Noam Chomsky is a singular figure in the intellectual life of this country. To begin with, he is to linguistics what Einstein is to physics. His work on generative grammar — the notion that the brain is hard-wired to learn language — revolutionized the field. But Chomsky is best known for his unrelenting and trenchant critiques of U.S. government policy and the media.
Born in Philadelphia in 1928, Chomsky wrote his first political article at age ten for his school newspaper: it was on the fall of Barcelona to the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. His public activism began during the early days of the anti–Vietnam War movement, and he first attracted widespread public attention in 1967 with an essay in the New York Review of Books stating that “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies.”
Chomsky is given a substantial amount of press coverage internationally — the New Statesman calls him “the conscience of the American people” — but in the U.S. he is marginalized. The mainstream media totally ignore him. He has been on PBS and National Public Radio (NPR) — the so-called alternatives — a handful of times in the last twenty-five years. Robert Siegel of NPR’s All Things Considered has said he “is not especially interested in hearing from Chomsky,” adding that Chomsky “evidently enjoys a small, avid, and largely academic audience who seem to be persuaded that the tangible world of politics is all the result of delusion, false consciousness, and media manipulation.”
I often attend Chomsky’s public talks. He is not an arresting or charismatic speaker. Nevertheless, wherever he appears, he invariably attracts overflow audiences. And they are definitely not “largely academic.” At a recent event in Vancouver, British Columbia, a mostly working-class crowd waited patiently in a union hall for hours when Chomsky’s flight was delayed.
Chomsky’s output is prodigious. In addition to numerous books on linguistics, he’s the author of scores of political works. Among the most recent are Deterring Democracy (Hill and Wang), World Orders Old and New (Columbia University Press), and Power and Prospects (South End Press).
Since 1984, I have been interviewing, recording, and archiving Chomsky as part of my Alternative Radio series, which is broadcast on more than 125 public-radio stations in the U.S. and Canada. I conducted this interview in Cambridge, Massachusetts, over the course of two days in February 1997. It will appear, in somewhat different form, in a collection of my interviews with Chomsky titled The Common Good, and is excerpted here by permission of Odonian Press, (800) REAL STORY.
Barsamian: What do you think of the persistent notion that the media in this country are liberal?
Chomsky: In my view, the national media probably are “liberal” by the current definition of the word. In fact, most of my own writing has been a criticism of this liberal end of the media, because it limits the spectrum of the debate by unquestioningly adopting the dominant assumptions of our political culture, such as a welfare state for the rich, the inevitability of globalization, and so on.
But within that framework there’s room for some debate, and it’s entirely possible that the major media lean toward what’s called the liberal side of that discussion. In fact, in a well-designed propaganda system that’s exactly where they would be. If you wanted to keep people obedient and passive, the way to do it would be to create a media system that had a limited spectrum of views and opinions, but that allowed lively debate within that spectrum. That would provide people with the sense — partly illusion, partly reality — that there was some serious discussion of issues going on, and yet at the same time instill the presuppositions of the system, such as that globalization is just a law of nature. And by globalization I don’t mean technology that enables you and me to talk to our friends in India easily. I mean a particular form of private power extending over the world.
So, in our “liberal” media, if you don’t accept the assumption that globalization is inevitable, you’re not part of the discussion. There once was more dissent among the media. Not to be too exotic, take the 1950s, when eight hundred labor newspapers, reaching twenty or thirty million people a week, struggled against the commercial press.
Barsamian: Robert McChesney has reported that in the early 1940s there were about a thousand labor-beat reporters. Today there are seven.
Chomsky: Every journal has a business section that caters to the interests of a small part of the population — the part that happens to be in control — but I’ve never seen a labor section, even though there’s a far greater audience for one. When you have labor news it’s in the business section and from the point of view of the business reporters.
Barsamian: Public radio and TV could be a source of independent reporting, yet they’re currently being starved of government funding and forced to turn more and more to corporations for “underwriting.”
