NOAM CHOMSKY — REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM — 2017
How can someone who is so keen on language and words, a linguist mind you, use the word “Requiem” in his title ignoring — and I am sure he knows about it — that a requiem is composed and performed for something that is dead and has no future, no possible resurrection, or maybe Noam Chomsky has become a Catholic who believes in the resurrection of the dead. The title is of course a provocation both revealing and self-defeating. And that’s what I am going to discuss now.
Ten principles, and it has to be ten to avoid all kinds of symbolism, you know, six and Solomon or David, seven and the holy week of Genesis or the Passion, eight and the Second Coming, nine and the Beast, the hours of Jesus’ death, eleven is the number of disciples with Jesus after Judas has left and twelve are the twelve apostles. No let’s stay mathematical, cold and non-symbolical. So ten it is going to be and the decimal system, the basis of numeration devised by physicists and mathematicians and proclaimed as the end of barbarity by the French Revolution that established the metric system as the future of the world and the real measure of reason and intelligence.
The first point has to do with American history and the US Constitution. It opposes two founding fathers and/or framers. James Madison, the aristocrat who wants to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority of the non-opulent on one hand. And Thomas Jefferson the democrat who believes the US Constitution is there to guarantee equality and democracy for all free men. Naturally, Chomsky knows all this at the time was a real farce since, as he recalls, “free men” were only free white men and they excluded all non-free white men: indentured white men, and all men who had neither real estate property, nor commercial property, nor farmland property, since to be a free citizen you had to have some property and pay some tax for it. These free white men also excluded all women, all Indians, all Blacks, slaves or not slaves. In fact, the body of free white men who could be citizens in that society was maybe a few percent of the whole society, maybe five like in England at the same time. But history is vicious and in spite of all the crimes of this old American history, we have genericized the meaning to a very wide understanding today.
And the crimes were, as Chomsky reminds us,
1- “decimating the indigenous population” (note how he avoids genocide or even holocaust: some speak of 90 to 95% of the native American population exterminated);
2- “massive slavery of another segment of the society” (why on earth does he avoid the terms Black or African American, since anyway 90 to 95% of these slaves were Blacks, and 100% in the South, but this identification would have brought the idea that there were a lot of non-slave black men and women in the North and in the slave states that had been French or Spanish because of the rule of manumission, but that would have brought something that is clear: only the British Protestant and Puritan colonists in the British colonies and then the USA practiced — and this is still true — the theory of one-drop-of-black-blood, replacing the practice of slavery with the practice of mass racism that is still alive in the USA);
3- “bitterly exploited labor” (and he forgets to explain what May Day is, when and where it started and Sacco and Vanzetti are not quoted: that art with which Chomsky remains generic on such questions is unexplained and probably unexplainable, or at least it’s better it remains unexplained);
4- “overseas conquests” (that’s the wrong word because overseas conquests are rare: Porto Rico and Hawaii: it could have been better to speak of American imperialistic interventionism in the world since the Monroe doctrine expanded after the first world war and the second world war to the entire world);
5- “etc.” (true enough the list is long from Mossadegh to Lumumba, from Korea to Vietnam and to Korea again), not to mention the Middle East.
And his reference to Aristotle is the traditional Western hypocrisy and short memory. Aristotle spoke for a slave society in which the majority of the population was in servitude and the Roman Empire will not be better and Aristotle was rightly used by Calhoun, the Southern slave theorist, to justify his project of a US society that would be a perennial slave society forever. Chomsky of course forgets this reference that totally disqualify the reference to Aristotle.
It is then simple to come to this vision of society that is cut in two: the rich and the poor, the aristocrats or the plutocrats at the top (just a few percent) who have all power and the democrats at the bottom, all the others, all set under the umbrella of “the poor.” This vision is the vision that many in the world under the name of socialism and under the older probably obsolete name of communism still defend when advancing their political projects, especially their populist political projects, be it from the left like in Greece (note the lefty coalition managed to get rid of the most extreme branch of their movement through elections), in Catalonia, in Spain, in Portugal, Italy or in France; or be it from the right in Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, Italy and many other countries, including the USA where that extreme right populist movement was the Tea Party and still is the Freedom Caucus and Trump himself, all of them in the Republican Party, Lincoln’s party mind you. Atrocious history!
