Thursday, 11 May 2017

An evening with Noam Chomsky

'Is it better to be dumb or clever?'

There was laughter. Professor Noam Chomsky beamed back at us. As he climbed back to his feet and accepted the Visiting Professor Award from Reading University with obvious pleasure and humility, we applauded a lecture that was, as anyone who's seen or read Chomsky, illuminating, interesting and thought-provoking.

I had the extraordinary privilege of seeing this remarkable man last night. Putting aside the content of his lecture for a moment, it's truly remarkable that a man of 88 can stand at a lectern for a hour and deliver a talk with the minimum of notes. I can only hope that I'd be able to do the same when I reach that age. The talk was titled 'Racing for the Precipice', and was concerned with the state of the world. I won't go into too many details, as it was filmed  but in essence it covered the litany of missed opportunities that those in power have had to avoid armed conflict, aggression and the potential demise of humanity through climate change. It was, in many respects, a lament for lost goodness: that those in power, particularly in America (which provided the focus of Professor Chomsky's examination) were interested only in the expression of their power and in nothing else.

He provided some interesting information and commentary about how countries have sought deals to stop aggression and expansion - for example, did you know that Stalin was prepared to sacrifice the fledgling state of East Germany, allowing it to reunify with the West, on the proviso that Germany didn't join NATO? The offer was flatly rejected by the US without consideration. I was struck by what he said about the current brewing conflict with North Korea: 'Perhaps the best way to deal with them is to deal with them - listen to what they want, which is to stop aggression round their borders, for which they'll halt their nuclear program. You don't need a doctorate to do that!' (slightly paraphrased by me)

But what really stuck out for me was something he reiterated several times: That those in power continually disregard the safety and security of their populations in order to accumulate power and wealth in their own hands. Taking an aggressive stance or going to war may win votes, but it renders the very voters who chose it even more vulnerable and their political masters ever more immune to the worries and depredations that follow.

While Chomsky's focus was on war, control, and climate change, following the lecture I couldn't help reflecting on it in the context of domestic politics, and in the light, later on, that the Labour Manifesto had been leaked. I've made no secret of my feelings regarding Brexit - I think it's a disaster for us in the UK, not that I'm over-keen on some of the EU's more centralising instincts, or the manner in which it has behaved towards, for example, Greece. It's clear that a very few wealthy people will not only benefit from a Britain out of Europe, but that they have bankrolled the entire campaign to leave and have wilfully distorted the debate to suit their own ends. See? The accumulation of power in the hands of the few, and a decrease in the security of the many. And what does insecurity breed? Fear. And what does that provoke? Anger, and a desire for greater control....which leads to those who created the situation in the first place getting more control, more power, more wealth. It's the old idea of lobbing a brick through someones's window, then knocking on their door to sell them a burglar alarm. And unfortunately a significant part of the electorate, that's been worn down by financial woes, job insecurity, and fears of war and violence, is buying this up. What they don't seem to realise is that the harder the stance taken by our political leaders, the greater the insecurity, the poorer we become. And as for immigration: Well, it's fairly obvious that it's highly unlikely to drop any time soon - in fact, it's eminently more likely to increase.

Returning to the Labour Manifesto leak and the inevitable frothing howls from the Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch's pungent stable of news titles, what we actually have is a document that, by and large, is almost boringly centrist. What's so wrong with tax hikes for the very rich? After all, it would only be a rebalance of distribution - I'll point out that the difference between the amount earned by senior bosses and their workers has swollen grotesquely in the last 30 years (In the 70s, CEOs typically earned about seven times the average salary in their organisation - now, it's typically over THREE HUNDRED times as much). Now, don't get me wrong - being rich isn't a bad thing: It's just there's rich, and then there's pointless obscenity, and that would be the target of this point in the manifesto.

What interested me, and really got the tabloids frothing at the mouth, was the promise to renationalise the railways as the franchises came up for renewal. In one respect, this is a really good idea. After all, privatisation of national resources and key infrastructure has not actually turned out that well, has it? In fact, it has done precisely what Chomsky says about conducting war - it decreases safety and security for the many, while transferring ever increasing amounts of power and wealth to a tiny group of people in control. Surely we should all be in charge of our water and energy supplies and our transport infrastructure and means of steel production, coal mining and so on?

So, can the privatisation genie actually be put back in the bottle? Well, yes, BUT.....the problem is that quite often governments don't know what to do with an industry once it has been nationalised, a bit like a labrador catching a squirrel. Governments are very, very, good, indeed, essential, when it comes to getting large infrastructure projects off the ground and getting it all moving: They're just not very good at administering them. Nationalised industries, I would say, are prone to bureaucratic inefficency, waste and corruption. The latter is particularly an issue where forced renationalistion has taken effect. Venezuela is a case in hand - while nationalising the oil industry had clear short-term benefits for the very poorest, it's fairly obvious that the money is now being siphoned off into the back pockets of the very few. The same could be said for Vladimir Putin's Russia.

It's a tricky one.

And back to the question at the beginning - Professor Chomsky opened his talk with a digression about life on other planets, and quoted a biologist who said that simple life proliferates and is long-lived, while more complex lifeforms are rarer, less successful and tend to die out faster.
This is probably why those who think are so few and far between.