Tom Morello: Hello Noam, Hi welcome to radio free Los Angeles. Thanks so
much for being on the show. I want you to know that you are probably the
ah, Noam Chomsky books are the ones most prominently featured on the rage
tour bus. So its a privilege.
Noam Chomsky: So I've heard. Glad to hear that.
TM: First question is... in this election year, ah, I thought we would
talk a little bit about democracy. One of the unquestionable ideas that
were force fed from our first days in school is that we do live in a
democracy. In your opinion, in what sense is our society democratic?
NC: Well, I should say that if that is true an awful lot people don't
believe it. A gallop pole for years has been regularly asking people who
they think the government works for and it has usually been running about
50% saying "the few in the special interests, not the people, " last year
went up to 82%.
NC: So that's what at least the public thinks about it.
NC: I don't think that there is a simple answer to that? Democracy has
lots of different dimensions. I mean basically the question is to what
extent do the people have a meaningful way of developing and articulating
their own ideas and putting them forward in the political arena and
controlling visions. That's the general question. Now if you look at the
United States well in some respects that's true but in many respects that
is just not true at all. So for example in the political arena, first of
all there is one huge segment of social and economic life which is simply
excluded from public control, in law and in principle and its the most
important part it has to do with what's produced and how its distributed,
and so on and so forth.
That's all in the hands of what amounts to huge private tyrannies. Of which
are about as totalitarian in character as any institutions that humans of
so far concocted and mostly there only accountability to the public is
through quite limited regulatory mechanisms. I mean the whole corporate
system and they have extraordinary power over not only what happens in the
work place but the nature of our lives and given the resources over the
political system and you cant say that they control the media, because
they are the media and that's an enormous, a huge sector of life that is
out of public influence and control in a manner which would have absolutely
appalled someone like, lets say, Thomas Jefferson, who already condemned
the very early stages of it, but they said that they would bring an end to
democracy and restore aristocratic rule. So that's one sector. So what
about the public arena, the technically public arena, the government.
There, the fact is, that in practice there happens to be at the higher
levels very little way for right now at least, for the public to influence
anything that goes on.
If you move down to the lower levels, you get to
lets say your local community, the school board and so on. Then there is
much more of an opportunity. Incidentally at the intermediate levels, say
the state level, you would think superficially that the public could
influence things more. The opposite is the case. The reason is that at
the state level business power is far more dominant, even a middle size
business can have huge influence over state governments by for example,
such measures as threatening to move across the boarder where as only the
bigger guys can control the federal government. That's part of the reason
why there is such pressure on the far right to, on the so called
conservatives, to devolve power from the federal and state level which they
know they could control a lot more easily. When you get to the federal
government we've been sold a line you know for 50 years of intense
corporate propaganda that the government is the enemy. There cannot be a
government that's buy for and of the people. Well in practice the
description is not inaccurate. The government is to a large extent the
enemy, but the reason is that its so largely under the control of the
private tyrannies that are excluded from, sort of off in the corner
somewhere you know, you're not suppose to see them. But the reason for the
anti government propaganda is obvious enough. The purpose is to remove
decision making from the public arena where the public does, in principle,
and sometimes even in practice have ways to participate in it and take part
in it, and shift it over to the private arena where it is totally out of
NC: When you ask about the government, its a complicated story. I mean
potentially the instruments and mechanisms are there by which the public
could, if organized, and controlling resources, and so on, could play a
significant in fact dominant role in what happens, but in practice it
doesn't work. So like in the current election there is two moderate
republicans running, well almost, but pretty hard to distinguish.
TM: Right, and so that's why the majority of eligible voters just stays
home on election day.
NC: Yah. In fact, even the things like say the, I read recently that even
the measures to increase voters registration are mostly drawing in
wealthier people. Poorer people apparently just don't see any point. In
fact the primaries were kind of interesting in that regard. There was only
one candidacy contested, although there was a huge amount of money spent,
way more than before. But people just stayed away. I mean Dole won, in
I think it was around 20 primaries which put him over the top and in that
fifth about one million people voted for him. In one state New Hampshire,
participation reached 25% and the other states I think it was below 10%,
10% or below.
