• From the pages of Z Magazine


    Expanding the Floor of the Cage, Part II

    An interview with Noam Chomsky

    By David Barsamian


    The American people have spoken once again in the 1996 elections. Clinton says it’s a vindication of "the vital center," which he locates somewhere between "overheated liberalism and chilly conservatism." What was your reading of the elections?

    Was there any choice other than the vital center? As far as I know Clinton and Dole are moderate Republicans, more or less interchangeable representatives of the business community, old-time government insiders. Maybe there were personality differences. They have somewhat different constituencies. They behave slightly differently. I think the election was not a vote for the vital center, it was just a vote against. Both candidates were unpopular. Very few people expected anything from either of them. Voting was at a historic low. I think it reflected the general sense that the political system isn’t functioning.

    In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass there are a couple of characters called Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They seemed on the surface to be quite different but there was no difference between them. Ralph Nader has been talking about the Republicans and the Democrats as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

    There’s never much of a difference between the parties. After all, they are two business parties. But over the years it’s probably been narrowing. In my view the last liberal president was Richard Nixon. After that it’s been straight, what they call here, conservatives, starting with Carter, running through to the present. I think it’s a reflection of things happening in the economy, in social life, it’s a reflection of more general things. The kind of gesture to liberalism that was required from the New Deal through, say, Nixon, became less necessary with new weapons of class war developing in the early 1970s and proceeding on to what the business press, in one of my favorite phrases, calls "capital’s subjugation of labor" for 15 years. Actually, I’d say 20 years. Under those circumstances you can drop the window dressing. That’s the standard story about welfare capitalism. Welfare capitalism is introduced in order to undercut democracy. One standard historical pattern is when the society begins to get a bit democratized, when people try to take over some aspect of their affairs and run it, if it can’t be stopped, the next normal reaction is to say, Okay, don’t worry about it, I’ll do it for you. Us rich guys. A classic example was in Flint, Michigan, early in this century. Flint was the center of General Motors, at the heart of the automobile revolution. Around 1910 there was a good deal of popular, socialist, and labor organizing. There were plans to really take things over, run things themselves, support unions, have public services done democratically. Flint was a GM town at that time. The wealthy business community was very upset by that, naturally. It meant that it was no longer going to be a company town. They finally decided to come along with the progressive line, say everything you’re doing is right. We’ll run a candidate who will support and do all those things. We can do it a lot better because we have all these resources. So we’ll take it over. You want a park? Fine. Vote for the business candidate. He’ll put in a park. Look at the resources we have and the business acumen. And that won. The array of resources was such that it undermined and eliminated the incipient democratic and popular structures and indeed there was welfare capitalism until such time as they didn’t need it any more. When they didn’t need that weapon, then it was dropped.

    During the Depression, there was a lot of popular struggle. Rights were won. They were extended. There was a union movement. There were other pressures. After World War II, attacks started on this right away. But it took time. It was getting somewhere in the 1950s, but in the 1960s there was a lot more ferment, so you get new programs, the War on Poverty, things coming out of the civil rights movement. By the early 1970s, the business attack was reaching new heights and had new weapons. You can forget the social contract. Forget welfare capitalism. Since we’ve been running it, we’re going to throw it out. That’s pretty much what’s been going on since. The population knows it. The population recognizes that the political parties don’t recognize them. By now, it’s reached enormous disaffection.

    There are interesting things about the disaffection. It’s mostly directed against government. We don’t really know if it’s directed against business, because that’s not the kind of question that’s asked in the polls. Remember, business propaganda is designed to direct your attention to the government, not to business. The typical picture in business propaganda since World War II has been, there’s all of us together. We live in harmony. Joe Six-Pack, his loyal wife, the hard-working executive, the friendly banker, we’re all one big happy family. Then there are those bad guys out there who are trying to disrupt our harmony, like union organizers and big government. But we’re all going to try to get together and defend ourselves against them. That’s the picture presented everywhere. And it’s understandable. You want to pretend that there’s class harmony between the person with the hammer and the person he is beating over the head.

