The Boston Phoenix
April 1 - 8, 1999


Who runs America?

Forty minutes with Noam Chomsky

interview by Adrian Zupp

Noam Chomsky, one of the world's leading linguistic thinkers, is also one of its leading political dissidents. A professor of linguistics at MIT (where he has taught since 1955), he has consistently spoken out about abuses of power, particularly those involving US corporations. He has been arrested several times and was on Richard Nixon's infamous enemies list. Chomsky makes countless speaking appearances around the world each year; his schedule is so tight that it took 15 months to get this interview. Now 70, Chomsky is still energetic and expansive; he is also quiet-spoken, somewhat shy, and exceedingly sincere. Always quotable, Chomsky has said: "If the Nuremberg laws were applied today, then every postwar American president would have to be hanged." He has also said: "It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies."

This interview took place in his MIT office.

Q: As you tell it, the main components of power and control in America seem to be corporations, the government, the media, and the public-relations industry. But many people apparently find it hard to go along with your explanation because they don't feel that control could be that monolithic.

A: What you just described is not monolithic. I mean, you mentioned four things, and within each of these things there's a lot of conflict. First of all, corporations disagree. And corporations and government are not the same thing.

Q: But I get the impression that a lot of people think that you're saying that it's a massive conspiracy.

A: That's true maybe of people in the Harvard faculty, but that's because for them conspiracy is a curse word.

If something comes along that you don't like, there are a few sort of four-letter words that you can use to push it out of the sphere of discussion. If you were in a bar downtown, they might have different words, but if you're an educated person what you use are complicated words like conspiracy theory or Marxist.

It's a way of pushing unpleasant questions off the agenda so that we can continue in our own happy ideology.

Q: So would you say that the elite groups are not so much coordinated in producing the system as they are unanimous in protecting it?

A: There are matters on which they tend to be in overwhelming agreement. There are other matters on which there are internal differences. And in fact, when you investigate the media product, what you typically find is that on topics on which there is very broad consensus, there's no discussion. On topics where there's debate, there is discussion.

A dramatic recent case was the Multilateral Agreement on Investments [a proposed global economic treaty]. On that there was near-uniformity in the corporate sector, the government, the media component of the corporate sector, the international financial institutions. They were all in favor of this treaty, overwhelmingly. They all understood very well that the public is not going to like it, so for years they just kept it secret. On that issue, no discussion.

The same happened on NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. The same sectors were overwhelmingly in favor, but they knew the population wasn't going to like it -- which in fact remained true right until the end. So they simply would never allow debate on it.

To their distress, the issue broke through because of popular activism and because of Ross Perot, who just made a fuss about it. So it was impossible to suppress it totally. And what happened then is extremely interesting. What happened is, the major press -- the New York Times, let's say -- simply never allowed it to be discussed. The labor movement, for example, had a position, but it was never allowed to be presented. The labor movement was condemned by curse words: it was "old-fashioned," "crude," "tough," "blundering," a long series of curse words. Here you have a consensus among the elite.

And this is true on many other issues. Let's take an international issue -- say, the Vietnam War. There's a pretense now -- the press like to pretend that they were opposing the war and being courageous. That's complete nonsense. If you look back, they supported the war overwhelmingly. I mean, not even a flicker of disagreement. And then when a debate did develop among the real power sectors as to whether it was worth pursuing or not -- like, is it costing us too much? -- at that point [the press] divided also. Some of them said yes, it's costing us too much. Others said it wasn't.

On the other hand, the position of the American population was never expressed. And we know what that position was. We have extensive polls. From about the time that they started being taken, the late '60s, into the early '90s, about 70 percent of the population said that the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral. Try to find that view anywhere in the press. I've been through it. The view of 70 percent of the population was inexpressible.

And it is not just in the media. Pretty much in the scholarly profession, intellectual journals, business sectors, and so on. There are some questions you don't ask, as was pointed out by George Orwell years ago. He wrote an essay, an important essay, maybe the most important one he ever wrote -- and it was not published, incidentally. It was the introduction to Animal Farm, which everybody's read in school. But you didn't read any introduction. The introduction was about censorship in England. He said, "Look, this is a satire about a totalitarian state, but we shouldn't be self-righteous -- it's not that different in free England." He said in free England there are many ways in which ideas that are unpopular will just not be able to be expressed. And he gave two ways. One, he said, is that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. And second, he said, if you have a good education, you have internalized the fact that there are some things it just wouldn't do to say.

