Noam Chomsky Talks With David Barsamian

David Barsamian: What we are facing is often described as unprecedented — a pandemic, climate catastrophe and, always lurking off center stage, nuclear annihilation. Three of four horsemen of apocalypse.

Noam ChomskyI can add a fourth: The impending destruction of American democracy and the shift to a deeply authoritarian state, also protofascist, in the United States if the Republicans win their election, which appears likely. So, that’s four horses.

Remember that Republicans are the denialist party. They are determined to race to climate destruction with abandon at the hands of the chief destroyer they now worship as a demigod. It’s bad news for the United States and for the world, given the power of this country.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance recently released the Global State of Democracy Report 2020. It says that the United States is a country where democracy is “backsliding.”

Very severely. The Republican Party is openly dedicated — it’s not even concealed — to undermining what remains of American democracy. They’re working very hard on it. Since the days of Richard Nixon, the Republicans have long understood that they’re fundamentally a minority party and not going to get votes by advertising their increasingly open commitment to the welfare of the ultrarich and the corporate sector. So, they’ve been long diverting attention to so-called cultural issues.

It began with Nixon’s Southern strategy. He realized that Democratic Party support for civil right legislation would be lost to the southern Democrats who were openly and outrightly racists. The Nixon administration took advantage of that with their Southern strategy, hinting not so subtly that Republicans would become the party for white supremacy.

They picked up additional issues over the years. It’s now the virtual definition of the party: so, let’s run on attacking Critical Race Theory — whatever that means! It’s a cover term, as their leading spokesmen have explained, for everything they can rally the public on: white supremacy, racism, misogyny, Christianity, anti-abortion rights.

Meanwhile, the leadership, with the aid of the right-wing Federalist Society, has been developing legal means — if you want to call it that — for the Republicans to ensure that, even as a minority party, they will be able to control the voting apparatus and the outcome of elections. They are taking advantage radically undemocratic aspects of the constitution and the structural benefits Republicans have as a party representing more rural population and the traditionally Christian, nationalist population. They should be able, even with a small minority of votes, to use these advantages to retain some form of near-permanent power.

If Donald Trump, or a Trump-clone, wins the presidency in 2024, this permanence may not last. It’s not likely then that the United States, not to speak of the world, will be able to escape the impact of the climate and environmental destruction they’re committed to accelerating.

We all witnessed what happened in Washington, DC on January 6th. Do you see civil unrest spreading? There are many militias in the country. Representative Paul Gosar, from the great Arizona state, and Representative Lauren Boebert of the great Colorado state, among others, have made threats to incite violence and hatred. The Internet is full of conspiracy theories. What can we do?

It is very serious. In fact, maybe a third or so of Republicans think it may be necessary to use force to “save our country,” as they put it. “Save our country” has a clear meaning. If anyone didn’t understand it, Trump issued a call to people to mobilize to prevent the Democrats from swamping this country with criminals being let out of jails in other lands, lest they “replace” white Americans and carry out the destruction of America. The “great replacement” theory — that’s what “take away our country” means and it’s being used effectively by proto-fascist elements, Trump being the most extreme and most successful.

What can we do to stop it? Education and organization are the only options. There’s no other way. It means trying to revive a labor movement that was active in social justice movements in the past. It means organizing other popular movements, engaging in educational efforts to fight the anti-vaccine campaign that is killing children, making sure that serious efforts are made to address the climate crisis, mobilizing opposition to the bipartisan commitment of increasing dangerous military spending and provocation against China, which could result in a conflict nobody wants, and possibly ending up with a war.

You just need to keep working at it. There is no other way.

This is the background of extreme inequality, which is outlandish. Why is America so unequal?

This is a lot of what has happened over the past 40-years as part of the neoliberal invasion on America, in which the Democrats have also participated, although not to the same extent, as the Republicans.

There is a fairly careful estimate of what’s called the transfer of wealth from the lower 90% of the population to the top 1% (actually, a fraction of them) during the four decades of this assault. It was estimated at close to $50 trillion by the RAND Corporation. That’s not pennies — and it’s ongoing.

