Peasants with Pitchforks: An Interview with Noam Chomsky


Peasants with Pitchforks: An Interview with Noam Chomsky

By Søren Hough

SftP Online
January 18, 2021

Photo by Lewis Parsons on Unsplash
Dr. Noam Chomsky is an award-winning linguist, political theorist, dissident, and activist. He is currently Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Laureate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. Dr. Chomsky is a prolific author, having published over one hundred books since 1967 on topics ranging from anarchism to media skepticism. His latest, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal, was co-authored with economist Dr. Robert Pollins and lays out an international plan for addressing climate change.
In December, Søren Hough sat down with Dr. Chomsky on behalf of Science for the People to discuss Climate Crisis, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing struggle of class warfare.

Publisher’s Note: To read more of SftP’s coverage of the climate crisis, check out our Summer 2020 issue, “A People’s Green New Deal.” To support more reporting like this, please consider subscribing or supporting us on Patreon.

Søren Hough: Before the 2020 election, you spoke frequently about the discrepancy between Trump’s regressive non-existent climate plan and Biden’s platform — yet neither approach actually meets the goals laid out in the IPCC 2018 report.1 In discussing your recent book, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal, you indicated that we should come for our politicians “with pitchforks” to shift that reality. I’m wondering what that means as it pertains to climate policy?

Noam Chomsky: The Trump policy was very simple: let’s race to the abyss as quickly as possible. And in fact, they’re doing it right now. While we’re talking, they’re busy dismantling regulations, seeing how much damage they can do before they get out.2

The Biden program is mixed. The rhetoric does exceed the IPCC commitments. It says carbon net emissions should be neutral by mid-century.3 Electric grids, earlier. That’s words. If you look at the programs, they don’t lead in that direction. They don’t say let’s stop fossil fuels, let’s cut them back every year. If we’re going to be neutral in thirty years, we have to be cutting them back every year. Doesn’t say that. It kind of waves its hand at carbon recapture, things like that. I mean, the technologies aren’t there and that’s not the problem.4

So there’s a gap. It does say let’s spend two trillion dollars, let’s move toward electrification — okay, that’s something.5 In fact, by comparison with other programs, it is the best one that the United States has yet come up with. Better than Obama’s, better than anything around — but that’s not a very high bar.6 In fact, all the countries in the world, even if they kept to the Paris agreements — and they’re not doing it — but even if they did, the estimates would be that it’d get to 3oC, roughly, above pre-industrial levels, which is cataclysmic.7 So a lot more has to be done, and that means, getting back to the peasants with the pitchforks, there’s going to have to be a lot of pressure on the Biden administration. First, to make them live up to their rhetoric, and second, to go well beyond it with concrete moves to actually implement the plans and policies which could lead to the goals stated. Which are, basically, the IPCC goals. 

Incidentally, the IPCC goals may not be enough. Practically every day, you learn that it’s too conservative. That’s been going on for a long time. It’s kind of natural — the IPCC report is a consensus document. A consensus document is always conservative, and so you should assume — a rational assumption is that it’s never enough. That’s been shown constantly every time you learn something new, you find out it’s worse than you thought. Just recently, you probably saw the big study on the polar ice caps which are melting considerably faster than had been thought.8 It’s getting to the point where permafrost may start melting away.9 Huge quantities of carbon — indescribable quantities — might be soon going into the atmosphere. At that point, we’re just basically finished. Same is happening with the melting of the Antarctic glaciers. If they really ever did melt, the sea level would be over our heads.10 So things have to be done much faster, and the Biden program, while better than what’s before, is nowhere near enough. So that’s where the peasants come in.

And it’s had an effect. Biden wouldn’t have accepted this program if it wasn’t for the activism of Sunrise Movement, the people under the umbrella of the Sanders movement, and so on. But that’s a small portion of what has to be done. And crucially, activists should not make the mistake that they made when Obama came in. Obama came in with all sorts of pleasant rhetoric, everything was going to be wonderful. He had a huge army of activists. He disbanded them.11 Said, “Go home, don’t worry — I’ll take care of it.” Others said, “Yeah, there’s this nice guy up there, it’s all fine.” Within two years he totally betrayed the country and his supporters, and we’ve seen the consequences. He’s trying to make up for it now with the memoirs, but I’m afraid that’s not the story. So we should learn the lessons. First of all, you shouldn’t even have to learn them. You do not put your faith in leaders. Yes, they’re going to betray you, they’re going to go to serve power. That’s their natural place. You keep the pressure up.