Chomsky: That’s true, but we have to recognize the premises from which we’re starting. Public radio and TV have always been marginal enterprises, and never really supported. There was a battle back in the 1920s and 1930s about whether radio should belong to the public, or be handed over to private power. It was given to private power — in the name of democracy, which tells you what a strange culture this is.
When television came along, it wasn’t even an issue; it, too, was given to the corporations. A little fringe was left in the hands of the public, and that’s where most innovation goes on, exactly as in the industrial sector. FM radio was public until it started making money; then it became private. The Internet is a dramatic example: public as long as you can’t make money; handed over to megacorporations as soon as it looks profitable. Public radio and TV are permitted partly in order to fend off criticism of the media for not serving the public interest, as they’re required to do under law. So the media corporations can pass that responsibility along to public broadcasting and say, “Those guys will take care of that. They’ll run Hamlet.” Now even that marginal function is considered too much, so it’s being narrowed to ensure even more corporate control.
Barsamian: You have said that “the press is not in the business of letting people know how power works. It would be crazy to expect that to be. They are part of the power system. Why should they expose it?” Given what you say, what do you think about efforts to get Op-Ed pieces into newspapers or writing letters to the editor?
Chomsky: Those are good things to do. For one thing, even a real tyranny is not immune to public pressures. And our systems are much more flexible and fluid than real tyrannies. Every one of these openings should be exploited, not just by writing Op-Eds, but by insisting, through all kinds of public pressures, that the media be open to your point of view and your attitudes. And there will be a response, just as welfare capitalism developed in response to public pressures. Creating alternative media may well have the effect of opening up the major media.
Barsamian: But you don’t see getting in the occasional Op-Ed piece as a substitute for truly independent media.
Chomsky: It’s not a substitute: it’s a step toward it. These things interact. The mainstream media have, in my opinion, become considerably more open in the last thirty years as a result of all the unrest in the society. They reacted to it. Furthermore, people who experienced that unrest are now in the media and writing partially from such points of view. I’m not a great admirer of today’s media, but in those respects I think they’re way better than they were thirty or forty years ago.
Barsamian: If we had honest media, what might some headlines look like? Do you remember the heat wave in Chicago in the summer of 1995? More than seven hundred people died. The big headline was: “Hundreds Die in Chicago Heat Wave.” If we had honest media, the headline would have read, “Market Kills Hundreds,” because they were mostly old people who couldn’t afford air-conditioning units.
Chomsky: Yes, honest media would have reported that the workings of the market system had added more deaths to their toll. We could go on and on with this. There’s no story that couldn’t be reshaped from a more honest and humane point of view — one that doesn’t reflect the interests of the powerful. But to expect the corporations, on their own initiative, to undertake this is like saying that General Motors ought to give away its profits to poor people in the slums.
Barsamian: You recently gave a talk titled “The Common Good” to a group that included some members of the Progressive Caucus in Congress.
Chomsky: That title was given to me, actually, but since I’m a nice, obedient type, I agreed to talk about it. I started from the beginning, with Aristotle’s Politics, which is the foundation for most subsequent political theory. Aristotle took it for granted that a democracy would be fully participatory — with the notable exception of women and slaves — and would aim to promote the common good. But he argued that, in order to achieve its goal, the democracy would have to ensure “lasting prosperity to the poor” and “moderate and sufficient property” for everyone. If there were extremes of poor and rich, or if you didn’t have lasting prosperity for everyone, Aristotle thought, then you couldn’t talk seriously about having democracy.
Another point Aristotle made was that if you have a perfect democracy, yet have big differences of wealth — a small number of very rich people and a large number of very poor — then the poor will use their democratic muscle to take away the property of the rich. He regarded this as unjust and offered two possible solutions. One was to reduce poverty. The other was to reduce democracy.
