Sean Casleton interviews Noam Chomsky / Boston Review
Noam Chomsky and Scott Casleton discuss socialism, anarchism, and the fight for progress in U.S. politics today.
There is always the temptation to think of one’s own era of politics as decisive, a turning point in history. The best way to check this impulse is to seek the perspective of activists who understand how the past has produced the present.
Noam Chomsky has been an incisive voice in the American political discourse for over six decades, writing widely on U.S. foreign policy, the news media, and neoliberalism. In this conversation, he discusses the prospects of progress in a time of reactionary politics and looming climate catastrophe. In the face of these unprecedented challenges, Chomsky maintains that we can either “abandon hope” or fight for a better world. The crucial idea is that working for a better world means more than just resistance: we must build alternatives to replace the current, moribund systems of political and economic power.
— Scott Casleton
Scott Casleton: In the past you’ve suggested that the Democrats and Republicans aren’t too far apart where it counts, such as in their support for corporate power. Do you still think this, or is the small but growing shift in the younger wing of the Democratic Party a promising sign of change?
Noam Chomsky: There have been changes, even before the recent shift you mention. Both parties shifted to the right during the neoliberal years: the mainstream Democrats became something like the former moderate Republicans, and the Republicans drifted virtually off the spectrum. There’s merit, I think, in the observation by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein that increasingly since the Newt Gingrich years—and strikingly in Mitch McConnell’s Senate—the Republican Party has become a “radical insurgency” that is largely abandoning normal parliamentary politics. That shift—which predates Donald Trump—has created a substantial gap between the two parties. In the media it’s often called “polarization,” but that’s hardly an accurate description.
‘Sanders’s platform wouldn’t have greatly surprised Dwight Eisenhower, who argued that anyone who challenged New Deal programs didn’t belong in the U.S. political system.’
Both in the United States and Europe, neoliberal/austerity programs have sharply concentrated wealth while also stagnating wages for the majority, undermining benefits, eroding functioning democracy, and encouraging what former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan hailed as “growing worker insecurity.” These socioeconomic policies, quite naturally, have engendered anger, resentment, and bitterness—which are often exploited by demagogues. As centrist political institutions have declined, sometimes virtually disappearing, both political parties have been affected. The Republican establishment used to be able to crush extremist candidates who rose from the voting base in primaries, but not in 2016. Among Democrats, the Bernie Sanders campaign broke sharply with over a century of U.S. political history by achieving remarkable success both without support from private wealth and corporate power and in the face of disregard from the media and contempt by Party managers. Sanders’s success both reflects and has contributed to the shift among the younger wing that you mention, which has a great deal of promise, I think.
But what Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mean by “socialism” seems to be something similar to New Deal social democracy. Sanders’s platform, for example, wouldn’t have greatly surprised Dwight Eisenhower, who argued strongly that anyone who challenged New Deal programs didn’t belong in the U.S. political system—an indication of how far to the right politics has drifted in the neoliberal years.
SC: Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of debate trying to define socialism. You have quoted Anton Pannekoek for saying socialism is “workers themselves being masters over production.” Can you elaborate on what this might look like?
NC: Pannekoek is voicing the conventional understanding of socialism in its early years, before it was transmuted to efforts to soften the harsh edges of capitalist oppression and came to be associated with the monstrous perversion of socialism in Bolshevik Russia. A genuine left Marxist and leading figure in the council Communist movement, Pannekoek was one of the “infantile ultra-leftists” against whom Lenin inveighed. The idea that workers themselves should be masters of production is a natural inheritor of core ideals of classical liberalism from John Locke to Thomas Paine to Abraham Lincoln and John Stuart Mill, all of whom regarded wage labor as a form of servitude that should not exist in a free society. The underlying conception was graphically expressed by the great humanist Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the founders of classical liberalism: “Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness.” When the laborer works under external control, “we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is,” which is a tool in the hands of others, not a free person.
