Global Discontents

Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy

by Noam Chomsky


Global Discontents

Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy

by Noam Chomsky

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Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread state surveillance of Internet and telephone communications have caused some consternation here in the United States—and around the world. Were you at all surprised by the government’s electronic dragnet?

Somewhat—not a lot. I think we can take for granted that if technology or other means of control and domination are available, then power systems are going to use them. Take the recent revelations about the relationship between the National Security Agency (NSA) and Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is a synonym for the commercial use of surveillance. The NSA is going to Silicon Valley for help, because the commercial enterprises have been doing this already, on a great scale, and they have the technological expertise. So apparently, a private security officer was brought to the NSA to help them develop sophisticated techniques of surveillance and control.1

The technology is available. You can use it for making money, and you can use it for controlling people’s attitudes and beliefs, directing them toward what you want them to do. So they do.

In fact, anyone who has paid any attention to history should not be in the least surprised. Go back a century to the U.S. war in the Philippines. The United States invaded the Philippines, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and finally suppressed the resistance. But then they had to pacify the population. There are very good studies about this, particularly by Al McCoy, a Philippines historian. He shows that the U.S. was very successful in pacifying the population, using the most advanced intelligence-gathering and surveillance techniques of the day—not our technology but what you had a century ago—to sow distrust, confusion, and antagonisms, standard devices of counterinsurgency. He also points out that it was just a few years before these techniques were used back home. The Woodrow Wilson administration used them in their Red Scare. That’s how it works.2

Just like with drones. Another recent admission, hardly a surprise, is that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been using drones for surveillance. You use them against those you designate as enemies, and you very quickly adapt the same technology at home. And there’s more to come. For years, the military and the security system in general have been trying to develop fly-sized drones, which can get into your living room to see and record everything that’s happening. The robotics labs have gotten to the point where they’re about ready to deliver this technology.

If you look abroad, drones were at first used for surveillance. Later, they were used for murder. And we can expect that domestically, too. If there is a suspect, maybe a person with the wrong idea, maybe someone like Fred Hampton, instead of sending the Chicago police in to murder him, maybe you can murder him with a drone. We can expect that.

Fred Hampton being the Black Panther activist in Chicago who was murdered, along with another Black Panther, Mark Clark, in 1969.

That was a real Gestapo-style assassination, which stayed undercover for the longest time.

If a technology is available, a system of power is going to make use of it. Back through history, that’s what you find. So to be surprised is to have blind faith in power systems that somehow they’re not going to use what’s available to them as a way of controlling, dominating, and indoctrinating people. But, of course, whether commercial enterprises or a state, they will. Yes, the particulars can be surprising. I didn’t know that they had the PRISM program, a secret tool that allowed NSA officials to gather search histories, e-mails, chats, and other data directly from companies like Google and Facebook.3 But you can’t really be surprised at the general phenomenon.

To take just one more example: the MIT Technology Review had a news item describing how corporations are becoming wary about using computers with components manufactured in China, because apparently it’s technically possible to design hardware that will detect everything the computer is doing.4 Naturally, they don’t add the next point, which is that if the Chinese can do it, the United States can do it much better. So what’s so safe about using computers with hardware manufactured in the United States? Pretty soon, we’ll have every keystroke sent off to the president’s database in Utah.

You’ve noted that there is a generational gap in responses to these NSA revelations.

I haven’t seen a study, but what I sense—at least, from discussion and what I’ve read—is that younger people are less offended by this than older people. And I suspect it’s part of a cultural shift that’s taking place, among younger people particularly, toward a kind of exhibitionist culture. You put everything on your Facebook page: what you’re doing, what you’re wearing, what you’re thinking. Everything is exposed. And if everything is exposed, who cares if the government sees it?

Do you see this trend toward a surveillance state as part of a drift toward totalitarianism? Or is that too strong a term?

It’s a move in that direction. But there is a considerable gap between collecting data and having a way to use it. One of the more positive aspects of this, if you want to put it that way, is that the authorities probably don’t have the competence to make use of the material they are collecting. They can make use of it for particular purposes. If there’s this huge database in Utah, which is going to have massive information on everybody sooner or later, if there’s some person they want to go after—the next Fred Hampton, let’s say—then they can get plenty of information about that person, and it may enable them to control or maybe even kill that person. But short of that, it’s not clear that they can do very much.