A couple of thousand years later, when our Founding Fathers were writing the Constitution, James Madison noticed the same problem, but whereas Aristotle’s preferred solution had been to reduce poverty, Madison’s was to reduce democracy. He said quite explicitly in the Constitutional Convention that, if we had a true democracy, then the poor majority would use its power to demand what nowadays we would call agrarian reform, and that couldn’t be tolerated. The primary goal of government, in Madison’s words, is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” He also pointed out that, as time went on, this problem was going to get worse, because a growing part of the population would suffer serious inequities and “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of [life’s] blessings.” He therefore designed a system that would ensure democracy didn’t function. As he put it, power would be in the hands of the “more capable set of men,” those who held “the wealth of the nation,” and the rest would be factionalized and marginalized in various ways.
It’s only fair to mention, though, that Madison was precapitalist. In my opinion, he would have been anticapitalist. When Madison was talking about the wealthy being “the more capable set of men,” he was assuming a society in which the wealthy were “enlightened statesmen” and “benevolent philosophers” — not people trying to maximize their own wealth no matter what. When that sort of capitalism began to develop, Madison was appalled by it.
Regardless, the fact remains: if you have a democratic system with large inequities of wealth, the impoverished majority will probably do something about it, which means they will threaten the right of the wealthy to control the property.
Remember, contrary to what Madison and a lot of modern political theorists tacitly assume, property rights are not like other rights. If I have the right of free speech, it doesn’t interfere with your right of free speech. But if I have property, it interferes with your right to have that same property: you don’t have it; I do. So the right to property is very different from the right to freedom of speech.
If a true democratic society were allowed to function, it’s extremely unlikely that the things now called “inevitable results of the market” would ever be tolerated. These results certainly concentrate wealth and power and harm the vast majority. There’s no reason for people to tolerate that. These so-called inevitabilities are really public-policy decisions designed to lead to a certain kind of highly inegalitarian society. Talk about the inevitable processes of the market is almost entirely nonsensical, in my opinion. And if we did have a functioning democracy, we would solve the problem as Aristotle suggested: by reducing poverty and making sure that almost everyone had “moderate and sufficient property.”
Barsamian: Many people today advocate equality of opportunity, but not equality of outcome.
Chomsky: This goes back to Aristotle, who thought that equality of outcome was a requirement for a just and free society. In the eighteenth century, the Scottish economist Adam Smith advocated free markets, but based on the assumption that, under conditions of perfect liberty, free markets would lead to perfect equality of outcome. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the nineteenth century, said quite explicitly that a “permanent inequality of conditions” would be the death of democracy. He also condemned the “manufacturing aristocracy” that was growing up in the U.S., calling it “one of the harshest” in history. He said that if they came to power we’d be in deep trouble. Of course it’s happened far beyond his worst nightmares.
So, as far back as the humane liberal tradition goes, equality of outcome has been considered a necessity — not equality of opportunity, which is mostly a joke, because opportunity depends on the resources available.
Barsamian: It’s like the metaphor of two runners in a race: one starts at the starting point, and the other one starts five feet from the end.
Chomsky: I agree with that, but suppose you have two runners who start at exactly the same point, and one of them gets to the finish line first and gets everything he wants, whereas the other one starves to death. Even though they had equality of opportunity, the end result is radical inequality.
The advocates of free markets want poor children and their mothers to face the rigors of the market . . . but not U.S. corporations. The rigors of the market are fine for the defenseless, but not for the powerful. The powerful need state protection.
Barsamian: Affirmative action, one of the mechanisms used to address inequality of opportunity and condition, has been under severe and sharp attack, and in some states has been eliminated.
Chomsky: Many societies just take affirmative action for granted. India has a system called reservations, which was instituted back in the 1940s in an attempt to overcome deep-seated caste and gender inequities. Any such system imposes hardships on some in order, one hopes, to develop a more equitable and just society. But to a large extent I think the attack on affirmative action is an attempt to justify the kinds of discriminatory and oppressive patterns that existed in the past.
On the other hand, such systems should certainly be designed so that they don’t harm poor people who happen not to fit the categories designated for support. This can be done. There have been very effective applications of affirmative action — in the universities, for example, and the public-service industries. If you look in detail you find plenty of things to criticize, but the main thrust of the program is humane and appropriate.
Barsamian: To all appearances, it looks as if the current economic system is riding high. But you have stated that the system is bound to self-destruct. Do you still feel that way?
