Noam Chomsky: The Rich Aren’t Waiting To Build a New World. Why Are We?

Chris Brooks April 14, 2020

Noam Chomsky gives a speech at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany in 2014. (Photo by Uli Deck/ Getty Images)

This arti­cle first appeared in Labor Notes.

For decades Noam Chom­sky has been a lead­ing intel­lec­tu­al trou­ble­mak­er. His books and speech­es have helped to explain how a world run by cor­po­ra­tions and bil­lion­aires has led to end­less war and cat­a­stroph­ic cli­mate change. Now he is help­ing to explain how cor­po­ra­tions and bil­lion­aires are actu­al­ly mak­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic worse by pur­su­ing sav­age poli­cies that ben­e­fit them­selves at the expense of every­one else.

Labor Notes staff writer Chris Brooks inter­viewed pro­fes­sor Chom­sky on April 10 to learn more about how we got into this moment — and what it will take to get us out of it.

Chris Brooks: Pro­fes­sor Chom­sky, thank you so much for join­ing me. I know you’re swamped with inter­view requests all the time, so on behalf of Labor Notes, just thank you so much for tak­ing the time to talk to us.

Chom­sky: Glad to.

Brooks: So I want­ed to just start out with get­ting your thoughts gen­er­al­ly on the unprece­dent­ed moment we’re in. We’re obvi­ous­ly in the midst of both a glob­al pan­dem­ic and a glob­al reces­sion and right now mil­lions of peo­ple in the Unit­ed States have found them­selves both unem­ployed and unin­sured while our health care sys­tem is over­loaded and lack­ing any­thing close to the num­ber of hos­pi­tal beds and ven­ti­la­tors and per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment that we need. And I know we could spend the whole half-hour on this ques­tion alone, but in brief strokes, I’m won­der­ing if you could just out­line for us how to under­stand the cur­rent moment we’re in and the polit­i­cal choic­es that led us here.

Chom­sky: Well, first of all, we should rec­og­nize that unless we get to the roots of this pan­dem­ic, it’s going to recur, prob­a­bly in worse form, sim­ply because of the manip­u­la­tions of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem which are try­ing to cre­ate cir­cum­stances in which it will be worse, for their ben­e­fit. We can see that in the stim­u­lus bill and many oth­er things.

Now, sec­ond, because of the glob­al warm­ing which is going on and puts all of this into the shad­ow, we will recov­er from this at severe cost. We’re not going to recov­er from the ongo­ing melt­ing of the polar ice sheets. And if you want to under­stand how con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal is look­ing at this, take a look at Trump’s bud­get. It’s true that this is a patho­log­i­cal extreme of the nor­mal cap­i­tal­ist sys­tems and maybe it’s not fair to use it as an exam­ple, but that’s what we’re liv­ing with.

So on Feb­ru­ary 10th while the epi­dem­ic was rag­ing, going to get worse, Trump came out with his bud­get pro­pos­als. What were they? First point, con­tin­ue the defund­ing of health-relat­ed ele­ments of the gov­ern­ment. Through­out his term he’d been cut­ting back on fund­ing of any­thing that doesn’t ben­e­fit pri­vate pow­er and wealth, cor­po­rate pow­er. So all the health-relat­ed parts of the gov­ern­ment had been increas­ing­ly defund­ed. He killed pro­grams, all sorts of things.

Feb­ru­ary 10th, let’s con­tin­ue with it. So fur­ther defund­ing of the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and oth­er health-relat­ed parts of the gov­ern­ment. But there were also com­pen­sat­ing increas­es in the bud­get, for the fos­sil fuel indus­try, more sub­si­dies to the fos­sil fuel indus­try. So let’s not only to kill as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble now, but let’s try to destroy all of soci­ety. That’s basi­cal­ly what the words mean. Of course, more fund­ing for the mil­i­tary and for his famous wall.

But these two things stand out very bright­ly as an indi­ca­tion of the crim­i­nal­i­ty that is first of all endem­ic but is high­light­ed in the socio­path­ic White House. Brings it out rad­i­cal­ly. But of course Trump can’t be blamed for all of this. It goes back, and we bet­ter think about it.

