samedi 16 août 2008

Take from the Needy and Give to the Greedy

Class Warfare: Noam Chomsky Interviews with David Barsamian

October 31 and November 3, 1995

DB: You’ve been following the World Court case, the Timor Gap Treaty involving Portugal and Australia. What’s happened with that?

On June 30th the World Court announced its decision, actually non-decision. It decided to evade the issue. There were procedural issues, like, Can they go ahead at all with Indonesia not there, and then if they had agreed to that there would have been the substantive issues, but
they stopped on the procedural issues. On a vote of 12-3, they said that they could not proceed without Indonesia present, so the issue’s dead.
On the other hand, if you read the whole ruling, it’s not completely empty. For example, they did say that there can be no doubt under international law that East Timor has the inalienable right of self-determination; but they said they can’t proceed any further on the technical matter of the treaty without one of the parties present, and Indonesia refuses to take part, just like the U.S. on Nicaragua. In Nicaragua they did go ahead, but on this one they didn’t.

DB: You’ve commented on the relative power of Australia vis-à-vis Portugal in arguing this case.

I haven’t seen the whole record, but what I saw of Portugal’s case didn’t look to me very impressive. And Australia had (again, what I saw of it) they did it cleverly in the legal sense. After all, we have to remember that even at the World Court or the Supreme Court the law is to a considerable extent a sort of duel where truth and significance are around the fringes somewhere. A lot of it is show and technique. One thing that Australia brought up that embarrassed Portugal a lot, although it’s irrelevant, had to do with their dealings with Morocco and Western Sahara, which the Australians brought up to show, You’re just being hypocritical. Two seconds’ worth of thought shows that whether they’re being hypocritical or not has zero to do with this case. But in the court deliberations and the colloquy they apparently have a lot to do with it. That’s standard courtroom procedure. And the Australians seemed pretty good at that. It’s a First World country, and they know how to play these games.

DB: I’m not familiar with the Portuguese position. Are they in favor of the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara?

I don’t know the exact details, but they apparently made some kind of deal with Morocco about maybe Western Saharan minerals or something. The Australians brought this up and said, This is a paralIel, so how can you even bring up the case of East Timor? At most what it shows is that Portugal is hypocritical, which is not the issue. But as courts work, it was an issue.

DB: You’ve just returned from a series of talks in Washington and Oregon. There were the by now customary huge turnouts and standing ovations and the like. But I sense you feel some disquiet. What’s that about?

To tell you the honest truth, when I see a huge mob, which is pretty common these days, I have a mixture of feelings. Partly I’m sort of depressed about it, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, there’s just too much personalization. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s worrisome. The other thing is that the ratio of passive participation to active engagement is way too high. These were well-arranged talks. For example, they did what a lot of people don’t do and ought to do. Every place I went there were a dozen tables outside with every conceivable organization having leaflets and handouts and sign-up sheets and telling what they’re up to.
So if people want to do anything there are easy answers to what you can do in your own community. The question that comes up over and over again, and I don’t really have an answer still, (really, I don’t know any other people who have answers to them), is, It’s terrible, awful, getting worse. What do we do? Tell me the answer. The trouble is, there has not in history ever been any answer other than, Get to work on it.
There are a thousand different ways of getting to work on it. For one thing, there’s no “it.” There’s lots of different things. You can think of long-term goals and visions you have in mind, but even if that’s what you’re focused on, you’re going to have to take steps towards them. The steps can be in all kinds of directions, from caring about starving children in Central America or Africa, to working on the rights of working people here, to worrying about the fact that the environment’s in serious danger. There’s no one thing that’s the right thing to do. It depends on what your interests are and what’s going on and what the problems are and so on. And you have to deal with them. There’s very little that anybody can do about these things alone. Occasionally somebody can, but it’s marginal. Mainly you work with other people to try to develop ideas and learn more about it and figure out appropriate tactics for the situation in question and deal with them and try to develop more support. That’s the way everything happens, whether it’s small changes or huge changes.
If there is a magic answer, I don’t know it. But it sounds to me as if the tone of the questions and part of the disparity between listening and acting suggests—I’m sure this is unfair—Tell me something that’s going to work pretty soon or else I’m not going to bother, because I’ve got other things to do. Nothing is going to work pretty soon, at least if it’s worth doing, nor has that ever been the case.
To get back to the point, even in talks like these, the organizers told me they did get a fair amount of apparent engagement. People would ask, Can I join your group? or What can I do? or Do you have some suggestions? If that works, okay, it’s fine. But usually, there’s a kind of chasm between the scale of the audience, and even its immediate reaction, and the follow-up. That’s depressing.

DB: You continue to be in tremendous demand for these speaking engagements. Are you considering stopping?

I would be delighted to stop. For me it’s not a great joy, frankly. I do it because I like to do it. You meet wonderful people and they’re doing terrific things. It’s the most important thing I can imagine doing. But if the world would go away, I’d be happy to stop. What ought to be happening is that a lot of younger people ought to be coming along and doing all these things. If that happens, fine. I’m glad to drift off into the background. That’s fine by me. It’s not happening much. That’s another thing that I worry about. There’s a real invisibility of left intellectuals who might get involved. I’m not talking about people who want to come by and say, okay, I’m your leader. Follow me. I’ll run your affairs. There’s always plenty of those people around. But the kind of people who are just always doing things, like whether it was workers’ education or being in the streets or being around where there’s something they can contribute, helping organizing—that’s always been part of the vocation of intellectuals from Russell and Dewey on to people whose names you never heard of but who are doing important things. There’s a visible gap there today, for all kinds of reasons. A number of people involved in these things have been talking about it. I’m sure you’ve heard of others.

DB: I wouldn’t entirely agree. There are some voices out there, like Holly Sklar, Winona LaDuke, and others that represent a younger generation.

It’s not zero. But I think it’s nothing like the scale of what it ought to be or indeed has been in the past. Maybe it was that way in the past for not great reasons. A lot of those people were around the periphery of, say, the Communist Party, which had its own serious problems. But whatever the reasons, I think there’s a very detectable fact. There’s plenty of left intellectuals. They’re just doing other things. Most of those things are not related to, are sometimes even subversive to these kinds of activities.

DB: A talk you gave in Martha’s Vineyard in late August on corporate power was broadcast on C-SPAN a couple of weeks ago. What’s been the response to that?

The usual. There’s a huge flood of letters which I’m trying to answer, slowly. Many of them are mixed. Many of them are very engaged, very concerned. People say, It’s terrible. I’m glad somebody’s talking about it.
I think the same way. What can I do, very often. There’s a strange fringe. A fair number of people interpret me as saying things that are very remote from what I mean. I’ll get a very enthusiastic letter saying this is great, I’m so glad to hear it, marvelous and wonderful, thanks, etc. I’d like to share with you what I’ve done about this. Then comes some document which is in my view often off the wall, but anyway completely unrelated to anything I’m talking about. So somewhere we’re not connecting. I think I even sort of know why. There’s a strange cultural phenomenon going on. It’s connected with this enormous growth of cultism, irrationality, dissociation, separateness, and isolation.
All of this is going together. I think another aspect is the way the population is reacting to what’s happening to them. By margins that are by now so overwhelming that it’s even front-page news, people are strenuously opposed to everything that’s going on and are frightened and angry and are reacting like punch-drunk fighters. They’re just too alone, both in their personal lives and associations and also intellectually, without anything to grasp. They don’t know how to respond except in irrational ways. In some ways it has sort of the tone of a devastated peasant society after a plague swept it or an army went through and ruined everything. People have just dissolved into inability to respond.
It’s kind of dramatic when you take, say, the opposite extreme in the hemisphere: Haiti. Here’s the poorest country in the hemisphere. It’s suffered enormous terror. People live in complete misery. I’ve seen a lot of Third World poverty, but it’s pretty hard to match what you find in the marketplaces in Port-au-Prince, let alone the hills. Here you have the worst conceivable situation, unimaginably horrible conditions. Poor people, people in the slums, peasants in the hills, managed to create out of their own activity a very lively, vibrant civil society with grassroots movements and associations and unions and ideas and commitment and hope and enthusiasm and so on which was astonishing in scale, so much so that without any resources they were able to take over the political system. Of course it’s Haiti, so the next thing that comes is the hammer on your head, which we sort of help to wield, but that’s another story. However, even after it all, apparently, it still survives. That’s under the worst imaginable conditions.
Then you come to the U.S., the best imaginable conditions, and people simply haven’t a clue as to how to respond. The idea that we have to go to Haiti to teach them about democracy ought to have everyone in stitches. We ought to go there and learn something about democracy. People are asking the question here, What do I do? Go ask some illiterate Haitian peasant. They seem to know what to do. That’s what you should do.
There’s another aspect to this, another question that’s pretty common. I commonly say, and I believe, that this is a very free society, at least for people who are relatively privileged which is an enormous number of people. The capacity of the government to coerce is very slight. A very common response (I heard it any number of times on this latest tour, but elsewhere as well) is, What about Kent State?
Incidentally, not Jackson State. That rarely comes up. What about Joe
McCarthy? Even that doesn’t get mentioned because that wouldn’t be relevant. I said “relatively privileged people.” If you’re a black organizer in the slums, sure, you have a lot of problems. But most of us aren’t.
Anyhow, the sense that there is repression here is enormous. In comparison, I was in Haiti briefly right at the height of the terror, and people were scared out of their wits, and rightly, but they didn’t feel they had to stop because maybe someday there would be repression. If you compare the amount of repression that there is here with what there is in most of the world, where people don’t even think about it—they just continue—it’s pretty shocking.

