Sunday, December 20, 2015

Interview with Noam Chomsky

I sent Noam Chomsky, long-time linguistics Professor at MIT, leftist intellectual, and possibly the world's strongest critic of imperialism and American foreign policy, a list of questions about Venezuela, fascism in the U.S., the Civil War and a potential boycott of the United States. While he regretted not having the time to answer in more depth, he was kind enough to offer a response to each of my questions. Below is the transcript of his email response: 

Matt Peppe: Do you believe the progressive gains made in Venezuela over the last 15 years by the Bolivarian Revolution are in danger of being rolled back after the United Social Party of Venezuela’s recent electoral defeat? Have the people of Venezuela, like Nicaragua in 1990, succumbed to imperialism’s subversion and economic sabotage? 

Noam Chomsky: It’s true that the US has been trying to undermine the Bolivarian project from the start, and there is some economic sabotage (and huge capital flight).  But I don’t think that’s the source of the problem.  Rather, it was undermined by incompetence, corruption, the inherent problem of trying to create a social revolution from above, and the complete failure to shift the economy from oil-based to more diversified, so when oil prices crashed it all fell apart.  In the vote, the opposition didn’t gain much.  The landslide came from chavista abstention, in disgust about what has happened since Chavez died.  The future is unpredictable.

Matt PeppeYou often say that if power structures can not justify themselves, they should be dismantled and something more just and equitable should take their place. In practice, all governments believe they are justified and act on behalf their populations. How could the public demonstrate their lack of consent to the rule of oppressive regimes? As the uprising in Baltimore earlier this year demonstrated, the media will consistently echo the state's narrative that popular revolts are criminal rather than political in nature.

Noam Chomsky: That was significant, but a very small uprising.  There have been much larger ones, in the US too.  The 1930s mass activism that led to the New Deal, for example.  Or popular uprisings that have completely overthrown economic institutions and governments.  In relatively free societies like the US, massive change could come the way Marx anticipated for England: by peaceful parliamentary means.  But it would take hard dedicated work.

Matt Peppe: You support voluntary socialism, similar to what existed in many traditional societies. Karl Polyani writes that in such socioeconomic systems, certain factors were necessary for their successful operation: “Custom and law, magic and religion cooperated in inducing the individual to comply with rules of behavior which, eventually, ensured his functioning in the economic system.” There have now been more than 200 years capitalist dominance, and neoliberal globalization is the rule across most of the world. The omnipresence of this capitalist ideology has created a perceived right to unlimited accumulation, and normalized individual gain at the expense of the rest of society. Would it be possible in such an environment to return to a state of voluntary socialism?  

Noam Chomsky: Not only possible but necessary.  Unconstrained accumulation is on the verge of destroying the prospects for decent human survival.

Matt Peppe: Is it possible to prevent governments from using the criminal justice system for social control and to punish political dissidence?

Noam Chomsky: Sure, and to a large extent that’s been achieved.  We shouldn’t underestimate the freedom that has been won.

Matt Peppe: In an anarchic society of voluntary association, what would the criminal justice system look like? Would prison abolition be a realistic possibility? 

Noam Chomsky: Presumably, communities would devise means to control people who are a real threat to the community.  The goal would be rehabilitation, not punishment, as is already partial the case in more civilized societies like Norway – where the prisons, even for the worst monsters (like Breivik) look like college dorms in comparison to the US.

MP: American presidential candidates today such as Donald Trump, who wants to ban Muslims from entering the country, and Ben Carson, who says he would kill thousands of civilians to carry out a war, unabashedly appeal to anti-democratic sentiments. This is authoritarianism, if not outright fascism. How severe is this fascist undercurrent in American politics by historical comparison, and at what point would it render a functional parliamentary political system impossible? 

Noam Chomsky: It’s been feared for a long time that nativist and racist currents could lead to some form of fascism in this strange country, which is the safest in the world and probably the most frightened.  At what point?  Best not to find out.

Matt Peppe: Do you believe Lincoln justified in waging war on the South to preserve the Union? Was he personally responsible for the atrocities that ensued on the part of his Army, such as Sherman’s March to the Sea, as such atrocities are an inevitable product of any war? 

Noam Chomsky: I think it was justified, and even though slavery --- the most hideous crime of the modern era – was not the immediate cause, it was in the background.  Sherman’s atrocities were not inevitable.  Lincoln can’t be blamed for them.  He did not exercise direct operational control over his generals.

Matt Peppe: After many decades of unchecked military aggression and human rights violations by the United States government and its armed forces, would boycott and divestment of the United States be an appropriate response?  

Noam Chomsky: By whom?  Not in the cards, I don’t think.  The changes will have to come from within.  Up to us.