Steinhardt professor Ted Magder and co-chair of the WSN editorial board Edward Radzivilovskiy debate President John Sexton’s legacy, university governance, votes of no confidence, the NYU 2031 expansion plan, the controversial vacation home loan policies, and more.
Rebuttal to Professor Magder’s retort, by Edward Radzivilovskiy, Deputy Opinion Editor, Washington Square News
*Note: This is my rebuttal to NYU Steinhardt Professor Ted Magder’s retort of my opinion piece for Washington Square News that called for the resignation of NYU President Sexton and Board of Trustees Chair Martin Lipton. Professor Magder’s letter can be found here.
In the September 24 edition of WSN, NYU Professor Ted Magder responded to my recent editorial with Raquel Woodruff, in which we called for the resignation of President Sexton and the Board of Trustees Chair, Mr. Martin Lipton. First, I would like to say that as the article was an opinion piece intended to take a firm position that we were not required to present all sides of the issue. However, we endeavored to solicit the views of Professor Magder on the issue of shared governance alone.
I remind Professor Magder that he chaired the Faculty Senate Council when it had this to say about shared faculty governance in a memo addressed to the University Leadership Team and dated October 29, 2012: “The practice of … shared governance has been neglected at NYU. This is a concern not only to faculty, but also to students, the public trust, and the NYU institutional vision alike.”
This is what I asked Professor Magder to address. His response was that after this date, the FSC and the Leadership committee held two meetings and came to an agreement on faculty governance, and the Board endorsed the wording of the agreement by December 2012.
However, after this date, five NYU schools passed votes of no confidence in President Sexton, a slight detail that Professor Magder failed to acknowledge in his response to our query. These votes of no confidence were based in no small part on the frustration among many faculty regarding President Sexton’s top-down management style.
As to the other points mentioned in the original opinion piece, some of which were addressed by Professor Magder, he actually said nothing in his email reply to us. Thus, it is difficult to know what he means when he complains that “nothing I said appears in the article.” In fact, everything he said, which was not much, appeared in the article.
Magder suggests that we contacted him in his capacity as the Chair of the FSC and the Chair of the Space Priorities Working Group. However, we contacted him strictly in connection to his former chairmanship of the FSC. Magder said nothing about the Space Committee or its recommendations. The fact that this Space Committee was convened after 2031 was already approved suggested to us that faculty oversight was an afterthought and not a priority for the Sexton administration.
Professor Madger complains that our editorial was “shockingly one-sided.” Yet, in our second paragraph, we list Sexton’s considerable achievements and recognize his “compelling legacy.” We also noted that the faculty has soundly rejected his vision, as the no-confidence votes attest. I reiterate here that a president who has lost the confidence of his faculty cannot effectively lead a university.
As to Professor Madger’s final point, which contends that we expect no change or that none has occurred, we can only say that our editorial was written to effect such change. The change we called for, and which I reiterate here, is that John Sexton and Martin Lipton should resign. I believe we have made a case for this opinion, and have supported it with evidence that we judge to be substantial.
Note: The interview has been transcribed from a phone conversation on 21/6/2013.
Professor Christine Harrington is a professor in the politics department at New York University. She is also affiliated with the Institute for Law and Society (Associated Faculty); and New York University School of Law (Affiliated Faculty).
Edward Radzivilovskiy: Do you have any comments or opinions about revelations in the recent NY Times article about NYU giving loans for vacation homes to several administrators?
Christine Harrington: I had no idea. We are shocked. We are absolutely shocked. We know as faculty and as people who have been in this university for decades how important it is for there to be adequate, good quality access for faculty housing. There are policies and rules that are followed for the loan program. I don’t believe there has ever been a view that this would go for purchasing second homes. We also know, in addition for there being rules and policies that apply to everybody, there are also circumstances or exceptions when somebody has an outside offer, which includes things such as provisions of housing or subsidies or loans or so forth. And in those rare few cases, FSC Senators are asking who made these decisions for second faculty homes? How was this done?
The question isn’t that they should never be counter-offers —that would be really mischaracterizing the situation—the fact is that there are limited circumstances for that, and usually they apply to faculty members. Did administrators who received these loans have counter-offers?
Edward Radzivilovskiy: Do you think that these lavish gifts/bonuses are going out of student’s tuition?
