Saturday, January 18, 2020

Chomsky's Optimism: On Climate Change, Nuclear War, and Activism

Truthdig's Scheer Intelligence series, hosted by Robert Scheer, recently posted a 3 hour podcast in two parts. I've summarized the gist of what Chomsky says below, in about a 15 minute read, with a few of my own thoughts and links added to the mix. You can listen to the whole thing here: Part 1 - "American has built a global dystopia" and Part 2 - "Chomsky makes the case for the lesser of two evils."

This is largely quoted but without asides and repetition of words or ideas to make it more fluid, and with headings for easier scrolling through bite-sized chunks!


Scheer starts by asking Chomsky if we're in the middle of Huxley's Brave New World or Orwell's 1984. Chomsky offers a third option: We, by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin. It's an amalgamation of Huxley and Orwell. We have tight surveillance, but we're also controlled through punishment and shame. Cars with screens in them know your shopping habits and will let you know if there's a Chinese restaurant nearby to manipulate your choices. There's also a move to control people at work through a point system. [It's Black Mirror's "Nosedive" episode.] The internet of things isn't just a convenience for you, but for the government and multi-national surveillance of you. There's no wall between Google, Amazon, and the government.


There's a subtle structure to Chomsky's book, Hegemony or Survival. It begins with a discussion of theories from Ernst Mayr, a biologist. He says species typically last about 100,000 years. We're at 200,000 years. He also argues that intelligence is a lethal mutation. If we look at biological success, as you move up in intelligence, the capacity of life declines. The successful species are beetles, which have a niche that they stick to, and bacteria, which mutate constantly to adapt, while mammals decline. [Elizabeth Kolbert says the big difference is that big mammals reproduce very slowly compared to cockroaches and rats.] The book ends with Bertrand Russell's response to the question: When will there be peace? He says, After all higher organisms disappear. We're proving Mayr's thesis, racing to destroy the possibility of organized human life. The best and brightest, including the CEO of Exxon Mobil, know about climate change. They know that continuing with fossil fuels will destroy our species. Some of them think we shouldn't put more emission controls on cars because, if we're going over the cliff anyway, why not have fun. The spectrum of the intelligent is racing towards disaster.


The other danger that's barely discussed is the threat of nuclear war. We're dismantling arms control systems. It's a miracle we've survived this long. The INF treaty reduced the threat of nuclear war for twenty year, and now Trump has abandoned it. Right after, the Pentagon tested a missile that violated the treaty. We're just begging Russia to destroy us. Lockheed Martin is ecstatic to get contracts to destroy us all. Mayr's theory is right. We have species extinction at a rate we've never seen before.


The Washington Post revealed the Pentagon Papers about the war in Afghanistan being a lie. But the focus on that is almost entirely on the 1960s. There's lots of deceit, but it goes back to the 1940s. It's important to look at the earlier part. It paints a rational picture, and the idea that the U.S. failed at Vietnam becomes muddier. In the late 40s, the U.S. was ambivalent about dealing with imperial systems. We were allies with France and dedicated to open the world markets in which the U.S. multinationals were free to exploit and invest without barriers; we expected to dominate all open regions. That raises a quandary with Vietnam. It was right after the fall of China, which we called a loss of China. The assumption was that we owned it and then lost it. The policy towards Vietnam changed, so we supported France in its effort to re-conquer their former colony. The reason, even though this is ridiculed, the correct reason was explained by Kissinger in terms of a virus that spreads contagions. The virus is independent control that's independent of the U.S. If that spreads, then the U.S. can't rule. So we have to kill that virus and inoculate the victims. Vietnam was smashed, and the surrounding countries were inoculated with brutal dictatorships. And it worked. The myth is that we failed in Vietnam, but we succeeded in what we were truly trying to do. The telling point was Indonesia, which has lots of resources. We instated Suharto in 1965, killing hundreds of thousands of people. This was referred to in the U.S. as a "gleam of light" in Asia. It was described hopefully by the U.S. news. It ended the threat of contagion.

In 1950, we worried about Japan being a super domino. If countries moved towards their own independence, then Japan would be the commercial centre. This is what Japan tried to construct in World War 2. We were not ready to lose the Pacific war, and our efforts at containment worked. In Afghanistan, the focus is on our incompetence and stupid decisions. In Russia in the 1980s, if we had internal documents, we'd find that generals were incompetent in Afghanistan. The problem wasn't with Russia or Indochina. It's with a deep seated propaganda that's been internalized. We're looking at the wrong thing. We say we blundered because it makes the U.S. look innocent. It was their actual planning that's been duplicated over and over. You can see it in Chile. We had concerns with the virus, so we installed the Pinochet dictatorship. We duplicated this same reasoning over and over.

