War in Ukraine has reached its seventh month. Far-right parties have recently advanced in Sweden and Italy. And climate change continues to deliver devastating consequences at an ever-accelerating rate.
Noam Chomsky is a linguist, philosopher, and political activist. He is the laureate professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona
David Barsamian is a radio broadcaster, writer, and the founder and director of Alternative Radio
Cross-posted from Other News
Originally published by the Boston Review
David Barsamian: The situation in Ukraine is dire. If Putin is trapped in a corner, he may make a desperate move to use nuclear weapons, or one of the six Ukrainian nuclear reactors could be bombed (deliberately or by accident). The fate of the planet is in the hands of Putin, Zelensky, Biden. Frankly, I’m very worried. What can people do in this scenario?
“A brutal class war has devastated much of the world and led to tremendous anger, resentment, contempt for institutions.”
Noam Chomsky: Same as always. It’s a dangerous scenario. We can work to try to influence what’s within our range of influence. The United States happens to be diverging right now, pretty sharply, from most of the world with regard to this crucial issue, and we can work to try to change that policy. That’s hard but not impossible. Most of the world overwhelmingly wants to move directly to negotiations to try to end the horrors in Ukraine before they get even worse. It’s true of the Global South, India, Indonesia, China, Africa, overwhelmingly. In Germany, according to a poll at the end of August, over three-quarters of the population want to move to negotiations right away. So that’s one point of view.
The United States and Britain are standing out. Their position is that the war must continue in order to severely weaken Russia, and that means no negotiations, of course. Well, we can work to bring the United States into conformity with most of the world and maybe avert worse catastrophes—maybe. I don’t see anything else that we can do, but that’s more than enough of a task.
DB: Fascism is more than in the air. How does it compare, then and now? It was a century ago almost exactly, October 1922, that Mussolini seized power in Italy with his March on Rome. That was a full decade before Hitler came to power in Germany.
NC: It’s a timely question: yesterday the main far-right party, the one with neofascist origins, took over Italy. I’m old enough to remember what was happening in the mid-1930s. It looked at the time as if the rise of fascism was inexorable. Mussolini, Hitler; Austria, Czechoslovakia; Franco in Spain—it just seemed it was never going to stop.
At that time, however, the United States was an exception: the country was moving toward social democracy. The 1920s were kind of similar to today. The labor movement had been crushed. Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare had smashed the vibrant U.S. labor movement and crushed independent thought; the Palmer Raids arrested thousands of dissidents and sent—expelled—hundreds out of the country. It was a period of business triumphalism, enormous inequality, very much like today. There was great excitement about the wonderful future run by American business.
Then came the Depression in 1929. There was very deep poverty and misery, much worse than today. But the labor movement revived. There was industrial organizing, CIO organizing, militant labor action, sit-down strikes. Political organizations were lively; there were a lot of publications. And there was a sympathetic administration in the White House, which made a huge difference. Out of that came the early steps of what came to be social democracy in much of the world, in Europe after the war.
That was then. Now, it’s almost the reverse. The United States is leading the way to a kind of proto-fascism, and Europe is kind of hanging on to elements of social democracy, though they’re under attack. It’s not the ’30s, but there’s enough reminiscence to make it feel severely unpleasant. A sign of what may be the future, unfortunately, are two recent conferences, first in Budapest in May, then in Dallas in August.
The Budapest conference drew together the major far-right parties and movements with neofascist origins. It was in Hungary because Hungary is in the lead—leading the way to a kind of Christian nationalist fascism, this racist far right, crushing independent thought and controlling the press. It is what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán proudly calls “illiberal democracy”—everything under state control. The main star was the U.S. Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). That’s the core of the Republican Party. Trump gave a virtual speech praising Orbán. Fox News host Tucker Carlson was overwhelmed by Orbán’s magnificence. That’s the future for the United States: racist, right-wing Christian nationalism controlled by state power over independent thought and institutions, control of the universities, the press, and so on.
Then came the CPAC conference in Dallas. Now Orbán was a keynote speaker, the guide to the future; he used much the same kind of rhetoric. We also hear it in the ultra-right Supreme Court. The Republican Party is quite openly—it is nothing secret—preparing the way to try to control and manipulate elections so that they can gain permanent power as a minority proto-fascist party. They may succeed. If so, it’ll lead the way to a kind of proto-fascism in the United States, which can have enormous effects.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro is already following the Trump script. He’s announced that if he doesn’t win, it’s not a legitimate election: it is fake. There are threats of a military coup. The business world has already said, a large part of it, that they’d prefer a military coup to having Lula in power. Unlike the United States, the police are pretty firmly in the hands of Bolsonaro and the far right. As for the army, we don’t know for sure, but a lot of the top military leadership supports Bolsonaro. We don’t know if they would keep to democratic processes as was done in the United States or would go along with a coup. So, it’s possible he might take power, in which case it’s very serious.
