Since the 1960s, Noam Chomsky has been one of the foremost public intellectuals on the international Left. Rising to prominence for his opposition to the Vietnam War, Chomsky became arguably the most vociferous and effective critic of US foreign policy in the West, his work a thorn in the side of presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama.
Although a linguistics professor by trade, Chomsky’s contributions to politics have influenced generations of activists – from his “propaganda model” explanation of corporate media domination to his critiques of capitalist globalisation, the limits of liberal democracy and the failures of Western intellectuals to defend the principles they proclaim. It is this breadth of contribution that has made him one of the most cited academics alive today.
In this interview, Noam Chomsky speaks to Tribune at a moment when socialists across the world are looking to the United States and the Bernie Sanders campaign for inspiration. He discusses the barriers facing a potential Sanders presidency, the importance of the labour movement to any prospect of meaningful change – and why the US business class will bitterly resist any attempt at social democratic reform.
Jumbo Chan (JC): If – and this is a big “if” – Bernie Sanders secures the Democratic nomination and then wins the presidency, to what extent do you think he will be able to deliver the programme which he has promised, for example policies like Medicare for All?
Noam Chomsky (NC): Well, as you say that is a big “if”, but let’s assume it happens. Then there are many factors that would have to be considered. One is what the character of Congress is. Let’s also assume, and this is an even bigger “if”, that he carries a substantial majority of Congress with him. That’s pretty hard to imagine, but let’s suppose so. Then a lot would depend on the character, energy and commitment of the popular movements that he’s inspired and that under these assumptions would have been the factor that led him to victory. If they keep the pressure up, then things could happen.
Unfortunately, the historic cutting-edge of popular activism is lacking in this case – namely, an organised labour movement. So if you look say at the New Deal in the 1930s, it was possible to achieve fairly significant reforms because there was a militant, energised labour movement which was pressing very hard. In fact, it was threatening corporate control of business and there was a sympathetic administration which responded to the pressure. That combination has been critical for just about every reform known in the past.
There would be a question in the hypothetical case we are considering whether the labour movement could be revived to participate in these efforts. It’s been badly beaten back both in the United States and Britain by the neoliberal assault since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. There is also a question about whether the other popular movements that have developed in recent years, which are pretty significant, can fill the gap. I think those are the kinds of factors that would be essential to achieving anything. But we can be certain that concentrated capital will fight back vigorously.
In fact, if we go back to the New Deal it is a complicated and interesting matter which has been studied in some detail and very insightfully by Thomas Ferguson, a fine political scientist. What he shows pretty convincingly is that during the New Deal there was a split within private capital. In general, more high-tech capital-intensive internationally oriented industries tended to support Franklin Roosevelt. Labour-intensive domestically oriented industries like the National Association of Manufacturers violently opposed Roosevelt. So there was an internal split which contributed to the success of the New Deal measures, along with the crucial element of very extensive and active and militant popular support, mostly from the labour movement.
JC: You mentioned the importance of the labour movement which sadly is not as active as it was in previous decades. How does the labour movement, and the progressive Left as a whole, address this weakness? Do you think there are internal contradictions or weaknesses within the movement itself which need addressing first before it is able to fight capital and big business?
NC: First of all we should mention and bear in mind that Thatcher and the people around Reagan were not fools. They understood that it would be necessary to destroy the labour movements if they wanted to carry through the kinds of policies which were certain to harm the general population, as indeed they have done.
If you want to see some contradictions within the labour movement, take a look at the front page of the New York Times recently, which had a very interesting case. Bernie Sanders was campaigning in Nevada, and there was a conflict within the labour movement. One of the major unions [the culinary union, Local 226] was strongly opposed to Sanders’ proposal for Medicare for All. That has to do with an interesting specificity of American labour history. So let’s compare the United States and Canada, which are pretty similar societies. In fact, there’s the same labour movements on both sides of the border. The United Auto Workers (UAW) is the same union on both sides. But they have a different mentality related to the culture and the nature of the societies.
