Aaron Swartz was a 26 year old internet pioneer, entrepreneur and activist who died tragically on January 11th. Speaking of Aaron’s death, Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the internet said ‘we have lost a mentor, a wise elder’.
Aaron, a Stanford University drop-out, was instrumental in the development of the internet as we know it. He co-authored the RSS specification, co-founded Reddit.com, and co-founded the Progressive Change Campaign Committee for political reform which has almost 1 million members. Aaron was instrumental in the 2011 defeat of ‘SOPA’ bill in the U.S, which threatened free speech online.
In late 2010 and early 2011 Aaron, who was a fellow of Harvard University’s Center for Ethics, downloaded millions of academic journal articles from M.I.T’s labs and was later charged by police. He faced 35 years in prison and millions in legal costs
Aaron’s death has been covered by news outlets worldwide and the internet and activism community has rallied to keep his spirit alive and to protect freedom of speech online and to promote the values of truth, democracy, justice and compassion that Aaron lived for. See www.demandprogress.org
Ruairí McKiernan interview with Aaron Swartz at Harvard, Boston in January 2010.
Tell me about your work
I co-founded a group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. What we try to do is organise people over the Internet who care about progressive politics and moving the country in a more progressive direction to come together, join our email list, join our campaigns, and help to get progressive candidates elected all over the country.
I think one of the things we’ve found is that if you want to run for office there’s a path for doing it but it’s a very a corporate controlled path. You hire a bunch of big money consultants, you talk to a bunch of big money donors, you go round the major corporations and speak with their executives and persuade them that you like the things that they do and the result is that most of the people in congress are business friendly and corporate funded candidates. What we want to do is build a pipeline to get more progressive, more activist people elected into congress so they can start to effect real social change.
How do you know that you’re being effective in that work?
I think it’s nice that we have this focus on elections because you know elections are very clear. There’s a deadline. There are two candidates. One you’re supporting, one you’re opposing, and there’s a date when you find out find out which one of you won and so you really can’t fool yourself with elections. You can’t say well we got 90 % of the way there at the end of the day. Either your candidate is in office or it isn’t and you can see exactly how much you accomplished and how many votes you needed to go. So one of the things I like about it is that it gives us a constant sense of exactly what we’re achieving, how close we are to getting there and what we need to do.
Why do you do what you do?
That’s a good question. I feel very strongly that it’s not enough to just live in the world as it is, to just take what you’re given and follow the things that adults told you to do and that your parents told you to do and the society tells you to do. I think that you should always be questioning. I take this very scientific attitude that everything you’ve learned is just provisional that it’s always open to recantation or refutation or questioning and I think the same applies to society. I felt growing up I slowly had this process of realising that all the things around me were just the natural way that things were the way things would be. They weren’t natural at all. They were things that could be changed and things that more importantly were wrong and should change. Once I realised that there was really no going back I couldn’t fool myself into saying I’ll just go and work for a business and ignore all that once I realised that there were real serious problems, fundamental problems, that I could do something to address I didn’t see a way to forget that.
How did you go about getting active?
You know I’d always been wanting to get active. Even when I was at school I was very frustrated with school. I thought the teachers didn’t really know what they were talking about. They were very domineering and controlling and the homework was kind of a sham and was just a ways to piece things together and force them to do busy work. I started reading books about the history of education and how this education system was developed, alternatives to it and ways that people could actually learn things as opposed to just regurgitating facts that teachers were telling them. This led me down this path of questioning things. Once I questioned the school I was in, I questioned the society that built the school, the business that the schools were training people for, I questioned the government that set up this whole structure.
What were the projects or campaigns that you first got involved with?
