Parallel Development: Bolshevism, Nazism, and Corporations

from Interview with Noam Chomsky 1997

By David Cogswell

Q: Do you think it's essential to change the legal structure of the way corporations exist?

Noam Chomsky: I don't think corporations should exist any more than fascism should exist. They are similar totalitarian institutions. In fact, fascism, Bolshevism and corporations came out of pretty much the same intellectual background: these kind of Neo-Hegelian ideas about the rights of organic entities over and above the rights of the individual. This kind of thing was more or less formulated in the late 19th Century and moved into the American legal system, not by legislation, but through court decisions, lawyers and intellectuals and so on pretty much early in this century.

Q: What is the problem with the corporate concept?

Chomsky: Just go back, think what corporations were in the mid-19th Century and on back. A corporation was a partnership. The corporation had no rights. It was an artificial entity. The partners had rights. The corporation was incorporated to carry out a specific task, got a state charter to do something, like build a bridge over the Charles River. The partners had the rights of people. They were allowed to carry out that task, given to them under the state charter, period. That's a corporation.

The change was that the corporations became natural entities, not artificial entities. The corporation got rights, not the individuals. So the corporation has the rights of immortal persons. The corporation has the right to purchase, like Ruppert Murdoch has the right to purchase another business. It's not even incorporating him to do that. And they have the rights of free speech. With fifth amendment rights they can advertise. Why should a corporation be allowed to advertise, that's not freedom of speech? They're not people.

The traditional view is that rights are natural rights. They're rooted in the nature of people. Not in the nature of totalitarian institutions. They don't have rights. The Bolshevik state has no rights. And GE is no different. Just the tyranny and control from the top down. Meanwhile the legal system slowly began changing the conception of the corporation so that it wasn't the individual participants but it was the board of directors. That's the corporation. And that's kind of like shifting power from the people to the central committee in a Bolshevik system as when Lenin was in power. It's very similar. And the thinking behind it is rather similar.

If you look back again a century ago -- you know there are very few conservatives and the United States doesn't have a conservative tradition, but there were some. They were very much opposed to corporations. For one thing because they were attacking individual liberty. But also because they were attacking markets. A corporation, its purpose is to undermine the market. Internally it's not a market system. So internally a mom and pop grocery store doesn't work by the market, it works by the decisions of whoever runs it, two of them or one of them or whatever. It's the same when you get to GM. Internally it doesn't work by the market. It makes its decisions the way you do inside a command economy. It's also completely hierarchic. Orders go from the top down. And this uncertainty is all along the line. A mid-level executive can be tossed in the street tomorrow. You do what you're told, tell the other guy what to do, if you don't do it, goodbye.

So here we have tyrannical systems with enormous power. They are allowed to do all sorts of things, like they can propagandize. And they are granted freedom of speech to propagandize. All this fuss about campaign funds... The United States has actually been criticized for that in international human rights forums because although the U.S. does protect freedom of speech, it considers money to be speech. Certainly that's not an Enlightenment idea. It would have scandalized any of the Enlightenment thinkers that money should be speech. If money doesn't get the protections of speech, then it's the end of buying ads on television for a campaign. The problem isn't the people in China, it's the communications industry buying Clinton, or whatever it is.

These are all assumptions that we make that are not graven in stone. We should re think them. I don't think most of them are legitimate and like other illegitimate institutions they can be dismantled. It's happened all through history. History is not over. You're made to think that it's permanent. It is kind of like Orwell, you equate tyranny with freedom, so corporations are tyrannical command economies and you equate them with freedom. And that's straight out of Orwell. It makes about as much sense as Stalin calling these things of his "people's democracies." It's about like that.

In the communications system, information system, the media and so forth, it's a bad joke. The media and the bookstores and the rest of them are just huge corporations whose perfectly obvious purpose, perfectly understandable: they're not there to make people think things like what we're talking about. Is that their business? No. Is that their interest, where they're going to put their money? No. They're going to shape a picture of the world that makes you feel hopeless, makes this look permanent, makes it look like freedom, and makes you feel you can't do anything about it anyway, so you might as well go on to survival strategies. Sure they're going to try to do that. That's close to a hundred percent of what reaches people. So you ask what you can do, well, free yourself.

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