Interview with Noam Chomsky: 'The United States Has Essentially a One-Party System'

The linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky has long been a critic of American consumerism and imperialism. SPIEGEL spoke to him about the current crisis of capitalism, Barack Obama's rhetoric and the compliance of the intellectual class.

SPIEGEL: Professor Chomsky, cathedrals of capitalism have collapsed, the conservative government is spending its final weeks in office with nationalization plans. How does that make you feel?

A happy purchaser of a new iPhone. "Consumption distracts people. You cannot control your own population by force, but it can be distracted by consumption."
AP

A happy purchaser of a new iPhone. "Consumption distracts people. You cannot control your own population by force, but it can be distracted by consumption."

Chomsky: The times are too difficult and the crisis too severe to indulge in schadenfreude. Looking at it in perspective, the fact that there would be a financial crisis was perfectly predictable, its general nature, if not its magnitude. Markets are always inefficient.

SPIEGEL: What exactly did you anticipate?

Chomsky: In the financial industry, as in other industries, there are risks that are left out of the calculation. If you sell me a car, we have perhaps made a good bargain for ourselves. But there are effects of this transaction on others, which we do not take into account. There is more pollution, the price of gas goes up, there is more congestion. Those are the external costs of our transaction. In the case of financial institutions, they are huge.

SPIEGEL: But isn't it the task of a bank to take risks?

Chomsky: Yes, but if it is well managed, like Goldman Sachs, it will cover its own risks and absorb its own losses. But no financial institution can manage systemic risks. Risk is therefore underpriced, and there will be more risk taken than would be prudent for the economy. With government deregulation and the triumph of financial liberalization, the dangers of systemic risks, the possibility of a financial tsunami, sharply increased.

SPIEGEL: But is it correct to only put the blame on Wall Street? Doesn't Main Street, the American middle class, also live on borrowed money which may or may not be paid back?

Chomsky: The debt burden of private households is enormous. But I would not hold the individual responsible. This consumerism is based on the fact that we are a society dominated by business interests. There is massive propaganda for everyone to consume. Consumption is good for profits and consumption is good for the political establishment.

SPIEGEL: How does it benefit politicians when the populace drives a lot, eats a lot and goes shopping a lot?

Chomsky: Consumption distracts people. You cannot control your own population by force, but it can be distracted by consumption. The business press has been quite explicit about this goal.

SPIEGEL: A while ago you called America “the greatest country on earth.” How does that fit together with what you've been saying?

Chomsky: In many respects, the United States is a great country. Freedom of speech is protected more than in any other country. It is also a very free society. In America, the professor talks to the mechanic. They are in the same category.

SPIEGEL: After travelling through the United States 170 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville reported, "the people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe." Was he a dreamer?

Chomsky: James Madison’s position at the Constitutional Convention was that state power should be used "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority." That is why the Senate has only a hundred members who are mostly rich and were given a great deal of power. The House of Representatives, with several hundred members, is more democratic and was given much less power. Even liberals like Walter Lippmann, one of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, was of the opinion that in a properly functioning democracy, the intelligent minority, who should rule, have to be protected from “the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd.” Among the conservatives, Vice President Dick Cheney just recently illustrated his understanding of democracy. He was asked why he supports a continuation of the war in Iraq when the population is strongly opposed. His answer was: “So?”

SPIEGEL: “Change” is the slogan of this year’s presidential election. Do you see any chance for an immediate, tangible change in the United States? Or, to use use Obama’s battle cry: Are you "fired up”?

Chomsky: Not in the least. The European reaction to Obama is a European delusion.

SPIEGEL: But he does say things that Europe has long been waiting for. He talks about the trans-Atlantic partnership, the priority of diplomacy and the reconciling of American society.

Chomsky: That is all rhetoric. Who cares about that? This whole election campaign deals with soaring rhetoric, hope, change, all sorts of things, but not with issues.

SPIEGEL: Do you prefer the team on the other side: the 72 year old Vietnam veteran McCain and Sarah Palin, former Alaskan beauty queen?

Chomsky: This Sarah Palin phenomenon is very curious. I think somebody watching us from Mars, they would think the country has gone insane.

SPIEGEL: Arch conservatives and religious voters seem to be thrilled.

Chomsky: One must not forget that this country was founded by religious fanatics. Since Jimmy Carter, religious fundamentalists play a major role in elections. He was the first president who made a point of exhibiting himself as a born again Christian. That sparked a little light in the minds of political campaign managers: Pretend to be a religious fanatic and you can pick up a third of the vote right away. Nobody asked whether Lyndon Johnson went to church every day. Bill Clinton is probably about as religious as I am, meaning zero, but his managers made a point of making sure that every Sunday morning he was in the Baptist church singing hymns.

SPIEGEL: Is there nothing about McCain that appeals to you?

Chomsky: In one aspect he is more honest than his opponent. He explicitly states that this election is not about issues but about personalities. The Democrats are not quite as honest even though they see it the same way.

SPIEGEL: So for you, Republicans and Democrats represent just slight variations of the same political platform?

Chomsky: Of course there are differences, but they are not fundamental. Nobody should have any illusions. The United States has essentially a one-party system and the ruling party is the business party.

SPIEGEL: You exaggerate. In almost all vital questions -- from the taxation of the rich to nuclear energy -- there are different positions. At least on the issues of war and peace, the parties differ considerably. The Republicans want to fight in Iraq until victory, even if that takes a 100 years, according to McCain. The Democrats demand a withdrawal plan.

Chomsky: Let us look at the “differences” more closely, and we recognize how limited and cynical they are. The hawks say, if we continue we can win. The doves say, it is costing us too much. But try to find an American politician who says frankly that this aggression is a crime: the issue is not whether we win or not, whether it is expensive or not. Remember the Russian invasion of Afghanistan? Did we have a debate whether the Russians can win the war or whether it is too expensive? This may have been the debate at the Kremlin, or in Pravda. But this is the kind of debate you would expect in a totalitarian society. If General Petraeus could achieve in Iraq what Putin achieved in Chechnya, he would be crowned king. The key question here is whether we apply the same standards to ourselves that we apply to others.

SPIEGEL: Who prevents intellectuals from asking and critically answering these questions? You praised the freedom of speech in the United States.

Chomsky: The intellectual world is deeply conformist. Hans Morgenthau, who was a founder of realist international relations theory, once condemned what he called the conformist subservience to power on the part of the intellectuals. George Orwell wrote that nationalists, who are practically the whole intellectual class of a country, not only do not disapprove of the crimes of their own state, but have the remarkable capacity not even to see them. That is correct. We talk a lot about the crimes of others. When it comes to our own crimes, we are nationalists in the Orwellian sense.

SPIEGEL: Was there not, and is there not -- in the United States and worldwide -- loud protest against the Iraq war?

Chomsky: The protest against the war in Iraq is far higher than against the war in Vietnam. When there were 4,000 American deaths in Vietnam and 150,000 troops deployed, nobody cared. When Kennedy invaded Vietnam in 1962, there was just a yawn.

SPIEGEL: To conclude, perhaps you can offer a conciliatory word about the state of the nation?

Chomsky: The American society has become more civilized, largely as a result of the activism of the 1960s. Our society, and also Europe's, became freer, more open, more democratic, and for many quite scary. This generation was condemned for that. But it had an effect.

SPIEGEL: Professor Chomsky, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Gabor Steingart

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