Hopes and Prospects from Madison to Cairo

Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Barsamian

International Socialist Review, September 2011

Q. I HAVE a classified WikiLeaks document stamped “Top Secret.” “Eyes Only.” It says that you are going to be speaking in Boulder on April 22nd in a benefit for KGNU and celebrating Alternative Radio’s 25th anniversary. Would you care to confirm or deny this report?

A. (LAUGHTER) YOU can’t trust anything that comes from WikiLeaks. You know that. But even though they reported it, it’s nevertheless true.

SO WE’LL be seeing you here in just a couple of weeks.

I HOPE so.

LET’S START off with some easy, softball questions to kind of replicate the corporate media. Formal slavery has long been abolished, but a de facto mental slavery has replaced it. This is reflected in obedience to power and authority. People are reduced to asking, pleading with the masters for favors, a few crumbs here and there: Don’t slash the budget by this amount, or don’t cut this after-school program by this much. How does a person break the chains of submission and subservience?

FIRST OF all, it hasn’t replaced it. It’s always been there. In fact, I think it’s less there after the formal elimination of slavery. How do you break it? By just going on. There is no magic answer to it. You start by asking for reforms that make sense. You see if they can come. If they do, you try to go farther. Or if you hit a brick wall and the power systems won’t relent, then you move on to try to overthrow them. That’s what the history of activism is about. That’s how slavery ended.

IS IT more difficult to do here in the United States than, say, Bolivia?

I THINK it’s a lot easier here. They have far harsher circumstances. What they’ve achieved is remarkable, but the circumstances are much harder. Just as it’s easier to protest here than it is in Tahrir Square. But it has to be done.

TO WHAT extent does the propaganda system induce docility and passivity in the citizenry in the United States?

THAT’S THE point. But that’s the point from time immemorial. It’s part of the function of the reverence for kings, priests, submission to religious authorities. You can’t really call it a propaganda system. These are doctrinal characteristics of power systems that seek to induce passivity. And we have our own ways. In fact, the major propaganda systems that we face now, mostly growing out of the huge public relations industry, were developed quite consciously about a century ago in the freest countries in the world, in Britain and the United States, because of a very clear recognition, articulated recognition, that people have gained so many rights that it’s hard to suppress them by force, so you have to try to control their attitudes and beliefs or try to divert them somehow. As Veblen put it, you have to try to “fabricate consumers.” And we’ve created wants so people will be trapped. It’s a common method.

It was used by the slaveowners. For example, when Britain abolished slavery, it had plantations using slaves all over the West Indies, so in Jamaica, for example, there were big parliamentary debates about how to try to sustain the same regime with official slavery gone. So what would stop a former slave from going up into the hills where there’s plenty of land and just living happily there? They hit on the same method that everyone hits on: try to capture them with consumer goods. So they offered first teasers—easy terms, gifts, and so on. And then when people got trapped into wanting consumer goods and started getting into debt at company stores and so on, pretty soon you had a restoration of something similar to slavery, from the plantation owners’ point of view, about the same.

The United Fruit Company independently did the same thing in Central America. And the U.S. and British business communities independently hit on the same technique in the early twentieth century. Out of that developed this enormous propaganda system directed towards exactly what Veblen said, fabricating consumers and turning people “to the superficial things of life, like fashionable consumption.” That’s a quote from the business press. And, of course, it goes along also with trying to control ideas and beliefs as well. That’s another part of the doctrinal system. These things aren’t new. They’re as old as the hills. But they take new forms as circumstances change. The ones we now see are the planned result of the achievement of earlier generations in gaining a lot more freedom. And I must say, it’s a lot easier to combat the fabrication of consumers than torture chambers.

YOU’VE OFTEN commented as you travel around the United States that communities that have community radio are marginally different from those that don’t. For example, your hometown of Boston does not have a community radio station.

IT’S NOT a scientific conclusion, it’s an impression. But, yes, Boston is a good example. There is no community radio station, and things are very scattered. People don’t know that something is happening in another part of town. There is no interaction, there is no way to get people together. Maybe other means, the Internet or something, but there is no place you can turn to directly to find out what’s happening, even to gain a critical analysis of what’s going on in the world if it’s related to concerns and interests or to intercommunicate. So it does lead to a breakdown of community or, I guess more accurately, an inability to create community.

YOU’RE AN educator. You’ve taught at MIT for decades. A lot of people are concerned about what’s happening to public education. There are announce?ments of layoffs of thousands and thousands of teachers all over the country, larger class sizes, closing of schools, remedial programs being reduced or eliminated altogether, huge budget cuts. This leads to the question, the powers that be, the corporate elites, don’t they need a trained and competent workforce, or will they rely simply on South and East Asians for that?

