Keeping the Rabble in Line Copyright © 1994 by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian
|Previous section | Next section | Contents | Archive | ZNet|
April 11, 1994
DB: You just returned from the San Francisco Bay area where you had the usual rounds of speeches, interviews, and receptions. Anything different about this particular trip?
There was a noticeable effect of people having seen the Achbar-Wintonick film Manufacturing Consent. Lots of people recognized me on campus and the streets. Otherwise, it's similar to what I find around the country. It takes a little different form in different places. It's a combination of dismay ranging to hopelessness on the one hand and hunger for something to do and some suggestion as to a way to proceed on the other.
DB: Are you concerned that this increased visibility and recognition might inhibit you in some way?
It has a feature that I think is extremely unfortunate and that may actually be inherent in the film medium and also in the general collapse of a left intelligentsia, namely a tendency to personalize issues and to impose a serious misunderstanding of the way things happen, as if they happen because individuals show up and lead people, whereas in fact what happens is that people organize and occasionally will toss up a spokesperson.
DB: Let's talk about democracy. When democratic theorists talk about the "rabble," who do they mean?
They mean the general population, who they in past years called the rabble and in more recent years have called "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders." If they're more polite, they call them the "general public."
DB: Why is it important to keep the rabble in line?
Any form of concentrated power, whatever it is, is not going to want to be subjected to popular democratic control or, for that matter, to market discipline. Powerful sectors, including corporate wealth, are naturally opposed to functioning democracy, just as they're opposed to functioning markets, for themselves, at least. It's just natural. They do not want external constraints on their capacity to make decisions and act freely. It entails that the elites will be extremely undemocratic.
DB: And has that always been the case?
Always. Of course, it's a little more nuanced because certain forms of democracy are favored, what is sometimes called "formal democracy." Modern democratic theory is simply more articulate and sophisticated than in the past. It takes the view that the role of the public, the "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders," as Walter Lippmann called them, is to be "spectators," not "participants," who show up every couple of years to ratify decisions made elsewhere or to select among representatives of dominant sectors in what's called an election. That form of democracy is approved and is indeed helpful to certain kinds of ruling groups, namely those in more or less state capitalist societies, and indeed the rising bourgeoisie a century or two ago. For one thing it has a legitimizing effect, and for another, it does offer significant options for the more privileged sectors, sometimes called the political class or the decision-making sectors, maybe something like a quarter of the population in a wealthy society.
DB: In discussions on democracy you refer to a couple of comments from Thomas Jefferson.
Near the end of his life, (he died in 1826), and a little before that, Thomas Jefferson had spoken with a mixture of concern and hope about what had been achieved. This is roughly fifty years after the Declaration of Independence. He said many interesting things. He made a distinction between two groups, what he called "aristocrats" and "democrats." The aristocrats are, in his words, "those who fear and distrust the people and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes." The democrats are those who "identify with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interest." So the democrats say, Look, people must be in control, whether or not I think that they're going to make the right decisions. The aristocrats fear and distrust the people and say that the higher classes shall take all powers into their hands.
What he called the aristocrats include the modern intelligentsia, whether in their Leninist variety or in the variety that appears in state capitalist democracies. So those who warn us of the "democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests" say that they are not the best judges; we are. I'm quoting one of the founders of contemporary political science, Harold Lasswell, representing a standard view. They are what Jefferson called the aristocrats. Their view has a close similarity to the Leninist doctrine that the vanguard party of radical intellectuals should take power and lead the stupid masses to a bright future. Those views run across the board in the groups that are considered respectable intellectuals in their own societies. In fact this is the victory of Thomas Jefferson's aristocrats, something which he feared and hoped might not happen, but indeed did happen, not entirely in the forms he predicted, but in the general character. These insights, of which Jefferson was one of the earliest articulate spokespersons, continued through the nineteenth century.
Later on Bakunin made a similar distinction, predicting that the intellectual classes more or less becoming visible as an independent element in the world would separate into two groups, those that he called the "red bureaucracy," who would take power into their own hands and create one of the most malevolent and vicious tyrannies in human history, and those who would conclude that power lies in the private sector and would become the intellectual servants of state and private power in what we now call state capitalist societies and, in his term, would "beat the people with the people's stick," meaning they would profess democracy while serving as what were later called the "responsible men" (Lippmann) who would make the decisions and the analysis and keep the "bewildered herd" (Lippmann) in hand. Those are two categories of what Jefferson called aristocrats. Democrats do exist, but they're increasingly marginal.
