Noam Chomsky & Yanis Varoufakis discuss the Universal Basic Income on acTVism Munich.
Noam Chomsky & Yanis Varoufakis discuss the Universal Basic Income on acTVism Munich.
Over the past few months, as the disturbing prospect of a Trump administration became a disturbing reality, I decided to reach out to Noam Chomsky, the philosopher whose writing, speaking and activism has for more than 50 years provided unparalleled insight and challenges to the American and global political systems. Our conversation, as it appears here, took place as a series of email exchanges over the past two months. Although Professor Chomsky was extremely busy, because of our past intellectual exchange, he graciously provided time for this interview.
Professor Chomsky is the author of numerous best-selling political works, translated into scores of languages. Among his most recent books are “Hegemony or Survival,” “Failed States,” “Hopes and Prospects,” “Masters of Mankind” and “Who Rules the World?” He has been institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1976.
— George Yancy
George Yancy: Given our “post-truth” political moment and the growing authoritarianism we are witnessing under President Trump, what public role do you think professional philosophy might play in critically addressing this situation?
Noam Chomsky: We have to be a little cautious about not trying to kill a gnat with an atom bomb. The performances are so utterly absurd regarding the “post-truth” moment that the proper response might best be ridicule. For example, Stephen Colbert’s recent comment is apropos: When the Republican legislature of North Carolina responded to a scientific study predicting a threatening rise in sea level by barring state and local agencies from developing regulations or planning documents to address the problem, Colbert responded: “This is a brilliant solution. If your science gives you a result that you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved.”
Quite generally, that’s how the Trump administration deals with a truly existential threat to survival of organized human life: ban regulations and even research and discussion of environmental threats and race to the precipice as quickly as possible (in the interests of short-term profit and power).
G.Y.: In this regard, I find Trumpism to be a bit suicidal.
N.C.: Of course, ridicule is not enough. It’s necessary to address the concerns and beliefs of those who are taken in by the fraud, or who don’t recognize the nature and significance of the issues for other reasons. If by philosophy we mean reasoned and thoughtful analysis, then it can address the moment, though not by confronting the “alternative facts” but by analyzing and clarifying what is at stake, whatever the issue is. Beyond that, what is needed is action: urgent and dedicated, in the many ways that are open to us.
G.Y.: When I was an undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Pittsburgh, where I was trained in the analytic tradition, it wasn’t clear to me what philosophy meant beyond the clarification of concepts. Yet I have held onto the Marxian position that philosophy can change the world. Any thoughts on the capacity of philosophy to change the world?
The most important
issues to address are
the truly existential
threats we face: climate
change and nuclear war.
N.C.: I am not sure just what Marx had in mind when he wrote that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Did he mean that philosophy could change the world, or that philosophers should turn to the higher priority of changing the world? If the former, then he presumably meant philosophy in a broad sense of the term, including analysis of the social order and ideas about why it should be changed, and how. In that broad sense, philosophy can play a role, indeed an essential role, in changing the world, and philosophers, including in the analytic tradition, have undertaken that effort, in their philosophical work as well as in their activist lives — Bertrand Russell, to mention a prominent example.
G.Y.: Yes. Russell was a philosopher and a public intellectual. In those terms, how do you describe yourself?
N.C.: I don’t really think about it, frankly. I engage in the kinds of work and activities that seem important and challenging to me. Some of it falls within these categories, as usually understood.
G.Y.: There are times when the sheer magnitude of human suffering feels unbearable. As someone who speaks to so much suffering in the world, how do you bear witness to this and yet maintain the strength to go on?
N.C.: Witnessing it is enough to provide the motivation to go on. And nothing is more inspiring to see how poor and suffering people, living under conditions incomparably worse than we endure, continue quietly and unpretentiously with courageous and committed struggle for justice and dignity.
G.Y.: If you had to list two or three forms of political action that are necessary under the Trump regime, what would they be? I ask because our moment feels so incredibly hopeless and repressive.
