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Noam Chomsky is on Parlio! A linguist, philosopher, political commentator, and social activist among other things. Chomsky is a professor at MIT for many years, which is where he is now a Professor Emeritus. Looking forward to a vibrant and thought-provoking conversation.
This Q&A took place between 9/9/15 and 9/26/15. Unanswered questions have been hidden
14 questions
Who do you think was behind ISIS fabrication and financial support from the beginning before they started to have their own funding? Why did they appear in that specific time after Al Qaeda's era and how do you expect things will end up between them and Syria and Iran?
Well at least among the specialists on the topic, people who are on the scene, been following it closely, Intelligence and so on, there seems to be almost complete agreement on the answer to the first question: Saudi Arabia. And other Gulf states, some of them, and wealthy people in the Gulf dictatorships. But primarily Saudi Arabia with direct funding. But more significantly, with the missionary zeal with which Saudi Arabia, the most radical fundamentalist Islamic state in the world, promulgates its extremist Wahabi Salafi doctrine: with funding, with madrassas, you know, Koranic schools, mosques, radical clerics, and just ideological pronouncements.

In fact, one of the most expert commentators, Patrick Cockburn, describes what he calls the “Wahabization” of Sunni Islam as one of the most dangerous developments of the modern era.

Now, that’s the early stages. When the Saudi Arabian government began to recognize that ISIS is a potential threat to them, they stopped (at least publicly; I don’t know what they’re doing privately) funding, and claimed to be against it.

Meanwhile, there are other ugly alliances forming. So, take Turkey. Now, Turkey is almost openly supporting the Al-Nusra Front, the Ahrar ash-Sham, the other [militant fundamentalist groups]… They’re not ideologically different from ISIS; they’re fighting turf battles, who picks up the pieces. But they’re very similar organizations.

In fact Turkish support for Al-Nusra seems to be so extreme that there’s pretty good evidence that when the United States recently infiltrated-- a couple dozen people who had been trained by the United States [traveled] into Syria, they were quickly attacked and destroyed by an Al-Nusra attack. Which apparently was-- the details were leaked through Turkish intelligence, so it seems.

And there are other ugly alliances. Qatar is playing its own game, and so on. But I think the basic source of the funding and the ideology, traces back to the radical Islamist sources in the Gulf, primarily Saudi Arabia. Which has had a pernicious effect on the whole region. It’s not he only source, but one of them.

Another source of ISIS, which you should not overlook, is the US invasion of Iraq, which did, as I mentioned, instigate sectarian conflicts which hadn’t [sic] existed before the invasion, but became extremely serious in Iraq and are wrecking the country. And [they] have now spread throughout the region and are tearing it to shreds. I mean, when you hit fragile systems with a sledgehammer, unpleasant things can happen.

I don’t think ISIS is going to expand much. There’s a little movement around the periphery, but if you look at them geographically, they’ve spread to what seems to be a pretty natural boundary-- the Sunni areas where they can gain a measure of local support. And like it or not, they do seem to be gaining a measure of local support, where maybe people don’t like them, or even hate them, but still see them as some sort of defense against other forces whom they fear even more.
And of course they’re attracting jihadi elements from around the world, young people who are disillusioned, desperate, want to have some meaning in their lives, all sorts of reasons. [But] I suspect they’ve expanded to pretty much their natural boundaries. Whether they’ll be beaten back by foreign attacks, we don’t know.

In fact, it’s a very mixed story. So, take, in Syria-- and in fact in Iraq-- the main forces attacking ISIS on the ground or defending areas from them are enemies of the United States. It’s Kurdish groups, [the] YPK, which is an ally of the PKK, which is an enemy of the United States. When ISIS was beginning to encroach on Iraqi Kurdistan, it was beaten back by PKK and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias. That’s called in the United States “Iranian destabilization” or “Iranian aggression,” meaning they were protecting people from ISIS.

Turkey made a deal with the United States-- and if the United States didn’t understand what was happening, it’s stupidity beyond belief, so I presume they understood. The deal was that the US would get access to eastern Turkish airbases, which they want very badly, and in return Turkey would attack ISIS.

