Noam Chomsky on America’s one-sided class war

The rich have been waging a brutal class war on the rest of us but the media and the allies of the oligarchy refuse to call it as such. The tragedy is that for so long, the poor and working class, the very segments of the population that have been most devastated by this class war, have been taught to shy away from the very phrase ‘class war’ as if it were something unseemly, when it is the most accurate way to describe current conditions, and forms the foundation for understanding their own situation. The real and lasting legacy of the Occupy Wall Street movement was that it brought the issue of the class war front and center by highlighting the divide between the 1% ruling class and the 99% of the rest.

Noam Chomsky has been one of the leading public intellectuals talking about America’s class war for decades and in a wide-ranging interview given to Chris Steele of Zuccotti Park Press that appeared in Salon, he elaborates on the current state of affairs and how the class war has been disguised.

Chomsky does not get anywhere near the coverage he deserves in the mainstream media so I am going to quote extensive chunks of the interview. He starts by saying that there is a perpetual and organized class war going on in America.

Well, there’s always a class war going on. The United States, to an unusual extent, is a business-run society, more so than others. The business classes are very class-conscious—they’re constantly fighting a bitter class war to improve their power and diminish opposition. Occasionally this is recognized.

We don’t use the term “working class” here because it’s a taboo term. You’re supposed to say “middle class,” because it helps diminish the understanding that there’s a class war going on.

It’s a war that is conducted by a highly class-conscious business leadership, and it’s one of the reasons for the unusual history of the U.S. labor movement. In the U.S., organized labor has been repeatedly and extensively crushed, and has endured a very violent history as compared with other countries.

He says that the refusal in the past of the working class leadership in the unions to recognize that they were in a wider class war and not just in a struggle to improve the conditions of their own members is what prevented us from getting major reforms like a single-payer health care system.

But it is not just the working people and the poor and the unions that are under attack. All public sector institutions that benefit all of us, and represent the best of our sense that we all share common needs and benefit from common actions have similarly been targeted for destruction, because such sentiments are dangerous. The oligarchs know well that the numbers are against them and can be dangerous if aware and united. Hence they must make sure that that sleeping giant is paralyzed by infighting.

There are major efforts being made to dismantle Social Security, the public schools, the post office—anything that benefits the population has to be dismantled. Efforts against the U.S. Postal Service are particularly surreal. I’m old enough to remember the Great Depression, a time when the country was quite poor but there were still postal deliveries. Today, post offices, Social Security, and public schools all have to be dismantled because they are seen as being based on a principle that is regarded as extremely dangerous.

If you care about other people, that’s now a very dangerous idea. If you care about other people, you might try to organize to undermine power and authority. That’s not going to happen if you care only about yourself. Maybe you can become rich, but you don’t care whether other people’s kids can go to school, or can afford food to eat, or things like that. In the United States, that’s called “libertarian” for some wild reason. I mean, it’s actually highly authoritarian, but that doctrine is extremely important for power systems as a way of atomizing and undermining the public.

The natural solidarity that people feel for one another has been systematically targeted for destruction. He talks about how when this basic class war is ignored and patchwork solutions are adopted to solve the problems that inevitably arise, the solutions actually create greater atomization by breeding racial and gender frictions.

But when you have a working class that’s under real pressure, you know, people are going to say that rights are being undermined, that jobs are being undermined. Maybe the one thing that the white working man can hang onto is that he runs his home? Now that that’s being taken away and nothing is being offered, he’s not part of the program of advancing women’s rights. That’s fine for college professors, but it has a different effect in working-class areas. It doesn’t have to be that way. It depends on how it’s done, and it was done in a way that simply undermined natural solidarity. There are a lot of factors that play into it, but by this point it’s going to be pretty hard to organize the working class on the grounds that should really concern them: common solidarity, common welfare.

He says that there is a concerted effort to nip any nascent effort at broader class solidarity in the bud before it can gain ground, and that this is why the propaganda industry is huge in the west.

In the more brutal and repressive societies, controlling opinion is less important, because you can beat people with a stick. But as societies become more free, it becomes more of a problem, and we see that historically. The societies that develop the most expansive propaganda systems are also the most free societies.

The most extensive propaganda system in the world is the public relations industry, which developed in Britain and the United States. A century ago, dominant sectors recognized that enough freedom had been won by the population. They reasoned that it’s hard to control people by force, so they had to do it by turning the attitudes and opinions of the population with propaganda and other devices of separation and marginalization, and so on. Western powers have become highly skilled in this.

What the ruling classes would hate to see is the kind of mass mobilizations that erupted in the Middle East as part of the Arab spring, or in some countries in Europe as a result of the austerity measures that were imposed due to the misdeeds of the financial sector, or the kind of demonstrations that yesterday forced the Thai government to dissolve itself and call for new elections.

Since the mainstream media, and I am not just talking about Fox News, are also part of this propaganda apparatus, we should not be surprised that they avoid talking about the brutal realities of the class war, let alone use that term. Hence it is also not surprising that to read people like Chomsky and other progressive writers who see the class war for what it is and do not hesitate to talk of it as such, one usually has to go to the alternative press like Z Magazine to which I subscribe.

It was easier for me to find Chomsky in the mainstream media when I lived in Sri Lanka than after I came to the US. That Salon chose to host this interview is a welcome sign.


  1. says

    Epicurus pointed out that oligarchs are dangerous because they desire to aggregate power and wealth in order to assure their comfort and safety -- but by doing so, they actually make themselves targets, which pushes them into a tail-spin in which there is no amount of wealth or power that will ever give them that feeling of comfort and safety they desire. Understanding this is important to the survival of US civil society, yet unfortunately the feedback loops have run away with us -- the wealthy and powerful are teaching their young that aggregating more wealth and power, and isolating themselves further, is going to give them that illusion of satisfaction that eludes them. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get a whole lot worse.

  2. smrnda says

    Such a great philosopher with such direct, simple ideas, and such an early rejection of nonsense.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    The rich have been waging a brutal class war on the rest of us

    This is true, but I would like to suggest that this sentiment could be and should be more correctly described as a war being waged not by the rich, but by the ultra-rich.

    Last week, a fellow called in to the Randi Rhodes radio show and described how he made a “semi-decent” living making custom cabinetry for rich people, and that folks like him would be out of work if we progressives succeeded in destroying all rich people. He had no conception of the difference between a ‘run-of-the-mill’ rich person and multi-billionaires like the Koch brothers.

    I live in Silicon Valley, so I know a fair number of “rich people”. They mostly run the gamut from single-digit millionaires to (very) low-double-digit millionaires, and they mostly started out as working class stiffs who got lucky with stock options. Nearly all of them are fairly liberal and progressive, and they generally try to spend their money in ways that help out poorer people. These are exactly the kind of people who would be customers to that carpenter fellow, and we should strive to make clear that they are NOT the people that are waging class warfare on we ordinary folk -- in fact, they are truly in the 99%, not the 1%.

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