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Deterring democracy in Italy

Domenico Pacitti talks to Noam Chomsky

Pacitti: Billionaire media magnate Silvio Berlusconi was recently elected premier at Italian general elections despite a welter of serious criminal accusations and conflicts of business and political interests. It would appear that Italian electors are less interested in moral issues and more interested in what they think he can do for them.

Chomsky: Well, why do you think thatís different from Britain and the United States?

Pacitti: Thatís what I was hoping you would explain.

Chomsky: Well the answer is that it isnít different.

Pacitti: Can you elaborate?

Chomsky: We had an election here a few months ago. Now, I donít know about Italy, but here the population is polled very extensively, so we have a pretty good grasp of public attitudes. There is, in fact, at Harvard a project called ďThe Vanishing Voter ProjectĒ, which I hope tells you something. It does extensive polling analysis to try to determine why the voters have been losing interest in elections over the past twenty years. One of the things they measure is the sense of helplessness, that is, that you feel you cannot do anything that will affect the political process. It hit a new high this year, far beyond anything before. Right before the election about 75 per cent of the population felt that there was no election at all, that it was just some kind of game being played by rich contributors, party bosses and the media. The whole public relations, or advertising, industry was crafting candidates, training them to use certain gestures and produce certain words that the research industry showed might increase the number of votes. But they didnít mean what they said and you werenít supposed to be able to understand what they said and it was all meaningless, just some kind of public relations game.

Pacitti: And do you feel then that what is happening in Italy is similar?

Chomsky: Well as far as I can tell it is very similar, but I donít know Italy as well as I know here. This is a tendency which was led by the United States and Britain and goes back to the early part of the century. It was very natural that it should be in more democratic countries. There was a recognition back in the 1920s Ė I think hitting other countries later Ė that you can no longer control people by force. The countries were becoming more democratic. The franchise was extending. The British Conservative Party Ė we have their internal records Ė realised by the First World War that there was no longer any way to keep the general population out of the electoral system. They realised they were part of a union that was going to be a broadening of franchise and therefore they had to turn to what they call political warfare. Itís called public relations, meaning propaganda, to try to control peopleís attitudes and thoughts and direct them to other concerns and keep them all out of the political arena since you could no longer simply control them by force. The same was done in the United States. In fact, there was a huge growth of the public relations industry right around that same time for the same reasons. In the most advanced, more democratic societies, there is good reason to believe that as a society gains more freedom, propaganda takes the place of violence as a means to control people.

Pacitti: Berlusconi is on record as having a list of criminal offences with actual convictions. But because of the Italian law of statutory time limitations he has not in fact served any of those sentences. A recent book lists fourteen criminal cases against him. It confirms that in the last decade he has received three prison sentences totalling six years and five months for corruption, illegal financing and false accounts.

Chomsky: By US standards thatís a triviality.

Pacitti: In 1990, Berlusconi was found guilty of perjury for denying his membership of the P2 Masonic lodge, an anti-Communist organisation which used Italyís security services for political ends. His conviction was one of many later annulled by a general amnesty. Alleged US backing of P2 would appear to confirm what youíre saying.

Chomsky: Exactly. Italy, as far as we know, has been the main target of US efforts to undermine democracy since the Second World War. There was great fear in the 1940s that the Left in Italy would win a democratic election. In 1948 particularly, there was great concern that the Left, which had a lot of prestige Ė I mean, it supported the resistance against Fascism and those were important things in those days, and it had backed labour unions Ė were going to win the elections, and the US had plans. I donít know if you know this, but the National Security Councilís first planning body, NSC1 [see the first, 1947 memorandum in ďHistory of the National Security Council, 1947-1997Ē] was concerned with how to undermine democracy in Italy. That was considered to be the problem at the time. And they concluded that they could undermine democracy by withholding food Ė and I donít have to remind you that people were starving at that time Ė reinstating Fascist police, which they did, undermining unions and a whole variety of techniques of that sort were used. But then it was concluded that if this doesnít work, if Italy nevertheless has a Left political victory, the US will call a national mobilisation, will begin to support paramilitary activities in Italy against the government. The National Security Council won, and that continued until the seventies and maybe beyond. I mean, we only know until the seventies because thatís where the documents stop. That includes supporting P2. So the effort to undermine Italian democracy goes back very far. Compared with this, Berlusconi isnít making plans to carry out military activity to overthrow the government. Whatís going on isnít correct, but in terms of the efforts to undermine democracy itís not a major thing. And itís the same here. Clinton didnít happen to have a lot of trials for corruption. But just look at his record. But look at Reaganís record and just look at some of the people in the Reagan administration [1981-89].

