This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Dr. Chomsky was jointly sponsored by the Wilson Institute and by the Center for Scholarship in the Public Interest, headed by Professor Henry Giroux, McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest. His presentation was titled “Rethinking the Civic Imagination and Manufactured Ignorance in the Post-Pandemic World.”
HENRY GIROUX: It’s a great honour for us at McMaster University, the Center for Scholarship in the Public Interest and the Wilson Institute for Canadian History to welcome Noam Chomsky here this evening. Dr. Chomsky will present a 30-minute talk titled “Rethinking the Civic Imagination and Manufactured Ignorance in The Post-Pandemic World,” followed by an interview with Dr. Ian McKay, the L. R. Wilson chair in Canadian history, that will draw from Dr. Chomsky’s recent book The Precipice Neoliberalism: The Pandemic and the Urgent Need for Social Change.
Throughout his entire academic life, Noam Chomsky has used his knowledge, skills, and stature as a public intellectual to advocate for radical social and economic changes in societies that have failed to live up to the promises and ideals of a socially just society. Professor Chomsky has rightly argued that intellectuals, artists, educators, cultural workers, and others have a responsibility to address grave social problems, such as the threat of nuclear war, ecological devastation, and the sharp deterioration of democracy. He is well aware that oppression feeds on mass apathy and manufacture ignorance. In response, his academic work and public interventions have become a model for enriching public life and addressing economic inequality, needless wars, and class and racial injustices. He has worked tirelessly to inspire individuals in social movements to unleash the energy, the insights, and the passion necessary to keep alive the spirit, promises and ideals of a radical democracy. As a public intellectual and border-crosser, he draws upon a wide variety of disciplinary fields, pushes at the frontiers of the public imagination, while reminding us of the need to feel and act upon a passion for a commitment to a free just and equal society.
He rightly insists that, in the end, there is no democracy without informed citizens and no justice without a language critical of injustice. He has made clear that we live in dangerous times and that there’s an urgent need for more individuals, institutions and social movements to come together in the belief that the current regimes of tyranny can be resisted, that alternative futures are possible, and that acting on those beliefs through collective resistance will enable social change to happen. Professor Chomsky’s work is infused with a vision that merges a sense of moral outrage with the need for civic courage and collective action. His work is more indispensable than ever, because the world is more dangerous than ever. I believe that the great playwright Arthur Miller captures the spirit of Noam’s work when he wrote, “Writers speak the unspeakable,…making life possible for those who come after.” It is my great honour to introduce Professor Chomsky, an international treasure and one of the world’s most important scholars and critically engaged public intellectuals….
Noam CHOMSKY: Thank you very much, Henry. Well, in the preliminary discussions we’ve had, many very searching questions have been posed. I would like to try to touch on them, inadequately of course, as a way of setting the stage for thinking… and discussion. Well perhaps I can start … with something that sounds quite remote. You probably know about the Fermi Paradox, posed by the great physicist, Enrico Fermi. It’s very brief. The paradox is: “Where are they?” His discipline of astrophysics demonstrates that there is a vast number of planets accessible to us, with conditions similar enough to earth, so that they should be able to support life, over time, intelligent life – maybe even super-intelligent life. So – where are they? With the most diligent search, we cannot find the slightest hint of their existence.
Well, one answer that’s been offered, in a kind of morbid jest, is that they’re out there, but when they come across humans, they decided to get away from that crazy place as quickly as possible. I could see some justification for that. Another answer in the same vein (but more serious) is that intelligent life in fact developed, but proved to be a lethal mutation and quickly destroyed itself. Actually, we know of only one case – humans on earth. We are a new species, only a few hundred thousand years old. That’s a blink of an eye in evolutionary time. And we seem to be intent on establishing the thesis.
There have been reasons for such suspicions since August 1945, when we learned that human intelligence had devised the means for self-annihilation. Not quite yet – but it was clear that the day was not far off when technology would reach that point. And it did, … a few years later in 1953, when the United States and then the Soviet Union exploded thermonuclear weapons. In acknowledgement of this achievement of human intelligence, the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock – which seeks to encapsulate the world’s security situation – … were advanced to two minutes to midnight. Midnight is termination. Well, the hands have oscillated since. They did not reach two minutes to midnight again until halfway through the Trump Administration. In its final years, the analysts abandoned minutes altogether [and] shifted to seconds. We’re now at 100 seconds to midnight. Let’s take a closer look at what leads to these conclusions.
We are currently facing a confluence of severe crises, something that has never happened before… in the brief period of human history. To each of these crises, we know of feasible solutions. In each case, we are rejecting the solutions and racing to the precipice, some of us more rapidly than others.
To be more precise: it is not we who are racing to the precipice. Rather, it is those whom Adam Smith called “the masters of mankind.” In his day, that was the merchants and manufacturers of England. In our day, it’s multinational corporations, financial institutions, other concentrations of private power – and the governments that are, in no small measure, at their service.
On the matter of service to the masters, [the] evidence is compelling. Illustrative cases feature regularly on the front pages. Right now, for example, as you know, the US Congress is now debating a major program which, among other things, may be the last chance for the United States to take serious steps to arrest catastrophic global warming. The fate of this measure is largely in the hands of the Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who happens to be the champion of the Congress in receiving funds from fossil fuel industries. He’s now demanding sole jurisdiction in the Senate over the $150 billion clean electricity performance programs. That’s Joe Manchin. And he can get what he wants. The Senate is split. [The] Republicans’ half is 100% opposed to dealing with the climate crisis. So, the fate of the legislation rests on unity among Democrats. The chief recipient of fossil fuel funding, a Democrat, can ensure that nothing will be done to harm his donors. And he’s clear about it. His official position is “innovation but not elimination”: no cutback on fossil fuel use. That’s straight from the handbook of the ExxonMobil public relations department.
If the denialist party returns to power next year, as they well may, we will be back to racing to the abyss as quickly as possible, picking up from the disastrous Trump years. Well, [that] may seem like this is an aberration. Just one case.
