Noam Chomsky: Electing the President of An Empire
Watch the interview with Chomsky below the transcript.
This week we’re here at MIT in Cambridge, MA to interview renowned linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, who’s authored over 100 books on everything from war to propaganda. I wanted to get his take on democracy and elections in the context of American empire.
As extreme as the political spectrum is right now in the US, there is still almost complete uniformity on the war on terror, the stance toward Latin America, sanctions on Iran. And there’s really no anti-war candidate despite popular opinion agreeing on that. Why can no candidate touch that?
The spectrum is broad but in an odd sense. The spectrum is basically center to extreme right. Extreme right. Way off the spectrum. The Republican Party about 20 years ago basically abandoned any pretense of being a normal political party. In fact, the distinguished, respected conservative commentators, from the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank, like Norman Ornstein, described the Republican Party as a radical insurgency which has abandoned parliamentary politics. They just don’t want anything to happen. Their only policies are “don’t do anything” or bomb. That’s not a political party.
What happened is that the party, during the whole neoliberal period, both parties shifted to the right, as did everywhere in the world. And the Republicans went off the spectrum. They became so dedicated to the interests of the extreme wealthy and powerful that they couldn’t get votes. So they had to turn to other constituencies which are there, but were never politically mobilized: the Christian evangelicals, the nativists who are afraid that “they’re taking our country away from us.” People who are so terrified that they’re going to carry a gun into a coffee shop. And that’s their base essentially. And when you look at…take a look at the primaries: when any candidate who has a semblance of rationality is not even competing.
So that’s the Republicans. The Democrats have shifted to the right as well. Today’s mainstream democrats are pretty much what used to be called moderate Republicans. Somebody like Eisenhower, for example, would be considered way out on the left. So for example Eisenhower strongly made it clear that anyone who questions the programs of the New Deal is just not part of American political life. Well, by now, that’s a left-wing program. It’s basically Bernie Sanders’ program. It’s Eisenhower.
So the spectrum, it’s true that it’s broad, but in a very strange sense. As far as anti-war candidates are concerned: you have to ask what it means. So for example Obama is considered an anti-war candidate. He described the Iraq war as a mistake, a “strategic blunder” as he put it. That’s like Russian generals in Afghanistan in the early 1980s who criticized the invasion as a strategic blunder. That’s not criticism of the war. That’s saying that you’re making a mistake. The debate about the Obama’s [administration] is running a global terror program of a kind that has never been envisioned before the drone program, is now being discussed to an extent because of recent leaks.
But the questions that are being raised, overwhelmingly, not by Jeremy Scahill or Glenn Greenwald, but by most of those who are talking about it is: “are you killing too many civilians?” What about just assassinating people because you think that someday they might want to harm you?
Suppose for example that Iran was murdering people in the US because they think, with some reason, that they might want to harm them? For example the editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post , who publish articles, op-eds, calling for the bombing of Iran. So suppose they said that “this is a given threat, let’s kill them.” Would we accept that?
The idea that we have the right to use force and violence at will is accepted pretty much across the spectrum. Take say the Iran negotiations. Virtually everyone, President, political leaders, commentators in the press, dove-ish commentators, almost universally say that if we unilaterally detect, think we detect, some Iranian violation of the agreements, that we have the right to use military force to attack them. I mean, that’s just outlandish in terms of international law and practice. But it’s universal, virtually universal. You have to go way to the margins to find somebody that will question that.
And there’s not even a mild critique of the assassination program or even the war on terror, the premise, from any of these candidates. Every four years we’re made to feel like we’re playing this great role, this great democratic practice in decision making where we celebrate electing these leaders who rule over us. How does power really function in our society?
There’s very good studies of this from mainstream political science. Nothing on the edges. So one of the main topics that’s studied in academic political science is the relation between peoples’ attitudes and public policy. And it’s a pretty straightforward study, you see public policy. There’s very good polling evidence on what people think about things. So for example for about 40 years, a considerable majority of the public has thought that taxes should go up on the rich. Taxes go down on the rich. A substantial part of the public, often a big majority, thinks that we ought to have a national healthcare program. Nothing. Impossible. In fact when the press discusses this they call it “politically impossible.” Meaning the pharmaceutical companies won’t accept it, the insurance companies won’t accept it, and so on. So it basically doesn’t matter what the public thinks.
About 70% of the public, the lowest 70% on the income scale, are pretty much disenfranchised. Their attitudes have no detectable influence on the policies of their own representatives. As you move up the scale you get a bit more influence. When you get to the top, policy is made.
Now the top can mean a fraction of 1%, so it’s kind of a plutocracy with democratic forms. And the elections, I mean by now it’s almost become a joke but it’s always been true that campaign financing plays a very substantial role in not only who’s elected but what the policies are. That goes back 100 years. Mark Hanna, the great campaign manager 100 years ago, was asked once, “What are the important things that you have to have to run a campaign?" He said: “There are three things. First one’s money. The second one is money. And I forget what the third one is.”
