“Black Faces in Limousines:” A Conversation with Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Joe Walker

Joe Walker Blog, November 14, 2008

WALKER: Last week, people around the world and around the country celebrated Obama’s victory. Did you celebrate that night?

CHOMSKY: I was glad that he won the election and I agree with the statement that it’s historic. It’s of historic importance that there will be a black family in the White House. I think its also of historic importance that the two candidates on the Democratic side were black and a woman, something which would have been inconceivable not long ago, say forty years ago, which means that the country’s just become more civilized in forty years. And that’s a tribute to the activism of the 1960s and the aftermath. Like the feminist movement was mostly the 70s and later. And that did civilize the country and that’s important.

On the other hand, I did not share the euphoria about what this is going to imply for the future as far as policies go. In fact, I suspect that when the euphoria lifts we will see pretty much a familiar Democratic-centrist, and so far his actions conform to that expectation.

WALKER: I wanted to ask you about the pick of Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s chief of staff.

CHOMSKY: That was the first action after Joe Biden, who is of course an old-time political insider and an Iraq hawk. The first post-election appointment was Rahm Emmanuel, who was probably the most pro-war member of the Democratic Party, or close to it — maybe not Joe Lieberman — but I think he was the only member of the Illinois congressional delegation to support Bush’s effective declaration of war. His other positions are consistent with that. He’s also an old political insider. His positions are basically centrist-Democrat.

He was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal. They asked him how the Obama administration is going to deal with what they call the “left-wing barons,” people like Barney Frank and John Dingell and others who have all kinds of crazy ideas like cutting down the military budget or higher taxes for alternative energy and so on. And Emmanuel said Obama will be able to stand up to them, so we’re not going to have any of that extremism.

Chief of staff is quite an important position.

So that was Obama’s first appointment. The second, I suppose, was John Podesta for the transition team. He was Clinton’s chief of staff, so another indication of what he has in mind.

Some of the most important [appointments] were the economic advisers. That is, of course, the major issue facing the country and that will be facing him. He picked almost consistently people who share a high level of responsibility for the crisis.

Robert Rubin, who was Treasury Secretary for President Clinton, one of the great proponents for eliminating the Glass-Steagall Act which protected commercial banks from the risky actions of investment banks and others. Rubin, right after that, left the government and went off and became the director of CitiGroup where he profited from the legislation — the Gramm legislation — that he had just lobbied for that allowed CitiGroup to maintain hold of some insurance group or whatever. One international economist, Tim Canova, pointed out that that’s a direct violation of the Ethics in Government Act.

Rubin was replaced as the Treasury Secretary by Lawrence Summers, who presided over the deregulation of derivatives. There were efforts to regulate derivatives and he blocked that along with similar actions. These are the immediate sources of the financial crisis — there are deeper sources.

Both Rubin and Summers ignored the housing boom — what is now the housing crisis — which was pretty hard to miss, though most economists succeeded in missing it. Housing prices, beginning in the Clinton years, were going way out of line with the standard measures of the economy, like GDP growth, way beyond trend lines, obviously that can’t persist. There are a few economists who discussed it, like Dean Baker, but not most. In fact, Dean Baker pointed out that picking Rubin and Summers to devise plans for dealing with the financial crisis is like appointing Osama bin Laden to run the war on terror.

Then come the rest of the appointments. There were 17 people on the economic transition team at a very well publicized meeting. There was a review of them in Bloomberg News, the main business press. The reviewer went through them one by one. He said half of them, at least, should not be on the transition team, they should be receiving subpoenas for financial fraud, for falsifying their books, things like that. He went through it case by case. And, of course, it’s totally from an old Washington insider.

The rhetoric is change and hope, these are the actions.

WALKER: I’m wondering what you made of Sarah Palin?

