Posted on Jun 15, 2014
By Chris Hedges
Noam Chomsky speaks to the media at a friend’s house in Amman, Jordan, in 2010. AP/Nader Daoud
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Noam Chomsky, whom I interviewed last Thursday at his office at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has influenced intellectuals in the
United States and abroad in incalculable ways. His explications of empire, mass
propaganda, the hypocrisy and pliability of the liberal class and the failings
of academics, as well as the way language is used as a mask by the power elite
to prevent us from seeing reality, make him the most important intellectual in
the country. The force of his intellect, which is combined with a ferocious
independence, terrifies the corporate state—which is why the commercial media
and much of the academic establishment treat him as a pariah. He is the Socrates
of our time.
We live in a bleak moment in human history. And Chomsky begins from this reality. He quoted the
late Ernst Mayr, a leading evolutionary biologist of the 20th century who argued
that we probably will never encounter intelligent extraterrestrials because
higher life forms render themselves extinct in a relatively short time.
“Mayr argued that the adaptive value of what is called ‘higher intelligence’ is very low,” Chomsky
said. “Beetles and bacteria are much more adaptive than humans. We will find out
if it is better to be smart than stupid. We may be a biological error, using the
100,000 years which Mayr gives [as] the life expectancy of a species to destroy
ourselves and many other life forms on the planet.”
Climate change “may doom us all, and not in the distant future,” Chomsky said. “It may overwhelm
everything. This is the first time in human history that we have the capacity to
destroy the conditions for decent survival. It is already happening. Look at
species destruction. It is estimated to be at about the level of 65 million
years ago when an asteroid hit the earth, ended the period of the dinosaurs and
wiped out a huge number of species. It is the same level today. And we are the
asteroid. If anyone could see us from outer space they would be astonished.
There are sectors of the global population trying to impede the global
catastrophe. There are other sectors trying to accelerate it. Take a look at
whom they are. Those who are trying to impede it are the ones we call backward,
indigenous populations—the First Nations in Canada, the aboriginals in
Australia, the tribal people in India. Who is accelerating it? The most
privileged, so-called advanced, educated populations of the world.”
If Mayr was right, we are at the tail end of a binge, accelerated by the Industrial Revolution,
that is about to drive us over a cliff environmentally and economically. A
looming breakdown, in Chomsky’s eyes, offers us opportunity as well as danger.
He has warned repeatedly that if we are to adapt and survive we must overthrow
the corporate power elite through mass movements and return power to autonomous
collectives that are focused on sustaining communities rather than exploiting
them. Appealing to the established institutions and mechanisms of power will not work.
“We can draw many very good lessons from the early period of the Industrial Revolution,” he said.
“The Industrial Revolution took off right around here in eastern Massachusetts
in the mid-19th century. This was a period when independent farmers were being
driven into the industrial system. Men and women—women left the farms to be
‘factory girls’—bitterly resented it. This was also a period of a very free
press, the freest in the history of the country. There were a wide variety of
journals. When you read them they are pretty fascinating. The people driven into
the industrial system regarded it as an attack on their personal dignity, on
their rights as human beings. They were free human beings being forced into what
they called ‘wage labor,’ which they regarded as not very different from chattel
slavery. In fact this was such a popular mood it was a slogan of the Republican
Party—‘The only difference between working for a wage and being a slave is that
working for the wage is supposed to be temporary.’
Chomsky said this shift, which forced agrarian workers off the land into the factories in urban
centers, was accompanied by a destruction of culture. Laborers, he said, had
once been part of the “high culture of the day.”
“I remember this as late as the 1930s with my own family,” he said. “This was being taken away from
us. We were being forced to become something like slaves. They argued that if
you were a journeyman, a craftsman, and you sell a product that you produce,
then as a wage earner what you are doing is selling yourself. And this was
deeply offensive. They condemned what they called ‘the new spirit of the age,’
‘gaining wealth and forgetting all but self.’ This sounds familiar.”
It is this radical consciousness, which took root in the mid-19th century among farmers and many
factory workers, that Chomsky says we must recover if we are to move forward as
a society and a civilization. In the late 19th century farmers, especially in
the Midwest, freed themselves from the bankers and capital markets by forming
their own banks and co-operatives. They understood the danger of falling victim
to a vicious debt peonage run by the capitalist class. The radical farmers made
alliances with the Knights of Labor, which believed that those who worked in
the mills should own them.
“By the 1890s workers were taking over towns and running them in eastern and western
Pennsylvania, such as Homestead,”Chomsky said. “But they were crushed by force.
It took some time. The final blow was Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare.”
“The idea should still be that of the Knights of Labor,” he said. “Those who work in the mills
should own them. There is plenty of manufacturing going on. There will be more.
Energy prices are going down in the United States because of the massive
exploitation of fossil fuels, which is going to destroy our grandchildren. But
under the capitalist morality the calculus is profits tomorrow outweigh the
existence of your grandchildren. We are getting lower energy prices. They
[business leaders] are enthusiastic that we can undercut manufacturing in Europe
because we have lower energy prices. And we can undermine European efforts at
developing sustainable energy.”
