February 8, 2020 | By Karthik Ramanathan
by Karthik Ramanathan
An interview Karthik Ramanathan did with Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics, University of Arizona at his office in Tucson. Noam Chomsky taught at MIT for over 50 years and is a leading critic of US foreign policy and an inspiration for many generations of human beings.
Audio can be a bit difficult, so best heard with a headset. Written transcript of the informal conversation follows the video:
Karthik: One thing I wanted to talk about is, how much is what’s going on in the world, in terms of the right wing, right wing and neo-fascist groups in different countries.. how much of this thing..people seeing themselves as part of a particular nation or a tribe in a narrow way, how much do you think these fractures are the result of the fissures of the past ?
Noam Chomsky: Well, there is many factors. Each area has its own special history. India is not the same as Hungary, not the same as the United States.
(Someone knocking on door, disturbance).
One crucial factor over much of the world, certainly Europe and the United staes is the socio-economic policies that have been introduced since, basically since Reagan and Tatcher – marketization, public services, undermining the role of the state, transferring wealth and control to private hands. You take that and the effects are pretty obvious. There has been concentration of wealth and stagnation for the rest of the population. By now in the United States, 0.1 percent of the population have over 20 percent of the wealth and half the population have negative net worth, that means people just live week to week, that’s half the population.
Real wages in the United States have about the same purchasing power that they had in the 1970s. The sharp concentration of wealth automatically leads to a decline of functioning democracy because of the tendency of the wealthy to dominate the political process. I mean in Europe, its been exacerbated even further by the structure of the EU, which essentially takes decision making over major issues away friom the national states to the unelected bureaucracy in Brussels. On top of that they have the northern German banks looking over their shoulders. They have been following the austerity policies which make the neoliberal policies even worse.
The effects of all this are pretty detectable, lot of anger and resentment, bitterness, condemnation of the centrist political institutions that have been running things. Happens here too. It’s the kind of situation where some guy can come along, Trump, (inaudible) in Hungary, or Bolsonaro in Brazil, and try to turn this anger into real pathology.
Karthik: I certainly see your point, about the decimation of peoples aspiration in lives.I see that and recently, in recent years, I got involved with playing guitar. And I see a lot of people who are a lot more gifted musicians than me, but, but I can see that there is an underlying struggle that they are going through. But they still are very good at heart and they maintain their humanity. The reason I bring that up is because you are seeing decimation of the middle class here but I see an attempt to hold on to their humanity. To me, being somebody who comes from a lower middle class background in India – my dad is a teacher – sure India is a very poor country, but the Indian middle class, as an exception from the neo-liberal times, have gained in power and wealth in the last 20 years. But you are seeing, what is the reason that they are supporting these aweful Hindu fascist regimes ? Do you have any thoughts on that ?
NC: I don’t think its true that the middle-class has gained, its basically stagnating, the figures are pretty clear on that. As I say, in the United States, which is one of the most effective economies, its basically been no gains in 40 years for working people and petty bourgeouise. They are angry. And the anger can be exploited by somebody like Trump, who says its not your fault, it’s the fault of poor people, it’s the blacks, or Hispanics, or muslims. And Modi does the same thing. Turn the attention to extreme Hindu nationalism. They are taking our country away from us, get rid of these muslims.
Karthik: But that is the point I wanted to touch base on. I see the general dynamics of what is happening. I think its true in the United States. But I think in India it’s a more complicated picture. In India, the poor have become poorer, but the middle-class, the middle-class..
NC: Depends on what you mean by middle-class..
NC: I mean teachers are middle-class, they are not better off..
NC: The high-tech sector has gained. So, people who are involved with Engineering lets say, they have gained. But farmers, where there have been hundreds of thousands of suicides. They are not doing well.
Karthik: I totally agree with you that the rural sector is not doing well. But where there is.. I think… But between the Engineers and between the farmers, there is another sector. For example, you brought up teachers. The teachers inthe cities and in the wealthier states, they have also benefitted from the neoliberal policies..beacuse I believe it’s a fact that they have benefited because the state, the government has become more wealthier and more powerful. The sector [like] school teachers an in terms of the wealth they have…
NC: Have salaries increased, in terms of real wages, over the last 30 years?
