Interview with Noam Chomsky by Harrison Samphir / Jacobin
Now in his 90th year, Noam Chomsky is still blessing us with his insights. Here he is on climate change, US empire, antisemitism, Venezuela, and much more.
From the onslaught of climate change, to the spread of far-right movements around the globe, to the increased proliferation of nuclear weapons, threats to the natural environment and democratic institutions are increasingly unmistakable, and the sense of crisis palpable. Yet amid such rapid changes, the work of Noam Chomsky remains indispensable for understanding global politics and the nuances so often missed by corporate media. Aside from his paradigm-shifting contributions to the fields of cognitive science and linguistics, most know Chomsky as an avid critic of US foreign policy, the “propaganda model” of Western mass media, and, more recently, the growing impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Now in his ninetieth year, Chomsky continues to teach, write, lecture, and, remarkably, give a prolific number of interviews. His latest books include Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy (Penguin, 2017), Requiem for the American Dream The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (Seven Stories Press, 2017), and Why Only Us: Language and Evolution (MIT Press, 2016).
Harrison Samphir recently spoke with the renowned dissident and philosopher about climate change, Venezuela, Iran, antisemitism, US empire, and more. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
HS: Estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) suggest that, if emissions remain unchanged, by 2100 sea levels could rise by more than eight feet. This would irreversibly affect many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Do you think there’s a chance we may avoid this?
NC: If anything like that happens, the calamity will be on a scale that is almost imponderable, most severe as you say for the poorest and most vulnerable, but awful enough for the rest of society as well. And it is not the most threatening current projection. We are approaching ominously close to the level of global warming 125,000 years ago when sea levels were 6–9 meters higher than today, and the rapid melting of Antarctic sea ice threatens to narrow the gap, possibly by nonlinear acceleration, some recent studies suggest.
Is there a chance to avoid such catastrophes? No doubt. There are well-worked out and sound proposals; economist Robert Pollin’s work on a Green New Deal is the best I know. But the task ahead is enormous, and there is not much time. The challenge would be great even if states were committed to overcoming it. Some are. But it is impossible to overlook the fact that the most powerful state in human history is under the leadership of what can only be accurately described as a gang of arch-criminals who are dedicated to racing to the cliff with abandon.
It is hard even to find words to capture the scale of the crimes they are contemplating. A small but telling example is a 500-page environmental assessment produced by Trump’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calling for cancelling new automotive emissions standards. They have a sound argument. The study projects that by the end of the century temperatures will have risen 4 degrees Centigrade. Auto emissions don’t add that much, and since the game is pretty much over, why not have fun while we can — fiddling while the planet burns.
It’s hard to find the words to comment — and in fact it passed with little notice.
The attitudes of the leadership influence opinion in the Republican Party, whose members typically do not see global warming as a particularly serious problem. In fact it is ranked very low among crucial issues by the population in general (and the growing threat of nuclear war, the second existential issue, is not even listed in attitude surveys).
HS: In a recent Vox article, Mary Annaïse Heglar of the Natural Resources Defense Council comments: “The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous. It turns environmentalism into an individual choice defined as sin or virtue, convicting those who don’t or can’t uphold these ethics.” How do we move away from neoliberal frameworks that prioritize consumerist freewill to a model that targets, for example, the one hundred companies that are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions?
NC: I don’t think we can count on market forces. The time scale is all wrong. Much more drastic action is needed. Those most responsible for destroying the environment can be curbed by regulatory mechanisms that are in principle available, and should be under democratic control. It’s not just a matter of curbing major polluters. Major structural changes are necessary to deal with what is in fact an existential crisis: efficient mass transportation to mention only one example. Far more substantial efforts in decarbonization, to mention another. Here the market is sending all the wrong signals, lethally in this case. Venture capital can make more profit with new apps for iPhones than in long-term investment for decarbonization, which is starved for funds.
It is well to recall the warning of Joseph Stiglitz thirty years ago in a World Bank Research Publication, before he became chief economist of the World Bank (and a Nobel laureate): we should beware of “the religion” that markets know best. “Religion” is not a bad term for the obsession with market solutions in the neoliberal age. And like other fanatic religious beliefs, it has led to not a few disasters.
HS: It seems as though acting on large-scale, long-term plans requires short-term economic, political, and personal sacrifices that serve as powerful disincentives to most politicians today. How might this be reversed, or is it simply an immovable feature of our current political-economic system.