Christine Harrington: We don’t know. Faculty, and I believe students also have been pressing for fiscal transparency. One way to share a consensus and be working together is for there to be trust, openness, and honesty. It took the Faculty Senate Council over two years to get basic information on the numbers of tenure-track and contract faculty by schools. The kind of information we’d need to answer your question— financial information—is always more sensitive. The Faculty Senate Council Committee on Finance has made repeated requests for financial information on how the Global Network University is funded and asked to see the budget plan for 2031. These requests, as I understand it, have been rejected, leaving faculty in the dark, as well as students.
Edward Radzivilovskiy: Can you elaborate about faculty access to information and the implications of limited access?
Christine Harrington: Suspicions are raised when faculty representative are denied access to basic financial information that impacts academic policies. Suspicions would not necessarily lead to the level of a university conflict if faculty representative could review the facts, the data on which decisions might be based— before the decisions are made. I am very troubled by the level of conflict and antagonism that has been produced by the failure to have open and transparent access to documents.
Edward Radzivilovskiy: Please describe what happened in the meeting on the 13th of April between FAS senators and five members of board of trustees as a result of an invitation from Martin Lipton:
Christine Harrington: We had a conversation focused on why there was a vote of no confidence in the leadership of the university. And one of the first things discussed in response to a question asked by a Board member was whether the vote of no confidence resulted from a miscommunication problem. FAS Senators made clear that this vote of no confidence did not come about as a result of a failure of the administration to communication. There was a general sense [in the meeting]—very clearly— that the matter is not of simply one of communication. The board members got that, they acknowledged that, but whether they agreed with it or not I cannot speak for them, but again, votes of no confidence don’t come about if the matter is simply about communication.
Edward Radzivilovskiy: Thank you, Professor Harrington.
New York Times:
A preliminary note about Singer: discussion on this essay often turns to Singer’s strange philosophical vision. He’s a very smart and clever thinker, who is best known for his vigorous and uncompromising defense of animal rights. Post response/reactions.
Excerpt from Occupy by Noam Chomsky
ZUCCOTTI PARK PRESS | OCCUPIED MEDIA PAMPHLET SERIES
Interview with Edward Radzivilovkiy, Jan. 6, 2012
I want to start off with something you said at Occupy Boston: “The most exciting aspect of the Occupy movement is the construction of the linkages that are taking place all over. If they can be sustained and expanded, Occupy can lead to dedicated efforts to set society on a more humane course.”
Some have said that the Occupy movement does not have a cohesive message of its demands. If you do believe that the Occupy movement does have specific demands, how many of these demands do you actually think can be realized?
There is quite a range of people from many walks of life and many concerns involved in the Occupy movement. There are some general things that bring them together, but of course they all have specific concerns as well.
Primarily, I think this should be regarded as a response, the first major public response, in fact, to about thirty years of a really quite bitter class war that has led to social, economic and political arrangements in which the system of democracy has been shredded.
Congress, for example, has its lowest approval level in history—practically invisible—and other institution’s ratings are not much higher.
The population is angry, frustrated, bitter and for good reasons. For the past generation, policies have been initiated that have lead to extremely sharp concentration of wealth in a tiny sector of the population. In fact, the wealth distribution is very heavily weighted by literally the top tenth of one percent of the population, a fraction so small that they’re not even picked up on the census. You have to do statistical analysis just to detect them. And they have benefited enormously. This is mostly from the financial sector—hedge fund managers, CEOs of financial corporations, and so on.
At the same time, for the majority of the population, incomes have pretty much stagnated. Real wages have also stagnated, sometimes declined. The benefits system that was very strong has been weakened.
People have been getting by in the United States by much higher work loads, by debt which sooner or later becomes unsustainable and by the illusions created by bubbles, most recently the housing bubble which collapsed, like bubbles do, leaving about $8 trillion in paper wealth disappearing for some sectors of the population. So, by now, U.S. workers put in far more hours than their counterparts in other industrial countries, and for African Americans almost all wealth has disappeared. It’s been a pretty harsh and bitter period, not by the standards of developing nations, but this is a rich society and people judge their situation and their prospects by what ought to be the case.
At the same time, concentration of wealth leads almost reflexively to concentration of political power, which in turn translates into legislation, naturally in the interests of those implementing it, and that accelerates what has been a vicious cycle leading to, as I said, bitterness, anger, frustration and a very atomized society. That’s why the linkages in the Occupy movement are so important.
Occupy is really the first sustained response to this. People have referred to the Tea Party as a response, but that is highly misleading. The Tea Party is relatively affluent, white. Its influence and power come from the fact that it has enormous corporate support and heavy finance. Parts of the corporate world simply see them as their shock troops, but it’s not a movement in the serious sense that Occupy is.
