Interviewed by David Barsamian, 5 May 2020
Noam Chomsky, by any measure, has led a most extraordinary life. In one index he is ranked as the eighth most cited person in history, right up there with Aristotle, Shakespeare, Marx, Plato and Freud. The legendary MIT professor practically invented modern linguistics. In addition to his pioneering work in that field he has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for many decades. Chris Hedges says he is “America’s greatest intellectual” who “makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable.” He is Institute Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT and Laureate Professor of Linguistics and Haury Chair in the Program in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona. At 91, he is still active; writing and giving interviews. He is the author of scores of books, including Propaganda & the Public Mind, How the World Works, Power Systems and Global Discontents with David Barsamian.
(Published with consent from alternative radio & David Barsamian. This English version of the interview may not be reproduced without prior permission.
Consent coordination: Jake Joseph
Malayalam translation of this article can be read here)
Some years ago you wrote, “Among the hardest tasks that anyone can undertake and one of the most important is to look honestly in the mirror. If we allow ourselves to do so, we should have little difficulty in finding the characteristics of failed states right at home.” What does the current coronavirus pandemic reveal about characteristics of the U.S. as a failed state?
First of all, I perhaps should say that 15 years ago, as you may remember, I wrote a book called Failed States. It was mostly about the United States, a country that is a danger to itself, to its own citizens, to the world, violates international law, fails to develop internal systems that sustain its own people, and much else. It’s much more extreme now. By now I think it’s a widely held opinion about the U.S., abroad and at home.
I just happen to have read a Canadian newspaper this morning, The National Observer. One of the main articles in it is “Have the Americans Gone Insane?” and describes the craziness in this country. There’s a recent article by George Packer, kind of a mainstream liberal intellectual, called “We Are Living in a Failed State.”
Now, take a look at the coronavirus. Countries have responded to it in different ways. [dog barking] Sorry.
Is that how they responded? By barking? (laughter)
One way. One of the pleasures of isolation, you get a little company. Right now there is an epidemic of China bashing, mostly an effort to try to cover up Trump’s crimes against the American people, to find some scapegoat. The facts of the matter are that by January 12th, a few days after the first discovery that something was going on, Chinese scientists had identified the virus, sequenced the genome, and given the information to the World Health Organization and to the entire world. So by January 12th every relevant scientist all over the world knew what was happening and what to do about it.
And then after that, countries varied. The countries of Asia and Oceania—Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea—reacted quite quickly and very effectively. They have it pretty much under control by now, close to eradication in some places. Europe didn’t pay a lot of attention to these Asians at first, but most countries gradually got their act together more or less in varying ways, some pretty well, some not.
Way at the bottom of the barrel is the U.S. U.S. intelligence was battering at the doors of the White House, issuing daily reports trying to get somebody’s attention. The top health officials were trying to do the same. Trump wouldn’t listen. He has surrounded himself with a bunch of sycophants who, if they understand anything, wouldn’t dare to say anything to the lord. He apparently, from all reports, has two interests: one is his TV ratings, the other is the stock market. The stock market doesn’t have much to do with the economy, but in his fantasy world it tells him whether he’s going to be elected in November.
So finally in March the stock market tanked. He noticed and he made some statements. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Americans had already died, the pandemic was raging, it was totally out of control. After that comes a series of—if it weren’t so tragic, you would call them comedy acts. One day it’s nothing, it’s like a bad cold, I’ve got it totally under control; the next day it’s a pandemic and I was the first person to notice it, even before anyone else did; the next day a lockdown; the next day open up by Easter. On and on.
But there is one theme that runs through: I’ve got to make sure that I’m on top. It doesn’t matter what happens to anyone else. If the scientist in charge of vaccines happens to say something criticizing some of my quack medicine proposals, I’ll fire him. He’s fired. So we lost the head of vaccines. If during my anti-China tirades a major operation working with Chinese scientists is discovering new coronaviruses and working on ways of protecting against them but it happens to have some contact with Chinese scientists who have all the information and so on, destroy the program. That’s the way we are. If it turns out to be convenient to denounce the World Health Organization and I’ll make some points with parts of my voting base who don’t like international institutions and hate foreigners, okay, we’ll defund the World Health Organization and plan to destroy it.
Of course, there are consequences, which, interestingly, don’t get discussed. So, say, take Yemen, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, for which Trump has his share of responsibility, also his predecessor. The worst humanitarian crisis. There are health workers saving people there from the World Health Organization. So let’s get them out and destroy it. Africa is suffering from many diseases. The World Health Organization is on the front line saving people. But who cares? I could get some points with my voting base, so let’s kill a lot of Africans. That’s typical.
In fact, if you want to get kind of an encapsulated view of the thinking in the administration, Trump and the people around him, probably the best place to look for a brief picture is his budget proposal for next year. It came out on February 10th, right in the middle of the pandemic, though he was still calling it a cold.
So what’s in the budget? Well, there is a decrease in funding in some areas, an increase in funding in others. Let’s take a look. What about health areas? The Center for Disease Control, defunded. Actually, Trump has been systematically defunding it every year since he’s been in office, and in the midst of the pandemic let’s defund it further. In fact, anything health-related or anything that’s in service to the population let’s defund.
What about increases in funding? Increased subsidies to the fossil fuel industries, that are hard at work trying to ensure that human organized society won’t exist in another couple generations. So fund them. It’s great for profits. It’s my constituency—wealth and corporate power. So fund them, whatever the consequences are; defund others that just serve people and save lives. That’s what we’re dealing with. That’s the malignancy that happens to be running the country and the political sector.
