We are sitting here with Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky at MIT. He is famous the world over for his working linguistics but more so his political beliefs. He is a self-described anarchist, more specifically an «anarcho- syndicalist.» Dr. Chomsky, thanks for having us.
Pleased to be with you.
Anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism
I kind of want to start up by asking you to briefly describe what is anarchism and more specifically anarcho-syndicalism?
Well, I think the best characterization that I know is given by one of the leading thinkers and activists in the modern anarcho-syndicalist world, Rudolf Rocker, who described anarchism in general as not a specific set of beliefs that provides particular answers to all the questions that can arise, but rather what he called ‘a general tendency in the history of humanity’ which aims to inquire into the nature of social, economic, political structures to detect structures of hierarchy and domination and to challenge them to demonstrate their legitimacy. They are not self-justified and if they cannot defend their legitimacy on some plausible grounds then to dismantle them and reconstruct then from below. And to do this in the context of the existing society, developing alternative institutions that are more free and more just in the hope of moving on to a world of free associations of workers’ communities controlling their own institutions, their own fate in association with one another of various kinds of federal arrangements and so on. That is the basic thrust of anarchism. Altogether it is myview and of anarcho-syndicalism in particular which is designed for complex industrial societies.
So, you are talking about workers controlling their own work and controlling the enterprises that work in expanding out to the community?
It’s one of crucial aspect of it. In fact, anarcho-syndicalism kind of shades off into left anti-Bolshevik Marxism. People like Anton Pannekoek, Paul Mattick, Karl Korsch and others have sympathetic relationships and ideas and the great anarchist achievement like the 1936 Spanish Revolution before it was crushed, did have the strong and sympathetic support of left Marxists who felt a community of interests and commitments.
I’m kind of wondering how workers are controlling their own work. How is this organized? And how does it arise?
Well, it’s all over the place. First of all it is a constant development takes place all over. There were efforts in Eastern Europe, for example, in self-management in Yugoslavia. Right now in the US, in the old decaying Rust Belt, where industries are collapsing, they’re being replaced, to a certain extent, by worker owned and partially worker-managed enterprises. There is one huge institution that’s undergone great conglomerate in Spain which is worker ownedand the manager is selected by workers but not actually worker-managed which is a collection of heavy industries, banks, hospitals, community living and so on.
So, did they rise spontaneously or is there a system that regulates how the workers organize themselves like maybe in the US, like they do it one way and then over Spain Mondragon they’ll do it a different way. Is there any kind of vision?
There is no leadership or Bible, things develop on the basis of the circumstances that exist. So the conditions in Rust Belt in Northern Ohio and in Catalonia and in Oregon in 1936 are quite different and the backgrounds are quite different. But there were similarities in the way the take-over by working people, peasants of their own lives proceded.
Let’s say that Mondragon wants to have an association with somebody in the Rust Belt…
That is what is happening in fact. I don’t know how far it will go, but one of the major US unions, the steel workers, has now entered into some kinds of interactions with Mondragon. They try to work out ways to develop Mondragon-type system in the old industrial sections of the US and revive them on the basis of worker-ownership and community-ownership in control.
«Norman Ornstein, who was referring to the Republican Party, described them as a radical insurgency opposed to rationality, to political compromise, to participation in a parliamentary system, in fact with no positive goals in themselves.»
Could you comment on the Tea Party and their tactics? They are almost anarchistic, like ‘government is bad and everything that destroys it is good,’ and in some ways they are also thinking about what people on the left would like, myself and yourself and other individuals. In some ways they are most revolutionary group on the US, they are able to stop the government for 16 days.
I wouldn’t call them «revolutionary.» I think one of the best description of them is by one of the leading conservative political analysts, Norman Ornstein, who was referring to the Republican Party altogether, the modern Republican Party, but Tea Party is an extreme example. He described them as a radical insurgency opposed to rationality, to political compromise, to participation in a parliamentary system, in fact with no positive goals in themselves. They do oppose too much state power, but that is a bit of a joke, they also support state power. They support the powerful systems that sustain private power and put their concentration of power as opposed to the traditional anarchists were opposed to the relation of dominance between masters and servants, between owners and workers. That is one of the major, one of the most elemental types of dominance that have always been opposed by any anarchist but not by them, they are in favor of it. They want, they’re in favor of having the population subordinated to concentrated private power, which should have no limits. When they call themselves «anti- government,» that means they don’t want government to limit the capacity of concentrated private power to dominate the society. That is very far from any anarchism. The reason that they are successful is that they have enormous amount of private capital supporting them. They are very heavily funded, they have media-outlets I meanthey’re a genuine, popular movement, they have a base and they kind of mostly almost entirely white, mostly petty bourgeois, small store-keepers and so on, many of them…. There’s elements that are highly nationalist as racist elements. They basically just … their power and significance doesn’t come from their numbers, but by the backing that they have. They do serve the interests of significant elements of private capital.
