Quotes from “Understanding Power” by Noam Chomsky

[D]uring the 1980s the United States was the main factor in blocking two major international peace processes, one in Central America and one in the Middle East. But just try to find that simple, obvious fact stated anywhere in mainstream media. You can’t. And you can’t because it’s a logical contradiction- you don’t even have to go any grubby work with the data and the documents to prove it, it’s just proven by the meaning of the words themselves. It’s like finding a married bachelor or something- you don’t have to do any research to show there aren’t any. You can’t have the United States opposing the peace process, because the peace process is what the United States is doing, by definition. And if anybody is opposing the United States, then they’re opposing the peace process. That’s the way it works, and it’s very convenient, you get nice conclusions.

Well, in our society, we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can’t get involved in them in a very serious way- so what they do is they put their minds into other things, such as sports. You’re trained to be obedient; you don’t have an interesting job; there’s no work around for you that’s creative; in the cultural environment you’re a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they’re in the hands of the rich folk. So what’s left? Well, one thing that’s left is sports- so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that. And I suppose that’s also one of the basic functions it serves in the society in general: it occupies the population, and keeps them from trying to get involved in things that really matter. In fact, I presume that’s part of the reason why spectator sports are supported to the degree they are by the dominant institutions…

But the point is, this sense of irrational loyalty to some sort of meaningless community is training for subordination to power, and for chauvinism. And of course, you’re looking at gladiators, you’re looking at guys who can do things you couldn’t possibly do… But it’s a model that you’re supposed to try to emulate. And they’re gladiators fighting for your cause, so you’ve got to cheer them on, and you’ve got to be happy when the opposing quarterback gets carted off the field a total wreck and so on. All of this stuff builds up extremely anti-social aspects of human psychology. I mean, they’re there; there’s no doubt that they’re there. But they’re emphasized, and exaggerated, and brought out by spectator sports: irrational competition, irrational loyalty to power systems, passive acquiescence to quite awful values, really. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anything that contributes more fundamentally to authoritarian attitudes than this does, in addition to the fact that it just engages a lot of intelligence and keeps people away from other things.

Anybody who wants to be President, you should right away say, ‘I don’t want to hear that guy anymore.’

[T]he terminology we use is heavily ideologically laden, always. Pick your term: if it’s a term that has any significance whatsoever- like, not “and” or “or”- it typically has two meanings, a dictionary meaning and a meaning that’s used for ideological warfare. So, “terrorism” is only what other people do. What’s called “Communism” is supposed to be “the far left”: in my view, it’s the far right, basically indistinguishable from fascism. These guys that everybody calls “conservative,” any conservative would turn over in their grave at the sight of them- they’re extreme statists, they’re not “conservative” in any traditional meaning of the word. “Special interests” means labor, women, blacks, the poor, the elderly, the young- in other words, the general population. There’s only one sector of the population that doesn’t ever get mentioned as a “special interest,” and that’s corporations, and business in general- because they’re the “national interest.” Or take “defense”: I have never heard of a state that admits it’s carrying out an aggressive act, they’re always engaged in “defense,” no matter what they’re doing- maybe “preemptive defense” or something.

The internal documentary record in the United States goes way back, and it says the same thing over and over again. Here’s virtually a quote: the main commitment of the United States, internationally in the Third World, must be to prevent the rise of nationalist regimes which are responsive to pressures from the masses of the population for improvement in low living standards and diversification of production; the reason is, we have to maintain a climate that is conducive to investment, and to ensure conditions which allow for adequate repatriation of profits to the West. Language like that is repeated year after year in top-level U.S. planning documents, like National Security Council reports on Latin America and so on- and that’s exactly what we do around the world.

So the nationalism we oppose doesn’t need to be left-wing- we’re just as much opposed to right-wing nationalism. I mean, when there’s a right-wing military coup which seeks to turn some Third World country on a course of independent development, the United States will also try to destroy that government- we opposed Peron in Argentina, for example. So despite what you always hear, U.S. interventionism has nothing to do with resisting “Communism,” it’s independence we’ve always been opposed to everywhere- and for quite a good reason. If a country begins to pay attention to its own population, it’s not going to be paying adequate attention to the overriding needs of U.S. investors.

