Noam Chomsky Speaks to Occupy: If We Want a Chance at a Decent Future, the Movement Here and Around the World Must Grow
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It's a little hard to give a Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture at an Occupy meeting. There are mixed feelings that go along with it. First of all, regret that Howard is not here to take part and invigorate it in his particular way, something that would have been the dream of his life, and secondly, excitement that the dream is actually being fulfilled. It’s a dream for which he laid a lot of the groundwork. It would have been the fulfillment of a dream for him to be here with you.
The Occupy movement really is an exciting development. In fact, it's spectacular. It's unprecedented; there's never been anything like it that I can think of. If the bonds and associations that are being established at these remarkable events can be sustained through a long, hard period ahead -- because victories don't come quickly-- this could turn out to be a very significant moment in American history.
The fact that the demonstrations are unprecedented is quite appropriate. It is an unprecedented era -- not just this moment -- but actually since the 1970s. The 1970s began a major turning point in American history. For centuries, since the country began, it had been a developing society with ups and downs. But the general progress was toward wealth and industrialization and development -- even in dark and hope -- there was a pretty constant expectation that it's going to go on like this. That was true even in very dark times.
I'm just old enough to remember the Great Depression. After the first few years, by the mid-1930s, although the situation was objectively much harsher than it is today, the spirit was quite different. There was a sense that we're going to get out of it, even among unemployed people. It'll get better. There was a militant labor movement organizing, CIO was organizing. It was getting to the point of sit-down strikes, which are very frightening to the business world. You could see it in the business press at the time. A sit-down strike was just a step before taking over the factory and running it yourself. Also, the New Deal legislations were beginning to come under popular pressure. There was just a sense that somehow we're going to get out of it.
It’s quite different now. Now there’s kind of a pervasive sense of hopeless, or, I think, despair. I think it’s quite new in American history and it has an objective basis. In the 1930s unemployed “working people” could anticipate realistically that the jobs are going to come back. If you’re a worker in manufacturing today -- and the unemployment level in manufacturing today is approximately like the Depression -- if current tendencies persist, then those jobs aren’t going to come back. The change took place in the '70s. There are a lot of reasons for it. One of the underlying reasons, discussed mainly by economic historian Robert Bernard, who has done a lot of work on it, is a falling rate of profit. That, with other factors, led to major changes in the economy -- a reversal of the 700 years of progress towards industrialization and development. We turned to a process of deindustrialization and de-development. Of course, manufacturing production continued, but overseas (it’s very profitable, but no good for the workforce). Along with that came a significant shift of the economy from productive enterprise, producing things people need, to financial manipulation. Financialization of the economy really took off at that time.
Before the '70s, banks were banks. They did what banks are supposed to do in a capitalist economy: take unused funds, like, say, your bank account, and transfer them to some potentially useful purpose, like buying a home or sending your kid to college. There were no financial crises. It was a period of enormous growth; the largest period of growth in American history, or maybe in economic history. It was sustained growth in the '50s and '60s and it was egalitarian. So the lowest percentile did as well as the highest percentile. A lot of people moved into reasonable lifestyles -- what’s called here “middle class” (working class is what it’s called in other countries).
It was real. The '60s accelerated it. The activism of the '60s, after a pretty dismal decade, really civilized the country in lots of ways that are permanent. They’re not changing. The '70s came along and suddenly there’s sharp change to industrialization and the offshoring of production. The shifting to financial institutions, which grew enormously. Also in the '50s and '60s there was the development of what became several decades later the high-tech economy. Computers, Internet, the IT revolution was mostly developed in the '50 and the '60s, and substantially in the state sector. It took a couple of decades before it took off, but it was developed then.
The 1970s set off a kind of a vicious cycle that led to a concentration of wealth increasingly in the hands of the financial sector, which doesn’t benefit the economy. Concentration of wealth yields concentration of political power, which, in turn, arrives to legislation that increases and accelerates the cycle. The physical policies such as tax changes, rules of corporate governance, deregulation were essentially bipartisan. Alongside of this began a very sharp rise in the costs of elections, which drives the political parties even deeper than before into the pockets of the corporate sector.
A couple years later started a different process. The parties dissolved, essentially. It used to be if you were a person in Congress and hoped for a position of committee chair or a position of responsibility, you got it mainly through seniority and service. Within a couple of years, you started to have to put money into the party coffers in order to get ahead. That just drove the whole system even deeper into the pockets of the corporate sector and increasingly the financial sector--a tremendous concentration of wealth, mainly in the literally top 1/10th of 1 percent of the population.
