Direct Action, Occupy Wallstreet, and the Future of Housing Justice: An Interview With Noam Chomsky
As a commentator, educator, public intellectual, and one of the best-known anarchist voices in the U.S., Noam Chomsky has become a defining perspective as social movements develop. His analysis of the shift in global capitalism, and our own role in its flux, has seen a recharge of importance as we entered the “new normal” of the post-2008 economy. Like was done with workplace struggles at the birth of the union movement, we are attempting to locate housing struggles out of the abstract legislative sphere and back into the neighborhoods. With the foreclosure crisis and the Occupy Movement that followed, a housing movement that saw occupation and defense as central began to be birthed against all conventional wisdom.
I sat down with Noam Chomsky to discuss the growing Take Back the Land and housing justice movements, the nature of the foreclosure crisis, the Occupy Movement, and what radical politics will look like in this new period of social movements.
I am working with both Take Back the Land and local housing non-profits to create a big housing focused movement. The two primary things that we do in Take Back the Land are foreclosure resistance, setting up blockades, working with families, trying to get neighborhood solidarity. And also finding empty bank-owned homes and moving homeless families into them. So one of the things is that it is a very direct thing, it uses direct action. What is direct action, and why does it end up being so important as a kernel for movements like this?
Direct action carries the message forward in a very dramatic fashion. For one thing it can help people. So resisting foreclosure sometimes does help people get into their homes, but it also dramatizes the issue in a way in which words don’t. Direct action means putting yourself on the line. That’s true of civil disobedience and many other types of action, which indicate a depth of commitment and clarification of the issues, which sometimes does stir other people to do something. That’s what resistance and civil disobedience were always about. In fact, direct action has often been the preliminary to really major changes. Revolutionary changes, in fact. In the United States the sit-down strikes of the 1930s were a major impetus for passing significant New Deal legislation. The reason is that manufacturers could perceive that a sit-down strike was just one step before taking over the enterprise, kicking out the owners and managers, and saying ‘we’ll run it ourselves.’ Which can be done, and it’s the real revolutionary change. Changes the structure of hierarchy, domination, ownership, and so on. And direct actions of the sit-down strikes were dramatic indication of that.
The same was true of, say, the civil rights movements. Things that had been going on forever, hundreds of years, but what sparked it were a couple incidents of direct action. Rosa Parks insisting on sitting in a bus. Greensboro, North Carolina a couple years later. Black students sitting at a lunch counter, and these things then took off and became major movements with a lot of consequences. Without the direct action that probably wouldn’t have happened. You could do as many speeches as you like and it wouldn’t have had the effect of those actions.
One thing we have also been talking about is that this is built out of necessity. People need a place to live. Do you think that this kind of necessity helps with the idea of direct action, making it more fundamental?
It should, if done properly, bring home to people that human rights are being taken away by a social and economic system that has no real legitimacy. I mean take foreclosure, take a look at the legislative history. As you know, when the bank bailout was legislated by congress, the TARP bailout, it actually had two components. One was to bailout the bank, essentially the people who created the crisis. The other half was to do something to help their victims. Of those two components only one was implemented, the first one. And people ought to know that. It’s the second one that counts. Yes the perpetrators were bailed out, how about their victims? They’re left hanging out to dry. And I think almost anybody can see the extreme injustice of this, in fact criminality if not illegality of it.
In the language, when we are discussing the issue, we draw on the idea of housing as a human right. It’s the slogan we use. We call on the U.N. Convention on Human Rights (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Why do you think this “human rights framework” is important for talking about housing?
Well there is a kind of a gold standard on human rights. It’s the Universal Declaration in 1948. It’s important for American’s to understand the status of that declaration. It was not a Western imposition. It was arrived at by consensus over a very broad range, including input from elsewhere. In fact, much of the initiative came from elsewhere. Some from here, Eleanor Roosevelt in particular. But it was agreed upon and affirmed by congress. It has the highest legal status you can say. It’s got three parts, all of equal status. The first part is political and civil rights, so the right to vote and so on. The second part is social and economic rights, and that includes the right to housing, the right to healthcare, the right to education. All fundamental rights, and by world standards are easily as significant as voting rights. Maybe more so. The third section is cultural rights. The right to preserve your culture, to protect it and so on. Well the U.S. attitude from the beginning has been to dismiss the third component, not even talk about it. It’s never discussed. And to reject the second component. So U.S. officials have disparaged and dismissed the social and economic provisions. That’s true especially under the Reagan and Bush One administrations. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.N. Ambassador under Reagan (1), just dismissed the socio-economic provisions with ridicule. It’s a letter from Santa Clause. That’s exactly the same as throwing out the civil and political rights and saying their nothing, just a lot of words. Paula Dobriansky(2) in the first Bush administration, she described social and economic rights as ‘a myth.’ That there are no such rights. The only rights are civil and political rights, and it’s just a myth to think that these are rights. Morris Abram, who was the delegate to the international U.N. human rights group (3), they were debating something called the ‘right to development,’ which basically paraphrased the Universal Declaration. He voted against it; I think the U.S. was the only country to vote against it, with, again, very disparaging remarks. Saying it’s preposterous. Incitement. You can’t talk about social and economic rights. They don’t exist.
