An interview with Noam Chomsky
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
exactly what Berlusconi has in mind.
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. Z
Pacitti is an international journalist and academic. He currently teaches
English language and American literature at the University of Pisa.