Noam Chomsky on “America Beyond Capitalism”

Noam Chomsky, a long-time friend and colleague, recently gave a talk at the University of Maryland, where I teach political economy. His talk was entitled, “Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours” (a video of the entire talk is embedded at the bottom of this post).

During the question-and-answer period after his speech, he was asked by an audience member to provide his thoughts on the themes I put forth in America Beyond Capitalism. That segment and a rough transcript of his comments appear below:

Q: I was wondering if you’d read Gar Alperovitz’s book, America Beyond Capitalism, and if you have, what you thought of his ideas in the book?

Noam Chomsky: That’s a very important book, and the work that he’s doing that’s described there is extremely important. I mean, that’s one of the things that can be done — it’s very feasible. Now, the book reviews work that Alperovitz has mainly been involved in for some years, in trying to develop worker-owned enterprises, mostly in Ohio. It took off in Ohio for very interesting reasons.

In, I guess it was 1977, as part of this change in socioeconomic policy, the US Steel Corporation decided to close down its operations in Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown is a steel town that was built by, and around the steel industry. The working people and the community were extensively involved in steel production and everything that flows off of it, and manufacturing plants spawn all sorts of other things, so it was a steel town. US Steel decided to sell it off, kill the town. Instead of just giving up, the workers in the communities — who are called the stakeholders — offered to buy the plant and run it themselves. That could’ve been done; with enough public support, it could’ve happened. These were not public issues at the time. It did go to court. The union took the case to court to try to get the right to do it; they lost in the court. But they could’ve won, and it could’ve been carried forward. Well, so it was a kind of defeat, but like a lot of defeats, it wasn’t the end of the story: it was the basis of moving on to something else.

And what it spawned was a lot of much-smaller-scale efforts to establish worker-owned enterprises. A lot of it’s called the Cleveland Model, a lot of them around Cleveland and other parts of Ohio, which are not huge enterprises, but there’s a lot of them. Alperovitz, in his book, reviews all of this; you can look at it for details. And these are, notice, worker-owned — that’s short of worker-managed, that would be another step towards liberation. But it’s real and it’s a way of reacting to the collapse of the productive system of the 99% by just taking it over.

Actually, if you take a look at standard texts in business economics — you know, nothing radical — standard texts in business economics point out that there is no economic principle or any other principle that says that corporations should be controlled by shareholders. Shareholders, incidentally, doesn’t mean someone whose pension funds has $2 of theirs in it as a share. Shareholders are very narrowly concentrated. Shareholding is like, top 1% of the population, most of it. And that means big banks, interlocking directorates and so on. There’s no economic principle that says who should determine investment policy like shipping production to Foxconn. There’s no law of economics that say that should happen. It could just as well be done by stakeholders — by the workforce and the community; perfectly consistent with anything that anyone claims about economic theory.

You know, there’s no reason for the Occupy movement to be less imaginative and ambitious than standard business texts, so yes, stakeholders could take over parts of the economy that are being dismantled and run them effectively and direct them to different purposes. These are very feasible tracks.

For example, one of the things that Obama’s praised for by kind of left-liberal economists, Paul Krugman and others, is for having essentially nationalized the auto industry and reconstructed it. That’s pretty much what happened. Well, once the auto industry was nationalized, there were alternatives. One alternative was to reconstruct it and hand it back to, essentially, the original owners. Not the same names, but same class, same banks, and so on, and that’s what was done. Another possibility would’ve been to hand the auto industry over to the workforce, and the communities and stakeholders, and redirect it towards things that the country really needs, not only badly needs.

High speed rail for example — it’s kind of a shameful situation when you compare the U.S. to other countries, much poorer countries. It would be a tremendous economic benefit and just a human benefit in all kinds of respects. That means I could’ve got here in two hours, instead of wasting time at the airport, for example. Literally two hours. I happened to be in France a couple months ago giving talks, and the last talk I gave was in southern France, and I had to get to Avignon (southern France) to the airport (de Gaulle), and of course there’s a train that goes directly to the airport. And it took two hours. It’s the same distance as Washington to Boston. Here it takes, I don’t know what 8 hours or something. All of this, these are human costs, they’re economic costs, the things the country badly needs. The skilled workforce in the auto industry could easily be reconverted to producing things like this and other things people need. That could be done under the ownership and management of the workforce in the communities. Well that was an alternative.

But getting back to Gar Alperovitz, this is the kind of thing he’s talking about. I don’t remember if he talks about that particular case, but it’s the kind of case that’s coming up all the time. And these are very feasible things. They’re not far out in utopia. And they can have a big effect on the society. Alperovitz is one of the very few people who’s really doing, really, very good work on this. The book is certainly worth reading, thinking about what it describes, what options it suggests.

But this comes up all the time, I should say. In Boston, about a year ago, in a suburb in Boston, Taunton, a manufacturing town, there was a reasonably successful high-technology, small manufacturing plant. It was producing high-tech equipment for aircraft. Apparently, they were doing okay, but they weren’t making enough profit for the managers and the multi-national corporation who owned them. So the corporation wanted to just dismantle it. The union, United Electrical Workers, wanted to buy the operation and run it themselves. Well, the corporation wouldn’t agree. I suspect that they wouldn’t agree mostly on class grounds. Kind of not a good idea to let people own and manage their own workplaces — they’ll get the wrong idea. Anyhow, for whatever reason, it didn’t work. But, if say, the Occupy movement had been around and had been active and energetic enough and had reached out sufficiently, that’s the kind of thing it could’ve participated in and supported, and maybe gotten it over the edge. And that’ll be important in maintaining, say, manufacturing in Massachusetts. And that kind of thing happens all the time. These are options that are all over the place.


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