N.C.: I don’t think things are quite that bleak. Take the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the most remarkable feature of the 2016 election. It is, after all, not all that surprising that a billionaire showman with extensive media backing (including the liberal media, entranced by his antics and the advertising revenue it afforded) should win the nomination of the ultra-reactionary Republican Party.
The Sanders campaign, however, broke dramatically with over a century of U.S. political history. Extensive political science research, notably the work of Thomas Ferguson, has shown convincingly that elections are pretty much bought. For example, campaign spending alone is a remarkably good predictor of electoral success, and support of corporate power and private wealth is a virtual prerequisite even for participation in the political arena.
The Sanders campaign showed that a candidate with mildly progressive (basically New Deal) programs could win the nomination, maybe the election, even without the backing of the major funders or any media support. There’s good reason to suppose that Sanders would have won the nomination had it not been for shenanigans of the Obama-Clinton party managers. He is now the most popular political figure in the country by a large margin.
Activism spawned by the campaign is beginning to make inroads into electoral politics. Under Barack Obama, the Democratic Party pretty much collapsed at the crucial local and state levels, but it can be rebuilt and turned into a progressive force. That would mean reviving the New Deal legacy and moving well beyond, instead of abandoning, the working class and turning into Clintonite New Democrats, which more or less resemble what used to be called moderate Republicans, a category that has largely disappeared with the shift of both parties to the right during the neoliberal period.
in splendid isolation
from the world, is almost
to destroying the chances
for decent survival.
Such prospects may not be out of reach, and efforts to attain them can be combined with direct activism right now, urgently needed, to counter the legislative and executive actions of the Republican administration, often concealed behind the bluster of the figure nominally in charge.
There are in fact many ways to combat the Trump project of creating a tiny America, isolated from the world, cowering in fear behind walls while pursuing the Paul Ryan-style domestic policies that represent the most savage wing of the Republican establishment.
G.Y.: What are the weightiest issues facing us?
N.C.: The most important issues to address are the truly existential threats we face: climate change and nuclear war. On the former, the Republican leadership, in splendid isolation from the world, is almost unanimously dedicated to destroying the chances for decent survival; strong words, but no exaggeration. There is a great deal that can be done at the local and state level to counter their malign project.
On nuclear war, actions in Syria and at the Russian border raise very serious threats of confrontation that might trigger war, an unthinkable prospect. Furthermore, Trump’s pursuit of Obama’s programs of modernization of the nuclear forces poses extraordinary dangers. As we have recently learned, the modernized U.S. nuclear force is seriously fraying the slender thread on which survival is suspended. The matter is discussed in detail in a critically important article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientistsin March, which should have been, and remained, front-page news. The authors, highly respected analysts, observe that the nuclear weapons modernization program has increased “the overall killing power of existing U.S. ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three — and it creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.”
The significance is clear. It means that in a moment of crisis, of which there are all too many, Russian military planners may conclude that lacking a deterrent, the only hope of survival is a first strike — which means the end for all of us.
G.Y.: Frightening to the bone.
N.C.: In these cases, citizen action can reverse highly dangerous programs. It can also press Washington to explore diplomatic options — which are available — instead of the near reflexive resort to force and coercion in other areas, including North Korea and Iran.
G.Y.: But what is it, Noam, as you continue to engage critically a broad range of injustices, that motivates this sense of social justice for you? Are there any religious motivations that frame your social justice work? If not, why not?
N.C.: No religious motivations, and for sound reasons. One can contrive a religious motivation for virtually any choice of action, from commitment to the highest ideals to support for the most horrendous atrocities. In the sacred texts, we can find uplifting calls for peace, justice and mercy, along with the most genocidal passages in the literary canon. Conscience is our guide, whatever trappings we might choose to clothe it in.
G.Y.: Returning to the point about bearing witness to so much suffering, what do you recommend I share with many of my undergraduate students such that they develop the capacity to bear witness to forms of suffering that are worse than we endure? Many of my students are just concerned with graduating and often seem oblivious to world suffering.
