Noam Chomsky on democracy, lockdowns, climate change and nuclear war

Noam Chomsky Interviewed by Ezra Klein, from The New York Times’ Turning Points Series

January 23, 2022. The Herald.

In April, The New York Times podcast “The Ezra Klein Show” spoke with Noam Chomsky, the linguist and social critic. Mr. Chomsky, 92, is the author of more than a hundred books.

If you just know Noam Chomsky as a symbol of a certain kind of leftism or as a critic of American imperialism, you’re going to miss a lot. There’s a coexistence in his arguments of the world he wants to build and then the urgency of what needs to change right now, which includes compromising. He’s a utopian thinker but a very pragmatic actor. There’s a resistance in his thinking to making sweeping pronouncements about how things should or will work in his ideal world because he doesn’t think that’s how change can actually function.

Which is, all to say, there’s a deep independence to Mr. Chomsky’s thinking that I’ve always admired. Whether I agree with the conclusions he comes to or not, he is always and everywhere himself, both when that’s easy and when that’s hard. This is a conversation about both the world Mr. Chomsky wants us to build in the future and why, but also a conversation about the world he hopes we can save right now with all the compromises and imperfections and contradictions that run through it.

The following is a transcript of a conversation between Ezra Klein and Mr. Chomsky on “The Ezra Klein Show.” It has been edited and condensed.

Q: Let me begin with the base of your worldview. What sets human intelligence apart from, say, animal intelligence?

A: Well, there are basically two fundamental things that are species properties of humans, common to the species, no analogue elsewhere. One of them is what we’re now using, language. It’s essentially the core of our being. It sets us totally apart from the animal world. Another species property is, simply, thought. As far as we know, there’s no thinking in the world, or maybe in the universe, in anything comparable to what we have. And the two are closely linked — language is the instrument of thought and the means for formulating thought in our mind, sometimes externalizing at others. These two capacities seem to have emerged together probably about the same time as Homo sapiens. They’re common to all humans, apart from severe pathology. And there are no analogues in the animal world. In fact, there may not be any anywhere, as far as we know.

Q: How does your work on language feed into your understanding of human flourishing, of what humans want?

A: One of the striking things about language, which greatly impressed the founders of the Scientific Revolution — Galileo and his contemporaries — is what is sometimes called the creative aspect of human thought. We are somehow capable of constructing in our minds an unbounded array of meaningful expressions. Mostly, it happens beyond consciousness. Sometimes, it emerges to consciousness. We can use these in a way which is appropriate to situations and constantly in new ways, often which are new in the history of the language in our own history. This creative character through the centuries has been connected speculatively, but not absurdly, to a fundamental instinct for freedom, which is part of our essential nature — resistance to domination and control by illegitimate authorities, a fundamental element of human nature, maybe part of the same creative capacity, which shows up very strikingly in our normal use of language.

Q: If we want freedom and we want creativity, why do we often gravitate toward things that feel like they take those away from us?

A: Well, a lot of it is beaten out of us from childhood. Take a look at children, constantly asking, “Why?” They want explanations; they want to understand things. You go to school, you’re regimented. You’re taught this is the way you’re supposed to behave, not other ways. The institutions of society are constructed so as to reduce, modify and limit the efforts that control one’s own destiny.

Q: You’re an anarchist. How do you define anarchism?

A: Anarchism, the way I understand it, is pretty close to truism. And I think everybody, if they think about it, will accept at least this much. We begin with assuming that any structure of authority and domination has to justify itself. It’s not self-justifying. It has a burden of proof. It has to show that it’s legitimate. If you’re taking a walk with your kid, and the kid runs into the street, and you grab their arm and pull them back, that’s an exercise of authority. But it’s legitimate. You can have a justification, and there are such cases where there is justification. But if you look closely, most of them do not. Most of them are what David Hume, Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann, Adam Smith and others have been talking about over the centuries. Namely, illegitimate authority. Well, illegitimate authorities should be exposed, challenged and overcome. That’s true in all of life.

Q: One of the critiques you’ll hear is that you need a certain amount of hierarchy and organization, which I think in many cases you would call domination, for complex economic levels of structure. So, say, developing and then distributing an mRNA vaccine during a pandemic, you need a certain amount of a true hierarchy for that.

And not everybody can be equal in that decision-making. Somebody needs to run the organization. Somebody needs to run the lab. And that’s difficult if you’re sort of doing every decision sort of from scratch in real time. How do you think about that trade-off between complexity and deliberation?

