The New York Times Book Review has called him “arguably the most important intellectual alive today,” and the “foremost gadfly of our national conscience.” He is one of the ten most quoted sources in the humanities — just one notch below Freud on a list that includes Marx, Shakespeare, and the Bible. A giant in the field of linguistics, a prolific and uncompromising critic of American foreign policy, a radical activist for social justice — Noam Chomsky has managed to cram several lifetimes of intellectual and political labor in the span of his seventy-four years. He has also stirred several lifetimes’ worth of controversy: His political opponents have denounced him as a ringleader in the “blame America first” crowd, or a “self-hating Jew” who is dangerously critical of the Israeli state. Even one of the Times reviewers who heaped praise on him went on to call his political writings “maddeningly simple-minded” — a quote that Chomsky himself is fond of citing.

InTheFray Editor Victor Tan Chen met up this month with Professor Chomsky at his MIT office for an hour-long conversation on the state of today’s social movements. The focus of the interview was the recent growth in activism around the world, especially coming out of the massive popular protests against the U.S.-led war on Iraq. But in true Chomskian fashion, the discussion ranged widely — from Brazilian landless workers to sixties activism to free-trade economics to, yes, the elitist agenda of The New York Times.

(This is the complete transcript of the interview. For the highlights, including links, click here.)

Q: What do you think the present state of social movements around the globe is right now?

A: Well, it’s hard to think of a time when there has been anything approaching this level of activism, participation, and, in particular, interaction. That’s something quite new. The kinds of interaction that are reflected at the World Social Forum, for example, or at the international demonstrations at Cancún. There had never been anything like that in the past. The popular movements in the West, at least — the labor movement, the left movements from the nineteenth century — were always talking about internationalism. That’s why every union is called an international. And you have that series of [Communist] Internationals. But they were never anything remotely like internationals. Either unions, or the First and Second and Third Internationals were very localized and narrow.

Q: There wasn’t that kind of communication between national lines.

A: There was some but not much interaction. The unions are where they are: The international connections are very limited, even if they call themselves international. In Europe, there’s some integration, so the First International was a mixture of German, French, English. But, well, as you know, it just broke up. I think Marx destroyed it pretty much by moving the center to America and trying to get rid of it because he didn’t like the French influence. The Second International was substantial, but it was destroyed by the First World War. The Third International was just an agency of the Russian government. It meant nothing. The Fourth International were scattered intellectuals, mostly.

Q: So it was very top-bottom, it seems, very much centralized.

A: Well, the First International — which was the more serious one — broke up over the issue of centralization. I mean, Marx just didn’t wanted to relinquish control. And he didn’t like the French anarchists. There was a lot of Franco-German conflict. The Second International was also pretty much centralized. I mean, there were a lot of interesting people, and it was a huge organization, with huge mass parties. But it didn’t last very long; the others, not anything. These were the early attempts, in the early modern period. But then nothing much came of it. And it’s picked up through the growth of — first of all, through decolonization. Which didn’t mean necessarily throwing out foreign troops. Brazil wasn’t technically colonized, but it still had a kind of quasi-colonial relationship to the Western industrial powers. And of course, India was brutally colonized. But as decolonization and independence began to develop, and the Non-Aligned Movement developed, and the South Commission, and others, you started getting — these were reflections of popular activism throughout the South, which reached enormous proportions.

In Brazil, for example, it’s beyond anything in any Western country. In fact, what just happened in Brazil was historically pretty amazing. It’s the first time that popular movements reached this scale. A number of them: the Workers Party, the unions, the Landless Workers Movement — which played the most interesting role in many ways. They reached a sufficient scale so they could naturally take over political power over enormous odds: the centralization of capital and rich-poor gap and so on … What they can do about it is another question. There were efforts in this direction in the past. Forty years ago they did actually elect a mildly populist president — nothing remotely like Lula [Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, president of Brazil], and nothing like the populist Workers Party. But then it was just overthrown quickly by a military coup, organized from Washington and celebrated by American liberals as the greatest thing that ever happened.

Q: So there’s these external dangers that social movements face.

A: Well, that’s changed. There’s not going to be any military coup to overthrow Lula. For one thing, because the population no longer would accept it, either there or here. There’s been enough changes in popular consciousness, both in the South and, by now, in the rich countries, in the North. You couldn’t get away with a military coup now the way you could forty years ago when nobody paid attention. But it’s just almost unimaginable now.

