On this Memorial Day special, we spend the hour with the world-renowned political dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of over a hundred books. He spoke recently here in New York addressing more than a thousand people at the Left Forum. He began by discussing the case of Joseph Andrew Stack, who crashed his small plane into an office building in Austin, Texas, hitting an IRS office, committing suicide. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We spend the hour with the world-renowned political dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of over a hundred books. He spoke recently here in New York addressing more than a thousand people at the Left Forum.
NOAM CHOMSKY: One month ago, Joseph Andrew Stack crashed his small plane into an office building in Austin, Texas, hitting an IRS office, committing suicide. He left a manifesto explaining his actions. It was mostly ridiculed, but I think it deserves a lot better than that.
Stack’s manifesto traces the life history that led him to this final desperate act. The story begins when he was a teenage student living on a pittance in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, right near the heart of what was once a great industrial area. His neighbor — I’m mostly quoting now — his neighbor was a woman in her eighties, surviving on cat food, the widowed wife of a retired steel worker. Her husband had worked all his life in the steel mills of central Pennsylvania with promises from big business and the union that, for the thirty years of his service, he would have a pension and medical care to look forward to in his retirement. Instead he was one of the thousands who got nothing, because the incompetent mill management and corrupt union, not to mention the government, raided the pension funds and stole their retirement. All she had was Social Security to live on. And Stack could have added that are concerted and continuing efforts by the super-rich and their political allies to take even that away on spurious grounds.
Stack decided then that he couldn’t trust big business and would strike out on his own, only to discover that he couldn’t trust a government that cared nothing about people like him, but only about the rich and privileged. And he couldn’t trust a legal system, which — in his words, in which "there are two 'interpretations' for every law, one for the very rich and one for the rest of us," a government that leaves us with "the joke we call the American medical system, including the drug and insurance companies [that] are murdering tens of thousands of people a year," with care rationed by wealth, not need, all in a social order in which "a handful of thugs and plunderers can commit unthinkable atrocities...and when it’s time for their gravy train to crash under the weight of their gluttony and overwhelming stupidity, the force of the full federal government has no difficulty coming to their aid within days if not hours." And much more, which I won’t repeat.
Stack tells us that his desperate final act was an effort to join those who are willing to die for their freedom, in the hope of awakening others from their torpor. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had in mind the woman eating cat food, who taught him about the real world when he was a teenager, and her husband’s premature death. Her husband didn’t literally commit suicide after having been discarded to the trash heap, but it’s far from an isolated case, which we can add to the colossal toll of the institutional crimes of state capitalism.
There are poignant studies of the indignation and the rage of those who have been cast aside as the state-corporate programs of financialization and deindustrialization have closed plants and destroyed families and communities. These studies reveal the sense of acute betrayal on the part of working people who believed they had a fulfilled their duty to society in what they regard as a moral compact with business and government, only to discover that they had only been instruments for profit and power, truisms from which they had been carefully shielded by doctrinal institutions.
There are striking similarities in the world’s second-largest economy. This has been investigated in a very penetrating study by Ching Kwan Lee into Chinese labor. Lee draws the close comparison between working-class outrage and desperation in the decaying industrial sectors of the United States and the fury among workers in what she calls China’s rustbelt, the state socialist industrial center in the Northeast now abandoned by the state in favor of state capitalist development of the Southeast sunbelt, as she calls it. In both regions, Lee finds massive labor protests, but different in character. In the rustbelt, workers express the same sense of betrayal as their counterparts here, but in their case betrayal of the Maoist principles of solidarity and dedication to development of the society that they had thought had been a moral compact, only to discover that, whatever it was, it’s now bitter fraud. In the sunbelt, workers who lack that cultural tradition still rely on their home villages for support and family life. They denounce the failure of authorities to live up even to the minimal legal requirements of barely livable workplace conditions and payment of the pittance called salaries.
