Noam Chomsky, by any measure, has led a most extraordinary life. In one index he is ranked as the eighth most cited person in history, right up there with Aristotle, Shakespeare, Marx, Plato and Freud. The legendary MIT professor practically invented modern linguistics. In addition to his pioneering work in that field he has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for many decades. Chris Hedges says he is “America’s greatest intellectual” who “makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable.” He is Institute Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT and Laureate Professor of Linguistics and Haury Chair in the Program in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona.. At 91, he continues to write and give interviews to the media all over the world. He is the author of scores of books, including Propaganda & the Public Mind, How the World Works, Power Systems and Global Discontents with David Barsamian. This conversation was broadcast on Alternative Radio.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: It’s axiomatic to hear in virtually all media, that the country is deeply divided and polarized, red and blue. Do you accept that? And if so, how to overcome it?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, the country is polarized in a funny sense. A large part of the country is, by international standards, centrist and the more progressive elements are slightly social democratic. The other part of the country is way off to the right. So in that sense, yes, it’s polarized. The way to overcome polarization is to seek common ground and work to approach consensus, at least on crucial issues. As to what that common ground should be, it depends on what you would prefer the country to be. If you’re way off to the right, the way to overcome it is to work to convince others to join you at the extreme right of the spectrum of opinion in comparable societies. If you have different goals, you’ll act accordingly.
DB: You were born in 1928, a decade after the misnamed Spanish flu hit the world, causing hundreds of thousands of U.S. deaths and many millions around the globe. I say misnamed because the first reported case was at a U.S. military base in Kansas in 1918. As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, did people talk about it? Do you have any memory of it?
NC: You’re correct. It started in a military base in Kansas, and American soldiers going to Europe spread it in Europe and then it spread all over. But if somebody were a Trump, they would be calling it the Kansas flu. I was born 10 years later, 1928. I never heard a word about it. I learned about it later, when I was looking it up in history books. By 10 years later it had essentially no residue on growing up in the U.S. I never ran into anyone who talked about it.
DB: Let’s talk about the current pandemic, which has resulted in the deaths of now almost 215,000 U.S. and millions of cases, numbers that are certain to go much higher. The regime in Washington has come under wide criticism, particularly from the scientific and medical communities. The New England Journal of Medicine on October 7th has called the regime’s handling of the pandemic “dangerously incompetent.” It has “taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy. Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed ‘opinion leaders’ and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.” In addition to The New England Journal of Medicine, the Scientific American broke with 175 years of tradition by endorsing the Democratic candidate. And The Lancet, the prestigious British journal, called on Americans to make Trump a one-term president. What is your sense of what’s going on with the pandemic and Washington’s response?
NC: Basically, they don’t care. It is pretty astonishing that the major U.S. medical journal, The New England Journal of Medicine, which has been around for over two centuries, for the first time in its history has taken a stand on an election. Scientific American the same, The Lancet did it some months ago. And it is outrageous.
In fact, if we look back at the record, it’s even more outrageous. It’s worth looking back at the record because we are facing the same situation again that we faced in 2003. We’d better understand how this came about if we hope to prevent the next one. And the next one could be much worse. We’ve been kind of lucky so far. There have been coronaviruses that are highly contagious but not very lethal, like this one is; that have been highly lethal but not very contagious, like Ebola. The next one, for all we know, might be highly contagious and highly lethal, and we might be back to something like the Black Death. And it’s very likely to come.
So let’s just go back for a minute and look at what happened with this one, and specifically, what happened with Donald Trump and the Republican Party. In 2003, the SARS epidemic coronavirus was contained, and scientists told us pretty much what they’re saying now: It’s very likely others will come. We have to be prepared for it. The way we have to be prepared for it is to study coronaviruses, work out possible vaccines, put in place response systems so that when it comes you will be ready to move.
It’s not enough to have the knowledge. Somebody has to do something with it. And here you have fundamental problems much deeper than Trump. Who is going to pick up the ball and run with it on researching and developing the background for vaccines?
The obvious candidate, the drug companies. They have profits coming out of their ears, huge laboratories, plenty of resources. But they’re blocked by capitalist logic, which remains. You don’t put money in something that might work out a couple years from now, and you certainly don’t put money in vaccines, which people use once and then they’re done with. Put your money in things you can make profit on tomorrow. That’s capitalist logic. So the drug companies are out.
Next comes the government. Again, ample resources, wonderful laboratories. But they’re blocked by something called neoliberalism, a particularly savage version of capitalism that was explained to us very frankly 40 years ago straight out. The essence of it was produced in a couple of sentences in Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural Address: “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Meaning we remove decisions from government, which is partially responsive to populations, and put the decisions in private hands, which are totally unaccountable, the corporate sector. They will make the decisions.
The second contribution was the primary economic guru of neoliberalism, Milton Friedman. About the same time he came out with a famous article on the nature of the corporation, highly influential. He said the sole responsibility of a corporation is to enrich itself, to maximize profit for shareholders. And of course that means for management and CEOs. Anything else is wrong. This is not an economic doctrine, it’s an ethical doctrine. It has nothing to do with economics. The economics are straightforward. Corporations are gifts from the public to people who incorporate. If you want to incorporate, you’re given a gift by the public. The first gift, limited liability. And many other gifts. Now the question is an ethical question, not an economic one. You have to do something about these gifts. Milton Friedman says no, you should just maximize shareholder value, and of course that means management compensation, CEO compensation.There have been coronaviruses that are highly contagious but not very lethal, like this one is; that have been highly lethal but not very contagious, like Ebola. The next one, for all we know, might be highly contagious and highly lethal. And it’s very likely to come.
