Read an Excerpt
Based primarily on discussions at Rowe,
Massachusetts, April 15-16, 1989.
The Achievements of Domestic Dissidence
Woman: Noam, I think the reason we've all come out here to spend the weekend talking with you is to get some of your perspectives on the state of the world, and what we can do to change it. I'm wondering, do you think activism has brought about many changes in the U.S.A. in the past few decades?
Oh sure, big changes actually. I don't think the structure of the institutions has been changedbut you can see real changes in the culture, and in a lot of other ways too.
For instance, compare two Presidential administrations in the 1960s and 1980s, the Kennedy administration and the Reagan administration. Now, in a sense they had a lot in common, contrary to what everyone says. Both came into office on fraudulent denunciations of their predecessors as being wimpish and weak and letting the Russians get ahead of usthere was a fraudulent "missile gap" in the Kennedy case, a fraudulent "window of vulnerability" in the Reagan case. Both were characterized by a major escalation of the arms race, which means more international violence and increased taxpayer subsidies to advanced industry at home through military spending. Both were jingoist, both tried towhip up fear in the general population through a lot of militarist hysteria and jingoism. Both launched highly aggressive foreign policies around the worldKennedy substantially increased the level of violence in Latin America; the plague of repression that culminated in the 1980s under Reagan was in fact largely a result of his initiatives.
Of course, the Kennedy administration was different in that, at least rhetorically, and to some extent in practice, it was concerned for social reform programs at home, whereas the Reagan administration was committed to the opposite, to eliminating what there was of a social welfare system here. But that probably reflects the difference in international affairs in the two periods more than anything else. In the early 1960s, the United States was the world-dominant power, and had plenty of opportunity for combining international violence and commitment to military spending with social reform at home. By the 1980s, that same opportunity wasn't around anymore: the United States was just not that powerful and not that rich relative to its industrial rivalsin absolute terms it was, but not relatively. And there was a general consensus among elites, it wasn't just Reagan, that you had to break down the welfare state in order to maintain the profitability and competitiveness of American capital. But that difference apart, the two administrations were very similar.
On the other hand, they couldn't do the same things. So for example, Kennedy could invade Cuba and launch the world's to-date major international terrorist operation against themwhich went on for years, probably still is going on. He was able to invade South Vietnam, which he did after all: Kennedy sent the American Air Force to bomb and napalm South Vietnam and defoliate the country, and he sent troops to crush the peasant independence movement there. And Vietnam's an area of minor American concern, it's way on the other end of the world. The Reagan administration tried to do similar things much closer to home in Central America, and couldn't. As soon as they started moving towards direct intervention in Central America in the first few months of the administration in 1981, they had to back off and move to clandestine operationssecret arms sales, covert funding through client states, training of terrorist forces like the contras in Nicaragua, and so on.
That's a very striking difference, a dramatic difference. And I think that difference is one of the achievements of the activism and dissidence of the last twenty-five years. In fact, the Reagan administration was forced to create a major propaganda office, the Office of Public Diplomacy: it's not the first one in American history, it's the second, the first was during the Wilson administration in 1917. But this one was much larger, much more extensive, it was a major effort at indoctrinating the public. The Kennedy administration never had to do that, because they could trust that the population would be supportive of any form of violence and aggression they decided to carry out. That's a big change, and it's had its effects. There were no B-52s in Central America in the 1980s. It was bad enough, hundreds of thousands of people were slaughteredbut if we'd sent B-52s and the 82nd Airborne, it would have been a lot worse. And that's a reflection of a serious rise in domestic dissidence and activism in the United States over the past twenty-five years. The Reagan administration was forced into clandestine tactics rather than direct aggression of the sort that Kennedy was able to use in Vietnam, largely in order to pacify the domestic population. As soon as Reagan indicated that he might try to turn to direct military intervention in Central America, there was a convulsion in the country, ranging from a massive flow of letters, to demonstrations, to church groups getting involved; people started coming out of the woodwork all over the place. And the administration immediately backed off.
Also, the Reagan military budget had to level off by 1985. It did spurt, pretty much along the lines of Carter administration projections, but then it leveled off at about what it would have been if Carter had stayed in. Well, why did that happen? Partly it happened because of fiscal problems arising after four years of catastrophic Reaganite deficit spending, but partly it was just because there was a lot of domestic dissidence.