TM: Wow. Well another unquestionable idea is that people are naturally
competitive, and that therefore, capitalism is the only proper way to
organize society. Do you agree?
NC: Look around you. I mean do the... uh in a family for example if the
parents are hungry, do they steal food from the children? They would if
they were competitive. In most social groupings that are even semi Sane
people support each other and are sympathetic and helpful and care about
other people, and so on. Those are normal human emotions that takes plenty
of training to drive those feelings out of peoples heads, and they show up
all over the place. Uh, its true that there has been an effort. Its true,
you can say the humans are competitive but humans are anything you like.
Humans are mass murderers, humans are courageous and honorable and
magnificent in many of the things that they do.
You've got the whole
spectrums here. Particular institutions and modes of education and so on,
bring out one or another characteristic of people. There has been a
tremendous effort, its been going on for a couple of hundred years now, to
try to emphasize particular traits, mainly, the sort of, look out for
number one trait. Well that's sort of hidden there in all of us. I'm sure
under certain circumstances it would probably come out along with others.
But that's the tendency in human character that is enormously supported
and amplified by institutional structures by the propaganda system, by
education, by the entertainment industry by everything. So sure, people
are naturally competitive and there naturally cooperative and eager to give
up what they have for the benefit of others.
NC: The way that we make a living by receiving wages in order for work we
rent ourselves in order to survive. It use to be known as wage slavery.
Where people line up to beg to enrich this boss or that boss. Why do
people accept this and submit to it? That hasn't been easy. Its kind of
interesting to read the working class press in the 19th century, the mid
19th century which was very substantial in size I should say. Its kind of
like the scale of the commercial press in those days, and it was organized
by ordinary people. I mean, artisans what they called factory girls, young
women off the farms who were working in the textile industry around where I
lived and so on. There are definite themes that run through it and one of
them is strong opposition to wage slavery which they didn't regard to as
any different from chattel slavery. In fact, after the civil war, there
were bitter complaints about the fact, look we fought down slavery and now
we are being driven into another form of slavery. The idea that people
should have to uh, it was just taken for granted that in their words, that
those who work in the mills should own them. If we have to labor at the
command of others. We have lost our freedom the freedoms we have fought
for in the American revolution and that they thought that they were
fighting for in the civil war. We've lost them.
In fact, they also
bitterly opposed ,to get back to your earlier comment, what they called the
new spirit of the age back in 1850, we gained wealth for getting all but
self. Back then that was the new spirit of the age which they considered
an utterly degrading doctrine that no honorable person would accept. I
should add that this was also a very standard theme of the real classical
liberal works that were suppose to revere, like Adam Smith the others. The
idea that people should subordinate themselves to the command of others was
regarded as highly offensive and it has taken well you know a long long
time to get that out of people heads. Right into this century, it was quite
broadly felt and articulated for example by Americans leading social
philosopher, John Dewy who comes right out of the main stream, that unless
the working people control their own institutions they are simply tools,
there not people. And I don't think that understanding is very far below
the surface. It could come out very quickly.
TM: You've noted that 82% of the population regard our economic system as
inheritantly unfair. Is the gap between rich and poor increasing now and
NC: It is definitely increasing There is no questions about that.
Inequality has been increasing steadily. It declined a bit from the second
world war up until the early 70's. Since then it has now been increasing
its now back to the level of before the great depression. It has not been
a period of much growth since around the last twenty years. But there has
been some and it is very highly concentrated in the wealthier sectors.
Profits incidentally have been going through the roof I mean the business
press can't even find adjectives any more to express how marvelous things
are. They have run out of stupendous and dazzling and are looking for some
new ones.For the general population, things are at best stagnant, and for
most people actually are declining. Around 1980, the United States was
among the industrial countries it had one of the higher levels of
inequality but it wasn't off the spectrum. Now its way beyond any other
country. Any other industrial country. In fact, in a city like New York
its about the level of Guatemala which is about the worst state in the
world in equality.
