samedi 16 août 2008

Looking Ahead, Tenth Anniversary Interview

Class Warfare: Noam Chomsky Interviews with David Barsamian

December 20, 1994

DB: Noam, it was ten years ago that we did our first interview. I know that you do so few interviews it probably is very vivid in your mind.

Absolutely. I recall every word [laughs].

DB: I remember it well because I had all sorts of technical problems.
I couldn’t operate the tape recorder. I called you and said, We can’t do it. Then I managed to figure it out. Anyway, that was ten years ago. A review of Keeping the Rabble in Line says we have a “symbiotic relationship.” Is that something that we need to worry about?

As long as it’s symbiotic at long distance, I guess it’s OK.

DB: All right, good. Actually, we usually end on this kind of note. I want to start with your upcoming plans. I know you have a trip to Australia coming up in January.

That one’s been in the works for about twenty years, I guess.

DB: Any new books?

Right now I’m in the middle of a very technical book on linguistics
and I have in the back of my mind a long - promised book o n t h e philosophy of language. On the political issues, I’m not exactly sure. I might be putting together some essays and updating them. Several people have asked for updated and extended essays on current matters and I might do that. I’m not really sure. I have sort of a feeling that I’ve saturated the market a bit with books. I might wait a while.

DB: How about writing for Z? Are you going to continue that?

Oh, sure. I have a couple of articles coming out right now. There’s a long one, which was too long, so it was broken into two parts. It will be coming out in January and February. There’s a bunch of other things. And other journals.

DB: The last time we had a conversation you said that the linguistics work was particularly exciting. There was a certain animation in your voice. What particularly is attractive to you about the work you’re doing now in linguistics?

It’s hard to explain easily. There’s a kind of a rhythm to any work, I think, probably to any scientific work. Some interesting ideas come along and change the way you look at things. A lot of people start trying them and applying them. They find all kinds of difficulties and try to work it out. There’s a period of working on things within a relatively fixed framework. At some point they converge, or something leaps out at you and you suddenly see there’s another way of looking at it that is much better than the old one and that will put to rest a lot of the problems that people have been grappling with. Now you go off to a new stage.
Right now there’s a good chance that it’s that kind of moment, which for me at least has happened maybe two or three times before altogether. It happens to be particularly exciting this time. There seems to be a way possibly to show that a core part of human language, the core part of the mechanisms that relate sound and meaning, are not only largely universal, but in fact even from a certain point of view virtually optimal.
Meaning on very general considerations if you were to design a system, like if you were God designing a system, you would come close to doing it this way. There are a lot of remarkable things about language anyway.
It has properties that, it has been known for a long time, you just wouldn’t expect a biological organism to have at all, properties which in many ways are more similar to things you find in the inorganic world, for unknown reasons. If this turns out to be on the right track, it would be even more remarkable in that same sense because the last thing you would expect of a biological system is that it would be anything like optimally designed.

DB: Is this input coming from students and colleagues?

A lot of it’s work of mine, but of course it’s all highly interactive.
These are all very cooperative enterprises. I have a course every fall which is a sort of lecture-seminar. People show up for it from all over the place. It’s developed a certain pattern over the past thirty or forty years. A lot of faculty show up from other universities, other disciplines.
There are many people who have been sitting in for twenty and thirty years, people from other universities. A lot of people come from the whole northeast region, from Canada and Maryland. There are plenty of European visitors. It’s a very lively, ongoing sort of lecture-seminar. I lecture and then there’s a lot of discussion. It’s dealing with questions at the borders of research, always. Sometimes it’s really interesting.

Sometimes it’s not so interesting. This last fall, in fact the last two years,particularly this fall, a lot of things fell together as I was lecturing. I’m writing them up right now.

DB: That’s great. I’m excited for you, too, that you find your work engaging.

I always find it engaging, but as I say, there’s a rhythm. Sometimesit’s more a matter of patchwork within a framework, and sometimes it’sa matter of suddenly seeing another way of looking at things whichseems to cut through a lot of problems and to have exciting prospects.
This is maybe the most interesting thing I’ve thought of, at least.
Whether it’s right or not is another question.

DB: And given that, and this vital work that you’re involved with, Iwas wondering if any thoughts of retiring come up.

Sure. I have to at my age. And there are also questions about what’sthe best way of developing continuity in the department, and the impacton the field, and there’s personal life, and so on. There are so manythings I want to do. There’s also the question of distribution of time andenergy.

DB:How’s your health?


DB: That’s not a major consideration?


DB: Over the last few weeks I was rereading your book Turning the Tide, in particular the section on the right-wing counterattack and specifically the growth and power of right-wing institutions and foundations.