This happened long before with King George III during the American Revolution. It started with concern that the rise of republicanism in the colonies could lead to republicanism throughout the empire. It's standard imperial history. American didn't rebel against imperialist strategies; we conformed to them. And the best and brightest accept this propaganda. In the Pentagon Papers, we didn't lie about why we went in to Afghanistan. It's described accurately. In the 1960s we lied about it, and that idea stuck. More recently we tell the truth, but present it as a horrible blunder. That's the lie. If, in the 1950s, the U.S. allowed countries to go their own way and let Vietnam develop independently, and then others followed with Japan at the top, then U.S. multinationals couldn't dominate the world. Look at how we look at power. If you look at GDP, the U.S. share has declined from 40% in 1945 to about 17% today. But if you look at the dominance of the economy by U.S. based multinationals, then we're a spectacular success. We have control of 50% of the global economy.

This is the imperial model that prevented other country's development and led to a situation where the U.S. dominated the world. The U.S. is currently trying to prevent China from independent development. We talk about China stealing jobs, but they're not telling anyone to invest there. It's the U.S. multinationals that are moving all our jobs there. [Canadian Gordon Laird talks about that too.] It's a bipartisan policy to stop China. The mantra is that China is stealing jobs, and free market economists insist that if the state intervenes in the economy it will harm the economy. But everyone knows the opposite is true. We have massive state policy. We have computers through public funding. But we don't want China to have that. The imperial model was a success for the benefit of a few. As soon as China gets out of our control, there's a bipartisan agreement to stop them. We've done it before on a smaller scale in Vietnam and Chile, over and over. This is the standard model for the main drivers of American policy to concentrate capital.


People who criticize the actions of the Israeli government are all smeared dramatically. This is a crucial issue: you've got to love Israel. You can find the model for Trump in the story of King Ahab. He was an evil king, and he called out Elijah for hating Israel. His proof was that Elijah condemned the acts of the evil king. The idea is that loving your country means following whatever the king says, even if it's corrupt. But caring about your country is like caring about a friend. If your friend is a harm to themselves or to others, you don't support it. You try to change what your friend is doing. With a state, you must dismantle the myth that every state is justified in whatever it's doing. In the early 70s, Israel had a fateful decision: expansion or security. There were clear options for settling. In 1971 a mediator presented proposals to settle with Egypt and Israel, but Israel rejected it. Then in 1976 the Security Council called for a 2-state solution with guarantees of state rights for Palestine and Israel, but it was vetoed by the U.S, and Israel claimed the PLO wrote the agreement to destroy Israel. The agreement had been supported by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. There were always other options. If you care about Israel, tell them they're sacrificing security for expansion, causing their own moral deterioration and a decline in international status, which has happened. People who used to be Zionist now are critical of Israel. In the 1970s, it was an admired social democracy, and now it's a pariah state. In the U.S., support of Israel used to be  from Democrats, but now it's all from the Christian evangelical community. It's not good for Israel, and it's horrific for Palestine. Follow the path of Elijah: expose the injustice, criticize what's wrong, and work for change.


With Trump's policies, like Vietnam and other cases, it's not that there's no rational policy. Often there is a way to establish peace. It's hard to find around the chaos surrounding Trump, but it's there. His plan is intentional and has been better articulated by Steve Bannon: Form an alliance of the most reactionary states in the Middle East, e.g. Saudi Arabia, Egypt under Sisi, Israel, Modi's India, Orban in Hungary, and Macron's France to create an international alliance of reactionary states run by the White House. It's a clear policy, and it's disgraceful. Trump's giving everything to Israel, like sending troops to defend Saudis from Iran and destroying the Iran treaty. In the background, there's a very straightforward way to end any threat of Iran nuclear weapons--assuming there ever was a threat, which is dubious--by establishing a nuclear free zone in the Middle East. The Arab states are in favour of it. Iran is in favour. Other countries support it. Along with an inspection system, it would end any threat. What blocks it is bipartisan objection. Israel will refuse, but they'll do what the U.S. tells them to do. It comes up every five years: 2015 was the last time, and Obama blocked it. We all know why: If it were accepted, then the U.S. would have to be inspected too, and military aid from the U.S. would have to stop. So the U.S. pretends it doesn't know about nukes in Israel, and they block the one way to end any threat in the Middle East. It's a rational policy on their part, it's just that it doesn't benefit humanity. Same with the race towards climate destruction. The myth is that the government represents the people. The truth is that they represent centres of power. It can change, but we have to begin by at least recognizing it.


Scheer used this colourful analogy to describe Trump: He's the pus in the wound, but he didn't create the wound. He's just continuing on policies that we've ignored: immigration, class system, income redistribution since Reagan, climate change. 'Trumpwashing' gets everyone off the hook. Only Sanders will talk honestly about foreign policy and about Palestinians being people. We've lost a progressive base.

