“Ecology, Ethics, Anarchism.” Javier Sethness-Castro interviews Noam Chomsky
Javier Sethness-Castro, author of Imperiled Life: Revolution Against Climate Catastrophe, conducted a lengthy and pretty fascinating interview with Noam Chomsky on the ongoing environmental crisis, its capitalist causes, and what anarchism might contribute to a solution. We’ve included an excerpt below. You can read the whole interview on truth-out.org, or watch it in glorious living color here.
JC-S: You have described humanity as being imperiled by the destructive trends on hand in capitalist society – or what you have termed “really existing capitalist democracies” (RECD). Particularly of late, you have emphasized the brutally anti-ecological trends being implemented by the dominant powers of settler-colonial societies, as reflected in the tar sands of Canada, Australia’s massive exploitation and export of coal resources, and, of course, the immense energy profligacy of this country. You certainly have a point, and I share your concerns, as I detail in Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, a book that frames the climate crisis as the outgrowth of capitalism and the domination of nature generally understood. Please explain how you see RECD as profoundly at odds with ecological balance.
Noam Chomsky: RECD – not accidentally, pronounced “wrecked” – is really existing capitalist democracy, really a kind of state capitalism, with a powerful state component in the economy, but with some reliance on market forces. The market forces that exist are shaped and distorted in the interests of the powerful – by state power, which is heavily under the control of concentrations of private power – so there’s close interaction. Well, if you take a look at markets, they are a recipe for suicide. Period. In market systems, you don’t take account of what economists call externalities. So say you sell me a car. In a market system, we’re supposed to look after our own interests, so I make the best deal I can for me; you make the best deal you can for you. We do not take into account the effect on him. That’s not part of a market transaction. Well, there is an effect on him: there’s another car on the road; there’s a greater possibility of accidents; there’s more pollution; there’s more traffic jams. For him individually, it might be a slight increase, but this is extended over the whole population. Now, when you get to other kinds of transactions, the externalities get much larger. So take the financial crisis. One of the reasons for it is that – there are several, but one is – say if Goldman Sachs makes a risky transaction, they – if they’re paying attention – cover their own potential losses. They do not take into account what’s called systemic risk, that is, the possibility that the whole system will crash if one of their risky transactions goes bad. That just about happened with AIG, the huge insurance company. They were involved in risky transactions which they couldn’t cover. The whole system was really going to collapse, but of course state power intervened to rescue them. The task of the state is to rescue the rich and the powerful and to protect them, and if that violates market principles, okay, we don’t care about market principles. The market principles are essentially for the poor. But systemic risk is an externality that’s not considered, which would take down the system repeatedly, if you didn’t have state power intervening. Well there’s another one, that’s even bigger – that’s destruction of the environment. Destruction of the environment is an externality: in market interactions, you don’t pay attention to it. So take tar sands. If you’re a major energy corporation and you can make profit out of exploiting tar sands, you simply do not take into account the fact that your grandchildren may not have a possibility of survival – that’s an externality. And in the moral calculus of capitalism, greater profits in the next quarter outweigh the fate of your grandchildren – and of course it’s not your grandchildren, but everyone’s.
Now the settler-colonial societies are particularly interesting in this regard because you have a conflict within them. Settler-colonial societies are different than most forms of imperialism; in traditional imperialism, say the British in India, the British kind of ran the place: They sent the bureaucrats, the administrators, the officer corps, and so on, but the place was run by Indians. Settler-colonial societies are different; they eliminate the indigenous population. Read, say, George Washington, a leading figure in the settler-colonial society we live in. His view was – his words – was that we have to “extirpate” the Iroquois; they’re in our way. They were an advanced civilization; in fact, they provided some of the basis for the American constitutional system, but they were in the way, so we have to extirpate them. Thomas Jefferson, another great figure, he said, well, we have no choice but to exterminate the indigenous population, the Native Americans; the reason is they’re attacking us. Why are they attacking us? Because we’re taking everything away from them. But since we’re taking their land and resources away and they defend themselves, we have to exterminate them. And that’s pretty much what happened – in the United States almost totally – huge extermination. Some residues remain, but under horrible conditions. Australia, same thing. Tasmania, almost total extermination. Canada, they didn’t quite make it. There’s residues of what are called First Nations around the periphery. Now, those are settler-colonial societies: there are elements of the indigenous populations remaining, and a very striking feature of contemporary society is that, throughout the world – in Canada, Latin America, Australia, India, all over the world, the indigenous societies – what we call tribal or aboriginal or whatever name we use – they’re the ones who are trying to prevent the race to destruction. Everywhere, they’re the ones leading the opposition to destruction of the environment. In countries with substantial indigenous populations, like say in Ecuador and Bolivia, they’ve passed legislation, even constitutional provisions, calling for rights of nature, which is kind of laughed at in the rich, powerful countries, but is the hope for survival.
