It has been snowing in Boston and the mercury is down at -15ºC; the buses aren’t running and cars skid. At 11am on the dot, Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky, the 86-year-old linguist and philosopher, is at his post, giving an interview to a French journalist in his office at the MIT Department of Linguistics.
We are inside the legendary Stata Center, built by Frank Gehry in steel and brick. The Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences faculty is packed with students, an overwhelming number of whom are Asians. Tucked in next to a lift on the eighth floor, Chomsky’s lair smells of freshly made coffee, a sense of calm and camaraderie.
Next door to Chomsky’s office is that of the nonagenarian Morris Halle, a diminutive bearded man with a glint in his eye, crumbs down his jacket and the look of someone who has shared vodka and revolutions with Bakunin. The New Yorker has compared the pair of linguists to Dante and Virgil, or Sherlock Holmes and Watson. It was Halle, an illustrious linguist, who brought Chomsky to the MIT in 1955, when no one else dared to hire the brilliant and angry young Jew, fresh from his Harvard doctorate. In 1968 the two joined forces to write the most important book in the history of linguistics, The Sound Pattern of English, which did for phonology –the study of the sound of words- what Chomsky had already done –at the age of 29- for syntax: converting it into a science.
Another key character in Chomsky’s life is his secretary, Bev Stohl, a charming woman who jokingly says of her venerable maestros in an aside: “They’re they are; over 200 years between them”. Chomsky’s spacious and light office, lined with books on anarchy, war, history and linguistics, is dominated by two large photographs of Bertrand Russell, an idol and guide to the atheist and pacifistic thinker. Chomsky receives his second interviewer of the day with a welcoming smile. It is soon clear that he has lost some of his energy and hearing, and his voice is faint. But listening to him is still quite an experience; having embraced all the just and lost causes there are, the conscience of Yankee imperialism is still an incurable Quixote and a shrewd analyst. He retains a prodigious memory for dates, facts, books and speeches, while not once losing his train of thought. His mind remains clear, agile and powerful.
As well as teaching, writing articles and attending to his students, Chomsky is still a guest speaker at conferences – “my diary is full through 2016”, he says – and he replies in person to the dozens of messages and letters he receives every day. According to his secretary, “the man never says no; he just doesn’t know how”. The ultimate proof of this comes after the 45 minutes of the interview have elapsed, when this journalist asks him to be honorary president of CTXT’s editorial board. Chomsky answers: “Well, I don’t join boards… But if it’s honorary, I could!”
You look cheerful. Do you still find reasons to be optimistic?
Well, there are a few. Although there is no lack of reasons to be pessimistic. Humans have to make a decision, and not in the long term, as to whether to survive or just abandon their two huge and imminent threats: one is environmental catastrophes; the other is nuclear war. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has been the main monitor of strategic and nuclear issues for many years, has a famous doomsday clock. They determine how far the minute hand should be from midnight. Now they just moved it two minutes closer, so it is now three minutes to midnight. That’s the closest it has been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The threat of nuclear war is increasing; it’s always been significant and it’s kind of a miracle that we have escaped it if you look at the record. The United States, for example, now devotes about a trillion dollars to the modernization and upgrading of nuclear weapons. The Non-proliferation Treaty, if anybody cares, commits us to eliminating them, to show good faith in our efforts to eliminate them. Russia is doing something similar, and others are doing the same, including smaller powers.
But hardly anybody talks about this.
Nobody is talking much about that, except strategic analysts, economic experts and others who are concerned about these things. But there are very serious threats. One is the conflict in Ukraine. One hopes that the powers will back away, but it’s far from guaranteed; we know they’ve come close before. Just to take one example, in the early 1980s the Reagan Administration decided to probe Russian defenses. So they simulated air and naval attacks against Russia, including nuclear weapons. They didn’t tell the Russians what they were doing because they wanted to provoke a real alert, not a simulation. It was a moment of extreme tension. Reagan had just announced strategic defense initiatives, like Star Wars, which analysts on all sides understood to be a first-strike weapon. If it ever works, it wouldn’t be a missile defense, but rather a protection for a first strike. As Russian archives have been released, US intelligence now recognizes that the threat was extremely severe. In fact, one intelligence analysis that just appeared recently said that we came close to war.
So it’s pure luck that we’re still here.
I’m going back to your first question… Optimism? It’s always the same story. Always, no matter how you evaluate what’s happening in the world, you, basically, have two choices: you can decide to be pessimistic and say there’s no hope and abandon all efforts – in which case you contribute to ensuring that the worst will happen; or you can grasp whatever hopes there are – and they’re always there – and try to do what you can. And maybe you’ll be able to avert disaster, or even go a little way toward a better world.
You revolutionized linguistics when you were 29 years old and then you tried to change the world. And you’re still trying. I imagine the second task has been much harder than the first. Has it been worth it?
