Overcoming Despair as the Republicans Take Over: A Conversation with Noam Chomsky
Michael Lerner (ML): You have made many excellent analyses of the power of global capital and its capacity to undermine ordinary citizens’ efforts to transform the global reality toward a more humane and generous world. If there were a serious movement in the U.S. ready to challenge global capital, what should such a movement do? Or is it, as many believe, hopeless, given the power of capital to control the media, undermine democratic movements, and use the police/military power and the co-optive power of mass entertainment, endless spectacle, and financial compensations for many of the smartest people coming up through working-class and middle-income routes? What path is rational for a movement seeking to build a world of environmental sanity, social justice, and peace, yet facing such a sophisticated, powerful, and well-organized social order?
Noam Chomsky (NC): There is no doubt that concentrated private capital closely linked to the state has substantial resources, but on the other hand we shouldn’t overlook the fact that quite a bit has been achieved through public struggles in the U.S. over the years. In many respects this remains an unusually free country. The state has limited power to coerce, compared with many other countries, which is a very good thing. Many rights have been won, even in the past generation, and that provides a legacy from which we can move on. Struggling for freedom and justice has never been easy, but it has achieved progress; I don’t think we should assume that there are any particular limits.
At the moment we can’t realistically talk about challenging global capital, because the movements that might undertake such a task are far too scattered and atomized and focused on particular issues. But we can try to confront directly what global capital is doing right now and, on the basis of that, move on to further achievements. For example, it’s no big secret that in the past thirty years there has been enormous concentration of wealth in a very tiny part of the population, 1 percent or even one-tenth of 1 percent, and that has conferred extraordinary political power on a very tiny minority, primarily [those who control] financial capital, but also more broadly on the executive and managerial classes. At the same time, for the majority of the population, incomes have pretty much stagnated, working hours have increased, benefits have declined — they were never very good — and people are angry, hostile, and very upset. Many people distrust institutions, all of them; it’s a volatile period, and it’s a period which could move in a very dangerous direction — there are analogues, after all — but it could also provide opportunities to educate and organize and carry things forward. One may have a long-term goal of confronting global capital, but there have to be small steps along the way before you could even think of undertaking a challenge of that magnitude in a realistic way.
ML: Do you see any strategy for overcoming the fragmentation that exists among social movements to help people recognize an overriding shared agenda?
NC: One failing of the social movements that I’ve noticed over many years is that while they are focusing on extremely crucial and important social issues like women’s rights, environmental protections, and so on, they have tended to ignore or downplay the economic and social crises faced by working people. It’s not that they are completely ignored, but they are downplayed. And that has to be overcome, and there are ways to do it. So, to take a concrete example right near where I live, right now there is a town near Boston where a multinational corporation is closing down a local plant because it’s not profitable enough from the point of view of the multinational. Members of the workforce have offered to purchase the plant and the equipment, and the multinational doesn’t want to do that; it would rather lose money than offer the opportunity for a worker self-managed plant that might well become successful. And the multinational has the power to do what it wants, of course. But sufficient popular support — community support, activist support, and so on — could swing the balance. Things like that are happening all over the country.
Take Obama’s virtual takeover of the auto industry. There were several options at that point. One option, which the Obama administration chose, was to restore the old order, assist in the closing of plants, the shifting of production abroad and so on, and maybe get a functioning auto industry again. Another option would have been to take over those plants — plants that are being dismantled — and convert them to things that are very badly needed in the country, like high-speed rail — it’s a scandal that the United States doesn’t have this kind of infrastructure, which many other countries have developed. In fact at the very time that Obama was closing down plants in the Midwest, his transportation secretary was in Europe trying to get contracts from Spain for high-speed rail construction, which could have been done in those very plants that were being dismantled.
To move in the direction that I suggest would take substantial organization, community support, national support, and recognition that worker self-managed production aimed at real social needs is an option that can be pursued; if it is pursued, you move to a pretty radical stage of consciousness, and it could go on and on from there. Unfortunately, that was not even discussed.
Amend the Constitution?
ML: Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have proposed the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution or ESRA [read it at spiritualprogressives.org/ESRA], which we think could potentially unite many segments of the liberal and progressive forces in this country. It starts with a first clause that essentially takes money out of national elections by forbidding private money in elections and requiring that they be funded by public sources. It overturns Citizens United, it requires the mass media to give equal and free time to all major candidates, and it bans any private advertising in the months before an election. It then goes on to the issues of corporate environmental and social responsibility and requires that any corporation with income above $100 million per year would have to get a new corporate charter once every five years; to get the charter, a corporation would have to prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens so as to avoid the control of regulatory agencies by the people they are supposed to be regulating.