Pacitti: Thereís more than a suspicion here in Italy that Berlusconi obtained heavy backing from the Sicilian Mafia at national elections.

Chomsky: Yes, but where did the Sicilian Mafia come from? It didnít arise from nothing. The Mafia was, as you know, destroyed by Mussolini. And how did the Mafia get reconstituted? It got reconstituted as the American and British armies moved first through Sicily and then southern Italy and the same in southern France and it was reconstituted as an agency to undermine the resistance and undermine the Left.

Pacitti: Youíve looked at the Italian question in some detail, then?

Chomsky: I havenít done original research on it but Iíve reviewed it with different sources. So, for example, in my book Deterring Democracy, one of the chapters [chapter 11: Democracy in the Industrial Societies], has something about the main, first project of the United States and Britain after the Second World War, which was to undermine the resistance against Fascism and to restore the traditional system. Italy is discussed, and itís also discussed in a later book with new revelations. And thereís actually a very good book which I review somewhere [World Orders, Old and New, London, 1997]. Itís by an Italian historian [Federico Romero, The United States and the European Trade Union Movement 1944-1951, North Carolina, 1989, 1992], who incidentally thinks itís fine that the Allied Forces should have ďdisarmed the resistance and brought its Committee of National Liberation to orderĒ on the grounds that ďfree political and social movements always inspired mistrust among the AlliesĒ since they were ďhard to controlĒ. Romero describes the efforts of the British and the Americans to undermine the labour groups and the resistance against Fascism in northern Italy. And he describes it very positively, but he also describes it pretty accurately.

Pacitti: And the basis for this was established right after the Second World War, right?

Chomsky: Yes Ė and not just for Italy. It was a worldwide phenomenon, the same in Japan. It affected Japan, and a major study has just appeared Ė it won the Pulitzer prize [Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix] Ė on how the United States reinstated Emperor Hirohito after the Second World War as part of the effort to support Fascism and undermine the Left. Itís all over the world.

Pacitti: So traditional Italian forms of corruption are far less serious than the US variety?

Chomsky: Iíll just mention one other example to convince you. In France, right next door, we also had a powerful anti-Fascist resistance and strong labour movements. The south was immediately hit with one of the first activities, second only to Italy, to try to undermine the unions and undermine the Left. And to do that they restored the Corsican Mafia, in southern France, and that is the source of the heroin traffic in the world. In order to pay them off, they gave them the monopoly of heroin production. Thatís the same thing as French Connection, right? Thatís where the post-war drug problem originated. These are things that are important. Simply take a look at NSC1 that I quoted. NSC1, the First National Security Council memorandum, so very important, calls for, as I say, if necessary, coercion Ė letís say, withholding food Ė and if that doesnít work, to undermine the election. The United States should call a national mobilisation, but prepare for war, and should support the paramilitary activities within Italy.

Pacitti: It follows from what you are saying that Berlusconi could have been backed by the Mafia all the way along Ė and all the way back to the US.

Chomsky: Yes, it was the US that had the Mafia reconstituted. And you know that Mussolini destroyed the Mafia.

Pacitti: Indeed. So in Italy weíre just seeing half the story. Can I just ask you one more thing relating to the Berlusconi issue? I know you donít like giving advice and no doubt you probably wonít give me any advice on this, but there are plenty of radically minded folk here in Italy who are wondering what can be done. Some have taken to writing books in order to expose the full range of Italian corruption and injustices, from Mafia and allegedly Berlusconian forms to the more socially acceptable academic varieties. I know youíve placed the problem within a wider, global context, but is there something else we could and should be doing over here that weíre not doing and that goes beyond an Italian context?

Chomsky: The answer to these questions is always the same no matter what the issue is: there are no secrets that have been discovered in the last couple of thousand years. In the case of Italy, itís certainly worth while bringing out the criminality, the Mafia connections and so on Ė people should understand the fact. But the question is: do they care about it? And now the big problem in Italy as far as I can see is that people more or less know Ė they may not know the details Ė but they donít care about it.

Pacitti: And why do you think they donít care?

Chomsky: They donít care because they are under tremendous pressure Ė this is not Italy but the world Ė to try to remove the population from the political arena. That gets called neoliberal, which has its core in Britain and the United States Ė again the most advanced countries Ė but itís spread all over, which is a major effort to reverse what happened in the 1960s. What happened in the 1960s was extremely frightening to international elites. You see this very strikingly, and perhaps most strikingly, in The Crisis of Democracy.

Pacitti: It was published in 1975 and was the first major study of the Trilateral Commission founded by David Rockefeller. Is that correct?

