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(en) An Interview of Chris Steele with NOAM CHOMSKY -- There’s Always a Class War Going On
Mon, 25 Nov 2013 11:37:38 +0200
This is an excerpt from the just released 2nd edition of Noam Chomsky’s OCCUPY: Class War,
Rebellion and Solidarity published by Zuccotti Park Press. ---- Chris Steele: An article
that recently came out in Rolling Stone, titled “Gangster Bankers: Too Big to Jail,” by
Matt Taibbi, asserts that the government is afraid to prosecute powerful bankers, such as
those running HSBC. Taibbi says that there’s “an arrestable class and an unarrestable
class.” What is your view on the current state of class war in the U.S.? ---- Noam
Chomsky: Well, there’s always a class war going on. The United States, to an unusual
extent, is a business-run society, more so than others. The business classes are very
class-conscious—they’re constantly fighting a bitter class war to improve their power and
diminish opposition. Occasionally this is recognized.
We don’t use the term “working class” here because it’s a taboo term. You’re supposed to
say “middle class,” because it helps diminish the understanding that there’s a class war
It’s true that there was a one-sided class war, and that’s because the other side hadn’t
chosen to participate, so the union leadership had for years pursued a policy of making a
compact with the corporations, in which their workers, say the autoworkers—would get
certain benefits like fairly decent wages, health benefits and so on. But it wouldn’t
engage the general class structure. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why Canada has a
national health program and the United States doesn’t. The same unions on the other side
of the border were calling for health care for everybody. Here they were calling for
health care for themselves and they got it. Of course, it’s a compact with corporations
that the corporations can break anytime they want, and by the 1970s they were planning to
break it and we’ve seen what has happened since.
This is just one part of a long and continuing class war against working people and the
poor. It’s a war that is conducted by a highly class-conscious business leadership, and
it’s one of the reasons for the unusual history of the U.S. labor movement. In the U.S.,
organized labor has been repeatedly and extensively crushed, and has endured a very
violent history as compared with other countries.
In the late 19th century there was a major union organization, Knights of Labor, and also
a radical populist movement based on farmers. It’s hard to believe, but it was based in
Texas, and it was quite radical. They wanted their own banks, their own cooperatives,
their own control over sales and commerce. It became a huge movement that spread over
major farming areas.
The Farmers’ Alliance did try to link up with the Knights of Labor, which would have been
a major class-based organization if it had succeeded. But the Knights of Labor were
crushed by violence, and the Farmers’ Alliance was dismantled in other ways. As a result,
one of the major popular democratic forces in American history was essentially dismantled.
There are a lot of reasons for it, one of which was that the Civil War has never really
ended. One effect of the Civil War was that the political parties that came out of it were
sectarian parties, so the slogan was, “You vote where you shoot,” and that remains the case.
Take a look at the red states and the blue states in the last election: It’s the Civil
War. They’ve changed party labels, but other than that, it’s the same: sectarian parties
that are not class-based because divisions are along different lines. There are a lot of
reasons for it.
The enormous benefits given to the very wealthy, the privileges for the very wealthy here,
are way beyond those of other comparable societies and are part of the ongoing class war.
Take a look at CEO salaries. CEOs are no more productive or brilliant here than they are
in Europe, but the pay, bonuses, and enormous power they get here are out of sight.
They’re probably a drain on the economy, and they become even more powerful when they are
able to gain control of policy decisions.
That’s why we have a sequester over the deficit and not over jobs, which is what really
matters to the population. But it doesn’t matter to the banks, so the heck with it. It
also illustrates the consider- able shredding of the whole system of democracy. So, by
now, they rank people by income level or wages roughly the same: The bottom 70 percent or
so are virtually disenfranchised; they have almost no influence on policy, and as you move
up the scale you get more influence. At the very top, you basically run the show.