Meanwhile, for the general population it began an open period of pretty much stagnation, or decline for the majority. People got by through pretty artificial means -- like borrowing, so a lot of debt. Longer working hours for many. There was a period of stagnation and a higher concentration of wealth. The political system began to dissolve. There’s always been a gap between public policy and the public will, but it just grew kind of astronomically. You can see it right now, in fact.
Take a look at what’s happening right now. The big topic in Washington that everyone concentrates on is the deficit. For the public, correctly, the deficit is not much of an issue. The issue is joblessness, not a deficit. Now there’s a deficit commission but no joblessness commission. As far as the deficit is concerned, if you want to pay attention to it, the public has opinions. Take a look at the polls and the public overwhelmingly supports higher taxes on the wealthy, which have declined sharply during this stagnation period, this period of decline. The public wants higher taxes on the wealthy and to preserve the limited social benefits. The outcome of the deficit commission is probably going to be the opposite. Either they’ll reach an agreement, which will be the opposite of what the public wants, or else it will go into kind of an automatic procedure which is going to have those effects. Actually that’s something that’s going to happen very quickly. The deficit commission is going to come up with its decision in a couple of weeks. The Occupy movements could provide a mass base for trying to avert what amounts to a dagger in the heart of the country, and having negative effects.
Without going on with details, what’s being played out for the last 30 years is actually a kind of a nightmare that was anticipated by the classical economists. If you take an Adam Smith, and bother to read Wealth of Nations, you see that he considered the possibility that the merchants and manufacturers in England might decide to do their business abroad, invest abroad and import from abroad. He said they would profit but England would be harmed. He went on to say that the merchants and manufacturers would prefer to operate in their own country, what’s sometimes called a “home bias.” So, as if by an invisible hand, England would be saved the ravage of what’s called “neoliberal globalization.”
That’s a pretty hard passage to miss. In his classic Wealth of Nations, that’s the only occurrence of the phrase “invisible hand.” Maybe England would be saved from neoliberal globalization by an invisible hand. The other great classical economist David Ricardo recognized the same thing and hoped it wouldn’t happen. Kind of a sentimental hope. It didn’t happen for a long time, but it’s happening now. Over the last 30 years that’s exactly what’s underway. For the general population -- the 99 percent in the imagery of the Occupy movement --it’s really harsh and it could get worse. This could be a period of irreversible decline. For the 1 percent, or furthermore 1/10th of 1 percent, it’s just fine. They’re at the top, richer and more powerful than ever in controlling the political system and disregarding the public, and if it can continue, then sure why not? This is just what Smith and Ricardo warned about.
So pick Citigroup, for decades one of the most corrupt of the major investment banking corporations. It was repeatedly bailed out by the taxpayer over and over again starting in the early Reagan years and now once again. I won’t run through all the corruption. You probably know it, and it’s astonishing. A couple of years ago they came out with a brochure for investors. They urged investors to put their money in what they call the “plutonomy index.” The world is dividing into a plutonomy, the rich and so on. That’s where the action is. They said their plutonomy index is way outperforming the stock market, so put your money into it. And as for the rest? We set them adrift. We don’t really care about them and we don’t need them. They have to be around to provide a powerful state to protect us and bail us out when we get into trouble, but they essentially have no function. It’s sometimes called these days the “precariat,” people who live a precarious existence at the periphery of society. It’s not the periphery anymore; it’s becoming a very substantial part of the society in the United States and indeed elsewhere.
This is considered a good thing. For example, when Alan Greenspan was still “St. Alan,” hailed by the economics profession as one of the greatest economists of all time (this is before the crash for which he is substantially responsible for), he was testifying to Congress in the Clinton years explaining the wonders of the great economy. He said much of this economy was based on what he called “growing worker insecurity.” If working people are insecure, if they’re “precariat” and living precarious existences, then they’re not going to make demands, they won’t make wages, they won’t get benefits and we can kick them out if we don’t like them, and that’s good for the health of the economy. That’s what’s called a healthy economy technically and he was highly praised for this.
