The New Crisis of Democracy
Tan Chen, editor of the online magazine INTHEFRAY.com, met with
Professor Chom- sky for an hour-long conversation on the state of
today’s social movements.
What do you think the state of social movements
around the globe is right now?
It’s hard to think of a time when there has been anything approaching
this level of activism, participation, and, in particular, interaction.
That’s something quite new. The kinds of interaction that are
reflected at the World Social Forum, for example, or at the international
demonstrations at Cancún. There had never been anything like
that in the past. The popular movements in the West—the labor
movement, the left movements from the 19th century—were always
talking about internationalism. That’s why every union is called
an international. But they were never anything remotely like internationals.
Brazil, what happened recently was historically pretty amazing.
It’s the first time that popular movements reached this scale.
A number of them—the Workers Party, the unions, the Landless
Workers Movement, which played the most interesting role in many
ways. They reached a sufficient scale so they could take political
power over enormous odds—the centralization of capital and
rich-poor gap and so on. What they can do about it is another question.
There were efforts in this direction in the past. Forty years ago
they did elect a mildly populist president—nothing remotely
like Lula and nothing like the populist Workers Party. But then
it was just overthrown quickly by a military coup, organized from
Washington and celebrated by American liberals as the greatest thing
that ever happened.
there’s these external dangers that social movements face.
changed. There’s not going to be any military coup to overthrow
Lula. For one thing, because the population no longer would accept
it, either there or here. There’s been enough changes in popular
consciousness, both in the South and, by now, in the rich countries,
in the North. You couldn’t get away with a military coup now
the way you could 40 years ago when nobody paid attention.
other, negative side is that they don’t need it now, because
the neoliberal mechanisms of the past 30 years have created conditions
which severely undermine the threat that democracy could actually
function. So international financial markets have a stranglehold
over Brazil and other Third World countries thanks to these measures.
It’s almost unnecessary to think in terms of military coups.
In fact, Lula is being compelled to follow policies more reactionary
than the preceding government, the Cardoso government. It’s
unpleasant to watch. Unless they want to pull out of the international
financial system—create an independent new bloc of countries
that just don’t want to accept these rules—as long as
they decide to play by the rules, they have to maintain what’s
called their “credibility” with banks and foreign investors
and the IMF and so on. And they have to work harder to do that than
a reactionary government does, because the investors are always
waiting to pounce on them if there’s any minor move towards
social reform in health services or wherever.
the situation for social movements in the United States right now?
conditions are such that they ought to be able to achieve a lot.
The United States is a complicated country. There’s little
in the way of political parties, the political system is almost
unrelated to popular movements. On the other hand, there’s
a tremendous amount of energy and activism, just very disorganized.
of the main reasons I go to give lots of talks is that it brings
together people from that town or city or region who are working
along pretty similar lines, or at least parallel lines, and don’t
have much to do with each other. If you just take Boston, there
are lots and lots of groups. But they barely know about each other.
The total level of participation is probably quite substantial.
On the other hand, the degree of integration is slight and the degree
of involvement varies. That means there’s not much in the way
of long-term thinking or planning or strategy.
do you think there is such fragmentation within social movements
in the United States?
other industrial countries, these movements have tended to coalesce
around the labor movement or social-democratic political parties
or some kinds of ongoing institutions that maintain themselves.
The United States does not have those institutions. So if I give
a talk in some other industrial country, it’ll often be in
a union hall. I almost never give a talk in a union hall in the
has both a positive side and a negative side. The positive side
is that the movements here are not under the control of petty autocratic,
bureaucratized institutions. On the other hand, it means there’s
no center you can keep coming back to, there are no learning experiences.
What was done ten years ago is forgotten because the people who
did it are now somewhere else and you have to start over again and
learn the same techniques—there are things you have to know:
how do you distribute leaflets, how do you get people organized,
how do you talk to people.
the United States, the one continuing institution is the church.
