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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Overcoming Despair as the Republicans Take Over By Noam Chomsky and Michael Lerner

Noam Chomsky
 Michael Lerner (ML): You have made many excellent analyses of the power of global capital and

its capacity to undermine ordinary citizens’ efforts to transform the global reality toward a more

humane and generous world. If there were a serious movement in the U.S. ready to challenge global

capital, what should such a movement do? Or is it, as many believe, hopeless, given the power of

capital to control the media, undermine democratic movements, and use the police/military power

and the co-optive power of mass entertainment, endless spectacle, and financial compensations for

many of the smartest people coming up through working-class and middle-income routes? What

path is rational for a movement seeking to build a world of environmental sanity, social justice, and

peace, yet facing such a sophisticated, powerful, and well-organized social order?

Noam Chomsky (NC): There is no doubt that concentrated private capital closely linked to the

state has substantial resources, but on the other hand we shouldn’t overlook the fact that quite a

bit has been achieved through public struggles in the U.S. over the years. In many respects this

remains an unusually free country. The state has limited power to coerce, compared with many

other countries, which is a very good thing. Many rights have been won, even in the past generation,

and that provides a legacy from which we can move on. Struggling for freedom and justice has

never been easy, but it has achieved progress; I don’t think we should assume that there are any

particular limits.

At the moment we can’t realistically talk about challenging global capital, because the movements

that might undertake such a task are far too scattered and atomized and focused on particular

issues. But we can try to confront directly what global capital is doing right now and, on the basis of

that, move on to further achievements. For example, it’s no big secret that in the past thirty years

there has been enormous concentration of wealth in a very tiny part of the population, 1 percent or

even one-tenth of 1 percent, and that has conferred extraordinary political power on a very tiny

minority, primarily [those who control] financial capital, but also more broadly on the executive and

managerial classes. At the same time, for the majority of the population, incomes have pretty much

stagnated, working hours have increased, benefits have declined — they were never very good —

and people are angry, hostile, and very upset. Many people distrust institutions, all of them; it’s a

volatile period, and it’s a period which could move in a very dangerous direction — there are

analogues, after all — but it could also provide opportunities to educate and organize and carry

things forward. One may have a long-term goal of confronting global capital, but there have to be

small steps along the way before you could even think of undertaking a challenge of that magnitude

in a realistic way.

Worker-Managed Businesses

The most inspiring examples of workers taking over factories have been coming from Argentina. Sin

Patron, published in English by Haymarket Books, tells in the workers’ own words the stories of ten

occupied and recovered workplaces.

ML: Do you see any strategy for overcoming the fragmentation that exists among social

movements to help people recognize an overriding shared agenda?

NC: One failing of the social movements that I’ve noticed over many years is that while they are

focusing on extremely crucial and important social issues like women’s rights, environmental

protections, and so on, they have tended to ignore or downplay the economic and social crises

faced by working people. It’s not that they are completely ignored, but they are downplayed. And

that has to be overcome, and there are ways to do it. So, to take a concrete example right near

where I live, right now there is a town near Boston where a multinational corporation is closing down

a local plant because it’s not profitable enough from the point of view of the multinational. Members

of the workforce have offered to purchase the plant and the equipment, and the multinational

doesn’t want to do that; it would rather lose money than offer the opportunity for a worker selfmanaged

plant that might well become successful. And the multinational has the power to do what

it wants, of course. But sufficient popular support — community support, activist support, and so on

— could swing the balance. Things like that are happening all over the country.

