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INTERVIEW: Noam Chomsky by Jerry Brown SPIN Magazine—Volume 9, Number 5, August 1993


During my campaign for president in 1992, I experienced for the first time the full weight of the money-media system of control. Having been so much a part of that system, I had not fully grasped the radical dominance of politics by the top one percent and the complicit role of the media. All this became clear once I swore off donations above $100 and refused to attend the sacred rite of end-less political fund raising with the wealthy. This made the media turn aside, for they knew I was not a "serious" candidate committed to the proposition: Money buys media, media buys credibility.

But Professor Noam Chomsky has gone much further in peeling back the myths. A renowned professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is best known for his stark analysis of the American system of power. His books and lectures take you where few dare to tread. He is not afraid of his peers and doesn't let public disapproval intimidate him--he ruthlessly exposes the deceits that cover up the dark side of power and the media conformity that makes it possible.

I promised to speak truth to power—and found Chomsky had already been doing it for 30 years. This interview captures the spirit and key elements of his devastating critique. Savor it. Let it engage you as it assaults your complacency. Then act.

Everything politics is, Chomsky isn't. That's why this interview is important: It will allow you to perceive contemporary society-its government, its commodity fetishes, its cruelty--in a starker light. Chomsky gives you a lens through which you can see.


Jerry Brown: The national debt waits like a hungry tiger to pounce on President Clinton's new programs. Despite urban despair and ecological disaster, Congress won't appropriate money even when it's clearly needed. Yet Reagan got hundreds of billions of dollars for a military buildup against what now appears to have been a nonexistent threat. Do you have any evidence that the Pentagon, or the government in any of its forms, knew how weak the Soviet Union was prior to the beginning of the U.S. buildup?

Noam Chomsky: Always, and they conceded it.

JB: Do you think this was known by the Pentagon?

NC: Look, it can't help being known. Everyone knew it. The Soviet Union had begun to stagnate around the '60s. That's when you got quality-of-life-indicators beginning to decline. By the late '70s, military spending was flattening out. Actually, there was an interesting political development - remember this Plan B business?

JB: Sure. It was one of the most remarkable sales jobs in history. The group of analysts that prepared Plan B said America was dangerously unprepared for the Soviet nuclear threat. Their report provided the justification for the military buildup in the '80s.

NC: The Plan B stuff—it's now been declassified —the whole thing was just faked. That's not to say that they didn't convince themselves—people can convince themselves of anything. They concocted this "window of vulnerability."

JB: They said that U.S. land-based missiles would be destroyed in a Soviet attack if the Soviets launched first, and that we needed a system of both decoys and real nuclear missiles carried in rail cars along hundreds of miles of specially laid track.

NC: Around 1980, the corporate world wanted big military spending because they needed a gift from the public to stimulate industry. So they're pleading with the taxpayers: Pay us off, enrich us. By the early '80s, corporate executives were beginning to worry about the consequences. The first two years, the U.S. was shifted from the world's leading creditor to the world's leading debtor, with a big trade deficit. So you take a look at corporate polls by about 1982-83: Corporate America wanted to cut back on military spending. They closed off the window of vulnerability. There was actually a government commission—

JB: Headed by Brent Scowcroft.

NC: —which said, "Yeah, we were wrong. There wasn't any window of vulnerability." Well, what did they learn in between? By 1983, they thought, "Look, we're worried about the consequences beginning to harm us." And from about 1985, military expenditures sort of leveled. In fact, it's interesting. By 1987, military spending was declining, and at that point college-educated wages were beginning to decline because the college-educated mostly work in the high-tech sector. Those are the parts that are subsidized by the Pentagon system.

If you take a look at the 1980 campaign, it's just like 1960. In fact they probably copied it. Kennedy came in in 1960, denouncing Eisenhower as a wimp who was letting the country fall to the Russians. There was a missile gap, and the Russians were going from strength to strength and we were falling behind and frittering away the luxuries. And, in fact, Kennedy, on the basis of a totally faked missile gap, had the biggest military increase in history. It was a big stimulus to the economy. It's in fact correct: You pour money into high-tech industry from the public, and of course you stimulate it—

JB: But the military was a larger percentage of the Gross National Product (GNP) in the '50s and '60s than It became in the '80s.