SH: The climate crisis is on a scale that almost induces panic just thinking about it. It’s hard to grasp how cataclysmic it is, as you put it. Is it possible to address that level of potential danger without addressing the underlying problems like capitalism, something US governments are unlikely to do?

NC: We should recognize that capitalism is a suicide pact, very simply. That’s why the business world has never accepted capitalism. They don’t want to destroy everything they own. So the business world has always called for regulating markets, preventing capitalism from destroying itself. They’ve been at the forefront of regulating — of course, in their interest — because they don’t want to destroy everything.

Then there’s a simple question of timescales. I think you’re right — capitalism is devastating. It’s a force that will destroy the world. But there are timescales. We have to deal with this crisis quickly. We have a decade or two to make decisions which will determine the outcome. Doesn’t mean we all die in twenty years — it means if we don’t deal with it within twenty years, we’ve basically set into motion irreversible tipping points so that it’s just a question of time.12 So we have a short period of time. You’re certainly not going to get rid of capitalism in twenty years. That’s so obvious — aside some of my lingering young Maoist friends, you can forget it. So we have to deal with the crisis within existing institutions. 

Now, the capitalist leaders themselves understand that capitalism is suicidal. They have always called for control and regimentation. What we have to do is press them hard to give up short-term goals in order to make sure that society can survive long enough so that we can get rid of them. Basically, that’s what it amounts to. 

And it’s working to some extent. When the huge pension funds said they’re not going to fund environmentally destructive investments, that’s an important step forward.13 When the major banks say okay, we’ll stop investing in fossil fuel industries, that’s important.14 So these are the soft points of the system. They’re worried about what they call “reputational risks” which is the fancy word for “peasants coming with the pitchforks.” And that’s what you press on.

There’s much more than that. What has failed, and we saw it dramatically in this election, is simply educating the public. Take, say, what happened in South Texas, or the fracking areas of Pennsylvania. It was very dramatic what happened. There were areas along the Mexican border, south Texas, mostly Mexican-American, which hadn’t voted for a Republican for a century, but they moved toward Trump. Some counties actually had a majority for Trump.15

Well, there were a lot of reasons. One was they don’t like just being dismissed by the Democratic party management: “We don’t have to worry about them, they’re kind of worthless. ****, they’ll vote for us.” They don’t like that. They have a reason not to like it.

But there was another element, which was very striking. It was interesting to read the liberal commentary about it. They said that they were trapped by a terrible gaffe that Biden made in his last debate. At the end of the debate, he said mildly, “We have to pay some attention to letting civilization survive.” Horrible gaffe.16 Actually, those weren’t his words. He put it in different terms. He said we have to face the fact that we’re going to have to have a transition from fossil fuels. Which means, have a chance that human society will survive. He was bitterly condemned for that at the time. How could he make such a mistake? Had to withdraw it quickly, compensate for it and so on. 

Well, organizers didn’t go down to south Texas and say, “Listen, this is an oil-based economy. We have to end the use of fossil fuels. Here are ways in which we can end it which won’t destroy your lives and your community the way you think. They will make a better life for you, better jobs, more jobs, here’s the plan. You’ll have a better life for yourselves, your families, your children, grandchildren.” They didn’t go down and do that, and they didn’t do that in the fracking areas in Pennsylvania, or Wyoming, or other places. But that has to be done. That’s critical. You’re not going to get it from the Democratic Party managers. First of all, they don’t believe it, they don’t want it, and they don’t give a damn. But organizers have to do that. If they don’t… 

It’s not just a matter of going after Bank of America. You’re going to have to go after the population that believes these guys are trying to destroy our jobs, our communities, our lives, because some pointy-headed liberals claim there’s a climate crisis. That’s what’s in people’s heads. As long as it’s there, it’s not enough to convince Bank of America to invest differently.

