CJ Polychroniou: Noam, the decline of democracy as a reflection of political apathy is evident in both the United States and in Europe, and the explanation provided in Who Rules the World? is that this phenomenon is linked to the fact that most people throughout Western societies are “convinced that a few big interests control policy.” This is obviously true, but wasn’t this always the case? I mean, people always knew that policymaking was in the hands of the elite, but this did not stop them in the past from seeking to influence political outcomes through the ballot box and other means. So, what specific factors might explain political apathy in our own age?
Noam Chomsky: “Resignation” may be a better term than “apathy,” and even that goes too far, I think.
Since the early 1980s, polls in the US have shown that most people believe that the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves… I do not know of earlier polls, or polls in other countries, but it would not be surprising if the results are similar. The important question is: are people motivated to do something about it? That depends on many factors, crucially including the means that they perceive to be available. It’s the task of serious activists to help develop those means and encourage people to understand that they are available. Two hundred and fifty years ago, in one of the first modern works of political theory, David Hume observed that “power is in the hands of the governed,” if they only choose to exercise it, and ultimately, it is “by opinion only” — that is, by doctrine and propaganda — that they are prevented from exercising power. That can be overcome, and often has been.
Thirty-five years ago, political scientist Walter Dean Burnham identified “the total absence of a socialist or laborite mass party as an organized competitor in the electoral market” as a primary cause of the high rate of abstention in US elections. Traditionally, the labor movement and labor-based parties have played a leading role in offering ways to “influence political outcomes” within the electoral system and on the streets and shop floor. That capacity has declined significantly under neoliberal assault, which enhanced the bitter war waged against unions by the business classes throughout the postwar period.
In 1978, before Reagan’s escalation of the attack against labor, United Auto Workers President Doug Fraser recognized what was happening — far too late — and criticized the “leaders of the business community” for having “chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country — a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and for having “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress.” The union leadership had placed their faith — partly for their own benefit as a labor bureaucracy — in a compact with owners and managers during the postwar growth and high profits period that had come to an end by the 1970s. By then, the powerful attack on labor had already taken a severe toll and it has gotten much more extreme since, particularly since the radically anti-labor Reagan administration.
The Democrats, meanwhile, pretty much abandoned the working class. Independent political parties have been very marginal, and political activism, while widespread, has [often] … sidelined class issues and offered little to the white working class, which is now drifting into the hands of their class enemy. In Europe, functioning democracy has steadily declined as major policy decisions are transferred to the Brussels bureaucracy of the EU, operating under the shadow of northern banks. But there are many popular reactions, some self-destructive (racing into the hands of the class enemy) and others quite promising and productive, as we see in current political campaigns in the US and Europe.
CJP: In your book, you refer to the “invisible hands of power.” What is the exact meaning of this, and to what situations and circumstances can it be applied in order to understand domestic and global political developments?
NC: I was using the phrase to refer to the guiding doctrines of policy formation, sometimes spelled out in the documentary record, sometimes easily detectable in ongoing events. There are many examples in international and domestic affairs. Sometimes the clouds are lifted by high-level disclosures or by significant historical events. The real nature of the Cold War, for example, was considerably illuminated when the Soviet Union collapsed and it was no longer possible to proclaim simply that the Russians are coming. That provided an interesting test of the real motives of policy formation, hidden by Cold War pretexts [that were suddenly] gone.
We learn from Bush I administration documents, for example, that we must keep intervention forces aimed at the Middle East, where the serious threats to our interests “could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door,” contrary to long deceit. Rather, the serious problems trace to “radical nationalism,” the term regularly used for independent nationalism that is under control. That is actual a major theme of the Cold War, masked by posturing about the Great Enemy.
The fate of NATO is also revealing. It was constructed and maintained in alleged defense against the Russian hordes. By 1991, [there were] no more Russian hordes, no Warsaw Pact, and Mikhail Gorbachev was proposing a broad security system with no military pacts. What happened to NATO? It expanded to the East in violation of commitments to Gorbachev by President Bush I and Secretary of State James Baker that appear to have been consciously intended to deceive him and to gain his acquiescence to a unified Germany within NATO, so recent archival work persuasively indicates.
To move to another domain, the free-market capitalism extolled in doctrine was illustrated by an IMF study of major banks, which showed that their profits derived mostly from an implicit taxpayer insurance policy.
Examples abound, and are highly instructive.
CJP: Since the end of the Second World War, capitalism throughout the West — and in fact throughout the globe — has managed to maintain and expand its domination not merely through political and psychological means but also through the use of the repressive apparatus of the state, including the military. Can you talk a little bit about this in connection with the theme of “who rules the world”?
