David Barsamian (DB): To what extent do you think the environmental challenges we face are an issue for the labor movement? And also, how can the labor movement work with the environmental movement to deal with the issues that we face?
Noam Chomsky (NC): The environmental movement is important to everybody who wants to survive. It’s not a joke. We might be entering the last century of human survival in any decent form.
If you follow the science journals, practically every day there’s a more threatening discovery. The Greenland ice, which was thought to be moored to the ground, turns out to be floating, which means it’s going to melt faster, which means the sea level will rise higher. As you probably noticed, last year was the warmest year on record, not just by a small, but by a huge amount, because it’s accelerating. In fact, the rate of warming now is apparently higher than it’s ever been in the whole geological record by a factor of about 100, or maybe even 1,000. We’re getting into extremely dangerous territory. Unless something is pretty quickly done to get off fossil fuels, the future looks pretty dim. There was a study that was reported in the MIT Technology Review last month saying that at this latitude the current average temperature rise is equivalent to moving south about ten meters a day. That’s pretty fast.
So is it important to the labor movement? Sure. It’s important to everyone, in fact, crucial. There’s a special problem that the labor movement has to face, that getting off fossil fuels is going to have a big effect unless something serious is done. It runs into a conflict with pressures for maintaining jobs and wages. That’s a problem that the labor movement has to deal with.
It’s not a fundamental problem, because there’s plenty of work that could be done that would be helpful to the environment—I mean simple things like weatherization of homes. The US is way behind other countries. There was a company in England that was working on weatherization, but it had essentially finished, so it tried to move to the US. And it couldn’t get started because there is not enough interest. High-speed rail. The US is practically the only country in the world that has no high-speed rail. It has a collapsing transportation system. Alternative energy projects generate jobs, from high-level tech to manufacturing. So there’s plenty of opportunities for other kinds of work and decent jobs and salaries.
But it’s a wrench to move from what exists, like, say, mining, to something totally new. It would require a serious government initiative. And that requires a pretty radical change in our political system, which is by now so far skewed to the right that things that are just taken for granted in other countries look impossibly radical here.
You might have seen a column by Paul Krugman a couple days ago opposing Bernie Sanders’s health-care program. What Bernie Sanders is advocating is what practically every other country in the world has. The US is almost alone in not having national health care. The US is ranked lowest among the wealthy countries, the OECD countries, in quality of health care, with about twice the per capita costs. Krugman’s argument is basically, well, it sort of sounds nice, but we can’t manage it here because of the power of financial institutions. What about the public? The public is strongly in favor of it. Even though practically nobody publicly advocates for it in the mainstream, still you have roughly 60 percent support for it, among Democrats about 80 percent. And this goes way back. Go back to the Reagan years. A large majority of the population thought it should be in the Constitution because it’s such an obvious necessity, and about 40 percent of the population thought it was in the Constitution. This is in the Reagan era. And it’s been steady all the way since. But it’s politically impossible to achieve because the country is not a functioning democracy. It’s a plutocracy run by financial institutions and others, so therefore we can’t do what every other country does. You can take a high-speed train from Beijing to Kazakhstan but not from Boston to New York.
So there are real social and political changes that have to take place internally in the country before we can even talk about the things that have to be done, and have to be done fast. It’s not a matter of the distant future. These are things that are vital for the next generation. So, yes, it’s serious, and it’s a very serious problem for the labor movement. A functioning, lively labor movement ought to be in the forefront of working on this.
DB: A question about globalization. We find ourselves always competing, it feels like, against nonunion workers in developing countries. Do you see positive movement happening in organization in the developing countries like China that we find ourselves in competition with? And in what ways could we in the developed world move that forward?
NC: Unions are called internationals, and there is a reason for that in history. If they can become internationals, that, I think, would be the answer. There’s tens of thousands of labor struggles going on every year in China, fighting for decent working conditions, for higher wages, for social and political issues. Western labor movements ought to be contributing to that. I think that is the way of addressing the question of competition: Develop reasonable working conditions, labor conditions, and take over factories in the developing countries like China, support the workers who are fighting hard for this. That’s to the benefit of American workers too, and the best approach, I think. Competition is what power centers want to drive wages and working conditions down. Cooperation internationally is what working people ought to want, just as domestically.