FIRST OF all, there has been for the last thirty years a substantial program of offshoring of production. It doesn’t mean just manual labor, so also data analysis and so on. You get a much cheaper workforce abroad. In fact, IBM a couple years ago announced inducements—I don’t know how well it’s worked—to try to get their U.S. staff, American citizens, to go to India, where they could live at a much lower level, with smaller salaries. So, sure, what you said is partly true. But I think they assume they can still maintain a workforce with a smaller part of the population.

This is all part of a major effort to undermine public education altogether, basically to privatize it, which would be a big boon to private power. They don’t like public education, for a lot of reasons. One reason is just the principle on which it’s based, which is threatening to power. Public education is based on a principle of solidarity. So, for example, I don’t have children anymore, I had them fifty years ago; nevertheless I feel and I’m supposed to feel that I should pay my taxes so that the kids across the street can go to school. That’s counter to the doctrine that you should just look after yourself and let everyone else fall by the wayside, a basic principle of business rule. Public education is a threat to that because it builds up a sense of solidarity, community, mutual support.

The same is true of Social Security. That’s one of the reasons, I’m convinced, that there is such a passionate attempt to destroy it even though there are no economic reasons to do it, none of any significance at least. But these are all the residues of a dangerous conception that we’re all in this together and we have to work together to create a better life and a better future. If you’re trying to maximize profit, that’s the end of life, or just maximize consumer goods, it’s the wrong idea. You have to beat it out of people’s heads. We don’t want to go back to the nineteenth century, when working people took for granted, as they did in their publications, that they condemned what they called the new spirit of the age—this is 1850—“the new spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self.” It’s straight out of Ayn Rand and the rest of the business propaganda. But this was 150 years ago. These were widely held views, overwhelmingly supported by working people. And that makes them hard to control. It prevents them from being passive objects of private power.

So, going back to what you said before, you have to have a propaganda system which overcomes these deviations from the principle of subjugation to the power systems. Public schools have that function. They are under severe attack. There are major efforts to replace them with semi-privatized systems which would still be supported by the public, but they would be run more or less privately, like charter schools. There is no evidence that they’re any better. For all we know, they’re even worse. But it does undermine the solidarity, mutual support, dangerous ideas that harm concentrated power. But I don’t think the business world, at least in the short term, is concerned that much about lacking a workforce.

CERTAINLY ONE of the institutions of solidarity historically in the United States has been organized labor unions. From a peak of close to forty percent, the percentage of workers in unions is now down to single digits. Working people, the working class, unions are being hammered. They’re being asked to work longer hours, their wages, benefits are being reduced, they’re losing jobs in many instances. Is capital using the current economic crisis to implement its long-term project to smash the unions?

UNIONS ARE bitterly hated by private power. That’s always been true. The United States is pretty much a business-run society, much more so than comparable ones. Correspondingly, it has a very brutal labor history, much worse than other societies. There are constant efforts to try to destroy unions. By the 1920s, for example, they were almost crushed. Then they came back again in the worker struggles in the 1930s. But it took almost no time for the business world to organize to try to destroy them. Immediately after the war it started in right away: the Taft-Hartley bill, other measures, and immense propaganda campaigns to try to get people to turn against the unions. The churches, schools, cinema, press, everything you can imagine. Major campaigns which have been well studied.

Over time it’s had some success, although we should remember that a large majority of the workforce would prefer to be unionized if they could be. Barriers have been set up by state policy which make it very hard to join a union. The consequence of all this is that, yes, in the private sector unionization is down to about seven percent. The public-sector unions still haven’t been destroyed, but that’s why there is a bitter attack against them going on right now. Wisconsin is a clear example. The issues in Wisconsin didn’t have to do with the deficit. That’s a fraud that’s simply used as a pretext. The issue was the right of collective bargaining, one of the basic principles of union organization. The business world wants to destroy that.

It’s worth remembering that the International Labor Organization has its principles, and theoretically countries are supposed to support them. The basic principle in the ILO is the right of association. The United States is one of the very few countries that have never even ratified it. In fact, it’s considered sort of like a third rail. It never even comes up. That’s now over sixty years. I don’t know how many countries have failed to even ratify a right of association.

RHETORIC ASIDE, has the Democratic Party really been a friend of organized labor and the working class?

COMPARED WITH the Republicans, yes, but that’s not saying much. The studies of Larry Bartels and other political scientists show that working people and the poor tend to do somewhat better under Democratic than Republican administrations. But that just means that the Republicans are deeper in the pockets of the corporate system than the Democrats are. They’re both nuzzled there quite happily. There are individual members of the Democratic Party who have been friends of labor, but they’re a scattered and diminishing minority.