DB: You also cite the twentieth-century philosopher and educator John Dewey in a kind of link with Jefferson. What did Dewey have to say about this subject?
Dewey was one of the last spokespersons of what you might call the Jeffersonian view of democracy. Of course, he was writing a century later. Jefferson himself, some years before the remarks I quoted, warned of the danger that the government would fall into the hands of what he again called an aristocracy of "banking institutions and monied incorporations," what we would nowadays called corporations. He warned that that would be the end of democracy and the defeat of the American revolution. That's pretty much what happened in the century that followed, far beyond his worst nightmares.
Dewey was writing in the early part of the twentieth century. His view was that democracy is not an end in itself, it's a means by which people discover and extend and manifest their fundamental human nature and human rights, which is rooted in freedom and solidarity and a choice of both work and other forms of participation in a social order and free individual existence. Democracy produces free people, he said. That's the "ultimate aim" of a democratic society; not the production of goods, but "the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality." He recognized that democracy in that sense was a very withered plant.
He described politics as "the shadow cast on society by big business," namely by Jefferson's "banking institutions and monied incorporations," of course vastly more powerful by this time. He felt that that fact made reform very limited if not impossible. Here are his words: As long as "politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance." So reform may be of some use, but it's not going to bring democracy and freedom. These are undermined by the very institutions of private power, which of course he recognized, as did Jefferson and other classical liberals, as absolutist institutions. They're unaccountable. They're basically totalitarian in their internal structure. They're powerful far beyond anything that Dewey dreamed, for that matter. He also spelled out exactly what they were. He made it quite clear that as long as there is no democratic control of the workplace, of the banking institutions and monied incorporations, there will be only the most limited democracy.
DB: A question about your methodology and research. You retrieve and resurrect very valuable material, for example on Jefferson and Bakunin and Dewey and Adam Smith. There is that great St. Augustine story on pirates and emperors that you use. When did you read St. Augustine on the difference between pirates and emperors?
The St. Augustine story was actually brought to my attention by a friend, Israel Shahak, the Israeli dissident. He mentioned that to me. It was a nice story.
DB: Do you file these away? You dug out a quote from John Jay, "Those that own the country ought to govern it." Where did you find that?
I read it somewhere.
DB: It's a very impressive service.
This literature is all accessible. Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey, for example, it's hard to think of more leading figures in American history. All of these things are as American as apple pie. When you read John Dewey today, or Thomas Jefferson, their work sounds like that of some crazed Marxist lunatic. But that just shows how much intellectual life has deteriorated. These are straight developments from the classical liberal period. In many ways they received their earliest, and often most powerful formulation, in people like Wilhelm von Humboldt, somebody who I've been greatly interested in, and who inspired John Stuart Mill.
Von Humboldt was one of the eighteenth-century founders of the classical liberal tradition. He, like Adam Smith and other basically pre-capitalist classical liberals, felt that at the root of human nature is the need for free creative work under one's own control. That must be at the basis of any decent society. Those ideas run straight through to Dewey. They are of course deeply anti-capitalist in character. In the eighteenth century, Adam Smith didn't speak of himself as anti-capitalist because this was pre-capitalist, but you can see exactly where it's leading. It's leading to the left-libertarian critique of capitalism, which in my view grows straight out of classical liberalism and takes various forms. It takes the Deweyian form of a sort of workers' control version of democratic socialism. It takes the left Marxist form of people like Anton Pannekoek and Rosa Luxemburg, and it feeds directly into the libertarian socialist-anarchist tradition. All of this has been grossly perverted or forgotten in modern intellectual life. I think that those traditions are rich and internally fairly consistent, and I even think they can be traced back to earlier origins in seventeenth-century rationalism.
DB: Let's take Adam Smith, for example. He of course is the icon celebrated by the corporate community as the godfather of capitalism. But your research reveals some very startling information about Adam Smith.
It's not really startling. It's well known in Smith scholarship. Recall that Smith, for example, had even given an argument to show that a properly functioning market will tend towards equality and that the perfect system will be one of very extensive and pervasive equality. The closer you reach equality the closer you reach a perfect society. He also argued that only under those conditions would a market function efficiently. He was very critical of what he called "joint stock companies," what we would call corporations, which existed in quite a different form in his day. He had a good deal of skepticism about them because of the separation of managerial control from direct participation and also because they might, he feared then, turn into, in effect, immortal persons, which indeed happened in the nineteenth century, not long after his death.