I was thinking more in a sense that the power of the government is not able to legitimize themselves so they actually challenge the government very directly and they are able to be voted into power.
They have popular support and they have plenty of financial support and a lot of their power comes from the radical gerrymandering, redesigning of electoral districts. You can see it, for example, they are powerful now and so are representatives when in fact the Republicans have a majority of the representatives but with the minority of the vote. So in the last election, the Democrats actually won a significant majority of the popular vote for the House but virtue of rearranging electoral districts and a vast amount of money, the right wing was able to take over the representation. In fact, there is a good study by the main political scientist who has been working on campaign funding for many years, Thomas Ferguson, University of Massachusetts, came out with a study which saidthat there was almost linear relationship between the amount of money put into a campaign and electoral victory; it’s basically bought.
Syrian crisis and Geneva-2 peace conference
OK, Can we move into the Middle East now and talk about – how should we think about Geneva-2 and the Syrian crises considering that Saudi Arabia is opposed to any kind of deal and the US and Russia have made out a plan where the Assad government would stay intact and also that the Deputy Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia has reported to have visited Israel recently, and we can only think that their agenda is the Iran crises.
I think the Saudi-Israeli relationship is developing on the basis ofopposition to Iran that doesn’t really have to do with Syria. Israel has shown no indication that it wants the rebels to win in Syria and nor incidentally does the US.
«They are pretty happy just to see Syrians kill each other and there is no indication that they want a change that with the Syrian crises looks like a..I mean Syria is plunging into total suicide, it’s an utter disaster.»
I mean if the US and Israel were committed to the overthrow of the Assad government, there are things they could do far short of sending arms or bombing, nothing controversial, for example, it would suffice for Israel to mobilize forces on these Golan Heightswhich Israel occupies and annexed in violation of Security Counsel orders, is Syrian territory, very close to Damascus. So if Israel mobilized forces there, the Syrian government would be compelled to move forces to the South, relieving pressure against the rebels. That is one very simple thing that could be done but there is no talk of it because there is no interest in having the Assad government fall as far as Israel is concerned. They are pretty happy just to see Syrians kill each other and there is no indication that they want a change that with the Syrian crises looks like a..I mean Syria is plunging into total suicide, it’s an utter disaster.
And the only small hope and it is very small is for some negotiated settlement of the Geneva type. It’s hard to imagine that any settlement would not allow some position for the Assad government in a transitional stage that is kind of a minimum condition under which they would even participate. But it is very hard to see if the rebels can even find representation that would appear in Geneva if they want to. It is a very shaky possibility, but it is actually the only one that I can see that has any hope of saving Syria from a plunge to even worse catastrophe than today.
I mean, what is happening in Syria is that the country is just being partitioned. The Kurdish areas have formally declared autonomy, they have been battling with the rebels in fact and possibly they might seek some kind of link to Iraqi Kurdistan. That is tenuous as well. The rest of the country is basically divided between government and rebel forces and while the lines shift that doesn’t look that either is going to defeat the other.
Iran and Iranian nuclear program
Do you think that we are kind of witnessing a transformation in the US political aspiration in the Middle East with these deals with Russia? And could you also comment on Russia’s role in the world right now? Also what is going with Iran? They’ve made an interim deal, like what we’ve just talked about is Geneva and there is a deal that they might keep intact..
Well, the Iran’s question is actually somewhat separate, although of course in the background is a growing split which was very much exacerbated by the Iraq invasion, a Sunni-Shia split which is now spread over the region and is consuming and that is happening in Syria as well.
With Iran kind of on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other and Iraq is just being torn to shreds. I mean just today there were another dozens of people murdered, Shiah pilgrims on their way to Karbala but every day has more atrocities.