See, capitalism is not inherently racist- it can exploit racism for its purposes, but racism isn’t built into it. Capitalism basically wants people to be interchangeable cogs, and differences among them, such as on the basis of race, usually are not functional. I mean, they may be functional for a period, like if you want a super-exploited workforce or something, but those situations are kind of anomalous. Over the long term, you can expect capitalism to be anti-racist- just because it’s anti-human. And race is in fact a human characteristic- there’s no reason why it should be a negative characteristic, but it is a human characteristic. So therefore identifications based on race interfere with the basic ideal that people should be available just as consumers and producers, interchangeable cogs who will purchase all the junk that’s produced- that’s their ultimate freedom, and any other properties they might have are kind of irrelevant, and usually a nuisance.

As a matter of fact, the United States has been the most economically protectionist country in history. We’ve traditionally had the highest protectionist tariffs in the world, so much so that one leading economic historian in a recent book (published by the University of Chicago, no less) describes us as “the mother country and bastion of modern protectionism.” So for example, in the late nineteenth century, when Europe was actually toying around with laissez faire for a brief period, American tariffs were five to ten times as high as theirs- and that was the fastest economic growth period in American history.

And it goes on right until the present. The United States developed a steel industry a century ago because it radically violated the rules of the “free market,” and it was able to recover its steel industry in the last decade or so by doing things like restricting imports from abroad, destroying labor unions to drive down wages, and slamming huge tariffs on foreign steel. I mean, the Reaganites always talked enthusiastically about “market forces,” but they refused to allow them to function- and for a very simple reason: if market forced had been allowed to function- and for a very simple reason: if market forces had been allowed to function, the United States would no longer have an automobile industry, or a microchip industry, or computers, or electronics, because they would have just been wiped out by the Japanese… James Baker proudly proclaimed to a business audience in 1097 that Ronald Reagan “has granted more import relief to U.S. industry than any of his predecessors in more than half a century”- which was far too modest actually; Reagan probably provided more import relief to industry than all his predecessors combined in that period.

Of course, the “free market” ideology is very useful- it’s a weapon against the general population here, because it’s an argument against social spending, and it’s a weapon against poor people abroad, because we can hold it up to them and say “You guys have to follow these rules,” then just go ahead and rob them. But nobody really pays any attention to this stuff when it comes to actual planning- and no one ever has.

So the fact that Russia had pulled itself out of the West’s traditional Third World service-area and was developing on an independent course was really one of the major motivations behind the Cold War. I mean, the standard line you always hear about it is that we were opposing Stalin’s terror- but that’s total bullshit. First of all, we shouldn’t even be able to repeat that line without a sense of self-mockery, given our record. Do we oppose anyone else’s terror? Do we oppose Indonesia’s terror in East Timor? Do we oppose terror in Guatemala and El Salvador? Do we oppose what we did in South Vietnam? No, we support terror all the time- in fact, we put it in power…

None of these guys [Truman and Churchill] had anything against Stalin’s crimes. What’s more, they had nothing against Hitler’s crimes- all this talk about Western leaders’ principled opposition to atrocities is just a complete fabrication, totally undermined by a look at the documentary record. It’s just that if you’ve been properly educated, you can’t understand facts like these: even if the information is right in front of your eyes, you can’t comprehend it.

[S]tates are not moral agents; they are vehicles of power, which operate in the interests of the particular internal power structures of their societies.

Now, there are consistent libertarians, people like Murray Rothbard- and if you just read the world that they describe, it’s a world so full of hate that no human being would want to live with it. This is a world where you don’t have roads because you don’t see any reason why you should cooperate in building a road that you’re not going to use: if you want a road, you get together with a bunch of other people who are going to use that road and you build it, then you charge people to ride on it. If you don’t like the pollution from somebody’s automobile, you take them to court and you litigate it. Who would want to live in a world like that? It’s a world built on hatred.