N.C.: My suspicion is that those who seem oblivious to suffering, whether it is nearby or in remote corners, are for the most part unaware, perhaps blinded by doctrine and ideology. For them, the answer is to develop a critical attitude toward articles of faith, secular or religious; to encourage their capacity to question, to explore, to view the world from the standpoint of others. And direct exposure is never very far away, wherever we live — perhaps the homeless person huddling in the cold or asking for a few pennies for food, or all too many more.
G.Y.: I appreciate and second your point about exposure to the suffering of others not being far away. Returning to Trump, I take it that you view him as fundamentally unpredictable. I certainly do. Should we fear a nuclear exchange of any sort in our contemporary moment?
N.C.: I do, and I’m hardly the only person to have such fears. Perhaps the most prominent figure to express such concerns is William Perry, one of the leading contemporary nuclear strategists, with many years of experience at the highest level of war planning. He is reserved and cautious, not given to overstatement. He has come out of semiretirement to declare forcefully and repeatedly that he is terrified both at the extreme and mounting threats and by the failure to be concerned about them. In his words, “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”
In 1947, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists established its famous Doomsday Clock, estimating how far we are from midnight: termination. In 1947, the analysts set the clock at seven minutes to midnight. In 1953, they moved the hand to two minutes to midnight after the U.S. and U.S.S.R. exploded hydrogen bombs. Since then it has oscillated, never again reaching this danger point. In January, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, the hand was moved to two and a half minutes to midnight, the closest to terminal disaster since 1953. By this time analysts were considering not only the rising threat of nuclear war but also the firm dedication of the Republican organization to accelerate the race to environmental catastrophe.
Perry is right to be terrified. And so should we all be, not least because of the person with his finger on the button and his surreal associates.
G.Y.: Yet despite his unpredictability, Trump has a strong base. What makes for this kind of servile deference?
N.C.: I’m not sure that “servile deference” is the right phrase, for a number of reasons. For example, who is the base? Most are relatively affluent. Three-quarters had incomes above the median. About one-third had incomes of over $100,000 a year, and thus were in the top 15 percent of personal income, in the top 6 percent of those with only a high school education. They are overwhelmingly white, mostly older, hence from historically more privileged sectors.
As Anthony DiMaggio reports in a careful study of the wealth of information now available, Trump voters tend to be typical Republicans, with “elitist, pro-corporate and reactionary social agendas,” and “an affluent, privileged segment of the country in terms of their income, but one that is relatively less privileged than it was in the past, before the 2008 economic collapse,” hence feeling some economic distress. Median income has dropped almost 10 percent since 2007. That’s apart from the large evangelical segment and putting aside the factors of white supremacy — deeply rooted in the United States — racism and sexism.
For the majority of the base, Trump and the more savage wing of the Republican establishment are not far from their standard attitudes, though when we turn to specific policy preferences, more complex questions arise.
A segment of the Trump base comes from the industrial sector that has been cast aside for decades by both parties, often from rural areas where industry and stable jobs have collapsed. Many voted for Obama, believing his message of hope and change, but were quickly disillusioned and have turned in desperation to their bitter class enemy, clinging to the hope that somehow its formal leader will come to their rescue.
Another consideration is the current information system, if one can even use the phrase. For much of the base, the sources of information are Fox News, talk radio and other practitioners of alternative facts. Exposures of Trump’s misdeeds and absurdities that arouse liberal opinion are easily interpreted as attacks by the corrupt elite on the defender of the little man, in fact his cynical enemy.
G.Y.: How does the lack of critical intelligence operate here, that is, the sort that philosopher John Dewey saw as essential for a democratic citizenry?
N.C.: We might ask other questions about critical intelligence. For liberal opinion, the political crime of the century, as it is sometimes called, is Russian interference in American elections. The effects of the crime are undetectable, unlike the massive effects of interference by corporate power and private wealth, not considered a crime but the normal workings of democracy. That’s even putting aside the record of U.S. “interference” in foreign elections, Russia included; the word “interference” in quotes because it is so laughably inadequate, as anyone with the slightest familiarity with recent history must be aware.
