- Interview by
- Michael Brooks
No public intellectual has been more influential over the last half century in the United States than Dr Noam Chomsky, the legendary linguist, political analyst, activist, and author of dozens of books. At ninety-one, he still maintains a tireless schedule of writing and interviews — including last week with Michael Brooks for the Michael Brooks Show.
What are your thoughts as you look at the movement that has erupted after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police?
The first thing that comes to mind is the absolutely unprecedented scope and scale of participation, engagement, and public support. If you look at polls, it’s astonishing. The public support both for Black Lives Matter and the protests is well beyond what it was, say, for Martin Luther King at the peak of his popularity, at the time of the “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s also far beyond the level of public reaction to earlier police killings.
It may be the most similar to the reaction to the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. They beat him almost to death. Most of the attackers were freed in the courts without charge. There was a week of protest; sixty people were killed, and they had to call in federal troops to quell the protests. But that was in Los Angeles. Now it’s everywhere.
And it’s not just the police killing — it’s background issues. It’s beginning to move into concern, inquiries, and protests about the facts that lead to events like this occurring. This rise in consciousness is aided by the rise in consciousness of four hundred years of vicious repression.
What do you think accounts for the unprecedented nature of this?
I think it’s the result of many years of intensive activism. For example, years ago, the New York Times highlighted an important series, “1619,” on the history of racism in the United States — “1619” because that was the year when black slaves began coming in substantial numbers. You couldn’t have imagined that a few years ago. That’s one of many signs of what I hope are really significant changes, and seem to be a tribute to groups like Black Lives Matter and others who have been bringing these issues to public attention and making people think about them. And the reaction right now is quite important. [It’s different from] when you go back to Ronald Reagan, opening his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the murder of three civil rights workers — the message was pretty plain, but there was little reaction.
There’s much more reaction now, and the parallels are quite stark there. It’s very hard to get a grasp on something like this, in terms of various types of reporting, misinformation, and so on. We need to approach it gingerly, but as someone who has a rooting (in some respects) in the anarchist tradition, to maybe in many respects, what is your thought on this autonomous zone that arose in Seattle?
It’s one of a number of very interesting developments — in part reactions to the pandemic, in part reactions to [George Floyd’s murder]. Creating the structures of mutual support and cooperation that extricate people from the governmental structures, which have been shown to be completely inadequate in dealing with particular problems, like getting water to people — more fundamental problems of why we were so desperately unprepared for the crisis. The autonomous zone is an interesting case of this.
It’s also striking to see the support [from people like] the mayor of Seattle, and plenty of popular support, which is driving Trump and Fox News insane. That’s a positive sign, something important. I think it’s an important manifestation of the sense that we’ve got to take our lives under control, and that we can’t leave them in the hands of the authorities who declared themselves our masters. We have to take charge.
Is it important to reframe that a bit — that something can arise, and even result, in “failure,” but if there’s information in it, and if it expresses a certain impulse toward justice, it doesn’t need to be linearly measured as a success or failure?
Success and failure are complicated things. Any serious struggle is going to have moments of regression. Things don’t work out the way you expect, so you pick up, you go on from there. Anyone you can think of — civil rights, women’s rights, abolition, all of them — it’s a process.
Take, say, the Bernie Sanders campaign. I get letters all the time or see things posted saying, “We tried, we lost, it’s over, so I’m getting out.” That’s not what happened. What happened was a tremendous success, an unparalleled success. Nothing like this has happened in US political history — actually, almost ever, since the real populist movement, the radical farmers’ movement, was crushed by force. The spectrum of discussion has been substantially shifted. Things that were not on the agenda not long ago are front and center: universal health care, called for and amplified by the pandemic disaster; a Green New Deal, the result of serious activism by a small group of young people who occupied congressional offices; and the background was the Sanders success, and of young members of Congress who swept into power to support them.
Sanders has made the tactical decision, which some criticize but I think is correct, to join the Joe Biden campaign and push it to the left. His associates are working on planning commissions, and in fact, if you look at the program that’s emerged, it’s further to the left than anything since FDR. It offers lots of opportunities.
