The Multinational Monitor

November 1988 - VOLUME 9 - NUMBER 11


An Interview With Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He is the author of numerous book and articles on linguistics, philosophy, intellectual history and contemporary issues. His works include Language and Mind; The Political Economy of Human Rights; Fateful Triangle: The U.S., Israel and the Palestinians; The Culture of Terrorism; and Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Chomsky is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Science.
MULTINATIONAL MONITOR:Businesses want to trade with the Soviet Union, with Libya, with many communist and socialist countries. Do you think, with the changes in technology and the creation of a genuine world market, that there may be the beginnings of a conflict between straight business interests and the traditional American foreign policy goals of controlling foreign countries?
NOAM Chomsky: That is a conflict that goes back to the origins of imperialism. Take say, the early 1920s. There were plenty of businessmen who wanted to trade with the Russians, but the state blocked it.

In the early 1950s, there was a major split in the business community about how to deal with China. There was a group that just wanted to open up trade and commercial interchange and so on, and there was another group that wanted to take a very harsh posture and to drive them into the hands of the Russians, and ultimately, overcome them.

In fact, into the late 1960s, the State Department planners still had the idea that maybe we could break up China, we could restore the old order in China. This is the distinction between what Mike Klare once called the "Traders" and the "Prussians." Basically, you have the same goals, but there is a question as to whether to achieve the goals by economic power or whether to achieve them by violence.... It is a matter of tactics....

In the Middle East, for example, the goal has always been to maintain control over oil. Not because we need it, [but] because it is one of the ways we control our allies. By having control over the energy system, you have a big effect on the whole world system. So the question is, how do we do it? The two approaches are reflected very clearly in the split between [William] Rogers and [Henry] Kissinger around 1970.

Rogers' position was that you do it by the method of the Traders, so he was, for example, in favor of a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict along the lines that had very broad support at the time.

Kissinger, on the other hand, thought you do it by violence, so he wanted to maintain, in fact construct an Iranian, Israeli, Saudi Arabian alliance which would pretty much control the region by force....

With regard to every part of the world ... the goals are the same. You want to insure domination. The fact that those people will trade with you is not enough. Russia will trade with you but you can't control their economic decisions. That is the problem.... American corporations cannot control investment decisions in the Soviet Union. They are going to go their own way. They are independent of our domination. If they want to devote their resources to domestic consumption, they will do it. They are not going to devote them to export-oriented production because that is what we want. That is the problem down to tiny, little countries. Anywhere from the Soviet Union to Grenada, it is the same problem.

MM: To what extent can the United States impose its will?
Chomsky: In the late 1940s the world system was extremely unusual from a historical point of view. The United States literally had 50 percent of the world's wealth. There has never been a period in human history when one country had such overwhelming domination from an economic, political and military point of view. Well, that naturally had to erode and it has eroded and now the world system is considerably more complex.

There are numerous centers of power, there are rising industrial countries such as Brazil, there [is] increasing independence among the raw materials producers all over the world and that means that new groupings of powers can [form], which can challenge the decisions made by the master of the world market and can begin to move in their own direction....

MM: But in what direction? Won't their choices be dictated by their own economic interests?
Chomsky: 'Own economic interest' is a misleading term because countries don't have economic interests, groups inside of them do and those interests may differ.

MM: Precisely, and ruling groups will be out to maximize their profits.
Chomsky: Not necessarily. That assumes capitalist domination of every country. But suppose you get a government that does what the U.S. has always feared more than most anything at all-- directs resources to domestic development? Here we don't have to speculate. We can go back to high level, declassified documents, which are very explicit about this topic....

Take Latin America for example. As far as I know the most serious and important review of U.S.-Latin American policy was in 1954, right after the Guatemalan democracy was overthrown. NSC5432, which is U.S. policy with regard to Latin America, [is a] long comprehensive and detailed study [that] gives an analysis of what our general policy must be towards Latin America and is very clear and explicit. It says the primary concern is what they call "nationalistic regimes," which are responsive to the demands of the masses of the population for an improvement in their low living standards and for diversification of production.

In contrast, we have to organize export-oriented production and integration into the world market, and not nationalism, not use of resources for domestic needs. They are not allowed to devote their resources to say, subsistence agriculture, but rather to export crops.... The way to do this [was for us] to take control of the Latin American military. Now at the time that meant fighting France and England, we had to eliminate French and British training missions which still existed in Latin America. They were of course our ... real competitors. [I]n the future ... the real enemies are going to be Europe, Japan and other functioning economies, not the Russians....

MM: What is the economic interest now in Central America?
Chomsky: The economic interest is, first of all, resources and resource extraction.