G.Y.: That certainly speaks to our nation’s contradictions.
N.C.: Is Russian hacking really more significant than what we have discussed — for example, the Republican campaign to destroy the conditions for organized social existence, in defiance of the entire world? Or to enhance the already dire threat of terminal nuclear war? Or even such real but lesser crimes such as the Republican initiative to deprive tens of millions of health care and to drive helpless people out of nursing homes in order to enrich their actual constituency of corporate power and wealth even further? Or to dismantle the limited regulatory system set up to mitigate the impact of the financial crisis that their favorites are likely to bring about once again? And on, and on.
It’s easy to condemn those we place on the other side of some divide, but more important, commonly, to explore what we take to be nearby.
In the second part of renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky’s recent conversation about his latest book, “Requiem for the American Dream,” with Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges, the author explains how the banking, fossil fuel and tech sectors all profit immensely from taxpayer dollars. They also discuss a range of topics including the importance of political solidarity and the damage that gerrymandering has done to American democracy.
Watch the first part of the interview here and the second part below.
As the year 2013 drew to an end, the BBC reported on the results of the WIN/Gallup International poll on the question: “Which country do you think is the greatest threat to peace in the world today?”
The United States was the champion by a substantial margin, winning three times the votes of second-place Pakistan.
By contrast, the debate in American scholarly and media circles is about whether Iran can be contained, and whether the huge NSA surveillance system is needed to protect U.S. security.
In view of the poll, it would seem that there are more pertinent questions: Can the United States be contained and other nations secured in the face of the U.S. threat?
In some parts of the world the United States ranks even higher as a perceived menace to world peace, notably in the Middle East, where overwhelming majorities regard the U.S. and its close ally Israel as the major threats they face, not the U.S.-Israeli favorite: Iran.
Few Latin Americans are likely to question the judgment of Cuban nationalist hero José Martí, who wrote in 1894 that “The further they draw away from the United States, the freer and more prosperous the [Latin] American people will be.”
Martí’s judgment has been confirmed in recent years, once again by an analysis of poverty by the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean, released last month.
The U.N. report shows that far-reaching reforms have sharply reduced poverty in Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela and some other countries where U.S. influence is slight, but that it remains abysmal in others – namely, those that have long been under U.S. domination, like Guatemala and Honduras. Even in relatively wealthy Mexico, under the umbrella of the North American Free Trade Agreement, poverty is severe, with 1 million added to the numbers of the poor in 2013.
Sometimes the reasons for the world’s concerns are obliquely recognized in the United States, as when former CIA director Michael Hayden, discussing Obama’s drone murder campaign, conceded that “Right now, there isn’t a government on the planet that agrees with our legal rationale for these operations, except for Afghanistan and maybe Israel.”
A normal country would be concerned by how it is viewed in the world. Certainly that would be true of a country committed to “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” to quote the Founding Fathers. But the United States is far from a normal country. It has had the most powerful economy in the world for a century, and has had no real challenge to its global hegemony since World War II, despite some decline, partly self-administered.
The U.S., conscious of “soft power,” undertakes major campaigns of “public diplomacy” (aka propaganda) to create a favorable image, sometimes accompanied by worthwhile policies that are welcomed. But when the world persists in believing that the United States is by far the greatest threat to peace, the American press scarcely reports the fact.
The ability to ignore unwanted facts is one of the prerogatives of unchallenged power. Closely related is the right to radically revise history.
A current example can be seen in the laments about the escalating Sunni-Shiite conflict that is tearing apart the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria. The prevailing theme of U.S. commentary is that this strife is a terrible consequence of the withdrawal of American force from the region – a lesson in the dangers of “isolationism.”
The opposite is more nearly correct. The roots of the conflict within Islam are many and varied, but it cannot be seriously denied that the split was significantly exacerbated by the American- and British-led invasion of Iraq. And it cannot be too often repeated that aggression was defined at the Nuremberg Trials as “the supreme international crime,” differing from others in that it encompasses all the evil that follows, including the current catastrophe.
