AN INTERVIEW WITH NOAM CHOMSKY, Jacobin Magazine
Noam Chomsky talks to Jacobin about why working-class politics can secure universal health care, climate justice, and an end to nuclear weapons — if we’re willing to fight for them.
Our new issue, “The Ruling Class,” is out now. The Politics of a Second Gilded Age, Matt Karp. How Bernie Sanders, an Open Socialist, Won Burlington’s Mayoral Election, Branko Marcetic. Ronald Reagan Paved the Way for Donald Trump, Eileen Jones. Revisiting the Life and Intellectual Legacy of Primo Levi, Enzo Traverso
INTERVIEW BY Ana Kasparian and Nando Vila
In 1967, Noam Chomsky emerged as a leading critic of the Vietnam War with a New York Review of Books essay critiquing US foreign policy’s ivory tower establishment. As many academics rationalized genocide, Chomsky defended a simple principle: “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.”
A groundbreaking linguist, Chomsky has done more to live up to this maxim than almost any other contemporary intellectual. His political writings have laid bare the horrors of neoliberalism, the injustices of endless war, and the propaganda of the corporate media, earning him a place on Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List” and in the surveillance files of the CIA. At ninety-two, Chomsky remains an essential voice in the anti-capitalist movements his ideas helped inspire.
Ana Kasparian and Nando Vila interviewed Chomsky for Jacobin’s Weekends YouTube show earlier this year. In their conversation, Chomsky reminds us that history is a process of continuous struggle, and that the working-class politics needed to secure universal health care, climate justice, and denuclearization are out there — if we’re willing to fight for them.
AK: Let’s start with a big question — why does Congress continuously tell the American people that it will not deliver on policies that have overwhelming public support?
NC: Well, one place to look always is: “Where’s the money? Who funds Congress?” Actually, there’s a very fine, careful study of this by the leading scholar who deals with funding issues and politics, Thomas Ferguson. He and his colleagues did a study in which they investigated a simple question: “What’s the correlation over many years between campaign funding and electability to Congress?” The correlation is almost a straight line. That’s the kind of close correlation that you rarely get in the social sciences: greater the funding, higher the electability.
And in fact, we all know what happens when a congressional representative gets elected. Their first day in office, they start making phone calls to the potential donors for their next election. Meanwhile, hordes of corporate lobbyists descend on their offices. Their staff are often young kids, totally overwhelmed by the resources, the wealth, the power, of the massive lobbyists who pour in. Out of that comes legislation, which the representative later signs — maybe even looks at occasionally, when he can get off the phone with the donors. What kind of system do you expect to emerge from this?
One recent study found that for about 90 percent of the population, there’s essentially no correlation between their income and decisions by their representatives — that is, they’re fundamentally unrepresented. This extends earlier work by Martin Gilens, Benjamin Page, and others who found pretty similar results, and the general picture is clear: the working class and most of the middle class are basically unrepresented.
One recent study found that for about 90 percent of the population, there’s essentially no correlation between their income and decisions by their representatives — that is, they’re fundamentally unrepresented.
The decisions of representatives reflect a very highly concentrated amount of campaign money, and other financial pressures. I mean, if you’re a congressional representative, and you’re going to leave Congress one of these days, where do you go? Do you become a truck driver? Secretary? You know where you go, and you know what the reasons are. If you voted the right way, you’ve got a cushy future ahead of you.
There are many, many devices by which you can ensure that a large majority of the population is unrepresented, and, furthermore, robbed — robbed massively. The RAND Corporation, ultra-respectable, a couple of months ago did a study of what they call the “transfer of wealth” from the working class and the middle class — or, more accurately, the robbery of the public — since the neoliberal assault began around 1980. Their estimate for how much wealth has moved from the lower 90 percent of the income scale to the very top is $47 trillion.
It’s not small change, and it’s a vast underestimate. When Reagan opened the spigots for corporate robbery many devices became available: for example, tax havens and shell companies, which were illegal before that, when the Treasury Department enforced the law. How much money was stolen that way? That’s mostly secret, but there are some reasonable estimates. An IMF study came out recently that estimated $35 trillion, roughly — just from tax havens — over forty years.