The other, negative side is that they don’t need it now. Because the neoliberal mechanisms of the past thirty years have created conditions which undermine — severely undermine — the threat that democracy could actually function. So international financial markets have a stranglehold over Brazil and other Third World countries thanks to these measures. It’s almost unnecessary to think in terms of military coups. In fact, Lula is being compelled to follow policies more reactionary than the preceding government, the Cardoso government. It’s making it a little bit interesting to watch, and unpleasant to watch. Unless they want to pull out of the international financial system — like they create an independent new bloc of countries that just don’t want to accept these rules — unless they do that, as long as they decide to play by the rules, they have to maintain what’s called their “credibility,” with banks and foreign investors and the IMF and so on. And they have to work harder to do that than a reactionary government does, because the investors are always waiting to pounce on them if there’s any minor move towards social reform in health services or wherever. The result is he’s [Lula] got to go beyond the Cardoso government: raise interest rates higher, so on and so forth. So in a sense, they’re even harsher than the more center-right governments. And that’s coming to a crunch right now for the major players.

The point is, these things have developed in the South, in India and South Africa and other places, and there’s an enormous mobilization in the North that’s never existed before. And furthermore, there is solidarity. So at Cancún, where you were, there’s interaction among people. I mean, in Porto Alegre, when I got off the plane, I didn’t go to the World Social Forum, I went to the Via Campesina meeting — the international peasant movement, workers from all over the place. It’s alongside the World Social Forum, and interacts with it, but not the same. And it’s a powerful movement which could get participation by even Northern farmers who are, at a very different level, facing other, similar problems that are crushing them. The huge mass peasant movements in the world, which is probably more than half of the population of the world, is mirrored in the rich countries. Take a look at the food chain: There’s tremendous profits at both ends. The energy corporations, Cargill and those guys, are doing fine. But if you look at the middle, even rich countries’ farmers, the people who actually produce the food, are being crushed. Not in the sense that peasants get crushed … but the same phenomenon happens, and they have similar interests.

Q: What’s the situation for social movements in the United States right now? Is it favorable right now, the conditions for social movements?

A: The conditions are such that they ought to be able to achieve a lot. The United States is a complicated country. It’s very disorganized. There’s little in the way of political parties, the political system is almost unrelated to popular movements. On the other hand, there’s a tremendous amount of energy and activism, just very disorganized.

I travel a lot, and give talks. And one of the main reasons I go to give talks — and the organizers know it, we agree on this — is that, you know, I’ll go somewhere for a fundraiser or something, and one of the things it does, it just brings together people from that town or city or even region who are working along pretty similar lines, or at least parallel lines, and don’t have much to do with each other. But these events kind of bring them together and contribute to some further integration. This is a very disorganized, scattered country. If you just take Boston. Lots and lots of groups. But they barely know about each other. They’re doing their own thing, here, there, and the other place. I mean, the total level of participation is probably quite substantial. On the other hand, the degree of integration is slight, and the degree of involvement varies. And that means there’s not much in the way of long-term thinking or planning or strategy and so on.

Q: Why do you think there is such fragmentation within social movements within the United States?

A: In other industrial countries, these movements have tended to coalesce around the labor movement or social-democratic political parties or some kinds of ongoing institutions that maintain themselves. The United States does not have those institutions. So if I give a talk in some other industrial country, it’ll often be in a union hall. I almost never give a talk in a union hall [here] — occasionally, but it’s not a phenomenon that exists. Or even if it’s in a town hall, it’s set up by the labor council or labor party activists or something like that.

And that has both a positive side and a negative side. The positive side is that the movements here are not under the control of pretty autocratic, bureaucratized institutions. On the other hand it means there’s no center you can keep coming back to, there are no learning experiences. What was done ten years ago is forgotten because the people who did it are now somewhere else and you have to start over again and learn the same techniques. I mean, there are things you have to know: how do you distribute leaflets, how do you get people organized, how do you talk to people. And there’s just a lot of lore that’s involved in continual activism that gets lost because of the lack of continuing institutions.

In the United States, the one continuing institution is the church. The churches, a lot of the churches. So as a result, just because they exist, and they continue, a lot of the organizing and activism is around churches. I mean, just take Boston. Where do the groups have their offices? Usually in one or another church. But they’re there.

Q: [It’s] an institution to base your movement.