In terms of your perspective on U.S. history, has there ever been a time when there has been such disdain for science as exists in the current regime in Washington?
Never. There’s never been anything remotely like it. There wasn’t much interest in science for a long time, but what there was was taking it seriously. This is off the spectrum. It’s not just the U.S. The great writer Ariel Dorfman recently in one column quoted a fascist general under Franco back in 1936. He said, “Down with intelligence, forward with death.” That’s Trump and the guys around him: Down with intelligence, forward with death. Not him alone. His favorite friend in South America, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, is exactly the same. There are others around the world. His favorite dictator, al-Sisi, in Egypt; MBS, the killer leader of Saudi Arabia; Modi in India is another. In the U.S., of course, it’s far more important because of U.S. power. If you want to look at the thinking of the administration on this topic, incidentally, they’ve been defunding science all the way through the Trump administration. There are laments about it by scientists, science reporters, and others. Some of it is grotesque, like the Environmental Protection Agency, which is now a subsidiary of the coal lobby. The scientists are almost totally gone or they’re silenced.
Let’s take a look at the last person that Trump awarded a Medal of Freedom to, Rush Limbaugh, one of the chief sources of information for Republicans and one of the people Trump is listening to all the time. So what does he say? He says there are four corners of deceit: media, government, academia, and science. They exist on the basis of deceit, they’re committed to deceit. So throw them out. Down with intelligence, forward with death. That’s the slogan.
And we should remember—I can remember it personally, I’m old enough—in the early and mid-1930s there was a deep global depression. Maybe we’re moving in that direction, but it was much worse than anything that exists today. And there were a number of ways out. Some countries took one way, other countries took a different way. Germany in the 1920s was regarded as one of the best functioning democracies. It was also at the peak of Western civilization in the sciences and the arts and philosophy. They took one way out. The depths of human history, that’s the way they took. The United States took a different way out—one of the most positive, progressive periods of American history. The New Deal has had an enormous effect on American life and is still saving many people, even though there’s been a major effort during the neoliberal period, post-Reagan period, to try to dismantle its achievements. Still, a major positive impact on American society. Those are two ways out.
We are now also facing two ways out. It’s not exactly the same as the 1930s, but there are resonances and there are forces working in both directions. There’s Trump, the business classes, the Republican Party, which is not a political party anymore, it’s totally dedicated to wealth and corporate power. You can see it in everything that’s happening in front of your eyes and has been for years. That’s one way out. Let’s make a more authoritarian, harsher version of the neoliberal plague that has devastated the society for 40 years, except for the very rich and powerful, and has led to a society in which 0.1%—not 1%, forget that—0.1% of the population has 20% of the wealth and has been making out like bandits since 2008, after they created the recession and now are getting rewarded for it. That’s 0.1%.
Half the population has negative net worth, liabilities more than assets. Rough estimates are there are about 70% that can barely get by from one week to the next, one paycheck to the next. If something goes wrong, they’re in trouble. Their real wages have pretty much stagnated since the 1970s while wealth has concentrated and gone through the stratosphere, CEO salaries have shot through the roof.
Or you can take a look at what has happened to the health system. The health system is a scandal to begin with. It’s unique in the developed world: twice the costs of comparable countries and some of the worst outcomes. But it got much worse during the neoliberal period. So, for example, hospitals have to be run on the business model. What’s the business model? No spare capacity. You don’t want to waste resources. So not an extra hospital bed. Who wants that? It doesn’t work very well, even when the system is working. Plenty of us can attest to that. I can too, even at the best hospitals in the world. But if anything goes wrong, tough luck.
Other countries, which also were committed to the neoliberal monstrosities, didn’t go anywhere near this far. We’re an unusually business-run society. So take, say, Germany, the most successful state capitalist country in the world, very committed to neoliberalism, ordoliberalism, as they call it. Austerity, all the stupid things. But they had spare capacity. They didn’t destroy the hospital system. They had spare beds, spare diagnostic capacity. When the pandemic struck, they finally noticed it, they could get things in order, and it was pretty well controlled, quite a low death rate.
Not in the U.S. Here it’s going out of control, and it’s going to get worse. If you stop the lockdown, put people out in the streets to converge, of course it’s going to get worse. What Trump and the guys around him are obviously hoping is that they can somehow make it look as though the economy is recovering in time for the election. If a lot of people die, to hell with it.
First of all, it’s mostly poor people and black people and people without privilege. They’re the ones who suffer worst. So you can start a propaganda line about these people, Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens, the people with 12 children who don’t want to work and come to the welfare office. You know the line. You can blame it on them and say it’s the cities, the centers of rot and immigrants and Puerto Ricans and all those bad people. That’s the propaganda line. If a couple hundred thousand people die, as Bolsonaro put it recently when confronted with the rising deaths in Brazil thanks to his policies, he said, “So what?” Trump can say, “People have to die. So what?”
That’s the thinking in this kind of proto-fascist mentality and the social patterns that are developing. I wouldn’t call it fascism. It gives it too much credit to call it fascism. Fascism had an ideology, a horrible one, but at least an ideology. Here it’s nothing but myself, the rich around me, and so on. That’s probably the tactics for the coming election. It will be terrible for the population. It may give a superficial impression of something working, if he can carry it off. Who knows? It depends on whether the population will let him get away with it.