NC: The “mailed fist” [the threat of armed or overbearing force] is not lacking even within the most free societies. In the postwar US, the most striking example is COINTELPRO, a program run by the national political police (FBI) to stamp out dissidence and activism over a broad range, reaching as far as political assassination (Black Panther organizer Fred Hampton). Massive incarceration of populations [deemed] superfluous for profit-making (largely African-American, for obvious historical reasons) is yet another means.
Abroad, the fist is constantly wielded, directly or through clients. The Indochina wars are the most extreme case, the worst postwar 20th-century crime, criticized in the mainstream as a “blunder,” like the invasion of Iraq, the worst crime of the new century. One highly significant postwar example is the plague of violent repression that spread through Latin America after JFK effectively shifted the mission of the Latin America military from “hemispheric defense” to “internal security,” a euphemism for war against the population. There were horrendous effects throughout the hemisphere, reaching Central America with Reagan’s murderous wars, mostly relying on the terrorist forces of client states.
CJP: While still the world’s predominant power, there is no doubt that the US is in decline. What are the causes and consequences of American decline?
NC: US power peaked, at a historically unprecedented level, at the end of World War II. That couldn’t possibly be sustained. It began to erode very soon with what is called, interestingly, “the loss of China” [the transformation of China into a communist nation in 1949]. And the process continued with the reconstruction of industrial societies from wartime devastation and decolonization. One reflection of the decline is the shift of attitudes toward the UN. It was greatly admired when it was hardly more than an instrument of US power in the early postwar years, but increasingly came under attack as “anti-American” as it fell out of control — so far out of control that the US has held the record in vetoes after 1970, when it joined Britain in support of the racist regime of Southern Rhodesia. By then, the global economy was tripartite: German-based Europe, Japan-based East Asia, and US-based North America.
In the military dimension, the US has remained supreme. There are many consequences. One is resort to “coalitions of the willing” when international opinion overwhelmingly opposes US resort to violence, even among allies, as in the case of the invasion of Iraq. Another is “soft coups,” as right now in Brazil, rather than support for neo-Nazi National Security States as was true in the not-distant past.
CJP: If the US is still the world’s first superpower, what country or entity do you consider to be the second superpower?
NC: There is much talk of China as the emerging superpower. According to many analysts, it is poised to overtake the US. There is no doubt of China’s emerging significance in the world scene, already surpassing the US economically by some measures (though far below per capita). Military, China is far weaker; confrontations are taking place in coastal waters near China, not in the Caribbean or off the coast of California. But China faces very serious internal problems — labor repression and protest, severe ecological threats, demographic decline in work force, and others. And the economy, while booming, is still highly dependent on the more advanced industrial economies at its periphery and the West, though that is changing, and in some high-tech domains, such as design and development of solar panels, China seems to have the world lead. As China is hemmed in from the sea, it is compensating by extending westward, reconstructing something like the old silk roads in a Eurasian system largely under Chinese influence and soon to reach Europe.
CJP: You have been arguing for a long time now that nuclear weapons pose one of the two greatest threats to humankind. Why are the major powers so reluctant to abolish nuclear weapons? Doesn’t the very existence of these weapons pose a threat to the existence of the “‘masters of the universe” themselves?
NC: It is quite remarkable to see how little concern top planners show for the prospects of their own destruction — not a novelty in world affairs (those who initiated wars often ended up devastated) but now on a hugely different scale. We see that from the earliest days of the atomic age. The US at first was virtually invulnerable, though there was one serious threat on the horizon: ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] with hydrogen bomb warheads. Archival research has now confirmed what was surmised earlier: there was no plan, not even a thought, of reaching a treaty agreement that would have banned these weapons, though there is good reason to believe that it might have been feasible. The same attitudes prevail right to the present, where the vast buildup of forces right at the traditional invasion route into Russia is posing a serious threat of nuclear war.
Planners explain quite lucidly why it is so important to keep these weapons. One of the clearest explanations is in a partially declassified Clinton-era document issued by the Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which is in charge of nuclear weapons policy and use. The document is called Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence; the term “deterrence,” like “defense,” is a familiar Orwellism referring to coercion and attack. The document explains that “nuclear weapons always cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict,” and must therefore be available, at the ready. If the adversary knows we have them, and might use them, they may back down — a regular feature of Kissingerian diplomacy. In that sense, nuclear weapons are constantly being used, a point that Dan Ellsberg has insistently made, just as we are using a gun when we rob a store but don’t actually shoot. One section of the report is headed: “Maintaining Ambiguity.” It advises that “planners should not be too rational about determining…what the opponent values the most,” which must be targeted.
“That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project,” [the report says, adding that] it is “beneficial” for our strategic posture if “some elements may appear to be potentially `out of control’.” Nixon’s madman theory, except this time clearly articulated in an internal planning document, not merely a recollection by an adviser (Haldeman, in the Nixon case).
