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Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Palmer and Richard Yarrow | January 18, 2017 | Harvard International Review
Noam Chomsky is a philosopher, social critic, political activist, and pioneering linguist. Having served as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955, Chomsky is the author of dozens of books, with his most recent book, Who Rules the World?, published in 2016. Chomsky spoke with HIR editors Kenneth Palmer and Richard Yarrow about his reflections on politics in the West, and what issues he thinks it has failed to properly address.
What would you consider the origin of the rise in populist sentiments, illustrated by the referenda in the United Kingdom and Colombia and the ascent of Trump in the United States? Do you see a common thread between these developments?
Colombia is quite different, but what’s happening in Europe and the United States has certain similarities. It fundamentally traces back, I think, to the new liberal programs of the past generation which have just cast a huge number of people to the side. These programs have improved corporate profit, kept wages stagnant, and highly concentrated wealth and power. They’ve undermined democracy. People have no faith or trust in institutions in Europe— it’s actually worse than [in the United States]. Decisions are basically made in Brussels; people can elect whoever they like, but [the EU elections] have almost no implications for policy. As [economist and Columbia University professor] Joe Stiglitz pointed out, it’s basically one dollar, one vote, and one of the reactions is just anger at everything.
So for example, Brexit interacts with the Thatcherite programs of de-industrializing England. Financial manipulations enriched southeast England and left the rest to wither on the vine. People are angry about that, but they picked, in my view, an irrational answer, since leaving Europe doesn’t help— Europe didn’t elect Thatcher, Major, Blair, or Cameron. My guess is that Brexit will even make it worse, but you can see what the source of the anger is. On the continent it’s pretty similar: the austerity programs have severely harmed the economy, but they’ve also essentially undermined democratic functioning: the centrist parties are collapsing, and there’s no faith in institutions. You see it in both the Trump and the Sanders phenomena—different ways of reacting to this collapse of functioning policies that [once existed] for the benefit of the population.
Trump supporters are not necessarily very poor—some of them are moderately well-off, they have jobs, but then, the image that’s been used, which is not a bad one, I think, is that they are people who see themselves as standing in line trying to get ahead. That they’ve worked hard, they’ve “done” their place in line, and they’re stuck there. The people ahead of them are shooting off into the stratosphere, and the people behind them, in their view, are being pushed ahead in the line by the federal government. That’s what the federal government does [in their view]—it takes people who are behind them and who haven’t worked hard enough they way they have, and pushes them ahead by some supportive programs. They listen to talk radio, for example, and hear laments about how Syrian immigrants are treated like kings while “I can’t get my kids my college.”
Recently, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton identified a marked decrease in life expectancies or increase in mortality rates among white, middle-aged Americans, often due to drug abuse or suicide. How would you say that change in mortality rates has been affecting American culture or society?
It’s the other way around, I think: the changes in American culture and society have led to the mortality rates. This is a sector of exactly the kind of people I was describing, mostly white and mostly male, in the sort of working age period of their lives, who are apparently suffering from depression, loss of face, lack of sense of any self-worth, and turning to drugs and alcoholism. Something similar happened in Russia during the market reforms of the 1990s. There was a huge increase in the death rate, and probably millions of people died. And a lot of it was the same sense that “everything’s falling apart, we have nothing, I’ll just drink myself to death.”
Do you think that the changes in mortality rates are necessarily connected with the changes in politics—that it’s all part of a similar phenomenon?
I think it’s a reflection of it. Very much like, in another way, the Brexit vote is. That is, “I have no way out, so I’ll scream.” It would be quite different if, say, there was an organized labor movement, which could mobilize people. In the 1930s the situation was objectively far worse, but there was a sense of hopefulness. I am old enough to remember—there was militant labor action, CIO organizing, left-wing parties, and a relatively sympathetic administration, and so somehow we were going to get out of this. And now people don’t have that. It’s a striking difference.
You’ve talked a lot about the use of drones and, especially during the Obama administration, have criticized their use. Do you think there are ever conditions under which drone strikes are justified? What would be necessary to meet a moral threshold?
For example, just recently, ISIS was blocked with a drone that had an explosive in it. Would that be legitimate? It’s wartime, [the launchers of the drone were] under attack, they’re using a weapon for self-defense. I don’t approve of it because I don’t approve of them, but in that kind of situation I guess you could argue that it’s like any other kind of weapon. On the other hand, when it’s a technique of assassination of suspects, it’s a different story. I mean, it’s not a question of drones. Suppose we sent killers to assassinate people who we think are planning attacks on us. Would that be legitimate? Suppose they did it to us—would that be legitimate? The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major newspapers have published op-eds saying we should bomb Iran now, not wait. So would Iran be justified in sending somebody to assassinate the editors? How would we react?