It’s not – and the history is revealing. The Republicans were not always a denialist party. In 2008, when John McCain was running, they were moving towards mild – insufficient but mild – global warming legislation…. Their shift to total commitment to cataclysm results directly from fossil fuel funding, specifically the juggernaut [deployed] by the huge Koch Brothers’ energy conglomerate. When it sensed signs that the Republicans were veering towards recognizing that we are destroying the prospects for survival of organized human life on earth and harming short-term profits for the masters, the juggernaut…cut the heresy off completely. Decisively. All Republicans turned and haven’t changed.
Now that’s not an aberration, either. There’s a good deal of research in mainstream academic political science which has demonstrated a remarkably close correlation between electability and campaign funding – specifically, strategic, business-based campaign funding. And similar scholarship has independently established an immediate corollary of this: namely, a large majority of voters are literally unrepresented. There is no correlation between their views and the votes of their representatives. The representatives are listening to different voices, as they must if they hope to be re-elected.
Well, it’s called democracy. Blocking of legislation that would harm the fossil fuel industry is not a malady specific to the United States. It’s worldwide.
Let’s consider what’s happening right now, again on the front pages. As we meet, governments of the world are pressuring oil producers to increase production. Increase production. They’ve just been advised in the August IPCC report, by far the most dire yet, that catastrophe is looming unless we begin immediately to reduce fossil fuel use – year by year, effectively phasing it out by mid-century. Petroleum industry journals are euphoric about the discovery of new fields to exploit, as demand for oil increases. The business press debates whether the US fracking industry or OPEC is best placed to increase production. You can readily add examples from where you’re sitting.
… They all know that they are racing to catastrophe. We don’t have to instruct them. They know it very well. Furthermore, at least if they’re minimally literate, they all know that there are feasible solutions to the climate crisis which will, furthermore, create a more livable world.
But profit for the rich and political expediency come first. Come first, that is, for the masters and their servants. What about the general population? Well, that’s a complex story.
Let’s take Joe Manchin — [of] West Virginia — [a] coal mining state. Not long ago, it was a bastion of working-class militancy. The United Mine Workers, representing the coal miners in West Virginia and elsewhere … recently adopted a program, a transition program, that would shift production towards renewable energy, with better jobs and better lives. All feasible and worked out in detail. But those are people, not the masters – their bitter enemy in their relentless class war. [Their masters] have a different view.
That class war, one-sided class war, has been continuing with mounting intensity in the past 40 years of the neoliberal assault on the population.
That merits a few words. Let’s go back to the 1930s. [That] happens to be my childhood; I remember it very well. The world was facing serious crises. There were several ways out. Continental Europe turned to fascism. In the United States, a rising militant working class, with a sympathetic president, turned to social democracy – the New Deal. Later, post-war Europe moved in the same direction. That led to what in Europe is called the Trente Glorieuses – the 30 glorious years – and what economists call the “golden age” of capitalism in the United States. The fastest growth rate in history, egalitarian growth rate, [for the] lowest quintile did as well as the highest quintile. Plenty of flaws – but economically, socially, it was an enormous success.
The business world resisted from the first moment. But, until the 1970s, they were unable to reverse the course. By the late 1970s, under Carter in the United States, the business offensive was making progress. In 1978, the President of the United Auto Workers, Doug Fraser, withdrew from a Carter-initiated management/labour board. He withdrew and condemned the business leaders (I’m quoting him) “for having chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country. A war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.” And having broken and discarded the fragile unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress, the New Deal years, … under Reagan and Thatcher [in the] early 80s, the one-sided class war took off, full steam.
The first acts, the first acts, were to smash unions using illegal methods, like strike breakers, opening the door to the corporate sector, inviting them to follow suit. [They were] very effective over the years, severely weakened the unions. They understood (or at least their planners understood) that it was imperative to deprive working people of the main means of defence against what was to come. And for those with eyes open, what was to come was never in doubt.
…Go back to Reagan’s inaugural address. His main principle…is “the government is the problem, not the solution,” meaning decisions have to be taken out of the hands of government. They don’t disappear. They go somewhere else. They go to concentrations of private power. That’s a great advantage. The government has a flaw: it’s partially responsive to the general population. Concentrated private power is totally unaccountable. So, it’s a much better basis for decision-making. This was amplified by the economic guru of the neoliberal assault, Milton Friedman. He came out with his principal articles, giving [as] his credo, “corporations have no responsibility to the public, only to maximizing profit (and of course salaries for management).”
…So, put that together. Decisions are shifted from the government (partially responsive to the population) to unaccountable private tyrannies (which have no accountability and are responsible only for maximizing their own profit and the salaries of CEOs and management). Doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going to happen. And, in fact, after 40 years, even the mainstream institutions are starting to take a look.
So, the super-respectable Rand Corporation (quasi-governmental) recently did a study of what they politely call “the transfer of wealth” from the middle-class and the working-class lower 90 percent of the population – [the] transfer of wealth [from] them to the very top. When you look closely, it’s mostly to the top fraction of one percent of the population. Their estimate is about 50 trillion dollars in 40 years. It’s not small change. And it’s a vast underestimate. They did not take into account the other means of robbing the public that were developed when Reagan and Thatcher opened the spigot and said, “Rob as much as you like.”
… You can read about the Pandora Papers, a huge trove of papers, showing how the ultra-rich use various gimmicks (that were illegal prior to Reagan) to stash away huge amounts of money in places where they don’t have to pay taxes. It’s only a small part of it. The world’s largest… trillion-dollar corporation has its offices in Ireland, [paying] very low tax rates. Others play the same game. All of this was illegal prior to Reagan, and …the Treasury Department was conscientious in enforcing the laws.
