Saturday, January 14, 2012

Occupy Movement Must Engage Labor to Succeed, Chomsky Says

MEMPHIS, Jan. 13, 2012--- The United States has "run far off the spectrum like a third-world country" and is being controlled by a "virtual senate of the wealthy," world-renowned author, intellectual and activist Noam Chomsky told an SRO crowd of about 900 students and members of the community Friday night at Rhodes College.

Chomsky said the "Occupy movement will prove to be of historical significance.  We have never seen anything quite like this.  But, to be ultimately successful, it must engage the mass population like the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements---and not just with people sympathetic  to it."

 Chomsky's speech was advertised as focusing on Occupy Wall Street, but he also laid out broad, thought-provoking  themes and epic forces for the audience, who frequently stood and cheered and many of whom came clutching one of Chomsky's more than 100 books.  Chomsky was in town also to speak at the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center banquet on Saturday, and he spoke to the press at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel on the Saturday before the  Jan. 16 holiday to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

We Are in Unprecedented Times

"The Occupy movement  is unprecedented," Chomsky said.   "But, these times in American history are unprecedented.  If you look at history, generally we have had an expansion of rights and democracy.  There have been regressions along the way, and it has not been pretty.  But the general course has been steady over a couple of hundred years.

"That changed beginning in the 1970s," said Chomsky.  "The labor movement was crushed in the 1920s by Woodrow Wilson's red scare.  But, in the 1930s, there was a feeling of, 'It's going to get better.  We can get through this.'

"But not now.  We have anger and hate, and we are subject to policies designed to insure that it's not going to get better.  We are on the present course by design.  Manufacturing is not going to come back in America."

Chomsky cited a Pew Research Center poll that found  two-thirds of Americans felt there are "strong" or "very strong" conflicts between rich and poor, up 19 percentage points from 2009.  "Americans now feel the greatest source of tension and conflict in society is caused by extreme income inequality . We have never seen that polled as a great concern.  Occupy had a lot to do with that awareness."

99.9% Is More Like It

"The imaging of the Occupy movement, 99 per cent, is about right," said Chomsky, who also is a professor emeritus of linguistics at MIT.  "Except it's more like one-tenth of one per cent.  We have the hedge fund managers and CEOs of financial corporations, and that weights the distribution strikingly.

"For the general population, however, it's been stagnation.  We have seen sharply increasing work hours---far higher than in European or other industrialized countries.  People in the U.S. have gone deeply into debt, and it is unsustainable.

"Starting in the Reagan years, there became a fanatic thing for de-regulation.  The latest one was the housing bubble when $8 trillion in fake wealth disappeared. 

"A story in the New York Times yesterday said that the Federal Reserve just released transcripts from meetings it held five years ago, in 2006," Chomsky explained a Fed policy that keeps American citizens in the dark, seemingly long enough to have forgotten.  "The Fed could see that house prices were shooting off the track. 

"There has become this religion that markets know best.  Saint Alan Greenspan---the greatest economist of all time!" Chomsky scoffed to applause and nodding heads.  "Five years ago they saw it, but they said it will be OK. 

"It was a failure by design.  It was planned.  There were choices made all along the way.  It is encouraging that choices led us here and, so, we see that choices can be made again to effect change for the better."

Vicious Cycle: Money Chasing Power Chasing Money

"A major change in the U.S. has been that more of the economy has shifted to financial manipulations instead of making things.  Banks now account for 40% of total corporate profits.

"That has consequences.  It sets off a vicious cycle.  Concentrated wealth yields concentrations of political power.  And then the legislation is designed to create more wealth for the few, which creates evermore concentration of political power, and so on.

"De-regulation has driven the process forward."

Chomsky said of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) that it is "not free trade and not an agreement, because there was no agreement by the people.  The result of NAFTA was to set working people in competition with each other.  Capital is mobile.  Labor is immobile.

(President Ronald) "Reagan sharply broke unions.  They brought in scabs," Chomsky said.  "They broke the union at Caterpillar and many others.  They brought in strike-breakers, which was unheard of in other countries.  Labor strikes historically have been violent; in the United States they have been especially violent.

"NAFTA made it OK for employers to break strikes.  The government failed to enforce the labor laws, but that's because it is a criminal government. 

"Even the supposed hero of free-market adherents, Adam Smith, said the foundation of free markets was the movement of labor.  We have witnessed the result of the so-called 'unseen hand of the market'---and it's not what they think---it has led us to extreme income inequality and failure of the economy to work for most people."