However, what Turkey did of course is attack the Kurds, who are the ground force opposing ISIS. Now, that’s what’s going on right now. So, what will happen out of this craz[iness]? The other force opposing ISIS is the Assad regime. Horrible regime, but that doesn’t change the fact.
It’s hard to imagine anything decent emerging from this. The only hope, it’s a thin hope, is some kind of negotiated settlement in Syria which would, like it or not, include the Assad regime. There’s just no way for a negotiation to take place without that; they’re not gonna say “we’ll commit suicide.”

So if you want to end it-- and it has to be ended just for the sake of human decency; it’s destroying the country, the population-- it must be a negotiated settlement which involves the Assad murderers, which is what they are, in a negotiated settlement. No way out of that.
Product Leadership Business Partner at Intuit
Which language is the most interesting to you and why?
They’re all equivalently interesting. I mean, to me personally, it’s the ones I know and can work on, but that’s idiosyncratic. There’s no language that’s more interesting than any others. All human beings, as far as we know, have the same linguistic faculties, essentially the same cognitive faculties.

There are individual differences, but no group differences that are known. Which is quite significant. It means that since humans [spread out from] Africa roughly 60,000 years ago, our ancestors, [just] a small group, there has been essentially no evolutionary change. Which is not surprising; it’s a very small, short period in evolutionary terms. But that’s scientifically significant.

So for example, if you take an infant from a tribe in Papua-New Guinea that hasn’t had contact with other human groups for maybe 40,000 years, and you bring that infant to Boston, and it grows up here, it will be studying quantum physics at Harvard. And conversely, as far as we know, there are no group differences.

And that means that all languages, each language, is a treasure on its own, and not just the language, but the cultural wealth it brings with it, its historical, usually imagined memories, what it contributes to community cohesion, and so on.
Why are Russia and Egypt in the nature of their autocracies almost identical in spite of substantially different historical governing traditions? And what does this tell us about modern autocracies and their persistence?
I think Putin is a Russian nationalist who is reacting against the collapse of Russia from the early 1990s.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were a number of directions that could have been pursued. One of them was actually advocated by Gorbachev. It was a move within Russia towards social democratic policies which would dismantle the oppressive system of the so-called Communist regime (which had actually nothing to do with Communism), and just try to move towards a kind of social democratic social political system internally. And internationally [move towards] a Europe-Asia wide security system, a Eurasian security system in which Russia would be a participant.

So the Soviet Union dismantled the Warsaw Pact. And the analog would be [for] the West to dismantle NATO and form an integrated security system, with fair participation on both sides.

Well, that didn’t happen, either internally or internationally. Internally, Russia turned towards what was called “Shock Therapy,” rapidly introducing radical market reforms that devastated the society, predictably. It was a demographic catastrophe; millions of people died. The economy practically collapsed. What was left of the economy was picked up by the oligarchs-- you know, the super-rich, gangsters. And, Russia just collapsed.

And internationally, instead of NATO disintegrating and bringing Russia into a security system, NATO expanded right up to the borders of Russia, after Clinton and now today. And Putin is reacting to that in a nationalist fashion. I don’t like it, I don’t want to have dinner with him, but you can understand what he’s doing. He’s trying to reconstruct a powerful Russia that will play its role with the world and not be a victim of foreign attack, and the effects of that are ugly but not beyond comprehension.

I don’t think Egypt is following a Putin model. It’s following the model of a brutal military dictatorship. The military in Egypt controls a large part of the economy, they have a very powerful stake in the system, they want to maintain it, and it’s being implemented with really violent and brutal means, which I think are probably going to lead to its collapse. Today there was another major atrocity in the Sinai. I think things are not under control, and it’s surviving mainly by vast subsidies from Saudi Arabia, but that’s not developing the economy, it’s not dealing with the social problems. It’s throwing tens of thousands of people in jail. It’s very violent and brutal.
Entrepreneur, Internet addict, philosophy lover
What are your views on AI and what's your response to Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and others who believe that AI is an existential threat to humanity?
There’s two kinds of AI. One kind seeks to carry out computer modeling to try to discover the nature of some biological system-- usually human intelligence, but it could be insect intelligence. That’s normal science. It’s part of normal science, just like work in Physics and Chemistry and so on.

