Hot off the presses, the December 2016 issue of the Brooklyn Rail includes an interview with Noam Chomsky about the US election and the larger rightward tilt of many Western governments. In the face of many grim political developments, Chomsky nonetheless sees opportunities for progressive change—including a revived labor movement—provided that ordinary people are willing to put in the work. Here’s an excerpt:
Rail: Indeed, the rise of far-right, nationalistic parties and politicians is an international phenomenon—one could include Israel and Russia along with Germany, Austria, Holland, and France, and now Trump in the U.S. Why do you think this is happening now?
Chomsky: I think that what’s actually happening is the collapse of the Center—the centrist semi-coalitions, mildly social-democrat, mildly conservative, that have been running the countries for years. They are severely declining. You can see it in voting; you can see it also in popular attitudes: contempt for what are called “the élites,” the experts, the people in charge. The reasons for that are showing up in the rise of the far-right political organizations but also the rise of left popular organizations like Podemos in Spain and the victory of the social-democratic mayor in Barcelona, and the Jeremy Corbyn thing, and the pretty remarkable Bernie Sanders phenomenon in the United States, and the DiEM25 Movement in Europe and other movements to reverse the sharp attack on democracy under the European variety of neoliberal policy and austerity programs.
The neoliberal programs of the last generation have in fact been, and were intended to be, a pretty serious attack on democracy, but also they’ve led to stagnation or decline for large parts of the population—the working class, the lower middle class, these people have essentially been cast aside. Real wages for male workers in the United States are about what they were in the ’60s. At the peak of the so-called great success of neoliberal economics, in 2007, right before the crash, non-supervisory workers were at wages considerably lower than in 1979, when the neoliberal assault was taking off. That perfectly naturally causes resentment and fear, and combines with a tendency to blame the most vulnerable. That’s unfortunately common—to blame immigrants, to blame the African-Americans who are being helped by federal programs, to blame anyone available, to direct attention away from the roots of the distress which you’re suffering. This combines with xenophobia, white supremacy, racism, misogyny, and other quite unpleasant phenomena which are far from being eradicated. All of this makes for a pretty dangerous brew. But economic issues are right in the center of it. And you can see this in the fact that so many former Obama voters now voted for Trump, or just didn’t bother voting.
Rail: What kinds of activities and actions do you think would make for a meaningful response to this new situation that Trump’s victory has brought?
Chomsky: Well, I think there are lots of opportunities right now. Just take a look at the vote again. Of younger people, 18 to 25, a large majority were pro-Clinton, and a much larger majority were pro-Sanders. It was a very high percentage. That tells you something about the prospects for the future. I think there are real possibilities of reaching out to many of the Trump voters, those who voted for Obama believing his rhetoric. Trump’s principal policies make clear what’s going to happen. This gives an opportunity. Right now it’s going to take hard work, but it’s possible that there could be a real revival of the labor movement. Labor has been severely undermined, but that’s happened before. In the 1920s, the labor movement was virtually crushed, in large part by Wilson’s Red Scare, but it dramatically revived in the 1930s. It spearheaded the social-democratic New-Deal style changes which were beneficial to the country—not sufficient, but beneficial. That could happen again. There could be an independent labor-based party, which might over time become an important force the way the Labor Party did in England. To all of these things there are plenty of barriers, in the culture and in the social and political institutions, the concentration of economic power. But these are not insuperable barriers, I think. They can be overcome. And it is urgent that this be done, because there are really incredible problems that are simply not being addressed.