NC: Well, except for the peak in the early Reagan years. But it doesn't make sense for the military to be measured against the GNP. Suppose you're trying to protect yourself from the guy next door —if you get richer. You don't need more guns. In fact you need less 'cause you have other kinds of power.

The question is. What's the scale of the spending as related to any threats that are around. The fact is, there aren't any threats. In fact, the U.S. hasn't been threatened since the War of 1812. We haven't had an enemy who can injure us.

We now have a big declassified record about the '40s and '50s. No one ever expected a Russian invasion. They were concerned about the Russian military threat because it was a deterrent. It put limits on what the U.S. could do. Like, you couldn't do things like send a half a million troops to the desert, as the U.S could do last year— it was too dangerous.

And the other thing is, the early postwar plans were to rebuild Germany and Japan, and to remilitarize them. Those are the traditional enemies of the Soviet Union. We were rebuilding that whole system. The Soviet Union was being encircled. Well, they were worried that the Soviet Union was going to retaliate.

JB: Does the reluctance to intervene in Bosnia indicate a shift in our military thinking?

NC: We don't intervene in Bosnia because there's no U.S. interest to be gained by it. No power—the United States or anyone else—acts selflessly. There's no such thing. States are not moral agents; they act in the interests of domestic power.

However, there is now a reluctance to intervene—that's for other reasons, that's because of the changes in the U.S. It's just a different country now than it was 10 years ago. Take Kennedy again He invaded South Vietnam. In 1961 and '62, he sent the U.S. Air Force and started bombing South Vietnamese villages and authorized the use of napalm, sent U.S. so-called advisers into combat situations, started to try to drive about seven million peasants into concentration camps. Well, there wasn't a peep in the United States—do you remember any protests? Who cared?

Reagan also tried to duplicate that. His problem was Central America, and the first couple of months in office, they replayed exactly what Kennedy had done the first few months. They came out with a white paper about how the Russians are conquering Central America, and we've got to move in. They were surely planning to invade Nicaragua like Kennedy did, and to get directly involved in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Well, it's a different country now. There's a big popular protest, a spontaneous protest from all over the place. In fact the Reagan administration was afraid that its main programs like the military budget would soon be threatened. So it backed off. And a couple of months later, the press exposed the white papers as a fraud. Then [the government] turned to clandestine terror and that started Iran-Contra.

Clandestine terror is inefficient. It's much more efficient to send in Marines and B-52s. Government turns to clandestine terrorist operations when it's afraid of its own population. It's a secret from its own population, it's not a secret from anybody else. The Reagan administration just broke new records. They created an international terror network of a kind that nobody ever dreamed of before. Bits and pieces came out in the Iran-Contra hearings.

There was an interesting leak from the Bush administration the day of the opening of this ground war in Iraq. It was an early planning document and it said, "In cases where the U.S. confronts much weaker enemies" —which of course are the only ones you want to fight—"our challenge will be not simply to defeat them but to defeat them decisively and rapidly" because anything else would "undercut political support," which is too thin to tolerate intervention.

So you can have things like Panama, where nobody fights back. And you've got the whole society under military control before you start and its over in two days. You can have things like Iraq where you're fighting a third world country so you're sure they're not going to be able to shoot back and you smash them up for a couple of weeks and you walk through before anybody has time to think about it. You're going to have things like Somalia, where they held off the intervention until after the crisis was over. The famine was already visibly declining and being taken care of, there had been agreements, which were cutting back the fighting. They knew perfectly well that you send in the Marines and there's going to be a couple of teenage kids throwing rocks at them—"Okay. we can handle that" You get some good PR shots of colonels handing out food, then you pull them out real fast.

That's a tribute to the civilizing effect of the '60s, which has just changed the country in every respect: with regard to intervention, with regard to environmental issues, feminist issues, every imaginable issue. It's a very dramatic fact in my opinion, that since the '60s, for the first time in our history, we've been able to face the original sin.

