LSD Magazine interviews Noam Chomsky

We’ve always been fond of our superlatives here at LSD, but suddenly the spectrum of the English language seems hopelessly wanting in our efforts to introduce the great giant of ideas Professor Noam Chomsky. For those who are unfamiliar with the name, Professor Chomsky is one of the pioneers of linguistic science, author of over 50 books, a political thinker unique for his piercing understanding of the dynamics of history and political power systems, one of the top ten quoted figures of all time alongside Shakespeare and the Bible, and the most quoted man alive today. A longstanding hero to millions who have questioned (in his own phrase) ‘manufactured consent’, Professor Chomsky has been the literary, philosophical, and theoretical driving force behind the intellectual search for geopolitical truth, the historical patterns that define it, and the models that shape it. A quite extraordinary mind, he has always illuminated his revolutionary theories of the nature of the world we live in with an inexhaustible supply of iron clad evidence, indisputable fact and unassailable logic.

Relentlessly smeared by the establishment for the mirror he holds up to their systems, he remains untouchable through the depth of his passion, his intrinsic desire to teach and by the sheer weight of his arguments, to the point that his critics only dare impugn him from afar lest their world view collapse under the weight of his discourse.  There is no right way to interview Professor Chomsky; the list of questions, themes and concepts is virtually infinite, and the piece below represents a fragment of a snapshot. It is indeed impossible to express the depth of the gratitude that we feel towards him for granting us the opportunity and the time to speak to him, and all we can really do is profoundly thank him and urge you from the bottom of our hearts to research his work, read his books and engage with his ideas so that we all might penetrate a deeper understanding of the world we live in.

How would you say that control structures and the imperialist model have changed during the last half century in an increasingly globalised world.

The world has certainly changed but the basic principles remain virtually identical though adapted to changing circumstances. In 1950, the United States had a position of power and wealth that was simply without historical parallel. The US literally had half of the world’s wealth and indescribable security. It controlled the Western hemisphere, it controlled both oceans, its industrial rivals were either seriously harmed, or indeed in some cases destroyed and vast swathes of the world were still under colonial rule. Now that was an extraordinary position of power and of course the US used it. Power systems use their power – there’s no great secret in that. Well that’s changed. By around 1970, the other industrial countries had reconstructed and decolonisation was underway, thus making the United Nations somewhat more representative of world opinion. The United States now had approximately 25% of global wealth as opposed to 50%, so the nature of its efforts to control the world naturally changed, and an excellent example of this shift is the history of the UN. During the early stages of the post war period, the UN was very popular amongst US leaders because it was doing exactly as they wanted, (given the circumstances, there really was no alternative) and the US could use it as a weapon against their enemy, Russia. If you look at American intellectual discussion of the period, there was great love for the UN and great efforts to explain the nature of Russia’s psychological malady in always saying No. Literally! In fact, one anthropologist attributed Russian intransigence at the UN to the fact that they traditionally raised their children in swaddling clothes which made the Russian people inherently negative, and apparently explained why whenever Gromyko got to the UN, he always said ‘No’. As a  graduate student, we used to refer to this particular branch of science as ‘Diaperology’!

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This dynamic of US control over the UN shifted slowly over the 50’s into what became a pretty sharp break in the 60’s, and the use of the veto serves as one clear index to map this change. Up until 1965, the US had never actually vetoed a Security Council resolution. From 1965 to the present, the United States is far in the lead on veto use, Britain is second, and nobody else is even close, whatever the Western press may suggest about recalcitrant Russians or wantonly stubborn Chinese. Well, that reflects a shift in attitudes towards the UN which in turn reflects a shift in the distribution of world power. The basic principles remain the same, there are just different ways of doing things.

But in light of Joseph Nye’s famous phrase, ‘soft power’, with military and economic dominance diminishing, would not an imperial power such as the United States’ best bid for hegemony in today’s world be corporate and cultural rather than the militarism and traditional imperialism of the last decade? Is that not where power models are heading?

