Class Struggle or Get it in the Neck, Part 1
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David Barsamian: The pandemic. Excuse this crude expression, but Americans are dropping like flies, a death a minute, 150,000 new cases every day. NPR is reporting “a dire picture around the country,” and “hospital resources are stretched thin.” New York Times headline: “As Surge Spreads, No Corner of Nation Is Spared. What started as a Midwestern surge, has grown into a coast-to-coast disaster.” With people ignoring CDC advice about traveling and gathering in large numbers, we’re heading into the peak holiday season. There’ll be more, as the media say, grim milestones in the offing, 300,000 dead, 400,000 dead, etc. If this is not a national emergency, I don’t know what is. What must be done?
Noam Chomsky: What has to be done is to follow the advice of the scientists and of the countries that have successfully managed it. It is not inevitable. We can see this from the fact that other countries, rich and poor, have handled it pretty well. China, for example, is just back to work, there are very few cases. Vietnam, right on the border of China, almost no cases. New Zealand basically under control, Australia pretty much under control. South Korea, Taiwan, Senegal, Kenya, the Nordic countries are not too bad.
There are places that have more or less managed, and they’re countries of a very diverse kind, which tells us that it is possible, but not without leadership, that most of the time even denies that it’s happening. That filters down to the population. We’ve seen reports of people in the Dakotas dying in hospital beds of COVID and telling the nurses that it’s all a hoax, it’s not happening. You drive around, I mostly stay home, but I drive sometimes. Then you see people congregating in supermarket malls, no masks, normal behavior, that’s going to happen.
What about this notion which you hear in some circles of individual freedom versus collective responsibility?
Individual freedom is a curious idea. I mean, do you have the freedom to drive on the left side of the road if you feel like it? Do you have the freedom to run around malls shooting an assault rifle? That’s what it means to go to a public event or a public area without wearing a mask. That’s threatening people’s lives, seriously. That’s not individual freedom. That’s unacceptable license. Nobody accepts the kinds of things I described. If you want a choice not to wear a mask, that’s okay, stay home, don’t endanger others.
At some point, soon hopefully, there will be vaccines. But how do we want to come out of this pandemic and attendant economic crisis? The status quo ante?
There presumably will be vaccines. There are some already that are in pretty advanced stages of testing. The most advanced, as far as I know, is almost unmentionable in the United States, the Chinese vaccine. They’re already using it on large numbers of people though that may or may not be good practice. That I’m not in a position to judge, but it’s apparently pretty advanced, and it’s taken seriously by American scientists. We don’t hear about it. It won’t be available to Americans if it works. There are vaccines being developed here, what’s called the “Pfizer vaccine,” which actually was developed by two Turkish immigrants in Germany, marketed by Pfizer. It’s the Moderna vaccine, these may come along. There’s an Oxford vaccine. Then comes the question, will people take them, can they be distributed to the people who need them? And those are open questions. There are policy choices that relate to this.
So for example, there is an international consortium, COVAX, 160 or 70 countries, which have been working on trying to develop cooperation in vaccine development, which is obviously the best way. Data should be shared freely, not sequestered by particular private corporations and governments that support them. Should be shared freely, should be general involvement, there should be no monopolization of vaccines. There should be distribution arranged to the people around the world who need it, not those rich enough to buy it. All of these things, at least in principle, are the working agenda of COVAX. How well it’s being honored we could ask, but at least that’s the agenda. But the U.S. just refuses to participate, it has pulled out, so of course undermines it. The United States, not alone, some of the European countries have done this or are trying to monopolize any vaccine that comes along.
Then comes the question of using it and distributing it within the country. In the United States, there are a large number of people who say, “We’re just not going to accept this. We don’t want the government to intrude on our personal lives. I don’t believe it.” There’s a big anti-vaccine movement in the United States altogether, which has a lethal effect in a rich country like this. It’s a significant effect in poor countries. If it spreads there, it’s just lethal. But there is such a movement. It’s rooted in understandable contempt or at least distrust in government, understandable, but it shouldn’t reach to this domain. And that’s going to be a serious problem, even if the vaccine is developed and is available. The United States is unusual, almost unique in not having a general health system. So it’s not clear that if a vaccine is available, it’ll even be affordable or that they’ll be places where people can go to, to get it. That takes national coordination.