A: I don’t think it’s a trade-off if it’s done in a free democratic society. A free society can select people to have administrative and other authority to take over parts of the concern for the common good. And they can be recalled, but they’re under popular control. They’re not there because their grandfather built railroads or because they managed to finesse the market so that they ended up with a ton of money. They’re not there for that reason. They’re there because they’re delegated under popular authority, under recall, not any amount of structure of hierarchy and domination you want. You have this in, for example, worker-controlled enterprises, some of them huge.

Take Mondragon, the largest of them, which has been around for about 60 years in Northern Spain — worker-owned, worker-managed, huge conglomerate, industrial production, banks, housing, hospitals, everything. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s based on the fundamental principle of popular democratic control and authorization to carry out managerial functions when needed. And just about any decently functioning research lab in a university works pretty much the same way. Maybe a department chair is chosen to handle the administrative work. If the faculty doesn’t like them, you pick somebody else. These are certainly possible structures of all kinds. They don’t undermine the possibility of organization. In fact, anarchist society should be highly organized, but under popular control of a free, informed community, which can interact without illegitimate forces controlling them.

Q: If it trends back in that direction, how do you keep it from becoming representative democracy again?

A: Representative democracy does not exist. If you had a real representative democracy, then it would be very much like this: The community would select people to carry out this test because they’re good at it or maybe they want it and others don’t; others want something else. But it would be under popular supervision, recall if necessary and constant interaction. So, I think there should be participation at all points. Now, take your own example: distributing a vaccine. People should have some say in this. How do we want it to be done? If somebody refuses to accept the vaccine, what should we do about it? That’s a live problem right now. Almost half of Republicans are going to refuse to accept the vaccine.

What that says is we’ll never get out of the Covid crisis because we’ll never get a level of immunity which will make it kind of like flu, maybe you get a shot every year. But it’s not lethal. We’ll never get to that. Or suppose some individual says, “I’m not going to wear a mask.” What do we do about it? Well, those are problems that the community has to decide on. Suppose somebody says, “I’m not going to obey traffic laws, I don’t like them. I’m going to run through red lights and drive on the left side of the road. I want to be free.” Well, I have to make decisions about that. Saying, “I’m not going to wear a mask” is not very different from that. It says, “I’m going to go out to the shopping mall and if I infect you, it’s your problem.” Communities are going to have to make decisions about things like this.

Q: If we’re back in a system where some people say, “Well, you got to wear masks and be doing a business lockdown,” and other people say, “No, that’s an unfair imposition of dominance over me,” then it sounds to me like we’re sort of talking about more marginal changes to what we have now than, certainly, the word anarchism sounds like.

A: What, would eliminating the job contract be marginal?

Q: So, tell me about that: How would you eliminate the job contract?

A: By the way that 19th-century working people, factory girls and farmers wanted to do it. Participants should run their own enterprises. Groups of farmers should get together and work out ways to run their own cooperative control over marketing and development. People in the service industry should do the same thing. That’s how we should move toward popular control of institutions. That would be a totally different world than the one we live in. It’s not marginal. But you’re quite right that questions of conflict are going to come up all the time.

Can’t help it. Take the happiest family in the world. There’s going to be conflict inside. You figure out ways to resolve them. We wouldn’t even want a world in which there are no conflicts. It would be too boring to live in. There are different opinions, different attitudes, different ideas. That’s how creative work takes place. That’s how changes take place. Life should be structured so that these can be handled in civilized ways, the way it is, say, in a happy family or a well-run enterprise, that decent faculty department, that decent worker-owned industry, lots of structures like that — farmers’ cooperatives, farmers’ associations, many such things. We would like it to be structured as much as possible so that you’re going to have civilized, thoughtful interchange to try to work out the problems that exist.

Q: You’ve described yourself as having a rather conservative attitude toward social change. In what sense is your view of social change conservative?

A: I don’t think that meaningful, constructive social change can take place unless the large majority of the population has come to the realization that modifications of existing systems cannot achieve the kinds of goals they think are right and just. At that point, you can have radical social change. If it’s forced before that, I think it ends up in some kind of authoritarian structure again.

Q: You just wrote a book on this: Do you think the U.S. political system and for that matter, the global political consortiums here, are capable of addressing the climate crisis at the scale and speed we need?