So the U.S. has been one of the strongest opponents of social and economic rights, which is a core part, one-third, of the Universal Declaration. Actually the U.S. is opposed to two-thirds since it doesn’t discuss the cultural rights. We should know that our country is in the lead in undermining human rights. That’s important, especially given the standard rhetoric from political leaders, intellectuals, media, and so on about how we defend human rights all over the world. We don’t defend them at all in principle. We defend them against enemies. So we are all in favor of human rights in Easter Europe or Iran, and say that’s fine. But not in our domain. Not here.
Foreclosure is one case in point. The right to housing is a core part of the Universal Declaration. Its particularly obscene her, for the reasons I’ve mentioned, because in the foreclosure case these people were cheated. They were cheated by the big banks, who created the crisis on the verge of criminality, some of them actually criminal. They created the crisis; induced people to undertake obligations they couldn’t possibly fulfill, and are now throwing them out in the streets, even though congress legislated there should be assistance to the victims.
One thing I think is interesting is the housing movement starts to take shape, likely because of the 2010 crisis, but the character of it takes shape along with the Occupy Movement. They are both about taking over spaces. Either trying to reuse space, or take it back from another entity. Do you think there is actually something significant about this idea of actually occupying a space?
They both have that theme, but as you say it’s a different type of occupation. In the Occupy Movement, it was to take a public space to use it for developing structures of solidarity. Mutual aid, debate, discussion, organization, a place to reach out into the community to bring about badly needed changes. In the case of the housing movement, its much more concrete. It’s a matter of giving people a roof over their heads.
There are straightforward ways to deal with the foreclosure. First, a number of people could be granted the right to rent their old houses and pay rents that are not that high until they reconstruct their finances and are able buy them back. That could be done. There are other simple means that could be applied. So I think for the anti-foreclosure movement should have a very strong appeal to the general public if the issues are formulated clearly and properly.
And there’s just the straight human side. Why should people be thrown out of their houses because the banks are crooks? Then they get bailed out, of course.
Do you think communities of color have been especially affected?
Sure. Victimization increases with poverty, it increases with race. We can’t overlook the fact that despite some progress, racial oppression is still a major feature of American society. It hasn’t gone away. Just take a look at the distribution of people in prison.
There is kind of a sweep effect that ends up happening, where one house becomes empty, two become empty, it becomes six…
It begins to destroy the neighborhood, so everybody has a stake in it. It’s a real reason for everyone to cooperate to prevent it from happening. It’s wholly indecent as far as the original family is concerned. It is also unnecessary because there are clear ways of dealing with it, and then there is kind of a domino effect. It destroys the neighborhood.
As we are starting to see the, I guess I shouldn’t say the “end” of the Occupy Movement, but we are walking away from that kind of rhetoric and the occupations, what do you think effect do you think it has had on movement building? On the way that we discuss the issues.
Well, the Occupy Movement was very brief. It started a year ago (4), lasted for a couple months. It had a brilliant tactic. It was very effective. It had an enormous impact. Far more than I would have guessed, I must say I was surprised. It spread all over the country to hundreds of cities. All over the world. I gave talks in Sydney, Australia to the Occupy Movement. It just galvanized a lot of energy, activity, and so on.
But it was based on a tactic, and tactics don’t make movements.
Tactics, for one thing, they kind of a half -life. They have diminishing returns. You can’t apply them forever. The same is true of the most famous of the Occupy Movements, in Tahrir Square in Egypt. I was just there the day before yesterday. People are still there. Tahrir Square is still a symbol of ongoing struggle, but you can’t keep occupying Tahrir Square. For one, people in the neighborhood just get angered and irritated by it because its disturbing their lives. The effectiveness of the tactic begins to diminish, so you have to turn the tactic into a set of principles, which you then pursue with different tactics. And I think that’s the stage in which the Occupy Movement is today. As it is in the case of Egypt, where they’re debating, discussing, asking how to go on under the new circumstances. Not necessarily rejecting re-occupying of Tahrir Square, but moving in another direction. Occupy needs to do the same thing.
