Keeping the Rabble in Line Copyright © 1994 by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian
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December 6, 1993
DB: I know I didn't get you up because it's well known that you stay up and work through the night, drinking tons and tons of coffee.
That's why I sound so groggy.
DB: I want to talk to you about a couple of domestic and foreign policy issues and then take calls from our listeners. You can tell a great deal about a society when you look at its system of justice. I was wondering if you would comment on the Clinton crime bill, in which some of the provisions are to hire 100,000 more cops, build boot camps for juveniles, spend more money for prisons, extend the death penalty to about fifty new offenses, and make gang membership a federal crime, which is interesting, considering that there is something about freedom of association in the Bill of Rights.
One of the consequences of the developments over the past twenty or thirty years has been a considerable increase in inequality. This trend accelerated during the Reagan years. The society has been moving visibly towards a kind of Third World model, which has to do with all sorts of things going on in the international economy as well as very explicit social policy. Huge sectors of the society are simply becoming more or less superfluous for wealth creation, which is considered the only human value. The consequence of this is an increasing crime rate, as well as other signs of social disintegration. People are very worried, and quite properly, because the society is becoming very dangerous. Most of the crime is poor people attacking each other. But it spills over to more privileged sectors. As a result there's a great deal of fear about crime.
A constructive approach to the problem would require dealing with its fundamental causes, and that's off the agenda, because we must continue with social policy aimed at strengthening the welfare state for the rich. So there's no constructive response. The only kind of response that the government can resort to under those conditions is pandering to these fears with increasing harshness and attacks on civil liberties and moves to control the useless population, essentially by force, which is what this is all about.
DB: What are your views on capital punishment?
It's a crime. I agree with Amnesty International on that one, and indeed with most of the world. The state should have no right to take people's lives.
DB: There's quite a bit of controversy on gun control. Advocates of free access to arms cite the Second Amendment. Do you believe the Second Amendment permits unrestricted, uncontrolled possession of guns?
What laws permit and don't permit is a question that doesn't have a straightforward answer. Laws permit what the tenor of the times interprets them as permitting. But underlying the controversy over guns are some serious questions. Literally, the Second Amendment doesn't permit people to have guns. But laws are never taken literally, including amendments to the Constitution or constitutional rights.
Underlying the controversy is something which shouldn't be discounted. There's a feeling in the country that people are under attack. I think they're misidentifying the source of the attack, but they feel under attack. Decades of intensive business propaganda have been designed to make them see the government as the enemy, the government being the only power structure in the system that is even partially accountable to the population, so naturally you want to make that be the enemy, not the corporate system, which is totally unaccountable. After decades of propaganda people feel that the government is some kind of enemy and they have to defend themselves from it. Many of those who advocate keeping guns have that in the back of their minds. I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't heard it so many times. That's a crazy response to a real problem.
DB: What role do the media play in fostering those attitudes?
At the deepest level, by contributing to this notion of getting the government off our backs. It's not that that doesn't have its justifications, too. The government is authoritarian and commonly a hostile structure for much of the population, but it is partially accountable and potentially very extensively accountable to the general population.
The media grossly mislead by contributing to the sense that the government is the enemy and displacing real power from view, suppressing the sources of real power in the society, which lie in the totalitarian institutions, by now international in scale, that control the economy and much of social life and in fact certainly set conditions within which government operates and control it to a large extent. This happens sometimes in comical ways and sometimes in deeper ways.
People simply have no awareness of the system of power under which they are indeed suffering. As a result, as intended, they turn against the government. People fear that they're overtaxed. By comparative standards they're undertaxed. When people talk about a tax-based health plan, meaning one that doesn't just soak the poor, like the Clinton plan is intended to do, you get a reflex response: more pointy-headed bureaucrats stealing our money and running our lives. On the other hand, payment of far higher "taxes" -- regressive to boot -- to a far more bureaucratized and oppressive insurance company that is completely unaccountable, that's OK because you aren't supposed to see it.
To get back to gun control, people have all kinds of motivations, but there is definitely a sector of the population that considers themselves threatened by big forces, ranging from the Federal Reserve to the Council on Foreign Relations to big government to who knows what and are calling for guns to protect themselves.
DB: I don't know how much you watch local or national network news, but there has been a discernible trend over the last few years. The influence of local news primarily dealing with crimes, rapes, and kidnappings, is now spilling over into the national network news.
