The Precipice

Neoliberalism, the Pandemic and the Urgent Need for Radical Change

Noam Chomsky’s name was familiar to me back in the 70’s while I was studying Computer Science (techniques he pioneered in linguistics were used to define the syntax of programming languages). Fifty years later looking for a book for our recently formed Socialist book club, I came up with this collection of interviews given around the Trump presidency (much of which also applies to the UK). All I can do here is to draw attention to just a few of the revelations that leapt from these pages, but to get the full impact you really need to spend £6 and buy a copy.
I’ve already purchased three more copies to hand out!

Neo-liberalism

Unfolding over the past 40 years has been the growth of unregulated corporations answerable only to their shareholders, unparalleled since the days of the East India Company. US-based corporations between them now own close to 50% of global wealth and growing. The Neo-liberalist doctrine, accelerated by Reagan and Thatcher and continued by successive governments of all types, has added considerably to the wealth of the already wealthy, with research in the US showing that $50 trillion has been taken from the poorest 90% to enrich the top 10%.

Our economy has also changed from using money to make things to sell, to using money to make money. Chomsky writes of: “the financalization of the economy, creating a huge bloc of largely predatory institutions devoted to financial manipulation rather than to the real economy” (p. 119). This is supported by so called Free Trade Agreements that have more to do with investor protection than trade, with governments providing guarantees to protect the profits of the global corporations (p. 7).

For me the standout example showing that Neo-liberalism has no interest in the wellbeing of the masses was the scandal in the US around ventilators. The Obama administration, having reviewed preparedness for a global pandemic, realised that there weren’t enough ventilators. The Department of Health contracted a small firm to produce a low-cost easy-to-use ventilator. The small company was then bought by a large company who soon realised the low-cost models would compete with its own more profitable models and got out of the contract. So the quantities of low-cost models needed were not available when COVID hit (p. 288). In the UK, after COVID stuck, the government – realising that the country had no vaccine manufacturing capability at all – invested in a building a new state of the art facility and is currently selling it off before it has produced a single dose of vaccine .

Democracy

The simple truth is that neither the US nor the UK is a democracy. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election when Clinton got more votes but Trump was handed the presidency, questions were raised about the Electoral College. Chomsky points out that in the Senate, 60 out of 100 senators are elected by just 25% of the population (p. 219). Guaranteed to produce a white, rural, Christian majority that will block any attempt to amend the constitution to create something that is more recognisable as a democratic system of government.

Here in the UK the election of 2019 gave the Conservatives a thumping majority, with just 42% of the votes. The fact that the British people still tolerate this and a totally unelected “upper chamber” is frankly just an embarrassment.

It seems that all that Trump (or Johnson) needed to do was to fuel racism, xenophobia and the fear of immigration to win power. With technology funded by the large corporations, tailored messages were targeted at various voting constituencies, mobilising people on cultural issues and demonising the opposition, with little need to present actual policies to win power (p. 221). Whilst much was made of the claims of Russian interference, few though questioned the oil companies spending $30 million (p. 162) on advertising or Harris Media (p. 139) micro-targeting electors susceptible to the right-wing messages of Trump.

Since Thatcher proclaimed that there is “no such thing as society” and Regan exhorted that “Government is the problem” we find ourselves with “a profound democratic deficit. An atomized society, lacking the kind of popular associations and organisation that enables the public to participate in a meaningful way in determining the course of political, social and economic affairs” (p. 37). Our political parties are run by elites, focused on producing the right sort of candidates, to serve the donor class, leaving us at the mercy of private power (p. 63). Under Corbyn the Labour party was funded by the Unions and its members, and became more of a participatory organisation (p. 300)., but since then the leadership has been quick to reverse this, with the party back to ignoring the wishes of its members and the unions, to help attract more  corporate sponsors.

The Existential threats of Nuclear War and Global Warming

One of the many potential flash points for nuclear war lies in the Middle East. Israel has secretly developed and tested nuclear weapons, and it is feared that Iran is planning to follow suit. Moves to establish a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East have been blocked by the US and Israel. Since its creation in 1948 Israel has been sustained by nearly $250 billion of US aid. But if the US acknowledged the existence of nuclear weapons in Israel, then all aid to Israel would have to end under US law (p. 166). The US has a simple choice: a nuclear Free Middle East or a continuation of US aid to Israel; but people have no say in the matter. Whatever the House or President may wish  there is no way the Senate, as currently elected, would ever stop aid to Israel. (Israel though is aware of the risk and is increasingly looking for support to China and in particular India which it sees as a “natural ally for a number of reasons“(p. 70).  

Global warming is a threat to all of us. The fossil fuel industry continues to maximise its profitability aided by banks (p. 180). CEOs have a choice: maximise profit and undermine life on earth or refuse to do so and be removed and replaced by someone who will. In the last 15 years governments have bailed out the banks in response to the global financial crisis, and a range of industries in the response to the global pandemic. Clearly governments can find finance when they need to, and could if they wanted take a controlling interest in the fossil fuel industry to wind them down.

Racism, genocide and the threats to world peace

On 1 December, Richard Burgon was on LBC with Iain Dale. During the discussion, Burgon, who is Labour MP for Leeds East,  expressed concern about the use of the phrase: “the Chinese have tentacles all over” pointing out that this sort of language is responsible for increasing levels of abuse towards those with South East Asian parentage. With the concern dismissed, the conversation moved on to the Uyghurs, which Chomsky describes as: “The largest incarceration of a religious or racial group since the holocaust” (p. 204).  When Burgon suggested that: “there are things that the government of the United States has done historically which we profoundly disagree with”, Dale declared: “not genocide though” without it seems any understanding of US history. Burgon picked him up on the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, and in this volume Chomsky mentions the dreadful litany of US atrocities: starting with the slave trade, then the wars of extermination against the Indians (p. 195), the US Immigration act of 1924 that effectively banned Jews from Eastern Europe (many of whom perished in the Holocaust) (p. 115), the operations directed in South Korea before the Korean war (p. 24) and the bombing of Cambodia (p. 320). Last but by no means least were the sanctions imposed by Clinton and supported by Blair against Iraq, which was described by the diplomats who administered the “oil for food” program (p. 195) as “genocidal”.

Chomsky noted that: “The US along with China and Taiwan are the only countries to reject a world court decision”. The US has even gone further by passing the “Hague Invasion Act” authorising the use of force to rescue any American brought to The Hague International Court (p. 197). Not surprising then that when a Gallup Poll asked which country was the biggest threat to world peace the US came top with 24% with China 3rd at 6% (p. 308).  As the interview with Burgon revealed, racism continues unchallenged in large segments of the British media, and the passing of the Nationality and Borders Bill underlines its presence in government policy.

Voting is not the end of our work. It’s only the beginning

It is remarkable that Chomsky, now 93 years old, has so clearly presented the case for radical change supported by such detailed analysis. There was much in this volume that was new to me, and having read this I feel better informed about how the world is governed. He concludes the book with a call for activism, for people to gather, discuss, share and organise to make the world a better place. Contrary to the view at COP26 that it is up to the corporate world to prevent a global catastrophe, it is really down to us, the people, we just need to get organised.
Thank you, Noam Chomsky.


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