Put those two together. All decisions have to be placed in the hands of the corporate sector, whose sole goal is to enrich themselves. What do you think is going to happen from that? We’ve seen it for 40 years. In fact, there was just an estimate from the Rand Corporation which concluded that the transfer of wealth from the middle class and the working class to the very rich, the top few percent or maybe fraction of 1% of the population, that transfer is $47 trillion. That’s actually an underestimate. That’s what happened.
But let’s go back to the pandemic. Drug companies are ruled out by capitalist logic, government is ruled out by the neoliberal version of savage capitalism. What’s left? Leaders, who may or may not do something.
Well, when Obama came into office, his first step was to organize a meeting of the Presidential Science Advisory Council, which had been set up by the first Bush. He asked them to prepare a pandemic preparation program. They came back with a detailed program. It was implemented. That lasted until January 2017. Donald Trump came into office. The first days in office, he dismantled the program. Trump’s major operative principle is to wreck. Anything that exists that I didn’t do, destroy (and anything I did do is the greatest thing in history, as Sean Hannity will confirm). You will notice that tells just about everything about his actions. So destroy the pandemic preparation program.
There were programs of American scientists working with Chinese colleagues. Difficult work, dangerous work in caves identifying possible coronaviruses to study them. Trump cancelled it. The Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. is supposed to be concerned with such things. The first move, defund it. Every single year Trump has been in office he has tried to defund the CDC, as late as the most recent one, February of this year, when the Bob Woodward revelations show he knew that there was a serious pandemic and Americans were going to suffer from it. Budget proposal? Defund the Centers for Disease Control, increase funding for the military instead, defund other health-related programs.
What happened in January? In late December, China was finding pneumonia-like symptoms of unknown etiology and reported it to the World Health Organization. Very quickly they discovered what it was. By January 10th, Chinese scientists had identified the coronavirus, sequenced the genome, provided the information to the World Health Organization and the world. At that point countries noticed that the U.S. was singularly unprepared because of Trump’s malevolence. Nevertheless, it’s a rich country, plenty of resources. It could have reacted. It didn’t. In January, governments that cared about their citizens did react. Many of them had the situation pretty quickly under control.
Take the borders of China. South China is where the epidemic was the worst. It has a 1400-kilometre border with Vietnam. No cases in Vietnam. For months there were no cases. Now there is a handful of cases, essentially nothing. They acted at once. The same was true in East Asia and Oceania quite generally. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand quickly acted. Very much under control. The same was true elsewhere: Africa, Senegal, almost nothing. Several other countries in Africa moved at once. Almost no cases. Europe waited, but finally got its act together. Most of Europe is more or less under control, not entirely. The Nordic countries, pretty much under control. Germany, pretty much under control. Even Italy, which had a very severe pandemic, is now pretty much under control. Britain was the worst. The U.S. is off the spectrum.
If you look at the cases and deaths around the world, there are three countries that are way at the top: the United States first, India second, Brazil third. Maybe this is bare coincidence, but all three of them have autocratic rulers who are trying to crush democracy. I could go into the details. But those three are way at the top in both respects. Fourth, well behind them, is Russia, another country not known for vibrant democracy. Then you go down, you find others down the list.By January 10th, countries noticed that the U.S. was singularly unprepared because of Trump’s malevolence.
Trump’s behavior since January has been almost as if it was designed to maximize the crimes. He’s personally responsible for arguably hundreds of thousands of American deaths, certainly many tens of thousands. You can see it step by step. It never stops. There was a government scientist in charge of vaccine development. He questioned some of Trump’s quack medicines. Fired. The programs that were working with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the main research center for coronaviruses, canceled. We have to try to blame China for Trump’s malevolence, so we have to cancel programs that might help America.
The most recent example. There is an international consortium that’s working on cooperation on vaccine development, which is obviously the way to proceed, also working in a limited way on distributional problems, trying to make sure that if there are vaccines, they won’t be monopolized by the very rich but will go to the people who need them. Trump reacted to this by pulling out of the consortium just a couple of weeks ago. We don’t want to be part of an international effort that might help Americans and everyone else. Anything that he didn’t create, destroy. Uniform, across the board.
There’s another one going on right now. There is an international UN conference on biodiversity that is critically relevant to pandemics. Species are being destroyed at a crazy rate, the sixth extinction. Areas where wildlife can be sequestered from human contact are being destroyed, setting up all the conditions for further spread of pandemics. Every country is participating except one—the United States. We will not participate in an international conference on biodiversity. I don’t think the press has even covered this. When I asked somebody to check, the only thing they found was two minutes on NPR. Maybe there’s more.
That’s what’s happening before our eyes. You cannot measure the malevolence. The New England Journal of Medicine is kind. They call it incompetence. It’s not incompetence. We know exactly what’s going on. The idea is maximize the prospects for my election, benefit my constituency of the rich and the corporate sector. Nothing else matters.
You can continue with this. Take deregulation. Of course, deregulation is part of the race to destruction from environmental catastrophe, which happens to be much more important than the pandemic. So deregulate to increase corporate profits, fossil fuel profits. Meanwhile, destroy the environment in which human life might survive and also protect Americans. When you deregulate, say, emissions, mercury going into streams, the chemicals that cause brain damage for children, you hurt Americans. Primarily you hurt those living near the most polluting industries. That’s not me, that’s not you. We can afford not to live there. But there are people who can’t afford not to live there: African Americans, Hispanics, Puerto Ricans, poor people in general. They’re stuck there. That’s maximizing pollution. Pollution is already a deadly killer. When you add pollution to a respiratory epidemic, it’s a major killer.