DB: We’re often slaughtered in the public view by right-wing, anti-union extremists, and often they’re turning union members against their own interests. They do it through anger and hate, because that’s easier than education. I just want to know, do you have any suggestions for helping to get through to these people to listen to facts?
NC: That’s no small matter, not just in the US. The same is happening in Europe and elsewhere. You’re right, it’s much easier to fire people up with shrieks and imprecations and hatred and kick somebody in the face who is even lower than you rather than to try to reason your way through these things. That’s always been true. And that’s the goal of serious organizing to overcome that.
And here what you’ve described is quite right. I have to say that what’s going on here now—I don’t want to draw the analogy too closely—but it does begin to remind me of my childhood. I was a child in the 1930s. I could listen to Hitler’s speeches at the Nuremberg rallies over the radio when I was seven- or eight-years old. I didn’t understand the words, but there was no mistaking the nature of the rhetoric and the popular response to it. There’s something similar happening now to what happened in Germany. This is not Germany, and I don’t want to draw the analogy too closely, but it is worth thinking about. In the 1920s Germany was the peak of Western civilization in the arts, in the sciences. It was considered a model of democracy, had huge labor movements, socialist movements, and so on. In 1928 Hitler got less than 3 percent of the vote. Five years later Germany was plunging into becoming the worst country in human history. It doesn’t take much. It’s worth thinking about.
And, yes, the state that we’re in now is kind of like that. There’s a lot of anger. It’s mostly directed against people who are even worse victims than those who are angry. Welfare cheats, for example. Reagan succeeded in demonizing welfare. And if you believe the Reaganite-style stories, yes, you should be against welfare. Who wants Black women in chauffeured limousines coming to the welfare office and stealing your check? I don’t want that. In fact, if you look at people’s attitudes since those years, polls show support for welfare has gone way down. On the other hand, support for what welfare does is quite high. Should you have money for women with dependent children? Sure. Should you have welfare? No. What about kicking immigrants in the face? That’s easy. There are a lot of questions to talk about. But it is easy to incite angry people, to try to focus their anger on people who are suffering even more than they are, and who have absolutely nothing to do with their plight. That’s what’s happening here and in Europe and elsewhere. You have to struggle against that.
The only way to do it is slow, patient explanation and organizing. No other way. And it can work. The labor movement is pretty much down now, but that’s not the first time. In the 1920s the labor movement was virtually destroyed in the US. Then in the 1930s it picked up. It became a lively, significant force. It’s the main force that drove the New Deal measures, not marvelous, but pretty good. It made a big difference in people’s lives. We’re now at a point where anyone who advocates New Deal measures is considered a radical leftist. So Sanders, for example, is basically an old-fashioned New Dealer. He’s considered by some to be way out on the left. However, you go back to Eisenhower, who said that anyone who doesn’t accept New Deal legislation just can’t be in the American political system. That’s where we’ve come in the last thirty years. But it can return. It’s not going to be easy.
DB: The majority of refugees coming out of Syria appear to be landing in Europe, particularly Germany. It appears that other parts of the developed world aren’t willing to help out. Do you think there’s a better way to spread those refugees for prosperity rather than creating ghettos in Germany again and the disparity that comes with that? And what sort of risk does that cause within Europe?
NC: Germany is a rich country of over eighty million people, and it’s a country that needs immigrants desperately. Its fertility is declining, the population is going to decline. That’s an almost automatic consequence of educating women. It’s happened all over the world, poor countries and rich countries. They do need an immigrant force, a work force, to contribute to the economy and so on. Germany and Sweden are practically the only countries that at least temporarily accept refugees.
Take Lebanon. It’s a poor country, just torn by all kinds of strife. About a quarter of the population are Syrian immigrants. That’s in addition to millions of people who are the descendants of those who were driven out by the establishment of the state of Israel and others. Maybe a third of the population is immigrant, in a poor country with plenty of problems. They somehow manage to absorb them. They don’t need immigrants; quite the contrary. Turkey has over two million Syrians. What the European Union is trying to do now is to pressure or bribe Turkey to keep the Syrian refugees, who are really fleeing from miserable, horrendous circumstances, far from Europe’s borders. So you take care of them. Keep them in Turkey, keep them in Lebanon, keep them in Jordan, poor countries. But keep them away from us.
