- Interview by
- Poyâ Pâkzâd
- Benjamin Magnussen
Despite rapidly approaching his ninety-third birthday, Noam Chomsky shows few signs of slowing down. The world-famous public intellectual has published two books in 2021 — Consequences of Capitalism: Manufacturing Discontent and Resistance (with Marv Waterstone) and The Precipice: Neoliberalism, the Pandemic and the Urgent Need for Social Change (with C. J. Polychroniou) — and his willingness to sit down for interviews on wide-ranging topics remains unflagging.
Chomsky spoke with Poyâ Pâkzâd and Benjamin Magnusson from the Danish magazine Eftertryk in October 2021 about the war in Afghanistan, ongoing US-instigated conflicts with China, climate change, and anarchism. You can watch the conversation on YouTube here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The war in Afghanistan has been dubbed “the good war,” usually in contrast to the war in Iraq. I know you have an alternative view of what the war in Afghanistan was.
Let’s go back twenty years [to] 9/11. It’s important to recognize first that the United States didn’t know who was responsible for 9/11. In fact, eight months later, the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, had his first major press conference. He was asked, “Who was responsible for 9/11?” This is now after the most intensive multinational investigation, probably, in human history. He said, “We presume that the perpetrators were al-Qaeda and [Osama] bin Laden, but we haven’t been able to establish it.” That’s eight months after the invasion.
What was the motivation for the invasion itself? I think the best answer to this was given by the leading figure in the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance, Abdul Haq, a highly respected Afghan leader [who was] leading the resistance to the Taliban from within. He had an interview in October 2001, right after the bombing started, with a leading Central Asia scholar, Anatol Lieven, who asked him, “What do you think about the invasion?”
[Abdul Haq] said, “The invasion will kill many Afghans, [and] it will undermine our efforts to overthrow the Taliban-regime from within.” He laid out those efforts and thought they were promising. This [the invasion] will undermine them. “But the Americans don’t care about the Afghans, and they don’t care about overthrowing the Taliban. What they want to do is show their muscle and intimidate everyone in the world.”
That was pretty much repeated, in different words, by the American secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who was one of the main agents of the invasion. The Taliban very quickly offered to surrender. They would just go back to their villages and be left alone, and the United States could take over. Of course, [the United States] could then have Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in their hands.
Rumsfeld’s response to this offer was “We do not negotiate surrenders.” It was then seconded by the president, George W. Bush, who said the same thing: “We do not negotiate surrenders, we just use force.” He was asked questions about al-Qaeda and [Osama] bin Laden. He said, “I don’t know anything about them. We don’t really care about them. We have a bigger game in mind.”
The “bigger game in mind” was, of course, outlined publicly. It was not a secret. They wanted to go after Iraq — that’s the real prize. Afghanistan is nothing. [They wanted to] go after Iraq, the major prize, and then use that as a base for going on to other countries in the region. That was the plan.
In fact, if the United States had wanted to capture [Osama] bin Laden — who was then a suspect, remember, not guilty — it wouldn’t have been very difficult. [They] could have done it with a small police action, which probably would have been supported by the Taliban. They would have been happy to get rid of him. He was a nuisance for them. [The Taliban] couldn’t just throw him out because of tribal rules — you don’t throw out somebody who’s taken refuge. That’s important for the Pashtun conception of proper behavior. But they wouldn’t have offered any opposition if the United States wanted to send in a police action.
[But] that’s no good. We have to show our muscle and intimidate everyone.
What happened after that is, the Taliban went back to their villages. The United States came in, its allies came in. There are very good reporters who have been following this on the ground from the beginning. The best is Anand Gopal. [He] has a recent article about it in the New Yorker repeating it. Others have reported the same thing. A recent report in the Washington Post is saying basically the same thing, from another one of the few reporters who was actually in the rural areas — that’s where Afghanistan is.
They all say the same thing: at the beginning, the Afghan rural population was relieved that the fighting was over. They could have some peace. And they had this idea — they didn’t know much of the United States — that many people in the world have: “Here’s this superrich country, which can do all kinds of good things for us.” They hoped that the United States would somehow come in and deal with their problems with poverty and so on.
