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Personalities of Our Time

by Noam Chomsky

I’m just old enough to remember the Great Depression. After the first few years, by the mid-1930s, the spirit was quite different; there was a sense that “we’re gonna get out of it,” even among unemployed people, including a lot of my relatives, a sense that “it will get better.”

There was labor union organizing going on, especially from the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). It was getting to the point of sit-down strikes, which are frightening to the business world– you could see it in the business press at the time– because a sit-down strike is just a step before taking over the factory and running it yourself.

Today, for many people in the US, there’s a pervasive sense of hopelessness, sometimes despair. I think it’s quite new in American history.

The change took place in the 70s. Before the 70s, banks were banks. They did what banks were supposed to do in a state capitalist economy: they took unused funds from your bank account, for example, and transferred them to some potentially useful purpose like helping a family buy a home or send a kid to college. The 50s and 60s had been a period of enormous growth, the highest in American history, maybe in economic history.

And it was egalitarian. The lowest quintile did about as well as the highest quintile. Lots of people moved into reasonable lifestyles– what’s called the “middle class” here, the “working class” in other countries. And the 60s accelerated it. The activism of those years really civilized the country in lots of ways that are permanent.

The developments that took place during the 70s led to the concentration of wealth increasingly in the hands of the financial sector. This doesn’t benefit the economy– it probably harms it and society. Concentration of wealth yields concentration of political power. And concentration of political power gives rise to legislation that increases and accelerates the cycle.

The legislation, essentially bipartisan, drives new fiscal policies and tax changes, as well as the rules of corporate governance and deregulation. Alongside this began a sharp rise in the costs of elections, which drove the political parties even deeper into the pockets of the corporate sector.

Meanwhile, it opened a period of stagnation or even decline for the majority of the population. People got by, but by artificial means such as longer working hours, high rates of borrowing and debt, and reliance on asset inflation like the recent housing bubble. The political system began to dissolve. There has always been a gap between public policy and public will, but it just grew astronomically. Take a look at the polls. The public overwhelmingly supports higher taxes on the wealthy and the preservation of limited social benefits– which have declined sharply in this period.

For the general population, it’s been pretty harsh. This could be a period of irreversible decline. For [a few] it’s just fine. They are richer than ever, more powerful than ever, controlling the political system, disregarding the public. And if it can continue, as far as they’re concerned, sure, why not?

The Occupy movement is the first real, major, popular reaction that could avert this. But it’s going to be necessary to face the fact that it’s a long, hard struggle. You don’t win victories tomorrow. You have to form the structures that will be sustained, that will go on through hard times and can win major victories. And there are a lot of things that can be done.

Through the 70s, as the decline was setting in, there were some important events that took place. In ’77, US Steel decided to close one of its major facilities in Youngstown, Ohio. Instead of just walking away, the workforce and the community decided to get together and buy it from the company, hand it over to the work force, and turn it into a worker-run, worker-managed facility. They didn’t win. But with enough popular support, they could have won. It’s a topic that Gar Alperovitz and Staughton Lynd, the lawyers for the workers and community, have discussed in detail. It was a partial victory because, even though they lost, it set off other efforts. And now, throughout Ohio, and in other places, there’s a scattering of hundreds, maybe thousands, of sometimes not-so-small worker/ community-owned industries that could become worker-managed.

In one of the suburbs of Boston, about a year ago, something similar happened. A multinational decided to close down a profitable, functioning facility carrying out some high-tech manufacturing. Evidently, it just wasn’t profitable enough for them. The workforce and the union offered to buy it, take it over, and run it themselves. The multinational decided to close it down instead, probably for reasons of class-consciousness. I don’t think they want things like this to happen. If there had been enough popular support, if there had been something like the Occupy movement that could have gotten involved, they might have succeeded.

I’ve kept to domestic issues, but there are two dangerous developments in the international arena, which are a kind of shadow that hangs over everything we’ve discussed. There are, for the first time in human history, real threats to the decent survival of the species.

One has been hanging around since ’45. It’s kind of a miracle that we’ve escaped it. That’s the threat of nuclear war and nuclear weapons. Though it isn’t being much discussed, that threat is, in fact, being escalated by the policies of this administration and its allies. And something has to be done about that or we’re in real trouble.

The other, of course, is environmental catastrophe. Practically every country in the world is taking at least halting steps towards trying to do something about it. The US is also taking steps, mainly to accelerate the threat. It is the only major country that is not only not doing something constructive to protect the environment, it’s not even climbing on the train. In some ways, it’s pulling it backwards.

And this is connected to a huge propaganda system, proudly and openly declared by the business world, to try to convince people that climate change is just a liberal hoax.

We’re really regressing back to the dark ages. It’s not a joke. And if that’s happening in the most powerful, richest country in history, then this catastrophe isn’t going to be averted– and in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter. Something has to be done about it very soon in a dedicated, sustained way.

It’s not going to be easy to proceed. There are going to be barriers, difficulties, hardships, failures. It’s inevitable. But unless the spirit of the last year, here and elsewhere in the country and around the globe, continues to grow and becomes a major force in the social and political world, the chances for a decent future are not very high.

Noam Chomsky is known throughout the world for his relentless advocacy of democracy, freedom and self-determination. Author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles, among his most recent Occupy (2012, Zuccotti Park Press Occupied Media Pamphlet Series) is a collection of lectures on the history of the U.S. economy, the working class, banks, politics, money, plutonomy and the precariat, toward worker takeover, climate change and nuclear weapons. Learn more at www.zuccottiparkpress.com.

2 years ago by in Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the | RSS feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
  • Basefan25

    It is certainly noteworthy that Mr. Chomsky can articulate the feeling of the Great Depression

  • Kyle

    Fascinating to hear about Chomsky’s account of the great depression and what his family was feeling. It’s very hopeful and it’s alot like how my family reacted to our recent struggles. Basically, the spirit of we’ll get through it , together.