At 92, Noam Chomsky remains a political activist. In recent interviews and in a new book, Chomsky for Activists, he takes stock of his own political involvement going back to the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, and offers lessons and warnings for today’s activists.
Chomsky has always contended that intellectuals should play an antagonistic role in society. His 1967 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” offered a devastating critique of the complicity of intellectuals and policy bureaucrats in the Vietnam disaster, advising that Americans should “follow the path of integrity, wherever it may lead.”
Characterized by many conservatives and some on the left as cavalier in his criticism of the United States, he has not wavered from critiquing American moral complacency and misuse of power.
A pioneer in linguistic theory and language development at MIT for over 60 years, Chomsky has devoted most of his time to writing and political work. Speaking by phone from his home in Tucson, Arizona, he told Capital & Main, “If you think there is a serious problem and you know that you can do something about it, then it follows on simple ethical grounds that you should do what you can do — which means become an activist.” The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Capital & Main: In reading Chomsky for Activists I was struck by how encouraged you are about the positive change that has taken place since the 1960s.
Noam Chomsky: In the past the United States had anti-miscegenation laws that were so extreme that the Nazis were not willing to go as far as we did here. African Americans were cut out of property wealth because they couldn’t get into housing. [Until] the ’60s there was no environmental movement and there was no opposition to aggression. It took very hard work up until the late ’60s to organize any opposition to Vietnam, the worst crime that was committed after the Second World War. By the time we got to the Iraq War the opposition to aggression was so extreme, the war was vigorously protested before it was even launched. This happened through dedicated activist work.
You point out that certain types of movements for social change are more successful than others.
Today, compare Black Lives Matter with antifa. Antifa is a losing proposition and a gift to the right wing. Black Lives Matter, in contrast, was an astonishingly successful movement, the solidarity of black and white supported by an overwhelming majority of the population. That was the result of many years of activist organizing.
To what do you attribute Donald Trump’s enduring political popularity?
Trump was a very successful confidence man. During the last 40 years the top fraction of 1% doubled their wealth from 10% to 20% of total U.S. wealth. People may not know these numbers, but they do know that real wages are actually lower today than in 1979. All of this leads to anger and a desire for change. One possible form of change is roughly along moderately social-democratic lines — basically the Bernie Sanders movement. The other form of social change is what Trump advocated, which [led] to further enrich the already very rich.
President Biden has rejoined the Paris climate accord, pushed through a massive stimulus plan and put forward a large infrastructure plan with significant green elements. And he came out swinging for labor in the Amazon vote in Alabama. He is doing everything right, correct?
Some of the things you mention, yes. And on some, Biden is partially right. The domestic stimulus bill passed over 100% Republican opposition — that was right. He moved in that direction under the impact of very intensive activist work. With the climate policies, under significant activist pressure Biden did put forward a moderately reasonable climate program, better than anything that preceded it.
You put most, if not all, of your emphasis and analysis on the activists pushing politicians in a particular direction, as if the latter have no political values themselves. What about the actual skills a politician must have to consolidate legislative achievements?
Let’s take Biden’s climate policy. If you look into the background there has been activist pressure for years for doing something to save the species from extinction and to do some kind of Green New Deal. This was totally off the agenda a couple of years ago. Activists went as far as occupying congressional offices and got support from young leaders who came into Congress on the Sanders wave. Out of that comes Biden’s program. Now, you’re right — it takes skills that turn it into a legislative program. But those skills are not going to be exercised unless there is pressure from the grassroots to make it happen.
Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, says he is in favor of Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights. Yet the one progressive cause he will not support is the right to have a union in any of his workplaces.
If you want to know about his attitude towards women, take a look at an Amazon warehouse. Working conditions are horrendous. If you want to see his attitudes towards working people, take a look at the people who do deliveries. His system is carefully constructed so that the drivers delivering goods are not his employees. They are run by small companies that contract to Amazon, which means that they can have horrible wages and surveillance to make sure that drivers race as fast as possible to where they are going. And Jeff Bezos can say, “I don’t know anything about it; they are not my employees.” Bezos opposes unions because they are the one way in which workers can defend themselves from predators like Jeff Bezos.
Your book What Kind of Creatures Are We? has a chapter on the common good, in which you write about what you call the “libertarian socialist” tradition. Is this the tradition you primarily identify with?
