It is nearly impossible to live in today’s world without having come across mention of the legendary Noam Chomsky. His work as a linguist, historian, political activist and philosopher, which spans nearly a century, has had an immeasurable impact on contemporary world views. Not only have his more than a hundred books become the basis for a vast milieu of modern thought, but he himself has become a widely admired public figure whose thoughtful take on current events is as crucial as ever in our increasingly hostile, chaotic sociopolitical climate.
While he and Robert Scheer, the renowned left-wing thinker and Truthdig’s award-winning editor in chief, are both well known in progressive circles for their lifelong work challenging systems of oppression and false narratives about American exceptionalism, until now, the two had never had a public conversation. In a remarkable two-part interview, Chomsky and Scheer meet to discuss topics ranging from the type of dystopian future we face to the unfortunate, brutal success of the U.S. empire.
Basing his first question on Chomsky’s immense body of work, Scheer focuses on the well-known texts by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell—“Brave New World” and “1984,” positing that there is “an amalgam of these two totalitarian, dystopian models emerging.”
“I think we can start with the assumption [that] we have to be concerned about a dystopian future. Which model do you see emerging?” Scheer asks.
Chomsky offers a detailed response based on the novel “We,” by Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Shoshana Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” which, in his view, best predict and outline the techno-surveillance system that has already begun to take hold in the U.S. and beyond, as companies such as Google, Amazon and others find novel ways to exert control over humankind.
“The kind of model toward which society is moving is already illustrated to a substantial extent in China, where they have very heavy surveillance systems and … what they call a social credit system,” Chomsky says. “You get a certain number of points, and if you, say, jaywalk, violate a traffic rule, you lose points. If you help an old lady across the street, you gain points. Pretty soon, all this gets internalized, and your life is dedicated to making sure you follow the rules that are established. This is going to expand enormously as we move to what’s called the internet of things, meaning every device around you—your refrigerator, your toothbrush and so on—is picking up information about what you’re doing, predicting what you’re going to do next, trying to control what you’re going to do next, advise what you do next.”
Perhaps most alarmingly, Chomsky asserts that “Huxley was kind of right” in positing that “people may not see [this form of surveillance] as intrusive; they just see it as that’s the way life is, the way the sun rises in the morning.”
In perhaps the most harrowing portion of the interview, Scheer asks Chomsky a question on many people’s minds nowadays as a variety of human caused factors threaten humanity’s very existence. “Is this the end of time for our species?” he asks. “I reread your book, ‘Hegemony or Survival,’ [and firstly,] you mentioned there that the typical life of a species is 100,000 years [and] that we may be coming to the end of this disfavor. And secondly, it’s an open question whether being smart, as we define smart, is an important way of averting disaster and preventing the disintegration of the species.
“The reason it’s a relevant question right at this moment,” Scheer continues, “is because we had the best and the brightest, as David Halberstam had described them, who gave us the Cold War and gave us Vietnam and gave us Iraq and everything else and, you know, gave away the money from Main Street to Wall Street, and all that. And now we have somebody who people like to think of as very crude, boorish, ill-mannered, which is Donald Trump. And we have Trump-washing. Suddenly the smart, liberal people who created much of this mischief are now whitewashed, or Trump-washed, by this buffoon.”
“[‘Hegemony or Survival’] begins with the discussion by the great biologist Ernst Mayr, who [makes the point] that intelligence seems to be a kind of lethal mutation,” Chomsky explains. “If you look through what’s called biological success, what allows the species to survive and proliferate, turns out as you move up the scale of what we call intelligence, capacity to survive declines. So the species that are really very successful are beetles, for example, which have a fixed niche; they never change. Everything changes, the whole world changes, but they stick to their niche and keep reproducing and they’re fine. … As you move up to … bigger mammals—their capacity to survive declines. What about when you get to humans? Well, you could argue that … we are now proving Mayr’s thesis. Not so much for the reasons you mentioned, which are bad enough, but we are racing to destroy the possibility of organized human life. And it’s a cooperation of those who call themselves the best and the brightest, and the Trumpian boors … all racing toward disaster, perfectly consciously, a great testimonial to human intelligence. And that’s only the beginning.”
Chomsky discusses the incredible global failure to address the climate crisis, as well as the nuclear arms race, which are both leading humanity to a precipice that may be impossible to walk away from. The conversation later moves into a discussion of American empire and what Chomsky views as its little-understood but undeniable success. While Scheer approaches the question from a military standpoint, in which the U.S. has led a series of bellicose failures that have ushered in an era of immense global instability, Chomsky takes an economic approach.
“The imperial model, which succeeded, [has] prevented other countries from moving toward independent development, and therefore led to a situation in which U.S. multinationals dominate the world,” he says. “It’s led to a situation in which [the U.S. empire is] primarily designed for the benefit of U.S. capital, which has succeeded beyond belief.”
Listen to the first part of the remarkable discussion between Scheer and Chomsky, and tune in next week for the second installment, which will delve into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its global impact. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player and find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.