The Chomsky Tapes
Conversations with Michael Albert
Z magazine, November 2001
In January 1993 Michael Albert and Noam Chomsky recorded a
series of conversations which were later distributed by Z Magazine.
This Fall Z is offering a new series of three tapes, with new
conversations focusing on analysis, vision, and strategy for the
coming period (see page xx of this issue for a descriptive ad).
Here we present a transcription of some material from the 1993
tapes, essentially verbatim. Some of the topical material is now
historical, of course, but the rest is as timely now as when first
Q: You once wrote an essay called "Responsibility and
Intellectuals". Perhaps we could start by talking a little
bit about that. First of all, what makes a person an intellectual
in the first place. What is an intellectual?
It's not a term I take all that seriously. Some of the most
intellectual people I've met and known in my life were very remote
from the so-called intellectual professions. Plenty of people
who are called intellectual workers, who work with their minds,
not their, say, hands, are involved in what amounts to clerical
work. An awful lot of academic scholarship, for example, is basically
a kind of clerical work.
Q: Suppose we use the word positively.
With a positive connotation I would want to talk about whoever
it is who's thinking about things, trying to understand things,
trying to work things out, maybe trying to articulate and express
that understanding to others and so on. That's intellectual life.
Q: So "things" could be society, it could be quarks
It could be music.
Q: It could be sports. So basically, arguably, just about
Except that an awful lot of the activity of most of us is
routine, not considered, not directed to problems that really
do concern us and not based on efforts, maybe even opportunities
to gain deeper understanding.
Q: So intellectuals have a whole lot of time to do this part
of life that we all do some of the time.
There are people who are privileged enough to be able to spend
an awful lot of their time and effort on these things if they
so choose. They rarely do. They often do turn to routine kind
of hack work, which is the easy way.
Q: So supposing a society like ours does give some people
the opportunity to spend more time doing intellectual work, then
I guess that's the context in which we raise the question, What's
the responsibility of a person like that, a person who is free
to have that time?
We can distinguish what we you might call their "task"
from their moral responsibility. Their task, that is, the reason
why social institutions provide them with this time and effort,
their task is, say, so that they can support power, authority,
they can carry out doctrinal management. They can try to ensure
that others perceive the world in a way which is supportive of
existing authority and privilege. That's their task. If they stop
performing their task, they're likely to be deprived of the opportunities
to dedicate themselves to intellectual work. On the other hand,
their moral responsibility is quite different, in fact, almost
the opposite. Their moral responsibility is to try to understand
the truth, to try to work with others to come to an understanding
of what the world is like, to try to convey that to other people,
help them understand, and lay the basis for constructive action.
That's their responsibility. But of course there is a conflict.
If you pursue the responsibility, you're likely to be denied the
privileges of exercising the intellectual effort.
It's pretty evident, not hard to understand. If you're a young
person, say, in college or in journalism or for that matter a
fourth grader, and you have too much of an independent mind, meaning
you're beginning to fulfill your responsibility, there is a whole
variety of devices that will try to deflect you from that error
and, if you can't be controlled, to marginalize and eliminate
you some way. In fourth grade you may be a behavior problem. In
college you may be irresponsible and erratic and not the right
kind of student. If you make it to the faculty you'll fail in
what's sometimes called "collegiality," getting along
with your colleagues. If you're a young journalist and you're
pursuing stories that the managerial level above you understands,
either intuitively or explicitly, are not to be pursued, you can
be sent off to the police desk and advised that you are not thinking
through properly and how you don't have proper standards of objectivity
and so on. There's a range of devices. We live in a free society,
so you're not sent to the gas chambers. They don't send the death
squads after you, as is commonly done in many countries ... you
don't have to go very far away to see that, say in Mexico. But
there nevertheless are quite successful devices to ensure that
doctrinal correctness is not seriously infringed upon.
Q: But certainly intellectuals aren't only journalists, economists,
political scientists and the like. That's one set in the social
sciences. But then there's also hard scientists. There's biologists
and physicists and the like. There it would seem that there's
less of a social control problem, and so maybe you get a different
kind of behavior. Are the intellectuals in the linguistics department
comparable to the intellectuals in the economics department?
First of all, there is a social control problem. It's just
that we've transcended it. Galileo faced it, for example. You
go back a couple of centuries in the West and the social control
problem was very severe. Descartes is alleged to have destroyed
the final volume of his treatise on the world, the one that was
supposed to deal with the human mind, because he learned of the
fate of Galileo. That's something like the death squads. The Inquisition
was doing precisely that. Okay, that's past, in the West, at least.
Q: Why is it past? In other words, what is it about a society
in the West that enables at least that kind of pursuit of knowledge
to be free to go wherever it goes, but not in, say, Moslem society?
There are a number of reasons. One of them is just increase
in freedom and enlightenment. We've become a much freer society
than we were in absolutist times. Popular struggles over centuries
have enlarged the domain of freedom. Intellectuals have often
played a role in this, during the Enlightenment, for example,
in breaking barriers and creating a space for greater freedom
of thought. That often took a lot of courage and quite a struggle.
And it goes on until today. But there are other factors, too.
It's utilitarian. It turns out that with modern science, especially
in the last century or two, the ability to gain deeper understanding
of the world has interacted critically with modern economic development,
modern power. In fact, the course of science and the course of
military endeavors is very close, way back to Archimedes. Archimedes
was after all designing devices for military purposes. And military
technology and science, their history closely interweaves in the
modern period, particularly since the mid-nineteenth century.
The sciences have actually begun to contribute materially to industrial
development. So there are utilitarian purposes, but I wouldn't
overexaggerate them. It's like the kind of result that led to
freedom in other domains, like slavery, let's say. Or after a
hundred and fifty years of American history women were allowed
to vote. Things like that. These are significant.
Back to the point, especially after the great scientific revelations
of the seventeenth century, it got to the point where you simply
couldn't do science if you were subjected to the doctrinal controls
that are quite effective outside the hard sciences. You can't
do it. You try to be a physicist after Newton spinning off ideological
fanaticism, and you're just out of the game. Progress was too
much. It's striking. You can see it right here in Cambridge. I've
lived here almost all my adult life. There are two major academic
institutions only a couple of miles apart. One of them is science
and technology based, MIT. The other has sciences of course, but
the tone of it is basically humanities and social sciences, Harvard.
And the atmosphere is radically different.
In fact, there is a funny problem in the natural sciences.
That is that there is an internal conflict. The goal, and in fact
what you're being paid for, to put is crassly, why you're being
given the opportunities, is to find out the truth about the world.
And you can't do that under doctrinal constraints. So there's
a tension. On the one hand it just has to be free, and it just
has to encourage independent thought. On the other hand, people
with power and authority want it to be constrained. That contradiction
is much more striking in the natural sciences than it is in the
social sciences or humanities. You can tell falsehoods forever
Q: But that implies that in the social sciences and economics
and so on, to be crass, what they're being paid for is not to
find the truth but something else.
They are performing their role as long as they provide ideological
services. To make it simple, take, say, modern economic theory,
with its sort of free-market ideology. Planners in business and
government are not going to waste their time following those rules.
So the U.S. has a steel industry because it radically violated
those rules. It was able to recover its steel industry in the
last ten years under allegedly free-market doctrine by barring
all imports from abroad, by destroying labor unions, so you could
wipe down wages, and just a couple of days ago by slamming tariffs
up to over 100% on foreign steel. That's planning. On the other
hand, the free-market ideology is very useful. It's a weapon against
the general population here because it's a weapon against social
spending. It's a weapon against poor people abroad, saying, You
guys have to follow these rules. As long as the economists are
providing what looks like an intellectual basis for this ideology,
they're doing their job. You don't have to pay attention to them
for actual planning. You can't do that with physics.
Q: How does it happen? Here we have students who finish undergraduate
work and decide they want to be an economist. So they go to, let's
say, Harvard or MIT or some other school in economics. Presumably
when they come in they have some notion of doing something that's
relevant to society, to making life a little better, something
like that, at least a reasonable number of them. When they come
out, they're either going to teach at some small community college
or they've learned the correct lesson. But no one gets up in front
of the class and says, We will henceforth serve the interests
It happens in a lot of ways. Let me tell you a story I once
heard from a black civil rights activist who came up to Harvard
Law School and was there for a while. This must have been twenty
years ago. He once gave a talk and said that kids were coming
in to Harvard Law School with long hair and backpacks and social
ideals and they were all going to go into public service, law
and change the world. That's the first year. He said around April
the recruiters come for the summer jobs, the Wall Street firms.
Get a cushy summer job and make a ton of money. So the students
figure, What the heck? I can put on a tie and jacket and shave
for one day, because I need that money and why shouldn't I have
it? So they put on a tie and a jacket for that one day and they
get the job for the summer. Then they go off for the summer and
when they come back in the fall, it's ties and jackets and obedience
and a shift of ideology.
Q: Sometimes it takes two years.
Sometimes it takes two years; that's overdrawing the point.
But those factors are very influential. I've fought it all my
life. It's extremely easy to be sucked into the dominant culture.
It's very appealing. And the people don't look like bad people.
You don't want to sit there and insult them. You try to be friends,
and you are. You begin to conform, to adapt, to smooth off the
harsher edges. Education at a place like Harvard is in fact largely
geared to that, to a remarkable extent. I was a graduate student
there. There was an organization called the Society of Fellows,
which is a research outfit that selects a couple of people from
all fields over the year. It was a remarkable opportunity to work.
You had all the facilities of Harvard available and basically
no responsibilities. Your only responsibilities were to show up
for a dinner every Monday night which was sort of modelled on
the Oxford-Cambridge high table. You spent the evening at the
dinner with a couple of senior faculty members and other distinguished
people. The purpose of that was basically socialization. You had
to learn how to drink port and how to have polite conversations
without talking about serious topics, but of course indicating
that you could talk about serious topics if you were so vulgar
as to actually do it. There's a whole set of mannerisms. In those
days you had to learn how to wear British clothes. That was the
Q: And it's very rare for a person to do all that and not
begin to rationalize and think, This is really pretty good. Aren't
I something for all this? And to begin to be impressed.
It kind of seeps in. They've had, for example, back in the
early forties ... in the 1930s of course there was pretty big
labor strife and labor struggle and it scared the daylights out
of the business community because labor was actually winning the
right to organize and even legislative victories. There were a
lot of efforts to overcome this. Harvard played its role. It introduced
a trade union program which brought in rising young people in
the labor movement, the guy who looks like he's likely to be the
local president next year. They're brought to Harvard, they sit
in the business school and the dorms. They go through a socialization
process. They're brought to share some of the values and an understanding
of the elite. They're taught, our job is to work together. We
all are together. There are two lines. One line, for the public,
is, we're all together. We're all cooperating, joint enterprise,
harmony and so on. Of course, meanwhile, business is fighting
a vicious class struggle on the side, but that's in a different
corner of the universe. That effort to socialize and integrate
union activists, I've never measured its success, but I'm sure
it was successful. It's pretty much the way what I experienced
and saw what a Harvard education. There's much less of that at
MIT, naturally, for exactly the reason you said: They're not training
the people who are going to rule.
Q: It reminds me of 180 degrees opposite, when people started
to become politicized in the early and mid-sixties there was an
intellectual component that was trying to understand society.
There was a whole set of lifestyle acts, ranging from long hair
to having a mattress on the floor to various other kinds of behavioral
traits. Most parents were sophisticated enough to get much more
upset about the lifestyle acts than about the ideas that were
being phrased. Because they had a tremendous tenacity. Once you
had a community that had these lifestyle ways of behaving and
ways of getting along and ways of identifying one another and
being part of the same thing, you could escape the more mainstream
behaviorisms far more easily. You could look at the accepted roles
as being silly or false or whatever, and it was no longer so attractive.
That has been absent since about 1970. I don't think the left
has had anything much to compete with, the sort of general life
definitions of the mainstream and the right. So o the left you
don't have a strong lifestyle and an identity to make it easy
to ignore the seductions. What you have is ideals but no counteridentity.
That's partly because the alternative lifestyle simply was
commercialized and absorbed into the mainstream culture, selling
clothes and that sort of thing.
Q: That was part of it. It was also partly because the alternative
lifestyle was never the wonderful lifestyle it was cut out to
be. Instead of defining something positively, it was defined as
the opposite of what is. The opposite of something that's horrible
isn't always so wonderful. So there were many components of the
way we lived and acted in the late sixties that were not very
well conceived as ways to live and act over a long period of time.
They worked for a time, but over the longer haul they often just
weren't very fulfilling.
What you're saying is no doubt true. The thing has been commercialized
and cheapened. Still, life's a lot easier than it was forty years
ago. If I think back to those days, if I look at pictures from
the early 1960s, I can hardly believe it, how disciplined everything
was, how deep the authority structures were just in personal relations,
the way you looked and talked when you went out with your friends.
There's been very significant ... I think very good changes as
a result of what took place in the 1960s that in turn spread around
the whole society. Maybe the spread of some of the gains meant
that young dissidents couldn't identify themselves so easily,
but it's in part because the society got better.
Q: But it's distracting and sort of disturbing. I mean, it's
true, and when I talk to students I try to convey the difference
between a time when everybody thought that every lawyer was honest
and forthright and deserved obedience and so on and that doctors
were out for nothing except to help humanity, that business people
cared about consumers, and so on, to a time, now, when people
know much more than that, to a time, now, when people are sort
of passive and laid back. But then it's distracting that with
those changes you don't have a parallel change in an organized
and aware, self-conscious and critically aware left. On the one
hand we do have a lot of left activists. But we don't have something
that is a national left.
I agree with you, of course. But it seems to me what's happened,
as I try to understand what's happened since the sixties, is that
there has been among the general population, excluding those who
are considered responsible intellectuals, meaning the ones filling
their tasks, excluding power structures and the intellectuals
who serve their interests, for the general population, there has
been something of almost a revolutionary change in moral values
and cultural level and so on, and a great improvement. It has
taken no institutional form at all. On the one hand, the ideological
institutions are firmly in the hands of the extremely narrow liberal-to-reactionary
spectrum, and very tightly controlled. There's no identifiable
point of view or ways of thinking or by and large even journals
outside them, very little. On the other hand, the general population
has become extremely dissident and has absorbed many of the values
that people were struggling for in the sixties, and you can see
it in just about every area.
Q: But the thing that seems to be missing is that then people
thought that you could win a change.
I think they did win a change.
Q: Yes, but it was in considerable part because they also
believed they could, understood they could. But now people tend
not to believe they can, and so have little incentive to try.
