Challenges and Opportunities for Progressive Movements Post-911

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Chris Spannos

Redeye Collective, May 24, 2002

Through the framework of cause and effect, you can see the obstacles posed by the War on Terrorism. Militarization, globalization, and racism have accelerated; their intersections compounded. Chris Spannos discussed these intersections and prospects for social change after Sept. 11 with Noam Chomsky on May 24, 2002.

Noam Chomsky is one of America’s most prominent political dissidents and a renowned professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has authored over thirty political books, dissecting issues such as U.S. intervention in the developing world, political economy of human rights, and the propaganda role of corporate media.

Redeye: Hi Noam and welcome to Redeye.

Chomsky: Hi, how are you?

Redeye: I’m good, thanks.
There seems to be a general understanding that the events of Sept. 11 have caused a consolidation of power. Can you begin by elaborating on it’s characteristics?

Chomsky: The events of Sept. 11, first of all, were historic. There is no doubt about that. It was a terrible terrorist atrocity, but that, unfortunately, is not the reason it was an historic event. Unfortunately, it is not unique in scale, by any means. What’s unique about it, is the victims. This is the first time in hundreds of years that what we call the west – Europe and its offshoots – have been subjected to the kinds of atrocities that they carry out all the time in other countries and that is unique. The guns are pointed in the other direction for the first time.

It doesn’t lessen the nature of the atrocity. It is an atrocity. But, outside Europe and the west, it is well understood that there is nothing new, unfortunately, going on right now.

Just last week I was in Colombia where state terror carried out through paramilitaries, crop destruction and other means is extraordinary, at an extraordinary level and it all traces back to Washington. So, it is international state terror happening right before our eyes and it is not the only case.

But Sept. 11 was unique in that respect and it, as you say, lead to the strengthening forces, not only in the west, but throughout the world that want to exploit the opportunity exploit the atrocity as an opportunity to expand projects that are already under way, many of them quite brutal and repressive. For example, Russia eagerly joined the War on Terror and Bush and Putin are drinking vodka about it right now, I suppose. They are very happy to fight the War on Terror because it gains them authorization from the United States for their own horrendous terrorist atrocities in Chechnya, which they have stepped up. Same is true in China, Algeria, Colombia and Turkey, where I was just before, and Israel and Egypt, just about everywhere.

The western countries themselves have – mostly the governments – have tried to push through what they sometimes call prevention of terrorism ordinances or something like that. [They] have nothing to do with terrorism but are a further way to try to discipline the population and impose obedience, to prepare the terrain for pushing through a program that they know the public is opposed to but will benefit wealth and power, and be implemented during this period in the guise of patriotism.

Patriotism is down to meaning you shut up and I’ll relentlessly pursue my own goals. That is happening everywhere and it takes different form in different places. If it’s a kind of consolidation, one doesn’t know, but it sure is an intensification of repressive harsh efforts ranging from trying to discipline the populations to really serious atrocities.

Redeye: The War on Terrorism has opened doors: a door for further militarization, a further gap between rich and poor, and for escalating racism. How do these things intersect?

Chomsky: Pretty clearly there has been increasing racism that hasn’t been as bad as some had anticipated. How bad it will get I do not know.

In the case of increased militarization, it is not even a question. The U.S. military which is already greater than most of the of the world combined, certainly far beyond any potential adversary, was sharply increased again and has very little to do with terrorism and has plenty to do with global domination. They are tendencies that already existed, they have simply been intensified.

Anti-immigrant feelings in Europe which have shown up in pretty ugly ways in the last couple months. They were there before and there are reasons for them, which are quite real. They have clearly intensified and have taken on an anti-Islamic cast in the last months, but it is an intensification of earlier problems.

The same is probably true in India and Pakistan, an extremely dangerous situation. Both countries have extremely dangerous fundamentalist movements, Hindu fundamentalism and Muslim fundamentalist, and they are pretty brutal. In India, the massacres in the Gujarat last month were almost certainly state-orchestrated and connected to the Hindu nationalist extremism that is reviving that Pakistan is familiar with. Now they are close to a war that could be nuclear.

The framework of Sept. 11 has offered opportunities for conditions under which these dangerous developments can persist and intensify.

Redeye: As you said the intersections were already there. Before Sept. 11, modern resistance movements seemed to be gaining momentum. Anti-globalization and peace movements, movements for community and participatory democracy, were challenging institutions. What do you see are the deciding forces for their progress?

Chomsky: Well I think they have developed even more effectively after Sept. 11. There was a lull for a couple of weeks; people acquiesced It wasn’t a time for activism, but a time for reflection, regret, thinking things through and so on. But after that it just picked up more.

Just for a point of terminology: I wouldn’t call them the anti-globalization movement. That is a term of propaganda. Nobody is against globalization. The question is what form would it take. Those who want what the business press honestly call investor rights agreements call what they are doing globalization and what everyone else is doing anti-globalization, but that’s nonsense. Everyone is for globalization. The question is, Shall it be an investor rights base form of globalization or a people’s rights based form? Those are quite different things.

A good indication of the expansion of the popular movements after Sept. 11 is the meeting in Porto Allegre, the social forum a few months ago. The number of people were maybe three or four times that of the preceding year, from all around the world. [It was] a very exciting meeting, I was there for part of it myself. It was pretty impressive and it reflects things happening all over the world, including here.

These are very often in the north called the Seattle movement, but that just reflects their failure to pay attention to what happens anywhere except the rich countries. The meetings are in Porto Allegre and not in New York, because that is where these movements have developed: in Brazil, India, South Africa and throughout most of the south, that has been going on for decades. It is just that when it is a couple thousand Indian peasants no one pays attention. But when something comes to a northern city you have to pay attention. So the wealthy countries are late comers for the most part, but they have joined and that is important.

I think the possibilities for extending these popular movements are greater than they were before. In the United States, after Sept. 11 there has been a notable increase among the general population in the openness and concern and the willingness to think of all sorts of issues that were previously not on the agenda. Sept. 11 was really kind of a wake up call.

The United States and other rich countries tend to be very insular. They mention how much to what they are doing in the world. The United States is really pretty extreme in this respect. Sept. 11 made it clear that that is not a tenable position. We have to pay much more attention to our role in the world the way we are perceived, the reasons for it. The actual consequences of our actions and that has led to lots of reactions, but many of them are very healthy.

You can see it in any measure you like. For example, sales of books by the small presses have skyrocketed, including books that were printed twenty years. Public meetings, there are more of them and are larger in scale. Commitment and engagement to the people and it is pretty diverse its all very different kinds of groups and constituencies all over the country and some similar situations are happening all around the world. That opens opportunities. It doesn’t mean that they have to be used but they are there.

Redeye: You mentioned Porto Allegre and a huge amount of public interest in current affairs and you also mentioned opportunity. How important is discussion on popular goals and vision?

Chomsky: It’s the first thing. You can’t carry out any organizational activities or any direct activism unless you have some conception of what you are doing. That includes some kind of overarching vision and some very practical proposes commitments to immediate issues which they interact, of course. It’s the groundwork of anything further, begins with public discussion.