May 07, 2006

AGR speaks with Noam Chomsky

Interview by Nick Holt

Apr. 13- — Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at MIT, is well known around the world for his unflagging critical analysis of systems of power in general, US foreign policy in particular, and the corporate media. On the off chance that you are reading AGR but have never heard of Noam Chomsky, proceed quickly to your local library or independent bookshop, and pick up one of his books. His most recent is Failed States : The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (Metropolitan Books, 2006). Professor Chomsky kindly took time from his busy schedule to speak with the AGR about anarchism, activism and the media.

AGR: You're probably the most well-known proponent of libertarian-socialism, which, as I understand it, is a political philosophy that embraces both non-Leninist forms of Marxism and the social forms of anarchism. Libertarian-socialism relies on a highly organized and class conscious working class and also rejects participation in electoral politics and representative government. Given the weak state of US labor and progressively untempered barbarism of the US government, do you see anarchism and left-wing Marxism as appropriate models for the US left?

NC: Well, libertarian-socialism has very loose links with Marxism. There are the left-Marxists — allegedly to the left. There was a left, anti-state Marxist movement, which was very far from the mainstream of Marxism, which had reasonably close relations and associations with libertarian-socialists. Libertarian-socialism is just a European phrase for anarchism. It's not used in the United States but it's a traditional phrase. It was the anti-state wing of the socialist movement. Pretty hostile to Marxism, in fact. Certainly to Marxism-Leninism, which was an enemy.

The weak state of the labor movement in the United States is a very serious matter. By now there is recognition of minority rights to an extent that was not true in the past: women's rights, the rights of ethnic minorities, immigrant rights and so on. But one group has been excluded: labor rights. The labor rights have been significantly undermined, particularly in the United States since the Reagan years. But it's been happening worldwide. That's, in fact, what the strikes are about in France right now.

Now minimal labor rights, which were taken for granted years ago, have now been undermined and are being destroyed. In fact, the Reagan administration quite openly informed employers that it was not going to enforce laws that required them to permit union organization and collective bargaining and so on. And in fact, during the Reagan years, the number of employer violations of labor law just shot up, I think approximately tripled… and since then it's continued.

So yes, the labor movement… has been under severe attack for a long time. And it's most elementary human rights, even those guaranteed by law, have been undermined.

Well, now, there's ways to deal with that. It's kind of like dealing with Jim Crow. First of all, enforce the laws. And secondly, improve the laws. And give the working people the chance to have the rights that are actually granted to them under the law, and better ones for collective bargaining, for organization, for political action and so on and so forth. That can revive the labor movement.

Just as you can overcome legal discrimination against other groups in a society, you can do it in this case. For example, women's rights are protected much more than they were, say, thirty or forty years ago. And there's no reason why you can't go back to what was once taken for granted in the case of labor rights. That's a pretty conservative position. And you can go well beyond that. I don't think the labor movement is in a state of permanent decay.

In fact, just take a look at the international economic arrangements that are ludicrously called free-trade agreements. They don't have much to do with free trade. And just notice in the way that they're constructed. They're constructed in such a way as to place American workers in competition with low paid labor abroad. That investors have the right to seek low-cost labor abroad, undercutting working people here, or, for that matter, to bring in low cost labor to beat down wages here. Can you do it for doctors, journalists, economists, other professionals? No. The laws are constructed so you can't do that.

Suppose a Mexican journalist wants to come to the United States and take a job as a journalist. He can't, because journalists protect themselves from that. Now he might want to work at, say, half the pay of an American journalist, he might be just as qualified, but he can't do it. On the other hand, if he wants to come to the United States and work in Wal-Marts, or as a dishwasher or something, yeah.

Those aren't laws of nature. Those are social and economic decisions designed to privilege the privileged and punish the less privileged. So sure, that harms the workforce. When people talk about globalization as if it's a law of nature — it's not a law of nature… These are just social decisions, political decisions, certainly not approved by the population. In fact, the population doesn't even know about them.

AGR: So do you see anarchism as a useful solution, given our state in the US, to battle this sort of thing?

NC: It depends what you mean by anarchism. In my view, anarchism is basically sort of a tendency in human thought and practice. It's a tendency which has some principles. The principle is that hierarchy, domination, authority and repression are intrinsically illegitimate. They always have a burden of proof. They have to demonstrate that they're legitimate. And if not, if hierarchical and authoritarian structures can't meet that burden of proof, they should be dismantled. That goes from patriarchal families to international systems and everything in between. That's the leading principle of anarchism.

