Interview: Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Alexandros Stavrakas

Bedeutung Magazine, December 2009

Alex Stavrakas: Every society creates its institutions based on needs, values and ideas that are fictitious — as being based on arbitrary truths. The idea itself, however, that these institutions are a human creation does not exist in every society. Societies, for example, may rely on an external authority in order to legitimize their truths: Gods, gospels, etc. The question is: if American people were fully aware that they themselves are the creators of their own laws, would they respect them?

NC: First of all, the majority of American people today don’t accept the assumption that it is they who create their institutions and who run their country. The last time I looked at the polls, about 80% of the population felt that the government is made up of a few big interests looking out for themselves and not for the people. You could see this at the elections. Although I don’t have the exact figures at hand, there’s a very striking fact: opinions of Congress are extremely low — in the teens. Nevertheless, probably 98% of incumbents get re-elected. What this tells you is that, essentially, people are aware that they don’t have a choice and that they’re not taking part in running the country. In fact, you can see this in many other ways: take April 15th, the day when taxes are paid. In a democratic society, where people would feel that they are shaping their own lives, this would be a day of celebration. The spirit would be “We’re getting together as a community to put our resources into implementing policies that we have chosen”. What could be better than that? Well, that’s not the way it is here. Instead, it’s a day of mourning when some alien force which has nothing to do with us comes to steal our hard-earned money.

AS: In this sense, then, the institutions to which they refer in order to identify themselves politically, socially …

NC: … are not their institutions. In fact, that’s why virtually all institutions are held in very low repute. Congress, corporations, just name it.

AS: Would you say that, in this sense, the fears of Tocqueville when he spoke of democratic despotism as a state of becoming so politically apathetic and conformist that one lacks even the desire to resist …

NC: … I don’t think ‘apathetic’ is the right word, I’m also not sure ‘conformist’ is the right word. People feel hopeless. Take the Obama campaign in 2008. Campaigns in the US are run by the Public Relations industry and elections are, basically, bought. The Obama campaign is a case in point. In fact, as you may know, the advertising industry gives an award each year for the best marketing effort of the year. Last year, they gave it to Obama, whose campaign beat Apple Computer in ‘Best Marketing of the Year’.

There was really very little talk about issues. Real political issues were off in the side somewhere and, to start with, most people didn’t even know what they were. The words that were being repeated over and over again, in typical advertising campaign style, were ‘hope’ and ‘change’. Well, that’s meaningless. But it does work, the advertisers understand popular moods. The people wanted ‘hope’ and ‘change’ which means that they didn’t have hope and they didn’t like what existed. Now, that’s not apathy, it’s a mark of a kind of disintegration of society. I’m old enough to have lived through a real depression, the Great Depression, as a child — but I remember it. My family were mostly working people, not well-off by any means. But, in a way, it was a less psychologically depressed time. There was a sense of hopefulness; the sense that there is a way out of this, that there are possibilities, things that can be done, like organise the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organisation), get involved in programmes of reform, opportunities to be grasped. There is no such general feeling in the country now — but it’s not apathy. I think what it is, is the success of an incredible propaganda campaign, the scale of which is very little understood although there’s good scholarship on it: after the Second World War, there was an enormous campaign by the business classes to drive out of people’s heads any conception of democracy, concern for one another, government, feeling able to do anything and so on. And it had its successes.

AS: In an interview you said that, faithful to a community decision, you would stop at a red light at 3 am, while knowing that you could go through it without being caught. You have, also, said that “power doesn’t imply justice or even correctness, so that the state may define something as civil disobedience and may be wrong in doing so”, invoking the example of de-railing a train that carries ammunition to Vietnam as an act that overrides the rule of law in the name of a higher moral imperative. Is this not, in principle, the same logic that led and justified the use of torture as an interrogation method by the US?

NC: It is, yes, the same principle. But, one could say that when Hitler threw Jews into extermination camps it’s the same principle as when Gandhi carried out the Salt March. What I mean to say is that these comparisons don’t mean anything.

AS: We seem to be inhabiting a world where political, economic and social phenomena are driven by themselves, governed by a logic that implies — when it does not explicitly state — that things are just because they are and it cannot be any other way but how it is. In other words, Capitalism’s subjectivity has produced a new kind of objectivity which, having no manifesto, manages to elude criticism. What are your views on this?

