An interview with Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky speaks to Tribune about the Bernie Sanders campaign, the obstacles standing in its way – and why the US business class will bitterly resist any attempt at social democratic reform.
Since the 1960s, Noam Chomsky has been one of the foremost public intellectuals on the international Left. Rising to prominence for his opposition to the Vietnam War, Chomsky became arguably the most vociferous and effective critic of US foreign policy in the West, his work a thorn in the side of presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama.
Although a linguistics professor by trade, Chomsky’s contributions to politics have influenced generations of activists – from his ‘propaganda model’ explanation of corporate media domination to his critiques of capitalist globalisation, the limits of liberal democracy and the failures of Western intellectuals to defend the principles they proclaim. It is this breadth of contribution that has made him one of the most cited academics alive today.
In this interview, Noam Chomsky speaks to Tribune at a moment when socialists across the world are looking to the United States and the Bernie Sanders campaign for inspiration. He discusses the barriers facing a potential Sanders presidency, the importance of the labour movement to any prospect of meaningful change – and why the US business class will bitterly resist any attempt at social democratic reform.
If — and this is a big ‘if’ — Bernie Sanders secures the Democratic nomination and then wins the presidency, to what extent do you think he will be able to deliver the programme which he has promised, for example policies like Medicare for All?
Well, as you say that is a big ‘if,’ but let’s assume it happens. Then there are many factors that would have to be considered. One is what the character of Congress is. Let’s also assume, and this is an even bigger ‘if,’ that he carries a substantial majority of Congress with him. That’s pretty hard to imagine, but let’s suppose so. Then a lot would depend on the character, energy and commitment of the popular movements that he’s inspired and that under these assumptions would have been the factor that led him to victory. If they keep the pressure up, then things could happen.
Unfortunately, the historic cutting-edge of popular activism is lacking in this case — namely, an organised labour movement. So if you look say at the New Deal in the 1930s, it was possible to achieve fairly significant reforms because there was a militant, energised labour movement which was pressing very hard. In fact, it was threatening corporate control of business and there was a sympathetic administration which responded to the pressure. That combination has been critical for just about every reform known in the past.
There would be a question in the hypothetical case we are considering whether the labour movement could be revived to participate in these efforts. It’s been badly beaten back both in the United States and Britain by the neoliberal assault since Reagan and Thatcher. There is also a question about whether the other popular movements that have developed in recent years, which are pretty significant, can fill the gap. I think those are the kinds of factors that would be essential to achieving anything. But we can be certain that concentrated capital will fight back vigorously.
In fact, if we go back to the New Deal it is a complicated and interesting matter which has been studied in some detail and very insightfully by Thomas Ferguson, a fine political scientist. What he shows pretty convincingly is that during the New Deal there was a split within private capital. In general, more high-tech capital-intensive internationally oriented industries tended to support Roosevelt. Labour-intensive domestically oriented industries like the National Association of Manufacturers violently opposed Roosevelt. So there was an internal split which contributed to the success of the New Deal measures, along with the crucial element of very extensive and active and militant popular support, mostly from the labour movement.