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Noam Chomsky Post-Election: We Need More Organization, Education, Activism

In a far-ranging discussion of US politics and policies

Keane Bhatt: So let’s start with your post-November 6 analysis. What, in your mind, have been the lessons to take away from the elections?

Noam Chomsky: The United States is a special case, and for me, very interesting. It’s studied carefully and we know a lot about it. One of the most striking features of the elections is the class-based character of the vote. Now, class is not discussed or even measured in the United States. In fact, the word is almost obscene, except for the term “middle class.” And you can’t get exact class data; the census doesn’t even give class data. But you can sort of see the significance of it just from income figures.

If you look at income levels from the lowest to the highest, as you move up, the proportion of Republican votes increases almost in a straight line. If you take voters above the median, Romney would’ve won by a landslide; below the median, Obama would’ve. Now, that understates the reality, because almost half the population doesn’t vote, and they’re skewed very heavily towards the lower income distributions. And studies of these people show they are overwhelmingly Democratic – in fact, social democratic. So if they had voted, the small Obama victory would’ve been huge.

Why didn’t they vote? Well, there are things they know intuitively, which are well studied in the political science literature. One of the things it does quite well is study polling, which is very extensive. So we know a lot of what people think, and there’s very good work comparing attitudes as indicated by polls with policy – and there’s some pretty striking results. The sort of gold standard in this work right now is Martin Gilens’ recent book, which is quite good. What he points out is that the lower 70 percent have no influence on policy, so they’re essentially disenfranchised. And then as you move up higher, you get a little more influence. When you get to the very top, they essentially get what they want. Polling results aren’t sharp enough for him to deal with the crucial segment of the population – the top fraction of 1 percent – which is where the real concentration of wealth is, and undoubtedly the real concentration of power. But you can’t show it, because the polls aren’t good enough.

Going back to why people don’t vote, I presume the main reason is because they understand without reading political science texts that it doesn’t make any difference how they vote. It’s not going to affect policy, so why bother?

On top of that are all the various difficulties that are imposed on less privileged people to vote. We know about all that. It starts with the fact that the voting is on Tuesday. It’s a workday, so you can’t take off from work, and it goes on from there. So that affects it, but my guess is – I don’t think it’s been studied – the primary reason for not voting is just the recognition that it doesn’t make any difference. Those guys up there aren’t interested in me anyhow, so why should I bother?

So what you have is a highly class-based electoral system which is almost overwhelmed by the fact that in order to even participate in the election, you have to have a huge amount of money. You get that money from the pockets of wealth, the corporate sector and wealthy individuals, so you’re naturally indebted to them.

There’s another very striking fact about the elections which you can’t miss if you looked at the red-and-blue electoral map the next day: it’s the same political landscape that you saw during the Civil War – nothing much has changed except the party names. In the 1960s, civil rights legislation was coming along, and Nixon recognized the Southern strategy would work – that combination means that the Republicans and Democrats shifted names, but other than that, it’s the same distinction. And that tells you something pretty important about American politics.

After the Civil War, the party system reconstituted, but it reconstituted along sectional lines. So there was a slogan: “You vote where you shoot.” If you were in the Confederacy, you voted Democrat. If you were in the North, you voted Republican. It was a little mixed, due to the fact that many Northern workers were Catholic and they voted Democratic. But that was because of Tammany-style politics, so they’re kind of out of the general system anyway; they were just being helped around by corrupt Irish politicians. But the basic split is sectional voting. Now it very quickly turned out that the two sectional parties were naturally taken over by manufacturing and financial interests. And that’s where it’s been ever since.

We have never had class-based parties. We’ve had parties run by the business classes. There’s slight variations. Like in the New Deal period, there was a lot of popular activism, so things shifted slightly, but not much. Thomas Ferguson in particular has shown that the New Deal was strongly supported by high-tech, internationally oriented business, like General Electric and so on. And it never would’ve gotten anywhere if it hadn’t been for that. So basically, you have a business party with two factions, one with somewhat more of a base in the general population, one with less.

That’s sharpened in the last couple of years. Something interesting happened in the last 20 years, roughly. The Republicans basically abandoned any pretense of being a parliamentary party. They’ve simply become the party of the super-rich and the corporate structure, with a kind of a lock-step uniformity – like everybody has to sign a catechism and so on. That’s not a political party, and you can’t get votes that way. So in order to get votes, they’ve been compelled to mobilize sectors of the population that were always there, but were never really a political force.