That didn’t last very long. As soon as the US forces came in, they started attacking Afghans. A bomb could be aiming at somebody they thought was Taliban, but it could hit a wedding party and kill forty people. So now [the Taliban] could recruit the relatives. [US] Special Forces break into people’s houses during the night, humiliate them, send them to a torture chamber. You have created more Taliban. This continued to go on until you had a substantial resistance in the countryside.
How did the United States deal with it? Intensifying the violence. Either itself or the Afghan army that had mobilized, which used the same tactics [as the United States]. What they say now, the same reporters, is “everyone hated the Americans, including the Afghan army.” For pretty good reasons.
Meanwhile, something else was happening. The United States, when it came in, didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. So they looked for people who could carry out their orders. Who were they? The warlords. The monsters who were running the place. There, the ones who were savvy could put themselves forth, saying, “I’ll work for you.” But they’re not stupid. One warlord could approach the Americans and say, “In this village over here, there’s some Taliban” — namely, one of his enemies. Then the Americans would come in and smash up that village and create more Taliban recruits.
This went on through twenty years. By the end, there was a huge resistance. A popular resistance. Actually, the Taliban originally were based in the Pashtun — it’s the largest of the ethnic groups [in Afghanistan] — but it’s extended. One of the few surprises, very few surprises, in the last few weeks was that the warlords in the Tajik and Uzbek areas immediately moved to the Taliban. That was unexpected. Everything else was perfectly well expected.
It was obvious that the government would collapse. The government is just a morass of corruption, [for] which there’s no support. The Afghan army — half of it was just on paper, ghost soldiers. Others were soldiers who didn’t get paid, didn’t have ammunition. The corrupt leaders and officials were stealing everything. They weren’t going to fight for the Americans, so they just disappeared.
All of that was plain. I wrote about it in advance, [and] others did [as well]. Now, the only people who didn’t seem to understand it were the people who had access to intelligence. Intelligence had a different story. That’s one of the ways in which intelligence gets distorted. But if you looked at the facts on the ground, it was plain what was going to happen. The surprise was the joining of the Taliban by their former enemies, the warlords in Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and others — that’s how it was unexpected. So, now it’s apparently a multiethnic-ruled organization.
What about the withdrawal? This goes back to President Donald Trump. In February 2020, Trump made a deal with the Taliban. He didn’t even bother to inform the Afghan government, [because] they’re nothing. Afghan people, of course, don’t count at all. [Trump] made a deal with the Taliban that American troops would withdraw in May 2021 — the worst possible time. The onset of the fighting season. No opportunity to accommodate, to make local arrangements. “We will pull out, and you can do anything you like,” he said. He imposed no conditions. He just had one condition: “Don’t fire at American soldiers, which wouldn’t look good for me. But anything else is your business.”
It’s interesting to see the reaction of the Republican Party, which hailed this as a historic achievement by our great leader President Trump. It was featured on the Republican Party web page, and it stayed there, up until when the debacle began. Actually, Joe Biden slightly improved on Trump’s conditions: he delayed it a couple of months, so there was a little more time, [and he] added some conditions on the Taliban. [Joe Biden] carried out an improved version of what they were hailing as a marvelous historic achievement by the genius Trump.
As soon as the debacle began, they pulled it off their web page and turned to attacking the Democrats and the army for the disaster. You may have seen the Senate hearing, where General Mark Milley and others were called to account by Republicans who, a month earlier, were hailing the historic achievement, now denouncing the military for following what they had hailed. This carries shamelessness to a higher level — but that’s the Republican Party.
Now comes the next stage. Now, there’s a split in the international community about how to deal with the situation. One approach was advocated by the China-based regional powers — it’s basically the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] — China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, India, and Pakistan. Their approach is to accommodate somehow the Taliban regime. It’s a miserable situation in Afghanistan. A mass of people is starving, [and] the economy [has] collapsed, so their approach is, “Let’s give them some aid and support for the population, engage with them, and make an effort to make their government more inclusive, less repressive, and shift the economy from opium production to the export of minerals and their other resources.” That’s one approach.
