Democracy Is a Threat to Any Power System

NICHOLS: Almost fifty years ago, you debated William F. Buckley on public television—on national TV, nationwide—about issues of war and peace, and the state, propaganda, so many issues—just like this, debating on national television—and it struck me: I haven’t seen you a lot on national television since.


NICHOLS: But it’s perhaps a good way to begin, because the fact of the matter is: you are—and I don’t think it’s news—you are America’s—the world’s, I would argue—leading public intellectual, and yet you are rarely seen on television, our main vehicle of communications in the United States. Why is that?

CHOMSKY: Actually, every once in a while I’m on Fox News.

NICHOLS: I know!


CHOMSKY: But one of my great honors that I’m most proud of is that National Public Radio has a primetime program, All Things Considered, their big program in the afternoon—the co-host actually is on record as saying I’m one of the people he will never permit on that program.


NICHOLS: Really?


NICHOLS: No small accomplishment.


NICHOLS: But also go deeper, because the fact of the matter is—as somebody who’s been involved for a long time in media reform efforts and efforts to kind of tackle the many challenges of American media—we have an incredibly narrow discourse in our major media in this country. And it is a discourse that does, in fact, move all sorts of folks out to the margins. And does that cover movements?

CHOMSKY: Does it?

NICHOLS: Does it cover movements? Does it cover what’s really happening, a lot, on the ground? And I think in many senses that disempowers folks, because they’re never told about what all is happening or the ideas that are in play.

CHOMSKY: Actually, the most interesting media, in my opinion, are what are called the liberal media. In fact, most of my own writing, discussion, and analysis is about them. They kind of set the limits; they say you can go this far and not a millimeter farther. And that’s true pretty much around the world. And, of course, it does cut out popular movements, popular activism—very occasionally something will break through. Zucotti Park finally broke through, slightly, with [what] actually is better coverage than I expected for a while. But, generally, the idea that people might get together, organize, act to change the world—that’s frightening. That’s like some small country deciding to go off on an independent course—that’s quite dangerous.

NICHOLS: And when that does happen, how does media—you mentioned coverage of Occupy, and, in fact, we had a brief period—I think in 2011—where there were great popular uprisings in a lot of capitals around the United States, [with the] labor movement seeming to be out there—and how does so much of our media—and our liberal media—shut that down? What’s the strategy, what’s the tactic that you see?

CHOMSKY: Actually, I think it was pretty well-described by George Orwell. He didn’t say much about it, but everyone here, I’m sure, has read Animal Farm. But probably very few people have read the introduction to Animal Farm; the reason is it wasn’t published.


CHOMSKY: It was discovered about thirty years later in his unpublished papers. Today, if you get a new edition of Animal Farm, you might find it there. The introduction is kind of interesting—he basically says what you all know: that the book is a critical, satiric analysis of the totalitarian enemy. But then he addresses himself to the people of free England; he says, “You shouldn’t feel too self-righteous.” He said in England, a free country, I’m virtually quoting: unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. And he goes on to give some examples, and, really, just a couple of common-sense explanations, which are to the point. One reason, he says, is: the press is owned by wealthy men who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. And the other, he says, essentially, is: it’s a good education. If you have a good education, you’ve gone to the best schools, you have internalized the understanding that there’s certain things it just wouldn’t do to say—and I think we can add to that, it wouldn’t do to think. And that’s a powerful mechanism. So, there are things you just don’t think, and you don’t say. That’s the result of effective education, effective indoctrination. If people—many people—don’t succumb to it, what happens to them? Well, I’ll tell you a story: I was in Sweden a couple years ago, and I noticed that taxi drivers were being very friendly, much more than I expected. And finally I asked one of them, “Why’s everyone being so nice?” He pulled out a T-shirt he said every taxi driver has, and the T-shirt had a picture of me and a quote in Swedish of something I’d said once when I was asked, “What happens to people of independent mind?” And I said, “They become taxi drivers.”


NICHOLS: Man, that is good! See, now if you could get a quote like that for every industry…


NICHOLS: …you’d rule the world!


NICHOLS: Well, this gets to a deeper question, because it’s clear in the United States today—and you see it, you travel an incredible amount around this country—and you see the movements that are there. Immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter, get rid of Citizens United, get money out of politics, labor struggles, all sorts of things that are there. So many movements, and yet, not enough coalescence, not something coming together there. And I wonder if the lack of that cohesive center—that is, a place where people can get their information in some sort of steady way—if that has a role in creating a situation where we’re sort of—we’re compartmentalized, we’re, I think, often neglected and disrespected… and it has an actual political impact.

CHOMSKY: It’s even worse than that. I’ve lived in Boston since 1950, but I go to sections of Boston for talks and discover that there’s very significant activism going on in that neighborhood that people don’t know of in the next neighborhood, where they’re doing similar things. Part of the reason is simply the absence of a labor movement; throughout history, the labor movement has been—with all of its defects and deficiencies and limits—it’s been a kind of a center around which things coalesce. In other countries, when I give talks—even countries like England—the talks are often in labor movement centers, union centers. Not in the United States; very rare. You can talk to labor activists, but somewhere else: in a church, or in a university, the few institutions that exist. But there’s been a great success in the United States—the United States is, to an unusual extent, a business-run society. That goes way back to early days, for all kind of reasons. And it has a very violent and repressive labor history. Workers were being murdered in the United States by the hundreds at a time when nothing like that was taking place in Europe, or Australia, or other places. And, repeatedly, the labor movement has simply been crushed. It’s revived again, and when it did revive it was a center around which activism coalesced, it had its own journals—as late as the late nineteenth century the labor press was very lively, active, widely read. As late as the 1950s there were still about maybe eight hundred labor journals that were reaching maybe thirty million people a week. All of that has succumbed to the massive attack of concentrated capital—you’re seeing it right now, pretty dramatically, right where you live.

NICHOLS: In Wisconsin. Scott Walker.


NICHOLS: Our great contribution to the American political process.


CHOMSKY: Right. Even the rhetoric is pretty remarkable. Like, take the so-called ‘right-to-work’ law that just passed.

NICHOLS: Yeah. You are in a right-to-work state.

CHOMSKY: Yeah. ‘Right-to-work’ means right-to-scrounge! It has nothing to do with ‘right-to-work.’ It means the right to be represented by a union to defend you, and not to pay for it. That’s ‘right-to-work.’ So it’s a right-to-scrounge law, but it’s not described that way, and it’s not interpreted that way. This is one part of a huge—in the 1920s, the labor had been virtually crushed. One of the great works of labor history is called, I think, something like The Fall of the House of Labor, referring to the 1920s; David Montgomery. And visitors from Europe and Australia were shocked to see the weakness of the labor movement and the ability to denounce, condemn, and destroy it. Well, in the 1930s it rose again: CIO organizing, a lot of labor activism during the Second World War… [during] the Depression and the Second World War there was a real wave of radical democracy that spread all over much of the world, including the United States, and it led to a very quick backlash in many ways. So, for example, in Europe—as U.S. and British troops finally began to enter the European continent late in the war, moving up through Italy—the first thing they had to do was to disperse the anti-fascist resistance, to restore traditional order, including fascist collaborators. As they reached northern Italy, they were appalled to discover that the partisan resistance had developed a functioning society with worker management, worker ownership—this, incidentally, was the time of British Labour Party—and they were appalled to discover that there were enterprises without managers and owners. All of that had to be dismantled. In Greece, same thing; and it was a very brutal war, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and so on all through Europe. The same thing happened here. Not with that much violence, but immediately after the war—1947—came the Taft-Hartley Act, undermining basic labor rights, organizing rights, secondary boycotts, and so on. Shortly after, a huge campaign began of corporate propaganda which was pretty remarkable in scale. There’s pretty good scholarship on it, like Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s book. The concentrated capital was penetrating churches, schools, clubs…

NICHOLS: Education.

CHOMSKY: …education, and began a massive attack on labor. I mean, the labor unions are not faultless in this; the radical militant element of the labor movement was eliminated within the context of Cold War propaganda, ‘Communist’ and so on. So they were crushed, and the labor leadership accepted that. And furthermore they entered into a kind of class collaboration. It’s kind of interesting to compare the same union in the United States and Canada, like, say, UAW in the United States and Canada; same union, acted quite differently. One reason why Canada has national healthcare and the United States doesn’t, is that in Canada the labor movements militantly advocated for national healthcare. In the United States the same unions militantly advocated for good healthcare for themselves. So, the autoworkers did have decent healthcare with a compact with management. Now, a compact with management is a devil’s choice, because management can decide at any time, “It’s over.” And, as you recall, it was pretty striking—[it] must’ve been 1979 or so that Doug Fraser, head of UAW, pulled out of a cooperative enterprising that he’s discovered that capital is fighting a one-sided class war against the labor movement. Big discovery.

NICHOLS: It took a while.

CHOMSKY: Yeah, it took a while. But by that time it was pretty late.

NICHOLS: But that war has really stepped up, especially in the last few years where we’ve seen… at one time, Arizona got to be right-to-work, and a lot of southern states, but it didn’t move north. Now we have Michigan becoming a right-to-work state; Indiana, a great steel center, becoming a right-to-work state; Wisconsin, the center of American progressivism, becoming a right-to-work state; public center unions being busted down, losing collective bargaining rights…. I mean, this is a very aggressive, concentrated initiative that’s happening right now.

CHOMSKY: Happening right now…


CHOMSKY: …and it goes back to the 1940s.

NICHOLS: No, go ahead; it’s history, but why now, why does it all come now?

CHOMSKY: Well, if you look at the last period since the Second World War, the counterattack against labor, popular democracy began immediately. It was held back for twenty years by a number of factors: one was the strong appeal of the New Deal measures, which a large part of the population strongly supported. You may recall that Eisenhower said that anyone who questions the legitimacy of New Deal programs is crazy.

NICHOLS: Is a nut!

