The High Times Interview with Noam Chomsky

Jul 29, 2011

By T.A. Sedlak

We first featured an interview with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus in 1998, in which he outlined and examined the connections between government power, corporate power and the War on Drugs, including their role in maintaining a system of "population control." With the battle lines in that war now shifting rapidly, we thought it high time to check back in with Noam Chomsky, who graciously sat down with us for an interview in his office in Cambridge, MA.

You've spoken out against the War on Drugs, explaining that it's essentially a means to lock up poor people, that it actually increases drug use, and that it serves as an excuse to control foreign nations. Would you briefly elaborate on these points?

Let's grant that there's a drug problem, for the sake of argument -- drugs meaning, you know, cocaine, marijuana and so on. Suppose you accept that. How do you deal with it? There are studies -- government studies and others -- that say that the most cost-effective way is prevention and treatment. More expensive and less effective is policing; still less effective and more expensive is border interdiction. And the most expensive and the least effective is out-of-country operations, like what they call "fumigation" -- which is, in fact, chemical warfare -- in Colombia and so forth. I've seen it firsthand; it really is chemical warfare. So those are the basic facts, and I don't think anyone questions them very much.

Now take a look at the way the Drug War is conducted over the past 40 years. It goes back farther, but start from 40 years ago: There's very little spent on prevention and treatment. There's a lot on policing, a ton of stuff on border control and a lot on out-of-country operations. And the effect on the availability of drugs is almost undetectable; drug prices don't change on measures of availability. So there are two possibilities: Either those conducting the Drug War are lunatics, or they have another purpose.

Well, in the law, there's a standard way of trying to determine intention, and that's by looking at predictable consequences. You have 40 years of experience with almost no effect on what they claim they're trying to do, and you have very predictable consequences -- in fact, several. At home, you lock up the people who are essentially superfluous. The economy shifted dramatically in the '70s away from domestic production and towards financialization and the export of production. That leaves a class problem: What do you do with unemployed workers? We happen to have a very close class/race correlation in America, so that means, overwhelmingly, black males and Hispanic males. Well, you know, we're a civilized country, so you don't assassinate them -- you stick them in jail. And, in fact, the incarceration rate has been shooting up, especially since the early '80s; it's now way out of line with any other comparable country. Meanwhile, overseas, the War on Drugs contributes to counterinsurgency operations. So a rational conclusion is that those are the purposes. The only alternative I can think of is sheer lunacy.

Furthermore, it's known, just from experience, that prevention works. Here we get to the question of what's the drug problem. Well, in fact, by far the worst problem is tobacco: Tobacco kills way more people than hard drugs, 20 times as many or some huge number. So that's a really dangerous substance. The second most dangerous is alcohol, because of its direct consequence to the user, but also because it harms others. Marijuana doesn't make you violent; alcohol does. So it contributes to abuse, violence -- drunk driving kills people. It's a killer.

Anyway, what happened is that, without any criminalization, the usage of these substances has declined pretty significantly among more educated people. And it's the same with say, red meat. It was a lifestyle change, and it became a healthier lifestyle with no criminalization. That's just education -- basically, prevention. So I think there's almost no other rational conclusion other than the one I mentioned: that the Drug War is not intended to deal with the use of drugs. It's intended for other purposes, namely those that are the actual and predictable consequences of it.

Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, made a pertinent comment a couple years ago. He said, "If you want to destroy coca here, then let us destroy the tobacco in North Carolina and Kentucky. It's a far more dangerous substance. It kills way more people than coca does." That's a joke, obviously -- the United States isn't going to let him do that. Then again, it just shows up the cynicism of the whole program.

You mentioned that money from drugs is used to support American covert operations or counterinsurgency operations. Can you explain how that got started and how it still works today?

The best source on this is Alfred McCoy's The Politics of Heroin. He traces it back to early postwar Europe, post-World War II, where a prime concern of Washington was to undermine the antifascist resistance and the labor movements in Italy, France and Germany in order to restore traditional social structures, including fascist collaborators. It actually started earlier, before the war was over, as US and British troops moved up the Italian peninsula with help from the Mafia. In France, to break the powerful labor movement, the US occupying forces needed strikebreakers and, more generally, goons. They reconstituted the Corsican Mafia for that purpose and, in payment, allowed them to restore the old heroin connection based in Marseilles, which the fascists had crushed.

After that, the center of the drug trade quite consistently followed the path of US intervention and subversion. The heroin trade moved from the French Connection to Southeast Asia, where the so-called "Golden Triangle" -- the area around Burma, Thailand and Laos -- became a major drug-producing area with the help of the US as it waged secret wars against the populations of those countries. It then shifted to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the '80s as the US supported the Afghan resistance -- including warlords -- against the Soviet occupation. Obviously, the terrorist operations carried out in Central America under the Reagan administration were funded through the cocaine trade, which was partly exposed in the Iran-contra hearings, though mostly suppressed. It's quite natural: These operations need thugs and black money, which commonly translates as illegal drugs.

