An Interview with Noam Chomsky

Mass Media, Globalization, and the Public Mind

Q: How important is it for the mass media, to control the public mind?

CHOMSKY: We always have to ask: important for whom? For the public, it’s important that they not control the public mind. For the public, it’s important for them to prepare, to present a free arena for discussion and debate and an honest acount, as much as one can, of issues that are important and significant. But that’s for the public. For the media themselves, that is the owners, the managers, their market, which is advertisers, and other power systems in the society, control of the public mind is extremely important.

And that’s not a hypotheses. They’ve been very clear about it for 70 or 80 years. In fact, this became a matter of really open and public discussion, both in England and the United States. Around the time of the First World War, 1920s, around then, that was a period when the franchise was extending. Up ’til then, most voting was limited pretty much to people with  property rights. And it was extended. There’s a lot of popular struggle in the late 19th century and early twentieth century and many rights were won, including voting rights and that raised a serious problem both in England and in the United States, the two major democracies. And the response was the same in both. We can’t control people by force any more. At least not as well as before. So we’ll have to spend more energy on control of their beliefs, their attitudes.

Q: You’ve argued that the media intentions, like managers and journalists, were to keep people apathetic and divert them from meaningful participation in the political process. How do you consider their intentions. Are they really conscious of their actions, or do they just conform unconsciously to the mainstream ideology? What’s the main dynamic at work here?

CHOMSKY: Depends who you’re talking about. If you’re talking about media leaders, theoreticians, leaders of the public relations industry, public intellectuals who write about democracy and so on, it’s quite conscious. If you talk about people involved in the system, it’s mostly unconscious. Not completely. Many people know what they’re being forced to do and in fact struggle against it. But by and large, you only make your way into the system with any success if you’ve more or less internalized the values. That’s what a good education is about. That’s not only true of the media, it’s also true of scholarship and intellectual life, and in fact, what me might call ideological institutions altogether.

Q: Is it possible to, as you say, make our way in those kinds of media businesses. Can it be changed from the inside? When we see CNN, UPI, Associated Press, those big information businesses, is it possible to change it by being with them or do we have to start some alternative things on the side ?

CHOMSKY: Both. And those are not the only means. Any institutions, even fascist states, are susceptible to public pressure. And certainly media in relatively free societies are. And in fact there have been substantial changes, some of them for the better in the past thirty years as a result of extensive public pressure, largely the ferment that developed out of the 1960s and continued. That has noticeably changed the media, not only in the way they deal with topics but also who works inside them. Many people now inside them went through those experiences and that changed them. So there are things that can be done and many journalists with real integrity are very much aware of these constraints and pressures. And they’re in fact much more cynical than I am because they have direct experience and try to find their way in the spaces that are open. Sometimes they succeed. I have some close friends who are distinguished reporters who just quit because they couldn’t take it any more.

Q: Do you see concentration of the press as a problem or is it just the same structures but with a new owner?

CHOMSKY: It’s a serious problem. Press concentration has been going all through this century. And as the press has concentrated it of course cuts back such diversity as there is. The restriction to commercially owned media, big mega-corporations, corporate media, that brought about a very sharp concentration. So for example in the United States, as recently as the 1950s, there were about 800 labor-based newspapers that reached maybe 20 or 30 million people a week. They were getting a very different picture of the world. And you go back earlier in the century it was far more diverse. The recent wave of concentration is reducing global media to basically a few mega-corporations. And of course, the effects of that on freedom and democracy barely have to be discussed. They’re obvious.

Q: Another subject that comes up quite often in the media these days is the IMF reform projects. We’re calling it a new Bretton Woods. I know that the Bretton Woods accords interest you quite a bit. What do you think of these new developments in the IMF?

CHOMSKY: Well, the Bretton Woods system basically broke down about 25 years ago at the initiative of the United States with the support of other major financial centers. And since then, we have not been in a Bretton Woods system. The liberalization of financial capital, which took place in the seventies, is exactly contrary to the Bretton Woods system which called for regulation of international capital exchanges. And that has had an incredible effect on the whole economy, a very harmful effect in fact, except for small sectors of pretty wealthy people. But it has also led to extreme volatility of exchange rates and of markets. It’s been well known for a long time that finacial markets are subject to panicks and kraches and hysterias as the standard phraseology puts it. And that’s causing plenty of problems. By now, the problems are even reaching the rich and wealthy and they’re getting worried about it. Which is why we’re hearing about reform.

Now there are counter-tendencies going on. Within the IMF, and in fact from the US treasury department, which sort of dominates the IMF, the effort is to try to increase liberalization of finance even further. On the other hand, they’re trying to push that through the IMF charter, which would be a radical change. Look at the World Bank, they’re opposed to it. And many other sectors of quite conservative institutional power are opposed to it because they’re afraid of it.

Q: In the context of the globalization of markets, what do you see as the role of the State today?