That’s interesting. I was just reading the same thing.

DB: You were?

In fact, the article that I have in Z begins by referring back to some of the things that were going on in 1980 and 1984, those elections. It starts with some of my comments adapted from that very section. The analogy is so striking.

DB: That’s what I thought, too. I wonder if the recent . . .

It’s just like a repeat.

DB: The November 1994 election.

But what happened, and the fraud about what happened are identical.

DB: The fraud being . . .

One of the points I made back then—this is in the mid-1980s—is that both the 1980 and the 1984 elections were called “conservative landslides,” “great Reagan revolutions,” etc. But in fact, what happened was quite different. The population was continuing to move away from Reaganite-type politics. Virtually no one in the general population saw
what they call “ conservatism ” as an issue . It was 4 % or 8 % or something. Reagan, of course, had under a third of the electorate. But furthermore, of the voters, most of them wanted his legislative program not to be enacted because they opposed it. What was actually happening there was a vote against. People felt remote from the system, didn’t like what was going on, opposed everything that was happening.
Their own concerns and interests, which were sort of New Deal-style liberalism, roughly, were simply not being articulated at all in the political system, so they either didn’t vote, or they voted against. But also, though maybe they liked Reagan’s smile more than Mondale’s frown, they also, of people who had an opinion, about 70% of the voters were opposed to Reagan’s policies. Of the non-voters it was much higher.
That’s pretty much what happened this time. The reason it was called a “conservative landslide” then was because elite groups wanted it that way. They wanted to tear apart the rather weak remnants of welfare state policies and redirect social policy even more than usual towards the interests of the powerful and the privileged. So that’s what they wanted. That’s the way they interpreted the vote. That’s across the spectrum. That includes liberals for the most part. Pretty much the same is true now. So if you look at the latest vote, the 1992 vote and the 1994 vote were virtually identical, with a couple of percentage points difference, largely attributable to the fact that the voting was skewed even more toward the wealthy than is usual.
Among non-voters, who are, of course, the big majority, the overwhelming number calls themselves “pro-democrat,” but what they mean by “democrat” is something that wasn’t represented in the current election. The opposition to “New Democrats” of the Clinton variety was much higher than to what are called “traditional” Democrats, traditional liberals. If you look at the outcome, the Democrats who tried to mobilize the traditional constituencies, like labor and women, they did rather well. The ones who got smashed were the Clinton-style “New Democrats.” If you look at opinion polls, you can see why. Public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to the policies that are shared by Gingrich and Clinton, on just about every issue. But most people simply don’t feel themselves represented. When asked, for example, whether they thought that having a conservative Congress was an important issue, in this election, about 12% of voters said, Yes. Virtually no one, in other words. It’s very similar to the early 1980s. The reason why it’s described this way, I’m sure, is that these are the policies that the privileged and the powerful want. So they’re going to claim that they have a popular mandate for them, even though they don’t. It’ll mean a further narrowing of the spectrum towards the right by choice. Not under popular pressure, but by choice of elites. That’s what they want. And it’s not surprising that they want it. It’s good for them.
Clinton and his advisors decided to interpret the vote as meaning that they should move even further to an unpopular position than they already were, instead of interpreting it to mean, We ought to speak to the majority of the population who are opposed to what we’re doing, and even more opposed to what the Republicans are doing. So they interpret it that way, despite their own polls, which showed the opposite, because that’s the conclusion they want to draw.

DB: But tell me one thing: As I recall, in the 1980s, during the Reagan period, the elite corporate media pretty much welcomed Reaganomics and the whole Reagan program, whereas this time one reads in the New York Times and the Washington Post scathing critiques of Gingrich, really strong criticisms.

That was before the election. It’s toned down since then. The Gingrich program has several aspects to it. He wants to focus on what he calls “cultural issues.” That makes sense, because when you’re going to rob people blind you don’t want to have them focus their attention on economic issues. The second is the actual programs, robbing people blind and enriching the rich. On those programs, I don’t see that there is much opposition from the corporate media. For example, you read today’s editorials. Did they condemn Clinton for yesterday announcing that he was going to make government leaner and cut back support for nuclear waste disposal and so on? I doubt it. I haven’t read the papers yet.
What they do oppose, however, and are very upset about, is what they call the Gingrich-style “cultural offensive,” because that in fact is attacking the values of the elite as well. I think there’s a kind of internal contradiction there that elite groups are having a hard time coming to terms with. In order to push through the social policies that really interest them, like distributing resources even more to the rich than before and reducing the status of the general population and marginalizing them even more than before—in order to carry that off, they have to develop at least some kind of popular support. You have to mobilize some support for what you’re doing. You can’t do that on the social and economic issues. So therefore you turn to what they call “cultural issues.” There’s something that resembles the 1930s about this, Germany in the 1930s. You try to mobilize people on something else. So a large part of the focus of attention in the Gingrich program is what he calls “rebuilding American civilization,” which means cutting back on rights of women, prayer in the schools, narrowing the spectrum of discussion, attacking civil liberties, and so on. Those are things that rich and powerful people don’t like, because they benefit from those.