A: Well, there’s something there. There’s a church on Garden Street which will give you an office or something … But that’s unusual in the United States. And it’s also a big country, a very insular country, that doesn’t pay attention to the outside. There’s a tremendous amount of mobility as compared to other industrial countries — people don’t live where they grew up, others come from outside the country, and it means there’s a lack of ties.

And also this is an unusually business-run society. Other industrial countries are also largely business-run, but here it’s extraordinary. It shows up through the whole history. The U.S. has a very violent labor history. The major business-run propaganda institutions, the public relations industry, are in the U.S. or, secondarily, Britain, which is also where they had their major origins as part of the effort to control attitudes and beliefs.

And there’s enormous efforts going into trying to undermine popular organizations. And they are very centralized, and they are continuing, and they have an institutional base, and they have learning experiences — they pick up from last time and so on and so forth. So in terms of institutional structures it’s an extremely unequal battle. On the other hand it’s a pretty dissident population. And there’s plenty to be concerned about. So if you look at people’s attitudes, it looks like it ought to be an organizer’s paradise.

Q: In what sense?

A: For example, I remember on the Bicentennial, in 1976, there were lots of polls about people’s attitudes and all sorts of things. And some of them were pretty striking. One Gallup poll or something asked people, gave people slogans basically. The question was, “Is this in the Constitution?” Of course, nobody had a clue what’s in the Constitution — maybe they looked at it in eighth grade but forgot about it. So when you ask people is this in the Constitution, what you’re really asking them is this such an obvious truth that it must be in the Constitution. One of the questions was, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Fifty percent of the population thought that’s in the Constitution. Because it’s such an obvious truism. And you look at that, and you think, “Well, what are the organizers doing?” [laughs] Nobody, virtually, hears articulate support to this. Well, that’s what people think.

It’s the same on a lot of issues. Take, say, the Vietnam War. I mean, there was a huge amount of activism on the war, and there’s been a lot of studies of people’s attitudes on it. Because of the indoctrination in the academic world, people don’t go there, they don’t pursue the answers to the questions to find out what they mean, so all you know is the answers. The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, for example, does regular polls on people’s attitudes towards international affairs every four years. And some of the questions are always about the Vietnam War. And there’s an open question, “What do you think of the Vietnam War?” And there’s maybe ten choices. And the one that’s had an overwhelming majority since 1969 is, “Fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake.”

If you did a poll in the Harvard Faculty Club or editorial offices or something, nobody would say that. Everybody says, “It was a mistake. It was right, but it was a mistake. It was wrong because it cost us too much, but it was a mistake, it was a disaster, it got too costly, we got into a quagmire” — and that sort of thing. Well, apparently, that’s not the popular attitude. Now, what do people mean when they say, “Fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake”? Well, in order to find that out, you have to ask the further questions. But those questions don’t come to the minds of investigators — academic investigators.

And in fact, if you look at their interpretation of it … what they say is, well, this must mean that people didn’t like the casualties. Well, maybe. But that’s not the obvious interpretation. “Fundamentally wrong and immoral” might mean something beyond just too many American casualties. But it’s been built up in the doctrinal system to be something called the “Vietnam Syndrome,” meaning you don’t want to take casualties. Actually, the polls that have been done on that show that that’s not true. Recently, the main polling institution in the country — academic one — the Program on International Policy Attitudes at Maryland — has investigated this, and they consistently show that people don’t think that casualties are a cost they’re unwilling to accept if the cause is just.

And it goes across the board. Seventy-five percent of the population before the last election — there was a Harvard project on this, [Thomas E.] Patterson’s project — they found that before the last [presidential] elections, 75 percent of the population regarded it as a farce. That’s before Florida, before the Supreme Court. In fact, if you look at this whole stolen election business, it’s of great concern among intellectuals, but there’s almost no popular resonance. They don’t care.

And I think the reason is — if you look at the Vanishing Voter Project you can see the reasons: Before the election people weren’t taking it seriously, because it’s just rich people and public relations operations and so on and so forth. If you ask people, “Is the economic system fair?”: overwhelmingly, it’s unfair. Ask people about national health insurance: There’s been very consistent support for it, some of the latest figures are about 75 percent. If it’s being discussed, it’s called “politically impossible” — meaning, the insurance companies won’t accept it. It doesn’t matter if the population would. We could go across the board. These are things that people can organize about.

Q: Why aren’t they organizing? If there’s such a degree of grievances about health care, about the minimum wage, about the lack of a U.N. role in foreign policy, why aren’t the people agitating?