After the SARS epi­dem­ic in 2003, also a coro­n­avirus, it was well under­stood by sci­en­tists that oth­er recur­rences of one or anoth­er coro­n­avirus was going to come, prob­a­bly more seri­ous. Well, under­stand­ing is not enough. Some­one has to pick up the ball and run with it. Now there are two pos­si­bil­i­ties. One is the drug com­pa­nies, but they fol­low nor­mal, cap­i­tal­ist log­ic. You do what makes prof­it tomor­row. You don’t wor­ry about the fact that in a cou­ple of years everything’s going to col­lapse. That’s not your prob­lem. So the drug com­pa­nies essen­tial­ly did noth­ing. There were things that could be done. There was plen­ty of infor­ma­tion cir­cu­lat­ing. Sci­en­tists knew what to do. There could have been prepa­ra­tions. Somebody’s got to pay for it. Not the drug com­pa­nies. Well, in a ratio­nal world, even a cap­i­tal­ist world pri­or to Ronald Rea­gan, the gov­ern­ment could have stepped in and done it.

That’s pret­ty much the way polio was erad­i­cat­ed, through a gov­ern­ment-ini­ti­at­ed and ‑fund­ed pro­gram. When Jonas Salk dis­cov­ered the vac­cine, he insist­ed that there be no patents. He said, It’s got to be pub­lic, just like the sun.” That’s still cap­i­tal­ism, but it’s reg­i­ment­ed cap­i­tal­ism. That was end­ed at a stroke by Ronald Rea­gan. Government’s the prob­lem, it’s not the solu­tion. Let’s legal­ize tax havens. Let’s legal­ize stock buy­backs cost­ing tens of tril­lions of dol­lars to the pub­lic in pure robbery.

Gov­ern­ment is the solu­tion when the pri­vate sector’s in trou­ble, that’s under­stood. But if it’s just when the pub­lic needs some­thing, government’s not the answer. So going back to 2003, gov­ern­ment couldn’t step in. Actu­al­ly, it did to a slight extent step in, and it’s very reveal­ing to see what hap­pened. Oba­ma, after the Ebo­la cri­sis, rec­og­nized that there are prob­lems. We have to do something.

Oba­ma did sev­er­al things. One of them was to try to con­tract for ven­ti­la­tors. Ven­ti­la­tors are the big bot­tle­neck in the sys­tem right now. That’s what’s forc­ing nurs­es to decide who to kill tomor­row. There aren’t enough of them, but the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion did con­tract for the devel­op­ment of high-qual­i­ty, low-cost ven­ti­la­tors. The com­pa­ny was quick­ly bought up by a big­ger one which side­lined the project — it was com­pet­ing with their own expen­sive ven­ti­la­tors — and then turned to the gov­ern­ment and said they want to get out of the con­tract, it’s not prof­itable enough.

That’s sav­age cap­i­tal­ism. Not just cap­i­tal­ism, but neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism. It gets worse. In Jan­u­ary and Feb­ru­ary of this year, when U.S. intel­li­gence ser­vices were pound­ing at the door of the White House say­ing, Hey, there’s a real cri­sis. Do some­thing.” Couldn’t do it. But the Trump admin­is­tra­tion was doing some­thing, name­ly it was export­ing ven­ti­la­tors to Chi­na and oth­er coun­tries to improve the trade bal­ance. That went on into March.

Now the same man­u­fac­tur­ers and ship­ping com­pa­nies that were send­ing them out are bring­ing them back, dou­ble prof­it. This is what we’re liv­ing with. It can eas­i­ly go on. So if you look back over the whole thing, at the base is a colos­sal mar­ket fail­ure. The mar­kets sim­ply don’t work. It can work for sell­ing shoes some­times, but if any­thing sig­nif­i­cant hap­pens, it’s none of their busi­ness. You have to oper­ate as Mil­ton Fried­man and oth­ers point­ed out: just by greed. You do things for your own wel­fare, wealth, noth­ing else. It’s a built-in dis­as­ter. We’ve had so many exam­ples, I don’t have to review it. So at the begin­ning is a mar­ket fail­ure. Then comes the extra ham­mer blow of sav­age cap­i­tal­ism, neolib­er­al­ism, which we’ve been suf­fer­ing from over the world for 40 years, goes beyond ventilators.

