Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Future of the Left with Natalie and Noam

I stumbled across a video of Natalie Wynn in conversation with flippin' Noam Chomsky. They are two of my favourite thinkers, but I never, in my wildest imagination, would have expected to find them chatting together. 

Noam seems to be everywhere these days, doing one talk after another, and Natalie is an excellent guide through his version of optimism. It's a video that actually left me feeling hopeful about the world and energized to keep working for change. But the question I wanted asked throughout is, What does this type of necessary work look like, and how do we begin?? 

Here's the video and a slightly paraphrased and abridged summary below for easy skimming. 

NATALIE: How do we influence Democrats to be more left-leaning? How do we get Biden to be more like Bernie?

NOAM: Biden is the best we've seen in a long time. His climate program is the most important thing. It's not ideal, but it's the best we've seen. The change is due to the Sunrise Movement and AOC and Edward Markey's congressional resolution. It's feasible for what must be done to divert disaster. It's the same as the International Energy Agency.  It's a good resolution. Can it become legislation? That depends on people. Activist pressure is needed for it to move on. It's the same as on every other issue. Paul Krugman, a liberal, says it's a good policy but too radical for most. [Michael Mann has the same criticism.]

The left, by US standards, is Bernie Sanders. But over in Europe, if Bernie was run as Conservative in Germany, he could be a candidate. His policies are already accepted by the right in Germany: universal medical care, free college tuition; they have that everywhere in Germany, France, Brazil, Finland. It's a conservative position, but it's left only in the U.S. It wasn't always like that. 

The 1930s had a lot of similarities to today: vast inequality, labour was crushed, lots of resentment. There were two ways out: fascism or social democracy. The U.S. brought in the New Deal. The U.S. was in the lead in developing social democratic programs. Now we don't have fascism in the 1930s sense, but something like it. We have the option of social democracy with Biden. He has New Deal flavour with his  jobs program and environment. They're the kind of programs that could have been in the New Deal. He's running into an iron wall of opposition. The republican party won't permit any of it. The supreme court is reactionary and struck down initiatives until the labour movement was revived. It had been destroyed by violence, worst than today. It got to point where labour was getting as far as sit down strikes in the mid-30s. That puts real fear in mainstream establishment because it's one step before saying, "We don't need you - get lost." At that point, the reactionary court shifted to accommodate the Wagner Act. They started organizing New Deal measures which were the rudiments of a social democracy framework. It lasted until the reversal in the late 70s and early 80s. Business offensives have been working hard to roll back the progress. The future of left depends on what people like you will do. People became engaged, committed, worked on it, and it changed.

NATALIE: We have a self defeating pessimism as if it's never been this bad.

NOAM: The 30s was far worse, and the country made lots of progress since. The activism of the 1960s really civilized the country in many ways. Things we considered normal at that time are unspeakable today. Right now we have a housing crisis. What should happen is what happened in the 1930s. The federal government got involved in affordable housing. What went on through 1960s would be intolerable today because it had to be segregated. They had to block African Americans through the 60s. We've come forward in that respect, not by magic, but by plenty of hard work that pushed us beyond that. Women's rights' barely existed in the 1960s. We're in a much better situation now and the conditions were nowhere near as awful. Fascism mean real fascism: brown shirts marching in the streets and concentration camps with a powerful state run by totalitarian party running businesses as well. Popular activism and engagement can make a difference between a move to proto-fascism and a move to social democracy and beyond.

NATALIE: It seems easier to make progress in identity politics areas (feminism, gay right, trans issues) because so much work can be done through conscious-raising. I'm not an activist, but an entertainer with a conscience. I can shift things by talking. It seems more difficult to move to social democracy. It seems harder to break through the power of corporate money and politics. To a lot of people, it seems like an unbreakable wall of money and politics. 

NOAM: It was the same in 1930s: the unbreakable wall of money, power. Talking is not just consciousness raising, but it leads to action. There are changes that happened: the expansion of civil rights is real for women and LGBTQ.  The control of the corporate sector is dramatically different. There are the beginnings of worker-owned enterprising and flourishing collectives. It begins with changing people's beliefs and understanding, then that turns into action. Critical issues and AOC and Markey's resolution can be pushed to legislation like the New Deal measures were. Right now the supreme court might block it like they did in early 30s, but something changed. Popular power changed, and the court reluctantly went along. That alone changed the decisions of the court markedly. They could see the writing on the wall; they can't get away with it anymore. There's always the "vulgar Marxists" committed to unremitting class war, but there's a limit to what they can get away with. Power is in the hands of the population if they exercise it, but have to exercise it: persuasion, education, organization, action, and persistent activism.

NATALIE: It's difficult to see the long term power of incremental changes. If we start with a philosophical approach to politics - "What should society look like?" - then anything that's not producing that is seen as a morally corrupting compromise. Some people are cynical that this isn't real socialism so it's not worth doing. They're holding out for a revolutionary moment where suddenly everything will change.

