"Democracy Uprising" in the U.S.A.?: Noam Chomsky on Wisconsin’s Resistance to Assault on Public Sector, the Obama-Sanctioned Crackdown on Activists, and the Distorted Legacy of Ronald Reagan
Democracy Now!, February 17, 2011
AMY GOODMAN: This month is the 15th anniversary of Democracy Now! on the air, and it’s a real privilege to have MIT professor, analyst, world-renowned political dissident, linguist, Noam Chomsky with us. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez, and we’ve been together for this whole 15 years, Juan. It’s really been quite an amazing journey.
As we talk about this revolution that’s rolling across the Middle East, we put out to our listeners and viewers on Facebook last night that, Noam, you were going to be in. And so, people were sending in their comments and questions. We asked, on Facebook and Twitter, to send us questions. Here is one of the questions.
RYAN ADSERIAS: Hello, Professor Chomsky. My name is Ryan Adserias, and I’m a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and also the child of a long line of working-class union folks. I don’t know if you’ve been noticing, but we’ve been holding a lot of protests and rallies here in our capital to protest Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to break collective bargaining rights that Wisconsin workers worked hard for over 50 years ago and have enjoyed ever since. We closed all the schools around here for tomorrow—today and tomorrow, actually. The teaching assistants here at the university are staging teach-outs. The undergraduates are walking out of class to show solidarity. And all of this is because our governor and governors all around the country are proposing legislation that’s going to end collective bargaining and really break the unions. I’ve also been noticing that there’s not a whole lot of national representation of our struggle and our movement, and it’s really been troubling me. So my question to you is, how exactly is it that we can get the attention of our national Democratic and progressive leaders to speak out against these measures and to help end union busting here in the United States?
AMY GOODMAN: That was a question from Ryan Adserias in Madison, Wisconsin, where more than 10,000—some say tens of thousands of people, teachers, students, are protesting in the Capitol building, schools closed, as Ryan said. So, from Manama to Madison, from Manama, Bahrain, to Madison, Wisconsin, Noam Chomsky?
NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s very interesting. The reason why you can’t get Democratic leaders to join is because they agree. They are also trying to destroy the unions. In fact, if you take a look at—take, say, the lame-duck session. The great achievement in the lame-duck session for which Obama is greatly praised by Democratic Party leaders is that they achieved bipartisan agreement on several measures. The most important one was the tax cut. And the issue in the tax cut—there was only one issue—should there be a tax cut for the very rich? The population was overwhelmingly against it, I think about two to one. There wasn’t even a discussion of it, they just gave it away. And the very same time, the less noticed was that Obama declared a tax increase for federal workers. Now, it wasn’t called a "tax increase"; it’s called a "freeze." But if you think for 30 seconds, a freeze on pay for a federal workers is fiscally identical to a tax increase for federal workers. And when you extend it for five years, as he said later, that means a decrease, because of population growth, inflation and so on. So he basically declared an increase in taxes for federal workers at the same time that there’s a tax decrease for the very rich.
And there’s been a wave of propaganda over the last couple of months, which is pretty impressive to watch, trying to deflect attention away from those who actually created the economic crisis, like Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, their associates in the government who—Federal Reserve and others—let all this go on and helped it. There’s a—to switch attention away from them to the people really responsible for the crisis—teachers, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, their huge pensions, their incredible healthcare benefits, Cadillac healthcare benefits, and their unions, who are the real villains, the ones who are robbing the taxpayer by making sure that policemen may not starve when they retire. And this is pretty amazing, like right in the middle of the Madison affair, which is critical.
The CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, got a $12.5 million bonus, and his base pay was more than tripled. Well, that means he—the rules of corporate governments have been modified in the last 30 years by the U.S. government to allow the chief executive officer to pretty much set their own salaries. There’s various ways in which this has been done, but it’s government policy. And one of the effects of it is—people talk about inequality, but what’s a little less recognized is that although there is extreme inequality, it’s mostly because of the top tiny fraction of the population, so like a fraction of one percent of the population, their wealth has just shot through the stratosphere. You go down to the—you know, the next 10 percent are doing pretty well, but it’s not off the spectrum. And this is by design.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times coverage of Madison?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, that was very interesting. In fact, I urge people to take a look at the February 12th issue of the New York Times, the big front-page headline, you know, banner headline, "Mubarak Leaves," its kind of subheadings say, "Army Takes Over." They’re about 60 years late on that; it took over in 1952, but—and it has held power ever since.
