This interview originally appeared on the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
To help make sense of where we stand as an economy, as a country, and as human beings, Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Laureate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, shares his thoughts with Lynn Stuart Parramore on the Age of Trump, foreign policy, dissent in the internet age, public education, corporate predation, who’s really messing with American elections, climate change, and more.
Lynn Parramore: You’ve been looking at politics and international relations for quite a long time. Over the decades, what are the continuities in these areas that stand out in your view?
Noam Chomsky: Well the continuities are the message of the Athenians to Melos: “the powerful do what they wish and the weak suffer what they must” [from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War]. It’s often disguised in humanitarian terms. The modalities and the context change. The situations change, but the message stays the same.
LP: What do you see as the most significant changes?
NC: There are some steps towards imposing constraints and limits on state violence. For the most part, they come from inside. So for example, if you look at the United States and the kinds of actions that John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could carry out in Vietnam, they were possible because of almost complete lack of public attention.
I don’t know if you know, but as late as 1966 in Boston we could barely have an anti-war action because it would be violently broken up with the support of the press and so on. By then, South Vietnam had been practically destroyed. The war had expanded to other areas of Indochina. The Reagan administration, at the very beginning, tried to duplicate what Kennedy had done in 1961 with regard to Central America. So they had a white paper more or less modeled on Kennedy’s white paper that said the Communists are taking over. It was the usual steps, the propaganda, but it collapsed quickly. In the case of the Kennedy white paper, it took years before it was exposed as mostly fraudulent, but the Wall Street Journal, of all places, exposed the Reagan white paper in six months. There were protests by church groups and popular organizations and they had to kind of back off. What happened was bad enough but it was nothing like Indochina.
Iraq was the first time in the history of imperialism that there were massive protests before the war was even officially launched. It’s claimed by people that it failed, but I don’t think so. I mean, they never began to do the kinds of things that they could have done. There were no B-52 raids on heavily populated areas or chemical warfare of the kind they did in Indochina. By and large, the constraints come from inside, and they understood that. By the time you got to the first Bush administration, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they came out with a national defense policy and strategic policy. What they basically said is that we’re going to have wars against what they called much weaker enemies and these have to be carried out quickly and decisively or else there will be embarrassment—a way of saying that popular reaction is going to set in. And that’s the way it’s been. It’s not pretty, but it’s some kind of constraint.
There are increasingly conditions in international law, like the Rome Treaty [the 1957 treaty that established the European Economic Community] and so on, but great powers just ignore them if they can get away with it, and getting away with it means ignoring the constraints of other states, which, in the case of, say, the U.S., don’t amount to much. Or internal constraints from changes inside the society, which have put in conditions of some significance, I think.
It’s almost unimaginable now that the U.S. could carry out the kind of war it did in Indochina, which is something recognized by elite opinion. A typical example is Mark Bowden’s op-ed in the New York Times the other day about [Walter] Cronkite and how he changed everything. Well, what did Cronkite say? He said, it doesn’t look as if we’re going to win. That’s the criticism of the war. That’s the way it was perceived at the time, and that’s the way it’s still perceived by intellectual elites. But if you look at public opinion—which doesn’t really get investigated much so it’s not too clear what it means, but it’s interesting—the Chicago Council on Global Affairs was running polls on all sorts of issues in the ’70s and ’80s, and when the Vietnam War ended in 1975, about 70 percent of the population described the war as fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake. That stayed pretty steady for several years until they stop asking the question. The director of the study, John Rielly, interpreted that as meaning too many American were being killed. Maybe. There’s another possible interpretation of “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” which is that the U.S. was carrying out a crime against humanity. But it was never investigated because there’s too much cognitive dissonance. Elite intellectuals can’t perceive that possibility.
Everybody had a comment when the war ended, and so the hawks said, “stab in the back” [i.e., civilian critics undermined the military] and “if we’d fought harder we would have won.” The doves went kind of like Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who was maybe the most extreme. In 1975 when the war ended, he said the war began with blundering efforts to do good. “Efforts to do good” is virtual tautology, facts irrelevant; and “blundering” means it failed. He said that by 1969 it was clear that it was a disaster because the U.S. could not bring democracy to Vietnam at a cost acceptable to us. That’s the far left critique of the war in 1975. And Bowden, who is writing from a critical point of view, basically reiterated that point a couple days ago: Cronkite’s great contribution was to say, “look, it looks as if we can’t win, and if we can’t win…” I mean, Russian generals said the same in Afghanistan. We don’t honor them for that.