We went until the '60s without any recognition that we had wiped out the indigenous population— where was it? When I was a kid, we played cowboys and Indians. We were the cowboys shooting the Indians, the bad guys. And that went right into the '60s. Academic scholarship was just lying about the number of people, claiming that thinly scattered hunter-gatherers had no right to this country anyway. Since the '60s, that whole edifice has been demolished. And 1992 was dramatic. They could not ram through a celebration, people would just not take it. If it had been 1962, it would have been a celebration of the liberation of the hemisphere like it was every other anniversary. The five hundredth anniversary of Columbus turned into a dirge. In my opinion, that's why [the elites] launched this ludicrous political correctness campaign. Because I think that they were terrified by the fact that they couldn't even carry off a celebration of conquest.

JB: But in the face of that growing awareness of history, there is this growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the continuing downward pressure on the middle class.

NC: That's right. It's all going on at once.

JB: U.S. prisons and jails hold 900,000 people, so there is real social breakdown. The corporate assault on the environment continues to grow, and our political life is dominated by wealth which buys and manipulates the media.

NC: There are tendencies going in opposite directions. On the one hand, there's a tendency toward this international centralization of power. There's also an opposite tendency: All around the world, there's much more involvement in grassroots organizations, there's regionalism.

Sometimes it's not pretty. Like in Northern Italy, there's a group, the Lombard League, which is asking for more local autonomy, but that's because they're rich and they want to be free of the need to take care of these dirty poverty-stricken peasants down in the south. And at the extreme end you get you know, Bosnia. So it can be quite ugly. But it also has positive aspects.

JB: But now, the economics profession is arrayed against local power because it puts the greatest value on increasing the size of markets—the larger the market, the more efficient the enterprise.

NC: Yeah, look: The economics profession is basically a tool of private power. They have a doctorate, which is kind of a theology, which points out, sometimes correctly, that you can increase output by moving to market arrangements. Market arrangements essentially give more power to the powerful. That's what it amounts to. It's like a parliamentary system where the number of votes you have depends on the number of dollars you have. Well, we know what kind of democracy that would be, and we know where it would end up.

For one thing, future generations can't vote with their dollars in the market. My grandchildren can't decide how they want things spent, but they're going to have to live with it—which means the environment.

Take other issues. Suppose the people around here decide that instead of having more consumer goods they'd like to have more leisure. The market system doesn't allow you that choice. It drives you to having more consumer goods because it's all driven to maximizing production. But is the only human value to have more and more goods you don't need? In fact the business world knows that it's not. That's why they spend billions of dollars in advertising, to try to create artificial wants.

JB: The economists have a word, "autarchy," which they use to denigrate the notion of local self-reliance.

NC: Yeah, they say it's bad What "autarchy" means is people in some area saying, "Look, we'd like our lives to be like this, not like you guys tell us." Take Japan. Part of the Japan-bashing now is because Japan protects, say, mom-and-pop-style stores, and that blocks big supermarket chains from the West from coming in and taking over. Well, suppose Japan would like to have a community where you have mom- and-pop stores. I can remember that from childhood. You go 'round the corner and you pick up a loaf of bread, and you talk to the grocer. It's a lot nicer than going into the supermarket.

Now it's economically inefficient by the economist's measures. It means that things cost a little bit more. But suppose people say, okay, I'm willing to spend a little more because I want a nicer life. The economists say you're not allowed to make that decision, because the only human value in the world is maximizing profit and efficiency. Who says that's the only human value?

Adam Smith didn't think so. You go back and read their hero. What he said, in fact, is that in any civilized country, the government is going to have to intervene to prevent market forces from destroying people and reducing them to creatures as ignorant and stupid as is possible for a human being to be. The natural effect of the division of labor, maximizing efficiency, is going to turn people into tools.

There's one well-known truth of economic history, and that is that every developed society has succeeded by radically violating these principles. You get this in the current negotiations on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). One of their prime elements is to increase protection on things like patents—it's called intellectual property rights. The idea is obvious. You want to make sure that the transnational corporations monopolize the technology of the future, meaning that U.S.-run biotech corporations or pharmaceutical firms will have all the capacity to produce food and drugs and India won't be able to produce drugs for itself at 10 percent the cost. That's protectionism, that's not freedom.