Pretty much that’s true. With the current reactionary Supreme Court, it’s just gone out of sight. Campaign spending is billions and billions of dollars.
And people have argued that it’s just because of too much government interference. We need to widen the market. We need capitalism to be more free. You’ve argued that in any scenario of capitalism working, it’s incongruous, it’s incompatible with democracy.
There was recently an IMF study, International Monetary Fund, of the profits of big banks in the United States. The financial sector has become enormous during the neoliberal periods. Almost half the profit of corporate profit.
Now where does their profit come from? Turns out it comes from the taxpayer. ...there’s an implicit government guarantee against failure. It’s not state, it’s not the law, but it’s understood that if a major financial institution gets into trouble that the government will bail it out, which happened repeatedly. Only during the neoliberal period, incidentally. There were no major failures during the 50’s and 60’s. When the neoliberal policies began to be instituted, deregulations and so on, then you start getting a series of financial crises, and every time the public bails them out.
Well that has consequences. For one thing it means the credit agencies understand that these corporations are high-valued beyond the level of what they actually do because they’re going to be bailed out. So they’re going to get good credit ratings, which means they can get cheap credit. They can get cheap loans from the government, they can of course get the bailouts. They can undertake risky transactions which are profitable, and if they’re wrong the taxpayer will take care of it. Net result is that it amounts to practically all their profits. Is that capitalism?
Energy. There’s another IMF study of government subsidies to energy subsidies around the world, not just the U.S. They estimated that I think $5 trillion a year, which includes the U.S. of course. Plenty of subsidies. Agrobusiness is subsidies.
But isn’t that what the whole new libertarian movement would tell you is that precisely that? That the government is being used as an extension of the market to protect this kind of irregular form of capitalism that is hand in glove with the government and we just kind of have to free up government regulation and let capitalism work on its own.
First of all, the business world would never tolerate that because they rely heavily on government. But if you did follow the libertarian- what are called libertarian. Remember: What is called libertarian in the United States has nothing to do with traditional libertarianism. It’s a kind of ultra-right capitalist- a narco-capitalism, they call it.
If that was allowed to function, the whole society would collapse. And we turn to total tyranny. We would have tyranny of unaccountable private institutions. Private concentration of capital is totally unaccountable to the public is absolute tyranny. The only thing that protects the public from predatory capitalism is some degree of state intervention.
So it’s true that state intervention does support the capitalist institutions. It also protects the society from total destruction. A predatory capitalism system simply couldn’t survive. I mean, for perfectly obvious reasons. For one thing: it wouldn’t care about externalities, effects on others. So in no time it would destroy the environment simply by destroying resources and pouring CO2 into the atmosphere and “Who cares?”
Furthermore, there would be no public goods. The markets, there’s an ideology, which claims that markets provide freedom of choice. Some may find it democratic. That’s not true and we all know it’s not true. So suppose I want to get home this evening. The market does offer choices. Ford or a Toyota. It doesn’t offer the choice I want, which is a public transportation system. That’s not part of the market. The market focuses you on individual consumption of consumer goods. Period. Is that what you want in life? Just more and more gadgets around? There are lots of other things in life which the market doesn’t even offer.
So what’s called libertarianism is a prescription for complete disaster. I don’t think the people advocating this understand this. I’m not criticizing them but: just think it through. And I should say it’s very anti-libertarian. Traditional libertarianism, which was always on the left, was opposed to the master-servant relation. People giving orders and people taking them. That’s libertarianism, not in this version.
A few weeks ago the US military intentionally bombed a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. I mean the US government felt it enough to just apologize. And there’s people leaping to the defense of the establishment here, saying there must have been a good reason, either they did it on accident even though we know that they didn’t or there was Taliban hiding in there so it justified this human shield logic, just like Israel does. How does this specific example illustrate how American Exceptionalism functions.
Well, we have to be careful about the term “American Exceptionalism.” For one thing, it’s not all exceptional. Every imperial power has behaved the same way, sometimes worse. So it’s just normal imperial practice. It’s called exceptionalism, but nothing about that…of course it’s called, it’s supposed to be exceptional in that we have the highest ideals so maybe we make mistakes but it’s always with the highest ideals. That’s American Exceptionalism.
Except that, too, is true of just about every imperial power. So when the British were destroying the world, they were always doing it with the absolutely highest ideals. Leading figures, leading intellectuals, people like John Stuart Mill, estimable people, were describing England as an angelic country beyond anything anyone has ever imagined. “People have got to understand how marvelous we are” and so on. The French were the same. It’s hard to find an exception.
So there’s no exceptionalism. In the case of the Kunduz hospital, apparently, I don’t think all the details have come out, but it seems that they were trying to kill some people they regarded as Taliban leaders. Or activists. And they happened to be in the hospital so they killed everybody. And there’s a lot of criticism of killing the others. What about killing the person we’re targeting? What right do we have to kill somebody in some other country who we don’t like? I don’t like him either, I don’t like the Taliban at all. But does that mean we have a right to go kill them? I mean do they have a right to go kill us if they don’t like us? That’s not questioned at all. What’s questioned and criticized is attacking a hospital and killing the staff and killing the patients.
