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(en) US, Buffalo Class Action*: Direct Action, Occupy and the Power of Social Movements: An Interview With Noam Chomsky
Fri, 26 Apr 2013 18:07:01 +0300
Noam Chomsky discussing the crisis formed from unregulated capitalism, and how to create
social movements that have the power to fight it. ---- As a commentator, educator, public
intellectual, and one of the best known anarchist voices in the U.S., Noam Chomsky has
become a defining perspective as social movements develop. His analysis of the shift in
global capitalism, and our own role in its flux, has seen a recharge of importance as we
entered the “new normal” of the post-2008 economy. Like was done with workplace struggles
at the birth of the union movement, we are attempting to locate housing struggles out of
the abstract legislative sphere and back into the neighborhoods. With the foreclosure
crisis and the Occupy Movement that followed, a housing movement that saw occupation and
defense as central began to be birthed against all conventional wisdom.
I sat down with Noam Chomsky to discuss the growing Take Back the Land and housing justice
movements, the nature of the foreclosure crisis, the Occupy Movement, and what radical
politics will look like in this new period of social movements.
I am working both with both Take Back the Land and local housing non-profits to create a
big housing focused movement. The two primary things that we do in Take Back the Land are
foreclosure resistance, setting up blockades, working with families, trying to get
neighborhood solidarity. And also finding empty bank-owned homes and moving homeless
families into them. So one of the things is that it is a very direct thing, it uses
direct action. What is direct action, and why does it end up being so important as a
kernel for movements like this?
Direct action carries the message forward in a very dramatic fashion. For one thing it
can help people. So resisting foreclosure sometimes does help people get into their
homes, but it also dramatizes the issue in a way in which words don’t. Direct action
means putting yourself on the line. That’s true of civil disobedience and many other
types of action, which indicate a depth of commitment and clarification of the issues,
which sometimes does stir other people to do something. That’s what resistance and civil
disobedience were always about. In fact, direct action has often been the preliminary to
really major changes. Revolutionary changes, in fact. In the United States the sit-down
strikes of the 1930s were a major impetus for passing significant New Deal legislation.
The reason is that manufacturers could perceive that a sit-down strike was just one step
before taking over the enterprise, kicking out the owners and managers, and saying ‘we’ll
run it ourselves.’ Which can be done, and it’s the real revolutionary change. Changes
the structure of hierarchy, domination, ownership, and so on. And direct actions of the
sit-down strikes were dramatic indication of that.
The same was true of, say, the civil rights movements. Things that had been going on
forever, hundreds of years, but what sparked it were a couple incidents of direct action.
Rosa Parks insisting on sitting in a bus. Greensboro, North Carolina a couple years
later. Black students sitting at a lunch counter, and these things then took off and
became major movements with a lot of consequences. Without the direct action that
probably wouldn’t have happened. You could do as many speeches as you like and it
wouldn’t have had the effect of those actions.
One thing we have also been talking about is that this is built out of necessity. People
need a place a to live. Do you think that this kind of necessity helps with the idea of
direct action, making it more fundamental?
It should, if done properly, bring home to people that human rights are being taken away
by a social and economic system that has no real legitimacy. I mean take foreclosure,
take a look at the legislative history. As you know, when the bank bailout was legislated
by congress, the TARP bailout, it actually had two components. One was to bailout the
bank, essentially the people who created the crisis. The other half was to do something
to help their victims. Of those two components only one was implemented, the first one.
And people ought to know that. It’s the second one that counts. Yes the perpetrators
were bailed out, how about their victims? They’re left hanging out to dry. And I think
almost anybody can see the extreme injustice of this, in fact criminality if not
illegality of it.
In the language, when we are discussing the issue, we draw on the idea of housing as a
human right. It’s the slogan we use. We call on the U.N. Convention on Human
Rights(Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Why do you think this “human rights
framework” is important for talking about housing?
Well there is a kind of a gold standard on human rights. It’s the Universal Declaration
in 1948. Its important for American’s to understand the status of that declaration. It
was not a Western imposition. It was arrived at by consensus over a very broad range,
including input from elsewhere. In fact, much of the initiative came from elsewhere. Some
from here, Eleanor Roosevelt in particular. But it was agreed upon and affirmed by
congress. It has the highest legal status you can say. It’s got three parts, all of
equal status. The first part is political and civil rights, so the right to vote and so
on. The second part is social and economic rights, and that includes the right to
housing, the right to healthcare, the right to education. All fundamental rights, and by
world standards are easily as significant as voting rights. Maybe more so. The third
section is cultural rights. The right to preserve your culture, to protect it and so on.
Well the U.S. attitude from the beginning has been to dismiss the third component, not
even talk about it. It’s never discussed. And to reject the second component. So U.S.
officials have disparaged and dismissed the social and economic provisions. That’s true
especially under the Reagan and Bush One administrations. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.N.
Ambassador under Reagan(1), just dismissed the socio-economic provisions with ridicule.
