American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic and political activist. Sometimes called “the father of modern linguistics”, Chomsky is also a major figure in analytic philosophy, and is one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. He is Laureate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona and Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and is the author of more than 100 books on topics such as linguistics, war, politics, and mass media.
1. Why does economics matter?
Well, economics deals with major aspects of human existence, production, consumption, interchange. Most of what keeps our life moving. Of course, economics carves out a narrow component of that… A richer study would be political economy, which deals with how these specific questions of, say, production, interchange… are integrated into a broader socio political framework. Its political economy. I think it gives more insight then…
There’s nothing wrong with abstracting particular components of a complex system. That’s done all the time. We wouldn’t have any physics if we didn’t do that. But you have to be careful that what’s abstracted does not eliminate critical aspects of what you’re studying. So, for example, if physics abstracts away from friction and studies a ball rolling down a frictionless plane, that’s OK. What it’s leaving out doesn’t affect the inquiry into the laws of motion. On the other hand, if the political framework which determines the way business is function, is left out of the study of how business is function, you lose a lot. So you have to be careful about abstraction.
It’s fine, brings out crucial elements that you can use as a way of more intimate and intricate studies of complex phenomena. That’s all a contribution, but it has to be done with a kind of humility, awareness that you’re setting something special and that there’s much more happening. And if you leave out the other things that are involved, you may in fact distort your conclusions.
That there’s one pretty striking difference observed in the behavior of natural scientists and economists. I don’t want to overgeneralize, but as a tendency, it’s pretty obvious.
So if you take a look at the array of scientific papers, lots of scientific papers coming out right now, of course, and things like the effect of human action on the environment. So what’s happening to the… What can we do? Say let’s take something specific. What can we do to slow down the catastrophic growth in bpm particles per million in the atmosphere? There are suggestions, sometimes far reaching suggestions. So should we, for example. So… Aerosols in the atmosphere to reflect sun’s rays.
But if you take a look at these suggestions, they’re least serious… Ones are accompanied by saying there’s a lot we don’t understand. At most we should try this on a very small scale. So if anything goes wrong, we can reverse it, not just: let’s throw them all over the atmosphere and see what happens. You know, read that except from cranks. On the other hand, take a look at the way economists deal with the economy. So, for example, take the major change like the onset of neoliberalism 40 years ago.
Well, there were some proposals, some ideas… Milton Friedman and others. Let’s just execute and change the whole global economy. It’s like hitting a complex system with a sledgehammer. We have some ideas about how it ought to work. So let’s try it everywhere. Well, we can look at how it worked… a shock therapy in the Eastern European countries. We have a theory about free markets. So let’s force it down. Let’s impose it on them without taking a look at the nature of the societies.
Well, we know what happened. There are millions of deaths in Russia. The economy collapsed and oligarchs from the old Communist Party buy up the whole system… You get Putin. It looks nice on paper, but when you try massive changes in a complex system, you have to be cautious. You can’t just come forward and say, we’ve proven that, you know, recessions are impossible because we have the tools to deal with it. Markets are efficient. Forget everything else, OK?
You can’t do that in a complex world and in the natural sciences is a lot more caution. I think these are aspects of the kind of humility that I think is badly needed in many sectors of the profession.
2. What are the differences between economic science (academic economics) and economic engineering (policymaking)?
Well, I think this relates to just what I said, economic science is in fact, if you take a look at the actual economics - overwhelmingly it’s the study of markets, how can markets work in pure forms? OK, it’s pretty much that’s what it is, is nuances. But that’s the core of the study.
As I said before, you can learn things that way, you can learn about how a certain abstract model should function without interferences, and from that you can extract principles, conclusions, you know, how things might happen according to theorems. Economic engineering is saying: what do we do in the complex systems of the world? That involves many other factors besides the abstract model. You can learn from the abstract model.
There are principles that you can think about how you might apply, but you have to do it in a way which deals with the complexities of the realities of human existence, society, political formations and so on, which have a dramatic effect on how the economy works. I mean, just, in gross terms, take a look at the post World War two economy. Roughly, take the United States as a model, I mean, other countries have variations.
