Interview: Noam Chomsky on “unprecedented” Occupy Wall Street restoring lost hope in America
“It’s quite different than anything that’s ever come before, either here or elsewhere, as far as I know.”
By Matt Kennard on Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011 - 3,366 words.
NC Professor Noam Chomsky
MK Matt Kennard
SB Shannon Bond
MK So, first question: I wanted to get from you an historical perspective – you’ve been involved in popular movements in the States for decades – how does Occupy Wall Street compare to what you’ve seen in the past?
NC It’s quite different than anything that’s ever come before, either here or elsewhere, as far as I know. It’s unprecedented in many ways; it started as a small demonstration of a novel type, modelled on the intensities and so on in the Middle East, but it very quickly expanded, took on a life of its own, spread to many other cities. It involves very large numbers of people and they’ve essentially created communities.
I don’t know if you’ve wandered through them, but these are functioning communities of… people live; structures have just emerged spontaneously of mutual support, whether it’s providing food, medical aid, libraries; there’s lively discussions happening all over, general meetings with a lot of participation. Actually, I’ve seen things happen in, say, occupation of a building for a couple of weeks, like occupation of the student centre on a campus, my own campus, in fact, for several weeks, which had this kind of character to it. But this is much richer and more extended, and it’s addressing very serious issues.
Its outcome will depend, I think… There are, first of all, immediate issues that ought to be addressed very quickly, and maybe they can organise enough pressure to have an impact on things that… like, for example, the… take, say, the decisions, or probably non-decision, of the Deficit Commission in a couple of weeks, that’s very imminent, and either way, if there is an agreement, which is unlikely, or more likely the usual paralysis, then automatic measures go into effect, which could have serious long-term harm. And with enough pressure, it might be possible to do something about that, but then most of what they’re talking about isn’t necessarily longer-term, but it will involve going beyond occupying a square to reaching out into communities other… half of the country doesn’t even know about the Occupy movement, according to polls. Those who do know are pretty supportive, but support, in general, has to be turned into participation and active efforts to do something about the very serious shared problems.
The fact that this is unprecedented, as I think it is, is in many ways quite appropriate, because the circumstances are unprecedented. If you take a look at the last 30 years, there’s been a real turning-point in American history; it’s reflected elsewhere, too, but we’ll keep it here – for the entire history of the United States, with various ups and downs and often not very pretty ways, there was a kind of a general tendency both towards economic growth development of productive industry and so on and also a sense of hopefulness. Even in dark times, like the depths of Depression, which I’m old enough to remember, in the latter years of the Depression, that was objectively much harsher than anything today, there was a sense that we’re going to get out of it somehow: we can work together, there are things happening – CIOs organising pressures… the government is receptive to pressures, too, to institute positive, basically, social democratic measures that society badly needed. There was a general sense of hopefulness even among people who were unemployed, like a lot of my family.
Now the last 30 years have been different. 30 years ago it all changed; there were major changes in the economy towards, basically, financialisation and offshoring of production, so production increases – it continues, but somewhere else; stagnation, or even decline, for the majority of the population; incredible concentration of wealth in a tiny fraction of the population.
The inequality’s largely driven by about a tenth of a percent, and concentration of wealth leads quickly to concentration of political power, which yields legislation that accelerates what’s going on, and you get a vicious cycle, which has led to a highly dysfunctional society for a majority of the population. The people have been getting by by stopgap measures, like debt or asset inflation, which, of course, crashes. And these are very deep structural problems, and it’s a serious reversal of hundreds of years of history.
A society is not going to survive in a healthy way if it doesn’t produce things that are useful, with industrialisation and so on, and the financial manipulations that have become a core element of the society… it’s doubtful that they have any useful purpose; they’re probably harmful, but that’s essentially where the action is.
MK Can I ask about your take on the mainstream reaction to Occupy Wall Street? It seems to me – I’ve been in America for about five years, on and off, over the last decade, and, usually, when these sorts of things spring up they’re dismissed as a joke, etc, by the mainstream media, CNN, etc – this time they tried to do that at the beginning, but it seems to me that the reaction that they’ve had to take it much more seriously, and there hasn’t been the pillorying of the protestors, etc. Can you just give me a take on what you think the media reaction has been and why you think it has to be different now? Is it because the pressure from outside is so strong?
NC I agree with your description substantially, and I think that the establishment, if you like, is sympathetic to aspects of the pressures being developed and organised by the protestors. So, for example, specific things like… there is a fair amount of understanding, in part of the establishment at least, that the concentration on a deficit is mistaken and the real problem is joblessness; you’re going to read that in the New York Times. And the movement is pressing for that, and it gets a moderately favourable reception.
After all, if you take a look at the polls, overwhelmingly the population thinks the problem is jobs not deficit; and when you turn to deficit, which is the issue in Washington, because of the power of the financial institutions, when you turn to that, the population, a large majority, thinks the way to deal with it is by increasing the ridiculously low taxes of the rich, very rich, while preserving benefits. Now, Washington and the Deficit Commission are going in the opposite direction because they’re in the pockets of the financial institutions. But the population is quite… The gap between public opinion and policy, not just on these cases but many others, has always been substantial, now it’s overwhelming, and media can’t be unaffected by that.