Ecuador, for example, made an offer to Europe – they have a fair amount of oil – to leave the oil in the ground, where it ought to be, at a great loss to them – huge loss for development. The request was that Europe would provide them with a fraction – payment – of the loss – a small fraction – but the Europeans refused, so now they’re exploiting the oil. And if you go to southern Colombia, you find indigenous people, campesinos, Afro-Americans struggling against gold mining, just horrible destruction. Same in Australia, against uranium mining; and so on. At the same time, in the settler-colonial societies, which are the most advanced and richest, that’s where the drive is strongest toward the destruction of the environment. So you read a speech by, say, Obama, for example, at Cushing, Oklahoma – Cushing is kind of the center for bringing together and storing the fossil fuels which flow into there and are distributed. It was an audience of oil types. To enormous applause, he said that during his administration more oil had been lifted than any previous one – for many, many years. He said pipelines are crossing America under his administration to the extent that practically everywhere you go, you’re tripping across a pipeline; we’re going to have 100 years of energy independence; we’ll be the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century – in short, we’ll lead the way to disaster. At the same time, the remnants of the indigenous societies are trying to prevent the race to disaster. So in this respect, the settler-colonial societies are a striking illustration of, first of all, the massive destructive power of European imperialism, which of course includes us and Australia, and so on. And also the – I don’t know if you’d call it irony, but the strange phenomenon of the most so-called “advanced,” educated, richest segments of global society trying to destroy all of us, and the so-called “backward” people, the pre-technological people, who remain on the periphery, trying to restrain the race to disaster. If some extraterrestrial observer were watching this, they’d think the species was insane. And, in fact, it is. But the insanity goes back to the basic institutional structure of RECD. That’s the way it works. It’s built into the institutions. It’s one of the reasons it’s going to be very hard to change.
JC-S: In a speech reproduced over 20 years ago in the film version of Manufacturing Consent, you describe hegemonic capitalist ideology as reducing the life-world of Earth to an “infinite resource” and “an infinite garbage can.” Even then, you had identified the capitalist tendency toward total destruction: you speak of a looming cancellation of destiny for humanity if the madness of capitalism is not halted within this, the “possibly terminal phase of human existence.” The very title and argumentation of Hegemony or Survival (2003) continue in this line, and in Hopes and Prospects (2010), you claim the threat to the chance for decent survival to be one of the major externalities produced, again, by RECD. How do you think a resurgent international anarchist movement might respond positively to such alarming trends?
In my view, anarchism is just the most advanced form of political thought. As I’ve said, it draws from the Enlightenment, its best ideals; the primary contributions of classical liberalism carry it forward. Parecon, which you mentioned, is one illustration – they don’t call themselves anarchists – but there are others like it. So I think that a resurgent anarchist movement, which would be the peak of human intellectual civilization, should join with the indigenous societies of the world so that they don’t have the burden to save humanity from its own craziness. This should take place within the richest, most powerful societies. It’s kind of a moral truism that the more privilege you have, the more responsibility you have. It’s elementary in every domain: you have privilege; you have opportunities; you have choices: you have responsibilities. In the rich, powerful societies, privileged people like us – we’re all privileged people – we have the responsibility to take the lead in trying to prevent the disasters that our own social institutions are creating. It’s outrageous to demand or even observe the poorest, most repressed people in the world taking the lead in trying to save the human species and in fact innumerable other species from destruction. So we should join them. That’s the role of an anarchist movement.