A: Take the U.N. role in foreign policy. In April, before the whole thing started becoming a catastrophe, there was still about two-thirds in favor of the U.N. taking over reconstruction and the U.N. taking the lead — not the United States — in international conflicts. Take, say, Cancún. They ask the questions in skewed ways, but what basically it comes down to is that people are largely opposed — pluralities, or majorities — are opposed to the international economic agreements. But these don’t come up in the political system, and they don’t come up in media debates and so on, because the sectors that have power concentrations, including educated sectors, are almost uniform on the other side. So therefore these things just don’t come up.

At the year 2000 election, for example, the big issue that ought to have been right at the core of it, was the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which was just coming along. Nobody even mentioned it. And the reasons are simple: The population is opposed, the elites favor it. So therefore it isn’t part of the political system. It’s not part of the debate. It’s like national health care. If someone mentions it, it’s “politically impossible.” If it turns out that 75 percent of the population supports it, it doesn’t matter, it’s still politically impossible. Well, that’s the way our system works. But it means that there’s a potential for organizing which is quite substantial.

Q: Can you talk a little about your own background in social movements, the ones you’ve been involved with in the past, and what lessons you can draw from that that could apply today?

A: Well, I was very active and political as a child, as a teenager and so on, but then it was mostly Palestine-related. I was all involved in what was then called Zionist movements — they’d now be called anti-Zionist. And then in the sixties I just kind of joined in with the stuff that was going on. The civil rights movement. I was very active in organizing resistance, to try to organize national tax resistance in the sixties — organizing resistance against the [Vietnam] War. Then just hung out from there.

In the eighties, I was very heavily involved in the solidarity movements in regard to Central America. Which were a real breakthrough. They were what people would call conservative in many respects — the church, the Midwest. But it was the first time in the history of Europe or the United States ever, as far as I know, that large numbers of people from the imperial society went to live with the victims. Very courageously. To help them, to offer some protection because there’s a white face around. And a lot of them stayed. By now they’re all over the world. That’s a real breakthrough, and it’s part of the mood that led to the international solidarity that is now manifesting itself in coordination with these big Southern movements which were around building for some time.

Q: Do you see some continuity to the global justice movement?

A: The global justice movements, yeah. And they sort of grew out of this, in a kind of unplanned fashion, they just developed into these further interactions and developments. People think of the global justice movements as originating in Seattle. But that’s very misleading. They were much more powerful in the South. But they were kind of disregarded. When it hit a Northern city, you can’t disregard it any longer. So then, you know, Seattle, Genoa, Prague, Quebec — that’s visible, you can’t say I don’t see that. But if it’s peasants storming the Indian parliament and getting them to vote down the Uruguay Round — it might make a small note on the back page, even if though it’s a much more powerful movement.

Q: Because of the parochialism of Americans, or Northerners in general?

A: People in the rich countries didn’t care. Take the probably millions of people who have been killed in the Congo in the last two years. Nobody knows. Nobody cares. You can say, well, we’re sending troops to Iraq for humanitarian reasons. Whatever you think of that argument, a fraction of those forces in Eastern Congo would have deterred and maybe stopped huge massacres, way beyond anything there [in Iraq]. Of course, they don’t have oil wealth and are too unimportant to control and so on, so it doesn’t come up.

Probably the biggest international issue in the 1980s, the one that dominated the press more than anything else, was Nicaragua. A large part of the country didn’t know which side we were on. Many people thought the U.S. was supporting the government. Because the U.S. supports governments, and the guerrillas are the bad guys. And a lot of people didn’t know where Nicaragua was. An island somewhere maybe in Africa, or something like that.

There’s a lack of interest and concern about the rest of the world. When people here are asked, for example, about national health insurance. What they’re really asked about is, do you want the Canadian system? Because these people know Canada is there. But if you ask people, do you want the French system, they don’t know what you’re talking about. So these are things that have to be overcome if there’s going to real international solidarity. And the social justice movements have done it for a lot of people. They do reach out to plenty of people now who know a lot about the world. For example, by now there are plenty of people who are getting their information about ongoing events in the world through the Internet. I don’t know what the numbers are, but it’s not insubstantial. Whereas if you went back ten years, the number of people who even knew that the BBC or a foreign newspaper existed was extremely small.

Q: What kind of contribution do you think social movements can give to this distressing picture globally? What can social movements do to change the situation?

A: The bounds are endless. I mean, pick what you like. People are in favor of democratic control, they don’t want to work in corporate tyrannies, they don’t like aggression and massacre, they’d like to have social services.

