The Stakes Are High: An Interview with Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Paul Mattock

December 6, 2016, Brooklyn Rail

Paul Mattick (Rail): Thanks for finding the time to talk—you are a busy person. Where are you back from?

Noam Chomsky: Well, right now we’re back from Spain and Germany.

Rail: How did people take the electoral news over there?

Chomsky: It was captured very well by a glaring headline on the front page of Der Spiegel: Something like, “The end of the world,” and in small print, underneath: “as we know it.” That was not unlike the general reaction. When we’re at home, we never watch TV, but when we’re abroad in a hotel we take a look at the BBC to find out what’s going on. There was practically nothing on BBC World, the whole time we were there, except the election.

Rail: What was your reaction?

Chomsky: My wife Valeria had actually predicted it, so I was somewhat immunized from the general surprise. But I didn’t expect it. I felt that it would be pretty close. If you look at them, the final polls were pretty accurate, predicting a slim victory in the popular vote for Clinton, which is pretty much what happened. The electoral outcome is the result of special properties of the U.S. electoral system—in the Electoral College, the way Congressional districts are formulated, partially by gerrymandering but partially just to counteract urban votes by a greater impact from the rural areas. It was in fact pretty much a statistical tie. There were significant factors involved, which were pretty well understood. Many of the people who voted for Trump were people who voted for Obama eight years ago. You remember, of course, his message was “hope and change.” People wanted change, for good reasons, and they wanted hope. Disillusioned with what took place, they turned to someone else who was offering hope and change. When they’re disillusioned with that, it depends on what activists and others do. But the desire for hope and change is easily understandable. In many ways it’s even more dramatic in Europe. If you look at the voting results in Austria and Germany, they’re pretty frightening.

Rail: Indeed, the rise of far-right, nationalistic parties and politicians is an international phenomenon—one could include Israel and Russia along with Germany, Austria, Holland, and France, and now Trump in the U.S. Why do you think this is happening now?

Chomsky: I think that what’s actually happening is the collapse of the Center—the centrist semi-coalitions, mildly social-democrat, mildly conservative, that have been running the countries for years. They are severely declining. You can see it in voting; you can see it also in popular attitudes: contempt for what are called “the élites,” the experts, the people in charge. The reasons for that are showing up in the rise of the far-right political organizations but also the rise of left popular organizations like Podemos in Spain and the victory of the social-democratic mayor in Barcelona, and the Jeremy Corbyn thing, and the pretty remarkable Bernie Sanders phenomenon in the United States, and the DiEM25 Movement in Europe and other movements to reverse the sharp attack on democracy under the European variety of neoliberal policy and austerity programs.

The neoliberal programs of the last generation have in fact been, and were intended to be, a pretty serious attack on democracy, but also they’ve led to stagnation or decline for large parts of the population—the working class, the lower middle class, these people have essentially been cast aside. Real wages for male workers in the United States are about what they were in the ’60s. At the peak of the so-called great success of neoliberal economics, in 2007, right before the crash, non-supervisory workers were at wages considerably lower than in 1979, when the neoliberal assault was taking off. That perfectly naturally causes resentment and fear, and combines with a tendency to blame the most vulnerable. That’s unfortunately common—to blame immigrants, to blame the African-Americans who are being helped by federal programs, to blame anyone available, to direct attention away from the roots of the distress which you’re suffering. This combines with xenophobia, white supremacy, racism, misogyny, and other quite unpleasant phenomena which are far from being eradicated. All of this makes for a pretty dangerous brew. But economic issues are right in the center of it. And you can see this in the fact that so many former Obama voters now voted for Trump, or just didn’t bother voting.

Rail: What kinds of activities and actions do you think would make for a meaningful response to this new situation that Trump’s victory has brought?

Chomsky: Well, I think there are lots of opportunities right now. Just take a look at the vote again. Of younger people, 18 to 25, a large majority were pro-Clinton, and a much larger majority were pro-Sanders. It was a very high percentage. That tells you something about the prospects for the future. I think there are real possibilities of reaching out to many of the Trump voters, those who voted for Obama believing his rhetoric. Trump’s principal policies make clear what’s going to happen. This gives an opportunity. Right now it’s going to take hard work, but it’s possible that there could be a real revival of the labor movement. Labor has been severely undermined, but that’s happened before. In the 1920s, the labor movement was virtually crushed, in large part by Wilson’s Red Scare, but it dramatically revived in the 1930s. It spearheaded the social-democratic New-Deal style changes which were beneficial to the country—not sufficient, but beneficial. That could happen again. There could be an independent labor-based party, which might over time become an important force the way the Labor Party did in England. To all of these things there are plenty of barriers, in the culture and in the social and political institutions, the concentration of economic power. But these are not insuperable barriers, I think. They can be overcome. And it is urgent that this be done, because there are really incredible problems that are simply not being addressed.