SH: That dovetails with another question I had, which is something I’ve heard from policymakers directly: “How do we convince the average person to go along with changes in consumption to address climate change?” It seems to me that it would be much more convincing to acknowledge where the source of the climate crisis comes from — companies like Shell and Exxon, as you pointed out in the book, which have spread misinformation and been at the epicenter of these fossil fuel emissions. If you were to start from that place, even just rhetorically, you’re much more likely to convince people than you are if you just slap a tax on fuel as we saw in France.

NC: I think we discuss this in the book. The way it was done in France, it’s a loser. What it’s telling poor and working people is, “There’s a climate crisis, and you’re going to pay for it.”17 Why should anyone accept that? I mean, a carbon tax makes good sense if the money that’s collected goes back to the population. Let’s make it a progressive tax. So you pay a little more for driving, but the proceeds come back to you — they don’t go to Shell and ExxonMobil and other rich guys. That’s an acceptable carbon tax, and I think people would accept it. 

But with regard to just your ordinary lives, we can tell people, correctly, you can have a better life. If you insulate your home and have solar panels, your electric bill goes down. You’re more comfortable. Look, let’s take where I live. I happen to live in Arizona. Sun’s shining all the time. As soon as we moved in, we put up solar panels. Can’t see one anywhere in the neighborhood. But what you can hear is people complaining, that “I have a thousand dollar electric bill” over the summer when the temperature is over 100oF. For us, we get it free. Okay, tell people that.

It is true that there’s crazed overconsumption, but that’s not good for people. In fact, advertising is designed, obviously, to try to maximize your consumption of things you’re going to throw away. But let’s face it: those things don’t make our life any better, they are a pain in the neck, we can have a much better life in other ways. So I think, at one level, sure, there’s a lot of crazy waste we can get rid of and have much better lives. And at the same time, do exactly what you said — say it’s the centers of private power with their enormous influence and control over government that’s making it impossible to deal with an existential crisis which means that our children and grandchildren aren’t going to have a world to live in. It’s not a small thing. 

We can combine this with enlightening people about what the effect has been of forty years of neoliberalism. For example, you may have seen the Rand Corporation just came out with a study of the wealth transfer of the lower 90 percent of the population to the top mostly 0.1 percent — about 50 trillion dollars during the neoliberal period.18 So if you don’t have a decent job and can’t get by from paycheck to paycheck and have a precarious job where maybe the employer will call you or not, here’s 50 trillion dollars of reasons for it. While the 0.1 percent since Reagan doubled their share of wealth to 20 percent — it was all planned.19 That’s the way it was designed. That’s the way it worked out.

You can do it on every issue. Take, say, the Sanders program. You read the left liberal commentators, say in The New York Times, “It’s a great program. It’s too radical for Americans.” What is it that’s too radical for Americans? Universal healthcare. There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t have it, but it’s too radical for Americans. Free higher education — just about everywhere. Couple of miles from where I live, in Mexico, Germany, Finland. Yeah, everywhere. Too radical for Americans. In fact, one of the associate editors of the London Financial Times, Rana Foroohar — very good columnist — recently had a column in which she quipped, not totally wrongly, that if Bernie Sanders was in Germany, he could be running on the Christian Democrat program, the conservative party — which is actually true.20 I mean, they don’t question these things. It’s taken for granted.

I lived in Massachusetts for seventy years, I saw a lot of this going on. Liberal state. Periodically, there were referenda on universal healthcare. Starts off everybody’s in favor, huge support. Then starts the business propaganda. You won’t be able to see your doctor, it’s going to raise your taxes, businesses will leave the state. You see the polls changing pretty soon in opposition. 

Well, here’s where organizing and education is critical. Sure it’ll raise your taxes — and it’ll lower your bills twice as much as raising your taxes. And what’s wrong with raising your taxes? Is it better to pay insurance companies than to pay the government which is in theory partially responsive to populations? All of these things should be discussed, and they’re not.