So sure that is increasing, there is no question about it, people are well
aware of it. People are aware that they are working longer and with much
less security and for lower wages and with rather dim prospects. That's
an unmistakable feature of American life. No one doubts it. The peoples
attitudes of what should be done are interesting. I mean for example,
Business Week just ran a poll which frightened them very much. They found
that 95% of the population, which is just an incredible figure for a poll,
you just don't get that on anything, 95% of the population thought that
corporations had a responsibility to reduce profits because of the needs of
their own work force and their communities. Its kind of interesting,
that's a striking figures, it is interesting to compare that with a general
understanding of working people in say, you know, the textile industries in
Massachusetts 150 years ago. They were not asking for the autocrats to be
more benevolent the way people are asking now. They were saying that they
just have no right to be there at all. Not please treat your subjects more
kindly, but that you have no right to rule. That's a big decline in
sensibility but its still dramatic that almost the entire population
condemns the practice of business enriching itself.
TM: One of the more provocative statements of yours that I have read, is
that if the standards of the Nurenberg Trials were applied, then every post
world war two American president would have been hanged as a war criminal.
Take us briefly through the war crimes committed by each president.
NC: I've printed that a couple of times. Well with Truman you would,
could start with, shortly after he entered office there was the bombing of
Hiroshima, which one could give an argument for, well I don't think so.
But it is almost impossible to give an argument of the bombing of Nagasaki.
That was mostly just trying out a new weapon to see if it would work. Then
there was an utterly gratuitous bombing a 1,000 plane raid at the end of
the war right in fact after Japan surrendered, called the finale, the
grand finale. Then comes for example, the support for the brutal counter
insurgency campaign in Greece, which killed about 150,000 people which to
restore natzee collaborators and demolish the resistance and then we could
go on from there. Eisenhower. The Eisenhower Administration, the Truman
and Eisenhower Administration, the bombings, whatever you think about the
Korean War and there is a pretty complicated story when you really look at
it, but , nevertheless, the bombings in N. Korea in 1951 and 1952 was just
an outright warcrime, you can read it in the airforce history about how in
the Eisenhower years, they had nothing left to bomb, everything was flat,
so they just bomb dams, which they exhault how wonderful it was to see the
water flooding down and killing people and wiping out the crops and so on.
Well people were hanged for that, for less than that. They were hanged for
opening dykes in Nurenberg, and then again we can proceed with what happened in Guatemala and elsewhere where it was a terrible crime in the
Eisenhower years and Kennedy is not even worth discussing.
The invasion in
South Vietnam, Kennedy attacked South Vietnam, outright in 1961, 1962 he
sent airforce to start bombing villages, authorized napalm so it also laid
the basis for the huge wave of repression that spread over Latin America
with the installation of Neo-Nazi gangsters that always supported directly
by the United States that went on and in fact picked up under Johnson. In
the Nixon years for example, the bombing of inner Cambodia, in 1973 was a
monstrous crime. It was just massacring peasants in inner Cambodia. It
isn't much reported here because no one paid attention, but it was quite
apart from helping create the basis for the Khmer Rouge, well, the CIA
estimate is that 600,000 people were killed in the course of those US
actions, either directed or actually carried out by the United States. In
the Carter years there were major crimes, for example the Indonesian
invasion, which happen to start under Ford and led to the nearest thing to
genocide since the holocaust, maybe 1/3 of the population had been
slaughtered. That was using 90% US arms. In the Carter years,Indonesians
were actually running out of arms in their attack on this country. Carter
actually increased the flow of arms in 1978, which was the worst peak of
the slaughter. Carter was backing Somosa and his national guard and openly
and with direct military and diplomatic support at a time when they had
killed about 40,000 people in the last days of their regime. Again, that's
a sample. Going on to the Reagan years, its not even a question. In fact
the US was condemned by the World Court during the Reagan years with the
unlawful use of force, with the meaning aggression in Central America
alone. Maybe 200,000 people or so were slaughtered in a very brutal
fashion by US run programs. In southern Africa about 1.5 million people
were killed and over $60 billion in damage were done according to the UN
commission which rebutted later than from 1980 to 1988 that from South
African atrocities that the US was directly supporting. Then again we
could go on. Well Bush, the invasion of Panama for example was simply
outright aggression. It was condemned internationally but the US was able
to veto the security counsel condemnations, that doesn't change the fact
that they were there. Well we will move on to the Clinton years. One of
his first acts within a few months was to send missles to bomb Baghdad.