One of the most amazing things about the campaign, and I noticed it again in watching the coverage afterwards, is that issues were almost totally ignored. The coverage of November 8 was immense, extraordinary, but it kept entirely to one of the two significant events of that day: the U.S. election. There was another event at the same time of much greater significance: a matter of saving organized human life from destruction, the most important issue that has ever arisen in human history. That event was taking place in Morocco, at COP22, the international conference called to put some teeth in the agreements reached at Paris in December 2015 (COP21) on measures to deal with the crisis of climate change, which is very real, and urgent.

How real and urgent was underscored by a document released on November 8 at COP22, a study by the World Meteorological Organization reporting that the past five years have been the hottest on record, regularly getting worse; that Arctic Ice is some 30% below the preceding norm; that current global warming already is perilously close to the final goal that COP21 hoped to achieve; and other dire forecasts. Melting of the huge Antarctic glaciers, proceeding more rapidly than anticipated, threatens a rise in sea level that will drive tens of millions from the low-lying plains of Bangladesh alone, with disastrous consequences elsewhere. Astonishingly, it took weeks before any of this received even limited mention in mainstream media.

November 8 will indeed go down in history. On that day, from an authoritative source, the world was warned of extremely severe dangers unless urgent steps are taken to deal with global warming, underscoring and extending what was already known to those with eyes open. Second, the most powerful country in world history, which is sure to set its stamp on what follows, placed the entire government (executive, legislative, judicial branches) in the hands of an organization—the Republican Party—dedicated to escalating the race to disaster. In the primaries, every candidate denied that what is happening is happening apart from the “moderates,” like Jeb Bush and John Kasich, who said maybe it is happening but we should go merrily on our way.

Perhaps even more astonishing, this amazing spectacle elicited virtually no comment in mainstream media.

The elected candidate has been all over the map in his comments, but he has been consistent in holding that global warming is a hoax, that we should accelerate the use of fossil fuels, including coal, that we should dismantle the regulatory system and pretty much rid ourselves of the EPA, and that we should refuse aid to poorer countries seeking to move to sustainable energy—the heart of COP21 and COP22—which Trump has said he would withdraw the U.S. from. China is now in the lead in upholding the hopes of the world for escaping impending disaster, while the U.S. announced on November 8 that it will take the lead in undermining these efforts.

All on November 8, and again, with scarcely a word in the massive coverage and intense scrutiny of that fateful day. An astonishing episode in western history.

Rail: What do you think is likely to come of the Paris Accords?

Chomsky: I suppose other countries will try to salvage what they can from the wreckage. But what is important to us is to reverse the shameful course being pursued by our own country. It won’t be easy, but it must and can be done.

Rail: Your comments suggest a mixture of hope—when you speak of the opening to the creation of a new labor movement, for instance—and of grim realism in the face of the tasks faced. You have not slacked your own active involvement for a moment; clearly this is required of all of us. Do you have any general or specific advice for those of us who wish to make positive use of the Trump era—and the eras that will follow it?

Chomsky: I think there are some favorable prospects, but the opportunities have to be grasped. There are real possibilities of reaching many of the Trump voters: many of them in fact voted for Obama, believing his rhetoric about “change,” and upon realizing that they were deluded, have turned to Trump. And will find that they are again deluded. That’s an opportunity that can be grasped, by organizing, education, activism right now. It’s also worth paying attention to the fact that younger voters were strongly pro-Clinton, and far more strongly pro-Sanders. That’s a hopeful sign if the opportunities are grasped—by hard, dedicated work. On the range of possible actions, that’s familiar to all of us. Work can be undertaken to create an authentic independent political party, a real party, based on popular participation from the ground up, not a top-down candidate producing organization like the two official parties, working from school boards to state legislatures and beyond. Not easy in the regressive U.S. political system, but not impossible. The labor movement can be rebuilt, as has happened before after sharp declines. Major efforts have to be undertaken to bring the general public to understand the real reasons for their plight, and the possibilities for radical social and political change to construct meaningful popular control of all institutions—in communities, in the workplace, in the larger society, and on to the international order.

No slight challenge, but the stakes are very high: literally, survival of organized human society in any decent form.