Taking power for granted in the time of the pandemic: Noam Chomsky on freedom in the 21st century

"Your crime is greater if you keep quiet, because you have greater opportunities. That's the responsibility of intellectuals."

Noam Chomsky. Photo from CFP

Noam Chomsky. Photo from CFP

By Qing Wang


In late December, Jiemian News' Amsterdam-based reporter Qing Wang spoke via video link to Noam Chomsky, the American cognitive scientist, historian, linguist, philosopher, political activist and social critic. Praised as "the father of modern linguistics," Chomsky is Laureate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona and Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. New York Times said Chomsky is "arguably the most important intellectual alive." He is the author of more than 150 books on topics such as linguistics, mass media, politics and war.

Professor Chomsky spoke on the changes to global society brought by the pandemic and shared his thoughts on the contemporary US political scene.

Here is their conversation. It has been edited for length.


Wang: You have lived through many catastrophes: World War II, the Vietnam War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 911, to name but a few. Is there anything about this pandemic that is different from other crises?

Chomsky: Well, it's, it's serious, but it's less serious than some other things. I was born a few years after the 1918 pandemic, which was far more serious than this, but I never even knew about it. I never heard about it as a child. Nobody talked about it. I learned about it when I went to school. And that was a few years later. The difference now is that measures are being taken to control it, so it affects your life. Then it was just a total disaster. There was nothing much you could do about it, no talk of vaccines, nobody understood lockdowns. It was a sort of random experimentation.

Now, it affects people's lives much more severely, because measures are being taken to control it, sometimes very successfully. In China, it seems that it's almost under control. In most of East Asia, Oceania, New Zealand and Australia, it's been pretty much under control. There are countries in Africa that have controlled it. Vietnam, which, after all, has a huge border with South China has had almost no cases. They have it under control so it's possible to control it. Europe and the United States just didn't react properly. People went on vacations. If you have your vacation and sit on the beach with lots of people, it's going to be a spike. You go skiing resorts, it's going to be a spike. You don't take care, there will be a spike. But it can be controlled. The deaths are terrible, over a million and a half by now, but they're also not really necessary, they could have been avoided, and can be avoided if measures are taken.

Where I live in Arizona happens to be one of the hotspots. We don't go outside. The governor who is a Republican refused to take any measures. That's the Republican line. You don't do anything. Does it affect us personally? Of course, I haven't been out of my house since March. But for me, it's not a big problem, I can work at home. I teach my classes online. We can get food delivered. I'm lucky, other people aren't that lucky. And for them, it's a serious problem. It will be overcome at needless cost. Terrible and needless cost.

There are other things that won't be overcome. And one of them the melting of the Arctic ice sheets. That's only one of many things that are happening that will spell doom for organized human life on Earth unless we act very quickly. What's happening now is going to stay. Greenhouse emissions pouring into the atmosphere, they're going to stay. The destruction of the oceans, that's going to stay. The effect of rising sea level is going to stay. We can do something to stop it from getting worse, but if we don't do it within the next 10 or 20 years, we're basically finished. Bangladesh can't deal with the flooding of the coastal plains. South Asia can't deal with temperatures rising to 50 degrees centigrade. We can't deal with the drying rivers that are providing already depleted water supplies.

These things are happening in front of our eyes, but they're not being talked about very much. These are real, super problems. The pandemic is serious enough, but we know how to overcome it. In the case of heating up the planet, we also know how to deal with it. The methods are there, but they're not being implemented. And some countries, like Trump's United States, are racing in the opposite direction, racing to increase and expand the crisis.

Wang: What is your take on this year's US election? What do you think a Biden administration can bring?

Chomsky: The election was an absolute disaster for the Democrats, and for the future of democracy. The Democrats lost at all levels: federal level, state level, local levels. And this happened while the Republican Party was responsible for killing tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Americans. It’s amazing that somebody like Trump and his party could even run in an election, after having caused such an immense disaster to the American people, killing far more Americans than died during the Vietnam War. And they won at every level, just not at the presidential level. And that was only because people were so disgusted with Trump personally, so they voted against him. But overall, the election was a disaster.

Now, the Senate is in hands of Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnell understands one thing very well: how to make the country ungovernable. When President Obama was elected, McConnell ran the Senate. He said “Our one responsibility is to make sure that Obama can accomplish nothing. It'll harm the country. But that doesn't matter. We have to keep power. So, therefore, we will." He's going to do the same thing now. “We will make the country ungovernable; we'll harm it as much as possible. We will make as many people as possible die of the disease. We'll cause every other imaginable problem. We'll race the world towards environmental destruction. We'll increase the threat of nuclear war and make sure that Biden can achieve nothing."