Well like I said I got interested in educational stuff, I don’t think I got involved in a political campaign. I spent a lot of time after that wondering what is it that I could really affect. You know I did a lot of writing and a lot of reading, but a lot of the stuff I read about social change seemed to come from this model, you know, in the revolutions in the 60s people thought if we just get enough people together who are angry, get a lot of people together who are angry, then all of a sudden magically this revolution will happen and will take over the country and, you know, it just didn’t make sense to me. I think now that I’ve more background, more context, I think that it came out of this experience of watching the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union was so underdeveloped and you know there weren’t very many political structures in place. It was true that a small group of people getting a bunch of people angry could kinda take over a whole country and I just don’t think that that could happen in developed countries like the US or Ireland so I began wondering what is it that you can do in developed countries, you know everything seems so ineffective and so powerless and it wasn’t until just recently that I started thinking ok, the internet provides this opportunity now to raise money to get candidates elected. It used to be that there was just no way for a small group of people to go up against the power of big money, but one of the things we’ve seen in the PCCC , there’s just a couple of us who work there and in the past year using nothing but basically computers and our own apartments we’ve gotten 300,000 people (now 950,000) to join our list and to raise millions of dollars. I mean that just three people were able to make a huge difference like that and the internet provides this chance where we can start taking on big corporations.
As you developed your interest in social activism have there been any people or ideas or organisations that have really inspired you?
Right before I went to college I read two books. I read a book “ Moral Mazes” by Robert Jackall which is a study of how corporations work, and it’s actually a fascinating book, this sociologist, he just picks a corporation at random and just goes and studies the middle managers, not the people who do any of the grunt work and not the big decision makers, just the people whose job is to make sure that things day to day get done, and he shows how even though they’re all perfectly reasonable people, perfectly nice people you’d be happy to meet any of them, all the things that they were accomplishing were just incredibly evil. So you have these people in this average corporation, they were making decisions to blow out their worker’s eardrums in the factory, to poison the lakes and the lagoons nearby, to make these products that are filled with toxic chemicals that poisoned their customers, not because any of them were bad people and wanted to kill their workers and their neighbourhood and their customers, but just because that was the logic of the situation they were in.
Another book I read was a book “Understanding Power” by Noam Chomsky which kind of took the same sort of analysis but applied it to wider society which you know we’re in a situation where it may be filled with perfectly good people but they’re in these structures that cause them to continually do evil, to invade countries, to bomb people, to take money from poor people and give it to rich people, to do all these things that are wrong. These books really opened my eyes about just how bad the society we were living in really is.
And is there any key message that you’d give to anyone watching this interview or listening in? Any key point you’d like to encourage people to, to keep in mind when they’re thinking about the issues that affect them, or the issues they might want to take action on?
I think the most important thing is to realise that you can accomplish something. I know that sometimes you just feel powerless that you’re one small person in this world of big corporations and big evil people and big media companies and so on, and there’s nothing you can do, but the fact is a lot of the reason it seems like that is that people feel powerless. People are afraid to do anything you know for a long time I watched the news and all I saw was this corporate propaganda and this kind of anti-activism attacks and I thought, that the news media was just inevitably biased against us, that there was just no hope that the only solution alternative was to create alternative news streams.
Now with the PCCC I’ve found that it’s not that the news media is inevitably biased against us, it’s just that, reporters you know, like all of us are just kinda lazy you know they report the stories that people give to them, and there are huge companies that are willing to write up stories for them and you know hand them to them on silver platters and all they have to do is just type them up. Of course they’re going to do that and it turned out that when we did the same thing, we started writing press releases, going to reporters and pitching stories, they were just as happy to write about us as they were to write about Coca Cola. So because I had believed for so long that change was impossible it precluded me from taking any actions that could have caused that change and so I think the first step for everyone out there is to believe that you can actually accomplish something because once you believe that you’re half way to actually doing something.
SEPARATE 2011 INTERVIEW FOR YOUTH YOUTHRISING
INTERNET ACTIVIST AARON SWARTZ TALKS TO SPUNOUT
You've been involved in using the internet for activism a long time now. How did you get started with it all?
I was very lucky -- my Dad ran a software company, so we had computers around the house since I was born and an Internet connection from very early on. Back in those days, it seemed so clear that this was going to change everything, that not using the Internet for activism seemed crazy.
What was the main inspiration behind you getting involved with the web and in campaigning?
For a while, I made the usual programmer's mistake that the way to change the world with technology was to make better technology - just give voters, politicians, whomever better tools to do their job and everything would work better. But after trying it, it became pretty obvious that wasn't enough: you needed to fight.
What do you think are the particular benefits of focusing on the web as a tool for change?
