An interview with Noam Chomsky, the Godfather of political
The Ecologist, May 2002
Back in February, at the World Social Forum in Brazil,
Noam Chomsky nearly caused a riot. Thousands of people
had gathered in a university lecture theatre to listen
to a talk by the Godfather of political dissent. They
were crammed into a sweaty hall, not a millimetre between
them, a vast, heaving, grumbling fire hazard. The corridors
outside the room were crawling for dozens of metres
each way as people tried to elbow their way in. They
waited for an hour until it was announced that, because
there were so many people, the venue had been changed
to a bigger room. The ensuing mass unrest (shouting,
swearing, biro-hurling) fortunately failed to tip over
into open revolution, as people filed over to another
venue, and hundreds more gathered outside around huge
television screens to catch a glimpse of their hero.
Now the focus of this mass enthusiasm sits, in his
trademark green cords and brown jumper, in his office
in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Looking every inch the
mild-mannered academic he is, hemmed in by Everests
of books and papers, this small, patient, grey-haired
man doesn't look like a radical idol to millions, and
tends to get irritated when you point out that he is.
After all, one of the key themes of Noam Chomsky's political
life has been the importance of thinking for yourself,
questioning everything you are told, by whoever tells
you it; seeking the truth below the surface. Hero worship
has no place in Chomsky's universe.
But hero worship isn't the point. The point is that
Noam Chomsky, 74-year old Professor of Modern Language
and Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
author of an uncountable number of books, activist for
over half a century, is one of the most important living
political thinkers, and the owner of what may be the
biggest brain in the West. Loathed by the establishment,
adored by dissidents, both to degrees which can be frightening,
Chomsky's views on politics, economics and society are
almost always crisp, informed by a refreshing egalitarian
morality, and hugely well-informed. Oh, and leagues
away from the mainstream of political debate; one reason,
perhaps, why the mainstream media he is so critical
of rarely lets us hear them.
A new International
So what does this seasoned dissident think about the
'anti-globalisation' movement; the tens of millions
across the world who are standing up against corporate
capitalism? A new hope, or a flash in the pan? Back
in February, Chomsky described the World Social Forum,
where 60,000 activists gathered to discuss alternatives
to the current system, as 'the first real promise of
a genuine International'. What did he mean?
He meant, he explains, by way of a history lesson,
that today's movement is more promising in terms of
furthering the interests of real people (rather than
political ideologues) than any of the old 'Workers Internationals'
- the global gatherings of the left which helped lay
the foundations for twentieth century socialism. 'The
primary theme of the left and the workers movements,
from their modern origins,' he says, 'has been globalisation.
That's why every union is called an international
the First International [held in London in 1864] was
promising, but it was narrow. It was primarily European
furthermore it was killed, mainly by
Marx, because it was getting out of hand - it was getting
too democratic, starting to respond to the wishes of
a majority of the participants, and Marx didn't like
that. The Second International [which began in 1889
in Paris] was very broad, and social democratic - but
it was still European, and it was killed by the Second
World War. The Third [in Moscow, from the 1930] was
just an outlet for Bolshevik propaganda, and the Fourth
International was Trotskyite - so there's never been
anything that's realised the initial hopes.'
And does today's movement do that? 'Well, this one
is different. For one thing it originated in the South
- there's a reason why the World Social Forum is in
Porto Alegre and not in London. This movement originated
in the South, but then it developed a level of international
solidarity which is quite new. Still Southern-based,
but bringing in significant sectors of more developed
societies, so it has an international scale that none
of the 'Internationals' ever had. It's also much broader
- it's not a working men's association, it has participants
from all parts of life, with different interests but
and it's growing. And it's
serious. There has never been an international movement
of peoples' organisations with anything remotely like
the geographical scale, the diversity and participation,
the range of interests and concerns
never been anything like this. It's a genuine peoples
I wonder, then, why nobody over here in the West seems
to have noticed it? 'The elite world knows nothing about
it,' says Chomsky simply, as if it were the most obvious
point in the world, which to him it probably is. 'The
extent to which they don't know about it is quite dramatic.
An example - a couple of days ago on the New York Times
business page, there was an article by their economics
correspondent. There was a whole technical discussion
about GATS [the WTO's General Agreement on Trade in
Services, currently being negotiated, which will open
the path for privatisation of public services], and
then he made an interesting comment. He said "no-one
has protested GATS". Well, the fact is that GATS
is the central thing that people have been protesting
for years. And this journalist - he's not lying, it's
just that in the stuff he reads, no-one mentions GATS.
None of the people he meets in restaurants tell him
that they're protesting GATS. In educated opinion, nobody
ever discusses GATS. And there's a reason the press
has never mentioned GATS protests, which is that the
only thing you're allowed to describe about protesters
is when you can find somebody throwing a rock. If they
have a forum in which they discuss GATS, you're not
allowed to write about that. That's a kind of principle
that the free press maintains - and therefore he can
probably believe that.'
