Noam Chomsky: Ocasio-Cortez And Other Newcomers Are Rousing The Multitudes

Noam Chomsky

A quick glance around the world today reveals that politics almost everywhere — from the federal government shutdown in the US to the power struggle in Venezuela and from Macron’s crisis in France and UK’s Brexit nightmare to the Israeli-Iranian rivalry – are engulfed in a state of uncertainty and turmoil. Meanwhile, oligarchy is replacing democracy as the widening social and economic gap between rich and poor continues unabated. So, who rules the world now? The US is in a state of relative decline, but neither Russia nor China has the capacity to control global developments. How do the super-rich and corporations factor into this equation? In this exclusive interview, world-renowned linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky provides penetrating insights into some of the most critical developments going on in the world today.

C.J. Polychroniou: After 35 days of a partial government shutdown, Trump signed a three-week funding bill but without securing money for the border wall. Leaving aside for the moment the surrealist nature of contemporary US political life, do you detect some hidden political strategy behind Trump’s funding conflict over the border wall with the Democrats?

Noam Chomsky: There’s a political strategy, but I’m not convinced that it’s hidden. With Trump, everything is pretty much on the surface. There have been constant efforts by political analysts to discern some deep geostrategic or sociopolitical thinking behind his performances, but they seem to me unconvincing. What he does seems readily explained simply on the well-grounded assumption that his doctrine is simple: ME!

Trump understands that he has a primary constituency — extreme wealth and corporate power — and that he has to serve its interests or he’s finished. That task has largely been assigned to the Ryans and McConnells, who have performed it admirably. Profits are skyrocketing, real wages are barely increasing despite low unemployment, regulations that might limit greed (and help mere people) are being dismantled, and the one legislative achievement — the tax scam — put lots of dollars in the right pockets and created a deficit that can be used as a pretext to undermine benefits. All is working smoothly — with analogues worldwide.

But Trump must maintain enough of a voting base to stay in power. That requires posturing as the defender of the ordinary guy against hated “elites” (always suppressing the true “masters of mankind,” to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase for the merchants and manufacturers who were “the principal architects” of policy). This act is helped along by such figures as Rush Limbaugh, who instructs his tens of millions of followers that they should beware of “the four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media,” institutions that “are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit.” So, he argues, just listen to ME.
Meanwhile Trump must rise to the defense of the masses from awesome threats, chief among them now the hordes of “rapists,” “murderers” and “Islamic terrorists” he says are being mobilized down south to storm across the border and slaughter decent law-abiding white Christian Americans. We must therefore have a “beautiful wall” — which they will pay for. Trump promised that, and to back down would not only betray the trembling masses but also be a defeat, which his ego cannot tolerate.

The game is not really new. After all, the revered Ronald Reagan bravely donned his cowboy uniform and declared a National Emergency to protect the country from the Nicaraguan army, supposedly poised to destroy us all only two days’ drive from Harlingen, Texas. Trump is only carrying it further, helped by the fading of such infantile notions as “truth” — or “false realities,” to borrow Jared Kushner’s innovation. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s admonition that policymakers must be “clearer than truth” has long passed into obsolescence. They can do far better in the atmosphere of “alternative facts” for those liberated from the four pillars of deceit.
I doubt that there is any deeper political strategy. Read more

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Oligarchy Is Destroying Our Society And The Planet

James K. Boyce – Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Is capitalism on the brink of joining the dustbin of history? And what would a post-capitalist society and a sustainable economy look like?

Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the world has experienced historically unprecedented levels of growth, with capitalism raising the standard of living of many nations. At the same time, capitalism has generated immense contradictions (exploitation of labor and nature, huge economic inequalities and gross social injustices), and these traditionally have been the main foci of radical political movements advancing the vision of a just socioeconomic order. But is the era of capitalist growth now coming to an end?