I don't think they've recognized what changes are already
achieved. If you take almost any area you think of, whether it's
race or sex or military intervention, the environment--these are
all areas of awareness and concern that didn't exist in the early
sixties. You didn't even think about them. You just submitted,
without even knowing that you were submitting. You just accepted.
And people don't any more. Take the original sin of American history:
what happened to the native population. It's a remarkable fact
that until the 1960s the culture simply couldn't come to terms
with it. Not at all. When I grew up, I would go out with my friends
and we'd play cowboys and Indians and shoot the Indians. Scholarship
was the same. Until the 1960s, with very rare exceptions, academic
scholarship was grossly falsifying the history, suppressing the
reality of what happened. Even the number of people was radically
falsified. As late as 1969, in one of the leading diplomatic histories
of the United States, the author Thomas Wally could write that
after the Revolution "the colonists turned to the task of
felling trees and Indians." Nobody could say that now. You
couldn't even say that in a Wall Street Journal editorial. Those
are really important changes.
Q: But somehow it's as if, in a phrase I once heard, we snatched
defeat from the jaws of victory. People have this perception of
accomplishing nothing or very, very little, and begin to get burned
out and to retain some of the values and commitments but begin
to feel that you can no longer really struggle for change bcause
we're not succeeding. This is a common sentiment. It's certainly
a common sentiment among people I know, not always voiced, I think,
but there. And yet if you look objectively at the thing, like
you're trying to do now, you see that if you don't have an outrageously
inflated view of how fast change takes place, then you can understand
that change has been dramatic. It isn't so obvious what the mechanism
is that causes people to be so oblivious to their own effects.
Partly it's that there's nothing in the official culture that's
ever going to tell you you succeeded. It's always going to tell
you you failed. The official view of the sixties is it's a bunch
of crazies running around burning down universities and making
noise because they were hysterics or were afraid to go to Vietnam
or something. That's the official story. That's what people hear.
They may know in their lives and experience that that's not what
happened. But they don't hear anybody say it, unless they're in
activist groups. That change is possible, that it has been won,
is not the message that the system is pouring into you through
television and radio and newspapers and books and histories and
so on. It's sort of beating into your head another story. The
other story is you failed, and you should have failed, because
you were just a bunch of crazies. And it's natural that the official
culture should take that view. It does not want people to understand
that you can make changes. That's the last thing it wants people
to understand. So, what the mainstream media conveys is that if
there have been changes, it's because we, the elites, are so great
that we carried through the changes.
Q: But there's an element of truth in that, though perverse.
Of course, short of a revolution any change that occurs is going
to occur how? Immediately, because an elite makes a decision to
enact a change. They're going to make the decision because of
the pressures of social movements. But they are in a position
to deny the influence of the movements and claim credit for themselves
down the road a ways.
But really, they bowed to pressures.
Q: That's right. When you read the histories, they don't talk
about the pressures from social movements. Instead elites simply
talk about their profound wisdom in taking this next step.
We ended slavery because we were such great figures that we
decided that we didn't like slavery.
Q: And the real cause of it is gone.
Let's say the slave revolts.
Q: That's gone.
And sure, we saw that on a not trivial scale in the last thirty
years. So this combination of a kind of a, in my opinion, really
close to revolutionary change in moral values and cultural level
has gone on without any lasting institutional change.
And the lack of institutional support for the changes in ideas
and values allows the official culture to drive home its message,
which is, you guys are worthless and can't do anything, why don't
you just shut up and go home? And steadily they undermine the
Q: I want to go into some of that when we talk about movements
and what should happen. But let's just go back to this broad question
of intellectuals. What about left intellectuals? If an intellectual
is somebody who spends time trying to understand, and a social
intellectual tries to understand society, what's a left intellectual?
Are there any?
I've never been very happy about words like "left"
and "right," but let's use it in the conventional sense.
One of the very few predictions in the social sciences that I
know of that ever came true was one of Bakunin's over a century
ago in which he talked about what the intellectuals were going
to be like in modern industrial society. He predicted that they
would fall into two categories. There would be the left intellectual.
They would be the ones who would try to rise to power on the backs
of mass popular movements, and if they could gain power they would
then beat the people into submission.
Yes, what he was predicting was Leninism. And if the inelletuals
find that they can't do that, or that it is too dangerous or costly,
they'll be the servants of what we would nowadays call state capitalism.
He didn't use the term. Either of the two intellectuals, he said,
will be "beating the people with the people's stick."
That is, they will still be presenting themselves as representatives
of the people, so they'll hold the people's stick, but they'll
be beating the people with it. He didn't go on with this, but
I think that his analysis has turned out to be true. And it follows
from his analysis that it would likely be extremely easy to shift
from one position to the other. It's extremely easy, that is,
to undergo what nowadays is called the "God-that-failed"
syndrome. You start off as basically a Leninist, someone who is
going to be part of the Red bureaucracy. You see later that power
doesn't lie that way, and you very quickly become an ideologist
of the right and you devote your life to exposing the sins of
your former comrades who haven't seen the light and haven't shifted
to where power really is. In fact, we're seeing it right now in
the Soviet Union. The same guys who were Communist thugs, Stalinist
thugs two years back, are now running banks and enthusiastic free
marketeers and praising Americans.
Q: It doesn't take a long indoctrination period to learn the
And this has been going on for forty years. It's become a
kind of a joke. Where does that leave what you might call "honest
intellectuals"? They're usually outside the system, for good
reasons. There is no reason to expect institutions of power and
domination to tolerate people trying to undermine them. Quite
the opposite. So therefore you quite typically find the honest
and serious intellectuals, people who are commited to, I think,
enlightenment values, values of truth, freedom, liberty, and justice,
there would be major efforts made to marginalize them.
Q: Who are they?
All the people who have done anything that's ...
Q: Who, which people, groups?
Take, say, the SNCC activists. They were serious intellectuals.
They made a big change in the world. The people of your generation,
who did the work that led to the changes we spoke of earlier...
work that didn't just mean running around the streets waving signs.
It also meant thinking about things and figuring out what the
problems were. Those people made a change. A certain number of
them did filter their way into the institutions. For example,
if you take universities or newspapers or television today, you
usually find people in there, almost always, who have been through
those experiences and have remained true to them. They've got
to adapt their behavior in various ways to get by. But many of
them do it very self-consciously, very honestly and even very
constructively. So there's a kind of an honest intelligentsia
if you like, meaning not serving power, either as Red bureaucracy
or as state capitalist, commissar equivalents. Such people exist,
sometimes in the institutions, but most of the time out of them,
for almost trivial reasons. The institutions are simply not going
to welcome serious critics. They're constructed in such a way
as to make it difficult or impossible for people who are going
to undermine those institutions to survive. How could it be otherwise?
It's just like you're not going to find a militant labor activist
as chairman of the board of General Electric. How could it be?
Q: It seems straightforward to me as well. But we come to
the question, are there some left intellectuals who rise to a
position of relative prominence, so they're visible. SNCC activists
are anonymous, in a sense, socially anonymous.
They're marginalized, but they're important. Some of them
are still around, doing important things.
Q: But in a sense it's an activist group who is not highlighted
and made publicly visible. And some leaders might be.
Like Rosa Luxemburg, say, who got killed.
Q: Right. So there's a figure in history who we could say,
She's one of the people who I would pick...
She was murdered. That's the point.
Q: Typical. This raises the question, Can we only find dead
No. First of all, if you look back through history ...
Q: Let's look now.
Now? You find people all over. It's claimed now that there's
less of a left intelligentsia than there was thirty years ago.
I don't believe a word of it. Take a look at the people who they're
calling the left, the big thinkers of the 1950s. Who were they?
They were intelligent people. Ed Wilson is an intelligent person,
but a left intellectual? Mary McCarthy? A smart person who wrote
some nice novels. But not a left intellectual. In fact, what you
have now is much more serious activists in many more places. I
travel all the time and give talks all over the place. I've been
amazed to go to places throughout the 1980s ... take, say, the
Central America solidarity movement, which I think is a pretty
dramatic development. I don't think there's been anything like
it in history. I'd go to a church in Kansas or a town in Montana
or Wyoming or Anchorage, Alaska and find people who knew more
about Latin America, certainly, than the CIA, which is not very
hard, but people in academic departments who've thought about
it, who understood things about American policy.
I can't even tell you their names. There are too many of them.
Also, I'm not even sure that the word "left" is the
right word for them. A lot of them were probably Christian conservatives,
but they were very radical people in my view. Intellectuals who
understood and who did a lot. They created a popular movement
which not only protested U.S. atrocities but actually engaged
themselves in the lives of the victims. In the 1960s nobody ever
dreamt of going off to a Vietnamese village because maybe a white
face in the village would limit the capacity of the marauders
to kill and destroy. That wasn't even an idea in your head. In
fact, nobody even went to try to report the war from the side
of the victims. It was unheard of, save for a few "crazies."
But in the eighties it was common. And the people who were doing
that are serious left intellectuals, in my view.
Q: So if a person comes along and says the left intellectual
community is gutted, there's very little of it, what they must
in fact be saying is something like--the number of people who
call themselves leftist and who are visibly notable is small.
Which, of course, in your analysis may well be an indication that
there's a growing left intellectual community which is, of course,
being isolated and not labeled anything publicly and not given
any public visibility.
That's right. What will be labeled "left" and given
publicity is something ugly enough that people can be rallied
to oppose it. So Stalinism, for example. Books will come out,
and are coming out, about the left intellectuals in France who
were Stalinists. And look at the awful things they did. That kind
of left intelligentsia is allowed to have publicity and prominence.
They give them as much prominence as they can.
Q: It's useful.
But if by left you mean people who are struggling for peace
and justice and freedom and human rights and so on, and for social
change and elimination of authority structures, whether it's personal
life or institutions or whatever, if that's what the left is,
there are more of them around than I remember in my lifetime.
Q: In coming to this kind of perception of the thing, you
have a real advantage, you personally, relatively speaking. You
personally, as compared to one of those individuals, do have a
lot of the visibility and a lot of the access that somebody might
attribute as the critical ingredient needed to impact on a wide
audience in our society. These other people feel isolated. They
feel relatively uninfluential or unable to express their opinions
to a wider audience.
Visibility, that's putting the cart before the horse. The
reason I have visibility is because there are a lot of people
around, a lot of groups around, who come and ask me to speak,
or because people ask me to write. I don't have visibility in
the mainstream institutions.
Q: But there has to be a distinction between you and those
people you mentioned in Omaha or Anchorage or wherever who may
know more than you, or at least a lot, about Central America and
who are never asked to speak.
We pick different ways of living our lives. In the early sixties,
I was an MIT professor. But when I started giving talks about
the war or organizing tax resistance or getting involved in the
foundation of RESIST, national resistance support groups, or being
faculty advisor for the Rosa Luxemburg SDS at MIT, I didn't have
any visibility. There are choices to be made. Some of my close
friends who have the same status and chance for visibility that
I had actually picked a different way and devoted their lives
to organizing and activism. Louis Kampf and I are old friends.
We taught courses together for years at MIT, courses which you
took years ago. We just went different ways. He devoted himself
primarily to real activism and organizing and keeping groups and
journals functioning and so on. I tried that and I wasn't any
good at it. I found that I was much better at other things, and
that there seemed to be a demand for the other things, so I just
went that way. That ends up in me being visible. He's visible
in other circles than the ones that I'm visible in. But those
are just different ways of reacting to the same sorts of problems,
depending on your personality and your particular abilities and
the kinds of things you can do and the kinds of things you can't
do and so on and so forth. The visibility is a surface phenomenon.
Visibility is the result of the existence of an active, lively
left. If what I've been talking about as the left were to disappear,
I would no longer be visible.
Q: As a political commentator.
Yes, I could still appear in linguistics and philosophy meetings,
but I would certainly not be visible as a political commentator,
because there would be nowhere for me to open my mouth except
to my friends. It would be back to the early sixties, when I could
talk to people in the living room. The reason that it has changed
is because there are opportunities that in fact call for this
kind of participation, so that makes people look visible. We mentioned
SNCC before. Why did Martin Luther King become visible? Because
there were SNCC workers down in the South. And he could appear
and serve a role for them.
Q: It seems to me there is a positive and negative side to
that. The positive side you've described: there's a political
context and it draws people in different ways and people participate.
But the negative side seems to me to be, you gave the example
of Martin Luther King and yourself. There's a need for a particular
visible organizer or a particular visible speaker and proselytizer
of information, a presenter of information. But once those slots
are filled, then there's a tendency for people to cling to the
individuals who are filling those slots. For a long period of
time, depending on a number of factors, the number of slots might
not broaden out. Nowadays if a group in Cleveland or in San Francisco
or wherever wants an antiwar speaker during the Gulf crisis or
wants a speaker about foreign policy, very few names pop into
mind. Whereas I think you're right, there is a much larger circuit
of people, especially if they had the experience of engaging in
those activities, who could fill the bill. That seems to me to
be not so positive a dynamic.
It's not. It's hard to break through. There are people who
we know in fact who are highly qualified to do lots of things
and are eager to do it but sort of can't pass over that barrier.
I don't know exactly what the reason for that is, frankly, because
all of us had to pass over that barrier at some point. Part of
the reason is, the fact of the matter is there haven't been a
lot of people available. Take, say, the last ten years, when there's
been a lot of activism, a lot of it having to do with Latin America.
There just haven't been a lot of people around who were willing
to go and give talks. There are plenty of people who are willing
to write articles on postmodernism and the left this and that
or whatever, but not many who are willing to go to a town somewhere
and give a talk at a meeting. We can name them.
Q: Or we can name the ones we know, but it may well be there
are a good many more and we can't name them. That's the problem.
There are a good many more who would be highly qualified and
maybe even would like to do it. The question we're asking, and
I don't know what the answer is, is how come they don't. First
of all, I don't think it's all that hard. Take, say, people who
weren't known very well, like Holly Sklar, who probably wasn't
known fifteen years ago. She got plenty of invitations all over
the place. She became visible. There are others like her. Take
my friend Norman Finkelstein on the Middle East. He can get plenty
of invitations to speak. He's been totally shut out of the institutions,
but he's visible if he wants. It can be done. It's not so simple.
Q: It's somewhat difficult. I do think that there's a dynamic
there that closes it off.
The bad dynamic, what you're pointing to, is the "star
story. It's standard when a popular movement takes off for people
to show up and say, OK, I'm your leader. A Eugene McCarthy type,
say. Here's a big popular movement. Fine. I'm your leader. Give
me power. If you can't give me power I'll go home and write poetry
and talk about baseball. And if you can give me power then I become
your leader and now you look up to me and you go home and put
the power in my hand. That's a familiar dynamic, and Bakunin's
Red bureaucracy, no matter what its politics are. It could be
right wing, it could be left wing. But there's a better dynamic,
which is that the popular movements continue and strengthen, and
where there are people around who, for whatever reason or quirk
or privilege or whatever it may be, can contribute to them by
intellectual activity, they do a part of it. That's all. They're
not stars. They're not leaders. They're just contributing in the
way that they know how to contribute. That would be a better structure.