You mentioned the Great Depression. You have memories of bread lines and soup kitchens. Today there are car lines for miles and miles, people trying to get some free food. Food banks and charities are stretched to the max. You alluded to political differences in the country. This crisis, the economic crisis, was triggered by a health catastrophe, the pandemic, and that’s a fundamental difference between what’s going on today than in the 1930s.
It’s different but there are some similarities. The 1920s were very much like the neoliberal period. The labor movement was crushed. Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare was the final blow. There had been a very vibrant, vital labor movement. It was crushed by force, mostly state, corporate force. In the 1920s it was gone. The financial institutions were roaring, going out of sight. All sorts of scams were going on, unbelievable ones. My father, for example, who was an immigrant, didn’t know that much about what was going on, bought some land in Florida. He was convinced it would be a great deal. It turned out it was out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean somewhere. That’s the kind of stuff that was going on. Huge wealth accumulating, financial manipulations. Pretty much like the neoliberal period in many ways. So there was something there when the financial crisis hit at that time. The U.S. as a society has been collapsing through the whole neoliberal period. Infrastructure is collapsing, you can’t drive on the roads, the bridges are collapsing, the hospitals don’t work. And the economy has been taken over by financial institutions. It’s one of the main things that happened during the neoliberal period—the huge growth of financial institutions. They do almost nothing for the economy, probably harm it.
It starts with Reagan. Remember, one of the first things that he did, almost the first day in office, was to try to smash the labor unions. That’s normal.
The air traffic controllers.
Yes, and opening the door to using scabs, which then corporations picked up, Caterpillar and others. Very important to destroy the labor unions. They might lead to progress for the general population, as they did in the 1930s. So that’s understandable. But he did more. He was really working hard for his bosses, corporate power. One of his first acts was to legalize tax havens and stock buybacks. It kind of sounds arcane. It’s not. That’s trillions of dollars stolen from the public. Tax havens amount to tens of trillions of dollars. Apple sets up a room in Ireland and says, That’s where we are, we don’t have to pay taxes. That means you pay taxes, I pay taxes.
Stock buybacks are an enormous way of enriching management, CEOs, and rich shareholders, meanwhile undermining the enterprise. We’re seeing that right before our eyes now. Take the airline industry running cap in hand to the nanny state saying, “Please bail us out. We need $50 billion.” Why do they need $50 billion? In the mad rush to enrich yourself, gorging at the pig sty. After the 2008 crisis they were enriching themselves with stock buybacks, roughly about $50 billion, certainly not improving the operation of the airlines. Anybody who has taken a trip on the airlines knows that. Not building the enterprise, just enriching themselves. All over the corporate sector.
That was illegal before Reagan, both were, and the laws were enforced. The Treasury Department was actually working. It enforced the ban on tax havens and stock buybacks. Again, that’s tens of trillions of dollars of robbery of the public, floodgates opened by Reagan. It goes on and on like that. So, yes, it was a failed society before the pandemic hit.
In fact, why do we have a pandemic altogether? In 2003, after the SARS epidemic, which was a coronavirus, scientists understood very well, in fact, told us, There’s going to be another coronavirus pandemic coming. We know how to deal with it. We can get ready, we can get prepared. Just like they’re telling us now, we can get prepared for the next pandemic. But somebody has to do something about it. Who is going to do something about it?
The drug companies are ruled out. They’re bloated with wealth. The public gives them massive subsidies. Wealth coming out of their ears. They have all the resources, the scientists, everything else. But they can’t do anything because of something called capitalism. They’re supposed to follow market signals. You listen to Milton Friedman. You’re just supposed to enrich yourselves. So they can’t do anything. There’s no profit to be made from fending off a disaster that’s going to come in 10 years, so they’re out of it.
The government could easily step in, the National Institutes of Health—great scientists, plenty of resources—the Center for Disease Control, and many others. But that’s blocked. That’s the neoliberal disaster. Government is the problem. So nobody can do it. Obama made a few minor efforts, but they were blocked by neoliberal savagery. Meanwhile, Trump came along and started making it much worse and defunding the Center for Disease Control and others, canceling all the programs that were working to try to detect problems, working in China with Chinese scientists to try to find out where possible problems might come from. All of that gets the axe. Why? You don’t enrich your constituency that way.
Trump’s constituency is great wealth, corporate power. Doesn’t give a damn about anyone else. There’s some faking with populist rhetoric, and maybe some people believe it. But just look at the entire legislative program. Nobody matters except the rich and the powerful and the corporate sector, the rich business sector. So everything gets wiped out. You’re uniquely vulnerable.
Then come along the catastrophes I’ve been talking about since. The society was already in deep trouble. First of all, there were huge amounts of debt—corporate debt, private debt. People were in debt because wages had stagnated. Meanwhile the cost of living goes up. People are driving cars to pick up food. In the 1930s they weren’t driving cars. My father couldn’t get a second-hand car until the New Deal was operating in 1937. They were standing in bread lines. They still are today, but they’re also driving in cars. It’s a much richer society, which means it should be much easier, if the society were functioning, to deal with this problem. But when you’re catering to 0.1% and the rest don’t matter—that’s a little bit of an exaggeration: the top 10% or 15%, they matter too, not like the 0.1%, of course—if that’s the way society works, you’re going to be in deep trouble.