Okay, we’ll kill more of them. Let’s kill people around the world. To blame somebody for my malevolence, I’ll blame the World Health Organization on ludicrous grounds. I’ll undercut, defund the World Health Organization. What does that mean? There are countless people throughout the world—Africa, Yemen, other poor places—who depend on the services of the World Health Organization for survival. Okay, let’s kill them, because then I can turn to my adoring constituency and say I’m protecting you from the foreigners who are trying to destroy us. Vote for me. It doesn’t matter how many people you kill, how much you destroy, how many Americans you kill. It’s me and my rich constituency. That’s the world. Incompetence isn’t the right word for this.
DB: You mentioned Bob Woodward, the celebrated Washington Post journalist of Watergate fame. What did you think of his decision in his book Rage not to release the information that Trump said Covid-19 was “a killer…It is the plague” He held on to that information for months and months.If you look at the cases and deaths around the world, there are three countries that are way at the top: the United States first, India second, Brazil third. Maybe this is bare coincidence, but all three of them have autocratic rulers who are trying to crush democracy.
NC: He gave his reasons. You can judge them as well as I can. My own judgment, it was quite improper. He had reasons. He said it wasn’t verified, he wanted to make sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed and so on. Okay, that’s an argument if you’re writing a book for the interests of the future. But right here hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. My own feeling is that at that point it’s worth releasing the information, even if it’s not totally verified.
DB: Overall media coverage of the pandemic, what is your assessment?
NC: The media coverage should have been along the lines of what I just described. It wasn’t. Most of what I just described you can read about only in medical journals or scientific journals. It should have been front and center, going way back to 2003, and emphasizing the fact that we are now in the same situation. Scientists are saying exactly what they said then.
We are still in the grips of capitalist logic and savage neoliberalism. We are still in the hands of leadership of extreme malevolence. The three worst, perhaps, are those I mentioned, Trump in the lead; his clone, Bolsonaro, in Brazil, the second largest country in the hemisphere; the world’s largest democracy, or perhaps I should say former democracy, India, in the hands of Modi, a monster who is trying to destroy the relics of Indian democracy, meanwhile killing huge numbers of Indians, turning India into a Hindu national religious ethnocracy and crushing the rights of Muslims, destroying Kashmir. These are the three leaders. No one is even close in cases and deaths. I should say this is slightly misleading, because I’m not counting deaths per capita. When you look at that, you get a slightly different picture. It’s worth looking at. But these figures are very striking.
And the malevolence is striking. We are now in a situation where further pandemics are very likely, with habitat destruction even more likely, with heating the atmosphere even more likely. They might be worse than this one, as I mentioned. We know what has to be done. We don’t have a lot of time to do it. The same impediments to dealing with this one still exist. It’s within our reach to overcome them, but if you we don’t work in a dedicated, committed way on it, it will happen. This is the course we’re on, just as we are on a course towards environmental destruction unless we sharply change direction.
DB: What are you hearing about possible vaccines being developed to address coronavirus, and who will administer it, how much it cost, will Big Pharma make a killing?
NC: It’s in our hands. There’s no reason for Big Pharma to make a killing. If you look at vaccines and pharmaceuticals generally, a lot of the major work is done by the government, either by the National Institutes of Health or by direct grants to the pharmaceutical corporations from the government. Well, there is actually a law on the books—the Birch Bayh-Bob Dole law from 1981—saying that if the government has a substantial role in the development of pharmaceuticals, vaccines, anything, then they should be offered to the public at a competitive price, no profits. That’s on the books. I think maybe it’s even been rescinded by now, but it was on the books. And that would mean no profits.
We are also strangled, I should say, by one of Clinton’s great gifts to neoliberalism, the World Trade Organization rules, which provide extraordinary what are called intellectual property rights, patent rights of a kind that never existed in the past and would have prevented the development of the U.S. and every other country if they had existed. They amount to massive monopoly pricing rights. For the pharmaceutical industry they’re a bonanza. The government helps, pays crucial parts of the development of some drug, then tells the pharmaceutical companies, You can make the profits from it and keep them forever. A large part of what’s called the wealth of the corporate sector in the U.S. comes from these TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights).We are still in the grips of capitalist logic and savage neoliberalism. We are still in the hands of leadership of extreme malevolence.
That’s one of the main reasons that Apple is a two-trillion-dollar corporation. The iPhones are produced in China, but they get almost nothing from it. The Foxconn corporation in Taiwan that runs it makes some profit, but most of it comes back here to Apple, a large part of it, because they have the patent on design and so on and so forth. It’s a very large part of the economy by now. That’s Clinton.
We don’t have to accept that either. The pharmaceutical corporations say, We need it or there won’t be innovation. There are much better means of innovation than pouring dollars into the hands of the pharmaceutical corporations. Many of them have been worked out. The economist who has done most of the work on this is Dean Baker. You can read the details in his free online book Rigged. He makes a lot of sensible proposals about how to get rid of this monstrosity. So, yes, as in every other case, there are ways to deal with these problems, but you have to move. You can’t let the powerful just run things the way they want.