While it did not kill a huge amount of people I think 8 or so, but was
actually no pretext, no pretext I mean it just showed what a tough guy he
is. In fact the pretext was so ludicrous, it was embarrassing to repeat
it. The pretext was self defense against armed attack, because two months
earlier there had been a failed attempt by someone who might or might not
have been an Iraqi, no one knew at the time. About 1/2 half of military
aid went to Central/Latin America under Clinton was going to military aid
and training was going to Columbia, which absolutely has the worst human
rights record in the hemisphere, killing thousands of people in a
horrifying fashion. These are all crimes. I don't think its hard to set
up a bill of indictment if somebody wanted to.
TM: You've also written that our education system is a system of
indoctrination designed to induce obedience and posivity. Explain how this
NC: I think we all know that from our own experiences. Starting with
kindergarten and first grade. The main requirement is that you do what you
are told. For example if you object, if people use their independence if
they question what they are told what to do, if they think for themselves
and suggest that something else be done, they usually get themselves into
trouble pretty quickly. Its not uniform, try it out on your history
teacher in high school, saying its a dumb assignment I would rather try
something else. There isn't much, uh, its a rare teacher that would even
give that opportunity to even discuss that option. That goes on through
college and career and so on. There is kind of a filtering for obedience
and subordination and various penalties for independence. Now, It's not
that people should have chaos and people should do anything they feel like
and shouldn't pay any attention to the circumstances of which your fellow
students and teachers should have to exist, of course you should, but
that's quite different from imposed obedience. The kind of mechanical
character of a good deal of education which is not only unecessary but even
harmful, also contributes to that. As a matter of fact, it is kind of
striking when you go on to well, take for example what I am teaching at
MIT, which is a science university. It happens to be quite different, and
the reason is you can't do science that way. You have to encourage
students to challenge, they are expected to. They are expected to be
independent. They are expected to say I don't think that's right, you
should do it a different way and so on. Otherwise there would not be any
science, but that's unusual.
TM: Having a poor self image seems to be far more common in today's
society. Is that a misconception, and if not, why is modern society
NC: Well the society is definitely breeding insecurities, but that is
perfectly objective. It doesn't have anything to do with self image. For
example, take the rise of temporary workers What's called increasing the
flexibility of the labor market. No, that breeds insecurity. As workers
lose the rights that they won after a long struggle, including one of those
rights that they are losing is the right to go to sleep at night and
knowing you are going to have a job tomorrow. Well that definitely breeds
insecurity for a perfectly objective reason. Think about self image. Some
of the fastest growing American corporations are the ones that , as they
put in the business press, are the ones that sell workers. So Man Power
Incorporated is just booming and the reason for the turn to temporary
workers is straight forward. They can be treated just as goods, as
material goods. If you want to throw them out, you throw them out. You
don't want to add benefits, you dont have to add benefits. Outsourcing has
the same character. One of the major reasons for outsourcing by big
corporations is that they dont have contractual arrangements with the labor
force in the places that make door handles or whatever it may be. They are
tools of production brought in when they are needed and thrown out when you
dont want them. The decline of real wages and the increasing of working
hours. That's exactly the same effect. There are many things happening
in the whole society that breed insecurity for perfectly clear objective
reasons. I dont think it has much to do with self image.
TM: Explain the two concepts of "manufacturing consent" and "necessary
NC: Actually both of those are terms , Ed Herman and I, we didn't invent
them. Manufacturing consent comes from Walter Lippman, you know the highly
respected Dean of American Journalism and one of the most highly respected
public intellectuals of the 20th century. The other concept necessary
illusions, that comes from Brian Holdkneeber who was the guru of the
Kennedy intellectuals and George Kent and others. Both of them said in
fact that manufacturing consent was the case and imposing necessary
illusions is the central feature of a democratic society. The "responsible
men," as they called them, the small elite that know how to serve real
power. But those who enter that category of skilled responsible
intellectuals, they have the duty of making sure that the stupid and
ignorant masses stay out of their way. They are ignorant and meddlesome
outsiders as Walter Lippman put it. They dont have the intelligence or
ability to care for or run their own affairs and we are only doing them a
favor if we control them, and since we cant do it by force then we have to
do it by imposing beliefs. This is a very widely held doctrine.