    Actually, the attitude is ambivalent. The popular aspects of government, the kinds of government that allow participation, they have to be beaten down. But the so-called conservatives want a very powerful state, one that works for them and is removed from public control. You have to talk about minimizing the state and increasing the Pentagon, because the Pentagon is the funnel for subsidy of high-tech industries. That’s a tricky line to follow. But as long as there isn’t much in the way of public debate you can get away with it. So people hate the government. What they feel about business power is unclear.

    There is a recent poll which showed that 71 percent of Americans feel that corporations have too much influence in the political system.

    If you look at those polls, some of them are outlandish. 95 percent of people think that "Corporations should sometimes sacrifice some profit for workers and the community." That was the way the question was asked. That shows overwhelming feeling. You never get numbers like that in polls unless something is seriously wrong. On the other hand, notice that that’s still a call for welfare capitalism. It falls way short of what working people were asking for, say, 150 years ago right here in Boston. I wrote up some of this stuff in Z a couple of months ago. At that time, the question wasn’t being more benevolent, give us a little bit of your profits. It was, You have no right to rule. We should own the factories. A benevolent autocrat is always going to try to make it appear as if autocracy is necessary. The only choice is, will I be a harsh autocrat or will I be a benevolent autocrat? The propaganda system obviously wants to have the same attitude with regard to the contemporary autocrats. So business can be a little nicer and maybe you don’t have quite as much corporate welfare but you have more welfare capitalism and the autocratic structure must remain. That you’re not allowed to challenge. That’s distinct from the past where of course it was challenged, and rightly.

    Voter turnout in the 1996 election was 49 percent, the lowest since 1924.

    It’s actually the lowest ever—1924 is misleading because it was the first year in which women were allowed to vote. So a smaller percentage of the electorate voted because a lot of women didn’t vote the first time around. But if you take a realistic picture, this is the lowest percentage ever.

    The other figure is that more money than ever before was spent on the campaign, $1.6 billion that we know about.

    As a television commentator pointed out, these weren’t conventions, they were coronations. It’s another step towards eliminating whatever functioning elements there are in formal democracy.

    Another commentator has called elections equivalent to auctions, going to the highest bidder.

    We shouldn’t suggest that it was ever all that different, but yes, it’s narrowing, and it’s narrowing as part of these general tendencies. On the other hand, if you find union organizing building up and the grassroots organizations developing and people pressuring, it will change.

    There’s some clamoring now for "campaign finance reform." What’s your take on that?

    It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not going to have very much effect. There are too many ways to cheat. It’s like trying to pretend to stop drugs. There are so many ways to bring drugs in that it will always happen. I don’t think the real problem is campaign financing. The real problem is the overwhelming power of corporate tyrannies in running society, and campaign finance reform is not going to change that.

    In August 1996 the president signed something called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which eliminated the 61-year-old federal government commitment to the poor. I know you’ve commented that that commitment has always been very limited and has declined sharply since around 1970.

    Since the assault began.

    You’ve got to like the wording.

    The wording’s fine. It says 7-year-old children have to have personal responsibility and now they have an opportunity which was deprived them before, the opportunity to starve. It’s just another assault against defenseless people. It’s now felt, Well, okay, we can kick them in the face. This, too, is based on a very effective propaganda campaign to make much of the population hate and fear the poor. That’s smart. You don’t want to get them to look at the rich guys. Don’t let them take a look at the pages of Fortune and Business Week talking about the "dazzling" and "stupendous" profit growth. Don’t let them look at the way the military system is pouring funds into advanced technology. You’re not supposed to look at that. What you’re supposed to look at is the black mother driving a Cadillac and picking up her welfare check so she can have more babies. Why should I pay for that? That’s been done very effectively. It’s striking, again, when you look at attitudes. Most people think the government has a responsibility to ensure reasonable standards, minimal standards for poor people. On the other hand, most people are against welfare, which does exactly that. That’s a propaganda achievement that you have to admire.

    Incidentally, there’s another aspect of this which is being much less discussed but is quite crucial. One of the purposes of driving people into work away from welfare is to lower wages. Remember there’s supposed to be a natural unemployment rate. We’re not allowed to get below that unemployment rate, or all sorts of terrible things happen. We can talk about that. But assuming that that’s true, we ought to be paying these people to be on welfare. They’re keeping the unemployment rate high. Suppose you put them in the labor market. What’s going to happen? Presumably they’re going to take jobs. If they get jobs it’s going to lower unemployment. Terrible thing. If they don’t get jobs they’re going to drive down the wages. In fact, even if they do get jobs it will drive down wages. It’s already happening. In New York, city services are now using partially subsidized workfare, which simply eliminates union labor. That’s a good way of making everybody suffer. So put a lot of unskilled, hopeless labor into the workplace, make conditions so awful that people will take virtually anything, maybe have some public subsidy to keep them doing it, and you can drive down wages that way.

