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2 DISPATCHES FROM
AMERICA Plutonomy and the
precariat By Noam
Plutonomy refers to the rich, those
who buy luxury goods and so on, and that's where
the action is. They claimed that their plutonomy
index was way outperforming the stock market. As
for the rest, we set them adrift. We don't really
care about them. We don't really need them. They
have to be around to provide a powerful state,
which will protect us and bail us out when we get
into trouble, but other than that they essentially
have no function. These days they're sometimes
called the "precariat" - people who live a
precarious existence at the periphery of society.
Only it's not the periphery anymore. It's becoming
a very substantial part of society in the United
States and indeed elsewhere. And this is
considered a good thing.
So, for example,
Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, at the time when he
was still "Saint Alan" - hailed by the economics
profession as one of the greatest economists of
all time (this was before the crash for which he
was substantially responsible) - was testifying
to Congress in the Bill
Clinton years, and he explained the wonders of the
great economy that he was supervising. He said a
lot of its success was based substantially on what
he called "growing worker insecurity". If working
people are insecure, if they're part of the
precariat, living precarious existences, they're
not going to make demands, they're not going to
try to get better wages, they won't get improved
benefits. We can kick 'em out, if we don't need
'em. And that's what's called a "healthy" economy,
technically speaking. And he was highly praised
for this, greatly admired.
So the world is
now indeed splitting into a plutonomy and a
precariat - in the imagery of the Occupy movement,
the 1% and the 99%. Not literal numbers, but the
right picture. Now, the plutonomy is where the
action is and it could continue like this.
If it does, the historic reversal that
began in the 1970s could become irreversible.
That's where we're heading. And the Occupy
movement is the first real, major, popular
reaction that could avert this. But it's going to
be necessary to face the fact that it's a long,
hard struggle. You don't win victories tomorrow.
You have to form the structures that will be
sustained, that will go on through hard times and
can win major victories. And there are a lot of
things that can be done.
takeover I mentioned before that, in the
1930s, one of the most effective actions was the
sit-down strike. And the reason is simple: that's
just a step before the takeover of an industry.
Through the 1970s, as the decline was
setting in, there were some important events that
took place. In 1977, US Steel decided to close one
of its major facilities in Youngstown, Ohio.
Instead of just walking away, the workforce and
the community decided to get together and buy it
from the company, hand it over to the work force,
and turn it into a worker-run, worker-managed
facility. They didn't win. But with enough popular
support, they could have won. It's a topic that
Gar Alperovitz and Staughton Lynd, the lawyer for
the workers and community, have discussed in
It was a partial victory because,
even though they lost, it set off other efforts.
And now, throughout Ohio, and in other places,
there's a scattering of hundreds, maybe thousands,
of sometimes not-so-small worker/community-owned
industries that could become worker-managed. And
that's the basis for a real revolution. That's how
it takes place.
In one of the suburbs of
Boston, about a year ago, something similar
happened. A multinational decided to close down a
profitable, functioning facility carrying out some
high-tech manufacturing. Evidently, it just wasn't
profitable enough for them. The workforce and the
union offered to buy it, take it over, and run it
themselves. The multinational decided to close it
down instead, probably for reasons of
class-consciousness. I don't think they want
things like this to happen. If there had been
enough popular support, if there had been
something like the Occupy movement that could have
gotten involved, they might have succeeded.
And there are other things going on like
that. In fact, some of them are major. Not long
ago, President Barack Obama took over the auto
industry, which was basically owned by the public.
And there were a number of things that could have
been done. One was what was done: reconstitute it
so that it could be handed back to the ownership,
or very similar ownership, and continue on its
The other possibility
was to hand it over to the workforce - which owned
it anyway - turn it into a worker-owned,
worker-managed major industrial system that's a
big part of the economy, and have it produce
things that people need. And there's a lot that we
need. We all know or should know that the
United States is extremely backward globally in
high-speed transportation, and it's very serious.
It not only affects people's lives, but the
economy. In that regard, here's a personal story.
I happened to be giving talks in France a couple
of months ago and had to take a train from Avignon
in southern France to Charles De Gaulle Airport in
Paris, the same distance as from Washington, DC,
to Boston. It took two hours. I don't know if
you've ever taken the train from Washington to
Boston, but it's operating at about the same speed
it was 60 years ago when my wife and I first took
it. It's a scandal. It could be done here
as it's been done in Europe. They had the capacity
to do it, the skilled work force. It would have
taken a little popular support, but it could have
made a major change in the economy.
to make it more surreal, while this option was
being avoided, the Obama administration was
sending its transportation secretary to Spain to
get contracts for developing high-speed rail for
the United States, which could have been done
right in the rust belt, which is being closed
down. There are no economic reasons why this can't
happen. These are class reasons, and reflect the
lack of popular political mobilization. Things
like this continue.
Climate change and
nuclear weapons I've kept to domestic
issues, but there are two dangerous developments
in the international arena, which are a kind of
shadow that hangs over everything we've discussed.
There are, for the first time in human history,
real threats to the decent survival of the
One has been hanging around since
1945. It's kind of a miracle that we've escaped
it. That's the threat of nuclear war and nuclear
weapons. Though it isn't being much discussed,
that threat is, in fact, being escalated by the
policies of this administration and its allies.
And something has to be done about that or we're
in real trouble.
The other is
environmental catastrophe. Practically every
country in the world is taking at least halting
steps towards trying to do something about it. The
United States is also taking steps, mainly to
accelerate the threat. It is the only major
country that is not only not doing something
constructive to protect the environment, it's not
even climbing on the train. In some ways, it's
pulling it backwards.
And this is
connected to a huge propaganda system, proudly and
openly declared by the business world, to try to
convince people that climate change is just a
liberal hoax. "Why pay attention to these
We're really regressing back
to the dark ages. It's not a joke. And if that's
happening in the most powerful, richest country in
history, then this catastrophe isn't going to be
averted - and in a generation or two, everything
else we're talking about won't matter. Something
has to be done about it very soon in a dedicated,
It's not going to be easy
to proceed. There are going to be barriers,
difficulties, hardships, failures. It's
inevitable. But unless the spirit of the last
year, here and elsewhere in the country and around
the globe, continues to grow and becomes a major
force in the social and political world, the
chances for a decent future are not very high.
Noam Chomsky is Institute
Professor Emeritus in the MIT Department of
Linguistics and Philosophy. A TomDispatch regular,
he is the author of numerous best-selling
political works, most recently, Hopes
and Prospects, Making the Future, andOccupy,
published by Zuccotti Park Press, from which this
speech, given last October, is excerpted and
adapted. His web site is www.chomsky.info.