Friday, December 24, 2021

Chomsky's Lessons from 2021

Yanis Varoufakis spoke to Noam Chomsky, at DiEM25, about what 2021 has taught us. In a nutshell: the wealthy puts profits over people to their own detriment (e.g. patent rights over vaccines, which provoked mutations) and will only help with climate change if they can profit without taking risks. We have climate policies that could help, but we need more protesting to force this change. The U.S. citizens have been convinced of lies around climate change and world politics. Europe needs to stand up to lead instead of following the US, and we need to negotiate better with China or we'll end up in a terminal war. We must focus on what we might actually influence - i.e. our own country's acts of atrocity. Don't seek protection from ideas you don't like, but meet them head on with intellectual rigour (abridged quotations below).

Chomsky said, we learned more forcefully things we already knew. 

Rich countries have monopolized vaccines for themselves and have insisted on preserving the outlandish property rights agreements, patent rights assigned to pharmaceutical corporations and mislabeled free trade agreements. For example, Moderna was able to use extensive government funding to develop an effective vaccine, but they will not permit South Africa to produce their vaccines. It means South Africa could not vaccinate the population sufficiently to withhold ongoing mutations. 

The wealthy and the powerful, who recognize all this, place profits of major pharmaceutical corporations and prerogatives given in trade agreements over the lives of many millions of people including the lives of their own populations. It generalizes to something more important: global warming. We just saw the outcome of the COP 26 fiasco. There were two events taking place inside the halls of the great buildings. John Kerry was euphoric that market are now onside with climate change, so how can we lose now that investors are working on the cause? He's referring to comments by Larry Fink that the investment community is ready to commit $130 trillion to solving the climate crises but there are conditions attached. The investment must be guaranteed to be risk-free by the IMF. They'll help only if they make money with no risk involved. That's the way the market works, the market structured by the rich and powerful. While these meetings were going on, there was another event outside. Tens of thousands of demonstrators were outside asking for a decent world for themselves and their children, asking them to lead the way to open the door to a much better world. Which of these forces is going to prevail?

The same is happening with covid. It's a serious problems, but not on the same scale as global warming. Covid is deadly and destructive, but it's not total destruction the way climate change is. 

Varoufakis: "Concentrated corporate power knows how to take advantage of a humanitarian crisis and how to make use of the state. There's no conflict between the state and the market. They're both undermining humanity's collective interest. Are the protests winning at all? 


It's not a perpetual defeat. We're making slow steps forwards. Protests have had an effect. They've compelled the rich and powerful to recognize they have to do something to indicate they're on the side of the public. They do it rhetorically or by greenwashing or by saying 'yes, net zero emissions,' but that means "no elimination only innovation" -- that's the phrase out of the Exxon mobile playbook repeated by Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator working with fossil fuel companies to ensure nothing happens. They want net zero while making profits, which means it's finished. That's class war: find ways to achieve aims by whatever method you can. But you don't always win. There are steps forward, but they're not enough.

The Biden administration put forth a climate program, which is inadequate but well beyond anything that preceded it. Right now in Congress it's being cut back to virtually nothing by 100% Republican opposition and right-wing Democrats, like Joe Manchin, who's a coal baron and leading recipient in congress of fossil fuel funding. But at least something is there: a resolution in congress from AOC, which does spell out in some detail the well known feasible means to overcome the crisis. It's reached the level of resolution. We need to increase the pressure until it becomes a legislative option. It's a step, but not enough of a step. Without demonstrations, we'd still be in the Trump era. Neither is good, but one is worse than the other. The activism has fended off the worse, but left plenty of room for class war to continue.

What is happening to the most powerful, wealthy state in world history? It's going off the precipice. The attitude of republican voters, comparing with European parties, ranks with right-wing fascist parties. It's the party likely to take power in 2024, because of various manipulations. If the FD party won in Germany, we'd be concerned, but it's much more dangerous when it's taking power in the most powerful state. Look at attitude changes: global warming declined by 20% after four years of propaganda. There are ominous signs of worship of a semi-deity. It will be tricky to overcome them. Massive protests are necessary.

Another lesson: Europe is unwilling or incapable of taking the role in the world it could play. Look at Germany: it was in the lead of protecting the rights of Big Pharma to keep patents for itself. It's the most civilized country; it shouldn't be happening. Iran negotiations are collapsing because Europe refuses to play an independent role in world affairs. When the US pulled out from the agreement, in violation of international laws if anyone cares, Europe strongly protested and opposed extra sanctions, but will obey the US. As long as they legitimize that external power, it looks quite grim. 

There's the China threat, but what is it? The former PM of Australia, Bob Hawke, had a good definition in an article in the Australian Press about claims on China: The threat is real, but it's China's existence, a power that will not be intimidated by the United States the way Europe is. The reason for the threat is that it's there and refusing to be intimidated, and continuing to expand soft power politics with the intention of reaching central Europe, Africa, Afghanistan, and establish schools around the world to teach Chinese technology, which the US is trying hard to refuse from accepting. They'll bring in large parts of the world. For the US, that's intolerable. That's a threat to survival, leading to provocative action that could lead to a terminal war. 