A remarkable illustration of this rapid inversion of history is the American reaction to the current atrocities in Fallujah. The dominant theme is the pain about the sacrifices, in vain, of the American soldiers who fought and died to liberate Fallujah. A look at the news reports of the U.S. assaults on Fallujah in 2004 quickly reveals that these were among the most vicious and disgraceful war crimes of the aggression.
The death of Nelson Mandela provides another occasion for reflection on the remarkable impact of what has been called “historical engineering”: reshaping the facts of history to serve the needs of power.
When Mandela at last obtained his freedom, he declared that “During all my years in prison, Cuba was an inspiration and Fidel Castro a tower of strength. . [Cuban victories] destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa . a turning point for the liberation of our continent – and of my people – from the scourge of apartheid. . What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?”
Today the names of Cubans who died defending Angola from U.S.-backed South African aggression, defying American demands that they leave the country, are inscribed on the “Wall of Names” in Pretoria’s Freedom Park. And the thousands of Cuban aid workers who sustained Angola, largely at Cuban expense, are also not forgotten.
The U.S.-approved version is quite different. From the first days after South Africa agreed to withdraw from illegally occupied Namibia in 1988, paving the way for the end of apartheid, the outcome was hailed by The Wall Street Journal as a “splendid achievement” of American diplomacy, “one of the most significant foreign policy achievements of the Reagan administration.”
The reasons why Mandela and South Africans perceive a radically different picture are spelled out in Piero Gleijeses’ masterful scholarly inquiry “Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991.”
As Gleijeses convincingly demonstrates, South Africa’s aggression and terrorism in Angola and its occupation of Namibia were ended by “Cuban military might” accompanied by “fierce black resistance” within South Africa and the courage of Namibian guerrillas. The Namibian liberation forces easily won fair elections as soon as these were possible. Similarly, in elections in Angola, the Cuban-backed government prevailed – while the United States continued to support vicious opposition terrorists there even after South Africa was compelled to back away.
To the end, the Reaganites remained virtually alone in their strong support for the apartheid regime and its murderous depredations in neighboring countries. Though these shameful episodes may be wiped out of internal U.S. history, others are likely to understand Mandela’s words.
In these and all too many other cases, supreme power does provide protection against reality – to a point.
A leading principle of international relations theory is that the state’s highest priority is to ensure security. As Cold War strategist George F. Kennan formulated the standard view, government is created “to assure order and justice internally and to provide for the common defense.”
The proposition seems plausible, almost self-evident, until we look more closely and ask: Security for whom? For the general population? For state power itself? For dominant domestic constituencies?
Depending on what we mean, the credibility of the proposition ranges from negligible to very high.
Security for state power is at the high extreme, as illustrated by the efforts that states exert to protect themselves from the scrutiny of their own populations.
In an interview on German TV, Edward J. Snowden said that his “breaking point” was “seeing Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress” by denying the existence of a domestic spying program conducted by the National Security Agency.
Snowden elaborated that “The public had a right to know about these programs. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name, and that which the government is doing against the public.”
The same could be justly said by Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and other courageous figures who acted on the same democratic principle.
The government stance is quite different: The public doesn’t have the right to know because security thus is undermined — severely so, as officials assert.
There are several good reasons to be skeptical about such a response. The first is that it’s almost completely predictable: When a government’s act is exposed, the government reflexively pleads security. The predictable response therefore carries little information.
A second reason for skepticism is the nature of the evidence presented. International relations scholar John Mearsheimer writes that “The Obama administration, not surprisingly, initially claimed that the NSA’s spying played a key role in thwarting 54 terrorist plots against the United States, implying it violated the Fourth Amendment for good reason.
“This was a lie, however. Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, eventually admitted to Congress that he could claim only one success, and that involved catching a Somali immigrant and three cohorts living in San Diego who had sent $8,500 to a terrorist group in Somalia.”