So there’s basically two periods. There’s a period of so-called regimented capitalism, Second World War, up until it’s 70 years roughly. Then there’s the period of neo liberalism, the reaction to regimented capitalism, late 70s to the present. There are radically different. Period of regimented capitalism had the highest growth rate in American history, egalitarian growth, the lower quintile actually did a little better in the upper quintile. Banks were banks, not financial institutions. The bank was a place where you put your money if you had something extra.
The letter to the guy who wanted to buy a car and so on. No financial crisis thanks to tightly controlled, no tax havens, no shell companies, all illegal. Treasury Department enforce the law. Well. A lot more to say, but that was basically the first period wages tracked productivity, minimum wages tracked productivity. Starring the late 70s, it all changes. The relation, the relation between wages and productivity is dissolved. Productivity increases not as fast as before, the growth increases, not as fast as before.
Wages flatten, minimum wage flattens… Means that actually reduces, when you consider inflation today, if that curve had been extrapolated, a minimum wage would probably be about 20 to 25 dollars, something like that an hour. That’s about a third at the moment. The growth increased, but into very few pockets. So, for example, when Reagan came in the top, just take a look at the very top top zero point one percent of the population, they had about 10 percent of the world.
Now, it’s double: 20 percent of the world. Well, a credible figure of the RAND Corporation that just came out with the first major effort to study how much wealth was the lower 90 percent deprived through neoliberal programs, in other words, if things had continued versus what happened, what’s the gap in wealth? Well, for the lower 90 percent, which means working class and the middle class, 47 trillion dollars. It’s not small, not small money, and that leaves out the unknown, probably tens of trillions of dollars that have gone into tax havens and shell companies once Reagan opened the doors to that hell, politically.
The political economy differs from the abstract models. Well, this was all in the name of free markets. You know what that means? Well, the nature of the political system was changed, not secretly. Reagan, in his inaugural address, and this was echoed by Thatcher at the same time, said: governments are the problem. Well, you eliminate governments, there are still decisions. So if they’re not in the hands of government, where are they? In the hands of private enterprise, unaccountable private tyrannies, in fact, and they have responsibility.
It’s a crucial part of the neo liberal programs that Milton Friedman, the economics guru, announced in a famous article 1981. The sole responsibility of the management of a corporation is self enrichment. Anything else violates fundamental principles. So transfer decisions to the hands of private, unaccountable enterprises whose sole responsibility is self enrichment. Some take a genius to figure out what’s going to happen. Four years later you see the results. Go into the details. One result is, of course…
We’re seeing all over the United States and Europe, many other places, anger, the resentment, the understandable, justified contempt for institutions, including capitalist institutions, just contempt across the board, political parties that were the dominant ones… center right for years, dissolving. Fertile terrain for demagogues who can come along and say: I am your savior, will take care of these bad people are doing things to you… the immigrants, the blacks, the poors, any… China… any convenient scapegoat is good.
For Trump it was the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, I’ll stab you in the back with my actual… my actual legislative programs. Seen that happen everywhere. Very dangerous. Well, these are part of economic engineering. So what happens when you try to engineer an economy not taking into account the complex framework in which your changes in, say, corporate law are affecting things. Corporate law, of course, is in the hands of government. It’s corporate law that says that you have to be devoted socially only to self enrichment. Incorporating is a gift from the government. You get privileges, in return for that, you have to follow the law. When the laws change in the political system, all economy changes radically. Numbers like 47 trillion dollars is not small change, and that’s a small part of it. We also had the vast growth of financial institutions. But no dominant in the economy. There was an interesting comment on the economics profession here. Well, after the 2008 2009 crisis, there was a very interesting article by Robert Solomon, one of the leading refined economists of the Cold War era, in the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Look at the… He noticed, of course, recognized the vast growth of financial institutions that had at that point about maybe 40 percent of the profits. He said this is a strange thing. He said “we economists have never studied what the effect is of the enormous growth of finance and the enormous growth of financial institutions on the economy”, a few scattered studies, but basically not a topic.