DB: So that perception of omnipotent government power, do you attribute that to propaganda?

In a very broad sense I’d attribute it to propaganda, but here you have to take the term “propaganda” pretty broadly. The whole doctrinal system, including the entertainment industry, the corporate media, the educational system, the political system, and everything else, there’s a public relations industry and a huge system that has been devoting itself for a long time very intensively and even self-consciously since the Second World War towards several tasks. One of them is demonizing unions. Another is making people hate and fear the government, which you might think is a little contradictory, since they control the government. But it’s not. There are plenty of things wrong with the government. But that’s not what they’re worried about. What they’re worried about is the one thing that’s right about it, namely, it’s potentially influenceable by the population.
That’s not true of private tyrannies. General Electric is not influenceable by the population except very indirectly through regulatory mechanisms which are very weak and which they mostly control anyhow. But you can’t vote to decide what they ought to do, and you can’t participate in those decisions. Those are tyrannies. Imagine yourself in the office of a public relations firm trying to turn people into the ideal state, namely manipulable atoms of consumption who are going to devote their energies to buying things that they don’t want because you tell them that’s what they want—advertising. They’re never going to get together to challenge anything, and they won’t have a thought in their heads except doing what they’re told. A perfect utopia.
Suppose you’re trying to do that. What you do is get them to hate and fear the government, fear the bigness of the government. But not look at the Fortune 500, nor even medium-sized businesses, not ask how they work, not ask what were truisms to important mainstream political economists like Robert Brady sixty years ago, and in fact to the working-class movement throughout its history. These things are just tyrannical, totalitarian systems. You don’t want people to see that. You want them to worry about the one thing that they might get involved in and that might even protect them from the depredations of private power. What would make sense would be to develop a mood of anti-politics. And it’s worked. People hate the government, fear the government, are worried about the bureaucrats.
Take, say, health. A lot of concern that government bureaucrats will be controlling it. There are many more bureaucrats in insurance offices controlling you. But that’s not what people worry about. It’s not those pointy-headed bureaucrats in insurance offices who are making us fill out these forms and telling us what to do and we’ve got to pay for their lunches and their advertising while they propagandize us. That’s not what people’s anger and fear is focused on. What it’s focused on, through very conscious manipulation and perfectly rational design, is this dangerous federal bureaucracy.
Actually, what’s going on now with the attempt at devolution, reducing decision making to the state level—that makes great sense if you believe in tyranny. There are circumstances in which regionalization would be a very good move. Devolution, lowering the level of power and decisionmaking closer to the popular level, could be a step toward democracy, but not when you’ve got private tyrannies around. When you’ve got private tyrannies around, the only institution that at least in part reflects public involvement, that can cope with them, is a very powerful one, namely, the federal government. Let’s say you send block grants down to the state. That’s a way of guaranteeing that they’re not going to get to poor people. Any even middle-sized business has all kinds of ways of pressuring states to make sure that that money ends up in their pockets and not in the pockets of hungry children. People can do this through regressive fiscal measures, the whole range of subsidies that governmental institutions provide to private powers that can threaten them—I’ll move to Tennessee tomorrow—so sure, devolution under these circumstances is a great way to increase tyranny and to decrease the threat of democracy as well as to shift resources even more dramatically toward the rich and away from the poor. That’s the obvious consequence of devolution. But I’ve never seen it discussed in the mainstream, although it’s the obvious point.
What’s discussed is complete irrelevancies, like whether we can trust the governors to care for the poor. What’s that got to do with anything?
It’s totally meaningless. But that kind of absurdity is what’s discussed, but not the obvious, overwhelming fact that distributing governmental resources to the lower levels will simply make them more susceptible to influence and control by private power. That’s the major fact. And it’s part of the same anti-politics. We want to weaken the federal government.
Incidentally, that’s only half true. The federal government is not being weakened. It’s just being changed. The security system is going up, not only the Pentagon, but even the internal security system, jails, etc. That aspect of the government is going up. That’s not just for control, although it’s partly for that. It’s also because it’s part of the way of transferring resources to the rich, which is virtually never discussed. In fact, it’s almost off the agenda, unless you read the business press. But it’s overwhelmingly significant. It ought to be a front-page article every day. By now it is so obvious it’s hard to miss. The Russians are gone.
The Pentagon stays the same, in fact it’s even going up. We were told for fifty years, which of course was always ridiculous, that we need this huge military to defend us from the Russians. How stupid can you be, and how indoctrinated can you be? Don’t you ever ask a question about what happened? What happened is, it’s there for the same reason it always was. How else are Newt Gingrich’s rich constituents going to stay rich? You obviously can’t subject them to market discipline. They’ll be out selling rags. They wouldn’t know what it means to exist in a market. What they know is, the government puts money in their pockets, and the main way it does it is through the whole Pentagon system. In fact, the criminal security system is beginning to take on this character. It’s reached, if not the scale of the Pentagon, it’s reached a sufficient scale so that the big investment firms and even high-tech industry, defense industry, are getting intrigued by the prospects of feeding at another public cash cow. That’s going up. So it’s not that the government is getting weaker.
But this long and very successful effort over many, many years to get people to focus their fears and angers and hatred on the government has had its effect. We all know there’s plenty to be upset about there. The primary thing to be upset about is that it is not under popular influence.
It is under the influence of the private powers. That’s the primary source of things we ought to worry about. But then to deal with that by giving private, unaccountable power even more power is just beyond absurdity.
It’s a real achievement of doctrinal managers to have been able to carry this off.

DB: You’ll recall Orwell’s Animal Farm: Two feet bad, four feet good.
Public sector bad, private sector good. It’s kind of playing out right now.

It’s kind of intriguing. Economists know that this is mostly nonsense.
But they don’t talk about it, except to each other. If you really look at the mantras, take, say, “Public sector bad.” What does that mean? Is there some evidence that privatization is a good idea? It’s just something you repeat because it’s drilled into your head. Sure, privatization makes things more efficient. Does it? There are experiences. For example, we can look at Mexico. What privatization did was rapidly increase the number of millionaires, accelerate the decline of real wages and social conditions. Did it make things better? Well, yes, for 24 billionaires. You can object and say, That’s Mexico, a corrupt Third World country. So let’s take England, which is a couple of steps ahead of us in privatization. Under Thatcher they privatized the water system. It was a public utility. So now it’s private. What’s happened? You can even read about it on the front page of the Financial Times. You don’t have to go to obscure publications any more. And they’re pretty irate. What happened is, profits have gone through the roof, prices have gone way up, and service has gone way down. In fact, sooner or later, it’s not very far from now you’ll be hearing proposals from the private owners that it’s not cost-effective to deliver water to scattered or small communities.
What they ought to do is go to a pump in the center of town and pick it up with buckets because any smart economist can prove that that’s more cost-effective and improves the GNP and that’s the best distribution of resources. Sure, that’s privatization.
And, not for obscure reasons, a private corporation is not in the business of being humanitarian. It’s in the business of increasing profit and market share. Doing that typically is extremely harmful to the general population. It may make some numbers look good. It may create what’s called an “economic miracle,” meaning great for investors and murderous for the population. But there’s no reason to think it’s a good thing. What’s claimed is, look at the inefficiency and corruption of the public institutions, which is true. Are the private ones better? The evidence for this is, as far as I know, nonexistent. What can be pointed out, and it’s correct, is that public industrial systems, like the Brazilian steel industry, often lost money. But that loss of money was part of a way of subsidizing private industry. So if you keep steel prices artificially low, that will be a gain for the people who are using steel, even though that system will run at a loss.
On the other hand, if you think about the effect over the whole economy, it’s much more complicated a story, and I don’t think there’s any single answer to it. Sometimes private industry has been efficient, and sometimes even helpful to people, which is quite different from being inefficient, in fact often unrelated to it. Sometimes it has, and many times it hasn’t. It depends on the circumstances, on factors that people don’t understand very well. But the idea that somehow privatization automatically improves things is absurd.

DB: In Australia earlier this year you commented that you felt like you were in somewhat of an odd situation in terms of your own political philosophy. You are defending the notion of the state and the role of the state, that the state has an active role to play to protect people’s interests.

This was actually an address at an anarchist conference. I pointed out what I think is true, that your goals and your visions are often in direct conflict. Visions are long-term things, what you’d like to achieve down the road. But if we mean by goals that which we’re trying to do tomorrow, they can often appear to be in conflict with long-term visions.
It’s not really a conflict. I think we’re in such a case right now. In the long term I think the centralized political power ought to be eliminated and dissolved and turned down ultimately to the local level, finally, with federalism and associations and so on. Sure, in the long term that’s my vision. On the other hand, right now I’d like to strengthen the federal government. The reason is, we live in this world, not some other world.
And in this world there happen to be huge concentrations of private power which are as close to tyranny and as close to totalitarian as anything humans have devised, and they have extraordinary power.
They are unaccountable to the public. There’s only one way of defending rights that have been attained or extending their scope in the face of these private powers, and that’s to maintain the one form of illegitimate power that happens to be somewhat responsive to the public and which the public can indeed influence. So you end up supporting centralized state power even though you oppose it. People who think there is a contradiction in that just aren’t thinking very clearly.

DB: There are two visions of the role of government. James Madison in 1787 saw its role as “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Then you have FDR in 1937 saying, “The test of our nation’s progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” Obviously one of those visions is dominant today. Why?