CHOMSKY: Is a nut. I mean, Eisenhower, today, would be way out on the left of the political spectrum.


NICHOLS: Well, your buddy Howard Zinn would occasionally say that, in many ways, Eisenhower was a pretty impressive president because he didn’t send troops to the Middle East, but he did send them to Arkansas.

CHOMSKY: That’s right.


CHOMSKY: Actually, he did send them to the Middle East.

NICHOLS: I realize. We’re gonna get to the rest of the world in a minute, yeah.

CHOMSKY: Yeah. But through the fifties and the sixties there was the remaining, powerful appeal of the New Deal measures, there still was a labor movement—also, these were periods of very high growth. Mostly based on the state sector of the economy—which you’re not supposed to know—but it was high growth; this is sometimes called the Golden Age of American Capitalism. And it was egalitarian growth, so the lowest quintile did about as well as the highest quintile. Furthermore, capital was regulated—very crucial.

NICHOLS: And taxed. The wealthy were taxed.

CHOMSKY: The wealthy were taxed, but capital was regulated. Banks were banks. Banks were places where you could put your money in, they’d lend it to somebody to buy a car or something—not like today. This system broke down in the early seventies, and that had a major effect. In fact, there were no financial crises in the fifties and the sixties, because the regulatory system was intact. Internationally, the Bretton-Woods system of regulated capital was intact. That was dismantled in the early seventies. You begin to get what has become the global neoliberal assault on the global population everywhere, taking one or another form. In the United States, the form that it’s taken is an increasing attack on the general population, including the labor movement. So, for example, for most of the population, since, say, the mid-seventies—it’s escalating under Reagan, continuing under Clinton, and on—but for most of the population, real wages have stagnated or declined. For male workers today, real wages are about what they were in 1968. There’s been growth, but it’s going to very few pockets—narrower and narrower. And this has had a striking and dramatic effect even on things like popular opinion. So take—the last couple years of Obama’s kind of major initiative was the Affordable Care Act. And it’s interesting to look at public attitudes towards it, and to look back at the past. This is a very heavily polled country; we know a lot about people’s attitudes. Ever since the 1940s, there’s been strong support for national healthcare. Polls depend a little bit on how the question’s asked, but it’s often a large majority; very substantial. As late as the late 1980s, about a majority of the population thought that there ought to be a constitutional guarantee for healthcare, and actually about forty percent of the population thought it was in the Constitution.


CHOMSKY: That’s not that long ago. Well, when Obama’s initiative began, almost two-thirds of the population supported a public option: meaning, of the various options you could choose, one would be, essentially, Medicare—public national healthcare. That wasn’t even mentioned; it wasn’t even proposed.

NICHOLS: They jettisoned it right away. Along with single-payer which was what we [unintelligible].

CHOMSKY: It disappeared. One of the strange—maybe unique—features of the U.S. healthcare system is that the government is not permitted, by law, to negotiate drug prices. The VA is, so drug prices are lower there. The Pentagon can negotiate prices for paperclips, let’s say, but the government cannot negotiate—say, for Medicare and Medicaid—drug prices; so of course they’re out of sight. Obama never even tried to touch this, even though eighty-five percent of the population are opposed to it. And if you look at the following years, the propaganda has so changed people’s expressed attitudes, whatever their actual attitudes are, that even the mild reforms of the Affordable Care Act—which are some kind of a step forward, they don’t really deal with the problem—even those are opposed. And think that not that many years ago—like, 1990—forty percent of the population thought there was a constitutional guarantee for public healthcare. This is a tremendous triumph of propaganda.

NICHOLS: And we’ve created a system now where it is so easy to flood so much money into the communication process—Citizens United, McCutcheon, all these decisions of the courts—which, whatever minimal barriers are knocked down, you hear the Koch brothers planning to spend close to a billion dollars in the next election—and then you find out they spend hundreds of millions to do just these things, to take apart.

CHOMSKY: And some of the things that’ve been done are really sophisticated. There’s an interesting study by Suzanne Mettler [of] Cornell University, a sociologist: it’s called The Submerged State. And what she shows, pretty convincingly, is that there’s been a change from visible government programs of reform and subsidy and support, where you see that the government is doing something for you, to indirect means, where you don’t see that the government is doing it. What you see is some private entity doing it, which is being subsidized by the government. And the end result is that people think the government is harming them, it’s not helping them. And, of course, as the submerged state develops, [it] turns out most of the subsidy is going to the wealthy. So, for example, a home mortgage interest deduction, which is a very substantial sum of money. Overwhelmingly, it goes to the wealthy. In the for-profit educational system, which is a big thing here, most of the funding comes from the taxpayer, but you don’t see it. And of course it’s going to the corporation. And there’s devices like that all across the country; the result is that—some strange results—people who are most subsidized by the government tend to be most opposed to government subsidy.


CHOMSKY: It’s very striking.


NICHOLS: Do they not know they are subsidized, or are they just cynical?

CHOMSKY: You don’t know.

NICHOLS: They do not know.

CHOMSKY: I mean, who would know that a tax deduction for employer health insurance is a huge subsidy to the corporations? Or that the home mortgage deduction is a subsidy to the wealthy? I mean, you can figure it out if you think about it, but it’s not obvious on the surface. And that goes case-by-case.

NICHOLS: So, in this terrific new book from Haymarket Books—Noam Chomsky, Masters of Mankind—which, on the cover, Glenn Greenwald says, “There is no living political writer who has more radically changed how more people think in more parts of the world about political issues than Noam Chomsky.” Which is kind of nice.


CHOMSKY: You have to realize that he’s a friend, and you [unintelligible].


NICHOLS: He is a friend, I realize.

CHOMSKY: I say nice things about him.

NICHOLS: You say it back and forth, it’s wonderful.


NICHOLS: We are at a book festival, so some people are aware of blurbs on books. But I have the sense that Glenn probably means it. And also, this is a collection of essays, and one of the interesting things is… for a variety of reasons, my favorite one is an essay that you wrote some years ago titled, “Consent Without Consent.” And I think that comes [to] a lot of what we’re talking about with the submerged state, but also this notion that—an awful lot of what’s happening when you assault labor, when you assault so many of the vehicles by which people might organize, might push back… it’s really an assault on democracy itself.

CHOMSKY: Democracy is a threat to any power system.


CHOMSKY: It doesn’t matter what it is. For pretty obvious reasons. So, yes, the general assault on the population includes a major assault on democracy. And what’s happened in the United States is extremely revealing; one of the main topics in mainstream academic political science is comparison between public attitudes and public policy. Which is a pretty straightforward inquiry; we see public policy, there’s extensive polls—they’re pretty reliable, they’re consistent over time—so you get a pretty good sense of public attitudes. And the results are quite intriguing. By now, about seventy percent of the population is literally disenfranchised. They’re the lower seventy percent on the income/wealth scale. Their political representatives simply pay no attention to them, so it doesn’t matter what they think. As you move up the scale, you get a little bit more influence. When you get to the very top, policy’s made. That correlates very… one of the major students of political participation, Walter Dean Burnham, years ago pointed out that if you look at the non-voting—in the United States it’s very high—said if you look at the non-voters, and their demographics, and compare it with Europe—they are the people who, in Europe, would vote for some laborite or social democratic party. But since no such thing exists here, they don’t vote. Maybe they don’t—they may not read academic political science, but they know that nobody’s paying attention to them. So why bother voting? This is a plutocracy; it’s not a democracy. And the effects are pretty striking. The last election, November 2014, was carefully analyzed by two really fine political scientists, Walter Dean Burnham and Tom Ferguson, [who] wrote a careful analysis of it (voting participation). Turns out that voting participation was about at the level of 1830.

NICHOLS: Well, it was also—it was thirty-six percent.

CHOMSKY: But if you compare it state-by-state…

NICHOLS: But what was interesting was, is it was the lowest since 1942.

CHOMSKY: Since 1942. It’s worse than that; take a look at their analysis, state-by-state. It’s about 1830; that was a time when voting was restricted to propertied white males. And this has been declining; and by now, most people, as they point out, just don’t vote.

NICHOLS: Well, in fact, when we flood so much money into politics, and so much of it goes to pay for negative ads on televisions—one side saying don’t vote for this guy, one side saying don’t vote for that guy, a lot of people make the logical choice and don’t vote for either.


NICHOLS: And the interesting result on that is that you do have one entity that comes out getting really rich by this politics that drives so many of the people away: and that is the big broadcast companies. They make a fortune.

CHOMSKY: They do.

NICHOLS: But not in any way, I think, advancing democracy.

CHOMSKY: I mean, what’s happening now is indeed extreme. But we should remember that it goes way back…

NICHOLS: It wasn’t good before.

CHOMSKY: …way back.

NICHOLS: Yeah, yeah.

CHOMSKY: Remember about a century ago, Mark Hanna, the great campaign manager, was asked, “What do you really need to run an effective campaign?” He said, “There are three things. The first one is money. The second one is money.” And the third? He said, “I can’t remember.”


CHOMSKY: That was around 1900.

NICHOLS: But there were sort of some interventions between 1900 and now…

CHOMSKY: There were changes.

NICHOLS: …we sort of tried to address some of those problems.

CHOMSKY: There were changes.

NICHOLS: And now we are…

CHOMSKY: Now we’re going back. In fact, it’s worse than it was, probably, ever.

NICHOLS: Now, that’s an important thing—do you think that it is worse, that we are maybe at the worst point now when we look through the history of this country?

CHOMSKY: Well, it’s a mixed story, because there is plenty of political activism, and, in fact, if you look at people’s attitudes closely, they tend to be pretty social democratic. There have been studies of the subclass of people who say, “Get the government off my back. I don’t want a government,” and so on. You take a look at them: what they want is more spending on healthcare, more spending on education, higher taxes on the wealthy, a range of positions which you and I would probably agree with. But they’re the ones who say, “Get the government off our back. We don’t want any government.”