The Occupy Movement is far more diffuse and diverse. It doesn’t have the central character that, to some extent, the Egyptian Movement had, or the Tunisian Movement. Its got similar problems all over the world. Spain, Greece, Portugal, England. In some places its had real successes. Take Quebec. In Quebec the Student Movement, which is not part of the Occupy Movement but I think was stimulated by it just as Zuchotti Park was stimulated by Tahrir Square. The Quebec Student Movement had remarkable success. It should be better known. Initially it was a protest against a sharp rise in tuitions. It expanded, and gained enormous that could have led to overthrown the government and a significant change in a whole range of policies. That’s an enormous achievement. That should be better known, and it can stimulate other things.
What is interesting about them is that they turned an idea of an occupation into a permanent, long-standing social movement that was going to be there after this took place. It was going to continue to maintain that student power, not let it dissipate after a large victory, but maintain that presence.
It was a popular movement. Students have often been kind of a stimulus and a source for broader activism, but it can’t succeed until it goes well beyond the students. That was the case, for example, for the civil rights movement. Greensboro, North Carolina was students. SNCC spearheaded the civil rights movement with students. The Freedom Riders, not all, but the majority were young people and students. Over time it grew and became a mass popular movement, and had major achievements. Like all movements, it was limited and never achieved its real goals. They were aborted. In fact, right when the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King turned to class issues they were crushed. There are lessons there. And everyone knows Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in 1963, but not many people know what, in many ways, was a more important ‘I Have a Dream’ speech of his in 1968. The evening that he was assassinated. That evening he spoke to a large crowd. He was in Memphis, Tennessee to support a public workers strike. A sanitation workers strike. He was moving towards establishing a Poor People’s Movement. Not black, Poor People’s Movement, which would address the fundamental issues of housing, that was a crucial part of it, poverty, malnutrition, and so on. Actually, one of steps was an early housing movement in Chicago. Urban Chicago. He used his usual biblical style rhetoric. He described himself to the crowd as like Moses, standing on a mountain. He could see the Promised Land. The land of freedom and justice, and overcoming poverty and oppression. He could see it, he was not going to get there, but you’ll get there. He spoke to the audience, then he was assassinated right there.
There was supposed to be a march on Washington, a ‘poor people’s march,’ which he was to lead. His widow, Coretta King, led the march, and, from Memphis, it went through the places in the South where the major struggles had been. Birmingham, Selma, and so on. Ended up in Washington, and set up a tent city (5). An Occupy Movement. They set up a tent city in Washington. They were going to appeal to congress to legislate bills that would deal with the fundamental class issues, like poverty and housing and so on. They were allowed to stay there for a while and then congress sent in the security forces. They smashed up the tent city in the middle of the night and drove them out of Washington. That’s a part of the civil rights movement that you don’t hear about on Martin Luther King Day, but it’s important. It won major victories, but it couldn’t break through Northern racism and insistence on class privilege.
And we are right there now. Occupy is a sort of a Poor People’s Movement. Of course, there too the tent cities were broken up. People were driven out, but you have to go on.
If you look back, this is not the first time that people have done things like eviction resistance or occupying houses. Can you talk a little bit about where in the past this has happened, and maybe internationally?
In the 1930s it happened all the time, and in large parts of Europe left groups, often anarchist groups, have taken over buildings. Reconstructed them so that homeless people could live there. These movements have never reached a point of take off where it becomes a general thing to do, but they’ve been effective in many places in limited ways. You never know when it’s going to take off. You couldn’t have predicted that in Greensboro, North Carolina. You couldn’t have predicted it with Rosa Parks. You couldn’t have predicted it with Zuccotti Park.
Do you think that now there’s an open discourse about radical politics that anarchism has a voice in the discussion?
It certainly opened the doors, but whether it has a voice in the discussion depends on how people walk through those doors and develop the opportunities and possibilities that are available. So, yeah, there’s openings. And people have also sensed in their own existence the possibilities of mutual aid, solidarity. One of the most important things about the Occupy Movement, I think, was just to create the kinds of bonds and associations that will be necessary for a more just and decent society. People just helping each other, instead of ‘I just want to enrich myself add to my number of commodities.’ I’m going to join in a soup kitchen or a library or a public discussion, and we’ll all do it together. We can win together. That’s critical.
1. Jean Kirkpatrick was nominated by Reagan as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
2. Paula Dobriansky has worked as a foreign policy expert in the administrations of five presidents in total, with her position ranging. Her statements were made when acting as Secretary of State for Human Rights and Human Affairs, which she did for both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
3. The official title for Morris Abram that is being referenced is Representative of the United States to the European Office of the United Nations, which he was appointed to be George H. W. Bush. He served from 1989-1993.
4. The date of this interview was 10/26/12.
5. Called Resurrection City