Honorary Degree Interviews: Noam Chomsky


In an interview with St Andrews’ student media after receiving his honorary D.Litt, Professor Noam Chomsky was intervewed on behalf of The Saint by KIRSTY PATON.

Photo: Amy ThompsonKirsty Paton: What would be your advice to the students graduating this week? How would you define achievement?

Noam Chomsky: Students that are graduating from a place like this are a pretty privileged people. It means they have lots of opportunities – more than almost anyone in the world or in past history. The only reasonable advice you can given to anyone is: think through your opportunities; think through what goals you want to achieve; figure out ways to advance towards those goals, whether they’re in personal life or the way you act in the world as a decent human being and so on. A lot of options – and a lot of options means a lot of responsibility. So think it through. But I’ve never tried to give advice to my own children. If I had they wouldn’t have listened – wisely.

KP: What do you regard as your own greatest achievements?

NC: That’s for other people to discuss.

KP: You don’t have any thoughts on what your legacy might be? What are you proud of? 

NC: There are things you wouldn’t even know about. There are poor communities around the world, in the United States, Columbia, Turkey, refugee camps, for whom I’ve been able to do things. They’re grateful for it, and I think that’s an achievement.

Photo: Jake ThreadgouldKP: You’re well known for both your work in linguistics and your political activism. Why have you never joined the two together?

NC: Look, I could be an algebraic topologist and do the same things I do in the world of human affairs. I mean that at some very abstract level there’s some kind of connection. So, concern about the sources in our nature, of the search for freedom and independence and creativity, it manifests itself in a crucial way in the nature of language, maybe our fundamental cognitive trait. It manifests itself in social relations and ideas about how they should be constructed. But the connections are so tenuous that you can’t draw conclusions from one to the other. I mean there could be people who do exactly the same work – in fact there are – pretty much the same work I do in linguistics with absolutely opposite political views and commitments. And there are people in other fields, or no fields, dedicated activists with whom I work who couldn’t care less about linguistics.

KP: So what do you think about current linguistics?

NC:It varies all over the place. It’s a very wide field, there are a million things going on, progressing quite rapidly and interestingly. There are others I think that are mostly a waste of time. If you ask other people, say for example, in Edinburgh they would give the opposite view on their choices. I can tell you what I think is interesting, but it’s something for you to figure out.

KP: What are your thoughts about the current global economic crises?

NC: Well, there are some things going on around the world that are pretty general, but then there are some things that are specific to particular regions and places. Take, say, Europe. Europe is kind of like lemmings walking off a cliff. The designers of the policies are…I think they understand what they’re doing. It may significantly harm the society, but it’ll benefit the interests that they serve. The basic policies of austerity during recession, or stagnation, are suicidal for the society. You can read the studies by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), reviewing dozens of cases – all of them collapse. You can see the consequences just in the last couple of years. England, for example, every quarter is worse than the last one. Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, driven to places… growth declines, debt increases, getting nowhere.

Photo: Amy Thompson
Professor Chomsky poses with the Principal and AS Byatt DBE

The one example that’s claimed to have been a success is Latvia. But that’s extremely misleading when you look at it. For one thing, it was a total economic disaster. There’s some recovery from it, but largely because Latvians can leave. It’s a small country, and they can go get jobs in IT in Sweden or something like that. So I think about ten percent of the population has left. That’s no success. These policies can’t work in some respects.

On the other hand, they can work for other purposes. They’ll dismantle the social contract, they’ll dismantle the welfare state, they’ll weaken labour, strengthen concentrated private power. From another point of view that’s a success. It’s not very much hidden. Mario Draghi, for example, head of the ECB (European Central Bank), recently had an interview with the Wall Street Journal, in which, he wasn’t particularly praising it, but he simply said the policies that the ECB, that the big institutions are following, will eliminate the social contract that Europe was based on. Well, from certain points of view that’s a success. Why should we accept workers’ rights, or the rights of the poor, and so on?

There’s something comparable in the US. There’s a very good economics institute in the United States, called the Economic Policy Institute, which is the main source of regular data on the nature of the economy from the point of view of working people. It’s the standard database. They came out with a short monograph, recently, reviewing their own work of the last thirty years. Pointing out extremely high concentration of wealth; stagnation or worse for most of the population; decline in benefits; increase in working hours; people getting by on debt and bubbles and so on. They reviewed it. The title of the monograph is “Failure by Design”. What they point out is that, yes, the policies that have been followed are a failure for maybe ninety percent of the population. But it’s a class-based failure. There’s a sector of the population, not coincidently the designers of the policy, for whom it’s an enormous success. And it’s ‘designed’ because there always have been alternative policies and there still are. So it’s failure by design.

Photo: Jake ThreadgouldAnd I think something like that is true in Europe, except Europe may do itself in, severely, if these policies continue.

And you look at other parts of the world, there’re differences. But in general the impact there has been over the past thirty years, in most of the world, there are some exceptions, but a lot of the world has been subjected to what are called general neo-liberal policies. And almost invariably it’s been failure by design. It’s harmed the general population; it’s benefited small sectors, led to increased corruption, harshness of life, breakdown of social order. Some do spectacularly well. In the City of London they’re not suffering, you know, or on Wall Street. In fact they’re richer than ever, banks are bigger than ever. And the policies aren’t… there’re no economic laws that require them. It doesn’t have to do with globalization. You could have quite different policies at every stage of the game. But they would have different effects on outcomes, on who gains and who loses. Those who design the policies are achieving the kind of goal I presume they want, otherwise they wouldn’t continue with the policies, and they’re benefiting from it.

