Noam Chomsky needs little in the way of introduction. A pioneer in modern linguistics, he taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for more than 50 years and remains an emeritus professor there. But it is of course for his dissidence and activism that he is most famous.
Professor Chomsky impressed himself upon the public consciousness in the Sixties as a principled left-wing critic of the monstrous crime that was the Vietnam War. His opposition was embodied in a now-seminal essay — “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” — and he was arrested numerous times for his activism.
The succeeding decades have seen Chomsky continue with singular and even-tempered constancy to expose and condemn Western imperialism and the economic paradigm within which it occurs. His many influential books — among them Manufacturing Consent (with Edward S. Herman) and Chomsky on Anarchism — are notable not just for their scholarly exactitude but for the clarity with which their various theses are expressed. At 87 years of age, Professor Chomsky continues undimmed to analyse and confute prevailing opinion on a wide range of social, economic and (geo-)political matters — and with a vigour that puts far younger men and women to shame.
We met him at his office to gather his thoughts on the presidential primaries, the political upheavals threatening to occur in much of the West, and on the tactics the Left should seek to employ and forgo in its struggle for a better world.
The Colossus: You’ve spoken of the need for supporters of Bernie Sanders to establish a concrete and sustainable movement beyond his election campaign. Is there any indication that things are moving in this direction?
Noam Chomsky: Some — the campaign itself is really focused on the primaries and the election, but there are spin-offs. In fact, there’s a conference coming along pretty soon of people who have spun off the campaign whose rhetoric is that [building a movement] is the kind of thing that they’re trying to do. Maybe something will come of it.
There’s really an awful lot that ought to be done that they’re not doing. One thing that they ought to be doing is what the Tea Party does. The right-wing Republicans understood years ago that not only do they have to get a popular movement, but that they have to take over the low-level electoral system. So the Sanders campaign should be working on everything from school boards, to local committees, to state legislatures all the way up — that’s how things change. Suppose Sanders was elected — it won’t happen — but suppose he was. He couldn’t do a thing. He has no congressional support, no support at the state level, no governors, no state legislators, no dog-catchers, nothing. He’d be one person sitting in the White House, not only with no mass movement, but not even a government apparatus — and that has to be taken over. That’s why you see what you see in the United States right now: at the state level the Republicans have overwhelming control and that makes a big difference.
The Democrats long ago gave up on the working class, that’s not part of their constituency[, which these days is] an elite, professional constituency. They focus on — to the extent that they’re issues — mostly identity politics, which is okay, but it’s not class-based. It’s not going to appeal to the needs of most of the population. Other Republicans have just taken over the vacuum.
What the Sanders campaign ought to be doing is trying to get some counterpart to what used to be the labour-based mass movements. Go back to the 1930s. There were mass movements, but they was largely labour-based: the Communist Party and the Socialist Party and other political organisations that were not just organisations which show up every four years and push a button. They were membership-based, activist organisations. That’s pretty much missing now.
There are an awful lot of people involved [in activism], but it’s very atomised; either you’re doing gay rights or you’re doing environment or you’re doing local agriculture — all fine, but highly atomised and not taking either political power or mass popular organisation, both of which ought to be done and could be done… I think there are things happening, but it should be done on a much bigger scale.
One ‘phenomenon’ which was inspired by the Sanders campaign is ‘Bernie or Bust’, a summary refusal to vote for Clinton over Trump in the presidential election. Some have gone so far as to endorse Trump as the preferable candidate, citing his ostensibly less aggressive foreign policy or arguing that his victory might push the Democrats to the left. What do you make of this position?
I think it’s totally irrational and extremely harmful. Take a look at Trump’s positions — they’re virtually a death knell for the species. Take, say, climate change. It’s the biggest problem in the history of the human species — in a couple of decades we may pass the tipping point when there’s no question anymore.
