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Noam Chomsky on the Breakdown of American Society and a World in Transition

The US is facing uncertain times. While it remains the only global superpower, it is no longer able to influence events and outcomes to its liking.

The US is facing uncertain times. While it remains the only global superpower, it is no longer able to influence events and outcomes to its liking, at least not for the most part. Frustration and worry about the risk of upcoming disasters seem to far outweigh US voters’ hopes for a more rational and just world order. Meanwhile, Noam Chomsky argues, the rise and popularity of Donald Trump is occurring due to the fact that US society is breaking down.

In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Noam Chomsky addresses contemporary developments in both the United States and around the world and challenges prevailing views about class warfare, neoliberalism as the outcome of economic laws, the role of the US as a global power, the status of emerging economies and the power of the Israel Lobby.

CJ Polychroniou: Noam, you have said that the rise of Donald Trump is largely due to the breakdown of American society. What exactly do you mean by this?

Noam Chomsky: The state-corporate programs of the past 35 or so years have had devastating effects on the majority of the population, with stagnation, decline and sharply enhanced inequality being the most direct outcomes. This has created fear and has left people feeling isolated, helpless, victims of powerful forces they can neither understand or influence. The breakdown is not caused by economic laws. They are policies, a kind of class war initiated by the rich and powerful against the working population and the poor. This is what defines the neoliberalism period, not only in the US but in Europe and elsewhere. Trump is appealing to those who sense and experience the breakdown of American society — to deep feelings of anger, fear, frustration, hopelessness, probably among sectors of the population that are seeing an increase in mortality, something unheard of apart from war.

Class warfare remains as vicious and one-sided as ever. Neoliberal governance over the last thirty years, regardless if there was a Republican or a Democratic administration in place, has intensified immensely the processes of exploitation and induced ever-larger gaps between haves and have-nots in American society. Moreover, I don’t see neoliberal class politics being on retreat in spite of the opportunities that opened up because of the last financial crisis and by having a centrist Democrat in the White House.

The business classes, which largely run the country, are highly class conscious. It is not a distortion to describe them as vulgar Marxists, with values and commitments reversed. It was not until 30 years ago that the head of the most powerful union recognized and criticized the “one-sided class war” that is relentlessly waged by the business world. It has succeeded in achieving the results you describe. However, neoliberal policies are in shambles. They have come to harm the most powerful and privileged (who only partially accepted them for themselves in the first place), so they cannot be sustained.

Neoliberal policies are in shambles. They have come to harm the most powerful and privileged, so they cannot be sustained.

It is rather striking to observe that the policies that the rich and powerful adopt for themselves are the precise opposite of those they dictate to the weak and poor. Thus, when Indonesia has a deep financial crisis, the instructions from the US Treasury Department (via the IMF) are to pay off the debt (to the West), to raise interest rates and thus slow the economy, to privatize (so that Western corporations can buy up their assets), and the rest of the neoliberal dogma. For ourselves, the policies are to forget about debt, to reduce interest rates to zero, to nationalize (but not to use the word) and to pour public funds into the pockets of the financial institutions, and so on. It is also striking that the dramatic contrast passes unnoticed, along with the fact that this conforms to the record of the economic history of the past several centuries, a primary reason for the separation of the first and third worlds.

Class politics is so far only marginally under attack. The Obama administration has avoided even minimal steps to end and reverse the attack on unions. Obama has even indirectly indicated his support for this attack, in interesting ways. It is worth recalling that his first trip to show his solidarity with working people (called “the middle class,” in US rhetoric) was to the Caterpillar plant in Illinois. He went there in defiance of pleas by church and human rights organizations because of Caterpillar’s grotesque role in the Israeli occupied territories, where it is a prime instrument in devastating the land and villages of “the wrong people.” But it seems not even to have been noticed that, adopting Reagan’s anti-labor policies, Caterpillar became the first industrial corporation in generations to break a powerful union by employing strike-breakers, in radical violation of international labor conventions. That left the US alone in the industrial world, along with apartheid South Africa, in tolerating such means of undermining workers’ rights and democracy — and now I presume the US is alone. It is hard to believe that the choice was accidental.

