Noam Chomsky on Hopes and Prospects for Activism: "We Can Achieve a Lot"
Acclaimed philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He shared his perspectives on international affairs, economics and other themes in an interview conducted at his office in Boston on September 14, 2010.
Keane Bhatt: Your new book "Hopes and Prospects" begins with the story of Haiti, and that’s what we discussed last, so it’s an appropriate place to start the interview. For hundreds of thousands of people, decent, hurricane-resistant housing is a chimera. Despite the billions given to relief agencies, Carrefour camp-dwellers pay a monthly "tax" just to stay there; 1.3 million people are still internally displaced. An estimated 8,000 displaced persons have been forcibly evicted. If there were a functioning, democratic Haitian state, it could use eminent domain on behalf of the affected population to secure land for permanent housing. But in the upcoming elections that the U.S. is financing, the largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas, has been excluded along with 13 others, and there hasn't been a comprehensive initiative to provide internally displaced persons with the ID cards required to vote.
You've talked about the contempt for democracy shown before - funding [World Bank official and former Duvalier minister] Marc Bazin's candidacy against Aristide in 1990, punishing Gaza for voting the wrong way, funding opposition parties throughout Latin America - but now it seems that pretenses for supporting even procedural democracy can be abandoned. The Honduran elections under the coup regime were accepted too. Are we seeing a new trend of greater brazenness and extremism?
Noam Chomsky: I think it’s always been true. Democracy is a danger to any powerful group. Take, say, the United States - formally maybe one of the most advanced democracies in the world. And one of the earliest, in fact - in the 18th century, it was way in the lead. The founding fathers were very concerned about the danger of democracy and spoke quite openly about the need to construct the democratic institutions so that threat would be contained. That’s why the Senate has so much more power than the House, to mention just one example.
KB: But it seems that in foreign policy, there used to be a greater tolerance of formal, procedural democracy. Now, as shown by Honduras and Haiti, there's not even an effort to maintain the pretense.
NC: The scholarly literature is pretty straight on this. With regards to Latin America, but in general it's true worldwide, the main scholarship on "democracy promotion" is by Thomas Carothers. He's a neo-Reaganite, who believes that Reagan was kind of a Wilsonian trying to bring democracy, and he was in the State Department in the Reagan years working on democracy-enhancement programs. And he’s an honest scholar. And he's done studies right up to practically the present, and I won't go through the details, but his conclusion is correct and predictable. He says that the United States supports democracy if and only if it conforms to social and economic objectives. And since he's a real loyalist, he regards this as kind of a paradox.
KB: A schizophrenia …
NC: Yeah it’s schizophrenia. He calls every leader "schizophrenic." Well, the leaders are just perfectly realistic.
KB: In "Failed States," you mention seven solutions for dealing with international problems. The third one is, "Let the UN take the lead in international crises." While I see the general wisdom in this, particularly with regard to Iraq and Iran, how does this apply to Haiti, which has been under UN MINUSTAH occupation since the 2004 coup?
NC: First of all, I was actually reporting public opinion there in those passages. Public opinion said, "We think the UN, not the U.S., should take the lead in international crises," and I think there's some legitimacy to that, but we have to recognize - and I probably discussed it in the same context - that the UN is not an independent agent. The UN is an agent of the states that constitute it, and more specifically, of the five veto-holding states in the Security Council, and even more specifically than that, of the United States. The UN can go as far as the U.S. will allow, and no further. And it's bound by conditions that the powerful states, which means mostly the U.S., impose. Haiti's a case in point. But there are plenty of others. Take, say, the sanctions on Iraq under Clinton and until the invasion. They’re called UN sanctions and they were administered through the UN, but if you look at them more closely, it turns out they were U.S. sanctions. So yeah, the flaw you mention is right in here. But that’s inherent in the UN structure. I mean, the UN to some extent diffuses U.S. power. Therefore it's less direct an agency of the United States than the U.S. Army is. But still, it can't escape the distribution of power in the world.
KB: And in the most vulnerable cases, places that can't assert themselves, like Haiti, there’s an even greater expression of that.
NC: Who’s going to object? England isn't going to object, France joins the United States. In fact, France is one of the worst torturers of Haiti both historically and today. China and Russia aren't going to get involved. Okay, so it's the U.S.
KB: Back in 1994, journalist Allan Nairn reported the sentiments of Major Louis Kernisan of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, who said "You're going to end up dealing with the same folks as before, the five families that run the country, the military and the bourgeoisie ... it's not going to be the slum guy from Cite Soleil." This is an example of what you've discussed: honest planners using Marxian analysis. Elites and strategists seem to have a good grasp of social and international relations, but with the values reversed. You've said you don't particularly care much for Marx. Does this include the analytical framework that planners and elites employ?