But it can tend to degenerate into this other very quickly, especially
in a culture which is reinforcing their worst tendencies by trying
to create an imagery of leadership and stars and heroes and so
Q: Suppose somebody could convince you, at the level of your
belief in most things, that it's impossible to change the country.
Suppose they convinced you that the basic institutional structure
that we have now is going to be in place for the next two hundred
years, adapted sure, but the basic structures as they are. Would
you behave any differently?
Q: You would behave exactly the same way.
The same way. In fact, you don't even have to make it hypothetical.
When I got seriously involved in anti-Vietnam War activities,
I was a hundred percent convinced that absolutely nothing could
be done, and there was plenty of reason to believe that. I was
giving plenty of talks, but they were usually in living rooms
to a group of neighbors that somebody would get together. They
were usually pretty hostile. Or in a church where there would
be four people including some guy who wandered in because he didn't
know what to do, and two people who wanted to kill you, and the
organizer. Into 1965 and 1966, if we wanted to have at MIT an
antiwar meeting, we would have to find six topics. Let's talk
about Venezuela, Iran, Vietnam and the price of bread, and maybe
we can get an audience that will outnumber the organizers. And
that went on for a long time. As you well remember, it was impossible
to have a public meeting in Boston without it being smashed up.
It looked impossible.
Q: If you thought this was going to continue forever, you
would still do it. I think it would be useful to explain why.
A number of quite simple reasons. For one thing, if somebody
convinced me, it would be because I'm totally irrational. There's
no way you could convince anybody of such things rationally. We
cannot predict the weather two weeks ahead, and we even understand
why we can't.
Q: It's a hypothetical question. It gets to motivations. Obviously
neither one of us believe it, and neither one of us believe you
could prove it. You couldn't convince anybody rational of it.
You couldn't say anything convincing about it.
Q: Nevertheless, supposing because a great many people not
understanding that point, do feel this way or tend to feel this
way sometimes and get depressed at moments. The question is, in
any event, what gets you up each morning to do the things that
you do? Is it that you think in terms of winning a little ways
down the road, or is it something else?
It's hard to introspect, but to the extent that I introspect
about it, it's because you basically have two choices. One choice
is to assume the worst, and then you can be guaranteed that it
will happen. The other is to assume that there is hope for change,
and then it's possible that by acting you will help effect change.
So you've got two choices. One guarantees that the worst will
happen. The other leaves open the possibility that things might
be better. Given those two choices, a rational person doesn't
Q: I used to think about this back when I was becoming political,
in the mid-sixties. I played the hypothetical game a little more
fairly than I think you are right now. I said to myself, OK, suppose
it's haves and have-nots. Not very many haves, a whole lot of
have-nots. Forever. Which side do you want to be on? And it's
not an easy question. At the time it was trivial. In the sixties,
that was an easy question to answer. You wanted to be on the side
of the have-nots regardless of prospects. I think this had a lot
to do with lifestyle and values and who you identify with. The
other stuff, being a have, just wasn't attractive. Now I think
it's a much harder question. But that's one kind of motivation
that people can have for being radical. The other kind of motivation
that people can have for being radical is the inclination that
you're going to win tomorrow or in your lifetime or in a reasonable
span of time. It seems like the first motivation breeds a different
kind of person in some sense than the second. They're called purists,
morally motivated, ethically motivated, and scorned a bit by some
of the other types, with some reason. Because--and this was the
other thing that I began to realize early on--trying to make social
change isn't like trying to play socialist basketball. In working
for social change, the score counts. It doesn't do to play well
or congenially but lose. The combination of both of those motivations--scorning
being a have but also seriously wanting to win--in one person
seems to me to be rather difficult.
You mentioned two possibilities. One is a description of your
own group's experience in the sixties. You didn't expect to win
a huge victory tomorrow. Some people expected we'll go out and
strike at Columbia ... And everybody will love each other and
that's the end of power. We both know perfectly well that plenty
of people believed that. There were other people who recognized
it was going to be a long struggle but who were joining with like-minded
people who shared their cultural values and their lifestyle and
everything else. There's also a third type: You've got me. I was
not part of the cultural scene. I certainly didn't expect a quick
victory. I kept my old-fashioned bourgeois lifestyle, and I haven't
changed it to this day. And there are people like that too. If
we go on there are many more types of people. People can come
in a lot of varieties. But it seems to me that it always comes
down to the individual decision: What am I going to do? Here are
my options. Of course, my personal options are broader than those
of most other people, because I happen to be very privileged.
But everybody's got some option. You ask yourself, Will I not
use them at all? In which case I can be sure that suffering will
continue and oppression will continue and discrimination will
continue and get worse. Or will I use whatever options I have,
try to work with others to change things? In which case things
may get better. It seems to me that ultimately that's what things
come down to, no matter who we are. And given those choices, a
decent person is only going to go one way. That's exactly why
society and the official culture doesn't want you to understand
that you have those choices.
Q: Is that true that a decent person's only going to go one
way? I'm remembering a friend of mine who was an organizer in
the sixties. We went through the antiwar movement. Then came a
little bit further along and there was a trend toward doing community
organizing, moving into a neighborhood, trying to organize people
in that neighborhood. This individual was going to move into a
neighborhood in Dorchester, in Boston, a working-class area and
try and do organizing. He finally decided not to do it and somewhat
later went back to graduate school and then became a psychiatrist
and now, I'm sure, has progressive values at some level--I haven't
seen him in years and years--but is certainly not involved in
any significant way in political activity. The choice that he
made was a very self-conscious one. He looked around him and he
said, the impact that I personally am going to have is so small
because I'm not so and so or so and so, he'd name some other people
who had prospects of maybe in his eyes having more impact, because
of whatever set of factors about, so that it simply isn't worth
giving up what I think I'm giving up.
I don't know who you mean, but I know plenty of people like
that. That person now, let's say he's a rich psychiatrist somewhere
Q: He's probably reasonably well off.
He's got a lot of options. For example, he's got money.
Q: This is like a person going to Harvard Law School. The
probability that he'll do something good with his income after
the years of earning it...
I agree. But he's simply deciding at some point not to face
the options. He's always got them. He may decide, Look, I can't
make enough of a change myself because I'm not good at it or whatever,
so I'm just going to do what I like and enrich myself. But having
done so, you still have plenty of options available. In fact,
movement groups have existed in part because people who were doing
other things were willing to fund them. Something as trivial as
that. You can go way beyond that, of course, and still live your
elegant lifestyle and do the work you want. We know people who
have divided their lives that way. Of course it's extremely easy
to say, the heck with it. I'm just going to adapt myself to the
structures of power and authority and do the best I can within
them. Sure, you can do that. But that's not acting like a decent
person. You can walk down the street and be hungry. You see a
kid eating an ice cream cone and you notice there's no cop around
and you can take the ice cream cone from him because you're bigger
and walk away. You can do that. Probably there are people who
do. We call them "pathological." On the other hand,
if they do it within existing social structures we call them "normal."
But it's just as pathological. It's just the pathology of the
general society. And people, again, always have choices. We're
free people. You can decide to accept that pathology, but then
do it honestly, at least, if you have that grain of honesty to
say, I'm going to honestly be pathological. Or else try to break
out of it somehow.
Q: But for a lot of people I think it appears that there's
an all-or-nothing choice. It appears that there's the choice of
being normal--pathological as you describe, but a normal member
of society with its normal benefits and costs and so on, but at
least a reasonably average or perhaps elite existence that's accepted.
Then there seems to be another "all" choice, to be a
raging revolutionary. The reason why it's so hard for many people
even just to take a leaflet from a protester, or to give a donation
at a relatively low level which means nothing financially, which
is less money than they're going to spend on dinner on Friday
night when they go out, or to do some other act that is materially
trivial, seems to be because there's a psychologically really
powerful effect. The effect seems to me to be that at some level
people know that to dissent is right, and at some level people
know that to do it somewhat leads to doing it still more, so they
defensively close the door right at the very beginning. They have
a very hard time finding a place in that span of possible involvement
that allows them to be a functioning human being with a degree
of fulfillment in society and also lets them contribute to dramatically
You're right. Just giving your contribution of $100 to the
Central America support center or whatever is a statement that
you know that that's the right thing to do. Once you've stated
it's the right thing to do, how come I'm only doing this limited
thing since I could do a million times more? It's easier to say,
I'm not going to face that problem at all. I'm just going to forget
it entirely. But that's like stealing the ice cream cone from
Q: But it says something to the left, or to movements and
to organizers. It is at some level unreasonable to think that
in the absence of hope or in the presence only of small hope and
not a clear understanding of how one's going to make progress,
that people are going to shift all the way from being average,
normal, everyday folks of one type or another over to being political
revolutionaries, people who see things in political terms. If
there's no set of choices in the middle that are comfortable and
that allow people to operate and to retain some of their lifestyle,
then it's not likely that too many are going to do anything. You
almost have to be religious to make the jump.
But the reality is there's a whole range of choices in the
Q: But people don't see them.
And all of us have made them. None of us are saints, at least
I'm not. I haven't given up my house, my car, I don't live in
a hovel. I don't spent 24 hours a day working for the benefit
of the human race or anything like that. I don't even come close.
I spend an awful lot of my time and energy ...
Q: And you don't feel guilty about whatever else is it that
you're doing, linguistics or ...
That's not so clear. But at least I certainly devote an awful
lot of my energy and activity to things that I just enjoy, like
scientific work. I just like it. I do it out of pleasure. And
everybody else I know ...
Q: Do you fool yourself into believing that doing that increases
your effectiveness as a political person?
No, that's ridiculous. It has no effect on it. And I don't
do it for that reason. I like it. I mean, I can make up a story
Q: I think people have a hard time doing this. And that's
why a lot of people do nothing politically dissident.
That's true, but if we were to go back to that small class
of people who are visible, every one of them does this. Every
Q: Almost by definition.
Because you're not going to be effective as a political activist
unless you have a satisfying life. There may be people who are
really saints. I've never heard of one.
Q: By definition they're not saints, because they're getting
so much satisfaction out of the political activity, they're not
saintly at it.
Not from the political activity. It may be that the political
activities themselves are so gratifying that's all you want to
do, so you throw yourself into that. That's a perfectly fine thing
to be. It's just that most people have other interests. They want
to listen to music. They want to take a walk by the ocean. Any
human being is too rich and complex to be just satisfied with
these things. You have to hit some kind of a balance. The choices
are all there. And I think you've identified precisely why it's
psychologically difficult for people to recognize that choices
are there. Because once you recognize that the choices are there,
you're always going to be faced with the question, why am I not
doing more? But that's the reality of life. If you're honest,
you're always going to be faced with those questions. And there's
plenty to do. In fact, if you look back over the last period,
there's a lot of successes to point to. It's amazing how many
successes there are if you really think about it. Take something
which very few people have been interested in. Take the issue
of East Timor, the massacre. I got involved in that about fifteen
years ago. People didn't even want to hear about it. Things finally
got to the point where the U.S. Congress barred military aid to
Indonesia. That's a tremendous change. You could save hundreds
of thousands of lives that way. How many people can look back
and say, Look, I helped save hundreds of thousands of lives? And
that's one tiny issue.
Q: I'm inclined to think that most of the people who are involved
in that effort, instead of feeling elated or feeling at least
a degree of satisfaction over their accomplishment, rather probably
view it as a horrendously long campaign with very little achieved.
It's like looking at the milk glass and saying it's half empty
instead of half full. Except we see it empty even when it's almost
Suppose you're on your deathbed. How many people can look
back and say, I've contributed to helping ... just one person
not get killed?
Q: I'm not disagreeing with you. I think you're right, clearly.
But there's something that causes people, maybe it's something
about our culture, to not see it.
I'm not so convinced of this. The sixties movements, roughly
speaking, were almost overwhelmingly young people. Young people
have a notoriously short perspective. It's part of being twenty
years old. You don't think what's going to happen tomorrow. I've
seen it around students, around children, even. I remember myself.
You don't think what's life going to be like twenty years from
now. Your perspective is short. The fact that it was a youth movement
dominantly had good and bad aspects. One bad aspect was this sense
that if we don't achieve gains quickly we might as well quit.
But of course that's not the way changes come. The struggle against
slavery, let's say, went on forever. The struggle for women's
rights has been going on for a century. The effort to overcome
wage slavery, that's been going on since the beginnings of the
Industrial Revolution, and we haven't advanced an inch. In fact,
we are worse off than a hundred years ago in terms of understanding
the issues. Well, OK, you just keep struggling.
Q: Let's go back to one of the things that you mentioned along
the way when you were talking about academics and what role they
play and what they're doing and what their time goes to. You brought
up briefly in passing postmodernism and these various other--either
you can call them insightful forays into knowledge, or fads. I
know, and probably most people listening know, at least somewhat,
about your reaction to it. But let's go over it anyway. Where
does it come from? Why does a person who has a tremendous amount
of educational background, knowledge, experience, time to spend--spend
it on something akin to astrology?
I don't want to overgeneralize. I think there is important
and insightful work done in those frameworks. I find it really
hard to figure out because I've got to labor to try to tease the
simple, interesting points out. But there are things there. I
think we're making progress there. But I think there's a point
that's much more general. The fact is, it's extremely hard to
have good ideas. There are very few of them around. If you're
in the sciences, you know you can sometimes come up with something
that's pretty startling and it's usually something that's small
in comparison with what's known and you're really excited about
it. Outside the natural sciences it's extremely hard to do even
that. There just isn't that much that's complicated that's at
all understood outside of pretty much the core natural sciences.
Everything else is either too hard for us to understand or pretty
Q: So suppose you're making $50,000 a year as a academic in
You've got to have a reason for your existence. The result
is that simple ideas are dressed up in extremely complex terminology
and frameworks. In part it's just careerism, or maybe an effort
to build self-respect. Take, say, what's called "literary
theory." I don't think there's any such thing as literary
theory, any more than there's cultural theory.
Q: And obviously you can read a book and talk about it.
Yeah, if you're reading books and talking about them and getting
people to ...
Q: You could be very good at that.
You could be terrific at it. Take, say, Edmund Wilson. He's
terrific at it. But he doesn't have a literary theory. On the
other hand, if you want to be in the same room with that physicist
over there who's talking about quarks, you better have a complicated
theory, too, that nobody can understand. He has a theory that
nobody can understand, so why shouldn't I have a theory that nobody
Q: The interesting thing is that the physicist will write
about that theory in a popular book and explain it without a whole
lot of rigmarole. It won't all be explained, but a great deal
of it will be.