The Trump administration has, of course, refused to do this. Remains to be seen whether a Biden administration will carry out a plan. Trump has refused, until just a few days ago, even to share data with the incoming Biden administration. That, of course, makes any reaction slower and more ineffective. There should be major pressures to accelerate the development of, first of all, the imposition of procedures, which will restrict and mitigate the spread of the virus, and secondly, efforts to make sure that when vaccines are available, they’ll be essentially free and there will be distribution insured to those who need them, who will be encouraged to take them, not being told that the vaccine is a hoax and that the disease is a hoax. We’re living in a country where a large part of the population is just in extreme denialism. If you can believe the polls, over three quarters of Republicans think the election was stolen. Huge percentages think global warming is not a serious problem. That is an extraordinary problem, the denial of the pandemic is also significant.
In such an atmosphere, it’s going to be very hard to deal with extremely serious problems. And that’s just the beginning. If we manage to overcome this crisis, there are other ones coming. We should remember what happened in 2003, we’re going to relive it. The SARS epidemic was contained. Scientists inform the world that other coronavirus epidemics, maybe pandemics, were very likely. The means to become prepared were available, they were described, they weren’t pursued. The drug companies weren’t interested because there’s no profit in it. The government was held back by the neoliberal claims that the government can’t do anything. Some things were done. The Obama administration, which was science oriented, when it came into office, it did convene the President’s Science Advisory Council. They requested a pandemic response system, which they prepared, and it was put into operation.
It was terminated in January 2017 when Trump came into office. One of his first actions was to dismantle it, to proceed to end the programs where American scientists were working with Chinese colleagues to try to identify potential viruses. The Center for Disease Control was defunded. The United States was singularly unprepared when the virus finally hit, and then came chaotic reactions which have led to the destructive impact that you described. It’s going to happen again when this one is contained. We either learn the lessons or we face even worse pandemics. We should bear in mind that so far we’ve been lucky with coronaviruses. There have been some, like the present one, which are highly contagious, but not very lethal. There have been some, like Ebola, which was very lethal, not too contagious. Nothing guarantees that the next one down the road won’t be the worst of all worlds, contagious and lethal.
Doesn’t the severity of the current crisis demand a kind of national emergency? Would you favor something like that to coordinate response?
There was no coordinated response. In fact, Trump very explicitly, I think, back around May or so, said it’s the responsibility of the states, “Well, I can’t do anything about it.” From his point of view, you could understand that. That meant if anything went wrong, as it was very likely to, he could blame it on the states, especially the states with Democratic governors. Of course, if significant measures are taken, it will have a harmful economic effect, so he could blame the harsh economic consequences on the methods that were taken to control the crisis. Some of the things that were done were really surreal. For example, when a chief scientist, Rick Bright, in charge of vaccine development, criticized some of Trump’s quack medicines, he was fired. This happened all the way up and down the line.
Since the election, it’s gotten worse, from simply refusing to do anything, as I said, even to hand over data. It’s as if, and it may be true, that they just want to make it worse, so that the country will be more ungovernable when Biden comes in, and failures can be blamed on the Democratic administration. McConnell, remember, who’s sort of the evil genius behind many of these plans has a long record of working to render government ungovernable if it’s in the wrong hands. He did that with Obama for years. It’s not an attractive picture. The one positive thing is that Biden does seem to be attentive to the views of the scientific community, at least so it looks. I hope that’s true. But he’s sure not going to get any cooperation from the Republican Party.
Let’s talk about the November 3rd election, the record turnout of 150 million people, the success of voting by mail and early voting. A bit of euphoria, if I could use that term, as the autocrat is replaced. Now we can go back to things as they were, a kind of restoration. A sigh of relief was audible in establishment circles and from media pundits like David Brooks, Thomas Friedman and Mark Shields. You wrote to me a few days after the election. You said of the results, “Relief, but no celebration. Depressing to see Democrats blow it again.” What did you mean by that? The Democrats had plenty of money. What happened to the Blue Wave?