Just run across the board. Every one of those things is a possibility for organizing. And nothing’s graven in stone. These are very fragile systems of control and domination. And the people in them know that — they’re always deeply concerned about any manifestation of popular activism, and react very powerfully to try to crush it. And there’s now pretty good scholarship on this, for the period after the Second World War … One of the results of the anti-fascist war was a growth of strong, kind of radical, democratic sentiment — including in the United States. You were hearing calls for worker takeover of industry, and things that went pretty far-reaching. And it struck a real panic in elite centers. And they organized huge campaigns to try to crush it. I mean, I thought I knew something about it until some of the scholarly work started to come out, and it’s shocking to see the extent and coordination and the concentration on trying to overcome what they called, “the hazard facing industrialists in the rising political power of the masses.”

And through the fifties it kind of calmed things down. Then the sixties came along and everything just blew up. And it had the same reaction. We’re right in the middle of that right now. There’s tremendous fear of a “crisis of democracy” — too much democratization. The right-wing think tanks got organized to try to shift the political spectrum. The spectrum of discussion and debate changed. The educational system changed.

In fact, a lot of the neoliberal programs which come from the early seventies — you can debate what their economic impact is. It’s pretty negative, in my opinion. But it’s debatable at least. However, what’s not debatable is their effect in undermining democracy. Almost every element of them is designed to reduce the arena of popular participation and decision-making. And that runs from free financial flows — as [economist John Maynard] Keynes knew all along — to privatization. So, reducing the arena of popular choice. And you can see it dramatically in places like Brazil. You can see it here, too. The fact that people may care about Social Security and the environment and health care and so on, is just gradually squeezed out of the public arena as much as possible.

Q: And social movements can provide some antidote to that?

A: Well, you can see the fear there is among highly concentrated — and very class conscious — business and elite interests, managerial interests. That’s in business, politics, education, and media. There’s a lot of interaction. There’s high class consciousness, high degree of commitment to preventing another “crisis of democracy” from developing. And the social movements, the only answer they have to that is to have the population on their side.

And the same is true of elections. Take, say, Brazil, which is democratic in a sense that we can barely aspire to at this point. I mean, the concentration of capital that dominates the electoral system is enormous. How are they able to counter it? Well, just by having mass popular movements of pretty poor people who combine and balance, counterbalance, capital concentrations.

We don’t have that here. So here the elections are just bought. If a candidate happens to represent the interests and concerns of maybe even a large majority of the population, he can’t even enter the political system. Because they’re not organized enough to counter the concentration of capital, media, propaganda, and other mechanisms. Well, you know, that all has to be developed.

Q: Do you think that people will, if given a chance, actually organize to change some of these things? Or do people really do crave submission, like [Russian novelist Fyodor] Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor says?

A: You know, Grand Inquisitor is kind of a caricature. I think more to the point is to say what Josh Cohen and Joel Rogers wrote about twenty years ago. It’s not so much people crave submission. It’s just that the individual costs of opposition are reasonably high, and there’s a free-rider effect. Others can profit from the gains if somebody sacrifices themselves. And that makes it a hard choice for people to make that decision. Say you want to become a union organizer. You may have a rotten time of it, but the working people who you succeed in organizing may be better off at the end. But that kind of mechanism tends to dampen participation for an individual.

An individual is making a real choice that may be complicated and — by some measures — difficult. But if you measure the nature of your life by the standard criteria that are imposed on you by the doctrinal system — meaning make a lot of money, live in a nice house, don’t have people yell at you, and get a good job — if those are the criteria of what makes a decent life, then you pay a cost if you decide to become involved in a global justice movement or something else. On the other hand, there’s no reason why we should accept those values. The people who do it, they just have a different concept of what’s a decent life. But it’s drilled into you from childhood. It has a certain logic to it. And it’s easy to submit to it. And those mechanisms, much more than Grand Inquisitor-style subordination, I think are very real.

So I think Cohen and Rogers make a very convincing statement of that. They don’t think, and I don’t think, it necessarily immobilizes people. But it does reveal some of the impediments to participation as long as you subordinate yourself to the values that are imposed on you by massive propaganda systems. And they really are massive. I mean, if you look at the impact of television and commercialization and so on and so forth, it’s just enormous. It has an overwhelming effect, particularly on young people.

Go to part two

Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Site: victortanchen.com | Facebook | Twitter: @victortanchen

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