Media, Politics and the Left

Against the Current, No. 55, March/April 1995

Robert McChesney interviews Noam Chomsky

THE CONVERSATION BEGAN by my acknowledging that this was my first effort at doing journalism in a long time, although I had written a great deal about it. “I have a great deal of respect for journalism,” I told Chomsky.

“So do I,” he replied. “You would be surprised to know how many journalists stay in touch with me, and how many agree with me, although they can’t say so publicly.”

I commented that I sensed that the huge cutbacks in editorial budgets in the past decade had made the conflicts between journalism and profit-driven media corporations more stark than they might have been earlier, leading some journalists to a more critical appraisal of the corporate control of the news media.

“I am sure that’s right,” Chomsky said, “although that’s a little bit orthogonal to the kinds of issues that interest me. You can see that now that they have cut back television news there is less opportunity to do things. Well then, you have to ask, what were they doing when they did have the opportunity?”

Noam Chomsky has been characterized by the New York Times as the “most important dissident intellectual” in the United States, yet the Times has resolutely avoided presenting his work; after all, more important thinkers like Charles Murray beckon. I experienced this unwillingness of the mainstream to confront Chomsky and his political work when he came to Madison to speak about the media in the spring of 1989.

Knowing that his blistering critique of the media would be to a packed auditorium and also carried over the local community radio station, the organizers sought out someone from my department — the School of Journalism — to take the stage next to Chomsky and advocate the position of the commercial news media. Suddenly, many of my colleagues, who dismissed Chomsky contemptuously in their conversations with me, became unavailable for the evening even with several weeks advance notice.

(The organizers then hoped to find an adversary for Chomsky elsewhere in the various social studies departments, with the same result. Finally, one assistant professor in political science — a poststructuralist theorist — agreed to take up the challenge. After speaking with her for five minutes and not understanding a single word she said, the organizers decided to let Chomsky stand alone.)

As Alexander Cockburn has observed in an introduction to one of David Barsamian’s interviews with Chomsky, Chomsky never concedes a point to make a point. He is always the rationalist, the scientist, demanding evidence and logic from one and all. From most intellectuals this practice would be combined with a massive egotism that would make you want to require them to memorize the scripts for every episode of “Three’s Company.” In Chomsky’s case, on the other hand, this stance reveals the sincere effort of a radical intellectual to find the truth in collaboration with others.

Chomsky has remained true to his libertarian socialist and rationalist principles throughout his career. His work has never depended upon metaphysics or throwing one’s faith behind maximum leaders or ideologies. He has asked for only one article of faith: that one believe that social change and that an egalitarian, cooperative, and humane society are possible. “If you act like there is no hope,” Chomsky likes to say, “you guarantee that there will be no hope.”

In no particular order, I discussed three areas with Chomsky: 1] his critique of the news media. In particular I wanted to give him an opportunity to respond to criticism of the seminal “propaganda model” of the media presented in his and Edward S. Herman’s Manufacturing Consent; 2] the present situation of the left and the U.S. intellectual community; and 3] the current national and global political situation and what it means for the left.

The first interview took place over the telephone on September 21, 1994. After transcribing the tape, I sent Chomsky a list of eleven follow-up questions. To my astonishment, Chomsky sent back a ten-page, single-spaced reply. Accordingly, the interview that follows has some elements of a phone conversation and some of a written presentation.

McChesney: Much of your recent work deals with the U.S. labor movement, the decline of the power of the U.S. working class, and what you term “The Third World at Home.” What do you see happening in this country today?

Chomsky: The U.S. labor movement has, of course, a very violent history and has been brutally repressed. In fact, by the standards of other western countries, the history has been extremely ugly. In the 1930s labor finally did win some of the gains that had been won half a century earlier in most similar countries in Europe, even highly authoritarian countries. Workers got, basically, the right to organize, not much more.

We have a very class conscious business community. This is a real business-run society, and they are fighting a bitter class war and they know it. They were horrified by the Wagner Act (which permitted the right to organize in 1935). The business community immediately launched a counteroffensive.