There are many other similar devices: shell companies, changes in rules of corporate governance, so that CEOs can pick the board that sets their salaries. And guess what happens from that? Of course, that lifts salaries. [They] have skyrocketed, especially in the United States. That carries all management salaries up with it. So, you get probably…$70 or $80 trillion dollars of robbery of the public, … putting most of it in the hands of the top fraction of one percent. In fact, the top 0.1 of the US population has increased their wealth from 10% to 20% of the total. Not quite at that extreme elsewhere – but something like it. [A] perfectly obvious consequence of the policies that were announced in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, for the general population: stagnation or decline. Up until the late 70s, the minimum wage and the real wage tracked productivity. That ended with the neoliberal assault. Productivity and growth increased; the wages stagnated. Wages for non-supervisory workers are less in real terms than they were in 1979. Meanwhile services have been cut back, under the principle that government is the problem. A majority of the population pretty much lives from paycheck to paycheck. Can’t pay for Covid vaccinations (too much of a co-pay). Cutback of other services. Precarious existence. Maybe you’ll be called to work next week, maybe not. Maybe you’ll be called for double-time. That’s the result of 40 years of sheer highway robbery.
Now the claim is, this has to do with markets. Not quite. What has been created is what economists call “a bailout economy.” One of the things … done under Reagan was to deregulate, including deregulation of the greatly expanding financial institutions. That immediately leads to crashes. What happens after a crash? The public politely comes and bails you out. And that’s a fraction of it.
The government has a tacit insurance policy. It’s called “too big to fail.” That means that the big guys (the big financial institutions, the big banks, and so on) can get cheap credit. They can take out risky loans, which are profitable if anything goes wrong. No problem – that’s the bailout economy.
So, it’s markets for the poor and the working-class and the middle-class. But it’s powerful government intervening constantly for the rich. And that’s a one-sided class war. Working people and the poor are to suffer the ravages of the market. The masters have to be protected by a powerful state.
…Clinton joined in… with what are ludicrously called “free trade agreements,” which are radically protectionist in a manner that has absolutely no precedent. It’s why the prices of drugs go sky-high. Most of the world can’t get vaccines. …The rich countries (mainly Europe in this case) … have to preserve the profits of the masters with a highly interventionist, radically protectionist, global and local system. …The poor, the working class and the middle class, [are] thrown [onto] the market.
Go across … the Atlantic. Thatcher was the same. Her mantra. as you remember, was “there is no society.” You survive, somehow, on your own. Unless of course you’re among the masters. Then, there’s a very rich society. Chambers of commerce. Business roundtables. The American Legislative Exchange Council, corporate funding which imposes business-friendly programs in state legislatures which are easily manipulated and bought off. Trade associations – and more. So – a rich society for the masters. Nothing for the rest. One-sided class war.
Well, the consequences have been profound. That’s quite apart from the vast highway robbery of the public. The assault has engendered anger, resentment, conspiracy theories about hidden powers that are causing your malaise, anti-vax movements. The United States is literally killing hundreds of thousands of people and a lot more. It’s also created fertile terrain for demagogues of the Trump variety, who are capable of holding up a banner with one hand, saying “I’m your protector – I love you,” while the other hand stabs you in the back. There’s been one – one – legislative achievement of the Trump Administration: the tax scam of 2017. Sheer robbery. Sharp cut-back of taxes for the rich corporations, imposing, of course, a higher tax burden on everyone else. But that’s kind of quiet. You don’t talk about that in public. There has also been a sharp attack on democracy. It’s an obvious consequence of policies I’ve described.
Steps towards a kind of proto-fascism (or all the way, some analysts argue)? Well, there are very sober and respected voices sounding the alarm about the possible collapse of American democracy, with dire consequences for the world. Among them are leading commentators of the world’s leading business press – the London Financial Times – who say that the United States is being driven to autocracy, or worse, by what they call a radical party with a reactionary agenda which ranks alongside the far-right European parties with neo-fascist origins. I should say that all of this is tragically ironic for people whose lives have been framed by the transition from the 1930s with the US in the lead in social democracy, to today, where it’s in the lead and moving towards proto-fascism.
Well, that’s a bird’s-eye view of where I think we are now. It’s not graven in stone. [There are] plenty of counter forces, [with] climate the most crucial issue. It’s mainly the young. It’s a terrible indictment of my generation when Greta Thunberg stands up at an assembly of the masters at Davos and says, “You betrayed us.” She was right. The words should be seared into our conscience. It’s not too late. But we do not have much time to hear these words.
Well, that’s the crisis of global heating, which is actually one aspect of a much broader environmental crisis. Habitat destruction, …industrialized agriculture destroying the land [and] much else (which feeds directly into the Covid crisis, incidentally).
But let’s turn to a different crisis, a comparable one. The one that was initiated 75 years ago. The threat of nuclear war [is] now growing very seriously. [It’s] one of the reasons why the Doomsday Clock is moving to seconds, not minutes. There have been slow steps for 60 years towards an arms control regime that would limit the threat of nuclear war. It has been virtually dismantled by this century’s radical party with a reactionary agenda, the Republican Party. George W. Bush took time off from invading countries to destroy the ABM treaty; Trump’s wrecking ball took care of most of the rest (though Biden was able to rescue the new START treaty hours before it was to expire, accepting finally Russian offers to extend it). The US is, of course, far in the lead in global military power and swamps all potential adversaries combined. It’s also well ahead in the mad race to develop even more dangerous weapons and to extend the yearning for global suicide. In space, the US has incomparable security. It’s not the way it’s perceived in high places – threats everywhere. The gravest perceived threat to the US is China. That deserves some thought.
The China threat is very well-described by the distinguished international diplomat Paul Keating, former Prime Minister of Australia, right within the reach of the dragon’s claws. I’ll quote his words: “The threat of China is the fact that, somehow, the rise of 20% of humanity from abject poverty into something approaching a modern state, is illegitimate. But more than that, by its mere presence, it is an affront to the United States. It’s not that China presents a threat to the United States, something China has never articulated or delivered. Rather its mere presence represents a challenge to United States pre-eminence…” The major point of contention right now is “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea – or that’s the way it’s described. It’s not accurate. It’s accurately described by a leading Australian strategic analyst Clinton Fernandez. As he explains, “the conflict concerns military and intelligence operations in China’s exclusive economic zone which extends 200 miles offshore for every country.”