That would mean, first of all, that the Amazon is finished. That’s not a joke. Most of the Amazon is in Brazil, and it has been a major carbon sink. It’s been understood for a long time that at some point, under current trends, the Amazon would turn from a carbon sink to a carbon producer with devastating effects for Brazil and enormous consequences for the entire world. Well, it’s beginning to happen much ahead of what was predicted. By now sectors of the Amazon are already at the turning point; there’s not enough moisture produced to maintain the forest. That could have a horrifying effect on the world.
Bolsonaro’s also a big supporter of illegal logging, mining, and agribusiness. He wants to accelerate the process of destruction, very much like the Republican Party here—dedicated to destroying the planet as quickly as possible. They don’t put it in those words, but that’s the meaning of the policies. Maximize the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous of them, and eliminate regulations that might mitigate their effect. I’m not saying anything secret: this is perfectly public. In fact, it’s gotten so extreme that the corporate sector, which is really on a roll under this period of savage capitalist proto-fascism, is now actually organizing to punish corporations that even reveal information about the ecological effect of their investments and development. Otherwise they get punished by Republican state legislatures, which take away the pension funds and so on. That’s really savage capitalism carried to an almost grotesque extreme. And it’s only one case; there are lots of things like that.
You may have seen a report a couple years ago that one of the big oil companies, ConocoPhillips, proposed a major new drilling project in Alaska. One of the things that most concerns climate scientists is the sharp, fast melting of the Arctic, which is warming much faster than most of the rest of the world. Well, that releases the cover of the permafrost. Permafrost contains huge amounts of carbon; when it starts to melt, carbon goes into the atmosphere, driving runaway heating. But this melting is also bad for oil drilling infrastructure. So ConocoPhillips proposed a technique in which they drive rods called thermosyphons into the permafrost, which cool it and harden it so it doesn’t melt so fast. But why are they doing it? So they can drill oil more effectively. I mean, it’s like a suicide race. And it’s happening everywhere.
Take the Middle East, the most major fossil fuel producer in the world. Earlier this month a new report found that the region is warming far more rapidly than it been predicted; in fact, it’s expected to go up almost 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That’s getting close to the level of survivability. Eastern Mediterranean water levels are now predicted to rise much faster than was anticipated: 1 meter by 2050, up to 2.5 meters by 2100. What happens to the Eastern Mediterranean when the sea level rises 2.5 meters? Just imagine. Meanwhile, Israel and Lebanon are squabbling over who will have the right to produce more fossil fuels at their maritime border. While their countries are sinking under the Mediterranean, they’re squabbling about who will have the right—the honor—to administer the final touch. It’s insanity.
South Asia, in many ways, is even worse. The region is already at the level of survivability. A large part of Pakistan is under water from the monsoon rains of a kind that have never happened. Meanwhile, right nearby, there are huge droughts. Farmers in poor areas of India are trying to survive almost 50 degrees Celsius heat without air conditioners. Only about 10 percent of the population even has them, and the ones they do have are mostly old-fashioned, pollution-producing ones. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan are developing their nuclear weapons systems so that they can destroy each other in a competition over who will control the diminishing waters on which they both rely as the glaciers melt. It’s as if the whole species has gone insane.
Meanwhile, think about the Ukraine war. One of the worst of its effects—maybe the worst—is to reverse the limited efforts to deal with climate change and to accelerate rapidly the use of fossil fuels, encourage more fossil fuel production, open up new fields for exploitation to ensure that it goes on way in the future. We have a narrow window for survival, so let’s close it as far as possible. That’s what it means when U.S. official policy is, let’s continue the war to weaken Russia and put off negotiations. That’s what it means. Not just increasing the threat of nuclear war, killing Ukrainians, and starving millions of people because the flow of grain and fertilizers is cut, but also the race to destroy organized human life on Earth by maximizing fossil fuel use during the brief period when we could curtail it or save ourselves. That‘s the situation we‘re now in.