It was pretty harsh. FDR (President Franklin D. Roosevelt — ed.) basically joined with them so that U.S. troops were violently putting down strikes in the late 1930s, and FDR was backing off what New Deal programs he had been pushed into. The war put it on hold. Right after the war the thing picked up and there were measures like the Taft-Hartley Act.

Since then labor has been under very serious attack and most of the gains of the 1930s have been lost. The 40 hour week, which American workers fought for 100 years, that’s gone. There was a period — kind of a golden age of capitalism they call it<197>through into the 1960s, and during that period incomes rose. But that’s reversed. Since the `60s wages have been stagnating or declining and inequality has been increasing.

The attack on the labor movement escalated during the Reagan years to just outright criminality, just straight criminal behavior on the part of the Reagan administration. There is plenty of blame to go around — the labor movement itself, its leadership, shares a very big responsibility in this. The effects are pretty obvious. The labor movement has seriously declined, not just in its power but in its content.

When I was a kid back in the `30s the labor movement wasn’t just something that went on strike. It was a life, it was an educational system, and it had involvement in all sorts of social and political issues. There was support and solidarity, there were picnics and concerts. It was an alternative life. It even had its own media, very substantial in fact. Well, all that stuff is gone.

It’s part of something that is going on in the global economy. The United States, as usual, is sort of in the lead, because we’re the big guy; but it’s happening everywhere. It has to do, fundamentally, with two major things. One is the internationalization of the economy that has accelerated very rapidly since the 1970s; the other is the enormous shift from productive to financial capital.

Back around 1970, before Nixon dismantled the Bretton-Woods system, about ninety percent of the capital involved in international transactions was for investment and trade and ten percent speculation. By 1990 those figures had reversed. So it is ninety percent speculation along with the fact that the scale has enormously increased. I mean it just dwarfs national governments at this point.

The amount of capital that goes every day from one capital market to another — like New York to Tokyo — dwarfs the reserves of almost all countries. This gives an enormous amount of power to the hands of financial institutions and corporations. Alongside that you have this sharply increased capacity to shift operations very quickly anywhere in the world. You can shift production to wherever you can get workers very cheap and repress them.

This has a whipsaw effect. So General Motors can move a factory to Mexico in order to lower wages in the United States, and Daimler Benz can move a factory from Germany to Alabama in order to lower wages in Germany. And both of them can look to places like Poland for even lower wages. It has accelerated a number of major developments, one of them the splitting of the western societies into much more sharply two-tiered societies, kind of toward the third world model.

McChesney: Like Brazil or India.

Chomsky: The numbers are different in a rich country like the United States and a poorer country like Brazil, but the structures are becoming quite similar. The same has happened in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and it’s happening on the continent. There are different takes in different places: The United States and Britain have been sort of in the lead, so they have now the lowest labor costs per unit of output of any major industrial country, which is astonishing when you think of the wealth of the United States and its advantages.

The effect of all of this has been, first of all, to move even the rich societies toward this third world model and to sharply increase global inequality. Another effect has been to undermine democracy, because one consequence of this is that transnational corporations and financial institutions are gaining more and more power over actual decision making, and they are just totalitarian.

A corporation is about as extreme a totalitarian institution as human society has ever devised. It’s completely top-down. A corporation itself is the opposite extreme of democracy; even Russia wasn’t that totalitarian. And now the corporations have a lot more power. They still rely on powerful states to protect them and subsidize them and so on — that hasn’t changed at all, its just the poor who are not supported any more — in addition to that, they are developing their own quasi-governmental institutions, like the G7 meetings, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.

These institutions have the great advantage that they are unaccountable, operating largely in secret, so that democratic forms can function with “policy insulated from politics,” as the Economist (leading British financial weekly — ed.) nicely puts it. They are gradually taking over more and more. To the extent that parliamentary institutions function as a reflection of popular will, which is not zero although it is not high, it is being undermined by this process.

McChesney: Kim Moody, a writer for the newsletter Labor Notes, recently pointed out how, if you look at GATT and NAFTA, what they both do is to both limit the right of governments to intervene on capital, they have no restrictions on capital.

