A conversation with Noam Chomsky about:
The Occupy Movement
Economic democracy and cooperatives
Limiting the accumulation of wealth
Latin America. Watch the conversation here.
Dada Maheshvarananda: The viral growth of the Occupy Movement, and the public support of it, is testament to the tremendous dissatisfaction with the inequities and abuses of corporate capitalism. The slogan “We are the 99%” has resonated with many people. What is your view of the potential strength of this type of mass protest and its possibility to effect social change?
Noam Chomsky: Well the Occupy Movement already has had a number of significant successes. One of them, as you say, is to kind of change the national discourse. These concerns and fears and so on were, of course, prevalent for a long time for perfectly objective reasons, having to do with changes in the socio-economic system in the last 30 or 40 years. But they weren’t crystallized very clearly until the Occupy Movement put them forward. And now they are kind of common coin. So the 99 percent and one percent, the radical inequality, the farcical character of purchased elections, the corporate shenanigans that led to the current crisis and have been crushing people for a long time, the overseas wars, and so on. That’s one major contribution.
The other one is not discussed so much, but I think it’ s pretty important. This is an extremely atomized society. People are alone. It’s a very business-run society. The very explicit goal of the business world is to create a social order in which the basic social unit is you and your television set, in which you’re watching ads and going out to purchase commodities. There are tremendous efforts made, that have been going on for a century and a half, to try to induce this kind of consciousness and social order.
In fact if you go back say 150 years, in the early days of the industrial revolution, right here in Massachusetts, where it started, there was a very lively press at the time, probably the period of the greatest free press in the United States. All kinds of press – ethnic, labor, etc. And the labor press, which was extremely interesting, lively and participatory, had a great many harsh criticisms of the industrial system that was being imposed and to which people were being driven. One of the core criticisms was what 150 years ago they called the “New Spirit of the Age”: “Gain wealth, forgetting all but self,” which they considered savage and inhuman and was being driven into their heads. Well, 150 years later they are still trying to drive into people’s heads, “Gain wealth, forgetting all but self.” Now it’s considered kind of an ideal, but it’s also intolerable to human beings.
One effect of the Occupy Movement has been simply to spontaneously create small social systems of solidarity, mutual support, cooperation, cooperative kitchens, libraries, health services, general assemblies in which people actually interact and so on. That’s something that is very much missing in this society. When we talk about potential, part of the potential would be to first of all maintain those bonds and associations after the tactic has outlived its usefulness. And tactics do outlive their usefulness. After that happens, if what has been learned and internalized can be sustained and extended, that would be very important in itself.
The other dimension is how much can you engage the rest of the so-called 99 percent in these activities, concerns, interactions and so on. That’s the next big step that has to be taken.
Dada Maheshvarananda: Many in the Occupy movement have realized that political democracy is controlled by big money. Few however have expressed that economic democracy is essential for a truly democratic society. The Progressive Utilization Theory or Prout advocates economic democracy to empower people and communities through cooperative management of most enterprises. Economic democracy requires that the minimum requirements of life must be guaranteed to everyone, and decision-making be decentralized so people have the right to choose how their local economies are run. It is the responsibility of all levels of government to promote policies that achieve full employment. Do you think that economic democracy and local economies could move us forward?
Noam Chomsky: First of all, this is the traditional stand of the Left. So if you go back again 150 years to the same newspapers I was mentioning, one of their demands was that those who work in the mills should own them, and of course manage them. That was the slogan of the Knights of Labor, the huge labor organization that developed in the nineteenth century. European socialism was mostly coming from several branches, but the more Left branches if you like, were essentially the same – committed to workers’ councils, community organization, guild socialism in England was the same. This is the traditional thrust of the socialist movement. It is not understood here, because, as I said, this is a very business-run society. You’re not allowed to know any of these things. So socialism is some kind of bad word.
Well, that is what happens in a highly controlled society, a highly indoctrinated society. But these are very familiar goals. In fact, you can even go to the leading social philosopher in the United States, who everyone recognizes as John Dewey, who just took this for granted. As he put it, unless every institution in society – industry, farming, communication, media, all of them – unless they are under popular democratic control, with wide participation by the workforce and the community, he said politics will just be the shadow cast over society by big business. That’s the alternative.