NC: That’s a concocted image; its basis in reality is extremely slight. First of all, do we have Capitalism? Do we live in a market society? People who write these things, write them on computers and send them by the internet. Where did computers and the internet come from? They came mostly from the kind of place where I am sitting right now: research institutions that in these days were largely funded by the Pentagon. These products (computers, email) are, for the most part, the result of a very dynamic and creative state sector of the economy. Is this Capitalism? Computers and the internet were in the state sector for decades before they were handed over to private enterprises for profit. That’s not unusual — in fact, that’s how most of the economy works. It’s an economy in which one of the leading principles is that the public pays the costs and takes the risks whereas the profit is privatised. We’re seeing this in such a striking way today that it cannot even be concealed. It’s the so-called ‘too big to fail’ principle, by which the Government is bailing out the financial markets that crashed when they tried — to an extent — to live up to market principles, leading, as it always happens in such cases, to disaster. Only now they are being bailed out, because they’re ‘too big to fail’. This means that they’re basically public utilities, except with private profit. So, if they get in trouble, the public bails them out. To begin with, then, it’s only a partial market system, a limited form of State capitalism. And can it not change? Of course it can change. Just because Margaret Thatcher says “There is no alternative” it doesn’t mean we should pay any attention to her. It can change in many ways.

But let’s be concrete. Something rather surreal is happening right now, which gives a lot of insight into the American form of State capitalism. The Obama administration is partially dismantling the core of the industrial economy: the automotive industry, steel industry, heavy industry and so on. And that, also, means destroying communities, destroying lives, destroying ‘hope’ — quite a long range of consequences. At the very same time, Obama’s Secretary of Transportation is travelling around Europe to try to use federal stimulus money (taxpayer money) to get Spain and Germany (maybe other countries too) to provide the United States with infrastructure, technology and equipment for high-speed rail transport, which we desperately need. Why is that happening? Why aren’t the American industries and their skilled workforce being reconstructed to produce what the country needs? It certainly isn’t impossible; there were much sharper changes instigated by government initiatives during the Second World War. Semi-command economy is highly successful economically; more so than anything in economic history. So, why isn’t it happening now? The reason is that it doesn’t lead to enough profit on Wall Street.

Is there an alternative? Sure there is. The industries themselves could be taken over by their stakeholders, workforce and community, and converted to produce what’s needed by the society and to produce it with enough profit to satisfy this workforce and community — if not Wall Street. That’s an alternative. But it has to be in people’s minds before it begins to be implemented — and these notions of popular democracy (which is what that would be) have been driven out of people’s minds.

AS: You’ve argued that opportunity confers responsibility. In a sense, you are speaking of a proportional distribution of responsibility. Can you imagine a society in which questions about proportional and absolute responsibility, justice, equality would disappear or be resolved — or do you consider such scenarios (like Marx’s Higher Communism) to be mystifying ideas causing, in the end, worse alienations than they try to avoid?

NC: There is no society (except for cases like Spanish Anarchism) that ever tried to implement anything remotely like the ideas of Marx to which you are referring. This certainly includes from its first moment the Soviet Union, which was very anti-Socialist I should say. To the extent that privilege is distributed, opportunity will be distributed and then responsibility will too. Its not a matter of 0% or 100% but one’s position on this spectrum.

AS: Can we go back to Obama’s campaign and its buzzwords. It seems like our most advertised values sound vague, if not downright fraudulent: ‘safety’ and the preservation of ‘our way of life’. Yet, at the same time, the constantly repeated dictum of political campaigns such as Obama’s (‘change’) is an equally unqualified proclamation. How do you understand the co-existence of these opposing imperatives? What do you think of a political and cultural discourse that seems to propose progress — and urgently so at times — yet functions only to strengthen the existing economical, political and cultural status?

NC: Both rhetorics are, in my opinion, vacuous. And the preservation of privilege and power should be but a cliché. We haven’t gotten far beyond what Adam Smith described when, discussing England, he pointed out that the principal architects of policy in England — namely the merchants and manufacturers — made sure that their own interests were most peculiarly attended to, however grievous the effect on others, including the people of England (but more so the victims of the so-called savage injustice of the Europeans, referring primarily to India in this case) were. Institutions have changed, a lot has changed since Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. In essence, however, what he said remains a pretty good approximation to one of the leading operating principles of policy formation. Now, there is a category of people called ‘intellectuals’ one of whose major task is to suppress all of this, usually in lofty rhetoric, and make it seem as if something obscure and profound is involved. I think it’s pretty straightforward.

