Noam Chomsky and the American dream

I watched a documentary by Noam Chomsky the other day – Requiem to the American Dream. It was thought-provoking. I remember him being invoked as a world intellectual back when I was studying anthropology – Chomsky was a linguist – and he has to be one of the most thoughtful people around today. Not everybody agrees with him, but what he says has gravitas and reason: we must, at the very least, consider his wisdom.

The thrust of the documentary was the insidious way that democracy is manipulated by big business: he argued that democracy and capitalism are opposing ideologies. To Chomsky, the ‘neoliberal’ revolution of the 1980s – which essentially led to the current imbalances of wealth and the power of the corporates – was a reaction to the growing strength of democracy during the post-Second World War decades. And he showed the ways in which big business, including the finance sector, has dominated the neo-liberal narrative, to the point where nobody thinks in other ways.

Chomsky was particularly using the United States as a case study, but what he said was generally true of all western societies, one way or another. Most of the major nations swung to the right in the late twentieth century, and for much the same reasons: a rejection of the centre-left ‘social democratic’ version of capitalism that had characterised the western world since the Second World War. Further, because Chomsky was basing his analysis on human nature in large societies, what he had to say applied generally.

A beautiful picture of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.

What interested me was that he showed how social narratives work. It’s something I’ve put a good deal of thought into myself, because they are so powerful. In mid-nineteenth century industrial Britain and Europe, for example, those who had the power and money pursued a narrative to the effect that the poor were authors of their own misfortune. It was a vision wrapped in puritanical zeal: the poor had failed to become rich because they were drunkards, they wasted money, they were lazy, they were dissolute and so forth – all the stereotypes that, in fact, were true for many of the wealthy. The fact that society was structurally iniquitous – that the only real social mobility was among the rising middle classes, and the early captains of industry had basically shut out the poor – never entered the picture. By the puritanical narrative of the day, the poor were poor by their own hand, and had to be punished for it.

Such attitudes, of course, usually end badly – as successive European governments discovered in 1820 (Portugal, Italy, Spain, Greece), 1830 (Netherlands, France, Poland, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland), and especially in 1848 (France, multiple German states, multiple Italian states, Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Ukraine (Galicia), Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, various Romanian states, Spain and Ireland). While the motives for all these were complex and involved the way Europe was moving away from its early-modern sociopolitical structures, industrial inequities played due part. Indeed, many of the 1848 uprisings, particularly, were directly linked to the way industrialisation was panning out as a device for creating and enforcing economic inequities.

Which brings me back to Chomsky and what amounted to a warning about where the neo-liberal revolution has led the United States and – by extension – the world. The narratives of this era – where the intrusion of big business into democracy has been normalised, where the neo-liberal version of capitalism is presented as the only version – where the political compass has swung hard right (to the point, here in New Zealand, where the blatantly centre-right economic policies of the current government are being decried as ‘socialist’) – worry me. They favour only one group: the corporates and the wealthy. And that may be well and good for shareholders. But an ideology that pivots on dispossessing those it needs to keep it running; where (as Chomsky showed us) those with power manipulate the dispossessed to fight each other; where prosperity for the few pivots on unlimited exploitation of a limited environment, can have only one end.

I like modern civilisation – ideally, we have the best living standards and technologies in the history of the world. Democracy has shown that it can work, and it is the ‘least bad’ of all the possible governmental systems. Capitalism – when we pick the right version (‘eco-capitalism’, anyone?) – is a great way to support it all. Long may all this continue. But we’ll need to work at it. And a society that floats on the current narratives, where ‘capitalism’ is defined exclusively as the neo-liberal version, where the power of the corporates continues to grow, where exploitation of the environment is fast reaching its end-point, isn’t the way forwards. If there isn’t a sea change soon, the only question is whether climate change or the mobs will be first to knock it all over – with no hope for quick recovery. Civilisation has got too big for that. It won’t happen tomorrow – but a generation or two down the track, who knows? Ouch.

As I’ve been saying for a while… When will Mickey Savage return to save us all?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021


4 thoughts on “Noam Chomsky and the American dream

  1. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    I thoroughly agree with most of this but think we are heading for a showdown a little earlier, may be even within the next generation? Wealth and inequality is now only a part of the overall picture and I think once climate change ramps up we may see more rapid changes.
    Thank you for a very thoughtful article.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks – glad you like it. Yeah, the possibility of trouble (which I feel I should capitalise) is already hard-baked into social inequities across the world – climate change doesn’t have to create too much dislocation to trigger things. I fear you are right about trouble arriving sooner.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read Chomsky, and I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard of neo-liberalism until I read it here on your blog, but I’m no stranger to some of the /concepts/ A science fiction writer by the name of Kim Stanley Robinson introduced me to the corrosive power of corporations a long time ago. Back then I shuddered and thought, ‘that could never happen in the real world’. And then, because I’m interested in biology and genetics, I started investigating the role Monsanto was playing in the emergence of genetically modified food. The more I read, the more the pieces starting falling into place. Eventually, you gave it a name. Neo liberalism. Ayn Rand’s love affair with capitalism gone horribly wrong.
    The only thing I’d disagree with is equating corporations with capitalism. Capitalism is supposed to be based on competition. Corporatism, on the other hand, aims to destroy or absorb the competition, to effectively become a monopoly or, to avoid anti-trust laws, a duopoly as in the case of Intel and AMD, Microsoft and Apple etc.
    I fear that democracy has already suffered irreparable harm from corporatism. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

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