Which is exactly what the US is doing. The Obama policies are to try to pressure Mexico to keep Central American immigrants from coming anywhere near us. Who are the Central American immigrants? These are people fleeing from the wreckage left by US government policies. There was a moving front-page story in the Boston Globe a couple days ago, about a Guatemalan who had been here for twenty-five years, who had a family, and was working. He was just deported. He had come from the highlands in Guatemala where there was virtual genocide, strongly supported by the US, though Congress had prevented Reagan from sending arms and troops to accelerate the slaughter. So he organized an international terror network. The US is a powerful state. When we organize terrorism, it’s not individuals, it’s terrorist states, big guys. So Israel provided most of the arms and training, Taiwan got into the act, Saudi Arabia funded it. And, yes, it was virtual genocide. The immigrant was fleeing a total disaster. There are many immigrants right out here, around Lynn, around Providence and so on, Mayans and others, still fleeing from that wreckage.
The largest percentage of the refugees in the last couple of years has been from Honduras. Honduras has been a wreck for years. It got much worse in 2009. There was a slightly reformist president, Zelaya, who was thrown out in a military coup, and then the military ran a kind of a fake election. Practically nobody recognized it except the US. Since then the murder rate has shot up, terror attacks on women have increased. It’s become even more horrible than before. So they were the plurality of refugees. But US government policy aims to send them back, or get Mexico to push them back.
That’s the analogue to what’s happening in Syria. The Lebanese aren’t responsible for the Syrian crisis. The Jordanians aren’t responsible. Actually, we have a lot of responsibility for it, not total, but significant. The US-British invasion of Iraq was kind of like hitting a devastated country with a sledgehammer. By now Iraq is ranked as the unhappiest country in the world in international polls. The country is a catastrophe. There are Iraqi refugees fleeing again. From the Iraq war itself there were maybe two million people who fled to the neighboring countries, who absorbed them. Not us. One of the consequences of the war was to incite a sectarian conflict, which had not existed before. When you hear about the Sunni and Shi’a fighting for 1500 years, that’s not true. They lived pretty much in peace. In fact, in Iraq before the war there was intermarriage, living in the same neighborhoods, often people didn’t even know who was who. Now it’s a war to the death, tearing the region apart, not just in Iraq but the whole region. And one of the outgrowths of it is the Islamic State. Well, that’s part of what’s wrecking Syria. Not all of it. Syria is also being wrecked by the murderous Assad regime, by the terrorist jihadi forces, which are being supported by our allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.
But they’re fleeing from total wreckage. And what Europe is saying is, “We don’t want you. We can’t handle it. We’re rich, powerful countries, but we can’t handle it.”
Europe is also getting refugees from Africa, a big flood of refugees. Why? There’s a history. The immediate reason is another sledgehammer—smashing up Libya. Here France was in the lead. France, England, and the US virtually destroyed Libya. The country itself is just a chaos of warring militias. Among other things, it opened a funnel for refugees to flood to Europe. That’s the least of it. It also spread weapons and radical Islamist jihadis all over West Africa, all the way to the Middle East. By now the worst terrorist crimes are in West Africa, most of it flowing out of the Libyan crimes.
And there’s a further history—not very pretty. Take one country, Belgium. It is now groaning under the weight of a refugee problem, a lot of it African. What about Belgium and Africa? Congo is the richest country in Africa. It should be a rich, developed country. It has enormous resources. It was run by the Belgians, who were even more brutal and vicious than their competitors. And it’s not ancient history. Congo finally was liberated in 1960, and it could have gone on to become a rich, developed country, a country that could drive African development. It had one of the most effective, maybe the most effective, leader in Africa, Patrice Lumumba, a very promising young nationalist leader. What happened? He was targeted for assassination by the CIA, but the Belgians managed to kill him first. We’re not like ISIS. We don’t cut off people’s heads. Rather, his body was hacked into pieces and dissolved in sulfuric acid. That took care of him. We then supported the kleptomaniac murderer Mobutu, who destroyed the country.