Renowned economist James Boyce, senior fellow at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, offers critical insights on all of these questions, which should be food for thought for all progressives in the age of the revival of democratic socialism. Professor Boyce is the author of the forthcoming books Economics for People and the Planet: Inequality in the Era of Climate Change and The Case for Carbon Dividends.

C.J. Polychroniou: There are economists today who are arguing that the era of capitalist economic growth is over. Is capitalism, in your own view, on its deathbed, soon to join the dustbin of history like previous economic systems such as feudalism?

James Boyce: Your question really has two parts. One is about the future of capitalism, the other about the future of economic growth. The answers depend on what we mean by both of these terms, “capitalism” and “economic growth.”

Let me start with growth. Whenever we talk about this, we need to ask: Growth of what? Conventional economists use the term to mean growth of GDP, gross domestic product, the monetary value of all the goods and services produced in the economy that carry a price tag. Yet we know that GDP is a hodgepodge of things that are good, bad and useless. It not only includes good things, like food and housing and music, but also bad things, like the costs resulting from wars, prisons and environmental disasters. GDP also includes some useless things, like one-upmanship spending for what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption,” the aim of which is merely to attain a higher position in the social pecking order, spending that does not add to a society’s well-being since one person’s gain is just another’s loss. The only thing that all the items counted in GDP have in common is that they carry a market price tag.

At the same time, GDP doesn’t count much that is very important to human well-being. It doesn’t count good things without a price tag, like the unpaid labor devoted to caring for children and the elderly, or ecosystem services, or any of the proverbial “best things in life that are free.” It doesn’t account for things that reduce our well-being like environmental degradation and violence. So, all in all, GDP is a deeply flawed measure of a society’s well-being. Preoccupation [with] how fast it grows is misplaced.

The same applies to “limits to growth,” a phrase popularized by some well-meaning environmentalists. Of course, there are limits to growth, if by this we mean the growth of bad things like pollution, natural resource depletion, imprisonment or violence. None of these can grow forever. The limits may be hard to identify with precision – what, for example, is the maximum percent of a nation’s population that can be put in jail? Three percent? Ten? Twenty-five? – but we know there is a limit. Read more

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Oil Companies Spent Millions To Defeat Green New Deal In Washington State

Climate change appeared on the ballot in numerous states during the 2018 midterm elections, an indication of the growing concern among average citizens about the catastrophic effects of fossil fuel burning. But the struggle for regulations on emissions was repeatedly blocked by the money machinery of the oil industry. Record amounts of money were spent trying to derail the efforts of activists and labor unions fighting to save the environment. One such instance was over Initiative 1631 in Washington State where the oil industry spent more than $30 million trying to sabotage the struggle for a better world. In this exclusive Truthout interview, Jeff Johnson — who led the fight for the passing of Initiative 1631 — reflects on the lessons activists nationwide can draw for the future from the climate change struggle in Washington State.

C.J. Polychroniou: Jeff, share with me the background of the movement you led in Washington State for climate change and Initiative 1631.

Jeff Johnson: For the record, I am one of seven leaders representing communities of color, the environmental community, tribes and labor that came together to form the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy. The Alliance spent three years building a climate justice movement based on principles of equity and giving assistance and voice to those most disproportionately impacted by climate disaster. Initiative 1631 was a product of this work.

I-1631 created a carbon fee of $15 a metric ton on carbon pollution and would have used the resulting $2.3 billion generated over five years to invest in clean energy, clean water and healthy forests – creating tens of thousands of family wage jobs and pulling 20 million tons of CO2 out of the air every year. Read more

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A Complex World: My Interview With Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky has revolutionized multiple fields of study from psychology to linguistics to political science. Chomsky changed the way human beings even think about language through such concepts as the universal grammar theory. In the field of psychology, Chomsky was instrumental in debunking Skinner’s theory of behaviorism. In the field of political science, with books such as Manufacturing Consent to Fateful Triangle to Hegemony or Survival, and many others, Chomsky enlightened people all over the world, from individual citizens to revolutionary political leaders. It is for these reasons, and more, why it is no surprise that Chomsky is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of our time.