I wonder if this kind of idea makes sense to you, not as something that is likely to pass but as something that is likely to frame an agenda that is potentially unifying and that does give people a concrete vision of what it might look like to get significant advances toward democratic control of the society and some semblance of responsibility from corporations.
NC: I think those are ideas that I would endorse. I’m sure that they can be used for organizing and education, but until those organizing and educational efforts reach a much higher plateau than anyone can envision today, the proposals are impossible to implement. So yes, as a platform for organizing and bringing people together, ideas of that kind make good sense, as do the kind I mentioned, and many others, but work has to be done.
ML: Dennis Kucinich has promised to introduce this into Congress. It’s not something that we’re expecting to have passed in this current Congress, but something that — if we can get them endorsed by local city councils and state legislatures — might raise the kinds of issues that right now are not even in the public sphere at all.
NC: It’s a reasonable tactic, especially trying to implement it at the local level. There are things you can do with local councils, communities, and maybe someday state legislatures that aren’t really feasible at the congressional level, and that is a way of building popular organizations.
Run a Progressive Candidate against Obama in 2012?
ML: Now in trying to find a way to bring together some of the forces that responded to what they believed to be a progressive candidacy in the Obama campaign of 2008, I wonder what you think of the notion of trying to create a progressive candidacy to oppose Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries, and to use that effort to build a public face for a progressive opposition that could then split the Democrats and create a third party with a greater mass base than the Greens.
NC: You know, that’s sort of a difficult tactical question. My own guess is that efforts that are undertaken at the national level make sense if they’re connected to a program of local organizing. I think we’re very far from being able to carry out large-scale changes at the national level.
You could see the limitations of a national campaign in the 2008 election. A tremendous amount of energy and excitement was generated, but it was clear from the beginning that it was going to head toward severe disillusionment because there was nothing real there — it was based on illusion. And when people dedicate themselves and work hard to try to bring about something that is illusory, there’s going to be a negative effect, which in fact happened, so there’s been tremendous disillusionment, apathy, pulling away, and so on.
Organize Locally, Defend Public Sector Unions
I think we should be careful to set realistic goals — they don’t have to succeed, but if they fail, the failure itself can be used as a basis to go on, and that’s not the case when you get involved in national electoral politics. So the kind of suggestion you make, I think it can be developed in such a way that would be constructive. But making clear that the real goal is the development of the kind of organization that can change things on the ground; it may ultimately have a national impact, but only when it’s developed far beyond what it is right now.
It’s not a great secret that the business classes in the United States, which are always fighting a bitter class war and are highly class-conscious, have been dedicated to destroying unions ever since the 1930s. And they’ve succeeded considerably in the private sphere, but not yet as successfully in the public sphere, and that’s what’s being targeted now: a major effort, a propaganda effort — the media are participating, both parties are involved — to try and undermine public unions. And that’s one of the points on this attack on public working people, turning them into the criminals that were responsible for the fiscal crisis. Not Goldman Sachs, but the teachers and policemen and so on.
We just saw that take place in Washington a couple of months ago. There was a big issue — the great achievement of the lame-duck Congress was supposed to have been a bipartisan agreement on taxes. Well, the crucial issue there was whether to extend Bush’s tax cuts for the very wealthy. The population was strongly opposed to that, maybe two to one, but the Democrats and Obama, instead of making use of that fact to try to eliminate that huge tax break for the rich, went along with it.
At the same time, both parties were trying to outdo each other and screaming about the danger of the federal deficit, when the fact of the matter is that we ought to be having a deficit in a time of recession. It’s an incredible propaganda achievement, for the Republicans particularly, to advocate a tax cut for the very wealthy that is extremely unpopular and that will of course substantially increase the deficit, and at the very same time present themselves as deficit hawks who are trying to protect future generations. But that’s only part of it, because at the very same time, Obama declared a tax increase for federal workers — it was called a pay freeze, but a pay freeze for workers in the public sector is the same as a tax increase on those workers. So here, a lot of shouting about how we’re cutting taxes and overcoming the deficit, and at the same time we’re raising taxes on public-sector workers.