DB: 50 degrees Celsius is 122 degrees Fahrenheit—temperatures reached this past summer in India, Pakistan, Iraq, and in other parts of West and South Asia. But dialing back to Europe and fascism: for as long as I can remember, Sweden has been exalted by parts of the U.S. left as some kind of utopia where wonderful things happen, the government is benevolent, and the people are happy. Well, recently a right-wing group founded by neo-Nazis became the largest party in Sweden’s likely governing coalition. In Germany there’s the AfD, Alternative für Deutschland. In France Le Pen garners large support. Erdoğan rules in Turkey. And it’s not just Europe. Arundhati Roy says India is “a dangerous” place where “a deeply flawed, fragile democracy has transitioned—openly and brazenly—into a criminal, Hindu-fascist enterprise with tremendous popular support,” under Narendra Modi. Have you noticed anything like this, historically speaking?
NC: Well, the 1930s. It was not identical: there’s nothing around right now like actual Nazism, which was beyond the limits of violence and brutality. But it’s pretty harsh, like Modi’s India. There’s a lot of repression and violence and human rights violations, but it‘s not Hitler’s Germany. It’s not Mussolini’s Italy. It’s bad enough, and it’s moving in that direction, but it‘s not that. As I said, in the 1930s there was one crucial difference, namely the United States: while much of the world was descending into the fascist darkness, the United States was moving toward social democracy. New Deal programs were not very radical, but they certainly were bettering people’s lives and offering hope. Business didn’t like it. They were gearing up for an offensive to beat it back.
I’m sure you remember Alex Carey’s great book Taking the Risk Out of Democracy (1995), where he describes the business offensive of the ’30s. The business press, he quotes, was deeply concerned about what they called the rising political power of the masses. It began in the late ’30s to try to organize efforts to beat that power back. The effort was put on hold during the war, but right after there were huge efforts by the organized U.S.-led business community to beat back this threat of popular democracy and social democracy. It took some time. A figure like, say, Eisenhower—the last authentic conservative American political leader—strongly supported the New Deal and labor organizing; by today’s standards, he sounds like a flaming radical.
But the business world was at it. Finally, they had an opportunity in the 1970s when there was an economic crisis, and the business world seized the opportunity. When you look at overall statistics in the United States—almost all: mortality, health care costs, incarceration, minimum wage—you see a point of inflection in the mid-’70s. The United States was moving along with most of the rest of the developed world up to the mid-’70s. Then it stops, and the country moves off the spectrum in all these respects. By now, it was the late Carter regime. Then Reagan took over and accelerated it, opened all the spigots. Since then, of course—it was the same in England under Thatcher—it has spread all over the world. It’s been a major class war, a brutal class war, which has devastated much of the world and led to tremendous anger, resentment, contempt for institutions. That’s the background out of which you start getting these proto-fascist parties. It’s not too late to reverse it, but there isn’t a lot of time.
DB: That’s certainly the view of UN Secretary-General, António Guterres. He has been consistently warning all of us, about the dangers if we do not act and act very, very soon.
NC: He’s right. Unfortunately, not enough people are listening. There are some people that are listening, young people in Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement. The people who are out on the streets demonstrating, carrying out civil disobedience, demanding that you do something. They are desperately trying to get the attention of the older sector of the population, those with political power to do something, to arrest this lunacy and to take advantage of the opportunities that we have to move forward. Well, that’s the struggle that’s going on.
DB: There is some interesting literature dealing with fascism. In the 1930s Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel, It Can’t Happen Here. Decades later Philip Roth wrote a novel called The Plot Against America (2004). Perhaps most famously in France was Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947), an allegory about the German occupation of France. It ends with Doctor Rieux warning the people who were out celebrating in the streets because they thought the plague had passed and would not come back again. He cautions “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years . . . that it bides its time . . . and that perhaps the day would come when . . . it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
NC: There have been people warning. You can add Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Yevgeny Zamyatin earlier, but those are voices in the wilderness. Right now, the image that comes to my mind is somebody falling off a skyscraper, and as he passes floor after floor, there are arms reaching out, with people saying, “Grab my arm. I’ll pull you in and save you.” And he keeps saying, “Don’t worry, Everything’s fine. This is great fun. Don’t worry.” That’s us.
DB: You mentioned Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement as points of resistance, but do they have enough power to really affect change? I’m thinking of what happened in Sri Lanka in July, where a popular uprising literally overthrew the corrupt government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Do you see that happening here? Are there ingredients for a revolt from the left, not from the right?
NC: Sri Lanka was a very special situation; it was really a total disaster. The country just collapsed. There was a ton of corruption that had followed the neoliberal prescriptions to the point of disaster. Of course, the country had a huge civil war, which was devastating.
