Noam Chomsky & Robert Pollin: To Heal From COVID-19, We Must Imagine A Different World


Prof.dr. Robert Pollin

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) caught the world unprepared, and the economic, social and political consequences of the pandemic are expected to be dramatic, in spite of recent pledges by leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) major economies to inject $5 trillion into the global economy in order to spur economic recovery.
But what lessons can we learn from this pandemic? Will the coronavirus crisis lead to a new way of organizing society — one that conceives of a social and political order where profits are not above people?
In this exclusive interview with Truthout, public intellectual Noam Chomsky and economist Robert Pollin tackle these questions.

Noam Chomsky

C. J. Polychroniou: Noam, what are some of the deeper lessons we can draw from the global health crisis caused by coronavirus?

Noam Chomsky: Pandemics have been predicted by scientists for a long time, particularly since the 2003 SARS pandemic, which was caused by a coronavirus similar to COVID-19. They also predict that there will be further and probably worse pandemics. If we hope to prevent the next ones, we should therefore ask how this happened, and change what went wrong. The lessons arise at many levels, from the roots of the catastrophe to issues specific to particular countries. I’ll focus on the U.S., though that’s misleading since it is at the bottom of the barrel in competence of response to the crisis.

The basic factors are clear enough. The damage was rooted in a colossal market failure, exacerbated by the capitalism of the neoliberal era. There are particularities in the U.S., ranging from its disastrous health system and weak social justice ranking — near the bottom of the OECD — to the wrecking ball that has taken over the federal government.

The virus responsible for SARS was quickly identified. Vaccines were developed, but were not carried through the testing phase. Drug companies showed little interest: They respond to market signals, and there’s little profit in devoting resources to staving off some anticipated catastrophe. The general failure is illustrated dramatically by the most severe immediate problem: lack of ventilators, a lethal failure, forcing doctors and nurses to make the agonizing decision of who to kill.

The Obama administration had recognized the potential problem. It ordered high-quality low-cost ventilators from a small company that was then bought by a large corporation, Covidien, which shelved the project, apparently because the products might compete with its own high-cost ventilators. It then informed the government that it wanted to cancel the contract because it was not profitable enough.

So far, normal capitalist logic. But at that point the neoliberal pathology delivered another hammer blow. The government could have stepped in, but that’s barred by the reigning doctrine pronounced by Ronald Reagan: Government is the problem, not the solution. So nothing could be done.

We should pause for a moment to consider the meaning of the formula. In practice, it means that government is not the solution when the welfare of the population is at stake, but it very definitely is the solution for the problems of private wealth and corporate power. The record is ample under Reagan and since, and there should be no need to review it. The mantra “Government bad” is similar to the vaunted “free market” — easily skewed to accommodate exorbitant claims of capital.

Neoliberal doctrines entered for the private sector too. The business model requires “efficiency,” meaning maximal profit, consequences be damned. For the privatized health system, it means no spare capacity: just enough to get by in normal circumstances, and even then, bare bones, with severe cost to patients but a good balance sheet (and rich rewards for management). When something unexpected happens, tough luck.

These standard business principles have plenty of effects throughout the economy. The most severe of these concern the climate crisis, which overshadows the current virus crisis in its import. Fossil fuel corporations are in business to maximize profits, not to allow human society to survive, a matter of indifference. They are constantly seeking new oil fields to exploit. They do not waste resources on sustainable energy and dismantle profitable sustainable energy projects because they can make more money by accelerating mass destruction.

The White House, in the hands of an extraordinary collection of gangsters, pours fuel on the fire by its dedication to maximizing fossil fuel use and dismantling regulations that hinder the race to the abyss in which they proudly take the lead.

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Noam Chomsky: Ventilator Shortage Exposes The Cruelty Of Neoliberal Capitalism


COVID-19 has taken the world by storm. Hundreds of thousands are infected (possibly many times more than the confirmed cases), the list of dead is growing exponentially longer, and capitalist economies have come to a standstill, with a global recession now virtually inevitable.