Chomsky: I never actually said that. I said it has elements in it that look as if they’re going to self-destruct. But nobody knows, because nobody understands these things well enough. It’s unclear whether you can turn the whole world, including the West, into a Third World country where wealth is highly concentrated, resources are used to protect the wealthy, and the general public lives somewhere between unpleasantness and actual misery. I don’t think that kind of world can last very long, but I can’t prove it.
Barsamian: But let’s say I’m a CEO of a major corporation. Isn’t it in my interest that consumers have enough money to buy my products? This was the whole logic of Henry Ford.
Chomsky: It’s in your interest to ensure that you make a profit. But the way to make a profit isn’t necessarily to provide goods to a mass market that’s able to buy them. Maybe what’s in your best interest is to produce a smaller quantity of goods by means of extremely cheap and repressed labor for a small market of relatively wealthy people, meanwhile making money through financial speculations.
Barsamian: Is it possible to slow the spread of globalization and limit the increasing power of transnational corporations?
Chomsky: You read constantly that globalization is somehow inevitable, but that’s not true. In many ways, what’s called globalization is not unlike the situation at the early part of this century in terms of trade and investment flow. There are differences, however. For example, the speed of financial flow is now so fast it overwhelms governments. But there’s nothing inevitable about this new development. It’s a result of the public-policy decision to break down the system of regulated currencies, and also of the telecommunications revolution, which wouldn’t have occurred if not for the public sector’s assuming vast costs and risks and then handing the rewards over to the private sector.
But these things aren’t at all unstoppable. In fact, they are potentially under control. About three-quarters of all international trade and investment transactions take place within Europe, the U.S., and Japan — areas where, in principle at least, mechanisms already exist that allow the public to control what happens. And finally, transnational corporations are themselves a public gift. Their rights were created, mostly by the judicial system, early in this century. The public doesn’t have to agree to them. In fact, transnationals don’t have to exist at all. Those at the top rely heavily on public subsidy. According to one major study, about 20 percent of them wouldn’t exist if not for public bailouts.
All of this is under our control, in principle. The long-term goal should be to decide that these institutions are fundamentally illegitimate. They’re not a law of nature. They can be changed just as other oppressive institutions have been changed.
Right now, about 95 percent of the population thinks that corporations should sacrifice profits for the benefit of working people and their communities. This is a good start. But notice that this attitude presupposes the corporations’ right to rule. It says, Be kinder, more benevolent autocrats. I think this same 95 percent can easily decide that the corporations don’t have any right to rule in the first place. It’s not that they should be more benevolent autocrats; there should be no autocratic structures. This is what mill hands were saying in Lowell, Massachusetts, about 150 years ago: those who work in the mills ought to own them.
So we move from the idea that the autocrats should be more benevolent, which is correct and fair, to the question of whether there should be autocratic structures. I don’t think that’s too big a jump.
Barsamian: What about the contradiction that, on the one hand, the transnational corporations undermine and subvert state power, yet, on the other hand, they are highly dependent on the state for subsidies, military protection, and so on?
Chomsky: There’s nothing novel about this. What the transnational corporations want to do — and the domestic ones, as well — is undermine democratic functioning but ensure that there will be a powerful state to subsidize them. If you look through the history of modern economic development, you find that those who advocate free markets do so, virtually without exception, only in cases where it benefits them.
Take Newt Gingrich, who supposedly represents the free-market ideology. How did he react when the Reagan administration carried out the most protectionist policies since the 1930s? Did he oppose that? How did he react when we closed off American markets to Japan to enable the automotive, steel, and semiconductor industries to reconstruct? Was he against that? We can go on testing how Gingrich really feels about free markets, but clearly the answer is he wants them only when they’re good for his guys.
In this morning’s Boston Globe, there’s a front-page article describing the alleged collapse of the Japanese economy. It starts by saying that nobody can violate the laws of economics, the grand laws of the market; it looked for a while as if Japan could, but we now see that their strategy didn’t work. They’re just like the rest of us, after all. As an example, the article cites the fact that Japan failed in the semiconductor industry, where Americans were able to regain the lead.