Chomsky responds: Another four years of Trump will be terminal for our species. Trump is a symptom of something deeper. Republicans are the most dangerous organization in human history. Look at what's happening all over the world: anger, resentment, bitterness, contempt for social institutions. This is deeper. We've been through 40 years of a neo-liberal assault on the population. It's harmful everywhere. The U.S. wages are the same as in the 60s. Growth is in very few pockets: the 0.1% of the population who own over 20% of the wealth. Half of the U.S. have negative assets and precarious jobs. This is fertile terrain for a demagogue to say "I'm your saviour." It's working for Italy, Orban, Modi. It's happening all over. Trump is a particularly dangerous case because of the power of the U.S. If the U.S. doesn't act on global warming, it's more serious than if other countries don't. Focusing on Trump isn't the point; it's about what he represents and the enormous danger he poses. He's happy to see human society destroyed, as long as they can be rich and powerful for the duration.


Scheer suggests that this cast of characters is like children in charge of a candy store. They need to act like adults. Exxon and JP Morgan Chase were close to Obama. Does 'lesser-evil-ism' keep us within a frightening neo-liberalism?

Chomsky responds that they are acting like adults, but within the institutional structure. The CEO of JP Morgan Chase, when he decides to devote resources to extracting more fossil fuels in the most dangerous areas, like the Canadian tar sands, he knows the consequences. But if he says he's not going to do this, he'll be tossed out and someone else put in. It's an institutional problem. At the same time, for the next election, almost anyone on the street is less dangerous than Trump, who is maximizing the use of fossil fuels and racing to develop more devastating weapons and encouraging others to do the same. The democrats and republicans have a fateful distinction, and the fate of human society depends on this. Each choice isn't great, but there are differences that matter. Lesser-evil-ism is a rational position, but don't stop there. Begin there to prevent the worst. Then go on to deal with fundamental roots.


Take Nixon for example. Why did he change? Because of massive popular movements which prevented him from doing what he might have done. He would have used nukes in Vietnam, but instead he brought the troops home. Again there was a huge anti-nuclear movement in the 80s that was a large part of the background that's the reason the worst didn't happen. The 30s could have been much worse but labour movements and activism developed to greatly improve our lives. Don't stop with the democrats, though. Continue to try to organize and develop mass popular movement to change institutions. The simple question of who to vote for is a decision that matters, but it's only a small part of the story.

Things have changed for the better because of people getting together. In the 1960s, the U.S. had federal laws mandating segregation and anti-miscegenation laws. They had anti-sodomy laws until just 20 years ago. Women weren't regarded as legal peers for a long time. We've gone through enormous change, not from gifts from above, but from popular activism. Bertrand Russell and Martin Luther King were vilified, but they made crucial changes. People working on the ground helped to develop a groundswell. In the case of civil rights, students in Greensboro sat at a lunch counter. All these actions develop and interact and lead slowly to progress. There are regressions and bad choices, of course, but there can be progress. Look at the Green New Deal, which is essential for survival [or the Canadian Leap Manifesto]. Now it's on the legislative agenda because of kids in the Sunrise Movement from AOC and Sanders's campaigns. Sanders has been a miracle in politics. University students are walking around with his stickers on their laptops. This work is about co-option and the manipulation of corruption.

Scheer's concern: In our youth, unions were a great hope, and, for some, the churches helped form counter revolutions. Are we too fragmented now?

Chomsky's final bit of optimism: In the 1920s, the labour movements were destroyed, but in the 1930s, they were revived, and they spearheaded the social democratic movement. This can happen again, and Sanders has set a sterling example of what could be.


The Disaffected Lib said...

It's said the reason we don't share our sidewalks with little green people from distant galaxies is that intelligent life is self-extinguishing. Jared Diamond, in his book "Collapse," notes that, when human societies collapse they're invariably at their zenith and that collapse comes on, not gradually, but very rapidly. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Look at where we are. Nearly eight billion of us sharing a planet that, at our current rates of consumption and longevity, is estimated to be capable of sustainably supporting a population of around two billion. Even if we could find solutions we don't have the will to make the changes necessary for our own survival.

I expect we will witness seismic change over the course of the 20s. When it arrives we will be, of choice, entirely unprepared to absorb the impacts.

Democracy? Yuval Harari contends democracy is already on borrowed time. The circumstances that elevated the individual from serfdom to citizen are waning. He argues that automation (robotics) and AI will render most of humanity unnecessary within a few generations. Democracy was only necessary so long as the masses were. Once we lose much of our utility democracy will become an impediment to more resilient power structures.

Marie Snyder said...

I'm in the middle of Harari's recent book. it'll be interesting to see how it all pans out, if there are still people around to see it!