And by now that dissidence is kind of irrepressible, actually. The fact that it doesn't have a center, and doesn't have a source, and doesn't have an organizational structure, that has both strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are that people get the sense that they're alonebecause you don't see things happening down the street. And it's possible to maintain the illusion that there's no activism going on, because there's nothing dramatically visible, like huge demonstrations or something; occasionally there are, but not most of the time. And there's very little in the way of inter-communication, so all sorts of organizing can be happening in parallel, but it doesn't feed into itself and move on from there. Those are all weaknesses. On the other hand, the strength is, it's very hard to crushbecause there's nothing to cut off: if one thing gets eliminated, something else just comes up to take its place.
So looking over a long stretch, I don't think it's true that things have gotten more passive, more quiescent, more indoctrinated and so on. In fact, if anything, it's the opposite. But it's sort of neither more nor less, really, it's just different.
And you can see it in all kinds of ways. I mean, public opposition to the policies of the Reagan administration kept risingit was always very high, and it rose through the Eighties. Or take the media: there have been slight changes, there's more openness. It's easier for dissidents to get access to the media today than it was twenty years ago. It's not easy, like it's 0.2 percent instead of 0.1 percent, but it is different. And in fact, by now there are even people inside the institutions who came out of the culture and experiences of the Sixties, and have worked their way into the media, universities, publishing firms, the political system to some extent. That's had an effect as well.
Or take something like the human rights policies of the Carter administration. Now, they weren't from the Carter administration really, they were from Congressthey were Congressional human rights programs which the Carter administration was forced to adapt to, to a limited extent. And they've been maintained through the 1980s as well: the Reagan administration had to adapt to them somewhat too. And they've had an effect. They're used very cynically and hypocritically, we know all that stuffbut nevertheless, there are plenty of people whose lives have been saved by them. Well, where did those programs come from? Where they came from, if you trace it back, is kids from the 1960s who became Congressional assistants and pressed for drafting of legislationusing popular pressures from here, there and the other place to help them through. Their proposals worked their way through a couple of Congressional offices, and finally found their way into Congressional legislation. New human rights organizations developed at the same time, like Human Rights Watch. And out of it all came at least a rhetorical commitment to putting human rights issues in the forefront of foreign policy concerns. And that's not without an effect. It's cynical, doubtlessyou can show it. But still it's had an effect.
The U.S. Network of Terrorist Mercenary States
Woman: It's curious that you're saying that, because I certainly didn't have that impression. The only human rights issue the Reagan administration seemed to be concerned with was that of the Soviet JewsI mean, they resumed funding the terror in Guatemala.
But note how they did it: they had to sneak it in around the back. In fact, there was more funding of Guatemala under Carter than there was under Reagan, though it's not very well known. See, the Carter administration was compelled to stop sending military aid to Guatemala by Congressional legislation in 1977, and officially they didbut if you look at the Pentagon records, funding continued until around 1980 or '81 at just about the normal level, by various forms of trickery: you know, "things were in the pipeline," that kind of business. This was never talked about in the press, but if you look at the records, you'll see the funding was still going through until that time. The Reagan administration had to stop sending it altogetherand in fact, what they did was turn to mercenary states.
See, one of the interesting features of the 1980s is that to a large extent the United States had to carry out its foreign interventions through the medium of mercenary states. There's a whole network of U.S. mercenary states. Israel is the major one, but it also includes Taiwan, South Africa, South Korea, the states that are involved in the World Anti-Communist League and the various military groups that unite the Western Hemisphere, Saudi Arabia to fund it, PanamaNoriega was right in the center of the thing. We caught a glimpse of it in things like the Oliver North trial and the Iran-contra hearings [Oliver North was tried in 1989 for his role in "Iran-contra," the U.S. government's illegal scheme to fund the Nicaraguan "contra" militias in their war against Nicaragua's left-wing government by covertly selling weapons to Iran]they're international terrorist networks of mercenary states. It's a new phenomenon in world history, way beyond what anybody has ever dreamt of. Other countries hire terrorists, we hire terrorist states, we're a big, powerful country.
Excerpted from Understanding Power by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel. Copyright © 2002 by Noam Chomsky, Peter Rounds Mitchell, and John Schoeffel. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.