‘The growth of right-wing forces is ominous’: Interview with Noam Chomsky
NOAM AVRAM CHOMSKY is one of the greatest intellectuals in modern times. For the past six decades Chomsky has remained an inspiration for millions of people around the world who fight oppression and injustice and strive for a better world. It is Chomsky’s admirable, courageous, committed and exceptional intellectual labour that exposed the imperialist motives and the democratic fraud of the world’s most powerful country, the United States of America.
Professor Chomsky is one of the most quoted scholars in human history and is also considered to be the father of modern linguistics. By the 1950s, Chomsky had emerged as a significant figure in the field of linguistics for his landmark work Syntactic Structures, which remodelled the scientific study of language.
“The basis to Chomsky’s linguistic theory is rooted in biolinguistics, holding that the principles underlying the structure of language are biologically determined in the human mind and hence genetically transmitted.”
He, therefore, argues that all humans share the same underlying linguistic structure, irrespective of socio-cultural differences. Chomsky’s theory of Transformational Grammar revolutionised the field of linguistics, philosophy and cognitive psychology by challenging existing ideas about how humans learn and develop language skills.
Chomsky combined both academic work and political activism in an exemplary fashion, which makes him a unique public intellectual of our era. His voice of dissent against the U.S.’ invasion of Vietnam made him a presence to be reckoned with in the intellectual sphere and in public discourse.
Chomsky attracted widespread public attention in 1967 for his anti-war essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, which remains a classic. Not an ivory tower intellectual in any sense of the term, he was arrested on several occasions for engaging in anti-war protests and was included on U.S. President Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list”.
Chomsky’s intervention was crucial in ensuring the independence of countries such as East Timor and the establishment of peace in different regions. He remains a leading critic of U.S. foreign policy, neoliberalism, contemporary capitalism, Israel’s aggression on Palestine, and so on. He was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 2011.
Chomsky is the author of more than a hundred books, including American Power and the New Mandarins, For Reasons of State, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance and Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy. As a self-declared libertarian socialist or anarchist, Chomsky envisions “an anarcho-syndicalist future in which there is direct worker control of the means of production, with society governed by workers’ councils, who would select representatives to meet together at general assemblies”.
At present, Chomsky holds a joint appointment as Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and laureate professor at the University of Arizona. At 89, Chomsky is tireless and spirited in his anti-imperialism and quest for justice and peace. His commitment to humanity is revealed in his own words: “I would like to see some progress towards a world in which my grandchildren will be able to live without suffering, and without shame because of the suffering of others. People with privilege—I’m one—have the unusual advantage, denied to most people, that they can dedicate part of their lives to that goal at slight personal cost.”
In this exclusive interview to Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M, Chomsky speaks on a wide range of topics, including the Donald Trump presidency, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the declining U.S. power, rising right-wing politics in the world, the Narendra Modi regime, the nationalism debate, media and the Internet, the Latin American Left, Pope Francis, Islamophobia, the Syrian War, Donald Trump’s exit from the nuclear deal with Iran, the responsibility of intellectuals, and reflections on his political activism.
The Trump Presidency
During the last U.S. election, you had warned that the “world should be utterly terrified of a Donald Trump presidency”. Now he occupies the White House. His policies and pronouncements represent a combination of white supremacy and the corporate agenda. Some have even called him a “monster” in the White House. What is the danger that he poses, not only to the U.S. but also to the world? How is he “different” from his predecessors in office?
The single most dramatic example is Trump’s stand on global warming, a truly existential crisis. The rest of the world is taking at least some steps towards addressing the very serious threat; not enough, but at least something. And the same is true of some States and localities within the U.S. But under Trump, with the general support of the Republican establishment, the federal government, the most powerful force in world history, has not only withdrawn from these efforts but is actively seeking to accelerate the race to destruction. That is an astounding fact, as is the limited attention to it. But the wrecking ball is reaching far beyond.
