A month ago I interviewed that radical gadfly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, known to many in the establishment as persona non grata (transcript below):
AC (me): My brother, actually, wanted me to ask about—he identifies on the right of the spectrum—he wanted to know, so I wrote down his question which was, Right now with the way our country is divided on many domestic issues, his example being the health care debate, and he was wondering why someone who identifies as a ‘conservative’ is considered ‘wrong’ or ‘completely misinformed’ or ‘morally inferior’ to others and why someone who identifies as a ‘liberal’—who gives what’s considered the ‘liberal opinion’—is given credibility or…
NC: By who?
AC: By, well, in his opinion the press—or the media, or liberal commentators.
NC: ‘Liberal’ in the United States means highly conformist, highly supportive of state and corporate power but mildly critical—however to the right of the population on many issues. That’s what’s called liberal. What’s called ‘conservative,’ which has absolutely nothing to do with traditional conservatism, is even farther to the right. Okay, so that’s the way the terms are used. From that point of view, yeah, the press is liberal and it would criticize people it doesn’t agree with.
NC: I criticize both of them, regard them as both right-wing. But I can’t really answer the question, I mean they’re criticizing it because they think it’s wrong. I think they’re all wrong, and I think the population is right. Let’s take the health care debate.
NC: Polls have been taken for decades on health care. As far back as you go, a considerable majority [of those polled] have favored a national health care system. That’s not even on the agenda.
AC: The so-called public option?
NC: That’s, they’re not calling for a ‘public option,’ they’re calling for a national health care system, like every other industrial country has. We’re the only industrial country that doesn’t have a public health care system. Now the way they—they work differently. I mean, some of them are kind of like Medicare for the whole population. Some of them have worked through private companies but tightly regulated by the government, like Switzerland. And there’s a couple of other options. So that’s every other industrial country. We’re the only country in which health care is a partially market system, privatized. And there’s a consequence: we have the worst health care system in the industrial world. It has twice the per capita costs of any other and it has some of the worst outcomes. And that’s even with 50 million people without it at all. So sure, it’s the worst system around, it’s the only privatized market-oriented system. It has very severe rationing—contrary to what people claim. Health care is rationed by wealth. So, I’m doing fine, I get great health care. On the other hand poor people can’t get anything. So there’s very tight rationing by wealth. It’s not total, like what George Bush said, Well after all, anybody can go to the emergency room. Yeah, he’s right; anybody can go to the emergency room. Go sometime, see what it looks like. Yeah, they sit there forever and finally get some very quick treatment, often wrong, not because the doctors are…
NC: It’s wildly overburdened. I mean I’ve had experiences, the—so yeah, it’s possible but it’s the worst system around. We’re the only country in the world where the government is barred by law from negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical corporations. The result is that drug prices are way higher than anywhere else. And people have been opposed to that. It has been off the agenda, and still is.
AC: Weeks ago I heard that Washington had struck some sort of deal with the drug companies… some $80 billion.
NC: That was a joke. What actually happened is Obama made a secret deal—we don’t know the details—with the drug companies saying that he would not tolerate any form of government negotiation of drug prices. So we’re gonna stay off the spectrum of industrial countries and in return they said they would give him a little gift, you know [crosstalk] incidentally 85 percent of the population objects to that, they think we ought to negotiate. But 85 percent of the population—just don’t care, don’t matter because both political parties are way to the right of them.
AC: Is there an ideological basis for why—not just on that issue—but on so many issues we’re off the spectrum?
NC: It’s a very business-run society. Almost every society is mostly business-run because concentration of economic power has a big influence on society, of course, but the United States is extreme. It’s an unusually business-run society. It shows up in all sorts of ways.
AC: When Obama was elected last November, there was obviously a lot of talk about, you know, he’s going to change the political culture, he’s going to do all sorts of things. But what seems to have happened instead is he is been a conciliator to the…
NC: Not a conciliator, he’s just what he’s always pretended to be: a centrist Democrat.
AC: So why is all this—recently for example in my hometown there was a couple of weeks ago a pretty sizeable demonstration on the Capitol and they claimed they were opposing record levels of government spending [and] taxation, and there were other elements that were just…
NC: First of all, it’s not ‘record levels of government spending.’ Their hero, Ronald Reagan, is the one who shifted the country from a creditor country to a debtor country. He left [office] with a huge debt. He laid the basis for the tremendous financial crisis, the housing—savings and loan crisis just happened a little bit after he left but it was his crisis. He was, he was ultra-protectionist. He was the most protectionist president in postwar history, doubled protectionist barriers. And he believed in a very powerful state which intervenes radically in the economy and the world, but for the benefit of the wealthy. Okay, that’s the hero. Well, there was a huge propaganda campaign about him and most of the people demonstrating probably don’t even know any of this, but it’s easily determinable. That’s the point of propaganda.
