The new imperialism

NOAM CHOMSKY, an internationally renowned modern linguistics professor, has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for many decades. He is in huge demand as a speaker all over world. The New Statesman calls him, “The conscience of the American people.” Author of scores of books, his latest is Hopes and Prospects (Haymarket Books, 2010). DAVID BARSAMIAN, director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado (, interviewed Chomsky in his office at MIT on April 2. Barsamian has published a series of books based on his interviews with Chomsky, including Propaganda and the Public Mind, Imperial Ambitions, and What We Say Goes.

ONE OF the themes that the late Howard Zinn tried to address during his long career was the lack of historical memory. The facts of history are scrupulously ignored and/or distorted. I was wondering if you could comment on imperialism then and now, interventions then and now. Specifically about Saigon in 1963 and ’64 and Kabul today, and the kinds of similarities, with Washington tremendously dissatisfied with its clients, with reports of corruption and drug trafficking—in fact, a brother is involved in each case. No two historical situations are analogous, but what do you see there that is of value in reporting?

WHAT WOULD be of value in reporting and remembering is what was happening in the early 1960s, which is gone from history. It was barely discussed at the time, and it’s essentially disappeared. In 1954, there was a peace settlement. The U.S. regarded it as a disaster and refused to permit it to go forward and established a client state in the South, which was a typical client state: torture, brutality, murders. By about 1960 they had probably killed 70,000 or 80,000 people. The repression was so harsh that it stimulated an internal rebellion, which the North Vietnamese did not want. They wanted some time free to develop their own society. But they were sort of coerced by the southern resistance into at least giving it verbal support.

By the time Kennedy came in 1961, it was out of control. So Kennedy simply invaded the country. In 1962, Kennedy sent the U.S. Air Force to start bombing South Vietnam, planes with South Vietnamese markings. But nobody was fooled. It was actually reported. There was a sentence in a back page of the New York Times which I remember reading saying that the U.S. planes and pilots are carrying out a third of the bombing missions in South Vietnam with South Vietnamese markings. Kennedy authorized napalm, he authorized chemical warfare to destroy the ground cover and crops. He started processes of driving the rural population into what were called strategic hamlets, essentially concentration camps, where they were surrounded by barbed wire, to protect them from the guerrillas, which the U.S. government knew perfectly well they were supporting. That’s the beginning of a process which ultimately drove millions of people out of the countryside while destroying the countryside. They also began the operations against North Vietnam on a small scale. That was 1962. Not noticed.

In 1963, the Kennedy administration got wind of the fact that the Diem government they had installed was trying to arrange negotiations with the North. That was Diem’s terrible brother, whom they hated. He was awful and his wife was awful. They were trying to negotiate a peace settlement. So the Kennedy liberals determined that they had to be thrown out. They organized a coup in which the two brothers were killed and put in their own guy, meanwhile escalating the war. Then came the Kennedy assassination. Contrary to a lot of mythology, to the very last minute Kennedy was one of the hawks in the administration. He did agree to the proposals for withdrawal because he knew the war was very unpopular here, but always with the condition of withdrawal after victory. Once we get victory, we can withdraw and let the client regime go.

Then comes what you were describing—drugs and corruption. That’s what happens when you put in a client regime. They’re not going to be the nice guys. In fact, the Kennedy administration people were complaining to people on the ground about—what we called the Viet Cong, it was supposed to be a contemptuous term—the National Liberation Front, that they’re ten feet tall. We can’t believe they’re the same species as the people we’re supporting. The Vietnamese happened to be unusual, but even so, that’s what liberation forces are like. So, yes, that is what happened. That’s what typically happens with a client state.

Actually, when you talk about American imperialism, it’s an interesting term. The country was founded as an empire. George Washington called it an “infant empire.” Thomas Jefferson, the most libertarian of the Founding Fathers, for him the colonies were to be the nest from which the entire hemisphere would be peopled, eliminating black and red, getting rid of the native population somehow, driving them off to the west: “Get rid of the Blacks. Once we don’t need slavery anymore, we’ll send them back to Africa. And get rid of the Latins, so conquer the rest of the hemisphere, because they are an inferior race. We’re the superior race of Anglo-Saxons. It’s only to the benefit of everyone if we people the entire hemisphere.”

That’s not called imperialism, but that’s because of what some historians of imperialism call the saltwater fallacy: it’s only imperialism if you cross saltwater. So, for example, if the Mississippi had been as wide as the Irish Sea, let’s say, then it would have been imperialism. But it was understood to be imperialism right away. And it is. It’s the worst kind. Settler colonialism, which is what it was, is by far the worst kind of imperialism, because it gets rid of the native population. Other kinds exploit them, but this eliminates them, exterminates them, to use the words of the Founding Fathers.

When it reached what we call the national territory, it just went on. Immediately. Eighteen ninety-eight, that’s the year when the United States essentially conquered Cuba. It was called “liberating” Cuba. It was, in fact, preventing Cuba from liberating itself from Spain. They went on and stole Hawaii from its population, invaded the Philippines, killed a couple hundred thousand people, establishing a colonial system, which still exists. That’s one of the reasons why the Philippines has not joined the rest of East and Southeast Asia in the economic development of the past twenty or thirty years. It’s an outlier. Part of the reason is it still retains the structure of what they call the neocolonial system that the United States established. So it continues. There is no break.