The worst part in this dichotomy, in this binary vision of the world, history, and the USA, is that he here and there evokes a third “party” but he never integrates it in his analysis of the society and the political system, just as if the US Constitution had not been able to shift from two parties, Democrats and Whigs to two parties, Democrats and Republicans, with a new party in place of one that died. True enough, any two-party system that is cast in reinforced shielded concrete like the one in the US cannot develop a multi-party system. Let me say here that this political system with indirect vote for the President and the frozen two party system is worse, I dare say FAR WORSE than the one-party system of the USSR or China. But Chomsky does not even consider any reform of it: get rid of the indirect vote for President and make all elections two-round elections. Only one-party systems, Great Britain and the USA, still have that archaic system of a one-round electoral system. In England where they have a three or four party system the winner can be elected with a meager 30% of the electorate if there are four candidates. That is absurd. And it is the people who defend this system who come and give lessons to other countries, the country where it has become common to have a president elected with a minority of the popular vote if we follow Wikipedia: 1824: John Quincy Adams; 1876: Rutherford B. Hayes; 1888: Benjamin Harrison; 2000: George W. Bush; 2016: Donald Trump; plus 1960: John F. Kennedy who is debated because it is impossible to determine with absolute certainty the popular vote of the three candidates.
And yet you will find the ferment of this necessary “third” possibility that should be this necessary “multiple” perspective. The Counterforce as he calls it page 41; “those who are interested in an independent progressive party,” page 102. And as he says page 42 “the only counterforce is you.” But he is not able to really capture what he says here in full contradiction with what he says later on, towards the end of the pamphlet, page 126: “the idea is to try to control everyone, to turn the whole society into the perfect system. The perfect system would be a society based on a dyad — a pair. The pair is you and your television set, or maybe now you and your iPhone and the Internet.”
And he has trapped himself so much in his dyad, in his dual thinking, in his binary vision that he does not see that “you and your television set” (I hope with some programs, not just the set) has a “you” who is passive, even if he has 100 channels and can zap from one vision to the next; and on the other hand “you and your iPhone and the Internet” is a lot more open and can be open to first some active participation, and then some activity in search and reception of multiple points of view and opinions. He just forgets that Roosevelt was the President elected with the radio, Kennedy with television, Obama with the Internet and email networks, and Trump with social networks. He wants to reduce everything to money and the weight of the big corporations. But he forgets the impact of media and thus he does not see that Trump has captured the daily practice of the discontents today: they use Twitter to express their rage that does not need more than 140 characters to express itself, even often a lot less like “F*** the P*****!” with the use of stars and other symbols to avoid four letter words or non-politically correct entities. But more and more people use their iPhones, their smartphones and the Internet to actually counterweigh the forces of the financialized offshored outsourced system. Counterweigh with information and training and education, all three self-engineered, self-retrieved and self-learned if not actually self-taught.
But what he has completely wrong is his vision of the economy. He more or less accept the division of society in, on one hand, the extreme minority of the plutocrats who advocate plutonomy and plutocracy instead of democracy, and on the other hand the vast majority of the “precariat,” the “precarious proletariat.” The allusion to Marx is so obvious that his vision of the total dictatorship, he says a ‘totalitarian” situation, echoing the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie of Marx. We expect the dictatorship of the proletariat, sorry of the precariat. He does not go that far but his vision is just as dramatic as that. He considers that for the first time in history (of course he only speaks of the history of mankind after they invented writing, which is a very short period of time because in the long run the Homo Sapiens species met with survival as a species several times, the most recent ones being when the Ice Age locked them up into running, retreating and trying to survive on reduced territory and reduced resources, and then when agricultural division of labor was introduced in the Neolithic or a couple of millennia before, after the Ice Age any way, that reduced life expectancy to something around 20 or maybe 19 years which brought the reproductive possibilities to at the most three children maybe four with more than a 50% death rate before puberty, some say 75%. If it were that dramatic then we would not be here to testify.