The Democrats lost to an incredible degree. They lost at every level, except for the presidency. And the presidency was a vote against Trump, even by many of the wealthy, the corporate sector, who were tired of his antics. But at every other level, Congress, state legislatures, local elections, they lost and lost badly. And this, if you think of the circumstances, it’s astonishing that Trump was even able to run. Here’s somebody who had just killed tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Americans through malevolent practice, let alone all of his other crimes. And he’s running for president, considered a viable candidate. And not only that, but the whole ticket that supported him, won at every level.
It’s an amazing defeat for the Democrats. And you take a look, then you can ask, not that the Democrats are all that great, but just in terms of party politics, it was a shocking failure. I think you can see why. The Democrats devoted their campaign efforts to try to swing some affluent suburbs towards the Democrats. Well, maybe they succeeded in that. But that’s not enough to develop any sort of electoral strategy. In fact, this has been going on since Obama. Since Obama, the Democratic Party has pretty much abandoned its activities at the local and state levels, just doesn’t bother. It’s a party of Wall Street, rich professionals, and so on. The others will take care of themselves. And you could see this in particular cases.
So there’s been a lot of discussion about the quite remarkable, the Democratic Party losses in South Texas on the border, largely Mexican-American community. These are areas that hadn’t voted for a Republican for a century, literally, since Harding, and Trump did quite well, even won in some areas, dramatic reversal. A number of analyses have been put forth, but one that I think is very telling is this area is an oil economy. And if you read liberal commentators, they say that Biden lost it because of the terrible gaffe in the last debate. You’ll recall at the end of the last debate, Biden said something which had liberal commentators just shocked at his terrible gaffe, this horrible thing to say.
And he was then trying to overcome the mistake, others were trying to do it too. What was the mistake? He said, “We have to do something to prevent the human species from being destroyed.” That’s basically what he said. Those weren’t his words, his words were, “We have to face the fact that there’s going to have to be a transition to a non-fossil fuel economy,” which is equivalent to saying, “We have to do something to try to make sure, to make it likely at least that human society can survive.” That was a horrible gaffe, and it affected the oil producing economies because people felt, you hear it from interviews and so on, “The Democrats are going to take my life away, are going to take away my job, my community, my businesses, and so on, just because some pointy headed liberals claim that there’s a climate crisis.”
Now, of course, the gaffe was not saying it loudly and clearly. Yes, we have to say that loud and clear, we have to get off a fossil fuel economy and fast, within a couple of decades, which means not delaying, starting now, cutting it back each year so that, say, by mid- century, we’ve finished with fossil fuels. That has to be said strongly and persuasively. So what do you do about the oil producing sectors? What do you do about South Texas or areas where there’s fracking in Pennsylvania? You don’t just say, “Sorry, folks, you’ve got to lose your jobs and your business and everything else because we say there’s a climate crisis.” What you do is go down there and organize and explain to people what it means. It means, first of all, that this is inevitable, we have to do it, “Your children and grandchildren will be consigned to hell if we don’t.”
Secondly, there’s an effective way to do it and a way to do it which will improve your lives, give you better jobs, more jobs, more livable environment, better community, better health, here are the ways, spell them out. It happens to be true, and it can be done. But it’s not done if the Democratic National Committee is devoting its efforts to try to convince a couple of affluent suburban women to shift their vote. You have to be down there working on it. And in the places where there was mostly Latino organizing it was effective. Where I live, Maricopa County, Arizona, there has been extensive organizing Latino leadership for several years.
And it continued, and they voted against Trump, but it has to be done. And the same is true of many other issues. Take the Democrats who are claiming that the election was lost because the crazy leftists were saying, “defund the police.” When I think about that for a minute, if you just say, “defund the police,” you’re going to lose. You’re telling people, “I want you to have no protection if somebody breaks into your home.” Nobody wants to hear that.
On the other hand, if you give the actual substantive meaning of “defund the police,” as Bernie Sanders, and a couple of others tried to do, it’s a sensible, attractive program, which people will support and which the police will support. It says, “Take away from the police responsibilities that they should never have in the first place,” in fact, the large majority of their responsibilities. Police shouldn’t be involved in domestic disputes or mental health problems or lost dogs or overdose of drugs, and so on. That’s not police business. These things all should be handled by community services under community control, which can do them better. So defund the police by taking away those responsibilities. Next step, as Sanders himself tried to emphasize, increase salaries for police, make it a better occupation, make better conditions for it, so the police can do the things that, in fact, any community is going to need, but not other things and not running around with heavy weapons terrorizing people. That’s “defund the police.”
