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AOC in Conversation With Noam Chomsky: The Way Forward

At 93, Noam Chomsky is the most important leftist intellectual alive. At 32, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of our most important leftist elected officials. The two recently spoke about our prospects for winning a better world.

Noam Chomsky and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez met for the first time on The Laura Flanders Show., (Jacobin)

We are at a moment in American history when all sorts of long-held assumptions about markets and governments, and even our relationship to one another and to nature, seem to be loosening their grip. The manufacturers of consent no longer seem to have quite so much control over what everyday people do.

To discuss our new environment, left-wing writer and broadcaster Laura Flanders sat down earlier this year with both MIT professor emeritus, author, and public intellectual Noam Chomsky and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York’s 14th congressional district. What follows is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity. A portion of the discussion is available on The Laura Flanders Show’s YouTube channel. You can subscribe to the show here.

 

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Laura Flanders: I believe this is the first time you have actually met. Is there anything you want to say to each other?

Noam Chomsky: I’ve been greatly admiring what you’ve been doing, AOC, and following it closely. So it’s a real pleasure to be with you.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Likewise, it’s such an honor and a culminating moment to be able to engage with the one and only Professor Chomsky.

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LF: Noam, you and I have talked on and off for about thirty years. In that time, there have always been, as you put it, a long list of unthinkable thoughts in America. Yet I recently read in our newspaper of record, the New York Times, that workers have real power, but the economy just might need some sort of planning — and that, just possibly, leaving so many things to markets isn’t the best idea, especially when it comes to the environment and health care.

Is something shifting? And when you think of the “unthinkables,” what’s changed and what hasn’t, in your view?

NC: We should, first of all, recognize that we’ve been living through about forty-five years of a particular socioeconomic political system, neoliberalism.

Some people think that “neoliberalism” means a completely marketized society. But that’s never really been the case.

What we’ve really had for forty-five years is what so many economists have called a “bailout economy.” We have the obvious consequences, financial crisis after financial crisis. And every time it comes, there’s a taxpayer-funded bailout.

The TARP [Troubled Assets Relief Program] agreement under George W. Bush, for example, had two elements to it. One was to bail out the perpetrators of the crisis — the people giving out predatory loans. And the other was to provide support for the victims of the crisis — people who had lost their homes, lost their jobs.

You can guess which one of the two was actually implemented.

LF: But Noam, years ago, you couldn’t even say the word “neoliberalism,” let alone “socialism.” We didn’t talk about systems in relation to our economy. Today we are.

NC: We also did sixty, seventy years ago. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was not known as a flaming liberal, said that anyone who doesn’t accept New Deal policies, anyone who doesn’t believe that workers have the right to freely organize without suppression, doesn’t belong in our political system. That was the 1950s. It changed a little bit with Jimmy Carter, then broke with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Since then, we’ve been living in the kind of system that you described, a one-sided class war: markets for the poor, protection for the rich.

LF: I want to come to you on this, AOC. I’ve interviewed you before, when you were just running for office, for a program about young people in politics. I recall with chagrin that even I, a confirmed optimist, ended that interview by saying, “But if you don’t win this time, will you run again?” I thought it likely that you might not be victorious against powerful Joe Crowley that first time, but you were, and you’re not alone. Has a dam broken, do you think?

AOC: I do think that there is a dam breaking, in electoral politics but also in organizing beyond our electoral system, like what we’re seeing with strikes, on a scale that really has not been seen in many years. It’s a bit of an emperor-has-no-clothes type of situation for our political establishment and our capitalist system. People are beginning to realize that we can name these systems and describe them, that this water that people have been swimming in actually has a name, and that there are alternative ways of doing things.

After I won, there was such a large, concerted attempt by the media to marginalize my victory as a fluke. You had then governor of New York Andrew Cuomo saying, within days, that this was a complete accident. You had every major elected official and Democratic Party member trying to dismiss what happened.