That's true. But it's always the surface phenomenon. Why is there an increase in violent crime? Is that connected to the fact that there has been a considerable decline in income for the large majority of the population and opportunity for constructive work? Is it connected to NAFTA, for example, and the basic phenomena of which NAFTA itself is a symptom? Sure it is. But until you ask why there is an increase in social disintegration and what this has to do with policies that are directing resources towards the wealthy and privileged sectors and away from the general population, until you ask those questions you can't have even a concept of why there's rising crime or how you should deal with it.
DB: There's a juxtaposition I want to pose to you now. Anthony Lewis, in a very strong pro-NAFTA column in the New York Times, before the vote, writes that an anti-NAFTA vote would mean "the end of nearly fifty years of rising world prosperity. That's all. Since World War II the world has experienced extraordinary growth. The engine for that growth has been international trade. Vastly increased trade in an age of more and more rapid transportation and communication." Juan de Dias Parra, the head of the Latin American Association for Human Rights, in a meeting in Quito, Ecuador, says, "In Latin America today there are 7 million more hungry, 30 million more illiterate, 10 million more families without homes, 40 million more unemployed persons than there were twenty years ago. There are 240 million human beings in Latin America without the necessities of life, and this when the region is richer and more stable than ever, according to the way the world sees it." How do you reconcile those points of view?
It just depends on which people we're worried about. The World Bank came out with a study on Latin America about two months ago in which they warned that Latin America was facing chaos and even the things they're concerned about would be threatened, because of the extraordinarily high inequality, which is the highest inequality in the world, and that's after a period of substantial growth rates. For example, take Brazil, which is a very rich country with enormous resources. It would be one of the richest countries in the world if it weren't for its social and economic system. It is ranked around Albania and Paraguay in quality of life measures, infant mortality, etc.
On the other hand, it's had one of the highest growth rates in the world. It's also been almost completely directed by American technocrats for about fifty years. The inequality that the World Bank describes is not just something that came from the heavens. There was a struggle over the course of Latin American development back in the mid-1940s, when the new world order of that day was being crafted. The State Department documents on this are quite interesting. They said that Latin America was swept by what they called the "philosophy of the new nationalism," which calls for increasing production for domestic needs and reducing inequality. Its basic principle was that the people of the country should be the "first beneficiaries of the development of a country's resources." That's the philosophy of the new nationalism, as the State Department described it.
The U.S. was sharply opposed to that and came out with an economic charter for the Americas that called for eliminating economic nationalism, as it's called, "in all of its forms" and insisting that Latin American development be "complementary" to U.S. development, meaning we'll have the advanced industry and the technology and the peons will produce export crops and do some simple operations that they can manage. But they won't develop the way we did.
The U.S., of course, won, given the distribution of power. In countries like Brazil the U.S. just took over. It was one of the "testing grounds for scientific methods of development on the American capitalist model," as propaganda had it. And so it was, and so you get the consequences you describe. It's true, as Lewis says, that there has been very substantial growth. At the same time there's incredible poverty and misery, which has also increased. Over the past thirty years, there has been a sharp increase in inequality. The growth has slowed down considerably in the last ten years, but there has been growth. Much more dramatic has been the separation of the top sector of the population from the rest. So if you compare the percentage of world income held by the richest twenty percent and the lowest twenty percent, the gap has dramatically increased. That's true whether you consider countries, which is a little mystical, but taking the top twenty percent of countries and the bottom twenty percent of countries, that gap has about doubled. Take the top twenty and the bottom twenty percent of people, the gap has increased far more and is much sharper. That's the consequences of a particular kind of growth.
Incidentally, what Lewis calls "trade" -- he's using the conventional term, but it's a bit misleading. In fact, substantially misleading, for reasons we've already discussed. If the Ford Motor Company moves something from an assembly plant in Mexico to an assembly plant in the U.S., that's called trade. But it's not trade in any serious sense, and in fact the centrally managed policies within these totalitarian structures account for about 40% of the interchanges that are called "trade". These policies often involve radical violations of market principles which are not considered by GATT and NAFTA because they are not designed to extend the market system but to extend the power of corporations who want to benefit from this kind of market distortion.
DB: So you see this trend of growth rates and increasing poverty simultaneously continuing?