If you go back to the 1950s the United Auto Workers in Canada was militantly working for universal health care, what’s called single-payer health care. That was achieved in part because of their militant commitment to it. So Canada now has a healthcare system of the kind common in developed societies. In the United States on the other hand, the same union – UAW – was struggling for healthcare for their own members, not for society. They were working out the deals with management in which they would sacrifice control of the workplace benefits. Management was willing to make these deals to keep the labour force quiet. So union contracts often provide pretty decent healthcare for their own members, but not for society.
The healthcare system in the United States is a disaster. It has about twice the per capita costs of other comparable countries with relatively poor outcomes. Sanders’ programme for general healthcare would help everyone and indeed cut back overall costs substantially. But it doesn’t necessarily improve healthcare for the workers who have succeeded through their own narrow struggles in the workplace to achieve health care for themselves, and there was a split in the union over this. That’s a factor that we have to consider.
While unions were making deals with management for many years they assumed that there was a compact between themselves and management. They learned better by 1980. Around that time the president of the United Auto Workers, Doug Fraser, resigned from a committee that President Jimmy Carter was instituting. Fraser condemned management for fighting what he called “a one-sided class war against the labour movement”, which of course they had always been doing. Business never relents in its one-sided class war. If management decides that the deal is over, it’s over. Doug Fraser realised that many years too late and the labour movement of course suffered from these class collaboration policies.
So yes, there are divisions in the labour movement and have been for a long time. There were reform movements within the major unions – steel workers, auto workers and others – and there’s been conflicts over this, but it’s a situation that’s not easy to resolve.
JC: It’s quite paradoxical because on the one hand the labour movement was built as a collective force, so that workers can secure what they couldn’t secure individually. But on the other hand, it has become a bureaucratic system. How do you think this contradiction can be resolved?
NC: Again, you have to look at the specific history of the United States, which is somewhat different from other industrial societies, even different from Canada. The United States happens to be to an unusual extent a business-run society with a highly class-conscious business community which is also always fighting a vicious class war. Look at the history of American labour, which is unusually violent. Hundreds of workers were being killed in labour actions in the United States when nothing like that was happening in England, Canada, France and other similar countries.
The labour movement in the past had been based on class solidarity and mutual support – support by one group of workers for another – and in fact to an extent that still remains. The union of longshoremen has, for example, refused to allow boats to dock if the countries were violently suppressing their own populations and labour forces. The US conservative business establishment understood early on that they must break that mutual support.
You can see this immediately after World War II, when the business world mobilised to try to undermine the power of labour that had developed during the Depression and the war. One of the first reactions in 1947 was the Taft-Hartley Act, which, for example, banned secondary pickets. Secondary pickets are a means of class solidarity. They happen when a union is on strike and another union helps them – that was made illegal. Actually, President Harry Truman vetoed it, but the reservation was passed over his veto. There was a strong business backlash against the democratic forces that had developed in the previous decades.
There is another special thing about the United States – the militant, almost hysterical, anti-Left propaganda. For example, McCarthyism, which is attributed to Joe McCarthy, though Truman actually is the one who started it. One of its aspects – the red-baiting – was to drive the militant labour leaders out of the unions on charges that they were soft on Communism or working for the Russians or one thing or another. Again, that’s pretty specific to the United States.
You can see that strikingly today where there is huge debate about Sanders being a socialist. “How can we have a socialist president?” In fact, Sanders is what would be called a moderate social democrat in most other societies. In other societies, the word “socialist” is not a curse word – people call themselves socialists and even communists. In the United States, there’s a stigma attached to it by massive propaganda going way back to 1917. Such huge propaganda efforts to demonise the concepts of socialism and communism (saying it means the “gulag” or whatever) is again pretty much unique to the United States. It’s a barrier to introducing even mild New Deal-style social democratic reforms.
These are all specific problems. They’re not completely unique to the United States, of course, but they happen to be exaggerated here because of the nature of the society – that it is business-run to an unusual extent, and this business community is militant and organised. The Chamber of Commerce and other business organisations are fighting a bitter class war.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), for example, is an important business-based institution which draws support from pretty much the entire spectrum of business. They’re fighting a serious class war now to try to make it impossible to pass any reform legislation. The way they’re doing it is by operating at the state level. They write legislation for states – business-based corporate propaganda – and try to get state legislators to pass it. It’s not very difficult to bribe a US Senator, but it takes some work. However, to pressure the state legislature is much easier; they don’t have any resources and they’re unable to stand up against massive corporate lobbying and pressure. So, the state legislatures tend to pass this legislation.
