July 23, 2021
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Pessimism Of The Intellect, And Optimism Of The Will

Interviewing Chomsky: -- Compiled from diverse email, radio, and journal interviews in the week before the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, courtesy Znet.)

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Pessimism Of The Intellect, And Optimism Of The Will
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Pessimism Of The Intellect, And Optimism Of The Will

Q: Why have you decided to participate in the WSF? What do you think of it?

Noam Chomsky: Two meetings are taking place pretty much at same time. One is the Davos meeting of "the masters of the universe," to borrow the term used by the world's leading business journal, the London Financial Times, when they met a year ago. The term was presumably used with a touch of irony, but it is rather accurate. The second is the World Social Forum (WSF) meeting in Porto Alegre, bringing together representatives of popular organizations throughout the world whose conception of what the world needs is rather different from that of the masters.

Neither group, of course, is popularly elected -- a charge constantly leveled by the masters and their acolytes against the WSF, but, obviously, far more applicable to the Davos group. In fact, it would be a misunderstanding to say that on these issues, there even exist "elected governments." The reason is that the issues are kept from the general public even in the most free and democratic societies, the United States for example.

Public opinion studies reveal that the general population is quite concerned with these issues, and largely opposed to the policies of the masters, which are supported with near unanimity by the corporate sector, the government, and the ideological institutions. The media are well aware of the popular opposition. The Wall Street Journal, for example, ruefully observed that opponents of the mislabeled free trade agreements have an "ultimate weapon": the general population, which must therefore be kept in the dark. For the same reasons, the issues do not arise in the political arena. But of the parts of the global public that have become informed through popular organizations, labor unions, peasant organizations, independent media, and other means, it is a reasonable guess that the WSF represents a rather broad sample.

So in answer to your question, I am delighted to have the opportunity to attend.

As for what I think of it -- in my opinion, hopes for a decent future lie very substantially in the hands of those who will be gathered at Porto Alegre and others like them.

Q: Porto Alegre Forum likes to say that it is an anti-Davos event. Don't you think that the problem is all this polarity? Is the way to combat the so-called "unique thought" to propose an "opposed unique thought"? Do you really think that the demands of the Porto Alegre Forum -- forgiveness of debts, less agricultural protectionism, etc -- are enough to finish underdevelopment?

Noam Chomsky: To say that the Porto Alegre Forum is "anti-Davos" is to presuppose that somehow Davos is prima facie legitimate and that popular opposition to what it represents requires some special justification. If one chooses to frame the matter in these terms -- I do not -- it would be more reasonable to say that Davos is "anti-Porto Alegre," and to ask why the Davos gathering even has the right to take place.

Davos is a gathering of those whom the international business press, with only a touch of irony, calls "the masters of the universe."

Porto Alegre is a gathering of popular organizations from around the world whose picture of how society should be organized is different from that of the masters.

Such confrontations are major themes of history. And fortunately, popular forces have won many victories over the centuries, overcoming illegitimate and unaccountable concentrations of power, such as those gathering in Davos. They of course pretend to represent democratically-elected governments, but that is such a transparent absurdity that I presume we need waste no time on it, particularly with regard to neoliberal globalization.

Whether the programs of those gathered at the WSF will make significant inroads into the serious problems of global society -- of which "underdevelopment" is only one -- depends on what falls under the term "etc." in the question. Surely it should go far beyond the two examples mentioned, important as they are.

Q: Do you see this movement as a new sort of "International" of the left, liberal and progressive forces of the world society? In that sense, should it have a program?

Noam Chomsky: The traditional goal of the left since its modern origins has been to bring about a form of globalization that is rooted in participation of the great mass of the population of the world, and that, accordingly, will be responsive to their interests and concerns -- diverse, complex, often unclear, to be explored in a creative and experimental spirit: an "international," in short. There were preliminary efforts from the 19th century, either terminated, or distorted by brutal state power or other factors.

The WSF has the promise to become the first really significant manifestation of such globalization from the bottom, a very welcome prospect, with enormous promise. As for a program, there is a measure of shared understanding and perspective. Programs have been formulated in earlier meetings, and have led to cooperative action. Just how specific a program should be leads us back to the earlier question.

Q: Why should the hegemonic power be worried about the WSF and this kind of movement? Does it have a real chance of challenging the financial and multinational corporations power?

Noam Chomsky: The hegemonic power, and the "masters of the universe" generally, are greatly concerned about the WSF and the forces it represents, and about what they call "anti-globalization movements," a term of propaganda that we should avoid. That is why there is such a constant drumbeat of articles condemning these movements. It is also the reason why international economic agreements are negotiated largely in secret, and rarely reported in any detail.

Consider as an example the Quebec Summit of the Americas last April, which was to endorse the "Free Trade Area of the Americas." We know from polls that the issues are of great concern to the public, but the issues, and the forthcoming Summit and the FTAA, were kept carefully out of the electoral arena in November 2000. They also received virtually no media attention beforehand.

At the Summit itself, coverage was mostly meaningless. It kept mainly to disruptions, along with great praise for the ringing endorsement of democracy and "transparency" by the leaders who gathered at Quebec. Their commitment to these high ideals was illustrated not only by the suppression of the issues, but by the blackout of major studies by leading human rights and economic analysis organizations of the effects of NAFTA, hailed as the model for the new FTAA. These were timed for release at the summit, and were on every news desk in the country. It's a useful experiment to check the coverage (don't bother; it has been done and it was virtually zero). The silence and secrecy make good sense. The system of concentrated power is fragile, and knows it, and has to bend every effort to ensure that the "ultimate weapon" is not unsheathed.

Q: What kind of contribution can the world social forum give to this hope of a peaceful world?

Noam Chomsky: The US intelligence agencies have recently published their projections for the coming years. They predict that "globalization" -- meaning, the particular form of neoliberal economic integration favored by centers of power -- will continue, leading to growing inequality and increased financial volatility (hence slower growth and dangerous chaos). Five years ago, the US Space Command, which is in charge of the programs to militarize space (including "missile defense" as a small component), presented its public justification for these programs. A prime concern is the growing gap between "haves" and "have-nots" that they too anticipate as a consequence of the investor-rights version of "globalization." They expect, reasonably, that the result will be turmoil among growing numbers of impoverished people throughout the world, who will have to be controlled by force. Hence the need to militarize space, providing the US with immensely destructive weapons launched from space, probably nuclear-powered. Apart from the horrendous consequences for the victims, that is also a prescription for global disaster.

Against this background, the potential contribution of the World Social Forum to a peaceful world becomes quite clear.

The WSF is a gathering of people of the world who are committed to reversing these dangerous and extremely threatening tendencies, focusing on the core problem -- namely, the process of neoliberal globalization that is expected by its designers to have these and other ominous effects. Participants at the WSF basically agree with the assessment of the intelligence agencies and military planners, but they represent people, not concentrated power, and therefore have different interests: their concern is decent survival for human beings, not increased concentration of power and profit with all that it entails, as the designers of the system themselves anticipate.

Returning to your question, the contribution of the WSF is essential, and can be decisive.

Q: Is it possible to organize the complex and diverse scenario of the so call anti-globalization forces (in my articles, I like to depict them not as being in a struggle against globalization, but against neoliberal globalization)?

Noam Chomsky: You are quite right to call them opponents of "neoliberal globalization," that is, of a particular form of international economic integration that the "masters of the universe" have designed in their own interests, with the interests of the general population incidental. Not a great surprise; it would be surprising, and a sharp break from history as well as logic, if it were otherwise.

No one is opposed to "globalization" in the general sense. For example, participants in the WSF are not opposed to the fact that it exists and that they are attending, a constructive illustration of globalization.

You are also right to refer to the "complex and diverse scenario." That is as it should be. Many interests are represented, as they should be when people from South and North, from farms and factories, from all walks of life, young and old,.... come together to consider complex issues that are very important but often poorly understood -- by anyone. How much organization there SHOULD be is an open question: it should not go beyond the level of common purpose and understanding. How much there WILL be is up to the participants to determine.

Q: What is the difference between anti-Americanism and the struggle against globalization? Can this be used by the United States to promote a new polarization such as the one that resulted from the Cold War? Is there a way to detect and stop terrorism in anti-U.S. reactions?

Noam Chomsky: It is always important to look carefully at how questions are formulated, whether in the sciences or inquiry into human affairs. One often finds hidden assumptions that should be unearthed, critically analyzed, and often rejected. When that essential preliminary task is undertaken, we often find that the questions cannot be answered, and should be recast.

I think that's true in this case. Take the concept "anti-Americanism." It is a rather curious one. Such concepts are typically used only in totalitarian states or military dictatorships. Thus "anti-Sovietism" was a grave crime in the halls of the Kremlin in the old days, and I suppose the Brazilian generals and their supporters charged their internal enemies with being "anti-Brazilian."

In countries that have some respect for their freedom, the concept would be dismissed with ridicule. Imagine the reaction in the streets of Milan or Rome to a book called "anti-Italianism." And then observe the actual reaction in the US and Britain to a book by a respected author called "anti-Americanism" -- a scholar who specializes in the Soviet Union, incidentally, and therefore understands very well the model he is following. No one should be surprised to discover that the book is a deceitful rant against those who fail to worship the Holy State with sufficient ardor, and that it is for that reason that it is highly praised in sober reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere.

Those who criticized the crimes of the Kremlin or the Brazilian generals were not "anti-Russian" or "anti-Brazilian," surely. And by the same token, those who oppose crimes of the most powerful state in the world are not anti-American; in fact, the crimes are often strenuously opposed by a considerable majority of the population. The term should be abandoned, as in the case of its ugly models.

Consider next "the struggle against globalization." I know of no such struggle.

The participants in the Porto Alegre World Social Forum, for example, are not opposed to the fact that they are able to attend, thanks to international integration, that is, globalization. The First International did not oppose globalization: that was its highest goal, as its name indicates. Globalization in itself is supported or opposed by no one. The question is: what kind of globalization? Like others, the term "globalization" has been appropriated by the powerful as an ideological weapon. They want it to be used to refer to a specific form of international economic integration, designed in the interests of investors and financial institutions. They can then condemn critics of their projects as "anti-globalization," primitives who want to return to the stone age. No one should tolerate such deceitful practices.

Going back to the question, it cannot be formulated, and hence cannot be answered, because it is framed in conventional terminology, which is crafted to ensure that only inappropriate answers can be given.

Translating the question to more appropriate terms, it should be transparent that the popular struggles against this particular form of international integration cannot possibly be understood to be "anti-American," where the term "American" refers to the people of the United States. One simple reason is that it is opposed by the majority of the American population, which is why negotiations have to be carried on behind closed doors, the issues do not arise in elections, and the media and journals have to hold a "veil of secrecy" over what they know.

As for polarization, power centers in the US and their associates elsewhere do not want it: rather they want submission. But if those opposed to them do not submit, they will of course seek to vilify and punish them, leading to polarization. There is nothing new or surprising about that.

On prevention of terrorism, it is an important task, whether it is the terrorism of the weak or of the strong, which, not surprisingly, is far more lethal and destructive. Of course, the powerful will seek to restrict the concept so that it applies only to terror against them, excluding the far worse terrorism they carry out against others. If we submit to their efforts, we will ask only how terror directed against the rich and powerful should be detected and stopped. But we have fallen into a trap in the first step.

Q: Some months after the first edition of the World Social Forum, last year, president Fernando Henrique Cardoso has defended the creation of a tax over the financial transfers around the world. This was originally a proposal of Attac, one of the NGO that organizes the World Social Forum. Also last year, a french parlament member congratulated Fernando Henrique for the Social Forum, even though the president had nothing to do with the event. Do you believe that the discussions of the Forum can change the mind of the men in power or at least influence their acts?

Noam Chomsky: The proposal goes back many years; in fact, with many variants. The best-known proposals of the kind you mention are those of Nobel laureate James Tobin, about 30 years ago, though John Maynard Keynes had made similar suggestions for a tax on financial transfers long before. The issue became of great importance with the dismantling of the Bretton Woods system in the 1970s, leading to an astronomical increase in very short-term financial transactions, a development that many economists regard as a primary reason for the general deterioration of the global economy during the "neoliberal" period of the past 25 years; John Eatwell and Lance Taylor in a recent book, to mention one example.

As for the WSF, it is an outgrowth of many years of popular resistance to the specific form of investor-rights "globalization" that has been imposed on much of the world in the past several decades. Protest and resistance have been located mostly in the South, including prominently Brazil. In recent years they have extended to the industrial countries as well, and important international alliances have been formed, a very promising development.

There has certainly been an influence on the rhetoric of dominant power centers, and to an extent, on their practice. Even totalitarian regimes and military dictatorship have to respond, to some extent, to popular mood. That is far more true of more free and democratic systems. But the goal should not be just to induce the powerful to be less harsh. Rather, it should be to dismantle concentrations of illegitimate power. That has been a leading theme of history for many centuries, fortunately, and it has by no means run it course.

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