But it is false because between the two extremes there is the majority of the people that used to be called the middle class. But we have to reanalyze it to requalify it as all the people who have jobs on the basis of a partial or total college education, who are highly connected together in family, acquaintance and local networks plus other global networks like Facebook for sure, but more precisely as reviewers on Amazon and other commercial sites, on LinkedIn and other professional sites, on Academia and other independent research sites, on Reverbnation or Myspace and other musical sites for people practicing music in a way or another, or on Medium and other self-publishing sites. That’s the new middle class, the one that counts because they are really representing the future of humanity, discussing, proposing and confronting all kinds of new ideas. Trump was able to capture a section of this new middle class who did not get from Obama what they were hoping to get, but Trump essentially captured the old middle class: white, protestant mostly, working in precarious or non-evolving jobs that can look like blind alleys, who have a house and a mortgage, a couple of cars, and have a high school degree and some of them a partial college degree or a short state university degree, plus those in this group who have been made redundant and have been obliged to accept a job that does not pay as well as before and has little future or is precarious. What’s more he does not take into account the top layer of the new middle class that has reached PhD level and have all kinds of executive positions as university or college personnel including professors, or in average or large private companies. That upper middle class is particularly active and dynamic in hi-tech businesses, in startups, in the big new global companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and many others. This new middle class is not confronted to traditional unemployment like miners, particularly coal miners, or car workers. These have been confronted with robotization and automation for about ten to fifteen years, but the new middle class knows these robots are also coming after their jobs, though most of these new middle class people occupy jobs that would have employed three or more people before the extension of robots and complex computer systems.
This revolution that is taking place under our noses is going to put the plutocrats like Trump in the ditch because mines can be reopened but they will be hi-tech and robotized. No jobs for humans, or very few and highly qualified. Same thing with the car industry. Since people like Chomsky or Trump have not done one single thing to think the problem through and to imagine what is going to happen, they will be confronted with millions of people getting redundant with robots and being fired. The USA are going to face this tremendous transformation without any planning, preparation and strategy. Whereas in China the one child family has been producing over the last ten years and for decades to still come a labor movement that replaces three or four low qualified jobs with one highly qualified job, in the west, the USA and Europe, nothing has been done to face the problem except in countries like Germany that have been facing labor shortage for several decades. In the next few years the USA are going to be confronted to a dire situation. If Ford does not open a factory in Mexico where they could have had some workers still at a rather low salary and open it in the USA, they will multiply by three or more the number of robots. In Flint General Motors had a factory that employer several ten thousand people. The same production today would work with at least ten times less workers and the difference would be half the same number of robots. Chomsky does not see that, does not talk of that at all.
So his announcement that the top plutocrats are not capitalists since they negate the free open market economy that carries capitalism is not going to improve the situation. His call to go BACK to the free open market economy of capitalism is not going to bring a solution at all to the robotization problem. In politics as I have already said he does not propose any reform of the electoral system, of the political architecture in the USA, an architecture that should be modified to enable more people to be part of the democratic system that has to be improved and not invoked like a catch word or a fetish.
His approach of the media is simply narrow minded. He obviously does not know Marshall McLuhan who is the best inspiration you can find to understand the effect of the Internet and smart phones on the psyche, the behavior and the mental intellectual state of younger generations. The Internet requires an active user who uses his mind to search and to find, to extract, collect and restructure information. They are just doing that all the time at work and it becomes a way for them to BE HUMAN in front of these machines: use them creatively. The lowest common activity they practice on their smart phones is communication with others. They have never been so much social. Games and other lower activities are either for the uneducated minority or for relaxing purposes. The few who spend hours playing poker on line are not representative of what the younger generations are doing with the new media.
The worst part of the present wild financial capitalism we are going through is the permanent debts people have that often exceeds what you should have, and are able to really pay back, forcing them to get loans to pay back due loans or debts, thus always remaining under this financial dependence if not crushing weight. That will take a lot of time to “educate” the public and to “regulate” the banking system to prevent such extreme situations. The mortgage system has to be changed too and instead of the capital being indexed on the real estate market, it should be frozen, and the capital thus could go down month after month, and at most the interest rate could be indexed on inflation or some other fair parameter or set of parameters. But here we reach the main contradiction of this pamphlet.