According to official statistics, there were 58,000 “mass incidents” of protest in 2003 in just one province of the rustbelt, with three million people participating. Some 30 to 40 million workers who were dropped from work units — quoting Lee — “are plagued by a profound sense of insecurity,” arousing “rage and desperation” around the country. And she expects that there’s worse to come, as a looming crisis of landlessness in the countryside undermines the base for survival of the sunbelt workers, who don’t even have a semblance of independent unions, while in the rustbelt, there’s nothing like civil society support that exists, to some extent, here. Both Lee and the studies of the US rustbelt make it clear that we should not underestimate the depth of moral indignation that lies behind the bitterness about what is perceived to be the treachery of government and business power acting exactly as we should expect them to, unfortunately.
Something similar can be found in rural India. There, food consumption has sharply declined for the great majority since the neoliberal reforms were partially implemented, all of this amidst accolades for India’s fabulous growth, and indeed it is fabulous growth for some, though not for the rural areas, where peasant suicides are increasing at about the same rate as the number of billionaires, not far away. And in fact not so attractive for the workers, American workers, who are transferred to India to reduce labor costs by IBM, which now has three-quarters of its work force abroad. BusinessWeek calls IBM the “quintessential American company,” which is quite appropriate: it became the global giant in computing thanks to the unwitting munificence of the US taxpayer, who also substantially funded the whole IT revolution on which IBM relies, along with most of the rest of the high-tech economy, mostly on the pretext that the Russians are coming. Now IBM is paying them back.
There’s much excited talk these days about a great global shift of power, with speculation about whether, or when, China might displace the US as the dominant global power, along with India, which, if it happened, would mean that the global system would be returning to something like what it was before the European conquests. And indeed their recent GDP growth has been spectacular. But there’s a lot more to say about it. So if you take a look at the UN human development index, basic measure of the health of the society, it turns out that India retains its place near the bottom. It’s now 134th, slightly above Cambodia, below Laos and Tajikistan. Actually, it’s dropped since the reforms began. China ranks ninety-second, a bit above Jordan, below the Dominican Republic and Iran. By comparison, Cuba, been under harsh US attack for fifty years, is ranked fifty-second. It’s the highest in Central America and the Caribbean, barely below the richest societies in South America. India and China also suffer from extremely high inequality, so well over a billion of their inhabitants fall far lower in the scale. Furthermore, an accurate accounting would go beyond conventional measures to include serious costs that China and India can’t ignore for long: ecological, resource depletion, many others.
These common speculations about a global shift of power, which you can read all over the front pages, disregard a crucial factor that’s familiar to all of us: nations divorced from the internal distribution of power are not the real actors in international affairs. That truism was brought to public attention by that incorrigible radical Adam Smith, who recognized that the principal architects of power in England were the owners of the society — in his day, the merchants and manufacturers — and they made sure that policy would attend scrupulously to their interests, however grievous the impact on the people of England and, of course, much worse, the victims of what he called “the savage injustice of the Europeans” abroad. British crimes in India were the main concern of an old-fashioned conservative with moral values.
To his modern worshippers, Smith’s truisms are ridiculed as, quote, “elaborate theories of how world history was being manipulated by shadowy corporatist/imperialist networks.” I’m quoting New York Times thinker David Brooks. It’s one of the many illustrations of the intellectual and moral decline of what’s called “conservatism” from the understanding of its heroes.
Actually, in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I’m identified as the villain who adopts Adam Smith’s heresy, as in fact I do.
Well, bearing Smith’s radical truism in mind, we can see that there is indeed a global shift of power, though not the one that occupies center stage. It’s a shift from the global work force to transnational capital, and it’s been sharply escalating during the neoliberal years. The cost is substantial, including the Joe Stacks of the US, starving peasants in India, and millions of protesting workers in China, where the labor share in income is declining even more rapidly than in most of the world.