MM: But the resources to be extracted in Central America are minimal on a world scale.
Chomsky: Yes, but that is not what counts. General Motors does not decide to give up its franchise in Tucson because that is a small percentage of its income. They fight to keep their franchise in Tucson and we fight to keep our franchise in Central America. They may not be right, but they think Central America and the Caribbean is a potential East Asia. The only [area] of the colonial world that has developed is the Japanese area and there is a reason for that. Imperial powers are brutal, but brutal in different ways. Japanese imperialism was very brutal but in a developmentalist way. So while we were robbing our colonies, Japan was building its colonies in the pre-second world war period and there was significant industrial development in Taiwan, Korea, and so on....

MM: What would be the harm in letting a country like Nicaragua go its own course?
Chomsky: Here we come to another long standing concern of American planners which has never been abandoned.... That is the rational version of the domino theory.

There are two versions of the domino theory. One of them is crazy. That is the version that is used to scare the public: 'They are going to land in San Francisco.' But there is also a rational version. And the rational version is that there could be a demonstration effect. If any country can fall into the hands of nationalist leaders who devote resources to their own populations, it could very well have a demonstration effect. It could be a virus that will infect the region and even beyond....

What was the concern about [Salvador] Allende? They are going to be able to get the copper. It is the virus of Allende. [It] will send the wrong message to Italy, not because Chile is going to conquer Italy, but because you have a big communist party there, you have a big workers' movement, which has never been destroyed despite many efforts, and if they see that there is a possibility of developing democratic socialism, it will inspire them to try the same thing.

Before you know [it], the whole system [will] erode. ... What they care about is that you might begin to get what we have always feared, workers controlling industry, for example, and separation from the U.S.-dominated international market where the multinationals, which by now are much beyond the United States, do run the world market and their international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank control it and the big powers like us exercise violence when necessary and so on. That is, a complex integrated system functioning for the benefit of elite groups, economically powerful groups in our system, and in the major capitalist countries.

And if this begins to erode there is a real problem.... Radical democracy in the United States is a threat to the conservative world order because it can spread. It can arouse the 'wrong ideas' among other people and pretty soon our system of power and privilege will collapse.

That threat still exists and it will always exist. This idea is never abandoned because it is correct.... People often say, 'What do we care about Grenada?' You can't imagine a place in the world of less economic significance than Grenada. Nevertheless, as soon as [Maurice] Bishop took power, it caused hysteria in Washington. They had to destroy Grenada. It was true of Carter, it is true of Reagan. They immediately embargoed, cut off support, started running big military manuevers all over the region to try to drive them into the hands of the Russians and terrorize them and then finally invaded. What do they care about Grenada? It has 100,000 people and some nutmeg. But the point is the weaker a country is, the more insignificant it is, the more dangerous it is....

That is why you get this hysteria about places like Grenada or Laos in the 1960s and other tiny little specks of dust--because the demonstration effect is greater when the country is weaker. And that is very rational.

MM: Does the increasing power of the world market mean that U.S. corporate interests will no longer have to be concerned about controlling countries politically?
Chomsky: I don't think so. There is a force toward integration of the world market and so on. But there is a corresponding feature of that: namely, the diversification of the international system which allows groupings of powers to gain a capacity to pursue a different path that they didn't have previously. And that is very threatening to those who intend and expect to dominate the world system.

There has been concern about this kind of autonomy for years. Since the late 1940s there has been a concern among the smarter planners, people like George Kennan, that eventually Japan would reconstitute itself as a dominant force. So for example, in the late 1940s when most U.S. planners were convinced on mainly racist grounds that Japan was never going to be able to export anything but toys, smarter people like Kennan, who had major power in shaping the post-war world, recognized that eventually they could be a real competitor and therefore we had to guarantee some method of control. The method he suggested, which was in fact followed, was to control their energy resources. So Japan was allowed to reindustrialize but not to develop petrochemical and refining industries and so on.

And in fact, part of our concern for controlling Middle East oil has been to insure that that lever remains in our hands. But the trouble is that is not happening anymore. Japan is beginning to set up its own independence with the oil producers and Europe might do the same thing. Here the issue is quite complex.... Japan separated itself from the world market and pursued its own independent development and is the only what we call Third World colonial country to have industrialized....

MM: Isn't it possible though that at some point the market itself may start to provide the service of undermining popular movements without the need for more direct applications of force?
Chomsky: I think you can find areas where it is happening in the United States itself. Through American history it has been necessary repeatedly to use violence to prevent democracy from developing.... Labor unions are one of the classic ways in which isolated people who lack individual resources can join together to enter the political system. And that had to be blocked. That is one of the reasons we have such a bloody labor history. After a while, the forces of the market took over.

So, in the United States you don't need censorship. Censorship is carried out by corporate media who control through market forces and shape news in their own interest.