Take Obama’s virtual takeover of the auto industry. There were several options at that point. One

option, which the Obama administration chose, was to restore the old order, assist in the closing of

plants, the shifting of production abroad and so on, and maybe get a functioning auto industry

again. Another option would have been to take over those plants — plants that are being

dismantled — and convert them to things that are very badly needed in the country, like high-speed

rail — it’s a scandal that the United States doesn’t have this kind of infrastructure, which many

other countries have developed. In fact at the very time that Obama was closing down plants in the

Midwest, his transportation secretary was in Europe trying to get contracts from Spain for highspeed

rail construction, which could have been done in those very plants that were being


To move in the direction that I suggest would take substantial organization, community support,

national support, and recognition that worker self-managed production aimed at real social needs is

an option that can be pursued; if it is pursued, you move to a pretty radical stage of consciousness,

and it could go on and on from there. Unfortunately, that was not even discussed.

Amend the Constitution?

ML: Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have proposed the Environmental and Social

Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution or ESRA [read it at spiritualprogressives.org/ESRA],

which we think could potentially unite many segments of the liberal and progressive forces in this

country. It starts with a first clause that essentially takes money out of national elections by

forbidding private money in elections and requiring that they be funded by public sources. It

overturns Citizens United, it requires the mass media to give equal and free time to all major

candidates, and it bans any private advertising in the months before an election. It then goes on to

the issues of corporate environmental and social responsibility and requires that any corporation

with income above $100 million per year would have to get a new corporate charter once every five

years; to get the charter, a corporation would have to prove a satisfactory history of environmental

and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens so as to avoid the control of regulatory

agencies by the people they are supposed to be regulating.

I wonder if this kind of idea makes sense to you, not as something that is likely to pass but as

something that is likely to frame an agenda that is potentially unifying and that does give people a

concrete vision of what it might look like to get significant advances toward democratic control of the

society and some semblance of responsibility from corporations.

NC: I think those are ideas that I would endorse. I’m sure that they can be used for organizing and

education, but until those organizing and educational efforts reach a much higher plateau than

anyone can envision today, the proposals are impossible to implement. So yes, as a platform for

organizing and bringing people together, ideas of that kind make good sense, as do the kind I

mentioned, and many others, but work has to be done.

ML: Dennis Kucinich has promised to introduce this into Congress. It’s not something that we’re

expecting to have passed in this current Congress, but something that — if we can get them

endorsed by local city councils and state legislatures — might raise the kinds of issues that right

now are not even in the public sphere at all.

NC: It’s a reasonable tactic, especially trying to implement it at the local level. There are things you

can do with local councils, communities, and maybe someday state legislatures that aren’t really

feasible at the congressional level, and that is a way of building popular organizations.

Run a Progressive Candidate against Obama in 2012?

ML: Now in trying to find a way to bring together some of the forces that responded to what they

believed to be a progressive candidacy in the Obama campaign of 2008, I wonder what you think of

the notion of trying to create a progressive candidacy to oppose Obama in the 2012 Democratic

primaries, and to use that effort to build a public face for a progressive opposition that could then

split the Democrats and create a third party with a greater mass base than the Greens.

NC: You know, that’s sort of a difficult tactical question. My own guess is that efforts that are

undertaken at the national level make sense if they’re connected to a program of local organizing. I

think we’re very far from being able to carry out large-scale changes at the national level.

You could see the limitations of a national campaign in the 2008 election. A tremendous amount of

energy and excitement was generated, but it was clear from the beginning that it was going to head

toward severe disillusionment because there was nothing real there — it was based on illusion. And

when people dedicate themselves and work hard to try to bring about something that is illusory,

there’s going to be a negative effect, which in fact happened, so there’s been tremendous

disillusionment, apathy, pulling away, and so on.

Organize Locally, Defend Public Sector Unions

I think we should be careful to set realistic goals — they don’t have to succeed, but if they fail, the

failure itself can be used as a basis to go on, and that’s not the case when you get involved in

national electoral politics. So the kind of suggestion you make, I think it can be developed in such a

way that would be constructive. But making clear that the real goal is the development of the kind of

organization that can change things on the ground; it may ultimately have a national impact, but

only when it’s developed far beyond what it is right now.