The United States holds that military intelligence operations are permissible in these exclusive zones. China holds they’re not permissible. India agrees with China’s interpretation. Recently, it protested [against] US military operations in its exclusive zone. These exclusive zones were established by the 1982 Law of the Sea. The United States is the only maritime power not to have ratified the law. It does say that it will not violate it. The law bans the threat or use of force in the exclusions of exclusive zones. The controversy has nothing to do with freedom of navigation – which is not threatened in the least. It has to do with whether military intelligence operations constitute a threat of force. The United States says no. China and the other say yes. Well, surely this is a clear case where diplomacy is in order, not highly provocative actions like sending in a naval armada in a region of considerable tension, with the threat of escalation, possibly without bounds. But it is crucial to establish US pre-eminence everywhere, even off the coast of China, which we are led to believe unlike the US, faces no threats….[Consider] the 800 military bases the United States has around the world. China has one.
The nature of the China threat is further elaborated by Australia’s preeminent military correspondent, Brian Toohey. It’s worth quoting in detail to help understand world affairs…. “China’s nuclear weapons are so inferior that it couldn’t be confident of deterring a retaliatory strike from the United States. Take the example of nuclear-powered missile armed submarines. China has four. Each can carry 12 missiles: each with a single warhead. The subs are easy to detect because they’re noisy. According to the US Naval Office of Naval Intelligence, each is noisier than a Soviet submarine first launched in 1976. China is expected to acquire another four that are a little bit quieter by 2030. However, the missiles on those subs won’t have the range to reach the continental United States. They would have to reach suitable locations in the Pacific Ocean. However, they’re effectively bottled up inside the South China Sea. To escape they’d have to pass through a series of US choke points where they could easily be sunk by US hunter-killer nuclear submarines. In contrast to China, the United States has 14 Ohio-class missile armed subs. Each can launch 24 Trident missiles; each containing eight independently targetable warheads, able to reach anywhere on the globe. That means a single US submarine can destroy 192 cities or other targets compared to 12 for the Chinese submarine. The Ohio class is now being replaced by the bigger and more devastating Columbia class.”
…The US is now sending Australia advanced hunter-killer nuclear subs, which Australia will pay for. So, they’ll be incorporated in the US naval command. This sale of advanced nuclear subs abrogates an agreement between France and Australia for sale of conventional subs; it’s a serious blow to French industry. Washington did not even take the trouble to notify France; it was instructing the European union on its place in the US global order. Brian Toohey observed further that Australia’s submission to the United States does not enhance its security. Quite the contrary. And [he] further points out that the nuclear subs sale has no discernible strategic purpose. The subs will not even be operational for probably 15 years, by which time China will surely have expanded its military forces to deal with this new military threat.
The sub agreement does serve a purpose, however: to establish more firmly that the United States intends to rule the world, even if that requires escalating the threat of war, possibly terminal nuclear war, in a highly volatile region, and of course is eschewing such specified measures as diplomacy.
Well, these steps to escalate conflict take place against [a] background that’s plain and stark. The United States inherited the mantle of global dominance from Britain and proceeded to substantially extend its reach, [becoming] far more powerful than ever Britain ever was. China is a rising power, bound to play a major role in world affairs. The crises we all face –international pandemics, destruction of the environment – know no borders, nor does nuclear war. The US and China will either cooperate in addressing these crises or we are doomed. It’s as simple as that. Cooperation is surely achievable just as the other crises we face have solutions that are within reach.
The question we face now is whether we have the will to save ourselves from cataclysm, or whether we will choose to show that higher intelligence really may be a lethal mutation, providing an unhappy answer to Fermi’s Paradox.
Ian MCKAY: Thank you very much Dr. Chomsky… It’s a great honour to welcome you to McMaster and to the Wilson institute …My questions tonight are all based on your 2021 book The Precipice: Neoliberalism, The Pandemic and the Urgent Need for Social Change, brought out with C. J. Polychroniou. In it you elaborate on the confluence of crises of extraordinary severity, with the fate of the human experiment quite literally at stake…
First of all, among some theorists critical of capitalism, there’s been a recovery of a theme developed by Marx, which is called ‘the metabolic rift,’ the way capitalism systematically depletes nature of elements necessary for the planet’s equilibrium. For such theorists, there aren’t distinct climate change and pandemic crises – plural – but, rather, one overall multi-dimensional environmental crisis, stemming from the disastrous impact of capitalism upon the natural world. Do you consider this a promising line of inquiry?
CHOMSKY: … I hinted … that the global warming is part of a much broader environmental crisis. That’s the metabolic rift. Destruction of habitats, which of course enhances pandemics. Industrialized agriculture, industrialized meat production [are] not only savage and brutal but …exert a huge effect on global warming. And …something else I didn’t mention: one of the crises that we’re facing, not talked about much except in the medical literature, is antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We’re coming to a point where going to a hospital is becoming dangerous, because there are bacteria mutating which antibiotics can’t deal with. Well, the drug companies don’t much work on that – it’s not really profitable. But [cases of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are] mounting. And … one major reason is industrialized meat production. You cram cows, chickens, under impossible circumstances, in a tight place. Diseases are going to spread. Well, you’re a good capitalist. You want to maximize profit. So, what you do is pump them full of antibiotics. A huge proportion of the antibiotics that are used, are used basically for that reason. Of course, the antibiotics lead to mutation. Pretty soon, you’re getting antibiotic-resistant microorganisms. It’s been warned that, in another 20 or 30 years, surgery may be impossible (and other advanced medical procedures). But you have to make money tomorrow, that’s crucial. It doesn’t matter what you do to the world’s population, to the huge number of species that we’re destroying, to animals, to the environment. You have to make profit tomorrow….