Martin Hart-Landsberg has done quite important work on this, and he reviews how China is playing a leading role in the real global shift of power, not the one you read about in the newspapers. It’s become kind of an assembly plant for a regional production system. Japan, Taiwan, other Asian economies export parts and components to China and provide China with most of the advanced technology that’s used. There’s been a lot of concern about the growing US trade deficit with China, but less noticed is the fact that the trade deficit with Japan and the rest of Asia has sharply declined as this new regional production system takes place. US manufacturers are following the same course, providing parts and components for China to assemble and export, mostly back to the US. For the financial institutions, the retail giants like, say, Wal-Mart, ownership and management of manufacturing industries, and sectors closely related to this nexus of power, all of this is heavenly. Not for Joe Stack and many others like him.
To understand the public mood, it’s worthwhile to recall that the conventional use of GDP, gross domestic product, to measure economic growth is highly misleading. It’s a highly ideological measure. There have been efforts to devise more realistic measures. One of them is called the General Progress Indicator. It subtracts from GDP expenditures that harm the public, and it adds that value of authentic benefits. Well, in the US, the General Progress Indicator has stagnated since the 1970s, although GDP has increased, the growth going into very few pockets. That result correlates with others —- for example, the studies of social indicators, the standard measure of health of a society. Social indicators tracked economic growth until the mid—'70s. Then they began to decline, and they reached the level of 1960 by the year 2000. That's the latest figures available. The United States is one of the very few countries that has no government inquiry into social indicators. The correlation with financialization of the economy and neoliberal socio-economic measures is pretty hard to miss, and it’s not unique to the United States, by any means.
Now, it’s true that there’s nothing essentially new in the process of deindustrialization. Owners and managers naturally seek the lowest labor costs. Occasionally there are efforts to do otherwise. Henry Ford is the famous example, but his efforts were struck down by the courts long ago. So, in fact, it’s a legal obligation for corporate owners and managers to maximize profit. One means of doing this is shifting production. In earlier years, the shift was mostly internal, especially to the Southern states. There, labor could be more harshly repressed. And major corporations, like the first billion-dollar corporation, the US Steel Corporation of the sainted philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, could also profit from the new slave labor force that was created by the criminalization of black life in the South after the end of Reconstruction in 1877. That’s a core part of the American industrial revolution, which continued until the Second World War. That’s actually being reproduced in part right now, during the recent neoliberal period. The drug war is used as a pretext to drive the superfluous population, mostly black, back to the prisons, also providing a new supply of prison labor in state and private prisons, much of it in violation of international labor conventions. In fact, for many African Americans, since they were exported to the colonies, life has scarcely escaped the bonds of slavery, or sometimes worse.
AMY GOODMAN: MIT professor, author, activist, Noam Chomsky. This is Democracy Now!
, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll come back to his speech given at the Left Forum just a few weeks ago in New York City at Pace University in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Today it’s Noam Chomsky for the hour, as we return to a major address he gave on the weekend of the seventh anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. It was a gathering of more than a thousand people at the Left Forum at Pace University in New York. Again, MIT professor, author, activist, Noam Chomsky.
NOAM CHOMSKY: In the ultra-respectable Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, we can read — I’m quoting — that “The prison system in America has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history,” making the US “the home to the largest custodial infrastructure for the mass depredation of liberty to be found on the planet,” mostly black, increasingly Hispanic. It’s a product of the past thirty years, the neoliberal years, as is the fact that the United States — quoting again — “leads the world not only in incarceration rates but in executive compensation.” I’m quoting a Harvard Business School professor who points out that this correlation — this is “increasingly recognized to be linked," as is the fact that the United States is lagging far behind much of the world, particularly China, but also Europe, in developing green technologies.
Well, it’s easy to ridicule the ways in which Joe Stack and others like him articulate their concerns, which are very genuine and real. But it’s far more appropriate to understand what lies behind their perceptions and actions, and particularly, to ask ourselves why the radical imagination is failing to offer them a constructive path, while the center is very visibly not holding. And those who have real grievances are indeed being mobilized, but mobilized in ways that pose no slight danger, to themselves and to the rest of us and to the world.
