Global Leviathan Rising
[This conversation with Noam Chomsky was first published in the book Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought.]
Gagnon: How do you define democracy?
Chomsky: At the very minimum, a democracy is a political system in which popular opinion has a substantial – one might say decisive – influence on public policy. A richer concept of democracy would extend this condition to all major institutions: industrial, financial and other enterprises. If this richer condition is not met, then I think we can expect that the conclusions of John Dewey, America’s leading twentieth-century social philosopher, will continue to hold: politics will be the shadow cast by business over society. That is dramatically true in the United States right now, with control over government concentrated at the peak of the income scale, while the large majority in the lower portions are virtually disenfranchised, a conclusion established quite convincingly in the most highly regarded work in professional political science and revealed daily in policy debates and decisions.
Reappropriating the Leviathan
Gagnon: Let us discuss something that came to my mind after writing a review (Gagnon, 2012a) of your 2010 monograph, Hopes and Prospects. In your book I saw evidence of the nascent beginnings of a transnational, if not global, Leviathan. But this Leviathan is not as Hobbes had put it: it is not a creature composed of inward looking sycophants supporting an absolutist and monarchic state. I am reappropriating the Leviathan and remaking it. It is, to me, something composed of the demoi of this world. They are looking invitationally outwards to others in the hope of becoming a stronger entity. This Leviathan is a transnational and friendly ‘monster’ that is rising from the deep to meet the enemies of today’s democratization.
Do you see this transnational being, composed of hundreds of demoi, rising above states and corporations?
Chomsky: I’m pretty simple minded. To bring it down to earth, there is of course a network of highly concentrated capital, not necessarily cooperating. This capital may be competing. But multinational corporations
are increasingly tending towards oligopoly in major areas. The few big states that primarily cater to their interests tend to be the most influential designers of policy in individual societies and also in the international system. They are linked and cooperate and inflict damage in various ways that we can sort out. They are often quite interesting. But I do not see any reason to rise to a higher level of abstraction in discussing these developments.
Gagnon: Is there a way, though, for the many different demoi in this world to unite so as to keep these corporations or rogue governments to greater account? Can the demoi of this world exercise democratic hegemony on the global scale?
Chomsky: There are lots of ways. In fact that is happening. There are developments in that direction all over the world. Last year in Europe for example there were organized protests which of course had been developing and manifesting themselves in other ways against the destructive policies of austerity under stagnation. That is a failure for much of the population which is why governments and corporations are being criticized so sharply. This is happening across the pond even by quite conservative economists.
So yes, there was a protest against states and corporations taking different forms and pressing different issues. There are similar developments here in the USA. The occupy movements and others of similar vein are good examples. But how far can they go towards restoring some measure of democratic control? Well, you never know. You cannot predict the fate of popular movements. So for example the 2012 elections in France and Greece saw a sharp reaction against the market; meaning highly concentrated and mainly financial capital. But then the question arose about how that conflict works its way to policy. That still depends a lot on how well the public can be organized and effective.
Gagnon: I would like to try to return to abstraction and theory. There are valuable heuristics in there that we might otherwise lose. Maybe we’ll keep it normative. We’ll see where things in our minds should be going. Let us take our latest economic crisis as our motif. The discussions in Europe and North America over regulating Wall Street and its cognates has revealed something poignant: transnational capital does not regulate itself. And, more importantly, this type of capital has global impacts if mismanaged. States and corporations in one part of the world can affect people from South America across to Africa or Australia. We need to try to offer some specific mechanisms for people around the world to use to keep these powerful transnational actors to account. The focus is not governments, but different civil societies. Different multifarious political groups and various demoi could work together to exercise global democratic hegemony. The emphasis is on mechanisms. Are there readily available tools for people to use to reach these ends?
Chomsky: Plenty of them. You mention South America. South America has changed enormously in the last ten years. A decade ago, South America was pretty much in thrall to the International Monetary Fund, the US Treasury Department, multinational corporations and so on. It has since broken free to a large extent, in different ways. Take Argentina as an example. Argentina, like other poster children of the IMF, was doing everything right until it crashed disastrously. At that point there were two ways to proceed: One was to follow what’s called ‘sound economic principles’ which would have just intensified the disaster – much as it’s doing right now in Europe. The other way, the one that Argentina picked, was to essentially default on their huge debt. They called it restructuring but there are various other names for it. Argentina basically didn’t pay what many today still view as illegitimate debts. Now there were all sorts of dire warnings from the economics profession, from the bankers and so on, that the Argentinians were going to destroy themselves. Well, what happened is that there were a few months in which the economy declined. Then it began to take off and it’s had, I think, the fastest growth rate in South America since then.
It’s not perfect. Plenty of problems still linger and new ones come up all the time but the Argentinian economy did quite well. Now it’s commonly claimed, when you read the commentary in hindsight, that this move by Argentina didn’t mean anything. Politicians back then were just wagering themselves on a risky economy. Their success was based on a commodity export kind of fluke. That turns out not to be true. There’s careful analysis by very good economists who show that the commodity fluke is only a part of it. In fact, Argentina’s success was based substantially on internal development. There were elements of democratic control of production and they seemed to have worked quite well. In some cases workers and communities took hold of their economy and were making their own decisions. Political leaders were also freeing themselves from the control of what some economists have called the World Bank-IMF-US Treasury complex.