And it’s a pretty crazy country in a lot of ways. It’s a super-religious country, way off the international spectrum. There’s no country in the world like it. These people were mobilized and that’s part of the base. It has always been a very frightened country, way back to colonial times. There’s a big sector that thinks, “They’re coming to get us,” whoever “they” are – maybe the UN, or the government or somebody; it used to be the Indians and the slaves. So you have to have guns, and you have to defend yourself. It goes way back in American history. So those are people who are mobilized: kind of a nativist, frightened population, which is quite substantial.

On top of that, there’s just the straight racist issue, which has been exacerbated by the fact that whites are becoming a minority. So you hear John Boehner say, “They’re taking our country away from us.” “They” being, well … okay. And all of this stuff creates a base which is kind of off the international spectrum. Take a look at the primaries – they’re pretty interesting. The Republican establishment obviously wanted Romney – he’s one of them – but the base didn’t want him. So people kept coming up from the base: Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum; one nutcase after another. And they were going to win.

But as soon as they came up, a huge flood of attack ads poured in to smash them down and the establishment finally got their guy. But they’ve got a problem, and the problem is similar to the problem German industrialists faced in the early 30s. They were happy to have the Nazis as their storm-troops to destroy the labor movement and so on, and they figured they could control them. It didn’t turn out that way, but it’s not so obvious what’s going to happen here.

KB: After the elections you said, “Unless there’s an organized, militant labor movement, it’s very unlikely that the goals of changing the society will be achieved.” But 42 percent of the public would like to see unions have less influence, while just 25 percent would like to see them have more. Even more strikingly, 38 percent of union households voted for anti-union Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in June.

The European social democracies counted on roughly a 70-80 percent unionization rate for their proper functioning. What would returning to the historic US high-water mark of 1954, where a third of the country was unionized, do? And how exactly does labor go about achieving it? Could even high union density be enough to address a host of newer problems, like climate catastrophe, which are unlikely to be solved through simply a more social-democratic political system?

NC: You have to look at American history. The US has been, to an unusual extent, a business-run society – I mentioned some of it – and it has a very violent labor history, much more so than Europe. In fact, workers were getting murdered in strikes up through the late 1930s. Nothing like that had happened in Europe for years. There’s never been a parliamentary labor party.

The labor movement was virtually crushed by the 1920s. It was quite substantial and important. There was a big union movement, and there was also a radical farmers’ movement. The radical farmers had come from Texas, incidentally, and that was the source of the most important democratic movement in American history. It was a huge movement – the Farmers Alliance linked up with the Knights of Labor. They were crushed by force. Then they reconstituted, and then Wilson crushed them. The First Red Scare virtually eliminated the labor movement; by the 1920s, there’s nothing there.

It picked up in the 30s with the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] organizing sit-down strikes and so on. Business was terrified. If you read the business press, they thought the world was coming to an end. Then they immediately turned to other methods to block the labor movement: recall the scientific methods of strikebreaking, the Mohawk Valley formula and things like that. Well, the war came along – everything got put on hold – but immediately after the war, all of this went into operation.

It was a huge business offensive, astonishing in its scale. There’s pretty good scholarship on it – the propaganda penetrated churches, sports leagues, schools, cinema, almost anything you can think of. Nothing was left out to try to make sure that labor was destroyed. It had an effect. The attack on labor persisted. There were some changes in the 60s, but in the early 70s, it was resumed – part of the neoliberal assault, which was violently anti-union.

By now, as you know, it’s down to like 7 percent in private industry. A lot of hatred of unions is simply based on the effectiveness of propaganda, and partly it’s themselves. I’m sure you remember that in 1979, Doug Fraser, then head of the United Auto Workers (UAW), made an important speech. He pulled out of the labor-business council that [Jimmy] Carter was setting up. He complained that business had been fighting a one-sided class war against labor, and that’s not right. He was correct, except he was a little bit late. It had been going on throughout American history and the labor movement had cooperated. The business world through the 50s and the 60s made a deal, so the UAW would say, “Okay, you do something for us, and we’ll shut up; give us pensions and decent health care and we won’t do anything for the rest of the population. We’ll give up control on the shop floor and so on.”

Well, that compact is a suicide pact for labor. If business didn’t like it, they would say, “Okay, get lost,” which is exactly what they did. And of course, then Reagan came along and basically informed the business world that you can do anything you like to break unions. You can violate the law, and in fact, illegal firing of organizers tripled in the Reagan years. Clinton came along and he added another way of destroying unions. It’s called NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement]. He didn’t bother saying it, but the business world knew they could violate labor laws to break strikes by threatening to transfer enterprises to Mexico. And the number of illegal actions like that shot up again. Bush I won’t talk about – or Obama.

