Occupy The Future

The Occupy movement is an unprecedented opportunity to overcome America’s current hopelessness.

Noam Chomsky

Occupy Boston demonstrators march on October 23, 2011, one day after Noam Chomsky gave the talk at their encampment from which this article is adapted. (Photo: Katina Rogers at Flickr, Creative Commons license.)

(This arti­cle is adapt­ed from Noam Chomsky’s talk at the Occu­py Boston encamp­ment on Dewey Square on Oct. 22. He spoke as part of the Howard Zinn Memo­r­i­al Lec­ture Series held by Occu­py Boston’s on-site Free Uni­ver­si­ty. Zinn was a his­to­ri­an, activist and author of A People’s His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States.)

That the Occupy movement is unprecedented seems appropriate because this is an unprecedented era, not just at this moment but since the 1970s.

Deliv­er­ing a Howard Zinn lec­ture is a bit­ter­sweet expe­ri­ence for me. I regret that he’s not here to take part in and invig­o­rate a move­ment that would have been the dream of his life. Indeed, he laid a lot of the ground­work for it.

If the bonds and asso­ci­a­tions being estab­lished in these remark­able events can be sus­tained through a long, hard peri­od ahead – vic­to­ries don’t come quick­ly – the Occu­py protests could mark a sig­nif­i­cant moment in Amer­i­can history.

I’ve nev­er seen any­thing quite like the Occu­py move­ment in scale and char­ac­ter, here and world­wide. The Occu­py out­posts are try­ing to cre­ate coop­er­a­tive com­mu­ni­ties that just might be the basis for the kinds of last­ing orga­ni­za­tions nec­es­sary to over­come the bar­ri­ers ahead and the back­lash that’s already coming.

That the Occu­py move­ment is unprece­dent­ed seems appro­pri­ate because this is an unprece­dent­ed era, not just at this moment but since the 1970s.

The 1970s marked a turn­ing point for the Unit­ed States. Since the coun­try began, it had been a devel­op­ing soci­ety, not always in very pret­ty ways, but with gen­er­al progress toward indus­tri­al­iza­tion and wealth.

Even in dark times, the expec­ta­tion was that the progress would con­tin­ue. I’m just old enough to remem­ber the Great Depres­sion. By the mid-1930s, even though the sit­u­a­tion was objec­tive­ly much harsh­er than today, the spir­it was quite different.

A mil­i­tant labor move­ment was orga­niz­ing – the CIO (Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions) and oth­ers – and work­ers were stag­ing sit-down strikes, just one step from tak­ing over the fac­to­ries and run­ning them themselves.

Under pop­u­lar pres­sure, New Deal leg­is­la­tion was passed. The pre­vail­ing sense was that we would get out of the hard times.

Now there’s a sense of hope­less­ness, some­times despair. This is quite new in our his­to­ry. Dur­ing the 1930s, work­ing peo­ple could antic­i­pate that the jobs would come back. Today, if you’re a work­er in man­u­fac­tur­ing, with unem­ploy­ment prac­ti­cal­ly at Depres­sion lev­els, you know that those jobs may be gone for­ev­er if cur­rent poli­cies persist.

That change in the Amer­i­can out­look has evolved since the 1970s. In a rever­sal, sev­er­al cen­turies of indus­tri­al­iza­tion turned to de-indus­tri­al­iza­tion. Of course man­u­fac­tur­ing con­tin­ued, but over­seas – very prof­itable, though harm­ful to the workforce.

The econ­o­my shift­ed to finan­cial­iza­tion. Finan­cial insti­tu­tions expand­ed enor­mous­ly. A vicious cycle between finance and pol­i­tics accel­er­at­ed. Increas­ing­ly, wealth con­cen­trat­ed in the finan­cial sec­tor. Politi­cians, faced with the ris­ing cost of cam­paigns, were dri­ven ever deep­er into the pock­ets of wealthy backers.

And the politi­cians reward­ed them with poli­cies favor­able to Wall Street: dereg­u­la­tion, tax changes, relax­ation of rules of cor­po­rate gov­er­nance, which inten­si­fied the vicious cycle. Col­lapse was inevitable. In 2008, the gov­ern­ment once again came to the res­cue of Wall Street firms pre­sum­ably too big to fail, with lead­ers too big to jail.