NC: That is a problem that cannot be ignored. The French gilets jaunes have put the problem squarely: the (French) government talks of the end of the world, but we can’t get to the end of the month. Transition to renewable energy should create a much more livable environment quite generally, but it will inevitably harm some working people who can ill-afford the shock, and careful planning is necessary to deal with these and many other problems. That can be done, and concrete solutions have been suggested.
HS: Social movement pressure for a Green New Deal (GND) is gaining significant traction on both sides of the US/Canada border. In your view, why is such an initiative important, and how can ordinary people counter the narrative that a GND would be “fiscally and economically catastrophic”?
NC: The importance should be self-evident. The “narrative” can be countered by showing that it’s incorrect — as it is — and by making it clear that the alternative is a catastrophe so awesome that all else pales in comparison.
HS: I would like to shift now to foreign policy. According to a study by economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, economic sanctions implemented by the Trump administration against Venezuela since August 2017 have caused tens of thousands of deaths and are rapidly worsening the humanitarian crisis in the country. To be sure, Venezuela has many problems of its own making, but Western powers — in particular the United States — have played a significant role in undermining its democracy since the early days of Chavez, including a failed military coup d’état in 2002. Now, the policy of “regime change” has taken a more overt and dangerous direction under Trump. How should this situation be resolved, and why does Venezuela receive such slanted coverage in most media outlets?
NC: The United States at first tolerated Hugo Chavez as a bad boy who could be tamed, but that changed when he persuaded OPEC to reduce production to sustain prices for the benefit of oil producers. Shortly after, a military coup took place deposing Chavez and disbanding the government, openly welcomed by Washington and lauded by the liberal media. It was, however, quickly overturned and the United States had to resort to sabotage and subversion, with the cooperation of the bitterly anti-Chavez economic elites.
This is not the place to review those years, but there were several policy failures that have a role in the present crisis: failure to diversify the oil-based economy that had developed since the United States took over a century ago after the discovery of oil, and to put aside reserves during the years of high oil prices. After Chavez’s death, oil prices declined, and the Maduro government had to turn to hostile international credit markets. His government also made atrocious economic decisions and turned to harsh repression as the opposition mounted intense and often militant protest.
The Trump sanctions have turned a severe crisis into a catastrophe, as recognized by the opposition’s leading economist, the well-informed Francisco Rodriguez — the usual impact of sanctions on civilian societies. Rodriguez, who puts the primary blame on Maduro’s policies, reports that US financial sanctions are associated with a huge drop in oil production, worth about $16.9 billion a year, warning of disastrous consequences in a country which grows barely a third of the food it needs. “We’re going to see a famine in Venezuela,” Mr Rodriguez said. “Total imports in April were only $303 million and around half of those were oil-related. That is just 8 percent of the 2012 figure … even if all the imports were of food, it would still be far off the amount needed to feed the country.”
It is easy to shout and scream, but the only hope for resolution that I have seen proposed is negotiations between the opposing parties leading to some sort of transitional government.
The media usually troop along politely behind state policy, but the hostility to Chavez from the first days and since has been unusually vitriolic, sometimes in quite remarkable ways.
HS: In Britain, efforts to keep Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn out of power over accusations of antisemitism have had the alarming effect of conflating criticism of Israel or anti-Zionism with hatred of Jewish people. You have described these tactics as a disgrace, and said they insult the memory of Holocaust victims. I’d like you to comment on how erroneous charges of antisemitism ultimately hurt Jews, and why expanded definitions of the term (which, for example, consider certain advocacy for Palestinian rights as anti-Jewish bigotry) can be problematic.
NC: The classic statement of this position is by the distinguished Israeli statesman Abba Eban, highly regarded particularly in England as a British gentleman (Cambridge graduate, cultivated accent, etc.). In 1973, when he was Israeli foreign minister, Eban wrote an interesting article in a leading liberal Jewish journal [Congress Bi-Weekly] in which he explained that “One of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is not a distinction at all. Anti-Zionism is merely the new anti-Semitism.”
That defines the task very explicitly. Here “anti-Zionism” means criticism of policies of the State of Israel. He made that quite clear by adding: “Let there be no mistake: the new left is the author and the progenitor of the new anti-Semitism.”
