Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Apr 8, 2021
36 Min read time
Noam Chomsky on his new book, the Capitol coup attempt, 2020 unrest, and the prospects for progress under Biden.
U.S. politics has recently been roiled by converging crises, from the pandemic and uprisings over racial justice to the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. What are the prospects for progressive politics under the new Biden administration? Noam Chomsky takes on climate, race, immigration, and revolution in this edited version of a radio conversation between Chomsky and Alternative Radio host David Barsamian, conducted on March 15, 2021, in Oro Valley, Arizona. Established in 1986, Alternative Radio is an award-winning weekly one-hour public affairs program offered free to public radio stations. Its archive features one of the world’s largest collections of Chomsky talks and interviews.
David Barsamian: You’ve got a new book out, Consequences of Capitalism: Manufacturing Discontent and Resistance, coauthored with Marv Waterstone, your colleague at the University of Arizona. It’s based on your “What is Politics?” course that you co-taught. Tell us about it.
“Will the species survive? Will organized human life survive? Those questions cannot be avoided. There is no way to sit on the sidelines.”
Noam Chomsky: It is basically an expanded record of the courses that we’ve taught for the past five years, both for students and for the community. The lectures are broken up into a series. We begin with questions about the basis on which you come to know and believe something. How does Gramscian hegemonic common sense get imposed? How is consent manufactured, to borrow Walter Lippmann’s phrase? Then we move on to particular areas, beginning with the ones of prime importance for survival—militarism and nuclear war, environmental destruction—and go from there to a variety of domestic issues: resistance to the social movements, what they can achieve, how efforts are made to control them. We bring in speakers weekly from activist movements describing what they do, what kind of problems they face, what kinds of opportunities there are. And these lectures we keep bringing them up to date each year. It’s been a very lively experience.
DB: You write in the preface, “Will the species survive? Will organized human life survive? Those questions cannot be avoided. There is no way to sit on the sidelines.”
NC: Like it or not, that’s a fact. It’s this generation that will decide whether human society continues in any organized form, or whether we reach tipping points that are irreversible, and we spin off into total catastrophe. Same question with regard to the growing threat of nuclear weapons: there’s just no alternative to deciding right now. There are other problems. The pandemic will somehow be controlled at enormous and needless cost of lives, but there are others coming. And they could be more serious unless we take serious steps to prepare for them—both the scientific work and the social background. Then there will be other major issues of species survival—not just the human species. We are racing forward to destroying other species on an incredible scale, which hasn’t been seen for 65 million years. And now it’s happening much faster than it did then. That’s what’s called the fifth extinction. We’re now in the midst of the sixth extinction.
DB: One of the topics you discuss in the book is the connection between David Hume, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosopher, and Antonio Gramsci, the noted twentieth-century Marxist thinker. What’s that connection?
NC: Hume was a great philosopher. He wrote an important essay, “Of the First Principles of Government” (1741), one of the classic texts on what we now call political philosophy or political science. He opens his study by raising a question. He’s surprised, he says, to see the “easiness” with which people subordinate themselves to power systems. That’s a mystery, because the people themselves really have the power. Why do they subject themselves to masters? The answer, he says, must be consent: the masters succeed in what we now call manufacturing consent. They keep the public in line by their belief that they must subordinate themselves to power systems. And he says this miracle occurs in all societies, no matter how brutal or how free.
“The people themselves really have the power. Why do they subject themselves to masters? The answer, Hume says, must be consent.”
Hume was writing in the wake of the first democratic revolution, the English revolution of the mid-seventeenth century, which led to what we call the British constitution—basically, that the king will be subordinate to parliament. Parliament at that time basically meant merchants and manufacturers. Hume’s close friend, Adam Smith, wrote about the consequences of the revolution. In his own famous book The Wealth of Nations (1776), he pointed out that the now sovereign “merchants and manufacturers” are the true “masters of mankind.” They used their power to control the government and to ensure that their own interests are very well taken care of, no matter how “grievous” the effect on the people of England—and even worse, on those who are subject to what he called “the savage injustice of the Europeans,” referring mainly to the British rule in India.