We’re already killing other species at the level of the fifth extinction 65 million years ago. There are 350 million people in India who don’t have water; rising sea levels of a couple of feet will flood the coastal plains of Bangladesh [and] you’ll have hundreds of millions of people fleeing to survive. At this latitude right here we’re moving south at 30 metres a day in terms of global warming. The effects of this are catastrophic and they’re not far off. The decisions that are made now will determine whether there’s any possibility for organised human life.
What do you find in the campaigns? The Democrats — including Sanders — aside from a couple of phrases, say nothing. The Republicans? 100% denial. Every single candidate. Trump’s the worst, but every single candidate says it’s not happening. There’s one exception — John Kasich — [but] he’s now out of it. He said, ‘yeah it’s happening, but we shouldn’t do anything about it.’ He’s considered the good guy among the Republicans, but that’s the worst position of all — he sees it’s happening, but sure, let it happen.
Suppose Trump gets elected — that means nothing will be done about global warming in the next four years, and furthermore there will be regression. He’s going to eliminate the limited restrictions that there are. He’ll get rid of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), get rid of the constraints on coal, build more coal plants. That means every other country is going to stop doing anything — if the United States isn’t doing anything, what’s the point in bothering? So we’re done. That alone wipes out everything else and there’s plenty more.
He’s less militaristic? Is he really? I mean he says it’s easy to get rid of ISIS — we just bomb the shit out of them. That’s less militaristic? What happens if you do that? You get into a war with the Islamic world. That’s exactly what ISIS wants; they want the West to read their playbook. Like Al-Qaeda, what they’re dreaming of is a major Western attack which will mobilise the whole Islamic world and you’ll have a huge war and maybe they’ll come out of it, so yeah, let’s do that.
What are his domestic policies? Increase the military budget — it’s already more than half of discretionary spending, but let’s increase it. Cut back taxes on the rich — no new resources. It means there’s nothing left for the government, essentially, which is fine by them — at least they’ll have a government for the rich — that’ll stay of course — but any possible beneficial thing that could be done is gone.
Furthermore, you enter into immediate conflicts with other countries. You impose high tariffs on China. What do the Chinese do? Say thanks? They’ll want to react! Kill the Iran deal? Fine, that isolates the United States. Europe will probably continue, so the U.S. is just isolated. So we get into a situation: the line is, everyone’s attacking us, cheating us, we need a bigger military — we’re at war with the world. That’s less militaristic? I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense.
One of the more significant barriers which prevents people from engaging in political activity is the sense that we are up against insurmountable powers, both economic and political. You’ve described systems of political and economic domination as ‘fragile’, which might seem difficult to comprehend when considering the power of the IMF, the World Bank, or the U.S. military. In what sense are systems of power fragile, and are they self-consciously so?
They’re very well aware of how fragile they are. All this goes back to David Hume, who pointed out in his First Principles of Government that ‘nothing is more amazing than to see the easiness with which the public subordinates itself to power’, because power is in the hands of the governed — they have the power. Then he asks by what miracle is this achieved. He says it is by opinion only that it is achieved — what we call propaganda and ideology. If the powerful can convince people that you’re powerless, they’ve won. But people don’t have to accept that — it’s obviously untrue.
Take the IMF and the World Bank. The World Bank is now headed by a guy who came out of the activist Left movements, Jim Kin. Very good guy, I know him very well. He’s been working with Paul Farmer and others on setting up health clinics in rural areas, health programs for the poor, all sort of good things — good politics. One person isn’t going to change the organisation, but it means if there’s popular pressure the organisation can change.
Take the IMF: it’s split between two groups, the economists and the political spokespersons. The economists of the IMF have been highly critical of the European Union austerity programs. They say they’re crazy on economic grounds — that’s the economists. The guys who show up in Brussels and say, ‘no, we have to turn the screws’ — that’s a weak point in the IMF, a very weak point.
