Noam Chomsky on Institutional Stupidity

Noam Chomsky

Philosophy Now, January 2014

Noam Chomsky’s Response [To being named 2014 winner of Philosophy Now’s Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity] Naturally I am very pleased to be granted this honour, and to be able to accept this award also in the name of my colleague Edward Herman, the co-author of Manufacturing Consent, who himself has done a great deal of outstanding work on this crucial topic. Of course, we’re not the first people to have addressed it.

Predictably, one of the earlier ones was George Orwell. He’s written a not very well known essay that is the introduction of his famous book Animal Farm. It’s not known because it wasn’t published – it was found decades later in his unpublished papers, but it is now available. In this essay he points out that Animal Farmis obviously a satire on the totalitarian enemy; but he urges people in free England to not feel too self-righteous about that, because as he puts it, in England, unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. He goes on to give examples of what he means, and only a few sentences of explanation, but I think they’re to the point.

One reason, he says, is that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in not having certain ideas expressed. His second is a interesting point, that we didn’t go into but should have: a good education. If you go to the best schools you have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things it just wouldn’t do to say. That, Orwell claims, is a powerful hook that goes well beyond the influence of the media.

Stupidity comes in many forms. I’d like to say a few words on one particular form that I think may be the most troubling of all. We might call it ‘institutional stupidity’. It’s a kind of stupidity that’s entirely rational within the framework within which it operates: but the framework itself ranges from grotesque to virtual insanity.

Instead of trying to explain it, it may be more helpful to mention a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean. Thirty years ago, in the early eighties – the early Reagan years – I wrote an article called ‘The Rationality of Collective Suicide’. It was concerned with nuclear strategy, and was about how perfectly intelligent people were designing a course of collective suicide in ways that were reasonable within their framework of geostrategic analysis.

I did not know at the time quite how bad the situation was. We have learnt a lot since. For instance, a recent issue of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists presents a study of false alarms from the automatic detection systems the US and others use to detect incoming missile attacks and other threats that could be perceived as nuclear attack. The study ran from 1977 to 1983, and it estimates that during this period there were a minimum of about 50 such false alarms, and a maximum of about 255. These were alarms aborted by human intervention, preventing disaster by a matter of a few minutes.

It’s plausible to assume that nothing substantial has changed since then. But it actually gets much worse – which I also did not understand at the time of writing the book.

In 1983, at about the time I was writing it, there was a major war scare. This was in part due to what George Kennan, the eminent diplomat, at the time called “the unfailing characteristics of the march towards war – that, and nothing else.” It was initiated by programs the Reagan administration undertook as soon as Reagan came into office. They were interested in probing Russian defences, so they simulated air and naval attacks on Russia.

This was a time of great tension. US Pershing missiles had been installed in Western Europe, with a flight time of about five to ten minutes to Moscow. Reagan also announced his ‘Star Wars’ program, understood by strategists on both sides to be a first strike weapon. In 1983, Operation Able Archer included a practice that “took Nato forces through a full-scale simulated release of nuclear weapons.” The KGB, we have learnt from recent archival material, concluded that armed American forces had been placed on alert, and might even have begun the countdown to war.

The world has not quite reached the edge of the nuclear abyss; but during 1983, it had, without realizing it, come frighteningly close – certainly closer than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The Russian leadership believed that the US was preparing a first strike, and might well have launched a preemptive strike. I am actually quoting from a recent US high-level intelligence analysis, which concludes that the war scare was for real. The analysis points out that in the background was the Russians’ enduring memory of Operation Barbarossa, the German code-name for Hitler’s 1941 attack on the Soviet Union, which was the worst military disaster in Russian history, and came very close to destroying the country. The US analysis says that was exactly what the Russians were comparing the situation to.

That’s bad enough, but it gets still worse. About a year ago we learned that right in the midst of these world-threatening developments, Russia’s early-warning system – similar to the West’s, but much more inefficient – detected an incoming missile strike from the US and sent off the highest-level alert. The protocol for the Soviet military was to retaliate with a nuclear strike. But the order has to pass through a human being. The duty officer, a man named Stanislav Petrov, decided to disobey orders and not to report the warning to his superiors. He received an official reprimand. But thanks to his dereliction of duty, we’re now alive to talk about it.

We know of a huge number of false alarms on the US side. The Soviet systems were far worse. Now nuclear systems are being modernised.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have a famous Doomsday Clock, and they recently advanced it two minutes. They explain that the clock “ticks now at three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty, ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilisation.” Individually, these international leaders are certainly not stupid. However, in their institutional capacity their stupidity is lethal in its implications. Looking over the record since the first – and so far only – atomic attack, it’s a miracle that we’ve escaped.

Nuclear destruction is one of the two major threats to survival, and a very real one. The second, of course, is environmental catastrophe.

There’s a well-known professional services group at PricewaterhouseCoopers who have just released their annual study of the priorities of CEOs. At the top of the list is over-regulation. The report says that climate change did not make it into the top nineteen. Again, the CEOs are doubtless not stupid individuals. Presumably they run their businesses intelligently. But the institutional stupidity is colossal, literally life-threatening for the species.

Individual stupidity can be remedied, but institutional stupidity is much more resistant to change. At this stage of human society, it truly endangers our survival. That’s why I think institutional stupidity should be a prime concern. Thank you.

Questions From The Audience:

How could we overcome media propaganda and improve the media? Through education? This is an old debate. In the US it has been debated for over a century within the framework of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which bars government action from preventing publication. Notice that it doesn’t protect freedom of speech, nor block punishment for speech.

