Changemaker profile: Noam Chomsky

By Kari McGregor

In the Story of Change, her sequel video to the Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard implored change-makers to flex their citizen muscle and use their unique skills-set to bring about a better world. The change-maker personality types Leonard lists in her video each hold a special set of skills. They are: the resistor, the builder, the communicator, the investigator, the networker and the nurturer.    

Each issue of SHIFT honours a different change-maker personality with a profile of an individual whose work is making waves. In this issue we connect with the investigator, via an exclusive interview with MIT professor, linguist, social critic and political activist, Noam Chomsky.        

To view the complete transcript of the interview, please visit the SHIFT magazine website.

The Investigator: Noam Chomsky

Scholars don’t come much more renowned than Noam Chomsky, a man whose name elicits sage-like nods of recognition when it comes to political pearls of wisdom. The opportunity to pick Professor Chomsky’s brain and capitalize on his immense intellect was something I had been waiting a lifetime to work up the courage to ask for, so I was bowled over by his humility when that time came. Certain that there was nothing I could plonk into my preamble that he hadn’t heard before, I dove right in…

The academic’s anarchist

Despite his long-lived and illustrious career in linguistics, Noam Chomsky is much better known as a political commentator. He is also arguably the world’s best known public intellectual who aligns himself on the political compass alongside the likes of Rudolph Rocker and George Orwell as an anarchist – an anarcho-syndicalist, to be specific.

Chomsky’s fascination with politics began in his early childhood, during a period marked by economic depression.

As a child growing up in the depression you could just see the poverty, often misery, violence against strikers, and most of my family was unemployed working class. There was also fear of the spread of fascism through Europe, which was frightening.

Critique of power structures came naturally to his critical-thinking mind as he sought answers to political questions and alternatives to the obviously destructive status quo. Several critical factors led him down the path toward anarchism early on:

One was just a kind of instinctive feeling that authority and domination were not legitimate unless they could prove themselves to be legitimate, and that extends to all domains of life. And by the time I was maybe 12 or 13 I became quite interested in the Spanish anarchist revolution.

Although he grew up in Philadelphia, Noam spent much of his youth in New York with relatives, hanging out in small bookstores and anarchist offices, picking up pamphlets and spending time with people living on the margins of the political paradigm.

Some of them were emigrés who had fled from Franco, who had been involved with the anarchist revolution, and I just kind of learned a lot, picked up a lot of information, and understanding, and it kind of went on from there.  

People’s movements for social change

Well-known for his political commentary, Chomsky is perhaps less known for his activism – particularly direct action, for which he has been arrested, demonstrating that even noted academics in a democracy are not beyond the long arm of the law when they speak out against the status quo. His advocacy for democracy and human rights has seen him active in a broad spectrum of popular movements, with three that he cites as high points for social change: the women’s movement, the American civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement.

Over the past 60 years or so I suppose the major change with long-lasting, and I’m sure permanent effects, is the rise of the women’s movement. It goes way back in history, but it really began to develop in the 60’s, and took off in the 70’s – it had a major effect on every aspect of life. I mean it has not achieved many of its goals, but there is an enormous difference between then and now.

Noam also cites the civil rights movement as a high point in United States history. Although the civil rights wins were limited, there has been a very real victory in the form of the end to the brutally discriminatory system of repression in the southern states in particular. The battle is far from over, however, as he goes on to detail with his account of Martin Luther King’s attempts to address class issues.

It didn’t go anywhere near as far as, let’s say, Martin Luther King had in mind. As soon as King himself began to turn to class issues and to racism in the north he hit a stone wall, and his popularity among American liberals declined, and he failed to achieve what he was hoping to. He was assassinated when he was in Memphis, Tennessee, where he went to support a strike of public workers – garbage workers, sanitation workers – he was on his way to leading a mass march that would go to Washington to begin to establish a movement of the poor. Not black, but poor. And that was just smashed. And there’s a long way to go, but there were achievements.

Chomsky’s own activism saw him most heavily involved in the anti-war movement, with actions that included refusal to pay 50% of his taxes and participation in anti-war teach-ins outside the Pentagon during the Vietnam war era. It was only his influence as a public intellectual that spared him the sack at MIT. Despite the United States’ continual involvement in wars – often as the aggressors – there has been marked progress made in the arena of public opinion since the movement first gathered steam.

