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Take from the Needy and Give to the Greedy 1 ñòðàíèöà
October 31 and November 3, 1995
DBYou’ve been following the World Court case, the Timor Gap Treaty involving Portugal and Australia. What’s happened with that?
On June 30th the World Court announced its decision, actually non-decision. It decided to evade the issue. There were procedural issues, like, Can they go ahead at all with Indonesia not there, and then if they had agreed to that there would have been the substantive issues, but they stopped on the procedural issues. On a vote of 12-3, they said that they could not proceed without Indonesia present, so the issue’s dead. On the other hand, if you read the whole ruling, it’s not completely empty. For example, they did say that there can be no doubt under international law that East Timor has the inalienable right of self-determination; but they said they can’t proceed any further on the technical matter of the treaty without one of the parties present, and Indonesia refuses to take part, just like the U.S. on Nicaragua. In Nicaragua they did go ahead, but on this one they didn’t.
DBYou’ve commented on the relative power of Australia vis-à-vis Portugal in arguing this case.
I haven’t seen the whole record, but what I saw of Portugal’s case
didn’t look to me very impressive. And Australia had (again, what I saw of it) they did it cleverly in the legal sense. After all, we have to remember that even at the World Court or the Supreme Court the law is to a considerable extent a sort of duel where truth and significance are around the fringes somewhere. A lot of it is show and technique. One thing that Australia brought up that embarrassed Portugal a lot, although it’s irrelevant, had to do with their dealings with Morocco and Western Sahara, which the Australians brought up to show, You’re just being hypocritical. Two seconds’ worth of thought shows that whether they’re being hypocritical or not has zero to do with this case. But in the court deliberations and the colloquy they apparently have a lot to do with it. That’s standard courtroom procedure. And the Australians seemed pretty good at that. It’s a First World country, and they know how to play these games.
DBI’m not familiar with the Portuguese position. Are they in favor of the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara?
I don’t know the exact details, but they apparently made some kind of deal with Morocco about maybe Western Saharan minerals or something. The Australians brought this up and said, This is a paralIel, so how can you even bring up the case of East Timor? At most what it shows is that Portugal is hypocritical, which is not the issue. But as courts work, it was an issue.
DBYou’ve just returned from a series of talks in Washington and Oregon. There were the by now customary huge turnouts and standing ovations and the like. But I sense you feel some disquiet. What’s that about?
To tell you the honest truth, when I see a huge mob, which is pretty common these days, I have a mixture of feelings. Partly I’m sort of depressed about it, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, there’s just too much personalization. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s worrisome. The other thing is that the ratio of passive participation to active engagement is way too high. These were well-arranged talks. For example, they did what a lot of people don’t do and ought to do. Every place I went there were a dozen tables outside with every conceivable organization having leaflets and handouts and sign-up sheets and telling what they’re up to. So if people want to do anything there are easy answers to what you can do in your own community. The question that comes up over and over again, and I don’t really have an answer still, (really, I don’t know any other people who have answers to them), is, It’s terrible, awful, getting worse. What do we do? Tell me the answer. The trouble is, there has not in history ever been any answer other than, Get to work on it.
There are a thousand different ways of getting to work on it. For one thing, there’s no “it.” There’s lots of different things. You can think of long-term goals and visions you have in mind, but even if that’s what you’re focused on, you’re going to have to take steps towards them. The steps can be in all kinds of directions, from caring about starving children in Central America or Africa, to working on the rights of working people here, to worrying about the fact that the environment’s in serious danger. There’s no one thing that’s the right thing to do. It depends on what your interests are and what’s going on and what the problems are and so on. And you have to deal with them. There’s very little that anybody can do about these things alone. Occasionally somebody can, but it’s marginal. Mainly you work with other people to try to develop ideas and learn more about it and figure out appropriate tactics for the situation in question and deal with them and try to develop more support. That’s the way everything happens, whether it’s small changes
or huge changes.
If there is a magic answer, I don’t know it. But it sounds to me as if the tone of the questions and part of the disparity between listening and acting suggests—I’m sure this is unfair—Tell me something that’s going to work pretty soon or else I’m not going to bother, because I’ve got other things to do. Nothing is going to work pretty soon, at least if it’s worth doing, nor has that ever been the case.
To get back to the point, even in talks like these, the organizers told me they did get a fair amount of apparent engagement. People would ask, Can I join your group? or What can I do? or Do you have some suggestions? If that works, okay, it’s fine. But usually, there’s a kind of chasm between the scale of the audience, and even its immediate reaction, and the follow-up. That’s depressing.
