C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, the rise of the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders seems to indicate that US society is at the present moment in the midst of a major ideological readjustment brought about by the deteriorating state of the standard of living, the explosive growth of income inequality and myriad other economic and social ills facing the country in the New Gilded Era. In your view, and given the peculiarities of US political culture, how significant are the 2016 presidential elections?
Noam Chomsky: The elections are quite significant, whatever the outcome, in revealing the growing discontent and anger about the impact of the neoliberal programs of the past generation, which, as elsewhere quite generally, have had a harsh impact on the mass of the population while undermining functioning democracy and enriching and empowering a tiny minority, largely in financial industries that have a dubious, if not harmful, role in the economy. Similar developments are taking place, for similar reasons, in Europe. The tendencies have been clear for some time, but, in this election, the party establishments have lost control for the first time.
On the Republican side, in previous primaries they were able to eliminate candidates that arose from the base and to nominate their own man. But not this time, and they are desperate about the failure. On the Democratic side, the Sanders challenge and its success are no less unanticipated than the Trump triumph, and reflect similar disillusionment and concerns, very differently expressed but with some common elements. Trump supporters include much of the white working class. One can understand their anger and frustration, and why Trump’s rhetoric might appeal to them. But they are betting on the wrong horse. His policy proposals — to the limited extent that they are coherent — not only do not seriously address their legitimate concerns, but would be quite harmful to them. And not just to them.
Following somewhat on the footsteps of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Bernie Sanders has made economic inequality and social rights themes of his campaign. Is this trend likely to continue after the election, or will the momentum for reform fade away?
That’s up to us, and, specifically, up to those who have been mobilized by the campaign, and to Sanders himself. The energy and commitment could fade away, like the Rainbow Coalition. Or it could become a continuing and growing force that is not focused on electoral extravaganzas even though it may use them to carry its concerns forward. That will be a critical choice in the coming months.
Is Bernie Sanders merely a New Dealer, or perhaps a European social democrat, or something further to the left?
He seems to me a decent and honest New Dealer — which is not so different from European social democracy (actually, both terms cover a pretty broad range).
In your view, are Keynesianism and social democracy still relevant and applicable in today’s global economic environment, or simply defunct?
I think they are quite relevant, to restore some degree of sanity and decency to social and economic life — but not sufficient. We should aim well beyond.
Should the left in the US fight for reforms along the lines of those articulated by Bernie Sanders, or should it devote itself to promoting a more radical version of social and economic change?
I don’t think this has to be a choice, though of course the degree of emphasis on one or the other is a choice. Both can be pursued simultaneously, and can be mutually reinforcing. Take a venerable anarchist journal like Freedom, founded by [Russian activist and philosopher Peter] Kropotkin. Its pages are often devoted to ongoing social struggles with reformist aims, which would improve people’s lives and create the basis for moving on. These concerns are guided by far more radical long-term objectives.
While supporting valuable reforms and efforts to protect and extend rights, there is no reason not to follow [Russian anarchist Mikhail] Bakunin’s advice to create the germs of a future society within the present one, at the very same time. For example, we can support health and safety standards in the capitalist workplace while at the same time establishing enterprises owned and managed by the workforce. And even support for the reformist measures can (and should be) designed so as to highlight the roots of the problems in the existing institutions, encouraging the recognition that defending and expanding rights is just a step toward eliminating those roots.
Historically, one of the major challenges facing the labor movement in the US is the absence of a national class-based political organization. Do you see this changing any time soon on account of the ideas of socialism beginning to establish roots among certain segments of the American population, particularly among the youth?
US political history is rather unusual among the developed state capitalist societies. The political parties have not been class-based to the same extent as elsewhere. They have been regional in large part, a residue of the Civil War, which has still not ended. In the last election, for example, the red (Republican) states looked remarkably like the Confederacy — party names switched after the civil rights movement opened the way for Nixon’s racist “Southern strategy.” The parties have also been based on rather ad hoc coalitions, which blur any possible class lines further, leaving the two parties as basically factions of the ruling business party, in the familiar phrase.
There is no indication of that changing, and in the US system of “first past the post” and massive campaign expenditures, it is very hard to break the lock of the two political parties, which are not membership or participatory parties, but more candidate-producing and fundraising organizations, with somewhat different policy orientations (within a fairly narrow range). It is rather striking, for example, to see how easily the Democratic Party almost openly abandons the white working class, which drifts to the hands of their most bitter class enemy, the leadership and power base of the Republican Party.
On socialism establishing roots among the young, one has to be cautious. It’s not clear that “socialism” in the current context means something different from New Deal-style welfare state capitalism — which would, in fact, be a very healthy development in today’s ugly context.
How should we define socialism in the 21st century?
Like other terms of political discourse, “socialism” is quite vague and broad in application. How we should define it depends on our values and goals. A good start, fitting well into the American context, would be the recommendations of America’s leading 20th century social philosopher, John Dewey, who called for democratization of all aspects of political, economic and social life. He held that workers should be “the masters of their own industrial fate,” and that “the means of production, exchange, publicity, transportation and communication” should be under public control. Otherwise, politics will remain “the shadow cast on society by big business” and social policy will be geared to the interests of the masters. That’s a good start. And is deeply rooted in significant strands of the society and its complex history.
A problem facing today’s left is that, whenever it came to power, it capitulated in no time to capitalist forces and became immersed itself in the practices of corruption and the pursuit of power for the sake of power and material gains. We have seen it in Brazil, in Greece, in Venezuela and elsewhere. How do you explain this?
That’s been a very sad development. The causes vary, but the results are highly destructive. In Brazil, for example, the PT [Workers’ Party] had enormous opportunities, and could have been a force for transforming Brazil and leading the way for the whole continent, given Brazil’s unique position. Though there were some achievements, the opportunities were squandered as the party leadership joined the rest of the elite in sinking into the abyss of corruption.
Bernie Sanders plans to stick around as a candidate until the convention. What’s this all about?
The intention, I presume, is pretty much what he has been saying: to have a significant role in formulating the party platform at the convention. That doesn’t seem to me to matter much; platforms are mostly rhetoric. What could be quite significant is something different: using the opportunity of the electoral enthusiasm, largely fostered by propaganda, to organize an ongoing and growing popular movement, not geared to the electoral cycle, which will be devoted to bringing about badly needed changes by direct action and other appropriate means.
One final question: If the American dream is dead, as Donald Trump says it is, why do surveys continue to show that the majority of those interviewed say they still believe and even live the American dream? Was the American dream ever reality, or just a myth?
The “American dream” was a very mixed story. It traces back to the 19th century, when free people could obtain land and pursue other opportunities in an expanding economy — thanks to annihilation of the [Indigenous] nations who populated the country and the huge contribution to the economy of the most vicious form of slavery that has yet existed.
In later years the “dream” took other forms, for some, and sometimes. Until European immigration was sharply cut in 1924 in order to block undesirables (mainly Italians and Jews), immigrants could hope to work their way into a rich society, with incomparable advantages. In the 1950s and 1960s, the great growth years of state capitalism, working people, including African Americans for a rare moment in the past half-millennium of bitter repression, could hope to get a decently paying union job with benefits, buy a house and a car, send their kids to college. That dream pretty much ended with the shift of the economy toward financialization and neoliberalism from the 1970s, accelerating under Reagan and since. But there is no reason to suppose that the traditional “dream,” such as it was, is over, or that something much better, much more humane and just, is beyond our reach.