It’s not a great secret that the business classes in the United States, which are always fighting a

bitter class war and are highly class-conscious, have been dedicated to destroying unions ever since

the 1930s. And they’ve succeeded considerably in the private sphere, but not yet as successfully in

the public sphere, and that’s what’s being targeted now: a major effort, a propaganda effort — the

media are participating, both parties are involved — to try and undermine public unions. And that’s

one of the points on this attack on public working people, turning them into the criminals that were

responsible for the fiscal crisis. Not Goldman Sachs, but the teachers and policemen and so on.

We just saw that take place in Washington a couple of months ago. There was a big issue — the

great achievement of the lame-duck Congress was supposed to have been a bipartisan agreement

on taxes. Well, the crucial issue there was whether to extend Bush’s tax cuts for the very wealthy.

The population was strongly opposed to that, maybe two to one, but the Democrats and Obama,

instead of making use of that fact to try to eliminate that huge tax break for the rich, went along

with it.

At the same time, both parties were trying to outdo each other and screaming about the danger of

the federal deficit, when the fact of the matter is that we ought to be having a deficit in a time of

recession. It’s an incredible propaganda achievement, for the Republicans particularly, to advocate a

tax cut for the very wealthy that is extremely unpopular and that will of course substantially increase

the deficit, and at the very same time present themselves as deficit hawks who are trying to protect

future generations. But that’s only part of it, because at the very same time, Obama declared a tax

increase for federal workers — it was called a pay freeze, but a pay freeze for workers in the public

sector is the same as a tax increase on those workers. So here, a lot of shouting about how we’re

cutting taxes and overcoming the deficit, and at the same time we’re raising taxes on public-sector


This is part of the large propaganda campaign to try to undermine the public sector: demonizing

teachers, police, and firemen with all kinds of fabrications about how they are overpaid, when in fact

they’re underpaid relative to the skill levels in the private sector — denouncing their pensions and so

on. These are major propaganda efforts, a kind of class war, and that ought to be combated, and I

think that public opinion can be organized to combat it. Those are very concrete things that are

happening right now, like the possibility of ending the closing down of factories and the mass

suffering that it leads to, and turning that into something really radical: mainly worker self-managed

production for human needs.

ML: Now, let’s imagine that the things that you’re saying, which right now are heard by a tiny

percentage of the population, could be heard by virtue of somebody articulating them in a

presidential primary against Obama — wouldn’t that, in and of itself, be of value? Particularly if that

person were going to simultaneously be saying, “and we can’t expect to get the changes we want

simply through the Democratic Party, so we need to use this campaign also to bring together people

who are willing to continue this struggle as part of an organization that works both inside and outside

the Democratic Party.”

NC: I think that should be done. I don’t know that one should necessarily take a strong stand on

whether it should be a third party or change the Democratic Party — both are options. After all, the

New Deal did succeed in changing the Democratic Party through the mechanism of popular


ML: So you’re not one of those on the left who say it’s simply a poison to continue working inside

the Democratic Party?

NC: I’m not coming out in favor of working inside the Democratic Party or opposing working inside

the Democratic Party, I’m just saying I don’t see a point in taking a strong stand on that question. If

it can be done [inside the party], fine; if it can’t be done, do it outside. In fact, it’s a little bit like a

standard progressive approach to reformist goals — the goal is to press institutional structures to

their limits. If in fact they can’t be pressed any further, and people understand that, then you have

the basis for going onto something more far-reaching.

You Run. No, You Run.

ML: So knowing no one that has a better understanding of these dynamics than you, would you be

willing to be a candidate for the presidency?

NC: I’m not the proper person to be a candidate. So personally, no, it’s not the kind of thing I can


ML: Since you have the analysis and can articulate it so clearly, why would you not be a good


NC: In our system, a candidate has to be someone who is an orator, or someone with some

charisma, someone who tries to arouse emotions. I don’t do that, and, if I could do it, I wouldn’t. I’m

not the right kind of person.

ML: That might be just why you’re the right person. The right kind of person is precisely the person

who wouldn’t want to do it.

