Noam Chomsky on Biden, progressives, and how we achieve real change
On the scholar's 94th birthday, revisiting my interview with him
In the summer of 2020, I had occasion to interview Noam Chomsky about…everything. Today, on his 94th birthday, I found myself thinking back to that conversation, which I think speaks to our present moment in profound ways.
“Real politics is constant activism”: A conversation with Noam Chomsky
Talk to me about how you have lived this pandemic moment, which has obviously been such a difficult moment for everybody personally, but also a political crisis and, potentially, a moment of opening for a lot of people in how we think about these systems.
For me it's been extremely busy. I'm isolated, don't go out, and don't have any visitors. Constantly occupied with interviews, requests way beyond what I can accept. Busier than I can ever remember.
But you're quite right. The pandemic is providing an opportunity for choices about what kind of world will emerge from it. Very different choices. Those who essentially created the crisis and have given us 40 years of the neoliberal assault on the global population are working very hard, relentlessly, to ensure that what emerges will be a harsher version of what created this system. Greater surveillance, greater control.
Other forces, ranging from what you see in the streets in the United States to the environmental movement to DiEM25 in Europe. Many other popular forces are trying to move towards a very different world. It's kind of a class struggle on a global scale.
Because of the very grave things you outlined, there's this discussion on the left about whether it's important at this moment to be quiet about a lot of the usual issues and just focus on getting rid of Trump. Or, on the other side of the argument, that this is exactly the time to raise all those other types of issues and to be tough on Biden. How do you understand that debate?
Well, there is a traditional left position, which has been pretty much forgotten, unfortunately, but it's the one I think we should adhere to. That's the position that real politics is constant activism. It's quite different from the establishment position, which says politics means focus, laser-like, on the quadrennial extravaganza, then go home and let your superiors take over.
The left position has always been: You're working all the time, and every once in a while there's an event called an election. This should take you away from real politics for 10 or 15 minutes. Then you go back to work.
At this moment, the difference between the candidates is a chasm. There has never been a greater difference. It should be obvious to anyone who's not living under a rock. So the traditional left position says, "Take the 15 minutes, push the lever, go back to work."
Now, the activist left has not been making the choice that you mentioned. It's been doing both.
Take Biden's campaign positions. Farther to the left than any Democratic candidate in memory on things like climate. It's far better than anything that preceded it. Not because Biden had a personal conversion or the DNC had some great insight, but because they're being hammered on by activists coming out of the Sanders movement and others. The climate program, a $2 trillion commitment to dealing with the extreme threat of environmental catastrophe, was largely written by the Sunrise Movement and strongly endorsed by the leading activists on climate change, the ones who managed to get the Green New Deal on the legislative agenda. That's real politics.
This is interesting coming from you. Your support for Biden is more than merely grudging. You actually seem to think that the platform is surprisingly good given who he is and given where we are.
This is not support for Biden. It is support for the activists who have been at work constantly, creating the background within the party in which the shifts took place, and who have followed Sanders in actually entering the campaign and influencing it. Support for them. Support for real politics.
The left position is you rarely support anyone. You vote against the worst. You keep the pressure and activism going.
So given this popular ferment you're talking about, a question about a leader. I wonder whether you think a figure like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could ever become president in this country.
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