Going back to your question about the movement’s demands, there are general ones that are very widely shared in the population: Concern about the inequality. Concern about the chicanery of the financial institutions and the way their influence on the government has lead to a situation in which those responsible for the crisis are helped out, bailed out, richer and more powerful than ever and the victims are ignored. There are very specific proposals concerning the regulation of financial transaction taxes, reversal of the rules of corporate governance that have lead to this kind of situation, for example, a shifting of the tax code back to something more like what it used to be when the very rich were not essentially exempted from taxes, and many other quite specific demands of that kind. It goes on to include the interests of groups and their particular concerns, some of which are quite far reaching.
But I think if you investigate the Occupy movements and you ask them what are their demands, they are reticent to answer and rightly so, because they are essentially crafting a point of view from many disparate sources. And one of the striking features of the movement has simply been the creation of cooperative communities—something very much lacking in an atomized, disintegrated society—that includes general assemblies that carry out extensive discussion, kitchens, libraries, support systems, and so on. All of that is a work in progress leading to community structures that, if they can spread out into the broader community and remain their vitality, could be very important.
Colin Asher, a journalist, wrote a piece for The Progressive, in which he says, “Most scribes have settled on the idea that Occupy Wall Street is like Tahrir Square in Egypt, but I disagree. Occupy Wall Street is more like a Hooverville. The space itself engages people’s imaginations, but nothing will be settled here, not even the meaning of what is happening, and the participants won’t be able to define it. It matters that something is happening in lower Manhattan, and that people are paying attention, but it doesn’t much matter what is happening.”
And you have said, “The 2012 election is now expected to cost two billion dollars. It’s going to have to be mostly corporate funding. So it’s not at all surprising that Obama is selecting business leaders for top positions. The public is quite angry and frustrated, but unless Western populations can rise to the level of Egyptians they’re going to remain victims.”
So what I am wondering is, do you see the Occupy movement as an anarchist movement—the kind of uprising you have been advocating for most of your career? Is it a precursor to a revolution, or can these goals be achieved without a revolution?
First of all, let’s talk about Egypt. What happened in Tahrir Square was extremely important, of historic importance in fact, and it did achieve a goal, namely, eliminating the dictatorship, but it left the regime in power. So yes, that’s an important goal and there have been achievements: the press is much freer and the labor activism is much less constrained.
In fact, one striking difference between the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings and the Occupy movements is that in the North African case the labor movement was right at the center of it. And in fact there is a very close correlation between such successes as there have been in the Middle East and North Africa and the level of labor militancy there over many years. That’s been true in Egypt for years. They’re usually crushed, but some successes. As soon as the labor movement became integrated into the April 6 movement—the Tahrir Square movement—it became a really significant and powerful force.
That’s quite different here. The labor movement has been decimated. Part of the task to be carried out is to revitalize it.
In Tunisia they did succeed in getting rid of a dictator and in running a parliamentary election, now with a moderate Islamist party in control.
In Egypt, as I said, there were gains, but the military-run regime is very much in power. There will be a parliamentary election, there has been already. The groups that are succeeding in the elections are those that have been working for years organizing among the general population—the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.
It’s quite a different situation here. There hasn’t been that kind of large-scale organizing. The labor movement has been struggling to retain victories that it won a long time ago and that it has been losing.
To have a revolution—a meaningful one—you need a substantial majority of the population who recognize or believe that further reform is not possible within the institutional framework that exists. And there is nothing like that here, not even remotely.
Should we be trying to achieve that? Should we working up to a revolution or should we be trying to achieve it some other way?
First of all, we are nowhere near the limits of what reform can carry out. People can have the idea of a revolution in the back of their minds if they want. But there are very substantive actions that should be taking place.
I don’t exactly know what it means to say, “Is this just anarchist?” Anarchist movements are very concerned with achieving specific goals. That’s what they have traditionally been and that’s what they should be. In this case, as I said, there are very specific short-term goals that have large support: fiscal policy, controlling financial institutions, dealing with environmental problems which are extraordinarily significant, shifting the political systems so that elections are not simply blocked, and so on. All of these are very direct and immediate concerns.
For example, just a couple of days ago, New York City’s City Council, probably under the influence of the Occupy movement, passed a resolution, unanimously I think, against corporate personhood. The resolution establishes that “corporations are not entitled to the entirety of protections or ‘rights’ of natural persons, specifically so that the expenditure of corporate money to influence the electoral process is no longer a form of constitutionally protected speech” and calls on Congress “to begin the process of amending the Constitution.”
