Noam Chomsky, the linguist, political activist and prominent intellectual, spoke to the Union via video link on Wednesday (13/05).
Speaking with Union President Adam Davies and answering selected questions from students, Chomsky discussed his views on neoliberal politics, contemporary labour markets and the coronavirus pandemic.
The discussion was held virtually following the Union’s move online for the Easter Term as a result of governmental lockdown measures.
Chomsky opened by discussing the difference between the American, European and British responses to the coronavirus pandemic. He stated that Trump’s “further cutbacks” in the funding of the Centre of Disease Control (CDC) and contribution to the World Health Organisation (WHO), to benefit the “rich and powerful”, has rendered the US “uniquely vulnerable”.
He also stated that Trump had fired the chief scientist in charge of vaccine production, and as a result of big pharmaceutical companies regulating prices on vaccines, “drugs, even if they exist, are going to be priced out of anybody’s reach.”
This had lead to Trump “desperately flailing about to find some scapegoat to cover up his crimes against Americans”.
Chomsky also described Trump as having defunded the WHO, with his administration making clear “that they want to destroy the organisation”. He described this attitude as one that echoed Franco’s 1936 slogans, “Down with intelligence, up with death”.
He described Europe as having “dithered” in its response to the pandemic, with Britain also reacting slower than other countries. In contrast to the US and Britain, which he stated had “succumb[ed] to the neoliberal… plate”, countries such as Germany had not and has consequently managed to “keep things pretty much under control”.
The writer also argued that although the world will recover from the pandemic, it will not recover from processes such as global warming and the threat of nuclear war if humans remain on their present course.
He stated that due to its devotion to fossil fuel use and lack of consideration of environmental threats, “The Republican Party is the most dangerous organisation in human history”. On this he offered his view that it is a “miracle” that the world has continued as long as it has, but that “miracles don’t persist.”
He furthered that although Europe may not approve of the policies of the Trump administration, countries are “too subservient to [Trump] to do anything” and are thus creating a “disaster in the making”.
Chomsky was unequivocal in his criticism of the USA’s climate policy. Describing Greta Thunberg’s appearance at the Davos summit in January, where the climate activist came up against a laissez faire Donald Trump, he stated the teenager was merely given a “patting on the head” for her condemnation of participants for having “stolen” the dreams of the younger generation.
He forcefully added that the US “is dedicated to destroying the climate. REPEAT, dedicated to destroying the climate”.
Chomsky also discussed the role of organised labour in the time of the pandemic in companies such as Amazon where poor working conditions had led to a strike prior to the virus. He offered his view that these “horrible conditions” are in the best interests of the rich and powerful, with The Guardian reporting that Jeff Bezos stands to save millions of dollars by insufficiently protecting workers during the pandemic.
Closer to home, he went on to provide an assessment of the future of the British Labour Party, and the “assault” of anti-semitism allegations raised against the party. When asked about progressive patriotism, he explained that “if you seriously care about your country, you’ll criticise what’s wrong, and try to improve what’s right”.
He stated that the Progressive International movement, launched on 11/05 by Yanis Varoufakis in Europe and Bernie Sanders in the US, could be “the move towards genuine internationalism, mutual aid, progressive policies, overcoming the rut of the neoliberal period and moving on not just to what was but what can be much better.”
When asked if his views had changed during his lifetime, Chomsky stated that he has had largely consistent political beliefs since childhood, although he was taken aback by the extreme savagery of the neoliberalism perpetuated by the Republican Party in the USA.
He described the Reagan and Thatcher administrations in the 1980s as having “destroyed the labour unions”, which in turn reduced the ability of the general public to advance their own interests through an attitude that the governments needed to “get them [the unions] out of the way”. This initiated a “plague that the world has been suffering under for the last 40 years”, he stated.
Chomsky briefly touched upon his linguistic research with a discussion of Universal Grammar (UG), a term coined by himself for the biological endowment for the unique faculty of language that humans have to communicate. He stated that he believed the term had been misconstrued in the last 50-60 years of research in a “technical sense” traditionally meaning the principles and properties found in all languages. He furthered that he saw no logical connection between his own linguistic and political work.
Concluding, the writer described what he saw as “two ways out of the current crisis”: that pursued by “private wealth, by corporate power”, which will create a “post-pandemic world which is a harsher, more brutal, more cruel form of neoliberalism”, and that pursued by institutions oriented towards public and not profit which “struggle[s] for people’s rights”.
“In free societies, acquiescence equals support”; if people do not challenge their governments, the pandemic will recur to a worse degree and change will never happen”, he stated. “There are obvious solutions” to the current problems at large, “but they’re not going to happen unless an energised, organised public gets engaged, otherwise those who are relentlessly pursuing the interests of power and profit will create the world they want”.