He's going to be helped this time. President Trump is not disappearing. He's almost surely going to set up some kind of alternative government, probably claiming it's the real government. He has the voting base of the Republican Party in his pocket. They are super loyal. The overwhelming majority of Trump voters believe that he won the election and it was stolen. A few percent think Biden won the election. They know that he formally won it, but it was "stolen" by illegal votes by immigrants, by fakery, by the fake media. It goes on and on. That's a real crisis of democracy.

No one else has consciously been racing to destroy the prospects for organized human life on Earth as Trump has. This may sound like an outrageous statement, but he is a very canny politician. He knows what he's doing. He is succeeding in making his voting base believe that he is their savior, and the deep state (his invention), along with the fake media, is trying to undermine their hero and their savior. And that's probably going to remain, with the support of McConnell's Senate. And with the House of Representatives almost equally divided, it’s not a good sign for the future of democracy. Whatever Biden might try to do (probably not very much) is going to run into major obstacles. There is a major crisis of democracy in the country, and given the overwhelming power of the United States, that affects the whole world.

If you want to take a look at what US power really is, take a look at small incidents that hardly register. Read this morning's newspaper. The US government sent a heavily armed cruiser to the Cape Verde Islands to prevent a Venezuelan ship from refueling, openly, plainly, trying to destroy the government of Venezuela. Piracy on the high seas. All of this is reported, without any comment, as if it's perfectly legitimate. If the world's leading terrorist state decides to stop somebody from flying from one country to another, if it carries out piracy on the high seas, if it forces the United Nations to impose sanctions to which the whole Security Council is opposed, that's fine. That's the way the world works. The world is the mafia, and the Godfather does what he wants. That's what the media are telling us without saying it because they just accept it as normal; it's perfectly normal.

If the United States goes to the Security Council and says: "we want you to reinstitute the sanctions against Iran," the Security Council totally opposes it. Not a single US ally agrees. So, what happens? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo goes back to the Security Council and says: "You're reimposing the sanctions, period!" Europe grumbles, but they go along, because, if they don't, the United States throws them out of the international financial system, which it controls from New York. The reporting on this? "The sun rose this morning. It was the shortest day of the year yesterday. And the United States ordered the Security Council to do something it doesn't want to do." That kind of power has never existed before, and it's taken for granted. That's extremely dangerous.

The United States is racing to construct new weapons of mass destruction, supported by the bipartisan Congress. Take a look at the last vote a couple of weeks ago on the military budget. It's enormous. It's almost as great as the rest of the world combined and technologically far more advanced. Both parties voted for it. There were a few senators who voted against it, like Bernie Sanders and a couple of others, but almost everyone voted for it in both parties. Trump has been escalating major threats and the political system is going along with him. None of this is ever discussed.

Wang: What should be the focus of the Democratic Party and the American left? 

Chomsky: It's true that much of the Democratic Party - the progressive part - is concerned with racism, sexism, other kinds of discrimination and repression. And they should be. These are serious problems. But the mainstream Democratic Party is not concerned with working people and hasn't been for over 40 years. It has abandoned the working class, the mainstream of the party. We can go through the details, but they basically don't care. The party of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, is oriented towards Wall Street and the relatively wealthy, professional classes. The working classes, they don't care about.

But the point is the Republicans are far worse. They are the worst enemies of the working class. Now they have succeeded in combining this with rhetorical support for the working class. Trump gets up at a rally, talks to working-class people, holds up a banner with one hand saying I love you. Meanwhile, on the other hand, he's stabbing them in the back. Take a look at the legislative programs. Every single one of them smashes working people and the middle class. The main legislative achievement – practically the only one – was the tax bill of 2017, which is a huge gift to the very rich, the business sector and the corporate sector. It actually increases the rate of taxes for working people, but it did it on the slide. In the first couple of years, it actually gave a slight reduction, so people thought they were getting something. But over the years it shifts and actually increases taxes for the working class while extending the huge benefits to the very rich.

Check the list of Trump or for that matter Republican, proposals. They are designed to crush the working class and the poor. It's very clear. The RAND Corporation, a super respectable corporation, just came out with a study of the transfer of wealth from the lower 90 percent of the population, the working and middle class. The transfer of wealth from them to the very rich during the last 40 years, the neoliberal years, was about $50 trillion. That's not a small change and actually an underestimate. Those are the policies, primarily the Republican Party, but with the support of the Democrats. The difference is the Republicans pretend to love you, while they're killing you. The Democrats don't even pretend.