The New Left in fact was overwhelmingly Zionist, but beginning to be mildly critical of some of the policies of the occupation and illegal settlement over which Eban was presiding. Eban also identified two arch-criminals: I.F. Stone and me, “whose basic complex is one of guilt about Jewish survival” and therefore are beyond the range of rational discussion. His wild accusations about the “New Left,” worth reading, are equally ludicrous — as he certainly knew, being literate.
The message from on high was clear, and has been followed dutifully since, sometimes in ways reminiscent of Marx’s comment about tragedy repeated as farce. One example is a major publication on the “real Anti-Semitism” by the Anti-Defamation League — which changed after the 1967 conquests from an authentic civil rights organization to a parody of Stalinism. The real antisemitism turns out not to be that boring old stuff about “kill the Jews” and denying the Holocaust but rather giving “war a bad name and peace too favorable a press,” protesting against the Vietnam War and US crimes in Central America, “sniping” at the defense budget, and in general interfering with US power — Israel’s defender.
The attacks on Corbyn and his reinvigorated Labour Party draw from the same sources. Thus, longtime Labour activist Chris Williamson is accused of antisemitism, with demands that he be expelled from the party, with the primary charge offered being that he said Labour had been “too apologetic” in defending its strong record of struggle against “the scourge of antisemitism.” More of the “real antisemitism.”
The efforts, on both sides of the Atlantic, are becoming more passionate, in interesting ways, as it is becoming more and more clear that Israel is losing control over liberal public opinion and is compelled to rely for support on the most reactionary elements and the fundamentalist Evangelical movement, which combines fervent support for the most extreme Israeli actions with unparalleled antisemitism (consider the fate of those Jews who have not “found Christ” by the end of times and the return of Christ).
Authentic antisemites, I presume, are delighted to see Jews self-ridiculed in this fashion, while others should be shuddering at the spectacle.
That’s not of course to deny that one can ferret out strains of antisemitism in the Labour Party — at about the level of England, so general studies have indicated, quite low by historical standards and vastly below hatred of Muslims and other prevalent forms of racism.
HS: I was reminded of Manufacturing Consent recently, while reading headlines about growing tensions between Iran and the United States. This article in the Washington Post is, I think, emblematic of efforts by certain media outlets to misrepresent the conflict by minimizing Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear deal and framing Iran’s renewed enrichment of uranium as the catalyst for heightened hostilities. Can you explain why this sort of reporting is dangerous, and how critical readers should effectively appraise coverage of international relations in the news media?
NC: The media almost reflexively adopt the basic framework of state doctrine. At the liberal end of the spectrum (the New York Times, Washington Post) they typically soften the edges slightly, yielding the impression of independence. Reporting of the Iran-US tensions is typical of the long-standing pattern, documented to the sky. According to state propaganda, Iran is the guilty party. The United States has to decide whether and how to respond to Iran’s provocations and general malice. The liberal media, in their most critical stance, frame it differently — both sides are increasing tensions.
Reality is dramatically different, and hardly in question. Iran has lived up completely to the stringent terms of the JCPOA (uniquely harsh for a signer of the Non-Proliferation Treaty). US intelligence and all other credible sources agree. The Trump administration withdrew from the treaty, effectively destroying it, and imposed savage sanctions designed to destroy the economy and punish the population. Iran refrained from any reaction, hoping that the European Union might have the courage to depart from the master’s orders, but when it failed to do so, Iran began to take some steps to restore its nuclear programs — as indeed it is entitled to do under the NPT and once the JCPOA is abrogated. It may or may not have carried out some provocative actions in the Gulf as charged by the Trump-Bolton-Pompeo axis, not famous for their credibility.
All of this is dismissed to the margins.
Unmentionable in the free press is the international Gallup poll that asked which country is the greatest threat to world peace: the United States, no one else even close. Iran barely mentioned — in contradiction to the US mantra, constantly intoned, that Iran is the greatest threat to peace and the United States is of course the world’s leading advocate of peace and democracy.
There is a straightforward way to mitigate or end any imagined Iranian nuclear threat: establish a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, with adequate inspections, such as those that have been carried out in Iran under the JCPOA without interference, as acknowledged. The idea was proposed decades ago by the Arab states. It is strongly supported by Iran, G-77, and virtually every other country, but is regularly vetoed by the United States at the NPT review conferences, most recently by Obama. The reason is scarcely concealed. It would mean acknowledging the existence of Israel’s huge nuclear weapons arsenal — which would render military aid to Israel illegal under US law — and permitting it to be inspected, evidently intolerable. Advocacy of such a policy must therefore be another form of “the real antisemitism.”
