The power of hope and resistance

Noam Chomsky, America’s leading dissident, believes great leaders don’t change the world. People like you do.

John Malkin | September 2005 issue

Noam Chomsky, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is sometimes referred to as America’s leading dissident for his passionate and well-reasoned analysis of how U.S. policy undermines human rights and economic justice in many spots around the world. Chomsky’s theories about language are as revolutionary as his political writing. In both fields he emphasizes universal human traits: the universality of the way humans structure language, on the one hand, and the universality of the human struggle for freedom and independence, on the other. He believes people show a profound ability to follow their instincts and organize for justice.

Noam Chomsky envisions a world in which distant, controlling governments and private, corporate tyrannies are replaced by organizations that promote true democracy. He publishes regularly on ZNet,, where he also maintains a weblog. Links to his articles can be found at

What are your thoughts on last year’s U.S. elections?
U.S. elections are run by marketing professionals, the same people who sell toothpaste and cars. They try to create an image that will trick you into buying their product. Right before the election, two of the best public-opinion organizations in the world came out with major studies of popular attitudes and beliefs. The results are so far to the left of either political party that the press can’t even report it. Huge majorities think that their tax dollars ought to go first for health care, education, and Social Security—not the military. An overwhelming majority oppose the use of military force unless we are under attack or under imminent threat of attack. A majority of Americans are in favor of signing the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change and subjecting the U.S. to the International Criminal Court. The large majority think that the U.N., not the United States, ought to take the lead on international crises.

The way to overcome this situation [of marketers running elections] is to create real political parties. To have real political parties, the people must participate and make decisions, not just come together once every four years to pull a lever. That is not politics. It is the opposite of politics. If you have mass popular organizations that are functioning all the time—at local, regional, and international levels—then you have at least the basis for a democracy.

Take Brazil, the second-largest country in the [Western] hemisphere. They have the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, probably the most important popular organization in the world, and it’s functioning all the time, not just in an election year. Then there’s the Brazilian Workers’ Party, which has all kinds of serious flaws, but nevertheless is a mass popular organization working at every level.

How do we accomplish this?
When popular movements get rolling, it happens very quickly.

The history books say, “This great man gave us these rights.” But if you look at what actually happened, the rights were won from below, and the “great man” was dragged kicking and screaming into signing something.

Let’s talk about the relationship between corporations, media, and the government.

Corporations as we know them today came out of late-19th-century ideas about “organic entities” that have rights over and above individuals. A corporation back in the early 19th century, before the organic-entity concept spread, was a very different animal from what we have today. It might have consisted of local people getting together at a town meeting and deciding, say, to build a bridge across a nearby river. They would incorporate to carry out that plan. And once they’d carried it out, they’d dissolve the corporation.

Corporations gradually changed shape over the course of the 19th century, and by the early 20th century the courts had granted corporations the rights of persons. That meant they had freedom of speech, freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, and so on. They were now unaccountable. Of course, unlike people, corporations are potentially immortal.

The World Trade Organization and the new trade agreements, like North American Free Trade Agreement, have even granted corporations rights beyond those held by real persons. For example, if General Motors goes to Mexico and sets up a plant, it has to receive what is called “national treatment.” In other words, Mexico must treat GM like a Mexican business. If a flesh-and-blood Mexican comes to the U.S. and asks for “national treatment,” he’s lucky if he gets sent back to Mexico. If he’s unlucky, he’ll end up in a detention center.

Some global peace activists say they are part of the “anti-globalization movement.”
The way the word is used now, globalization is geared toward the interests of investors, lenders, corporations, and so on. But used neutrally, globalization just means various forms of international integration. So it’s unfortunate that activists have labeled themselves “anti-globalization.” Sometimes it’s even comical. In Pôrto Alegre, where the World Social Forum is meeting, people from all over the world and every walk of life are saying, “We are against globalization.” What they’re doing is the ultimate form of globalization—but at the level of people.

What is the connection between spiritual transformation and institutional transformation?
Let’s take the women’s movement as an example of a combination of spiritual transformation and institutional change. The women’s movement started with consciousness-raising sessions: Women would get together and talk and come to the understanding that they were being oppressed. Most oppressed people don’t realize they’re oppressed. My grandmother didn’t feel oppressed. It was just “the way it is,” like the weather. My mother did resent it but she didn’t try to change it. But my daughter, forget it! She’s not going to let it happen to her for a second.

So the first step is for people to understand that they’re being oppressed and that the structures of domination have no legitimacy. And this first step is an extremely hard one to take. Quite apart from the costs of resistance—which are certainly real, especially in the early stages of a movement—just grasping it internally is difficult.

As understanding comes along, you start to get institutions that support it. Take spousal abuse, for example. In most towns today, there are trained police who respond to domestic-abuse calls. There are women’s support groups. There are specific laws about spousal abuse. This wasn’t true in the 1960s. If a husband wanted to beat his wife back then, that was just life.

So there is a combination of internal liberation—or “spiritual transformation,” if you like—and the development of institutions that support that transformation and enable people to do something with it.

In some cases people understood their oppression more in the past than they do today. If you go back to the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, right around here in Massachusetts, the textile-mill workers were running their own newspapers. That was the period of the freest press in the history of the United States. There were worker-run newspapers, community newspapers that were bigger than the commercial presses.

People working in the plants in Lowell, Massachusetts, were mostly young women from the farms or Irish artisans from the slums. They’d never heard of Marx; they’d never heard of anarchism. They simply took it for granted that those who work in the mills should own them and decide how they operate. And they condemned the industrial system because it was taking away their culture and their independence and turning them into serfs instead of free people.

All of that they knew by natural instinct. And it’s taken a century and a half of unremitting propaganda to drive these thoughts out of people’s heads. Still, I think the ideas remain just below the surface.

In the U.S. we’re taught that only dictatorships use propaganda, but the public-relations industry did not develop under dictatorships. It developed in the freest countries in the world, the United States and England. And there is good reason for that. As people win their freedom, the elites recognize that they cannot control the masses by force anymore; they have to control public opinions and attitudes. The more freedom you win, the more ways privileged groups—usually an amalgam of state and private powers—devise to control you.

You have said there is no legitimacy to the international system of national states. How far are we from dissolving states?
Look at Europe. For hundreds of years the highest goal of Europeans was to slaughter each other. There was nothing more important, if you were French, than slaughtering Germans, and vice-versa. So now Europe is moving in a complicated fashion toward some kind of integration.

Already people in Catalonia don’t say they live in Spain. They say they live in an autonomous region of the Spanish state. It’s the same in the Basque regions of Spain, and in Wales, and elsewhere. There is a move toward a more reasonable form of human life in which people have autonomy, whether as communities or ethnic groups or on some other level of language and culture. If you go to downtown Barcelona now on Sunday morning, you’ll see people doing traditional folk dances in the cathedral in the center of town. They’re reviving an indigenous culture that had been suppressed, but was never destroyed. Now it’s coming out. These are small steps toward the dissolution of the illegitimate state system.

Excerpted from The Sun (April 2005), a unique American journal of personal reflection, cultural exploration, and spiritual insight that is noted for fine writing and hard-hitting interviews.

John Malkin is a journalist, musician and dj from Santa Cruz, California, with a special interest in social change and personal growth. This year, he published a collection of interviews with musicians like Michal Franti and Ani DiFranco, called Sounds of Freedom: Musicians on Spirituality and Social Change.

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