NICHOLS: I don’t want the government messing with my Medicare.

CHOMSKY: Yeah, “Don’t mess with my Medicare,” that kind of thing.

NICHOLS: We’ve got this wonderful group of folks—they are actually graduates of this university who started a little company here to democratize how we do Q&A, how we actually talk.


NICHOLS: And, it’s…

CHOMSKY: I know how it works.


CHOMSKY: The amount of money you put in determines who’s question [gets asked].

[laughter, applause]

NICHOLS: No, no no, that’s the next application. These guys, they call it “Two-Shoes” app—as in ‘goodie two-shoes,’ like, the person who raises their hand. And they actually created something—that you featured it on your Facebook site or someplace—where…

CHOMSKY: I don’t have a Facebook site.


NICHOLS: I know. Somebody who does something, someplace…

CHOMSKY: Somebody put something on Facebook.

NICHOLS: Yeah, it’s like the person who made the T-shirt in Sweden… they asked what we could ask you in the “Two-Shoes” app. And it was very interesting that a lot of the questions—the hopeful questions, actually—focused on things going on outside the United States. Which I find frustrating because I do believe there’s a lot of great activism here, but there were questions especially about Greece and Spain, and particularly about the rise of Syriza and the rise of Podemos. Both political parties that did not exist—or political groupings that did not exist—but, in Greece, have now risen to being the governing party, and potentially, in Spain, could do so. You’ve been watching these closely.

CHOMSKY: Very closely.

NICHOLS: And I’m very interested, first off, in your general impressions—and many people ask questions about this—but also your sense of why they are coming together and functioning politically and something happening, that we are still waiting for in the U.S.?

CHOMSKY: Actually, I’ve just been at an international conference in Buenos Aires—that’s where I was yesterday—an international forum on emancipation and inequality, where it drew groups like this from all over the world; Podemos activists and leaders were there, Syriza activists, and so on.

NICHOLS: And you were very impressed by the Podemos ones.

CHOMSKY: They were pretty impressive, yeah. But we have to remember what’s been happening in Europe; one of the great successes of Europe in the post-Second World War era has been to construct a reasonably well-functioning social democratic welfare state society—a lot of problems, but by comparative standards, pretty successful.

NICHOLS: Due to the nightmare circumstance of Norway.

CHOMSKY: Oh, that, yeah. But all over the continent. And, of course, the business classes hate it. And Europe has been subjected to an extreme form of punishment in the past few years which is an attack on democracy, an attack on living standards, and an effort to undermine and dismantle this achievement. And the policies that have been followed are policies of austerity during recession, which even the IMF (the International Monetary Fund) says is economically ridiculous. But it may be economically ridiculous, but it’s politically and socially sensible from the point of view of class war. It is slowly achieving a result which has long been hoped for by the ruling sections, by the dominant sections of capital. But it’s very severe. And it’s been worst—the worst hit have been the peripheral countries: Greece…

NICHOLS: Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland…

CHOMSKY: …Spain, Portugal, Ireland. What’s actually happened is that the banks—the northern banks, the German banks, and so on—have made very risky loans to countries which were unable to sustain them. When the crash came and they couldn’t pay them back, the big banks—like other sectors of capital—don’t believe in capitalism. In a capitalist system, say, if I lend you money—and I know that you’re a risky borrower, so I put heavy conditions on it—I make a lot of profit. And then you can’t pay; in a capitalist system it’s my problem. But not the way the world works.

NICHOLS: But that would never happen in the U.S. The banks would never get bailed out here.


CHOMSKY: In fact, I’ll come to that in a moment. But the response of the so-called troika—the European Commission, the bank, and the IMF—[has] been to pay back the culprits. Pay the bankers. So, when there’s money given to Greece—what’s called money to Greece—means give it back to the banks that lend money to Greece and want to be repaid. Very anti-capitalist. The same thing happens here. So take, say, the big banks here. There was recently a study by the IMF of the profits of the big banks in the United States. It turns out that they make virtually no profit. Their profit almost entirely depends on the implicit government insurance policy; the business press estimates that it’s over eighty billion dollars a year. You can argue about the numbers, but it’s very high. It’s not just the bailouts—that’s a small part of it. It’s inflated credit ratings, access to cheap money, the ability to make risky loans which are profitable—knowing you’re gonna be bailed out. All of that amounts to quite a lot. Same in Europe. And alongside of this is an attack on democracy so extreme that even The Wall Street Journal commented, correctly, that no matter who’s elected in a European country—Communists, right-wing, whatever it may be—policies are the same because policies are made by the Brussels bureaucrats and the Bundesbank. Doesn’t matter what the public wants.

NICHOLS: And those policies are [to] cut the pensions, make people work longer…

CHOMSKY: …austerity, neoliberal attack during periods of recession.

NICHOLS: Attack trade unions, attack the ability [to bargain]—the whole list.

CHOMSKY: The whole list. And sometimes it’s pretty dramatic. So, right now, for example, Syriza and Greece hinted that they might undertake a referendum. The roof fell in on them! How dare you ask the public about policies that they’re being subjected to? This happened a couple years when Papandreou, the prime minister, suggested mildly that maybe there should be a referendum in Greece to see if they should accept these extremely harsh and savage policies that are being imposed. Again, across the spectrum, he was bitterly denounced; he had to back off. This idea that the public should be asked about policies that are being imposed on them is considered outrageous. Policies have to be made by the Brussels bureaucrats and the big banks. That’s a major attack on democracy. Now, in reaction to this there have been popular uprisings: Podemos—the party in Spain—is just a couple years old, but the indignados, the activism of young people, is quite insistent.

NICHOLS: You said, in many ways, something—not exactly, because it’s a different country—but in many ways something we might see is parallel to what we saw with Occupy…

CHOMSKY: Occupy, very much so.

NICHOLS: …when Occupy became a political movement.

CHOMSKY: It went on in Spain, to everyone’s surprise—nobody could have predicted this three or four years ago—but out of it came a political organization which is now running ahead in the polls [and] could take over. Syriza in Greece, it’s pretty similar—in fact, they did take political power. But you couldn’t have predicted it a couple years ago. And there’s a very challenging and, in a way, frightening situation. If Podemos, Syriza, and similar organizations fail, the likely outcome is popular movements of the far-right.


CHOMSKY: That’s happened before: late twenties, early thirties. We’re seeing something similar. If the organized left doesn’t succeed in taking control, we may very well get the organized right—with horrible consequences, which we’ve seen before.

NICHOLS: The great British parliamentarian Tony Benn said that he was old enough to remember when countries around the world were essentially making the choice, and at exactly the same time…


NICHOLS: …some going toward fascism, some going toward a progressive democracy.

CHOMSKY: They all had the choice; it was the same in all of them. And it depended [on] who won.

NICHOLS: And obviously in Greece that’s a reality, because there is a far-right…

CHOMSKY: Oh, yeah.

NICHOLS: …that is very fascist.

CHOMSKY: Yeah; Spain, too. France, England [we can] look at, for example.

NICHOLS: And yet, so many of our political leaders in America seem to be… at the very least, disinterested—at least publicly.

CHOMSKY: They’re paying plenty of attention.

NICHOLS: I know they are, yeah, but they’re not—we hear very little discourse about this among our political figures.

CHOMSKY: Because it’s dangerous to talk about it. You don’t want people to know that it is possible for the population to become organized, active, effective; take power, take control of their fate, and create a different society. For example, you don’t hear in the United States about the fact that, in Spain, there’s a major conglomerate which is worker-owned and which, in fact, survived the recession: Mondragon, which includes manufacturing, finance, health, housing… it’s a huge and effective conglomerate. Worker-owned—directors picked by the workers—and working quite well. You don’t see headlines about that.

NICHOLS: Not at all. And yet very cutting-edge; they’re actually ahead of the curve…

CHOMSKY: They are.

NICHOLS: …on developing new technologies, developing new industries.

CHOMSKY: Yes. And you also don’t see much about the fact that something similar is happening here. Not on that scale, but—[unintelligible] is one person who’s written about it—in areas of the old Rust Belt, as you know…

NICHOLS: Cleveland, and other cities…

CHOMSKY: Yeah, Northern Ohio, other places… there’s the beginnings of [the] development of worker-owned enterprises—which are not on the Mondragon scale, but not insubstantial either. Incidentally, they also get conservative support.

NICHOLS: What’s that?

CHOMSKY: They even get conservative support.

NICHOLS: Oh, yeah. And one of the things that struck me—[it] got remarkably little attention in the United States—was when the bankers crashed the economy of Iceland. Tiny little country. And then, basically, they cut a deal that Iceland’s going to pay the banks. And then, because it was a small-enough country, the people went to the president’s house and said, “We don’t want to do this.”


NICHOLS: And they basically forced a referendum on the issue, and, amazingly enough, Iceland voted not to pay back the banks.

CHOMSKY: And what’s more, they did pretty well.


NICHOLS: And they’ve come out okay, yeah! Or, at least, not to pay back quickly.

CHOMSKY: The British were infuriated, but it worked well. In fact, something similar happened in Argentina.

NICHOLS: Tell us what happened.

CHOMSKY: Around 2000. They essentially defaulted on the debt, and the economists and the governments around the world said, “You’re going to destroy yourselves.” They have practically the highest growth rate in Latin America since then. They’re now under attack by U.S. vulture funds backed by the judicial system, which has really undermined them. Actually, the judge in the United States, Judge Griesa, made the ruling. It was requiring—demanded—that Argentina pay back the vulture funds without the so-called ‘haircut’: the cutting-back of profit that they demanded. And he’s now insisting that institutions like, say, Citibank, not deal with Argentine bonds because they’d be in violation of his order. They’ll be in violation of Argentine law if they don’t do it. And they’re caught in the midst of this conflict between the U.S. vulture funds backed so far by the U.S. judiciary and a country which, correctly, didn’t pay back the money. Notice that these debts are really not legitimate debts; these are what are called ‘odious debts.’ That’s a concept [that] was invented by the United States, actually. When the United States took over Cuba in 1898, it did not want to pay Cuba’s debts to Spain. And the U.S. argued, quite correctly, that these debts were illegitimate—‘odious,’ they were called. The people of Cuba had not incurred the debt, so why should they be forced to pay it? But that’s true of debt all over the world. The people don’t incur the debt; the rulers do. Why should the population pay?