It happened not through parliamentary decisions. Nobody voted on it in Congress. This was a significant change in American society, and elsewhere in the world as well, through judicial decisions. Judges, corporate lawyers, and others, simply crafted a new society in which immortal persons, namely corporations, have immense power. By now the top two hundred corporations in the world control over a quarter of total assets, and this is increasing. Just this morning Forbes magazine came out with its annual listing of the top American corporations and their assets, their behavior, and their welfare, and found increasing profits, increasing concentration, and reduction of jobs, a tendency that's been going on for some years.
DB: You suggest that to further democracy people should be "seeking out authoritarian structures and challenging them, eliminating any form of absolute power and hierarchic power." How would that, for example, work in a family structure?
In any structure, including a family structure, there are various forms of authority. A patriarchal family, that kind of family structure, may have very rigid authority, from the father usually, setting rules that others adhere to, in some cases administering severe punishment if there's a violation of them. There are other hierarchical relations among siblings, between the mother and father, gender relations, and so on. These all have to be questioned. Sometimes I think you can find that there's a legitimate claim to authority, that is, the challenge to authority can sometimes be met. But the burden of proof is on the authority. So for example, some form of control over children is justified. It's fair to prevent the child from putting his or her hand in the oven, let's say, or from running across the street in traffic. It's even proper to place clear bounds on children. They want them. They want to understand where they are in the world. However, all of these things have to be done with sensitivity and with self-awareness and recognition that any authoritarian role that one plays, or that someone else plays, does require justification. It's not self-justifying.
DB: This is a difficult question. When does that child move to an autonomous state where the parent doesn't need to provide authority?
I don't think there are formulas for this. For one thing, it's not that we have solid scientific knowledge and understanding of these things. We don't. There's a mixture of experience and intuition plus a certain amount of study which yields a limited framework of understanding, about which people may certainly differ. Beyond that there are plenty of individual differences. So I don't think there's a simple answer to that question. The growth of autonomy and self-control and expansion of the range of legitimate choices and the ability to exercise them, that's growing up.
DB: Let's talk about media and democracy. In your view, what are the communications requirements of a democratic society?
I would agree with Adam Smith on this. We would like to see a tendency toward equality. Equality doesn't just mean the extremely spare form of equality of opportunity that's considered part of the dominant value system here. It means actual equality and the ability at every stage of one's existence for access to information and choices and decisions and participation on the basis of that information. So a democratic communications system would be one that involves large-scale public participation, that reflects on the one hand public interests and on the other hand real values, like truth and integrity and discovery and so on. Pursuit and dissemination of scientific understanding, for example, isn't something that results from parliamentary choices. It does in part because of funding and so on, but it also pursues its own path. And it's pursuing values that are significant in themselves.
DB: Bob McChesney, in his recent book Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy, details the rather contentious debate between 1928 and 1935 for control of radio in the U.S. How did that battle for radio play out?
That's a very interesting topic, and he's done an important service by bringing it out. It's very pertinent today, because we're involved in a very similar battle over this so-called "information highway." In the 1920s, the first major means of mass communication came along after the printing press, which was radio. It's obvious that radio is a bounded resource. There was no question in anyone's mind that the government was going to have to regulate it. There's only a fixed bandwidth. The question was, What form would this government regulation take?
There were essentially two choices: It could offer this new technology, this new form of mass communication, as, in effect, a public service, meaning that it would be public radio, with popular participation, and as democratic as the society is. Public radio in the Soviet Union would have been totalitarian, and public radio in, say, Canada or England would be partially democratic insofar as the societies are democratic, which they are to an extent. That debate was pursued all over the world, at least in the wealthier societies that had choices, and it split.
The U.S. went one way, and the rest of the world, maybe all of it, I can't think of an exception, went the other way. Almost the entire world went in the direction of public radio. The U.S. chose private radio. "Chose" is a funny word. The distribution of power in the U.S. led to commercialization of radio. Not a hundred percent, so you were allowed to have small radio stations, say, a college radio station, which can reach a few blocks. But in effect it was handed over to private power. There was, as McChesney points out, a considerable struggle about that. There were church groups and some labor groups and other public interest groups that felt that the U.S. should go the way the rest of the world was going. They lost out. This is very much a business-run society. That shows itself in many differences between the U.S. and the rest of the industrial world. Lack of comprehensive health care is another well-known example.
