On Globalization, Iraq, and Middle East Studies (interview with N. Chomsky)
by Noam Chomsky and Danilo Mandic ; March 29, 2005
Danilo Mandic : Could I please get your views on the recent World Social Forum that was held a few months ago in Porto Allegre, Brazil. Over 150,000 people from 135 countries participated, an unprecedented number ; and they covered a wide range of issues including economic equality, labor rights, war, and global corporate power. What has the social justice movement done since the first forum five years ago ?
Noam Chomsky : The forum itself is a place for people to get together and discuss and plan many activities from all over. For example, if you take the first (the year 2000) Social Forum - which was more western hemisphere oriented then the other ones which have been much broader - one of the things that came from it was a massive popular program to try to block or alter the so-called Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, which is not free and is not about trade and was certainly not an agreement, at least if people matter. And that lead to local activities in many countries and to very large-scale demonstrations at the hemispheric summit in Quebec in April 2001, which were sufficient to derail the efforts to ram through a NAFTA-style program in the hemisphere. Since then it has just continued. By now there are regional social forums all over the world. There are local social forums. For example, there is a Boston Social Forum, which is just in the Boston area, that is one of many (I don’t know how many) local forums that have spun off of the central one. Now they are concerned with issues that are of concern - in the United States, it’s always going to be of global concern too because of U.S. power - but also just plain and simple, you know, serious jobs for justice programs locally, anti-corporate programs locally, and so on. Now those happen in the regions where people are involved. The concerns of people who are there, they integrate with the international, regional (larger regional), international meetings and, as you say, at the World Social Forum itself. There’s a very wide range of discussion - it didn’t have to be at the last one but earlier ones - typically quite serious discussion by activists and engaged people from many different walks of life and parts of the world, on issues of general concern. Out of them come some general programmatic ideas, some ideas about actions, which are then implemented by people in their own manner - you can’t have a global program without local adaptation.
DM : A lot of eminent scholars are fond of using the phrase "anti-globalization movement." What do you think of that label ?
NC : As I’ve said repeatedly, including at the World Social forum, it’s just plain propaganda. I mean "globalization" used in a neutral sense just means "international integration." The World Social Forum in fact is a perfect example of globalization at the level of people. I mean you have people from India, Africa, Brazil, Latin America, North America, Europe, just about everywhere, from every walk of life, who have somewhat common concerns and interests. That’s globalization. In fact, globalization itself has been the guiding vision of the workers’ movements on the left since their origins in the 19th century. That’s why every labor union is called an International even though they are not international. That’s the aspiration, and that’s how the several Internationals were formed, true internationals. In fact the World Social Forum is probably the first time there has been any development grassroots-up that merits the term "international." There is just no way for these movements to be anti-globalization. They are perfect instances of globalization. The term has come to be used in recent years as a kind of a technical term which doesn’t refer to globalization, but refers to a very specific form of international economic integration ...
DM : Right.
NC : ... namely based on the priority given to investor rights, not rights of people. So rights of investors, lenders, corporations, banks, financial institutions and so on, within a general neo-liberal framework, roughly the so-called Washington Consensus. That’s a particular doctrinal position, which has come to be called "globalization" because the people who have that position have control of concentrated wealth and power, so they can therefore impose their terms on much discourse. It’s kind of like saying that in the old Soviet Union "democracy" meant the so-called People’s Democracies. You know, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. They had the power to use the term "democracy" for those gross distortions of democracy. And the people who pretty much own the world have enough power to distort the term "globalization" to their highly specific and extremely doctrinary position. But the people who are opposed to their version of globalization aren’t opposed to globalization. They’re just calling for other modes of globalization that prioritize rights of people, future generations, the environment, etc., more than the rights of those with concentrated wealth and power. The same is true of all of the agreements (so-called, not really agreements, but treaties that are instituted within that framework). Take say NAFTA - striking example - the North American Free Trade Agreement. I mean, the one phrase in that that is correct is "North American." It does indeed have to do with three North American countries, counting Mexico as North American. Now beyond that, every statement is false. It’s not about free trade. It’s highly protectionist. It’s certainly not, in many respects, an agreement. The population in Canada and the United States, the majority is opposed and probably in Mexico too, but we don’t have good polls from Mexico. There were alternative proposals. This was the executive version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which did have a very powerful elite consensus behind it. So the corporate world was in favor ; the media were virtually 100% in favor. Now the population was mostly opposed, and there were alternatives proposed. So for example there’s a treaty in the United States which requires that labor be consulted seriously on any international economic agreement that affects workers, which this obviously did. Well, the labor movement wasn’t even notified. I mean there is a Labor Advisory Council which is responsible for such things. I think they were notified, given the text about 24 hours before it was signed. It was Clinton that really, really loathed democracy and freedom. That didn’t get reported. Nevertheless, the Labor Advisory Council even with that limited time was able to put forward a proposal, a very constructive detailed proposal, for a North American Free Trade Agreement, but one that was redesigned so instead of being directed to low wage, low growth, high profit futures (as they correctly described this one) it would be directed towards a high growth, high wage, more egalitarian form of international integration. And that was presented. Actually it turns out that their proposal was very similar to that proposed about the same time by Congress’s own Research Bureau and Office of Technology Assessment, which also said they were opposed to this version of the agreement, but they suggested a different version, very much with a similar critique to that of the labor movement and similar constructive proposals. None of that was ever reported. I mean to this day, nobody knows about it, more than ten years later. It’s just suppressed. I mean there was discussion of the labor movement. They were denounced. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who is about as far to the left as you can get, condemned the labor movement for its brutal, harsh, nationalistic tactics, on and on. He had a clue what the labor movement position was, and it was anything but. But it simply could not be reported. As far as I am aware, to this day it hasn’t been reported. Well it’s kind of like globalization. There was no opposition to a North American economic agreement, but there was opposition to this one, and there were constructive alternatives but they never entered political discussion and debate. I mean the media did enjoy Ross Perot because they could make fun of him, you know, talk about sucking sounds, make jokes, and so on and so forth. But the serious proposals that came straight out of popular movements, like the labor movement and even Congress’s Research Bureau, they were off the agenda. And it’s pretty much the same with regard to globalization, which is sort of like the use of the word democracy in the old Soviet Union. For other purposes, but similar mechanisms.
DM : On that note, let me turn briefly to Iraq if you don’t mind.
NC : Sure.
DM : Democracy is another term that mainstream eminent scholars are found of using when it comes to Iraq. The by-now-famous Lancet report counted about 100,000 excess deaths in Iraq as a result of the Anglo-American invasion. The Iraqi oil industry is becoming increasingly privatized into Western corporate hands, and the Iraqi elections are being hailed as proof of the success of the American endeavor. What do the elections mean for Iraq ?
NC : Actually I agree that the elections were a success ... of opposition to the United States. What is being suppressed - except for Middle East specialists, who know about it perfectly well and are writing about it, or people who in fact have read the newspapers in the last couple of years - what’s being suppressed is the fact that the United States had to be brought kicking and screaming into accepting elections. The U.S. was strongly opposed to them. I wrote about the early stages of this in a book that came out a year ago, which only discussed the early stages of U.S. opposition. But it increased. The U.S. wanted to write a constitution, it wanted to impose some kind of caucus system that the U.S. could control, and it tried to impose extremely harsh neo-liberal rules, like you mentioned, which even Iraqi businessmen were strongly opposed to. But there has been a very powerful nonviolent resistance in Iraq - far more significant than suicide bombers and so on. And it simply compelled the United States step by step to back down. That’s the popular movement of nonviolent resistance that was symbolized by Ayatollah Sistani, but it’s far broader than that. The population simply would not accept the rules that the occupation authorities were imposing, and finally Washington was compelled, very reluctantly, to accept elections. It tried in every way to undermine them. So for example, the independent press was kicked out of the country. Al Jazeera, which is by far the most popular media in the country and most of the region, was simply kicked out on spurious grounds. The U.S. candidate (the U.S. had a candidate : Iyad Allawi) was given every possible advantage : full state resources, access to any television, and so on and so forth. He got creamed. Every party, including even the U.S. government’s party, was compelled to put in a plank, just by pressure of popular opinion, calling for U.S. withdrawal, withdrawal of the occupying forces. Even U.S.-run polls show that that’s a very strong majority opinion, among Shiites as well. They were forced to put it in. Even thought they didn’t want it, they just had to. The U.S. announced at once after the election - in Britain, Blair, Bush and Rice announced at once - that there would be no timetable for withdrawal. It doesn’t matter what the Iraqis want. The U.S. announced right away that the troops would stay there at least until 2007, in fact as far as building military bases to try to keep them there indefinitely. Not to occupy the country, because for that they would much rather have Iraqi mercenary forces. Just like Britain ran India or Russia ran Eastern Europe, not with their own forces. But they have to be there to make sure things stay under control. Then right now there’s a struggle going on, as to whether the United States will be able to subvert the elections that it reluctantly accepted. I think you’ll have a hard time finding a serious Middle Eastern scholar or anyone who pays attention who won’t agree with this. In fact it’s quite obvious just from reading the serious press reports on this. Of course once the United States was forced into accepting elections, the government and the media immediately pronounced that it was a great achievement of the United States. But it was quite the opposite. But it’s a good thing that it happened, in opposition to the U.S. In fact it’s a major triumph of nonviolent resistance, and it should be understood as such. And maybe it’s a basis - now comes the question of whether Iraqis can succeed, in reaching, moving towards a stage where they will actually be able to run their own country, which the U.S. is certainly going to oppose. There is no doubt of this. The last thing the United States wants is a democratic, sovereign Iraq. To see why, it’s enough to think for five minutes about what its policies are likely to be. Let’s suppose there were a democratic Iraq with some degree of sovereignty. The first thing it’ll do is try to improve relations with Iran. It’s not that they love Iran particularly, but they’d rather have friendly relations with the neighboring Shiite state than hostile relations. So, they’ll move towards improving relations with Iran, especially because it has a Shiite majority. If they’re democratic enough, so the Shiite majority has a significant part. The next thing that will happen - and it’s already beginning to happen - is that the victory of the Iraqis against the United States has begun to stir up similar sentiments in the Shiite areas (mostly Shiite areas) of Saudi Arabia, which is a neighbor.
