towards extinction

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By NOAM CHOMSKY*

Opening speech at the Council meeting of the Progressive International

We are gathered at an extraordinary moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment of foreboding and, at the same time, filled with hope for a better future. The Progressive International (IP) has a crucial role to play: determining the direction that history will take.

We find ourselves in a moment of confluence of crises of extraordinary gravity, with the fate of the human experiment literally at risk. In the coming weeks, problems will come to a head in the two greatest imperial powers of the modern era. Decaying Britain, having publicly declared that it rejects international law, is on the verge of a sharp break with Europe, on the way to becoming an American satellite, even more so than it already is. But, of course, what matters most for the future is what happens in global hegemony — dwarfed by Trump, but still with overwhelming power and unrivaled advantages. Your fate, and with it the fate of the world, may be determined in November.

No wonder the rest of the world is worried, if not horrified. It would be hard to find a more sober and respected commentator than Martin Wolf of the London Financial Times. He wrote that the West is facing a severe crisis and that if Trump is re-elected, "it will be terminal (or the end)". Strong words, and that's what he doesn't even refer to the great crises facing humanity. Wolf is referring to global order, a critical issue, though not on the scale of crises that threaten us with much more serious consequences, the crises that push the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock towards midnight - towards extinction. Wolf's concept of the “terminal” is not new to public discourse. For 75 years we have lived in its shadow, ever since we learned, on an unforgettable August day, that human intelligence had created the means that would soon produce the capacity for terminal destruction. That was already overwhelming, but there was more. At the time, it was not known that humanity was entering a new geological era, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are expropriating the environment to such an extent that it, too, is now approaching terminal destruction. The hands of the Doomsday Clock were set shortly after the atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The clocks have been swinging ever since, as global circumstances have evolved. For every year Trump has been in power, the clocks have moved closer to midnight. Last January, analysts stopped talking about minutes and started using seconds: one hundred seconds to midnight. They cited the same crises as before: the growing threats of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe, and the deterioration of democracy. At first glance, the latter may seem out of context, but it is not. The deterioration of democracy fits into this dark trio. The only hope of escaping both threats of extinction is a vibrant democracy in which concerned and informed citizens are fully involved in deliberation, policy-making and direct action. That was last January. Since then, President Trump has expanded on all three threats, a far from trivial achievement. It continued to demolish the arms control regime, which offered some protection against the threat of nuclear war, while pushing for the development of new, even deadlier weapons, to the delight of the military industry. In his dedicated commitment to destroying the life-sustaining environment, Trump has opened up vast new areas for drilling, including the last great nature reserve. Meanwhile, his henchmen are systematically dismantling the regulatory system that somehow eased the destructive impact of fossil fuels and protected the population from toxic chemicals and pollution, a curse that is now doubly deadly during a severe respiratory epidemic. Trump also led his own campaign to end democracy. By law, presidential nominations are subject to Senate confirmation. Trump evades this inconvenience by leaving vacancies open and instead filling them with “temporary appointments” who do his bidding — and if they don’t do so loyally enough, they get fired. He ended any independent voice within the Executive. Only the sycophants remain. Congress long ago established Inspectors General to monitor the performance of the executive branch. They began to unravel the morass of corruption that Trump created in Washington, but the president quickly dismissed them to preserve his image. There was almost no one left to spy on what was going on in the Republican Senate, since Trump had controlled everyone; with that, only a few glimmers of integrity remain, terrified and immobilized by the popular base that Trump has articulated. This attack on democracy is just the beginning. Trump's last step will be to warn that he cannot leave office until he is satisfied with the result of the November election. The threat is taken very seriously at the highest levels. To cite just a few examples, two highly respected retired military commanders released an open letter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, reinforcing his constitutional responsibility to send the army to forcibly remove a "lawless president" who refuses to to step down after election defeat, calling to his defense the kinds of paramilitary units he dispatched to Portland, Oregon, to terrorize the populace over strong objections from elected officials. Many officials consider the warning realistic, among them the high-level Transition Integrity Project, which has just reported the results of the “war game” it has been conducting, about the possible outcome of the November elections. Project members are “some of the most prominent Republicans, Democrats, public officials, media experts, researchers and strategists”, explains the co-director of the project, which included prominent figures from both parties. Under any plausible scenario other than a clear Trump victory, the games led to a civil war of sorts, with Trump choosing to end "the American experiment". Again, strong words, never before spoken by sober mainstream voices. The very fact that such thoughts arise is threatening enough. They are not alone. And given America's unrivaled power, much more than the "American experience" is at stake. In the often troubled history of parliamentary democracy, nothing like this has ever happened. In recent years, Richard Nixon—far from being the most charming person in presidential history—had good reason to believe that he lost the 1960 election solely because of criminal manipulation by Democratic operatives. He did not dispute the results, prioritizing the country's well-being over his personal ambition. Albert Gore did the same in 2000. It is not what happens today. Breaking new ground in contempt for the country's well-being is not enough for the megalomaniac who dominates the world. Trump also announced, once again, that he can disregard the Constitution and “negotiate” a third term, if he decides he is entitled to it. Some choose to laugh it all off as if it were a buffoon's prank. Under imminent risk, as history shows us. The survival of freedom is not guaranteed by “barriers of parchment”, warned James Madison. Words on paper are not enough. It depends on the expectation of good faith and common decency, which have been shattered by Trump, along with his partner in the conspiracy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has transformed the “greatest deliberative body in the world,” as he calls himself, into a pathetic joke. McConnell's Senate refuses to even consider legislative proposals. His priority is to be generous to the rich and to stack the judiciary, top to bottom, with young far-right lawyers who should be able to safeguard the reactionary Trump-McConnell agenda for a generation — no matter what the public wants or what the public wants. world needs to survive. The Trump-McConnell Republican Party's infamous service to the wealthy is quite remarkable, even by neoliberal greed-exalting standards. Two of the greatest specialists in tax policy, economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, illustrate the situation: they show that in 2018, after the tax fraud that was the only legislative achievement of Trump-McConnell, “for the first time in the last hundred years, billionaires paid less [in taxes] than steel workers, teachers and retirees", erasing "a century of tax history". “In 2018, for the first time in modern US history, capital was taxed less than labor” — a truly impressive victory for the class war called “freedom” in mainstream doctrine. The Doomsday Clock was set last January, before we understood the magnitude of the pandemic. Sooner or later, humanity will recover from the pandemic, at terrible cost. It's an unnecessary cost. We see this clearly from the experience of countries that took decisive action when China provided the world with relevant information about the virus on January 10th. Among them, some from East-Southeast Asia and Oceania; meanwhile, others, trailing behind, created unmitigated disasters — evidently the US, followed by Bolsonaro's Brazil and Nahendra Modi's India. Despite the bad faith or indifference of some political leaders, there will ultimately be some sort of recovery from the pandemic. We will not, however, recover from melting polar glaciers; or the rise in arctic wildfire explosions, which release huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; or other of our steps, on the march towards catastrophe. When the most prominent scientists, climate experts, warn us to “panic now!” they are not being alarmists. We have no time to lose. Few are doing enough, and worse yet, the world is plagued by leaders who are not only refusing to take sufficient action, but are deliberately accelerating the race to disaster. The harmfulness of the White House is by far at the forefront of this monstrous criminality. It's not just governments. The same goes for the fossil fuel industries, the big banks that finance them, and other industries that profit from actions that put the "survival of mankind" at serious risk, in the words of a leaked internal memo from America's largest bank. Humanity will not survive this institutional cruelty for long. The means to manage the crisis are available. But not for long. One of the main tasks of the Progressive International is to ensure that we all panic now — and that we can act accordingly. The crises we face at this unique moment in human history are, of course, international. Environmental catastrophe, nuclear war and the pandemic have no borders. And less clearly, the same applies to the third of the demons that stalk the earth and drive the second hand of the doomsday clock to midnight: the deterioration of democracy. The international character of this plague is evident when we look at its origins. Circumstances vary, but there are some common roots. Much of the perversity can be traced back to the 40-year neoliberal assault on the world's population. The basic character of the attack was captured in the opening pronouncements of its most prominent figures. Ronald Reagan declared in his inaugural address that government is the problem, not the solution - what he meant was that decisions must be transferred from governments, which are at least partially under public control, to private power, which is completely inexplicable to the public, and whose only responsibility is self-enrichment, as chief economist Milton Friedman proclaimed. The other was Margaret Thatcher, who taught us that there is no such thing as a society, just a market into which people are thrown to survive as best they can, without organizations to enable them to defend themselves against its ravages. Unwittingly, no doubt, Thatcher was paraphrasing Marx, who condemned the autocratic rulers of his day for turning the population into a “sack of potatoes”, defenseless against concentrated power. With admirable consistency, the Reagan and Thatcher governments acted immediately to destroy the labor movement, the main obstacle to the severe class rule of the economic masters. In doing so, they embraced the core tenets of neoliberalism from its earliest interwar days in Vienna, where the movement's founder and patron saint, Ludwig von Mises, could barely contain his glee when the proto-fascist government violently destroyed the fine system. of Austrian democracy and the despicable unions that were interfering with the economy by defending workers' rights. As von Mises already explained in his classic Liberalism (1927), five years after Mussolini began his brutal regime, “it cannot be denied that fascism and similar movements aimed at establishing dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention saved , at that time, European civilization. The merit that fascism has earned for itself will live on forever in history” — even if it is only temporary, as he assured us. The blackshirts will go home after having done their good work. The same principles inspired enthusiastic neoliberal support for Pinochet's horrible dictatorship. A few years later, they were put into practice in the global arena in a different form, under the leadership of the United States and the United Kingdom. The consequences were predictable. One of them was the strong concentration of wealth in contrast to the stagnation of a large part of the population, reflected in the political sphere by the weakening of democracy. The impact in the United States shows very clearly what we can expect when the laws of business are virtually unassailable. After 40 years, 0,1% of the population owns 20% of the wealth, double what they had when Reagan was elected. CEO compensation has soared, attracting general management wealth along with it. Real wages for ordinary male workers have declined. The majority of the population survives from paycheck to paycheck, with almost no reserves. Financial institutions, largely predatory, exploded in scale. There have been repeated accidents with perpetrators being bailed out by the friendly taxpayer, even though this is the bare minimum of the implicit state subsidy they receive. “Free markets” led to monopolization, with reduced competition and innovation, as the strong gobbled up the weak. Neoliberal globalization de-industrialized the country through investment and trade agreements erroneously called “free trade agreements”. By adopting the neoliberal doctrine of “taxes are theft”, Reagan opened the doors to tax havens and shell companies, previously prohibited from operating thanks to effective inspection laws. This created a huge tax evasion industry that facilitated mass theft by the wealthy and the corporate sector of the general population. It was no small change. The scope is estimated at tens of trillions of dollars. And so it continues, as neoliberal doctrine consolidates. As the onslaught was just beginning to take shape, in 1978, United Auto Workers chairman Doug Fraser resigned from a labor management committee that had been created by the Carter administration, scandalized that business leaders had "opted to waging a one-sided class war in this country—a war against the workers, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and for having “broke and discarded the fragile and unwritten pact that existed before, during a period of growth and progress”—in the period of class collaboration under organized capitalism. Its understanding of how the world works came a little late—indeed, too late to defend itself against the bitter class war launched by business leaders who were soon given full autonomy by complicit governments. The consequences of this across much of the planet are no surprise: widespread anger, resentment, contempt for political institutions, while key economic institutions are shrouded in effective propaganda. All of this provides fertile territory for demagogues who pretend to be your saviors while stabbing you in the back, while shifting blame to scapegoats: immigrants, blacks, China, or whoever fits long-held prejudices. Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, they are all global and two Internationals are forming to face them. One is being inaugurated today: the Progressive International. The other is taking shape under the leadership of the Trump White House, a Reactionary International comprising the most reactionary states in the world. In the western hemisphere, this Reactionary International includes Bolsonaro's Brazil and a few others. In the Middle East, the main players are the family dictatorships of the Gulf; the Egyptian dictatorship of al-Sisi, perhaps the worst in Egypt's bitter history; and Israel, which has long since discarded its social-democratic origins and shifted to the right—in the predictable effect of prolonged and brutal occupation. The current agreements between Israel and the Arab dictatorships, formalizing longstanding tacit relations, are a significant step towards solidifying the base of the Reactionary International in the Middle East. Palestinians are humiliated and beaten, the fate of those who have no power and do not properly grovel at the feet of their natural masters. To the east, a natural candidate is India, where Prime Minister Modi is destroying the country's secular democracy and turning it into a racist, Hindu nationalist state, while doing away with Kashmir. The European contingent includes Orban's “illiberal democracy” in Hungary and similar elements elsewhere. The International also has strong support from the dominant global economic institutions. The two internationals comprise a large part of the world, one at the level of states, the other at the level of popular movements. Each prominently represents much broader societal forces with very conflicting images of the world that are expected to emerge from the current pandemic. One force is working tirelessly to build a tougher version of the neoliberal global system from which they would benefit enormously from increased surveillance and control. The other yearns for a world of justice and peace, with energies and resources directed toward meeting human needs rather than the demands of a small minority.

It is not far-fetched to conclude that the fate of the human experiment depends on the outcome of this struggle.

*Noam Chomsky is a senior professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA. Author, among other books, of Requiem for the American Dream (Bertrand Brazil).

Translation: Luis Zapatta e Cristina Cavalcanti

Originally published on the Progressive International

 

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