CHOMSKY: Well, one of the most interesting items I saw about the election was a little item in the British business press, The Financial Times, which said — I don’t know if it’s true — that Sarah Palin’s hairdresser got twice the salary of McCain’s foreign-policy adviser. Could be true — she was probably twice as important to the campaign as McCain’ foreign policy adviser. That tells you a lot about American elections. What it tells you is they don’t take place.

If you have an election where the candidate’s hairdresser is more important than the foreign policy adviser, you know that it’s a public relations joke.

I was wrong, I must say. I thought, when they picked Sarah Palin, that it would be a masterstroke. It would just sweep the country. In fact, I happened to be listening to Rush Limbaugh — I like to listen to him — he said something like this, he said, I don’t know: “Mom. Jesus. Drill. Kill. Just perfect. How can you miss?” Something like that. And he loved it, of course.

But my guess was that that’s what would happen. And to my surprise, it didn’t.

But it’s a sad commentary on the country. Very sad commentary. As is the election altogether.

You know, it’s a good thing that Obama was elected. As I say, it’s historic that you have a black family in the white house. It’s a really important tribute to the 1960s.

But does anyone know what the stances of the candidates are on issues? When you look at the coverage of the election, say, the day after the debates, take a look at the coverage. What was Obama’s body language like? Who made better jokes? Were they dressed properly? Things like that.

There’s just a tacit understanding on the part of the intellectual elite that democracy is just a bad thing. You’ve got to keep away from it.

In fact, the Boston Globe, a couple of days ago, the lead story on the front page was something like “Obama Has No Debts to Pay.” He had this wonderful grass-roots army, but he had no constituency, so he doesn’t have any debts to pay. They thought it was great. He’s free. He doesn’t have to worry about labor, workers, women or anybody else.

And the Wall Street Journal had an article about the same time in which they also — surprise — this wonderful grassroots army he mobilized and they said the army’s now waiting for instructions as to what to do next. Like, should they go around ringing doorbells for this piece of legislation or for that piece. And if it’s a democratic country, you’d laugh — what would happen is that the policies would come from the grass-roots organizations and they’d pick somebody who represents them. It’s not the hero comes along and we follow instructions. That’s a dictatorship.

And in fact it happens.

Here, Europe is as interesting as the United States, a lot of rhetoric about ‘only in America could a miracle like this happen,’ and so on. And it’s probably true it couldn’t happen in Europe, but that happens in the third world all the time.

Take Bolivia, the poorest country in the hemisphere. They not only elected somebody from the most repressed group in the country, namely the remnants of the indigenous population, but he [Morales] was a poor farmer. And the policies came from the mass popular organizations. They elected someone from their own ranks. They didn’t just show up on election day. And they’re not waiting for instructions. You know, it’s constant struggles that go on over major issues. And that’s democracy. But in the West it can’t be perceived. Partly, it’s just old-fashioned racism. You know, who cares? Whatever they do down there can’t be real.

Take India, not the most wonderful country in the world, but in one of the biggest, maybe the biggest provinces there, Uttar Pradesh — it’s about the size of Pakistan — the governor is a Dalit woman — what’s called an untouchable woman, you know, the absolute lowest of the low.

I mean, compared to that, the election of Obama — it’s nice that 150 years after the 14th amendment you can imagine that blacks have rights, but a miracle? in the world?

That’s a reflection of deep Western racism. You cannot comprehend that something that happens in the third world could be meaningful.

Take Brazil. Who’s Lula? He didn’t go to Harvard Law School. No, he’s a poor union leader, a steel worker, a poor peasant, no higher education. He’s running one of the biggest countries in the world, quite successfully incidentally. I mean, it’s just astonishing.

So, yes, for the United States it’s very important. For Europe it’s probably even more important because they are more racist than we are. But by world standards it’s nothing to be very excited about.

WALKER: I don’t know if you saw Thomas Friedman’s column in the Times the day after the election. He said — I think he was speaking literally, it was kind of unclear — but he said “This is the end of America’s Civil War.”