But then if you go to an inside page—I don’t know what page it is—there’s an article on the Governor of Wisconsin. And he’s pretty clear about what he wants to do. I mean, certainly he is aware of and senses this attack on public workers, on unions and so on, and he wants to be upfront, so he announced a sharp attack on public service workers and unions, as the questioner said, to ban collective bargaining, take away their pensions. And he also said that he’d call out the National Guard if there was any disruption about this. Now, that’s happening now to Wisconsin. In Egypt, public protests have driven out the president. There’s a lot of problems about what will happen next, but an overwhelming reaction there.
And I was—it was heartening to see that there are tens of thousands of people protesting in Madison day after day, in fact. I mean, that’s the beginning, maybe, of what we really need here: a democracy uprising. Democracy has almost been eviscerated. Take a look at the front-page headlines today, this morning, Financial Times at least. They predict—the big headline, the big story—that the next election is going to break all campaign spending records, and they predict $2 billion of campaign spending. Well, you know, a couple of weeks ago, the Obama administration selected somebody to be in charge of what they call "jobs." "Jobs" is a funny word in the English language. It’s the way of pronouncing an unpronounceable word. I’ll spell it: P-R-O-F-I-T-S. You’re not allowed to say that word, so the way you pronounce that is "jobs." The person he selected to be in charge of creating jobs is Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, which has more than half their workforce overseas. And, you know, I’m sure he’s deeply interested in jobs in the United States. But what he has is deep pockets, and also, not just him, but connections to the tiny sector of the ultra-rich corporate elite, which is going to provide that billion or billion-and-a-half dollars for the campaign. Well, that’s what’s going on.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to ask you about this whole issue of the assault on unions. Clearly, it has arisen in the last few months in a coordinated way. Here in New York State, all the major business people have gotten together, raised $10 million to begin an ad campaign, and they’re being supported by both the Democratic new governor, Andrew Cuomo, and as well as the Republican-Independent Mayor Bloomberg. But they seem to be going after the public sector unions after having essentially destroyed most of the private sector union movement in the United States. They realize that the public sector unions are still the only vibrant section of the American labor movement, so now they’re really going after them in particular. Yet, you’ve got these labor leaders who helped get Obama elected and who helped get Andy Cuomo elected, and they’re not yet making the stand in a strong enough way to mobilize people against these policies.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. There has been a huge attack against private sector unions. Actually, that’s been going on since the Second World War. After the Second World War, business was terrified about the radicalization of the country during the Depression and then the war, and it started right off—Taft-Hartley was 1947—huge propaganda campaigns to demonize unions. It really—and it continued until you get to the Reagan administration.
Reagan was extreme. Beginning of his administration, one of the first things was to call in scabs—hadn’t been done for a long time, and it’s illegal in most countries—in the air controller strike. Reagan essentially—by "Reagan," I mean his administration; I don’t know what he knew—but they basically told the business world that they’re not going to apply the labor laws. So, that means you can break unions any way you like. And in fact, the number of firing of union organizers, illegal firing, I think probably tripled during the Reagan years.
Then, in fact, by the early '90s, Caterpillar Corporation, first major industrial corporation, called in scabs to break a strike of industrial workers, UAW. That's—I think the only country that allowed that was South Africa. And then it spread.
When Clinton came along, he had another way of destroying unions. It’s called NAFTA. One of the predicted consequences of NAFTA, which in fact worked out, was it would be used as a way to undermine unions—illegally, of course. But when you have a criminal state, it doesn’t matter. So, there was actually a study, under NAFTA rules, that investigated illegal strike breaking organizing efforts by threats, illegal threats, to transfer to Mexico. So, if union organizers are trying to organize, you put up a sign saying, you know, "Transfer operation Mexico." In other words, you shut up, or you’re going to lose your jobs. That’s illegal. But again, if you have a criminal state, it doesn’t matter.
Well, by measures like this, private sector unions have been reduced to, I think, maybe seven percent of the workforce. Now, it’s not that workers don’t want to join unions. In fact, many studies of this, there’s a huge pool of workers who want to join unions, but they can’t. And they’re getting no support from the political system. And part of the reason, not all of it, is these $2 billion campaigns. Now, this really took off in the late '70s and the ’80s. You want to run for office, then you're going to have to dig into very deep pockets. And as the income distribution gets more and more skewed, that means you’re going to have to go after Jeffrey Immelt and Lloyd Blankfein, and so on and so forth, if you want to even be in office. Take a look at the 2008 campaign spending. Obama way outspent McCain. He was funded—his main source of funding was the financial institutions.
AMY GOODMAN: Now they’re saying he’s going to raise, Obama is going to raise $1 billion for the next campaign.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Yeah, and it’ll probably be more than that, because they’re predicting $2 billion for the whole campaign, and the incumbent usually has advantages.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam, we have to break. We’re going to come right back.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, world-renowned political dissident. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is Noam Chomsky. He has authored over a hundred books; his latest, Hopes and Prospects, among others.
