Noam Chomsky Speaks to Occupy: If We Want a Chance at a Decent Future, the Movement Here and Around the World Must Grow
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).