Chomsky: Yes. The Commission was an elite, a mostly liberal internationalist elite, from Europe, the United States and Japan. And it was mostly people like the Carter administration, which was made up almost entirely from liberals, liberal in the American sense of social democrats and internationalists. They were deeply concerned about what happened in the 1960s around the world. What they were concerned about was an increase in democracy, that is, through the 1960s parts of the public which had usually been apathetic and passive began to get organised and began to enter the political arena and press their demands and so on. That included women, working people, minorities, the elderly, in general the large part of the population which was usually passive. They began to enter and to encroach on forbidden territory. The way the thingís supposed to work is that the political system is supposed to be in the hands of private tyrannies, private power, and that was beginning to erode. Thatís the crisis of democracy. And what they said is that thereís too much democracy and thatís no good, itís a crisis, that we have to have more moderation in democracy and we have to restore people to passive apathy. They said that they had to prove that they were worried about what they called the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young Ė their words, not mine. That means the schools, the officials, media, the churches Ė they were not indoctrinating people, they were becoming too independent and thoughtful, too active, and something had to be done to reverse this, the crisis of democracy. Since then there have been major efforts to restore people to their marginal existence, and this takes many forms. One form is whatís called minimising the state within the neoliberal framework. So remove decisions from the public arena and back into private hands, one or another form of privatisation. Another form is the centralisation of financial authorities. So the European central bank has enormous authority and itís not accountable to parliament. Still more important is the liberalisation of finance since the 1970s, dismantling the Bretton Woods system.  That creates what economists call a virtual parliament and you have to pay attention to what investors say or else they can destroy the economy. And that restricts enormously what governments can do. But right now there are extremely important meetings on the general agreement for trade in services. And the idea is to privatise services, services meaning anything the government can do Ė education, health, etc. And the idea is to liberalise, meaning open them to private competition, and thatís got to mean private control.

Pacitti: This is exactly along the lines of what Berlusconi has in mind, incidentally.

Chomsky: Thatís exactly it. But letís remember that this is a small part of something going on internationally, trying to deal with a major problem that arose because of the democratising process. And itís showing up all over the place and in an effort to undermine the Left. You can no longer control people by violence in the West. You canít just throw them into a torture chamber. You have to find other means. One means is propaganda. Another means is rabid consumerism, to try to drive people into massive consumption. In the United States the economy has suffered under the neoliberal policies, as has been the case worldwide, and is maintained to a high extent by consumer spending. Household debt is now higher than disposable funds. And thatís good because it traps people, and trapped into debt you canít do much. Youíve got to just work harder and try not to think about it. So from infancy children are deluged by propaganda telling them: buy, buy, buy, and so on. The same is done with countries. The Third World is trapped by debt which was imposed by immense propaganda from the IMF and the World Banking Organisation. These are devices to try to control the populations and ensure that the private tyrannies endure. So thatís what you have to do in times of increasing freedom.

Pacitti: Do you think the only thing we can do here in Italy is to try to make these things clear?

Chomsky: Try to help people see whatís going on. Itís not a matter of a little corruption here and there. I mean, thatís true. Itís a marginal part of it. And people are correct not to be very upset about it. This guyís corrupt, that guyís corrupt. So what? Whatís much more important are the deeper systematic properties which are concerned as always to try to control the population. One of the founding fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, described the population as a great beast that has to be controlled.  As the major framer of the Constitution, James Madison, put it, the wealth of the nation must control what happens.

Pacitti: And do you think we should do this by continuing to write books and articles?

Chomsky: We have to organise; we have to organise people. Thereís no point in books if they are just read by some academics.  Itís a different matter if they reach the general public, and are part of organising efforts, for example, the kinds that have led finally to international actions. That comes out of massive organisation. Itís not enough to write books. The purposes of privatisation are very obvious and it will not be stopped by writing books. It will be stopped by a united stand on an international basis. Thatís the way to stop it.

Pacitti: Would you agree that itís at least worth writing about the Italian component of the jigsaw?

Chomsky: Itís worth writing about it if itís part of a more organised effort. If youíre writing something for academic readers who are reading in the library, thatís OK. Itís OK if somebody uses it. But the main thing is to have it used. I mean, itís like doing science. Can we use it to advance understanding and inquiry, or in ways that will benefit people? If so, thatís fine.

Pacitti: Many thanks, Noam. Iím sure that our readers will find your comments, as always, both illuminating and stimulating.


Note: This interview was published by JUST Response on May 20 2002. It was first circulated in Italian and English by Terrelibere in February 2002 and a shortened version appeared in the May 2002 issue of Z Magazine.