The year before Smith published The Wealth of Nations, the American Revolution broke out. About a decade later the American Constitution was formed, very much like during the first democratic uprising. That’s presented as a conflict between the king and parliament. And it ended, as I said, with the king being subordinate to parliament, the rising merchant and manufacturing class.
But that’s not the whole story. There was also the general public, which didn’t want to be ruled by either king or parliament. It was a lively pamphlet period. Itinerant workers and ministers reached much of the general public. Their pamphlets and talks called for being ruled by fellow countrymen, who know the people’s wants, not by knights and gentlemen who only want to oppress the people. They called for universal health, universal education, and many things. But they were ultimately crushed. Hume and Smith both wrote after the victory of the merchants and manufacturers in Britain—not only over the king, but over the general public.
This was reenacted in the American Constitution, as Michael Klarman documents in his book The Framers’ Coup (2016). The public wanted democracy. The Framers—wealthy men, nearly half of them slave owners—wanted to prevent the threat of democracy, much like the men of “best quality,” as they called themselves during the first democratic revolution. It didn’t take more than a few years for James Madison to realize what Smith had realized before. In 1791 he wrote a letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson in which he deplored the collapse of the democratic system that he hoped he had established—not too much democracy, but at least some. The stock-jobbers—in our day that means the financial institutions—had taken so much power, Madison deplored, that they had become the “tool and tyrant” of government. They work for government but they also control government, working for their own interests.
Many of the same problems exist today. The Gramscian version gives an account of the same principles in modern terms. And many of the same issues arise. So yes, there is a connection.
DB: Let’s talk about the role of intellectuals—both “organic” and “traditional,” in Gramsci’s terms. The latter are sometimes disparaged as stenographers to power. There is the idea of “responsible intellectuals.” Gramsci called them “experts in legitimation.” And then, of course, there’s what Henry Kissinger added to the widening definition.
“Liberal theorists argued that the people cannot be left to run their own affairs: they are ‘spectators,’ not ‘participants.’ They have to be controlled by what Niebuhr called ‘necessary illusion.’”
NC: The idea of “responsible” intellectuals comes from the main liberal theorists of modern democracy—people like Walter Lippmann (sometimes called the father of modern journalism), Harold Lasswell (one of the founders of modern political science), Edward Bernays (one of the founders of the public relations industry), Niebuhr (considered the theologian of the liberal establishment, highly revered). They all wrote texts about how democracy should function. They said that the responsible men—educated intellectuals—have to maintain power. The general public, they say, is stupid and ignorant; the people cannot be left to run their own affairs. They have to be controlled by what Niebuhr called “necessary illusion” and “emotionally potent oversimplifications.” They have a place, as Lippmann put it. They are “spectators,” not “participants,” but they do have a role. They’re supposed to show up every four years and push a lever to pick one or another of the responsible men to lead them, and then they are to go back to their own affairs and not bother us. The responsible men are to be free of “the trampling and roar of the bewildered herd.” We should not, as Lasswell put it, be overcome by “democratic dogmatisms” about people being able to take control, to work for their own interests. During the Kennedy years, you will recall that we were supposed to bow down to the technocratic and policy-oriented elite. “The best and the brightest,” as David Halberstam called them.
Then there were the bad guys: the value-oriented intellectuals, the people concerned with rights and justice. They were what McGeorge Bundy—the national security adviser for Kennedy and Johnson and former Harvard dean—called “the wild men in the wings.” Bundy made this remark in 1967 when he was castigating people questioning not only the elite’s tactics, but even its motives and plans. Bundy thought we had to get rid of them, the people marching in the streets and the value-oriented intellectuals stirring them up.
This distinction goes all the way back through history. The term “intellectual” in its modern sense was really developed during the years of the Dreyfus affair in late nineteenth-century France, when Émile Zola and other writers and intellectuals were criticizing the gross mistreatment of Alfred Dreyfus—his sentencing on fabricated charges. They were criticizing the army and the state. They were bitterly condemned by the immortals of the French Academy for daring to criticize these great institutions. They were the wild men in the wings. Zola had to flee France to escape the attacks, and others were jailed. This is history. If you’re a wild man in the wings, and you’re daring to go beyond obeisance to the powerful, you are likely to suffer in one way or another.
