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"America Is One Of The Most Fundamentalist Cultures"

An e-mail interview with Sandipan Deb and Paromita Shastri, Noam Chomsky answers queries on the future of ideology and the polity to come.

"America Is One Of The Most Fundamentalist Cultures"
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Noam Chomsky is one of the most influential thinkers the 20th century has seen. A radical political commentator of Latvian origin based in the US, he shot to fame with a brilliant essay opposing US intervention in Vietnam. He's also been active in successfully advocating independence for East Timor. A linguist by training, he introduced the concept of universal grammar and revolutionised the study of languages. He's currently attached to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In an e-mail interview with Sandipan Deb and Paromita Shastri, he answers queries on the future of ideology and the polity to come.

There seems to be some sort of global consensus of the rich and powerful that the way forward is "global market liberalisation"...
The conclusion is not quite accurate. The consensus of the rich and powerful is that the weak and defenceless should be subjected to market discipline, while the rich and powerful should continue to shelter under the wings of the nanny state. There is nothing new about that. The economic history of India during the British conquest is a classic case in point. The one form of "liberalisation" that really has taken place, dramatically, in the past quarter century is financial liberalisation, leading to an astronomical growth of international capital flows, overwhelmingly speculative and very short term; 80 per cent with a return time of a week or less. One can argue about cause and effect, but the facts are pretty clear. What many international economists call "the golden age" of state capitalist development, from World War II to 1970 (while the Bretton Woods agreements were more or less in effect), was replaced by a "leaden age" in which economic indicators generally have declined. There has been a general decline of growth of the economy, of trade, and of productivity; financial volatility and crises have become more frequent and more severe; inequality has grown sharply; and in general, some small sectors have become much richer while the majority have seen stagnation or decline. There are variations, but the general conclusions are not in doubt, though one may debate the reasons.

This has by no means been a period of liberalisation of trade. The Reagan administration, for example, boasted to the business community (accurately) of being the most protectionist administration in postwar history. Like nafta, the Uruguay Round that led to the wto included other highly protectionist elements, such as a far-reaching patent regime, including product patents, designed to deter innovation and guarantee that the huge publicly-subsidised "private" corporations will monopolise the technology of the future. Meanwhile cost and risk continue to be socialized on a grand scale. It is noteworthy that virtually every dynamic aspect of the US economy - civilian aircraft, computers and electronics, information technology and telecommunication (including the Internet), pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, automation, etc - have relied crucially on the enormous state sector of the US economy, often disguised as "defence." And risks are socialized by bailouts, IMF interventions, and many other devices. A very high percentage of trade perhaps 40 per cent or so - is managed trade, internal to huge private tyrannies (corporations). And of course Adam Smith's insistence that free trade requires "free distribution of labour" is not taken seriously. The trade agreements grant corporations "national rights," but human beings are not granted such rights: General Motors can demand "national rights" in Mexico, but we need not ask what would happen to a flesh-and-blood Mexican who demanded "national rights" in New York. Quite generally, the form of "capitalism" and "liberalisation" that is developing is designed for the interests of investors, bankers, owners and managers, rich professionals, political elites, etc., but not for people. What happens to them is "an incident, not an end," to quote some rhetoric of the Woodrow Wilson administration. And quite commonly they suffer, often severely, as the merest survey of the world scene demonstrates with painful clarity.

We should succumb to no illusions about these matters, and should also recognise that it is an old story.

Is there a chance that this "global consensus" can fail to achieve its aims?
The global consensus is achieving its aims of enriching small sectors, dismantling social bonds and social support systems, and undermining democracy - one of the chief goals, and consequences, of liberalising capital flow. In some respects, a vast experiment in social engineering is under way. In an earlier day, Henry Ford recognised that if he is going to sell cars, he would have to pay his workers a living wage. The new economy that is being designed by the great powers and the corporate institutions closely linked to them is based on a different conception: effectively, a structural arrangement of the kind typical of "developing societies" (the current euphemism for the former colonial domains). Typically, these societies have a small sector of extreme wealth, a great mass of people who manage to get by more or less, and another category of superfluous people who struggle to survive and often do not: the "disposable people" as theyr'e called in Washington's Latin American domains. The rich countries are being reshaped along similar lines. In the US, for example, 90 per cent of the population actually lost net worth (assets minus debt) in the decade ending in '98 (the most recent figures), the decline is more severe as one goes down the scale. The stockmarket is booming, with half the stock owned by one per cent of the population and the top 10 per cent owning most of the rest. For the majority, real wages have stagnated or declined since the leaden age opened, working hours have greatly increased along with insecurity (called "flexibility of labour markets" in contemporary ideology, and praised as a "good thing"), and social services and infrastructure have significantly declined.
Meanwhile "disposable people" are being removed from society, either left in deteriorating urban slums and collapsing rural communities or sent to prison. Though crime rates have been declining, incarceration has sharply increased, targeting the poor and minorities by various devices, primarily a "drug war" that's recognised to be utterly fraudulent by serious criminologists, a consequence of a deliberate social policy designed to remove the superfluous population. Other industrial societies are proceeding along similar paths, though in different ways.

