Noam Chomsky: "The Concentration of Power and the Political Economy of Human Rights."

Talk given at Clark University, Worcester, Mass (9/27/94).
Recorded by Roger Leisner, Radio Free Maine.

Reviewed by
Randall G. Shelden, Ph.D.
Department of Criminal Justice
University of Nevada-Las Vegas

As a criminologist my task is the study of "crime" and society's response to it. One of the most immediate problems in such a study is how we define "crime." With few exceptions, criminologists take a standard (and in my view a very narrow) definition: "crime" is a violation of any law passed by a legislative body, that is, usually the "state." The standard defintion assumes that the crime is against the "state" or the "people," with the corresponding assumption that the state represents the people. But what happens if the state itself commits a crime or engages in behavior that would be considered harmful or even technically "criminal" by most people. What if we are dealing with the violation of some type of international law, rather than laws passed by individual states? And suppose the state is engaging in violations of basic and universally agreed upon "human rights"? Such a question is rarely considered by mainstream criminologists, especially since they are usually employed by the government (either through state-supported universities or through government grants).

As anyone who has read any of the works by Noam Chomsky knows, human rights violations by "states" is of great importance to him, especially violations committed by the United States government. The tape reviewed here addresses some of the violations of human rights committed by our own government (just saying that this is "our own" government causes me to pause and consider, for I doubt very much if most of us think of this government as "ours"). Chomsky's talk is a chilling account of rather systematic violations - in fact, an account of what I would call "criminal" acts.

Early in his talk he notes that in December, 1948 the United Nations voted unanimously for a "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," which can be enforced in the courts of the United States. Chomsky points out that our own government has proudly announced on numerous occasions over the years how committed we are to the principle of human rights. Yet despite such pronouncements, our government has rather systematically violated many of these rights.

The main thrust of Chomsky's talk is an examination of several specific human rights, as spelled out in the 1948 agreement. One section pertains to anti-torture rights, that is, the right to be free from torture, mutilation, massacre, etc. Sadly, the U.S. record on this subject is such that it appears as if we actually favor torture! One study cited by Chomsky (and documented in his book Year 501: The Conquest Continues) was done by Lars Schoultz--(University of North Carolina) found a very strong correlation between U.S. aide and torture in Latin American countries. In other words, U.S. aide tends to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments that torture their citizens! Such a correlation is also high where there is a strong climate for U.S. business investments. In other words, the better the climate for business, the more the aid, which is in turn achieved by the murder of union organizers, torturing priests, massacring peasants, and anyone else attempting to achieve "democracy." All of this began, Chomsky notes, during the Carter administration and continued through the Reagan years where these correlations run even higher as more and more aid went to Latin American governments who engage in the systematic violations of human rights.

Chomsky next discusses Article 25 of the Universal Declaration, which says that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate to their well being (food, clothing, health care, etc.) along with the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, old age, etc. The U.S. record on these rights is rather pitiful as several million of our citizens (including children) literally starve and are subjected to Third World conditions. In New York City alone about 40% live below the poverty line. In our nation as a whole, about 23% of all children live in poverty and the poverty rate for African-American children is close to 50%, which ranks us number 1 in the world! (No wonder so many of these children join gangs, where they often get some of their basic needs met and if they are arrested, which is often, they gladly accept the "services" of the local juvenile detention center where, for a few days at least, they get "three hots and a cot," as the saying goes!)

Chomsky moves next to Article 23, which says that people have the right to work under favorable conditions and the right to form and join a union. Although the U.S. has a formal commitment in this regard, the actual record is not a pleasant one. In 1992 the ILO in Geneva censured the U.S. for its labor practices. Chomsky notes that illegal firings for union organizing has increase six-fold during the past 25 years. the destruction of unions in this country constitutes blatant criminality by the state, in clear violation of international law. Meanwhile, corporate subsidies continue, as do massive layoffs and "downsizing," while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer (and get prison, as noted by Jeff Reiman in his book the Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison).

One important effect of the destruction of unions is the increase in industrial accidents because of a lack of enforcement of safety regulations (Jeff Reiman has estimated that about 34,000 Americans die each year because of "occupational hazards and disease," due largely to safety violations). Such lax enforcement stems directly from weak unions and the lack of pressure to enforce these laws. Chomsky notes that one important psychological effect of the destruction of unions is that it "eliminates the sense of solidarity and sympathy and the sense that you are suppose to care for each other." He traces this back to the early stages of the industrial revolution where the working class press in places like Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they protested the new "spirit of the age" of "gain wealth, forgetting all but self." They were reacting to a major campaign during this time by corporations that was "intended to eliminate human sentiments" and to "raise private profit to the supreme human value," which remains to this date. Even Adam Smith, Chomsky notes, "detested what's now called capitalism" and stressed the qualities like sympathy. Smith advocated "markets" because it would lead to "perfect equality," but only if you really had a true "free market." Smith would have regarded this new spirit of "gain wealth, forget all but self," as "pathological. Today we have this sentiment drilled into us everyday, from childhood on. Little wonder we have the highest crime rate in the world!

In his usual biting criticism, Chomsky takes aim at the U.S. support (via arms, etc.) to one of the worst human violators in the world, Indonesia. I need not mention the near genocidal massacres in East Timor and our direct support. As Chomsky notes, there are no sanctions for these atrocities because a lot of wealth is being gained as a result.

Chomsky cites several more examples of human rights violations during this speech. Space does not permit any further review, but I will point our one item that he mentions. He notes that about 11 million children are dying every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), from easily treatable diseases (e.g., diarrhea). The director of the WHO calls this a "silent genocide." Also, about a half a million children die each year because of "debt repayment." This was created when banks (including U.S. banks) lent money to dictators in the Third World and since such loans were not repaid they became "bad debts" that the general public has to pay back. The poor in these countries suffer as a result, since money that could go toward alleviating such suffering is not available.

I would urge anyone interested to purchase this tape and listen carefully. If you thought our government was actively supporting the notion of human rights, think again. It all comes down to the famous dictum, "gain wealth, forget all but self," which is what the wealthiest country in the world is doing.

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