But let me ask you, doesn’t the 0.1% need to keep the patient alive? If everybody is destitute and penurious, they won’t be able to consume and buy the products that the ruling class produces.
You’re seeing an interesting example of that right now. As you, I’m sure, saw, about a year ago a group of top executives, I think about 150, from all the big financial firms, banks, corporations got together and issued a manifesto saying, We’ve done bad things. We realize it. But now we’re changing. From now on we’re going to be dedicated to the welfare of you guys. The peasants with the pitchforks are coming at us. We’re going to be devoted to you. So don’t worry. It’s all under control. This got even more dramatic at the Davos meetings last January. As you know, every January the rich and powerful converge on a ski resort in Switzerland.
The masters of mankind, as you call them.
The masters of mankind. They all get together, they go skiing, they have parties, they congratulate each other on how wonderful they are. This last Davos meeting was different. There was a theme running through it very much like that of those 150 or so executives: We’ve made mistakes, we recognize them. From now on we’re going to be different. We’re going to be working for ordinary people, you guys, the peasants with the pitchforks. Just leave it to us. We’ve got it under control. We’re going to be working for you.
People with some memory, who can remember the 1950s—I’m old enough to do that easily—can remember that the same thing happened then. At that time it was called the “soulful corporation.” Corporations are not just in it for themselves, their rich shareholders, their CEOs, their management. They are in it for everybody. They are soulful, they work for the public. We’ve had a number of years to notice how soulful they are. This is, incidentally, from liberals that I’m quoting, the people who then went on to the Kennedy administration, not from the right. And they probably meant it. I’m not saying they were deceitful. They probably meant, yes, that’s what corporations ought to be. There’s such a thing as capitalism in the background, but we somehow don’t want to think about that. And it wasn’t yet in its savage era, the neoliberal era that began pretty much with the Reagan years, slightly before.
So we’re now reenacting that. So, yes, they’re concerned. Something has got to be done for the public. How much? Well, as little as we can get away with.
You follow the scientific journals and reports. What have you learned about this coronavirus? What can we expect? There are wild estimates about how many people are going to die or how many people are going to be infected. What do people need to know?
You have to look at those estimates carefully. For one thing, they all have a wide margin of error because a lot is just not understood. Actually, it could have been understood if somebody had picked up the ball in 2003 and started serious research on coronaviruses. There are a lot of them, most of them perfectly harmless, some serious. It could have been understood if Trump hadn’t killed the programs that were working in China with Chinese scientists. In fact, recently he just killed another one because it’s seeking to learn about coronaviruses at the hot spot, the place where there are lots of bats, who are producing lots of coronaviruses, lots of contact with humans. Right in Wuhan. There were programs working there with Chinese scientists with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has the greatest resources. Trump killed it. Why? Because it’s important to blame China for his crimes, so therefore we’ll kill what’s teaching us about how to deal with the coronavirus.
This is really psychopathic behavior of an unusual kind. It doesn’t matter what happens to people. But to go back to the question, because of all these crimes, not too much is known about coronaviruses. The scientists who are making the estimates have to keep a wide margin of error. Furthermore, you have to be careful not to fall for the right-wing propaganda. So when the Imperial College in London says maybe a million will die and a couple of months later it says, Well, maybe 50,000 will die, you turn on Fox News and they say the scientists are just a deceitful gang of people who don’t know anything. Actually, they know exactly what they’re doing.
When you look at those two estimates, both were quite plausible. The first was on the assumption that the government would continue with the program that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had initiated, namely, do nothing and let everybody go out, they predicted if you do that, you might get a million deaths. Later, when Britain joined the world, aside from the U.S., joined Europe and started to institute significant lockdown programs, other programs to test and so on, the same estimates came out much lower. But they’re plausible in both cases under different conditions, and still with a wide margin of error because they just don’t know much.
One thing is pretty clear. There is a very close statistical correlation between imposing lockdowns and controlling and containing the disease. Actually, the countries that started early, like, say, South Korea, didn’t even have to go to lockdowns. They were doing massive testing and tracing, which is the right way to do it. You test people, massive testing. If you find somebody with the symptoms of the virus, isolate them, find out who their contacts were, isolate those people, and let the mass of the population who hasn’t been infected go ahead. You can do that in the early stages. When you let it get to the U.S. stage, thanks to Trump and his guys, it’s hopeless.
First of all, we’re still not testing. The testing is ridiculously low. It’s gotten so far out of hand that you can’t do the serious tests and trace measures. So the only method you can do is keep the lockdown. You can try to relax it slightly here and there, taking account of circumstances. But to do what, say, the governors of Florida and Georgia are doing or what the demonstrators in Michigan are calling for is just to ask for disaster, like Bolsonaro in Brazil. Then you can also say, “Who cares?” That’s one way to react.
Deborah Birx, one of the government scientists on the coronavirus task force, calls the abandoning of mitigation efforts, the spacing and distancing, “devastatingly worrisome.”
You notice that she and everyone else has to be very cautious in what they say, because you can’t offend the dear leader. If you say anything that offends him, you’re out, just like the scientist who was running vaccine protection. So you’ve got a maniac in the White House.
You will notice that when Birx, Fauci, any scientist is around, they’re very cautious so as not to step on the toes of the megalomaniac fanatic who is running the show. So, yes, if are they were talking freely, they would be much more open, you can be certain about that.
We’ve recently passed the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and we’re in a major ecocrisis today. Dr. Stephen Bezruchka points out that the loss of habitat and deforestation have brought the animal kingdom in much closer contact with humankind, and that has caused a growth in coronaviruses.