The net effect is that private-sector labor has been very seriously harmed, also in the public mind – partly their own fault. Now, what about the public sector? That was able to preserve the legal conditions, so now they’re under attack. It’s mostly a propaganda attack, and Obama’s a big part of it. You have to try and get people to think that their problems are due to the fact that teachers have pensions; it’s not that Goldman Sachs has money coming out of its ears. It’s because the teachers have pensions and I don’t have a pension.

That’s been the terrific propaganda, and that’s what happened in Wisconsin, and elsewhere, too: huge attacks on schools, teachers and public-sector workers generally to try to break that last bit. Well, can that ever be reversed? It was reversed in the 30s, from a much smaller base, so you don’t know.

KB: You say that this compact by which productivity gains were distributed in the form of higher wages to the working class is broken. But as you and Thomas Ferguson point out, there’s still a crucial need for intermediary institutions in order to pool working peoples’ resources and have a functioning industrial democracy. In your talks, you often bring up the work of political economist Gar Alperovitz, and he writes about a latent mosaic of institutional power that potentially can be built up and activated. It doesn’t simply bargain with capital, but in a way, takes over the means of production through things like community ownership, worker ownership and co-ops, of which 120 million in the United States are members. How feasible is this strategy, and what are your thoughts on the United Steelworkers’ memorandum of agreement with Mondragón, a high-tech, multibillion-dollar co-op in Spain?

NC: It’s a good move, but notice that this means going back to the 19th century. The 19th-century American working class was very militant. If you read the labor press in the 19th century and look at the Knights of Labor, it’s exactly what they were saying: “Those who work in the mills ought to own them. We don’t want managers, we will run everything ourselves. We will link up with the huge Farmers’ Alliance, which is saying, ‘We’re going to get rid of the merchants and the banks and do it ourselves.'” And it was the greatest democratic movement in US history. Well, it was crushed by force. The Knights of Labor were destroyed by Jay Gould and state force; the Farmers’ Alliance was broken up under all kinds of pressure.

But we can reconstitute that conception. What Gar is talking about is not reform; it’s revolution. If you have worker-owned and worker-managed enterprises, you’ve got a different sociopolitical system. Mondragón goes part of the way towards that: it’s worker-owned, not worker-managed, but a link-up to that would be a very significant. So if the Steelworkers pursue this, it could be significant.

They are going to run into tremendous barriers. I mean, the government and the business world will go berserk if this goes beyond a pretty low level. Right now, as Gar points out, you can get Republican governors supporting it, but not if it moves on. In fact, this issue came up – unfortunately wasn’t pursued – but could’ve come up just two or three years ago when Obama basically nationalized the auto industry. One option at that point would’ve been to hand it over to the workforce and have them produce the things the country needs.

You can’t take a fast train from Boston to New York, but you can take a fast train from China to Kazakhstan. That’s kind of surreal. And that’s what the country needs; that’s one example. The auto industry could certainly have been reconstructed to do that kind of work. Along with the communities, they could have taken over the whole industry, because it was basically in the hands of the government. If there had been consciousness and popular pressure for that, it could have been pushed through. And that, again, could lead to a revolutionary change to the society.

KB: You’ve brought up how the public relations industry, in just half-year blocks, was able to put the US public into a frenzy in the lead-up to both world wars. It was similarly effective in changing public opinion to oppose the popular Office of Price Administration after World War II.

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But in this election, Republicans far outspent Democrats on propaganda financed by secretive political action committees (PACs). And yet, they were still roundly defeated despite the poor economic conditions that confronted the incumbent. Do you think that propaganda in a post-Citizens United era is seeing diminishing returns and that controlling the public mind is becoming harder?

NC: It’s doing fine. The propaganda is working very effectively. Take what we were just discussing: public unions, public teachers. That’s been a very effective campaign. And again, it runs from the White House to the cinema.

KB: And what about the number of progressive state ballot propositions that passed, despite vigorous propaganda campaigns?

NC: The state ballot propositions are often pretty nice, like in Massachusetts. Did you see that? There was a non-binding referendum here, which I was happy to sign. I thought it was great. It was initiated by Joe Gerson and the American Friends Services Committee: good people. But it was non-binding.