So there are parts of what the Occupy movements are working towards and developing that have a resonance outside them, and I think that’s why you’re getting the partially positive reaction. Actually, in some cases, even the business press is even going beyond what the Occupy movements are asking for. I don’t know if you’ve been reading the Wall Street Journal, the journal that they’re putting out in New York which is their version of the Wall Street Journal…
SB Yes, the Occupied…
NC Yes, the Occupied. Take a look at the things they’re calling for; for example, one of them is significant reform of the SEC, Security and Exchange Commission, which is grotesquely corrupt. So that’s a good recommendation. But if you read Businessweek a couple of week earlier, their Bloomberg Businessweek, they’re calling for the whole thing to be tossed out and started over again because it’s so corrupt. So there’s plenty of resonance.
Further issues that ought to be addressed are still hovering around the edges, so, for example, go back to the deficit, which, again, I don’t think is the problem, but let’s look at it. One straightforward way of getting rid of the deficit is off the agenda and the mainstream and that is to change the healthcare system, which is totally dysfunctional and hopelessly inefficient, as well as cruel, to something like other industrial society…
SB Like a single-payer system.
NC It’s not a very Utopian dream. That would eliminate the deficit. Call it Medicare-for-All, or public option or single-payer, whatever you want to call it, that would be an enormous improvement in itself, and, in fact, careful calculations show it would wipe out the deficit. Well, financial institutions won’t tolerate it, so it’s not discussed in Washington, and in the media it’s discussed at the edges, like Paul Krugman will write about it and so on. But for the Occupy movement, and a lot of the… traditionally, over the years, over decades, depending how the question’s asked, considerable parts of the population, the majority, big pluralities are in favour of that. So that’s another area where very significant organisation can take place which will have a big impact and then, of course, goes well beyond that.
SB As you were saying, they do seem to have tapped into some of these topics where there is widespread public support, and I know, when you’re looking at the polling, as you were saying, there’s still that gap in awareness that they’re going to have to overcome. But when you talk about support being turned into participation, are there examples you can give of previous movements where that’s been able to effectively happen? How does that process happen, where it goes beyond just the occupation of the park or… in Chicago or… there are these particular locations where it can spread into the wider society where it can make change.
NC It happens all the time. Take, say, the activism of the 10960s, which is denigrated as kids having fun and so on, but, in fact, it was extremely serious and it civilised the country in many ways. Take, say, maybe the most large-scale impact, and one that illustrates what you’re asking about, is the women’s movement. It barely began in the 60s as things like consciousness-raising groups, a few actions here and there; by the 70s it picked up, became a substantial movement and it just changed the country and it changed the whole society enormously.
The environmental movement is the same – didn’t exist in the 60s, barely… people read Rachel Carson. The anti-war movement, at the beginning, in the early 60s, faced extreme hostility, bitter media hostility, including liberal media, right through the mid-60s, but by the late 60s it was becoming a very significant movement. And when you go to the war’s end, in 1975, there was an extremely interesting split, which has never been investigated seriously, between the general population and liberal elites. So by 1975, war’s end, of course, everybody said, yes, we’re against the war, it was a mistake, and so on and so forth, but we knew of a critical extreme that people like, say, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times – about as far as you can go – in ’75 he wrote that the war began with blundering efforts to do good, but by 1969 it became clear that it was a mistake too costly to us, so we couldn’t bring democracy to South Vietnam at a cost acceptable to ourselves; after that it’s just wasting money and harming our society. That’s the extreme criticism of the left liberal end of the media.
Take a look at the public at the time; at that same time about 70% of the public felt that the war was, and the phrase in the polls was, fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake. Try to find that expressed somewhere in the articulate, educated circles. Now, that’s a big split, but what does it mean exactly? Well, the idea’s so exotic people couldn’t even explore it, but there are a lot of things like that and they happen all the time. Take, say, the labour organisation – the mainstream establishment doctrine is that unions are old hat, nobody wants them any more; but take a look at polls of working people, most of them want unions. They can’t get them because of the policies that have been instituted by mostly bipartisan but driven primarily by the republicans who are just like an extreme business party, not a political party, in any traditional sense. It’s another huge split, and it shows up. So, for example, when Governor Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, tried to destroy collective bargaining rights it led to a significant popular explosion, with plenty of support for union workers. It got dampened down that time, but these things are all over. And…
SB But given that, really, at this point, what seems really unprecedented ties between the financial sector and politics, despite the fact that you have this popular support, how possible is it to effect real change when the government is essentially in the pockets?
NC Yes, that’s absolutely true. One of the things that have happened in this vicious cycle of the past 30 years is, starting in the late 70s, a very sharp increase in the cost of running for office. It’s just skyrocketed. That almost compels political leaders to dive into the pockets of the corporations; that’s the main source of concentrated capital. But it’s gone well beyond that.