By now the worst crimes in the world are taking place in Congo. Millions of people are being killed in eastern Congo. One of the main actors—maybe the main local actor—is our ally, Rwanda, which is murdering people and stealing resources. There are warring militias, which are trying to steal precious minerals, with the multinationals looking over their shoulder so they can get hold of them quickly, for your cellphone, for example, and other high-tech marvels that we like. And Belgium has a refugee problem. Does it come from nowhere?
This generalizes all over. The countries that are responsible, basically, for creating the refugees are rich and developed in no small measure because of the atrocities they carried out. And they can’t handle the weight of refugees. The same as the US and Latin America. Germany is unique in that it tried to do something. The whole situation, in my view, is really a scandal.
It’s hard to talk about it here, because the US record is the worst. The only question here is, if Syrian refugees try to escape the horror, should we make them wait three years while they’re being vetted to make sure that one of them isn’t a jihadi pretending to be a doctor, or should we just keep them all out? Or maybe we should just carpet-bomb them, like Ted Cruz says. That’s the debate here.
We have a role in the recent destruction of Africa, too. Look at the record. The US was not a big player in Africa until recently. In fact, at the end of World War II, when the State Department was kind of parceling out the world and assigning functions to different parts of the world within the US-dominated world system, the leading planner in charge was George Kennan, the famous, revered statesman. He was head of the Policy Planning Board. There are important documents, which have been declassified for some time, where he describes the function of every region of the world. Like the function of Southeast Asia is to provide resources and raw materials for the former colonial masters so that they will have dollars so they can purchase excess US production, things like that. When he got to Africa, he said, “We’re not all that interested in Africa, so we’ll hand it over to Europe to exploit,” his word, “for its reconstruction.” If you look at the relationship between Europe and Africa over the past century, you might imagine a different relationship, but that was never even discussed. Africa has to be handed over to Europe to “exploit for its reconstruction.” That’s history. Ten years later comes the murder of Lumumba and all the other horrors.
So we can say, let’s forget about it. It’s none of our business. In fact, Winston Churchill at the end of World War II wrote kind of a history of the war and what the future should be like. He has a wonderful paragraph in it. I wish I could quote it verbatim—the rhetoric was lovely—but it was something like this: We, the Europeans and the Americans, are rich and happy. We are like rich men living within our habitations, which it is true we have gained by force and violence, but that’s the way it is. And we just don’t want to be disturbed by all these other people. We want to be rich men living peacefully in our habitations. So we’re not causing any problems in the world; they’re causing the problems.
DB: What are the chances for a global democracy?
NC: We’re not going to have a global democracy until we have local democracies. It’s worth thinking about what’s happened since World War II, but let’s start now, at this time, and go back a little. In roughly the last generation, the neoliberal period, there has been a major attack against democracy—in the US and even worse in Europe. In Europe democracy is declining radically. Decisions are being made by the Eurocrats, the Brussels bureaucracy, the Troika [a term popularly used to refer to the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)], with the northern banks looking over their shoulders. In fact, The Wall Street Journal had an article about a year or so ago in which it pointed out that whatever government is elected in a European country, from right to left, they follow the same policies, because the policies aren’t made in that country, they’re made in the Eurocrat bureaucracy, basically the northern banks.
The decline of democracy is so extreme, for example, in Greece, which is being utterly devastated by the economic policies of the Troika—policies designed to reduce the debt, but, instead, are increasing the debt. The debt relative to GDP is going up, because they killed the productive capacity. There’s something called debt relief that goes to Greece. It actually goes to the northern banks. Greece is a funnel through which European taxpayer money goes to pay the bad debts of German and French banks. A couple of months ago the prime minister did suggest that Greeks should be asked what their opinion is about the policies that are being applied to them. Europe just went crazy. They couldn’t believe the impudence of these people in Greece, which happens to be the country where democracy was born long ago—the impudence of their actually daring to ask the population just what their opinion is. The Troika’s reaction was utterly savage. They instituted even harsher policies than before, not just to punish the Greeks but to make sure that nobody else gets these funny ideas about maybe people ought to be asked about their future.