You can’t have meaningful political democracy without functioning economic democracy. I think this is, at some level, understood by working people. It has to be brought to awareness and consciousness, but it’s just below the surface.
In fact, things are happening. Some of the most interesting are [the Evergreen] cooperatives in Ohio in the Cleveland area. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of, not huge, but significant enterprises, that are worker-owned and less frequently worker-managed. The biggest worker-owned conglomerate is Mondragón in the Basque Country [Spain]. That’s worker-owned but not worker-managed industries, banks, schools, communities, a very broad configuration. [See reply from Mondragón Cooperatives below.] And there are various other elements of it here and there. A couple of quite good books have just come out about it, one by Gar Alperovitz, America Beyond Capitalism, which is about the worker-owned enterprises that are sprouting around the country. This could go much beyond.
So, for example, a couple years ago, the government effectively nationalized the auto industry. It came pretty close to that. There were a couple choices. One choice, which is the choice that is reflexive in a business-run system, is to reconstitute it, hand it back to the original owners or to people very much like them, and let them pursue very much the course they pursued before. That’s one possibility; that was of course the choice undertaken without discussion.
But there was another choice. And if there had been a live, functioning Occupy Movement at the time, it could have put that other choice onto the national agenda. It would have to have been much larger and more organized than it is now. It’s been only a few months after all. The other choice was to hand the auto industry over to the workers in the community, and have them own and manage and run it. Have it directed to things that the country needs.
There are, after all, things that we very badly need as a society. One of the most obvious is high speed rail. The United States is off the international spectrum in this respect. It’s kind of a scandal. It’s economically harmful, socially harmful, humanly harmful, ecologically harmful, and everything that you can think of. It’s just ridiculous. And the skilled workforce in what is called the “rust belt” could easily be reconfigured to do that. People like Seymour Melman have been arguing for that for years. It might take some kind of federal aid, but nothing like what was poured into the banks.
To make this even more ironic, at the very time that Obama was reconstituting the auto industry and handing it back to the normal ownership, he was also sending his transportation secretary to Spain to get contracts for high speed rail from the Spanish, who are way more advanced than we are, or the French or the Germans. And here you have this industrial system sitting there, workers wanting to work, communities wanting to have their own lively work-based communities, and the country needing things badly. But they can’t be put together. And we have to go somewhere else, like to Spain to get them to help us out. I mean, that’s an incredible condemnation of the semi-functioning system. And that’s the kind of thing that an Occupy Movement, when it moves beyond this particular tactic, should be addressing.
Things like that are happening all over the country. There was one right here about two years ago. A small but sophisticated manufacturing enterprise that was pretty successful in one of the Boston suburbs was producing specialized equipment for aircraft, and the multinational that owned it wanted to shut it down. Maybe it wasn’t making enough profit for them. The union, UE [United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America], a pretty progressive union, and the workforce offered to buy it and run it themselves with community support. Well, the company wouldn’t agree. I suspect they lost money on it. I suspect it was just for class reasons. The idea of worker-owned, worker-managed successful enterprise is not appealing. Whatever the reasons, they closed it down, so now that town doesn’t have the industry on which it is partly based. Again, with a live, progressive activist movement that reaches out to many parts of the community, that could have been salvaged. And there are things like that all over.
So yes, it is the right thing to do. It is deeply ingrained in the American tradition, and it’s been suppressed by the nature of a highly class-conscious business class which is always, without stop, fighting a bitter class war. They know exactly what they’re doing; it is very coordinated and controlled. It’s true everywhere, but especially so in the United States. It is usual in this respect; we see many consequences of it.
Dada Maheshvarananda: Let’s go on about the one percent. Because the physical resources of the planet are limited, the hoarding wealth or using it for speculation rather than productive investment reduces the opportunities of other people and causes poverty. A fundamental principle of Prout is to limit the accumulation of wealth and create a maximum salary that is tied to the minimum wage, just as all the salaries in all the forms of government of the United States have pay scales that do not exceed ten times between the starting salary and what the highest pay scale is for a president or general or judge. What is your opinion about limiting the accumulation of wealth?
Noam Chomsky: First of all, there are much more far-reaching goals than that. Another traditional ideal of the Left movements has been “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” And actually that’s a pretty popular idea. In 1976, on the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, there were polls taken, asking people, giving them lists of statements, and they were supposed to judge which ones do you think are in the Constitution? Well, nobody knows what’s in the Constitution, so the question they were answering is which ones are obvious truths, so they must be in the Constitution. This one got a considerable majority.