Equality and Growth Worked in 50s-60s

"In the 1950s and 1960s, equitable growth worked.  This was a system worked out by the economists John Maynard Keynes in England and Harry Dexter White of the U.S.  They figured it out.  That was called by some the 'golden age of capitalism.'

"But at that time we had the post-World War II Bretton Woods system, with control over capital and regulated currencies.  Capital was not mobile.  You could not speculate in currencies then.  In the 1950s and '60s the banks did what they are supposed to do.  They took your deposits and loaned it to people to start a business or buy a house."

Banks as Casinos

"Banks are now casinos, and the public bails them out," said Chomsky, who sometimes receives death threats for his views and who sometimes travels with undercover security.  The Unabomber once had Chomsky on his hit list.

"If the banks are too big to fail, that's an incentive to make risky investments and not care too much if it crashes the system, and the taxpayer bails them out.

"We are living with a nightmare that was understood by Adam Smith and the classical economists.  Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations posed the question, 'What if manufacturing moved?'  Then, he made a case why that would not actually happen. 

"There is a lot that the classical economists did not account for---such as growth of democracy and rights and civil rights.  These, too, have been under attack since the late 1970s.  It is a class war."

The Worst Congress Money Can Buy

"The high cost of elections is one attack," Chomsky said.  "Corporations buy the elections.  Uniquely among legislatures in the world, outside investors decide struggles, not giving us the best Congress that money can buy but the worst, one that undermines democracy.

"It is clear that a high concentration of wealth creates a virtual senate that controls the government mainly from the financial sector.  So, there is a dual constituency.  Guess who wins?"

The Republicans "have abandoned any pretense of being a political party.  They are like the old Communist Party---everybody marches in lockstep and repeats the same phrases, like catechisms. 

"This country is way off the spectrum of religious extremism.  About half the country is waiting for the second coming.  And half of those think it will occur in their lifetimes.  They also believe the world is only a few thousand years old.

"The Republicans have given up pretending to be a political party.  The Democrats have abandoned the white working class.  This is turning electoral politics into racial politics."

U.S. Is Alone in Denying Climate Reality

Much to the horror of other developed nations, the United States is also in an extremist mode when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis, Chomsky said.

"The costs of capitalism are being transferred---they are colossal and species-threatening.  We are destroying the possibility of future life.  There is much less concern in the U.S. than any other country about that.

"Here, the business world tries to run the society, including a major propaganda campaign that global warming is a liberal hoax.  That is another catechism they all have to repeat.  One said that it won't happen because God told Noah he would not destroy the world again.  It is almost surreal.

"The government initiated an inquiry to see if global warming affects the weather.  Congress blocked that. 

"The International Energy Agency, which is a conservative organization founded by Henry Kissinger, said that emissions are going way beyond what has been predicted.  They said we have a window of five years left to do something.  After that, we will have too far gone.

"The U.S. Department of Energy said 2010 saw the highest rise of emissions ever.  The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) projections are too conservative.  Many scientists believe this, but they are out of the conversation.  We are imposing serious problems on the future."

In every other part of the world, the need to maintain the planet is taken more seriously, Chomsky said.  "In Bolivia and Ecuador, in their constitution, it gives rights to nature."

U.S. Losing in Tech

The U.S. is also losing its tech edge, Chomsky said.  "China is the world's assembly line.   Foxconn (a Chinese corporation where about 150 workers recently threatened to jump off the roof in protest of working conditions) is making Apple computers and iPhones.  Manufacturing is your baseline for development of living standards.  China has about taken over the building of solar panels.  That is done in high-tech, automated factories---not with cheap labor."

One result of the way the U.S. is operating is "the decline of democracy.  It is obvious.  It is on the front pages.  Jobs, not deficits, are the problem to the public. 

"They (Republican extremists) want no taxes on the rich and to carve away at the benefit system.  The deficit is traceable to huge military spending and the dysfunctional health care system.  The U.S. pays two times the per capita cost of any other country for health care, and we have worse outcomes.  Infant mortality, for example, we are way down the list." 

Occupy the Dream

"These issues are more prominent and better understood because of the Occupy movement.  At some point the Occupy movement has to go to broader objectives and reach out and engage a broader community. 

"Ben Chavis (civil rights leader) is organizing Occupy the Dream for Martin Luther King day in Washington.  They are talking about a new coalition, calling it 'American Spring.'

