Too late to be lucky

Pessimism over the future of America

December 7 was the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and of the birth thirteen years earlier of Noam Chomsky. Pearl Harbor led to American global dominance at the same time as Chomsky’s insights into the nature of language were beginning to have an impact on linguistic theory, philosophy and psychology. Chomsky is also an outspoken critic of his country’s foreign policy. Expanding his critique of B. F. Skinner’s and W. V. O. Quine’s behaviourist determinism to the political realm, he has developed a libertarian and socialist vision of free will, opposition to concentrations of private and state power, and resistance to the abuse of power at home and abroad.

Throughout his adult life, from his moral opposition to America’s invasion of Vietnam to his country’s more recent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, Chomsky has argued that the US behaves much as its Spanish, British and French imperial predecessors once did. Moreover, he notes, the US has employed the same moral language to cover what appear to be global atrocities. Like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, he believes, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”. Those Chomsky has consistently condemned must feel that he has looked into it too damned much.

At the age of ninety, Chomsky has lived long enough to observe the rise and recent decline of American power. His country’s loss of international supremacy parallels a concomitant collapse in American society. While lamenting the American devastation of Indochina, Central America and other lands, he notes the degradation of its public schools, social equality, physical environment and other vital elements of the American Dream. His Requiem for the American Dream, based on a documentary film in which he features, recalls the time, not long ago, when it was “possible for everyone to get a decent job, buy a home, get a car, have their children go to school . . .”. That dream was a reality for millions of Americans and for immigrants who aspired to live under the Statue of Liberty’s “lamp beside the golden door”. Faith in the dream drew Chomsky’s working-class parents from Eastern Europe to a land where they and others made good. Since the late 1970s, however, neo-liberal economic policies have shattered the dream. Chomsky writes, “It’s all collapsed”.

Chomsky does not share Donald Trump’s nostalgia for the “good old days”, when policemen were freer to beat up those – including black and Latino people – denied the privileges of rich, mostly white, men. Yet he concedes some good in the recent past: “From the 19th century, the US was ahead of the world in mass public education”. No longer. “Now half of state colleges are funded by tuition and student debt.” What remains is the exalted status of banks and other financial behemoths that are too big, or too politically adroit, to fail, alongside the indebtedness of students, and most of the rest of us, to those institutions.

America is left with what Chomsky calls “socialism for the rich”, whom the state bails out when they are in trouble, and “capitalism for the poor”, who must take their chances in something mislabelled the “free market”. This is no longer a model in which disaffected Americans believe, as many demonstrated by turning to the con-man antics of Donald Trump. In Optimism Over Despair, Chomsky tells his interviewer that Trump voters reacted “to the perception, largely accurate, that they have been simply left by the wayside”. How did this happen? Requiem answers the question in its ten chapter headings: “Reduce Democracy”, “Shape Ideology”, “Redesign the Economy”, “Shift the Burden”, “Attack Solidarity”, “Run the Regulators”, “Engineer Elections”, “Keep the Rabble in Line”, “Manufacture Consent” and “Marginalize the Population”.

While the strategy Chomsky outlines has concentrated wealth and power in a few hands he does not believe its effects are irreversible.He retains a surprising optimism, partly based  on the success of the mass movements that abolished racial segregation, achieved the forty-hour working week and universal suffrage, and made it possible for men and women of any sexual orientation to enjoy the benefits of full citizenship.

The playwright Wallace Shawn’s Woody Allen-like introspection and gloom paint a darker portrait of our civilization. The first chapter of his Night Thoughts begins: “Night. A hotel. A dark room on a high floor. Outside the hotel, miles of empty streets, silent, gray, like gray fields in winter. Inside, I’m alone in a very cold room with a buzzing minibar”. The world he sees outside is anything but hopeful. People are reaching the edge of tolerance: “The truth is that once unlucky people come to understand how unlucky they are, it’s too late for the lucky”. This thought brings to mind Charles Bukowski, another denizen of forlorn hotel rooms, thirty years earlier: “The rest of us would be all right until the poor learned how to make atom bombs in their basements”. Anyone who has seen Shawn’s classic film My Dinner with André (1981) will recognize his self-presentation as simpleton, a New York Everyman, who innocently explores mysterious domains only to emerge on Chomskyan turf.

“Obviously”, Shawn writes, “I’m upset about what my species has turned out to be – the species that went mad and destroyed the planet.” Shawn and Chomsky see humanity destroying itself, though neither knows whether nuclear armageddon or climate holocaust will usher in the Rapture so dear to some fundamentalist hearts. When the two writers met for a fascinating one-and-a-half-hour conversation at the New York Public Library last spring (available to view free on the NYPL website), Shawn the comic became Chomsky’s straight man, asking whether climate change deniers “simply want oil drilling and profits that come from it to continue?” Chomsky scolded him, “You said an obscene word, and you should apologise. The word – I can’t say it, there may be children in the audience. It’s spelled P-R-O-F-I-T-S. The way you’re supposed to pronounce that word is jobs”. As Chomsky argued, the employers who plead for government handouts to save their employees’ jobs do not desist from outsourcing those jobs to the developing world as soon as the money is in the bank.

Shawn then confronted Chomsky with popular indifference to political action: “What we really would like to do is sit on a big comfortable sofa and watch an entertaining programme on a big beautiful television set and maybe have somebody bring us hot fudge Sundaes while we’re watching. This is what I’m really like, what everyone is really like, selfish and really seeking material comfort”. Chomsky wouldn’t have it:

Not in the least. And there is plenty of evidence against it. There has been a massive effort for over a hundred years to try to convince people that that’s what we are. It’s called advertising. It’s a huge industry. It’s dedicated, explicitly, openly, to try to direct people to the superficial things of life, like fashionable consumption. Get them out of our hair by getting them involved in consumption . . . . Is that human nature? I don’t think so . . . . Listen to what [Trump voters] are saying. These are people who want to work in coalmines, which is not fun, rather than to take a government handout. They don’t want to sit on the couch and be given a government handout. That undermines their sense of dignity, of selfworth, of doing something significant.

Noam Chomsky
On capitalism, empire, and social change Interviews by C. J. Polychroniou 210pp. Haymarket Books.

Noam Chomsky
The 10 principles of wealth and power Created and edited by Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott 192pp. Seven Stories Press.

Wallace Shawn
92pp. Haymarket Books.

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