Seventy-seven-year-old linguist and political writer Noam Chomsky has been a vocal opponent of injustice since the Vietnam War era, but his opposition to the abuse of power goes back even farther, to a schoolyard encounter in the first grade: Seeing a boy being taunted because of his weight, young Chomsky started to intervene. Then he got scared and ran away. The shame and regret he felt following the incident stayed with him and developed into a lifelong commitment to champion the underdog.
Born in 1928 in Philadelphia, Chomsky was raised by Jewish parents who had come to the United States to escape anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. By the age of twelve, he was taking the train to New York City, where he spent time in anarchist bookstores and at his uncle’s 72nd Avenue newsstand, eavesdropping on — and eventually participating in — lively political discussions about socialism and class conflict.
After receiving his PhD in linguistics in 1955 at the University of Pennsylvania, Chomsky joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the Vietnam War, he participated in protests against U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia and traveled to North Vietnam to lecture at Hanoi Polytechnic University during a pause in the bombing. In 1969 he published American Power and the New Mandarins (Pantheon), the first of fifty books he has written about U.S. foreign policy, propaganda, and social change.
Chomsky, who is still a professor at MIT, has also written extensively about linguistics. His theories about language are as revolutionary as his political writings, and in both he emphasizes universal human traits: the universality of the way humans structure language, on the one hand, and the universality of the human struggle for freedom and independence, on the other. These traits, he says, arise from humanity’s “natural instincts.”
Chomsky’s political writings often describe how governments and corporations use propaganda to stamp out our natural instinct toward freedom and to breed hopelessness and apathy in its place. In his book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (Metropolitan Books), Chomsky writes that “destroying hope is a critically important project” of the U.S. government. Despite this, he says, people maintain a profound ability to follow their instincts and organize for justice. He points to the great changes that have been made in the U.S. thanks to popular social movements: freedom of the press, improved working conditions, civil rights, women’s rights, and increased awareness of the slavery and genocide in American history. He also observes that the massive global opposition to the current U.S. war in Iraq came before the fighting even began, whereas protests against the Vietnam War took years to develop — which suggests a deepening antiwar sentiment.
Chomsky’s most recent publication, Government in the Future, is due out this month from Seven Stories Press. He believes that government authorities support democratic processes only to the extent that the outcome will support their strategic and economic interests. Elections, he says, have become “minor events” in the political landscape, and the myth that the issues are too complex for the public to understand keeps most people from participating. Still, he is determined to tap into dormant feelings of dissatisfaction with the system. He envisions a world in which distant, controlling governments and private, corporate tyrannies are replaced by organizations that promote true democracy. This interview took place last November 19 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge.
Malkin: Many people in this country became politically active, some of them for the first time, during this year’s presidential campaign. A lot of them are now expressing despair and disappointment about the election results. What are your thoughts about the recent election?
Chomsky: Well, such despair is common, but it is the result of a misunderstanding. For one thing, elections tell us virtually nothing about the country. George W. Bush got about 31 percent of the electorate. John Kerry got about 29 percent. That leaves 40 percent of Americans who didn’t vote. The voting patterns were almost the same as in 2000: same “red” states, same “blue” states. There was only a slight shift that tipped the election in Bush’s favor. Apparently the wealthier part of the population — which tends to vote more in line with its class interests — came out in somewhat greater numbers this time. If the voting patterns had shifted slightly in the opposite direction and Kerry were in the White House, it would also tell us nothing about the country.
Right before the election there were extensive studies released about voters’ attitudes and intent. It turns out that only about 10 percent of them were voting for what the studies’ designers called “agenda, policies, programs, and ideas.” The rest were voting for imagery.
U.S. elections are run by marketing professionals, the same people who sell toothpaste and cars. They don’t believe in actual free markets or the nonsense taught in school about informed consumer choice. If they did, GM ads would say, “Here are the models we are putting out next year. Here are their characteristics.” But they don’t do that, because their model is the same as the next company’s model. So what they do is show you an actress or a football player or a car going up a sheer cliff. They try to create an image that will trick you into buying their product.
