Face to Face with a Polymath

Noam Chomsky interviewed by various interviewers

Frontline, November, 2001

The small hall at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) in Chennai is full, well before Noam Chomsky arrives at 11 in the morning for a “free and open discussion”. The ACJ had not even started functioning at the time the “Chomsky booking” was made, soon after his last visit to India, in 1996. “This meeting,” says, N. Ram, Editor of Frontline, one of the sponsors of Chomsky’s programme in Chennai, “is a bonus out of that booking.”

The students of the ACJ have the pride of place and they are to have top priority in addressing questions to Chomsky. The youthful audience is excited. As Chomsky enters the hall, there are catcalls, clearly not in disrespect to the intellectual giant of our times but in sheer delight that only youth can express spontaneously.

The introductory remarks by Sashi Kumar, Chairman of the Media Development Foundation, and Ram are short. Chomsky takes the floor. Palms outstretched, he kicks off the discussion, saying: “Okay, you have the floor.”

The two-hour-long session is intense. Chomsky deals with questions on a range of subjects. There is of course the war in Afghanistan, but he also addresses issues relating to the media, in particular the mechanisms of the manufacture of consent, neoliberalism, terrorism, democracy, international law, science, linguistics, the collapse of socialism, and his own political beliefs. There are no “silly questions” here. Every question is addressed just as earnestly by Chomsky. His sarcasm is biting and the humour sends the audience into laughter several times, but it never distracts attention from the subject on hand. Chomsky’s voice never rises but the arguments are nevertheless incisive. V. Sridhar was there at the discussion. Excerpts:

The video (“Manufacturing Consent”) mentions that 20 per cent of the population that goes to college and holds important positions within the capitalist democracy – these are the sections of the population that need to be brainwashed under freedom. Do your books address this 20 per cent of the population, trying to strip them of their illusions, or whom are you addressing?

Chomsky: The 20 per cent figure is not mine. It is a standard notion in political science called the “political class”, the class that is actually active in public and economic affairs. This roughly constitutes about 20 per cent of the population. From the point of view of the propaganda or the doctrinal system they are a different kind of target than the rest of the population.

Remember, the United States is not a democracy – and has never been intended to be a democracy. It is what is called in the political science literature a polyarchy. A polyarchy is one in which a small sector of the population is in control of essential decision-making for the economy, the political system, the cultural system and so on. And the rest of the population is supposed to be passive and acquiescent. They are supposed to cede democracy to the elite elements who call themselves (rather) modestly the “responsible men”. “We are the responsible men and we take care of the affairs of the world.” The rest are sometimes called a “bewildered herd” or a rabble or something like that. Actually, I am quoting Walter Lippman, the leading figure in U.S. journalism, and a leading public intellectual of the 20th century.

This goes right back to the constitutional system. The system was designed that way…. It is not exactly what you learn in school. But if you read the debates of the Constitutional Convention, which are much more revealing than the published documents, you find that the main framer, James Madison (1751-1836), who was very lucid and intelligent, understood all this very well. He was a democrat. He wanted to have a kind of democracy in which the primary role of government – I am quoting now – “is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”

That is the fundamental role of government, what he (Madison) called “the permanent interests of the country” are those of property owners and that they must be protected. He was thinking very concretely. Remember, this was in the 18th century and the model they had in mind was England and the question of the English framework of the constitution kept coming up. And Madison pointed out that if in England the general population had the right to participate freely in the political system, then they would have to institute the kinds of programmes which we nowadays call agrarian reforms. They would want to take over property and have it used for the general population, not concentrated in the hands of a small number of wealthy. And, of course, that is intolerable.

The U.S. system was designed so that power was to be placed in the hands of what Madison called “the wealth of the nation” – people who are sympathetic to property and its rights and will not allow infringement on them. The rest of society is supposed to be fragmented and broken up so that they do not do too much.

Well, that is the form of the system. A lot of things have changed in the last couple of hundred years. Franchise has extended, unions and popular groups have formed and many things have changed. But the main structure of the system remains about the same. Going back to the question, the decision-making class has to be indoctrinated into the right forms of belief. They have to understand the permanent interests of the country, the rights and needs of the opulent and powerful. The rest of the people – 80 per cent, it is just a rough number and not to be taken seriously – have to be distracted so that they do not interfere.