A great physicist of the modern period could write a book
that you could give to your twelve-year-old kid and she'll understand
it and learn something from it. In fact, I see it myself all the
Q: What's the reason why literary theorists can't do that?
Is it because there's nothing there?
That's my assumption. Either there's something there that's
so deep that it's a kind of qualitative change in human intelligence,
or there isn't a lot there. And it's not just literary theory.
If somebody came along with a theory of history, it would be the
same. "Theory" would be a sort of truism. Maybe "smart
ideas." Somebody could have smart ideas and say, Why don't
you look at class struggle? It's interesting. Or, Why don't you
look at economic factors lying behind the Constitution? Pick your
topic. Those are interesting smart ideas. But you can say them
in monosyllables. And it's rare outside the natural sciences to
find things that can't be said in monosyllables. There are interesting,
simple ideas. They're often hard to come up with, and they're
often extremely hard to work out. Like you want to try to understand
what actually happened, say, in the modern industrial economy
and how it developed the way it is. That can take a lot of work.
But there isn't going to be anything too complex to talk about
... the theory will be extremely thin, if by "theory"
we mean something with principles which are not obvious when you
look at them from which you can deduce surprising consequences,
check out the consequences, and then confirm the principles. You're
not going to find anything like that.
Q: So we can imagine two libraries, a library of literary
theory books, postmodernism and so on, and another library over
here with Marxist/Leninist books in essentially the same building.
I don't understand that either. I read all kinds of things
which talk about dialectical materialism. I haven't the foggiest
idea what it is.
Q: It's a word like "postmodernism."
To me at least, yes. I've said this occasionally in interviews
and I get long letters back from people saying, You don't understand.
Here's what dialecticalism is.
Q: And it's incomprehensible again.
Either it's incomprehensible or it's true, but totally obvious.
People can be tone-deaf, too, they can't hear music. So like maybe
I'm tone-deaf about this stuff or something. Everything I find
in these fields either seems to be interesting but pretty obvious,
once you see it, maybe you didn't see it, somebody has to point
it out to you. But once you see it, it's of obvious. Or else the
subject is just incomprehensible. In other fields it's quite different.
If I pick up the latest issue of Physics Review, I'm not going
to understand one word. But there's two differences. First of
all, I know perfectly well what I would have to do to get to understand.
And in some areas, I've even done it, although I'm not particularly
good at it. But I can do it. The other thing is what you said
before: I could ask you to tell me what this is about. I can go
to some guy in the physics department and say, Tell me, why is
everybody excited about this stuff? And they can tell it in a
way which I can understand and adapt it to my level of understanding
and also tell me how to go on, if I want to. In these other areas,
say, dialectical materialism, or postmodern literary theory, there's
just no way to do either of those two things, which leads me to
only two conclusions. Either I'm missing a gene, like tone-deafness,
which is conceivable, or it's a way of disguising maybe interesting
ideas in an incomprehensible framework for reasons which ultimately
turn out to be careerist. I don't want to criticize the people
for being careerists. It's hard to live in this world, and you
want to have self-respect. That's understandable and justifiable.
And it turns out to be true that in most domains if there are
hard things to understand, they're way beyond us.
Q: Another trend in thinking or in how people approach society
and try and understand it is the approach that's called "conspiracy
theory," which we've both encountered, of course. It has
gained a great deal of popularity, particularly on the West Coast.
I wonder not so much in the specific instance of, say, JFK or
other conspiracies that are discussed, but more broadly in terms
of, What's the right way, what's the most useful or effective
way to try to understand what's going on in society and to prepare
oneself to interact with it? Is there something about conspiracy
theory as compared to, what? an approach emphasizing institutions
and their implications? that's an obstacle, that represents a
hindrance on understanding the world to change it?
We want to find out the truth about the way things work. There
are doubtless cases in which people get together, in fact, every
example we find of planning decisions is a case where people got
together and tried to figure something out and used their power
or the power that they could draw from to try to achieve a result.
If you like, that's a conspiracy. So with that definition everything
that happens is a conspiracy. So if the Board of General Motors
gets together and decides what kind of Chrysler, Ford, something,
to produce next year, that's a conspiracy. Every business decision,
every editorial decision ...
Q: Ultimately made by people.
If my department gets together and decides who to appoint
next year, okay, it's a conspiracy. That's not interesting. Obviously,
all decisions involve people. If the word conspiracy is to have
any sensible meaning, the question becomes whether there are groupings
well outside the structure of the major institutions that go around
them, hijack them, undermine them, pursue other courses without
an institutional base, and so on.
Q: So that would be the notion of conspiracy theory. Things
happen because these groups exist and do them, outside the normal
structures of society.
Because these groups or subgroups act outside of the structure
of institutional power, they are special, and we call them conspiracies.
But as I look over history, I don't find much of that. There are
some cases, like a group of Nazi generals who at one point thought
of assassinating Hitler. That's a conspiracy. But things like
that are real blips on the screen, as far as I can see.
Q: Supposing there's some number of them, what do you gain
from spending a lot of time trying to unearth them and uncover
them and understand them?
If people want to study the group of generals who decided
that it was time to get rid of Hitler, that's a fine topic for
a monograph, or maybe somebody will write a thesis on it. But
we're not going to learn anything about the world from it. That
will show how the people acted in particular circumstances, etc.
Q: You say we're not going to learn anything about the world
from it. That's true almost by definition. The whole idea is that
these people act in a sense outside the normal functioning of
the world, so studying them teaches us about them, but not about
typical and recurring patterns in history.
They were acting outside because of unusual circumstances,
exactly. And what's more, it's only a shade away from the Board
of Directors of General Motors sitting down in their executive
suite and making their regular decisions. It's just a little bit
away from that because they happened to depart somewhat from the
major power structures. But we're not learning much about how
the world works, in fact, nothing that generalizes to the next
case. It's going to be historically contingent and specific. If
you look at modern American history, where these issues have flourished,
I think such cases are notable by their absence. At least as I
read the record, it almost never happens. Occasionally you'll
find something, like, say, the Reaganites with their off-the-shelf
subversive and terrorist activities. But that's kind of a fringe
operation. Probably the reason it got smashed pretty quickly is
because the institutions are too powerful to tolerate it. Take,
say, the CIA, which is considered the source of lots of conspiracies.
We have a ton of information about them, and as I read the information,
they're pretty loyal bureaucrats and do what they're told. As
far as the Pentagon goes, they'll push their interests, and the
services will push their interests, but in pretty transparent
Q: So this is systemic, not conspiratorial. You have two arguments.
One is, even if it exists, even if there are occasional or even
frequent conspiracies, examining them is going to teach us about
that event. Not much about history or the way things work. The
next claim is, well, there aren't even that many in the first
What they usually are is what you'd find in a big corporation,
or in a faculty, or any other structure you're in.
Q: You think it's generally a normal outgrowth of the operations
of an institution.
An institution has a certain structure of power. It has certain
resources. It has an authority structure. It fits into the general
society in certain ways, and if it tried to break out of those
ways it would be undermined and destroyed. If General Motors decided
to become a benevolent organization and produce good cars at the
cheapest rates with the best working conditions, they'd be out
of business tomorrow. Somebody who isn't doing it would undermine
them. There are reasons why institutions operate the way they
do within a bigger framework. Suppose, say, Clinton, in a dream,
was really going to behave like the British Labor Party thinks
he is, namely the revolutionary who is going to bring about a
social revolution. In one minute, bond prices would start to decline
slightly. The interest rate would go up. The economy would start
to collapse, and that's the end of that program. There are frameworks
within which things happen.
Q: That's because he would be operating as a isolated individual
with no power base, just because he wants to, perhaps with a few
allies, a conspiracy running againts the grain, and getting nowhere.
Exactly. And the people who have the power would say, I don't
like that, so I'll pull my money out of Treasury securities and
put it somewhere else. And it goes down and you've got a response.
In fact, if he doesn't understand it, he could have read a front-page
article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago explaining
it in simple words, just in case anybody got any ideas. But you
don't have to say it. Everybody understands it. We have tremendous
concentrations of power throughout the society in the economy
and the political system and the ideological system. They're all
very interlinked in all kinds of ways, but the degree of power
and authority and domination is extraordinary. If any renegade
group tried to break out of that, they would quickly be in trouble
and cut off. You can see it happening, right at the top. Take,
say, Nixon and Watergate. Watergate was just a triviality. In
terms of the horrifying actions that the government carried out,
Watergate isn't even worth laughing about. It's a tea party. It's
kind of interesting to see what kind of issues were raised.
Q: A teaparty except for one thing, which is that it was aimed
It was aimed at elites. He broke out of the normal workings
of power. He called Thomas Watson of IBM a bad name. He tried
to undermine the Democratic Party, which is half the business
power in the country. Sure, he was called on the carpet and tossed
out in three seconds. Not because he had violated some moral code.
Essentially he was not attacked for the atrocities that he carried
out. The FBI killed Fred Hampton in his administration, a straight
Gestapo-style killing. That never came up at Watergate. Take the
bombing of Cambodia, one of the most dramatic things, this thing
called the secret bombing of Cambodia, which was "secret"
because the press didn't talk about what they knew. They killed
probably a couple hundred thousand people. They devastated a peasant
society. It came up, but only in one respect: Did he tell Congress
about it? In other words, were people with power granted their
prerogatives? That's the only issue that came up. You can see
what happens when somebody even marginally breaks out of the system.
They're quickly put back in their box, because they're servants.
Real power lies elsewhere.
Q: And even there, it's not individuals. General Motors is
an institution and the people who run it don't have that much
The head of IBM just got tossed out. Why? They didn't have
enough profit last year. You either do your job or you're out.
Power lies elsewhere. When the American corporate system decided
the Vietnam War wasn't worth it for them any more, they had gotten
what they were going to get, they basically told Johnson to go
back to Texas. He was fired. He was told, You're not going to
run. Pull out. Now they have somebody else. Within a system that
works like this, it would be pretty remarkable if there were anything
remotely like what the various conspiracy theories conjure up.
When you look at them, they just collapse, not surprisingly.
Q: With perhaps one exception: King's assassination.
It's interesting. That's the one case where we can imagine
pretty good reasons why somebody would want to kill him. I would
not be in the least surprised if there was a real conspiracy behind
that one, and probably a high-level one.
Q: Assuming it was Hoover, then, the mechanism is there, the
means are there, everything is available. Nobody would be upset
in the government.
I don't think there's been a lot of inquiry into that one.
If there has I'm not aware of it. But that's the one very plausible
case. You're absolutely right. In the case of the one everybody's
excited about, Kennedy, nobody has ever come up with a plausible
Q: It's an interesting question. Why do you think when you
hear these people who believe in the efficacy of looking at conspiracy
and trying to understand it, the amount of energy that goes into
the Kennedy case almost can't even be measured, it's off the scale,
but the amount of energy that goes into the King case is relatively
It's a pretty dramatic contrast, because the case of the King
one is prima facie very plausible. The case of the Kennedy one
is prima facie extremely implausible. So it is a question that
you want to ask.
Q: Perhaps if you have a conspiracy approach to things, the
more implausible it is, the more outside of the normal grain it
is, the more of a conspiracy it is, the more attractive it is
to you. I don't know.
There are things in a way conspiring to make the Kennedy case
an attractive topic. One is just the glitter of Camelot. The Kennedy
administration was in many ways very similar to the Reagan administration
Q: The glitter of Camelot is specks of blood...
But the point is that the Kennedy administration did one smart
thing. They buttered up the intellectual class, as compared with
the Reaganites, who just treated them with contempt. The result
was they got a terrific image. They gave an appearance of sharing
power that was never real to the kind of people who write books
and articles and make movies and that sort of thing. The result
is that Camelot had a beautiful image, lovely imagery, and there's
been great efforts to maintain that image. Somehow they succeeded
in getting a lot of people to believe it. You can go down to the
South, to a poor, rural, black area and you'll find a picture
of Kennedy. In fact, Kennedy's role in the civil rights movement
was not pretty. But somehow the imagery succeeded, even if the
reality wasn't there. And it's certainly true that a lot of things
have gone wrong in the last twenty, twenty-five years. Plenty
of things have gone wrong, for all sorts of totally independent
reasons, which one can talk about. The civil rights movement made
great achievements, but it never lived up to the hopes that many
people had invested in it. The antiwar movement made achievements,
but it didn't end war. Real wages have been declining for twenty
years. A lot of things have been happening that aren't pretty.
And it's easy to fall into the belief that we had a hero and we
had a wonderful country and we had this guy who was going to lead
us to a better future ... we had the Messiah and they shot him
down and ever since then everything's been illegitimate.
Q: It makes it so clear what one does. One finds another one.
I remember when I was organizing in the sixties and also since,
thought it is harder to elicit when less seems to be at stake,
I would frequently encounter a view lying behind people's reticence
to act or to become part of political movements. The view was
basically that human nature is corrupt, egotistical, self-centered,
anti-social and that as a result of that, society would always
be haves and have-nots, oppressors and oppressed, hierarchical
and so on. I'd often find that in organizing you could get agreement
on the inhumanity of a particular system or the illegality or
injustice of, say, the war or some set of policies, more recently,
but that people would refrain from becoming active around it because
of a sense of hopelessness having to do with this view of human
nature. It may have been just an excuse, and it may be just a
last line of defense against becoming active, but still, in order
to deal with it you have to address the claim. So I'm wondering
There is a sense in which the claim is certainly true. There
certainly is something ... human nature, that we all have. First
of all, it is something we don't know much about. Doubtless there
is a rich and complex human nature, and doubtless it's largely
genetically determined, like everything else. But we don't know
what it is. However, there's enough evidence from history and
experience to show that it is certainly at least consistent with
everything you mentioned.
Q: Since we have had the phenomena, of course they can exist
alongside human nature.
More than that. We know that human nature, and that includes
our nature, yours and mine, can easily turn people into quite
efficient torturers and mass murderers and slave drivers and so
on. We know that. You don't have to look very far. But what does
that mean? Should we therefore not try to stop torture? If we
see somebody beating a child to death, should we say, well, you
know, that's human nature? Which it is, in fact, an emergence
of behavior based on the combination of human nature and certain
pressures and circumstances. There are certainly conditions under
which people will act like that. But to the extent that the statement
it true, and there is such an extent, it's just not relevant.
Human nature also has the capacity to lead to selflessness and
cooperation and sacrifice and support and solidarity and lots
of other things, too.