Incidentally these are not reactionary people. There are sort of on the
cente to left and I should add that Marxism/Lenism has exactly the same
view. The Vanguard party very much acts on the same doctrine. The people
are just too stupid to run their own affairs and we are smart enough so
that we will run it for them, and they better do what we say or else.
TM: How does the mass media play in this?
The mass media are simply part of the corporate system and their goal is
roughly that of what you read in the manuals of the public relations
industry, which is very frank about it. We have a very class conscious
business community. The leaders of the public relations industry which is
the aspect of big business that is concerned with manufacturing consent.
They talk quite openly about the need to control the public mind, to fight
the everlasting battle for the minds of men, who have to be indoctrinated
with the capitalist story.
The leading manual of the public relations
industry written back in the 1920's by a good Roosevelt/Kennedy liberal
highly respected in Cambridge where he lived. The book opens by saying
something like this, that the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the
attitudes and behavior of the masses is the central task of the democratic
system and we, the business classes, the responsible men, we have to do it.
Well the mass media are just being viewed with that conception, not just
the mass media.
The entertainment industry, the schools and everyone else.
That's a leading and understandable doctrine on the part of the elite
sector, and they do it in various ways, but how it works out is complex.
For example, in the media say there is an internal contradiction, several
internal contradictions, as in schools and universities which lead to some
degree of complexity. So the contradiction is the clearest, you see it very
clearly in the business press directly. They must present a tolerably
realistic picture of the world to their audience because those people have
a big stake, they run the world and the make decisions and the decisions
that they make matter for their own interests. They better have some
understanding of what is going on and the same is true in the media
generally in different ways and to a different extent. And the same is true
in the schools and universities and that is not consistent with
manufacturing consent so there is an internal contradiction, and asides
from that there are after all people with just plain professional integrity
and honesty. They want to try and do with what they can. So there is
plenty of internal contradictions. But if you try to look at the overall
performance the degree of subordination to power and authority I think is
pretty remarkable. Actually we see dramatic examples of that everywhere we
Lets take the primaries. Maybe the most dramatic part of the
primaries, apart from the fact that nobody showed up, was the change in the
way the media were presenting the problems of the country in say December,
1995 and January, 1996 right after the primaries started. So at the end of
1995, it is hard to remember. Now, the top issue in the world was balancing
the budget. The government was closing down every couple of days, that was
their priority of course. You read everywhere that Americans voted for a
balance budget, you have to do it, so on and so forth. Well by January and
February that was over. No more talk about balancing the budget. The
press was not talking about it. Well what happened? What happened is that
they had to face the public.
The public was, contrary to what was being
said, the public was opposed, strongly opposed to budget balancing on any
realistic assumption. If you looked at the cuts that would have to be made
they were strongly opposed. Now the press sort of knew that but was all
suppressed. Up until the point when you suddenly had to face the public.
When the politicians dropped it like a hot potato the first candidate to
drop out was Phil Graham, the one representative of the Congressional
Republicans who supposedly won by a great landslide. He disappeared
instantly. And not just the deficit, the whole set of proposals
disappeared. Well of course, the proposals were still being implemented in
the background. But that changed from the top priority in the country to
something we dare not even talk about. Very illustritive of the way the
information system works. When you have to face people you have problems.
When you could just order them around to put it a different way. And we
could go on with case after case.
TM: In the last 10 years there have been some frenzied attempts to censor
certain kinds of music and certain artists. Do you think that within the
realm of entertainment, do you think there are things that which are
threatening to the system of domination and the vale of misinformation?
NC: There is well, I should say that I don't know much about this part of
the world.But this can be a question that part of the revival of
independence and breaking of constraints, but of which was extremely
healthy which took place in the 1960's was very closely tied to the
developments in the music world and that frightened people. Elites want to
put things back in control and order.
TM: What sort of society do you envision as one that would not be based
on exploitation or domination and how would we get there from here?