Elites versus people
It appears that I've set Chomsky off on one of his favourite
themes: information - or lack of it - and the role of
the media. Chomsky's views on how the mainstream media
in 'free' societies almost unconsciously censor information
and shape their output in the image of the corporate
and political mainstream is one of the reasons his voice
is never heard in the US media. He believes that the
media and intellectual classes form an information elite
which is so cut off from mainstream society that it
is unable and - because of its corporate paymasters
and other more subtle factors - unwilling to reflect
the views of the majority of people.
'This is part of the extreme divide that's developing
between a small sector of very powerful people, including
the educated sectors in the rich and the poor countries,
and the rest of the population, which is going off in
a different direction,' he says. 'You can see it very
dramatically in the United States, which is a pretty
apolitical country. So, for example, in the November
2000 [presidential] elections, intellectuals were very
upset about stealing the vote, about the Supreme Court
decision - they could never understand why the population
didn't care one way or another. A project called the
Vanishing Voter Study prepared detailed public attitude
surveys, and on the eve of that election, before any
of the Florida shenanigans, [it reported that] about
75% of the population just regarded the election as
a farce. They said it's just a kind of game between
rich people and public relations people and the press
Because the kind of things the public's interested in
were not allowed to appear in the election.'
What kind of things? Big economic themes, for one,
he says. 'You don't need a degree in economics to know
that a trade deficit harms your work. Things like this
are big issues amongst the public, as are the takeover
of public services. A couple of days ago, Bush announced
protection for the steel industry - you know, big issue.
Well, a small issue, confined to the back pages, was
that his decision did not offer anything to steel workers
who have been laid off. They lose everything: their
pensions, their health rights, that they all had tied
up in the corporation. They're finished. No protection
for them. And people know that; those are the kind of
issues that concern them, and those issues don't come
up in elections. None of the issues that people care
about are allowed in the electoral arena, for the very
simple reason that the business world has different
opinions about them. And it's part of a growing gap
between public attitudes and elite attitudes.'
If ever there were a man who believed that information
is power, then it is Chomsky. More than that, he sees
control of information as essential to the maintenance
of power. People always throw the phrase 'conspiracy
theorist' at Chomsky when he comes out with ideas like
this, but, as he points out, he's hardly the first to
have said it.
'I think this goes back 400 years, to the history of
British democracy,' he says. 'Go back to the 17th century,
when the first democratic revolution [after the English
Civil War] was crushed - the establishment were scared.
They were very scared, because the rabble was coming
out and speaking openly and challenging them, these
'men of best quality', and it was by no means clear
that they were going to be crushed. Well, they were,
but the problem remained. And by the time you get to
the foundation of modern political thought, with David
Hume - he starts right off by saying that power is in
the hands of the governed, and the best way to prevent
them from using it is control of opinion. Because if
they ever realise that power is in their hands, they'll
take it. And any government, whether totalitarian or
democratic - ultimately, it's going to rely on opinion.
The only qualification I think you have to make to that
point is that worse when you have a more 'free' society.
A more brutal society really doesn't need to control
opinion so much
you can have information but
you can't do much with it. In the West, it matters a
lot. People can do a lot more with information - they
cannot be controlled by force. That's why the public
relations industry, which is mainly committed to control
of the public mind, developed in Britain and the United
States - freer societies. The West really needs this
stuff - not quite thought control, but attitude control
primarily to divert people from trying to take
control over their lives. It's pretty open, and these
are massive industries.'
They certainly seem to have succeeded in spreading
consumerism across the Western world, I say. Maybe this
is because people are having their minds warped; or
maybe it's because it's what they want?
'They can get people to be consumerist,' he agrees,
'but the question is to what extent they really change
their attitudes. I think they do on the surface, but
penetrate a little bit and I think it's a pretty thin
submissiveness. It's quite different among educated
people. They are very submissive. They are the purveyors
of indoctrination, so they tend to internalise it. You
can see how little [criticism of the establishment]
is heard from them right now. It was the same during
the Vietnam war, which was, of course, the biggest single
political issue in the US in the last forty years...
Very little serious criticism of the war by intellectuals...
We don't really care if we kill people abroad. What
we care about is that they might do it to us. That's
the intellectual attitude. I doubt very much if it's
the public's attitude.'
A curious thing about Chomsky, one of the world's most
famous academics, is such attacks on 'intellectuals.'
What really infuriates him, it seems, is how the intellectual
classes use their skills and knowledge to prop up power
rather than for what he sees as the intellectual's duty
- questioning it.
'One of the few predictions in human affairs that ever
came out true,' he says, 'was by [the anarchist thinker]
Bakunin in the 19th century, who predicted that the
intelligentsia would go in 2 directions. One of them
is the followers of Marx, who will try to gain state
power on the back of workers movements, and will create
the harshest dictatorships the world has ever seen.
The other direction will be those who understand that
power lies within the existing system. They will become
its loyal servants and agents. They're basically the
same people, they just have different views on where
power lies. And this explains the phenomena of this
quick shift that you often see amongst intellectuals
from one position to another. It's very easy to do.