In the United States, the attitude toward taxes is very interesting. It’s kind of a measure of the way Democracy functions. If you have a pure totalitarian state, everyone of course will hate taxes — they’re stealing your money. Suppose you had a pure democracy — everyone would celebrate taxes. We got together, we decided what we wanted, we decided how to pay for it and how we’re doing it. Let’s have a party. Where a country stands in that spectrum really tells you a lot. The United States is way toward the totalitarian side which is an indication of how the system functions.

Now we can tell people about that, too. For example, there was just a recent high-level study — I think it was only reported in the Financial Times, that was the only place I saw it.21 It gave detailed analysis which supported even more strongly than before what has come out of a lot of political science research, namely that most of the population simply isn’t represented. They studied the lower 90 percent in income and could find essentially no correlation between people’s beliefs and attitudes and what their representatives are doing. They’re listening to other voices. 

That’s the kind of thing people should know. They should know that it’s the same 90 percent which has transferred 50 trillion dollars to the very rich. That’s the reason why the United States is more regressive than Mexico, or Europe, and others. All of these things should be there. You can’t get tested for COVID because you can’t make the co-payment? That’s forty years of neoliberalism and business-run capitalism before it. Let’s look at that. These are things that people can readily understand, but not if they don’t hear them.

Read more SftP coverage of COVID-19

SH: I live in the UK now and we have seen how the National Health Service (NHS) databases were mobilized to get the vaccine to the most vulnerable (like older folks), of course for free. It’s completely alien to what’s going on in the United States. One of the things that’s unique about America, something I’ve written about in relation to COVID-19, is the faux “Libertarian” streak that means people don’t trust any source of expertise — scientific, governmental, and so forth.22 Looking at the pandemic, climate change, and other urgent scientific matters, how do we uproot this way of thinking? Is it better to acknowledge the misgivings and work from a place of commonality, that we should be critical of what we hear from media outlets, for instance?

NC: It’s not just America. It’s extreme in the United States, it’s pretty much the same in Europe. You see it in a lot of ways. I’ll just give you a personal anecdote. At the early stages of the pandemic, somebody posted an article on the internet in my name. Unfortunately, that goes on. There’s nothing you can do about it. I’m surprised there isn’t more. Crazy article, saying that the pandemic was instrumented by the US government from biology labs to try to get control of the whole world with maybe George Soros behind it or something like that. Some crazed story, and my name was under it. I started getting letters from people, including Europe, including friends, scientists, saying, “Thanks for finally telling the truth.” People are distrustful, and they have reasons. Plenty of reasons. There always are reasons. But for the last forty years, the reasons have risen very sharply. 

The population has been under attack — serious attack. Before Reagan came in, tax havens and shell companies were illegal and the Treasury Department enforced the law. There were virtually no financial crises. Reagan opened the spigot. Unknown amounts of wealth have shifted. Take the world’s greatest corporation, Apple. Profits are made in the US, but they don’t bother paying taxes.23 It has an office in Ireland, somewhere, probably the size of this room where maybe a secretary shows up every week or two. So it’s an Irish company. Or it’s in the Cayman Islands. Britain is one of the main criminals on this. The British islands are notorious modes of tax evasion. 

This goes way back. Back in the 90s, there was a rash of excitement about investing in newly emerging markets. It was going to be a great opportunity. So for a while, I subscribed to the Department of Commerce quarterly bulletins. Very informative bulletins — they come out with everything you can imagine about the economy. One of them is foreign direct investment. So I looked at that for a year so, during the excitement about emerging markets, mostly Latin Americans. You look at Latin America, foreign direct investment: 25 percent of it went to Bermuda. 15 percent went to the British Cayman Islands. 10 percent went to Panama. That’s 50 percent of foreign direct investment for avoiding taxes and money laundering. The rest was mostly mergers and acquisitions. Practically no direct investment. 

Economists don’t study it, press doesn’t cover it. It’s all a massive fraud on the public, and people have lived with that. In the UK, you had to suffer through the New Labour-Tory austerity programs, which stole trillions of dollars from the population.24

Take the NHS. Go back a couple years, it was ranked as the best system in the world. The governments have been chipping away at it. They want to turn it into the worst system in the world. They’re modeling it on the American system. So let’s take the best system in the world and turn it into the worst system in the world so some insurance companies can make money. 

