In my mind it is April 11, 2019 and I am back in Boston. I’m standing outside Old South Church on Boylston Street, ticket in hand. There are no masks. No hand sanitizer stations. No physical distancing. There is only a long line of people and the anticipation of seeing Noam Chomsky in dialogue with Amy Goodman, live.
I look down at my copy of Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent written with Edward S. Herman in 1988; I am hoping to get it signed. The cover is beaten and torn, notes are scribbled in the margins from when I first read about the explicit ways in which the ruling class manipulates the people through the media.
I begin thinking about the questions I would ask if I was Amy Goodman–one of the many journalists that must be held up and celebrated in their quest to report stories that otherwise would not see the light of day. Goodman and Chomsky speak for most of the night about the impending environmental catastrophe if humanity does not reconfigure how the world’s resources are distributed, consumed, and discarded.
The mood is bleak, yet Chomsky finds every opportunity he can to highlight young people doing the work. From the Sunrise Movement to Extinction Rebellion, to countless people I’ve never heard of, he points to those fighting economic and environmental exploitation around the globe as a shift in the tide. Chomsky is quick to remind anyone who will listen that power is actually in the hands of the people–not the ruling class. And argues that when the people at large unite and collectively demand an equal share for all, those who currently rule will lose their control as a result.
In my interview with Professor Chomsky for The Boycott Times, we discuss the power of the people, independent journalism, nationalizing Amazon, the Federal Reserve, and what keeps him going in his long quest for justice.
–Mordecai Lyon, Editor in Chief
Mordecai Lyon: Can you talk about independent journalism? The money has to come from somewhere. So, can independent journalism actually exist?
Noam Chomsky: Well there is certainly independent journalism. A couple of minutes ago, I got off an interview with The Young Turks, for example. Paul Jay’s Real News is another. There is Democracy Now, of course, which has been very accessible. The Intercept is another, which happens to have a rich donor, but that is rare. There are efforts, but it’s not easy.
One problem is funding. Who’s going to fund it? You’re not going to get corporate funding. The other problem is reaching out to the public. You can’t have million dollar advertising campaigns. You got to do it yourself, but it can be done. In fact, sometimes what happens is spectacular.
Take the Bernie Sanders campaign. Sanders broke with well over a century of American political history. It’s not a small thing. Thomas Ferguson’s work on elections—the gold standard in the field—points out that from the late 19th century until the present you can predict the outcome of presidential and congressional elections with remarkable precision just by looking at campaign spending—which means the corporate sector and the wealthy are dictating our elections. Bernie Sanders broke with that. It’s an astonishing achievement. He came very close to winning the nomination, he could have under slightly different circumstances, even with all the media against him and no corporate funding. So, you can have remarkable achievements.
Lyon: What kind of achievements do you mean?
Chomsky: I think what has happened with the country for the past 50-60 years shows what can be done. It’s a very different country from what it was 60 years ago in 1960. People forget, things which were taken for granted then are unspeakable today. In 1960, the U.S. had anti-miscegenation laws (enforcing racial segregation) so extreme that the Nazis refused to accept them. Federal laws in the U.S. required that African Americans couldn’t get federally funded housing during the housing boom. That is when massive wealth was accumulated, during roughly 20 years in the 50s and 60s, which is one of the reasons for today’s massive wealth gap.
Lyon: So, how do we take the momentum of the moment right now, where we have a lot of people waking up to these realities you’ve been talking about for your whole career, and transfer it into actual systemic change?
Chomsky: That’s what’s happening. It doesn’t happen by snapping your fingers, but it does happen. Take again the Sanders campaign in 2016. It switched the entire arena of discussion and debate well towards the kind of social democratic side, it led to the election of people like “The Squad,” for example. All of this is totally new. Issues that are on the agenda now, couldn’t have been mentioned a couple of years ago.