    There is a campaign to undermine public confidence in Social Security.

    Most of the talk about Social Security is pretty fraudulent. Take the question about privatizing it. That’s a non-issue. If people believe that it would be better for Social Security to be invested in the stock market rather than in, say, Treasury bonds, that can be done whether it’s public or private. I think the main goal is really to privatize it, that is, to make people in charge of their individual assets and not to have the solidarity that comes from doing something together. It’s extremely important to break down the sense that I have any responsibility for the next person. The ideal is a society based on a social unit which consists of you and your television set and nothing to do with any other people. If a person next door has invested her assets badly and is now starving in her old age, well, it isn’t my responsibility.

    Social Security was something that brought people together. They said, We’re going to have a common responsibility to ensure that all of us have a minimal standard of living. That’s dangerous, because it implies that people can work together. If you can work together, for example, you can replace corporate tyranny by worker control. You can get involved in the democratic process and make your own decisions. Much better to create a mentality in which each person behaves individually. The powerful will win. The poor will get smashed. There won’t be any solidarity or communication or mutual support or information sharing or any of these things that might lead to democracy and justice. I think that’s what lies behind the Social Security propaganda. The other issues are technical and of whatever significance they are, but probably not much. So a slightly more progressive taxation could keep Social Security functioning the way it is functioning for the indefinite future.

    Dwayne Andreas, the CEO of Archer Daniels Midland, the Decatur, Illinois-based grain giant says: "There is not one grain of anything in the world that is sold in the free market. Not one. The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians." Usually the managers are careful about what they say.

    Who was he talking to?

    This was quoted in Mother Jones and Multinational Monitor.

    Who was he talking to, though?

    I don’t know. Internal?

    I imagine. That’s not the kind of thing that you tell the public. But, of course, it’s true. Take what’s called "trade." That’s the most dramatic example. About 50 percent of U.S. trade actually is internal to a single corporation. For example, if Ford Motor Co. ships a part from Indiana to Illinois, it’s not called trade. If it ships it from Illinois to northern Mexico it is called trade. It’s called an export when it goes and an import when it comes back. But all of this is centrally managed in ways which undercut markets, designed for the obvious purpose of exploiting cheaper labor and avoiding environmental regulations and playing games with where you pay your taxes. That’s about 50 percent of U.S. trade. Japan is about the same. England is even higher. When people talk about the growth in world trade, what they’re talking about is largely a joke. What’s growing is complicated interactions among centrally managed institutions which are of the scale of command economies. Within them there’s no free trade, and among them there are various oligopolistic relationships. But I disagree with this person when he says there’s no free trade. There is free trade for 7-year-old kids and for poor people in the Third World. For them, free trade. They have to meet responsibility.

    There was an interesting study recently in England by 2 technical economists studying the top 100 transnational corporations on the Fortune list. One thing they discovered was that of the top 100, every single one had benefited from the industrial policy of its home country. They say at least 20 of the 100 would not have survived if it hadn’t been for either state takeover or large-scale state subsidy at points when they were facing losses. Also most of them depend very heavily on the domestic market. One of them is Lockheed, Newt Gingrich’s favorite, which was saved from destruction by a $2 billion government-subsidized loan when it was facing disaster back in the early 1970s. Okay, that tells you what free trade is. Big multinationals are invariably, if this is correct, dependent on the state, meaning the public, in their home society to keep them going. They’re not going to face market risks.

    There’s a cover story in The Nation entitled "Eurobattle: Attacking the Welfare State." It’s written by Daniel Singer. He says, "What’s at stake is the unmistakable attempt by the international financial establishment and continental governments to use this whole operation as a cover for adapting the U.S. model of Reaganomics. Its outcome is important for all Americans, particularly those not resigned to their current predicament. There are striking signs of resistance in Europe." There have been mass demonstrations in France, Germany, and Italy. On October 25, 250,000 Canadians turned out in Toronto in protest to what was going on in social policy there. That’s one percent of the total population of Canada.