The whole thing’s not even worth talking about, though. First of all, it couldn’t function for a second- and if it could, all you’d want to do is get out, or commit suicide or something. But this is a special American aberration, it’s not really serious.

[T]he basic principle I would like to see communicated to people is the idea that every form of authority and domination and hierarchy, every authoritarian structure, has to prove that it’s justified- it has no prior justification. For instance, when you stop your five-year-old kid from trying to cross the street, that’s an authoritarian situation: it’s got to be justified. Well, in that case, I think you can give a justification. But the burden of proof for any exercise of authority is always on the person exercising it- invariably. And when you look, most of the time these authority structures have no justification: they have no moral justification, they have no justification in the interests of the person lower in the hierarchy, or in the interests of other people, or the environment, or the future, or the society, or anything else- they’re just there in order to preserve certain structures of power and domination, and the people at the top.

So I think that whenever you find situations of power, these questions should be asked- and the person who claims the legitimacy of the authority always bears the burden of justifying it. And if they can’t justify it, it’s illegitimate and should be dismantled. To tell you the truth, I don’t really understand anarchism as being much more than that. As far as I can see, it’s just the point of view that says that people have the right to be free, and if there are constraints on that freedom then you’ve got to justify them.

MAN: But you could say that “to truck and barter” is human nature- that people are fundamentally materialist, and will always want to accumulate more and more under any social structure.

CHOMSKY: You could say it, but there’s no reason to believe it. You look at peasant societies, they go on for thousands of years without it- do these people have a different human nature? Or just look inside a family: do people “truck and barter” over how much you’re going to eat for dinner? Well, certainly a family is a normal social structure, and you don’t see people accumulating more and more for themselves regardless of the needs of other people.

In fact, just take a look at the history of “trucking and bartering” itself: look at the history of modern capitalism, about which we know a lot. The first thing you’ll notice is, peasants had to be driven by force and violence into a wage-labor system they did not want; then major efforts were undertaken- conscious efforts- to create wants. In fact, if you look back, there’s a whole interesting literature of conscious discussion of the need to manufacture wants in the general population. It’s happened over the whole long stretch of capitalism of course, but one place where you can see it very nicely encapsulated is around the time when slavery was terminated. It’s very dramatic to look at cases like these…

Well, there was a little problem in Jamaica: since there was a lot of open land there, when the British let the slaves go free they just wanted to move out onto the land and be perfectly happy, they didn’t want to work for the British sugar plantations anymore. So what everyone was asking in Parliament in London was, “How can we force them to keep working for us, even when they’re no longer enslaved into it?” Alright, two things were decided upon: first, they would use state force to close off the open land and prevent people from going and surviving on their own. And secondly, they realized that since all these workers didn’t really want a lot of things- they just wanted to satisfy their basic needs, which they could easily do in that tropical climate- the British capitalists would have to start creating a whole set of wants for them, and make them start desiring things they didn’t then desire, so then the only way they’d be able to satisfy their new material desires would be by working for wages in the British sugar plantations.

There was very conscious discussion of the need to create wants- and in fact, extensive efforts were then undertaken to do exactly what they do on T.V. today: to create wants, to make you want the latest pair of sneakers you don’t really need, so then people will be driven into a wage-labor society. And that pattern has been repeated over and over again through the whole entire history of capitalism. In fact, what the whole history of capitalism shows is that people have had to be driven into situations which are then claimed to be their nature. But if the history of capitalism shows anything, it shows it’s not their nature, that they’ve had to be forced into it, and that that effort has had to be maintained right until this day.

I think people should be extremely skeptical when intellectual life constructs structures which aren’t transparent- because the fact of the matter is that in most areas of life, we just don’t understand anything very much. There are some areas, like say, quantum physics, where they’re not faking. But most of the time it’s just fakery, I think: anything that’s at all understood can probably be described pretty simply. And when words like “dialectics” come along, or “hermeneutics,” and all that kind of stuff that’s supposed to be very profound, like Goering, “I reach for my revolver.”