"Occupy critics complain that they have no leaders.  Well, they have been letting 100 flowers bloom. 

"Critics say they have no demands.  But from the first day there have been demands.  One is the financial transaction tax---it has been successful in other countries.  Having health care as in foreign countries is another.

"They raise the possibility of a shift from management control to stake holder control of manufacturing and businesses.  The stake holders are people out in the community who buy the products and who are affected by things the companies do.

"It is not written in stone that share holders' rights are above stake holders impacted out in the community. 

"Obama nationalized the auto industry.  Then gave it back to the corporations.  They could have turned it over to the workers and stake holders in the community to build things we need.  We need high-speed rail." 

Occupy Communities Crack Alienation

"One achievement of the Occupy movement has been to create communities. That is important in a society like this that makes you think you are alone, and that what is happening to you is happening to no one else.  And that, 'I'm out for me' is the way to feel.

"The American Dialect Society votes every year for a 'word of the year.'  Guess what was 2011's word of the year?"

"Occupy!" many in the audience answered.

"Yes, Occupy," said Chomsky, whose talk was peppered with an impressive range of recent research, reports and articles.  The Society named occupy its word of the year as both a verb and a noun. 

Bread and Roses 

In early manufacturing in America, the prevailing view was that "those who work in the mills should own them. There was the view that wage workers in factories were the same as slaves.
"'Bread and roses' was the slogan of striking immigrant workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912.  They were saying, 'I want to control my own life. I need bread, but I want roses, too.' The roses symbolized that they wanted dignity. 

"Dr. King's promise that he made in his last speech, when he was in Memphis to support the garbage workers' strike, the night before he was killed, was that he had seen the mountain top---and 'I might not get there with you.'  That promise is going backwards now. 

"Until the labor movement is revitalized like it was in the 1930s, Occupy is a dead end and will not engage the population."

U.S. War Double Standard

An outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy, Chomsky noted that the U.S. is now gathering military forces to block Iran's imports and exports. 

"If you shut off someone's economy, what is that called?  That is an act of war. 

"Yet, we complain about Iran 'de-stabilizing' the countries around it.  We say that we stabilize by de-stabilizing.  We stabilize by invading and destroying their country.

"We said we had to de-stabilize Chile in order to stabilize Chile, in some Orwellian terminology."

Whose Democracy?

A question-and-answer session concluded the appearance of Chomsky, who was the first speaker in a new lecture series at Rhodes.  The last question came from a man who was handed a mic and who stood at the back of the standing crowd.  He asked, in a self-important tone, "What is the definition of democracy and capitalism, and describe the tensions between them."

Chomsky drew laughs by retorting:  "Those terms are almost meaningless."

He continued, "Most of the dynamic progress comes from the state and is turned over to corporations for profit."  (One example would be the Internet, which was developed by the U. S. government with taxpayers' funds.)  Every system in the world is some kind of state-capitalism. 

"Democracy has been debated for centuries.  The problem with democracy is that if everyone has an equal vote, the poor will find a way to take property away from the rich.  That would be called 'land reform.'

Aristotle wrote about democracy, and his solution was to eliminate inequality---to make everybody basically middle class, Chomsky said.

"James Madison's solution was to undermine democracy.  The power in the constitutional system is vested in the Senate, who came from the wealthy.  In Congress, the House is for the people.  But with the Senate, power was in the hands of the wealth of the country. 

"Madison's democracy was to protect the wealthy from the majority.  This has been debated more than 200 years.  Which kind of democracy is it?"

Who or What Is a Person?

"Right up to this moment, we are debating the concept of a person.  The Fifth Amendment says no person shall be detained without due process.  What do you mean by person?

"Who was a person then?  Not native Americans. Not blacks.  Not women.  Not non-property owners.  The definition of a person was narrow. 

"Slaves were eliminated when they went from three-fifths of a person to a whole person.

"Women gained the elements of personhood and got the right to vote in 1920.  But not until the civil rights movement could women serve on juries.  

"The 14th Amendment has been expanded and contracted by the courts, not Congress.

"According to NAFTA, General Motors has rights way beyond persons.  GM in Mexico has to be treated like a Mexican citizen. 

"The 14th Amendment says no person shall be deprived of rights.  What about illegal aliens?  Are they persons?  What does it mean to be a person?

"These concepts are not defined in the dictionary.  They get their meaning from struggles in society."

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