CHOMSKY: It depends on which countries you’re talking about. In the rich countries, the OECD countries, the role of the state has actually increased over the past twenty years, relative to Gross National Product (GNP). That’s been reported by the World Bank for example. On the other hand, in poor countries, like sub-saharan Africa, or Latin America, the effort has been to minimize the State. Take the Western Hemisphere, the richest country of course is the United States, where the State plays an enormous role in economic development and actually, it always has. But since the Second World War, it’s extensive, it varies somewhat, so it expanded during the Reagan years, it’s substantial now and so on. Turn to Haiti. Well there, the condition on returning president  Aristide to power was that he accept a super neo-liberal program which opens Haiti up totally to what are called market forces. Which means for example that Haitian rice producers have to compete with US agribusiness, which happens to be very highly subsidized. So they get about 40 percent of their profits from government subsidies. I mean to call that a free market isn’t even a joke. And naturally, Haiti is devastated. So there, the role of the State is very limited. In fact, the State hardly functions. In the United states on the other hand, the State is very strong.

Q: You talk a lot about the United States and the western world in general. We feel sometimes that the wave of neoliberalism that we’ve experienced since maybe the mid eighties is like something that is inevitable. That we have to go through this to get some kind of economic prosperity. And in this, we sometimes have the feeling that democracy is not that much of a concern for companies or economic big players on the political scene. What do you see as the future for democracy when economics takes up so much place?

CHOMSKY: Well, first of all, there’s a lot of questionable assumptions in what you’ve said. Maybe you’re told to believe that neoliberal programs are the way to prosperity. But that has not been the historical fact. And it is not the fact in the United States right now for example, nor has it ever been. So if you’re taught to beliEve that, that’s a technique of ensuring your subordination to external powers. You don’t have to believe what you’re told to believe. You know that’s what we have minds for. And in fact, it’s a very bad idea. And in fact, you can see that by the fact that the rich and powerful don’t pursue it for themselves, never do, nor have.

I think that the question about democracy and private power is a different one. Private power is enormous and growing. So the power of private corporations and financial institutions is growing and extending but not through neoliberal doctrines. I mean, they insist on and receive ample protection and support from powerful states. Furthermore, they’re involved in what are called strategic alliances with one another, even alleged competitors, to administer markets. And they would like a powerful state but one that is directed to their interests. So not wasting money on programs that are just of benefit to the general population. And that of course does minimize democracy as their power increases. The power of the general population declines. But this is nothing we have to accept.

Q: Do you see unions as a force in opposing these kinds of politics? What would the role of the unions and the State be? Does the State still have a reason to exist ?

CHOMSKY: Ultimately no. But in the current world, there is a world of nation states dominated by corporations that are based in nation states. Unions are one of the few mechanisms by which ordinary people can get together and pool their individual resources in such ways that counter, to some extent, concentrations of private power. And they have done that. I mean, ask yourself why Canada has had a health system, while the United States  hasn’t. It’s largely traceable to the relative power and activism of the union movements on the two sides of the border.

Unions are reviving to some extent in the United States and recently they’ve had a few victories, in blocking the fast track legislation or their involvement in undercutting the negotiations for the Multilateral Agreement on Investments. The unions have finally realized that they better become international, not just in name but in action. So there are buy now some cooperative efforts between US and mexican and other Carribean unions and even much further afield. And that’s important. I mean capital is mobile, labor isn’t. And unless it establishes international links, it won’t be able to protect ordinary people or to extend social and democratic rights.

Of course, unions are only one of those means. There are plenty of others. But popular organizations of all kinds, of which unions have historically been a leading one, that’s the way to counter concentrated power short of institutional change which would eliminate it. Which is what I think we should be aiming for.

Q: You talk a lot about unions and people organizing. Do you think it’s the role of local people to get organized or do we have to have a kind of elite in society that gathers people around? Is it really a movement that has to start from down below, or is it something that can come from people in universities or people who know a little bit more about political and current affairs?

CHOMSKY: If the movements that develop will be run by elites, they’ll be run in the interest of elites. Therefore, if the movements are to have democratic and humane goals, they’ll be popular movements in which there is no elite. I mean, maybe somebody in the university knows something, maybe I know something, maybe you know something, and we should contribute our knowledge and also recognize that we want to learn from others. But that’s contributing your own skills and whatever you have along with plenty of people who have other ones, and maybe better ones than yours. That’s the way serious organizing takes place. If it reflects an elite structure, a managerial structure, we can predict pretty well what it will become.

Q: Do you have any hopes for the future, any progress you see coming up along the way as the end of the century nears? Do you see any progressive movements out there doing some good work?

CHOMSKY: There’s plenty of progress. Take for example the Multilateral Agreement on Investments, which was a major effort to give corporations the rights of States. They had already been given the rights of persons. That’s enormous power, with extremely dangerous effects. They hoped to ram it through in secret. It was blocked primarily by activism that started in Canada. Canada was by far the most active center of protest. And then that spread elsewhere. And in fact, they were unable to ram it through largely because of public protest. That’s a tremendous victory.

In fact, if you look at the financial press internationally, they were in panic about what they called the horde of vigilantes who had prevented agreements from being negotiated in secret and rubber stamped by parliament as in the good old days. When you look at the array of forces on the two sides, it’s an amazing victory. I mean, on one side you had the concentrated power of the world. I mean the most powerful states, the most powerful corporations, financial institutions, banks and the media of course, all on one side. On the other side, you had people like Maude Barlow. And they won, at least temporarily. It’s got to keep going. It’s not the only case but it’s a very encouraging victory. People should take heart in it and learn from it.