QUESTION: Last year, we worked on a seminar, made by the students, called “Genealogy of Dominion”. We studied Max Stirner, Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, Etienne De la Boetie and Hannah Arendt. I worked on Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, he believes language has a disciplinary effect that through the words goes straight to ideology. So, for Stirner, you have to free yourself from this kind of language and have a personal rebellion, not a revolution. This is something different from your language conception that is free and creative. I want to know what you think about that.
CHOMSKY: I think Stirner is confusing language with the use of language. I mean, it is like asking whether you have to free yourself from a hammer because a hammer can be used by a torturer. It is true that a hammer can be used by a torturer but the hammer can be used also to build houses. The use of a hammer is something we must pay attention to, but the language can be used to repress, can be used to liberate, can be used to divert. It is like saying you have to liberate yourself from hands because they can be used to repress people but it’s not the hands’ fault.
QUESTION: It is very hard to live in the U.S. for a left activist. I don’t t feel very comfortable in your country. What is the condition of activism in the U.S.?
CHOMSKY: The situation is really complicated. There are no labor-based groups and there is no labor-based political party. People are completely disconnected and this lack of connection is a real problem. Don’t forget that the Marxist movements were never very strong in U.S. in all of its history: there were ambiences in which independent Marxists gained influence but this didn’t happen in the main part of the country. Also remember that the U.S. government is an extreme radical and nationalist group with some similarities to European fascism. It has proclaimed “imperial ambitions” relying on its overwhelming predominance in the military dimension, and is unusual in its dedication to the needs of narrow sectors of wealth and private power. People in the United States work really hard, much harder than any other advanced industrial society and this causes a lot of stress. People are always concerned about their work and they live in fear. Although there is a lot of crime in the United States, it is approximately the same as comparable societies, but fear of crime is far higher [in the U.S.]. In many ways, this is the most frightened nation in the world. Moreover, the level of activism depends upon which part of the United States you are thinking of: the United States is a very complicated country with many different tendencies. For example, last week, I was in the largest university in the country, which is not exactly the liberal center of the nation: Texas. In Houston and Austin, where I was, there were all kinds of community and campus-based activities. At the University of Texas there were thousands of people involved in protest after Congress authorized the use of force, and the student government passed a strong anti-war resolution. One finds similar things all over the country, at a level that is quite without precedent. There has never been anything like such protest before a war is officially launched, and war-peace issues are only one element of the broad popular movements that are taking shape, committed to a wide range of issues and concerns.
QUESTION: I was impressed by the fact that everywhere, in shops, in bars, at the movies, there is the same poster about 9-11 with the sentence, “We’ll never forget”. In Europe, maybe we would have written something like, “We’ll always remember”. It seems that there is a taste for revenge in your “ad”.
CHOMSKY: You have all sorts of different reactions, I mean, right after September 11, it was reported that a big proportion, or a high majority, of the population wanted the attack against Afghanistan. It’s a normal feeling; now the same majority would pursue a diplomatic solution.
QUESTION: In a text of yours you say that the world is ruled by a “virtual senate”. Can you tell me something more about this?
CHOMSKY: The term is not mine. I am borrowing it from the professional literature on international economics. The “virtual senate” consists of investors and lenders. They can effectively decide social and economic policy by capital flight, attacks on currency that undermine the economy, and other means that have been provided by the neoliberal framework of the past thirty years. You can see it in Brazil right now. The “virtual senate” wants assurances that the neoliberal policies of the Cardoso government, from which foreign investors and domestic elites greatly benefit, will not be changed. As soon as international investors, lenders, banks, the IMF, domestic wealth, and so on, recognized that Lula might win the elections, they reacted with attacks on the currency, capital flight, and other means to place the country in a stranglehold and prevent the will of the majority from being implemented. When they regained confidence that Lula would not be able to depart fundamentally from the international neoliberal regime, they relaxed and welcomed him. As they put it, Lula reassured people that he would keep Brazil safe. That specific use of language has two faces: if he keeps it safe for the financial investors, will he keep it safe for the Brazilians? Governments face what economists call a “dual constituency”: voters, and the “virtual senate.” Lula promised his country that he will keep Brazil safe for the population, but the IMF wants to keep it safe for its own constituency: the “virtual senate.” They will act so that the money comes right after the elections and only if Lula keeps up with creditors. This is the effect of financial liberalization and other measures that have established the “virtual senate” as the dominant force in determining social and economic policy within a country. It means the population doesn’t have control of the decisions taken by his own country. One consequence of liberalization of capital is rather clear: it undercuts democracy.
QUESTION: This is a big win for the left in the world; Brazil is such a big country …
CHOMSKY: I have a lot of respect for Lula but the problem is that he has very little space to maneuver. Actually, he has some choices: he can become some sort of figurehead in the hand of the IMF or he can do some good for Brazil. If he doesn’t get killed first…
QUESTION: We hope not…
CHOMSKY: Lula could direct resources for internal development but unregulated capital flow can be used very effectively to undermine attempts by individual governments to introduce progressive measures. Any country trying to stimulate its economy or increase its health spending is likely to find this deviant behavior instantly punished by a flight of capital.
