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Noam Chomsky: America Is a Terrified Country

Noam Chomsky discusses American terror abroad, dire income inequality at home, and what to do next.

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CK: One solution, since labor has been weakened, is for workers to start their own worker-run and worker-managed businesses. A lot of people were inspired by the growth of worker-run collectives and businesses in Argentina following the 2001 economic collapse there. In the United States, there are about several hundred, including Free Speech Radio News, which has been worker-run and worker-managed since itwas founded thirteen years ago. Do you think this could grow and expand in the United States?

NC: It’s quite significant. There’s been very good work on this, which ought to be read, by Gar Alperovitz, who is both an activist and a writer, a very good historian. What I know of, it’s mostly around northern Ohio and the Rust Belt, and what happened there is interesting and worth thinking about. The steelworkers union, which is one of the more progressive in some ways—not without plenty of problems—are working on some sort of an arrangement with Mondragón, which is this huge, worker-owned conglomerate in the Basque country in northern Spain.

CK: And that’s been around since the 1950s, right?

NC: Goes back to the 1950s as church-initiated, what became liberation theology and so on. But there’s also a strong workers’ tradition there, going way back to the Spanish Revolution. And it’s grown and developed. It’s now a number of productive enterprises: banks, housing, schools, hospitals. It’s quite an elaborate affair. And it seems to be with standing the financial crisis, while everything else in Spain is collapsing. I don’t know the details, but that’s what it looks like. It’s not worker-managed. Workers select management, who then act on their own. And, of course, it’s part of an international capitalist economy which means that you can argue the ethics of it, since they do things like exploit labor abroad and so on. They say that they have to do it to compete and survive—maybe—that you can’t extricate yourself from the world you’re in.

Of course, the more solidarity spreads, the more you can do things about that, but that’s not easy. It’s hard enough to reconstruct the labor movement internally. After all, every labor movement is called an international. That’s an aspiration. It’s a real problem in the United States. You could see it yesterday. Yesterday was May Day. I happened to get a letter in the morning. A ton of email comes in—one of them was from a friend in Brazil who told me that she wouldn’t be going to work that day because it’s a holiday, a labor holiday. In fact, it’s a labor holiday all over the world, except in the United States where nobody knows what it is. I happened to be giving a talk at Harvard in the afternoon and this came up. I asked the big audience of Harvard graduate students, “What do you think May Day is?” And some people said, “You mean dance around the May pole,” or something like that. It’s not only a labor holiday. It’s a labor holiday that was initiated in support of American workers who were struggling for an eight-hour day and who were among the most oppressed in the industrial world.

So here’s this holiday—you know, big demonstrations everywhere, and all kinds of celebrations and so on, and here nobody knows what it is. That’s a sign of extremely effective indoctrination. It’s the kind of thing that we just have to work our way out of. Here there are some small celebrations. Maybe Occupy might have had a May Day march or something. And it’s kind of interesting the way the press treated it. Usually they just ignore it. But if you take a look at the New York Times the next day, it had an article that said demonstrations were in support of labor or something. But it was datelined “Havana,” and there was a picture of a huge mob of Cubans marching and some commentary. It was clear what the implication is: This holiday is some kind of commie business; it’s got nothing to do with us. I don’t know if it’s conscious or if it’s just so internalized that the journalists don’t even see what they’re doing. But the message was, “Forget it, it’s some alien thing.”

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