Two weeks ago I sat with 742 others to hear leading left intellectual Noam Chomsky address the annual Left Forum in New York City. His speech was billed by the forum as “a major address” that would “speak to the theme of ‘Mobilizing for Ecological/ Economic Transformation.’”
It was a bravo performance. Book-ended by standing ovations at beginning and end, Chomsky’s one-hour and six minute talk ranged widely across time and space. The master critic reflected with deep knowledge and dark humor on a large number of topics, including: Barack Obama’s global metadata surveillance program (“Nothing is secret anymore, Obama knows about it before we do”);contemporary corporate state capitalism’s plutocratic destruction of “really existing capitalist democracy” (what Chomsky cleverly called “RECD, pronounced ‘wrecked’”); the exaggerated and destructive power of the financial sector (what Chomsky called “the larva eating out the economy,” paraphrasing leading Financial Times columnist Martin Wolff) under contemporary “neoliberalism;” the “regulatory capture” of key government agencies by big capital; the sorry state of popular resistance to Obama’s imperial policies (“pathetic”); the “surreal” absurdity of Obama justifying surveillance of the American people as necessary to protect them from terrorism while he generates new anti-American terrorists through an openly terrorist drone war; the quiescent depravity of contemporary deficit-obsessed U.S. political culture (“the late Weimar republic comes to mind”); the blind environmental destructiveness of the United States and other rich northern nations (whose determination to “burn every last fossil fuel without even a sidle glance” amounts to sheer “lunacy”); the remarkable comparative ecological responsibility of the world’s indigenous people and of nations with large indigenous populations (e.g. Ecuador, which reasonably seeks payment from the rich nations “to keep its oil under the ground, where it belongs”); Martin Luther King’s reflections on the “moral arc” of history; and the embattled legacy and meaning of the 1215 Magna Carta.
The Real Tragedy of the Commons
“We’ll soon be celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta,” Chomsky noted. “More like interring it after Bush and Obama have taken off all the flesh.” The great document included not just its well-known Charter of Liberties, but also, Chomsky noted, the Charter of the Forest. The latter called for “protection of the commons, the traditional source of sustenance and welfare” for ordinary people. That commons is under relentless and deadly assault at home and abroad by RECD.
The real “tragedy of the commons,” Chomsky noted, is about privatization and RECD, not (as claimed by the originator of the phrase, the neo-Malthusian “ecologist” Garrett Hardin) overuse by the broad populace.
“In the Waters Around China”
The dark humor high point of Chomsky talk came when he quoted a curious comment in a recent New York Times article – a comment that epitomizes the doctrinal notion that “we [the U.S.] own the world.” According to the Times, the U.S. was facing a threat from Chinese navy vessels “in the waters around China.” That’s right, in the waters around China.
Flirtations with Nuclear Holocaust
Beyond all this and more, however, nothing received more focused attention in Chomsky’s address than five Cold War episodes demonstrating how protecting Americans and the world from thermonuclear holocaust has (contrary to Washington’s ritual invocation of “national security” as its top priority) never been a serious concern of U.S. policymakers:
- 1950, when Washington rejected an offer from the Soviet Union to ban intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) equipped with nuclear warheads.
- 1952, when Soviet chief Joe Stalin made a remarkable offer: the reunification of Germany with democratic election on the condition that the nation be de-militarized (the offer was quickly and quietly dismissed and forgotten by Washington).
- Late 1950s, when Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev offers a sharp matching reduction of offensive weapons – a significant cut of the Cold War arms race. The Eisenhower administration simply ignored the offer. The Kennedy administration rejected it to the point of undertaking a major nuclear weapons increase – one reason (along with a desire to protect the Cuban Revolution from imminent U.S. invasion) that Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba.
- October 1962: John F. Kennedy’s refusal, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, to accept Khrushchev’s conciliatory offer to take nuclear missiles out of Cuba if the U.S. removed such missiles from Turkey. (Chomsky called this “The most horrendous decision in human history,” based on the principle that “nobody can deter us.” Humanity was incredibly fortunate to avert holocaust in its aftermath).
- 1973: Henry Kissinger took the world to nuclear alert to tell the Russians to “keep out” of the Middle East at the end of the Arab-Israeli War.
- 1983: simulated air and naval attacks and the deployment of deadly Pershing missiles in Europe produced a major nuclear war scare, bringing Russia to the brink of a pre-emptive strike.
The legacy of this wildly irresponsible record lives on, Chomsky noted, in current U.S. nuclear policy regarding North Korea (whose recent nuclear blustering has been provoked by simulated U.S. military attacks, including simulated nuclear bombing), Pakistan (a nuclear power with whom the U.S. risked war in May of 2011), China (threatened by the Pentagon’s provocative “turn to Asia,” including the dispatch of the giant U.S.S. George Washington to the South China Sea) and Iran (the U.S. brazenly rejects commonsense efforts to turn the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone).
Chomsky spent 34 of his 66 minutes at Left Forum on the United States’ reckless nuclear policy. By contrast, despite the Left Forum’s green billing of his speech, he spent no more than 10 minutes on the environment and no time on what “ecological/ economic transformation” might look like or on how to mobilize for such transformation. Regarding climate change and the broader environmental catastrophe that is unfolding before our eyes, Chomsky had little to say beyond noting that he didn’t have much to say about that we didn’t already know. He spent no time on the science or facts of the unfolding ecological disaster or on ways to avert it or on another topic he knows very well – the massive public relations campaign the leading oil corporations and other parts of the carbon emissions industrial complex (CEIC, pronounced “sick”) have undertaken to suppress and discredit the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (very much on the model of Big Tobacco’s onetime public relations war on medical science’s findings on the links between cigarettes and lung cancer).
Hegemony v. Survival
Was this a problem? I think not. The way I heard Chomsky’s talk, it was full of ecological significance. The message and the connection of the nuclear weapons record to the Left Forum’s environmental theme were, I felt, clear. The key and highly relevant historical point was that U.S. “elites” value power and hegemony over everything, including the survival of the species, and that to permit them to hold unchallenged authority is to put humanity at unacceptable risk of extinction.
This point applies every bit as well to the threat posed by anthropogenic global warming as it does to the continuing U.S.-led threat of nuclear war. It may be even more suited to the environmental crisis, in fact. If the U.S. establishment has been willing to court the sudden, overwhelming holocaust of nuclear war in pursuit of global dominance, it is certainly no less willing to advance the slower ongoing holocaust of planetary, growth- and carbon-addicted state-capitalist ecocide.
The terrible details of how the ruling class is advancing this environmental apocalypse did not really require extended commentary from Chomsky at the Left Forum. Neither did the solution – a green-red reconversion of United States and global society along sustainable lines that prioritize survival over profit and global dominance while aligning us in harmony with (rather than in permanent capitalist war on) the requirements of livable ecology. Those topics were adequately addressed by a large number of other Left Forum speakers and in numerous smaller Left Forum panels.
Chomsky’s deeper message seemed quite germane to the ecological question. Like ending the threat of nuclear war and the related scourges of poverty, inequality, and plutocracy (“RECD”), averting environmental catastrophe will require a giant popular and moral rebellion against the madmen in Washington and in other centers of concentrated wealth and power. Having badly disabled the democratic structure and principles in whose name they claim to rule, those profit- and power-crazed masters are ready to sacrifice humanity (and other living things) on the altars of endless empire and inequality. Overthrowing them is a matter of life and death for us all.
Paul Street’s many books include Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010), Crashing the Tea Party (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio, 2011) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014).