“You have to decide whether the species is going to survive”: Noam Chomsky at The Cambridge Union

Felicity Garvey 27 May 2020
Image Credits: Flickr

“You’re kinda like the way I was in the 1950s.” Chomsky said through his webcam. “You are some of the most privileged people in the world.”

Noam Chomsky’s appearance on the Cambridge Union’s YouTube channel on May 12 was the latest instalment in the Union’s shift online. He was given the simple descriptor of ‘American Academic’ in the Union’s advertising of the event – likely because listing his achievements would have taken far too long. Now 91, Chomsky is known as the ‘father of modern linguistics’, a founder of the field of cognitive science and as one of the world’s foremost living analytic philosophers, to name just some of his achievements. A proponent of anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism, Chomsky did not hold back in his powerful, authoritative critiques of US politics, European complacency and the “neoliberal savagery” of our world economic system in his talk. He stated that “the Republican Party is the most dangerous organisation in human history”, and even more so now with the current administration’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis, with Trump “desperately flailing about to find some scapegoat to cover up his crimes”. On climate change, he said, “The US is actually doing more than anyone else… The US is dedicated to destroying the climate. Repeat, dedicated to destroying the climate.”

Chomsky is no stranger to political dissent. He was a vocal opponent of the War in Vietnam, and during this time wrote his 1967 essay ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, where he argued that intellectuals have a moral responsibility to “expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions” and yet, rather than doing so, had often let themselves slip into subservience to power. When asked in our interview about his thoughts on the responsibility of Cambridge students today, his answer was that it was a heavyweight on our shoulders indeed: “You’re at a period of your life when you can carry things forward. There are immense challenges, your generation is facing challenges that have never existed in human history. You have to decide whether the species is going to survive. That has never arisen before.”

“People your age are at the freest moment of their lives. You’re out of parental supervision, you’re not yet faced with the need of putting food on the table for your families. A very free position. In fact, that’s why students have very often been at the forefront of political action and social change. The same is true right now, and for high school students, the climate strike last October – it was young people, students.” He spoke highly of Greta Thunberg, who he had discussed in his talk earlier.

People your age are at the freest moment of their lives. You’re out of parental supervision, you’re not yet faced with the need of putting food on the table for your families. A very free position. In fact, that’s why students have very often been at the forefront of political action and social change.

“When I was a kid, there was the threat of fascism taking over the world. That was pretty ugly. But it wasn’t a question of species survival. Now there is.” He warned of the inexorable threat of climate change. “You read the science journals and every day there’s new warnings, things are worse than we thought… The latest science articles, which I mentioned in the talk before […] The estimate of this analysis was that in fifty years, if we continue on course, South Asia will be uninhabitable. A large part of the Sahara, uninhabitable. Large parts of China… It’s a disaster of a kind that you can’t even imagine […] You can’t even imagine a world like that. It’s basically gone. That’s what we’re marching towards. You have to decide whether we’re going to get there. And not in the distant future. And the effects of that will be seen right through your lifetimes, serious effects, we’re already seeing.”

In addition to the serious issue of climate change, Chomsky highlighted another issue that seems to have slipped away from popular academic discussion: the threat of nuclear war. “The danger has always been enormous. Anyone who’s ever looked at the record seriously can barely imagine how we somehow escaped. It’s a miracle. And it’s getting much worse. Because of the criminal actions of the megalomaniac in the White House, who is out of control, and the passivity of Europe, saying, ‘well sorry we can’t do anything’. But that’s right in front of our eyes. You have to solve that problem.” The list of crises facing our generation continued. He opined on the threat of the next pandemic – having already highlighted in his talk that the current situation had been predictable. However, he noted that any improvement would necessitate the overhaul of our entire economic system. “If the Thatcher-Reagan neoliberal play continues to impose the savage version of capitalism that has caused plenty of suffering in England,” then we will remain without solutions. For Chomsky, our current neoliberal economic system is unsustainable. “If that remains… we’re toast.”

