Interview: Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky interviewed by The Imagineer

The Imagineer, May 19, 2009

Imagineer: Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to have this interview with The Imagineer, Professor Chomsky.

Chomsky: Good to be with you.

Imagineer: In your opinion, to what extent should the United States involve itself both militarily and diplomatically in the ongoing turmoil caused by renegade pirates off the coast of Somalia?

Chomsky: Well, the Somalia story is complex. It’s a long, ugly history. I’ll just keep to the present. In what must have been 2005 or 2006, as a part of the so-called “War on Terror”, the treasury department’s branch the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which deals with alleged transfers of money that are supposedly or may have something to do with terrorist activities, went after an Islamic charity called Al-Barakat and claimed that it was involved in financing Al Qaeda. They closed it down. There was a lot of publicity about that as a great achievement of the “War on Terror”. A couple years later, they conceded quietly that it was a mistake and that they weren’t involved at all. It turns out that this charity was a large part of the sustenance for Somalia, a very poor country, and that the charity was funding business activities, banks, and private enterprise. It was making a substantial contribution to the economy, and, when they closed it down, it all collapsed. It was a very fragile society, so a blow like that was quite severe. After that, it’s been a very conflicted society with a lot of fighting and so on, but a group did take over called the Islamic courts; they imposed their rule over virtually all of Somalia. There’s a tiny little corner near Ethiopia that was kept in the hands of the former government which the US recognized. They were doing… not badly; I wouldn’t have wanted to live there. It was Islamic law, but it was quiet and controlled. The violence subsided, and people were apparently pretty happy with it; but, the US wasn’t. Immediately, Ethiopia invaded with US support, and they were able to drive out the Islamic court government. They took over Mogadishu and so on, but very quickly a resistance started; the whole country just exploded into total chaos again, and it more or less remains that way. That’s one aspect of what was happening.

The other aspect was that foreign states, European states, and some of the Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and others began dumping toxic waste in Somali waters. Since the state doesn’t function really, these territorial waters are kind of like free garbage cans. So, they started poisoning it, and they also started fishing there. It’s a rich fishing area, and they quickly overfished it with factory ships and so on. The Somalis don’t have a coastguard, and they don’t have any international clout. So, their fishing grounds are getting ruined both from overfishing by rich foreigners from Europe, Saudi Arabia, and so on – I don’t know if the US was involved – and also from their waters being poisoned. These fishermen had very few options, so they started on piracy. That’s the background of it.

Piracy turned out to be very lucrative. It’s kind of like narco-trafficking in India with rich thugs. They expand to criminal enterprises and so on. That’s the background. It didn’t just come out of nowhere; if we want to understand it, we should pay attention to the background. If you want to eliminate piracy, then give the fishermen a livelihood and stop destroying their land and their waters.

Imagineer: Essentially, your contention is that the adverse effects the United States now has to combat are caused by past political decisions?

Chomsky: Yes, and not very far in the past either. I’ve just been talking about the past few years. You go back farther, and it gets even worse. There’s a long background including the Bush-Clinton invasion and the support for Siad Barre, the brutal thug that ran the place for a long time.

Imagineer: Speaking of the current situation, on April 12, 2009, the United States Navy SEAL snipers performed an operation to rescue Richard Phillips, the captain of a US-flagged ship. During this operation, the snipers killed three pirates. These three men who had garnered respect by bringing fiscal benefits and economic opportunity back to their communities were essentially murdered in exchange for the life of one person. Is this a valid argument?

Chomsky: It’s hard to talk about a particular incident. If you make the framework narrow enough – here’s an American captured by pirates, and the Navy SEALs rescue him – you can give a justification within that narrow framework. When you put it in a broader framework, it looks quite different.

Imagineer: Do you find yourself sympathetic to the pirates to some extent, though?

Chomsky: I’m sympathetic to the background. I understand why they became pirates, and I understand our crucial role in that, which I think we’re not taking into account when dealing with the situation and also in solving the situation. One way to deal with the situation that now exists is to kill the pirates. But, another way is to deal with the circumstances of which we share a lot of responsibility in creating. We should actually pay Somalia substantial reparations for what we’ve done to them, and Europe as well for overfishing and poisoning the waters.

Imagineer: Moving on to another kind of piracy, one that is much more domestic: How do you believe the United States and other industrialized nations should handle intellectual property, with specific regards to online piracy and what is called illegal online downloading? If I go to my computer and download the latest U2 album “illegally”, is that justified?

Chomsky: Well, again, depending on how broadly we cast the net, in a very narrow sense I think a case can be made saying it’s illegal – here’s a creative artist who created a song and wants to survive, and he can’t survive if people just steal. So in a very narrow sense, yes [copyright laws are] justified. As a broader question, however, why do we have copyright laws? Is that the moral way or even the economically efficient way to support the creative arts? I don’t think so; there are better ways. For example, it should be, in a free democratic society, a sort of responsibility arrived at by democratic decision to maintain adequate support for creative arts as we do for science. If that were done, the artists wouldn’t need copyrights to survive. That’s economically more efficient, I believe, and morally more justified.