NICHOLS: And, we actually—we’re looking at the questions people have submitted, we have quite a few questions in this range, or in this area—and there is… again and again people come back to this question of, “How do we get folks focused on that?” And Naomi Klein wrote a book…


NICHOLS: …This Changes Everything…

CHOMSKY: Important book.

NICHOLS: …arguing that perhaps torching the planet might get people interested. Other folks have suggested—we have a number of questions on this—other folks have suggested that the decline of work—the fact that we are replacing people with robots and apps and it’s harder and harder to find meaningful work, or at least work of a decent pay—that there may be issues that bring us together. What’s your sense on this? Is there something that—be it climate change, be it some sort of economic shift—that could, in the United States, spark a mobilization, a change?

CHOMSKY: Well, a prediction in human affairs is a very low-probability affair.


NICHOLS: Yeah, I realize. See, I read Chomsky’s old essays for that.


CHOMSKY: For good reasons. I mean, an awful lot depends just on will and choice.


CHOMSKY: And we don’t know. Nobody knows. Podemos, for example, you couldn’t have predicted. CIO organizing in the 1930s, you couldn’t have predicted. The United States could’ve gone towards fascism—could’ve. These are questions of people’s choices and decisions. Take Naomi’s Klein’s point; whether she’s going to be right or wrong, we don’t know. But if she’s wrong, we’re doomed.

NICHOLS: Well, there’s a tough puppet, yeah.

CHOMSKY: And we are coming towards a precipice. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the threat of environmental catastrophe is quite real. And not in the very distant future—maybe the next generation—it could be extremely serious. We also can see that the race towards disaster is being carried out with almost euphoric intensity. Take a look at this morning’s Wall Street Journal; [the] lead article, the top article, is about how the energy corporations in the U.S. are—there’s an oil glut at the moment—and they’re preparing right now that if this [oil glut] declines, they’ll immediately put into motion enterprises they’ve already established which will greatly increase the flow of oil. In other words, drive us farther toward the precipice. We’re racing towards this. And what Naomi Klein is pointing out is, we’d better organize to stop it, or else the prospects for a decent existence are going to disappear. Now, will it work or won’t it? Well, that’s a matter of will and choice.

NICHOLS: [gesturing to audience] These folks [have] got to decide?

CHOMSKY: And take the question of work.


CHOMSKY: It’s an interesting question… take a look around the country. This country is falling apart. Even when you come back from Argentina to the United States, it looks like a Third-World country. When you come back from Europe, even more so. Infrastructure’s collapsing, nothing works, the transportation system doesn’t work, the health system is a total scandal—twice the per capita cost of other countries and not very good outcomes. Point-by-point. The schools are declining, they don’t have enough teachers… there’s a huge amount of work to be done, there are plenty of idle hands who want to do it, there’s ample resources, but the system is so corrupt that it cannot put together massive resources, idle hands, and needed work. That can be overcome.


CHOMSKY: And the extent of this is really astonishing. So take, say, transportation. Now, you can take a high-speed train from Beijing to Kazakhstan. You can’t take one from Boston to New York. That’s the most heavily travelled corridor, I suppose, in the world: Boston to Washington. It’s about the way it was sixty years ago. The first time I took a train from New York to Philadelphia to Boston [was] 1950; I think if I take the [Hima-]Sella—the fast train today—I think it’s maybe fifteen minutes faster. As it goes along the Connecticut Turnpike, it’s not keeping up with the cars.


CHOMSKY: Literally. I mean, a couple years ago, I was giving talks in Europe—I ended up in southern France—and I had to take a train from Avignon, southern France, to the [Charles] de Gaulle airport in Paris; there happens to be a direct train, not surprisingly. It’s about the distance from Washington to Boston. It took two hours. Boston to Washington is like seven hours. And this is just symptomatic of what’s happening to the country.

NICHOLS: But I’m sure an election between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush would sort this all out, though.


CHOMSKY: [laughing] Right, right. Well, they have private jets—it doesn’t matter.

NICHOLS: [laughing] They have private jets, it doesn’t matter!

There’s so many things to bring in here and discuss—we’ve been bouncing a little bit on the rest of the world—before we come back into U.S politics for a second, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that on Tuesday, Israel’s going to have an election. And the prime minister of Israel recently visited the United States to give our Congress some advice.


NICHOLS: Which, intriguingly enough, if you read the polls may not have helped him in Israel, in fact. But give us a sense of the—as we look at the Netanyahu visit, and then also the play-out with our forty-seven Republican senators who have just decided to become diplomats.


CHOMSKY: Actually, there was an interesting article on the Netanyahu speech to Congress by [unintelligible], he’s one of the…

NICHOLS: One of the great thinkers in Israel.

CHOMSKY: …smartest, really fine Israeli intellectuals and activists; he’s a little older than me. And he started—believe it or not—he started the article by saying that when he was watching Netanyahu in Congress, it reminded him of something. And he had to think what it was reminding him of, and finally it dawned on him. It was Hitler’s speeches to the Reichstag. He said all that was missing was, “Heil!”


CHOMSKY: And it was quite a performance. It was a really demeaning performance. And it’s a combination of a number of factors. One factor is—just as you mentioned before—money; a ton of money goes into funding Congressmen who will support the latest [unintelligible]. Another part is evangelical Christians. A large part of the base of the Republican party—now these are Republicans, mostly—is evangelical Christians who succeed in combining almost extreme support for Israel with extreme anti-Semitism.


CHOMSKY: It’s an interesting combination. I mean, if you look at their theology—the theology of a large number of them—the idea is that there’ll be a great war between Israel and its enemies, it’ll end up at armageddon, everyone will kill each other. The saved souls will rise to heaven, the rest go to eternal damnation.

NICHOLS: Won’t be so good for them, yeah.

CHOMSKY: Which includes virtually all the Jews. 160,000, for some reason, will be saved; they will have found Christ in time. Now, you can’t get more anti-Semitic than that.


CHOMSKY: Even Hitler didn’t go that far. But this [anti-Semitism] combined with what’s called support for Israel to such an extreme extent that the Israeli government has to try to control it, has to try to prevent people from blowing up the Temple Mount to create the war which will lead to armageddon. And this is pretty broad in the United States; actually, something like that even included the second President Bush. As perhaps you know, when Bush was trying to gain international support for the invasion of Iraq, he met the French president, Chirac. And he—well, I’ll tell you how I learned about this, and then tell you what the story is. Around that time I got a letter from a Belgian theologian, who sent me a disquisition that he wrote on a very obscure passage in the Book of Ezekiel about Gog and Magog coming and doing terrible things to Israel. Nobody knows what it means—are they people, are they places? It’s just a very obscure passage. But in an extreme of evangelical theology, this means an evil force will come from the north, attack Israel, lead to armageddon, [and] then all these things happen. Well, what happened with Bush and Chirac? Bush apparently started—this is January 2003, right before the war—he went off and started talking to Chirac about Gog and Magog. Chirac didn’t know what the heck he was talking about.


NICHOLS: I’m sure.

CHOMSKY: So he asked his aides at the French Foreign Office, “What’s this guy raving about?” They didn’t know, so they contacted this Belgian theologian, who explained to them what it’s about. I learned about this at the time, but I didn’t believe a word of it, so I never wrote about it.


CHOMSKY: But I did mention it to an Australian academic—a researcher, Clive Hamilton—and he looked into it, and it’s true.


CHOMSKY: It shows up in the French biographies of Chirac. This tells us that—speaking of the dangers we face—our fate is sometimes in the hands of people who are, by any rational standards… hard to believe.


CHOMSKY: And it’s not the only case. Actually, Reagan talked about Russia as Gog and Magog.

NICHOLS: Well, we seem to be having a little trouble in our relations with Russia right now.

CHOMSKY: Serious trouble.


CHOMSKY: And it’s a complex story; it goes back to 1990—around then—when the Soviet Union collapsed. There was an agreement made between Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader, and George Bush I, the first Bush president.

NICHOLS: George Bush the Greater, versus George Bush the Lesser.

CHOMSKY: The statesman-like Bush; the first [one], yeah.


CHOMSKY: Gorbachev agreed to allow Germany to be reunited and to join NATO—[a] hostile military alliance. It’s quite a concession if you look at the preceding history of the century. Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia several times, and he was agreeing to allow the united Germany to join a hostile military alliance. There was a quid pro quo; the phrase that was used was that “NATO would not expand one inch to the east,” which meant East Germany. That was the agreement. And NATO immediately expanded to East Germany. Gorbachev complained, naturally; and he was informed that this was only a verbal agreement. It wasn’t on paper. The unstated implication—I’ll add it, not them—is if you’re naïve enough to make a gentleman’s agreement with us, it’s your problem.

NICHOLS: Not ours.

