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Noam Chomsky discusses prospects for post-COVID-19 society

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Noam Chomsky in 2015. Image: Cancillería del Ecuador/Flickr

At first, it seemed like rhetorical overkill, the kind heard in barroom debates. But Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned public intellectual, made a plausible case for a chilling assessment of arguably the world's most powerful man.

Voting for U.S. President Donald Trump is worse than voting for Hitler, Chomsky affirmed to interviewer Linda Solomon Wood, during a Canada's National Observer-sponsored webinar in April. "Hitler was maybe the worst criminal in human history." He wanted to murder millions of Jews, Slavs, Roma, homosexuals, others. "But what does Trump want to do? He wants to destroy the prospects for organized human life."

The 91-year-old linguist and social critic remains remarkably optimistic about future options -- but only if we collectively confront the three existential crises he identified in a 2019 interview with the National Observer -- nuclear war, global warming and (presciently) pandemics. He warned then that humanity has to decide "whether organized human society will survive another couple of generations." Trump is exercising "maximum sadism" and exacerbating all three threats, Chomsky now asserts.

Consider Trump's response to COVID-19. Critics have rightly noted inconsistent messaging, political posturing and divisiveness, quarrelling with governors and ignoring medical authorities. Chomsky adds a lesser known dimension: While "the pandemic is raging, people are dying and hospitals can't keep up," the Trump administration proposed a budget that would continue to cut health-related parts of government, such as the Centers for Disease Control. And Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell -- the "real evil genius" of the administration, in Chomsky's phrase -- declared that Congress's pandemic stimulus program should not bail out Democratic-governed states that have provided pensions to firefighters, teachers and other working people.

Vis-à-vis the prospect of thermonuclear war, Trump's approach is, "let's make it worse," by dismantling the arms control regime established by previous U.S.-Russian agreements, including the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF), "open skies" and the new START treaties, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's pleas to renegotiate it. The military industry loves it, Chomsky notes: "They're getting enormous money to build weapons that [can] destroy everything. And then down the road, they'll get more money to try to build defenses against these weapons that we're encouraging others to produce."

Beyond dismantling arms control, Trump's foreign policy amounts to orchestrating an international alliance of "the most cruel, harsh, reactionary states," environmentally destructive and ethno-nationalist regimes such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and dictatorships in Egypt and the Gulf states.

And then there's the climate crisis, one that policy analysts sometimes call a "wicked" problem, partly because nobody needs to push a red button or inadvertently spread a virus for it to undermine human society -- just carry on business as usual. Chomsky reminds us that, while the world will eventually escape from the pandemic, though "at severe cost," we won't escape "the melting of the polar ice caps, the rise in sea level, [and] other extremely harmful consequences of global warming." But the U.S., with its global power, is in the hands of a president and party that wants to make the crisis "as severe and imminent as possible."

Chomsky is never at a loss for examples. The Trump administration has made the Environment Protection Agency "a subsidiary of the corporate world," silenced scientists, essentially removed emission controls on coal plants, facilitated mercury pollution in waterways, and increased subsidies to fossil fuel industries -- as if "let's kill more Americans" is the objective. The U.S. National Transportation Agency reported that the planet will be catastrophically warmer by the end of the century -- but nevertheless recommended the removal of emissions controls on automobiles. Chomsky's reading of Trump's logic is: "We're going off the cliff anyway, so why not have fun and make profit?"

Yet Chomsky avoids the trap of blaming America's woes on a single politician, no matter how destructive and venal. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed risks to the entire society from extreme economic inequality, the product of neoliberal policies of the past 40 years. As we have seen in Canada, workers in precarious jobs and without paid sick leave cannot simply self-isolate at home. If they have a home. Chomsky reported that while one-tenth of one per cent of the U.S. population has 20 per cent of the country's wealth, 60 to 70 per cent of the American population has to live "paycheque to paycheque."

