Occupy and Nonviolence
DJ Buschini: A good deal of committed organization helped lay the groundwork for the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. For years, activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) drew inspiration from Gandhian practices and Christian pacifism. What’s your take on Occupy and the nonviolent philosophy?
Noam Chomsky: It’s certainly what one should prefer. Some prefer it to the extent of never being willing to do anything else. So, for example, Martin Luther King wanted to just keep to it strictly––nothing else, not even in self-defense. Others have a less rigid view. And there are also more complex conceptions of nonviolence.
One of the leading figures in 20th century American nonviolent movements, and kind of a mentor of King and others, was A. J. Muste, who is not too well known, but he should be. He was a nonviolent pacifist, a pacifist during WWII. But he advocated what he called Revolutionary Pacifism. He said that pacifism in the face of injustice is not enough. So unless you confront the structural violence of ordinary life, then it is hypocritical and meaningless to object to the fringe of violence by more marginal groups who are also struggling against injustice.
We should object to what they’re doing, but we can’t take ourselves seriously unless we’re confronting the whole system of violence under which most people try to survive somehow. That includes violent repression, but also just what’s sometimes called structural violence: the system of exploitation, repression and subordination. So that is Revolutionary Pacifism. And it can be a very effective force.
Take, say, the Civil Rights Movement––its record is instructive. As you said, it goes back decades. It really began to become a national movement in 1960 with sit-ins at lunch counters by black students, [who were] arrested. It returned in larger numbers, freedom buses with young people mostly riding through the South trying to organize voters. SNCC, as you say, was kind of at the forefront of it, and they were joined to some extent by young activists from the North. It was pretty violent.
Finally it got to the stage where there was enough popular support nationwide so that it did impel the government to pass significant legislation. Which extended beyond the rights of the black minorities. It was the beginnings of legislation which kind of broke the framework of repression of women.
All these things started to collapse. It sort of interacted with the activist movements that were developing at the time. And it was part of the whole kind of revolution of consciousness that took place through the ‘60s.
But Martin Luther King was committed to Revolutionary Pacifism. If you listen to the speeches we hear on Martin Luther King Day, they usually end with the March on Washington in 1963––“I have a Dream,” and so on. But he had a much broader dream. And right after that he began to expand the activities of the Civil Rights Movement to the North. That didn’t get very far. First to Chicago, for an anti-slum movement, housing, jobs, and so on. He then began to speak openly about the Vietnam War, partially denounced imperialist wars, directly confronted racism and oppression in the North, and his popularity sank. The Civil Rights Movement fractured and sank.
[King] was assassinated while joining a sanitation workers strike, a public servant strike, on his way to organize a march to Washington as part of an effort to establish a Poor People’s Movement. The march took place after the assassination, went through the places in the South where there had been bitter, brutal struggles and finally ended up in Washington.
The marchers set up a tent city, Resurrection City. Congress just dismissed them with contempt. The security forces were called in to forcefully drive them out of the city, just to make it clear who was boss. They came in the middle of the night and tore down the tent city, drove the people out, and that was the end of that.
DJB: A familiar scene.
NC: As soon as the movement took up class issues, the power system crashed down on its head. And it ran up against prejudice, racism, lots of unpleasant attitudes which do exist throughout the population, we can’t deny it. In order to go beyond that it would have to have far broader support and appeal … and that’s hard.
DJB: Working groups in the Occupy Movement now focus on this task. But meanwhile, U.S. politicians campaign for “jobs” in unsustainable industries that violently worsen the environmental crisis. How do you interpret the term “jobs,” as they advertise it?
NC: “Jobs,” in American speech, has a new meaning: “Jobs” is the way you pronounce an obscene word, namely “profits.” You can’t say “profits,” so nobody ever talks about that. What you say is “jobs,” and that sounds better than “profits.”
What about work? There are very concrete questions, like: do we want higher employment right now, within the existing system of production (––or, in fact, the system of production that’s been substantially diminished and much of it sent overseas)? I think the answer is that it has to be modulated. There’s nothing wrong with having a decent job, the kind you like and gives you a way to live and so on. But does it have to be a job that’s contributing to the likely destruction of the possibility for decent survival not too many years down the road? Well, it doesn’t.
There’s plenty of potential for employment which would overcome or reduce the threats of anthropogenic global warming––some of them pretty low-tech. Take, say, weatherizing houses. Lots of people could be put to work weatherizing houses; that would have a big effect.
The automobile industry could [be] turned over to the stakeholders: the workforce and community, who could run it and manage it and use it to produce things that people really need and that, in fact, future generations need if they’re going to be able to survive. Like high-speed rail, instead of transportation geared to the maximal use of fossil fuels, which is what’s been going on for decades. So that could [be] done. The skilled workforce out in the Rust Belt could do that quite well, maybe with a little federal aid. But with the support of the public, and with the right kind of consciousness.
DJB: And say you’re advocating for “occupations,” not “jobs”–– in a democracy predicated on conserving healthy societies and ecosystems. What’s your conception of work as it relates to human nature?
NC: Well, there are fundamentally two different ways of looking at work. One is capitalist ideology. That basically takes for granted that the natural state of a person is to vegetate. You have to be driven to work. If you aren’t driven to work you’ll lie around watching television or take your money from the welfare office and you won’t do anything. So therefore there have to be punishments for not working and rewards for working.
There’s a different conception, which goes right back to the Enlightenment. And that’s one that regards work as one of the highest goals in life. But they’re referring to a special kind of work: creative work taken under your own control and under your own initiative. That’s a very different conception of work, one that’s pretty familiar to all of us. If you just walk down the halls around here [at MIT], you’ll see people working, maybe 80 hours a week, working hard. Because they like what they’re doing! They’re fundamentally controlling their own work––challenging issues, etc.
But you don’t have to be an engineer and a scientist to do that. The same is true of carpenters, plumbers. I know artisans who just love their work; they’ll do it in their spare time. Maybe they have to do it in a factory during the day, but during the weekend they’ll go in the garage and build a car or something like that. Because it’s something they want to do. And I think almost all work can be like that.
But, fundamentally, it’s back to just different conceptions of what work is. And what human beings are. I mean, are they, kind of, in their nature, dependent couch potatoes? Or are they people who want to become involved in creative, exciting, challenging work that they control themselves and cooperatively with others?
Again, if you walk down the halls you see students talking to each other. A lot of the work that gets done is cooperative work. That’s the way things happen almost anywhere.
DJB: What would it look like if we could work to encompass the broader public and its economic activity in the Occupy Movement’s ethic of transparent, direct democracy?
NC: Well that’s a very big “if”. But if in fact you could expand the Occupy Movement––if we all could––to include the workforce, communities, places of production, commercial enterprises, the media and so on…it would be a major revolution which would dramatically change the world. But of course there would be plenty of efforts to restrain it. Power systems don’t just give up easily and say, “thank you, I’ll go home.” So it would be a huge enterprise.