Now, on whether vaccines are likely to be developed, I have no expert knowledge. I just read the scientific journals and report what they say. Right now it looks as though China is in the lead in developing a vaccine which is being subjected to pretty widespread trials. There is hesitation about not knowing all the details, but the general reports seem to be fairly favorable, thinking maybe they’re likely to come up with the first vaccine. Americans will be deprived of it. Why? Because Trump, in order to maximize his power and electoral prospects, has to blame everything on China. So if Americans are harmed, who cares? More of them can die. He’s already killed tens of thousands. He’ll kill more.
What ought to be done is international cooperation on development of a number of vaccines. There are many different approaches. We don’t know which will work. We don’t even know if any will work. There are different approaches. They should be developed cooperatively, not with Operation Warp Speed to try to get one for the U.S. and nobody else but cooperative measures of the kind that are being at least discussed in the international consortium that the U.S. pulled out of. That’s the way research should be conducted. It should all be open research, so not controlled by a particular corporation for themselves. Open, so everyone can use it and benefit from it. That’s how research should be done all the time, crucially when it’s such an urgent situation as this one. There is no reason why that can’t happen. Trump just got the best possible medical treatment, not available to anyone else, including the use of drugs for which there will be a monopoly. It doesn’t have to be. They can be open and available to anyone, and they should be. That’s the way a decent world ought to work.
We happen to have a wrecker in office who wants to destroy everything possible, everything in sight, if it’s not his. Look around. The world is in great danger. The extent to which we see this happening and barely reported is mind-boggling.
Let’s take the Iran sanctions. The U.S. wants the United Nations to renew the sanctions against Iran. It took the proper step. It went to the Security Council, requested that the Security Council renew the sanctions. Total opposition; not a single U.S. ally agreed. The Security Council, with one minor exception, the Dominican Republic, totally rejected it. Did that matter? Mike Pompeo returned to the Security Council and said, “I hereby inform you that you are reinstituting the sanctions.” Why? Because we say so. That’s what just happened. How many headlines did you see about that?What ought to be done is international cooperation on development of a number of vaccines. There are many different approaches. We don’t know which will work. We don’t even know if any will work.
The world cares. They’re frightened. The extent to which the world is frightened of the rogue state on the rampage is remarkable. Take the world’s major business journal, the London Financial Times. You can’t find a more sober, respected commentator in the world than Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. Ask economists and journalists. He is careful, not given to exaggeration, highly regarded. He just came out with a column saying that if Trump is elected, the damage will be “terminal.” And he wasn’t even talking about the major crises. He was talking about the crisis of international affairs, which is serious but doesn’t rank anywhere near the ones we’re talking about. But reelection of Trump will be terminal. That’s on minor crises from one of the most sober voices in the world.
DB: No matter the outcome of the November 3rd election, tens of millions of Americans are going to vote for Trump. That in and of itself is very disturbing.
NC: It is. But ask yourself why they’re doing it. These are Americans who have basically one source of information. It comes in different packages. It comes from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, talk radio. They are bombarded all the time with essentially the same message. The message is—Rush Limbaugh put it very well—there are four corners of deceit: government, academia, media, and science. They all survive on deceit. Don’t pay any attention to them. Pay attention to the magician behind the curtain, our god Trump, “the chosen one,” as he calls himself, the one who was sent to Earth to save Israel from Iran, according to the sycophant who is his secretary of state. They can hear the same from evangelical mega-preachers.
The result? You can see it. Almost half think that global warming isn’t even taking place. Among the rest of Republicans, a small minority think it’s an urgent problem. A great number think the pandemic is a liberal hoax that was sent by China to try to destroy us. If that’s the kind of story you have pounded into you day and night and you never hear anything else, and you’ve got this very skilled con man standing up in front of you holding up a sign saying “I love you, I defend you” while with the other hand he stabs you in the back, if that’s what you’re faced with all the time, yeah, you might vote for him. Like the evangelicals It’s a huge bloc. It’s 25% of the population. He throws them crumbs. Supreme Court justice. Pastors who can preach political messages from the pulpit, a pretense—of course, it’s a total pretense—to be anti-abortion. Throw them all that. That way you can keep a constituency in line.
Actually, I should say this is all evoking childhood memories. Adoring crowds who worshiped Hitler at the Nuremberg rallies or Mussolini at his rallies. You hear that again when you watch a Trump rally. There is a striking difference, however. Hideous as the Fascist, Nazi policies were—and they were beyond description—they were at least bringing something to the people who were adoring the dear leader. The economies were improving. They were. They reconstructed the economies. They were winning victories. Horrible, hideous victories, but at least victories.
What’s Trump doing for his constituency? He’s destroying them. He’s offering them nothing. They’re getting smashed worse and worse by his policies. They still adore him. The manner in which I heard as a kid at Nuremberg rallies. It’s a very remarkable commentary on the culture and the society.
DB: How does this connect with what Richard Hofstadter called in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and another book that he wrote, both in the 1960s, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, which looked at how fringe groups can influence politics?A great number think the pandemic is a liberal hoax that was sent by China to try to destroy us.
NC: I never liked those theses. For one thing, the most paranoid group in American life is the elite liberal intellectuals. Take a look at the Truman Doctrine, take a look at NSC 68. Total crazed hysteria, ridiculous lies, conscious lies, in order, as Senator Vandenberg put it, to “scare hell out of the American people.” We don’t have time to go into the details, but if you take a look at it, that’s exactly what it was. That was the liberal elite. They reconstructed themselves under the Camelot regime as “the best and the brightest.” I don’t have to go through that record again. It practically destroyed the world. It caused hideous atrocities in Latin America, all sorts of other things. That’s the paranoid style at work. That’s the leading intellectuals. Yes, you see it among the population that is mesmerized by Breitbart and Fox News. But we can’t just say it’s only there. It goes well beyond.
