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Forum Post: Noam Chomsky: Occupy the World

Posted 6 years ago on Nov. 2, 2011, 7:26 p.m. EST by Lockean (671) from New York, NY
This content is user submitted and not an official statement


The fact that the demonstrations are unprecedented is quite appropriate. It is an unprecedented era - not just this moment - but actually since the 1970s. The 1970s began a major turning point in American history. For centuries, since the country began, it had been a developing society with ups and downs. But the general progress was toward wealth and industrialization and development - even in dark and hope - there was a pretty constant expectation that it's going to 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-1930s, although the situation was objectively much harsher than it is today, the spirit was quite different. There was a sense that we're going to get out of it, even among unemployed people. It'll get better. There was a militant labor movement organizing, CIO was organizing. It was getting to the point of sit-down strikes, which are very frightening to the business world. You could see it in the business press at the time. A sit-down strike was just a step before taking over the factory and running it yourself. Also, the New Deal legislations were beginning to come under popular pressure. There was just a sense that somehow we're going to get out of it.

It's quite different now. Now there's kind of a pervasive sense of hopeless, or, I think, despair. I think it's quite new in American history and it has an objective basis. In the 1930s unemployed "working people" could anticipate realistically that the jobs are going to come back. If you're a worker in manufacturing today - and the unemployment level in manufacturing today is approximately like the Depression - if current tendencies persist, then those jobs aren't going to come back. The change took place in the '70s. There are a lot of reasons for it. One of the underlying reasons, discussed mainly by economic historian Robert Bernard, who has done a lot of work on it, is a falling rate of profit. That, with other factors, led to major changes in the economy - a reversal of the 700 years of progress towards industrialization and development. We turned to a process of deindustrialization and de-development. Of course, manufacturing production continued, but overseas (it's very profitable, but no good for the workforce). Along with that came a significant shift of the economy from productive enterprise, producing things people need, to financial manipulation. Financialization of the economy really took off at that time.

Before the '70s, banks were banks. They did what banks are supposed to do in a capitalist economy: take unused funds, like, say, your bank account, and transfer them to some potentially useful purpose, like buying a home or sending your kid to college. There were no financial crises. It was a period of enormous growth; the largest period of growth in American history, or maybe in economic history. It was sustained growth in the '50s and '60s and it was egalitarian. So the lowest percentile did as well as the highest percentile. A lot of people moved into reasonable lifestyles - what's called here "middle class" (working class is what it's called in other countries).


Without going on with details, what's being played out for the last 30 years is actually a kind of a nightmare that was anticipated by the classical economists. If you take an Adam Smith, and bother to read Wealth of Nations, you see that he considered the possibility that the 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. He went on to say that the merchants and manufacturers 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 ravage of what's called "neoliberal globalization."

That's a pretty hard passage to miss. In his classic Wealth of Nations, that's the only occurrence of the phrase "invisible hand." Maybe England would be saved from neoliberal globalization by an invisible hand. The other great classical economist David Ricardo recognized the same thing and hoped it wouldn't happen. Kind of a sentimental hope. It didn't happen for a long time, but it's happening now. Over the last 30 years that's exactly what's underway. For the general population - the 99 percent in the imagery of the Occupy movement - it's really harsh and it could get worse. This could be a period of irreversible decline. For the 1 percent, or furthermore 1/10th of 1 percent, it's just fine. They're at the top, richer and more powerful than ever in controlling the political system and disregarding the public, and if it can continue, then sure why not? This is just what Smith and Ricardo warned about.





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[-] 2 points by youngandoutraged (123) from Iowa City, IA 6 years ago

Thank you for bringing up Adam Smith. Many 'status quo-tiants' use his views to supplement their own, without bothering to do the research. Adam Smith himself felt that his most important work was not the wealth of nations, but his treatise on morality. The 2 pillars of Smiths capitalism were home bias, listed above, and human morality. He thought those two things would prevent the type of cost externalization that would be harmful to society. However, he could not have anticipated that globalization would drive the profit motive so far home that home bias would no longer be relevant, and cost externalization became the standard model for business (it always was, but the neoliberal version is so much more detrimental to the health of society). With out its 2 main pillars, we somehow though that this system could somehow float on air, and we are now finding out that this is simply not the case.