KB: Propositions in California succeeded in raising taxes on the rich and on big business, in the face of elite opposition. You’ve said that organizing at the local level and even the national level is more effective than at the state level, where corporate domination is most pronounced. But given state-level electoral initiatives that legalized marijuana in Washington and Colorado, and other reproducible initiatives like North Dakota’s state bank or Vermont’s attempt at single-payer health care, is it worth re-evaluating where best to invest energy and resources?

NC: I don’t know if you re-evaluate. You just do what’s likely to work, and it’s different at different times and different places. So what you can do in Vermont, you can’t do in Georgia. Maybe it will get to a point where you could do it. Actually, Georgia is interesting. If you look at polls – again, it’s a heavily polled country – it’s remarkable to see the results. There was one major poll of Southern whites on one issue: taxes. And it turns out a large majority favored higher taxes on the wealthy, and pretty much the same large majority favored the Romney tax plan. That’s possibly just racism, but partly – very likely – it’s just not understanding what’s going on.

That’s an opportunity for organizers. If you look at studies of people – the Tea Party types who want to “get the government off our backs” – they’re mostly social democrats. They want higher spending on education, health, aid to the families with dependent children, but not if the buzzword, “welfare,” is used. Reagan succeeded in demonizing that with racism.

KB: In the first year of the recovery, 93 percent of all income gains went to the top 1 percent. Median household income after inflation has fallen to 8 percent below what it was in 2007. Racial disparities have also expanded. Meanwhile, the regional chief economist of the World Bank introduced a recent paper on reduced inequality in Latin America by saying, “Latin America is approaching the norm of advanced economies, but unfortunately, advanced economies are approaching the norm of the Latin America model.”

NC: That’s true. That’s the neoliberal assault on the population. It’s been going on since the late 70s, and it picked up sharply under Reagan and Thatcher. In the Third World it has been a disaster everywhere, but it has harmed the rich countries, too. It has harmed the United States; it’s actually even worse in Europe. By comparative standards, the Federal Reserve is pretty progressive, much more so than the European Central Bank. And the ECB is dedicated to trying to destroy the welfare state. There is no other explanation for what it’s doing.

KB: Considering that the United States is a more business-run society than the European countries, what accounts for the more progressive actions taken by the Fed? How much of it owes to the institutional priorities of the Federal Reserve and its dual mandate, and how much does intellectual culture account for?

NC: I don’t really know how to divide them. How the institutions function depends on the reigning culture, and the same institutions could function differently. So take the Fed. The Fed has two mandates, unlike the ECB, which has only one. One mandate is controlling inflation, which the ECB also has, but in a much more rigid form (they have a Bundesbank rule, which the Fed doesn’t have). But the other Fed mandate, which ECB doesn’t have, is full employment. So that’s the institution – how it works depends on lots of other things.

Take a look at the current debates in Washington, and of course, everything in the media. Only one issue is discussed: the deficit – the least significant issue, but the most significant issue for the banks. The big problem, joblessness, is barely discussed, even though that’s what the public wants, as polls clearly show. That’s even what the business press supports, but the financial institutions are so powerful that the only issue is the deficit, and this runs right through the intellectual culture. Take a look at the recent issue of The New York Review of Books, which kind of represents left-liberal intellectual culture. There’s a big article by Paul Volcker about the problem the country faces: the deficit. I don’t think he even mentions the word jobs. It’s potentially maybe a problem someday, but it’s not a problem now. In fact, even the famous markets that everyone’s supposed to revere don’t think it’s a problem. That’s why they’re buying 30-year Treasury securities and bonds with practically no interest – because they don’t think there’s an inflation problem.

KB: Regarding left-liberal intellectual culture and the market, you’ve talked about the functioning of market systems leading to the devastation of the planet. You’ve even called capitalism a suicide pact. Paul Krugman’s position, however, is that by getting the incentives right through taxes on pollution or a limited number of licenses, “You can simultaneously have economic growth while reducing the impact on the environment. There’s no inherent contradiction. In practice we don’t do it nearly enough,” but “it’s not the economic growth per se that’s the problem.”

NC: I think the problem is deeper than that. It’s true that you can fiddle to make things a little less bad, but it’s a fundamental question about markets, a very fundamental question: externalities are externalities. Unless you get them internalized, in which case you don’t have a market system anymore, the externalities will be ignored. And one of the externalities is the survival of the species.

I like what he’s doing and I think what he’s proposing is fine, but it’s not going to overcome the fundamental defects. That’s only one defect of market systems. Another one is what it does to people. I mean, market systems turn you into a sociopath – you’re out there for yourself, and you don’t give a damn about anyone else. That’s a market system. That itself is destructive.