It’s not a topic in the study of market modes. And he said, “that’s strange, they had just crashed the economy again. So it’s strange that we haven’t done it since”. But he said, suppose we begin to study it, what are we likely to find? Well, he was speculating. When he said we’re likely to find that their net effect on the economy has probably been negative. Actually, when we looked more closely, I think we have found plenty of evidence to that.
But that’s part of what I call lack of humility and narrowing of concerns from the considerations that economic engineering must take into account and cannot be ignored… We can use the results of economic science, but we cannot be governed by them. They leave out much too much, and with appropriate humility this could be understood. No physicist will tell you that you can build a bridge just by looking at the laws of motion. Too much else involved.
3. What role does economics play in society? Does it serve the common good?
No, it’s a mixture, it provides tools from the study of abstract systems, provides useful tools which can be applied in policy formation.
At least in principle, policy formation should be oriented towards the common good. In fact, it isn’t. It’s oriented towards the needs of those powerful enough to design and shape it. So, for example. Let’s be concrete. Take the World Trade Organization, theoretically designed on neoliberal principles, radically protectionist in the interests of private power. So the TRIPS, for example, intellectual property rights are a radical interference with market principles. They give exorbitant patent rights, the kind that had never existed before to the multinational corporations, to the huge pharmaceutical corporations, for example, grants them monopoly pricing rights in effect. We’ve seen that for years, the drain on the general economy from the exorbitant prices of pharmaceuticals and even from the choice of which ones there are in the hands of private power. That price has been enormous.
The one economist I know of who’s studied it carefully, Dean Baker, has - I don’t remember the numbers, but huge numbers, huge part of GDP just goes into wild overpricing and wrong choice of pharmaceuticals. That’s not a law of nature. They say they need it for innovation. You take a look at innovation, you find a different story. There is a lot of it as throughout the whole economy that comes from the taxpayer, either in government labs or just grants to private corporations.
There are lots of other ways of organizing innovation that won’t just yield extraordinary monopoly pricing rights to pharmaceutical corporations that have money coming out of their ears. That’s a very serious question right now. It’s large part of the source of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was actually known in 2003, pretty well known after the SARS epidemic, that another kind, a real pandemic was likely to come and it was known how to deal with it. How to study, to prepare for having the basis for getting the right vaccine, understanding the viruses and so on. Not a big secret, the drug companies weren’t interested. It’s not their business. Milton Friedman explained to them that their role is to enrich themselves. That’s not economics.
It’s called economics. It’s politics. The result is that I’m going to spend money on something, the catastrophe that might happen in 10 years, or maybe you’ll get a vaccine that people will use once and you won’t make that much money. If you want to make money tomorrow and things. And so. It’s also a question of choice of things to look at. Like, you don’t work on malaria because the millions of people are dying from it are poor, you know, they do not have money to pay… You do other things… this applies in the rich countries as well.
Well, you know, all kinds of things. You can get in a different sort of ways of getting rid of wrinkles, but not of fundamental diseases because you get rid of once you’ve done. All of this is an extraordinary, not just an extraordinary distortion of the economic system, but having enormous human consequences. And this is a very large question right now, because right now, scientists once again are predicting that when we finally emerge from the current crisis, there’s other ones coming, which will very likely be worse.
We’ve been lucky so far. Every one of the coronaviruses has either been highly lethal and not very contagious like Ebola or not very lethal and highly contagious, like Covid 19. Who’s to say the next one won’t be both? It’s known how to prepare for it. Drug companies are not going to pick it up. It’s not their business. The government can’t pick it up because of the neo liberal doctrine. Government is the problem. Enormous government labs, great resources, government does most of the basic work anyway on development of vaccines and drugs, but then hands it over to private companies because government is the problem.
So we have a socio-political system which is setting the stage for further disasters. And economic science can tell you that it wouldn’t work like this in a free market. It can tell you that. But that doesn’t help economic engineering, they have to make decisions and they’re being made every day. A couple of days ago, the United States government pulled out of the Covax consortium. 170 countries are still working on trying to integrate efforts to create a vaccine, which would, of course, if with cooperation, there’s much more chance of achieving a successful result.
The most powerful country in the world pulls out and impedes that. It also not worked very effectively, but at least to some extent, the Covax consortium is looking at distributional problems. How do we ensure that? If there is a vaccine, it’ll go to the people who need it, like poor people in Africa, won’t be just monopolized by the rich countries. They’re at least looking at that. U.S. says, no, not our business. We’re going to do it ourselves.
We want to monopolize it because we’re just the masters of the world. Well, it’s not a joke, has big effects. Things like that are happening all the time. And they’re just, you know, do economic engineering without thinking of all these things. It gives you very dangerous results. We’ve seen plenty of it. We’re seeing it right now. So that’s not a critique of economic science. It’s a call for some understanding and humility, the kind of humility you see normally in the physical sciences.
And, pre Trump we used to see it in the EPA, you know, the Environmental Protection Agency, or in the FDA, which insists on careful testing before you throw things into the public. Now, a lot of that is being dismantled just with the goal of increasing profit for private power for the very rich and the private sector. Those are the circumstances the world can’t overlook when you’re doing economic engineering.
4. Economics provides answers to problems related to markets, efficiency, profits, consumption and economic growth. Does economics do a good job in addressing the other issues people care about: climate change and the wider environment, the role of technology in society, issues of race and class, pandemics, etc.?
Well, I mean, there are some economists who’ve tried to study the environmental crisis, the most famous, William Nordhaus, who has economic models in which he draws a conclusion about what’s the most economically efficient way to deal with the environmental catastrophe.
His conclusion is that we should aim to live at a level of three degrees centigrade rise over pre-industrial levels. That’s probably cataclysmic. I mean, the effects of that on the environment are extraordinary. I mean, we’re seeing little tiny bits of it now with one degree centigrade approximately… Nobody can guess what it’s going to be like with three degrees. But it might be horrendous. It might pass tipping points in the Arctic. Ice melting could raise sea levels and potentially all kinds of imponderables.
Here is a perfect case of total lack of humility. I say: my economic model says the most efficient thing is three degrees centigrade. So let’s aim for that. How much is taken account of there? What effect does that have on the people of Bangladesh with the coastal plain, which will be flooded… The couple of hundred million refugees? Where do they go? What does that do to Asia? What does it do to Asia when the dwindling water supplies in South Asia, which already leaves hundreds of millions without potable water?
What happens when the glaciers continue to melt, when the river flow declines, when Pakistan and India, two nuclear armed countries, are facing water shortages and are struggling over the same water sources? How do you put that into your calculations, into your economic model? I mean, you just can’t, it’s not the kind of factor that can fit into the economic model. And I can magnify this like this all over the world. You know, large parts of the world that are now inhabited are going to be virtually uninhabitable.
If we’re on the course that has been described, what’s the number that you associate with that; that you plug into your economic model? These are imponderables. And if you’re all rational about this, you’ll apply the famous precautionary principle. Like, when I take a fire insurance on my house, which I do, I could pretend to be an economist and say, okay, let’s calculate the risk to my house of going on fire and the amount of money I lose in fire insurance and how much I could invest it for a fund to make money, go to the theater more often and so on.
They are totally meaningless calculations, I would want fire insurance on my house, even if it’s not economic, economically appropriate. And we are talking about the whole world. We want an insurance policy on the world. We don’t want to face the 10 percent possibility that everything will be destroyed. We won’t face that. Doesn’t matter what the economic motives are. There are other criteria involved. Well, and here again, a touch of humility and common sense and the attitudes of the natural sciences would be very salutary.
5. As we live in an age of economics and economists – in which economic developments feature prominently in our lives and economists have major influence over a wide range of policy and people – should economists be held accountable for their advice?
