Beginning in the 1960s, with his manifesto against the Vietnam War, American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), Chomsky has steadily built a prolific body of work that interrogates the deceit of the powerful and illuminates the promise of democratic revolt. His classics include Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), an analysis of the corporate bias of the commercial press co-authored with Edward S. Herman; Profit Over People (1999), one of the earliest and most cogent exercises in demolishing the logic of neoliberalism; and 9-11 (2001), a pamphlet that amplified a rare voice of reason during the jingoistic fervor for war that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
His latest book, Consequences of Capitalism: Manufacturing Discontent and Resistance (2020) (co-authored with Marv Waterstone, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Arizona), consists mainly of lectures they gave to their students in a course called “What Is Politics?” At a moment of converging crises and political upheaval, Consequences of Capitalism provides essential support for activists and intellectuals as they try to envision a freer and fairer world.
Until 2017, Chomsky was a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he is often credited as one of the founders of modern linguistics. Of all the assessments of Chomsky’s unique career in scholarship and activism, Irish singer/songwriter Foy Vance might have summarized it best: “If you’re quiet and you’re sick of institution baby / Noam Chomsky is a soft revolution.”
I recently interviewed Chomsky over Zoom about his latest book and a wide variety of related sociopolitical issues.
DAVID MASCIOTRA: Did your and Marv Waterstone’s decision to publish the lectures from your course “What Is Politics?” derive from a sense of needing to return to fundamentals, perhaps due to the convergence of crises we are currently experiencing?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Marv and I felt that the content of the book, which does begin with essentials, like the nature of presupposed “common sense” — where people get their ideas and beliefs from — goes on to reach things that are very urgent and critical today. We based this on our own sense of things, and the reactions from the two class cohorts. One is undergraduate students at the University of Arizona, and the other is community people, older people. The two groups interact, and judging from their reactions, both seemed to find it valuable and instructive. That was encouragement enough for us to put it together, and there is material that goes beyond the lectures, of course. It seemed worth doing, and the reactions we’ve had so far reinforce that conclusion.
What do you believe is a prevalent misconception among Americans in answer to the simple question “What is politics?” And how would you correct that misconception?
Well, if this course was taught by a mainstream instructor, politics would be what is taught in a civics course: how the rules are in the Senate and House, who introduces legislation, who votes on it, the nuts and bolts of the workings of the formal political system. From our point of view, politics is what happens in the streets and what happens in corporate boardrooms. The latter overwhelmingly dominates the shaping and framing of what happens in the political system. The former, what goes on in the streets — and I mean that metaphorically, not just the actual streets, but political education, organization, political action among the general population — is what shifts the Overton Window, the range of things that are discussed and considered. Basically, it is a class war: the boardrooms versus the streets. That’s obviously oversimplifying, but there is truth to that perspective. We try to fill that out, make it less oversimplified, and show how it works.
One of the simple but profound statements in the book is that the “problem isn’t individual, but institutional.” Mainstream political discussion tends to obsess over individuals rather than institutions. There are many Americans who are angry about politics but aren’t exactly sure why or how to direct their rage. Is part of that because — as much as, say, Biden is preferable to Trump — the overall problem isn’t individual, it’s institutional?
There are differences, which are significant, but basically institutions place tight constraints on what can happen. Let’s take the most urgent issue that has arisen in human history: the destruction of the environment. If we don’t take care of that in the next couple of decades, nothing else matters. We’ll be off on an irreversible course of self-destruction. Well, there are institutions and individuals. There’s the CEO of ExxonMobil. There’s Jamie Dimon, who runs JPMorgan Chase. They make decisions, and the decisions to some extent reflect their own goals, priorities, sentiments, and so on. But they are narrowly constrained. So, for example, the CEO of ExxonMobil surely knows as much about global warming as you or I do, probably a lot more, at least if he reads the materials that come to him from his own scientists and engineers, and they’ve known it for 50 years. ExxonMobil scientists were in the lead, back before many people were warning about the extraordinary dangers of heating in the environment. In fact, when James Hansen, a famous geoscientist, made a speech in 1988 warning of the threat of global warming, putting it into the public realm, ExxonMobil responded with significant efforts to undermine the idea that there is a threat. They didn’t do it stupidly. They didn’t deny it, because that would have been easily refuted. What they did is try to develop doubt — “Maybe we don’t know,” “We haven’t looked into clouds,” “Let’s put off any big decisions so we can have a richer society,” “We might have to do something about it a long time from now,” etc. They all knew that was nonsense. They all knew that if we don’t do something about it quickly, we are in severe danger.