Changing linguistics is pretty hard. Linguistics includes a bit of science and aspects of contemporary philosophy… I think I have been on the right side of things, even though I’m part of a small minority.
Would you say the overall result has been positive?
There have been successes, not just mine, but thanks to popular opposition to violence, aggression and inequality. If you take the Civil Rights Movement in the US – in which I was not a leading figure but I was involved like many others – it achieved certain significant goals, but by no means all of those that were contemplated. Take, say, Martin Luther King: if you listen to the official rhetoric, his fight stops in 1963 with his famous I have a dream speech leading down to the Civil Rights legislation, which did significantly improve voting rights and other rights in the South. But King didn’t stop at that point. He went on to try to address Northern racism and to create a movement for the poor, not just blacks, but the poor in general. He was assassinated in Memphis (Tennessee) when he was there to support a strike of public workers. His wife, his widow, led the march through the South, through all the places where the confrontations had been, got to Washington and they sat up a tent city, Resurrection City. The Congress of that time was the most liberal in history. They allowed it to stay there for a while, but then they sent the police in in the middle of the night and smashed it up and threw everybody out of town. That was the end of the movement to deal with poverty.
Europe is now immersed in its darkest chapter of the past 50 years.
There have been significant gains but they come up against a barrier. And that barrier then got much worse with the initiation of this massive neoliberal assault against the world’s population, which began in the late 1970s and took off under Reagan and Thatcher. Now Europe is one of the worst victims with these economically crazy policies of austerity under recession. Even the IMF says that makes no sense. But it makes sense from another point of view: they are undermining the Welfare State; they are weakening labor; they are increasing the power of the wealthy and the privileged. So you can see in their failure there is a success that happens to be destroying societies. But that’s kind of the footnote that you disregard when you are sitting in the offices of the Bundesbank.
Society have started to react to this situation. Do you think change is possible?
There is now a resistance to the neoliberal attack, a very significant one in fact. The most important is actually in South America, which is dramatic. I mean, for 500 years, South America had been pretty much under the domination of Western imperial powers, most recently the US. But in the last 10 or 15 years it has begun to break out of that. That’s an event with stark significance. Latin America was one of the most loyal adherents to the Washington consensus and the official rules.
But Latin Americans have pulled out of it; not totally, but for the first time in half a millennium, the countries are moving towards integration, which is a prerequisite for independence. They had been very much separated in the past and they’re beginning to unite. One symbol is that the US has lost all of its military bases in Latin America, with the last one being closed in Ecuador. Another striking illustration is what’s happening in the hemisphere conferences. The last conference, which was in Colombia, never reached a consensus and they could not produce a declaration. The reason was there were two countries who opposed the rest of the hemisphere: the US and Canada. Nothing like that was imaginable in the past.
Guantánamo is still an issue. Do you think Cuba will try to get the base back in the Havana talks?
I’m sure the Cubans will try but I doubt the Americans would commit to that.
I read a recent article where you said that Obama is only a liberal-conservative, a moderate Republican and that Nixon’s administration was the most liberal in US history.
Nixon was a nice guy… The standard has changed. By today’s standards, Nixon looks like a liberal, and Eisenhower looks like a flaming radical. Eisenhower, after all, stated that anyone who would ever question the New Deal legislation as crazy could never be part of the American political system. By now, most of this is gone.
So Obama is not a left-wing president?
The term left in the US is now used for moderates from the center because the spectrum has shifted. In fact, there used to be a joke that the US is a one-party state (Business Party) with two factions (Democrats and Republicans), which was pretty accurate. Now it’s not accurate anymore. It’s still a one-party state but there’s just one faction: moderate Republicans. That’s the only functioning political party. There are those who are called Democrats but they are pretty much what moderate Republicans used to be. The other party, the Republicans, has just drifted way off this background. They have abandoned any pretense of being a parliamentary party. Actually, this is recognized. One of the most respected conservative commentators, Norman Ornstein, recently described the Republicans as a radical insurgency which has abandoned any pretext of participating in parliamentary politics.
What are the neocons up to these days?
The party has been mobilized to seize two objectives: one, to destroy the country and make it look as if it is the fault of the democrats so maybe they can get into power again. The other is just to serve the rich and the powerful with dedication. But since you can’t make that your party platform, what they’ve done is understandable; to try to mobilize big sectors of the population that were always there but were never really organized as a major political force. One group are Evangelical Christians, who are a huge part of the population in the US. That’s why you have the new chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment, James Inhofe, a man who says: “It’s arrogant to claim that humans can do anything about God’s will, as in global warming”. This is antediluvian… you can’t even call it Stone Age because primitive people knew way better than that. But this is the head of the environment committee… And this is part of the essence of the Republican base, which is substantially, maybe quite substantially, extremist, evangelical Christian-right. The other sector that they have mobilized is people who are terrified. The United States of course is a very mixed society, and by now what is happening is that the white population is becoming a minority. So, there is a large sector of the population and their political leaders which says “they are stealing our country from us”. That’s a way of saying there are too many dark faces; you know, mainly Hispanics.