Do you think that US politics has been changing in its attitude toward humanitarian issues, or toward using drones in a better way?
Take a look at US history. We’ve been at war for five hundred years without a break. The people who lived here were driven out or exterminated. Up until the twentieth century it was clearing what we now call the national territory, with constant war and vicious, brutal war. Immediately after that it expanded to other parts of the world. It’s five hundred years, virtually without a break, and the policies really haven’t changed much.
Do you see potential for greater change, and by what means? How do you think the attitude towards humanitarian issues could change?
It has in some respects. Take, say, torture again. The popular negative reaction was sufficient, so that it’s now apparently not being used like the way it was being used under Bush. On the other hand, we shouldn’t exaggerate. Take maximum security prisons in the United States: they’re torture chambers. I mean, prisoners are subjected to solitary confinement, which is torture, for long periods, maybe a large part of their life, so torture still goes on all the time.
Psychologist Steven Pinker argues that over time we’ve been able to use reason and the “better angels of our nature” to make improvements in reducing violence. Would you agree with his analysis?
There’s something to that, but the story that he presents is pretty shaky. I mean, ninety-five percent, roughly, of human history is in hunter-gatherer societies. He claims that they were very violent and brutal, but the specialists on the topic don’t agree with him. There’s work by some of the leading people who work on indigenous societies—Brian Ferguson, Douglas Fry, Stephen Cory—they just claim [that Pinker’s notion about hunter-gatherers is] completely false. The large-scale killings are pretty much associated with the origin of cities and the state system. One [of Pinker’s] strongest arguments is in what’s called the “democratic peace,” that democracies don’t fight each other. Almost all the evidence for that comes from the post-Second World War period, but during this period non-democracies don’t fight each other either. Russia and China have been virtually at war, but never broke out into a war. They’re not democracies, but the United States and Russia also didn’t go to war, and Russia’s certainly not a democracy. What happened in 1945 is that great powers, or powers of some scale, recognized that you just can’t go to war anymore. If you do, everything’s destroyed. So Europe had centuries of murders and internal wars, but not after 1945 because the next one’s the end. I don’t think that shows anything about the better angels of our nature. In fact, most of the wars since 1945 have been exported, and if you take a look at the way Pinker handles these, he mostly blames the victims. The wars, he says, are in Southeast Asia and Muslim areas. I mean, is that because of the Iraqis and the Vietnamese?
What do you think is the most important issue in international politics that is not being adequately discussed today?
Well, there are two huge issues, neither of them being adequately discussed. One is an increasing and very serious threat of possible nuclear war, especially at the Russian border. The other’s an environmental catastrophe, which is coming at us very fast, and there’s nothing much being done about it. These are issues of species survival, really, beyond anything that’s ever been written about in human history. Take, say, the [last US presidential] election campaign. [These two problems were] barely mentioned, which is just astounding. Here we have an election campaign in the most powerful state in human history, which is going to have a major effect on determining what happens in the future, and the most crucial issues that have ever arisen in human history are just not being discussed. What we’re discussing is Trump’s 3 a.m. tweets and things like “did Hillary lie in her emails?”
Why do you think those issues are not being discussed more broadly?
I think there’s a kind of a tacit recognition that people should be kept out of the democratic system. It’s not their area, so divert them with something else.
I think there’s a kind of a tacit recognition that people should be kept out of the democratic system. It’s not their area, so divert them with something else. That can be consumerism, that can be obscene remarks about women, anything, but not the major issues. I don’t think that’s a conscious choice, but it’s just kind of implicit in a subconscious, elite recognition of the way the world is supposed to work.
Does that apply for these issues as well— the nuclear threat and the environmental threat?
If you start looking at the nuclear threat, you have to ask yourself a lot of questions that maybe are best kept under the rug. Like, for example, why did NATO expand to the East? In fact, why does NATO exist? NATO was supposed to be a defense against the Russians. No Russians after 1991, so why NATO? A lot of questions like that are quite serious, and of course, it’s not that they’re not discussed at all. There’s scholarship, but they’re not in part of the mainstream. The way we talk about it is demonizing Russia, and they’re doing plenty of rotten things, but there are other questions.