So there are wild men in the wings, and then there are stenographers to power. Kissinger, a master in the art, put it pretty well himself. He said the role of the policy intellectual is to articulate the thinking of those in power, “elaborating and defining” their “consensus.” If they don’t put it exactly right, we’ll articulate it correctly for them. That’s the role of the serious intellectual. And that’s how you become a respected, responsible intellectual.
DB: Let’s move from the book to the news. There’s a rover on the Red Planet, Perseverance, sending back photos. Years ago you talked about a journalist from Mars. How would she cover the pandemic and the introduction of vaccines?
“There are places where the discontent and distrust is so high that a great many people are simply unwilling to join in the collective effort to control and put down the disease.”
NC: In the United States a substantial number of people are refusing to get vaccinated. They’re overwhelmingly Republicans, and they give many reasons: distrust of government, distrust of science. But it’s not restricted to the United States. In France, for example, only about 40 percent of people intend to get it. There’s overwhelming evidence of the importance of taking the vaccine if we want to get this plague under control, but fear and dislike of government, science, and authority have reached such points that people are taking very dangerous actions to avoid what has to be done.
Compare this with other countries. Australia got the disease very quickly under control. One main reason is they have a highly effective health system, which people trust. They are willing to take collective responsibility for one another. They accepted harsh lockdowns, which were very successful, and the disease was essentially controlled. The same has happened in New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, and other countries. But there are places where the discontent and distrust is so high that a great many people are simply unwilling to join in the collective effort to control and put down the disease.
DB: Did you get your vaccine?
NC: I got the second one two days ago. I have a bit of a sore arm.
DB: That discontent took a dramatic turn on January 6, with the assault on the Capitol. What was your understanding of what went on there?
NC: First of all, it was explicitly an attempt at a coup. They were trying to overthrow the elected government: that’s a coup. As for those who participated, one striking feature—look at the photographs—is that few young people were involved. That’s quite unusual; political events and demonstrations are mostly young people. Here it was middle-aged and older people, and they were all enthusiastic Trump supporters. He was egging them on.
They all apparently fervently believe that the election was stolen, that their country is being stolen from them by evil forces. Remember, almost half of Republican voters think that Trump was sent by God to save the country from evildoers ranging from Democratic pedophiles to minorities to others who are undermining and destroying their traditional Christian form of life. There were elements there from the more violent militias, such as the Proud Boys. It was a pretty violent affair. Five people were killed; it could have been much worse. It was a desperate act by people who are desperate. We can’t overlook that fact. And a large part of the country supports it.
“The January coup was a desperate act by people who are desperate. We can’t overlook that fact. And a large part of the country supports it.”
It’s interesting to see what happened to the Republican Party after January 6. The people who basically own the country—Smith’s masters of mankind, the donor class that funds the party—they’ve been tolerating Trump; they don’t like him. He interferes with their image of themselves as soulful humane people, their message that you can trust us. They don’t like his vulgarity, his antics, but they tolerated him because he was lining their pockets. His entire legislative program was designed to pour money into the pockets of the super-rich, benefit corporations, and eliminate regulations that protect people but interfere with profits. As long as he was doing that, they were willing to tolerate him. But January 6 was too much. And almost instantly, the major centers of economic power—the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, major corporate executives—moved very quickly and told Trump straight out, this is enough: get lost.
Well, Trump took the plane off to Mar-a-Lago. Mitch McConnell, the most important figure in the Republican Party, heard the voice of the donors and began to sharply criticize Trump; he and other Republican senators began to race to the exits. But they didn’t go too far: they’re facing the raging crowds that Trump had mobilized. The Republican Party is thus stuck. Are they going to listen to the donor class and restore a more genteel version of Trumpism? Or are they going to be swept away by the forces that remain in Trump’s pocket?
McConnell and Trump personally can’t stand each other, but they have a common interest: to ensure that the country is ungovernable, that Biden can’t achieve anything. It’s not a secret—it’s what McConnell announced clearly and explicitly when Barack Obama was elected. At that point McConnell didn’t have Congress. He said the task was to ensure that Obama couldn’t succeed in doing anything. So he cut back the stimulus that was needed and in other ways hampered efforts to govern the country and deal with the country’s problems. There’s every reason to suppose he’ll do the same right now.
