By Zubeida Mustafa
THE response to Professor Noam Chomsky’s visit to Pakistan in November 2001 was too overwhelming for words. Chomsky is known to be a crowd-puller in the United States and elsewhere — his talks being heard typically by standing-room-only audiences. Hence it was not strange that his planned visit should send a wave of excitement among the students and intellectuals in this country.
Since his mission is to help people “get their thoughts in order”, his visit came not a whit too soon. In a conformist society where freedom of thought has traditionally been curbed politically as well as culturally, the ‘Chomsky phenomenon’ has come as a breath of fresh air. By encouraging his audience to think and question, he provides a vicarious release to that inner urge to question and go against the grain that is inborn, but is suppressed in our academia.
An expert in subjects ranging from linguistics to philosophy, history to mathematics, he is best known as a political activist and the scourge of American authorities. The last quality I discovered soon enough in September when my article on the American media with a reference to Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing consent earned me a visit from an official in the American Consulate. On entering my office he had burst out, “What does Chomsky know about South Asia?”
He was mistaken. For it turned out that Chomsky has a profound understanding of this region. While replying (in an email interview) to my question about his impression of his recent visit to South Asia he says:
“Just to keep to one impression involving both India and Pakistan, unless the cycle of violence and repression involving Kashmir is broken, the future for both countries seems to me dim. And to break that cycle, it will be necessary for each side to acknowledge the elements of justice in the charges and demands of the other. Eqbal Ahmed had some eloquent things to say about this, which I fully endorse.
“I realize that it is easy to say that from the outside, and much harder from within. But it is essential, in all such confrontations — and there are all too many of them throughout the world, distressing and painful to watch, terrible for those locked within them. That aside, one cannot fail to be impressed by the energy, vitality, courage, achievements alongside of appalling poverty and injustice, and most of all, the enormous potential that is, sadly, going to waste.”
Here is a man who describes himself as a “libertarian socialist” and values these tendencies very highly, and thinks “they point to the way to a future society in which a decent person would want to live”.
Does he consider himself an intellectual too?
“I know of no clear criterion to determine who is an ‘intellectual’. If the term refers to people who try to think seriously about issues of human significance, and articulate their views about these matters, then some of the most impressive intellectuals I have known had very little formal schooling and received little recognition, [in an earlier interview he had mentioned his uncle Milton Krauss, a self-educated man who studied till grade 4, as his role model of an intellectual because he had a lively and independent mind].
“Many highly respected intellectuals do not deserve the name. We might recall that one of the greatest of the Biblical prophets — basically intellectuals in something like the modern sense — declared very clearly that he was not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but a simple shepherd and farmer. That tradition continues throughout history. Those who are called ‘intellectuals’ are, typically, those who happen to have considerable privilege, resources, training, and access to means of expression. They are the custodians of history, so their own role is presented in a positive light. But considerable skepticism is in order, I believe.
“When one looks closely, the role of intellectuals in this sense has not been very uplifting. Overwhelmingly, they have tended to support power and authority. In fact, that is close to tautology, in that if they did not do so, they would be unlikely to be regarded as ‘respectable intellectuals’. But human affairs are complex, and a great deal depends on will and choice. There are always intellectuals who refuse to conform and obey.
“Often they are very few, and they are, of course, not welcomed by the powerful. We can trace that back to the earliest records — classical Greece and the Bible, specifically. I don’t think it is necessary to explain the willingness of a minority to stand up for justice and freedom, and to expose falsification and repression. What requires explanation is the general willingness to submit on the part of people who do have choices,” he explains.
But Chomsky is also an activist. How did he become one? He explains:
“I’ve been an activist since childhood. I was strongly opposed to what the US was doing in Vietnam from the beginning, in the late 1940s, though I did not become really active in protest and direct resistance until about 1964 — much too late, I think. I can’t think of any specific incident.
“My own feeling is that everyone shares the ‘deep compassion and anger’ to which you refer, or would, if they had a clear idea of what is happening in their own societies and in the world, and more specifically, their own role, often by passive complicity when there is a good deal that they could do. [He had earlier explained to me in our meeting in Islamabad, that his mother’s family belonged to a working class immigrant community and was politically radical which attracted him to them. He found himself specially interested in the Spanish civil war. The first political article he wrote was on the fall of Barcelona when he was ten years old.]”
Would he say that genuine democracy doesn’t exist in the US?
