Capitalism is Killing Us (But It
Doesn’t Have To)

A Conversation Between C.J. Polychroniou, Noam Chomsky, and Robert Pollin

The following conversation is from Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin’s new book Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal. The authors are interviewed throughout by economist C.J. Polychroniou.

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C.J. Polychroniou: The 2015 UN climate agreement signed in Paris, popularly known as the COP21 agreement, has been hailed by world leaders (with the exception of Donald Trump) as a huge diplomatic success, but it has been rightly criticized by environmentalists and others for lacking any teeth. There’s indeed nothing mandatory in the Paris Agreement. Noam, why is it so difficult to check climate change?

NC: Looking beyond COP21, there is a great deal to say about why checking climate change is so difficult. But as to why the limited Paris Agreement has no teeth, the answer is clear enough.

The original goal was to establish a treaty with binding commitments. Laurent Fabius, the summit’s president, reiterated that goal strongly. But there was a barrier: the US Republican Party, which controlled Congress, would not accept any meaningful arrangements.

The Republican leadership was admirably frank about its intention to undermine the Paris Agreement. One reason, hardly concealed, is that the Republican wrecking ball must smash anything done by the hated Obama; that goal was put plainly by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when Obama was elected. Another reason is the principled opposition to any external constraints on US power.

But the immediate decision follows directly from the Party leadership’s uniform rejection of any efforts to confront the looming environmental crisis—a stand traceable in large part to the historic service of the Party to private wealth and corporate power, accelerated during the neoliberal years.

Following carefully worked-out Republican plans, McConnell informed foreign embassies that, according to sources reported in Politico, “Republicans intend to fight Obama’s climate agenda at every turn.” He also made it clear that any agreement that reached the GOP-controlled Senate would be “dead on arrival.”

“There is ‘no chance’ that such an agreement could clear the two-thirds hurdle, one Republican energy lobbyist said. ‘There are few certainties in life, but that is one of them.’”

Republicans also made it clear that they would “block Obama’s pledge to provide billions of dollars to help poor countries adapt to the effects of a warming planet,” and would sabotage other efforts to deal with global warming. “They are becoming the party of climate super-villains,” as one commentator put it succinctly.

It’s important to recognize the nature of this organization. For anyone who did not yet understand, it was made crystal clear during the 2016 Republican primaries, featuring political figures who were hailed as the cream of the crop—apart from the interloper who walked off with the prize to the dismay of the Republican establishment. Every single candidate either denied that what is happening is happening, or said maybe it is but it doesn’t matter (the latter message came from the “moderates,” former governor Jeb Bush and Ohio governor John Kasich).

“The Koch brothers launched huge campaigns to ensure that nothing would be done to impede the exploitation of the fossil fuels on which their fortune rests.”

Kasich was considered the most serious and sober of the candidates. He did break ranks by recognizing the basic facts, but added that “we are going to burn [coal] in Ohio and we are not going to apologize for it.” That’s 100 percent support for destroying the prospects for organized human life, with the most respected figure taking the most grotesque stand. Amazingly, this astonishing spectacle passed with virtually no comment (if any) within the mainstream, a fact of no little import in itself.

It’s of some interest to see how this remarkable situation came to pass. There are general reasons (there is no space to go into those here), but also quite specific—and revealing—ones. A decade ago the Republican organization, while already well off the normal spectrum of parliamentary politics, was not firmly dedicated to denying what the leadership knows to be true. How this changed provides some insight into contemporary politics, under the impact of the most dedicated and reactionary elements of the highly class-conscious business world.

A glimpse into this world was provided after the death of David Koch in August 2019. This happened to coincide with the appearance of a major in-depth study of the Koch empire and corporate America by Christopher Leonard, who discussed some of his discoveries in articles and interviews. Leonard describes David Koch as the “ultimate denier,” whose rejection of anthropogenic global warming was deep and sincere.

Let us put aside suspicions that this might have something to do with the fact that he had an immense fortune at stake in this denialism, perhaps trillions of dollars of potential losses over a period of 30 years or more if denialism were to fail, Leonard estimates. Let’s nevertheless suspend disbelief and accept that the convictions were entirely sincere.