CHOMSKY: Take a look at the incarceration rate. You know, what it’s kind of like is — not really, but sort of like — is the end of apartheid. I mean, the end of apartheid was a big victory. But what it essentially means is that you have black faces in limousines. For the majority of the population things are as bad or maybe worse.

And that is a victory — I don’t want to downplay it — a great victory, but a narrow victory.

There are criteria that we’re not permitted to think about. Class criteria. That’s a bad word. Like the “S” word, or the “L” word. You can’t talk about class. In fact, I think the United States is one of the very few countries where if you look at the census bureau reports, which have data on everything, I don’t think they have class data, at least the last time I looked, although everybody does.

That’s why nobody ever talks about the working class. So, if Obama says he’s going to help poor people, he says he’s going to help the middle class. Everybody has to be middle-class, nobody can be working class. If you’re a janitor, you’re middle-class because you have a salary. But if you want to look at what it means for the country, OK, take a look at the way people live 150 years after the 14th amendment. Go to downtown Boston and see how people live. Take a look at the incarceration rate and see who’s in jail. It’s not that they have bad genes. These are just long-term reflections of deep racism. And I don’t think a black face in the white house is going to change that very much. I hope it does, but I don’t see any signs of it.

WALKER: What do you make of the bailout that the Democrats are proposing for the auto industry?

CHOMSKY: I agree with Barney Frank, letting the auto industry tank would be a tremendous blow to the economy. Millions of jobs depend on it, health benefits depend on it for a huge number of workers because of the way our health system works. A very bad system in many ways, and one of the bad things about it is health insurance is employer-tied. If they go under, there go the health plans, for I don’t know how many people, retirement plans and everything else. So it could have a devastating effect on the people.

Barney Frank also pointed out that if we do bail it out, we have to do it in ways which establish public involvement in management decisions. So we’re sure that we’re not just pouring money into the pockets of people to do the same thing.

WALKER: In a 2007 interview with David Barsamian, you wrote that the auto industry is “now going into decline, maybe terminal decline. They knew what was happening decades ago and didn’t prepare for it because they’re interested in short-term profit and market shareƉ They knew that huge, over-powered, heavy vehicles weren’t going to last because of the energy crisis, pollution, and congestion.”

Wouldn’t a bailout just promote auto manufacturers continuing to seek short-term profit?

CHOMSKY: It might. On the other hand, it doesn’t have to. Take 1979, they bailed out Chrysler and the bailout did include pretty strict requirements on management choices. One of them, they didn’t really live up to it, but part of it was to build more efficient vehicles. And they did. The mini-van for example, which was a big hit for them, is also by U.S. standards pretty fuel-efficient. On the other hand, S.U.V.’s aren’t. So, sure, you’re exactly right. If you hand the money over to management, which has short-term profit interests, they’re not going to do much.

As far as the auto industry is concerned, we don’t call it a bailout, but the biggest effective bailout for the auto industry was under Reagan. Reagan is anointed as the apostle, high priest of the free-market, but he was exactly the opposite. It’s a good indication of how propaganda and ideology work. He was the most protectionist president in post-war American history. He practically doubled protective barriers, they didn’t call them tariffs, they called them voluntary export restraints and so on.

But he doubled protective barriers, and a substantial part of it was to try and rescue the auto industry. The auto industry was being undermined by much more efficient Japanese producers and in order to sustain it he just barred their imports. That’s essentially the equivalent of a bailout, and a much bigger one than Chrysler.

WALKER: David Brooks wrote in his column today: “The biggest threat to a healthy economy is not the socialists of campaign lore. It’s C.E.O’s. It’s politically powerful crony capitalists who use their influence to create a stagnant corporate welfare state.”

What is corporate welfare and is it a new phenomenon?

