Noam Chomsky interview: ‘The public can make a difference – and in more democratic societies, a lot of difference’
In advance of his RDS lecture, the veteran US political activist and intellectual shares his insight on key issues
For a man of 84 who has described himself with approval as “a boring speaker”, Noam Chomsky meets a daunting schedule of public appearances, speeches and interviews around the world. All the time he remains a prolific writer, now the author of more than 100 books.
Two weeks after he flew home to Lexington, Massachusetts, after giving the Edward Said Memorial Lecture in London, he will be at the RDS on Wednesday to deliver the inaugural Front Line Defenders’ annual lecture, which is being held in partnership with UCD school of philosophy and TCD.
Although he came to prominence in the 1950s as a pioneering figure in linguistics, Chomsky has been best-known for almost half a century as a political activist and a formidable critic of American foreign policy.
He will be speaking in Dublin about the responsibility to protect human rights defenders. However he is conscious that the phrase “responsibility to protect” has been co-opted by advocates of western “humanitarian intervention”, a policy he regards as little more than a guise for the brutal pursuit of western interests.
He argues that international military intervention in conflicts should not be undertaken without a mandate from the United Nations Security Council but he acknowledges that, although he opposes calls by Britain and France to arm the rebel forces in Syria, there are legitimate arguments on both sides.
“There’s a real issue about arming them or not, but arming them is not humanitarian intervention,” he says. “Humanitarian intervention means using force. There are questions about who should be armed.
“So, for example, should Hamas be armed to defend itself against Israeli attacks? But that’s not a topic that can be raised in the West. It may be a topic that can be raised in Iran, it probably is, but we’re kind of the mirror image. We consider the cases where our Arab clients are not the targets.”
West and Arab Spring
Chomsky notes that, in their response to the Arab Spring, the western powers have taken a differentiated approach to uprisings in the region according to their own interests.
Hence, after efforts to save the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, the US and its allies have made an accommodation with the new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, which has in turn disappointed many who took to the streets two years ago.
“The major policies which the public opposed are still in place. The new government is still wedded to the neoliberal economic policies that were a large part of the cause of the uprising. They are not going to succeed in the future any more than they did in the past but will doubtless continue.
“Tunisia is more or less the same, although different in some ways. In both cases, the West is willing to tolerate the outcomes even though it supported the dictatorships to the very last minute, contrary to claims today.
“It is willing to tolerate them because the governments – the governments, not the populations – have more or less accommodated themselves to western demands. In Tunisia it’s mostly France, in Egypt it’s the United States and England.
“The oil dictatorships, the countries that the West really cares about for obvious reasons, their uprisings have been suppressed very harshly and very successfully, with western support.”
Chomsky’s most recent book Occupy is a study of the Occupy movement that emerged in New York in 2011, when activists occupied Zuccotti Park near Wall Street to protest against inequality, characterising the struggle for economic justice as a conflict between the 1 per cent of the population who are super-rich and hugely influential on public policy and the other 99 per cent.
Occupy remains potent
The movement spread quickly around the world, with encampments of protesters appearing everywhere from the European Central Bank in Frankfurt to the forecourt of the Central Bank in Dublin.
Most of the protest camps have been gone for almost a year but Chomsky maintains that the movement remains a potent one.
“It’s very much alive and active and doing the kinds of things it should be doing. I mean it’s not occupying the public space any more but that’s a tactic and tactics have diminishing returns. You can’t continue sitting in Zuccotti Park.
“What it had to do and is doing to some extent is turning to direct actions in particular areas. It’s not a single co-ordinated group. You can’t talk about the Occupy movement. There are different ones in different cities and different parts of different cities, but they’re involved in things like opposing foreclosures, pressing for a financial transaction tax.”
Shortly before the emergence of Occupy, a very different popular movement took hold throughout the US in the shape of the Tea Party, opposing President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform and calling for low taxes and a much smaller role for government.
Tea Party-backed candidates defeated a number of incumbent Republicans in congressional primaries in 2010 and 2012 and the movement has been prominent in recent weeks in opposition to moves to tighten gun laws.
“This has always been a very frightened society. That goes back to colonial days, there’s plenty of evidence of that. And the feeling that you have to have a gun to protect yourself from someone is beyond any other place in the world, even though it’s maybe one of the safest societies in the world,” Chomsky says.