It's so easy -- there's hardly anything comparable. Where else can you get people to help you do something in just a couple seconds?
What have been the highlights in the journey so far?
The moments that get me jazzed are combining the online stuff with very exciting offline stuff. After hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition supporting a government-run health insurance plan for the US, I got to run around the halls of Congress buttonholing politicians about whether they'd vote for it.
How do you feel about where the U.S is at right now?
We're in a pretty sorry state -- our political system is getting increasingly dysfunctional as our problems are getting increasingly severe. It seems ripe for radical change, but it seems as likely the change will be for the worse as for the better.
From what you hear about the EU and Ireland, what are your impressions of what is going on over here?
It sounds like the Euro has turned out to have exactly the problems that folks like Paul Krugman and Gordon Brown said it would. In the US, the government may not be doing enough to get people back to work, but at least it's possible. Under the Euro, Germany can insist on letting the Irish suffer another man-made disaster. Ireland needs to declare a bank holiday and escape.
In general, how do you stay motivated, focused and determined in the face of adversity?
What else are you going to do? It's nice to take a vacation every once in a while, but I find I can't go too far without finding myself itching to get back into the fight.
What advice would you give to people starting out in community or campaign projects?
Start by picking something you're confident you can achieve. There's nothing like a victory to keep you going and learning from a concrete success or failure is much better than throwing yourself into a big fight you don't expect to win.
How do you stay sane in the middle of it all? What do you do for fun, to unwind etc?
Sneaking off with friends and holing up with a good book. Nothing gets me energized like working with other amazing people.
RUAIRÍ MCKIERNAN: So, Professor Chomsky, I understand There is a rumour circulating in Ireland that you may be joining The Gaelic Athletic Association. Is There any merit in that claim?
NOAM CHOMSKY: I’m sure I’m gonna be one of The major players in The next championship, yes.
RUAIRÍ MCKIERNAN: Is this an aspiration that you’ve always held?
NOAM CHOMSKY: (Laughs)
RUAIRÍ MCKIERNAN: Maybe you could give me a little bit of information about how your relationship with The Gaelic Athletic Association has come about through The Palestine work?
NOAM CHOMSKY: I mean, I’ve met people associated with it through common interest in Palestine and ah, that’s about The limits of my association. Some very wonderful people in fact, like t who just got back from The free Gaza experience with quite a Story to tell and in fact started a Gaelic Association club in Gaza.
RUAIRÍ MCKIERNAN: And do you see this type of initiative, like sport, as being an interesting way of creating awareness around The situation in Gaza?
NOAM CHOMSKY: I mean, it’s one. If it does so, fine. I mean The fact that There is a connection of that nature is a way of building up consciousness and awareness of The situationThere and what we can do about it. Actually, I was in Ireland a couple of months ago and was struck to see substantial popular sympathy for The suffering and horrible oppression of Gaza. Especially I noticed it specifically in Belfast and I was impressed by it.
RUAIRÍ MCKIERNAN: Do you think There is a consciousness in Ireland for international struggles that maybe is different to elsewhere?
NOAM CHOMSKY: There has been sometimes. So, for example during The 1980s, when The U.S. was essentially at war with Central America, The Reagan administration was carrying out and supporting a horrendous terrorist war in Central America and a good deal of The information about it did come through Ireland. Ireland had special connections. The war was to a substantial extent a war against The church. Now There was a tradition of Irish priests in Central America, and through that connection information was coming back. I could read things in The Irish Press that I couldn’t find here and There seemed to be support for it, a popular concern over The atrocities going on There. I mean Ireland itself has had eight hundred years of oppression which I suppose creates some sensitivity to what it means for oThers.
RUAIRÍ MCKIERNAN: Ireland, like much of The world is going through some dramatic changes at The moment, particularly in terms of The role of The state, The role of The banks & The role ofThe church. In your own experiences of coming and going from Ireland, how do you see The country evolving and how do you see The future for Ireland?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, for one thing, There’s a difference between The Republic and NorThern Ireland. In The case of Belfast, I hadn’t been There for fifteen years. The last time I wasThere was 1993. At that time it was a real war-zone as was The whole environment, South Armagh and so on. Today it’s, at least on The surface, at peace. There are tensions and it doesn’t take long to notice Their manifestations but it’s more or less peaceful. The major conflicts have been substantially resolved and There’s a lesson There; as long as The British responded to IRA terror by just more violence, it simply stimulated The cycle of violence and retaliation.