CHOMSKY: Ever since the foundation of corporations themselves you’ve had corporate welfare. A corporation exists thanks to state intervention. How is a corporation different from a partnership? You and I could form a partnership or we could become incorporated and they’re different. We form a partnership, the government doesn’t have anything to do with it. We form a corporation, we get benefits from the government and there’s a cost, we have to pay corporate taxes. But the benefits go back to the beginning. A corporation is based on limited liability. That means that if you and I form a corporation, and some crime is committed, we have limited liability. That means that corporate manslaughter, which is a huge phenomenon, doesn’t get treated like manslaughter, in fact it rarely gets treated at all.

Beginning about a century ago, the courts started giving corporations much more benefits. The courts decided, not Congress, that corporations should have the rights of persons, like 1st amendment rights, 4th amendment rights, and so on. A fantastic gift to a collectivist legal entity. In fact, conservatives — who used to exist in those days but really don’t anymore — bitterly condemned it. They said it’s a return to feudalism or a form of Communism, which is sort of accurate.

Then, you go on, and there’s further benefits. Skip to the present, the recent trade agreements — they’re called trade agreements, they’re really only partially about trade — give corporations rights that go way beyond persons. Like General Motors can sue Mexico, you can’t. They can sue them for cutting into their profits. Let’s suppose — this actually happened — Mexico wants to set aside some area for a nature reserve, a U.S. corporation can — and in this case, did — sue them under the takings provision, or the World Trade Organization’s version of it, for cutting into their future profits. Could you do that? No. In many ways they get rights way beyond persons.

So, corporate welfare is redundant. Saying its corporations, of course it’s corporate welfare.

The comment that you quoted, “crony capitalism,” and so on — what’s capitalism supposed to be? Yeah, it’s crony capitalism. That’s capitalism, you do things for your friends, your associates, they do things for you, you try to influence the political system, obviously. You can read about this in Adam Smith. If people read Adam Smith instead of just worshipping him, they could learn a lot about how economies work. So, for example, he’s concerned mostly with England, and he pointed out that in England, and I’m virtually quoting, he said the merchants and manufacturers are the principal architects of government policy and they make sure their own interests are well cared for, however grievous the effects on others, including the people of England.

Yes, it’s their business. What else should they do? It’s like when people talk about greedy capitalists, that’s redundant. You have to be a greedy capitalist or you’re out of business. In fact, it’s a legal requirement that you be a greedy capitalist and that you don’t pay attention to what happens to anyone else. You know, it’s not just Ayn Rand, that’s the law. So, these complaints don’t make any sense.

Look, the biggest welfare that’s given to corporations is never even discussed. Like, take this place where we’re sitting, M.I.T., it’s a mostly government-funded institution, though technically it’s private.

Have you ever heard of the information revolution? Well, where’d that come from? Mostly here. You’re using a computer. Yeah, it was designed here — well not only here — but it was under Pentagon contract. Back in the 1950s, I.B.M. was learning how to shift from punch cards to computers at the M.I.T.-Pentagon laboratory and the Harvard equivalent, all at public expense. They finally got to the point where they could build their own computer, the I.B.M. stretch computer in the early 60s, but no business could buy it, it was way too expensive, so it was used by the National Security Agency. It really wasn’t until the 1980s that they could start making profit from this government, state-created technology. It’s the same with the internet, it was in the public sector for around 30 years before it was handed over for private profit.

The whole economy is geared toward corporate welfare, same is true with pharmaceuticals and bio-engineering and everything else.

Even what’s called trade. Oceanic trade is based on containers, OK, developed by the Navy, because it’s too expensive for private corporations.

Commercial air travel is practically an off-shoot of the Air Force. In fact, just about every place you look — there are some things that were developed within private industry, not a lot, but some, integrated circuits, Texas Instruments and so on, but they couldn’t sell ’em, so the government was the main procurer, that’s public funding.

Talking about corporate welfare is extremely misleading. The economy rests on the state sector to a substantial extent and a lot of it is designed to socialize cost and risk and privatize profit.

