Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Throughout the history of the United States, there has been a constant struggle between two tendencies: On the one hand, we have “a democratizing tendency that’s mostly coming from the population—a pressure from below.” On the other hand, there is the tendency coming from the elite to maintain the status quo, and to reverse any concessions that may have been given in response to popular demands—a pressure from the top. As a result of these two tendencies acting and reacting in relation to each other, we see in our history alternating “periods of progress” and “periods of regression.” Thus, the 1960s constituted a period of “significant democratization,” and so the rights and freedoms won during that time brought about a powerful backlash from the elite, resulting in decades of regression and the reversal of those victories.

According to Chomsky:

[In the 1960s] sectors of the population that were usually passive and apathetic became organized, active, started pressing their demands.And they became more and more involved in decision-making, activism, and so on.It just changed the consciousness in a lot of ways: minority rights, women’s rights, concern for the environment, opposition to aggression, concern for other people. These are all civilizing effect. And that caused great fear. . . . I should have, but I didn’t anticipate the power of the reaction to these civilizing effects of the 60s—the backlash!

principle 2

Chomsky continues: “There has been an enormous, concentrated, coordinated business offensive beginning in the 70s, to try to beat back the egalitarian efforts that went right through the Nixon years.” Chomsky suggests two key documents from the early 1970s as excellent sources for understanding what the elite were thinking at that time and how they decided to respond to the challenge of democracy: (1) the Powell Memorandum from the conservative side of the political spectrum and, (2) from the liberal side, the first major report of the Trilateral Commission, titled The Crisis of Democracy. Both documents reveal the American elite’s alarm at the fact that the population is becoming too informed, too conscious, and too assertive in demanding its rights, as well as their recognition of the urgent need to influence the institutions that shape public opinion.

Chomsky views the Powell Memo and the Trilateral Commission’s report as representing the two ends of the extremely narrow range of thinking that goes on among the American elite. Despite their apparent differences in ideology, both the conservative and the liberal camps agree on doing everything possible to expand capitalism and keep the population in its place by subverting the democratic impulse.

The Powell Memo: “Attack on American Free Enterprise System”

In the late 60s and early 70s, the U.S. federal government responded to popular pressure by expanding its regulatory control over big business. This included legislation meant to ensure environmental protection, occupational safety, and the safeguarding of consumer rights. The new regulatory regime was seen by the business elite as an attack on their profits, leading them to the conclusion that they must organize politically in order to maintain their economic power.

PowellOne of the most important documents that we must study to understand the elite reaction is the famous “Powell Memorandum.” Titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” the memo was submitted to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on August 23, 1971. It was written by a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell, at the request of his friend and neighbor Eugene Sydnor Jr., who at the time was chair of the Education Committee of the Chamber of Commerce. Powell himself was appointed by Richard Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court only a couple of months after he wrote his famous memo. The document was originally intended to be confidential, but it was soon leaked to the press and subsequently published in the newsletter of the Chamber of Commerce.

The key point of the Powell Memo was that business must use its financial power for political purposes; it was vital for the business elite to gain influence over the government and the legislature in order to ensure the survival and empowerment of the “free enterprise system.” Powell argued that “Business must learn the lesson … that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” To achieve greater influence over the political sphere, business must organize itself and plan for the long-term. “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

An important part of Powell’s prescription was the necessity of changing public opinion in favor of the “free enterprise system” through influencing the media and the education system. He wrote:

Reaching the campus and the secondary schools is vital for the long-term. Reaching the public generally may be more important for the shorter term. The first essential is to establish the staffs of eminent scholars, writers and speakers, who will do the thinking, the analysis, the writing and the speaking. It will also be essential to have staff personnel who are thoroughly familiar with the media, and know how to most effectively communicate with the public. The national television networks should be monitored in the same way that textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance. This applies not merely to so-called educational programs (such as ‘Selling of the Pentagon’), but to the daily ‘news analysis’ which so often includes the most insidious type of criticism of the enterprise system.

While changing public opinion was a slow and gradual process, Powell emphasized that business must maintain an uncompromising focus on gaining political power.

But one should not postpone more direct political action, while awaiting the gradual change in public opinion to be effected through education and information. Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination —without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.

The Powell Memo is available here, along with other primary sources that provide additional background. Commentaries are found here, here, here, and here.

