Noam Chomsky on America's Declining Empire, Occupy and the Arab Spring


Editor's note: AlterNet is proud to offer readers an opportunity to purchase Noam Chomsky's new book, Occupy, available here.

Last year, the Occupy Movement rose up spontaneously in cities and towns across the country, radically shifted the discourse and rattled the economic elite with its defiant populism. It was, according to Noam Chomsky, “the first major public response to thirty years of class war.” In his new book, Occupy, Chomsky looks at the central issues, questions and demands that are driving ordinary people to protest. How did we get to this point? How are the wealthiest 1 percent influencing the lives of the other 99 percent? How can we separate money from politics? What would a genuinely democratic election look like? 

Chomsky appeared on this week's AlterNet Radio Hour. Below is a transcript that's been lightly edited for clarity. (You can listen to the whole show here.)

Joshua Holland: I want to just ask you first about a few trends shaping our political discourse. I’ve read many of your books, and the one that I probably found influential was Manufacturing Consent. You co-authored that in the late 1980s and since then we’ve seen some big changes. The mainstream media has become far more consolidated, and at the same time we’ve seen a proliferation of other forms of media. We have the alternative media outlets -- online outlets like AlterNet -- various social media. Looking at these trends, I wonder if you think that the range of what’s considered to be acceptable discourse has widened or narrowed further?

Noam Chomsky: Actually Ed Herman and I had a second edition to that about 10 years ago with a new, long introduction. At that time we didn’t really think much had changed, but if we were to do one now we would certainly want to bring in what you’ve just mentioned. Remember we were talking about the mainstream media. With regard to them I think pretty much the same analysis holds, although my own feeling is that, say since the 1960s, there has been some broadening and opening through the mainstream -- the effect of the activism of the '60s, which changed perceptions, attitudes, and civilized the country in many ways. Topics that are freely talked about today were invisible, and, if visible, then unmentionable 50 years ago.

Furthermore, a lot of the journalists themselves are people whose formation was in the '60s activism and its aftermath. These are changes that have been going on for a long time. With regards to the alternative media, they certainly provide a wide range of options that weren't there before -- that includes access to foreign media. On the other hand, the Internet is kind of like walking into the Library of Congress in a sense. Everything is there, but you have to know what you’re looking for. If you don’t know what you’re looking for you might as well not have the library. Like you can’t decide you want to become a biologist -- it’s not enough to walk into Harvard's biology library. You have to have a framework of understanding, a conception of what’s important and what isn’t important; what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. Not a rigid one that never gets modified, but at least some kind of framework.

Unfortunately that’s pretty rare. In the absence of activist movements that draw in a very substantial part of the population for interaction. Interchange -- the kinds of things that went on in the Occupy community for example -- in the absence of that most people are kind of at sea when they face the internet. So yes, they can find things of value and significance, but you have to know to look for them and you have to have a framework of analysis and perception that allows you to weed that out from a lot of the junk that surrounds it.

JH: Separating the wheat from the chaff.

NC: Basically. That does require an organized activism. That’s the kind of thing you have to do with other people. You have to be able to try ideas and get reactions. You have to sharpen your perceptions. That really doesn’t take place without substantial organization. Now, there is interchange over the Internet, but it tends to be on the superficial side.

JH: That may be an understatement looking at the comments on our Web site. Let’s turn to your book on the Occupy movement. It’s called Occupy. It’s a quick and really good read. Professor, you do a good job of explaining the class war that’s been waged from above by our economic elites over these past 30-40 years. But privation is relative -- Americans living at the poverty line still have a greater amount of wealth than 80-90 percent of the world’s population. Given that very few people are actually starving in this country, and these economic trends go so far back, what do you think was the tipping point here? What set off this movement now? Was it just the severity of the Great Recession, or do you think something else helped open people’s eyes?

NC: Well, you’re certainly right that we’re better off than most of the world. In fact just before talking to you I happened to be talking to a wonderful woman from India who’s been working for many years living in villages in one of the poorest areas, describing their activities -- their successes and failures. Of course that’s a radically different world. People here, or anywhere, don’t compare themselves with the Stone Age. They compare themselves with what ought to be available for a decent life in the kind of society they live in. This is the richest, most powerful country in world history. It has extraordinary advantages. Comparing what ought to be, given those circumstances, with what is for the large majority of the population -- the 99 percent in the imagery of the Occupy movement -- that’s a huge gap. 

For example, we don’t have the kind of healthcare that comparable societies have. We don’t have the kind of infrastructure. The last 30 years there’s been -- even apart from the last recession -- a relative stagnation of the large majority of the population. What’s actually happened is captured pretty nicely in a small book that came out after the publication of my book. There’s a recent publication by the Economic Policy Institute, which has been the main source of reliable data on the state of working America -- which means almost everyone -- for about 30-35 years. It’s called Failure by Design. It’s an easy read and worth reading. The title is quite accurate. It’s failure in the sense that for the large majority of the population there has been essentially no progress, even though there’s been substantial wealth produced. The economy itself is far less productive than it ought to be. Production for what people need is far less. It’s of course been a spectacular success for a tiny portion of the population, a tenth of 1 percent knocks the distribution off the international scales.