AS: In our liberal societies we affirm, theoretically at least, the equal rights of all cultures whilst knowing that there are cases of regimes that constantly, systematically and massively violate the principles that we consider as constitutive of a human society. Should we consider these events as some interesting ethnological peculiarities, or do we have a duty to take a stance — academically and politically — including the use of force?

NC: It’s quite often useful to adopt a principle that is frequently voiced but rarely applied: look in the mirror. Let’s look at ourselves first; for the reasons that are brought up repeatedly in the Gospels, for instance. American society was founded as what George Washington called “an infant empire” that was willing to create its territory by what the founding fathers themselves recognised to be extermination (their words). That’s one of the original sins of this society and the effects continue to linger. The other is slavery. Lets take a look at slavery, then. We know what slavery was and what its horrors were. After the Civil War it was technically supposed to have ended. However, if you look at the facts, after about twenty years it began to be re-instituted directly in the South — and with the complicity of the North. What was instituted was, literally, a criminalisation of black life through laws such as ‘vagrancy’ or ‘talking too loud’. This was devised as a means to throw much of the black male population into prison, where they would stay permanently through various other machinations and from which they created the basis of a good part of the modern industrial society: mines, steel mills, cotton and so on. In fact, if you look at the details, it was worse than slavery. Under slavery, the slave-owner owns the slave as capital and so he takes care of him. But in this system there was no sense of responsibility; it was quite horrendous. This continued until the Second World War. During WWII, when labour was needed (industrial labour), there was a kind of opening for black males that lasted through the following several decades during which there was a very rapid and highly egalitarian growth, the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Capitalism. Now, in the 1970s, the financialisation of the economy began and this window of opportunity was closed. Since about 1980, the incarceration rate has shot way up, reaching higher levels than in any other industrial society. I think England is second, far behind the US, and others are even farther behind. This phenomenon has no relation to crime, and it concerns, to a substantial extent, black males. That’s reinstituting slavery; prison slavery, in fact, since these inmates work as prison labour. So, if you look at the whole history, from the beginning of the slave trade until today, slavery has barely ended. Sure enough, it’s taken somewhat different forms, it’s not as rigorous today as it was after Reconstruction — but it’s there and it has tremendous effect on the society. Well, is that a property that meets the condition that you described? Should we invade ourselves by force to overcome it? And that’s not the only example.

AS: On the same theme of the United States and its relation to the rest of the world, what are your views on China and Russia? They may be able to live in a peaceful coexistence with the U.S., but they will never accept American tutelage and the assumption that they can be conscripted into service in a campaign to convert the world to American-style democracy is, to say the least, unfounded.

NC: There’s a presupposition in the question which I cannot accept. Do we want to convert the world to a world in which 80% of the population think that their government is run by a few big interests looking after themselves? A world in which citizens regard themselves as helpless to influence governmental policies? Do we want a world — to take a case in point — where 85% of the population believe that their government should adopt the policies of every other government and negotiate drug prices to cut them down from their exorbitant level and their government doesn’t even put it on the agenda, doesn’t even discuss it? Is that the kind of world we want to convert people to? People talk about the model of American democracy and the American way of life, but they do it in abstraction from reality. It actually reminds me of what was written by a leading figure and one of the founders of the realist school of international affairs, Hans Morgenthau. He once wrote an interesting book which had a lot of truth in it — more than he thought, I think. The book was called ‘The Purpose of American Politics’. In this book, he claims that the United States is unique in the world and has a transcendent purpose, unlike any other country. This transcendent purpose is to bring about freedom. But Morgenthau, being a good scholar and going through history, observed that we have not lived up to this transcendent purpose. Case after case, this purpose has, in fact, been radically violated. But, he said, we should think of what actually happened as just the ‘abusive’ history. The ‘real’ history is how what happened is reflected in our minds. He then went on to point out — correctly — that (he wasn’t being ironic unfortunately) to deny historical reality on the basis of the abusive history — namely, what happened — is like the error of atheism that questions the magnificence of God in the same way. Unfortunately, he was not trying to write a satire. He was describing actual intellectual life — except describing it honestly. Well, that’s the story. I cannot accept the presupposition of the question so therefore I cannot respond to it. It’s like asking me ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’. Russia and China have enormous problems; maybe much worse than ours. But I don’t think we’re the ones to teach them lessons. We can start by teaching ourselves some lessons.