We saw this in the past. The FBI, using much more primitive means, had tons of data about everyone. We all knew back in the 1960s, and ever since, that every activist organization was probably infiltrated by government spies. In fact, people pretty quickly learned that if you wanted to do anything sensitive, you did it with an affinity group, not even with your comrades, because one of them was probably a police informant. But in many ways, the government couldn’t do much with the data they gathered. They could do certain things, like harming a particular individual. But if you look at, say, the trials of the Vietnam War resistance, it was amazing what the FBI couldn’t do.

I followed those trials closely.5 The main one was the so-called Spock-Coffin trial.

That involved Dr. Benjamin Spock and Reverend William Sloane Coffin Jr., who were accused of conspiring to help young men resist the draft.

I was an unindicted co-conspirator, so I sat in on the trial. After the prosecution rested its case, the defense met to decide what to do. The original thought had been, It’s an open-and-shut case, so just say that everyone is guilty. Don’t deny it. In fact, proudly proclaim it. Put on a political defense. But the defense lawyers decided not to put on a defense at all, because the prosecution’s case turned out to be really weak. People were standing up at Town Hall in New York and saying, “We hereby conspire to undermine the Selective Service Act”—but the government just didn’t pay attention to that. Instead, they spent all their time trying to figure out where we were getting our instructions from. Was it Hungary or North Korea? What were we really doing? It couldn’t be what was said in the open. So they just missed everything.

It was the same with the Pentagon Papers. When Dan Ellsberg was underground—he hadn’t yet revealed himself—a number of people were distributing the papers. I was one of them. The press was after me all the time. I was getting regular calls from newspapers from the United States and abroad asking to see part of the Pentagon Papers. But the FBI never figured out that I had them. After Dan surfaced and identified himself, then FBI agents came to my house to question me. After. Apparently, they just hadn’t been able to figure out what the press had figured out.

There’s case after case like this. Their own mentality directs them to certain kinds of conspiratorial actions, yet a lot of resistance is purposely open. You’re trying to reach people, explain to them what you’re doing. It’s not underground. Some things, like getting a deserter out of the country, you do quietly. But other things—like saying, “Let’s refuse to pay taxes” or “Let’s break down this legal system, which is causing vast atrocities and crimes”—those aren’t hidden.

When Obama was first elected, you were not part of the chorus of cheerleaders. What about the continuities between George W. Bush and Barack Obama? Are there any?

Yes, there are real continuities. Obama extended enormously some of the more harmful and, in fact, criminal aspects of Bush’s programs.

Obama is credited with having withdrawn troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. But those withdrawals were already under way. In Iraq, it was clear that the United States was basically defeated. Its war aims were unrealizable, and the Bush administration was starting to pull out. In Afghanistan, Obama actually expanded the war in the hope of achieving some kind of victory. It didn’t happen. There, too, the troops were going to have to leave. So those withdrawals were nothing special.

But he extended other programs, like the drone program. Right away. And we should remember that this is an international terrorist campaign—the world’s leading international terrorist campaign. If you’re living in a village in Yemen or North Waziristan and you don’t know whether in five minutes a sudden explosion across the street will blow away a bunch of people who are standing there, and maybe hit you as well, you’re terrorized. You live with this fear all the time. That’s sheer terror, by the narrowest definition of the term. And this is happening on a massive scale.

There’s a lot of focus on so-called signature strikes, in which we don’t actually know who the person is that we’re shooting at. We’re killing people just because their age, location, and behavior supposedly match the “signature” of terrorist activity. And that’s clearly bad. But the whole idea of drone strikes is outrageous. It’s pure terrorism on a scale that Al Qaeda couldn’t dream of.

Furthermore, this campaign is generating terrorists—and is known to be doing so. The highest-level officials and commentators have pointed out that these attacks are creating potential terrorists. It’s perfectly obvious why. A couple of days after the Boston Marathon bombings, for instance, there was a drone attack in Yemen. Usually we don’t know much about these strikes. This one we do know about because a young man from the village happened to testify before the U.S. Senate. He said that for years the jihadis in Yemen had been trying to turn the village against the Americans, but it hadn’t worked, because the villagers didn’t know anything about the United States except what they’d been told by this young man, which was favorable. But after this one drone strike, he said, the whole village hates America.6 And once people hate America, some will try to do something about it. So it’s a terror-generating machine.