Hos­pi­tals in the Unit­ed States have to be run on a busi­ness mod­el. So no spare capac­i­ty. It doesn’t work even in nor­mal times. And plen­ty of peo­ple, includ­ing me, can tes­ti­fy on that in the best hos­pi­tals. But it kind of works. How­ev­er, if any­thing goes wrong, you’re sunk. Tough luck. Maybe that’s okay for auto­mo­bile man­u­fac­tur­ing. It doesn’t work for health care. Our health care sys­tem alto­geth­er is an inter­na­tion­al scan­dal. But the busi­ness mod­el, of course, just makes it a built-in dis­as­ter. So there’s that.

And some of the oth­er things that went on are just too sur­re­al to dis­cuss. USAID had a pro­gram, very suc­cess­ful pro­gram, detect­ing virus­es that are in ani­mal pop­u­la­tions, wild pop­u­la­tions that are get­ting to clos­er con­tact with humans because of habi­tat destruc­tion and glob­al warm­ing. So they were iden­ti­fy­ing thou­sands of poten­tial dis­ease virus­es, work­ing in Chi­na as well. Trump dis­band­ed it. He’d been defund­ing it, but then he dis­band­ed it with exquis­ite tim­ing in October.

I could go on and on. This is the pic­ture you get. A bunch of sadis­tic sociopaths in the White House inten­si­fy­ing deep mar­ket fail­ures that go much far­ther back. And now inten­si­fy­ing it fur­ther. The rich are not wait­ing to see how to build the next world. They’re work­ing on it right now, mak­ing sure it comes out the right way. Fur­ther sub­si­dies to fos­sil fuels, destroy EPA reg­u­la­tions that might save peo­ple but harm prof­its, this is all going on right in front of our eyes and the ques­tion is, will there be coun­ter­forces? If not…

Brooks: Before we move on to the dis­cus­sion maybe of pop­u­lar move­ments and how to fight back in this, in the dis­cus­sion of mar­ket fail­ures, they seem to be com­bin­ing as well with the lega­cy of insti­tu­tion­al racism in the Unit­ed States and we see this play­ing out in the dis­pro­por­tion­ate impact that the coro­n­avirus is hav­ing in Black com­mu­ni­ties. In your view, how should we under­stand this?

Chom­sky: We can under­stand that by going back four cen­turies to when the first slaves were brought. I don’t want to have to run through the whole his­to­ry, but the most vicious sys­tem of slav­ery in human his­to­ry is the basis, large part of the basis for U.S. prosperity.

Cot­ton was the oil of the 18th and 19th cen­tu­ry. You had to have cheap cot­ton. You don’t get that by fol­low­ing the rules they teach you in the eco­nom­ics depart­ment. You get it by vicious, bru­tal slav­ery. That’s laid the basis for man­u­fac­tur­ing, tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing, finance, com­merce, retail, obvi­ous­ly, that went on through much of the 19th cen­tu­ry. Well, final­ly, slav­ery was for­mal­ly end­ed for about 10 years dur­ing the Recon­struc­tion peri­od. Then there was an agree­ment with the South that they could go on exact­ly the way they were before. So you get one of the best books on the top­ic called Slav­ery by Anoth­er Name, mea­sures tak­en to essen­tial­ly crim­i­nal­ize the Black pop­u­la­tion. So the Black guy stand­ing on a street cor­ner, they fine him for vagrancy. He can’t pay the fine. Okay, you go to a chain gang.

