Five Questions with Noam Chomsky


MIT Professor Noam Chomsky is one of the world’s most perceptive social critics. I had the opportunity recently to ask him some questions concerning a range of subject matter. Professor Chomsky’s latest book is Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. Other works, many recently reissued, include American Power and the New Mandarins, Manufacturing Consent, and Deterring Democracy.

MERLIN CHOWKWANYUN: One scholar and activist whom you’ve cited (and whom I wish more people knew about and read) is Seymour Melman, who more than two decades ago articulated the concept of a “permanent war economy.” What was Melman describing, and how does it limit or shape a chief executive’s foreign policy?

Prof. Noam Chomsky: The term “permanent war economy” is attributed to Charles Wilson, CEO of GE, who warned at the end of World War II that the US must not return to a civilian economy, but must keep to a “permanent war economy” of the kind that was so successful during the war: a semi-command economy, run mostly by corporate executives, geared to military production. Among other very important contributions, Melman has written extensively on the harmful effects of gearing much of the economy to military production rather than to civilian needs. What he describes is correct and important, but there are other dimensions to be considered. After World War II, most economists and business leaders expected that the economy would sink back to depression without massive government intervention of the kind that, during the war years, finally overcame the Great Depression. The New Deal had softened the edges, but not much more. Business understood that social spending could overcome market catastrophes as well as military spending, but social spending has a downside: it has a democratizing and redistributive effect while military spending is a gift to the corporate manager, a steady cushion. And the public is not involved. People care about hospitals and schools, but if you can “scare the hell out of them,” as Senator Vandenberg recommended, they will huddle under the umbrella of power and trust their leaders when it comes to jet planes, missiles, tanks, etc. Furthermore, business was well aware that high-tech industry could not survive in a competitive free enterprise economy, and “government must be the savior,” as the business press explained. Such considerations converged on the decision to focus on military rather than social spending. And it should be borne in mind that “military spending” does not mean just military spending. A great deal of it is high-tech R&D. Virtually the entire “new economy” has relied heavily on the military cover to socialize risk and cost and privatize profit, often after many decades: computers and electronics generally, telecommunications and the Internet, satellites, the aeronautical industry (hence tourism, the largest “service industry”), containerization (hence contemporary trade), computer-controlled machine tools, and a great deal more. Alan Greenspan and others like to orate about how all of this is a tribute to the grand entrepreneurial spirit and consumer choice in free markets. That’s true of the late marketing stage, but far less so in the more significant R&D stage. Much the same is true in the biology-based sectors of industry, though different pretexts are used. The record goes far back, but these mechanisms to sustain the advanced industrial economy became far more significant after World War II.

In brief, the permanent war economy has an economic as well as a purely military function. And both outcomes — incomparable military force and an advanced industrial economy — naturally provide crucial mechanisms for foreign policy planning, much of it geared to ensuring free access to markets and resources for the state-supported corporate sector, constraining rivals, and barring moves towards independent development.

Chowkwanyun: The coup in Haiti occupied headlines for about a month this past spring, but a scan through the major news archives reveals a lack of follow-up stories since, save for the recent minor surge of articles on the U.S. new investigation of Aristide’s alleged corruption. What preliminary interpretations can we make about the general U.S. press coverage of Aristide’s fall from power? And how can we situate what happened in Haiti in historical context?

Chomsky: As press coverage has declined, serious human rights violations increase, a matter of no interest since Washington attained its goals. Previous press coverage kept closely to the officially-determined parameters: Aristide’s corruption and violence in a “failed state,” despite the noble US effort to “restore democracy” in 1994. It would have been hard to find even a bare reference to Washington’s fierce opposition to the Aristide government when it took office in 1990 in Haiti’s first democratic election, breaking the pattern of US support for brutal dictatorship ever since Wilson’s murderous and destructive invasion in 1915; or of the instant support of the Bush-I and then Clinton administrations for the vicious coup leaders (extending even to authorization of oil shipments to them and their rich supporters in violation of presidential directives); or of the fact that Clinton’s noble restoration of democracy was conditioned on the requirement that the government must adopt the harsh neoliberal program of the defeated US candidate in the 1990 election, who won 14% of the vote. It was obvious at once that this would have a devastating effect on the economy, as it did. Bush-II tightened the stranglehold by barring aid, and pressuring international institutions to do the same, on spurious pretexts, therefore contributing further to the implosion of the society. No less cynical was the contemptuous refusal of France, which preceded Washington as the primary destroyer of Haiti, even to consider Aristide’s entirely legitimate request of repayment of the outrageous indemnity that Haiti was forced to pay for the crime of liberating itself from French tyranny and plunder, the source of much of France’s wealth. All of this was missing, replaced by lamentations about how even our remarkable magnanimity and nobility were insufficient to bring democracy and development to the backward Haitians, though we would now try again, in our naive optimism.