DM : ...and a US ally.
NC : Yeah, but that’s inside Saudi Arabia, and that happens to be where most of the oil is. They have been excluded by the US and Saudi leadership, but they’re not going to be likely to accept that if there is a sovereign, democratic Iraq next door. It’s really a Shiite-dominated Iraq. And it’s already beginning to happen. Well, you know, that’ll lead towards a situation in which most of the world’s oil would be under the control of a relatively autonomous Shiite alliance. The US won’t tolerate that for a moment. The next thing that would happen in a sovereign Iraq is that they would try to resume their very natural position as a leading state in the Arab world. They’re the most educated country, the most advanced and so on. In many ways, it should be the leader in the Arab world. Actually, those are factors that go back to Biblical times. And they’ll try to resume that position, which means they’ll try to rearm. They will confront the regional enemy, namely Israel, which has virtually turned into a US military outpost. They may even develop weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent against Israel’s overwhelming advantage, both militarily and in weapons of mass destruction. Those are very natural developments to be expected. Can you see the US accepting any of this ? I mean, those are the likely consequences - not certain, but likely consequences - of a relatively sovereign, more or less democratic Iraq. It’s a nightmare for the United States. It’s no wonder it tried to prevent elections in any possible way, and is now trying to undermine the results. What happens is gonna be on a terrain of plenty of struggle, and we have a role in it. US public opinion can be highly influential during the outcome. We don’t live in a dictatorship ; we have plenty of freedom if we want to use it. It can be used to help the Iraqis regain control of their own society.
DM : Specifically, on that, our readers are especially interested in the role of the university in this development that you are discussing. Let me give you one example that is of concern : you have been writing political works for more than four decades. Yet, I have been unable to find a single undergraduate course in recent years here at Princeton that has had any of your political works on its reading list. Does that surprise you ?
NC : It would surprise me if it were any different. In fact, if you were to mention my name to most of the faculty in the relevant areas, they would probably react with screams of horror. I mean, we have a very doctrinary intellectual class. They do not like deviation from a very narrow party line. Now, in regional studies, it’s very hard to control. That’s one of the reasons why Middle East departments are coming under extreme attack from the more totalitarian forces in the country (like Horowitz, Pipes and others), who can’t stand the idea that there’s some independent - or partially independent - sector of the society that isn’t under tight...that isn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of the business world and the right wing. So, they’re going berserk. And it’s happened in other areas. For example, in the 1980’s, the main US preoccupation was its wars in Central America - brutal, vicious, terrorist wars, and to large extent wars against the church. The Latin American Association of Professional Scholars just wouldn’t go along. They were just pretty much excluded. To give one example, Nicaragua was a big issue ; the leading academic historian on Nicaragua, Thomas Walker, regularly (several times a year) wrote and sent op-eds to the New York Times - not a single one was published. He just sent another one after this outrageous government-media propaganda ploy about how the elections in El Salvador were a model for Iraq. The elections in El Salvador were just outlandish ! It’s true that the media praised them, that’s their job. Follow the party line. He wrote an Op-Ed - Thomas Walker, again, leading Central American scholar - distributed it to newspapers all over the country. They wouldn’t touch it. They have a party line. You’re not allowed to deviate from it. It’s not followed with 100% rigidity, of course, but it’s pretty substantial. And, yes, there is virtual terror at the idea that anyone might deviate. If you want to get a good sense of what it’s like among the sort of left/liberal component of the intellectual and academic world (not the far right), have a look at this month’s issue of the American Prospect, which is quite a good journal. It has interesting material ; it had quite a good article by Juan Cole on Iraq which says pretty much what I just said about the elections. And there are other good issues. But take a look at the front cover, which is quite intriguing actually. The front cover shows the embattled left/liberal intellectuals caught between two powerful forces on both sides. On one side, there’s a scowling picture of Dick Cheney. So, in one corner you have Dick Cheney and the White House, the Pentagon, the most powerful military force in history. That’s one side. On the other side, is....me.
