What follows is my interpretation of Noam Chomsky’s words, as presented in the film “Requiem for the American Dream.” My aim in these blog posts is not to provide a full and faithful representation of Chomsky’s thinking; he is perfectly capable of doing that on his own. Instead, I will emphasize those of his points that I think are worth emphasizing, ignore or downplay the ones that I don’t find important or interesting, and add my own elaborations whenever I feel the urge to do so. Moreover, I won’t try very hard to distinguish my own sense of what Chomsky means from what he actually says in the film; I leave that task to the readers.
Chomsky often points out the difference between “professed values” and “operative values,” i.e., the difference between what people say (or even believe) and what they actually live by. This is a critical distinction. If you want to know what someone wants you to believe about their commitments, you should listen to their words; but if you want to know what values or principles someone is actually committed to, you have to watch their actions. Actions speak louder than words. This rule holds even when a person is convinced that their professed values are the same as their operative values. Sometimes people lie in order to deceive others, but at other times they may have been lying to themselves as well as others for such a long time that they can no longer tell they are lying. As a result, there may be a huge gap between someone’s professed values and their operative values, yet they’re virtually incapable of seeing that gap.
This point is easy to understand in theory but difficult to apply in practice, especially when it comes to our own party or nation. The power of education, mass media, and socialization is not to be underestimated. Any American kid with a high school diploma—with rare exceptions—will tell you that the United States is a democratic society where the government acts in accordance with the wishes of the people, for that’s what the teachers and the textbooks say. We take pride in our democratic institutions and look with pity at other nations who haven’t reached the milestone that we reached more than two centuries ago. As a result, when someone talks about “exporting democracy” to the Middle East or Latin America as a quasi-religious obligation of the American nation—our “calling” in the world, as it were—the idea makes perfect sense to most people.
There is a lot here that we fail to see simply because we have been trained to not see it, or because we have never been trained to see it. In order to discern what has been made invisible to us, we have to be brave enough to view ourselves more objectively, i.e., from the eyes of an outsider who has no particular stake in the matter.
Discussing the first principle of concentration of wealth and power, Chomsky says:
Imagine yourself in an outside position, looking from Mars. What do you see? In the United States, there are professed values, like democracy. In a democracy, public opinion is gonna have some influence on policy. And, then, the government carries out actions determined by the population. That’s what democracy means.
The word “democracy” refers to an ideal, but we often use the word in the sense of an actual political system; the distinction is important to keep in mind. Since the word has acquired positive connotations, we tend to describe what we like in politics as “democratic” and what we don’t like as “undemocratic,” and we usually make such pronouncements because of our prejudices rather than on the basis of good reasons. Since democracy is an ideal, any actual political system is best evaluated in terms of how closely the reality of the system approximates that ideal. Furthermore, the degree to which a political system embodies the ideal of democracy cannot be something that we assume a priori but something that we must judge based on our observation of the actual performance of the system.
Thus, it would not be very helpful to ask whether or not the American political system is democratic; we ought to ask, instead, exactly how democratic is it? To answer this question, we have to judge the empirical reality of the American political system against some given standard of ideal democracy. It turns out that there are two such standards at our disposal, viz., what we have been told already exists, and what we think it ought to be. Consequently, our question regarding the American political system bifurcates as follows: (1) Is it as democratic as it wants us to believe? (2) Is it as democratic as it ought to be?
Noam Chomsky would respond to both of the above questions with a resounding “no.” He would then go on to present what can be accurately described as an overwhelming amount evidence in his support.The evidence Chomsky has presented over the last half-century is at least ten times as much as any court or tribunal could possibly require for reaching a guilty verdict. For anyone who is objective enough to look dispassionately at the evidence, the conclusion is unavoidable: The United States not only falls considerably short of how democratic it should—and definitely could—become, it is light years away from how democratic it claims to be, or, indeed, what most of its citizens have been led to believe that it already is.
Consider the following premises:
- A political system is democratic insofar as it provides effective ways for the public to influence and shape government policy.
- In a society with gross inequality of wealth and power, a small minority gains most of the advantages while depriving the vast majority of its rightful share of resources.
I believe that these premises are uncontroversial, and I invite you to examine them carefully before deciding for yourself. If you agree that they are true, it follows that democracy and inequality are mutually exclusive states of affairs. If a given population is able to influence and shape government policy, which is the very definition of democracy, it would never allow a small minority to enjoy most of the wealth and power at the expense of the vast majority. If the majority of a population is deprived while a minority flourishes, such an arrangement cannot possibly exist with the consent and willing acquiescence of the majority; it can only exist through imposition from the outside. Inequality and democracy, in other words, are inversely related. As a society becomes more democratic, we would expect it to also become more egalitarian. Conversely, to the extent that a society allows wealth and power to concentrate in the hands of a small number of people, we would be correct in attributing this to a relative lack of democracy.