KB: Economist Ha-Joon Chang has talked about how the meaning of economic development before the reign of neoliberal ideology originally implied a transformation of production, not simply increased progress on indicators like poverty. Like him, do you see industrialization as necessary to deal with global poverty? If so, what kinds of industrialization would be best, and how could such a process be reconciled with climate change and managed with democratic participation?

NC: First of all, when you quoted Krugman on growth, growth is not a good thing in itself – maybe it’s a bad thing. There are some kinds of growth which are good because it would be healthy for the society and future generations if they reduce consumption-based growth. So take, again, high-speed rail – that’s the right kind of industrialization for this moment. Sooner or later, it has to go somewhere else – more localism. I basically agree with Keynes on this.

In the short term, things like high-speed rail to reverse the extremely wasteful use of hydrocarbons would make a lot of sense. There are simple things which would make sense. Take, say, weatherization, which would make a big cut in the unemployment rate. That’s the kind of work that plenty of people are quick to do, and it would save individual households money, and it would make a significant reduction in the threats of climate change. But something is holding it back: the sociopathic character of market systems. You just do things for yourself.

Take the last hurricane, Hurricane Sandy. Look at the affluent suburbs in Boston, where I happen to live – by now they are very rich, because land prices have gone through the roof, so there are mansions all over the place. I haven’t seen figures, but I’m sure the average wealth is ridiculously high. But every time there is a storm, people lose power and there’s a very simple reason: power lines are above ground. To put them underground would require people getting together and saying, “I’ll sacrifice the price of an elegant dinner so we all benefit.” But you can’t do that in a sociopathic society.

It’s the same reason why people spend a couple hours a day driving to work instead of taking an efficient subway system, because that would be doing something together. And yes, if you have market systems, you’re going to support that kind of a behavior and even that kind of thinking. A lot of reason for Ron Paul’s popularity among young people is not very pleasant. He’s saying, “I’ll do things for myself and to hell with you.”

KB: Here’s a question about liberal intellectual culture in the context of international affairs. While human rights organizations provide valuable information and engage in important advocacy, they can play a role similar to that of The New York Times, demarcating what qualifies as respectable debate. José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Americas division, singled out Venezuela by saying a 2008 report was written “to show to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone.” He and HRW’s global advocacy director Peggy Hicks wrote a letter to Chávez on November 9, saying that the country was unfit to serve on the UN’s human rights council, which The Washington Post repurposed as an editorial two days later. HRW sent no similar letter to Obama, and the US was quietly re-elected to a three-year term on the same council.

Amnesty International, for its part, went to Chicago for the NATO summit in May, but unlike activists protesting the brutal US military occupation of Afghanistan, Amnesty’s Cristina Finch wrote that, “There is real danger that women’s rights will get thrown under the bus as the US searches for a quick exit from Afghanistan…. This is a defining moment for the US government to show that it will not abandon women.”

Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Protect Journalists called his organization a “human rights defender,” yet said little to defend beleaguered journalist Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who faces the threat of extradition to the United States, where he could be held under the same “cruel, degrading and inhuman” conditions that Bradley Manning suffered. Instead, Lauría noted that it was “ironic” that Ecuador “has granted asylum to Assange,” given the country’s poor reputation on press freedoms. No watchdog groups noted the irony of Ecuadorian editor Emilio Palacio seeking asylum within the United States, which imprisoned an Al Jazeera cameraman for six years in Guantánamo.

Having detailed the behavior of the media, do you think such institutions similarly manufacture consent? And given their sterling reputations in the public sphere, is there a way to hold these accountability groups accountable?

NC: They do some good things. They’re part of the educated, liberal, intellectual elite and suffer from its deficiencies, so you hold them accountable in the same way you hold the media and intellectual community accountable. Take Human Rights Watch. There’s some things that they’ve proposed that they keep kind of quiet, but which are quite good. They’re way out in the lead in boycotts, divestment and sanctions on Israel. They’ve called on the US government to stop any funding of Israel that’s in any way related to the occupied territories or to repression inside Israel. That’s nice. It’s a good plank – they make sure no one hears much about it, but I’m glad it’s there.

Venezuela is one of their main hates, so they’ll say Venezuela is not fit but they won’t say the United States is not fit, though it’s much worse than Venezuela. You can say the same about the press. You can say the same about the Harvard Faculty Club. These are the things you have to struggle against all the time.