DBYou continue to be in tremendous demand for these speaking engagements. Are you considering stopping?
I would be delighted to stop. For me it’s not a great joy, frankly. I do it because I like to do it. You meet wonderful people and they’re doing terrific things. It’s the most important thing I can imagine doing. But if the world would go away, I’d be happy to stop. What ought to be happening is that a lot of younger people ought to be coming along and doing all these things. If that happens, fine. I’m glad to drift off into the background. That’s fine by me. It’s not happening much. That’s another thing that I worry about. There’s a real invisibility of left intellectuals who might get involved. I’m not talking about people who want to come by and say, okay, I’m your leader. Follow me. I’ll run your affairs. There’s always plenty of those people around. But the kind of people who are just always doing things, like whether it was workers’ education or being in the streets or being around where there’s something they can
contribute, helping organizing—that’s always been part of the vocation of intellectuals from Russell and Dewey on to people whose names you never heard of but who are doing important things. There’s a visible gap there today, for all kinds of reasons. A number of people involved in these things have been talking about it. I’m sure you’ve heard of others.
DBI wouldn’t entirely agree. There are some voices out there, like Holly Sklar, Winona LaDuke, and others that represent a younger generation.
It’s not zero. But I think it’s nothing like the scale of what it ought to be or indeed has been in the past. Maybe it was that way in the past for not great reasons. A lot of those people were around the periphery of, say, the Communist Party, which had its own serious problems. But whatever the reasons, I think there’s a very detectable fact. There’s plenty of left intellectuals. They’re just doing other things. Most of those things are not related to, are sometimes even subversive to these kinds of activities.
DBA talk you gave in Martha’s Vineyard in late August on corporate power was broadcast on C-SPAN a couple of weeks ago. What’s been the response to that?
The usual. There’s a huge flood of letters which I’m trying to answer, slowly. Many of them are mixed. Many of them are very engaged, very concerned. People say, It’s terrible. I’m glad somebody’s talking about it. I think the same way. What can I do, very often. There’s a strange fringe. A fair number of people interpret me as saying things that are very remote from what I mean. I’ll get a very enthusiastic letter saying this is great, I’m so glad to hear it, marvelous and wonderful, thanks,
etc. I’d like to share with you what I’ve done about this. Then comes some document which is in my view often off the wall, but anyway completely unrelated to anything I’m talking about. So somewhere we’re not connecting. I think I even sort of know why. There’s a strange cultural phenomenon going on. It’s connected with this enormous growth of cultism, irrationality, dissociation, separateness, and isolation. All of this is going together. I think another aspect is the way the population is reacting to what’s happening to them. By margins that are by now so overwhelming that it’s even front-page news, people are strenuously opposed to everything that’s going on and are frightened and angry and are reacting like punch-drunk fighters. They’re just too alone, both in their personal lives and associations and also intellectually, without anything to grasp. They don’t know how to respond except in irrational ways. In some ways it has sort of the tone of a devastated peasant society after a plague swept it or an army went through and ruined everything. People have just dissolved into inability to respond.
It’s kind of dramatic when you take, say, the opposite extreme in the hemisphere: Haiti. Here’s the poorest country in the hemisphere. It’s suffered enormous terror. People live in complete misery. I’ve seen a lot of Third World poverty, but it’s pretty hard to match what you find in the marketplaces in Port-au-Prince, let alone the hills. Here you have the worst conceivable situation, unimaginably horrible conditions. Poor people, people in the slums, peasants in the hills, managed to create out of their own activity a very lively, vibrant civil society with grassroots movements and associations and unions and ideas and commitment and hope and enthusiasm and so on which was astonishing in scale, so much so that without any resources they were able to take over the political system. Of course it’s Haiti, so the next thing that comes is the hammer on your head, which we sort of help to wield, but that’s another story. However, even after it all, apparently, it still survives. That’s under
the worst imaginable conditions.
Then you come to the U.S., the best imaginable conditions, and people simply haven’t a clue as to how to respond. The idea that we have to go to Haiti to teach them about democracy ought to have everyone in stitches. We ought to go there and learn something about democracy. People are asking the question here, What do I do? Go ask some illiterate Haitian peasant. They seem to know what to do. That’s what you should do.