That would come as little surprise. John C. Calhoun, the grand ideologist of slavery, was no doubt sincere in believing that the vicious slave labor camps of the South were the necessary foundation for a higher civilization. And there are other examples, which, out of politeness, I will not mention.

The Koch brothers’ denialism went vastly beyond mere efforts to convince. They launched huge campaigns to ensure that nothing would be done to impede the exploitation of the fossil fuels on which their fortune rests. As Leonard recounts, “David Koch worked tirelessly, over decades, to jettison from office any moderate Republicans who proposed to regulate greenhouse gases.”

But the efforts did not entirely succeed. In 2009–10, the Republicans were flirting with reality, coming close to supporting a market-based cap-and-trade plan for green-house gas emissions. John McCain ran for president on the Republican ticket in 2008 warning about climate change. With the help of Mike Pence and others like him, the Koch juggernaut was able to derail the heresy, ridding the Party of moderates who might not toe the line on denialism and twisting the arms of the recalcitrant with a combination of public vilification and private funding. The consequences of which we now see before us. The lessons about “really existing democracy” as well.

The Koch network, Leonard writes, “has tried to build a Republican Party in its image: one that not only refuses to consider action on climate change but continues to deny that the problem is real.” With impressive success.

The juggernaut is indeed impressive. No stone was left unturned: networks of rich donors, discourse-shifting think tanks, one of the largest lobbying groups in the country, the organization of what can pose as grassroots groups to ring doorbells, pretty much creating and shaping the Tea Party. And it had many other goals as well, such as undermining labor rights, destroying unions, and blocking government policies that might help people: what’s called “libertarianism” in US usage.

The Koch brothers’ juggernaut stands out in its careful planning and successful use of the immense profits it has gained from polluting the global atmosphere without cost—a mere “externality,” in the terminology of the trade. But it is symbolic of the savage capitalism that is becoming more and more evident as the neoliberal project that has served private wealth and corporate power so well comes under threat.

Both political parties have drifted right during the neoliberal years, much as in Europe. The Democratic establishment is now more or less what would have been called “moderate Republicans” some years ago. The Republicans have mostly gone off the spectrum. Comparative studies show that they rank alongside fringe right-wing parties in Europe in their general positions. They are, furthermore, the only major conservative party to reject anthropogenic climate change, as already mentioned: a global anomaly.

“Why are populations so willing to look the other way when survival of organized human life is literally at stake?”

The positions of the leadership on climate surely influence the attitudes of Party loyalists. Only about 25 percent of Republicans (36 percent of the savvier millennials) recognize that humans are responsible for global warming. Shocking figures. And in the ranking of high-priority issues among Republicans, global warming (if it is even assumed to be taking place), remains low and unchanged into the election year.

It might be considered outrageous to assert that today’s Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history. Perhaps so, but in the light of the stakes, what else can one rationally conclude?

Even apart from Republican obstructionism, it is unlikely that the US would have accepted binding commitments at Paris. The US rarely ratifies international conventions, and when it does, it is typically with reservations that exclude the US. That’s true even of the Genocide Convention, signed by the US after 40 years but excluding the US, which retains the right to commit genocide. There are many other examples.

Returning to COP21, the immediate reason for the lack of teeth is the Republican Party, but the chances that the US would have agreed to binding commitments were slim even without the obstructionism of the most dangerous organization in world history.

In the background of this obstructionism is a lingering question, the one raised by Alon Tal: Why is it so hard for governments to confront this crisis realistically? And still deeper in the background: Why are populations so willing to look the other way when survival of organized human life is literally at stake?

One answer was given by a participant in the remarkable Yellow Vest uprising in France. The immediate cause of the uprising was President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal in 2018 to raise fuel taxes with alleged environmental concerns, a move that would hit the poor and working people in rural areas particularly hard. But the background to the protests, more broadly, was the whole range of Macron “reforms” that benefited the rich while harming poor and working people.

