Throughout his illustrious career, one of Noam Chomsky’s chief preoccupations has been questioning — and urging us to question — the assumptions and norms that govern our society.
Following a talk on power, ideology, and US foreign policy last weekend at the New School in New York City, freelance Italian journalist Tommaso Segantini sat down with the eighty-six-year-old to discuss some of the same themes, including how they relate to processes of social change.
For radicals, progress requires puncturing the bubble of inevitability: austerity, for instance, “is a policy decision undertaken by the designers for their own purposes.” It is not implemented, Chomsky says, “because of any economic laws.” American capitalism also benefits from ideological obfuscation: despite its association with free markets, capitalism is shot through with subsidies for some of the most powerful private actors. This bubble needs popping too.
And he remains soberly optimistic. “Over time there’s a kind of a general trajectory towards a more just society, with regressions and reversals of course.”
Tommaso Segantini: In an interview a couple of years ago, you said that the Occupy Wall Street movement had created a rare sentiment of solidarity in the US. September 17 was the fourth anniversary of the OWS movement. What is your evaluation of social movements such as OWS over the last twenty years? Have they been effective in bringing about change? How could they improve?
Noam Chomsky: They’ve had an impact; they have not coalesced into persistent and ongoing movements. It’s a very atomized society. There are very few continuing organizations which have institutional memory, that know how to move to the next step and so on.
This is partly due to the destruction of the labor movement, which used to offer a kind of fixed basis for many activities; by now, practically the only persistent institutions are the churches. So many things are church-based.
It’s hard for a movement to take hold. There are often movements of young people, which tend to be transitory; on the other hand there’s a cumulative effect, and you never know when something will spark into a major movement. It’s happened time and again: civil rights movement, women’s movement. So keep trying until something takes off.
The 2008 crisis clearly demonstrated the flaws of the neoliberal economic doctrine. Nevertheless, neoliberalism still seems to persist and its principles are still applied in many countries. Why, even with the tragic effects of the 2008 crisis, does the neoliberal doctrine appear to be so resilient? Why hasn’t there yet been a strong response like after the Great Depression?
First of all, the European responses have been much worse than the US responses, which is quite surprising. In the US there were mild efforts at stimulus, quantitative easing and so on, which slowly allowed the economy to recover.
In fact, recovery from the Great Depression was actually faster in many countries than it is today, for a lot of reasons. In the case of Europe, one of the main reasons is that the establishment of a single currency was a built-in disaster, like many people pointed out. Mechanisms to respond to the crisis are not available in the EU: Greece, for example, can’t devalue its currency.
The integration of Europe had very positive developments in some respects and was harmful in others, especially when it is under the control of extremely reactionary economic powers, imposing policies which are economically destructive and that are basically a form of class war.
Why is there no reaction? Well, the weak countries are not getting support from others. If Greece had had support from Spain, Portugal, Italy, and other countries they might have been able to resist the eurocrat forces. These are kind of special cases having to do with contemporary developments. In the 1930s, remember the responses were not particularly attractive: one of them was Nazism.
Several months ago Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, was elected as Greece’s prime minister. In the end, however, he had to make many compromises due to the pressure imposed on him by financial powers, and was forced to implement harsh austerity measures.
Do you think that, in general, genuine change can come when a radical leftist leader like Tsipras comes to power, or have nation states lost too much sovereignty and are they too dependent on financial institutions that can discipline them if they don’t follow the rules of the free market?
As I said, in the case of Greece, if there had been popular support for Greece from other parts of Europe, Greece might have been able to withstand the assault of the eurocrat bank alliance. But Greece was alone — it did not have many options.
There are very good economists such as Joseph Stiglitz who think Greece should have just pulled out of the eurozone. It’s a very risky step. Greece is a very small economy, it’s not much of an export economy, and it would be too weak to withstand external pressures.
There are people who criticize the Syriza tactics and the stand that they took, but I think it’s hard to see what options they had with the lack of external support.
Let’s imagine for example that Bernie Sanders won the 2016 presidential elections. What do you think would happen? Could he bring radical change in the structures of power of the capitalist system?
Suppose that Sanders won, which is pretty unlikely in a system of bought elections. He would be alone: he doesn’t have congressional representatives, he doesn’t have governors, he doesn’t have support in the bureaucracy, he doesn’t have state legislators; and standing alone in this system, he couldn’t do very much. A real political alternative would be across the board, not just a figure in the White House.
