Noam Chomsky is a man who has seen it all. Many dream of attaining renown in their fields; Chomsky, born to socialist Jewish refugees in interwar Philadelphia, is not only commonly referred to as ‘the father of modern linguistics’ but has also established a reputation as a political author, activist and critic of post-1980s neoliberal capitalism that has carried his work far beyond academia. We sit down with him after his talk at the Union: naturally it took place over Zoom, yet this hardly blunted its appeal. With nearly 30,000 people ‘interested’ on the Facebook event (far in excess of the population of Cantabs) this may well have been the most popular live event in the Union’s history, perhaps a fitting metaphor of how the pandemic is shaking up established institutions.
When asked about the responsibility of students in this moment of crisis, he is keen to stress action beyond the Covid-19 situation; he sees it as enormously destructive but not an “existential threat”, on the scale of climate change, future pandemics, or the often underappreciated threat of nuclear war. He offers a sobering reminder that today’s youth are facing “immense challenges: challenges that have never existed in human history. You have to decide whether the species is going to survive. That has never arisen before.” He is similarly painfully aware of the statistics and scenarios around climate change. Under the current warming scenario of even a few degrees’ temperature rise, Chomsky points out that within “the next 50 years…South Asia could be uninhabitable, a large part of the Sahara too. The Middle East? Forget it”. This is, he stresses, “a disaster of the kind you can’t even imagine. And that’s what we’re marching towards”.
Though less commonly recognised since the end of the Cold War, Chomsky is equally keen to emphasise that global nuclear war remains a real and unimaginably destructive possibility. Referring to the countless near-misses of the 1960s and 70s, he says that “anyone who’s ever looked over the records seriously can barely imagine that we’ve somehow escaped. It’s a miracle, and now it’s getting much worse because of the criminal actions of the megalomaniac in the White House, and the passivity of Europe”, referring to the Trump’s refusal to renew the START nuclear arms reduction treaty , due to expire in 2021). This despite what he describes as “begging” by Russia – the other nation with potentially planet-destroying stocks of nuclear weapons.
With humanity facing so many existential threats, it would be easy for someone of Chomsky’s calibre to become fatalist. Yet he is determined in his conviction that behind these threats – climate change, nuclear war, pandemics and economic collapse – lies the fundamental, but opposable problem of “the neo-liberal plague”. “It can be dealt with right now”, he maintains, “but not under the current socio-economic regime”. Earlier in our conversation, he notes that there is little motivation for pharmaceutical companies to devote resources to pandemic prevention, just as fossil fuel companies, as private actors, have no real incentive to commit to the ecological transition that is needed to avoid climate change. Underlying these “existential threats” to humanity are serious collective-action problems – ones that he doesn’t think can be resolved by our current individualist society under capitalism.
So what can be done? Given the urgency of the problems at hand and the renaissance in Cambridge student activism over the last decade, it’s a question at the forefront of our minds. “One of the most important things to do, wherever you are, is to deal with the institutions of which you are a part”, he tells us. “It’s great to be involved in trying to save the arms control regime. That’s important, but it’s very important to take a look right where you are and see what you can do. Cambridge University is involved in supporting the fossil fuel industry. That means it’s getting grants, giving professorships in their name to give them prestige; working for them. That means that the institution that you’re in is working for the destruction of the human race. To quote Greta Thunberg, betraying your future. Well, you can do something about that”. Chomsky views fossil fuel divestment as a concrete action, one that “will hurt the bottom line” but just as importantly a symbolic one “which says, ‘we don’t want to contribute to the destruction of organised human society, and you shouldn’t either’”. In doing so he echoes the words over the past few years of groups like Zero Carbon and Extinction Rebellion Cambridge.
Aside from climate change, he makes a point of foregrounding society-level struggles. “Does Britain have to continue with the project of the Tories and new Labor to destroy the best health system in the world, and to turn it into the worst system in the world?”, he asks, lamenting the effects of the ‘neo-liberal attack’, which “tried to turn it into the US system, which is the worst in the world”. Distraught about the US health system – “the most cruel, expensive, savage form of universal health care that exists” – he advises that “England can go in that direction if it wants, but it doesn’t have to”. In Chomsky’s view it is our responsibility, as the privileged, to take a stand in a period of history which “presents not only an opportunity, but a necessity’ for social change. “In many countries, the choice is hard because you get thrown into jail, you get tortured and so on. It’s tough. Countries like ours, it’s easy. Maybe you’ll get yelled out, or something like that, but not much punishment”.
After the interview, we couldn’t help being left with the feeling that Chomsky’s words had puzzled together what seems like a disparate set of injustices. Whether one agrees with him or not, perhaps it takes a structural linguist to best decipher the structural logic of capitalism. His style of pragmatic anarchism in 2020 has transpired to the launch of Progressive International – a global organisation to ‘unite, organise, and mobilise progressive forces around the world’ – along with Naomi Klein, John McDonnell, Arundhati Roy and many others. Chomsky’s words may make for uncomfortable reading, but it seems that they have never been more important given the challenges he describes. In his view, the choice of human survival lies with us: either we join the fight “or else, sit back and say, ‘OK, I’ll support what’s happening.’ It’s a very simple choice”.