Noam Chomsky: "If you don't push the lever for the Democrats, you are assisting Trump"

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

US linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky EULER ANDREY/AFP via Getty Images

Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals, has provided the international left with wisdom, guidance and inspiration for nearly 60 years. Proving that he operates at the locus where argumentation and activism meet, he demonstrates indispensable intellectual leadership on issues of foreign policy, democratic socialism and rejection of corporate media bromides.

One of the founders of linguistics, he is also an American dissident who has wrestled with systems of power on matters no less important than genocide, war and poverty, creating a corpus of classics, ranging from his manifesto against the Vietnam War, “American Power and the New Mandarins,” to his amplification of reason against a jingoistic cacophony following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, “9-11.” “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” which he co-authored with Edward S. Herman, is essential reading for anyone interested in the real biases against democracy in the commercial press. His more recent book “What Kind of Creatures Are We?” provides a deft and provocative exploration of human purpose and the common good.

At 91, he is still committed to seeking and sharing the truth, and showing little patience for the foolishness and selfishness of the powerful. 

With dozens of books, and countless lectures and articles, Chomsky has addressed nearly every major topic of politics and economics with an orientation toward democracy, peace, and justice, but his new book is possibly his most urgent. “Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal,” co-authored with progressive economist Robert Pollin, measures the stakes of climate change as threatening the survival of the human species, and offers a bold and ambitious solution that can not only stave off disaster, but create a more beautiful, hospitable and just world.

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I recently interviewed Chomsky over the phone about climate change, the Green New Deal, and the 2020 presidential election. 

We can, perhaps, begin by spotlighting Amy Coney Barrett’s remarks at her nomination hearings calling climate change a “controversial and contentious issue.” One of the realities you and your co-author, Robert Pollin, identify in this book, which seems to elude most other analysts, is that while our mainstream discourse often presents a “debate” surrounding climate change, there is no debate at all – not just among scientists, but among the institutions that are actively making the problem worse. They know they are courting catastrophe.

Not just “courting,” but causing catastrophe. She not only said that it is “contentious.” She said, “I’m not a scientist. I don’t really know about it.” Unless she is a hermit living in Montana without any contact with the outside world, it is inconceivable that anyone could even be considered for a Supreme Court position who doesn’t know about the most significant environmental issue.

In the case of the major institutions, let’s start with the Pentagon. They are open about it. They acknowledge that climate change is a serious threat. They’ve argued we should prepare for it. They’ve published documents about it. Certainly, they know about it.

In the case of ExxonMobil, their scientists were among the first to discover the nature of the problem back in the 1970s. We have the full record, and it’s quite extensive. Their scientists provided detailed reports on the threat of global warming – on the threat it will have on the business of fossil fuels. They knew and know about everything. What actually happened with ExxonMobil is – when James Hansen made a speech about global warming in 1988, which received a lot of publicity, at that point management moved to a new position. It wasn’t outright detail, because that would have been too easy to expose. They said, “Well, it’s uncertain.” This was a strategy to shed doubt. In other words, “we really don’t know yet. So, we better not do anything precipitous.” That was an effective strategy, and that’s the Barret strategy: “It’s contentious.” Meanwhile, the scientific evidence is accumulating beyond any question. ExxonMobil knows all of this, and they’ve said straight out that, unlike other companies, they won’t put aside funds to develop sustainable energy. They’ve committed to keeping to their business model of doing what is most profitable, and that is developing as many fossil fuels as possible. 

Then, there is JPMorgan Chase. They know, and they’ve conceded. They were one of the world’s leading financiers of fossil fuels. Recently, their CEO, Jamie Dimon, announced [they] have to do something about fossil fuels, because of the reputational risks. “Reputational risks” translates into “it is harming our business, because consumers are upset.” In fact, an interesting memo leaked from JPMorgan Chase that said [the company is] pursuing policies that place the survival of humanity at risk, and [the company has] to be careful about [its] reputational risks. The “survival of humanity.”

There is an interesting question about people like Jamie Dimon. They know exactly what is happening, but they are willing to proceed knowing that it is going to cause a cataclysm — a total disaster that will be irreversible. What is in the mind of somebody like that? Maybe we can say that Mike Pence listens to his preacher, and actually believes there is no need to worry, because God will take care of it. But not the executives of ExxonMobil or JPMorgan Chase. 