Chomsky: Exactly. These are investors’ rights agreements. In fact, nobody wants to undermine the capacities of governments to subsidize capital. Take the comical event in Seattle when Clinton gave this grand vision of a free market future — in a Boeing factory. The fact that reporters could report that and not laugh takes a lot of discipline. Boeing is a publicly subsidized institution, it couldn’t survive in the market.

McChesney: Along the lines of the notion of the Third World at home, the crime bill that just came through Congress…

Chomsky: That’s part of it.

McChesney: It was really an extraordinary statement about where this country is at, isn’t it?

Chomsky: But it makes a lot of sense. The Senate passed the Crime Bill two or three days after the House passed NAFTA, and that made sense. NAFTA is intended to increase the polarization of American society and marginalize more and more of the population, and you have to do something with them. The Crime Bill is the counterpart, in a wealthy society, to death squads in a poor society.

McChesney: I think that’s a striking way to put it.

Chomsky: I think it’s quite accurate.

The Health Care Crisis and Ideology

McChesney: An issue that many on the left have put attention to organizing around has been health care. Some argue that health care could provide the sort of galvanizing issue for the left that the left hasn’t had since the anti-war and Civil Rights movement. What do you think of the health care issue at this point?

Chomsky: Health care is sort of like the Civil Rights movement in the sense that on the one hand it is quite important, but on the other hand it is likely to get a fair amount of business support, and that means that in a way it is easier. The reason is that this privatized health care system is so bureaucratic and inefficient that it harms a lot of corporate interests.

Actually, Business Week came out in favor of single payer. Large parts of business — the kind of business sectors that supported the New Deal measures, as many of them did, like General Electric — they prefer to have a more rational health care program. This means that popular movements, if they organize, are not going to find it as hard to function as they did in opposing the Vietnam war, at least in the early stages of the war.

It’s also an important issue. It makes a lot of difference to people’s lives. I think there is every reason to expect that the system is just going to get worse. The current drift toward HMOs simply puts decision-making power about your health into the hands of insurance companies, and they have a perfectly obvious goal which Milton Friedman will be happy to explain.

They are not humanitarian organizations. They want you to have the worst possible medical care and they want to make the greatest possible profit. Meanwhile the public has to pay the huge executive salaries and their advertising costs and their profits and everything else.

McChesney: We’ve had two years now of Democratic rule in the White House after twelve years of fairly hard-right Republican rule. Has anything happened in these two years with Clinton to surprise you, or is this what you anticipated from a Democratic administration?

Chomsky: Not only is this what I anticipated but it is what I wrote before he got into office. Like, what is different? And why should anyone expect anything different? He was not deceptive about it. He put himself forward as what they called a New Democrat, a conservative, business-oriented Democrat.

That’s what his record was. That’s what he said he was. They were going to forget all this liberal nonsense about entitlements and justice and so on, and work for the business community. The fact that the Wall Street Journal a year later called him “the best president big business has had in decades,” why should that surprise anyone?

Look, the Democrats invariably have to throw some crumbs to their constituency, a matter of no small importance, since such crumbs can affect a lot of lives. They have a different constituency than the Republicans, who are just a straight business party. So that means that there are some softer measures that come through, like family leave gets a little bit better and that sort of thing. But with regard to anything that is connected to real serious decision-making, they are not different.

Incidentally, I don’t agree that the Republicans were so hard right. Bush was a moderate Republican. I don’t see a lot of difference between Bush and Clinton. The right-wing Democrats and the moderate Republicans are interchangeable.

McChesney: Paul Sweezy recently commented that he was rewriting an introduction to a book from the 1950s and he was surprised to see that he was far more optimistic about the prospects for radical social change in the United States in 1956 than he has been in his recent writings. How about you?

Chomsky: I disagree with Paul on this. I thought it looked much more gloomy in the `50s. Then there was nothing. It was a real dead period, very much like the `20s. The `60s changed all that, much to my surprise I should say. It led to a real popular awakening. It was a kind of cultural revolution that was very substantial in my opinion.

I think the country is just radically different now than it was before that time. That’s why elites are so hysterical about what they call political correctness. You simply can’t assume any longer that people will easily tolerate repression, injustice, sexism, and racism and crushing other people underfoot and so on, and they often react. That drives powerful people crazy.