Well, that’s pretty far reaching. It’s a very popular idea in this country and if it’s pursued it will dismantle a century of judicial decisions that have given corporations and state-created fictitious legal entities extraordinary rights and power. The population doesn’t like it and has a right not to like it. Such steps are already being taken in words and could lead to action.
In the longer term there are many things that can be done. For example, in many parts of the country, particularly Ohio, there’s quite a significant spread of worker-owned enterprises. As I mentioned to Occupy Boston, a lot of this derived from a major effort, over thirty years ago, when U.S. Steel wanted to sell off and close one of its major installations. The work force and the community offered to buy it and run it themselves, industrial democracy, essentially. That went to the courts and they lost, although with sufficient support they could have won. But even the failure, like many failures, has spawned other efforts. Now there’s a network of worker/community-owned enterprises spreading over the region.
Is this reform or revolution? If it extends, it’s revolution. It changes the institutional structure of the society. Actually, a lot of it is supported by conservatives. It doesn’t break up very simply or sharply on what’s called, mostly meaninglessly, a right-left spectrum. But these are things that respond to people’s needs and concerns. There are cases right near here where similar options were possible. And I think those are directions that should definitely be pursued. A lot of these struggles are invigorated by things like the Occupy movement.
Similarly, going back to Egypt where the situation is quite different, they have very immediate concerns, like the question of what will the power of the military regime be. Will it be replaced by Islamist forces based in the slums and rural areas? What place will secular liberal elements—the ones who actually initiated the Tahrir Square demonstrations—find in this system? These are all very concrete problems that they have to deal with. Here there are different concrete problems to deal with. There are many similarities.
In both cases, in Egypt and the United States and in fact much the world, what’s happening is a reaction—in my opinion a much too delayed reaction—to the neoliberal policies of the roughly last thirty years. They have been implemented in different ways in different countries. But it’s generally the case that to the extent that they have been implemented everywhere, they have been harmful to the general population and beneficial to a very small sector. And that’s not accidental.
There is a new small book by the Economic Policy Institute called Failure by Design: The Story behind America’s Broken Economy. And the phrase “by design” is accurate. These things don’t happen by the laws of nature or by principles of economics to the extent they exist. They’re choices. And they are choices made by the wealthy and powerful elements to create a society that answers to their needs. It’s happened and it’s happening in Europe right now.
Take the European Central Bank (ECB). There are many economists, Nobel Laureates and others, and I agree with them, who think that the policies that the ECB is following and pursuing, basically austerity in a period of recession, is guaranteed to make the situation worse. So far, I think that’s been the case.
Growth is what is needed in a period of recession, not austerity. Europe has the resources to stimulate growth, but their resources are not being used because of the policies of the Central Bank and others. And one can ask what the purpose of this is. And a rational way to judge purposes is to look at predictable consequences. And one consequence is that these policies undermine the social democratic structures and the welfare-state structure that have been developed; they undermine the power of labor and create a more inegalitarian society with greater power in the hands of the corporate sector and the wealthy. So it’s class war basically, and that’s a kind of “failure by design” as well.
I think a lot of people today, when you mention to them an anarchist society, they get the wrong impression… Would you describe anarchist society as an ultra-radical version of democracy?
First of all, nobody owns the concept “anarchism.” Anarchism has a very broad back. You can find all kinds of things in the anarchist movements. So the question of what an anarchist society can be is almost meaningless. Different people who associate themselves with rough anarchist tendencies have very different conceptions.
But the most developed notions that anarchist activists and thinkers have had in mind are those for a highly organized society—highly structured, highly organized—but organized on the basis of free and voluntary participation. So, for example, what I mentioned about the Ohio network of worker/community-owned enterprises, that’s a traditional anarchist vision. Enterprises, not only owned but managed by participants in a free association with one another is a big step beyond. It could be at the federal level, it could be at the international level. So yes, it’s a highly democratic conception of a structured, organized society with power at the base. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have representatives, it can have, but they should be recallable and under the influence and control of participants.
Who’s in favor of a society like that? You can say Adam Smith, for example, who believed—you can question whether his beliefs were accurate—but he believed that market systems and the “invisible hand” of individual choices would lead to egalitarian societies of common participation. You can question the logic of the argument, but the goals are understandable and they go far back. You can find them in the first serious book of politics that was ever written, Aristotle’s Politics.
