chomsky: give them a sensible answer: take over your factories

Last spring, I attended a talk given by the International Socialists called "Recession, Resistance and Revolution"; I wrote a summary here and here.

This talk was excellent historical and political background as I read this interview with Noam Chomsky on ZNet. Diane Krauthamer sat down with the famous leftist thinker in October. Here's an excerpt.
The Second World War ended with a radicalization of the population in the United States and everywhere else, and called for all kinds of things like popular takeovers, government intervention, and worker takeovers of factories. Business propagated a tremendous propaganda offensive. The scale surprised me when I read the scholarship—it's enormous, and it's been very effective. There were two major targets: one is unions, the other is democracy. . . .

. . . it's a tremendous victory for the opponents of democracy, and, of course, any privileged sector is going to hate democracy. You can see it in the healthcare debate.

The majority of the population thinks that if the government runs healthcare, they're going to take away your freedom. At the same time, the public favors a national healthcare program. The contradiction is somehow unresolved.

In the case of the business propaganda, it's particularly ironic because while business wants the population to hate the government, they want the population to love the government. Namely, they're in favor of a very powerful state which works in their interest.

So you have to love that government, but hate the government that might work in your interest and that you could control. That's an interesting propaganda task, but it's been carried out very well. You can see it in the worship of Reagan, which portrays him as somebody who saved us from government. Actually he was an apostle of big government.

. . .

I get a lot of letters from people. When I go home tonight I'll have 15 letters today from mostly young kids who don't like what's going on and want to do something about it, and [they ask me] if I can give them some advice as to what they should do, or can I tell them what to read or something.

It doesn't work like that. I mean, everything depends very much on who you are, what your values are, what your commitments are, what circumstances you live in and what options you're willing to undertake, and that determines what you ought to be doing. There are some very general ideas that people can keep in mind; they're kind of truisms. It's only worth mentioning them because they're always denied.

First of all, don't believe anything you hear from power systems. So if Obama or the boss or the newspapers or anyone else tells you they're doing this, that, or the other thing, dismiss it or assume the opposite is true, which it often is.

You have to rely on yourself and your associates — gifts don't come from above; you're going to win them, or you won't have them, and you win by struggle, and that requires understanding and serious analysis of the options and the circumstances, and then you can do a lot.

So take right now, for example, there is a right-wing populist uprising. It's very common, even on the left, to just ridicule them, but that's not the right reaction. If you look at those people and listen to them on talk radio, these are people with real grievances.

I listen to talk radio a lot and it's kind of interesting. If you can sort of suspend your knowledge of the world and just enter into the world of the people who are calling in, you can understand them. I've never seen a study, but my sense is that these are people who feel really aggrieved. These people think, "I've done everything right all my life, I'm a god-fearing Christian, I'm white, I'm male, I've worked hard, and I carry a gun. I do everything I'm supposed to do. And I'm getting shafted."

And in fact they are getting shafted. For 30 years their wages have stagnated or declined, the social conditions have worsened, the children are going crazy, there are no schools, there's nothing, so somebody must be doing something to them, and they want to know who it is. Well Rush Limbaugh has answered - it's the rich liberals who own the banks and run the government, and of course run the media, and they don't care about you—they just want to give everything away to illegal immigrants and gays and communists and so on.

Well, you know, the reaction we should be having to them is not ridicule, but rather self-criticism. Why aren't we organizing them? I mean, we are the ones that ought to be organizing them, not Rush Limbaugh.

There are historical analogs, which are not exact, of course, but are close enough to be worrisome. This is a whiff of early Nazi Germany. Hitler was appealing to groups with similar grievances, and giving them crazy answers, but at least they were answers; these groups weren't getting them anywhere else. It was the Jews and the Bolsheviks [that were the problem].

I mean, the liberal democrats aren't going to tell the average American, "Yeah, you're being shafted because of the policies that we've established over the years that we're maintaining now." That's not going to be an answer.

And they're not getting answers from the left. So, there's an internal coherence and logic to what they get from Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the rest of these guys. And they sound very convincing, they're very self-confident, and they have an answer to everything — a crazy answer, but it's an answer. And it's our fault if that goes on. So one thing to be done is don't ridicule these people, join them, and talk about their real grievances and give them a sensible answer, like, "Take over your factories."

This also reminded me of my friend Tom Kertes' piece, "Let's not get organized by Barack Obama". Kertes' informative and inspiring website is here.


johngoldfine said...

Believe it or not, for two years I used Howard Zinn's People's History as my community college history text.

So I agree with a lot of Zinn's or, here, Chomsky's analysis of what's wrong with the USA, but he loses credibility when he substitutes a provocation for serious political or economic comment.

Take over the factories? Return to 1917? To the soviets? To a jacquerie? Do it right this time?

What's the point of being a Marxist and a believer in History if one ignores history when one believes history got the lessons wrong?

L-girl said...

Believe it or not, for two years I used Howard Zinn's People's History as my community college history text.

I believe it. Why not?

Take over the factories? Return to 1917? To the soviets? To a jacquerie? Do it right this time?

What's the point of being a Marxist and a believer in History if one ignores history when one believes history got the lessons wrong?

Why does a factory takeover automatically equate with the Soviet state? Factories have been taken over in the US, in Argentina, in Ireland, in Germany, in Italy, in Greece... in many places where workers organized and made demands. To imagine that someone as knowledgeable as Chomsky is speaking in some simplistic terms of "get it right this time" is, I think, a failure of imagination.

There was a factory takeover very recently in Chicago, and ongoing battles right now in Greece. These are not "substitutes" - they are one part of complex, ongoing struggles.

L-girl said...

Also, I think it's obvious that Chomsky's point - read in context - is that there are answers for disaffected white Americans on the left as well as on the right, but that no one is speaking to them or organizing them. The point is not the factory takeover - the point is the larger picture of class solidarity.