I’m not suggesting that that is the model that the world has to follow, but there are ways for people to hold their economies to account. In Brazil they did it in somewhat different ways. Bolivia is pursuing a different path. Throughout the continent there’s a historically significant change. For the first time in half a millennium, since the European conquerors arrived in South America, the continent is actually moving towards integration, a prerequisite for independence and control of their own internal organization. The countries are also addressing to some extent the really severe internal problems of basically rich societies with extreme poverty and very narrow concentration of wealth in the hands of sectors with little commitment to the society. They are facing the problem in various ways. In so doing they are also separating the continent from outside domination.
We saw an example of that in 2012. There was a hemispheric conference in Cartagena, Colombia in which there were two major issues. One issue was admitting Cuba into the hemisphere conference. The other issue was the decriminalization of drugs. On those two issues there was no statement that came out of the conference. The reason was that there wasn’t agreement. And that disagreement is very significant. It set the United States and Canada against the rest of the continent.
Well, that is a big change from the past and it’s not unlikely that a hemispheric association, excluding the United States and Canada, which already formally exists (CELAC), might replace the US-dominated Organization of American States. Those are major changes. What they show is that popular activism can affect policies in ways that have significant effects. Of course, we all know that from our own experiences too.
The United States for example, Europe as well, is a much more civilized society in many ways than it was fifty years ago. Minority rights, women’s rights, opposition to aggression, concern for global justice, and for environmental issues; many things have changed for the better. There has been a lot of regression too, but many things have changed for the better. It’s not a secret where this came from. It came from the popular activists in the 1960s. Their efforts sometimes led to legislation and social practices.
There is no reason whatsoever why that should change. So, for example, speaking of the economy, in the US there are significant beginnings of regional developments which are based on worker-owned enterprises interacting in various ways. That is happening in the Midwest and a couple of other places. There’s also a recent initiative by one of the
major labour unions, United States Steel. In March 2012 they took some steps towards integrating with Mondragon, the great worker cooperative, which has thus far been highly successful. Now that could be a step towards revitalizing the American labour movement which has been under severe attack since the Reagan years particularly. The developments I just mentioned could lead to changing the nature of the economy towards one with more democratic control. Worker- and community-owned enterprises, and even worker- and community-managed enterprises, are useful mechanisms to take us in that direction. There’s no historical or economic law that says that such initiative cannot succeed. It’s substantially a question of dedication, energy, willingness to struggle and so on. But as in the past, that is the way history moves on.
Gagnon: In your answer we see, I think, three significant mechanisms to enhance democratic control over state and economy. The first of them would be the act of strategic exclusion. Removing the USA and Canada from the hemispheric association would be a way of reprimanding the representatives and the executives of those countries. The second mechanism would be the act of having transnational comparative dialogues over public policy, governmental social policy, economic regulation and things of that nature. Information, people, and agreements
cross boundaries. These dialogues between different groups and different demoi lead to mutations in civil society. They lead to growth. The third and last mechanism would be the simple, yet difficult, act of forming a stalwart union of individuals; be they workers, environmentalists, mothers and fathers, artists or others. It’s a simple technique but
one that I think gets lost in the expectation that great things can only come from impressively complex phenomena. If people bind together, if they struggle peacefully and are smart (especially relying on communicative abundance), and ensure democratic legitimacy is on their side, victory I think draws near and is sometimes achieved.
Chomsky: Yeah. These things always happen right through history. I think in the last couple of hundred years they’ve been happening steadily in all sorts of complex ways. It’s a different world. I do not want to suggest that the trajectory is always positive. There’s regression too, sometimes significant regression. Europe in the 1930s for example saw horrible regression. But overall I think the general trajectory of history is towards expanding moral horizons, expanding popular participation, expanding opportunities and so on. No reason why that should not continue over time despite regression.
Strengthening the Leviathan
Gagnon: I have a concern with the idea of this new global demotic Leviathan. It’s that despite the efforts of many individuals this Leviathan’s raising may not happen due to the apathy exhibited by many individuals in this world. It’s an old chestnut, apathy, and a type of regression. I’m sure you have been around this many times. Whether in Australia or America, Canada or Europe, I wonder whether this apathy toward politics will only continue to erode democratic control. It’s almost as if people are willingly sticking their heads into the now proverbial sand: they say ‘just leave me alone and do as you will. I am powerless.’ Is this not something we should be concerned about? Is this not a threat to transnational democratic empowerment?
Chomsky: Well, I’m not sure that apathy is the right word. I think it’s a sense of hopelessness and despair over the functioning of existing institutions. If you are in despair over the way institutions are functioning, one reaction is to hide your head in the sand and let them go on and do what they want. That is the worst possible reaction. The other is to take control of the institutions.