Joe Stack’s manifesto ends with two evocative sentences, which I’ll read. “The communist creed: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The capitalist creed: From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.” Stack minces no words about the capitalist creed. We can only speculate about what he meant by the communist creed that he counterposed to it. I think it’s not unlikely that he saw it as an ideal with a genuine moral force. If that’s so, it wouldn’t be very surprising. Some of you may be old enough to recall a poll taken in 1976, on the year of the bicentennial, in which people were given a list of statements and asked which ones they thought were in the Constitution. Well, at that time, no one had a clue what was in the Constitution, so the answer “in the Constitution” presumably meant: “so obviously correct that it must be in the Constitution.” One statement that received a solid majority was Joe Stack’s “communist creed.”
Well, I qualified that comment with the phrase “at that time.” Today, a segment of the population memorizes and worships the Constitution, at least the words, if not the meaning. There was a Tea Party convention a week ago which produced a catechism for candidates. One requirement is that they must agree to scrap the tax code and replace it with one no longer than 4,543 words long. That’s to match the length of the Constitution, unamended. Only some amendments share this holy status, one of them the Second, under the recent interpretation by the reactionaries of the Supreme Court. Now, the First Amendment is suspect, because of what it might be taken to imply about separation of Church and state. According to the current version of conservatism, the US is to be a Christian state, kind of like the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Jewish State of Israel. In that connection, incidentally, Golda Meir is listed in the catechism as required learning for children, but no Hispanics. Well, along with normal racism, that reflects the very curious amalgam of extreme anti-Semitism and support for Israel among right-wing religious sectors. And such matters should not be lightly dismissed when we try to look ahead.
Encouraging, this anti-tax extremism that you see in the Tea Party movement is not as immediately suicidal as Joe Stack’s desperate action, but it’s suicidal nonetheless, and for reasons that I don’t have to elaborate. What’s happening right now in California is a dramatic illustration. Right there, maybe one of the richest parts of the world, the world’s greatest public education system is being systematically dismantled. And the governor, Governor Schwarzenegger, says he’ll have to eliminate state health and welfare programs unless the federal government forks over some $7 billion. And other governors are joining in. At the same time, a very powerful states’ rights movement is taking shape, demanding that the federal government not intrude into our affairs. That’s a nice illustration of what Orwell called “doublethink” — the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in mind while believing both of them, which is practically a motto for the times. California’s plight results in large part from anti-tax fanaticism. And that extends over much of the country.
Well, encouraging anti-tax sentiment has long been a staple of the business propaganda that dominates the doctrinal system. So people must be indoctrinated to hate and fear the government, for very good reasons: of the existing power systems, the government is the only one that, in principle, and sometimes in fact, is answerable to the public and can impose some constraints on the depredations of private power; the corollary to “getting government off our back” is groaning beneath the even greater weight of unaccountable private tyranny. So-called libertarians don’t seem to see that that’s what they’re calling for. But business anti-government propaganda has to be nuanced: business of course favors a very powerful state which serves Adam Smith’s principal architects, the owners of the society today, not merchants and manufacturers, but multinationals and financial institutions. Now, constructing this internally contradictory propaganda message is no easy task. So people have to be trained to hate and fear the deficit, which is a necessary means to stimulate the economy after its destruction at the hands of the dominant financial institutions and their cohorts in Washington. But at the same time, the population must favor the deficits. Almost half of them are attributable to the military budget, which is breaking records under Obama, and the rest of the deficit is predicted — what’s predicted to overwhelm the budget is the cruel and hopelessly inefficient privatized healthcare system, which is a gift to insurance companies and Big Pharma.
Well, that’s a tricky propaganda task, but it’s been — we can see it all the time. It’s been carried with pretty impressive success. One illustration is the public attitude towards April 15th, when tax returns are due. Well, let’s put aside the thought of a much more free and just society and just have a look at this one. In a functioning democracy of the kind that formally exists, April 15th would be a day of celebration: we’re coming together to implement programs that we’ve chosen. Now, here, it’s a day of mourning: some alien force is descending upon us to steal our hard-earned money. Well, that’s one graphic indication of the success of the intense efforts of the highly class-conscious business community to win what its own publications call “the everlasting battle for the minds of men.”