There is a huge industry that is devoted to this, developed primarily in the more democratic countries – England and the United States. That is where the industry developed – it is called the public relations industry. The advertising industry is a part of it. Their concern is to distract the public. Alex Carey, an Australian, in a scholarly analysis of corporate propaganda, wrote a book called Taking the risk out of democracy. When you have a formal democratic system, when people have won rights after years of struggle, like the right to vote and participate in elections, you have to take the risk out of democracy by ensuring that there is very little substance to their democratic choices.

This is done by organising the world so that the major decisions are not in the public arena. And by imposing on the people – I am now quoting from manuals of the public relations industry – a “philosophy of futility”. This is done so that the attention of the people is focussed on the superficial things of life like fashionable consumption.

From infancy children have drilled into them, from television, advertising and in every possible way, that they have to have a “philosophy of futility” as far as serious decisions are concerned and that they have to perceive themselves as passive consumers. It does not really matter what you know about the world. The less you know, the better.

That is the model. It does not work, but that is the model. The rabble never accepts this. It continually resists and struggles against this. That also requires the use of other techniques to try and control people. The elite media are mostly directed to the small decision-making sector – people who make choices in decisions that run society. They have to be properly indoctrinated by not just the media but by the education system and everything else. The true mass media that go to the general audience, they mostly distract, making people pay attention to something else – popular music, purchasing.

It is not surprising that indoctrination and propaganda should have reached their highest forms in these societies. In the 20th century, in particular these are largely contributions of the U.S. and England. It grew out of the First World War when England had what they called a Ministry of Information, which any reader of George Orwell knows what it means. The main purpose of this Ministry was to convince the U.S. – meaning primarily educated Americans and intellectuals – that they better get into the War with England. The Ministry concocted all kinds of tales. It brainwashed the educated elite, including famous people like John Dewey, magnificently. The population of the U.S. was mostly pacifistic and did not want to get involved in European conflict. Others like Adolf Hitler were impressed too.

Who am I talking to? Mostly the 80 per cent. The 20 per cent do not want to hear about this. They already know what truths they are supposed to believe. But the general population is much more open, inquisitive, concerned and wants to act to change the world.

The collapse of communism in 1989 means that a countervailing force is gone. The U.S. now has complete hegemony since then. Can Islamic fundamentalism be seen as a force that is trying to fill this void? (a journalist from Bangalore)

Chomsky: I agree with the thrust of what you are saying, but would not be happy putting it that way. In my view the fall of the Soviet Union was a small victory for socialism and democracy. The Soviet Union was the most anti-socialist force in the world, next to Nazi Germany, and that goes to way back to shortly after the Russian Revolution. It is a long story, but they were a barrier to achievement of any form of socialism anywhere in the world. In that sense, the collapse removes that barrier.

However, I agree with the point that the existence of two great powers left some space for non-alignment. That is why you could have a non-aligned movement because it allowed countries to play one power against the other. Each tended to support the victim of the other for great-power reasons. And that left some room – not much – for manoeuvre for the great majority of the world.

In a certain sense (in a hesitating tone), radical Islam is a response to these changes… In the sense that religious and nationalist fundamentalism often do arise as a response to the lack of opportunity for political participation. If there is no way to become constructively involved in matters that are of concern to them, people find other ways.

Take the case of Algeria or much of the Muslim world. Opportunities for secular nationalism were crushed. The highest goal of the U.S., England and France was the destruction of Nasserism, secular independent Arab nationalism. Israel’s role in this is the source of the U.S.-Israeli alliance and Israel won many points for this. But when you destroy secular nationalism, something else takes its place. The Palestine Liberation Organisation was a secular nationalist movement and it therefore had to be destroyed. The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was aimed at destroying a secular nationalist movement which was dangerous because it was calling for negotiations. Israel and the U.S. much preferred terrorists because they are not a problem… them you can kill.

Is there a media cover-up of the loss of American soldiers in Afghanistan? (an ACJ student)

Chomsky: It is very hard to cover up the killing of soldiers. The war is being fought in the traditional fashion. Kill as many of them as possible and as few of us as possible. There is nothing novel about that. Now there are new ways to do it. In fact, the British had another technique: Let the natives do it for us. India was held down by Indian soldiers – to avoid the lives of important people. This is the same everywhere. In South Africa (during the apartheid era), the worst atrocities were carried out by black mercenaries. The new technique is to bomb with B-52s and smart weapons and let the Northern Alliance be the ground troops. There are very few American soldiers being killed, but plenty of Afghans are getting killed.

