Interview with US political activist and philosopher Noam Chomsky
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Noam Chomsky is a professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Linguistics and Philosophy. At the age of 40 he was credited with revolutionizing the field of modern linguistics. He was one of the first opponents of the Vietnam War, and is a self described Libertarian Socialist. At age 80 he continues to write books; his latest book, Hegemony or Survival, was a bestseller in non-fiction. According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index Professor Chomsky is the eighth most cited scholar of all time.
On March 13, Professor Chomsky sat down with Michael Dranove for an interview in his MIT office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
((Michael Dranove)) I just wanted to know if you had any thoughts on recent NATO actions and the protests coming up at the 60th NATO conference, I know you’re speaking at the counter-conference.
Could be I give so many talks I can’t remember (laughs).
On the NATO conference, well I mean the obvious question is why should NATO exist? In fact you can ask questions about why it should ever have existed, but now why should it exist. I mean the theory was, whether you believe it or not, that it would be a defensive alliance against potential Soviet aggression, that’s the basic doctrine. Well there’s no defense against Soviet aggression, so whether you believe that doctrine or not that’s gone.
When the Soviet Union collapsed there had been an agreement, a recent agreement, between Gorbachev and the U.S government and the first Bush administration. The agreement was that Gorbachev agreed to a quite remarkable concession: he agreed to let a united Germany join the NATO military alliance. Now it is remarkable in the light of history, the history of the past century, Germany alone had virtually destroyed Russia, twice, and Germany backed by a hostile military alliance, centered in the most phenomenal military power in history, that’s a real threat. Nevertheless he agreed, but there was a quid pro quo, namely that NATO should not expand to the east, so Russia would at least have a kind of security zone. And George Bush and James Baker, secretary of state, agreed that NATO would not expand one inch to the east. Gorbachev also proposed a nuclear free weapons zone in the region, but the U.S wouldn’t consider that.
Okay, so that was the basis on which then shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed. Well, Clinton came into office what did he do? Well one of the first things he did was to back down on the promise of not expanding NATO to the east. Well that’s a significant threat to the Soviet Union, to Russia now that there was no longer any Soviet Union, it was a significant threat to Russia and not surprisingly they responded by beefing up their offensive capacity, not much but some. So they rescinded their pledge not to use nuclear weapons on first strike, NATO had never rescinded it, but they had and started some remilitarization. With Bush, the aggressive militarism of the Bush administration, as predicted, induced Russia to extend further its offensive military capacity; it’s still going on right now. When Bush proposed the missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, Poland and Czechoslovakia, it was a real provocation to the Soviet Union. I mean that was discussed in U.S arms control journals, that they would have to regard as a potential threat to their strategic deterrent, meaning as a first strike weapon. And the claim was that it had to do with Iranian missiles, but forget about that.
|Why should we even be debating NATO, is there any reason why it should exist?|
Take say on Obama, Obama’s national security advisor James Jones former Marine commandant is on record of favoring expansion of NATO to the south and the east, further expansion of NATO, and also making it an intervention force. And the head of NATO, Hoop Scheffer, he has explained that NATO must take on responsibility for ensuring the security of pipelines and sea lanes, that is NATO must be a guarantor of energy supplies for the West. Well that’s kind of an unending war, so do we want NATO to exist, do we want there to be a Western military alliance that carries out these activities, with no pretense of defense? Well I think that’s a pretty good question; I don’t see why it should, I mean there happens to be no other military alliance remotely comparable — if there happened to be one I’d be opposed to that too. So I think the first question is, what is this all about, why should we even be debating NATO, is there any reason why it should exist?
((Michael Dranove)) We’ve seen mass strikes all around the world, in countries that we wouldn’t expect it. Do think this is a revival of the Left in the West? Or do you think it’s nothing?