Furthermore, the Republicans have been clever enough to shift the core of debate away from social and economic policies to other issues, like LGBT rights, or abortion, or guns. Anything else, just not the major policies we're carrying out to serve our masters, the very rich, and to destroy you. That's American politics.

It wasn't wonderful before, but the last 40 years have been pretty remarkable. US$50 trillion of gifts from the general population to the super rich is not small. You take 0.1 percent of the population – 0.1 percent, not 1 percent – they've doubled their share of wealth during these 40 years, from 10 percent to 20 percent. Salaries for executives, CEOs and others have skyrocketed to the stratosphere, while wages have stagnated, benefits have declined, the unions have been destroyed. Some major economists like Larry Summers believe that the enormous inequality developed in the last 40 years has been primarily caused by the destruction of unions. Unions gave working people some opportunity to defend themselves against the bitter class struggle waged by the business classes.

The first acts were undertaken by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, when they initiated the neoliberal assault were to destroy unions. Reagan went so far as to bring in strikebreakers, illegal in every country in the world outside of apartheid South Africa. Clinton extended it. Clinton's form of neoliberal globalization was designed specifically to protect the very rich with extraordinary intellectual property rights that had never existed in the past. It's one reason why pharmaceuticals are way out of sight. Protect the very rich and set working people in competition with the most oppressed, poorest people in the world. Freedom for movement of capital, no freedom for labor.

And let's get to Obama. Obama came into office like Trump, with lots of promises, nice rhetoric, "We're going to have hope and change, I'm going to be working for you", and so on. What did he do? He had control of Congress for the first two years. That’s a lot of opportunities, but it was a financial crisis. And the Bush administration before him had passed the legislation to deal with a financial crisis. The legislation had two parts. First, bail out the perpetrators of the crisis, the banks who had engaged in criminal lending practices to steal from the public. Next, give help to the people, the victims, the people who lost their homes. Guess which part of the legislation was implemented?

Working people saw what was happening and they showed it in 2010, two years after Obama was elected. The working-class vote shifted from Democrat to Republican. That's not because they love the Republicans, it's because they hated the Democrats, with justification. And it continued like that, right to the President.

The New York Times this morning discusses the shift in votes in immigrant communities towards the Republicans. They still voted overwhelmingly Democrat, but there was some shift toward Trump, who's destroying them. South Texas on the Mexican border is a mostly Mexican-American area. They haven't voted Republican for 100 years, there was a shift towards Trump. What happened? The Democrats didn't even bother trying to organize them. "You are people of color; you're going to vote for us. We don't care about you. We're not going to send anybody down to organize in your areas, you're in our pocket!" Meanwhile, the Republicans took some trouble to say, “We love you!”

These are oil-producing areas. "The Democrats want to destroy our economy, destroy our lives, destroy our communities, take away our jobs, just because some liberals claim there's a climate crisis!" That's what they hear. If you heard that, which way would you vote?

The Democrats could have done some things differently. If they cared, they could have sent organizers into these areas, to tell the truth. “The truth is we are going to have to transition from a fossil-fuel-based economy. If we don't, you'll all be finished. Your grandchildren won't have a life, you won't have communities, we'll be done. Here are ways to deal with it, which will improve your lives; better jobs, more jobs, better communities, better lives. Vote for us."

But you don't get that if you just say: "These people have dark skin They're going to vote for us, so I don't care about them." There's one area not far from where I live in Arizona where the shifts didn't take place. They voted for the Democrats. The difference? There were Latino organizers there, working there for years in the Mexican American community, with serious projects, programs, organizing. And it shows! If you just abandon them, because they're deplorable, they're gonna react. If you try something serious, you can get them back. The party of Clinton and Obama, mainstream Democrats, didn't care. It's not that the Republicans won the vote, the Democrats lost it!

Wang: It’s very likely that technology will lead to people losing their jobs. How can people have their voices heard when they don't even have the right to strike?

Chomsky: There's a huge amount of work to be done by human labor that will never be taken over by even the most science-fiction-type robots – healthcare, teaching, service jobs, research, construction. You can send a robot into a hospital to give a dying patient a drink of water, but is that healthcare? Is that what the patient needs?

There's an enormous amount of work to be done by humans, and it could be well-paid, fulfilling work, not miserable, routine work like racing from one spot to another in an Amazon warehouse, or turning a screw on an assembly line. If all of that kind of work can be taken over by robots, it's wonderful. Humans won't be doing stupid, boring, dangerous work, and will be freed up for fulfilling, creative, necessary work. In a decent society, we would be cheering these possibilities. If people are worried, it's because we’re a pathological society. Let's elevate ourselves from a pathological society to a decent and humane one, then the possibility of automating disgusting, harmful, dangerous jobs will be welcomed. There's plenty more – endless more – for humans to do.