There’s another approach, which is led by the United States and includes India, a US ally. In the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, India opposed this, preferring the US approach, which is to deprive Afghans of any aid and assistance. To hold their resources — [their] treasury resources happen to be in US banks — and pressure the IMF and the World Bank not to offer them assistance. Just punish the Afghans as much as possible. This doesn’t punish the leadership — sanctions hurt the population. They usually make the leader stronger, as the population has to huddle under the leader’s umbrella just to survive.
The United States is the only country that can impose sanctions. Others go along sometimes, but if they try to do it on their own, nobody would pay the slightest attention. When the United States imposes sanctions, everyone has to obey — even if you oppose them.
Take the sanctions against Cuba, the oldest ones. The entire world opposes them. The vote at the United Nations, the last one, was 184 to 2. Israel goes along with the United States — it’s a client state, so it has to. The rest of the world says no, but they all abide by the sanctions, because US sanctions are third-party sanctions. They tell others, “If you don’t abide by them, we throw you out of the international financial system.” And you have other punishments. The world is basically the mafia, and the Godfather gives the orders, and others obey, whether they like it or not. It’s reality, [it’s] not political science.
So, if the United States imposes sanctions, like on Afghanistan, like it or not, the rest of the world has to obey. Maybe not China. They won’t. That’s one of the reasons China is an enemy: they don’t just follow orders. It’s not tolerable. But maybe the Central Asian states will go along with China. In fact, they have been shifting — they have kicked out the American bases and are moving toward the China-based Eurasian system, the Belt and Road Initiative, the investment system that China’s been carrying out. So that seems to be the way it’s developing.
On China and AUKUS
China is portrayed as a threat to the West — namely Europe and the United States — and recently there has been this new alliance, which seems to be a weapons-sale alliance. And we have a big reaction from Emmanuel Macron in France, because he is losing market share. What do you make of it?
AUKUS. First of all, why is China a threat? A good recent statement about this [was made] by the distinguished international diplomat, former prime minister of Australia Paul Keating. He said, “What’s the China threat? Well, here’s a country that raised 20 percent of the world’s population from poverty moving on to become a functioning state.” It’s moving forward in the economy, [but] it’s independent of the United States — that’s the China threat. The China threat, he said, is China’s existence. That can’t be tolerated.
Let’s go back to the mafia. The Godfather does not accept centers of power that don’t follow the rules, so China’s a threat. It’s not a military threat. The military threat is against China. China is ringed with US bases with nuclear armed missiles, right offshore, aimed at China. It’s China that’s under threat, not the United States. The United States is under threat from a potential rival that doesn’t follow orders. That’s the threat.
Let’s take a look at AUKUS. What’s portrayed in the press and the governments is [that] it’s a problem of freedom of navigation. [But] there is no problem of freedom of navigation. Actually, one of Australia’s leading strategic analysts just wrote an important article about this. He said, “[There’s] no threat to navigation.” And there is none. There’s none that’s been raised. The problem is what are called the “exclusive economic zones.” The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 established what are called “exclusive economic zones.” Two hundred miles offshore, there has to be complete freedom of navigation. But there should be no “threat or use of force.”
Now, that’s interpreted by China and India to mean no military intelligence operations. The United States disagrees. [They] say that the United States has the right to carry out military and intelligence operations in the exclusive zone, which they recently did, just a couple of weeks ago, in the Indian zone. India protested vigorously, but [they], of course, can’t do anything about it.
Well, China also protests, and they can do something about it. That’s the contention: Can there be US military intelligence operations in China’s exclusive economic zone? The wording again is “no threat or use of force.”
I should mention on the side that the United States is the only maritime power that does not ratify the Law of the Sea. [The] United States doesn’t ratify international conventions — that’s an interference with its sovereignty. Because the Godfather doesn’t accept that.