Like other early post-Cold War documents, this one has been virtually ignored. (I’ve referred to it a number of times, eliciting no notice that I’m aware of.) The neglect is quite interesting. Simple logic suffices to show that the documentary record after the alleged Russian threat disappeared would be highly illuminating as to what was actually going on before.
CJP: The Obama administration has made some openings towards Cuba. Do you anticipate an end to the embargo any time soon?
NC: The embargo has long been opposed by the entire world, as the annual votes on the embargo at the UN General Assembly reveal. By now the US is supported only by Israel. Before it could sometimes count on a Pacific island or some other dependency. Of course Latin America is completely opposed. More interestingly, major sectors of US capital have long been in favor of normalization of relations, as public opinion has been: agribusiness, pharmaceuticals, energy, tourism and others. It is normal for public opinion to be ignored, but dismissing powerful concentrations of the business world tells us that really significant “reasons of state” are involved. We have a good sense from the internal record about what these interests are.
From the Kennedy years until today there has been outrage over Cuba’s “successful defiance” of US policies going back to the Monroe Doctrine, which signaled the intention to control the hemisphere. The goal was not realizable because of relative weakness, just as the British deterrent prevented the US from attaining its first “foreign policy” objective, the conquest of Cuba, in the 1820s (here the term “foreign policy” is used in the conventional sense, which adheres to what historian of imperialism Bernard Porter calls “the salt water fallacy”: conquest only becomes imperial only when it crosses salt water, so the destruction of the Indian nations and the conquest of half of Mexico were not “imperialism”). The US did achieve its objective in 1898, intervening to prevent Cuba’s liberation from Spain and converting it into a virtual colony.
Washington has never reconciled itself to Cuba’s intolerable arrogance of achieving independence in 1959 — partial, since the US refused to return the valuable Guantanamo Bay region, taken by “Treaty” at gunpoint in 1903 and not returned despite the requests of the government of Cuba. In passing, it might be recalled that by far the worst human rights violations in Cuba take place in this stolen territory, to which the US has a much weaker claim than Russia does to Crimea, also taken by force.
But to return to the question, it is hard to predict whether the US will agree to end the embargo short of some kind of Cuban capitulation to US demands going back almost 200 years.
CJP: How do you assess and evaluate the historical significance and impact of the Cuban revolution in world affairs and toward the realization of socialism?
NC: The impact on world affairs was extraordinary. For one thing, Cuba played a very significant role in [the] liberation of West and South Africa. Its troops beat back a US-supported South African invasion of Angola and compelled South Africa to abandon its attempt to establish a regional support system and to give up its illegal hold on Namibia. The fact that Black Cuban troops defeated the South Africans had an enormous psychological impact both in white and Black Africa. A remarkable exercise of dedicated internationalism, undertaken at great risk from the reigning superpower, which was the last supporter of apartheid South Africa, and entirely selfless. Small wonder that when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, one of his first acts was to declare:
During all my years in prison, Cuba was an inspiration and Fidel Castro a tower of strength… [Cuban victories] destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa … a turning point for the liberation of our continent — and of my people — from the scourge of apartheid … What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?
Cuban medical assistance in poor and suffering areas is also quite unique.
Domestically, there were very significant achievements, among them simply survival in the face of US efforts to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba (historian Arthur Schlesinger’s phrase, in his biography of Robert Kennedy, who was assigned this task as his highest priority) and the fierce embargo. Literacy campaigns were highly successful, and the health system is justly renowned. There are serious human rights violations, and restrictions of political and personal freedoms. How much is attributable to the external attack and how much to independent policy choices, one can debate — but for Americans to condemn violations without full recognition of their own massive responsibility gives hypocrisy a new meaning.
CJP: Does the US remain the world’s leading supporter of terrorism?
NC: A review of several recent books on Obama’s global assassination (drone) campaign in the American Journal of International Law concludes that there is a “persuasive case” that the campaign is “unlawful”: “U.S. drone attacks generally violate international law, worsen the problem of terrorism, and transgress fundamental moral principles” — a judicious assessment, I believe. The details of the cold and calculated presidential killing machine are harrowing, as is the attempt at legal justification, such as the stand of Obama’s Justice Department on “presumption of innocence,” a foundation stone of modern law tracing back to the Magna Carta 800 years ago. As the stand was explained in the New York Times, “Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It, in effect, counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent” — post-assassination. In large areas of tribal Pakistan and Yemen, and elsewhere, populations are traumatized by the fear of sudden murder from the skies at any moment. The distinguished anthropologist Akbar Ahmed, with long professional and personal experience with the tribal societies that are under attack all over the world, forcefully recounts how these murderous assaults elicit dedication to revenge — not very surprisingly. How would we react?