BUT THE new American imperialism seems to be substantially different from the older variety in that the U.S. is a declining economic power and therefore seeing its political power and influence wane. I’m thinking, for example, of a new Latin American hemisphere-wide organization that was recently formed that excludes the United States. Such a thing would have been unthinkable in the more than a century of U.S. domination of the continent.

TALK ABOUT American decline I think should be taken with a grain of salt. The Second World War is when the U.S. really became a global power. It had been the biggest economy in the world by far for long before, but it was a regional power, in a way. It controlled the Western Hemisphere and had made some forays into the Pacific. But the British were the world power. The Second World War changed that. The United States became the dominant world power. The wealth of the United States at that time is hard to believe. The United States had half the world’s wealth. The other industrial societies were weakened or destroyed. The U.S. was in an incredible position of security. It held the hemisphere, both oceans, the opposite sides of both oceans, with a huge military force.

Of course, that declined. But the decline was really in the 1950s and sixties. By 1970, the U.S. was down, if you want to call it that, to about 25 percent of the world’s wealth—pretty much what it had been, say, in the 1920s. So as Europe and Japan recovered and decolonization took place, the U.S. remained the overwhelming global power, but not like it had been in 1950. Since then it’s been pretty stable. Probably the percentage of global wealth is not very different from what it was then. Of course, there were changes.

What happened in Latin America I think is not related to changes in the United States. Within the last decade, for the first time in 500 years, since the Spanish and Portuguese conquest, Latin America has begun to deal with some of its problems. It’s begun to integrate. The countries were very separated from one another. Each one was oriented separately towards the West, Europe first and then the United States. That integration is important. What you described is another step towards it. It means that it’s not so easy to pick the countries off one by one. We’ve actually seen that in crucial cases recently. They can unify in defense against an outside force.

The other thing, which is more significant and much more difficult, is that they’re beginning individually to face their massive internal problems. Latin America is just a scandal. It ought to be a rich continent, South America particularly, with its resources, and so on. Almost a century ago, Brazil was expected to be what they call the colossus of the south, comparable to the United States, the colossus of the north. It never dealt with that. In fact, it has extreme inequality, some of the worst in the world, terrible poverty. A huge amount of wealth but very highly concentrated in a small—usually Europeanized, often white—elite, and just massive poverty and misery. There are some beginnings to deal with that, which is important—another form of integration. And it is somewhat separating itself from U.S. control.

But the U.S. is reacting. In October of 2008, the U.S. was kicked out of its last military base in South America, the Manta base in Ecuador, but it immediately picked up seven new military bases in Colombia, the one country that’s still within the U.S. orbit. Obama has added a couple more; he added two naval bases in Panama. They reactivated the Fourth Fleet. The fleet that covers the Caribbean and Latin American waters was deactivated in 1950, at the end of the war, but was reactivated in 2008. Training of Latin American officers has gone way up. They’re being trained to deal with what’s called “radical populism.” That has a definite meaning in Latin America, and not a pretty one.

We don’t have internal records, but it’s very likely that Obama’s break with Europe and Latin America in supporting the elections under the military government in Honduras, which effectively supported the coup, probably is related to the vulnerable air base in Honduras, which the U.S. uses. It was called the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the 1980s. It was the base for attacking Nicaragua. It’s still a major military base. In fact, shortly after the military coup government took over, with U.S. backing, they immediately made a security deal with Colombia, the other U.S. client. So they’re trying to rebuild the system. But Latin America is moving toward a degree of independence.

There are plenty of other complicated things happening in the world. There’s a lot of talk about a global shift of power: India and China are going to become the great powers, the wealthiest powers, and so on. Again, one should be pretty reserved about that. For example, there is a lot of talk about the U.S. debt, that China holds so much of the U.S. debt. Actually, Japan holds more of the debt. There have been occasions when China passed it, but most of the time, and right now, Japan holds most of the debt, which shows you just how powerful a weapon it is. The sovereign wealth funds of the Emirates, when you put them together, they probably hold more debt than China.

Furthermore, the whole framework of discussion is misleading. We’re sort of taught to talk about the world as a world of states, which, if you study international relations theory, there’s what’s called “realist international relations theory,” which says there is an anarchic world of states, and states pursue their national interest. It’s all mythology. The interests of the CEO of General Electric and the janitor who cleans his floor are not the same. There are a few common interests, like we don’t want to be destroyed. But for the most part they have very different interests. Part of the doctrinal system in the U.S. is to pretend that we’re all a happy family, there are no class divisions, and everybody is working together in harmony. But that’s radically false.

Furthermore, it’s known to be false. At least, it has been for a long time. Take a dangerous radical like, say, Adam Smith, whom people worship but don’t read. What he pointed out—he’s talking about England—he said in England the people who own the society make policy. The people who own the place are merchants and manufacturers, and they’re the principal architects of policy, and they carry it out in their own interests, no matter how grievous the effects on the people of England, which is not their business. Of course, he was an old-fashioned conservative, so he had moral values, unlike the contemporary version, so he was concerned with what he called the “savage injustice” of the Europeans, particularly what Britain was doing in India, causing famines and so on. That’s old-fashioned conservatism, not what’s called conservatism now. Elementary truisms about the structure of the power and also moral concerns—that’s the tradition.