So the issue is kind of a technical one: How do you interpret the Law of the Sea with regard to the question “Does rule of force bar military intelligence operations?” That’s the issue. The United States on one side, China and India on the other. [It’s an] obvious place for diplomacy to move in. [But] the United States does not pursue sissified things like “diplomacy.”
We can go back to Afghanistan. When the Taliban surrendered, the answer was, “We don’t do negotiations. We use force.”
Now, let’s come to AUKUS. The United States made a deal with Australia to send them a fleet of advanced hunter-killer submarines with nuclear weapons. China has none of these, [and] this is the South China Sea. China has four submarines. Old submarines [that are] noisy, nonnuclear, easily detected and hemmed in the South China Sea. They can’t go anywhere. That’s China. [The] United States ,of course, has [a lot]. Take a look at the nuclear submarines in the United States. There’s a fleet of advanced submarines. Each one of them — a single one — has, I forgot how many, Trident missiles. Each Trident missile has many warheads. Each US submarine can attack about two hundred cities all over the world. That’s the balance of submarines in the South China Sea.
To correct this, the United States is sending more nuclear submarines to Australia — which Australia pays for, but then they’re folded into the US naval command. It’s a very serious threat to China. There’s no strategic purpose. These subs won’t even be in operation for probably fifteen years. By that time, of course, China will have built up its military forces to counter this new threat — so we get an escalation. Again, we show our muscle, show that we intend to dominate the world.
Same with France. France had already made a deal with Australia to send conventional submarines. The United States did not even notify France that it was being abrogated by the US-Australia deal to send advanced nuclear submarines. So, naturally, [Emmanuel] Macron was pretty upset. It’s a blow to French industry, a serious blow. They weren’t even informed. There’s a message there. It tells the European Union, “Here is your role in world affairs. If we need you, we’ll ask you to do something. If we want to do something, we won’t even bother notifying you. You’re vassals.”
France withdrew its ambassadors in protest. The ambassadors to Australia and the United States didn’t bother withdrawing their ambassador from England, because everybody knows that England is just a vassal state. Don’t bother with them. But that’s how world affairs are shaking up. That’s the AUKUS deal. It’ll escalate to crisis. It’s very tense. There’s a mutual escalation.
So the United States escalates tensions off the China coast. China sends warplanes into Taiwan’s protected area. Those are the “tit for tat” actions. They expand. They can lead to war, [and] a war between China and United States means we’re finished. It’s over. Not just them — everybody. You can’t have a war between nuclear powers. China doesn’t have much of a nuclear system — nothing like the United States — but enough to attack the continental of the United States from the mainland [of China].
On Climate Change
To change subjects: What do you see as the greatest obstacle in solving the climate crisis?
There are two major obstacles. One is, of course, the fossil fuel companies. Second is the governments of the world, including Europe and the United States. We have just seen that very dramatically over the summer. On August 9, 2021, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] issued its last analysis of the climate situation. It was a very dire warning — much more than before.
The message basically was, “We have two choices.” We can either start right now cutting back on fossil fuel use, [and] do it systematically every year, until we phase them out by mid-century. That’s one choice. The other choice is cataclysm. The end of organized human life on earth. Not immediately — we’ll just reach irreversible tipping points, and it goes on to disaster. Those are the options.
How did the great powers react? The day after the IPCC report, Joe Biden issued an appeal to the OPEC cartel [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] to increase production. Europe chimed in by calling on all producers, including Russia, to increase production. Increase production. This is a response to the IPPC warning that we have to start reducing right now.
That’s for political reasons, for profit for the oil companies. [The] political reason is that they want the price reduced. It’s better for them. [For] Joe Biden, if the gas prices are high, it harms his electoral prospects. [If] you read the major business press right now, [there’s] a big discussion going on: What’s the best way to increase production? Is it through the American shale oil — the fracking industry — or is it through OPEC? But how do we increase production best? That’s the business press. Turn to the petroleum journals. [They are] euphoric: “We just found new fields to exploit. Demand is going up. It’s great.”