NOAM: The difference between now and the 1930s is they had a left political party with long tradition of activist working in them. There was no illusions of instant gratification. They knew they'd have hard, longterm work, which will suffer regression. When things go bad, work harder. Take a lot of young people's attitude towards Sander's campaign. They described as failure, but it was a smashing success! It broke with over a century of American political history where electability was determined by funding. Look back to Mark Hanna, the campaign organizer [in 1896] who said, "What do you need to have successful campaign? Two things: money, and I forget the second one." Sanders broke with that. He had no corporate funding, the media was against him. He would have won without the democratic political mechanism, and he still has an influential position, and others came in on Sander's wave having big effect, like AOC. That's not failure.

NATALIE: Sanders transformed my idea of what's possible. The visibility of this changes people's capacity to imagine what's possible in the future.

NOAM: Go back 50 years to the 1960s. One of the great moments of the left was with the SDS. In 1968-69, the president of SDS, Paul Potter said, "It's come time to name the system, Capitalism." That's what it was like. You couldn't say the word 'capitalism'! An interesting fact about the US is that it's the only country outside of a dictatorship where socialism is considered a four-letter word. That's a breakthrough that now you can say socialism, social democracy - not just say it but implement some of the policies - not just the words, but the actions right on the table. Take the climate issue, which is most important, but 10s of millions don't have food; they're being thrown out on the streets. There are programs that could deal with these things. Biden's programs have a new deal flavour. If they could get through, it will make a dent in these. It's not a revolution, but we won't have revolution tomorrow. It will help these people, but there's 100% republican opposition. Biden was criticized sharply for making a terrible mistake to say, "I'll accept limited terms that Republicans permitted but will continue to press for broader conditions." McConnell denounced him, but even liberal press condemned it. We have to create an environment where he's not blamed for that but supported. He should try to press to get broader action through. There's a Republican red line that ways we can't do anything that harms ultra wealth and corporate power. We can't touch Trump's tax scam, which was a huge giveaway to the very rich and corporate. The tax bill of 2017, we can't touch that. Should we accept that? Of course not.

NATALIE: What do we do about the Republican party? It seems like future of right is Trumpism. 40% of the country has checked out of public rationalist itself. They're not doing reasoning in any sense: Q-Anon,  pedophile cabals... It undercuts the ability to communicate with people. There's an attack on normal concepts of reality. Some have to be ignored; we're never going to have everyone agree, but it's an obstructionist Republican party. It's alarming how many are still supporting this.

NOAM: True, it's about 40%, but look more closely. It's age-related, and younger republicans are more open to discussion and thinking about these issues. That's where you work. It's not fixed. Many who voted for Trump, voted for Obama. One of the many reasons why Republicans are dead set against allowing progressive legislation is that if it does it will peel off large part of their voting base if Democrats succeed in alleviating harsh conditions. Republicans have a strong reason to make the country ungovernable; they ensure their own power by ensuring no legislation will improve people's lives. We need to work to make people understand that. Think of the 1930s with the same kind of ultra-right groups. In 1932-33, there was close to a coup to overthrow the government. It was broken up by Smedley Butler who blocked the coup. There were fascists all over England and Germany. Germany in the 1920s was the peak of western civilization in the sciences, arts, literature. It was a model of democracy. It had a huge labour movement. One reason Nazi got in is because the left was split. Stalin was followed religiously by the Communist Party. The social democracy counterpart was seen as social fascism. Trotsky tried to urge the two parts of the left to unite and was condemned by communists as the worst in history for being willing to cooperate with social fascists who are worse than Nazis. We can find counterparts today.

NATALIE: So don't let the left be split! Like in 2016 when Trump was running and attracting emerging anti-semitism and race science. He was able to recruit by targeting dissatisfaction with extreme leftist activism, like male resentment of feminism or white people not understanding BLM. That's where he can bring people over. How do we stop young people who tend to be more pliable. They're starting to flirt with right-wing ideology, and we can intervene. Far right rhetoric is targeting conflict between left and centrist groups.

NOAM: Their job is to cause conflict and antagonisms inside the left. The job of the left is to do the same to them, to strip off parts of the far right. We need to bring them around to understand that obstruction of the environment is no joke. It will destroy their lives and children's lives. They can come to understand that, among younger republicans there's more appreciation of facts like that. Look at Vietnam. The anti-war movement didn't come out of nothing. In the early 60s, it was impossible to talk about it. In Boston, a liberal city, we couldn't meet against the war until 1966 or it would have been broken up by pro-war students. It takes work and doesn't just happen by itself. It's the same with civil rights. People faced extreme hostility all over. When MLK moved activity to the north and started working for poor people's movement, he was bitterly attacked by the liberal community. He was practically destroyed before being assassinated. There are things he talked about then that you can talk about now. BLM has way more support.

NATALIE: One advantage from the internet is genuine freedom of information, which can be misused too, but free speech is not negligible. We have the opportunity to say all this.

NOAM: We have lots of opportunity and problems. Nothing's going to be easy. It was harder before and people didn't give up. They went ahead to work courageously and effectively. There are still plenty of rotten things, but compared to decades ago, it's a big improvement.