And the thing is, that didn’t stop it. There would be a case for it if mine was the only victory that occurred. But that simply wasn’t the case. We had the election of other people also naming systems and talking about what was previously, extraordinarily, politically taboo — the election of individuals like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley. Then again the next cycle with Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and Mondaire Jones. It really seems as though there is a crack. We’re starting to see this with people recognizing the true power in techniques like withholding their labor or shutting down streets during the racial uprisings last year.

LF: Noam, what do you think? When the congresswoman was elected, you called it “spectacular” and “significant.”

NC: Very much. It’s a sign that the one-sided class war of the last forty years is becoming two-sided. The population is actually beginning to participate instead of just accepting the hammer blows.

It’s worth remembering that Reagan and Thatcher both understood that when you’re going to launch a major attack on working people who are minorities and others, you have to eliminate their defenses. That was done in many ways. The first moves of Reagan and Thatcher were to severely attack the labor movement by illegal means and open the door for the corporate sector to do the same. That’s eliminating the main way in which people can defend themselves. Labor has always been at the forefront of defense of the population against attack.


United Auto Workers Local 450 members on strike at the John Deere Des Moines Works, in Ankeny, Iowa, on October 20, 2021. (US Department of Agriculture / Flickr // Jacobin)

We are now having a huge strike wave, in which workers are simply saying, “We’re not going to go back to the rotten, oppressive jobs, the precarious rotten circumstances, no health care . . .” They’re just not going to accept it. That’s a major factor in the economy now.

LF: We’re seeing this in the health care industry. Congresswoman, what are you seeing on that front?

AOC: When we talk about systems that are being named, this is not just about open critiques of capitalism but also about open critiques of white supremacy — not just as racist social clubs of people donning hoods but actually as a system that has interacted with the development of the United States. So many of these essential labor forces are dominated by women and women of color, whether it’s fast-food workers or nurses or childcare and teaching professionals. I would say that what this capitalist class calls a labor shortage is actually a dignified work shortage, concentrated overwhelmingly by working-class people, a multiracial working class, but also in professions that are dominated by women and women of color.

LF: Noam, when I first began talking with you in the early ’90s, there was a miserable and acrimonious backlash, even on the Left, against what was dismissed as annoying identity politics. What I’m hearing now in every corner is that people are getting it, as the congresswoman just said: unless we address white male supremacy, we’re not going to get the changes that we need. Do you agree that it’s been a shift on that front?

NC: We should recognize that white male supremacy is a deep current in American history. It’s not going to go away immediately. But there have been dents, significant ones. So, for example, even in the mainstream, when the New York Times ran the 1619 Project, that couldn’t have happened a couple of years earlier. And it’s because of changes in general consciousness and awareness. Of course, there was an immediate backlash, and you’re going to expect that — white male supremacy is a deep part of American history and culture. So extirpating it is not going to be easy.

LF: Both of you are very focused on the struggle for survival of the human race on the planet. AOC, your first piece of legislation was the Green New Deal resolution. We’re already a few years into that decade. Noam, your latest book is called The Precipice. Are we still at a point where we can avoid going over that precipice? Is it too late?

NC: It’s getting close. I should say that the resolution Congresswoman AOC recently reintroduced is absolutely essential for survival. I’d actually like to know what you think the prospects are for moving it forward. Either something like that resolution will be implemented, or we’re doomed. It’s that simple.


Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks on the Green New Deal with Sen. Ed Markey in February 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

We still have time, but not a lot. The longer we delay, the harder it gets. If we had begun to take the necessary steps ten years ago, it would be a lot easier. If we hadn’t been the only country to refuse the Kyoto Protocol in the early ’90s, it would be far easier. The longer we wait, the harder it gets.

LF: AOC, what are the chances we can get real change? I want to say “in our lifetime,” but we actually need it much, much sooner than that.

AOC: What is incredibly encouraging is the mass adoption of this blueprint. Once it was released and submitted to the House of Representatives and made publicly available, we started to see movements across the United States — that were not covered by media — in municipalities and states across the country that started to adopt these targets on municipal levels: the City of Los Angeles, the Austin City Council introduced it, the state of Maine, New York City. And they started to adopt more aggressive targets then, and they weren’t waiting for federal action on legislation.