It’s a class-based failure that’s by design. That’s the crucial fact. There have been and still are other options available. Things don’t have to happen like this. I think there’s just been a steady buildup of concern, anger and frustration. You can see it in polls. Hatred of institutions and distrust is all over the country, and it’s been rising for a long time. The Occupy movement managed to capture the mood and crystalize it. That’s the way popular movements take off.

Take the Civil Rights movement. The movement itself went on for decades, but a few things did lead to a substantial growth and development, like Rosa Parks, or black students sitting in the lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina. Things happen that draw in others and all of a sudden you get a popular movement. Same thing happened in the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, or the global justice movement.

Occupy came along at a time which was ripe, and the strategy I thought was brilliant. If I had been asked I wouldn’t have advised it. I never thought it was going to work. Fortunately I was wrong. It worked very well. Two major developments took place I think, and if it can be sustained and expanded it’ll be extremely important. One was just changing the discourse, putting things on the public agenda that were simmering in the background but were never articulated in a focused fashion -- like inequality or financial corruption and the shredding of the democratic system, the collapse of a productive economy. These things just became common coin. That’s very important.

The other thing that happened, which is hard to measure, is the creation of communities. The Occupy communities were extremely valuable. These were communities that just kind of spontaneously developed out of mutual support, public interchange and the kinds of things that are very much lacking in an atomized society like ours’, where people are kind of alone. The social unit that the business world strives for is a dyad, a pair. You and your television or you and your computer screen. That was broken by the Occupy movement in a very significant way. Just the possibilities of cooperation, solidarity, mutual support, public discussion, democratic participation is a model which should inspire people. A lot of people did participate, at least peripherally.

If these two developments could be sustained and expanded there could be a long-term impact. It’s not going to be easy and there are major challenges. Tactics will have to be readjusted as always, but it was a real breakthrough. If you think about what’s happened in just a few months it’s quite startling.

JH: I want to shift gears a little bit. You’ve had a lot to say and write about the so-called Arab Spring. It seems that this "awakening" has been somewhat uneven, as has the U.S. government’s reaction to it in various countries. We had the specter of the government somewhat hesitantly backing the revolution in Egypt and using force in Libya, while at the same time turning a blind eye as Saudi Arabian and other forces defended the regime in Bahrain -- a move that oddly put the US and Iranian government on the same page. How should we understand these seeming contradictions... or uneven developments?

NC: First of all, I think US policy has been quite consistent. That’s also true of France and England. France is quite influential in the western part of Africa and North Africa, so Tunisia was kind of like a French protectorate. The traditional imperial powers have a very consistent position, namely opposition to democratizing tendencies anywhere in the region. So you say the US hesitantly supported the overthrow of the dictatorship in Egypt, well that’s sort of true. What actually happened was I think a very traditional pattern that happens over and over again. The favorite dictator becomes harder and harder to sustain, and ultimately the army turns against him. In such cases, and there are dozens of them, there’s kind of a game plan that’s followed routinely: Support the dictator and the regime as long as possible. When it becomes impossible, for example if the army turns against him which is what happened in Egypt, then send him out to pasture, issue ringing statements about your love of democracy, and then try to restore as much of the old regime as possible. And that’s pretty much what’s happening.

The major success story so far is Tunisia. The French supported the dictatorship well into the time when the uprising was massive. They continued to support it until they finally kind of backed off. There has been a real popular participation in Tunisia which has changed things. They’ve got plenty of problems, but there’s been considerable progress. Egypt, which is the most important country and where quite exciting things happened, a lot of it has been just beaten back. A lot of the old regime is back in place. The Islamic groups which were organizing under the dictatorship in urban slums and rural areas -- that large organizational structure has allowed them, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, to gain a dominant influence in whatever formal political space there is.

The US can live with them. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership is neoliberal. It basically accepts the framework of US global policies. The US has no objection to Islamic rule. Saudi Arabia, which is the main ally, is the most extreme Islamic fundamentalist state in the world and one of the oppressive. The US has no problem with that. It can be Islamic or anything else as long as they accept the basic structure of US global power. The Brotherhood would very likely go along with that pretty much.

There’s no time to go through it case by case, but I think if you look you’ll find that every case is essentially the same in that the US and its imperial allies very much fear actual democratic progress, and want to block it. There’s a very simple reason for that. Take a look at the polls. There’s extensive western US polling, and polling done by reputable Arab organizations. It turns out that throughout the region what people see as the major threat that they face is overwhelmingly the United States and Israel.