Trump wants the same thing with different goals. The two of them are combined in the effort to ensure that the country is ungovernable, that the population suffers as much as possible, in the expectation it will be blamed on the Democrats and they can come roaring back in 2022 and 2024. That’s what we saw in the stimulus bill that was just passed. The Republicans right now are kind of like the old Communist Party. They follow the principle of what the Leninists call democratic centralism. The party has a policy. It’s handed down from above, and everyone uniformly must accept it. No deviation is tolerable. So even though some Republican senators and congressmen may support aspects of the stimulus, and even they know their constituents support it, they have to vote against it. That’s the situation we are in now.
“What Biden has done so far is a rather pleasant surprise to me. It’s better than I would have expected.”
I must say that what Biden has done so far is a rather pleasant surprise to me. It’s better than I would have expected. He’s pretty sharply criticized on the left for flaws and omissions in the domestic policy. These criticisms are in my view correct but a little bit unfair. There’s only so much you can do when half of the Senate is, no matter what you say, is going to be 100 percent against it. And when there are Democrats who will go along with them, it puts a limit on what you can achieve. Foreign policy is a different issue.
DB: Would you favor the elimination of the filibuster, which Obama called “a Jim Crow relic”?
NC: First of all, I doubt that it can be done. So it’s basically a non-issue; whether it should be done is another question.
The filibuster has been used in very destructive ways. But in the past, it was also used in ways to bar racist legislation. The more fundamental issue is why you have two political parties, both of them dependent on the same narrow class of wealth and power—the donor class, basically. One of them is so extreme that it has simply abandoned parliamentary politics. It’s now fighting desperately to maintain itself as a minority party. A lot of the major struggles underway now have to do not so much with stimulus but with legislation that’s passed in the House.
H.R.1, the first bill passed by the Democratic House, is very significant. It basically fortifies voting rights: that’s critically important. There’s a major Republican assault on voting rights. There are literally hundreds of legislative proposals around the country—in states where Republicans control the legislature—to try to prevent minorities and poor people from voting at all, so that the Republicans can hang on to power. They are a minority party; they almost always lose elections; but they maintain power through various means. And this is becoming more significant. The outcome of this battle will have a major effect on the future.
The Republicans have a kind of structural advantage in elections because the Democratic voting base is mostly concentrated in cities. That means that a lot of the votes cast in our parliamentary system are just lost. If 80 percent of the votes for a candidate are cast in one place, 30 percent of them are essentially lost. Republican votes, by contrast, are scattered in rural counties and in small states that have representation far beyond their population. All of this gives the Republicans a structural advantage: they can win an election even if they lose the vote by 4 or 5 percent. Their current efforts are out to strengthen this structural advantage so they’ll be able to maintain power, even if they have even fewer votes.
“You cannot continue to function as a democratic society under the radically anti-democratic provisions of the Constitution.”
This goes along with the major McConnell project while he’s been in power: to try to pack the judiciary, at every level, with young, far right lawyers. They’ll be in a position to bar progressive legislation for a generation, no matter what the public may want in years ahead. All these struggles are part of our highly regressive political system that, even under the best of circumstances, would lead to a constitutional crisis. That’s built in: you cannot continue to function as a democratic society under the radically anti-democratic provisions of the Constitution. The most extreme case, of course, is the Senate, which awards two votes per state. That means Wyoming, with about 600,000 people, gets the same representation as California, with about 40 million. Then there is the Electoral College.
These and many other things are deep problems in the whole constitutional system can’t be fixed by amendment: smaller states won’t allow it. These are problems that we’re facing over and above the truly existential problems. But unless we deal with the coming environmental catastrophe, the growing threat of nuclear war, the serious threat of new pandemics, nothing else is going to matter.
DB: Indeed, out of the eight last presidential elections the Republicans won the popular vote only once. But to go back to January 6, how potent is the canard that the election was stolen? I think of post-World War I Germany: the stab-in-the-back theory that the Nazis used so effectively. We won the war, they said, but the communists, socialists, and Jews sabotaged us and sold us out. Are we going to see a replay of that today?
