A conversation with Noam Chomsky
On the British Labour Party, the USA elections and the disintegration of the USA health care systems
by Dilan Tulsiani
Dilan Tulsiani (DT): I know we don’t have too much time, so I’ll get straight into the questions. What was your assessment of the 2019 UK election? A lot of the media here have said the results are an indication that socialism will never be popular in Britain, despite the 2017 results.
Noam Chomsky (NC): Well, I think that the reference to the 2017 election is quite appropriate. When you read the British polls, YouGov polls, it seems that the support for Labour’s policies seems quite high, which means that there were extraneous factors that led to the collapse in 2019. Not the program or the policies, but something else. Then there was Brexit. Corbyn never took a meaningful position, it was ruffling, not saying one way or another. It looked weak.
The other thing was an extraordinary attack on Corbyn, the parliamentary Labour party, the demonization, vilification, a fraudulent anti-Semitism campaign. It’s been well exposed; I don’t have to go through it. The false charge of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is virtually undetectable - it’s not an issue.
For whatever reason, Corbyn’s personal popularity sank. It was affected by the hysterical media campaign against Corbyn. My impression is, he’s a very decent person, a very good person… but wasn’t able to project a political presence many people wanted to listen to. I think these are some of the factors that led to the disastrous election result.
If the policies of 2017 are still favoured by much of the population, then the prospects of moving forward with a progressive approach is quite auspicious. Labour, for years, has been concentrating on city organising, ignoring rural deindustrialised areas - that has to be compensated for. It can be done, there are a lot of people in these areas that could be mobilised to support a progressive movement.
DT: Just to add to what you’ve just said. In my own borough of London there has been a “fracturing” within the Labour Party itself. A lot of People Of Colour, working-class Londoners voted overwhelmingly for Corbyn’s Labour in 2017.
There are ‘Blue Labour’ activists that ignore this, and the BBC didn’t report this in detail. The 2017 results seem to be a sort of illusion to them that isn’t talked about, they are rather more focussed on personal attacks. It is an interesting viewpoint, hopefully Labour in the future can build on Corbyn’s popular policies in 2017.
NC: Well, there are chances for recouping. A lot will depend on the outcome of Brexit. It’s likely to be quite harmful to England. We’ll be seeing the response to this.
DT: I also wanted to ask you about an issue that’s being going on for the last few days. There’s a lot of friction between Sanders’ supporters and Warren’s supporters. I am curious of your opinion of Warren’s campaign? And, whether Warren not endorsing Bernie has cost him votes?
NC: I think that Warren is a serious decent person and campaigner. She has a quite serious programme.1 The conflict with Sanders has been greatly exaggerated by media commentary. There was a disagreement, it was papered over, as far as I know it’s finished.
She hasn’t yet made a decision on endorsing anyone, Sanders or Biden. I suspect she’s holding off until the Convention to see if she can somehow play an independent role in some fashion. I don’t see that as a major factor in the campaign.
The problem with Sanders’ campaign in the last few days has been many things: He had been counting on a surge of voters, from younger voters, it didn’t happen. Many young people who were eager to go to demonstrations, were apparently, not going to the voting booths to pull the lever.
There was a substantial growth in voters, but that happened in the pro-Biden campaign, affluent suburbanites, that Sanders has never been able to reach. Also, the major concern of many African Americans, I suspect, is the revival of Jim Crow, which is happening.2 The revival of post period, which wasn’t all that different so slavery, a reaction to the Supreme Court, President Trump’s support for white supremacy – all was opening the door for violence.
They (African-Americans) can see that coming. That means for them, the ultimate priority is to defend themselves, and their assessment is that Biden is in a better place to defend themselves than Sanders is. But I rather suspect, that many African Americans in Alabama hear about Bernie Sanders and say “here’s this old white guy from Brooklyn, why should I listen to him?”
NC: [Laughing] I don’t think that would be an unreasonable reaction. Hearing the smears, “He’s socialist, he wants to take away your toothbrush, and reinstate the gulag” a lot that’s going on. It’s kind of like the attack on Corbyn, though not quite as extreme.
DT: A lot has been said on CNN and MSNBC about Biden using Obama’s image to gain support in The South.
NC: Amongst the African American community, I suspect this has some effect. Biden being the VP with Obama can’t hurt his campaign. Whether he’s capable of beating Trump… I don’t know. I think he has a very weak position, but we’ll see.
One remarkable thing – which is hard to fathom - Trump’s most dangerous and destructive policies, which may spell doom for the entire species in fact are just not discussed… I mean, his policies on Global Warming. These may go on for another four years, they may very well bring us to irreversible tipping points.