The participant, perhaps a committed environmentalist himself as many were, said that you are talking about “the end of the world” but we are concerned with “the end of the month.” How are we to survive your “reforms”?

A fair question, which quickly became the slogan of the grassroots demonstrations sweeping Paris and much of the rest of the country. And a question that cannot be overlooked by the environmental movement.

Global warming has an abstract feel. Who understands the difference between 1.5oC and 2oC (2.7oF and 3.6oF respectively)—in contrast to having food to put on the table for your children tomorrow? True, there are more storms, heat waves, other disturbances today—but others doubtless can conjure up something like my own personal experience.

I’ve lived through many hurricanes in Massachusetts, but none as fierce as those almost 70 years ago. So maybe Trump is right when he says the climate always changes—sometimes it’s warmer, sometimes colder? It’s easy to fall into that trap when your prime concern is putting food on the table tomorrow.

And why follow President Carter’s gloomy prescription of turning down the thermostat and putting on a heavy sweater, and in general cutting back on our lifestyle while billions of Chinese and Indians—so we hear on Fox News—are pouring pollutants into the atmosphere with abandon?

Or consider the mineworker in West Virginia who was cheering at a Bernie Sanders rally until Sanders said that for any chance at decent survival, we must stop producing coal. No applause for that line. That would mean losing his job, and there’s not much attraction in an alternative in the growing service industries or installing solar panels, which, other reasons aside, would mean losing his pension and health care, which were won in hard union struggles and are tied to employment. Lose your job, and you lose not only personal dignity but also the means of survival.

Here we come up against a fateful decision by US labor in the 1950s: to choose class collaboration, making deals with corporate management for wages and benefits while abandoning control of the workplace and broader social reforms. That decision by US labor leaders contrasted with the choice by the very same unions in Canada to fight for health care for the whole population, not just ourselves.

The results are quite visible. Canada has a functioning health care system while the US is burdened by an international scandal, with costs about double those of comparable countries and relatively poor outcomes, thanks in no small part to the inefficiency, bureaucratization, and profit-seeking of the largely privatized US system.

By choosing class collaboration, US labor leaders left that mineworker and others like him at the mercy of the corporate owners, who were free to cancel the bargain. Which is what they have done, quite dramatically since the dawning of the neoliberal years. In 1978, UAW president Doug Fraser finally recognized that the business classes never abandon class war, even if labor leaders agree to do so.

Fraser criticized the “leaders of the business community” for having “chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country—a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and for having “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress.”

Hardly a surprise, particularly in the US with its highly class-conscious business community and bitter history of violent suppression of labor, unusual in the developed world.

There followed years of neoliberal globalization designed in the interests of investors and the ownership class at the expense of American workers, alongside the neoliberal “reforms” guided by the same fundamental imperatives. The results should be well known. Wealth concentrated sharply, with the obvious consequences for functioning democracy, while real wages stagnated. Workers now have about the same purchasing power as they did 40 years ago.

“Revival of the labor movement is an essential task for many reasons. One is the environmental crisis.”

Unions came under bitter attack during the extreme anti-labor Reagan administration, a process carried forward under his successors. Demolition of the labor movement is a major achievement of neoliberal policies, following the Thatcherite doctrine that there is no society, only individuals, isolated creatures who face market discipline on their own, unorganized. That has been a core principle of neoliberalism going back to its Austrian origins in the 1920s.

It’s why the far-right “libertarian” guru, Ludwig von Mises, in the interest of preserving “sound economics” from interference, enthusiastically welcomed the crushing of the vibrant Austrian labor movement and social democracy by state violence in 1928, laying the groundwork for Austrian fascism; and in his major work, Liberalism, he praised fascism for saving European civilization.

To be sure, the atomization principle holds only for what Thorstein Veblen called “the underlying population.” Those who matter, private wealth and corporate power, are highly organized in pursuit of their class goals, manipulating state power in their interests while the rest become “a sack of potatoes,” to borrow Marx’s phrase in his condemnation of the autocratic regimes of his day. The sack of potatoes, unorganized and increasingly consigned to precarious work and lives, are much more easily controlled.