The pandemic had been predicted long before its appearance, but actions to prepare for such a crisis were barred by the cruel imperatives of an economic order in which “there’s no profit in preventing a future catastrophe,” Noam Chomsky points out in this exclusive interview for Truthout. Chomsky is emeritus professor of linguistics at MIT and laureate professor at the University of Arizona, author of more than 120 books and thousands of articles and essays. In the interview that follows, he discusses how neoliberal capitalism itself is behind the U.S.’s failed response to the pandemic.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, the outbreak of the new coronavirus disease has spread to most parts of the world, with the United States now having more infected cases than any other country, including China, where the virus originated. Are these surprising developments?

Noam Chomsky: The scale of the plague is surprising, indeed shocking, but not its appearance. Nor the fact that the U.S. has the worst record in responding to the crisis.

Scientists have been warning of a pandemic for years, insistently so since the SARS epidemic of 2003, also caused by a coronavirus, for which vaccines were developed but did not proceed beyond the pre-clinical level. That was the time to begin to put in place rapid-response systems in preparation for an outbreak and to set aside spare capacity that would be needed. Initiatives could also have been undertaken to develop defenses and modes of treatment for a likely recurrence with a related virus.

But scientific understanding is not enough. There has to be someone to pick up the ball and run with it. That option was barred by the pathology of the contemporary socioeconomic order. Market signals were clear: There’s no profit in preventing a future catastrophe. The government could have stepped in, but that’s barred by reigning doctrine: “Government is the problem,” Reagan told us with his sunny smile, meaning that decision-making has to be handed over even more fully to the business world, which is devoted to private profit and is free from influence by those who might be concerned with the common good. The years that followed injected a dose of neoliberal brutality to the unconstrained capitalist order and the twisted form of markets it constructs.

The depth of the pathology is revealed clearly by one of the most dramatic — and murderous — failures: the lack of ventilators that is one the major bottlenecks in confronting the pandemic. The Department of Health and Human Services foresaw the problem, and contracted with a small firm to produce inexpensive, easy-to-use ventilators. But then capitalist logic intervened. The firm was bought by a major corporation, Covidien, which sidelined the project, and, “In 2014, with no ventilators having been delivered to the government, Covidien executives told officials at the [federal] biomedical research agency that they wanted to get out of the contract, according to three former federal officials. The executives complained that it was not sufficiently profitable for the company.”

Doubtless true.

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We Are Facing Economic Collapse On Top Of A Pandemic. What We Do Now Matters.


Prof.dr. Robert Pollin

As the COVID-19 virus spreads, the U.S. economy has begun to crumble like a house of cards.
The sudden collapse of the economy is revealing how the “great economy” that Donald Trump has been boasting about on Twitter for the past three years was in fact a mirage caused by wild Wall Street rallies, and boosted by Trump’s massive tax cuts and deregulatory efforts contrast which rolled back all kinds of environmental standards with total disregard for the impact on public health and the climate crisis.
As the shutdowns orchestrated to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus create financial ruin for individuals and businesses across the country, the economy is “teetering on collapse,” points out Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, in this exclusive interview for Truthout.

But Pollin also argues that — with the right decisions — we have the means not only to rescue the complete collapse of the economy, but also to move in the direction of a just, equitable and sustainable socioeconomic order. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

C.J. Polychroniou: Can you give a succinct summary of the myths and realities of Trump’s economy from the day he took office and up until the outbreak of COVID-19?

Robert Pollin: Throughout his presidency, until basically last week, Trump’s mantra on the economy is that conditions have never, ever been better. This was always a ludicrous assertion. But as distinct from many other of Trump’s assertions, this one was based on at least some slivers of evidence, with the two critical slivers being the stock market and the unemployment rate. It is true, first of all that, as of last July, the U.S. stock market had reached an historic high, with the S&P 500 index exceeding 3,000 for the first time. It is also true that the official unemployment rate had hit a record low of 3.5 percent as of February.According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the last time the official U.S. unemployment rate was below 3.5 percent was 1953.

But the stock market rise reflected, more than anything, a combination of (1) companies deliberately inflating their own stock prices through buying back their shares on the open market; and (2) the reinforcement, with Trump, of the upward distribution of income and wealth that has proceeded now for 40 years under neoliberalism. For example, with Trump’s signature across-the-board tax cuts in 2017, the benefits for the poorest 20 percent of the population amounted to an average of $100 while the richest 1 percent received $55,000. Over the next decade, the poorest 20 percent would then see their taxes go up while the richest 1 percent would benefit from further cuts.