It would have to be a broad political movement. In fact, the Sanders campaign I think is valuable — it’s opening up issues, it’s maybe pressing the mainstream Democrats a little bit in a progressive direction, and it is mobilizing a lot of popular forces, and the most positive outcome would be if they remain after the election.
It’s a serious mistake to just to be geared to the quadrennial electoral extravaganza and then go home. That’s not the way changes take place. The mobilization could lead to a continuing popular organization which could maybe have an effect in the long run.
What is your opinion on the emergence of figures such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Pablo Iglesias in Spain, or Bernie Sanders in the US? Is a new left movement on the rise, or are these just sporadic responses to the economic crisis?
It depends what the popular reaction is. Take Corbyn in England: he’s under fierce attack, and not only from the Conservative establishment, but even from the Labour establishment. Hopefully Corbyn will be able to withstand that kind of attack; that depends on popular support. If the public is willing to back him in the face of the defamation and destructive tactics, then it can have an impact. Same with Podemos in Spain.
How can one mobilize a large number of people on such complex issues?
It’s not that complex. The task of organizers and activists is to help people understand and to make them recognize that they have power, that they’re not powerless. People feel impotent, but that has to be overcome. That’s what organizing and activism is all about.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails, but there aren’t any secrets. It’s a long-term process — it has always been the case. And it’s had successes. Over time there’s a kind of a general trajectory towards a more just society, with regressions and reversals of course.
So would you say that, during your lifetime, humanity has progressed in the construction of a somewhat more just society?
There have been enormous changes. Just look here at MIT. Take a walk down the hall and take a look at the nature of the student body: it’s about half women, a third minorities, informally dressed, casual relations among people and so on. When I got here in 1955, if you’d walk down the same hall it would have been white males, jackets and ties, very polite, obedient, not posing many questions. That’s a huge change.
And it’s not just here — it’s all over the place. You and I wouldn’t have looked like this, and in fact you probably wouldn’t be here. Those are some of the cultural and social changes that have taken place thanks to committed and dedicated activism.
Other things have not, like the labor movement, which has been under severe attack all throughout American history and particularly since the early 1950s. It has been seriously weakened: in the private sector it’s marginal, and it’s now being attacked in the public sector. That’s a regression.
The neoliberal policies are certainly a regression. For the majority of the population in the US, there’s been pretty much stagnation and decline in the last generation. And not because of any economic laws. These are policies. Just as austerity in Europe is not an economic necessity — in fact, it’s economic nonsense. But it’s a policy decision undertaken by the designers for their own purposes. I think basically it’s a kind of class war, and it can be resisted, but it’s not easy. History doesn’t go in a straight line.
How do you think that the capitalist system will survive, considering its dependence on fossil fuels and its impact on the environment?
What’s called the capitalist system is very far from any model of capitalism or market. Take the fossil fuels industries: there was arecent study by the IMF which tried to estimate the subsidy that energy corporations get from governments. The total was colossal. I think it was around $5 trillion annually. That’s got nothing to do with markets and capitalism.
And the same is true of other components of the so-called capitalist system. By now, in the US and other Western countries, there’s been, during the neoliberal period, a sharp increase in the financialization of the economy. Financial institutions in the US had about 40 percent of corporate profits on the eve of the 2008 collapse, for which they had a large share of responsibility.
There’s another IMF study that investigated the profits of American banks, and it found that they were almost entirely dependent on implicit public subsidies. There’s a kind of a guarantee — it’s not on paper, but it’s an implicit guarantee — that if they get into trouble they will be bailed out. That’s called too-big-to-fail.
And the credit rating agencies of course know that, they take that into account, and with high credit ratings financial institutions get privileged access to cheaper credit, they get subsidies if things go wrong and many other incentives, which effectively amounts to perhaps their total profit. The business press tried to make an estimate of this number and guessed about $80 billion a year. That’s got nothing to do with capitalism.
It’s the same in many other sectors of the economy. So the real question is, will this system of state capitalism, which is what it is, survive the continued use of fossil fuels? And the answer to that is, of course, no.
By now, there’s a pretty strong consensus among scientists who say that a large majority of the remaining fossil fuels, maybe 80 percent, have to be left in the ground if we hope to avoid a temperature rise which would be pretty lethal. And it is not happening. Humans may be destroying their chances for decent survival. It won’t kill everybody, but it would change the world dramatically.