There’s another aspect to this, another question that’s pretty common. I commonly say, and I believe, that this is a very free society, at least for people who are relatively privileged, which is an enormous number of people. The capacity of the government to coerce is very slight. A very common response (I heard it any number of times on this latest tour, but elsewhere as well) is, What about Kent State? Incidentally, not Jackson State. That rarely comes up. What about Joe McCarthy? Even that doesn’t get mentioned because that wouldn’t be relevant. I said “relatively privileged people.” If you’re a black organizer in the slums, sure, you have a lot of problems. But most of us aren’t. Anyhow, the sense that there is repression here is enormous. In comparison, I was in Haiti briefly right at the height of the terror, and people were scared out of their wits, and rightly, but they didn’t feel they had to stop because maybe someday there would be repression. If you compare the amount of repression that there is here with what there is in most of the world, where people don’t even think about it—they just continue—it’s pretty shocking.
DBSo that perception of omnipotent government power, do you attribute that to propaganda?
In a very broad sense I’d attribute it to propaganda, but here you
have to take the term “propaganda” pretty broadly. The whole doctrinal system, including the entertainment industry, the corporate media, the educational system, the political system, and everything else, there’s a public relations industry and a huge system that has been devoting itself for a long time very intensively and even self-consciously since the Second World War towards several tasks. One of them is demonizing unions. Another is making people hate and fear the government, which you might think is a little contradictory, since they control the government. But it’s not. There are plenty of things wrong with the government. But that’s not what they’re worried about. What they’re worried about is the one thing that’s right about it, namely, it’s potentially influenceable by the population.
That’s not true of private tyrannies. General Electric is not influenceable by the population except very indirectly through regulatory mechanisms which are very weak and which they mostly control anyhow. But you can’t vote to decide what they ought to do, and you can’t participate in those decisions. Those are tyrannies. Imagine yourself in the office of a public relations firm trying to turn people into the ideal state, namely manipulable atoms of consumption who are going to devote their energies to buying things that they don’t want because you tell them that’s what they want—advertising. They’re never going to get together to challenge anything, and they won’t have a thought in their heads except doing what they’re told. A perfect utopia. Suppose you’re trying to do that. What you do is get them to hate and fear the government, fear the bigness of the government. But not look at the Fortune 500, nor even medium-sized businesses, not ask how they work, not ask what were truisms to important mainstream political economists like Robert Brady sixty years ago, and in fact to the working-class movement throughout its history. These things are just tyrannical, totalitarian systems. You don’t want people to see that. You want them
to worry about the one thing that they might get involved in and that might even protect them from the depredations of private power. What would make sense would be to develop a mood of anti-politics. And it’s worked. People hate the government, fear the government, are worried about the bureaucrats.
Take, say, health. A lot of concern that government bureaucrats will be controlling it. There are many more bureaucrats in insurance offices controlling you. But that’s not what people worry about. It’s not those pointy-headed bureaucrats in insurance offices who are making us fill out these forms and telling us what to do and we’ve got to pay for their lunches and their advertising while they propagandize us. That’s not what people’s anger and fear is focused on. What it’s focused on, through very conscious manipulation and perfectly rational design, is this dangerous federal bureaucracy.
Actually, what’s going on now with the attempt at devolution, reducing decision making to the state level—that makes great sense if you believe in tyranny. There are circumstances in which regionalization would be a very good move. Devolution, lowering the level of power and decisionmaking closer to the popular level, could be a step toward democracy, but not when you’ve got private tyrannies around. When you’ve got private tyrannies around, the only institution that at least in part reflects public involvement, that can cope with them, is a very powerful one, namely, the federal government. Let’s say you send block grants down to the state. That’s a way of guaranteeing that they’re not going to get to poor people. Any even middle-sized business has all kinds of ways of pressuring states to make sure that that money ends up in their pockets and not in the pockets of hungry children. People can do this through regressive fiscal measures, the whole range of subsidies that governmental institutions provide to private powers that can threaten them—I’ll move to Tennessee tomorrow—so sure, devolution
under these circumstances is a great way to increase tyranny and to decrease the threat of democracy as well as to shift resources even more dramatically toward the rich and away from the poor. That’s the obvious consequence of devolution. But I’ve never seen it discussed in the mainstream, although it’s the obvious point.
What’s discussed is complete irrelevancies, like whether we can trust the governors to care for the poor. What’s that got to do with anything? It’s totally meaningless. But that kind of absurdity is what’s discussed, but not the obvious, overwhelming fact that distributing governmental resources to the lower levels will simply make them more susceptible to influence and control by private power. That’s the major fact. And it’s part of the same anti-politics. We want to weaken the federal government.
