Recently, I watched "Requiem for the American Dream"-twice. It just became available on Netflix so it will likely be getting a fresh round of viewers. After a friend suggested it, I wanted to be sure I gave it a fair shot and really listened to Noam Chomsky. After watching it twice, I read the Huffington Post
review of the film. At this point I'm in the same position I was after having read seven Doris Lessing novels. I knew I gave her a fair shot. I read a lot of her work and I decided--nothwithstanding that she won a Nobel Prize in literature--I did not appreciate her writing. I have watched Chomsky over the years. After listening deeply to this movie, I have concluded that both the movie and Chomsky are deeply flawed.
Chomsky is, undoubtedly, an outstanding linguist and has been a consistent critic of the warfare state. Still, I am not convinced he is the singular intellect the filmmakers believe him to be. Before cataloging where the Chomsky and the filmmakers miss the mark, here's what I think they get right.
He is correct when he says that the dream of democracy was that public opinion influences public policy and that government would carry out public policy.
His understanding that crony capitalists were the beneficiaries of the 2008 Wall Street bail out, not the American people, is spot on. He says: "the taxpayer is called on to bail out those who created the crisis-increasingly the major financial institutions. In a capitalist economy, you wouldn't do that." (Thank you for noticing. Ron Paul and Peter Schiff have also said that repeatedly. Yet the system of capitalism takes it on the chin again and again for the acts of crony capitalism.)
His understanding that a corporate media shapes public opinion and manufacturers consent is inarguable.
He is correct that "Obama didn't promise anything. That is an illusion."
He is correct that the wealthy elite have captured politicians across the political spectrum. "Concentrations of wealth yields concentration of political power."
He is correct that corporations are state created fictitious persons and that has enormous implications.
He is correct to state that industries "capture" the government regulators and use the regulatory structure to drive new businesses out of the market and create regulations that benefit the regulated industry.
He is correct when he talks about the disproportionate role the financial industry and Wall Street have in today's economy.
Being right seventy-five percent of the time is not enough because the things Chomsky gets wrong are fundamental. It is not sufficient to see the problems. A real intellect would frame the issues in a way that is consistent and explanatory. To see the political or social failures as a result of human greed explains nothing and provides no framework for addressing the very real ills that Chomsky names. If Chomsky's view of the world is contrasted with that of, for example, Jonathon Haidt in The Righteous Mind, one has a sense of the lack of depth of Chomsky's thinking. Haidt's work draws on philosophers, is cross cultural, is historically grounded and is empirical. Chomsky's analysis has none of these hallmarks of an intellect at work.
The filmmakers further miss the mark by providing no historical context for Chomsky, no countervailing viewpoints and no follow-up questions. It's just an hour and thirty minutes of him musing over the social situation and lamenting that people are greedy and that democracy has failed while maintaining that more of it would be an improvement.
In light of Chomsky's conclusion that democracy has been not created the social situation he desires, it's strange to hear him state that much more democracy is needed. Isn't this the very hallmark of insanity? To expect a different result by doing more of the same thing. In the United States, we have had the greatest flowering of democracy in the largest geographic area of the world as has ever occurred in human history. Chomsky sees the result as a monumental failure for humans, but he still thinks that even more of it would result in an improvement in our social situation.
This is a fundamental failing of the film because Chomsky and the filmmakers attempt, as the Huffington Post article notes, to "distill ten basic principles of wealth and power which have conspired against the American Dream" and its promise of mobility and the expectation of a better life.
As is evident from the clips of Chomsky over the decades, Chomsky's thinking has never changed. The lens through which Chomsky views the world is the same today as it was 50 years ago. That is not a good thing. Experience should inform one's views. The errors of one's youth should become apparent as one ages. There is no indication that has happened for Chomsky.
There is little or no historical context provided for Chomsky's remarks. He asserts that the USA was a more caring nation in the 1950s and 60s, when Medicaid and food stamps did not exist and the annual federal budget was a mere $100 Million Dollars. He decries the financialization of everything and the influence of banks and fails to mention--even in an aside--the largest private banking cartel in the world, the Federal Reserve. He makes no mention at all of inflation destroying the ability of people to save and plan for the future.
He asserts that following those decades [Minute 32:20] that "major American corporations shift[ed] the burden to maintain society onto the rest of the population." This extraordinary statement is made without further comment or analysis. Haven't most people throughout history cared for themselves within their families and local communities? At what point did corporations become responsible for "maintaining society"--whatever that might mean.