In my point of view it's a principal that most decent people just automatically accept. So if there is a hierarchical and authoritarian institution that can't justify itself, why should we tolerate it? We should dismantle it.

Sometimes they can. So, for example, I'm walking down the street with my three year-old granddaughter and she runs into the street and I grab her arm and hold her back. That's authoritarian, but I think I can give it justification.

And you have to give a justification for anything. So, if you have a corporation, or for that matter, any business with top-down control that's run from the top, it's basically a totalitarian system, as close to totalitarianism as humans have been able to devise. Control is completely in the top. Orders go from top to bottom, down the hierarchy. If you're in the middle somewhere, if you're a manager, you take orders from above and hand them on below. At the very bottom, people are allowed to rent themselves to the system. It's called getting a job.

And outsiders, their only connection to it is to consume. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year are spent trying to delude and deceive them into consumption. Anybody whose ever looked at a television knows that.

Well, there's a system of hierarchy and authority. Is it legitimate? Should that totalitarian system be given the rights of a person? In fact, by now, rights far beyond those of a person? Well, those are quite serious questions. It's the responsibility of the system of power to justify itself. Those who challenge it have no responsibility. If it can justify its hierarchy and domination, then it should be tolerated. If it can't, it shouldn't be tolerated. It should be dismantled, just like other totalitarian systems.

The same question arises at every level you look at. So if you look at a traditional patriarchal family with an abusive husband, he thinks he's doing the right thing. He doesn't think he's doing anything wrong. He's beating his wife and his children and so on because it's good for them. But he's the one who has to justify it… but you know he can't. So then you stop it.

AGR: You've been a member of the United States activist community for many years. How does the state of US activism today compare with that you've seen in the past?

NC: There are many new popular movements that just didn't exist in the past. Global justice movements, or the solidarity and third-world solidarity movements and so on. They're pretty recent developments. They didn't even exist in the past and they involve plenty of people.

The kinds of people who meet annually in the World Social Forum, and in regional and local social forums that have been spawned all over the world including the United States. Those groups just didn't exist in the past, and they involve a great many people. The same is true of environmental movements, the anti-war movements and many others. That's the positive aspect.

Now, the negative aspect is this has become an extremely atomized society. People are very separated from one another. And the kinds of organizations and institutions that do bring people together so they can play some role in the political arena, in social planning and so on, those have been pretty much dismantled.

The one you opened by talking about is a good case. I mean, labor unions, their function was not just to protect labor rights. They were also engaged in workers education, in political action. They were a means by which working people, the vast majority of the population, that all individually had limited resources, but together can do quite a lot. It enabled them to get together and be a force in, say, the political arena, confronting highly concentrated power with its enormous resources. Dissolving the labor unions undermines that.

When I give a talk in the United States somewhere, for an activist group, it's usually at a church or a college. The reason is because those are the institutions that still exist. If I go to other countries, I often give a talk in a union hall.

AGR: To ask a question that sort of goes in a different direction: Our newspaper often relies on British papers for stories and perspectives that are unavailable in the US media. How does the degree of ideological independence from or subservience to elite authority in the British media compare to that in the US?

NC: It's a little different. There are things you hear in the British press that wouldn't appear in the United States. Take, say, the Middle East, which is a huge topic. The leading correspondent in the Middle East, whose been there for thirty or forty years, knows the place backwards, speaks the languages, a terrific reporter, Robert Fisk. He does appear regularly in the British press. I don't recall ever having seen him in the US press.

One of the other leading reporters in the Middle East, also with very long experience is Patrick Cockburn. He's been in Iraq for a long time. He'll appear, too, in the British press, but not here.

And the same is true of a fair number of other people.

On the other hand, by and large the press is just as conformist as it is here.

It's not incidentally, the left press. So take, say the Sunday Times. It's a very rightwing, it's a Murdoch newspaper, or the Daily Telegraph, which is very rightwing. Those are the journals that have exposed the Downing Street Memos, which is a big issue in England, but barely made a ripple here. These are very important memos which have demonstrated — another one came out just a couple of days ago — the intent of the Bush administration to go to war in Iraq, while they were pretending to be pursuing diplomatic means not go to war, no matter what they say. Well, that's really important. In a democratic society, we should all know about that. It came out of the rightwing press in England, and was pretty widely publicized. At first it was a complete dud here. Barely mentioned. Finally, when there was enough material on the internet and elsewhere, there was some reaction to it, but the reaction was mostly "Oh, well. Not important. Old hat. Besides, we once mentioned it in paragraph thirty of an inside column."


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