There’s another kind of AI that’s developing things that are useful for some purpose, like a robot that can go into a radioactive environment, or will clean your floor, something like that.

Now, these two types of AI aren’t totally separated, they interact. But they’re two quite different conceptions. The first kind, as I said, is normal science. So in that sense, I work in AI. And the second kind is basically engineering, which can be useful or not useful, well done or not well done.

As for the future of AI, there are two answers. The engineering applications can presumably be improved, do lots of important things that will contribute to a better life and so on, maybe remove the boring aspects of work and free people up to be more creative and so on. And that’s all to the good if that’s the way it goes.

The second kind is a question of the limits of our scientific understanding. As a method for investigating cognitive systems, maybe human, maybe insect navigation, whatever you happen to be studying, we can’t predict the future of science.

As to these concerns about AI somehow leading to some result that’s gonna be catastrophic to humans, I believe that vastly exaggerates what’s understood and capable of being understood.
In your opinion, who are the great thinkers producing work today? Could you recommend any specific reading by them that has influenced you? Thank you.
That’s a question I would just as soon avoid. You can’t pick that out. For one thing, most creative work and significant work is done co-operatively. Occasionally you’ll find somebody working in the patent office in Switzerland who’s doing remarkable work, although not divorced from what other people are doing at the same time. I’m referring to Einstein, and Poincaré was doing similar things, and so on. But typically work is a cooperative enterprise, and picking out particular individuals, I think, is highly misleading.

Yeah, there are some who really initiate breakthroughs, but if you look at the history of science, quite typically, the breakthroughs are on the verge at a particular moment, and somebody may happen to get a little bit ahead.

Picking out that individual is OK, and respect them for the work-- that’s good. But really, we should look at how the advance of insight and understanding grows through the actions of a great number of people, who interact in all kinds of ways.
Thank you for taking the time. I recently watched a speech you gave where you essentially pointed out that libertarians had huge misconceptions about how Adam Smith viewed the economy. An example you gave was the widespread misunderstanding of the term "invisible hand". If Adam Smith is not the intellectual father of free market capitalism -- who is ? And why do people think it's Smith?
Well, you have to ask the intellectual historians why they’re falsifying it.
First of all, Adam Smith was essentially pre-Capitalist. He was a figure of the Enlightenment and essentially pre-Capitalist in his picture of the world. He did advocate free-market systems, but in a nuanced fashion, which I think was kinda wrecked by Capitalism.

So for example, take the term ‘Invisible Hand,’ which everyone uses to mean the wonders of the market. He used it twice in any relevant context: once in The Wealth of Nations, so it’s hard to miss, and once in his other major book, Moral Sentiments.

In The Wealth of Nations, if you take a look at the context in which he used it, it’s basically an argument against neo-liberal globalization. What he says is, he says, imagine that if in England (which is of course his concern) merchants and manufacturers invested abroad and imported from abroad. He says it would be good for them, but it would be harmful for the people of England. [And because] they’re going to have enough commitment to their home country, which is what’s sometimes called ‘home bias,’ they probably won’t do this. So, as if by an ‘invisible hand,’ England will be spared the ruins of what we now call neoliberal globalization. That’s pretty much the context in which he said it.

The second use, in Moral Sentiments, is an argument-- not a good argument, but an argument-- in favor of equality. What he argues is-- it’s an agrarian society, mostly-- he says that if some landowner accumulated a huge amount of land, and people were dependent on him, [then] just by his natural sympathy for others, he would distribute the wealth so that it would end up with people being relatively equal, as if by some ‘invisible hand.’ That’s not the way the term is used today. And you can find case after case like that.

So, sure, he was in favor of markets, that much is true. Free markets. And some of the reasons were that, for example, he argues in The Wealth of Nations-- again not a good argument but that’s not the point-- he argues that under conditions of perfect liberty, markets will lead to perfect equality. Which, as an Enlightenment figure, he regarded as a desideratum.