DB: Magical thinking is probably as old as the hills. But do you think the current surge is connected to the growth of social media?
NC: First of all, I should say I’m speaking as an outsider. I don’t look at them, I don’t use them. But judging from what I see, it seems to me they’re a double-edged sword. Almost all the activist organizing takes place on social media. Black Lives Matter organizing, most of it I guess is on social media. On the other hand, it does provide a refuge for truly malevolent developments to take place—QAnon, Proud Boys, all of this stuff. Even for all of us, you and me, I’m sure, to the extent that we use it, to the extent that we use the Internet, we kind of tend to move towards the kinds of sources that reinforce our beliefs. That’s not a good thing. You should have a wide range of exposure. But it’s pretty natural—and social media magnified this tendency—to move towards what you believe. There’s good reasons for that, and also bad effects. The bad effects are just driving people into bubbles, where you hear nothing but what you believe reinforced. You get your news from Facebook, which is a shallow filtering of the filtering that goes on in the main media sources, which at least have some range. All of that is pretty harmful. As I’m sure you know, there are universities now where the administration is putting plaques on the sidewalks saying “Look Up”; in other words, don’t just stare into that thing in your hand. Talk to somebody, look at your surroundings. I think that’s having a pretty harmful effect on the society.
DB: In terms of censorship, there are calls for social media conspiracy-theory sites to be shut down. How do you stand on that kind of action?
NC: I can see the argument for it, but I think we should be very wary of it. For one thing, I think it probably has almost no effect. There are so many ways to get around it, they will quickly find them. And it also builds up the belief that these liberal fascists are trying to wipe out us honest Americans. It feeds that theory.
The other thing is just principle. I don’t think the right way to deal with horrendous ideas is to try to shut them up. It’s to expose them and combat them. Let’s take so-called deplatforming. Somebody is invited to a university whose views you think are horrendous. There are two ways of approaching it. One way, drive them off campus. A tremendous gift to them and to the right wing generally, for obvious reasons. We’ve seen it over and over again. There is another approach. Let them come to campus, set up meetings where you expose them, counter their arguments, in fact, invite them to your meetings. Of course, they won’t come. Raise questions to them and so on. That’s educational, that’s the way to counter it. I think that generalizes. The censorship is the deplatforming. The other things are wrong in principle. They’re probably tactically wrong as well.Even for all of us, you and me, I’m sure, to the extent that we use it, to the extent that we use the Internet, we kind of tend to move towards the kinds of sources that reinforce our beliefs.
DB: The fighting in the southern Caucasus might be an example of what Edward Said called “unresolved geographies,” a legacy of imperial cartographers. Stalin, as Commissar of Minorities in 1920, to placate Turkey, gave Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians call Artsakh and Nakhchivan, both Armenian-majority areas, over to Azerbaijan. Then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, fighting breaks out, resulting in Armenian forces taking Nagorno-Karabakh. There have been skirmishes and so-called incidents on and off since then. But the attack by Azerbaijan which began on September 27th, no doubt in coordination with Turkey, represents a major escalation. The reporting here, the little that there is, is without historical background or context: Fighting erupts, they are ancient enemies, etc. What are the roots of this conflict?
NC: The roots of this conflict are too complicated to go into. They go way back. You’re right that Stalin drew the borders, but remember, he was not the only one to draw borders. The entire Middle East was carved up by French and British imperialists drawing lines where they wanted, which were to their benefit, taking no account of the needs and interest of the populations. That’s a large part of the cause for the bitter, violent conflicts raging through the region.
Take, say, Iraq. The British drew the borders around Iraq so that Britain, not Turkey, the former Ottoman Empire, would have control of the rich oil resources in the north. That brought together Kurds and Arabs, who had nothing to do with each other. The British, furthermore wanted to make sure that the new creation they were imposing would not be independent, would not have free, easy access to the Gulf, so they carved out the principality of Kuwait, which the British would control, to prevent Iraq from having easy access to the Gulf.
Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, the same thing: Lines drawn by French and British imperialists for their interests. All over Africa you see straight lines. Why? The imperial powers were destroying Africa in their interests. Hideous atrocities. We don’t have to go through them. They’re still showing up with the people dying in the Mediterranean fleeing from the horrors that were created. So it’s not just Stalin. All the imperial powers.
In the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, there is a long history. We can’t go through it. But the immediate crisis, as you say, came when Azerbaijan, surely with Turkish backing, Israeli arms pouring in, Ben Gurion Airport observers are seeing Ilyushin planes coming in and out while virtually no other planes are flying, sending Israeli arms to Azerbaijan so they can kill people in Nagorno-Karabakh that are mostly Armenian. So, yes, this is an escalation.
Russia is in on both sides. Iran is supporting Armenia. Very strange relations. It’s horrible for the people there. It’s a very dangerous situation. It’s a time for international diplomacy and negotiations to take place to try to dampen it down. The actors are not the nicest people in the world, to put it mildly. Erdoğan in Turkey is basically trying to recreate something like the Ottoman caliphate with him as the caliph, the supreme leader, throwing his weight around all over the place, destroying the remnants of democracy in Turkey at the same time. Israel is interested only in selling arms. They will sell them to anybody, no matter who they’re killing. That’s the mainstay of their economy—security and arms. And right here where I live, the border not far from where I live is being fortified with the crucial assistance of Israeli so-called security elements, forces and corporations. That’s their job, Elbit Systems in this case. Yes, there’s plenty of malevolent forces involved. You can only hope that there will be some kind of international effort to dampen down the atrocities and the aggression before it really explodes into massive massacres on the scene and possibly international war, because many powerful international forces are involved.