[-] 2 points by Lockean (671) from New York, NY 6 years ago

"globalization would drive the profit motive so far ...that home bias would no longer be relevant, and cost externalization became the standard model for business (it always was, but the neoliberal version is so much more detrimental to the health of society)"

Exactly right.

[-] 1 points by Demian (497) from San Francisco, CA 6 years ago

Thanks for posting this.

[-] 1 points by Lockean (671) from New York, NY 6 years ago

Sure thing.

[-] 0 points by youngandoutraged (123) from Iowa City, IA 6 years ago

I guess this is too heady for these kids.

[-] 1 points by Lockean (671) from New York, NY 6 years ago

But so important. Neoliberalism is what we're protesting, but most don't realize it. They are so caught up in the left/right paradigm that they don't recognize the shift that replaced the traditional liberals and conservatives of the liberal consensus years (40s-70s) with a whole new breed of neoliberal beasts - dominant now in both parties.

[-] 1 points by youngandoutraged (123) from Iowa City, IA 6 years ago

I know its disgusting. What can you and I do to rephrase the debate in terms that the citizenry can understand?

[-] 1 points by Lockean (671) from New York, NY 6 years ago

It's tough. There's another aspect that muddies the water - the strong right libertarian sentiment here. While libertarians come from a virtuous position of individual liberty, their ideology plays into the hands of the neoliberals, big time. They speak the same language, of free markets and free trade, and none seem to catch on that freedom for multinationals and the super-rich (from regulation and taxation) actually translates into less individual liberty and prosperity overall. I haven't figured out how to bridge that gap. We're just statist thugs in their minds.

[-] 1 points by youngandoutraged (123) from Iowa City, IA 6 years ago

Yep, you have perfectly framed the point at which I am also stuck. I like the futurist argument, that soon (if not already), There will be too few jobs to meet global demand, because of technological innovations. The only way for a growth model to continue is by having a young retirement age, with a guaranteed income. However, Americans will never accept this as long as the current power structures exist.

[-] 1 points by Lockean (671) from New York, NY 6 years ago

Yeah, that's right on. We should lower the SS retirement age to 50 right now, and pay for it by discarding the cap on SS-eligible income.

We should also bring marginal tax rates back to where they belong, and tackle some of our big energy and infrastructure challenges. Imagine TVA/WPA-type programs to lay photovoltaic highways (collection and transmission via the blacktop itself), build high-speed rail, etc. We could turn this into an amazing opportunity if we just had the vision and the will.

See solar highways: http://www.leonardo-energy.org/solar-highways

And really great info on taxation put together by an OWSer: http://www.brianrogel.com/the-100-percent-solution-for-the-99-percent

Another candidate for national energy projects: http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-10-googleorg-funded-geothermal-vast-coast-to-coast-energy.html

[-] 1 points by youngandoutraged (123) from Iowa City, IA 6 years ago

As much as I disagree with the socialist proposals like a Resource Based Economy, we have to move past the irrational fear of socialism leftover from the last generations, and learn to take the best parts and apply them to our own society. The Venus Project points out that we could not only feed, cloth, and house the global population, but end all pollution from dirty energy industries. We can do those things without getting rid of money, as they suggest, but rather ensuring greater equality and minimizing negative externalization. In theory it would be simple to put this planet on an entirely sustainable track, but those in power will vehemently oppose any idea they see as threatening to their way of life.

[-] 1 points by Lockean (671) from New York, NY 6 years ago


I'm more focused on what seems feasible given facts on the ground. I know what I imagine is basically possible, because it pretty much mirrors what we've done at similar junctures in the past. What you're talking is what I want in my heart of hearts, but, for exactly the reasons you describe, I don't have much hope for revolutionary change...

That said, it's just as likely that "those in power will vehemently oppose" any variation from the status quo, so I'm probably just as idealistic and naive... Sigh.

How in the hell did we let ourselves get here? Externalization (to future generations) on a civilization-scale?

[-] 1 points by youngandoutraged (123) from Iowa City, IA 6 years ago

That is exactly how we got here. Unfortunately, another thing the Venus Project might have right is that only with a great collapse of power will the people be able to rise up and take what is theirs. Either, this is the beginning of that collapse, or simply another opportunity that history will say that goodness and decency missed out on

[-] -1 points by stevo (314) 6 years ago

Noam Chomsky? You're quoting that guy from the Jersey Shore show?