NC: It’s not quite accurate; I don't say I don't care much about him. I wouldn't call myself a Marxist, I don't think anybody should be any kind of an "-ist." As far as Marx's analysis of capitalism, there's a lot of very useful ideas in it, but we have to remember - and he would've been the first to say – he's developing an abstract model of 19th century capitalism. It's abstract and it's changed. As far as his prescriptions for the post-capitalist future were concerned, he really didn't have much to say. And with some justice, I think. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say that I don't care much for Marx; he offered lots of insights into how society works, and he was an extremely good analyst of the current events of the day. I think he would take it for granted that elites are basically Marxist - they believe in class analysis, they believe in class struggle, and in a really business-run society like the United States, the business elites are deeply committed to class struggle and are engaged in it all the time. And they understand. They’re instinctive Marxists; they don't have to read it.
KB: You’ve talked about how you often rely on the elite business press for an accurate portrayal of events. As the reasoning goes, investors need to have a clearer understanding of world affairs and not receive propaganda so as to profit from political and economic developments. What then is the role of The Economist, which one can't read without seeing serious misrepresentations on a seemingly constant basis within its reporting? What role is it serving, and why is its reporting so different from that of, say, the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal?
NC: I used to read The Economist regularly, but haven't done so for some time. One reason is what you indicate. Another is that they do not provide much basis for what they assert, not even the name of the writers, so at least one can have some judgment of credibility.
KB: You often bring up and advocate Adam Smith, despite acknowledging his shortcomings. For example, you've pointed out the implausibility of even perfect markets leading to perfect equality. Is it partly a strategic effort to deprive the Right of its hero, who decries the division of labor, imperialism and business control over state policy?
NC: Not at all. It's because I think he had a lot to say that is important, once we eliminate the mythology that has been created about him. For example, his critique of division of labor on classical Enlightenment grounds. Or his recognition that state policy is designed by those who dominate the economy, for their own interests, even if the effect on others is "grievous," including the people of England, but most importantly the victims of "the savage injustice of the Europeans," referring primarily to Britain's crimes in India, his main concern as an honest person. His remarks were about the England of his day, but they generalize. Or even his one use of the phrase "invisible hand" in "Wealth of Nations," in arguing (not very persuasively) that it would protect England from the ravages of what we call "neoliberalism" - Ricardo did much the same. Or his call for banking regulation in reaction to a major financial collapse. And much more. That's quite aside from his interesting work as a moral philosopher.
KB: I talked with an older, honest investor recently, a multi-millionaire. He discussed how, as a social norm, his class had relieved itself of any allegiance or loyalty, in contrast to the Eisenhower-era capitalists in the U.S. and East Asian elites today. If this country were to institute higher marginal tax rates - even if well below the 90 percent marginal tax rates under Eisenhower - he said he'd simply shut down what remains of his productive assets in the U.S., put thousands of his workers out of a job, change his citizenship to the UAE, and live there. In fact, after he mentioned Obama's "socialist" tendencies, he was contemplating doing just that. This untethered, transnational mentality that's now predominant is a refutation of Smith and Ricardo's notion that the capitalist class would prefer to support its own country. How does the general population combat this threat, which now extends to physically leaving the U.S. to prevent even income taxes from being levied? You've spoken about worker takeover and management as a solution. What else is in the arsenal of the general population, working through organized labor, the government or other means?
NC: What he’s describing is honest and accurate. In fact, the capitalist class in the '50s was sort of part of a social contract. It was part of the tenor of the times. During the Depression and the War, there was a real radicalization of the population -not just here but all over the world. And the post-War system was designed to reflect that. That's why you get welfare states developing in the '50s - a lot of popular pressure you couldn't escape. Changes have taken place since then and there's actually been a return to an extreme form of predatory capitalism, which means that not only will I close my business or move if I don't like what you do, but something else that's been happening, which is interesting. In the financial institutions, which by now dominate the economic system, the management level repeatedly acts in ways which will destroy their own institutions if it'll increase their benefits, and benefits are not small. You know, you take a look at the revenue of, say, Goldman Sachs - a very high percentage of it just goes to payment of management and bonuses. There was a time traditionally - say, GM in the 1950s - it was trying to develop a consumer base that would be loyal and lasting and they were thinking in terms of an institution that would remain and grow and thrive in the society. By now, a lot of the investment firms - bankers, hedge funds - are perfectly happy to destroy what they're in and come out with huge, tremendous benefits. That's a new stage of capitalism.
Regarding your question on strategies: among less radical options, using the ballot box, as was done in the 1930s and 1960s - to be sure, on a wave of large-scale popular activism. With good effect, leaving a legacy that can be carried forward. And there are many other options, depending on circumstances and level of organization and popular understanding and commitment. To bring that about is always the fundamental step.