KB: You’ve described Latin America as a region that gives you hope for the future. However, over the last few years, two democratically elected reformist governments have been overthrown in what are being termed parliamentary coups: Manuel Zelaya of Honduras in 2009, and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay in June. Do you see these as isolated incidents or as part of a larger trend?

NC: The coup in Honduras is one act, and the overthrow of Lugo is another. The effort to reestablish military bases in Chile is yet another. They’re all part of the same thing. Latin America has extricated itself to a very large extent from Western control. The US military bases have been thrown out. During the hemispheric Cartagena conference, the US and Canada were totally isolated. The US is not giving up – it’s trying to reconstruct its position. Honduras is a striking case – that’s Obama. But they’re going to keep trying. If they succeed depends in part on Latin American resistance and in large part on us.

KB: In the 60s and 70s, the United States helped initiate and fortify dictatorships in some of Latin America’s most powerful countries, like Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Is it a (grim) sign of progress that the only cases in which the United States was successful in subverting democracy recently were Honduras in 2009 and Haiti in 2004 and 2010? They happen to be the hemisphere’s poorest and most vulnerable countries.

NC: Haiti and Honduras are indeed the poorest and most vulnerable, and incidentally there’s a quite good correlation between US intervention over many years, and poverty and destruction. So for example, if you look at Central America and the Caribbean, the main area of US intervention, the poorest country is Haiti, the leading target of US intervention. Vying for second place are Guatemala and Nicaragua, and Honduras is sort of hovering around there too; they are the next main targets of intervention.

If you go on, the United States hasn’t overthrown the government or invaded one country, which is Costa Rica, and it’s the one that’s more or less functioning. Also, Honduras is very important because it has a major US military base. As you know, the US has been expelled from all of its military bases in South America. It’s trying to reconstitute some, but right now it doesn’t have any solid ones. The Palmerola base in Honduras is a major US base, and I presume that has something to do with US support for the election which took place under the coup regime, effectively support for the military coup. Also, Zelaya was moving somewhat tentatively towards the kinds of social reforms that the US has always opposed and will try to stop if it can – and it’s presumably another reason.

As for Haiti, that’s just been the plaything of the imperial powers – mainly France and the US – for hundreds of years. It’s kind of interesting the way it’s described. So, for example, The New York Times recently had an article on how Haiti has been harmed by poorly conceived agricultural policies, as for example, reliance on highly subsidized US rice exports since the mid 90s. But they failed to add that acceptance of these highly subsidized rice exports was, of course, a condition that Aristide had to accept in order to be reinstated in Clinton’s intervention in 1994. And that was done with the certain knowledge that it would undermine Haiti’s rice production.

In fact, USAID studies and others have pointed it out, but it’s obvious anyway. Years later, Clinton said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it,” which you can believe if you’d like. But that’s the slight omission of guilt, and in fact it goes well beyond, because Clinton had imposed conditions that required Haiti to open its borders to all kinds of foreign economic intervention, and, in fact, some of it is kind of grotesque.

So, for example, Haiti’s a very poor country and doesn’t have much to sustain it – especially after years of US policies and more, going back, but it did have a couple of things functioning. Actually, it did have pretty good agricultural production (like rice, but that was wiped out). It had, for example, a small chicken-parts factory.

Well, major American producers like Tyson have a lot of extra dark meat around because Americans don’t like dark meat, so they’re trying to dump them on the market. Canada and Mexico are independent enough that they can block it with anti-dumping procedures, but Haiti, thanks to Clinton’s rules, couldn’t, so that small industry was wiped out by huge American food processing companies like Tyson. And it continues.

KB: You once said Clinton’s apology for decimating the country’s agricultural base may have been unprecedented in imperial history. Yet last month, flanked by celebrities, the Clintons inaugurated a garment factory sited on rich agricultural land, which was donated to the company by the Haitian government after its farmers were displaced. The Inter-American Development Bank and the US paid for much of the infrastructure. What will be the contours of this kind of development for the country?

NC: More destruction of Haiti – and incidentally, I didn’t really take Clinton’s apology very seriously. I mean, it’s inconceivable that he didn’t know what he was doing when he imposed those conditions on the restoration of Aristide. There’s more to it than that. So for example, I haven’t heard Clinton apologize yet for the fact that under the military coup regime – a regime of real terror – there’s one thing that the Haitian elite and the military junta needed: oil. And while the CIA was testifying to Congress that all oil shipments had been stopped, you could see in fact – I was there – the oil farms being built by the rich families. And it turned out that Clinton had quietly authorized the Texaco Oil Company to evade the presidential directive against sending oil to a military junta. I haven’t seen the apology for that one yet.