Q: Is there a sense in which one way of being is more consistent
with human fulfillment and development and another way of being
is somehow contrary to it? Where do values come from?
Where do values come from? That's an interesting question.
Any answer that we give is based on extremely little understanding,
so nothing one says is very serious. But I don't see how it can
fail to be true, just from the conditions of moral judgment it
seems to me that it must be true that moral values are basically
rooted in our nature. The reason I say that is pretty elementary.
Undoubtedly, the way in which we look at things and judge them
and assess them and so on has a significant and notable cultural
factor. But that aside, we are certainly capable, and everyone
does, of making moral judgments and and assessments and evaluations
in entirely new situations. We do it all the time. We're constantly
coming up with new situations. We may not consciously evaluate
them, but we certainly are at least tacitly doing it. It's the
basis for our choice of action. So we're constantly making all
kinds of judgments, including moral judgments and esthetic judgments
and all sorts of others about new things and new situations. Either
it's being done just randomly, like you pull something out of
a hat, which certainly doesn't seem to be true, either introspectively
or by observation, or else we're doing it on the basis of some
moral system that we have in our mind somehow which gives answers,
or at least partial answers, to a whole range of new situations.
Nobody knows what that system is. We don't understand it at all.
But it seems to be rich and complex enough that it applies to
indefinitely many new situations. How did it get there?
Q: What characterizes a system like this?
Maybe it's an axiomatic system. I'm sure this is false. You
could imagine it's like the axioms of number theory. It's a bunch
of principles from which you can deduce consequences, saying this
action is preferable to that one. I'm not making that as a serious
proposal, but that would be what such a system could look like.
Or it could be like language.
Q: Could you make a serious proposal?
A serious proposal I suspect is more like what we know about
language. A lot is known: that there are basic fundamental principles
that are invariant, sort of fixed in our nature. They hold for
all languages. They provide the framework for language. They allow
a certain limited degree of modification, and that modification
comes from early experience. When the options of variation are
fixed, you have a whole system functioning which allows us to
do exactly what you and I are doing, namely to say new things,
to understand new things, to interpret new expressions nobody
has ever heard. Qualitatively speaking, that's what the system
of moral judgment looks like. So it's conceivable that it has
a similar kind of basis. But we have to find the answer. You can't
just guess. You could say the same about ...
Q: It can't be simple. It can't be "Thou shalt not kill,"
No. Because that's not what we decide. We decide much more
complex things. So what are they? We have good reason to believe
that they're there because we can in fact make relatively consistent
judgments, understood and appreciated by others, sometimes with
disagreement, in which case you can have moral discourse. And
it's under new conditions and facing new problems, and so on.
Unless we're angels, it got into the organism the same way other
complex things did, namely, largely by a genetically determined
framework which gets marginally modified through the course of
probably early experience. That's a moral system. How much variation
can there be in such moral systems? Without understanding, we
don't know. How much variation can there be in languages? Without
understanding we don't know.
Q: By variation, you mean from individual to individual?
Or from culture to culture, and so on. We can make a fair
guess that it's not much variation. The reason for that is quite
elementary. The system appears to be complex and determinate,
and there are only two factors that can enter into determining
it. One is our fixed internal nature, and the other is experience.
And we know that experience is very impoverished. It doesn't give
a lot of direction. Suppose somebody asks, Why do children undergo
puberty at a certain age? Actually, nobody knows the answer to
that, so we're talking about a topic that's unknown. But there
are only two factors that can enter into it. One is something
in pre-puberty experience that sets you to undergo puberty, some
effect of the environment, say, peer pressure, or somebody told
you it would be a good idea, or something like that. The other
is, you're just designed so that under certain conditions and
at a certain level of maturation, hormones, this and that, you
undergo puberty. Everybody assumes the second, without knowing
anything. If somebody came along and said they think that it's
peer pressure that causes puberty because you see other people
doing it and you want to be like them, without knowing anything
you just laugh. The reason you laugh is very simple. The environment
is not specific enough and rich enough to determine this highly
specific change that takes place. That logic holds for just about
everything in growth and development. That's why people assume
without knowledge that an embryo will become a chicken or a human
depending on its nature, not depending on the nutrition that's
fed in, though its needs the nutrition. The nutrition doesn't
have enough information to cause those highly specific changes.
And it looks as if things like moral judgment are of that character.
Q: As are, you would say, rules of language, perhaps even
Yeah. For rules of language and for concepts, there's a fair
amount of understanding of the matter, especially rules of language.
In fact, that's the area of human intelligence where there's most
understanding. But almost everything has more or less the same
logic. As I said, it's not different from the logic of embryological
development. In fact, it's kind of similar to that. I think a
reasonable judgment at this point would be that things like moral
evaluation are similar. Actually contributing to this is the fact
that you can have moral discourse. Take an issue on which people
are really split. Take, say, slavery. If you look at the debate
over slavery, to a certain extent it wasn't just an intellectual
debate, obviously. It was a struggle. But insofar as it was an
intellectual debate, and it was, partially, there was a certain
shared moral ground to it. And in fact the slave owner's arguments
are not so simple to answer. In fact some of them are valid and
have a lot of implications, and they were taken seriously by American
workers in the late nineteenth century.
Q: You take better care of the slave if you own it than ...
Exactly. You take better care of your car if you own it than
if you rent it, so you take better care of your worker if you
own it than if you rent it. So slavery is benevolent. And the
free market is morally atrocious. Workers who organized into the
Knights of Labor and other working-class organizations in the
late nineteenth century, you look back at the literature and you
see a strain running through that says, look, we fought to end
slavery, not to impose it.
Q: So somehow there are these moral principles or something
that you understand that you have to appeal to even if what you're
doing is rather venal.
In fact, I think it's extremely rare for even an SS guard
or a torturer or whatever to say, I'm doing this because I like
to be a son of a bitch. Everybody does bad things in their lives,
and if you think back, it's rare that you have said, I'm doing
it because I feel like it.
Q: You reinterpret the components of it so ...
So it fits the moral values that you share with other people.
I don't want to suggest that moral values are uniform; if you
look across cultures you do find some differences. But when you
look at different languages you also appear to find in fact radical
differences. You know they can't be there. Because if the differences
were really great, it would have been impossible to acquire any
of the languages. So therefore they've got to be superficial,
and the scientific question is, prove what must be true by the
logic of the situation. I think the same things must be the case
for moral judgment, too. Going back to your original point, we
can't reasonably doubt that moral values are rooted in our nature,
I don't think.
Q: But if that's true, I've always had to think about it in
such a way that for me the image of a human being is a creature
with certain kinds of needs and desires and potentials and capabilities
and that the fulfillment of those is social, that the fulfillment
of those doesn't entail that one crush another, that one be on
top of another, that one gain at another's loss and so on. If
that's true, and if people have this shared set of values, then
you have to explain why everything is as corrupt and hierarchical
and war-laden as it is.
First of all, why not ask another question: how come there
is so much sympathy and care and love and solidarity? That's also
Q: That's the reverse. That's the way I answer it all the
There's no such thing as, Why is there so much of this and
so much of that? There is what there is. What there is is doubtless
conditioned by the opportunities and choices that are imposed
and available in a particular social, cultural, and even physical
Q: Someone might say, just to clarify what all this means,
to truck and barter is human.
Someone can say it, but there's no reason to believe it.
Q: Why isn't there any reason to believe it? The person's
argument is, Look around. Trucking and bartering everywhere.
And you look at peasant societies and they lived for thousands
of years without it. Take a look inside a family. Do people truck
and barter over how much they're going to eat for dinner? Certainly
a family is a normal social structure. You can't exist without
it. And you don't have trucking and bartering in it. If you look
back at the history of trucking and bartering, say, look at the
history of modern capitalism, here we know a lot about it. First
of all, peasants had to be driven by force and violence into a
labor system. They didn't want it. Then there were major conscious
efforts made to create wants. There's a whole interesting literature
about want creation. It happened over a long stretch in the evolution
of capitalism, but you see it encapsulated briefly when slavery
was terminated. It's dramatic to look at those cases.
Q: You see it all the time on TV.
Creating wants, yes. But I'm talking about conscious discussion
of the need to do it. In the early 1830s there was a big slave
revolt in Jamaica, which was one of the things that led the British
to decide to give up slavery, that is, it was not paying any more.
Within a couple of years they had to go from a slave economy to
a so-called "free" economy. But they wanted it to remain
exactly the same. They understood this. You take a look at the
parliamentary debates. They're very conscious that they've got
to keep it the way it is. The masters become the owners. The slaves
become the happy workers. We've got to somehow work it out.
Q: Distribution of wealth and power, keep it. Slave relation,
Yes, they wanted everything to remain the same except not
formal slavery, and the problem is, how do you do it? There's
a lot of open land in Jamaica. If you let the slaves go free,
they're just going to go out on the land and settle and be perfectly
happy and they're not going to work for the sugar plantations.
How are we going to force them to work on the plantation? Two
things were decided. This was the period when everybody was talking
about how marvelous free trade is, the government's not allowed
to intervene and you can't help people in the Irish famine a decade
away and that sort of thing. But in Jamaica it was a little different.
There they said, we'll use government state force to close off
the lands so people can't go to the land. And since all these
workers don't really want a lot of things, they're just going
to satisfy their needs, which they can easily do in this tropical
climate, we have to create wants. We have to create a set of wants
so that they desire things which they now don't desire. And the
only way they'll be able to achieve those desires is by working
as wage labor in order to get them. There was conscious discussion
and in fact extensive efforts made to do exactly what you see
on TV: create wants so that people would be driven into a wage
labor society which they don't want themselves. That pattern is
done over and over again through the history of capitalism. In
fact, what the history of capitalism shows is that throughout
people had to be driven into situations which are now claimed
to be their nature. If the history shows anything, it's that that's
not their nature.
Q: But of course if you erase the history, erase the evidence,
and look only at a snapshot of the present, it's a consistent
hypothesis that maybe it is natural. It becomes a compelling legitimation.
Sure. But again, by that argument, you could justify slavery.
Take a snapshot of a slave society, and probably under most circumstances
most of the slaves not only accept it but want it to stay that
way. That's the only way they can survive. They look to the master
to protect them. They don't want to give that up. Same about feudal
societies. Same about absolutism. Probably the same about prisons,
if you bother to look.
Q: So what is it about the society we live under that is at
the core of what's wrong? What's got to go?
In my opinion, every form of authority and domination and
hierarchy, every authoritarian structure has to justify itself.
It has no prior justification. It has to prove that it's justified.
Q: What kind of authoritarian structure?
Q: Something where one person has more power than another.
Yeah. Like you stop your three-year-old kid when he's trying
to cross the street. That's an authoritarian situation. It's got
to be justified. Okay, I think in that case you can give a justification
for it. The burden of proof is on the person exercising the authority,
invariably. Most of the time, when you look, these structures
have no justification. They have no moral justification. They
have no justification in the interests of the person lower in
the hierarchy, or other people, or the environment, or the future,
or the society, or anything else. They're there in order to preserve
certain structures of power and domination that benefit those
at the top. And every time you find that, it's illegitimate and
it should change. And we find it everywhere. We find it in all
kinds of human relations, crucially in economic relations, which
are at the core of how any society functions. What's produced,
what's consumed, what's distributed, what decision was made. These
things help set a framework within which everything else happens.
And they're completely hierarchic and authoritarian.
Q: It's also true that how people live their lives in their
homes, how people regard one another, sets a framework in which
even work is affected. All these things mutually interact with
each other and affect one another.
And in every one of them that you look at, there are questions
about authority and domination that ought to be raised constantly,
and that very rarely have satisfactory answers. Sometimes they
do, I think, but it has to be shown. As a matter of fact, you
can even ask the same about your relation to animals. The questions
can be asked there, too, in fact are being asked.
Q: You're an animal rights activist?
I think it's a serious question. To what extent do we have
a right to torture animals? I think it's a very good thing that
that question ...
Experiments are torturing animals, let's say. That's what
they are. So to what extent do we have a right to torture animals
for our own good? I think that's not a trivial question.
Q: What about eating?
Q: Are you a vegetarian?
I'm not, but I think it's a serious question. If you want
my guess, my guess would be that ...
Q: A hundred years from now everyone will be.
I don't know if it's a hundred years, but it seems to me if
history continues--that's not at all obvious, that it will--but
if society continues to develop without catastrophe on something
like the course that you can sort of see over time, I wouldn't
be in the least surprised if it moves toward vegetarianism and
protection of animal rights. In fact, what we've seen over the
years--and it's hard to be optimistic in the twentieth century,
which is one of the worst centuries in human history in terms
of atrocities and terror and so on--but still, over the years,
including the twentieth century, there is a widening of the moral
realm, bringing in broader and broader domains of individuals
who are regarded as moral agents.
Q: Nothing could be happening to that underlying, wired-in,
inate, intrinsic character... That can't be changing.
No, but it can get more and more realized. You can get a better
and better understanding of it. We're self-conscious beings. We're
not rocks. And we can get more and more understanding of our own
nature, not because we read a book about it. The book doesn't
have anything to tell you, because nobody knows anything. But
just through experience, including historical experience, which
is part of our own personal experience because it's embedded in
our culture, which we enter into.
Q: So then it's plausible that vegetarians, animal rights
advocates and the like are just a couple of steps ahead in discerning
something about ...
It's possible. I think I'd certainly keep an open mind on
that. You can understand how it could be true. It's certainly
a pretty intelligible idea to us. I think one can see the moral
force to it. You don't have to go back very far to find gratuitous
torture of animals. In Cartesian philosophy, for example, where
it was assumed ... the Cartesians thought they had proven that
humans had minds and everything else in the world was a machine.
So there's no difference between a cat and a watch, let's say.
It's just the cat's a little more complicated. You go back to
the court in the seventeenth century, and big smart guys who studied
all that stuff and thought they understood it would as a sport
take Lady So-and-So's favorite dog and kick it and beat it to
death and so on and laugh, saying, this silly lady doesn't understand
the latest philosophy, which was that it was just like dropping
a rock on the floor. That's gratuitous torture of animals. It
was regarded as if we would ask a question about the torturing
of a rock. You can't do it. There's no way to torture a rock.
The moral sphere has certainly changed in that respect. Gratuitous
torture of animals is no longer considered quite legitimate.
Q: Maybe what's changing is the understanding of what an animal
is, rather than some of the underlying moral values.
In that case it probably was, because in fact the Cartesian
view was a departure from the traditional view, in which you didn't
torture animals gratuitously. On the other hand, there are cultures
like, say, fox hunting, aristocratic cultures that have fox hunting
as a sport, or say, bear baiting, or things like that, in which
there actually was gratuitous torture of animals. In fact, it's
kind of intriguing to see how we regard this. Take cock fighting,
in which cocks are trained to tear each other to shreds. Our culture
happens to regard that as barbaric. On the other hand, we train
humans to tear each other to shreds. It's called boxing matches.