But if you just scream the slogan, nobody hears that. What they hear is, “You don’t care if people break into my home.” People, by implication, black, that’s the message. If you want to be serious about achieving goals, you have to pay attention to your tactics, that’s crucial. Tactics aren’t just something insignificant, at the fringe. Any activist and organizer should know, it should be their second nature, that that’s what matters. How do you approach people? How do you get them to understand what you’re trying to say, what you think is for their benefit and for the benefit of others? Not by shouting a slogan. Takes work, takes direct organizing and activism.
It’s interesting, the alacrity of establishment Democrats to blame their poor showing on, as you mentioned, not by name, but Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and some other young, many of them women, representatives.
We need real engagement from the local level on up. And without that, you can have all the nice slogans you want, it’s not going to achieve anything. Some of the results of the election are pretty remarkable, now that the data are beginning to come in. Tony DiMaggio has done some of the best work on these topics for years. He had a recent study of the latest available data on voting patterns, confirmed what’s been reported elsewhere. Trump won remarkably high in almost any demographic, not out of range for what it’s been in the past, but remarkably high. In one, particularly, as he’s shown before, the main support for Trump is relatively affluent, not super rich, but relatively affluent, way above the median, $100,000 to $200,000 income range. That’s not working people, contrary to illusions. The median income’s around $70,000. That’s median. Lower than that, Trump does poorly.
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And when you go to higher incomes, it’s sort of split. Now the rich professionals are split. The very wealthy in this election are somewhat split because of concern about the way Trump’s harming their interests in the economy. But that range, $100,000 to $200,000 normally, again, was the base for Trump’s support, but seems to be increased substantially since 2016. I should say that’s kind of a mystery. I don’t understand whether it should be true, but it happened, and we should think about it. There’s a lot of problems to deal with for the left, if it hopes to make any progress.
One, of course, is the incoming Biden administration, very much a mixed story. Among the economic advisors and appointees, it’s not too bad. People like Heather Boushey, Jared Bernstein, Janet Yellen, appointments that can be very positive, others much less so. And across the board, there’s lots to object to. Just getting rid of Trump is a major victory, but it’s not going to mean very much if you can’t implement policies that are substantive and effective in dealing with the massive crisis that exists.
Talk about the Supreme Court and the power of Mitch McConnell, which was demonstrated when he rammed through the Amy Coney Barrett nomination, giving the court a decisive right-wing majority, perhaps for decades. What do you think about proposals for term limits for Supreme Court justices and/or expanding the number of justices? And statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, DC that would increase the number of senators by four. Or do you think these are just time-consuming dead ends, given the structure of politics?
Those are important. But remember, they’re only part of the judiciary problem. McConnell, for 10 years now, has been working hard to ensure that the entire judiciary, top to bottom, will be staffed by young, ultra-right Federalist Society-approved lawyers who will be able to maintain the ultra-reactionary McConnell, Trump-style programs for a generation by simply blocking everything else at every level. Now that’s been the main function of the Senate, first blocking Obama’s nominees, second, by ramming through the huge number of ultra-right young nominees during the Trump years. And it’s been very effective. You look at the numbers, it’s astonishing. McConnell has essentially eliminated the Senate as a deliberative body, theoretically once famously described as the world’s greatest deliberative body. Okay, you can argue about that. But at least the term meant something.
Now, it’s not that. The House sends measures to the Senate, they don’t even look at them. What they do is two things, pass legislation to benefit the corporate sector and the very rich, from deregulation to the incredible tax scam, that’s one task. The other is to staff the judiciary with the far right. So it’s not just the Supreme Court. I think admitting Puerto Rico and Washington, DC is proper, for lots of reasons, should be done. But it’s going to be very hard to achieve that over a Republican Senate or to achieve anything with McConnell. The idea that you can somehow make friends with them and cooperate, that’s a joke. They’re out for blood. They don’t want to cooperate. They want to make the country ungovernable, so that they can come back into power at every level below the president. I think that’s what we’re going to be seeing for the next couple of years, basically an extension of what’s going on.
Howard Zinn said, “It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law, in order to uphold justice.”