NC: Well, you do it. Your writing is very, very good.

ML: Okay, thanks Noam.

[I’ve already stated publicly that I’ll run the moment some group of wealthy people donate a billion

dollars to that campaign so that we can hire organizers that would work on building a movement

that grows out of the campaign and focuses on the environment, peace, social justice, economic

democracy, human rights, and the New Bottom Line proposed by the Network of Spiritual

Progressives. Until then, I’ll continue to edit Tikkun; work on building the Network of Spiritual

Progressives’ campaigns for the ESRA and for a Global Marshall Plan; write books on theology,

psychology, and social transformation; and spend time in prayer and meditation and celebration of

the grandeur and mystery of the universe. And while Tikkun and the NSP don’t participate in

electoral politics (they are nonprofits banned from doing so), I personally have been reaching out to

better-known figures like Bill Moyers, Marian Wright Edelman, Senator Bernie Sanders, Rachel

Maddow, and former Congressman Joe Sestak in the hopes that they and others might join together

in an effort to build that kind of electoral campaign in 2012.]

ML: Do you have any other strategic advice for those of us who are seeking a transformation of our


The Urgent Threats of Climate Change and Nuclear War

NC: I don’t think there are any deep, dark secrets about this. There are many specific goals that we

ought to be working hard to achieve; some of them are those that you’ve formulated in ESRA,

others are the kind that I’ve mentioned.

Then there are others that are overwhelming in importance. For example, the looming global

environmental crisis, which raises questions of species survival. It’s very urgent right now. Even

some in the business press over at Business Week are nervous about the fact that the new

Republicans that were elected are almost entirely climate-change deniers. In fact they quoted one

recently who may be gaining the chair of an important committee, who is so off-the-wall he said,

“We don’t have to worry about global warming because God wouldn’t allow it to happen.” I don’t

think there’s another country in the world where a political figure can get away with that. Yet here

there has been a major corporate propaganda offensive, quite openly announced, to try to convince

people that the environmental crisis is a liberal hoax. And it’s had some success, according to the

latest polls. The percentage of Americans who believe in anthropogenic global warming, human

effects on climate change, is down to about a third. This is an extremely dangerous situation: it’s

imminent; we have to do something about it right now.

There are other issues that deserve our immediate attention. The threat of nuclear war is very

serious, and in fact is being increased by government policy. Right now one of the more interesting

revelations from the WikiLeaks cables has to do with Pakistan: it’s obvious from the cables that the

U.S. ambassador is well aware that the actions that the Obama administration is taking with regard

to Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasing a very serious threat to the stability of Pakistan itself,

and are raising the possibility, not trivial, that the country might fall apart, and that its huge store of

nuclear weapons might end up in the hands of radical Islamists. I know there’s not a high probability,

but it’s conceivable, and what we’re doing is accelerating that threat. Also, supporting India’s huge

nuclear weapons buildup and blocking efforts supported by almost the entire world to move toward a

nuclear weapons-free zone in the extremely volatile Middle East region — those are issues of great


So there are plenty of urgent tasks, they just require always the same thing: efforts to educate, to

organize, to bring together the forces that are concerned and develop strategy and tactics and

implement them. So supporting, say, gay rights in the military is important, but it has to be linked to

other efforts if it is to have a significant effect on the society.

What Do We Do about Religiophobia?

ML: As a side question, we in the NSP and Tikkun have found that our positions and analyses —

which are in some ways more radical (going to the root) than many of the programs that you hear

coming out of the Left, because we do have a class analysis and we do have an analysis of global

capitalism — are nevertheless not paid much attention by the rest of the Left because of what we’ve

experienced as a pervasive religiophobia. And that has also been experienced by people like Jim

Wallis and those involved with Sojourners , and people around the Christian Century, and other

progressive religious organizations. And I’m wondering if you have any advice to us on how to

overcome that religiophobia, since it seems ludicrous to us that a secular left would not understand

that, in a country where you have 80 percent of the population believing in God and 60 percent

going to church at least once a month, it would be in their interest to have a unification with people

who have a spiritual or religious consciousness.