In the case of Madison, you have to be a little more careful. That was indeed Madison’s main theme, and that’s what you ought to learn in elementary school, because that in fact won. The Constitution was framed in Madisonian terms. He had a more complex argument. He was strongly opposed to democracy and warned against it. He talked about England, which was the model of the day, and said, If those guys had democracy over there the people would get together and take over the estates of the landed proprietors, and use their property for themselves instead of allowing the rich and powerful to maintain it. So obviously we can’t have democracy. We don’t want anything like that to happen here.
So democracy is a bad thing. The prime responsibility of government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority, and we have to set up the constitutional system so that this will work.
But there’s a hidden theme there. The hidden theme is that he is pre-capitalist. Capitalism was just in its early origins, and he was basically opposed to it. His idea was that the opulent minority are going to be benevolent aristocrats, Enlightenment gentlemen who sit around reading philosophy and who are genuine conservatives in an old-fashioned sense, a sense which doesn’t exist in the U.S.: Conservatives in the
European sense, who would be enlightened and benevolent. So they’ll be like benevolent tyrants. So that’s not inconsistent with what
Roosevelt was saying, except with regard to the institutional structure.
Madison also quickly learned that that’s not the case. A couple of years later he was bitterly condemning the system that he had created and talking about the “daring depravity of the times” as the rising class of business people become the “tools and tyrants” of government, overwhelming it with their force and benefiting from its gifts. That’s a pretty good description of what’s going on today. That was in the
1790s.When he saw that the minority of the opulent are not nice gentlemanly aristocrats or Enlightenment philosophers who are going to make sure that everybody is healthy and happy, he was outraged and infuriated. Nevertheless, the picture he presented, extricated from the context in which he understood it, has been the dominant view and now has reached an overwhelming level.
It’s not anything new, incidentally. The 1920s were not all that different. A century ago was not all that different.

DB: Isn’t it true that one of the tenets of classical conservative economics and philosophy is an antipathy toward concentration of power, toward monopoly? Yet these “Contractors,” if you will, who call themselves conservatives, are advocating policies that are accelerating concentration.

What we call conservatism, what used to be called liberalism—the terms are confusing—but classical liberalism was strongly opposed to concentration of power. Not what we call liberalism. It’s what today we call conservatism. The terms have totally shifted in meaning, if they ever had any. The views of, say, Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, the intellectual founders of what people pay homage to but don’t understand or choose not to understand, those people were certainly opposed to concentration of power. And it’s true that the people who call themselves, say, libertarians today, whatever they may have in their minds, they are in fact advocating extreme concentration of power, in fact they’re advocating some of the most totalitarian systems that humans have ever suffered under. That’s not their intent, of course. But if you read Adam Smith, part of his argument for the market was that it would lead to perfect equality, equality of condition, not just equality of opportunity. Like Madison, he was a pre-capitalist and anti-capitalist person with roots in the Enlightenment and had a very different vision of the way things ought to work out. You can ask whether his argument was very good. We really don’t know, experimentally, because his argument was that under conditions of perfect liberty a market would lead to equality of condition and of course we don’t remotely approach that. But that aside, whatever you think about the intellectual character of his argument, it’s clear what the goal was. And yes, the classical liberals, the Jeffersons and the Smiths, were opposing the concentrations of power that they saw around them, like the feudal system and the Church and royalty. They thought that ought to be dissolved. They didn’t see other forms of concentration of power which only developed later. When they did see them, they didn’t like them.
Jefferson was a good example. He was strongly opposed to the concentrations of power that he saw developing, and warned that the banking institutions and the industrial corporations which were barely coming into existence in his day would destroy the achievements of the Revolution. As I mentioned, Madison within a few years was already having very strongly stated second thoughts about what he had framed and created.

Here there are illusions that have to be dismantled from beginning to end. Take, say, David Ricardo, who actually is much more the godfather of contemporary neoliberal economics than Adam Smith, who was a pre-capitalist. Take a look at his famous law of comparative advantage, which we’re supposed to worship. It sort of works on his assumptions, but his assumptions are that capital would be pretty much immobile, partly because capital was land and land can’t be moved, but partly for other reasons. He thought capital would be relatively immobile because capitalists are nice human beings and they care about the people around them, so they’re not going to move their capital across the world because that would harm the people in their community and their country and naturally they have a lot of concern for them. Again, that’s a pre-capitalist thought. Within capitalist ideology, that’s a monstrosity.
You’re not supposed to care about anything except maximizing your own wealth. So Ricardo in the early nineteenth century was reflecting the residue of the pre-capitalist era, in part at least, although he’s an interesting mixture.
All of the humane Enlightenment aspects of this have been eliminated, and rightly, because the logic of the capitalist enterprise is, You should not have human feelings. You should just be trying to maximize your own wealth and power. On the one hand, the idea that capitalist entrepreneurs ever thought they should be subjected to market discipline is ridiculous. You use state power as much as you can. This is again something known to economic historians, but they don’t really look at it in a comprehensive way. So, for example, there are good studies showing very persuasively that, say, in the history of the U.S. that its economic growth was very closely correlated with its extremely high level of protectionism. Its biggest growth period in the late nineteenth century was a period in which tariffs here were five or ten times as high as in most of Europe, and that was great for the U.S. economy. That’s very general for every developed society.
On the other hand, that very much understates the case, because there are other things you don’t look at if you’re an economist. It’s somebody else’s field. For example, one reason why the Industrial
Revolution was able to be so successful in England and the U.S. was because of cheap cotton. What made cotton cheap? Extermination or elimination of the native population and bringing in slaves. That’s a rather serious government intervention in the market, more than a slight market distortion. But that doesn’t count. And the same economic historians will accept all sorts of myths about how developed countries used state intervention. They say that protectionism stopped in the U.S. after 1945, when the U.S. turned toward liberal internationalism. There was indeed pressure to lower tariffs. For one thing, it’s not quite true
that protectionism stopped. The Reaganites virtually doubled one or another form of protection.
But even if we were to agree protectionism didn’t stop, it would be largely beside the point, because there was another form of state intervention in the economy, a massive form that developed at that point, but that’s not the topic of economists, namely, the whole
Pentagon system, which has overwhelmingly been a way of funneling public resources to advanced sectors of industry, and in fact was largely designed for that purpose. That they talk about in some other department.
If you put all these things together, you find that the doctrines of the market are mainly weapons to beat people over the head with. We don’t use them ourselves. And when you actually look at the founders, they had all sorts of different ideas on the market. They were coming out of a truly conservative tradition, one that we don’t have, which was rooted in the Enlightenment and existing institutions and was concerned with things like sympathy and solidarity and benevolent care, a lot of it veryautocratic. That’s all dissolved under the impact of a sort of hypocritical capitalist ideology which means capitalism for you, but protection for me.

DB: You’ve made a bit of a name for yourself in the field of linguistics and language. It’s interesting, in the current political scene, how much the passive voice is used. There’s an article on income inequality in the New Yorker (October 16), for example, which is replete with this. Inequality happens. There’s no agency. There’s no active voice. People are getting poorer. No one is making them poor. It just happens.

Or “people were killed,” not “we’re killing them.” That’s absolutely standard. In fact, that’s the beautiful thing about the passive voice and other such devices. It makes it look as if things happen without an agent, and that’s very useful when the agent shouldn’t be identified because it’s too close to home. Virtually all discussions of aggression and terror take place in this framework. But you’re right, now the idea is, something strange is just happening to the economy, which is forcing inequality. Maybe automation or trade. Nobody really knows. We can’t do anything about it.
But these are social decisions. They’re very easy to trace. You know who’s making the decisions and why. Not exactly, but certainly to a very substantial extent we know why these things are happening. You can identify the factors in them. You can see that they are by no means inevitable. There are people who are saying very sensible things about automation and the end of work. And there’s a real problem. People aren’t going to get jobs because maybe someday robots will do their work. While I agree with that if you put extremely narrow bounds on the discussion, in a general sense it’s completely untrue. Take a walk through Boston or any other city and see if you don’t see things around where there’s work to be done. Then take a look at those people over there who are idle and say, Wouldn’t they like to do the work? The answer is yes to both. There is tons of work to be done, and lots of people who would like to do the work. It’s just that the economic system is such a grotesque catastrophe that it can’t even put together idle hands and needed work, which would be satisfying to the people and which would be beneficial to all of us. That’s just the mark of a failed system. The most dramatic mark of it. Work is not something that you should try to escape from, or that ordinary human beings would want to escape from. It’s something you want to do because it’s fulfilling, it’s creative. There’s plenty of it around. It’s not being done because of the extreme inadequacies of the socioeconomic system.

DB: In a recent Covert Action Quarterly article you wrote that “The terms of political discourse have been virtually deprived of meaning.”
We’ve talked about “conservative,” for example. How can it be recovered? Is it something desirable?

Oh, sure. Evacuation of content from the terms of discourse is a very useful device for dumbing people down. If it’s impossible to talk about anything, then you’ve got them under control. There are things that we ought to be able to talk about in ordinary, simple words. There’s nothing terribly profound here, as far as I know. If there is, nobody has discovered it. We ought to be able to talk about these things in simple, straightforward words and sentences without evasion and without going to some expert to try to make it look complicated for some other reason.
I’m not recommending anti-intellectualism. There are things to learn, and they’re worth learning, but the topics we are now discussing are not quantum physics. Anybody who’s interested can find out about them and understand them, as much as is necessary for rational behavior in structures where you can make important decisions for yourself. We ought to try to protect substantive discourse from the attacks on it from all sides. A lot of it is from the left, I should say. One aspect of this is to protect sensible discussion from anything that has the prefix “post-” in it.

