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American Socrates

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Cross-posted from Truthdig


From youtube.com/watch?v=1VbUBbvu4Co: Noam Chomsky (2014)
Noam Chomsky (2014)
(image by YouTube)


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Noam Chomsky, whom I interviewed last Thursday at his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has influenced intellectuals in the United States and abroad in incalculable ways. His explications of empire, mass propaganda, the hypocrisy and pliability of the liberal class and the failings of academics, as well as the way language is used as a mask by the power elite to prevent us from seeing reality, make him the most important intellectual in the country. The force of his intellect, which is combined with a ferocious independence, terrifies the corporate state -- which is why the commercial media and much of the academic establishment treat him as a pariah. He is the Socrates of our time.

We live in a bleak moment in human history. And Chomsky begins from this reality. He quoted the late Ernst Mayr, a leading evolutionary biologist of the 20th century who argued that we probably will never encounter intelligent extraterrestrials because higher life forms render themselves extinct in a relatively short time.

"Mayr argued that the adaptive value of what is called 'higher intelligence' is very low," Chomsky said. "Beetles and bacteria are much more adaptive than humans. We will find out if it is better to be smart than stupid. We may be a biological error, using the 100,000 years which Mayr gives [as] the life expectancy of a species to destroy ourselves and many other life forms on the planet."

Climate change "may doom us all, and not in the distant future," Chomsky said...

"It may overwhelm everything. This is the first time in human history that we have the capacity to destroy the conditions for decent survival. It is already happening. Look at species destruction. It is estimated to be at about the level of 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth, ended the period of the dinosaurs and wiped out a huge number of species. It is the same level today. And we are the asteroid. If anyone could see us from outer space they would be astonished. There are sectors of the global population trying to impede the global catastrophe. There are other sectors trying to accelerate it. Take a look at whom they are. Those who are trying to impede it are the ones we call backward, indigenous populations -- the First Nations in Canada, the aboriginals in Australia, the tribal people in India. Who is accelerating it? The most privileged, so-called advanced, educated populations of the world."

If Mayr was right, we are at the tail end of a binge, accelerated by the Industrial Revolution, that is about to drive us over a cliff environmentally and economically. A looming breakdown, in Chomsky's eyes, offers us opportunity as well as danger. He has warned repeatedly that if we are to adapt and survive we must overthrow the corporate power elite through mass movements and return power to autonomous collectives that are focused on sustaining communities rather than exploiting them. Appealing to the established institutions and mechanisms of power will not work.

"We can draw many very good lessons from the early period of the Industrial Revolution," he said. "The Industrial Revolution took off right around here in eastern Massachusetts in the mid-19th century. This was a period when independent farmers were being driven into the industrial system. Men and women -- women left the farms to be 'factory girls' -- bitterly resented it. This was also a period of a very free press, the freest in the history of the country. There were a wide variety of journals. When you read them they are pretty fascinating. The people driven into the industrial system regarded it as an attack on their personal dignity, on their rights as human beings. They were free human beings being forced into what they called 'wage labor,' which they regarded as not very different from chattel slavery. In fact this was such a popular mood it was a slogan of the Republican Party -- 'The only difference between working for a wage and being a slave is that working for the wage is supposed to be temporary.' "

Chomsky said this shift, which forced agrarian workers off the land into the factories in urban centers, was accompanied by a destruction of culture. Laborers, he said, had once been part of the "high culture of the day."

"I remember this as late as the 1930s with my own family," he said...

"This was being taken away from us. We were being forced to become something like slaves. They argued that if you were a journeyman, a craftsman, and you sell a product that you produce, then as a wage earner what you are doing is selling yourself. And this was deeply offensive. They condemned what they called 'the new spirit of the age,' 'gaining wealth and forgetting all but self.' This sounds familiar."

It is this radical consciousness, which took root in the mid-19th century among farmers and many factory workers, that Chomsky says we must recover if we are to move forward as a society and a civilization. In the late 19th century farmers, especially in the Midwest, freed themselves from the bankers and capital markets by forming their own banks and co-operatives. They understood the danger of falling victim to a vicious debt peonage run by the capitalist class. The radical farmers made alliances with the Knights of Labor, which believed that those who worked in the mills should own them.

"By the 1890s workers were taking over towns and running them in eastern and western Pennsylvania, such as Homestead," Chomsky said. "But they were crushed by force. It took some time. The final blow was Woodrow Wilson's Red Scare."

"The idea should still be that of the Knights of Labor," he said...