So it’s not a novel insight to say that power—now it’s not in the hands of the merchants and manufacturers, but in those of financial institutions and multinationals. But it’s the same. And they have an interest in Chinese development. So if you’re, say, the CEO of Wal-Mart or Dell or HP or whatever, they’re perfectly happy to have very cheap labor in China working under hideous conditions and no environmental constraints. If they have what’s called economic growth, that’s fine.

Furthermore, China’s economic growth is a bit of a myth. China is an assembly plant. China is a major exporter, but while the trade deficit with China has gone up, the trade deficit with Japan, Singapore, and Korea has gone down. The reason is, there is a regional production system developing. The more advanced countries of the region, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, send advanced technology, parts, and components to China, which uses its cheap labor force to assemble it and send it out. And U.S. producers do the same thing: they send parts and components to China, those guys assemble it, they export it. Within the doctrinal framework, that’s called Chinese exports, but it’s regional exports, including the United States exporting to itself.

Once we break out of the framework of national states as if they’re unified entities with no internal divisions within them, then there is a global shift of power, but it’s from the global workforce to the owners of the world, transnational capital, financial institutions, and it’s global. So, for example, the share of working people in national income has by and large declined in the last couple of decades, but apparently in China it’s declined maybe more than anywhere, more than most places. There is certainly economic growth in China and India, hundreds of millions of people live a lot better than they did before. But then there are another couple of billion who don’t. In fact, it’s getting worse for them in many ways.

THE UN Human Development Index ranks India as 134th, slightly above Cambodia and Laos. And China ranks ninety-second.

INDIA IS about where it was twenty years ago, before the famous reforms began. So, yes, there has been growth. You go to Delhi, there is plenty of wealth. But it’s an expansion of the traditional Third World system. Even in the worst days, you go to the poorest country in the world, say, Haiti, and there is a sector that lives in tremendous wealth and luxury—white, European, mulatto maybe. In India it’s the same structure, just vastly different because of the scale. So in India it’s a couple hundred million people who now have cars and television sets and nice homes. In fact, the richest man in the world is Carlos Slim, from Mexico. He beat Bill Gates this year. He was given a telecommunications monopoly that’s one of the consequences of the privatization, mainly over the last twenty to thirty years. I don’t know the details of how he got to be the richest man in the world. I’m sure it’s not very pretty. You have multibillionaires in India who are building palaces for themselves. Meanwhile, the consumption of food, on average, has actually declined during this period of growth.

The measure for China, ninety-second, I think you almost have to take with a grain of salt. India is a much more open society, so we know a lot more about it. China is a pretty closed society, and you don’t know much about what’s going on in the rural areas. There are some interesting studies of Chinese labor. Ching Kwan Lee is a woman who has done extensive study of it. She distinguishes what she calls the Rust Belt from the Sun Belt. The Rust Belt is up in the northeast. That’s where the state-run industrial sector was, big production center. That’s being wiped out.

She compares it to the Rust Belt in the United States. The workers have essentially nothing. They had a compact, they thought. People have done studies of workers in Ohio and Indiana. They feel cheated, rightly. They thought they had a deal with the corporations and the government that they would work hard all their lives, they would get pensions, they would get security, their children would get jobs, and so on. They served in the army, they did all the right things. Now they’re being thrown into the trashcan. No pensions, no security, no jobs. The jobs are being shipped somewhere else. She finds the same in the Chinese Rust Belt, except there the compact is what they considered the Maoist compact: we have solidarity, we build the country, we sacrifice, and then we get security. Well, it’s thrown away. That’s the Rust Belt.

What she calls the Sun Belt is southeast China, the big production center now, where they’re essentially bringing younger workers in from the rural areas. They don’t have this Maoist tradition of solidarity and working to build the country. They’re peasants. In fact, their lives are still in the villages. That’s where their families are, where they raise children, where they can go for security if they lose their job. It’s a tie to the villages. They’re kind of a migrant workforce. There is plenty of labor unrest. There is huge labor unrest all over China. In the southeast, the Sun Belt, it’s because the government is failing its legal obligations. They’re legalistic. There are laws that say you should have such-and-such kind of wages and working conditions. They don’t have anything. So they’re protesting about that. But there are certain similarities to the United States in this respect. The labor force is atomized but very militant. There are a huge number of protests, even by official statistics. And we really don’t know what’s going on in the inner rural areas. On top of which, there are enormous ecological problems developing.

So if you measure growth rationally, counting not just the number of objects that come out but the costs and benefits, China’s growth rate would be much lower. And its ranking in the Development Index probably would be lower, though ninety-second is bad enough.

I NOTICE on your office door here you have a bumper sticker featuring a quote from the two-time Medal of Honor winner, Major General Smedley Butler, who was a veteran of many U.S. interventions, from China to Nicaragua. The sticker says, “War is a racket. The few profit, the many pay.”