Back to your question. Suppose a different individual CEO came in and said, “Let’s tell the population the truth. Let’s tell them that we are destroying the prospects for organized human life on earth. Let’s tell them that we are going to stop doing it. We’re going to move to renewable energy, because we care about your grandchildren and ours.” He would be out in five minutes. That’s part of the institutional structure. If you aren’t maximizing profit and market share, you aren’t going to stand. Of course, there is a point to criticizing individuals, but the real point is that, within the system, they don’t have a lot of choices. Therefore, we have to ask, “What is it about the structure of our institutions that is leading us in this direction?”
Let’s take another current example, right in the headlines. We are in the midst of a pandemic. It is well understood, across the board, that unless vaccines are provided quickly to the poor, suffering areas of the world, such as parts of Africa, it is going to be a disaster, not only for them, but for us. Mutations will take place. It is unpredictable, but some might be lethal. They’ll get back to Europe and the United States, and we’ll all be in deep trouble. So, we have a choice. We can work on a people’s vaccine, sending the vaccine freely and openly to the people of Africa. That’s good for them, of course, but it will also protect us from future disaster. That’s one choice. The other choice is to protect the profits of the major pharmaceutical corporations, already loaded with profits because of the highly protectionist elements of the mislabeled “free trade agreements.” Which are we pursuing? Not just us, but Europe as well. The idea is you work for yourself, for the system of power within your society, and if it kills people elsewhere, that’s someone else’s problem. That is the way the institutions work.
In fact, if you look at the details, it is pretty shocking. Imagine yourself a rational observer from outer space watching this species. Take a look at the United States, which has one of the best — or least bad — records on the vaccine. There happens to be a surplus of vaccines in the United States, because the FDA has not yet authorized the use of AstraZeneca, and there’s a large extra supply. So, Biden did the sensible thing. He dispensed them to other countries. Which countries? The first one is Canada, which is the world’s champion in storing unused vaccines that it will never be able to use because it has hoarded them way beyond any potential use. So, that’s the first recipient. The second recipient is Mexico, as part of a bribe to violate international law and minimal ethics by keeping desperate refugees away from our border. This isn’t because Biden is a bad person. He seems like a nice guy. It is just the way that institutions structure decisions. That said, there are different forces operating on how decisions are structured. There are the corporate boardrooms, and there are the activists in the streets. Who is going to win? That’s the issue, and it’s not subtle.
Go back to the beginning of this 40-year assault on the general population called “neoliberalism.” It was pretty obvious at the start. You may not be old enough to have heard it, but I’m sure you’ve read about Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981. The punchline was, “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Okay, so if government is not the solution, who is the solution? Where will decisions be made if not in government? Does it take a genius to figure this out? They’ll be made in corporate boardrooms. So, in other words, we shift decisions from government — which whatever its flaws, is, at least, partially responsive to the general population — to private tyrannies, which are totally unaccountable to the public, and which are dedicated, explicitly — there’s no secret about it — to maximizing what’s called “shareholder value”: dividends, benefits to management. That’s their task. The name for that in the United States is “libertarianism.”
All of these are ways in which, to go back to my and Marv’s course, “common sense” is instituted. We happen to start with Gramsci. We go back to earlier sources, even David Hume’s “Of the First Principles of Government.” These themes run through, and it is understood that you have to impose common sense. You have to manufacture consent. As progressive democratic theorists have argued, “The people are too stupid and ignorant to do what is in their own interest. So, we the responsible men have to make decisions for them.” Of course, the intellectuals and the responsible men are actually following the dictates of private power. They don’t like that part of the story. They like to see themselves as running the show.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen it over and over. During the Kennedy and Johnson years, the technocratic and meritocratic elite, my colleagues from Harvard and MIT, were flocking down to Washington to show how the world should be run. Well, in Vietnam, we saw what came of that. It was not unpredictable. Those of us in the streets were warning of it all along.