Let’s go to the US Congress. The Biden program — under pressure from young activists, the Bernie Sanders movements, and so on — is actually a big improvement on any previous ones, on paper. It’s not wonderful, but it’s much better than anything else. Well, the [previous] negotiations in Congress over the “reconciliation bill,” initiated by Bernie Sanders, cut back very sharply from Sanders’s proposals. It’s a very valuable bill. It somewhat reverses the huge assault on the population during the neoliberal era.
The Republicans are 100 percent opposed. Nothing. [They] won’t accept anything. The Democrats do have a swing vote. The so-called moderate Democrats, who should be called “ultra-reactionaries,” are the swing vote. One of them is the chair of the Senate Energy Committee, [who] also happens to be the champion in Congress of receiving funding from the fossil fuel industry — which is quite an achievement, because they pay off everyone — but he’s the champion. His name is Joe Manchin. He has a policy — he’s made it explicit — that’s taken from the playbook of the oil companies. He made it very clear; he said: “No elimination, only innovation.” So, no cutbacks on the use of fossil fuel. If you can make up something new, it’s okay. So, he’s blocking it. There are climate change provisions in it. They’re already out. Blocked.
In Europe, it varies. There are some countries, like Denmark, for example, that are moving toward renewable energy pretty significantly. Others vary. But when it comes to the crunch, telling the oil companies and the producers right now what to do, Europe is, as far as I know, unified in saying, “Increase production” — right after the warning that we have to decrease production. That’s the world we live in.
Considering this, do you think it’s possible to find solutions at the scale and time we need within the capitalist system?
It’s very simple. Straightforward. There are very careful and detailed proposals that have been worked out. Even by the International Energy Agency [IEA], which is a producer-based group. There are detailed proposals, others by a number of economists, very good economists. One of them is my coauthor Robert Pollin, another is Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia. Using different models, they all come up with the same results. There are perfectly feasible measures to meet the IPPC goals and, at the same time, make a better world. Better jobs, better living conditions, [and] improvement of the nature of society. It’s all possible.
The leaders in Europe who are calling for increased production know it perfectly well — if they’re literate. And it’s within maybe 2 to 3 percent of the GDP — easily manageable. It’s actually less than what the US Treasury spent to bail out the financial institutions during the current crisis. Easily within range. [It is a] tiny fraction of what was spent during World War II.
But the problem is: Can you get the will to do it? It’s not going to come from the leadership. It has to come from mass popular action. And the scandal and tragedy is that that’s coming only from young people. The climate strike earlier this year — young people. The “Sunrise Movement” in the United States, which impelled the Biden administration to at least adopt a reasonable proposal on paper — it’s young people. When Greta Thunberg stands up at the Davos meeting and says, “You have betrayed us,” she’s exactly right. She got a light applause, and then they said, “Nice little girl, why don’t you go back to school? We’ll take care of it.” It can be done. But it’s going to take plenty of effort and energy.
There are major problems. Actually, last month, an IMF [International Monetary Fund] study tried to estimate the subsidies that are being given to the fossil fuel companies. Their estimate is around $11 million a minute in subsidies, mostly by the rich countries to the fossil fuel industry. Some of them are direct, others are indirect, like by underestimating the cost of the use of fossil fuel. That’s a pretty significant sum. It’s going on every day.
The whole neoliberal period was basically class war. It had nothing to do with the markets or anything else. Just class war. This is another form. Do we want to hand the future of our children and grandchildren to elements that want to make as much profit as possible and then don’t care what happens tomorrow? That’s one choice. The other choice is to move onto a livable and better world.
On Anarchism and Classical Liberalism
Let’s move on to anarchism. I think it’s a term that’s greatly misunderstood. A lot of people believe that anarchism has to do with a chaotic society without any rules, which is quite different from the anarchism that you speak of. Could you briefly try to explain what you mean, when you speak of anarchism?
Well, I mean, anarchism covers a very wide range. There are all sorts of things. But even the ultraright calls itself anarchist — meaning they want power to shift from government to private tyranny. But the mainstream has been based on a very simple principle: any form of hierarchy and domination is illegitimate, unless it can justify itself. It has a burden of proof. Sometimes that burden of proof can be me — very rarely. If it can’t be met, dismantle it, and turn it into a more free, participatory, cooperative society.