And it’s getting much worse. Because of the criminal actions of the megalomaniac in the White House, who is out of control, and the passivity of Europe, saying, ‘well sorry we can’t do anything’.

The responsibility of the student intellectual extends to activism, in Chomsky’s view. “One of the most important things to do, wherever you are, is to deal with the institutions of which you are a part.” Indeed, for Chomsky, Cambridge as an institution bears a moral responsibility in terms of climate change. “Cambridge University is involved in supporting the fossil fuel industry […] The institution that you are in is working for the destruction of the human race.” Cambridge University – if it doesn’t divest – is “to quote Greta Thunberg, ‘betraying your future’”, Chomsky said. “Getting the university to divest from fossil fuels will hurt the bottom line. But it’s a symbolic act of great significance: it’s telling the world we don’t want to contribute to the destruction of organised human society, and you shouldn’t either. But, on the other hand, continuing these relationships, not divesting from fossil fuel gives the world the opposite message. It gives a message, why should I believe what you’re saying about the climate catastrophe if you don’t even believe it yourself. These are important acts.”

Chomsky’s argument, however, extended far beyond the bounds of Cambridge. He went on to ask “Shall we allow the fossil fuel companies to exist? Why should they exist?” Chomsky argued, “It’s the perfect moment now to socialize them. […] What happens if you buy them out? Put them in the hands of the workforce, communities. You can’t stop fossil fuels, no. The world will collapse, we’re too dependent on them. But you can move away from them. […] If the company was in the hands of people who care about human beings, the workforce or the community, they’d keep the renewable energy sector and phase out the fossil fuels sector. The move in that direction can’t be done in an instant, but you can move towards it.” This is not a new argument Chomsky is making – ideologically, he has made it clear that he supports socialist principles. Indeed, he moved on from just fossil fuel companies and expounded on the benefits of socialising financial institutions: “One of the real dangerous, harmful elements of the neoliberal debris has been the enormous growth of financial institutions. The huge banks, the hedge funds, the private equity funds. […] They make tons of money to collapse the economy, and they get bailed out by the public, and that’s what’s being going on since the 80s,” He went on to explain that these institutions did not always operate in this way, and that it was only in recent years that they had developed such tools so as to ‘defraud’ the public. He also refuted the importance of banks being ‘too big to fail’. Instead, he asked, “Should they exist? Should they be socialised?”

He also asks, “Does Britain have to continue with the project of the Tories and New Labour to destroy the best health system in the world? And to turn it into the worst system in the world… the NHS was the best system in the world, but under the neoliberal attack, they’re trying to turn it into the US system, which is the worst in the world. […] It’s not too well known, but the US does have universal healthcare. It actually does. It’s called emergency rooms. If you manage to drag yourself to an emergency room then by law they have to treat you. You may actually get very excellent treatment. It’s the most cruel, expensive, savage form of universal healthcare that exists, but it is very good for the rich and powerful.”

“There’s a lot of thinking going on about how to get out of this crisis. There is one organised social group that is working very hard, relentlessly to determine how we’ll get out of it. Namely: Private wealth and corporate power. They never stop. They’re working right now to ensure that what comes out will be a harsher, more cruel and more authoritarian autocratic version of what led to the crisis. Now if they’re the only group of activists, that’s what’ll happen.” However, if intellectuals and students take up their responsibility to ensure change, Chomsky seems to think, perhaps this may not be the only future that awaits. “There’s also people like you. And the great mass of the people of the world. They have two choices. Now, in many countries, the choice is hard because you get thrown into jail and you get tortured and so on. In countries like ours, it’s easy. Now maybe you get yelled at, but not much punishment. So you have real choices.”

There is one organised social group that is working very hard, relentlessly to determine how we’ll get out of it. Namely: Private wealth and corporate power. They never stop. They’re working right now to ensure that what comes out will be a harsher, more cruel and more authoritarian autocratic version of what led to the crisis.

The choice that Chomsky wants us to make is quite clear. It is our moral responsibility to be “doing something to make sure that a different future comes out.”