Noam Chomsky [“Hidden Power,” interview by John Malkin, April 2005] says that President Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security promotes a culture of selfishness in which we don’t take care of the “disabled widow.” Chomsky doesn’t know the poor very well. I could tell him about the downside of giving people unearned Social Security, housing, and medical privileges: If you don’t expect anything from people, you won’t get it.
I had to go on welfare in my fifties due to disability, and I have seen much abuse of welfare programs since then. While living on welfare in government housing, I saw drug-addicted mothers partying with criminals in their homes. Gun battles took place nightly. I feared for my life. There is Chomsky’s “poor disabled widow,” and then there is this drug addict who is accountable to no one while her six little kids run wild, and their dads are either in jail (another form of welfare) or sure to end up there.
I say, if you just throw money at people without expecting any discipline or responsibility, you are not doing them a favor. The poor worker is always hurt when people who haven’t earned it find a way to siphon off a good living for themselves. The poor know how to cry if someone is susceptible to their tears. There is such a thing as having too much sympathy.
Noam Chomsky is interesting to read when he’s speaking about politics, but his cold, intellectual response to human suffering is infuriating. He says that “the system of governance within the corporation is as close to totalitarianism as anything humans have devised,” because orders come from above while people “rent” themselves at the bottom. But totalitarianism is more than hierarchy, propaganda, and a suffering proletariat. Totalitarianism is murder, imprisonment, and abusive power.
In the twentieth century the Soviet Union and China together murdered about 100 million people within their own borders. You couldn’t live under a totalitarian system without experiencing pervasive fear, even if you were part of the ruling elite.
It is easy to say that because propaganda in this country is more subtle and pervasive than anything in Hitler’s regime, we are living under a new Hitler. It makes us feel that our lives are beset by a danger more insidious than Nazism or even Soviet communism. But what is more insidious than a form of government that kills millions of its own citizens?
If Michael Moore is the Will Rogers of our time, Noam Chomsky is more on the order of Plato’s hero: a man who simply tells the truth. I would like to ask Chomsky:
Why do we supposedly have “free trade,” but do not have an equivalent free movement of labor? Free-trade agreements allow capital to flow smoothly around the globe, whereas labor is not equally free to travel. If I want to move to New Delhi, for example, to get a job with one of the corporations that have fled the U.S., I’m pretty sure India is free to deny me access to jobs, housing, and so forth. Under the “free-trade” agreements, however, India cannot deny companies the right to “invest” within its borders.
Is there a politically workable way to include labor in these free-trade agreements?
I was excited and heartened by Noam Chomsky’s assertion that the American public holds generally progressive views, in spite of the outcome of the recent election. I wish, however, he had mentioned his sources for this information. He refers to “two of the best public-opinion organizations in the world,” but doesn’t tell us which ones.
Describing the modern corporation, Noam Chomsky says, “At the bottom are the people who rent themselves to the corporation for wages — it’s called ‘getting a job.’ ” It’s easy to tell that Noam Chomsky has not had a job in the real world since he was a student. If he had, he wouldn’t be able to speak so glibly about the reality of life for U.S. workers.
I consider myself as much of a leftist as Chomsky, but in my experience, poor and lower-middle-income Americans do not feel that they are “renting” themselves to their employers. My guess is that anyone who has a job these days is grateful.
It is time for the Left to stop using glib phrases that distance us from the working people of this country.
Noam Chomsky responds:
To Gerry Hitt: There may indeed be “such a thing as having too much sympathy,” but that is hardly the problem with U.S. benefits programs, which are among the stingiest and least effective in the industrialized world. For evidence, see the 2004–2005 edition of the biennial study “State of Working America” from the Economic Policy Institute. As for Social Security, the topic I was discussing, it is one of the least-generous public pension systems among the industrial democracies, according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The way to deal with abuses is to deal with abuses, not to dismantle already-limited programs that are fiscally sound, quite efficient (compared to privatized programs such as the U.S. healthcare system) and a means of survival for working people, their dependents, the disabled, the poor, and others in need of help.