A lot of it has to do with the financialization of the economy. This is a new phenomenon. Of course there’s always been finance, financial crashes and so on, but there was a big change in the 1970s. The New Deal had instituted an array of regulations, among which were regulations which essentially determined that banks were banks, that is they were to do what a bank is supposed to do in a state capitalist economy. You can argue that’s the wrong kind of economy. I would, for example, and I suppose you would. But in that kind of economy, banks have a function. They’re supposed to take unused capital – somebody’s bank account – and transmit it to some kind of productive action, like starting a business, or buying a house, or whatever it may be. And they more or less did that. There were no crashes in the 1950s or 60s, the biggest growth period in American history. It was also a period of, by our current standards, very high taxation of the wealthy. Very fast growth, egalitarian growth, no crashes.
That changed in the 70s and accelerated under Reagan with a freeing up of contraints on capital. The currencies that had been more or less regulated, were freed. The other constraints on capital were dropped. So you had a huge explosion of speculative capital that overwhelmed capital markets. By 2007, right before the latest crash, and the next one will come later, financial institutions were at 40 percent of corporate profits. And they weren’t helping the economy.
In fact, maybe one of the most respected financial correspondents in the English-speaking world is Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. He simply describes these institutions as like larvas that attach to a host and eat it away from the inside. The host that he’s talking about is the market system, which of course he approves of, and he says they’re just eating it away from the inside, and he cites figures showing how harmful they are. But they do accumulate a lot of capital for a very few hands. That’s one of the reasons that led to the pretty sharp concentration of income.
The one percent image is a little misleading because it’s really one tenth of one percent where you find the enormous concentration of wealth. You go down below in the one percent and the wealth is not by spectacular standards. So concentrated wealth is in a tiny percentage of society, substantially hedge fund managers, CEOs of multinational corporations. And that translates itself, almost reflexively, into political power.
You also had at the same time, in parallel, the sharp rise in spending for elections. So of course by now it’s just totally out of sight, it’s right on the front pages. But by the early 80s, it was substantially increasing. That compels the parties to dig into corporate pockets. The media say “unions and corporations,” but it’s essentially corporations, because that’s where the money is. And increasingly financial corporations; they increasingly buy the elections.
They also buy Congress in many ways. For example, I suppose the United States is the only parliamentary system where – and very recently, incidentally – before, a position of influence in Congress, a chair of a committee, used to accrue to seniority and service in some fashion. Now you just have to pay the party. Then you can qualify for the chair. So that drives the rest into the same pockets.
The Republicans stopped pretending to be a political party back 20 years ago. Now they are just totally enthralled with the one-tenth of one percent. One of the reasons why the Republican debates are just a total farce is that in order to mobilize voters, they can’t come to voters with their actual policies, nobody would vote for them. So they have to appeal to pretty unpleasant tendencies in the population that have always been there, but are now mobilized, and you get the picture. The world can’t believe what they’re seeing. But it’s a natural result of the fact that the party actually abandoned any pretences of being a parliamentary party in the normal sense and is just driven into the service of the one fraction of one percent.
The Democrats aren’t that far behind. The Democrats are what used to be called moderate Republicans, but they’ve all been kicked out of the party. In fact, someone like Eisenhower looks like a radical Leftist within the current spectrum, pretty much on the Left. Even Reagan would be more or less on the Left. Those are changes that have taken place since the 70s and 80s.
Another aspect of this was deregulation. Which of course led, predictably, to repeated crashes since the Reagan years. And another element was the change in rules of corporate governance. So, for example, by now, in fact for the last 30 years, a CEO can effectively choose the board that grants him salary and stock options. Well, you can predict what’s going to happen from that. So now if you compare, say, the United States and Europe, pretty similar societies, the ratio of pay to top management as compared to workers is far higher here than in comparable societies, and not because they are more talented, as maybe David Brooks [of the New York Times] will tell you, or because they perform any services – in fact they probably harmed the economy – but just because if you tell people, well, you can pick your own salary. So, yes, that’s a big problem. If the United States were to, say, just return to what it was, nothing very utopian, or to be like other industrial societies, it’s really not a very good model, certainly not utopian, then this vast chasm between the top remuneration and the workforce would sharply shrink.