NC: I don’t know about Trump, but his fervent passionate supporters clearly believe it. They believe the election was stolen, their country’s being stolen from them, their traditional Christian, white communities are being stolen from them. They have some basis for it. Go through a rural town in the United States, and what you see are houses for sale, boarded up businesses, Main Street empty, the bank closed. Maybe there’s still a church, but the former industries are gone, young people are leaving. It’s not a white Christian community anymore, where other people knew their place.
“I don’t think we should call it hypocrisy. It’s much more dangerous than that. It’s a wild belief, based in elements of reality. And that’s the kind of belief that’s extremely dangerous, but also offers promise.”
That’s real. It’s the basis for the willingness to believe stories like the election was stolen, even though in fact, it’s the Republicans who were way in the lead in purging votes, preventing voting, making it hard for African Americans to vote. But they do fervently believe it. So I don’t think we should call it hypocrisy. It’s much more dangerous than that. It’s a wild belief, based in elements of reality. And that’s the kind of belief that’s extremely dangerous, but also offers promise, because you can deal with the elements of reality in it and let the beliefs crumble when you get rid of the elements of reality on which it’s based. It’s true, that rural America has been smashed by neoliberal globalization. It’s a fact.
That doesn’t have to happen. You can overcome those facts. And with it, the belief systems will begin to erode. Not all of them, the ones that are based on white supremacy, on traditional Christian and Christian nationalism. Those are deeply embedded. Those are deep cultural problems. We’re not going to deal quickly with the fact that nearly half the population expects the Second Coming to be in their lifetimes. You’re not going to deal with that by solving the economic problems. But by dealing with things that are within our capacity to deal with—like the collapse of the economic base of rural communities, the destruction of poor farmers, the takeover by agribusiness—we can make progress, eroding the foundations of very dangerous belief systems. There’s no other way to proceed. And you just have to hope that that can work.
DB: Meanwhile the climate crisis continues apace. In early February, melting glaciers in the Himalayas caused floods and burst dams, leading to death and destruction downstream in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. Just a few weeks later a massive iceberg broke off Antarctica’s Brunt Ice Shelf. With an area of 490 square miles, the iceberg is 62 percent bigger than New York City. What do we do in the face of climate chaos?
NC: We can describe these problems. Anybody who reads scientific journals knows that you regularly see discoveries of worse problems ahead. And they are going to take place whether we like it or not. That’s caused by the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. The number of particles per million is rising steadily into a real danger zone, and that’s going to continue simply because of the damage we’ve done already. What we can ask is, can we take measures to mitigate the threats and overcome the problems? The answer is yes.
Bob Pollin and I came out a couple of months ago with a new book, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal. It’s mostly based on his very detailed and excellent work on dealing with the climate catastrophe. It outlines measures that can be taken effectively to deal with the crisis in a feasible way, with calculations that would roughly indicate that 2 to 3 percent of GDP would be sufficient to control the crisis and lay the basis for moving on to what could be a much better future. That not a loss: it’s a better world for all of us. Less pollution, better jobs, better opportunities, better lifestyle—all are possible with a percentage of GDP that is far less than was spent during World War II.
“By dealing with things that are within our capacity to deal with—like the collapse of the economic base of rural communities—we can erode the foundations of very dangerous belief systems. There’s no other way to proceed.”
Of course, it’s claimed that World War II was a war for survival. But this is a much greater war. The United States would have survived if the world had been divided into a German-controlled world and an American-controlled world, as American planners actually anticipated in the early days of the war. It would have been a very ugly world, but it would have survived. If we don’t deal with this one, there isn’t going to be any survival.
Now, if Trump had had another four years in office, we might have literally reached tipping points that were irreversible, or come very close to them. His major policy programs were to destroy the environment as quickly as possible, maximize the use of fossil fuels, and eliminate the regulatory apparatus that somewhat controls them, with the goal of increasing short-term profit for sectors of industry, fossil fuels, and others. This is the most malicious program in human history. It’s barely discussed; that’s not what Trump is criticized for. But whatever else he did pales into total insignificance compared with this. Another four years of it, and we might have been pretty near the finish line.