And what about Muslims?
Muslims too, but Hispanics are the main source of fear.
The national myth against the onslaught of “inferior” races…
It’s still there. It may have no basis in the history or biology, but it’s in the consciousness. And now you are at the point where our Anglo-Saxon mythological heritage is not only threatened, but is being overtaken by these outsiders who are taking our country away from us. All of this is part of what the Republican Party – I have to call it the former Republican Party – has used as a basis that leads to these policies which are virtually insane.
Europe is not so far away from this vision.
Again it’s insane the way the Troika is taking decisions in Europe. Well, it’s only insane if you consider the human consequences, but not from the point of view of those who are designing the policy as they are doing fine. They are richer and more powerful than ever and destroying their enemies, in other words the general population.
The Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki calls it sadistic capitalism.
Well, you know, capitalism is inherently sadistic; actually Adam Smith recognized that when it is unleashed and freed from external constraints, its sadistic nature shows itself because it is inherently savage. What is capitalism? It means try to maximize your own personal gain at the expense of everyone else. Actually, one famous Nobel Prize-winning economist, James Buchanan, once said that each human being’s ideal is to be a master with everyone else his slave; that’s our ideal situation. And from the point of view of neoclassical economics, why not? That’s the ideal.
A world without rights or responsibilities?
A word with no rules and where the powerful get what they want. And by some miracle, everything is going to work out fine. It is interesting that Adam Smith faced this with the famous phrase “invisible hand”, which everyone throws around today. (…) Now we see that when capital is unleashed from regulation, particularly financial markets, of course everything blows up. That is what Europe is now facing.
Surprisingly, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a leftist party like Syriza has won an election in Europe. It is as if the Troika’s policies have brought the old enemy back from the dead…
I don’t really see it that way… For one thing, there is a lot of mythology about the enemy. Russia was more remote from socialism than the United States is; the Bolshevik revolution was a major defeat for socialism; it undermined the socialist movement and it led to autocratic tyranny in which the working people were basically what Lenin called a proletarian army under the control of a leader who had nothing to do with socialism.
Isn’t Syriza a sign that history’s pendulum is swinging back?
Syriza is by today’s standards a left party, but not particularly because of its programs. It’s an anti-neoliberal party. They are not calling for workers’ control of industry.
Of course, they are not real revolutionaries.
They are not even traditional socialists. That’s not a criticism; I think it is a good thing, and the same with Podemos, which basically is a party that’s rising up against the neoliberal assault, which is strangling and destroying the peripheral countries.
Let’s talk about the press. You have been a harsh critic of The New York Times and The New Yorker in two recent articles. Is the decline of traditional newspapers due to how close they are to power or, as their editors argue, is it internet’s fault?
I write about The New York Times and The New Yorker because what interests me is the kind of liberal extreme. I mean, I’ll let somebody else denounce Fox news, which is a joke. But what is interesting to me are the intellectual journals at the outer limits of acceptable criticism. They are kind of guardians. They say: you can go this far, but no further. And they are there for a particular interest. Doctrinally, I don’t think they have changed, so they were just as protective of state power all the way back. Take a look at the invasion and the overthrow of democracy in Guatemala, strongly supported; the overthrow of the Iranian parliamentary system in 1953, very strongly supported; the Vietnam War, strong support all the way through. In fact, about the only criticism over the Vietnam War up until the present time is that it failed. When Obama is considered a great moral hero because he opposed the invasion of Iraq, what did it say? It said it was a blunder, you know, it didn’t work out. If it had worked out, that’d be fine…
Guardians of power, but not of democracy…?
The press is in a very serious decline but I think it is basically the commercial markets operating. The media is basically made up of big corporations and, essentially, they live on advertising, and their sources of capital are simply diffusing, so the press is declining. So if you take, say, The Boston Globe, it used to be quite a good newspaper; one of the best in the country. But now it basically has no independent news at all. It either runs wire services or it picks up something from The New York Times and it has very few correspondents. And that’s happening in all of the country. That’s not a doctrinal manner; it has to do with the functioning of the market society; if you don’t make enough money, you decline.
And isn´t it strange that these media outlets continue to defend a model which has led them to ruin?
Doctrinally, overwhelmingly, and not just in the United States, they simply support power. In the United States that’s business and state power. There are deviations. In fact, The Wall Street Journal, the primary business paper, runs exposures of corporate crime, good ones in fact. It’s not like it’s a fascist state.