A lot of it is remarkably regressive. They’re very clearly trying to destroy the public education system and any labour reforms. In fact, they go so far that they’re succeeding in blocking efforts to stop the theft of wages being criminalised. Theft of wages is a huge business in the United States. Workers are having their wages stolen at the level of billions of dollars per year, with employers simply refusing to pay. Wage theft is a huge business. ALEC is trying to prevent it from even being investigated, let alone prosecuted and they’re succeeding. This is an illustration of the savagery of the highly class-conscious business classes.
One of the most insidious of their proposals, which is proceeding more or less secretly, is an effort to get states to demand an amendment to the Constitution which will require a balanced budget. If you get enough states to ratify that, there’s an amendment. Of course, a balanced budget for the federal government means that we pour money into the military and cut back on social benefits. They’re coming pretty close to achieving that. It’s almost never reported in the media but they’re pretty much succeeding.
This is a class war that goes on constantly in the United States to a level far beyond other comparable societies. You can see this in many ways. If you take a look at CEO salaries relative to workers’ pay the gap, especially since the 1980s, is far higher in the United States than it is in European societies. These are all crucial issues in the United States which require a very intensive effort.
The reason why Sanders is vilified in the media pretty much across the spectrum is not so much because of his policies. It’s because he has inspired a mass popular movement which doesn’t just show up every four years to push a button but is acting constantly – pressuring – to achieve changes and having some success. That’s frightening for the business class. The role of the public is to be passive spectators and not to interfere.
JC: You discuss the role of the media and propaganda quite often. You have referred to what you described in the past as “Orwell’s problem” – a population which despite so much access to information is misled and propagandised by a powerful media system. Do you think that’s still the case? And how can the general public transcend that system of control?
NC: The fact that some people, in fact quite a lot of people, break out of it is not terribly surprising. I mean, even in totalitarian states you have dissidents despite severe punishment and the total control of the media. People are not just robots – plenty of people can see what’s in front of their eyes.
On the other hand, when you talk about access to information, you have to be pretty careful. For example, one of the major popular research institutions that studies popular attitudes in the United States, the Pew Research Center, just came out with a pretty remarkable study. They took about 30 news sources – television, print, radio and blogs – and they asked people which ones they know and trust, and they divided it between Democrats and Republicans.
Among Democrats, pretty much no one trusts the major media outlets. Among Republicans the only ones that received even a slight majority were Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart, which is an ultra-right website. Even The Wall Street Journal is considered too far Left for most Republicans. You just listen to Rush Limbaugh someday. You’ll see what kind of information people are getting. For Rush Limbaugh, science, government and the media are pillars of deceit – and you just have to listen to the ultra-Right instead. That’s what Republicans, almost half the population, are getting as information. Not that the rest is so open and free, far from it.
What do you do about this? You do what you’ve always done. You have to work hard on education and organisation. The labour movement used to be a major base for it – that can be revived. And there are other bases that can be developed and are being developed.
On many issues popular activism is breaking through. One good example is the environmental movement. Despite overwhelming corporate opposition, Congress is now pressured by popular activism to address its highly regressive policies on this issue. That could make a difference, and there’s a lot more like that.
JC: You have pointed out a lot of evidence for pessimism. What do you think are grounds for optimism?
NC: Oh, the grounds for optimism are pretty clear. I mean, take Bernie Sanders again. In 2016 with no media support, no business backing and no funding from the wealthy, he was able to almost win the Democratic Party nomination because of popular forces. He probably would have won if it hadn’t been for party shenanigans. He ended up as the most popular political figure in the country. That’s exactly why the establishment is so frightened by him.
That tells you to think about what is happening among the general public. Well, that can extend – there have been dim periods in the past. In the 1920s the labour movement had been killed – inequality was soaring, it was a capitalist paradise and there were no popular movements. In [the] 1930s it all radically changed – that can happen again.
This article was first published by Tribune.