Well, now the world is indeed splitting into a plutonomy and a precariat, again in the imagery of the Occupy movement, the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The plutonomy is where the action is. It could continue like this, and if it does, then this historic reversal that began in the 1970s could become irreversible. That’s where we’re heading. The Occupy movements are the first major popular reaction which could avert this. It’s going to be necessary to face the fact that it’s a long hard struggle. You don’t win victories tomorrow. You have to go on and form structures that will be sustained through hard times and can win major victories. There are a lot of things that can be done.
I mentioned before that in the 1930s one of the most effective actions was a sit-down strike. The reason was very simple: it’s just a step below a takeover of the industry. Through the '70s, as the decline was setting in, there were some very important events that took place. One was in the late '70s. In 1977, US Steel decided to close one of its major facilities, Youngstown, Ohio, and instead of just walking away, the workforce and the community decided to get together and buy it from US Steel and hand it over to the workforce to run and turn it into a worker-owned, worker-managed facility. They didn’t win, but with enough popular support they could have won. It was a partial victory because even though they lost it set off other efforts now throughout Ohio and other places.
There’s a scattering of hundreds, maybe thousands, of not-so-small worker owned or partially worker-owned industries which could become worker-managed. That’s the basis for a real revolution. That’s how it takes place. It’s happening here, too. In one of the suburbs of Boston something similar happened. A multi-national decided to shut down a productive, functioning and profitable manufacturing company because it was not profitable enough for them. The workforce and union offered to buy it and take it over and run it themselves, but the multi-national decided to close it down instead probably for reasons of class consciousness. I think they want things like this to happen. If there had been enough popular support, if there had been something like this movement that could have gotten involved, they might have succeeded.
There are other things going on like that. In fact, some of them were major. Not long ago, Obama took over the auto industry. It’s basically owned by the public. There were a number of things that could have been done. One was what was done. It could be reconstituted so it could be handed back to the ownership, or very similar ownership and continue on its traditional path. The other possibility was they could have handed it over to the workforce and turned it into worker-owned, worker-managed major industrial system that’s a major part of the economy and have it produce things that people need. And there’s a lot that we need. We all know or should know that the US is extremely backward globally in high-speed transportation. That’s very serious. It affects people’s lives and it affects the economy. It’s a very serious business.
I have a personal story. I happened to be giving talks in France a couple months ago and ended up in southern France and had to take a train from Avignon in southern France to the airport in Paris and it took two hours. That’s the same distance as Washington to Boston. It’s a scandal. It could be done; we have the capacity to do it, like a skilled workforce. It would have taken a little popular support. That could have been a major change in the economy. Just to make it more surreal, while this option was being avoided, the Obama administration was sending its transportation secretary to Spain to get contracts for developing high-speed rails for the United States. This could have been done right in the Rust Belt, which is being closed down. There’s no economic reason this can’t happen. These are class reasons and the lack of political mobilization.
There are very dangerous developments in the international arena, including two of them which are kind of a shadow that hangs over almost everything we discuss. There are, for the first time to human history, real threats to peace and survival of the species. One has been hanging around since 1945 and it’s kind of a miracle we’ve escaped it and that’s the threat of nuclear weapons. That’s a threat that’s being escalated by the administration and its allies. Something has to be done about that or we’re in real trouble. The other, of course, is environmental catastrophe. Every country in the world is taking at least halting steps toward trying to do something about it. The US is also taking steps, namely to accelerate the threat. The US is now the only country that’s not only not doing something constructive…it’s not climbing on the train. It’s pulling it backwards.
Congress is right now reversing legislation instituted by the Nixon administration. (Nixon was really the last liberal president of the United States, and literally, this shows you what’s been going on!) They’re dismantling the limited measures the Nixon administration took to try to do something about what’s a growing and emerging catastrophe. This is connected with a huge propaganda system, perfectly openly declared by the business world, that it’s all just a liberal hoax. Why pay attention to these scientists? We’re really regressing back to the Medieval period. It’s not a joke. If that’s happening to the most powerful and richest country in history then this crisis is not going to be averted and all of this we’re talking about won’t matter in a generation or two. All of that’s going on right now and something has to be done about it very soon and in a dedicated and sustained way. It’s not going to be easy to succeed. There are going to be barriers, hardships and failures along the way. Unless the process that’s taking place here and around the world, unless that continues to grow and kind of becomes a major social force in the world, the chances for a decent future are not very high.
Q: What about corporate personhood and getting the money out of that stream of politics?