At the end when he evokes the role of trade or labor unions in the past that “were a very educational force” (page 149) he apparently does not capture his contradiction since that’s the only solution he puts on the table, though since unions hardly exist nowadays we can wonder how he is going to do this education. But the contradiction is with what he said before about propaganda and education. One author he calls for help on the subject is Edward Bernays and the document is from 1928. At the time only two media were working: the radio and the cinema and the talkies were just starting to appear on the silver screen (the telephone was still marginal). So let me consider this author is not very helpful in modern times. But since Chomsky invokes him in support of his point of view on the role of education to turn the “bewildered herd” into “spectators, not participants” let me quote what this author says about the subject:
“Is this government by propaganda? Call it if you prefer government by education. But education, in the academic sense of the work, is not sufficient. It must be enlightened expert propaganda through the creation of circumstances, through the high-spotting of significant events, and the dramatization of important issues. The statesman of the future will thus be enabled to focus the public mind on crucial points of policy, and regiment a vast, heterogeneous mass of voters to clear understanding and intelligent action.” (page 133)
In the present situation this approach is all wrong. People are bombarded with all types of data and information, some propaganda, some real knowledge or reflection, and they have to sort all that out all by themselves. In other words, the “statesman of the future” is not enabled to do anything in the line of bringing real and intelligent understanding and action to the “masses” that are regimented for sure but on the basis of what they think, what they feel, what they have experienced, what they have all-sensorially as McLuhan would say received and absorbed. It is no longer propaganda but direct manipulation of people’s emotions and fear and resentment and even hatred.
And as for labor unions Chomsky should reflect on the role they played in building what Chomsky calls “class consciousness,” a concept he borrows from Marx again, this concept coming from a political dyad: there are two basic antagonistic classes in society: the bourgeoisie and the working class. Right now we are living under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. We have to unite to bring the socialist revolution that will get rid of this dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and we will be able to impose the dictatorship of the proletariat under the guidance of the avant-garde party that will bring together in direct action the active class consciousness elite of the proletariat.
Chomsky cannot be that blind. But he is so pessimistic that for him there is no hope, except a dream. What is strange is that the American Dream he had buried in his title, is replaced by some formless, backboneless and unorganized dream:
“There’s is a lot that can be done [Note the irritating passive that is a very negative may to borrow Obama’s motto, “Yes we can,” and make it a totally blind, submissive and abstract phenomenon that does not even depend on our doing: if we demonstrate then a miracle can be performed: how, by whom, when, where?] if people organize — struggle for their rights as they’ve done in the past — and we can win many victories.” (page 150)
And he concludes with Howard Zinn:
“What matters is the countless small deeds of unknown people, who lay the basis for the significant events that enter history.” (page 150)
Rosa Parks sure did a small little act one evening after work but if there had not been someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., and a whole network to inform him and bring him on the scene she would have died in prison or even worse she would have been lynched. We need to have people who are able to use modern media to get in touch with both the new middle class and the old disappointed and discontented middle class and get them into an alliance with all type of active minorities, ethnic, sexual, gender, cultural or whatever to build a majority movement with clear objectives and based on permanent action. I must say the Democratic Party right now is NOT the organization that can take the leading position in this field, though they can play an important role in the grassroots movement that may block some of the suicidal reforms Trump is trying to bring through, not to mention his perilous and absurd foreign policy only founded on military force and naked violence.
P.S. As a linguist who has followed Chomsky’s whole career, I am not surprised by the dichotomic vision and thought he develops here. His linguistics, since the very first publications of his in the mid-1950s till his latest publications at the end of the previous century and the beginning of the present century have been dominated by one formula he has never questioned or modified: S = NP + VP. Without discussing this a priori principle, let me say simply that the simplest of all sentences is composed of three elements (The door is red.); that all languages except the most analytical languages like European languages consider the verb as the center of the sentence that projects its mental structure on the sentence that is of course at least three functional elements; and when there are only two then the only nominal element holds two functional positions. This Chomskyan dictum has in fact blocked many possible developments: being unable to make translating machines effective, then Google and others tried to develop such machines with practical automatic mapping of the corpus of one language onto the corpora of other languages considering correspondences established in such a way provide scientific translation. It is good enough for a hotel booking form, but certainly not for a poem by T.S. Eliot.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU