Review: Occupy by Noam Chomsky

An unlikely moderate.

New Statesman
An Occupy Wall Street march in New York City. Noam Chomsky dedicates his book to arrested protesters. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/GettyImages)

Occupy

Noam Chomsky

Penguin, 128pp, £5

In October 2011, at the high water mark of the Occupy movement, Bill Gross, a Republican who is the manager of the world’s largest bond fund, PIMCO, tweeted: “Class warfare by the 99%? Of course, they’re fighting back after 30 years of being shot at.” This volume by Noam Chomsky opens with the declaration that Occupy is “the first major public response to 30 years of class war”. It is some measure of the movement’s success that the bond manager and the left-wing intellectual should define it in identical terms, yet also unsurprising. Occupy’s slogan of choice – “The 1 per cent v the 99 per cent” – enjoys the rare distinction of being grounded in empirical truth.

Over the past three decades the US has experienced one of the greatest redistributions of income and wealth from poor to rich in modern history. In 1980, members of the infamous “1 per cent” received 10 per cent of the national income. They now receive a quarter. In 2010, 93 per cent of the $288bn in new US growth went to the top 1 per cent. The “Great Compression” of the 1940s has given way to what the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls “the great divergence”. The most remarkable thing about Occupy, then, is that it took so long to be born.

This pamphlet (dedicated to “the 6,705 people who have been arrested supporting Occupy to date”) comprises Chomsky’s address to Occupy Boston, where protesters pitched 150 tents in the financial district, an interview with the New York University student Edward Radzi­vilovskiy, an “InterOccupy conference call”, a question-and-answer session on “occupying foreign policy” and the author’s tribute to the late historian Howard Zinn.

Chomsky has never been a gifted orator, and those yearning for Shelleyan displays of rhetoric will be disappointed. Indeed, in view of the breathless commentary Occupy has attracted, it is his moderation that is most striking. Asked by one protester, “Should we be working up to revolution or should we be trying to achieve it some other way?” he replies: “First of all, we are nowhere near the limits of what reform can carry out.” To the evident surprise of many gathered in Boston in Dewey Square, he is nostalgic for the Keynesianism of the postwar period, hailing the “egalitarian” growth of the 1950s and 1960s. He points to the New Deal legislation of the 1930s as an example of the gains that “large-scale popular activism” can achieve. This self-described anarchist sounds very much like a social democrat. Invited to endorse a general strike, Chomsky offers the sort of cautious, provisional response one might expect from a Labour shadow cabinet minister: “You can think of it as a possible idea at a time when the population is ready for it.”

Elsewhere, he gives mercifully short shrift to those who echo Norman Mailer’s description of the US political climate as being “pre-fascist”, observing that, “about a century ago . . . the dominant classes came to realise that they can’t control the population by force any longer”. Those who castigate Chomsky as an unthinking anti-American will be similarly surprised by his declaration that “in the United States we can do almost anything we want. It’s not like Egypt, where you’re going to get murdered by the security forces.” At a time when conspiracy theories and paranoia are flourishing on the left, there is something exhilarating about his passionate sanity. Although he can be maddeningly banal (“I like Gramsci. He’s an important person”), more often than not he fulfils the Orwellian injunction to “see what is in front of one’s nose”.

The virtues of “speaking truth to power”, he once observed, are overstated because power usually knows the truth already. The public, however, does not. In this regard, Chomsky rightly hails Occupy as an act of consciousness-raising. Research by the Pew Foundation shows that 66 per cent of the US electorate believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor – an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009. He considers this transformation on both a macro and a micro law. The “Buffett Rule” recently proposed by President Obama, which would introduce a minimum federal tax rate of 30 per cent for those earning over $1m a year, may have been sabotaged by Senate Republicans, but it enjoys the support of 72 per cent of the American public. The reforms that Chomsky advocates – publicly financed political campaigns, a cons­titutional amendment to abolish corporate personhood, a progressive tax system – are no longer mere leftist talking points.

Yet the overwhelming public sympathy for Occupy is both a blessing and a curse. As the New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann wrote recently, “the 99 per cent is too big a category to be an effective political force”. The US statute book is likely to remain unmarked until a less disparate coalition of interests emerges. And so, for now, there is much to commend Chomsky’s radical pessimism.