Noam Chomsky speaks to Socialist Worker about
Globalising resistance to corporate power
NOAM CHOMSKY is one of the most well known writers and anti-imperialist campaigners in the US today. He has written on many subjects, including the role of the media and NATO's war in Kosovo. He spoke to Socialist Worker about the growing mood against capitalism.
HOW SIGNIFICANT were the protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation and in Washington against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank?
VERY SIGNIFICANT. I don't recall anything like it. For a long time there have been vocal protests against what's misleadingly called globalisation, this particular mode of corporate-run international integration which has harmed a great many people-probably the majority of the population of the world.
This has led to local protests over specific issues. But in the last couple of years the protests have become integrated. You see many examples of it. The international efforts that undermined the Multilateral Agreement on Investment were extremely impressive. They were done very quickly with virtually no publicity.
Seattle was a major protest, and the major institutions had to back down. In Washington it was again the same story. The variety of constituencies involved in these protests is remarkable. They involve people who in the past did not have much to do with each other, like steel workers, gay activists and environmentalists. The protests also have an international character, bringing together people from movements like the landless workers' movement in Brazil, the peasant movement in India and working people in the US.
IN WASHINGTON the movement seemed to be deepening and becoming more politicised. People were making links in a way that we haven't seen for a long time.
YES. THE protesters know what they are talking about. People are asking more fundamental questions. People who call the protests reformist are missing the point. For one thing the reforms are good-if you can achieve them, they help people. But also when there is a limit placed on reforms it helps you come to understand the way the world works, and that's important. You begin by calling for a minor reform. You find you can make a little progress on that, but then you face an iron wall. That teaches you something. You ask questions about why there's an iron wall and you look a little deeper into the way the system works. Then there's more pressure and sometimes more reaction. Part of the point of the protests is that they educate the protesters. You learn about where the institutions will be willing to bend and where they will not. That sharpens the protesters for the next stage.
AMONG THE protesters there seems to be a sophisticated understanding of the way corporations are choking the life out of the world, and also a vision of essentially a socialist society.
IT IS true of some of them. And those people are to a large extent people who have learned that through the experience of trying to carry out corporate reform. You start by going to an investors' meeting and calling for socially positive investment. You find you can make a minuscule difference, but you can't go too far. You ask why you can't, and you get to what you're describing.
TEN YEARS ago we were told it was the "end of history", the end of wars and civil conflict. How does that fit with the reality of the world today?
THE SOVIET Empire collapsed, and other regions like Yugoslavia collapsed. When that kind of collapse happens you get violent ethnic conflict because imperial systems, like totalitarian states, tend to suppress internal conflict. When the British Empire collapsed there were atrocities much worse than anything going on today in Eastern Europe. In south Asia there was a huge war between India and Pakistan that is still going on 50 years later. In Palestine it is the same.
When the French Empire collapsed there were wars all over Africa. So too when the Portuguese empire collapsed in the mid-1970s. There were major wars in Africa where South Africa acted as the front guy for the US and Britain to try to undermine the newly independent countries. In south east Asia where Portugal had a small empire you had the same thing, except this time Indonesia played the role of South Africa. Atrocities in East Timor went on right through until last year. When the Russian Empire collapsed it was the same story. Many of the conflicts in Africa today, like in Rwanda, are a lingering result of the breakdown of the Belgian, German and French imperial systems.
WHERE DOES US foreign and military policy fit into the picture today?
IT'S THE same story. One interesting index is arms transfers.
The main countries that get arms are Israel and Egypt. Egypt gets them because it supports Israel. That has to do with US domination of the Middle East's oil resources. Turkey is also a leading recipient of US arms. Turkey is a NATO country and was on the frontline of the Cold War. But the level of arms transfers was fairly steady and not all that high until 1984. Then it went much higher and stayed high. The peak year was 1997. In that single year Turkey got more arms from the United States than in the entire period of 1950 to 1984.