So, yes, it’s a very profitable line of inquiry. But we have to remember something: time scales. That’s critical. The crises that we face have to be dealt with today. It’s today that the leading democracies are urging the fossil fuel companies to increase production (when the leaders all know certainly that we have to start decreasing production if we hope to survive, but not if you want to improve your electoral prospects or make more profit for the drug companies). That has to be done now.
We can’t wait for the capitalist system to be replaced by something more humane, just, concerned with people’s needs instead of profit. We can’t wait for that. And that’s true of the other crises, too. All of them have to be dealt with quickly. We’re on the verge …They have to be dealt with now. That means working to modify the more destructive aspects of the savage capitalism of the past 40 years.
It’s not utopian to say that we could go back to the kind of capitalism that Dwight Eisenhower advocated. It’s not super-utopian. In the United States, it’s not utopian to say that we could rise to the level of the conservative party in Germany. That’s not a joke. Take a look at Bernie Sanders’s programs. One of the editors of the Financial Times quipped that, in Germany, he could be running on the Christian Democrat program. It’s literally true. Universal healthcare, free higher education – [they’re found] all over the place. Mexico, Germany, Finland, everywhere you look. But in the United States, that’s considered radical. That’s part of the extraordinary power of business in the United States. It fought against the New Deal bitterly and shifted the spectrum far to the right. Well, that’s not utopian to say we can overcome that. In fact, it’s being battled right now in Congress right now. The Biden programs would move a little bit towards back towards the kind of more moderate capitalism of earlier years.
Limited social democracy [is] being fought tooth-and-nail, 100% … by the Republican Party and by the so-called moderate Democrats (who should be called reactionary Democrats, the ones who are awash in corporate funding.) They’ll probably kill it. That’s maybe the last chance to do that.
So, we have to solve the problems within the existing system. Meanwhile, we can be working hard to raise understanding, awareness of the deep flaws in the system that have to be overcome – and also developing institutions which are the seeds of some better society. Worker-managed enterprises, for example, cooperatives which do flourish in Canada (not here), localism and so on, all at the same time…But time-scale can’t be overlooked.
MCKAY: Thank you. One distinctive theme I really appreciated in The Precipice and in your comments tonight, and I think it sets you apart from a lot of other leftists, is your sympathetic, compassionate treatment of working-class North Americans who are tempted by conspiracy theories and right-wing demagogues. You really are saying that, in a sense, they have some cause to be aggrieved, and they’re sort of being lured into a trap by … a supremely capable con man. How would you respond to critics who might think you’re being too soft on grassroots Trumpians and their reactionary politics?
CHOMSKY: Well, I don’t feel that I’m on some high moral pedestal in which I can condemn other people. I’m not living their lives. I didn’t have to suffer the precarity of existence, the stagnation of wages, the decline of services that they suffered. I’m privileged. OK, … I suffer from the health system: I’ve had the problem of being not being able to get to a hospital because they’re overflowing with unvaccinated Covid victims. But that’s not like what poor and working people suffer. The last 40 years have been a disaster for them and it’s the same in England. I think the working-class vote for Brexit, in my view, [was] suicide. But you can understand it. They want to grasp something. Maybe we can grasp the fact that we can use British currency again; we can feel proud of something. I don’t think that’s very smart, but you can understand it and I don’t feel like condemning.
If you take a look at the Trump voters here in the United States, that’s been very carefully studied. The best work is by Tony DiMaggio. Left social scientists have done very detailed work. Turns out that the prime base for the Trump [movement] is petty bourgeois, relatively affluent small businessman, insurance salesman, guys who own a construction business, rural, Christian, white supremacist, traditional… They feel their country’s being taken away from them by minorities. There’s even a theory of the “great replacement”: the Democrats are trying to get immigrants here so they can undermine the white population… that’s one of the wild conspiracy theories that’s around.
Well, … take a trip through rural America. You can understand it. Jobs are gone, factories are gone, young people are leaving, stores are boarded up, and maybe the bank is boarded up, still some churches – not much future for you. It’s declining. It’s an elderly, Christian nationalist, traditional, white supremacist population. There was a wonderful [notion] – it’s most largely mythical but there’s at least a myth – about a wonderful traditional life, where the “coloured people” knew their place, women knew their place, none of this craziness of same-sex marriage, other things that these terrible minorities are doing to us. All being taken away… These are the people who marched on the Capitol – not working people… They’re saying, “I’m going to save my country by taking back Congress away from the people destroying the country.” Do I approve of it? Of course not. But I think we can understand it, and we could also understand our role in creating it. We tolerated 40 years of the neoliberal assault… [It] has a devastating effect on the victims. We’re in no position to condemn them as “deplorable.” They are, but not without reason. So that’s the way I feel about it.
Incidentally, it’s not basically working-class. One of the things that… Tony DiMaggio showed in his work is that the working class was not won by the Republicans – it was lost by the Democrats. That’s where the shift is. Many of the Trump working-class voters voted for Obama. He totally betrayed them – totally. So, what are they supposed to do?
In fact, I could see it in Massachusetts, where I lived at the time…2008, Obama was elected [with] wonderful promises — 2010, he’d betrayed the working class totally, by the way he handled the bailout for the rich (not for the poor, not for the victims). By 2010 there was a by-election for [Martha Coakley] (who replaced Ted Kennedy, the liberal icon). Even union workers didn’t vote for the Democrat. They’d been betrayed, stabbed in the back. “Why should we vote for these guys? They’re just the party of rich professionals. They don’t care about us.” …Well, that’s the way you lose voters
MCKAY: I wonder if I could ask a question about what you call the neoliberal assault…. [Some authorities say] saying it’s an all-encompassing logic of rule, others say it’s just a specific tradition, a school of economics, the Chicago school; some see it as a particular version of a globalized trade regime, and others see it as an updated version of ruling-class strategies to rob the working class… Would I be right, … in thinking that …you essentially incline to that last thrust, which is that [neoliberalism] is a new variant of a perennial ruling-class scheme to basically deprive workers? It’s very much a class-based attack on the working class? …Or would you like to put them all these strands of interpretation together, [with] a tilt towards a class-based interpretation?