DB: In that same article, you write about the “acceleration of the deliberate policy of driving the country toward a Third World model, with sectors of great privilege, growing numbers of people sinking into poverty or real misery, and a superfluous population confined in slums or expelled to the rapidly expanding prison system.” I think that’s a fair summary of the current situation, but aren’t the social policies that are producing those conditions a recipe for revolt and upheaval?

Sometimes they have been, sometimes they haven’t been. Slave societies can exist for a long time. It’s not that it hasn’t been tried before in industrial countries. Take, say, England right around the time of Ricardo, in the 1820s, when a system very much like the one they’re trying to impose now was indeed imposed for the first time in an industrial country. The rulers got their way. They won political power in the mid-1830s and pretty soon they instituted the program they wanted, which was not all that different (though in a different world, of course) from what is being preached today. There were problems. The British army was spending most of its time putting down riots. Pretty soon organizing began, the Chartist movement began, labor organizing began.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the classical economists who had been deriding the idea of helping people because to help people harms them, had changed their position. You read people like, say, Nassau Senior, one of the old hawks of political economy. He was shifting towards saying, There’s something to all this stuff. Then you get to John Stuart Mill in 1848 or so. That’s the foundation of the modern welfare state. For a long time laissez-faire was a bad word. Why? Because, to put it in a simple formula, the rich and powerful and their intellectuals, the economists, were telling people, You don’t have a right to live. You have a right to what you gain in the marketplace, but you don’t have any other right to live, and any effort to help you is going to hurt you. Pretty soon these strange people got the idea, We might not have a right to live, by your lights, but you don’t have a right to rule. So we’re just going to take it over and kick you out. That’s a little too far. The science, as it was called and still is called, was a very pliable one. Ricardo had compared the science of economics to Newton’s laws, but it turned out it wasn’t quite like that. When it became not usable as an instrument of class war, it simply changed. All of a sudden it turned out, Sure, you have a right to live and we have to adjust to your demands, because otherwise we’re not going to have a right to rule.
Exactly what form that organizing will take now . . . it’s already taken some form. It happens to be taking very antisocial forms. But that is a reflection of social and cultural factors in the society. It doesn’t have to.
As I mentioned before, you go to the opposite extreme in our hemisphere, to Haiti, where it took very constructive forms. So if it doesn’t take constructive forms here, that’s our fault. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

DB: But let’s say you’re a CEO of a major corporation. Isn’t it in your economic interest to keep enough change in my pocket so that I’ll buy your products?

That’s an interesting question, and nobody knows the answer to it. It was a question that had an answer in a national economy. So if you go back to the 1920s, at the time of the big automobile manufacturing burst, that was the question that Henry Ford raised. He drew the conclusion that you just drew. He said, I’d better give these guys a decent wage or nobody’s going to buy my cars. So he raised workers’ salaries beyond what he was forced to by market pressures. And others went along. That was on the reasoning that you just outlined, and it made sort of sense in a national economy.
Does it make sense in an international economy? Does it make sense in an international economy where you can shift production to the poorest and most deprived and most depressed regions where you have security forces keeping people under control and you don’t have to worry about environmental conditions and you have plenty of women pouring off the farms to work under impossible conditions and get burnt to death in factory fires and die from overwork and somebody else replaces them and that production is then integrated through the global system so that value is added where you have skilled workers and maybe pay a little more but you don’t have many of them? Finally it’s sold to the rich people in all the societies. Even the poorest Third World country has a very rich elite. As you take this kind of structural Third World model and transfer it over to the rich countries—it’s a structural model, it’s not in absolute terms—they have a sector of consumers that’s not trivial. Even if there’s plenty of superfluous people and huge numbers in jail and a lot of people suffering or even starving. So the question is, Can that work?
As a technical question, nobody really knows the answer. And it doesn’t make any difference anyway. We shouldn’t even be allowing ourselves to ask it. The point is that whether it could work or not, it’s a total monstrosity. Fascism works, too. In fact, it worked rather well from an economic point of view. It was quite successful. That doesn’t mean it’s not a monstrosity. So there is the technical question, Will it work? To that nobody knows the answer. But there’s also a human question of whether we should even ask, and the answer to that is, Of course not.
That’s not the CEO’s question, but it should be everybody else’s.

DB: What about the issue of the debt as a tactic of imposing a kind of de facto structural adjustment in the U.S.?

There’s a lot to say about it. Basically, yes. What is being said about the debt is for the most part nonsense. The one thing that is correct, which is hidden there, is that it is a weapon for cutting back social spending. In fact, it very likely was created for that reason. Most of the debt is Reagan debt. If you look back, it’s clear at the time, and I think it’s becoming clearer and clearer, that their borrow-and-spend lunacy which did substantially increase the debt, like 80% as compared with that accumulated over a couple hundred years, was conceived of and is now being very efficiently used as a weapon to cut back those parts of government that help the general population, while incidentally increasing spending for those parts of the government that help the very rich, like the Pentagon system.

November 3, 1995

DB: To pick up where we left off the other day, maybe we should make a distinction between what is called “the debt” and the deficit.

It’s just a technical difference. The deficit is a year-by-year accounting of the ratio between income and outgo in each year. The debt is what’s accumulated over time. So if the deficit stays high, the debt will continue to grow. If the deficit can be negative, then the debt cuts down.

DB: You mentioned that a lot is left out in the discussion about the debt. Like what?

I should say it’s not left out by serious professional economists who write about it, like Robert Eisner, who has done some of the best work.
But it’s left out of the public debate. One point is that the debt, though high (and it certainly grew substantially during the Reagan years), nevertheless is not high by either comparative or historical standards. So in the past it has often been higher, and in other countries it’s higher.
“High” means relative to the total economy, GNP or GDP, whatever you decide to measure. Relative to that, it’s not high.
The second point is that a debt is just part of living. There isn’t a business around that isn’t in debt. You borrow for, say, capital investment. Every person is in debt, virtually, unless they hide their money under the mattress. Almost everyone who has a car or a home or is sending their kids to college or doing anything is in debt. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have a home or a car or a television set. You wouldn’t be able to buy things on your MasterCard. Your kids wouldn’t go to college. Debt is just the way the system functions.
A third point is that the calculations for the federal government don’t make any sense because they don’t distinguish between that part of the debt that is for capital investment, and therefore contributes to economic growth and in fact further income for the government and everybody else, and that part of the debt which is just operating expenses. Every business makes that distinction. Most of the states make that distinction. Unless you make that distinction you’re just in a dream world.