That’s exactly what happened in China. But it’s quite general. As habitat is destroyed, animals that humans have had no contact with come out of the forests, humans move in. There’s more contact. One of the most serious cases is, as I mentioned, bats. They happen to have massive amounts of coronaviruses. That’s why the very courageous Chinese scientists have been venturing into very dangerous places, deep inside caves and so on, for years—and many died—to try to collect information about the coronaviruses. They found a ton of information. American scientists were working with them for some time, until it was canceled by the killer in the White House.
And in general, that’s true. As you expand high-tech agriculture, which is in itself unsustainable, it’s destroying the topsoil—we won’t have topsoil in a couple of generations—if you continue with unsustainable industrial agribusiness, destroying habitat, if you open up—another one of Trump’s crimes—the national parks to fossil fuel companies, it’s kind of a double whammy. One thing is it increases the use of fossil fuels, to which he’s dedicated, his passionate desire to destroy the possibility for human life in the short term. And that’s not an exaggeration, that’s literally true. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He just doesn’t give a damn. It’s like Bolsonaro. Who cares, so what? When you do that you first of all are intensifying the use of fossil fuels, and you’re also destroying wild habitat.
What’s going to happen? More diseases that we don’t know of. Maybe coronavirus, maybe something else. So in many ways we’re acting to destroy not only ourselves but life on Earth. Let’s not forget that the Anthropocene, as we’re now calling it, the period since the Second World War, the geological epoch when humans are having a massive and destructive impact on the global environment, is a period not just of global warming, which is bad enough and escalating, but also destruction of the environment—of habitats, plastics destroying ocean life, uncontrolled trash and sewage, and unsustainable agriculture, industrial meat production, savage and cruel and also opening the door to pandemics. And the incredibly reckless use of antibiotics means that bacteria mutate much more quickly, so now there are bacteria for which there are no remedies.
All of these actions during this period, driven by the need for more profit and more power, are causing massive destruction of species. We’re right in the middle of what’s called the Sixth Extinction. The Fifth Extinction was 65 million years ago, when a huge asteroid hit Earth and killed most of life on Earth. We’re doing the same. We’re the Sixth Extinction. Not just humans. Insect populations are rapidly disappearing. In the places where they’ve been measured—it’s pretty hard to measure—a majority of insect species are disappearing. We survive on the basis of insects. So do many other species. It’s just massive destruction.
Fortunately, there are ways out. Every one of the problems we’re talking about and many that we didn’t have solutions which are within reach. But you’ve got to do something about it. It’s like the coronavirus pandemic. You can know how to deal with it, but that’s no good unless somebody does something with the knowledge that you have. It’s the same with every other one of these crises. The knowledge is there, the understanding is there—not entirely but you can build on it. But somebody has to do it.
If you’re in the grips of a particularly savage form of state capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, what’s amazingly called libertarianism in the U.S., then you’re toast, nothing can be done. Corporations, obviously, aren’t going to do it, business can’t do it.
There’s a lot of concern today about the safety of the food chain, particularly when it comes to meat. In the slaughterhouses in Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska and other states there are many infected workers, people who have contracted the coronavirus, and they’re being forced back to work. I’m wondering if this is not a form of germ warfare.
It is, and it’s the entire Republican Party. Let’s take Lindsay Graham, who is supposed to be one of the people who resemble human beings. His latest is, there’s now legislation to try to force people back to work. If the boss tells them, “You’ve got to go, even if there is a coronavirus,” and they don’t, they lose their unemployment insurance. Graham says that’s going to be changed “over our dead bodies.” I’ll never permit unemployment insurance to go on if a guy can go back to work.
It’s not just the meat packers. There we can understand it on the basis of pure racism. The meat packers are poor, Hispanic, black. So we go back to Bolsonaro. So what? Of course, it’s savage and brutal.
We’re also doing exactly the same thing across the border. Mexico wants to keep the factories closed, the maquiladoras. The Trump administration says, You’ve got to open them, even if you die from coronavirus. Our car manufacturers need leather seats. We don’t care whether you die. This is pure savagery. It’s like defunding the World Health Organization, killing unknown numbers of people in Yemen and Africa who depend on the World Health Organization’s services. They don’t care. Remember the fascist general: “Down with intelligence, forward with death.” That’s the White House.
Juan González, an independent journalist, co-host of Democracy Now!, says, “I don’t think we should discount the possibility that the President will declare an election that he loses as a fraud and illegitimate and attempt to stay in power.” How do you see the upcoming campaign, if there is going to be a campaign, and election evolving?
I think Juan González is not talking hot air. That could happen. We have to remember who’s in office and who supports it. The person in office happens to be a psychopathic megalomaniac who is concerned with nothing but himself. I think it’s psychologically impossible for him to say “I lost” in anything. Furthermore, let’s keep in mind something else. I can’t vouch for this, I’m not certain it’s true, but there are credible reports that the state attorneys general, particularly in New York, have a raft of charges, serious ones, that he’s liable to as soon as he loses presidential immunity. If that’s true, it’s something else. But just psychologically I think he’s incapable of doing what every normal president does and saying, “Okay I lost. Good luck for the next guy. I’ll go on with my life.” Everyone, George W. Bush, anyone. I don’t think he’s capable of doing that.
