The following interview originally appeared in German at Telepolis but this is the first publication of the English translation.
David Goessmann: In the book “Consequences of Capitalism,” you and Marv Waterstone point to three central consequences of capitalism: the environmental and climate crisis, military escalation, and the neoliberal hollowing out of the economy and society. To what extent is capitalism responsible for these developments? And: What role do politics, the media and other social groups play in the escalation of the crisis?
Noam Chomsky: A few preliminary clarifications are necessary. Adam Smith’s framework is a useful one for addressing the topic. As he discussed, the “Masters of mankind”–in his day, the merchants and manufacturers of England–are the “principal architects” of government policy, and ensure that their own interests are protected however “grievous” the effects on the population. Perceptive words, which continue to apply.
The Masters understand this, and act decisively to ensure that they are protected from the ravages of the market, while others are subjected to them.
One consequence is that we do not live in capitalist societies. Such a society would destroy itself very quickly. The Masters understand this, and act decisively to ensure that they are protected from the ravages of the market, while others are subjected to them. That basic fact of modern history has been dramatically evident during the past 40 years of neoliberal class war.
A corollary is that we cannot easily disentangle the capitalist elements of the society from politics. Those who wield economic power continue to be the “principal architects” of state policy. Nor can we disentangle these elements from the media, which are major corporations selling a product (readers, viewers) to a market (advertisers, other major corporations), while maintaining close links to the government that is under substantial control by the Masters.
Turning to other social groups, we also have to distinguish rhetoric from reality. Margaret Thatcher’s famous slogan that there is no society, only individual participants in the market, has to be decoded. As she knew well, there is a very rich society for the Masters: chambers of commerce, trade associations, and others, and they developed more extensively during the neoliberal assault on the population that she helped initiate: the Business Roundtable, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and others. The Masters develop a rich social network to support their pursuit of the “vile maxim: all for ourselves and nothing for other people,” to quote Smith again.
It’s the rest who have to be cast out to face the market alone, like “a sack of potatoes,” to borrow Marx’s acid critique of the authoritarian rulers of his day, which applies as well to their neoliberal imitators. Thatcher and Reagan inaugurated the neoliberal onslaught by acting to destroy the labor movement, the prime means of association and defense against the policies of the Masters. Working people are thus reduced to a sack of potatoes, atomized and defenseless.
There was nothing new about that. The guru of neoliberalism, Ludwig von Mises, was an enthusiastic supporter of Fascism, which had saved modern civilization, he wrote in Austria in the 1920s, by violently destroying the labor movement and social democracy, which are impediments to “sound economics” by protecting rights of mere people. The first great achievement of the neoliberal movement was to take over the economy of Pinochet’s Chile, where torture chambers sufficed to subdue interferences with their doctrines. They managed to crash the economy within a few years, but no matter. By then they were on to bigger game: controlling the global economy under the leadership of Reagan and Thatcher, then their followers.
There has, as always, been resistance. Social groups have sustained themselves, revived, and are often a vibrant presence. Class war has not ended with the neoliberal assault, despite its grim consequences. To mention just one, in the US during the neoliberal years the transfer of wealth from the lower 90 per cent of the population, the working and middle classes, to the top 1 per cent is estimated at about 50 trillion US dollars. That is impressive class war, not confined to the US. The worst victims are those of the global south, victims of “the savage injustice of the Europeans,” to quote Smith once again–Europeans now primarily their offshoot in conquered territories abroad.
This is a much too cursory survey of preliminaries. Turning to the question, the capitalist element in the complex of economy-politics-media-rich support networks for the Masters is the essential factor in all of the crises you mention. In the case of the neoliberal hollowing out of the economy and society, it’s true almost by definition. The capitalist element, in pursuit of the vile maxim, is what drives the policies of the “principal architects.” The same is true, substantially, of military escalation. I cannot again review recent history, but it reveals quite clearly that security is not the driving force in military escalation, unless we mean security of the interests of the Masters. The security of the population is at best an afterthought, and is often sacrificed. As for the climate crisis, unregulated capitalism is virtually a death warrant, for reasons too obvious to discuss.
That realization does not escape the Masters. At the Glasgow UN conference last November, US representative John Kerry announced triumphantly that the private sector is with us, and will devote trillions of dollars to overcoming the climate crisis. In fact, “a coalition of private financial institutions that collectively control $130 trillion in assets pledged to reach net-zero emissions in their investments by midcentury.”
How can we lose?
Political economist Adam Tooze added a small footnote. Yes, Blackrock CEO Larry Fink and others at the peak of the pyramid did pledge to invest in overcoming the crisis–if the investments are profitable and riskless, backed by pledges of the International Financial Institutions that are part of the rich society of the Masters. The vile maxim again.
In brief, the capitalist element in the state capitalist world has an essential role in the mounting crises, which are terrifying in scale.
David Goessmann: Let’s assume that capitalism cannot be overcome in the foreseeable future–even if that is desirable. However, the climate crisis as well as various other threats to people and the planet must be averted now. Why is a consciousness critical of capitalism nevertheless important for pushing through things like the Green New Deal, Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zones or diplomatic solutions as in the Ukraine war right now–i.e. political alternatives within reach, but for which the capitalist world system would not have to be fundamentally changed?
Noam Chomsky: Time scales make it clear that the climate crisis and other severe threats have to be overcome without “fundamental changes” in the state capitalist system. But not without changes, in fact significant ones. It is beyond obscene that we have to bribe the Masters to stop destroying the planet. Reforms of state capitalism could mitigate the obscenity. We have seen this play out in the US Congress in recent months, even the last few days. Biden had a climate program which, while not sufficient, was far better than any predecessor, impelled largely by popular activism. The Republican party was 100% opposed, joined by a few right-wing Democrats, notably coal baron Joe Manchin, the congressional champion in receipt of fossil fuel funding. After months of chipping away at the programs, he finally announced that he would not accept anything–out of concern for the federal deficit. Pure farce, since he also joins the GOP in insistence that the huge wealth transferred to the ultra-rich cannot be touched by taxes; for the first time in a century, thanks to the neoliberal assault, billionaires pay lower tax rates than workers.