So, to begin with, the whole thing is off the mark from the start. If you ask about debt, the question to ask is, What’s it for? Take a family.
If you go to Las Vegas and spend all your money and end up in debt and then you use the debt for more going to Las Vegas, that’s a bad use of debt. If you use the same amount of borrowing for a house or a car or your children’s education or putting into a business or buying books, then it could be a fine debt, in fact very constructive. In fact, forgetting what it does for you as a person, keeping to the strictest, narrowest economic considerations, it can contribute to further income. That’s exactly why businesses go into debt and people go into debt. One of the reasons. For a business it’s about the only reason. For people there are lots of good reasons.
When you turn to the government, you have to ask the same question: What’s the borrowing for? If the point of the borrowing is to put a lot of money into the pockets of Newt Gingrich’s rich constituents, which is in fact what it’s for, it’s like going to Las Vegas and wastin your money. On the other hand, if the same debt is used to improve what’s called human capital, that means to help children be healthier, better educated, more skilled, and so on—you have to put everything in terms of the word “capital” to be serious, although it’s not serious. It’s called “human capital.” It’s part of our kind of insane ideology. So if it’s used for human capital, by any measure it’s a wise debt. For example, it will increase economic growth, because improving human capital is one of the standard ways—the World Bank will tell you this—for increasing economic growth. What is going to determine much of the quality of life a little bit down the road—say you’re worried about your children—is how the economy’s working. That will determine a large part of what their lives are going to be like. It’s not the only thing, again, but let’s keep to that. That will depend on things like whether there is an educated, healthy, skilled population capable of increasing productivity and doing useful things, whether there’s a livable environment, so you’re not falling on the floor and dying because of pollution. Whether there’s infrastructure, like can you get to work without spending three hours in a traffic jam, are there schools, are there hospitals—all of that is what contributes to economic growth in the narrowest terms.
Incidentally, relative equality also contributes to economic growth.
Not too much is understood about these problems. Take the World Bank. Go out to the limits. They recognize that one of the factors, probably the major factor, that led to East Asian growth is relative equality, high infrastructure spending, investment in education, all of these things. It’s kind of common sense, and it’s shown by history. So if public spending is used for those purposes, then it contributes to the welfare of future generations, and then the debt is very wise, in fact it’s contributing to growth.
This idea that we’re somehow putting a burden on future generations by the debt is another small fraud. The debt is mostly owned by Americans. The latest figures I’ve seen show about 80% owned by Americans, which means that paying the debt goes back into the pockets of American citizens. You could claim that it has a very negative redistributive effect. That’s probably true. I don’t know if anybody knows the numbers, but it stands to reason that the people who own Treasury securities are not cab drivers. So the debt is by and large like other forms of social policy, that is, a technique by which the poor pay off the rich. But that’s internal to the country. It’s not a matter of putting a burden on your children, except in the sense that the whole regressive system puts a burden on your children because they’re going to be doing all sorts of things to pay off the rich. The debt is another one. But the
Gingrich line about how you’ve got to save future generations is not only ridiculous, but it’s the opposite of the truth. By cutting back the kinds of government spending they want cut back, they’re cutting back future economic growth and making life worse for the next generation, for just the reasons I mentioned.
These are things which certainly have to be seriously taken into consideration when you talk about the debt and the annual deficit.
Another factor has to do with what the public thinks of all of this.
Business is totally in favor of cutting it back. There’s overwhelming support for it, even those parts of business that will be harmed by it.
That’s kind of interesting. Because apparently for them, the class interest is overwhelming the immediate profit interest. So the class interest of rolling back all the social programs and ensuring that the government works only for the rich and destroying the regulatory apparatus and improving the options for corporate crime, which is what changing the tort system and the regulatory system means, all of that is so overwhelmingly beneficial that they’re willing to face the costs, to some extent, of less government service for the rich.
I should say only to some extent. If you look at the National Association of Manufacturers, they’re calling for more government assistance for, say, export promotion, meaning put money in their pockets. Newt Gingrich is not calling for cutting down the Pentagon system, putting money in the pockets of his rich constituents and others like them. On the contrary. Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation want a much bigger nanny state for the rich. So it’s mixed. But they’re willing to do things even that might harm profit because of the overwhelming advantages of destroying a whole system which is preventing them from robbing everybody blind. So that’s something.
So the business community is for it. Read Business Week. It’s uniform. In the political system, the leadership of both parties (not the scattered dissidents) is virtually 100% for it. So when Clinton goes on the radio to criticize the Republican budget program, he says, Of course we must balance the budget and eliminate the debt. That’s not even in question.
But there’s another segment of the country, namely, the population.
There are polls. There was recently a poll asking what people thought the primary issue was in the country. 5% said the debt. 5% said homelessness. So the number of people who think it’s the prime issue is the same as the number of people who think it’s homelessness. That shows you how people rank it. When asked, Should we eliminate the debt, here the polls are very carefully crafted. There are two sets of questions, one for headline writers and NPR and a set of questions for people who want to know the answers. The questions for the headline writers are, Would you like to see the debt eliminated? Most people say,
Yes. It’s like asking, Would you like your mortgage eliminated? That’s for the headlines: Americans Voted for Balanced Budget. Everybody Wants the Debt Eliminated. Americans Like the GOP Agenda, etc. Then comes the question that matters: Do you want the debt eliminated or the deficit reduced at the cost of _____. Then come a lot of “of’s”: cutback in health care, environmental protection, education. Then it goes way down. Depending on how the question is framed, it goes down to roughly 25% thinking it should be done at all, let alone thinking it’s a high priority. It’s like asking the question, Do you want your mortgage eliminated at the cost of giving up your house? You get a different answer to the question of would you like your mortgage eliminated. So this is part of the scam done by the public relations industry for the benefit of the doctrinal institutions. If you look at the bottom of the column, where the headline says Americans Want Balanced Budget, you sometimes get some of this data. So in general, the public is taking kind of a realistic attitude. They don’t think it’s that important, it’s about at the level of homelessness, and they don’t want it to happen at the cost that it’s going to take.
Suppose you raised the serious question and said, Do you want the debt reduced at the cost of the health and welfare and economic growth of the next generation? Because that’s what it means. I’m sure as soon as this is laid out you’ll get overwhelming opposition, especially if it’s understood exactly why this is the case.
On top of all of this, there is some historical experience. Here you have to be pretty cautious, because very little is understood about these matters, as the better economists will agree. It’s very speculative. But there’s some evidence. For example, there have been periods of attempts to balance the budget. I think there have been about half a dozen since the 1820s. I think every single one has led very quickly to a very serious recession or a deep depression. It’s not hard to see why. If you think it through, you can see why that should be.
On the other hand, there are also rather sophisticated studies of the effect of the deficit on things like consumption, investment, growth, and so on. It tends to have a sort of positive correlation. It tends to be the case that deficits contribute to growth, consumption levels, investment, production, trade, the usual measures. These are complicated measures, and you don’t want to say anything with much confidence. But it looks like that, and you can see why it would be the case.
If you did a really serious analysis, which would be extremely hard, you’d ask the same question as about a person borrowing. Do you borrow so you can gamble in Las Vegas or do you borrow for your children’s education? If you could ask that question, which is sophisticated, and ask, Insofar as debt was used for productive government investment, like infrastructure, health, the environment, and so on, what was its effect? vs. debt for building the F-22, I’m pretty sure you’d get a pretty sharp answer. But that’s a hard question to ask, and I don’t think anybody’s asked it.
In any event, if you want to rethink the question of debt, you have to start from the beginning and redo it from a totally different perspective.
Again, if we had anything remotely like a free press around, these would be the front-page stories, what they’d be telling people every day. You can’t claim that they don’t tell you. If you really read everything, you’ll find somebody saying this down on a back page or a piece of an op-ed.
But what people are deluged with is a different story. Unless you carry out a research effort, it’s very hard to know anything about these topics.
Interesting to me is that despite the deluge, people do not believe that the debt is an important issue. That’s pretty astonishing. I don’t know how long that can go on.

DB: One of the things you often do is challenge assumptions. So many things are just taken for granted, and that’s what the discourse is built upon. Like, We need to have a balanced budget. But citing a recent CBS News-New York Times poll, Americans, when asked whether they would want to sustain Medicare at current levels or balance the budget, by 3 to I said that they would rather have Medicare. This poll, incidentally, was described by the Speaker of the House as an example of “disinformation.”

And the Times, which ran the poll well, for once (that was a lead front-page story) didn’t mention that this has been a consistent figure all the way back. So you go back to last December. There were similar polls. Again it turns out, although the questions weren’t framed exactly the same way, that when people were asked, Do you want budget balancing at the cost of medical assistance, health care, again it was about 3 to 1 opposed. So these are fairly steady figures, and it’s interesting that they’re holding up despite the propaganda. When people are asked, Would you like to have higher taxes for more medical research, it’s about 75% in favor. I don’t remember the last numbers, but quite consistently over the years the polls have indicated that people are in favor of higher taxes if they’re used for things like health or education. Even foreign aid, believe it or not, if it goes to the poor. And of course, overwhelmingly the population thinks that the government has a responsibility to help the poor here.
They are also opposed to welfare, and that’s a success of the propaganda system. But yes, these poll results were interesting and important, have been consistent and generalized to almost everything else. And it hasn’t gone totally unnoticed. For example, Brad Knickerbocker is a well-known Washington correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He’s dealing mostly with environmental and energy issues these days. He had a column in which he said, kind of quizzically, that it’s almost as if Congress is looking at the polls and deciding to do the opposite. He was talking about environment and energy issues, where again it’s extremely dramatic, but it generalizes across the board. I think it’s hard to find a time in American history when policy has been so radically opposed to public opinion on issue after issue. It’s even true on the things that are going up.
The one big thing that’s going up is Pentagon spending. By about 6 to 1, the population wants it either stable or reduced. So even that is overwhelmingly opposed by the public. What you’re getting in the commentary is kind of interesting. Gingrich is plainly a total cynic, but a pretty efficient one. His line, which is repeated by the Heritage
Foundation and the Cato Institute, is that there’s a philosophical issue.
People shouldn’t be compelled to pay for things they don’t want, and that’s why we have to cut down food for starving children. A lot of people don’t want that, and our philosophy says they shouldn’t have to pay for that. But somehow our philosophy says you can increase the
Pentagon budget over the opposition of maybe three-quarters of the population because that puts money in my pockets. So there the philosophical issue disappears. Fortunately philosophy is a pretty subtle discipline, as we teach around here, and Gingrich understands that, along with the Heritage Foundation and the rest of the frauds who are putting forth their ridiculous distortion of libertarian philosophy.

DB: But there is a lot of confusion in the public. We talked about this the other day. There are all kinds of contradictory currents that are swirling around. For example, in a recent article you cited a poll in which about 80% of the population believes that the economic system is “inherently unfair,” and the government is “run for the benefit of the few and the special interests, not the people.” This is up from a steady 50%. But what is meant by “special interests”?

That’s a good question. I think I mentioned that in the article. I said what they mean by “special interests” is another question. But these questions have been asked for a long time in polls, a little differently worded so you get some different numbers, but for a long time about half the population was saying, when asked a bunch of open questions—like, Who do you think the government is run for? would say something like that: the few, the special interests, not the people. Now it’s 82%, which is unprecedented. It means that 82% of the populationdon’t even think we have a political system, not a small number.
What do they mean by special interests? Here you’ve got to start looking a little more closely. Chances are, judging by other polls and other sources of information, that if people are asked, Who are the special interests? they will probably say, welfare mothers, government bureaucrats, elitist professionals, liberals who run the media, unions.
These things would be listed. How many would say, Fortune 500, I don’t know. Probably not too many. We have a fantastic propaganda system in this country. There’s been nothing like it in history. It’s the whole public relations industry and the entertainment industry. The media, which everybody talks about, including me, are a small part of it.
I talk about mostly that sector of the media that goes to a small part of the population, the educated sector. But if you look at the whole system, it’s just vast. And it is dedicated to certain principles. It wants to destroy democracy. That’s its main goal. That means destroy every form of organization and association that might lead to democracy. So you have to demonize unions. And you have to isolate people and atomize them and separate them and make them hate and fear one another and create illusions about where power is. A major goal of this whole doctrinal system for fifty years has been to create the mood of what is now called anti-politics.
That succeeded. People focus their anger and fear on the government, the one part of the whole system of power that they can influence, and don’t much see the real systems of power, the hand that’s over it, the triviality stated by John Dewey that “Politics is the shadow on society cast by big business.” It ought to be a truism, but few people understand. So there’s plenty of confusion. And it shows up point by point.
Take, say, unions. About 80% of the populations think working people don’t have enough influence on what goes on. On the other hand, a great many people think unions have too much influence. There’s some truth to that. Unions don’t really closely represent working people. So there’s an element of truth to that. But that’s not what they mean. The point is that democratic unions are the way in which working people could have more of a say in things. But that’s been driven out of people’s minds.
Or take, say, welfare, a dramatic case. I think the last figure I saw was 80% of the population thought that the government has a responsibility to help the poor. There is also substantial opposition to welfare, which is the government helping the poor. The reason is the

