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Noam Chomsky on How Businesses Sought to Destroy the Democratic Movements of the 1960s

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This week is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church, where he said the United States is “the greatest purveyor of violence on Earth.” For more on this revolutionary political period—and the counterrevolutionary forces it unleashed—we speak with Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author of more than 100 books, including, most recently, “Requiem for the American Dream.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to take a—ask you to talk about a section of your book, Requiem for the American Dream, where you talk about this famous Powell Memorandum that Justice Powell sent to the Chamber of Commerce and to others, major business groups, in 1971, where he said that business is losing control over the society and that something has to be done to counter these forces. Now, this is a Supreme Court justice issuing something like this. Could you talk about this effort by the business community basically to beat back the movement of the ’60s?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Actually, he was appointed Supreme Court justice a little bit after that. He was then a corporate lawyer, I think, working for tobacco firms or something. And he wrote an interesting memorandum. It went to the American Chamber of Commerce. It was supposed to be an internal memorandum, basically, to the business community. It leaked, and—as things usually do, and it’s quite interesting.

He didn’t actually say that business is losing control. What he said is, business is the—is being beaten down by the massive forces of the left, which have taken over everything, the—even mentioned the devils who are leading the campaign: Ralph Nader, with his consumer safety efforts, Herbert Marcuse, who’s mobilizing the students to carry out a revolution. And he says they’ve taken over the media, they’ve taken over the universities, they’re practically in control of the whole country. And meanwhile, the poor, embattled business community can barely survive under this incredible assault. It’s a very interesting picture. The rhetoric should be paid—you should pay attention to the rhetoric. It’s kind of like a spoiled 3-year-old who expects to have everything, and somebody takes a piece of candy away from him, and they have a tantrum. The world’s ending. That’s pretty much the picture. Of course, business was essentially running everything, but not totally. There was—there were democratizing tendencies in the '60s. The public became more engaged in public affairs and was considered a serious threat. So he calls on the business community to defend theirselves from this monstrous attack. And he says, “Look, after all, we're the ones who have the resources. We have the funds. You know, we’re the trustees of the universities. We should be able to protect ourselves from this assault that’s wiping out the American way, business and so on.” That’s the Powell Memorandum. And indeed, it—the lesson was understood, not just listening to him. There was a reaction to the activism of the '60s. The ’60s are often called “the time of troubles.” They were civilizing the country. That's extremely dangerous.

But no less interesting than the Powell Memorandum is another publication that came out from the opposite side of the mainstream political spectrum, the book called The Crisis of Democracy, published around the same time by the Trilateral Commission. That’s liberal internationalists from the three major capitalist centers—Europe, the United States and Japan. The political complexion of this group is illustrated by the fact that they almost entirely staffed the Carter administration. That’s where they’re coming from. The American rapporteur Samuel Huntington, professor at Harvard, the well-known liberal intellectual. What’s the crisis of democracy? Pretty much the same as the Powell Memorandum. They said there’s too much democracy. People who are usually passive and apathetic, the way they’re supposed to be, are pressing their demands in the public arena, and it’s too much for the state to accommodate. They didn’t mention one group: corporate interests. That’s the national interest. These are the special interests, and they called for more moderation and democracy. Now, they were particularly concerned with what they called—this is their phrase—”the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young”—universities, schools, churches. They’re supposed to be indoctrinating the young, and they’re not doing their job, as you can see from all these kids running around calling for women’s rights and ending the war and so on and so forth. So we have to have better indoctrination of the young. They were also concerned about the media. They said the media are becoming too adversarial. If you look at what was happening, that’s about as much of a joke as Powell. They said, if the media don’t control themselves and discipline themselves, maybe the state will have to move in and do something about it. This was the liberals. This is the liberal end of the spectrum.

You take these two publications side by side. They differ rhetorically. The Powell Memorandum is literally a tantrum. The Crisis of Democracy is big words, moderate, you know, intellectuals and so on. But the message is not that very different. It’s saying we—that democracy is simply a threat. The population has to be restored to passivity, then everything will be fine. In fact, Huntington, the American rapporteur, says, kind of nostalgically, that Truman had been able to run the country with the cooperation of a few corporate executives and Wall Street lawyers. That was the good old days, when democracy was functioning. You didn’t have all these demands and so on. And remember, this is the liberal end of the spectrum. Then you get the Powell Memorandum, which is the harsher end and rhetorically, literally, kind of like a tantrum.

It’s within that framework of thinking—which they didn’t initiate, they articulated—that you get the neoliberal reaction of the past generation, which, on every front, including education, economy, undermining of the functioning of political democracy—all the factors that have led to the disillusionment and anger of the people who end up being Trump voters, voting for their class enemy. It’s worth remembering that these people have just concerns, very serious concerns. It’s revealed by some pretty remarkable recent revelations. You’ve seen them, probably reported on the quite remarkable fact that mortality is increasing among middle-class, lower-middle-class, working-class white Americans, middle-aged white Americans. That’s something unknown in developed societies. Mortality keeps declining. Here it’s increasing. And the roots of it are what are called diseases of despair. People don’t have hope for the future—and for pretty good reasons, if you look at the facts of the matter. Real male wages today are pretty much at the level of the '60s. In 2007, at the time when there was a good deal of euphoria about the economy, how wonderful it's doing, great moderation and so on, economists praising Alan Greenspan as the greatest figure since Moses or something—”Saint Alan,” he was called—right at the peak of euphoria, right before the crash, real wages for American workers were lower than they were in 1979, when the neoliberal experiments were just beginning. These affect people’s lives seriously. They’re not starving. These are not the poorest people. You know, they’re kind of surviving, but without the hope for—without a sense of dignity, of worth, of hope for the future, of some meaning in your life, and so on. So they’re reacting in often very self-destructive ways.

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