    I’d be careful about using phrases like "Reaganomics," because it’s a fraud. Reagan didn’t know what was going on, but the people around him were the most protectionist in post-war American history. They virtually doubled various import restrictions. They poured money into advanced technology. If it hadn’t been for their massive market interference, there probably would be no automobile or steel or semiconductor industries in the U.S. today. That’s Reaganomics. So they were preaching free markets to the poor, but on the other hand James Baker, when he was Secretary of Treasury, was boasting to the business world that they had raised protection higher than any preceding government.

    In France, there are actually fewer workers in unions than in the U.S. which is already very low. Yet the support for French general strikes which shut down cities and at one point the whole country in December 1995 was extraordinarily high. What accounts for that?

    There are a lot of differences. One factor is the power of business propaganda in the U.S. This is the country where the public relations industry was developed, where it was most sophisticated. It’s the home of the international entertainment industry, which is mainly propaganda. Huge funds are put into controlling the "public mind," as they put it. Although there isn’t a capitalist society, and such a society wouldn’t survive, this is toward the capitalist end and tends to be more business-run than others, meaning that there’s a huge amount of expenditure on marketing, which is a form of manipulation and deceit. The most recent estimate that I saw is that something like one-sixth of the gross domestic product goes to marketing. A large part of that is advertising. Advertising is tax-deductible, so you pay for the privilege of being manipulated and controlled. This is unusually developed here. The social democracies of, say, Sweden, have big multinationals. Sweden’s economy rests very heavily on some of them. They depend like most of the big exporters on public subsidies, and in Sweden in particular, the military industry. Military industry seems to have provided much of the technology which allowed Ericsson to dominate a good part of the mobile phone market. Meanwhile the Swedish welfare state is being cut back. It’s still way beyond us, but cut back while profits increase for the multinationals, which are being publicly subsidized. That’s Sweden. This is the U.S. They’re different societies and different understandings. But the same processes are at work globally.

    Have you been following the new domestic political formations? The Labor Party had its founding convention in Cleveland in June 1996. The Alliance had its founding convention in Texas in November 1996. The New Party is already established and running candidates. Ralph Nader ran for president on the Green Party ticket.

    There are certainly new formations developing. They ought to get together. Scattering energies and resources which are very slight is not a good idea. But allowing new options to enter the political system is in general a good idea. I think probably the right way to do it might be the way that the New Party has developed, with fusion candidates, concentrating on winnable elections. But a labor-based party is a very good idea as well. They ought to be the same party. They have the same interests. If something can be created which is like the NDP in Canada or like the Workers Party in Brazil, big umbrella organizations which foster and support grassroots activities, provide resources, bring people together, provide an umbrella under which often parallel activities can be carried out, take some part as much as possible in the political system, that’s going to be to the good. And it can be progress toward something else. It’s not going to overcome the fact that we have one business party and they’re going to run things, because that’s rooted in the structure of the institutions. Until we democratize the basic institutions, we won’t break out of that.

    When we do something, do we have to have a clear idea about the long-term goal in order to devise a strategy?  

    You learn by trying. New ways of thinking about the next step. You can’t start now, with current understandings, and say, Okay, let’s design a libertarian society. You have to create the understanding and gain the insight that allows you to move step by step toward that end. Just like in any other aspect of life, or science, for that matter, the strategy is to do more and learn more and find out the answers and find out ways of associating with other people and create the institutions. Out of them come new problems, new methods, new strategies. If somebody can come up with a general all-purpose strategy, everybody will be delighted. It hasn’t happened in the last couple thousand years. So if you look at Marxist literature, it doesn’t offer any such strategies. If, say, Marx had been asked, What’s the strategy for overthrowing capitalism? he would have laughed. Even somebody who is overwhelmingly a tactician, like Lenin, didn’t have such comprehensive strategies. His general strategy was, Follow me. That’s a kind of strategy, I suppose. But Lenin, Trotsky, and others just adapted strategies to particular situations, circumstances, looking for their own goal: taking state power. I don’t think that should be our goal. But a general strategy for overcoming authoritarian institutions, how could there be an answer to that question? There isn’t any. In fact, I think those questions are mostly asked by people who don’t want to become engaged. If you want to become engaged and do it, there are plenty of problems around that you can work on, whether it’s what you started with, hungry children, or the destruction of the environment, the breakdown of security in the workplace, public subsidy to huge transnationals, we can go on and on. But it’s not going to happen by pushing a button. It’s going to happen by dedicated, concentrated work which will slowly build up the understanding, the relationships among people, the perceptions, the support systems, the alternative institutions and so on. Then something can happen. But there’s no general all-purpose strategy for that.