We've always had industrial policy, but ours was hidden behind the Pentagon. The Clinton people said, "The state has to become involved more aggressively in paying the welfare for the richwhich is what industrial policy is. The Berkeley Round Table did studies which pointed out that just about every functioning aspect of the U.S. economy is publicly subsidized. You've got computers, agrobusiness, lasers, pharmaceuticals. Why do you have them? Because the public pays a lot of the cost.

JB: But subsidizing the growth of multinational companies continues the trend toward greater inequality and the growing assault on the environment. So something is going to have to give.

NC: The executives who live in Connecticut and go into New York where the big offices are and have a branch office in Zurich and have production plants in Poland and Mexico—they don't care what happens to this country. They care what happens to the part of the country that they live in. But that's protected. The suburbs of Greenwich, Connecticut are going to be great. There will be golf courses and police and they keep black people out and soon.

Walk through New York City now. It's beginning to look like San Salvador. You've got very rich people living behind walls. Once in a while a gate opens and a limousine comes out from this complex, and outside you have people starving in the streets. That's a third world country. You drive through LA, you see it. And the people who are behind the walls, their goal is to enrich themselves. For them, it's crucial that there be an attack on democracy, because if the general public becomes involved in these things, well ....

You take a look at polls. This is a very heavily polled society, because business wants to keep its finger on the public pulse. They know that over 80 percent of the public thinks that the economic system is inherently unfair. Half the population thinks both parties ought to be disbanded. Alienation from institutions goes up every year-like, two-thirds of the population thinks none of the institutions function. I think that's where Perot came from. People would have voted for Mickey Mouse if he came down from Mars and said, "I've got 50 billion dollars and big ears, go vote for me. Why not?

People are desperate. If this can be organized into a functioning democracy, wealth is in trouble. Serious trouble.

JB: Can you really have democracy when more and more power is lodged in distant private and public bureaucracies? Do we need to break things up, to decentralize?

NC: The Financial Times, which is the main international business journal published in London, had a lead article on this about a year ago in which they pointed out, quite accurately, that what's happening —they think it's great, of course —is what they called a de facto world government of executive agreements with its own institutions, like the IMF and the World Bank, the EC executive, G-7 meetings—and GATT and NAFTA would be part of it. This whole structure of executive power operates independently of public involvement. Even parliaments can't influence it. Who knows what's going on at IMF meetings? You can't subpoena World Bank records.

JB: NAFTA goes on for thousands of pages in the most abstruse and technical language. The government printing office sold only 500 of them. So clearly, the laws NAFTA imposes on us won't be understood except by that small group of trade insiders.

NC: Its very interesting the way these guys talk —what they're afraid of is what they call a "democracy opening." There was a Latin American studies group called in Washington in September of 1990—a bunch of academic hotshots. It was about U.S. Mexico relations, and they said that relations were, as they put it, "extraordinarily positive." I mean, there's endemic torture and murder of community leaders and real wages have dropped 60 percent, but that doesn't matter.

It's all extraordinarily positive, just wonderful. Except there's one problem, they said. The wording went something like this: They said a democracy opening in Mexico might bring to power a government reflecting more popular interests and concerns, and that might lead to a nationalist opposition to U.S. plans and interests—that's the one problem. There might be a democracy opening.

Well, same in the U.S. and Canada: People might actually start getting involved in these issues, thinking that they care about jobs, and whether their children have a world to live in. And the idea, in my opinion, the idea of NAFTA—and GATT, too— is to try to rule out that danger.

JB: In order to see the NAFTA drafts before the final copy was signed, one had to get a security clearance—become a "cleared observerwhich required one to answer questions under oath on such matters as previous drug use. What is this saying about the democratic process?

NC: The whole thing is primarily an attack on democracy. If they can do all the negotiation in secret then the public doesn't know what hit them, and it's just sort of stuck with the result locked into treaties. Did you follow what happened with the Labor Advisory Committee?

JB: Yes. The committee was given almost no time to review the NAFTA agreement.

