Noam Chomsky: Neoliberalism Is Destroying Our Democracy

How elites on both sides of the political spectrum have undermined our social, political, and environmental commons.

We just saw it two weeks ago in the last French election. The two candidates were both outside the establishment. Centrist political parties have collapsed. We saw it in the American election last November. There were two candidates who mobilized the base: one of them a billionaire hated by the establishment, the Republican candidate who won the nomination—but notice that once he’s in power it’s the old establishment that’s running things. You can rail against Goldman Sachs on the campaign trail, but you make sure that they run the economy once you’re in.

CL: So, the question is, at a moment when people are almost ready… when they’re ready to act and almost ready to recognize that this game is not working, this social system, do we have the endowment as a species to act on it, to move into that zone of puzzlement and then action?

NC: I think the fate of the species depends on it because, remember, it’s not just inequality, stagnation. It’s terminal disaster. We have constructed a perfect storm. That should be the screaming headlines every day. Since the Second World War, we have created two means of destruction. Since the neoliberal era, we have dismantled the way of handling them. That’s our pincers. That’s what we face, and if that problem isn’t solved, we’re done with.

CL: I want to go back Pankaj Mishra and the Age of Anger for a moment—

NC: It’s not the Age of Anger. It’s the Age of Resentment against socioeconomic policies which have harmed the majority of the population for a generation and have consciously and in principle undermined democratic participation. Why shouldn’t there be anger?

CL: Pankaj Mishra calls it—it’s a Nietzschean word—“ressentiment,” meaning this kind of explosive rage. But he says, “It’s the defining feature of a world where the modern promise of equality collides with massive disparities of power, education, status and—

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NC: Which was designed that way, which was designed that way. Go back to the 1970s. Across the spectrum, elite spectrum, there was deep concern about the activism of the ’60s. It’s called the “time of troubles.” It civilized the country, which is dangerous. What happened is that large parts of the population—which had been passive, apathetic, obedient—tried to enter the political arena in one or another way to press their interests and concerns. They’re called “special interests.” That means minorities, young people, old people, farmers, workers, women. In other words, the population. The population are special interests, and their task is to just watch quietly. And that was explicit.

Two documents came out right in the mid-’70s, which are quite important. They came from opposite ends of the political spectrum, both influential, and both reached the same conclusions. One of them, at the left end, was by the Trilateral Commission—liberal internationalists, three major industrial countries, basically the Carter administration, that’s where they come from. That is the more interesting one [The Crisis of Democracy, a Trilateral Commission report]. The American rapporteur Samuel Huntington of Harvard, he looked back with nostalgia to the days when, as he put it, Truman was able to run the country with the cooperation of a few Wall Street lawyers and executives. Then everything was fine. Democracy was perfect.

But in the ’60s they all agreed it became problematic because the special interests started trying to get into the act, and that causes too much pressure and the state can’t handle that.

CL: I remember that book well.

NC: We have to have more moderation in democracy.

CL: Not only that, he turned Al Smith’s line around. Al Smith said, “The cure for democracy is more democracy.” He said, “No, the cure for this democracy is less democracy.”

NC: It wasn’t him. It was the liberal establishment. He was speaking for them. This is a consensus view of the liberal internationalists and the three industrial democracies. They—in their consensus—they concluded that a major problem is what they called, their words, “the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young.” The schools, the universities, churches, they’re not doing their job. They’re not indoctrinating the young properly. The young have to be returned to passivity and obedience, and then democracy will be fine. That’s the left end.

Now what do you have at the right end? A very influential document, the Powell Memorandum, came out at the same time. Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer, later Supreme Court justice, he produced a confidential memorandum for the US Chamber of Commerce, which has been extremely influential. It more or less set off the modern so-called “conservative movement.” The rhetoric is kind of crazy. We don’t go through it, but the basic picture is that this rampaging left has taken over everything. We have to use the resources that we have to beat back this rampaging New Left which is undermining freedom and democracy.

Connected with this was something else. As a result of the activism of the ’60s and the militancy of labor, there was a falling rate of profit. That’s not acceptable. So we have to reverse the falling rate of profit, we have to undermine democratic participation, what comes? Neoliberalism, which has exactly those effects.

Listen to the full conversation with Noam Chomsky on Radio Open Source