This is part of the large propaganda campaign to try to undermine the public sector: demonizing teachers, police, and firemen with all kinds of fabrications about how they are overpaid, when in fact they’re underpaid relative to the skill levels in the private sector — denouncing their pensions and so on. These are major propaganda efforts, a kind of class war, and that ought to be combated, and I think that public opinion can be organized to combat it. Those are very concrete things that are happening right now, like the possibility of ending the closing down of factories and the mass suffering that it leads to, and turning that into something really radical: mainly worker self-managed production for human needs.
ML: Now, let’s imagine that the things that you’re saying, which right now are heard by a tiny percentage of the population, could be heard by virtue of somebody articulating them in a presidential primary against Obama — wouldn’t that, in and of itself, be of value? Particularly if that person were going to simultaneously be saying, “and we can’t expect to get the changes we want simply through the Democratic Party, so we need to use this campaign also to bring together people who are willing to continue this struggle as part of an organization that works both inside and outside the Democratic Party.”
NC: I think that should be done. I don’t know that one should necessarily take a strong stand on whether it should be a third party or change the Democratic Party — both are options. After all, the New Deal did succeed in changing the Democratic Party through the mechanism of popular activism.
ML: So you’re not one of those on the left who say it’s simply a poison to continue working inside the Democratic Party?
NC: I’m not coming out in favor of working inside the Democratic Party or opposing working inside the Democratic Party, I’m just saying I don’t see a point in taking a strong stand on that question. If it can be done [inside the party], fine; if it can’t be done, do it outside. In fact, it’s a little bit like a standard progressive approach to reformist goals — the goal is to press institutional structures to their limits. If in fact they can’t be pressed any further, and people understand that, then you have the basis for going onto something more far-reaching.
You Run. No, You Run.
ML: So knowing no one that has a better understanding of these dynamics than you, would you be willing to be a candidate for the presidency?
NC: I’m not the proper person to be a candidate. So personally, no, it’s not the kind of thing I can do.
ML: Since you have the analysis and can articulate it so clearly, why would you not be a good candidate?
NC: In our system, a candidate has to be someone who is an orator, or someone with some charisma, someone who tries to arouse emotions. I don’t do that, and, if I could do it, I wouldn’t. I’m not the right kind of person.
ML: That might be just why you’re the right person. The right kind of person is precisely the person who wouldn’t want to do it.
NC: Well, you do it. Your writing is very, very good.
ML: Okay, thanks Noam.
[I’ve already stated publicly that I’ll run the moment some group of wealthy people donate a billion dollars to that campaign so that we can hire organizers that would work on building a movement that grows out of the campaign and focuses on the environment, peace, social justice, economic democracy, human rights, and the New Bottom Line proposed by the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Until then, I’ll continue to edit Tikkun; work on building the Network of Spiritual Progressives’ campaigns for the ESRA and for a Global Marshall Plan; write books on theology, psychology, and social transformation; and spend time in prayer and meditation and celebration of the grandeur and mystery of the universe. And while Tikkun and the NSP don’t participate in electoral politics (they are nonprofits banned from doing so), I personally have been reaching out to better-known figures like Bill Moyers, Marian Wright Edelman, Senator Bernie Sanders, Rachel Maddow, and former Congressman Joe Sestak in the hopes that they and others might join together in an effort to build that kind of electoral campaign in 2012.]
ML: Do you have any other strategic advice for those of us who are seeking a transformation of our system?
The Urgent Threats of Climate Change and Nuclear War
NC: I don’t think there are any deep, dark secrets about this. There are many specific goals that we ought to be working hard to achieve; some of them are those that you’ve formulated in ESRA, others are the kind that I’ve mentioned.
Then there are others that are overwhelming in importance. For example, the looming global environmental crisis, which raises questions of species survival. It’s very urgent right now. Even some in the business press over at Business Week are nervous about the fact that the new Republicans that were elected are almost entirely climate-change deniers. In fact they quoted one recently who may be gaining the chair of an important committee, who is so off-the-wall he said, “We don’t have to worry about global warming because God wouldn’t allow it to happen.” I don’t think there’s another country in the world where a political figure can get away with that. Yet here there has been a major corporate propaganda offensive, quite openly announced, to try to convince people that the environmental crisis is a liberal hoax. And it’s had some success, according to the latest polls. The percentage of Americans who believe in anthropogenic global warming, human effects on climate change, is down to about a third. This is an extremely dangerous situation: it’s imminent; we have to do something about it right now.
