A Modern Success Exclusive Interview with Famed Intellectual, Noam Chomsky
By Michael S. Wilson
Everyone knows what one looks like. They’ve got the leather boots. Maybe some chains. Trench-coats. They wait in dark alleys with perfectly-spherical bombs. A lot of ‘em like to spike up their hair, or shave the side of their head, or do weird things like that to their appearance. You know what I mean. Everyone knows.
That’s what an anarchist looks like.
But the man I’m talking to today, albeit by voice-over-internet, I’m fairly certain doesn’t have a shaved head. No Mohawk that I’m aware of. He doesn’t carry any bombs. Especially not behind any dark alleys wearing a trench-coat. In fact, when he was young he tended to wear a nerdy short-sleeved shirt and necktie and those glasses with the Buddy Holly rims. And the few times I’ve had the opportunity to hear him speak in person, he seemed very … average. Almost disappointingly so. He was more the mild-mannered Clark Kent than the brazen Superman. His manner of speaking is almost mesmerizingly professorial — he rarely changes his cadence or pitch, except perhaps to deliver a satirical remark, and then only using pause, not inflection. His thoughts often fly into contingent — though important or descriptive — fields, before returning to the point. One must use every brain cell to follow his speaking at times since it is so full of starts, pauses, back-tracks, codas, and re-referencing. This is not due to lack of confidence on his part, but because, I think, of all the ideas coming into his mind at once.
If you are absolutely not familiar with who Noam Chomsky is, you are not alone. He almost never appears in the mainstream media, due to factors which should become clear as the interview progresses. Yet his intellectual stature is undeniable:
The New Yorker has … termed Chomsky “one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century”, while the New York Times has him as “arguably the most important intellectual alive.” But judged by the range, influence and novelty of his ideas, many argue that Chomsky is, in fact, the owner of one of the greatest minds in the history of our species. There is barely a domain of human understanding that has not been touched in some way by his thought. In the half-century since the 1960s, reverberations from his work have shaken the foundations of cognitive science, epistemology, media studies, psychobiology, computer science (to name but a few). Alongside Marx and Shakespeare, he ranks among the ten most-quoted writers in history. — Matt Kenard, Financial Times
I remember how shocked people were when I told them I was going to interview M. I. T. Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky. I remember how shocked I was when he agreed to a brief interview. But I also know Professor Chomsky to be a very down-to-earth man, very approachable, someone who seems to draw from a vast pool of inner strength to be able to speak not only to large crowds in Universities around the world, but also to respond to endless individual emails and letters, while continuing with all his other work of research. (He is said to read an average of twelve scholarly journals per week, among dozens of other periodicals and newspapers.) With all the work the man generates, one begins to wonder if Noam Chomsky, now at the youthful age of eighty-four, wasn’t cloned at some point.
Whatever the case, I had the pleasure of interviewing him as I sat in Memorial Union and he in his university office in Boston. So many things have been written about, and discussed by, Professor Chomsky, it was a challenge to think of anything new to ask him: like the grandparent you can’t think of what to get for Christmas because they already have everything.
So I chose to be a bit selfish and ask him what I’ve always wanted to ask him. As an out-spoken, actual, live-and-breathing anarchist, I wanted to know how he could align himself with such a controversial and marginal position.
MODERN SUCCESS: You are, among many other things, a self-described anarchist — an anarcho-syndicalist, specifically. Most people think of anarchists as disenfranchised punks throwing rocks at store windows, or masked men tossing ball-shaped bombs at fat industrialists. Is this an accurate view? What is anarchy to you?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, anarchism is, in my view, basically a kind of tendency in human thought which shows up in different forms in different circumstances, and has some leading characteristics. Primarily it is a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy. It seeks structures of hierarchy and domination in human life over the whole range, extending from, say, patriarchal families to, say, imperial systems, and it asks whether those systems are justified. It assumes that the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them. Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just. And, as I understand it, anarchy is just that tendency. It takes different forms at different times.