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. elections, I had the privilege of being able to sit down with Professor Chomsky at his office for a chat on an array of different topics, such as what is the fate of an honest intellectual, the concept of pre-modern societies, ethnic conflict, the religious nation-state, federalism, the political vulgarization of genocide, what is power, the value of truth and reconciliation commissions, and anarchism.

What is the Fate of An Honest Intellectual?

Noam Chomsky There’s a history, goes back 2500 years, back to the origins of recorded history, classical Greece, and the biblical records. Go back to Greece; there was a man [Socrates] who was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens by asking searching questions. His fate was to be killed with poison—given the hemlock. In the biblical record, which is partly accurate, partly not, there were critical intellectuals—the word that is used for them is prophets. That is a dubious translation of an obscure Hebrew phrase. What they were, if you look at what they were actually saying, were critics. They criticized the acts of the evil kings, they gave geopolitical analysis, warned that the policies were going to lead to disaster; they called for helping widows and orphans and so on. That is what today we call dissident intellectuals. What happened to them? They were imprisoned, driven into the desert, maligned; the worst of the Kings, King Ahab, condemned the Prophet Elijah as a hater of Israel because he was condemning the acts of the evil Kings—it is probably the origin of the notion of anti-American and anti-Israel, and so on. And it goes the same way throughout history.

Going up to modern times, the term intellectual, in the current sense, is really not used before the late 19th century. It came into use at the time of the Dreyfus trial in France, and Emile Zola and others who supported Dreyfus and condemned the state and the military. They were critical intellectuals [who] were bitterly condemned by the mainstream of the intellectual classes. Zola himself had to flee France for his life. That is the treatment of dissidents.

Shortly after that came the First World War, which was very striking, a lot of commentary on it now since it is the centenary. One of the most interesting things is the reaction of intellectuals. On every side, the intellectual classes lined up passionately in support of their own state. In Germany, there was a manifesto of 93 leading intellectuals instructing the civilized world that Germany is defending the great cultural legacy of Beethoven, Immanuel Kant, and so on, and the world should join them—on the Western side, the same. There were critics, [such as] Bertrand Russell in England, Rosa Luxembourg, Karl Liebknecht in Germany, Eugene Debs in the United States; they were put in jail. That is intellectuals. Read more

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Climate Change Is The Product Of How Capitalism “Values” Nature

Professor John Bellamy Foster ~ Photo: University of Oregon

Climate change is the greatest existential crisis facing humanity today. Capitalist industrialization has led us to the edge of the precipice, and avoiding the end of civilization as we know it may require the development of a view in direct opposition to the way in which capitalism “values” nature, according to John Bellamy Foster, professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and editor of the socialist magazine Monthly Review.

C. J. Polychroniou: We live in a period of massive environmental disturbance, such that it has led to the claim that we are no longer in the Holocene epoch but instead in the midst of the Anthropocene era. Assuming that this claim, popularized in the West by the atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, is scientifically correct, to what extent can economic growth itself be blamed for the catastrophic effects of human activities on the environment, including influencing the climate by burning fossil fuels, cutting down rainforests and farming livestock?

John Bellamy Foster: It is worth noting that the Anthropocene concept originated in the early USSR. It first appeared in the English language in the translation of The Great Soviet Encyclopedia in the 1970s. This arose out of discussions of anthropogenic change and the biosphere pioneered in Soviet science, pointing to today’s Earth System perspective and to our current, more developed notion of the Anthropocene.

It now appears to be the consensus in natural science that the Anthropocene epoch in geological history commenced in the early 1950s, marked by a Great Acceleration of anthropogenic impacts on the Earth System. The 2018 special report of the IPCC released last month emphasizes the shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene as signifying that anthropogenic factors are now the leading sources of change in the Earth System, most notably in the form of climate change. Economic activity at present, as you note, relies heavily on burning fossil fuels, cutting down rainforests, and livestock farming, all of which lead to the emission of greenhouse gases that are accelerating climate change.