When Aristotle evaluated various kinds of systems, he felt that democracy was the least bad of them. But he said democracy wouldn’t work unless you could set things up so that they would be relatively egalitarian. He proposed specific measures for Athens that in our terms would be welfare-state measures.
There are plenty of roots for these concepts, a lot of them come right out of the Enlightenment. But I don’t think anyone has the authority to say this is what an anarchist society is going to look like. There are people who think you can sketch it out in great detail, but my own feeling here—I essentially agree with Marx—is that these things have to be worked out by people who are living and functioning in freedom and work out for themselves what kinds of societies and communities are appropriate for them.
The late British philosopher, Martin Hollis, worked extensively on questions of human action, the philosophy of social science and rationality. One of the claims he made was that any anarchist vision of a society rests upon an idea of human nature that is too optimistic. In short, he argued that anarchism is only viable if humans by nature are good. He says that history shows us that humans cannot be trusted to this degree, thus anarchism is too idealistic. Would you mind responding to this objection very quickly, given your commitment to some of the ideals of anarchism?
It’s possible to respond to arguments. It is not possible to respond to opinions. If some one makes an assertion saying, “Here’s what I believe,” fine, he can say what he believes, but you can’t respond to it. You can ask, what is the basis for your belief? Or, can you provide me with some evidence? What do you know about human nature? Actually, we don’t know very much about human nature. So yes, that’s an expression of his belief, he’s entitled to make it. We have no idea, nor does he have any idea, if it’s true of false. But it really doesn’t matter; whatever the truth turns out to be, we will follow the same policies, namely, try to optimize and maximize freedom, justice, participation, democracy. Those are goals that we’ll attempt to realize. Maybe human beings are such that there’s a limit to how far they can be realized, okay, we’ll still follow the same policies. So, whatever one’s un-argued assertions may be, it has very little affect on the policy and choices.
Professor Chomsky, thank you very much.
Interview extracted from Occupy by Noam Chomsky, published by Zuccotti Park Press
 Noam Chomsky, “Occupy The Future,” inthesetimes.com, November 1, 2011, http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/12206/occupy_the_future/.
 Colin Asher, “Occupy Wall St. in NYC—The Week That Was,” The Progressive, October 16, 2011. http://www.progressive.org/occupy_wall_street_week.html
 Noam Chomsky, “The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat to Freedom and Survival,”
lecture given at the University of Toronto, April 7, 2011. http://chomsky.info/talks/20110407.htm
 New York City Council, Resolution 1172, January 4, 2012.
Interview conducted at Independent Diplomat, New York, New York, June 13, 2012
Interview transcribed from video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeNeWrxRfn4
Today, I am sitting down with Carne Ross, an economist, former high-ranking British diplomat, and founder and director of Independent Diplomat, a non-profit diplomatic advisory group. Mr. Ross has been a fervent supporter of Occupy and has recently appeared on shows such as the Colbert Report to discuss his latest book called The Leaderless Revolution.
Mr. Ross, in your book, one figure you don’t quite touch upon, but of whom I am sure you must have thought about while writing this book is Niccolò Machiavelli. On one hand, there is a striking similarity between the both of you. Machiavelli wrote his classic, The Prince, at age 44, after 14 years of influence and prestige as an Italian diplomat. After a change in the regime, he was suspected of plotting against the government and imprisoned for some time. Your history is not dissimilar. After serving 15 years as a top level British diplomat, with all the prestige that accompanies such a position, you resigned and gave evidence in secret about the Iraq war to an official inquiry as you were invited to do. However, these similarities aside, your experience as a diplomat has helped you develop very different political positions than Machiavelli’s. For example, perhaps the most famous of Machiavelli’s statements is “the ends justify the means” In your book, you argue otherwise, that the “means are the ends.” What is your motivation in taking such a position?
