Four Crises and the Fate of Human Society

Presentation by Noam Chomsky at a webinar “Authoritarianism and Democracy“, June 29, 2020.  Watch video of the presentation and discussion

This [webinar] is focusing on an issue that arises against a complex and threatening background. We happen to be living at a moment of human history that is not only remarkable but unique – a moment of a significant range of crises, all converging. There are at least four major issues, each of them deserving of an extensive discussion. But there’s not enough time. I’ll only be able to mention them, touch the surface, and try to place the issue of authoritarianism within that context.

Let’s begin with the least dangerous of the four, the pandemic, which is now wrecking the economy and killing already 130,000 people. The United States is almost alone in the world. It’s become a pariah state, in that [the virus] is almost out of control. Other states are containing it in one way or another. It’s surely going to have a major impact on the nature of the society. It’s very likely that another pandemic will come, unless we take steps to prevent it. And that means looking at what caused this pandemic. In fact we are now in a situation somewhat like 2003, after the SARS epidemic, when scientists warned that there would be another one, probably more serious, a coronavirus epidemic, and they sketched out the means that we should use to prevent it. They were not pursued, for reasons which still obtain, and we should pay some attention to.

One was simple capitalist logic. The drug companies weren’t interested in, they follow the rules that say, try to make profit tomorrow and don’t spend money, don’t waste money, on some tragedy that might occur in a couple of years. So they’re out, by capitalist logic, which still prevails.

Then comes the neoliberal assault on the society for 40 years, following Reagan’s famous slogan, “Government is not the solution.” Well, actually, government does most of the basic work on creating vaccines and drugs, but it’s not supposed to be involved in the area of marketing and profit-making. That belongs to the private sector. So government was blocked.

Then comes the malevolence and incompetence of particular leaders. What happened in the United States in 2016 was shocking. I don’t have time to go through it, but the US was singularly unprepared. All of these factors remain. Unless we deal with them, another probably worse pandemic is coming. And those who have created the system from which we are now suffering are working hard and relentlessly to try to ensure that it remains, even in a harsher form, with greater surveillance control. That’s happening before our eyes.

Let’s take a look at the other three crises. Let’s go back to last January. As you know, every January the scientists and political analysts assess the world’s security situation, encapsulated in the setting of the Doomsday Clock. Every year, since Trump has been in office, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock has gone closer to midnight. Two years ago, it reached the closest point it has ever been since 1947, after the dropping of the atom bombs. This year, the analysts gave up on minutes. They turned to seconds: a hundred seconds to midnight. And they gave the same three reasons they had in the past.

One is the growing threat of nuclear war, which is terminal for the species. Second: the growing threat of climate change, global warming, which is threatening to reach catastrophic dimensions, basically the end of organized human life on earth. And the third: the deterioration of democracy. Why does that belong there? Because it’s only if we have a vibrant, functioning democracy, in which an informed population can become engaged in affairs of state and other matters that concern them, it’s only under those conditions that we can hope to deal with the existential crises.

So what has happened to these three crises since January? They’ve all been made worse, coming from the White House.

What about the threat of nuclear war? Trump has continued on his program of dismantling the arms control regime which has offered some degree of security against terminal war. The Open Skies Treaty: dismantled. The INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty had already been destroyed. The Administration is now providing entirely frivolous reasons to try to prevent negotiation of the New START Treaty, the last major treaty of the three which is due for negotiation in February. That’s probably go, if they’re in office. The Administration is now considering the first nuclear tests since 1992, breaking that agreement.

All of this is raising complete euphoria in the arms industry. They’re delighted with the public money that’s pouring into them, the chance to produce new weapons to destroy us all, to encourage adversaries to do the same, so that down the road they get even bigger contracts to try to create some protection (of course in vain) against the weapons systems that they’re creating and encouraging adversaries to create. That’s what’s happening in arms control.

What about global warming? Same thing. In the president’s February 2020 budget. The pandemic is raging. The president presents his budget. Continued defunding of the Centers for Disease Control and every other health-related element of the government. He’s been doing that every single year. It continues in the course of the pandemic. And it’s compensated by increased spending for the military and for fossil fuel industries, to try to accelerate the race to destruction on all fronts. That’s the federal budget.

Meanwhile, the corporate executives he’s appointed to supervise the destruction of the environment are hard at work, very quietly, changing regulations to eliminating controls that mitigate part of the harmful effect of pouring CO2 into the environment and that somewhat protect the population. Some of them, the malice is almost indescribable. So, very quietly, regulations were eliminated that limit air pollution. This is in the middle of a respiratory crisis, which is greatly extended by air pollution, in particular places, in the places where people live near polluting plants because they have no choice. Who are they? Blacks, Puerto Ricans, people that don’t matter, they vote the wrong way, we can get rid of them, tens of thousands are put at risk. All very quiet.

What about deterioration of democracy? Well, it’s proceeding apace. The executive branch of the government has been totally neutralized. It barely exists. It’s down to a group of cowardly sycophants who don’t dare to offend the master. The latest step has been to fire the federal district attorney for the Southern region of New York because he was starting to get too close to investigating the swamp that Trump has created in Washington. He was continuing the work of the inspectors general who were totally purged a couple of weeks ago because they were pursuing the same objective. Not a peep from the Republican conference, not even when Trump went out of his way to humiliate one of their senior members, Charles Grassley, who’s spent his career trying to establish the inspectors general office. Next step, which has already been reported, may even take place, is a pending purge of the top military. Some of them were speaking out of line, gotta get rid of them, they were supporting the protests. Let’s purge them and make sure that the military is completely in the hands of loyalists. This is not a minor matter, for reasons that Jackie mentioned before about what might happen in November.

Well, all of this is happening while, on the streets of the country, there’s an astonishing event taking place, completely without precedent. There have been protests over police killings before, but nothing remotely like this – in the scale, level of public support which is overwhelming, in the Black / white solidarity, and the fact that it’s looking beyond the specific crime of police killing to its roots in 400 years of vicious repression that have left a grim legacy, that has to be dismantled if there’s any hope for a revival of democracy. Now, this is against another background. White supremacy is a very serious issue in the United States, an enormous issue. To go back to 2016, 20% of terrorism-related threats and actions that were reported by the federal, authorities were attributed to white supremacy. By 2018, it was 98%. That’s three years of Trump. By 2019, according to Christopher Wray, the FBI director, it went even higher: almost all terrorist white supremacy threats and actions, stimulated by constant rhetoric from the White House.

This is the situation we’re now facing. Contending forces, what will emerge from the pandemic, is going to determine the fate of human society. There are sharply contending forces: those who are seeking to impose a harsher regime of the kind that has led to these crises and those who are struggling against it. The outcome of this struggle is going to determine whether the human experiment can continue down the road.

Noam Chomsky is Laureate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona and Professor Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has long been a leading critic of US foreign policy, neoliberalism and political corruption at home and abroad.