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Noam Chomsky: “What Next? The Elections, the Economy, and the World”

StoryNovember 24, 2008
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World-renowned public intellectual Noam Chomsky discussed the meaning of President-elect Barack Obama’s victory and the possibilities ahead for real democratic change at a speech last week in Boston. It was his first public appearance since the election. Chomsky has been a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for over a half-century and is the author of dozens of influential books. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden are holding a news conference in Chicago today to formally announce their team of economic advisers and their plans to rebuild the faltering economy.

But as Obama assembles his cabinet and prepares to take over the reins from President Bush, more questions are being raised about the kind of change he’ll bring to Washington and the world. Progressives who supported Obama’s candidacy, celebrated his historic victory, are dismayed by his consideration of Clinton-era figures as his key advisers, many of whom championed financial deregulation and are hawkish on foreign policy.

World-renowned public intellectual Noam Chomsky discussed the meaning of Obama’s victory and the possibilities ahead for real democratic change at a recent address in Boston. He’s been a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for over a half-century and written over a hundred books. In his first public appearance since the election, Professor Chomsky spoke last week to a packed audience in Boston at an event organized by Encuentro 5. His talk was called “What Next? The Elections, the Economy, and the World.”

    NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, let’s begin with the elections. The word that rolls off everyone’s tongue is “historic” — historic election — and I agree with that. It was a historic election. To have a black family in the White House is a momentous achievement. In fact, it’s historic in a broader sense. The two Democratic candidates were an African American and a woman, both remarkable achievements. If we go back, say, forty years, it would have been unthinkable.

    So something’s happened to the country in forty years. And what’s happened to the country, which we’re not supposed to mention, is that there was extensive and very constructive activism in the 1960s, which had an aftermath, so the feminist movement, mostly developed in the ’70s, the solidarity movements in the ’80s, and on ’til today. And the activism did civilize the country. It’s an important achievement. The country is a lot more civilized than it was forty years ago, and the historic achievements illustrate it.

    And that’s also a lesson for what’s next. What’s next will depend on whether the same thing happens. Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below. And it’s up to — the answer to what’s next depends on people like you. Nobody else can answer it. It’s not predictable.

    In some ways, the election — the election was surprising in some respects. Going back to my bad prediction, if the financial crisis hadn’t taken place at the moment that it did, if it had been delayed a couple of months, I suspect that prediction would have been correct. But not speculating, one thing surprising about the election is that it wasn’t a landslide. By the usual criteria, you would expect the opposition party to win in a landslide under conditions like the ones that exist today. The incumbent president for eight years was so unpopular that his own party couldn’t mention his name and had to pretend to be opposing his policies. He presided over maybe the worst record for ordinary people in post-war history, in terms of job growth, real wealth and so on. Just about everything the administration has touched has turned into a disaster. The country has reached the lowest level of standing in the world that it’s ever had, and the economy was tanking. Several recessions are going on, not just the one on the front pages, the financial recession, but there’s also a recession in the real economy, the productive economy, under circumstances — and people know it. So 80 percent of the population say the country’s going in the wrong direction. About 80 percent say the government does not work for the benefit of the people, it works for the few and the special interests. A startling 94 percent complain that the government doesn’t pay any attention to the public will. And on like that. Under conditions like that, you’d expect a landslide for the opposition, almost whoever they are. And there wasn’t one, which has raised some questions. So one might ask why there wasn’t a landslide. And that goes off in an interesting direction.

    In other respects, the outcome was pretty familiar. So, once again, the election was essentially bought. Nine out of ten of the victors outspent their opponents. Obama, of course, outspent McCain. If you look at the — and we don’t have final records yet from the final results, but they’re probably going to be pretty much like the preliminary results a couple of months ago, which showed that both Obama and McCain were getting the bulk of their financing from the financial institutions and, for Obama, law firms, which means essentially lobbyists. It was about over a third a few months ago. Probably the final results will probably be the same.

    And there is a — the distribution of funding has, over time, been a pretty good predictor of what policies will be like. For those of you who are interested, there’s very good scholarly work on this by Tom Ferguson at UMass, Boston, what he calls the investment theory of politics, which predicts the — which argues essentially that elections are moments when groups of investors coalesce and invest to control the state, and has quite a substantial predictive success, gives some suggestion as to what’s likely to happen. So that part’s familiar. What the future is, as I say, depends on people like you.