This also puts an interesting light on the discussion about the NSA exposures. The government justification for the surveillance is that we have to sacrifice some privacy for security. We’re talking about a government that is deliberately undermining security—and creating a terrorist threat beyond any that exists. How can we not just collapse in ridicule when they say we have to have surveillance to promote security?

Actually, the idea that governments place a high priority on security is mythical. You learn it in international relations courses. But just take a look at history. It’s easy to show that it’s not true.

What is driving Obama’s assault on civil liberties and prosecution of whistle-blowers?

That’s a good question. As you mentioned, I really didn’t expect very much from Obama. I wrote critically about him even before the primaries, just quoting his website. It was pretty clear that his campaign was smoke and mirrors. But I don’t understand what he’s gained by his enormous escalation of the attack on civil liberties.

He has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than all the presidents in the entire history of the country combined. But there are also other cases that the Obama administration has brought to the courts that involve major attacks on civil liberties. One of the worst is Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. This is a legal-assistance group that was giving legal advice to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish group that is on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. Just giving legal advice. The Obama administration wanted to expand the notion of “material support for terrorism” to include advice. Material support used to mean handing you a gun. Now it means saying, “Here are your legal rights.”

If you look at the discussion in the court proceeding, it’s pretty clear that the administration interprets material support to mean almost any interaction with what they call terrorist groups.7 So, say, if I meet Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, because I’m interested in knowing what he’s doing—Nasrallah is an interesting person—that could be called material support for terrorism. That’s a tremendous attack on civil liberties.

This is, incidentally, quite apart from the issue of the legitimacy of the State Department’s terrorist list—which, unfortunately, is unquestioned. Why is it legitimate in the first place? Why is the state executive granted the authority to capriciously decide you’re a terrorist? Why does the state have the right to say that Nelson Mandela is a terrorist, which they insisted on until just a couple of years ago?8 Why do they have the right to say, as Ronald Reagan did in 1982, that Saddam Hussein isn’t a terrorist, just because the U.S. government wanted to give him aid?9 Can we even take this seriously? If somebody is put on a terrorist list, they have no recourse. There is no way of saying, “Look, I’m not a terrorist.”

The government doesn’t have to provide any evidence, and there’s no judicial review. The list is an executive authorization for murder. We shouldn’t accept this in the first place. And we shouldn’t accept a concept of material support that says that if you tell someone their legal rights, or maybe even if you just have discussions with them, you’re helping terrorism.

Given the structural constraints of the national security state, can a president fundamentally change U.S. foreign policy?

Sure. A president can’t just say, “Okay, I’m going to change U.S. foreign policy.” But the president has a lot of power to reach the public. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used this power. Lyndon Johnson used it. Public opinion can, I think, easily be turned against the national security state. If you look at polls, plenty of people are opposed to surveillance. The ones who support surveillance are the ones who are as deluded as people like Thomas Friedman or Bill Keller at the New York Times, who think that we have to have surveillance for the sake of security—not noticing that the very administration that is calling for defense against terrorism is maximizing terrorism and the threats against us. But these are things a president could overcome.

A president could say, “Look, these operations that we’re carrying out are generating potential terrorists, and the way to protect ourselves from terrorism is to stop doing them.” And I think this would get enormous support, if it were said not just in one speech but consistently and clearly, using all the resources available to the president. I suppose if the president said it, even Thomas Friedman would repeat it. After all, that’s his job: to repeat what is said by a president he supports. I only pick Friedman because he’s in many ways the most egregious of the surveillance supporters.

One thing that comes up periodically is frustration with the Democrats and the Republicans. People are exploring alternative parties. What are the pitfalls of going in that direction?

The first thing we should do is be realistic about the party system. Years ago, it used to be said, sardonically, that the United States has only one party: the business party, with two factions. That’s no longer correct. It still has one party, the business party, but that party only has one faction. That faction is moderate Republicans. They’re now called Democrats, but they’re in fact what used to be moderate Republicans, since everything has shifted to the right. There is also another political organization, the Republicans, but they are barely making a pretense of being a normal parliamentary party. They’re in lockstep service to wealth and power. They have to get votes somehow, so they’ve mobilized sectors of the population that they hope will be irrational and extremist.