KB: In "Hopes and Prospects" you discussed the hypocrisy at the beginning of the financial crisis: IMF proposals for the Third World were to pay back debt to core countries, raise interest rates, privatize and generally engage in pro-cyclical policies. For the U.S., the accepted prescriptions were: stimulate economy, forget about debt, nationalize industry. But since then, a very powerful current emerged and changed the policy debate - now it's about deficit reduction and austerity at home, which the Obama administration is actively fueling with its deficit commission and talk of the federal government's need to tighten its belt. Is this shift another indicator of what Simon Johnson talks about, namely the similarities between the U.S. and emerging-market oligarchies? Is the U.S. "becoming a banana republic," as he puts it? Your book mentions Citigroup's buoyant analysis of plutonomies, in which the economy functions in all respects in the interests of its richest 10 percent, largely oblivious of the needs of everyone else. Is this what’s taking place?
NC: It’s a development that’s been going on, though even more so in Europe. The United States in many ways resembles a Third World country - far more elevated, but it has many of those structural characteristics: the extreme inequality of wealth, the deterioration of infrastructure because it only serves poor people, predatory operations, huge corruption, and so on. These are all pretty typical of Third World countries, not countries that are trying to develop a sound future economy. Let's just steal what we can and go away. Regarding Citigroup's analysis, it's certainly more so than before. It's never been untrue, but certainly more so now. Take the period that was moving toward social democracy of some kind - say the '50s and the '60s – that's when the technology that you're using right now was developed. And it was developed at taxpayer expense, but there was no particular thought that the taxpayer would benefit from it. People who would benefit from it were IBM, Microsoft, and so on. The corporate sector wanted the population of the country to pay the costs, take the risks. And it was done totally fraudulently, not so that you could have a computer. People thought they were defending themselves from the Russians or something. But planners understood.
KB: They were building the base for the economy of the future.
NC: They were building the economy of the future, from which they are going to benefit. And maybe incidentally others will, but that’s only incidental. IBM's an interesting case. So IBM was a big industry, with punch cards and everything, but in the '50s, it essentially learned how to shift from punch cards to effectively functioning digital computers at government labs. Actually right here, down below where we’re sitting in Building 20, where a lot of this was going on. And by the early '60s, IBM had gained enough capacity so it could build its own computer. They had the world's fastest computer: the Stretch.
KB: And the U.S. government procured it.
NC: The government had to buy it, because nobody would buy it. It was way out of sight. And procurement is a major technique of state subsidy, a fact that has been well-studied in the professional literature. And this goes on; it's really not until about the '80s - thirty years after all of this - that IBM could really sell PCs and make a lot of money, and Microsoft could spin off and so on. But what's happening now is quite interesting and it's being discussed by the leaders of industry. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has done some studies in which they point out that, the way they put it, "what’s good for General Motors is good for the country" isn’t true anymore. Because by now - and IBM is their example - they discuss the fact, or maybe the Wall Street Journal reports the fact, that IBM is not only offshoring where it can to cheaper labor, but is pretty much compelling its domestic workforce to move to India [Project Match]. So we don't want you here, go live like a third-world person in India. We'll pay you less and you do the same thing. So here's a company that was substantially built by the American taxpayer, became super-rich, and their responsibility to the country is not to just offshore jobs, but send their own workers to India. I think about 75 percent of the IBM workforce is overseas.
KB: Going back to the issue of IMF prescriptions, Olivier Blanchard, IMF chief economist, argued for a higher target of inflation, of around 4 percent. The Wall Street Journal reported that, "Mr. Blanchard says the IMF should lead the rethinking necessary after the worst recession since World War II." What, if anything, can IMF approval of a more expansionary monetary policy mean for the developing world, which often has to obey the IMF, and can this signal a real shift within the IMF? Or is it just temporary maneuvering?
NC: There have been some changes in the IMF, but nowhere near enough, I think. The IMF economists were doubtless shaken by the extreme failures of their prescriptions over many years, and by the collapse of the intellectual edifice of economic theory on which they were relying.
KB: In characterizing the U.S. financial crisis, you say that "markets are inefficient … They can be controlled by some degree of regulation, but that was dismantled under religious fanaticism about efficient markets, which lacked empirical support and theoretical basis; it was just based on religious fanaticism." Was this "irrational fundamentalism" the major factor in the development of the current world economic crisis? I ask because in "Hopes and Prospects," you direct readers wishing to understand the crisis's roots to Foster and Magdoff's "The Great Financial Crisis." Their thesis is that due to long-run stagnation tendencies in the real economy, "profits were increasingly directed away from investment in the expansion of productive capacity and toward financial speculation." For Foster and Magdoff, the religious fanaticism was politically expedient and helped feed a series of massive financial bubbles, but this push compensated for the underlying, long-term stagnation tendencies of the real economy.