I was heavily involved in the resistance movement against the Vietnam war. And that has had its effects – there’s much more opposition to state aggression and violence than there was at the time. I mean, you could see it dramatically in the case of the Iraq war. In the case of Iraq there were huge public demonstrations against the war before it was officially launched. Go back to Vietnam – it took years, years of hard work against tremendous opposition to develop any kind of popular movement against the war, and the kinds of actions that Kennedy and Johnson undertook without a second thought – they were just impossible in Iraq, too much opposition.

Overall there have been a number of significant changes; society has become, in many ways, more civilized.

Barriers to progress

Despite the forward march of social change over the decades, history’s progress is not linear. Most historical milestones have been greeted with a sharp backlash, and for every step forward there is often a resulting regression in public policy that has harmful effects on the population. Obstacles that impede the progress of change vary from one society to the next, but in the developed world, and the US in particular, power structures backed by extremely concentrated wealth pose an immense challenge to would-be change-makers.

The western societies in general are dominated by concentrations of private capital, but in the United States it’s true to an unusual extent for all kinds of historical reasons, and that’s the main impediment to change – in fact the impediment to survival.

Citing recent news about the impending collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, Professor Chomsky contrasts the predictions of respected scientists with the efforts of the wealthy business world to discredit them.

…while this is happening the business world in the United States is running – quite openly – running massive propaganda campaigns to try to convince the public that it’s either not happening, or that if it is happening it has nothing to do with human activity. In other words, the business world is consciously leading the charge towards destruction of a society in which our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren will be able to live a decent life.

That’s the moral calculus of contemporary state capitalism and it’s very powerful. It holds the levers of power.

Elaborating on his concerns about the stranglehold that wealth-backed power structures have over the social change process, Chomsky cites recently published research that demonstrates a worrying trend:   

Just to illustrate, yet another study just appeared – by two major political scientists, released by Princeton university – showing again, in great detail, that concentrated wealth and private power have an overwhelming impact on formation of public policy, and most of the population is essentially disenfranchised. All of this is extremely serious problems. It’s not a barrier that can’t possibly be overcome, but it’s a very high barrier to overcome. It’s the reason for the sharp backlash after the civilizing effect of the 1960’s and the aftermath.                  

Mass-mobilization of a movement

Despite the efforts of wealthy, powerful elites to maintain the status quo that serves their short-term interests, Professor Chomsky does believe that change is still possible. However, we should be under no illusion that it could possibly be simple or quick, or achieved by education or symbolic actions alone. Throughout history, he comments, there has only really been one way in which change has come about: by mass popular mobilization.

So, for example, in the late 19th century the most significant democratic movement in American history developed – it was based primarily on radical farmers. It was a mostly agricultural society then, and there was a radical farmers’ movement. The farmers’ alliance, later called the populist movement, beginning in Texas, going through the mid-west, reaching a very large part of the population, was a mass popular democratic movement with what by today’s standards would be considered quite radical goals. It began to take steps to link to the rising labour movement that was developing with the early growth of industrial capitalism, particularly the Knights of Labour, also pretty radical by our standards. That had the possibility of turning the United States into a far more democratic society. It was mostly crushed by force, but it was not without impact. It had its impact on the progressive programs of the early 20th century.

The crushing of dissent and repression of dissenters have always been the responses of power structures under threat from popular mass movements. Noam cites, as a powerful example, Woodrow Wilson’s first Red Scare of the early 1920’s that all but destroyed the organized labour movement. Despite attempts to crush it, the labour movement would not go quietly, re-emerging in the 1930’s with further organized actions such as sit-down worker strikes, and the resulting wins included the New Deal legislation, a significant step toward social democracy that substantially realigned the arena of United States politics. This reward, too, was not without its punishment, with a backlash beginning in the 1940’s and hitting hard in the 1970’s under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and his successors.

The foundations for change are built at the grass-roots level, and many wins can be rightfully claimed by mass movements of people organizing systematically, as evidenced by the tenacious efforts of the labour movement.

I think if you ask how social change can take place again, desperately needed social change, even defence of the rights of future generations for decent survival, I think it’s gonna have to resemble those groups.