There weren’t really many cases dealing with the First Amendment up until the Twentieth Century. The American press were very free previously, and there were a wide variety of all kinds of media: journals, magazines, pamphlets. The Founding Fathers believed in the freedom of information, and there were many efforts to stimulate the widest possible range of independent media. Freedom of speech, however, was not strongly protected.

Decisions on free speech began to be made around the First World War, but not by the courts. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the US established a high level of protection of freedom of speech. Meanwhile in the interwar period there was extensive discussion within the framework of what has been called ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom, after Isaiah Berlin, of what the First Amendment implies about freedom of expression and of the press. There was a view sometimes called ‘corporate libertarianism’, which held that the First Amendment should concern negative freedom: that is the government can’t interfere with the right of media owners to do what they want. The other view was social democratic, and came out of the New Deal after the Depression and the early post-WWII period. That view held that there should also be positive freedom: in other words, that people should have the right to information as the basis for a democratic society. That battle was waged in the 1940s, and corporate libertarianism won. The US is unusual in this respect. There’s nothing like the BBC in the US. Most countries have some kind of national media which are as free as the society is. The US whacks that to the margins. The media were basically handed over to private power to exercise their capacities as they choose. That’s an interpretation of freedom of expression in terms of negative freedom: the state can’t intervene to affect what the private owners decide to do. There are a few restrictions, but not much. The consequences are pretty much a control of ideas as Orwell describes, and Edward Herman and I discuss this in great detail.

How do you overcome it? One way is education; but another way is by returning to the concept of positive freedom, which means recognising that in a democratic society we put a high value on the right of citizens to have access to a wide range of opinions and beliefs. That would, in the US, mean going back to what was in effect the earliest conception of the founders of the Republic, that there should be, not so much government regulation of what is said, but rather government support for a wide variety of opinions, news-gathering and interpretation – which can be stimulated in many ways.

Government means public: in a democratic society, government ought not to be some Leviathan making decisions. There are major grassroots projects that are trying to develop a more democratic media. This is a big battle because of the enormous power of the concentrated capital that of course tries to impede this in every possible way. But it’s a battle that has been going on for a long time, and there are fundamental issues at stake, including the issues of negative and positive freedoms.

Do you have any thoughts about the impact of search algorithms and search bubbles on the individual’s attempts to find information in their attempts to subvert Big Media?

Like all of you, I use search engines all the time. For people who are sufficiently privileged, the internet is very useful; but it’s usefulness is roughly to the extent that you do have privilege. ‘Privileged’ here means education, resources, a background ability to know what to look for.

It’s like a library. Suppose you decide ‘I want to be a biologist’, and so you join the Harvard Biology Library. Everything is in there, so in principle you can become a biologist; but of course it’s useless if you don’t know what to look for, and don’t know how to interpret what you see, and so on. It’s the same with the internet. There’s a huge amount of material out there – some valuable and some not – but it takes understanding, interpretation and background even to know what to look for. That’s quite apart from the fact that the Google system, for instance, is not a neutral system. It reflects advertiser interests in determining what’s prominent and what isn’t, and you have to know how to work your way through this maze. So it’s back to education and organisation enabling you to proceed.

I should stress that as an individual, you’re pretty limited in what you can come to understand, what ideas you can develop, how to think, even. So if you’re isolated, that highly restricts your ability to have and evaluate ideas, either in becoming a creative scientist or a functioning citizen. That’s one reason why the labor movement has always been at the forefront against information suppression, with workers education programs, for example, which were once extremely influential in both the UK and the US. The decline of what sociologists call ‘secondary associations’, where people come together to search and inquire, is one of the processes of atomisation which lead to people being isolated and facing this mass of information alone. So, the net’s a valuable tool, but as with all tools, you have to be in a position to be able to use it, and that’s not so simple. It requires significant social development.

How might it be possible to make institutions less stupid?

Well, it depends on what the institution is. I mentioned two: one is the government in control of a nuclear capacity; the other is the private sector, which is pretty much controlled through rather narrow concentrations of capital. They require different approaches. With regard to the government situation, this requires developing a functioning democratic society, in which an informed citizenry would play a central role in determining policy. The public is not in favour of facing death and destruction from nuclear weapons, and in this case we know in principle how to eliminate the threat. If the public were involved in developing security policy, I think this institutional stupidity could be overcome.

There’s a thesis in international relations theory that the prime concern of states is security. But that leaves open the question: Security for whom? If you look closely, it turns out it’s not security of the population, it’s security for privileged sectors within the society – the sectors who hold state power. There’s overwhelming evidence for this, which unfortunately I don’t have time to review. So one thing to do is to come to an understanding of whose security the state is in fact protecting: it’s not your security. It can be tackled by building a functioning democratic society.

On the issue of the concentration of private power, there’s also basically a problem of democratisation. A corporation is a tyranny. It’s the purest example of a tyranny you can imagine: power resides at the top, orders are sent down stage by stage, and at the very bottom, you have the option of purchasing what it produces. The population, the so-called stakeholders in the community, have almost no role in deciding what this entity does. And these entities have been granted extraordinary powers and rights, way beyond those of the individual. But none of it is graven in stone. None of it lies in economic theory. This situation is the result of, basically, class struggle, carried out by highly class-conscious business classes over a long period, which have now established their effective domination over society in various forms. But it doesn’t have to exist, it can change. Again, that’s a matter of democratising the institutions of social, political, and economic life. Easy to say, hard to do, but I think essential.