Today’s planetary ecological crisis is due first and foremost to the increasing scale of the capitalist world economy. The greater the scale of the economy the more it rivals the fundamental biogeochemical cycles of the planet. All of this is connected to the nature and logic of capitalism, understood as a system directed at the accumulation of capital. Capitalism is a grow-or-die system. If accumulation declines, the result is economic crisis. The answer of the system is to boost accumulation. This, however, intensifies global environmental crises as the already visible impact of the economy on the Earth System increases.

To speak of economic growth as a principal problem, and of the need for a steady-state economy as a solution, immediately raises the specter in people’s minds of the end of human progress. However, we should be careful not to identify economic growth, as that term is used today, with human advancement as a whole. Economic growth was deified in the 1950s, following the introduction of national income accounting during the Second World War. The system of national or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) accounting is rooted in capitalist notions of value added, profit and accumulation. It accurately reflects the logic of capital accumulation but it is far removed from growth in the wider sense in which people usually think of it. Read more

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World Order In The Age Of Trump And Trumpism

Richard Anderson Falk- Professor of International Law Emeritus

Based on lecture given at West Chester University, October 24, 2018.

The title requires a few words of explanation. By the ‘Age of Trump,’ I mean not only the current American president. The phrase is meant to encompass elected leaders like him around the world. I have a friend in India who refers to Narendra Modi as ‘our Trump’ and the newspapers have been full of commentary to the effect that the new leader of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, amounts to ‘a Brazilian Donald Trump,’ although some familiar with Bolsonaro’s worldview insist that ‘a Brazilian Joseph Goebbels’ is more accurate. This extension of Trump to Trumpism is meant to make us aware that Trump is not just an American abnormality. He reflects a structural conditions that seem global in character, although with significant variations from nation to nation.[i]

By referring to ‘Trumpism’ my intention to highlight several issues beyond this autocratic brand of ‘democratic’ leader:
(1) To associate ‘Trumpism’ with a deliberate U.S. withdrawal from political and neoliberal globalization, without significantly challenging, perhaps even augmenting military globalism, enhancing capabilities to project destructive power anywhere on the planet, while weakening alliance commitments and multilateral trade frameworks;
(2) Trumpism also refers to the populist base of support for a global array of strong leaders, and their accompanying right-wing social, economic, and cultural policies, with the threat of ‘fascism’ and fascist tendencies being increasingly feared and perceived, even in centrist discourse;
(3) Trumpism also involves a shift of preferred worldview from globalist to nationalist centers of political gravity, with a loss of normative support for human rights, democracy, and multilateral diplomacy and cooperative forms of multilateral problem-solving and treaty making; and
(4) in the American setting, this phenomenon of Trumpism is not tied solely to the person of Trump; it could survive Trump if one or more of several scenarios unfold—for instance, in the 2018 and 2020 national elections the Republican Congress is reelected, even if Trump should be defeated or compelled to resign—in effect, the Republican Party has been effectively taken over by the ideas, values, and approach of Trump, and vice versa; it is difficult to disentangle ideological cause and effect as between party and leader.

The Kavanaugh confirmation hearings were one kind of straw in the wind, considering the iron party discipline manifested, and suggesting that the American judiciary will be Trumpist for many years even if Trump is defeated. Trump’s judicial appointments would set the judicial tone for years, if not decades, were the Democratic Party to take control of the Senate as early as November.

There is one important confusion surround the global approach of Trump, which arises from the perception of Trump as incoherent, impulsive, and dishonest, and nothing more than an opportunistic narcissist. I think this confusion can be exposed by distinguishing between Trump as tactician and Trump as strategist. It is as if it is necessary to approach the identity of Trump as an either/or question: either Trump is completely ad hoc and opportunistic or he knows what he is doing, and has been effective in carrying out his plan. My view is that Trump is both an erratic personality and a right-wing ideologue. Read more

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