    Urvashi Vaid, author of Virtual Equality, castigates what she calls the "purist left" for waiting for the perfect vision, the one and only answer, and a charismatic leader. Something which I hear when I travel around the country is the one great solution, the Internet.

    I agree with that criticism. Waiting for a charismatic leader is demanding disaster. As far as the Internet is concerned, like other technology, it should be taken seriously. It has lots of opportunities, lots of dangers. Right now it’s in a crucial phase, I think. Bob McChesney has pointed out that the effect of last year’s telecommunications act is part of the biggest giveaway of public assets in history. As an act of privatization, meaning handing over public resources to private power, it has no counterpart. There aren’t even token payments for it, as there were in, say, privatization in Mexico. He also makes the important point that this issue was not treated as a social and political issue. It was treated as a business issue. So you read about it in the business pages. The issue, Shall we give away these public resources to private power, that was not discussed. All that was discussed was, How shall we give them away. Shall we give them away to 5 megacorporations, or 12 megacorporations? But not, Shall we give it away? That is a tremendous propaganda victory.

    Here’s this enormous resource built at public expense now being handed over to private power, which has its obvious interests, namely to create a society based on social units consisting of you and maybe your Internet connection. Sure, they have very good reasons for wanting that. But do we want that? The Internet could be used for all sorts of other things if it remains under public control. So of course the Internet is not the answer. It’s important. Modes of communication and interaction are of course important. Print is important. Radio is important. Television is important. This mode of communication and interaction is important and can be used very efficiently and for very good purpose and has been, in fact. But it can also be used very destructively. Technology is usually like that. You can’t ask, Is a hammer good or bad? Put it in the hands of a torturer, it can be bad. Put it in the hands of somebody who’s trying to build a house, it can be good. The Internet is the same.

    On the other hand, the comment you quoted earlier, Don’t sit around waiting for a charismatic leader or for that matter for a grand strategy, is good advice. If that comes, it will be a disaster, like it always has been. If something grows out of popular action and participation it can be healthy. Maybe it won’t, but at least it can be. There’s no other way.

    But you’ve traditionally seen top-down strategies and movements as always inherently doomed.

    They can succeed in doing exactly what they’re designed to do, namely, maintain top-down leadership, control, and authority. It shouldn’t have come as a tremendous surprise to anyone that a vanguard party would end up being a totalitarian state. In fact, Trotsky had predicted that years before he decided to play the game.

    I was talking to Howard Zinn about how social change happens. He suggests that we need to reconceptualize time in terms of social change, comparing it to a sprinter versus the long-distance runner. What do you think of that?

    He’s right. I don’t know if he was thinking of this, but it was very striking in the 1960s in parts of the student movement. It was in a way coming out of nowhere. There wasn’t an organized, well-established popular-based left that it could join. So the leadership was sometimes taken in the hands of very young people, often very nice, decent people who were then going to do something. It was striking what they wanted to do. I don’t know how much of this you were a part of. The perception was often quite short-range. I remember at the time of the Columbia University strike their conception was, for many of them, not all of them, We’ll strike at Columbia, close down the buildings for a couple of weeks. After that we’ll have a revolution. A lot of the spirit of 1968 was like that. That’s not the way things work. It was a disaster for the people involved. It left a sad legacy. You have to build slowly and ensure that the next step comes out of a basis that’s already established in people’s understanding and their perceptions and their attitudes towards one another, their conception of what they want to attain and the circumstances in which you can attain it. For example, it makes absolutely no sense to expose yourself and others to destruction when you don’t have a social base in which you can protect the gains that you’ve made. That has been found over and over again in guerrilla movements, in popular movements and elsewhere. You get cut off by the powerful.              <S>Z