Disturbed Populations Stirring

“I do feel this period is kind of a turning point. […] The only question you can’t answer is how the population is going to react as they get slammed in the face–and they are getting slammed in the face. One way it could go would be like the building of the C.I.O., or the Civil Rights and feminist movements, or the Freedom Rides. […]

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But the country is very disturbed. You can see it in polls, and you can certainly see it traveling around–and I travel around a lot. There’s complete disaffection about everything. People don’t trust anyone, they think everyone’s lying to them, everyone’s working for somebody else. The whole civil society has completely broken down. And when you talk about the moods of people–well, whether it’s on right-wing talk radio, or among students, or just among the general population, you get a very good reception these days for the kinds of things I talk about. But it’s scary–because if you came and told people, “Clinton’s organizing a U.N. army with aliens to come and carry out genocide, you’d better go to the hills,” you’d get the same favorable response. That’s the problem–you’d get the same favorable response. I mean, you can go to the most reactionary parts of the country, or anywhere else, and a thousand people will show up to listen, and they’ll be really excited about what you’re saying–no matter what it is. That’s the trouble: it’s no matter what it is. Because people are so disillusioned by this point that they will believe almost anything.

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Take these guys in what are called the “militias”–I mean, obviously they’re not militias in the Second Amendment sense: “militias” are things raised by states, these are just paramilitary organizations.[Footnote 100; See bottom] But if you look at who’s involved in them, they are people from a sector of the population that has really gotten it in the neck in the last twenty years: they’re high school graduates, mostly white males, a segment of the society that has really taken a beating. I mean, median real wages in the United States have dropped about 20 percent since 1973–that’s a substantial cut.[Footnote 101] Their wives now have to go to work just to put food on the table. Often their families have broken up. Their kinds are running wild, but there’s no social support system anywhere to deal with that. They don’t read the “Fortune 500” and put together an analysis of what’s really going on in the world, all they’ve had rammed into their heads is, “The federal government’s your enemy.” If you come to them with a political framework that could lead to some kind of productive change, it’s all just another power-play as far as they’re concerned–and with some justice: everything else they’ve been told is a crock, so why should they believe you? You tell them to read declassified National Security Council documents, or to look at things in the business press that would really mean something to them–I mean, a lot of people don’t even read. We should bear in mind how illiterate the society’s become. It’s tough.

So these groups certainly represent something: they’re a response to sharply worsening conditions. I mean, they’re called “right-wing,” but in my view they’re sort of independent of politics–there could be people on the left in there too. All of this is not so different from people believing conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s assassination, or about the Trilateral Commission, or the C.I.A. and all the rest of that stuff–the things that are just tearing the left to shreds.

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Popular sketch of the Unabomber

Or take this guy called the “Unabomber”. When I read his manifesto, I thought, if I don’t know him, I know his friends–they’re the kind of people I run into on the left all the time. They’re demoralized, they’re fed up, they’re desperate, but they don’t have a constructive response to all the problems we’ve got to face. Then again, the L.A. riots [in 1992] also weren’t a constructive response. In fact, all these reactions, from the “militias,” to conspiracy theories, to the Unabomber, to the L.A. riots, they’re all the result of a kind of collapse of civil society in the United States. The vestiges of an integrated, socially cohesive, functioning society, with some kind of solidarity and continuity to it, have just been destroyed here. It’s hard to imagine a better way to demoralize people than to have them watch T.V. for seven hours a day–but that’s pretty much what people have been reduced to by now.

Subcomandante Marcos with other Zapatistas

In fact, all of these things really illustrate the difference between completely demoralized societies like ours and societies that are still kind of hanging together, like in a lot of the Third World countries. I mean, in absolute terms, the Mayan Indians in Chiapas, Mexico, are much poorer than the people in South Central Los Angeles, or in Michigan or Montana–much poorer. But they have a civil society that hasn’t been totally eliminated the way the working-class culture we used to have in the United States was. Chiapas is one of the most impoverished areas of the Hemisphere, but because there’s still a lively, vibrant society there, with a cultural tradition of freedom and social organization, the Mayan Indian peasants were able to respond in a highly constructive way–they organized the Chiapas rebellion, they have programs and positions, they have public support, it’s been going somewhere. South Central Los Angeles, on the other hand, was just a riot: it was the reaction of a completely demoralized, devastated, poor working-class population, without nothing at all to bring together. All the people could do there was mindless lashing out, just go steal from the stores. The only effect of that is, we’ll build more jails.

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So to answer your question, I think it’s very much up in the air what’s going to happen in the United States. See, there’s an experiment going on. The experiment is: can you marginalize a large part of the population, regard them as superfluous because they’re not helping you make those dazzling profits–and can you set up a world in which production is carried out by the most oppressed people, with the fewest rights, in the most flexible labor markets, for the happiness of the rich people of the world? Can you do that? Can you get women in China to work locked into factories where they’re burned to death in fires, producing toys that are sold in stores in New York and Boston so that rich people can buy them for their children at Christmas?[Footnote 102; See bottom] Can you have an economy where everything works like that–production by the most impoverished and exploited, for the richest and most privileged, internationally? And with large parts of the general population just marginalized because they don’t contribute to the system–in Colombia, murdered, in New York, locked up in prison. Can you do that? Well, nobody knows the answer to that question. You can ask, could it lead to a civil war? It definitely could, it could lead to uprisings, revolts.”

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Noam Chomsky

Pp. 395-398 in Mitchell, Pete R. and John Schoeffel, eds. 2002. Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. New York: The New Press. [From the Section “Disturbed Populations Stirring”. Italics in original, bolding and pictures not. Footnotes reproduced below as they appear here, save for the links, which do not exist in the original.]

Note 100. The U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment provides: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” On the constitutional meaning of this “militias” clause, see for example, United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939).

Note 101. On falling real wages after 1973, see for example, Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, M.A.I. (the Multilateral Agreement on Investment) and the Threat to American Freedom, New York: Stoddart, 1998. An excerpt (p. 50):

Despite robust economic growth, the [Council on International and Public Affairs]’s study reveals that the real wages of U.S. workers have declined by 19.5 percent from their level of twenty-five years ago. Indeed, virtually all of the income gains during the past decade have reportedly gone to the top 5 percent of American families, thereby dramatically increasing inequality and poverty in the country.

Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein and John Schmitt, The State of Working America, 1998-1999, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999, especially chs. 3 and 6. An excerpt (pp. 5, 2, 1-2):

After adjusting for inflation, hourly wages stagnated or fell between 1989 and 1997 for the bottom 60% of all workers (wages over the 1990s did increase 1.4% for workers at the 10th percentile). In real terms, earnings of the median worker in 1997 were about 3.1% lower than they were in 1989. . . . In the most recent period for which we have data, 1989-97, median family income rose by only $285, or 0.6%. Income stagnation of this magnitude is unprecedented in the postwar era. In every other postwar expansion, the income of the typical family had, at this point, already far surpassed the level reached in the preceding peak. . . .

The significant improvements in 1997 and 1998 in wages for most workers have still left wage trends in the 1990s no better than they were for most workers in the 1980s. Wage declines have also pulled down new groups of workers in the 1990s, including many white-collar workers and recent college graduates. Women workers in the middle and upper-middle part of the wage distribution, who saw real wages rise significantly in the 1980s, have experienced a sharp deceleration in the 1990s. At the same time, jobs have become less secure and less likely to offer health and pension benefits. Middle-class wealth (the value of tangible assets such as houses and cars, plus financial assets, minus debts) has also fallen. These same factors have kept economically less-advantaged families in poverty despite an extended economic recovery. . . . [T]he typical American family is probably worse off near the end of the 1990s than it was at the end of the 1980s or the end of the 1970s, despite an increase in the productive capacity of the overall economy. To the extent that the typical American family has been able to hold its ground, the most important factor has been the large increase in the hours worked by family members.

See also, Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, New York: BasicBooks, 1991, p. 81 (“just to reach their 1973 standard of living, [workers in 1990] must work 245 more hours, or 6-plus extra weeks a year”).

For a celebration in the business press of this downward trend in wages, see Alfred Malabre, “The Outlook: Economy’s Slow Pace Masks Competitiveness,” Wall Street Journal, September 13, 1993, p. A1. An excerpt:

Concern about the economy’s sluggish pace obscures a welcome development of transcendent importance: a remarkable improvement in America’s ability to compete in world markets. Behind this improvement is the increasingly competitive cost of U.S. labor. . . . In the U.S., labor costs per unit of output fell 1.5% last year. These costs, expressed in terms of the dollar’s international value, rose sharply in most of the other countries studied. Among the sharpest increases: 18.3% in Japan, 12% in Germany, 11.3% in the Netherlands and 7.2% in France. . . . Data for such emerging industrial nations as South Korea and Taiwan are less complete, but they also point to the improving U.S. competitiveness. While labor costs in the U.S. were falling last year, such costs, expressed in dollar terms, rose 12.4% in Taiwan and 0.5% in South Korea. . . .

In 1985, hourly pay in South Korea, Taiwan and Mexico all averaged about 10% of the U.S. level. Last year, the South Korean rate reached 30% of the comparable U.S. pay figure, the Taiwanese rate reached 35% and the Mexican rate rose to about 15%. In 1985, hourly pay in the U.S. was also a good deal higher than in the other members of the so-called Group of Seven, the seven major trading nations. In Canada, the pay level was about 85% of the U.S. rate. The German pay rate was 75% of the U.S. level. Lower still were the comparable rates in Italy (60%), France (58%), Japan (50%) and Britain (45%). Last year, by comparison, hourly pay in the U.S. was lower than in most other G-7 nations. In Germany, the hourly rate was some 60% higher than in the U.S. In Italy, the rate was about 20% above the U.S. figure. Only in Britain was hourly pay still below the U.S. level, but the once-huge gap was nearly gone.

See also footnote 14 of this chapter.

102. On Chinese factory fires, see chapter 8 of U.P. [Understanding Power] and its footnote 32.

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