Steven Durel: Professor Chomsky, for forty years now you have been a leading voice in political action and social justice. After this near half-century of participation in the libertarian movement, how have things changed?
Noam Chomsky: Change is never linear. It goes forward in some respects, backwards in others. Just to take the positive side, there has been a very substantial increase in the general level of civilization of society, and we see that in dimension after dimension. Concern for human rights has increased enormously and has many components. Women’s rights, for example, are protected way beyond what was true forty years ago. Minority rights are far more protected, though there is plenty distance to go.
On the other hand, there’s a backlash. It was very quick, starting in the early 70’s, and it was across the spectrum. Not what’s called “liberal” and “conservative,” whatever those names mean, but across the elite spectrum there was deep concern about the democratizing and civilizing effects of the 60’s. That’s why the 60’s are now recorded and taught as the time of troubles or the birth of error. The troubles were that the country was just becoming too free and democratic. It was actually called a “crisis of democracy,” which meant too much democracy.
The number of lobbyists in Washington just exploded in the early 70’s in an effort to make sure that legislation was tightly controlled, that it fit the business agenda. The proliferation of new right wing think-tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, tried to control the range of permissible thoughts. There was a massive campaign to take over radio and shift TV to the right.
Even the international financial system has changed, so as to permit free capital flows, which had not been permitted in the earlier period. And it was well understood by economists that one affect of that is to restrict the range of democratic options. It gives investors essentially the ability to act like what is sometimes called a “virtual senate.” They can pass judgment on a country’s policies and, if they don’t like them, they can destroy the economy.
There are many signs of movement towards a more repressive authoritarian State and it happens to be extreme in the Bush Administration. They call themselves conservatives, but that’s an insult to conservativism. They are right wing, reactionary statists. They want a very powerful State to control personal life, the economic world and international society, and they use force if necessary. There’s nothing conservative about that.
SD: I went down to Washington a few weeks ago for a gathering of 100,000 war protestors. Most of them were demanding an immediate withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq. Conversely, the majority of politicians are telling us that we can’t leave and to do so would be to subject Iraq to some kind of theocracy that might take root. I’d like to hear your thoughts.
NC: Whatever you thought about Saddam Hussein, it was a secular government. Now it’s very likely that there will be a large theocracy. What’s more, it’s likely that the theocracy will be oriented with Iran. There are close connections between the Shiite south and Iran. A lot of Shiite leadership comes from Iran. Ayatollah Sistani, a large majority of the religious leaders and the main militia in the south, the Badr Brigades, are Iranian trained and armed.
The effect of the American invasion has been to devastate the society. By last October, the best estimates we had were that about 100,000 people had been killed. By now it’s got to be much worse. The level of malnutrition doubled. Child malnutrition is now at the level of Burundi.
What does the population want? A couple days ago, the major Shiite party demanded that the British soldiers in the south stay in their barracks. The Sunni population obviously wants the American troops out. This Sadr group has announced that they want the Americans to leave. The parliament does have a national sovereignty commission, or something, and they have called, I think unanimously, for a strict timetable for withdrawal.
SD: I recently read a speech by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He actually was talking about your book, Hegemony or Survival; he was praising it as a great piece of anti-imperialist literature. So we know that he’s a fan of yours, but I was wondering if you are a fan of his. What do you think about the Bolivarian Revolution?
NC: Again, the interesting question is not what I think about it or what you think about it, or what George Bush thinks about it. The question is, what do Venezuelans think about it? On that, we have evidence. Despite extreme hostility from the media, from the business classes and from the United States, Chavez has won election and referendum one after the other by heavy majority.
There are polls in Latin America, careful polls by Latin American polling institutions, and they are quite revealing. What they show is a decline in faith in democracy over almost all of Latin America, not because people don’t like democracy, but because they don’t like the neoliberal economic policies that have come along with it, which are harmful. There are very few exceptions. Venezuela is one of those exceptions.
The wealthy and the privileged hate him. On the other hand, the great majority of the population is very impoverished and has always been kept out of the country’s enormous wealth. This Bolivarian Revolution, whatever you and I may think about it, is actually doing something for the poor and apparently they are reacting. So the enormous support for him in the slums and great hostility in the Pelican Suites gives you a pretty good guess.
SD: I have this question for you from Professor John O’Connor at Central Connecticut State University: For years you have made the argument that our doctrinal system, our propaganda system, was so overwhelming that it was difficult to see opportunities for serious social change. How do you explain the emergence of the global justice movement against neoliberalism?
NC: I’ve never said that it prevents social change. In fact, I never even said that it prevents independent thinking. What I’ve discussed is the nature of the propaganda system. There’s a separate question to ask about its effect.
In the case of the US propaganda system, the first question is a relatively easy one to research. You can study what the propaganda is like. To study its effect on the population is much more difficult and pretty subjective. Roughly, I think that the conclusion will be that, among more educated sectors, it is probably very effective, which is not too surprising because they’re part of it. They promulgate the propaganda. The general population, I think, is a mixed story. What it’s tended to do is make people skeptical, disillusioned, disliking institutions and believing that nothing works.
In terms of general attitudes and beliefs, we have extensive evidence of US attitudes. It shows pretty dramatically that both political parties and the media are far to the right of the general population on issue after issue. To that extent, it hasn’t been effective. Therefore, it’s from that background that you get things like the global justice movement.