And that’s not the first time. So for example, when the U.S., one of the lauded achievements of the U.S. Army in Iraq is the conquest of Fallujah, in November 2004. Take a look at it. Just take a look at the New York Times on the days of the attack on Fallujah. The first day of the attack, there’s a picture on the front page, you can practically visualize it, which is a picture of the general hospital in Fallujah. Marines attacked the general hospital, threw the patients off their bed, put them on the floor, put shackles around them, threw the doctors on the floor. Attacking a hospital is a gross violation of international law and they were asked “Why did you attack it?” And they said “Because it was a propaganda agency for the rebels.” “How was it a propaganda agency?” “It was releasing casualty figures.” That was okay, that’s an achievement.
But even beyond that, what were the Marines doing in Fallujah? I mean, are there Iranian marines in Cambridge? What are U.S. marines doing in Iraq? The invasion of Iraq is the worst crime of the century. It’s had horrible effects but it’s now spawned sectarian conflicts that are tearing the region apart.
But suppose it had worked. Suppose it had pacified Iraq and there was no disasters. Still a major crime. Why do we have the right to invade another country?
And in fact if you look back, there’s another crime which is never discussed. In the 1990s, the sanctions on Iraq were so severe that they virtually destroyed the society. In fact, the sanctions were administered by the United Nations and the international diplomats who administered the sanctions were respected international diplomats. Dennis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck, they both resigned in protest on the ground that the sanctions were genocidal. Their term, not mine. They said that the sanctions are genocidal, they’re destroying the society, they’re strengthening the dictator, they’re forcing the population to rely on him for survival and probably they saved him being overthrown from within. And this happened to one after another of dictators of the same sort.
That was the 1990s. That’s considered no problem, that was liberal Democrats. Well, I mean, by the time Bush and Blair decided to invade Iraq, the society was half-devastated. So you hit a very fragile system with a sledgehammer you’re going to have horrible results. And the very idea of invading is criminal. And try to find someone who describes it as a crime.
Obama is praised because he describes it as a mistake. Does he describe it as a crime? Does anyone? Except way out at the fringes?
It was the “dumb war,” right?
Dumb War. We shouldn’t do dumb things, we do smart things
Yeah we do “smart wars.”
It’s like German generals after Stalingrad, who says it’s really stupid to have a two-front war. We should have destroyed England first.
I always think it’s interesting that people use the rationale that we didn’t find WMDs as if that would have been a rationale to invade and occupy a country, finding weapons of mass destruction. It’s insane.
Of course not. If they’re concerned about weapons of mass destruction, there are ways to proceed. The UN inspector is doing a fine job. Actually, pretty much the same, similar questions arise in the case of the Iran nuclear deal. So Iran, according to the United States, poses a grave threat to the world. Now, that’s pretty much an American and Israeli obsession. Most of the world doesn’t see it that way. But let’s say it’s a threat. Suppose Iran poses a threat. How do you, are there simple ways of dealing with this? In fact there are. In fact very popular ones. The best way to deal with it would be to work towards instituting a nuclear weapons free zone in the region. That’s supported by almost the entire world. It’s strongly supported by Iran. In fact they’re one of the leading advocates of it.
When you’re not even acknowledging that Israel has them, then…
That’s the problem. The US won’t permit it, because it does not want Israeli nuclear weapons to be open to inspection. So therefore we block the obvious way to deal with whatever problem there is, and it is supported by virtually the entire world. Comes up every 5 years at the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference. And in fact the continuation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is actually contingent on doing this. That was agreed 20 years ago. That’s the most important arms control treaty there is. If that treaty collapses, we’re gone. Everybody will have nuclear weapons and be using them. But the U.S. is so committed to protecting Israel’s nuclear weapons that it’s willing to endanger the Non-Proliferation Treaty and prevent the obvious means from keeping nuclear weapons away from Iran in case they have any interest in developing them.
Do you see a word of discussion about this outside of the arms control literature. I mean, I write articles but way out on the fringes. Nothing that can possibly make the mainstream.
There’s this huge amount of grassroots energy, donations, around getting people elected who are believed to be able to give us solutions to the problems that we face now. What do you think we should be focusing our energy on?
Take, say, the Bernie Sanders campaign, which I think is important, impressive. He’s doing good and courageous things. He’s organizing a lot of people. That campaign ought to be directed to sustaining a popular movement that will use the election as a kind of an incentive and then go on, and unfortunately it’s not. When the election's over, the movement is going to die. And that’s a serious error.
The only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle. It’s an extravaganza every four years. You have to be involved in it, so fine. We’ll be involved in it, but then we go on. If that were done, you could get major changes.