WALKER: I know you’ve been busy today and I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read the paper.

CHOMSKY: I haven’t, no.

WALKER: Maybe you heard that Spain may look to prosecute some of the former leaders of el Salvador —

CHOMSKY: That I did see. That was very interesting.

WALKER: The article in the Times was titled “Jesuit Killings in El Salvador Could Reach Trial in Spain.” The same article was also published in the Boston Globe.

CHOMSKY: I saw the Globe.

WALKER: I was hoping that you could provide some context to this article.

CHOMSKY: Hanging up there is a depiction of it.

It’s a depiction of the 1980s in el Salvador. It was given to me by a Jesuit priest. It’s the angel of death on the top, on the right is Archbishop Romero who was assassinated while delivering mass in 1980 and then the others are the Jesuit intellectuals and their housekeeper and their daughter who were murdered in 1989. They were murdered by the Atlacatl brigade, that’s an elite Salvadorian battalion, armed, trained and directed by the United States. It already killed thousands of people, they left a huge trail of blood, one of the most vicious battalions, all supported by Washington. el Salvador at the time was getting the most military aid in the world outside of Israel and Egypt, which are in a separate category. So, the priests were killed by the United States, by the Reagan administration. Actually, it was under Bush I, but it was the effect of the Reagan administration. At least what they published in the Globe didn’t mention any of this.

WALKER: There was one sentence, where they said that “International outrage over the murders proved to be pivotal in sapping American support for United States military assistance to the Salvadoran Army.”

CHOMSKY: Take a look at the funding for el Salvador, it continued. In fact, I think — I don’t have all the data in my hand — but the U.S. continued military funding of el Salvador until the late 90s. It got more funding than anyone in Central America. I mean, the funding did go down, but the reason it went down was because the war stopped, it had nothing to do with killing the Jesuits. Sure, once the war wound down, there was a peace agreement of some kind, sure, military funding slowed down. It had absolutely nothing to do with the killing of the Jesuits.

There was almost no public reaction. The U.S. ambassador, William Walker, tried, in fact did, deny that the army was involved, and tried to paper it over. A couple of weeks after the massacre, Vaclav Havel came to the United States and he addressed a joint session of Congress , which gave him a rousing applause when he praised the United States as “the defenders of freedom” just after a U.S.-run terrorist battalion had murdered six of his counterparts in el Salvador.

I mean, if Havel and half a dozen of his associates had been murdered by the Russian-run army unit in Czechoslovakia and a Salvadoran intellectual went to Russia and talked at the Duma and got a rousing applause for calling them the “defenders of freedom” you would’ve heard about it. Well, you heard about it here too, but what you heard was just absolute ecstasy on the part of leftist intellectuals. Anthony Lewis said “it’s a romantic age.” The Washington Post editorial page said ‘how come we don’t have fantastic intellectuals like Vaclav Havel who call us the defenders of freedom” when we murder 80,000 people in el Salvador and kill six Jesuit priests plus everything else — and so it went.

There was no public outcry. In fact, it’s practically unknown.

That picture up there is actually an example — I didn’t put it there for that reason — but it’s turned into a sort of Rorschach Test. A million people come in here, and sometimes I ask them if they know what it is. If they’re from South America they know what it is. If they’re from Europe, maybe 10% know what it is. If they’re from the United States, almost no one knows what it is.

Where was the reaction? I mean that’s a total fabrication. The reaction was great.

If I’m not mistaken, this article was taken from the International Herald Tribune.

WALKER: Yes. Which —

CHOMSKY: See, well that’s interesting, too, because it means that it’s a European piece. Somebody ought to look back at the original piece and see whether the original piece was as grotesque as the one that appeared here, excluding the United States from the story. Because the United States was the agent of that massacre. They didn’t pull the trigger but if an elite battalion in — say, Poland under the Russians — a Polish battalion had murdered six leading Jesuit priests, you’d blame the Kremlin, rightly.