Well the means are the ends. The means should be the ends. That’s precisely what I believe. I don’t believe that the means justify the ends. Nor do I believe that the ends justify the means. It’s not my argument. It’s Gandhi’s argument—that the means and the ends should be the same thing. You can’t expect peace by using violent means. Maybe in some circumstances you do but in general you don’t. These are not universal, concrete rules about everything but his view is that in seeking political change you should use means that embody the change you wish to see. So if you wish to see democracy, nonviolence, and inclusiveness then you have got to use those methods. You can’t set up a secret, vanguard committee that is going to use violence to achieve democracy, peace, and inclusiveness for everybody else, which was of course in a sense the theory of change of the Bolsheviks revolutionary communists in 1917. They believed that you could not liberate the proletariat without having a vanguard movement, which was permitted to use violence. They very much did the Machiavellian view of things. So I do differ in that sense. I mean I am flattered by the comparison in all other respects….I think you accurately identify a clear point of difference. And I think it does help explain the difference between a belief in a state based system and a popularly based system—an anarchist system. States take to themselves the moral right to use violence to protect their populations or to pursue the interests of their own populations. We give states this remarkable freedom to use amoral methods to pursue what states are supposed to do—the security and wellbeing of their populations. This to me is a moral permission that we should question.
It’s almost as if “amoral” becomes “immoral”.
I use the word amoral deliberately in the sense that when you work for a state, you are not encouraged to think morally. You are not encouraged to think about moral aspects of policy. It’s almost like a moralist free zone. I think you’re quite right that in the sense that an amoral approach to policy leads to immoral ends. You know the use of violence, the use of torture. In my case, I was involved in a policy that I believed was ultimately immoral, namely sanctions against Iraq, which produced considerable suffering of the Iraqi people. For us that was a means-ends argument. We believed that those painful means justified the end of containing the Saddam regime, which we believed would do much worse things if it was released from sanctions and allowed to rearm. But of course the Iraqi people were not asked that question. They were not consulted in that. And that is one of the fundamental reasons I have come to view that the means do not justify the ends. It is not permissible to harm people for the greater good, because in fact all you’re doing is harming them. The thing you are doing now is the reality; it’s not the future vision that you are hoping to create. The West invaded Iraq in the belief that we would create democracy and stability. We do not have democracy or stability today. But in pursuing those laudable goals, we have perhaps caused the loss of a hundred thousand lives. Those people don’t get asked for their views of means and ends.
Re-invigorating a sense of agency is a big part of your book—to encourage individuals to not only complain about problems—but to also act in specific ways that address them. You also argue that the problem with hierarchies and authority is that they naturally remove a sense of agency. Why do you believe this and in what ways do you believe a lack of agency to be problematic?
Starting with your last question, a lack of agency is problematic in two very important respects. One respect is that actually in terms of your own self-actualization as a person, you are restricting yourself. You should be free to decide all of your circumstances. To decide all of your goals and ambitions and requirements in life and be free to negotiate those directly with other people and to express them fully. That is to me a fundamental definition of freedom is. And anything that constrains that is a constraint on freedom. It is making you less than you could be. In essence, it is making you less than human.
But it is also important in the other respect—anything that limits your sense of agency does also limit your sense of responsibility. We have reached a position in the twenty-first century where whilst we have democracy, a great many people who live in democracies don’t feel responsible for what government does in their name. Whether it’s a war or allowing people to be imprisoned for unconscionably long periods, or neglecting the worst off. This is just something somebody else does—they’re doing it. But in fact it’s us who are doing it. It is society who has chosen these outcomes. And yet people don’t feel responsible for that. Giving people a sense of agency not only frees them but it also re-introduces them necessarily to a sense of direct responsibility for their own affairs. And I believe that those two things together would produce not only a more cohesive society, a happier society, but also a more responsible society, a more grown-up society. I think that government and hierarchy turns us all into children.
My next question deals with reform v. revolution. On January 6, 2012, I interviewed Noam Chomsky and asked him if Occupy should be seen as a precursor to a revolution or if people should by trying to work up to a revolution. He told me “First of all, we are nowhere near the limits of what reform can carry out. People can have the idea of a revolution in the back of their minds if they want. But there are very substantive actions that should be taking place” Eventually, Chomsky argues, if these reforms can change the institutional structure of society, it could amount to a revolution. How would you respond to Chomsky’s assessment, especially since at your recent appearance on the Colbert Report you said that further reform with the system is not possible?
Yes, well that’s what I think. And I don’t think I do agree that substantive reform—which is of course in theory possible—you should be able to produce these reforms—but I do not think they will happen given the circumstances we find ourselves in. You’ve got to take a power analysis to this—who has power and who does not. Power inequality is growing along with wealth inequality. Power means that those with power—with the greatest wealth—have the greatest influence over policy. This is the way that representative democracy is working. This is not the way it should work in theory, but in practice what we have is that people with power and influence—say Jamie Dimon who runs J.P. Morgan—he has much more access and influence over policy than you or I or Noam Chomsky ever will. If you agree with that analysis you can’t believe that reform is actually plausible, because in fact those people—the powerful—will have much more influence over policy than we will. So the system is intrinsically prejudiced against meaningful, positive reform. I would like his theory to be true and I don’t believe that people should not subscribe to it. I think it’s perfectly valid to push for that. And I do also agree that we are not talking about revolution of overthrowing the existing system in some violent or turbulent upheaval. It is a much more gradual, almost cultural change we are talking about.