Keep adding this theft up. It’s not pennies, and it affects people’s lives. People are angry, and they’re resentful for very good reasons: they’re perfectly arranged for a demagogue to come along — Trump-style — who holds up a banner with one hand saying, “I love you, I’m going to save you,” and with the other hand stabs you in the back to pay off the rich and powerful.
NV: After Bernie, where should leftists direct our energies to address these immense problems which you just outlined?NC
The first thing we should remember is that the Sanders campaign was a remarkable success. Within a couple of years, Sanders and others working alongside him have managed to shift the range of issues that are at the center of attention very far toward the progressive side. That’s quite significant. They did so with no funding, no corporate support, no media support — the media became mildly friendly to Sanders after he lost the nomination, not before. Before, it was kind of like what happened to [Jeremy] Corbyn in the UK: powerful forces were determined to stop anything to the left of the most mild social democracy.
Looking back at the success of the Sanders campaign, I think one answer to your question is “keep at it.” Remember, a terrible mistake was made when Obama was elected: namely, a lot of the Left believed in him. Obama had a tremendous amount of popular support, especially from young people — lots of young activists and organizers worked to get him elected. After the election, what happened? He told them, “Go home.” And unfortunately, they went home. Within two years, Obama had completely betrayed his constituency, and it showed in the 2010 election.
It’s not that the right wing won the labor vote; the Democrats lost it — for good reasons. In 2010, even union voters didn’t support the Democratic candidate; they saw what Obama had done. Well, we shouldn’t make that mistake again, certainly not with Biden. Biden is kind of a weak read, in my opinion; he can be pressed. There are some quite good people in the Biden administration, especially among the economic advisors, and they can be pressed.
If we don’t deal with the environmental catastrophe soon, everything else is moot; there won’t be anything to talk about.
Take climate change. There isn’t any more important issue. If we don’t deal with the environmental catastrophe soon, everything else is moot; there won’t be anything to talk about. A lot of pressure on the Biden-Harris campaign from the Sunrise Movement and others did manage to press their program toward the progressive side. Not far enough — but, still, their program is the best that’s ever been produced.
But the DNC started hacking away at it. Through August, when you Googled the Democratic Party climate program, you got the Biden-Harris program. The last time I saw it was August 22. The next time I looked, a couple of days later, it wasn’t there. What you got instead was “how to donate to the DNC.” I can only speculate as to what happened, but I think there’s a struggle going on. And it could continue if the Left doesn’t make the Obama mistake, and believes those who are in power and their pretty words.
The same is true of the corporate sector, which is running scared. They’re concerned with what they call “reputational risks,” meaning “the peasants are coming with their pitchforks.” All across the corporate world — at Davos, and at the Business Roundtable — there are discussions of how “We have to confess to the public that we’ve done the wrong things. We haven’t paid enough attention to stakeholders, workforce, and community, but now we realize our errors. Now we’re becoming what, in the 1950s, were called ‘soulful corporations,’ really dedicated to the common good.” So, now we have lots of “soulful corporations,” appealing to the public with their great humanity, sometimes taking measures like withdrawing funding from fossil fuel companies; they can be pressed.
I don’t like the system, you don’t like the system, but it exists, and we have to work within it. We can’t say, “I don’t want it. Let’s have another system that doesn’t exist.” We can only build a new system through pressure from inside and from outside.
So, for example, there’s no reason to avoid working to create an alternative political and social framework by creating a new party or worker-owned enterprises and cooperatives. The point is that there is a whole array of options open to us — and they all have to be pursued.
AK: I agree that Bernie Sanders was certainly incredibly successful in waking people up so that many more people thought about politics in class terms. He also did spark quite a bit of anger, because realizing just how much the system is rigged against the average American infuriates people. I think people are getting incredibly impatient with our lack of influence on our lawmakers.