It’s really hard to tell. I mean there’s certainly signs of it, and in the United States too, in fact we had a sit down strike in the United States not long ago, which is a very militant labor action. Sit down strikes which began at a significant level in the 1930’s were very threatening to management and ownership, because the sit down strike is one step before workers taking over the factory and running it and kicking out the management, and probably doing a better job. So that’s a frightening idea, and police were called in and so on. Well we just had one in the United States at the Republic Windows and Doors Factory, it’s hard to know, I mean these things are just hard to predict, they may take off, and they may take on a broader scope, they may fizzle away or be diverted.
((Michael Dranove)) Obama has said he’s going to halve the budget. Do you think it’s a little reminiscent of Clinton right before he decided to institute welfare reform, basically destroying half of welfare, do you think Obama is going to take the same course?
There’s nothing much in his budget to suggest otherwise, I mean for example, he didn’t really say much about it, about the welfare system, but he did indicate that they are going to have to reconsider Social Security. Well there’s nothing much about social security that needs reconsideration, it’s in pretty good financial shape, probably as good as it's been in its history, it's pretty well guaranteed for decades in advance. As long as any of the famous baby boomers are around social Security will be completely adequate. So its not for them, contrary to what’s being said. If there is a long term problem, which there probably is, there are minor adjustments that could take care of things.
So why bring up Social Security at all? If it’s an issue at all it’s a very minor one. I suspect the reason for bringing it up is, Social Security is regarded as a real threat by power centers, not because of what it does, very efficient low administrative costs, but for two reasons. One reason is that it helps the wrong people. It helps mostly poor people and disabled people and so on, so that’s kind of already wrong, even though it has a regressive tax. But I think a deeper reason is that social security is based on an idea that power centers find extremely disturbing, namely solidarity, concern for others, community, and so on.
|If people have a commitment to solidarity, mutual aid, support, and so on, that’s dangerous because that could lead to concern for other things.|
The fundamental idea of Social Security is that we care about whether the disabled widow across town has food to eat. And that kind of idea has to be driven out of people’s heads. If people have a commitment to solidarity, mutual aid, support, and so on, that’s dangerous because that could lead to concern for other things. Like, it’s well known, for example, that markets just don’t provide lots of options, which today are crucial options. So for example, markets today permit you to buy one brand of car or another. But a market doesn’t permit you to decide "I don’t want a car, I want a public transportation system". That’s just not a choice made available on the market. And the same is true on a wide range of other issues of social significance, like whether to help the disabled widow across town. Okay, that’s what communities decide, that’s what democracy is about, that’s what social solidarity is about and mutual aid, and building institutions by people for the benefit of people. And that threatens the system of domination and control right at the heart, so there’s a constant attack on Social Security even though the pretexts aren’t worth paying attention to.
There are other questions on the budget; the budget is called redistributive, I mean, very marginally it is so, but the way it is redistributive to the extent that it is, is by slightly increasing the tax responsibility to the extremely wealthy. Top couple of percent, and the increase is very marginal, doesn’t get anywhere near where it was during the periods of high growth rate and so on. So that’s slightly redistributive, but there are other ways to be redistributive, which are more effective, for example allowing workers to unionize. It’s well known that where workers are allowed to unionize and most of them want to, that does lead to wages, better working conditions, benefits and so on, which is redistributive and also helps turn working people into more of a political force. And instead of being atomized and separated they’re working to together in principle, not that humans function so wonderfully, but at least it’s a move in that direction. And there is a potential legislation on the table that would help unionize, the Employee Free Choice Act. Which Obama has said he’s in favor of, but there’s nothing about it in the budget, in fact there’s nothing in the budget at all as far as I can tell about improving opportunities to unionize, which is an effective redistributive goal.