NC: I think that there's some truth to that. There are books that are now available that I would've also referred to which go way beyond what I said - people from right in the middle of the economics profession going to the point of declaring economists criminals. For example, Yves Smith’s book - which is really good - I mean, she just says that those guys are a plague. The field ought to be dismantled. And she goes into the real details of it and shows what there is in economic theory that is so corrupt that it's hard to discuss. It's a great book. And there are a couple of others, like probably Simon Johnson's "13 Bankers," which I haven't read yet.
KB: According to Foster and Magdoff, the basic contradiction in the real economy, related to growing income and wealth inequality, eventually exerted itself like a force of gravity, which led to a financial implosion. The disjuncture between the stagnant real economy and the increasingly bloated financial sphere had grown to such an extent that when the housing bubble finally popped, the resulting fallout overwhelmed the power of the central banks to counter it as "lenders of last resort." Does all of this suggest that the possibilities for regulating the system's inefficient markets are more limited than is commonly supposed?
NC: I don’t think so, because there was a period of regulation from the New Deal up to the '70s, and there were no financial crises. Since the '70s, the regulatory structure has partially been dismantled, partially captured - you know, regulatory capture - and partially it's been affected by what's sometimes called cognitive regulatory capture. That is, the regulators bought the ideology that's being peddled by economists, and business happily picks it up because it's so good for them, not because they think there's any merit in it. And as a result, since the '70s there have been repeated financial crises; this is not the first one, they've been regular.
In the Asian countries, there was a natural reaction to the crisis of the late '90s: after the countries sort of worked their way out of the Asian financial crisis, they started building up their financial reserves. That's now condemned. That's the famous capital glut that's causing global imbalances, forcing our interest rates down, and doing all kinds of horrible things. It was a very rational reaction to the huge flow of speculative capital and to the economists' theories. So yeah, they were never in the market system much, but they're breaking out of it even more, storing up reserves, imbalancing the global economy, whereas what was done here is quite the opposite: let's just borrow. Borrow like mad, nothing can go wrong, because we have a theory that proves that markets are efficient and that participants have perfect information - on to the indefinite future, in fact, if you take the theorems seriously. So you've got a worse financial crisis, but if you look at it, Reagan left the country with a major financial crisis - Savings and Loans (after another in 1987) - ten years later you had the tech bubble; in between, you had Long Term Capital Management; the fact that the economics profession could survive that is astonishing. You know the story, a couple years after that comes the housing bubble. For the population, the economy has been surviving on asset inflation, increasing debt and increasing work hours, often for both adults in the family.
KB: You’re bringing up the Asian financial crisis, and the countries that had not followed the orthodoxy of opening capital markets came out unscathed - India, China, Taiwan … .
NC: In South Korea, you could get the death penalty for capital flight. In fact, Malaysia also came out of the Asian crisis. It was imposing capital controls. Now the economists were all saying it's a disaster. But they did quite well. Same with Argentina, the former poster child for the IMF, leading to a serious crisis. It then disregarded all the warnings and doctrines and the economy did very well, contrary to predictions.
KB: You insist on disaggregating the developing countries to shed light on growth and social improvement during the neoliberal era. In the case of India, which grew at a rapid pace, you believe that it could have only happened by violating neoliberal rules: they maintained control over capital flows and ignored IMF rules in many ways. This wouldn't have happened if it were a disciplined pupil, like Argentina, which you just mentioned, or the countries of Latin America and Africa in general.
NC: Well, there's a high rate of growth but look at what’s happened to the population. Their food consumption is declining!
KB: Right. So what I wanted to ask you is, what is the nature of the Indian economy? It shares almost all the facets of neoliberal social outcomes - absolute immiseration of the population measuring by, as you say, caloric consumption and the emergence of plutocrats and the fortification of their status - but it enjoys high growth instead of low growth. Is this a distinct model?
NC: There’s a sector in India – it's a big country, so the sector is not small; it's probably a couple hundred million people – who're doing great with this. And if they have to push aside the starving beggars in the street, well, then okay. You’ve lived in India, so you know what it’s like.
I once drove down the streets of Delhi with an Indian radical, Aruna Roy - you probably know of her – who's devoted her life to living in one of the poorest villages to work on women's issues. Really dedicated. As we drove, I noticed she wasn't looking out the windows. Every time the car stops, a bunch of people come over and plead for a rupee, and there's a dying baby, you know. And she said, "Don’t do it." And then as we drove on, I noticed she didn't even look. And I asked her, "How can you live this way?" She responded, "If you look, you’re going to kill yourself. So therefore, stop looking. There's no way to survive in this crazy society."
And she's a very interesting woman, she was a professor at JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University], who about twenty years ago pulled out and went to Rajasthan, and lives in a very poor village, in a mud hut. And she works on women’s issues. So here's someone who's really dedicated and she says straight-up, "If you want to survive here, don’t look."
KB: A JNU economist, Prabhat Patnaik, who's also Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board, brings up a case I'd like to share with you because of its implications: according to him, Kerala enjoyed excellent social sector achievements but was virtually stagnant. After '87-88, Kerala grew very rapidly, and nobody was sure why, but it was precisely the period of declining social sector achievements. He concludes that high growth leading to social achievements doesn't necessarily hold, but that the opposite occurred in Kerala.