And Ricardo said somewhat similar things-- the other great founder of Classical Economics. Their thinking has been-- probably out of ignorance; I don’t think many economists read Ricardo or Smith-- so, kind of rumors have developed, which then get repeated. And finally we get a version which is pretty different from the original, particularly in its setting.

Why does this happen? Well, for the usual reasons of trying to find foundations for the doctrinal systems that one is trying to impose.
What would your dream conclusion to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict look like?
Well, back in the 1940s I was very active politically, mostly on these topics. I was what was then called a ‘Zionist,’ what is now called ‘anti-Zionist.’

I was in favor of a bi-national arrangement based on Jewish-Arab working class cooperation, left by nationalism. I don’t think it was an idle dream. Those were different days from today, so we shouldn’t look at [those] things from today’s perspective.

Anyway, that’s what I was engaged in, and I still believe it. I think the best kind of system would be a Libertarian -- Left-libertarian, not in the American sense-- system based on cooperation of Arab [and] Jewish working people, developing their own free institutions in a society in which there is no national state to pick one group over the other. So I was very much opposed to a “Jewish State” -- [a view] which was part of the Zionist movement at the time. This is pre-1948.

Is that achievable? Maybe, but you have to adapt your goals to existing circumstances. From 1967 to about 1975, I think it was a position that could have been implemented. There was a kind of a basis for it, and in fact, I wrote about it at the time, quite a lot. It was hated by everybody. Was denounced across the board. But nevertheless I think it was correct.

By the mid-70s, it was longer feasible. Palestinian nationalism had taken its position domestically and in the international arena. And as far as I can see, today the only way of moving toward that goal is in stages, in which the first stage is the international consensus on the two-state settlement-- which is blocked by the United States and Israel. But if that can be implemented, it could be the basis for moving on to something much better.

I can’t think of any other way. I mean, there are people who talk about one state. But I think that’s idle. There’s no way to achieve it except in stages. It just has no support anywhere, either in the domestic populations or in the international arena.

So by calling for one-- I mean, if you’re a serious activist, you have to make a familiar distinction between proposing and advocating. You can propose anything you like. You can propose that everyone live in peace and love each other, that’s fine. But if you’re serious, you advocate a way to get from here to there. If you don’t do that, it’s vacuous. And if there’s an alternative, I’ve never seen it suggested.
Student at the George Washington University
What were the most personally influential questions you asked over the course of your career?
Well, my life and work have been kind of schizophrenic. Part of it has been [the political activism] we’ve just been talking about. Now, the other part has been Linguistics, Philosophy, Cognitive Science. That part is intellectually interesting and challenging.

The first part is not very challenging intellectually. I think what is understood about the world is pretty much on the surface. We don’t have far-reaching, significant theories with explanatory force about the kinds of topics we were talking about. It’s mainly just about looking at the phenomena honestly, and with an open mind, and without ideological blinders. And I think things pretty much fall into place-- not without disagreement and controversy, but without any particular intellectual depth.

On the other hand, the other aspect does have a lot of intellectual depth, and there are real questions, really significant questions, about what kind of creatures human beings are. We’re radically different from everything else in the biological world. I mean, that’s obvious in innumerable ways. And a good case can be made that the core of the difference is actually language. And language has very mysterious properties, which are not understood. There’s a long tradition of puzzling about them. They’re just as puzzling as they were in the past; we may never have an answer to them.

There are a lot of problems about the nature of language, its origins and so on. But the fundamental problem is about voluntary action. For Descartes, this is a huge, crucial issue, the source of a lot of his dualism and theory of mind. How can human beings have the capacity to freely use an infinite, unbounded number of expressions in an innovative way, new ones, which are appropriate to circumstances but not caused by them (which is a huge difference) and which are intelligible to others, who can recognize that they could have-- it evokes thoughts that they could have expressed the same way? Sometimes [this is] called the ‘creative aspect’ of language use. Where does this come from?

