Noam Chomsky on Hopes and Prospects for Activism: “We Can Achieve a Lot”

Acclaimed philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He shared his perspectives on international affairs, economics, and other themes in an interview conducted at his office in Boston on September 14, 2010.

Keane Bhatt: Your new book Hopes and Prospects begins with the story of Haiti, and that’s what we discussed last, so it’s an appropriate place to start the interview.  For hundreds of thousands of people, decent, hurricane-resistant housing is a chimera.  Despite the billions given to relief agencies, Carrefour camp-dwellers pay a monthly “tax” just to stay there; 1.3 million people are still internally displaced.  An estimated 8,000 displaced persons have been forcibly evicted.  If there were a functioning, democratic Haitian state, it could use eminent domain on behalf of the affected population to secure land for permanent housing.  But in the upcoming elections that the U.S. is financing, the largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas, has been excluded along with 13 others, and there hasn’t been a comprehensive initiative to provide internally displaced persons with the ID cards required to vote.

You’ve talked about the contempt for democracy shown before — funding [World Bank official and former Duvalier minister] Marc Bazin’s candidacy against Aristide in 1990, punishing Gaza for voting the wrong way, funding opposition parties throughout Latin America — but now it seems that pretenses for supporting even procedural democracy can be abandoned.  The Honduran elections under the coup regime were accepted too.  Are we seeing a new trend of greater brazenness and extremism?

Noam Chomsky: I think it’s always been true.  Democracy is a danger to any powerful group.  Take, say, the United States — formally maybe one of the most advanced democracies in the world.  And one of the earliest, in fact — in the 18th century, it was way in the lead.  The founding fathers were very concerned about the danger of democracy and spoke quite openly about the need to construct the democratic institutions so that threat would be contained.  That’s why the Senate has so much more power than the House, to mention just one example.

KB: In Failed States, you mention seven solutions for dealing with international problems.  The third one is, “Let the UN take the lead in international crises.”  While I see the general wisdom in this, particularly with regard to Iraq and Iran, how does this apply to Haiti, which has been under UN MINUSTAH occupation since the 2004 coup?

NC: First of all, I was actually reporting public opinion there in those passages.  Public opinion said, “We think the UN, not the U.S., should take the lead in international crises,” and I think there’s some legitimacy to that, but we have to recognize — and I probably discussed it in the same context — that the UN is not an independent agent.  The UN is an agent of the states that constitute it and, more specifically, of the five veto-holding states in the Security Council and, even more specifically than that, of the United States.  The UN can go as far as the U.S. will allow, and no further.  And it’s bound by conditions that the powerful states, which means mostly the U.S., impose.  Haiti’s a case in point.  But there are plenty of others.  Take, say, the sanctions on Iraq under Clinton and until the invasion.  They’re called UN sanctions and they were administered through the UN, but if you look at them more closely, it turns out they were U.S. sanctions.  So yeah, the flaw you mention is right in here.  But that’s inherent in the UN structure.  I mean, the UN to some extent diffuses U.S. power.  Therefore it’s less directly an agency of the United States than the U.S. Army is.  But, still, it can’t escape the distribution of power in the world.

KB: Back in 1994, journalist Allan Nairn reported the sentiments of Major Louis Kernisan of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, who said “You’re going to end up dealing with the same folks as before, the five families that run the country, the military and the bourgeoisie . . .  it’s not going to be the slum guy from Cite Soleil.”  This is an example of what you’ve discussed: honest planners using Marxian analysis.  Elites and strategists seem to have a good grasp of social and international relations, but with the values reversed.  You’ve said you don’t particularly care much for Marx.  Does this include the analytical framework that planners and elites employ?

NC: It’s not quite accurate; I don’t say I don’t care much about him.  I wouldn’t call myself a Marxist, I don’t think anybody should be any kind of an “-ist.”  As far as Marx’s analysis of capitalism, there’s a lot of very useful ideas in it, but we have to remember — and he would’ve been the first to say — he’s developing an abstract model of 19th century capitalism.  It’s abstract and it’s changed.  As far as his prescriptions for the post-capitalist future were concerned, he really didn’t have much to say.  And with some justice, I think.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t say that I don’t care much for Marx; he offered lots of insights into how society works, and he was an extremely good analyst of the current events of the day.  I think he would take it for granted that elites are basically Marxist — they believe in class analysis, they believe in class struggle, and in a really business-run society like the United States, the business elites are deeply committed to class struggle and are engaged in it all the time.  And they understand.  They’re instinctive Marxists; they don’t have to read it.