Today, for the one-tenth of 1 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion who ben­e­fit­ed most from these decades of greed and deceit, every­thing is fine.

In 2005, Cit­i­group – which, by the way, has repeat­ed­ly been saved by gov­ern­ment bailouts – saw the wealthy as a growth oppor­tu­ni­ty. The bank released a brochure for investors that urged them to put their mon­ey into some­thing called the Plu­ton­o­my Index, which iden­ti­fied stocks in com­pa­nies that cater to the lux­u­ry market.

The world is divid­ing into two blocs – the plu­ton­o­my and the rest,” Cit­i­group sum­ma­rized. The U.S., U.K. and Cana­da are the key plu­tonomies – economies pow­ered by the wealthy.”

As for the non-rich, they’re some­times called the pre­cari­at – peo­ple who live a pre­car­i­ous exis­tence at the periph­ery of soci­ety. The periph­ery,” how­ev­er, has become a sub­stan­tial pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion in the U.S. and elsewhere.

So we have the plu­ton­o­my and the pre­cari­at: the 1 per­cent and the 99 per­cent, as Occu­py sees it – not lit­er­al num­bers, but the right picture.

The his­toric rever­sal in people’s con­fi­dence about the future is a reflec­tion of ten­den­cies that could become irre­versible. The Occu­py protests are the first major pop­u­lar reac­tion that could change the dynamic.

I’ve kept to domes­tic issues. But two dan­ger­ous devel­op­ments in the inter­na­tion­al are­na over­shad­ow every­thing else.

For the first time in human his­to­ry, there are real threats to the sur­vival of the human species. Since 1945 we have had nuclear weapons, and it seems a mir­a­cle we have sur­vived them. But poli­cies of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion and its allies are encour­ag­ing escalation.

The oth­er threat, of course, is envi­ron­men­tal cat­a­stro­phe. Prac­ti­cal­ly every coun­try in the world is tak­ing at least halt­ing steps to do some­thing about it. The Unit­ed States is tak­ing steps back­ward. A pro­pa­gan­da sys­tem, open­ly acknowl­edged by the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty, declares that cli­mate change is all a lib­er­al hoax: Why pay atten­tion to these scientists?

If this intran­si­gence con­tin­ues in the rich­est, most pow­er­ful coun­try in the world, the cat­a­stro­phe won’t be averted.

Some­thing must be done in a dis­ci­plined, sus­tained way, and soon. It won’t be easy to pro­ceed. There will be hard­ships and fail­ures – it’s inevitable. But unless the process that’s tak­ing place here and else­where in the coun­try and around the world con­tin­ues to grow and becomes a major force in soci­ety and pol­i­tics, the chances for a decent future are bleak.

You can’t achieve sig­nif­i­cant ini­tia­tives with­out a large, active, pop­u­lar base. It’s nec­es­sary to get out into the coun­try and help peo­ple under­stand what the Occu­py move­ment is about – what they them­selves can do, and what the con­se­quences are of not doing anything.

Orga­niz­ing such a base involves edu­ca­tion and activism. Edu­ca­tion doesn’t mean telling peo­ple what to believe – it means learn­ing from them and with them.

Karl Marx said, The task is not just to under­stand the world but to change it.” A vari­ant to keep in mind is that if you want to change the world you’d bet­ter try to under­stand it. That doesn’t mean lis­ten­ing to a talk or read­ing a book, though that’s help­ful some­times. You learn from par­tic­i­pat­ing. You learn from oth­ers. You learn from the peo­ple you’re try­ing to orga­nize. We all have to gain the under­stand­ing and the expe­ri­ence to for­mu­late and imple­ment ideas.

The most excit­ing aspect of the Occu­py move­ment is the con­struc­tion of the link­ages that are tak­ing place all over. If they can be sus­tained and expand­ed, Occu­py can lead to ded­i­cat­ed efforts to set soci­ety on a more humane course.

© The New York Times News Service/​Syndicate

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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