First of all, as far as military power is concerned, the United States spends almost as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. Its military is technologically far more advanced than any of its potential rivals, developing new ultra sophisticated techniques of warfare such as miniaturised drones using nanotechnology and the militarisation of space. All sorts of things are on the drawing boards and in development. The United States has about 800 military bases around the world and a global surveillance system – you have to remember that no other country has anything like this. In fact most of the rest of the world, led by China, has been trying to block the use of space for military purposes, but the US has vetoed that at every step, under Clinton and Bush senior – certainly not just the last 10 years. So in military terms, it’s overwhelming, and if you add intelligence into that, it becomes even more so.

There’s nothing new about trying to use soft power – the phrase happens to be new, but the concept goes way back. That’s what the cultural programs of the CIA were about, what Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress was about. There have always been attempts to use what is now known as soft power – the Congress of Cultural Freedom is another of many examples. There is always a mix between the two tools that calibrates according to circumstance. When you ask ‘what should the United States be doing’, it’s really impossible to answer because it depends on what goal you have in mind. If the goal is to control the world, then it probably should be doing about what it’s doing.

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Speaking of the United States, do you think that its relative youth and short history goes some way to explaining an obsession with patriotism, expansion and religion that’s pretty unique in the developed world?

There are historical reasons. This is, I suppose, the only country in the world that was founded as what was called ‘an infant empire’. That’s George Washington’s phrase, and he was founding an infant empire which was to expand, and the goals of that expansion were pretty broad. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most libertarian of the founding fathers viewed the 13 colonies as the nest from which the entire hemisphere would be peopled, replacing the ‘Red’ or indigenous population who were essentially exterminated and the blacks once they could get rid of them. Jefferson was a slave owner but not in favour of slavery, so sending them back to Africa seemed like the tidiest solution, and of course the new United States would also replace the Latins who were regarded as inferior people – a perception that carried right into the twentieth century. Well the infant empire first expanded over what is now called the National Territory to –  and it’s important to remember that was the exact phrase used by John Quincy Adams (6th President) and others – exterminate  and expel the indigenous population. The next phase was to conquer half of Mexico, and by the end of the 19th century when both of these territories had fallen securely under American control, the US proceeded beyond. It invaded Cuba in 1898 which was heralded at the time as the ‘Liberation of Cuba’, though it is accepted by modern scholarship that it was in fact an intervention to prevent Cuban independence from Spain and essentially turn it into a US colony.

Also in 1898, the US essentially stole Hawaii by force and guile from its indigenous population and then expanded into the Philippines where they launched a major war killing a couple of hundred thousand people. The Philippines saw the imposition of a new style of colonialism based on hi tech surveillance (with force in the background of course), techniques to break up national movements, co-optation and so on, which represented a significant advance in colonial style which in many ways still persists in the Philippines to this day. That being said, the US was not a major player in wider global affairs, where Britain largely remained the leading power until the Second World War. By the time of Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) however, it had been recognised that oil was going to be a major commodity both militarily and economically, so Wilson kicked the British out of Venezuela, supported a vicious dictator, and by the late 1920’s, Venezuela was the world’s leading oil exporter with US firms firmly in control. Meanwhile, there were conflicts going on in the Middle East among the imperial powers including the US about who was going to control most of the oil and by the time of the Second World War it had become clear that the US was going to be the dominant power.

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Now as far as religion is concerned, you’re quite right; the US is off the spectrum. The early colonists were in fact religious extremists who were following the word of God – it’s called Providentialism – and it became the principal streak in US history. Americans were fulfilling the God’s word by waving the holy book, and slaughtering the Amalekites (mainly the domestic Indians). You should look at the 1629 Great Seal of Massachusetts – it goes a long way to explaining what the country is all about. Massachusetts had just received its charter from the English king, Charles I, and the Great Seal depicts an Indian with his spear pointing down – a sign of peace, and there’s a scroll coming out of his mouth saying ‘Come Over and Help Us’. So when the colonists were coming over to exterminate the indigenous population, following God’s will naturally, they were doing it benevolently – they were coming there to help them. And if you look at later commentary from Supreme Court Justices and so on, they puzzled over the fact that the Indians seemed to wither away as the colonists came despite their noble intentions . And of course you can translate that straight into current events.