AC: Right, to…
NC: As for the people themselves, they probably do feel, I think everything they say they feel. But the United States is—another respect in which the United States is very far off the spectrum of democratic societies is attitude toward taxes. So take, say, April 15th.
NC: In a democratic society, that would be a day of celebration! It would be a day in which we’re coming together to contribute to policies which we formulated for our benefit. So that’s celebration. In the United States it’s regarded as a day of mourning. It’s a day in which some alien force…
AC: Is going to come down…
NC: Is going to come and steal our hard-earned money. That shows how effectively the propaganda system has driven the very concept of democracy out of people’s minds. We think of the [unintelligible; crosstalk] it’s built into us…
AC: It’s no longer our—our government, but the government.
NC: It’s the government, it’s a robber, it’s an alien force.
NC: Now there’s been an endless—I mean, we have a very class-conscious business community. The business world in the United States is Marxist, strictly Marxist. They’re very class-conscious; they use the terminology! They say…
AC: [Like] vanguard?
NC: No, it’s not that, they say We have to be concerned about the rising power of the masses. I mean, they’re on the opposite—they’re values are inverted, but they use the same framework, vulgar Marxist framework, except they’re on the other side. So ‘we gotta beat back the masses,’ and one of the ways of doing it is make them despise the government. However, that’s quite nuanced because we, the business class, we want a powerful state…
AC: To protect us…
NC: A nanny state for us—that’s why we like Reagan, because he believed in a very powerful state but for the rich. So we’ve got to get everyone else to hate the government because they’re going to associate the government with, you know, giving away—Reagan again, it’s a perfect example—giving away [money to] black women riding in Cadillacs to the welfare…
AC: ‘Welfare queens.’
NC: Right, okay, that’s perfect for the business classes.
AC: There is a rising media star who is whipping up a lot of populist—they call it populist—fervor, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Glenn Beck…
AC: And my brother watches his show, he’s quite enamored of, I mean he disagrees with him on some things, he respects him—and he seems to, in my view, seems to target or claims to target state and corporate power, against…
NC: That’s right.
AC: …the bail-outs for Wall Street and—but he also seems, in my opinion, to be a kind of very demagogic [laughs].
NC: Well I don’t, I think he’s on television…
NC: I don’t see him but I listen to talk radio…
AC: He also has a radio show.
NC: You know I also listen to Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage…
AC: [laughs] Michael Savage is the worst!
NC: See, I think they’re very interesting. I’m sure Glenn Beck is the same. They’re very similar to early Nazi propaganda. It has—they are appealing to a population which has real grievances. I mean they’ve been shafted for the last 30 years. You know, a typical person who calls in, you know ‘I’m a white Christian, working, God-fearing American, I’ve done everything right and my life’s in ruin. My, you know, culture…’
AC: ‘We want our country back’ is what…
NC: ‘We want our country back,’ okay, and they’ve got an answer. Now the answer happens to be insane, including Glenn Beck. But it has an internal logic to it. So if you kinda put out of your mind what the real world is and imagine yourself in the situation of this person—decent, hard-working, God-fearing, gun-loving person—listening to this answer is, ‘Everything has been taken over by rich liberals. They run the government, they run the corporations, they run the media, they don’t care about us. We’re a fly-over people’ or something; ‘all they do is live on the…’
NC: ‘…east coast or the west coast and don’t care about us ordinary Americans and they’re robbing us to give everything away to illegal aliens and to poor people’ and—okay, that’s an answer. The answer happens to be lunatic but it’s an answer. And they’re not hearing any other answer. They’re not hearing the answer because, look, that’s the effect of the kind of neoliberal economic system that Reagan symbolized, which was designed to punish you and to enrich a small sector of very wealthy people and to eliminate the manufacturing base of the country in favor of financialization. So, sure you’re suffering from it, but they’re not hearing that answer, ’cause the so-called liberal press won’t give them that answer, ’cause they’re too far to the right to give them that answer. So therefore the only answer they’re getting is Limbaugh, Beck and other forms of total lunacy which have an internal logic. I can see why people believe it, if you suspend your knowledge of the world you can believe it. It’s given with great conviction and absolute certainty…
AC: It seems they believe it themselves.
