In an interview with Noam Chomsky posted recently on Jacobin Radio, the Jacobin team continues to do us all a service by exploring “what is to be done” in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ defeat and in the face of the looming climate crisis. (For a review of another chapter in this discussion, see my P/L post “The Time It Will Take: Building Left Social Democracy in Spain and the U.S.”) Chomsky’s evaluations of the situation are characteristically clear and illuminating.
The interviewer Nando Vila brings up Sanders’ defeat early in the interview. In its wake, he declares, many leftists are feeling lost and disoriented. “I think you’re seeing . . . a disorganized and inchoate left. . . . Where should we try to direct our efforts to fight back?” Chomsky’s response is brisk and unequivocal. “Well,” he replies, “the first thing we should remember is that the Sanders campaign was a remarkable success. After all, in only “a couple of years” the campaign “managed to shift the range of issues and concerns that are at the center of attention very far toward the progressive side.” In the light of this achievement, “one answer to your question is, ‘Keep at it.’”
Chomsky goes on to prescribe a deeper project of remembering. Today’s leftists, he insists, need to remember, and remember viscerally, that “The US has a very violent labor history, much worse than comparable countries. It’s a business-run society to an unusual extent.” They also need to understand that the business classes are a formidable enemy: They are, “relentless, relentless, they never stop . . . They’re fighting a vicious class war all the time. They never stop.” This “destruction of labor” has been major factor in the [growth of] extreme inequality, just taking away the ability of workers to defend themselves.”
Moreover, for the last 40 years the Democratic Party, once the party of working people, has been fighting on the side of business, embracing the neoliberal tenets of deregulation and free competition. The union movement, working people’s most powerful weapon, has been “smashed by the Democrats.” And working people have responded by abandoning the party in droves. “Lots people signed up for Obama in 2008,” Chomsky recalls. But “within two years . . . large parts of the working class had said, this party isn’t working for us. They’re our enemy.”
In the face of these bitter truths, Chomsky calls for a kind of stubborn and realistic optimism, a readiness to fight for real but limited and always reversible progress. He reminds his younger allies that the business classes have been forced, again and again, to concede some of their power and wealth to working people, most recently through the long period in the mid twentieth century when the values of Roosevelt’s New Deal shaped the thinking of even Republican Presidents like Eisenhower.
“This is fundamentally a class struggle that goes on through history,” he declares. “To say that we’re disappointed because we haven’t succeeded is to say that we’re in the world.” His vision of history has more to do with Marx’s notion of “incremental repetition,” a slow, piecemeal ascent with regular setbacks and repeated battles for the same terrain, than it does with the narratives of imminent victory and the “end of history” that also circulate in Marx’s discourse and that of the left. “Keep struggling, make improvements, some regression, keep going. . . . It’s not that there’s no victory at all, there [is], things are better than they were because of constant struggle, in fact this country’s a lot better than it was fifty, sixty years ago, mainly because of the activism of the sixties . . . not easy, but if you say well we haven’t gotten where we wanted I’m going to quit, you just guarantee that the worst is going to happen. It’s a constant struggle.”
And today, he continues, that struggle seems more hopeful than it has for decades. Sanders’ success points the way forward, but there are other encouraging signs as well. President Biden’s behavior shows that he can be pressed leftwards, as he has already been on climate change by the Sunrise Movement and others. The corporate world is “running scared.” “They’re concerned with what they call ‘reputational risks’” if they take too hard a stand against income equalization and measures to save the environment. They too can be pressed. And Labor, brutally battered by the neoliberal assault of the last 40 years, is beginning to revive. It was nearly crushed before, in the 1920s, and it recovered to fight successfully for Roosevelt’s New Deal. Today as well, “all that [organizing] can be done again, in fact, it’s beginning to happen.
. . . . . . .
Later in the interview, Chomsky finds himself pushing back against a different mapping of history, this time a mapping of what is to come. While discussing the left’s response to climate change, Nando Vila makes an argument for socialist organizing similar to that advanced in a different context by two of Jacobin’s sages, the late Leo Panitch and Bhaskar Sunkara, the journal’s founder and editor. Both Panitch and Sunkara argue that the left today must fight for change under the banner of socialism rather than social democracy, because only the eradication of capitalism can free working people from the ever-looming threat of counter-revolution. Vila’s logic is similar: “We live under capitalism, you know, market society, profit driven society,” he declares. And then he comes to the point. “It’s like we won’t be able to truly fix the climate problem until we move beyond capitalism in some way which traditionally we’ve called socialism.” Do you think it’s still useful to think about it in those terms?” he asks.
Chomsky’s response is simple and devastating. “It’s useful but there are some facts we have to remember. One of them is time scale We have a decade or two to deal decisively with the environmental crisis. We’re not going to overthrow capitalism in a couple of decades, I think.”
Instead, Chomsky continues, the solution to the climate crisis, insofar as a solution can be found, “is going to have to come within some kind of regimented capitalist system. Not the neoliberal system.” (“Regimented capitalism,” Chomsky acknowledges elsewhere, is roughly synonymous with social democracy.) “So you go back to the pre-neoliberal period . . . and within that framework of serious government control of the destructive excesses of unleashed capitalism you have a chance to proceed.”
That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that “you stop advocating for [socialism]. “You can continue working for it but recognizing that the solution [to the climate crisis] is going to have to come within some kind of regimented capitalist system.” Whether in the form of the New Deal or of the welfare state and regulatory politics of European labor and even “socialist” parties, this mixed, social democratic system seeks to control capitalism but not to eliminate it. It will not produce a workers’ paradise. But if the popular supporters it will need to prevail do not give up and go home, it may be able to forestall the destruction of modern civilization and much of the natural world on which it relies. No small matter.
The two questions that provoke Chomsky’s retorts reflect a single, widely distributed frame of mind with a long history on the left. Both are suffused with the assumption that history, if it is really on our side, or even just neutrally open to the sorts of changes we desire, should satisfy these desires briskly and conclusively, rather than requiring herculean efforts over time and rarely if ever offering a “true fix” to our gravest problems. To give up and go home when a desired fix does not immediately materialize, Chomsky insists, is a serious error. And so is the inclination at a moment of mortal crisis to refuse to work with the political tools at hand.
“File:Noam Chomsky portrait 2015.jpg” by Augusto Starita / Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0