CHOMSKY: Not ours. Clinton came along, expanded NATO further—right to the borders of Russia. The current issue over Ukraine is, in a region of enormous geo-strategic significance to Russia—it’s right at the heart of Russian concerns—any Russian leader would not accept Ukraine joining NATO; even joining the European Union is problematic for them. It’s kind of like Mexico joining the Warsaw Pact in the 1970s or 1980s; we’d have a nuclear war to block that. And, in fact, the new Ukrainian government—the one that came in after the coup—the parliament voted overwhelmingly—something like 300 to 10, or something—to take steps toward joining NATO. That’s a serious threat to Russia. I mean, whatever you think about Russian actions—however horrible you believe them—this is a real strategic threat. Now, there’s a solution, and everyone knows what it is: declare Ukrainian neutrality. Ukraine should be neutral; not part of any military alliance. There has to be a settlement about autonomy, which is not a trivial issue, but can be solved—that could prevent what could be escalation up to the level of nuclear war. It’s very serious. It doesn’t take much to set off a war. Small things can set off a war, we know that. Look back one century and you see an example, but there are plenty of them since. This is really playing with fire. And it makes no sense to press a nuclear arms state to the limit, or it might react violently. That’s saying, “Let’s commit suicide.” It literally is. I mean, it’s been known for a long time that there’s absolutely no escape from nuclear war. None. You cannot have a limited nuclear war among major powers. Back in 1962, at the time of the [Cuban] Missile Crisis—which came very close—there were war games run in Washington; they all showed that any limited war is going to explode to a total war.

NICHOLS: A couple questions, actually: do you have any optimism as regards to the U.S. negotiations with Iran? As regards to nuclear power or nuclear weapons?

CHOMSKY: It’s interesting the way it’s discussed here. First of all, the standard line is, “The international community demands that Iran give up its nuclear programs.” Who’s the international community? Well, the term ‘international community,’ again, comes straight out of Orwell: it means the United States and whoever happens to agree with it.


CHOMSKY: That’s the international community. What about the world?


CHOMSKY: I mean, there happens to be a world out there. This is a pretty insular country, but you can’t deny its existence. The non-aligned countries—the G77, the old non-aligned countries; that’s a large majority of the world’s population—they had their regular meeting in Tehran a couple years ago. And they once again vigorously supported Iran’s right to develop nuclear power as a signer of the non-proliferation treaty. Well, why shouldn’t they have that right? Now, in the United States the standard line about Iran is, “It’s the greatest threat to world peace.” As Netanyahu said: it’s aggressive, violent, wants to conquer the world, and so on. There are a lot of things wrong with Iran, not my favorite place by any means—but is it aggressive? Where’s ‘aggressive’ taking place? There are actually two countries that are very aggressive in that region: one, of course, is the United States, carrying out aggression all the time. The other’s Israel, which has invaded Lebanon five times.


CHOMSKY: And, of course, Israel has a huge nuclear weapons capacity: probably hundreds of nuclear weapons. What is the actual concern about Iranian nuclear weapons? The standard talk is, “Well, if Iran has nuclear weapons, it’s going to destroy Israel, it’s going to attack the United States, it’s going to the conquer the world.” I mean, anyone with a gray cell functioning—including every intelligence agency—knows that if Iran had nuclear weapons and even tried to load a missile, the country would be vaporized. Period. And whatever you think about the ruling clerics, they’ve given no indication of being suicidal, of wanting to lose everything they have. Actually, U.S. intelligence has explained publicly the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons—publicly. There are regular reports to Congress on the global security situation; it’s all public. And what they’ve pointed out is that Iran’s strategic doctrine is defensive. For understandable reasons, if you look at their surroundings. They have low military expenditures, even by standards of the region, and their strategic doctrine is to try to prevent an attack long enough for diplomacy to begin to operate. They add that if Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons—which no one knows—it would be part of their deterrent strategy. Now, the United States and Israel cannot tolerate a deterrent. If there’s a deterrent, you cannot use force and violence freely. I think that’s the heart of the matter. Is there a solution to this? Yeah, several possible solutions. So, for example, a couple years ago—2010—there was an agreement reached between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil, under which Iran would transfer its low-enriched uranium to Turkey, and, in return, the Western powers would provide the radioactive isotopes for Iran’s medical reactors and so on. And as soon as that agreement was reached, there was a bitter attack here by the government and the press against Brazil and Turkey for implementing this agreement. The Foreign Minister of Brazil was kind of upset about it, and he released a letter from President Obama to the president of Brazil proposing this [agreement]. Presumably because they assumed Iran would never accept, and it would be a propaganda weapon. Well, they accepted. What do we do? We bitterly denounce them for breaking ranks and accepting, and so on. And there were all kind of pretexts offered, but they didn’t amount to much. A couple of years later—December 2012—there was to be a meeting in Helsinki to carry forward a program that was initiated by the Arab states in the early nineties to try to impose a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region. There’s enormous international support for that; support so strong that the United States, England, and others kind of formally agree, but they say, you know, “Not right now.” This meeting was an attempt to carry it forward; it’s under U.N. auspices. Israel said they wouldn’t attend the meeting. The next question is: what’s Iran going to do? Iran said it would attend the meeting, without preconditions. A couple days later, Obama canceled the meetings. This was barely even mentioned in the U.S. press—try to find it. The meetings did go on, but only with nongovernmental organizations; if the U.S. is not going to take part, nothing is going to happen. Now, this might or might not work—but it might work, that’s the point. Now, why is the U.S. opposed to it? Because Israel would have to give up its nuclear weapons. And the U.S. is not willing to agree to that. But these are possible answers to a manufactured crisis. Again, it’s not that Iran is a nice place. A lot of things wrong there—incidentally, by the standards of our allies, it’s pretty regressive. Compare it to, say, Saudi Arabia, it looks like a free and open society.


CHOMSKY: So this is by no means supportive of Iran’s clerical quasi-dictatorship. But the fact of the matter is that there are potential solutions which are within reach, but are not being discussed. And the reason, I think, goes back to what the U.S. intelligence reports: the U.S. and Israel are unwilling to accept the possibility—it’s a remote possibility, but some possibility—of a deterrent. Chances are, if you try to guess what Iran’s probably trying to do—we of course don’t know—but the chances are that they’re probably trying to develop what’s sometimes called nuclear capability; that is, the capability to produce nuclear weapons if they decide to do it. There are many countries in the world that have that capability. And conceivably—not implausibly—they might be trying to do the same thing. It wouldn’t be surprising if you look at the region. They’re surrounded by nuclear weapons states: the United States of course, Israel, Pakistan, India. They’re in an environment of extreme threat, and the conflicts with Iran now are reaching a level which is almost surreal. Take a look at Iraq. The United States—it’s main enemy in Iraq is supposed to be ISIS. Who’s fighting ISIS? Iran. Iran is backing the government of Iraq; it’s providing the military support, the training, the arms, and so on to try to press ISIS out of its recent conquests. In fact, the Iraqi military, the Iraqi leadership is saying openly—thanking Iran and saying, “The U.S. isn’t helping us.” Well, if you really want to eliminate ISIS, you’ve got to cooperate with the people who are doing it. Iran is the one state that’s doing it. There’s also fighters on the ground who happen to be on the U.S. terrorist list: the PKK.

NICHOLS: The Kurds.

CHOMSKY: Patrick Cockburn, a great correspondent…

NICHOLS: Fabulous. Very important book.

CHOMSKY: Yeah. What he’s pointed out is that U.S. policy, he says, has come straight out of Alice in Wonderland. We’re refusing to cooperate with the people who are fighting our enemy—and, in fact, we’re attacking them!

NICHOLS: Well, you’ve spent the better part of sixty years now suggesting U.S. policy has an Alice in Wonderland component to it. And as we circle around here—I think probably most people in the room would love it if we sat up here for another three or four hours—but you’ve just flown all the way from South America to be with us. So, we’re over our time limit, but I did want to ask you… you’ve been so consistent. And very consistent for a very, very long time in your assessment of a whole host of domestic and international issues. And If I’m right about it—I interviewed you some years ago about this—a lot of it roots back to your youth. You used to hang out at your uncle’s newsstand; your political education came in New York City at a newsstand, where I’m sure The Nation was prominently displayed.

CHOMSKY: 72nd and Broadway.

NICHOLS: 72nd and Broadway. But this was… tell us about where this started.

CHOMSKY: Well, I was a kid…

NICHOLS: You were about ten, eleven?

CHOMSKY: Eleven, twelve years old. But one of the first things I learned at the newsstand is that’s there’s a newspaper in New York which you’ve probably never heard of: it’s called The Noosnmira. And the way I knew that is when people—it was at a subway station—when people came out of the subway station, racing out, they asked for The Noosnmira, and I handed them two tabloids. Later, I discovered it’s two newspapers: The News and The Mirror.


NICHOLS: This is the beginning of your study of linguistics.

CHOMSKY: The beginning of my political education. The next part was to notice that as they took The Noosnmira, the first thing they did is open the racing forms. So I got some insight into society. But the fact of the matter is, there were—my uncle’s a very interesting person. He’d never gone past fourth grade; very self-educated, very intelligent, very perceptive person, long story. But he attracted around the newsstand émigrés who were—this was the late thirties, early forties—who were coming from Europe; so German psychiatrists, other people… there were interesting discussions going on. As a child, I listened to them. Meanwhile, at the same time I was hanging out at anarchist offices in Union Square, bookstores on 4th Avenue…

NICHOLS: Yiddish newspapers…

CHOMSKY: Yeah, Freie Arbeiter Stimme… I was there. And there were again refugees coming: a lot of Spanish refugees, Spanish anarchists, and I learned a lot from that. That’s one part of my education.

NICHOLS: You’ve been pretty consistent on keeping a lot of those values alive in our discourse, at a time when to suggest that you might be a libertarian socialist is not necessarily something that every major reporter understands.

CHOMSKY: Libertarian socialism is just the traditional name for anarchism.


CHOMSKY: Left-wing anarchism. The United States—the term ‘libertarian,’ in the United States, has a different meaning than it had traditionally, a very different meaning. It’s very anti-libertarian.

NICHOLS: So, you’re telling me Rand Paul is not really libertarian at all?

CHOMSKY: You take a look at American-style ‘libertarianism’—it’s basically advocacy of private tyranny.


CHOMSKY: Not that the people say it, or even believe it, but if you think about the policies that’s what it ends up being.