But we can’t underestimate what we are standing up against. So much of Congress is captured by big money, dark money, Wall Street, and special interests. But it is so important to recognize that our systems and our avenues for action are not just limited to electoral action. When we engage as far as we can the limits of electoralism, we also reengage our capacities outside our electoral system, whether it’s withholding labor or other sorts of grassroots actions, because there is also a point of collective action that becomes too difficult for the ruling class to ignore, because it then starts to threaten their legitimacy.

LF: Noam, where does that radical change come from, given the capture that the congresswoman’s described?

NC: It comes from where it’s always come from — the population — from the victims, the part of the class war that has been stilled. It’s very interesting what’s happening.

Take West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, the leading recipient of fossil fuel funding, standing in the way of moving forward on climate change and many other things. His position is basically that of ExxonMobil. His words: no elimination, just innovation. That’s called greenwashing: keep pouring fossil fuels into the atmosphere and hope that maybe someday, somebody will figure out a way to get rid of some of the poisons.


Noam Chomsky speaking at the University of Toronto in 2011. (Andrew Rusk / Wikimedia Commons)

Well, take a look at the people of West Virginia. United Mine Workers recently agreed to a transition program, which would move coal miners in West Virginia away from [coal mining’s] destructive activities and toward renewable energy, better jobs, better communities. Many of them are moving in this direction. That’s not a big surprise.

LF: AOC, this must be one of those moments where it is hard to be an activist and also be in government. It must be hard not to have your hair on fire in Congress. But in Congress, you do need to get things done to stay elected and to get reelected, and the changes that we’re talking about take a long time.

AOC: There’s an extraordinary contradiction in the day-to-day life of a person with an understanding of these systems. Even with contempt for the way a lot of these systems work, you have to operate within them. One of the things that is inherently contradictory is that so much of our activism involves not a rejection of electoral systems but a demand that electoral systems alone are insufficient, that there is a requirement of organizing and mobilization that goes beyond elections and beyond just our electoral systems.

Electoral politics is a part of this larger mobilization. It is not the sum of it. As an elected official, I understand that so much of what happens in Congress is a result of an enormous amount of mobilization of pressure before legislation even meets the floor of the House. And, in fact, the decisions about what gets to the floor of the House is a result of external mobilization. It is either a mobilization of capital or a mobilization of people.

LF: You recently described literally being in tears during one vote in which you voted “present” on a bill that was going to support more weapons to Israel. Can you talk about that moment?

AOC: My job is to be held accountable and responsible by the communities that I represent. It’s very difficult to discuss publicly the human toll and the human cost of being in such a position. And, you know — especially, I think, in digital spaces and mass media spaces — the reduction of people to their jobs or to their positions is quite normal. But the threats to our lives are very, very real. And in the sequence of that week, at the beginning, Democratic Party leadership attempted to slip in an additional $12 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in routine legislation — a continuing resolution — whose intent is to continue funding our current operations the way that they have been funded as we negotiate the budget. They attempted to slip additional funding into a continuing resolution. So I worked along with several others to strip that funding at the beginning of the week.

We then saw this very militant media mobilization that, in my view, started to extend far beyond the normal anti-Palestinian mass media rhetoric into rhetoric that was direct[ly] threat[ening] the lives of members of Congress. In fact, even Haaretz, a supposedly “progressive-leaning” newspaper, ran an extraordinarily racist depiction of me and other members holding Hamas rockets and aiming fire at Jerusalem.

I can disclose this now, but I couldn’t then: I was assigned and was riding around in a twenty-thousand-pound armored vehicle because there was an extremely serious credible threat that had been intercepted.

Take all of that and combine it with the fact that, after we had successfully removed that funding, Democratic leadership decided they were going to force a singular vote on this one funding piece, the same week that we were voting on the National Defense Authorization Act. They decided to roll out a narrative that was incredibly misleading, that this was the funding for the Iron Dome — which was a lie. This was supplemental to the full funding that Congress had already authorized.