"Those who work in the mills should own them. There is plenty of manufacturing going on. There will be more. Energy prices are going down in the United States because of the massive exploitation of fossil fuels, which is going to destroy our grandchildren. But under the capitalist morality the calculus is profits tomorrow outweigh the existence of your grandchildren. We are getting lower energy prices. They [business leaders] are enthusiastic that we can undercut manufacturing in Europe because we have lower energy prices. And we can undermine European efforts at developing sustainable energy."

Chomsky hopes that those who work in the service industry and in manufacturing can organize to begin to take control of their workplaces. He notes that in the Rust Belt, including in states such as Ohio, there is a growth of worker-owned enterprises.

The rise of powerful populist movements in the early 20th century meant that the business class could no longer keep workers subjugated purely through violence. Business interests had to build systems of mass propaganda to control opinions and attitudes. The rise of the public relations industry, initiated by President Wilson's Committee on Public Information to instill a pro-war sentiment in the population, ushered in an era of not only permanent war but also permanent propaganda. Consumption was instilled as an inner compulsion. The cult of the self became paramount. And opinions and attitudes, as they are today, were crafted and shaped by the centers of power.

"A pacifist population was driven to become war-mongering fanatics," Chomsky said...

"It was this experience that led the power elite to discover that through effective propaganda they could, as Walter Lippmann wrote, employ 'a new art in democracy, manufacturing consent.'"

Democracy was eviscerated. Citizens became spectators rather than participants in power. The few intellectuals, including Randolph Bourne, who maintained their independence and who refused to serve the power elite were pushed out of the mainstream, as Chomsky has been.

"Most of the intellectuals on all sides were passionately dedicated to the national cause," Chomsky said of the First World War...

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

Hedges was part of the team of (more...)
 

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Inspiring and important article - and informative,... by b. sadie bailey on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 2:38:57 AM
I was thinking that the problem with the human spe... by Paul Easton on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 3:26:12 AM
I wish Hedges and Chomsky would read and respond t... by Michael David Morrissey on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 11:00:22 AM
Does anyone else notice how '9-11' is now used to ... by Samson on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 2:40:38 PM
Samson, have you even looked at David's link? Just... by Jon Fox on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 7:02:51 PM
Ignore him. He is just trying to piggy-back his o... by Richmond Shreve on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 7:25:14 PM
You are correct, Richmond, I am obsessed about the... by Jon Fox on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 10:46:28 PM
Right on, David. To imply that Chomsky or Hedges f... by Jon Fox on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 6:44:47 PM
Right on David. To compare the character of Chomsk... by Jon Fox on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 6:55:32 PM
"Chomsky believes that the propaganda used to manu... by Samson on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 2:36:30 PM
I notice what you are saying, the obvious difficul... by Pal Palsimon on Wednesday, Jun 18, 2014 at 3:13:23 AM
I love Chomsky and have total respect for you, Chr... by Daniel Geery on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 6:14:36 PM
Mass mind formation requires a unified mass media.... by Derryl Hermanutz on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 6:32:32 PM
The comparison of Chomsky and Socrates is apt. Soc... by Jack Flanders on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 8:33:50 PM
This (" He challenged the status quo and exposed t... by Pal Palsimon on Tuesday, Jun 17, 2014 at 1:02:42 AM
My question: If the problems of terror in Iraq ar... by Pal Palsimon on Tuesday, Jun 17, 2014 at 1:07:55 AM
I don't think their religious differences are at t... by Jack Flanders on Tuesday, Jun 17, 2014 at 9:06:01 PM
Good, not about religion, but the rivalry is among... by Pal Palsimon on Wednesday, Jun 18, 2014 at 3:04:15 AM
I agree. Hopefully, you understood my sarcasm was ... by Jack Flanders on Wednesday, Jun 18, 2014 at 7:55:11 AM
Thanks for the article Chis. It was interesting; h... by Fernando Macias on Monday, Jun 16, 2014 at 9:44:31 PM
I agree with Chomsky on many, even most, things, b... by Michael David Morrissey on Tuesday, Jun 17, 2014 at 4:24:51 AM
I've read several of Chomsky's books and a number ... by Robert James on Tuesday, Jun 17, 2014 at 6:52:17 AM
That's interesting. I think he is late in coming o... by Michael David Morrissey on Tuesday, Jun 17, 2014 at 8:26:45 AM
"We live in a bleak moment in human history" "we a... by R. A. Landbeck on Tuesday, Jun 17, 2014 at 8:30:47 AM