LP: When you talked about protests in Understanding Power before the digital age, you mentioned that it was difficult for dissenters and protesters to connect with each other. How has the internet changed that? Protesters are obviously under surveillance when they are online, but they are able to connect with each other more quickly. Has there been a net gain to those who want to object to wars and oppression? Or is this illusory?
NC: You may remember, during the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo, which were being organized through social media, at one point [Hosni] Mubarak actually closed down the internet. That increased the mobilization. People just started talking to each other. It’s a different kind of communication. It means a lot more. So I think, yes, social media do offer opportunities for quick organization and transmission, but typically at a pretty superficial level. Face-to-face organizing is something quite different. The same, incidentally, has been found in electoral politics. Andrew Cockburn had an interesting article in Harper’s during the  campaign in which he compared studies on the effect on potential voters of advertising, you know, TV, and the effect of knocking on doors and talking to people. It was overwhelming that the latter was more effective. We’re still human beings.
LP: Companies like Google and Facebook increasingly control the information we can access. They’ve even been enlisted to vet stories, to weed out fake news, though there’s evidence that they may be weeding out legitimate dissent. Yet they are often applauded as if they’re doing a service. How is this sort of thing affecting our freedom?
NC: It’s service for a bad reason. The younger people just don’t read much, so they want something quick, fast, easy. You go through a newspaper, it takes time. You have to see what’s at the end of the column, not just what’s in the headline. So this kind of instant gratification culture is drawing people to these quick summaries. Practically everybody’s on Facebook (except me).
The other thing they’re doing which is kind of interesting has to do with microtargeting, which is being used for electoral manipulation. There are some cases, which have not been discussed as far as I know outside the business press. During the last German election, there was a lot of talk of potential Russian interference, you know, it’s gonna swing the election. Well, it turns out there was foreign interference, but it wasn’t Russian. It was a combination of the Berlin office of Facebook and a media company in the U.S., which works for Trump, Le Pen, Netanyahu, other nice guys. They used Facebook in Berlin to get a demographic analysis of parts of the population to allow them to microtarget ads to individuals in favor of AfD, the neo-Nazi party, which may have been a factor in their unexpectedly high vote in the election. This was reported in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. This was a real case of electoral manipulation but somehow it doesn’t make the headlines.
LP: Which brings us to the narrative of Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election. I understand you’re not very impressed with this line.
NC: Well it’s very hard to take seriously for a number of reasons. One reason is the work of Thomas Ferguson and his colleagues [“How Money Won Trump the White House”]. There really is manipulation of elections, but it’s not coming from the Russians. It’s coming from the people who buy the elections. Take his study of the 2016 election [“Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election”]. That’s how you interfere with elections. Or the pretty spectacular study that he and his colleagues did about a year ago on Congress “How Money Drives US Congressional Elections,” where you just get a straight line [correlation between money and major party votes in Congress]. You rarely see results like that in the social sciences. That’s massive manipulation. Compared with that, what the Russians might be doing is minuscule. Quite aside from the fact that the U.S. does it all the time in other countries.
LP: It’s clear from leaked emails that the Democratic National Committee meddled with Bernie Sanders in his quest for the 2016 presidential nomination by favoring Hillary Clinton when it was supposed to be unbiased towards all candidates. What do you think it would it take for a real reformist candidate, a true populist, to ever win the presidency?
NC: What it would actually take is popular organization and activism. With all its flaws, the U.S. is still a pretty free country. In this case, Democratic Party managers had to manipulate to keep Sanders from winning the nomination. His campaign, I think, was really spectacular. I couldn’t have predicted anything like it. It’s a break with over a century of American political history. No corporate support, no financial wealth, he was unknown, no media support. The media simply either ignored or denigrated him. And he came pretty close—he probably could have won the nomination, maybe the election. But suppose he’d been elected? He couldn’t have done a thing. Nobody in Congress, no governors, no legislatures, none of the big economic powers, which have an enormous effect on policy. All opposed to him. In order for him to do anything, he would have to have a substantial, functioning party apparatus, which would have to grow from the grass roots. It would have to be locally organized, it would have to operate at local levels, state levels, Congress, the bureaucracy—you have to build the whole system from the bottom.
It’s kind of intriguing now; I’m sure you’ve seen the polls where he turns out to be the most popular political figure. Well, in a functioning democracy, the person who is the most popular political figure should appear somewhere. But nothing he does gets reported. It’s taking place, it’s having effects, but from the point of view of the liberal media, it’s as if it doesn’t exist.
