The below interview with world-renowned linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky was conducted by Jacobin.
Do you think the struggle taking place over Greece’s future is representative of a lot of what is happening in the world at the moment? If so, do you see much hope for decent human outcomes when the trump cards all seem to be held by a small number of people linked to private power?
In Greece, and in Europe more generally in varying degrees, some of the most admirable achievements of the postwar years are being reversed under a destructive version of the neoliberal assault on the global population of the past generation. But it can be reversed. Among the most obedient students of the neoliberal orthodoxy were the countries of Latin America, and not surprisingly, they were also among those who suffered the worst harm. But in recent years they have led the way towards rejecting the orthodoxy, and more generally, for the first time in 500 years are taking significant steps towards unification, freeing themselves from imperial (in the past century US) domination, and confronting the shocking internal problems of potentially rich societies that had been traditionally governed by wealthy foreign-oriented (mostly white) elites in a sea of misery. Syriza in Greece might have signaled a similar development, which is why it had to be smashed so savagely. There are other reactions in Europe and elsewhere that could turn the tide and lead to a much better future
Do you agree with Marx’s prognosis that capitalism will eventually destroy itself? Do you think that an alternative way of life and system of economics can take hold before this occurs, with potentially chaotic consequences? What should ordinary people concerned with the survival of their family and that of the world do?
Marx studied an abstract system that has some of the central features of “really existing capitalism,” but not others, including the crucial state role in development and in sustaining predatory institutions – like much of the financial sector, which in the US depends for most of its profits on the implicit government insurance program according to a recent IMF study – over $80 billion a year according to the business press. Large-scale stateintervention has been a leading feature of the developed societies from England, to the US, to Europe, and to Japan and its former colonies, up to the present moment. The technology that we are now using, to take one example. Many mechanisms have been developed that might preserve existing forms of state capitalism. The existing system may well destroy itself for different reasons, which Marx also discussed. We are now heading,eyes open, towards an environmental catastrophe that might end the human experiment just as it is wiping out species at a rate not seen since 65 million years ago when a huge asteroid hit the earth – and now we are the asteroid. There is more than enough for “ordinary people” (and we’re all ordinary people) to do to fend off disasters that are not remote and to construct a far more free and just society.
Moving on to Syria, we see an appalling humanitarian situation and no end in sight in terms of the internecine warfare taking place. I know many Syrian activists who are furious at what they perceive to be your tolerance of the immense misery being experienced by people living with barrel bombs and so on; they say this because they think you are opposed to any kind of intervention against Assad, however limited, on ideological grounds. Is this accurate or fair? Would you support the idea of a no fly zone, with an enforced humanitarian corridor? Can you clarify your position on Syria?
If intervention against Assad would mitigate or end the appalling situation, it would be justified. But would it? Intervention is not advocated by careful observers on the scene with close knowledge of Syria and the current situation – Patrick Cockburn, Charles Glass, quite a few others who are bitter critics of Assad. They warn, with no little plausibility I think, that it might well exacerbate the crisis. The record of military intervention in the region has been awful, with very rare exceptions, a fact that can hardly be overlooked, including the reasons for the outcomes. No fly zones, humanitarian corridors, support for the Kurds, and some other measures would be likely to be helpful. But while it is easy to call for military intervention, it is no simple matter to provide reasoned and well thought out plans, taking into account likely consequences. I haven’t seen any.
One can imagine a world in which intervention is undertaken by some benign force dedicated to the interests of people who are suffering. But if we care about victims, we cannot make proposals for imaginary worlds. Only for this world, in which intervention, with rare consistency, is undertaken by powers dedicated to their own interests, where the victims and their fate is incidental, despite lofty professions. The historical record is painfully clear, and there have been no miraculous conversions. That does not mean that intervention can never be justified, but these considerations cannot be ignored – at least, if we care about the victims.
How best do you think that groups like IS should be tackled and defeated?
Like it or not, ISIS seems to have established itself pretty firmly in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria. They seem to be engaged in a process of state building that is extremely brutal but fairly successful, and attracts the support of Sunni communities who may despise ISIS but see it as the only defense against alternatives that are even worse. The one major regional power that is opposing it is Iran, but the Iran-backed Shiite militias are reputed to be as brutal as ISIS and probably mobilize support for ISIS. The sectarian conflicts that are tearing the region to shreds are substantially a consequence of the Iraq invasion. That’s what Middle East specialist Graham Fuller, a former CIA analyst, means when he says that “I think the United States is one of the key creators of this organization.” Destruction of ISIS by any means that can be imagined might lay the basis for something worse, as has been happening quite regularly with military intervention. The state system in the region imposed by French and British imperial might after World War I, with little concern for the populations under their control, is unraveling. The future looks bleak, though there are some patches of light, as in the Kurdish areas. Steps can be taken to reduce many of the tensions in the region and to constrain and reduce the outlandishly high level of armament, but it is not clear what more outside powers can do apart from fanning the flames, as they have been doing for years.
Changing the subject, looking back at your long life of activism and scholarship, what cause or issue are you most glad to have supported? Conversely, what are your greatest regrets- do you wish that you had done more on certain fronts?
I can’t really say. There are many that I’m glad to have supported, to a greater or lesser degree. The cause that I pursued most intensely, from the early 1960s, was the US wars in Indochina, the most severe international crime in the post-WWII era. That included speaking, writing, organizing, demonstrations, civil disobedience, direct resistance, and the expectation,barely averted more or less by accident, of a possible long prison sentence. Some other engagements were similar, but not at that level of intensity. And each case has regrets, always the same ones: too little, too late, too ineffective, even when there were some real achievements of the dedicated struggles of many people in which I was privileged to be able to participate in some way.
Again looking back, what gives you the most hope about the future? Do you feel that young people in the US that you have interacted with are different to some of those you dealt with decades before? Have social attitudes changed for the better?
Hopes for the future are always about the same: courageous people, often under severe duress, refusing to bow to illegitimate authority and persecution, others devoting themselves to support and to combating injustice and violence, young people who sincerely want to change the world, and the record of successes, always limited, sometimes reversed, but over time bending the arc of history towards justice, to borrow the words that Martin Luther King made famous in word and deed.
How do you view the future of socialism? Are you inspired by developments in South America? Are there lessons for the left in North America?
Like other terms of political discourse, “socialism” can mean many different things. I think one can trace an intellectual and practical trajectory from the Enlightenment, to classical liberalism, and (after its wreckage on the shoals of capitalism, in Rudolf Rocker’s evocative phrase) on to the libertarian version of socialism that converges with leading anarchist tendencies. My feeling is that the basic ideas of this tradition are never far below the surface, rather like Marx’s old mole, always about to break through when the right circumstances arise, and the right flames are lit by engaged activists.
What has taken place in recent years in South America is of historic significance, I think. For the first time since the conquistadors, the societies have taken steps of the kind I outlined earlier. Halting steps, but very significant ones. The basic lesson is that if this can be achieved under harsh and brutal circumstances, we should be able to do much better enjoying a legacy of relative freedom and prosperity, thanks to the struggles of those who came before us.