DB: Turkey is also shuttling ISIS jihadi fighters from Syria and paying their salaries to go and fight with the Azerbaijanis against the Armenians.
NC: That’s apparently true. In fact, Turkey is probably doing the same in Libya, one of the other places where Erdoğan is trying to show his power. Yes, that’s reported in Azerbaijan.
DB: Armenia in 2018 had a peaceful democratic revolution led by Nikol Pashinyan overthrowing the ruling oligarchy. This was one of the few instances where there was a peaceful revolution replacing an autocratic regime in the post-Soviet states. It wasn’t well reported on here in the U.S.
NC: As far as I know, there was essentially no interest in the U.S. If there was, I failed to detect it. Yes, it was for once, apparently, a real democratic revolution. What’s happened beyond that, I don’t really know the details.
DB: You know my background is Armenian, and I’ve been to the republic of Armenia. It’s a relatively poor country. It’s landlocked, it has a small population of about 3 million. I went to some villages and I noticed that there were no young or middle-aged men in the village. I asked around, “Where is everybody?” They say, “Oh, all the men folk have gone off to Russia because there’s no work here.” So Armenia is in kind of a desperate situation.
NC: It’s apparently true. And all the more reason why there should be some major international effort to terminate the current aggression and to try to find some way to resolve the convoluted problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, where there is an Armenian population inside a mostly Azerbaijani-controlled area. It’s not an easy one to resolve, but through reasonable negotiations there could be an outcome that possibly could be undertaken throughout Central Asia, the Caucuses and the Middle East. But it’s not going to be easy.
DB: Let’s turn to the upcoming election and all the trepidation and fear surrounding it. Put your thinking cap on? What will happen on Election Day and the days after? Will there be a peaceful outcome? It’s kind of amazing that we’re even using this kind of terminology and vocabulary. I have to ask you, do you think there will be a peaceful outcome?
NC: It is amazing that the question is being raised. With very rare exceptions, this hasn’t happened in 350 years of parliamentary democracy in Britain and the U.S. It’s astonishing that the question is raised, not by you and me but right at the centers of the establishment. The things that are being discussed and said are almost unimaginable.
To take one striking example, two highly respected senior military commanders, now retired, John Nagl, and Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling recently released a public open letter to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, the top military officer in the country, reviewing for him his constitutional duties in case what they call “a lawless president” decides not to leave office after an electoral defeat and mobilizes paramilitary groups to protect him from being evicted from office. They say in that event, you took an oath of office to support and defend the Constitution against foreign and domestic enemies.” That’s the phrase. Now, you’re facing a domestic enemy which is intending to overthrow the constitutional order. It is your duty under the oath you have taken to send in military forces, they say “a brigade of the 82nd Airborne,” to forcefully disperse what they say is Trump’s army, his paramilitary forces, and to remove him from office. That’s your duty on January 20th if the defeated candidate, President Trump, refuses to leave office and mobilizes forces to try to protect him.The Republican machine is becoming organized with collections of lawyers and all sorts of others to try to find a way to finagle their candidate into office after he loses: discredit the election, discredit mail voting, challenge everything with all sorts of lawsuits.
What the chances of this happening are, I haven’t the slightest idea. To me it sounds unimaginable. But maybe my imagination isn’t fertile enough. The crucial fact is that in very high places people are talking about it seriously. I’m sure you saw Barton Gellman’s long, detailed article in The Atlantic, one of the top correspondents, about how not Trump but the Republican machine is becoming organized with collections of lawyers and all sorts of others to try to find a way to finagle their candidate into office after he loses: discredit the election, discredit mail voting, challenge everything with all sorts of lawsuits, see if you can drag it out long enough to turn it over to the House.
The Constitution does allow under certain circumstances for the issue to go to the House. In the House the Democrats are a large majority. The Constitutional rules say each state has one vote. When you look at the distribution of states, I think it’s 26 of them that have Republican governors. So they could get at voting for the defeated candidate in the House.
Then you come to January 2nd, two candidates appear and say, “I’m president.” One of them is surrounded by a private army of paramilitaries. What happens then? That’s what the Republican Party is planning. Trump happens to be its leader, but it’s not just him. In fact, the same letter refers to the Republicans in Congress as supplicants at the foot of the president. It’s not an unfair description. It’s hard to find a shred of integrity. The rot goes much deeper than Trump. He’s turned, as the New English Journal of Medicine you quoted, “a crisis into a tragedy.” But the crisis is there. It’s a deep rot at the center of the society.
We should recognize that even apart from Trump, if this malignancy had never appeared, we would still be facing a constitutional crisis, and a very serious one. In the 18th century the Constitution was a progressive document. Now it is so reactionary that if the U.S. tried to join the European Union, with our constitutional system we would be rejected by the European Court of Justice. We’re slaves to a document which was progressive in its time but now has features that can’t be accepted in any moderately democratic society.
The worst case is the Senate. Remember, the Senate was established by James Madison. He understood what he was doing. Madison, like the framers generally, was very frightened of democracy. He wanted to block it. The Senate was to be the major decision-making group in the constitutional system. It was to be constituted of, as Madison put it, “the wealth of the nation,” those who were sympathetic to property owners and their rights. That’s who should run the country. John Jay, the first Chief Justice, put it, “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” That’s the principle of the Constitution. It’s been carried over. There have been many struggles about it. The effort to crush democracy has been overcome in many ways, but much of it is still there.