The result is a population that is so confused and demoralized they just can’t see what’s in front of them. The most striking case of this is taxes. That’s been polled for, I think, thirty-five years, and the results are consistent: a large majority favor higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations—the Democratic position.10 Yet when asked to name the party they support on taxes, a majority say the Republicans. The same thing happens with security, health, and other issues. This is even true of so-called right-wing voters. Many of them support basic social-democratic policies, such as more spending on health and education, which is what the government does—but they don’t support “government.”

This confusion goes along with rising contempt for institutions—all institutions. Congress (single digits favorable), banks, corporations, science, anything. They’re all against us. And some of the attitudes are really mind-boggling. Among people who call themselves Republicans, I think about half say that Obama is intent on imposing sharia law, not just on the United States but on the whole world, and about a quarter think maybe he’s the Antichrist.11

Politicians are tapping elements of irrationality that are almost beyond description, including people who think we have to have guns to defend ourselves from the federal government. Rand Paul was recently trying to organize opposition to the U.N. small-arms treaty.12 “Small arms” here means anything less than a jet plane. His opposition to the treaty is that it’s a plot by the United Nations and the socialists, Obama and Hillary Clinton, to take away our guns so we won’t be able to defend ourselves when the U.N. comes to take away our sovereignty. This is a guy who might be running for president. He’s somewhere in outer space.

But that is what you find in a country that’s become demoralized, confused, and overwhelmed by propaganda, from commercial advertising to national policy. Where the population is very much atomized, so people don’t get together, don’t interact in ways that are politically significant.


Yes, solidarity. I don’t want to exaggerate. There are plenty of people, including young people, who are committed to solidarity, mutual support, a unified struggle against the dangers we face.

I hesitate to call Occupy a movement, but let’s use the term. Occupy has receded, clearly. Why do you think that happened?

I’m not so sure it has happened, frankly. I don’t think it’s clear at all. The Occupy tactic has receded. But that was obvious from day one.

The tent encampments.

You can’t sustain that for long. You can for a while, but that’s not the kind of tactic you can continue indefinitely. In fact, all tactics have a sort of half-life, and this one couldn’t last more than a few months. But there’s no question that Occupy lit a spark. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of such movements around the country, around the world, and they linked up with other such movements. And it’s still going on. In early June 2013, during the Left Forum in New York, a parallel demonstration took place in Zuccotti Park in solidarity with simultaneous demonstrations in Greece, Spain, and Taksim Square in Turkey. That’s solidarity. It’s growing all over the world, with lots of mutual interaction and support. Much of the Occupy movement has gone into blocking foreclosure, neighborhood organizing, opposition to police brutality, fixing schools.

Also assistance to the victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York.

Yes, that made the papers. The Occupy organizers were the first responders, actually. We would like the movement to achieve a bigger scale, but Occupy hasn’t gone away. These things are the hope for the future.

The Canadian poet and singer Leonard Cohen has a song called “Democracy,” which says that it “is coming to the U.S.A.” What will it take to make that happen?

The same thing it’s taken for hundreds of years. Go back to the earliest democratic revolution in the modern period, in seventeenth-century England. In the 1640s there was a civil war, Parliament against the king. The printing press was available at the time. There were radical pamphleteers, itinerant preachers, radical movements such as the Levellers and others, and they were spreading their propaganda, their ideas, quite widely. The gentry, the ones who called themselves “the men of best quality,” were appalled. They were appalled by pamphlets that said, “We don’t want to be ruled by a king or Parliament, we don’t want to be ruled by knights and gentlemen, who do but oppress us, but to be governed by countrymen like ourselves, who know the people’s sores.” And the gentry had to do something to stamp out democracy, which is always a threat.

Fast-forward a century to the American Revolution, so-called, and read the constitutional debates. James Madison and others were describing how to set up the constitutional system. The basic principle was enunciated by the president of the Continental Congress, John Jay, later the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. He said, “Those who own the country ought to govern it.”13 Or as Madison put it, power has to be in the hands of the wealth of the nation, the more responsible set of men who sympathize with property owners and understand that you have “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”14 The rest of the population has to be tamed to make sure they can’t do very much. That’s the way the constitutional system was actually established, quite apart from slavery and the exclusion of women and so on.