And that's not regarded as barbaric. So there are things we don't
permit of cocks that we permit of poor people. There are some
funny values at work there.
Q: It's peculiar. But of course we don't pay the birds, whereas
we pay the boxers handsomely. We assume that they suffer.
But everybody knows that you don't find people going into
professional boxing from wealthy families. That tells you something
Q: So if authority relations are the things that are suspect,
the things that have to be undone, what are the institutions that
basically embody that? Presumably private ownership.
Private ownership's an obvious one. Patriarchic relations
are another. Relations of race discrimination and oppression are
Q: How about the market?
The market itself, just by its very logic, induces oppressive
relations very quickly, simply because of the inequities it produces.
Q: That's where the justice or equity in some sense is the
thing that's abrogated by authority, the thing that you want to
I think authority and justice are incompatible, except in
very rare instances, namely, if the authority can be justified.
And maybe sometimes it can. Like the case of caring for children.
I think there it can be justified. Or suppose we had a catastrophe,
let's say. Suppose a hurricane swept over this place and a couple
of people who for some reason happened to have their heads screwed
on sort of took control and told us, do this, do that, do the
other thing. I'd follow them. I wouldn't know what to do. If they
seemed to understand what has to be done, had presence of mind,
some understanding of the situation, I think I would willingly
grant them the authority to make decisions that I don't feel competent
to make, and I'd rather have them make them. So I grant them the
authority to do it. That's a situation of authority. But we agree
Q: Suppose somebody comes along and says that most working
people in fact are granting the authority of their employers and
bosses on the grounds that they don't have the expertise, the
knowledge, the skills, etc., and they also don't want the burden
and the responsibility?
I would ask the same question that we would ask of prisoners.
Suppose somebody said the prisoners are voluntarily granting the
authority to the guards. I'd believe that when it's proven. The
burden of proof, again, is always on the person who claims that
the authority is justified. I think that's a fundamental moral
Q: Sure, but if you want to make a counterargument...
It may not be that simple. In fact, it's not that simple.
Let's make it realistic. The way things are now, and this has
been true throughout modern history, people have chosen to go
to jail because they can survive. If you're starving to death
on the outside, freezing to death, there are many cases, and there
are cases right now where they go out and break a window and say,
hey, put me in jail. It looks like he's choosing to be kicked
around by the warden.
Q: Because it's better than another horrible situation.
It's true in a sense.
Q: It's also true that people choose to work for employers
who will exploit them because there's no other option.
You have to look at the range of options that are not only
objectively available to them, but that are subjectively available.
How are they allowed to think? How are they able to think? There
are all kinds of ways of thinking that are kind of cut off from
us, not because we're incapable of them, but there are various
blockages that have been developed and imposed that keep us from
thinking about them. Actually, that's what indoctrination is about.
And I don't mean somebody giving you lectures. Sitcoms on television,
sports that you watch. Every aspect of the culture involves some
form of expression of what a proper life or a proper set of values
are, implicitly. That's all indoctrination, and that cuts off
opportunities. And often just straight violence. If people cannot
find what their own values are except through interaction, what's
called political theory, there's not much theory to it, it's truisms,
but one of the traditional ideas of political theory for hundreds
of years has been that in order to maintain absolute control--what
we nowadays call totalitarian societies--what you have to do is
isolate people. People have to be isolated in order to be controlled.
And once they're isolated they're easily controlled because they
don't even know what they think. You're sitting alone in a room
and you don't even know what you think. Again, in science, it's
a commonplace. You work together. There's no other way to work.
In order to have ideas or understanding, you have to sort of bounce
them off other people and see what their reactions are and learn
from them. That's the way you even find out what your values are,
or your interests, or anything else. Keep people isolated and
they don't have subjective options, even if they have objective
ones. And unless those options are opened up, both subjectively
and in fact concretely, namely you can do something about it without
suicide or suffering, then to claim that people choose their oppression
is completely meaningless. They choose it under conditions where
there isn't a choice.
Q: Suppose somebody said that that kind of observation is
taken from on high. Who are you to decide that what somebody else
is choosing has been constrained? Who are you decide? Once you
start doing that ...
It's for them to decide. I agree. I think it's for the people
to decide. But the point is the people should be given every opportunity
to make a considered choice, meaning an opportunity to think through
the options and so on. For example, I've just been reading a novel
by an Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel Prize a couple of years
ago about life in Cairo, I think it was in the 1920s. The central
story is a woman who lives under the iron rule of her husband.
She's a total slave. In a big tragedy, she gets kicked out for
this or that infringement. Her life is destroyed because she loved
being a slave. She was able to take care of the house, and she
had her domain in which she was not out of the house, but that's
ok, because the husband is the god, that sort of thing. You can
imagine the rest. Did she choose that? I don't know if it's an
accurate depiction of some society. But it could be. In fact,
I'm sure it is of some societies. Did she choose it? In a sense,
yes. Is it therefore her nature? In order to know the answer to
that question, you have to put that same person in other circumstances.
Q: People have a remarkable talent for making the best of
whatever situation they're in, and that's obviously a tremendously
advantageous quality. But it's also a quality that leaves you
trapped in circumstances that are far less desirable than you
might otherwise attain.
That's the point of isolation--cut people off from thinking
through and perceiving the opportunities that are available to
them. Leave them only making do with things as they are.
Q: So suppose we eliminate these obstacles to human beings
being free and liberated and fulfilling themselves. What does
that mean? What kind of a society is that? Clearly, there's been
one label given to this--socialism--over the years.But nowadays
people claim this failed, that something went wrong.
First of all, I don't know that anything went wrong. We may
not be ready for it. But there was a period in history when we
weren't ready for ending slavery, either. There was a period in
human history when conditions, including subjective conditions,
were such that ending slavery wasn't in the cards. You could argue--I
don't agree with it--one could argue that conditions are such
that we need the degree of hierarchy and domination that exists
in totalitarian institutions like capitalist enterprises in order
to satisfy our needs, at least so far in history.
Q: With central planning or dictatorship ...
It could be argued. I don't believe a word of it. But the
point is somebody would have to argue it. If you look at what
actually happened, the concentration of force and violence was
such as to guarantee certain outcomes. Those outcomes destroyed
incipient efforts at cooperative worker control, say. There have
been efforts in that direction for hundreds of years. They regularly
get crushed. And they get crushed by force. The Bolsheviks are
a perfectly good example. In the stages leading up to the Bolshevik
revolution, up to October 1917, there were incipient socialist
institutions being developed--workers' councils, things like that.
They survived to an extent, but not very long. They were pretty
much eliminated. You can argue about the justification, but the
fact is that they were pretty quickly eliminated. Some people
want to justify it. The standard justification is, Lenin and Trotsky
had to do it because of the contingencies of the civil war and
survival and this and that.
Q: There wouldn't have been food otherwise, says the apologis.
Right. That's the only kind of justification that immoral
acts can possibly get. That's the only kind of justification that
authority can ever get. Look, we needed it. It's like my hurricane
example. Under dire conditions you accept authority.
Q: Actually, it's exactly analogous to the hurricane example.
Exactly analogous. The question is, Is it true? There you've
got to look at the historical facts. I don't think it's true.
In fact, I think these structures were dismantled before the ...
Q: Yes, they were. But does a Lenin or a Trotsky sincerely
feel that they're like the couple of people who are running through
the streets helping in the hurricane, or are they just aggrandizing
their own wealth and power and status? Or it is the same thing?
I think it's the same thing. We don't want to be cavalier
about it. It's a question of historical fact and what the people
really were like and what they were thinking, and you've got to
find out what the answer is. But my feeling is, reading their
own writings, that they knew what they were doing and it was understandable
and they even had a theory behind it. It was both a moral theory
and a socio-economic theory. First of all, as good orthodox Marxists,
they didn't really believe that a socialist revolution was possible
in Russia, which was just a peasant backwater. So they were carrying
out a kind of holding action, waiting for the iron laws of history
to grind out the revolution in Germany, where it's supposed to
come. You know the story better than I do. That's what's supposed
to happen by historical necessity, so they're going to hold on
until it happens, and then Russia will be backwarder than it ought
to be. Well, it didn't happen in Germany. They also thought that
in this pre-capitalist society, Russia being a deeply impoverished
Third World society, basically pre-capitalist, except for little
pockets here and there, it was just necessary to beat the people
into development. They had to be turned into what Trotsky called
the "labor army" in order to carry out forced development,
which would somehow carry them over the early stages of capitalism
and industrialization to the point where then the iron laws of
history would start to work because the master said they were
going to. So there was a theory behind it, and a moral principle.
It's going to be better for them in a while.
Q: So these could be understandable and even honest mistakes,
or they could be natural outgrowths of a worldview which says
there are relatively few people who are exceptionally smart and
should run the show.
That was Bakunin's prediction, about half a century before,
that this was exactly what was going to happen. He was talking
about the Marxists at that time. That was before Lenin was born.
His prediction was, the nature of the intelligentsia as a formation
in modern industrial society is that they can become managers.
They're not going to become managers because they own capital.
They're not going to become managers because they've got a lot
of guns. They're going to become managers because they can control
and organize and direct what's called knowledge and so on.
Q: Information and skills and access to decision-making.
And he says they're going to become a Red bureaucracy, because
that's in their interests. He didn't say that's the nature of
people. I don't know how much he thought it through. But reading
back, we shouldn't say they are going to do it because that's
the nature of people. It's that the ones who don't do it will
be cast by the wayside. The ones who do do it will make out. The
ones who are worthless and brutal and harsh enough to do it, they're
the ones who are going to survive in this kind of system. The
ones who try to associate themselves with popular organizations
and to help the people themselves become organized and to serve
the people and that kind of thing are just not going to survive
in these situations of power.
Q: Supposing you have a relative advantage on information
and knowledge. How do you explain that to yourself? It's not too
dissimilar from having a great amount of wealth, material wealth.
You either have that material wealth or knowledge by virtue of
somehow being better or by virtue of somehow unjustly having more
than you deserve. It's a lot easier to assume that it's because
Why is it "better"?
Q: You're in the lead.
But all kinds of people are better at all kinds of things.
There are things that I think I'm better at than the guy across
the street. There are things that the guy across the street's
better at than I am. Who's better?
Q: You have a healthy view of the situation. There's an unhealthy
view of the situation which says, The reason why I have three
cars and a huge house, etc., is because I am a different kind
of human being. I am superior. It's like racism, except it doesn't
have skin color as its ...
Everyone has some particular distribution of traits. You're
better at some things and worse at others. This guy is a good
violinist. This guy can't hear straight. This guy can fix mechanical
things and understand them. The other one can't. If it wasn't
true, I'd want to commit suicide. Living in a society of clones
would be worse than death. If everybody was alike it's not like
living at all. You should enjoy and appreciate the variety. The
fact that other people can do things that I can't do is a source
of appreciation. I don't feel bad if I can't play the violin like
somebody else. If I can't solve physics problems like somebody
else, fine. It makes me happy. You do what you do. Getting back
to your point, the particular distribution of traits that I have,
partly just by nature, partly by the advantages that I've had
through life, which were plenty, in the case of the guy with three
cars, there's a particular collection of traits plus luck. And
the traits might be viciousness, aggressiveness, willingness to
undercut others, and so on, whatever that collection of traits
is, they're the ones that are valued and supported in particular
social arrangements. So the Mafia don has traits which are rewarded
under particular social situations. Hitler had traits which were
rewarded under those social situations. That part's true, in that
sense. It doesn't mean that they're better. It means that they're
better adapted to getting ahead under particular conditions.
Q: The person in that position can have your understanding
of the situation or can have an understanding of the situation
that it's just basically theft or can understand the situation
as a proper reward for somebody who is a superior being.
Usually people will pick the last one.
Q: Right. That's my point. But once you pick the last one,
if you're Lenin or Trotsky or whoever, then the understanding
of society that you come up with tends to reflect that. So you
come up with yourself as a central actor, even a savior. You think
there's a hurricane coming and I have to save everybody from it,
when in fact there is no hurricane coming, or, in any event, the
only solution is for people to be saving themselves, not having
their means to do so taken away by you. There was the possibility
of real democracy and real participation instead. But you see
a hurricane because the role of savior is the one you want to
And that's where I come back to what I said before. The burden
of proof is always on the person who claims the right of authority.
So if you see a hurricane coming, prove it. If you can convince
me that there's a hurricane coming, and that you're the person
who ought to direct people, okay, maybe so. But you've got to
prove it. I don't have to disprove it. I don't have to disprove
anything. I can just say, You haven't proven it. Period. And then
Q: And beating you over the head till you agree or holding
all the cards and allowing no one to play unless they agree, is
of course not proving it, it is coercing it...
Yes, and so that's the sense in which the burden of proof
is on those who claim the legitimacy of authority. And that's
true whether it's a factory, a family or any other social arrangement.
I think that that burden can very rarely be met. It seems to me
that part of real education, if we ever allowed such a thing,
would be to make sure people understand very early on that that's
where the burden of proof is. I think you don't have to try to
teach it to people, however. I think they know it. You have to
keep it from being driven out of their heads. And it is driven
out of their heads. It's driven out of their heads very early
on just by the structure of the educational system.
Kids who are too independent quickly get into trouble and
are kept in line. Again, we don't want to be glib about it. Again,
the burden of proof is always on whoever it is that claims that
the child has to be controlled. Maybe the child is being independent
and should be encouraged. It's just personal experience. As a
kid I happened to be lucky enough to be until I was about twelve
in an experimental school run on Deweyite lines by Temple University
which happened to be a very free and open and independent place
where they encouraged independence and creativity and so on. It
was very constructive. It was a shock to me when I got into City
Academic High School for upward-striving kids who were going to
go off to big colleges and discovered what authority really is
like in educational structures. I never had that before. And it
certainly requires justification, and I doubt that justification
can be given in a great many cases. A lot of even the stupidity
of education has a social function, namely, preventing independence.
You're given some stupid assignment in eighth grade, and you'd
Q: I've noticed that the public school system teaches not
just obedience but also endurance of boredom, the ability to sit
and watch the clock and not run out of the room, which of course
is exactly the skill that one has to have to work in a capitalist
Punctuality. My oldest friend, who happened to emigrate from
Eastern Europe when he was fifteen or so, once told me that he
went to a school in New York for bright kids. One of the things
that struck him right off in comparison with his earlier education
was that if you got a C on an exam, nobody paid any attention.