Now, this didn’t happen by magic. It happened kind of like the Green New Deal. It happened by constant pressure and activism. That’s the way the Left should conceive of elections. Pushing the button [for a candidate] is not the issue. It’s the constant activism that is reshaping the array of choices, issues, policies. You don’t win by snapping your fingers. Some things work, some things fail, and you pick up and go on from there.
I want to ask about freedom of speech. It seems to me that it’s fallen out of favor among some on the Left. How do you relate to the question of freedom of speech?
First of all, we should think a little bit of the history. Why is this issue arising now? Is it new? No. It’s been the norm for decades, but it was always targeting the Left, so nobody paid attention to it. Way beyond anything that’s happening now: meetings being broken up, violently disrupted; talks canceled; books destroyed. So, for example, the first book you mentioned, Manufacturing Consent, the first book that Ed Herman and I worked on together, was in the early ’70s. The book was published by a very successful publisher; twenty thousand copies were printed. The publisher was owned by a big corporation, and one of the executives in the corporation saw the book, was horrified, and demanded that the publisher withdraw it from publication. When they refused, he destroyed the entire publisher. All of its stock was destroyed, to prevent it from distributing the book of errors.
Did anybody care? Out of curiosity, I brought it to the attention of leading civil libertarians, like Nat Hentoff and the ACLU, but they didn’t see any problem. It’s not state censorship if a corporation decides to destroy a publisher and destroy all of its stock to keep some book from appearing. In fact, it was hard to find [inaudible] about the person who found something wrong with it.
But that’s not the only time. I could give you other cases of mine where books were withdrawn from publication, and I was asked to return the advance, because it had some political content that the publisher didn’t like. Other people have been fired, and faculty positions eliminated, and so on. They didn’t care. It wasn’t censorship — it was directed against the Left, vastly beyond anything that’s going on today.
Now, that doesn’t justify what’s going on today. First of all, I really wouldn’t call it the Left — when the New York Times withdraws an op-ed, which I don’t think they should have done, it’s pretty hard to call that the Left.
When a lot of young people decide to de-platform some speaker, I think they’re making a bad mistake, even from a tactical point of view. There are much better ways to deal with it — you can run a counter-session, where you expose what’s going on and use it as an educational opportunity. I think it’s wrong in principle and it’s tactically wrong. It’s a gift to the far right; they love it.
One of the many pieces of activism that I’ve appreciated immensely that you’ve been involved with was your advocating for President Lula da Silva of Brazil when he was a political prisoner. You visited him when he was in prison in Curitiba. Can you tell us why you think President Lula is such an important leader?
President Lula came from a working-class background, was an activist — in the days of the dictatorship, succeeded in organizing significant opposition and ran for president. He had his victory stolen a couple of times, but he finally won the presidency and initiated a new era in Brazilian history.
Don’t take my word for it; take the World Bank — not a radical institution. In 2016, a couple of years after the end of his term, they published a long study of recent Brazilian economic history. They called Lula’s term in office the “golden decade” of Brazilian economic history. Enormous reduction of poverty, tremendous increase in inclusion, large parts of the population, blacks and totally marginalized and oppressed people, brought into policies to give people some control over their lives. Tremendous success.
Brazil became one of the most respected countries in the world, if not the most respected. Take a look now. It’s an absolute pariah, one of the most ridiculed and condemned countries in the whole world.
There were plenty of problems with Lula’s terms. One of them was that he tolerated corruption, didn’t pay attention to it. There was a lot in the Workers’ Party (PT) — it’s endemic in Brazil, in the entire region. The thing his administration really failed to do was to get people to understand that they were part of the system that was developing. So now it’s quite strange that when people are asked who benefited greatly from Lula’s programs — when you ask them, “How did this happen?” they say, “It came from God,” like it was an accident. They don’t know that it was part of the PT’s programs. That was a real failure of engagement — that it just “came to them” somehow and they were not part of it. That was a big failure.
There are other things you can criticize. The judgment about the “golden decade,” I think, is quite right, and the rising to a position of great international respect, as a voice of the Global South, was extremely significant — and part of the reason for his downfall. Political systems don’t like upstarts. They’re not supposed to do that.