    The response to the election was interesting and instructive. It kept pretty much to the soaring rhetoric, to borrow the cliché, that was the major theme of the election. The election was described as an extraordinary display of democracy, a miracle that could only happen in America, and on and on. Much more extreme in Europe even than here. There’s some accuracy in that, if we keep to the West. So if we keep to the West, yes, it’s probably true that it couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Europe is much more racist than the United States, and you wouldn’t expect anything like that to happen. On the other hand, if we look at the world, it’s not that remarkable.

    So, let’s take, say, the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere: Haiti and Bolivia. In Haiti, there was an election in 1990, which really was an extraordinary display of democracy, much more so than this. In Haiti, there were grassroots movements, popular movements that developed in the slums and in the hills, which nobody was paying any attention to. And they managed, even without any resources, to sweep into power their own candidate, a populist priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. That’s a victory for democracy, when popular movements can organize and set programs and pick their candidate and put him into office, which is not what happened here, of course. I mean, Obama did organize a great large number of people and many enthusiastic people, what’s called in the press “Obama’s Army.” But the army is supposed to take instructions, not to implement, to introduce, develop programs and call on its own candidate to implement them. That’s critical. If the army keeps to that condition, nothing much will change. If it, on the other hand, goes the way activists did in the ’60s, a lot could change, one of the choices that has to be made. However — so that’s Haiti. Of course, that didn’t last very long. A couple of months later, there was military coup, a period of terror. I won’t go through the whole record, but up to the present, the traditional torturers of Haiti — France and the United States — have made sure that there won’t be a victory for democracy there. It’s a miserable story, contrary to many illusions.

    Take the second poorest country, Bolivia. They had an election in 2005 that’s almost unimaginable in the West, certainly here, anywhere. The person elected into office was indigenous. That’s the most oppressed population in the hemisphere, that is, those who survived. He’s a poor peasant. How did he get in? Well, he got in because there were, again, mass popular movements, which elected their own representative. And they are the source of the programs, which are serious ones. There are real issues, and people know them: control over resources, cultural rights, social justice, and so on. Furthermore, the election was just an event that was a particular stage in a long continuing struggle, a lot before and a lot after. There was day when people pushed the levers, but that’s just an event in ongoing popular struggles, very serious ones. A couple of years ago, there was a major struggle over privatization of water, an effort which would in effect deprive a good part of the population of water to drink. And it was a bitter struggle. A lot of people were killed. But they won it, through international solidarity, in fact, which helped. And it continues. Now that’s a real election. Again, the plans, the programs are being developed, acted on constantly by mass popular movements, which then select their own representative from their own ranks to carry out their programs. And that’s quite different from what happened here.

    Actually, what happened here is understood by elite elements. The public relations industry, which runs elections here — quadrennial extravaganzas essentially — makes sure to keep issues in the margins and focus on personalities, character, and so on and so forth. They do that for good reasons. They know — they look at public opinion studies, and they know perfectly well that on a host of major issues both parties are well to the right of the population. That’s one good reason to keep issues off the table. And they recognize the success. So, every year, the advertising industry gives a prize, you know, to the best marketing campaign of the year. This year, Obama won the prize, beat out Apple Company, the best marketing campaign of 2008, which is correct. You know, it’s essentially what happened.

    Now, that’s quite different from what happens in a functioning democracy like, say, Bolivia or Haiti, except for the fact that it was crushed. And in the South, it’s not all that uncommon. Notice that each of these cases, there’s a much more extraordinary display of democracy in action than what we’ve seen, important as it was here. And so, the rhetoric, especially in Europe, is correct if we maintain our own narrow racist perspectives and say, yeah, what happens in the South didn’t happen or doesn’t matter; the only thing that matters is what we do, and, by our standards, it was extraordinary, a miracle, but not by the standards of a functioning democracy.