KB: Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I asked you whether physician Paul Farmer of Harvard, who represented a just development model, could influence the UN as Clinton’s deputy envoy. You said you didn’t blame him for trying, and that sometimes it’s necessary to follow painful paths if we hope to provide at least a little help for suffering people. Over the past three years, what have been some of the benefits and trade-offs of his participation, and do you see any lessons to take away?

NC: Well, I still would say essentially that. I think he knows what he’s doing, and I trust his judgment and his integrity – Paul Farmer that is, I’m not talking about Clinton [laughs]. There have been a few things, and some Haitians have been helped a little bit, but the general impact has been to turn Haiti into what’s sometimes been called an NGO dependency.

I think only half of the promised aid ever got there. A lot of it is sitting in various accounts somewhere, not dispersed. What is dispersed is under the control of external sources: the NGOs and governments. The Haitians are pretty much kept out of it. The Haitian government is kept out, but more significantly, the Haitian civil society movements – which are quite important and active – they’re very largely kept out.

And what’s developed is something that meets the interests of sponsors and may have little or no value; it may even be of harm in the long term to the Haitians. Now there’s one striking exception to that, and that’s Paul Farmer’s organization, Partners In Health. They’ve been there doing the same kind of work they’ve been doing for years: trying to create heath programs and institutions and structures that can be taken over by Haitians, and in fact have been, in some significant cases. They’re responding to the initiatives and concerns of the Haitians. That’s the right thing to do, and I’m sure there are some others. I haven’t studied it in detail, but I don’t think it’s the general pattern.

KB: In late September at Georgetown University, Argentina’s President Kirchner spoke with pride about her country’s involvement in the UN military occupation of Haiti, which was organized by the US after it orchestrated a coup in 2004. Why did Latin America’s left-of-center governments sign on to this mission? Why was there no protest from Brazil, Uruguay or Argentina over the Organization of American States’ (OAS) intervention in Haiti’s already-fraudulent election in 2010? What would you recommend as appropriate steps forward for left-leaning Latin American countries regarding Haiti?

NC: Brazil had the leading role. I was kind of surprised at that, frankly, particularly when the harmful effects of the MINUSTAH [the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti] operation have become more and more clear. I don’t know what motivated Brazilian policy. My suspicion is that it’s part of their effort to gain some international recognition as part of their efforts to gain a permanent position on the UN Security Council, but that’s just a speculation.

I don’t think it’s an honorable policy – same with Argentina. And I think everyone – progressives in particular – should be trying to organize public understanding of what the impact has been and to try and press for more constructive policies, which, at this point, would probably mean withdrawing the foreign intervention forces. I believe, as far as I know, that’s what most of the Haitian people want, and they’re the ones who should make that decision, not me.

KB: The UN occupation is now almost nine years old. Its troops’ negligence led to the introduction of cholera, which has killed more than 7,500 people, and the UN is silent as to whether it will provide reparations to its victims. Haiti needs $2 billion over ten years to eradicate cholera, but that plan is unfunded. Meanwhile, the UN will spend $2 billion over the next three years on the military occupation. Yet there’s a general aversion (outside the far right) to criticize the UN.

NC: Well, first of all, what the UN does is very tightly constrained by the great powers and particularly the United States. It can’t go much beyond the bounds that they set. In addition, the UN has plenty of internal incompetence and corruption, but I tend personally not to place so much of the blame on the UN, even though there’s plenty of problems there, but on its masters: namely, the Security Council and the US.

I think your question, “Why isn’t the money spent for dealing with the epidemic that the UN troops created and could solve,” is part of the general question: Why are there no sustainable development projects responding to the initiatives and the needs of the Haitian people? The whole international effort – not all of it, like, not Partners in Health and a few others – is basically determined by the interests of the external agents who want to dominate and control and are not responsive to popular needs and interests, not just in Haiti, but quite generally. In fact, even domestically – like the question of the deficit that I mentioned earlier. Why the disparity? Well, you look at the power structures behind it – the financial institutions – and you get answers.

KB: Let’s go back to another of Clinton’s apologies: in 1999, he expressed public regret over US military and diplomatic support for Guatemala’s genocidal policies, which likely killed hundreds of thousands. He said the United States must not repeat that mistake. Today, the US provides $50 million in annual funding to Honduras’ brutal security apparatus; US agents have personally participated in raids that have killed civilians; Honduran troops accused of atrocities have been trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia and vetted by the United States. With the creation of new military bases there, do you see the United States opening a new chapter of Reagan-style support for death-squad governance?