Take, say, Obama. The lame-duck session of Congress was interesting. He was highly praised, including by his supporters, for his statesman-like attitude during the lame-duck session, bipartisanship and getting legislation through and so on. What did he get through? The main achievement was a huge tax cut for the extremely wealthy. When I say extremely wealthy, I mean extremely. So, for example, I’m pretty well off, but I was below the cutoff point on that. This was a tiny sector of wealth that got a huge gift—plunging another hole in the deficit, but who cares about that? That was his major achievement. Meanwhile, at the same time, he initiated a tax increase on federal workers. Of course, they didn’t call it a tax increase. That doesn’t sound good. They called it a pay freeze. But a pay freeze on public-sector workers is exactly the same thing as a tax increase. So we’ve got to punish public-sector workers and reward the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, who just announced a $17.5 billion compensation package for themselves.

IN A talk that you gave at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last fall called “Human Intelligence and the Environment”—it was broadcast on Alternative Radio and reprinted in the March–April issue of the International Socialist Review—you wrote that the system “is just driving us to disaster.” I note that you said this many months before the current conflagrations. “So is anything going to be done about it?” you ask. And you answer, “The prospects are not very auspicious.” Why not?

THE PROSPECTS are not auspicious because of the general feeling which you described before, that there is nothing we can do. As long as people sit by passively and let things happen to them, the dynamics of the system will drive it in a certain direction, and that direction is toward self-destruction. I don’t think that’s hard to show. But the assumption is just wrong. There is a lot that we can do. In fact, what happened in the last month or so in Madison illustrates that very clearly. They didn’t win, but it was an important demonstration. It’s a basis for going on farther. There’s plenty that we can do, but it’s not going to happen by itself. If people are made to feel helpless, isolated, in a kind of atomized society, then power will win. These issues are pretty severe. Right now, for example, we are really facing for the first time in human history the prospect of something like species destruction.

TURNING TO the Middle East, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor in a small town in Tunisia, burned himself to death in despair. That led to what seemed to be a spontaneous uprising there in Tunisia and then later in Egypt and in other parts of the Arab Middle East. Your observations about the situation in the Arab Middle East and all of the upheavals?

FIRST OF all, let’s remember that there had been plenty going on for years. It just hadn’t broken through. Take Egypt, the most important country. The demonstrations in Egypt, the January 25 movement, were led by a fairly young, tech-savvy group who called themselves the April 6 Movement. Why April 6? The reason is that a couple years earlier the Egyptian labor movement, which has been quite militant and active, though crushed, had planned to organize on April 6, 2008, major strike actions at the most important industrial center in Egypt, and also solidarity actions, and was crushed by force by Mubarak’s security forces. So that’s April 6. Early this year they named themselves the April 6 Movement. That’s a reflection of the significant tradition of worker struggles. Though there isn’t much reporting of that—in fact, almost nothing—it does seem that the Egyptian labor movement is continuing to take some pretty interesting steps, even as far as to take over factories, so it’s reported.

In the case of Tunisia, it was indeed this single act that sparked what had been long-standing active protest movements and moved them forward. But that’s not so unusual. Let’s take our own history. Take the civil rights movement. There had been plenty of concern and activism about violent repression of Blacks in the South, and it took a couple of students sitting in at a lunch counter to really set it off. Small acts can make a big difference when there is a background of concern, understanding, and preliminary activism.

ECHOING THE comment by Howard Zinn about small acts making a difference.


CLEARLY, THERE are dangers to Japan and the rest of the world from the nuclear disaster. I’m just going to read a couple of newspaper headlines. “Seawater near the Fukushima plant was found to contain iodine-131,” which is a radioactive byproduct of nuclear fission, “at more than 4,000 times the safety level.” “Dangerous levels of radioactive isotopes have been found twenty-five miles from the Fukushima reactor.” “Small amounts of radiation detected in Washington State milk.” This is all doubly ironic, because of Hiroshima and what Japan suffered in the first and only atomic military attack, for Fukushima today.

FIRST OF all, it is a horrible tragedy. And, as you say, it’s particularly ironic that it should have struck Japan again. But we should take it as a warning. There aren’t really going to be safe nuclear plants. A lot of the problems in Fukushima now are fuel rods, not the plants themselves, which are not very well protected, and under adverse conditions they can be quite lethal, as we’ve seen. But the same is true here. The fuel rods here are not protected. In fact, the nuclear waste disposal problem has yet to be solved at all. Whether we should go ahead with nuclear energy or not is a debate, but you should recognize that the risk factor is quite extreme. There isn’t going to be a way to calculate in advance any disaster that could take place and compensate for it. Japan is about as well-organized and efficient as any society can be these days, much more than us, but this struck them. And they thought they had it controlled, but they didn’t.