Moreover, to deal with public health crises, "you have to have the institutional structure." For instance, the powerful drug companies, their enormous profits fattened by "protectionist measures like incredible patent protection," knew that a coronavirus epidemic was likely -- but their incentive was to make short-term profits "by selling something tomorrow," not "preventing a catastrophe a couple years down the road."

Yet, given his historical perspective, Chomsky remains relatively optimistic. His own remarkable lifetime has encompassed monumental crises, including the global war to defeat fascism. (Coincidentally, Chomsky became a teenager on the day, in 1941, that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, catapulting America fully into that war.) The Great Depression of the 1930s was comparable to the COVID-19's economic fallout, but the U.S. overcame it through the New Deal -- a "version of regimented capitalism which was extremely beneficial to people." Arms control treaties could be reinstated. The environmental crisis could be mitigated with only a "small percentage" of the funding for Second World War mobilization.

In just a 60-minute webinar, Chomsky offered numerous specifics to the 700 participants:

  • The post-pandemic stimulus bill could impose conditions on corporations. For instance, the airline companies currently begging for government bailouts could be required to put workers on the management board, ensure a living wage for all employees, and focus on passengers' needs rather than continuing to spend billions on stock buybacks that enrich investors. If the airlines refuse, put them under public ownership.
  • Major countries could socialize the fossil fuel industries -- which would not be prohibitively expensive at a time of very low oil prices -- and put them out of business as "a great boon to the world.” (However improbable, this scenario has appeared in major international media at least since 2014; it's intriguing to imagine volcanic eruptions in Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's anti-environmentalist "war room.").
  • Asked about the controversial and arguably outdated and error-laden Michael Moore-produced film Planet of the Humans, which attacks the potential of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels, Chomsky cited economist Robert Pollin about how to develop a sustainable economy, while ensuring the re-employment of workers as the fossil fuel sector is phased out.

Such policies are not utopian, Chomsky insists. In many ways, they would return us to the policy and legal framework prevailing before the neoliberal mantras of privatization and free market fundamentalism became the common sense of western political and economic elites.

The COVID-19 crisis has challenged that common sense, and reconfirmed the importance of collective action and public resources. Can we get to a better world after the pandemic? Chomsky takes great heart from front-line nurses and doctors, helping people survive, often without protective gear because governments have preferred "to waste their money elsewhere." Their heroism illustrates "the magnificence of the human spirit" as "a model for what can be done."

Asked poignantly by a 14-year-old, "What do I do to take back my future?" Chomsky lauded all the young people on the front lines of school climate strikes. He particularly praised Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old activist who directly took on Trump's indifference to the climate crisis at the annual meeting of plutocrats and politicians -- the self-designated "Masters of the Universe" -- in the Swiss resort town of Davos.

And he touted the recent formation of the Progressive International organization, which held its first meeting in November 2018, to counter Trump's reactionary international of authoritarian regimes. The PI was initiated by Democratic firebrand Bernie Sanders in the U.S., and the former finance minister of Greece's left-leaning Syriza government, Yanis Varoufakis. It is intended as a network of activists and groups, and "most people in the world want what it stands for," Chomsky claims.

As always, Chomsky reminded his listeners of the historic power of organized popular movements -- abolitionist, civil rights, peace, women's equality, and more recently, fossil fuel divestment. For instance, a few years ago, the Green New Deal -- large-scale government investment to create jobs and address climate change -- was "just something to be ridiculed," but thanks to the Sunrise Movement of young activists in the U.S., it is now on the legislative agenda. "You don't laugh at it anymore," he said.

In the past, such movements have forced the economic elite to create the image of "the soulful corporation … not out of love for the human race, but because they're being pressed to do it." Chomsky cautions us against swallowing corporate public relations rhetoric, when what is needed is fundamental structural change; but the moment may be right for meaningful reforms. In his view, the mood at this year's Davos extravaganza -- even before COVID-19 was recognized as a global pandemic -- was different. Less mutual self-congratulation, more contrition and promises to be more humane. "They're running scared … The peasants are coming with the pitchforks."