CHOMSKY: I go along with Doug Fraser: … it’s a one-sided class war. The business classes are basically Marxists,… vulgar Marxists… They’re fighting a bitter, one-sided class war, using many techniques. None of this has to do with the Chicago School. That’s cover. Chicago School doesn’t say you should have highly protectionist trade agreements (which you call free trade agreements). Chicago School doesn’t say you should bail out the big institutions and give them a government insurance policy so they can be predatory. That’s not Chicago School….
The Chicago School had a chance [in Chile]… under perfect experimental conditions… The first 9/11. (We don’t call it 9/11 – 9/11/1973 was much worse than 9/11/2001 – but since we were the perpetrators, it’s not [considered] history.) Well, they imposed a vicious, brutal dictatorship; opened the door to huge amount of funds… Investors loved it. The working class was crushed, popular descent was crushed, the Chicago Boys came in. Milton Friedman’s students. Friedrich Hayek. All the big shots ran the economy. Perfect conditions. You [didn’t] … have any protest: the torture chambers took care of that. [They] had money pouring in from the wealthy all over the world, the international financial institutions. …
Within about five years, they had crashed the economy, totally. The government had to take over more of the economy than it held under Allende (1982). Wags called it the “Chicago road to socialism.” But they didn’t care. By 1982 they were on to a bigger game. Let’s take the whole world. Let’s take the whole world and put it under our one-sided class war, masquerading as libertarianism.
So, I think that’s a good definition of neo-liberalism. Define it by its practices, not its rhetoric – and the practices were perfectly obvious from the beginning.
MCKAY: I really like what you said about Brexit and about American working-class people wanting to believe in their nation, a gut patriotism… In Canada, I think, some of our nationalism derives from taking gleeful pleasure in the troubles of the United States. I really deplore those tendencies and so I really appreciated your pokes at Canada – …our so-so Medicare system, …the Alberta tar sands and other mega-projects. So, granted that your book is not about Canada, I was wondering, do you think there is a place for progressive nationalism in a future global left? And how do we rid it of this kind of need for… schadenfreude, … watching other nations go through difficult times?…
CHOMSKY: … I don’t remember the exact words, but there was a well-known Canadian diplomat (I think his name might have been John Holmes or something like that), and he once described “the Canadian way.” The Canadian way is to stand up for your principles and make sure you violate them. He put it more eloquently.
I’ve seen the effects of Canadian foreign policy, even in my own experience. I’ve spent time in southern Colombia, one of the most brutal, vicious parts of the world – horrible atrocities – visiting poor villages where they’re desperately trying to preserve their water supplies under the attack of Canadian mining corporations who want to destroy the virgin forest… [and] make profits by killing poor people in Colombia…. The scourge of the earth: Canadian mining companies.
…You may recall Lester Pearson, the Nobel Prize winner…. One of the revelations in the Pentagon Papers was that, …when Johnson was planning to bomb North Vietnam in 1964, he consulted with the allies. So, he consulted with Canada, with Lester Pearson. Pearson said, he didn’t think it would be good to use atomic weapons, but iron bombs would be fine. That’s Canadian way … In fact Canada was serving the United States as basically a US spy…
MCKAY: I really noticed throughout The Precipice how many times you make implicit (but also explicit) references to Antonio Gramsci, …but I was wondering if you could comment on a theme that Gramsci develops: the Modern Prince. He wants, basically, a cohesive party aiming to build an effective and inclusive state. Libertarian leftists have historically been skeptical of any such state socialist project. Yet the pandemic, to my eye, seemingly shows the need for states with the capacity to plan the economy, institute comprehensive social security, and prevent future pandemics. So, is it time to set aside this libertarian skepticism of the state?
CHOMSKY: Well, I don’t know exactly what the libertarian skepticism is. Does it say that, if you don’t feel like stopping at a red light, you should drive through it? Especially if there’s an old woman pushing a shopping cart there. “I don’t want to be inhibited – why should I have the state tell me I have no right to do that”? I haven’t heard that from libertarians….
There happen to be vaccine mandates, which have been in place for a long time in schools. [You] can’t send your kids to a school unless [they receive] a polio vaccine, measles vaccine. So, is a libertarian supposed to say, “I want to send my kid to school and kill those other kids, because I want to be free of state control”? I haven’t heard that recently.
In fact, the question is not: Are there general controls? It’s who puts them in place. Is it the community – a democratic community which gets together, deliberates, says we want to put these in place, because it’s for our benefit? Well, that’s libertarian socialism. It’s not US-style libertarianism, right-wing libertarianism, which says private power does whatever it feels like and the rest of you find a way to survive.
It’s what was called libertarian socialism – the libertarian wing of the socialist movement –basically anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism. It had nothing to do with what’s called libertarianism today…
An interesting measure of the extent to which democracy functions in a society is the attitude towards tax collection. It’s a very striking measure. So, if you live in a totalitarian state when Tax Day comes along, you’re furious: they’re robbing you… April 15th in the United States; they’re robbing us….Suppose you had a democratic society. Imagine a democratic society, a society where communities get together decide, here’s what we want for next year for ourselves: schools, roads, decent air, water, and so on. Let’s figure out how to pay for it. Here’s an equitable way to pay for it. Tax Day comes along: it’s a day of celebration. It’s a day of celebration of the fact that we were able to work together to get what we all want.
It’s interesting to place societies on that spectrum. You get an interesting conclusion of the extent to which democracy functions. It’s worth thinking about.
So, I don’t think the issue is “the horrible state is imposing mandates.” We get together, decide we want to protect each other, so we decide we want to protect workers in restaurants. I think they deserve to be protected. So therefore, we decide that the restaurant should be able to have a vaccine mandate. I want to protect them. It has nothing to do with a powerful state imposing anything else – if it’s a democratic society, of course.
