excerpted from the book
The Common Good
by Noam Chomsky
Odonian Press, 1998
The big transnationals want to reduce
freedom by undermining the democratic functioning of the states
in which they're based, while at the same time ensuring the government
will be powerful enough to protect and support them.
... it's ridiculous to talk about freedom in a society dominated
by huge corporations. What kind of freedom is there inside a corporation?
They're totalitarian institutions - you take orders from above
and maybe give them to people below you. There's about as much
freedom as under Stalinism.
The goal is a society in which the basic social unit is you and
your television set. If the kid next door is hungry, it's not
your problem. If the retired couple next door invested their assets
badly and are now starving, that's not your problem either.
Boards of directors are allowed to work together, so are banks
and investors and corporations in alliances with one another and
with powerful states. That's just fine. It's just the poor who
aren't supposed to cooperate.
Business wants the popular aspects of government, the ones that
actually serve the population, beaten down, but it also wants
a very powerful state, one that works for it and is removed from
There's a very committed effort to convert the US into something
resembling a Third World society, where a few people have enormous
wealth and a lot of others have no security ...
Now that ... workers are superfluous, what do you do with them?
First of all, you have to make sure they don't notice that society
is unfair and try to change that, and the best way to distract
them is to get them to hate and fear one another.
Both prisons and inner-city schools target a kind of superfluous
population that there's no point educating because there's nothing
for them to do. Because we're a civilized people, we put them
in prison, rather than sending death squads out to murder them.
You need something to frighten people with, to prevent them from
paying attention to what's really happening to them.
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly
limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively
debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical
and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's
free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions
of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range
of the debate.
Vietnam wasn't a "disastrous mistake" - it was murderous
... the best defense against democracy is to distract people.
A corporate executive's responsibility is to his stockholders
- to maximize profit, market share and power. If he can do that
by paying starvation wages to women who'll die in a couple of
years because their working conditions are so horrible, he's just
doing his job. It's the job that should be questioned.
... corporations are fundamentally illegitimate, ... they don't
have to exist at all in their modern form. Just as other oppressive
institutions - slavery, say, or royalty - have been changed or
eliminated, so corporate power can be changed of eliminated. What
are the limits? There aren't any. Everything is ultimately under
Many countries are so weak that they can't really solve their
internal problems in the face of US power; they can't even control
their own wealthy. Their rich have virtually no social obligations-they
don't pay taxes and don't keep their money in the country.
Unless these problems are dealt with,
poor people will sometimes choose to vote for oppressors, rather
than suffer the violence of the rich (which can take the form
of terror and torture, or can simply be a matter of sending the
country's capital somewhere else).
As happened almost everywhere in the Third World, Brazil's generals,
their cronies and the super-rich borrowed huge amounts of money
and sent much of it abroad. The need to pay off that debt is a
stranglehold that prevents Brazil from doing anything to solve
its problems; it's what limits social spending and equitable,
But if I borrow money and send it to a
Swiss bank, and then can't pay my creditors, is that your problem
or mine? The people in the slums didn't borrow the money, nor
did the landless workers. In my view, it's no more the debt of
90% of the people of Brazil than it is the man in the moon's.
Discussions about a debt moratorium are not really the main point.
If the wealthy of Brazil hadn't been out of control, Brazil wouldn't
have the debt in the first place. Let the people who borrowed
the money pay it back. It's nobody else's problem.
When you have as much wealth and power as we do, you can be blind
and self-righteous; you don't have to think about anything.
Latin America has the worst income inequality in the world, and
East Asia has perhaps the least. Latin America's typical imports
are luxury goods for the wealthy; East Asia's have been mostly
related to capital investment and technology transfer. Countries
like Brazil and Argentina are potentially rich and powerful, but
unless they can somehow gain control over their wealthy, they're
always going to be in trouble.
Of course, you can't really talk about these countries as a whole.
There are different groups within them, and for some of these
groups, the current situation is great, just as there were people
in India who thought the British Empire was fine. They were linked
to it, enriched themselves through it, and loved it.
It's possible to live in the poorest countries and be in very
privileged surroundings all the time. Go to, say, Egypt, take
a limousine from the fancy airport to your five-star hotel by
the Nile, go to the right restaurants, and you'll barely be awar
that there are poor people in Cairo.
You might see some out the car windows when you're driving along,
but you don't notice them particularly. It's the same in New York-you
can somehow ignore the fact that there are homeless people sleeping
in the streets and hungry children a couple of blocks away.
... Throughout the 1980s, wages fell (it depends on how you measure
them, but they were roughly cut in half, and they weren't high
before that). Starvation increased, but so did the number of billionaires
(mostly friends of the political leaders who picked up public
assets for a few pennies on the dollar). Things finally collapsed
in December 1994, and Mexico went into the worst recession of
its history. Wages, already poor, declined radically.
Mexico was the star pupil. It did everything right, and religiously
followed the World Bank and IMF's prescriptions. It was called
another great economic miracle, and it probably was ... for the
rich. But for most of the Mexican people, it's been a complete
... the power of business propaganda in the U.S. ... has succeeded,
to an unusual extent, in breaking down the relations among people
and their sense of support for one another.
... advertising ... is tax deductible, so we all pay for the privilege
of being manipulated and controlled.
The West doesn't have to pretend anymore that it's interested
in helping anybody.
... rights are the result of popular engagement and struggle.
You liberate yourself through participation with others ... Popular
organizations and umbrella groups help create a basis for this.
... when you come back from the Third World to the West - the
U.S. in particular - you are struck by the narrowing of thought
and understanding, the limited nature of legitimate discussion,
the separation of people from each other. It's startling how stultifying
it feels, since our opportunities are so vastly greater here.