NC: Well, the lack of influence goes back in the United States roughly two hundred fifty years. So, we can start with the Constitution, which was established explicitly on the principle of preventing democracy. There wasn’t any secret about it. In fact, the major scholarly study on the Constitutional Convention, by Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law professor, is called The Framers’ Coup, and it’s about the coup against democracy by the Framers.
The theme of the of the founders was expressed quite well by John Jay, who was the first Supreme Court chief justice: “those who own the country ought to govern it.” That’s what we see today: those who own the country have succeeded in governing it.
This hasn’t been a uniform procedure; there has been plenty of resistance, and lots of victories have been won. During my childhood, for example, in the 1930s, there were major victories, mainly spearheaded by the organized labor movement (CIO organizing, militant strikes, militant labor actions), a moderately sympathetic administration, and political activism of all sorts.
The United States moved toward moderate social democracy — we’re still enjoying some of the benefits of that, though a lot of it’s been chipped away. Other periods of American history were similar. In the late nineteenth century, the Knights of Labor — a populist movement that has nothing to do with what’s called “populism” today — and radical farmers were getting together a major movement, which was finally crushed by state and corporate force, but left a residue.
This is fundamentally a class struggle that goes on through history, and now we’re in a particular stage of it. We keep struggling, we make improvements, there’s some regression, and we keep going. Slavery was overcome after hundreds of years of struggle, and then it came back in another form — the residue is still there. But it’s not that there’s no victory at all. Things are better than they were because of constant struggle.
In fact, this country is a lot better than it was sixty years ago, mainly because of activism in the sixties. Just remember what the country was like in the 1960s. Federal funded housing was denied by law to African Americans, not because the liberal senators wanted that, but because you couldn’t get anything through the Southern Democratic stranglehold on policy. There were anti-sodomy laws into this century. Lots of things have changed.
It’s not easy, but if you say, “Well, we haven’t gotten where we wanted; I’m going to quit,” you just guarantee that the worst is going to happen. It’s a constant struggle. Take, say, Tony Mazzocchi — one of the heroes of modern labor, head of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers [International] Union, one of the first serious environmentalists in the country. His constituents at the front line were being murdered by pollution, destruction of the environment, and so on. This is in the early seventies, way before the environmental movement took off. His union was working toward dealing with the environmental crisis, and it moved on to try to establish a labor party in the nineties. It could have worked, but it didn’t make it.
The neoliberal assault — beginning with Reagan, on through Clinton, Obama — was designed to destroy labor. Reagan’s campaign opened with an attack on the labor unions. Thatcher did exactly the same thing in England. The people behind the neoliberal assault understood what they were doing: you have to eliminate the ability of laboring people to defend themselves.
Clinton extended this; his neoliberal globalization policies were designed to protect investors and to crush labor, and they succeeded. It was similar to the thirties. In the 1920s, labor had been virtually crushed. There was a successful militant labor movement in the early part of the twentieth century, but after Woodrow Wilson’s red scare, it was almost destroyed. In the 1920s, there was almost nothing there, but it came roaring back in the thirties — that’s what led to the New Deal policies, the mild social democracy that we still benefit from.
We can rebuild again. In fact, it’s beginning to happen in quite interesting ways. So, labor had been so crushed by neoliberal policies that there were barely any strikes. Workers were afraid to go on strike; they’d be destroyed. Strikes started to pick up in red states among nonunionized labor. Teachers in West Virginia and Arizona had enormous public support.
In Northern Arizona, when the teachers began the strike, there were posters all over lawns saying, “Support the Teachers!” And the teachers weren’t just calling for higher salaries — which they very much deserve — but for improving the educational system, which has been hit by the neoliberal plague. Privatization, defunding, regimentation, teaching to the test — all of these things were bipartisan. Republicans are more extreme, so Betsy DeVos was almost openly devoted to destroying the whole system. But Obama’s policies weren’t much better.