I think the reason is that you're not changing your
position at all, you're just changing your judgement
as to where power lies. It's a very interesting phenomenon
which is never written about. History is written by
intellectuals and they don't like to tell the truth
I want to move on to probably the most important current
topic - the so-called 'war against terror'. Chomsky
received even more of a kicking than usual from his
hated intellectual classes in the US last year, when
he calmly pointed out that the US had killed more people
by bombing medicine factories in the Sudan than Al-Qaeda
had killed in the twin towers. He said he was merely
asking for civilian victims of terror to be noticed
wherever they were in the world. In any case, how, now,
does he justify his assertion that the population as
a whole is more radical, more dissident, than the establishment
gives them credit for? Recent opinion polls, after all,
show overwhelming support for Bush, and for the bombing
'But take a look at the questions' he says. 'You have
enormous support for going after the people who carried
out the terrorist atrocities, to capture or kill them.
That's not surprising. Do you have enormous support
for a war that was undertaken on the assumption that
several million people would be put at risk of starvation?
No, because nobody knows that. Do you have enormous
support for opposing the wishes of Afghans as to how
the war should be conducted? Remember that when the
war started there was never a stated war aim of overthrowing
the Taliban - it was a latecomer. Everyone pretends
that's what it was for, but it wasn't. That came a couple
of weeks after the bombing. At the time this aim was
announced, in late October, there was a big meeting
of about 1000 Afghan leaders in Peshawar, Pakistan.
One thing they agreed on unanimously was 'stop the bombing'
- because it's undermining our efforts to overthrow
the Taliban regime from the inside - which we can do,
without destroying the country. RAWA, the major womens'
group in Afghanistan, had the same position
ask people around the country if they've listened to
the voice of the Afghans - they won't know what you're
talking about. If they did know, they would say yes,
maybe we should listen to the voice of the Afghans,
maybe we shouldn't be bombing the country in order to
show our muscle.'
Well, maybe they would, and maybe they wouldn't. Chomsky
is nothing if not a seeker after hope. Maybe his faith
in his fellow citizens is fuelled by his experiences
in the sixties. Chomsky was one of the first people
to try and build opposition to the Vietnam war - an
ultimately successful cause that changed America forever.
This time, he says, there is 'more protest and dissidence
that any time in the past in any comparable stage of
any international conflict. Much more. People compare
it to Vietnam. They say, "look how much protest
there was about Vietnam. Why's everybody quiet?"
It's absolute nonsense. When Kennedy launched the war
in 1962, you couldn't get two people in a room to talk
about it. It took years before we could build up any
protest, any dissent - it wasn't until hundreds of thousands
of South Vietnamese had been killed and huge American
armies were rampaging around the country and we started
bombing the North - years later - that you could start
getting some protest.'
The free trade myth
Maybe Vietnam-scale protests about the war will come.
Meanwhile, back in Seattle, Prague, Genoa, Mexico City,
Durban and elsewhere, vast protests against global capitalism
are now so regular as to be almost humdrum. Does Chomsky
think free trade itself is threatened by this movement?
As it turns out, no. Because he doesn't think free
trade exists. He takes me across the Mexican border,
by way of NAFTA - the North American Free Trade Agreement
which removed barriers to trade between the US, Mexico
and Canada in 1994 - to illustrate his point.
'The US-Mexican border was literally militarised in
1994' he points out. 'Why? Because it was expected that
NAFTA would bring Mexico what's called an 'economic
miracle' - which means an economic disaster for most
of the population. One major reason was that Mexican
agriculture would be wiped out because of a flood of
highly subsidised US agribusiness exports across the
border, which the peasants couldn't compete with. Peoples'
lives would be destroyed and they'd look for new lives
across the border. In other words, the expectation was
that NAFTA would be an economic disaster for huge numbers
of Mexicans [exactly what has happened], and therefore
we have to militarise the border.
What does this mean for free trade? Go back to Adam
Smith - the basic principle of free trade is free movement
of people. Adam Smith assumed there would not be movement
now we have exactly the opposite. We
have to block movement of people by force and free up
movement of capital. And that's called free trade. Meanwhile,
Bush can protect the steel industry, but the Mexicans
can't protect their farms. All the free trade rhetoric
is just that; rhetoric. The real message from the powerful
about free trade is "we'll do it when it suits
us. The rest of the time we'll do what we like while
we spin tales about how wonderful it is"'
Chomsky will talk at length, answer any question he's
asked, and do it all quietly, politely, forcibly and
with conviction. One thing he won't do, though, it turns
out, is predict where any of this might lead. He says
he's 'more hopeful than for a very long time' about
the future - despite the war, he sees a worldwide peoples'
movement which chimes, at last, with much of what he's
been talking about for decades. But will he say where
it might lead? No chance; not in print, anyway. 'Prediction
in human affairs
' he shakes his head, and leaves
the sentence unfinished. 'Even predicting the weather
has an awful record. No thanks.'