LP: What about recent events in California with Senator Dianne Feinstein, who got a big surprise by failing to win the state Democratic Party endorsement for a sixth term? Is this like the Sanders phenomenon, where people who want basic things like universal health care and worker protections are making their preferences heard by refusing to support candidates who are unresponsive?
NC: She was voted down, and like the Sanders campaign or [Jeremy] Corbyn in England, there is a groundswell, and if it could be turned into something sustained and with a serious base, it could mean a lot. Traditionally, this has always been built around the labor movement, and that’s why the corporate sector is so dedicated to destroying the unions. It’s coming up in the Janus case, which was heard the other day, which will probably be voted in favor of Janus, which will be a lethal blow to public unions. [Mark Janus is the plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME involving the issue of whether government employees represented by a union must pay dues to cover the cost of collective bargaining and resolving grievances.]
The whole U.S. private sector is passionate about destroying the union movement. This has been going on for a long time, but now they really think they can strangle it because it’s the core of activism for almost anything. Take a look at, say, health care. In Canada, in the ’50s, it was the unions who were pressing hard for national health care, and kind of interestingly, in the U.S. the same unions were pressing for health care for themselves, auto workers in Detroit. These are two pretty similar countries, but with this striking difference in outcomes on health care.
A more interesting case is England. There’s a pretty good article that just came out in the latest issue of Jacobin, which runs through the history of British health care, and it’s quite interesting. It began in England under Bevan in the late ’40s. They got what was the best health care system in the world—still is, probably, and certainly was then. It started with mine workers in Wales who developed their own cooperative health system on a small scale. Aneurin Bevan was a Welsh mine worker. The cooperative system was picked up by the Labour Party as a program, and the Labour Party actually won the election in 1945, and Bevan pushed it through, and they got the National Health Service.
Well, there’s two points that are critical for the U.S. It’s the unions. That’s why you have to destroy the unions. You destroy solidarity. It’s the same reason for the attack on public schools, the attack on social security. These are all based on the idea that somehow you care about others, the community, and so on, and that’s completely unacceptable in a culture where you want to try to concentrate wealth and power. You don’t want people to have anything to do except to try to gain whatever they can for themselves. In that case, they’ll be very weak, of course. It’s only when you organize together than you can confront private capital.
Secondly, there was a political party. The American political system probably wouldn’t be accepted by the European Court of Justice as a legitimate system. There’s no way for independent parties to enter the system. The Labour Party in England started as a very small party. But because the system allows—as most democratic countries do—small parties to function, they were able to develop and work within Parliament and expand and get political figures and the government and finally ended up being a big party. That’s almost impossible in the U.S. If you look at a ballot in the U.S., it says Democrat, Republican, Other. Nobody can break in. It’s a political monopoly. It’s two things that aren’t really political parties. You can’t really be a member of the Democratic Party, you can’t participate in designing its programs. You can be a member of the Labour Party. These are big differences, so I think two huge problems in the U.S. are the deficiencies of the political system, which shows up in the kind of things that Tom Ferguson and his colleagues study—you know, the enormous power of concentrated wealth in determining the outcome of elections and then the policies afterwards. That’s one, and the other is the destruction of the labor movement.
LP: Let’s talk about the attack on public schools, which Gordon Lafer has outlined in his book, The One Percent Solution.
NC: Yes, a very interesting book.
LP: He discusses efforts by ALEC and other corporate-backed groups to dismantle public education, to get legislation passed to replace teachers with online education, increase class sizes, replace public schools with privately funded charters, and so on. You’ve talked about the history of mass education. How do you see this corporate agenda for American schools?
NC: You know, mass public education was, with all its flaws, one of the real contributions to American democracy. It was way ahead of other countries all the way through, including the college level with land grant colleges and so on. Europe just began to match that after World War II. Here it was happening in the late 19th century. Now there’s a real concerted effort to destroy the whole public education system. ALEC and Koch Brothers just recently announced a campaign taking Arizona as the test case because they figure Arizona is probably an easy one since it has probably the lowest per capita expenditure for education and a very right-wing legislature. What they’re trying to do—they describe it openly—is to try to essentially destroy the public education system, turn everything to vouchers and charter schools. It’ll be an interesting battle, and if it works in Arizona they want to do it elsewhere.
