“I Had Weird Educational Experiences”: Interview With Noam Chomsky

Spirit: Alot of theorists, I think of EJ Hobsbawm in particular, in the book  On History, separate the concept of “biography” from that of “history”. You’ve been more concerned, it is apparent, in your career, with the latter rather than the former, and, is this for a particular reason? Have you  ever, or would you ever consider writing more extensively about your own experiences?

Chomsky: You’re right.  I’ve often been asked to write about my own  experiences.  I do bring them up now and then, when relevant to some  other topic.  But not more than that.  Some day, maybe.  Right now my  judgment is that other things are more important – right or wrong.

Spirit: Like the Russell tribunal?

Chomsky: To mention one.

Spirit: Twenty or thirty years ago, you held a since much circulated debate with Michel Foucault, in which the existence of any overarching human nature arose. You suggested there was such a thing, and yet Mr Foucault was of the belief that “human nature” is always shaped by existing power structures, socio-historical contexts, etc. When pressed to name an aspect or trait of underlying human nature, you were unable to do so, leaving some critics to suggest Foucault “won” the argument (as though that were possible to begin with). In the years since, have you given this question more consideration? Would you answer differently were it posed today?

Chomsky: If human beings are part of the organic world, then they have a genetically-determined nature, and we all know that that is true: they have mammalian rather than insect visual systems, a language capacity that we know a lot about and that is entirely missing in other organisms, and far more. The informal and mostly confused discussions about “human nature” have to do with such matters as tendencies towards violence vs cooperation, etc. About such matters little is understood, just as complex issues about other organisms are little understood. Or for that matter about the inorganic world. But that the answers are heavily conditioned by genetic endowment is not seriously in doubt.

Spirit: Does the UMass Amherst debunking of much of the [austerity theory spell imminent change in policies, particularly in Europe, or is the fig leaf merely removed?

Chomsky: Probably little changes. The policy-makers latched on to what turned out to be seriously mistaken work (and this is not the only example) because they wanted to believe it for other reasons. And chances are that absent large-scale popular activism, they will pretty much continue – though the results, especially in Europe, have been so harmful that there already are some modifications.

What do you think of the tendency of –even very young, say, 16, 17 year old — Leftists using traditional Socialist terminology (like, for instance, “comrade”)? Can this create a backwards-looking, or nostalgic atmosphere, which can further erode the relation between the Left on one side, and pragmatism (or even reality) on the other?

Chomsky: Might, or might have the opposite effect. Depends on how it’s done.

Spirit: What is your relation with Chavez at present? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the platform he proffers and his past actions, etc. Furthermore, do you see the restablecerament of the United Nations that Chavez calls for happening, or will the UN continue to fade into obscurity as a relevant global diplomatic force?

Chomsky: I’ve never had any particular relation with Chavez.  I met him once, on a brief trip to Venezuela.  I’ve followed his efforts and initiatives with some interest.  There are a lot of admirable ideals and aspirations, which have faced tremendous opposition and barriers.   It would be necessary to know a lot more than I do, and depth, to try to give a general evaluation, which is why I have not tried to do so.

The UN has never been able to play an active and independent role in world affairs, and the prospects look no better, or worse, in the future, as far as I can see.

Spirit: Certain strands of the German Left oppose the introduction of the basic income guarantee as something which would minimize or otherwise mitigate immiseration. What do you think of this position — in general –, considering the historical context in which working class agitation, and the advance of labor power has taken place?

Chomsky: I don’t think it’s a defensible stance.

Spirit: There has recently been a trend within the economics discipline, and within the social sciences writ large, to incorporate developments within neuroscience and cognitive psychology into an overarching theory of the mechanics of our own behavior. This has come down, in more or less popularized form, in the guise of behavioral economics and so-called “neuroeconomics”. No doubt you’ve heard of, if not read the book by Thaler, et al., published, I think, at Chicago some years ago. My question to you, in short, is whether you believe that behavioral economics is beset by the same limitations as behavioral psychology (as laid out by you in your critique of Skinner), or whether the field’s growing influence has the potential to at least describe human behavior (whether economic, moral or otherwise) in a more rational manner than, say the neoclassical model does? Do the principles of behavioral economics — namely, neurological data and empirical study using, among others, evolutionary game theory — suffice to establish a firm enough scientific basis for the field to take hold as a potential base of social science as, say, Herbert Gintis suggests? If not, do you see any promising alternatives?

Chomsky: I wrote the review because Skinner’s radical behaviorism was all the rage at the time, not just in experimental psychology but also in philosophy and other disciplines.  Particularly in Cambridge, where I was, and where it was close to gospel.  The critical part of the review reduces to something very simple: if he was using the technical terms (“stimulus,” “reinforcement,” etc.) in anything like their technical meanings, then everything that he claimed was not just false but outlandish.  If he was using the terms metaphorically, it was just mentalism done very badly.  The review gave extensive examples.  The latter part of the review sketched what I thought (and think) were sensible approaches, including what may have been the first discussion in relevant domains of Lashley’s important work.