So as a result, a lot of the organizing and activism is around churches.
Where do some groups have their offices? Usually in one or another
also a big country, a very insular country, that doesn’t pay
attention to the outside. There’s a tremendous amount of mobility
as compared to other industrial countries—people don’t
live where they grew up, others come from outside the country and
it means there’s a lack of ties. Also, this is an unusually
business-run society. Other industrial countries are also largely
business-run, but here it’s extraordinary. It shows up through
the whole history. The U.S. has a very violent labor history. The
major business-run propaganda institutions, the public relations
industry, are in the U.S. or, secondarily, Britain, which is also
where they had their major origins as part of the effort to control
attitudes and beliefs.
are enormous efforts going into trying to undermine popular organizations.
They are very centralized and they are continuing, and they have
an institutional base and they have learning experiences—they
pick up from last time and so on and so forth. So in terms of institutional
structures, it’s an extremely unequal battle. On the other
hand, it’s a pretty dissident population. So if you look at
people’s attitudes, it looks like it ought to be an organizer’s
the Vietnam War. There was a huge amount of activism on the war
and there’s been a lot of studies of people’s attitudes
on it. The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, for example, does
regular polls on people’s attitudes towards international affairs
every four years. There’s an open question, “What do you
think of the Vietnam War?” And there’s maybe ten choices.
And the one that’s had an overwhelming majority since 1969
is, “Fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake.”
you did a poll in the Harvard Faculty Club or editorial offices
or something, nobody would say that. Everybody says, “It was
a mistake. It was right, but it was a mistake. It was wrong because
it cost us too much, but it was a mistake, it was a disaster, it
got too costly, we got into a quagmire”—and that sort
of thing. Well, apparently, that’s not the popular attitude.
Now, what do people mean when they say, “Fundamentally wrong
and immoral, not a mistake”? Well, in order to find that out,
you have to ask further questions. But those questions don’t
come to the minds of investigators—academic investigators.
fact, if you look at their interpretation of it, what they say is,
well, this must mean that people didn’t like the casualties.
Well, maybe. But that’s not the obvious interpretation. “Fundamentally
wrong and immoral” might mean something beyond just too many
U.S. casualties. But it’s been built up in the doctrinal system
to be something called the “Vietnam Syndrome,” meaning
you don’t want to take casualties. Actually, the polls that
have been done show that’s not true. Recently, the main academic
polling institution in the country—the Program on International
Policy Attitudes in Maryland—investigated this and they consistently
show that people don’t think that casualties are a cost they’re
unwilling to accept if the cause is just.
it extends well beyond.
percent of the population before the last election—there was
a Harvard project on this—they found that before the last presidential
elections, 75 percent of the population regarded it as a farce.
That’s before Florida, before the Supreme Court. If you look
at this whole stolen election business, it’s of great concern
among intellectuals, but there’s almost no popular resonance.
They don’t care.
you look at the Vanishing Voter Project you can see the reasons.
Before the election people weren’t taking it seriously, because
it’s just rich people and public relations operations. If you
ask people, “Is the economic system fair?” Overwhelmingly,
it’s unfair. Ask people about national health insurance. There’s
been very consistent support for it, some of the latest figures
are about 75 percent. If it’s being discussed, it’s called
“politically impossible”—meaning, the insurance companies
won’t accept it.
aren’t they organizing? If there’s such a degree of grievances
about health care, about the minimum wage, about the lack of a UN
role in foreign policy, why aren’t people agitating?
the UN role in foreign policy. In April, before the whole thing
in Iraq started becoming a catastrophe, there was about two-thirds
in favor of the UN taking over reconstruction and taking the lead
in international conflicts. They ask the questions in skewed ways,
but what basically it comes down to is that people are also largely
opposed to the international economic agreements.
the 2000 elections, for example, the issue that ought to have been
at the core was the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which was just
coming along. But nobody even mentioned it. The reasons are simple:
the population is opposed, the elites favor it. So it isn’t
part of the political system.
