Noam Chomsky Focuses on Financial Inequality in ‘Requiem for the American Dream’


Requiem for the American Dream” is a timely 75-minute teach-in by Noam Chomsky, the M.I.T. linguistics professor who has been a leading leftist political analyst, critic and writer for six decades. Mr. Chomsky, already the subject of several documentaries, focuses here on an election-season theme: financial inequality in America and what he calls its corrosive effect on democracy. Assembling “10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power,” he lays out rules like “Run the Regulators,” “Marginalize the Population” and “Manufacture Consent.”

None of these perspectives are new to, say, the Bernie Sanders campaign staff (though they might be startled by Mr. Chomsky’s opinion that Mr. Sanders “doesn’t have much of a chance” to win). But citing Aristotle, Adam Smith and James Madison, among others, he melds history, philosophy and ideology into a sobering vision of a society in an accelerating decline. He never raises his voice in this easy-listening jeremiad. “There’s nothing surprising about this,” he repeats gently in describing what he sees as a 40-year trend of government bent to the will of the superrich at the expense of everyone else. “That’s what happens when you put power in the hands of a narrow sector.”

The film’s opening titles say these constitute Mr. Chomsky’s “final long-form documentary interviews,” but this well-paced and cogent seminar spotlights a man who, now 87, seems at the height of his intellectual powers. Still, the film, directed by Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott, is called “Requiem” for a reason: Mr. Chomsky concludes that “there’s a lot that can be done if people organize, struggle for their rights as they’ve done in the past.” You get the feeling, though, that, given all the challenges he lists, Mr. Chomsky no longer quite believes that.

REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM is the definitive discourse with Noam Chomsky, widely regarded as the most important intellectual alive, on the defining characteristic of our time – the deliberate concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a select few.

Through interviews filmed over four years, Chomsky unpacks the principles that have brought us to the crossroads of historically unprecedented inequality – tracing a half-century of policies designed to favor the most wealthy at the expense of the majority – while also looking back on his own life of activism and political participation.

Profoundly personal and thought provoking, Chomsky provides penetrating insight into what may well be the lasting legacy of our time – the death of the middle class, and swan song of functioning democracy. A potent reminder that power ultimately rests in the hands of the governed, REQUIEM is required viewing for all who maintain hope in a shared stake in the future.

Noam Chomsky’s new film “Requiem for the American Dream” is a clear-eyed, easily accessible outline of how and why American idealism has been sabotaged. Although he doesn’t detail the dream, Chomsky sketches its promise of mobility, an expectation of progress toward a better life through some sort of democratic polity.

These documentary interviews, filmed over four years, suggest that the destruction of the dream is not a natural, inexorable occurrence, but the result of choices made by people operating within certain belief systems and for self-enrichment. Could the dream have been realized through different circumstances, different people making different choices?

Regarded by many as America’s most influential intellectual, Noam Chomsky is also a great story teller. Without overwhelming the viewer or the material, he marshals data, example and anecdote, cutting through 250 years of history to distill ten basic principles of wealth and power which have conspired against the American Dream. More than anything, the film is a well organized, thoughtful look at these forces and their consequences.

This is not an exhortative polemic. Although Chomsky is not dispassionate, he is more saddened than outraged, more intent on finding cause than inciting action. Unlike fellow system critics like ubiquitous former Labor Secretary cum political reformist Robert Reich, Chomsky neither suggests, nor pleads for saving capitalism through economic reshuffling or revitalized bourgeois democratic elections.

Chomsky finds the roots of the Requiem in how the United States was originally set up. The U.S. Constitution put power in the hands of the wealthy. The Constitution was written to prevent, not promote, democracy. Concentrations of wealth resulted in concentrations of political power. The course of our history has been defined by the struggles of this wealth and political power against upsurges in democratization, most notably in the 1930s labor movement and the 1960s peace, civil rights and women’s movements.

Power and wealth fought back against these popular movements by trying to shape ideology and manufacture consent. Elections are engineered. Attempts to regulate the economy are undermined. Solidarity of the American dreamers is attacked. As Chomsky has shown through earlier work (“Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” with Edward S. Herman, 1988) control was extended beyond the use of force into the domain of culture by marketing compliance and marginalizing dissent.

Chomsky himself provides an example of the extent to which dissent is marginalized when he chooses to avoid mentioning by name the great sources of ideas which help us understand how power and wealth function: socialists like Gramsci, Lukacs or even the scholar of the British Museum himself.

Rather than end his dissertation in despair, Chomsky offers elements of hope, if not exactly a well lit path to redemption. Popular movements, efforts to dismantle illegitimate authority, freedom of speech and new forms of political action all offer hope. He cites philosopher John Dewey’s admonition that institutions should be under participatory democratic control. What matters, relates Chomsky quoting his friend Historian Howard Zinn, is the countless deeds of unknown people who lay the basis for the events of human history. Ultimately, learning how the world works will greatly aid in changing it.

For his great contributions to the latter, particularly the summary given in “Requiem for the American Dream,” Noam Chomsky has helped lay the foundations for understanding and ultimately change.



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