Here’s the teachers’ strike, with lots of popular support. There have also been nurses’ strikes, service union strikes, a big GM strike, and more of that could happen. The destruction of labor has been a major factor in creating extreme inequality. There are some mainstream economists like Lawrence Summers who have concluded that it’s the major factor in extreme inequality — just taking away the ability of workers to defend themselves. Certainly, it’s a major factor that could allow alternative political parties like Mazzocchi’s to come back.
Pressure on the Democrats to move to the Left — like the kind of thing that [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez’s Squad and others are doing — can have an effect, but it’s got to have a lot of popular action behind it. If the troops go home, the party’s going to move to the Right. There’s one force that’s relentless: the business classes are fighting a vicious class war all the time. They never stop. If the rest of the population leaves the struggle, you know what’s going to happen. In fact, we’ve seen forty years of it.
NVL I want to ask about that class struggle, because [Thomas] Piketty, for example, has pointed out that across the Western democracies the class composition of parties has been shifting in pretty striking ways. What do you make of that phenomenon as it’s happened here in the United States — but also in Europe — where traditional left-wing parties are becoming parties more and more of the educated elites, and the working classes are getting shut out?
NC Well, let’s start with the United States. So, by the late 1970s — the late [Jimmy] Carter years — the Democrats basically told the working class, “We don’t have any interest in you.” The last gasp of pro-labor activity in the Democratic Party was the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act in 1978. Carter didn’t veto it, but he watered it down so it was toothless. From that point on, the Democrats essentially abandoned the working class, aside from a few gestures here and there.
When Clinton came, NAFTA was rammed through in secret over the objections of the labor movement. They weren’t even informed until the last minute of what the framework was: investor rights agreements. The Labor Advisory Committee did come out with an alternative program for NAFTA, saying “Here’s a much better way to do it. The executive version is going to lead to a low-growth, low-wage economy. Here’s a way to do it with a high-growth, high-wage economy.”
It happened that their program was almost the same as that of the Congress’s own research agency, the Office of Technology Assessment. Nobody paid attention to them; the executive branch didn’t care. They wanted their version of NAFTA, which was basically an investor rights agreement that sets working people in competition with each other without rights.
It turned out that under Clinton’s NAFTA, corporations were able to break organizing efforts at a very high level — about 50 percent of them were broken simply by threats to move the enterprise to Mexico. The threats weren’t serious, but they were enough to break the organizing effort. This happens to be illegal, but when you have a criminal state, you can carry out illegal acts. There’s a good study of this by Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor economist at Cornell, who found what I just described — that about 50 percent of organizing efforts were broken illegally, just by threats to move the enterprise. That’s only one example.
In 2008, labor voted for Obama; in 2010, it was gone — labor had seen what his promises meant, all right. This was the midst of a huge financial crisis caused by the collapse of the housing market. Congress under [George W.] Bush, in fact, had passed TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] legislation to do something about it.
The legislation has two components. One was to bail out the perpetrators of the crisis: the banks who had caused the crisis with predatory lending practices and other devious semi-criminal actions. The other part of the legislation was to bail out the victims: people that lost their homes under foreclosures, lost their jobs.
Anybody who knows American history and politics could have predicted which half of the legislation was going to be implemented by President Obama. Within two years, the working class — even the unionized working class — had said, “This party isn’t working for us. They’re our enemy.”
Where can you go? You can go to the guys who claim that they’re going to bring back traditional America and get you jobs. They’re not going to do it, of course, but they at least claim to. You take a look at Trump voters; they have been carefully studied. A lot of them say, “Yeah, we know he’s a jerk, he’s not going to do anything. But at least he says that he likes us.”
He stands up and says, “I’m with you. I want you to do good. I act like you.” Like George W. Bush — you may recall that every weekend, he would go off to Texas and his farm, and be filmed cutting brush in hundred degree temperatures to show that he’s a real ordinary guy. After he left office, I don’t think he ever went back there.