This illustration of abject servility to power is not, regrettably, unique. But the spectacle is particularly disgusting when the world’s most powerful state crushes under its boot, once again, the poorest country in the hemisphere, as it has been doing in one or another way for 200 years, at first in understandable fear of a rebellion that established the first free country of free men right next door to a leading slave state, and on to the present. It is a depressing illustration of how a highly disciplined intellectual class can reframe even the most depraved actions as yet another opportunity for self-adulation.

Chowkwanyun: Recent films and books from establishment liberal circles focus almost entirely on actions of the Bush Administration both abroad (the Iraq venture on false pretenses) and at home (the Patriot Act, for example). Should the analysis incorporate more events than that, and if so, how far back? How sharp a cleave does there really exist between the Clinton years and the current people in the executive branch? Is there
more continuity than the recent works are suggesting?

Chomsky: The Bush administration is at the extreme savage and brutal end of a narrow policy spectrum. Accordingly, its actions and policies came under unprecedented criticism in the mainstream, in conservative circles as well. A good illustration is the reaction to the National Security Strategy announced in September 2002, along with the virtual declaration of war against Iraq, and the onset of a highly successful government-media propaganda campaign that drove the frightened population far off the spectrum of world opinion. The NSS was condemned at once in the main establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, as a new “imperial grand strategy” that was likely to cause harm to US interests. Others joined in sharp criticism of the brazen arrogance and incompetence of the planners: Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, and the rest. But the criticism was quite narrow, more concerned with style and implementation than substance. Typical was the reaction of Madeleine Albright, also in Foreign Affairs. Like others, she criticized the Bush planners. She added, correctly, that every president has a similar strategy, but doesn’t smash people in the face with it, antagonizing even allies. Rather, he keeps it in his back pocket to use when needed. She knew of course that the “Clinton doctrine” was even more extreme than the NSS, declaring that the US would resort to force unilaterally if necessary to ensure access to markets and resources, without even the pretexts of “self-defense” conjured up by Bush propagandists and their acolytes. But Clinton presented the doctrine quietly, and was careful to carry out his crimes, which were many, in ways that would be acceptable to allies and could be justified or concealed by elite opinion, including the media.

Continuities are real, and go back long before. After all, policies are largely rooted in institutions, and these are quite stable. But there are also differences, and even small differences can translate into substantial outcomes in a system of enormous power.

Chowkwanyun: Even though day-to-day conditions and structural realities in Latin America are generally worse than those in the United States, political progress in Latin America of the past few years is inspiring, especially given the stacked odds in countries like Brazil. What accounts for these successes? Do you see an opportunity for more solidarity between American activists and counterparts in other countries, and in general, more global approaches to activism?

Chomsky: Brazil is a remarkable and illuminating case. It is instructive to compare the two largest and most important countries of the hemisphere.

In the forthcoming presidential elections in the US, there is a choice: between two candidates who were born to wealth and political power, attended the same elite university, joined the same secret society that instructs members in the style and manners of the rulers, and are able to run because they are funded by largely the same corporate powers. The Public Relations industry, which basically runs the campaigns, makes sure that they keep away from “issues” (except in vague and obscure terms) and focus on “qualities” — “leadership,” “personality,” etc. The public is not unaware of its purposeful marginalization. On the eve of the 2000 election, about 75% of the public regarded it as largely meaningless — prior to Florida shenanigans, the Supreme Court, etc., which were mostly an elite concern. In 2004, more appears to be at stake and interest is greater, but there is a continuation of the long process of disengagement mainly on the part of poor and working class Americans, who simply do not feel that they are represented. The Harvard University project that monitors these matters currently reports that “the turnout gap between the top and bottom fourth by income is by far the largest among western democracies and has been widening.”

In Brazil, in dramatic contrast, there was an authentic democratic election. The organized public were able to elect their own candidate, a person from their own ranks, despite barriers far higher than in the US: a very repressive state, tremendous inequality and concentration of wealth and media power, extreme hostility of international capital and its institutions. They were able to do so because of decades of serious organizing and activism by very significant popular organizations: the Landless Workers Movement, the Workers Party, unions, and others. These are all lacking in “failed states” with democratic forms that have little in the way of substance, in which we have elections of the kind taking place in November 2004.