One of the things it wouldn't do to say is that actions the United States government is taking might be fundamentally wrong or immoral. It just wouldn't do to say that. And it wouldn't do to think it. And if you're a well-educated, respectable type, it can't occur to your mind. For the 70 percent of the population who don't have the benefits of a good education, they can see it. Because it's obviously true. This is true on issue after issue, including unimportant issues.

Let's take an unimportant issue, namely the one that has dominated the news for the last year: the silly scandals in Washington. Now, they're an absolute obsession with elites. Educated elites across the spectrum have been completely obsessed with it. Journals, television, everything. The public was not interested; they wanted them to stop it a year ago. In fact, the split between public opinion and elite obsession became so extreme that it even aroused some commentary, which is unusual. But that was extremely clear. The elite could not get enough of the soft porn, and the public didn't care. If they wanted soft porn they could find it somewhere else. And they wanted Congress and the executive to get on to some serious business. I mean, who cares if some guy had an affair?

Q: So was that a victory for distracting people from systemic corruption?

A: I wouldn't call it corruption. I mean, corruption takes place, but what's far more significant is what's not corrupt. Like ramming through NAFTA the way they did. That was not corrupt. Fighting the Vietnam War was not corrupt. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 gave away maybe a hundred billion dollars' worth of publicly owned property -- namely the digital spectrum -- to a few megacorporations. That wasn't corrupt. It was highway robbery on a massive scale, but not corrupt.

The question arises: "Why was it an elite obsession when the public didn't want it?" Well, okay, now we have to speculate, but I think a plausible speculation is exactly what you're saying. In a sense, that would make it on a par with the years of censorship to prevent people from knowing about the MAI and the refusal to allow opposing positions on NAFTA even to be articulated.

Now, the press will tell you they had a debate about that. They think they had a wonderful debate. They even had a town meeting with Gore or Perot or something. But Perot is a good person for them to have a debate with, because they can make fun of him. It was going to be a little harder to make fun of the labor movement and the Office of Technology Assessment and the economists who were giving the same arguments, so therefore they were out of it. And a debate was set up, but only one that you could treat as a comic act. And they were very proud of it.

Q: You've said that true capitalism doesn't work and no one really believes in it; so bogus capitalism is what's going on in America, and communist and socialist systems seem to get co-opted by self-serving elites. What sort of economic and governmental system do you think is viable?

A: Systems like capitalism and socialism and communism have never been tried. What we've had since the Industrial Revolution was one or another form of state capitalism. It's been overwhelmed, certainly in the last century, by big conglomerations of capital corporate structures that are all interlinked with one another and form strategic alliances and administer markets and so on. And are tied up with a very powerful state. So it's some other kind of system -- call it whatever you want. Corporate-administered markets in a powerful state system.

Actually, the Soviet Union was something like that. They didn't have General Electric, they had more concentration of the state system, but apart from that it worked rather like a state-capitalist system. And do these systems work? Yeah, they kind of work. For example, the Soviet Union was a monstrosity, but it had a pretty fast growth rate -- a growth rate unknown in the Western economies. In the 1960s the economy started to stagnate and decline, but for a long period they had a growth rate that was very alarming to Western leaders.

Does the US system work? Yeah, it works in some ways. Take, say, the last 10 years. One percent of the population is making out like bandits. The top 10 percent of the population is doing pretty well. The next 10 percent actually lost net worth, and you go down below and [it gets] still worse. I mean, it's such a rich country that even relatively poor people are still more or less getting by. It's not like Haiti.

On the other hand, it's an economic catastrophe. The typical family in the United States is working, latest estimates are, about 15 weeks a year more than they did 20 years ago -- just to keep stagnating, or even declining, incomes. That's a success in the richest, most privileged country in the world? But it works. I mean, you and I are sitting here and we're not starving, so something's working. It's a little unfair in my case because I'm up in that top few percent who, like I said, are making out like bandits. But most people aren't. So it's a mixed success.

Q: But do you see a way that will . . .

A: Yeah, sure. I don't see why we have to have a system in which the wealth that gets created is directed, overwhelmingly, to a tiny percentage of the population. Nor do I see a system that has to be as radically undemocratic. I mean, remember how undemocratic it is. A private corporation, let's say General Electric, is, in fact, just a pure tyranny. You and I have nothing to say about how it works. The people inside the corporation have nothing to say about how it works, except that they can take orders from above and give them down below. It's what we call tyranny.