A similar conclusion was reached by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, established by the government to investigate the NSA programs and therefore granted extensive access to classified materials and to security officials.
There is, of course, a sense in which security is threatened by public awareness — namely, security of state power from exposure.
The basic insight was expressed well by the Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington: “The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”
In the United States as elsewhere, the architects of power understand that very well. Those who have worked through the huge mass of declassified documents in, for example, the official State Department history “Foreign Relations of the United States,” can hardly fail to notice how frequently it is security of state power from the domestic public that is a prime concern, not national security in any meaningful sense.
Often the attempt to maintain secrecy is motivated by the need to guarantee the security of powerful domestic sectors. One persistent example is the mislabeled “free trade agreements” — mislabeled because they radically violate free trade principles and are substantially not about trade at all, but rather about investor rights.
These instruments are regularly negotiated in secret, like the current Trans-Pacific Partnership — not entirely in secret, of course. They aren’t secret from the hundreds of corporate lobbyists and lawyers who are writing the detailed provisions, with an impact revealed by the few parts that have reached the public through WikiLeaks.
As the economist Joseph E. Stiglitz reasonably concludes, with the U.S. Trade Representative’s office “representing corporate interests,” not those of the public, “The likelihood that what emerges from the coming talks will serve ordinary Americans’ interests is low; the outlook for ordinary citizens in other countries is even bleaker.”
Corporate-sector security is a regular concern of government policies — which is hardly surprising, given their role in formulating the policies in the first place.
In contrast, there is substantial evidence that the security of the domestic population — “national security” as the term is supposed to be understood — is not a high priority for state policy.
For example, President Obama’s drone-driven global assassination program, by far the world’s greatest terrorist campaign, is also a terror-generating campaign. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan until he was relieved of duty, spoke of “insurgent math”: For every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies.
This concept of “innocent person” tells us how far we’ve progressed in the last 800 years, since the Magna Carta, which established the principle of presumption of innocence that was once thought to be the foundation of Anglo-American law.
Today, the word “guilty” means “targeted for assassination by Obama,” and “innocent” means “not yet accorded that status.”
The Brookings Institution just published “The Thistle and the Drone,” a highly praised anthropological study of tribal societies by Akbar Ahmed, subtitled “How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam.”
This global war pressures repressive central governments to undertake assaults against Washington’s tribal enemies. The war, Ahmed warns, may drive some tribes “to extinction” — with severe costs to the societies themselves, as seen now in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And ultimately to Americans.
Tribal cultures, Ahmed points out, are based on honor and revenge: “Every act of violence in these tribal societies provokes a counterattack: the harder the attacks on the tribesmen, the more vicious and bloody the counterattacks.”
The terror targeting may hit home. In the British journal International Affairs, David Hastings Dunn outlines how increasingly sophisticated drones are a perfect weapon for terrorist groups. Drones are cheap, easily acquired and “possess many qualities which, when combined, make them potentially the ideal means for terrorist attack in the 21st century,” Dunn explains.
Sen. Adlai Stevenson III, referring to his many years of service on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, writes that “Cyber surveillance and meta data collection are part of the continuing reaction to 9/11, with few if any terrorists to show for it and near universal condemnation. The U.S. is widely perceived as waging war against Islam, against Shiites as well as Sunnis, on the ground, with drones, and by proxy in Palestine, from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia. Germany and Brazil resent our intrusions, and what have they wrought?”
The answer is that they have wrought a growing terror threat as well as international isolation.
The drone assassination campaigns are one device by which state policy knowingly endangers security. The same is true of murderous special-forces operations. And of the invasion of Iraq, which sharply increased terror in the West, confirming the predictions of British and American intelligence.
These acts of aggression were, again, a matter of little concern to planners, who are guided by altogether different concepts of security. Even instant destruction by nuclear weapons has never ranked high for state authorities — a topic for discussion in the next column.
The previous article explored how security is a high priority for government planners: security, that is, for state power and its primary constituency, concentrated private power — all of which entails that official policy must be protected from public scrutiny.