What really happened was that Reaganites essentially closed the American market to Japanese semiconductors and poured a lot of money — mostly through the military — into the domestic semiconductor industry and new forms of computer design and interaction. Through this large-scale state intervention, the U.S. indeed regained control of the semiconductor industry. Does that show the “laws of economics” at work?
It’s interesting that these matters are almost out in the open, usually on the business pages. Right after the last election, for example, the Clinton administration announced a huge program to build new fighter planes. It appears that Boeing will get the contract, even though they haven’t produced a fighter plane for forty years. When asked why, the Defense Department said it was because we have to find efficient ways of getting the new technology right to the commercial market, and Boeing has the commercial market. In fact, a Defense Department spokesman went so far as to say, “We have to switch from a military-industrial complex to an industrial-military complex” — that is, we now have to recognize publicly that the real point of military production is to subsidize private corporations.
Nevertheless, we read that the U.S. has regained control of the semiconductor industry due to the miracles of the market. It’s like a dream world. The advocates of free markets want poor children and their mothers to face the rigors of the market. They want poor people in India to face the rigors of the market. But not U.S. corporations. The rigors of the market are fine for the defenseless, but not for the powerful. The powerful need state protection.
Barsamian: You’ve said you’re uncomfortable with the term “corporate welfare.” Why?
Chomsky: The reason for my hesitation is not that such a thing doesn’t exist, or isn’t serious, but that the term is generally used to refer to specific government programs targeting some particular component of the industrial sector: ethanol manufacturers, for example. But what about the underpinnings of the whole economic system? Where do computers come from, or the Internet, or airplanes, or anything else? They all come from substantial public funding, but that’s not called corporate welfare, and I think it ought to be. I’m not saying that public funding shouldn’t exist. I think it’s very good to have money going into creating the science and technology of the future. But it shouldn’t be funneled through private tyrannies, let alone the military system, and it should be publicly decided where the money goes. When you talk about corporate welfare, all that’s off-limits.
There’s nothing inherent in the kind of capitalism we have . . . that says we must discriminate against gays. In fact, perfectly consistent with that system of control would be the attitude that all people are alike: they are all equally lacking in the right to control their own fate.
Barsamian: Some experts predict that the twenty-first century will be the U.S. century because of our domination of the media through the Internet and telecommunications.
Chomsky: The Internet and telecommunications are textbook examples of how the public has been deluded into subsidizing private power. Through the government, the public assumes the risks and the costs, thinking we’re defending ourselves from foreign enemies, when we’re really creating systems of private power for the future.
Another example is transportation in the U.S. Why do we have a suburbanized society in which everyone has to drive a car, live in the suburbs, and shop at big malls? Because of one of the biggest social-engineering projects in history, carried out by the government beginning in the 1950s. It was called the National Defense Highway System, and was responsible for building many of the first freeways. Its purpose was supposedly to allow for mass evacuation of cities in the event of a nuclear attack, but, in effect, it was a way of shifting the country from public transportation to automobiles, trucks, and airplanes.
This move away from public transportation was initiated by a conspiracy among General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil to simply buy up and destroy the public-transportation system in Los Angeles so as to force people to use their products. The participants went to court and were tried and fined a few thousand dollars, and then the government took over and, jointly with the corporations, created this social-engineering project that changed the face of the country enormously.
The same thing was happening here in New England. Earlier in this century you could get all around New England via electric railways, but no longer. Now there’s a new plan in Boston to dismantle the public-transportation system and privatize it to make it “more efficient.” We know what that means. They’ll cut off unprofitable routes, ensure that the system is mostly available to the rich, and get rid of unions. That’s the standard method of improving efficiency: by transferring costs from the rich to the poor.
This morning I drove in to work. The roads are full of potholes and big traffic jams. That’s called efficient. And it is highly efficient from the point of view of the corporations who own the place. All of the costs to the commuters increase the gross national product: they’re using more cars and more gas; there’s more pollution, so we’ll have to spend more money to heal the people who suffer from it. These costs are transferred to the public, and they’re not measured.
