Posted 5 years ago on March 12, 2012, 9:38 a.m. EST by flip
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Dada Maheshvarananda: The viral growth of the Occupy Movement, and the public support of it, is testament to the tremendous dissatisfaction with the inequities and abuses of corporate capitalism. The slogan “We are the 99%” has resonated with many people. What is your view of the potential strength of this type of mass protest and its possibility to effect social change?
Noam Chomsky: Well the Occupy Movement already has had a number of significant successes. One of them, as you say, is to kind of change the national discourse. These concerns and fears and so on were, of course, prevalent for a long time for perfectly objective reasons, having to do with changes in the socio-economic system in the last 30 or 40 years. But they weren’t crystallized very clearly until the Occupy Movement put them forward. And now they are kind of common coin. So the 99 percent and one percent, the radical inequality, the farcical character of purchased elections, the corporate shenanigans that led to the current crisis and have been crushing people for a long time, the overseas wars, and so on. That’s one major contribution.
The other one is not discussed so much, but I think it’s pretty important. This is an extremely atomized society. People are alone. It’s a very business-run society. The very explicit goal of the business world is to create a social order in which the basic social unit is you and your television set, in which you’re watching ads and going out to purchase commodities. There are tremendous efforts made, that have been going on for a century and a half, to try to induce this kind of consciousness and social order.
In fact if you go back say 150 years, in the early days of the industrial revolution, right here in Massachusetts, where it started, there was a very lively press at the time, probably the period of the greatest free press in the United States. All kinds of press – ethnic, labor, etc. And the labor press, which was extremely interesting, lively and participatory, had a great many harsh criticisms of the industrial system that was being imposed and to which people were being driven. One of the core criticisms was what 150 years ago they called the “New Spirit of the Age”: “Gain wealth, forgetting all but self,” which they considered savage and inhuman and was being driven into their heads. Well, 150 years later they are still trying to drive into people’s heads, “Gain wealth, forgetting all but self.” Now it’s considered kind of an ideal, but it’s also intolerable to human beings.
One effect of the Occupy Movement has been simply to spontaneously create small social systems of solidarity, mutual support, cooperation, cooperative kitchens, libraries, health services, general assemblies in which people actually interact and so on. That’s something that is very much missing in this society. When we talk about potential, part of the potential would be to first of all maintain those bonds and associations after the tactic has outlived its usefulness. And tactics do outlive their usefulness. After that happens, if what has been learned and internalized can be sustained and extended, that would be very important in itself.
The other dimension is how much can you engage the rest of the so-called 99 percent in these activities, concerns, interactions and so on. That’s the next big step that has to be taken.
Dada Maheshvarananda: Many in the Occupy movement have realized that political democracy is controlled by big money. Few however have expressed that economic democracy is essential for a truly democratic society. The Progressive Utilization Theory or Prout advocates economic democracy to empower people and communities through cooperative management of most enterprises. Economic democracy requires that the minimum requirements of life must be guaranteed to everyone, and decision-making be decentralized so people have the right to choose how their local economies are run. It is the responsibility of all levels of government to promote policies that achieve full employment. Do you think that economic democracy and local economies could move us forward?
Noam Chomsky: First of all, this is the traditional stand of the Left. So if you go back again 150 years to the same newspapers I was mentioning, one of their demands was that those who work in the mills should own them, and of course manage them. That was the slogan of the Knights of Labor, the huge labor organization that developed in the nineteenth century. European socialism was mostly coming from several branches, but the more Left branches if you like, were essentially the same – committed to workers’ councils, community organization, guild socialism in England was the same. This is the traditional thrust of the socialist movement. It is not understood here, because, as I said, this is a very business-run society. You’re not allowed to know any of these things. So socialism is some kind of bad word.
Well, that is what happens in a highly controlled society, a highly indoctrinated society. But these are very familiar goals. In fact, you can even go to the leading social philosopher in the United States, who everyone recognizes as John Dewey, who just took this for granted. As he put it, unless every institution in society – industry, farming, communication, media, all of them – unless they are under popular democratic control, with wide participation by the workforce and the community, he said politics will just be the shadow cast over society by big business. That’s the alternative.
You can’t have meaningful political democracy without functioning economic democracy. I think this is, at some level, understood by working people. It has to be brought to awareness and consciousness, but it’s just below the surface.
In fact, things are happening. Some of the most interesting are [the Evergreen] cooperatives in Ohio in the Cleveland area. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of, not huge, but significant enterprises, that are worker-owned and less frequently worker-managed. The biggest worker-owned conglomerate is Mondragón in the Basque Country [Spain]. That’s worker-owned but not worker-managed industries, banks, schools, communities, a very broad configuration. And there are various other elements of it here and there. A couple of quite good books have just come out about it, one by Gar Alperovitz, America Beyond Capitalism, which is about the worker-owned enterprises that are sprouting around the country. This could go much beyond.
So, for example, a couple years ago, the government effectively nationalized the auto industry. It came pretty close to that. There were a couple choices. One choice, which is the choice that is reflexive in a business-run system, is to reconstitute it, hand it back to the original owners or to people very much like them, and let them pursue very much the course they pursued before. That’s one possibility; that was of course the choice undertaken without discussion.
But there was another choice. And if there had been a live, functioning Occupy Movement at the time, it could have put that other choice onto the national agenda. It would have to have been much larger and more organized than it is now. It’s been only a few months after all. The other choice was to hand the auto industry over to the workers in the community, and have them own and manage and run it. Have it directed to things that the country needs.
There are, after all, things that we very badly need as a society. One of the most obvious is high speed rail. The United States is off the international spectrum in this respect. It’s kind of a scandal. It’s economically harmful, socially harmful, humanly harmful, ecologically harmful, and everything that you can think of. It’s just ridiculous. And the skilled workforce in what is called the “rust belt” could easily be reconfigured to do that. People like Seymour Melman have been arguing for that for years. It might take some kind of federal aid, but nothing like what was poured into the banks.
To make this even more ironic, at the very time that Obama was reconstituting the auto industry and handing it back to the normal ownership, he was also sending his transportation secretary to Spain to get contracts for high speed rail from the Spanish, who are way more advanced than we are, or the French or the Germans. And here you have this industrial system sitting there, workers wanting to work, communities wanting to have their own lively work-based communities, and the country needing things badly. But they can’t be put together. And we have to go somewhere else, like to Spain to get them to help us out. I mean, that’s an incredible condemnation of the semi-functioning system. And that’s the kind of thing that an Occupy Movement, when it moves beyond this particular tactic, should be addressing.