Fortunately we were spared that, though it might come back in two or four years. The McConnell-Trump program could succeed, in which case we’d be in a desperate situation. If these policies are renewed, you can barely predict the outcome. Now we have time to try to do something about it. But I think there’s going to be a real battle now as to whether Biden’s program can not only be preserved but moved forward. And it must be moved forward if we’re going to survive this. That’s the hope.
The same is true for other issues. Take say the stimulus, which has a lot of good things on child poverty, raising incomes for the poor, and so on. But they’re temporary. If they’re not extended, it’s not going to matter much. So there’s going to be a battle to extend them and to go beyond what they already provide.
These are major battles coming now. The Republicans apparently are just going to block everything. In the short term there is very little hope of dislodging any of them from the attempt to render the country ungovernable and somehow get back into power, maybe by cutting back voting rights and other measures. That looks like an unstoppable force. But within the Democrats there’s a lot that can be done, and it has to be done. We can all remember that when Obama came into office, he came in with the enormous assistance of an army of young volunteers who worked very hard to get him elected. As soon as he got into the White House, he basically told them to go home. Thank you. Goodbye. It’s all under control; you’re gone. Unfortunately, they went home. That meant that he could betray his promises—which he did, and within two years he lost Congress.
“Trump’s policy plans to destroy the environment were the most malicious programs in human history. It’s barely discussed; that’s not what Trump is criticized for.”
If you make the same mistake today, that’s what’s going to happen. Whatever you think about Biden, he’s going to be under pressure from the conservative sector of the Democratic Party and the Clintonite neoliberal Wall Street–oriented sector. They’ll beat back progressive programs, which will be bad enough for the country, but on climate it will be disastrous.
DB: Throughout the crisis of the last year, community efforts, mutual aid, and solidarity have become more important and essential—food banks and pantries, clothing, co-ops. What can co-ops do? Mondragon, in the Basque region of Spain, is often cited as a successful model.
NC: It was a pretty interesting development that happened spontaneously in many places—people getting together in a community to provide help for one another. If there’s some elderly person who can’t get out, let’s bring in food. If there’s not enough water, let’s bring water to people. Sometimes it happened in the most remarkable ways.
One of the most extraordinary examples was in the extremely poor areas in Rio de Janeiro—the favelas, which are miserable areas of horrible shacks piled on top of one another, basically run by gangs. People have no water. They don’t have any way to distance. They have no health care. But they did get organized—by the gangs, who tried to help people survive these impossible conditions. And it’s happened in poor areas all over.
This kind of natural commitment to mutual aid and solidarity revealed itself in many ways. Even before the pandemic there was already the beginnings of the development of worker-owned industries, cooperatives and collectives and localism in agriculture. There are many such efforts to try to deal with the extremely harmful effects of neoliberal globalization policies, which have had a real shocking effect on the general population almost everywhere. But there have been attempts to deal with it. In areas of the Rust Belt in the United States, where bankers in New York and Chicago had decided that the steel industry should be shifted to China, the working people didn’t just give up. They tried to buy out the steel industries, but the owners wouldn’t agree to it. They wanted more profit, and they don’t like the idea of worker-owned industry: it’s dangerous. What’s happened instead is a proliferation of worker-owned enterprises involved in the growing service economy, hospitals, universities, and other areas.
“In the favelas people have no water. They don’t have any way to distance. They have no health care. But they did get organized.”
Gar Alperovitz has written a lot about this and has been involved in initiating much of this work with The Next System Project. A lot of these things have been going on. There have been moves—I don’t know how far they’ll go—by some of the unions, like the steel workers, to enter arrangements with some of the extremely successful worker owned conglomerates, mainly in Spain, in the Basque country, in Mondragon, to see if something similar could be developed here. All of those things could be very important—not only in themselves, but in showing the direction in which society must go toward more collective responsibility, more participatory democratic activity, if we hope to emerge from these crises with any kind of a decent society. All of these things are happening. And the mutual support in reaction to the pandemic that you mentioned is an extremely important part of it.
DB: Let’s talk about the Southern border and immigration. You’re sitting just sixty miles away from the border with Mexico, where unaccompanied children are being detained in the thousands. What would be a fair and just immigration policy?