Reagan fairy tales: black mothers in Cadillacs, teenaged girls having babies so that you’ll pay for them, all that kind of fraud. So people are opposed to welfare. If that’s welfare, why should I pay for it? I want to help the poor.
Also, people vastly overestimate the amount of money that goes to welfare. The U.S. has always had quite low social expenditures by comparative standards, and has been reducing them very sharply since
1970. For example, AFDC is now virtually wiped out, reduced by almost
a half since the 1970s. This feeling that there is a huge welfare burden is a total joke. I’m not talking about the real welfare (to the rich), but that trickle of welfare that goes to people who need help, which has never been high, and it’s been declining very sharply. I think about a third, a quarter of the population think it’s the biggest item in the federal budget. It’s almost invisible. They feel the same thing about foreign aid, which is really invisible. Again, about a quarter of the population think it’s the biggest item in the federal budget. And they think they’re very heavily taxed. We’re low taxed. And the taxes are extremely regressive.
There are two figures that are interesting, pre-tax income and actual income post-tax and post-benefit. So if you take into account food stamps, the effect of taxes, etc., and you ask, What do people have after all that system’s done?—in most countries, other countries like ours, it changes things a lot. Pre-tax inequality is not all that different in those countries from here. In the U.S., post-tax inequality, including all of these government transfers, is virtually the same as pre-tax. So the whole system of taxes and benefits doesn’t change much. In most other countries it changes a lot, which is why we have twice the level of poverty of our next nearest competitor, England, and much more than most other countries. Because the whole system doesn’t do much. It’s a highly regressive system. If you did a serious count, which people don’t do, it would be much more regressive.
Consider, for example, that a lot of things that are taxes aren’t called taxes. Take, say, New York City. It has just cut down expenditures for mass transit. So that’s less tax money spent. On the other hand, they raised fares, which means more taxes. Fares are just taxes by another name. There’s a difference between the cuts and the taxes. The taxes are regressive. First of all, even if executives and poor people took subways to the same extent, it would be a highly regressive tax. But of course they don’t. Overwhelmingly, the subways are used by the poor.
So this is a radically regressive tax, and it’s really socking it to people who can’t pay for it and enriching the people who don’t have to. If you look more closely, it’s even more dramatic. For example, the state administration has given what they call “subsidies,” a funny word for it, to public transportation, which means people’s money is being used for themselves. But have a look at it. They’ve cut down quite significantly the subsidy that goes to mass public transportation, like subways and buses, and increased the amount that’s going to commuter rail lines.
Now they cut them both a little, but they cut the subways much more than the commuter rail lines. In fact, the costs, the last figures I saw, the state contribution to these was about ten to one in favor of commuter rail lines. Who rides commuter rail lines? Executives living out in Westchester County and Long Island. Who rides subways? People living in Queens trying to get to Brooklyn, poor kids trying to get to school. That’s taxes. If anybody were to take that stuff into account, you would see that the system is . . . in fact the system already is flat by economists’ calculations, so to talk about a “flat tax” is a joke. That’s just talking about making it more regressive. It’s already more or less flat and has been, certainly, since the Reagan years. If you did a real calculation, it’s not flat, because the real costs are imposed on the poor.
Take, say, Boston. I live in the suburbs, which are mostly fairly wealthy people. You go a couple of miles from here and you get to the city, which is very poor people. I drove into Boston this morning. Who’s paying for the fact that I can drive there? Who’s keeping the roads up?
Who’s paying for the local cops? Who’s paying for the services? Not the guys who live in my suburb. We just rip off the poor people. And every city works like that. It’s designed in such a way that the poor pay off the rich by various techniques.

DB: And who’s paying for the cheapest gasoline in the world?

That’s right.

DB: The Pentagon.

Actually, you have to be a little careful. It’s keeping the oil prices within a range. It doesn’t want them to get too low or too high. Because if the prices get too low it harms the big energy companies, which are mostly U.S.-based, the ones that aren’t British. And you don’t want that to happen, because they’re an important part of the wealthy sector. On the other hand, if it goes too high it harms other sectors of the economy.
So they’re always looking for it to be in a certain band. If you look at policy over the years, it’s been, Not too high, not too low.

DB: There’s a group here in Boston, Share the Wealth. They’ve been doing a lot of research and reports on the tax code. They’re reporting that in the 1950s corporations paid something like 40% of all the taxes that IRS collected. In the 1990s it’s down to something like a quarter of that. That might be a piece of information that would be of interest to people.

It’s not just that. Take a look at state taxes and the rest. The tax code always was regressive. We never had much of a progressive tax. Take a look at work by real analysts like Joseph Pechman and others from years and years ago. They pointed out that if you calculate everything—state taxes, sales taxes, the whole business—you get a rather flat tax. It’s become much worse in the last couple of years. These are part of it. And it’s getting worse. The programs that are currently on the table, which they call flat tax programs—a meaningless term because we already have a flat tax—to tilt the scale even more sharply against the poor, also include things like a cutback on capital gains taxes. Capital gains happen to be about half the income for the top one percent of the population, then tailing off very, very sharply. That’s saying, If you’re in the top one percent we’re going to not even tax you for half your income, which is huge. All of these are complicated devices for ensuring that the poor—like 80% of the population—pay off the rich.
You read stories, like the article you gave me the other day from the New Yorker by John Cassidy, about how all of this is the inexorable workings of the capitalist system. The market in its genius is having these unpleasant effects. That is simply nonsense. These are social policies. You could make the policies different.

DB: He also says it’s a mystery how people are becoming poorer.

If you look at that article, there are some very interesting internal contradictions in it. He’s very critical of all these things that are happening. Isn’t it sad so many people are suffering, etc. He’s good-hearted. But then there’s the miracle of the market, the genius of the market, the mysteries. On the other hand, when he talks about the market, he only mentions three corporations: Hughes, Grumman, and McDonnell Douglas. He says that’s the way the market is functioning. That’s the way the market is functioning? These are state-subsidized corporations. You could hardly pick better examples of state industry.
The only thing that makes them part of the market is that the profits go into private pockets. But the public is paying for it. That’s why those corporations function.

DB: I think it was you that told me about this issue of people’s perceptions and these contradictory currents, that most Americans believe that “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” (Marx) is part of the Bill of Rights.

Part of the Constitution. That was a poll taken around 1976, the Bicentennial. There were many polls taken. Among other things, they gave people cliché-type things and said, Which do you think are in the Constitution? About 50% said that that’s in the Constitution because they take it to be so obvious. It tells you something about the failure of the left to organize. If half the population assumes that the most extreme position is not only true but must even be in the Constitution that indicates a big failure on the left.

DB: We’re in the era of reform, another Orwellism, tax reform, welfare reform. There’s also something called “lobbying reform.”
There’s a proposal to defund the left, to curb activities by non-profit groups. It’s interesting to see what groups are mentioned there as part of the left.

Although one should be very careful about the word “reform.” We don’t call what Hitler did reform. Reform has a nice feel about it. It’s supposed to make things better. So we should never use the word. We should talk about changes. The same with “promise.” Every article you read in the paper says, You may or may not like what the Republicans are doing, but they’re fulfilling their promise to the American people. If I say I’m going to beat you to a pulp, and I do it, that’s not a promise. I didn’t promise to do it. I threatened to do it. So what they ought to say is, The Republicans are keeping their threat to the American people.
Especially when we know how the American people feel about it. These are not reforms, any more than we’d say Stalin and Hitler instituted reforms. These are changes. You can like them or dislike them, but they’re not reforms.
There are two things going on that fall under what you mentioned.
One is the Istook Amendment, which is working its way through. I don’t think it’s going to make it. It’s too extreme. But it’s in the legislative process now. That’s a very cynical device to try to ensure that only, say, military industry and big corporations can lobby. Anyone who has any popular interest at heart can’t lobby, can’t try to press their interests in the public arena. The idea is to strike another massive blow at what’s left of the democratic system by restricting even entry into the public arena in the form of lobbying, that is, pressing for your position.
“Lobbying” means, like, writing a letter to your representative, or whatever you do. Restricting even that only to people who get huge government handouts.
The way it’s done is trying various methods. The first one was to say,
If you receive government funding and you’re a non-profit organization, you can’t use your own money for lobbying. Notice there’s no issue about using federal money for lobbying. That’s already illegal. So that’s out of the question. The question is, can you use your own money?
Suppose 5% of your money comes from a federal grant, can you use the other 95% for putting forward your interest in a cleaner environment or more health care? The first proposal was to add that condition that you can’t, but of course restrict it only to nonprofit organizations. Meaning if you’re making profit, like these three exemplars of the capitalist system,