Report of the Trilateral Commission: The Crisis of Democracy

crisisThe Trilateral Commission was created in July 1973 under the initiative of David Rockefeller. According to the Commission’s website, it was formed “by private citizens of Japan, Europe (European Union countries), and North America (United States and Canada) to foster closer cooperation among these core industrialized areas of the world with shared leadership responsibilities in the wider international system.” The American members of the Trilateral Commission included, among others, Henry D. Owen (Brookings Institution), George S. Franklin (Council on Foreign Relations), Robert R. Bowie (Harvard Center for International Affairs), William Scranton (former Governor of Pennsylvania), as well as Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker (later heads of the Federal Reserve). Members of the Trilateral Commission were heavily represented in the Carter Administration, including Walter Mondale (Vice President), Zbigniew Brezinski (National Security Adviser), Cyrus R. Vance (Secretary of State), W. Michael Blumenthal (Secretary of the Treasury), Harold Brown (Secretary of Defense), and Andrew Young (Ambassador to the United Nations). Jimmy Carter himself is a member, so are Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton. It is interesting to note that President Obama has appointed several members of the Trilateral Commission to important positions in his own administration, including Tim Geithner (Secretary of the Treasury), Susan Rice (Ambassador to the United Nations), and James L. Jones (National Security Adviser), among others.

The first report of the Trilateral Commission was published in 1975 under the title The Crisis of Democracy. The chapter on the United States was written by Samuel P. Huntington, who is now known mostly s for his “clash of civilization” thesis. Huntington begins by identifying the democratizing tendency that has become unleashed in the previous decade:

The 1960s witnessed a dramatic renewal of the democratic spirit in America. The predominant trends of that decade involved the challenging of the authority of established political, social, and economic institutions, increased popular participation in and control over those institutions, a reaction against the concentration of power in the executive branch of the federal government and in favor of the reassertion of the power of Congress and of state and local government, renewed commitment to the idea of equality on the part of intellectuals and other elites, the emergence of the “public interest” lobbying groups, increased concern for the rights of and provisions of opportunities for minorities and women to participate in the polity and economy, and a pervasive criticism of those who possessed or were even thought to possess excessive power or wealth. The spirit of protest, the spirit of equality, the impulse to expose and correct inequities were abroad in the land. … It was a decade of democratic surge and of the reassertion of democratic egalitarianism.

Huntington then goes on to explain what he believes to be the heart of the problem, the inverse relationship between the “vitality” of a society and its “governability.” Too much vitality in the general population leads to the erosion of authority, making the society less governable from the viewpoint of the elite.

The essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private. In one form or another, this challenge manifested itself in the family, the university, business, public and private associations, politics, the governmental bureaucracy and the military services. People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents. Within most organizations, discipline eased and differences in status became blurred. Each group claimed its right to participate equally —and perhaps more than equally—in the decisions which affected itself.

Huntington attributes the erosion of older forms of authority to the fact that the population has become too assertive in demanding equal rights, including the right to participate in both private and public decision-making. It is this change in popular ideology that poses the greatest danger to the ruling class. For Huntington, it is perfectly fine to believe in egalitarian and democratic values so long as it is understood that they cannot be fully established in the real world. Motivated by a new egalitarian ideology, the population is seen as demanding large-scale changes that will effectively turn the structure of society upside down.

American society is characterized by a broad consensus on democratic, liberal, egalitarian values. For much of the time, the commitment to these values is neither passionate nor intense. During periods of rapid social change, however, these democratic and egalitarian values of the American creed are reaffirmed. The intensity of belief during such creedal passion periods leads to the challenging of established authority and to major efforts to change governmental structure to accord more fully with those values.

Huntington predicts that the democratizing tendency of the 1960s, being part of a normal political cycle, will gradually lose steam with the passage of time. Moreover, he argues that it is important that this tendency loses steam, otherwise it would become difficult for the elite to continue their task of governing the masses.

Predictively, the implication of this analysis is that in due course the democratic surge and its resulting dual distemper in government will moderate. Prescriptively, the implication is that these developments ought to take place in order to avoid the deleterious consequences of the surge and to restore balance between vitality and governability in the democratic system.

Democracy is a good thing, according to Huntington, but only in moderation. American population has recently become too passionate in demanding greater participation in shaping the nation’s political and economic system. This democratizing tendency is giving birth to an “excess of democracy,” and must therefore be restricted within limits determined by the ruling elite.