Trump’s declaration and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital seems to be a big blow to the peace process and resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. What message is Trump signalling? What caused such a sudden decision? How would it affect the efforts for an amicable solution in the region?
Unfortunately, there is not much of a “peace process” even without this further blow, undertaken, I presume, largely for domestic political reasons. Much of Trump’s political base and funders are passionate supporters of Israel’s illegal expansion into the West Bank.
Earlier you wrote that the U.S. power was declining globally. If that is the case, what are the structural changes happening in the international political landscape? Are we moving towards a multipolar world?
American national power reached its (historically unprecedented) peak at the end of the Second World War. That began to erode soon with what is called “the loss of China”, which had major effects on the world scene. As other industrial societies recovered from wartime devastation and decolonisation took its agonising course, global society became more diverse. By the early 1970s, the core of the global economy was becoming tripolar: U.S.-based North America, German-based Europe, and Japan-based north-east Asia, already the most dynamic region. And there has been further erosion particularly since the rise of China, by now the world’s largest economy by some realistic measures—though still a poor country with severe internal problems. In some dimensions, notably military, the U.S. remains supreme. And it should also be borne in mind that with the globalisation of the international economy, national accounts are less significant than before. Thus, while the U.S’ share of global domestic product is estimated at less than 20 per cent, U.S.-based firms control about half the world’s wealth. All of this is, of course, only a surface view of a complex picture.
In almost all parts of the world we see an alarming growth of right-wing forces, such as the Tea Party movement in the U.S., the Sangh Parivar forces in India, Marine Le Pen’s Nationalist Front in France and various Islamist forces in different countries. The Marxist thinker Professor Samir Amin explains this growth as the phenomenon of “the return of fascism in contemporary capitalism”. Do you share this fear that fascist ascendancy is on the horizon?
Like most terms of political discourse, the term “fascism” is imprecise. By now it has taken on the connotation of utterly abominable, as is natural given the practices of the fascist regimes and organisations. Long ago, the term was used in a more precise technical sense, for example, by the outstanding Veblenite political economist Robert Brady, who described the state of capitalist societies quite generally as having fascist tendencies through the 1930s. By now the term may be more misleading than instructive.
The growth of right-wing forces today is ominous enough without this terminology, and should be analysed in its own terms, as part of the general collapse of the centrist political institutions during the neoliberal period, evident in recent elections in the industrial democracies. The rise of the Far Right is one manifestation of this process, as is the rise of popular movements and political organisations that seek to carry social democratic policies further.
One important example is the [Bernie] Sanders movement in the U.S. The most remarkable feature of the November 2016 election in the U.S. was not the election of a billionaire whose campaign was lavishly funded and had extensive media support, even though he departed sharply from the style of the Republican establishment. Rather, it was the Sanders campaign, which broke with a long political tradition of largely bought elections.
As shown particularly by the political economist Thomas Ferguson’s important work, campaign funding alone—one of many elements of private power—is a powerful determinant of electability. Sanders had no funding from private wealth or corporate power, no media support, and even used the word “socialism”, a scare word in U.S. political discourse. He would probably have won the Democratic Party nomination, maybe the election, had it not been for the machinations of party managers, and emerged as by far the most popular political figure in the country.
That is another manifestation of the (well-founded) popular antagonism towards centrist institutions and their policies during the neoliberal era, developments mirrored elsewhere as well, for example, by [Jeremy] Corbyn’s takeover of the British Labour Party and by DiEM25 on the continent.
What is taking place is reminiscent of Gramsci’s observations about an earlier period, when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. But also, we may add, signs of hope.
In India, an attempt is being made by Hindu right-wing forces to scuttle dissenting voices. What is your assessment of the Indian political situation and the Modi regime?
I have read some of these reports, and what they depict is, to be sure, contemptible. It appears that the Modi regime, at the very least, is tolerating these crimes.