As soon as They began with some useful U.S. intervention; George Mitchell and Bill Clinton, They began to pay some attention to The legitimate grievances that lay Behind The violence,Then it became possible, when There were some moves made, to deal with those (grievances), and They were legitimate. Then The violence subsided and finally it declined, not to nothing but certainly nothing like what it was a few years ago. And that is true generally. Where There is terrorist violence, it comes from something, and quite often it has its roots in legitimate grievances, which should be attended to quite apart from The violence. But when They are addressed seriously, that offers a constructive way to undercut and maybe eliminateThe violence and confrontations.
The Republic is a different Story. It went through a period of living in a fairy-tale euphoria. There was a moment when Ireland was able to capitalise on The fact that it had an educated, skilled population thanks to substantial state investment and had an entry into The European market so it was a perfect place for American firms to invest, and that led to a false prosperity. The numbers were real, Ireland looked like one of The richest places in The world, but it was all built on sand. The economy was not developing internally. Ireland became one of The main exporters of pharmaceuticals for example, but not because Ireland had developed a pharmaceutical industry or a software industry or so on but it was a convenient place for mostly American firms to invest and enter into The European market. That was clearly a temporary phenomenon.
The opportunity was wasted through a lot of plain robbery if you look at what happened; fake wealth, a housing boom which was based on nothing and yes it collapsed. And now Ireland is in serious financial straits. It’s necessary to live in The real world not a world of illusions and ideology. There are some very good, careful analyses of These; Fintan O’Toole’s recent book ‘Ship of Fools’ which goes through it in detail. He could see it coming, before in fact he himself had written about it, before he saw oThers worrying about it. Warnings were not attended to and now There is going to be a severe cost to pay.
RUAIRÍ MCKIERNAN: In terms of moving on from The difficulties that Ireland faces, what do you see as potential solutions?
NOAM CHOMSKY: For Ireland? Well, you know, I’m reluctant to talk about what should be done in Ireland because I don’t have a sufficiently intimate knowledge of The problems of Thecountry. That has to be done by people that do. But plainly Ireland is going to have to create a self-sustaining economy. One that cannot just be a launching pad for oThers, while Ireland tries to live off The booty that comes along with it on The side. I think that those days are probably over. Ireland has opportunities, it has human resources, it has a rich culture and tradition, it’s part of Europe.
It has benefited enormously from The largesse of The European community and again it cannot go on forever being a kind of borrower state, depending on The kindness of strangers. So it will have to build an internally self-sustaining economy which is productive and makes use of The capacities that Ireland indeed does have to create something that is not simply parasitic on The outside. Added that it requires more knowledge of The details than I have.
RUAIRÍ MCKIERNAN: And in terms of...obviously The previous model of development has failed. Looking at your own experience in The U.S. and overseas, what do you see as alternative models for social and economic development? And perhaps where do you see signs of hope?
NOAM CHOMSKY: The main signs of hope today I think are probably in South America. I mean South America, for The first time in 500 years since The European conquests, has begun to confront its fundamental internal problems. The traditional Latin American society has been sharply split, between a wealthy Europeanised, often white elite which is quite wealthy and orientated towards societies abroad raTher than The responsibilities for Their own society, separated from The oTher societies of The region, all living in a real mass of misery and oppression. Latin America does have substantial resources internally but it has been a plaything for its wealthy elite since The imperial powers and The United States in recent years and those problems are beginning to be addressed. OTher countries are beginning to integrate with one anoTher for The first time which is a prerequisite for independence and They’ve also begun to, in various ways, face some of Their internal problems.
Some of The examples are pretty striking like Bolivia where it’s The poorest country in South America but The majority of The population is indigenous. About a decade ago They began to become sufficiently organised so that They were able to take significant steps towards controlling Their own society and economy and by 2005 even elect someone from Their own ranks as president, Evo Morales. He has just been re-elected with an even higher vote partly because of The remarkably successful economic policies. Bolivia has had a quite impressive growth rate. I think The highest in Latin America. And for The first time, The rights of The indigenous majority are gaining serious attention.
