Noam Chomsky Breaks Down Neo-Liberalism for Concordia

Lecture Gives Alternatives to the Current Economic System

  • Noam Chomsky spoke about the impacts of neo-liberalism at Concordia on Oct. 26. Photo Brandon Johnston

Concordia was host to “the father of modern linguistics” last week.

World-renowned linguist and activist Noam Chomsky spoke about the problems with governments’ adoption of neo-liberalism as an ideology to a sold-out D.B. Clarke Theatre last Saturday.

The talk was organized as part of the Concordia Student Union’s Speaker Series, a program that debuted in 2008.

“I thought it would be a milestone for us if we brought him in because he is a model for many Concordia students,” said Caroline Bourbonnière, the event’s organizer and CSU VP External.

There was much enthusiasm within the student body about Chomsky’s appearance, many waiting for hours for tickets that sold out within an hour of going on sale. Only 400 tickets were available for the talk, which was due to its short notice, according to Bourbonnière.

“I sent them a very detailed account of our history of activism at Concordia,” she said, “and they finally said yes, a month prior to the event.”
With such little time to organize, the CSU was unable to find a larger venue available downtown and the D.B. Clarke Theatre ended up being the only option.

Tickets were so sought after that they were being resold by students at higher prices, according to some posts on Facebook.

The talk was streamed live to an overflow room in the MB 1.210 auditorium; however, there were technical problems with the YouTube account used to broadcast the event and Royal Bank of Canada commercials came on every 15 minutes, interrupting Chomsky’s talk.

Nonetheless, the lecture appeared to be well received by the students present. Alanna Stacey, a CSU arts and science councillor and Concordia political science student who attended the talk, was inspired by being able “to be in a room with so many intellectuals, so many people who are interested in getting to the bottom of the problems we’re facing in our generation and our society.”

Bourbonnière was also pleased with how the event turned out.

“I’m happy with the way the audience conducted themselves,” she said. “They were so excited yet they remained calm and were so respectful of Noam Chomsky.”

Public Opinion vs. Policy

Entitled “The Neo-Liberal Assault on the Population,” Chomsky’s lecture critiqued neo-liberalism, the economic political theory that liberalization through free trade and the free market is the best way to support people’s well being.

“There is a standard doctrine according to which the capitalist democracy is supposed to be the best possible system, despite its flaws,” Chomsky said, but he says the notion is an illusion.

His lecture proceeded to discuss what, in his view, is really going on in society. The talk centred on what Chomsky refers to as the “real existing capitalist democracy” of a society, or RECD, as opposed to the idealized democracy he says is propagated by politicians and the media.

“There are shafts of light, and as always throughout history, there are two tendencies, two trajectories. One is towards repression and destruction and the other is towards justice and freedom. The question is, which one is going to prevail?”
—Noam Chomsky

The talk was not, however, a debate of the political left vs. the political right, or liberals vs. conservatives. Chomsky discussed instead the view that there is only one party in the United States—the business party.

This includes the left of the political spectrum, and he quoted various liberals—including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy—who described their views of the masses as being unable to be in charge of their own lives, and the necessity for them to be controlled by a small group of elite, intelligent leaders.

A large portion of the talk focused on the political elite’s failure in actually representing the public, and the tendency for dissonance between public opinion and public policy.

“In polls, for years, the major issue for the public was jobs, naturally,” Chomsky told the audience. “For the very wealthy and the financial institutions, the issue is deficits.

“The polls are very clear, and the policy has also been very clear,” he continued. “There’s a laser light focus on deficit reduction which has an institutional effect, reducing still further the ways we can benefit from the system.”

According to Chomsky, “That [this] policy is the opposite of public opinion is a typical property of RECD.”

Assault on the Environment

The neo-liberal assault on the population also includes its policy on the environment. In this area of public policy, Chomsky said, “Canada increasingly resembles its southern neighbour and is one of the leading [environmental] culprits, not just in the form of the tar sands but also through Canadian mining, which is a plague around the world.”

Chomsky feels that not just Canada, but all neo-liberal nations that put big business first are dedicated to maximizing the environmental catastrophe.

According to Chomsky, it’s the “countries that have large and influential indigenous populations” that are “well in the lead in seeking to protect the Earth and prospects for decent survival.”

Chomsky didn’t just attack neo-liberal governments, however. His talk also offered interesting alternatives to the system.

He mentioned the bailout of the American auto industry in 2008 and presented an alternative picture, asking the audience to imagine what the effects would have been if autoworkers had taken power and turned the industry into a cooperative system. This, he said, would have extended the possibilities of public transport and lessened the country’s dependence on personal vehicles.

The World We Live In

As critical as he is of the current system, Chomsky stressed the importance of working in it.

During the question period, a student mentioned Russell Brand’s recent viral video in which he encourages frustrated youth not to vote and asked Chomsky for his opinion on the matter. Chomsky told the audience of the importance of living in the world that we really live in and not the one we wish to.

“In countries as powerful as ours, small changes in policy can have a big impact,” he said, explaining that voting is a way to make those small changes.

As someone involved in student politics, Bourbonnière took this advice to heart.

“When a student asked whether we should be involving ourselves with toxic people or a toxic system in order to change policy, I was really happy when he said that’s the only way in, the only way you can make some change,” she told The Link.

“I feel really strongly about that point of view. […] You’re always going to need people within the system to help.”

In closing, Chomsky stressed to the audience the impact they can have on the world.

“There are shafts of light, and as always throughout history, there are two tendencies, two trajectories. One is towards repression and destruction and the other is towards justice and freedom,” Chomsky said.

“The question is, which one is going to prevail? We can adapt a famous phrase of Martin Luther King [Jr.]’s: there are ways to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice and freedom […] but not without dedicated and committed effort, the kind that’s up to you.”

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