And there’s a debate right now, it happens to be in this morning's paper if Obama’s being accused by Democrats, in fact particularly by Democrats, of taking on too much. Well actually he hasn’t taken on very much, the stimulus package; I mean anybody would have tried to work that out with a little variation. And the same with the bailouts which you can like or not, but any President is going to do it. What is claimed is that he’s adding on to it health care reform, which will be very expensive, another hundreds of billions of dollars, and it’s just not the time to do that. I mean, why would health care reform be more expensive? Well it depends which options you pick. If the healthcare reforms maintain the privatized system, yeah, it’s going to be very expensive because it's a hopelessly inefficient system, it's very costly, its administrative costs are far greater than Medicare, the government run system. So what that means is that he’s going to maintain a system which we know is inefficient, has poor outcomes, but is a great benefit to insurance companies, financial institutions, the pharmaceutical industry and so on. So it can save money, health care reform can be a method of deficit reduction. Namely by moving to an efficient system that provides health care to everyone, but that’s hardly talked about, its advocates are on the margins and its main advocates aren’t even included in the groups that are discussing it.
And if you look through it case after case there are a lot of questions like that. I mean, take unionization again, this isn’t in the budget but take an example. Obama, a couple of weeks ago, wanted to make a gesture to show his solidarity with the labor movement, which workers, well that’s different (chuckles) with the workers not the labor movement. And he went to go visit an industrial plant in Illinois, the plant was owned by Caterpillar. There was some protest over that, by human rights groups, church groups, and others because of Caterpillar’s really brutal role in destroying what’s left of Palestine. These were real weapons of mass destruction, so there were protests but he went anyway. However, there was a much deeper issue which hasn’t even been raised, which is a comment on our deep ideological indoctrination. I mean Caterpillar was the first industrial organization to resort to scabs, strikebreakers, to break a major strike. This was in the 1980’s, Reagan had already opened the doors with the air controllers, but this is the first in the manufacturing industry to do it. That hadn’t been done in generations. In fact, it was illegal in every industrial country except apartheid South Africa. But that was Caterpillar’s achievement helping to destroy a union by calling in scabs, and if you call in scabs forget about strikes, in other words, or any other labor action. Well that’s the plant Obama went to visit. It’s possible he didn’t know, because the level of indoctrination in our society is so profound that most people wouldn’t even know that. Still I think that it’s instructive, if you’re interested in doing something redistributive, you don’t go to a plant that made labor history by breaking the principle that you can’t break strikes with scabs.
((Michael Dranove)) I live out in Georgia, and a lot of people there are ultra-right wing Ron Paul Libertarians. They’re extremely cynical. Is there any way for people on the left to reach out to them?
I think what you have to do is ask, what makes them Ron Paul Libertarians? I don’t happen to think that makes a lot of sense, but nevertheless underlying it are feelings that do make sense. I mean the feeling for example that the government is our enemy. It’s a very widespread feeling, in fact, that’s been induced by propaganda as well.
So pretty soon it will be April 15th, and the people in your neighborhood are going to have to send in their income taxes. The way they’re going to look at it, and the way they’ve been trained to look at it is that there is some alien force, like maybe from Mars, that is stealing our hard earned money from us and giving it to the government. Okay, well, that would be true in a totalitarian state, but if you had a democratic society you’d look at it the other way around You’d say "great, it's April 15th, we’re all going to contribute to implement the plans that we jointly decided on for the benefit of all of us." But that idea is even more frightening than Social Security. It means that we would have a functioning democracy, and no center of concentrated power is ever going to want that, for perfectly obvious reasons. So yes there are efforts, and pretty successful efforts to get people to fear the government as their enemy, not to regard it as the collective population acting in terms of common goals that we’ve decided on which would be what have to happen in a democracy. And is to an extent what does happen in functioning democracies, like Bolivia, the poorest country in South America. It’s kind of what’s happening there more or less. But that’s very remote from what’s happening here.
Well I think Ron Paul supporters can be appealed to on these grounds, they're also against military intervention, and we can ask "okay, why?" Is it just for their own security, do they want to be richer or something? I doubt it, I think people are concerned because they think we destroyed Iraq and so on. So I think that there are lots of common grounds that can be explored, even if the outcomes, at the moment, look very different. They look different because they’re framed within fixed doctrines. But those doctrines are not graven in stone. They can be undermined.
On the elite's view of the poor