These marketers also construct imagery to try to influence elections. They train Bush to project a certain image: An average guy just like you. A guy you’d like to meet in a bar. Someone who has your interests at heart, who’ll protect you from danger. Kerry is trained to project a different image: someone who cares about the economy and about people’s health, a war hero, and so on. Most people vote for an image, but the image typically has almost no resemblance to reality. People tend to vote for the candidate they believe shares their values. They are almost always wrong. Working-class Bush voters believed that Bush supported their interests, when the Republican Party platform was mostly about redirecting wealth to the top.
If you ask people why they don’t vote based on issues, they’ll say, “I don’t know where the candidates stand on the issues.” Which is the truth. The election is designed to keep you from understanding the candidates’ positions on the issues. To figure out, say, what their healthcare proposals are would require a major research project. You aren’t supposed to know. The advertising industry wants you to focus on what they call “qualities.” And when you do discover the candidates’ positions on the issues, you understand why.
Right before the election, two of the best public-opinion organizations in the world came out with major studies of popular attitudes and beliefs. The results are so far to the left of either political party that the press can’t even report it. Huge majorities think that their tax dollars ought to go first for healthcare, education, and Social Security — not the military. An overwhelming majority oppose the use of military force unless we are under attack or under imminent threat of attack. A majority of Americans are in favor of signing the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change and subjecting the U.S. to the International Criminal Court. The large majority think that the UN, not the United States, ought to take the lead on international crises. In fact, the majority even support giving up the U.S.’s veto power in the UN Security Council, so that the U.S. will have to go along with the opinions of the majority. I could go on, but these positions are so far off the left end of the political spectrum that you can understand why the advertising industry has to keep issues out of the election and focus on imagery.
The way to overcome this situation is to create real political parties. To have real political parties, the people must participate and make decisions, not just come together once every four years to pull a lever. That is not politics. It is the opposite of politics. If you have mass popular organizations that are functioning all the time — at local, regional, and international levels — then you have at least the basis for a democracy. Such organizations existed here in the past. The unions were one example. And they exist right now in other countries. Take Brazil, the second-largest country in the hemisphere. They actually have a real democratic system. Voters aren’t forced to choose between two rich businessmen who went to the same elite university and are members of the same secret society and are funded by the same corporations. Brazilians can vote for somebody like themselves, some impressive figure who maybe doesn’t have a higher education — a peasant or a steelworker perhaps. I mean, that is inconceivable in the United States.
The reason they can do it in Brazil is that they have mass popular organizations. The Brazilian Landless Workers Movement is probably the most important popular organization in the world, and it’s functioning all the time, not just in an election year. Then there’s the Brazilian Worker’s Party, which has all kinds of serious flaws, but nevertheless is a mass popular organization working at every level. There are professional associations in Brazil that are politically active. There are areas in which the budget is popularly decided: in Pôrto Alegre, for example. That is the basis of a democratic culture. If you don’t have that, you can still have formal elections, but they’re not meaningful.
And meaningless formal elections are indeed what the elite want us to have in this country. It goes back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where James Madison laid it out: the power has to be in the hands of the wealth of the nation, he said, people who understand the needs of property owners and recognize that the first priority of government is to protect the wealthy minority from the unwashed majority. To do this, the elite must fragment the majority in some fashion. We have had two-hundred-plus years of struggle about this because the people don’t accept it, and they have gained many rights as a result of that struggle. In fact, we have a legacy of freedom that is in many ways unique. But it wasn’t granted from above. It was won from below. And the battle continues.
The wealthy and privileged are always fighting a bitter, unremitting class war. They never stop for a minute. If one tactic doesn’t work, they shift to another. And if the general population lets itself become pessimistic and gives up — which is what the elite want — then the upper class will be even more free to do whatever is in its own best interest.
The history books say, “This great man gave us these rights.” But if you look at what actually happened, the rights were won from below, and the “great man” was dragged kicking and screaming into signing something.
Malkin: It seems that, to the rest of the world, the propaganda that manipulates U.S. public opinion has been transparent for some time. Do you think the deceit is becoming more clear to people within the United States? Given the revelation that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, the hiring of Halliburton to clean up after the war, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, and this week’s reports of a U.S. soldier executing an unarmed Iraqi, do you think people in the United States are waking up to the deception?