Now, it is the same. Neoliberalism, whatever is in the minds of people who advocate for it, maybe they don’t even think about it, is an explicit effort, and it is evident from the structure, to hand power to private institutions, which are dedicated to self-enrichment. It would be obvious to a 10-year-old, even if economists don’t see it, because they have some theory that says it leads to “Pareto optimality.” Whatever. We have 40 years of experience, and we can see what’s happened. It was totally predictable. To give you just one example, you may have seen it, but a couple of months ago the RAND Corporation did a detailed study trying to determine how much wealth was transferred from the working class and middle class to the superrich during the 40 neoliberal years. They estimated $47 trillion. Some call it “transfer.” “Robbery” is a better term. Meanwhile, the top 0.1 percent of the population doubled their share of total wealth from 10 percent to 20 percent. Take a look at the effects: the majority of the population gets by paycheck to paycheck. Real wages have stagnated for 40 years. The gains of productivity growth concentrate in very few pockets. This leads to what you mentioned before — unfocused anger. Is it surprising? People aren’t told what is really robbing them. Instead, they are told that it is immigrants, Blacks, some pedophiles from outer space, if you believe QAnon. Anything but what is actually happening. That’s another mode of manufacturing consent and establishing “common sense.”
The job of people like you, activists on the streets, people who are trying to change the world for the better, is to dismantle all of this stuff. It is to get people to see what is not that far from right in front of their eyes. None of it is very profound. You can talk about it to high school students. They often understand it better than graduate students at major universities, who have been more indoctrinated.
As we discuss in the book, this is a point George Orwell made. Something that not many people read but should is the introduction to Animal Farm. Animal Farm is seen as safe, because it is a satire of the totalitarian enemy. The introduction, which was not initially published, is addressed to the people of England. Orwell warns not to feel too self-righteous, because in free England, unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. He calls it “literary censorship in England,” and one of the means he describes is simply a good education. You go to the best schools, like Oxford and Cambridge (similar to Harvard and Yale), and have it instilled in you that there are certain things that it just wouldn’t do to say, or even think about.
It is funny the way it works. A couple of days ago I had a talk with a group of Latin American activists. They were from all over Latin America. Well, just for fun, I read for them a column that appeared in The New York Times that day by one of their top foreign affairs specialists. It was about how the United States has been committed to the rule of law, human rights, and democracy. They just burst out laughing. They’re living in the real world, not the world of US intellectual culture.
For a long time, you’ve discussed and written about the responsibility of intellectuals. What is the responsibility of a genuine intellectual with a serious commitment to telling the truth on issues of consequence, as opposed to the Kennedy and Johnson advisors who planned and directed the war in Vietnam, the so-called “best and brightest,” a phrase most people now don’t realize David Halberstam meant as ironic?
It’s pretty simple, like most things. If telling the truth about important matters is significant, that’s what you do. What happens to you? It’s usually not pretty. Let’s go back to classical Greece. There was a guy who was “corrupting the youth” by asking too many questions. He drank the hemlock, not the people who were not asking the questions. Go back to the biblical record. There were people who were condemning the acts of the evil kings, and calling for justice and mercy for widows and orphans. What happened to them? They were imprisoned, driven into the desert, bitterly condemned. Many centuries later, they’re honored and called “prophets.” We might want to remember that the first “self-hating Jew,” a common term now for Jews who are critical of Israel, was the prophet Elijah. He was called before King Ahab, who was the epitome of evil in the Bible. Ahab condemned Elijah as a “hater of Israel,” because he was criticizing the acts of the evil king. That’s the first “self-hating Jew.”