KB: In Hopes and Prospects you discussed the hypocrisy at the beginning of the financial crisis: IMF proposals for the Third World were to pay back debt to core countries, raise interest rates, privatize, and generally engage in pro-cyclical policies.  For the U.S., the accepted prescriptions were: stimulate economy, forget about debt, nationalize industry.  But since then, a very powerful current emerged and changed the policy debate — now it’s about deficit reduction and austerity at home, which the Obama administration is actively fueling with its deficit commission and talk of the federal government’s need to tighten its belt.  Is this shift another indicator of what Simon Johnson talks about, namely the similarities between the U.S. and emerging-market oligarchies?  Is the U.S. “becoming a banana republic,” as he puts it?  Your book mentions Citigroup’s buoyant analysis of plutonomies, in which the economy functions in all respects in the interests of its richest 10 percent, largely oblivious of the needs of everyone else.  Is this what’s taking place?

NC: It’s a development that’s been going on, though even more so in Europe.  The United States in many ways resembles a Third World country — far more elevated, but it has many of those structural characteristics: the extreme inequality of wealth, the deterioration of infrastructure because it only serves poor people, predatory operations, huge corruption, and so on.  These are all pretty typical of Third World countries, not countries that are trying to develop a sound future economy.  Let’s just steal what we can and go away.  Regarding Citigroup’s analysis, it’s certainly more so than before.  It’s never been untrue, but certainly more so now.  Take the period that was moving toward social democracy of some kind — say the ’50s and the ’60s — that’s when the technology that you’re using right now was developed.  And it was developed at taxpayer expense, but there was no particular thought that the taxpayer would benefit from it.  People who would benefit from it were IBM, Microsoft, and so on.  The corporate sector wanted the population of the country to pay the costs, take the risks.  And it was done totally fraudulently, not so that you could have a computer.  People thought they were defending themselves from the Russians or something.  But planners understood.

KB: In characterizing the U.S. financial crisis, you say that “markets are inefficient. . . .  They can be controlled by some degree of regulation, but that was dismantled under religious fanaticism about efficient markets, which lacked empirical support and theoretical basis; it was just based on religious fanaticism.”  Was this “irrational fundamentalism” the major factor in the development of the current world economic crisis?  I ask because in Hopes and Prospects, you direct readers wishing to understand the crisis’s roots to Foster and Magdoff’s The Great Financial Crisis.  Their thesis is that due to long-run stagnation tendencies in the real economy, “profits were increasingly directed away from investment in the expansion of productive capacity and toward financial speculation.”  For Foster and Magdoff, the religious fanaticism was politically expedient and helped feed a series of massive financial bubbles, but this push compensated for the underlying, long-term stagnation tendencies of the real economy.

NC: I think that there’s some truth to that.  There are books that are now available that I would’ve also referred to which go way beyond what I said — people from right in the middle of the economics profession going to the point of declaring economists criminals.  For example, Yves Smith’s book — which is really good — I mean, she just says that those guys are a plague.  The field ought to be dismantled.  And she goes into the real details of it and shows what there is in economic theory that is so corrupt that it’s hard to discuss.  It’s a great book.  And there are a couple of others, like probably Simon Johnson’s 13 Bankers, which I haven’t read yet.

KB: According to Foster and Magdoff, the basic contradiction in the real economy, related to growing income and wealth inequality, eventually exerted itself like a force of gravity, which led to a financial implosion.  The disjuncture between the stagnant real economy and the increasingly bloated financial sphere had grown to such an extent that when the housing bubble finally popped, the resulting fallout overwhelmed the power of the central banks to counter it as “lenders of last resort.”  Does all of this suggest that the possibilities for regulating the system’s inefficient markets are more limited than is commonly supposed?

NC: I don’t think so, because there was a period of regulation from the New Deal up to the ’70s, and there were no financial crises.  Since the ’70s, the regulatory structure has partially been dismantled, partially captured — you know, regulatory capture — and partially it’s been affected by what’s sometimes called cognitive regulatory capture.  That is, the regulators bought the ideology that’s being peddled by economists, and business happily picks it up because it’s so good for them, not because they think there’s any merit in it.  And as a result, since the ’70s there have been repeated financial crises; this is not the first one, they’ve been regular.

