Skip to content Skip to footer

Noam Chomsky Talks US Militarism and Capitalism, at Home and Abroad

Noam Chomsky discusses the US bombing of Iraq and Syria, US policing and more.

Noam Chomsky discusses the recent climate agreement between the US and China, the rise of the Islamic State and the movement in Ferguson against racism and police violence. (Screen grab via GRITtv)

In Syria and Iraq, the “US sledgehammer” of war is having its usual effect says professor and author Noam Chomsky in his latest appearance on “The Laura Flanders Show”:

“The US bombings are, in the usual and predictable way, eliciting anger from the civilians that were under attack. They don’t like ISIS. They hate it, but they don’t want to be attacked by American bombs.”

Atrocities that US media hail as great victories; a US “war on terror” that’s the best imaginable recruiting tool for terrorists. The “official” story of today’s foreign policy is as upside-down as the mythology around the founding values of the United States itself.

From the policing of slavery, to the policing of Ferguson, Chomsky has a knack for seeing through the propaganda to turn reality back right-side up. And he asks the critical questions: like, why does it take him 90 minutes longer today to travel by train from Boston to New York than it did in 1970? What else could have been done with the money that was spent on crooked banks?

All that and a discussion of worker-owned cooperatives, some answers to viewers’ questions, and Chomsky’s take on the US-China emissions deal:

“Notice that this is a US-China agreement. It could turn out that this is going to undercut the international agreements, and it’s not impossible that that was the purpose.”

This conversation was recorded November 14 in New York City.

Laura Flanders: President Obama chose the 10th anniversary of the (2004) Battle of Fallujah to announce the doubling of the US troop presence in Iraq. Some of those troops are going back to Anbar Province where Fallujah is situated. People talk about the crisis posed by ISIS, and [the West’s] lack of good options. Is this how you see it?

Noam Chomsky: It’s interesting to look at it carefully. Fallujah, first of all, was one of the worst atrocities of the 21st century. The Iraq war itself was the worst crime of the 21st century, easily. Fallujah was probably the worst war crime carried out during that war.

Seven thousand Marines attacked Fallujah, probably killed everyone who was there. They called them insurgents – whatever that means. On the first day of the invasion of Fallujah, The New York Times had a front page photograph of Marines breaking into the general hospital, which is a war crime, and throwing all the patients and doctors on the floor and shackling them. It was hailed as a triumph.

When the high command was asked why they broke into the hospital, they said it was a propaganda center for the insurgents. [They said that the hospital] was releasing casualty figures, and therefore it’s legitimate to carry out a major war crime.

Apparently pretty exotic weapons were used there, and there’s evidence, which international agencies don’t want to look at, of high levels of cancer and other effects of maybe depleted uranium, maybe something else.

It’s a major atrocity, but it’s hailed here as a victory. The only way it is referred to now is as a tragedy because the Marines fought so hard to liberate Fallujah, and now ISIS is in control of it.

So what would you do if you were president?

First of all ISIS is a monstrosity. There isn’t a conceivable way of dealing with it. It’s kind of hard to imagine following the law (I say that cautiously because it’s such an outrageous idea), but there are laws, and we’re bound by them. The [US] Constitution requires that we adhere to them; of course we never do.

One of them is the UN Charter. A way of dealing with ISIS following the law would be to approach the UN Security Council and request that they declare a threat to peace, which of course they would do, and organize a way to respond to it. And then follow the will of the international community. Out of that there might come a reasonable response.

The unilateral US response – mainly to hit everything with a sledgehammer – makes absolutely no sense. The correspondent who’s followed this most closely and has been right all along, Patrick Cockburn, simply describes it as an Alice in Wonderland strategy.

The major ground forces that are fighting ISIS are apparently the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK and its allies in Syria. They’re barred because we call them a terrorist group, so they’re under attack. Our ally, Turkey, attacks them and we bar them support.

But they’re apparently the ones who saved the Yazidis and blocked the ISIS attack on Iraqi Kurdistan. They’re out. The major regional state that could confront ISIS is Iran. In fact, they could probably wipe them out. And they’re influential in Iraq. In fact, [they’re] the victors of the Iraq war. They’re out for ideological reasons.

A more complex case, which Patrick Cockburn has actually talked about, is what to do with Assad. That has all kinds of complexities, but anyway they’re out.

And the sledgehammer has its usual effect. The US bombings are, in the usual and predictable way, eliciting anger from the civilians that were under attack. They don’t like ISIS. They hate it, but they don’t want to be attacked by American bombs.

There was very interesting insight into this in The New York Times, maybe a week ago. The lead article should have had the headline: “The United States declares itself to be the world’s leading terrorist state and is proud of it.” That was the content of the article, but of course it didn’t have that headline. But it was very revealing. Also, the lack of response to it.