The Meaning of the Cold War

McChesney: Much of the pessimism on the left, and I think it is ironic, seems to be that since the Communist regimes collapsed, this has been celebrated by proponents of capitalism as establishing that capitalism is the only way you can rationally organize an advanced economy, and the only system that can give you democracy too. Many people on the left seem to have internalized this, even people who were not proponents of Communism.

Chomsky: Oh, absolutely. I was amazed to watch the reaction to the fall of the Soviet empire. I mean any sort of moderately independent left would have just celebrated it. It’s like the fall of fascism. It opens new opportunities for socialism. Here I may slightly differ with a lot of the people at Against the Current, but in my opinion socialism was killed by Lenin and Trotsky and very consciously and for principled reasons within months after their takeover of power.

Ever since then the Soviet Union has been the most anti-socialist force in the world. Occasionally, for big power reasons, they would support targets of U.S. attack, but they were probably happier with Argentine neo-Nazi generals than with Sandinistas. They didn’t care about their politics. Or rather, in fact, they did care about them: They despised the authentic left. They were in the lead in crushing the anarchist revolution in Spain, for example. The fall of this system should have just been celebrated.

McChesney: Perhaps the pessimism is due to the way Communism was quickly replaced by the neo-liberal model.

Chomsky: I think the reaction reflects a misinterpretation of the Cold War. In fact, everyone has misinterpreted it, in my opinion.

In my view, the Cold War was basically part of the North-South conflict. Eastern Europe was the original Third World, going back to before Columbus. In 1917, it took an independent course and that is unacceptable. It is unacceptable if it is Aristide in Haiti, it is unacceptable if it is Bishop in Grenada, it is obviously unacceptable if it is a sixth of the world with a major military force behind it.

Well, OK, Haiti you can get rid of in a couple of years. Grenada, it takes you a weekend. The Soviet Union may take you seventy years, but it is basically the same. And now it is going right back to where it was. There are parts of the Soviet empire that always were part of the west<197>like the Czech Republic<197>so they are rejoining the west. But much of the region is going back to where it was, a Third World service area for the west.

McChesney: In any case, with what has happened to the Sandinistas and various progressive movements throughout the world, the difficulty that social movements face in forging alternatives to capitalism seem to many on the left to be really immense.

Chomsky: They do seem that way, but I don’t think that is accurate. Ideologically, it is easier than ever in my opinion. The world’s two big propaganda systems for the last seventy years — the Western and the Soviet system<197>disagreed on a lot of things but they agreed on one thing: namely, that stuff was socialism.

In fact, the Soviet system also called itself democracy, but nobody here would buy that one. On the other hand, the West loved the idea that they were calling themselves socialists, which had made about as much sense as calling themselves democratic. The reason was you could use it to defame socialism.

Well, a lot of the left bought that definition, unfortunately. And that has deeply undermined popular movements and liberatory tendencies and, in fact, socialist tendencies in the west. And that, fortunately, is over, so we are not subject to that propaganda anymore and we ought to be able to free ourselves enough to understand what has happened since 1917.

So at least at the ideological level things ought to be easier. There is another point, however. It is absolutely true that the things we were talking about before<197>this major attack against democracy, the big centralization of power in the hands of totalitarian international institutions, the growth of speculative capital that makes national economic planning almost impossible<197>all of those things do make popular struggle a lot harder. So it’s a mixed story.

McChesney: One of the themes you stress in your work, and one of your more controversial points, is that within the United States the people with the most education have the most illusions about how the society actually works, and that those at the bottom of the social structure tend to have a much clearer picture of the relations of power. Maybe that is what you are getting at here.

Chomsky: I think that is true. And I think it is very natural. I mean, after all, education, to a large extent, is a process of indoctrination. Also, there is a filtering process in the educational institutions that selects for obedience. If you are disobedient and independent, you usually don’t tend to get ahead. The end result is that those who have made it through the institutions tend to have internalized the values and they tend to be the most indoctrinated people.