Changing the IMF and World Bank means changing U.S. and British politics, and that can be done — it’s a fragile system. In fact, the centrist political systems all throughout the Western world are collapsing. We just saw it dramatically in Austria where the two traditional parties are just gone — the choice was between neo-fascists and Greens. [The collapse] is coming up in Spain, it’s coming up in England.
In the U.S. there’s the Trump/Sanders phenomenon. Actually their constituencies are not all that different if you think about it. It’s because the Democrats have abandoned the working class that working class people are going to a crazed lunatic — their class enemy in fact. They’re supporting their worst class enemy because at least he’s talking about some things that they care about, like jobs and trade and so on. What he’s saying is horrible, but he’s talking about it. The Trump supporters and Sanders supporters could become the same group; they have very similar interests and concerns. They differ on what are called cultural issues — say, gay rights — but that’s not fundamental, and it can change. On the fundamental class issues they’re pretty similar and that means the whole political system is extremely fragile. In fact, it’s breaking up in a lot of Europe, partly because of the radically anti-democratic character of the European Union — once you shift all decisions to Brussels, what’s left? So the [traditional] parties collapse. Everywhere you look the system is fragile.
The core of the financial economic system during the neoliberal period is financialisation. Take a look at the big banks. The IMF came out, a couple of years ago, with a really interesting study of the six biggest American banks, and it turns out that their profits come almost entirely from taxpayer subsidies, literally. It’s not just the bailouts that everybody hears about… it’s understood by the investing community that they’re going to be bailed out if they get in trouble, therefore they get higher credit ratings, they get access to cheap money, they get incentives to do risky transactions which are profitable, all sorts of things. The business press calculates around $80 billion a year of subsidy, which is approximately their profits. It’s an extremely fragile system — it rests on nothing. I think all of this stuff could disappear.
We’re seeing at the moment a mirrored rise of populist movements on both the Left and the Right. The right-wing movements are taking on an increasingly racist and neo-fascist character. To what extent, and for what reasons, does the Left bear responsibility for the rise in popularity of these extreme and dangerous forces?
It’s responsible in a number of respects. In the last generation the Left in the United States, Britain and much of the West has been driven by issues which are extremely important but are not class issues — identity politics basically. Women’s movements, gay rights, Black Lives Matter: all these things are extremely important, but they divert the Left away from the fundamental class issues which are being picked up by the Right, like Trump and elsewhere. That’s a real failure, and it’s connected with the attack on the labour movement and the decline of the labour movement. Here’s where maybe Corbyn’s hopeful, if he can fight off [those] that are trying to destroy him — from the Guardian all the way over.
But these are serious failures of the Left. It’s not that they pick topics that are wrong — these are really important things, but they have to be integrated into something which also deals with the basic problems of life that people are facing: you’ve gotta put food on the table, have security, get your children to college, things like that. If you don’t deal with those questions you’re going to lose much of the population. The Democrats just say they don’t care about them, but that’s conservative Democrats and also New Labour — the Left shouldn’t agree with them.
You’re not a pacifist, but you have generally advocated nonviolent tactics. Some on the Left believe that acts of property destruction or violence against the police or fascists are permissible under the banner of tactical diversity, or justifiable as acts of self-defence against institutions of violence. For what reasons do you believe we should pursue nonviolent tactics, and, as a corollary, avoid violent or destructive tactics?
Well, one thing everyone ought to agree with is that any form of force and violence has to meet a pretty high burden of proof; the null hypothesis and assumption is that you don’t use force unless you have to, so it’s a last resort. The question is, can that burden of proof be met? Then we get to the question of tactics and consequences, and I think the record — and pure logic — shows that it’s totally destructive, a gift to the powerful, an absolute gift to them. In the region of violence they have overwhelming power — that’s where they’re strong. So if you move into that arena you’ll get smashed, and not only do you get smashed, but you lose the population.