Anarcho-syndicalism is a particular variety of anarchism which was concerned primarily, though not solely, but primarily with control over work, over the work place, over production. It took for granted that working people ought to control their own work, its conditions, [that] they ought to control the enterprises in which they work, along with communities, so they should be associated with one another in free associations, and … democracy of that kind should be the foundational elements of a more general free society. And then, you know, ideas are worked out about how exactly that should manifest itself, but I think that is the core of anarcho-syndicalist thinking. I mean it’s not at all the general image that you described — people running around the streets, you know, breaking store windows — but [anarcho-syndicalism] is a conception of a very organized society, but organized from below by direct participation at every level, with as little control and domination as is feasible, maybe none.
MS: With the apparent ongoing demise of the capitalist state, many people are looking at other ways to be successful, to run their lives, and I’m wondering what you would say anarchy and syndicalism have to offer, things that others ideas — say, for example, state-run socialism — have failed to offer? Why should we choose anarchy, as opposed to, say, libertarianism?
NC: Well what’s called libertarian in the United States, which is a special U. S. phenomenon, it doesn’t really exist anywhere else — a little bit in England — permits a very high level of authority and domination but in the hands of private power: so private power should be unleashed to do whatever it likes. The assumption is that by some kind of magic, concentrated private power will lead to a more free and just society. Actually that has been believed in the past. Adam Smith for example, one of his main arguments for markets was the claim that under conditions of perfect liberty, markets would lead to perfect equality. Well, we don’t have to talk about that! That kind of —
MS: It seems to be a continuing contention today …
NC: Yes, and so well that kind of libertarianism, in my view, in the current world, is just a call for some of the worst kinds of tyranny, namely unaccountable private tyranny. Anarchism is quite different from that. It calls for an elimination to tyranny, all kinds of tyranny. Including the kind of tyranny that’s internal to private power concentrations. So why should we prefer it? Well I think because freedom is better than subordination. It’s better to be free than to be a slave. Its’ better to be able to make your own decisions than to have someone else make decisions and force you to observe them. I mean, I don’t think you really need an argument for that. It seems like … transparent.
The thing you need an argument for, and should give an argument for, is, How can we best proceed in that direction? And there are lots of ways within the current society. One way, incidentally, is through use of the state, to the extent that it is democratically controlled. I mean in the long run, anarchists would like to see the state eliminated. But it exists, alongside of private power, and the state is, at least to a certain extent, under public influence and control — could be much more so. And it provides devices to constrain the much more dangerous forces of private power. Rules for safety and health in the workplace for example. Or insuring that people have decent health care, let’s say. Many other things like that. They’re not going to come about through private power. Quite the contrary. But they can come about through the use of the state system under limited democratic control … to carry forward reformist measures. I think those are fine things to do. They should be looking forward to something much more, much beyond, — namely actual, much larger-scale democratization. And that’s possible to not only think about, but to work on.
So one of the leading anarchist thinkers, Bakunin in the 19th cent, pointed out that it’s quite possible to build the institutions of a future society within the present one. And he was thinking about far more autocratic societies than ours. And that’s being done. So for example, worker- and community- controlled enterprises are germs of a future society within the present one. And those not only can be developed, but are being developed. There’s some important work on this by Gar Alperovitz who’s involved in the enterprise systems around the Cleveland area which are worker and community controlled. There’s a lot of theoretical discussion of how it might work out, from various sources. Some of the most worked out ideas are in what’s called the “parecon” — participatory economics — literature and discussions. And there are others. These are at the planning and thinking level. And at the practical implementation level, there are steps that can be taken, while also pressing to overcome the worst … the major harms … caused by … concentration of private power through the use of state system, as long as the current system exists. So there’s no shortage of means to pursue.
As for state socialism, depends what one means by the term. If it’s tyranny of the Bolshevik variety (and its descendants), we need not tarry on it. If it’s a more expanded social democratic state, then the comments above apply. If something else, then what? Will it place decision-making in the hands of working people and communities, or in hands of some authority? If the latter, then — once again — freedom is better than subjugation, and the latter carries a very heavy burden of justification.
MS: Many people know you because of your and Edward Herman’s development of the Propaganda Model. Could you briefly describe that model and why it might be important to the students at the UW-Madison?