But the US didn’t make this up. Every imperial power does the same thing. If you read John Stuart Mill (British philosopher and author of Utilitarianism) who was a decent honourable man and take a look at his classic article on interventionism, it’s very revealing. He explains that Britain is unique in the world and a sort of angelic presence whose magnificence is so radiant that nobody understands us. Other Europeans who cannot conceive of our moral worth and angelic character attribute all kinds of base motives to us, so perhaps we should just stay home and be noble. But, he goes on to say….that simply wouldn’t be fair on the barbarians, so therefore we have to conquer the rest of India so that the ignorant natives can benefit from the light of civilisation and our nobility. Of course he says, we will be subjected to obloquy and harsh charges, but we will suffer that, knowing that noble benevolence is our only motivation.

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Now that came out in 1859 in a climate where the newspapers and parliament were full of discussion of massive British crimes in India suppressing what is called the Indian Mutiny – but was in fact a rebellion. And here’s John Stuart Mill, perhaps the most respectable of all the contemporary commentators I can think of, writing things like this. In the same essay, Mill goes on to praise France for its efforts in Algeria, where one of the senior members of the French cabinet was calling for the extermination of the entire population. But again, if you look into the French version of events, they are adamant about the noble, civilising nature of their mission there. In fact, I can’t even think of an alternative. When the Japanese were conquering north China during the Second World War, their internal documents – not their propaganda, were overflowing with love for the Chinese. They were  bringing them an earthly paradise, they were there with no purpose other than to help the poor Chinese people from the malevolent bandits that ruled over them. And so it goes on…try to find an exception… and the US is merely the most recent example.

Do you think that it is ultimately more insidious to live conscious of repression under clearly defined authoritarian rule or to live in what you assume is a democracy with access to supposedly fair and balanced news from a selective and corporate media where you don’t see a pressing need to fight for your identity.

Well first of all I’m not sure that’s true about authoritarian governments. Authoritarian is a pretty weak word for it, but take Nazi Germany. Hitler was probably the most popular leader in German history until the war started to go bad, and the population strongly supported him. Look at the Soviet Union and you’ll find plenty of support for Stalin. In fact even looking at polls today, he is regarded as one of the most popular figures. People living under authoritarian rule tend often to accommodate it and even to huddle under the umbrella of power. If you look at psychological aspects, I think it is actually far more complicated than that. If you look at Erich Fromm’s classic work, Escape from Freedom, he discusses these issues quite brilliantly. So I don’t know which is more dangerous – just that we need to get rid of both of them…

Do you believe that the mass activism that we began to see in modern times during the 1960’s has been superseded in an internet connected, globalised world by the rise of stand-alone subcultures where people are less concerned with changing wider society than with creating micro cultures with like minded individuals.

To tell you the truth – I don’t see it quite like that. A lot of the 1960’s activism was deeply personal and actually very similar to what you’re describing. ‘Let’s find a great lifestyle for ourselves’.  Much of the counter culture movement was in that spirit, and while it was side by side with efforts to change wider society, I think that you find a similar mixture of commitments and motives today, especially amongst the young. In fact, it’s on a higher plane today because the legacy of the 1960’s was to substantially civilise society and today’s youth builds from there. I happened to be walking down the halls of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) shortly before this conversation and the first thing that you realise is that half of the students around you are women. Everyone is in casual dress, there’s a substantial proportion of ethnic minorities and there’s tables with students trying to convince others to support really quite decent causes. Well you know, I’ve been here for 55 years, and before the 1960’s, if you walked down the same hall, you would have seen formally dressed, deferential white males, no politics, no concern for social causes and that’s not just MIT of course. It’s true of wider American society and indeed of much of the world. These are among the civilising effects of the activism of the 1960’s. They did improve matters to a significant extent and that is why there is such an elite hatred of the sixties. They are constantly denounced as a time of troubles when youth was running wild. Well there was some of that around the fringe as with any mass popular movement, but the vast majority was serious and had substantial positive consequences.