Take a Green New Deal. It’s essential for survival. We can debate the details, but some form of a Green New Deal is essential for survival. A couple of years ago it was an object of ridicule, if it was mentioned at all. By now, thanks largely to the Sunrise Movement and other activists like the Extinction Rebellion and Global Climate Strike, it’s in the midst of the legislative agenda. It still gets ridiculed and denounced and so on, but it’s there and something is going to be done in response. Even the Democratic Party made a nod to it saying we need to have a Green New Deal. Couldn’t have imagined that a few years ago.
Lyon: How do you think that a new global independent collective of journalists can best serve these movements and allow them to get more of an equal footing to major media outlets?
Chomsky: Well, you’re not going to get on an equal footing. You’re not going to change Thomas Friedman—the way you affect the media is by changing the background of the society within which it functions.
The media does happen to be a good deal more progressive than 50 years ago. Take The New York Times and The Washington Post, for example. That didn’t happen because the executives and editors decided, “let’s move left.” No, it happened because the country in which they live, changed.
The people–including the young journalists and opinion writers–came out of that experience. It affected them, not to mention the dissidents banging at their doors as they are now at institutions like JP Morgan Chase. And the next thing you know, their executives are talking about disinvesting from fossil fuels because of “reputational problems.” That’s the people out there saying we’re not going to pay attention to you and do business with you if you keep trying to destroy us.
Lyon: And what can we do?
Chomsky: What you can do is provide the platform to which people will turn to say, here are the things that are important. Now, I’ll go to the corporate media and read with the proper perspective. I will be aware of what they’re leaving out, how they’re shaping things, and so on. A change in attitudes in the popular culture will change the media just like it’s changing JP Morgan Chase. It’s not because Jamie Dimon had a religious conversion.
Lyon: We’re watching that in real-time; companies and elected officials out here saying “Black Lives Matter” and saying we must divest from fossil fuels, but meanwhile their actions are not doing that. They’re just running really great marketing campaigns. And sometimes it’s really hard to decipher; I don’t know if they’re trying to pacify me or if we’re actually moving in the right direction. So, when politicians say they are going to redistribute resources how can I believe them if they’ve never done it before?
Chomsky: You can believe them by keeping their feet to the fire. If you go home and say ok I’ll leave it to you, it’s not going to happen. If you continue with the activism that has led this far, continue it, they’ll do it, just like they moved this far. That’s the way it’s always happened. You don’t put your faith in leaders. If the labor movement had stopped organizing in the 30s when Roosevelt started moving towards the New Deal measures, it wouldn’t have happened. If you keep at it, it happens. Activism has gotten us this far, it’ll keep pushing us forward.
There is an establishment picture about a functioning democracy, which I talk about a little in Manufacturing Consent–quoting guys like Walter Lippmann, liberals incidentally; Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy liberals. Their picture is very clear and explicit: what matters is the presidential election. You focus the people like a laser on that, big extravaganzas, you get everyone all excited about convention speeches, and when that extravaganza is done, everyone goes home.
As Lippmann put it, you are spectators, not participants. The responsible men are the ones that make decisions; you ignorant and meddlesome outsiders are allowed to pick one of us every four years and then go home. A lot of the left buys into that. All this business about lesser evil voting has got nothing to do with the left. But that’s the establishment picture, and they try to drive it into everybody’s head. The left partially succumbs to it as we’ve seen. That’s not politics.
In real politics, you’re active and engaged all the time whether its organizing local people to get a traffic light at an intersection, doing something with the school board to make sure teachers get decent wages, whatever it is, that’s activism. Keep at it and it’ll change the society just as in the past, just as in my lifetime, your lifetime. But if you just say, I’m a spectator, not a participant, it’ll go back to where it was.
Yes, they’re trying to con you, obviously. They always are. So, what you can do is say thank you for the con and continue to do something.
Lyon: As a secular Jewish person, I look up to you, Howard Zinn, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Einstein, Marx, as exemplars of Jewish thinkers speaking out against oppression and exploitation in its many vicious forms. Where is that movement right now? I’m sure you have a whole Rolodex of amazing secular radical Jewish thinkers that I don’t know, but I’m 36 and I’ve been seeking them out with little to no success. So, where are the radical secular Jews speaking out against police brutality rooted in the same systemic white supremacy that is also inherently anti-Semitic?
