Professor Noam Chomsky began his career in the field of linguistics, before rising to public prominence for his opposition on moral grounds to the Vietnam War. Since the 1960s he has written extensively on US foreign policy, global affairs, and the role of the media in framing public opinion. Our interview touched on recent events in the Middle East, the subject of his upcoming talk at U of T, and the class battle raging in Wisconsin.
The Varsity: I thought we could start with the recent upheavals in the Middle East. Could you discuss recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere? What do you think is at the root of this regional upheaval and what are its possible implications for the region, and for the rest of the world?
Noam Chomsky: First of all it’s worth bearing in mind that upheavals are really not new. It’s kind of like an infectious wave, so one started then the other broke out then another one did but each one of them has origins going well back. So take Egypt, the most important country. The demonstration in Egypt — Tahrir Square, the January 25th movement — was initiated by a group of young people — tech savvy young people who call themselves the “April 6th movement”. Why the April 6th movement? The reason is that on April 6th, 2008 there was a major labour action planned at the biggest industrial conglomerate in Egypt along with solidarity actions, and it was all crushed by force by the very brutal security system.
Well, we didn’t hear much about that here, but it means a lot there, so that gave the name to the April 6th movement. What that reflects is that there have been substantial labour struggles, labour militancy against the dictatorship — trying to gain elementary rights and some elements of democracy. It kind of blew up on January 25th but it’s been going on a long time. And the same in the other countries: if you look there’s been protests, repressions, violence, torture, more protests. This wave, it actually got started in Western Sahara, but that was crushed very quickly by Morocco. Then it went to Tunisia. There, it succeeded in overthrowing the dictatorship, lit a spark, and then it spread all over the region.
And it’s very important. For one thing it’s, in many ways, the most dramatic [and] possibly significant democracy uprising in recent history. And it has a lot of promise, but plenty of problems. Some of the problems are internal, some are external. You can see them coinciding in the countries that the United States and the West are really concerned about: namely the ones that have oil and that have loyal dictators. If a country has plenty of oil and a loyal dictator, the West is going to back the dictator to the hilt, and that’s what happened in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain — which is kind of like an offshoot of Saudi Arabia.
In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the repression was so severe that people could barely even appear for the demonstrations, and there’s no criticism of that in the West because their dictators are fine. In Egypt, the US and the West followed what is, in fact, a familiar gameplan when you can’t hang on to a favoured dictator. What you do is you hold on as long as possible. When it’s impossible, typically when the army turns against him, which is what happened in Egypt, then [you] shelve him and try to restore as much as you can of the old order, and that’s in fact what’s happening in Egypt and Tunisia.
A different case is Libya — plenty of oil but not a loyal dictator, so the West would be happy to get rid of him, even though they’ve supported him right to the end. I mean, the US and Britain have been strongly supporting him right to the present day. I don’t have time to go into the details, but they’re interesting. In any event, if there’s a chance to get rid of him they’d be happy to do it. So in fact, the Western powers have intervened in support of the rebellion. Of course, everything is called “humanitarian intervention”… But for example, they didn’t call for a ceasefire for both sides — they called for a ceasefire for the government forces.
TV: The primary impetus for the rebellion in Egypt — you mentioned the labour movement — but there also seems to have been a component of secular nationalism. What do you think the primary impetus for the anti-Gaddafi movement in Libya is?
NC: Hatred of Gaddafi — he’s a brutal, vicious dictator. He’s been in for a long time, ’69. There’s been plenty of protest, mostly repressed. He has plenty of support too, you can tell that from the reports, but there’s a strong popular opposition to the dictatorship, as there is throughout the entire region… Dictators are not popular. Sometimes they’re powerful enough and strongly enough supported by the West so they can crush opposition — as, for example, in Saudi Arabia. And Gaddafi’s done that for a long time, with plenty of Western support, incidentally. But this time, it broke through and the West would be quite happy to get rid of him. That’s why the Western powers are intervening in support of the rebellion.