That created an extraordinary amount of panic among our Jewish community that has been experiencing extremely targeted antisemitic attacks, along with our Muslim brothers and sisters in the community.

They had scheduled to vote that morning, and the vote was set to be called within an hour. I worked very hard to not just vote my conscience but to organize our community in support of those votes. This was an instance where our community, as well as I, were caught on our back foot. The calls that we received to our office were overwhelmingly, I believe, reactive to this misleading narrative. And we did not receive mobilization in our office in the way that we should have for the community to understand.

I’ve beaten myself up a great deal over it, but I also think that in the larger scheme of things, this was a battle in a larger context, in a larger struggle for the dignity and human rights of Palestinians and all people.

LF: Noam, your thoughts?

NC: What AOC has brought up, both in this comment and the preceding one, is the interaction between mobilization and political action in Congress. As she pointed out, the main part of politics is activism and mobilization. That was a very interesting phenomenon concerning mobilization on this funding. The funding was for replenishment of the Iron Dome, and there were very eloquent statements from people in Congress [asking], how we can take away defense from people who are under attack? Notice what’s happening. Did anybody get up and say, how about some defense for the people who are being attacked? The people who are being attacked are people in a prison, an open-air prison, in Gaza — two million people, a million children, under vicious attack, constant attack. This particular case was just an escalation of the attack that goes on every day with US weapons, tech weapons.

They’re to the point where they literally don’t have water to drink. Children in Gaza are dying because they can’t drink water. Sewage systems are destroyed. The power system was destroyed — constant attacks, blockade, can’t move. How about some defense for that?

LF: I don’t want to focus solely on you as individuals, but the other thing that I heard in the congresswoman’s account was about the level of vitriol, to the point of feeling one’s life is under attack. You, Noam, are a great example of surviving decades of attacks. Can you talk about that?

NC: I could give you a long story about having to have police protection, even at my own campus, but that’s not important. There’s great passion about defending the perpetrators from retaliation but not a word about defending the victims from massive attack. That’s very much like the system of markets that we were talking about before: you defend markets for the poor, not for the rich. The rich have to be protected from the ravages of markets.


Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a protest at Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office in November 2018. (Sunrise Movement / Twitter)

Going back to the most important point: the interaction between mobilization and political action in Congress. As AOC pointed out, the main part of politics is activism and mobilization. What happens in Congress is an ill reflection, but it is a reflection. The Sunrise Movement is at the forefront of activism on climate. They got to the point of civil disobedience, occupying congressional offices, occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office, demanding change, or they’d just be thrown out by the Capitol police. They weren’t this time, because one person from Congress came and joined them — AOC came to join them. That’s what led to Joe Biden’s climate program. It’s not great, but it’s better than anything before. That’s an illustration of the point. AOC was making popular activism, interacting with supportive people in Congress. This is an old lesson we should learn.

LF: AOC, you did that action that Noam just described in the first moments after your election victory. You’ve sometimes said that part of your job is to retain that sense of outsiderism and freshness in Washington. How would you say you’re doing on that front? And what is your vision of the progressive agenda on the domestic side as well as the foreign policy side? What are your biggest priorities?

AOC: One of the things that we’ve been figuring out how to navigate is, how do you go from pushing an opposition party under a neofascist administration to essentially acting as the minority party within a governing party? How do you manage the tensions within activism, and how do you expand the power and the potential of mobilization under those two different kinds of regimes?

One of the things that we’ve been successful at was this most recent showdown in Congress around the reconciliation and infrastructure fight, because, historically, the Progressive Caucus in Congress has been basically toothless. It has essentially been more of a social club than a political caucus that can exert real power. Because of that dynamic, this neoliberal and conservative corporate wing of the party has dictated the Democratic Party’s agenda, essentially without any sort of internal resistance for a very long period of time, save for a handful of people that didn’t quite have the numbers.

But what we experienced was a real transformative event in the history of the Progressive Caucus within Congress, where, for the first two years that I was in office, it was essentially me and three other women. Maybe we could get five others and have . . . ten people in the last Congress to be able to break with the party. In this most recent fight, the Progressive Caucus, which is ninety-five members out of the 218 needed to pass any legislation, was galvanized. They were willing to withhold their votes in order to ensure that the package with the greatest number of benefits for most people — from labor, health care, childcare, and educational protections to climate — was prioritized.