But my feeling is that’s nowhere near enough. We ought to have as an ideal at least the traditional Left ideal. There’s kind of a conception of work that underlies this. There are different conceptions of what work is. This comes right out of the debates during the Enlightenment. One conception is that work is something that you have to be driven to do. You wouldn’t do it unless you were forced by starvation. It’s something you hate but you have to do because you can’t live otherwise. That’s basically the capitalist conception of work.
There’s another conception that says that work is an ideal of life. Free, creative work under your own control is exactly what any human being would choose if they could. There are places where that ideal is practiced. Like if you walk down the halls here at M.I.T., you’ll find people working maybe 80 hours a week. They could make a lot more money in the stock market. But they’re doing it because they love it. You have things you like to do. I know carpenters that are the same way. In their spare time, they go out in the shed and make interesting things, that’s what they like to do. That’s a different conception of work.
Now if under the second conception, basically the Enlightenment conception, there’s no reason why pay should relate to the amount of work you do. It has nothing to do with it, you do the work even if you’re not being paid. If the work is under your own control, under your own choice, I mean. A kind of graphic Enlightenment image of this by one of the founders of classical liberalism, Wilhelm von Humboldt, was that if an artisan produces a beautiful object on command, we admire what he did but we despise what he is, namely a tool in the hands of others. On the other hand, if he creates it under his own will and choice, out of his own concerns and interests, we admire what he did and who he is.
Actually, Adam Smith said pretty similar things. These are traditional, conservative ideas, if the word conservative has any meaning. But the capitalist conception is quite different: you work only under a lash. Therefore those who allegedly work harder – actually they don’t – they should get the multimillion dollar stock options. These are extremely different conceptions, and they lead to all sorts of different ideas of how a society ought to be organized.
Dada Maheshvarananda: You have written, Noam, “Slavery, the oppression of women and working people, and other severe violations of human rights have been able to endure in part because, in various ways, the values of the oppressors have been internalized by the victims. That is why consciousness raising is often the first step in liberation.” What do you think are the most important ways to raise consciousness to free us from the values of the oppressors that are stuck inside us?
Noam Chomsky: I should say, again, I don’t take any credit for that view. It’s a very old one. David Hume, for example, another one of the founders of classical liberalism and a great philosopher, wrote on the foundations of government. He said the first principle of government that strikes him as he looks at history, he was also an historian, is that he is struck by the easiness with which the governed accept the rule of the governors. He says this is paradoxical, because power is in the hands of the governed, power is not in the hands of the rulers. So how is this miracle maintained? He says it’s by control of opinion. If the governors can control opinion and attitude, can impose what later was called false consciousness, as you were describing, then they can rule. But if you can break that, then they’re gone, they can’t stand up against the governed.
So how do you break it? Well, all the ways we know. Take slavery. I mean, there was never a peaceful period of slavery, there were always slave revolts. The slave families found their own ways of constructing islands of freedom within the sadistic society they were part of. Occasionally these led to actual major revolts which were violently crushed. Finally it led, after far too long of course, to abolitionism and formal elimination of slavery. Though we should note, formal. Because in fact in many ways, it still remains. The Civil War technically, with the Constitutional amendments did in fact end slavery, but it was reconstituted about ten years later by the criminalization of black life, in a North-South Compact. We’re going through something like that now, look at the incarceration rate.
Take women’s rights. That of course also goes far back. But it didn’t really become a substantial movement until the 1970s. There were germs of it in the 60s activism, but the way it began was small consciousness raising groups. Groups of women talking to each other and trying to break through the general assumption that this is the way it has to be. There are no choices, women are supposed to be property. In fact, if you look at American law, women remained essentially property until well into the 1970s. I mean there was no guaranteed legal right for women to serve on juries until about 1975 with a Supreme Court judgment. It developed mostly among women. There was a big crisis inside the activist movement in the sixties, incidentally, when young men who were doing courageous things, like resistance [to military service], had to somehow face the fact that they, too, were oppressors. It was difficult, it led to suicide in some cases. It’s a hard thing to deal with. But slowly it spread through much of the society, and now a lot of it is just taken for granted. Not everywhere, not to [presidential candidate] Rick Santorum, but quite broadly. And that’s the way things change, with workers’ rights and everything else. It’s no magic. We know how to do it; it’s just a matter of doing it.