It’s a letter from Santa Clause. That’s exactly the same as throwing out the civil and
political rights and saying their nothing, just a lot of words. Paula Dobriansky(2) in
the first Bush administration, she described social and economic rights as ‘a myth.’ That
there are no such rights. The only rights are civil and political rights, and it’s just a
myth to think that these are rights. Morris Abram, who was the delegate to the
international U.N. human rights group(3), they were debating something called the ‘right
to development,’ which basically paraphrased the Universal Declaration. He voted against
it; I think the U.S. was the only country to vote against it, with, again, very
disparaging remarks. Saying it’s preposterous. Incitement. You can’t talk about social
and economic rights. They don’t exist.
So the U.S. has been one of the strongest opponents of social and economic rights, which
is a core part, one-third, of the Universal Declaration. Actually the U.S. is opposed to
two-thirds since it doesn’t discuss the cultural rights. We should know that our country
is in the lead in undermining human rights. That’s important, especially given the
standard rhetoric from political leaders, intellectuals, media, and so on about how we
defend human rights all over the world. We don’t defend them at all in principle. We
defend them against enemies. So we are all in favor of human rights in Easter Europe or
Iran, and say that’s fine. But not in our domain. Not here.
Foreclosure is one case in point. The right to housing is a core part of the Universal
Declaration. Its particularly obscene her, for the reasons I’ve mentioned, because in the
foreclosure case these people were cheated. They were cheated by the big banks, who
created the crisis on the verge of criminality, some of them actually criminal. They
created the crisis; induced people to undertake obligations they couldn’t possibly
fulfill, and are now throwing them out in the streets, even though congress legislated
there should be assistance to the victims.
One thing I think is interesting is the housing movement starts to take shape, likely
because of the 2010 crisis, but the character of it takes shape along with the Occupy
Movement. They are both about taking over spaces. Either trying to reuse space, or take
it back from another entity. Do you think there is actually something significant about
this idea of actually occupying a space?
They both have that theme, but as you say it’s a different type of occupation. In the
Occupy Movement, it was to take a public space to use it for developing structures of
solidarity. Mutual aid, debate, discussion, organization, a place to reach out into the
community to bring about badly needed changes. In the case of the housing movement, its
much more concrete. It’s a matter of giving people a roof over their heads.
There are straightforward ways to deal with the foreclosure. First, a number of people
could be granted the right to rent their old houses and pay rents that are not that high
until they reconstruct their finances and are able buy them back. That could be done.
There are other simple means that could be applied. So I think for the anti-foreclosure
movement should have a very strong appeal to the general public if the issues are
formulated clearly and properly.
And there’s just the straight human side. Why should people be thrown out of their houses
because the banks are crooks? Then they get bailed out, of course.
Do you think communities of color have been especially affected?
Sure. Victimization increases with poverty, it increases with race. We can’t overlook
the fact that despite some progress, racial oppression is still a major feature of
American society. It hasn’t gone away. Just take a look at the distribution of people in
There is kind of a sweep effect that ends up happening, where one house becomes empty, two
become empty, it becomes six…
It begins to destroy the neighborhood, so everybody has a stake in it. It’s a real reason
for everyone to cooperate to prevent it from happening. It’s wholly indecent as far as
the original family is concerned. It is also unnecessary because there are clear ways of
dealing with it, and then there is kind of a domino effect. It destroys the neighborhood.
As we are starting to see the, I guess I shouldn’t say the “end” of the Occupy Movement,
but we are walking away from that kind of rhetoric and the occupations, what do you think
effect do you think it has had on movement building? On the way that we discuss the issues.
Well, the Occupy Movement was very brief. It started a year ago(4), lasted for a couple
months. It had a brilliant tactic. It was very effective. It had an enormous impact.
Far more than I would have guessed, I must say I was surprised. It spread all over the
country to hundreds of cities. All over the world. I gave talks in Sydney, Australia to
the Occupy Movement. It just galvanized a lot of energy, activity, and so on.
But it was based on a tactic, and tactics don’t make movements.
Tactics, for one thing, they kind of a half -life. They have diminishing returns. You
can’t apply them forever. The same is true of the most famous of the Occupy Movements, in
Tahrir Square in Egypt. I was just there the day before yesterday. People are still
there. Tahrir Square is still a symbol of ongoing struggle, but you can’t keep occupying
Tahrir Square. For one, people in the neighborhood just get angered and irritated by it
because its disturbing their lives. The effectiveness of the tactic begins to diminish,
so you have to turn the tactic into a set of principles, which you then pursue with
different tactics. And I think that’s the stage in which the Occupy Movement is today. As
it is in the case of Egypt, where they’re debating, discussing, asking how to go on under
the new circumstances. Not necessarily rejecting re-occupying of Tahrir Square, but
moving in another direction. Occupy needs to do the same thing.