First of all, they tend to be what is called “liberal” on cultural values.

They want the kind of freedom that would be undermined if the Gingrich types actually were serious about this talk. So you get a kind of contradiction. You see it very clearly.
For example, the New York Times a couple of weeks ago had an editorial defending the counterculture.

DB: That was astounding.

I didn’t think it was astounding at all.

DB: You didn’t?

It was fairly natural. Because what they think of as the “counter-culture” is what they themselves approve of. And if you did a poll among corporate executives, they would agree. They don’t want to have their kids forced to pray in school. They don’t want to have religious fundamentalists telling them what to do. They want their wives and daughters to have opportunities, abortion rights and other forms of freedom. They don’t want to restore the kind of values, for themselves in their personal lives, that Gingrich is talking about. That’s the kind of counterculture that they’re defending. So I didn’t think that it was surprising.
On the other hand, there was an even more dramatic article, I thought, a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago which actually talked about “class war” and “economic classes.”
These are terms that are unusable in the U.S., but now they’re using them. It’s extremely interesting to see how they’re putting it. They said that there is a class war developing between ordinary working-class blokes, that’s one side, and they’re an economic class—they said that—and then the elites who are oppressing them, who happen to be the liberals. The elites who are oppressing them are the elitist liberals with their crazy countercultural values. Who stands up for the ordinary working-class blokes? The so-called conservatives, who are in fact doing everything they can to destroy them. That’s the class war. They apparently feel confident enough about their own takeover of the doctrinal system, which is also discussed in this 1985 book [Turning the Tide] that you mentioned. They feel confident enough about that that they’re willing to even allow words like “class war” and “class conflict” as long as the ruling class is identified as the people who espouse these liberal, countercultural values. It’s not a total perversion of reality. If you go to the actual, real ruling class, the people who own and invest and speculate and CEOs and the rest of them, they do generally share these so-called “liberal” values. That’s why you find these rather striking internal contradictions, I think. On the one hand,
Gingrich is following a propaganda line which is almost required if you want to be able to carry off a major attack against the population. But the elements of that propaganda line, at least taken literally, also strike at the interests of the rich and powerful. There is an internal contradiction there, and I think that’s why you’re seeing things like that Times editorial.

DB: That was on Sunday, December 11, 1994. I just want to mention one thing from that. They called the Vietnam policy “deranged.”

But you see, that’s an old story.

DB: I don’t recall them using that adjective during the period.

That goes back to the early 1960s, when they were saying, These guys are crazy. They don’t know how to win the war.

DB: So you think it’s the pragmatists.

Are they saying the aggression in South Vietnam was immoral?
They’re saying it was deranged. Look at this crazy thing—we were devoting our lives and energies and effort to save people who couldn’t be saved because they were so valueless. That’s back to David Halberstam in the early 1960s. The so-called critics were the people who said, You guys aren’t doing it right. Anthony Lewis, when he finally became articulate against the war around 1970, said it began with blundering efforts to do good but ended up as a disaster. So it was deranged.

DB: More on this class war issue. If the Republican right-wing economic initiative, which is essentially an attack on the poor . . .

“Poor” is a funny word for it. It’s an attack on maybe three-quarters of the population.

DB: Might not elites be concerned in that it would result in social instability and uprisings like Los Angeles?

That’s why they have this huge crime bill, and they want to extend the crime bill. They want to criminalize a large part of the population.
They have been working on this for some time. I think what’s actually going on, in my opinion, if you go back to the 1970s, it began to appear, because of changes in the international economy, as if it might be possible for real ruling groups to do something that they’ve always hoped to do but couldn’t, namely to roll back everything connected with the social contract that had been won by working people and poor people over a century of struggle. There was a kind of social contract. I think they think they can roll it back. They can go right back to the days of satanic mills (to use William Blake’s phrase) where they believe they have enough weapons against the population—and it’s not implausible—that they can destroy human rights, eliminate the curse of democracy, except in a purely formal way, move power into the hands of absolutist, unaccountable institutions which will run the world in their own interests, without looking at anyone else, enhance private power, and eliminate workers’ rights, political rights, the right to food, destroy it all. Eliminate what used to be called the right to live. There was a battle about this in the early nineteenth century, and they couldn’t quite carry it off. Now I think they think they can carry it off. That means in effect turning the industrialized countries into a kind of Third World, a kind of Latin America. That means for a sector of the population great wealth and privilege and enormous government protection, because none of these people believe in a free market or anything remotely like it. They want a powerful welfare state, directing resources and protection to them. So on the one hand you have a powerful welfare state for a small sector of the population. For the rest, those who you need to do the dirty work, you pay them a pittance, and if they won’t do it, get somebody else. A large part of them are just superfluous. You don’t need them at all. In the Third World, maybe you send out death squads. Here you don’t quite send out death squads, so you lock them into urban slums which are more or less urban concentration camps and make sure they don’t have any resources there so it will collapse and deteriorate. If that won’t work, just throw them into jail.

