Saturday thousands of people turned up to Dewey Square for the movement’s Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series with renowned MIT linguist and activist Noam Chomsky. So many people turned up it was difficult to hear the author of some one hundred books, so here are some of the highlights. (Thanks as always to Lauren Metter for assisting with this coverage.)
On the occupy movement:
It is an extremely exciting development. In fact, it’s kind of spectacular. It’s unprecedented. There’s never been anything like it that I can think of. If the bonds and associations that are being established in these remarkable events can be sustained through a long, hard period ahead … because victory won’t come quickly … it could turn out to be a really historic, and a very significant moment in American history.
On the history of the US economy:
The 1970s began a major turning point in American History. For centuries, since the country began, it had been a developing society and not in very pretty ways (that’s another story), but it was a developing society with ups and downs. But the general progress was towards wealth, industrialization, and development … and hope. There was a pretty constant expectation that it was ‘gonna go on like this.
That was true even in very dark times.
I’m just old enough to remember the Great Depression. After the first few years, by the mid-30s—although the situation was objectively much harsher than it is today—nevertheless, the spirit was quite different.
There was a sense that “we’re ‘gonna get out of it,” even among unemployed people, a lot of my relatives, that “it will get better.” There was a militant labor-union organizing, CIO organizings going on, it was getting to the point of sit-down strikes, which really are very frightening to the business world. You could see it in the business press at the time. Because a sit-down strike is just a step before taking over the factory and running it yourself. And something which is, incidentally, very much on the agenda today, and we should keep in mind … but I’ll come back to it. Also the New Deal legislations were beginning to come under popular pressure. And there just was a sense that somehow, “we’re gonna get out of it.”
It’s quite different now.
Now there’s kind of a pervasive sense of hopelessness, sometimes despair, I think it’s quite new in American history.
And it has an objective basis.
On the working class:
If you’re a worker in manufacturing today (and the low unemployment in manufacturing is approximately like the Depression)—if current tendencies persist—those jobs aren’t going to come back.
One of the underlying reasons, discussed mainly by economic historian Robert Brenner … did a lot of work on it. Is the falling rate of profit. There were other factors … it led to major changes in the economy—a reversal of several hundred years of progress towards industrialization and development turned to a process of de-industrialization and de-development. Of course, manufacturing continued overseas. Very profitable, but no good for the work force.
Along with that came a significant shift of economy from productive enterprise (producing things people need or could use) to financial manipulation. The financialization of the economy really took off at that time.
Before the ‘70s banks were banks. They did what banks were supposed to do in a state Capitalist economy: Took unused funds like, say, your bank account, and transferred it to some potentially useful purpose like buying a home or sending a kid to college, or whatever it might be. That changed dramatically in the ‘70s. Until then, there were no financial crises. It was a period of enormous growth—the highest growth in American history, maybe in economic history—sustained growth through the ‘50s and ‘60s. And it was egalitarian. So the lowest quintile did about as well as the highest quintile. Lot of people moved into reasonable lifestyles. What’s called here “middle class.” “Working class,” as it’s called in other countries.
But it was real.
And the 60s accelerated it. The activism of the 60s, after a pretty dismal decade, really civilized the country in lots of ways that are permanent. They’re not changing. They’re staying on.
The 70s came along—a sharp change. The industrialization, off-shoring of reduction, shifting to financial institutions, which grew enormously. I should say that in the 50s and 60s there was also the development of what several decades later became the high-tech economy: computers, the Internet, the IT Revolution … mostly developed in the 50s and 60s, substantially in the state sector. It took a couple years before it took off, but it was developed.
The 1970s set off kind of a viscious cycle. It led to concentration of wealth, increasingly in the hands of the financial sector—which doesn’t benefit the economy. It probably harms it … and the society.
On politics and money:
Concentration of wealth yields concentration of political power. Which, in turn, gives rise to legislation that accelerates the cycle. The physical policies, tax changes, rules of corporate governance, de-regulation … essentially bi-partisan. Alongside of this came the very sharp rise in costs of elections, which drives the political parties even deeper than before into the pockets of the corporate sector.
The parties dissolved, essentially. It used to be that if a person in Congress hoped for a position of say, a Committee chair, you got it mainly through seniority and service. Within a couple of years, you started having to put money into the party coffers in order to get ahead. That just drove the whole system even deeper into the pockets of the corporate sector, increasing the financial sector.
Tremendous concentration of wealth. Mainly in literally the top tenth of one percent of the population. Meanwhile for the general population it began a period of stagnation and decline for the majority that continued alongside of our sharp concentration of wealth. People got by, but by artificial means. Borrowing, debt, longer working hours. The political system began to dissolve.
There’s always been a gap between public policy and public will, but it just grew astronomically.
You can see it right now actually.
The big topic in Washington everyone concentrates on is the deficit. For the public, correctly, the deficit is not regarded as much of an issue. And it isn’t really much of an issue. The issue is joblessness, not the deficit. There’s a deficit commission but there’s no joblessness commission.