Actually, growth rates have been slowing down a lot. In the past twenty years, growth is roughly half of what it was in the preceding twenty years. That tendency of lower growth will probably continue. One factor that has to do with that is the enormous growth of unregulated, speculative capital. That growth has accelerated rapidly basically since Nixon broke down the Bretton Woods system around 1970. By now the unregulated financial capital is estimated by the World Bank at about $14 trillion, and about $1 trillion or so of that moves around every day. That creates pressures for deflationary policies.
That's what that financial capital wants. It wants low growth, low inflation. The huge amounts of capital, which overwhelm national states, make it very difficult to carry out stimulative programs. In the poorer societies it's hopeless. Even in the richer societies it would be very hard. What happened with Clinton's trivial stimulus package was a good indication. It amounted to nothing, $19 billion. It was shot down instantly. Financial capital, which is now an extraordinarily large part of the capital available internationally, has an anti-growth effect. It is driving much of the world into a low-growth, low-wage equilibrium. The figures are really astonishing. John Eatwell, one of the leading specialists in finance at Cambridge University, estimates that in 1970 about ninety percent of international capital was used for trade and long-term investment and ten percent for speculation. In 1990 those figures were reversed: ninety percent for speculation. Also the quantity has grown enormously. The effects of that, as he points out, are what I just said.
DB: The Boulder Daily Camera is part of the chain of Knight-Ridder newspapers. In yesterday's edition they ran a box with questions and answers: "What Is GATT?" "What Is the Uruguay Round of GATT?" Here's the part I wanted to ask you about. In the question, "Who would benefit from a GATT agreement?" the answer given is, "Consumers would be the big winners." Does that track with your understanding of GATT?
If you mean by "consumers" rich ones, yes. Rich consumers will gain. People who have lost their jobs, for example -- and that will be true both in the rich countries and the poor -- obviously are not going to be better consumers. Take a look at NAFTA, where the analyses have already been done, and even appeared in the press after the vote. Before that, there was a huge hype about how important the vote is, of which the Lewis column that you mentioned is a case in point. Do you remember the date of that article?
DB: It was November 5.
Before the vote. That's the kind of stuff that was appearing before the vote. I noticed a quite striking difference the day after the vote. Immediately after the vote, the New York Times and other journals began for the first time discussing the consequences of NAFTA. That was interesting. Not that it was a surprise, but it shows what they knew all along. The day after the vote the New York Times had its first article on the expected impact of NAFTA in the New York region. This generalizes for GATT also.
It was a very upbeat article. They talked about how wonderful it was going to be. They said there would be a big improvement in finance and services, particularly. They'll be the big winners. Banks, investment firms, PR firms, corporate law firms will do just great. They said that some manufacturers will benefit, namely the publishing industry and chemical industry, which is highly capital-intensive, not many workers to worry about Also the pharmaceutical industry, the big beneficiaries of the increased protectionist elements concerning "intellectual property". They'll all do fine and it will just be wonderful.
Then they said that, well, there will be some losers, too. The losers will be women, Hispanics, other minorities, and semi-skilled workers, who comprise maybe seventy percent or more of the work force. They will be losers. But everyone else will do fine. In other words, exactly as anyone who was paying attention knew, the purpose of NAFTA was to split the society even further. There will be benefits for a smaller -- it's a rich country, so the small sector's not tiny -- but a smaller sector of highly privileged people, investors, professionals, managerial classes, and so on, the business-related classes. It will work fine for them, and the general population will suffer.
The prediction for Mexico is pretty much the same. The leading financial journal in Mexico, which is very pro-NAFTA, estimated that Mexico would lose about twenty-five percent of its manufacturing capacity in the first few years and about fifteen percent of its manufacturing labor force. In addition, cheap U.S. agricultural exports are expected to drive even more people off the land. That's going to mean a substantial increase in the unemployed workforce in Mexico, which of course will drive down wages. On top of that, organizing is essentially impossible. Notice that although corporations can operate internationally, unions cannot. So though unions can operate in different states of the U.S., they cannot cross borders, which means there is no way for the work force to fight back against the internationalization of production.
The net effect is expected to be a decline in wealth and income for the majority of the population of Mexico and for the majority of the population of the U.S., while there will be exactly that growth and increase in consumption that the Boulder paper talks about, the increase in income that Lewis talks about. Those are completely consistent. A country like Brazil is the extreme example, and a very dramatic example because of its enormous wealth and because of the fact that we've been running it for fifty years. It's a very good model to look at.