People in Europe have been living under this, too, for forty years, plus the deeply anti-democratic character of the European Union. They don’t have to know the details, but the fact of the matter is that major decisions are not in the hands of the population. They’re made by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, the Troika, totally unelected with the German banks looking over their shoulders. So yeah, it’s been bad. They have a lot of reasons for distrust. But of course, the worst distrust should be against the ones who are running the show: the corporate sector. It’s not the government. They’re the ones running the government. 

It’s like being angry at the local tax collector. It doesn’t make sense. That was done in the past. The pogroms in Eastern Europe where my family lived were against Jews because Jews were the agents of the Czar. Not against the Czar, but against the people who are right in front of you. That’s what it’s like to be angry at the government. The government is not in your hands. It’s in the hands of people who want to make wealth and profit for themselves. 

They’re not secret about it! When Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came in, it was open. Reagan’s first words were government is the problem, not the solution.25 That doesn’t mean that decisions disappear — it means they go somewhere else. Where? Into the hands of unaccountable private tyrannies. That’s what called “Libertarian,” incidentally. Put power in the hands of unaccountable totalitarian institutions. Great “libertarianism.” It’s the most extreme totalitarian view maybe in history. So let’s put the decision in private hands. What are they supposed to do? You may recall that Milton Friedman, the economic guru for Libertarianism, came out with an article in 1970 — an important, influential article — in which he said the sole responsibility of a corporation is to enrich itself; to enrich the shareholders; and, of course, management, whose pay has skyrocketed.26 What do you expect to happen when you decide let’s put decisions in the hands of private tyrannies whose sole goal is to enrich themselves? Is it a surprise that you get 50 trillion dollars of transfer? You’d have to be an idiot not to expect that. Sorry to comment on the economics profession, which was overjoyed by it. But it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen. 

And just to drive the last nail in the coffin, Reagan and Thatcher — or whoever made the decisions for them — did the obvious thing. Let’s destroy any opportunity for people to protect themselves. So their first act was to destroy the unions.27 That’s the way for people to defend themselves. They didn’t waste a minute, both Thatcher and Reagan. Put all this together, you have 40 years of neoliberalism: special things like the anti-democratic character of the European Union; the far right, Blairite, Tory austerity programs… you get disaster. So yes, people have a lot of reasons to be angry, but not against the local tax collector, not against the East European Jews who happen to be picking up the money. That’s not who’s doing it to you. You have to initiate major educational programs to say look, these are just the agents. Look at the source.

SH: You echo a lot of my thoughts as an American Jew. I’ve often thought about how to address antisemitic conspiracy theories about George Soros or whatever the case may be in a way that acknowledges that there is a capitalist class that is absolutely not working in our interests.28 And to not approach it in a more typically liberal fashion, which is to dismiss it all as imagination. There is oppression, there is a lack of choice, there are real forces — it’s just often misattributed to scientists, or minority groups, or immigrants, when in fact the root cause is this massive transfer of wealth as you indicate. 

NC: There are some interesting, very careful analyses of the Trump voters. Some of the best are by the lefty social scientist, Tony DiMaggio. He’s written a couple of books about it. He just did another study of the recent ones and there’s some very interesting results. Turns out that the main support for Trump is in the moderately affluent middle class.29 Not very affluent, moderately affluent. In the US it means incomes from $100,000-200,000. It’s about twice the median. Not people who are suffering — they’re pretty well-off, but not very well-off. And if you look at them, their concern about their futures… they’re white, they’re Christian, they’re traditional, many are rural. The picture of the world they have is that there’s this bad government which is not harming them — which it is — but that is helping the poor, the immigrants, the Blacks. Working for those guys. 

The image was presented very well by Arlie Hochschild in a great book she wrote about the Louisiana Bayou — very poor areas, very right-wing — where the people are environmentalists but vote for the worst anti-environmental organization in the country [the Tea Party]. She investigated them carefully and they picture themselves standing in a line.30 “We look back over our shoulder and we see our parents and grandparents who worked hard, worked the American way, got to this wonderful place. We look in front of us and we see very rich guys, but we don’t resent them. That’s meritocracy. They worked their way up, fine. What we resent is the government because it’s looking back behind us and taking the undeserving — poor, immigrants, Blacks — and pushing them ahead of us. We don’t want that.”