Behavioral psychology generally didn’t have to succumb to all of Skinner’s extreme fallacies.  And some parts didn’t.  As for behavioral economics, it has to be judged on its own merits.  I’ve seen a few things that seemed more or less sensible.  Economics generally has tended be imperialist – way beyond anything it can seriously claim.  I don’t see much basis for the extreme claims about behavioral economics.

Spirit: What do you mean by “economics has tended to be imperialist”? As in, mixing with other disciplines? Isn’t that a tendency of all academic disciplines, more or less, a consequence of the inherent limitations of the “fiefdom” model of academia, as well as of the natural strictures definite boundaries impose on what are ultimately evolutionary sciences? Of course, if you argue that economics is not evolutionary, as some have suggested (including Veblen), then that’s a different point, I suppose. Would dissolving many of the formal boundaries within the social sciences (say, between anthropology and sociology), as some have called for, resolve the “imperialist tendencies” in some of them?

Chomsky: The field of economics is notorious for extravagant claims about dealing with problems addressed by the social sciences, particularly the Chicago school.  No other field even approaches that.

Spirit: Yes, funny that you mention the “Chicago school” by name. When you mentioned economics and imperialism together, I pictured Richard Posner, among others.

I do think you’re right, and it’s part of the reason I went into the field: there just aren’t enough people doing economics without having material gain or prestige at heart. Indeed, Tiago Mata has done some interesting research on the topic of the “politization” of the social sciences, with special focus on economics. For instance, he traces the tectonic shifts that broke up parts of the Harvard faculty in 1968, pushing people like Sam Bowles, Herb Gintis and others out, and leading to a number of other schisms within the profession, including its professional body, the AEA.

The unscientific nature of economics was actually pointed out 100 years ago by Veblen, and there are still deep problems, including the so-called “confirmation bias” and also “publication bias” that even people like Brad DeLong (not exactly a lefty, by any measure) have pointed out; but I guess these are general problems afflicting most empirical sciences: we tend to publish positive results and ignore “uneventful” research. Perhaps online and open source publishing will deal with part of that problem, and it already has, to some extent. But there are certainly still some fundamental issues that won’t disappear by themselves.

You’ve probably experienced enough of the same within linguistics over the decades, I presume.

Chomsky: And how!

Do you think the efforts of certain industry-led groups to offer faux “dialectical” education on climate change (ie, offering equal room to climate change denial as to supporting literature) will have long-standing consequences for the movement to awaken consciousness in the global population, or does it merely show the desperation of big corporations to dampen the dialog?

Chomsky: They hope it will retard the dangerous commitment of most of the population to scientific rationality, and are putting plenty of effort into it. How effective it will be depends on the scale and character of popular resistance.

Are you familiar with James Hanson’s “carbon tax and 100% dividend” scheme? If so, what do you think of it? Does it stand any chance of implementation?

Chomsky: Sounds sensible to me. On chance of implementation, same answer as to other questions: depends on the scale and character of popular movements.

You spoke some years ago about Joe Stack, and violent actions by frustrated dissenters. I think it was in a talk on “rekindling the radical flame”. What do you see as the social repercussions of that type of activity, and, do you see actions like it playing into the hands of the security state? Can one imagine a sort of future where those actions don’t occur?

Chomsky: Same answer. Advocates of the security state will naturally seize on such actions. Whether they succeed depends on us. One can imagine all kinds of futures.

I would like your opinion on the divide, if any, between “reform” and “revolution”. Do you feel such a divide exists, or is it perhaps the result of cynical and/or Utopian thinking?

Chomsky: If a revolution is to carry us forward to greater freedom and justice, rather than to lead to new forms of domination and control, it will have to be based on the recognition by a large majority of the population that their aspirations cannot be satisfied within existing institutions. Therefore every serious revolutionary is also a reformist, seeking to press the limits of what existing institutions will tolerate. And it is not a single moment in time. The seeds of a future society can be planted within the existing one, and often are: the spread of worker-owned and to an extent worker-managed enterprises, for example. And much else.

A McClatchy reporter recently commented that the Obama administration has hammered down on whistle-blowers “more than all prior administrations combined”. What are your thoughts on this statistic? Are we facing a “point of no return”, wherein information is so readily apparent, that the relative costs of opacity will outweigh the price of honesty?

Chomsky: Always the same answer: if we let it happen, otherwise not. Pointless to speculate. Too much depends on human will and commitment, as always in the past.

Speaking of honesty: the late Gore Vidal commented, citing Michel de Montaigne, that “dishonesty is the worst crime imaginable”. Montaigne describes ‘our words’ as “the only thing we have between us”, and therefore likens liars to “the worst sort of criminal”. What sort of values do relations like those that exist between the US policy elite and the general public, those of opacity and secrecy, engender in the populace, and, is there a chance that the consequences of this disconnect will spell indifference, and, later, social decay, as people become increasingly disillusioned about divisions in their lives, and other countries overtake the US in terms of technology and human capital?

Chomsky: Can only repeat the same observations, I think truisms: up to us.