They don’t like Iran. Iran is quite unpopular. That goes way back to Persian and Arab tension. Sunni and Shia tensions go way back. Iran’s unpopular, but very few regard Iran as a threat. In the latest poll from a couple weeks ago it was 5 percent. Opposition to US policy is so strong that a majority, and in some places a large majority, thinks the region would be better off if Iran had nuclear weapons. They don’t want there to be nuclear weapons, but just to offset US-Israeli power. A recent Gallup poll shows that more than 80 percent of Egyptians want to reject US aid because of opposition to the United States and fear of the threats that it poses.

Those are not the policies that the United States and its allies want to see obviously. To the extent that you have a functioning democracy, public opinion influences policy. Naturally they’re opposed to democracy. You don’t read that in the media and the journals. You talk about our love for democracy and our inconsistency, why here and not there? There’s very little inconsistency as far back as we go. In fact that’s recognized by the more serious scholarship, which recognize kind of ruefully the US support of democracy, insofar as it confirms to strategic and economic objectives. It’s true in Latin America, it’s true in the Middle East, it’s true everywhere. It’s true here at home for that matter. It’s completely understandable. We shouldn’t have any illusions about. That’s not what the people in the United States may want, but here, as in other countries, popular opinion and public policy are often separated by a chasm, a mark of a lack of functioning democracy. In fact one of the reasons -- to bring it back to home -- it’s why there’s such an enormous antagonism toward Congress. Approval of Congress is in single digits. I don’t think it’s ever been that low.

JH: Eleven percent in a recent poll.

NC: It’s practically invisible. The same is true of institutions across the board. Big corporations, banks, science, a lot of things.

JH: Only the military still scores well in terms of people’s trust in institutions. They still trust the military.

NC: Yeah, that’s right. None of this is terribly healthy -- in fact it’s dangerous. It does reflect basically the shredding of functioning democracy, which has been going on for a long time. In the last election and the present election the fact that the elections are essentially bought has become so evident that it’s hard to miss.

JH: Talking about all of these trends internationally, what do you make of the increasingly prevalent view that the US is in fact an empire in decline? On the one hand, it certainly does seem like our so-called "soft power" is waning, but then one has to contrast that with our increasing military dominance in the post-Cold War era and especially in the wake of 9/11. Are we really in decline?

NC: Yeah, we’re in decline. The United States has been in decline since 1945 -- 1945, at the end of the Second World War, the United States was in a position of just phenomenal power. It had half of the world’s wealth. It had total security. It controlled the western hemisphere. It controlled both oceans. It controlled opposite sides of both oceans. It had very ambitious aims to control most of the world and ensure no objections to its rule. These were quite explicit and they were largely implemented. It began to decline very fast.

In 1949 an event took place, which is called here the "loss" of China. Somehow we lost China, which really means they became independent. That’s been a huge source of controversy and conflict in the United States ever since -- people asking who is responsible for the loss of China? Shortly after that they became concerned about the loss of Indochina, which in itself spread the concern that there would be a loss of southeast Asia. The concept of "loss" is kind of interesting. It’s sort of a tacit assumption that it’s basically ours.

That’s gone on over the years. By 1970, the US share of world wealth was down to about 25 percent, which is still colossal, but is isn’t 50 percent. The world was already becoming more diverse. In the last decade South America has moved to substantial independence. We just saw that at the Cartagena Conference in Columbia. The United States was isolated in its positions on the major issues, like drugs, Cuba and so on. The US was just isolated. That’s a sign of significant loss of power and influence. Now that’s happening in the Middle East. That’s another reason why the US and its allies are so worried about the threat of democracy and independence. So eager to try to maintain regimes that will conform in some way.

You’re right that military power hasn’t declined. In fact relative to the rest of the world it may have increased. The US has close to half the world’s military expenditures. The only country with hundreds of bases and the ability to project power everywhere. New technology of destruction and murder -- drones, for example. It’s way ahead of the rest of the world. You brought up so-called "soft power." That’s important. The capacity to influence has continued to decline, as has been happening since 1945.

One index is vetoes at the United Nations. Until the mid-'60s the world was so much under US control that the US didn’t veto a single resolution at the Security Council. Since the mid-'60s the United States is far in the lead in vetoing Security Council resolutions. Britain, which is a client state, is second. Nobody else is close. That’s a reflection of the decline in capacity and power, meaning ability to influence and control.

Part of this decline is self-inflicted. What the Economic Policy Institute calls Failure by Design has significantly weakened the United States, and that will continue unless there’s real changes here. Changes that would benefit the population here and the world. There’s kind of a corollary that’s very standard that China is taking over. That we should be cautious about. Chinese growth has been spectacular, but China remains a very poor country. It’s incomparably poor to the United States. It has grown as a huge manufacturing center, but mainly for assembly. It’s mainly an assembly plant for the sophisticated, industrial countries on its periphery and western multinationals like Apple and so on. That will change over time, but it’s a long haul. China faces real problems. Ecological problems, demographic problems, and many others. It’s a significant development, but a lot of the hype of that I think one should be skeptical about.

So yes, these processes are underway undoubtedly. They’re partly by design. There is a sector that’s doing fantastically well, mainly in financial capital. For the general public it’s a different story. That’s why you have uprisings all over.

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