NC: The first goal of policy should be to eliminate the conditions from which people are fleeing. These people don’t want to be in the United States; they want to be at home. But home is unlivable—they’re forced to flee. We have a large share of responsibility for the fact that it’s unlivable. During the Reagan years there was a sharp escalation in the U.S. assault against Central America. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Hundreds of thousands more were displaced. Torture. Destruction. People are still fleeing today from the wreckage created by Reagan’s wars in Central America. Well, we can deal with that wreckage.
You may recall that four or five years ago, the main source of refugees was Honduras. Why Honduras? Because there was a military coup, which overthrew the mildly reformist Zelaya government, installed a military dictatorship, placed power back into the hands of the super-rich oligarchy, and turned the country into one of the homicide capitals of the world. People started fleeing. That’s where the caravans came from.
Could we have stopped it? The problem wasn’t the caravans. It was why it was happening. While the rest of the hemisphere condemned the coup, Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton refused to formally designate it a military coup—because if they did, they would have had to stop military aid to the junta. When you impose a horror chamber, people flee.
So the first step in immigration policy is to eliminate the reasons why people are fleeing. That can’t be done in a day, but you can take steps toward it. That’s the beginning.
The next step is to stop the criminal policy of enlisting Mexico in preventing people from fleeing from Central America to our borders. The only nice thing you can say about it is that Europe has an even worse, more cruel and sadistic policy that tries to stop people fleeing from deep inside Africa, Niger, and other places. Try to stop them from getting to the territory of Europe in Turkey. And needless to say, Europe has a pretty hideous record with regard to Africa and the Middle East. We don’t have to review that. So yes, they’re even worse, but that doesn’t excuse us. We have to put an end to that policy.
“The first step in immigration policy is to eliminate the reasons why people are fleeing. That can’t be done in a day, but you can take steps toward it. That’s the beginning.”
The next thing to do is to live up to the basic conditions of international law—provide decent conditions for people fleeing and reasonable opportunities for them to appeal for amnesty and admission. All of this can be done. Instead of that what we have is this: right to the south of us, as you say, thousands of people are dying in the desert, literally dying in the desert. The terrain is very forbidding. And the summer gets way over 100 degrees. There’s no water.
Since Clinton, policies have tried to drive people fleeing into the most hostile areas. Block off the areas where there’s fairly easy transit—they could be picked up by a humane asylum policy—and drive them into the most dangerous areas, where they’ll wander in the desert get lost and die of starvation. Meanwhile, use tactics like flying Border Patrol helicopters over them—so if a group is together, they’ll get scattered, get lost, and die. There are relief efforts from Tucson—great, wonderful groups. The main group, No More Deaths, tries to send people into the desert to set up small encampments, where they can offer some medical help if people can make it there. They leave bottles of water in the desert for people who are dying of thirst. The Border Patrol breaks into the camps, smashes water bottles, and so on. Before Trump there was kind of a tacit agreement that they would leave each other alone. But this has gotten much worse.
All these horror stories don’t have to happen. The several layers in which policies have to be shaped are completely feasible.
DB: The murder of George Floyd triggered widespread protests. It is said that this is a moment of racial reckoning. Terms like “white supremacy,” “white privilege,” and “systemic racism” are much more commonplace than ever before. Where do you see the racial justice movement going?
NC: The upsurge after the George Floyd murder was impressive. It didn’t happen all at once. It’s the result of years of organizing, education, activism, which laid a basis so that when this spark came, the kindling could burn. And it was an amazing uprising. Solidarity. Black and white together. It had enormous popular support—about two-thirds popular support, almost unknown for a social movement. Martin Luther King never came close to that, even at the peak of his popularity.
A lot of the energy has been maintained. Some was dissipated, partly because of tactical errors, failures of one kind or another that should be paid attention to. The slogan, “Defund the Police” became prominent very quickly. It’s a sensible idea, and it has a very sensible interpretation. It was given by the Black Lives Matter organizers, by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others. It’s a call to remove the police from activities where they don’t belong. The police have no role in domestic disputes, overdoses, suicide attempts, things like that. All those issues should involve community service organizations; leave the police to do police work. Last year when Ocasio-Cortez was asked, “What does an America with defunded police look like to you?” her answer was: “The good news is that it actually doesn’t take a ton of imagination. It looks like a suburb. Affluent white communities where they choose to fund youth, health, housing, etc more than they fund the police.” If a kid is caught breaking a window to steal drugs, you don’t send him to jail for thirty years. What you do is find out what his problem is and deal with it.
