. In order to pay them off, they gave them the monopoly on heroin production. That’s the same thing as the French Connection, right? That’s where the post-war drug problem originated.

I know you’ve placed the problem within a wider, global context, but is there something else we could and should be doing over here that we’re not doing and that goes beyond an Italian context?

In the case of Italy, it’s certainly worthwhile bringing out the criminality, the Mafia connections, and so on—people should understand the facts. But the big problem in Italy, as far as I can see, is that people more or less know, but they don’t care about it. They don’t care because they are under tremendous pressure—this is not Italy but the world—to try to remove the population from the political arena. What happened in the 1960s was extremely frightening to international elites. You see this very strikingly, and perhaps most strikingly, in The Crisis of Democracy.

It was the first major study by the Trilateral Commission founded by David Rockefeller.

The Commission was a mostly liberal internationalist elite, from Europe, the United States, and Japan. It was mostly people like the Carter administration, liberal in the American sense of social democrats and internationalists. What they were deeply concerned about was an increase in democracy, that is, through the 1960s parts of the public that had usually been apathetic and passive began to get organized and to enter the political arena and press their demands and so on. That included women, working people, minorities, the elderly —in general the large part of the population that was usually passive. The way it’s supposed to work is that the political system is supposed to be in the hands of private tyrannies, private power, and that was beginning to erode. What they said is that there’s too much democracy and that’s no good, it’s a crisis, that we have to have more moderation in democracy, and we have to restore people to passive apathy.

They said that they had to prove that they were worried about what they called the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young—their words, not mine. That means the schools, the officials, media, the churches—they were not indoctrinating people, they were becoming too independent and thoughtful, too active, and something had to be done to reverse this. Since then there have been major efforts to restore people to their marginal existence and this takes many forms. One form is what’s called minimizing the state within the neoliberal framework. So remove decisions from the public arena and back into private hands, one or another form of privatization.

Another form is the centralization of financial authorities. So the European central bank has enormous authority and it’s not accountable to parliament. Still more important is the liberalization of finance since the 1970s, dismantling the Bretton Woods system. That creates what economists call a virtual parliament and you have to pay attention to what investors say or else they can destroy the economy, and that restricts enormously what governments can do. Right now there are extremely important meetings on the general agreement for trade in services. The idea is to privatize services, services meaning anything the government can do—education, health, etc.

This is exactly what Berlusconi has in mind.

Let’s remember that this is a small part of something going on internationally. It’s showing up all over the place in an effort to undermine the Left. You can’t just throw them into a torture chamber. You have to find other means. One means is propaganda. Another means is rabid consumerism, to drive people into massive consumption. In the United States the economy has suffered under the neoliberal policies, as has been the case worldwide, and is maintained to an extent by consumer spending. Household debt is now higher than disposable funds. That’s good because it traps people, and trapped into debt you can’t do much. You’ve got to just work harder and try not to think about it. So from infancy children are deluged by propaganda telling them, buy, buy, buy. The same is done with countries. The Third World is trapped by debt, which was imposed by immense propaganda from the IMF and the World Banking Organization. These are devices to try to control the populations and ensure that the private tyrannies endure.

Do you think the only thing we can do here in Italy is to try to make these things clear?

Try to help people see what’s going on. It’s not a matter of a little corruption here and there. I mean, that’s true. It’s a marginal part of it. People are correct not to be very upset about it. This guy’s corrupt, that guy’s corrupt. So what? What’s much more important are the deeper systematic properties, which are concerned as always to try to control the population.

Do you think we should do this by continuing to write books and articles?

We have to organize people. There’s no point in books if they are just read by some academics. It’s a different matter if they reach the general public and are part of organizing efforts, for example; the kinds that have led finally to international actions. That comes out of massive organization. That’s the way to stop it.