End result was this great man­u­fac­tur­ing rev­o­lu­tion of the late 19th cen­tu­ry, ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, large­ly built on, it wasn’t called slav­ery, but own­er­ship of the Black pop­u­la­tion by the State. It’s much bet­ter than slav­ery. If you have slaves, you have to keep them alive. Well, if you put them in prison, the gov­ern­ment has to keep them alive. You just get them when you need them and there’s no ques­tion of a lack of dis­ci­pline or protest or any­thing like that. This went on almost until the Sec­ond World War. At that point there were jobs. Peo­ple had to work.

But then comes new forms of imposed slav­ery. So well into the late 1960s, fed­er­al hous­ing laws required seg­re­ga­tion. There was a lot of pub­lic-sup­port­ed hous­ing going on in the 50s. Levit­towns and so on, but for whites, no Blacks. Lib­er­al sen­a­tors vot­ed for this, hat­ed it, but they vot­ed for it because there was no oth­er way to get any pub­lic hous­ing passed.

The Unit­ed States had anti-mis­ce­gena­tion laws — so severe that the Nazis refused to accept them — into the 60s. Then it takes oth­er forms. The Supreme Court just essen­tial­ly did what the gov­ern­ment did back at the end of Recon­struc­tion, told the South­ern states, you can do what­ev­er you like. They elim­i­nat­ed the Vot­ing Rights Act. We’ve just seen this a cou­ple of days ago in Wis­con­sin. Incred­i­ble. If you want to see democ­ra­cy sim­ply crushed, take a look what hap­pened two days ago in Wisconsin.

The gov­er­nor sen­si­bly want­ed, a Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nor, want­ed to delay the pri­ma­ry and extend absen­tee vot­ing. I mean, noth­ing could make more per­fect sense. There is a Repub­li­can-dom­i­nat­ed leg­is­la­ture that had a small minor­i­ty of votes, but ger­ry­man­der­ing gave them the largest num­ber of seats in the Repub­li­can leg­is­la­ture. They called a ses­sion. I don’t think the Repub­li­cans even both­ered to show up. The Major­i­ty Leader sim­ply called the ses­sion and closed it. Didn’t con­sid­er the governor’s pro­pos­al, sup­port­ed by the Supreme Court.

This is designed to ensure that poor minor­i­ty vot­ers, peo­ple who can’t get the polls eas­i­ly, most­ly Democ­rats, won’t vote. The rich, the tra­di­tion­al base of the ones who did all this, they vote. It’s an open way, not even con­cealed, to try to ensure that no mat­ter what the pub­lic wants, the most reac­tionary poli­cies will be main­tained permanently.

[Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader] Mitch McConnell is the evil genius behind this. He’s been doing it beau­ti­ful­ly. Make sure that the judi­cia­ry is stuffed with young, most­ly unqual­i­fied, ultra-reac­tionary jus­tices. That ensures that what­ev­er the coun­try wants in the future, they’ll be able to kill it. Just like the Roberts Court, the major­i­ty is able to do it now. Repub­li­cans know that they’re a minor­i­ty par­ty. There’s no way to get votes on their actu­al pro­grams. That’s why they have to appeal to so-called cul­tur­al issues — gun rights, abor­tion and so on — not their actu­al poli­cies, which are fill the pock­ets of the rich. That’s the actu­al pol­i­cy. Trump is a genius at this. Have to admire him. With one hand he says, I’m your sav­ior, I’m work­ing for the poor work­ing guy.” On the oth­er hand he’s stab­bing him in the back. It’s pret­ty impres­sive. He’s most cer­tain­ly the most suc­cess­ful con man in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, ever.

I pre­sume it’ll explode some­time, but so far it’s main­tain­ing itself. They’re try­ing very hard to dis­man­tle what­ev­er ele­ments of democ­ra­cy there are. There are mod­els else­where, [Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor] Orbán in Hun­gary is doing the same thing, one of their big friends. In fact, it’s kind of inter­est­ing, it’s pret­ty hard to iden­ti­fy a coher­ent geopo­lit­i­cal strat­e­gy from the chaos in the White House. But there is one that comes out with con­sid­er­able clar­i­ty: form an inter­na­tion­al of the most reac­tionary states in the world, then let that be the basis for U.S. power.