Ever since then, there have been struggles about democracy. A lot has been gained, but every gain in freedom elicits a reaction from “the men of best quality.” They don’t give up power happily. They constantly find new ways to try to control and dominate. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the main strategy has been to control opinion and attitudes. Huge industries, like the public relations industry, are devoted to this enterprise.

It’s interesting to see how little recognition there is of some very obvious facts about the public relations industry. Its core activity is commercial advertising. What’s commercial advertising? It’s a way to undermine markets. Business doesn’t want markets. Markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices. That’s the last thing businesses want. Take a look at a television ad, and it’s completely obvious that it’s trying to create an uninformed consumer, someone who will make a totally irrational choice—buy a Ford because some football player is standing next to it. The whole purpose is to undermine markets.

The same institutions run political campaigns and carry over the same ideas, techniques, and so-called creativity to try to undermine democracy, to make sure that you have uninformed voters making irrational choices. That’s how you can get poll results like the ones I described.

When you compare attitudes and opinions with policy, you find a huge gulf. But much more interesting, you find a class basis for the divergence. Roughly the bottom 70 percent of the population in income level has no influence on policy. They’re disenfranchised, so it doesn’t matter what they think. Political leaders don’t pay any attention to them. You go up the scale, people have more influence. You get to the real top, the one-tenth of 1 percent, they’re basically designing the policies, so, of course, they get what they want. You can’t call this democracy. It’s plutocracy. It may be what Jim Hightower calls “radical kleptocracy.” That’s maybe a better term. Certainly not “democracy.” The 70 percent doesn’t need to read scholarly studies—they just know it doesn’t matter what they think. “They don’t pay any attention to us,” they figure, which is correct.

You’ve written about a “democracy deficit.”

“Deficit” is an understatement. Iran just had an election, and people criticized it, rightly, because you can’t even enter the Iranian political system unless you’re vetted by the clerics. That’s terrible, of course. But what happens here? You can’t enter the political system unless you’re vetted by concentrations of private capital. If you can’t raise hundreds of millions of dollars, you’re out. Is that better?

1. James Risen and Nick Wingfield, “Silicon Valley and Spy Agency Bound by Strengthening Web,” New York Times, 20 June 2013, A1.
2. Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).
3. Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, “NSA Prism Program Taps In to User Data of Apple, Google and Others,” Guardian, 7 June 2013. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/06/us-tech-giants-nsa-data.
4. Bruce Schneier, “Online Nationalism,” MIT Technology Review 116:3 (May–June 2013): 12.
5. Noam Chomsky et al., Trials of the Resistance (New York: New York Review, 1970).
6. Charlie Savage, “Drone Strikes Turn Allies into Enemies, Yemeni Says,” New York Times, 23 April 2013. The testimony of Farea al-Muslimi is available online at: “Yemeni Man Brings the Horror of Drone Strikes Home to the US Senate,” Independent (London), 24 April 2013.
7. Adam Liptak, “Justices Uphold a Ban on Aiding Terror Groups,” New York Times, 22 June 2010, A1. The published opinion for Attorney General Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project is available online at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1498.pdf.
8. Caitlin Dewey, “Why Nelson Mandela Was on a Terrorism Watch List in 2008,” Washington Post, 7 December 2013. Available online at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2013/12/07/why-nelson-mandela-was-on-a-terrorism-watch-list-in-2008/.
9. Joyce Battle, ed., “Shaking Hands with Saddam Hussein: The U.S. Tilts Toward Iraq, 1980–1984,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book no. 82, February 25, 2003. Available online at: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB82/.
10. See Gallup poll data available at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1714/taxes.aspx.
11. Newsweek poll/Princeton Survey Research Associates International, “Obama/Muslims: Final Topline Results,” 27 August 2010. Available online at: http://nw-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/pdf/1004-ftop.pdf.
12. Ezra Klein, “Rand Paul: Obama Is Working with ‘Anti-American Globalists Plot[ting] Against Our Constitution,’ ” Washington Post, 11 May 2013. Available online at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/05/11/rand-paul-obama-is-working-with-anti-american-globalists-plotting-against-our-constitution/.
13. William Jay, The Life of John Jay (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1833), vol. 1, ch. 3.
14. James Madison, quoted in Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, Taken by the Late Hon Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York, and One of the Delegates from That State to the Said Convention, 26 June 1787. Available online at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/yates.asp.


Copyright © 2017 by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian