Professor Noam Chomsky is a world-renowned linguistic, philosopher and political activist. Currently Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he has been the author of over 100 books on topics from geopolitics to mass media. An outspoken opponent of imperialism and capitalism, his criticisms of coercive hierarchies in human society have captured the attention of millions across the globe.
To start, what do you think about the state of modern academia right now? What do you think are the greatest threats to productive thought, teaching and discussion in universities around the world?
Well, it depends on what country you live in. If you’re in the United States or the United Kingdom, one of the serious problems with universities is simply a lack of funding. Right-wing governments that have continued the neoliberal model of rule from Reagan and Thatcher into the present day have been steadily reducing funding for universities. One commentator in England, Stefan Collini, said that the Tory government is trying to turn first-class universities into third-class commercial enterprises. This is effectively demanding that the classics department at Oxford sell itself on the market. In the United States, which I follow more closely, state legislatures have been sharply reducing funding to state colleges.
The general program of the federal government and other administrations has been to impose business models on universities, forcing them to try to get the maximum ‘production’ for the minimum cost. For example, it’s much cheaper to use adjunct than tenured professors. The former don’t have much job security, and you can kick them out whenever you want. Meanwhile, the array of administrators has vastly increased. Of course, tuition fees have shot way up both spectacularly so in the United States and considerably in Britain, unlike other countries which have similar societies. These are serious problems.
There are other issues. But I think the core problem is the under-evaluation of serious research and scholarship in favour of business models that train students to have a job somewhere in industry. And this is happening as well in the school systems in the United States particularly, where it’s very much advanced up to the level of the Secretary of Education in the federal government, Betsy DeVos, who, by the way, has been particularly involved with the defunding I mentioned earlier.
A serious consequence of such a mindset has been the rise of teaching specifically to tests. The consecutive education systems of Bush, Obama and Trump have all been teaching kids how to pass tests, but not how to think. This is the worst possible kind of education, the kind that was ridiculed during the Enlightenment, which is now being imposed as the basic form of education. It’s useful for the business model since you get statistics on how many people pass the test and you could use that to decide how to rate the teacher’s salary, but it has nothing do with education. Rather, it trains children to be conformist, obedient, not think for themselves, and to not be creative and independent.
Now, it’s not all like this- I don’t want to exaggerate. But there are tendencies that are persisting and are undermining the goals of a serious educational system.
You have been outspoken in your opposition to cancel culture. Do you believe no-platforming is ever a justified policy at an academic institution? Why or why not?
No-platforming is a standard establishment technique. They use it all the time. That’s how you keep discussion in universities and the media rigid and cut out voices you don’t want. Nobody talks about how it actually is the normal way of doing things – I can give you many examples even from my own experience. So just to give one example, I’ve written a number of books with Edward Herman, a finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania who passed away recently. The first book we wrote was published by a publisher which happened to be owned by a major conglomerate, now called Time Warner. They looked at the book, didn’t like it, and therefore ordered the publisher to withdraw it; when they refused to withdraw it, they then put the publisher out of business and destroyed all their stock to prevent them from distributing our book.
No civil libertarians saw any problem with that. That’s not cancel culture because it’s done by private power. When private power enacts careful controls over what can appear in the media, who can get a job at the university and so on, it’s no longer called cancel culture. Now segments of the left have picked up the same technique. Let’s de-platform someone if we don’t like their view, let’s prevent them from appearing. That’s wrong in principle and tactically suicidal. The right-wing loves it. It’s a tremendous gift to them. I don’t think the left should pick up the mainstream establishment techniques of controlling thought and discussion. It’s a terrible mistake.
I’d just like to go back to something you said earlier on standardized testing and education systems, which is that they teach people what to think as opposed to how to think. Do you think that is a failure of the education system to reach its goals, or do you think it’s a deliberate attempt to fit children and students into boxes to teach thought in certain ways, which, for example, might benefit the establishment?
Well, it’s hard to read people’s motives. When the Obama administration introduced teach-to-test methods, was the goal to try to undercut independent thought? I doubt it. They weren’t even thinking of it. They were thinking, what’s the cheapest way to introduce a business model into the educational system. The best way to do that is to undercut independent thought. Maybe there was somebody in the administration who actually thought it through and said, let’s try to prevent independence. But I don’t see any reason to believe that.
Let’s go back to 1981. Did Thatcher and Reagan deliberately hope to destroy industrial systems in the United Kingdom and the United State to ensure that the large mass of the population would be cut out from economic growth and productivity and would stagnate in the United States particularly, where we have detailed figures? Did they decide to rob 47 trillion dollars from the general population to give to the super-rich, which is what happened? No, they didn’t think about that. They just said, we’re the servants of the business class, and let’s do what they want. Maybe it will turn out the right way. But when you look at the programs, it’s obvious from the very beginning what the consequences which would result are.
What is neoliberalism? It was encapsulated by the slogans with which it was initiated. Thatcher: there’s no society, only individuals; So let’s just throw people into the market to survive. Reagan: government is the problem, not the solution; So let’s get government out of making decisions and transfer power into the hands of unaccountable private enterprise, which results in private tyrannies as opposed to public ones. Now, what should these organisations do? That was made very clear by the economic guru of the neoliberal movement, Milton Friedman, who came out with a manifesto in 1981 saying the sole goal of corporations, their sole responsibility, is to enrich themselves and their shareholders. Anything else they do is wrong.
What do you expect to happen? The figure I quoted of 47 trillion dollars is from a recent study by the Rand Corporation, a fairly independent organisation. What would have happened if the policies of the fifties, sixties and seventies had been extended through the last 40 years? If wages had tracked productivity, if taxes had been the way they were and so on? If you estimate what would have happened, what you find is that $47 trillion were taken from the bottom 90%, the middle class and the working class, and put in the hands of the top 10%. But if you look closely, it’s a fraction of the top 10% which takes the greatest wealth. Since Reagan, they have doubled their ownership of society’s wealth from 10% to 20%. Is that a surprise?
Does that mean that Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan decided to steal $47 trillion from the working class in the middle class and put it into the hands of the rich? I don’t think they thought that – Reagan was acting on the bidding of his corporate constituency. Friedman was acting based on what his theory predicted. And now we have anger and resentment spreading in the United States and the United Kingdom. There’s a rising phenomenon known as ‘deaths of despair’. Mainly white males in the working-class and of working age are simply killing themselves out of despair. The Economist just had an article about it recently. Did Thatcher say, I want people in the working class to kill themselves? No, but she had some kind of a theory in her head, which was going to lead to these consequences. You can say the same for education. It’s not a matter of having decided to dumb down people. It’s about picking programs motivated by the business-based ideology which have predictable consequences.
What do you think about the increased monetization of academia: for example, the prevalence of paywalls for accessing research and the advantages conferred by economic privilege on university admissions?
Institutions have to fund themselves. It would be nice to eliminate the pay walls, but then who’s going to host the articles? It would be nice to have no copyrights, but then who would keep the publishers alive, let alone the writers and artists? I think there are workarounds to this problem. It could be done as a community project through community control of publishing and research and education, with the public paying for it in an equitable fashion. You could have that, and it would be a democratic society. We don’t have that kind of society. We have societies in which there is private power that games for profit-making and therefore wants to keep knowledge for themselves.
Let’s move on to some discussion of US politics in general. Noting the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, do you think it’s been a good strategy for the Left to outsource social progress to the courts, so say through like Roe versus Wade, rather than through the Legislature?
Well in the Trump McConnell administration, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is really the evil genius behind the one primary goal that is to staff the judiciary, not just the Supreme Court, the entire judiciary, from bottom to top with far right young lawyers, many of them incompetent as determined by the American Bar Association. But that doesn’t matter as long as they’re young and ultra-right. If you can stack the entire judiciary with them up to the Supreme Court, then for a generation or more whatever the public may want, they’ll be able to institute far right policies and block anything else.
As far as the left is concerned, it’s not a choice as to whether to bring it to the courts – if you want something legislated, it’s going to have to go through the legislature. But you can’t help the fact that unless the whole society is radically changed, the court may strike down decisions of the legislature. That’s a fact. For this year, one crucial reason for getting rid of Trump and McConnell – there are many others – is to try to block this program of a long-term break on any progressive programs, which is what they [the Republicans] are trying to do: The republicans are a minority party, they know it, and they have to do everything they can to try to maintain power for their constituency of extreme wealth and Corporate power. One of the means is to try to stack the judiciary.
Next, I would just like to bring up I think a phrase you used to describe the United States, which was Demonic Messianism and the idealization of certain figures. Given the recent revisionism of national heroism in many countries, for example the tearing down the statues of people like Winston Churchill in the UK, do you support this form of revisionism?
I think you have to look at all the cases. First of all, in some cases, I think statues shouldn’t be there. A leading slave owner – Why should you have a statue honouring him? For major public figures, it’s a different story: it depends who they are, what they did, did they have a mixed record. In the case of some statues, I think the right thing to do is to use them as an educational opportunity. So, to give you a concrete example. Stanford University, a major university in the United States, was founded by Leland Stanford, who was a super-rich guy who made his money by building railroads using Chinese slave labour for building the railroads. There is, of course, a big statue of Leland Stanford right in front of the main administrative building in Stanford University. There was discussion among some students as to whether it should be removed. There was an interesting proposal, which I favoured myself. Leave it there, build a statue right next to it of a Chinese coolie. Put a whip in Stanford’s hand, whipping the Chinese coolie. I think that would be constructive. It would be an educational opportunity. If you move the statue and put it in the museum somewhere, you achieve essentially nothing. You say okay, I’m not irritated by looking at this: How about learning something from it? How about learning something about history? You don’t venerate it. You see a human being. Some achievements, some terrible things. Let’s look at them honestly. I think that’s the way we should look at history.
Take Thomas Jefferson or take the City of Washington. Suppose you rename the city of Washington because Washington was a slave owner. Worse than that, he was a brutal aggressor who invaded Indian nations and destroyed them. Would you have achieved anything if you name renamed the city of Washington? Essentially nothing. You would have wiped out a period of history. How about if your history books and your educational system looked at George Washington and asked what he achieved, how he achieved it and what was wrong about him and the period in which he lived? Let’s learn from it [the statues] and use it as a basis for dealing with problems that are very much alive now, like racism and aggression. I think that’s the way to proceed. The same is true everywhere. I was struck in India a couple of years ago when in Kolkata I was taken to visit the National Museum. You approach the National Museum and right in front of it you see a statue of Clive, the man who devastated and destroyed East Bengal: he turned it from the richest place in the world, to one of the most impoverished. Not him alone, of course, but he was at the forefront of it. Should they take down the statue or should they use it as an educational opportunity? Say, here is what happened India, here’s why it happened. Start with the statue, and then move on to educational exhibits explaining what it was all about. My own view is that’s the way [we should deal with statues].
In your book Manufacturing Consent, you detail the control of information by elites and those with power and money. Do you think social media, a new tool for communication, has led to the democratization of information or opened up more avenues for manipulation?
Well, social media have a mixed effect. They have a positive side: practically all activist organization now is done over social media. Black Lives Matter is a case in point. On the other hand, social media has drawn people, overwhelmingly young people but many others too, into bubbles where they hear nothing but self-reinforcing opinions of all kinds. That’s very unfortunate. There are many people now, I’m sure you know plenty of them, who are getting their news from Facebook. First of all, Facebook does not have reporters in the field – They are filtering material from the mainstream media, which have their own distorting effects. Facebook then further distorts it and leads to a very superficial, highly filtered picture of the world. Then, when you go through social media of the kind where you only hear people reinforcing your own opinion, it [social media] gets narrower and more destructive. So, there is a negative side.
Social media is like most technology. Technology is usually pretty neutral: you can use it for harm, you can use it for good. Take a hammer: you can build a house with it; an interrogator can crush somebody’s skull with it. The hammer does not care. Most technology is like that. The question is, how do we use it? It can be used constructively and intelligently to increase understanding, interchange discussion, deliberation, and bring in other points of view to learn more or it can be used to turn you into kind of a rigid adherent of a very specific narrow frame of reference and discussion. Technology does not care. It’s up to us as to how we use it.
What do you think about the rise of the concept of corporate social responsibility in capitalism? For example, companies, such as large multinational companies supporting LGBTQ rights and black lives matter. Is it a red herring, or do you think it’s been sufficient to change their actions to improve them and make them more accountable?
Well, first of all, we should recognize where it’s coming from. It’s coming from popular activism. Corporations have not suddenly had a religious conversion. They did not say ‘no, let’s be nice guys.’. They are under serious pressure. Some of it is simply literal divestment pressure.
Fossil fuel companies are suffering from huge amounts of divestment because of what they are doing. Recently, you may have seen, I think it was reported in the Guardian, an internal memo leaked out of the leading American bank JPMorgan Chase. It was an internal memo, which was a very interesting memo. It was not meant for the public and it said we are lending huge amounts of money to fossil fuel companies. This is putting the survival of humanity at risk, their phrase. Furthermore, we are also facing reputational risk – Reputational risk means that guys like you are banging at the doors. We are going to be in trouble, so we have to do something to overcome this. This kind of memo is happening all over the corporate sector. Recently, the business roundtable, the main business lobby in the United States, got 150 top executives together to make a statement saying that we realize we’ve been making mistakes for the last 40 years; that we have been just after working for ourselves and that we should care about you, the workers, the community. We now understand that, so put our faith in us, since we are working for you now. The Davos Meetings of the great and powerful in January was the same thing. Confessions were made, saying mistakes were made but now we recognize that we must be your servants. I am old enough to remember easily the 1950s when the line was, we are re going to be soulful corporations, not just for ourselves, just soulful corporation.
To get back to your question, if they want to support Black Lives Matter, then that’s fine. But we should understand exactly what they’re doing. It is not out of religious conversion, but because of reputational risk and the consequences that flow from it. Divestment, insistence on protests among pension funds and other major shareholders and just what they call the peasants coming with the pitchforks: That’s what they’re worried about. And, I don’t think they should even exist. But in this world where they exist, yes, we would like them not to be destructive and to be more helpful without any illusions about soulful corporations.
With regards to that (large corporations), it’s obvious that these companies have great influence over democracy. For example, during the 1970s and 80s the Republicans were agreeing with the Democrats about the climate issue. Then over the span of two or three decades, through lobbying from individuals such as the Koch brothers, it became a partisan issue-with many Republicans denying the existence of climate change altogether. Do you think the impact of corporate lobbying on democracy has been getting better or worse and how do you foresee it changing in the future?
It made a big change with the 1970s, with the neoliberal regression, lobbying shot through the sky. It’s far higher than it was in earlier years. It always existed, of course, but it just exploded during the neoliberal period-starting in the seventies.
Well, and of course, there is an enormous effect. If you were to say, get elected to Congress in the United States, the first thing you have to do is pick up the telephone and call the donors: to assure them that you’re going to be working in their interest and they should start funding you for your next election. Elections in the United States are pretty much bought. There’s extensive high-quality academic research in political science, mainly by Thomas Ferguson – a fine political scientist – who’s demonstrated that from way back into the 19th century, and increasingly now, you can predict the outcome of an election with remarkable precision just by looking at campaign spending. That requires lobbying.