There is a widespread belief at least among some well-known political strategists that issues do not define American elections — even if the rhetoric is that candidates need to understand public opinion in order to woo voters — and we do know of course that media provide a wealth of false information on critical issues (take the mass media’s role before and during the launching of the Iraq war) or fail to provide any information at all (on labor issues, for example). Yet, there is strong evidence indicating that the American public cares about the great social, economic and foreign policy issues facing the country. For example, according to a research study released some years ago by the University of Minnesota, Americans ranked health care among the most important problems facing the country. We also know that the overwhelming majority of Americans are in support of unions. Or that they judged the war against terror to be a total failure. In the light of all of this, what’s the best way to understand the relation between media, politics and the public in contemporary American society?

It is well-established that electoral campaigns are designed so as to marginalize issues and focus on personalities, rhetorical style, body language, etc. And there are good reasons. Party managers read polls, and are well aware that on a host of major issues, both parties are well to the right of the population — not surprisingly; they are, after all, business parties. Polls show that a large majority of voters object, but those are the only choices offered to them in the business-managed electoral system, in which the most heavily funded candidate almost always wins.

Similarly, consumers might prefer decent mass transportation to a choice between two automobiles, but that option is not provided by advertisers — indeed, by markets. Ads on TV do not provide information about products; rather, they provide illusion and imagery. The same Public Relations firms that seek to undermine markets by ensuring that uninformed consumers will make irrational choices (contrary to abstract economic theories) seek to undermine democracy in the same way. And the managers are well aware of all of this. Leading figures in the industry have exulted in the business press that they have been marketing candidates like commodities ever since Reagan, and this is their greatest success yet, which they predict will provide a model for corporate executives and the marketing industry in the future.

The Obama administration has avoided even minimal steps to end and reverse the attack on unions.

You mentioned the Minnesota poll on health care. It is typical. For decades, polls have shown that health care is at or near the top of public concerns — not surprisingly, given the disastrous failure of the health care system, with per capita costs twice as high as comparable societies and some of the worst outcomes. Polls also consistently show that large majorities want a nationalized system, called “single payer,” rather like the existing Medicare system for the elderly, which is far more efficient than the privatized systems or the one introduced by Obama. When any of this is mentioned, which is rare, it is called “politically impossible” or “lacking political support” — meaning that the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and others who benefit from the current system, object. We gained an interesting insight into the workings of American democracy from the fact that in 2008, unlike 2004, the Democratic candidates — first Edwards, then Clinton and Obama — came forward with proposals that at least begun to approach what the public has wanted for decades. Why? Not because of a shift in public attitudes, which have remained steady. Rather, [the] manufacturing industry has been suffering from the costly and inefficient privatized health care system, and the enormous privileges granted, by law, to the pharmaceutical industries. When a large sector of concentrated capital favors some program, it becomes “politically possible” and has “political support.” Just as revealing as the facts themselves is that they are not noticed.

Much the same is true on many other issues, domestic and international.

The US economy is facing myriad problems, although profits for the rich and corporations returned long ago to the levels they were prior to the eruption of the 2008 financial crisis. But the one single problem which most of academic and financial analysts seem to focus on as being of most critical nature is that of government debt. According to mainstream analysts, US debt is already out of control, which is why they have been arguing consistently against big economic stimulus packages to boost growth, contending that such measures will only push the US deeper into debt. What is the likely impact that a ballooning debt will have on the American economy and on international investor’s confidence in the event of a new financial crisis?