I think that came as a shock to the party. It came as a shock to mass media. They didn’t know how to cover it. Many of them continue to try to adopt this tired narrative that a handful of progressives are troublemakers in the party. But the fact is, it’s the very pro-corporate wing — a handful of people — that is pursuing a path of obstruction. And they’re tying themselves into knots to not say that.

I think that it is a precipitating event. We are going to see if the Progressive Caucus takes this exercise of discovered power for working people and applies it in its strategy moving forward.

It is so important that we tell working-class people, “You have more power than you think you do. Your essential labor withheld has more of an impact than you think.” And I think sometimes even members of Congress take their own power for granted, because so much of what happens feels like it’s at the whims of these larger social forces of capital, of Wall Street, of the party’s leadership. Rank-and-file members of the Democratic Party sometimes forget their own power. And they have discovered it in a way that I don’t think many have felt before.

LF: We’ve often heard the phrase “Another world is possible.” We try on this program to actually name the moments in which that other world seems to us to be not just possible but palpable. Somebody you met, something you did, something you witnessed or were involved in, something gave you that feeling that these huge changes that we’re talking about can happen — are happening, perhaps. Noam, what leads you to think we can get there?

NC: It started in the 1930s. I’m old enough to remember it. My family was first-generation immigrants, working-class, mostly unemployed, but very hopeful. It was not so much like now in absolute terms — much worse than now — but in psychological terms far different. There was a sense that we’re working together. We can get out of rotten conditions, but we’re together. We have the ability. We have labor action, political organizations, we have our groups, associations working together with a somewhat sympathetic administration. We can get together and fight our way out of this. And they were right.

Take this example: around 1960, a couple of black kids sat at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, at a segregated lunch counter. Of course, they were immediately arrested and thrown out. That could have been the end. Except the next day, a couple more came back. Pretty soon, you had people coming from the North to join them. Pretty soon, you had Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers driving freedom buses through the South, trying to encourage a black farmer to take his life in his hands and go to register to vote. Soon, you had a huge movement.

Always, it’s the people who make things happen. We should really honor the countless unknown people; they’re the ones who are inspiring. They’re the ones that we should honor and respect.

AOC: It is a transformation of our understanding of how history happens, how change happens — as [being made by] a number of notable individuals, negotiating on behalf of everybody else, to the more accurate depiction of history, which is about mass mobilization. That’s often erased and underdiscussed, precisely because of how powerful and effective it is.

Arundhati Roy wrote that another world is not only possible, it is already here. Finding the pockets where this world is alive is what gives me hope. The Bronx has one of the highest per capita rates of worker cooperatives in the world. That is a new economy in our borough of millions of people.

Whether it’s that, whether it is discussions around mass incarceration, abolitionists — not just asking what it means to dismantle a jail but what it means to reorganize the society so that we do not have people engaged in antisocial behavior on such a scale that we have today, or that we don’t have antisocial systems. These are not just theoretical conversations that people are having; there are communities that are actively experimenting and developing solutions. Also in the Bronx, we have anti-violence intervention programs, where we’ve taken people who were once incarcerated, and they are paid to mentor young people who are at risk of committing a crime that will put them in our system to be incarcerated for life. And we have reduced recurrence of violence by more than 50 percent. It’s more effective than any police intervention that we know of.

What I work on is not “How do we find solutions” but “How do we scale the solutions that we’ve already developed to transform our society?” And that is work that breaks our cycles of cynicism.

Cynicism is a far greater enemy to the Left than many others because it is the tool that is given to us to hurt ourselves. Hope creates action, and action creates hope. And that’s how we scale forward.

[Laura Flanders is the host of The Laura Flanders Show and the author of several books.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the representative for New York's 14th congressional district.

Noam Chomsky is professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Haymarket Books recently released twelve of his classic books in new editions.]

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