Chomsky is mistaken when he says at Principle 8 that the US has never adopted freedom of association as a right. That right is implicit in the right to assemble in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Further, the 9th Amendment specifically states that the enumerated rights are not all of the rights of the people. Other rights not enumerated are retained by them, i.e. there is no need to amend the Constitution to recognize the right of freedom of association. It is already one of people's natural rights.
He is painfully out of step with the times when he says [Minute 25] that the worst that the US government can do is call someone a Marxist and follows that by saying "you go on and do your work anyway. It does not matter very much." I take it that he is not following the current dialogue around the FBI's plans
for those belonging to "anti-government groups
He is mistaken when he asserts at Principle 3 that deregulation led to the financial crisis. Since 1980, spending in real terms on regulation of financial institutions has tripled. There are 115 federal authorities regulating the financial sector. As Tom Woods asks
, would the 116th regulator have been the one that made the difference?
He is mistaken when he discusses the marginalization of the population at Principle 10. There, he once again (seemingly without realizing he is doing so) conflates government action with human action, with society itself. He seems to believe that if government is not collecting taxes and apportioning funds, as it thinks best, society cannot function. He seems unaware that America functioned for most of its history with a network of local associations and institutions providing a range of services and products to everyone around them, as was delightfully described in de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. It is a serious error to conflate society with government. One wonders if he truly believes they are the same.
For all his success as a linguist and his antiwar activities, Chomsky never saw the flaws that are inherent in socialism. While he decries the founding fathers protecting property (he's correct that they did so in the due process clause providing that one cannot be deprived of property without due process of law), he has never faced the reality of the "increased democracy" he calls for.
As Hoppe told us
, democracy fails because the politician is always and forever concerned primarily with the "protection and advancement of his own position against the competition of new government entrants." Thus, he will always seek to redistribute wealth in a manner that most creates the likelihood he will be reelected to his office. Who is most likely to be the recipient of the politician's efforts? Why the wealthy of course. Again, according to Hoppe,
this is completely foreseeable in a democratic system. "It is not very likely that dullards [by which Hoppe means poor and less politically connected people], even if they make up a majority, will systematically outsmart and enrich themselves at the expense of a minority of bright and energetic individuals."
A system which allows one group to capture the wealth of another by voting their candidate into public office will always result in the rich getting the spoils. That is a failing of democracy. Chomsky, apparently, still thinks a better type of human being than lives in America would not allow that outcome. Still, the opposite outcome that Chomsky does endorse, that the majority seize the property of the wealthy, is even worse. That is nothing but mob rule. No one would dare amass more than he could stand guard over since his neighbors would seize it from him.
That Chomsky has thought about these ideas for decades, never reformulated his thinking and never deduced the inherent failing in the democratic system, speaks to the quality of his intellect. That the filmmakers fail to challenge him in his prognosis for creating a better world is a failing of the filmmakers.
Having failed utterly to perceive the very nature of democracy, Chomsky suggests that an even greater democracy would take power away from the elite and put it into the hands of the population. In fact, he refers to John Dewey's
philosophy-- until all institutions are under participatory democratic control we will not have a functioning society.
Aside from this being completely ahistorical, it is willfully blind to the history of the consequences of "the people" being in control of all institutions. The world had many opportunities to test the proposition that people would be better off if they (acting in the only way that they can act as a collective, through government action) controlled the means of production--and Chomsky can mean nothing other than this when he prescribes that all institutions be subject to democratic control.
After I had written all of the above, I decided to take a break by listening to my favorite daily podcaster, Tom Woods, and lo and behold, there's Tom playing a refutation of a Salon article from 2011
. The Salon article contained many of the same fallacies and inaccuracies that are replayed in Requiem. The writer at Salon was shocked, SHOCKED to discover that regulators are captive of the industries they seek to regulate. He was outraged that Ron Paul would suggest that the Department of Commerce be eliminated --as if it isn't just the Department of Corporate Welfare. Five years later we have Chomsky propounding failed ideas with all the depth of a Salon article.
I think the film would have been richer had it included other speakers and viewpoints. I would have thought more of Chomsky if he had considered that perhaps his ideas were at fault instead of locating the problem in failed humans. All social systems must deal with human nature as it is, not as the dreamer would imagine it to be in a better world. Alas, as it is, I fear that this film will only serve as propaganda for the failed system of socialism. Trip to Venezuela