We can ask the same question across the professional domains: should international relations scholars be held accountable for the fact that they publish books saying that America’s mission is to install democracy over the world? Should they? Let’s take the leading figure. I mean, should they be held accountable to the consequences? That has consequences. Policymakers say our duty is to install democracy. So let’s invade Iraq and destroy the country and set the Middle East in flames as our mission is to install democracy.
Should they be held accountable? Well, not in the courts. In public opinion. Yes, I think that’s been. Writing to the extent of boredom for the last 60 years on the responsibility of intellectuals, all of them, and if you look over history, their role is not pretty. Way back to classical Greece, overwhelmingly, they’ve been what are sometimes called stenographers for power. Secretary Henry Kissinger, a master of the art, put it very well.
He said the duty of the intellectual adviser to government is to articulate the preferences of the powerful, to find ways of articulating it properly. So that means if Richard Nixon gives him, and maybe in some half drunken stupor, Richard Nixon hands him something and says: bomb Cambodia every possible way, then as a stenographer for power, he puts that precisely, he sends to the Air Force, the words, virtually quoting: massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies against anything that moves.
Well, in a single, simple English that says: genocide. He did articulate the preferences of the powerful. Is he responsible for that? Well, not in… Not the way the laws are set up. Public opinion, he should be, and that just happens to be an extreme example, but it’s not all that unusual. Economists are saying if they decide to hit the economy with a sledgehammer because of what some model says, yes, they should be held accountable.
6. Does economics explain Capitalism? How would you define Capitalism?
You know, the term of political discourse and commentary are pretty loose and vague, and that’s true of capitalism, socialism, democracy. I said, I don’t think these terms can have… Terms get precise definitions within the framework of explanatory theories. Outside those theories they never have precise definitions. So what’s motion, what’s energy, what’s mass, what’s velocity? These terms didn’t have precise definitions until physics had reached the level of explanatory depth. You know, by 17th, 18th century, they were getting precise definitions, which, incidentally, were not the general usage.
Of course, the science is very quickly depart from ordinary usage. If a physicist is studying, say, work, he doesn’t look upon unemployment statistics. It’s a very specific, narrow, precise definition. Well, the social and political scientists have reached that point. They don’t have far reaching explanatory theories except in pretty arcane domains which are pretty remote from human life. So the answer to the question, what is capitalism is just kind of more or less, I mean, to the extent that a society relies on markets, to the extent that it relies on competition, on wage labor, on a boss -worker relationship. To that extent, it’s more capitalist to the extent it moves in other directions, it’s less capitalist. So just in the United States, maybe out of the stream of capitalist societies, the regimented capitalism of the first post-war era was a different capitalism from the capitalism of the neoliberal era and others.
You look at the Nordic societies, different forms of capitalism. Take a look at the family dictatorships of the Gulf. Different form of capitalism. OK, so I don’t think we can define. There are elements of… First of all, we have no capitalist societies and nothing approximating what a capitalist society is supposed to be. What we actually have is many varieties of state capitalism that included the old Soviet Union, included Maoist China, includes the Gulf dictatorships, includes the United States, just different varieties of a mix of state intervention and the reliance on the private sector. It’s all kind of internet interactions. Is true of almost everything we use. Take what we’re doing now: we’re using computers, Internet, satellites, microelectronics, so on. Where did that come from? It came during the period of regimented capitalism, mostly from the state. Either direct state funding or state grants to private institutions. Didn’t really go on to the market for about 20, 25 years, first usable personal computer was in 1977.
After about 30 years of extensive research and development, innovation, risk mostly in the public sector. The Internet was the same. It didn’t get privatized till the 90s, and was being developed in an MIT laboratory where I was working in the 1950s. That’s across the boarders. The same with pharmaceuticals. Same with just about every aspect of the economy. It’s a mixture of public, private, mixture of various ways and different ways. Well. What is the right way to deal with it?
