Chomsky and Sen want neo-liberal order thrown off its perch post COVID

Chomsky and Sen want neo-liberal order thrown off its perch post COVID
Indian Nobel Laureate in Economics Amartya Sen, US linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky. Photos: AFP

Two of the biggest intellectuals of our time, linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky and economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, feel that the COVID-19 pandemic could turn out to be a transformative moment in world history. As proof, both of them cite the huge mass mobilisation in the United States in the wake of George Floyd's killing.

The stalwarts were taking part in 'Kerala Dialogue: A Global Conversation on Development', a series of talks initiated by the Kerala Government. Both joined the inaugural session on Friday from their homes in the United States.

“Compare it (the Floyd uprising in America) with the closest analogue, 1992,” Chomsky said. That was the year Rodney King, a black man in Los Angeles, was beaten to death by the police. The men who killed King were acquitted. “There were enormous protests and riots afterwards. In Los Angeles, 60 people were killed. But there were very little protests anywhere else,” Chomsky said.

“Compare it to today. It is a big change. I think that's a sign that at least parts of the population are becoming more civilised, parts becoming more aware, more understanding,” Chomsky said.

The cognitive scientist and philosopher seemed also to believe that there was a larger understanding of the Black plight. “The revolt points to the methods that need to be used to try to overcome the poison of 400 years of vicious racist oppression. Attitudes have to be changed, understanding has to be changed. Changing laws is okay but unless basic recognition of the world changes, the laws won't matter much.

Sen, too, took hope from what he called the “rebellion” that is unfolding in the United States. “If we would read this as a revolt against inequality, in particular between blacks and whites, then you can say that something is being learnt,” the Nobel laureate said.

Both Chomsky and Sen say that the response has been triggered by the inequalities that had been made all the more starker by the pandemic.

The crisis of the pandemic, Sen said, had contributed to this learning. He offered the example of Chicago in the United States where the black community would constitute just 30 per cent of the population. But when the deaths were counted, 70 per cent were blacks.

Socialist wave as antidote to neo-liberalism

Chomsky also saw a socialist wave, a counter force to the neo-liberal world order, emerging during the pandemic phase.

“There are people, the ones with power, the ones who created the neo-liberal disaster, the ones who are benefiting from Trump's malice. They are working very hard and relentlessly to try to ensure that the world that comes out from the pandemic will be structurally much like the one that caused it, even harsher, more authoritarian, more controls, more surveillance,” Chomsky said.

But he said there were counter forces as well, all over the world. “Very significant ones, if they can be brought together and form a powerful force. They can change the way things will turn out,” he said.

Chomsky noted the steps taken in that direction. “Two weeks ago, there was the first announcement of a 'Progressive International', based on the Sanders Movement in the United States, then there is the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and his DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) and transnational organisations in Europe are seeking to preserve what makes sense in the European Union and overcome the deeply flawed parts of it,” Chomsky said.

Europe's muddled thinking

Sen said there was an intellectual confusion in the European Union that had even hampered its resistance to the pandemic. He said Europe, like Kerala, had begun eulogising the welfare state.

“In 1948, when the National Health Service was being established, the argument for public healthcare and a welfare state were very strong. But gradually, given the politics of Europe, that weakened,” Sen said.

He also touched upon the irony of Germany being one of the major forces contributing to this weakening. “Germany had talked about public intervention for a long time, and it went for much more massive public intervention and public healthcare and public social security than other states. But in its role as the dominant power of the European Central Bank, Germany wanted Greece and Portugal to cut down on public health care,” Sen said.

This, he added, caused a certain amount of intellectual confusion in Europe.

Post-capitalist order

It is a post-capitalist European society with a greater role for the state that Chomsky sees coming. He hinted that the coalition was gradually acquiring critical mass. “They are forming progressive international voices from all over the world, from India, Africa, the global South, the United States and Europe,” he said.

The Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, is a member and the first meeting will be in Iceland in September this year. “They are trying to create a different world,” Chomsky said. “How will this conflict emerge, you can never predict. But it is going on right now and it will intensify as the pandemic shows signs of decline,” he added.

Napoleon and the mafia don

If Chomsky could not stand Donald Trump, calling him the “mafia don in Washington”, Sen reserved his contempt for Narendra Modi.

Speaking of the lockdown, Sen said: “It had features that were very doubtful and unattractive. It was done on a war footing as if the Prime Minister was Napoleon rather than a leader of a public movement.”

As for Trump, Chomsky says the American President's malice has no limits. “While concern is on the pandemic he managed to eliminate regulations on the polluting plants, which are now allowed to pour mercury into drinking water, and to increase air pollution,” Chomsky said.

He says this was just a way of destroying the poor, mostly black. “COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. What happens when you pollute the atmosphere more? You kill people. Who do you kill? People living near the polluting plant, because they cannot afford to live anywhere else. Who are they? Blacks and Hispanics. So, Floyd is one murder, Trump is murdering many poor blacks,” Chomsky said.

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