Breaking through the class ceiling

A certain amount of failure comes with the territory, however. Despite the many advances made by social change-agents, Professor Chomsky warns of one glaring inhibitor to progress that is yet to be successfully tackled in any meaningful way:

There have been many advances, but they have left the class system intact. They have not changed the basic system of dominance of the economy and the political system by concentrated private power. That’s remained. It’s been weakened often, and modified – subjected to regulations, limited regulation which it’s mostly dismantled – but it has remained essentially intact.

Chomsky returns to Martin Luther King’s life, and tragic death, as an illustrative example of where popular movements have succeeded and failed. The popular civil rights movement for which King became the leading spokesperson achieved a measure of success until King tackled the issues of class and repression, and exploitation of the poor.

It ended up with King’s famous march on Washington and his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, and some civil rights legislation in 1964 and subsequent years. But then take a look at what happened: King turned to broader concerns – class issues, opposition to harsh repression of the poor, of exploitation and repression of the poor, not necessarily black, but the poor all together. That’s when he began his efforts to develop a party of the poor which would end, or at least mitigate, the harsh repression that’s inherent in the wage system and the capitalist system. Well at that point, as I mentioned before, he just hit a brick wall with the march and he was assassinated.

Even without King’s leadership the civil rights movement continued to fight hard, and the march on Washington went ahead, led by King’s widow, Coretta. But ultimately the movement was greeted by the violence of a state fearing a threat to its legitimacy and no longer able to coerce compliance by other means:

When they got to Washington they set up a tent city – Resurrection City – and were hoping to appeal to the congress, which was maybe the most progressive congress in American history – to appeal to them to introduce legislation which would soften the harsh edges of the highly exploitative and quite harsh system of state capitalist domination of working people, and fighting for the rights of the poor on very serious issues. Resurrection city was allowed to stay there briefly, then the police were sent in; they smashed it up and drove everyone out of town. And that was the end of the poor people’s movement. That’s what happens when you begin to strike at class issues.     

The eternal struggle for sustainability, peace and justice

With such poignant stories scarring the history of social change it is hard to remain positive about the possibility of achieving a state of sustainability and lasting peace and justice, yet Professor Chomsky’s vast experience grants him the wisdom to be patient and pragmatic.

The struggle for peace and justice is eternal. You can have some victories, there’ll be some regression, you can pick up and go forward from a higher plane – that’s the way it’s been through history, and there’s no point at which you achieve peace and justice.

Progress is slow, gradual, and a continuous process, and there is no guarantee that it will continue without constant and renewed effort. In many cases regression does occur, as has been the case with the widening inequality gap between the working poor and our society’s wealthy power elites where wealth has spiraled upward rather than trickled down.

For American working people, say American male workers, their current real wages are at about the level of 1968, though there’s been plenty of economic growth – it just hasn’t gone to the people who are the working people of the society. It’s going into the pockets of a very small number of people – wildly overpaid CEOs of corporations, hedge fund managers, people in financial institutions – most of them probably have a negative impact on the economy, but that’s where economic growth has gone, not into the pockets of the working people.

It can be hard to know what to do as an ordinary individual who senses that something is wrong with this picture. Seeking out alternative media for a more accurate picture of the situation is a necessary first step, and local community-based action is vital, but Chomsky urges a more organized approach to change-making at the political level.

I would add to that popular movements which are committed to bringing about legislative changes. It’s not just – community action at the grassroots is fine, important – but there have to be changes in federal government policy, many kinds of changes. I mean it’s going to require federal government policy to take serious steps towards overcoming the race towards destruction of the environment. Community action can help, but it’s going to have to be much broader than that.

Apathy regarding the predatory practices of financial institutions, for example, can be replaced by strategic legislative action. Citing examples such as a financial transactions tax to at once raise revenue to meet real needs while placing hard limits on economically destructive speculative trading, Noam points out that popular movements can work to bring about legislative changes that would make a concrete difference.

As for other actions people can take, Chomsky leaves those up to the individual, for our circumstances dictate both what is directly relevant to us, and what we are capable of participating in:

It depends on your circumstances, your concerns, the possibilities available to you in your own life. These vary from individual to individual, and they all interact, they are mutually supportive, so people have to pick the ones that are feasible and meaningful for them, and there’s plenty of choices.


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