Most Americans tend to view the rising inequality and declining democracy in their society as unfortunate deviations from the ideas and ideals of the Founding Fathers, as violations of the spirit of the Constitution if not its letter, and as corruptions of what was originally a state of democratic perfection. Due to their reverence for the mythic past that has been instilled through years of socialization, it is hard for them to recognize that the American political system was never intended to maximize democracy or minimize inequality; in fact, the exact opposite is true.
Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out that the incompatibility between democracy and inequality is not a new discovery; Aristotle had identified this problem as far back as the fourth century BCE. The solution, in his view, was to reduce inequality. Writing in Politics, Aristotle proposed:
… the truly democratic statesman must study how the multitude may be saved from extreme poverty; for this is what causes democracy to be corrupt. Measures must therefore be contrived that may bring about lasting prosperity. And since this is advantageous also for the well-to-do, the proper course is to collect all the proceeds of the revenues into a fund and distribute this in lump sums to the needy, best of all, if one can, in sums large enough for acquiring a small estate, or, failing this, to serve as capital for trade or husbandry, and if this is not possible for all, at all events to distribute the money by tribes or some other division of the population in turn … (6.1320a-b).
The Founding Fathers—or, more specifically, the Framers of the Constitution—were fully cognizant of this tension between inequality and democracy, but they chose a solution diametrically opposite to the one proposed by Aristotle. They decided to keep democracy at a bare minimum so that inequality could be maintained. The Framers were land-owning elite who viewed their own class as representing the rational and enlightened element of the nascent American society, inherently superior to the rest of the population. As such, they were no fans of participatory democracy or proponents of a fair distribution of wealth. They feared democracy because, in their minds, it represented the anti-social tendencies of debt resistance, peasant uprising, breakdown of established authority, redistribution of wealth, and the danger of states printing their own paper money. John Adams famously said: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” John Jay, the President of the Continental Congress and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, expressed the conventional wisdom of his peers in this pithy dictum: “The people who own the country ought to govern it.”
In the eighteenth century, the term “democracy” was used almost exclusively in a negative sense—it suggested such horrors as social chaos, mob rule, and lack of government. Charles and Mary Beard, pioneering historian couple, observed the following in their book America in Midpassage (vol. 2), published in 1939:
At no time, at no place, in solemn convention assembled, through no chosen agents, had the American people officially proclaimed the United States to be a democracy. The Constitution did not contain the word or any word lending countenance to it, except possibly the mention of “We, the people” in the preamble. … When the Constitution was framed, no respectable person called himself or herself a democrat.
It took almost fifty years before “democracy” acquired the positive but very limited sense of popular representation.
James Madison, the main author of the Constitution, was a big defender of the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority; what is often forgotten, however, is that by “minority” he meant the rich land-owners, whose property rights he wanted to safeguard against the egalitarian demands of the “majority,” the masses of ordinary people. During one of the debates of the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, Madison said:
The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe, —when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation.Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability.
Madison foresaw that the land-owning minority of his time was going to further shrink while the numbers of the working class will increase due to the growth of trade and manufacturing. If genuine democracy were established, it would only empower the poor majority to eventually demand—and in all likelihood achieve—a greater share in both wealth and political influence. He argued, therefore, that the Constitution of the American republic ought to be designed in such a way as to permanently limit democracy and to ensure that wealth and power remains concentrated in the hands of the rational and enlightened elites. One of the main mechanisms through which this was to be achieved was the Senate. Madison argued that “the Senate ought to come from, and represent, the wealth of the nation.” The U.S. Senate was modeled after the aristocratic British institution, the “House of Lords,” and, unlike the House of Representatives, the members of the Senate were to be chosen by State governments. The Senate was given greater power than the House, so it could play its assigned role of safeguarding the interests of the establishment by acting as a check on the aspirations of the popularly elected House of Representatives. It was only in 1913, during the Progressive Era, that an amendment to the Constitution allowed direct election of the Senators, though the amendment did not touch the other undemocratic features of the Senate.