MM: To what do you attribute the move by the socialist countries toward market organization internally and some limited opening up of their economies to the world market?
Chomsky: These so-called socialist countries, which have absolutely nothing to do with socialism, these kind of state bureaucracies dominating them along the Leninist model, the exact antithesis of socialism, they are highly inefficient. They are inefficient in control of the public, they are inefficient in production and so on, and the market in fact is an efficient way of allocating resources.

Markets don't have to be used for distributing benefits; that's where the problem started arising. But in determining things like resource allocation, a market is a rational system and so they will move toward those systems in the effort to increase the viability of their own elite groups. Now that is going to lead to internal tensions. Take, for example, the Soviet Union. One of the benefits that the working class has had from the limping Soviet economy is that they don't have to work very hard. But if you start introducing incentives and market forces you [have] to work and you have to suffer.

That is why industrialization was such a brutal process in the West. And it is not so clear that the working classes will be willing to accept the requisite suffering for the hope of ultimate consumption. Certainly in the West it never happened very easily. It had to be done by force. And you can't predict what will happen there, whether they can do it by force, or whether they can bring it about without force. But industrialization has been a brutal process and I think those problems are going to arise very quickly as they shift to market techniques for allocating resources and making production decisions.

MM: Politically, how important is the way the media is organized, the actual corporate structure--who owns the newspapers, how many newspapers there are in the given town, the way the TV networks are owned and regulated?
Chomsky: It is very important. In the United States, you can't see it very much because ... we are much more advanced in the departure from meaningful democracy than other countries.

But elsewhere, in rather similar societies, you can see it. England is not a terribly different kind of place than we are, but up until the 1960s, England had a very lively and effective labor press. The Daily Herald in England ... if I remember correctly [had] twice the subscriptions of the London Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian put together in the early 1960s, and in fact, the polls showed that it was more intensively read and more eagerly read by its subscribers, but it was a working class newspaper. It presented an alternative view of the world.

Now it doesn't exist. The working class newspapers have become cheap tabloids, which are sex, sports, and so on, part of the decerebration of the masses. This [did not] happen by force. The police didn't come in and close them down. It happened by market pressures. Newspapers are corporations that sell a product, namely subscribers, to buyers, namely advertisers. So a newspaper or any journal is basically a corporation selling a product to other corporations. The way you sell them is by looking at the profile. If you want to have resources in this system, you are going to have to have advertiser support in capital. And that means for one thing you are going to have to adhere to their view of the world, but it also means that you are going to have to be oriented towards the wealthier readers with the normal advertising profiles that all of these guys run on. These factors are going to drive out an independent press. It happened in the United States a long time ago. It happened in England fairly recently and the effects are very striking.... When the Labour Party runs in England, it is just demolished by the entire information system. And that makes a difference. In part, this is based on the nature of the corporate media.... However, in my view, it wouldn't change very much even if they were more diversified....

MM: Why wouldn't it?
Chomsky: Because the same social forces would essentially operate. If there were, say, two newspapers or three newspapers in Boston instead of one, there would probably not be that much difference. It is some difference, you lose something, but, I must say that I don't want to underestimate it.

When you cross the borders you see a big difference. Every time I go to Canada, for example, which is a very similar country, or England, or Europe, there is access to national media, national television, the press, and so on. That is unimaginable in the United States.

MM: You said that if the organization applied in the workplace in capitalism were applied in the political sphere it would be called fascist. What do you mean by that?
Chomsky: If you go back to an early period, take even the ideals of the enlightenment that theoretically underlay the American revolution, they were concerned with certain general human values--the right of human beings to control their lives and their own work, and in fact, to control their creative work. So a leading idea of what we today call conservatism, the enlightenment thought was that if a person works under the command of others, what the person produces may be of value or even beautiful, but the person's life is a human disgrace, it is a form of slavery.The person is a machine [was] the way they put it. And the ideals of the enlightenment worked to let people be human, and human meant in control of the decisions that affect their own lives, in particular, in control of their workplace. These discussions were all [conducted] in a period prior to factories and prior to corporate capitalism, so they [were] directed against slavery and the feudal system and serfdom....

But the same ideas carry over to later developments and it means that if we are really serious about enlightenment ideals, we will try to turn the productive lives of people into a democratic system that they control and where they make the decisions and where they make them in community with others. That is socialism, not what we call socialism or what the Russians call socialism, but what it meant prior to the distortion that was introduced by the anti-socialist forces of the 20th Century, including capitalism and Marxism/Leninism, all of them very hostile to socialist ideals....