In the Asian countries, there was a natural reaction to the crisis of the late ’90s: after the countries sort of worked their way out of the Asian financial crisis, they started building up their financial reserves.  That’s now condemned.  That’s the famous capital glut that’s causing global imbalances, forcing our interest rates down, and doing all kinds of horrible things.  It was a very rational reaction to the huge flow of speculative capital and to the economists’ theories.  So yeah, they were never in the market system much, but they’re breaking out of it even more, storing up reserves, imbalancing the global economy, whereas what was done here is quite the opposite: let’s just borrow.  Borrow like mad, nothing can go wrong, because we have a theory that proves that markets are efficient and that participants have perfect information — on to the indefinite future, in fact, if you take the theorems seriously.  So you’ve got a worse financial crisis, but if you look at it, Reagan left the country with a major financial crisis — Savings and Loans (after another in 1987) — ten years later you had the tech bubble; in between, you had Long Term Capital Management; the fact that the economics profession could survive that is astonishing.  You know the story, a couple years after that comes the housing bubble.  For the population, the economy has been surviving on asset inflation, increasing debt and increasing work hours, often for both adults in the family.

KB: You’re bringing up the Asian financial crisis, and the countries that had not followed the orthodoxy of opening capital markets came out unscathed — India, China, Taiwan. . . .

NC: In South Korea, you could get the death penalty for capital flight.  In fact, Malaysia also came out of the Asian crisis.  It was imposing capital controls.  Now the economists were all saying it’s a disaster.  But they did quite well.  Same with Argentina, the former poster child for the IMF, leading to a serious crisis.  It then disregarded all the warnings and doctrines and the economy did very well, contrary to predictions.

KB: You insist on disaggregating the developing countries to shed light on growth and social improvement during the neoliberal era.  In the case of India, which grew at a rapid pace, you believe that it could have only happened by violating neoliberal rules: they maintained control over capital flows and ignored IMF rules in many ways.  This wouldn’t have happened if it were a disciplined pupil, like Argentina, which you just mentioned, or the countries of Latin America and Africa in general.

NC: Well, there’s a high rate of growth but look at what’s happened to the population.  Their food consumption is declining!

KB: A JNU economist, Prabhat Patnaik, who’s also Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board, brings up a case I’d like to share with you because of its implications: according to him, Kerala enjoyed excellent social sector achievements but was virtually stagnant.  After ’87-88, Kerala grew very rapidly, and nobody was sure why, but it was precisely the period of declining social sector achievements.  He concludes that high growth leading to social achievements doesn’t necessarily hold, but that the opposite occurred in Kerala.

NC: I know him a little bit, and he knows way more than I do, but I think there’s another factor there: the remittances.  They were sending huge numbers of people out to the Gulf.  They had a good education system, so they could go out and do the technical work to run the Gulf states, which, speaking of predatory economies: they’re grotesque.  You go to Kuwait, the Kuwaitis don’t do anything.  Everything is done by South Asians, Filipinos, and Palestinians until they threw them out.  And Kerala could provide that, and send back remittances, and I don’t know what the scale is, but it was large.  And in fact, I was there around 2002, I guess, but it’s kind of painful driving through the country.  It’s a very lush country, but you look at these beautiful rice fields — they’re deserted.  They can’t compete with Vietnamese rice.  The rubber forests are falling apart.  They could solve that, but it would take inputs, and there are very little inputs into rural areas.

KB: Besides Utsa Patnaik‘s work on declining caloric consumption in India, there are a lot of studies that question the veracity of the Indian NSS [National Sample Survey] and World Bank narrative of laudable poverty reduction.  One done by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector in 2007 found that 836 million, or 77 percent of the population, lived on less than 20 rupees [50 cents] a day.  The Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative found that using the multidimensional poverty index, there were 645 million poor, or 55 percent of India’s population — more than in the poorest 26 African countries combined.  The Asian Development Bank put the number at between 622-740 million.  But you have high growth rates accompanying, conservatively speaking, stagnant social improvement — virtually no change in childhood malnutrition, higher rates of malnutrition than sub-Saharan Africa — and by other measures, exacerbated deprivation.