McChesney: A friend of mine [Lawrence Soley of Marquette University] has come across some studies of academic hiring and it was revealed that the most important characteristic in academic hiring was finding people who were “easy to get along with.” When my friend evaluated what was meant by being “easy to get along with,” he found out it meant that people would be willing to sacrifice principle. They simply wouldn’t stand up for anything.

Chomsky: After thirty-five to forty years at elite universities that doesn’t surprise me a bit.

McChesney: No, it didn’t surprise me either.

Chomsky: I was at Harvard at an elite fellowship group. It was a nice place, they left you free to do anything you felt like. But a large part of it was just straight socialization: learning how to drink wine, have casual conversations, wear the right clothes, and that sort of business. Those are big parts of indoctrinating people.

The State of the Left

McChesney: The U.S. left, if you look back at its recent history, does not have a very impressive record. What are the lessons you see from your career as an activist?

Chomsky: Well, there is an old lesson, a lesson that was talked about by people like Bakunin over a century ago. The left if it is serious is going to have to create the facts of the future within the institutional structures of the present. What kind of facts we create, that will tell us what the future is.

If we can become part of democratic, egalitarian structures that are committed to justice and freedom, that is the kind of movement that ought to grow and develop and will offer something to others. If it is going to be a vanguard party splitting because you can’t control the guy next door, why should anyone pay any attention to you?

That is exactly what is happening with the Sandinistas right now, incidentally. They are losing what residue of popular support they had because they are acting very much on the Leninist principles that they grew up with. Why should anyone pay any attention to them? In fact, I get along a lot better, and have for years, with a lot of conservative Christian groups.

McChesney: I understand, but at the same time to actually effect change, we have to do something, don’t we?

Chomsky: Yes, but the population is just pleading for it and the cynicism about institutions is enormous. Just take a look at the polls. Half the population thinks both political parties ought to be disbanded because they are irrelevant. About eighty percent of the population thinks the economic system is inherently unfair.

Do you remember that poll that was taken on the Constitution about ten years ago? Somebody gave people a list of cliches…

McChesney: The one where they had the Marx quote?

Chomsky: They had the quote from Marx — from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs — well, about half the population think that is in the Constitution. They think it is so obvious that it’s a truism, its in the Constitution. And we’re talking about how hard it is to organize people? That’s our fault.

McChesney: I don’t want to dwell on my own experience, but when I began graduate school in the middle 1980s, I would attend campus left meetings and I would often be the youngest person in the room, and I was in my early thirties. You go to more college campuses than most left speakers, do you have any sense that there is a new generation of organizers coming along?

Chomsky: I think that the students now are different from the students in the 1960s, but I don’t think they are all that different in their commitments, interests and concerns. I think they are different in their conception of what their future is going to be.

So one of the reasons a lot of young people — people of Mike Albert’s (editor of Z magazine — ed.) age — were able to get involved in political action in the `60s was that they still had a very optimistic picture of the future. It looked like an expanding economy, it looked like there were lots of opportunities.

They were also kind of naive about the repressive structures. It looked as though you could sort of pull out and do your thing for a while and then get back in and go on. Nobody thinks that anymore. Students understand now, and they are right, that if they don’t toe the line, they are going to be cut out and that opportunities are contracting, not expanding.

McChesney: Anyone who teaches, like I do, from Mike Albert’s generation, which I am close to, understands that. It is evident in the whole behavior of students today.

Chomsky: Well, that has a big effect on people’s willingness to just take stances…I think it’s kind of a mixture. There are factors that make one feel optimistic and there are others that make you feel pessimistic. There is no way of predicting how they will work out. Nobody could have predicted what happened in the `60s.

McChesney: I find that many times when people make these pessimistic proclamations that there is a real lack of history, because no one could have predicted even ten or twelve years ago what would happen after that.

Chomsky: You are absolutely right. You can’t predict the weather tomorrow. How are you going to predict social events?

McChesney: Kim Moody recently spoke [at the August, 1994 Solidarity convention in Cleveland] about a number of recent global labor uprisings that were totally unexpected, like the general strike that attempted to bring down the military dictatorship in Nigeria. These were areas that no one was paying attention to and all of a sudden you have these organized movements.