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Looking back on Eisenhower’s parting words – to what extent has the ‘military industrial complex’ penetrated the world we live in
It was an important speech, if a little misleading. When you talk about the military industrial complex, the reference is really to hi tech industry. So let’s take MIT again which happens to be a good example. When Eisenhower was speaking (it was a little after I got here), the Institute was almost exclusively funded by the Pentagon. What was it doing? OK, it was administering a couple of military labs, but the wider campus as a whole and the research departments weren’t pursuing a military agenda or developing weapons but developing the technology of the future. You mentioned the internet earlier…well that’s where it came from. Military funded labs at MIT and places like them. When I got here, I was working in an electronics lab that was 100% military funded but doing no military work and was essentially developing modern computing. Now at the time, a computer spanned a couple of offices with vacuum tubes blowing up all over the place, and you’d wait hours to get a basic printout. But by the 1950’s a computer had been reduced to the size of a couple of filing cabinets and some of the project leaders had pulled out to form the first commercial mainframe producer. IBM was there, learning how to shift from punch cards to computers on public funding (mostly military) and produced their own very fast computer. But it was still far too expensive for business so the government bought it. In fact, governmental procurement is a major technique for public subsidy of private power.

The internet actually stayed within the government system until 1995, although transferred from the Pentagon to the National Science Foundation and computers didn’t really become profitable until the 1980’s after 30 years of astronomically expensive development within the state system, mostly military. And that’s true of a whole range of other things – information technology, software, satellites, lasers and so on. Even transistors which were developed in a private laboratory were only pursued and advanced thanks to public subsidy. They were developed in the Bell telephone company laboratory, which was a great research centre, but at that point, AT&T, the parent company, had a monopoly granted by the government, and were able to use the guaranteed income the monopoly provided to set up this superb laboratory. As soon as the monopoly was broken, the lab went too. Transistors were too expensive so the government bought them – procurement again. 100% in fact

Going back to Eisenhower and his phrase ‘military industrial complex’; it was true, it was there, but it’s a misleading way of describing the fact that to a rather significant extent, hi tech industry is based on the dynamic state sector of the economy. And as long as the cutting edge was electronics based, it came largely under a Pentagon cover. Again at a place like MIT, you can see very clearly that in the 1970’s, Pentagon funding was declining and funding from the National Institute of Health was increasing. And the reason was pretty straightforward. The cutting edge of the economy was shifting from electronics based to biology based and therefore the public has to take the risks and pay the costs under some other cover with the final benefits reaped by the private sector once the technology had reached a profitable plateau. Now that’s a bit of a caricature – it’s not quite that simple, but it’s a substantial part of how the economy works. We don’t live in market societies. There are market elements of course, but there are others too, not least the substantial state component. I think Eisenhower’s criticism was apt – we don’t want to have an economy that is geared to the military for all kinds of reasons but it doesn’t include the fact that so much of our technology could only ever be developed that way.

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If you want to understand the Cold War, the obvious place to look is US government decisions at the beginning of the 1990’s. ‘OK – Cold War’s over – now what do we do?’ Well there’s documentation on that. The first President Bush immediately established a new national security strategy, budget and so on, and if you read them, they’re pretty illuminating. They basically said everything should go on as before, but with new pretexts. So we still need a huge military force, but not because the Russians are coming – they’re not, but because of what was referred to as the ‘technological sophistication of third world powers’. We have to maintain what was called ‘the defence industrial base’ – that’s hi tech industry. Perhaps the most interesting part was with regard to the intervention forces aimed at the Middle East. So the documents outline the strategy behind intervention forces for oil producing countries and then came this interesting phrase, ‘Substantial threats to our interests could not be laid at the Kremlins door’, but were rather what’s called ‘radical nationalism’. So the clouds had lifted, the Russians weren’t coming, so we concede that threats to our interests weren’t solely being engineered by Russian machinations, but were indigenous and as great as ever. So nothing has really changed – just new tactics and new pretexts.

