Here are some sections from Secrets, Lies, and Democracy which is a transcript of an interview with Noam Chomsky by David Barsamian. Copyright 1994. Emphases in bold are mine.
Crime and Punishment
David: There’s been a tendency over the last few years for local TV news programs to concentrate on crimes, rapes, kidnappings, etc. Now this is spilling over into the national network news programs.
Noam: That’s true, but it’s just a surface phenomenon. Why is there an increase in attention to violent crime? Is it connected to the fact that there’s been a considerable decline in income for the large majority of the population, and a decline as well in the opportunity for constructive work?
But until you ask why there’s an increase in social disintegration, and why more and more resources are being directed towards the wealthy and privileged sectors and away from the general population, you can’t have even a concept of why there’s rising crime or how you should deal with it.
Over the past twenty or thirty years, there’s been a considerable increase in inequality. This trend accelerated during the Reagan years. The society has been moving visibly towards a kind of Third World model.
The result is an increasing crime rate, as well as other signs of social disintegration. Most of the crime is poor people attacking each other, but it spills over to more privileged sectors. People are very worried–and quite properly, because the society is becoming very dangerous.
A constructive approach to the problem would require dealing with its fundamental causes, but that’s off the agenda, because we must continue with a social policy that’s aimed at strengthening the welfare state for the rich.
The only kind of responses the government can resort to under those conditions is pandering to the fear of crime with increasing harshness, attacking civil liberties and attempting to control the poor, essentially by force.
The causes are the increasing polarization of the society that’s been going on for the past twenty-five years, and the marginalization of large sectors of the population. Since they’re superfluous for wealth production (meaning profit production), and since the basic ideology is that a person’s human rights depend on what they can get for themselves in the market system, they have no human value.
Larger and larger sectors of the population have no form of organization and no viable, constructive way of reacting, so they pursue the available options, which are often violent. To a large extent, those are the options that are encouraged in the popular culture.
David: You can tell a great deal about a society when you look at its system of justice. I was wondering if you’d comment on the Clinton crime bill, which authorizes hiring 100,000 more cops, boot camps for juveniles, more money for prisons, extending the death penalty to about fifty new offenses and making gang membership a federal crime–which is interesting, considering there’s something about freedom of association in the Bill of Rights.
Noam: It was hailed with great enthusiasm by the far right as the greatest anticrime bill ever. It’s certainly the most extraordinary crime bill in history. It’s greatly increased, by a factor of five or six, federal spending for repression. There’s nothing much constructive in it. There are more prisons, more police, heavier sentences, more death sentences, new crimes, three strikes and you’re out.
It’s unclear how much pressure and social deterioration people will accept. One tactic is just drive them into urban slums–concentration camps, in effect–let them prey on one another. But they have a way of breaking out and affecting the interests of wealthy and privileged people. So you have to build up the jail system, which is incidentally also a shot in the arm for the economy.
It’s natural that Clinton picked up this crime bill as a major social initiative, not only for a kind of ugly political reason–namely, that it’s easy to whip up hysteria about it–but also because it reflects the general point of view of the so-called New Democrats, the business-oriented segment of the Democratic Party to which Clinton belongs.
David: What are your views on capital punishment?
Noam: It’s a crime. I agree with Amnesty International on that one, and indeed with most of the world. The state should have no right to take people’s lives.
Here are other excerpts:
Noam: On the other hand, the idea that corporations don’t ask for government help is a joke! They demand an extraordinary amount of government intervention. That’s largely what the whole Pentagon system is about.
Huge industries were spawned, and are maintained, by massive government intervention. Many corporations couldn’t survive without it. The public also provides the basic technology–metallurgy, avionics, or whatever–via the public subsidy system.
The same is true just across the board. You can hardly find a functioning sector of the US manufacturing or service economy which hasn’t gotten that way and isn’t sustained by government intervention.
David: I was struck by an article in the New York Times whose headline was, “Nation considers means to dispose of its plutonium.” So the nation has to figure out how to dispose of what was essentially created by private capital.
Noam: That’s the familiar idea that profits are privatized but costs are socialized. The costs are the nation’s, the people’s, but the profits weren’t for the people, nor did they make the decision to produce plutonium in the first place, nor are they making the decisions about how to dispose of it, nor do they get to decide what ought to be a reasonable energy policy.
Radio Listener: On the issue of gun control, I believe that the US is becoming much more like a Third World country, and nothing is necessarily going to put a stop to it. I look around and see a lot of Third World countries where, if the citizens had weapons, they wouldn’t have the government they’ve got. So I think that maybe people are being a little short-sighted in arguing for gun control and at the same time realizing that the government they’ve got is not exactly a benign one.
Noam: Your point illustrates exactly what I think is a major fallacy. The government is far from begign–that’s true. On the other hand, it’s at least partially accountable, and it can become as benign as we make it.
What’s not benign (what’s extremely harmful in fact) is something you didn’t mention–business power, which is highly concentrated, and by now, largely transnational. Business power is very far from benign and it’s completely unaccountable. It’s a totalitarian system that has an enormous effect on our lives. It is also the main reason why the government isn’t benign.
As for guns being the way to respond to this, that’s outlandish. First of all, this is not a weak Third World country. If people have pistols, the government has tanks. If people get tanks, the government has atomic weapons. There’s no way to deal with these issues by violent force, even if you think that that’s morally legitimate.
Guns in the hands of American citizens are not going to make the country more benign. They’re going to make it more brutal, ruthless and destructive.
Cheers to us who are die hard believers of the American model. Cheers to us!