NC: Well first look back a bit — a little historical framework — back in the late 19th-, early 20th century, a good deal of freedom had been won in some societies. At the peak of this were in fact the United States and Britain. By no means free societies, but by comparative standards quite advanced in this respect. In fact so advanced, that power systems — state and private — began to recognize that things were getting to a point where they can’t control the population by force as easily as before, so they are going to have to turn to other means of control. And the other means of control are control of beliefs and attitudes. And out of that grew the public relations industry, which in those days described itself honestly as an industry of propaganda.
The guru of the PR industry, Edward Bernays — incidentally, not a reactionary, but a Wilson-Roosevelt-Kennedy liberal — the maiden handbook of the PR industry which he wrote back in the 1920s was called Propaganda. And in it he described, correctly, the goal of the industry. He said our goal is to insure that the “intelligent minority” — and of course anyone who writes about these things is part of that intelligent minority by definition, by stipulation, so we, the intelligent minority, are the only people capable of running things, and there’s that great population out there, the “unwashed masses,” who, if they’re left alone will just get into trouble: so we have to, as he put it, “engineer their consent,” figure out ways to insure they consent to our rule and domination. And that’s the goal of the PR industry. And it works in many ways. It’s primary commitment is commercial advertising. In fact, Bernays made his name right at that time — late 20s — by running an advertising campaign to convince women to smoke cigarettes: women weren’t smoking cigarettes, this big group of people who the tobacco industry isn’t able to kill, so we’ve got to do something about that. And he very successfully ran campaigns that induced women to smoke cigarettes: that would be, in modern terms, the cool thing to do, you know, that’s the way you get to be a modern, liberated woman. It was very successful —
MS: Is there a correlation between that campaign and what’s happening with the big oil industry right now and climate change?
NC: These are just a few examples. These are the origins of what became a huge industry of controlling attitudes and opinions. Now the oil industry today, and in fact the business world generally, are engaged in comparable campaigns to try to undermine efforts to deal with a problem that’s even greater than the mass murder that was caused by the tobacco industry; and it was mass murder. We are facing a threat, a serious threat, of catastrophic climate change. And it’s no joke. And [the oil industry is] trying to impede measures to deal with it for their own short-term profit interests. And that includes not only the petroleum industry, but the American Chamber of Commerce — the leading business lobby — and others, who’ve stated quite openly that they’re conducting … they don’t call it propaganda … but what would amount to propaganda campaigns to convince people that there’s no real danger and we shouldn’t really do much about it, and that we should concentrate on really important things like the deficit and economic growth — what they call ‘growth’ — and not worry about the fact that the human species is marching over a cliff which could be something like [human] species destruction; or at least the destruction of the possibility of a decent life for huge numbers of people. And there are many other correlations.
In fact quite generally, commercial advertising is fundamentally an effort to undermine markets. We should recognize that. If you’ve taken an economics course, you know that markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices. You take a look at the first ad you see on television and ask yourself … is that it’s purpose? No it’s not. It’s to create uninformed consumers making irrational choices. And these same institutions run political campaigns. It’s pretty much the same: you have to undermine democracy by trying to get uninformed people to make irrational choices. And so this is only one aspect of the PR industry. What Herman and I were discussing was another aspect of the whole propaganda system that developed roughly at that period, and that’s “manufacture of consent,” as it was called, [consent] to the decisions of our political leaders, or the leaders of the private economy, to try to insure that people have the right beliefs and don’t try to comprehend the way decisions are being made that may not only harm them, but harm many others. That’s propaganda in the normal sense. And so we were talking about mass media, and the intellectual community of the world in general, which is to a large extent dedicated to this. Not that people see themselves as propagandists, but … that they are themselves deeply indoctrinated into the principles of the system, which prevent them from perceiving many things that are really right on the surface, [things] that would be subversive to power if understood. We give plenty of examples there and there’s plenty more you can mention up to the present moment, crucial ones in fact. That’s a large part of a general system of indoctrination and control that runs parallel to controlling attitudes and … consumeristic commitments, and other devices to control people.
