Marginalizing the Masses

By Schupp, Robert A.; Ohlemacher, Richard L. | Journal of International Affairs, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Marginalizing the Masses

Schupp, Robert A., Ohlemacher, Richard L., Journal of International Affairs

Noam Chomsky Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Interviewed on 3 March 2000 by Robert A. Schupp and Richard L. Ohlemacher for the Journal of International Affairs

JOURNAL: The Journal has approached this particular publication on Shadow Economies in an effort to explore the socioeconomic aspects of the subject. General themes have emerged that reveal instances of economic imbalances stemming from political, legislative and commercial action that enriches some and impoverishes others. These implications of shadow economies, which is in many cases a marginalization of the masses, relate to much of your work on the politics of power and justice among nations and people.

MR. CHOMSKY: In everything I have read about it, there are properties that are rather common in discussing this topic. Whether we are discussing terrorism or crime or anything else, there is a strong tendency in the literature to focus on what you might call the retail rather than the wholesale aspects. In the case of criminal activities, for example, on terrorist activities of the weak rather than terrorist activities of the strong. And I think that the same is true in discussion of the shadow economy

There are overwhelming elements of non-informal economies that are not discussed much. Tax havens for example, are probably a substantial element of the international economy. But these elements of "informal economies" are part of the world of the strong and privileged, so not very much is known about them. They are not the focus of a great deal of attention and investigation, like drugs. In fact there are major factors in the drug system that are much too little discussed, such as the reasons why peasant farmers turn to coca production. They are being driven to it by the very policies that the powerful states advocate. For example, if you try to drive peasants to agro-export and you undercut the conditions for production for local markets by massive imports, and also establish conditions under which export of major commodities undergoes sharp price fluctuations, then peasants will not have many choices. They are likely to turn to production of commodities for which there is always demand. And that has happened. Colombia is a good case. Colombia had, and has, possibilities for non-drug agricultural production, but they have very substantially been undercut by external intervention. One of the more important cases involves efforts to stabilize commodity prices. For large-scale agribusiness it is not all that important if prices oscillate. But if you are a small peasant farmer, you cannot say, "I am not going to feed my children next year because the price is too low." Prices have to be stable if you want to be a small coffee producer.

There were Third World efforts to introduce commodity stabilization, but they were simply undercut by the rich countries. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in a core part of what was called "the new international economic order" back in the early 1970s, tried in one of its first major efforts to introduce measures to stabilize commodity prices. This would be analogous on an international scale to the ways every rich country stabilizes agricultural prices internally--by market interventions. The rich countries would not allow it--primarily the United States. That drives peasants away from coffee production.

Take Food for Peace Aid. In Colombia back in the 1950s, it sounded like a nice idea, except that it undercut domestic wheat production. So that eliminates another possibility. Once various possibilities are cut away and massive state terror is introduced--which happened, in no small measure from US initiatives to prevent efforts to ameliorate deplorable socioeconomic conditions --you end up with the drug culture. Those are massive factors in drug production, but they are not the ones that are being addressed in policy or much discussed, outside of specialist literature.

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