AS: In your answer you put rhetorically the question ‘Do we want to convert the world?’. So, taking, say, the second Gulf War, were there traces of this extravagant idea of exporting freedom and democracy in the minds of the American government and, more importantly, the American people?

NC: Well, here’s an example of the amazing achievements of intellectual servants of power: to have even made that a conceivable question. We know what happened. When the United States went to war it had war aims. They were stated by Bush, by Blair, Powel, Rice, and others. The war aims were what Bush and Blair called ‘a single question’: will Sadam Hussein give up his WMD? The American people went to war because — and we know this from polls — they thought they were in danger. I forget the numbers, but America was the only country in the world that was actually frightened by Sadam Hussein. Everybody hated him, but this was the country where people were afraid of him. Condoleezza Rice famously said that the next time we hear of him it will be a mushroom cloud over New York. So, that’s why people went to war and that’s what Bush and Blair, who toddled along behind them, gave as the single question. Of course, there was the usual blither played about democracy; but that was in the background, like it always is. They didn’t find weapons of mass destruction. So, they needed a new pretext for having gone to war. All of a sudden, then, it turned out that the reason for war was our love of democracy. I think it was November 2003 when, long after they had failed to find WMD, George Bush put up a great fanfare and gave a speech in which he said that our noble effort was to bring democracy. Everybody immediately jumped on the bandwagon and fell in. This is an example of servility to power that would be shocking in a totalitarian state; even more so in a democratic society, where you have the facts in front of you.

AS: What about the ‘symbolic’, if you like, dimension of 9/11? There have been those, like DeLillo, who advocated that the attacks on 9/11 were not targeted against the West, but specifically against America. On the other hand, there’s been countries, like France, who insisted they were attacked together with the United States — Nous Sommes Tous Des Americaines, Le Monde headlined.

NC: Any serious specialist, whether its Michael Scheuer, the chief CIA analyst who was following Sadam Hussein, or academic specialists and others, knows perfectly well that the 9/11 attacks were directed against United States policy. Of course it was an attack on the West, since the West supports US policy — US policy in the Middle East, that is. You may say that it was a monstrous terrorist attack and claim that they were mistaken about American policy, but there is very little doubt that people who follow seriously Al-Qaeda say “They mean what they say”. And what they say to us is: “You’re attacking Islam and we are going to defend ourselves”. Incidentally, that’s another good example of propaganda. What I’m going to say is almost unintelligible in the West, but let me say it anyway. 9/11 was a horrible atrocity. But it could have been worse; let me give you an example. Suppose that Al-Qaeda had bombed the White House, killed the President, established a military dictatorship, tortured several hundred thousand people, set up a major international terrorist centre that was overthrowing governments and killing people all over the world, brought in a bunch of crazed economists who drove economy into its worst recession in decades. Suppose that had happened. Wouldn’t that be a lot worse than September 11th, 2001? Well, it did happen: on September 11th, 1973 — the only thing I did was change the numbers to per capita equivalents, which is a proper measure. This is what happened on what is sometimes called ‘the first 9/11’ in South America: the overthrow of the government of Chile, backed by the United States. Why wasn’t that an atrocity? Why didn’t that change the world? In terms of the societal effects, its much greater than what we call 9/11. But that was our terror, our violence, so it doesn’t count. And that’s only one of innumerable examples. We have to learn to look at ourselves if we want to talk seriously about the world.

AS: Europe has been compared to Hamlet and the US to Fortinbras, the implication being that Europe is a doubter and brooder that fails to act, whereas the US, not tainted by the ‘pallor of thought’, acts forcefully and swiftly convinced that perhaps not the law, but certainly the law of the strongest will be on its side. Do you see any accuracy in this claim?

NC: I definitely think that that’s the case for Europe and the United States. In fact, it may be one of the few principles of history that has real substance. It was said very well by Thucidides: ‘the strong do what they want and the weak suffer as they must’. Surely, that’s European history, overwhelmingly. And Europe tags along with the US in this regard.