NC: I know him a little bit, and he knows way more than I do, but I think there’s another factor there: the remittances. They were sending huge numbers of people out to the Gulf. They had a good education system, so they could go out and do the technical work to run the Gulf states, which, speaking of predatory economies: they're grotesque. You go to Kuwait, the Kuwaitis don’t do anything. Everything is done by South Asians, Filipinos and Palestinians, until they threw them out. And Kerala could provide that, and send back remittances, and I don't know what the scale is, but it was large. And in fact, I was there around 2002, I guess, but it's kind of painful driving through the country. It’s a very lush country, but you look at these beautiful rice fields – they're deserted. They can’t compete with Vietnamese rice. The rubber forests are falling apart. They could solve that, but it would take inputs, and there are very little inputs into rural areas.
KB: Besides Utsa Patnaik's work on declining caloric consumption in India, there are a lot of studies that question the veracity of the Indian NSS [National Sample Survey] and World Bank narrative of laudable poverty reduction. One done by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector in 2007 found that 836 million, or 77 percent of the population, lived on less than 20 rupees [50 cents] a day. The Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative found that using the multidimensional poverty index, there were 645 million poor, or 55 percent of India's population - more than in the poorest 26 African countries combined. The Asian Development Bank put the number at between 622-740 million. But you have high growth rates accompanying, conservatively speaking, stagnant social improvement - virtually no change in childhood malnutrition, higher rates of malnutrition than sub-Saharan Africa - and by other measures, exacerbated deprivation.
NC: There was an interesting study that I recently read about in the Guardian about India's Public Distribution System [PDS]. I mean, there's a real food crisis in India and according to them, about 40 percent of the food in the PDS system is rotting or being taken by the rich. What they do is, some poor person can't pay his usurer, so he sells his PDS ticket, which is picked up by some rich person who gets the food free.
KB: A question on that very issue: in independent India, 400 million cannot afford to buy food on the open market and tens of thousands of tons of grain are rotting, having sat in government storehouses for years. No new grain is being procured, which hurts farmers. Manmohan Singh questioned the wisdom of the Supreme Court ruling to provide free food to the poor and there's still a gridlock on what will be the policy. Mike Davis, in his "Late Victorian Holocausts" quotes the British Famine Commission of 1878-80 as saying, "The doctrine that in time of famine the poor are entitled to demand relief … would probably lead to the doctrine that they are entitled to such relief at all times, and thus the foundation would be laid of a system of general poor relief, which we cannot contemplate without serious apprehension." What's changed since the era when the British stockpiled grain during Indian famine?
NC: This same article in the Guardian pointed out that Jean Dreze and others are now trying to establish some principle of universal food supply which would eliminate the PDS system and just say, "Look, there's a certain amount of food that has to be given to everybody - no tickets, no store, no nothing." Apparently it's coming up for vote pretty soon. If something like that were passed and then of course implemented - because the opportunities for corruption are sky-high - it could get around some of it. I mean, India – it's just grotesque what’s happening. It's very striking. I was just in China. China's got plenty of problems, but not this one, as far as I know.
KB: There's a narrative that high growth has "passed the general population by" and needs to be more equitable and inclusive. Prabhat Patnaik, however, believes that the growth is founded on exacerbating class antagonism and the expropriation of small producers' and peasants' means of production. He thinks that the very nature of the growth necessitates exclusion and suffering. He claims that it's naive to talk about more inclusion while maintaining and operating within this framework. How do you view it?
NC: I presume he is referring to the specific growth model adopted in India, not to growth in general. If so, there appears to be considerable evidence to support the conclusion.
KB: Going back to China: its poverty diminution doesn't seem as controversial as India's. Is there actual, substantive progress there?
NC: I wasn't out in the countryside, so I can't tell. And it's worth noting that it's much easier to get information about India, because the society is so much more open.
KB: You've discussed Hart-Landsberg and Ching Kwan Lee's work, which highlight the tenuousness of China's development model, horrible conditions for workers, labor protests, feelings of abandonment and betrayal. And environmentally?
NC: It's pretty horrible, and the environmental catastrophes are perfectly real. But on the other hand, I was in Beijing and Xi'an, but I drove around all over Beijing, because the places I was going to were all over the place. You just don't see the poverty that you see in every American city. Either they've hidden it somewhere, or they've tossed it in the countryside. On the other hand, it's extremely authoritarian. There's a lot of optimism and exuberance, and people excited about it and so on. When we went through one place in the center of town, I asked the driver - who happened to be pretty critical and frank – "Where do people live?" He explained that there are companies that build housing so there's big skyscrapers for workers. I don't know what they're like inside, but they don't look too bad from outside. We went through some big downtown area, and he told us that all the people there were going to be removed and sent out to the countryside so they can make the area more business-oriented. So I said, "Well, what happens to the people in the countryside?" They said they're building a metro which will go out there and I asked if they were really going to do it, and he said they probably will; they usually do these things. Then I asked a question, knowing it was ridiculous but I wanted to hear what they’d say: "Do people have any say in this?" They looked at me as if they didn’t understand the question. The tacit assumption seemed to be: "It's none of their business; they're told, 'You’re going to move to the countryside.'"