Chomsky: I don’t want to be impolite, but the list you have just given is itself a type of sophisticated propaganda. Take the marine who killed an unarmed man in a Fallujah mosque. Compared with everything else that’s going on in Fallujah, is that an atrocity? It isn’t even a minor footnote. The atrocity is what you read on the front page of the New York Times, where you’ll see a picture of Iraqi patients and doctors lying on the floor, manacled, and U.S. soldiers standing guard over them. The front-page story tells us proudly that American soldiers broke into Fallujah General Hospital, forced patients out of their beds, and made them lie on the floor in handcuffs. That is a war crime. The Geneva Conventions, which are the foundation of modern humanitarian laws, say that hospitals must be protected at all times, by all sides, in a war.
But of course the Times doesn’t describe that hospital invasion as a war crime. The Times says it was an achievement, because Fallujah General Hospital was a propaganda center for the insurgents. Why? Because it was producing inflated casualty reports. How do we know that the reports were inflated? Because our leader told us so, and if our leader says something, it is automatically true for the front page of the greatest newspaper in the world.
But suppose they were reporting inflated casualty figures. Why is that propaganda for the insurgents? It means the U.S. is winning, right? But it also breaks the first rule of wartime propaganda, which is never to let the public see what is happening to the other side. We don’t embed reporters with the Iraqis. We embed them with U.S. forces, just as the Russians did with their reporters in Afghanistan, so that they’ll report the war from our side.
The story about the marine who shot a wounded, unarmed soldier is just a distraction. The reason they’re going after him is because he is vulnerable and expendable. Whoever he is, he is not somebody like us: nice, educated people wearing ties and sitting in air-conditioned offices. He is probably some kid from a disadvantaged background who has people shooting at him from all sides. So he lost control, and we can criticize him for that, because he is not like us. But how about criticizing the higher-ups who sent him to Iraq? They are the criminals.
After World War II, at the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal, they didn’t go after the soldiers. They went after the German foreign minister. He was hanged. But after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the soldiers became the scapegoats. Semi-educated, half-crazed GIs who didn’t know who was going to shoot at them next carried out a massacre. That much is true. But My Lai was a tiny footnote to a major mass-murder operation called “Operation Wheeler/Wallowa,” which was a search-and-destroy mission organized by nice people like us: educated Harvard graduates in air-conditioned offices. The real criminals are immune. Instead they go after some minor person about whom we can say, “He was a bad apple, not like us.”
In fact, the whole invasion of Fallujah was very much like what happened in Srebrenica, Bosnia, which the U.S. has called a horrendous war crime. In 1995, Srebrenica was a UN-protected “safe area,” and Bosnian Muslims used it as a base from which to attack Bosnian Serb villages. Finally the Serb forces retaliated. All of the women and children and the elderly were driven out of Srebrenica. The men were forced to stay, and the Serbs killed them.
What did we do in Fallujah? Women and children were driven out, mostly by bombing. Men were forced back in to be killed. Srebrenica is described as genocide. What about Fallujah? It’s not described as genocide in the U.S. press, though in other countries it is. I was just reading an Italian newspaper report about this. Nobel Peace Prize winners Lech Walesa of Poland, Adolfo Esquivel of Argentina, Rigoberta Menchú of Guatemala, Bishop Belo of East Timor, and many others have publicly said that the invasion of Fallujah was genocide. If so, then our president is a war criminal and is subject to the death penalty under U.S. law. The War Crimes Act of 1996, passed by a Republican Congress, states that grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions are war crimes punishable by death.
Let’s go back to the Nuremberg tribunal. It said explicitly that the supreme international crime, which encompasses all the evil that follows, is aggression. So when the U.S. invaded Iraq, that was the supreme international crime. The war crimes being carried out in Fallujah, the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, and everything else are encompassed in the crime of aggression. And it was for participating in the crime of aggression that the Nazi foreign minister was hanged. So these minor war crimes are bad, but they’re just aftershocks of the supreme international crime, which we can’t talk about, because it comes right back to us nice, wealthy, privileged folks. We are the ones responsible: the representatives and the military commanders and both political parties, because they both agreed to the war. If we honestly judged ourselves by the same standards we apply to defeated countries, we’d have to admit guilt.