The American political system was designed to create and maintain a constitutional republic, i.e., a state that is run according to the rule of law and not by the arbitrary whims of a monarch—hence the system of checks and balance. Government by representation was one element in the architecture of the republic, but there was no room for allowing or encouraging direct participation; the ideal before the Framers was the Roman Republic, not Athenian democracy. Elsewhere, Chomsky quotes Gordon S. Wood, a leading authority on early American history, who reached the following conclusion in his book The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787: “The Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period ….” In the late eighteenth century, the goal of the American political elite was to make sure that rational and enlightened elements would remain in charge of the republic—though only land-owning white men were believed to be rational and enlightened enough for this purpose. The ideal of a representative government was therefore conceived in rather narrow and limited terms. Over the next two centuries, the center of concentrated wealth gradually shifted away from traditional land-owners, first to the entrepreneur class and then to banks and large corporations. Not surprisingly, this migration of concentrated wealth was accompanied by an identical migration of concentrated power.
In contemporary United States, the mutually reinforcing relationship between the concentration of power and the concentration of wealth is worth examining. According to Chomsky:
Concentration of wealth yields concentration of power, particularly so as the cost of elections skyrockets, which kind of forces the political parties into the pockets of major corporations.And this political power quickly translates into legislation that increases the concentration of wealth.So, fiscal policy, like tax policy, deregulation, rules for corporate governance, a whole variety of measures, political measures designed to increase the concentration of wealth and power, which in turn yields more political power do the same thing. And that’s what we’ve been seeing. So we have this kind of vicious cycle in progress.
Consider the steps in the positive feedback loop that’s built into the system:
- To successfully run for public office, candidates require extensive publicity, which requires money; the cost of running a campaign increases every year.
- Wealthy individuals can contribute a lot more money to election campaigns than ordinary constituents.
- Candidates (and political parties) ask for, and receive, the required sums of money from the wealthy, which allows the candidates to win elections.
- In return for their financial contributions, the wealthy donors ask that government policy, including laws, be made favorable to their interests.
- The public officials and lawmakers do the bidding of their donors so they can continue receiving the donations they need to run in the next election.
- With business-friendly policies and laws in place, the rich are able to become increasingly richer.
- As wealth accumulates in the hands of the already rich, they are able to buy even more influence in the government.
Once again, Chomsky notes that the close relationship between the concentration of wealth and the concentration of power is not a new discovery. In the eighteenth century, Adam Smith pointed out that the economic policies in England were designed to serve the interests of the “merchants and manufacturers,” whom he saw as the “principal architects” of the economic system. In his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith wrote:
It cannot be very difficult to determine who have been the contrivers of this whole mercantile system; not the consumers, we may believe, whose interest has been entirely neglected; but the producers, whose interest has been so carefully attended to; and among this latter class our merchants and manufacturers have been by far the principal architects. In the mercantile regulations . . . the interest of our manufacturers has been most peculiarly attended to; and the interest, not so much of the consumers, as that of some other sets of producers, has been sacrificed to it.
Elsewhere in the same book, Smith noted that the business leaders of his time, the merchants and manufacturers, had no inclination to share any of their wealth with the rest of their country’s population. Their actions were aimed at increasing their own wealth at the expense of everyone else. For “the silent and insensible operation of foreign commerce and manufactures” had
gradually furnished the great proprietors with something for which they could exchange the whole surplus produce of their lands, and which they could consume themselves without sharing it either with tenants or retainers. All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. As soon, therefore, as they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents themselves, they had no disposition to share them with any other persons.
In Smith’s time, the merchants and manufacturers constituted the selfish minority that acted as “masters of mankind.” Today, as Chomsky notes, “it’s the financial institutions and the multinational corporations” that are playing the same role. “And they are following the vile maxim: all for ourselves and nothing for anyone else. They’re just going to pursue policies that benefit them and harm everyone else.”
The history of the United States, therefore, is the history of a constant struggle between the “masters of mankind” and the rest of us. Much of the democracy that does exist has not been the free gift bestowed by the system but rather the outcome of popular pressures, in some cases of long and arduous struggles carried out by mass movements. Most Constitutional amendments and several changes in political institutions and processes fall in this category. In Chomsky’s words, “there’s been an ongoing clash between pressure for more freedom and democracy coming from below and efforts at elite control and domination coming from above.” Since the struggle is ongoing, it follows that as the masses win a few victories here and there, the elite would try to reverse those victories as much as possible. Democracy is not something we achieve once and for all; it has to be gained over and over again because we are constantly losing it to reactionary forces. The lesson here is that the masses cannot afford to become complacent once they’ve acquired some rights and freedoms, for those rights and freedoms are always under attack by the elite—and so the struggle continues.