With the historically low official unemployment rate, if we add up the people who were working part-time but wanted full-time jobs as well as those who have temporarily given up looking for work, plus we account for the share of people who have dropped out of the labor force following the 2007-09 Great Recession, we are now at a more realistic unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent. This is about 16 million people, roughly equal to the entire populations of New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. On top of this, wages had only begun to start inching up with the unemployment rate at its historically low level. This is after 40 years of most working people experiencing falling or stagnating real wages.

In short, our current economy was never anything close to the halcyon image projected by Trump until this week. In any case, all of those rosy descriptions are now a thing of the past.
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Does the UK Need the EU? An Interview With Malcolm Sawyer


Malcolm Sawyer, Emeritus Professor of Economics at Leeds University

What was Brexit all about? What will its most likely consequences for UK, EU, and the world economy at large? Renowned British economist Malcolm Sawyer, Emeritus Professor of Economics at Leeds University, UK, discusses these and other related issues in an exclusive interview below with C. J. Polychroniou. 

C. J. Polychroniou:Brexit has happened. The UK has gotten a divorce from the European Union (EU), after being a member for 47 years. Is this a cultural and political revolution?

Malcolm Sawyer: As of 11pm. (UK time) on 31st January 2020, the UK is no longer a member of the EU, and as such does not participate in the political deliberations of the EU (e.g. no longer any UK members of the European Parliament, UK government ministers do not attend meetings of council of ministers). However, during what is termed a transition period, intended to be completed by 31st December this year, very little has changed in the economic and social relationships between the UK and the EU. Trade continues to take place on the same terms as before, the free movement of labour between countries continues, etc. etc.. The economic effects of UK’s leaving of the EU are yet to be felt, e.g. those from changes in the trading arrangements. To date, there have been effects of the prospects of Brexit: the sterling exchange rate declined sharply shortly after the referendum from which it has not yet fully recovered, and investment has been subdued through uncertainty of the future relationships.

The referendum result was 52/48 in favour of leave over remain, and opinion polls since the referendum have tended to find some, albeit small, movement in opinion towards remain. The general election result of December 2019 resulted in a large Parliamentary majority for the Conservative government with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, but based on a 43 per cent share of the national vote. The main political parties against Brexit without a further referendum, and against what is often termed a ‘hard Brexit’ (which is now the probable outcome) secured 52 per cent of the national vote.

At the present time, very little has changed in the day-to-day relationships between the UK and the EU. Trade relationships, movement of peoples etc will be decided upon over the next few months. It remains to be seen how co-operative will be the future relationships between the UK and the EU – much of the Brexit campaign has been based on hostility and suspicion of the EU, which undermine future co-operation. Brexit and the campaigns surrounding it have shown up deep divisions within British society.

C. J. Polychroniou: What are the implications of Brexit for the future of Great Britain, the EU, and the world economy at large?

Malcolm Sawyer: Future of UK. The result of the referendum (2016 on remain or leave the EU) revealed significant differences between age groups (old more likely to vote leave than the young), and geographical (cities more likely to vote remain than towns and rural areas). There were also differences between the constituent nations of the UK – England and Wales both voted to leave, and Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain.

There are forces which could propel a break-up of the United Kingdom with Scotland becoming an independent nation and Northern Ireland re-unified with Ireland. The pressures for independence in Scotland are enhanced by the UK leaving the EU, with a Scottish National Party (SNP) in power in Scotland (albeit as a minority government) continuing to push for a second referendum on Scottish independence. A majority of members of the Scottish Parliament favour independence (SNP plus Scottish Green Party) and recent opinion polls put support for independence slightly in the lead.

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Noam Chomsky: Sanders Threatens The Establishment By Inspiring Popular Movements


Noam Chomsky

The impeachment trial of Donald Trump for power abuses is winding down, with his acquittal all but ensured when the Senate reconvenes on Wednesday to vote on the articles of impeachment. Yet, his real crimes continue to receive scant attention, and it is Sen. Bernie Sanders who is regarded by the political establishment as the most dangerous politician because of his commitment to a just and equitable social order and a sustainable future. Meanwhile, the conclusion of the Davos meeting in January demonstrated the global elites’ ongoing commitment to unimpeded planetary destruction.