The majority of the U.S. populace, incidentally, does not agree with this war. In the October 2004 polls, 75 percent of the population said we should not have invaded Iraq if it did not have weapons of mass destruction. Yet 50 percent said that we were right to invade. So some of that 50 percent must still believe that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. That is an indication of the effectiveness of government-media propaganda: it can lead people to support actions that actually go against their own moral values. In this case, people believe we are defending ourselves. If you go back to the 1930s, the German population didn’t think they were committing atrocities, either. They thought they were defending themselves.
Our government — and this includes both political parties — says that we have a right to attack a country that might be a threat to us. It’s called “preemptive war” or “anticipatory self-defense.” The population doesn’t agree with it, as I have said, but the common political view is that we have a right to attack a country that is posing a threat to us, even if the threat is not imminent. If so, did the Japanese have a right to bomb Pearl Harbor in 1941? Why not? They had a much stronger case for self-defense than we had with Iraq. The American press in the early 1940s was talking quite openly about how our B-17s, which were just coming off the Boeing assembly line, could bomb Japan and incinerate its wooden cities. So did Japan, under those conditions, have a right to attack U.S. military bases in Hawaii and the Philippines? By our standards, they did.
Until we can look at ourselves the same way we look at the rest of the world, we do not have an educated populace. And until everyone understands this in their bones, we won’t become a free country. In a free country, these are the kinds of things you teach in elementary school. You get to the hard stuff later.
Malkin: How do you recommend we accomplish this? People seem too caught up in the propaganda and the belief structures that are imposed on them through school and television.
Chomsky: When popular movements get rolling, it happens very quickly. Take the original sin of U.S. history: the extermination of the native population. There were maybe 8 or 10 million people in North America when the Europeans arrived. We don’t know how many exactly. We don’t count our victims. But they are not here anymore. Until the 1960s, this simply wasn’t an issue. When I was a kid, we played cowboys and Indians. We were the cowboys killing the Indians.
If you read history or anthropology books from the 1960s, you’ll see the authors just denied the extermination of the Native Americans. A couple of hunter-gatherers were scattered around, as far as they were concerned. One of the achievements of the protest movement in the 1960s was to bring this tragedy into popular consciousness. It is only since the 1970s that the issue has finally been faced. Not that anyone is doing anything about it, but at least there is some recognition that this hideous crime took place. And you know, this knowledge was never hidden very deep. It was just suppressed.
The first executive order in U.S. history that transferred the right to declare war from the Congress to the executive branch, in violation of the Constitution, was in 1818, the year of the first Seminole War, when Andrew Jackson invaded Florida. He was attacking “the runaway Negroes and lawless Indians” who were supposedly a threat to our nation and had to be destroyed. The Seminoles were driven into the West, where they were pretty well wiped out. But they survive as the mascot of Florida State University. It’s as if Munich University had as its mascot the “kikes.”
These sorts of things come to public consciousness through popular movements. Take spousal abuse, for example. In most towns today, there are trained police who respond to domestic-abuse calls. There are women’s support groups. There are specific laws about spousal abuse. This wasn’t true in the 1960s. If a husband wanted to beat his wife back then, that was just life. In fact, women didn’t call it abuse. If you go back to my grandmother, she would not have considered herself oppressed. My mother did resent it, but she didn’t try to change it. But my daughter, forget it! She’s not going to let it happen to her for a second. That is a change in public consciousness, and it came through popular activism.
The history books say, “This great man gave us these rights.” But if you look at what actually happened, the rights were won from below, and the “great man” was dragged kicking and screaming into signing something. And this has happened in our lifetime. Significant rights have been won.
The system of governance within the corporation is as close to totalitarianism as anything humans have devised. Orders come from above and are handed down through each successive level of management. At the bottom are the people who rent themselves to the corporation for wages — it’s called “getting a job.”
Malkin: Let’s talk about the relationship between corporations, media, and the government.
Chomsky: Corporations as we know them today came out of late-nineteenth-century ideas about “organic entities” that have rights over and above individuals. Classical liberalism was — in theory at least — devoted to the idea that only flesh-and-blood people have rights. But the corporate system supported a different conception: that abstract entities, too, have rights.