NC: There was an interesting study that I recently read about in the Guardian about India’s Public Distribution System [PDS].  I mean, there’s a real food crisis in India and according to them, about 40 percent of the food in the PDS system is rotting or being taken by the rich.  What they do is, some poor person can’t pay his usurer, so he sells his PDS ticket, which is picked up by some rich person who gets the food free.

KB: A question on that very issue: in independent India, 400 million cannot afford to buy food on the open market and tens of thousands of tons of grain are rotting, having sat in government storehouses for years.  No new grain is being procured, which hurts farmers.  Manmohan Singh questioned the wisdom of the Supreme Court ruling to provide free food to the poor and there’s still a gridlock on what will be the policy.  Mike Davis, in his Late Victorian Holocausts quotes the British Famine Commission of 1878-80 as saying, “The doctrine that in time of famine the poor are entitled to demand relief . . . would probably lead to the doctrine that they are entitled to such relief at all times, and thus the foundation would be laid of a system of general poor relief, which we cannot contemplate without serious apprehension.”  What’s changed since the era when the British stockpiled grain during Indian famine?

NC: This same article in the Guardian pointed out that Jean Dreze and others are now trying to establish some principle of universal food supply which would eliminate the PDS system and just say, “Look, there’s a certain amount of food that has to be given to everybody — no tickets, no store, no nothing.”  Apparently it’s coming up for vote pretty soon.  If something like that were passed and then of course implemented — because the opportunities for corruption are sky-high — it could get around some of it.  I mean, India — it’s just grotesque what’s happening.  It’s very striking.  I was just in China.  China’s got plenty of problems, but not this one, as far as I know.

KB: There’s a narrative that high growth has “passed the general population by” and needs to be more equitable and inclusive.  Prabhat Patnaik, however, believes that the growth is founded on exacerbating class antagonism and the expropriation of small producers’ and peasants’ means of production.  He thinks that the very nature of the growth necessitates exclusion and suffering.  He claims that it’s naive to talk about more inclusion while maintaining and operating within this framework.  How do you view it?

NC: I presume he is referring to the specific growth model adopted in India, not to growth in general.  If so, there appears to be considerable evidence to support the conclusion.

KB: Going back to China: its poverty diminution doesn’t seem as controversial as India’s.  Is there actual, substantive progress there?

NC: I wasn’t out in the countryside, so I can’t tell.  And it’s worth noting that it’s much easier to get information about India, because the society is so much more open.

KB: You’ve discussed Hart-Landsberg and Ching Kwan Lee’s work, which highlight the tenuousness of China’s development model, horrible conditions for workers, labor protests, feelings of abandonment and betrayal.  And environmentally?

NC: It’s pretty horrible, and the environmental catastrophes are perfectly real.  But on the other hand, I was in Beijing and Xi’an, but I drove around all over Beijing, because the places I was going to were all over the place.  You just don’t see the poverty that you see in every American city.  Either they’ve hidden it somewhere, or they’ve tossed it in the countryside.  On the other hand, it’s extremely authoritarian.  There’s a lot of optimism and exuberance, and people excited about it and so on.  When we went through one place in the center of town, I asked the driver — who happened to be pretty critical and frank — “Where do people live?”  He explained that there are companies that build housing so there’s big skyscrapers for workers.  I don’t know what they’re like inside, but they don’t look too bad from outside.  We went through some big downtown area, and he told us that all the people there were going to be removed and sent out to the countryside so they can make the area more business-oriented.  So I said, “Well, what happens to the people in the countryside?”  They said they’re building a metro which will go out there, and I asked if they were really going to do it, and he said: They probably will; they usually do these things.  Then I asked a question, knowing it was ridiculous but I wanted to hear what they’d say: “Do people have any say in this?”  They looked at me as if they didn’t understand the question.  The tacit assumption seemed to be: “It’s none of their business; they’re told, ‘You’re going to move to the countryside.'”

It reminded me of an incident in India, when I was there before the so-called “reforms,” in ’72.  I was a guest of the government, being ferried around all over the place.  Every day we were in Delhi, we went through Connaught Square and every day it was completely full of homeless people — tens of thousands of people in tents.  One morning I drove through and there was nobody there.  So I asked what happened, and they said, the Asia Fair is coming and they want to purify the city so they’re gone.  So I said, “What happened to them?”  They sent in trucks, took them out to the desert somewhere, and dumped them there.  No metro or anything.

