Understanding Democracy


Interview with Noam Chomsky

In this exclusive interview we speak to Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who (with over 150 books published) is regarded as “one of the most critically engaged public intellectuals alive today”. We discuss the state and future of democracy around the world together with the role that government, corporations and the media play in shaping our lives. We also look at the global war on terror, globalisation, and how the world will look in the next quarter century.
Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, April 2011

In March 1949, Dr. Quincy Wright (1890-1970) of the University of Chicago presented a paper for the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) entitled “Philosophical Enquiry Into Current Ideological Conflicts; The Meaning of Democracy”. Dr. Wright states, “Like all social and political terms which serve at the same time as slogans for movements and as symbols for conceptions, the word democracy has in fact varied in meaning according to time, place, and circumstances. This variability is, in fact, a condition of most forms of popular discourse. They are continually acquiring new meanings as can be seen by studying any historical dictionary.” He continues by citing examples of this variability. “Democracy…” he writes, “has always suggested a wide popular participation in the support, conduct and benefits of government, but the conception has taken colour from the conditions and opinions which advocates of democracy have at particular times and places found in opposition to their aims. Thus, in a struggle against an unpopular rule of a monarch or oligarchy, democracy has referred to government by the many, rather than the few; in a struggle against social privilege, class or race discrimination, and economic inequality, democracy has referred to equality in social position and economic welfare; in a struggle against government monopoly of economic initiative, public opinion and political association, democracy has referred to freedom of enterprise, communication, opinion and association; in a struggle against corrupt and arbitrary manipulations of opinion, democracy has referred to procedures for regulating elections and party action in order to assure freedom of opinion, wide participation and fair representation; in a struggle against excesses of majorities and oppression of minorities, democracy has referred to the rule of law and protection of fundamental human rights; in a struggle for freedom of dependent or oppressed peoples, democracy has referred to home rule, self government, and self determination of distinctive groups; in a struggle for influence of suppressed groups or classes, democracy has referred to consent of the governed, non-discrimination and procedures for consultation among all interested groups in policy formation.”


Humanity is a plurality made-up of many different individuals forming highly interconnected communities of mutual interest and co-operation (families, political groups, cities, countries, and so forth) and it is the individuals within the groups rather than the group ‘in general’ who, ultimately, exert power. “Democracy is [therefore] a compromise designed to balance interests among members of a community.” (Han Zhen, Democracy as a Way to Social Compromise, 2006). As our society has grown from small villages of (at most) few hundred people to a vast interconnected global economy of six billion, the complexity of the compromise along with the incredibly varied interests of group members has introduced profound challenges to democracy itself. These challenges (often left unaddressed) leave our society in a near-permanent state of visible conflict (albeit with varying intensity) across all dimensions of struggle (akin to those outlined by Wright, above).

Against this backdrop of social, economic and political conflict, what is the future of democracy?

In this exclusive interview we speak to Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who (with over 150 books published) is regarded as “one of the most critically engaged public intellectuals alive today”. We discuss the state and future of democracy around the world together with the role that government, corporations and the media play in shaping our lives. We also look at the global war on terror, globalisation, and how the world will look in the next quarter century.

Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1928. He received his early education at Oak Lane Country Day School and Central High School, Philadelphia. He continued his education at the University of Pennsylvania where he studied linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1955, he received his Ph. D. from the University of Pennsylvania, however, most of the research leading to this degree was done at Harvard between 1951 and 1955. Since receiving his Ph. D., Chomsky has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he now holds the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Language and Linguistics. Respected and honoured numerous times in the academic arena, he has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of London and the University of Chicago, as well as having been invited to lecture all over the world. In 1967, he delivered the Beckman Lectures at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1969, he presented the John Locke Lectures at the University of Oxford and Sherman Memorial Lectures at the University of London.

Looking at the UK, USA & Europe

Q: To what extent are our societies free and democratic?

[Noam Chomsky] These Societies are quite free by historical standards. They are democratic in the sense that they have formal elections that aren’t stolen, and so on. They’re undemocratic to the extent that forces other than popular will have an overwhelming affect on who can participate in electoral outcomes. The United States is the most extreme in this respect. Right now in the United States, elections are essentially bought. You can’t run an election unless you have a huge amount of capital- which means overwhelmingly, although not one hundred percent, that capital was sought from strong corporate backing. For example, in the 2008 election- what carried Obama across the finish line first at the end was a very substantial amount of support from financial institutions which are now the core of the economy. The coming elections are supposed to be a two-billion-dollar election, and there’s only one place to go for that kind of money.