And it’s actually a special case of something more general: voluntary action. That’s just not understood. There’s a recent review of the topic by two leading scientists, Emilio Bizzi and Robert Ajemian, that reviews the state of the art. And they put it rather graphically. They study voluntary motion-- you know, picking up something from the table. They say, “we’re beginning to understand the puppet and the strings, but we don’t know anything about the puppeteer.” We simply can’t ask serious questions, even about where it’s coming from, what’s going on.
Now, there are dogmas about this in the sciences and philosophy. It’s claimed that it’s all, you know, determined by physical law and so on (actually, no one believes that, whatever they say). But whatever you want to argue about that, the fact is, nothing is understood. It’s a crucial problem, and not the only one.

So, for example, if you look at the words of natural language, simple words-- tree, table, house, river, whatever. [If] you begin to look at them and think about their meaning carefully, it turns out they have very complex and intricate meanings. And this was actually known and thought about in Classical Greece, and in early modern philosophy. And that raises very significant questions: How are they acquired by children, virtually without evidence? How did they evolve? Complete mysteries.

Then, if you point to the core, computational side of language, what Descartes pointed to and Galileo described, and so on: how do we have this capacity to create, use, comprehend an unbounded number of structured expressions which is nothing like anywhere in the animal world? Where does that come from, what’s it’s nature, and so on?
I think these are really pretty deep questions which lead in all sorts of directions, including to the kinds of questions we were talking about before. So for Adam Smith and many of his contemporaries, the core of human nature is a kind of creative need, which must be encouraged and developed in any decently functioning society. And any interference with it is illegitimate.

And that’s the source of authentic Libertarianism, which is very different from [Milton] Friedman’s type. Authentic Libertarianism, I think, reveals itself in the modern age mostly in the Anarchist tradition, the Left Anarchist tradition.
Strategist | Entrepreneur | TEDxCairo Co-Founder
I find both of you & Milton Friedman to have some of the most influence in shaping the current world's different thought schools & streams. Nevertheless, i also find that you both don't agree on the very basic fundamentals of how the world should be.

What do you think is the one most thing that Milton Friedman got wrong about the world & humanity in general?
I think Milton Friedman’s interpretation of the success of market systems is historically seriously wrong, and his faith in market systems to achieve desirable ends is grossly mistaken.

I don’t accept his values either. I don’t think the ability to succeed in a system of competition is much of a value to be admired.

So I think there’s plenty of differences. Let’s just take the first: history. Take the United States, the richest society, the most powerful society in the world. Now, how did it develop, economically? Well, through massive state intervention, huge state intervention.

I mean, what economists sometimes talk about is the higher level of protectionism, which is true. The United States were pioneers of protectionism, in order to develop first the textile industry, which were the beginnings of industrial development, and then on through steel and other industries. It had to protect itself from superior British technology and production. I mean, we were all stealing technology from Britain and others.

But that’s the least of it. That’s what economists talk about, but that’s the periphery. I mean, the US economy was built on vicious and murderous slave labor. The slave labor camps in the south producing cotton, they would have impressed the Nazis. They were quite efficient. Efficiency was in fact increased, productivity was increased rapidly through the technology of a bullwhip and a pistol. And just by torturing people more viciously. And that’s the source. That’s a large part of the source of the modern economy.

Not just-- cotton of course was the fuel of the early industrial revolution, but it’s not just cotton production. Cotton production, which expanded over the world, based very heavily on slave labor camps here, was the basis for the development of a lot of the merchant class of early industrialization. The biggest industrializations of anywhere were the textile mills in Lowell and Lancashire and so on. That developed the financial systems which were used to finance it and arrange interactions, and globalized it. That’s an enormous contribution to the economies-- the developing economy of the United States of Britain and of other European countries. What’s that got to do with the markets? I mean, [slave labor] is a violent intrusion on [free] market systems.

And that’s only part of it. What about clearing the continent of its indigenous inhabitants? That’s a pretty severe interference of the State in human interactions and in social and economic systems. I mean, they had an economy-- in fact, a pretty advanced economy. It was destroyed. They were destroyed. I mean, there is some margins left somewhere on reservations.

And that’s just the beginning. I’m not even talking about the effect of imperial aggression on developing the economy. I mean, the idea that the economies developed through market systems is so grossly false that you can hardly even talk about it.