The Republican party is no longer a normal political party. Go back 20-30s year, and it was a political party. In the 1960s, if I was trying to prevent state troopers from beating people, I called a Republican because they're most likely to give help. Eisenhower is similar to Sanders. They both have pro-union statements. They were a legitimate party. It all changed in the last 20 years. Even mainstream commentaries are a radical insurgency that's abandoned politics. It started under Gingrich. Under Obama,  McConnell said, "Our goal is to make sure he cannot accomplish anything." They represent the super rich and corporate system. McConnell and Trump put the finishing touches on what's being going on for a while. It doesn't mean it's permanent. Some Republican legislators are amenable to discussion: Collins, McCuskey. We need to change the party, and younger people can do that. I won't like their policies, but at least they'll be within the framework of political politics.

How do you convince them to get rid of the filibuster? It's not simple. McConnell has ways of reacting. He can use maneuvers to close down the Senate, if you want to destroy the country, which he will do to keep power. It's a difficult job when left commentators are condemning Biden because he didn't get medicare for all and minimum wage. How do you do it?? Not by sitting at your desk on Twitter. That doesn't work. So get to work and start creating the conditions in which it can be done. That's always the answer.

The right-wing has always argued that media is weighted to the left. Even at the end of the Vietnam War, the liberal Freedom House launched an attack on media for being so patriotic that they lost the war. The last quarter of Manufacturing Consent is a defense of media against this attack. They're just lying through their teeth. All the evidence is the opposite. It's an amazing example of fanatic lying by liberals, attacking media of being too left. If you go to Right, in the 1950s McCarthy era, the right will always claim that media was destroying the country. It's part of their schtick. The response is to tell the truth about it. A defense of media pointed out reporters were honourable, courageous, telling truth, but within a framework of support for US doctrines. They're undermining a longterm commitment to democracy and freedom; it's honest work within a framework of conformity to a propagandist line. Look at the right-wing hysteria about CRT. They haven't a clue what it is and don't care; it's a demonic thing run by the radical left to make white kids feel guilty for anything happen. We need to respond by exposing the truth. 

NATALIE: And that can backfire for them. Previously a lot of people had no idea about CRT. Now we have an opportunity to step in to teach about CRT.

NOAM: We're presented with an opportunity to point out what CRT really is and why we should take it seriously. It's not an attack on children or school, but an effort to bring about an understanding of our history and the legacy it has left. It's not just history, but it has a legacy: racist housing programs have a legacy. It's a large part of the reason for large wealth disparity. White workers could buy a house in the 1950s and 60s, and black workers couldn't. It's had a major impact on today. The same is true of extermination of indigenous populations. Go back to the 60s and see how far we've come. In the 1960s leading left liberals were writing that when English colonists came, there was nobody here - just a million people. They were off by 80 million which made possible an attack that led to extermination and expulsion of an incomparable scale. This was unknown in the 60s, but that's broken through and we know about it and can do something about it. Those are major changes that came about in the same way - by hard unremitting work. Nothing happens easily against extreme antagonism. When the New York Times ran the 1619 series, it was a real breakthrough. It would have been impossible a couple years earlier. But there was an extreme backlash to ban it - liberal scholars started carping about footnotes - and a backlash across the board that don't want to be exposed to that stuff. But it's part of the change that led to the extraordinary uprising after the George Floyd assassination. Things change, but it takes work.

NATALIE: Obviously all media has a bias, but the fight is about what the media says: pro-democracy is a bias, but we argue that's the bias they should have against fascism. There's no totally neutral feed of info that can be curated. It can't exist. Of course the right-wing notion of the far left agenda is not true, but there's always some kind of an agenda that isn't in itself a problem. Is consent always manufactured by media that sets the terms of a conversation?

NOAM: It's true that media are institutions bound by institutional structure. They are major corporations selling a product (readers) to other corporations (advertisers). We've got major corporations selling people like you to other corporations. They going to closely link to government. That's embedded in the general hegemonic culture which is in the universities about American innocence. That's the framework but doesn't mean there's no good reporting. The first thing I do is every morning is read the NYT and the Washington Post. We have to compensate for inherent distortions that are part of institution, but there are things said today inconceivable just a few years ago in the NYT, things columnists never admitted years ago. That's part of a change that's taken place in our general culture. It affects institutions as well. That's the way you make progress. 

NATALIE: It's been helpful to have a conversation about optimism. It's a relief to hear these things. It can feel crazy to think it's good when Democrats are able to pass some reforms rather than nothing's ever good enough. That's the height of self-sabotage. 


Anonymous said...

"What does this type of necessary work look like, and how do we begin?" that is the question and Noam isn't any help about practical matters like this, Republican legislators and judges can continue to cripple any serious attempts for systemic changes long enough for the damages (mostly but not entirely climate related) to be enduring and tragic, is anyone working on Plan B for coping in the ruins?

Marie Snyder said...

Hedges is exactly the same. A look back to the 30s, as Chomsky advises, gives us the most meagre blueprint of forming collective action through conversations in taverns and marketplaces, but our times are no longer providing as many face-to-face encounters. Online groups don't have the benefit of proximity to develop marches that can work. And I wonder if we've lost the skill of holding effective meetings. I know that I have no idea how to convince people to gather together and reach a goal. I'm just passively waiting for a leader to follow.