NC: Twenty-four hours. That's radically in violation of U.S. trade law. The 1974 Trade Act requires that they have input throughout the whole process. They didn't even have time to convene. Furthermore, that was all suppressed in the press. This was all right in the middle of the campaign.

JB: It was essentially taken out of the campaign. First, because the media hated to report on it. Second, because Clinton essentially agreed with Bush on NAFTA.

NC: Yeah, Perot made some comments, and he didn't even know what he was talking about-

JB: It's amazing to me how much the elites in this country are in agreement on the value of NAFTA. It just seems natural to them that the scale of corporate activity should increase across borders.

NC: Growth is a funny sort of concept For example, our GNP increases every time we build a prison. Well, okay, it's growth in a sense, but it's kind of a dumb measure. Has our life improved if we have more people in prison?

JB: And a poor person will add more to the GNP with a cancer that is treated under Medicaid than if they work in a minimum wage job.

NC: Exactly, yeah. And things like preventive health don't show up in increasing the GNP. In fact, they might even reduce it because it means you waste less money in high technology care later. So a lot of this stuff really is theology. I'm not saying that economics is a joke. It's a serious subject But the way it's applied as policy is just theology. It's as crazy as Khomeini. Crazier in many ways. Kind of like fundamentalism. It emphasizes particular values: growth, profit macroeconomic statistics—in ways which have almost no human meaning.

JB: Yeah, an example of the corruption of our thinking: When the President proposes immunizing children, he doesn't say the purpose is to minimize suffering, but rather to save money in the long run.

NC: That's a perfect example: The idea that you might want to save children, even if you lose money by it, doesn't arise.

The elites, including the educated classes, are going toward reducing moral values and turning people into nothing but agents of production and profit. So the ideal is you try to glue everybody in front of the television set where they get bombarded from childhood with messages that tell them: You've got to buy more, your human value depends on the number of commodities you've got piled up. There's nothing else in life.

On the other hand, if you can't use them as tools of production, you stick them in jail or in the slums, or let 'em prey on one another, and have enough cops around to control them. That's a picture of the world, and it might lead to good macroeconomic statistics.

A city like Boston—rich, cultivated—at the city hospital, they had to open a malnutrition clinic a couple of years ago. It peaks in the winter because people actually make that horrible decision about whether to heat their homes or feed their children. For that to happen in a country like this—that's just scandalous. But that's what happens as you move toward a third world society. And that's the infrastructure collapsing when you get services for the poor collapsing.

When I was a kid in the Depression, it was much poorer, but it was much more hopeful. My family was mostly unemployed working class, but they were very hopeful people. You had political action that you could be part of.

What you have now is hopelessness. In fact, it's striking that about 75 percent of the population thinks that the future is going to be worse than the past, that their children won't live as well as they will. That's the first time in the history of industrial society that this has happened, except for during temporary things like a war. There's a sense of permanent decline. That's part of the reason you have all of these antisocial behaviors.

I watched TV last night where they were filming people in Baton Rouge—there's this court trial going on with this guy who'd shot a Japanese Student who mistakenly came to his house. Many people were saying, "That's right somebody walks onto my property, I shoot 'em." That's the peak of antisocial behavior. You get armory and you shoot anybody who gets in your way. That's the end of civil society, and we're moving to it. At the same time, we're moving in a very positive direction— like the grassroots organizations are much more powerful.

JB: Is that where the principal source of positive change has to come from?

NC: In my opinion. It's always been true throughout history.

JB: It can't come from the top?

NC: People don't give gifts. I mean, occasionally you get a benevolent dictator, but it's pretty rare. Every change that's taken place, like ending slavery, it wasn't orders from rich guys. Take the civil rights movement in the '60s—it's black kids in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee fighting for their rights in miserable conditions. Everything good that's ever happened in the world comes about that way.

JB: So on balance, over the last 10 or 15 years, is hope in greater ascendancy or pessimism.

NC: Well, that's a personal matter. I think the country's much more civilized than it used to be, way more civilized —in just about every measure. In terms of human concerns, human values, it's just changed enormously to the good. At the same time, the institutional structure is worse and having its effects. And the question is which of these tendencies prevails. That's what your job is: to make sure the right one prevails.

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