An interesting footnote, also under a ban, is that the United States and Britain have a unique obligation to pursue a NWFZ in the Middle East. In seeking to concoct a pretext for invading Iraq they appealed to UN Security Council Resolution 687; they falsely claimed that Iraq had violated by developing nuclear weapons. The only violators of the treaty are the United States and United Kingdom, undermining its call for establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East.
It is becoming somewhat boring to reiterate all of this endlessly to ears that are closed by fanatic loyalty to doctrinal verities. Something Orwell anticipated when he discussed how in free England, “unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force.”
HS: Elsewhere, President Trump’s recent meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could prove to be a watershed in twenty-first-century diplomacy. On the other hand, this developing relationship may be used by Trump and his administration as leverage to further US geopolitical objectives in Asia. What is your reading of the situation?
NC: It is an error, in my opinion, to seek some geopolitical strategy behind Trump’s various antics. He regularly makes his guiding principle quite clear, for example, in announcing his plans for the July 4 extravaganza — “Red Square on the Potomac” as the Financial Times described it acidly. Trump tweeted that the master of ceremonies would be “Your favorite president: Me.” That is indeed the guiding principle of the infantile megalomaniac who holds the future of the world in his grip — quite an amazing commentary on the human species.
The principle has consequences. One is that everything done in the past (particularly by the hated Obama) was a total disaster, harming America, but now the Greatest Deal Maker in Human History will set it straight. In most cases the consequences are disastrous, but sometimes his actions are more or less reasonable — and subjected to bitter denunciation across the spectrum. His dealings with Kim Jong-un, whatever his motives, are a case in point.
In April 2018, the two Koreas issued a historic declaration outlining steps towards accommodation and eventual denuclearization, to be carried out “on their own accord,” without foreign interference that it in the past has been deeply harmful. By whom, it is not hard to show from the actual historical record, usually misrepresented in reporting and commentary, though well-known to scholarship.
Trump has pretty much lived up to that. His meeting with Kim Jong-un at the demilitarized zone and symbolic step across the border might, with good will, be a step towards resolving this terrible and ominous conflict.
Whatever the outcome, the major outside powers, not least the United States, will maneuver to adapt it to their goals. That’s the way the world works — as long as populations allow it to happen.
HS: Six years ago I asked you to what extent you thought American power in the world is declining, and if that might limit the extent to which the United States could, to borrow your phrase from 1994’s World Orders Old and New, “suppress independent development” in foreign nations? Do we now live in a mutlipolar world? Is Trump the last gasp of American empire, or far from it?
NC: We have lived in a multipolar world for half a century. The Russian empire aside, the world has had one overwhelming military power, but by 1970, three major centers of social and economic power: German-based Europe, US-based North America, and the dynamic Northeast Asian region, then Japan-based.
Already by then the US capacity to “suppress independent development” had somewhat declined. Reagan’s criminal atrocities in Central America were a human and social catastrophe, but the United States was no longer able simply to carry out military coups and impose the terror regime of its choice, as in the past. And the capacity has declined further since, though it is still alive and well. As is the American empire, though in changing forms.
Militarily, of course, the United Stands stands entirely alone in the world. In economic terms, US GDP has declined as a share of the world economy since its peak at the end of World War II. But as discussed by political economist Sean Starrs — national accounts no longer have quite their former significance in the era of neoliberal globalization. A crucial measure of national economic power is the share of world wealth held by domestically based multinationals. By this measure, as he shows, US economic power is spectacular. US-based multinational corporations hold about half of world wealth, and are first in virtually every category.
In addition, the United States has effective control of the world’s financial system, which enables it to impose crushing and murderous sanctions designed to punish the populations of states that are guilty of “successful defiance” — the fundamental crime of Cuba, as the State Department explained in internal documents in the early sixties, and today the crime of Iran as well.
Empire is not a well-defined concept, but in terms of power to control and coerce, the United States ranks supreme in the global system. The US system of global dominance is likely to survive even Trump’s erratically swinging wrecking ball, perhaps in modified form, with greater prominence for the alliance of reactionary states and “illiberal democracies” taking shape under his aegis. Whether the environment that sustains organized human society will survive Trump and his Republican Party is a different question.