That’s what’s been happening in Europe. It’s very hard to imagine any economic justification for the policies that have been imposed, the austerity during recession. Even the IMF economists think this is crazy. But it does make sense as class war. It is undermining Europe’s great achievement in the postwar period: some decent level of social democracy. And in countries like Greece and the weaker countries, it’s devastating. It’s okay for the investor class, the banks and so on. They’re doing fine.
In the US something similar has happened. It’s not as severe as Europe but it’s severe. So, for example, there was an interesting study that just came out a couple months ago—you may have seen it—by a very good political economist here, Tom Ferguson, and Walter Dean Burnham, a leading political scientist who has dealt with political history and political economy for decades. They did a very careful analysis of the election in 2014—the last election—of what the voting was like. The results were pretty spectacular. It turned out that voting in the 2014 election was very similar to voting in the elections around 1820, when voting was restricted to propertied white males. That’s where we are. Burnham himself had years ago done close analysis of the record of abstention. The US has a high record of abstention in elections. What’s the socioeconomic profile of people who abstain? As he pointed out, it turns out to be very similar to people in Europe who vote for the social democratic or laborite parties, which don’t exist here. So people just don’t vote.
And they have other reasons not to vote. Most people don’t read the academic political science literature, but they don’t have to because they see it in their lives. What the literature shows very strikingly is that roughly 70 percent of the population, the lower 70 percent on the income/wealth scale, are completely disenfranchised, whether they vote or not. Their representatives pay no attention to their attitudes. So there’s essentially no correlation between what they want as shown by polls and what their representatives do. As you move up the wealth/income scale, you begin to slowly get a little correlation, meaning a little influence. By the time you get to the top, which is actually probably a fraction of 1 percent, policy is made. What does this have to do with democracy? It’s a plutocracy, straight out. There is a little pressure around the edges, but mostly on matters that are kind of peripheral to the centers of power. That’s the US. None of this is engraved in stone.
If you go back to the end of World War II, there was a wave of radical democracy over the whole world. The anti-fascist struggle that inspired people took one form or another: communist, socialist, laborite. And the first goal of the victors, the US and Britain, was to crush it. The history is really worth looking at. It started early on. Britain after 1945 was under the Labour Party. The American and British forces, took the first action in North Africa, where the US imposed basically the Vichy government, including a Nazi sympathizer, Admiral Darlan.
In Italy, there was a strong resistance movement. It was actually holding down six German divisions, not a small thing, not just blowing up a train here and there. In fact, the Italian resistance pretty much liberated a good deal of Italy before the Allied forces got there. The first thing the US and Britain did was to try to reconstitute the traditional system, bring back the king. Field Marshal Badoglio, who was a fascist general, was put back in charge.
As they moved up to the north, which had really been liberated by the resistance and had built their own society, a worker-based, radical democratic society—worker-owned enterprises, cooperatives, the whole business. The British Labour Party was utterly horrified, the Americans even more so. They dismantled it and forcefully restored the traditional order. In 1948 there was going to be an election, and the Allies were petrified that the Left would win. So the U.S.—by then Britain was kind of out of it—poured in money, all kinds of subversion, and threatened to withhold aid—Italy was starving—unless they voted the “right” way, namely, for the Christian Democrats. Go back to the State Department documents which say, “We have to institute policies so clear that the dumbest wop will understand.” They managed to drive the election to the right. For the next twenty or thirty years, Italy was maybe the main target of CIA manipulation to try to keep the country to the right.
Greece also had a very strong resistance movement, which again was holding down several Nazi divisions. The British went in first, in 1944. Churchill ordered the British forces to treat Athens like a conquered city, smash up the domestic forces and reconstitute the traditional quasi-fascist order, the collaborators with the fascists. The British couldn’t hold it down, they didn’t have the forces at that point, so they asked the US to step in. We did, starting in 1946–1947, under the famous Truman Doctrine. It ended up with a civil war where maybe 150,000 Greeks were killed. The Left was wiped out. There was a restoration of pretty much the traditional order, including fascist elements. It went on like that. Finally in the early 1960s there was a literal fascist takeover—the first restoration of a fascist regime in Europe. The US strongly supported it, in fact, kept supporting it until it was overthrown in 1974. That’s Greek democracy.
