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17 September 2020

Noam Chomsky: The world is at the most dangerous moment in human history

The US professor warns that the climate crisis, the threat of nuclear war and rising authoritarianism mean the risk of human extinction has never been greater. 

By George Eaton

Noam Chomsky has warned that the world is at the most dangerous moment in human history owing to the climate crisis, the threat of nuclear war and rising authoritarianism. In an exclusive interview with the New Statesman, the 91-year-old US linguist and activist said that the current perils exceed those of the 1930s. 

“There’s been nothing like it in human history,” Chomsky said. “I’m old enough to remember, very vividly, the threat that Nazism could take over much of Eurasia, that was not an idle concern. US military planners did anticipate that the war would end with a US-dominated region and a German-dominated region… But even that, horrible enough, was not like the end of organised human life on Earth, which is what we’re facing.”

[See also: Jeremy Cliffe: The Covid-19 crisis is a chance for progressives to rediscover their lost internationalism]

Chomsky was interviewed in advance of the first summit of the Progressive International (18-20 September), a new organisation founded by Bernie Sanders, the former US presidential candidate, and Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, to counter right-wing authoritarianism. In an echo of the movement’s slogan “internationalism or extinction”, Chomsky warned: “We’re at an astonishing confluence of very severe crises. The extent of them was illustrated by the last setting of the famous Doomsday Clock. It’s been set every year since the atom bombing, the minute hand has moved forward and back. But last January, they abandoned minutes and moved to seconds to midnight, which means termination. And that was before the scale of the pandemic.”

This shift, Chomsky said, reflected “the growing threat of nuclear war, which is probably more severe than it was during the Cold War. The growing threat of environmental catastrophe, and the third thing that they’ve been picking up for the last few years is the sharp deterioration of democracy, which sounds at first as if it doesn’t belong but it actually does, because the only hope for dealing with the two existential crises, which do threaten extinction, is to deal with them through a vibrant democracy with engaged, informed citizens who are participating in developing programmes to deal with these crises.”

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Chomsky added that “[Donald] Trump has accomplished something quite impressive: he’s succeeded in increasing the threat of each of the three dangers. On nuclear weapons, he’s moved to continue, and essentially bring to an end, the dismantling of the arms control regime, which has offered some protection against terminal disaster. He’s greatly increased the development of new, dangerous, more threatening weapons, which means others do so too, which is increasing the threat to all of us. 

“On environmental catastrophe, he’s escalated his effort to maximise the use of fossil fuels and to terminate the regulations that somewhat mitigate the effect of the coming disaster if we proceed on our present course.”

“On the deterioration of democracy, it’s become a joke. The executive branch of [the US] government has been completely purged of any dissident voice. Now it’s left with a group of sycophants.”

Chomsky described Trump as the figurehead of a new “reactionary international” consisting of Brazil, India, the UK, Egypt, Israel and Hungary. “In the western hemisphere the leading candidate is [Jair] Bolsonaro’s Brazil, kind of a small-time clone of President Trump. In the Middle East it will be based on the family dictatorships, the most reactionary states in the world. [Abdel al-]Sisi’s Egypt is the worst dictatorship that Egypt has ever had. Israel has moved so far to the right that you need a telescope to see it, it’s about the only country in the world where young people are even more reactionary than adults.”

He added: “[Narendra] Modi is destroying Indian secular democracy, severely repressing the Muslim population, he’s just vastly extended the terrible Indian occupation of Kashmir. In Europe, the leading candidate is [Viktor] Orbán in Hungary, who is creating a proto-fascist state. There are other figures, like [Matteo] Salvini in Italy, who gets his kicks out of watching refugees drown in the Mediterranean.”

Of the UK, he said: “[Nigel] Farage will come along and be a proper candidate if Boris Johnson doesn’t serve the purpose, which he may.” He added that the UK government’s threat to “violate international law and make a total break with the European Union” would “turn a fading Britain into even more of a vassal of the United States then it’s already become”. 

Chomsky described the Progressive International, whose council also includes former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, novelist Arundhati Roy and former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, as “a loose coalition of people committed to a world of justice, peace, democratic participation, of changing social and economic institutions, so that they are not geared for private profit for the few but for the needs and concerns of the general population.”

Having lived through 22 US presidential elections, Chomsky warned that Trump’s threat to refuse to leave office if defeated by Democratic candidate Joe Biden was unprecedented. 

“He’s already announced repeatedly that if he doesn’t like the outcome of the election he won’t leave. And this is taken very seriously by two high-level military officers, ex-military leaders, who’ve just sent a letter to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, reviewing for him his constitutional duties if the president refuses to leave office and gathers around him the paramilitary forces that he’s been using to terrorise people in Portland.

“The military has a duty in that case, the 82nd Airborne Division, to remove him by force. There’s a transition integrity project, high-level people from the Republicans and the Democrats; they’ve been running war games asking what would happen if Trump refuses to leave office – every one of them leads to civil war, every scenario that they can think of except a Trump victory leads to civil war. This is not a joke – nothing like this has happened in the history of parliamentary democracy. 

“It was bad enough when your guy, Boris Johnson, prorogued parliament, which led to a furore. The Supreme Court intervened but it was too late. The [US] Supreme Court isn’t going to intervene here, not after the right-wing appointments that Trump has managed, so we’re at a moment that has never happened.”

Chomsky urged US leftists to vote for Biden in this November’s presidential election and to press him to pursue a progressive agenda. 

“What the left should do is what it always should do: it should recognise that real politics is constant activism, in one form or another. Every couple of years something comes along called an election, you should take off a few minutes to decide if it’s worth voting against somebody, rarely for somebody. In the course of, say, Corbyn in England, I would have voted for him but most of the time the question is ‘who do you vote against?’ 

“This time the answer to that question is just overwhelmingly obvious: the Trump Republicans are just so utterly outrageous, way off the spectrum, that there’s simply no question about voting against them. So you take off a few minutes, go to the voting booth, push a lever, vote against Trump, which in a two-party system means you have to push the vote for the other candidate. But then the next thing you do is to challenge them, keep the pressure on to move them towards progressive programmes.”

Asked whether he still identified as an anarchist, Chomsky replied: “We have to ask what we mean by ‘anarchist’. In my view everybody, if they stop to think about it, is an anarchist, except the people who are pathological. The core principle of anarchism, from its origins, has been that authority and domination and hegemony have a burden of proof to bear, they have to prove that they’re legitimate. Sometimes they are, sometimes you can give an argument. If you can’t, they should be dismantled.

“How should they be dismantled? Well, you have to work on that, you can’t do it by snapping your fingers. Organisations are developing elements of the future society within the present one. But I think that ideal is virtually universal within our moral system, except for really pathological elements.”

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