It's similar in the Ukraine. There are ways to deal with these things; diplomatic options are open. Negotiations won't go the way the US want, but they can lead to a viable world. It's like in 1991: there  were two options on the table, Gorbachev's vision of a unified Eurasia with no military organization, and the US vision of expansion of hostile military alliance as far East as possible with moves to invite even Ukraine into NATO. It's one of the factors leading to what could be a highly dangerous crisis. These things can be overcome. And independent forces, like Progressive International, can play a major role in mobilizing public opinion. There have been some successes, but it's been a long haul. 

Varoufakis: "I'm struggling to maintain a balance between warning progressives against falling prey to US warriors and looking forward to incite longterm simmering conflicts with Russia and Eastern Europe. How to not demonize China - understanding Paul Keating - while at the same time maintaining vigilance and critical stance on China's treatment of Uighurs and the brutal authoritarianism of Putin. It's a difficult balance as provocative acts against China only increase the authoritarianism. We can cooperate with elements within China that do exist to the extent we can. We can do everything within our reach. Other things we can do which we're not doing is focus on Gaza. In China, one million people have been sent to concentration camps; in Gaza one million children are living in unsurvivable situations: water's poisoned, constant attacks, sewage and power systems destroyed with US weapons. We can do a lot about that. We can end it. So that should be our priority. We understand that well with enemies. Weiwei criticizes US policies; his roles it to be concerned with China."

Chomsky: "Our priority always is one should do what you can hope to change and influence. I can't change the crimes of Genghis Khan; I can protest them, but not change them. I can protest the authoritarianism and cruelty of the Chinese government, but I can't do much about the persecution of Uighurs in concentration camps. When we can do things to help others under stress and oppression, we should certainly do it. The decision of any moral person is "What can I influence?" That's elemental morality. The moral position is the one you can effect somehow, even if it's worse elsewhere." 

Varousfakis: "Like in Kashmir. What Modi's government is doing today is conspicuous by its absence. The category of fashionable victims depends on our leaders. To look to another setting: remember back in the 1970s and 80s in Britain, encountering the term "safe space." It meant a place where you bring supporters of the IRA and unionist in a room where they had an opportunity to make each other uncomfortable in their arguments. Now it means the opposite, which causes a great deal of concern."


It should cause concern. Universities should not protect students from views they don't want to hear. I don't want to go to lecture supporting racism, but don't want to ban it. Use it as an educational opportunity and create an educational forum. If you set it up as a debate, they don't come or they leave defeated and students have learned something. Pressure for safe spaces is understandable, but what is the right way to deal with it. Also recognize that universities have been safe spaces - safe from the left - keeping the university clean from the subversion of people like us. We're tolerated, but kept at the margins. Look at economics departments in the US and ask how many Marxists economists can be found there, like Paul Sweezy, a left economists who kept his views silent until he got tenure. That's keeping safe spaces in the worst way. The former Harvard dean McGeorge Bundy, he thought people he called "wild men in the wings" have to keep out of universities: those who go beyond criticizing US power for tactical errors and talk abut deeper crimes. He wrote in the 1960s when people were daring, for the first time, to criticize the worst crimes since the second word war as not mistakes, but crimes.

The reaction in the 60s, was revealing. In the early 70s came the important publication of the Trilateral Commission - liberal internationalists from Europe, Japan and the US, who were very concerned about activism of the 60s pressing too far. People were asking for too much democracy, and we need more moderation in democracy. There was a concern for universities failing in their responsibility in indoctrination of the young, instead letting people out there opposing war and getting women's rights and Black rights. Those are the safe spaces that have reigned as long back as we want to go. Universities are now an issue because young students are asking for spaces safe from racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, violence, aggression, and so on. This was wrong then when it was the official doctrine' it's wrong now when it's at the margins. But it's tactically ridiculous when the left takes over divisive tactics of the powerful. It's a gift to the far right. Now the Republican party is running to it as their main campaign. The winning issue is CRT. It's a cover term for everything they don't like: women 's rights, opposition to white supremacy...  They demonize it, mobilize parents, tell them schools are forcing children to believe they are oppressors because of their skin colour, and it's working.  

Remember Hitler in Germany in the 1920. Germany was the peak of western civilization and democracy at the time. Ten years later, Germans were enthralled to a maniac who convinced them they had to subject themselves to his ideological commitments to carry out the worst atrocities in history. The same human beings in 10 years. Now it's happening again in the United States. It can happen in Europe. It's happening right now in the Republican party; it's concentrating on that to regain virtually perpetual power. That's not an exaggeration, but can be read in respectable journals. Martin Wolf, in the Financial Times, warned recently that the US in danger of collapsing as democracy and falling under authoritarianism, really proto-fascism. 

Going back to safe spaces, it's helping that when they go overboard. It's picked up and turned into propaganda weapons. Tactical choices aren't trivial matters; human life depends on them, and have to be considered thoughtfully. Almost always the motive may be decent and honest, but you have to be careful what you do and not act in ways that provide weapons to the oppressors. 

My message for 2022 is the same line made famous by Gramsci:  keep pessimism of the intellect, and optimism of the will. There's reason for optimism: things look grim, but there are ways out. We have to reach enough people and get them energized enough to take over. 

Varoufakis: "Struggling and not ending up compromised is more fun than submitting!" 

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