I mean, sure, there are some market forces operating- but the reality is, they’re pretty much off around the edges. And when people talk about the progress of automation and free-market “trade forces” inevitably kicking all these people out of work and driving the whole world towards kind of a Third World-type polarization of wealth- I mean, that’s true if you take a narrow enough perspective on it. But if you look into the factors that made things the way they are, it doesn’t even come close to being true, it’s not even remotely in touch with reality. But when you’re studying economics in the ideological institutions, that’s all just irrelevant and you’re not supposed to ask questions like these: you have all the information right in front of you, but these are simply not matters that it is proper to spend time talking about.

MAN: Noam, we’ve been discussing a number of activist strategies and problems- I’d like to talk for a moment about some of the reasons why people don’t get involved in activism. Suppose somebody convinced you, at the level of your belief in most things, that it was impossible to change the country, that the basic institutional structures we have now are going to remain in place for the next 200 years- you know, more or less adapted, but the same basic structures. I’m wondering, would you behave any differently?

NOAM: Zero.

MAN: You would behave exactly the same way?

NOAM: Same way. In fact, you don’t even have to make it a hypothetical- when I first got seriously involved in anti-Vietnam War activity, I was a hundred percent convinced that absolutely nothing could be done. I mean, into 1965 and ’66, if we wanted to have an anti-war meeting in Boston, we’d have to find six topics- you know, “Let’s talk about Venezuela, Iran, Vietnam, and the price of bread, and maybe we can get an audience that’ll outnumber the organizers.” And that went on for a long time. It looked impossible.

MAN: So if you thought that the current situation was going to continue, just persist forever, you would still do it?

NOAM: Yes.

Now, of course, it’s extremely easy to say, “The heck with it- I’m just going to adapt myself to the structures of power and authority, and do the best I can within them.” Sure, you can do that. But that’s not acting like a decent person. Look, if you’re walking down the street and you see a kid eating an ice-cream cone, and you notice there’s no cop around and you’re hungry, you can take the ice-cream cone because you’re bigger and just walk away. You can do that- probably there are people who do. But we call them pathological. On the other hand, if they do it within existing social structures, we call them normal- but it’s just as pathological, it’s just the pathology of the general society.

Actually, you might want to take a look at an interesting volume published recently by U.N.I.C.E.F., about treatment of children in the rich countries- it’s yet to be reviewed in the New York Times, or anywhere else in the United States, but it’s really quite revealing. It was written by a very good American economist named Sylvia Ann Hewlett, and she identified two basic patterns of treatment, a “Continental-European/Japanese” model and an “Anglo-American” model- which just are radically different. Her conclusion is, the Continental-European/Japanese pattern has improved the status of children and families; the Anglo-American pattern has been what she calls “a war” against children and families. And that’s particularly been true in the last twenty years, because the so-called “conservatives” who took over in the 1980s, aside from their love of torture and misery abroad, also happen to be passionately opposed to family values and the rights of children, and have carried out social policies which have destroyed them.

Actually, I think that the United States has been in kind of a pre-fascist mood for years- and we’ve been very lucky that every leader who’s come along has been a crook. See, people should always be very much in favor of corruption- I’m not kidding about that. Corruption’s a very good thing, because it undermines power. I mean, if we get some Jim Bakker coming along- you know, this preacher who was caught sleeping with everybody and defrauding his followers- those guys are fine: all they want is money and sex and ripping people off, so they’re never going to cause much trouble. Or take Nixon, say: an obvious crook, he’s ultimately not going to cause that much of a problem. But if somebody shows up who’s kind of a Hitler-type- just wants power, no corruption, straight, makes it all sound appealing, and says, “We want power”- well, then we’ll all be in very bad trouble. Now, we haven’t had the right person yet in the United States, but sooner or later somebody’s going to fill that position- and if so, it will be highly dangerous.

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