Noam Chomsky: An Interview

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Hicham Yezza

Ceasefire, September 22, 2010

Hicham Yezza: In your recent London lectures, you recounted a wonderful anecdote about student radicalism days in MIT and also at the LSE. Do you think the intellectual/academic culture has changed drastically since then? You compared the Iraq war protest movement favourably to the anti-Vietnam one due, largely, to the fact mass opposition to the Iraq war actually started before the invasion. Do you still see the anti-Iraq-war movement in that positive light, especially considering how small it is now, seven years on?

Noam Chomsky: The anti-Iraq-war movement was always much too small in my view, though in fact much larger than the anti-Vietnam-war movement at any comparable stage — a crucial qualification often ignored. I think there is good reason to believe that the anti-Iraq-war movement contributed to the US defeat in Iraq as contrasted with its considerable victory in Vietnam, already evident 40 years ago — abandonment of core war aims in Iraq, while they were basically achieved in Vietnam.

HY: The global recession and crisis in the past two years have yielded a lot of popular anger against financial institutions and governmental subservience to them. And yet, nothing structural has shifted in terms of people saying: we want a different system. Do you think the left has made mistakes in responding to the crisis?

NC: A lot more can be done, and should be. To take merely one example, the left could be active in efforts by workers and communities to take over production that is being shut down by the state-capitalist managers and convert the facilities to urgent needs, such as high-speed public transportation and green technology. Just one case.

HY: Your 1970 lecture on ‘Government in the Future’ is now a classic of the genre. Does it still reflect your views entirely or has there been a change? Many find it now extremely rare to see this sort of explicit, serious engagement with fundamental ideas about how society should be run, as if the case for state capitalism has been definitively made and the left should just give up trying to argue for radical alternatives. Is this your view? Or do you think the situation is more hopeful?

NC: I have not changed my views on these matters — of course expressed only sketchily in this talk. In fact, I had pretty much the same views as a teen-ager. The left should very definitely be actively engaged in critical analysis of the destructive system of state capitalism and in developing the seeds of the future within it, to borrow Bakunin’s image. I think there are many opportunities, and some of them are being pursued, though still on much too limited a scale.

HY: Turning to the Middle East, regarding the movement which calls for boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning (BDS) Israel, why do you think there is such a drastic disagreement between yourself and people (such as Naomi Klein) who traditionally agree with you wholeheartedly on Middle-East and other issues? Is this a mere issue of tactics? Is the BDS movement doing more harm than good?

NC: There is an interesting mythology that I have opposed the BDS movement. In reality, as explained over and over, I not only support it but was actively involved long before the “movement” took shape. BDS is, of course, a tactic. That should be understood. Norman Finkelstein warned recently that it sometimes appears to be taking on cult-like features. That should be carefully avoided. Like all tactics, particular implementations have to be judged on their own merits. Here there is room for legitimate disagreement. I have been opposed to certain implementations, particularly those that are very likely to harm the victims, as unfortunately has happened.

More generally, I think we should question the formulation you gave. It is convenient, particularly for Westerners, to regard it as an “anti-Israel movement.” There are obvious temptations to blaming someone else, but the fact of the matter is that Israel can commit crimes to the extent that they are given decisive support by the US, and less directly, its allies. BDS actions are both principled and most effective when they are directed at our crucial contribution to these crimes, without which they would end; for example, boycott of western firms contributing to the occupation, working to end military aid to Israel, etc.

HY: My understanding is that you believe a one state solution can only happen via a two state solution. Is this correct? If so, do you think a call for a one state solution is detrimental to Palestinian interests? Or merely unhelpful?

NC: I have never felt that we must honour the boundaries imposed by imperial violence, hence do not see a solution keeping to the Mandatory boundaries as something holy, or even desirable in the long-term. A “no-state solution” eroding those boundaries is, in my view, both preferable and conceivable, a matter I have discussed elsewhere. However, I know of no suggestion as to how to reach that goal without proceeding in stages, at first by way of a “one-state” (bi-national) solution of the kind I have advocated since the 1940s, and still do.

There have been periods when it was feasible to move fairly directly towards a settlement of this sort — pre-1948 and from 1967 to the mid-70’s, and during those periods I was quite actively involved in urging direct moves towards such a settlement. Since Palestinian nationalism became an active force in the international system in the mid-1970s, I know of no suggestion as to how to reach this limited goal without proceeding in stages, at first by way of the two-state solution of the overwhelming international consensus, blocked for 35 years by the US (and Israel) with rare and temporary exceptions.

Calling for a one-state (or better, a no-state) settlement is fine, as are many other calls, for example, for eliminating nuclear weapons, warding off environmental catastrophe, etc. But we should distinguish between “calls” and true advocacy, which requires sketching a path from here to there. The latter is the more serious and demanding task, both in thought and action.

