COMMENT

Noam Chomsky: We are paying for the logic of capitalism

LENA MATSIORI

American academic and polemicist Noam Chomsky describes the coronavirus pandemic as a ‘capitalist catastrophe, exacerbated by neoliberal savagery,’ pointing to the additional damage caused by hospitals being run like businesses. [AP]

TAGS: Interview, Politics

There isn’t much that hasn’t already been written about Noam Chomsky, the philosopher and political activist, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and laureate professor at the University of Arizona who is regarded as the father of modern linguistics.

With decades of political activism and a plethora of publications to his name, the 91-year-old American academic is regarded as one of the most important and influential intellectuals in the world right now, delivering his scathing critiques of American foreign policy, the devastating influence of the economic elites on domestic policy and the manipulation of the media from lecterns across the US and the world.

Ranking among the most cited writers in the world, Chomsky is here to remind the masses not to accept the passive role assigned to them by the powers that be.
 

The pandemic and the inadequacy or collapse not only of health systems but also economies have shown that the perception of society as a business model has failed. Neo-liberalism and homo economicus leaders such as Donald Trump have shown that they cannot face a social crisis in business terms. How obvious do you think this is to American and global public opinion? And what impact will it have on the US election? Can we hope for a progressive radicalization as a progressive response?

The pandemic is a vivid illustration of the great damage that the neoliberal era has done to the large majority of the population. We should, however, have no illusions about belief in markets or homo economicus. The core principle of neoliberalism is to shift decisions from governments, which are to some extent subject to public influence, to private tyrannies that are completely unaccountable to the public – and according to neoliberal doctrine, must be devoted solely to self-enrichment. As soon as they gained greater power under Reagan, Thatcher, and the like, they rapidly reshaped markets to their own advantage. And of course they depend very heavily on public subsidies and bailouts when they cause crises, once again today.

But the illusions nevertheless have some relation to reality. The pandemic derives from deep failures of capitalism exacerbated by the impact of its savage neoliberal version. In 2003, after the SARS epidemic was contained, scientists warned that another coronavirus epidemic was likely and outlined ways to prepare for it. But knowledge is not enough. Someone has to act on it. The obvious choice is Big Pharma, bloated with gifts from the public thanks to the devices of neoliberal globalization. But that is barred by capitalist logic: It is not profitable to prepare for future catastrophes. That leaves government, which is in fact responsible for the basic work in developing most vaccines and drugs. But that is blocked by neoliberal doctrine: Government is the problem, as Reagan intoned. So nothing was done.

The business model imposed more wreckage. Hospitals run on this model do not waste resources on spare capacity, like extra beds. That more or less works in normal times, but quickly causes catastrophe in an emergency.

That is the bare beginning. In general, it is quite correct to describe the pandemic as a capitalist catastrophe, exacerbated by neoliberal savagery.

Is this understood by most of the population? Probably not. It would be hard to find any mention of the fundamental matters in what reaches the general public. It is of course understood that the system has collapsed, engendering anger, resentment, disdain for institutions. That provides fertile terrain for far-right demagogues like Trump. It can also lead to constructive efforts to cure the maladies and construct a more free and just world.

There are opportunities. One, with great promise, is the newly formed Progressive International, initiated by Bernie Sanders’ movement in the US along with Yanis Varoufakis and DiEM25 in Europe, now also bringing in important elements of the Global South. But just as knowledge has to be used, so opportunities have to be grasped.

In Hungary, Viktor Orban rules by decrees; Europe is once again embarrassed by this, although parliamentary democracy and the rule of law are preconditions for Union membership. What can this mean for the future of democracy in Europe?

The future of the EU is very much at risk, in many ways. The EU itself is founded on the principle of undermining of democracy, with basic decisions shifted to the unelected Troika. But the flaws go well beyond, as the pandemic reveals. Germany is the economic powerhouse of Europe. It did manage the pandemic reasonably well, with a low death rate. Not far to the South is northern Italy, in deep trouble. Did Germany send doctors and other medical aid? Fortunately Italy could turn elsewhere for help: to Cuba, which once again provided an illustration of internationalism. There are lessons that I will not pursue.

Persecution of Assange, Manning, Snowden – people who are considered extremely dangerous because they are fighting for the dissemination of truth and justice. Are they canaries in the coal mine or has everything gone their way and we are already in Huxley’s world where “the future is the present projected”?

The answer is up to people like you and me. Will we tolerate disgraceful abuse of power – right now, the virtual judicial murder of Assange for the crime of revealing truths that the master of the world wishes to suppress? And much more?

Why is it that in any crisis what recedes first is democracy, and why have we reached the point where freedom and security are considered bipolar and opposite concepts/ideas? Do you think that this state of exception is here to stay and world governments and authoritarians are using the crisis as an excuse to usher in a new era of oppression?

In a crisis – war, epidemic, tsunami, others – people are rightly willing to sacrifice some freedom temporarily to deal with the crisis. Among those temporarily granted power, some are sure to seek to perpetuate it. That is happening before our eyes. If the population succumbs, they will succeed.

We should remember the words of David Hume in the opening passage of the first modern treatise of political science: “Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.” The governed need not accept the passivity that is prescribed by the powerful. If they do, their fate will be grim.

Do you think humanity has signed a Faustian contract and now it’s time to pay in all levels of life? Is there a way and time to cancel it?

We are paying right now for the logic of capitalism and the crimes of its savage neoliberal variant. Those who have suffered for many years, severely today, never signed the contract. In this case, the source of the crimes can be uprooted and humans can join in an endeavor to create a better world.

We should not forget, however, that the pandemic is far from the most severe crisis that we face. There will be recovery from the pandemic, at terrible cost. There will be no recovery from the melting of the polar ice caps and the heating of the world that may lead to much of it becoming literally uninhabitable even before the end of this century, all with consequences that are unimaginable. As in the case of the pandemic, here too the logic of capitalism is at work. And here too its threat to the survival of humanity is sharply intensified by malignant elements at the center of global power. The Trump administration is dedicated with such fervor to its constituency of extreme wealth and corporate power that it is maximizing the use of fossil fuels and dismantling the regulatory system that provides at least some time to reverse course and avert catastrophe.

In this case too there are opportunities, though not for long. If they are not grasped, other questions fade into insignificance.

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