More significantly, this was the understanding of working people in the early days of the industrial revolution, many of them young women, “factory girls,” driven from farms to work in the mills. They had a lively independent press, in which they condemned “the blasting influence of monarchical principles [of capitalism] on democratic soil.” They recognized that this assault on elementary human rights will not be overcome until “they who work in the mills own them,” and sovereignty is in the hands of free producers. Then working people will no longer be “menials or the humble subjects of a foreign despot . . . slaves in the strictest sense of the word.” Rather, they will regain their status as “free American citizens.” Workers 170 years ago warned, perceptively, that a day might come when wage slaves “will so far forget what is due to manhood as to glory in a system forced on them by their necessity and in opposition to their feelings of independence and self-respect.” They hoped that that day would be “far distant.”
‘The core principle of anarchism is the recognition that structures of domination and control are not self-justifying. They carry a burden of proof, and when that cannot be met, they should be dismantled.’
The solution was as clear to working people as to leading political thinkers. Mill wrote that “The form of association, however, which if mankind continue to improve, must be expected to predominate is . . . the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers electable and removable by themselves.”
This thought evolved into Pannekoek’s workers’ councils and is hardly a utopian ideal. As philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has recently emphasized, most people today spend the bulk of their waking lives as subjects of private tyrannies in which their rights are restricted beyond the norm of totalitarian states—when they can go to the bathroom or talk to a friend, let alone play some role in determining the conditions of work or the goals of the enterprise. There are now successful worker-owned enterprises ranging from huge conglomerates such as Mondragon in the Basque country to small-scale firms in the old rust belt, with varying degrees of authentic self-management. There is also a proliferation of cooperatives, localism, and other initiatives that open the way to a revival of the consciousness and could flourish in more free and just societies.
SC: You’ve always considered yourself a traveler in the anarchist tradition. What does anarchism have to offer to a budding movement of younger people interested in socialism?
NC: I’ve always understood the core principle of anarchism to be the recognition that structures of domination and control are not self-justifying. They carry a burden of proof, and when that cannot be met, as is commonly the case, they should be dismantled, a principle that holds from families to international affairs. These general ideals, and their manifold applications, should have broad appeal, and serve as an impetus to action.
SC: You’ve criticized the once-every-four-years voting extravaganza, after which public participation effectively stops until the next election. Do you still find this problematic? What would you suggest replace it?
NC: Highly problematic. Formal public participation keeps to the ritual of pushing buttons in the quadrennial extravaganzas (i.e., elections), which effectively abandons the regular political engagement that is the foundation of functioning democracy.
The U.S. political system is regressive in important ways. Some commentators have argued that if a country with this system sought to join the EU, it would probably be barred by the European Court of Justice. The Senate is, of course, grossly undemocratic, a residue of compromises to ensure ratification of the Constitution, and unchangeable by amendment because of the voting power of the smaller states. Same with the electoral college. This lack of proportional representation virtually guarantees the two-party monopoly.
Worst of all, as research by Thomas Ferguson and his colleagues has shown, electability for both Congress and the Executive is predictable with remarkable precision from the single variable of campaign spending. One consequence is that representatives spend hours a day appealing to donors while corporate lobbyists (whose ranks have exploded during the neoliberal years) meet with staffs to craft legislation. Studies by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have shown that the majority of voters are literally unrepresented, in that there is virtually no correlation between their preferences and the legislative actions of their representatives, who are listening to other voices.
I referred above to formal public participation. The public can and should participate in other ways because the effectiveness of public activism has always been evident. Examples are legion, but most recently the young people involved in the Sunrise Movement succeeded in placing a Green New Deal program on the policy agenda. Such a policy—perhaps modified in such a way as economist Robert Pollin has suggested—is a necessity for survival.
Steps towards a more democratic system are possible in many ways, but they will always be limited so long as economic power is highly concentrated, basic decision-making is in the hands of huge private tyrannies with little public accountability, and much of the population is living near the edge of financial disaster.
SC: It is clear climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity, aided and abetted by Republican policies. What kind of radical action is called for?
NC: It is impossible to find words to describe what we are witnessing. Global warming—euphemistically called “climate change”—is the most urgent problem ever faced in human history, with the possible exception of nuclear war. Yet only a quarter of Republicans regard it as an urgent problem. On issues that are important for voting, conservative Republicans rank global warming last, well below such cosmic threats as Russian interference in U.S. elections. These are startling and frightening results.