QUESTION: It seems to me, with a certain degree of difference, that the concept of a virtual senate is similar to Negri’s and Hardt’s concept of Empire. [Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000)]
CHOMSKY: Empire, yes, but I have to say I found it hard to read. I understood only parts, and what I understood seemed to me pretty well known and expressible much more simply. However, maybe I missed something important.
QUESTION: Yes, and the book arrives to the same conclusion as yours but through a more complicated, less readable way…
CHOMSKY: If people get something out of it, it’s okay. What I understand seems to be pretty simple, and this is not a criticism. I don’t see any need to say in a complicated way what you can say in an easier way. You can make things look complicated, that’s part of the game that intellectuals play; things must look complicated. You might not be conscious about that, but it’s a way of gaining prestige, power and influence.
QUESTION: Do you look at Foucault’s work in this perspective?
CHOMSKY: Foucault is an interesting case because I’m sure he honestly wants to undermine power but I think with his writings he reinforced it. The only way to understand Foucault is if you are a graduate student or you are attending a university and have been trained in this particular style of discourse. That’s a way of guaranteeing, it might not be his purpose, but that’s a way of guaranteeing that intellectuals will have power, prestige and influence. If something can be said simply, say it simply, so that the carpenter next door can understand you. Anything that is at all well understood about human affairs is pretty simple. I find Foucault really interesting but I remain skeptical of his mode of expression. I find that I have to decode him, and after I have decoded him, maybe I’m missing something. I don’t get the significance of what I am left with. I have never effectively understood what he was talking about. I mean, when I try to take the big words he uses and put them into words that I can understand and use, it is difficult for me to accomplish this task. It all strikes me as overly convoluted and very abstract. But what happens when you try to skip down to real cases? The trouble with Foucault, and with this certain kind of theory, arises when it tries to come down to earth. Really, nobody was able to explain to me the importance of his work…
QUESTION: Do you think intellectuals should free themselves from theory, from visions, such as Zapatistas, and Marcos?
CHOMSKY: Marcos’s own thoughts were interesting, but there is no such thing as an “absence of theory”, I mean, you always have a commitment to some set of beliefs, goals and visions and so on, or to some kind of analyses of society. That is true whether you are expressing your views on torture, or freedom of speech, or in fact any issue beyond the most utterly superficial.
QUESTION: I was thinking of your text, “Goals and Visions,” and I think that sometimes it is much more important to concentrate on goals and forget the visions!
CHOMSKY: You don’t have to forget them; there is a balance. You have to make your own choices; I mean, close friends of mine may make very different choices than me. For example, Michael Albert [of Z Magazine] thinks that is really important, to spell out the visions. My feeling is that we don’t know how to do that, so this kind of work is less important than that on goals. These are speculations about reasonable priorities, doubtless different for different people, as they should be. There is no general right or wrong about it.
QUESTION: When you talk about the role of intellectuals, you say that the first duty is to concentrate on your own country. Could you explain this assertion?
CHOMSKY: One of the most elementary moral truisms is that you are responsible for the anticipated consequences of your own actions. It is fine to talk about the crimes of Genghis Khan, but there isn’t much that you can do about them. If Soviet intellectuals chose to devote their energies to crimes of the U.S., which they could do nothing about, that is their business. We honor those who recognized that the first duty is to concentrate on your own country. And it is interesting that no one ever asks for an explanation, because in the case of official enemies, truisms are indeed truisms. It is when truisms are applied to ourselves that they become contentious, or even outrageous. But they remain truisms. In fact, the truisms hold far more for us than they did for Soviet dissidents, for the simple reason that we are in free societies, do not face repression, and can have a substantial influence on government policy. So if we adopt truisms, that is where we will focus most of our energy and commitment. The explanation is even more obvious than in the case of official enemies.
Naturally, truisms are hated when applied to oneself. You can see it dramatically in the case of terrorism. In fact one of the reasons why I am considered “public enemy number one” among a large sector of intellectuals in the U.S. is that I mention that the U.S. is one of the major terrorist states in the world and this assertion, though plainly true, is unacceptable for many intellectuals, including left-liberal intellectuals, because if we faced such truths we could do something about the terrorist acts for which we are responsible, accepting elementary moral responsibilities instead of lauding ourselves for denouncing the crimes official enemies, about which we can often do very little.
Elementary honesty is often uncomfortable, in personal life as well, and there are people who make great efforts to evade it. For intellectuals, throughout history, it has often come close to being their vocation. Intellectuals are commonly integrated into dominant institutions. Their privilege and prestige derives from adapting to the interests of power concentrations, often taking a critical look but in very limited ways. For example, one may criticize the war in Vietnam as a “mistake” that began with “benign intentions”. But it goes too far to say that the war is not “a mistake” but was “fundamentally wrong and immoral”. the position of about 70 percent of the public by the late 1960s, persisting until today, but of only a margin of intellectuals. The same is true of terrorism. In acceptable discourse, as can easily be demonstrated, the term is used to refer to terrorist acts that THEY carry out against US, not those that WE carry out against THEM. That is probably close to a historical universal. And there are innumerable other examples.