A good topic to research, if possible, would be “why people don’t vote.” Nonvoting is very
high, roughly 50 percent, even in presidential elections—much higher in others. The
attitudes of people who don’t vote are studied. First of all, they mostly identify
themselves as Democrats. And if you look at their attitudes, they are mostly Social
Democratic. They want jobs, they want benefits, they want the government to be involved in
social services and so on, but they don’t vote, partly, I suppose, because of the
impediments to voting. It’s not a big secret. Republicans try really hard to prevent
people from voting, because the more that people vote, the more trouble they are in. There
are other reasons why people don’t vote. I suspect, but don’t know how to prove, that part
of the reason people don’t vote is they just know their votes don’t make any difference,
so why make the effort? So you end up with a kind of plutocracy in which the public
opinion doesn’t matter much. It is not unlike other countries in this respect, but more
extreme. All along, it’s more extreme. So yes, there is a constant class war going on.
The case of labor is crucial, because it is the base of organization of any popular
opposition to the rule of capital, and so it has to be dismantled. There’s a tax on labor
all the time. During the 1920s, the labor movement was virtually smashed by Wilson’s Red
Scare and other things. In the 1930s, it reconstituted and was the driving force of the
New Deal, with the CIO organizing and so on. By the late 1930s, the business classes were
organizing to try to react to this. They began, but couldn’t do much during the war,
because things were on hold, but
2013_1104cho_immediately after the war it picked up with the Taft-Hartley Act and huge
propaganda campaigns, which had massive effect. Over the years, the effort to undermine
the unions and labor generally succeeded. By now, private-sector unionization is very low,
partly because, since Reagan, government has pretty much told employers, “You know you can
violate the laws, and we’re not going to do anything about it.” Under Clinton, NAFTA
offered a method for employers to illegally undermine labor organizing by threatening to
move enterprises to Mexico. A number of illegal operations by employers shot up at that
time. What’s left are private-sector unions, and they’re under bipartisan attack.
They’ve been protected somewhat because the federal laws did function for the
public-sector unions, but now they’re under bipartisan attack. When Obama declares a pay
freeze for federal workers, that’s actually a tax on federal workers. It comes to the same
thing, and, of course, this is right at the time we say that we can’t raise taxes on the
very rich. Take the last tax agreement where the Republicans claimed, “We already gave up
tax increases.” Take a look at what happened. Raising the payroll tax, which is a tax on
working people, is much more of a tax increase than raising taxes on the super-rich, but
that passed quietly because we don’t look at those things.
The same is happening across the board. There are major efforts being made to dismantle
Social Security, the public schools, the post office—anything that benefits the population
has to be dismantled. Efforts against the U.S. Postal Service are particularly surreal.
I’m old enough to remember the Great Depression, a time when the country was quite poor
but there were still postal deliveries. Today, post offices, Social Security, and public
schools all have to be dismantled because they are seen as being based on a principle that
is regarded as extremely dangerous.
If you care about other people, that’s now a very dangerous idea. If you care about other
people, you might try to organize to undermine power and authority. That’s not going to
happen if you care only about yourself. Maybe you can become rich, but you don’t care
whether other people’s kids can go to school, or can afford food to eat, or things like
that. In the United States, that’s called “libertarian” for some wild reason. I mean, it’s
actually highly authoritarian, but that doctrine is extremely important for power systems
as a way of atomizing and undermining the public.
That’s why unions had the slogan, “solidarity,” even though they may not have lived up to
it. And that’s what really counts: solidarity, mutual aid, care for one another and so on.
And it’s really important for power systems to undermine that ideologically, so huge
efforts go into it. Even trying to stimulate consumerism is an effort to undermine it.
Having a market society automatically carries with it an undermining of solidarity. For
example, in the market system you have a choice: You can buy a Toyota or you can buy a
Ford, but you can’t buy a subway because that’s not offered. Market systems don’t offer
common goods; they offer private consumption. If you want a subway, you’re going to have
to get together with other people and make a collective decision. Otherwise, it’s simply
not an option within the market system, and as democracy is increasingly undermined, it’s
less and less of an option within the public system. All of these things converge, and
they’re all part of general class war.