MOVING BACK to the Middle East and again the unintentional uses of irony, when Obama cautioned the various revolutionaries in different countries to “show restraint” and that there was “no place for violence,” Obama spoke of the United States’ “unique capabilities” when it comes to enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya. Tariq Ali, in a recent article, calls Libya another case of “selective vigilantism by the West.”

FIRST OF all, we should be clear that there was no no-fly zone. UN Resolution 1973 did call for a no-fly zone, but the three traditional imperial countries—Britain, France, and the United States—who are carrying this out immediately disregarded the resolution and instantly turned to participation on the side of the rebels. That’s not a no-fly zone. So they’re not imposing a no-fly zone over the rebel advances. In fact, they’re encouraging them and supporting them.

So we should, first of all, recognize what it is. The United States, Britain, and France determined at once to disregard the UN resolution and to proceed to try to help the rebels overthrow the government. It’s kind of like nuclear energy: You can say it’s right or wrong, but at least face the fact of what’s happening. Is it selective? Sure. But it’s pretty predictable and very familiar. If there is a dictator who has a lot of oil and is obedient and submissive and reliable, then he’s given free rein. The most important is Saudi Arabia. There, there were supposed to be demonstrations, a Day of Rage, but the government crushed it with overwhelming force. In fact, apparently not even a single person was willing to appear in Riyadh. They were terrified. That’s okay. In Kuwait, the same thing.

Bahrain is particularly important. It hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which is the major military force in the region by far, and it’s also right off the coast of eastern Saudi Arabia. Eastern Saudi Arabia is where most of the oil is and, like Bahrain, it’s mostly Shiite, and the Saudi Arabian government is Sunni. Furthermore, just by some weird accident of history and geography, the concentration of the world’s energy resources is right up there in the northern Gulf region, which is mostly Shiite, in a largely Sunni world. It’s been a nightmare for Western planners for a long time, to consider the possibility that there might be some kind of tacit Shiite alliance out of Western control that would possess most of the core of the world’s energy supplies.

So there was barely a tap on the wrist when Saudi Arabia led a military force into Bahrain to crush the protesters pretty violently. They drove them out of Pearl Square, where they had been encamping, and even went so far as to destroy the Bahraini symbol of the country, the pearl in the middle of Pearl Square, which had been appropriated by the demonstrators, so the army forces smashed it. They went into a hospital and drove everyone out. That was okay. Practically no comment here.

On the other hand, when you have a dictator like Qaddafi, who has plenty of oil but is unreliable, it makes sense from an imperial point of view to try to see if you can find a way to replace him with someone more pliable who would be more trustworthy to do the things you want him to do. Therefore, you react differently there.

In cases like, say, Egypt or Tunisia, what comes along is just the traditional game plan. It’s as old as the hills. If there is a dictator whom you support but he’s losing control—

LIKE THE Shah, Suharto, Marcos, and many others.

THERE’S A dozen cases. But it’s always the same. Support him until the end. If he becomes impossible because maybe the army turns against him or whatever, or the business community, if he becomes impossible, shelve him, send him off somewhere, issue dramatic proclamations about your love of democracy, and then try to restore the old regime as much as possible. That’s exactly what’s happening. So you can call it selective if you want—that’s what it’s called—but it seems to me pretty rational imperialism. And all pretty familiar.

IN TERMS of these multiple uprisings throughout the Middle East, there is an embedded assumption in all the commentary that somehow the United States must control what is going on.

OH, YES. That’s sometimes said very frankly. The Wall Street Journal, which tends to be franker about such things, its main political commentator, Gerald Seib, said straight out, “The problem is, we haven’t yet learned how to control these new forces.” The implication: we’d better find out a way to control them. And that goes way back. That goes back sixty years to Roosevelt’s planners and advisers. Adolf Berle, one of the leading liberal advisers for many presidents, wrote in, it must have been the late 1940s, that—

WASN’T HE part of FDR’s brain trust?

YES, AND then went on to remain kind of a major figure in the liberal political system. He said straight out, “If we can control Middle East energy, that will provide us with substantial control of the world.” That’s no small thing.

THE WORLD Social Forum declared that, “Another World is Possible.” Might these uprisings in some of the most repressive and tyrannical states in the Middle East indicate that in fact another world is possible?

YES. WHATEVER the outcome in the Arab world, it’s really of historic importance. I can’t really think of a series of events like this. There are major efforts to try to control and restrain them. Even if they work, there’s going to be a legacy of success and dedication that is going to be a basis for going on. I think they’re extremely important, and we don’t know where they’re going to go. We shouldn’t just watch. We should be doing what we can to help them.