Very high growth rates, tremendous prosperity, a lot of consumption in a very narrow sector of the population. And overall, the quality of life at the levels of Albania and Paraguay.
DB: Chile is another country that's recently been heralded in a number of articles as reflecting that model growth rate.
There was a really funny pair of stories yesterday. The New York Times had a story about the election in Chile and about how nobody was paying much attention to it. The headline was something about Chilean satisfaction with the political system. It talked about how everyone is so satisfied and so happy that nobody's paying much attention to the election.
The London Financial Times, hardly radical, they had a story on the election which was exactly the opposite. They quoted some data, some polls that showed that seventy-five percent of the population are very unsatisfied, "disgruntled" was their word, with regard to the political system, which allows no options. They said that indeed there is apathy about the election, but that's a reflection of the breakdown of the social structure of Chile, which was a lively, vibrant, democratic society into the early 1970s and then was essentially depoliticized through a reign of fascist terror.
People work alone, the associations were broken down. People are trying to fend for themselves. The economy is not doing badly, but it's based almost entirely on primary exports, fruit, copper, and so on. It's very vulnerable to world markets.
But the crucial thing is the dramatic breakdown of social relations and social structure, which is pretty striking in Chile, because it was a very vibrant and lively society for many, many years. The retreat into individualism and personal gain is the basis for the apathy. Nathaniel Nash wrote the Chile story for the Times. There's a section in there, a subheading called "Painful Memories." It said many Chileans have painful memories of Salvador Allende's fiery speeches, which led to the coup in which thousands of people were killed. Notice they don't have painful memories of the torture, the fascist terror, just of Allende's speeches as a popular candidate. These are the ways in which the world is recreated for our edification.
DB: This is a 7 a.m. early edition of Alternative Radio and we're talking to Professor Noam Chomsky. If you'd like to join this conversation, give us a call. One thing you've been talking about is the mystification of the notion of nation and country. You discussed it in a recent Z Magazine article. I was struck by a November 15 front-page New York Times article. The headline is "Nation Considers Means To Dispose of Its Plutonium. Options are unattractive," we are told, and there are "no easy or quick answers to a problem that will not go away." So the nation is considering how to dispose of essentially what was a creation of private capital, plutonium.
That's the familiar idea that profit is to be privatized but the cost is to be socialized. So in a sense it's correct to say that the costs are the costs for the nation, the people. But the profits weren't for the people, nor are they making the decisions to produce plutonium in the first place, and they're not making the decisions about how to dispose of it. Nor or they deciding on what ought to be a reasonable energy policy, which is no small issue. There are major questions about energy policy that ought to be right on the top of the social and political agenda today, things connected, say, with global warming.
Let me give you an example. There was a study that came out in Science magazine about a month ago reviewing recent studies on global warming. The possibilities they were considering as plausible were that if the year 2000 goals on carbon dioxide emission are met, which is not likely, then within a couple of centuries, by 2300, the world's temperature would have increased by about ten degrees Centigrade, which would mean a rise in sea level that would probably wipe out a good bit of human civilization as it's currently constituted. Of course this doesn't mean that the effects set in in three hundred years. They start setting in much sooner.
Maybe it will be worse. Maybe it will be better. But possibilities like that will not be faced by any sane person with any equanimity. There's nothing being done about them at all. The same study says that in order to avoid this it will be necessary to undertake quite radical changes of a kind not even contemplated. These are what ought to be front-page stories and ought to be the focus of public attention and concern. The matter of disposing of plutonium has largely to do with weapons production. But there are quite serious questions about nuclear power that can't just be dismissed.
Listener: You have established a fairly loyal following. I am fearful that there may be this saturation point of despair just from knowing the heaviness of the truth that you impart. I would like to strongly lobby you to begin a process of maybe devoting ten or fifteen percent of your appearances or books or articles towards tangible detailed things that people can do to try to change the world that they're in, even if it does seem like it's potentially useless from time to time. I've heard a few occasions where someone says, What can I do? I live all by myself in Lafayette, Colorado or some other little town, and your response is, Organize. Just do it.