A: Well, there are two answers to that question. If the answer is no, we can say goodbye to each other. It’s as simple as that. We know how to do it. The methods are there. They’re feasible. Discussed in this book, the part of the book that’s written by my co-author, Robert Pollin, a fine economist who has been working on this for years and discusses very feasible methods, many of them now being implemented, which could overcome the crisis in a perfectly feasible way, lead to a better world. Others have done very similar things. Jeff Sachs at Columbia Earth Sciences Institute has somewhat different models. They come out with about the same thing. That can be done. We know it has to be done. Those of us who are willing to face reality know that it has to be done within the next couple of decades. Then comes your question, “Are human beings capable of saving themselves from species suicide?” It’s what it amounts to. I don’t know the answer to that. Nobody does.

Q: What do you think of the degrowth movement?

A: There’s something to it. But solving the climate crisis requires growth. It requires development of alternative energy systems. That’s a huge amount of work. That means reconstruction of buildings and cities. That means efficient mass transportation. All kinds of growth are required. Now, what’s required are the right kinds of growth, not the kind that’s wasteful consumption that you throw away tomorrow, not using non-biodegradable plastics, not destructive agricultural processes, high-fertilizer agricultural processes that are destroying the land. You have to have the right kinds of growth.

Q: Let me ask you about another technology that I’ve heard you say could solve a lot of problems. Automation usually gets thought of in the way you could lose jobs from it. I’ve seen you talk about it in an interestingly optimistic way, that if you could harness the right politics around it, automation could be a way toward a better, more economically dignified future for people. How do you think about automation and its role in the future of the economy?

A: Any on-Earth boring, destructive, dangerous work should be automated to the extent possible. That frees people up to do better work, more creative work, more fulfilling work, safer work. So, that’s all to the good. How automation takes place is a matter of social and economic policy. It can take place in many ways. Let me just mention one important careful study, which showed what the choices are, by a former colleague of mine — the fine historian of technology David Noble, who unfortunately died a couple of years ago. His major work was on the machine tool industry, the core of much of modern industrial capitalism. By the 1950s, the machine tool industry was beginning to be automated. Numerical processing was coming in.

Computers were coming in, ways of potentially changing the machine tool industry using the new tools were coming along. There were two ways to do it. Both ways were experimented with. One way, de-skilled machinists replaced skilled machinists, first of all, by automation, but also by turning the people themselves into robots, who just followed orders and so on. That was one way. The other way to do it was to put more power into the hands of skilled machinists, still using the same technology. As Mr. Noble shows pretty convincingly, there was no economic reason to pick the first way. It was picked, it was picked — that’s the way it was picked, but for power reasons. The ownership management class wants to de-skill people, wants to turn them into subordinate subjects, not independent agents and actors. So, they pick the mode of automation which de-skilled machinists — still around, but not skilled — and turn them into servants, rather than controllers and actors. That happens all the time.

Q: How likely is it, in your view, that a nuclear bomb gets used in combat in the next decade?

A: Well, you can predict with confidence that it won’t be used. Because if it is being used, nobody’s going to be around to care about it. So, nobody will show you that you were wrong. No, I’m exaggerating. That’s a nuclear conflict between major nuclear powers. India and Pakistan could have a nuclear war, which would probably wipe out South Asia, but people would survive elsewhere. If there’s a nuclear war between China and the United States or China and Russia, it’s essentially saying everything is over. I mean, there will be survival, but nobody would want to live in a world of the kind that would survive.

There is an international treaty — just was accepted by the U.N. General Assembly a couple of months ago, the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Prohibition, that means no manufacturing them, no storing them. Prohibition, get rid of them. None of the nuclear states joined the agreement, unfortunately. But if the U.S. wants to demonstrate this leadership role that American intellectuals like to talk about, OK, here’s a way to do it. Let’s take the lead in making efforts to move toward accepting the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. I mean, I should say that’s not an extreme position. It’s been advocated by people like Henry Kissinger; George Shultz, late Secretary of State under Reagan; Sam Nunn; people who’ve been right at the heart of the nuclear weapon system. They understand that you can’t have a nuclear war. And we’ve got to make moves toward eliminating. There’s another way to do it, a very significant way — establish nuclear weapon free zones around the world. Doesn’t end the problem, but it limits it. And it also indicates symbolically, which is not insignificant, that we want to opt out of this. It’s totally wrong. We don’t want to be part of it.