It reminded me of an incident in India, when I was there before the so-called "reforms," in '72. I was a guest of the government, being ferried around all over the place. Every day we were in Delhi, we went through Connaught Square and every day it was completely full of homeless people; tens of thousands of people in tents. One morning I drove through and there was nobody there. So I asked what happened, and they said, the Asia Fair is coming and they want to purify the city so they're gone. So I said, "What happened to them?" They sent in trucks, took them out to the desert somewhere and dumped them there. No metro or anything.
KB: Even in Latin America, I found that when a president visits a particular region, they convert the areas into a kind of Potemkin village, scrubbed of the misery and filth.
In the cases of hope that you've mentioned, like in Latin America, there has been real progress, as you've noted. At the same time, there is sometimes dramatic conflict between the developmentalists, like left president Correa, and the indigenous communities affected by mining and dams. Also, Evo Morales, despite being hugely popular, recently had to deal with a very big general strike in Potosí. What do you make of these dynamics? What are the hopes and prospects in Latin America regarding raising living standards, the paths of industrialization, environmental considerations, the role of social movements and avoiding state coercion?
NC: All true. In Ecuador, there is a serious conflict between the Correa government and indigenous communities objecting to developmental projects that have been ruining their societies and lives. The oil spills in the Amazon may well be worse than the BP Gulf disaster. That should be improving under Correa, but there are still strong objections. Morales is indeed popular, but there are plenty of complaints about authoritarianism and corruption. The struggle about developmental projects is going on all over the world. In India, as you know, there is a major war going on that turns in large part on development projects in tribal areas. I was in southern Colombia recently, visiting remote villages where campesinos and indigenous people are seeking to combat attacks on their lives and resources by mining and water privatization. I don't know of any simple general answer to your question of how this will all turn out. The problems are often not simple. A great deal is at stake, not just for the people of the countries. Resource extraction impacts a global environment that is increasingly at severe risk.
KB: As you bring up the spills, one clear strategy for US citizens in the midst of such complexities could be restructuring our corporations' institutional features to prevent the kind of depredation of resources and of weaker countries by groups like BP and Chevron. In "Hopes and Prospects," you bring up the legal effort 30 years ago in Youngstown, Ohio led by radical lawyer Staughton Lynd to convince the courts that stakeholders - community members, workers, and so on - should have the highest priority in the legal orientation of corporations. Although it failed, you write that "with enough popular support it could succeed." Could you sketch out a scenario under which communities can use courts to move conception of corporations' accountability away from stockholders and toward stakeholders? Taking into account the courts' generally conservative nature and rulings like Citizens United, how can they be influenced by popular pressure?
NC: Courts are influenced by popular pressure. For one thing, even court appointments are influenced by them. Take, say, the '60s, when you finally got far-reaching free speech rulings, and so on. It wasn't that the members of the court had changed; the social and cultural climate had changed, and they responded to it. I never read the judgment of the Youngstown judge who said you can't do it, but I wouldn't be surprised if there had been ferment in the streets and people in the country were calling for support and so on, that the opposite decision might have been reached. Besides, you can elect officials who'll give you different judges. A lot of it does turn on support. The courts, for example, tried hard to block the New Deal resolutions, to the extent that Roosevelt tried to pack the court, but most of them finally they got through under huge popular pressure.
KB: With regard to the progressivism in the wake of the Great Depression, is this an outlier to a general trend of the population to vote to the right during economic hardship? Economists Markus Bruckner and Hans Peter Gruner published a paper finding this historical tendency in the U.S. and Europe.
NC: I don't think there's any such thing, I think it just varies too much. Take, say, Germany and the United States in the 1930s. There were partially similar circumstances. Germany went far right; the United States went social democratic. There were lots of different reasons, but I doubt you can find any generalization.
KB: I ask because of its relevance today. With this current economic difficulty, you're seeing ugly manifestations of nativism and tribalism in the U.S. You see public approval ratings for unions at an all-time low. In contrast, on September 7, there was a general strike in France of between 2-3 million people, enjoying a popular approval rating of 70 percent, protesting the retirement age increases by the Sarkozy government.
NC: That's protesting for themselves. It may well be the right thing to do, but it's not in itself a progressive action unless there are longer-term implications for the society as a whole.
KB: And what about Greece? There have been a number of general strikes that have taken place.