Chomsky: Well Heschel is an important figure, but nowhere near as important as the kids who were riding freedom buses– the nameless Jewish kids—some of them got killed. They were way more important than Heschel. And they’re around; all over the place.
My old friend Howard, one of the lines of his that’s my favorite is something about: what matters is the countless unknown people who laid the basis for the events that show up in history. It’s on their backs that the famous people show up.
Martin Luther King, I’m sure, would be the first to tell you that. He was riding a wave that was created by workers in Alabama, young Black kids who refused to leave the segregated lunch counters. People like that, that’s what created the wave. He was able to rise on that wave and do very important things. But if it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t have heard of MLK or Heschel. That’s who we should be looking for. They’re all over the place, like you and many others. Just take a look at any of the activist movements.
Lyon: I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about the Federal Reserve. Before my time it was something that was in the conversation and I don’t feel like its anywhere in our discourse now.
Chomsky: They’re pouring money into the economy right now. It’s mostly benefiting the wealthy, but they are keeping the economy going. In 2008, they saved it from being destroyed. You can question what they’re doing, but they’re very visible.
Lyon: They set the interest rates openly, they make announcements and release reports on the state of the economy and they hold press conferences. But we don’t talk about what happened on Jekyll Island when the Federal Reserve was created, we don’t talk about how a semiprivate semipublic institution dictates our economic policies—which have incidentally created astronomical wealth disparity in this country. We don’t talk about the fact that we don’t get a clear depiction of what is being printed and where it is going.
Chomsky: Actually, that is public information. If you look into it, you can find it. Not everything, but most of it accessible to investigative journalism. It’s true we don’t talk about it, but there are things like William Greider’s book Secrets of the Temple, for example. It’s there and it’s the job of activist intellectuals to bring it to the public, to take it off the dusty library shelves and bring it in front of people’s eyes and that’s also true of ongoing activities, people like Dean Baker, Doug Henwood, Paul Krugman sometimes, putting out information about economic policy.
Lyon: In your mind, as far as an economic policy, how do you think we could move towards, say, nationalizing Amazon or creating an infrastructure bill? What are some of the concrete things we could be doing right now?
Chomsky: I think the thing to do is not so much nationalize Amazon, but socialize it. Put it in the hands of its workforce and its communities, not run by some bureaucrat in Washington. That can certainly be done. Take the fossil fuel industries. Right now, oil prices are pretty low. If the government were to buy the fossil fuel industry, it would not make a big dent in the federal budget. We can’t get off it tomorrow. We’re going to need fossil fuel for a while. But better than the government, they can be put under the control of the workforce, the communities, the general population, which will make a decision about what they do with profits and renewable energies.
Most of these companies already have renewable energy subsidiaries, which are actually profitable, but they sometimes put them out of business because they are not profitable enough. Chevron, which had a profitable renewable energy subsidiary, put it out of the business because they could make more money poisoning the environment.
That would be shifted if they were in public hands. Build up the renewable energy business and phase out the fossil fuels and do it fast. Look at the Democratic Party program, we need to keep their feet to the fire. They’re calling for accelerating the move to a net zero economy.
So, socialize the fossil fuel industries, buy them off if you like or just kick them out, direct them to do things we need like phasing out fossil fuels slowly. People are going to lose their jobs, but they can offer them better jobs in other areas, plenty of new jobs in renewable energy and construction all over the place. It takes work but that can be done. It’s part of the Green New Deal. Move toward these industries contributing to public welfare instead of destroying it.
It can be done in many ways. Take the Obama presidency. When the economy crashed in 2008 and Obama came in, he virtually nationalized the automobile industry, basically took it over. There were choices there. One choice was to fund it, return it to its former owners, maybe different phases, and have them keep producing things that destroy our lives like traffic jams and highways and so on.
