It's Time to Take Back our Lives
The Seattle Times, April 21, 2005
Noam Chomsky is a prodigious generator of books, articles and speeches, who has been talking about politics and world affairs since he was a kid. He made his living as a linguistics professor at MIT and achieved world renown in that role, but his name is stuck in the back of all of our heads because of his ubiquitous political commentaries over the past half-century.
Chomsky is in town this week talking on the radio and in lecture halls, so I took the opportunity to ask him what it is he hopes to accomplish — what transformation does he want his words to encourage?
"I would like to see a society ultimately based on free association of a people who live cooperatively, control their own institutions, their communities, their workplaces ... and a move towards elimination of wage labor," he said.
That's a big order, but maybe we can handle the first bite-sized chunk of that, which is to reinvigorate our democracy.
Basically, Chomsky wants people to wrest control of their lives away from corporations, government and whatever other institutions have a claim on them, and "reconstruct the basis for a functioning democratic society."
"Public opinion no longer has an effect on public policy," he says. "Our political campaigns, we would laugh about them if they were in another country." The last election was between two rich boys who went to Yale, and instead of talking about issues, they tried to sway us with images — two regular guys, one hunting, the other working at his ranch — except they weren't regular folks.
"The helplessness measure keeps rising. People feel they can't do anything."
Chomsky, 76, can remember when the labor movement was strong, and he says it gave ordinary people and poor people a way to pool their power and have real influence.
Churches are about the only comparable institution nowadays, he says. "It's an active society, but in atomized fashion." People mostly live separated and isolated from one another.
Chomsky says one of his main reasons for traveling around the country giving talks is that the talks bring together people who are active but maybe live in different parts of town and don't know about each other.
People have to work together to have influence, but a lot of our social structure works against that.
"The ideal for the business world is based on a pair: you and your television. Be connected to the television or computer and not talking to your neighbor."
Chomsky sees the current Social Security flap as a scam, an attempt to destroy an institution that is based on social solidarity. "The basis of Social Security is that you care whether the disabled widow across town has enough food to eat."
Public schools are in trouble, he says, because they too are an institution that depends on people caring about what happens to other people in the society.
You might imagine him pounding the table to make a point, but he's quite relaxed. His voice is so soft, I have to strain to hear him sometimes.
Some folks would consider him a radical, but he believes most Americans would agree with him on many issues; it's the political parties that are out of step. People, he says, want to help their neighbors, they want to provide health care to Americans who can't afford it, they want to increase foreign aid and cut back on weapons, but their voice is too soft to be heard over the noise of big interests.
We can't afford to just be quiet and leave national and world affairs to so-called experts, he argues.
"Politics is anybody's field. There's no secret. It's not quantum physics; anyone can understand it if they work at it."
Fine for an MIT professor to say, though he does acknowledge the difficulties most folks face.
With stagnant wages, people are working longer to keep up, and in many households two adults work, leaving little time to bone up on issues.
Also, stuff is complex. Chomsky mentions the Clinton health plan, which was too complicated for any ordinary person to understand, and says one of the roles unions used to fill was to study complex issues and help members understand them. People need to create new organizations that fill that role.
In the meantime, people need to take back some of the time diverted to superficial concerns, like maybe the latest Hollywood trial, and educate themselves, not leave politics to a specialized elite.
Chomsky credits his uncle with helping him see politics as something everyone should have a hand in. His uncle, who ran a newsstand, never went past fourth grade, but he read a lot and he understood issues, which Chomsky says was not unusual among working-class people in those days.
"If you are a member of a democratic society and a free person, that's your field."