The lead story was a report of a CIA study that had just come out on US intervention and the study was concerned with when they worked and when they didn’t work and why. They quoted Obama saying that he commissioned some such studies. He was kind of disappointed they didn’t work so much. Then you take a look at the examples, first paragraph of the story, three examples: Cuba, Angola, Nicaragua. Each one a major terrorist war carried out by the United States, not even ambiguous.

So here we take three major terrorist wars with horrible consequences; we investigate: Did they work? Didn’t they work? We’re disappointed that they didn’t work. And the president says we have better ways. Again, the headline should be: “Yes, we declare ourselves to be the world’s leading terrorist state. We’re proud of it.”

It goes to a much bigger question. You talk often about the conventional wisdom being reality on its head. That goes back to the founding story of the United States.

It sure does.

Can you talk about the principles on which this country is supposedly founded versus the ones you think it might actually be founded on? I’ve been reading Edward Baptist’s extraordinary book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Well, take Baptist’s book and compare it with The New York Times this morning. There’s a description in The New York Times of the horrible treatment of the Yazidi by ISIS. Now go back to Baptist’s book. That’s what he’s describing. He’s describing the treatment of the slaves for half of American history, and in fact it continues. And it’s almost identical. That’s the way they were treated.

It’s not just kind of bad people in Georgia; Boston financiers were involved in it. They didn’t say they were in favor of slavery but they were happy to become wealthy by exporting commodities that were produced by the leading resource of the 19th century, which was cotton. Cotton was kind of like oil.

So, the oil – the cotton gets exported and they make a ton of money and the banks, they have enough money to import. The country grows and becomes rich, and in fact as Baptist says, the economy was built on the backs of African slaves.

So is capitalism – RECD as you call it – real existing capitalist democracy – in the United States. Is it redeemable, reformable?

Well, this is a good illustration of how remote our system is from capitalism. It’s hard to think of any greater violation of capitalist and market principles than slavery. But the country was based on two basic commitments: one, slavery, which was, as Baptist points out, was all the source, pretty much the source of the growing economy, including the industrial economy. The other is the extermination of the indigenous population by state power. What’s that got to do with capitalism?

In effect, it goes right to the present. If you have an iPhone and you take a look at the components in it, practically all of them were developed through the state sector, government funding, research and development, often for decades.

Public sector. We paid for it.

Yeah, we paid for it. And notice there is a principle of capitalism. Say we imagine we’re in a capitalist society. And you invest money in something, and it’s a risky investment, and you keep investing in it for decades. And finally, something comes out that makes a profit – well, in a capitalist society you’re supposed to get the profit. That’s not what happens here.

If I’m the US taxpayer . . .

You pay for decades, usually under the pretext that the Russians are coming or something. You’re paying for the kind of research and development and creative work that yields the IT revolution, computers, the internet, your iPhone, all the rest of it. Do you get anything back?

I haven’t noticed it.

It goes to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

But, we work a lot with people these days who are interested in trying to develop work around co-ops and cooperative regions of solidarity economics. Is that hopeless?

No, I think that makes sense. In fact, there are interesting things happening. The person who’s done the most writing about this is Gar Alperovitz, and it’s interesting work. Throughout the northern Middle West, like in northern Ohio, there is a spread of work around enterprises – not huge but not small either – which could be the basis of a different kind of society. And notice that these could be substantial if there was enough popular support.

So, go back a couple of years – Obama virtually nationalized the auto industry. It was collapsing, so it had to be kind of built up by the taxpayers. So he took over most of the auto industry. There were a few possibilities. One possibility, of course, was the one that was followed. Bail out the owners, bail out the banks, give it back to the same people, or other people with different faces but essentially the same roles in society, and have it continue to produce what it had always been producing – automobiles. There was another possibility.

Give it to the work force. Subsidize them to develop and have it produce what we need. What do we need? I can give you a personal example.

My wife and I came to New York by train from Boston. The train took only an hour and a half longer than when I took it in 1950 for the first time. Either it was standing still or it was going slower than the trucks on the Connecticut Turnpike.

There isn’t a country in the world where this happens. And that’s just a symbol of the country. This is the richest country in the world that has incomparable advantages and it’s just falling apart.

Were you encouraged by the news that was hailed as a breakthrough of the US-China accord around emissions, for the first time China committing to cap emissions?

Look, it’s better than nothing, but it doesn’t really amount to much. And it has potential dangers that we’d better keep our eye on. Notice that this is a US-China agreement. It could turn out that this is going to undercut the international agreements, and it’s not impossible that that was the purpose.

When we talk about Chinese emissions, remember they’re our emissions. China manufactures, say, your iPad, and there is pollution, but that’s for the American markets. So, it’s a mixed story.

Well, so that goes to the questions that we received from our Facebook friends. We invited them to pose questions for Professor Chomsky and they posed very many. They fell into several camps: How did we get into this mess? How would you describe this mess? And how do we get out of this mess? I think at the “how do you describe this mess?” situation.

