Noam Chomsky.(Photo: Ungano & Agriodimas)

Topics: Ethical Living, May 2020 | Interview

Noam Chomsky on the private interests undermining democracy

The activist and intellectual on why putting people first is key to saving our world


Noam Chomsky is a political philosopher, linguist, act­ivist and among the world’s leading intellectuals. He received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955 and rose to prominence in the field of linguistics shortly after. Chomsky’s political activism intensified in the 1960s, when he was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He has since remained a vocal opponent of concentrated power in America and abroad. He’s taken aim at news media that prioritize the concerns of corporate elites; right-wing governments that favour private over public interests; and, more recently, the destructive politics of U.S. President Donald Trump. Chomsky, 91, is currently professor laureate at the University of Arizona. He spoke with Paul Salvatori at the university’s Tucson campus about the precarious state of global democracy.

Paul Salvatori: How is humanity doing at the moment?

Noam Chomsky: It’s right at the brink of self-destruction. We are facing a situation that has never arisen in human history. There are several converging threats to survival. One is the increasing risk of nuclear war. We’ve been living with it for 75 years, and it’s kind of a miracle we’ve escaped. Then there is the threat of environmental catastrophe. Many countries are doing at least something to try to deal with it. The United States, distinct from the entire world, is racing toward the precipice with dedication and commitment. And there aren’t many years ahead to make a decision about whether we’ll survive this.

PS: How are these two threats related to the health of global democracy?

NC: We’re seeing a deterioration of democratic systems. And there’s a reason democracy is the one hope that we have. Democracy means people are able to influence political choices. We’re essentially doomed if that disappears.

PS: In Canada and the United States, we often hear political parties praise democracy, yet their members are expected to abide by the party leadership rather than their own conscience. Are political parties good for democracy?

NC: It depends what they are. The Republican Party today is off the spectrum. It’s supporting environmental catastrophe. It’s leading the way to increasing the threat of nuclear war and the threat on democracy. It’s trying to minimize democracy in every possible way, and for good reason. The leaders know it’s a minority party that has some structural advan­tages that enable them to keep going. But they do whatever they can to block segments of the population from voting and undermining their power. On the other hand, I think there are movements trying to increase democracy. [Senator and former presidential hopeful] Bernie Sanders in the United States, for example, has been able to energize a mass popular movement, dedicated to functioning not just for electoral politics but ongoing, serious activism.

PS: It’s bizarre that a democratic nation like the United States would elect someone like Trump to be its leader. On the other hand, critics of Trump argue he represents or is symptomatic of mass disillusionment with political institutions.

NC: That’s true, but it’s much more general. Around the world, there are popular uprisings, protests, anger. Each place has its own particular reasons, but there are some common features. A major one is the neoliberal assault on the population, which took off under [former U.S. president] Ronald Reagan and [former U.K. prime minister] Margaret Thatcher.

Neoliberalism has had the predictable effect of concentrating wealth very narrowly. So in the United States, for example, about 0.1 percent of the population has over 20 percent of the wealth. This is terrain that can be exploited by demagogues. They succeed, unfortunately, by turning not against the source of inequality but against vulnerable groups: immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims. Trump is one demagogue, but you see others like him elsewhere. [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi in India. [President] Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. There are progressive forces organizing, too, but not with the same amount of power.

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PS: These movements seem to be very successful at weakening certain societal bonds. The world feels less trusting and cohesive, somehow.

NC: Well, one of the explicit goals of the neoliberal project is to atomize people. Thatcher put it very clearly: there is no society, just individuals. So throw people into the market, and they’ll have to survive as best they can. But no support systems.

PS: The neoliberal idea that the more you privatize society, the more all benefit seems to be gaining popularity with governments internationally. Do you see this kind of trickle-down economics as morally problematic?

NC: The quasi-religious view that markets know best is full of hypocrisy. And within societies governed by it, there’s a strong tendency toward undermining competition. It’s extreme in the United States, where you see the decline of quality services, invention, entrepreneurial innovation and productivity. It’s a reflection of the private monopolization of society.

PS: Should there not be greater concern, on the part of governments, about how this deference to the market might lead to financial crises like it did in 2008?

NC: The market-loving government reacts in a systematic way to financial crises resulting from the malfeasance of financial institutions. So, for ex­ample, in 2008 the American Congress passed legislation to bail out the financial institutions that were responsible for the housing crisis and also to provide some assistance to people who were the victims — those thrown out of their homes, with lost possessions and so on. But after President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, he decided to implement only the first plank of the legislation, leaving the victims to fend for themselves. That was a kick in the face to Americans.

“Humanity is right at the brink of self-destruction. We are facing a situation that has never arisen in human history.”

PS: Then there’s the Republican denialism about global warming. How did we get here?

NC: At present, a small percentage of the Republican Party think that global warming’s a serious problem. Now, if we ask a simple question, “When did the Republican Party turn to denial of global warming?” you find an interesting story. Go back to 2008, when John McCain ran for the presidency on the Republican ticket. At the time, there was a program to do something about carbon emissions. It wasn’t much, but still; it was something the Republican Congress was considering to mitigate the effects of global warming. Enter [American energy moguls] the Koch brothers. They realized they’d better do something, or it would compromise the profits of the energy industry. So they launched a massive lobbying campaign — bribing Congress, senators, intimidating others, creating fake popular organizations, banging on people’s doors. As a result, the Republicans turned on a dime. They moved from recognizing that global warming is a problem to total denialism. You’d be challenged to find an iota of principle in the party leadership. Try — it’s really hard.

PS: It’s clear you believe democracy is in peril but not a lost cause. What does genuine democracy look like?

NC: It’s a system in which informed people get together, decide on policies, decide how they’re going to be implemented, then proceed. Actually, a pretty good measure of how democracy is functioning is people’s attitudes toward taxes. If you had a system like what I described, on tax day people would celebrate: “We’ve got together, we decided what we wanted to do, we’ve decided how to fund it. Now we’re doing it.” Suppose you go to the opposite — extreme total dictatorship. People have nothing to do with policy, no decision-making power. Then tax day is one of mourning. Where are we on the spectrum?

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

It first appeared in Broadviews May 2020 issue with the title “Putting people first.”

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  • says:

    I see a man who hates Capitalism. Funny socialism doesn’t work either. We can look at Communist countries and see that wealth is distributed by gunpoint, and that wealth is still at an uneven keel. (Look at the conditions of their political leaders, compared to the “Common Workers”)
    I don’t think democracy is based on taxes; it is rather based on the collective sense of security, which taxes are a part. (I have to give a share of my wealth or security for the greater good)

    Here is a man who says: There is no God, or at best there is no God in control, or has lost control. Therefore man must take control for his greater good.
    Worse yet, he states: We have no hope, and at best a very bleak future.

    Is this what Christianity is all about? Am I the only one reading this asking myself “God has guaranteed me a better future?” (Maybe not in this world, but surely in the next)
    I’d rather live with a hope in Christ, than to bank in the worldly thought of doom and destruction.