Noam Chomsky is one of the world's greatest living intellectuals. His work and achievements are well known – he is a foundational American linguist, professor emeritus at MIT for more than 60 years, undeviating political activist and commentator, and an ally of progressive movements around the world.
In this interview, Truthout spoke with the 84-year-old by telephone to discuss the current US government shutdown, tumultuous state of American politics, the Syrian Civil War and a wave of capitalist reform in South America.
Chomsky's latest works are Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe, with writer and multimedia artist Laray Polk, and On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare, with novelist and filmmaker André Vltchek.
Harrison Samphir: Thank you for speaking with me today, Mr. Chomsky. I would like to begin with the recent federal government shutdown in the United States. Acknowledging that it has happened once before, how is this instance different, if at all? How does it speak to the unwillingness from above to institute meaningful reform – healthcare or otherwise – and respond to the desires of the majority of the population?
Noam Chomsky: Well, actually, there was pretty good commentary on it this morning [October 4] in The New York Times by Paul Krugman who basically makes the point, it's a narrow point, that the Republican Party among the public is a minority party. So for example, they do run the House of Representatives, they're a majority there, and it's the House that is essentially sending the government into shutdown and maybe default. But they won the majority of seats there because of various kinds of chicanery. They got a minority of the votes, but a majority of the seats, and they're using them to press forward an agenda which is extremely harmful to the public. The particular thing that they're focusing on is defunding the health-care system.
You're from Canada so you probably know, the United States is unique among the rich countries, developed countries, in not having some kind of a national health-care system. The US health-care system is a complete scandal. It's got twice the costs of comparable countries and some of the worst outcomes. And the reason is that it's largely privatized and unregulated. So ofcourse it's highly inefficient and costly. And what's called Obamacare is an effort to mildly change this, not change it as far as it should go or as much as the population wants it to go, but to make it a little better and a little more affordable. And the Republicans have picked that as the one thing that they want to hang on to to try to gain some political stand, so they have to destroy what they call Obamacare. This is now not all the Republicans, it's a wing of the Republican Party, which is called conservative but in fact is just deeply reactionary. It's correctly described as a "radical insurgency" by one of the leading conservative commentators, Norman Ornstein.
So there's a radical insurgency, which is a large part of the Republican base, which is willing to do anything, destroy the country, whatever, in order to get rid of this Affordable Care Act. That's the one thing that they're able to hang onto. If they can't get rid of that, they're going to have to tell their base, we've been lying to you for the last five years. So they're willing to go to almost any extent to do that. That's unusual, in fact I think it's unique in the history of modern parliamentary systems. And it's very dangerous for the country and for the world
HS: How do see the shutdown ending?
NC: Well the shutdown itself is bad but not devastating. The real danger will come up in a couple of weeks. There's legislation which is in fact routine – it's passed every year – which allows the government to borrow money, otherwise it can't function. If Congress does not approve this budget request, the government may have to default. That's never happened. And a default of the US government would not only be very harmful here, it would probably send the country back into deep recession, but it just might crash the international financial system. Now, maybe they'll find ways around it, but the financial system of the world depends very heavily on the credibility of the US Treasury Department. US Treasury securities are what's called "good as gold"; they're the basis of international finance, and if the government can't uphold them, if they become valueless, the effect on the international financial system could be quite severe. But in order to destroy a limited health-care law, the right-wing Republicans, the reactionary Republicans, are willing to do that.
Now there's a split in the US about how this will be resolved. The main point to look at is the split within the Republican Party. The Republican establishment, and Wall Street, and the bankers, and the corporate executives and so on, they don't want this. They don't want it at all. It's the part of the base that is mobilized that wants it. And they're finding it hard to control that base. There's a reason why they have a collection of near crazies as the base. Over the past 30 or 40 years, both political parties have drifted to the right. Same thing's happened in Canada, incidentally. This is all part of the whole neoliberal shift in the economy. But the parties have shifted to the right. Today's Democrats are pretty much what used to be called moderate Republicans a generation ago. And the Republicans went so far to the right that they just can't get votes. They've become a dedicated party of the very rich and the corporate sector. And you can't get votes that way. So they've been compelled to mobilize a base of voters and gone to elements of the country that have always been there but were kind of marginal to the political system, for example, religious extremists. The United States is off the international spectrum in religious extremism. I mean half of the population, roughly, thinks the world was created a couple thousand years ago. Two thirds of the country is expecting the second coming of Christ. They've also had to turn to nativists. The gun culture in the United States, which is out of control, is party fueled by people who think 'we've got to have our guns to protect ourselves.' Protect ourselves from whom? From the United Nations? From the federal government? From people from outer space?