The elites in Brazil are extremely racist and class conscious. Here’s this guy who comes from a working-class background, who doesn’t even speak “proper” Portuguese; he didn’t go to the “right” schools. He’s supposed to be humble, grateful for what we do for him — not up there setting policy. You talk to people and can sense the bitterness and the anger, just for these reasons, even more than the policies.
A couple years after Lula was out of office, a soft coup was initiated [against Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff]. This finally led to the October 2018 election. Lula was jailed; he was the most popular candidate, very likely to win. He was jailed on very dubious charges, but he was also silenced. Unlike a mass murderer on death row, he was not permitted to make a statement. That was very important. He kept quiet during the electoral campaign. Now he’s held on partial release while the appeals were going on. But before the election, they kept him out. What came in was an ultraright fanatic [Jair Bolsonaro] who’s destroying the country. Brazil right now is just on the verge of a military coup.
I don’t know if you saw the clips from a couple of days ago, where Bolsonaro gangs were attacking the parliamentary buildings, the Supreme Court, and saying, “Get rid of it.” Bolsonaro fired the heads of the executive divisions, which were looking into his family. His executive statement was that “Nobody’s going to fuck around with my family,” which is pretty similar to what just happened here. Bolsonaro sees himself as a kind of clone of [Donald] Trump. Tragedy and farce.
Trump is very similar. He just fired all of the inspectors general who were put into place to monitor corruption and malfeasance in executive offices. They were beginning to inquire into this fetid swamp that he’s created in Washington, so he fired them all. And like any tin-pot dictator, he went out of his way to humiliate the senior Republican senator, Charles Grassley, who had spent his career setting this system in implementation. Not a peep from the Republican Party. They’ve disappeared as a party. It’s worse than the old Communist Party. The leader gives an order; we [fall] on our knees.
Could you explain why what Donald Trump is doing institutionally actually is unique and does matter on its own terms?
This sounds strong, but it’s true: Trump is the worst criminal in history, undeniably. There has never been a figure in political history who was so passionately dedicated to destroying the projects for organized human life on earth in the near future.
That is not an exaggeration. People are focused now on the protests; the pandemic is serious enough that we will emerge from it at terrible cost. The cost is greatly amplified by the gangster in the White House, who has killed tens of thousands of Americans, making this the worst place in the world [for the coronavirus]. We will emerge [from the pandemic, but] we’re not going to emerge from another crime that Trump has committed, the heating of the globe. The worst of it is coming — we’re not going to emerge from that.
The ice sheets are melting; they’re not going to recover. That leads to exponential increase in global warming. Arctic glaciers, for example, could flood the world. Recent studies indicate that on the present course, in about fifty years, much of the habitable part of the world will be unlivable. You won’t be able to live in parts of South Asia, parts of the Middle East, parts of the United States. We’re approaching the point of 125,000 years ago, when sea levels were about twenty-five feet higher than they are now. And it’s worse than that. The Scripps Oceanographic Institute just came out with a study that estimated that we are coming ominously close to a point [similar to] 3 million years ago, when sea levels were fifty to eighty feet higher than they are today.
All around the world, countries are trying to do something about it. But there is one country which is led by a president who wants to escalate the crisis, to race toward the abyss, to maximize the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous of them, and to dismantle the regulatory apparatus that limits their impact. There is no crime like this in human history. Nothing. This is a unique individual. And it’s not as if he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Of course he does. It’s as if he doesn’t care. If he can pour more profits into his pockets and the pockets of his rich constituency tomorrow, who cares if the world disappears in a couple of generations?
As far as the government is concerned, we’re seeing something pretty interesting. Parliamentary democracy has been around for 350 years, starting in England in 1689 with the so-called Glorious Revolution, when sovereignty was transferred from the royalty to the parliament. The beginnings of parliamentary democracy in the United States [came] about a century later. Parliamentary democracy is not just based on laws and constitutions. In fact, the British constitution is maybe a dozen words. It’s based on trust and good faith, the assumption that people will act like human beings.
Take Richard Nixon. Pretty rotten guy, but when the time came that he had to leave office, he left office quietly. Nobody is expecting that with Trump. He doesn’t act like a human being. He’s off somewhere else. He [doesn’t] even make appointments that can be confirmed by the Senate. Why bother? I don’t like somebody, I’ll throw them out. One Republican, Lisa Murkowski, dares to raise a small question about his nobility, [and he] came down on her with a ton of bricks — I’m going to destroy you.