That was one way, that was what was done. But there was another way. And if there had been a popular culture backing it, that alternative way could have been taken. After the government bought the industry, they could have turned it over to the workforce, to the communities, kick out the bosses, kick out the banks, devote them to producing what we need which is not more cars clogging up the highways but a decent mass transportation system. You’d have a much better life if it didn’t take you three hours to get to work every day.
Lyon: Can we kick out the banks without violence?
Chomsky: They don’t have the power. They rule by the basis of consent. This goes back to my favorite philosopher, David Hume, one of the first works on political theory, he opens it, first paragraph, by saying, power is in the hands of those who are governed. The rulers rule only by consent. If you take away the consent, goodbye. Of course, they’ve got plenty of force, but the force is people too, it’s not abstract. It’s not coming from Mars.
So, infiltrate the force, take the power away from them. They can’t do much and they know it, that’s why you have JP Morgan Chase and others saying we’ve got to improve our reputations when they hear, to use the standard image, peasants with pitchforks, they get scared, you can see it very clearly.
Every January in Davos, the ski resort in Switzerland, all the “great” and powerful get together and call themselves the masters of the universe. CEOs and media chieftains. All those guys. And it’s always self-congratulatory, look how wonderful we are, everything’s going great and so on especially since Trump.
It was different this year. This year the mood was, we’re in trouble. They’re coming after us, we’ve got to do something. The main theme was: we now recognize we’ve done wrong, we’ve screwed you for 40 years, we’re going to change and become humanitarian and benevolent, you can put your trust in us, now we’re the good guys.
You hear this over and over. In the 1950s, it was we are going to be “soulful corporations,” eyes lifted to heaven, eager to serve you, not to make money, we don’t want that. Ok, we had that for 60 years, now they’re doing it again because they are scared. They are scared precisely because they don’t have power, you have power. It could all collapse as soon as the population changes. It’s possible.
Lyon: How do we keep that pressure going? In your imagination, if the people take back power, what happens next?
Chomsky: Next, they run the world. Not just like that though; you got to think. It’s not trivial.
Suppose you take Uber, how do we convert it into something like decent mass transportation. Maybe it’s having convenient buses you don’t have to wait 10 hours for or walk 10 miles for. There are a lot of possibilities. Small conveyer cars, 8-9 people, take them where they want to go. The people who know more about this than anyone else are the guys on the assembly line. They’ll tell you how it can be done. You have to break through the failure to understand that you can make these decisions.
As any organizer knows, the first thing you have to do is get people to understand they can do something. We are taught, indoctrinated, that we are passive and helpless. Those big guys do everything. We can’t do anything. So, how can we fight them? Right?
No. That’s not true. You can do things, even if it starts small. The resources and intellectual resources are there. Among working people, people who actually do things, they can help figure out how we can implement the programs. There are specialists in the intellectual class that can be brought in for advice. Good advice you take it, rotten advice you don’t. But don’t put power in their hand, it’s got to be in the hands of the general public. And I think there are plenty of possibilities. We see it all the time, that’s why we’re a better society than we were 60 years ago.
Lyon: You’ve been a long-distance runner in your career. How have you kept the march going? What have you done to fortify and sustain yourself from being the first voice coming out against the Vietnam War, all the way until today still being out here doing interview after interview? What keeps you going?
Chomsky: People like you. People who are picking it up and carrying it forward. As long as they are around, I don’t need any more motivation. Or looking at the people in the streets or the kids in the Sunrise Movement who managed to get the Green New Deal on the legislative agenda.
I’ve been in many parts of the world with really intense poverty and terror, way beyond anything we’re experiencing. I think of a village in southern Colombia, miles from the highway. You can barely get to it by the road and when you get to the village, you pass white crosses where people were murdered by paramilitary. When you finally get to the village, you see engaged, active people–very poor, very little formal education–working on the means to try to save their ecological resources from a gold mining company that wants to destroy it. You see people like that and you don’t need any more inspiration.
(Interview conducted on August 19, 2020 via Zoom)