The Occupy Movement is far more diffuse and diverse. It doesn’t have the central
character that, to some extent, the Egyptian Movement had, or the Tunisian Movement. Its
got similar problems all over the world. Spain, Greece, Portugal, England. In some
places its had real successes. Take Quebec. In Quebec the Student Movement, which is not
part of the Occupy Movement but I think was stimulated by it just as Zuchotti Park was
stimulated by Tahrir Square. The Quebec Student Movement had remarkable success. It
should be better known. Initially it was a protest against a sharp rise in tuitions. It
expanded, and gained enormous that could have led to overthrown the government and a
significant change in a whole range of policies. That’s an enormous achievement. That
should be better known, and it can stimulate other things.
What is interesting about them is that they turned an idea of an occupation into a
permanent, long-standing social movement that was going to be there after this took place.
It was going to continue to maintain that student power, not let it dissipate after a
large victory, but maintain that presence.
It was a popular movement. Students have often been kind of a stimulus and a source for
broader activism, but it can’t succeed until it goes well beyond the students. That was
the case, for example, for the civil rights movement. Greensboro, North Carolina was
students. SNCC spearheaded the civil rights movement with students. The Freedom Riders,
not all, but the majority were young people and students. Over time it grew and became a
mass popular movement, and had major achievements. Like all movements, it was limited and
never achieved its real goals. They were aborted. In fact, right when the civil rights
movement and Martin Luther King turned to class issues they were crushed. There are
lessons there. And everyone knows Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in 1963,
but not many people know what, in many ways, was a more important ‘I Have a Dream’ speech
of his in 1968. The evening that he was assassinated. That evening he spoke to a large
crowd. He was in Memphis, Tennessee to support a public workers strike. A sanitation
workers strike. He was moving towards establishing a Poor People’s Movement. Not black,
Poor People’s Movement, which would address the fundamental issues of housing, that was a
crucial part of it, poverty, malnutrition, and so on. Actually, one of steps was an early
housing movement in Chicago. Urban Chicago. He used his usual biblical style rhetoric.
He described himself to the crowd as like Moses, standing on a mountain. He could see the
Promised Land. The land of freedom and justice, and overcoming poverty and oppression.
He could see it, he was not going to get there, but you’ll get there. He spoke to the
audience, then he was assassinated right there.
Poor People’s Campaign
There was supposed to be a march on Washington, a ‘poor people’s march,’ which he was to
lead. His widow, Coretta King, led the march, and, from Memphis, it went through the
places in the South where the major struggles had been. Birmingham, Selma, and so on.
Ended up in Washington, and set up a tent city(5). An Occupy Movement. They set up a
tent city in Washington. They were going to appeal to congress to legislate bills that
would deal with the fundamental class issues, like poverty and housing and so on. They
were allowed to stay there for a while and then congress sent in the security forces. They
smashed up the tent city in the middle of the night and drove them out of Washington.
That’s a part of the civil rights movement that you don’t hear about on Martin Luther King
Day, but it’s important. It won major victories, but it couldn’t break through Northern
racism and insistence on class privilege.
And we are right there now. Occupy is a sort of a Poor People’s Movement. Of course,
there too the tent cities were broken up. People were driven out, but you have to go on.
If you look back, this is not the first time that people have done things like eviction
resistance or occupying houses. Can you talk a little bit about where in the past this
has happened, and maybe internationally?
In the 1930s it happened all the time, and in large parts of Europe left groups, often
anarchist groups, have taken over buildings. Reconstructed them so that homeless people
could live there. These movements have never reached a point of take off where it becomes
a general thing to do, but they’ve been effective in many places in limited ways. You
never know when it’s going to take off. You couldn’t have predicted that in Greensboro,
North Carolina. You couldn’t have predicted it with Rosa Parks. You couldn’t have
predicted it with Zuccotti Park.
Do you think that now there’s an open discourse about radical politics that anarchism has
a voice in the discussion?
It certainly opened the doors, but whether it has a voice in the discussion depends on how
people walk through those doors and develop the opportunities and possibilities that are
available. So, yeah, there’s openings. And people have also sensed in their own
existence the possibilities of mutual aid, solidarity. One of the most important things
about the Occupy Movement, I think, was just to create the kinds of bonds and associations
that will be necessary for a more just and decent society. People just helping each
other, instead of ‘I just want to enrich myself add to my number of commodities.’ I’m
going to join in a soup kitchen or a library or a public discussion, and we’ll all do it
together. We can win together. That’s critical.
A young Chomsky, just starting a life of activism when organizing against the Vietnam War.
Jean Kirkpatrick was nominated by Reagan as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Paula Dobriansky has worked as a foreign policy expert in the administrations of five
presidents in total, with her position ranging. Her statements were made when acting as
Secretary of State for Human Rights and Human Affairs, which she did for both Ronald
Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
The official title for Morris Abram that is being referenced is Representative of the
United States to the European Office of the United Nations, which he was appointed to be
George H. W. Bush. He served from 1989-1993.
The date of this interview was 10/26/12.
Called Resurrection City
This interview was a part of the larger documentary Expect Resistance, which chronicles
the Take Back the Land and Occupy movements in the context of Rochester, NY.
* Buffalo Class Action is a revolutionary organization of anarchist communists in Buffalo,
NY. We strive to further our ideas of social revolution while participating in the day to
day struggles of the working class.
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