    In fact, there is a distinction in democratic theory, which does separate, say, the United States from Bolivia or Haiti. The question is, what is a democracy supposed to be? That’s actually a debate that goes back to the Constitutional Convention. But in recent years and the twentieth century, it’s been pretty well articulated by important figures. So at the liberal end, progressive end, the leading public intellectual of the twentieth century was Walter Lippmann, a Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy progressive. And a lot of his work was on a democratic theory, and he was pretty frank about it. He took a position not all that different from James Madison’s. He said that in a democracy, the population has a function. Its function is to be spectators, not participants. He didn’t call it the population. He called it the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders. The ignorant and meddlesome outsiders have a function, namely to watch what’s going on and to push a lever every once in a while, then go home. But the participants are us, us privileged, smart guys. Well, that’s one conception of democracy. And, yeah, that’s — essentially we’ve seen an episode of it.

    The population very often doesn’t accept this. As I mentioned, in just very recent polls, people overwhelmingly oppose it. But they’re atomized, separated. Many of them feel hopeless, unorganized, and don’t feel they can do anything about it. So they dislike it, you know, but that’s where it ends. In a functioning democracy, like, say, Bolivia or the United States in earlier stages, they did something about it. That’s why we have the New Deal measures, the Great Society measures. In fact, any — just about any step — you know, women’s rights, end of slavery, go back as far as you like — it doesn’t happen as a gift. And it’s not going to happen in the future.

    The commentators are pretty well aware of this, although they’re not going to — they don’t put it the way I’m going to. But if you read the press, it does come out. So, take our local newspaper at the liberal end of the spectrum, the Boston Globe

    . You probably saw right after the election a front-page story. The lead front-page story was on how Obama developed this wonderful grassroots army, but he doesn’t have any debts, which is supposed to be a good thing. So he’s free to do what he likes, because he has no debts. The normal Democratic constituencies — labor, women, minorities and so on — they didn’t bring him into office. So he owes them nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: MIT professor, author, political dissident, Noam Chomsky. We’ll come back to this interview in a minute. You can get a copy of our show by going to Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We return now to Professor Noam Chomsky’s address in Boston, “The Elections, the Economy, and the World.”

    NOAM CHOMSKY: What he had was an army that he organized of people who got out the vote for Obama, for what the press calls “Brand Obama.” They essentially agree with the advertisers: it’s Brand Obama that his army was mobilized to bring into office. They regard that as a good thing, accepting the Lippmann conception of democracy: the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders are supposed to do what they’re told and then go home.

    The Wall Street Journal

    , at the opposite end of the spectrum, also had an article about the same thing, roughly the same time, talked about this tremendous grassroots army that had been developed, which is now waiting for instructions. So what should they do next to press forward Obama’s agenda, whatever that is? But whatever it is, the army is supposed to be out there taking instructions and press for it. Los Angeles Times had similar articles. And there are others.

    What they don’t seem to realize is that what they’re describing, the ideal that they’re describing, is dictatorship, not democracy. Democracy, at least not in the Lippmann sense, the approved — I pick him out because he’s so famous, but it’s a standard position — but in the sense of, say, much of the South, where mass popular movements develop programs, organize — to take part in elections, but that’s one part of an ongoing process — and bring somebody from their own ranks to implement the programs that they develop. And if the person doesn’t, they’re out. OK, that’s another kind of democracy. So it’s up to us to choose which kind of democracy we want. And again, that will determine what comes next.

    Well, what can we anticipate if the popular army, the grassroots army, decides to accept the function of spectators of action rather than participants? There’s two kinds of evidence. There’s rhetoric, and there’s action. The rhetoric, we know. It’s very uplifting: change, hope, and so on. Change was kind of reflexive; any party manager this year who read the polls, including the ones I cited, would instantly conclude that our theme in the election has to be change, because people hate what’s going on, for good reasons. So the theme is change. In fact, both parties, for both of them, the theme was change, you know, break from the past, none of the old politics, new things are going to happen. The Obama campaign did it better, so they won the marketing award, not the McCain campaign.

    And notice, incidentally, on the side, that the institutions that run the elections, the public relations industry, advertisers, they have a role. Their major role is commercial advertising. I mean, selling a candidate is a kind of a side role. In commercial advertising, as everybody knows, everybody who’s ever, say, looked at a television program, the advertising is not intended to provide information about the product, right? I don’t have to go on about that; it’s obvious. The point of the advertising is to delude people with imagery and, you know, tales of a football player or a sexy actress who, you know, drives to the moon in a car or something like that. But it’s certainly not to inform people. In fact, it’s to keep people uninformed. The goal of advertising is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices. Those of you who’ve suffered through an economics course know that markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices. But industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to undermine markets and to ensure — you know, to get uninformed consumers making irrational choices.