The most careful studies I’ve seen of Trump voters are those of Anthony DiMaggio, a left social scientist. He did a recent analysis on what’s known so far about the 2020 Trump voters, and it looks like, once again, apart from the evangelicals and the white supremacists, the main voting base for Trump is basically petty bourgeois with incomes from $100,000 to $200,000. That’s not working people — that’s small businessmen, insurance salesmen, and so on. That seems to be the main base, and it seems to be the only part that increased substantially since 2016.
A lot of working people think, “Well, at least Trump says something nice to us. Democrats don’t do anything.” Take, say, South Texas: there’s been a lot of study of why South Texas, which hadn’t voted for a Republican for a hundred years — since [Warren] Harding — moved toward Trump. These are Mexican-American communities. How come they broke with a hundred years of voting Democrat? First of all, the Democrats didn’t make the slightest effort to do any organizing: “They’re Hispanic. They vote for us.” People don’t like that, you know.
But there was a scarier reason. These are oil-producing areas. All that they heard was “Biden wants to take away our jobs because a bunch of pointy-headed rich liberals claim there’s a climate crisis.” If the Democrats cared at all about working people, they would have been down there saying, “Look, there’s a climate crisis, and we are going to have to transition away from fossil fuels, period. But you can have better jobs, better lives, a better economy, by moving toward working on changing the industries — maybe under your own control — to sustainable energy and constructive development.”
That’s what organizers do, okay. The Democrats didn’t bother; the working class is not their constituency. So, South Texans voted for the guy who says, “I’m gonna bring your jobs back.”
AK There’s this ongoing debate about whether or not the Republican Party can legitimately and sincerely become the party of the working class in the future. Obviously, we’re skeptical, but there has been a rhetorical shift.
NC: First of all, workers have to have something to vote for. If the Democrats say, “We don’t care about you. We’re the party of Wall Street and rich professionals. We have Hollywood stars at our events, and who cares about you,” they’ll vote for the guy who says, “I like you. I act like you. I hate the elite.” They’ll vote for that guy even if he’s not doing anything for them, and, in fact, screwing them.
If you want to look at these Republicans who claim to be pro–working class, look at how they vote. Look at how they voted on the one legislative achievement of the Trump administration: the tax scam, which gave a huge amount of money to the very rich and is stabbing the working class in the back.
How did they vote on the way the CARES program was administrated — so that funding goes to banks, who then decide how to distribute it, and they give it to their rich clients? Take a look at the actual legislative actions. It’s very easy to get up and say, “I’m for the workers,” you know? Maybe people will say, “Well, at least he says he likes us.”
People are voting just out of frustration if they vote at all. So, unless there’s a constructive alternative, people aren’t going to join a movement.
People are voting just out of frustration if they vote at all. Remember, almost half the population didn’t even bother. So, unless there’s a constructive alternative, people aren’t going to join a movement. Yet during the Sanders campaign, most liberal commentators said, “His proposals are very good. But they’re too radical for the American people.”
What proposals are too radical? Take a look at Sanders’s programs: the top one was universal medical care. Do you know of any other country that doesn’t have universal medical care? One of the chief correspondents at the Financial Times, Rana Foroohar, wrote a column in which, half-jokingly, she said that if Sanders was in Germany, he could be running on the Christian Democrat program, the right-wing party. Of course they’re in favor of universal health care — who isn’t?
The other program is free higher education. Again, you find it almost everywhere, and in the most high-performing countries: Finland, Europe, Mexico, it’s all over the place. That’s too radical for the American people? I mean, that’s an insult for the American population that’s coming from the left end of the mainstream spectrum. Well, the Left — the authentic left — ought to be able to break through that and say that Sanders has programs that wouldn’t have much surprised [Dwight] Eisenhower.
Eisenhower was strongly pro–New Deal. His position was that anyone who questions the New Deal doesn’t belong in the American political system. During the neoliberal years, things have moved so far to the Right at the elite level — at the power level — that it’s hard to remember what was normal not long before. The Left can reach people by reviving the labor movement, moving toward the labor party, pressing the liberal part of the Democratic Party toward moderately social democratic ends — particularly on things like the climate.