Your point is quite right. People have been telling me that for a long time. I'll give you an example which goes back about ten years ago. South End Press asked me to write a book called Turning the Tide. It came out in 1985. Most of it was just what you were criticizing, and properly, but there was a section at the end called "Turning the Tide: What Can You Do About It?" I try to keep it in the back of my mind and think about it, but I'm afraid that the answer always is the same. It's that person in Lafayette. There is only one way to deal with these things. Being alone, you cannot do anything. All you can do is deplore the situation. If you join with other people, they can be anything from a whole range of possibilities, from Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, to a local activist group to some solidarity group, and there are millions of things that are possible depending on where you want to put your efforts, if you join with other people, you can make changes. I don't know of any other answers.
Listener: What's happening in Asia, particularly the growing economies in Southeast Asia, China, and so forth. What do you see for the future in terms of the demands of the environment on the political actions in those countries economically? Is it going to be another example of capitalist exploitation, or is the environment going to make such a demand that we could expect to see some kind of change in their awareness?
Countries like Thailand or China are looming ecological catastrophes. These are countries where growth is being fueled by multinational investment and investor interests and for them the environment is what are called "externalities." You don't pay any attention to it. So if you destroy the forests in Thailand, say, that's OK as long as you make a short-term profit out of it. In China, just because of its scale, the disasters that lie not too far ahead could be extraordinary. The same is true throughout Southeast Asia.
But the question remains that when the environmental pressures become such that the very survival of the people is jeopardized, do you see any change in the actions?
Not unless people react. If power is left in the hands of transnational investors, the people will just die.
DB: Elaine Bernard and Tony Mazzocchi were in Denver on December 3. They were talking about the possibility of creating a new labor-based party. What are your views on that?
I think that's an important initiative. It's interesting that right now, we're a little bit like the way Chile is described in the Financial Times, not the New York Times. The country is becoming very depoliticized and negative. About half the population thinks both political parties should be disbanded. There's a real need for something that would articulate the concerns of that substantial majority of the population which is being left out of social planning and the political process, those, for example, who will be harmed by NAFTA, a substantial majority, as even the Times can see. Labor unions have been a significant force for democratization and progress, not always, but often, in fact the main social force. On the other hand, when they are not linked to the political system through a labor-based party, there's a limit on what they can do. Take, say, health care.
Powerful unions in the U.S. were able to get fairly reasonable health care provisions for themselves. For example, auto workers were able to get good provisions for themselves. But since they are acting independently of the political system, they did not attempt to or succeed in bringing about decent health conditions for the population.
Compare Canada, where the unions also pressed for health care, but not just for their own industry, but rather for the population. Being linked to labor-based parties they were able to implement health care for the population. That's an illustration of the kind of difference that a politically oriented popular movement like labor can achieve. We're not in the day any longer where the industrial workers are the majority or even the core of the labor force. But the same questions arise. I think Elaine Bernard and Tony Mazzocchi are on the right track in thinking along those lines.
In that same Anthony Lewis column that I referred to earlier, he had this to write: "Unions in this country, sad to say, are looking more and more like the British unions...backward, unenlightened.... The crude, threatening tactics used by unions to make Democratic members of the House vote against NAFTA underline the point."
That brings out Lewis's real commitments very clearly. What he called crude, undemocratic tactics which were assailed by the President and the press, were labor's attempt to get their representatives to represent their interests. By the standard of the elite, that's an attack on democracy, because the political system is supposed to be run by the rich and powerful. So for example corporate lobbying -- which vastly exceeded labor lobbying -- was not considered raw muscle or anti-democratic. Did Lewis have a column denouncing corporate lobbying for NAFTA?
I didn't see it.
I didn't see it either. This reached a peak of absolute hysteria before the vote. The day before the vote the New York Times lead editorial was exactly along the lines of your quote from Lewis, and it included a little box of the dozen or so representatives of the New York region who were voting against NAFTA. It listed their contributions from labor and said, This raises ominous questions about political influence of labor and whether they're being honest, etc.
As a number of these representatives later pointed out, the Times didn't have a box listing corporate contributions to them or to others nor, we may add, did it have a box listing advertisers of the New York Times and their attitudes towards NAFTA. In a way you can't object to Lewis and the Times. They are simply taking for granted a principle, which is that the rich and powerful have a right to twist the arms of their legislators and to dictate to them what they should do because that's what democracy is. Democracy is a system where the rich and privileged and powerful make decisions in their own interests, and if the general population tries to press for their interests, that's raw muscle and anti-democratic and are ominous signs.