On how it works today, you should check with people who follow these matters more closely than I do, like Alfred W. McCoy or Peter Dale Scott.

Could you tell us about the connection between the drug cartels and the large institutional banks?

Money laundering commonly goes through banks, which pretend not to know about it. The scale is estimated to be huge. An interesting illustration of how it works is Operation Greenback, launched on a Treasury Department initiative in 1979, when investigators discovered a sharp increase in cash deposits in South Florida banks as well as cocaine imports. The investigation was aborted by the Reagan administration, which evidently did not regard banks as an appropriate target -- except for bailouts when they get into trouble.

You subscribe to the theory of anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism. Could you point out how your views on drugs and the Drug War tie into that?

The Drug War, in my opinion, is a very highly illegitimate use of state power. We can ask the question what should be done, but I think, for the reasons I mentioned, what's actually being done is completely illegitimate. Anarcho-syndicalism is a commitment to overcome the illegitimate use of power, including state power, but also any other kind of power, like corporate power or patriarchal families or whatever it may be. There's a connection in that sense. This is simply an instance of the illegitimate use of power by concentrations of power that shouldn't exist in the first place.

At times, you've been outspoken against the Libertarian Party and its ideals. Recently, libertarians such as Ron Paul have courted marijuana users on the basis that they oppose the Drug War. Why do you oppose them?

What's called libertarianism in the United States is a significant deviation from traditional libertarian thought. Traditionally, say in Europe, "libertarian" meant the anti-state wing of the socialist party. In the United States, "libertarian" means ultra-capitalist; it means permitting capitalist institutions to function essentially without constraint, or virtually with no constraint. That's a recipe for one of the worst kinds of tyranny that exists: unaccountable corporate tyranny.

Take a look at individual libertarians -- say Ron Paul. He may be perfectly sincere, but as I read his programs and other programs of the Libertarian Party or the Cato Institute and so on, they essentially would give free rein to unaccountable concentrations of private power. And that's about the worst kind of tyranny you can imagine. Whatever government is -- say our government -- it's to some extent accountable to the public, and the public can compel it to be fairly accountable, at least in principle. That's why we have things like New Deal reforms and so on: It's public pressure. On the other hand, you and I can say nothing about the policies of Goldman Sachs or General Electric. In principle, our only relationship to those institutions is to consume what they produce or to serve them as an obedient work force. We can maybe own some shares, but that's meaningless given the concentration of shareholding. So they're essentially unaccountable to the public except through a regulatory apparatus that can be developed through the state in our society, which can somewhat tame the excesses and destructive capacities of these institutions.

You and your friend and former colleague, the late Howard Zinn, have promoted the idea of change coming from the bottom up, from people organizing, rather than through elected leaders. You saw this in the civil-rights and antiwar movements, and it's evident in the marijuana movement today. Does recent progress in the campaign for the legalization of marijuana give you hope for other causes?

First of all, I wouldn't go quite so far as what you said before -- there's an interaction between elected officials and popular activism. So, for example, let's go back to the New Deal legislation or the other liberal welfare-state measures that went on from the New Deal right up through the Nixon administration. Nixon was basically the last liberal president, and those liberal measures were in substantial part the result of popular activism, from CIO organizing in the 1930s up to the activism in the '60s and on to their impact in the early '70s. They had an impact on legislation and on public officials. So it's not one or the other; you can do both and recognize what the interaction is like.

Marijuana legalization is a cause that's moving forward, and I think it makes sense. It could be a dent in state controls that should be relaxed or eliminated. Just how to proceed raises interesting questions. I don't think, exactly, let's legalize everything -- you have to consider the circumstances that exist, the culture that exists, the society that exists, how people will react to the legislation and other choices. It's not such a simple matter. I think we can move in the direction of treating hard drugs the way we treat tobacco, but you'll probably have to move in stages.

Nixon was a liberal? High Times readers more likely see him as the man who started the modern War on Drugs. Could you explain?

Nixon did a lot of rotten things much worse than starting the modern War on Drugs, but the same is true of other liberal presidents. His liberal initiatives included the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and much else. No president since Nixon has passed such liberal initiatives. His perceived "class treachery" appears to have been a factor in the substantial business-led backlash against democracy and rights that took off in the mid-'70s.

Lastly, High Times readers may be curious if you've ever tried marijuana?

No, never even ... I'm very conventional.