DM : [chuckle]
NC : Those are the two powerful forces between which they are crushed. What that tells you about...I mean, if I could put it on my CV, I would, because it’s the greatest praise I’ve ever had. [chuckle] I must be the most powerful academic in history. But it shows you their mentality. They’re terrified. They’re pathetic people, terrified by the idea that somebody might not repeat what they say. And might be two millimeters to the left of them on some issue. I think that’s what you’re probably finding. Not just me. Books written by Princeton professors - you know, eminent Princeton professors - who are critical of the party line can never get reviewed. Have you seen...
DM : Absolutely. Edward Sa’id is a good example.
NC : What ?
DM : Edward Sa’id is an excellent example of that.
NC : Yeah, but take a look at Richard Falk’s latest book.
DM : Yes.
NC : He’s the most important Princeton professor, plausibly.
DM : On the other hand, someone like Bernard Lewis is treated as an eminent Princeton professor.
NC : Well, sure. But he says what they wanna hear.
DM : Right. Let me ask one more question.
NC : For example, all of this....since you mentioned Edward Sa’id, in all of this hysteria about how students and faculty are being intimidated by the overpowering left, like me, did you hear anything when for years Edward Sa’id (who was a close personal friend, incidentally), his office and his apartment were under almost constant police protection and offered FBI protection ? In his apartment he had some sort of way of signaling the local police department if anything happened. The reason for this wasn’t just because somebody was, you know, criticizing him. He was under death threats constantly from terrorist groups that were being infiltrated by the police. Was there any David Project objecting to this ?
DM : In For Reasons of State, you wrote the following : "One element in the unending struggle to achieve a more just and humane social order will be the effort to remove the barriers that stand in the way of the particular forms of individual self-fulfillment and collective action that the university should make possible." Almost 40 years later, do you think that any of these barriers have been removed at places like Princeton, Harvard, MIT ?
NC : Sure. Let me just take MIT, because I know it best, but it’s the same everywhere. At the time I was writing, in the 1960’s, if you walked through the halls of MIT, you would see white males, well-dressed, disciplined, respectful to their elders, and so on. You walk down those halls today : half women, about third minorities, casual relations among people show up in everything from clothes to personal relations. And that’s all over the country ; I presume it’s same at Princeton. Those are indications of very significant changes in the society, which became much more civilized, including the universities. You see it in many ways. These are largely, to a large extent, the results of activism of young people and many other groups. And it can certainly continue. And let me just end, to take one....
DM : OK. Just one last question, perhaps...
NC : Just to take one last example, just to illustrate.
DM : OK.
NC : The US attacked South Vietnam in 1962. That’s when Kennedy started bombing South Vietnam. They started using chemical warfare to destroy crops. They began programs which ultimately drove millions of people to what amounted to concentration camps and slums. Was there any protest ? This went on for years before there was any protest. By the time protests sort of began to be significant, South Vietnam, which was always the main target of the attack, had practically been destroyed. But take the Iraq war. For the first time in European history - Europe, and with the United States - for the first time in Western imperial history, a war has been massively protested (here too) before it was officially launched, not four or five years later when the country was wiped out. Well, those are changes towards making it a more civilized society, and it shows up in universities too. They’re much more open than they used to be.
DM : Let me just ask one more quick question. Universities as doctrinary institutions, as "systems of imposed ignorance." What can students do to resist this ?
NC : Students are at a period of their lives when they are more free than they have ever been or ever will be. They have left parental control ; they are not yet under the control of the coercive institutions of ordinary life, the need for subordination to higher-ups and hierarchic institutions and the need to make a living and so on. They have enormous freedom, and they can do anything they want. They don’t like the courses in the university ? Set up counter-courses. At MIT (where I am) for 25 years, as long as I could manage it, I taught on my own time undergraduate courses on the kinds of things I write about which, as you say, would not be on the curriculum. I had hundreds of students in classes. They usually ran them at night, so they couldn’t take much credit for them (formal credit, I mean, but they could contribute to programs). I ran them at night so they could be community participation. A lot of things came out of it, I mean not just that. But it was a way for people to get together, students with common interests and concerns, and to pursue them more actively. A good deal of what has gone on in the country since has come out of things like that. For example, South End Press, Z Magazine, ZNet, a bunch of things like that, are mostly from students who were initiating those things at MIT at the time. I was happy to cooperate with them if I could. One of the ways was by just offering courses that they could be active in. They went right through to...they had the last one about two years ago. At the time, there were two junior instructors who did most of the work. Both of them had been students in the last of those courses I taught around 1990 when they were undergraduates. The only reason I stopped is the pressure of giving talks, interviews and so on - I just couldn’t continue on my own time and keep my professional work going. So yeah, these are among the normal things that students could do.
DM : Dr. Chomsky, thank you very much.
NC : All right, good talking to you.