AS: One other thing that is different between the US and Europe is the place religion has. In fact, judged by almost any standard, the US is a less secular country than Turkey. In no other highly industrialized country is there widespread belief in Satan or an official movement contesting Darwinian theory. In 2002, a poll in America revealed that a quarter of Americans believed that the events of 9/11 were predicted in the Bible. Where should we look for the origins of this phenomenon and what tools does it provide for the understanding of American society?

NC: It’s a very important question — and, definitely, too complex for me to answer it briefly. To begin with, we should look back to the early colonists who came from England. They came from a providentialist culture, namely, a culture immersed in the conception that providence has laid out a plan for history and we are carrying out God’s will. For example, when the first colonists came to New England in the 1629s and King Charles II gave the Charter to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, this Charter said something along the lines of “The purpose for this plantation is to save the natives from their Pagan misery”. When John Winthrop gave his famous sermon in which he said that “We are the city on the hill”, he was using the framework of what is now called ‘the responsibility to protect’ or ‘humanitarian intervention’, the notion that we are coming to save you. In fact, the great seal of the colony of Massachusetts has on it a picture of an Indian with a scroll coming out of his mouth saying “Come over and help us”. So, this is a perfect example of humanitarian intervention in the name of the Lord. And that runs through a good part of American history. It’s a long stream of providentialism that has never ended and which has repeated revivals, like in the 1950s. So, in a word, yes, it’s a deep feature of the culture and it goes way back to the origins. What influences us on policy, however, is debatable, since we’re also a very secular society. Freedom is, actually, guaranteed to an extent that is probably unique in the world — except in England maybe. But, still, there’s nothing in the United States comparable to Britain’s outrageous libel laws. That would be inconceivable here.

AS: Let’s extend this idea of belief further. Religion, for example, answers to universal human needs and only a credulous philosopher would believe that showing religion is an illusion would make it disappear. In this sense, your work also attempts to reveal the illusions, hypocrisies, frauds that reside in the way our modern world works. Does this really have any emancipatory potential?

NC: I’m in the mainstream of science. In this respect, as far as I can say, what we try to do is find the truth as best as we can, knowing that there are all kind of limits, cognitive limits, limits of understanding. But we keep trying to find the truth about the world and part of this truth is what you just said. Many people — in fact, probably, a large majority — find it a significant personal value to be part of a religious community. That’s also true of people who have no religious beliefs at all. A great many of the people who are part of religious communities, are part of them because that gives them a sense of community, a structure to their lives — holidays in which you meet your family and the like. Rituals bring up memories and so on and so forth. That can, also, coincide with no faith at all; in fact, I know this from my own background. But for many it does involve irrational faith. I’m not in a position to go to a grieving mother who believes that some days she’ll see her dying child again and give her lectures on epistemology.

AS: But you have spoken about human nature. Not only that, but you have ascribed a certain normative function to it, a morality, universals.

NC: I don’t see how that’s even debatable.

AS: Well, Darwinism taken to its conceptual end takes us safely to the conclusion that life is ruled by chance and necessity and that there are just regularities, not prescriptions for good life.

NC: Here we’re talking about the move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. We will discover what we can about the nature of the world and, among the truths about it, I believe, we will find that part of our genetic capacity, which evolved over millennia, is that certain moral principles are inscribed in it; probably genetically determined. To try to discover them is, of course, a big task. There’s some empirical work on the subject. But their existence doesn’t seem to me questionable. For reasons, actually, explained by Hume. David Hume was pretty clear about this. He pointed out that we have an almost infinite number of responsibilities and duties; meaning, we know how to behave properly in entirely new situations. And that can be the case only if there are certain principles inscribed in us which come from the original hand of nature — from our genetic endowment we would say — that somehow guide our choices and decisions. I think that’s not at all implausible, and I cannot think of a coherent alternative that would permit a degree of adaptability to what appears to us as a wide variety of practices. It might not appear like a wide variety to some Martian looking at us from a different perspective. In that respect, it’s a bit like language. From our perspective as humans, it looks as if language is arbitrarily varied. On the other hand, as soon as you learn anything about languages, you discover that they are pretty narrowly constrained. What applies to language will be true in the inquiry about tomorrow’s systems; if it can ever become sufficiently advanced.