Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky and classNoam Chomsky

Discusses Globalization, Spurs Student Dialogue

By Abigail Mieko Vargus
May 1, 2003

Noam Chomsky, an Institute Professor in MIT’s Department of Philosophy and Linguistics, spoke to the LFM-SDM community on April 8, 2003. Although his appointment at MIT is in linguistics, his expertise spans economics and foreign policy. He has published more than fifteen books on foreign policy and is widely regarded as a controversial and learned critic on this topic. Blaine Paxton, LFM ’04, introduced him, saying he is “best viewed as a principled man who’s not afraid to speak the truth as he sees it, and therefore he’s a shining example of great leadership.”

While Chomsky’s talk was officially titled “The Ramifications of Globalization,” he wandered far and wide in his approach—taking his audience from the definition of globalization, to social security, to privatization, to propaganda. Chomsky’s conversational style made the lecture and extensive Q&A session lively, though rarely linear.

In the purest sense of the word, globalization refers to the free movement of capital throughout the world. Globalization, as it is generally used today, actually refers to a particular form of globalization—neo-liberal globalization, or “the specific form of international economic integration of the last twenty-five years since the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system of the late ’70s,” according to Chomsky.

Globalization developed into the current neo-liberal form with the restriction of free movement of the population and with the increase of movement of capital. Chomsky, however, is a harsh detractor of neo-liberal globalization. “One measure of globalization is movement toward an equalization of working compensation,” he said. “Well, that certainly hasn’t happened. In fact neo-liberal globalization has moved in the other direction toward greater inequality, and further, it’s going to increase.”

He is not alone in this evaluation, either. The Clinton administration published a report that predicted continually slowing growth and greater economic disparity in the world. This would in turn be met with increased violence—“what we’d call terror,” Chomsky explained. “Military planners make exactly the same predictions.”

Chomsky also cites privatization as one of the biggest reasons to be against the current incarnation of globalization. Privatization, however, has been largely unopposed in the public reason. According to Chomsky, this is intentional. “There’s a reason why all of this has to be kept secret—well, it’s not actually secret, but has to be kept away from [the public]—and that’s because the public is overwhelmingly opposed… Want to find out why everyone is opposed to it? Just look at the consequences. When the water system in Venezuela is taken over by a private company, they aren’t there to give you water, they’re there to make a profit… That means you cut off water to poor people because you have users fees that they can’t pay.” While regulation can help govern the power of a profit-driven philosophy, neo-liberal globalization aims to decrease regulations as well.

But, Chomsky pointed out, “Economics is not physics. The measures are ideological, and it depends on what measure of efficiency you choose to have.”

More important than the moral discussion, however, is that these discussions are separated from public discourse, Chomsky asserts. “We have a legacy of freedom to do all sorts of things, and it’s that that is the danger… There’s a threat that [democracy] will be exercised… Remember the U.S. was not set up as a democratic society, it was set up as what [political] scientists call a polygarchy.”

In Chomsky’s eyes, the need to keep political decisions in the hands of the “elite” prompted propaganda. “That’s the goal of propaganda… It’s mostly private propaganda, advertising…making it very clear that you don’t succumb to the democratic principles of public interest. You can’t do it by force any more, so you have to do it by controlling attitudes.”

Chomsky noted the impetus to “fashionable consumption”: the use of advertising to encourage the public to buy, rather than to act—or even think—politically. This is called “the engineering of consent,” and is used “to make sure the intelligent minority—that’s us—makes decisions… It was getting harder to control people by force, and so you have to control them by attitude.”

The world of fashionable consumption has reached beyond TV advertising and overtaken the U.S. political scene, Chomsky said while referencing the 2002 election debacle. “There was a big surprise: no one seemed to care… They were doing regular polls of people’s attitude toward the election, and it turns out that on the eve of the election about 75 percent of the people thought of it as a farce…and they knew perfectly well that both Bush and Gore were being crafted to try and have a certain image. And if you look at the political entity, they say elections should be run on quality, not issues—because issues are dangerous… In fact, they [voters] could not figure out where candidates stood on issues… and it’s not because they’re [voters are] stupid, it’s because there’s no way to figure it out.”

This ties back into neo-liberal globalization because this form of globalization furthers the divide between the general populace and the decision-makers. Keeping the general populace uninterested is to the decision-makers’ advantage. With the increased disparity between the haves and have-nots, this aim is furthered. After all, Chomsky noted, “if you have two members of the family working fifty hours a week to try and maintain the standard of living they had in 1979, they won’t have time to get in your hair. They will drop out of the political arena.”

As attendees filed out the door, Chomsky was approached by several. Others grouped together to discuss his topics. After all, this presentation veered far from the typical Sloan lecture. Esteban Guerrero, LFM ’03, who organized the proseminar, considered a new viewpoint to be fundamental, as he is part of a group of students who are helping design a new course on globalization. He added, “The main idea was … to have someone who would have something completely different from what we would usually hear from business people. In general, people know that globalization has certain problems, but we were hoping to get a completely different perspective… I thought, there’s someone who definitely has something different to say.”

While the reception to Chomsky’s theories varied (and included plenty of polite disagreement), one reaction was universal: an impetus to dialogue about globalization. Guerrero talked to several people—including Chomsky—after the talk. He wasn’t alone, he said. “One of the students [I spoke to about the talk] said, ‘You know what, I don’t know if I believe in what he says, but at least that sparked a conversation between me and couple other friends. That made us think maybe we should go and read more and find out if it’s true or not.’”

Some in the audience, however, were quicker to reject his opinions, Blaine Paxton, LFM ’04, believed: “There were many parts of it where he was oversimplifying situations—oversimplifying his arguments I guess is a better way of putting it. Just to make his point…. There were some people who were, I could tell, were very uncomfortable with the content, I think because his opinions are very different from what we hear in the classes at Sloan normally.”

But again, for Guerrero, something different was the point. It never crossed his mind to have it any other way. “I was later surprised when someone said, ‘how are you able to bring Chomsky?’” he relayed. “It sounded like, ‘how are you able to surpass some sort of law we have against these kind of people?’ but I just asked and he said yes.”

And on that point, all agreed. As Blaine Paxton, LFM ’04, said, “I think it’s always good to have differing opinions; it challenges you. The strongest beliefs that people have are the ones that they don’t question. It’s the tacit assumptions that we all make, and he was definitely challenging a lot of tacit assumptions about democracy, markets, and global organizations.”