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.

(The text below includes highlights from the interview, as well as links and the Story Index. For the complete transcript, click here.)

Lost in ‘paradise’

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 [against the World Trade Organization]. There had never been anything like that in the past. The popular movements in the West, at least, 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 Internationals were very localized and narrow. [Click here for more on the Communist Internationals.]

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.

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. [Click here for more on how foreign investors constrain the actions of developing countries like Brazil.]

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. I went to the Via Campesina meeting [in Porto Alegre this year] — 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.

Q: What’s the situation for social movements in the United States right now?

A: The conditions are such that they ought to be able to achieve a lot. The United States is a complicated country. 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. 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. 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. 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. [Click here for discussion of the role of U.S. churches in promoting activism.]

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. 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. 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. One Gallup poll gave people slogans. 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]

It’s the same on a lot of issues. Take, say, the Vietnam War. 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. [Click here for more on public attitudes toward the Vietnam War.]

And it goes across the board. [Harvard’s Vanishing Voter Project] 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. [Click here for more on how important issues are kept out of the public arena.]

Democracy as a weapon

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.

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.

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. [Click here for discussion of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua.]

There’s a lack of interest and concern about the rest of the world. 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.

Q: 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. [Click here for discussion of the backlash against popular uprisings since World War II.]

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. 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 to privatization. So, reducing the arena of popular choice. 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 business and elite interests. 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. The concentration of capital that dominates the electoral system [in Brazil] 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.

Q: Do you think that people will, if given a chance, actually organize to change some of these things?

A: 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. 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.

[Joshua] Cohen and [Joel] 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.

Q: And that could have led to some of the misconceptions, for instance, about the Iraq War — people believing that the weapons of mass destruction had already been found.

A: Well, there, it’s pretty dramatic. There are cases, and that’s one of them, where you can see the effects of the propaganda showing almost immediately. So like in September 2002, when the propaganda began — the war drums began to beat — within a month, they had a majority of the population believing that Iraq is an imminent threat to the United States.

Like this morning, I was listening to the radio on the way in. The [president’s] reaction to the Kay Report, was, “Okay, this proves our point.” And he can say it without real fear of contradiction, even though it’s so outlandish. On a radio address a week or two ago, the president’s Saturday radio address, the theme was that the war was justified because we removed a tyrant who was developing weapons of mass destruction, and plotting with international terrorists. Every one of those claims has been totally exploded. The only known connection to terrorism is that the war increased it, exactly as every intelligence agency predicted it was going to do.

A culture of instant gratification

Q: On February 15, you had millions of people around the world, and hundreds of thousands in the United States, protesting the war in Iraq. And yet some people came out of that saying, “Well, I protested, and nothing changed. The foreign policy didn’t change.”

A: You see, that goes back to the earlier discussion, where we were talking about before about institutional permanence and continuity. I mean, in the United States, where there is very little continuity of social movements, and little permanence, and no institutional base, the attitudes that people have are, “We’ll try, we’ll put out a lot of effort for the next couple months, and if it didn’t work, that shows everything’s impossible.” You know, that’s not the way any social movement’s ever worked. I mean, abolitionism, women’s rights, labor rights, anything you take — you have to expect to keep at it day after day.

But the idea that you’re going to have some kind of instant gratification, or else it was worthless, is a very typically American idea. There’s a ton of propaganda about it. You’re supposed to look for instant gratification. [Click here for discussion of the 1968 Columbia University strike.] And when people [in the seventies] failed to achieve the long-term goals, they regarded it as a failure. And right at that point, the massive popular movements here — the young ones — a lot of them went off into very self-destructive directions.

These were unprecedented protests [in February]. Of course they’re not going to stop power systems, and anyone who participated should have understood that. But they might be a barrier to the next step, if you persist with them. But you have to have a realistic understanding of where power lies, how it can adapt to large-scale protests, and where they must go if they want to really change things.

Q: Do you think that movements today are getting better at building bridges across lines of race, class, gender, religion, other lines of identity?

A: There are some that are pretty successful at it. How much that generalizes is really hard to say. Because it’s also quite easy for systems of power and domination to separate people on these issues. Take the Immigrant [Workers Freedom] Ride. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how to get immigrants and workers to be on opposite sides. Same on international trade issues. If jobs are lost here, they’re going somewhere else. Well, how do you deal with that? The people and peasants in China have to eat too, so you can’t just disregard that question. [Click here for discussion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).]

Q: What kind of organizing would say would be more effective?

