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Chomsky: Corporations and the Richest Americans Viscerally Oppose Common Good

The Masters of Mankind want us to become the "stupid nation," in the interests of their short-term gain -- damn the consequences.
 
 
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The following is Part I of the transcript of a recent speech delivered by Noam Chomsky in February. AlterNet will publish Part II on Sunday, March 10.

Whether public education contributes to the Common Good depends, of course, on what kind of education it is, to whom it is available, and what we take to be the Common Good. There’s no need to tarry on the fact that these are highly contested  matters, have been throughout history, and continue to be so today.

One of the great achievements of American democracy has been the introduction of mass public education, from children to advanced research universities. And  in some respects that leadership position has been maintained. Unfortunately, not all. Public education is under serious attack, one component of the attack on any  rational and humane concept of the Common Good, sometimes in ways that are  not only shocking, but also spell disaster for the species.
 
All of this falls within the  general assault on the population in the past generation, the so-called “neoliberal era.” I’ll return to these matters, of great significance and import.
 
Sometimes the attacks on education and on the Common Good are very closely  linked. One current illustration is the “Environmental Literacy Improvement Act” that is being proposed to legislatures by ALEC, the American Legislative  Exchange Council, a corporate-funded lobby that designs legislation to serve the  needs of the corporate sector and extreme wealth. This act mandates “balanced”  teaching of climate science in K-12 classrooms.”
 
“Balanced teaching” is a code  phrase that refers to teaching climate change denial, to “balance” authentic climate  science – what you read in science journals. It is analogous to the “balanced  teaching” advocated by creationists to enable the teaching of “creation science” in  public schools. Legislation based on ALEC models has already been introduced in  several states.
 
The ALEC legislation is based on a project of the Heartland Institute, a corporate-funded Institute dedicated to rejection of the scientific consensus on the  climate. The Institute project calls for a “Global Warming Curriculum for K-12  Classrooms,” which aims to teach that there is “a major controversy over whether  or not humans are changing the weather.” Of course, all of this is dressed up in  rhetoric about teaching critical thinking, and so on. It is much like the current  assault on teaching children about evolution and science quite generally.
 
There is indeed a controversy: on one side, the overwhelming majority of  scientists, all of the world’s major National Academies of Science, the professional  science journals, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) : all agree that global warming is taking place, that there is a substantial human  component, and that the situation is serious and perhaps dire, and that very soon,  maybe within decades, the world might reach a tipping point where the process  will escalate sharply and will be irreversible, with very severe effects on the   possibility of decent human survival.
 
It is rare to find such consensus on complex  scientific issues.
 
True, it is not unanimous. Media reports commonly present a controversy between  the overwhelming scientific consensus on one side, and skeptics on the other, including some quite respected scientists who caution that much is unknown –  which means that things might not be as bad as thought or they might be worse:  only the first alternative is brought up. Omitted from the contrived debate is a  much larger group of skeptics: highly regarded climate scientists who regard the  regular reports of the IPCC as much too conservative: the Climate Change group  at my own university, MIT, for example. And they have repeatedly been proven  correct, unfortunately. But they are scarcely part of the public debate, though very  prominent in the scientific literature.
 
The Heartland Institute and ALEC are part of a huge campaign by corporate  lobbies to try to sow doubt about the near-unanimous consensus of scientists that  human activities are having a major impact on global warming with truly ominous  implications. The campaign was openly announced, including the lobbying  organizations of the fossil fuel industry, the American Chamber of Commerce (the  main business lobby) and others. It has had an effect on public opinion, though  careful studies show that public opinion remains much closer to the scientific  consensus than policy is. That is undoubtedly why major sectors of the corporate  world are launching their attack on the educational system, to try to counter the  dangerous tendency of the public to pay attention to the conclusions of scientific  research.
 
You probably heard that at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting recently , Gov. Bobby Jindal warned the leadership that “We must stop being the stupid party…We must stop insulting the intelligence of voters.” ALEC  and its corporate backers, in contrast, want the country to be "the stupid nation” –  which may encourage them to join the stupid party that Jindal warned about.
 
The major science journals give a sense of how surreal all of this is. Take Sciencethe major US scientific weekly. A few weeks ago it had three news items side by side. One reported that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the US, continuing  a long trend. The second reported a new study by the US Global Climate Change  Research Program providing additional evidence for rapid climate change as the  result of human activities, and discussing likely severe impacts. The third reported  the new appointments to chair the committees on science policy chosen by the  House of Representatives, where a minority of voters elected a large majority of  Republicans thanks to the shredding of the political system.
 
