Monday, July 6, 2009
Noam Chomsky on “Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours”
Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor, author and dissident intellectual, just turned eighty years old this past December. He has written over 100 books, but despite being called “the most important intellectual alive” by the New York Times, he is rarely heard in the corporate media. We spend the hour with Noam Chomsky. He spoke recently here in New York at an event sponsored by the Brecht Forum. More than 2,000 people packed into Riverside Church in Harlem to hear his address, titled “Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours.” In his talk, Chomsky discussed the global economic crisis, the environment, wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, resistance to American empire and much more.

"Now, these consequences are right before our eyes in ways that are sometimes surreal. A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal had an article reporting that the US Transportation chief is in Spain. He’s meeting with high-speed rail suppliers. Europe’s engineering and rail companies are lining up for some potentially lucrative US contracts for high-speed rail projects. That stake is $13 billion in stimulus funds that the Obama administration is allocating to upgrade existing rail lines and build new ones that would one day rival Europe’s.
So think what’s happening. Spain and other European countries are hoping to get US taxpayer funding for high-speed rail and related infrastructure. And at the very same time, Washington is busy dismantling leading sectors of US industry, ruining the lives of workers and communities who could easily do it themselves. It’s pretty hard to conjure up a more damning indictment of the economic system that’s been constructed by state-corporate managers. Surely, the auto industry could be reconstructed to produce what the country needs using its highly skilled workforce. But that’s not even on the agenda. It’s not even being discussed. Rather, we’ll go to Spain, and we’ll give them taxpayer money for them to do it, while we destroy the capacity to do it here.
It’s been done before. So, during World War II, it was kind of a semi-command economy, government-organized economy. The whole—that’s what happened. Industry was reconstructed for the purpose of war, dramatically. It not only ended the Depression, but it initiated the most spectacular period of growth in economic history. In four years, US industrial production just about quadrupled, and that—as the economy was retooled for war. And that laid the basis for the Golden Age that followed.
Well, warnings about the purposeful destruction of US productive capacity have been familiar for decades, maybe most prominently by the late Seymour Melman, whom many of us knew well. Melman was also one of those who pointed the way to a sensible way to reverse the project—the process. The state-corporate leadership, of course, has other commitments. But there’s no reason for passivity on the part of the public, the so-called stakeholders, workers and community. I mean, with enough popular support, they could just take over the plants and carry out the task of reconstruction themselves. It’s not a very exotic proposal. One of the standard texts on corporations in economics literature points out that “Nowhere…is it written in stone that the short-term interests of corporate shareholders in the United States deserve a higher priority than…all other corporate stakeholders”—workers and community, that’s it. State-corporate decision has nothing to do with economic theory.
It’s also important to remind ourselves that the notion of workers’ control is as American as apple pie. It’s kind of been suppressed, but it’s there. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution in New England, working people just took it for granted that those who work in the mills should own them. And they also regarded wage labor as different from slavery, only in that it was temporary. Also Abraham Lincoln’s view. There have been immense efforts to drive these thoughts out of people’s heads, to win what the business world calls “the everlasting battle for the minds of men.” On the surface, they may appear to have succeeded, but I don’t think you have to dig too deeply to find out that they’re latent and they can be revived.
And there have been some important concrete efforts. One of them was undertaken thirty years ago in Youngstown, Ohio, where US Steel was going to shut down a major facility that was at the heart of this steel town. And there were substantial protests by the workforce and by the community. Then there was an effort, led by Staughton Lynd, to bring to the courts the principle that stakeholders should have the highest priority. Well, the effort failed that time. But with enough popular support, it could succeed. And right now is a propitious time to revive such efforts, although it would be necessary—and we have to do this—to overcome the effects of this concentrated campaign to drive our own history and culture out of our minds."

There was a very dramatic illustration of the success of this campaign just a few months ago. In February, President Obama decided to show his solidarity with working people. He went to Illinois to give a talk at a factory. The factory he chose was the Caterpillar corporation. Now, that was over the strong objections of church groups, peace groups, human rights groups, who protested—were protesting Caterpillar’s role in providing what amount to weapons of mass destruction in the Israeli Occupied Territories.
Apparently forgotten, however, was something else. In the 1980s, after Reagan had dismantled the air traffic controllers’ union, the Caterpillar managers decided to rescind their labor contract with the United Auto Workers and to destroy the union by bringing in scabs to break a strike. That was the first time that had happened in generations. Now, that practice is illegal in other industrial countries, apart from South Africa at the time. Not now. Now the United States is in splendid isolation, as far as I’m aware.
Well, at that time, Obama was a civil rights lawyer in Chicago, and he certainly read the Chicago Tribune, which ran quite a good, very careful study of these events. They reported that the union was stunned to find that unemployed workers crossed the picket line with no remorse, while Caterpillar workers found little moral support in their community. This is one of the many communities where the union had lifted the standard of living for entire communities. Wiping out these memories is another victory in the relentless campaign to destroy workers’ rights and democracy, which is constantly waged by the highly class-conscious business classes.
Now, the union leadership had refused to understand. It was only in 1978 that UAW president Doug Fraser recognized what was happening and criticized the leaders of the business community—I’m quoting him—for waging a “one-sided class war” in this country, a “war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and for having “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress.” That was 1979.
And, in fact, placing one’s faith in a compact with owners and managers is a suicide pact. The UAW is discovering that right now, as the state-corporate leadership proceeds to eliminate the hard-fought gains of working people while dismantling the productive core of the economy and sending the Transportation Secretary to Spain to get them to do what American workers could do, at taxpayer expense, of course.
Well, that’s only a fragment of what’s underway, and it highlights the importance of short- and long-term strategies to build—in part, resurrect—the foundations of a functioning democratic society. One short-term goal is to revive a strong independent labor movement. In its heyday, it was a critical base for advancing democracy and human and civil rights. It’s a primary reason why it’s been subjected to such unremitting attack in policy and propaganda. An immediate goal right now is to pressure Congress to permit organizing rights, the [Employee] Free Choice Act legislation. That was promised but now seems to be languishing. And a longer-term goal is to win the educational and cultural battle that’s been waged with such bitterness in the one-sided class war that the UAW president perceived far too late. That means tearing apart an enormous edifice of delusions about markets, free trade and democracy that’s been assiduously constructed over many years and to overcome the marginalization and atomization of the public.
Now, of all the crises that afflict us, I think my own feeling is that this growing democratic deficit may be the most severe. Unless it’s reversed, Arundhati Roy’s forecast might prove accurate, and not in the distant future. The conversion of democracy to a performance in which the public are only spectators might well lead to—inexorably to what she calls the “endgame for the human race.”
AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky the renowned MIT professor,


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