The further enrichment of the very few was a result of the economic measures taken to prevent the collapse of the economy during the pandemic. They kept life going for so many others. However, the Republicans are working hard to destroy that part of the deal, leaving only that which enriches the very few. That’s what they’re dedicated to.

ALEC stands for American Legislative Exchange Council. This has been going down for many years. It’s an organization funded by almost the entire corporate sector, dedicated to hitting at the weak point in the constitutional system, the states. It’s very easy. It doesn’t take much to buy or impel legislative representatives at the state level, so ALEC has worked there to impose legislation that will foster the long-term efforts of those seeking to destroy democracy, increase radical inequality, and destroy the environment.

And one of the most important of those efforts is to get the states to legislate that they can’t even investigate — and certainly not punish — wage theft, which steals billions of dollars from workers every year by refusing to pay overtime as well as through other devices. Although there have been attempts to investigate, the business sector wants them to stop.

The national attempt to stop the IRS from going after corporate tax cheats is an analog. This class war between the masters, corporate sector, and the super-rich is raging at every level. And they’re going to use every means they can to ensure that it goes on until they’ve succeeded in destroying not only American democracy, but the very possibility of survival as an organized society.

Corporate power seems unstoppable. The uber class of gazillionaires — Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk — are now flying into outer space. But I’m reminded of something that the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin said some years ago: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable.” And then she added, “So did the divine right of kings.”

So did slavery. The principle that women are property was also popularized in the United States, where it lasted until the 1970s. So did laws against miscegenation so extreme that even the Nazis wouldn’t accept them, which lasted in the United States until the 1960s.

There have been many horrors. Their power has been diminished over time but not eliminated completely. Although slavery was abolished, its remnants are still in vile and new forms. It’s not slavery, but it’s horrifying enough. The notion that women are not persons has been not only formally defeated, but also implemented to a significant extent. Still, there’s plenty to do. In the eighteenth century, the constitution system was a major step forward. Even the phrase “We the people” terrified the autocratic rulers of Europe, deeply concerned that the evils of democracy (what was then called republicanism) could spread and undermine civilized life. Well, it did spread — and civilized life continued, even improved.

There are periods of progress and periods of regression. But the class war is never over, the masters do not cease. They’re always looking for every opportunity and, if they’re the only participants in class struggle, we will indeed have regression. But they don’t have to be, any more than in the past.

In your Masters of Mankind book, you have an essay, “Can Civilization Survive Really Existing Capitalism?” You write, “Really existing capitalist democracy — RECD for short (pronounced ‘wrecked’)” is “radically incompatible” with democracy and add that “it seems to me unlikely that civilization can survive really existing capitalism and the sharply attenuated democracy that goes along with it. Can a functioning democracy make a difference in the world? Consideration of nonexistent systems can only be speculative, but I think there’s some reason to think so.” Tell me your reasons.

First, we live in the world we are given, not in a world we wish to create. And in this world, if you simply think about the timescale for dealing with environmental destruction, it’s far shorter than the time that would be necessary to carry out the significant reshaping of our basic institutions. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon the attempt to do so. You should be doing that all the time — working on ways to raise consciousness, raise understanding, and build the rudiments of future institutions in the present society.

At the same time, the measures to save us from self-destruction will have to take place within the basic framework of existing institutions — some modification of them without fundamental change. It is possible. We know how to do it.

While we work on the RECD problem, which is really capitalist democracy that exists, it is important to continue our efforts to overcome it. It is a death sentence, and deeply inhumane in its fundamental properties. So, let’s work on that, and at the same time, ensure that we save the possibility of achieving it by overcoming the immediate and urgent crisis we face.

Talk about the importance independent progressive media such as Democracy Now!And Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.Permit me to add: Alternative Radio? Publishers like Verso, Haymarket, Monthly Review, City Lights, The New Press. Magazines like Jacobin, The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times. Online magazines like TomDispatch, The Intercept, ScheerPost. Radio stations such as KGNU, WMNF and KPFK are community radio stations. How important is their role in countering the dominant corporate narratives?

What are the other ways to counter it? They are the ones holding up the hope that we’ll be able to find ways to counter these highly harmful, destructive developments we’re discussing.