In Pennsylvania, for  example, a considerably majority voted for Democrats but they won just over one-third of House seats. All three of the new chairs deny that humans contribute to climate  change, two deny that it is even taken place, one is a longtime advocate for the  fossil fuel industry. The same issue of the journal has a technical article with new  evidence that the irreversible tipping point may be ominously close.
 
For those whom Adam Smith called the "Masters of Mankind,” it is important  that we must become the stupid nation in the interests of their short-term gain,  damn the consequences. These are essential properties of contemporary market  fundamentalist doctrines. ALEC and its corporate sponsors understand the  importance of ensuring that public education train children to belong to the stupid  nation, and not be misled by science and rationality.
 
This is far from the only case of sharp divergence between public opinion and  public policy. That tells us a lot about the current state of American democracy,  and what that means for us and the world. The corporate assault on education and  independent thought, of which this is only one striking illustration, tells us a good deal more.
 
In climate policy, the US lags behind other countries. Quotes a current scientific  review: “109 countries have enacted some form of policy regarding renewable  power, and 118 countries have set targets for renewable energy. In contrast,  the United States has no adopted any consistent and stable set of policies at the  national level to foster the use of renewable energy” or adopted other means  that are being pursued by countries that do have national policies. Some things are being done in the US, but sporadically, and with no organized national  commitment. That’s no slight problem for us, and for the world, in the light of  the great predominance of American power – declining to be sure as power is  diversified internationally, but still unchallenged.
 
There are other respects in which the concept of Common Good that has come  to dominate policy – but not opinion -- in the US is diverging from the affluent  developed societies of the OECD, and many others. A recent OECD study  shows that the US ranks 27th  out of 31 countries in measures of social justice,  barely above Mexico. It ranks 21st in inequality, poverty, life expectancy, infant  mortality, maternity leave, environmental performance, 18th  in mental health and  19th in welfare of children. Also ranks toward the bottom in high-school dropout  rates and poor student performance in math.
 
Figures like these are signs of  very severe systemic disorders; particularly striking because the US is the richest country in the world, with incomparable advantages.
 
Another crucial case is healthcare. US costs are about twice the per capita  costs of comparable countries, and outcomes are relatively poor. Studied by  economist Dean Baker reveal that the deficit that obsesses the financial sector and  Washington, but not the more realistic public, would be eliminated if we had health care systems similar to other developed societies, hardly a utopian idea. The US  healthcare system deviates from others in that it is largely privatized and lightly  regulated, and – not surprisingly – is highly inefficient and costly. There is an  exception in the US healthcare system: the Veterans Administration, a government  system, much less costly.
 
Another partial exception is Medicare, a government-run system, hence with far lower administrative costs and other waste, but still  more costly than it should be because it has to work through the privatized system  and is trapped by the extraordinary political power of the pharmaceutical industry,  which prevents the government from negotiating drug prices so that they are far  higher than in other countries. 
 
Current policy ideas include proposals to increase age eligibility to cut costs:  actually it increases costs (along with penalizing mostly working people) by  shifting from a relatively efficient system to a highly inefficient privatized one. But  the costs are transferred to individuals and away from collective action through  taxes. And the concept of the Common Good that is being relentlessly driven into  our heads demands that we focus on our own private gain, and suppress normal  human emotions of solidarity, mutual support and concern for others. That I think  is also an important part of what lies behind the assault on public education and  on Social Security that has been waged by sectors of corporate wealth for years,  on pretexts of cost that cannot be sustained, and against strong public opposition. 
 
What lies behind these campaigns, I suspect, is that public education and Social S ecurity, like national healthcare, are based on the conception that we care for other people: we care that the disabled widow across town has food to eat, or  that the kids down the street have schooling ("why should I pay taxes for schools? I don’t have kids there"). And beyond that, that we care about the tens of millions are  dying every year because they cannot obtain medical care, or about dying infants,  and others who are vulnerable.
 
These conflicts go far back in American history. It’s particularly useful to look  back to the origins of the industrial revolution, in the mid-19th century, when the  country was undergoing enormous social changes as the population was being  driven into the industrial system, which working people bitterly condemned,  because it deprived them of their basic rights as free men and women – not the least  women, the so-called factory girls, who were leaving the farms to the mills.
 
It is worth reading the contributions in the press of the time by factory  girls, artisans from Boston, and others. It's also important to note that working- class culture of the time was alive and flourishing. There’s a great book about  the topic by Jonathan Rose, called The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class. It’s a monumental study of the reading habits of the working class of the  day. He contrasts “the passionate pursuit of knowledge by proletarian autodidacts”  with the “pervasive philistinism of the British aristocracy.”
 
Pretty much the same  was true in the new working-class towns here, like eastern Massachusetts, where  an Irish blacksmith might hire a young boy to read the classics to him while he  was working. On the farms, the factory girls were reading the best contemporary  literature of the day, what we study as classics. They condemned the industrial  system for depriving them of their freedom and culture.
 