‘Since Washington so declares, Iran is labeled the greatest threat to peace—in contrast to global opinion which, according to the Gallup polling organization, confers that honor on the United States.’
Major energy players have dedicated great efforts to downplaying the threat, which their own scientists informed them was real and dire, and for a long time, the media barely covered the impending disaster, with portrayals giving equal emphasis to “both sides.” The dramatic actions of such groups as Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement, and School Strike for Climate are of great value in opening minds—but those minds have to be engaged in unremitting action to implement changes on the ground, to pass legislation, to educate and organize.
The task is particularly critical in the United States, not only because of its incomparable power and global influence, but also because under Republican rule it has become the global arch-criminal. Other countries are doing at least something to mitigate the threat, while the most powerful state in world history is vigorously fanning the flames, led by a narcissistic megalomaniac—and consummate political demagogue—who knows exactly what he is doing. Donald Trump appealed to the government of Ireland for a permit to build a wall (he loves walls) to protect his golf course from the anticipated sea level rise.
Under the Trump bureaucracy, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released one of the most amazing documents in history—and this is not hyperbole. A detailed environmental impact study, it assumes a 4-degree Celsius rise in temperature by 2100, which would mean the end for organized human life in anything like the forms we know. The argument it makes is in opposition to emission standards for vehicles since we’re going off the cliff pretty soon anyways so why bother? Never mind that transportation is only “the largest source of global warming emissions in the United States,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Can one find words for this? A historical analogue? I can’t. The only words I know are: there is a lot of work to do in this strange country. And not here alone.
SC: Shifting to foreign policy, you were a vocal critic of scholarship on Vietnam that didn’t focus on the general trend of imperial foreign policy that had been developing for decades. Do you think the same narrowness limits our understanding of our ongoing conflicts in the Middle East?
NC: The Vietnam War was unprovoked imperial aggression. Bernard Fall, the highly respected and bitterly anti-Communist military historian and Indochina specialist, wrote in 1967 (with still worse to come) that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity . . . is threatened with extinction . . . [as] the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.” Scholarship and other commentary are deeply flawed unless this basic framework is adopted for analysis and discussion—a minimal standard that is rarely met in discussion of the acts of one’s own state and its allies and clients.
The same concerns are very much alive, not least with regard to the Middle East, though there have been some salutary changes. The days are past when much of conventional media fare depicted Israel as “a society in which moral sensitivity is a principle of political life” (New York Times opinion piece) and whose army is “animated by the high moral purpose that has guided Israel throughout its tumultuous history” (Time). Both quotes were from pieces that appeared immediately after the Sabra-Shatila massacre—a massacre that was the coda to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, another crime of aggression without credible pretext.
‘For the United States, defiance of international law is not an occasional departure from principle but is principle itself.’
It will be instructive to see whether scholarship and other commentary can depart from today’s norm regarding the U.S. assault against Iran. Stuxnet, for example, was a highly praised cyber attack on Iran that was largely believed to be a joint mission between the United States and Israel. Yet the Pentagon itself defines cyber attacks as acts of war that justify military response. More recently, the current, extremely harsh sanctions against Iran are supposed to punish the country for living up to the terms of the international nuclear agreement (JCPOA) that the United States alone has chosen to undermine.
While the international community fumes, it is too intimidated to defy the global Godfather. Commentary often reflexively parrots the U.S. government propaganda line, sometimes with timid qualifications. Since Washington so declares, Iran is labeled the greatest threat to peace—in contrast to global opinion which, according to the Gallup polling organization, confers that honor on the United States. Iran must cease to “destabilize” the Middle East and learn to behave like a “normal nation” (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s mantra, repeated by many others).
A “normal” nation is one like the leading U.S. allies in the region, those peace-loving nations and scrupulous defenders of human rights such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt’s military dictatorship, and Israel. Or like Iran itself when it was under the rule of the U.S.-imposed dictator, the Shah, who was quite openly seeking to develop nuclear weapons with unremitting U.S. support while compiling one of the worst human rights records in the world according to Amnesty International. At the time, President Carter—one of the lesser U.S. enthusiasts of the Shah—lauded the Shah’s “great leadership” in creating “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” The Shah was basking, according to Carter, in “the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you”—just months before he was overthrown by a popular uprising. But no accusations of destabilization then, as the Shah’s Iran joined the Saudi dictatorship and Israel as the pillars of U.S. control over what Eisenhower had called the most “strategically important part of the world.”
