The NS Interview: Noam Chomsky

“President Obama is involved in war crimes right now”

Do you consider yourself to be primarily a scientist or a political activist?
If the world would go away, I would be happy to keep to the science, which is much more interesting and challenging. But the world has an unfortunate habit of not going away and the problems are quite urgent.

What are your thoughts on President Obama?
He's involved in war crimes right now. For example, targeted assassinations are war crimes. That's escalated quite sharply under Obama. If you look at WikiLeaks, there are a lot of examples of attacks on civilians.

What did you think when he was given the Nobel Peace Prize?
Considering the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, it's not the worst example. It was given to him before he had the time to commit many war crimes.

Is there any point in us being in Afghanistan?
We wouldn't have asked in 1985: "Is there any point in the Russians being in Afghanistan?" The fact is that the invasion was a crime. Then comes the question: "Is there any point in continuing?" But that presupposes legitimacy. Putting aside questions of morality and legality and simply asking about the goals of the US government is a very narrow consideration.

What would you like to see happen next in Afghanistan?
There has to be an internal political settlement. Like it or not, the warlords and the Taliban are Afghans, so there has to be a settlement among them. The regional powers also have to be involved, including Pakistan, India and the US - because it's there, not because it belongs there.

Do you worry about Obama's lack of experience in foreign policy?
I don't think that experience is a very useful or convincing attribute for a sensible foreign policy. Henry Kissinger had a lot of experience. [And he still became involved in] the major mass murders in Cambodia.

Is the focus of US foreign policy right?
Let's take the main focus: the Iranian threat. The brutal, clerical regime is a threat to its own population, but it's hardly unique in that respect. The threat to the US came in the presentations to Congress by Pentagon officials in April - they pointed out that the threat is not military; it's to the "stability" of the region.

Do you agree with that assessment?
It's imperial doctrine. Stability is when the UK and US invade a country and impose the regime of their choice. But if Iran tries to interfere, that's destabilising.

What do you make of David Cameron?
It's too early to say much. I haven't been greatly impressed by his policies or his statements.

He recently identified the UK as the junior partner in the "special relationship".
That's too bad for England. It's been a very injurious relationship for England for a long time.

Do countries such as Bolivia have lessons to teach the rest of the world?
Yes. The poorest country in South America, Bolivia had been devastated by neoliberal economic policies. In recent years, the majority of the population won significant battles against privatisation of water. They then entered the political arena and elected someone from their own ranks, and people really engaged with the issues. Their economic growth is now, I think, the best in Latin America.

Are you optimistic about the future of the left?
I don't think it makes much sense to be optimistic, but there's not much point in speculating, either. Either way, the tasks are the same.

Do you vote?
I often do, without much enthusiasm. In the US, there is basically one party - the business party. It has two factions, called Democrats and Republicans, which are somewhat different but carry out variations on the same policies. By and large, I am opposed to those policies. As is most of the population.

What would you like to forget?
There are a lot of things I regret - for example, the Indochina war. I was deeply involved with it, facing a long jail sentence. But I deeply regret that I didn't get involved until the mid-1960s, which was much too late.

Was there a plan?
Well, I had some general guidelines. They're so banal I hate to say them. But what's not banal is applying them in particular situations.

Are we all doomed?
If there was an observer on Mars, they would probably be amazed that we have survived this long. There are two problems for our species' survival - nuclear war and environmental catastrophe - and we're hurtling towards them. Knowingly. This hypothetical Martian would probably conclude that human beings were an evolutionary error.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times