In these terms, government actions fall in place as quite rational, including the rationality of collective suicide. Even instant destruction by nuclear weapons has never ranked high among the concerns of state authorities.
To cite an example from the late Cold War: In November 1983 the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched a military exercise designed to probe Russian air defenses, simulating air and naval attacks and even a nuclear alert.
These actions were undertaken at a very tense moment. Pershing II strategic missiles were being deployed in Europe. President Reagan, fresh from the “Evil Empire” speech, had announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed “Star Wars,” which the Russians understood to be effectively a first-strike weapon — a standard interpretation of missile defense on all sides.
Naturally these actions caused great alarm in Russia, which, unlike the U.S., was quite vulnerable and had repeatedly been invaded.
Newly released archives reveal that the danger was even more severe than historians had previously assumed. The NATO exercise “almost became a prelude to a preventative (Russian) nuclear strike,” according to an account last year by Dmitry Adamsky in the Journal of Strategic Studies .
Nor was this the only close call. In September 1983, Russia’s early-warning systems registered an incoming missile strike from the United States and sent the highest-level alert. The Soviet military protocol was to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.
The Soviet officer on duty, Stanislav Petrov, intuiting a false alarm, decided not to report the warnings to his superiors. Thanks to his dereliction of duty, we’re alive to talk about the incident.
Security of the population was no more a high priority for Reagan planners than for their predecessors. Such heedlessness continues to the present, even putting aside the numerous near-catastrophic accidents, reviewed in a chilling new book, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” by Eric Schlosser.
It’s hard to contest the conclusion of the last commander of the Strategic Air Command, Gen . Lee Butler, that humanity has so far survived the nuclear age “by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”
The government’s regular, easy acceptance of threats to survival is almost too extraordinary to capture in words.
In 1995, well after the Soviet Union had collapsed, the U.S. Strategic Command, or Stratcom, which is in charge of nuclear weapons, published a study, “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence.”
A central conclusion is that the U.S. must maintain the right of a nuclear first strike, even against non-nuclear states. Furthermore, nuclear weapons must always be available, because they “cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict.”
Thus nuclear weapons are always used, just as you use a gun if you aim it but don’t fire when robbing a store — a point that Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, has repeatedly stressed.
Stratcom goes on to advise that “planners should not be too rational about determining … what an adversary values,” all of which must be targeted. “[I]t hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. . That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.”
It is “beneficial [for …our strategic posture] that some elements may appear to be potentially ‘out of control’” — and thus posing a constant threat of nuclear attack.
Not much in this document pertains to the obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to make “good faith” efforts to eliminate the nuclear-weapon scourge from the earth. What resounds, rather, is an adaptation of Hilaire Belloc’s famous 1898 couplet about the Maxim gun:
Whatever happens we have got,
The Atom Bomb and they have not.
Plans for the future are hardly promising. In December the Congressional Budget Office reported that the U.S. nuclear arsenal will cost $355 billion over the next decade. In January the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimated that the U.S. would spend $1 trillion on the nuclear arsenal in the next 30 years.
And of course the United States is not alone in the arms race. As Butler observed, it is a near miracle that we have escaped destruction so far. The longer we tempt fate, the less likely it is that we can hope for divine intervention to perpetuate the miracle.
In the case of nuclear weapons, at least we know in principle how to overcome the threat of apocalypse: Eliminate them.
But another dire peril casts its shadow over any contemplation of the future — environmental disaster. It’s not clear that there even is an escape, though the longer we delay, the more severe the threat becomes — and not in the distant future. The commitment of governments to the security of their populations is therefore clearly exhibited by how they address this issue.
Today the United States is crowing about “100 years of energy independence” as the country becomes “the Saudi Arabia of the next century” — very likely the final century of human civilization if current policies persist.
One might even take a speech of President Obama’s two years ago in the oil town of Cushing, Okla., to be an eloquent death-knell for the species.
He proclaimed with pride, to ample applause, that “Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.”