MCKAY: My last question… In The Precipice,you’re asked how one can fight right-wing authoritarianism and if I can quote you – it’s a wonderful quote – you say: “The familiar advice, easy to state, hard to follow, but if there’s another way, it’s been kept a dark secret: honest, dedicated, courageous, and persistent engagement…. Hard work, necessary work, the kind that has succeeded in the past and can again” (73). … “Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will” would be how Gramsci would put it. How best can we combat not just right-wing authoritarianism but … the ambient despair I’m sensing among some of my students, the sense of many young people that they’re just confronting so many interlocking overpowering manifold crises as they inherit the 21st-century world. How best can we sort of combat that sense of almost nihilistic, apocalyptic despair?
CHOMSKY: Well, I think several ways. One of them, actually, is history. Take a look at what’s been achieved by the dedicated work of completely unknown people. To quote my favorite historian, my old friend Howard Zinn –“the unknown people,” who …do the work that creates the basis for the events that enter history. We’ll never know their names. Nobody knows the names of the SNCC workers in 1960 who traveled through Alabama… getting shot at, beaten up, vilified, sometimes killed in order to encourage Black farmers to take their lives in their hands and register to vote. Anybody know their names? I personally have to know a few of them, but that’s by accident. The same is true with everything else. Feminist movement, environmental movement, everything – and a lot succeed….
Just take the United States. Ask what kind of a country it was in the 1960s, before the wave of activism civilized it… The United States had anti-miscegenation laws, so extreme that the Nazis refused to accept them. It had federally legislated segregated housing. There was, under the New Deal, federal support for public housing, but under the impact of Southern Democrats, [it] had to be racist. They wouldn’t be able to get anything through unless it was segregated. That had a major effect. In the 1950s in the growth period, an African-American man could maybe get a decent job in an auto plant, make a little money, maybe buy a small house. (Property is wealth in the United States.) He couldn’t buy a small house. The government said, “No, sorry they’re segregated. It’s not for you… you don’t go there.’ There were anti-sodomy laws, of course…. By law, women were property, literally. The US still had the laws that were… taken over by the founders. [Under] British common law… women were property owned by the father, handed over to the husband. It wasn’t until 1975 that the Supreme Court determined that women were peers [with] who had a right to serve on federal juries.
Well, we can go on and on. It was a very different country before the activism of the 60s. That’s why in the general intellectual world, the 60s are condemned as a time of troubles which disrupted … society. It did. It civilized the society in many ways…
The climate strikes a couple of weeks ago – that’s young people, trying to save the world. Well, one way to support the idea that we should have “optimism of the will” is to look at what’s been achieved. A lot young people today don’t remember what it was like in the 60s. That’s “ancient history”…
They should study it – labour history, the whole story. The other major reason, the second major reason, is that …there are feasible, workable answers to every crisis that we face. That’s important. There’s a third reason: you have a choice. You can either give up and make sure that the worst will happen, or you can grasp the opportunities that exist. Maybe it’ll make it a better world. It’s not a very hard choice
QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: What kind of organizations, organized by working people, can help to bring about the kind of international cooperation you mentioned? …Is there a kind of grassroots democratic globalization that can be contrasted to those that are pursued by the masters of mankind?
CHOMSKY: Well, if you take a look at history, the history of countries like ours, it’s overwhelmingly the case that an active militant labour movement was in the forefront of driving progress. That’s why Canada has a national health system, for example, and the US doesn’t. The labour unions acted differently on the two sides of the border. [In] the New Deal measures which brought a measure of social democracy to the United States (which were later imitated in Europe to an extent), labour was in the forefront all the way….
Reagan and Thatcher knew exactly what they were doing when they initiated an attack on the labour movement: no other way to fight a one-sided class war. But then, there’s the opposite side of that coin. Rebuild the movement – it can be done…. The nineteenth-/early twentieth-century United States [happened] to have a very violent labour history…. There was a vibrant, lively labour movement in the late 19th/early 20th century, which was crushed by force (primarily [by] liberals, incidentally). Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare smashed it. 1920s, almost gone. [In] the 1930s, [it] arose from the ashes. CIO organizing. (I can remember, it’s my family). In fact, the CIO organizing sit-down strikes put the fear of God into the managing classes…. Furthermore, we should remember (it’s kind of ancient history) that the labour unions are mostly called “internationals.” That can be revived. To some extent, it is [being revived]. You had longshoremen boycotting trade with South Africa under apartheid when the US government was strongly supporting apartheid (Reagan was the last supporter of the apartheid regime). But the longshoremen were refusing to serve the ships… Internationalism for the labour movement is needed for survival.
The neoliberal globalization programs are designed specifically to pit poor working people in competition with one another. So, you get a race to the bottom. That’s Clinton’s programs of NAFTA, the World Trade Organization and so on. The labour movement can fight against it. The remnants of the labour movement tried to in the 1990s – they weren’t strong enough to combat it. But you could have the kind of programs that the labour movement put forth: high-growth, high-wage programs … for all participants in all countries, labour rights, and so on. That would be an alternative to the low-growth, low-wage, policies of neoliberal globalization. Could be done… So let’s help them become strong enough to carry it through…
We can do the same everywhere else. There are labour problems in the universities, plenty of service workers [are] exploited, adjuncts, graduate students – lots of things that can be done. Everywhere we are, we can organize, work together, build parts of a cooperative society. That’s where the common good overrules personal gain. No Ayn Rand.
QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: In an age in which education far exceeds schooling, how can we talk about education as being central to politics? How important is culture as a site of struggle in the 21st century?
CHOMSKY: Well, the right wing certainly understands this. They’re fighting culture wars all the time. Take the United States. The radical party, the Republican Party – everywhere it has any role in the federal government or the states, [it] is pressing very hard for a deeply reactionary cultural policy. One of their main targets is what’s called Critical Race Theory. None of them have a clue what Critical Race Theory is. If they looked into it, they probably wouldn’t even understand it. [For them] it’s a slogan that was set up to mean “the great replacement.” “They’re trying to destroy the white race, … we’ve got to block them from teaching Critical Race Theory, block them from teaching the history of the vicious oppression of 400 years of repression of African-Americans and the bitter legacy it’s left. Can’t teach that stuff…” Same on everything else. No right to abortion… In fact, let’s destroy the public schools.