Dada Maheshvarananda: I live in Venezuela. Do you have any message for the people of Latin America and the Carribbean who are trying to free themselves from domination by the United States?
Noam Chomsky: What’s happened in the last decade South of the Border is pretty spectacular. I mean it’s of real historic importance. Think over history, for 500 years, Latin America was overwhelmingly dominated internationally by imperial powers, in more recently times by the United States. Internally there’s a reflection of that. The typical Latin American society had a small, super wealthy elite, a “one percent” if you like, mostly Europeanized, often white. They concentrated the wealth of the society in the midst of tremendous misery and oppression in pretty rich societies, societies that should be quite wealthy. The ruling elites were Western-oriented. Their capital flowed to the West, they didn’t invest at home. They imported luxury goods; their children went to colleges in Europe and the United States; they had second homes on the Riviera, that kind of thing. Basically a European and United States, a Western implant inside their own societies, ruling it very brutally. And the countries were separated from one another. They scarcely even had roads connecting each other. They were just oriented to the West and the U.S.
Well, that’s changed in the last ten years. This half a millennium pattern is changing, radically. The countries are beginning to integrate, a prerequisite for independence. They’re beginning to face some of their internal problems, which are very severe, doing it in different ways in different countries, but it’s happening throughout the continent.
The indigenous movements, which are the most repressed part of the population, those who survived, have gained considerable organization, and even power in Bolivia. They run the government. In Ecuador, they are a strong part of the system and the socio-political order. They have conflicts with the government, but are fighting for their own interest.
All of these changes are very important; in fact they may save the planet. Around the world, whether it’s Australia or Latin America or anywhere else, the indigenous movements are in the forefront of trying to do something to save the planet and the human species from self-destruction. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the two countries with the strongest indigenous movements, there’s now legislation. In Ecuador, I think it’s in the Constitution, what is called the “rights of Nature.” These are traditional parts of indigenous culture, that were totally marginalized by industrialization. And unless that consciousness spreads, we’re all doomed. So both for themselves and for the world, some very striking things have happened.
The United States used to take Latin America completely for granted. It was called “our little region over here”, our “backyard.” It was taken for granted that unless we can control Latin America, we can’t control the rest of the world. That was stated repeatedly. Well, the U.S. has lost it, not all of it, but in South America, for example, there isn’t a single U.S. military base left, which is a pretty significant fact.
Now the U.S. isn’t giving up. The training of Latin American officers has increased. They’re being trained to combat what’s called “radical populism,” which means troublesome priests who organize peasants, human rights activists and so on, and you know how that works in Latin America.
The most interesting case right now is Colombia. That was the last holdout for the United States in South America. The U.S. did, through Presidents Bush and Obama, try to get access to seven military bases in Colombia, and there was a lot of furor about that on the continent, a lot of protest. Well the Colombian Constitutional Court blocked it. But the U.S. is still constructing the bases, so they are evidently hoping they can, somehow, overrule the rulings of the court and get through. There’s a significant confrontation going on in Colombia about the legacy of the U.S. domination, which was pretty monstrous.
Central America and the Caribbean are much weaker societies – small, weak, separated. There it’s easier, though not totally easy anymore, to control them. So the coup in Honduras, which the U.S. backed – they claimed not to back, but they effectively ended up backing it. I’m pretty sure it’s related to the fact that Honduras is one of the countries where there are major U.S. military bases, the Palmerola Air Base for one, that was the main base for supporting the contras, for example. There are a number of U.S. bases spread all through that region and the Caribbean islands, but it’s not the direction things are going.
One significant move, at least symbolically, was the formation, last summer the first meeting in Caracas, of CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States], an organization which includes every country of the Western hemisphere except for the United States and Canada. That, at least symbolically, is very significant. If it becomes a functioning organization, its intention, I presume, is to replace the OAS, the Organization of American States, which is U.S. dominated. It includes Cuba and excludes the United States and Canada.
All of these things are in the same direction. They’re a move towards dismantling the system of external control and internal domination. Both are proceeding in parallel. They are both very significant.
Dada Maheshvarananda: Thank you very much.