In any event, business power won. Rather strikingly, it also won an ideological victory, claiming that handing radio over to private power was democracy because you have choices in the market. That's a very weird concept of democracy, which means that your power in this democracy depends on the number of dollars you have, and the choices are limited to selection among options that are highly structured by the real concentration of power. So it's a very odd notion of democracy, sort of the kind of democracy you get in a totalitarian system. But nevertheless that was considered democracy. It was widely accepted, including by liberals, as the democratic solution. By the mid- and late 1930s that game was essentially over.
It replayed, in the world, at least, about a decade later, when television came along. In the U.S. this wasn't a battle at all. It was completely commercialized without any conflict. But again in the rest of the world, maybe in the entire rest of the world, it moved into the public sector, again a big split between the U.S. and other countries. There was a slight modification of this in the 1960s. For one thing, television and radio were becoming by then partly commercialized in other societies, too, as an effect of the same concentration of private power that we find in the U.S. So it was chipping away at the public service function of radio and television. In the U.S. in the 1960s there was a slight opening to public radio and television. The reasons for this have never been explored in any depth, as far as I know, but what seems to have happened is that corporations recognized that it was a nuisance for them to have to satisfy the formal requirements of the Federal Communications Commission that they devote part of their functioning to public interest purposes. So CBS and so on would have to have a big office with a lot of employees and bureaucrats who every year would put together a collection of fraudulent claims about how they had met this legislative condition. That's just a pain in the neck. Presumably they decided at some point that it would be easier to get the entire burden off their backs and permit a small and underfunded public broadcasting system. They could then claim that they don't have to fulfill this service any longer. That's what happened. So you get public radio and public television, small, underfunded, and by now largely corporate-funded in any event.
DB: That's happened more and more. PBS is sometimes called Petroleum Broadcasting Service.
That's again a reflection of the interests and power of a highly class-conscious business system which is always fighting an intense and self-conscious class war. These issues are coming up again in the decisions that are going to be made about the new communications technology, the Internet, the interactive technologies that are being developed and so on. And again we're going to find exactly the same conflict. It's going on right now.
DB: Lorenzo Milam is one of the pioneers of community radio in the U.S. He had this to say about public broadcasting: "Our freedom to be heard has been replaced on radio by mindless call-in programs, endless repeats of the car culture by illiterate Bostonians," sorry, Noam, "and national news programs ground out like commercial sausage. On television, any access by the poor and dispossessed is replaced by lions eating wildebeests, Lawrence Welk, and hour-long programs dedicated to the wonders of theme parks. Those of us who once hoped that commercial radio and television would live up to their initial hopes now have to be satisfied with the exposure of our most lurid preoccupations on the likes of Oprah, Geraldo, Arsenio, sandwiched between the prime-time ritual murder of our children."
I don't see any reason why one should have had any long-term hopes for anything different. Commercially run radio is going to have certain purposes, namely the purposes designed and determined by those who own and control it. Their purposes are to have a passive, obedient population of spectators in the political arena, not participants, consumers in the commercial arena, certainly not decision makers and participants, a community of people who are atomized and isolated so they cannot organize to put together their limited resources so as to become an independent and powerful force that will chip away at concentrated power. That's exactly what private business power will naturally want. From that you can pretty well predict the kind of system that will emerge.
DB: Does ownership always determine and drive content?
In some far-reaching sense it does. That is, if content ever goes beyond the bounds that ownership will tolerate, it will surely move in to limit it. On the other hand, that permits a fair amount of flexibility. So investors don't go down to the television studio and make sure that the local talk show host or news director is doing what they want. On the other hand, there are other complex mechanisms which make it fairly certain that they will do what the owners and investors want. There's a whole filtering process that enables people to rise through the system into managerial roles only if they've demonstrated that they've successfully internalized the values demanded by private power.
At that point they can describe themselves as quite free. So you'll occasionally find the sort of flaming independent liberal type. I remember columns by Tom Wicker saying, Look, nobody tells me what to say. I do anything I feel. It's an absolutely free system. And for him that's just right. After he had demonstrated to the satisfaction of the bosses that he had internalized their values, he was entirely free to write anything he wanted.
DB: Within the ideological framework, both PBS and NPR frequently come under attack as being left-wing.