Mass public education was one of the great contributions of the United States to modern society…That was pretty democratic. It was important. Same on the university level. The great public universities, including MIT where I was, are land-grant universities. They were federally set up to provide education for the general population. There’s an ugly side that meant exterminating the native population – but okay, we’ll put that in a corner for a moment; you’re not supposed to teach that, either. Fortunately, where I am the university of Arizona, they do it. Every large talk begins with an announcement that we’re on the territory stolen from the Tohono O’odham Nation, which is in reservations nearby. It’s our responsibility not only to acknowledge that but to make up for it by educational programs, cultural programs which enable them to recover somehow from the atrocities we’ve committed…. At least we could do that.
But the Republicans and large number of Democrats want to kill the public education system. For people like Milton Friedman, … one of [their] highest goals [was] to get rid of public education. In fact, Friedman cooperated with the segregationist movements in the 70s –…white supremacist movements. With [the] federally-mandated ending to segregation, they could save segregated schooling by putting it under some other rubric – religious education, charter schools, … something or other. And Friedman very explicitly cooperated with the racist segregationists as part of the effort to undermine the public education system. The Secretary of Education for Trump, Betsy DeVos, … from a very wealthy family [and] the DeVos foundation… are devoted to destroying the public education system [and] replacing it by right-wing religious education. It’s quite open. Defund the schools, defund the state colleges, and so on. So, education is certainly a terrain for popular struggle. We shouldn’t give it away to the right wing.
Now,… what kind of education? The kind of education [that] says, you don’t look at books? The kind of education that says, you train for a test? This was ridiculed in the 18th century by the Enlightenment, [likened to] pouring water into a vessel and then the student poured some of it out. We’ve all had that experience, taking some course that we didn’t care about, studying for the exam, getting good marks, [and] two weeks later forgetting what the course was about. That was institutionalized in the United States under the first Bush and Obama administrations. It’s called “teaching to test.” The worst imaginable form of education. Get the students to pass a test and then grade the school on the tests. So, if the tests aren’t high enough, defund the school, and reduce the teachers’ salaries.
You have teachers – I’ve talked to them – [who reported that] a kid comes up after class and says, “You brought up something interesting. I’d like to pursue it. What can I do?” [They’re supposed to] just say, “No, sorry, you have to study for that test to pass the test.” This is in Massachusetts, the “liberal state.” You’ve got to pass the test. The teacher doesn’t say it, but in the back of her mind is [this thought:] “My salary depends on it…school funding depends on it. So don’t pursue what you’re interested in. Study for the test and then, two weeks later, forget what the course was about.” That’s teaching to test. That’s another way to destroy education.
One thing that’s happened, strikingly, is that literacy has sharply declined. There are measures of that… In the United States, there have been studies. The kind of novels … that used to be assigned in eighth grade, are now assigned to seniors in high school, because literacy has declined, reading abilities have declined…
Well, of course, it varies; if you’re in a rich community it’s fine. Property taxes pay for decent schools [with] fairly decent programs… School funding in the United States is based on property taxes. Back in the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries, that didn’t matter so much – the populations were mixed. Now it matters enormously, with radically segregated populations….
QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: Is system change the only solution or is transformation of individuals’ behaviour also the solution – or is it one or the other? So, do we have to start with the system or can individuals change themselves…?
CHOMSKY: Why either/or? You can do both. Look at the major popular movements. Take, say, the Vietnam anti-war movement, which I happened to be very much involved with. We tried to start the movement when John F. Kennedy, one of the major modern criminals, sharply escalated the war in the early 1960s. Nobody cared. Barely reported… There were people around us that [said,] ‘look it’s time to try to organize some opposition to this massive atrocity.’ We started meeting in a living room with a couple of neighbors, maybe you could get to a church where 10 people would show up – long struggle – finally you got to big changes. That’s the way everything works.
Take the Civil Rights movement. It really took off in 1960, when four black students (whose names nobody remembers) sat in in a segregated lunch counter in North Carolina, … [were] immediately arrested [and] thrown in jail. Could have been the end – except, the next day, a couple of more Black students came, then more. After a while you had some students coming down from the north. Pretty soon you got SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and the Freedom Riders. After a while you had mass demonstrations, Martin Luther King, you had some institutional changes – nowhere near enough, but some. And that’s the way everything works. If we’re going to have worker participation or control over enterprises, first it’s a matter of consciousness-raising.
You go back to the women’s movement. How did it begin in the 1960s? A group of young kids would get together and talk to each other and say, “Look we don’t have to live like this; we don’t have to be the servants who serve the coffee… we can take part in things.” That was a big breakthrough. It wasn’t easy to do.
Take the labour movement. You go back to when we had a vibrant labour movement, [the] late 19th, early 20th centuries. The slogan of the mass labour movement was, “Those who work in the mills should own them.” The idea that you should be subordinate to a master was considered an intolerable attack on your dignity and rights. (We now call that having a job.)
Well, that consciousness can be revived. I don’t think it’s much below the surface. It takes [a] change of attitudes, a change of what Gramsci called hegemonic common sense. Along with that come institutional changes. They’re mutually supportive. You set up a cooperative. [That] gets people to thinking about how you can work together. In order to set up the cooperative, you have to get people to think, “Yeah, we’d like to cooperate.” So, they’re mutually reinforcing. I don’t think it’s one or the other.
MCKAY: Thank you so much for being with us tonight. We greatly honoured to have you with us… I would recommend everyone read The Precipice and the many other books that Noam Chomsky has brought out. It will give you unrivaled insights into the world in which we’re living. And may I say, a sense of hope.
[Noam Chomsky spoke to Syndemic and the Center for Scholarship in the Public Interest on 4 October 2021].