It’s everywhere. I mean, take the Arab Spring. On the surface a lot of it had to do with getting rid of dictators, which was true. But right underneath that was massive protest against neo-liberal policies, which were highly praised by the international financial institutions. The World Bank, the IMF, they were praising Egypt and Tunisia for magnificent policies. Great social and economic progress, by their standards it was doing fine. Except meanwhile for the population things were getting worse and worse: support systems were collapsing; wages were declining. There was growth but in very few pockets. There was an enormous increase in corruption. There had to be violence, state violence just to keep people under control. So it’s one kind of success and another kind of failure. Something like that is true almost everywhere.

There are exceptions. So, for example, in the seventies, the eighties and the nineties, one major exception was East Asia. That was the period of rapid growth in East Asia. But they rejected the rules, all of them. They rejected the whole Washington consensus. They wrote their own rules and they did fine. China’s pretty much the same. South America, which is maybe the most interesting case, was a very religious adherent of the neo-liberal principles in the eighties and the nineties, and the economies went into a tailspin. There were some that looked, for a while, as if they were working but it was an illusion and they crashed. In the past decade they’ve pulled out of the system and they’re doing pretty well, very well by historical standards. There are various weaknesses in the approaches they’re taking, but it’s been pretty much a success. So, what happens depends very much on the policies you pursue.

Photo: Amy ThompsonKP: What do you think the way out of this crisis is then?

NC: I tend to be sympathetic towards the suggestions that are being made by groups as varied as Keynesian economists and the business press. Literally, the business press, who are saying that for Europe to face its current problems, it has to have an increase in growth, and the increase in growth is not going to come from corporate investment under current situations because demand is too low. So there has to be an increase in demand, and the only way to do that is through government spending, which is perfectly possible. That can stimulate the economies, which will grow and…  You can then later turn to the problems of deficit and debt, to whatever extent they are problems.

Bloomberg Business Week, the main business journal in the United States, say that what’s needed now is to push the accelerator; you can worry about pushing the brake later on after the acceleration of the economy. You read the most respected commentators in the Financial Times, like Martin Wolf, same thing pretty much. There are other commentators… they say pretty much the same thing. And I think in the short term that’s probably correct. There are other questions you can ask, deeper questions, like: “Who ought to be making the decisions?”

So, to be concrete, let’s say, when a couple of years ago, the Obama administration pretty much nationalised the American auto industry. They took it out, took it over, and bailed it out, the public basically owned it. Now there were a couple of possibilities that could have been followed. One is the one that was followed, namely restructure the industry, at taxpayer expense, hand it back to the former owners, or people very much like them, some new faces but essentially the same. Have them continue to produce what they were producing, namely automobiles and trucks and so on.

Another possibility would have been to take the effectively nationalised industry, hand it over to the workers and the communities to run and help them in producing things that the country really needs. Like, if you’ve ever travelled in the United States, you know that one of the things the country desperately needs is an efficient mass transit system. It’s way behind the rest of the world in high speed rail and infrastructure development. Those are all things that can be done by the workforce that’s sitting idly in so-called Rustville. Okay, that was an alternative policy that would leave industry under popular control. Okay, that was not contemplated. But it’s an alternative.

Photo: Jake ThreadgouldIt’s an alternative all over the place. And in fact to some extent it’s being pursued in England too. There’re cooperatives, there’re worker-run enterprises. That’s an alternative economic model, which could be [a] substantial change. Not like the narrow question of should we have government stimulus of growth when you need to increase demand. So there are questions that can be raised all across the board.

(BubbleTV) How do you feel about receiving an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews during its 600th anniversary celebrations?

NC: We like to count in hundreds, so why shouldn’t I too? It’s nice to be in an anniversary.

(BubbleTV) Being in Scotland, what are your thoughts on Scottish independence?

NC: Well, I’m a little reluctant to draw any conclusions. I mean, I have kind of an instinctive favour, a feeling in favour of devolution, regionalization, turning to local authorities and so on. On the other hand, there are costs. I don’t think you can take a casual attitude towards estimating the costs and the benefits without really thinking through what it’s going to mean to the people on the scene. Without intimate acquaintance with the particular circumstances, I think it’s kind of irresponsible to draw judgements. My own feeling would be in favour of devolution, but there’re so many consequences that have to be worked out that I think it just has to be evaluated by the people who are going to live with the consequences.

(BubbleTV) Would that be further devolution than there currently is?

NC: Well, again, my instinctive feeling is the more devolution the better, but on the other hand there are consequences to be thought through. Again, I think it’s just irresponsible to draw conclusions without working through the consequences. I know what my sort of base point is for approaching it, but whether that would hold up after looking through the consequences in detail I don’t know.


  1. These questions are embarrassingly bad. I’m surprised the saint even published them. Did the author not even read Chomsky’s wikipedia page.


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