Understanding Power

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Understanding Power is a 2002 collection of discussions with Noam Chomsky.

Sourced[edit]

  • …jingoism, racism, fear, religious fundamentalism: these are the ways of appealing to people if you’re trying to organize a mass base of support for policies that are really intended to crush them.
  • Well, law is a bit like a printing press—it’s kind of neutral, you can make it do anything. I mean, what lawyers are taught in law school is chicanery: how to convert words on paper into instruments of power. And depending where the power is, the law will mean different things.
  • See, people with power understand exactly one thing: violence.
  • The United States is deeply in debt—that was part of the whole Reagan/Bush program, in fact: to put the country so deeply in debt that there would be virtually no way for the government to pursue programs of social spending anymore. And what "being in debt" really means is that the Treasury Department has sold a ton of securities—bonds and notes and so on—to investors, who then trade them back and forth on the bond market. Well, according to the Wall Street Journal, by now about $150 billion a day worth of U.S. Treasury securities alone is traded this way. The article then explained what this means: it means that if the investing community which holds those securities doesn’t like any U.S. government policies, it can very quickly sell off just a tiny signal amount of Treasury bonds, and that will have the automatic effect of raising the interest rate, which then will have the further automatic effect of increasing the deficit. Okay, this article calculated that if such a "signal" sufficed to raise the interest rate by 1 percent, it would add $20 billion to the deficit overnight—meaning if Clinton (say in someone’s dream) proposed a $20 billion social spending program, the international investing community could effectively turn it into a $40 billion program instantly, just by a signal, and any further moves in that direction would be totally cut off.
  • …so long as power remains privately concentrated, everybody, everybody, has to be committed to one overriding goal: and that’s to make sure that the rich folk are happy—because unless they are, nobody else is going to get anything. So if you’re a homeless person sleeping in the streets of Manhattan, let’s say, your first concern must be that the guys in the mansions are happy—because if they’re happy, then they’ll invest, and the economy will work, and things will function, and then maybe something will trickle down to you somewhere along the line. But if they’re not happy, everything’s going to grind to a halt, and you’re not even going to get anything trickling down.
  • See, capitalism is not fundamentally racist—it can exploit racism for its purposes, but racism isn't built into it. Capitalism basically wants people to be interchangeable cogs, and differences among them, such as on the basis of race, usually are not functional. I mean, they may be functional for a period, like if you want a super exploited workforce or something, but those situations are kind of anomalous. Over the long term, you can expect capitalism to be anti-racist—just because it's anti-human. And race is in fact a human characteristic—there's no reason why it should be a negative characteristic, but it is a human characteristic. So therefore identifications based on race interfere with the basic ideal that people should be available just as consumers and producers, interchangeable cogs who will purchase all the junk that's produced—that's their ultimate function, and any other properties they might have are kind of irrelevant, and usually a nuisance.
  • …there are no two points of view more antithetical than classical liberalism and capitalism—and that's why when the University of Chicago publishes a bicentennial edition of Smith, they have to distort the text (which they did): because as a true classical liberal, Smith was strongly opposed to all of the idiocy they now sprout in his name.
  • In a traditional society like the feudal system, people had a certain place, and they had certain rights—in fact, they had what was called at the time a "right to live." I mean, under feudalism it may have been a lousy right, but nevertheless people were assumed to have some natural entitlement for survival. But with the rise of what we call capitalism, that right had to be destroyed: people had to have it knocked out of their heads that they had any automatic "right to live" beyond what they could win for themselves on the labor market. And that was the main point of classical economics.
    • Chapter 7: The Fraud of Modern Economics
  • See, the "science" [of political economy] happens to be a very flexible one: you can change it to do whatever you feel like, it's that kind of "science."
    • Chapter 7: The Fraud of Modern Economics
  • Nothing in these abstract economic models actually works in the real world. It doesn't matter how many footnotes they put in, or how many ways they tinker around the edges. The whole enterprise is totally rotten at the core: it has no relation to reality anymore—and furthermore, it never did.
    • Chapter 7: The Fraud of Modern Economics
