Noam Chomsky

Excerpted from The Common Good, 1998


The big transnationals want to reduce freedom by undermining the democratic functioning of the states in which they’re based, while at the same time ensuring the government will be powerful enough to protect and support them.

… it’s ridiculous to talk about freedom in a society dominated by huge corporations. What kind of freedom is there inside a corporation? They’re totalitarian institutions – you take orders from above and maybe give them to people below you. There’s about as much freedom as under Stalinism.

The goal is a society in which the basic social unit is you and your television set. If the kid next door is hungry, it’s not your problem. If the retired couple next door invested their assets badly and are now starving, that’s not your problem either.

Boards of directors are allowed to work together, so are banks and investors and corporations in alliances with one another and with powerful states. That’s just fine. It’s just the poor who aren’t supposed to cooperate.

Business wants the popular aspects of government, the ones that actually serve the population, beaten down, but it also wants a very powerful state, one that works for it and is removed from public control.

There’s a very committed effort to convert the US into something resembling a Third World society, where a few people have enormous wealth and a lot of others have no security …

Now that … workers are superfluous, what do you do with them? First of all, you have to make sure they don’t notice that society is unfair and try to change that, and the best way to distract them is to get them to hate and fear one another.

Both prisons and inner-city schools target a kind of superfluous population that there’s no point educating because there’s nothing for them to do. Because we’re a civilized people, we put them in prison, rather than sending death squads out to murder them.

You need something to frighten people with, to prevent them from paying attention to what’s really happening to them.

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

Vietnam wasn’t a "disastrous mistake" – it was murderous aggression.

… the best defense against democracy is to distract people.

A corporate executive’s responsibility is to his stockholders – to maximize profit, market share and power. If he can do that by paying starvation wages to women who’ll die in a couple of years because their working conditions are so horrible, he’s just doing his job. It’s the job that should be questioned.

… corporations are fundamentally illegitimate, … they don’t have to exist at all in their modern form. Just as other oppressive institutions – slavery, say, or royalty – have been changed or eliminated, so corporate power can be changed of eliminated. What are the limits? There aren’t any. Everything is ultimately under public control.

Many countries are so weak that they can’t really solve their internal problems in the face of US power; they can’t even control their own wealthy. Their rich have virtually no social obligations-they don’t pay taxes and don’t keep their money in the country.

Unless these problems are dealt with, poor people will sometimes choose to vote for oppressors, rather than suffer the violence of the rich (which can take the form of terror and torture, or can simply be a matter of sending the country’s capital somewhere else).

As happened almost everywhere in the Third World, Brazil’s generals, their cronies and the super-rich borrowed huge amounts of money and sent much of it abroad. The need to pay off that debt is a stranglehold that prevents Brazil from doing anything to solve its problems; it’s what limits social spending and equitable, sustainable development.

But if I borrow money and send it to a Swiss bank, and then can’t pay my creditors, is that your problem or mine? The people in the slums didn’t borrow the money, nor did the landless workers. In my view, it’s no more the debt of 90% of the people of Brazil than it is the man in the moon’s.

Discussions about a debt moratorium are not really the main point. If the wealthy of Brazil hadn’t been out of control, Brazil wouldn’t have the debt in the first place. Let the people who borrowed the money pay it back. It’s nobody else’s problem.

When you have as much wealth and power as we do, you can be blind and self-righteous; you don’t have to think about anything.

Latin America has the worst income inequality in the world, and East Asia has perhaps the least. Latin America’s typical imports are luxury goods for the wealthy; East Asia’s have been mostly related to capital investment and technology transfer. Countries like Brazil and Argentina are potentially rich and powerful, but unless they can somehow gain control over their wealthy, they’re always going to be in trouble.


Of course, you can’t really talk about these countries as a whole. There are different groups within them, and for some of these groups, the current situation is great, just as there were people in India who thought the British Empire was fine. They were linked to it, enriched themselves through it, and loved it.

It’s possible to live in the poorest countries and be in very privileged surroundings all the time. Go to, say, Egypt, take a limousine from the fancy airport to your five-star hotel by the Nile, go to the right restaurants, and you’ll barely be awar that there are poor people in Cairo.

You might see some out the car windows when you’re driving along, but you don’t notice them particularly. It’s the same in New York-you can somehow ignore the fact that there are homeless people sleeping in the streets and hungry children a couple of blocks away.

… Throughout the 1980s, wages fell (it depends on how you measure them, but they were roughly cut in half, and they weren’t high before that). Starvation increased, but so did the number of billionaires (mostly friends of the political leaders who picked up public assets for a few pennies on the dollar). Things finally collapsed in December 1994, and Mexico went into the worst recession of its history. Wages, already poor, declined radically.

Mexico was the star pupil. It did everything right, and religiously followed the World Bank and IMF’s prescriptions. It was called another great economic miracle, and it probably was … for the rich. But for most of the Mexican people, it’s been a complete disaster.

… the power of business propaganda in the U.S. … has succeeded, to an unusual extent, in breaking down the relations among people and their sense of support for one another.

… advertising … is tax deductible, so we all pay for the privilege of being manipulated and controlled.

The West doesn’t have to pretend anymore that it’s interested in helping anybody.

… rights are the result of popular engagement and struggle.

You liberate yourself through participation with others … Popular organizations and umbrella groups help create a basis for this.

… when you come back from the Third World to the West – the U.S. in particular – you are struck by the narrowing of thought and understanding, the limited nature of legitimate discussion, the separation of people from each other. It’s startling how stultifying it feels, since our opportunities are so vastly greater here.