Download piracy on the internet is a very small part of the whole intellectual properties issue. The main aspect of it is the highly protectionist rules which are written into the World Trade Organization vastly beyond anything that preceded them, guaranteeing patent rights to major corporations like pharmaceutical corporations. Now, there’s a lot to say about that. If that patent regime had existed in the 18th and 19th centuries and even through the early 20th century, the United States and England would not be rich, developed countries. They developed substantially by what we now call piracy. So take, say, England, which goes back farther. A large part of English wealth which helped initiate the early Industrial Revolution was derived from straight piracy. Sir Francis Drake, who provided huge sums to England, was a pirate. He was robbing Spanish ships on the high seas. He became a great hero. He contributed substantially to English economic development. Now beyond that, England did not pioneer modern industrial technology. It stole a lot of it from Ireland. They had an advanced weaving industry, and England conquered and destroyed it. It stole a lot from India. When India was conquered, it had, by the standards of the day, an advanced economy. England imposed free market principles on India, but it itself had an extremely high protection to protect early British textile industry. It also took highly skilled technicians from the Low Countries – Belgium and the Netherlands – to England to teach them technology, and the US did the same. The US, as soon as it became an independent country, imposed extremely high tariffs – this was under Alexander Hamilton’s economic development program. It imposed very high tariffs to protect early American industry from superior British goods. It went through personal business textiles; then later it was steel, so Andrew Carnegie made the first billion dollar corporation. That went right up to the Second World War. Then, through the period of its major growth, the US was by far the most protectionist country. In fact, in many ways, it remains so, although it’s not called protectionism. A great deal of the advanced American economy, like in other countries but strikingly here, comes straight out of the state sector: computers, internet, information technology, and so on. A lot of it is a radical violation of free trade rules which we enforce on the poor.

To get back to the intellectual property rights, as I said, if those had been placed during the period of the growth of the contemporary rich countries, they wouldn’t have developed. Now we call it piracy, but then we called it development when it was for ourselves. There’s a name for this in economic history. It’s called “kicking away the ladder”. First you use certain bits of development, and then you kick away the ladder so others can’t follow you. That’s what’s called international economic policy in the World Trade Organization and so on. So, if there’s any justification for thatÉ again, it’s how broadly you cast the net. The pharmaceutical corporations, for example, insist that they need high protection in the World Trade Organization, because they need it for research and development. However, they are only responsible for a minority of their own research and development, and that part is largely more oriented toward the marketing end. A lot of risky work is done through public funds and foundations. In fact, it’s in a few estimates that if the research and development budgets of the pharmaceuticals were 100 percent taken over by the public, and the corporations were compelled to function in a market society to sell for market prices, the saving to consumers would just be colossal. But, they have enough power so that they can sustain that system, and there are a lot of other examples like it. So, as always, it depends on how broadly you cast the net, and how broadly you look at the issue. From a very narrow point of view, going back to your original question, you can say yes, the creative artist is being harmed. From a broader point of view, there are a lot of other things to say.

Imagineer: So, would you say that a nation claiming to support the growth and opportunity for all people is essentially limiting growth and opportunity in exchange for their own sustained prosperity and economic prevalence with their diplomatic relations and policies, with specific regards to the World Trade Organization?

Chomsky: Well, the World Trade Organization is only in a limited way related to trade. I mean, even what’s called trade is partially a fable. For example, take US trade with Mexico, which shot up after NAFTA. But, probably about half of it is not trade in any serious sense. It’s just interaction as internal to a command economy. So, if General Motors makes the parts in Indiana and sends them to Mexico to be assembled because they have cheaper labor and fewer environmental constraints, and then sends them back to Los Angeles to sell the cars, that’s called trade in both directions, but it’s not trade in any reasonable sense. It’s like an operation inside of a command economy which has to cross borders. That’s a huge part of what’s called trade. Aside from that, the World Trade Organization has lots of mechanisms in it which inhibit trade, like intellectual property rights and other mechanisms which it gives to corporations, trapping investor rights. They don’t have anything to do with trade; they just have to do with enriching corporations. So, it’s a complicated mechanism. You have to really take it apart to see what it is. It’s designed by the rich and powerful primarily for their own interests.

Imagineer: Do you think we will ever be globalized enough to facilitate the use of one official global language?

Chomsky: It’s sort of happening without anybody doing anything about it.

Imagineer: With English you’re saying?

Chomsky: The US is by far the richest, most powerful country in the world, especially after the Second World War. It’s incomparable in terms of technological development and so on, thanks in large part to the state sector. Great Britain was the most powerful country in the world, displaced by the United States. The effect of this is that English has, since the Second World War particularly, been becoming a kind of international language, just as a reflection of the distribution of power. I don’t know what it has to do with globalization exactly, but yes, it has to do with power relations.

Imagineer: Okay, but the number of Chinese speakers outnumbers the number of English speakers in the world today. How would we explain that if we were to say that English would be the chosen language as a global language officially?

Chomsky: Well, China’s developing. But in comparison with us, they have a very small economy. China has tremendous internal problems, apart from the fact that its economy is a fraction of ours. If you take a look at the human development index for the United Nations, it ranks about 80th I think. They have huge internal problems to deal with, which the west doesn’t have. So, it just doesn’t have the power to become a global language. Well, there are shifts. So take, for example, at MIT, where I teach. There are a lot of language courses for engineers and scientists who intend to go into business or international relations or something. Years ago, when I came here, they used to say French and English or French and German. That has long ago gone. Then there was a flurry of studying Japanese, and now there’s increasing study of Chinese.

Imagineer: Do you think a global political union or a global currency would be a proper prerequisite to a global language?

Chomsky: No, because as I said, a global language is already developing. Well, there is a kind of global currency, and it’s the dollar. For the same reasons, an official global currency might develop someday. It’s unclear. It’s not such a simple matter.

Imagineer: So, Do you think, officially, English will become the global language one day?

Chomsky: Not officially, but it’s becoming so. Just to give you an illustration: I was talking to a Belgian scholar the other day. Belgium is bilingual. Essentially French and Dutch, but they don’t call it that. He told me that in Brussels now, the people whose native language is French often are studying English instead of Dutch as their second language.

Imagineer: Thank you very much for your time. We appreciated talking to you and have a nice day.

Chomsky: Okay. Good to talk to you.