Noam Chomsky - 'The Precipice - Neoliberalism, the Pandemic, and the Urgent Need for Social Change'

Noam Chomsky - 'The Precipice - Neoliberalism, the Pandemic, and the Urgent Need for Social Change'


The cover for Noam Chomsky's 'The Precipice'

The title for this book is no exaggeration: we are standing at the precipice in our time, the tipping point where we decide the fate of humanity.

This book is a collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky, linguist, political dissident, and intellectual extraordinaire. Chomsky has been phenomenally outstanding in each of those fields for decades, and now, in his nineties, he is yet again proving that he is not slowing down in the least.

The most topical subjects discussed in this book are the most urgent ones:

  • The climate catastrophe.
  • Neoliberalism and Republicans.
  • What can be done/optimism.

Chomsky carries so much intellectual heft that he could be regarded as daunting if it weren’t for his clear and brief conversation about complex matters. He is expert at unfurling his thoughts by using simply-understood sentences.

One of the most appropriate comments I’ve seen on Trump’s foreign policy appeared in an article in the New Republic written by David Roth, the editor of a sports blog: “The spectacle of expert analysts and thought leaders parsing the actions of a man with no expertise or capacity for analysis is the purest acid satire - but less because of how badly that expert analysis has failed than because of how sincerely misplaced it is…there is nothing here to parse, no hidden meanings or tactical elisions or slow-rolled strategic campaign.”

Chomsky’s method of answering questions should be a lodestar and template for intellectuals: simple and easily understandable sentences that quickly nail down what the speaker means. True to fashion, Chomsky doesn’t simply answer questions but makes matters slightly more contextual by providing history and clarity. There is nobody else that I know of, who does this as expertly as Chomsky.

Most of the topics in this book cover what was urgent at the time of the interviews, most of which dealt with Donald Trump, climate catastrophe, and the COVID-19 pandemic; far more international topics are also covered.

It is quite an achievement to have significantly escalated all three of the threats to survival that have moved the Doomsday Clock toward midnight in a mere six months, while at the same time, administering a spectacular failure to deal with the pandemic. Under Trump’s leadership, the US, with 4 percent of the world’s population, has by now registered 20 percent of [COVID-19] cases. According to a study in a leading medical journal, almost all cases are attributable to the refusal by Trump and associates to respect the advice of scientists.

Some of Chomsky’s talk around things like hyperinflation, youth, work, the Green New Deal, salaries, unions, regularion, globalism, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Japan, China, and the founding fathers, have been seen before, but as Chomsky is prone to, he explains, clarifies, contextualises, and de-kaleidoscopes them in contrast to what is currently happening around the world.

In commentary made by US officials and media, Iran “violates” agreements. The US merely “withdraws” from them. The stance is reminiscent of agreea comment by the great anarchist writer and Wobbly activist T-Bone Slim:

“Only the poor break laws - the rich evade them.”

What strikes me as fairly unique in this book, is how Chomsky both quickly lays out truths and doesn’t beat around the bush when using reason against short-sightedness, for example, Rush Limbaugh and his ‘Science is one of the four corners of deceit’ statement.

Don’t worry: one cannot read a Chomsky book as though it were slanderous or propaganda. He carries views on many different topics from a variation of fields. I cannot say it enough: this tome is desperately needed. Chomsky is old enough to remember the voice of Hitler floating through the radio: he wasn’t old enough to understand what Hitler said, but he felt it. Eighty years on, and his feelings and intellectual strength carries him everywhere: Chomsky is likely the most prominent living dissident in the world, for good reasons.

On neoliberalism and its effects:

Consider the neoliberal disaster of the past forty years. Its essence was announced with much clarity by Thatcher and Reagan, and their economic guru Milton Friedman, right at the start: There is no society; individuals have to face the ravages of the market alone, with no defense, surely not labor unions, which have to be destroyed. Governments are the problem, flawed by the fact that they are partially responsive to the public. Decisions therefore have to be transferred to private hands, in effect, the corporate sector. Corporations must be dedicated solely to self-enrichment-not a principle of economics, but an ethical judgment.

There are further nuances, but this is the essence. Putting these principles together, it is not hard to draw some conclusions about likely consequences.