This is an interesting sort of critique. The fact is that they are elite institutions, reflecting by and large the points of view and interests of wealthy professionals who are very close to business circles, including corporation executives. Their circles happen to be liberal by certain criteria. That is, if you took a poll among corporation executives on matters like, say, abortion rights, I've never seen this done, but I presume that they would be together with what's called the liberal community. The same on lots of social issues. They would tend not to be fundamentalist, born-again Christians, for example. They might tend to be more opposed to the death penalty than the general population. You'll find the wealthy and the privileged, including CEOs of corporations and big investors and so on, at the liberal fringe on a whole series of issues. The same will be true on things like civil rights and freedom of speech, I suspect. Since those are aspects of the social order from which they gain, they will tend to support them. If you look at support for the American Civil Liberties Union, I'm sure you'll find plenty of private wealth backing it. So by these criteria, by these standards, the powerful elites who basically dominate the country and own it tend to be liberal. That reflects itself in an institution like PBS.
DB: You've been on National Public Radio twice in twenty-three years, on MacNeil-Lehrer once in its almost twenty years. What if you were on MacNeil-Lehrer ten times? Would it make a difference?
Not a lot. I'm not quite sure of those numbers. I don't know where they come from, and my own memory is not that precise. For example, I've been on local PBS stations in particular towns.
DB: I'm talking about the national network.
Probably something roughly like that is correct. I don't know the exact numbers. It wouldn't make a lot of difference. In fact, in my view, if the managers of the propaganda system were more intelligent, they would allow more leeway to real dissidents and critics. Because it still wouldn't make much of a difference, given the overwhelming weight of propaganda on the other side and the constant framing of issues, even in the news stories and in that huge mass of the media system that is simply devoted to diverting people and making them more stupid and passive. It would also give the impression of broader debate and discussion and hence would have a legitimizing function. That's not to say I'm against opening up these media a bit, but I would think it would have a limited effect.
What you need is something that presents every day, in a clear and comprehensive fashion, a different picture of the world, one that reflects the concerns and interests or ordinary people, that takes something like the point of view on democracy and participation that you find from people like Jefferson or Dewey. Where that happens, and it has happened, even in modern societies, it has effects. Let's say, in England, where up until the 1960s you did have major mass media of this kind. It helped sustain and enliven a working-class culture, which had a big effect on British society.
DB: In 1990 we did one of our many interviews. We had a brief discussion about the role and function of sports in American society. I've probably gotten more comments about your comments than practically anything else. Part of it was excerpted in Harper's. You really pushed some buttons on this issue of sports. What's that about?
I got some funny reactions, a lot of irate reactions, as if I were somehow taking people's fun away from them. I have nothing against sports. I like to watch a good basketball game and that sort of thing. On the other hand, we have to recognize that there is a role that this mass hysteria about spectator sports plays. It's a significant role. It plays a role first of all in making people more passive, because you're not doing it. You're watching somebody doing it.
Secondly, it plays a role in engendering jingoist and chauvinist attitudes, sometimes to quite an extreme level. I saw something in the newspapers just a day or two ago about how high school teams are now so antagonistic and passionately committed to winning at all costs that they can't even do civil things like greeting one another because they're ready to kill one another. So they had to abandon the standard handshake before or after the game.
Those are the things that spectator sports engender, particularly when they're designed to organize a community to be hysterically committed to their gladiators. That's very dangerous, and it has lots of deleterious effects. Furthermore, I think things like that are understood and are part of the planning system, part of the public relations control system.
I was reading something about the glories of the information highway not too long ago. I can't quote it exactly, but I'll paraphrase the general tone. It was talking about how wonderful and empowering it's going to be with these new interactive technologies. Two basic examples were given. For women, what it's going to offer is highly improved methods of home shopping. So you'll be able to watch the tube and some model will appear with a commodity and you're supposed to think, God, I've got to have this or my children won't go to college, or whatever the reasoning is supposed to be. So you press a button and they deliver it to your door within a couple of hours. That's interactive technology liberating women. On the other hand, for men the example that was given was the Superbowl. Every red-blooded American male in the country is glued to it. Now all they can do is watch and cheer and drink beer. But once we have interactive technology, they can be asked, while the quarterback is getting his instructions from the coach about the next play, what the play ought to be. He should throw a pass, or something. They will be able to punch that into their computer and it will go to some central location. It won't have any effect on what the quarterback does, but after the play the television channel will be able to put up the numbers, sixty-three percent say he should have passed. That's interactive technology for men. Now you're really participating in the world. Forget about all this business of deciding what ought to happen for health care. Now you're doing something really important: deciding what play the quarterback should have called. That reflects the understanding of the stupefying effect of these systems in making people passive, atomized, obedient, non-participants, non-questioning, and easily controlled and disciplined.