Another stunning illustration of the success of propaganda, which has considerable import for the future, is the cult of the great killer and torturer Ronald Reagan, one of the grand criminals of the modern era, who also — he also had an unerring instinct for favoring the most brutal terrorists and murderers around the world, from Zia-ul-Haq and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in what’s now called AfPak to the most dedicated killers in Central America to the South African racists who killed an estimated 1.5 million people in the Reagan years and had to be supported because they were under attack by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, one of “more notorious terrorist groups” in the world, the Reaganites determined in 1988. And on and on, with remarkable consistency. Now, his grisly record was quickly expunged in favor of mythic constructions that would have impressed Kim Il-sung. Among other feats, he was anointed as the apostle of free markets, while raising protectionist barriers more than probably all other postwar presidents combined and implementing massive government intervention in the economy. He was a great exponent of law and order, while he informed the business world that labor laws would not be enforced, so that illegal firing of union organizers tripled under his supervision. His hatred of working people was exceeded perhaps only by his contempt for the rich black women driving their limousines to collect their welfare checks.
Well, there should be no need to continue with the record, but the outcome tells us quite a lot about the intellectual and moral culture in which we live. For President Obama, this monstrous creature was a “transformative figure.” If you go over to Stanford University’s prestigious Hoover Institute, he’s a colossus — I’m quoting — whose “spirit seems to stride the country, watching us like a warm and friendly ghost.” Well, painfully to record, many of the Joe Stacks, whose lives he was ruining, join in the adulation and hasten to shelter under the umbrella of the power and the violence that he symbolized.
Now, all of this evokes memories of other days, when the center did not hold, and they’re worth thinking about. One example that should not be forgotten is the Weimar Republic. That was the peak of Western civilization in the sciences and the arts, also regarded as a model of democracy. Through the 1920s, the traditional liberal and conservative parties that had always governed the Reich entered into inexorable decline. That was well before the process was intensified by the Great Depression. The coalition that elected General Hindenburg in 1925 was not very different from the mass base that swept Hitler into office eight years later, compelling Hindenburg, who was an aristocrat, to select as chancellor the “little corporal,” as he called him, that he detested. As late as 1928, the Nazis had less than three percent of the vote. Two years later, the most respectable Berlin press was lamenting the sight — I’m quoting — of the many millions in this “highly civilized country” who had “given their vote to the commonest, hollowest and crudest charlatanism.” The center was collapsing. The public was coming to despise the incessant wrangling of Weimar politics, the service of the traditional parties to powerful interests and their failure to deal with popular grievances. They were being drawn to the forces that were upholding the grandeur of the nation and defending it against perceived threats in a revitalized, armed, unified state, which is going to march to a glorious future, led by the charismatic figure who, in his words, was carrying out “the will of eternal Providence, the Creator of the universe.” By May 1933, the Nazis had largely destroyed not only the traditional ruling parties, but even the large working-class parties, the Social Democrats and the Communists, which were quite strong, along with their very powerful associations. The Nazis declared May Day 1933 to be a workers’ holiday. That was something the left parties had never been able to achieve. In fact, many working people took part in the enormous patriotic demonstrations, more than a million people in what was called Red Berlin that were joining farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, paramilitary forces, Christian organizations, athletic and riflery clubs, and the rest of the coalition that was taking shape as the center collapsed. By the onset of the war, perhaps 90 percent of Germans were marching with the brownshirts.
Well, the world is too complex for history to repeat, but there are nevertheless lessons to keep in mind, and even memories. I’m just old enough to remember those chilling and ominous days of Germany’s descent from decency to Nazi barbarism, quoting the distinguished scholar of German history Fritz Stern, who tells us that he has the future of the United States in mind when he reviews what he calls “a historic process in which resentment against a disenchanted secular world found deliverance in the ecstatic escape of unreason." If that sounds familiar, it is. This is one possible outcome of collapse of the center when the radical imagination, which in fact was quite powerful at that time, nonetheless fell short.