“Elements of genuine democracy certainly exist in the US, in some respects more than elsewhere; protection for freedom of expression, for example. On the other hand, the democratic system is deeply flawed, because of the very narrow concentration of wealth and power. The measures to rectify this are no secret. They have been used throughout history. That is how freedom and rights have been won, to the extent that they have.
“There surely has been substantial progress in these respects over the past centuries, very uneven, and by no means steady, but nonetheless real. It is rarely a gift from enlightened leaders, but almost always is won through popular struggle that seeks to dismantle oppressive institutions and extend popular control over the decisions that matter to our lives. There is no magic key, no hidden secrets about how to proceed.”
Have his views on manufacturing consent and the media being a part of big business, which promotes its own interests, influenced public thinking and brought about a change in the media scene?
“The US is one of the few countries where these issues are very prominent on the agenda of activists, and where there is a substantial amount of serious critical analysis of the media and the way they function. It’s impossible to give a measure of the degree of concern and understanding about these issues. There are too many distinct dimensions. But it is not slight.
“Activist efforts have had considerable effect on the media over the years, in many ways, and I don’t see any reason why that should not continue, alongside of development of alternative media, including, in recent years, electronic media, which offer many opportunities and have been used quite effectively. I don’t personally have much access to the mainstream media in the US, in contrast to other countries. But that is to be expected. No system of power is likely to favour those who seek to undermine it. If I did have easy access I would ask what I am doing wrong.” How does he feel about globalization?
“Used neutrally, the term ‘globalization’ simply refers to international integration, welcome or not depending on its human consequences. In the dominant doctrinal systems, the term is used to refer to a specific form of economic integration, pursued with particular intensity in the past quarter-century, designed in the interests of concentrations of private power, with the effects on the general population incidental.
“One decisive change was the dismantling of the Bretton Woods system of regulation of capital in the 1970s. That system was designed in the 1940s, by the US and Britain, to enhance economic growth and to permit governments to undertake social democratic policies. And it was quite successful, in this regard. The Bretton Woods years are, not without reason, commonly described as the ‘golden age’ of modern state capitalism; and the 25 years that followed — the years of ‘globalization’ in the sense of prevailing doctrine — are, with equal accuracy, often described as a ‘leaden age’.
“There has been a marked deterioration in standard macroeconomic measures, negative social effects, and a significant attack on functioning democracy as decisions are shifted from the public arena to the hands of unaccountable private tyrannies. There are variations of course, and a great deal of complexity, but there is no space here to go into that. The general tendencies are fairly clear, however. None of this is graven in stone. The dominant institutions are fragile, and can be dismantled insofar as they are illegitimate — which is very far, in my opinion.”
In his perspective the modern state system and contemporary ‘globalization’ relies very crucially on powerful states to socialize risk and cost, privatize profit and power, and shield wealth and power from the rigours of market discipline. He adds: “State formation in the modern sense is a particular historical form, which was achieved primarily in Europe and reached a certain level of stability after centuries of murderous and brutal wars. These came to an end in 1945 largely because it was realized that the next time Europeans engaged in their traditional sport of mutual slaughter would be the last. The system was imposed on much of the world by conquest and violence, also with terrible consequences; South Asia is an illustration.
“The contemporary system is based on a small number of powerful states closely linked to concentrations of private power that are their ‘tools and tyrants’, to borrow a memorable phrase of James Madison’s. There is every reason for the general population to seek to dismantle these systems of concentrated and largely unaccountable power in favour of democratic control of communities, industries, commerce, education, and indeed all aspects of life.” When asked about his thesis that hegemony is more important than survival for man, Chomsky said: “What I wrote is that in the value system of dominant institutions, hegemony is assigned a higher value than survival. History gives many examples. Individuals surely have a survival instinct, but humans have devised institutions that function in ways counter to that instinct. Among important current examples, which pose enormous risks to survival, are the development of weapons of mass destruction, militarization of space, and destruction of the environment, all unfortunately quite rational within the framework of existing institutions and doctrine, good reasons why these have to be radically modified.”
What are the prospects for the future?
“The factors that spawned the human rights culture are the same ones that have led to the expansion of the realm of freedom and justice throughout much of human history, rooted, I suppose, in fundamental human nature. As for the future, that is a matter of will and choice, not of idle speculation.”
Will this take the form of a clash between the haves and have-nots, which transcends frontiers?
In some sense it surely will. But we can scarcely predict tomorrow’s weather. To predict the course of human affairs is a hopeless task.”