As far as the deficit is concerned—if you want to pay attention to it—the public has opinions. Take a look at the polls that overwhelmingly support higher taxes on the wealthy, which have declined sharply in this stagnation period, period of decline—higher taxes on the wealthy and preserve the limited social benefits. The outcome of the deficit commission is probably going to be the opposite. Either they’ll reach an agreement, which will be the opposite of what the public wants, or else it will go into a kind of automatic procedure which is going to have those effects.
Actually that’s something that has to be done very quickly.
The deficit commission is going to come up with its decision in a couple weeks. The Occupy movements could provide a mass base for trying to avert what amounts to a dagger at the heart of the country.
What’s being played out for the past 30 years is actually kind of a nightmare that was anticipated by the classical economists.
If you take, say Adam Smith, if you bother to read Wealth of Nations. He considered the possibility that merchants and manufacturers in England might decide to do their business abroad—invest abroad and import from abroad. He said they would profit, but England would be harmed.
However, he went on to say that they would prefer to operate in their own country—what’s sometimes called a “home bias.” So as if by an invisible hand, England would be saved the ravages of what is now called neo-liberal-globalization. That’s a pretty hard passage to miss in Wealth of Nations. That’s the only occurrence of the phrase “invisible hand.” Maybe England would be saved from neo-liberal-globalization by an invisible hand.
On the 99%:
For the general population, the 99%, it’s been pretty harsh. And it could get worse. This could be a period of irreversible decline. For the 1%, even more, the 1/10 of the 1%, it’s just fine.
The rich are now more powerful than ever. Controlling the political system, disregarding the public.
And if it can continue, sure, why not? Just what Smith and Ricardo warned about.
Take, for example, CitiGroup … for decades, one of the most corrupt of the major investment banking corporations, repeatedly bailed out by the taxpayer over and over again starting in the early Reagan years and now once again. I won’t run through the corruption over again, you already know about it. But it’s pretty astonishing.
A couple years ago they came out with a brochure for investors. They urged investors to put money into Plutonomy index. They said the world is dividing into a Plutonomy: the rich, those who buy luxury goods and so on—and that’s where the action is. They said their Plutonomy index is way out-performing the stock market so put your money into it. As for the rest, we sent ‘em adrift. We don’t really care about them. “We don’t’ really need ‘em.” They have to be around to provide a powerful state which will protect us and bail us out when we get into trouble, but other than that they essentially have no function.
They’re sometimes called these days the “Précarité”: people who live a precarious existence at the periphery of society. It’s not the periphery anymore; it’s becoming a very substantial part of the society in the United States. And this is considered a good thing.
So, for example, Alan Greenspan—at the time when Alan Greenspan was still Saint Alan—hailed by the economics profession as one of the greatest economists of all time—this was before the crash for which he was substantially responsible. He was testifying to Congress in the Clinton years, explaining the wonders of the great economy which he was supervising.
And he said a lot of the success of this economy was based substantially on what he called “growing worker insecurity.”
Greenspan testified that the very successful economy he was supervising (which has the properties that I described) was based substantially on growing worker insecurity. If working people are insecure, if they’re part of what we now call the “Précarité,” living precarious existences, they’re not ‘gonna make demands, they’re not ‘gonna try to get wages, they won’t get benefits. We can kick ‘em out if we don’t need ‘em. And that’s what’s called a “healthy” economy, technically. And he was very highly praised for this, greatly admired.
Well now the world is indeed splitting into a Plutonomy and a Précarité.
Again, in the imagery of the Occupy Movement, the 1% and the 99% (not literal numbers, but the right picture) Now the Plutonomy is where the action is. Well, it could continue like this.
If it does continue like this, the historic reversal that began in the 1970s could become irreversible—that’s where we’re heading. And the Occupy movements are the first real major popular reaction which could avert this. But as I said, it’s ‘gonna be necessary to face the fact that it’s a long, hard struggle. You don’t win victories tomorrow. You have to go on, have to form the structures that will be sustained, that will go on through hard times, and can win major victories. And there are a lot of things that can be done.
On a general strike:
In the 1930s one of the most effective actions was the sit-down strike. And the reason is very simple: that’s just a step before take over of the industry.
Well through the 70s, as the decline was setting in, there were some very important events that took place. One was in the late 70s. In 1977, U.S. Steel decided to close one of its major facilities in Youngstown OH, and instead of just walking away, the workforce and the community decided to get together and buy it from U.S. Steel, and hand it to the workers to run. And turn it into a worker-run, worker-managed facility. They didn’t win. But with enough popular support they could have won. It was a partial victory because even though they lost, it set off other efforts. And now throughout Ohio and in fact in other places, there’s a scattering of hundreds, maybe thousands of sometimes not-so-small worker-owned industries which could become worker-managed.
And that’s the basis for a real revolution.
That’s how it takes place. It’s happening here, too. Just in one of the suburbs of Boston, about a year ago, something similar happened. A multi-national decided to close down a profitable, functioning manufacturing facility to bring in some high-tech manufacturing. Not profitable enough for them.