But if you came two minutes late, you had to go to the principal's
office--meaning you're being trained for docility, obedience,
punctuality for an assembly line job.
Q: I remember even at MIT I was always astounded by the extent
to which the education was faculty coming in and writing textbooks
on the wall and never once talking about the creative aspect of
what they do, or never literally doing it with you, but rather
just reproducing stuff that you could go off and read in any event.
It surprises me when you say that.
Q: As a undergraduate.
In graduate school it's just not like that at all. In fact,
graduate school is kind of like an apprenticeship. You're working
Q: Clearly that's the mode of education that makes some sense.
The words are horrible: "master" and "apprentice,"
but the reality is interesting...
It's because you're learning a craft. Apprenticeship doesn't
mean necessarily following orders. You can contribute and have
your own ideas and learn at the same time. Doing science properly
just isn't something you can teach. No one knows how to teach
it. You just kind of get the idea somehow. It's like learning
how to ride a bike or build a table. The way you get the idea
is by working with people who somehow got the idea. You get something
from them, and in science certainly you contribute to them. Everybody
knows in the sciences that an awful lot of good ideas are coming
from young people. That's just standard.
Q: All your ideas come from students.
It's just not even a question. You just take it for granted.
Q: So you get the ideas from the students. Supposing we had
a society with no authority, where's the drive? Where's the momentum?
Where's the pressure to advance and grow? These are questions
this discussion probably raises for some people.
First of all, the "pressure to advance," you have
to ask exactly what that means. If you mean the pressure to produce
more, who wants it? Is that necessarily the right thing to do?
That's not obvious. In many areas it's probably the wrong thing
Q: Therefore the criticism that having this degree of freedom
will remove that type of pressure isn't criticism at all. It's
Let's go back to the period when people had to be driven.
It's still today. People have to be driven to have certain wants.
Why? Why not leave them alone so they can just be happy and do
other things? The only drive there is, ought to be internal. Take
a look at kids. They're creative. They explore. They want to find
out everything, try out new things. Why does a kid walk?
Q: They have plenty of energy, curiosity, desire, but they
don't want to work themselves to death.
Why does a kid walk? Say you've got a kid who's a year old.
He's crawling fine. He can get anywhere across the room he likes
really fast, so fast his parents run after him to keep him from
knocking everything down. All of a sudden he gets up and starts
walking. He's terrible at walking. He walks one step and falls
on his face. If he wants to really get somewhere he's going to
crawl. So why does the kid start walking? To do new things. That's
the way we're built. We're built to want to do new things, even
if they're not efficient, even if they're harmful, even if you
get hurt. I don't think that ever stops. You want to explore.
You want to press your capacities to the limits. You want to appreciate
what you can do. The joy of creation is something very few people
have circumstances to experience much. Artists have it. Craftspeople
have it. Scientists have it. Most people don't have the opportunity
often, in our society. But if you've been lucky enough to have
that opportunity, you know it's quite an experience. It doesn't
have to be discovering Einstein's theory of relativity.
Q: Your way of expressing it is so different from ... I remember--we
won't use names--a physicist at MIT who gave a big talk and described
the pleasure and the joy of creativity and wished that so many
people, 99% of the population, who don't have the capacity to
experience that and to enjoy that, could have that capacity. But
since they don't I'll at least try to convey to them the pleasure
that I get out of having a new idea.
I think that the physicist didn't want to think. Whoever it
was knows perfectly well that anyone can have that pleasure and
that whoever it was had that pleasure many times in his life just
by seeing what other people have done.
Q: You can also have it at many different levels of ...
When you read a proof and finally figure out what it's about,
Q: And it could be Pythagorean's theorem ... tenth grade as
well as quantum mechanics, or whatever ...
That's exciting. My God, I never understood that before! That's
creativity, even if somebody proved it 2,000 years ago. Every
physicist has gone through that plenty of times. You keep being
struck by the marvels of what you're discovering, and you're discovering
it, even though somebody else did it already. And if you can add
little bits to that here and there, that's exciting. I don't have
any reason to believe what that physicist said ... And I think
the same is true of a person who builds a boat. I don't see what's
fundamentally any different.
Q: It doesn't seem to be any different at all as far as creativity
and pleasure of accomplishment, etc., unless of course an onus
is put on it.
I wish I could do that. I can't. I can't imagine doing it.
Q: But there's one sense in which it's different. That is
there's a social difference between those kinds of acts that can
accrue power and the kinds that won't. The skills of building
a boat are different than the skills of, say, conducting a meeting.
Or for that matter being compelling verbally is very different
than, say, running quickly, at least in most societies.
But the skills to which rewards and power accrue are violence
Q: I don't mean necessarily in a bad society, I mean even
in a good society. In a good society the person who can make an
argument and express herself well is going to be more influential
if that isn't equalized somehow. It's relatively equalized. The
person who runs fast but has no verbal abilities whatsoever, how's
the person ...?
I don't think it's true. I've been in situations, and I'm
sure you have, when I knew I was presenting the right argument,
but I couldn't convince anybody. Because they decided to do something
else. It happens all the time. It happens in personal life, in
family arguments, social situations, and so on. Unless the person
who--maybe some Martian watching this can say, Jones won the argument.
But unless Jones has the power to implement it, it doesn't make
Q: If you're working with a group or you're in some kind of
organization or whatever, a business, whatever it might happen
to be, and suppose there is a degree of equity and fairness, at
least formal, with regard to decision-making, and you all sit
around and make decisions, and one or two people have knowledge
of how the whole operation works and have at their fingertips
a whole lot of information and facts about what's going on and
also are very verbal, and some of the other people have productive
skills and various other skills that are associated with the business,
but don't have that information at their disposal, there isn't
any doubt in my mind who's going to win nine times out of ten.
Q: Policy decisions.
The policy decisions. And who will win the decisions about
how it's actually implemented? The people with the productive
Q: No. Not necessarily at all.
Why not? They're the ones who are going to do it. In a society
with equity. We were assuming a society with equity. Nobody has
any power. They just have different capacities.
Q: One person, one vote.
All right, the person who makes the more convincing argument,
assuming rationality, should convince the others. But then the
person who implements the decisions will do it his or her way.
Q: Clearly the situation will be much better if everybody
comes to a decision with a degree of confidence and skills and
so on that's commensurate to participating.
That's what it means by being convinced. If you are convinced
that this is the right thing to do, it doesn't make any difference
whether somebody else had the idea or you had the idea. You're
equally convinced. If you're not convinced, something went wrong.
Then it was a situation of power and not a matter of greater capacity
to work things out.
Q: Take a Yugoslav firm in the market system. The workers
appoint a manager. The manager makes a whole array of decisions
that are the same as a manager would make in the Ford Motor Company.
The workers in fact agree that the manager's decisions make sense
and should be implemented. They can't make the decisions themselves,
necessarily, because they don't have access to the facts. Still
the situation is pretty disgusting.
There's a situation where there's a difference of power, and
the power translates into access to ...
Q: What if the formal power rests with the workers?
There's already a presupposition: the manager had more information
and the manager got that because the manager had more power. Otherwise
the manager wouldn't have had more information.
Q: The manager's job is to oversee all this information and
put the stuff together.
But if you divide jobs up that way you're imposing relations
Q: Exactly. That's what I'm getting at.
But if we extract the power from the situation it won't be
true. If everyone has the same access to information, it still
may turn out that the guy who happens to be the manager comes
up with the best idea and everybody says, Yeah, that's the best
idea. Okay, fine. That's not a problem. We know that it's not
going to happen consistently. There's one area of human life that
I know of which kind of approximates an equitable situation. It
isn't really equitable, but it approximates one. That's a scientific
laboratory, a scientific enterprise, where you have a senior professor
who won a Nobel Prize and you have an undergraduate assistant,
a lab technician and so on. If it's really working well, there's
a lot of cooperation. And you see it. It is not the case that
the person with the more publications comes up with all the answers,
by no means. If they're really working together and trying to
achieve something ...
Q: Then it's a collective, or something. If you don't have
structurally imposed differences in decision making power or in
access to information needed for developing agendas and positions,
It may be that the guy with the Nobel Prize will often come
up with a good idea. Maybe not. In fact, in these situations it
typically isn't the case. It's often the graduate student.
Q: After they've got a Nobel Prize they're already too old.
Probably. Or they're too stuck in their ways. But the senior
professor often has a contribution to make that's unique: experience,
remembering something that somebody did four years ago that nobody
else ever heard of. There are all kinds of ways in which people
contribute to collective decisions. I don't see any reason to
believe that, say, a decision in a factory is so infinitely more
complex than working on an advanced scientific problem that you
can expect one person to always have the right ideas. That's not
going to happen. If it happens, it's because of power differences.
Q: An imbalance in access to decision making or information
or skills critical to it...
And then we're back to where we were: eliminate the power
differences, or strive to eliminate them.
Q: Let me switch gears a minute. Back to the question of animal
rights, the broadening understanding of human values and all that.
How do you react to the debate around abortion?
I think it's a hard one. I don't think the answers are simple.
It's a case where there really are conflicting values. Most human
situations, the kinds of things we're in all the time, it's very
rare that there's a clear and simple answer. Sometimes the answers
are very murky because we have different values and they just
conflict. At least our understanding of our own moral values is
not like an axiomatic system, where there's an answer and not
some other answer. There are what appear to be conflicting values
which give different answers. Maybe because we don't understand
them well enough, or maybe they really are in conflict. In this
case they're straight conflicts. From one point of view, a child
up to a point is an organ of the mother's body. The mother ought
to have the decision what to do. And that's true. From another
point of view, the organism is a potential human being, and it
has rights. And those two things are in conflict. One biologist
I know once pointed out that you could say the same thing about
women washing their hands. If a woman washes her hands, lots of
cells flake off, and in principle those cells have the genetic
instructions for a human being. You can imagine a future technology
which would take one of them and create a human being from it.
He was making it as a reductio ad absurdum argument, but because
there's an element of truth to it, an element so tiny that it
makes it a reductio ad absurdum argument, but it's not like saying
something about astrology. What he's saying is true.
Q: There's a related argument I've found tough to deal with.
Suppose you have a person who is a surgeon who is so skilled she
is the only one who can deal with this particular kind of ailment.
There's a sudden outbreak of the ailment. It only takes five minutes
for the person to do what they do, but only they can do it. So
you could literally have an assembly line because there are so
many people struck with this ailment, an assembly line of people
flowing past this person. So if this person goes to the bathroom
or goes to eat a meal or goes to do anything, more people are
going to die that would have been saved had she not done that.
What's this person supposed to do?
It's like triage. A person is going to have to make an impossible
choice among alternatives. It's easy to construct situations like
that. That's what they do in philosophy seminars all the time.
We don't agree with torture. There was an article in Newsweek
by a philosopher whose hidden agenda was that you shouldn't criticize
Israel for torturing Arabs. The argument was like an elementary
philosophy seminar. People say torture is bad. But is it really
bad? Suppose there was a doomsday machine that was about to go
off and blow up the universe. There was one person who knew how
to stop it, but he wasn't telling us how to stop it. The only
way you would get it out of him was by torturing him. Under those
circumstances would torture be okay? You say, Okay, under those
circumstances. Then, Aha! You're not opposed to torture. Let's
move it a little bit over. You get into what's called a "slippery
slope argument." You can play this game all the time. You
can make up situations in which usually conflicting values lead
to what would ordinarily be ridiculous conclusions under other
circumstances. And the trouble is, life often poses such circumstances.
You don't have to make them up. The abortion issue is one where
life is posing those choices.
Q: You think that the choice there isn't that it is or isn't
a person. You just basically have to admit that it's a potential
person, it's an actual organ in a sense.
We don't have have a clear conception of what a person is.
I think a reasonable proposal is that it changes from an organ
to a person when it's viable. But that's arguable and it's not
very clear when it is. That's why this biologist pointed out it
could be when the woman was washing her hands, depending on the
state of technology. But that's life. You're faced with hard decisions
of conflicting values.
Q: Changing gear again: Take the last thirty years, say, from
the New Left to the present, and look at it as a span of political
activism in the U.S. Leftists seem to do this, as far as I can
tell, very infrequently. Try and basically say, What lessons are
there in that? Is whatever we achieved the most we could have
achieved? Did the people who were acting, were they doing basically
about as well as one could expect, or were there horrible failures?
Was there some impediment that was being overlooked, some obstacle
to having greater success that we just didn't think of and we
didn't deal with, and had we dealt with that we would have done
better? In other words, how do you view the period? Certainly
people of my generation, a great many of them, right now are very
frustrated. They're feeling like, Thirty years ago I made this
choice. It's thirty years later and it hasn't gone where I thought
it was going to go.
I think, first of all, where they thought it was going to
go was pretty unrealistic. I think if you look at what's happened
in thirty years, it's a lot better than it was. A lot of this
stuff got started during the Vietnam War. At the ideological level,
all of us who were opposed to the war lost flat out within the
mainstream institutions. The question now is, have the Vietnamese
done enough to compensate us for the crimes that they committed
against us? In the newspapers or the journals or the books that's
the only question you're allowed to discuss. If you want to be
part of the educated culture, the elite culture, the only question
you can pose. I actually have been through a lot of the newspapers
on this, out of curiosity. Also the POW issue. George Bush gets
up and says, The Vietnamese should understand that we bear them
no permanent grudge. We're not going to make them pay for everything
they did to us. If they finally come clean and devote their entire
lives and every last resource they have to searching for the remains
of one of those people they viciously blew out of the sky, then
maybe we'll allow them entry into the civilized world. And there
won't be one editorial writer or columnist who will either fall
on the floor laughing or else say, this guy's worse than the Nazis.
Because that's the way they all are. The only issue is, Will we
forgive them for the crimes they committed against us? So at that
level, we just lost the whole discussion. On the other hand, let's
go to the general population. To this day, after twenty-five years
of this endless, unremitting propaganda, to which no response
is ever tolerated, 70% of the population disagrees with the elite
culture. That tells you there's a victory at this level. If 70%
of the population, after all this brainwashing, still says, as
late as 1990, the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral, not
a mistake, something got through.
Q: Absolutely. And it tells us that for a period of six, seven
years, however many years, the activism that people engaged in
had a tremendous and long-lasting effect. But it doesn't answer
people's concern that after thirty years the size of our organizations,
the degree of organized dissent, the ability to amass new movements
when new crises arise, or even, much more important, the ability
to have sustained movements which are striking at ongoing institutional
structures, on these axes there doesn't seem to be ...