NC: Well, as you indicated, it’s not a new policy. That’s been the policy for decades, and where there are opportunities, that’s pretty much what the US has been doing. And it’s perfectly true that since the military coup and the establishment of the Lobo government under the coup regime, which Obama supported (he was almost alone on that internationally), Honduras has become a kind of a horror story. It has the worst record of violence in the hemisphere, one of the worst in the world. It’s a significant development; in fact, it’s been harmful all around. And yes, it’s another support for, if you’d like, a death-squad government. That’s traditional US policy – nothing to be surprised about.

KB: Are large actions like the recent protest at Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly the School of the Americas, an indication of more citizen engagement on such issues, given that the scope of today’s crimes is smaller than that of the 1980s?

NC: Regarding the protests, yes, sure, they ought to take place. But the protests require, first, educational efforts so people understand what they’re about. I suspect if you did a poll in the US, only a fraction of the population would even know where Honduras is.

KB: Shortly after Obama’s reelection, the United States launched a drone bombing in Yemen; the United States, along with Israel and Palau, opposed 188 UN member states’ resolution to end the illegal embargo on Cuba; and the administration participated in Israel’s aerial bombardment of Gaza by providing diplomatic support and weapons. Many had hopes for a more progressive second term, but what are the prospects that the Obama administration will have simply a more moderated second term, like that of George W. Bush?

NC: I don’t even think it will be more moderated. Bush was so extreme in his first term with the crazy rhetoric and aggression that he just had to pull back. But Obama doesn’t have those pressures. In fact, I think there’s something like what you said, but more significant.

Take a look at the last presidential debate on foreign policy. Two words dominated everything else: Israel – because you have to show how much you adore and worship it – and Iran, because it’s the greatest threat to peace in the world. Well, let’s take the second part, Iran being the greatest threat to peace.

There are some questions: first of all, who thinks that? Turns out it’s the US and some of Europe, but not even the European public, which in polls regards Israel as the greatest threat to peace. So it’s the United States leadership, and some of its allies who think it’s a threat. It’s not the nonaligned countries; it’s not the Arab world – some of the Arab dictators, but not the population.

The next question is, what’s the threat? Well, the threat is deterrence. Iran might prevent the United States from exercising force freely, which cannot be tolerated. The third and most interesting question is, what can you do about it? Suppose you think it’s a threat. What can you do to mitigate the likelihood that Iran will develop nuclear weapons? There’s a very simple method: move towards establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone, which everybody in the world wants, but the US blocks.

There is a perfectly good way to proceed, there’s a Helsinki conference coming up. The only way the US could stop blocking it is if there’s popular pressure. There can’t be popular pressure unless people know what’s happening. They can’t know what’s happening because the free press, with 100 percent conformity, literally, has refused to report it. That’s the problem. That means continued threats of war.

KB: Finally, the World Trade Organization’s Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement, as well as NAFTA, were organized to an astonishing degree by corporate lobbies. International agreements are even more opaque and shielded from scrutiny than national policies; they’re not routinely published in draft form or publicly debated, and citizens often learn of such global rule-making only after it’s been finalized and adopted. Today, little-known rule designing like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and drug patent laws can have an enormous impact on millions of lives. Are there specific methods for regular people to influence supranational policies, given that they’re so far-removed?

NC: They’re the kind of tactics that activists used, including the labor movement, in vain, unfortunately, in the case of NAFTA and the WTO. So take, say, NAFTA: the executive version of NAFTA was rammed through without public debate, and in fact, public input was pretty much barred. US trade acts require government consultation with the labor movement before instituting agreements like that, but the labor movement was not even notified officially until barely before the Congressional vote. It nevertheless produced a major document, by the Labor Action Committee, giving a critical analysis of the executive version of NAFTA, predicting, correctly as it turned out, that it would lead to a low-wage, low-growth economy for all three participant countries, and suggesting alternatives that could very well lead to a high-growth, high-wage alternative.

The Labor Action Committee proposals happened to be virtually identical to those proposed by Congress’ main research bureau, the Office of Technology Assistance, which has since been disbanded. I think neither of them even got a notice in the media, so they were cut out. Some people wrote about them – I wrote about them, and others – and activists tried to break through this, but it was blocked.

And that just means you need more organization, more education, and more activism.

Copyright Keane Bhatt. May be reprinted with permission only, requested via email to kbnc122012[at]gmail[dot]com.