Is there any indication of a left uprising in the United States? Not that I can see. If there’s an uprising in the United States, at least under current circumstances, it’ll be from the far right, just like in Brazil. One of the things that Bolsonaro did in Brazil was to unleash a flood of weapons. Guns used to be pretty well controlled in Brazil. He just opened it up. It’s not for fun; it’s not for shooting rats. It’s for an uprising. In the United States, of course, it’s overwhelming, and the Supreme Court is helping out.
“That’s really savage capitalism carried to an almost grotesque extreme.”
One of the recent Supreme Court decisions, led by Clarence Thomas, was to overturn a 1913 New York law that required that if people want to carry a concealed weapon in New York, they have to provide some sort of reason for it, some justification. The import of Thomas’s words is that this is such a hateful, awful, hideous country that people need the arms if they’re going to take the subway or go to a store. That’s what kind of a country this is. You therefore don’t have to give a reason to have a concealed weapon in New York or anywhere: you already have a reason.
This country has fallen so low that you just can’t be prepared to go out if you don’t have arms in self-defense. That’s kind of like Ted Cruz in Texas. He says there’s a simple answer to the school shootings: turn them into armed camps, fortify them, have a Marine battalion there, teach the kids how to hide, teach the teachers how to shoot, and that’s the educational environment you need and the kind of hideous country that these people want to see in the United States. Well, that’s the kind of right-wing uprising you’re likely to get.
DB: The death of Queen Elizabeth last month generated days and days of wall-to-wall media coverage, endless commentary and reports. Imagine the impact on the public if the climate crisis received such attention? It would sink into the consciousness of people and then action could be taken. But it doesn’t happen. We’re “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as T. S. Eliot said in one of his poems.
NC: Unfortunately, that’s true. You can put it more narrowly. While England was spent spending huge amounts of energy, time, and money in the elaborate, carefully prepared mourning ceremonies for Elizabeth, the country was practically collapsing. Just take a look at the currency. The British pound has reached the lowest level relative to the dollar that it’s ever had, and there’s an energy crisis coming along. People can’t pay their bills. The food banks can’t take care of people. The country’s falling apart—so, let’s have an elaborate ceremony for the queen. The chief proposal of the new budget of the new Tory government under Liz Truss was tax cuts for the rich.
DB: Policymakers and so-called leaders are still very timid in their approach to addressing societal problems and the questions of war and peace. Where drastic and dramatic action is required, they’re twiddling their thumbs and are content with halfhearted measures. Once again, the question comes up: the rulers and the mega-rich have families, they have children and grandchildren, yet they fail to act to at least minimize the catastrophes which are sure to come. Why?
NC: It’s an interesting phenomenon. That’s why I use the image of the guy falling off the skyscraper, passes the fiftieth floor, arms reaching out to help him. He says, “Don’t worry. It’s fine. I’m doing great.” And in fact, the rich are doing great. They’re so rich, they don’t know what to do with their money. How many super yachts can you have? So, what’s the fuss? That’s the mentality.
Incidentally, it’s not quite accurate to say they’re just twiddling their thumbs. They’re acting to make it worse—much worse. I already gave a couple of examples: let’s use our science and technology to harden the permafrost so that we can extract more oil, let’s punish corporations that are informing stockholders of the environmental effect of their investments, so they won’t do it.
Take something more serious: Taiwan. For fifty years there’s been peace concerning Taiwan. It’s based on a policy called the “One China” policy. The United States and China agree that Taiwan is part of China, as it certainly is under international law. They agree on this, and then they add what they called “strategic ambiguity”—a diplomatic term that means, we accept this in principle, but we’re not going to make any moves to interfere with it. We’ll just keep ambiguous and be careful not to provoke anything. So, we’ll let the situation ride this way. It’s worked very well for fifty years.
But what’s the United States doing right now? Not twiddling their thumbs. Put aside Nancy Pelosi’s ridiculous act of self-promotion; that was idiotic, but at least it passed. Much worse is happening. Take a look at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On September 14 it advanced the Taiwan Policy Act, which totally undermines the strategic ambiguity. It calls for the United States to move to treat Taiwan as a non-NATO ally. But otherwise, very much like a NATO power, it would open up full diplomatic relations, just as with any sovereign state, and move for large-scale weapons transfers, joint military maneuvers, and interoperability of weapons and military systems—very similar to the policies of the last decade toward Ukraine, in fact, which were designed to integrate it into the NATO military command and make it a de facto NATO power. Well, we know where that led.