Well, the popular mood today here is complex in ways that are both hopeful and troubling. One illustration is the attitudes toward social spending on the part of people who identify themselves in polls as “anti-government.” There’s a recent scholarly study which is kind of illuminating. It finds that, by large majorities, they support — I’m quoting it — they support “maintaining or expanding spending on Social Security, child care, and aid to poor people” and other social welfare measures, though support falls off significantly when it comes to "aid to blacks and welfare recipients.” Half of these anti-government extremists believe “that spending is too little [on] assistance to the poor.” In the population as a whole, majorities, in most cases substantial majorities, feel the government is spending too little to improve and protect the nation’s health, and on Social Security, drug addiction, and child care programs and so on, though again there’s an exception on aid for welfare and black — welfare recipients and blacks. That’s probably a tribute to Reaganite thuggery, I suppose.
Well, these results give some indication of what might be achieved by commitments that are even far short of the radical imagination, and also of some of the impediments that are going to have to be overcome for these and much more far-reaching purposes.
AMY GOODMAN: MIT professor, author, activist, Noam Chomsky. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll come back to his speech given at the Left Forum just a few weeks ago in New York City at Pace University in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Today it’s Noam Chomsky for the hour, as we return to a major address he gave on the weekend of the seventh anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. It was a gathering of more than a thousand people at the Left Forum at Pace University in New York. Again, MIT professor, author, activist, Noam Chomsky.
NOAM CHOMSKY: The Massachusetts election last January, which undermined majority rule in the Senate, that gives some further insight into what can happen when the center does not hold and those who believe in even limited measures of reform fail to reach the population. In the election — the elections, as you know, were to fill the seat of the Senate’s so-called “liberal lion,” Ted Kennedy. In that election, Scott Brown ran as the forty-first vote against healthcare, which Kennedy had fought for throughout his political life. A majority, it turned out, opposed Obama’s proposals, but primarily because they gave away too much to the insurance industry. And much the same is true nationally, if you look at the polls on which the headlines are based.
One interesting feature was the voting pattern among union members. That’s Obama’s natural constituency, you’d think. Most of them didn’t bother to vote. But of those who did, a majority chose Brown. And union leaders and activists explained why. They said workers are angered at Obama’s record generally, but particularly incensed over his stand on healthcare. One of them reported, “He didn’t insist on a public option nor a strong employer mandate to provide insurance. It was hard not to notice that the only issue on which he took a firm stand was taxing benefits” for the healthcare that had been won by union struggles, retracting his campaign pledge.
There was a massive infusion of funds from financial executives in the final days of the campaign. Now, that’s one part of a broader phenomenon, which reveals dramatically why Joe Stack and others have every reason to be disgusted at the farce that they were taught to honor as democracy.
Obama’s primary constituency all along was financial institutions. Their power has increased enormously. Their share of corporate profits rose from a few percent in the 1970s to almost a third today. They preferred Obama to McCain, and they largely bought the election for him. And they expected to be rewarded. And they were. I don’t have to go through the details. But a few months ago, responding to the rising anger of the Joe Stacks, Obama began to criticize the “greedy bankers” who had been rescued by the public and even proposed some measures to constrain their excesses. Punishment for this deviation was swift. The major banks immediately announced very prominently — front page of the New York Times — that they would shift funding to Republicans if Obama persisted with his offensive rhetoric.
And Obama heard the message. Within days, he informed the business press that bankers are fine “guys,” in his words, singling out the chairs of the two biggest banks, two biggest crooks, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. They got specific praise. And he assured the business world that — quoting him — “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth,” such as the huge bonuses and profits that are infuriating the public. “That’s part of the free market system,” Obama continued — not inaccurately, as “free markets” are interpreted in state capitalist doctrine. His retreat, however, was not in time to curb the flow of cash that gained the forty-first seat.