Chomsky: That’s right. Haiti is a perfect example. Nobody knew what was going on except the people who were right in the middle of it. Or Chiapas. Who knows what is going to happen?

The Bumpy Information Superhighway

McChesney: Let’s talk about the media. Since you wrote Manufacturing Consent with Ed Herman in 1988, there have been a couple of major developments. One has been the revolution in communication and information technologies — in computer technologies, digital and fiber-optic technologies, facsimile — all together called the “information highway.” The argument goes that there is a huge range of information sources, which are only loosely regulated, with interactive components, and that people have access to these. So people are potentially less dependent upon the corporate news media than they used to be. In the minds of those who are not particularly critical — people like George Gilder — this has a utopian element. Even people on the left say that this is something to be taken very seriously. What are your thoughts on the information highway?

Chomsky: Basically what you wrote in your book. It is very similar to radio in the 1920s. It has a whole range of potential just as radio did, but the question is, who is going to take control of it? Looking at the distribution of power, I don’t have much doubt in my mind. The information highway will end up being a home shopping service and a technique of marginalization.

McChesney: Marginalization?

Chomsky: I remember reading an article in the Wall Street Journal or somewhere, talking about all the great potential of it, especially the interactive aspects. The article gave two examples. One was for women. For women they will be able to do interactive shopping. So you can watch some model holding something on the screen and you push a button and they deliver it.

That’s for women. For men, the example that was given was the Super Bowl. All the men are supposed to be watching the Super Bowl if they are good red-blooded Americans. Now all they can do is watch, but when they have interactive technology it will be possible for them to signal in advance what play they think the quarterback ought to call. It won’t have any effect, but afterwards it will show on the screen that say fifty-three percent of the audience thought the play was going to be a pass. This was not written as a caricature.

McChesney: (Much laughter)… Along these lines we had the head of a major national advertising organization come to our campus to discuss how advertisers were planning to use the information highway. He was talking about how during a commercial, people would be able to select one of four different brands the company produced and then receive a commercial for that brand. That’s the new choice you get.

Chomsky: That’s right.

McChesney: So clearly they are doing everything possible to assemble the new technology for their own profit.

Chomsky: This thing has been accessible to relatively wealthy people — meaning people who are linked up with computers — because it came out of the state system. That’s all. It’s the Pentagon system, basically. Since it is the Pentagon system, it is relatively democratic, meaning if you are wealthy enough you can take part in it — that’s not all that democratic.

It’s even having a negative effect, in my opinion. I just got a letter the other day from a friend of mine, who is a historian and an active lefty type for all his life, telling me how he is canceling all his subscriptions to the left journals. Reason: he can sit glued to peacenet all day and get most of the same stuff, he thinks, so why should he support the left institutions? Just think what that means!

McChesney: That’s true.

Chomsky: Plus, if you look at what these guys are watching on Peacenet, it is having a debilitating effect. It’s true that some information gets through, but so much of it is junk. I mean, I’ve watched it. I have tried occasionally. Have you watched it?

McChesney: I really haven’t. I get overwhelmed by all of this so I just use the e-mail for sending messages to friends.

Chomsky: I think it is even distorting that. A lot of people are getting hooked on these things and I think it is having a harmful effect on them. After all, these are systems that dissociate people from one another. We’re humans, we are not Martians. If you don’t have face-to-face contact, you don’t interact with a person. If your interaction is by pushing some buttons, that is very much a technique of isolation and atomization.

On the other hand, it does have a lot of potential, like radio in the 1920s. If there were popular forces able to make a play at taking control of it, they could do a lot with it.

McChesney: What do you think a progressive agenda might be for some of these technologies?

Chomsky: Take what Z is doing with the Z Bulletin Board, which is now bringing in the subscribers of a whole pile of progressive journals. They will in fact be interlinked with ongoing discussion groups and school-like things and so on. There is a lot of potential.

My feeling is that if it ever begins to realize its potential, we are going to see it destroyed. But that is something you have to fight about, like radio.

The second half of this discussion will appear in our next issue.

ATC 55, March-April 1995