Saturday, 29 May 2010

LSD Magazine Interviews Most Quoted Man Alive - Noam Chomsky

We’ve always been fond of our superlatives here at LSD, but suddenly the spectrum of the English language seems hopelessly wanting in our efforts to introduce the great giant of ideas Professor Noam Chomsky. For those who are unfamiliar with the name, Professor Chomsky is one of the pioneers of linguistic science, author of over 50 books, a political thinker unique for his piercing understanding of the dynamics of history and political power systems, one of the top ten quoted figures of all time alongside Shakespeare and the Bible, and the most quoted man alive today...

There is no right way to interview Professor Chomsky; the list of questions, themes and concepts is virtually infinite, and the piece below represents a fragment of a snapshot. It is indeed impossible to express the depth of the gratitude that we feel towards him for granting us the opportunity and the time to speak to him, and all we can really do is profoundly thank him and urge you from the bottom of our hearts to research his work, read his books and engage with his ideas so that we all might penetrate a deeper understanding of the world we live in...

How would you say that control structures and the imperialist model have changed during the last half century in an increasingly globalised world?

The world has certainly changed but the basic principles remain virtually identical though adapted to changing circumstances. In 1950, the United States had a position of power and wealth that was simply without historical parallel. The US literally had half of the world’s wealth and indescribable security. It controlled the Western hemisphere, it controlled both oceans, its industrial rivals were either seriously harmed, or indeed in some cases destroyed and vast swathes of the world were still under colonial rule. Now that was an extraordinary position of power and of course the US used it. Power systems use their power – there’s no great secret in that.

Well that’s changed. By around 1970, the other industrial countries had reconstructed and decolonisation was underway, thus making the United Nations somewhat more representative of world opinion. The United States now had approximately 25% of global wealth as opposed to 50%, so the nature of its efforts to control the world naturally changed, and an excellent example of this shift is the history of the UN. During the early stages of the post war period, the UN was very popular amongst US leaders because it was doing exactly as they wanted, (given the circumstances, there really was no alternative) and the US could use it as a weapon against their enemy, Russia. If you look at American intellectual discussion of the period, there was great love for the UN and great efforts to explain the nature of Russia’s psychological malady in always saying No. Literally! In fact, one anthropologist attributed Russian intransigence at the UN to the fact that they traditionally raised their children in swaddling clothes which made the Russian people inherently negative, and apparently explained why whenever Gromyko got to the UN, he always said ‘No’. As a  graduate student, we used to refer to this particular branch of science as ‘Diaperology’!

This dynamic of US control over the UN shifted slowly over the 50’s into what became a pretty sharp break in the 60’s, and the use of the veto serves as one clear index to map this change. Up until 1965, the US had never actually vetoed a Security Council resolution. From 1965 to the present, the United States is far in the lead on veto use, Britain is second, and nobody else is even close, whatever the Western press may suggest about recalcitrant Russians or wantonly stubborn Chinese. Well, that reflects a shift in attitudes towards the UN which in turn reflects a shift in the distribution of world power. The basic principles remain the same, there are just different ways of doing things.

But in light of Joseph Nye’s famous phrase, ‘soft power’, with military and economic dominance diminishing, would not an imperial power such as the United States’ best bid for hegemony in today’s world be corporate and cultural rather than the militarism and traditional imperialism of the last decade? Is that not where power models are heading?

First of all, as far as military power is concerned, the United States spends almost as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. Its military is technologically far more advanced than any of its potential rivals, developing new ultra sophisticated techniques of warfare such as miniaturised drones using nanotechnology and the militarisation of space. All sorts of things are on the drawing boards and in development. The United States has about 800 military bases around the world and a global surveillance system – you have to remember that no other country has anything like this. In fact most of the rest of the world, led by China, has been trying to block the use of space for military purposes, but the US has vetoed that at every step, under Clinton and Bush senior – certainly not just the last 10 years. So in military terms, it’s overwhelming, and if you add intelligence into that, it becomes even more so.

There’s nothing new about trying to use soft power – the phrase happens to be new, but the concept goes way back. That’s what the cultural programs of the CIA were about, what Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress was about. There have always been attempts to use what is now known as soft power – the Congress of Cultural Freedom is another of many examples. There is always a mix between the two tools that calibrates according to circumstance. When you ask ‘what should the United States be doing’, it’s really impossible to answer because it depends on what goal you have in mind. If the goal is to control the world, then it probably should be doing about what it’s doing.


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