No one really knows. Debt has been far higher in the past, particularly after World War II. But that was overcome thanks to the remarkable economic growth under the wartime semi-command economy. So we know that if government stimulus spurs sustained economic growth, the debt can be controlled. And there are other devices, such as inflation. But the rest is very much guesswork. The main funders — primarily China, Japan, oil producers — might decide to shift their funds elsewhere for higher profits. But there are few signs of such developments, and they are not too likely. The funders have a stake in sustaining the US considerable economy for their own exports. There is no way to make confident predictions, but it seems clear that the entire world is in a tenuous situation, to say the least.

You seem to believe, in contrast to so many others, that the US remains a global economic, political and of course military superpower even after the latest crisis — and I do have the same impression, as well, as the rest of the world economies are not only not in any shape to challenge America’s hegemony but are looking toward the US as a savior of the global economy. What do you see as the competitive advantages that US capitalism has over the EU economy and the newly emerging economies in Asia?

The 2007-08 financial crisis in large measure originated in the US, but its major competitors — Europe and Japan — ended up suffering more severely, and the US remained the choice location for investors who are looking for security in a time of crisis. The advantages of the US are substantial. It has extensive internal resources. It is unified, an important fact. Until the civil war in the 1860s, the phrase “United States” was plural (as it still is in European languages). But since then the phrase has been singular, in standard English. Policies designed in Washington by state power and concentrated capital apply to the whole country. That is far harder in Europe. A couple of years after the eruption of the latest global financial crisis, the European Commission task force issued a report saying that “Europe needs new bodies to monitor systemic risk and co-ordinate oversight of financial institutions across the region’s patchwork of supervision,” though the task force, headed then by a former French central banker, “stopped well short of suggesting a single European watchdog” — which the US can have any time it wants. For Europe, it would be “an almost impossible mission,” the task force leader said. [Several] analysts, including the Financial Times, have described such a goal as politically impossible, “a step too far for many member states reluctant to cede authority in this area.” There are many other advantages to unity. Some of the harmful effects of European inability to coordinate reactions to the crisis have been widely discussed by European economists.

When a large sector of concentrated capital favors some program, it becomes “politically possible” and has “political support.”

The historical roots of these differences between Europe and the US are familiar. Centuries of … conflict imposed a nation-state system in Europe, and the experience of World War II convinced Europeans that they must abandon their traditional sport of slaughtering one another, because the next try would be the last. So we have what political scientists like to call “a democratic peace,” though it is far from clear that democracy has much to do with it. In contrast, the US is a settler-colonial state, which [murdered] the indigenous population and consigned the remnants to “reservations,” while conquering half of Mexico, then expanding beyond. Far more than in Europe, the rich internal diversity was destroyed. The civil war cemented central authority, and uniformity in other domains as well: national language, cultural patterns, huge state-corporate social engineering projects such as the suburbanization of the society, massive central subsidy of advanced industry by research and development, procurement and other devices, and much else.

The new emerging economies in Asia have incredible internal problems, unknown in the West. We know more about India than China, because it is a more open society. There are reasons why it ranks 130th in the Human Development Index (about where it was before the partial neoliberal reforms); China ranks 90th, and the rank could be worse if more were known about it. That only scratches the surface. In the 18th century, China and India were the commercial and industrial centers of the world, with sophisticated market systems, advanced health levels by comparative standards, and so on. But imperial conquest and economic policies (state intervention for the rich, free markets rammed down the throats of the poor) left them in miserable conditions. It is notable that the one country of the [global] South that developed was Japan, the one country that was not colonized. The correlation is not accidental.

Is the US still dictating IMF policies?

It’s opaque, but my understanding is that IMF’s economists are supposed to be, maybe are, somewhat independent of the political people. In the case of Greece, and austerity generally, the economists have come out with some strongly critical papers in the Brussels programs, but the political people seem to be ignoring them.

On the foreign policy front, the “war on terror” seems to be a never ending enterprise and, as with the Hydra monster, a new head pops when one is cut off. Can massive interventions of force wipe out terrorist organizations like ISIS?