TV: I’d like to turn now to the topic of your talk at U of T in April, which is entitled “The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat to Freedom and Survival.” Could you talk about the “State-Corporate Complex”? How it is manifested today in the United States and elsewhere, and why is it a threat?
NC: Well, it’s been there forever. I mean the state [and the] interaction between state power and concentrations of private power goes back hundreds of years, in fact, Adam Smith talked about it. But it takes different forms at different times. And since the 1970s there has been a kind of a vicious cycle that was initiated [then]. It started with financialization of the economy and export of production that led to heavy concentration of profit in financial capital, that translated itself into political power. Political power then enhanced it by introduction of a whole range of policies, ranging from tax policies to deregulation, which further enhanced corporate power, increasingly financial power.
By now, without going through the details, the result is that in the United States, as everyone knows, there is tremendous inequality. But what is less known is that the inequality primarily comes from stratospheric concentration of wealth in a fraction of one per cent of the population. If you take that out it’s unequal, but not madly unequal, and that’s a result of this process.
In the meantime, for the majority of the population, incomes have pretty much stagnated, work hours have gone up, and conditions are rotten. There are repeated financial crises ever since the deregulation set in, and the big corporations are just paid off by the taxpayer […] they’re rescued. Then they’re richer than ever and set up for the next crisis. That’s a really severe threat. It almost crashed the economy and the next time around it’ll be worse. Quite apart from the fact that it almost utterly undermines any democratic functioning of the state — and it’s pretty similar in other countries — the United States happens to be extreme.
TV: A lot of this seems to be playing out right now in Wisconsin where the Tea Party, the state government, and the unions are in a direct conflict about collective bargaining. There was a recent New Yorker article that alleged that the Tea Party movement was receiving much of its financial backing from the Koch Brothers, who are also financial backers of Governor Scott Walker. The Tea Party is often characterized as a “grassroots movement.” Do you agree with that assessment, and how would you characterize the events in Wisconsin?
NC: Well, it’s true that there’s a confrontation between the Tea Party and the popular movement, but that’s kind of misleading. I mean, there’s overwhelming support for the protesters. First of all, it’s a major event… The Tea Party has never even dreamed of putting tens of thousands of people on the streets day after day, occupying the state capital… It’s a major uprising. And it has plenty of support. If you look at the polls, a large majority of people in Wisconsin support the protests and are opposed to the legislation.
The Tea Party is a pretty small movement, actually. It’s in a sense grassroots. It comes out of an old nativist tradition that’s relatively affluent, white, anti-foreign, anti-immigrant, it’s got racist elements. It’s against “big government” — well, they claim to be against big government. On the other hand their hero Ronald Reagan was a great advocate of big government. So it’s pretty confused intellectually, but it appeals to and grows out of a long nativist tradition.
On the other hand, it is small and relatively affluent, and it’s perfectly true that it gets massive funding from the corporate sector. For them, it’s their storm troops. So there’s a confrontation, but it’s overwhelmingly a popular uprising against the attempt to destroy the last remnants of the union movement.
TV: In 1970 you gave a lecture called “Government in the Future” which was about the future of the liberal democratic state. Given the immense inequities in wealth and income that you’ve talked about in the United States, and the events that are playing out right now, what do you think the future of the liberal democratic state is? Do you think it’s going to survive the next 25 or 30 years? What do you think the alternatives are?
NC: Well, I think the answer to that question is actually being played out on the streets of Madison, Wisconsin. It depends which of these forces wins. There are pro-democratic forces which are protesting, there are anti-democratic forces which are dedicated to trying to impose a kind of a narrow corporate tyranny. And how this plays out, we’ll see.
Noam Chomsky will be giving his talk “The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat to Freedom and Survival” from 1–3:30 p.m. at Hart House on Thursday, April 7. Listen to the full interview audio here at our In Conversation With blog.