JPMorgan Chase used the phrase, “survival of humanity,” and you are quoting it. All of your books deal with serious issues, to put it mildly. It seems, though, that the new book is the most urgent. Is that a fair characterization?

Let’s take seriously the publication of the Department of Transportation — their document on climate change and emission standards. It was an astonishing document, and it is shocking that it didn’t get more coverage.

It is a careful environmental assessment from the Trump administration. It concluded that on our present course we will reach four degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. What is that? Total cataclysm. No one can even estimate the effects. Organized human life as we know it will be over. Of course, it will build up over the years, getting worse and worse with sea levels rising, extreme weather events, and so on. So, after describing this, they offer a prescription, and here it is: Let’s reduce emission regulations on cars and trucks.

This is the most extraordinary document in human history. I can’t think of anything like this. The thing that comes closest is the Nazi Wannsee declaration in 1942, which was the formal decision of the Nazi party to wipe out all the Jews of Europe. Not even that said, “Let’s race ahead to make some money while destroying the prospects of all human life on Earth.” Why isn’t this the headline everywhere?

You’ve asked two questions, I assume rhetorically, but I’m curious if you can offer an answer to either. First, what kind of people have an awareness that they are threatening all livable ecology and proceed along the same course? Second, why isn’t this the headline everywhere?

I have no independent evidence about what is inside people’s minds. In the case of the Trump administration, I simply think that they don’t care. They are sociopaths. We see this constantly with the president, from the pandemic to hurting the World Health Organization, because it improves his election prospects. If that means kill people in Africa and Yemen who depend upon the WHO for survival, that’s fine. The Palestinians didn’t treat him nicely? Good. Cut off money for their hospitals. I think it is the mentality that all of us have when we walk down the street and realize that we might crush a lot of ants. We don’t think, “I’ll take all kinds of precautions to avoid crushing ants.” That is the Trump administration’s attitude toward the human species. I’m sure it isn’t everybody, but it is the mentality that comes from the top down.

There is also the idea, “We have force. Therefore, we can compel anyone else to surrender to it.” We see that constantly in the most remarkable ways. A couple of weeks ago the administration approached the United Nations Security Council, requesting that they reinstitute the sanctions against Iran, which were torturing and killing Iranians. The Security Council flatly rejected it. Well, they didn’t say no. They abstained, because you don’t want to irritate the master too much. So what did the U.S. do? Mike Pompeo returned to the Security Council, and said, sorry children, we’re reinstituting the sanctions, because we say so. Has that ever happened in the history of the Security Council? I don’t know everything, but I don’t think so. What country acts that way? This one does.

There’s a major biodiversity conference going on right now at the UN. It is of crucial significance not only for the many species that are being crushed, but for human survival. For example, one of the issues they are addressing is how to prepare for the next pandemic. There is one major country that is not attending. The usual one. The United States. Take a look for coverage. I did, and all I could find was approximately two minutes on NPR.

The New York Times: Great newspaper, right? A couple of days ago, they ran an article on Chevron buying Noble, which gives them entry into the Eastern Mediterranean – huge natural gas fields. Good article on how it will expand production. It will be very good for Israel and Egypt. It didn’t say one word about how this is another stab in the heart of the possibility of human survival. It isn’t something they really think about. They don’t see it as their task to think about it. They write about gas markets, very little about climate change, because it is good for Israel-Egypt relations. There is a biodiversity conference happening, but the U.S. isn’t attending. So, who cares?

Now, what about the banks? They know what is happening, and this is my best guess. Let’s see if it is plausible. I put myself in the position of Jamie Dimon. I’m sure he knows all about global warming. He cares about it. He probably contributes to the Sierra Club is his spare time. He has two choices. He can say, “What we are doing is horrible. I refuse to participate.” He does that, and the board of directors throws him out. They bring someone else in who will do it. So, then he says to himself, “I’m as humane as that next guy they would bring in to destroy the planet. So, I might as well be the one to do it.”

ExxonMobil has shareholders. They do what is best for them. The only other way to explain it is sociopathy, but I don’t think they are all sociopaths. I think they are the same as people like us. 

If the profit at the center of the system incentives sociopathy, is it possible to proceed with something like the Global Green New Deal, on the level that is necessary, without addressing the profit motive? 