CS: Can you give some insight on how the labor movement could rebuild in the United States?
NC: Well, it’s been done before. Each time labor has been attacked—and as I said, in the
1920s the labor movement was practically destroyed—popular efforts were able to
reconstitute it. That can happen again. It’s not going to be easy. There are institutional
barriers, ideological barriers, cultural barriers. One big problem is that the white
working class has been pretty much abandoned by the political system. The Democrats don’t
even try to organize them anymore. The Republicans claim to do it; they get most of the
vote, but they do it on non-economic issues, on non-labor issues. They often try to
mobilize them on the grounds of issues steeped in racism and sexism and so on, and here
the liberal policies of the 1960s had a harmful effect because of some of the ways in
which they were carried out. There are some pretty good studies of this. Take busing to
integrate schools. In principle, it made some sense, if you wanted to try to overcome
segregated schools. Obviously, it didn’t work. Schools are probably more segregated now
for all kinds of reasons, but the way it was originally done undermined class solidarity.
For example, in Boston there was a program for integrating the schools through busing, but
the way it worked was restricted to urban Boston, downtown Boston. So black kids were sent
to the Irish neighborhoods and conversely, but the suburbs were left out. The suburbs are
more affluent, professional and so on, so they were kind of out of it. Well, what happens
when you send black kids into an Irish neighborhood? What happens when some Irish
telephone linemen who have worked all their lives finally got enough money to buy small
houses in a neighborhood where they want to send their kids to the local school and cheer
for the local football team and have a community, and so on? All of a sudden, some of
their kids are being sent out, and black kids are coming in. How do you think at least
some of these guys will feel? At least some end up being racists. The suburbs are out of
it, so they can cluck their tongues about how racist everyone is elsewhere, and that kind
of pattern was carried out all over the country.
The same has been true of women’s rights. But when you have a working class that’s under
real pressure, you know, people are going to say that rights are being undermined, that
jobs are being under- mined. Maybe the one thing that the white working man can hang onto
is that he runs his home? Now that that’s being taken away and nothing is being offered,
he’s not part of the program of advancing women’s rights. That’s fine for college
professors, but it has a different effect in working-class areas. It doesn’t have to be
that way. It depends on how it’s done, and it was done in a way that simply undermined
natural solidarity. There are a lot of factors that play into it, but by this point it’s
going to be pretty hard to organize the working class on the grounds that should really
concern them: common solidarity, common welfare.
In some ways, it shouldn’t be too hard, because these attitudes are really prized by most
of the population. If you look at Tea Party members, the kind that say, “Get the
government off my back, I want a small government” and so on, when their attitudes are
studied, it turns out that they’re mostly social democratic. You know, people are human
after all. So yes, you want more money for health, for help, for people who need it and so
on and so forth, but “I don’t want the government, get that off my back” and related
attitudes are tricky to overcome.
Some polls are pretty amazing. There was one conducted in the South right before the
presidential elections. Just Southern whites, I think, were asked about the economic plans
of the two candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Southern whites said they preferred
Romney’s plan, but when asked about its particular components, they opposed every one.
Well, that’s the effect of good propaganda: getting people not to think in terms of their
own interests, let alone the interest of communities and the class they’re part of.
Overcoming that takes a lot of work. I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s not going to
CS: In a recent article about the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, you discuss
Henry Vane, who was beheaded for drafting a petition that called the people’s power “the
original from whence all just power arises.” Would you agree the coordinated repression of
Occupy was like the beheading of Vane?
NC: Occupy hasn’t been treated nicely, but we shouldn’t exaggerate. Compared with the kind
of repression that usually goes on, it wasn’t that severe. Just ask people who were part
of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, in the South, let’s say. It was
incomparably worse, as was just showing up at anti-war demonstrations where people were
getting maced and beaten and so on. Activist groups get repressed. Power systems don’t pat
them on the head. Occupy was treated badly, but not off the spectrum—in fact, in some ways
not as bad as others. I wouldn’t draw exaggerated comparisons. It’s not like beheading
somebody who says, “Let’s have popular power.”