Al Smith [former Governor of New York] once remarked that “the only cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” Our analysis suggests that applying that cure at the present time could well be adding fuel to the flames. Instead, some of the problems of the governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy — an “excess of democracy” in much the same sense in which David Donald used the term to refer to the consequences of the Jacksonian revolution which helped to precipitate the Civil War. Needed instead is a greater degree of moderation in democracy.

Huntington identifies two areas in which he would like to see this “moderation in democracy” implemented. First, he insists that “democracy is only one way of constituting authority, and it is not necessarily a universally applicable one.” In fact, democracy is not desirable in most spheres of social life, and the “arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are … limited.” Secondly, a well-informed and politically active population poses a serious threat to the maintenance of a democratic system of government, and “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.” This is evidenced by the fact that “every democratic society has had a marginal population, of greater or lesser size, which has not actively participated in government.” Huntington admits that the marginalization of some groups “is inherently undemocratic,” but then immediately claims that it “has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively.” For Huntington, we can either have a society in which some groups are severely marginalized or one in which all groups are moderately marginalized; what we cannot have is a society in which all groups have equal access to resources and political power. To help stabilize the American democracy, Huntington wants to see greater apathy and less political involvement on the part of the population; group clamoring for more rights should accepts some reduction in its egalitarian agenda and agree settles for whatever they’ve already achieved: “Less marginality on the part of some groups thus needs to be replaced by more self-restraint on the part of all groups.”

Insofar as The Crisis of Democracy reflects the views of the Trilateral Commission, it reveals the mindset of the liberal wing of the American elite and its similarity to the mindset of the Framers of the U.S. Constitutions. In both cases, there is a clear desire to prevent an “excess of democracy.” In both cases, a small group of people decides that it represents the rational and enlightened element of society, and then arrogates to itself the right to rule in a way that bypasses the demands and opinions of the majority. The only difference is that the Framers never claimed that they were establishing a democracy, while the contemporary elite are far more cynical in their use of the English language.

The complete text of The Crisis of Democracy is available here. Commentaries can be found herehere, here, and here.

What follows is my interpretation of Noam Chomsky’s words, as presented in the film “Requiem for the American Dream.” My aim in these blog posts is not to provide a full and faithful representation of Chomsky’s thinking; he is perfectly capable of doing that on his own. Instead, I will emphasize those of his points that I think are worth emphasizing, ignore or downplay the ones that I don’t find important or interesting, and add my own elaborations whenever I feel the urge to do so. Moreover, I won’t try very hard to distinguish my own sense of what Chomsky means from what he actually says in the film; I leave that task to the readers.

principle 1

Chomsky often points out the difference between “professed values” and “operative values,” i.e., the difference between what people say (or even believe) and what they actually live by. This is a critical distinction. If you want to know what someone wants you to believe about their commitments, you should listen to their words; but if you want to know what values or principles someone is actually committed to, you have to watch their actions. Actions speak louder than words. This rule holds even when a person is convinced that their professed values are the same as their operative values. Sometimes people lie in order to deceive others, but at other times they may have been lying to themselves as well as others for such a long time that they can no longer tell they are lying. As a result, there may be a huge gap between someone’s professed values and their operative values, yet they’re virtually incapable of seeing that gap.

This point is easy to understand in theory but difficult to apply in practice, especially when it comes to our own party or nation. The power of education, mass media, and socialization is not to be underestimated. Any American kid with a high school diploma—with rare exceptions—will tell you that the United States is a democratic society where the government acts in accordance with the wishes of the people, for that’s what the teachers and the textbooks say. We take pride in our democratic institutions and look with pity at other nations who haven’t reached the milestone that we reached more than two centuries ago. As a result, when someone talks about “exporting democracy” to the Middle East or Latin America as a quasi-religious obligation of the American nation—our “calling” in the world, as it were—the idea makes perfect sense to most people.

There is a lot here that we fail to see simply because we have been trained to not see it, or because we have never been trained to see it. In order to discern what has been made invisible to us, we have to be brave enough to view ourselves more objectively, i.e., from the eyes of an outsider who has no particular stake in the matter.

Discussing the first principle of concentration of wealth and power, Chomsky says:

Imagine yourself in an outside position, looking from Mars. What do you see?  In the United States, there are professed values, like democracy. In a democracy, public opinion is gonna have some influence on policy. And, then, the government carries out actions determined by the population. That’s what democracy means.

