Globalization and Resistance

An Interview with Noam Chomsky by Husayn Al-Kurdi

This article originally appeared in issue #35 (Summer, 1995) of Kick It Over

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Husayn Al-Kurdi: What do we need to know about NAFTA and GATT - what are their consequences and how can we more efficaciously resist their "globalizing" designs?

Noam Chomsky: NAFTA and GATT are somewhat different. NAFTA was much more popular among US corporations than GATT, because NAFTA is highly protectionist in ways that GATT is not. The main selling appeal of NAFTA to US corporations is that it gives them an advantage in the North American market over their European and Japanese competitors. That aside, NAFTA and GATT are quite similar. They both have highly protectionist elements. They're kind of a mixture of liberalization and protection designed to expand the power of transnational corporations. They're very basically investor's rights agreements. One crucial part in both is the "intellectual property right," which is a funny way of saying that corporations, like pharmaceutical companies, will have near-monopolistic rule over future technology. This now includes product as well as process rights.

These agreements increase corporate power, protecting huge, essentially totalitarian institutions from market discipline, and also from popular pressures and scrutiny. A network of semi-governmental institutions like the world trade organizations, the World Bank and so on, are taking over the process. There is a considerable polarization taking place here, increasing the gap between rich and poor. It's most dramatic in Third World countries, of course, but in the rich countries it's also very noticeable. Parts of the United States are taking on a Third World look. Enormous and growing parts of the population are basically superfluous for profit-making purposes. Along with this, the jail population is increasing very rapidly; it's the highest in the industrial world by far. New and onerous crime bills are being passed to deal with this superfluous population.

We're now in a situation in which Capital is highly mobile and Labour is basically immobile. The capacity to transfer production elsewhere is a weapon against the Western workers. Workers in different countries can easily be played off against each other.

HAK: Given that bleak but realistic scenario, what are the prospects for resistance to this "globalizing" process? How do we stop the juggernaut?

NC: Let's go back and take a lesson out of history. Measures have indeed been applied before. The same ideas were applied in England in the Revolution in the early 19th Century, when Classical Economics was developed also as a technique of class war, largely developed as an effort to drive the population into either the labour market or workhouse prison, and to eliminate the pre-capitalist world. In the pre-capitalist world, everyone had a place. It might not have been a very nice place, even maybe a horrible place, but at least they had some place in the spectrum of the society and they had some kind of a right to live in the place. Now that's inconsistent with capitalism, which denies the right to live. You have only the right to remain on the labour market.

The population wouldn't tolerate this; they were unwilling to be denied the right to live, and, for a long time, the British Army was devoted to putting down riots. After that came the early socialist organizing, and so on. At that point the policy moved towards welfare-state capitalism and "laissez-faire" became a bad word for about a hundred years. That was on a national scale. Now the same thing is happening internationally, picking up on the early 19th Century but on a global scale, with pretty much the same ideology; people have no human rights, only the rights that they can gain on the labour market. Above all, wealth and power have to be protected.

It is reported that about 30% of the world's population is unemployed. That's worse than the Great Depression, but it's now an international phenomenon. You have 30% of the world unemployed, a huge amount of work. that needs to be done just rebuilding the society alone. The people who are unemployed want to do the work, but the system is such a catastrophic failure that it cannot bring together idle hands and work. This is all hailed as a great success, and it is a great success - for a very small sector of the population.

HAK: It seems that "globalization" and "internationalism" in all their varieties are detrimental to the health and true progress of the vast majority of the world's people.

NC: Yes, because of who is running it. This is class war on an, international scale, and power is in the hands of those who control the international economic system. This framework does require extensive state power to protect the rich. The Saudi, Arabian ruling class, for example, have rights because they are performing a service for Western power, ensuring that oil profits go to the West and not to the regional population. The local gendarmes like Israel, Turkey and so on have rights, at least in their ruling groups. Others do not.

HAK: There's a lot of discussion now on the question of "humanitarian" intervention, under which US/UN forces are sent to this or that country on "humanitarian" grounds. Where do you come down on this question?

NC: I don't think there are any absolute general principles. There are some things to be understood, and then you have to apply them to particular cases. You just have to go case by case. I agree with Bill Clinton that US forces should not be sent to Haiti, but not for his reasons.

The United States is alone among all the countries in that it does not permit US military forces to be under under any threat. Other countries are willing to have forces in peace-keeping operations where they sometimes are under threat, but the US is not willing to do that. On intervention under the UN framework, I think that sometimes that's legitimate, in fact even helpful. There are many cases around the world in which the presence of UN peace-keeping forces has had a somewhat beneficial effect. In Bosnia right now, I think there is. an argument for keeping and increasing ground forces under UN rule, with quite restricted rules of engagement.

HAK: You are a member of DSA, the "Democratic Socialists of America." When I went to talk to them about Palestinian and Kurdish national rights, they were indifferent at best, with one of their leaders informing me that morality and politics didn't mix. Freedom for Kurds and Palestinians was definitely not on their agenda. What's a nice professor like you, with strong moral commitment to liberation and human rights for all people, doing in a place like that?

NC: DSA is a mixture of people. Some of the younger people afford hope for the future. I am not opposed to reform initiatives. For example, if you can build up enough popular support in the United States to put through a reasonable health care program or to support the rights of the working people against the version of NAFTA which was rammed through, these can be good things.

HAK: But nowhere near the Alpha and Omega of revolutionary emancipation of the oppressed.

NC: No, but there are a lot of things that can be done within the framework of existing institutions which would be very valuable for people. On these particular kinds of things, reform groups perform a valuable service. What's more, they perform an organizing and educational function. As far as DSA is concerned, I'm perfectly happy to be associated with it while disagreeing with a large part of the leadership.

HAK: So you think that's the best place for white people in the US to go politically?

NC: I wouldn't say that. I think it's a good place, but there are many others. Some of the others are also reformist. The New Party - that's the kind of social-democratic political party I'm happy to see develop, and I think that it'll do good things, and I'll also disagree with it. It could turn out to be something like the New Democratic Party in Canada, which has been by and large a positive force. It's made Canada in many ways a more pleasant place to live in. In addition to that, there are all the activist groups on every imaginable topic - solidarity groups, environmental and feminist groups - sectors of these movements do very valuable work.

HAK: What was behind the collapse of the Soviet Union? Give us your view of the Russian experience in this century from the Bolshevik revolution to Yeltsin.

NC: The Soviet Union was pretty much what Lenin and Trotsky said it was. The Bolshevik revolution was a counter-revolution. Its first moves were to destroy and eliminate every socialist tendency that had developed in the pre-revolutionary period. Their goal was as they said; it wasn't a big secret. They regarded the Soviet Union as sort a backwater. They were orthodox Marxists, expecting a revolution in Germany. They moved toward what they themselves called "state capitalism," then they moved on to Stalinism. They called it democracy and called it socialism. The one claim was as ludicrous as the other. However, when you read about the end of the Soviet Union, it's always about the "death of socialism." They never say "the death of democracy." But it makes about the same sense.

I should add to this that Western intellectuals, and also Third World intellectuals, were attracted to the Bolshevik counter-revolution because Leninism is, after all, a doctrine which says that the radical intelligentsia have a right to take state power and to run their countries by force, and that is an idea which is rather appealing to intellectuals.