I think that's an inaccurate reading of history. In fact,
I think the opposite is the case. The last big such crisis was
the Gulf War. I just disagree with a lot of my friends on that
one, including most activists on the left. They regarded what
happened as a catastrophe for the left, and as a proof of what
you just said. I regard it as the opposite. This is the first
time in history that I know of that big demonstrations started
before a war. Take a look at the Vietnam War. After all, Kennedy
started bombing South Vietnam in 1961-62. It was years before
there was significant opposition.
Q: That was my impression, too. I was incredulous at the speed
at which the movement was able to make itself felt, visibly, around
It was unbelievable. The thing that we should remember is,
people in power know it. They might not want us to know it, but
they know it. It's even clear from their own documents, as well
as from what they do. The day the ground combat started in the
Gulf War a very important document leaked. It was sort of buried
in the papers, and most people missed it. It was the last paragraph
of an article on something else. They leaked an early Bush administration
planning document on Third World intervention. What it said was--and
it still holds--that in the case of confrontations with much weaker
enemies--meaning anyone we're willing to fight--we must not only
defeat them but we must defeat them decisively and rapidly because
anything else will undercut political support. That's a tremendous
victory for the left. These guys understand that they don't have
the option of carrying out intervention unless they carry out
decisive, rapid victories over totally defenseless enemies before
anyone notices, after having first demonized them.
Q: I agree with you completely about the speed and scale of
the response. And yet, it is the case that you describe having
to argue with most of your friends. I encountered the same situation.
It's a remarkable fact that we don't seem to be able to perceive,
as a movement or as a body of people, our own effectivity.
Of course nobody wants you to see it. In order to perceive
it, it's as if you lived in a world where everybody told you--television,
radio, books, everything else--that the world is flat. It's Winston
Smith in 1984. He's trying to hold on to the truth that two plus
two equals four. Everybody says two plus two equals five. He remembers
inside that two plus two equals four. It's hard to hold on to
that truth. Especially when you're isolated.
Q: So what's the trick?
The trick is not to be isolated. If you're isolated, like
Winston Smith, you're sooner or later going to break, as he finally
broke. That was the point of Orwell's story. That's the whole
tradition of totalitarianism: keep people isolated and you can
get them to believe anything. The genius of American democracy
has been to tolerate the formal freedoms that have been won through
popular struggle but to eliminate any substance from them by just
isolating people. And people are isolated. They're stuck in front
of the tube. There are no associations. That's part of the fervor
behind getting rid of unions. They're one of the natural means--not
the only one--by which ordinary people come together. So you've
got to destroy them. That's one of the reasons why it's very important
that we have no real political parties, because people could get
together and do stuff.
But what it says is that a left which creates a culture and
which creates the possibility of actually working together, being
friends, communicating with one another will be much less susceptible
to this coercion. When I consider now versus thirty years ago,
I have this feeling that's there a fundamental change, as atomized
as it was then, it's much more so now. People just don't have
friends. Nobody has people who they trust, who they're friends
with, who they interact with on a regular, ongoing basis. Not
nobody, but there's much less of that there was then.
I'm not so sure there's less of it. I suspect that there's
probably more of it, but it's in different circles. So for example,
take the big movements of the last ...
Q: I'm not talking about movements. I'm talking about just
normal, everyday life. My parents, my friends, all the people
So what about the people in Witness for Peace, for example?
They're mostly church-based, and their friends and associations
are usually through churches, often even fundamentalist churches.
But they have real friends and associations and work together.
Q: That's one of those institutions ...
But these things bring in huge numbers of people. That's why
I say I think it's shifted. In fact, it's shifted towards different
sectors of the population. In fact, they've become a lot more
mainstream. During the sixties, it was kind of kids at universities
who were the ones who had these associations and the political
activism to a significant extent. There was a lot of that. Not
everything, of course, but that was quite a bit of it. It's true,
there things have in fact declined. But other parts of society
have increased and are deepened.
Q: The left has never offered it per se. The CP did, once
upon a time. But the modern left, from the new left to now, has
offered rallies and demonstrations. It's offered teach-ins. It's
offered talks. But it's never offered ...
What do you call the ... what do you think the right name
is for these church-based Central America solidarity groups? Are
they "left"? I would call it left.
Q: They are setting a better model, perhaps, than anything
that the left has had to offer.
I don't think they're all that separate. A lot of people in
them are people who came through sixties experiences, which affected
everything. They affected the whole culture very broadly. The
reason that so many things grow out of the churches is that that's
the one kind of organic institution that hasn't been destroyed.
They don't come out of labor unions in the country because we
don't have unions. If I give a talk in Europe, up till pretty
recently, even now, it could often be in a union hall. Not necessarily
labor people, but just community people. I can't remember ever
having done that in the U.S. It's usually a church. That exists.
That's the one institution that hasn't been destroyed. So that's
where things, all the movement offices are in the basement of
some church. They're around.
Q: That's always been true.
Because that's the only thing that's around. But out of that
have come other things, people who would not regard themselves
... they never read a Marxist-Leninist book in their lives and
they don't care. Maybe their background is liberation theology.
I think that's part of our movement, at least I've always regarded
it that way. And the same with people who are involved in all
sorts of other issues.
Q: To what extent would you consider yourself somehow part
of the same movement as Marxist-Leninists?
There are personal friendships and contacts, but I don't really
feel much empathy with it. For one thing I don't understand a
lot of it. What I do understand I usually don't like. I don't
want to say that I haven't learned anything from them or that
I don't hold personal relations; in fact I do support all of the
groups and will continue to as long as they do things I like.
But I do feel a certain closeness ... the beliefs of the church-based
groups are just incomprehensible to me, but I do feel a certain
empathy with them that I don't feel with what are called official
Q: You'd rather have them at your side, in some sense.
Yeah. Like when I went down to Nicaragua and I lived in the
Jesuit house. I was wondering, What the heck am I doing here?
But that's where I felt at home.
Q: They were ethical.
Some sort of shared values. For me personally it was sort
of weird, because just out of personal experience, aside from
having nothing to do with organized religion or anything, I happened
to grow up in an area in Philadelphia which was Irish and German
Catholic, mostly. We were the only Jewish family around. I grew
up with a visceral fear of Catholics. They're the people who beat
you up on your way to school. So I knew when they came out of
that building down the street, which was the Jesuit school, they
were raving anti-Semites. So childhood memories took a long time
Q: As long as we're switching over, we have the church as
an institution being a possible place where people can talk, develop
ideas, develop agendas. But what about the church as an impediment
to social change?
That's what it's been through most of its history. What was
remarkable in the last thirty, forty, fifty years is a radical
change in the church, the Catholic Church, and which also showed
up in many of the Protestant churches. There was a big change.
The reason why the U.S. launched this terrorist war in Central
America was to destroy this. People now talk as if the big enemy
is Islamic fundamentalism. But they're forgetting something. For
the last ten years the big enemy has been the Catholic Church,
more of an enemy than Islamic fundamentalism. They had to destroy
it. When Americas Watch did their wrap-up study on the 1980s,
they pointed out that it was a decade framed by the murder of
the Archbishop in 1980 and the murder of six Jesuit intellectuals
in 1989. That wasn't accidental. The main target of attack was
the church, because it had become a part, not entirely, but part
of it had become a church devoted to liberation, to the poor.
Sectors of the church did undertake what they called the preferential
option for the poor, and very consciously. They recognized that
for hundreds of years it had been the church of the rich and the
oppressors, who were telling the poor, This is your fate. Accept
it. A critically important sector of the church changed, important
enough to include the dominant elements among the Latin American
bishops, which set off the atrocities over the last ten years,
in which the U.S. has vigorously participated.
Q: The change is just an accident of history?
I don't know enough about the internal dynamics of it to explain
Q: What do you think religion is?
Obviously, it means something to people, a lot. It doesn't
to me. I don't understand it. I sort of understand it, but I can't
empathize with it. To me it's just another set of irrational beliefs.
You can believe this, you can believe that if you want. I don't
understand why people should need irrational beliefs. Apparently
many people seem to find a good deal of fulfillment in it.
Q: Including lots of scientists. I was quite struck by that
recently, finding all these physicists, chemists, biologists ...
Honestly, I'm pretty skeptical when I read that stuff.
Q: Some of those interviews are astounding.
I remember once a close associate of Einstein's once told
me, as a sort of a semi-joke, Einstein was always saying famous
Q: He always talks about God.
She told me that when he says God he means "I."
"God doesn't play dice with the cosmos" means "I
don't believe in this stuff." When scientists talk about
God and this, it reminds me a little bit of when Robert Oppenheimer
used to talk about Persian poetry. One of the ways in which scientists
try to look like, well, ... if they're not really civilized beings,
the way they try to look like civilized beings is by doing things
that they think are deep. Like you read Persian poetry or you
think about Buddha or something like that. But that's always struck
me as something of an affectation. It's striking that this kind
of talk about God was not true of the generation of scientists,
say, from Boer, Planck, Max Born and Einstein, the great period
of modern science. It wasn't true. And there was a level of culture
and civilization there that was real, that was not duplicated
in twentieth-century America. I think this is true of a lot of
things. For example, I don't think people of that generation would
have named their particles "quarks," trying to show
how smart they are because they read Finnegan's Wake. They didn't
have to show anybody how smart they were. They were smart and
cultivated and educated. You didn't have to make everybody remember,
He read Finnegan's Wake.
Murray Gell Mann is quite smart.
"Smart" and "cultivated" are not the same
thing. And it's not a matter of persons. It's a matter of the
whole intellectual culture. The intellectual culture of Central
Q: It's also what's supported and what's not.
The intellectual culture of Central Europe out of which a
lot of this grew was qualitatively different from that of twentieth-century
I recently read a book by a guy named Steven Weinberg, who's
a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, very, very brilliant. And it
is quite fascinating. The book not only makes difficult ideas
accessible, but it's written in a very straight-forward way with
no pretense. It feels wise, almost elegant in some sense.
I knew him when he was at MIT, and I felt that.
Q: A lot of these guys can write that way, which you don't
find coming out of the soft sciences. You won't find an economist
writing a book about economics like that.
That's true. First of all, there's not much to say. But it's
certainly true. On the other hand, you were talking about the
novel ... this turning to divinity, and does the Big Bang tell
us something about the creator. I think it's fairly recent in
science. It's a pretty common thing. A lot of people write popular
books about science now. They think you have to say that. And
they didn't think they to say it forty years ago. And that's a
Q: It is a kind of different dimension, when you're talking
forty, fifty years ago and you're talking about particles in the
lab. Now they're talking about one-trillionth of a second after
the whatever it was at the beginning.
I don't think in terms of a conceptual revolution it's anything
like the early quantum theory.
Q: No, it's not.
OK, so why didn't they say it? I think it's because they came
from a different intellectual culture, where you didn't have to
show that you were capable of dealing with the so-called "big
ideas," because you were.
Q: That's America.
Yeah, I think that's twentieth-century America, a technological
Q: It's remarkable how religious this country is.
It's unbelievable. It's not just that it's religious ... if
you look at the comparative studies, there's a lot of comparative
studies of religious beliefs. The U.S. is off the chart. It's
like a devastated peasant society.
Q: If you watch TV and watch sports events where they interview
people after they've done an event, regarding China you hear jokes
about how they used to say, I read Mao and he helped me jump and
taught me how to do this high jump and I won the Olympic event.
But that's also the way the Americans sound. Except it's God.
The first thing out of their mouth is always, I thank God.
It's shocking, just looking at the studies, which are interesting.
I was just looking at one by Andrew Greeley which was a cross-cultural
study. It turns out that 75% of Americans literally believe in
religious miracles, for example. You can't find that anywhere
Q: But what does that mean? Deeper, what does it mean if you
go up to somebody on the street and they say, I'm one of those
75%? What does that mean?
Either it means that they think they have to say it or they
literally believe it. Either way it's the same. It shows that
there are features of the society which are off the chart with
regard to industrial societies. I have a feeling that it may be
related to the sense ... there are other things which are striking,
too. There is an increasing sense that nothing is responsive to
me. The institutions don't work for me at all. In fact, that figure
goes higher and higher every year. It's now hitting over two-thirds
of the population, which is astonishing. 83% of the population
thinks that the entire economic system is inherently unfair.
Q: But the two together ... think that the economic system
is unfair, they also think that there's nothing that they can
do about it.
That's why I think they're connected.
Q: Religion is the ...
That's why I say it's like a devastated peasant society. In
a society where people feel, I can't do anything, you turn to
something supernatural. It's happening in Central America right
now. The evangelical churches coming down with the story, Don't
worry about this miserable existence. It doesn't matter anyway.
Things will be better later. They're gaining considerable success
in the wake of murderous destruction of social reform movements.
Q: There's an element which makes sense. If you live under
those conditions, then they're not likely to change unless you're
trying to eke out the best possible existence you can, this kind
Maybe. These are phenomena that have been looked at for a
long time. Walter Dean Vernon was one of the social scientists
who looked at it about ten, twelve years ago. He wrote about back
to the nineteenth century there seemed to be a correlation between
the lack of, say, worker organization and other popular organization
in the U.S. and the lack of political differentiation and political
ideal and so on on the one hand and the surprising degree of religious
commitment on the other. It's possible that they're correlated.
If you go back, there are other things to look at. The cheriastic
elements in the church, millennial movements in the church, we're
on the verge, the Messiah is coming, or wait till the Messiah,
that kind of businesses, did regularly arise and was often even
stimulated at times of social struggle or the collapse of social
Q: That's oppression.
That kind of thing. A.P. Thompson writes about that in The
Making of the English Working Class at the beginning of the nineteenth
century. It goes right through the nineteenth century in the U.S.
Actually, business even supported evangelical preachers to try
to ... in fact, you see it right now in the Islamic world. Take
these 415 people who were kicked out of Israel from Hamas. Israel
had supported the Islamic fundamentalist movement openly, as a
counterweight to secular nationalism, which is what really bothered
them. They were afraid of secular nationalism which would make
accommodations, proposals, they would have to deal with these
issues politically, which they didn't want to do. It got to the
point where they were literally shipping Islamic fundamentalist
young people to break up strikes by secular nationalist students
on the West Bank. Well, they got what they wanted. Islamic fundamentalists.
And it's happening throughout the Arab world, the rise of Islamic
fundamentalism, which people talk about as this horrible thing
which is very perplexing. Part of it is a reaction to the failure
of secular nationalism. That failure has a number of reasons,
one of them being Western hostility to it. Sure, you take away
people's hopes and they'll turn to something else.
Q: Next time we get together, perhaps we should start there,
trying to work through what there is to be hopeful about, what,
in more detail, is the goal we are striving for, what, in more
detail, are the structures standing between us and that goal,
and even, in more detail, what kind of activism and organization
on our part might overcome those obstacles and attain the sought
goals. But, for now, Thank you.