Egypt, Tunisia, Mideast, India, and Class...
Noam Chomsky speaks to Saswat Pattanayak
SP- Prof Chomsky, where do you locate the contours of the current crisis in Egypt, Tunisia and rest of the Middle East?
NC- The source of the crisis in the Arab world goes back very far and it’s similar to what we find in the formerly colonized world. Actually it was expressed rather clearly in the 1950’s by President Eisenhower and his staff. He was holding an internal discussion which has been declassified since. Eisenhower asked his staff why there is, what he called a “campaign of hatred” against us in the Arab world. Not among the governments, which are more or less docile, but among the people. And the National Security Council, which is the major planning body, produced a memorandum on this topic. It said that there is a perception in the Arab world that the United States supports harsh vicious dictators, blocks democracy and development; and we do this because we want to maintain control over their resources - in this case, energy. And went on to say that the perception is fairly accurate and furthermore that, that’s what we should be doing.
The basic principle holds not just for the Arab world. It was expressed rather succinctly during the period of the recent spectacular uprising in Egypt by Marwan Muasher. He is a former high Jordanian official who is now the head of research in the Middle East for the Carnegie Endowment. He said there is a prevailing doctrine which is that as long as people are quiet, passive, controlled, there is no problem. We do whatever we like. Maybe they hate us, but it doesn’t matter, because we can do what we like. That’s a principle that holds in Arab world, in India, it holds domestically in the United States; its a standard principle of domination. Of course, sometimes the people break the chains and then you have to make adjustments. What’s happening in Egypt right now is a dramatic, but not untypical example. There has been case after case where the United States and other imperial powers before have been compelled to abandon support for the favored dictator because he could no longer be sustained. So there is a standard gameplan now being applied in Egypt. You support the dictator as long as possible by adopting the Muasher Doctrine. Everything is quiet, so no problem. When the dictator can no longer be sustained, you sort of push him aside, issue Reagan proclamations of your love for democracy and freedom and proceed to try to reestablish as much as you can of the former system. And that’s what we see happening right now in Egypt, and as I said, it happens over and over again.
SP - Do you foresee a similar uprising in India? Or, what in your views is holding India back?
NC - Let’s take India. First of all, there is a major uprising. Large parts of India are in flames. The tribal areas are essentially in revolt. Large part of Indian Army is involved trying to suppress them.
SP - So you see a parallel between the insurgencies?
NC - hmm.. I think the real question in India would be ... I mean there has been, you know, this famous shining India. Its true for a segment of population. India is so huge, so its a substantial sector. On the other hand, probably three-quarters of the population are left out. The number of billionaires is rising about as fast as the number of peasant suicides. And the analogous question to Egypt would be not so much what’s happening in the tribal areas, I think, as what about the hundreds of millions of people who are suffering severely.
SP - Absolutely. There’s a huge class gap.
NC - There is an enormous class gap. India’s dramatic, in fact. If suffering in South Asia is...
SP - The gap is growing now...
NC - Its growing and its the worst in the world. Has been for a long time. If you look at the Human Development Index of the United Nations, the last time I looked, India was about 120th or something like that at the beginning of the so-called reforms 20 years ago.
SP - Now the quality has fallen further down.
NC - Well, now the question is how long will these huge numbers of people be passive and apathetic so their concerns can be dismissed.
SP - Prof Chomsky, Arundhati Roy was pressed with sedition charges for speaking on Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination. What is your take on self-determination, especially in the context of Kashmir?
NC - First I should say that Arundhati Roy should be greatly honored in India as a symbol of what could be great about the country. The fact that she is being charged with Sedition is utter outrage. And the anger and hatred that’s being organized against her is a real disgrace. But that’s Arundhati Roy, a marvelous person.
With regard to Kashmir, problems go back to the Partition. And there is plenty of responsibility on all sides. Keeping to India, India, of course refused to allow the referendum that was a condition on partition. (Thus, India) essentially took over the territory and (subsequent) conflict led to a Line of Control. There has been plenty of repression and violence. In late 1980’s there was an election but it was totally fraudulent. It led to an uprising which was put down with extreme violence. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the Indian controlled areas of Kashmir. Tortures, atrocities have been pretty horrible. Roy points out in her recent article that this is the most militarized region in the world. There’s since been other controlled elections attempting to institute Indian control and anyone who looks at it can see that there is strong pressure for one or another form of autonomy or self-rule. It could take many forms. Exactly how it should be worked out is not a trivial problem. But you can think of ways in which a reasonably sensible outcome could be managed through the various parts of Kashmir, (since) different regions of Kashmir have different interests and goals.
SP - How do you perceive the Maoist movement in India? Do you see it as the battle of an indigenous people’s right to self-determination or do you see in it, a communist, revolutionary struggle to gain control of a political economy?
NC - Well, first I should not make any pretense of having any deep knowledge with this. I don’t. But as far as I understand, it is both. There are Maoist revolutionaries. So-called. They call themselves Maoists, whatever that’s supposed to mean. But there is a basis in the population. These are substantially tribal areas and they are among the most repressed people in India. They have lives, they have a society, a functioning society; in the forests, in the tribal regions. There is an effort by the Government, essentially to invade those regions to destroy the basis for their life and society by resource extraction, mining and so on. And they are resisting. They wanna preserve their lives. Its going on all over the world.
