Noam Chomsky on the economy and democracy Pt.2
President Obama wanted to show his solidarity with working people, so he went to Illinois and talked at an industrial plant. The choice was striking: he chose Caterpillar. Now, he had to do that over the objections of church and human rights groups because of the devastating effect that Caterpillar machines are having in the Israeli-occupied territories, where they’re wiping out agricultural land and destroying all of the roads and villages and so on. But nobody, as far as I can see, noticed something even more dramatic. I mean, Caterpillar has a role in US labor history. Caterpillar was the first plant in generations to bring in scabs to destroy a strike.
Noam Chomsky Interview (2 of 4)
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. We’re at Cambridge at MIT with Professor Noam Chomsky. Thanks for joining us again. So, in the first segment of our interview, we talked about what a Chomsky-supported economic plan might look like, which has to do with considering the public stakeholders, I guess, and not just consumers, and what that might mean in terms of banking and democracy. And as we get into the issue of democracy, what do you think in fact is going to happen here? By that I mean the current plans for the financial sector, the auto sector, the general stimulus plan. One, do you think they’re going to work? And if they’re not going to work, what are we heading into in terms of the intensity of the crisis? And what does that mean in terms of American democracy?
NOAM CHOMSKY, PROFESSOR OF LINGUISTICS, MIT: I don’t think anybody knows whether they’re going to work. It’s kind of shots in the dark. The general—and I don’t have any particular insight—my guess is that it’s not going to be the Great Depression, but that there may be some difficult years ahead and a lot of patchwork if the current policies are pursued. Now, the crucial core of current policies is keep the institutional structure stable: same structure to authority; domination, decision-making from the top. You know, public has a role. You know, it can be consumers. You can rent yourself to it—it’s called getting a job.
JAY: And putting up the money to bail out.
CHOMSKY: And you can put up the money to bail it out, but you’re not part of the decision-making apparatus. There’s almost certainly—in fact, it’s certain there will be some form of regulation. I mean, the deregulation mania of the past 30 years, based on really fundamentalist religious concepts about efficient markets, I mean, that’s pretty much gone, and that went very fast. So take, say, Lawrence Summers, who’s now the chief—practically the chief economic advisor, has got to rebuild the regulation system of the kind he destroyed a few years ago. He was in the lead in blocking Congress from regulating derivatives and other exotic instruments, under the influence of these pretty much smashed ideas about efficient markets and rational choice and so on. Alright, that much is really shattered, and there will be a reconstruction of some regulatory apparatus. But the history of this is pretty clear and understandable: regulatory systems tend to be taken over by the industries that they’re regulating. That’s the way it worked with the railroads and so on. And it’s natural. You know, they have power, concentrated power, concentrated capital, enormous political influence—they pretty much run the government. So it ends up with them taking over control of the regulatory apparatus in their own interest. And it may work. You know. So, for example, during [what] many economists call the golden age of modern state capitalism, roughly 1950 to the mid-’70s, you know, there were no huge crises. There was a regulatory system, there was regulation of capital flows, exchange rates, and so on, and it led to the greatest peacetime growth in history. It changed in the mid-’70s when the economy moved towards deregulation and financialization, huge-amount increase in flows of speculative financial capital, mythologies about efficient markets. And there was growth, of course, but it was highly concentrated in a few pockets, and we’ve been through 30 years of relative stagnation in real wages for the majority of the population.
JAY: And how does any of that change? The stimulus plan–Its not that stimulus plan is going to do anything to [inaudible] wages.