you talk a little about your background in social movements and
what lessons could apply today?
was very active and political as a teenager, but then it was mostly
Palestine-related. I was involved in what was then called Zionist
movements—they’d now be called anti-Zionist. Then in the
1960s I joined in with what was going on. The civil rights movement,
the anti-war movement. I became active in organizing resistance
against the war, also talks, writing, demonstrations. Then on from
the 1980s, I was heavily involved in the solidarity movements in
regard to Central America. Which were a real breakthrough. They
were what people would call conservative in many respects—the
church, the Midwest. But it was the first time in the history of
Europe or the United States, as far as I know, that large numbers
of people from the imperial society went to live with the victims.
Very courageously. To help them, to offer some protection because
there’s a white face around. A lot of them stayed. It’s
part of the mood that led to the current international solidarity
you see some continuity with the global justice movement?
global justice movements sort of grew out of this, in a kind of
unplanned fashion, they just developed into these further interactions
and developments. People think of the global justice movements as
originating in Seattle. But that’s very misleading. They were
much more powerful in the South. But they were kind of disregarded.
When it hit a Northern city, you couldn’t disregard it any
longer. If it’s peasants storming the Indian parliament and
getting them to vote down the Uruguay Round—it might make a
small note on the back page, even though it’s a much more powerful
the probably millions of people who have been killed in the Congo
in the last two years. Nobody knows. Nobody cares. You can say,
well, we’re sending troops to Iraq for humanitarian reasons.
Whatever you think of that argument, a fraction of those forces
in Eastern Congo would have deterred and maybe stopped huge massacres,
way beyond anything there [in Iraq]. Of course, they don’t
have oil wealth and are too unimportant to control, so it doesn’t
the biggest international issue in the 1980s, the one that dominated
the press more than anything else, was Nicaragua. A large part of
the country didn’t know which side we were on. Many people
thought the U.S. was supporting the government.
kind of contribution do you think social movements can give to this
distressing picture globally?
bounds are endless. Pick what you like. People are in favor of democratic
control, they don’t want to work in corporate tyrannies, they
don’t like aggression and massacre, they’d like to have
one of those things is a possibility for organizing. These are very
fragile systems of control and domination. The people in them know
that—they’re always deeply concerned about any manifestation
of popular activism and react very powerfully to try to crush it.
One of the results of the anti-fascist war was a growth of strong,
kind of radical, democratic sentiment—including in the United
States. You were hearing calls for worker takeover of industry and
things that went pretty far-reaching. And it struck a real panic
in elite centers. They organized huge campaigns to try to crush
it. I thought I knew something about it until some of the scholarly
work started to come out and it’s shocking to see the extent
and coordination and the concentration on trying to overcome what
they called, “the hazard facing industrialists in the rising
political power of the masses.”
the 1950s it kind of calmed things down. Then the 1960s came along
and everything just blew up, it had the same reaction. We’re
right in the middle of that right now. There’s tremendous fear
of a “crisis of democracy”—too much democratization.
The right-wing think tanks got organized to try to shift the political
spectrum. The spectrum of discussion and debate changed. The educational
fact, a lot of the neoliberal programs which come from the early
1970s—you can debate what their economic impact is. It’s
pretty negative, in my opinion. But it’s debatable at least.
However, what’s not debatable is their effect in undermining
democracy. Almost every element of them is designed to reduce the
arena of popular participation and decision-making. And that runs
from free financial flows—as [economist John Maynard] Keynes
knew all along—to privatization. Reducing the arena of popular
you think that people will, if given a chance, actually organize
to change some of these things? On February 15, you had millions
of people around the world and hundreds of thousands in the United
States protesting the war in Iraq. And yet some people came out
of that saying, “Well, I protested and nothing changed. The
foreign policy didn’t change.”
not the way any social movements ever worked—abolitionism,
women’s rights, labor rights, anything, you have to expect
to keep at it day after day. You have partial successes, failures—you
pick up and go on.
the idea that you’re going to have some kind of instant gratification,
or else it was worthless, is a very typically American idea. It’s
in the nature of the way the country works. There’s a ton of
propaganda about it. You’re supposed to look for instant gratification.