A corporation back in the early nineteenth century, before the organic-entity concept spread, was a very different animal from what we have today. It might have consisted of local people getting together at a town meeting and deciding, say, to build a bridge across a nearby river. They would incorporate to carry out that plan. And once they’d carried it out, they’d dissolve the corporation. Corporations gradually changed shape over the course of the nineteenth century, and by the early twentieth century the courts had granted corporations — these legal fictions — the rights of persons. That meant they had freedom of speech, freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, and so on. They were now unaccountable to the people. The public couldn’t know what they were doing. Of course, unlike people, corporations are potentially immortal.
Around the First World War, the courts decided that these “persons” should be made to act in ways that are completely pathological. They are required by law to do things that we would regard as villainous if ordinary people did them. For example, corporations have to be dedicated solely to the maximization of profit and market share. If they do anything that might harm profits, even if it is the only decent thing to do, they have broken the law. To the court this makes sense, because corporations are owned by their shareholders, and the shareholders have a right to profit, so it’s illegal for a manager to do something that cuts profits, even something decent.
There is an exception: you can do something decent if it is purely for show. For example, a drug company can hand out drugs in the slums as long as a television camera is following it, because that’s good publicity, which improves market share. In fact, in the sixties, a court decision actually urged corporations to perform charitable acts because, it said, otherwise an “aroused citizenry” would take away corporate privileges. So corporations should go out of their way to look good.
The World Trade Organization and the new trade agreements, like NAFTA, have even granted corporations rights beyond those held by real persons. For example, if General Motors goes to Mexico and sets up a plant, it has to receive what is called “national treatment.” In other words, Mexico must treat GM like a Mexican business. If a flesh-and-blood Mexican comes to the U.S. and asks for “national treatment,” he’s lucky if he gets sent back to Mexico. If he’s unlucky, he’ll end up in a detention center.
A corporation — or, for that matter, any business — is simply a form of private tyranny. The system of governance within the corporation is as close to totalitarianism as anything humans have devised. Orders come from above and are handed down through each successive level of management. At the bottom are the people who rent themselves to the corporation for wages — it’s called “getting a job.”
And then there are the consumers. The corporations want to make sure that we don’t have informed consumers. Informed consumer choice, a given in economic theory, can’t be allowed to exist. Corporations practice massive deceit and spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on advertising to prevent it. That is the system. But it can be eliminated.
In fact, there was a case in the California courts that got surprisingly far up the judicial hierarchy before it was struck down: California law requires that the attorney general take away the charter of any corporation involved in criminal acts. The corporation in the California case was Unocal, which was charged with criminal acts of pollution and the use of slave labor in Burma. The attorney general was compelled to enforce the law, and to everyone’s surprise the case actually made it through a couple of levels of the courts before they found some deceitful way to strike it down.
With enough popular pressure, however, it’s perfectly possible to win a case like that one. There is no reason why corporations shouldn’t be under popular democratic control at every level. But that isn’t going to happen by itself.
In the U.S. we’re taught that only dictatorships use propaganda, but the public-relations industry did not develop under dictatorships. It developed in the freest countries in the world, the United States and England.
Malkin: Sometimes you’ve described the ideal society as democratic, and sometimes you have used the word anarchism. In a 1976 interview on the BBC, you were asked how much the success of an anarchist society would depend on a fundamental change in people’s motivations, altruistic impulses, and degree of sophistication. And you answered, “It not only depends on it, but in fact the whole purpose of libertarian socialism is that it will contribute to it. On the one hand, it requires such spiritual transformation, and on the other hand, its purpose is to create institutions that will contribute to that transformation.” What is the connection between spiritual transformation and institutional transformation, and how do they feed each other?
Chomsky: Let’s take the women’s movement as an example of a combination of spiritual transformation and institutional change. The women’s movement started with consciousness-raising sessions: women would get together and talk and come to the understanding that they were being oppressed. Most oppressed people don’t realize they’re oppressed. As I said, my grandmother didn’t feel oppressed. It was just “the way it is,” like the weather. So the first step is for people to understand that they’re being oppressed and that the structures of domination have no legitimacy. And this first step is an extremely hard one to take. Quite apart from the costs of resistance — which are certainly real, especially in the early stages of a movement — just grasping it internally is difficult.
As understanding comes along, you start to get institutions that support it. In the case of spousal abuse, this took the form of women’s centers and support groups. Finally even the law and the police departments had to address domestic violence. So there is a combination of internal liberation — or “spiritual transformation,” if you like — and the development of institutions that support that transformation and enable people to do something with it.