This runs through history. The term “intellectual” in the modern sense pretty much came into use in the Dreyfus trial in France, during the late 19th century. The Dreyfusards, Émile Zola and others, were condemning the atrocious court case against Alfred Dreyfus as an antisemitic attack against an innocent person. We honor the Dreyfusards, but not then. Zola had to flee France for his life. He and the others were all bitterly condemned, pretty much the way “the best and the brightest” condemned antiwar activists. They said, “What do you bunch of activists, and students, and writers have to say about anything? How dare you criticize the august state?” The antiwar activists were the people that McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor for Kennedy and Johnson (and former Harvard dean), called “wild men in the wings.” This was in 1968, when there was already a major antiwar movement. He wrote an article for Foreign Affairs in which he essentially said, “Yes, we’ve done some things wrong. Everyone makes mistakes. It is perfectly legitimate to question our tactics, but then there are people who have the audacity to question our objectives and motives: Wild men in the wings.” So, the “wild men in the wings” were those who looked into the institutional structure that led us to carry out major war crimes, crimes for which Nazis were hanged at Nuremberg. Like the Dreyfusards, like Socrates in classical Greece.
This is a much freer country, of course. Most of us, or at least those with relative privilege, didn’t have to flee for our lives, but some did. If you were a Black activist, like Fred Hampton, you could have been murdered by the FBI.
To go back to your question: What does a genuine intellectual do? Tell the truth about important things to the people who have to hear it, and expect to suffer the consequences.
Do you think that what we might loosely refer to as “intellectual culture,” even on the left, has become too detached from working people and ordinary life in the United States? I’ve heard you reminisce about your childhood, your uncle’s newsstand and the radical leftists who would congregate there, and how professors and writers would regularly comingle with working and poor people.
It wasn’t just where I grew up. Intellectuals were teaching courses in the labor movement. They were writing books for the general population — books like Mathematics for the Million, written by a very good mathematician. Science for the People is that type of organization. It was part of the task of the intellectual to be part of the activist, working-class movements. It hasn’t disappeared. We still have things like that, but much less so now. Science for the People is still active, but through no fault of their own, they have much less reach in our society than they did during the activist periods.
A large part of the reason was the labor movement. The labor movement was virtually destroyed in the 1920s. The United States has a very violent labor history. To a large extent, the US is a business-run society. By the 1920s, the labor movement was crushed, but it revived in the 1930s. It took a couple of years after the Depression, but by 1934 and ’35, you were starting to get CIO organizing, militant labor actions, and they had enthusiasm and support. As a kid, I could see it. My own family was first-generation immigrant, mostly working class. It was a big part of their lives. My aunts, for example, were seamstresses working for the garment industry. It was pretty rotten work, but they were members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. That was part of a rich life. It wasn’t just some defense of a job. It was also cultural activities, social activities, a week in the Catskills. It was life. In that context, you had intellectuals deeply involved. We’ve gone a long way away from that. The Democrats, basically, gave up on the working class in the 1970s. The last gasp was the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill of 1978. Carter didn’t veto it, but he watered it down so much that it was meaningless. The Democrats decided they didn’t have much use for the working class, and became the party of affluent professionals. It is now changing.
The Republicans, who are the party of the superrich, understood in the 1970s that you can’t get votes by coming to people and saying, “I want to rob you, and hand everything you have over to the rich and corporate sector.” Somehow that doesn’t work. You have to turn to what are called “cultural issues,” meaning everything but what matters for your life. So, Paul Weyrich, one of the main Republican strategists, by the mid-1970s got a flash of insight and realized that, if the Republicans pretend, stress “pretend,” to be opposed to abortion, they’ll pick up the evangelical vote and the Northern Catholic vote. So, they all switched on a dime. Reagan had been a strong supporter of a woman’s right to choose. As governor of California, he signed one of the strongest bills protecting it. He then became a passionate opponent of abortion. George H. W. Bush, who was supposed to have had some character, did the same. It became the mantra of the Republican Party. If you look into the details, it’s pretty grotesque. In fact, what the party platform is doing is increasing abortion, and they know it. When you undermine family planning, block contraceptives, cut health care, defund Planned Parenthood, then you increase abortions, especially illegal and dangerous ones. It doesn’t matter to them, because this is a way to pick up votes.
It’s an extension of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. That was their first big breakthrough. Nixon was a terrible racist himself, and he realized that by not so subtly advocating racism he could pick up the Southern vote. Reagan, who was a dedicated racist, just did it as second nature.