An anarchist system could very well have hierarchy, as long as it’s controlled from below. Like, if I need surgery, I go to a doctor, not a carpenter. That’s hierarchy. But I chose it — he’s a doctor by virtue of my decision, our decision collectively, that some group of people can gain skills that the community needs. So, as long as responsibility is vested in the democratic participatory community in every institution, in the workplace, in communities everywhere, then we’re moving toward a free and just society.
It will be a highly organized society. There can be a lot of planning about how we should distribute resources, what our policies ought to be. It could be, or should be, international in scope. So, a rich and complex organization based on popular and democratic control, meeting the condition that any form of hierarchy that can’t justify itself has to be dismantled in favor of more freedom. Then you can spell that out in many detailed ways.
I suppose that the practical realization of this philosophy, in economic terms, would be to do something about those private tyrannies.
Well, there are many things that can be done and, in fact, are being done. One thing that should be done is the classic position of the workers’ movements and the farmers’ movements back in the nineteenth century — in fact, it has its roots in classical liberalism: “Those who work in an enterprise should own and manage it.” We should move toward what radical farmers called a cooperative commonwealth, where the farmers themselves organized collectively [and] freed themselves from the rule of the Northeastern bankers and market managers [and instead] did it themselves. That was the populist movement in the United States in the nineteenth century. They were beginning to link up with the growing workers’ movement, which held that “those who work in the mill should own them. No one has the right to expropriate the labor of someone else.”
This is, actually, classical liberalism. Go back to someone like Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the main founders of classical liberalism, who said that “the peasant who works the fields has more right of ownership than the landlord who sits in some palace somewhere.” That’s classical liberalism. Abraham Lincoln in the United States was a classical liberal. For him, and indeed for the Republican Party, what they called “wage slavery” — subordination to a master — is just like slavery, except that it’s temporary, until you can free yourself. Now, there’s a little difference. He talked about individual freedom, [and] the farmers and workers talked about collective freedom — a cooperative commonwealth. But other than that, the roots are in the classical idea, [which] goes way back to the Romans — that subordination to a master is a fundamental attack on basic human dignity and human rights. That’s been beaten out of people’s heads by a century of propaganda.
Now it’s supposed to be a wonderful thing if you can subordinate yourself to a master for most of your working life. It’s called “getting a job.” It was considered a horrible attack on human dignity for millennia. Millennia, literally, up through the nineteenth century. It’s taken a lot of work to impose on people the idea that it’s a wonderful thing to spend your waking hours following somebody else’s orders.
And doing it in a way that is actually more extreme than totalitarian states! Like, Stalin couldn’t tell you “You’re allowed to go to the bathroom for fifteen minutes at 3 p.m.” He couldn’t do that. That’s what’s called “getting a job” — [someone telling you] what kind of clothes to wear [and], if you’re working at an Amazon warehouse, what kind of path to take between two spots. If you’re working for a delivery company, you’re not allowed to stop for coffee for fifteen minutes, and we control you because we have a surveillance system in the truck. If you do that, you get a demerit, and if you get a couple of them, you’ll get thrown out. That’s called “getting a job.” Subordinating yourself to a master.
Well, not only the anarchists but even the socialist movement took that as a slogan. “Workers’ control of enterprises” was the basis for the traditional socialist movement, [but] it’s long changed from that. But I think all these ideas can be reconstructed quickly — they are [already], to a certain extent. There are worker-controlled enterprises, cooperatives, localist initiatives developing, which are pieces of a more free and just society, which would follow general anarchist principles.
Unfortunately, this cannot happen in time to deal with our immediate crises. The timescales are wrong. The immediate crises [are] crises of survival [and] will have to be dealt with within more or less the existing institutions. They can be modified, but they are not going to be fundamentally changed in time to deal with the crises. That doesn’t mean that you stop working on the long term. You do it, and it changes consciousness, changes understanding, and builds elements of freedom within a highly repressive society. It can be done. But the immediate crises are going to require working with the institutions that exist. We’re stuck with that.