NC: I think you should approach them, not just on the pragmatic grounds that it’s in their interest,

but also on the grounds that it’s the right thing to do. I mean, personally, I’m completely secular,

but I certainly recognize the right of people to have personal religious beliefs and the significance

that it may have in their lives, though not for me. Though we can certainly understand each other at

least that well, quite apart from pragmatic considerations. I mean, say if a mother is praying that

she might see her dying child in heaven, it’s not my right to give her lectures on epistemology.

ML: But it’s not just issues of epistemology, because there we could have a good debate; it’s that

there is a climate or a culture in the Left and the liberal arenas that simply assumes that anybody

who would have a religious position must be intellectually underdeveloped or psychologically stuck,

needing a father figure or scared of the unknown, or some other psychologically reductive analysis.

That approach — a kind of ridicule of anybody who could possibly think that there was a spiritual

dimension of reality, when it’s pervasive, pushes people away even if they agree with much of the

rest of what the Left is saying. How does one raise that issue? How does one deal with that issue

among lefties who are simply unaware of the elitism and offensiveness of these suppositions? There

was a time when it was extremely difficult to raise the issue of patriarchy, sexism, or homophobia,

because people thought, “well that’s ridiculous, it’s just not true, it’s not happening” — there was a

huge level of denial. Do you have any advice for us on how to deal with that level of denial that exists

in the culture of the Left? In my own study of this — I’ve done a rather extensive study of the

psychodynamics of American society, which involved over 10,000 people — we found that this was a

central issue for a lot of middle-income working people, who agreed with much of the Left’s

positions, but felt dissed by the Left.

NC: Well, the way you approach people is to explain to them that not only is it not in their interest to

diss other people, but it’s also morally and intellectually wrong. For example, one of the greatest

dangers is secular religion — state worship. That’s a far more destructive factor in world affairs than

religious belief, and it’s common on the Left. So you take a look at the very people who are

passionately advocating struggling for atheism and repeating arguments that most of us

understood when we were teenagers — those very same people are involved in highly destructive

and murderous state worship, not all of them but some. Does that mean we should diss them? No,

it means we should try to explain it to them.

Israel: U.S. Public Opinion Is Changing

ML: Let me ask you a little bit about Israel. Our standpoint is that Israel is headed for perpetual

domination of the Palestinian people — a position that you recently articulated, that neither twostate

nor one-state is likely to occur, but instead continuing domination. So, I’m asking you what

strategies you suggest for those who are not satisfied with the organizations that advocate for

peace, but do so in a way that frames the issues solely in terms of Israel’s interests. Tikkun would

have a much bigger impact in the Jewish world if, for example, we had been willing to denounce the

Palestinians more, particularly during the second intifada, and if we were to frame our issues solely

in terms of why it’s irrational and self-destructive for Israel. But since we are committed to a different

view — since we come from a religious perspective that every human being is created in the image

of God and is equally deserving of care and support — we find it unconscionable to be quiet about

the human pain and destructiveness that the Occupation of the West Bank and the transformation

of Gaza into a huge prison camp has generated. Yet the Washington-based peace people and many

(not all) among the secular Left in the Jewish world think that the smartest strategy is to downplay

that issue and to play up only Israel’s interest. Do you have any advice for us on how to champion

the end of the Occupation and the end of the oppression of Palestinians, when we — Tikkun and the

NSP — are unable to frame the issues solely in terms of self-interest for Israel but are morally

obliged to raise those issues in terms of the suffering of Palestinians and the ethical dimensions,

even though doing so seems to be counterproductive to building support in the Jewish world?