Karthik: I do not have quantitative data, but I can state from, I can state from my personal observations, give that my dad is a teacher, that certainly, certainly, teachers today, in a place like Chennai, for example. They can make 900 to 1000 dollars a month, you know 40, 50, 60 thousand rupees a month. Which you could not aspire to, anywhere close, 30 years ago.
NC: Well, the country has become much richer.
NC: But I I think the, I mean I haven’t looked into the details. But the inequality in India is huge.
Karthik: Absolutely. Absolutely. I agree with you on the increase in inequality. There is no question about that.
NC: That means that hundreds of millions of people are left out. That means, in India, you have 300 million people who are don’t even have access to potable water. That’s not a small number of people.
Karthik: That the economic conditions you point out certainly have validity. One aspect I wanted to talk about, you brought up the aspect of people being convinced by demagogues that its Pakistan or the Mexicans or some other enemy who is taking things from us. It also has a certain history of ignorance, in the sense that even during the 60s and 70s, even during the Congress times, when Congress was at the height of its power, Pakistan was always presented as an enemy.. And Kashmir was always presented as something that just belonged to India.
NC: As an enemy ?
Karthik: Pakistan was always presented as an enemy and Kashmir was always presented as something that just belongs to India. So, I think there is more than just the economics at play.
NC: I was giving talks in India about 16 years I guess.. And I happened to mention in one talk, the Indian repression in Kashmir after the fraudulent 1987 elections. The next day, I was giving a talk somewhere else, there was a big BJP demonstration and the rest of the time I was there, the people who were organizing my talk insisted I have police protection.
Karthik: I believe that was the first talk of yours I attended your talk and I believe it was in October of 2001 or somewhere in late 2001.
NC: Yea.. sounds about right.
Karthik: Because I remember having an email conversation with you subsequently.
NC: I see.
NC: Yea, the support for what Modi did in Kashmir is overwhelming among the Hindu population.
Karthik: Right. Yea, I think there is more than economics. I think the fissures, the minds of people have already been fissured by ignorance and propaganda.
NC: One thing that’s happened is the press has been pretty much muzzled. They are very uncritical.
Karthik: I’m going to check the camera to make sure that its recording, as I have very poor habits in terms of handling that machine.
NC: Unfortunately, we don’t have too much time.
Karthik: Yea, its recording. So, how much time… 10 minutes? 15 minutes ?
NC: 10 minutes. Keep going.
Karthik: You indicated in recent interviews, that whats we are seeing in the world is not Nazism. Eventhough there are parallels, its not exactly whats happening in Germany. Would you say that’s true in the case of India? Because India is building detention centers to house millions of Muslim citizens after them labeling them illegal immigrants.
NC: What we are seeing is the symptoms of fascism without the fascist ideology. Fascism meant something. It meant a powerful state, under the control of the Nazi or fascist party, which controlled everything. It even controlled business. We are not seeing that in India. The state does not control big business. And the same here. We have many of the aspects of fascism. Concentration camps at the border. You have many of the aspects of fascism. Concentration camps at the border, you know racism, and so on.. But business is not under control. [inaudible] they called it in Germany. The state is so powerful, it controlled not just labor of course, but business. Infact, every organization. There are signs of that. For example, when Trump orders every company to get out of China, there is a touch of that. But notice that they didn’t do it.
Karthik: Right. Right. They don’t have that kind of power yet.
NC: They don’t have that kind of power.
Karthik: So, do you think, you know, two questions. The first one: Did you notice that in Kashmir, you know P. Chidambaram, Mr. P. Chidambaram, who is the former home minister of India, a congress politician. As a home minister, he was administering the occupation of Kashmir. It was brutal but not as brutal as it is today.
NC: Congress has a rotten record on Kashmir.
NC: Under Congress, there were massive atrocities in Kashmir.