And in fact, when DiMaggio broke down the votes into attitudes, it turned out that in this group, among the moderately affluent middle class, those who blamed somebody else like immigrants for their plight were much more likely to vote for Trump.31 Those who had a more realistic picture of what’s happening didn’t go in that direction. A lot of that is where you’re pouring out your grievances. These are places where you have to educate people. It’s not China that’s taking away your jobs. It’s bankers in New York and Chicago who are deciding your fate. They’re taking away your jobs. China doesn’t have a gun to anyone’s head saying you’ve got to move your factory here. These are not deep points, but you can make them to people. Only if you try. Not if you just talk to each other, not if you have a blog. You really have to get out there and do it. And again, the Democratic National Committee’s not going to do it because they don’t even agree. They’re perfectly happy to have the bankers make the decisions.

SH: This is what we see in “trade agreements” that will prevent countries from raising the minimum wage, putting them at the mercy of companies that can sue the whole nation for violating terms of their business deal.32 It’s not that Mexican or Chinese workers have taken your job — it’s externalized to the global market.

NC: It’s not even the global market. That’s a fraud. The trade agreements are investor rights agreements. They have almost nothing to do with trade. It’s a joke. Take, say, NAFTA — the one that’s been most carefully studied. First of all, the labor movement was strongly against it. At that time, Congress had a scientific technological advisory board — the Office of Technology Assessment. They were opposed to it on the same grounds as the labor movement.33 They said it was aiming at a low wage, low growth economy, and here’s another way to do it which would aim at a high growth, high wage economy. Both the labor movement and the Office of Technology Assessment came out independently with those programs. Totally disregarded. Didn’t even bother looking at them. “We want the investor rights agreement.” Shortly after, Congress disbanded the Office of Technology Assessment. They don’t want information — it’s annoying. Trump has turned it into a caricature, but the sentiment was there before.

So what is NAFTA? It has almost nothing to do with trade. You read the economics literature, they’ll tell you that trade has increased between the United States and Mexico. What’s that trade? A company in Indiana, say General Motors, makes parts in Indiana. They send them across the border to Mexico to be assembled cheaply. They send them back across the border and they sell the car in Los Angeles. That’s called “trade” in both directions. It’s internal to a command economy. It’s like the old Soviet Union. If you made parts in Leningrad and sent them to Warsaw to be assembled and sold them in Moscow, we didn’t call that trade. They’re actions internal to a command economy. 

These are secret organizations. We don’t have a lot of detail. But estimates are that that’s about 50 percent of what’s called “trade.”34 It’s not even trade. The main part of NAFTA is protectionism. Incredible protection rights. Virtual monopoly pricing rights. That’s why drugs are out of price, because they’re enormously protected. Dean Baker, one of the few economists who’s looked at this closely, said tens of billions of dollars of money is wasted in high drug prices thanks to the protectionist measure of the World Trade Organization.35

So don’t delude people into thinking it’s the market. It’s not. It’s the way the ruling class, who do exist, are fighting a constant class war. They are relentless. They never stop. They’re basically Marxist, vulgar Marxists, fighting a class war. They got the values inverted, but they understand the principles. It’s a constant classic class war. Every minute. That’s why this minute the Environmental Protection Agency is racing as fast as they can to put in deregulation which will be very hard to overturn.36 Let’s take the last minute we have to fight our bitter class war. They don’t relent on any front. And if they’re the only ones fighting, guess what’s going to happen? It’s worth noting that they’re aware of it, and they’re a little scared. 