You termed the U.S. as the world’s leading terrorist state. A similar comment in India about the present government may invite the charge of anti-nationalism. The writer Arundhati Roy, the human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen (in 2010) and, more recently, students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, were framed for sedition by different governments in India. Where do you place the boundary line between nationalism and anti-nationalism?
That does not seem to me to be the issue. Whatever one thinks of nationalism/anti-nationalism, the articulation of the entire range of views should be protected, vigilantly, in a free society.
Charges of “anti-national activity” are utterly outrageous.
“Manufacturing Consent”, the book published by you and Edward S. Herman in 1988, exposed magisterially how the mass media manufactures consent for the ruling class. However, after the publication of the book, a lot of changes have taken place in the media world. The increasing growth of the Internet has substantially decreased the weight of traditional monopoly control over news and information. Some believe that social media and online media platforms provide the prospects of “liberation”. How do you assess the changed media landscape?
We published a second edition of the book in 2002, when the Internet was already widely used, but saw no need for change. We had been in contact recently about the matter and felt much the same way. There have, of course, been changes, but the institutional factors that influence media performance do not seem to be materially different. The mainstream media remain the major source of news and information, with all their advantages and all their flaws.
The Internet makes it possible to access a wider range of sources, for those who wish to devote the effort to that. It certainly is quite helpful for research. Unfortunately, there is little sign that this far more extensive access to information and opinion has led generally to greater enlightenment and understanding. Often, the opposite seems the case. There definitely are prospects of liberation, but it is necessary to take advantage of them, and it is often easy to retreat to superficial comfort zones restricted to what one wants to hear rather than exploring the wide range of possibilities made available by the new technology.
The Left forces in a number of Latin American countries faced electoral defeats and different setbacks. Is it that the Left upsurge in Latin America is abating? What are the challenges and opportunities before the Latin American Left?
It’s abating, but there have been many permanent gains, and it is much better than it has been before. History registers progress and regression, but there is general progress and, more importantly, there is a great deal that we can do to bend the arc of history towards justice, to borrow the phrase that Martin Luther King made famous. The easy way is to succumb to despair, and help ensure that the worst will happen. The sensible and courageous way is to join those who are working for a better world, using the ample opportunities available.
In contrast with all his predecessors in the Vatican, Pope Francis has attained much popularity for his highly progressive positions on various socio-economic issues affecting the world. We know that you are an avowed atheist. Irrespective of your ideological differences with the papacy, what is your view of Pope Francis? Do you hope that his personal stands would bring change in the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church?
I don’t quite agree about the past. Pope John XXIII, for example, had an admirable record in many important respects. Pope Francis, too, has taken admirable stands on some very important issues, and there is, I think, reason for optimism that his impact on the Church will be generally positive.
How would you explain the growing Islamophobia in the world, especially in the West? What are its roots? Why and how is it being sustained and continuously reproduced?
Islamophobia goes far back. It has been exacerbated recently by several factors. One is the shift of focus of radical Islamist terror to the West. Another is the flood of refugees, many Muslim. A more subtle effect is the harmful impact of neoliberal policies on the general social fabric, which tends to foster latent conflicts, sometimes with lethal effects, as discussed in the scholarly work on Rwanda and post-Tito Yugoslavia.
Recent U.S. military strikes in Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government escalated the tension between Western powers and countries that back the Bashar al-Assad regime. Russia condemned the act as a violation of the sovereignty of that country. What is your reaction? The Syrian government is in its final battle against the rebels. How would this action affect the course of developments in that country?