That’s a question that Robert Pollin and I discuss. First of all, there is the simple question of timescale. The timescale needed to deal with this urgent problem is a decade or two. Major institutional changes, which I think are very much in order, have a totally different timescale. It is a much longer process. The fact of the matter is that in order to survive we have to deal with the problem within the framework of the existing institutions. Then, comes the question, can it be done?

We think so. Without radical modification of the existing institutions, which on the side, we can continue to pursue – it is a parallel project – but without that happening, there are adjustments possible. This is mainly Pollin’s work – looking at how we can proceed within the timescale and within the existing institutions.

Take fossil fuels. One thing that could be done is simply to take them over – socialize them. It isn’t even that expensive. With the oil prices, they aren’t worth that much right now. Then, we can put the institutions in the hands of the workforce and the community, and have them do what has to be done. What has to be done? Cut back annually – say 5 percent – on the use of fossil fuels. That would be enough to bring us to net zero emissions by the midcentury. Set the workforce to do things that they know how to do. Let’s have them work on developing sustainable energy. They know how to do it. Outside of ExxonMobil, every major company has a division on this.

We might recall that one of the leading early environmentalists was Tony Mazzocchi, the head of the Oil, Chemical, Atomic International Workers Union. Those are the guys on the front line. They’re the ones being poisoned. Mazzocchi and his union pushed for safety regulations, and the reduction of fossil fuels. That can be picked up. That’s within the framework of institutions.

Take the carbon tax. In itself, it is destructive. It leads to what happened in France. You’re telling poor, working people, “You will have to pay more to get to work, because I care about the environment.” The way that a carbon tax ought to work is redistribution of the income. Tax the fossil fuels, but then redistribute the profits to the people who need it. The rich guys aren’t going to like that, but there’s a lot of things that they don’t like. They don’t like Social Security, but we ram it down their throats through popular pressure. 

All of this is within a range of expenses that is not very high. We have Robert Pollin’s model. We have a different model from Jeffery Sachs, which reaches pretty much the same conclusion. It can probably all be done within 2-3% of GDP. It is important to note that this doesn’t only end fossil fuel production. It creates a better world. 

The small number of workers in the fossil fuel industry can get a much better job doing something else. If they need help during the transition period, we can do it for peanuts. Pollin points out that the amount that is needed annually is a fraction of what the Treasury recently poured out to save Wall Street. These things are not out of sight.

Now, there are plenty of barriers. Plenty of fighting back. Amy Coney Barrett saying, “I don’t know what’s happening. I’m too remote from all of this.” The people behind her, getting her to say it, they are going to try to block it.

But there are popular forces who pressing for this, because they know it has to happen quickly. Most of them are young. Greta Thunberg, for example, saying eloquently, “You betrayed us.” We should listen to her. Yes, we’ve betrayed them. Now, we have to change course.

Too often the issue is presented as dichotomous, meaning working class economics versus environmentalism. Why is that wrong?

There will be better jobs and more jobs for working people with a Green New Deal. Jobs ranging from construction to retrofitting houses to mass transportation to installing solar panels and wind turbines to research and development. That whole range presents many more opportunities than there are in fossil fuels, and it makes for a better world.

I don’t know where you live. I live in Arizona right now, but I lived outside Boston most of my life. It isn’t much fun sitting in a traffic jam for over an hour to get to work.

I live near Chicago. I can relate.

Same thing. It would be much nicer to have a highly efficient mass transit system. You step inside, read a newspaper, enjoy a cup of coffee, and get to where you need to go in no time. It is a better world. In Arizona, I know people who pay $1,000 over the summer for air conditioning. I pay $10 a month, because we’ve installed solar panels on the roof. It is a better life. Furthermore, I don’t have to feel guilty about using so much electricity. The sun is up there, and it is just giving it to me. Insulate your home. You are more comfortable, you are saving money, and you are saving the environment.

It isn’t 100 percent. The coal miners, for example. It is a rotten job, but it does pay well. They are on their way out anyway, though. So, we better begin to think about how we can ease the transition. They can do constructive things. In Germany, they are phasing out coal mines, and turning them into ways to produce sustainable energy. These are good jobs, cleaner jobs, and less dangerous. Where there are people who are going to be harmed, we can help them ease the transition.

