Talking 'Anarchy' With Chomsky
Noam Chomsky is a longtime political activist, writer and professor of linguistics at MIT. His latest books are The Common Good and The New Military Humanism. He was interviewed for The Nation in late February by David Barsamian, director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado (www.alternativeradio.org). An edited version of that interview follows.
DB: Let's talk about what occurred in Seattle in late November/early December around the WTO ministerial meeting. What meaning do you derive from what happened there, and what are the lessons to be drawn?
I think it was a very significant event. It reflected a very broad opposition to the corporate-led globalization that's been imposed under primarily US leadership, but by the other major industrial countries, too. The participation was extremely broad and varied, including constituencies from the United States and internationally that have rarely interconnected in the past. That's the same kind of coalition of forces that blocked the Multilateral Agreement on Investment a year earlier and that strongly opposed other so-called agreements like NAFTA and the WTO.
One lesson from Seattle is that education and organizing over a long term, carefully done, can really pay off. Another is that a substantial part of the domestic and global population, I would guess probably a majority of those thinking about the issues, ranges from being disturbed by contemporary developments to being strongly opposed to them, primarily to the sharp attack on democratic rights, on the freedom to make your own decisions and on the general subordination of all concerns to the specific interests, to the primacy of maximizing profit and domination by a very small sector of the world's population.
Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, called the demonstrators at Seattle "a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates."
From his point of view that's probably correct. From the point of view of slave owners, people opposed to slavery probably looked that way. For the 1 percent of the population that he's thinking about and representing, the people who are opposing this are flat-earthers. Why should anyone oppose the developments that we've been describing?
Would it be fair to say that in the actions in the streets in Seattle, mixed in with the tear gas was also a whiff of democracy?
I would take it to be. A functioning democracy is not supposed to happen in the streets. It's supposed to happen in decision-making. This is a reflection of the undermining of democracy and the popular reaction to it, not for the first time. There's been a long struggle, over centuries, in fact, to try to extend the realm of democratic freedoms, and it's won plenty of victories. A lot of them have been won exactly this way, not by gifts but by confrontation and struggle. If the popular reaction in this case takes a really organized, constructive form, it can undermine and reverse the highly undemocratic thrust of the international economic arrangements that are being foisted on the world. And they are very undemocratic. Naturally one thinks about the attack on domestic sovereignty, but most of the world is much worse. Over half the population of the world literally does not have even theoretical control over their own national economic policies. They're in receivership. Their economic policies are run by bureaucrats in Washington as a result of the so-called debt crisis, which is an ideological construction, not an economic one. That's over half the population of the world lacking even minimal sovereignty.
Why do you say the debt crisis is an ideological construction?
There is a debt, but who owes it and who's responsible for it is an ideological question, not an economic question. For example, there's a capitalist principle that nobody wants to pay any attention to, of course, which says that if I borrow money from you, it's my responsibility to pay it back, and if you're the lender, it's your risk if I don't pay it back. But nobody even conceives of that possibility. Suppose we were to follow that. Take, say, Indonesia, for example. Right now its economy is crushed by the fact that the debt is something like 140 percent of GDP. You trace that debt back, it turns out that the borrowers were something like 100 to 200 people around the military dictatorship that we supported, and their cronies. The lenders were international banks. A lot of that debt has been by now socialized through the IMF, which means Northern taxpayers are responsible. What happened to the money? They enriched themselves. There was some capital export and some development. But the people who borrowed the money aren't held responsible for it. It's the people of Indonesia who have to pay it off. And that means living under crushing austerity programs, severe poverty and suffering. In fact, it's a hopeless task to pay off the debt that they didn't borrow. What about the lenders? The lenders are protected from risk. That's one of the main functions of the IMF, to provide free risk insurance to people who lend and invest in risky loans. That's why they get high yields, because there's a lot of risk. They don't have to take the risk, because it's socialized. It's transferred in various ways to Northern taxpayers through the IMF and other devices, like Brady bonds. The whole system is one in which the borrowers are released from the responsibility. That's transferred to the impoverished mass of the population in their own countries. And the lenders are protected from risk. These are ideological choices, not economic ones.
In fact, it even goes beyond that. There's a principle of international law that was devised by the United States over a hundred years ago when it "liberated" Cuba, which means it conquered Cuba to prevent it from liberating itself from Spain in 1898. At that time, when the United States took over, it canceled Cuba's debt to Spain on the quite reasonable grounds that the debt was invalid since it had been imposed on the people of Cuba without their consent, by force, under a power relationship. That principle was later recognized in international law, again under US initiative, as the principle of what's called "odious debt." Debt is not valid if it's essentially imposed by force. The Third World debt is odious debt. That's even been recognized by the US representative at the IMF, Karen Lissaker, an international economist, who pointed out a couple of years ago that if we were to apply the principles of odious debt, most of the Third World debt would simply disappear.