There used to be a system of chairs of committees in congress, who were there through seniority and so on. By now, it is generally required that funding go to the party committee- which means those are also, in large part, bought. This means that popular opinion is very much marginalised. You can see this very clearly on issue after issue. So the huge issue right now, domestically, is the deficit. Well… People have ideas about how to get rid of the deficit. For example- most of the deficit is the result of a highly dysfunctional healthcare system which has about twice the per-capita cost of other countries and by no means better outcomes- in fact, rather poorer outcomes. The population has long favoured moving toward some kind of national healthcare system- which would be much less expensive and (judging by the outcomes) no worse, maybe better. That would, in fact, eliminate the deficit! That’s not even considered!

Q: What really drives our foreign policy? and how does that impact us, as citizens?

[Noam Chomsky] Foreign policy in the UK and Europe tends to follow the United States, not entirely- but the US does remain the prime driver in foreign policy. It’s not a secret what foreign policy is driven by. For example, Bill Clinton was quite explicit about it. His position, expressed clearly in congress, was that the US has the right to carry out a unilateral military action, sometimes supported by a (so-called) coalition of the willing in order to secure resources and markets and it must have military forces forward deployed- meaning foreign bases in Europe and elsewhere- in order to shape events in our interest. Our interest does not mean the American people, but rather the interests of those who design policy- primarily the corporate sector.

Foreign Policy can be undertaken in ways which are expected to harm security. In fact, that’s not at all uncommon. If you follow the Chilcot enquiry- the head of MI5 testified- merely extending what was already known- but she testified that both the United States and Britain recognise that Saddam Hussein was not a threat and that the invasion would very likely increase the threat of terror. And, in fact, it did! About seven-fold in the first year according to quasi-governmental statistics. So an invasion was undertaken which would harm the citizens of the invading countries, as indeed it did. At first, of course, the reasons were presented with the usual boiler-plate which is informative presentation which goes along with every act of force citing democracy and all-sorts of wonderful things. When it was becoming clear that the war-ends could not be easily achieved, towards the end of the invasion- certain policies were stated clearly. In November 2007 the Bush administration issued a declaration of principles stating that any agreement with Iraq would have to ensure the unlimited ability of US forces to operate there- essentially permanent military bases- and such an agreement would also secure the privileging of US investors in the energy systems. In 2008 Bush re-iterated and, in fact, strengthened this in a message to congress where he said that he would ignore any legislation that limits US capacity to use force in Iraq or that interferes with US control over Iraqi oil. That was stated very clearly and explicitly. In fact, the US had to back down from this goal as a result of Iraqi resistance; but the goals themselves were clear and explicit and had nothing to do with the security of Americans. The same is true elsewhere, so one leading specialist on Pakistan recently reviewed US policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan revealing once again that these policies are significantly increasing the threat of terror and in fact possibly nuclear terror. He concluded that American and British soldiers are dying in Afghanistan in order to make the world less secure for Americans and British. That’s not so unusual. Security is not, typically, a very top priority of states. There are other interests.

Q: To what extent is the media influenced by corporate and government objectives?

[Noam Chomsky] There are cases where direct government and corporate interference takes place, but I don’t think that’s the major issue concerning corporate and government influence over the media. Using the United States as an example, the media are major corporations- so it’s not a question of corporate influence, they are corporations who are closely linked to government. There’s a constant flow of people from the corporate sector to government, the interactions are very close. The framework of selection of what to report, how to report it and so on is shaped overwhelmingly by the shared interests of elite sectors in the business world, government and so forth. In fact it’s not very different in the Universities, and you can see it day by day. Just take the no-fly zone in Libya. In Libya, the intervention- whether one approves of it or not- is being carried out by the three traditional imperial powers, the US, Britain and France. There is marginal participation by several other NATO countries, but the major countries are simply refusing to be involved, and many are just opposed to it. The BRICS for example, are opposed and Turkey doesn’t want to get involved and so on. Well the three, this imperial triumvirate, quite heavily in their propaganda discussed an Arab league request for a no-fly zone. The Arab league statement was rather tepid and was qualified shortly after but there was, in fact, a call for a no fly zone. At the same time, the Arab league called for a no-fly zone over Gaza. In the United States that literally was not reported. While some small newspapers may have discussed it, there was no majors- no New York Times, Washington Post, none of the major media reported it. In fact, in the entire Anglo-American press the only apparent story was in the Financial Times. Well, that’s a no-fly zone over Gaza.. which doesn’t fit US objectives and therefore it wasn’t news. At the same time, the no-fly zone over Libya did fit the objectives of the imperial triumvirate and so that was major news. And this is standard, it happens all the time.