The Rand Corporation has just released a study on the scale of the (hardly unexpected) effects. They estimate the sum “transferred” from the middle and working classes to the very rich since Reagan-Thatcher-Friedman to be $47 trillion. “Robbery” might be a more accurate term.

Rand takes the very rich to be the top 10 percent. That’s misleading. It is overwhelmingly a tiny fraction of these. The top 0.1 percent have seen their share of the nation’s wealth double since Reagan, to 20 percent.

To hear him dissect current American prominents such as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan is just as interesting as hearing his near-flawless memory make military histories from half a century ago come alive, a time when Chomsky was a younger activist.

Chomsky doesn’t have to leave a mark: he’s already done so. In this book, he leaves us with desperately needed truth and clarity as we face the precipice, the point of no return that is soon coming up; this goes both for the point when we can no longer try the climate without annihilation and the point where the Doomsday Clock strikes midnight, in other words, when humanity uses nuclear arms to expunge itself with all other life on Earth.

These are not just scary words, but cold and hard facts.

Luckily, Chomsky and Robert Pollin have written a book about the Green New Deal where they point out how it is not only obligatory that we turn our fate around, but also how we can do it with no fear of economical disaster.

True to form, that book paints a simple picture.

There is, as always with Chomsky, the urgent reminder that the people have the power. On corporations while recalling Adam Smith:

Though their power is immense, it is fragile. Hence the concern at Davos about “reputational risks,” and the statements of top executives that they are mending their ways. They don’t have to read David Hume to learn that the “governors have nothing to support them but opinion - which can be withdrawn - since FORCE is always on the side of the governed.”

The power of the masters is indeed fragile. It can be restricted, even overturned, by a public dedicated to different goals. But that requires organization. Thatcher and Reagan knew what they were doing when they launched the neoliberal era with sharp attacks on labor unions, traditionally the spearhead of social justice struggles.

There are words on Joe Biden, apropos shaky grounds and power that can be removed by the people:

I’ve been around for a long time and can’t think of a candidate about whom I was not “extremely uncomfortable,” at least since FDR (and I was too young to have considered opinions then).

In Biden’s case it’s easy to think of reasons to be extremely uncomfortable. We can begin with his participation in the destruction of Libya and Honduras, in Obama’s global assassination campaign, in breaking all records in deportation-and on from there. But while continuing with constant efforts to change that world, we have to take off a few minutes to each make our own choices on Election Day.

I hold Robert Pollin in high regard; here are some of his words on COVID-19 in the hour of racism in the USA:

The coronavirus is also hitting low-income African American communities in the US most brutally. For example, in Illinois, African Americans account for more than half of all deaths from COVID-19, even while they account for only 14 percent of the state’s population. In Louisiana, 70 percent of those who have died thus far are African American, while the African American share of the population is 32 percent. Comparable patterns are emerging in other states. These figures reflect the simple fact that lower-income African Americans do not have the same ability to protect themselves through social distancing and staying home from their jobs.

In short, this book ought to be mandatory to read in schools. It is an interview book, so not a scholarly writ by Chomsky himself, even though it mainly includes his words, most of which are valuable in the extreme.

I’ll leave you with Chomsky’s words on the importance of human life and how critical it truly is that we think about these matters right now and not leave them to our children:

C. J. POLYCHRONIOU: The 2020 US presidential election is less than a year from now, and, while most polls seem to indicate that Trump will lose the national vote, the electoral vote is up for grabs. What manner of a democracy is this, and why isn’t there a public outcry in this country about the antiquated institution of the Electoral College?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Preliminary comment. I find it psychologically impossible to discuss the 2020 election without emphasizing, as strongly as possible, what is at stake - survival, nothing less.

Four more years of Trump may spell the end of much of life on Earth, including organized human society in any recognizable form. Strong words, but not strong enough.

I would like to repeat the words of Raymond Pierrehumbert, a lead author of the startling [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report of October 2018, since replaced by still more dire warnings: “With regard to the climate crisis, yes, it’s time to panic. We are in deep trouble.” These should be the defining terms of the 2020 election.

The Precipice is published by Haymarket Books.