So in that light, how relevant today is Shakespeare’s line ‘Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels’

Foreign policy has always been based on interests. Adam Smith made some very simple comments on how power is exercised. They need some modification for today, not least because he was talking about England, but in England, the architects of state policy were merchants and manufacturers. They designed policy to make sure that their own interests are peculiarly attended to no matter how grievous their impact on others, including the people of England but mostly on those who he described as ‘subject to the savage injustice of the Europeans’. Well that analysis was accurate then, and now we wouldn’t say merchants and manufacturers, but rather multi-national corporations and financial institutions, but the basic principle holds good. They are the primary architects of policy that they design to meet their own interests, and that includes international policies. The effects on the domestic population may be grievous, and others may be subject to their savage injustice, but they’re concerned for their own welfare – that’s how power systems operate. Adam Smith was absolutely right. Now of course when you say this, you’re called a radical Marxist conspiracy nut or whatever, but it’s simply repeating truisms that Adam Smith perceived perfectly well, and of course he was not alone.

But is not an aberration to that rule the relationship between the United States and Israel. Has there ever been a situation where the dominant power of the age has had its foreign policy so heavily influenced by a smaller ally even to its own eventual detriment?

I don’t agree with the statement. I agree with Israeli commentators who describe the United States as Bossman / Partner. The US does what it wants, and if it doesn’t like what Israel’s doing, it tells it to stop and they will have to stop. Israel has been regarded by the US government as a strategic asset in an important region. US hi tech business regards Israel as its darling – just take a look at investments. Intel, the world’s major chip-maker is putting its major new international factory for a new generation of microchips in Israel. Warren Buffet is investing there, as are a host of other technology firms. There’s a very close relationship between US and Israeli advanced technology to the point that some Israeli companies are shifting operations to the United States because they have better market and subsidy opportunities. And if Israel gets out of line, the United States just tells it No. We’re seeing this right now. Israel wants to bomb Iran, but so far the US hasn’t allowed it to do so.

But Obama seems to having a lot of trouble stopping settlement building. First Netanyahu ignores him, and now that the stance has toughened, AIPAC has got over three quarters of the House of Representatives to sign a letter calling for an end to public criticism.
The US government really does not have any trouble bending Israel to its will. If it wants to stop settlements, it knows exactly how to do it. Stop funding them. But they don’t care. They’re perfectly happy to see a powerful Israel and the Palestinians offer nothing to the United States. They’re weak and defenseless.

But surely with the US fighting a war on two fronts in the Arab world and Islamic religious and nationalist feeling proving a major threat both to domestic security and oil interests should a US backed regime fall, it should at least pay some heed to the effect of its unquestioning support for Israel, should it?

Let’s go back 50 years to before Israel was a big issue. In 1958, internally (we now have the documents) Eisenhower raised the question with his staff, ‘why is there a campaign of hatred against us in the Arab world?’ And the National Security Council had just come out with a study on this which answered the question. It said ‘there’s a perception in the Arab world that the United States supports harsh and dictatorial regimes, blocks democracy and development and we do this because we want to maintain control over their energy resources.’ It then went on to say that these perceptions were pretty accurate, it was natural that we should be doing it and we are going to continue doing it, so yes, it was going to lead to a campaign of hatred in what’s known as the Arab street. We count on the dictators we support to suppress that. In fact, that’s perfectly explicit. Now, the Obama administration and the press (like the New York Times) are praising the Palestinian Authority because for the first time, they are offering Israel a legitimate partner for peace – actually I’m now quoting Senator John Kerry, Obama’s point man on this, head of the Senate Foreign Relations committee and a liberal Democrat. He then goes on to give the reason. There’s an army there under a US general, Keith Dayton, it’s trained by Jordan (the Jordanian dictatorship) and by Israel and it operates in the West Bank very effectively so Kerry says. He then gives an example. During the attack on Gaza last year, it was anticipated that there would be protests in the West Bank, but the US run army was so effective that it prevented any sign of protest or any expression of sympathy for Palestinians getting slaughtered in Gaza. And that was apparently really impressive, demonstrating that Israel had a legitimate partner for peace. The facts speak for themselves.

Thank you Professor Chomsky

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TAKEN FROM LSD  Magazine Issue 3