The applause also reveals something about government commitment to security. Industry profits are sure to be secured as “producing more oil and gas here at home” will continue to be “a critical part” of energy strategy, as the president promised.
The corporate sector is carrying out major propaganda campaigns to convince the public that climate change, if happening at all, does not result from human activity. These efforts are aimed at overcoming the excessive rationality of the public, which continues to be concerned about the threats that scientists overwhelmingly regard as near-certain and ominous.
To put it bluntly, in the moral calculus of today’s capitalism, a bigger bonus tomorrow outweighs the fate of one’s grandchildren.
What are the prospects for survival then? They are not bright. But the achievements of those who have struggled for centuries for greater freedom and justice leave a legacy that can be taken up and carried forward — and must be, and soon, if hopes for decent survival are to be sustained. And nothing can tell us more eloquently what kind of creatures we are.
On election night, Andrew Marr stated that the main driving force behind the Labour surge was the use of social media in spreading Labour’s message across the country. I would go a step further and say it’s not just social media, but the internet in general.
Ten years ago, the internet was still in its infancy. Now it seems to be maturing and we are starting to see some positive effects on society. One crucial thing that the internet has provided us with is a greater diversity of opinions, which allows for more radical views, previously sidelined by the mainstream media, to be heard by millions of people across the country.
Perhaps the most influential of all those radical voices is that of Noam Chomsky. Fifteen years ago, I had never heard of Noam Chomsky and I doubt that any of my friends at university had either. However, that is certainly not the case with the students of 2017. The majority of them will have, at some point, seen a meme or a video featuring his views.
Chomsky’s views on war and Western foreign policy have proven particularly popular in the face of the usual aggressive views of politicians and journalists who push for military action (usually from the American government, with British support) whenever a situation gets heated.
Many people feel uncomfortable with such a stance during such times. So, when they are exposed to a more thoughtful critique of foreign policy, it often comes as a great relief and they enthusiastically click the ‘share’ button on Facebook or ‘retweet’ it on Twitter.
Many Chomsky quotes have gone viral and his interviews have had hundreds of millions of views on YouTube alone.
Chomsky & The Labour Surge
People who are politically active often cite Chomsky as an inspiration. I believe that Labour’s 10% surge at the General Election, in which the party gained three million more votes, is in part due to the likes of Chomsky.
Labour had far more activists during the general election campaign than in previous elections, with most of them out on the streets or on social media promoting the Labour message.
Many of these activists will have had much of their political education online, watching YouTube videos from figures like Noam Chomsky, Slovoj Zizek, Howard Zinn and others. This has equipped them with a more critical view of both the media and of capitalism, influencing their decision to join Labour and fight for a socialist agenda.
Meanwhile, the likes of the Daily Mail and The Sun ran with heavy smear campaigns targeting Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell. Their favoured strategy was to play the IRA card. While I don’t doubt that this had a considerable effect, it seems to have been largely confined to the older generation.
I believe the young have become a lot less trusting of the mainstream media. Their critical view of the media is in thanks to the influence of the likes of Noam Chomsky. Seeing his quotes and watching his videos, young people have been able to see the smear tactics for what they really are.
Tony Benn is another radical voice that the internet has helped to amplify. With the mass sharing on Facebook of his brilliant speeches in Parliament, he has become something of a cultural icon in recent years. His speech against the bombing of Iraq had over 20 million views during the #DontBombSyria campaign in 2015 and many of his other speeches can be found with hundreds of thousands of views.
So, whilst Benn was never Prime Minister, or even leader of the Labour Party, young people are now more familiar with his ideas than those of many previous Prime ministers, such as James Callaghan and John Major.
To conclude, the internet has led to radical ideas gaining more traction in wider society, particularly among the young, and this has lead to Labour experiencing a dramatic surge in the general election last week.
As Chomsky himself has written, the media are very not much interested in educating people as to how the system works. Hence, it is the internet that continues to break down the monopoly of propaganda that our mainstream media have enjoyed for so long, allowing more ideas and more knowledge to enter into peoples’ minds.