Now they want to do the same with Taiwan. So far China’s been fairly quiet about it. But can you think of anything more insane? Well, that passed. It was a bipartisan bill, advanced 17–5 in committee. Just four Democrats and one Republican voted against it. Basically, it was an overwhelming bipartisan vote to try to find another way to destroy the world. Let’s have a terminal war with China. And yet there’s almost no talk about it. You can read about it in the Australian press, which is pretty upset about it. The bill is now coming up for a vote on the floor. The Biden administration, to its credit, asked for some changes to the bill after it advanced out of committee. But it could pass. Then what? They’re not fiddling their thumbs. They’re saying, “Let’s race to the abyss as quickly as possible.”
DB: But still, I’m thinking of that grandchild that says, “Grandpa, why did you mess things up for me? Why did you ruin the planet? It’s our only home.” What will grandpa be able to say?
NC: They were saying it when Greta Thunberg gets up at the Davos meeting. It’s exactly what she said. She said, “You’ve betrayed us.” How did the elite react? Polite applause. “Nice little girl. Now go back to school. We’ll take care of it.” That’s what grandpa’s saying.
DB: On September 21 Biden addressed the UN in New York, saying “Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations Charter.” The United States itself has quite a record itself of violating the core tenets of the UN Charter, of course. Where is the media to point out these contradictions and hypocrisies?
NC: There’s plenty of response in the Third World. They’re mostly collapsing in ridicule. You read Third World commentary and they hardly believe what’s going on. Here’s the leading violator of the UN Charter, way ahead of anyone else, telling us, “Oh, somebody violated the UN Charter.” I mean, it’s actually pretty wild when you look at it. It’s almost hard to believe.
There’s a recent article in Foreign Affairs, the major establishment journal, by two liberals: Fiona Hill, who was senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council from 2017 to 2019 and is now at Brookings, and Angela Stent, a leading Russia scholar also affiliated with Brookings. They first denounce Putin, then denounce the Third World. They say something like, “This crazy Third World. There are people out there who actually dare to compare what Putin is doing in Ukraine with what the United States did in Vietnam and Iraq. How crazy can you be?”
That’s what the liberal elite is saying, but you won’t find one word of criticism about it. Of course, I am criticizing it. Maybe a couple other mad mavericks will do it, but there isn’t going to be any more mainstream criticism.
In Europe, there’s talk now about expelling Russia from the Security Council. Did anybody talk about expelling the United States and Britain from the Security Council after the invasion of Iraq? In fact, if you look back at the record on Vietnam, the UN was afraid even to discuss it because they understood that if they brought it up, the United States would just destroy the UN. So, you can’t bring it up. That’s the world, the intellectual community, we live in.
To this day, decades later, you can’t find anyone giving an honest critique of the Vietnam War, except way at the fringe. Try to find somebody in the mainstream who will say what 70 percent of the American population said in 1978—that the Vietnam War was not a “mistake,” it was “fundamentally wrong and immoral.” The left wing of the establishment at the time, people like Anthony Lewis in the New York Times, said the war began with “blundering efforts to do good,” but it turned into a mistake because we couldn’t bring democracy to Vietnam at a cost acceptable to us. Meanwhile, 70 percent of the population are saying—not a mistake; fundamentally wrong and immoral.
Now, in the present, see if you can find somebody in the mainstream who will criticize the Iraq War not just as strategic blunder, like Obama did, but what it was: supreme international crime. Brutal, vicious crime and disaster.
On the twentieth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan—another huge crime—there was an interview with George W. Bush in the Washington Post. It ran in the style section. It portrayed this goofy, lovely grandpa playing with his grandchildren, having fun, showing off the portraits he painted of famous people he had met. Just a wonderful, lovely scene after twenty years of destroying and devastating Afghanistan.
An intensive system of indoctrination tries with much success to impose all this on the population. Meanwhile, we’re doing the things I just described, and not just us. Take the squabble between Israel and Lebanon as to who will have the honor of submerging both countries underwater. Is there any talk about it? No. You get an article in Haaretz saying this is crazy, but practically nothing.
DB: Chile was a target of U.S. intervention; its democracy was overthrown in a CIA-sponsored coup in 1973. Early last month the country had a vote on a new constitution to replace the one adopted by Pinochet in 1980. The vote was 62 percent against. What happened?