It was quite striking to watch the hysteria that built up in privileged sectors, like the New York Times commentators and editorials as the NAFTA vote approached. They even allowed themselves the use of the phrase "class lines," which is very rare in elite circles. You're not allowed to admit that the U.S. has class lines. But this was considered a really serious issue, and all bars were let down. So you get columns of the kind by Anthony Lewis that you described, with the real indication of hatred of democracy at the core of it. The tacit assumption is if working people try to press for their interests in the political arena, that's anti-democratic. But if corporate power does so at a vastly greater rate, that's fine.
Listener: I've often wondered about the people who have power through their extensive financial and economic resources. Are they really as manipulative as you say? Is it possible to reach them with logic and rationale?
They're acting very logically and very rationally in their own interests. Let's be specific about it. Take the chief executive officer of Aetna Life Insurance. He is one of the guys who is going to be running our health care program and who makes $23 million a year in just plain salary. Could you reach him and convince him that he ought to lobby against having the insurance industry run the health-care program because that's going to be very harmful to the general population, as indeed it will be? Suppose you could. Suppose you could sit down with him and convince him, look, you ought to give up your salary and be a working person. The insurance industry shouldn't run this show and it will be terrible and so on. Suppose he agreed. Then what happens? Then he gets thrown out as CEO and someone else comes in who accepts that position. These are institutional factors.
Listener: Take it down to the individual, personal level, I got a notice in my Public Service bill that said they're asking for a rate hike. I work, and I really don't have the time to sit down and write a letter of protest. This happens all the time, and not just with me. It happens with most people who have to work. They don't have time to be active politically to change something. So those rate hikes go through without anybody ever really pointing out what's going on. One of the things that I've always thought, and I know this is probably not democratic, is why is there not a limitation on the amount of profit anybody can make, any corporation, any business?
I think that's highly democratic, in fact. There's nothing in the principle of democracy that says that power and wealth should be highly concentrated so that democracy becomes a sham. But your point is quite correct. If you're a working person you just don't have time, alone, to take on the power company. That's exactly what organization is about. That's exactly what unions are for. That's exactly what political parties of the kind that David was mentioning earlier, based in working people, are for. So if such a party was around, the kind Bernard and Mazzocchi are proposing, they would be the ones speaking for you who would tell the truth about what's going on with the rate hike. Then they would be denounced by the New York Times for being anti-democratic, for representing popular interests rather than power interests.
Since the Kennedy assassination there is a bureaucratic philosophy that business and elite power circles control our so-called democracy. Has that element changed at all with the Clinton administration coming in?
First of all, it didn't change with the Kennedy administration. It was very much the case for Kennedy. Kennedy himself was very pro-business. He was essentially a business candidate. Nothing changed with the assassination in this respect. The Kennedy assassination had no significant effect on policy that anybody has been able to detect.
There was a change in the early 1970s, but that was under Nixon. It had to do with changes in the international economy, the kind that I talked about earlier. Clinton is exactly what he says he is, a pro-business candidate. The Wall Street Journal had a very enthusiastic big front-page article about him right after the NAFTA vote. They pointed out that the Republicans tend to be just the party of business, period, but the Democrats were a little more nuanced. They tend to be the party of big business with less concern for small business. They said that Clinton is typical of this. They quoted executives of the Ford Motor Company and the steel industry and so on as saying this is the best administration they ever had. They ran through his achievements, and you can see it.
The day after the House vote the New York Times had a very revealing front-page pro-Clinton story by their Washington correspondent, R. W. Apple. People had been criticizing Clinton because he just didn't have any principles. He backed down on Bosnia, on Somalia, on his economic stimulus, on Haiti, on the health program. He was willing to give things up. It seemed like this guy had no bottom line at all. Then he proved that he really was a man of principle and he really has backbone and he silenced his detractors, namely by fighting for the corporate version of NAFTA. So he does have principles, namely, he listens to the call of big money. They thought that was great. The same was true of Kennedy.
Is there any element of the large corporate conglomerates that would have beneficial effect?