Upon taking office, Obama expanded intervention forces and stepped up the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, just as he had promised he would do. There were peaceful options, some recommended right in the mainstream: in Foreign Affairs, for example. But these did not fall under consideration. Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s first message to Obama, which went unanswered, was a request to stop bombing civilians. Karzai also informed a UN delegation that he wanted a timetable for withdrawal of foreign (meaning US) troops. Immediately he fell out of favor in Washington, and accordingly shifted from a media favorite to “unreliable,” “corrupt,” etc. — which was no more true than when he was feted as our “our man” in Kabul. Obama sent many more troops and stepped up bombing on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border — the Durand line, an artificial border established by the British, which cuts the Pashtun areas in two and which the people have never accepted. Afghanistan in the past often pressed for obliterating it.

The entire world is in a tenuous situation, to say the least.

That is the central component of the “war on terror.” It was certain to stimulate terror, just as the invasion of Iraq did, and as resort to force does quite generally. Force can succeed. The existence of the US is one illustration. The Russians in Chechnya is another. But it has to be overwhelming, and there are probably too many tentacles to wipe out the terrorist monster that was largely created by Reagan and his associates, since nurtured by others. ISIS is the latest one, and a far more brutal organization than al-Qaeda. It is also different in the sense that it has territorial claims. It can be wiped out through massive employment of troops on the ground, but that won’t end the emergence of similar-minded organizations. Violence begets violence.

US relations with China have gone through different phases over the past few decades, and it is hard to get a handle on where things stand today. Do you anticipate future US-Sino relations to improve or deteriorate?

The US has a love-hate relation with China. China’s abysmal wages, working conditions, and lack of environmental constraints are a great boon to US and other Western manufacturers who transfer operations there, and to the huge retail industry, which can obtain cheap goods. And the US now relies on China, Japan and others to sustain its own economy. But China poses problems as well. It does not intimidate easily… When the US shakes its fist at Europe and tells Europeans to stop doing business with Iran, they mostly comply. China doesn’t pay much attention. That’s frightening. There is a long history of conjuring up imaginary Chinese threats. It continues.

Do you see China being in a position any time soon to pose a threat to US global interests?

Among the great powers, China has been the most reserved in use of force, even military preparations. So much so that leading US strategic analysts (John Steinbrunner and Nancy Gallagher, writing in the journal of the ultra-respectable American Academy of Arts and Sciences) called on China some years ago to lead a coalition of peace-loving nations to confront the US aggressive militarism that they think is leading to “ultimate doom.” There is little indication of any significant change in that respect. But China does not follow orders, and is taking steps to gain access to energy and other resources around the world. That constitutes a threat.

Indian-Pakistani relations pose clearly a major challenge in US foreign policy. Is this a situation the US can actually have under control?

To a limited extent. And the situation is highly volatile. There is constant ongoing violence in Kashmir — state terror by India, Pakistan-based terrorists. And much more, as the recent Mumbai bombings revealed. There are also possible ways to reduce tensions. One is a planned pipeline to India through Pakistan from Iran, the natural source of energy for India. Presumably, Washington’s decision to undermine the Nonproliferation treaty by granting India access to nuclear technology was in part motivated by the hope of undercutting this option, and bringing India to join in Washington’s campaign against Iran. It also may be a related issue in Afghanistan, where there has long been discussion of a pipeline (TAPI) from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and then India. It is probably not a very live issue, but quite possibly is in the background. The “great game” of the 19th century is alive and well.

In many circles, there is a widespread impression that the Israel lobby calls the shots in US foreign policy in the Middle East. Is the power of the Israel lobby so strong that it can have sway over a superpower?

My friend Gilbert Achcar, a noted specialist on the Middle East and international affairs generally, describes that idea as “phantasmagoric.” Rightly. It is not the lobby that intimidates US high tech industry to expand its investments in Israel, or that twists the arm of the US government so that it will pre-position supplies there for later US military operations and intensify close military and intelligence relations.

