In December, Søren Hough from Science for the People sat down with the famous linguist and activist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has written a plethora of books on political subjects, with his collection of interviews, named On Anarchism, reaching stores worldwide. His most recent book, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal, co-authored with economist Dr. Robert Pollins, lays out an international plan for addressing climate change.
Chomsky can be accredited with introducing many to anarchism, and we are honoured to co-publish this selection of questions from his interview with Science for the People. To read the full interview, follow the link to their post here.
SH: The climate crisis is on a scale that almost induces panic just thinking about it. It’s hard to grasp how cataclysmic it is, as you put it. Is it possible to address that level of potential danger without addressing the underlying problems like capitalism, something US governments are unlikely to do?
NC: We should recognize that capitalism is a suicide pact, very simply. That’s why the business world has never accepted capitalism. They don’t want to destroy everything they own. So the business world has always called for regulating markets, preventing capitalism from destroying itself. They’ve been at the forefront of regulating — of course, in their interest — because they don’t want to destroy everything.
Then there’s a simple question of timescales. I think you’re right — capitalism is devastating. It’s a force that will destroy the world. But there are timescales. We have to deal with this crisis quickly. We have a decade or two to make decisions which will determine the outcome. Doesn’t mean we all die in twenty years — it means if we don’t deal with it within twenty years, we’ve basically set into motion irreversible tipping points so that it’s just a question of time. So we have a short period of time. You’re certainly not going to get rid of capitalism in twenty years. That’s so obvious — aside some of my lingering young Maoist friends, you can forget it. So we have to deal with the crisis within existing institutions.
Now, the capitalist leaders themselves understand that capitalism is suicidal. They have always called for control and regimentation. What we have to do is press them hard to give up short-term goals in order to make sure that society can survive long enough so that we can get rid of them. Basically, that’s what it amounts to.
And it’s working to some extent. When the huge pension funds said they’re not going to fund environmentally destructive investments, that’s an important step forward. When the major banks say okay, we’ll stop investing in fossil fuel industries, that’s important. So these are the soft points of the system. They’re worried about what they call “reputational risks” which is the fancy word for “peasants coming with the pitchforks.” And that’s what you press on.
There’s much more than that. What has failed, and we saw it dramatically in this election, is simply educating the public. Take, say, what happened in South Texas, or the fracking areas of Pennsylvania. It was very dramatic what happened. There were areas along the Mexican border, south Texas, mostly Mexican-American, which hadn’t voted for a Republican for a century, but they moved toward Trump. Some counties actually had a majority for Trump.
Well, there were a lot of reasons. One was they don’t like just being dismissed by the Democratic party management: “We don’t have to worry about them, they’re kind of worthless. ****, they’ll vote for us.” They don’t like that. They have a reason not to like it
But there was another element, which was very striking. It was interesting to read the liberal commentary about it. They said that they were trapped by a terrible gaffe that Biden made in his last debate. At the end of the debate, he said mildly, “We have to pay some attention to letting civilization survive.” Horrible gaffe. Actually, those weren’t his words. He put it in different terms. He said we have to face the fact that we’re going to have to have a transition from fossil fuels. Which means, have a chance that human society will survive. He was bitterly condemned for that at the time. How could he make such a mistake? Had to withdraw it quickly, compensate for it and so on.
Well, organizers didn’t go down to south Texas and say, “Listen, this is an oil-based economy. We have to end the use of fossil fuels. Here are ways in which we can end it which won’t destroy your lives and your community the way you think. They will make a better life for you, better jobs, more jobs, here’s the plan. You’ll have a better life for yourselves, your families, your children, grandchildren.” They didn’t go down and do that, and they didn’t do that in the fracking areas in Pennsylvania, or Wyoming, or other places. But that has to be done. That’s critical. You’re not going to get it from the Democratic Party managers. First of all, they don’t believe it, they don’t want it, and they don’t give a damn. But organizers have to do that. If they don’t…
It’s not just a matter of going after Bank of America. You’re going to have to go after the population that believes these guys are trying to destroy our jobs, our communities, our lives, because some pointy-headed liberals claim there’s a climate crisis. That’s what’s in people’s heads. As long as it’s there, it’s not enough to convince Bank of America to invest differently.
SH: That dovetails with another question I had, which is something I’ve heard from policymakers directly: “How do we convince the average person to go along with changes in consumption to address climate change?” It seems to me that it would be much more convincing to acknowledge where the source of the climate crisis comes from — companies like Shell and Exxon, as you pointed out in the book, which have spread misinformation and been at the epicenter of these fossil fuel emissions. If you were to start from that place, even just rhetorically, you’re much more likely to convince people than you are if you just slap a tax on fuel as we saw in France.
NC: I think we discuss this in the book. The way it was done in France, it’s a loser. What it’s telling poor and working people is, “There’s a climate crisis, and you’re going to pay for it.” Why should anyone accept that? I mean, a carbon tax makes good sense if the money that’s collected goes back to the population. Let’s make it a progressive tax. So you pay a little more for driving, but the proceeds come back to you — they don’t go to Shell and ExxonMobil and other rich guys. That’s an acceptable carbon tax, and I think people would accept it.