It’s not fascism. It’s what I said before: tin-pot dictator of some small country where they have coups every couple of years. That’s the mentality.
Congress, the Senate, happens to be in the hands of a soul mate of his, Mitch McConnell — in many ways the real evil genius of this administration, dedicated to destroying democracy long before Trump. When [Barack] Obama was elected, McConnell said openly to the public, “My main goal is to ensure that Obama can achieve nothing.” Okay. That’s saying, “I want to destroy parliamentary democracy,” which is based, as I said, in good faith and trust in the interchange.
The Senate. the so-called world’s greatest deliberative body, is reduced to passing legislation that will enrich the very rich, empowering the corporate sector, and making judicial appointments to stack the judiciary with young, ultraright, mostly incompetent justices who can ensure for a generation that no matter what the public wants, they’ll be able to block it.
It’s a deep hatred of democracy and fear of democracy. That’s not unusual among the elites; they don’t like democracy for obvious reasons. But this is something special.
That’s on top of the pandemic, on top of the global warming crisis, the crisis of nuclear weapons, which is equally severe. Trump is dismantling the entire arms-control regime, greatly increasing the risk of destruction, virtually inviting enemies to develop weapons to destroy us that we [won’t be able to] stop.
Trump is taking the worst aspects of capitalism, particularly the neoliberal version of capitalism, and amplifying them. Let’s just take the pandemic. Why is there a pandemic? In 2003, after the SARS epidemic, which was a coronavirus, it was well understood by scientists — they were saying, “Another coronavirus, much more serious than this, is very likely. Now here are the steps we have to take to prepare for it.” Somebody has to take the steps. Well, there is a pharmaceutical industry, but extraordinarily wealthy, huge labs can’t do it. You don’t spend money on something that might be important ten years from now — stopping a future catastrophe is not profitable. That’s a capitalist crisis.
Government has the resources; they have great labs. But then comes something called Ronald Reagan, at the beginning of the neoliberal assault on the population, arguing that government is the problem, not the solution — meaning we have to take decisions away from government. Government is influenced by people. Now we have to put [decisions] in the hands of unaccountable private institutions which have no influence from the public. In the United States, that’s sometimes called libertarianism. That’s the beginning of the neoliberal assault.
George H. W. Bush established a presidential scientific advisory council board. Obama called it into office, correctly, the first day of his administration and asked them to prepare a pandemic warning reaction system. A couple of weeks later, they came back with a system that was put in place. January 2017, the wrecker comes into office. First days of his administration, [Trump] dismantles the whole system to respond to a pandemic; started defunding the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] (CDC) and every health-related aspect of government, year after year. Eliminated programs of American scientists in China working with Chinese scientists to identify potential coronavirus threats and throws it out. So when [the coronavirus] hit, the United States was uniquely unprepared — thanks to the wrecker.
And then it got worse. He refused to react to it. Other countries responded to it, some of them very well and very quickly. It’s almost gone, mostly under control. Not in the United States. He didn’t care. For months, US intelligence couldn’t get the White House to say, “There’s a serious crisis.” Finally, according to reports, he noticed that the stock market was declining, and then said, “We have to do something.” What he has done is just chaos.
But a large part of the problem is pre-Trump. Why aren’t the hospitals ready? Well, they run on a business model. That’s neoliberalism. It has to be just-in-time delivery. They don’t want to lose a cent. So we don’t have an extra hospital bed; we have to make sure the CEOs of the private hospitals get millions of dollars a year in compensation. Can’t have an extra bed — you cut into that. So everything’s parroted above. The nursing homes, which are privately owned, are reduced to minimal functioning, because we can make more money that way, if we’re a private-equity corporation that owns them. Now we can contribute to Trump’s campaign so he can have a photo-op with us, telling us how wonderful we are for destroying the nursing homes, killing all the elderly people.
It goes deep into issues well before Trump, but he is a unique phenomenon — again, the worst criminal in human history, so his minor crimes are to destroy American democracy and to amplify a pandemic killing over a hundred thousand people. But those are minor crimes by his standards.