Of course, I talked about the United States, but the same is true of England before it, basically the same methods. And of every other developed economy-- Germany, France.

France, for example. It’s estimated that roughly 20% of France’s wealth comes from murderous, vicious slave labor in one colony, Haiti, which France destroyed, and is still contributing to destroying today. They participated in throwing out the elected president a couple years ago.
And that generalizes around the world. You can argue, maybe right and maybe wrong, that markets are useful for things like conveying information. That can be disconnected from assigning profit, giving gain to those who are participating in it.

If you come to the present, let’s take a look at contemporary markets. Forget the history. So, on the eve of the last recession, for which the financial institutions were largely responsible, their share of corporate profits in the United States was about 40%. So they’re a huge part of the economy.

But where do they get their profit from? Well, there was an IMF study about a year or so ago, which tried to estimate the source of the profits of the six biggest American banks. You know, JP Morgan, Chase, Citigroup, and so on. It concluded that the profits come almost entirely from a public subsidy, an implicit public subsidy that’s called ‘too big to fail’ informally. Which is an implicit government guarantee that we’re not gonna let you fail.

That gives them-- of course the credit rating agencies know this very well-- they get higher credit ratings, they get access to cheap money, they get incentives to carry out risky transactions, which can be quite profitable, because they’re gonna be bailed out if they collapse. All of this amounts to a huge subsidy. The business press estimated it at over 80 billion dollars a year. There are various debates among economists as to what it is, but it’s huge.

And that’s the beginning. What about energy industries, [another] huge part of the economy? You know, the IMF just came out with another study, more recently, which estimated that the worldwide-- of course, concentrated in the rich countries, the subsidy from the public [subsidy]-- it’s called government subsidy, meaning from the public-- amounts to maybe 5 trillion dollars per year.
This is a “market system”?
Do you believe that the civility of our national discourse has deteriorated over the course of your lifetime?

Do you think increasing the civility of our discourse would increase society's ability to have ideas confront one another? Or possibly decrease it?
I don’t think civility has either improved or declined. It has been very ugly always. Remember, I grew up in the 1930s. I grew up in an environment with violent anti-Semitism, even in the United States, let alone what was going on in Europe, in Germany. That was highly uncivil, and hideous in its consequences.

Now, there is lack of civility today, too. [But here] is only one of numerous examples, which show that I don’t think it’s nowhere near as vicious or destructive as it was in the past: Racist outpourings, mainly in the South but not only there, were of a kind [back then] that would just not be tolerated by general opinion today.

I don’t think, however, that one should legislate civility. That’s something that, if it’s going to be significant, is gonna grow out of improved understanding, sympathy and compassion, and [out of] a general improvement in the civilized level of life. That’s the way to improve civility. Not by imposing laws, or codes, or police.
Dear Noam,

You started your political activism by opposing the Vietnam War. What lessons do you think the US public should have learned from the Vietnam war? What lessons do you think it did learn? And what are the reasons behind what it did and did not learn? (And how does this question apply to the Iraq war and its aftermath?).
Personal aside: my political activism started in the 1930s. I won’t go into the details, but my first political article was on the rise of Fascism in Europe in 1939. And it went on from there. But the Vietnam War was the first public, open, visible, open activism, beyond locally.

The protest against the Vietnam War was very much too late. It should have begun-- well, it should have begun in the early 50s. But at least it should have begun in 1961 and 1962, when the Kennedy administration sharply escalated the war, with the US Air Force participating directly in bombing South Vietnam; chemical warfare to destroy crops, ground cover, and so on; authorization of napalm.
It was pretty extreme, and that’s when it should have started, but didn’t. I mean, I happened to become active then, but there were very few people. The talks I was giving were a couple of people in a church, or something like that.

But finally, in many parts of the country, it began to develop. It really took significant shape by 1967 or so. Much too late, but significant. At that time there was significant resistance, well beyond protest. I personally was involved in that. And it had an effect, but not enough of an effect. Indochina was virtually destroyed. I mean, the destruction was extraordinary. But it could have been worse, and probably would have, could have led to nuclear attacks and so on. So some constraints were imposed, and we even have evidence of what the constraints were. No time to go into it.