Well, we could debate it by own feelings, for what it’s worth is. Essentially the position of the Republican Party under Abraham Lincoln. I think they had it about right. That wage labor is different from slavery. Only and that it’s temporary. Until a person can become a free man or woman again, that was also the view of industrial workers in the late 19th century. They wanted to free themselves from the tyranny of a boss worker relationship, which is an assault on human dignity and the Republican rights of free citizens, which labor press goes into this in detail.
Major labor organizations like the Knights of Labor were based on the principle that, in their words, those who work in the mills should own the factory girls, so-called young women from the farms who were working in the textile mills, running their own quite lively, interesting press. Take the same view. The first populist movement, the real populist movement, not what is called populism today, radical farmers in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma want to take control of their own lives and enterprises away from the northeastern bankers who lent the money, charged huge interest to run the markets.
They want to do it themselves. They’d have their own banks, their own markets and so on, run democratically, but were participants. Started to link up with the Knights of labor, the most radical democratic popular movement in American history. It was crushed by force but I think they had the right idea. We have to adapt it to new circumstances. Well, that’s one point of view. If you take at it now at Capitalism.
7. No human system to date has so far been able to endure indefinitely - not ancient Egypt or Rome, not Feudal China or Europe, not the USSR. What about global Capitalism: can it survive in its current form?
In its current form it is suicidal. Definitely, clearly suicidal. The present form of capitalism says: let’s destroy the environment in which humans can survive.
Heading right in that direction, let’s take a look at the extrapolate from what’s been happening to exactly what you get (??). That’s true that Trump is carrying it to an extreme. He’s saying: let’s raise the disaster, OK? Others are saying that’s right (??). But in its current form, it’s heading for disaster. Now, can there be modifications within the framework of established capitalistic institutions that will reverse this course? Yes, there can be. That’s basically what the Green New Deal is about as it’s developed by the most careful practitioners. People like my colleague and co-author, Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, detailed careful analysis of how we could meet the U.N. goals cutting in half emissions by 2030, a net zero emissions by 2050. We could do it easily within the expenditures, a fraction of the expenditures that are even used to prop up the economy by the Treasury outflows during wind (??) , far less than during World War Two. Jeffrey Sachs, another fine economist, has a slightly different model and comes out with about the same conclusions. Here, incidentally, is a very significant work that economists can do using their tools and their knowledge and taking account of real world conditions. And I think they and some others show quite convincingly that without a fundamental change in existing institutions, we have the means within a few decades to put a stop to the suicidal tendencies of capitalism. We can’t take care of what’s already been done, that’s done, and it’s going to last, I mean, the destruction of the environment that has already taken place extends into the future no matter what we do, stop fossil fuels tomorrow, still going to continue.
We can’t stop it. These processes are underway, but we can constrain and we can control them, have a good chance of creating not only a livable world, but a much better one. We have a much better world if we were not driven by the needs of private profit and private consumption and we were concerned with the common good. Very straightforward ways, we’d all be better off if we had high quality mass transportation than if we were sitting in traffic jams for a couple hours a day to try to get to work.
But the system has been set up so that it’s the latter not the former. Government is the problem, you can’t do that… We see it. These are decisions that are made constantly. We’re not talking in outer space. We’re talking about decisions that are made every day. They can be oriented towards the common good. They can be oriented towards private profit, private consumption. Those are not consistent notions with one or the other. But these are very direct decisions.
And I should say that the careful studies of people like Robert Pollin and Jeff Sachs are showing what economists could do at their best, using the tools that have been developed not only for practical purposes, but for purposes that are essential for human survival. Can’t be better than that.
8. Is Capitalism, or whatever we should call the current system, the best one to serve the needs of humanity, or can we imagine another one?
The Green New Deal quite consciously keeps within the “framework”… I mean, I’m talking about the careful proposals for a green new deal. There’s all kind of proposals, but ones like, say, Pollin and Sachs, keep explicitly within the framework of capitalist institutions.