NC: Well, in Greece the people are striking against pretty harsh government repression but it's not always entirely clear what they're striking for. What's happening here in the U.S. is interesting. It is true that unions are hated, but after all that's the result of fifty years of very intense propaganda, which goes back to the early '50s. And in fact, working people are mostly pro-union. Today too. EPI [Economic Policy Institute] studies show that. But yeah, unions are hated, but remember that everything is hated. Congress is hated; bankers are hated; political parties are hated. People hate everything. They think everything is rotten. It's kind of similar to Germany in the early '30s where all the institutions were collapsing. You get a charismatic leader, so okay, we'll follow him.
KB: Adding to all of this hatred towards the dominant institutions, there's strong anti-Latino and anti-Muslim sentiment. You’ve also mentioned the mass incarceration of Blacks and other minorities during the neoliberal period. In addition, you reference Douglas Blackmon’s book in "Hopes and Prospects," which reveals the little-known criminalization of Black life, starting from post-Reconstruction to World War II. You conclude that "life for most African Americans has scarcely escaped the bonds of slavery." Are you reconsidering your view that Europe is more racist than the U.S. in light of all this?
NC: Europe is worse in my opinion. What's going on in Europe is shocking. Take this demonstration in New York about the mosque. I mean, you had to bring in a guy from Holland. They couldn't find an American parliamentarian who would speak. It was Geert Wilders. That doesn’t prove it, but … I was in Paris recently; it was pretty interesting - huge mobs all over and a lot of people, the usual stuff. But the elite press like Le Monde was going berserk; they hated everything. But one of the things they hated particularly was that some friends of mine who work out in the suburbs, which is where the poor people are, arranged for me to meet teenage kids out in Clichy, in the suburbs. They're mostly North Africans. At first they didn't want to meet me, reasonably, because they don't like to be guinea pigs for visiting rich white people. But they finally agreed that maybe I was really interested in them. So I went out and we had good talks. One of the things they complained about was that they're so looked down upon by the people in Paris, who think of them as criminals and thugs and don't understand that they have a vibrant culture and that they think their lives are important and so on. So I said at one point, "Why don't you arrange a cultural exhibition and take it into Paris and show people what your lives are like?" And they thought about it, and said maybe they'd do it. But the newspapers were interesting. They had a couple journalists there. The next day the press said something like, "Thank you, Mr. Chomsky, for telling these thugs and criminals to come into Paris and kill us and rob us." It's like they were a caricature of themselves.
The criminalization of Black life was something specific to the United States in the post-Reconstruction period and there's something like it happening today with mass incarceration, directed largely against black males. France didn't have internal slavery, so yes, that aspect is different. But the racism in Europe takes the form of anti-immigrant extremism - which is bad enough here - I think it’s hard to measure, but my guess is that it's probably worse there.
KB: I'd like to continue to talk a bit more about public opinion and gauging it. In continuing its adulatory treatment of people like Hector Gramajo, the intellectual and diplomatic community is now offering former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe a distinguished professorship at Georgetown and vice chairmanship of the UN inquiry on the flotilla attacks.
NC: It’s sickening.
KB: While this elite response makes sense, Obama asserted that, "If I were to serve two terms, I'm fairly confident that I would not have the 70 percent approval rating that President Uribe has." Indeed, the Inter Press Service reported that Uribe enjoyed 75 percent approval ratings when he stepped down in a country that, after Sudan, has the largest internally displaced population in the world. The government has also been implicated in the murders of many of its own civilians. Are there epistemic problems with the polling data, and if not, what was going on in the collective mentality of Colombians?
NC: Take a careful look at those polls. They're telephone polls. You're excluding a large percent of the population. There's a huge internally displaced population in the slums outside of Bogota and I'm sure they're not being polled. In the remote villages in southern Colombia, I mean, towns nobody had ever heard of before, if they were polled at all, it was under coercion and intimidation. That's not a large part of the population. But for the people in Bogota, Uribe has given them things they want. It's safer; the paramilitaries have been absorbed into the government; they now have a significant role in running it. There's a lot of killing, but it's union leaders and human rights activists and peasants, it's not people in the elite, so they're okay with it. You might mention that the best estimates are that in 1939, Hitler was probably supported by 90 perecent of the population. And I can understand why.
KB: In the same vein: while CNN reports that two-thirds of the US population opposes the war in Afghanistan, an ABC poll released on September 3 with data collected in May shows that 63 percent of Afghans believe their country is going in the right direction. Can you parse these seeming contradictions? Is Afghanistan an actual case of "Come over and help us?"
NC: I’ve written about it in "Hopes and Prospects." If you look at those polls carefully, for one thing, they're not polling much in the Pashtun regions, because they're pretty inaccessible. You can't even send the Marines in there.
KB: In a January poll, ABC found favorable views towards the U.S. drop to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (versus 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the U.S. is most actively engaged in combat.