That means you must listen to the lobbyists. So, to go back to that person elected to Congress, you make sure that the donors are going to support you. A horde of lobbyists pour into your office, work with your staff, work together to write the legislation. Of course, they have enormous resources that overwhelms the staff. You know, a big gang of corporate lawyers, resources, and alleged information. They pretty much write the legislation, which the congressional representative signs. This happens overwhelmingly. The effect of it is that, again straight out of mainstream academic social science, about 70% of the population (lower 70% on the income scale) are effectively unrepresented, in the sense that their preferences have no impact on the legislative decisions of their own representatives. That is the natural effect of concentration of wealth, power, the corporate sector, huge lobbying campaigns and so on. This is entirely be predictable. Should it be allowed? Of course it shouldn’t.
In fact, it can be stopped. It can be stopped easily; it could be made illegal. In fact, it’s been done. In the United States, prior to Reagan, many such activities were simply illegal. For example, before Reagan, you could not send your money out to tax havens- to refuse to pay taxes. It was illegal, the Treasury Department enforced the law. Reagan opened the pickets. Take Apple, world’s major corporation. They don’t pay taxes in the United States. They’re an Irish corporation. They have an office somewhere in Dublin, maybe the size of the room I’m sitting in, where a secretary walks in every couple of weeks and shuffles some paper. So, these are Irish Corporations, that was illegal pre-Reagan. It’s not just Apple, it’s on a huge scale: amounting to tens of trillions of dollars. Same with shell companies. The same could be done with lobbying and much else. I mean, you know, I think there’s deep, profound flaws with the entire capitalist system, but it can be made so that it’s not a savage attack on populations, it can be soulful corporations- if you like. The government can, the population through the government, can impose restrictions which might make life liveable. There’s plenty of leeway within the general framework of state capitalism. I think there’s deep fundamental flaws with it, but even putting that aside, there’s many different options.
You’ve published extensive criticisms on invasions in Iran, Iraq and other foreign interventions. How do you draw a distinction between intervening to protect and intervening with imperial intentions?
It’s clear in the facts. In fact, there is no such thing as a legal right to move in to protect. There is something called responsibility to protect, but if you look at it closely, you’ll find that it’s a fraud. In fact, there are two doctrines of responsibility to protect. One of them is the official doctrine, endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. It says that we should encourage countries to protect their own populations. If they’re not doing it, we should be bound by the United Nations Charter, which blocks any threat or use of force, except under very narrow conditions either authorized by the Security Council or when you’re under immediate attack- Article 51. The responsibility to protect says we have to adhere to that, not allowed to do anything else. That’s the official doctrine.
Now there’s another version of responsibility to protect, it came from a private commission run by Gareth Evans, the former prime minister of Australia- it was around 2000 when it came out. It’s called responsibility to protect. It’s essentially the same as the UN Doctrine, with one crucial exception, it says: governments are permitted to use force to intervene within the region of their responsibility if it is later approved by the Security Council. Well, which governments are capable of doing that? NATO? Nobody else.
What’s NATO’s area of responsibility? The world. That’s the official doctrine of NATO. It’s official doctrine is to protect pipelines, resources, energy sources all over the world. So, the Evans commissions says, yes, responsibility to protect, like the United Nations- except we can do anything we want. Okay, now, if you look at the way governments, legal writers, others deal with this. They appeal to the U. N. Version for legitimacy, and they appeal to the Evans version for policies. Take a look at the documents. This actually began with the intervention in Kosovo, which was before the doctrines were formally established. But the idea in the West is, this is a humanitarian intervention. It is a responsibility to prevent atrocities. Only one problem with that, the atrocities were caused by the intervention. They followed the intervention. And what is more, they knew that they were going to follow the intervention.