Hughes, McDonnell Douglas, and Grumman, then you can continue to lobby at will because you’re profit-making. That got a certain amount of flak.
The later proposal, which may actually go through, is to require that nonprofit organizations provide accounting of every penny they spend on every possible thing, which will wildly increase bureaucratic costs and drive most of them out of business.
That’s one aspect of it, the Istook Amendment. The other aspect is this program of defunding the left, which is itself interesting. I think it was started by the Cato Institute. It’s being pushed by Congress and was reported in the Wall Street Journal. That’s very interesting. They quote the Heritage Foundation and Gingrich as to why we’ve got to start defunding the left, because it’s unfair for the government to be involved in pushing these political agendas.
“Agenda” is an interesting word. An agenda is something that people have who are trying to do bad things, like help poor people or clean up the environment. That’s an agenda. It’s not an agenda if you’re trying to put more money in your pocket. So there are all these guys with agendas, and the government’s funding them, and that’s wrong, because why should we fund the left?
Take a look at the list. The list was right there in the Wall Street Journal. The main organization on the left that they had to stop funding was Catholic Relief Services, a very left-wing organization. So why do they have to defund that part of the left? They explained that there are, in fact, priests and nuns, who, for free, are working in Head Start programs and helping poor people get heating for their homes. Those are left-wing agendas. They are helping people. And since priests and nuns are working on that, and sometimes they get a little bit of government money for it, you’ve got to defund them. That was the main organization. The second one was the American Association of Retired Persons, the AARP. That was the second left-wing organization. They explained why they had to defund that part of the left. The reason was that AARP was running a program to try to help elderly people who are poor to get jobs. That’s a left-wing agenda, so they’ve got to stop that.
Incidentally, the Wall Street Journal had another article in which they said that one out of six elderly people are suffering from hunger, many actually starving. But if you’re trying to get them jobs, that’s a left-wing program and we have to defund it. The next was some conservation organization. By their standards, anyone who has the slightest concern for human beings is on “the left.” Rather flattering, actually, and also intriguing that the mislabelled “conservatives” define themselves to include only people who would be regarded as pathologically insane by rational—and certainly by authentic conservative—standards.

DB: Even the American Heart Association, which they want to prevent from speaking out against the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke. Meanwhile Philip Morris and the heavily subsidized tobacco industry can lobby to its heart’s content.

On the Istook Amendment, and on the whole issue, one of the biggest supporters is the alcohol industry. They’re pushing it very hard. They don’t want people to be able to say, There is harm in alcohol, which in fact there is, much greater than hard drugs, though not as bad as tobacco. The biggest corporate funder by far for all of these guys, including last November, was Philip Morris, which is also one of the biggest killers, so they need the protection. In fact, the agenda, if I can borrow their word, is so clear, obvious, and dramatic that it takes a real genius to miss it.

DB: Let’s talk a little bit more about the media and their impact.

This summer there was a spate of mega-mergers in the media. Disney took over Cap Cities/ABC. Westinghouse took over CBS. Time-Warner took over Turner. What is your assessment of these mergers?

First of all, remember they’re part of something much more general.
There’s a merger wave now which has no precedent. Even in the peak of the Reagan years it wasn’t like this. And there’s a move towards what the business press is calling “mega-corporations.” Which means radically increasing the tyrannical, totalitarian structure of the global and domestic economies. These are of course tyrannies and totalitarian institutions. Nobody should have any doubt about that. As they get more powerful and integrated, they constitute in that alone a big attack on democracy and a big attack on markets, because as they dominate interactions—that means internal to these totalitarian structures—these huge command economies go way beyond anything people called, ludicrously, socialist. The media mergers are one piece of that. The big story is the increasing concentration of tyrannical power in private, unaccountable hands, which is tar more important than what’s happening in the media.
As to the media, what will the effect of this be? I have always been a bit of a skeptic about this. I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to it. I don’t think it matters a lot if, say, in Boston there are two or three corporate newspapers or one corporate newspaper. There’s some difference, but not a huge difference. Say there are three channels on television which are owned by huge mega-corporations and conglomerates and then it turns out later there’s only one because they’re all owned by Murdoch. I suspect that the difference won’t be substantial.
It will be something of a difference, because even within a system where power resides in extremely narrow hands, let’s say the Politburo in Russia, if there are factions within the Politburo there’s a little more freedom than if there are no factions within it. But the big point is the Politburo, not the amount of factional relations within it. Even in totalitarian states, they vary in the amount of internal factionalism within the sector that controls power. But it’s the anti-democratic character of it that’s significant, not the marginal question of the amount of factionalism there is. Things like the mergers of the media, what they’re doing is cutting down the factionalism in the Politburo, which surely is something to worry about, but we’re wasting our time if we pay too much attention to it, missing the larger picture.
Not a lot of people, including my close friends and associates, agree with me on this one, so I don’t mean to say it’s obvious. I suppose it’s not. But that’s my view.
But let me just give you a personal experience. You remember our story with Warner and the first book (Counter-Revolutionary Violence:
Bloodbaths in Fact and Propaganda) that Ed Herman and I wrote in 1973. The publishing house, Warner Modular, that produced it was put out of business, meaning they not only destroyed our book, but they destroyed all the books that Warner Modular published. The decision to carry out this massive attack against freedom of speech was made by an executive of Warner Communications, who didn’t like our book.
Incidentally, none of this elicited any reaction from alleged defenders of freedom of speech (Ben Bagdikian later wrote about it). But they weren’t Time-Warner in those days. It was Warner Communications. Big enough, but nowhere near what it is now and nowhere near what it is after the latest merger. Did that make a difference in the way they behave? No, not really. Marginal differences. I think the analogy would be something like factions within the Politburo.

DB: I’ve been talking to Bob Parry (independent journalist) and Jeff Cohen (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) about this. They contend that it is making a difference, the mega-mergers, the concentration, that there’s more timidity—that’s hard to imagine—and skittishness in the newsroom because there are fewer jobs. So you have fewer options.

That’s a different matter. I think they’re confusing two different things. Even without the mergers, the jobs are going down. That’s quite independent. Maybe the mergers have some effect on it, but I doubt if it’s large. The major thing is that news services are going down. That makes sense, because after all the purpose of this whole system is to destroy democracy, that is, to remove people from the public arena. So the more you can put into sitcoms and advertising, and the less you put into giving them news, the better it is. You’ve got to give them some news. They want to have some vague idea of what’s going on. But there are natural pressures within a state capitalist economy to drive out anything that might bring the population into the public arena, and news is one of those things. So of course there are going to be pressures on cutting down news, apart from the fact that news isn’t terribly profitable.
News is a capital-intensive operation from the point of view of the media. You’re also not going to get as much advertising for it. It doesn’t contribute to the needs of advertisers. So just as advertisers are unlikely to fund a documentary on saving health care, they’re not going to fund a news program which is in effect a documentary by bringing some version of the facts, maybe a distorted version, to large parts of the public. It’s not in their interest to do so.
Hence, independent of mergers, there’s going to be continual pressure, and there is, strikingly, now, on cutting back investigative reporting. Maybe there will still be investigative reporting that keeps right to the surface, like a corrupt judge. Anything insignificant. Maybe there will be programs on the O.J. Simpson trial. Anything to keep people’s minds off serious things. That could continue. And the kind of reporting that contributes to fear and hate, that will continue. But just think of the funders and ask what their interest is in presenting an honest view of the world. It’s very slight. That’s true whether there are mergers or not . So i t may be that there’s an effect, but I suspect it’s a marginal effect. Incidentally, it could go the other way, too. It could turn out that if you have one totalitarian institution running all the media, they might allow more deviation internally because it’s much less of a threat to them. I don’t say that would happen, but it could.
Let me give you an example. I was recently in Australia, which is quite different from here. I was on Australian World Services, their version of the BBC, talking about the Timor Gap Treaty. It’s a big issue in Australia. Australia was coming to the World Court, being charged with a violation of international law. I had a half-hour interview and was very critical of the Australian position. That’s Australia, not the U.S. I couldn’t imagine it happening here. It was on Australian World Services being beamed into Indonesia through the Murdoch satellite, no less.

DB: Jeff Cohen and others have commented on the surge in right-wing media, radio talk shows specifically. Rupert Murdoch has just funded The Standard, a new weekly right-wing journal. There’s USA Today and on and on. You don’t detect that?

Sure. There’s been a big rise in this. It’s always going on, but there’s an acceleration since the early 1970s. There are two things that happened. One is that the sixties frightened a lot of people, including the liberals. Terribly frightened. There was this “crisis of democracy.” People were getting involved in the public arena. We’ve got to drive them back to their preferred apathy and ignorance. So that’s across the spectrum, liberal to conservative. That led to a big attack on universities, on independent thought, on independent media, just about everything, across the spectrum. That’s one thing.
The second factor was that very substantial new weapons were coming into the hands of private power around that time. There was also independently an acceleration in the globalization of the economy, telecommunications revolutions, deregulation of the financial system, all of these things were having the effect of putting very powerful weapons in private hands. So quite apart from the sixties, there would have been an effort to move from containment of New Deal-style liberalism, to rollback of it. That has happened quite dramatically.
The last liberal president in the U.S. was Richard Nixon. Ever since then it’s been, starting with Carter, an attack on social programs, an increase in the regressive forms of state power like the Pentagon system.
These things were simultaneous. There had been talk shows. They had been pretty awful, but there was some kind of mixture. They shifted very sharply towards the right around this point, as did everything else. So the flooding of college campuses with glossy, super-ultra-right-wing newspapers in everybody’s mailbox, that started around then. The Olin professorships of free enterprise, and contributions to academic freedom of that kind, that also increased, as did the very narrowly focused right-wing foundations which are trying to destroy the educational system.
They want to destroy public education. You may have noticed yesterday in Boston, Governor Weld announced what amounts to the destruction of the public education system. It sneaked into a legislative bill. All of this stuff has been going on. It’s picking up, and that’s what they were referring to. It’s real enough, but I think it’s not due to mega-mergers.

