Deterring democracy in Italy: a key case of thought control
Noam Chomsky tells Domenico Pacitti that criminal accusations against Silvio Berlusconi are trivial by US standards and explains how Italy has been the main target of US efforts to undermine democracy since the Second World war. International protests are the best way forward, says Chomsky
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.
Well, why do you think thatís different from Britain and the United States?
Thatís what I was hoping you would explain.
Well the answer is that it isnít different.
Can you elaborate?
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.
And do you feel then that what is happening in Italy is similar?
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.
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.
By US standards thatís a triviality.
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.
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: www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/NSChistory.htm]
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].
Thereís more than a suspicion here in Italy that Berlusconi obtained heavy
backing from the Sicilian Mafia at national elections.
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
Youíve looked at the Italian question in some detail, then?
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
And the basis for this was established right after the Second World War, right?
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.
So traditional Italian forms of corruption are far less serious than the US
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.
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.
Yes, it was the US that had the Mafia reconstituted. And you know that Mussolini
destroyed the Mafia.
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
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.
And why do you think they donít care?
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.
It was published in 1975 and was the first major study of the Trilateral
Commission founded by David Rockefeller. Is that correct?
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.
This is exactly along the lines of what Berlusconi has in mind, incidentally.
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.
Do you think the only thing we can do here in Italy is to try to make these
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.
And do you think we should do this by continuing to write books and articles?
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.
Would you agree that itís at least worth writing about the Italian component
of the jigsaw?
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.
Many thanks, Noam. Iím sure that our readers will find your comments, as
always, both illuminating and stimulating.
Chomsky, the US linguist, philosopher and political activist, is considered by
many to be the worldís leading intellectual and one of the foremost thinkers
of modern times. Describing himself as "a sort of anarchist
socialist", he has long been an indefatigable human rights campaigner and
has written more than 30 books and countless articles attacking and exposing
United States foreign policy. He is generally credited with being the father of
modern linguistics for having transformed the study of language and mind over 40
years ago. He is Institute Professor in the Department of Linguistics and
Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Pacitti is an international journalist and academic. As correspondent for The
Times Higher Education Supplement
and The Guardian
in London and contributing editor of World
Parliamentarian in Brussels, he has written over 400 articles against
corruption in Italy, especially in universities. He has taught philosophy,
linguistics and Chinese at universities in the UK and Italy. He currently
teaches English and American language and literature at the University of Pisa.
Note: This interview was published by JUST Response on May 20 2002. It was first circulated by www.terrelibere.it in February 2002. A shortened version appeared in the May 2002 issue of Z Magazine (Massachusetts) www.zmag.org. It was conducted by telephone from Rome to Noam Chomskyís home in Massachusetts and took place on May 25 2001 shortly after the Italian general elections.