NC: Well, first of all I’m not at all convinced that it’s counterproductive to building support — maybe

among the existing Jewish institutions it is, but you’re not going to influence the Zionist

organizations. But especially among younger Jews, yours is a position that has growing appeal. I’m

coming not from a religious perspective but from a secular one and doing exactly the same thing,

and the changes I’ve experienced over the last couple of years are enormous. Critical analysis of

Israeli policies is one of the most popular issues on campus now.

However, my own view is that the real issue for us is not what Israel is doing but what the United

States is doing — it’s in our hands to determine how this turns out. If the United States continues to

lend completely uncritical support to the Israeli policies of expanding their control and domination,

as is in fact happening, that’s what will eventuate. But that can change. And it can change by

bringing the American population — Jewish and non-Jewish — to recognize that these U.S.

government policies are unacceptable and have to be reversed. If the U.S. were induced or

compelled by popular opinion to join the world on this issue, and I thoroughly mean that, then there

could be a short-term resolution — not the end of the story, but at least significant improvement —

by at least moving to a two-state settlement stage and an ongoing longer process. I think that’s

quite realistic.

ML: And how do you imagine that change taking place? Given the constellation of forces right now in

which this seems to be the only issue in which Democrats and Republicans are totally united,

producing votes of 415 to 20 in support of crazy resolutions…

NC: You’re speaking of Congress, but I think we should look at the population, which is by no means

unified on this. In fact, the majority of the population favors the formation of a Palestinian state, and

our goal should be to organize the population so that the popular will is expressed in state actions.

This has happened in the past: it happened on South Africa. I mean, the Reagan administration was

strongly supporting apartheid, condemning the ANC as a major terrorist organization, and within a

couple of years it shifted. The same thing happened with East Timor — as major atrocities continued

through 1999, the Clinton administration continued supporting the Indonesian atrocities strongly,

and then, rather suddenly, under international and domestic pressure it shifted position.

ML: Yes, but neither of those countries had a significant section of this population here in the U.S.

supporting the existing repressive regimes and committed to them on a deep personal and

emotional level. Whereas here, while I agree that there is a growing split in the Jewish community on

these issues and Tikkun reflects the perspective of a very large section of Jews under the age of fifty,

I don’t see a similar split among Christian Zionists, who represent a very large part of the population

— much larger than the Jewish population, anyway.

NC: The Christian Right also supported apartheid. There are all kinds of differences, on the other

hand, in the case of Israel-Palestine. By now there is a growing section inside the military and inside

intelligence that is pulling for an end to U.S. support for Israeli intransigence because it’s harming

U.S. operations in the field. If that spreads to the population, it could lead to a major wave of anti-

Semitism. There are lots of differences among the cases, but the point is that policies can change,

and my own sense is that even within the Jewish community, younger Jews are drifting away because

what Israel is doing is just intolerable to their general liberal attitudes; I think we should welcome that

move and try to direct it toward changing U.S. policy.

ML: Yes, the focus on changing U.S. policy is one of many reasons our NSP focus on the Global

Marshall Plan is so important. The central point of our Global Marshall Plan is that “homeland

security” cannot be achieved through the current “strategy of domination” of countries around the

world, but only through a new “strategy of generosity” in which the U.S. acts in a caring way toward

the people of the world. That same kind of caring and generosity will not likely take hold in Israel,

where it would change everything, making peace a real possibility, not just a permanently elusive

goal, until it takes hold in the West, primarily in the U.S. So that is one of many reasons why I agree

with you that our work is in changing the foreign policy approach in the U.S., and that will only

happen through a massive educational program at the grassroots level. By seeking city councils and

state legislatures to endorse the Global Marshall Plan, we at the Network of Spiritual Progressives

will be able to raise this new way of thinking about homeland security and eventually make a

significant change in the mass consciousness in America on the question of what really works to

bring safety, security, and peace to the U.S. and to the world.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious

Right is editor of Tikkun Magazine, chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, and

author of the forthcoming book Embacing Israel/Palestine, which will be out in December.

June 17, 2011  Tikkun.com

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