Now, take guns. The whole gun culture in the United States is mostly manufactured. It is PR. There never was a gun culture in the 19th century. There were just farmers who had old muskets to drive coyotes away. There was a huge propaganda campaign, actually the first PR campaign, concocting fantasies about the Wild West — stuff I grew up with as a kid. You want to be Wyatt Earp, a fast draw, all that nonsense. Nothing like that ever really existed, but it was built up, and the bottom line was, “You better buy your son a fancy Winchester rifle or he won’t be a real man.” It sort of worked. It was picked up by the tobacco companies. They did the same thing — the Marlboro man, tough cowboy riding to the rescue. It is a big part of the culture, all fabricated, and it developed a gun culture. Then, in 2008, the Heller decision of the Supreme Court turned it into holy writ. It reversed a century of interpretation of the Second Amendment, and said, “Yeah, everybody has to have an assault rifle.” Now, if you ask people what is in the Constitution, about the only thing they know is the Second Amendment, “Our Second Amendment rights.” For Republicans, this is big. This is the way to pick up votes. If you kill a lot of people, it’s not our business. Killing huge numbers of people in Central America where American guns flow is someone else’s problem. We have to get power for our corporate friends, the guys we serve. So, that’s the Republican Party. It was turned into a cartoon by Trump, but it was like that for a long time. The working class is hung out to dry.
Now, you are right about the left. The left has not filled that gap. It has moved onto things that are important and worthwhile, what is called “identity politics” — race, gender, sexual orientation. These are all important, but they shouldn’t come at the expense of fighting the class war, protecting and participating with the people who are getting it in the neck under the neoliberal regime. The left can and should do it all. So, what you say is quite right.
On the subject of class war, and the streets versus the boardroom, you use a term in the book, “capitalist realism.” I’d like to you talk about that, but I wonder if you could do so in response to something I recently heard from Al Gore when he was asked if capitalism is at the root of the climate crisis. The former vice president said:
I think the current form of capitalism we have is desperately in need of reform. The short-term outlook is often mentioned, but the way that we measure what is of value to us is also at the heart of the crisis of modern capitalism. Now, capitalism is at the base of every successful economy and it balances supply and demand. It unlocks the higher fraction of human potential, and it’s not going anywhere. But it needs to be reformed, because the way we measure what’s valuable now ignores so-called “negative externalities” like pollution. It also ignores positive externalities like investments in education, health care, mental health care, family services. It ignores the depletion of resources like groundwater and topsoil, and the web of living species. And it ignores the distribution of incomes and net worth. So that we have — when GDP goes up, people cheer — two percent, three percent, wow, four percent, and they think, “Great.” But it is accompanied by vast increases in pollution, chronic underinvestment in public goods, the depletion of irreplaceable natural resources, and the worst inequality crisis we’ve seen in more than 100 years that is threatening the future of both capitalism and democracy. So, we have to change it.
I found that interesting, because his criticism of capitalism resembles much of what you’ve said.
Right, but he embeds within that criticism what you refer to as “capitalist realism.” The idea that there is no way out, there’s no real alternative, and therefore we are stuck with it.
I can’t say the exact meaning of his words, but I assume that when he says, “unlocks the higher fraction of human potential,” he means that capitalism gives us all the wonderful things we have, like computers, the internet, and all the great achievements of modern industrial society. That’s Econ 101. Is it true? Well, let’s take a look.
Let’s take what we’re now using — computers, internet, satellites, microelectronics, GPS. Where did it all come from? A lot of it came from the research labs where I was working in the 1950s and ’60s: public institutions funded by the taxpayer, doing the hard, innovative, creative work, which led, finally, to the point where Steve Jobs could sell the personal computer in 1977. It went private after about 30 years of extensive work, mostly in the public sector under public funding. The internet was developed in the public sector, and then handed over to private capital. There’s nothing new about this.