NC: You know I suspect that, Limbaugh looks pretty intelligent, I suspect he’s a total cynic but some—Michael Savage probably believes it, judging by his tone. Maybe Glenn Beck does.
AC: Is there any, what—
NC: Nazi propagandists believed it. They had an answer too. They were talking to a similar group of people, and they were telling them, ‘Well, the problem is the Bolsheviks and the Jews.’ Okay, that had an internal logic, they probably believed it. And we know what happened.
AC: Well, what I—another thing I was thinking about and writing is… one target of theirs is the educational system, which they describe as a form of indoctrinating the youth of America to oppose the capitalist order, to—
NC: You go to school?
AC: I graduated—
NC: Did they teach you to oppose markets, capital and business—
AC: There were a couple of professors…
NC: I doubt if there was one. Did you have one professor who ever said anything like [crosstalk] it’s standard talk show business. It’s completely lunatic, but it has an internal logic.
AC: But what I notice is that in your writing, you’ve written often about the ways in which education serves an indoctrinating function…
NC: It indoctrinates you to the right, to accept corporate capitalism as so obvious you don’t even question it—you never studied or heard, I’m sure I never heard that corporations are totalitarian institutions which are granted rights that go beyond the rights of human beings, you were never taught that. You could read it, you know, in a book on the history of corporate law but that’s certainly—you were taught that they were benevolent, that they try to do things for, to give things to us and so on. You were taught that the media are fiercely independent and courageous, that the state is noble and maybe makes mistakes but all of its causes are noble—uh, that’s what we’re taught. Sure, it’s indoctrination, but the opposite of what they’re saying. But I think, I kind of respect these people. I think their position is understandable. It’s lunatic, but understandable. And they’re not hearing any other answer.
AC: And they’re organized.
NC: And they’re organized, and so were the Nazis. And I don’t mean [to make] the comparison lightly. Germany was the most civilized country in the world in the 1920s. It was the peak of the arts, the sciences… vibrant lively, ten years later it was the absolute pits of human history. And these are some of the reasons; and you can see that in the United States. Another fact about the United States that’s different from Germany is throughout its history the United States has been a very frightened country. It’s easy to generate fear in the United States, of the most crazy things. Take Reagan, again. When Reagan got up and announced that, he’d declared a state of national emergency because—because of the threat to the security of the country posed by the government of Nicaragua, which has troops two days away from Texas. Now in any sane country we would have collapsed in laughter. Not in the United States.
AC: Why do we give that such credence? Is it the cult of the presidency?
NC: It’s a deep yellow streak down the back of American culture. It’s a very cowardly, frightened culture. And it always has been. I mean that’s why they can whip up fear—you know, drugs, Saddam Hussein, Nicaragua, anyone. And I suspect it comes from the fact that we’ve conquered everyone. If you’re the backyard—the schoolyard bully, you’re scared. Yeah, you can beat up those little kids but who knows, maybe they’ll turn on you. And that’s our history. We have destroyed everyone.
AC: What are the prospects, even in the supposed ‘Age of Obama’ of ‘change’ and ‘hope,’ what are the prospects for a—some kind of transformation of American values?
NC: It’s up to people like you. ‘Change’ and ‘hope’ is a joke. Obama is a creature of the advertising industry. They read polls—
NC: They know that 80 percent of the country thinks that we’re going on the wrong direction, okay the slogans are ‘change’ and ‘hope.’ In fact those were McCain’s slogans too but he didn’t do it as well. This is all kind of like television ads, you don’t pay any attention to ’em. To change the country will require the kinds of things that—actually it happened in the last 40 years. It is a lot more civilized than it was 40 years ago.
AC: So that’s hope for the future.
NC: I mean look at women’s rights, civil rights, concern for the environment, opposition to aggression—all the things that Beck is screaming about, you know those are things that’ve actually happened, and made the country much better, and civilized. It’s because of people like you, activists.
AC: With respect to the environmental movement, what I’ve noticed of late over the past few years is how they’ve—how they have been able to commoditize everything [as] ‘green’ as a way of making a slogan…
NC: Yeah, business is going to leap onto anything. Anything it can make money on, it’ll be ‘green’ so they’ll sell it.
AC: It’s a way of capturing the public mood, which is there, and making it ‘Just buy this and you’ll be…’
NC: That’s—I don’t blame them, that’s what they’re supposed to do.
NC: They’re supposed to make money. They’re not supposed to be nice people.