Those obscenities can be overcome by dedicated activism. And it is not the limit. Even without fundamental changes in prevailing state capitalism, the kind of New Deal-style regulation that was dismantled by the neoliberal assault can be reinstated, and strengthened. That could make a substantial difference. In fact, the government could buy the whole fossil fuel industry at a cost less than what the Treasury department poured out to rescue the rich from the effects of the Covid crisis, as discussed by economist Robert Pollin, who has been in the lead in addressing these issues in extensive detail. The industry could then be redirected to moving expeditiously to renewable energy, under the direction of the workforce, which could move on to better jobs and better lives for their communities. Many options are feasible if we can free ourselves from the fetters of the more savage forms of state capitalism and the doctrines they have created.
David Goessmann: You describe our situation with a person who has cancer and is left with two options: act immediately or let the cancer grow. At the moment, we continue to let the cancer grow, with all the consequences that this entails. Greta Thunberg’s call to treat the climate crisis as a crisis speaks out against this laisser-faire attitude. What is preventing societies from switching from standard to crisis and emergency mode by taking decisive action?
Noam Chomsky: There are many barriers, of the kind discussed. Fortunately, we also know answers. What is missing is the will and dedication to overcome the barriers and to implement the solutions. Not easy, and it had better not be impossible or the human experiment will soon come to an inglorious end.
David Goessmann: Change, especially far-reaching change, must be fought for from below, as you keep emphasizing. It takes an informed, politically engaged population to bring about progress. At the same time, we see that the neoliberal devastation of recent decades has unsettled and divided societies. The battle of opinions is getting tougher, irrationalism is spreading. Frustration is simultaneously promoted and channeled by radical right-wing forces, with cynical policy proposals that shatter democracy, like Trumpism does. Meanwhile, protests are growing in support of climate protection and social and global justice. Given the disruptions in many countries, what do you see as the key strategic challenges for progressive movements, especially when it comes to the midterms and presidential election in the U.S.?
Noam Chomsky: The midterm elections might hand Congress to the Republican party, which has been 100 per cent denialist since 2008 when it was beginning to make some moves towards sanity. These deviations were beaten back by a juggernaut of bribery, intimidation, massive lobbying, faked popular movements launched by the huge Koch brothers energy conglomerate. With ample deceit that is too familiar to recount, the GOP already has succeeded in turning the Supreme Court into an instrument of destruction. Part of its war against society and survival is to dismantle the “administrative state,” that is, the capacity of government to interfere with pursuit of the vile maxim. We need not tarry on the legalistic chicanery devised to conceal these efforts. The GOP is by now quite openly committed to undermining what remains of functioning democracy so that they can control all branches of government indefinitely, no matter what the population wants. This is not Andorra. It is the most powerful state in world history. If these plans succeed, we can bid goodbye to each other.
It doesn’t have to come to this, though it might unless vigorous and committed efforts are made to construct a much better world, as can be done.
That’s one strategic challenge. Beyond that it is necessary to beat back the neoliberal assault, to reinstitute something that at least partially resembles the goal of a government of, by and for the people, and beyond that to a society based on true democracy in every sphere of life.
David Goessmann: Should Donald Trump be put on trial for his role in storming the Capitol? What would be the consequences if he ended up not being convicted?
Noam Chomsky: On purely legal grounds, there is little doubt that he should be put on trial. But likely consequences cannot be ignored. In the current state of social collapse and disorder, in no small part a result of the neoliberal assault, that might well lead to devastating civil war. The options–conviction or not–are both bad. The question that has to be faced is which is the least bad.
David Goessmann: Despite all the differences, some aspects are reminiscent of the 1910s, 1920s, when the world capitalist system threatened to implode from within. Serious social and political upheavals occurred, while nationalist war hysteria (WW1) eroded world peace. At that time, too, there was a swinging between progressive urge for progress and brutal reaction. Can we learn anything from this?
Noam Chomsky: I am old enough to have direct and vivid memories of the 1930s, when the world state capitalist system was indeed imploding from within. The incredible mass worship of Trump cannot fail to evoke memories of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies–in many ways tragedy being reenacted as farce when one considers the ridiculous nonentity who is the object of adulation. As a child I could sense the fear of the inexorable spread of the fascist horrors. In personal terms, it was amplified by what I could see in the streets in my own neighborhood.
The fears were realized in Europe, as it descended into the dark night of fascism. Meanwhile, under the impact of a revived and militant labor movement and with a sympathetic administration, the US forged the basis for modern social democracy. There is no little irony in the fact that today the situation is partially reversed. In the US, the threat of proto-fascism is all too evident. Europe is clinging to some of the elements of the social democracies that took shape in the postwar years.
A grim foretaste of what might be the shape of the years to come was enacted in Budapest in May, a gathering of far right European forces in Orban’s “illiberal democracy.” The star attraction was the American Conservative Action Conference, the core of the Republican Party. Trump gave a speech lauding his Hungarian heroes who are crushing freedom and democracy. The leading US TV commentator, Tucker Carlson, carried further his ecstatic support for Orban’s racist proto-fascist Christian nationalism.
The lessons should not be forgotten. It doesn’t have to come to this, though it might unless vigorous and committed efforts are made to construct a much better world, as can be done.
David Goessmann: Thanks so much for the interview, Noam.