    And when they turn to selling a candidate, they do the same thing. They want uninformed consumers — you know, uninformed voters to make irrational choices based on the success of illusion, slander, invective, you know, body language or whatever else is supposed to be significant. So you undermine democracy pretty much the same way you undermine markets. Well, that’s the nature of an election when it’s run by the business world, and you’d expect it to be like that. There should be no surprise there. And it should also turn out that the elected candidate doesn’t have any debts. So you can follow that Brand Obama can be whatever they decide it to be, not what the population decides that it should be, as in the South, let’s say.

    I might say, on the side, that this may be an actual instance of the familiar and usually vacuous slogan about clash of civilizations, that maybe there really is one, but not the kind that is usually touted.

    So, let’s go back to the evidence that we have, rhetoric and actions. Rhetoric, we know. Now, what are the actions? Well, so far, the major actions are a selection of — in fact, the only actions are a selection of personnel to implement Brand Obama. The first choice was the Vice President, Joe Biden, one of the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq in the Senate, a longtime Washington insider, you know, rarely deviates from the party vote. And the cases where he does deviate are not very uplifting. So he did break from the party in voting for a Senate resolution that prevented people from getting rid of their debts by — individuals, that is — from getting rid of their debts by going into bankruptcy. That’s a blow against poor people who are caught in this immense debt that’s a large part of the basis for the economy these days. But usually, he’s a kind of straight party-liner, votes with the Democrats on the sort of ultra-nationalist side. The choice of Biden was a — must have been a conscious attempt to show contempt for the base of people who were voting for Obama and were organizing for him as an antiwar candidate.

    Well, the first post-election appointment was for Chief of Staff, which is a crucial appointment, determines a large part of the President’s agenda. That was Rahm Emanuel, one of the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq in the House. In fact, he was the only member of the Illinois delegation who voted for Bush’s effective declaration of war, and again, a longtime Washington insider, also one of the leading recipients in Congress of funding from the financial institutions and hedge funds and so on. He himself was an investment banker. That’s his background. So, that’s the Chief of Staff.

    The next group of appointments were the maiden problem that the — the issue, the primary issue that the government’s going to have to face is what to do about the financial crisis. Obama’s choices to more or less run this were Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, from the Clinton — secretaries of Treasury under Clinton. They are among the people who are substantially responsible for the crisis. Actually, one leading economist, one of the few economists who has been right all along in predicting what’s happening, Dean Baker, pointed out that selecting them is like selecting Osama bin Laden to run the war on terror.

    Yeah, I’ll finish. This saves me the problem of talking about what’s coming next, so I’ll finish with the elections.

    Well, let me make one final comment on this. There was meeting on November 7th, I think, of a group of couple of dozen advisers to deal with the financial crisis. Their careers were — records were reviewed in the business press. Bloomberg News had an article reviewing their records and concluded that these people — most of these people shouldn’t be giving advice about the economy. They should be getting subpoenas, because they were — most of them were involved in one or another form of financial fraud. That includes Rahm Emanuel, for example. It said, you know, what reason is there to think that the people who brought this crisis about are somehow going to fix it? Well, that’s a good indication of what’s likely to come next, at least if we look at actions. We could, but I won’t. You can bring this up, ask what we expect to see in particular cases. And there’s evidence about that from statements from Obama’s website.

    I’ll mention just one thing about Obama’s website, which gives an indication of what’s happening. One of the major problems coming is Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s pretty serious. Take a look at Obama’s website, under issues, foreign policy issues. The names don’t even appear. I mean, we’re supposed to be ignorant and meddlesome outsiders. We’re not supposed to know what Brand Obama is. So you can’t find out that way. The statements that you hear are pretty hawkish. And it doesn’t change much as you go through the list. But I’ll wrap up here. So it’s up to you to continue.

AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, MIT professor, world-renowned linguist, author of more than a hundred books, his first major address since the elections. He gave it last week in Boston.

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