IN FACT, he very eloquently described the way war was a racket. He says, “I was a racketeer for Wall Street,” and he goes on and describes his many interventions. Actually, a very timely example is Haiti. When Woodrow Wilson invaded Haiti in 1915, Smedley Butler was, I think, a marine major. He was one of the commanders, though not the top one. He was the person who Wilson sent to disband the parliament. The parliament of Haiti refused to accept a U.S.-written constitution, which permitted American corporations to buy up Haitian land. That was considered very progressive. If you go back to the time, the big thinkers were saying, “In order to develop, Haiti needs foreign investment. You can’t expect American investors to put money in there unless they own the place, so we have to have this progressive legislation. And those stupid niggers don’t understand it, so we have to disband the parliament.” Butler says we disbanded them by typical Marine Corps measures, at gunpoint. So they disbanded the parliament. Then the Marines, under Butler, ran a referendum in which they got 99.9 percent approval of the U.S.-imposed constitution, with 5 percent of the population participating, namely, the rich elite. That was considered a great democratic achievement. It was another step towards the process which leads right to the earthquake, that is, driving the population off the land, over time turning them into assembly plant workers or something considered to be their comparative advantage by progressive thinkers. And finally you get the hideous catastrophe we’ve just seen and many others like it.

Butler in later years was pretty bitter. But Butler, among other things, also cut off a military coup that was planned to overthrow the Roosevelt administration and kill Roosevelt, a business coup. He intervened and somehow stopped it. He was stripped of all his medals and his honors for talking out like that, but he became a real hero.

LET’S TALK more about Afghanistan and the U.S. war there, which is in its ninth year. In late March, Obama visited Bagram air base. It is a site of major war crimes, which went virtually unmentioned in news reports. Obama seemed to be channeling Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. He told the troops that their mission was “essential,” declaring, “We did not choose this war, this was not an act of America trying to expand its influence; we were attacked viciously on 9/11.” And finally, “If I thought for a minute that America’s vital interests were not served, were not at stake here in Afghanistan, I would order all of you home right away.” What are those vital interests from Obama’s point of view?

I SUSPECT it’s by this point mostly domestic politics. Dan Ellsberg had a nice phrase for it in Vietnam. If you pull out without victory, which is called loss, you’re literally dead. Obama inherited the war. And I suspect the dominant interest is that.

There are a few strategic interests. They didn’t invade Afghanistan because we were viciously attacked. It’s true that there was an attack on 9/11, but the government didn’t know who did it. In fact, eight months later the head of the FBI informed the press that after the most intensive investigation in history, international investigation, they still didn’t know who did it. He said they had suspicions. The suspicions were that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan but implemented in Germany and the United Arab Emirates, and, of course, in the United States. That’s what they thought eight months later.

After 9/11, Bush essentially ordered the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, and they temporized. They might have done it, actually. They asked for evidence that he was involved. And, of course, the government, first of all, couldn’t give them any evidence because they didn’t have any. But, secondly, they reacted with total contempt. How can you ask us for evidence if we want you to hand somebody over? What kind of lèse majesté is this? So he simply informed the people of Afghanistan, “We’re going to bomb you until the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden.” It was nothing even about overthrowing the Taliban. That came three weeks later, when British Admiral Boyce announced to the Afghans, “We’re going to continue bombing you until you overthrow your government.” I don’t know the word for it. It fits the definition of terrorism exactly, but it’s much worse. It’s aggression.

How did the Afghans feel about it? We actually don’t know. There were leading Afghan anti-Taliban activists who were bitterly opposed to the bombing. In fact, the U.S. favorite, Abdul Haq, considered a great martyr in Afghanistan, a couple weeks after the bombing started he was interviewed in the British press and he said, “The Americans are carrying out the bombing only because they want to show their muscle. They’re just undermining our efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within, which we can do. If they help us instead of killing innocent Afghans, that’s what will happen.” A couple of weeks after that, there was a meeting in Peshawar in Pakistan of a thousand tribal leaders—some from Afghanistan trekked across the border, some from Pakistan—and they disagreed on a lot of things but they were unanimous on one thing: Stop the bombing. That was after about a month. Could the Taliban have been overthrown from within? It’s very likely. There were strong anti-Taliban forces. But the U.S. didn’t want that. It wanted to invade and conquer it and impose its own rule.

The same was true in Iraq. If it hadn’t been for the sanctions, it’s very possible, likely, that Saddam would have been overthrown from within in pretty much the same way as the whole rogues’ gallery of other gangsters that the U.S. and Britain were supporting, like, say, Ceausescu, the worst of the Eastern European dictators. Nobody wants to talk about him anymore, but the U.S. supported him till the very end. Suharto in Indonesia, Marcos in the Philippines, Duvalier in Haiti, Chun in South Korea, Mobutu in Zaire—they were all overthrown from within. The Westerners who knew most about Iraq by far were the administrators of the so-called “Oil for Food” program. They had investigators all over the country. They were highly respected international diplomats. Both of them resigned, one after the other.

THAT WOULD be Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck.

RIGHT. THEY both resigned on grounds that the sanctions were genocidal. That’s their word. Von Sponeck actually wrote a long book about it, which can’t get reviewed or mentioned, in which he gave the details. These are very respected figures, and they knew a lot. They had a lot of information. Both of them thought that the Iraqis could take care of their own problems if the sanctions ended, meaning overthrow Saddam. But the U.S. didn’t want that. It wanted to impose its own regime. And the same in Afghanistan.