A: It’s got to be something that’s not just directed to a demonstration and then when you fail, you say, “Okay, we gave up.” It has to be day-to-day, ongoing organization. Delegations going to the Boston Globe editorial office and saying we want you to report the result of these reports, and if you don’t, we’re going to leaflet the whole city and say you’re a bunch of this, that, and the other thing. You know, that kind of pressure could work, and could break through. Alternative journalists could have done it. Very few did. Very few even knew about [the demonstrations surrounding the 2001 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quebec]. Again, you could read [about] it in Z Magazine or probably IndyMedia and stuff like that. But it doesn’t reach people because we don’t have the regular, continuing organizations.

If you go back to an older period — take, say, the period when the Communist Party was alive. And there’s lots and lots of things wrong with the Communist Party, Stalinism and everything else. But it was a very important organization, because it existed, and it was continuing. [Click here for discussion of Chomsky’s family and their involvement with the Communist Party.] You don’t want to reconstitute the old Stalinist Party, obviously. But you want to know what was right about it, as well as what was wrong about it.

Q: What role does democracy play in social movements today?

A: Unless they are really participatory, they’re not going to have staying power, and shouldn’t. And these are not easy things to develop. Anybody who’s been in any popular movement, whether it’s a group of twenty people or something larger, knows that there are internal tendencies that lead to hierarchy. [Click here for more on the importance of democracy in movements.]

Q: It has to be this consciousness among people, to make them creative, active citizens?

A: It has to be a consciousness, yes. Just as a massive propaganda system, that everyone’s subjected to from infancy, is trying to drive them to become what are called “rational wealth maximizers” — maximize your own wealth, and don’t give a damn about anybody else — there’s huge pressures to turn people into that, and there have to be equally huge pressures, or bigger ones, to bring out other aspects of human concerns and capacities. But it takes work.

Q: The New York Times is talking about the emergence of the “other superpower” to contest American power.

A: They were worried about it. Just like they were worried about the crisis of democracy. That one sentence in The New York Times represented real fear that the world may be getting out of control. And it shows up in other respects, too. Take this whole Old Europe, New Europe business. In part, it was just the expression of the absolute, passionate hatred of democracy among American elites, which is really remarkable. I mean, the fact that Old Europe is denounced because the governments took the same position as the majority of the population, and New Europe is praised because the governments overrode an even bigger majority of the population.

But there’s much deeper issues than that. Old Europe is France and Germany. That’s the industrial and commercial and financial heartland of Europe. And the concern over that, reflects an old concern — going back to the Second World War — that Europe was going to strike an independent course. And if it does it’ll be led by its heartland, France and Germany. So when they get out of line, and if they don’t follow orders from Crawford, Texas, it’s really dangerous. Because they might take Europe along with them into an independent course in world affairs. [Click here for discussion of the growing power of Northeast Asia.]

So it’s not just the “second superpower” — you know, popular opinion. It’s also the fact that the world has conflicting centers of power. The U.S. happens to dominate militarily, but not in other dimensions. The idea of losing control is very frightening, whether it’s control of domestic population, or control of the world system and so on. And international policies are very heavily geared toward this. Say, taking control of Iraqi oil, or making sure that Caspian Sea pipelines go to the West. A lot of this is based on the concern that Northeast Asia might seek energy independence. Which would mean the loss of a very powerful lever of control.

Q: When some Americans see the protests around the world against, for instance, the Iraq War, they see that as anti-Americanism. Do you think that’s a valid concern?

A: The very notion is interesting. The very fact that that notion exists is interesting. Concepts like anti-Americanism only exist in totalitarian states. Suppose people in Italy protest against Berlusconi. Is that called anti-Italianism? In Russia, it was called anti-Sovietism. In Brazil, under the generals, if you protested you were anti-Brazilian. But the only way that concept can exist is if you identify the leadership with the society, the culture, the people, their aspirations, and so on. If you do that, if you accept that deeply totalitarian doctrine, you can have notions like anti-Sovietism, anti-Brazilianism, anti-Americanism, and so on. [Click here for more on anti-Americanism.]

Q: What do you think the future of social movements will be, and are you optimistic or pessimistic?

A: I think the tendencies over the last thirty or forty years are pretty hopeful. But it’s really a question of trajectory. I mean, there are very competing trajectories in the world. There’s one towards centralization and militarization and domination. And disaster, because it is facing disaster. There’s another towards increasing concern over human rights, over issues of peace, over — you know, “Is this going to be an environment for our grandchildren to live in?” — and so on. And the question is which of these trajectories dominates.”

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: | Facebook | Twitter: @victortanchen

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