You have to be cautious because the propaganda system wants you to focus attention on what is called collateral damage like when a bomb hit a hospital by mistake or destroyed a Red Cross centre or a village. But you are not supposed to focus on the far greater conscious crimes. The conscious, purposeful goal of the war is to massacre hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Afghans. That is what happens when you drive a population close to starvation over the edge. Or when you bomb Kandahar and destroy electrical and water supplies…Well, that is biological warfare. What would happen if this city (Chennai) is bombed and electrical, water and sewage supplies were destroyed? You would have a kind of biological warfare. That is technically called genocide. But you can pay attention to a bomb that goes astray and destroys a hospital.

In an interview published in 1995 you expressed your views on libertarian socialism. Can libertarian socialism withstand market capitalism? (an ACJ student)

Chomsky: That (libertarian socialism) has been my view since childhood and I have written about it forever. Libertarian socialism is just anarchism – the socialist variety of anarchism. In Europe it is called libertarian socialism. I think that is exactly right.

There is no market capitalism to withstand. That is mostly propaganda. Market capitalism does exist but it exists where it always existed – in the defenceless countries. India in the 18th century was one of the two major commercial and industrial centres of the world – the other being China. England was a kind of backwater – it had great means of violence but it was not competitive. India became deindustrialised and stagnated because it had market capitalism forced on it. India became what historians call an ocean of liberalism. Meanwhile, England deve-loped a powerful interventionist state. It had very high protective tariffs to destroy Indian textiles which were superior. As late as the Napoleonic Wars the British admiralty wanted to use Indian ships because they were better than British ships. But Parliament would not allow it because they wanted to destroy the Indian shipping industry. It was more important to risk defeat by Napoleon than to allow Indian industry to develop.

England followed that path which every industrial power without exception followed. Massive state intervention, high levels of protection, state(-led) industrial policy and coordination, often under a military guise were part of this.

It seems to me that the democratic control of production is a very feasible and reasonable alternative to the state corporate-managed capitalism that does exist. That is the core of libertarian socialism but of course there is a lot more than that.

What is your opinion of Al-Jazeera? (an ACJ student)

Chomsky: I have not watched a lot of Al-Jazeera so I do not feel competent to comment on that. From the little I know, it is accepted across the board as the one free and open TV channel in the Arab-speaking world. They have had Osama bin laden, Colin Powell, Prime Minister Barak… They have had tremendously broad participation, much more than any Western channel that I know of. It is hated by every regime in the region because it is continually exposing their repression and atrocities. There have been many attempts to shut it down. Recently, the U.S. joined in the attempt to rein it in because it was presenting what the U.S. called anti-American propaganda, that is, deviating from U.S. government propaganda.

Colin Powell pressured the Emir of Qatar to rein in Al-Jazeera. The Emir actually happened to be in Washington at that time and gave a press conference there so that no journalist could miss it. He protested about the pressure that the U.S. government was placing on him to constrain the TV channel. He said that Qatar would defend the freedom of the press against the U.S. You can check how much that was covered. Actually, there was one honest reporter from The Wall Street Journal. Almost nobody else mentioned the Emir’s press conference.

United Nations and humanitarian intervention (National Law School of India University student, Bangalore)

Chomsky: The U.N. Charter outlawed the use of threat of intervention, unless authorised by the U.N. Security Council or in self-defence against armed attack. That system did not survive for a second. It was violated immediately by the great powers, any power that could get away with it.

The great powers are simply not bound by the law. International lawyers are supposed to pretend that they do. This is not true. Powers do what they want. We saw that very clearly in the case of Afghanistan. Nobody would have vetoed if the U.S. had called for Security Council authorisation. It would have been a farce of course, but they could have got it. The U.S. did not want Security Council authorisation because that would imply that the U.S. needs authorisation. And the crucial principle of international affairs is that if you are powerful enough you do what you feel like. You leave it to international lawyers and law professors to make up pretty stories about it (laughter). When the U.S. invaded South Vietnam 40 years ago, was that under Security Council authorisation?

Take one of the case books in law about humanitarian intervention – and here is an exercise – see if you can find one authentic case in hundreds of years. There have been interventions which have had humanitarian effects, like the one by India in 1971. But it was not a humanitarian intervention, undertaken out of humanitarian ends. It was only taken out of great power ends and it happened to stop a massacre. See if you can find one genuine case of humanitarian intervention for humanitarian purposes. I do not think there is a case on record.