CS: How does the Charter of the Forest relate to environmental and indigenous resistance
to the Keystone XL pipeline?
NC: A lot. The Charter of the Forest, which was half the Magna Carta, has more or less
been forgotten. The forest didn’t just mean the woods. It meant common property, the
source of food, fuel. It was a common possession, so it was cared for. The forests were
cultivated in common and kept functioning, because they were part of people’s common
possessions, their source of livelihood, and even a source of dignity. That slowly
collapsed in England under the enclosure movements, the state efforts to shift to private
ownership and control. In the United States it happened differently, but the privatization
is similar. What you end up with is the widely held belief, now standard doctrine, that’s
called “the tragedy of the commons” in Garrett Hardin’s phrase. According to this view, if
things are held in common and aren’t privately owned, they’re going to be destroyed. His-
tory shows the exact opposite: When things were held in common, they were preserved and
maintained. But, according to the capitalist ethic, if things aren’t privately owned,
they’re going to be ruined, and that’s “the tragedy of the commons.” So, therefore, you
have to put everything under private control and take it away from the public, because the
public is just going to destroy it.
Now, how does that relate to the environmental problem? Very significantly: the commons
are the environment. When they’re a common possession—not owned, but everybody holds them
together in a community—they’re preserved, sustained and cultivated for the next
generation. If they’re privately owned, they’re going to be destroyed for profit; that’s
what private owner- ship is, and that’s exactly what’s happening today.
What you say about the indigenous population is very striking. There’s a major problem
that the whole species is facing. A likelihood of serious disaster may be not far off. We
are approaching a kind of tipping point, where climate change becomes irreversible. It
could be a couple of decades, maybe less, but the predictions are constantly being shown
to be too conservative. It is a very serious danger; no sane person can doubt it. The
whole species is facing a real threat for the first time in its history of serious
disaster, and there are some people trying to do some- thing about it and there are others
trying to make it worse. Who are they? Well, the ones who are trying to make it better are
the pre-industrial societies, the pre-technological societies, the indigenous societies,
the First Nations. All around the world, these are the communities that are trying to
preserve the rights of nature.
The rich societies, like the United States and Canada, are acting in ways to bring about
disaster as quickly as possible. That’s what it means, for example, when both political
parties and the press talk enthusiastically about “a century of energy independence.”
“Energy independence” doesn’t mean a damn thing, but put that aside. A century of “energy
independence” means that we make sure that every bit of Earth’s fossil fuels comes out of
the ground and we burn it. In societies that have large indigenous populations, like, for
example, Ecuador, an oil producer, people are trying to get support for keeping the oil in
the ground. They want funding so as to keep the oil where it ought to be. We, however,
have to get everything out of the ground, including tar sands, then burn it, which makes
things as bad as possible as quickly as possible. So you have this odd situation where the
educated, “advanced” civilized people are trying to cut everyone’s throats as quickly as
possible and the indigenous, less educated, poorer populations are trying to prevent the
disaster. If somebody was watching this from Mars, they’d think this species was insane.
NC: As far as a free, democracy-centered society, self- organization seems possible on
small scales. Do you think it is possible on a larger scale and with human rights and
quality of life as a standard, and if so, what community have you visited that seems
closest to an example to what is possible?
CS: Well, there are a lot of things that are possible. I have visited some examples that
are pretty large scale, in fact, very large scale. Take Spain, which is in a huge economic
crisis. But one part of Spain is doing okay—that’s the Mondragón col- lective. It’s a big
conglomerate involving banks, industry, housing, all sorts of things. It’s worker owned,
not worker managed, so partial industrial democracy, but it exists in a capitalist
economy, so it’s doing all kinds of ugly things like exploiting foreign labor and so on.