DB: We’re not talking about a monolith here. You mentioned that Wall Street Journal article, Hunger Surges Among the Elderly. They had a piece a couple of days ago on the positive impact of government welfare programs in South Carolina. The New York Times is writing about class conflict. So there are some contradictory streams here as well.

There are all sorts of contradictions. Take the cutback of the regulatory apparatus. The Times also had a big story a couple of weeks ago on the fact that the big investment firms are very unhappy about it.
They need the Securities and Exchange Commission. A market, to the extent that it exists, is a very expensive affair. Markets cost a lot of money to set up and a lot of money to police. If you don’t set them up and you don’t police them there’s not going to be any market. There’s just going to be fraud and corruption and disaster and rapid collapses that are going to wipe things out. So the big guys, the big investment firms and financial institutions and banks, rely on the SEC as government intervention to protect the functioning of markets to the extent that they exist, which is a limited but not zero extent. And the attack on these commissions is something they’re not at all happy about. The same is true of the Commerce Department. The Commerce Department is now under attack by the Republican freshmen. But big business wants it. It just puts money into their pockets. The Commerce Department is one of the welfare systems for the rich, and they don’t want that to disappear.
The same is true on environmental issues. If you notice, this whole Republican freshman attack was going right after environmental issues.
But they’re being beaten back on that one, to a large extent because big corporations who can think five years ahead realize that they would like to have a world five years from now in which they can make profits, not only today. The same with the FDA. The pharmaceutical corporations came out against dismantling the Food and Drug Administration. They’d maybe like it cut back, but they don’t want to dismantle it. They are smart enough to figure out that if there is no regulation and independent assessment, five years from now there will be some kind of thalidomide catastrophe or something like that, and they’ll lose their international markets. And so it goes. There has always been a symbiotic relationship between big private capital and state power. They want to maintain it.
If you look back over American business history, there is one rather systematic split. Tom Ferguson has done some very interesting work on that, as have others. There’s been a consistent, pretty general distinction between capital-intensive, high-technology, internationally-oriented financial and industrial sectors on the one hand, which are the real big guys, and the labor-intensive, more domestically-oriented, less advanced technological parts of the system on the other. That’s what’s called “small business” here, but it’s not small by any means. That difference shows up in all sorts of things. So you find it in the lobbying system, the Business Council and more recently the Business Roundtable. That represents the big guys. They want a strong government. A lot of them in various forms even support New Deal measures. They instituted some of the New Deal measures. They were in favor of what they sometimes call welfare capitalism. They don’t mean by that money that goes into their pockets. What they mean is keeping a decent life for the working class, benefits for your workers. Which doesn’t cost them a lot. They are capital-intensive, not labor-intensive. They understand the point of a smoothly functioning society.
On the other hand, take the Chambers of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, who typically represented the other sector.
They have quite different policies on many issues. One of the things that’s happening in Washington right now is an unusual shift of power toward the so-called small business side. The big business people are perfectly happy about it, as long as it keeps enriching them, which it’s doing. But they’re looking at it with a wary eye. The Gingrich

Republicans talk a kind of populist line. They even talk an anti-corporate line. Of course, they do nothing about it. If they ever start doing something about it, it will be interesting to watch the hammer fall. I don’t think they’re going to last very long. As long as they talk their populist line but pour money into the pockets of the rich, they can talk their line if they like. But when a conflict really develops, I think they will be quietly sent on their way.

DB: You’ve always commented that you weren’t too concerned if these guys—like let’s take these Republican shock troops, as they’re called, were the standard type of politician, skimming off the top, corrupt, etc.—that you would be concerned if they were different. Do you think they are different?

I think they represent something different which is interesting and important. They represent a kind of proto-fascism. And that’s dangerous.
First of all, there’s the religious fanaticism, which is a very dangerous thing. There’s a cultural tone about them, which shows up all over the place, which has a very fascist character to it. All the things we’ve discussed reflect this. And there’s a real sadism. They really want to go for the jugular. Anybody who doesn’t meet their standards, which means, Enrich myself tomorrow, anybody who doesn’t meet that condition, they just want to kill, not just oppose, but destroy. They are quite willing—cynics like Gingrich are extreme, but others are willing—to try to engender fear and hatred against immigrants and poor people.
They are very happy to do that. Their attitudes are extremely vicious.
You can see it all over. Take the state of Alabama that has not only restored chain gangs, but chain gangs where they truck rocks in for people to smash up. That’s real sadism. Also our governor, William Weld, who’s supposed to be a moderate. He’s one of the moderate Republicans, a nice guy type. Just last week every day in the newspapers there was another headline about forcing people out of homeless shelters if he didn’t like the way they lived. Like some mother took off a day to take care of a mentally retarded child. Okay, out of the homeless shelter. He doesn’t like that. He thinks she should work, not take care of her child. Some disabled veteran didn’t want to move into a well-known drug den. Okay, out on the street. That’s one day. Next day comes state welfare, social services, have to report to the INS if they think somebody may be an illegal immigrant. Then they get deported. Which means their child gets deported. Their child could well be an American citizen. So American citizens have to be deported, according to the governor, if he doesn’t like the fact of the way their parents are here.
The real point of it, and his purpose, is to ensure that these children will starve to death because it means their parents won’t be able to go to get services. They won’t be able to go to school. So really kick the kids in the face. That’s the idea. It goes on like this, day after day. It was a series of these through the week, like written by Jonathan Swift. One day was a headline about how he was giving I forget how much money, but a couple of million dollars, to the guys who were running racetracks.
They were also cutting down a tiny little pittance that went to try to deal with compulsive gambling. Compulsive gambling is an addiction, as harmful as other addictions. But you want to increase that addiction, and there’s a good reason for that. Gambling is a tax on the poor. His friends don’t go to the racetracks. It’s poor people who go to the racetracks, just like poor people buy lottery tickets. His friends don’t.
That’s just another one of those massively regressive taxes on the poor.
So let’s increase that and furthermore put more state funds into the hands of the racetrack owners who are doing it.
This is day after day. Pure sadism. Very self-conscious. He’s not a fool. And he’s trying to build public support for it by building up fear and hatred. The idea is, There’s these teenage kids (who are black, by implication, although you don’t say that in a liberal state) who are just ripping us off by having lots and lots of babies. We don’t want to let them do that. So let’s hate them and let’s kick them in the face while
I’m kicking you in the face. That’s real fascism. And that’s the liberal side. It’s not the Gingrich shock troops. That’s the liberal, moderate, educated side.
This runs across the spectrum. Take a look at it. This combination of extreme religious fanaticism, hysteria, intolerance, viciousness, sadism, fear, hatred, but with people who understand it very well, like Newt
Gingrich, William Weld, and others, is a technique to ensure the increase of totalitarian power in the hands primarily of the private tyrannies, which they work for, but also in the hands of an increasingly powerful state which is more and more dedicated to security systems and devices for transferring funds towards the wealthy. That’s a prescription for fascism. That’s dangerous.

DB: You said the economic system is a “grotesque catastrophe.”
What kind of system would you propose?

That’s the topic for another discussion. I would propose a system which is democratic. It’s long been understood (this has nothing to do with the left per se; it’s right through the American working-class movement, and independent social thinkers) that you don’t have democracy unless people are in control of the major decisions. And the major decisions, as has also long been understood, are fundamentally investment decisions: What do you do with the money? What happens in the country? What’s produced? How is it produced? What are working conditions like? Where does it go? How is it distributed? Where is it sold? That whole range of decisions, that’s not everything in the world, but unless that range of decisions is under democratic control, you have one or another form of tyranny. That is as old as the hills and as American as apple pie. You don’t have to go to Marxism or anything else. It’s straight out of mainstream American tradition.
The reason is simple common sense. So that’s got to be the core of it. That means total dismantling of all the totalitarian systems. The corporations are just as totalitarian as Bolshevism and fascism. They come out of the same intellectual roots, in the early twentieth century.
So just like other forms of totalitarianism have to go, private tyrannies have to go. And they have to be put under public control.
Then you look at the modalities of public control. Should it be workers’ councils or community organizations or some integration of them? What kind of federal structure should there be? At this point you’re beginning to think about how a free and democratic society might look and operate. That’s worth a lot of thought. But we’re a long way from that. The first thing you’ve got to do in any kind of change is to recognize the forms of oppression that exist. If slaves don’t recognize that slavery is oppression, it doesn’t make much sense to ask them why they don’t live in a free society. They think they do. This is not a joke.
Take women. Overwhelmingly, and for a long time, they may have sensed oppression, but they didn’t see it as oppression. They saw it as life. The fact that you don’t see it as oppression doesn’t mean that you don’t know it at some level. At some level you know it.
The way in which you know it can take very harmful forms for yourself and everyone else. That’s true of every system of oppression. But unless you sense it, identify it, understand it, understand furthermore that it’s not, as in that New Yorker article, the genius of the market and a mystery, but completely understandable and not a genius of anything, and easily put under popular control—unless all those things are understood, you cannot proceed to the next step, which is the one you raised: How can we change the system?
I think you can figure out how to change the system by reading the independent working class press 150 years ago that we talked about earlier. These were ordinary working people, artisans, “factory girls” from New England farms, and so on. They knew how to change the system.
You know, too. They were strongly opposed to what they called “the New Spirit of the Age: Gain wealth, forgetting all but Self.” They wanted to retain the high culture they already had, the solidarity, the sympathy, the control. They didn’t want to be slaves. They thought that the Civil War was fought to end slavery, not to institute it. All of these things are perfectly common perceptions, perfectly correct. You can turn them into ways in which a much more free society can function.

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