It’s a huge corporate offensive. It’s very similar to attacks on unions. First the Friedrichs [Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in which the Supreme Court deadlocked on the issue of the right of public-sector unions to collect fees from workers they represent, including those who don’t join the union, to cover bargaining and other activities], now the Janus case, and they’ll probably succeed. This right-to-work legislation is just unacceptable in other countries. In fact, in the NAFTA negotiations, at one point Canada proposed that part of a revision should be to ban measures that undermine labor rights like the right-to-work legislation. It’s kind of like using scabs. It’s just not heard of. But Reagan introduced it here—I think the U.S. and South Africa were the only countries that allowed it. In fact, the U.S. has never even ratified the first principle of the International Labour Organization, the right of association. I think the U.S. must be alone, frankly. It’s very much a business-run society.
LP: What are students being trained for now in the corporate vision of education that is taking over the country? What kind of future will they have? And what does it do to the idea of a democracy?
NC: Students will be controlled and disciplined. The education doesn’t leave any room for interaction, for creative activity, for teachers to do things on their own, for students to find a way to do things, I’ve talked to teacher’s groups. I remember once I was giving a talk and a sixth-grade teacher came up to me describing experiences. She said that after one class a little girl came up and said that she was really interested in something that came up and wanted to know how she could do some more on it. And the teacher had to tell her, you can’t do it. You have to study for the MCAS, the Massachusetts version of the regular exam [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System]. Everything depends on that. Even the teacher’s salary depends on that. So you can’t do anything creative as an individual. You follow the rules. It’s the Marine Corps. You do what you’re told. No associations. It’s a perfect system for creating a deeply authoritarian society.
It’s also kind of a two-tiered system. It’s a little bit like what Sam Bowles and Herb Gitnis [co-authors of Schooling in Capitalist America] discussed when they wrote about early mass education. For the general worker, turn them into industrial workers, but for the elite, you have to have creativity: MIT, Harvard. You have to have people to create the next stage of the economy.
LP: In the last several years, we’ve had a number of protest movements, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo movement, which have often met with hostility or dismissal in the liberal press. Take #MeToo: the protest against workplace sexual harassment and violence has shown solidarity along class lines and across countries. For example, Latina farmworkers and Indian feminists back it. Yet some in the liberal press compare #MeToo protesters to McCarthyites and warn of witch hunts, despite the fact that the movement is helping to shift power away from oppressive management towards workers in challenging things like forced arbitration clauses that deny workers the right to take charges to court.
NC: It’s a very valid protest and it’s an important movement. Charges do have to be subject to some kind of verification. Just allegation is not enough. As far as I know, the left-oriented groups like EPI [Economic Policy Institute] are in favor of ending forced arbitration, which also affects many other kinds of charges. I think they’re focusing on labor rights.
LP: That’s true, but it seems that some may not be recognizing #MeToo as really part of the labor rights struggle.
NC: That’s interesting. Yes.
LP: Let’s talk about the broader issue of economic inequality. This year, wealthy elites polled at the World Economic Forum in Davos listed inequality as number 7 on their list of global worries. They’re more worried about other things, like data breaches and involuntary migration. Do you think that they may be comforted by the fact that they’ve avoided some scary scenarios, like, for example, a real populist president in the U.S., and can therefore relax a bit? Should they be more worried?
NC: The danger that they perceive is that it might lead to a popular uprising, so you have to control that. There are the standard excuses about merit, which is a joke when you look at the details. I mean, take Bill Gates—a perfectly admirable person, but, as I’m sure he’d be the first to say, he based his fortune on two things, one, decades of work in the state sector which created the technology—the creative, risky work which was done since the ’50s. He picked it up and marketed it. The second is the World Trade Organization, which gives him monopoly-pricing rights. I mean, that’s great but…
LP: Kind of goes against the Horatio Alger myth [the belief that anybody can get rich just by working hard].
LP: Finally, as you look ahead, what do you consider to be the biggest threats to human beings in the future? What should we be most concerned about?
NC: Climate change and nuclear war. These are really existential threats. And what’s happening now is just astonishing. If media were functioning seriously, every day the lead headline would be this amazing fact—that in the entire world, every country is trying or committed to doing at least something. One country—one!—the most powerful country in history—is committed to trying to destroy the climate. Not just pulling out of the efforts of others, but maximizing the use of the most destructive means.
There’s been nothing like this in history. It’s kind of an outrageous statement, but it happens to be true, that the Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history. Nobody, not even the Nazis, was dedicated to destroying the possibility of organized human life. It’s just missing from the media. In fact, if you read, say, the sensible business press, the Financial Times, BusinessWeek, any of them, when they talk about fossil fuel production, the articles are all just about the prospect for profit. Is the U.S. is moving to number one and what are the gains? Not that it’s going to wipe out organized human life. Maybe that’s a footnote somewhere. It’s pretty astonishing.