The word “democracy” refers to an ideal, but we often use the word in the sense of an actual political system; the distinction is important to keep in mind. Since the word has acquired positive connotations, we tend to describe what we like in politics as “democratic” and what we don’t like as “undemocratic,” and we usually make such pronouncements because of our prejudices rather than on the basis of good reasons. Since democracy is an ideal, any actual political system is best evaluated in terms of how closely the reality of the system approximates that ideal. Furthermore, the degree to which a political system embodies the ideal of democracy cannot be something that we assume a priori but something that we must judge based on our observation of the actual performance of the system.

Thus, it would not be very helpful to ask whether or not the American political system is democratic; we ought to ask, instead, exactly how democratic is it? To answer this question, we have to judge the empirical reality of the American political system against some given standard of ideal democracy. It turns out that there are two such standards at our disposal, viz., what we have been told already exists, and what we think it ought to be. Consequently, our question regarding the American political system bifurcates as follows: (1) Is it as democratic as it wants us to believe? (2) Is it as democratic as it ought to be?

Noam Chomsky would respond to both of the above questions with a resounding “no.” He would then go on to present what can be accurately described as an overwhelming amount evidence in his support.The evidence Chomsky has presented over the last half-century is at least ten times as much as any court or tribunal could possibly require for reaching a guilty verdict. For anyone who is objective enough to look dispassionately at the evidence, the conclusion is unavoidable: The United States not only falls considerably short of how democratic it should—and definitely could—become, it is light years away from how democratic it claims to be, or, indeed, what most of its citizens have been led to believe that it already is.

Consider the following premises:

  1. A political system is democratic insofar as it provides effective ways for the public to influence and shape government policy.
  2. In a society with gross inequality of wealth and power, a small minority gains most of the advantages while depriving the vast majority of its rightful share of resources.

I believe that these premises are uncontroversial, and I invite you to examine them carefully before deciding for yourself. If you agree that they are true, it follows that democracy and inequality are mutually exclusive states of affairs. If a given population is able to influence and shape government policy, which is the very definition of democracy, it would never allow a small minority to enjoy most of the wealth and power at the expense of the vast majority. If the majority of a population is deprived while a minority flourishes, such an arrangement cannot possibly exist with the consent and willing acquiescence of the majority; it can only exist through imposition from the outside. Inequality and democracy, in other words, are inversely related. As a society becomes more democratic, we would expect it to also become more egalitarian. Conversely, to the extent that a society allows wealth and power to concentrate in the hands of a small number of people, we would be correct in attributing this to a relative lack of democracy.

Most Americans tend to view the rising inequality and declining democracy in their society as unfortunate deviations from the ideas and ideals of the Founding Fathers, as violations of the spirit of the Constitution if not its letter, and as corruptions of what was originally a state of democratic perfection. Due to their reverence for the mythic past that has been instilled through years of socialization, it is hard for them to recognize that the American political system was never intended to maximize democracy or minimize inequality; in fact, the exact opposite is true.

System

Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out that the incompatibility between democracy and inequality is not a new discovery; Aristotle had identified this problem as far back as the fourth century BCE. The Founding Fathers—or, more specifically, the Framers of the Constitution—were fully cognizant of this tension. They were land-owning elite who viewed their own class as representing the rational and enlightened element of the nascent American society, inherently superior to the rest of the population. As such, they were no fans of participatory democracy or proponents of a fair distribution of wealth. John Adams famously said: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” John Jay, the President of the Continental Congress and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, expressed the conventional wisdom of his peers in this pithy dictum: “The people who own the country ought to govern it.”

Charles and Mary Beard, pioneering historian couple, observed the following in their book America in Midpassage (vol. 2), published in 1939:

At no time, at no place, in solemn convention assembled, through no chosen agents, had the American people officially proclaimed the United States to be a democracy. The Constitution did not contain the word or any word lending countenance to it, except possibly the mention of “We, the people” in the preamble. … When the Constitution was framed, no respectable person called himself or herself a democrat.

James Madison, the main author of the Constitution, was a big defender of the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority; what is often forgotten, however, is that by “minority” he meant the rich land-owners, whose property rights he wanted to safeguard against the egalitarian demands of the “majority,” the masses of ordinary people. During one of the debates of the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, Madison said:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe, —when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation.Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability.