In some cases people understood their oppression more in the past than they do today. If you go back to the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, right around here in Massachusetts, the textile-mill workers were running their own newspapers. That was the period of the freest press in the history of the United States. There were worker-run newspapers, community newspapers that were bigger than the commercial presses.
People working in the plants in Lowell, Massachusetts, were mostly young women from the farms or Irish artisans from the slums. They’d never heard of Marx; they’d never heard of anarchism. They simply took it for granted that those who work in the mills should own them and decide how they operate. They knew that wage slavery is hardly different from chattel slavery; that taking a job is the same as having a master command you. And they condemned the industrial system because it was taking away their culture and their independence and turning them into serfs instead of free people.
All of that they knew by natural instinct. And it’s taken a century and a half of unremitting propaganda to drive these thoughts out of people’s heads. Still, I think the ideas remain just below the surface, which means the propaganda must be continually produced. The major propaganda machines are in the public-relations industry. The media are just a small part of it.
In the U.S. we’re taught that only dictatorships use propaganda, but the public-relations industry did not develop under dictatorships. It developed in the freest countries in the world, the United States and England. And there is good reason for that. As people win their freedom, the elites recognize that they cannot control the masses by force anymore; they have to control public opinions and attitudes. The more freedom you win, the more ways privileged groups — usually an amalgam of state and private powers — devise to control you.
In Spain, under Franco’s dictatorship, the opposition published its views freely. There were bookstores selling Marxist literature and talk about “overthrowing the state” wherever you went. And the rulers didn’t care much, because people walking around Madrid passed by the big torture chamber in the center of the city and could hear people screaming inside. In effect, Franco said, “You want to talk about overthrowing me, talk. But this is what will happen if you ever try anything.” Once you get rid of violent security forces and torture chambers in the center of the city, the elites turn to more subtle techniques to control people. And that’s where the propaganda comes in.
A book came out about thirty years ago in reaction to the social movements of the 1960s. It was called The Crisis of Democracy. It didn’t come from the Right. It came out of the liberal internationalist sectors, the same sort of people who were in Jimmy Carter’s presidential cabinet. The “crisis” of the title was that there was too much democracy. The sixties got people energized, people who were supposed to be passive and apathetic, such as women and the elderly and working people and minorities. They were suddenly pressing their demands, and that wouldn’t do. We needed more “moderation in democracy,” the book’s authors said.
The unstated premise of the book is that the government should, as Madison said, “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” The book doesn’t say that corporations ought to stop lobbying, because they have the right to control the state. The ones who don’t have the right are what they call “special interests,” which means the rest of the population. They have to be shut up and returned to apathy.
The book’s authors said the schools, the institutions responsible for the “indoctrination of the young,” weren’t doing their job. Young people were getting too independent and were thinking for themselves. They even said that the press was too free. They said that if the press continued to be adversarial, they’d have to place government controls on it. These are the liberals saying this.
The big popular movements in this country did not all come about in the sixties. The women’s and environmental movements both began in the seventies. The antinuclear and solidarity movements arose in the eighties. The big global-justice movements started in the nineties. The elites have to keep trying to beat freedom down, because it won’t go back into its shell.
Malkin: Why does President Bush want to privatize Social Security? Is it for economic reasons?
Chomsky: Well, partly. Wall Street will get a bonanza. But that is not the main point. The main point is that it takes retirement savings out of the public arena and puts them in the hands of private tyrannies.
In fact, there is an even deeper reason: Social Security is based on an idea that we have to take care of each other. And you’ve got to drive that idea out of people’s heads. A lot of education is devoted to that. It’s getting people to be purely individualistic and out for themselves: “I didn’t do anything to that disabled widow. Why should I give her five cents out of my $500,000-a-year income? I’m not responsible for her. If somebody didn’t take care of her, that’s her problem.” Turning people into pathological misers like that takes a lot of indoctrination.
Malkin: Some global peace activists say they are part of the “antiglobalization movement.” This seems ironic, as the globalization movement started off being a good thing: all people being part of one world.