In Germany the US was very concerned about the labor movement, a lot of it inspired from the east. In fact, George Kennan, again, the great planner and statesman, proposed building a wall to separate Eastern Germany from infecting the West. A nice image when you think about what the future was like. It kind of goes on like that. Meanwhile, the Russians were playing their own rotten games in the east.
But there was a promise during World War II. It could have turned out differently. In some ways good things happened. The formation of the European Union—not the Euro currency, that’s something different—the European Union, the Schengen Agreement, those were real steps forward. And European social democracy was a step forward, now is being beaten back.
When you talk about social visions, that’s extremely important. That’s about as important as the environmental crisis. It’s pressing us towards a possible nuclear war, which means the end quickly. There were, not so much at the end of World War II, but in 1990, competing visions. The Soviet Union collapsed. What happens next? There were competing visions. One of them was Gorbachev’s: a Eurasian security system in which all would take part. There would be centers in Brussels and Moscow and Ankara and kind of a joint security system. Both military alliances would collapse—NATO and the Warsaw Pact. That’s Gorbachev.
The West wasn’t having it. The US in particular forced a different system in which the Warsaw Pact, of course, dissolved and NATO expanded. If you think about it, NATO was established, theoretically, in order to protect Western Europe from the Russian hordes. No more Russian hordes. So what do you do? You expand NATO and move NATO to the east, in violation of verbal promises, not written ones—they were careful not to write it down—verbal promises to Gorbachev. Gorbachev agreed to let a united Germany join NATO, a hostile military alliance, which is a pretty remarkable concession, if you look at history. But the condition, as he understood it, was that NATO would not move “one inch to the east,” meaning East Germany. It wasn’t written; it was a verbal promise. So it was immediately withdrawn.
In later years NATO moved further to the east. Now it’s moving to the geopolitical heartland of Russian security interests, Ukraine. There have been several explicit demands by NATO that Ukraine join NATO. No matter who was running Russia—even Gandhi—they wouldn’t accept this. That’s extremely dangerous. And NATO is right along the border now. It’s a very dangerous situation. Not long ago US military vehicles on maneuvers in Estonia were a couple hundred meters from the Russian border. A couple of months ago a Russian military plane with its transponder off practically hit a Danish commercial airliner, just barely missed it. These things are happening regularly. It’s building up tensions very seriously. Just recently there was an article by William Perry, a former defense secretary, kind of a conservative, serious military analyst, no dove at all, who warned that the danger of nuclear war now is higher than it was during the Cold War. Those are different visions coming from 1989, 1990. There were also different visions during World War II. These are class interests that overwhelm what populations might have wanted. Not a total loss, but not what it could have been. And I think these visions can be reconstituted. These things are not very far below people’s consciousness. They could be reawakened.
DB: While the cost of living goes up, wages fall, and we keep seeing in each of our states the ability to have a secure retirement is also falling, while at the same time it seems the top 1% just keep getting richer. How long do you think we can sustain this trend before the system just breaks?
NC: If you haven’t looked at it yet, you might pick it up on the Internet the latest Oxfam report. Oxfam comes out with a detailed analysis of global inequality every year. They just came out with their last one. It now turns out that in 2016 the 1% will own about half the world’s wealth, meaning they will have as much wealth as three and a half billion people. I think sixty families have practically all of it. It used to be ninety families. It’s getting smaller. And it has almost nothing to do with any contribution to the economy or even any achievement.
So, for example, a large percentage of the people in the top families, the top earners, are from the financial institutions, which are kind of parasitic. There was an IMF study about two years ago which studied the profits of, I think, six leading American banks. It turns out they almost all come from the taxpayer in one or another way. There is an implicit government insurance policy. It’s not on paper, but everyone understands it. Informally it’s called “too big to fail.” If you have a big institution, the government is not going to let it collapse. That does lead to the publicized bailouts.