One of the very striking examples which tells you something about the general intellectual culture, had to do with Wiki Leaks. The exposure that received by far the most attention in terms of headlines and euphoric commentary was that the Arabs support US policy on Iran, hostility towards Iran. That was all over the place and was quite interesting because what it was, in fact, referring to was Arab dictators. What about Arab public opinion? Well.. that was also studied and was studied by the most prestigious US polling institutions and released by prestigious institutions like Brookings. These studies are not reported! In the United States, literally not reported- I believe there was one report in England. These reports rank Egypt as the most important country in the region, and within Egypt over ninety percent of the population regard the United States as the most major threat. Eighty percent think the region would be more secure if Iran had nuclear weapons. Only a small number, maybe ten percent, regard Iran as a threat. Those figures are rather similar throughout the region. But, for policy makers that doesn’t matter- as long as the dictators support us? what else matters.

This takes us back to our first question looking at the attitude towards democracy. The attitude is that the population doesn’t matter, as long as it’s under control; and you can see that. Incidentally, this is quite an old issue. If we had serious reporting on these issues, it would not only report Arab public opinion, but would report that the policy of ignoring Arab public opinion has been around for some time. Back in the 1950’s President Eisenhower was concerned about what he called the ‘campaign of hatred’ in the Arab world; not by governments, but by people. In the same year, the national security council released a study concluding that there is a perception among the people of the Arab world that the United States supports harsh and brutal dictatorships, blocks democracy and development, and we do so because we want to maintain control over their energy supplies. It went onto conclude that the perception (of foreign policy objectives) is more or less accurate, and as long as the dictators support us- then who cares that there’s a campaign of hatred? as long as we can control the population… That has remained a consistent policy, very dramatically so today- and as you can see by the reaction to these exposures and unreported crucial data- that’s become a generally accepted attitude among educated sectors.

Q: What is the true nature of information subversion seen by governments and corporate institutions?

[Noam Chomsky] I should say that, by now, there are thousands of pages of detailed documentation on this topic. Without going too far afield, let’s look at the topics we just mentioned. Is it important for us to know that the invasion of Iraq was undertaken with the expectation that it would increase terror? was undertaken with the intention of ensuring US corporations have privileged access over Iraqi oil? and it would be a permanent US military base? I think it would have been important for the public to know that. I think it would be important for the public to know now that Arab public opinion is so hostile to western (specifically US) power- that it regards the US as a prime threat, and thinks the region would be better off if Iran had nuclear weapons. Is it important for people in the United States and Britain to know that? I would think so! We can go on with case after case. Is it important for Americans, for example, to know that if we had a healthcare system similar to other industrial societies the deficit would be erased and we wouldn’t have to go after teacher’s pensions and Medicare payments for the elderly and so forth? Yeah, I think that would be important to know. I think, in fact, that ought to be blaring headlines!

All this information can be found out if you do a research project- but it doesn’t even enter the public eye.

Q: What influence do large corporations exert in society?

[Noam Chomsky] Corporations play an overwhelming role in society. I don’t think that fact is even contentious. Similar observations have been made as far back as Adam Smith who pointed out that in Britain the principal architects of policy were merchants and manufacturers, the people who own society- and they ensure that their interests are served however grievous the impact on the people of England. This is far more true today, with much higher concentrations of power- we are not just manufacturers, we have financial institutions and multinational corporations. They have an enormous influence, and the influence can not only be harmful, but in many cases lethal.