Well, in fairness, we should concede that the greedy bankers had a point. Their task is to maximize profit and market share. In fact, as I mentioned, that’s their legal obligation. If they don’t do it, they’ll be replaced by somebody who will. These are institutional facts, as are the inherent market inefficiencies that require them to ignore what’s called systemic risk. They know full well that that’s likely to tank the economy, but such externalities, as they’re called, are not their business. It’s also unfair to accuse them of “irrational exuberance” — that’s Alan Greenspan’s phrase in his extremely brief departure from orthodoxy during the tech boom of the '90s. Their exuberance was not at all irrational: it was quite rational, in the knowledge that when it all collapses, they can flee to the shelter of the nanny state, clutching their copies of Hayek and Friedman and Ayn Rand. The same is true of the Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute and the rest of the business leaders, who are running a massive propaganda campaign now to convince the public to dismiss concerns about anthropogenic global warming — and with great success. There's been a sharp decline in people who take it seriously. Those who believe in this liberal hoax, as it’s called, have declined to about a third of the population. The executives who are dedicating themselves to this task know perfectly well that the hoax is very real and the prospects very grim. But they are fulfilling their institutional role. If they don’t do it, somebody else will replace them who will. The fate of the species is another externality that they must ignore, insofar as market systems prevail. So you can’t criticize them.
Returning — let’s go back to the very instructive Massachusetts election. It turns out that the major factor in Brown’s victory was voting patterns. In the affluent suburbs, voting was high and enthusiastic. In the urban areas, which are heavily Democratic, voting was low and apathetic. So the headlines were right to report that voters were sending Obama a message. The message was very clear. From the rich, the message was we want even more than what you’re doing for us. And from the rest, the message was Joe Stack’s: in his words, the politicians are not in “the least bit interested in me or anything I have to say,” though they’re very much interested in the voices of the masters. Well, there was no doubt some impact of the populist image that was crafted by the PR machine — you know, “I’m Scott Brown, this is my truck,” you know, “regular guy,” all that stuff. But that appears to have been a secondary role. The popular anger is very real, and it’s entirely understandable, with the banks thriving, thanks not only to the bailouts but to all sorts of other benefits that they’re getting from the nanny state, while the population remains in deep recession. Even official unemployment is at ten percent — actual, much higher — and in manufacturing industry, official unemployment is at the level of the Great Depression, one out of six unemployed, and very few prospects for recovering the kinds of jobs that are lost as the economy is being reshaped, in the manner that — with the global shift of power that I described.
Well, national polls reveal much the same phenomenon. The latest one I’ve seen was just a couple of days ago, Wall Street Journal. It shows what they call a 21 percent enthusiasm gap between the parties, with 67 percent of Republicans saying they’re very interested in the coming November elections, as compared with 46 percent of Democrats. There’s also a major shift from the norm, in that there’s a ten-point margin by which registered voters say they believe that Republicans are better at dealing with the economy. That’s a combination of a solid Republican, mostly quite affluent sector and disillusioned Democrats, who see what’s happening, the Joe Stacks. Half of Americans would like to see every member of Congress defeated in the election, including their own representative. Very remarkable picture of — it’s a remarkable picture of how the center is not holding. And it evokes memories, which we shouldn’t forget, some of which I mentioned. Now, the public conception of democracy is almost as negative as the aspirations of the business world. Of course, they hate democracy, naturally. But they’re now lobbying very fiercely. One of their highest objectives is to ensure that even shareholders should have no say in choice of managers, let alone what are called stakeholders, workers and the community. That’s out of the question. But to quote the Wall Street Journal, some liberals are seeking to find “`a fair position’ that straddles the divide between companies and shareholders.” That’s a very interesting phrase, the divide between companies and the people who own the companies, the shareholders. But they’re right. They’re recognizing the decision of the courts a century ago that the corporation should be identified with the management; the shareholders are irrelevant, just like the rest of the public.