Karthik: Right. Maybe you can give some other examples in the world. But he was celebrated when he was administering the occupation of Kashmir. But the moment he criticized the BJPs occupation of Kashmir, the moment he criticized it as reducing Kashmir to a “vassal state”, he’s been in prison.
NC: In prison?
Karthik: Yes, in prison, without charges.
NC: Well, I mean, the whole institutional structure of India, plus the great mass of the Hindu population, is evidently very supportive of the undermining of Kashmiri autonomy and opening up to Indian settlement. Kashmir is a prison right now, but its supported in India. I don’t think people know what is happening.
Karthik: How crucial do you think it is to restore a decent, some type of a decent government in this country..
NC: In this country ?
Karthik: .. in order to support struggles of the people, like the people of Kashmir ?
NC: In this country.
Karthik: How important do you think it is to have a government that more centrist, or center-left, or doesn’t have fascist undertones. How important do you think it is to have a government like that to support struggles abroad?
NC: If you look at the record, the more liberal governments have by no means supported movements for freedom and justice almost anywhere. They support freedom movements in enemy states, but not in countries that we support. They can be as repressive and brutal as they like. Rightwing can sometimes be a little worse, but it’s not that different.
NC: Take say Obama. You look at the refugees fleeing from Central America. The plurality are from Honduras. Why? Because in 2009 there was a military coup that threw out a mildly reformist President. It was denounced throughout the continent, Obama and Clinton refused to denounce. And it turned into a horror story, people starting to flee.
Karthik: What will it take for people in the United States, for helping struggles, like the struggle for freedom in Kashmir and Palestine ?
NC: It will take major popular movements and they are hard to construct. I mean the worst crime since second world war was the invasion of Vietnam. It took years before you could get any popular protest. I mean in Boston, a pretty liberal city, we literally couldn’t have public demonstrations against the war, because it will be broken up by counter-demonstators. Until about 1967 and by that time, Vietnam had practically been destroyed. I mean I worked for many years, trying to get some opposition to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, the worst genocide since second world war. And the US was backing it the whole time. Take say Turkey. In the 1990s, Turkey was carrying out massive repression and slaughter of Kurds. Almost all the arms were coming from Clinton. You couldn’t get any reporting and you couldn’t get any protests. To this day, nobody knows about it. There were a couple of people, I was one at the time. Its not easy.
Karthik: You mentioned about the Kurds. You know, you know, with this, I know you were against impeachment with regards the Russia investigation. In terms of the new situation that’s developed in regards to Ukraine, and that, do you think, there is a lof of excitement in democratic circles about impeachment. Do you think that it’s a good idea to focus big time on impeachment?
NC: No I don’t. Take a look at the issues that’s being focused in the impeachment. What are the crimes that’s being charged in the impeachment hearings? That he was looking for dirt on democrats. He was attacking the power system in the country. The same with Watergate. The major crimes of Clinton [Nixon], nobody cared about. He had a bunch of thugs break into the democratics party headquarters. You don’t attack powerful people. Because they fight back. But the major crimes, they don’t care.
Karthik: Right. In a way, you are seeing that about whats happening with the Kurds. That’s not going to be a reason for impeachment.
NC: No. That’s not a reason. In fact, when Lindsey Graham and others, condemn Trump for leaving the Kurds to the mercy of the Turks, what they are saying is this is going to harm the fight against ISIS. What about the Kurds? They don’t care about that.
Karthik: Does it also strike you that Lindsey Graham, the senator that you just mentioned, also compared the withdrawal from Kurdish areas to withdrawal from Iraq. Do the two comparisons make sense ?
NC: Look, when Saddam Hussein was carrying out chemical warfare attacks the Kurds in Iraq, the Regan administration supported it. They tried to blame it on Iran. When Congress tried to pass some resolution criticizing it, it was fought by the Regan administration. The kurds have been smashed and betraying them over and over again. Kissinger, Regan and this is nothing new I’m afraid.
NC: I’m afraid I have to go. There is guy waiting out there.
Karthik: Thank you for your time Noam.
NC: Good to see you.
Karthik: Good to see you.