I should also mention the issue of nuclear weapons. It’s not talked about. It’s a major threat to our existence. The threat is increasing enormously. One of Trump’s many crimes was to dismantle the whole arms-control system, and initiate moves toward creating very dangerous new weapons systems — those moves have to be terminated quickly, or we’re in serious trouble. We have to get the Left together on these issues. You can differ on other things, but there are some major things that are just essential — literally — for human survival.
NV We all agree that climate change is an existential threat, but it just seems like we won’t be able to truly fix the climate problem until we move beyond capitalism in some way, which traditionally we’ve called socialism. Do you think it’s still useful to think about socialism as a sort of political horizon?
NC It’s useful, but there are some facts we have to remember. One of them is timescale. We have a decade or two to deal decisively with the environmental crisis. We’re not going to overthrow capitalism in a couple of decades. You can continue working for socialism — but you have to recognize that the solution to the climate crisis is going to have to come within some kind of regimented capitalist system, not the neoliberal system.
There are a variety of kinds of capitalism. So, you go back to the pre-neoliberal period — this period of so-called regimented capitalism — and within that framework of serious government control of the destructive excesses of unleashed capitalism, you have a chance to proceed.
We consider having a job a wonderful thing. Working people in the early Industrial Revolution regarded it as an obscenity, a fundamental attack on essential human rights and dignity.
Meanwhile, we should be doing exactly what you said, trying to undermine capitalism. Take the fundamental evil of capitalism, which was always understood by traditional socialists — namely, the fact that you have to have a job.
We consider having a job a wonderful thing. Working people in the early Industrial Revolution regarded it as an obscenity, a fundamental attack on essential human rights and dignity. Now, that was such a strong position that it was a slogan of the Republican Party under Lincoln: that wage labor differs from slavery only in that it’s temporary, until you can become a free person.
Well, freedom can be implemented by worker control of the enterprises of which they are a part. You can get it in one step, as in worker-owned enterprises, which are proliferating — but you can get it by a series of steps, like [Elizabeth] Warren and Sanders’s proposals for worker representation on corporate managing boards.
Worker representation is not very radical. Germany has it — a conservative country — but it is a step forward. You can move forward beyond that with actual direct action on the ground — for example, creating worker-owned enterprises — to changing the way in which the capitalist system works.
If you have a carbon tax, don’t do it like they did it in France, which led to the yellow vest movement. A carbon tax which is designed to hit the working class will lead to an uprising. You can have a carbon tax in which the revenue is returned to the public in a progressive manner — then it benefits the working class. Yes, you pay a little more for gas, but you get more in return.
Same with health care. You save a huge amount of money if we go to a universal health care system, but you’re going to pay higher taxes. Those are the tests for the Left: educational, organizational, activist. I think this is a tremendous range of opportunities available. But it’s not enough to know what to do — you have to do it.
AK How do you remain optimistic that we can fight successfully for real change that benefits ordinary people?
NC Well, one easy way is to just look at what I see on the screen: people committed to struggling for a better world. And there are plenty of people like you.
Plenty of people are optimistic. They don’t give up in comparably worse conditions than ours. We have opportunities they can’t dream of.
I can’t do it much more — I’m getting too old — but I used to travel around to some of the poorest, most depressed areas of the world: Laos, Southern Colombia, Kurdish areas in Turkey, Palestinian refugee camps, the most miserable places you can find. Plenty of people are optimistic. They don’t give up in comparably worse conditions than ours. We have opportunities they can’t dream of. They don’t give up, and they’re struggling.
You go to a poor rural community in Colombia, hours away from the highway. You get to the community, and the first thing you see is a small cemetery with graves, white crosses, for people who were killed in the latest paramilitary attack. Get into the town: “Welcome, have a meal.” Go to a meeting, and they’re talking about how to save the mountain next to them from corporate predators who will destroy their water supply.
But they’re struggling optimistically. And when you see people like that everywhere — here, too — how can you not share in their optimism, with all of our privileges and advantages?