The Lateral State of America

March 1st, 2013

Interview with Noam Chomsky, published on Occupied Times, by OT, February 27, 2013.

… OT: After Hurricane Sandy, New York City seemed to turn into an authoritative vacuum. Nobody expected much help from the feds. Do you think that Occupy Sandy can capitalise on that feeling? 

  • Noam Chomsky: The trouble is, it is a double-edged sword, because to the extent that Sandy or other citizens efforts are effective, they reduce the pressure on the federal government to stand up and do what it is supposed to do. That is a trap you want to be able to avoid. There also ought to be pressure on the feds to say: “You guys are supposed to be doing this.”

OT: So, Occupy Sandy and these various movements that have come out in the last year, they are double-edged in the sense that they alleviating the pressure we should put on [governments], but they are also desired responses in many ways.

  • NC: What ways? The trouble with saying “the government backs off” is that it only feeds the libertarians. The wealthy and the corporate sector are delighted to have government back off, because then they get more power. Suppose you were to develop a voluntary system, a community type, a mutual support system that takes care of social security – the wealthy sectors would be delighted.

OT: Absolutely, so it’s an interesting dilemma. The idea of mutual aid is very prevalent within Occupy Sandy. Because of the failure of government responses, it has resulted in this thing that can potentially be used against us in lots of ways.

  • NC: It’s difficult. In principle you are doing what a lot of communities ought to be doing. An organised community is just a government – in a democratic society at least, thus not in ours. Your problem is the effectiveness of the whole doctrinal system which has undermined any belief in democracy. You see it on the front page of every newspaper. Why is there a fuss now about raising taxes? In a democratic society, you would have the opposite pressure to raise taxes, because you appreciate taxes, taxes are what we pay for the things we decide to do. But if the government is a big alien force, we don’t want them to steal our money, so we’re against taxes.

OT: The idea of taxation seems so thoroughly demonised, even though it obviously results in things that everybody takes for granted.

  • NC: I think the demonisation is a consequence of the feeling that the government is not simply all of us formulating and carrying out our plans. If that’s what the government was, people wouldn’t object to taxes.

OT: There’s a lot of spillover from that sentiment – taxation and its implications for the average individual – to what we are seeing in terms of attacks on labour unions, like what just happened in Michigan.

  • NC: Its been going on for a 150 years, and it’s a very business-driven society today. In every society business hates labour, but the United States is run by businesses to an unusual degree. It has a very violent labour history. Several times in the last century, labour has been practically destroyed, just through violence, government violence, business violence. Strikers were being murdered in the United States in the late 1930s, and in other countries for decades … //

… OT: We were trying to think that if we had to describe Occupy Wall Street and the protests of the last year in a very succinct kind of way, it would probably be based on the idea that for generations prior there was a sense of working class solidarity and the idea of having collective power.

  • NC: You’re right, I thought the most important contribution of the Occupy movement was to recreate this mutual support system which was lacking in society. But it has this dual character: You have to figure out ways to do it which don’t undermine the broader conception of solidarity. ‘Actual solidarity’ is the slogan of the labour movement – well, it used to be.

OT: With that in mind, if Strike Debt is taking this approach where it’s focusing on debt, the commonality is that we’re not all workers, but we’re all debtors. Would you say that this is a rallying point?

  • NC: Sure. There are many points of commonality among people, say… schools. I don’t have kids who go to school, I suppose you don’t either, but nevertheless, many of us, we’re committed to making sure kids go to school. We’re part of that community and lots of other communities.

OT: But it’s much easier to say, “you’re a worker, you sell your labour for a wage.” It’s much easier to say that than it is to say: “You owe a debt and you have a solidarity to this person who also has debt.” How do you articulate that bond of solidarity?

  • NC: That’s the obvious point of contact. That’s the way health organising ought to work: Everybody is going to face health problems.

OT: It’s obvious that there is a need for that kind of thinking. But I’m not sure that it’s so obvious that you could communicate it to people and get people out on the street and organising amongst themselves.

  • NC: Well, you know, it certainly happened in other places. Again, Canada is not that different but at least it had something of that concept of solidarity. That’s how they got a national health system. Actually, one of the amazing things in Michigan is how the unions were never able to get across the point that even the concept ‘right to work’ is a lie. It’s ‘right to scrounge’. It has got nothing to do with work, but they could never get it across. When you mention that to people they say “yeah, I never thought of it”.
  • They don’t know what a scam it is to even call it “right to work.” That should have been a major educational issue, just like with pensions for public workers. They should have said: ‘Pension cuts mean that they cut back your wages’. Or take when Obama froze wages for federal workers and it was praised across the board. He was raising taxes – and this is right in the middle of saying ‘You’re not allowed to raise taxes’. A pay freeze for federal workers is identical with a tax on federal workers. Almost nobody pointed it out. We’re just losing a lot of opportunities
  • The same thing is to be done about debt, as I’m sure you’re doing it. A lot of the debt is just totally illegitimate. Take student debt. There’s no economic basis for it, it is just a tactic of control. You can prove that there’s no economic basis. Other countries don’t have it. Poor countries don’t have it, rich countries don’t have it, it exists only in the US – so it can’t be economically necessary. The United States was a much poorer country in the 1950’s, much poorer, but it had basically free education.

OT: Sure, the NHS in the UK was founded after World War II when the debt was far greater in proportion to the nation’s wealth.

  • NC: Even in the US, which came out of the war very rich, it was nowhere near as rich as it is today. But the GI bill gave us free education. Yes it was selective: only whites, very few women, but it was free education for a huge amount of people who would have never gone to school. In the 1940s, when I went to college, I went to an IVY league school, it was $100 tuition. That’s a poor country compared to today’s standards

(full interview text).

(Noam Chomsky’s latest book, Occupy (Chomsky book), is available from Zuccotti Park Press as part of the Occupied Media Pamphlet series).

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