He is trying to organize, very definitely, very obviously, a mass of adoring, worshipers loaded with guns, ready to fight for the guy they regard as their savior, who is stabbing them in the back constantly. A lot of unpleasant characters—a lot of white nationalists, racists, xenophobes, many types that the Republican Party has been trying to organize for some time—could be storming the White House just like they’re storming the state capitals, funded by major corporations, just like what’s happening in the state capitals now. A lot of this is astroturf, it’s pretty clear.
He also has behind him the centers of power in private wealth and corporate power. He’s their man. They don’t want a possible move to social democratic policies, the kind that most of the public wants. Who knows how far they will go? I may be a soulful corporation up to a point, but not when my huge, monstrous wealth is at stake.
So we don’t know. These things could happen. It’s not to be ruled out.
Rob Larson has written a book called Bit Tyrants, which you favorably reviewed. He’s very worried about the amount of power that Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple, the big five, are accumulating, and particularly the implications it has for privacy and surveillance concerns.
That’s been going on for some time. It’s what Shoshana Zuboff, a sociologist at Harvard, calls “surveillance capitalism.” She wrote a book with that title about it a year or two ago. Even before the pandemic, which is giving vast amounts of information to these major tech corporations and, of course, to the government, there were huge masses of information being collected about everybody.
So if you drive a car, the car, just from all the electronic junk that’s around, it’s picking up information about what you’re doing, where you’re going, everything else that’s connected with your driving. That’s going right to your insurance company. We’re getting to the point where are you might get a warning saying, “You went through a red light. You do you that once more and your insurance is going up.” Or they figured out you like Chinese restaurants, and you will get a notice saying there is a Chinese restaurant a half a mile ahead. That sounds not too bad. It is bad.
It also leads to control; it ends up, it’s already at the point, where there is experimentation—this actually started in Sweden, it’s coming here now—with implanting chips in workpeople. The inducement is, if you have a chip, you can get a free Coke at the vending machine. But the chip also monitors what you’re doing. That’s already happening in less intrusive ways. So UPS monitors their truck drivers. It can do that through all the electronic junk that they have. If they stop too long at a place to go to the bathroom or something, they will get a demerit; if they back up when they shouldn’t have, they will get a demerit. You get too many, your job is on the line. They claim that they’ve improved efficiency considerably this way—more deliveries, fewer people. Amazon works like that. At the Amazon workplace people are very tightly monitored. You take the wrong path between this spot and that spot, you will get an electronic notice about it.
The ideal which we’re moving towards is something like parts of China, where there are cities which operate on what’s called a social credit system. You get, I don’t know, 1,000 points or whatever it is, and you’re under tight monitoring: cameras, facial identification, electronics. If you jaywalk, you lose credits; if you help an old lady across the street, you gain credits. Pretty soon it all gets internalized; you don’t even notice it. It’s like stopping at red lights. It’s just the way the world is. You live under tight, constant monitoring.
If you think about it, even having a job is like that. If you go back to the early Industrial Revolution, the idea that you would be a wage worker was considered an incredible assault on human dignity and human freedom. It was called wage slavery. It’s like being a slave: You’re dependent on someone else. In fact, you’re dependent on someone who is a totalitarian of a kind that Stalin never dreamed of. Stalin didn’t tell you when you were allowed to go to the bathroom, who you were allowed to talk to, what clothes you had to wear. That’s your job for most of your waking hours. That was considered an unbelievable assault on dignity by working people in the 19th century. It was a slogan of the Republican Party under Lincoln that wage labor is intolerable unless it’s temporary, until you become a free person again.
We’ve internalized that. People think having a job is a wonderful thing, spending most of your waking life as a slave to a totalitarian boss is the best thing you can look forward to. That’s a big change. We’ve internalized it. Not everybody, of course. Human dignity is not that far below the surface. But the idea of surveillance capitalism is to get us to internalize that.
It’s going to get worse as you move into what’s called the internet of things. Your refrigerator has some electronic device so if you’re driving home, you can get it to move something out of the freezer or something like that. This stuff is all going to be picking up information about you. Everything you do will be monitored and go back to these big tech companies and the big brother who is collecting it in some huge place in Utah or somewhere for use, if necessary.
None of this has to happen. First of all, the big tech companies could be broken up. They could be required to meet the same conditions, say, that newspapers have to meet. If you’re libeled in a newspaper, you can bring a libel suit. If you’re libeled on Facebook, you can’t do a thing. Why should they have that extra privilege? Personally, I don’t believe in libel suits, but if they exist, it should be the same for all of them.
If you look something up on Google, you’re immediately given a list of things that maybe you would like this, maybe you would like that. Amazon, all of them. They are efforts to sell you to the business world, and in the course of that to begin to control you and get you to internalize the controls. It’s a very serious problem.
Incidentally, these are not the only corporations that should be looked at in terms of breaking them up. What about the fossil fuel corporations? Why should they even exist? Their role in the world is to keep us going for a while but then to ensure our destruction. So why not take them over, work to socialize them, put them under control of the workers, and have them move towards renewable energy. They can do that. A lot of the big fossil fuel corporations, recently Chevron, had a quite profitable, sustainable energy project. They canned it because they can make more profit destroying the environment with fossil fuels. But it doesn’t have to be canned, it doesn’t have to be destroyed. It could be developed, it could be moving towards replacing these destructive substances.
