What was the importance of the Occupy Movement? What lessons does it hold for future activism? What is the importance of solidarity movements? Truthout interviewed Jeffrey Wilson about the answers to these questions that he learned from Noam Chomsky.
Mark Karlin: In your conversation with Noam Chomsky, there seemed to be a great deal of emphasis on the importance of group activism. Why is this so important?
Jeff Wilson: Coming together through activism is one way to imagine and experiment with creating a better future. The Occupy Wall Street Movement is one example we explore in the book. Chomsky begins by discussing aspects of mutual aid and solidarity he views as present within certain formations in Occupy. For instance, during the interview he specifically takes note of the organizing work done within The People’s Library, which was a part of the larger New York City occupation. With that discussion in mind, I went back and interviewed some of the librarians involved in Occupy. Here they offer important insights about what it means to practice mutual aid and solidarity and the necessity of a physical space for groups to come together to work against alienation. It’s important to note that the librarians interviewed offer the reader a critical take on Occupy, one that recognizes its potential, but also its significant shortcomings. Including these stories reflects a central structure or theme of the book, and one I believe aligns with Chomsky’s insistence that the voices of everyday people matter. This comic book is not simply Chomsky talking about activism; I worked to bring in the voices and perspectives of those at the center of movements seeking to create a more just world.
You offer the Occupy movement as an example of the energy and impact that a group can have. Why did you decide to focus on Occupy?
The project was actually not intended as a book. I set out to interview Chomsky to use in a course I was teaching. This was early 2012 and I wanted to create a 10-page comic based on a short interview with Chomsky about the deeper social history, for lack of a better descriptor, of the Occupy Movement. I was interested to hear Chomsky discuss, for example, the roots of consensus-based decision-making. My own political activism started around 2000 with anti-racist organizing and working on my college campus with United Students Against Sweatshops, so I was familiar with processes like consensus, taken up during occupy. For many of my students, however, occupy was a very different type of political movement. During our conversations, issues like consensus became both a point of critique and curiosity. So, as a pedagogical resource, I wanted to create a short comic based on an interview with Chomsky to help my students delve deeper into questions they had about the movement.
Yet, upon transcribing the interview, I quickly realized enough material existed for an entire book. For example, when I asked him about the history of Occupy, he responded by discussing human nature. Typically, during a Chomsky interview, these types of comments are simply glossed over. But this discussion about human nature is really important and signals a core philosophical position held by Chomsky. Part of the work I’ve done in the book is to expand upon these complexities and provide depth. I believe this makes the comic an important contribution to the Chomsky interview literature.
What are some ways that Chomsky and you see that a capitalist society tries to mold the individual to keep groups from creating change?
Alienation is a key concept here, and while not specifically taken up as a term in the book, nevertheless still underlines much of our conversation. Chomsky at one point reflects on the ways consumerism works to mold individuals. He discusses how our society is geared toward individuals creating meaning in their lives through the consumption of products. This impacts the possibility for change, as it directs peoples’ energies toward obtaining things rather than building communities based around ideas of mutual aid and solidarity.
What did Chomsky mean when he said Social Security is based on solidarity?
For Chomsky, I believe, Social Security functions as a kind of intergenerational solidarity. It is one way we as a society come together to care for each other. In the book, Chomsky makes the point that Social Security is under attack for this very reason and not for any fiscal problem as often claimed by market fundamentalists. He makes a similar point about the hysteria in the US around paying taxes. In a similar way to Solidarity Security, paying taxes could be viewed as society coming together to fund projects the population cares about. And yet it is quite the opposite.
What is Chomsky’s view on student debt?
In a candid scene from the book, I reveal that my partner and I are nearly a quarter of a million dollars in debt from school loans. Chomsky bluntly says, “You are slaves and it’s for the rest of your life.” Here, I believe he means that the work, time and energy it will take for us to shed those loans functions to limit what we can do with our lives. An interview included in the book with Professor George Caffentzis develops this point. He details how student loans have the effect of limiting political organizing while students are in school and also curtails one’s options after graduation. If a student is saddled with significant debt, Caffentzis remarked during our conversation, they are more likely to shelve political organizing or ideals they held in college in order to pursue a job. In many ways, both Caffentzis and Chomsky detail the ways student loan debt in a capitalist society works to discipline students in a variety of ways.
What do Mario Savio and the Sproul Plaza protests at Berkeley in the ’60s represent to Chomsky?
During the interview, Chomsky and I discussed the importance of public meeting spaces. In fact, this is a central theme of the book. Chomsky and other interviewees note that Occupy was important, in part, because it allowed people a physical meeting space in which they could come together and discuss issues that concerned them. In the interview, Chomsky said, “You don’t have Sproul Plaza,” and then went on to discuss how the geography of universities changed specifically to limit meeting space. Here he meant that big open areas on college campuses were changed to limit the possibility of large protests. It was a very interesting comment, but I was left wondering what he meant by “you don’t have Sproul Plaza.” I used that single statement to then go back and do research to tell a little bit of the history of Sproul Plaza, which includes Savio’s famous and inspiring speech.