That’s the most dangerous thing that’s ever happened. His dismantling of the arms control regime, and escalating the threat of nuclear war… it is literally unmentioned in the campaign.
DT: Why is mainstream US Liberal media so hell-bent on misinforming the American public on Bernie Sanders? One example on MSNBC, this specific show had 875,000 views, in which they saw an MSNBC host talk about Sanders’ body language… for about 20 minutes.
NC: To tell you the truth I never watch MSNBC. In terms of misinformation, it’s somewhere to the right of Fox News. Hysterically anti-Sanders. Idiotic things of what you’ve just described seems to be pretty characteristic, but even the other mainstreams: NYT, Washington Post, have been ranging from critical to derisory attacks on Sanders all the time.
For example, a couple of days ago Tom Friedman – who for some reason, people take seriously, I don’t know why… a major columnist, a person who I think is a joke, but he’s taken seriously – he had a really vicious column. It started by saying “Sanders claims to like Denmark, but Sanders doesn’t understand that it’s businesses that create jobs, he wants to destroy business…”
But can you find somewhere where Sanders said we should eliminate all businesses? I mean… Friedman can get away with that, and that’s the kind of thing that’s happening. It’s kind of striking if you look closely, that as Sanders began to decline in the campaign - there started to be some more favourable articles about him. The less of a threat he was… the more favourable the comments could be.
If you ask why the whole mainstream establishment if so furious and frightened about? It’s not Sanders’ policies, take a look at his policies. Basically, they’re New Deal policies. He wants universal healthcare, free higher education. Did you ever hear of a country that has both of those?
Germany, Finland, France, Mexico, all have universal healthcare one of sort or the other, and free higher education. So what Sanders is basically saying is: “Can we rise to the standard of other developed countries?” Is that frightening? President Eisenhower, the last Conservative President accepted most of this without hesitation.
I think what really frightens people about Sanders, is that he’s breaking the rules… Corbyn too. They’re organising, inspiring popular movements, which don’t just show up every four years to push a lever and then go home… and leave it to others to run things. Instead people are constantly engaged and active, and that’s frightening, that’s not how corporate democracy is supposed to work.
You can trace this back to first – The English Revolution, and the democratic revolutions in the 17th C - on to The USA Constitution - on to the present. Elite opinion, back in the 17th C was called “the man of best quality,” but these rabble and rascal multitude to be involved in things… “it’s our business, not theirs”.
This attitude goes right through, it’s called “progressive democratic theory,” into many examples right through to the present. I think Sanders and Corbyn were both moving to break that Elite principle, and that is frightening to elites. They don’t want a rebel bothering them.
DT: Isn’t it interesting, that both Sanders and Corbyn are arguably activists first, then politicians? I know here in London, in the surrounding boroughs, Corbyn was one the first politicians Labour or Conservative to stand with local communities. Standing with unions for marginalised peoples in the 70’s as an official politician, was unheard of… and, Sanders has a similar history.
You see neo-liberal politicians today trying to invoke their own fabricated version of this. I was at the BBC a few months ago. I shouldn’t be speaking on this too much… But there were a handful of editors there, in my knowledge, who were fighting against a “machine”. A “machine” you talk about in “Manufacturing Consent”. That book is incredibly relevant today. How do you think things have changed today in relation to that book?
NC: Well, unfortunately the co-author of the book… in fact the prime author Edward Herman passed away a couple years ago. But if I were asked, I wouldn’t change much. I think the basic picture is the same. There are topics that weren’t dealt with, social media and so on. But the fact of the matter is, the selection, the framing of events - is still coming from the mainstream media.
Some people may write a short thing on Twitter, but they don’t have reporters in the field, they’re not digging up the news, they’re choosing select pieces of information. As far as the mainstream media are concerned, the main news producers… I don’t think the picture has changed very much. A lot people in the media who’ve lived through the previous regimes have become less dedicated to ideological doctrine, which was almost unquestioned as late as the 1960’s. 3
DT: Just adding to that, I’ve spoken to Nathan J. Robinson from ‘Current Affairs’… there’s been conversations and momentum for a leftist TV network. What’s your view on this?
NC: Well, there is ‘Democracy Now’. That is an example. If it could be turned into a major project it would be quite important, I think. Actually, there are possibilities in the U.S. that haven’t been used. For example, when the cable system was initiated by the government… the spectrum is public, it has to be given away to private institutions.