Returning to the mineworker and many others like him, it is not hard to discern good reasons why they should resonate to the Yellow Vest slogan and resist the mass mobilization that is essential if we are to overcome the environmental crisis.

For organizers and activists, all of this provides important lessons. Revival of the labor movement is an essential task for many reasons. One is the environmental crisis. If the sack of potatoes becomes organized, active, and committed, it could become a leading force in the environmental movement. These are, after all, the people whose lives and future are at stake. It’s not an idle dream.

In the 1920s, the vigorous US labor movement had been crushed by state and business oppression, often through direct violence. The title of labor historian David Montgomery’s classic The Fall of the House of Labor refers to that period. But a few years later, a lively and militant labor movement rose from the ashes and spear-headed the New Deal reforms that have greatly improved the lives of Americans through the great postwar growth period, before falling victim to the neoliberal assault. It’s worth remembering that Bernie Sanders’s revolution would not much have surprised Dwight Eisenhower, an outspoken supporter of New Deal measures.

It might be worth recalling the attitudes of the last conservative president, just to see how far we have come in the neoliberal age. Eisenhower declared:

I have no use for those—regardless of their political party—who hold some foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when unorganized labor was a huddled, almost helpless mass . . . Only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice . . . Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group of course that believes you can do these things. Among them are . . . a few . . . Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

They were in fact far from stupid. They were well-organized, committed, and waiting for the opportunity to show that “you can do these things,” the basic thrust of the neoliberal age.

The revival of the labor movement in the 1930s is an important precedent, but there are more recent ones. It’s well to remember that one of the first and most prominent environmentalists was a union leader, Tony Mazzocchi, head of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). The members of his union were right on the front line, facing destruction of the environment every day at work, and were the direct victims of the corporate assault on individual lives.

Under Mazzocchi’s leadership, the OCAW was the driving force behind the establishment in 1970 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), protecting workers on the job, signed by the last liberal American president, Richard Nixon—“liberal” in the US sense, meaning mildly social democratic.

Mazzocchi was a harsh critic of capitalism as well as a committed environmentalist. He held that workers should “control the plant environment” while also taking the lead in combating industrial pollution.

By 1980, when it was clear that the Democrats had abandoned working people to their class enemy, Mazzocchi began to advocate for a union-based Labor Party. That initiative made considerable progress in the 1990s but couldn’t survive the decline of the labor movement under severe business-government attack, reminiscent of the 1920s.

The project could be revived, just as it has been in the past. Recent militant action in the growing service industries might be a harbinger of things to come, along with the impressive strikes by teachers in the red states, aimed not just at overcoming their miserable wages but more importantly at improving the woefully underfunded public school system—another target of the neoliberal assault on society. The path that Mazzocchi tried to forge—militant labor as a driving force of the environmental movement—is not an idle dream and should be actively pursued.

C.J. Polychroniou, Noam Chomsky, and Robert Pollin
C.J. Polychroniou, Noam Chomsky, and Robert Pollin
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Laureate Professor at the University of Arizona. Author of American Power and the New Mandarins and Manufacturing Consent (with Ed Herman), among many other books, he is a linguist, historian, philosopher, and cognitive scientist who has risen to prominence in the American consciousness as a political activist and the nation’s foremost public intellectual.

Robert Pollin is Distinguished University Professor of Economics and Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is also the founder and President of PEAR (Pollin Energy and Retrofits), an Amherst, MA-based green energy company operating throughout the United States. His books include The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy (co-authored 1998); Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (2003); An Employment-Targeted Economic Program for South Africa (co-authored 2007); A Measure of Fairness: The Economics of Living Wages and Minimum Wages in the United States (co-authored 2008), Back to Full Employment (2012), Greening the Global Economy (2015), and Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal (co-authored 2020).

C J Polychroniou is a political scientist/political economist who has has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. He is the author of Optimism Over Despair: Noam Chomsky on Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change (Haymarket Books, USA; Penguin Books, UK).





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