DB: You also have, at the same time, the lionization of these athletes, or, in the case of Tonya Harding, for example, the demonization.
If you can personalize events, whether it's Hillary Clinton or Tonya Harding, you are directing people away from what matters and what is important. The John F. Kennedy cult is a good example, with the effects that that's had on the left.
DB: You were at American University in Washington, D.C. in December 1993. A student got up and said, Isn't it just great? We now have all these computer bulletin boards and the opportunity to be on e-mail and expand our information and awareness, etc. I was very struck by your response. You were talking about our need to have more human contact and that there was a danger in the new technologies.
I think that there are good things about these Internet communications. There are also aspects of them that concern and worry me. These are intuitive responses. I can't prove it. But my feeling is that people are not Martians, they are not robots, and that direct human contact, and I mean by that face-to-face contact, is an extremely important part of human life and existence and developing self-understanding and the growth of a healthy personality and so on. You just have a different relationship to somebody when you are looking at them than when you're punching away at a keyboard and some symbols come back. Extending that form of abstract and remote relationship, instead of direct personal contact, I suspect that that's going to have unpleasant effects on what people are like. It will diminish people, I think.
DB: Let's move on to another area. Historian Paul Boyer, in his book When Time Shall Be No More, writes, "Surveys show that," and I find this absolutely stunning, "from one third to one half of the population," he's talking about Americans, "believes that the future can be interpreted in biblical prophecies." Have you heard of these things?
I haven't seen that particularly number, but I've seen plenty of things like it. I saw a cross-cultural study a couple of years ago, I think it was published in England, which compared a whole range of societies in terms of beliefs of that kind. The U.S. stood out. It was unique in the industrial world. In fact, the measures for the U.S. were similar to pre-industrial societies.
DB: Why is that?
That's an interesting question, but it's certainly true. It's a very fundamentalist society. It's like Iran in the degree of fanatic religious commitment. You get extremely strange results. For example, I think about seventy-five percent of the population has a literal belief in the devil. There was a poll several years ago on evolution. People were asked their opinion on various theories of evolution, of how the world came to be what it is. The number of people who believed in Darwinian evolution was less than ten percent. About half the population believed in a church doctrine of divine-guided evolution. Most of the rest presumably believed that the world was created a couple of thousand years ago. This runs across the board. These are very unusual results. Why the U.S. should be off the spectrum on these issues has been discussed and debated for some time.
I remember reading something by a political scientist who writes about these things, William Dean Burnham, maybe ten or fifteen years ago. He had also done similar studies. He suggested that this may be a reflection of depoliticization, that is, inability to participate in a meaningful fashion in the political arena, which may have a rather important psychic effect, heightened by the striking disparity between the facts and the ideological depiction of them. What's sometimes called the ideal culture is so radically different from the real culture in terms of the theory of popular participation versus the reality of remoteness and impotence. That's not impossible. People will find some ways of identifying themselves, becoming associated with others, taking part in something. They're going to do it some way or other. If they don't have the options of participation in labor unions, political organizations that actually function, they'll find other ways. Religious fundamentalism is a classic example.
We see that happening in other parts of the world right now. The rise of what's called Islamic fundamentalism is to a significant extent a result of the collapse of secular nationalist alternatives which were either discredited internally or destroyed, leaving few other options. Something like that may be true of American society. This goes back to the nineteenth century. In fact, in the nineteenth century you even had some conscious efforts on the part of business leaders to promote and encourage fire and brimstone-type preachers who would lead people into looking in another way. The same thing happened in the early part of the Industrial Revolution in England. E.P. Thompson writes about this in his classic The Making of the English Working Class.
DB: What is one to make of Clinton's comment in his recent State of the Union speech. He said, "We can't renew our country unless more of us, I mean all of us, are willing to join churches."
I don't know exactly what's in his mind, but the ideology is very straightforward. If you devote yourself to activities out of the public arena, we folks will be able to run it straight. It's very interesting to see the way this is done in the slick PR productions of the right-wing corporations. One of the biggest ones is the Bradley Foundation, which is devoted to trying to narrow still further the ideological spectrum that shifted to the right in the schools and colleges and the ideological institutions generally in the 1980s, in part as a result of dedicated ideological warfare by the business sector. That's their mission. Their director, Michael Joyce, recently published an article on this which I found fascinating. I don't know whether he wrote it or one of his PR guys. It was very revealing in this respect, done in a very slick fashion.
