Where We Are Now – Noam Chomsky

(To read this article in The Nation)

If you take a look at recent history since the Second World War, something really remarkable has happened. First, human intelligence created two huge sledgehammers capable of terminating our existence – or at least organized existence – both from the Second World War. One of them is familiar. In fact, both are by now familiar. The Second World War ended with the use of nuclear weapons. It was immediately obvious on August 6, 1945, a day that I remember very well. It was obvious that soon technology would develop to the point where it would lead to terminal disaster. Scientists certainly understood this.

In 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists inaugurated its famous Doomsday Clock. You know, how close the minute hand was to midnight? And it started seven minutes to midnight. By 1953, it had moved to two minutes to midnight. That was the year when the United States and Soviet Union exploded hydrogen bombs. But it turns out we now understand that at the end of the Second World War the world also entered into a new geological epoch. It’s called the Anthropocene, the epoch in which humans have a severe, in fact maybe disastrous impact on the environment. It moved again in 2015, again in 2016. Immediately after the Trump election late January this year, the clock was moved again to two and a half minutes to midnight, the closest it’s been since 1953.

So there’s two existential threats that we’ve created – which might in the case of nuclear war maybe wipe us out; in the case of environmental catastrophe, create a severe impact – and then some.

A third thing happened. Beginning around the 1970s, human intelligence dedicated itself to eliminating, or at least weakening, the main barrier against these threats. It’s called neoliberalism. There was a transition at that time from the period of what some people call “regimented capitalism,” the 1950s and 1960s, the great growth period, egalitarian growth, a lot of advances in social justice and so on.

It’s sometimes called “the golden age of modern capitalism.” That changed in the 1970s with the onset of the neoliberal era that we’ve been living in since. And if you ask yourself what this era is, its crucial principle is undermining mechanisms of social solidarity and mutual support and popular engagement in determining policy.

It’s not called that. What it’s called is “freedom,” but “freedom” means a subordination to the decisions of concentrated, unaccountable, private power. That’s what it means. The institutions of government – or other kinds of association that could allow people to participate in decision making – those are systematically weakened. Margaret Thatcher said it rather nicely in her aphorism about “there is no society, only individuals.”

She was actually, unconsciously no doubt, paraphrasing Marx, who in his condemnation of the repression in France, said, “The repression is turning society into a sack of potatoes, just individuals, an amorphous mass can’t act together.” That was a condemnation. For Thatcher, it’s an ideal – and that’s neoliberalism. We destroy or at least undermine the governing mechanisms by which people at least in principle can participate to the extent that society’s democratic. So weaken them, undermine unions, other forms of association, leave a sack of potatoes and meanwhile transfer decisions to unaccountable private power all in the rhetoric of freedom.

Well, what does that do? The one barrier to the threat of destruction is an engaged public, an informed, engaged public acting together to develop means to confront the threat and respond to it. That’s been systematically weakened, consciously. I mean, back to the 1970s we’ve probably talked about this. There was a lot of elite discussion across the spectrum about the danger of too much democracy and the need to have what was called more “moderation” in democracy, for people to become more passive and apathetic and not to disturb things too much, and that’s what the neoliberal programs do. So put it all together and what do you have? A perfect storm.

It’s sometimes called “the golden age of modern capitalism.” That changed in the 1970s with the onset of the neoliberal era that we’ve been living in since. And if you ask yourself what this era is, its crucial principle is undermining mechanisms of social solidarity and mutual support and popular engagement in determining policy.

It’s not called that. What it’s called is “freedom,” but “freedom” means a subordination to the decisions of concentrated, unaccountable, private power. That’s what it means. The institutions of government – or other kinds of association that could allow people to participate in decision making – those are systematically weakened. Margaret Thatcher said it rather nicely in her aphorism about “there is no society, only individuals.”

She was actually, unconsciously no doubt, paraphrasing Marx, who in his condemnation of the repression in France, said, “The repression is turning society into a sack of potatoes, just individuals, an amorphous mass can’t act together.” That was a condemnation. For Thatcher, it’s an ideal – and that’s neoliberalism. We destroy or at least undermine the governing mechanisms by which people at least in principle can participate to the extent that society’s democratic. So weaken them, undermine unions, other forms of association, leave a sack of potatoes and meanwhile transfer decisions to unaccountable private power all in the rhetoric of freedom.

Well, what does that do? The one barrier to the threat of destruction is an engaged public, an informed, engaged public acting together to develop means to confront the threat and respond to it. That’s been systematically weakened, consciously. I mean, back to the 1970s we’ve probably talked about this. There was a lot of elite discussion across the spectrum about the danger of too much democracy and the need to have what was called more “moderation” in democracy, for people to become more passive and apathetic and not to disturb things too much, and that’s what the neoliberal programs do. So put it all together and what do you have? A perfect storm.

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