NICHOLS: And the number one question that people asked—and it’s genuinely democratic, they get to vote, they vote a question up the ladder, and so far there’s no campaign advertising, so it’s reasonably legitimate, I think—the number one question they asked you… they all know you. Well, there was actually somebody [who] asked whether you, having grown up in Philadelphia, had a favorite Philly cheese steak.


NICHOLS: But the number one question was: “Noam, you’ve been at this political commentary for a very long time. Have you ever gotten anything wrong in your interpretation? And if so, have you ever publicly admitted as much?” And a somewhat related question, “What are the two most important subjects that you’ve changed your mind on, and what prompted you to do so?” Pretty long question, but it’s an interesting [one].

CHOMSKY: Well, plenty of mistakes. The usual mistake—which happens over and over—is getting involved in things too late. It’s a serious mistake. So take, say, what we were talking about before: global warming. The time to get involved in that was the 1970s. I remember very well when the two friends, one who was head of earth sciences at Harvard, the other head of meteorology at MIT, both around the same time came with very gloomy countenances; they were getting information indicating that the effect of human contributions to carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were reaching severe proportions. I didn’t do anything, very few people did anything. It wasn’t until years later that I and others became seriously involved: at the point when it’s a real crisis. All right, that’s a bad mistake. The same is true of the Vietnam War, for example. I was very much involved in anti-war activism, in resistance, and so on—but from the early sixties. And the time to become involved was 1950. That’s when the policies were set that led to this destruction. I could go over case after case. The general error—at least my own, when I look back—is just not getting involved sufficiently when it matters.

NICHOLS: Is that the underpinning of your great essay on the responsibility of an intellectual?

CHOMSKY: Like most of my articles, that was a talk. It’ll surprise you to find out where it was given: to the Harvard Hillel Association. This is before 1967, when everything changed.

NICHOLS: So much has changed, but for so many years you have been a remarkable voice, and one that people have… maybe people disagree with you. You never seem to mind it when people disagree with you; you like the debate, you like the argument.

CHOMSKY: Well, often they’re right.


NICHOLS: But also, many people have learned to look at media, politics, economics, and society in fundamentally different ways. And as a person who’s been involved in media reform for an awfully long time, I can tell you that a month ago, when the media reform movement in this country succeeded in getting the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission…

CHOMSKY: That was important. That was really important.

NICHOLS: …to protect net neutrality, and to protect the Internet itself…


NICHOLS: …I think an awful lot of them—I believe almost every activist who came to every rally—was carrying a copy of Manufacturing Consent. Ladies and gentlemen, Noam Chomsky.


CHOMSKY: Thanks.

— source

Is North Carolina Still a Democracy?

It has been nearly six months since voters in North Carolina elected Democrat Roy Cooper as governor. Republican lawmakers responded by waging what many described as a legislative coup to strip away much of Cooper’s power. Meanwhile, Republicans in North Carolina are attempting to solidify their legislative power by passing a series of new laws to restrict voting rights. This comes despite a report by the Electoral Integrity Project that determined that North Carolina’s democratic institutions are so flawed the state should no longer be considered a functioning democracy.

Chris Kromm talking:

I think North Carolina definitely is ground zero. It’s a cautionary tale about what can happen with unfettered conservative rule, but also about the possibilities of resistance. You know, you think back historically, North Carolina was always viewed as this moderate state. But then, really fueled by big money, in 2012—2010, there was a sharp rightward turn, and you saw trifecta conservative control in the state, much like you see nationally now, so you understand what we’ve been going through here in North Carolina, at the federal level. And really, there was an outright, full-scale attack on workers’ rights, LGBTQ rights, voting rights—the very elements of democracy—as that report pointed out.

But really, there was also kind of a resistance movement that formed. We know about the Moral Monday movement. We know about the legal challenges that ended up striking down a lot of those laws. And then there was an electoral surge we saw last year, where there was a Democratic governor elected. One of the most progressive attorney generals was elected. The Supreme Court is now progressive majority. And so, really shows about how deeply contested North Carolina is and, I think, really a bellwether for the rest of the country.

as soon as McCrory was voted out of office, there was a special session that was held in December, and, immediately, the Republicans, who still had a majority in the House and the Senate, went to work with a slew of bills that were really aimed at trying to limit the control of the new governor, limiting the kind of appointments that he could do, trying to change the way the election boards were set up. And it was pretty amazing just to see the full-scale attack. And they have a veto-proof majority. So, for each of these bills, Governor Cooper, who was elected by a narrow margin in the last election, has been able to veto these bills, but then they have the ability to overcome those vetoes. And a lot of them are going straight to court. The Cooper administration has said they’re going to legally challenge that these are overreach, that they violate the separation of powers, and that really it’s just an attempt—a power grab by the Legislature to try to hold onto that conservative control that they enjoyed since 2012.

some of the biggest have to do with election boards. So, for example, knowing that this is going to be one of the key battlegrounds in the coming years, with a deeply contested state like North Carolina, there’s been a proposed complete overhaul of the whole election process. And so, it used to be that the governor could appoint member—the chair of the Board of Elections, that there would be a 3-2 majority for ever who was the governor—the party in power could have a 3-2 majority. Well, now they have a new bill where it’s going to be evenly divided, which of course means that they’re never going to have an agreement in these election board meetings, but, most critically, that Republicans at the local level will have the control on even-year elections. Well, of course, those are the most important elections in the entire state. And that’s when the Legislature is elected, Senate races, presidential races. And so, really, it is—was a full-scale power grab to try to put back the power to control the election process and democracy in the hands of the conservative-controlled Legislature.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: North Carolina has been found guilty twice on voter suppression. Last August, we won a case that said their voter—so-called voter integrity law was a voter suppression law, when they cut early voting, cut same-day registration, denied 17-year-olds the right to preregister, and tried to pass not just photo ID, that the Help America Vote Act allows, but they actually wanted to pass the worst form of photo ID, which said that in this state, even if you had a college ID or a federal ID, it still would not be considered valid.

North Carolina has just really been ground zero nationally for the whole voting rights struggle. And two key things happened last year. First of all, as Reverend Barber was pointing out, a court struck down key elements of this sweeping voting law that had been passed in 2013, which had voter ID. It slashed early voting days. It took away great programs like this teen preregistration program. If you’re 16, 17 years old and you wanted to learn more about politics, you could preregister for when you did turn of age. All those got knocked down. Well, a court said that that was overreach, that that was like almost surgical precision in the way that it discriminated against certain voters in the state. And so that ultimately got overturned. And a lot of those key provisions, which were considered really far-sighted reforms in North Carolina, were reinstated.

The other big one that came down, too, was the shooting down of the legislative districts, which had been so heavily racially gerrymandered in North Carolina. And the upshot of that is that next year they’re going to have to redraw the maps for at least 28 seats in the House and Senate. And that’s going to affect over 50 races in the state. And so, while the conservatives in power in North Carolina have been able to really engineer these lines down to a science to ensure that they could preserve, conserve and control, that means next year a lot of these are going to be redrawn. And a lot of them are going to be competitive again. And I think that’s going to make North Carolina a very interesting state to watch in 2018.

Chris Kromm
executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of Facing South.

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Making America to Look Like North Carolina

Chris Kromm talking:

The South is rising again, for sure, in national politics. One-third of the Electoral College votes that it takes to be elected president in this country are in 13 Southern states. And that’s only going to grow. After the 2020 census, there’s going to be another five Electoral College votes or so. They’re going to come from Southern states. So, what it is is a shifting of the gravity of political power in this country going to the South.

And I think the Trump administration knows that. They know that the South—for all the attention we’ve put on Michigan and those battleground states, which was certainly important, it was really the fact that Southern states accounted for half of his Electoral College votes that he’s in the White House today. And he understands the power of Southern conservatism behind the wind in the sails of his presidency. And you see that in these key positions, especially in the Trump Cabinet. You also see it in the delegations from Southern states that are having a lot of influence in Congress.

And I think what it adds up to is that we understand that really the South has to become contested territory, that it can’t be ceded to conservative Republicans, or they’re just going to be able to really up their game in using the South as a platform to drive a conservative agenda.

I think North Carolina is an example—right?—of these conflicting trends, where, on one hand, for sure, the demographics are changing. It’s becoming an increasingly diverse state, of growing populations, new immigrant communities, Asian-American communities, one of the fastest-growing Asian-American communities in the country, a return migration of African Americans to cities like Charlotte and Raleigh. This is really changing the makeup, this so-called new American majority. We saw the evidence of that in the last election with like in the governor’s race and other key races. But on the other hand, we have to be reminded about this deep white conservative trend that exists in many Southern states. And that’s exactly what Trump was able to activate in winning the state in 2016.

Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina. Here you have someone who’s in charge of devising the budget, that will fund government, who’s deeply antigovernment. All he can do is come up with a list of programs that he thinks are antithetical to free enterprise and the American way. He went so far as to say he couldn’t justify the Meals on Wheels program, and then he had to walk that one back later. But it’s just a great example of—you know, he is deeply hostile to government programs. He was actually viewed, because he had been a member of the Freedom Caucus, that he was supposed to be a bridge to some of the other Republicans to help push through the repeal of Obamacare. That didn’t work out. He wasn’t able to make that coalition happen.

One interesting thing is that when he was a representative from South Carolina, this anti-spending impetus he had even extended to military spending. And he sided with Democrats in opposing some weapons programs. But now that he’s in the Office of Management and Budget, it’s interesting that the budget that he unveiled for the Trump administration had a $50 billion increase in military spending. So I guess he’s made peace with the war budget now that he’s in the Trump Cabinet.