It starts off with rhetoric drawn, probably consciously, from the left. When left liberals or radical activists start reading it they get a feeling of recognition and sympathy. I suspect it's directed to them and to young people. It starts off talking about how remote the political system is from us, how we are asked just to show up every once in a while and cast our votes and then go home. This is meaningless. This isn't real participation in the world. What we need is a functioning and active civil society in which people come together and do important things and not just this business of pushing a button now and then. That's the way it's starts. Then you get to page 2. It says, "How do we overcome these inadequacies."
Strikingly, the inadequacies are not to be overcome by more active participation in the political arena. They're to be overcome by abandoning the political arena and joining the PTA and going to church and getting a job and going to the store and buying something. That's how you fulfill your function as a citizen. That's the way to become a real citizen of a democratic society, by becoming engaged in activities like finding a job and going to the PTA.
Nothing wrong with going to the PTA. But there are a few gaps here. What happened to the political arena? That disappears from the discussion after the first few comments about how meaningless it is. Of course, if you abandon the political arena, somebody is going to be there. The somebody who is going to be there is the missing element in the entire discussion -- namely, private power, corporations. They're going to be there. They're not going to go home and join the PTA. So they're going to be there and they're going to run it. Nothing is said about this. This is abandoned.
As the discussion continues, there is some reference to the political arena and the way the people in it are oppressing us. But who are the people who are oppressing us? The liberal bureaucrats, the social scientists, the people who are trying to design social programs. They're the ones who run the country. They're ordering us around and kicking us in the pants and we've got to defend ourselves from them and so on. So there is a form of external power, namely, English departments somewhere or bureaucrats administering the IRS or social planners who are trying to talk about doing something for the poor. They're the ones who are really running the society. They're that impersonal, remote, unaccountable power that we've got to get off our backs as we go to the PTA and look for a job and in such ways fulfill our obligations as citizens.
Meanwhile the real public arena and the real centers of power in the country are totally missing from the discussion. This is done not quite step-by-step. I'm collapsing it. When you go through you see very clever propaganda, well-designed, well-crafted, plenty of thought behind it. Its goal, surely, is to make people as stupid and ignorant as possible and also as passive and obedient as possible, while at the same time making them feel that they are somehow moving towards higher forms of participation by abandoning the public arena. It also serves the crucial role of displacing attention from actual power. This is the kind of thing that really can't be achieved in a totalitarian state, where central power is just too visible. But it's achieved very commonly in the U.S. This is the right wing.
You see it at the liberal extreme, too. The campaign literature of the Clinton administration was interesting, since you mentioned Clinton. They put out a book called Mandate for Change, the kind of thing you pick up at airport newsstands for twenty-five cents, right before the election. We've talked about it before, but it's worth recalling in this context, to illustrate the actual breadth of the spectrum in a business-run society. It was about what great things they were going to do. The first chapter was on entrepreneurial economics and all their great plans for this. They explained that they're not going to be old-fashioned tax-and-spend liberals. They realize what's wrong with that. On the other hand, they're not going to be hard-hearted Republicans. They're forging a new path, entrepreneurial economics, which is concerned just for working people and their firms. The Clinton Administration is going to do something for them. The word "profits" appears once, I think, namely in a reference to the bad days when the Republicans were trying to make too much profit. The word "bosses" doesn't appear. "Managers" doesn't appear. "Owners" and "investors" don't appear. They're not there. It's just the workers and the firms in which they work, their own firms. What about the entrepreneurs? They're there. The entrepreneurs are people who come in every once in a while and help out the workers and improve the firms in which they work and then apparently disappear. That's the picture. Here's the workers and their firms and the entrepreneurs helping them now and then and the Clinton administration coming in to benefit them. The actual structure of power and authority is totally missing, just as much as it is in the publication of the Bradley Foundation. This makes sense if you're trying to turn people into passive and obedient automata.