The laws that assigned airwaves to private institutions also had a provision to fund cable network facilities in just about every community. They’re not at the level of mainstream media, but they’re not insignificant. These are available and they haven’t been used. They’ve been taken over mostly by the right wing, you know… conspiracy theorists and so on. But it is an option that could be used. They reach large communities.
There’s one in Cambridge, Massachusetts which reaches 100,000 people in Cambridge. These are things that could be pursued. These are opportunities that haven’t been taken, and of course, these are publicly available. You can get on to it and do things. Maybe things like that can overcome the lack of capital, which will be a problem for such a network.
It’s very striking how the right wing has capitalised on this. Like, talk radio in the U.S. which reaches huge numbers of people. It has been completely taken over by far-right crazies. When I drive, I sometimes turn it on to see what it’s like. It’s unbelievable, I mean it makes Trump look sane.
NC: That could be overcome.
DT: It’s a similar situation on the internet. On YouTube, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro… those types completely dominate the internet space with tens of millions of views. Incredibly scary. So, I’m very thankful for essays from ‘Current Affairs’ and other independent organisations who are slowly developing a pushback against these things.
NC: There was quite an interesting study done by Pew. They picked about 30 news media outlets, you know: print, television, radio, blogs and so on. They asked people which ones they know and trust, and divided the response into Democrats and Republicans.
Among the Democrats… you know, it’s what you’d expect, they picked the most trusted sources. Amongst Republicans, they picked three: Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Brietbart. Now that’s almost half the population getting their information from things that are… I mean listen to Rush Limbaugh - I don’t think he believes a word he’s saying… nobody can be that crazy. But he probably assumes this is a way he can keep his tens of millions of listeners on the radio.
If that’s what people are getting their picture of the world from, you can understand why we’re in deep trouble. Corresponding fact is, over the years concern over Global Warming has dropped, it is not anywhere near where it must be. It is only an issue for Democrats. Republicans see it not as their problem, maybe 25% think that humans even ever have a responsibility. Now that has literally horrifying consequences for the future.
Chomsky’s dog starts barking.
DT: I’ve wanted to ask you about this for some time… Chris Hedges has quoted Alfred McCoy’s prediction about the “American Empire” ending in 2030. Not a prediction, I don’t think they’re helpful, but I wanted to get your opinion on the current trajectory of the United States. We’re seeing with the coronavirus, at the moment, how the health system there is fracturing. 4
NC: The US response to the coronavirus… shows in quite a dramatic perspective the impact of neo-liberal programs. Funding for support systems, ranging from medication to hospital beds has radically declined under the neo-liberal principle that everything should be privatised.
Private corporations aren’t going to do anything about it. Drug companies have no interest in preventing pandemics, there’s no profit in that. Even when there is a huge program, like there was for the response against the Swine Flu outbreak in 1976, they don’t attribute drugs to it unless profit is assumed.
Meanwhile, since Reagan and Thatcher care systems have declined, there are no extra beds, economists can explain to them that they’re inefficient. The latest figures that I’ve seen are that in the United States, 10,000 people have been tested for coronavirus as compared with a few hundred thousand in South Korea.5 People can’t even get tested. There are no facilities.
This was exacerbated by the Trump administration, which simply defunded and eliminated the existing institutions. After Ebola in 2014, the government did establish a significant pandemic detection and supervision division, which could have cut this off. Trump defunded it – it’s gone. And there has been step after step following that.
Trump’s administration made it worse, but we should recognise that it’s neo-liberal capitalism at the root, which is a rot that’s been destroying society, very much as it was intended. Remember Margaret Thatcher explaining that there is no society, you’re in the market and must fend for yourself. Unless you happen to be very rich or a corporation then you get funded and subsidised all the time. But for the rest of you, go out in the market and try to survive. Well… we’re seeing what really happens.
Aside from the coronavirus, its outcome its uncertain and unpredictable. The idea that the U.S. hegemony is collapsing is very hard to sustain, in fact it is so overwhelming - that people don’t even notice it.
Just take a look at things that happen day by day. Netanyahu came out with a “peace plan” called the ‘Deal of the Century.’ It happened to be distributed by Washington, but it’s the ultra-right’s peace plan. Why did anyone take it seriously?
I mean, suppose China came out with a peace plan, or Germany, or anyone else, no one would even laugh. When the United States comes out with it, it’s ‘law’. All we discuss is: “can it work? Is it feasible?” That’s a level of hegemony that is hard to describe. If a word comes out from Washington it’s ‘law’, and we don’t even question it.
When the United States poses third party sanctions on a country, which it does… It is the only country in the world that can do this. When it imposes destructive sanctions to destroy the Iranian economy, and cause people to suffer maximally; which right now are killing people at a great rate, and limiting the already limited capacities that they can deal with coronavirus.