There are big, extremely irrational parts of the society, and they have now been mobilized politically by the Republican establishment, hoping that these people could be an electoral base to keep them in power, but on the assumption that they'd be able to control them. And that's turning out not to be easy. You actually saw it in the last primaries if you were watching. The Republican Primaries were quite interesting. The establishment had its candidate, Romney, a kind of a Wall Street lawyer and investor, and they wanted him in. But the base didn't want him. And every time a candidate came up from the base, that is with popular support, the Republican establishment went into high gear to destroy them with massive propaganda attack ads and so on. It was one after another, each one crazier than the last. And the Republican establishment is afraid of them, they don't want them. So they were able to keep them under control and get their own candidate in. But they're losing control of the base, and that's a deep dilemma for the Republican Party.
Actually, I'm sorry to say it has some historical analogs. It's kind of reminiscent of what happened in Germany in the late Weimar years. German industrialists wanted to use the Nazis, who were a relatively small group, as a battering ram against the labour movement and the left. They thought they control them but it turns out they were wrong. They couldn't control them. I'm not saying that will happen here, it's quite a different set of circumstances, but something similar is taking place. The Republican establishment, the mainstream corporate financial wealth, is getting to a point where it can't control the base it's mobilized.
HS: Turning now to foreign policy, it seems as though news about Syria has effectively vanished from the mainstream media since the agreement was reached to confiscate Assad's chemical weapons arsenal. Can you comment on this silence? Does it reflect Western apathy vis-à-vis foreign conflicts, which are mostly viewed through sanitized television news programs?
NC: In the United States, and to a certain extent in Canada, there's very little interest in what happens outside their borders. The United States is a very insular society. Most people know very little about the outside world and don't care that much. They're concerned with their own affairs. People don't have knowledge and understanding about the outside world, or about history. It's limited, and there are a lot of reasons for this, but it's a fact. So when something isn't constantly drummed-up by the media, they just don't know about it.
Syria is bad enough, it's a pretty terrible atrocity. But there are much worse ones in the world. So for example, the worst atrocities in the past decade have been in the Congo, the Eastern Congo, where maybe 5 million people have been killed. Horrible atrocities, and we're [the United States] involved, not directly but indirectly. The main mineral in your cellphone, coltan [a black metallic ore], comes from the Eastern Congo. Multinational corporations are there exploiting the very rich mineral resources of the region. A lot of them are backing militias which are fighting one other to gain control of the resources or a piece of the resources. The government of Rwanda, which is a US client, is intervening massively, and Uganda to an extent. It's almost an international war in Africa. Well, how many people know about this? It is the worst atrocity underway. But it's barely in the media, and people just don't know about it. And that's quite generally true.
What happened in Syria was, President Obama had made a statement announcing what he called his "red line": You can't use chemical weapons, you can do anything else but [use] chemical weapons. Credible reports came through that Syria had used chemical weapons. Whether it's true actually is still open to question, but it's very probably true. At that point, what was at stake was what is called credibility. So if you read the political actors, political leadership, foreign policy commentary, they constantly point out accurately that US credibility was at stake, and we have to maintain US credibility. So therefore something had to be done to show you can't violate our orders. So a bombing was planned, which would probably make the situation worse, but would at least establish US credibility.
And so what is "credibility"? It's a very familiar notion. It's basically the notion that is central to the Mafia. So suppose say the Godfather produces some kind of edict and says you're going to have to pay protection money. Well, he has to back up that statement. It doesn't matter whether he needs the money or not. If some small storekeeper somewhere decides he's not going to pay the money, the Godfather doesn't let him get away with it. The money doesn't mean anything to him, but he sends in his goons to beat him to a pulp. You have to establish credibility, otherwise conformity to your orders will tend to erode. International affairs runs in much the same way. The United States is the Godfather when it establishes edicts. Others had better live up to them, or else. We have to demonstrate that. So that's what the bombing of Syria was to have demonstrated.