To Kevin Rosero: Totalitarianism, democracy, dictatorship, and so on, are forms of social organization. “Murder, imprisonment, and abusive power,” are hideous crimes, but a different matter. There have been relatively benevolent dictatorships — which is no argument for dictatorship — and the world’s leading democracy tolerated literal slavery for much of its history, and tolerates to this day slavery’s disgraceful residue, not to speak of the fate of what John Quincy Adams called “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty.” The world’s leading democracies continue to be responsible for horrendous crimes outside their borders.
As for the 100 million deaths attributed to Soviet and Chinese communism, 25 million of them resulted from the Chinese famine of 1958–1960, which is properly regarded as a political famine by economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. But Sen and fellow economist Jean Dreze attribute 100 million more deaths to India, over China, from independence to 1979 — also political crimes, they point out, resulting from democratic capitalist policies.
Corporations have not refrained from violence, but mostly rely on powerful states to exercise violence on their behalf, with grim consequences. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, one of the leading advocates of the dominant state-corporate system, says, “The market requires a hidden fist. McDonald’s can not flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15.”
It’s quite appropriate to condemn the crimes of the state’s official enemies, as Soviet commissars did. What we should find “infuriating” is our own “cold, intellectual response to human suffering” when that suffering is caused by systems we support.
To Leo Masursky: It is quite true that the so-called “free-trade agreements” do not permit free movement of labor — the foundation of free trade, according to Adam Smith. These agreements permit free movement of capital, but not labor, for the same reason that they privilege investors over the majority of people: they are not free-trade agreements but rather a mixture of devices, many highly protectionist, designed to favor the interests of the investors who created them. We should call them “investor-rights agreements.”
Whether true free trade would be feasible, or even desirable, is a separate matter. There were some limited experiments with it in nineteenth-century England, the most developed country in the world at that time, but they were quickly called off by business leaders because of their destructive impact. The U.S., in sharp contrast, led the world in protectionism, a major factor in its economic development.
To Emily Rachel Thurston: The studies were released shortly before the November elections by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, which monitors public opinion on foreign policy, and the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, which is the source of major in-depth studies on public opinion. More details can be found on their websites.
To Saralyn Fosnight: If workers are grateful to find jobs in sweatshops, that is not an argument for sweatshops, but rather a condemnation of the system. Exactly the same is true of wage labor. American workers in the early days of the Industrial Revolution were not “using glib phrases that distance [them] from the working people of this country” when they bitterly condemned the wage-labor system that compelled them to rent themselves for survival, calling it an attack on their basic rights and not very different from slavery. Their position was so widely shared that it even became a slogan of the Republican Party.
Those offenses against basic human rights became still more severe when the rudiments of nineteenth-century capitalism were torn to shreds by state-created corporate systems of domination and control. Woodrow Wilson wrote that “most men are the servants of corporations . . . in a very different America from the old . . . no longer a scene of individual enterprise, . . . individual opportunity, and individual achievement,” but a new America in which “small groups of men in control of great corporations wield a power and control over the wealth and business opportunities of the country.” In turn, they wield enormous influence over the nation’s political system, and now the world.
Sometimes The Sun is a bit too predictable, as when John Malkin begins his interview with Noam Chomsky with the observation that many first-time political activists felt despair over the last election results. Many first-time activists also felt elation about the results of the same election.
I remember picking up my first copy of The Sun when I was ten. I found it in my parents’ room and was drawn to the photo on the cover, of a dark window. Flipping through the pages, I arrived at a story about death. The details were difficult and ugly and hard. I was amazed when, at the end of the story, I felt I had glimpsed something beautiful. I remember lying wide-eyed on my parents’ bed, making space in my head for these new thoughts.
I’m now seventeen, and through the years The Sun has cradled me, prodded me to sit up and pay attention, made me cry or laugh, and shown me the raw, fragile beauty in this world.