The workforce and the union offered to buy it and run it and take it over and run it themselves. The multi-national decided to close it down instead, probably for reasons of class-consciousness. I don’t think they want things like this to happen. If there had been enough popular support, if there had been something like this movement, they might have succeeded.
And there are other things going on like that, in fact some of them are major. Not long ago, Obama took over the auto industry, which was basically owned by the public. And there were a number of things that could have been done. One was what was done: reconstitute it so that it can be handed over to the ownership or very similar ownership, and continue on its traditional path. The other possibility was to hand it over to the work force, which owned it anyway—turn it into a worker-owned, worker-managed major industrial system that’s a big part of the economy, and have it produce things that people need. And there’s a lot that we need. We all know or should know that the US is extremely backward globally in high-speed transportation, and it’s very serious. It not only affects people’s lives, but it affects the economy. It’s a very serious business.
Let me just say that I’ve kept to domestic issues, and these are by no means the only ones, you all know that. There’s very dangerous developments in the international arena, including two of them, which are kind of a shadow that hangs over everything we’ve discussed. There are, for the first time in human history, real threats to decent survival of the species.
One has been hanging around since 1945; it’s kind of a miracle we’ve escaped it: that’s the threat of nuclear weapons. Though it isn’t being much discussed, that threat is in fact being escalated by policies of this administration and its allies. And something has to be done about that or we’re in real trouble.
The other of course is environmental catastrophe. Practically every country in the world is taking at least halting steps towards trying to do something about it.
The US has also taken major steps … mainly to accelerate the threat.
The US is the only major country that’s is not only not doing something constructive, but is not climbing on the train, it’s pulling it backwards.
Congress right now is dismantling legislation instituted by the Nixon administration—really the last liberal president of the U.S., literally, and that shows you what’s been going on. They’re dismantling the limited measures of the Nixon administration to try to do something about what is a growing, emerging catastrophe.
And this is connected with a huge propaganda system, permanently openly declared by the business world, to try to convince people that it’s all just a liberal hoax. Why pay attention to these scientists? And we’re really regressing back to the Medieval period. It’s not a joke. Now If that’s happening in the most powerful, richest country in history, then this catastrophe isn’t going to be averted. And everything else we’re talking about won’t matter in a generation or two.
All that’s going on right now.
Something has to be done about it very soon, in a dedicated, sustained way.
On solutions and the future:
It’s not going to be easy to proceed. There are going to be barriers, difficulties, hardships, failures—it’s inevitable. But unless the process that is taking place here and elsewhere in the country and around the world—unless that continues to grow and becomes kind of a major force in the social and political world … the chances for a decent future are not very high.
As far as fixing political dysfunction in this country and a constitutional amendment to abolish corporate personhood or to get corporate money out of politics, you can’t do this or anything else unless there’s a large, active, popular base. If the Occupy movement was the leading force in the country you could push this forward.
But remember, most people don’t know this is happening.
Or they may know it is happening but don’t know what it is.
That assigns a task. It’s necessary to get out into the country and get people to understand what this is about and what they can do about it and what the consequences are of not doing anything about it.
Corporate personhood is an important case in point, but pay attention to what it is. We should think about it. We’re supposed to worship the Constitution these days. The Fifth Amendment says no person shall be deprived of rights without due process of law. Well the founding fathers didn’t mean … by person, they didn’t mean “person.” So for example, there were a lot of creatures of flesh and blood that weren’t “persons.” The indigenous population for example, they didn’t have any rights. There was a category of creatures called “3/5 humans,” in the Constitution, the slave population; they weren’t persons. And in fact women were barely persons; they didn’t have rights.
A lot of this was somewhat rectified over the years. During the civil war, the Fourteenth Amendment raised the 3/5 persons to persons, at least in principle. Over the following years, the concept of person was changed by the courts in two ways. One way was to broaden it to include corporations, legal fictions established and sustained by the state. In fact, these persons later became the management of corporations, according to court decisions. So the management of corporations became persons.
It was also narrowed to undocumented immigrants. They had to be excluded from the category of “persons.” And that’s happening right now. So the legislations that you’re talking about, they go two ways. They broaden the category of persons to include corporate persons, which now have rights way beyond human beings, given by the trade agreements and others … and they exclude the people who flee from Central America, where the US devastated their homelands, and flee from Mexico, because they can’t compete with the highly-subsidized US agro-business.
On the likelihood of an openly fascist system:
Very unlikely frankly. They don’t have the force. About a century ago, in the freest countries in the world—Britain and the US—the dominant classes came to understand that they can’t control the population by force any longer. Too much freedom had been won by struggles like these.
They recognized they had to shift their tactics to control of attitudes and beliefs. Instead of just the cudgel. Throw away the cudgel. It can’t do what it used to do. In fact that’s when the Public Relations industry began. It began in the U.S. and England, the free countries where you had to have a major industry to control beliefs and attitudes, to induce consumerism, induce passivity, apathy, distraction …
all the things you know very well.
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