Thorsten Veblen described an area of research which seems now to be commanding increasing attention, especially among behavioral scientists, anthropologists, but also historians and economists, a division between private and public life, by means of which human labor became an abstracted and alienated phenomenon, and “work” became an alienated and external thing. Can this imbalance, if it is one, ever be rectified, and will human individuals ever reach a stage where “the toil of hand” will be become obsolete, or, will ulterior class motivations or other irrational prejudices prevent this from occurring?

Chomsky: Same answer. Depends on how well and effectively people like you and your friends seize the opportunities that are available.

Spirit: What do you make of articles like this? http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/16/opinion/how-palestinian-hate-prevents-peace.html?_r=0 ? Just pure propaganda, or is there some truth to it? And, furthermore, does Steinitz have a right to speak so paternalistically (claiming the Palestinian Authority is somehow implicated in popular TV shows, which Abbas “must swiftly terminate”)? Is the NY Times a firebrand supporter of Israeli efforts?

Chomsky: Standard fare on the Israel extremist right.  There is of course an element of truth to it.  Palestinians bitter object to Israel’s criminal policies of stealing their land and resources, driving them out of their homes, subjecting them to repeated extreme violence and repression, and blocking the international consensus on a two-state settlement.

The NYT does support Israeli crimes, and US backing for them, but this isn’t really an example.  The op-ed pages include many opinions, while excluding many others.

Spirit: Here’s a bit of a speculative question: supposedly, Ted Cruz was recently quoted as saying something to the effect of “Texas is the GOP’s last stand”. With changing demographics, a recent New York Times editorial suggested Texas could become a purplish, and eventually a “blue” state, by 2025-30. Does this mean anything substantive for US geopolitics? Is Mr. Cruz right, that, were this to happen “people will be one day read about theGOP like they do about the Whigs”?


Chomsky: A century ago Texas was the home of the most radical democratic movement in American history. It could happen again.

Do you ever see the Esperanto movement catching on, or will English remain the de facto world language?

Chomsky: I don’t expect that Esperanto will achieve wide use. The role of English, as compared with other choices, or some “basket of languages” (like a basket of currencies) depends on how international society evolves – assuming, and this is not obvious, that it even survives in a form that makes such questions meaningful.
Spirit: I’ve been discussing the issue (nuclear non-proliferation) of late with a friend, and we’ve recently made some headway tossing around the idea of making the removal of twenty American warheads from Landstuhl an issue. The German government is certainly entitled to closing of any extraterritorial bases since the reintegration, and I don’t think it’s made use of this power. Pity, too, because I don’t think the Americans are planning on leaving anytime soon, what with AFRICOM and EUROCOM finding their permanent home in Stuttgart today. I think it’s a critical issue, and perhaps one that the LINKE could utilize to its advantage, politically. Could reignite a global movement, like Sidi Bizoud did last year in Tunisia, and in the Middle East in general.

Chomsky: Certainly worth a try.

I presume the US will try to move AFRICOM to Africa, maybe Libya.  They’re already proliferating bases in the continent.

Spirit: On the topic of free trade agreements: it will be interesting to see what some of the effects of the freshly chartered EU-US bloc will be with regard to Wall’s above outlined point about the “gravitational center” of such blocs naturally shifting in accordance with the location of potential economies of scale. With the recent eastward expansion of the EU in 2004 and after, and the relatively indigent status of the new members’ economies, there will be little incentive to make good on past promises to improve the lot of these countries by moving production there. The late movement seems to countervail and mitigate any effects & incentives of the expanded Common Market.

Chomsky: Not sure how significant these effects as compared others, such as the virtual destruction of large parts of Mexican agriculture by highly subsidized US agribusiness (one main factor in increased illegal immigration), the fact that Mexico has had an unusually low growth rate – I think the lowest on the continent, since NAFTA (a sharp decline from earlier years), the large increase in illegal employer actions to break organizing activities here (by threats to transfer), and in general the apparent harm to working people in all three of the participating countries.

And great profits, much of it not from trade in any technical sense of the word.

My expectation about the US-EU trade agreement (not free trade) is different, more along the lines of what economist Dean Baker has analyzed: little impact on actual trade, but substantial effects in undermining regulation, increasing protection, and roughly the same kinds of effects as NAFTA.

Spirit: Were grades ever important for you, during college and as a grad student, etc.?

Chomsky: I paid enough attention to grades in high school to be able to get a scholarship to the local college.  Nothing much after that. But I had a very weird educational experience.  Doesn’t generalize to others.

Spirit: Do you listen to much music? Any favorites?

Chomsky: Music? Classical tastes.

About Jerome Nikolai Warren

I am a German-American who has ties to both countries. I speak fluent German and English, and passable Spanish and French. I can also mutter and curse in Turkish and Russian. I am at present a grad student of economics in Germany. In a prior life I studied dabbling, basically (religious studies, philosophy, political science) at the University of Alabama. My favorite piece of music is probably the Mass in B-minor by J.S. Bach, my favorite artwork is "The Blue Rider" by Kandinsky; my favorite building is New York's Pennsylvania Station, sadly demolished in 1963. I tweet (rarely) @dagmarholstadt, and also manage this site's Twitter account @OfContradiction.
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