Just take a look at the Senate. Wyoming has about half a million people, 2 votes. California has 40 million people, 2 votes. The Republican constituency—not only through control of small states but in the demographic arrangements in the major states, happens to have predominant power to such an extreme that probably about 15-20% of the population could pretty much run the government—older, white, male, Christian, super-religious, traditional, gun-loving, evangelical. That sector is there. It’s a shrinking minority, a small minority that could run things. This is a constitutional order that’s not going to survive, especially with the changes taking place.In the 18th century the Constitution was a progressive document. Now it is so reactionary that if the U.S. tried to join the European Union with our constitutional system, we would be rejected by the European Court of Justice.
That’s assuming that we survive at all. And that’s up for grabs. It’s a very dramatic fact that in these two conventions that just took place we heard nothing about what the major crisis may be we face—the increasing threat of nuclear war. Nothing about that. And very little about the other crisis, the existential crisis that we face, the race towards environmental catastrophe. We’ve got to deal with that within the next 10 or 20 years. If that’s not handled, we’re finished. The changes that are taking place in the atmosphere are permanent, they’re escalating. We can’t do anything about them. You can fantasize about potential geoengineering. You can imagine that for years from now, but not anything in the foreseeable future that will have anything to do with these catastrophes. We know how to solve them, all of them. The means are within our hands, they’re feasible. But just as in the case of the pandemic, it’s not enough to know. You have to do something about it.
DB: I should point out that the Joint Chiefs of Staff are currently under quarantine because of COVID-19.
In addition to the Electoral College, another bizarre aspect of the U.S. system is the interregnum between the first Tuesday in November, the election, and the January 20th inauguration. That’s almost three months. Anything could happen in that period.
NC: Paul Krugman happens to have a column in The New York Times today warning that if Trump is not elected, and if—and it’s a big if—he concedes, by no means certain, he has three months to apply his wrecking ball. Out of spite he might just devastate the economy. Actually, there’s something we must bear in mind about President Trump, which is brought up in the Nagl-Yingling letter. He may be facing serious criminal charges if he’s out of office and loses immunity. He has a personal reason to hang on.
DB: It was revealed that he owes something like $400 million, and he doesn’t pay taxes. Anyway, let’s go back again to focus on the ecocatastrophe that is now in our face, much faster than predicted: wildfires, hurricanes, floods, Arctic and Greenland ice melting. September was the hottest month on record. Death Valley had the highest ever recorded temperature on Earth, 130 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 54 degrees Celsius. We are hurtling toward climate catastrophe.
NC: Every prediction of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN agency, has turned out to be too conservative, not alarmist enough. Highly respected leading scientists are warning us we should panic now. The deadliest effects of environmental catastrophe are in the distance. A huge rise in sea level, that’s going to happen slowly, not tomorrow. Early signs of catastrophe are indeed around us, as you mentioned. It’s going to get much worse. We don’t know how much. There is a margin of error. But every serious analysis predicts extreme danger, maybe an end to the possibility of organized human life. Not tomorrow, maybe at the end of the century, maybe a couple of centuries.
But we have the fate of the future in our hands. We have maybe 10 or 20 years to overcome it. The means to overcome it are available. My co-author, Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, has done very detailed, careful studies. They’re being implemented in states, some countries. There is very convincing evidence that by maybe 2% to 3% of gross domestic product we could bring all of this under control. Other analysts, like Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia, using somewhat different models, have come up with quite similar estimates. There is a very high probability that if we use the right measures, which are available and feasible, we can put a hold on the race to disaster and—and this is crucial—create a much better world, a world with better jobs, better lives, better circumstances to live in, and better institutions.
All of this is within reach. But you have to reach for it. It’s like ending the pandemic. Yes, within reach, but not if we don’t grab the opportunity. If we are cursed with another four years of Trump, it might be too late. We might be past or approaching irreversible tipping points. At the very best, the chances to deal with this crisis within the short time that we have will be severely lessened.But we have the fate of the future in our hands. We have maybe 10 or 20 years to overcome it. The means to overcome it are available.
I should say the same about the topic that is not being mentioned. The threat of nuclear war is extremely serious. Among the other things that Trump has aimed his wrecking ball at is the arms control regime. It’s basically gone. He’s eliminated it piece by piece. The parts that were initiated by Eisenhower, the participants that were set up by Reagan, one after another is toppled. We have to destroy it. The last piece of it, the new START agreement, is coming up. With frivolous reasons the Trump administration has rejected Russian pleading to renew it. It’s coming up in February, maybe too late to save. Meanwhile, at the same time, that’s combined with creating new, very threatening weapons, severely endangering not only us but the entire world, with the control regime disappearing.
Serious people concerned with these issues, like William Perry, who has been involved with it all his life, former defense secretary, say they’re simply terrified by the growing threat and by the blindness to it, the refusal even to mention it. Find a word about it outside of the arms control literature. These things are coming at us like a roaring locomotive, and we’re sitting on the tracks playing games. It’s unbelievable. People speculate as to whether there is extraterrestrial intelligence. If there is, and if they’re watching what is happening here, they must think the species is totally insane. We have a little time left show that we’re not totally insane. If not, we’ll destroy ourselves.