It would be all too easy to continue.
SC: It is a consistent theme in your writing that Democrats do not hold the moral high-ground over Republicans when it comes to foreign policy. What principles should guide our thinking when we try to formulate a truly progressive approach to foreign affairs?
NC: It’s useful, I think, to begin by imagining a conservative approach to foreign affairs. Such an approach would recognize that we have a Constitution, revered as a sacred text. It includes Article VI, which states that “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” One such Treaty, of unusual contemporary significance, is the United Nations Charter, the foundation of modern international law. Article 2(4) of the Charter forbids “the threat or use of force” in international affairs, with qualifications that we can put aside in the present context.
I recognize that there is a respected profession which assures us that these words don’t mean what they say, but I’ll naively assume that they do.
A conservative approach would be to observe that the supreme law of the land is routinely violated by high officials, including the current president and his predecessor, who declare regularly that “all options are on the table” with regard to Iran, and who not only threaten but resort to force, including such textbook examples of aggression as the invasion of Iraq without credible pretext. Illustrations are too numerous and familiar to mention, as are violations of the OAS Charter ban on any form of intervention “in the affairs of another state.”
For the United States, defiance of international law is not an occasional departure from principle but is principle itself. The United States proudly adopts the stance of a rogue state that is immune to international law (including valid treaties that are the supreme law of the land). U.S. behavior is instead based on the principle enunciated by the respected statesman Dean Acheson, who instructed the American Society of International Law that no “legal issue” arises when the United States responds to a challenge to its “power, position, and prestige.”
‘We have two choices: to abandon hope and help ensure that the worst will happen; or to make use of the opportunities that exist and perhaps contribute to a better world. It is not a very difficult choice.’
Thus, Ronald Reagan’s administration was acting on principle when it rejected World Court jurisdiction over its attack against Nicaragua, dismissed the Court order that it terminate its crimes and pay substantial reparations, and then vetoed a Security Council resolution that affirmed the Court judgment and called on all states to observe international law. As State Department Legal Adviser Abraham Sofaer explained, most of the world cannot “be counted on to share our view [and the] majority often opposes the United States on important international questions” so that we must “reserve to ourselves the power to determine” how we will act and which matters fall “essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of the United States, as determined by the United States”—in this case, the actions that the Court condemned as the “unlawful use of force” against Nicaragua, aka international terrorism.
Conservatives might combine abiding by U.S. law with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” thus rejecting the bipartisan consensus that neither U.S. law nor global norms apply to the United States, not merely defying ICJ rulings (in splendid isolation; its former partners, Libya and Albania, having finally accepted them) but also the legislation that authorizes the president to use force to “rescue” any American brought to the Hague and such actions as revoking the visa of the ICC chief prosecutor if she dares to investigate the actions of the United States and its clients.
Assuming that the United States might become a law-abiding state, it might move on to constructive measures, which readily come to mind. Those would include rejoining the world on confronting the truly existential threats to survival: environmental catastrophe and nuclear war. Or consider the crisis that ranks high among concerns of Americans (and highest among conservative Republicans): securing the southern border. A progressive policy would not only adhere to our international obligations on refugee asylum, but would go on to recognize our responsibility for creating the conditions from which miserable refugees are fleeing and to devote resources (“reparations,” if we were honest) to overcoming the bitter conditions that are the occasion for their flight.
It’s easy to move on to truly progressive policies, but there’s a long way to go before we can even get that far.
SC: Over the course of your life, you’ve commented on everything from the sad defeat of socialism and anarchism in the Spanish civil war to the atrocities in Vietnam. What keeps you working in the face of these miseries? And what sacrifices have you had to make to achieve your success?
NC: We have two choices: to abandon hope and help ensure that the worst will happen; or to make use of the opportunities that exist and perhaps contribute to a better world. It is not a very difficult choice. There are, of course, sacrifices; time and energy are finite. But there are also the rewards of participating in struggles for peace and justice and the common good.