And when those institutions also control the government, the framework for popular decision-making very much narrows. In fact, that's the purpose of shrinking government. It's so that the sphere of popular decision-making will narrow and more decisions will fall into the hands of the private tyrannies.

"Government" is a kind of interesting term in American political mythology. The government is presented as some enemy that's outside, something coming from outer space. So when the IRS comes to collect your taxes, it's this enemy coming to steal your money. That's driven into your head from infancy, almost.

There's another way of looking at it, which is that the IRS is the instrument by which you and I decide how to spend our resources for schools and roads and so on. Whatever faults the government has, and there are plenty, it's the one institution in which people can, at least in principle and sometimes in fact, make a difference.

So government's shrinking, meaning the public role is shrinking. And business -- that is, unaccountable private power -- has to take its place. That's the dominant ideology. Why should we accept that? Suppose someone said, "Look, you've got to have a king or a slave owner." Should we accept it? I mean, yes, there are much better systems. Democracy would be a better system. And there are a lot of ways for the country to become way more democratic.

Handing over the digital spectrum, or for that matter the Internet, to private power -- that's a huge blow against democracy. In the case of the Internet, it's a particularly dramatic blow against democracy because this was paid for by the public. How undemocratic can you get? Here is a major instrument, developed by the public -- first part of the Pentagon, and then universities and the National Science Foundation -- handed over in some manner that nobody knows to private corporations who want to turn it into an instrument of control. They want to turn it into a home shopping center. You know, where it will help them convert you into the kind of person they want. Namely, someone who is passive, apathetic, sees their life only as a matter of having more commodities that they don't want. Why give them a powerful weapon to turn you into that kind of a person? Especially after you paid for the weapon? Well, that's what's happening right in front of our eyes.

Could the system be different? Of course it could be different. This [the Internet] could remain what it ought to be: just a public instrument. There ought to be efforts -- not just talk but real efforts -- to ensure Internet access, not just for rich people but for everyone. And it should be freed from the influence of Microsoft or anybody else. They don't have any rights to have anything to do with that system. They had almost nothing to do with creating it. What little they did was on federal contract.

And we can say the same across the board. There are a lot of changes that can be made. Now let's take, say, living wages. There are now living-wage campaigns in many places. They're very good campaigns, it's a great idea. But if you had a free press, what they would be telling you is the following, because they know the facts. If you look at American history, since, say, the 1930s, the minimum wage tracked productivity. So as productivity went up, the minimum wage went up. Which, if you believe in a capitalist society, makes sense. That stops in the mid-'60s.

Suppose you made it continue to track productivity. The minimum wage would be about double what it is now. Now, to say that we should continue doing what was done for 30 years and what just makes obvious sense -- there's nothing radical about that. If you had a free press, this would be all over the front page. But you're not going to find it on the front pages, because the corporate media and their leaders and owners, they don't want that to be an issue. Well, you know, this doesn't have to remain. We're free agents. We're not living in fear of death squads. We can organize to change these things. Every single one of them.

Q: With respect to that, you seem to be someone whom a lot of people listen to. Could you do some things that make the media focus on you?

A: I've done all that. I've been in and out of jail any number of times for organizing. I organized national tax resistance; I was one of the people who organized national draft resistance. I mean, I was up for a long jail sentence. It was so close that my wife went back to school because we figured we were going to have to have somebody who'd take care of the three children.

It's true that I don't spend a lot of time in organizing. I used to, but there came to be a sort of division of labor at some point. And I think we all figured that I'm more helpful when I go out giving talks and show up at fundraising events and so on.

Q: Do you ever get exhortative in your lectures? Do you try to stir people up?

A: No. People say, "Look, he's not a good speaker," and I'm happy about that. If I knew how to do it, I wouldn't. I really dislike good speakers. I think they're dangerous people. Because you shouldn't be exhorting people by the force of your rhetoric. You should be getting them to think about it so they can figure out what they want to do. The best way to do that, that I can imagine, is to say, "Why don't you think about these questions?" Quietly, not screaming. "Think about these questions. Figure out for yourself what's the best way to deal with them."

Adrian Zupp can be reached at

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