But economically and socially, it’s flourishing as compared with the rest of the society
and other societies. It is very large, and that can be done anywhere. It certainly can be
done here. In fact, there are tentative explorations of contacts between the Mondragón and
the United Steelworkers, one of the more progressive unions, to think about developing
comparable structures here, and it’s being done to an extent.
The one person who has written very well about this is Gar Alperovitz, who is involved in
organizing work around enterprises in parts of the old Rust Belt, which are pretty
successful and could be spread just as a cooperative could be spread. There are really no
limits to it other than willingness to participate, and that is, as always, the problem.
If you’re willing to adhere to the task and gauge yourself, there’s no limit.
Actually, there’s a famous sort of paradox posed by David Hume centuries ago. Hume is one
of the founders of classical liberalism. He’s an important philosopher and a political
philoso- pher. He said that if you take a look at societies around the world—any of
them—power is in the hands of the governed, those who are being ruled. Hume asked, why
don’t they use that power and overthrow the masters and take control? He says, the answer
has to be that, in all societies, the most brutal, the most free, the governed can be
controlled by control of opinion. If you can con trol their attitudes and beliefs and
separate them from one another and so on, then they won’t rise up and overthrow you.
That does require a qualification. In the more brutal and repressive societies,
controlling opinion is less important, because you can beat people with a stick. But as
societies become more free, it becomes more of a problem, and we see that historically.
The societies that develop the most expansive propaganda systems are also the most free
The most extensive propaganda system in the world is the public relations industry, which
developed in Britain and the United States. A century ago, dominant sectors recognized
that enough freedom had been won by the population. They reasoned that it’s hard to
control people by force, so they had to do it by turning the attitudes and opinions of the
population with propaganda and other devices of separation and marginalization, and so on.
Western powers have become highly skilled in this.
In the United States, the advertising and public relations industry is huge. Back in the
more honest days, they called it propaganda. Now the term doesn’t sound nice, so it’s not
used anymore, but it’s basically a huge propaganda system which is designed very
extensively for quite specific purposes.
First of all, it has to undermine markets by trying to create irrational, uninformed
consumers who will make irrational choices. That’s what advertising is about, the opposite
of what a market is supposed to be, and anybody who turns on a television set can see that
for themselves. It has to do with monopolization and product differentiation, all sorts of
things, but the point is that you have to drive the population to irrational consumption,
which does separate them from one another.
As I said, consumption is individual, so it’s not done as an act of solidarity—so you
don’t have ads on television saying, “Let’s get together and build a mass transportation
system.” Who’s going to fund that? The other thing they need to do is undermine democracy
the same way, so they run campaigns, political campaigns mostly run by PR agents. It’s
very clear what they have to do. They have to create uninformed voters who will make
irrational decisions, and that’s what the campaigns are about. Billions of dollars go into
it, and the idea is to shred democracy, restrict markets to service the rich, and make
sure the power gets concentrated, that capital gets concentrated and the people are driven
to irrational and self-destructive behavior. And it is self-destructive, often
dramatically so. For example, one of the first achievements of the U.S. public relations
system back in the 1920s was led, incidentally, by a figure honored by Wilson, Roosevelt
and Kennedy—liberal progressive Edward Bernays.
His first great success was to induce women to smoke. In the 1920s, women didn’t smoke. So
here’s this big population which was not buying cigarettes, so he paid young models to
march down New York City’s Fifth Avenue holding cigarettes. His message to women was, “You
want to be cool like a model? You should smoke a cigarette.” How many millions of corpses
did that create? I’d hate to calculate it. But it was considered an enormous success. The
same is true of the murderous character of corporate propaganda with tobacco, asbestos,
lead, chemicals, vinyl chloride, across the board. It is just shocking, but PR is a very
honored profession, and it does control people and undermine their options of working
together. And so that’s Hume’s paradox, but people don’t have to submit to it. You can see
through it and struggle against it.
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