A: These are very good things to do, but you can’t do any of these things or anything else unless there’s a very large and active base. If the Occupy movement was the leading force in the country then you could move it forward. Most people don’t know that this is happening or they may know about it and not know what it is. Among those who do know, the polls show there’s a lot of support. But that assigns a task. It’s necessary to get out into the country and get people to understand what this is about and what they can do about and what the consequences are of not doing anything about it.
Corporate personhood is a good point, but pay attention to what it is. We’re supposed to worship the Constitution these days, but the 5th Amendment of the Constitution says no person shall be deprived of rights without due process of law. The founding fathers didn’t mean “person” when they said “person.” For example there were a lot of creatures of flesh and blood who were not persons. The entire indigenous population was not considered persons. They didn’t have any rights. There was a category of creatures called 3/5 human -- they weren’t persons and didn’t have rights. Women were not entirely persons, so they didn’t have full rights. A lot of this was somewhat rectified over the years. During the Civil War, the 14th amendment raised the 3/5 to full humans at least in principle, but that was only in principle.
Now over the following years the concept of person was changed by the courts in two ways. One way was to broaden it to include corporations, legal fictions established by the courts and the state. These “persons” later became the management of corporations; the management of corporations became “persons.” Of course, that’s not what the 14th amendment says. It’s also narrowed to undocumented workers. They had to be excluded from the category of persons. That’s happening right now. So legislation like this goes two ways. They defined persons to include corporate persons, which by now have rights beyond human beings, given by the trade agreements and others. They exclude people who flee from Central America where the US devastated their homelands, flee from Mexico because they can’t compete with the US’s highly subsidized agro-business. When NAFTA was passed in 1994, the Clinton administration understood pretty well that it was going to devastate the Mexican economy, so they started militarizing the border. So we’re seeing the consequences. So these people have to be excluded from the category of persons.
So when you talk about personhood, that’s right, but there’s more than one aspect to it. It ought to be pushed forward and it ought to be understood, but that requires a mass base. It requires that the population understands this and is committed to it. It’s easy to think of a lot of things that should be done, but they all have a prerequisite – namely a mass popular base that’s there that’s committed to implementing them.
Q: What about the ruling class in America? How likely is it that they’ll have an open fascist system here?
A: I think it’s very unlikely frankly. They don’t have the force. About a century ago, in the freest countries in the world, Britain and the United Sates at the time, the dominant classes came to understand that they can’t control the population by force any longer. Too much freedom had been won by struggles like these, and they realized it. It’s discussed in their literature. They recognize that they’re going to have to shift their tactics to control of attitudes and beliefs instead of just the cudgel. It can’t do what it used to do. You have to control attitudes and beliefs. In fact that’s when the public relations industry began. It began in the United States and England. The free countries where you had to control beliefs and attitudes, to induce consumerism, to induce passivity, apathy and distraction. It’s a barrier, but it’s a lot easier to overcome than torture and the Gestapo. I don’t think the circumstances are any longer there to institute anything like what we call fascism.
Q: You mentioned earlier that sit-down protests are just a precursor to a takeover of industry. Would you advocate a general strike as a tactic moving forward? Would you ever if asked allow for your voice to relay the democratically chosen will of our nation?
A: You don’t want leaders; you want to do it yourself. We need representation and you should pick it yourselves. It should be recallable representation.
The question of a general strike is like the others. You can think of it as a possible idea at a time when the population is ready for it. We can’t sit here and declare a general strike, obviously. There has to be approval and a willingness to take the risks on the part of a large mass of the population. That takes organization, education and activism. Education doesn’t just mean telling people what to believe. It means learning yourself. There’s a Karl Marx quote: “The task is not just to understand the world but to change it.” There’s a variant of that which should be kept in mind, “If you want to change the world in a certain direction you better try to understand it first.”
Understanding it doesn’t mean listening to a talk or reading a book, though that is helpful. It comes through learning. Learning comes from participation. You learn from others. You learn from the people you’re trying to organize. You have to gain the experience and understanding which will make it possible to maybe implement ideas as a tactic. There’s a long way to go. This doesn’t happen by the flick of a wrist. It happens from a long, dedicated work. I think in many ways the most exciting aspect of the Occupy movements is just the construction of these associations and bonds that are taking place all over. Out of that if they can be sustained can come expansion to a large part of the population that doesn’t know what’s going on. If that can happen, then you can raise questions about tactics like this, which could very well at some point be appropriate.
*This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity. To read the full address, click here.