Why do we have to have these big financial institutions, lending institutions, banks? What do they do to the economy? Mostly harm it. So break them up. Let’s go back to the days when banks were banks. It’s not too utopian to say let’s go back to the pre-Reagan years. In the pre-Reagan years, no tax havens, no stock buybacks, both illegal, and the Treasury Department enforced it. No financial institutions involved in developing complex financial instruments to rob the public and lead to financial crises. They were banks. You put money into them. If they had extra money, they lent it to somebody who wanted to do something. It’s not utopian to say let’s go back to that, when the Treasury Department really kept things running, no financial crises. They started practically as soon as Reagan came in. Clinton made it much worse with the massive deregulation of the Rubin-Summers variety. Deregulating derivatives was just asking for disaster, which came. Of course, they were bailed out. The way our system works, the perpetrators, the rich and powerful, get bailed out. Not the victims. They don’t get bailed out.
We saw that very dramatically when the housing bubble collapsed in 2007, followed by the financial crisis as a result. There was Congressional legislation, the TARP legislation, the bailout legislation. It had two parts: bail out the perpetrators, the banks whose scams and trickery had caused the crisis, the lending agencies, bail them out; but also, give help to the people who were their victims, the people who were tossed out of their homes when they were foreclosed, give aid to them. Which one did Obama pursue? The first one, not the second. I think that’s a large part of the reason why the population turned not only against the Democratic Party but against institutions, against government, right into the pocket of a con man like Trump, a demagogue who can exploit such things.
That’s the way it’s working right now. Take a close look at the stimulus package. Actually, a lot of it is pretty obscure because they don’t like to open it up to see what is going on. But there have been some attempts at careful analysis. A lot of it is going to banks to distribute the way they want. What’s the way they want? Well, we don’t have to worry. Steve Mnuchin is looking over it to make sure the public interest is preserved. He’s very happy. Soulful corporations again. It’s not going into the hands of the working people who need it right now. It’s mixed. The Democrats have managed to get a couple of things in to make it a little more humane, nowhere near enough. It’s not that they’re pure either.
But there’s such savagery on the part of the Republican Party that unless you’re looking at every move they’re making, you can be expecting it to be benefiting the super- rich, the corporate sector, and indirectly or maybe directly harming the general population. If you look at the stimulus package, I think you find that, too, to the extent that we can see what’s going on. As I say, a lot is under cover.
I never told you this, but my father, who was an immigrant and didn’t speak much English, bought some land on Long Island—this was in the 1920s—and when he went out there, he found there were 20 other people also holding a deed to the same property.
That happened to one of my relatives, too, in upstate New York.
What accounts for, again, the attacks on Social Security and the Post Office?
First of all, who gains from Social Security? The 0.1%? That’s the answer to that.
The Post Office is more interesting. The Post Office is a very efficient organization which serves the general public all over the place—in rural communities, in cities. It’s even a friendly place. You get to know your letter carrier. Maybe he helps you out when you’re in trouble sometime. You go into the post office, you talk to the guy, you meet friends there. It’s a social institution which also provides very necessary services.
That’s bad in a number of ways. For one thing, it’s helping the wrong people, the majority. For another thing, it’s giving people a bad idea. Something that you own, the Post Office, namely the government if it’s democratic, can work for you. That’s a terrible idea. Remember Reagan reading his lines? The government is a problem. Hand it over to the private sector. We don’t want people to believe that a government institution can do something for them.
That’s why, incidentally, the Republican Congress has been trying hard to destroy the Post Office for years. Crazy rules that make it almost impossible for them to function, like prefunding of pensions for decades in advance, not able to charge decent rates, not able to provide services. The Post Office would be the obvious place, as it once was, for people to do banking. People aren’t going to put in $10 million, but the kind of deposits that ordinary people have you can do it at the local post office. You don’t have to deal with the gougers and the usury or anything else. It could be a place where you vote. It could be all sorts of things. But we have to destroy it.
And there is something in the background which I’m sure the rich and powerful are thinking about. We’re supposed to revere the founders, the framers of the Constitution, these godlike creatures. And you have the courts, the reactionary courts run by what are called originalists, meaning we’ve got to attend to every word and intention of the famous founders. They had some things to say that the rich and powerful don’t want you to hear, in particular about the Post Office.
The Post Office is in the Constitution. What was it supposed to do? It was supposed to provide subsidies to the press to ensure that there would be a free and independent press. The large majority of Post Office business in the early years was journals and newspapers, and at very cheap rates, intended as a public subsidy to help create a free and independent press. You want to get the population to understand that? You want people to notice this is about the only country that doesn’t have public broadcasting? We have a tiny fringe, which is corporate-run, but there’s nothing like the BBC or French television or anything like that. About all there is is at the local level, community radio and TV, often very valuable. There could be a lot more of that if activists would make use of the opportunities. There have been struggles about that all through modern history, but we have to make sure that government does not serve the people. The worst possible thing imaginable is government of, by, and for the people. We have to kill any such idea, make sure that nobody gets that from their experience, nobody thinks about it. And certainly we don’t want a free and independent press. So the Post Office has to go. I don’t know how much Trump understands, probably not very much, but he understands enough to know that the Post Office serves people and not the very rich. They can use other means.
And, of course, during a pandemic, with an election coming up, voting by mail becomes something very important.
But you’re not allowed to charge reasonable postal rates. It doesn’t matter. Why should Trump or the people around him care about who dies in the pandemic? Do they do anything to indicate that they care? All the opposite, just as we’ve been running through, and we’ve barely touched the surface. So if the Post Office helps people during the pandemic, what’s that got to do with anything? So what, to quote Bolsonaro.