One quick question in particular, was “How do you assess the strengths and weaknesses of the US movements for social justice, and how would you advise we try to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses?”

The labor movement has traditionally been in the forefront of progressive social change, and for that reason and others it’s under severe attack. Partly it’s the fault of labor bureaucrats, but partly it’s just fierce attack from the business world, which pretty much runs the country.

And by now the labor movement is a shadow of what it once was. It could come back. There have been earlier periods of American history when the labor movement was destroyed – 1920s, it was partially wiped out, 1930s it rose again, so it could happen.

But with the labor movement seriously weakened and independent political parties almost gone, there’s a lack of, a fundamental lack of, continuity in activist politics.

So everything starts from – as if nothing ever happened before. So, if you take Occupy, which was important but it came out of nowhere, no institutional memory, no recollection of the history. Not even remembering how to run a demonstration. You know, all of this kind of institutional memory is gone. There’s a lot of activism, but it’s very separated.

One of the things that I spend a lot of time doing is just giving talks around the country. And one of the major positive contributions is it just brings people together in the same community. People may be doing the same thing in different neighborhoods and don’t know each other. And that extends across the country. What’s happening here nobody knows about there. That’s a serious weakness.

One of the other questions we had from our Facebook page was from people asking about the prospects for a movement growing out of the conflict in Ferguson and the role of police and the militarization of police in our society. Do you see any prospects for a broad anti-racist social justice movement coming out of that mobilization?

There are prospects, but it’s going to be very hard. This is a very racist society. I mean it’s pretty shocking. What has happened in the last, roughly 30 years, with regard to African-Americans, actually is very similar to what Baptist describes in the late 19th century. Remember what happened – the constitutional amendments during and after the Civil War were supposed to free African-American slaves.

It did something for about 10 years then there was a North-South compact, which essentially granted the former slave-owning states the right to do whatever they wanted. And what they did was criminalize black life in all kinds of ways. That created a kind of a slave force.

In fact, one of the most interesting books on it [is] Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name. It threw mostly black males, but also women, into jail where they became a perfect labor force, much better than slaves. If you’re a slave owner you have to keep your capital alive. If the state does it for you, it’s terrific. No strikes, no disobedience, the perfect labor force.

A lot of the American Industrial Revolution in the late 19th, early 20th century, is based on that. And that actually pretty much lasted until World War II when there was a need for what’s called free labor in the war industry. After that came about two decades in which African-Americans had kind of a shot at entering this society. A black worker could get a job at an auto plant; the unions were still functioning; maybe he could buy a small house and send his kid to college or something.

By the 1970s or ’80s, it’s going back to criminalization of black life. It’s called the drug war, which is a racist war. Ronald Reagan was an extreme racist and denied it. And the whole drug war is designed, from policing up to eventual release from prison to make it impossible, for the black male community, and more and more women and more and more Hispanics, to be part of the society.

If you look at American history, the first slaves came in 1619, and that’s half a millennium. There have been about three or four decades in which African-Americans had a limited degree of freedom, not entirely, but at least some.

And of course, for black elites there are some privileges, but I’m talking about the mass of the population, which has been re-criminalized and also turned into a slave labor force (prison labor for example). This is American history. To break out of that is no small trick.

If you take a look at the elections, say the last election, in many ways it’s a civil war. The red states are the confederacy. That extent is a little bit beyond, but that’s pretty much what it is. This is a real battle. These two founding crimes, slavery and extermination of the indigenous population, are very much with us. Take a look at Indian reservations today. It’s not a pretty sight.

People could talk a lot about what to do, but I do have to ask you one other important question that came out of Democracy Now! yesterday. I don’t know whether you heard, but rumors were spread of unseemly behavior by yourself at summer camp with Amy Goodman’s father.

I read it. I didn’t read – somebody sent it to me.

Russell Brand, the British actor/comedian wants to know, did you bite Amy Goodman’s father’s ear?

I’m afraid not. He was a friend. We were campers at a camp, and we were in the same bunk. And we were friends, and we knew each other for a couple of years but never got as close as biting his ear I’m afraid.

So, to be clear, not to put too fine a point on it, but this whole question of Chomsky cannibalism . . .

Not true. Sorry. It’s a nice story.

But maybe ‘chompers’ isn’t bad.

Yea, it sounds good.

Pretty good.

But we were friends.

What do you think of Russell Brand?

Actually, I don’t know much about popular culture.

Sounds like he should pay you a visit.

Actually, Amy’s father was one of the best quarter milers in camp. I don’t know if he knew that.

And were you a runner?

No, no. I stayed and watched.

Noam, thank you so much. It’s great to have you.

Noam Chomsky’s latest book is Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013, from Haymarket Books. Watch his interview in full on “The Laura Flanders Show,” now seen every week on TeleSUR English and starting this month, on KCET/Link TV. Find out more at

Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.