NC: I don't really understand the question. It is kind of interesting I
am asked that question constantly in sort of privileged circles. I am
never asked it when I go to talk to poor people. Or say either here or
abroad. They tell me what they are doing. Maybe they asked for a comment,
but they dont ask how they do it. How you do it is very straight forward,
you go out and do it. If you want a more free and democratic society, you
go out and do it. Take just our own lifetime. Or maybe take my lifetime,
you're maybe too young. Say the last 30-40 years there are big changes in
the country. The civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the sharp
critic and breakdown of legitimate authority and all sorts of domains, but
what took place in the 60's, the environmental movements, the feminist
movement, the solidarity movements in the 80's all of these things changed
society a lot. Well how did they do it? Well they just did it. People
get together they organize, they pressure, they try to learn, they try to
help others to learn. That is the way things change. That is why we dont
live under feudalism and slavery.
That's why we have by comparative
standards a very free society in the United States. A very free society
with a lot of opportunities and options and very limited capacity on part
of the state for force control. Well that has been gained by struggle.
People are now fighting to preserve workers rights and Social Security and
medical support and some sort of health program and so on. We are now
fighting to preserve these things. Well there were not there not long ago.
They were achieved by plenty of popular struggle and there are no limits to
this. There is no reason why corporate tyranny, which is a fairly
reasonable development. It's institutional form is from the early part of
There is no reason why that form of tyranny should not be
dismantled just as other kinds of totalitarianism is dismantled. Fascism
for example. There are no particular limits to this. Any kind of
illegitimate authority that exists, whatever it may be, interpersonal
relations up to huge states and transnational corporations. Every such
form of authority has to demonstrate legitimacy. They have the burden of
proof. We should understand that. Usually, very often, almost always that
burden can't be met. When it can't be met, it should simply be dismantled
and that's the way to move more towards a free and just democratic society.
I don't think there is any sphere of life where these questions don't
arise. There are different answers to different places and different
circumstances but the mechanisms are always the same. Engagement,
education, organizing, pressure, building new institutions, those are the
ways. In a country like ours they are much more available then in a place
like Haiti or Columbia where you might get murdered for it. It wont happen
here. But it is the same mechanism.
TM: I'll ask you just a quick question, and I'll let you get on to your
summer vacation. It seems in some of the things that I have read that the
institutions of the IMF and the World Bank are kind of "the man behind the
curtain." What are they and should we be worried about them?
NC: I don't know if we should be worried about them, but they are no so
much "the man behind the curtain" as the agency that is carrying out
certain actions. These international financial institutions which were set
up after the end of the second world war have changed their functions over
the years, but in effect they are essentially the agency of the major
transnationals and the great powers. So what is called the G7, the seven
states and the big transnational corporations which are on the scale of
states and the financial institutions and so on, they are trying to
organize a certain kind of world. The agency for carrying out those plans
to a significant extent is the World Bank and the IMF.
Sure we should be
worried of the kind of world that they are trying to create and the
institutions by which they are doing it, and also there is something very
crucial about the nature of all these institutions, they are basically
unaccountable. In order to know about what the IMF is doing even, you would
have to dedicate an awful a lot of energy and effort to put into it. You
would have to be a specialist and for most people you can barely know about
their existence, let alone what they are doing. Even when it is public,
and they are making decisions which have an enormous impact on people.
Well that itself is illegitimate. So any unaccountable exercise of power
is in itself illegitimate. If you look further at what they are doing I
think there is good reason to be concerned about it, but they are not
acting on their own. They express what in fact is called in the literature
the "Washington consensus" and it is the "Washington consensus" because it
is forged in Washington. Which is not only the home of the World Bank and
the IMF for the most part, but also of the worlds most powerful state and
the congregate there or send their representatives there. It is not called
the "Washington consensus" for no reason.
TM: Are you a fan of any particular kind of music, and can we play a
request for you?
NC: If I told you what my tastes where, it would shock you.
TM: Oh no, you go right ahead. Shock me.
NC: Almost nothing. I am very much restricted to things in my childhood or
before. Far before.
TM: Our CD catalog is pretty large, try me.
NC: I wouldn't even know what to say. Beethovens Late Quartets.
TM: Anything in R&B or pop music. Anything that rings a bell.
NC: I am so ignorant, it is not even worth asking me.
TM: Thanks for being on the show.