  • In fact, just take a look at the history of "trucking and bartering" itself; look at the history of modern capitalism, about which we know a lot. The first thing you'll notice is, peasants had to be driven by force and violence into a wage-labor system they did not want; then major efforts were undertaken—conscious efforts—to create wants. In fact, if you look back, there's a whole interesting literature of conscious discussion of the need to manufacture wants in the general population. It's happened over the whole long stretch of capitalism of course, but one place where you can see it very nicely encapsulated is around the time when slavery was terminated. It's very dramatic too at cases like these. For example, in 1831 there was a big slave revolt in Jamaica—which was one of the things that led the British to decide to give up slavery in their colonies: after some slave revolts, they basically said, "It's not paying anymore." So within a couple of years the British wanted to move from a slave economy to a so-called "free" economy, but they still wanted the basic structure to remain exactly the same—and if you take a look back at the parliamentary debates in England at the time, they were talking very consciously about all this. They were saying: look, we've got to keep it the way it is, the masters have to become the owners, the slave have to become the happy workers—somehow we've got to work it all out. Well, there was a little problem in Jamaica: since there was a lot of open land there, when the British let the slaves go free they just wanted to move out onto the land and be perfectly happy, they didn't want to work for the British sugar plantations anymore. So what everyone was asking in Parliament in London was, "How can we force them to keep working for us, even when they're no longer enslaved into it?" Alright, two things were decided upon: first, they would use state force to close off the open land and prevent people from going and surviving on their own. And secondly, they realized that since all these workers didn't really want a lot of things—they just wanted to satisfy their basic needs, which they could easily do in that tropical climate—the British capitalists would have to start creating a whole set of wants for them, and make them start desiring things they didn't then desire, so then the only way they'd be able to satisfy their new material desires would be by working for wages in the British sugar plantations. There was very conscious discussion of the need to create wants—and in fact, extensive efforts were then undertaken to do exactly what they do on T.V. today: to create wants, to make you want the latest pair of sneakers you don't really need, so then people will be driven into a wage-labor society. And that pattern has been repeated over and over again through the whole entire history of capitalism. In fact, what the whole history of capitalism shows is that people have had to be driven into situations which are then claimed to be their nature. But if the history of capitalism shows anything, it shows it's not their nature, that they've had to be forced into it, and that that effort has had to be maintained right until this day.
    • pp. 203-204
  • So when you go to graduate school in the natural sciences, you're immediately brought into critical inquiry—and, in fact, what you're learning is kind of a craft; you don't really teach science, people sort of get the idea how to do it as apprentices, hopefully by working with good people. But the goal is to learn how to do creative work, and to challenge everything.… People have to be trained for creativity and disobedience—because there is no other way you can do science. But in the humanities and social sciences, and in fields like journalism and economics and so on … people have to be trained to be managers, and controllers, and to accept things, and not to question too much.
  • Remember that the media have two basic functions. One is to indoctrinate the elites, to make sure they have the right ideas and know how to serve power. In fact, typically the elites are the most indoctrinated segment of a society, because they are the ones who are exposed to the most propaganda and actually take part in the decision-making process. For them you have the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and so on. But there’s also a mass media, whose main function is just to get rid of the rest of the population—to marginalize and eliminate them, so they don’t interfere with decision-making. And the press that’s designed for that purpose isn’t the New York Times and the Washington Post, it’s sitcoms on television, and the National Enquirer, and sex and violence, and babies with three heads, and football, all that kind of stuff.
  • …another thing you sometimes find in non-literate cultures is development of the most extraordinary linguistic systems: often there's tremendous sophistication about language, and people play all sorts of games with language. So there are puberty rites where people who go through the same initiation period develop their own language that's usually some modification of the actual language, but with quite complex mental operations differentiating it—then that's theirs for the rest of their lives, and not other people's. And what all these things look like is that people just want to use their intelligence somehow, and if you don't have a lot of technology and so on, you do other things. Well, in our society, we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can't get involved in them in a very serious way—so what they do is they put their minds into other things, such as sports. You're trained to be obedient; you don't have an interesting job; there's no work around for you that's creative; in the cultural environment you're a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they're in the hands of the rich folks. So what's left? Well, one thing that's left is sports—so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that. And I suppose that's also one of the basic functions it serves in the society in general: it occupies the population, and keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter.
  • The real lesson of Nixon's fall is that the President shouldn't call Thomas Watson and McGeorge Bundy bad names—that means the Republic's collapsing. And the press prides itself on having exposed this fact. On the other hand, if you want to send the FBI to organize the assassination of a Black Panther leader, that's fine by us; it's fine by the Washington Post too.
  • The bombing of Cambodia did not even appear in Nixon's Articles of Impeachment. It was raised in the Senate hearing, but only in one interesting respect—the question that was raised was, why hadn't Nixon informed Congress? It wasn't, why did you carry out one of the most intense bombings in history in densely populated areas of peasant country, killing maybe 150,000 people? That never came up.

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