Chomsky: Well, the term “globalization” comes from the Left. That’s why unions are called “international.” The dream of the working-class movements of the 1800s was to have international solidarity: globalization among people. But the way the word is used now, globalization means transferring control to narrow sectors of state and private power. It has nothing to do with people and is geared toward the interests of investors, lenders, corporations, and so on. It is right to protest that sort of globalization.
But used neutrally, globalization just means various forms of international integration. So it’s unfortunate that activists have labeled themselves “antiglobalization.” Sometimes it’s even comical. In Pôrto Alegre, where the World Social Forum is meeting, people from all over the world and every walk of life are saying, “We are against globalization.” What they’re doing is the ultimate form of globalization — but at the level of people.
These global-justice movements are completely new. There has never been anything like them in history. They are an outgrowth of the solidarity movements that developed in the eighties. And their effect shows up in popular opinion. The public attitudes revealed in the studies that I mentioned earlier don’t come out of nowhere. They are reflections of the activism we’re talking about.
Malkin: In the 1940s, you were a member of the Zionist movement, but part of a sizable minority that thought it was a mistake to establish a Jewish state. Most Zionists equated statehood with safety. How much safety have Jewish people achieved in Israel, and how will Palestinians be served if a Palestinian state is created?
Chomsky: It’s true, I was a Zionist activist, a youth leader, in fact. But, as you say, I was part of a group that was opposed to a Jewish state. It was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now. I am just as opposed to an Islamic state or a Christian state. If the religious elements are purely symbolic, such as closing government offices on Sundays, it’s not a big deal. But Israel is a Jewish state in ways that go way beyond the symbolic. I think that’s harmful for its Jewish citizens, and it’s very harmful for its non-Jewish citizens.
Once a state is established, it should have all the rights of any state in the international system: no more, no less. And by the 1970s, Israel had been granted by its adversaries all the rights of any state in the international system: that is, “the right to exist in peace and security within secure and recognized borders.”
But it didn’t end there. The U.S. and Israel needed to find some new way to prevent negotiations and diplomacy with the Palestinians, so they demanded Israel be granted a right that no other state has: the abstract right to exist, period. It wasn’t enough for Israel to have peace and security; it demanded public acknowledgement of its legitimacy. Requiring the Palestinians to accept Israel’s abstract right to exist is like telling them, “Not only do you have to accept Israel, you have to accept the legitimacy of your expulsion.” Nobody is ever going to accept that, nor should they. But Israel’s “right to exist” is now common propaganda whose only purpose is to create a barrier to diplomacy. The U.S. and Israel have blocked every possible diplomatic settlement since the seventies.
What would a Palestinian state be like? Probably rotten. But if that’s what they want, they should have a choice. If they make a racist Islamic state, I’ll be opposed to it. But it should have the same rights as any other state. Ultimately they all will be dissolved. This one, too. Personally, I think there is no legitimacy to the international state system.
The dream of the working-class movements of the 1800s was to have international solidarity: globalization among people. But the way the word is used now, globalization means transferring control to narrow sectors of state and private power. It has nothing to do with people and is geared toward the interests of investors, lenders, corporations, and so on.
Malkin: How far are we from dissolving states?
Chomsky: We are moving toward it. Look at Europe. For hundreds of years the highest goal of Europeans was to slaughter each other. There was nothing more important, if you were French, than slaughtering Germans, and vice versa. Finally, in 1945, the Europeans realized that the next time they play the game, it’s over. Modern weapons of mass destruction have such lethal capabilities that the major European powers just can’t go to war anymore. They can attack defenseless nations, but they can’t attack each other. Political scientists say Europe achieved peace because there are so many democracies there. I don’t think it’s because of democracies. It is because they know they can’t play the game anymore. It’s finished. So now Europe is moving in a complicated fashion toward some kind of integration. And part of that is the dissolution of the state structures.
Already people in Catalonia don’t say they live in Spain. They say they live in an autonomous region of the Spanish state. It’s the same in the Basque regions of Spain, and in Wales, and elsewhere. There is a move toward a more reasonable form of human life in which people have autonomy, whether as communities or ethnic groups or on some other level of language and culture. If you go to downtown Barcelona now on Sunday morning, you’ll see people doing traditional folk dances in the cathedral in the center of town. They’re reviving an indigenous culture that had been suppressed, but was never destroyed. Now it’s coming out. These are small steps toward the dissolution of the illegitimate state system.