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Knowing Noam

An interview with Noam Chomsky, the Godfather of political dissent

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 workers … 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 common aspirations … 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 … there has never been anything like this. It's a genuine peoples movement.'

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.'

Thought control
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.'

Intellectual cowardice
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 about themselves.'

War games
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 of Afghanistan.

'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 … well, 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 of capital …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"'

Future perfect?
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.'