Taking the United States as an example- the corporate sector has been carrying out major propaganda campaigns to try to convince the population that there is no threat from global warming. This, in effect, has led to the majority of people now agreeing it is not a real issue. Business funding has also been the primary instrument in bringing a new group of cadres to congress- figures who are virtually all climate change deniers. These individuals are about to enact legislation to cut-back funding for the international organisation (the IPCC) and the capacity of the environmental protection agency who may not even be able to monitor the effect of greenhouse gases or carry out any other actions which could reduce the impact of global warming which is a very serious threat! This has been done by the corporate executives who are carrying out these propaganda campaigns and funding political figures who are undercutting such efforts. They understand as well as anyone else that global warming is a very serious threat, but there is an institutional role that enters here. If you are the CEO of a corporation, your task is to maximise short-term profit. That’s much more true now than it ever has been in the past. We are in a new stage of state-capitalism in which the future just doesn’t matter very much, even the survival of the firm doesn’t matter very much. What matters increasingly is short term profit and if a CEO doesn’t pursue that, he will be replaced with someone who will do it. This is institutional effect, not individual effect, and has extraordinary implications on society. It may, in fact, destroy our very existence.

Q: To what extent does a class-system still exist in western societies?

[Noam Chomsky] The business-classes are constantly fighting a bitter class war, and they are aware of it. If you read the business press they mourn about the hazard facing industrialists and the rising political power of the masses- and the need to fight the everlasting battle for the minds of men, and so forth… and they act on it! They are constantly carrying out major campaigns to ensure the concentration of power in the hands of the corporate sector will increase. In the last thirty years or so, there have been changes in the nature of the economy- shifting from capitalist to state-capitalist. A lot of the dynamism in an economy comes from the state; computers, the internet, the IT revolution and so on. The applications come from the private sector, but not the basic research and development. That has remained true, across the board. Over the past thirty years, there has been a significant change- a move towards “financialisation” of the economy. Financial institutions now have a far higher share of the profit in the economy than forty years ago. Another shift has been towards the outsourcing of production which, in effect, places working people throughout the world in competition- with obvious consequences. Well those changes have set in motion a vicious cycle in which wealth is more and more concentrated within an extremely small population. In the United States, the primary factor of inequality is the extreme concentration of wealth within a fraction of one percent of the population comprising CEO’s, hedge fund managers and so on. As that concentration of wealth increases, it carries with it a concentration of political power since wealth has an enormous effect on the political system- and the political power in turn leads to legislation, which enhances the concentration of wealth. Fiscal policies, deregulation, rules of corporate governance and so on. This cycle exists all through the world, but is very striking in the United States. Within the last generation, for one thing, we have seen repeated financial crises which simply didn’t occur in the fifties and sixties when new-deal regulations were still in place and the financial system was much more restricted. Increasing financial crises are not a problem for the big banks and investment firms because they can rely on the nanny state to bail them out. If we had a capitalist system, financial crises would be serious but they would be overcome simply by bankruptcy of the culprits, so Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup simply wouldn’t exist- they would have gone bankrupt a long time ago! But since we don’t have a capitalist system, they have been rescued by the taxpayer repeatedly. In fact, they are given what amounts to a government insurance policy called “too big to fail” and the credit-ranking agencies take that into account. When they determine the credit-level of Goldman Sachs, they take into account that if they partake in a lot of risky transactions, and hence make a lot of profit and the system collapses, there will be a bailout- that increases the firms credit-ranking and means that can get cheaper loans and so on. Meanwhile, for the general population of the past generation or so- for the overwhelming majority, incomes have pretty much stagnated while working hours have increased and benefits have declined leaving a very angry, frustrated and confused population that is pretty much divorced from political decisions. Decisions which are extremely in the hands of an extremely narrow concentration of power- and the media go along with it, as they are essentially part of the system. There is some sniping around the periphery, this is a free society after all- but the overwhelming thrust tends to support the system. These are very anti-democratic tendencies, and also quite dangerous.

Looking at Conflict:

Q: What is your view on the ‘global-war-on-terror’?

[Noam Chomsky] One problem is that it doesn’t exist. You don’t fight a war on terror by carrying out actions which you anticipate will increase terror. The invasion of Iraq, again, was undertaken with the expectation that it would increase terror- and in fact it did. That is not a war on terror. There shouldn’t be a war on terror, but rather an effort to undercut terror. The ways to do this are well-understood. Britain is a perfectly good example. Take, for example, IRA terror which was pretty serious! As long as Britain responded using violence, that increased and escalated the cycle of terror. Finally- partly through United States influence, and partly from internal pressure- they responded by paying some attention to the legitimate grievances that existed in the background of the terrorist actions. Well, that led to a decline in terror. By now, Northern Ireland- while not utopia- is certainly not how it was even fifteen years ago. That’s the way you deal with terror! Look at its roots, sources and do something about them.