That is not impossible. Taking control of political, economic and other institutions happened many times in the past. This can happen again. So this Leviathan that you are talking about has feet of clay. It’s barely surviving. Take the current financial crisis. How did the United States, the leading centre of world capitalism, save the world’s corporate and financial system? It was saved by enormous taxpayer subsidy. Some of the USA’s major economic institutions were basically nationalized. AIG, the insurance company, was for example taken over by the government. This means that it was subsidized by the taxpayer. This action saved other major institutions like Goldman Sachs and investment banks; it saved them from bankruptcy. They were on the verge of disappearing.
Take the auto industry as another example. Large parts of manufacturing industry became effectively nationalized. Taxpayers took over and then paid for it. There were many ways out of this. One way for the financial institutions would have been for them to really be nationalized: to become national banks which in a functioning democracy would mean that they come under public control. That nationalization could take many forms, democratic and participatory, or autocratic.
For the auto industry, there were basically two options. One was to reconstruct it pretty much along the old lines and then hand it back to either the original owners or others very much like them. The same or new owners would then proceed to produce automobiles on the market. Another option would have been to reconstruct the industry so as to be producing things that the country desperately needs. Things, for example, like high-speed rail. The United States is very backward in that regard. Now that would be a great contribution to growth, to improving the economy, to improving the environment and certainly the lives of the workers who are being sidelined because of failure of investment. The government, the taxpayers, they could have done that. Another even further possibility would have been not to hand it back to private ownership but to place it under the control of the workforce and the community. The automobile industry could have become owned by the stakeholders.
No economic principle would prevent such developments. You can even read hints to that effect in the professional literature of business economics. As I mentioned before, to a limited extent this is happening. There will be other chances – always other and better possibilities. These options are all there for people to use. The design of the economy and the society is not chiselled in stone. Both change due to choices made all along the way. Everything depends on the contending forces in the social organism and whether they can manage to implement and realize mechanisms for greater democratic control.
Gagnon: We can see, in the depths of history across time and space, that it really does come down to the will of individuals. Things can change now but only by the actions of those that are alive today.
Chomsky: Yeah. We have a lot more choices than we had in the past. Most of us live in societies that are a lot freer than they were not too long ago. So in the United States for example there’s been an expansion of the range of real freedom even in the past generation or two. If you look at American history, half the population – women – were pretty much regarded as property. They were the property of fathers and husbands in American law and practice up until pretty recently. Well, it’s changed. That is a big change and extremely important change. It’s one of many.
Gagnon: Yes, it’s one of many thankful and beautiful changes. We still, of course, have to stand in solidarity with our sisters in countries that maintain strict policies over women: the Afghanistans, Saudi Arabias and Irans of this world. The fight for the rights of women is still hot in some places.
My concern at this point is about how we can strengthen this global Leviathan. Is it through time and constant pressure, constant education, keeping matters in the issue attention cycle of the demoi of this world? Do you think the way we are going now and the way we are trying to change things in these far freer societies is the key to giving this Leviathan not fragile feet of clay, but maybe strong feet of graphene (to use a more contemporary material)?
Chomsky: Well, these are very fragile institutions. They depend very heavily on public support and subsidy. They survive even on simple but contentious things like bailouts. Financial institutions could not reach anything like their current phenomenal scale if they didn’t rely on what amounts to a government insurance policy which is called in whenever they crash. And the same is true of the other largely oligopolistic systems; the so-called ‘private corporations’. Even what they produce is based very heavily on public initiative and creativity. Take your computer and the internet, the whole IT revolution that a good deal of the modern economy depends on. A lot of that was developed right where I’m sitting at this university [MIT]: actually literally quite where I’m sitting. The IT revolution began in the 1950s and ’60s under public subsidy. That is where the major creative work was done. The basics were developed at MIT and similar institutions that are effectively within the state sector. They were later turned over to private corporations for application and profit. But that is true throughout much of the society. In fact the roots go far back.
So these are kind of parasitic institutions in many ways. It’s not that they do not exercise initiatives and sometimes constructive initiative, for they do, but they also rely very heavily on a complex matrix of public support, creative initiative and subsidy. So that in essence is why they are fragile. They could be democratized, expanding freedom. We could move towards a very different world.
Gagnon: Perhaps it’s just about people realizing the great power they have and then doing something with it.
Chomsky: Hundreds of years ago David Hume had some astute comments about this in his work on the foundations of the theory of government. He was one of the founders of classical liberalism and in his foundations of theory of government he posed a kind of a paradox: how is it that people submit to the rule of masters? Hume found that strange because power is actually in the hands of the governed, those who are governed. Power is not in the hands of governors. How is it that the governors, the rulers, can maintain their control when they basically do not have the power to do this?
Hume’s conclusion is that it’s mainly by control of opinion. He argued that that is true of the most authoritarian societies and the most free – from what in our day we would call totalitarian societies to functioning democracy. Power is in the hands of the governed if they exercise it, and it’s necessary to control their opinions and attitudes, including the imposition of apathy and hopelessness and other techniques of marginalization, in order to ensure they do not use their power. Well, I think that is as true now as it was in the eighteenth century.
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