Barsamian: Books and libraries were very central in your intellectual development when you were a kid. Now there’s a right-wing move afoot to charge people who use the library; when you go in to check out a book, advocates of this plan say, you should pay for it. But if you don’t use the library, you shouldn’t have to pay.
Chomsky: That’s part of the ongoing redesign of society so that it benefits only the wealthy. Notice that these people are not calling for terminating the Pentagon. That’s because they understand very well that it’s a subsidy for the rich. They’re not crazy enough to think that it’s defending us against attack — by whom? Martians? But they know it’s creating the next generation of hot technology and science.
But, getting back to libraries, take Lexington, the suburb of Boston where I live: It’s an upper-middle-class, professional town, and has a good library because people contribute to it. I give money to the library, and I use it. And it’s for the rich, because only the rich live there. I don’t like this. I benefit from it, but I don’t like it. On the other hand, in an urban slum, people don’t have enough money to provide funds for the library. They don’t have the time and resources to go there. They don’t have the education to know what to look for.
One of my daughters lives in a declining old mill town — not a horrible slum, but fading away. The town does happen to have a rather nice public library with good books for children. I’ve been there with her children on a Saturday afternoon, and there’s nobody there except a few professionals and their kids. Where are the kids who ought to be there? Probably watching television. Because going to the library is not the kind of thing you do anymore. It was the kind of thing you did if you were a working-class person fifty or sixty years ago, or a hundred years ago. I think that’s a tremendous victory for our system of indoctrination: to evacuate people’s minds even of the desire to gain access to cultural resources.
Barsamian: Over the last thirty years, certain cultural issues — such as gay rights, gun control, animal rights, and vegetarianism — have entered mainstream consciousness, but there hasn’t been much of a transformation in other areas.
Chomsky: I think it’s a much more civilized society today than it was thirty years ago. In general, there is now a much broader recognition of the rights of others, of diversity, of the need to recognize the oppressive acts that you yourself have been involved in. There’s no more dramatic illustration of this change than our attitude toward what, along with slavery, is one of the original sins of American society: the extermination of the native population. Until the 1960s, this was hardly even an issue. When I grew up we played cowboys and Indians, and we were the cowboys — the good guys. My children certainly didn’t play like that. My grandchildren obviously don’t.
This new civility has resulted in a lot of hysteria about political correctness — which hit a peak in 1992 with the frustration and rage over the fact that it wasn’t possible to carry out a five-hundredth-anniversary celebration of Columbus’s “liberation” of the hemisphere. It would have been possible thirty years earlier, but it wasn’t possible now because the general mentality and attitude of the population had changed. So comparatively, yes, there’s been a change.
On the other hand, there are some areas that haven’t been touched: the central areas of power. All of this greater civility can be tolerated, even supported, by major institutions so long as it doesn’t threaten the heart of their power. In fact, while this has been going on, their power and domination has increased.
Barsamian: For example, Disney, which is exploiting Third World labor in Haiti and elsewhere, has a very liberal domestic policy on gay rights.
Chomsky: There’s nothing inherent in the kind of capitalism we have — this corporate oligopoly, or mercantilism, or whatever you want to call it — that says we must discriminate against gays. In fact, perfectly consistent with that system of control would be the attitude that all people are alike: They are all equally lacking in the right to control their own fate. They’re all alike in being passive consumers, apathetic and obedient workers. Those who are on top will, of course, have greater rights, whether they’re black or white, gay or heterosexual, men or women. There’s nothing in the system of capitalist domination that is inconsistent with this kind of leveling.
Barsamian: What about the cigarette industry? If thirty years ago you’d said there would be smoke-free flights and smoke-free restaurants and big tobacco would be under attack, no one would have believed you.