Take a look at Davos. Every January the wonderful people, the rich, the Hollywood stars, the media, celebrities all gather in a Swiss ski resort to talk about how marvelous they are. This last January was different.37 The mood was, “We’re in trouble.” The peasants again. They’ve got to do something to overcome this reputational risk, so they’ve presented themselves in a different way. They come and say, “Yes, we made mistakes, we didn’t treat you people properly, but we understand. We’re now going to be humane.” The new mantra is, “We don’t work for shareholders, we work for stakeholders. We’re dedicated to the workers, the communities. We see our mistake. So put your trust in us. We’re humane and good-hearted.”38

If you’re a little bit older, like me, you can remember the 1950s when they were going to be “soulful corporations.”39 That was the phrase used by Kennedy liberals. Don’t have to worry about it, from now on they’re going to be soulful corporations. So put your trust in us. We’re repeating this now. Now they’re going to be “humane.” The main business group in the United States just came out with a statement by two hundred leading executives with exactly the same story.40 Now they’re going to be “soulful corporations.” But meanwhile, they fight the same war. 

Naomi Klein wrote a very good book, The Shock Doctrine, which was exactly right, but only half right. Yes, when there’s a disaster, capitalists are going to come to make as much money as they can out of it. The other half is when there’s no disaster, they’ll do the same thing. Because that’s their business: to try and screw you as much as possible for their own benefit. So one way or another… We’re going to have a post-pandemic economy and they’re working very hard to make sure it’s the same one that created the crisis, but harsher, more controls, and so on. If they’re the only ones struggling for it, that’s what will happen. But it by no means has to happen. Plenty of forces on the other side and they are even, to some extent, getting organized. 

The Progressive International, which of course doesn’t get any headlines or coverage, is an effort by the Sanders movement in the United States, Varoufakis’s DiEM25 in Europe, and those in the Global South to see if we can get together and have a counter force. They just had their first meeting in Iceland where the Prime Minister is a member.41 It’s developing. You don’t read about in the newspapers, of course. Doesn’t have states behind it, except Iceland and a couple of others, but it’s there. Those are the peasants with the pitchforks. That’s the great mass of the population. If they can get together — solidarity, internationalism. Remember the days when it meant something for a labor union to be an international. Bring all that back, then you can achieve something.

SH: The thing that gives away the plot — I’m sure you saw this when it came out. But there was an article in The New York Times about the resurgence of the Pinkertons.42 They’ve rebranded themselves as a private security force for the wealthy because they anticipate the backlash from the masses when climate change starts upending society. But it doesn’t seem like a sustainable plan.

NC: You don’t know. The forces of state power are very significant. Depends whose hands they’re in. That’s one of the reasons why this last election in the United States was an utter disaster. The Democrats lost everywhere, not that they’re so great. But they’re at least not as horrible. Republicans won at every level. Everything but the president. That was just a vote against Trump. For the rich and powerful, he’s a little too vulgar. They like his policies, but let’s have someone more civilized. In fact, his policies are just slavish support for the rich, almost everything. He’s a little too much for their sensibilities so they voted against him, but the rest of the ticket, everything Republican down to localities. 

That puts a stamp on the future. The census has just come out. That means ten years in which state legislators will be drawing the districting lines for elections. It’s going to be in the hands of Republican legislators. They know they’re a minority party. They can’t win an election. They lost this one by about seven million votes. They’ll lose others. They have to find ways of preventing voting, undermining democracy, keeping the wrong people out. They’re very good at it. They have experts working on it all the time. The Supreme Court’s in their pocket now. There used to be a Voting Rights Act which had some effect. That’s been withdrawn, so they’re free.43 Looking at American history, it’s like the end of the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, when the Southern States were free to do whatever they like, so they reinstituted a version of slavery.44 That’s what we’re looking at now. It’s going to take major popular movements to do something.

There’s another ace in the hole. Nobody knows exactly how it’s going to work, but Trump isn’t going to disappear. People are making fun of it, but I think mistakenly — every time he loses a case in court, it strengthens his base. I think that’s what they’re doing. They don’t care how ludicrous the cases are. They don’t care if the judges make fun of them. That just tells their base, “Our hero, who we adore and venerate, is under attack by the Deep State. Even the judiciary is in its pockets.” Take a look at the polls, it’s shocking. Recent one, CNBC and others, found that among voters for Trump, about 3 percent — 3 percent — say that Biden won the election. ~75 percent say that Trump won it.45 The rest say it wasn’t a legitimate election. Well, they have armed militias which outgun the state police. Dedicated, committed, ready to fight. [Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted one month prior to the attack on the Capitol Building.]