But with regard to just your ordinary lives, we can tell people, correctly, you can have a better life. If you insulate your home and have solar panels, your electric bill goes down. You’re more comfortable. Look, let’s take where I live. I happen to live in Arizona. Sun’s shining all the time. As soon as we moved in, we put up solar panels. Can’t see one anywhere in the neighborhood. But what you can hear is people complaining, that “I have a thousand dollar electric bill” over the summer when the temperature is over 1000F. For us, we get it free. Okay, tell people that.
It is true that there’s crazed overconsumption, but that’s not good for people. In fact, advertising is designed, obviously, to try to maximize your consumption of things you’re going to throw away. But let’s face it: those things don’t make our life any better, they are a pain in the neck, we can have a much better life in other ways. So I think, at one level, sure, there’s a lot of crazy waste we can get rid of and have much better lives. And at the same time, do exactly what you said — say it’s the centers of private power with their enormous influence and control over government that’s making it impossible to deal with an existential crisis which means that our children and grandchildren aren’t going to have a world to live in. It’s not a small thing.
We can combine this with enlightening people about what the effect has been of forty years of neoliberalism. For example, you may have seen the Rand Corporation just came out with a study of the wealth transfer of the lower 90 percent of the population to the top mostly 0.1 percent — about 50 trillion dollars during the neoliberal period. So if you don’t have a decent job and can’t get by from paycheck to paycheck and have a precarious job where maybe the employer will call you or not, here’s 50 trillion dollars of reasons for it. While the 0.1 percent since Reagan doubled their share of wealth to 20 percent — it was all planned. That’s the way it was designed. That’s the way it worked out.
You can do it on every issue. Take, say, the Sanders program. You read the left liberal commentators, say in The New York Times, “It’s a great program. It’s too radical for Americans.” What is it that’s too radical for Americans? Universal healthcare. There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t have it, but it’s too radical for Americans. Free higher education — just about everywhere. Couple of miles from where I live, in Mexico, Germany, Finland. Yeah, everywhere. Too radical for Americans. In fact, one of the associate editors of the London Financial Times, Rana Foroohar — very good columnist — recently had a column in which she quipped, not totally wrongly, that if Bernie Sanders was in Germany, he could be running on the Christian Democrat program, the conservative party — which is actually true. I mean, they don’t question these things. It’s taken for granted.
I lived in Massachusetts for seventy years, I saw a lot of this going on. Liberal state. Periodically, there were referenda on universal healthcare. Starts off everybody’s in favor, huge support. Then starts the business propaganda. You won’t be able to see your doctor, it’s going to raise your taxes, businesses will leave the state. You see the polls changing pretty soon in opposition.
Well, here’s where organizing and education is critical. Sure it’ll raise your taxes — and it’ll lower your bills twice as much as raising your taxes. And what’s wrong with raising your taxes? Is it better to pay insurance companies than to pay the government which is in theory partially responsive to populations? All of these things should be discussed, and they’re not.
In the United States, the attitude toward taxes is very interesting. It’s kind of a measure of the way Democracy functions. If you have a pure totalitarian state, everyone of course will hate taxes — they’re stealing your money. Suppose you had a pure democracy — everyone would celebrate taxes. We got together, we decided what we wanted, we decided how to pay for it and how we’re doing it. Let’s have a party. Where a country stands in that spectrum really tells you a lot. The United States is way toward the totalitarian side which is an indication of how the system functions.
Now we can tell people about that, too. For example, there was just a recent high-level study — I think it was only reported in the Financial Times, that was the only place I saw it. It gave detailed analysis which supported even more strongly than before what has come out of a lot of political science research, namely that most of the population simply isn’t represented. They studied the lower 90 percent in income and could find essentially no correlation between people’s beliefs and attitudes and what their representatives are doing. They’re listening to other voices.
That’s the kind of thing people should know. They should know that it’s the same 90 percent which has transferred 50 trillion dollars to the very rich. That’s the reason why the United States is more regressive than Mexico, or Europe, and others. All of these things should be there. You can’t get tested for COVID because you can’t make the co-payment? That’s forty years of neoliberalism and business-run capitalism before it. Let’s look at that. These are things that people can readily understand, but not if they don’t hear them.
SH: I live in the UK now and we have seen how the National Health Service (NHS) databases were mobilized to get the vaccine to the most vulnerable (like older folks), of course for free. It’s completely alien to what’s going on in the United States. One of the things that’s unique about America, something I’ve written about in relation to COVID-19, is the faux “Libertarian” streak that means people don’t trust any source of expertise — scientific, governmental, and so forth. Looking at the pandemic, climate change, and other urgent scientific matters, how do we uproot this way of thinking? Is it better to acknowledge the misgivings and work from a place of commonality, that we should be critical of what we hear from media outlets, for instance?