So [Pres­i­dent Abdel Fat­tah el-]Sisi in Egypt, the worst tyrant in Egypt’s his­to­ry, the fam­i­ly dic­ta­tors in Sau­di Ara­bia, in par­tic­u­lar MBS [Crown Prince Moham­mad Bin Salman Al Saud], the biggest killer. Israel, which is going way to the right, is now at the cen­ter of it. For­mer tac­it rela­tions between Israel and the Arab states are now becom­ing open. [Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra] Modi in India, what he’s doing is sim­ply unspeak­able. He gave four hours’ notice for the total lock­down. Most of the pop­u­la­tion in India is infor­mal work­ers. They don’t have any­where to go. They can’t stay home. There’s no home. So they’re trekking on the high­ways, maybe a thou­sand miles to some vil­lage some­where, dying on the way. Impos­si­ble to imag­ine what this is going to do. But since they’re most­ly poor and many of them are Mus­lim, who cares? So he’s a major part of this reac­tionary inter­na­tion­al. Nice guys like Orbán in Hun­gary or the like. They love them.

[For­mer Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Mat­teo] Salvi­ni in Italy, one of the worst gang­sters around. In the West­ern hemi­sphere the main rep­re­sen­ta­tive is [Pres­i­dent Jair] Bol­sonaro in Brazil, who’s vying with Trump to see who could be the worst crim­i­nal in the world. Trump eas­i­ly can beat him because of U.S. pow­er, but the poli­cies are not much dif­fer­ent and that’s harm­ing not just Brazil but the whole world. Cur­rent pre­dic­tions in sci­en­tif­ic jour­nals are that in about 15 years the Ama­zon will shift from being a net car­bon sink to a net car­bon CO2 emit­ter. That’s a dis­as­ter. All the result of extend­ed gifts by Bol­sonaro to the min­ing indus­tries, the agribusi­ness­es, all of his friends. So there are guys try­ing to cre­ate the next world. They’re work­ing hard. They always do. Their relent­less, con­stant class war nev­er stops and if they’re allowed to win, we’re toast.

Brooks: And along those lines, you’ve said it’s real­ly valu­able to read the busi­ness press because they’re often very frank about what they think of the world and what they’re doing, what their plans and schemes are. From our view­point, we’re see­ing a lot of rank-and-file activ­i­ty in the Unit­ed States right now. Strikes are tak­ing place in many loca­tions. Work­ers are orga­niz­ing in response to the coro­n­avirus and being encour­aged to work in unsafe con­di­tions. Are the employ­ers talk­ing about that and are they wor­ried about it?

Chom­sky: Oh, boy, are they. In fact, as you know, every Jan­u­ary, the guys who mod­est­ly call them­selves the mas­ters of the uni­verse gath­er in Davos, Switzer­land, to go ski­ing, talk about how won­der­ful they are and so on and so forth. This Jan­u­ary meet­ing was very inter­est­ing. They see that the peas­ants are com­ing with the pitch­forks and they’re wor­ried about it. So there’s a shift. You look at the theme of the meet­ing, it’s, Yeah, we did bad things in the past. We now under­stand it. We’re now open­ing a new era in cap­i­tal­ism, a new era in which we aren’t just con­cerned with the stock­hold­ers, but with the work­ers and the pop­u­la­tion and we’re such good guys, so human­ist that you can entrust your faith to us. We’ll make sure everything’s fine.”

And it was pret­ty inter­est­ing to see what hap­pened. There were two main speak­ers. This should be played in every class­room in the coun­try. Two main speak­ers. Trump, of course, gave the keynote speech. Gre­ta Thun­berg gave the oth­er speech. The con­trast was fan­tas­tic. The first speech is this rav­ing buf­foon, scream­ing about how greedy he is and we can’t even count up the num­ber of the lies. The sec­ond speech is a 17-year-old girl qui­et­ly giv­ing a fac­tu­al, accu­rate descrip­tion of what’s hap­pen­ing in the world and look­ing these guys in the face and say­ing, You’re destroy­ing our lives.” And of course every­one polite­ly claps. Nice lit­tle girl. Go back to school.