CHOMSKY: No. In fact, it’s not—well, you know, it’s interesting. There’s a slight redistributive aspect in tax policy, very slight. I mean, it’s called, you know, socialism, communism, and so on, but it barely gets back to where it was a few years ago. On the other hand, the best way to lead to a more egalitarian system would be, simply, permit unionization. The unions traditionally have not only improved the lives and benefits and, you know, working conditions and wages of workers, but they have also helped democratize society. They are one of the few means in which, you know, ordinary people can get together and make plans and influence public choices and so on. Now, that’s not being pursued. In fact, it’s kind of interesting: it’s almost been driven out of our minds. There was a dramatic example of that a couple of weeks ago. President Obama wanted to show his solidarity with working people, so he went to Illinois and talked at an industrial plant. The choice was striking: he chose Caterpillar. Now, he had to do that over the objections of church and human rights groups because of the devastating effect that Caterpillar machines are having in the Israeli-occupied territories, where they’re wiping out agricultural land and destroying all of the roads and villages and so on. But nobody, as far as I can see, noticed something even more dramatic. I mean, Caterpillar has a role in US labor history. Caterpillar was the first plant in generations to bring in scabs to destroy a strike. Now, that was, I think, 1988, sort of part of the Reagan attack on labor, but this was the first industrial installation to do it. Now, that’s a huge, important fact. At that point, the United States was alone, along with South Africa, in permitting anything like this. And that essentially destroys the right of association for working people.
JAY: The Employee Free Choice Act, which is supposed to be something that’s going to facilitate unionization, we haven’t heard much about it since the election.
CHOMSKY: Didn’t hear much about it. We didn’t hear anything when Obama went to the plant, which is the symbol of destruction of labor by unfair practices, because this has been driven out of people’s minds. The Employee Free Choice Act is always misrepresented. It’s described as an effort to avoid secret elections. It’s not that. It’s an effort to allow workers to decide whether there should be secret elections, instead of leaving decisions entirely in the hands of employers, who can use card check if they want [inaudible] they can choose, you know, a secret election, but workers can too. That’s what the act would now—. On the campaign trail, Obama talked about it, but it steadily receded into the background. And a much bigger step towards, you know, overcoming the radical redistribution to the top that took place in the last 30 years would simply be to ease the efforts at unionization. Now, you know, every recent president since Reagan has attacked this. I mean, Reagan straight out told employers, "We’re not going to apply the law." So firing of workers—legal firing—for organizing I think tripled, according to Business Week, during the Reagan years. When Clinton came along it was basically a different device—it’s called NAFTA. NAFTA provided employers with a wonderful means to prevent organizing: just put up a big sign saying "Mexico transfer operation." It’s illegal, but if the government’s an outlaw government, you can get away with it. And the Bush years we don’t have to talk about. But you could reverse this, and that would be a significant step towards not only slightly reversing the enormous redistribution of income to the top, but also democratizing the society by providing mechanisms by which people can act politically in their own interest. But, you know, that’s so far at the margins it’s barely being discussed. And things like, say, stakeholder control of institutions, workers in the community, it’s not much below the surface in people’s minds. It is being pushed aside. Now, if you look back to the 1930s, when maybe the closest—it’s not the same, but rather similar issues were arising, what really struck fear into the hearts of the business world were the sit-down strikes. That’s when business started talking about the hazard facing industrialists and the rising political power of the masses and so on. Now, what’s so threatening about a sit-down strike? Well, you know, a sit-down strike is just five seconds before the idea emerges, "Why should we sit here? Why not run the factory? We can do it, arguably better than the managers can, ’cause we know how it works." Now, that’s frightening. And it’s beginning to happen. Just a month ago there was a sit-down strike in a Chicago plant, Republic Windows and Floors, I think it was called. You know, the multinational that owned it wanted to close it down or move it somewhere or something. And the workers, they demonstrated it and protested, you know, and so on, but finally there was a sit-down strike. Well, they sort of half-won; they didn’t completely win. A lot of them kept their jobs. A different company bought it. But it didn’t move on to the next step. The next step is, "Well, why shouldn’t we run the plant, along with the community, which cares about it, and maybe a broader community, which also cares, in the general public?" Well, you know, those are issues that really ought to be discussed.
JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s take this conversation of what American democracy might look like in the next few years, especially if this economic crisis continues to unravel. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Noam Chomsky.
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