Education is the main method. People have to come to understand what’s happening in the world. That requires the means to disseminate information and analysis, opening up opportunities for discussion, which you’re not going to find, for the most part, in the mainstream. Sometimes, at the margins. A lot of what we’ve been talking about is not discussed at all, or only marginally within the major media. These conversations must be made available to the public via such channels. There is no other way.

There is another way. It is called organization. It is possible, and in fact, very easy, to organize educational and cultural programs within an organization. This was one of many major contributions to the labor movement’s vibrant, active institution. It was also one of the main reasons President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher were so determined about destroying labor. Their first actions were attacks on the labor movement.

Educational and cultural programs brought people together to learn, understand, and share their thoughts. To do this, you need organization. It is extremely difficult to do that alone.

Despite the corporate effort to beat back the unions, there was a lively, independent labor press in the United States as late as the 1950s, reaching lots of people, condemning the “bought priesthood,” as they called it, of the mainstream press. It took a long time for that to be destroyed.

There’s a history in the United States of a vibrant, progressive labor press that goes back to the nineteenth century, when it was a major phenomenon. This can and should be resurrected as part of a militant, functioning labor force at the forefront for social justice progress. It happened before and it is possible again. Independent media are a crucial element of this.

Izzy Stone was the name of a 1930s or early 1940s kid that I could read. Philadelphia Record. It wasn’t the major journal in Philadelphia, but it was there. In the late 1940s I was able read him in New York newspapers. PM, which was an independently published journal. It made a significant difference.

Later, Stone’s newsletter was the only way to access his writings. In the 1950s, this was the only independent media. It started to pick up a little with the magazine in 1960. Ramparts, radio programs like Danny Schechter’s on WBCN in Boston, and others like it.

Today, the trend continues all across the country. These are forces for independence and thinking.

Two of your most recent books include multiple mentions about Antonio Gramsci. Consequences of Capitalism And Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal — specifically, of his comment, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Right now, though, the quote of his I’d like you to address is: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Talk about his relevance today and the meaning of that quote.

Chomsky:Gramsci, a leading left labor activist in Italy, was around the late teens and early 20s. He was very active in organizing left-leaning worker collectives. In Italy, the fascist government seized power in the early 1920s. Gramsci was sent to prison as one of its first acts. During his trial, the prosecution stated that Gramsci must be silenced. (This brings us back again to the importance independent media, of all things. He was sent to prison.

He also wrote his own poetry while there Prison Notebooks. He wasn’t silenced, though the public couldn’t read him. He continued the work that he had started and the quotes you cited were written in that writing.

In the 1930s, he wrote about the collapse of the old world and the rise of the new. He also said that they were now facing grave symptoms. Hitler was another. Mussolini one. Nazi Germany nearly conquered large swathes of the globe. We were very close to this. Hitler was defeated by Russia. A different scenario would have seen half of the world run by Nazi Germany. It was close. Morbid symptoms were everywhere.

The adage you quoted, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” which became famous, came from the period when he was still able to publish. In his spirit, we should look at the world realistically, without illusions and understand it. We should also decide how to act and recognize that there may be dire portents. There are many dangerous things going on. That’s pessimism of the intellect. We must also recognize that there are real opportunities and ways out. So, we have optimism of the will, meaning, we dedicate ourselves to using all the opportunities available — and they do exist — while working to overcome the morbid symptoms and move toward a more just and decent world.

In these dark times, it’s difficult for many to feel that there’s a bright future ahead. You’re always asked, what gives you hope? You must also answer the same question.

One thing that gives hope to me is that people in very severe circumstances all over the world are trying hard to attain rights and justice. They don’t give up hope, so we certainly can’t.

The other is that there’s simply no option. The alternative is to say, okay, I’ll help the worst to happen. That’s one choice. The other is to say, I’ll try to do the best I can, what the farmers in India are doing, what poor and miserable peasants in Honduras are doing, and many others like them around the world. I’ll do that as best I can. Maybe we can create a decent world where people feel free to live without shame. A better world.

That’s not much of a choice, so we should be able to easily make it.