Yes, all my life. Libertarian socialist is the European term. In the United States it’s a variety of anarchism. Libertarian socialism says that enterprises ought to be owned and managed in a democratic fashion by the people who participate in them. Our current system is totalitarian. Orders come from the top and they are transmitted down, and at the very bottom you are allowed to rent yourself to survive. It’s called taking a job.
Large bureaucracies obviously have their flaws. But with the problems we face, it seems like we need a robust and active government and an international approach as well to confront these issues.
Global warming has no boundaries. The pandemic has no boundaries. The spread of nuclear weapons — no boundaries. Which means we must have international solidarity and cooperation. The question is, what kind of structure would carry this out? Will it be authoritarian, with control from above and other people obeying, or should it be democratic, with popular participation at every level from the community and workplace to larger associations?
You’ve written a lot about how the media operates. On the right there’s Fox News, along with QAnon, both of which encourage people to believe that all institutions are essentially corrupt. Did part of the left’s critical approach also contribute to a distrust of the media and our political institutions?
The left, including me, have been highly critical of the media for a long time. It’s not that they tell lies. It’s that the institutional structure of the media leads to the framing of news and choice of topics, which gives you a distorted picture of the world in many respects. The kind of critique you are talking about with QAnon has a basis in that lots of people’s lives have really been harmed. Take a trip through rural America where independent farmers are mostly gone. Go through rural towns where houses are for sale and businesses are boarded up. When you have conditions like that, people get angry and resentful.
The growth of QAnon does not seem to me to be reducible to economics, but rather stems from a psychological need to feel that you have access to esoteric knowledge that renders you special.
Right, you did not find that type of thing when I was a child in the ’30s, when the labor movement was organizing. There was a sense that we could move ahead together. You get QAnon when people see things falling apart. That’s the difference between organized, effective activism and a society in dissolution.
What I was suggesting is that when both right and left assert that our major social and political institutions are primarily repositories of malevolent power, this can be very corrosive for a society.
Well, that’s not my position. With Biden, for instance, there are very positive aspects to his program. To the extent that an organized, informed, dedicated public can influence policy, you can get institutions that are responsive to people’s needs. Like the New Deal that changed lives enormously. The administration was responsive to organized popular pressures. It’s not that the institutions are necessarily malevolent, but if they are dependent upon unaccountable private power, yes, of course they are going to be malevolent.
In 2008 you gave a talk where you pointed to three things that might threaten the planet: nuclear war, environmental catastrophe and a potential pandemic. With respect to a possible pandemic, were you just reading what was available in the scientific literature at the time?
I should confess an error that I regret seriously. I didn’t stress enough the seriousness of pandemics. It was known in 2003 after the SARS epidemic was contained in Asia and scientists were warning that we are going to face similar, maybe worse, pandemics and we’d better do something about it. The drug companies weren’t interested as it was not profitable. Trump dismantled the Obama pandemic response program. He began to defund the Centers for Disease Control. People like me should have been talking loudly and strongly about this. I didn’t and others didn’t, and it’s part of the reason that the U.S. has such a rotten record of response compared to other countries.
You’ve been a keen observer of our country for a long time. Is it possible to see an outline of the future by examining the past?
Sure, if we see a constant struggle — kind of a class struggle in general terms — between concentrations of wealth and power, and popular forces that are trying to move towards more freedom and justice. And we see them right now, right in front of our eyes. So, we will, sooner or later, overcome the pandemic at a terrible and needless cost. And then comes the question, What kind of a world will there be? Those who created the neo-liberal disaster from which much of this derives are working relentlessly to ensure that that kind of structure remains. Other forces want to move towards genuine internationalism, mutual support and more democratic control. Human affairs depend very much on choice and will. We know what can be done and should be done. The question is, will we be able to do it?
I have not come across many references in your writings to literature or poetry. Do you believe that literature and poetry are sources of our understanding human beings, and if so, who are the novelists and poets you admire?
As I’ve said often, we learn more about human beings and their nature from 19th-century novels than we do from academic psychology. It’s a way we not only enrich our lives, but enrich our understanding and conception of what it is to live a good life. Literature, arts, music or painting are some of the most profound ways we come to understand what we are and what we could be.