NC: Look, that’s about 40 percent of the population. The tribal areas, the Tajik and Hazara and Uzbek areas, often like the American troops. They're the ones who are gaining from it. Furthermore, if you really look closely, it's very possible that these polls are saying "Stay here for reconstruction." Are they saying, "Stay here and fight," or "Stay here for reconstruction?" They don't ask that question. But if you look at the few questions that do give some information about that topic, it's a fair possibility that they're saying, "We want you to stay here and pour money into the country." It should be polled properly. I wouldn't discount the polls, but you have to look carefully into what they're asking.
KB: Why would the general population trust foreign, invading troops with such a track record of violence - examples include aerial bombings and a secret "kill team" alleged to murder Afghan civilians for sport - to stay in a different capacity, as administrators of reconstruction aid?
NC: Well, for one thing, in the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara areas, that's not much true. They're doing it in mostly the Pashtun areas. And secondly, if you had taken a poll in Paris under the Nazi occupation, you would've had plenty of support for the Germans. They were the ones with the money; they were the ones with the resources; they were the ones that were handing out the jobs. There were probably more people who were involved in the collaboration than were supporting the resistance.
KB: So what implications does all of this have on your idea of the Cartesian common sense of the general population?
NC: I think it's kind of sensible to collaborate. If you have storm troopers taking over your area, do you collaborate or do you resist? There's a good calculation to say, okay, I'll keep quiet and collaborate. If the United States were occupied by a foreign power, these guys who are waving flags would be collaborating. I actually saw that pretty strikingly in my own childhood. I happened to live in a mostly Irish and German Catholic neighborhood. They were pretty pro-Nazi. On December, 8th, 1941 - I’ll never forget this - the guys who were celebrating the fall of Paris were wearing tin hats and waving flags and telling you to pull down the shades because there was a blackout. It was instantaneous.
KB: Almost a decade into the war in Afghanistan, with a decrease in troop levels in Iraq and their increase in Afghanistan, a change in military leadership and dwindling support from allies, have you seen any shifts in US motivations and objectives? Your emphasis of the honesty of the 2008 Washington Post editorial comes to mind: Afghanistan's "strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq, which lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains some of the world's largest oil reserves." The Afghanistan Study Group report advocates power sharing and downsizing; they also advocate ending military operations in southern Afghanistan. What are state planners currently hoping to accomplish?
NC: It seems to me that by now they are trying to find a way to extricate themselves in a way that will enable them to declare victory, and to keep a client state in power as much as possible. Not unlike what the Russians were trying to do in the late '80s.
KB: I'd like to conclude our interview on the topic of Haiti, by bringing up your point about lessons that the Haitian Lavalas movement has for US progressives and activists when we last we spoke. You said, "It's quite striking that we and other western countries can't reach, can't even approach, can't even dream about the level of democracy they had in Haiti. That's pretty shocking. Here's one of the poorest countries in the world. The population that organized to win that election is among the most repressed and impoverished in the world; they managed to organize enough to enter the electoral arena without any resources and elect their own candidate." Praising Bolivia at the same time, you asked, "Is it believable that we can't do the same? … We can take lessons from them. Anything they've done we can do a thousand times more easily."
I've been thinking about the conditions in the U.S., which you call an "organizer’s dream," and I'd like to share some tentative thoughts on why this isn't the case. One: The US poor have much more to lose, materially, than their Haitian and Bolivian counterparts, and that may be a strong inhibitor to active, defiant engagement. Two: Perversely, being fired on by the [Haitian paramilitary group] FRAPH or by Goni's security forces may bring the righteousness of the cause into sharper relief, whereas the subtler mechanisms in the U.S. that mask agency – for example, social exclusion, being passed over for a promotion, etcetera - tend to be effective in dissuasion and atomization. Three: The suburbanization of the U.S. has undermined a collective life that Haitians and Bolivians enjoy. Four: US industrialization was shown to decrease political participation. It also necessitated internal demand, hence a powerful public relations apparatus to peddle "created wants" and atomize the population. I suspect that the populations in Bolivia or Haiti haven't been propagandized deeply, or indoctrinated into believing that they can't control their own affairs. Your thoughts?
NC: We’re kind of talking past each other. What you say is certainly true: we're not doing it. Since we're not doing what they've been doing in Port-au-Prince or Cochabamba, there must be a reason for it. Maybe the reasons you give, maybe others. But what I was talking about is something different. We have the opportunity and the privilege to do such things, and we're not doing them. So we should ask why, because we can. We're not going to face the forces of FRAPH and Goni. And it's not obvious that the poor are going to lose, they may gain. If you have a union struggle, for example, the people in the union struggle may lose, but they're doing it because they're driven by notions of solidarity with others and concern for the future. So if the kinds of ideas and commitment and so on developed that will enable us to use the opportunities which we in fact have, which are far beyond what they have, then we can achieve a lot.