At the core of it is the central part of most human beings' lives, namely, their productive work and that means workers controlling industry. Just about any workplace, whether it is an office or a factory, or whatever, is a system where there is a flow of command that is centralized at the top and goes straight down to the bottom and there is nothing that goes in the other direction other than some symbols that are introduced to make people feel good sometimes. These are very traditional ideas. They have been forgotten. What I have just been saying would not have surprised the major thinkers of enlightenment, the people we now regard as classics.

MM: There seems to be a convergence between the way the capitalist managers and the managers in the socialist countries organize the production in their factories. Is this because both have made the same ideological choice or both have personal or class interests in organizing it that way or is there also a tension with the needs of efficiency and production?
Chomsky: There is no evidence that it has anything to do with efficiency, and even if it did have anything to with efficiency, it would be irrelevant.... The distribution of power and the course of history was such that those groups who could gain their power and privilege by exerting authority over the control of production did so. We have various forms of state capitalism in the West and various forms of military bureaucratic control in the East. They are all very much opposed to socialism. In fact, there has been a kind of hoax perpetrated on the world by the world's two leading propaganda systems since 1917.

The two major propaganda systems in the world are the American one and all of its affiliates and the Soviet one. And they both like to pretend that what exists in the Soviet Union is socialism ... and they do it for opposite reasons. In the West we do it because we want to defame socialism by associating it with that dungeon over there. And in the East they want to do it by making their dungeon look a little better by associating it with the deservedly positive appeal that the moral values of socialism have to working people everywhere.

MM: Where has real socialism or something approaching it actually been tried?
Chomsky: It has been tried here and there, but it has usually been destroyed. In fact, it has often been destroyed by the joint activity of the Soviet Union and the United States.... Spain is a good example.... The western capitalist countries and the Soviet Union combined to destroy the popular revolution in Spain. That was the main commitment on all sides and it really wasn't until the large scale popular revolution had been wiped out.... that they fell to fighting among one another for the rest of the loot. And that's rather typical. The Soviet Union would certainly not tolerate any socialist development anywhere, nor would we.

There [are] some similarities in the societies. They are both class structured and societies with a state management and a coordinator controlled industrial system. They obviously differ too. They don't have private control over capital the way we do, but in many respects the systems are similar in their doctrinal systems. They are mainly similar in their belief that people have to be subordinated to higher authority. It is [a] different higher authority in the two cases but subordination is accepted on both sides.

MM: You have said that totalitarian states have to control action but democracies have to control thought. Can you explain that distinction?
Chomsky: Totalitarian states are really more behaviorists, since they have the means of power. [They] don't want to exercise violence because it is inefficient, but they want the threat to be there and to be visible. In a country like ours, where the state has very limited means of violence available to coerce the population, comparatively speaking, it is much more important to control what people think. And that is in fact why the United States developed so early such a sophisticated systems as the public relations industry and the highly ideological corporate media. That process is continuing, and its effects are very complex.... There is a real split developing between much of the population and the elites, including the liberal elites. There has undoubtedly been a right turn among elites, so you get what they call "neo-liberalism" and "neo-conservatism," which are dominant among elite groups. But the population has not moved in that direction. The population is moving in the opposite direction.

MM: What will be the legacy of the so-called Reagan Revolution?
Chomsky: In many ways, it has certain similarities to what was called the Hitler revolution. Putting aside atrocities and massacres and that sort of thing, just look at the mechanics of it. Hitler's revolution was Keynesian economics--pre-Keynes, of course--revitalizing the economy through military spending, which worked. It got Germany out of a huge depression, got people back to work, created affluence. They had restored faith in the grandeur and the glory of Germany, winning cheap victories over defenceless rivals, which gave people a big shot in the arm and aroused patriotism and restored what they called the traditional values--home, family, devotion and so on. That is all very familiar. In fact, these are the basic ingredients of what are today called, ludicrously, "conservatism" in the United States.

You take the modern conservatives, the people around Reagan, guys that are straight out of Orwell. Any conservative would turn over in his grave to hear the way the word is used, but these are people who believe in a very powerful state. That is not at all surprising, that under Reagan you have all the phenomena of lunatic Keynesianism--massive expenditures, but expenditures not for productive purposes, but for consumption and waste. Military production, after all, is a waste production from an economic point of view.... So what you have is a very substantial increase in state expenditures. In fact, state expenditures [increased] under Reagan, relative to GNP, faster than in any peacetime period in history. The state intervenes massively in the economy, in the highly protected economy that they constructed. That is what the military is, a state-guaranteed market for high technology production. Looking at it institutionally, it is ...somewhere between lunatic Keynesianism and quasi-fascism--a big, powerful state creating a protected market, guaranteeing that the production that is done in advanced industry will have a market because the state will buy it.... From the point of view of the corporate manager, you couldn't imagine anything better. It is a gift, a gift from the public for research and development and for production in a period when you cannot sell things.... The Reaganites have pushed that to an extreme.