Well, it’s true that there was a federal stimulus, and even though it was much too small, did have an effect. It’s estimated it saved about two million jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But the perception of the Joe Stacks that it was a bust has a basis. Over a third of government spending is by states, and the decline in state spending approximated the federal stimulus. So the aggregate fiscal expenditure stimulus was flat. There was no stimulus. That’s according to a study, recent study, by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the standard source of economic information.
Well, the center is clearly not holding, and those who are harmed are once again shooting themselves in the foot. The immediate consequence in Massachusetts was to provide another vote to block the appointment of a pro-union voice at the National Labor Relations Board, which has been virtually defunct since Reagan’s successful war against working people. Well, that’s what can be expected in the absence of constructive alternatives.
Well, are there constructive alternatives? Take a look at the industrial heartland, in Ohio, where General Motors, among others, continues to close plants. There’s one of the few journalists in the United States who pays any attention to labor issues, Louis Uchitelle of the New York Times. He reported recently from the scene of one recently closed plant. He writes that President Obama “never sought to reopen the factory even after the federal government became controlling shareholder in GM during the auto bailout," so they could do what they wanted. What Obama has done instead is to "try to ease some of the pain by sending an ambassador as a salve for the community’s wounds, offer[ing] hope" — remember that — "and aid.” The aid is suggestions which can’t be implemented. Meanwhile, there’s another ambassador, who he doesn’t mention, the Secretary of Transportation Roy LaHood, and that other ambassador is in Spain. He’s offering federal stimulus money to Spanish firms to produce the high-speed rail facilities that the US badly needs and that could surely be produced by the highly skilled work force that’s reduced to penury in Ohio, while Obama shuts down the factories. That’s Joe Stack’s experience in Harrisburg again.
In 1999, LaHood, who was then a Republican congressman, introduced a bill that would have provided federal funding for transportation infrastructure. It would have authorized the Treasury to provide $72 billion a year in interest-free loans to state and local governments for capital investments. That includes investments in transportation, in transportation infrastructure. And interestingly, his bill called for, not borrowing the money, but using US notes. That’s much as Abraham Lincoln did to finance the Civil War and as FDR did during the Great Depression. Well, that was 1999. Today LaHood is using federal stimulus money to obtain contracts in Spain for the same purpose. It’s another sign of how the center has been disappearing in recent years, the past thirty years.
Well, the radical imagination should suggest an answer. The factory in question, and many others, could be taken over by the workforce with the support of — that would, of course, require the support of the communities that are left desolate, and in fact the rest of us. And they could be converted to production of high-speed rail facilities and other badly needed goods. Now, I said "radical imagination," but the idea is not particularly radical. In the nineteenth century, it was intuitively obvious to New England workers — quoting them, quoting their papers — that “those who work in the mills should own them,” and the idea that wage labor differed from slavery only in that it was temporary was so common that it was even a slogan of Lincoln’s Republican Party. Well, during the recent years of financialization and deindustrialization, there have been repeated efforts to implement worker and community takeover of closing plants. A few have succeeded, but not most. The ideas have immediate moral appeal to the affected workforce and the communities, and they should be quite feasible with sufficient public support. And they would be very far-reaching in their implications.
Well, for the radical imagination to be rekindled and to lead the way out of this desert, what is needed is people who will work to sweep away the mists of carefully contrived illusion, reveal the stark reality, and also to be directly engaged in popular struggles that they sometimes help galvanize. So what is needed, in short, is the late Howard Zinn. Terrible loss. Well, there won’t be another Howard Zinn, but we can take to heart his praise for “the countless small actions of unknown people” that lie at the roots of the great moments of history, the countless Joe Stacks who are destroying themselves, and maybe the world, when they could be leading the way to a better future.
AMY GOODMAN: MIT professor, author, activist, Noam Chomsky, world-renowned linguist and political dissident, speaking at Pace University in New York on March 21st, addressing more than a thousand people at the Left Forum.