In fact there was just now the first fatwa by a leading Shiah cleric, he is actually based in Iran but is Iraqi and is connected toIraqi Sadrist forces. A fatwa authorizing Shiites in Iraq and Iran to fight in Syria. That is another escalation of the war and of the Sunni-Shiah split. With regard to Iran, there is a separate issue I mean, Iran in the West, in the US, its allies (in particular Israel) Iran is described as the gravest threat to world peace, because of its nuclear programs. But it is worth bearing in mind that it’s a western obsession. It is not true of the world.
«A very small percentage regards Iran as a threat. The threat that they see, the population, is the US and Israel. And it raises a real question; what the threat is supposed to be, what makes Iran the gravest threat to world peace?»
The nonaligned countries, which is most of the world have vigorously supported Iran’s right to enrich uranium as a sign on Proliferation Treaty that just did so again recently at nonaligned conference in Tehran. If you go to the Arab world nearby, while the Arab dictators are very much opposed to Iran and its policies, the population has a different view. There have been many western polls, there is recent book that just came out summarizing them by Shibley Telhami, the leading western specialist on public opinions and he concludes, as other polls have shown, that while at the Arab world, the population doesn’t like Iran, there is a hostility that goes back centuries, they don’t regard Iran as a threat. A very small percentage regards Iran as a threat. The threat that they see, the population, is the US and Israel. That is quite different from the western image that is presented in the West, that the Arabs support the US in opposition to Iran’s programs. But that is a referent to Arab dictators, not to the population which doesn’t like Iran, but doesn’t agree with this.
And it raises a real question; what the threat is supposed to be, what makes Iran the gravest threat to world peace? Actually we have an authoritative answer to that from US intelligence and Pentagon, which regularly briefs Congress on the global security. And it is all public, you can find the documents and what they say is that Iran is not a military threat, it has a very low military spending even by the standards of the region that has almost no capacity to deploy force and it has not been engaged aggressive acts. But it us a potential deterred and that is the threat.
Nuclear weapons and the Non-Proliferation Treaty
We line in a world of immense violence in unrated materialism/capitalism and we have global issues like nuclear proliferation; we have to restructure an education system which is defunct, we have environmental degradation, the huge gap between rich and poor. I’m just wondering how do we approach these issues on a global level? You know, it is not just like it’s affecting here, it is not just affecting South Korea, it is not just affecting India. Is anarcho-syndicalism viable somehow? How do you approach the world?
I think the basic thrust of anarcho-syndicalism, anarchism generally, applies everywhere, wherever there are structures of domination and control, hierarchy and oppression, they are not self-justifying, should be challenged and if they cannot demonstrate their legitimacy, overthrown.
I think that applies to every case you’ve mentioned. It is not a formula how to deal with, let’s say, environmental destruction, but it lies in the background. Each of the cases you’ve mentioned requires its own type of action. With regard to nuclear proliferation actually we have an answer, the problem is to implement it. The Non-Proliferation Treaty that obligates the nuclear powers to carry out good faith measures to eliminate nuclear weapons. That is actually a legal obligation determined by the International Court of Justice back in the mid-90s and it also requires other countries not to develop nuclear weapons. There are, at the moment, several that have outside the NPT – Israel, Pakistan and North Korea but there are ways to overcome this. For example, in the case of the Middle East one serious way to approach it would be to try to establish a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia is advocating this.
That is originally mostly an Egyptian proposal but the Arab world has proposed it for a long time. It’s been formally accepted by the West but only formally. Just last December, there was to be conference in Helsinki to move forward on this proposal. Israel announced they wouldn’t attend. Iran announced that they would attend with no preconditions and a couple of days later president Obama cancelled the conference. So it didn’t take place. There is pressure to renew it from the EU, from Russia and mainly the Arab states. Unless the US is willing to significantly participate it is not going to go anywhere. But there are mechanisms, we can think of ways of overcoming this problem. When you turned to environmental degradation – it is a little butt different. It is a horrible problem, we are moving towards precipices which is of extreme danger, racing towards it and the longer we wait to eliminate reliance on foil fuels, the worse it’s gonna be. But it is not so clear how to do that. It is different from the nuclear threat which in fact at least in principal we know how to get rid of.
Dr. Chomsky, thank you so much for speaking with us, we really appreciate your time.
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