These campaigns alone, I think, secure the trophy for the US.
CJP: Historically, under capitalism, plundering the poor and the natural resources of weak nations has been the favorite hobby of both the rich and of imperial states. In the past, the plundering was done mostly through outright physical exploitation means and military conquest. How have the means of exploitation changed under financial capitalism?
NC: Secretary of State John Foster Dulles once complained to President Eisenhower that the Communists have an unfair advantage. They can “appeal directly to the masses” and “get control of mass movements, something we have no capacity to duplicate. The poor people are the ones they appeal to and they have always wanted to plunder the rich.” It’s not easy to sell the principle that the rich have a right to plunder the poor.
It’s true that the means have changed. The international “free trade agreements” (FTAs) are a good example, including those now being negotiated — mostly in secret from populations, but not from the corporate lawyers and lobbyists who are writing the details. The FTAs reject “free trade”: they are highly protectionist, with onerous patent regulations to guarantee exorbitant profits for the pharmaceutical industry, media conglomerates, and others, as well as protection for affluent professionals, unlike working people, who are placed in competition all of the world, with obvious consequences. The FTAs are to a large extent not even about trade; rather, about investor rights, such as the rights of corporations (not of course mere people of flesh and blood) to sue governments for actions that might reduce potential profits of foreign investors, like environmental or healthy and safety regulations. Much of what is called “trade” doesn’t merit that term, for example, production of parts in Indiana, assembly in Mexico, sale in California, all basically within a command economy, a megacorporation. Flow of capital is free. Flow of labor is anything but, violating what Adam Smith recognized to be a basic principle of free trade: free circulation of labor. And to top it off, the FTAs are not even agreements, at least if people are considered to be members of democratic societies.
Is this to say that we now live in a post-imperialist age?
Seems to me just a question of terminology. Domination and coercion take many and varied forms, as the world changes.
CJP: We have seen in recent years several so-called progressive leaders march to power through the ballot box only to betray their vows to the people the moment they took office. What means or mechanisms should be introduced in truly democratic systems to ensure that elected officials do not betray the trust of the voters? For example, the ancient Athenians had conceived of something called “the right to recall,” which in the 19th century became a critical although little known element in the political project for future social and political order of certain socialist movements. Are you in favor of reviving this mechanism as a critical component of real, sustainable democracy?
NC: I think a strong case can be made for right of recall in some form, buttressed by capacities for free and independent inquiry to monitor what elected representatives are doing. The great achievement of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and other contemporary “whistleblowers” is to serve and advance these fundamental rights of citizens. The reaction by state authorities is instructive. As well-known, the Obama administration has broken all records in punishment of whistleblowers. It is also remarkable to see how intimidated Europe is. We saw that dramatically when Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane flew home from a visit to Moscow, and European countries were in such terror of Washington that they would not let the plane cross their airspace, in case it might be carrying Edward Snowden, and when the plane landed in Austria it was searched by police in violation of diplomatic protocol.
CJP: Could an act of terrorism against leaders who blatantly betrayed the trust of voters ever be justified?
NC: “Ever” is a strong word. It is hard to conjure up realistic circumstances. The burden of proof for any resort to violence should be very heavy, and this case would seem extremely hard to justify.
CJP: With human nature being what it is, and individuals clearly having different skills, abilities, drives and aspirations, is a truly egalitarian society feasible and/or desirable?
NC: Human nature encompasses saints and sinners, and each of us has all of these capacities. I see no conflict at all between an egalitarian vision and human variety. One could, perhaps, argue that those with greater skills and talents are already rewarded by the ability to exercise them, so they merit less external reward — though I don’t argue this. As for the feasibility of more just and free social institutions and practices, we can never be certain in advance, and can only keep trying to press the limits as much as possible, with no clear reason that I can see to anticipate failure.
CJP: In your view, what would constitute a decent society and what form of a world order would be needed to eliminate completely questions about who rules the world?
NC: We can construct visions of “perpetual peace,” carrying forward the Kantian project, and of a society of free and creative individuals not subjected to hierarchy, domination, arbitrary rule and decision. In my own view — respected friends and comrades in struggle disagree — we do not know enough to spell out details with much confidence, and can anticipate that considerable experimentation will be necessary along the way. There are very urgent immediate tasks, not least dealing with literal questions of survival of organized human societies, questions that have never risen before in human history but are inescapable right now. And there are many other tasks that demand immediate and dedicated work. It makes good sense to keep in mind longer-term aspirations as guidelines for immediate choices, recognizing as well that the guidelines are not immutable. That leaves us plenty to do.