Chomsky: The anti-tobacco movement is in part the result of other changes and health issues. Use of substances of any kind has declined among more educated sectors of the population. Smoking is now almost a class-related issue. You find plenty of smoking in areas where there are a lot of poor, uneducated people, but very little among people of better education and higher income. Smoking has become so class-related that some prohibition historians are predicting it will become illegal, because if you look at the history of prohibition, it has repeatedly been the case that when a substance becomes associated with “the dangerous classes” — poor people, working people — it is made illegal. Even Prohibition in this country was in large measure designed to undermine working-class people who gathered in saloons. The rich folks kept drinking as much as they wanted.
Whatever the source of anti-smoking sentiment, it’s a good development. Smoking is a murderous habit, and kills plenty of people. But I’m not suggesting it be made illegal. That’s a separate topic that raises its own questions.
Barsamian: In your book World Orders Old and New, you say that the United Nations has virtually become an agency for U.S. power. If that’s the case, how would you explain the hostility toward the U.N. here?
Chomsky: On the extreme Right, there’s a lot of opposition to the U.N. Some of it’s tied in with fantasies about world government and black helicopters and loss of sovereignty. But more generally there is hostility toward international institutions because they have not always done exactly what the U.S. has ordered them to do. Organizations that in any way advocate the interests of developing countries, or are critical of the Washington consensus, have to go. There are all sorts of rotten things you can say about the U.N., but it does have a limited form of democracy about it — very limited, but not zero. Why tolerate that?
The U.S. attitude toward the U.N. was expressed rather neatly by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she was trying to get Security Council members to accept one of our punitive actions against Iraq, which everyone recognized was part of U.S. domestic politics. They wouldn’t go along, and she simply told them that we will act “multilaterally when we can and unilaterally as we must” — i.e., when we feel it’s in our interest to do so.
Barsamian: I’ve heard you mention an incident from your childhood in which your brother and you got into a fight. Although you instigated it, you were able to put the blame on him.
Chomsky: Where’d you get that one? I must have been talking too much. There was such an incident, and it was in fact my fault, but I was able to convince myself that it was his fault.
I suspect that everyone has such experiences. I think we should use them as a way of understanding how, say, corporate executives can claim to be public benefactors. I presume it’s the same mechanism: you start by wanting something advantageous to yourself to be true, then construct a belief system that explains how it could be true, and then believe it. And you really do believe it.
Barsamian: It’s like when multinational corporate managers are asked about the very low wages they pay workers in the Third World, and they respond by saying, Those people didn’t have a job before. We’re giving them work. They’re learning a trade.
Chomsky: Exactly. If they were serious about that, they would take some of their profits and use them to support better working conditions there. It’s not that they’re short of money. Read the Fortune 500 reports every year. They’ve got plenty of money. And I don’t criticize the corporate executives. If an executive tried to use corporate funds to improve working conditions in the Third World, he’d be out in three seconds. In fact, it’s probably illegal. The executive’s responsibility is to the corporation’s stockholders, to maximize profits, market share, and power. And if he does that by paying starvation wages under horrible working conditions, he’s just doing his job. It’s the job that should be questioned, not the person in it.
Barsamian: There’s quite a bit of activism against the use of Third World sweatshops by the Gap, Disney, Nike, Reebok, and other global corporations. Are those campaigns getting at systemic issues?
Chomsky: I think they’re good campaigns, but to ask whether they’re getting at systemic issues is a misleading question. How do you get at systemic issues like the structure of power? You get at them by people coming to understand more about how the world works, and that’s a step-by-step matter. So if you begin by facing the fact that people in Haiti are being paid a couple of cents an hour so that rich people here can make money, that opens up other questions, and ultimately it might lead to questions about the structure of power altogether. But it’s just one step in the process of understanding that can lead people to change institutions.
Barsamian: But aren’t corporate managers quick to adjust and make minimal concessions? “Sure,” they say to the workers, “you can go to the bathroom twice a day instead of once a day.”
Chomsky: Absolutely. The same was true of kings and princes. And slave owners. They made plenty of adjustments when they weren’t able to control people. And that’s all to the good. People in Haiti may suffer a little bit less, and people here may see that activism can work. But we have to go further. We need to get to the point where we’re asking, Why do we need the king?