Incidentally, that’s only half true. The federal government is not being weakened. It’s just being changed. The security system is going up, not only the Pentagon, but even the internal security system, jails, etc. That aspect of the government is going up. That’s not just for control, although it’s partly for that. It’s also because it’s part of the way of transferring resources to the rich, which is virtually never discussed. In fact, it’s almost off the agenda, unless you read the business press. But it’s overwhelmingly significant. It ought to be a front-page article every day. By now it is so obvious it’s hard to miss. The Russians are gone. The Pentagon stays the same, in fact it’s even going up. We were told for fifty years, which of course was always ridiculous, that we need this huge military to defend us from the Russians. How stupid can you be, and how indoctrinated can you be? Don’t you ever ask a question about what happened? What happened is, it’s there for the same reason it always was. How else are Newt Gingrich’s rich constituents going to stay rich? You obviously can’t subject them to market discipline. They’ll be out selling rags. They wouldn’t know what it means to exist in a
market. What they know is, the government puts money in their pockets, and the main way it does it is through the whole Pentagon system. In fact, the criminal security system is beginning to take on this character. It’s reached, if not the scale of the Pentagon, it’s reached a sufficient scale so that the big investment firms and even high-tech industry, defense industry, are getting intrigued by the prospects of feeding at another public cash cow. That’s going up. So it’s not that the government is getting weaker.
But this long and very successful effort over many, many years to get people to focus their fears and angers and hatred on the government has had its effect. We all know there’s plenty to be upset about there. The primary thing to be upset about is that it is not under popular influence. It is under the influence of the private powers. That’s the primary source of things we ought to worry about. But then to deal with that by giving private, unaccountable power even more power is just beyond absurdity. It’s a real achievement of doctrinal managers to have been able to carry this off.
DBYou’ll recall Orwell’s Animal Farm: Two feet bad, four feet good. Public sector bad, private sector good. It’s kind of playing out right now.
It’s kind of intriguing. Economists know that this is mostly nonsense. But they don’t talk about it, except to each other. If you really look at the mantras, take, say, “Public sector bad.” What does that mean? Is there some evidence that privatization is a good idea? It’s just something you repeat because it’s drilled into your head. Sure, privatization makes things more efficient. Does it? There are experiences. For example, we can look at Mexico. What privatization did was rapidly increase the number of millionaires, accelerate the decline of real wages and social
conditions. Did it make things better? Well, yes, for 24 billionaires. You can object and say, That’s Mexico, a corrupt Third World country. So let’s take England, which is a couple of steps ahead of us in privatization. Under Thatcher they privatized the water system. It was a public utility. So now it’s private. What’s happened? You can even read about it on the front page of the Financial Times. You don’t have to go to obscure publications any more. And they’re pretty irate. What happened is, profits have gone through the roof, prices have gone way up, and service has gone way down. In fact, sooner or later, it’s not very far from now you’ll be hearing proposals from the private owners that it’s not cost-effective to deliver water to scattered or small communities. What they ought to do is go to a pump in the center of town and pick it up with buckets because any smart economist can prove that that’s more cost-effective and improves the GNP and that’s the best distribution of resources. Sure, that’s privatization.
And, not for obscure reasons, a private corporation is not in the business of being humanitarian. It’s in the business of increasing profit and market share. Doing that typically is extremely harmful to the general population. It may make some numbers look good. It may create what’s called an “economic miracle,” meaning great for investors and murderous for the population. But there’s no reason to think it’s a good thing. What’s claimed is, look at the inefficiency and corruption of the public institutions, which is true. Are the private ones better? The evidence for this is, as far as I know, nonexistent. What can be pointed out, and it’s correct, is that public industrial systems, like the Brazilian steel industry, often lost money. But that loss of money was part of a way of subsidizing private industry. So if you keep steel prices artificially low, that will be a gain for the people who are using steel, even though that system will run at a loss.
On the other hand, if you think about the effect over the whole
economy, it’s much more complicated a story, and I don’t think there’s any single answer to it. Sometimes private industry has been efficient, and sometimes even helpful to people, which is quite different from being inefficient, in fact often unrelated to it. Sometimes it has, and many times it hasn’t. It depends on the circumstances, on factors that people don’t understand very well. But the idea that somehow privatization automatically improves things is absurd.
DBIn Australia earlier this year you commented that you felt like you were in somewhat of an odd situation in terms of your own political philosophy. You are defending the notion of the state and the role of the state, that the state has an active role to play to protect people’s interests.