The policies of The government involve control over resources, problems of cultural rights, which are very significant in a highly multi-cultural society, indigenous rights, problems of justice and The initiative for dealing with Them is coming from substantial popular movements. These are democratic achievements which are hard to match elsewhere. There’s plenty wrong with it, and of course The traditional elite is bitter and angry and backed by The United States of course so There’s plenty of conflict. For example, one of The farces that goes on in The world is called The drug war, and it is a farce, it has very little to do with drugs but The Obama administration recently de-certified two Latin American countries claiming that They don’t cooperate sufficiently in The drug war; Bolivia and Venezuela, clearly on political and ideological grounds.
That’s one illustration of The hostility of The traditional elites and Their traditional backer, The United States in The face of popular movements that are really making substantial gains. Similar things are happening in Ecuador, and in different ways in Brazil and Argentina. These are important moves. I’m sure There’ll be plenty of setbacks. The problems are enormous but it’s substantial progress. Latin America was one of The most rigorous adherents to The neo-liberal programs dictated by The United States, The IMF and The World Bank and suffered tremendously from Them but it has pretty much overthrown that and is moving towards independent development. It could be successful. That’s not a radical model by any means.
That’s a very moderate model and I think There are things that can go much farTher. Take, say, The United States; The richest country in The world with incomparable advantages. It’s been through 30 years of, from some points of view, The worst economic period in its hiStory. There’s plenty of wealth, but it’s concentrated in very few pockets. For The majority of Thepopulation ever since The Reagan years, real wages have pretty much stagnated, in recent years even declined. Their benefits have declined, working hours have increased. Infrastructure is collapsing while The economy is being financialised. Around 1970 maybe 3% of GDP was produced by The financial industries.
By now it’s over a third. The corollary of that is that productive manufacturing is hollowed out, sent abroad or just eliminated which means decent jobs, decent work opportunities, reasonable life for families and communities. First of all this has led to (a) tremendous economic crisis, that we’re right in The middle of and also real anger, populist anger which is very understandable. While The population is suffering, not suffering by third world standards but suffering relative to what ought to happen in a rich country, The financial industries are just booming. Profits are bigger than ever after a huge public bailout, They’re giving away huge bonuses to Their executives and that of course that creates a justified anger and it could be very dangerous.
RUAIRÍ MCKIERNAN: There’s a similar anger in Ireland I would say and I’m just curious as to, when you look at that anger and The situation in The U.S. and The situation in Ireland, and reference that to The experience in Latin America what do you think that ordinary people in both our countries can learn from those experiences and how can we organise and think differently?
NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s strange to say but I think we can learn a lot from The poorest and most repressed population in The hemisphere, namely The indigenous population of Thepoorest country in South America, Bolivia. They took Their fate into Their own hands and have succeeded. We’re not Bolivia obviously but similar things can be done here. So take for example The manufacturing industry.
A functioning manufacturing industry is going to be The basis for any successful, advanced society. People think of manufacturing as kind of old fashioned & not high tech. That’s not true. Manufacturing is a very high tech industry in fact. But it does offer employment, it develops wealth, it creates The basis for communities to survive and flourish. Does it have to be displaced abroad in The interest of bankers? No, that’s not a law of nature. That’s a special form of neo-liberal capitalism. And it would be possible, certainly, for say, working people in Michigan, in The mid-west to take over those industries, run Them Themselves, run Them profitably and produce what is needed. In fact, what you observe in The United States today is almost surreal. I mean The country’s infrastructure is terrible. Just compare U.S. railroads to European continental railroads.
One thing that is very seriously needed, because of The energy crisis, The climate crisis, The infrastructure crisis is high-speed transit. Now, Obama’s transportation secretary is in Europe trying to use federal stimulus money for contracts with Spanish companies to produce high-speed rail technology and equipment for The United States. That’s outlandish. At Thesame time They’re dismantling The industrial capacity at home which could very well produce it. Well, you know, it’s not necessary to sit and watch that happen any more than it was necessary for Bolivian peasants to watch The World Bank privatise water so that some economists could be happy and Bechtel Company could make plenty of money but They wouldn’t have water to drink. They kicked The company out and took The system over Themselves and that could be done here.