Now, this Summer, for example, I was in Southern Columbia visiting endangered villages subjected to severe repression. Actually, Columbia has the largest internally displaced population in the world after Sudan, mostly from attacks on the indigenous areas. The villagers are trying to do the same thing. They are trying to find ways to...one village I visited is trying to preserve nearby mountain and virgin forests from mining which will destroy their communities, destroy their lives, take away the water supplies. They are poor, but they have a functioning life. They want that life and they have every reason to have it. And that’s happening all over the world. Its happening in the United States. In Appalachia, mountain top removal happens to be a very cheap way of coal mining, but it destroys the valleys, destroys the rivers, destroys the ecology, destroys the communities and people resist. I presume that, what’s happening in the tribal areas (in India) is in substantial part an instance of this global phenomenon of the feverish surge for resources, whatever be the effect on environment and the people.
SP - Yes. And also, it has a continuation in terms of historical understanding of India’s indigenous peoples. From 1960s onwards, there have been organized revolutionary movements among the oppressed...
NC - Oh yeah, from the Naxalite movements. That was, of course, very serious. In some places like West Bengal, it was a major factor that led to significant land reforms, to establishment of peasant communes and so on. Again, I don’t claim to know much about it but I have visited some of them together with an agricultural economist friend and actually a Finance Minister with the Government who I happened to know when he was a student here. We went to visit a panchayat in West Bengal and there were a lot of impressive things happening. These are the outcomes of the Naxalite revolt...other outcomes have been vicious and brutal.
SP - Nation states are increasingly resembling larger corporations. Is it a trend to stay or do you think even globalization will have its necessary backlash and a historical meltdown?
I think many complicated things are happening around the world. I don’t think thats true of all nation-states. For example, rather dramatically in Latin America, there has been in the past 10 years or so, significant moves towards integration, towards independence, towards bringing the mass of the population into the political process, dealing with severe internal problems, not like India, which has enormous poverty and misery in an island of wealth. That’s in the opposite direction. If you take the rich, developed, some of the Asian countries, they are going in their own ways. Take a country like the United States, England and much of Europe - what you described...what’s happening could be described that way but little differently. I mean what’s actually been happening in much of the world, this incidentally includes China and India too - is a global shift of power - away from working people and into the hands of owners, managers, investors, the elite elements, highly paid professionals, and so on. There is a very sharp class split. You see it everywhere.
SP - Absolutely.
NC - In the United States, its the highest inequality since the 1920’s. And if we look closely, its the highest ever, because the inequality largely results from the super enrichment of a tiny sector of the population. A fraction of one percent (comprising) managers, owners, hedge fund managers, and so on. And this concentration of economic power in the sector of corporate system, increasingly the financial sector, carries with it a political power. Concentrated economic power has overwhelming effect on the global process. And in fact, the state corporate policies for the past 30 years, running from fiscal policies like taxation to government rules on corporate governance and so on, have been designed in order to create this kind of system of sharply class divided oppression. And this is real and there is plenty of discontentment and anger. Its not like the Third World but the people in the rich countries have seen their incomes stagnate for 30 years while there is enormous wealth. Life is not miserable, but it is difficult. Unemployment for much of the population is still at the level of depression with no prospect of anything changing. This is kind of extreme in the United States. But its similar in England and to some extent, elsewhere. In places like China, let’s say you also have extreme disparity of wealth, some of the worst in the world. India is of course a class by itself...
SP - Do most people recognize there is a class society in existence or is there a denial?
NC - The business class of, say in the United States, are highly class conscious. In fact, they are essentially Marxists. If you read the business literature, it reads like a little Red Book. They mention the hazards of the organized masses, the hazards they pose to industrialists and so on. And they fight a bitter class war. And in the last years its been dramatic. Among the rest of the population, its a mixed story. So again, take the United States. The word class is almost unmentionable. The United States is one of the few countries where...
SP - ...Class is a taboo word.
NC - ....It is a taboo word. Everyone is middle class. I have a friend who teaches History in a state college. On the first day of the semesters, she often asks students how they identify themselves in class terms. The answers are, ‘basically if my father is in jail, I am underclass. If my father is a janitor I am middle class, if my father is a stock broker, I am upper class. But the idea of the class in its traditional sense is essentially driven out of peoples’ heads. But whether they have a terminology for it or not, they know it. People know whether they are giving orders or taking orders. They know whether they have a role in decision making or they don’t. And those are class distinctions.
SP – Your message for the readers of Kindle?
NC - The message...one message is not to take that description too seriously. In fact, take a look at what’s happening right now in Tahrir Square in Egypt. One of the most spectacular demonstrations of popular activism of courage and determination that I can remember. They are not following leaders. In fact, what’s striking, dramatically striking is how self organized it is. People are forming defense communities to protect themselves against Government thugs, they are forming groups to develop policies, to reach out to others. That’s the way things happen. Sometimes, you know, popular movements develop and leaders appear. Usually it’s a bad thing. No one should be looking to anyone for guidance and advice. Basically, you can figure out the answers. The important ones will come from the people themselves.