This was actually an address at an anarchist conference. I pointed out what I think is true, that your goals and your visions are often in direct conflict. Visions are long-term things, what you’d like to achieve down the road. But if we mean by goals that which we’re trying to do tomorrow, they can often appear to be in conflict with long-term visions. It’s not really a conflict. I think we’re in such a case right now. In the long term I think the centralized political power ought to be eliminated and dissolved and turned down ultimately to the local level, finally, with federalism and associations and so on. Sure, in the long term that’s my vision. On the other hand, right now I’d like to strengthen the federal government. The reason is, we live in this world, not some other world. And in this world there happen to be huge concentrations of private power which are as close to tyranny and as close to totalitarian as anything humans have devised, and they have extraordinary power. They are unaccountable to the public. There’s only one way of defending rights that have been attained or extending their scope in the face of
these private powers, and that’s to maintain the one form of illegitimate power that happens to be somewhat responsive to the public and which the public can indeed influence. So you end up supporting centralized state power even though you oppose it. People who think there is a contradiction in that just aren’t thinking very clearly.
DBThere are two visions of the role of government. James Madison in 1787 saw its role as “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Then you have FDR in 1937 saying, “The test of our nation’s progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” Obviously one of those visions is dominant today. Why?
In the case of Madison, you have to be a little more careful. That was indeed Madison’s main theme, and that’s what you ought to learn in elementary school, because that in fact won. The Constitution was framed in Madisonian terms. He had a more complex argument. He was strongly opposed to democracy and warned against it. He talked about England, which was the model of the day, and said, If those guys had democracy over there the people would get together and take over the estates of the landed proprietors, and use their property for themselves instead of allowing the rich and powerful to maintain it. So obviously we can’t have democracy. We don’t want anything like that to happen here. So democracy is a bad thing. The prime responsibility of government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority, and we have to set up the constitutional system so that this will work.
But there’s a hidden theme there. The hidden theme is that he is precapitalist. Capitalism was just in its early origins, and he was basically opposed to it. His idea was that the opulent minority are going to be benevolent aristocrats, Enlightenment gentlemen who sit around reading
philosophy and who are genuine conservatives in an old-fashioned sense, a sense which doesn’t exist in the U.S.: Conservatives in the European sense, who would be enlightened and benevolent. So they’ll be like benevolent tyrants. So that’s not inconsistent with what Roosevelt was saying, except with regard to the institutional structure.
Madison also quickly learned that that’s not the case. A couple of years later he was bitterly condemning the system that he had created and talking about the “daring depravity of the times” as the rising class of business people become the “tools and tyrants” of government, overwhelming it with their force and benefiting from its gifts. That’s a pretty good description of what’s going on today. That was in the 1790s. When he saw that the minority of the opulent are not nice gentlemanly aristocrats or Enlightenment philosophers who are going to make sure that everybody is healthy and happy, he was outraged and infuriated. Nevertheless, the picture he presented, extricated from the context in which he understood it, has been the dominant view and now has reached an overwhelming level.
It’s not anything new, incidentally. The 1920s were not all that different. A century ago was not all that different.
DBIsn’t it true that one of the tenets of classical conservative economics and philosophy is an antipathy toward concentration of power, toward monopoly? Yet these “Contractors,” if you will, who call themselves conservatives, are advocating policies that are accelerating concentration.
What we call conservatism, what used to be called liberalism—the terms are confusing—but classical liberalism was strongly opposed to concentration of power. Not what we call liberalism. It’s what today we call conservatism. The terms have totally shifted in meaning, if they ever
had any. The views of, say, Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, the intellectual founders of what people pay homage to but don’t understand or choose not to understand, those people were certainly opposed to concentration of power. And it’s true that the people who call themselves, say, libertarians today, whatever they may have in their minds, they are in fact advocating extreme concentration of power, in fact they’re advocating some of the most totalitarian systems that humans have ever suffered under. That’s not their intent, of course. But if you read Adam Smith, part of his argument for the market was that it would lead to perfect equality, equality of condition, not just equality of opportunity. Like Madison, he was a pre-capitalist and anti-capitalist person with roots in the Enlightenment and had a very different vision of the way things ought to work out. You can ask whether his argument was very good. We really don’t know, experimentally, because his argument was that under conditions of perfect liberty a market would lead to equality of condition and of course we don’t remotely approach that. But that aside, whatever you think about the intellectual character of his argument, it’s clear what the goal was. And yes, the classical liberals, the Jeffersons and the Smiths, were opposing the concentrations of power that they saw around them, like the feudal system and the Church and royalty. They thought that ought to be dissolved. They didn’t see other forms of concentration of power which only developed later. When they did see them, they didn’t like them. Jefferson was a good example. He was strongly opposed to the concentrations of power that he saw developing, and warned that the banking institutions and the industrial corporations which were barely coming into existence in his day would destroy the achievements of the Revolution. As I mentioned, Madison within a few years was already having very strongly stated second thoughts about what he had framed and created.
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