The general conception is that the rich and privileged will be the consumers - a considerable part of the population in the rich societies, a much smaller part in the poor societies. Wages will be driven down by international competition, a natural consequence of mobility of capital but not labour, and immense privileges for capital, but not labour, accorded by the investor-rights agreements mislabelled "free trade agreements." The work of the world will be done where the cheapest labour can be found. The superfluous people will be dealt with one way or another.

Can the experiment succeed? No one can predict. As in all matters of human affairs, the outcome depends on human will and choice. There's enormous popular resistance to these arrangements. That's why "trade agreements" have to be negotiated in secret, as much as possible. It's well understood that exposing them to the light of day will evoke popular opposition, and that's repeatedly happened as the veil of secrecy was pierced by efforts of activist grassroots organisations. As the Wall Street Journal observed anxiously, opponents of the agreements have an "ultimate weapon": support of the majority of the population. The record of the last few years is highly instructive in these respects, but does not enable us to predict what will come next.Again, that is a matter of will and choice.

The Soviet Union has collapsed, the Left is either dead or walking wounded. Do you think anarchism, as equated with people's power or an extreme form of democracy, has a future?
When the Soviet Union collapsed, I was asked to contribute to a symposium on the significance of the event for the Left, and repeated what I had often written. The Bolshevik revolution was a tragic blow to the libertarian socialist Left, and the collapse of the tyranny is therefore a victory for these forces, eliminating an impediment to the realisation of their hopes. I do not agree that "the Left is either dead or walking wounded," at least if the Left includes people, not just privileged intellectuals. Popular movements are lively and active around the world, dedicated to all kinds of crucial issues. It is true that democracy has been undermined in recent years by a variety of means, among them state violence and the liberalisation of capital flows, which, as long understood, creates a "virtual Parliament" of concentrated financial capital that can set conditions on government policy (hence on democratic choice) by the threat of capital flight. On the other hand, the collapse of Soviet tyranny and popular struggles elsewhere have opened new possibilities for functioning democracy. Anarchist ideals and programmes are, I think, more pertinent and viable than ever. I'm not aware of any reason to suppose that the struggle to extend the realm of freedom and justice has reached some kind of terminus. True, that's what ideological fanatics would like us to believe, as always in the past. But there is no more reason to submit to these dictates than there has ever been. The world becomes a better place as a result of the refusal to bend to authority and doctrine.

You've said the media is like a big corporation making products, in this case, the audience. But on the World Wide Web, anybody can put forth a view and there's no thought police in the shape of bosses and managers or perceived beliefs. Doesn't the information revolution spell information freedom then?
The commercial media are, in fact, major corporations, typically integrated into even larger ones. Like other business enterprises they've a product (audiences) which they sell to a market (advertisers). These and other institutional factors naturally shape media performance, as has been extensively documented. The World Wide Web and Internet are products of the state sector over many decades, recently handed to private capital as a gift from the public (who knew nothing about it; in fact, the modalities of the decision remain obscure). The fate of the system is now the terrain of struggle. The corporate world has made no secret of the fact that it hopes to shape the system in its own interests: to turn it into a huge home shopping service and instrument for "control of the public mind" and inducing "a philosophy of futility," as corporate leaders phrase the objective. The system would still be open in principle to free expression, as the print media is; in the US or India, anyone is free to distribute a journal: a megacorporation, or a homeless person (and indeed they do; one of the more interesting journals in Boston is produced by the homeless). But as in the case of the print media, if corporate objectives for the Internet/Web are realised, only the most dedicated would be able to find their way through the maze designed by those who control the access points (portals) and the paths that one is induced to follow within the system. There is no reason for that project to succeed, any more than there was a reason to present this enormous gift to the private sector in the first place. Again, we are back to matters of will and choice.

So, at the threshold of the 21st century, are we looking at a world structured on the basis of the biggest inequality of all: the information haves and have-nots?
That has always been true. It is probably less true than before. A century ago, or even 25 years ago, what percentage of the world population had any meaningful access to information? In fact, the means are now available to reduce these traditional inequities, virtually to eliminate them. Whether these means are employed to that end is a matter, again, of will and choice. There is no way to escape that fact, wherever we turn our gaze.

Islam seems to be the strongest ideology around in the world right now. Are we looking at a great clash of civilisations in the 21st century?
The strongest ideology by far, in my opinion, is the mostly fraudulent doctrine of "free market capitalism." It is not called an "ideology" because that term, with its negative connotations, is reserved for doctrines we are indoctrinated to fear and despise (and often they merit that reaction, a separate matter). Keeping to the doctrinal use of the term "ideology," as a term of propaganda, "Islamic fundamentalism" is indeed a major ideology. Perhaps it is even as strong as the fundamentalist Christian doctrines that are a major force in the United States, one of the most fundamentalist societies and cultures in the world.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became necessary to fashion some new ideological construct to provide a justification for oppression and violence, and one of the choices was "a great clash of civilisations." As in the case of all propaganda, there is some element of truth to the picture, as there has been for a long, long time. Merely to take one recent date, in '58 the Eisenhower administration (in secret) identified three major world crises: Indonesia, North Africa, and West Asia - all Muslim, but more importantly, all crucially related to control of the world's energy system. Was that a clash of civilisations? Turning to the present, what was until very recently the most extreme Islamic fundamentalist state (Saudi Arabia) is a loyal US client; it has now taken second place, the most extreme being the Taliban, the inheritors of the most extreme Islamic fundamentalist non-state actors, the Afghan guerrillas sponsored by the US, now an enemy because they are no longer under control. Perhaps the most secular of the mostly Islamic states is Iraq, a friend and ally as long as Saddam was only gassing Kurds, torturing dissidents, and conducting huge massacres, but the leading enemy as soon as Washington's partner disobeyed orders.

Again, the propaganda image has some degree of reality, but it is hopelessly misleading and obscures the real operative policy doctrines and concerns.

If democracy, as translated into freedom of choice, is an illusion, what is the ideal form of society?
Formal democracy can certainly be an illusion: the "people's democracies" of the Soviet sphere, for example. How real it is depends on popular struggle to convert the pretty words into live substance. As for "the ideal form of society," how could we possibly know? Understanding of human affairs is thin. In fact, understanding declines considerably when we move to systems more complex than large molecules. We can certainly formulate guidelines and visions, but fleshing them out requires experimentation and constant struggle, since authoritarian structures do not cheerfully dismantle themselves when challenged, from family life to international organisation.

Can the absence of ideology itself become some sort of ideology? And will it make the world a better place?
I don't think the question is meaningful. We live in the grip of fanatic ideologies, and enormous efforts to implant them are a constant preoccupation of the powerful and their doctrinal institutions: the huge public relations industry, entertainment industries, media, schools and universities, etc. We can observe it in practice, we can read it in the pronouncements and publications of leading figures in the business and intellectual worlds. We should take quite seriously their concern to "wage the everlasting battle for the minds of men" who must be "indoctrinated with the capitalist story," to "regiment the minds of men as an army regiments their bodies," to control opinions and attitudes, etc. Not simply because the principles are clearly articulated, as they are, but more importantly, because they're implemented with great dedication, care, and expense. Whether we choose to call the doctrines that are imposed an "ideology" is a matter of no interest.

Where does the individual stand in an ideology-less world?
If we believe that we are in "an ideology-less world" it is only because the efforts to impose rigid ideologies have been so successful that they seem invisible, like the air we breathe. That would be the ultimate success of indoctrination and propaganda. There is no reason why we should willingly submit ourselves to these exercises of manipulation and domination, or should accept passively the authoritarian institutions they are designed to benefit and support.

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