Sessions, I think, has gotten a lot of national attention just given his checkered history on voting rights, civil rights, coming out of Alabama. One of his top aides was also a top aide to Trump—that’s [Stephen] Miller—who went to school just down the road here at Duke University. But clearly, you know, he’s being rewarded for his early support of the Trump candidacy. I don’t think anybody would have picked him to be the top candidate for the attorney general position, especially given his history of targeting African-American voting leaders in Alabama, for which Coretta Scott King famously authored that letter that Elizabeth Warren, Senator Warren, tried to read in the Senate when that confirmation hearing was happening. Then you think about people like Tom Price—

And she was censured for reading… Was blocked from being able to actually read this letter, which so eloquently laid out about why the civil rights community was so concerned about Sessions back in the 1980s.

You look at characters like Tom Price, coming out of Georgia, who was interesting as a doctor. He was part of this group that called Medicare and Medicaid, you know, aspects of socialized medicine that should be vehemently opposed. And he really had a checkered record because—was known for going to bat for pharmaceutical companies, a lot of conflicts of interest where he tried to pull reports that were critical of different drugs from companies that he had gotten money from the CEO of that company that created that heart drug—just kind of down the line, questions about stocks in pharmaceuticals that he was—being discussed in his committees. So, he really had a checkered record. I think those—some of those issues are going to come back to dog him as he continues in his position at Department of Health and Human Services.

And then, Tillerson, I think you’re absolutely right. I think the most interesting one there, as just given his history of conflicts, where in his position as a CEO at Exxon, Exxon having interests that are really antithetical to the interest of the State Department and wanting to operate in countries where there were sanctions or other limitations, where the government was really trying to put—turn the screws a little bit on human rights violations, but Exxon wanting to come in and be able to do business. And it’s interesting that he’s going to still have that conflict as secretary of state.

Of the 13 Southern states, only Virginia voted for Hillary Clinton.

I think Trump was really remarkable in being able to activate—you know, we know that the demography of these Southern states is rapidly changing. We know that they’re becoming more diverse, more—a lot of majority people of color communities across the South. But we also were reminded, I think, in this last election that there’s a deep well of Southern conservatism, that Trump was able to effectively mobilize. And so, you really saw turnout jump in a lot of states. And it was both some of the newer voters, who are the future of a lot of these Southern states, but also he was able to mobilize a white conservative electorate, which in many cases carried the day and allowed him to win those states.

– America Could Look Like North Carolina [by] 2020. Yikes

I think it’s definitely, as I said earlier, a cautionary tale. It shows what, when there’s unfettered conservative control, like we saw in North Carolina starting in 2012, just the scale of the agenda that was able to really dig into voting rights, LGBTQ rights, workers’ rights, the environment—just this full-scale attack—immigrant rights—just to see how much could happen in a very short period of time with that degree of conservative control. And then, on the other side, though, about the resistance and the ability to beat some of those back.

Art Pope is a multimillionaire who over the last decade has invested about $50 million in trying to shift the agenda of the state in a more rightward direction. He’s a close ally of the Koch brothers. He was actually for many years the chair of Americans for Prosperity, the national tea party group. He founded a retail—inherited a retail business empire, that really is the basis that fuels his money and his political machine.

And what’s really interesting was his ability to not only fund politicians and inject money into the political process after Citizens United, so he was funding a lot of the so-called dark money groups and injecting money that really helped fuel the takeover of conservatives in the state Legislature in 2010 and 2012, but then also he had a network of groups, like Americans for Prosperity, think tanks, advocacy groups. And these really were the masterminds behind the attacks, for example, on voting rights. It was these places that wrote up the bills that were taking out all the protections for clean elections, that were drawing up the bills to slash early voting, and drumming up concern about voter fraud. And so, it was this really sophisticated network, very well funded.

And when Governor McCrory, the Republican, took power in 2012, lo and behold, he appointed as his budget director, perched there in the office of the governor, as budget director, Art Pope. And that really was, I think, the apex of his power and influence in the state. And one of the first things he did is defund a clean elections program that tried to drive money out of judicial races in the state, so was really able to exert his influence. So, right now, with McCrory out of power, you don’t see his influence as directly as you saw before. But certainly, he’s one of the most important state-level big money players you’re going to see anywhere in the country in his ability to shape state politics.

Chris Kromm
executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of Facing South.

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Developing Psychological Profiles of Every U.S. Voter

One of the companies heavily funded by Robert Mercer is Cambridge Analytica, which claims it has psychological profiles of over 200 million American voters. The firm was hired by the Trump campaign to help it target its message to potential voters. Steve Bannon even served on the company’s board.

Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix, “We started to look at issue models, predicting which issues, social and political, appeal to which members of the target audience, which voters. We actually assigned different issues to every adult in the entire United States. We could then take these models and put them into a matrix, a little bit like the dental health example, where we can categorize people or segment them according to how they’re likely to behave. Core Trump supporters, top right, may be more susceptible to a donation solicitation. Get out the vote: people who are going to vote Republican, but they need persuading to do so. Persuasion audiences: people who need shifting a little bit from the center towards the right. Once we’ve identified a segment, we can then subsegment them by the issues that are most relevant to them, and then start to target them with specific messages.”

Jane Mayer talking:

if you look at the history, what happened was, after 2012, when Obama was re-elected, despite the fact that the Mercers had put millions of dollars into trying to defeat him, they were upset, and they wanted to try to get better political tools with more traction. So they put money into Breitbart. They put money into the Government Accountability Institute. And the third prong was Cambridge Analytica.

It was—at that point, they concluded, and so did many others, that the Republican Party’s data analytics for running campaigns were lagging behind those that the Democrats had. The Democrats—Obama had a famously good sort of computer operation and data team. And so, they tried to—they decided, “We’ll run our own.” They bought a company. They basically invested heavily in building an—it’s an offshoot of an existing English company called Strategic Communication Laboratories. And the British company had been involved in psychological warfare operations for militaries and international elections and kind of some pretty interesting and sneaky-seeming things, which raised a lot of eyebrows when its offshoot was purchased, basically, created by this one hedge-fund family.

You know, when I looked into this, it seemed that there was less than meets the eye, in many ways, so far. Alexander Nix, who is running Cambridge Analytica, is a great salesman, and he’s got this pitch that makes it sound like something from, you know, the movie The Matrix or something, that they’re going to be conducting psychological warfare with this propaganda machine in this country. The truth is, during the Trump campaign, they never used any of their so-called secret psychometric methods. They simply performed like any other kind of data analytics company. And the stuff they did was no different from what the Democrats do and other campaigns do. You know, maybe at some point they’ll have some superpowers that have yet to be revealed, but they aren’t there yet.

the thing about dark money is, often the person who it’s benefiting knows; it’s just the public that’s not allowed to know. And there’s tons of money behind the Gorsuch nomination, and he probably knows who he owes the favor to.

“dark money” – there are these organizations, 501(c)(4) groups, that are set up, where the donors’ hands are not seen. They can spend money on advertising, and the public doesn’t know who they are. They’re nonprofit groups such as the Judicial Crisis Network. And I’ve looked at that one. And, you know, you, as a reporter, and me, as standing in for the public, cannot trace the money. Yet it’s playing an active role in American politics.

Jane Mayer
staff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest piece is headlined “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency: How Robert Mercer exploited America’s populist insurgency.” Her book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, has just come out in paperback with a new preface on Trump.

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The Long History of US Meddling in Foreign Elections

A wide range of politicians and media outlets have described the alleged Russian interference in the last US presidential election (by way of hacking) as representing a direct threat to American democracy and even to national security itself. Of course, the irony behind these concerns about the interference of foreign nations in the domestic political affairs of the United States is that the US has blatantly interfered in the elections of many other nations, with methods that include not only financial support to preferred parties and the circulation of propaganda but also assassinations and overthrows of even democratically elected regimes. Indeed, the US has a long criminal history of meddling into the political affairs of other nations — a history that spans at least a century and, since the end of World War II, extends into all regions of the globe, including western parliamentary polities. This interview with Noam Chomsky reminds us that the United States is no stranger to election interference; in fact, it is an expert in this arena.

C. J. Polychroniou: Noam, the US intelligence agencies have accused Russia of interference in the US presidential election in order to boost Trump’s chances, and some leading Democrats have actually gone on record saying that the Kremlin’s canny operatives changed the election outcome. What’s your reaction to all this talk in Washington and among media pundits about Russian cyber and propaganda efforts to influence the outcome of the presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor?

Noam Chomsky: Much of the world must be astonished — if they are not collapsing in laughter — while watching the performances in high places and in media concerning Russian efforts to influence an American election, a familiar US government specialty as far back as we choose to trace the practice. There is, however, merit in the claim that this case is different in character: By US standards, the Russian efforts are so meager as to barely elicit notice.

Let’s talk about the long history of US meddling in foreign political affairs, which has always been morally and politically justified as the spread of American style-democracy throughout the world.

The history of US foreign policy, especially after World War II, is pretty much defined by the subversion and overthrow of foreign regimes, including parliamentary regimes, and the resort to violence to destroy popular organizations that might offer the majority of the population an opportunity to enter the political arena.

Following the Second World War, the United States was committed to restoring the traditional conservative order. To achieve this aim, it was necessary to destroy the anti-fascist resistance, often in favor of Nazi and fascist collaborators, to weaken unions and other popular organizations, and to block the threat of radical democracy and social reform, which were live options under the conditions of the time. These policies were pursued worldwide: in Asia, including South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Indochina and crucially, Japan; in Europe, including Greece, Italy, France and crucially, Germany; in Latin America, including what the CIA took to be the most severe threats at the time, “radical nationalism” in Guatemala and Bolivia.

Sometimes the task required considerable brutality. In South Korea, about 100,000 people were killed in the late 1940s by security forces installed and directed by the United States. This was before the Korean war, which Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings describe as “in essence” a phase — marked by massive outside intervention — in “a civil war fought between two domestic forces: a revolutionary nationalist movement, which had its roots in tough anti-colonial struggle, and a conservative movement tied to the status quo, especially to an unequal land system,” restored to power under the US occupation. In Greece in the same years, hundreds of thousands were killed, tortured, imprisoned or expelled in the course of a counterinsurgency operation, organized and directed by the United States, which restored traditional elites to power, including Nazi collaborators, and suppressed the peasant- and worker-based communist-led forces that had fought the Nazis. In the industrial societies, the same essential goals were realized, but by less violent means.