I do have one criticism of the “capitalist realism” idea. The slogan for it is, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” I’d like to revise that. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the beginning of capitalism. We don’t have an actual capitalist system. Business would never permit it. A capitalist system would self-destruct in no time. So, business, from way back, has always called on a powerful state to protect it from the ravages of the market, which is for the poor, not for them, and to subsidize it in all sorts of ways. So, every developed country has some variety of state capitalism. Some have overt, direct industrial policy. We have more indirect, slightly more subtle forms of industrial policy. That is how it works. Since World War II, it became overwhelming, but it goes further back. In the 19th century, the railroads were the main part of industrial capitalism. They were much too complicated for private business to work. So, the Army Corps of Engineers ran it, and handed over the profits to private companies. What was called the American system of manufacturing — interchangeable parts, quality control — became the wonder of the world. It was developed in government arsenals, and for good reasons. There, it doesn’t matter what the expenses are, just like developing computers and the internet. It doesn’t matter what the expenses are, you just do it, and ultimately private capital will profit from it. Steve Jobs was a smart guy, but he was living off the creative, risky work that was done mostly in the public sector. We don’t have capitalism. We have a form of state capitalism.
Well, do we have to have state capitalism? Or could there be a system in which people don’t have to spend their waking lives as subjects of a master living under totalitarian control? That’s called “having a job.” “Having a job” means that, for most of your life, you’re following orders from somebody. For 2,000 years, that was considered an utter abomination. From ancient Rome all the way through the 19th century, it was considered such an obvious attack on human rights and dignity that the slogan of the Republican Party, under Abraham Lincoln, was that wage slavery was no different from slavery, except that it is temporary. This wasn’t just idealism. It was the picture of the working-class movement — a major movement that developed in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere. It took different forms in different countries. Here, it was based on a very popular movement of working people in Eastern Massachusetts, young women from the farms driven into the mills called “factory girls” — very militant, very articulate, and very educated. They didn’t have formal education, but they were reading Adam Smith and David Ricardo. They didn’t know Marx, but they were discussing interesting ideas about how, if labor is stolen from the worker, that’s robbery. Whatever labor goes into the goods we are producing is okay, but if some other guy, like an owner or investor, is taking part of it, that’s illegitimate. People who work in the mills should own them and run them.
There was a genuine populist movement, not what populism is today. In the late 19th century, it was a movement of American farmers, starting in Texas and going through Oklahoma and Kansas, and so on, and it was very radical. They wanted to be free of Northeastern bankers who loaned them the money for the seeds and charged usurious interest. They said, “We want to get out of that. We want to do it ourselves. We’ll have our own cooperative banks, our own market system, and a cooperative commonwealth.” They started to link up with the major workers movement — the Knights of Labor. It was the most radical movement in American history. It was crushed by force — state force, corporate force. This is a very violent, class-run country.
Can we go back to that sensibility? Can people understand that being the serf of a master is not the greatest thing in life? Maybe.
That returns us to the power of the streets. We’ve seen a wonderful and encouraging explosion of activism in the past year. But perhaps you find the same thing that I do. I find that my students aren’t apathetic, but those that are withdrawn are typically hopeless, because they feel they are powerless.
Well then, what have you said to your students who feel powerless, and what would you say to a student, or anyone else, who stumbles upon this interview, and feels powerless?
First of all, in the class that Marv Waterstone and I teach, every week we bring in outside people who are activists working on some concrete thing. They talk about the work they are doing, and the work that can be done. In earlier years when I was at MIT, I co-taught a similar course. The Institute didn’t really like that I was doing it, but they were kind enough to give us a room. We brought in people who were local activists. That’s what you can do: bring in people who show what you can do. One of the best ways of control is to impose hopelessness, to make it seem like nothing can be done. Well, take a look at what people are achieving. In the class and the book, we talk about the triumph of activism. Look at what’s been done by the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement. It looked more hopeless then than it does now, and if you were involved, you were directly told it was hopeless. You were also told that it is none of your business.
One of the things we discuss is the liberal intellectuals and their conception of democracy: Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, and other great figures of liberal intellectual culture. Their point of view was typical of the ruling class: If people are too stupid and ignorant to know what they want, for their own benefit, we have to direct and control them. At the same time, the corporate system was describing itself as “soulful corporations” — people who are dedicated night and day to the common good. We’re seeing a revival of that now in the corporate sector. They know they are in trouble, and they are facing what they call “reputational risk.” The peasants are coming with pitchforks. So, now they say, “We have to be good citizens. We made mistakes. Now, we’re getting better. We’re going to serve you the way we used to.” It’s coming from major corporations, the Chamber of Commerce. We’re hearing it all over the place.