That’s pretty much what the historical record shows. You can go back to the Constitution. By the standards of the 18th century, the Constitution was moderately progressive, but it was not what the population wanted. It is well described in the major scholarly study of the formation of the Constitution, Michael Klarman’s book, The Framers’ Coup, the coup of the framers against democracy. That’s the scholarly gold standard, excellent book, incidentally, very good reading. You can see in it, step by step, how Madison, Hamilton, and other major figures in framing the Constitution were primarily concerned about the popular democratic thrust among the general population. A lot of it played out on issues that most people don’t pay much attention to.
There was a huge struggle, for example, about paper money during the fighting, the American Revolution. The government had huge debts, and the question was, How were they going to be paid off? Well, one proposal was put it on the shoulders of the population, make them pay for it, not the rich speculators, we want to preserve their rights. That’s the way the Constitution was framed. The population wanted paper money, so the currency would be inflated, kind of pay off the debts, the speculators would suffer from it, but the population would gain. That was one major part of the formation of the Constitution.
Another part was Madison’s realization that the Senate should represent the wealth of the nation, the most responsible group of men, those who have sympathy with property owners and their rights. So the Senate was given the major power among the various components of the government. It was not elected, it was picked by electors from the legislature who could be trusted to make sure that the wealthy would be in charge. And many other measures were proposed with the main purpose of preventing democracy, even large legislative districts, where people wouldn’t be able to get together. Remember, this is the days of the horse and carriage, hard to get around.
Lots of detailed measures were taken to reduce the threat of democracy and to carry out the framers’ coup against democracy. But there was a problem, the population didn’t accept it. You had lots of ferment, the kinds of things that Howard Zinn was talking about, uprisings, efforts to win more democratic rights took all sorts and forms. And this struggle is going on throughout American history. The Supreme Court, which you mentioned, is a good example. The Supreme Court has overwhelmingly been on the side of wealth and power, not totally, there were breaks, but that’s been the strong tendency, as a conservative institution. Actually, the Constitution does not say anything about the Supreme Court having the right of judicial review, having the authority to cancel legislation. That was just introduced by the Court itself under Chief Justice Marshall years later, it’s become the convention since. But these are all constant struggles.
And it’s not just the courts and the government. It’s also private power, which is enormous, has an immense influence on the government. Very recently, another high-level paper came out, a serious analysis, as far as I saw, it was reported only in the London Financial Times, giving much more sophisticated and detailed evidence to support what has been shown pretty effectively for a long time, that most of the population has no influence whatsoever on governmental decisions. Maybe the top 10%, and of them, a very small fraction, in fact. Well, that’s quite apart from the formal constitutional structure. And, of course, during the neoliberal period, the last 40 years, all of this has been strongly enhanced.
One of the major effects of the neoliberal period has been, as is well known, to have sharply concentrated wealth, while much of the population stagnates. That has an immediate effect on undermining of democratic decision making, for perfectly obvious reasons. There was a pretty remarkable study, which should be better known, on the transfer of wealth from the working class and the middle class to the extreme wealthy during the years since Reagan. The ultra-respectable RAND Corporation came out with an estimate of what they call the “transfer of wealth.” We should call it “The robbery of the population by the very rich.” Their estimate is, in the last 40 years, $47 trillion. That’s not small change. And it’s an underestimate because it doesn’t include lots of other things.
Reagan opened the spigot on all sorts of other ways to rob the public, like tax havens, shell companies, other devices. Clinton added to it, not only by his radical deregulation of the financial institutions, which just set them into the stratosphere, but also by his so-called trade agreements, which had nothing much to do with trade, certainly very little to do with free trade, but were highly advantageous to great corporate wealth and very destructive to the working class, as they predicted in advance. And, in fact, this happened.
So there’s been this massive robbery of the population for 40 years and that has its effects on the way the government works. That’s why you end up with, say, 90% of the population being basically unrepresented. And these struggles go on constantly. They’re going to go on in the post-pandemic world. It’s a radical class struggle, but one element in the struggle is always fighting, the business world. They’re dedicated, they never stop. They didn’t stop during the New Deal, continued, continued afterwards, always going on. Unless working people, the general population, take part in the class struggle, they’re going to get it in the neck.