NC: It’s not just America. It’s extreme in the United States, it’s pretty much the same in Europe. You see it in a lot of ways. I’ll just give you a personal anecdote. At the early stages of the pandemic, somebody posted an article on the internet in my name. Unfortunately, that goes on. There’s nothing you can do about it. I’m surprised there isn’t more. Crazy article, saying that the pandemic was instrumented by the US government from biology labs to try to get control of the whole world with maybe George Soros behind it or something like that. Some crazed story, and my name was under it. I started getting letters from people, including Europe, including friends, scientists, saying, “Thanks for finally telling the truth.” People are distrustful, and they have reasons. Plenty of reasons. There always are reasons. But for the last forty years, the reasons have risen very sharply.
The population has been under attack — serious attack. Before Reagan came in, tax havens and shell companies were illegal and the Treasury Department enforced the law. There were virtually no financial crises. Reagan opened the spigot. Unknown amounts of wealth have shifted. Take the world’s greatest corporation, Apple. Profits are made in the US, but they don’t bother paying taxes. It has an office in Ireland, somewhere, probably the size of this room where maybe a secretary shows up every week or two. So it’s an Irish company. Or it’s in the Cayman Islands. Britain is one of the main criminals on this. The British islands are notorious modes of tax evasion.
This goes way back. Back in the 90s, there was a rash of excitement about investing in newly emerging markets. It was going to be a great opportunity. So for a while, I subscribed to the Department of Commerce quarterly bulletins. Very informative bulletins — they come out with everything you can imagine about the economy. One of them is foreign direct investment. So I looked at that for a year so, during the excitement about emerging markets, mostly Latin Americans. You look at Latin America, foreign direct investment: 25 percent of it went to Bermuda. 15 percent went to the British Cayman Islands. 10 percent went to Panama. That’s 50 percent of foreign direct investment for avoiding taxes and money laundering. The rest was mostly mergers and acquisitions. Practically no direct investment.
Economists don’t study it, press doesn’t cover it. It’s all a massive fraud on the public, and people have lived with that. In the UK, you had to suffer through the New Labour-Tory austerity programs, which stole trillions of dollars from the population. Take the NHS. Go back a couple years, it was ranked as the best system in the world. The governments have been chipping away at it. They want to turn it into the worst system in the world. They’re modeling it on the American system. So let’s take the best system in the world and turn it into the worst system in the world so some insurance companies can make money.
People in Europe have been living under this, too, for forty years, plus the deeply anti-democratic character of the European Union. They don’t have to know the details, but the fact of the matter is that major decisions are not in the hands of the population. They’re made by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, the Troika, totally unelected with the German banks looking over their shoulders. So yeah, it’s been bad. They have a lot of reasons for distrust. But of course, the worst distrust should be against the ones who are running the show: the corporate sector. It’s not the government. They’re the ones running the government.
It’s like being angry at the local tax collector. It doesn’t make sense. That was done in the past. The pogroms in Eastern Europe where my family lived were against Jews because Jews were the agents of the Czar. Not against the Czar, but against the people who are right in front of you. That’s what it’s like to be angry at the government. The government is not in your hands. It’s in the hands of people who want to make wealth and profit for themselves.
They’re not secret about it! When Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came in, it was open. Reagan’s first words were government is the problem, not the solution. That doesn’t mean that decisions disappear — it means they go somewhere else. Where? Into the hands of unaccountable private tyrannies. That’s what called “Libertarian,” incidentally. Put power in the hands of unaccountable totalitarian institutions. Great “libertarianism.” It’s the most extreme totalitarian view maybe in history. So let’s put the decision in private hands. What are they supposed to do? You may recall that Milton Friedman, the economic guru for Libertarianism, came out with an article in 1970 — an important, influential article — in which he said the sole responsibility of a corporation is to enrich itself; to enrich the shareholders; and, of course, management, whose pay has skyrocketed. What do you expect to happen when you decide let’s put decisions in the hands of private tyrannies whose sole goal is to enrich themselves? Is it a surprise that you get 50 trillion dollars of transfer? You’d have to be an idiot not to expect that. Sorry to comment on the economics profession, which was overjoyed by it. But it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen.
And just to drive the last nail in the coffin, Reagan and Thatcher — or whoever made the decisions for them — did the obvious thing. Let’s destroy any opportunity for people to protect themselves. So their first act was to destroy the unions. That’s the way for people to defend themselves. They didn’t waste a minute, both Thatcher and Reagan. Put all this together, you have 40 years of neoliberalism: special things like the anti-democratic character of the European Union; the far right, Blairite, Tory austerity programs... you get disaster. So yes, people have a lot of reasons to be angry, but not against the local tax collector, not against the East European Jews who happen to be picking up the money. That’s not who’s doing it to you. You have to initiate major educational programs to say look, these are just the agents. Look at the source.
SH: You celebrated your birthday recently — happy birthday! You have had a long and storied career as an anti-war activist, as an anarchist. Now that we’re in 2020, looking back, do you have any final reflections on your career and where we are now as a society?
NC: My earliest recollections from childhood are fear of fascism. The fascist plague seemed to be expanding over the world without limits. It was a very frightening period. It’s a pretty frightening period now, with different things happening. That’s life — more work to do. Lots of hope, that’s the good part.
The Commoner: Hope you enjoyed this selection of questions from Chomsky's interview with Science for the People. To read the full transcript, click here.
Image by Andrew Rusk on Wikimedia Commons.