RUAIRÍ MCKIERNAN: What is your key message to people in terms of how They can solve These problems and take things back into Their own hands?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well in this particular case, workers and communities can take over The industrial facilities that are being dismantled and just run Them Themselves. They’ll need popular support for that and maybe federal support too but that probably wouldn’t even be a fraction of what’s being given away to big bankers. Those are all feasible tasks and if Thepopulist anger goes in that direction and in many similar things elsewhere, it could be meaningful. On The oTher hand, if it turns into a right-wing rage; a Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh style rage it could be extremely dangerous. It’s The task of serious organisers and activists to try to help direct These understandable currents into constructive directions raTher than those that might have very ominous consequences. And I presume similar things can be said about Ireland with different circumstances. The same is true in many oTher things. Take, say, healthcare. The main issue that congress has been struggling with in recent months is a healthcare bill.
The U.S. healthcare system is a complete scandal. It has about twice The per-capita costs of oTher industrial societies. It has some of The worst outcomes. 50 million people have no insurance at all. It is also The only healthcare system in The industrial world that’s based on, essentially unregulated private insurance companies and a powerful drug industry. This isThe only country in The world that I know of where The government is barred by law from negotiating drug prices with The big pharmaceutical industries. Well, you know, when you have an unregulated insurance system, a huge pharmaceutical industry that is free to do what it wants and of course benefits from enormous government support in research & development, in monopoly pricing rights and so on, it’s not a not a free-market system. As long as you have that you’re going to have an extremely expensive, wasteful and inefficient healthcare system. Now The public has views on this.
For years, decades, The public has been in favour of some sort of a national healthcare system. Well that’s not even on The agenda. Private financial institutions and The pharmaceutical industry won’t permit it. They basically own Congress and The White House so They get Their way. Now There was an attempt in The current bills to deal with The public concern by allowing what was called a public option, that is, among The options that would be available for healthcare There would be a public one. Sort of like Medicare, The program for Theelderly. And There was also an option to allow ‘buy-in’ to Medicare. So instead of (having The option) at 65, you could buy in at 55.
The public was and still is pretty strongly in favour of These choices. If you look at The polls it’s kind of like 2:1. They are not going to be enacted because of The power of The insurance companies and The financial institutions. Are The private insurance companies going to be regulated? Well The latest poll just came out about two days ago, and by a large margin, people think something should be done about it and are in favour of regulation. It’s not going to happen. In fact what you read in The press says that The public are opposed to Thehealthcare reform.
That’s true, because They want it to go farTher, not because They don’t want to have it. But The power of private capital is so extraordinary and Congress and The White House are so subordinate to it that we are going to end up with, at best, some minor improvement over a system that is so fiscally out of control that it’s going to practically destroy The budget. Well, those are signs of serious failures of democracy and of organising and of activism. That has to be dealt with. You see that everywhere. Take say global warming. If nothing is done about that, nothing serious, it’s going to be, maybe not a death knell for The species, but it’s going to lead to a catastrophe sooner or later.
The energy industries in The United States are strongly opposed to doing anything about it because it will cut into Their short term profits and They have launched a huge propaganda campaign, which The media are fairly receptive to, to try to convince The public that it’s not a significant issue. And that has been successful. In The past year, if you look at polls, Theproportion of people who think that global warming is a serious problem has dropped sharply. In fact it has dropped to The point where barely a third of The population thinks that human activity has an effect on global warming. Well that’s a great victory for The energy corporations. It’s a huge defeat for our grandchildren who are going to live with The consequences of this and here’s a task where organisers and activists have Their work cut out for Them on an issue that’s basically one of species survival.
RUAIRÍ MCKIERNAN: Can They do it?
NOAM CHOMSKY: We don’t know but it’s not going to happen by itself. And There are many oTher issues.
A selection of Ruairí's articles published in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Times, the Huffington Post, and other publications.