Chomsky on COVID-19: The latest massive failure of neoliberalism

Noam Chomsky Interviewed by Cristina Magdaleno

April 25, 2020. Updated May 6, 2020. EuroEFE.

For Noam Chomsky, the overriding lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is that the crisis represents “another colossal failure of the neoliberal version of capitalism” and the situation is made worse in the United States by “the sociopathic buffoons who are running the government” in Washington.

After revolutionising linguistics as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the world’s most prominent public intellectuals joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in fall 2017. He spoke to EURACTIV’s partner Efe from his home in Tucson.

Asked about what can be learned from COVID-19, Chomsky pointed to the failings of the existing economic order.

“One lesson is that it’s another colossal failure of the neoliberal version of capitalism. Massive failure. If we don’t learn that lesson, it’s going to recur worse next time.”

“It’s very obvious what happened. After the SARS epidemic in 2003, the scientists knew perfectly well that there were other pandemics coming, probably of the coronavirus variety. It would have been possible to prepare at that point. Pretty much the way it’s done with flu. You have a new flu vaccine every year because there are slight variations, but you’re ready for it so you produce it quickly.”

“It wasn’t done. Someone has to pick up the ball and run with it.”

“There are two possibilities. Drug companies: they have the resources, they’re super-rich because of the gifts we lavish on them. They won’t do it. They observe market signals. Market signals tell you there’s no profit to be made in preparing for catastrophe down the road.”

“And then comes the neoliberal hammer: that governments are not allowed to do anything, that governments are the problem, not the solution.”

“The United States is a total catastrophe because of the gang that’s running Washington. They know how to blame everybody in the world except themselves, and they are responsible for the catastrophe. The US is now the epicentre of the crisis. It’s the only country that is so dysfunctional that it cannot even provide data to the World Health Organization on deaths and infections.”

Chomsky described the Trump administration’s approach to the problem as “surreal.”

“So in February, the pandemic is already raging. Everyone outside the United States recognizes it … Right in the middle of February, Trump comes out with his new budget for the next year. It’s worth taking a close look at it. Further cuts for the Center for Disease Control and other health-related parts of the government, to cut them further in the midst of a pandemic. Increases in funding for the fossil fuel industry, further subsidies to destroy organized human life not far down the road. And of course, further funding for the military, which is bloated and out of control, and further funding for Trump’s famous wall.”

“That tells you something about the nature of the sociopathic buffoons who are running the government and the country’s suffering from it.”

“Now they’re seeking desperately to blame somebody else, to blame China, blame the World Health Organization. And what they’re doing is really criminal. So defunding the World Health Organization – what does that mean? The World Health Organization works all over the world, mostly in poorer countries, on mothers’ health, diarrhea deaths and so on. So what you’re saying is ‘OK let’s kill lots of people in the South because maybe that’ll improve my election prospects.’”

Trump, after attempting to minimise the threat of the coronavirus, subsequently embraced the role of crisis manager, though without acknowledging that he had erred in his initial response.

“You have to give Trump credit. He is probably the greatest confidence man who has ever existed. He makes PT Barnum look like an amateur. And he’s capable of holding up in one hand a banner that says ‘I love you, I’m your saviour, put your trust in me, I’m working for you day and night’ and with the other hand he stabs you in the back. That’s how he’s dealing with his constituency, which adores him, is rabid, doesn’t matter what he does. And he’s helped by a very interesting media phenomenon, that is Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart segment of the media, which is the only part of the media that Republicans look at.”

“They echo whatever he says, so if he says today ‘it’s just flu, forget about it,’ they’ll say ‘yes, it’s flu, forget about it.’ The next day he says ‘it’s a terrible pandemic and I was the first one to notice it,’ they all scream in unison: ‘he’s the greatest person in history and his discovery is the most magnificent thing ever.’”

“And this goes on day after day and meanwhile, he himself he looks at Fox News in the morning and decides what he’s supposed to say today. It’s an astonishing phenomenon: Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh and the sociopath in the White House driving the country to destruction.”

As for whether the pandemic will change the way humans relate to nature, Chomsky said the answer to that question will come from young people.

“There’s no way to predict. It depends on how the global population will react to what is happening. It could lead to highly authoritarian, repressive states which expand the neoliberal plague even more than has happened. In fact, they’re working on it right now. Remember, the capitalist class doesn’t relent they’re always struggling. Right in the middle of this, they’re calling for more funding for fossil fuels. Destroying regulations that offer some protection.”

“Just yesterday, the (US) Environmental Protection Agency, which under Trump has just been turned into an adjunct of the coal producers … it eliminated rules that restrict the output of mercury and other pollutants into the ground around coal plants. That means, ‘let’s kill more American children and let’s destroy the environment because you can make more profit for coal companies this way,’ which are, of course, destroying the environment. That’s what they do constantly. Every day, they don’t stop. And if there’s no counter forces, it’s the world that will come down.”

Weighing the geopolitical implications of COVID-19, Chomsky faulted the lack of solidarity within the European Union.

“What’s happening internationally is really pretty shocking when you look at it.”

“Germany’s doing pretty well in dealing with the crisis. It had excess hospital capacity, the excess diagnostic capacity it didn’t keep strictly to the neoliberal rules.”

“Italy has a pretty severe epidemic. Are they getting help from Germany? Well, they are getting help, fortunately, from the ‘superpower’ across the Atlantic: Cuba. Cuba is sending doctors, China’s sending materials, so at least they’re getting some help. Not from the rich countries in the European Union. That tells you something worth thinking about.”

“In fact, the only country now that is showing genuine internationalism – and this is not for the first time – is Cuba. That ought to make us think. Cuba has been under vicious US attack for 60 years, economic strangulation large-scale terrorism, and by some miracle, they’ve survived and have continued to show the world what internationalism is.”

“But you can’t talk about this in the United States. In the United States what you have to do is blame Cuba because it has human rights violations, which it does, has, in fact, the worst human rights violations in the hemisphere. They take place in southeastern Cuba in a place called Guantanamo, which the US has, it took it from Cuba at gunpoint, and is refusing to turn back, but that’s not what we’re supposed to say.”

“The polite, obedient person is supposed to say something different. You’re supposed to blame China, invoke the ‘yellow peril.’ Goes very deep in American history, the Chinese are coming to destroy us, goes back to the 19th century, you can evoke it any time.”

“There’s a call for a Progressive International. The call was issued by Bernie Sanders in the United States, Yanis Varoufakis in Europe. Bringing together progressive elements from Europe, the United States, the global South. This is designed to counter the Reactionary International that is being forged in the White House.”

The Trump administration, according to Chomsky, is seeking to bring together “the most reactionary brutal states,” including the Gulf oil monarchies, Al-Sisi’s Egypt, Modi’s India, rightist-led Israel and Hungary under Viktor Orban, among others.

“The only real hope, clear hope on the horizon that I see developing is the Progressive International based on Bernie. It’s commonly said that the Sanders campaign was a failure. It’s a total mistake, it was an enormous success. Unbelievable success. Sanders has managed to shift the arena of discussion and policy very substantially. Things that were unmentionable a couple of years ago are now right in the centre of discussion of policy. Like say the Green New Deal, it’s essential for survival.”