NC: There’s more to the story. This was preceded by a referendum in 2020, in which 78 percent of voters said they wanted to get rid of the Pinochet constitution. So, it’s a mixed story. What happened? Well, the new constitution had elements in it that people didn’t like. One was to declare Chile to be a multinational society and give extensive rights to the Indigenous population, which they should have. Well, that was too much for much of the population; they wanted something that would replace the Pinochet dictatorship, but not things like that. The proposed constitution also gave rights to nature. That’s a very progressive idea—too much for much of the population. I should say the Chilean media, all of them, are ultra-right, and they carried out a huge campaign of vilification of the new constitution, voicing all kind of lies and fabrications about all the terrible things it had in it.
Well, there’s some tests of whether that had an effect. There were some virtually controlled experiments, similar populations, which differed in that one of them had actually seen the constitution and the other had only read the press about it. The differences were dramatic. The ones who had seen the constitution were far more favorable. The ones who had only read about it were strongly opposed to it.
“I’ve never really accepted that dichotomy. It’s not reform or revolution: it’s both.”
We’ve seen things like that here. Take the Build Back Better Act, the main Biden proposal. If you look at its individual elements, the population was pretty strongly supportive. But if you look at the bill itself, the population was opposed because they didn’t know what was in it. They just don’t want a big government program by these Democrats who were trying to force something down on our heads. Well, same kind of story: we’ve seen it over and over. Take reforming health care, overwhelming public support. But then the business propaganda begins about how you’re not going to be allowed to see your doctor; the government’s going to tell you what drugs you’re allowed to take. Confronted with all kind of scare stories, the population turns against it. That’s what propaganda is for. That’s what it means to have a highly class-conscious business class, consciously, carefully, constantly carrying out bitter savage class war with enormous resources, organizations, dedication. It has this effect.
I should mention something else about Chile, about the overthrow of the democratic government and installation of the dictatorship. It took place not just in 1973, but on September 11 in 1973. That’s the first 9/11, far worse than what we call 9/11. Anybody talk about that?
DB: On the question of what can be done, let’s talk about the old question of cosmetic reforms versus fundamental radical change. It’s something that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed when he said, “For years, I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the South. A little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
NC: You can take this way back to Rosa Luxemburg and leading left activists over a century ago. I’ve never really accepted that dichotomy. It’s not reform or revolution: it’s both. There are reforms that are very desirable. Say, a reform of the health system that would bring the United States into the world. I mean that literally. Back in 1975, the United States health system was pretty normal among advanced societies—roughly the same outcomes, roughly the same costs. Then comes the split that comes along with neoliberalism. Now, it’s twice the costs of comparable societies, some of the worst outcomes. It’s even so extreme that mortality is increasing in the United States. That doesn’t happen anywhere except for war, severe pestilence. But in the United States it’s happening alone. I’d like to see a reform of that. I’d like to see the United States have a health system like other societies. That’s nowhere near enough, but it‘s a significant reform. It would save many lives, save infant lives, older people’s lives. It means you don’t go bankrupt if you have to go to a hospital. I’m not against that reform; I’m for it.
We also ought to have a major social revolution in which health is a right, a guaranteed right, so you don’t have to go through these hoops. But that’s a major change. I’d also like to see a social change in which workplaces are democratized, not tyrannies, but meanwhile I’d like to see better protection for labor rights. Those are not contradictory. Those are steps you take to try to change the world. Improve it when you can, try to overcome its fundamental problems by organizing committed revolutionary movements. The two are not in conflict.
DB: But given the nature of existing institutions, let’s talk about Congress specifically, where one senator, Joe Manchin, wields outsized power and is able to block the legislation he doesn’t support and pushes through things that he wants. How is that going to happen, given the structure of Congress?
NC: Manchin was elected by 300,000 people, many of whom actually oppose his policies. Last April the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), representing much of the working class in West Virginia, accepted a transition program that would move miners away from the collapsing coal industry to transition to training and jobs in renewable energy. Manchin then opposed the Build Back Better Act that included such a program, prompting the UMWA president to urge Manchin to reconsider. Manchin wants to maintain the coal industry; he’s a coal baron himself. He gets funded by the coal industries. He’s pursuing policies that are harmful to West Virginia and that many West Virginia voters, including his own mining group, are against.
We have a very limited democracy. There are structural problems like the kind that allows somebody like Manchin even to have a decisive voice. There are a lot of problems. They should all be overcome. We could spend the next couple hours on ways they could be overcome. But meanwhile, let’s try to make whatever small changes we can while working on these big ones.
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