Chomsky: working people are turning against the élites, it’s not populism

Linguist, philosopher, academic, communication theorist and political activist: Professor Noam Chomsky does not need any introduction. After radically transforming the world of linguistics with his theory on transformational-generative grammar in the 50s and 60s, he continued to observe reality and social dynamics with a revolutionary look, producing analysis and essays on the themes of power, consensus, democracy and language.

Although in the last year and a half – after Trump’s election – he has intensified his calendar of events and interviews, he still found the time to answer some questions about the US scenario and the political drifts in Europe.

We are witnessing a progressive shift of a great part of the American and European working class to the political right. The Media usually calls it “populism” but I don’t think that this is the right word. What is the reason for this process? What should the left do to regain ground?

I’d put it a little differently. Working people are turning against elites and dominant institutions that have been punishing them for a generation.

In the US, for example, real wages are lower today than when the neoliberal assault was instituted from the late ‘70s, escalating sharply under Reagan and Thatcher, with the predictable effects on decline in functioning of formally democratic institutions.

There has been economic growth and increase in productivity, but the wealth generated has gone into very few pockets, for the most part to predatory financial institutions that are, overall, harmful to the economy.

In Europe it is much the same, in some ways even worse because decision-making on major issues has shifted to the unelected Troika.

The governing center-right/center-left parties (US Democrats, European social democrats) have shifted to the right, largely abandoning working class interests. That has led to anger, frustration, fear and scapegoating.

Since the actual causes are hidden in obscurity, it must be the fault of the undeserving poor, or ethnic minorities, or immigrants, or other vulnerable sectors. In such circumstances people grasp at straws. In the US many working people voted for Obama, believing his message of “hope” and “change”, and when they were quickly disillusioned, sought something else.

This is fertile soil for demagogues like Trump, who pretends to be the voice of working people while undermining them at every turn by the brutal anti-labor policies of his administration, which represents the most savage wing of the Republican Party.

It has nothing to do with “populism”, a concept with a mixed history, often quite respectable.

There are constructive reactions, like the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns, under bitter attack by the elite establishment, particularly in the UK, where it is unusually virulent.

On the continent, DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) is quite promising but face major hurdles.

You recently declared that the Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history because of its policy about global warming and nuclear weapons. Don’t you think that the Democratic Party has been the main cause of Trump’s victory?

The abandonment of the working class by the Democrats has indeed been a significant factor in Trump’s victory (in the electoral college, with a minority of the popular vote), along with other factors, such as very successful voter suppression by Republican state governments, now escalating with the support of the most reactionary Supreme Court in living history. But that doesn’t change the very clear and unambiguous fact, however inexpressible it may be, that the Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history.

Even Hitler did not dedicate his efforts to undermining the prospect for organized human existence, in the near future. And with full awareness of what they are doing.

Trump, for example, is a firm believer in global warming. Recently he applied to the Irish government for permission to build a wall to protect his golf course from rising sea levels, pleading the dangers of global warming.

Or take Rex Tillerson, considered “the adult in the room,” so sane that he didn’t last long in Trump’s ultra-right cabinet. He had become a high official of ExxonMobil in the late ‘80s (later CEO), when global warming became a public issue with James Hansen’s well-publicized 1988 testimony about the extreme threats. He had on his desk reports of their own scientists, going back many years, warning of the dire effects of global warming. As soon as threats reached the general public, the corporation began to pour funds into denialism, while continuing, to the present, to develop new ways to destroy the environment.

Can you think of a word for such behavior in any language? I can’t. Or for the failure to see it as what it is.

Could Bernie Sanders be a real and believable alternative to the Republican Party and to traditional Democratic candidates?

The most remarkable feature of the 2016 campaign was not the election of a billionaire, with a huge amount of funding particularly in the crucial final stages of the campaign, and with enormous media support (Fox News, virtually an organ of the right wing of the Republican Party, and talk radio, with an enormous audience, long ago taken over by far right businesses).

The most remarkable feature was the Sanders’ campaign, breaking with well over a century of American political history in which the election is predictable with remarkable precision, this is true for Congress as well, by the simple variable of campaign spending.

Sanders was almost unknown, was dismissed or ridiculed by the media, had no funding from the corporate system or private wealth, and even used the word “socialism”, a scare word in the US, unlike in other societies. In fact, his “socialist” policies wouldn’t have surprised President Eisenhower, an old-fashioned conservative, but with the shift of the political spectrum to the right in the neoliberal years, they seemed revolutionary – except to the general public, which largely supports the policies, so regular polls show, often by large margins.

He might very well have won the Democratic nomination had it not been for machinations of the Obama-Clinton party managers.

He emerged as the most popular political figure in the country. The offshoots of his campaign, combining with others, are becoming a significant force, despite media hostility and strong opposition from the centers of economic power, which are usually decisive in determining electoral outcomes and policy formation, as demonstrated by extensive work in academic political science.

The real question is whether the US can become a functioning democracy, which approaches the familiar slogans: “of, by, and for the people”. The same questions can be asked in Europe.

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