And suppose humans have a little more leisure? Is that a crime? Americans work far harder than Europeans. Americans put in about a month or maybe six weeks more work than Europeans. Are Europeans worse off because they have a holiday? Are Europeans worse off, because they have maternity leave? Does that make European life worse? It would be wonderful if people had enough leisure to pursue their own interests and concerns, whatever they may be – maybe fixing the car in your garage, maybe doing research, maybe helping out a food bank – instead of racing to meet the quota required by the master who controls you.

Wang: What do you think China-US relations will look like in the Biden administration? Will there be a window of opportunity to resolve some things?

Chomsky: Biden and the Democrats have adopted about the same position towards China as the Republicans and Trump, in some ways more hawkish. I think it's a very dangerous, self-destructive, policy. It's well in the lead in the world in renewable energy, far ahead of the rest of the world.

Let's take the pandemic. Lots of vaccines are being worked on but there are some that you can't mention in the United States: Chinese vaccines. We're not allowed to mention the word China except with abuse. China has produced vaccines. They're being used. Where they are being used, they are reported to be about 90 percent effective. Just a couple of days ago, I was talking to one of the leading researchers and physicians in Brazil. They are desperately eager to get the Chinese vaccine. They're very easy to store. You can store them in an ordinary refrigerator. You don't need super fancy equipment so that means you can use them in poor, rural areas. China is at least claiming that they will distribute vaccines, essentially cost-free, to the poor countries of the world. At least they're saying they'll do it and maybe they will. You can't mention this in the United States, because the word “China” is in there. The fact that it might be very helpful to Americans can't be mentioned either. That's a really impressive propaganda system and it's done with no force.

What's the West doing? Monopolizing the vaccines for the rich. The worst - so far - is Canada, which prides itself on being a very humane society. Canada has ordered and bought up far more vaccines than it can possibly use. Meanwhile, poor countries are getting none. The United States is doing some of the same things. The European Union's doing the same thing. China, on the contrary, is saying, let's distribute them to the poor countries of the world. Whether this is talk or reality, we'll see. But what ought to be done in a sane world is for the West and China to be cooperating in areas of common concern for the common good.

The pandemic doesn't have borders, it's international. We work on it together, or we'll never overcome it. Global warming, the same: it doesn't stop at a border. If the United States decides to increase emissions, the whole world suffers. If China reaches its goal of zero net emissions in 30 - 40 years, the whole world benefits. These are international problems. If there's a nuclear war between any major powers, we're all finished.

The same is true of the deterioration of democracy. It spreads. It's a disease. If it declines in a country like the United States, that affects other countries, like Brazil, for example, and others. This is worldwide, so we have to work on these things together, recognizing that everywhere we look there are very serious problems. We should be cooperating on issues where cooperation is for the common good.

Wang: Many people, including myself, find your role as a lifelong, public intellectual really inspiring. In your experience, what has changed and what will remain unchanged in condemning the bad things in society and telling the truth?

Chomsky: It's always been the responsibility of what we now call intellectuals, but there were people like this all the way back in history. People were inquiring, questioning, trying to break through what we now call propaganda, irrational beliefs imposed by power systems, to think for themselves, to question, to try to develop ways of helping people think their way through dilemmas and reach a better world.

This goes all the way back, go back to classical Greece. There was a man (Socrates) who was killed, had to drink the hemlock, because of the crime of corrupting the youth of Athens by asking too many questions, by getting young people to try to think, not just to accept, so he was killed. Around the same time, there were people who were called prophets. They weren't prophets: They were what we would now call dissident intellectuals. They were criticizing the acts of evil kings, calling for mercy for widows and orphans, doing geopolitical analysis and saying that kings are leading us to disaster. How were they treated? Imprisoned, driven into the desert, bitterly condemned. Centuries later, it goes on like this.

At the time of the Dreyfus trial in France, the intellectuals were people like Emile Zola, who condemned the crimes of the state, the military and the judiciary. Emile Zola had to flee for his life. The "immortals" of the Académie Française denounced these writers and artists who dared to criticize our wonderful institutions. Today, we honor the Dreyfusards, but not at the time.

Right to the present, all through history, it’s been the same. Your crime is greater if you keep quiet because you have greater opportunities. That's the responsibility of intellectuals. It has always been that way and it’s the same now.