We’ve been living through this all my life. Take, say, the Vietnam War. It was pretty dramatic to see what happened here among students and everybody else. In around 1970, at the peak of anti-war movement, young people were getting so angry and desperate — a little like the Bernie or Bust movement that you described — that they said we just can’t keep doing these things like teach-ins, demonstrations, lobbying. We’ve got to do something really significant to break down the system, so let’s go down Main Street and smash up the windows, like the Weathermen.
The Vietnamese were appalled. I remember sitting in on meetings where representatives of Vietnam were trying to urge measures that people here regarded as ludicrous. I remember a meeting when they said the things that are really good are when a group of middle-aged women go to a cemetery and pray at the graves of American soldiers; they thought that was really great.
Smashing windows on Main Street is the worst possible thing you can do. The Vietnamese wanted to survive. They didn’t care if Americans felt good — ‘I’m breaking a window, I’m really doing something’ — they didn’t care about that. They wanted to survive. The Vietnamese recognised what was obviously true — that the women praying at the grave are appealing to people — but think about it, the kids smashing windows on Main Street are telling construction workers, ‘let’s be pro-war’. So you want to build up pro-war sentiment? Great — have a fight with the police, smash up windows, then the population turns against you, for good reasons, and for the victims that’s a disaster. This is kind of ‘feel-good’ politics; I gotta do what makes me feel good, not [engage with] what happens to the victims.
You see this all over the place, and it’s a real defect of the activist Left. You have to think about the consequences for the victims, not whether you feel good about it. It doesn’t matter if you feel good about it. I think that’s the issue that shows up in the use of violent tactics. Take even violence in self-defence. I remember in a lot of demonstrations back in the ’60s, a lot of activists said, ‘look, we’ve got to arm ourselves, because the police are going to attack us’. That’s suicidal. If you take up a stick they’ll come after you with a gun. You pick up a gun; they’ll come after you with an assault rifle. You take an assault rifle; they’ll come after you with a tank. They’re gonna win, you’re gonna get smashed, you’ll get destroyed and you’ll turn the population against you — and for what purpose? In a brutal dictatorship you might have other arguments, but we live in pretty free societies — there are restrictions on the use of force by state power, they can’t do everything they want.
Hume was basically right: power is not determined by brute force. Even in Nazi Germany the population was controlled by economic benefits. Germany during the second World War was never able to mobilise to the extent that the democracies were, because the leadership didn’t trust the population. They had to buy them off, so you had what we later called a guns-and-butter war — kinda like how the United States in the ’60s could never call a national mobilisation because there was too much popular objection. So you have to fight an inefficient war. Albert Speer in his memoirs talks about this. He says that Germany could never become as totalitarian as the West did, because in the West there was real commitment to the war effort: you could have tight controls, discipline and so on. In Germany they had to devote resources to trying to keep the population satisfied, away from the war effort. That may be the reason that they lost the war, because they were technologically way more advanced… but these are really serious considerations, all of them, and almost entirely they militate against violent actions.
The UK will soon be voting on its EU membership. The Left seems in large part to be quite dispassionate on the issue, faced with two less than preferable options. Do you have any position on the UK’s EU membership?
I feel about the same — can’t get enthusiastic about either option. My guess is that Brexit would probably be harmful. The Left argument for it is, ‘look how rotten the European Union is’, but I think if Britain pulls out that Britain will be even more rotten — it’ll just make it more vulnerable to being a satellite of the United States. It’s going to be less independent in its actions. There’s reason to believe that if Britain pulls out… it would just be weaker, more vulnerable and more subject to external (meaning U.S.) pressures. I don’t see any indication that that would lead to a revival of the Left in England — how would that help left-wing Corbyn-style movements?
It will of course weaken Europe too. Europe has big problems, but I think the answer to those problems is not to break up the European Union, which in many respects was a positive development. [The EU has] got to be democratised and freed from the big banks and so on, but these are feasible projects. Here I agree with [Yanis] Varoufakis for example. He’s trying to organise this DIEM (Democracy in Europe Movement), which I think is a long shot but it makes some sense.
— Harry Burgess and Sanjeev Braich