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.