Yet it is true that there have been cases where the US was directly involved in organizing coups even in advanced industrial democracies, such as in Australia and Italy in the mid-1970s. Correct?

Yes, there is evidence of CIA involvement in a virtual coup that overturned the Whitlam Labor government in Australia in 1975, when it was feared that Whitlam might interfere with Washington’s military and intelligence bases in Australia. Large-scale CIA interference in Italian politics has been public knowledge since the congressional Pike Report was leaked in 1976, citing a figure of over $65 million to approved political parties and affiliates from 1948 through the early 1970s. In 1976, the Aldo Moro government fell in Italy after revelations that the CIA had spent $6 million to support anti-communist candidates. At the time, the European communist parties were moving towards independence of action with pluralistic and democratic tendencies (Eurocommunism), a development that in fact pleased neither Washington nor Moscow. For such reasons, both superpowers opposed the legalization of the Communist Party of Spain and the rising influence of the Communist Party in Italy, and both preferred center-right governments in France. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described the “major problem” in the Western alliance as “the domestic evolution in many European countries,” which might make Western communist parties more attractive to the public, nurturing moves towards independence and threatening the NATO alliance.”

US interventions in the political affairs of other nations have always been morally and politically justified as part of the faith in the doctrine of spreading American-style democracy, but the actual reason was of course the spread of capitalism and the dominance of business rule. Was faith in the spread of democracy ever tenable?

No belief concerning US foreign policy is more deeply entrenched than the one regarding the spread of American-style democracy. The thesis is commonly not even expressed, merely presupposed as the basis for reasonable discourse on the US role in the world.

The faith in this doctrine may seem surprising. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the conventional doctrine is tenable. If by “American-style democracy,” we mean a political system with regular elections but no serious challenge to business rule, then US policymakers doubtless yearn to see it established throughout the world. The doctrine is therefore not undermined by the fact that it is consistently violated under a different interpretation of the concept of democracy: as a system in which citizens may play some meaningful part in the management of public affairs.

So, what lessons can be drawn from all this about the concept of democracy as understood by US policy planners in their effort to create a new world order?

One problem that arose as areas were liberated from fascism [after World War II] was that traditional elites had been discredited, while prestige and influence had been gained by the resistance movement, based largely on groups responsive to the working class and poor, and often committed to some version of radical democracy. The basic quandary was articulated by Churchill’s trusted adviser, South African Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts, in 1943, with regard to southern Europe: “With politics let loose among those peoples,” he said, “we might have a wave of disorder and wholesale Communism.” Here the term “disorder” is understood as threat to the interests of the privileged, and “Communism,” in accordance with usual convention, refers to failure to interpret “democracy” as elite dominance, whatever the other commitments of the “Communists” may be. With politics let loose, we face a “crisis of democracy,” as privileged sectors have always understood.

In brief, at that moment in history, the United States faced the classic dilemma of Third World intervention in large parts of the industrial world as well. The US position was “politically weak” though militarily and economically strong. Tactical choices are determined by an assessment of strengths and weaknesses. The preference has, quite naturally, been for the arena of force and for measures of economic warfare and strangulation, where the US has ruled supreme.

Wasn’t the Marshall Plan a tool for consolidating capitalism and spreading business rule throughout Europe after World War II?

Very much so. For example, the extension of Marshall Plan aid in countries like France and Italy was strictly contingent on exclusion of communists — including major elements of the anti-fascist resistance and labor — from the government; “democracy,” in the usual sense. US aid was critically important in early years for suffering people in Europe and was therefore a powerful lever of control, a matter of much significance for US business interests and longer term planning. The fear in Washington was that the communist left would emerge victorious in Italy and France without massive financial assistance.

On the eve of the announcement of the Marshall Plan, Ambassador to France Jefferson Caffery warned Secretary of State Marshall of grim consequences if the communists won the elections in France: “Soviet penetration of Western Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East would be greatly facilitated” (May 12, 1947). The dominoes were ready to fall. During May, the US pressured political leaders in France and Italy to form coalition governments excluding the communists. It was made clear and explicit that aid was contingent on preventing an open political competition, in which left and labor might dominate. Through 1948, Secretary of State Marshall and others publicly emphasized that if communists were voted into power, US aid would be terminated; no small threat, given the state of Europe at the time.

In France, the postwar destitution was exploited to undermine the French labor movement, along with direct violence. Desperately needed food supplies were withheld to coerce obedience, and gangsters were organized to provide goon squads and strike breakers, a matter that is described with some pride in semi-official US labor histories, which praise the AFL [American Federation of Labor] for its achievements in helping to save Europe by splitting and weakening the labor movement (thus frustrating alleged Soviet designs) and safeguarding the flow of arms to Indochina for the French war of re-conquest, another prime goal of the US labor bureaucracy. The CIA reconstituted the mafia for these purposes, in one of its early operations. The quid pro quo was restoration of the heroin trade. The US government connection to the drug boom continued for many decades.

US policies toward Italy basically picked up where they had been broken off by World War II. The United States had supported Mussolini’s Fascism from the 1922 takeover through the 1930s. Mussolini’s wartime alliance with Hitler terminated these friendly relations, but they were reconstituted as US forces liberated southern Italy in 1943, establishing the rule of Field Marshall [Pietro] Badoglio and the royal family that had collaborated with the Fascist government. As Allied forces drove towards the north, they dispersed the anti-fascist resistance along with local governing bodies it had formed in its attempt to establish a new democratic state in the zones it had liberated from Germany. Eventually, a center-right government was established with neo-fascist participation and the left soon excluded.

Here too, the plan was for the working classes and the poor to bear the burden of reconstruction, with lowered wages and extensive firing. Aid was contingent on removing communists and left socialists from office, because they defended workers’ interests and thus posed a barrier to the intended style of recovery, in the view of the State Department. The Communist Party was collaborationist; its position “fundamentally meant the subordination of all reforms to the liberation of Italy and effectively discouraged any attempt in northern areas to introduce irreversible political changes as well as changes in the ownership of the industrial companies … disavowing and discouraging those workers’ groups that wanted to expropriate some factories,” as Gianfranco Pasquino put it. But the Party did try to defend jobs, wages and living standards for the poor and thus “constituted a political and psychological barrier to a potential European recovery program,” historian John Harper comments, reviewing the insistence of Kennan and others that communists be excluded from government though agreeing that it would be “desirable” to include representatives of what Harper calls “the democratic working class.” The recovery, it was understood, was to be at the expense of the working class and the poor.

Because of its responsiveness to the needs of these social sectors, the Communist Party was labelled “extremist” and “undemocratic” by US propaganda, which also skillfully manipulated the alleged Soviet threat. Under US pressure, the Christian Democrats abandoned wartime promises about workplace democracy and the police, sometimes under the control of ex-fascists, were encouraged to suppress labor activities. The Vatican announced that anyone who voted for the communists in the 1948 election would be denied sacraments, and backed the conservative Christian Democrats under the slogan: “O con Cristo o contro Cristo” (“Either with Christ or against Christ”). A year later, Pope Pius excommunicated all Italian communists.

A combination of violence, manipulation of aid and other threats, and a huge propaganda campaign sufficed to determine the outcome of the critical 1948 election, essentially bought by US intervention and pressures.

The CIA operations to control the Italian elections, authorized by the National Security Council in December 1947, were the first major clandestine operation of the newly formed agency. CIA operations to subvert Italian democracy continued into the 1970s at a substantial scale.

In Italy, as well as elsewhere, US labor leaders, primarily from the AFL, played an active role in splitting and weakening the labor movement, and inducing workers to accept austerity measures while employers reaped rich profits. In France, the AFL had broken dock strikes by importing Italian scab labor paid by US businesses. The State Department called on the Federation’s leadership to exercise their talents in union-busting in Italy as well, and they were happy to oblige. The business sector, formerly discredited by its association with Italian fascism, undertook a vigorous class war with renewed confidence. The end result was the subordination of the working class and the poor to the traditional rulers.

Later commentators tend to see the US subversion of democracy in France and Italy as a defense of democracy. In a highly-regarded study of the CIA and American democracy, Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones describes “the CIA’s Italian venture,” along with its similar efforts in France, as “a democracy-propping operation,” though he concedes that “the selection of Italy for special attention … was by no means a matter of democratic principle alone;” our passion for democracy was reinforced by the strategic importance of the country. But it was a commitment to “democratic principle” that inspired the US government to impose the social and political regimes of its choice, using the enormous power at its command and exploiting the privation and distress of the victims of the war, who must be taught not to raise their heads if we are to have true democracy.

A more nuanced position is taken by James Miller in his monograph on US policies towards Italy. Summarizing the record, he concludes that “in retrospect, American involvement in the stabilization of Italy was a significant, if troubling, achievement. American power assured Italians the right to choose their future form of government and also was employed to ensure that they chose democracy. In defense of that democracy against real but probably overestimated foreign and domestic threats, the United States used undemocratic tactics that tended to undermine the legitimacy of the Italian state.”

The “foreign threats,” as he had already discussed, were hardly real; the Soviet Union watched from a distance as the US subverted the 1948 election and restored the traditional conservative order, keeping to its wartime agreement with Churchill that left Italy in the Western zone. The “domestic threat” was the threat of democracy.

The idea that US intervention provided Italians with freedom of choice while ensuring that they chose “democracy” (in our special sense of the term) is reminiscent of the attitude of the extreme doves towards Latin America: that its people should choose freely and independently — as long as doing so did not impact US interests adversely.

The democratic ideal, at home and abroad, is simple and straightforward: You are free to do what you want, as long as it is what we want you to do.

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