Madison foresaw that the land-owning minority of his time was going to further shrink while the numbers of the working class will increase due to the growth of trade and manufacturing. If genuine democracy were established, it would only empower the poor majority to eventually demand—and in all likelihood achieve—a greater share in both wealth and political influence. He argued, therefore, that the Constitution of the American republic ought to be designed in such a way as to permanently limit democracy and to ensure that wealth and power remains concentrated in the hands of the rational and enlightened elites. One of the main mechanisms through which this was to be achieved was the Senate. Madison argued that “the Senate ought to come from, and represent, the wealth of the nation.” The U.S. Senate was modeled after the aristocratic British institution, the “House of Lords,” and, unlike the House of Representatives, the members of the Senate were to be chosen by State governments. The Senate was given greater power than the House, so it could play its assigned role of safeguarding the interests of the establishment by acting as a check on the aspirations of the popularly elected House of Representatives. It was only in 1913, during the Progressive Era, that an amendment to the Constitution allowed direct election of the Senators, though the amendment did not touch the other undemocratic features of the Senate.

Convention

The American political system was designed to create and maintain a republic, i.e., a state that is run according to the rule of law and not by the arbitrary whims of a monarch—hence the system of checks and balance. Government by representation was one element in the architecture of the republic, but there was no room for allowing or encouraging direct participation; the ideal before the Framers was the Roman Republic, not Athenian democracy. Elsewhere, Chomsky mentions the following judgment of Gordon S. Wood, a leading authority on early American history, who reached the following conclusion in his book The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787: “The Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period ….” In the late eighteenth century, the goal of the American political elite was to make sure that rational and enlightened elements would remain in charge of the republic—though only land-owning white men were believed to be rational and enlightened enough for this purpose. The ideal of a representative government was therefore conceived in rather narrow and limited terms. Over the next two centuries, the center of concentrated wealth gradually shifted away from traditional land-owners, first to the entrepreneur class and then to banks and large corporations. Not surprisingly, this migration of concentrated wealth was accompanied by an identical migration of concentrated power.

In contemporary United States, the mutually reinforcing relationship between the concentration of power and the concentration of wealth is worth examining. According to Chomsky:

Concentration of wealth yields concentration of power, particularly so as the cost of elections skyrockets, which kind of forces the political parties into the pockets of major corporations.And this political power quickly translates into legislation that increases the concentration of wealth.So, fiscal policy, like tax policy, deregulation, rules for corporate governance, a whole variety of measures, political measures designed to increase the concentration of wealth and power, which in turn yields more political power do the same thing. And that’s what we’ve been seeing. So we have this kind of vicious cycle in progress.

Consider the steps in the positive feedback loop that’s built into the system:

  1. To successfully run for public office, candidates require extensive publicity, which requires money; the cost of running a campaign increases every year.
  2. Wealthy individuals can contribute a lot more money to election campaigns than ordinary constituents.
  3. Candidates (and political parties) ask for, and receive, the required sums of money from the wealthy, which allows the candidates to win elections.
  4. In return for their financial contributions, the wealthy donors ask that government policy, including laws, be made favorable to their interests.
  5. The public officials and lawmakers do the bidding of their donors so they can continue receiving the donations they need to run in the next election.
  6. With business-friendly policies and laws in place, the rich are able to become increasingly richer.
  7. As wealth accumulates in the hands of the already rich, they are able to buy even more influence in the government.

money and legislation

Once again, Chomsky notes that the close relationship between the concentration of wealth and the concentration of power is not a new discovery. In the eighteenth century, Adam Smith pointed out that the economic policies in England were designed to serve the interests of the “merchants and manufacturers,” whom he saw as the “principal architects” of the economic system. In his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith wrote:

It cannot be very difficult to determine who have been the contrivers of this whole mercantile system; not the consumers, we may believe, whose interest has been entirely neglected; but the producers, whose interest has been so carefully attended to; and among this latter class our merchants and manufacturers have been by far the principal architects. In the mercantile regulations . . . the interest of our manufacturers has been most peculiarly attended to; and the interest, not so much of the consumers, as that of some other sets of producers, has been sacrificed to it.

Elsewhere in the same book, Smith noted that the business leaders of his time, the merchants and manufacturers, had no inclination to share any of their wealth with the rest of their country’s population. Their actions were aimed at increasing their own wealth at the expense of everyone else. For “the silent and insensible operation of foreign commerce and manufactures” had

gradually furnished the great proprietors with something for which they could exchange the whole surplus produce of their lands, and which they could consume themselves without sharing it either with tenants or retainers. All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. As soon, therefore, as they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents themselves, they had no disposition to share them with any other persons.