If it didn’t work, well, it’s useless. Quit. I remember,
for example, at the time of the Columbia strike in 1968, the students
were very excited. I had discussions with them, trying to dampen
the enthusiasm. Same with France in 1968. The young people involved
were very dedicated, very brave, and they really believed that if
they sat in for a couple of weeks or did their thing on the streets
of Paris, the whole system was going to collapse. That’s not
going to happen, you know? You may make a dent. But you’re
not going to achieve long-term institutional changes by sitting
in a Columbia University president’s office.
people failed to achieve the long-term goals, they regarded it as
a failure. Right at that point, the massive popular movements here—the
young ones—a lot of them went off into very self-destructive
directions—the Maoist groups, Progressive Labor, the Weathermen.
“We’ve shown that reform doesn’t work.” You
haven’t shown anything. You’ve shown that one demonstration
didn’t work—but when did it ever?
same is true in February. These were unprecedented protests. Of
course, they’re not going to stop power systems and anyone
who participated should have understood that. But they might be
a barrier to the next step, if you persist with them. But you have
to have a realistic understanding of where power lies, how it can
adapt to large-scale protests, and where they must go if they want
to really change things. This should have been used for ongoing
organizing efforts. To say, yeah sure, we didn’t stop the war,
we didn’t really expect to, but we want to make it harder for
those guys to run the next war. We want to make sure that we’re
going to work to change the system of power, which allows them to
make such decisions.
you think that movements today are getting better at building bridges
across lines of race, class, gender, religion, other lines of identity?
are some that are pretty successful at it. How much that generalizes
is really hard to say. Because it’s also quite easy for systems
of power and domination to separate people on these issues. Take
the Immigrant [Workers Freedom] Ride. It doesn’t take a genius
to figure out how to get immigrants and workers to be on opposite
sides. Same on international trade issues. There are real issues
involved. If jobs are lost here, they’re going somewhere else.
How do you deal with that? The people and peasants in China have
to eat too, so you can’t just disregard that question.
was narrow enough so that you could actually face the questions
concretely. It was quite interesting to see the debate about NAFTA.
It’s virtually unknown that the labor movement had a position
on it. That was suppressed. There is a Labor Advisory Council, which
is the labor union groups, basically. According to the congressional
trade laws, they’re supposed to be consulted on any trade-related
issue. But they weren’t even advised that NAFTA was being discussed
until about a day before the congressional vote. I think they were
given 24 hours notice.
they did meet, nevertheless, and put together a pretty interesting
proposal for a North American Free Trade Agreement—but not
this one. They pointed out that this one was going to be an investor
rights agreement, it was going to harm working people. But it could
be done differently, with compensatory funding and other devices,
a partially European union model where they brought in Spain and
Portugal and Greece in such a way that it wouldn’t undermine
Northern workers’ rights. A lot of ideas were spelled out.
It was distributed. Never reported. The only mention of it I’ve
ever seen is in stuff I wrote in
at the time,
and a later book including it.
proposal happened to be almost the same as one done by the OTA,
the Office of Technology Assessment, which has since been disbanded,
but at that time was the congressional research organization. They
did a detailed analysis of NAFTA—which reached pretty much
the same conclusions—namely, a NAFTA could be good here, but
not this one, because this one was aimed at low-wage, low-growth,
high-profit outcomes. It could be done in a way that would lead
to higher growth, higher wages, maybe lower profits, and that’s
the way it ought to be done. Well, these are not radicals; this
is OTA. I don’t think their report was ever mentioned.
