(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ben Terrall, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay View, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Noir City. The youngest child of crime novelist Robert Terrall, aka Robert Kyle [1914-2009], Ben Terrall last wrote for January Magazine about recent works examining the dark side of the CIA.)
Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (Seven Stories Press) is a powerful new book that is perfect for anyone interested in income inequality in the United States. Packed with jaw-dropping information, it provides a wealth of ammunition for refuting widespread myths about the current status quo in this country.
Chomsky, at 88 an elder statesman of the American Left, has had a long career as a ground-breaking linguist, paralleled by a lifelong dedication to writing and speaking on politics. His specialty in the latter capacity is synthesizing a vast amount of data from a broad array of sources to make a strong case for the possibilities of overcoming unjust systems of power.
Requiem for the American Dream consists of material culled from many hours of interviews conducted with Chomsky from 2011 to 2016, designed to be used in a documentary film of the same name. Since these are basically transcripts, the tone of the book is conversational, with verbal shorthand and informalities such as “gonna” sometimes breaking the flow of the text. But the rigor of Chomsky’s intellect remains bracing. Although long-time readers of his work will find points here that he has made elsewhere, there are also plenty of fresh insights as well.
For instance, on the Tahir Square demonstrations that took place in Egypt during the “Arab Spring” popular uprisings, Chomsky points out that when President Hosni Mubarak shut down the Internet in order to block social media organizing, “Activism increased because people returned to what matters, which is face-to-face contact. People began to talk to one another. … Social media are useful, and all organizers and activists use them, but it’s not like really entering into a discussion with people directly. We’re human beings, we’re not robots, and I don’t think that can be forgotten.”
Chomsky also argues that while April 15—the date annual tax payments are due in the United States—is treated as a “day of mourning,” for a truly democratic society it “[would be] a day of celebration. It’s a day when the population gets together to decide to fund the programs and activities that they have formulated and agreed upon. … You should celebrate it.”
The 10 principles of this volume’s title function as headings for chapters that were assembled by the book’s editors, also the directors of the companion film. These so-called principles are used by elites to advance their interests. They are: reducing democracy; shaping ideology; redesigning the economy; shifting burdens onto poor and working people; attacking solidarity between those people; letting the wealthy dominate regulators; engineering elections; manufacturing consent; marginalizing the population; and using fear and state power to keep the masses in check. These are all assaults on lower- and middle-class people, which have escalated in recent decades during the ascendancy of what is known as “neoliberalism”—basically, capitalism on steroids, with fiscal austerity for the poor, and tax cuts and other subsidies for the wealthy minority. These techniques show how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
One of the book’s strengths is the way it breaks down how, in Chomsky’s words, “government policy has been modified completely against the will of the population to provide enormous benefits to the very rich.” A current example is the way the Republican-dominated Congress is redefining the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) to cut taxes on the rich. This governmental redistribution of wealth, facilitated by corporate entities that spend lavishly on helping compliant politicians get elected, has led to populist rage at establishment politics.
Such anger, constructively channeled by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign on the one hand, was also shrewdly stoked by Donald Trump, who had positioned himself as the ultimate outsider. Chomsky notes that Trump appeals to his constituency by exploiting hate and fear. The core of that constituency, which is venting “generalized rage,” is “mostly white, working-class, lower-middle-class people, who have been cast by the wayside during the neoliberalism period. They’ve lived through a generation of stagnation and decline.”
Chomsky doesn’t sugarcoat our current realities. Although he is no Democratic Party partisan, he describes the November 8, 2016, national elections as placing “total control of the government—executive, Congress, the Supreme Court—in the hands of the Republican Party, which has become the most dangerous organization in world history.” The reason for that assessment is rooted in Republican obstructionism on dealing with climate change, which shows that America’s right wing is “dedicated to racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life.” And if that isn’t daunting enough, Chomsky also points to how saber-rattling Republican brinksmanship is increasing the possibility of nuclear war.
Chomsky’s intention here is not to overwhelm his readers with depressing developments. Rather, he is a strong proponent of an engaged populace doing whatever it can to turn things around, noting: “The freedoms that we have were won by hard, painful, courageous popular struggle.” Various documents and passages from thinkers cited by Chomsky, from Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King Jr., are included at the end of each chapter of this very useful book. One quotation that stands out in this regard comes from Chomsky’s close friend, the late historian Howard Zinn. In a section taken from his 1994 memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Zinn writes: “The history of social movements often confines itself to the large events, the pivotal moments. … Missing from such histories are the countless small actions of unknown people that led up to those great moments. When we understand this, we can see that the tiniest acts of protest in which we engage may become the invisible roots of social change.” Chomsky has been inspiring such actions for more than 60 years, and he is clearly not ready to stop anytime soon. ◊