Chatting with Chomsky

The linguistics professor, political theorist and activist discusses the Occupy movement, Obama’s first term and the economic crisis in Europe

Sebastian Meyer

Noam Chomsky, after delivering a speech at the University of Toronto. (Photo by Andrew Rusk/Flickr)

Noam Chomsky, at 83, is still full of beans. In 2005, Chomsky was named the leading living public intellectual by the British Prospect magazine, and he has been called the father of modern linguistics.” On his desk in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., freshly printed books on the subjects of globalization, politics and linguistics are piled up. He recently published Occupy, in which he describes the movement as the first major public response to 30 years of class warfare in the United States. In this interview, Chomsky talks about his understanding of the political system, Occupy, the Tea Party, the so-called Euro-crisis and President Obama’s first term. 

'The idea of imposing austerity under recession is a recipe for suicide. ... The effect, and presumably the intention, is to dismantle the welfare state and the social contract.'

You’ve been a public intellectual, criticizing U.S. domestic and foreign policy for more than 50 years. Have you ever thought about becoming a politician yourself?

No. First of all, I’d be terrible at it (laughs). I’ll just give you one simple example. My department internally runs very democratically, so there has to be a department administrator of some sort and one member of the faculty has to take that position and it circulates. But the one person who has never been allowed to take it is me, because I ruin everything so quickly. So it wouldn’t be worth it. But also I wouldn’t want to be.


Because whatever I can do about the issues that concern me I can do better outside the political realm.

Does it also have something to do with your beliefs about how the political system actually works?

I don’t criticize people who are inside the political system. But I think I can do more elsewhere. Usually, the system responds to popular activism. So, take New Deal legislation. It was implemented because the president in office, Roosevelt, was more or less sympathetic. But also because there was at that time a large array of popular movements that were pressing for responses to the crisis of the Great Depression. Same in the 1960s, Lyndon B. Johnson’s reforms were again the reaction to large-scale popular mobilization.

The social movement of the day camps at public spaces and calls itself Occupy. You’ve called it the first major popular response to 30 years of class war in the United States. What do you think has Occupy achieved so far?

It achieved a lot, in two aspects. It very significantly affected public sensibility and public discourse. The imagery of the one percent versus the 99 percent, that’s spread over right through the mainstream, that’s now standard discourse. And that’s not insignificant. It brings to public attention the massive inequality and the striking maldistribution of power. There are also specific policy proposals that make a lot of sense. Efforts to try to return the electoral system to something approximating the democratic process and not just being bought by major corporations and the super rich, proposals about a financial transaction tax, ending foreclosures of kicking people out of their homes, concern for the environment and so on. 

And the second aspect?

The Occupy movement spontaneously created communities of mutual support, mutual aid. The common kitchen, the libraries. These are maybe even more important. The U.S. is a very atomized society. People feel helpless and alone. Your worth as a human being depends on the number of commodities you can amass, which is one of the reasons for the debt crisis, and it’s just driven into people’s heads from infancy through massive propaganda and public relations. So people don’t have much social interaction.

If you compare it to the Tea Party movement…

The Tea Party isn’t a movement. It’s massively funded by private capital. It’s a movement that demographically is not unlike what the Nazis succeeded in organizing. It’s petty bourgeois, almost entirely white, in the nativist tradition, with the fear that within a generation or two the white population will be a minority and those others are taking our country away from us.

The Tea Party succeeded in sending dozens of their supporters to the Senate and to the Congress. In this way they are effective.

As long as they can be the storm troopers for the corporate sector they will succeed. The Republicans mobilize them, like the religious right, they have to. The Republican Party, decades ago, stopped being a traditional parliamentary party. It’s in lockstep obedience to the very rich and the corporate sector. But they can’t get votes that way. So they’ve got to mobilize these sectors of the population, like the Tea Party and the religious right. But the Republican establishment is a little bit afraid of them. It was quite striking to watch the primaries. Romney was the candidate of the Republican establishment, but he wasn’t the popular candidate. So one candidate after another came up, Santorum, Gingrich, and they had to be shut down by massive funding, propaganda, negative advertising and so on. You could tell very easily that the establishment, the rich bankers and businessmen, were worried about it.

Because of their irrationality.

Yes, take a look at German history. In the early days of the Nazis, the business community, the industrialists, they supported them. They were the ones who did smash up the unions and who went after the left and so on. They thought they could control them. It turned out they couldn’t.

One of the main goals of the Occupy movement is fighting inequality in the United States, but also worldwide. What is your assessment of the U.S. and European answer to the financial and the so-called Euro-crisis?

The U.S. reaction has been somewhat better than the European reaction. The European reaction is a suicide, class-based suicide. It’s pretty hard to interpret the Troika policies, mostly German-backed, as something else than class warfare. In fact ECB president Mario Draghi pretty much said we are going to get rid of the social contract.

But he also said that the fiscal pact has to be backed by a growth pact.

Finally they are talking about what should have been done in the first place. There are plenty of resources in Europe to carry out stimulation of demand and so on. But the idea of imposing austerity under recession is a recipe for suicide. Even the IMF has come out with studies showing that that’s the case. The effect, and presumably the intention, is to dismantle the welfare state and the social contract.

Why do you think that this is the intention?

Just look at the people who are designing the policies. They never liked the welfare state, they never liked the power of labor. Europe was a relatively civilized place by comparative standards. But that helps the population, that doesn’t help the corporate sectors, the super rich and so on. So sure, if they can dismantle that, fine. It’s hard to think of any other rationale for the policy that’s been pursued.

The rationale that German Chancellor Angela Merkel puts forward is that we have a debt crisis, and in times of debt, you’ve got to cut spending.

In times of debt, what you do is get the economies to grow so that they can overcome the debts. If you impose austerity, it gets worse. It was obvious in the beginning and that’s exactly what happened.

Do you think countries like Greece should have defaulted?

Greece has some serious internal problems. They just didn’t collect tax, the rich were undisciplined, and there’s too much bureaucracy. But the debt is a dual responsibility. If you believed in capitalism the problem would be a problem of the lenders. I lend you money, I make some profit, you can’t pay, tough for me.

But there always has to be some enforcement or guarantee that the debts are paid back.

Not in capitalism. But in real life it’s your neighbor’s problem. They have to subject themselves to austerity. These are just systems for supporting the wealth and power. So should Greece have defaulted? Well, it should have had a way to extract itself from debts that weren’t incurred by the population. It’s true that they used the fake money, fake wealth to overconsume. But that’s pretty much the faults of the banks. They were smart enough to figure out that there is gong to be unpayable debt. But the question is: Could Greece restructure so that the debt would not be imposed on the population? There are countries that have done it, like Iceland or Argentina.

People in the richer European countries fear that increasing spending will lead to higher debts.

Not if the money is used the way it was used in East Asia. They used it for capital investment and industrial policy programs. So, Taiwan and South Korea, Japan earlier, they moved from quite poor peasant societies to richer and developed societies. In fact, the entire history of state capitalist development has been like that. That’s the way the United States developed. In the 1770s, the newly liberated colonies did get economic advice from respectable figures like Adam Smith. And what Smith advised the colonies to do is accept what are called the principles of sound economics; the ones that the IMF and the World Bank were instructing the poor countries to do today. So, concentrate on your comparative advantage, export primary products, import superior manufacturers from Britain, but don’t try to monopolize your commodities, cotton being the most significant ones like oil in the 18th century. Well, the colonies were free. So they did the exact opposite. They raised tariff barriers, developed industry, tried to monopolize cotton. That’s how the U.S. developed.

Would protectionism make sense in the industrialized countries today? Because if you walk around in a supermarket, you’ll see products that have been produced under conditions that the societies in the industrialized countries wouldn’t tolerate. The t-shirt from Bangladesh, the TV from China, the toy from Taiwan: all produced without interference from the welfare-state, labor unions or environmental protections. There is nothing more neoliberal than the consumer,” Swiss writer Adolf Muschg once noted. But shouldn’t we protect the consumer?

There are two approaches. One approach is protectionism, but notice that in the case that I’ve mentioned the protectionism was against the richer societies. You are talking about something different; tariffs against poor countries. And there is another approach, namely the approach that the European Union in fact took. Help them raise their levels so they don’t undermine the living standards of northern workers.

But what if you can’t raise standards in China?

Sure you can. In fact, it’s being done. When there were massive protests against Foxconn [the corporation that produces electronic devices for Apple in China] this year, China reacted by making some changes, allowing some degree of independent unions that have been permitted to slightly reduce the onerous conditions that sort of forced workers into this slave labor. If we impose tariffs against exports from China we are imposing costs on western corporations. It’s basically an assembly plant for parts and components that come from the more advanced industrial countries and it’s periphery.

So why not tax them for exploiting workers and the environment in those countries?

Yes, make them pay to raise the standards. I mean corporate profits have gone through the roof. Now, there’s a study by economists from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst that unused corporate banking and corporation profits amount to about $1.5 trillion that’s just sitting there because they see no advantage for them to spend it. Well, there are all kind of ways to spent that, as the study points to specific measures which would virtually eliminate unemployment, lead to economic growth and so on.

What is your assessment of the first term of President Barack Obama?

Frankly, I didn’t expect much from Obama, so I wasn’t actually disillusioned. When he came into office, at the height of the financial crisis, the first thing he needed to do was put together an economic team. Who did he pick? He picked the people who created the crisis. There are Nobel Laureates in economics who had different approaches. But he picked what they called the Rubin Boys, people like Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, bankers and so on. The people who essentially created the crisis. There was an article in the business press, Bloomberg News, which reviewed that. They concluded that these people shouldn’t be on the economic team, half of them should be getting subpoenas. So he was paying off the people who put him into office.

Because they were major contributors to his campaign?

Most of his campaign funding was concentrated in the financial institutions, which preferred him to McCain. And there were people who understood it. So shortly after he was elected, the advertising industry awarded him the prize for the best marketing campaign of the year.

Still, Obama tried to improve things, like introducing universal healthcare.

It’s a mixed story. The U.S. healthcare system is a total disaster. If the United States had a healthcare system like any other industrial society, there wouldn’t be any deficit. In fact, it would end up being a surplus. And the reason is not obscure: A largely privatized, mostly unregulated healthcare system that is extremely inefficient and very costly.

Well, the Obama reforms are slightly better than what existed, but nothing like what should exist. In fact, even the idea of allowing a public option, to give a choice to pick a public healthcare provider, even that he refused to pursue.

But Obama had to compromise with what could get passed in the Senate.

Some of his supporters argue that it was the best that could be done, given the political circumstances. But that’s by no means obvious. The president has a lot of power, for example, he can appeal to the population. The population was very strongly in favor, almost two to one. So okay, appeal to the population. That’s the way Roosevelt got the New Deal legislation through.

You once said that by applying the Nuremberg principles, every U.S. president actually would have been hanged. Does that apply to Obama as well?

Look at the global assassination campaign. It violates principles going back to Magna Carta.

You’re referring to the drones in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

Yes. If the president decides to kill somebody, you kill him and whoever else happens to be standing around. The foundations of Anglo-American law, and by now pretty much of the rest of the world, has what’s called the presumption of innocence, that you can punish someone if you demonstrate that they are guilty in a court of law. It’s even in the American constitution. In fact the Obama administration has made it very clear that they basically can kill anyone they want, including American citizens.

Would you prefer a police action if you think that there are terrorists around planning attacks against the United States?

Suppose you think that there is a group of people here who are going to rob the store. You cannot arrest them. At least under law. I mean, you can do it if you have a police state, you can do whatever you like. In fact when they murdered an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, Obama said that was an easy case” and the government explained that he did have due process. Due process means a trial by one’s peers, but Obama said he had due process because we talked it over within the executive branch, so that’s due process now. What about presumption of innocence? Well they answered that too. They said anyone who we kill is guilty unless later they can be shown to have been innocent. That’s all come out publicly. So it’s just an international assassination campaign. Kill who you feel like. It’s cheaper than invading a country, which did cost us too much and didn’t work anyway.

You call yourself an anarchist. Is there actually any political leader on the global scene who is doing a good job in your opinion?

Leaders technically don’t do a good job [laughs]. If you are in a position of power you usually do something to extend it.

So do you think that political leaders are generally immune from your advice?

Of course. Mine or anyone else’s. There are intellectuals who like to pretend that they’re influential. Bernard-Henri Lévy or others try to puff themselves up. But in fact political leaders don’t pay any attention to them. If there is a popular movement carrying out substantial actions, then maybe they may respond.

And that’s the reason you try to address the general population?

Yes. And I’m not telling political leaders anything they don’t know. If I were to tell Angela Merkel, austerity under recession is harmful to the economy, she doesn’t have to hear it from me. She can figure that out herself, probably did long time ago.

This interview has originally published in Tagesspiegel, a German daily.

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