Talk about the upcoming election. Say you’re talking to a die-hard Bernie supporter who feels that their candidate was not treated well by the Democratic Party and “I’m going to sit this one out.” What do you say to that person?
I would say three things. First of all, notice that the Sanders campaign has been an astonishing success in many ways. It’s entirely shifted the arena of discussion, policy formation, and policy in too many ways to enumerate. And it hit the DNC. So take a look at the official Democratic Party program, what’s now called Biden’s program. It’s way to the left of anything since FDR. Is it because the DNC suddenly had a conversion? No, it’s because of the pressure they’re getting from activists working, many of them under the Sanders umbrella. That’s one of many achievements. The second thing to look at is, why didn’t Sanders get the nomination? It’s true, the media were against him, the DNC were against him. But that’s not the whole story. You have to look beyond. Take a look at the primaries. Sanders was counting on an upsurge among younger voters, his supporters. Did it happen? No, it didn’t happen. They didn’t come out and vote. That’s something to look at, especially if you’re a Sanders supporter.
What else happened? Sanders didn’t win two major constituencies: African Americans and women. If you look at their voting preferences, they preferred his policies but they didn’t vote for him. And when you look at the studies that have been done, it seems the reason is they were saying to themselves, I like his policies but he’s not going to be able to broaden the coalition to bring in so- called moderates, a broader group of people who will be able tolerate get rid of Trump, which is the top priority.
Is that wrong? We don’t know that that’s wrong. In fact, if you look at the way Sanders fared in the Rust Belt, it may be right. That tells you something that has to be done. For activists who supported Sanders, so that we can reach out, not by abandoning our principles but by showing that they’re the right principles for a much broader constituency and not doing the kinds of things that might alienate them. We’ve got to work on that. So those are lessons.
The third point, which is about as complicated as 1+1=2, is that in this election, if it’s going to be Biden or Trump, in other states it doesn’t matter but in a swing state you have two choices: one of them is to vote for Biden, the other is to not vote for Biden. To not vote for Biden takes a vote away from the opposition, which is the same as adding a vote for Trump. So your two choices are vote against Trump or vote for Trump. That’s basically what it comes down to. As I say, that’s about as hard to figure out as 1+1=2. So that’s the choice.
Meanwhile, recognize what the left has always understood. Elections are a blip. They’re a brief moment taken away from activism. The standard doctrine which the rich and powerful and the ruling groups want to drill into your head is that politics consists of voting once every four years, then go home and leave it to your betters. In fact, that’s called progressive democratic theory. That’s the official doctrine. Don’t fall for it.
The correct doctrine is the left doctrine. What counts in politics is your constant, day-to-day activist work, the kind of things that change the social conditions, the understanding, the background under which changes can happen. Every couple of years an event comes along which would take you maybe 15 minutes to think about. Take a look at the political system. Decide if there is a meaningful choice. If there is, take a couple minutes and go into the voting booth and vote against the worst guy. Because it can make a difference, in fact, a big difference.
Then go back to your activist work. Your activist work might be preparing for a campaign, like working in the Sanders campaign, which had a major effect. It can be that. It can be other things. But that’s the way you should look at elections. Until the point when you actually move towards a party that might be committed to being a government that’s of, by, and for the people.
That’s actually happened. The Roosevelt administration had plenty of flaws, but it moved very far in that direction. It was a sympathetic administration, had tremendous popular pressure: The labor movement, political parties, activist groups. And it accomplished quite a lot and made a big difference for the years that followed it, including Social Security that you mentioned, and a lot more.
So those are the choices for a supporter of Sanders. The worst choice is to say, “I didn’t get what I wanted. I’m going to go home and sulk and let the world go to pot.” That’s the worst choice. That’s giving it to Trump.
While there is selfishness there is also tremendous sacrifices that people are making. I’m thinking of the doctors and nurses and EMTs and caregivers who have done extraordinary work.
It’s incredible. They’re a real indication of what the human spirit can achieve. And the same is much more broadly true. Around the world—Brazil, here, other countries, often in the poorest communities—people are just getting together in mutual support groups. Let’s get together and help that elderly guy who’s stuck in his house somewhere and doesn’t have any food. Or let’s get together and organize and set up a food bank and so on. People are capable of all sorts of things.
There’s also, incidentally, on the international level, one example of a country that’s showing what genuine internationalism is. There’s something called the European Union. There is a rich country, Germany, which has pretty much handled things for itself. A couple of miles to the south there is a country called Italy, which is in trouble. Northern Italy has a serious pandemic. Is Germany helping them? No. But some country is. It’s called Cuba, the country that we’ve had under our boot for 60 years, trying to crush it. They are now sending doctors all over the world to the front lines to compensate for what the rich and powerful aren’t doing. It’s not new. It’s been happening for a long time. But we’re not allowed to notice that. That’s the wrong message, like noticing that the Post Office works. But we could learn something from them.
How are you doing?
We’re doing fine. Both Valeria and I are pretty naturally hermits. There are nuisances, but we’re the lucky ones. We’re in a place where we can easily isolate and we have some space outside and the Arizona desert is pretty empty. So we’re okay.
(Published with consent from alternative radio & David Barsamian. This English version of the interview may not be reproduced without prior permission.
Consent coordination: Jake Joseph
Malayalam translation of this article can be read here)