KB: Even in Latin America, I found that when a president visits a particular region, they convert the areas into a kind of Potemkin village, scrubbed of the misery and filth.

In the cases of hope that you’ve mentioned, like in Latin America, there has been real progress, as you’ve noted.  At the same time, there is sometimes dramatic conflict between the developmentalists, like left president Correa, and the indigenous communities affected by mining and dams.  Also, Evo Morales, despite being hugely popular, recently had to deal with a very big general strike in Potosí.  What do you make of these dynamics?  What are the hopes and prospects in Latin America regarding raising living standards, the paths of industrialization, environmental considerations, the role of social movements, and avoiding state coercion?

NC: All true.  In Ecuador, there is a serious conflict between the Correa government and indigenous communities objecting to developmental projects that have been ruining their societies and lives.  The oil spills in the Amazon may well be worse than the BP Gulf disaster.  That should be improving under Correa, but there are still strong objections.  Morales is indeed popular, but there are plenty of complaints about authoritarianism and corruption.  The struggle about developmental projects is going on all over the world.  In India, as you know, there is a major war going on that turns in large part on development projects in tribal areas.  I was in southern Colombia recently, visiting remote villages where campesinos and indigenous people are seeking to combat attacks on their lives and resources by mining and water privatization.  I don’t know of any simple general answer to your question of how this will all turn out.  The problems are often not simple.  A great deal is at stake, not just for the people of the countries.  Resource extraction impacts a global environment that is increasingly at severe risk.

KB: I’d like to conclude our interview on the topic of Haiti, by bringing up your point about lessons that the Haitian Lavalas movement has for US progressives and activists when we last we spoke.  You said, “It’s quite striking that we and other western countries can’t reach, can’t even approach, can’t even dream about the level of democracy they had in Haiti.  That’s pretty shocking.  Here’s one of the poorest countries in the world.  The population that organized to win that election is among the most repressed and impoverished in the world; they managed to organize enough to enter the electoral arena without any resources and elect their own candidate.”  Praising Bolivia at the same time, you asked, “Is it believable that we can’t do the same? . . . We can take lessons from them.  Anything they’ve done we can do a thousand times more easily.”

I’ve been thinking about the conditions in the U.S., which you call an “organizer’s dream,” and I’d like to share some tentative thoughts on why this isn’t the case.  One: The US poor have much more to lose, materially, than their Haitian and Bolivian counterparts, and that may be a strong inhibitor to active, defiant engagement.  Two: Perversely, being fired on by the [Haitian paramilitary group] FRAPH or by Goni’s security forces may bring the righteousness of the cause into sharper relief, whereas the subtler mechanisms in the U.S. that mask agency — for example, social exclusion, being passed over for a promotion, etcetera — tend to be effective in dissuasion and atomization.  Three: The suburbanization of the U.S. has undermined a collective life that Haitians and Bolivians enjoy.  Four: US industrialization was shown to decrease political participation.  It also necessitated internal demand, hence a powerful public relations apparatus to peddle “created wants” and atomize the population.  I suspect that the populations in Bolivia or Haiti haven’t been propagandized deeply, or indoctrinated into believing that they can’t control their own affairs.  Your thoughts?

NC: We’re kind of talking past each other.  What you say is certainly true: we’re not doing it.  Since we’re not doing what they’ve been doing in Port-au-Prince or Cochabamba, there must be a reason for it.  Maybe the reasons you give, maybe others.  But what I was talking about is something different.  We have the opportunity and the privilege to do such things, and we’re not doing them.  So we should ask why, because we can.  We’re not going to face the forces of FRAPH and Goni.  And it’s not obvious that the poor are going to lose, they may gain.  If you have a union struggle, for example, the people in the union struggle may lose, but they’re doing it because they’re driven by notions of solidarity with others and concern for the future.  So if the kinds of ideas and commitment and so on developed that will enable us to use the opportunities which we in fact have, which are far beyond what they have, then we can achieve a lot.

The interview above is a short excerpt from the long interview published in TruthOut on 19 November 2010.

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