That's not the right question to ask. A lot of what's done by corporations will happen to have, by accident, beneficial effects for the population. The same is true of the government or anything else. But what are they trying to achieve? They're not trying to achieve a better life for workers and the firms in which they work, as the Clinton people have it. What they're trying to achieve is profits and market share. That's not a big secret. That's the kind of thing people should learn in third grade. In the business system, people are trying to maximize profit, power, market share, control over the state. By accident, sometimes that will help other people. It's just accidental.
Listener: I'd like to ask Mr. Chomsky about the U.S. support for Yeltsin versus democracy in Russia, and if this country has a vested interest in continuing support for the drug trade in the world?
On Yeltsin, it's pretty straightforward. Yeltsin was the tough, autocratic Communist party boss of Sverdlosk. He has filled his administration with the old party hacks who ran the place under the earlier Soviet system. The West likes him a lot. For one thing, he's tough and ruthless and autocratic. For another, he's going to ram through what are called "reforms," a nice word, the policies which are designed to return the former Soviet Union to the Third World status that it had for five hundred years prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. The Cold War was largely about the demand that this huge region of the world once again become what it had been, offering resources, markets and cheap labor, serving the West. Yeltsin is leading the pack on that one. Therefore he's democratic. That's standard. That's what we call a democrat anywhere in the world, someone who follows the Western business agenda.
On the drug trade, it's complicated. I don't want to be too brief about it. When you say does the government support the drug trade, of course not. Although even here, there are complexities. You can't talk about marijuana and cocaine in the same breath. Marijuana simply doesn't have the lethal effects of cocaine. You can debate about whether it's good or bad, but out of about sixty million users, I don't think there's a known case of overdose. The criminalization of marijuana has purposes and motives beyond concern over drugs. On the other hand, hard drugs, to which people have been driven to a certain extent by the prohibitions against soft drugs, those are very harmful, although deaths are nowhere near the level of tobacco and alcohol. And here it's kind of complex. There are sectors of American society that profit from the hard drug trade, like the big international banks that do the money laundering or the chemical corporations that provide the chemicals for the industrial production of hard drugs. On the other hand, people who live in the inner cities are being devastated by them. So there are different interests.
Listener: Two things: One is just a comment. That is that on this issue of gun control, I believe that in fact the U.S. is becoming much more like a Third World country. There's nothing that's going to put a stop to it, necessarily. I look around and I see a lot of Third World countries where if the citizens had weapons they wouldn't have the government they've got. I think that maybe people are being a little short-sighted in arguing for gun control and at the same time realizing that the government they've got is not exactly a benign one. The other thing is that I think that a lot of this stuff correlates with work that the social revolutionary party did as early as 1914 in trying to understand business cycles. Kondratieff pointed out that there's a sixty-year cycle of prosperity in the U.S. and in the world. It's inversely tied in with real interest rates. Real interest rates started to rise in the U.S. in October of 1979. They've been rising ever since. And that in one sense tells the whole story.
Interest rates are important. There's some evidence for the Kondratieff cycle. But I don't really think those are the big issues. However, on your first point, it illustrates exactly what I think is a major fallacy. You pointed out that the government is far from benign. That's true. On the other hand, the government is at least partially accountable and could become as benign as we make it.
What is not benign and is extremely harmful is what you didn't mention, namely business power, highly concentrated, by now largely transnational power both in the producing and financial sectors. That's very far from benign. Furthermore, it's completely unaccountable. It's a totalitarian system. It has an enormous effect on our lives and also on why the government is not benign.
As for guns being the way to respond to this, that's frankly outlandish. It's true that people think that. They think if we have guns we can make it more benign. If people have guns, the government has tanks. If people have tanks the government has atomic weapons. There's no way to deal with these issues by violent force, even if you think that that's morally legitimate. Guns in the hands of American citizens are not going to make the country more benign. They're going to make it more brutal, ruthless and destructive. So while one can recognize the motivation that lies behind some of the opposition to gun control, I think it's sadly misguided.
DB: In a review of a book we did, Chronicles of Dissent, it was suggested by the reviewer that I ask you tougher questions. So I thought I would save my toughest question for you right at the end. Are you ready?
I'm ready to hang up. (chuckles)
DB: I want to know what MIT professor was born on December 7, 1928 in Philadelphia. You've got five seconds.
How would I know anything about MIT professors?
DB: Happy Birthday tomorrow, Noam!
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