When this happens, Europe can say: “I don’t like it, but we’re going along, because how can I defy the master of the universe?” That’s what we see on issue after issue. If that’s an empire in decline, imagine what a rising empire is. I don’t see any significant change in this in the long term. The Trump administration is indeed kicking the United States in the face, but not enough to destroy its hegemony.
DT: Thank you, Professor.
NC: My pleasure. Thanks for setting it up. Hard times ahead and we have to put our shoulders to the wheel.
The Tradition of Truth Telling
A Post Script by Dilan Tulsiani
This isn’t where we expected to be in 2020. We are a long way off. Countries around the world who had been so used to living in a status like no other, are now witnessing the crunching demand for a new requirement by communities to their politicians: to simply be against lunacy. Even this simplistic demand is now struggling to become the norm in a global pandemic.
Professor Chomsky has dedicated his life to the betterment of societies and marginalised peoples across the world. Before talking with Noam, I had been speaking with him on email for a few years. His answers have always been coherent, concise and to the point. I do not agree with him on everything - in fact, I think that’s a good thing. But amongst all his theories, analysis, ponderings, I have struggled to understand one crucial element: his selflessness.
I’ve read tales of this young, skinny, spectacle wearing man, trekking through indo-China to document the aftermath of B-52 bombing raids across the region. Or his countless protests on U.S. soil against institutions that continued to profit off the well-regarded immoral war by today’s standards.
At that time, any position against the State, especially within the media sphere of the U.S., was essentially highlighting yourself for State authorities to begin their observation procedures on your daily life (see CIA files). Time and time again, Prof. Chomsky along with countless other activists dedicated their lives to attempt some sort of justice, even when they knew the results would incite vicious smear campaigns that would follow them for the rest of their careers.
Prof. Chomsky, along with the vast number of forgotten activists, intellectuals, artists etc. - all believed in the ability of the truth - to awaken a sense of empathy and the enablement of justice. The argument of a post-truth world isn’t good enough to damn their legacy, or stop this age-old tradition in favour of bettering our society.
In this time of irreality, we must remind ourselves of this principle. Hundreds of thousands of our fellow neighbours are now working in jobs that were 3-4 weeks ago considered “non-essential” or forgettable, which we now depend on in keeping our communities alive and in order. A clap is an interesting device of appreciation. One I think that would be welcomed, amongst actual real terms policy to help those, who without a doubt, are the most essential workforces in our modern societies.
The arrogance of our technocracies has led us to digest false truths about these public servants, such as they have no modern use to our 21st Century nation-states. While the idea of the “public” was destroyed by profit margin enthusiasts, a virion the size of 120-160 nanometres has stopped international societal and trade systems. Enough has been said of the pandemic to rethink our approach to society. I’m afraid most of this will fall on deaf ears.
The most impactful revolutions seem to be the quietest. In today’s situation, something as simple as getting -medical staff, waste collectors and service workers a good living wage and effective protective gear - is far more revolutionary to me than waving a red flag above the statue of a crypto-fascist. Not that I’m against that, but I’m indifferent about it at the moment.
I would not like to remember this time, as the age of the palm-slappers. I’d rather like us to convince the population, that we have ignored the vast numbers of key workers that risked their lives selflessly for us and our families; and that these workers must receive better pay and essential protective gear.
Ideologically we may happily disagree. But amongst all the future “What I did in quarantine…” novels and quarantine edition self-help books, some things are essential. It is essential we chime through the existential importance of the public system; and the radical rethinking of how we award those who have and could die, for us.
We must continue to the traditions set by those like Prof. Chomsky, even it means simply sharing pleas for medical equipment from your sofa, helping key workers in their time of need by demanding their increase in wages… or merely telling the truth.
Dilan Tulsiani is a writer and filmmaker from the United Kingdom. This interview took place on 13 March 2020. The original version (without PostScript) first appeared on the Civil Eye Website. Reproduced with the interviewer's permission.
1 I didn’t have time to push back on Warren’s record with indigenous communities etc.
2 Note: Chomsky makes it clear he doesn’t want to speak for any single community, but this is his analysis.
3 I remember a few years ago, Chomsky told me the first time he was asked to come on and speak against the Vietnam War was on the Boston radio network WGBH. I can’t remember the name of the show. He was allowed to speak for about a minute before they cut to commercials. I don’t think he was ever invited again. *
4 I know this is a weird question. I was nervous and time was passing.
5 This was a few weeks ago. Still relevant.