know, if there were activist popular movements, they could have
broken through on that. You could have had a very different kind
of NAFTA, which maybe would have benefited people instead of harming
same thing happened at the Quebec summit in April 2001, where the
top issue was the FTAA, which was going be modeled on NAFTA, and
the declarations of the trade ministers and the headlines in the
press hailed the great successes of NAFTA. The summit never came
up in the presidential campaign or election, which was interesting
because the issues in it are of major importance to people. They
are high priority issues in polls. It never came up. Along comes
the Quebec summit. You couldn’t suppress it, because there
were massive protests, people breaking down the barricades, and
there was press commentary. But the commentary was almost entirely,
“The model for the FTAA is NAFTA, which was a great success
and now we have to bring it to the hemisphere. And these crazy protesters
are trying to undermine the poor, and so on.”
were two major studies of NAFTA that were timed for release at the
summit. They were on every editor’s desk in the country. One
was Human Rights Watch, which is hard to ignore. The other was the
Economic Policy Institute, which they all know. The Human Rights
Watch report was on the effect of NAFTA on labor rights in the three
countries. It was negative in all three countries. The EPI report
was an interesting and detailed study by specialists on the three
countries about the effects of NAFTA on working people. The conclusions
were it was harmful in all three countries and very harmful in Mexico—and
not just on working people, but on businesspeople and everyone else.
are major studies by well-known organizations, timed for release
at the summit, where the issue was the great success of NAFTA and
can we extend it to the hemisphere. I had a friend do a database
search afterwards. There was one mention of it in a column in a
small newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. The level of internalized
discipline is so enormous that you don’t mention what was obviously
very important, but the wrong conclusion.
bringing people on the streets can actually insert those issues
onto the radar screen?
didn’t. The only thing it did was allow the picture to be created
of crazed protesters and odd hippies and people with funny hats
who were trying to harm the poor because they’re trying to
prevent the benefits of NAFTA. But a different kind of organizing
could have forced this onto the agenda. Sometimes it works. Like
on the Multilateral Agreement on Investments, it did, in fact, work.
kind of organizing would be more effective?
got to be something that’s not just directed to a demonstration
in Quebec and then when you fail, you say, “Okay, we give up.”
It has to be day-to-day, ongoing organization. Delegations going
editorial office and saying we want you
to report the result of these reports, and if you don’t, we’re
going to leaflet the whole city and say you’re a bunch of this,
that, and the other thing. You know, that kind of pressure could
work and could break through. Alternative journalists could have
done it. Very few did. Very few even knew about it.
you go to an older period—take, say, the period when the Communist
Party was alive. And there’s lots and lots of things wrong
with the Communist Party, Stalinism, and everything else. But it
was a very important organization because it existed and it was
continuing. You had the same people coming around to grind the mimeograph
machines week after week, even if you lost the last battle. I remember
from my childhood—my family was mostly unemployed Jewish working
class. They were mostly in and around the Communist Party. They
didn’t give a damn about the Stalinist purge or anything else—if
they had to nod at the right point, they’d nod at the right
point. But they cared about those issues that were being struggled
about. My aunts were seamstresses working in what amounted to sweatshops,
but they got a couple of weeks in the summer at the union summer
camp and they got some protection at work and some health care.
They had workers’ education.
don’t want to reconstitute the old Stalinist Party, obviously.
But you want to know what was right about it, as well as what was
wrong about it. What was right about it was things like this.
role does democracy play in social movements today?
they are really participatory, they’re not going to have staying
power, and shouldn’t. And these are not easy things to develop.
Anybody who’s been in any popular movement, whether it’s
a group of 20 people or something larger, knows that there are internal
tendencies that lead to hierarchy. People’s boredom level varies.
There are some who are going to stick it out for hour after hour
in meetings and others who say, “I can’t take this anymore,”
and who will end up with the former types being the decision-makers.
It goes from interpersonal things like that to the tendency to delegate
authority and go do something else and let them run it. Then it’s
just going to become hierarchical and bureaucratized and dominated
and you’ll end up being a servant again. That’s true in
any kind of organization. It has to be struggled with all the time.