There are other issues that deserve our immediate attention. The threat of nuclear war is very serious, and in fact is being increased by government policy. Right now one of the more interesting revelations from the WikiLeaks cables has to do with Pakistan: it’s obvious from the cables that the U.S. ambassador is well aware that the actions that the Obama administration is taking with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasing a very serious threat to the stability of Pakistan itself, and are raising the possibility, not trivial, that the country might fall apart, and that its huge store of nuclear weapons might end up in the hands of radical Islamists. I know there’s not a high probability, but it’s conceivable, and what we’re doing is accelerating that threat. Also, supporting India’s huge nuclear weapons buildup and blocking efforts supported by almost the entire world to move toward a nuclear weapons-free zone in the extremely volatile Middle East region — those are issues of great importance.
So there are plenty of urgent tasks, they just require always the same thing: efforts to educate, to organize, to bring together the forces that are concerned and develop strategy and tactics and implement them. So supporting, say, gay rights in the military is important, but it has to be linked to other efforts if it is to have a significant effect on the society.
What Do We Do about Religiophobia?
ML: As a side question, we in the NSP and Tikkun have found that our positions and analyses — which are in some ways more radical (going to the root) than many of the programs that you hear coming out of the Left, because we do have a class analysis and we do have an analysis of global capitalism — are nevertheless not paid much attention by the rest of the Left because of what we’ve experienced as a pervasive religiophobia. And that has also been experienced by people like Jim Wallis and those involved with Sojourners, and people around the Christian Century, and other progressive religious organizations. And I’m wondering if you have any advice to us on how to overcome that religiophobia, since it seems ludicrous to us that a secular left would not understand that, in a country where you have 80 percent of the population believing in God and 60 percent going to church at least once a month, it would be in their interest to have a unification with people who have a spiritual or religious consciousness.
NC: I think you should approach them, not just on the pragmatic grounds that it’s in their interest, but also on the grounds that it’s the right thing to do. I mean, personally, I’m completely secular, but I certainly recognize the right of people to have personal religious beliefs and the significance that it may have in their lives, though not for me. Though we can certainly understand each other at least that well, quite apart from pragmatic considerations. I mean, say if a mother is praying that she might see her dying child in heaven, it’s not my right to give her lectures on epistemology.
ML: But it’s not just issues of epistemology, because there we could have a good debate; it’s that there is a climate or a culture in the Left and the liberal arenas that simply assumes that anybody who would have a religious position must be intellectually underdeveloped or psychologically stuck, needing a father figure or scared of the unknown, or some other psychologically reductive analysis. That approach — a kind of ridicule of anybody who could possibly think that there was a spiritual dimension of reality, when it’s pervasive, pushes people away even if they agree with much of the rest of what the Left is saying. How does one raise that issue? How does one deal with that issue among lefties who are simply unaware of the elitism and offensiveness of these suppositions? There was a time when it was extremely difficult to raise the issue of patriarchy, sexism, or homophobia, because people thought, “well that’s ridiculous, it’s just not true, it’s not happening” — there was a huge level of denial. Do you have any advice for us on how to deal with that level of denial that exists in the culture of the Left? In my own study of this — I’ve done a rather extensive study of the psychodynamics of American society, which involved over 10,000 people — we found that this was a central issue for a lot of middle-income working people, who agreed with much of the Left’s positions, but felt dissed by the Left.
NC: Well, the way you approach people is to explain to them that not only is it not in their interest to diss other people, but it’s also morally and intellectually wrong. For example, one of the greatest dangers is secular religion — state worship. That’s a far more destructive factor in world affairs than religious belief, and it’s common on the Left. So you take a look at the very people who are passionately advocating struggling for atheism and repeating arguments that most of us understood when we were teenagers — those very same people are involved in highly destructive and murderous state worship, not all of them but some. Does that mean we should diss them? No, it means we should try to explain it to them.
Israel: U.S. Public Opinion Is Changing
ML: Let me ask you a little bit about Israel. Our standpoint is that Israel is headed for perpetual domination of the Palestinian people — a position that you recently articulated, that neither two-state nor one-state is likely to occur, but instead continuing domination. So, I’m asking you what strategies you suggest for those who are not satisfied with the organizations that advocate for peace, but do so in a way that frames the issues solely in terms of Israel’s interests. Tikkun would have a much bigger impact in the Jewish world if, for example, we had been willing to denounce the Palestinians more, particularly during the second intifada, and if we were to frame our issues solely in terms of why it’s irrational and self-destructive for Israel. But since we are committed to a different view — since we come from a religious perspective that every human being is created in the image of God and is equally deserving of care and support — we find it unconscionable to be quiet about the human pain and destructiveness that the Occupation of the West Bank and the transformation of Gaza into a huge prison camp has generated. Yet the Washington-based peace people and many (not all) among the secular Left in the Jewish world think that the smartest strategy is to downplay that issue and to play up only Israel’s interest. Do you have any advice for us on how to champion the end of the Occupation and the end of the oppression of Palestinians, when we — Tikkun and the NSP — are unable to frame the issues solely in terms of self-interest for Israel but are morally obliged to raise those issues in terms of the suffering of Palestinians and the ethical dimensions, even though doing so seems to be counterproductive to building support in the Jewish world?