When the lobby’s goals conform to perceived US strategic and economic interests, it generally gets its way: crushing of Palestinians, for example, a matter of little concern to US state-corporate power. When goals diverge, as often happens, the Lobby quickly disappears, knowing better than to confront authentic power.

I agree totally with your analysis, but I think you would also agree that the Israel lobby is influential enough, and beyond whatever economic and political leverage it carries, that criticisms of Israel still cause hysterical reactions in the US — and you certainly have been a target of right-wing Zionists for many years. To what do we attribute this intangible influence on the part of the Israel lobby over American public opinion?

That is all true, though much less so than in recent years. It is not really power over public opinion. In numbers, by far the largest support for Israeli actions is independent of the lobby: Christian religious fundamentalist. British and American Zionism preceded the Zionist movement, based on providentialist interpretations of Biblical prophecies. The population at large supports the two-state settlement, doubtless unaware that the US has been unilaterally blocking it. Among educated sectors, including Jewish intellectuals, there was little interest in Israel before its great military victory in 1967, which really established the US-Israeli alliance. That led to a major love affair with Israel on the part of the educated classes. Israel’s military prowess and the US-Israel alliance provided an irresistible temptation to combine support for Washington with worship of power and humanitarian pretexts… But to put it in perspective, reactions to criticism of US crimes are at least as severe, often more so. If I count up the death threats I have received over the years, or the diatribes in journals of opinion, Israel is far from the leading factor. The phenomenon is by no means restricted to the US. Despite much self-delusion, Western Europe is not very different — though, of course, it is more open to criticism of US actions. The crimes of others usually tend to be welcome, offering opportunities to posture about one’s profound moral commitments.

Under Erdogan, Turkey has been in a process of unfolding a new-Ottoman strategy towards the Middle East and Central Asia. Is the unfolding of this grand strategy taking place with the collaboration or the opposition of the United States?

Turkey of course has been a very significant US ally, so much so that under Clinton it became the leading recipient of US arms (after Israel and Egypt, in a separate category). Clinton poured arms into Turkey to help it carry out a vast campaign of murder, destruction, and terror against its Kurdish minority. Turkey has also been a major ally of Israel since 1958, part of a general alliance of non-Arab states, under the US aegis, with the task of ensuring control over the world’s major energy sources by protecting the ruling dictators against what is called “radical nationalism” — a euphemism for the populations. US-Turkish relations have sometimes been strained. That was particularly true in the build-up to the US invasion of Iraq, when the Turkish government, bowing to the will of 95% of the population, refused to join. That caused fury in the US. Paul Wolfowitz was dispatched to order the disobedient government to mend its evil ways, to apologize to the US and to recognize that its duty is to help the US. These well-publicized events in no way undermined Wolfowitz’s reputation in the liberal media as the “idealist-in-chief” of the Bush administration, utterly dedicated to promoting democracy. Relations are somewhat tense today too, though the alliance is in place. Turkey has quite natural potential relations with Iran and Central Asia and might be inclined to pursue them, perhaps raising tensions with Washington again. But it does not look too likely right now.

On the western front, are plans for the eastward expansion of NATO, which go back to the era of Bill Clinton, still in place?

One of Clinton’s major crimes in my opinion — and there were many — was to expand NATO to the East, in violation of a firm pledge to Gorbachev by his predecessors after Gorbachev made the astonishing concession to allow a united German to join a hostile military alliance. These very serious provocations were carried forward by Bush, along with a posture of aggressive militarism which, as predicted, elicited strong reactions from Russia. But American redlines are already placed on Russia’s borders.

What are your views about the EU? It is still largely a trailblazer for neoliberalism and hardly a bulwark for US aggression. But do you see any signs that it can emerge at some point as a constructive, influential actor on the world stage?

It could. That is a decision for Europeans to make. Some have favored taking an independent stance, notably De Gaulle. But by and large European elites have preferred passivity, following pretty much in Washington’s footsteps.

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