NATO chief Wesley Clark general informed the Clinton administration, weeks before the NATO invaded the US mainly invasion US British invasion. They asked him, what will happen if we start to invade? They say, well, the current low level of atrocities will quickly escalate because when you attack Serbia from the air, they’re going to respond on the ground. When the so0called NATO (actually US0British) invasion began, General Clark informed the press that we would see a sharp increase in atrocities for this very simple reason, which is exactly what happened. Now, if you look at the commentary on it, it performs the very nice trick of inverting the order. It says the invasion was taken place to prevent the atrocities- which followed as a consequence of the invasion. Well, some of the commentators, in an effort to weasel their way out of that, have invented a story that the Serbs were planning atrocities and we had to invade to prevent them from the atrocities that they were planning. Yeah, okay, you can buy that if you like. in fact, it’s very hard, try, very hard to find any genuine case of humanitarian intervention. There’s much more to say about this, but this is the core of the problem.
As an individual following US politics, it becomes very clear that the current conflict between China and America is a defining moment. Do you think that this clash between the world’s two biggest economies was inevitable? Or was it specifically engineered by the Trump administration? Furthermore, would you describe it as a battle between two capitalist imperialist powers? Or is it a battle between two conflicting ideologies?
There is nothing inevitable about international conflict. When you talk about the two, there’s plenty to criticize about China, a horrible regime in many ways. But let’s take a look at the imperialist conflicts. Where are they taking place? I mean, is China sending a naval armada into the Caribbean or off the coast of California or into other areas where the US Navy controls the seas? It’s off the coast of China. Its in the South China Sea, where China’s doing things that it shouldn’t be doing, and the U.S is sending the Pacific Fleet into the South China Sea. The conflicts are all at the border of China, just like the conflicts with Russia are at the border of Russia, not at the border of the United States, not at the border of England. That’s all under Western imperial control- now US control. It’s the states that are not subordinating themselves to Western power. That is where the conflicts are. Russia is not putting up air defence systems on the Mexican border. The United States is putting them up on the Russian border. These are, big differences. And ultimately, these conflicts are not necessary.
In fact, take the South China Sea. The proper approach here is negotiations and diplomacy. China is doing things in violation of international law. United States is doing things in violation of international law all over the world. Let’s submit them to diplomacy and negotiations instead of raising the level of tension. The same is true on many other issues, such as the charges against China. There’s a huge anti-China campaign based on the coronavirus. Yes, the coronavirus originated in China. But a century ago, there was a much worse pandemic called the Spanish flu which killed tens of millions of people, with a much smaller population. Where did it originate? It originated in a military base in Kansas, and then was spread to Europe. When US soldiers went to Europe, it spread all over Europe became a monstrous killer. Do we call it the Kansas flu? Yes, it originated in China. By January 10th, very quickly, Chinese scientists had identified the virus sequence. The genome provided the information to the World Health Organization. The entire world countries reacted differently very differently.
Countries where the government cared about the populations reacted at once and have the situation under control. It’s now more or less under control in Taiwan. The same is true in New Zealand, and even Senegal, quite a poor country. Europe delayed, but finally sort of got its act together- most of Europe, not all, but most of Europe has it pretty much under control. Britain was backward in this respect and treated it very badly. The worst of all, however, is the United States. Other countries are worried about a second wave. United States is still in the first wave and growing not because it lacks resources or wealth, but because of the malevolence of political leaders who are now trying to blame China for it.
Do we have to have a conflict with China? Medical officials seem to think there is a pretty reasonable chance that China may have the first vaccine, and that the United States and Britain may refuse to use it because it came from China. Shouldn’t we be cooperating with them to try to improve development and offer our resources to advance, test and apply it, which is the sane sequence of events? Well, you can see there is an international consortium, COVAX, which is working on trying to develop cooperative efforts to find and distribute a vaccine. How can we make sure that the vaccine isn’t monopolized by the richest countries for themselves? By creating an international consortium for its development and distribution. How is the United States dealing with this? They declined to support it. Because we have to follow the fundamental neoliberal principle: just for myself. I don’t care what happens to the rest of the world. It is my electoral prospects which count. Back to the conflict with China, if staying strong and powerful is the dominant attitude, we’re going to probably end up with a nuclear war. If the attitude is, let’s move towards cooperation, diplomacy, negotiations, and dealing with as opposed to overlooking crimes, then we have some hope for a liveable future.