But this is a form that the class war takes: make people feel hopeless. Tell people, “You aren’t smart enough. Those guys are smart enough, not you. So, let them run things, and they are wonderful people dedicated to your welfare. You can trust them. You’re not smart enough, and even if you were, there’s nothing you can do. The power is too great.” Every organizer knows how to deal with this. What you find when you go to a community is that everyone feels hopeless. Then, you find some feasible task. I’ll give you a real case. There was a neighborhood of downtrodden immigrants. A group of mothers were organized to get a traffic light at a dangerous intersection to make things safer for their children. They were willing to try, and they succeeded. So, they realized there are things they can do. That’s organizing.
At your school where you teach, one thing you could do is find out whether the university invests in fossil fuels. If they do, let’s see if we can do something about it. First, you can learn about it. You can help students learn why they are doing it. Then, organize them to do something about it. I’ve seen it happen many times. Start on something understandable and feasible, and get to work on it. Achieve it, and you’ve broken through the hopelessness.
Many people have wildly oscillated from despair to hope and back again many times over the past year. The right-wing is getting increasingly dangerous, and brazenly antidemocratic. The Atlantic, one of those mainstream intellectual publications, is predicting that we are entering a new era of progressive government. What’s your sense of the lay of the land between the rabidly antisocialist right-wing and the Democratic Party, which as you said earlier is beginning to show some promising signs of positive change?
It is a very serious issue. We can see it gestating right in front of our eyes. The Republican Party leadership, as reported in some of the major journals, is salivating with joy over the prospect that the Democrats might do something moderately humane, like instead of putting children in concentration camps at the border, they might try to help them a little. Instead of insanely increasing tensions with Iran, they might try to ameliorate them. They might try to do something on climate. They love it, because then they can mobilize the people they’ve turned into raging monsters, and get them to attack these communist rats who want the country flooded with rapists and murderers so that the white race suffers genocide. You know the whole story. That’s the Republican Party. It’s not a political party anymore. It’s very dangerous.
There are other parts of it that are just as dangerous. For example, just recently, Pew Research Center came out with one of its regular polls on major issues facing the country. They had a choice of 15 major issues, and people were asked to rank them. It was divided between Republicans and Democrats. Take a look at Republicans. At the very bottom — 13 percent — the most important question that has ever arisen in human history: global warming. They don’t call it that. They call it “climate change,” which is more neutral. But only 13 percent think that is a major problem. It is only the most important problem that’s ever arisen — the question of survival. Then you go to the problems they are most concerned about — illegal immigration, the deficit. This is the result of very effective propaganda. Imposing common sense, manufacturing consent, year after year — turning people into the kind of people that supported the Nazis. Going back to my childhood, I remember them right here in the United States. These were the people who wanted to get rid of the Jews, because “the Jews are destroying civilization.”
If people are isolated, atomized, with no support groups, no involvement in constructive activities, they are prey to this attack on their moral and intellectual integrity. Go back to what I said, the Republican leadership is overjoyed at the moves toward some humane behavior on the part of Democrats. They know, especially with Trump who is a genius at this, that they can organize and mobilize crazed groups who really believe they need their guns to save the white race from genocide. You can drive people to that.
There’s going to be a lot of work to overcome it, but it can be done. One of the things that happened in 1930s labor organizing was that it managed to overcome very serious racism. Whites and Blacks were working together to organize steel workers. It can be done again, but it isn’t going to be easy. The labor movement has been crushed through bipartisan policies. With the Democrats, it was abandonment, and with the Republicans, it was harsh attack. As you said before, the left has not compensated for it. That’s a big job, but it can happen.
Take a look at what happened after the murder of George Floyd. People of all races marched together in the streets. The marches had two-thirds public approval. Martin Luther King Jr. never reached anything like that support. You can nurture that and develop it.
David Masciotra is the author of five books, including I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters (I.B. Tauris, 2020). He is a political columnist with Salon and has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.
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