Belated, but significant [protest]. And it had an effect on the country. One effect was a general opposition to aggression and state violence, which has manifested over and over since. It’s not discussed in the media. It’s barely discussed in the scholarly literature. It’s not the kind of thing you people want to know. But it’s there.

So, for example, when the Reagan administration came in, they determined right away that they wanted to carry out a war in Central America, to try to crush the popular movements there. And they tried to emulate what Kennedy did, almost step-by-step: the same white paper, the same propaganda. We don’t have records, but I assume they were just looking at it and doing the same thing.

It didn’t work. In the Kennedy case, it worked; there was no protest. In the Reagan case, it immediately elicited massive protest, popular and critically and elsewhere, and they had to back off. And instead of directly attacking Central America, they had to carry out what amounted to an international terrorist war using security forces that they organized in their countries and also enlisting an international terrorist apparatus.

So, for example, in Guatemala, which was the worst case, Congress blocked Reagan from directly supporting the massacres-- which actually amounted to genocide-- in the highlands. So the Reagan administration had to bring in, enlist international terrorists to do it. Primarily Israel, which is always willing to perform that task. They sent arms and trainers and so on to expedite the genocidal activities of the Guatemalan army. Still, take a look at the equipment; it’s Israeli equipment.

Taiwan was another one that was brought in. Argentine neo-Nazis were enlisted until Argentina, the dictatorship was overthrown [there], and you couldn’t use those anymore. They were the favorite of the Reagan administration.

And it devastated Central America, but nothing like Vietnam.
Let’s go on. What about Iraq? The case of Iraq was, I think, the first time in the history of imperialism when a war of aggression-- which of course is what it was, an imperial war of aggression-- was massively protested before it was officially launched. Which is very unusual.
Now it didn’t stop the war, and the standard line is that it failed. No, it didn’t fail. The Bush administration couldn’t even begin to do the kinds of things that Kennedy and Johnson did almost reflexively because there was no protest.

So it was bad enough; it practically destroyed Iraq, set off sectarian conflicts that are tearing the region to shreds. But, again, it could have been a lot worse.

So I think the general answer is: well, too late, too little, but significant. And over time, developing an opposition to aggression and violence has had some constraining effect on natural tendencies of power systems to resort to violence at will. And they do have this tendency. It’s entirely open and public.

So, take, say Iran today. Across the spectrum, virtually everyone from the President to the intellectual class, asserts openly-- publicly, and with pride-- that if we determine that Iran is doing something we don’t like, we will unilaterally resort to force to stop it.

That’s announcing as loudly as we can that we’re a rogue state. We don’t care about international law, international opinion, anything. We monopolize the sources of violence and we use them as we choose. And there’s no protest about this. Virtually nothing. Way at the fringes, I’m guessing.
Do you think the Arab Spring failed? Why?
I think the Arab Spring was one of the most significant events of contemporary history. Did it succeed? We don’t really know; I think it’s a work in progress.

If you take a look, it varied from country to country.
The first-- actually, it began in Western Sahara. Nobody talks about that, but they should. That’s a country that’s under-- it’s kinda like Palestine, it’s under foreign military occupation in violation of international law. [Their uprising] was crushed very quickly by Morocco.

But the first part of the Arab Spring that enters history was shortly after, in Tunisia. Tunisia’s mainly under French influence, from the external side. And the French tried to crush it. They were supporting the dictator, [Zine al-Abidine] Ben Ali, even well after. In fact, even after he was expelled, they continued to support him. They failed; [the uprising] took roots, and it’s had moderate success. I mean, I think there’s improvements, and it has positive implications for the future.
The next major case was Egypt, the most important country in the region. And there what happened I think was very dramatic and quite exciting.

It’s not just what caught media attention, Tahrir Square, although I think that was very important. There was also, there’s a long background of labor movement activism in Egypt, crushed by the regime, but significant. In fact-- well, I don’t have to tell you-- but April 6th was named after the participation in a major strike in the industrial centers.