DB: Do you see any resistance to these policies developing?

Example, the vote in 1994 was a sort of resistance. It was an over-whelming vote against everything that’s going on. But it didn’t take a constructive form.

DB: 61% of the population didn’t vote.

Yeah, but that’s normal. Most people think it’s all a joke. But even of those who voted, take a look at the minority who voted. I forget the exact numbers, but I think it was about a 6 to 1 vote against. Which is very similar to 1980, except that it’s much more extreme now because we’ve had fifteen years of Reaganism. It started late in the Carter era, went through the Reagan years, and it’s continuing through Clinton.
That means a continuing increase in inequality, continuing literally the absolute reduction in standard of living for a majority of the population.
It was stagnation for a while. It’s been reduction since the 1980s. It’s going down more during the Clinton years. What’s remarkable now is that this is the first time ever, maybe, that during a period of economic recovery general living standards and economic standards have been declining. The Census Bureau just came out with figures for 1993, after two years of so-called recovery. The median income, where half is above, half below, has declined 7% since 1989. It’s very unusual, maybe unprecedented for a recovery. Just this morning, did you get the
New York Times this morning?

DB: Yeah, I’ve got it.

Have a look. They report the Clinton budget cuts, etc. On the inside page, Section B, the continuation of the story, there’s almost a full page devoted to the continuation of that. Then, on the right-hand column, there’s an article reporting the latest conference of mayors. If you haven’t read it, read it. It’s interesting. The conference of mayors’ report points out the number of people desperately needing food and housing has sharply increased. I think the numbers are in the range of 15% or something like that. A big proportion of them are simply being denied it because the cities don’t have the resources. For that to be happening during a recovery—for that to be happening in a rich country is scandalous anyway. But for it to be happening in a period of recovery, an increase in starvation and homelessness, a sharp increase, enough that the conference of mayors made a report and did a bitter protest against federal policies, that’s pretty astonishing.
People are aware that things are bad, but they don’t have a constructive way to respond. For example, there’s nothing in the political system. The polls and opinion studies and so on, including the exit polls after the last election, made it pretty clear what would be a winning policy in the political arena, namely, something that has a kind of populist, reformist, social democratic-type character. That would probably get a large majority of the population, judging by public attitudes. But nobody is going to say that, because they all want something else.
It was kind of interesting during the campaign to see how both sides covered up some very striking issues. Take, say, Newt Gingrich, who is just smashing the Democrats with all of his talk about a “nanny state” and a welfare state and get the government off our backs and you guys have been ruining the world with your nanny state. He was killing the Democrats with this. I couldn’t find one person, either in the so-called liberal press or among the Democrats themselves, who made the obvious rejoinder: You’re the biggest advocate in the country of the nanny state, or certainly one of the biggest ones. As I think you know,
Gingrich’s constituency, his district, gets more federal subsidies than any suburban county in the country outside the federal system.

DB: That’s Cobb County, right outside of Atlanta.

Take away Arlington, Virginia, which is part of Washington, and the Florida home of the Kennedy Space Center, and Cobb County is first.
That’s the nanny state. They are the beneficiaries of social policies which direct public resources toward the rich. A lot of it is through the Pentagon, which has that domestic function.

DB: Lockheed is based in Cobb County.

Lockheed is their main employer. Besides that it’s mainly things like computers and electronics, which is very heavily public-subsidized, and insurance. Why is insurance a place where you can make a lot of money? It’s because the social policy is to ensure that private power, meaning insurance companies, runs huge programs. The most striking is the health program. That’s public policy. Sane countries don’t have that.
So his constituency is in fact the beneficiaries of the nanny state to an extent beyond probably any other in the country outside the federal system.
To get back to my point, no Democrat pointed this out that I could see. And the reason is, I suspect, that they agree. They don’t want to expose that, even at the cost of seriously losing elections and control of Congress.

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