Consider this assessment, from a surprising source: The pandemic is exposing the brittleness and inequalities of many countries' economies. People in low-wage precarious jobs and on the front lines are losing their livelihoods and even their lives. To "demand collective sacrifice you must offer a social contract that benefits everyone."

That means considering radical reforms that reverse "the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades." Such reforms include a more active governmental role in the economy, investment in public services, more secure labour markets, redistribution of wealth, and a guaranteed basic income.

That statement is not from some Bolshevik pamphlet. It's an April 3 editorial from a leading international business newspaper, the Financial Times -- an organ whose viability depends on telling it to investors like it really is. Running scared, indeed.

The global uprisings for racial justice, in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in police custody, occurred after Chomsky's interview. But they offer further evidence of the ability of people power to shift policy debates and influence power elites. Recently scorned options, such as defunding or even disbanding police forces, are now being endorsed by mayors and national politicians.

We are at a crossroads. The "Masters of the Universe" would like to reconstitute the neoliberal economy, Chomsky suggests, but "harsher, with more authoritarian measures to ensure that there's no interference with this model." But at the same time, "this is a good opportunity to … raise questions about what kind of world we want to live in."

Just as in the 1930s, when "the choices were between fascism and liberal social democracy … the usual class war is operating right now … What world will come out (of the pandemic) depends on the balance of forces."

The necessary policies are straightforward, Chomsky asserts. "We can change the institutional structures that are driving us to disaster. It's all within reach."

Several weeks after the webinar, Noam Chomsky offered further clarification to the author in an email conversation:

Hackett: On the one hand, you suggested that the globalizing elites want to impose a harsher, more authoritarian version of neoliberalism (and they heartily applauded Donald Trump at Davos). On the other hand, that elite is "running scared" and want to convey the image of "a soulful corporation" -- which implies the possibility of accepting reforms, away from neoliberalism, if that's what it takes to preserve their rule. (The editorial in the Financial Times I've quoted in the article -- does it reflect a trembling in the knees of the global elite, or is it just a liberal outlier?)

Chomsky: That's to be seen. Elites hope that the peasants will buy the message about the conversion to soulful corporations and lay down the pitchforks, but are rightly concerned that they might not. They don't have to read David Hume's First Principles of Government to know that the system of rule is fragile, that power is in the hands of the governed and the rulers maintain it only by consent, which can be withdrawn.

Hackett: Near the start of the interview, you said the underlying "general population" is "at the moment more quiescent" compared to the "Masters of the Universe" -- but then (very encouragingly) you said the "peasants are coming with pitchforks" and lauded Greta, the Progressive International, school climate strikes, the Green New Deal/Sunrise movement, and the historical ability of popular mobilization to bring about rapid change (which the anti-racist movement against police violence, since your April talk, seems stunningly to confirm). Do these movements invalidate the earlier point about "quiescence"? Or are they not yet sufficiently widespread?

Chomsky: The peasants and the masters are active in different ways. The peasants are demonstrating their discontent, but only nibbling at the system of power around the edges -- so far at least. The masters are highly class conscious and relentless. They are shoring up the system of power, day by day, quietly. I mentioned McConnell's blocking funds for evil states that grant pensions to workers. A few days ago Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia, a longtime corporate lawyer with a rich record of opposing worker’s rights, quietly issued a bureaucratic announcement about 401(k) retirement accounts, the device used to get rid of guaranteed pensions and drive retirees into the stock market. The new regulation permits private equity firms to access these funds, gaining enormous profits and sharply increasing the risks for working people -- who, of course, not only aren't asked about it but don't know about it. This goes on day after day as the masters work hard to ensure that what emerges from the pandemic will be a harsher version of the disaster they've imposed for 40 years -- making sure that "their own interests are most peculiarly attended to" no matter how "grievous" the effects on others, to borrow Adam Smith's description of how "the masters of mankind," the merchants and manufacturers of England, designed government policy in his day.

Robert Hackett is a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, and co-author of Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives. He is also a member of the NDP and of the non-partisan Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion (BROKE). This article originally appeared in the National Observer.

Image: Cancillería del Ecuador/Flickr​

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