I don’t think the architects of this system necessarily believe that those are the best institutions. They don’t. But if you look at timescales. The time scale necessary to overcome the urgent crisis that we are facing is far shorter than the time scale necessary to change institutions. That doesn’t mean one or the other. You can be working in the background to create the consciousness, the elements of the future society within the present one. But we have an urgent need. Actually, even more urgently, we have to get rid of the malignancy in the White House.
If that’s not done all of this is moot. All of it, of course, we will be driving to disaster. But assuming that that cancer can be excised in November, which is by no means certain, then the next urgent task is actually to deal decisively with the environmental crisis. We have the tools to do this Get rid of nuclear weapons, which are an immense threat. Get prepared for the next pandemic, which we can do. Reverse the deterioration of democracy. And then beyond that, look into the nature of institutions.
I mentioned the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. Basically, he was taking the stand of classical liberalism. One which actually goes back to classical Greece and Rome, Cicero and others. The idea that one person should be dependent on the orders of another is intolerable, except in extreme conditions like a three year old child is dependent on the decisions of the parent. But for a society to be organized on the principle that you spend almost all your waking hours under the rules of a tyrant with total control over you, way beyond what Stalin dreamed of. Stalin didn’t say you can take a bathroom break at three o’clock or you have to wear these clothes and go from this spot to another spot in the Amazon warehouse or whatever.
The idea that most of your waking hours are spent that way I think is intolerable. And that can be overcome and be overcome pretty much the way the Knights of Labor were talking about it. Those who work in the mills should own them. Enterprises should be in the hands of participants, workers community. We can have much more rich democratic systems without systems of what are, in my view, totally illegitimate authority. OK, it’s not unfeasible. In fact you can even call it capitalism if you want. Call it whatever you like.
But it’s a very different system. And I think that moves in that direction are appropriate, necessary over the longer term. Meanwhile, we have immediate crises that must be overcome or else none of these discussions mean anything.
It’s not stupidity. Milton Friedman was very intelligent person. I am not competent to judge, but competent economists say he was a very good economist. It was not stupidity when he said the role of the private sector is solely self enrichment. That’s ideology, not stupidity. I mean, I happen to think it’s a stupid conclusion, but he wasn’t making it on the basis of stupidity or incompetence. Well, the case of Bolsonaro. Let me not judge, but I think… We might notice the fact that the three countries that are pretty much in the lead in moving towards autocracy and destruction of democracy also happened to be in the lead, the number of deaths and cases of the virus - United States, India, Brazil, the next one in line is Russia. Also not exactly a model of democracy. Is this an accident? Well, you can decide. I don’t think so. I think that’s inherent in autocratic control. The demonisation and ignoring science because we’re smarter, we’re better than anyone else, we just run things… Typical in Brazil, typical here, dramatic, same in India, killing the intellectual sectors.
I think these things are related, but I don’t think there’s stupidity. They answer to specific power needs and in some cases, personal needs. But mostly fundamental power. Trump would not remain in office if he did not understand that his prime duty is to enrich the very rich and the private sector. He can talk all he likes to white collar workers, but the working blue collar workers, it’s about how much he loves them. But at the same time, he is stabbing them in the back.
Every legislative proposal, whether it’s a tax scam for the rich or cutting back safety and health regulations, is stabbing working people at the lower middle class in the back.
Same with most Bolsonaro, same with Modi. Kind of an interesting phenomenon, they keep popularity… That it’s a different matter. Dictators and demagogues often do not because they’re helping people. But these are very, I think, you’re raising very serious issues. I mean, in different countries they have different routes, different characteristics and so on. But there are some common features. I think one common feature is the neoliberal assault of the last 40 years.
So different effects in different places, but similar ones. And it has led to this atmosphere of anger, contempt for institutions, to search for some leader, maximal leader who save us from all of this and blame somebody. So anybody can blame the Muslims, in the United States you can blame the immigrants, the World Health Organization. Somewhere else, you can blame the Kurdish immigrants, you know, whatever it is… To blame somebody, not the sources that are responsible.
That’s the nation nature of demagogic leadership. Not for the first time in history. Plenty of examples.