Professor Chomsky, I want to ask you about former President Ronald Reagan. A very big deal is made of him now on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Last year President Obama signed legislation establishing a commission to mark the centennial.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: President Reagan helped, as much as any president, to restore a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that transcended politics, that transcended even the most heated arguments of the day.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, your response?
NOAM CHOMSKY: This deification of Reagan is extremely interesting and a very—it’s scandalous, but it tells a lot about the country. I mean, when Reagan left office, he was the most unpopular living president, apart from Nixon, even below Carter. If you look at his years in office, he was not particularly popular. He was more or less average. He severely harmed the American economy. When he came into office, the United States was the world’s leading creditor. By the time he left, it was the world’s leading debtor. He was fiscally totally irresponsible—wild spending, no fiscal responsibility. Government actually grew during the Reagan years.
He was also a passionate opponent of the free market. I mean, the way he’s being presented is astonishing. He was the most protectionist president in post-war American history. He essentially virtually doubled protective barriers to try to preserve incompetent U.S. management, which was being driven out by superior Japanese production.
During his years, we had the first major fiscal crises. During the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the New Deal regulations were still in effect, and that prevented financial crises. The financialization of the economy began to take off in the ’70s, but with the deregulation, of course you start getting crises. Reagan left office with the biggest financial crisis since the Depression: the home savings and loan.
I won’t even talk about his international behavior. I mean, it was just abominable. I mean, if we gained our optimism by killing hundreds of thousands of people in Central America and destroying any hope for democracy and freedom and supporting South Africa while it killed about a million-and-a-half people in neighboring countries, and on and on, if that’s the way we get back our optimism, we’re in bad trouble.
Well, what happened after Reagan left office is that there was the beginnings of an effort to carry out a kind of—this Reagan legacy, you know, to try to create from this really quite miserable creature some kind of deity. And amazingly, it succeeded. I mean, Kim Il-sung would have been impressed. The events that took place when Reagan died, you know, the Reagan legacy, this Obama business, you don’t get that in free societies. It would be ridiculed. What you get it is in totalitarian states. And I’m waiting to see what comes next. This morning, North Korea announced that on the birthday of the current god, a halo appeared over his birthplace. That will probably happen tomorrow over Reagan’s birthplace. But when we go in—I mean, this is connected with what we were talking about before. If you want to control a population, keep them passive, keep beating them over the head and let them look somewhere else, one way to do it is to give them a god to worship.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam, you’ve written about, over the years, COINTELPRO, FBI raids. We’re seeing that today. There’s almost no attention given to what we have focused on a good deal on Democracy Now!, from Minneapolis to Chicago, the FBI raids, activists being subpoenaed to speak about in various cases.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Yeah, that’s a pretty—it’s not just—the raids are serious enough, but what’s more significant is what lies behind them. These are the first actions taken under new rulings by the Supreme Court. A very important case was six or eight months ago, I guess, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. It was initiated by the Obama administration. It was argued by Elena Kagan, Obama’s new court appointment. And they won, with the support of the far-right justices. The case is extremely significant. It’s the worst attack on freedom of speech since the Smith Act 70 years ago. The case determined that any material support to organizations that the government lists on the terrorist list is criminalized, but they interpreted "material support"—in fact, the issue at stake was speech. Humanitarian Law Project was giving advice—speech—to a group on that’s on the terrorist list, Turkish PKK. And they were also advising them on legal advice and also advising them to move towards nonviolence. That means if you and I, let’s say, talk to Hamas leaders and say, "Look, you ought to move towards nonviolent resistance," we’re giving material support to a group on the terrorist list.
Incidentally, the terrorist list is totally illegitimate. That shouldn’t exist in a free society. Terrorist list is an arbitrary list established by the executive with no basis whatsoever, by whim, for example, but no supervision. And if you take a look at the record of the terrorist list, it’s almost comical. So, take Reagan again. In 1982, the Reagan administration decided it wanted to aid their friend Saddam Hussein. He had been—Iraq had been on the terrorist list. They took it off the terrorist list. They had a gap. They had to put someone in.
AMY GOODMAN: South Africa, ANC.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Put in Cuba. They put in Cuba, and I suppose in honor of the fact that, in preceding several years Cuba had been the target of more international terrorism than the rest of the world combined. So, Saddam Hussein goes off, Cuba goes on, no review, no comment. And now, with the new Obama principle, giving—advising groups that are arbitrarily put on this group is criminal. And that was the background for those raids.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, we’re going to continue this conversation online and play it on the show again. Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.