This went on for a long  time. I am old enough to remember the atmosphere of the 1930s. A large part of  my family came from the unemployed working-class. Many had barely gone to  school. But they participated in the high culture of the day. They would discuss  the latest Shakespeare plays, concerts of the Budapest String Quartet, different  varieties of psychoanalysis and every conceivable political movement. There was also a very lively workers' education system with which leading scientists  and mathematicians were directly involved. A lot of this has been lost under the relentless assault of the Masters, but it can be recovered and it is not lost forever.
 
The labor press of the early industrial revolution took strong positions on many  issues that should have a resonance today. They took for granted that, as they  put it, those who work in the mills should own them. They condemned wage  labor, which to them was akin to slavery, the only difference being that it was  supposedly temporary.
 
This was such a popular view that it was even part of the  program of the Republican Party. It was also a main theme of the huge organized  labor movement that was taking shape, the Knights of Labor, which began to  establish links with the most important popular democratic party in the country’s  history, the Farmers Alliance, later called the Populist movement, which originated  with radical farmers in Texas and then spread through much of the country,  forming collective enterprises, banks and marketing cooperatives and much more,  movements that could have driven the country toward more authentic democracy  if they had not been destroyed, largely by violence – though, interestingly,  similar developments are underway today in the old Rust Belt and elsewhere, very  important for the future, I think.
 
The prime target of condemnation in the labor press was what they called “The  New Spirit of the Age: Gain Wealth, Forgetting All But Self.” No efforts have  been spared since then to drive this spirit into people's heads. People must come  to believe that suffering and deprivation result from the failure of individuals, not  the reigning socioeconomic system. There are huge industries devoted to this  task. About one-sixth of the entire US economy is devoted to what's called "marketing,"  which is mostly propaganda. Advertising is described by analysts and the business  literature as a process of fabricating wants – a campaign to drive people to the  superficial things in life, like fashionable consumption, so that they will remain  passive and obedient.
 
The schools are also a target. As I mentioned, public mass education was a major  achievement, in which the US was a pioneer. But it had complex characteristics,  rooted in the sharp class conflicts of the day. One goal was to induce farmers  to give up their independence and submit themselves to industrial discipline and  accept what they regarded as wage slavery. That did not pass without notice.  Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that political leaders of his day were calling for  popular education. He concluded that their motivation was fear. The country was  filling up with millions of voters and the Masters realized that one had to therefore  “educate them, to keep them from (our) throats.”
 
In other words: educate them  the “right way” -- to be obediently passive and accept their fate as right and just,  conforming to the New Spirit of the Age. Keep their perspectives narrow, their  understanding limited, discourage free and independent thought, instill docility and  obedience to keep them from the Masters' throats.
 
This common theme from 150 years ago is inhuman and savage. It also meets  with resistance. And there have been victories. There were many in the struggles  of the 1930s, carried further in the 1960s. But systems of power never walk  away politely. They prepare a new assault. This has in fact been happening since  the early 1970s, based on major changes in the design of the economic system. 
 
Two crucial changes were financialization, with a huge explosion of speculative  financial flows, and deindustrialization. Production didn't cease. It just began to  be offshored anywhere where you could get terrible working conditions and no  environmental constraints, with huge profits for the Masters. Within the US, that  set off a vicious cycle, leading to sharp concentration of wealth, which translates at  once to concentration of political power, increasingly in the financial sector. That  in turn leads to legislation that carries the vicious cycle forward, including sharp  tax reduction for the rich and deregulation, with repeated financial crises from  the ‘80s, each worse than the last. The current one is so far the worst of all. And  others are likely in what a director of the Bank of England calls a “doom loop.” 
 
There are solutions, but they do not fit the needs of the Masters, for whom the  crises are no problem. They are bailed out by the Nanny State. Today corporate  profits are breaking new records and the financial managers who created the  current crisis are enjoying huge bonuses.  Meanwhile, for the large majority, wages and income have practically stagnated in  the last 30-odd years. By today, it has reached the point that 400 individuals have more wealth than the bottom 180 million Americans.
 
In parallel, the cost of elections has skyrocketed, driving both parties even deeper  into the pockets of those with the money, corporations and the super-rich. Political representatives become even more beholden to those who paid for their victories.  One consequence is that by now, the poorest 70% have literally no influence over  policy. As you move up the income/wealth ladder influence increases, and at the  very top, a tiny percent, the Masters get what they want.
 
 
Copyright Noam Chomsky, 2013. All rights reserved. Permission to republish this text must be granted by the author.

Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT.

 
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