But that’s the least of it. It means inflated credit ratings, access to cheap credit, which is a huge amount of money. It’s an incentive to carry out risky transactions, which are very profitable. And if they go bust, don’t worry about it. The taxpayer will bail you out. Bloomberg News, the business press, tried to put a number on it. They estimated an over $80 billion-a-year subsidy to the top financial institutions from taxpayers, basically their profit. And things have been set up so that with stock options and all sorts of other trickery, bankers’ incomes just shoot to the sky. There are all sorts of other devices.
The Oxfam report goes into the question of tax havens, which are by now a huge phenomenon. So Pfizer locates in Ireland or in the Cayman Islands. They have kind of an office in the Cayman Islands, let’s say, or in the Jersey Islands off England and don’t pay taxes. Which is a huge amount of money. There’s no economic justification for them, nor are they natural processes of any sort. These are just profit decisions.
So how long will this be tolerated? It’s a question you ought to be asking yourself. Meanwhile, wages stagnate or decline. There’s big talk about the minimum wage, should it go up to $12 or $15. As you probably know, in the 1950s and the 1960s, the minimum wage tracked productivity and GDP. If it had continued after the mid-1970s, it would probably be about $20 an hour now. That’s money that poor working people are handing over to the rich. And it goes on in case after case. So how long will it be tolerated? As long as people don’t want to rise up and overthrow it. It can stop. It’s not done by force, actually. It’s not a totalitarian dictatorship. We’re very free in many respects.
DB: Even with that income inequality and the wage gap, we’re still not organizing these workers. I don’t want to use the word failure, but maybe shortcomings. What have we done wrong? What can we do internally, within our own union organizations, and what can we do externally to better message what the future role of unions is?
NC: My feeling is that after World War II the American unions made a significant strategic error, namely, class collaboration. They were working with employers to obtain fairly decent wages, pensions, and benefits for themselves. Not for the society, for themselves. And class collaboration works as long as the masters let it work. By the late 1970s, they were saying, “Sorry, we’re done with this game.” In fact, there was a famous speech by Doug Fraser, the head of the UAW at the time, who was on some commission that Carter had set up for class collaboration, and he pulled out of it. He said, “The corporations are fighting a one-sided class war against us.” A big discovery! That’s their job. That’s what they always are doing: They are always fighting a class war, a bitter class war. If you don’t want to participate in it, they will roll over you. That’s what’s been happening in the last generation.
A brief comment: Canada and the US had essentially the same unions, but they acted differently. It became a significant issue in the 1950s with regard to health care. In the US the unions got health care for themselves, like the UAW got health care for auto workers. In Canada the same unions struggled for health care for everybody. And you see the difference. The Canadian system isn’t magnificent, it’s not the best one in the world by any means, but it’s way better than the US system. It has much better outcomes at about half the cost. And there are not tens of millions of uninsured people who can’t pay their bills.
There was a study a couple years ago by Harvard School of Public Health. It compared MGH, the leading hospital in Boston, maybe in the United States, with the comparable hospital in Toronto. They got to the point of studying the billing system. When you go to MGH, they have floors full of administrators, secretaries, and economists, all sorts of people working on billing, which is extremely complex and bureaucratic and expensive in the US. When they went into the Toronto hospital and they asked to see the billing department, at first there were kind of blank stares. Then finally they said, “Oh, yes, we have an office in the basement for Americans who come here.”
A lot of that goes back to the difference in attitudes of the unions, which is just one part of the system of class collaboration—“We’ll work things out for ourselves”—which is not a good strategy. Because it is true that the bosses are always fighting a vicious class war. They never stop. And we have a very class-conscious business community. Back in the 1930s, when the labor movement was really making great strides, the ownership class was petrified. When you read the journals of the National Association of Manufacturers—there’s good literature on this, a great book by Alex Carey an Australian social scientist, who quotes a lot of this stuff—they were going crazy. They didn’t know what to do. They were terrified by “the rising political power of the masses,” as they called it. They’re basically Marxists, just inverted. “The rising political power of the masses” is threatening our civilization. What are we going to do about it? There was a lot of popular labor-based activism at the time so that the owners couldn’t strike back directly. That’s when they begin with the scientific methods of strike breaking and what later became the corporations that figured out how to break strikes by introducing Americanism and harmony and propaganda. At the end of World War II anti-union strategies picked up with force, huge campaigns. Again, there’s pretty good literature on this. But working people ought to know it in their bones. And it’s led to what we see now.