Chomsky hopes that those who work in the service industry and in manufacturing can organize to
begin to take control of their workplaces. He notes that in the Rust Belt,
including in states such as Ohio, there is a growth of worker-owned enterprises.
The rise of powerful populist movements in the early 20th century meant that the business class could
no longer keep workers subjugated purely through violence. Business interests
had to build systems of mass propaganda to control opinions and attitudes. The
rise of the public relations industry, initiated by President Wilson’s Committee
on Public Information to instill a pro-war sentiment in the population, ushered
in an era of not only permanent war but also permanent propaganda. Consumption
was instilled as an inner compulsion. The cult of the self became paramount. And
opinions and attitudes, as they are today, were crafted and shaped by the centers of power.
“A pacifist population was driven to become war-mongering fanatics,” Chomsky said. “It was
this experience that led the power elite to discover that through effective
propaganda they could, as Walter Lippmann wrote, employ “a new art in democracy,
manufacturing consent.’ ”
Democracy was eviscerated. Citizens became spectators rather than participants in power. The
few intellectuals, including Randolph Bourne, who maintained their independence
and who refused to serve the power elite were pushed out of the mainstream, as
Chomsky has been.
“Most of the intellectuals on all sides were passionately dedicated to the national cause,”
Chomsky said of the First World War. “There were only a few fringe dissenters.
Bertrand Russell went to jail. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were killed.
Randolph Bourne was marginalized. Eugene Debs was in jail. They dared to
question the magnificence of the war.”
This war hysteria has never ceased, moving seamlessly from a fear of the German Hun to a fear of
communists to a fear of Islamic jihadists and terrorists.
“The public is frightened into believing we have to defend ourselves,” Chomsky said. “This is
not entirely false. The military system generates forces that will be harmful to
us. Take Obama’s terrorist drone campaign, the biggest terrorist campaign in
history. This program generates potential terrorists faster than it destroys
suspects. You can see it now in Iraq. Go back to the Nuremburg judgments.
Aggression was defined as the supreme international crime. It differed from
other war crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that follows. The U.S. and
British invasion of Iraq is a textbook case of aggression. By the standards of
Nuremberg they [the British and U.S. leaders] would all be hanged. And one of
the crimes they committed was to ignite the Sunni and Shiite conflict.”
The conflict, which is now enflaming the region, is “a U.S. crime if we believe the validity of the
judgments against the Nazis. Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor at the
[Nuremberg] tribunal, addressed the tribunal. He pointed out that we were giving
these defendants a poisoned chalice. He said that if we ever sipped from it we
had to be treated the same way or else the whole thing is a farce.”
Today’s elite schools and universities inculcate into their students the worldview endorsed by
the power elite. They train students to be deferential to authority. Chomsky
calls education at most of these schools, including Harvard, a few blocks away
from MIT, “a deep indoctrination system.”
“There is the understanding that there are certain things you do not say and do not think,”
Chomsky said. “This is very broad among the educated classes. It is why they
overwhelmingly support state power and state violence, with some qualifications.
Obama is regarded as a critic of the invasion of Iraq. Why? Because he thought
it was a strategic blunder. That puts him on the same moral level as a Nazi
general who thought the second front was a strategic blunder. That’s what we call criticism.”
And yet, Chomsky does not discount a resurgent populism.
“In the 1920s the labor movement had been practically destroyed,” he said. “This had been a very
militant labor movement. In the 1930s it changed, and it changed because of
popular activism. There were circumstances [the Great Depression] that led to
the opportunity to do something. We are living with that constantly. Take the
last 30 years. For a majority of the population it has been stagnation or worse.
It is not the deep Depression, but it is a semi-permanent depression for most of
the population. There is plenty of kindling out there that can be lighted.”
Chomsky believes that the propaganda used to manufacture consent, even in the age of digital
media, is losing its effectiveness as our reality bears less and less
resemblance to the portrayal of reality by the organs of mass media. While state
propaganda can still “drive the population into terror and fear and war
hysteria, as we saw before the invasion of Iraq,” it is failing to maintain an
unquestioned faith in the systems of power. Chomsky credits the Occupy movement,
which he describes as a tactic, with “lighting a spark” and, most important,
“breaking through the atomization of society.”
“There are all sorts of efforts to separate people from one another,” he said. “The ideal social unit
[in the world of state propagandists] is you and your television screen. The
Occupy actions brought that down for a large part of the population. People
recognized that we could get together and do things for ourselves. We can have a
common kitchen. We can have a place for public discourse. We can form our ideas.
We can do something. This is an important attack on the core of the means by
which the public is controlled. You are not just an individual trying to
maximize consumption. You find there are other concerns in life. If those
attitudes and associations can be sustained and move in new directions, that
will be important.”