And again, let’s remember that the fossil fuel workers are the ones suffering directly. They experience the worst health consequences – the workers and the people who live near the plants. So, it is in their interest more than anyone. It isn’t a hard sell if you break through the propaganda. 

You are using the simple, but profound phrase, “It’s a better life.” It seems that the Global Green New Deal presents the left with a great opportunity to offer to people a large-scale, ambitious project for reimagining human life and society that leads to dramatic improvements.

Absolutely. These two questions that you presented earlier — environmentalism or changing the institutions. This is where they coincide. 

Let’s take the auto industry. It is a huge industry; the core of American production. In 2009, after the financial collapse, the auto industry was nationalized. There were choices at the time, and if the left had been up to it, we could have made a better choice. The first choice, which is what the Obama administration did, was to pay off the executives and the shareholders, and then return the industry to its original owners, and have them go back to what they were doing — make traffic jams in Chicago and Boston.

Another possibility was to take the industry that we owned, and hand it over to the workforce and the community, and ask them to alter it in ways that were more beneficial. They might have developed an efficient mass transit system. If we start doing that, we undercut the institutions that work for profit, and transform them into democratic institutions that work for public needs. This isn’t nationalization, putting it into the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats. It is giving it to workers and community members who can use it for their own needs. That is radically undermining capitalist institutions.

I’m sure you know the Next System Project. One of their proposals that makes great sense is to expand the postal service into general services for people, like banking. It is a perfect way to do banking — not commercial banking, JPMorgan Chase giving someone $2 billion — but the kind of banking we all do. It would be easy to do it through the post office. There are post offices everywhere, the staff is already there, the infrastructure is there. Much of what we do can happen through socialized institutions, which people are surprisingly favorable to. And it would improve our lives. It is a good part of life to have a postal carrier who you get to know. You trust him. You can ask him to feed your dog when you are away. It makes life better.

This is one of the reasons why the rich and powerful want to destroy public institutions, like the Post Office. Public institutions show people that there is an alternative to individualism and consumerism that is possible. 

There is so much that it is possible if we only escape the rigid doctrinal assumptions that say, to quote Ronald Reagan, “government is the problem.” It is a problem for the rich. It isn’t a problem for the rest of us. 

Forgive me for closing with what is by now an obligatory and predictable question, but I think I am forever banished from journalism if I don’t ask. How do you respond to the irresponsible leftist purity that discourages voting for Biden because of his limitations as a candidate, and the troubling aspects of his record? 

My position is to vote against Trump. In our two-party system, there is a technical fact that if you want to vote against Trump, you have to push the lever for the Democrats. If you don’t push the lever for the Democrats, you are assisting Trump. We can argue about a lot of things, but not arithmetic. You have a choice on Nov. 3. Do I vote against Trump or help Trump?

It is a simple choice. He’s the worst malignancy ever to appear in our political system. He is extremely dangerous.

All of this for the left shouldn’t even be discussed. It takes a few minutes. Politics means constant activism. An election comes along every once in awhile, and you have to decide if it is worth participating. Sometimes not — there were cases when I didn’t even bother voting. There were cases when I voted Republican, because the Republican congressional candidate in my district was slightly better. It should take roughly a few minutes to decide, then you go back to activism, which is real politics.

There is a new phenomenon on the left. I had never even heard of it before 2016, which is to focus, laser-like, on elections. That’s where you get these crazy ideas like condemnation of “lesser-evil voting.” Of course, you vote against someone dangerous if it is necessary, but that is not serious political activity. Serious political activity comes out of commitment to educational and organizational work. 

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Somehow parts of the left within the past few years have unconsciously accepted establishment propaganda. The establishment view of politics is that the public are spectators, not participants in action. Your function is to show up every few years, push a lever, go back home, leave the rest to us. You shouldn’t have “democratic dogmatisms about people judging what’s in their best interest” — I’m quoting Harold Lasswell, one of the founders of political science. The establishment view is that we have to provide people with, to quote Reinhold Niebuhr, “necessary illusions” and “emotionally potent simplifications.” We’ll handle the real work.   

To see the left buy into this is astonishing. If you don’t buy into the establishment picture, you don’t talk about “lesser-evil voting.” You talk about activism and strategy. Every once in awhile, you decide whether or not it is worth the effort to push a lever. Sometimes it is so obvious, as it is now, that it shouldn’t take two minutes to decide.  

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