DB: To tie up this discussion about religion and irrational belief and state capitalism, I recently read an article on MITI, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in Japan. There was a fascinating discussion by a MITI bureaucrat who was trained in the U.S. at the Harvard Business School. He says his class at Harvard was studying a failed airline, maybe Eastern or Pan Am, that went out of business. The class was shown a taped interview with the company's president, who noted with pride that through the whole financial crisis and eventual bankruptcy of the airline he had never asked for government help. The class, the Japanese man recalls with astonishment, erupted into applause. Then he says, "There's a strong resistance to government intervention in America. I understand that. But I was shocked. There are many shareholders in companies. What happened to his employees, for example?" Then he reflects on what he views as America's blind devotion to a free-market ideology. He says, "It is something quite close to a religion. You cannot argue about it with most people. You believe it or you don't." It's interesting.
It's interesting in part because of the failure to understand what happens in the U.S., which may well be shared by the students in his business class. If that was Eastern Airlines that they were talking about, Frank Lorenzo, the director, was in fact trying to put it out of business. He made a personal profit out of that, but he wanted to break the unions and to support his other enterprises, which he ripped off profits from Eastern Airlines for to leave the airline industry less unionized and more under corporate control and to leave himself wealthier, all of which happened. So naturally he didn't ask for government intervention because it was working the way he wanted. On the other hand, the belief that corporations don't call for government intervention is a joke. They demand government intervention and government power at an extraordinary level. The Chrysler bailout is a famous example, but a minor one. That's largely what the whole Pentagon system is about.
Take the airline industry. It was created by government intervention. A large part of the reason for the huge growth in the Pentagon in the late 1940s was to salvage the collapsing aeronautical industry, which obviously couldn't survive in a civilian market. There's an interesting and important book by Frank Kofsky which just came out on this, running through the details of the war scares that were manipulated in 1947 and 1948 to try to ram spending bills through Congress that would save the aeronautical industry. It's not the only thing they were for, but it was a big factor. That's continued. The aeronautical industry is the leading American export industry. Boeing is the leading American exporter without government intervention it might be producing one-seaters for sport.
Furthermore, the real U.S. comparative advantages in what's called "services." About a third of the trade benefits and services are aeronautical related, things like tourism, travel, and so on. These are huge industries spawned by massive government intervention and maintained that way. The corporations demand it. They couldn't survive without it, even if for some of them it's not a huge part of their profits right now. But it's a cushion. And the public also provides the basic technology, metallurgy, avionics, and so on, via the public subsidy system. The same is true just across the board. You can't find a functioning sector of the American economy which hasn't gotten that way and isn't sustained that way by state intervention. Just a day or two ago the lead story in the Wall Street Journal was about how the Clinton administration is reviving the National Bureau of Standards and Technology and pouring new funds into it to try to replace the somewhat declining Pentagon system. It's harder to maintain the Pentagon, but you've got to keep the subsidy going to big corporations. You have to have the public pay the research and development costs. So they're shifting over to the National Bureau of Standards, which used to try to work out how long a foot is and will now be more actively involved in serving the needs of private capital. It describes how hundreds of corporations are beating on their doors asking for grants. The idea that a Japanese investigator could fail to see this is pretty remarkable. It's pretty well known in Japan. And it's hard to imagine that they don't teach it in business school.
DB: I remember you telling me about when you were a kid in Philadelphia, the first baseball game you ever attended. The Philadelphia Athletics were playing the New York Yankees. Tell me about that, if you don't mind.
I can still remember it. It must have been around 1937, I guess. My closest friend and I were taken to this game by the fourth-grade teacher, whose name was Miss Clark and who we were madly in love with. It was a great occasion. Not only were we being taken to our first baseball game, but Miss Clark was taking us. We sat in the bleachers, the cheap seats, in center field, right behind Joe DiMaggio and the A's equivalent star, whose name I think was Bob Johnson. We were naturally rooting for the home team, the Philadelphia A's, who were winning 7-3 going into the seventh inning when the Yankees had a seven-run explosion and won the game 10-7. Big disaster, except that we saw all of our heroes, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Red Ruffing and the rest of them. I can remember it pretty clearly.
DB: The A's were always losing in those years, right?
For a boy growing up in Philadelphia in those years, given the way the culture works, they were hard times. Not only the A's, but every team in Philadelphia was always losing. So we were an object of considerable mockery when we met our friends and cousins from New York, where they were always winning. I have a certain suspicion that young boys who grew up in Philadelphia in those days must have a kind of deep inferiority complex.
DB: Things got so bad for the Athletics that they eventually left town.
So I heard. After my day.
|Go to the next section.|