“But now it’s taken on an entirely new form, which could be dangerous. There’s a substantial – not huge but significant – subculture which feels that they have to have guns to protect themselves from the government or from the United Nations. That’s not a joke. That’s what has raised the gun issue to the front pages. It’s been around for a long time but now it’s become a major issue.
“If you listen, if you pay attention, across the spectrum now, from Obama to the far right, there’s worship of their sacred second amendment rights to carry arms. How far back does that go? Actually, five years, when the Supreme Court, a very reactionary supreme court, overturned a century of precedents and created our sacred second amendment right.”
He believes the Tea Party is part of an important reshaping of US politics that has transformed the traditional two-party system and pushed Republicans out of the political centre.
“Let’s go back a few years, say 20 or 30 years. There used to be two political parties in the United States – the Democrats and the Republicans. I mean, they were different but they were what they were. Now one of the parties has disappeared, the Republican Party. It’s not a traditional parliamentary party any more.
“It’s a party which is almost totally in lockstep obedience and service to the very wealthy and the corporate sector. You can see that from their legislative proposals. Well, you can’t get votes that way.
“What they have had to do is mobilise sectors of the population that have always been around but were not really politically mobilised.”
Chomsky suggests that before last year’s presidential election, the Republican establishment had to defend its favoured candidate, Mitt Romney, against a succession of rivals among the popular base of religious conservatives, Nativists and gun- rights advocates.
He believes a Romney victory would have been a worse outcome than a second term for Obama but he resists the characterisation of the president as a figure of the left, or even the centre-left.
“It’s commonly claimed that there are no moderate Republicans any more. That’s not quite accurate. There are now moderate Republicans – they’re centrist Democrats. And that’s what Obama is – 30 years ago he could have been a moderate Republican,” he says.
“All of this is related to major shifts in the whole economy and society that people are familiar with. You now have a very sharp concentration of income, primarily in the financial sector, that’s enormously affected political life. And a large part of the population is virtually disenfranchised – millions have no impact on policy, they’re not represented and they’re aware of it. The latest poll on Congress asked ‘Does Congress represent the people?’ and I think about 10 per cent agreed. And it’s not inaccurate.”
EU austerity and democracy
If democracy in the US is imperfect, Chomsky is harsher still about the state of democracy within the European Union as austerity policies are imposed on one reluctant national population after another in response to the debt crisis.
“It’s worse because of the power ultimately, I suppose, of the Bundesbank which has an overwhelming impact on the ECB and on general economic policy, and their programmes are deeply conservative.
“A fixed inflation rate, very low, which is probably a mistake; a focus on austerity which is very harmful. Any economic theory will tell you it’s going to be harmful but we already have several years of experience and it’s been quite harmful everywhere it’s been applied.
“I’m not a great admirer of the Fed but I think they’ve been much more constructive and thoughtful and progressive than the ECB has been.
“I mean, take Ireland. It was a crisis of the banks. It wasn’t the Government, it wasn’t the population. It’s fundamentally bank corruption. It’s the same in Spain. Spain had close to a balanced budget in 2007 and pretty good economic fundamentals. But the housing bubble which was fuelled by Spanish and indeed German banks – you know they were the lenders – went way out and caused a great crisis for which the public is now paying.”
Chomsky likes to tell his audiences in western countries that they have numerous possibilities to effect change within their societies, if they are willing to get active and organised.
He says the same is true of efforts to influence the human rights policies of western government. He characterises them as policies of opposing human rights abuses carried out by unfriendly states and actively supporting abuses on the part of allies.
Power in popular action
“Popular action, I mean, that’s the only thing that has ever worked. Powerful institutions are going to protect themselves, not principles. So the public can make a difference – and in more democratic societies, a lot of difference,” he says.
“Turkey is not the most democratic society in the world. Nevertheless, I don’t know of any other country where dedicated, courageous activism has been more extensive and more effective. And it has been.
“For example, the main oppression in Turkey for many years has been against the Kurds and the situation is not good, but it’s far better than it was 10 or 15 years ago. It’s not gifts from above.”
Prof Noam Chomsky’s lecture at the RDS on Wednesday at 7.30pm is sold out