And that continued, and it’s had some consequences which maybe are lasting. It seems to have given a kind of an opening, for the first time, to independent unions. There have been continuation of labor actions-- a lot of them crushed by force, of course; it hasn’t ended by any means-- but that, I think, continued. It opened a space for discussion, which I think is probably gonna have a lasting effect on the culture and the society.

The important external forces in that case are primarily the United States and secondarily England. Typically, they followed the usual procedure. There’s a standard procedure when your favored dictator gets into trouble. It’s followed all the time-- Samosa, Marcos, Duvalier, a long list of cases: Support him as long as possible. When it becomes impossible, maybe because the army has turned against him or the business classes have turned against him, then issue ringing declarations about your love for democracy, send your dictator off somewhere-- in this case Sharm el-Sheikh -- and then try to re-institute the same system as much as you can.

That happens with such regularity that’s it’s kind of astonishing that the intellectual and scholarly world somehow can’t see it. And that’s what happened in Egypt.

And there was, I won’t go through the details, but there was finally a reaction, a military coup. It’s driving Egypt into some of its worst days maybe ever. And it’s supported by the United States, tepidly. Like, they don’t say ‘we love you,’ but they’re supporting it.

If you go to other countries, the major countries from the Western point of view, the most important countries, are the oil-producing dictatorships. There, the first efforts at reform were just crushed violently.

I mean, there were-- in Saudi Arabia, the most important, there were some attempts to do what was being done elsewhere. You know, things happening after the Friday prayers. Now, the police response [to that] was so overwhelming that people were afraid to go into the streets in Riyadh.

In one country, Bahrain, it did make some progress. Then Saudi Arabia sent an army in to crush it-- mainly out of concern for the Shi’a areas in eastern Saudi Arabia, where most of the oil happens to be, and they wanna make sure they keep that repressed. And the same elsewhere just couldn’t get off the ground, in the [other] oil dictatorships.

[In] Syria, the early steps were met with a vicious response by the Assad regime, which not long after elicited a violent uprising. By now, the country is practically destroyed, it may not survive. A huge number of the population is just fleeing in desperation.

It’s led to a confrontation between the brutal Assad regime on the one hand, and the murderous jihadi organizations which are more or less similar in ideology, that are fighting turf battles: ISIS, Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar [ash-Sham]. So it’s just a total disaster.

What will happen out of all of this? I think it’s very hard to predict, just as nobody could have predicted the Arab Spring.

But my guess is, when the fragments sort of fall into place, there will be a revival of the forces that led to the Arab Spring in the first place.
And it’s not the first time, after all. There’s been effort after effort in the Arab and Muslim world to move towards democracy and development. Almost always crushed by external force. Case after case.
Thank you so much for taking our questions. You represent many different things to many different people. Fifty years from now, how do you hope people will remember you?
It’s really not something I care about very much. I don’t like things to be personalized. I mean, there are ideas that I hope people will regard as significant, develop, incorporate into their own thinking and pursue further. And that’s what matters. Whether a name is associated with it or not is insignificant.

[What are some of these ideas?] The kinds we have been discussing. Left-Libertarian conceptions of how society should be organized, which I think have deep roots in the Enlightenment and have been developed since.

And on the other side [of my professional interests], pursuit of the deep problems of the fundamental character of human cognitive nature. What its roots are, how it evolved, how it functions, how it differentiates humans as a group-- ‘cause they’re not divided-- from the rest of the animal world.

I think these are fundamental issues that have to be, that should be pursued and developed. And I hope they are. But whether or not my name is associated with it or not, I couldn’t care less.
On the long run, do you think decentralised currency systems, such as bit-coin, can enable the emergence of functional stateless societies ?
I’m of two, three minds about that. My first mind is that I don’t know enough to answer, and I don’t think anyone does. I’ve looked into it to an extent, and it seems to be, the guesses seem to be pretty uncertain. That leads to the first two minds; I don’t know whether the answer is positive or negative.

My guess is, it probably won’t have a major effect. But let me make clear that that’s a guess with low confidence.