This is indeed the state of the contemporary U.S. political environment, as the great public intellectual Noam Chomsky points out in this exclusive interview for Truthout.

C.J. Polychroniou: The impeachment trial of Donald Trump isnearlyover, and what a farce it has been — something you had predicted from the start, which is also the reason why you thought that an impeachment inquiry was a rather foolish move on the part of the Democrats. With that in mind, what does this farcical episode tell us about the contemporary state of U.S. politics, and do you anticipate any political fallout in the 2020 election?

Noam Chomsky: It seemed clear from the outset that the impeachment effort could not be serious, and would end up being another gift by the Democrats to Trump, much as the Mueller affair was. Any doubts about its farcical nature were put to rest by its opening spectacle: Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts struggling to keep a straight face while swearing in senators who solemnly pledged that they would be unmoved by partisan concerns, and at once proceeded as everyone know they would to behave and vote along strictly party lines. Could there be a clearer exhibition of pure farce?

Are the crimes discussed a basis for impeachment? Seems so to me. Has Trump committed vastly more serious crimes? That is hardly debatable. What might be debatable is whether he is indeed the most dangerous criminal in human history (which happens to be my personal view). Hitler had been perhaps the leading candidate for this honor. His goal was to rid the German-run world of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and otherdeviants, along with tens of millions of Slav Untermenschen. But Hitler was not dedicated with fervor to destroying the prospects of organized human life on Earth in the not-distant future (along with millions of other species).
Trump is. And those who think he doesn’t know what he’s doing haven’t been looking closely.

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To Members Of Congress


January 7, 2020.
The unlawful and provocative assassination of Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, has already given rise to an escalating spiral of lethal events. The greatest risks are to stumble escalating into a devastating war in the Middle East with grave consequences for the peoples of Iran and Iraq and likely across the region. Such a war would have disastrous effects for this country, for the region and the world. It is certain to do further harm to the reputation of the United States, which already is perceived in much of the world as an irresponsible and criminal political actor in the region, using military force in ways that have made already difficult situations catastrophic by taking various dangerous military, economic and quasi-diplomatic initiatives misleadingly presented as “maximum pressure”

It is imperative for the well-being of our country, and indeed the world, that the Congress of the United States fulfill its most solemn constitutional responsibility, and impose effective restraints on the war-making actions of this impeached president. This is a moment when partisan politics should be put aside, not only for the sake of national interests but for the benefit of humanity – -we should realize that these unilateral actions by the United States have
put the entire world at risk. It is also a moment when Republicans as well as Democrats must stand up for a sane foreign policy, and for diplomacy and peace instead of aggression and war, and fulfill their duties as Members of Congress.

The Iranian people have endured decades of economic warfare waged by the US and its allies. Since the revolution of 1979 in Iran and the end of a mutually beneficial relationship between the US and Iran’s autocratic leader, the Shah, the US has imposed numerous sanctions on Iran under various guises, threatened it with war and inflicted pain and suffering on its people.
What is desperately needed with respect to Iran is not any further recourse to coercive diplomacy based on escalating threats, crippling sanctions, and tit-for-tat military actions. What is urgently needed is an immediate shift to restorative diplomacy based on mutual respect for international and domestic law, with the objective of peace, stability, and cooperation.

From all that we now know, General Soleimani had come to Iraq without stealth on a commercial plane. He came to Iraq on a diplomatic peacemaking mission at the invitation of the Baghdad Government, and with a meeting scheduled on the following day with the Prime Minister that was part of an ongoing effort to seek a lessening of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In reaction to major violations of its sovereignty, the Iraqi Parliament has voted to expel U.S. troops from their country. In place of what seemed a promising regional initiative the assassination of General Soleimani has resulted in an intensification of conflict, further massive suffering, and the likelihood of dangerous escalation.

We call on Congress to act with urgency to stem this slide toward war and regional chaos.

We urge you to consider imposing ironclad restraints on the authority of the President to make any further use of international force without a clear and definite authorization by the U.S. Congress, which itself should respect the relevant prohibitions of international law and the provisions and procedures of the UN Charter.

Respectfully yours,
Noam Chomsky
Richard Falk
Daniel Ellsberg

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