The reac­tion to Trump was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing. They don’t like him. His vul­gar­i­ty and cru­di­ty is inter­fer­ing with the image they’re try­ing to project as ded­i­cat­ed human­ists. But they love him. They gave him a round of upstand­ing applause and couldn’t stop cheer­ing. Because they under­stand some­thing. This guy, no mat­ter how vul­gar he is, knows very well whose pock­ets to fill and how to fill them. So he can be a buf­foon. We’ll tol­er­ate his antics as long as he con­tin­ues with the poli­cies that count. That’s the Davos men.

They didn’t both­er point­ing out that we’ve heard this tune before. Back in the 1950s it was called the soul­ful cor­po­ra­tion. Cor­po­ra­tions have become soul­ful. Now they’re just over­flow­ing with kind­ness for work­ing peo­ple and every­one else. It’s a new era. Well, we’ve had some time to see how soul­ful they were, and this will continue.

So either we can be tak­en in by the con and let it go, or you can fight back and cre­ate a dif­fer­ent world. It’s a very good oppor­tu­ni­ty for it now. The strikes that you men­tioned, protests all over the world. There’s com­mu­ni­ty self-help groups form­ing. Neigh­bor­hoods, poor neigh­bor­hoods or peo­ple help­ing each oth­er try­ing to do some­thing for the elder­ly who are cooped up. Some of them are astounding.

So go to Brazil, where the pres­i­dent is just a mon­stros­i­ty. For him, the whole pan­dem­ic is just a cold. The Brazil­ians are immune to virus­es. We’re spe­cial peo­ple and so on and so forth. The government’s doing noth­ing. Some of the gov­er­nors are, but not the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. The worst of this is going to be in the, as every­where, in the slums, the impov­er­ished areas, the indige­nous areas. The worst slums like the fave­las in Rio, the idea of wash­ing your hands every cou­ple of hours is a lit­tle dif­fi­cult when you don’t have water, or sep­a­rat­ing your­self when you’re crammed into one room. But there is a group that came and tried to impose some rea­son­able stan­dards as well as pos­si­ble under these hor­ri­ble con­di­tions. Who? The crime gangs that have been ter­ror­iz­ing the fave­las. They’re so pow­er­ful, the police are afraid to go in. They orga­nized to try to deal with the health crisis.

It tells you some­thing, just like the nurs­es on the front line. There are human resources there and they can come to the fore in some of the most unex­pect­ed places. Not from the cor­po­rate sec­tor, not from the wealthy, not from the soul­ful cor­po­ra­tions. Cer­tain­ly not from gov­ern­ments, par­tic­u­lar­ly patho­log­i­cal ones like this. Oth­ers are doing bet­ter. But from pop­u­lar action, that’s the hope.

Sanders, when he gave his with­draw­al speech, empha­sized this. He said the cam­paign may be end­ing, the move­ment isn’t. It’s up to espe­cial­ly his young sup­port­ers to put some meat into that, that it can be done. No mat­ter what hap­pens. Trump’s reelect­ed, it’s an utter tragedy. Biden’s elect­ed, it won’t be won­der­ful. But either way you’ve got to do what’s pos­si­ble, and it’s not out of reach.

Brooks: Do you think most peo­ple are going to emerge from their homes after the quar­an­tine is over with their polit­i­cal opin­ions changed or intact?

Chom­sky: We’ll see. It’s cer­tain­ly a time for reflec­tion about the kind of things we were just talk­ing about. Why are we in this sit­u­a­tion? What we were just talk­ing about is not pro­found. It’s on the sur­face. It’s not quan­tum physics. Think about it a lit­tle. It’s obvi­ous. So maybe peo­ple will do it or maybe they’ll stay mes­mer­ized by the con man in office. I get let­ters from peo­ple, poor work­ing peo­ple, who say, You god­damn lib­er­als are bring­ing all the immi­grants to steal our jobs and Trump is sav­ing us.” Okay. Maybe it’s pos­si­ble to break through to them. It’s not easy.

