As anyone who frequents Church Street will know, there is a certain counterculture cachet associated with having a Noam Chomsky book poking out of your back pocket.
Chomsky was a precocious youngster, writing his first article – on the Spanish civil war and the spread of fascism in Europe – at the age of ten years old. Becoming interested in linguistics, by the age of forty he had turned the subject on its head. He single-handedly dismantled the prevailing behaviorist model (the theory that language is learned by experience after birth) and replaced it with what is called ‘generative grammar’ (the theory that all humans have an innate grammar wired into their brain).
With his reputation secured, Chomsky’s outspoken critiques of American foreign policy from the Vietnam War through the Cold War, up to the current ‘war on terror’ have earned him the dual role as the world’s outstanding linguistic genius and the most feared gadfly of unaccountable power on the planet. So I arrived at MIT – the university Chomsky has taught at for 50 years – feeling, I think justifiably, anxious.
My first question seemed like a good icebreaker. Does he think that an American Empire exists today? ‘The US is far and away the most powerful component of the world system in terms of military force. In terms of economic force, it’s basically one among three. That’s been true for a long time and is even more so today, with North East Asia a very dynamic area, and Europe roughly on a par with the US economically. North East Asia and Europe are increasing their ties. In fact, the EU and China became each other’s major trading partner in 2004 and that’s continuing, so there is a complicated system of world domination and the US is, in many ways, pre-eminent but primarily because of its military force and its huge internal economy and it uses the force of course to dominate and control. If you want to call it Empire, okay – if not okay, the word doesn’t mean much.’
Time to rephrase the question, then. How much does he think there is a conscious pursuit of domination by the US? ‘It controls policy all the time. I mean, the US is unusual in that it has a very free society so we have quite good access to internal records. There’s rational planning going on all the time and it’s about domination and control. What would you expect it to be about? If you got the records of a corporation, you’d find internal planning about increasing profits and market share. If it’s a state, you find planning about how to control and dominate.’
‘It goes back to the revolutionary period. Then they had much less ambitious plans. But the Founding Fathers talked pretty openly about what they called the “rising American Empire”. They didn’t mean Empire in the sense that it later came to mean in the late 19th century. This was a century earlier. But they had plans to expand to the Pacific, to conquer Canada. They were blocked by British force. Britain was a deterrent. They intended to take over the Spanish parts of the continental territory, Cuba, go on as far south as they could. The US didn’t become a major player on the global scene until after the Second World War.’
But something was still bothering me. The ‘war on terror’ must be different to attempts at US domination during the Cold War. ‘First of all, the “war on terror” was declared quite explicitly in 1981 by the same people who are now in Washington or their immediate mentors. The Reagan administration – it’s mostly the people currently in office – had announced right off that the focus of foreign policy would be fighting terror – state – sponsored terrorism – “plague of the modern age”; “return to the age of barbarism” and so on and so forth. Same rhetoric as today, and the “war on terror”’ was the cover for major terrorist wars that the US waged against Central America, in South East Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East and elsewhere with horrendous consequences. But the fact is that the “war on terror” was designated to be the focus of US oreign policy in the early 1980s.’
But, I contend, it was qualitatively different. ‘How was it different?’ he asks, with a certain impatience. Well for a start it didn’t use US ground troops. ‘Actually they intended at first to use US forces in Central America but there was so much popular reaction that they turned to what is called “clandestine war”. “Clandestine” means the war that everybody knows about except the American population – it’s kept from them, and it was fought with an international terrorist network, in which Britain contributed incidentally.
So it was Taiwan, Israel, Argentine neo-Nazis until they were thrown out, Saudi Arabian funding and British assistance. So that’s a kind of an international terror network that was used to support the murderous state terrorist governments of Central America. There was a terrorist war against Nicaragua for which the US was actually condemned by the World Court and the Security Council – the US vetoed the resolution, Britain loyally abstained.’
How about human survival? Chomsky’s most recent political book is, after all, apocalyptically titled Hegemony or Survival? Does he really believe the choice is that stark? If the US continues in its quest for global dominance, will it threaten the survival of our species?
‘Actually, it’s not particularly my opinion. Probably the most respectable journal in the West is the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences which has an article by two leading strategic analysts who talk about the reactions which are anticipated and are already taking place and they conclude that if this continues there is a fair likelihood of “ultimate doom”. They hope that a coalition of peace-loving states will coalesce to counter US militarism and aggressiveness.
And they don’t expect it to be led by Britain – they hope it will be led by China. They hope that China will organize a coalition of peace-loving states to stop the militarism and aggressiveness headed by the US and its British ally. Well, it’s interesting that they have such contempt for American democracy and British democracy: they don’t even dream of it coming from within. I don’t agree with it. I don’t think we have to wait for China to save us from all doom. I think we can do it ourselves.’
I dizzily made my way out of Noam’s office. I have a feeling that, in another 200 years when the American Empire has long gone and historians are assessing it with hindsight, Chomsky will be their main inspiration – unraveling the perfidy of the most omnipotent power the human race has ever seen kill in the name of ‘freedom’.