It got to the point where I live, in Arizona, one of the Republican leaders said you have to be ready to die to save Trump.46 That one was criticized a little bit, made the papers. But it represents the feeling. I’m old enough to remember the early 30s. It has some of that flavor. You have to remember, in 1928, the Nazis got less than 3 percent of the vote.47 Ten years later, it was the worst period of human history. Something to worry about. The US is in a deep crisis, and it’s so powerful that if something awful happens here, it’s the whole world.

SH: That’s a great segue. In our last few minutes, I was hoping to get a little bit of history. You have been involved in radical science throughout your career. I’d like to ask what role you think Science for the People and radical science in general should play in society going forward.

NC: Science for the People has two tasks. One is the general task of radical activists. Hold the institutions’ feet to the fire. Make sure that the sciences are honest, work for the public welfare, for the public good, for the advancement of science, not for the powerful and the oppressive. You’ve got to make sure you do that. That’s one part. The other part, which is very important in a country like the United States, is to overcome the anti-science mentality. After all, this is the country of the Scopes Trial. It’s a country where 80 percent of the population believes in miracles, where almost half the population is expecting the second coming of Jesus, maybe in our lifetimes.48 Half the country is modern, half the country is pre-modern. 

It’s worth remembering, if you go back before the second World War, the United States was an intellectual backwater. If you were a student and wanted to be an artist or a writer, you went to Paris. If you wanted to study physics, you went to Germany. There was a fringe of scientists and artists here, but it was way out at the fringe. The center of culture was Europe. When I started teaching at MIT in 1955, it was anachronistic by then, but one of my jobs was to teach grad students in engineering, biology, physics to fake their way through obligatory reading exams in French and German. That’s a holdover from the pre-war period. Of course, they were never going to look at an article in another language because by then, everything was in English — world power had changed. But it took a couple of years for this to fade out. 

After the second World War, the US basically took over the world. Kicked Britain out, ran the world. It did become the center of science, technology, and so on. But only for part of the population. Much of the population never changed. We’re seeing that right now. So going back to Science for the People, one thing is to try to bring much of the population into the modern world. The other part is to make sure to keep after the science establishment and say, “Do your job. Be honest, fair, for the common good, not working for the powerful who are paying for you.” 

Also not just running for the next Nobel Prize instead of trying to do something serious. I can remember in the 1950s, I was at MIT, Harvard. Young biologists, after Crick and Watson, began to start keeping their work secret from others instead of working jointly with others. Let’s keep it secret because there’s a lot of Nobel Prizes out there. Okay, we don’t want that kind of science.

SH: You celebrated your birthday recently — happy birthday! You have had a long and storied career as an anti-war activist, as an anarchist. Now that we’re in 2020, looking back, do you have any final reflections on your career and where we are now as a society?

NC: My earliest recollections from childhood are fear of fascism. The fascist plague seemed to be expanding over the world without limits. It was a very frightening period. It’s a pretty frightening period now, with different things happening. That’s life — more work to do. Lots of hope, that’s the good part.

This interview has been edited for clarity. This article was co-published with The Commoner.

SCIENCE FOR THE PEOPLE is dedicated to building and promoting social movements and political struggles around progressive and radical perspectives on science and society. We are workers, educators, and students in science, technology, engineering, and related fields committed to the democratic practice of science for the benefit of humanity and the planet. Get updates, early access, and a special PDF of Science for the People by supporting Science for the People with a monthly donation on our Patreon or subscribe to our magazine.

About the Author

Søren Hough is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. He uses CRISPR in his day-to-day research studying the mechanisms of DNA repair. Søren also works as a freelance journalist and has covered everything from film and television to science, ethics, and politics. When he’s not in the lab or writing, he organizes with local groups to effect equitable and just societal change.

Editors

Manu Raghavan (Lead Editor)
Chhavi Goenka (Co-Editor)
Justin Shipsey (Technical Editor)
Camille Rullán (Editor at Large)
Nathan Foster (Copy Editor)
Søren Hough & Matt Moss (SftP Online Editors)

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