It has to be internalized, it’s part of the understanding of
participation in a movement, that this is what it’s going to
New York Times
is talking about the emergence of the
“other superpower” to contest American power.
are worried about it. Just like they are worried about the crisis
of democracy. That one sentence in the
New York Times
real fear that the world may be getting out of control. It shows
up in other respects, too. Take this whole Old Europe, New Europe
business. What was that all about? In part, it was just the expression
of the absolute, passionate hatred of democracy among U.S. elites,
which is really remarkable. The fact that Old Europe is denounced
because the governments took the same position as the majority of
the population and New Europe is praised because the governments
overrode an even bigger majority of the population.
there’s much deeper issues than that. Old Europe is France
and Germany. That’s the industrial and commercial and financial
heartland of Europe. The concern over that reflects an old concern—going
back to the Second World War—that Europe was going to strike
an independent course. If it does, it’ll be led by its heartland,
France and Germany. So when they get out of line, it’s really
dangerous. Because they might take Europe along with them into an
independent course in world affairs. A lot of the concern about
China and Japan is the same. Northeast Asia is the most dynamic
economic region in the world. Its GDP is much bigger than that of
the United States. It’s potentially integrated. It could go
in an independent direction.
it’s not just the second superpower—you know, popular
opinion. It’s also the fact that the world has conflicting
centers of power. The U.S. happens to dominate militarily, but not
in other dimensions. This is a longstanding concern. Mostly with
Europe, throughout the second half of the last century, but you
will remember the concerns about Japan in the 1980s.
policies are very heavily geared toward this. Say, taking control
of Iraqi oil or making sure that Caspian Sea pipelines go to the
West. A lot of this is based on the concern that Northeast Asia
might seek energy independence. Which would mean the loss of a very
powerful lever of control. On the other hand, if the U.S. has control
over the levers of energy and makes sure they basically decide what
happens to it—that’s a way of blocking more independent
development in economic and political and social centers that are
on par with, or even greater than, the United States. So all this
is being thought about all the time.
some Americans see the protests around the world against, for instance,
the Iraq War, they see that as anti-Americanism.
notion is interesting. Concepts like anti-Americanism only exist
in totalitarian states. Suppose people in Italy protest against
Berlusconi. Is that called anti-Italianism? In Russia, it was called
anti- Sovietism. In Brazil, under the generals, if you protested
you were anti-Brazilian. But the only way that concept can exist
is if you identify the leadership with the society, the culture,
the people, their aspirations, and so on. If you do that, if you
accept that deeply totalitarian doctrine, you can have notions like
anti-Sovietism, anti-Brazilianism, anti-Americanism, and so on.
very existence of the concept reflects a deeply totalitarian streak
in U.S. elite thought. Italians would laugh about it if you had
a book in Italy called
, referring to people
who protest Berlusconi’s policies. When you have a book in
the United States called
by Paul Hollander,
referring to people who criticize U.S. policies or something, people
don’t laugh, it gets a favorable review in the
concept reflects the deep-seated conception that you must subordinate
yourself to the leadership. If you’re critical of the leadership,
even if you think this is the greatest country in the world, you’re
do you think the future of social movements will be, and are you
optimistic or pessimistic?
think the tendencies over the last 30 or 40 years are pretty hopeful.
But it’s really a question of trajectory; there are very competing
trajectories in the world. There’s one towards centralization
and militarization and domination. And disaster, because it is facing
disaster. There’s another towards increasing concern over human
rights, over issues of peace, over, “Is this going to be an
environment for our grandchildren to live in?”—and so
on. The question is which of these trajectories dominates.
Victor Tan Chen
is editor of the online magazine INTHEFRAY.COM and a doctoral candidate
in social policy at Harvard University. A full transcript of
this interview is available at www.inthefray.com.