Every use of force is justified that way. Hitler, Mussolini, Japanese fascists – all of them – are all full of humanitarian rhetoric. States are not moral agents. They can be compelled to observe legal and other requirements, but that can only be either by countervailing force or by their own citizens.

There is a legal cover which is not unimportant. I think it is a good thing that the U.N. Charter is there. It provides citizens a framework in which they can compel their own violent governments to reduce their level of violence. You can appeal to it just like you can appeal to the Nuremberg principles.

Is humanitarian intervention not necessary to protect the defenceless? How would you explain neoliberalism? (a journalist from The Hindu)

Chomsky: The question is: if the powerful will not protect human rights, who will? In other words, if Algeria will not intervene in Uttar Pradesh to protect the human rights of people who are miserably oppressed, who will do it? Is that the right question to ask? If Algeria was to intervene, it would not be to protect anybody’s rights. That question presupposes that there is some force out there – like God – who is going to intervene to be nice to everybody. That is not the way the world works. If some state intervenes, it does so for its own interests. Its own interests mean usually the interests of domestic power. That is why interventions turn out to be so murderous.

This does leave the question, who should do it? That is the responsibility for people. There are no institutions which would do this. People can act in such a way as to constrain the violence of their own states and to protect the human rights elsewhere. That is what grassroots solidarity organisations are about. For example, during the U.S. attack on Central America in the 1980s, solidarity organisations formed by U.S. citizens and Central Americans actually worked together effectively. They could not stop it – it left four countries almost destroyed and a couple of hundred thousand people killed – but they did restrain U.S. state terror, which was massive.

The same happened with apartheid. How did apartheid collapse? The big states were in favour of it. Britain and the U.S. supported it right to the end. So did France. But by then there were pretty powerful popular groups within the powerful states and in South Africa. Finally it just broke down. That is how you defend human rights. There is no other way.

Liberalism is designed and carefully crafted in the interests of the more powerful elements who are delighted to have free trade when they know when they are going to win. By the time Britain had achieved double the capitalisation of every other country in the world by force and violence, it thought free trade was a great idea because it was going to win. If you are not going to win, forget about it and impose it on the weak – not for yourself.

To this day, the U.S. has a very powerful state sector. A large part of the role of the military system is to be the cover for the dynamic state sector of the economy. That is why World Trade Organisation rules allow a national security exemption. This means that the U.S. does not have to worry about these rules. Since national security covers just about everything, the U.S. can cover the cutting edge of industrial and technological development.

That is neoliberalism – the old-fashioned double-edged form of liberalism. You guys follow market discipline because that way I can demolish you, but I will rely on a nanny state. If you look at the WTO rules, that is the way it is set up. One crucial part – one that India is pretty upset about – is the TRIPS agreement worked. There is nothing liberal about it. It is a highly protected system, designed to ensure that private tyrannies, which is what corporations are, monopolise the technology and the knowledge of the future. What has this got to do with liberalism?

The pharmaceutical companies will tell you that they need this super-extreme patent regime because they put so much money into research and development which results in all sorts of wonderful drugs. That is all nonsense. Take the case of the U.S. About half the expenditures for research and development comes from the public anyway. Moreover, that is an underestimate because it only includes the applications that grow out of fundamental biology, but do not count fundamental biology, which is entirely from the public. If you look at the part that the corporations actually do, a lot of it is useless and mainly for business reasons – copycat drugs. The part that is played by public funding plays the constructive role. As a believer in capitalism would do, if you increased the public contribution to 100 per cent and eliminated the pretext and forced the companies to sell their drugs on the market, prices would go way down and result in huge gains for consumers. But that is not acceptable. Neoliberalism is mostly fraud.

In a recent interview you termed India a terrorist state. On what basis did you reach this conclusion?

Chomsky: The term terrorist state is almost redundant. It is hard to think of a state that is not a terrorist state, unless it is just so weak. Andorra, I suppose, is not a terrorist state (laughter). A state is a structure of violence. It responds to the distribution of power typically. That often leads to terrorist acts. I have been here a week. Every time you open the newspaper you read about terrorist acts described, by brutal repressive police. And there is large-scale terrorism, in Kashmir. There are reports this thick (indicates a one-foot-high stack on the table). You asked about India, so I mentioned it. But it is pretty general. The more powerful states are the worst terrorist states – no one compares with the U.S.