It is also striking to compare the US reaction to the election in Brazil today and the election of a moderately populist candidate, with much less support and much less impressive credentials, 40 years ago. That deviation from good form led to intervention by the Kennedy administration to organize a military coup, carried out shortly after the assassination, instituting a neo-Nazi National Security State of extreme brutality, hailed by Washington liberals as a great victory for democracy and freedom. Today nothing like that is considered. Part of the reason is that the activism of the intervening years has led to much more civilized societies in both countries. The US population is not likely to tolerate the unconcealed criminality of the Kennedy and Johnson years, nor would Brazilians easily capitulate. Another reason is that establishment of murderous dictatorships is no longer necessary. It should hardly be a secret that neoliberal mechanisms are well designed to restrict very narrowly the threat of democracy. As long as Brazil accepts them, the elected President must reject the program on which he was elected, and follow the orders of the international financial powers and investors even more rigorously than his predecessor, so as to “establish credibility” with the masters of the world. One of Clinton’s impressive achievements was forging these bonds more firmly, so as to guard wealth and power from the threat that democracy might actually function.

Of course, none of this is graven in stone. In the 1980s, for the first time in the history of Western imperialism, solidarity movements developed in reaction to Reaganite crimes in Central America, which went far beyond protest; thousands of people joined the victims, to help them, and to provide them with some limited protection from the US-run state and mercenary terrorist forces that were ravaging the region. Still more strikingly, they were rooted in mainstream circles, including significant participation from church-based organizations, among them evangelical Christians. These movements have since extended to many other regions, with actions of great courage and integrity, and heroic victims, like Rachel Corrie. Beyond that, for the first time ever, there are really significant international solidarity movements, based mainly in the South, but with increasing participation from the North, drawing from many walks of life and much of the world. Included are the global justice movements (ridiculously called “anti-globalization” movements) that have been meeting in the World Social Forum in Brazil and India, and have spawned regional and local social forums over much of the world. These are the first serious manifestations of the kind of international solidarity that has been the dream of the left and the labor movements since their modern origins. How far such developments can reach we can, of course, never predict. But they are impressive and highly promising.

Bitter class warfare in the West is by and large restricted to the highly class-conscious business sector, which is often quite frank about its objectives and understands very well what its publications call “the hazard facing industrialists in the rising political power of the masses.” But while they have had great success in dominant sectors of power in the US, and other industrial countries, they are no more invulnerable than they have been in moments of comparable triumphalism in the past.

Chowkwanyun: A common trope these days holds that academics are too “liberal,” “leftist,” or “radical,” etc. What are your thoughts on this interpretation and on the state of contemporary academia in general?

Chomsky: I have to admit that I have an irrational dislike of the word “trope,” and other postmodern affectations. But overcoming that, this “trope” hardly merits comment. It can stand alongside of the charge that the media are “too liberal.” These charges are not entirely untrue. For quite good reasons, the doctrinal systems try to focus attention on “social and cultural issues,” and in these domains, it is largely true that professionals (academic, media) are “liberal”; that is, they have a profile similar to CEOs. Much the same is true when we shift to the issues that are of major concern to the population, but are systematically excluded from the electoral agenda and largely swept to the side in commentary. Take, for example, the misleadingly named “free trade agreements.” They are supported by a substantial elite consensus, and generally opposed by the public, so much so that critical analysis of them or even information about them has to be largely suppressed, sometimes in remarkable ways, well documented. The business world is well aware of this. Opponents of these investor-rights versions of economic integration have an “ultimate weapon,” the Wall Street Journal lamented: the public is opposed. Therefore various means have to be devised to conceal their nature and implement them without public scrutiny. The same is true of many other issues. It is, for example, widely agreed that a leading domestic problem is escalating costs for health care in the most inefficient system of the industrial world, with far higher per capita expenditures than others and poor outcomes by comparative standards. The reasons are understood by health professionals: privatization, which imposes enormous inefficiencies and costs, and the immense power of the pharmaceutical industry. Polls regularly show strong public support for some form of national health care (80% in the most recent poll I have seen), but when that is even mentioned, the “too-liberal press” dismisses it as “politically impossible” (New York Times). That’s correct: the insurance companies and pharmaceutical industry are opposed, and with the effective erosion of a democratic culture, it therefore doesn’t matter what the population wants. The same is commonly true on international issues. One finds little difference, I think, between the academic world and other sectors of the professional and managerial classes, to the extent that broad generalization is possible.

MERLIN CHOWKWANYUN is a student at Columbia University. His e-mail is mc2028@columbia.edu.

He also hosts a radio show on WBAR 87.9 FM NYC (www.wbar.org).

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