This was because in order to crush the Kurds the Turkish state needed a huge flow of US arms. So US arms were pouring in for massive ethnic cleansing operations and massacres in southeastern Turkey. By 1998 they had suppressed the Kurdish movement, so the arms sales declined. Until then Turkey was the leading recipient of US arms apart from Israel and Egypt. In 1999 it was replaced by Colombia. Colombia had been the leading recipient of US arms in the western hemisphere through the 1990s. It also had one of the worst human rights records in the 1990s. Why? Because Colombia has a powerful guerilla movement which the state has not been able to crush.
HOW DOES NATO's bombing in the Balkans last year fit in?
WHEN NATO bombed Yugoslavia it was not because of human rights problems. They don't give a damn about human rights. NATO did it because Serbia didn't follow the rules. Milosevic is doubtless a war criminal and a gangster. But the US and Britain have no problem supporting war criminals and gangsters-they do it all the time. Take Saddam Hussein. Tony Blair and the United Nations tell you he is the only monster in history who has not only developed weapons of mass destruction but even used them against his own population. All that's missing is, "Yes, he used weapons of mass destruction against his own population, but with the SUPPORT of the US and Britain."
The real reason they are after Saddam Hussein is because he disobeyed orders. Now that's a crime. You can gas Kurds if you like-we don't care about that-but don't disobey orders! That's the way great powers work. The United States works that way. Britain, which is by now more or less the attack dog of the United States, works that way. Russia is doing the same in Chechnya.
HOW DO the big corporations fit into this picture?
STATES ARE to some extent independent actors. But overwhelmingly they reflect the concentration of power inside them. That concentration inside contemporary industrial countries is concentrated corporate power. This concentration of power is extremely high in the US but it is also international-although big corporations are rooted in, and heavily dependent on, their own home countries.
What's called globalisation, a development that has taken place in the last 25 years, is a real power play on the part of concentrated corporate power and the states that are linked to that. They are trying to develop a particular form of global integration which is in the interests of financial institutions. What happens to the population is incidental. In fact, what happens to economic growth is incidental. You get a lot of excited talk about how wonderful the economic record has been in the last 25 years. It's total nonsense. In the period from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s economic growth in the industrial countries was cut by about half.
Wages have either stagnated or declined in most of the industrial countries, and primarily in the US. Working hours are going way up. Benefits are down. Although growth has slowed there is highly concentrated profit. In the Third World the growth rate in the 1990s is about half what it was in the 1970s. That's one of the effects of one particular form of globalisation, traceable in substantial measure to the financial liberalisation. These changes in the last 25 years have had the effect of harming the international economy. It still grows, but not like before. And it concentrates wealth and power far more than before, and undermines democratic processes.
There are other ways of undermining democracy. Take the European Union. One of the crucial parts of the European Union is the transfer of power to unaccountable central banks. That's a tremendous attack on democracy. In fact, it's so extreme that even conservative sectors in the United States have been shocked by it.
WHAT ABOUT future prospects? Is something shifting in the US working class?
AVERAGE WAGES in the US have only now, maybe, reached the level of 20 years ago. To have a 20 year period when average wages are stagnant or declining when there is still economic growth is probably unprecedented. US workers have the highest workload in the industrial world. They passed Japan a couple of years ago. You have to have two members of the family working in the US just to keep food on the table.
You don't have daycare systems for children so you have to figure out what to do with the children. That's not so easy for a working family. This is a tremendous burden on families. One associated factor, which may well be a consequence, is that things like child abuse have gone up. By most social indicators the US has declined since the mid-1970s. People feel that in their own individual lives, but they are also beginning to feel it collectively.
It's not just industrial workers. It's all through the economy. Small farmers are getting smashed, as are small store owners. Except for a pretty small sector most people are suffering, and you get this coming together. That's one of the striking things about Seattle. As for the future, conflicts and struggles always go on. They are never predictable. These are things you do something about.