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.
Newsweek had a cover story on December 13 called “The Battle of Seattle.” It devoted some pages to the anti-WTO protests. There was a sidebar in one of the articles called “The New Anarchism.” The five figures the sidebar mentioned as being somehow representative of this new anarchism included Rage Against the Machine and Chumbawamba. I don’t suppose you know who they are.
I know. I’m not that far out of it.
They’re rock bands. The list continues with the writer John Zerzan and Theodore Kaczynski, the notorious Unabomber, and then MIT professor Noam Chomsky. How did you figure into that constellation? Did Newsweek contact you?
Sure. We had a long interview [chuckles].
You’re pulling my leg.
You’d have to ask them. I can sort of conjure up something that might have been going on in their editorial offices, but your guess is as good as mine. The term “anarchist” has always had a very weird meaning in elite circles. For example, there was a headline in the Boston Globe today on a small article saying something like “Anarchists Plan Protests at IMF Meeting in April.” Who are the anarchists who are planning the protest? Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, labor organizations and others. There will be some people around who will call themselves anarchists, whatever that means. But from the elite point of view, you want to focus on something that you can denounce in some fashion as irrational. That’s the analogue to Thomas Friedman calling them flat-earthers.
Vivian Stromberg of Madre, the New York-based NGO, says there are lots of motions in the country but no movement.
I don’t agree. For example, what happened in Seattle was certainly movement. Students have been arrested in protests over failure of universities to adopt strong antisweatshop conditions that many student organizations are proposing. There are lots of other things going on that look like movement to me. In many ways what happened in Montreal a few weeks ago [at the Biosafety Protocol meeting] is even more dramatic than Seattle.
It wasn’t much discussed here, because the main protesters were European. The United States was joined by a couple of other countries that would also expect to profit from biotechnology exports. But primarily it was the United States against most of the world over the issue that’s called the “precautionary principle.” That means, is there a right for a country, for people, to say, I don’t want to be a subject in some experiment you’re carrying out? The United States is insisting on exactly that, internationally. In the negotiations in Montreal, the United States, which is the center of the big biotech industries, genetic engineering and so on, was demanding that the issue be determined under WTO rules. According to those rules, the experimental subjects have to provide scientific evidence that it’s going to harm them, or else the transcendent value of corporate rights prevails. Europe and most of the rest of the world insisted [successfully] on the precautionary principle. That’s a very clear indication of what’s at stake: an attack on the rights of people to make their own decisions over things even as simple as whether you’re going to be an experimental subject, let alone controlling your own resources or setting conditions on foreign investment or transferring your economy into the hands of foreign investment firms and banks. It’s a major assault against popular sovereignty in favor of concentration of power in the hands of a kind of state-corporate nexus, a few mega-corporations and the few states that primarily cater to their interests. The issue in Montreal in many ways was sharper and clearer than it was in Seattle.
Do you think the food-safety issue might be one around which the left can reach a broader constituency?
I don’t see it as a particularly left issue. In fact, left issues are just popular issues. If the left means anything, it means it’s concerned with the needs, welfare and rights of the general population. So the left ought to be the overwhelming majority of the population, and in some respects I think it is. In that sense it could be a left issue that is a popular issue.
Talk more about the student antisweatshop movement. Is it different from earlier movements that you’re familiar with?
It’s different and similar. In some ways it’s like the antiapartheid movement, except that in this case it’s striking at the core of the relations of exploitation. It’s another example of how different constituencies are working together. Much of this was initiated by Charlie Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee in New York and other groups within the labor movement. It’s now become a significant student issue in many areas. Many student groups are pressing this very hard, so much so that the US government had to, in order to counter it, initiate a kind of code. They brought together labor and student leaders to form some kind of government-sponsored coalition, which many student groups are opposing because they think it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.
Students are not calling for a dismantling of the system of exploitation. Maybe they should be. What they’re asking for is the kinds of labor rights that are theoretically guaranteed. If you look at the conventions of the International Labor Organization, the ILO, which is responsible for these things, they bar most of the practices, probably all of them, that the students are opposing. The United States does not adhere to those conventions. Last I looked, the United States had ratified very few of the ILO conventions. I think it had the worst record in the world outside of maybe Lithuania or El Salvador. Not that other countries live up to the conventions, but they have their name on them at least. The United States doesn’t accept them on principle.
Tell me what’s happening on your campus, at MIT. Is there any organizing around the sweatshop movement?
There are very active undergraduate social-justice groups doing things all the time, more so than in quite a few years. What accounts for it is the objective reality. It’s the same feelings and understanding and perception that led people to the streets in Seattle. The United States is not suffering like the Third World. But although this is a period of reasonably good economic growth, most of the population is still left out. The international economic arrangements, the so-called free-trade agreements, are basically designed to maintain that.
Comment on an African proverb that perhaps intersects with what we’re talking about: “The master’s tools will never be used to dismantle the master’s house.”
If this is intended to mean, don’t try to improve conditions for suffering people, I don’t agree. It’s true that centralized power, whether in a corporation or a government, is not going to willingly commit suicide. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t chip away at it, for many reasons. For one thing, it benefits suffering people. That’s something that always should be done, no matter what broader considerations are. But even from the point of view of dismantling the master’s house, if people can learn what power they have when they work together, and if they can see dramatically at just what point they’re going to be stopped, by force, perhaps, that teaches very valuable lessons in how to go on. The alternative to that is to sit in academic seminars and talk about how awful the system is.