NC: Well, first of all I’m not at all convinced that it’s counterproductive to building support — maybe among the existing Jewish institutions it is, but you’re not going to influence the Zionist organizations. But especially among younger Jews, yours is a position that has growing appeal. I’m coming not from a religious perspective but from a secular one and doing exactly the same thing, and the changes I’ve experienced over the last couple of years are enormous. Critical analysis of Israeli policies is one of the most popular issues on campus now.
However, my own view is that the real issue for us is not what Israel is doing but what the United States is doing — it’s in our hands to determine how this turns out. If the United States continues to lend completely uncritical support to the Israeli policies of expanding their control and domination, as is in fact happening, that’s what will eventuate. But that can change. And it can change by bringing the American population — Jewish and non-Jewish — to recognize that these U.S. government policies are unacceptable and have to be reversed. If the U.S. were induced or compelled by popular opinion to join the world on this issue, and I thoroughly mean that, then there could be a short-term resolution — not the end of the story, but at least significant improvement — by at least moving to a two-state settlement stage and an ongoing longer process. I think that’s quite realistic.
ML: And how do you imagine that change taking place? Given the constellation of forces right now in which this seems to be the only issue in which Democrats and Republicans are totally united, producing votes of 415 to 20 in support of crazy resolutions…
NC: You’re speaking of Congress, but I think we should look at the population, which is by no means unified on this. In fact, the majority of the population favors the formation of a Palestinian state, and our goal should be to organize the population so that the popular will is expressed in state actions. This has happened in the past: it happened on South Africa. I mean, the Reagan administration was strongly supporting apartheid, condemning the ANC as a major terrorist organization, and within a couple of years it shifted. The same thing happened with East Timor — as major atrocities continued through 1999, the Clinton administration continued supporting the Indonesian atrocities strongly, and then, rather suddenly, under international and domestic pressure it shifted position.
ML: Yes, but neither of those countries had a significant section of this population here in the U.S. supporting the existing repressive regimes and committed to them on a deep personal and emotional level. Whereas here, while I agree that there is a growing split in the Jewish community on these issues and Tikkun reflects the perspective of a very large section of Jews under the age of fifty, I don’t see a similar split among Christian Zionists, who represent a very large part of the population — much larger than the Jewish population, anyway.
NC: The Christian Right also supported apartheid. There are all kinds of differences, on the other hand, in the case of Israel-Palestine. By now there is a growing section inside the military and inside intelligence that is pulling for an end to U.S. support for Israeli intransigence because it’s harming U.S. operations in the field. If that spreads to the population, it could lead to a major wave of anti-Semitism. There are lots of differences among the cases, but the point is that policies can change, and my own sense is that even within the Jewish community, younger Jews are drifting away because what Israel is doing is just intolerable to their general liberal attitudes; I think we should welcome that move and try to direct it toward changing U.S. policy.
ML: Yes, the focus on changing U.S. policy is one of many reasons our NSP focus on the Global Marshall Plan is so important. The central point of our Global Marshall Plan is that “homeland security” cannot be achieved through the current “strategy of domination” of countries around the world, but only through a new “strategy of generosity” in which the U.S. acts in a caring way toward the people of the world. That same kind of caring and generosity will not likely take hold in Israel, where it would change everything, making peace a real possibility, not just a permanently elusive goal, until it takes hold in the West, primarily in the U.S. So that is one of many reasons why I agree with you that our work is in changing the foreign policy approach in the U.S., and that will only happen through a massive educational program at the grassroots level. By seeking city councils and state legislatures to endorse the Global Marshall Plan, we at the Network of Spiritual Progressives will be able to raise this new way of thinking about homeland security and eventually make a significant change in the mass consciousness in America on the question of what really works to bring safety, security, and peace to the U.S. and to the world.
Lerner, Michael. 2011. Overcoming Despair as the Republicans Take Over: A Conversation with Noam Chomsky. Tikkun 26(2): 17.