“Occupy” by Noam Chomsky

Chomsky_OccupyISBN 978-0-241-96401-9. “Occupy” by Noam Chomsky was published by Penguin in 2012 from an original publication by Zuccotti Park Press in the same year. The original source publishers put this out as part of their “occupied media pamphlet series” for a glorified pamphlet it is. It renders as a very slight book of only 120 pages padded out quite nicely with large black and white photos from the US Occupy demonstrations. The original words by Chomsky ‘occupy’ (pun intended) the central five chapters thus ‘booked-ended’ by an “Editor’s Note” (by Greg Ruggiero) and a section covering advice to Occupy protestors from the US-based National Lawyers Guild. This may well qualify is the very briefest of books to ever carry Chomsky’s monicker.

Of the chapters from Chomsky the first is a transcription of the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture given to Occupy Boston in Dewey Square in October 2011. The last Chomsky chapter is (now almost uniquely) a piece written by Chomsky himself – a tribute to the late activist/historian Howard Zinn. This itself has nothing to do with the Occupy movement of the book title.

The second chapter is titled “After Thirty Years of Class War” which is (as you can now expect) a transcript of an interview Chomsky gave to Edward Radzivilovskiy as New York University, Paris (although the actual interview was conducted at MIT). Next we have “Interoccupy” which is the transcript of a conference call with the great man in January 2012. Last, but not least there is “Occupying Foreign Policy” also from January 2012. It is unclear what the origins of this piece are but again we assume it is a transcript from an interview.

Such it is these days that we await the next great book to be authored by Chomsky himself. In the meantime we take scraps from the high table. Those scraps are now looking pretty thin and what you get is (again) getting repetitive. Although he has infinitely more in his head than I could ever imagine the interviews tend to repeat with a few key points endlessly regurgitated. Remember Chomsky’s views on Adam Smith? Well, yes, you will read them again here. Indeed several chapters here read almost word-for-word like they have been copied and pasted.

So do not expect any great new material nor originality. But everything is relative. What little we get is still worth more than the lifetime of works by lesser souls. Any take-away quotes? Will this one on “Politics and Money” is pretty definitive:

“Concentration of wealth yields concentrations of political power. And concentration of political power gives rise to legislation that increases and accelerates the cycle. The legislation, essentially bipartisan, drives new fiscal policies, tax changes, also rules of corporate governance, and deregulation. Alongside of this began the sharp rise in the cost of elections, which drives the political parties even deeper than before into the pockets of the corporate sector.”

The essential truism of our times. The economy has been stripped of manufacturing which was replaced by financial services. Hence the giants of the finance sector pay for the politics they want. Hence the 2008 financial crash and the bank bailouts. Without punitive measures the risks are all still there. It is, as Chomsky says, a “cycle”.

He then returns to the topic of the “precariat” – a new social class of those living at the economic fringe. A precarious living of massive working insecurity. This insecurity is taken as a sign of economic health for the elite that benefit. They are disposable unpeople.

These pamphlets also give voice to some of the most explicit views that Chomsky has yet offered about climate change. Even in “Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe” his views remained a little vague. He is raising his voice now (even if he still ranks nuclear war pretty highly). His interest remains the doctrine of denial in the USA that leads to inaction:

“…this is connected with a huge propaganda system, proudly and openly declared by the business world, to try to convince people that climate change is just a liberal hoax. “Why pay attention to these scientists?” And we’re really regressing back to a medieval period. It’s not a joke.”

The latter reference strikes a chord we noted in our last blog “A Little Drop of Philosophy“. We also get to hear again the point made by Karl Marx about the point of philosophy is not just to understand the world but to change it. Chomsky argues that to change it you need also understand it.

“It means learning. And you learn through participation. You learn from others. You learn from the you are trying to organise.”

He suggest making the USA a leader on action to mitigate climate change could be one of the objectives of the Occupy movement. He also advocates more worker-ownership of industry as well as removal of “person rights” from corporations. When asked how they could mobilise the public Chomsky’s response is clear and often repeated:

“The only way to mobilise the American public […] is by going out and joining them. Going out to wherever people are – churches, clubs, schools, unions – wherever they may be. Getting involved with them and trying to learn from them and to bring about a change of consciousness among them.”

It certainly sounds like the sort of community engagement that we advocate as part of Transition doesn’t it? I am a firm believer that this is a great way forward but this remains a hard path to those used to traditional “campaigning” where they go out into public in broadcast mode.

Given our last blog on the value of philosophy it seems appropriate that Chomsky returns yet again the Adam Smith and to Aristotle’s “Politics”. This was hardly mentioned in the Cohen book “Dummies Guide to Philosophy” which seems a shame when Chomsky describes it thus:

“When Aristotle evaluated various kinds of systems, he felt that democracy was the least bad of them. But he said democracy wouldn’t work unless you could set things up so that they would be relatively egalitarian. He proposed specific measures for Athens that, in our terms, would be welfare-state measures.”

Interesting to compare this to the view in Plato’s “Republic” that Cohen was so keen to write about instead. Sticking with our philosophy theme Chomsky goes on to add:

“Centuries ago, political theorists like David Hume, in one of his foundations for government, pointed out correctly that power is in the hands of the governed and not the governors.”

Chomsky also adds a cherry to the cake by addressing economic growth and well-being:

“If growth is understood and accepted to include constant attacks on the physical environment that sustains life – like, for example, green-house gas emissions, destruction of agricultural land, and so forth – if that’s what it means, then we are like lemmings walking over a cliff. That isn’t what growth has to mean. For example, growth can mean simpler lives and more livable communities.”

These could be the words of Rob Hopkins or Richard Heinberg. I think Chomsky remains largely ignored by Transitioners. He is just a little too controversial. Too out there. Too American. A shame. I would love to see him really write a full-length book devoted to his growing awareness of the coming sustainability crisis and for him to start to join a few dots. That would be something.

Clearly Noam Chomsky has been moved by the spontaneous uprising that was the Occupy movement. We all where. Rob Hopkins himself felt the urge to address the protestors. It spoke to us all – the right people, in the right place, at the right time, with the right tactics. It did move the conversation. It may have been a slight blow across the bow of the juggernaut super-tanker of the oil-driven economy but it put inequality and injustice onto the map of modern thinking. There has been more published and spoken of the topic since Occupy than before.  That is its achievement. It wasn’t the revolution to change the world. That is yet to come. Chomsky’s finest hour may also yet to come. We would hate for him to slide quietly away out of sight. He is old enough to remember the first Great Depression. He lived to see a second. We doubt he would want to be around for the last.

Chomsky remains essential reading – even if this pamphlet was not his greatest work I would rather live in a world of such gems that an encyclopaedia of lesser philosophy. We salute him. Recommended.

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