Are you not banking far too much on the people in trying to combat atrocities caused by military intervention? Do you not think that you are being too optimistic, given the World Order? (an ACJ student)

Chomsky: There is no measure of how optimistic you ought to be. In fact, as far as optimism is concerned, you basically have two choices. You can say, “Nothing is going to work, and so I am not going to do anything.” You can therefore guarantee that the worst possible outcomes will come about. Or, you can take the other position. You can say: “Look, maybe something will work. Therefore, I will engage myself in trying to make it work and maybe there is a chance that things can get better.” That is your choice. Nobody can tell how right it is to be optimistic. Nothing can be predicted in human affairs… nothing.

Take a look at some of the World Bank predictions. They are ludicrous. It is not because they are stupid. It is just that you cannot predict anything. Human affairs depends on choice, and we do not know anything about choice. Therefore, all sorts of things happen that you cannot explain. In 1990, for example, you could not have predicted that apartheid is going to disappear. In fact, it looked quite the opposite. The regime was getting more and more repressive. Anti-apartheid activists in the white community were thinking of going underground. The U.S. and Britain were supporting the apartheid regime just as they always did. It looked very grim. A couple of years later, it (the apartheid regime) was gone. You do not know how optimistic to be, but you do know that if you do not act on the basis of the assumption that something can change, it is just going to get worse. The guys on the other side, they never stop. They are very optimistic. They are always going to try and make things as harsh and brutal as possible. And, if people who are opposed to that give up, they win.

Take the movements against corporate globalisation. Where do they come from? From the South. From places like India. There were mass popular protests in India… huge ones… You know better than I do… long before Seattle or anything like that. Or, in Brazil. One of the major popular movements is the landless workers’ movement in Brazil, which has been around for more than 15 years. They have done really important things. They have taken over the unused land – there is very high land concentration in Brazil – and a huge number of landless workers. It is a lot like India. The movement has acted by setting up cooperatives to use the unused land. They face a lot of brutality, a lot of state terror and get killed. They have support from activists in the cities and elsewhere who can give them some protection, help and advise in the usual fashion. But they are the leaders. I have met them down there. Very impressive people, huge mass movement and they have done a lot of things. That is coming from the South.

These movements mostly grew in the South where people are supposed to be voiceless. They finally made it to the North. When Seattle takes place, you cannot ignore it any longer. As long as it is just a matter of Indian peasants or Brazilian workers being killed in the streets, you could say it is not happening. But when you have massive police violence in Seattle, you have to notice it, although you do not call it police violence. That is the reason they (WTO) are meeting in Qatar. It is insulated from popular pressures.

I do not think one should be pessimistic. A lot of things have been achieved. Actually, the world is a lot better than it was 30 years ago. Just to give you one example, take restraints on state violence. What powerful states can do is pretty awful. But nothing like what they could do 30-40 years ago. Now, they are attacking Afghanistan and causing huge massacres, but the B-52s were attacking heavily settled peasant areas of South Vietnam 40 years ago. Millions of people died and many are still dying from the effects of chemical warfare and unexploded bomblets. The U.S. cannot do anything like that now. And remember, that (Vietnam) went on for years before there were any protests.

Finally, some protests developed and it had an effect. It had a very civilising effect on the whole society in many respects. Out of that ferment came all sorts of things, including the women’s movement, the environmental movement and all sorts of other things. It kind of grew out of this dissidence. One of the things that did develop was a restraint on state violence. It is pretty ugly what results, but it is nothing like what it was. Those are reasons for optimism.

I will just say one last thing that happened which is pretty striking in the United States. There were 10 million people living in the U.S. when it was invaded in the 17th century. It was a pretty advanced civilisation by 17th century standards. They (native American Indians) were exterminated by British colonists, actually religious fundamentalists. For hundreds of years this was not part of American history. Anthropologists and archaeologists were lying about it. They were claiming that there was nobody here except a bunch of hunter-gatherers. In the 1960s, that changed. For the first time in hundreds of years of American history, consciousness changed significantly about that. It is still pretty awful – I do not want to say it is utopia – but for the first time there was a willingness to recognise that something pretty horrible had happened. The kind of textbooks that you had in the 1970s, you cannot possibly have them now. They were hopelessly racist textbooks. Those are big changes – a lot to be optimistic about.