Obama was reaching a point where he might not have been able to carry it off. There was very little international support, even England wouldn't support it, which is amazing. He was losing support internally, and was compelled to send the vote to Congress, and it looked as if he was going to be defeated, which would have been a very serious blow to his presidency, to his authority. Luckily for Obama, the Russians came along and rescued him with this proposal [to confiscate Assad's chemical weapons] which he quickly accepted – it was a way out of the embarrassment of facing likely defeat. They still have the option of bombing if they want to. And incidentally, to add one comment about this, you'll notice that this would be a very good moment to institute a call for imposing the Chemical Weapons Convention on the Middle East. The actual Chemical Weapons Convention. Not the version that Obama presented in his address to the nation and that media commentators repeat. What he said is that the convention bars the use of chemical weapons. He knows better. And so do the commentators. The Chemical Weapons Convention calls for banning the production, storage and use of chemical weapons, not just the use. So why omit production and storage? Reason: Israel produces and stores chemical weapons. So therefore the US will prevent the Chemical Weapons Convention from being imposed on the Middle East. But it's necessary to evade this by misrepresenting the convention, and I think maybe 100 percent of the media, or close to it, go along. But that's a critical issue. Actually, Syria's chemical weapons were developed largely as a deterrent to Israeli nuclear weapons. Also, not mentioned.
HS: You have recently stated that American power in the world is declining. Will that limit the extent to which the United States might, to borrow your phrase from 1994's World Orders Old and New, "suppress independent development" in foreign nations? Do you think we live now in a bipolar world, or is that changing? Is the Monroe Doctrine finished completely?
NC: Well, that's not a prediction. It's already happened. And it's happened in the [Western] hemisphere very dramatically. What the Monroe Doctrine stated, in effect, is that the US should dominate the hemisphere. For the past century or so that's actually been true, but it's declining very significantly. South America has virtually broken away in the last decade. That's an event of historic significance. South America just doesn't follow US orders. In fact there isn't a single US military base left there. South America goes its own way dramatically in international affairs. There was a hemispheric conference I think about two years ago in Colombia. It couldn't reach a consensus, so there was no declaration that came out, [but] on the crucial issues, Canada and the US were totally isolated. The rest of the hemisphere voted one way, and the US and Canada rejected it. So there couldn't be a consensus. The two issues were admitting Cuba into the hemispheric system and moving towards decriminalizing some drugs. The rest of the countries are in favor of it; Canada and the U.S. aren't.
The same is true on other issues. You'll remember a few weeks ago several countries in Europe, [including] France and Italy, blocked the presidential plane of the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, and when it was forced to land in Austria, they inspected the plane, all of which is a grotesque violation of diplomatic protocol. The South American countries bitterly condemned this. The Organization of American States, which used to be run by the United States, issued a sharp condemnation, but with a footnote. The US and Canada refused to go along. They are now increasingly isolated in the hemisphere, and sooner or later, I think we're going to find that the US and Canada are simply excluded from hemispheric affairs. That's a sharp reversal of what was the case not long ago.
HS: Latin America is the current center of capitalist reform. Ecuador and Peru, for example, are keeping nature's oil in the ground, while other nations have pursued nationalization programs in an effort to ward off heavy foreign investment and financial manipulation. Will these types of systems eventually gain traction in the West?
NC: Well, you're right. Latin America was the most obedient follower of the neoliberal regime that was instituted by the United States, its allies and the international financial institutions. They followed it most rigorously. Almost everyone who's followed those rules, including the Western countries, have suffered. And in Latin America they suffered severely. They went through several difficult lost decades. Well, part of the uprising of Latin America, particularly in the last 10 to 15 years, has been a reaction to that, and they have thrown out a lot of these measures and moved in a different direction. In earlier years, the US would have overthrown the governments or, one way or another, curtailed them. Now, it can't do that.
HS: Very recently, the United States saw its very first climate change refugees [Yup'ik Eskimos] on the southern coastal tip of Alaska. This puts human impact on the ecosphere into morbid perspective. What is your position on a carbon tax, and in your estimation, how popular might such a measure be in the United States and elsewhere?
NC: I think it's basically a good idea. Very urgent measures need to be taken, and without much delay, in dealing with the ongoing destruction of the environment. And here, incidentally, I should say that Canada is one of the major criminals, not just the tar sands and so on, but even mining throughout the world, a lot of it is Canadian. It's extremely destructive, so an important thing for Canadians to do is curtail the predatory and destructive behavior of their own government and corporations. A carbon tax is one way of doing it. If it became a serious proposal in the United States, there would be a huge propaganda onslaught by the business community, the energy corporations and many others, to try to frighten the population into opposing it – claiming that if they have it, all sorts of terrible things will happen, like you won't be able to heat your home, or whatever the story is. Whether that would succeed or not depends on how well the popular movements can organize to effectively combat it.