There are geostrategic reasons. They’re not small. How dominant they are in thinking we can only speculate. But there is a reason why, since Alexander the Great, everybody has been invading Afghanistan. It’s in a highly strategic position relative to Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. There were specific reasons in this case having to do with pipeline projects, which are in the background. How important we don’t know. But the U.S. is trying hard, and has been since the 1990s, to try to establish a pipeline that’s called the TAPI pipeline from Turkmenistan, which has a huge amount of natural gas, to India. It has to go through Kandahar, in fact, so Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India are all involved.

The U.S. wants that for two reasons. One reason is to try to prevent Russia from having control of the natural gas. That’s the new Great Game—who controls Central Asian resources. But the other has to do with isolating Iran. The natural way to get the energy resources India needs is from Iran—a pipeline right from Iran to Pakistan to India. The U.S. wants to block that in the worst way. It’s a complicated business. Pakistan has just agreed to let the pipeline run from Iran to Pakistan. The question is whether India will try to join in. To try to undercut that, the TAPI pipeline would be a good weapon.

In fact, that’s probably one of the main reasons why the United States entered into the deal with India to permit them to openly violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to get nuclear technology, which, of course, they can transfer to weapons production and also open the market to Western arms sales. That was 2008. But that’s another way to try to draw India more into the U.S. orbit and separate them from Iran.
So all of these things are going on. There are a lot of broad considerations involved. But I still suspect that uppermost in Washington’s mind is simply domestic politics. We can’t get out of there without victory or else we’ll be slaughtered politically.

IS THAT a piece of the greatly expanding bombing attacks, these drone attacks on Pakistan?

YES. THEY’RE horrible, but they’re also interesting. They tell us a lot about American ideology. The drone attacks are not secret. There’s way more we don’t know about them, but mostly they’re not secret. The Pakistani population is overwhelmingly opposed to them, and so are the public figures. They publicly say, “You’ve got to stop this, can’t allow it.” It’s justified here on the grounds that the Pakistani leadership secretly agrees. But, fortunately for us, Pakistan is so dictatorial that they don’t have to pay any attention to their population. That’s our position. So if the country is a brutal dictatorship, it’s great, because then the leaders can secretly agree to what we’re doing and disregard their population, which is likely 95 percent opposed to it. That’s considered a good thing. That’s one column of the newspaper.

The column right next door to it, alongside it, says we’re promoting democracy. Intellectuals have to be able to keep these in mind—it’s what Orwell called doublethink, the ability to have two contradictory ideas in mind and believe both of them. That’s almost a definition of the intellectual culture. This is a perfect example of it. So, yes, the bombing is fine, because secretly the leadership agrees, even though they have to tell the population they’re against it because the population is overwhelmingly opposed. That’s good. That shows Pakistan is improving.

PAKISTAN’S NEIGHBOR India has seen a huge surge in internal resistance to neoliberalism. Manmohan Singh, the current prime minister, was the finance minister in the early 1990s, when this was all ushered in. He let the cat out of the bag when he told the Indian parliament in June 2009, “If left-wing extremism”—the catch-all phrase for Naxalites, Maoists, terrorists—“continues to flourish in parts of the country which have natural resources, the climate of investment would certainly be affected.” 

IT’S CERTAINLY true. There are foreign investors and, for that matter, Indian investors who want to get into these rich resource areas, even if that means, of course, getting rid of the tribal people, destroying their way of life. But India has been at war internally ever since its founding. In fact, this war goes back way before, to the British in earlier periods. Large parts of India are just at war at the moment. Whole states are under attack. You have to do it to get the resources for what’s called economic growth. That’s foreign investors, but also rich Indian investors—I think the biggest company trying to get the bauxite out is actually Indian.

INDIA FIGURES into U.S. geostrategic planning vis-à-vis China. There has been a huge expansion of U.S. weapon sales to India, training, intelligence sharing. Israel is involved as well. What’s happening to a country that was once nonaligned to one that’s become very aligned with Washington?

INDIA WAS not only nonaligned; it was the core of the nonaligned movement. It had pretty close military relations with Russia. But it was really the kind of basic core, both in power and ideology, of the nonaligned movement. Yes, it’s shifted. It’s playing a complicated game. It’s keeping its relations with China, although there are also conflicts with China. So economic and other relations with China are proceeding. At the same time, I wouldn’t say they are at war, but there is a conflict in the Ladakh area. There was a war there in 1962, and it still remains a conflicted area.

I think India is trying to decide how to position itself in the global system. The relations with the U.S. and with Israel, its U.S. client, are very close. A lot of the Indian forces attacking the tribal areas are apparently using Israeli technology. It’s called counter-guerrilla training. For years, one of the services Israel’s provided to the United States is to carry out state terrorism. It’s very efficient at doing that. They did it in South Africa, in Central America. Now they’re doing it in India. They’re probably doing it in Kashmir, it’s claimed, but I don’t know if it’s true. And very likely in the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq.