Looking at Globalisation & Society:

Q: What are your views on globalisation and a shift of economic power to China and India?

[Noam Chomsky] First of all, we should be a little careful when discussing a “shift of economic power”. It is certainly true that China and India have had very significant growth rates, but these are very poor countries. Take a look at their GDP per capita for example. According to World Bank figures (which are grossly underestimated) China has maybe five percent of the GDP per capita of the United States, India maybe two percent. These figures ought to be doubled or tripled, but even so they are a small fraction of western power. China has grown spectacularly and there’s been quite significant impact on reducing poverty and so on. Nevertheless China remains, as of now, an assembly plant. If you take a look at the trade deficit of the United States with China (which is much discussed) and calculate it accurately, in terms of value-added, it turns out the trade deficit with China is over-estimated by about twenty five to thirty percent. The trade deficit with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea is underestimated by the same figure. The reason is, within the dynamic East Asian production system- the high technology parts and components come from the periphery- from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China assembles. Over time, this will change as China moves up the technology ladder, but that’s how it is now. It’s even more the case in India- which has hundreds of millions of people who are completely excluded from the system. Peasant suicides are increasing at roughly the same rate as the creation of billionaires. A couple of hundred million people have gained, and many more have not- and their situation has been getting worse. There are also enormous ecological problems which are not counted as costs, though they should be. What’s going on there is pretty spectacular.

There is much talk of China’s holding of US debt and what that implies and so on. Japan’s holding of US debt is approximately the same, that does not give Japan power over the United States. There’s a lot of misleading commentary about these topics.

Q: What do you think the world will look like 25 years from now?

[Noam Chomsky] Well, there are a number of things taking place. The United States after the second World War was overwhelmingly dominant, its power has been declining since and is declining right now. In part, this decline has to do with the increasing growth in Asian production- we shouldn’t exaggerate but it’s certainly a part of it. Another factor is the internal attack on the health of American society- the corporate onslaught that has taken place over the past generation has severely weakened American society. There is an attack on the educational system which will have severe long-term effects on economy- there is a general attack on the workforce- the vicious cycle I described is fine for a very small sector of the population, but is harmful for everyone else. The infrastructure is in very poor shape. Anyone who travels from Europe or even Asia to the United States often think they are coming to a third-world country! This is increasing. It is not a problem for the small-sector of wealth and power that off-shore’s production and engages in financial manipulations- for them it doesn’t really matter if the country declines. It is declining, and it is under attack internally. The United States does have a financial crisis- deficit and debt problem- that is due to two things. One, the enormously bloated military budget which is approximately the same as the rest of the world combined and secondly, a highly dysfunctional privatised unregulated healthcare system. Those two elements are being protected and that, along with the vicious cycle that I mentioned, is leading to severe internal problems which will continue the decline. In addition, the environmental problem is very serious. If the United States does not take the lead, the rest of the world is not going to do very much. If the United States undermine efforts deal with environmental problems- as is now happening- that is going to be even more serious and that’s exactly what we see in front of us for the institutional reasons that I mentioned. Thirty years from now, that will be much more significant.

There is also, unfortunately, an increasing threat of nuclear war and even nuclear terror. That’s why I mentioned before US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan- part of that policy increases the risk that fissile materials will fall into the hands of radical Islamists. I should say that radical Islam has been strongly supported by the United States and Britain for a long time as a barrier to secular nationalism. The US has also supported the nuclear programmes of Pakistan, India and Israel- the three non-signers of the non-proliferation-treaty. All of that is a very combustible mix.

There are also going to be increasing conflicts over resources. Resources are being pressed to the limit and with increasing growth, there will be competition- which will lead to severe resource conflict and maybe wars of some kind. They may not be military wars, but some kind of conflict. For example- if we look at the major world energy resources in the Middle-East, more are now going East than West! The United States so far is tolerating this- they want Saudi oil to go to China to undercut China’s initiatives in Iran- that’s part of US geopolitical strategy but that will cause conflict and is true of other resources- Iron, Copper, Lithium and so -on. This is a growing and serious problem- and gives a pretty gloomy prediction of the future unless something significant changes.

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