“The 1619 Project in the New York Times was another very interesting step forward. Of course, it’s being lambasted by professional historians: you got this detail wrong, you forgot to say that, and so on. It doesn’t matter.”
But the slogan was hijacked by the right wing. It became a propaganda story: look at these crazy lunatics. They want to remove all the police from communities so that you’ll be subjected to terrorists, criminals, and rapists. Well, nobody wants that. It was a big talking point for the right wing and the Trump campaign. There’s a lesson here. We have to be careful to back up proposals with meaningful educational, organizational, and activist programs—to say: Here’s what I mean. It’s a good idea. It’s good for you; you should support it. Don’t fall for the propaganda line that’s coming.
But basically, it’s a major step forward. And I think you can build on it. It’s not the only example. The 1619 Project in the New York Times was another very interesting step forward. Of course, it’s being lambasted by professional historians: you got this detail wrong, you forgot to say that, and so on. It doesn’t matter. It was a very powerful recognition of what 400 years of vicious treatment has meant for African Americans and what legacy it leaves. That’s a real breakthrough. Couple of years before that, nothing like it. All of these are steps forward.
DB: You conclude the chapter on social change in Consequences of Capitalism with Karl Marx’s old mole. “We recognize our old friend, our old mole,” he wrote, “who knows so well how to work underground, suddenly to appear: the revolution.”
NC: Marx had this image of a revolutionary spirit that is just below the surface. Going back to Hume, there is consent, and power is based on consent—but beneath that consent there is a current saying, I don’t really want this. I don’t want to be ruled by a master. And it doesn’t take much for that to break through. And when it does, you have the kinds of changes that really make a society move forward.
So that old mole is burrowing in there, and it can go in many ways. Look at the history of the early days of the labor movement, right through the nineteenth century and the early Industrial Revolution. The main theme of the labor movement was that having a job is a terrible attack on your personal rights and dignity. Having a job is not something you look forward to. It’s something you may be forced into, but it’s an attack on your dignity as a human being, your rights as a free human being. Having a job means being forced to live under the orders of a master for most of your waking life. Nothing wonderful about that. Skilled workers in the late nineteenth century had a very lively working-class press. They expressed their hope that over time people wouldn’t succumb to this attack on their rights—that they wouldn’t accept as normal the idea that they have to be subject to a master. If that day comes, they hoped it would be far in the distance.
“Marx had this image of a revolutionary spirit that is just below the surface. That old mole is burrowing in there, and it can go in many ways.”
Well, the day has come. People do think having a job is the greatest thing in life. But I think Marx’s old mole is right beneath the surface. If there’s an opportunity to think about it, to recognize the possibility that you don’t have to be subject to a master, you can run your own life, you can run your own enterprises, that keeps coming very close to the surface. The sit-down strikes when I was a child during the Depression, they were a step toward saying: we don’t need the bosses, we can take this place over and run it ourselves—which is true.
That’s when attitudes changed, and support for New Deal measures really grew across the population. That’s when the Supreme Court stopped blocking every New Deal measure, when sectors of capital said, look, we’ve got to accommodate ourselves to these rising developments, or else we’ll be in real trouble. And I think this keeps coming out. The Next System Project that I mentioned is moving in that direction, saying you can run your own enterprises. It doesn’t have to be bankers in New York who decide whether this enterprise moves to China. You can decide: you can decide how you want to run it.
You can decide in solidarity with workers in China and Mexico. You have common interests: making life better for all of you. Many unions have the word “international” in their names. The names usually don’t mean much, but it can mean a lot and can be brought to the surface. And it’s quite striking at this moment. We’re in a period where internationalism is in the forefront. Dealing with the pandemic, dealing with global warming: these are international issues, we have to solve them together. You can’t do it in one place. You can’t stop global warming just in the West, it goes on elsewhere. Pandemic has no borders. Labor rights have no borders. We can work together on this. That’s the direction things should move in.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.