But they’ve been a hired gun for thirty years that has helped the U.S.—by the U.S. I mean the White House—get around Congressional sanctions. So there were Congressional sanctions against giving aid to Guatemala, the worst of the terrorist states of Central America. So they did it through Israel and Taiwan. Taiwan plays a similar role. The U.S. is a big power. Small countries hire individual terrorists like Carlos the Jackal. The United States hires terrorist states. It’s much more efficient. You can do a much more murderous and brutal job. Israel is one, Taiwan is another, and Britain has played that role. We don’t have figures, but Indian-Israeli relations have gotten very close as part of the overarching U.S. effort to maintain a global system that will give them a geostrategic advantage over China. But it’s complex. China, for example, is now moving into the real heartland of U.S. concerns, Saudi Arabia. I think China may be the leading importer by now of Saudi oil. And China has had a historic relation with Pakistan. It’s now moving to developing a port system in Karachi and some other—


—yes, which would be a way for China to get access to the South Asian seas and also important for importing oil and, in fact, even minerals from Africa. Actually, the same thing is going on in Latin America. China is now probably the leading trading partner of Brazil. It’s surpassed the United States and Europe.

WE WERE both at a talk that Arundhati Roy gave at Harvard University describing the rather extraordinary amount of resistance to state corporate policies in India. There is a tremendous amount of pushback. I was reporting on this to Howard Zinn, who was interested in what was going on in India. He wrote back to me, one of the last e-mails I got from him, “Compared to India, the United States seems like a desert.” That was his word, “desert,” in terms of resistance.

IT WASN’T at one time. If you go back to the nineteenth century, the indigenous population was resistant. In this respect the United States is a desert because we exterminated them. There isn’t that kind of resistance. The counterpart to the tribal resistance in India would have been the resistance of Native Americans to being exterminated. But the U.S. won that war. By the end of the nineteenth century they were essentially gone. In this respect India is in the stage where the U.S. was in the nineteenth century. Other kinds of resistance, like labor resistance, environmental resistance, I don’t think there is anything as dramatic as in the case of the tribals. So I don’t think that’s quite an accurate analogy.

I’M THINKING more of workers here who have lost their jobs, who have lost their pensions and benefits and homes foreclosed, not organizing. At a talk you gave in Portland called “When Elites Fail,” you were decrying the fact that the left has not been able to mobilize dissent. The right has certainly been able to.

THAT’S TRUE. But I don’t think India is a good comparison to that. Earlier periods in the United States are a better comparison. Take, say, the 1930s. The Depression hit in 1929. About five years later, you started getting real militant labor organizing, forming the CIO, sit-down strikes, and so on. That’s what basically impelled Roosevelt to carry out the New Deal reforms. That hasn’t happened. Remember the 1920s were a period when labor was almost completely crushed. One of the leading labor historians in the U.S., David Montgomery, has a book called The Rise and Fall of the American Labor Movement. The rise was nineteenth century militants on through the early twentieth century, crushed by Woodrow Wilson, who was as brutal internally as he was externally. The Red Scare almost crushed the workers’ movement. In the 1920s, working people here were so completely crushed that the right-wing British press was appalled at the way workers were treated. That was the 1920s. There was a change in the 1930s, in the course of the Depression. But it took quite a few years. And the Depression was much worse than this recession. This is bad enough, but that was much worse.

And then there were other factors. For example, we’re not supposed to concede it, but the Communist Party was there. The Communist Party was an organized element that persisted. It didn’t show up for a demonstration and then scatter and then somebody else has to start something else. It was always there, and it was in there for the long haul. That’s not the kind of organizations we have. And it was right in the forefront of the civil rights struggles, which were very significant in the 1930s, and labor organizing, union struggles, union militancy. That was kind of a spark which is lacking now.

WHY IS it lacking?

FIRST OF all, the Communist Party was totally crushed. In fact, the activist left was crushed under Truman, and what we call McCarthyism was actually started by Truman. The working class did grow, the unions did grow, but they grew as collaborationist unions. That’s one of the reasons why, say, Canada, a very similar country, has a health care system and we don’t. In both cases it was spearheaded by the unions, the same unions on both sides of the border, like the UAW, basically the same union. But in Canada they struggled for health care for the country. In the United States they struggled for health care for themselves. So if you’re an autoworker here in the United States, you had a pretty good health care and pension system. They got it for themselves in a compact with the corporations. They thought it was a deal. What they couldn’t see somehow is that it’s for them a suicide pact: If the corporation decides it’s over, then it’s over. Meanwhile, the rest of the country didn’t get it. So now the United States has a completely dysfunctional health care system and Canada has one that more or less works. That’s a reflection of just different cultural values and other institutional structures on two sides of a border between two very similar countries. So, yes, the working class did continue to develop and grow here, but with class collaboration, that is, in a compact with the corporations.

You may recall in 1979 Doug Fraser, who was the head of the UAW, gave a speech in which he lamented the fact that business is engaged in what he called a one-sided class war against us, the working people. We thought we were all cooperating. That was pretty dumb. Business is always engaged in a one-sided class war, especially in the U.S., a very class-conscious business community. So, yes, they’re always militantly struggling to get rid of any interference with their domination and control. The labor unions went along with it. And they benefited for their own workers temporarily. Now they’re paying the penalty.

ANYTHING POSITIVE in the Obama health care bill that was hailed as “historic” and “sweeping”?