Picking up on the last point you just mentioned, you state in your book: “The immediate overthrow of government would bring only chaos. But as individuals and groups begin to assert their own agency over decisions and events within their own reach, there will eventually emerge a much wider and more fundamental effect, one that would ultimately amount to a revolution in how we organize our affairs.” Also, delivering a lecture at the London School of Economics, you expressed your worry that if a state is using violence, that somehow violence would become legitimized for everybody. But if the state, which is the most powerful actor at play—a point you just reiterated in the last question—uses violence, then isn’t the only effective counter-action violence as well?
You’ve just described a perfect circle, haven’t you? You know, the state uses violence, the state legitimizes violence for other people, and only the state can respond to that violence. So there you have it: a cultural violence, a permanent violence. I don’t think violence is a natural state. I don’t agree with Thomas Hobbes that the absence of a state will produce a violence of all against all. It’s perhaps no wonder that Hobbes thinks that, given that he was writing The Leviathan during the time of the English civil war, when it was a plausible belief that without a strong central authority you would have a war of all against all. But I don’t assume, as actually representative systems of democracy—people who support state basis—do assume—that the alternative to a strong state is violence. And I do think that a state saying to itself and some saying publicly to others that in some circumstance violence is sometimes justified—that creates a deeper kind of cultural understanding—that there are sometimes justifications for violence. The trouble is our states are now using violence in many, many more circumstances other than pure self-defense. We are elaborating more and more justifications for the use violence to the extent that today we are in a situation where we are in a state of permanent war. We have permanent cyber warfare being waged against our putative but undeclared enemies. We have drone remote control warfare being used in a kind of way I cannot see ending, to eradicate the supposed enemies of the state.
I do think that the Occupy movement has definitely planted a seed of reform – a seed out of which a future polity may emerge from. But it seems to me that so far, in 2012, Occupy does not seem to resonate as loudly with the American polity. Some critics, who initially even supported the Occupy movement, have said that, aside from planting itself into the national discourse, it has not really been able to change the system. For example, Bill Maher, on his June 8th show, said, “Now that summer is upon us, the Occupy Wall Street movement must think of a more effective form of protest than camping…Occupy’s motto is the only solution is world revolution. Okay, but what about setting our sights a little lower like taking back Wisconsin?”
Bill Maher is referring to what happened last week, when the Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, a year after launching a controversial campaign against the state’s public workers, won a historic recall election by a 7 percent margin, pretty much repeating the 2012 election Walker ran against Barrett. He even won 37 percent of union households in the state. So it seems to confirm the idea that those in power will do whatever necessary to keep it or expand it, and often do so very successfully. Is it time for Occupy to employ a new method?
I think Bill Maher has some fundamental misunderstandings of the Occupy movement. I have never heard of that motto of world revolution declared as “the” motto of Occupy. In fact, there is no single motto of Occupy. That’s one of its great virtues and perhaps one might argue is also one of its weaknesses. There isn’t a single message. There is a single concern, which is inequality and the state of the economy and to an extent the political system today. And Occupy is a movement that is trying to address this in many different ways. There is not one way. It is a thing that occupies many things and not one thing. So I think it’s wrong to say Occupy, as if it is a single branch or think about a new single strategy, such as maybe concentrating on Wisconsin rather than the world. Certainly I agree that local action is more powerful than demanding global change, because you actually change things globally by changing things locally. Your actions will spread and they will send a message, particularly in a highly connected world. Things that happen in Zuccotti Park spread around the world very quickly. There has been extraordinary international interest in Zuccotti Park. So in that sense, Maher is correct.