These guys are tuned to Fox News all day. That’s the echo cham­ber. If you’re look­ing at it from out­er space and you’re not suf­fer­ing from it, you think, what’s going on? This mani­ac in the White House comes out and says what­ev­er he says. The oppo­site the next day. It’s repeat­ed with fer­vor in the Fox echo cham­ber. He says the oppo­site the next day, same thing. Mean­while, he’s look­ing at Fox News every morn­ing to fig­ure out what to say. It’s his source of news and infor­ma­tion. And then you get the intel­li­gent guys like Mike Pom­peo who says, God sent Trump to earth to save Israel from Iran.” That’s the sen­si­ble guy. It’s some iron­ic joke being played. Let’s say there is a God, maybe. If so, He decid­ed that He made a bad mis­take on the sixth day and he’s now going to end it with humor. Just watch these peo­ple destroy them­selves. That’s what it looks like.

Brooks: Is there the chance that the Unit­ed States could build up a cul­ture of sol­i­dar­i­ty and a labor pol­i­tics com­ing out of this like the UK did after World War II, that could lead to some­thing like the NHS, rec­og­niz­ing all of these mar­ket fail­ures, rec­og­niz­ing the inef­fi­cien­cies and the com­pli­ca­tions that are cre­at­ed when you’re com­pet­ing rather than coor­di­nat­ing resources? Is it pos­si­ble for the Unit­ed States to move in this direction?

Chom­sky: Sure. We’ve done it before. I lived through the Depres­sion. That’s why I have this long white beard. But in the 1920s the labor move­ment was total­ly crushed. Take a look at David Mont­gomery, a labor his­to­ri­an, one of his great books is The Fall of the House of Labor. He’s talk­ing about the 20s. It was crushed by the lib­er­al Wil­son admin­is­tra­tion, the Red Scare and all the rest. In the 30s it began to revive. The CIO orga­niz­ing sit-down strikes, great threat to man­age­ment, sit-down strike, work­ers are sit­ting there. Next thing that’s going to come to their heads is, We don’t need the boss­es. We can run this place our­selves.” And then you’re done. It’s a very frag­ile sys­tem. Well, that led to reac­tions. There hap­pened to be a sym­pa­thet­ic admin­is­tra­tion, which is crit­i­cal. A very good labor his­to­ri­an, Erik Loomis, has stud­ied case after case of this and he points out that moments of pos­i­tive change have almost always been led by an active labor move­ment and the only times they suc­ceed­ed were when there was a rel­a­tive­ly sym­pa­thet­ic admin­is­tra­tion, at least a tol­er­ant one.

Well, you don’t hap­pen to have that now, but actu­al­ly if Biden came in, not great, but he could be pushed. If the labor move­ment revives, the Sanders move­ment, which is very sig­nif­i­cant, he’s achieved great suc­cess­es, if that can take off, it could be, we once again could get out of the cap­i­tal­ist crises as was done in the 30s.

The New Deal didn’t end the Depres­sion, the war did with mas­sive state-direct­ed pro­duc­tion, but nev­er­the­less it was much bet­ter than today. I’m old enough to remem­ber it and my fam­i­ly, extend­ed fam­i­ly, were most­ly first-gen­er­a­tion work­ing peo­ple, most­ly unem­ployed liv­ing under pover­ty that is much worse than the work­ing class today. But it was hope­ful. There weren’t depths of despair. There wasn’t a feel­ing the world’s com­ing to an end. The mood was, Some­how we’ll get out of this togeth­er, work­ing togeth­er.” Some of them were in the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, some were in the labor unions. I had a cou­ple of aunts who were unem­ployed seam­stress­es, but they were in ILGWU [Inter­na­tion­al Ladies’ Gar­ment Work­ers’ Union], which gave them a life, a cul­tur­al life, meet­ings, a week in the coun­try, the­ater activ­i­ties that were being car­ried out.

You can do some­thing. We’re togeth­er. We’ll get out of it. That could be revived.

Chris Brooks is a staff writer and labor edu­ca­tor at Labor Notes, where he cov­ers the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers. He is a mem­ber of the Nation­al Writ­ers Union (UAW Local 1981).
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