THERE IS something beneficial; namely, the status quo was worse. So there are some slight improvements over the status quo. But it’s a rotten bill. In fact, last August Business Week had a cover story, a big front-page cover, “Insurance Companies Win.” They were already exulting over their victory last August because they had essentially killed everything. Of course, you never have enough, so they fought hard to get even more, and they did. This is some improvement, but it leaves the basic problems essentially untouched.

IN A lecture at the Left Forum in New York on March 21st you talked about Joe Stack and his manifesto. He took a plane and flew it into the IRS building in Austin. You said, “All of this evokes memories of other days when the center did not hold, and they’re worth thinking about.” You added that one example that should not be forgotten is the Weimar Republic. Talk about Joe Stack. And why did you bring up Weimar?

JOE STACK left a manifesto, and the manifesto was just ridiculed. You read the liberal columnists that totally dismiss him as a “crazy man.” If you read the manifesto, it’s a very eloquent and insightful commentary on contemporary American society. In it he kind of retells his life story and what led him to suicide. It happened to be an IRS office that he hit, but his suicide statement was far broader. He starts by describing how he was a kid growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a decaying industrial area. When he was about eighteen or nineteen, he was a college student living on a pittance. In the building where he was living there was an eighty-year-old woman who was living on cat food. And he describes the background. Her husband had been a steel worker, one of what’s called the privileged working class, the part that made out pretty well during the period of economic growth, 1950s and sixties. And he was guaranteed a pension, he looked forward to his security and retirement. It was all stolen from him. He died prematurely. That happens pretty commonly among people who are faced with that. It was taken by the company, by the government, and by the union. They stole it. And she’s left eating cat food. That was his first recognition that something is wrong with the picture of the world that he had been taught in grade school. Then he goes on to say, “That taught me not to trust the corporations. And then I decided to strike out on my own.”

I won’t go through it, but he talks about his own efforts over the years to start a small business and how at every point he gets smashed down by corporate power, by the government, every place he turns. Finally, he got to the point of saying, “Look, we’ve got to revolt, and the only way to revolt is to awaken people from their torpor and to show that we’re willing to die for our freedom.” And then he smashes himself into the building in Austin as a wake-up call to lots of people who are just like him or like this steelworker.

That’s what’s happening to what’s called here the middle class, but that’s because we’re not allowed to use the word “working class.” In other countries it’s called the working class. But here everybody has to be middle class. That’s what is happening to working people, storekeepers, and small businessmen. Take a look back at the Weimar Republic. It’s not a perfect analogy by any means, but it’s strikingly similar. The phrase “the center does not hold” was the title of the Left Forum conference, and correctly. What’s happening all over the United States is tremendous anger against corporations, against the government, against the political parties, against institutions, against professions. By now about half the population thinks that every person in Congress should be thrown out, including their own representative. The approval rating for Congress is abysmal and for others not much higher. That’s the center not holding.

That’s what was happening in Germany. First of all, Germany was the peak of Western civilization in the 1920s—in the arts, sciences, and literature. It was considered a model democracy. The political system was lively—big working-class organizations, a huge Social Democratic Party, and a big Communist Party. A lot of civic institutions. It had plenty of problems but it was, by any standards we have, a vibrant democratic society.

Even before the Depression it was beginning to change. In 1925—that’s before the Depression—there was a mass popular vote for Hindenburg for president. He was a kind of Prussian aristocrat. That pretty much became the mass base for Nazism: petty bourgeois storekeepers, disillusioned workers, and others. In fact, probably demographically not unlike the Tea Party movement. In 1928, the Nazis still got under 3 percent of the vote. In 1933—that’s only five years later—they were so powerful that Hindenburg had to appoint Hitler chancellor. Hindenburg hated Hitler. Hindenburg was an aristocrat, a general. He didn’t pal around with the hoi polloi. And Hitler was this “Little Corporal,” as he called him. What the heck is he doing in our aristocratic Germany? But he had to appoint him chancellor because of the mass base. That was within five years.

If you look at the forces behind it, it was, first of all, real disillusionment with the political system. The parties were bickering. They weren’t doing anything for the people. By then the Depression had hit. There was also a nationalist appeal. Hitler was a charismatic leader: “We’re going to create the powerful new Germany, which is going to find its proper place in the sun.” And they had designated enemies—the Bolsheviks and the Jews. They’re the trouble. That’s what’s spoiling it. By 1933, Hitler actually for the first time declared May Day a workers’ holiday. The Social Democrats, who were a powerful group, had been trying to do that ever since the Second Reich was established, but they could never do it. Hitler did it. There were huge demonstrations in Berlin, which was called “Red Berlin,” a working-class, left-wing city. There were about a million people demonstrating and very excited. “Our new united Germany is going to forge a new way. Throw out all this political nonsense of parties and we’ll become the unified, organized, militarized country which can show the world what real power and authority is.” Plenty of racism. All of that looks very similar to here. It’s ominous. And they did destroy major working-class organizations. The Social Democrats and the Communists were huge organizations, and not just political parties. They had clubs, associations, and civic societies. It was all wiped out, partly by force but partly because the people joined the Nazis out of disillusionment and hope for a better future, a bright, militaristic, jingoist future. I wouldn’t say it’s identical, but the parallels are enough to be frightening. You can see Joe Stack joining that group.