Actually, there was a pretty good article in the Financial Times about it – in fact, the only place it was discussed – by a friend of mine, Thomas Ferguson, a very good political economist here; this was a couple of weeks ago. He pointed out that it used to be the case in Congress that people who moved up to positions of some influence, say, Committee Chair, got that on the basis of service, seniority, performance and so on, but now you get it when you buy it; you have to put money into the party coffers in order to get positions of influence. Well, that has the effect as, as Ferguson points out, of just driving Congress into the corporate pockets, mainly financial institutions these days. So this really is a vicious cycle. You’ve got to dismantle an awful lot of structures. It’s not impossible; they’re not graven in stone, they’re not maintained by military force, so, yes, they can be dismantled, but it’s going to be long, hard work.
MK Noam, can I ask you quickly about… you’ve talked a lot about the threat of the far right in the United States; I’ve read a bunch of articles where you’ve said that, compared to what happened to Germany in the 30s, that the centre falls out pretty quickly. I wondered if you could talk about the significance of Occupy Wall Street as a way to channel the energies and the frustrations of the American people, with the high unemployment, foreclosures, etc, away a very dangerous strand of right-wing thinking which is embodied in the Tea Party?
NC It’s an element of the Tea Party.
MK Or elements, yes, not all of it. But…
NC The Tea Party is commonly compared to the Occupy movement, but then it gets very misleading. It’s, in large measure, a media construction. It’s there, and there’s plenty of sympathy for it, but here the difference between sympathy and participation is critical. Plenty of people are sympathetic with the call and are saying, get rid of the Congress, they’re a bunch of gangsters, but that doesn’t mean they accept Tea Party positions.
In fact, if you look at the polling results, and they’re interesting – I take them with a grain of salt, but they’re interesting – people who identify themselves with the Tea Party quite commonly have social democratic attitudes. So the people, if you look… there are studies of people who say, I’m against Government, get the government off my back. You take a look at their attitudes – what do you think about spending on education? It should increase. Spending on health? It should increase. Spending on aid to, say, women with dependent children? It should increase, but not welfare, we’re against welfare; and that was demonised by Reagan. And even foreign aid – there have been polls over many years about people’s attitudes towards foreign aid – very substantially they say it’s way too high; we’re giving everything away to undeserving poor in the third world and so on. But when you ask them, well, what do you think foreign aid is, they will way overestimate it. And when you ask what they think it ought to be, it turns out to be much higher than it actually is.
MK Then how can the Occupy Wall Street movement attract these people, then, if they’re…
NC That’s the task.
MK …part of a movement that…
NC You have to get out into the community, into churches, town meetings, clubs, schools – any place where people get together you can reach them – and try to help people develop a connection between their attitudes and their understanding of social reality.
MK But there’s a big cultural gap, though, because if you go down to…
NC There is.
MK …Occupy Wall Street – I’ve a lot of friends down there, but they’re a different type of person to the people that are in the Tea Party. And I just don’t see how… even if their politics converge, the only way I can see, really, something happening like that is if the unions are really involved.
NC That would be a help, but it’s not necessary. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the… Go back to the early 70s, the last major impact of the 60s activism, a lot of it was on young workers. Take a look at the strikes; there was a big strike wave in the early 70s, Lordstown, women’s organisation, the unions, farm-workers and so on, this was a real link between the working class, especially the young working class and the marginalised working class, like women and chicanos and so on, and blacks… there was a lot of black activism. There were democracy movements developing right in the midst of the unions. All of this was very significant. And it was a tie between activism and general population, the labour force, the working class. It wasn’t planned that way, it just took place, and I think that can be reconstituted.
MK You don’t feel that the Occupy Wall Street has taken the pressure off, in terms of the right-wing movement that you’ve been talking about in the past?
NC The right-wing movement goes on for other reasons. They have a huge amount of private funding, remember. They have links to business and corporate interests that have very definite policies. They make use of the right-wing movements to cut benefits, do a lot of things that their own troops don’t want, like get rid of social security and so on. So that… and, of course, the Occupy movements have nothing like that.
MK What do you feel about a figure like Ron Paul who seems to straddle the political divide quite well in terms of, if you go down to Occupy Wall Street there’s a bunch of Paulites who are saying, end the Fed, etc? What do you see in him? Do you see anything positive in him, or do you think that he’s a whacko?
NC I’m sure he’s a nice person, I’d probably enjoy having dinner with him, but… And there are some things I agree with him about, like I don’t think we ought to have 800 military bases around the world, but a lot of what he stands for, I think, is… First of all, if it could ever be implemented, and it couldn’t because the business world would never allow it, it would probably destroy the society. And, plus, a lot of it is just very cruel. Did you hear, for example, his comments in the debate on medical care?
NC You saw that?
NC It’s not just that I disagree here, it’s… really morally unacceptable.
MK Yes. He also said he didn’t agree with the federal government helping the victims of the Katrina hurricane.
NC That’s right.
NC But this just… it’s a mixture, and I think the people who are holding up the signs in Wall Street are picking and choosing the things that they think make sense.
MK Thank you very much.
SB Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Matt Kennard graduated from the Journalism School at Columbia University as a Toni Stabile Investigative scholar in 2008. He has written for the Guardian, Salon and the Chicago Tribune, amongst others. In 2006 he won the Guardian Student Feature Writer of the Year Award.
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