HY: You have said before that you would accept whatever solution the Palestinians/Israelis wanted (one state/two state/etc), but you also said that if, for instance, Somalis were in favour of an international course of action that, in your view, would actually harm them, you naturally wouldn’t participate in it. How would you clarify the distinction between the two moral imperatives? Is it possible at the same time to listen to the Palestinians’ wishes but also independently decide what’s good for them?

NC: If I said that, it was misleading. I have no authority, right or ability to “accept” or “reject” international agreements. Speaking personally, I do not regard nation-states as acceptable institutions, except as temporary expedients. It is always possible, and often imperative, to decide that the wishes of some population are not good for them. We all do it all the time, surely. And if we are serious about decent human values, we may often decide not to participate in actions that populations choose to carry out. I see no general issues here, though particular cases always raise questions.

HY: You’ve recently dismissed the idea that China and India can pose any serious challenge to Western dominance. What will the post-unipolar world look like in your view, if current trends continue?

NC: They do pose a serious challenge, something I have been speaking and writing about, though much of the excited rhetoric about the topic is highly misleading. For many years the world has been becoming more diverse, with more diffusion of power. In the past decade, even Latin America — which the US has traditionally taken for granted — is drifting out of control.

One striking illustration today is Iran’s nuclear programs. For the US and most of Europe, that is THE problem of the day. This is “the year of Iran” in foreign policy circles, and the “Iranian threat” is depicted as the greatest current danger facing the world. The US is demanding that China and others meet their “international responsibilities”: to adhere to unilateral US sanctions, which have no force other than what is conferred by power. Few are paying attention. Not China, not Brazil, not the nonaligned countries (most of the world), not even Iran’s neighbors, particularly Turkey.

HY: Recent reports have shown inequality in the US to be greater than ever. And yet all we hear of is the rise of the tea party movement and its crusade against Obama’s “socialist” agenda. Is this because people are campaigning against their own interests out of ignorance? Or is it that those who really suffer from inequality (the very poor) are completely cut off from the political debate in the first place and thus utterly voiceless?

NC: The tea party movement itself is quite small, though heavily funded and granted enormous media attention, Much more significant is the great number of Americans, probably a majority, for whom it has some appeal, even though its programs would be extremely harmful to their interests if implemented. There is tremendous anger in the country, and bitter opposition to virtually all institutions: government, corporations, banks, professions, the political parties (Republicans are even more unpopular than Democrats), etc.

At the same time, careful studies show that people largely retain attitudes that are basically social democratic, facts rarely discussed in the media. The anger and frustration are understandable: for about 30 years, real incomes have stagnated for the majority, working hours have increased (far beyond Europe), benefits — which were never great — have declined, while public funds are bailing out the rich and economic growth is finding its way into very few pockets.

In manufacturing industry unemployment is at the level of the great depression, and these jobs are not coming back if the bipartisan policies of financialization of the economy and export of production proceed. But anger and frustration can be very dangerous, unless focused on the real causes of the plight of the population. That is barely happening, and the outcome could be ominous, as history more than amply illustrates.

HY: You often state that global warming and nuclear war are the two great dangers threatening human life. Why do you think there’s such resistance against believing in human-caused climate change? It’s difficult to put this simply down to financial interests since many “sceptics”, as they call themselves, seem genuinely convinced global warming is some sort of hoax. Are they just blinded by propaganda?

NC: There is a very small group of serious scientists who are skeptical about global warming. Major sectors of business have been entirely open about the fact that they are running propaganda campaigns to convince the public that it is a hoax. That is an interesting phenomenon, because those very same corporate executives probably share our views on the severity of the crisis. But they are acting in their institutional capacity as corporate managers, which require them to focus on short term gain and to ignore “externalities,” in this case the fate of the species.

The problem is institutional, not individual. As for the public, many are genuinely confused. That is not surprising when the media present a “debate” between two sides — virtually all scientists versus a scattering of skeptics — while incidentally ignoring almost entirely a much more serious array of skeptics within the scientific world, namely those who believe that the general scientific consensus is much too optimistic. There are doubtless other reasons too. Taking the problem as seriously as we should leads to difficult choices and actions. It is easier to transfer the problems somewhere else, in this case to the world’s poor and to our grandchildren.

HY: We had a discussion recently with some of our readers about independent media outlets receiving money from foundations. Some argue this is fundamentally wrong because even if it comes with no explicit strings attached, it would still affect the way an organisation reports and analyses the news. A case that was mentioned was Democracy Now!, which we love. Do you think receiving donations from charities/foundations is fine, or is it merely a lesser evil to be avoided if possible?

NC: I do not feel that it must be avoided in principle, though naturally considerable caution is necessary.

HY: Our next print issue, out in October, will feature a celebration of the late Edward Said. Why should young students/activists pay a great deal of attention to his legacy?

NC: In his highly original and justly influential scholarly work, and in his dedicated and courageous activism in support of suffering and oppressed people, Edward Said — a close and highly valued friend — was one of those very rare figures who actually fulfilled the responsibility of intellectuals that he wrote about so compellingly. He is an inspiring model.