DB: You mentioned Robert Pollin. You and he have written a new book called Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal. In there you cite the famous observation from Antonio Gramsci about “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” And then you write, “But such morbid symptoms are countered by rising activism on climate change and many other fronts. The new has not yet been born, but it is emerging in many intricate ways, and it is far from clear what form it will take.”
In terms of the kind of activism that’s required now and the urgency of activism and citizen engagement, how do we break the grip of what you call “capitalist logic”?
NC: You can’t break the grip of it entirely, but you can modify it. It’s not a secret. What’s called capitalism is actually a kind of state capitalism. No country is capitalist. A capitalist society would self-destruct so quickly it couldn’t exist. Business wouldn’t allow it. So every existing society is one or another form of state capitalism. They can be more malevolent, they can be more benevolent. Within the existing, the relevant time span, a couple of decades, we’re not going to overthrow capitalist institutions.
We could seriously change them. It’s perfectly possible, for example, to have a carbon tax which is not of the kind that’s been proposed but a really serious carbon tax in which, say, 75% of the revenue would go back to working people and people who need it, a redistributive carbon tax. Then you wouldn’t get what you’re getting in France with the Yellow Vests. Macron tried to institute a rise in fuel taxes and got a rebellion from people who rightly say, We’re the victims of it. It’s the poor and the working people who way out of proportion pay this, and they’re the ones who need the relief, not the further burden. So not that kind of carbon tax, but the kind that is politically correct and viable because it will redistribute the revenue to the population and cut back on the profits of those who are destroying the environment.
We have to change consciousness. I just happened to look at this morning’s New York Times. There is an article, one of a million—you see them every day—on the wondrous new developments in the eastern Mediterranean. Chevron bought up a smaller company, which can now exploit what they call Israel’s—it actually should be Palestine’s—huge petroleum resources and pour the poison into the world. Euphoric. Look how wonderful this is. We can increase the destruction of the atmosphere. You see that daily. What does that tell people?
We can raise consciousness among liberal intellectuals enough so you don’t see things like that. We can move forward to take over the fossil fuel industries, not nationalize them. The nationalized fossil fuel industries are like Saudi Arabia and others. They are worse than the private ones. But socialize them. Put them in the hands of the work force in the community. Have them turn to things that have to be done, ranging from capping wells that the corporations have left open because they don’t give a damn but matter for us, from that to shifting to working on sustainable energy, which they know how to do. We might bear in mind that the leading force in the environmental movement 40 years ago was Tony Mazzocchi ’s Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, the labor movement. They’re the ones who are being harmed by the destructive production of polluting, destroying elements. Mazzocchi was in the lead of this, with his union behind him. That can happen again. It can happen right in the oil industry, cutting it back year by year a certain percentage till you get rid of it, say, by mid-century, turning to more economical, more beneficial, sustainable energy. Oil, petroleum workers, there aren’t very many of them, but they could be in the forefront of this.
There are many things we could be moving to. Take the automobile industry. Instead of cluttering up the highways, making lots of traffic jams to get to work, producing more pollutants because Trump is eliminating regulations. Instead of that, auto workers could be developing efficient mass transportation. It not only saves the environment. It’s a better life. Sitting on convenient mass transportation to get to work is a lot more pleasant than sitting in a traffic jam and polluting the environment. Homes can be weatherized, insulated, shifting to solar energy instead of wasting fossil fuels. It actually saves you a lot of money and gives you a pleasanter life, and it also saves the environment.
There are endless things that can be done across the board: individual, state, local, federal, international. There ought to be an international effort. There are no borders to global warming.
We should bear in mind that almost half the emissions in the future are going to come from what’s called the developing societies, the poorer societies. They need help. They need help in transitioning to much more efficient, cheaper, more beneficial, sustainable energy. But in the initial stages they need help. One of the parts of the Paris negotiations, which were nowhere near enough but were at least something, was to offer help to developing nations to move towards sustainable energy. The Republicans generally don’t want it. Trump just killed it: Absolutely not. We’re not going to help anyone save ourselves and the world. Not for us.
This kind of malignancy has to be overcome. That has to be dealt with on a every level, from an individual putting LED lights in their home to international efforts. What the federal government does is critically important. All of that is within our hands. It doesn’t require a major social revolution. The means are all there, even without substantial institutional change.
My own view is, yes, we should overcome the profound flaws that are built into the capitalist system itself. It’s not an alternative to this; it’s complementary to it. You do both at the same time. But the urgent problem of overcoming the existential crises—global warming, nuclear war, pandemics—has to be done within the general framework of existing institutions. We can improve them. But you won’t be able to overcome them in the relevant time frame. That’s life. You can’t get everything you want immediately. You can do the best you can, and there’s a lot that we can do.
DB: It sounds like the Rolling Stone song. “You can’t always get what you want, But if you try sometime you find, You get what you need.” You’ve outlined some of those opportunities to break the grip of capitalism in your forthcoming book, Consequences of Capitalism, written with Marv Waterstone, who is your colleague at the University of Arizona.
But let me conclude with a very serious question that people have asked me, and that is information about your dogs, their names, and do they share your politics, crucially?
NC: Unfortunately, I can’t say their names. Right now they are under my desk. If I say their names, there will be a mad rush to the door. And I can’t even spell their names because they’ve learned how to spell. So I’ll have to do it encrypted someday.
DB: How about their politics?
NC: Their politics. I haven’t it really quizzed them, but they seem to be tolerating endless interviews quietly, so I guess they’re not objecting too much. (laughter)
DB: I’ll take the hint. Take care.
(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)