The missile attack (obviously in violation of international law) appears to have been mostly symbolic, designed to bolster Trump’s domestic image as a “tough guy”. It was carefully designed to avoid any contact with the Russians, possibly with collaborative planning. The attack is unlikely to have any effect on the war, or on the continued and massive atrocities of the Syrian government. The major media have been largely suppressing the fact that Russia and Syria called at once for an on-site investigation by the international monitors, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which at once scheduled an inquiry (though there was enormous coverage of a delay). The attack took place just as the monitors were arriving for an inspection. There is mounting evidence, also mostly suppressed by the media (or ridiculed, while ignoring the sources) that the main target that was destroyed might have been a medical research facility producing antibodies. If that turns out to be verified, it will be similar to the criminal atrocity of [Bill] Clinton’s destruction of the main pharmaceutical plant in Sudan [al-Shifa]. Right now, much remains obscure, and may remain so.
How do you see Trump’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal? What would be its consequences in international politics?
It is useful to read the arguments presented for withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA]. They are so ludicrous that those who provided the President with them cannot possibly believe them and were probably laughing when he read the script.
The real reasons are not hard to discern. Trump is often described as unpredictable. In fact, he is highly predictable. He has one leading principle: “ME, ME, ME!” One corollary is that he has to keep his base fired up, the other, closely related, is that he has to do the opposite of whatever was done by the evil black demon [Barack] Obama, probably not even American, possibly even anti-Christ, as a quarter of the Republicans believe.
A review of his policies will show that this script is followed with great precision. Withdrawing from the JCPOA is one illustration. Obama was responsible for it; therefore, it is a hideous attack on the U.S. and must go. Damn the consequences. The same is true of his withdrawal from the Paris negotiations and the race to destroy the environment in which organised human life can persist. And consistently through the rest of his policy decisions.
A secondary Trump principle is that wealth and privilege must be lavished on his real constituency, the very rich and the corporate sector. The technique here is very simple. Trump’s regular antics attract constant media attention, the more absurd and outlandish the better.
Meanwhile, the more savage wing of the Republican party rams through legislation serving the interests of the real constituency, kicking the rest in the face, including Trump’s working-class supporters (most of the Trump voters are relatively affluent or very affluent, and have little objection to these policies). Again, the record is very clear and remarkably consistent.
It is entirely possible that Trump will be clever enough to accept the plea of the two Koreas that he leaves them alone to settle their problems “on their own accord”, without interference, as they requested in the historic Declaration of Panmunjom a few days ago [April 27, 2018]. Then he can prance around in public claiming to have made the deal of the century, where the black demon failed. If that happens, at least one major international problem might move towards resolution, though the severe dangers in the Middle East are likely to escalate.
It’s entirely possible that Israel will see Trump’s latest assault against humanity as a green light to escalate its regular bombing of Syria. Sooner or later, Russia may respond by providing more advanced anti-aircraft defences, which Israel will surely move to destroy. That could lead to a confrontation with Russia which, so far, both sides have been careful to try to avoid. The consequences could be horrendous, and those are not the only grim possibilities. But all of this is of no concern for Trump, just as the race to destruction of the environment is of no concern. What is important is more wealth and power tomorrow, for himself and the real constituency—and “apres moi le deluge”. Literally, in this case.
In the context of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam, you wrote a highly influential essay titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”. In that essay you addressed intellectuals as public intellectuals. But today public intellectuals are becoming an endangered species; instead, you have experts, area specialists, professionals and others. Another worrying thing is the increasing “privatisation of the intellect” itself. What are the significance, role and responsibility of a public intellectual?
The concept of “intellectual” is a rather strange one. Those who are called “intellectuals” have a certain degree of privilege. Privilege confers opportunity, which, in turn, confers responsibility to use opportunities with wisdom and compassion. That is as true now as it has been in the past. These elementary principles have always applied broadly, and still do.
For more than six decades, you have been a great source of inspiration for millions around the world who are fighting to make the world a better and just place. What sustains your spirit? Are you optimistic about the future of mankind?
We basically have two choices: to assume that there is no hope, give up, and help ensure that the worst will happen; or to grasp the opportunities that surely do exist, pursue them seriously, and perhaps we will help bring about a better world. Not much of a choice.
Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. are fellows at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and contribute to various national and international publications. The authors can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.