ARUNDHATI ROY decried what she called weekend protesters. You go to a march or a demonstration, and then back to the usual routine on Monday. She said that it was necessary that there be risks taken, that protests should have consequences. 

I’M NOT sure that I agree with her that the risks are important. Of course, serious demonstrations, if you do it, are going to have risks, so you get arrested and so on. But the real thing that’s missing I think is continuity. The going home is the problem. That’s where the old Communist Party was extremely significant. There was always somebody around to turn the mimeograph machine. They were kind of in it for the long haul. They didn’t expect quick victories. Maybe you achieve something, maybe you lose, but you lay the basis for something else, you’re still going to go on to the next thing. That mentality is pretty much missing here. And it was during the 1960s, too.

IT WAS missing in the sixties?

MISSING. IF you go back to the sixties, the big demonstrations, like the Columbia strike and the Washington marches, an enormous number of the young people involved thought that they were going to win. Like, if we sit in the president’s office for three weeks, we’re going to have love and peace in the world. You recall that, I’m sure. Of course, it didn’t happen, so you get disillusioned and quit and go off and become a corporate executive or something. That kind of mentality has to be overcome. It was in the civil rights movement. There they knew it’s a long struggle and we’re not going to win right away. Maybe we will get something and then we’ll hit a barrier.

When they hit the barrier, it broke down. The barrier was hit when they tried to expand it to a poor people’s movement. Martin Luther King kind of symbolized this, but it was going on throughout the whole civil rights movement. So just take King, because he’s visible. On Martin Luther King Day here he’s greatly celebrated for what he did in the early 1960s when he was saying “I Have a Dream” and “Let’s get rid of these Alabama sheriffs.” That was okay. But by 1965 he was getting to be a dangerous figure. For one thing, he was turning against the war in Vietnam pretty strongly. For another, he was trying to be at the head of a developing poor people’s movement. He was assassinated when he was taking part in a strike of sanitation workers, and he was on his way to Washington for a poor people’s convention. That part of his life, that was no good already. He was going beyond racist sheriffs in Alabama to northern racism, which is much more deep-seated and class-based. The whole civil rights movement was partly destroyed by force and partly frittered away at that point. It never really made it past the point where you get into class issues.

But what Arundhati said about not going home I think is the crucial part. You have to understand that you’re not going to win by sitting in the president’s office. You don’t get a world of love and peace that way. You may get a little victory, but then you’re going to have a bigger struggle ahead. It’s kind of like mountain climbing. You climb a peak, you think you’re at the top, and then you notice there is a bigger peak right beyond it and you’ve got to try that one. That’s what popular struggle is like. And that’s lacking. This kind of quick-gratification culture is not conducive to that kind of commitment.

There are people who do it, there are organizations that really are persistent and struggle, and those are the ones that are under attack. Take ACORN. Why was ACORN destroyed? There was a little bit of a scam, but by the standards of corporate corruption what they found it was kind of invisible. But instantly the media, Congress, everybody jumped on them and destroyed them. Because it’s a persistent organization working for poor people, and that’s dangerous.

GIVEN THE dismal economic situation, why isn’t there a left response? Certainly the right has generated answers and explanations. 

SO DID Hitler. It was the Jews and the Bolsheviks. They’re crazy answers, but they are answers.

IT’S BETTER than being in a vacuum. So you get Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin providing bromides. 

BUT THE Democratic Party and even the Democratic left is not going to tell them, “Look, your problem is that back in the 1970s we took part in a major process of financialization of the economy and hollowing out of the productive system. So your wages and income also have stagnated for thirty years while what wealth is produced is in a very few pockets. Those are our policies.” They’re not going to tell them that. No, there is no left around. There are many people. If you count noses, there are probably more than in the 1960s, but very atomized, special interests—gay rights, environmental rights, this, that. They don’t coalesce into a movement that can really do things.

There are things that could be done, which I talk about a little in the Left Forum lecture you mentioned. Take, say, the Obama administration essentially owns the auto industry at this point, pretty close to it, except for Ford. Certainly GM. What they’re doing is continuing the policies of closing down GM plants, which means destroying the workforce, destroying the communities. The communities were built by the unions and the plant and the workforce. So all that gets destroyed. Meanwhile they send emissaries. Obama sends one to tell people in these cities, “We really love you and want to help you,” and distribute some pennies or something. At almost the same time, he has another emissary, the secretary of transportation, whom he sent to Spain to use federal stimulus money to get contracts with Spanish companies to build high-speed rail facilities. Those high-speed rail facilities could be built in the factories that are being closed, but from the point of view of the bankers and Smith’s “architects of policy,” we don’t make anything out of that.

What’s lacking is the consciousness that began to arise in the 1930s of, “We’ll take it over and run it ourselves.” The things that really put the fear of God into manufacturers and government in the 1930s were the sit-down strikes. A sit-down strike is just one step short of saying, “Well, look, instead of sitting down, we’ll run this place. We don’t need owners and managers.” That’s huge. That could be done in the Rust Belt and other places that are being closed down. The contrast between closing down the industrial facilities here, destroying the communities, and going to Spain and other parts of Europe to get them to do what we could do here, if the left can’t make use of that, it’s in trouble.


Issue #100

Spring 2016

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