But, as I said of before, this has happened in the past. The 1920s were a period of almost total destruction of the labor movement. And it had been a very lively, militant, active movement. Not just the labor movement, but the agricultural movement, too. You go back to the late nineteenth century, the populist movement, which actually began with farmers in Texas and Kansas and was very radical. They were fighting against the Northeastern banks and merchants. They wanted to have their own marketing, credit, and banks, and to takeover their own industries. They tried to make arrangements with the Knights of Labor, a major working-class movement, whose slogan was “The workers ought to own the factories.” It was a major popular movement, the biggest democratic movement in American history. They were running their own towns. In western Pennsylvania, the coal and mining towns were mostly run by labor. It was smashed, mostly by force, a lot of it by Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare tactics, which drove out a lot of the activists. By the 1920s it was pretty much gone. In the 1930s it revived again. It can certainly happen again.
DB: Can you give us some hope for the future?
NC: Yes, I think there’s a lot. Somebody mentioned before the Arab Spring, which now looks like a disaster, but not if you look closely. Actually, I would recommend a book that just came out on Egypt by Jack Shenker. He was a journalist in Egypt through all these years, knows it very well. It’s called The Egyptians: A Radical Story. It’s a very detailed study of what actually went on through the Arab Spring and what’s left today under the bitter dictatorship. And it’s pretty hopeful. I’ve gone through this with some friends who are specialists, who really know Egypt very well, and they think it’s authentic. What he points out is mainly the role of the labor movement. The labor movement had a major role in the successes of the Arab Spring. There were efforts to crush it, but he gives plenty of evidence that it’s still very much alive and working on workers’ issues all over. He thinks there’s a basis for hope right in the middle of Egypt, which is under the worst dictatorship in its history.
I think the same is true in plenty of other places. Take a look at Europe, say. There is resistance to the attack on democracy and freedom and living standards. So there is Podemos in Spain. The left parties just won the election in Portugal. SYRIZA in Greece could have had successes, I think, if there had been support for them from the European Left. I think the Left played a big role in the destruction of Greece just by not supporting SYRIZA in its early stages, before it kind of sold out. The Corbyn victory in England is another case. The crowds that Bernie Sanders is getting are another one. There’s resistance all over the place. There’s a lot of dry kindling around. If it’s lighted, it could take off.
As global capital is united, global business is united, we need to unite our efforts and our strength and we have to do all our best to have a chance to act united as trade unions. And the only forum where we can institutionally act together is the International Labor Organization. Do you think it is a good chance for the trade union movement to put more efforts to focus there and to try to find additional power by our participation there?
If you have mobility of capital and not mobility of labor, already you have a problem. If you go back to the origins of free trade theory, like Adam Smith, he made it very clear that what he called the free circulation of labor is a foundation of free trade. If you restrict the movement of labor while allowing free movement of capital, there’s obvious trouble. That gets back to the immigration story. So, yes, there’s that question. And also I think you’re quite right, international solidarity can be very significant. You’re dealing with multinational corporations, after all. They may be based locally and rely on the taxpayers of a particular country for subsidies and protection, but they are international in their functioning, and they have to be confronted by international labor. Solidarity among working people in different countries can make a lot of difference.
Something came up before about China and the US. That’s a case in point. American workers ought to be cooperating closely with Chinese workers who are fighting for better conditions. First of all, it’s just humanly significant, and it’s significant for the lives and prosperity of American workers. That can happen all sorts of ways. American labor, for example, cooperated to some extent with South African labor movements. That was important. So, yes, I think that’s very important, and certainly possible. It can be done. In a world with easy communications, it’s a lot easier than it used to be.