You mentioned students before. Well one of the main problems for students today — a huge problem — is sky-rocketing tuitions. Why do we have tuitions that are completely out-of-line with other countries, even with our own history? In the 1950s the United States was a much poorer country than it is today, and yet higher education was … pretty much free, or low fees or no fees for huge numbers of people. There hasn’t been an economic change that’s made it necessary, now, to have very high tuitions, far more than when we were a poor country. And to drive the point home even more clearly, if we look just across the borders, Mexico is a poor country yet has a good educational system with free tuition. There was an effort by the Mexican state to raise tuition, maybe some 15 years ago or so, and there was a national student strike which had a lot of popular support, and the government backed down. Now that’s just happened recently in Quebec, on our other border. Go across the ocean: Germany is a rich country. Free tuition. Finland has the highest-ranked education system in the world. Free … virtually free. So I don’t think you can give an argument that there are economic necessities behind the incredibly high increase in tuition. I think these are social and economic decisions made by the people who set policy. And [these hikes] are part of, in my view, part of a backlash that developed in the 1970s against the liberatory tendencies of the 1960s. Students became much freer, more open, they were pressing for opposition to the war, for civil rights, women’s rights … and the country just got too free. In fact, liberal intellectuals condemned this, called it a “crisis of democracy:” we’ve got to have more moderation of democracy. They called, literally, for more commitment to indoctrination of the young, their phrase … we have to make sure that the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young do their work, so we don’t have all this freedom and independence. And many developments took place after that. I don’t think we have enough direct documentation to prove causal relations, but you can see what happened. One of the things that happened was controlling students — in fact, controlling students for the rest of their lives, by simply trapping them in debt. That’s a very effective technique of control and indoctrination. And I suspect — I can’t prove — but I suspect that that’s a large part of the reason behind [high tuitions]. Many other parallel things happened. The whole economy changed in significant ways to concentrate power, to undermine workers’ rights and freedom. In fact the economist who chaired the Federal Reserve around the Clinton years, Alan Greenspan — St. Alan as he was called then, the great genius of the economics profession who was running the economy, highly honored — he testified proudly before congress that the basis for the great economy that he was running was what he called “growing worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, they won’t do things, like asking for better wages and better benefits. And that’s healthy for the economy from a certain point of view, a point of view that says workers ought to be oppressed and controlled, and that wealth ought to be concentrated in a very few pockets. So yeah, that’s a healthy economy, and we need growing worker insecurity, and we need growing student insecurity, for similar reasons. I think all of these things line up together as part of a general reaction — a bipartisan reaction, incidentally — against liberatory tendencies which manifested themselves in the 60s and have continued since.
MS: With the few remaining minutes we have left, I’m wondering if you could leave the students with one thing you’d like to say to them about how they can be successful in the future.
NC: There are plenty of problems in the world today, and students face a number of them, including the ones I mentioned — the joblessness, insecurity and so on. Yet on the other hand, there has been progress. In a lot of respects things are a lot more free and advanced than they were … not many years ago. So many things that were really matters of struggle, in fact even some barely even mentionable, say, in the 1960s, are now … partially resolved. Things like women’s rights. Gay rights. Opposition to aggression. Concern for the environment — which is nowhere near where it ought to be, but far beyond the 1960s. These victories for freedom didn’t come from gifts from above. They came from people struggling under conditions that are harsher than they are now. There is state repression now. But it doesn’t begin to compare with, say, Cointelpro in the 1960s. People that don’t know about that ought to read and think to find out. And that leaves lots of opportunities. Students, you know, are relatively privileged as compared with the rest of the population. They are also in a period of their lives where they are relatively free. Well that provides for all sorts of opportunities. In the past, such opportunities have been taken by students who have often been in the forefront of progressive change, and they have many more opportunities now. It’s never going to be easy. There’s going to be repression. There’s going to be backlash. But that’s the way society moves forward.
To read more about Chomsky’s ideas, there are literally hundreds of places to do so. He has written dozens of books about American military imperialism, the hegemony of the poor, the advertising and PR industry and their connection to news media in particular, and … The list goes on. Most of his books can be found in Madison at Rainbow Bookstore. To search through subjects about which he has written, you can visit his website at Chomsky.info, where you will find thousands of articles, interviews, and outside news commentary on Chomsky. My personal favorite introduction to Chomsky is the film, Manufacturing Consent: Chomsky and the Media, still considered one of the top-ten documentaries of all time.
This article was originally published in the online edition of Modern Success Vol. II.