In Smith’s time, the merchants and manufacturers constituted the selfish minority that acted as “masters of mankind.” Today, as Chomsky notes, “it’s the financial institutions and the multinational corporations” that are playing the same role. “And they are following the vile maxim:  all for ourselves and nothing for anyone else. They’re just going to pursue policies that benefit them and harm everyone else.”

The history of the United States, therefore, is the history of a constant struggle between the “masters of mankind” and the rest of us. Much of the democracy that does exist has not been the free gift bestowed by the system but rather the outcome of popular pressures,  in some cases of long and arduous struggles carried out by mass movements. Most Constitutional amendments and several changes in political institutions and processes fall in this category. In Chomsky’s words, “there’s been an ongoing clash between pressure for more freedom and democracy coming from below and efforts at elite control and domination coming from above.” Since the struggle is ongoing, it follows that as the masses win a few victories here and there, the elite would try to reverse those victories as much as possible. Democracy is not something we achieve once and for all; it has to be gained over and over again because we are constantly losing it to reactionary forces. The lesson here is that the masses cannot afford to become complacent once they’ve acquired some rights and freedoms, for those rights and freedoms are always under attack by the elite—and so the struggle continues.

“Requiem for the American Dream” (73 minutes; 2015) is a documentary film by Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, based entirely on interviews that the filmmakers conducted with Noam Chomsky, the well-known linguist and political commentator, over a period of four years—along with some historical footage and cool animations. According to its official storyline, the film is supposed to be “the definitive discourse with Noam Chomsky,” intended to illuminate the processes and mechanisms that are responsible for creating and maintaining an unprecedented “concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a select few” in the United States.

RequiemThe premises of the documentary are fairly straightforward: (1) income inequality has been a long-standing feature of American society, but (2) it has become increasingly worse since the 1970s, which is due to (3) a massive concentration of wealth in a tiny segment of the population, since (4) under capitalism, most of the income comes from wealth. Given these premises, which are easy to establish empirically, the question arises: How did we end up in this situation? What are the processes and mechanisms through which our present state of unprecedented inequality has come about? This is precisely the question that the film seeks to answer. The question has more than academic significance, since no attempt to reverse the trend towards inequality can be successful if it doesn’t take into account the forces responsible for causing and maintaining it in the first place.

If you already familiar with Chomsky’s political ideas through his countless speeches, interviews, essays, and books, you won’t find a lot of fresh material in “Requiem.” If you are new to Chomsky, however, the film will introduce you to a whole new way of looking at and making sense of the world. But even if you belong to the former group, the potential benefit of this documentary cannot be overstated. The value of the film does not necessarily lie in what Chomsky has to say—he has been saying the same things for a long time—but in how his various ideas have been organized by the filmmakers. What makes “Requiem” worth watching, even for long-time Chomsky fans, is the way in which the filmmakers have selected just the right snippets from the vast amount of interview footage, and the way in which they have put those snippets together under specific categories. The result is a rich and insightful description of the complex processes and mechanisms responsible for the concentration of wealth and power—all in the relatively easy-to-digest form of ten principles.

Ten Principles

Taken together, these ten principles reveal the highly consequential, but normally hidden, social machinery that continuously enriches the 1% to the detriment of the 99%. It is this social machinery that many people tend to blame as the main cause of their misery—the much despised but poorly understood set of processes and mechanisms that we call “the system.” The social machinery responsible for making the rich richer and the poor poorer is easy to grasp with the help of a competent teacher, which is the role Chomsky plays in the film, but is hard to understand otherwise, partly due to the fog of obfuscation produced by the same machinery.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about “the system” is that it functions right before our eyes and in broad daylight—there is no conspiracy by the Illuminati or another secretive group of elites—but somehow still manages to confuse and mystify its victims on a staggering scale. It hides in plain sight, which is both its strength as well as its main weakness; for once the curtain has been raised and you’ve seen the knobs and dials, there is no going back.

Each of the ten principles of concentration of wealth and power deserve a closer examination, but here they are in a nutshell:

  1. Reduce Democracy
  2. Shape Ideology
  3. Redesign the Economy
  4. Shift the Burden
  5. Attack Solidarity
  6. Run the Regulators
  7. Engineer Elections
  8. Keep the Rabble in Line
  9. Manufacture Consent
  10. Marginalize the Population
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 424 other followers