But personally I disagree that changing Wisconsin and unseating the Republican governor is a particularly useful thing to do. As we were discussing earlier, I do not think that reform of the kind of system is particularly plausible. Yes, in the short-run it produces a better outcome—we have a democrat in there. But I think historically, the trends of economic inequality, damage to the climate, some fundamentally dangerous things for the future of humanity are not being addressed either by democrats or republicans. Inequality is increased continually through democratic as well as republican administrations. So, just concentrating on a few local political fights—yes they are valuable in the short run—but in the long run I don’t they quite capture it. And I think Bill Maher misses a very important point, which is that Occupy is an expression of a fundamental dissatisfaction with the economic order. That will take time to change. It is about consciousness raising. It is, as Todd Gitlin has called it, an awakening, in a sense. It may change things in many different ways that we cannot quite know. Talking about it, having to have a single strategy or tactic, is a mistake.
So, you would say that making it easier to recall a candidate would not be substantial. Alternatively, you would have to eventually get rid of representative democracy?
I think replacing it ultimately, over the long run—and I do mean this as a gradual process—with grassroots democracy with people taking part in decision making about their local circumstances, with participatory democracy where the mass make the decisions for the mass; you do not have small elites, whether elected or otherwise, taking decisions for everybody else, because that hierarchical system, where the few are taking decisions for the many, is fundamentally corruptible, and has been corrupted in the U.S. system. It is far more stable, far more viable, and far more uncorrupt, rejecting a partisan politics if you have a participatory democracy where you can have fifty-thousand people taking decisions about the budget for a city, as you have had in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for instance, and it demonstrably produces better outcomes, more equitable distribution of public services—schools and water or health services—and that is because everybody is involved in decision making. It is truly inclusive rather than purely nominally inclusive. So I do think in the long run that a new kind of political order will emerge from the bottom-up that could ultimately replace the structures and hierarchies of what we call democracy today, which I personally do not feel is truly democratic.
Thomas Hobbes, whom you have mentioned earlier, is perfectly willing to make a compromise by sacrificing fundamental innate human capacities that make up individual freedoms such as human reason and creativity for the “good” of security and protection. Do you believe that security and protection cannot be guaranteed by government any longer, or do you believe that it is simply not worth it to sacrifice things like creativity and reason for the sake of security and protection?
That is a very interesting question. I would not necessarily dichotomize them that way. They are not necessarily exclusive concepts. I certainly think that governments are not producing true security. I think that authority is helping lead to a fragmentation of society, an unweaving of the bonds between us. If we were negotiating, for example, the future of NYU together, where you and I were truly making that decision, we would have to find a way of working together. You and I would develop an extraordinary personal relationship in trying to sort that out. We might hate each other, but it would be extraordinary. If that decision is in the hands of a few people you and I don’t even know, we are likely not to feel happy about that decision. We are likely to dispute that decision, and you and I will never get to know each other. So I am suggesting that authority does actually undermine the fundamental bonds of society. That is one way in which our security in society is compromised. But there is another way, which I think is becoming increasingly more evident in the twenty-first century, which is state’s actually using warfare in a way that perpetuates the threat to our security. Whether deliberately or unconsciously, and I think frankly there is a bit of both, the methods that the United States in particular has used, but also other countries including my own, to combat what they call terrorism, will perpetuate that threat. We are now looking at threats of terrorism from individual autonomous groups, groups of British men, Germans, Pakistanis, Moroccans, people from Algeria, and Yemenis—that is not the original Al Qaeda who launched 9/11. That is not those people. That is a different phenomenon. And yet it is a consequence of the methods we have used to fight the original Al Qaeda. We have managed to spread the threat. We have managed to perpetuate it in a way that means we will have that threat for a very long time indeed. Perhaps we will not see the end of it in my lifetime and maybe even not your lifetime, which is an extraordinary situation to find ourselves. We will have this ghastly sort of security presence in our lives, where the flying of an aircraft or the police in the subways, not that I have anything against police, presents this really suffocated sense, this really freighting sense of perpetual threat, which is something that governments, willfully or un-willfully, are perpetuating.
I presented this next question to Chomsky, and I am interested to know your response too. The late British philosopher Martin Hollis, who dealt extensively with questions of human action, the philosophy of social science and rationality, claimed that any anarchist vision of a society rests upon an idea of human nature that is too optimistic. He argued in his book that anarchism is only viable if humans by nature are good, but history shows us that humans cannot be trusted to this degree. Therefore anarchism is too idealistic. Given your commitment to what you call “cosmopolitan anarchism,” would you mind responding to this objection?
It is a very important objection, the answer to which is that anarchism has never been tried. So it is a presumption that humans are not good enough to make anarchism work. It is not an evidence-based approach. Because actually a truly self-organized society of people managing and negotiating their own affairs has barely happened. It happened briefly during the Spanish Civil War, in the republican areas of Spain, particularly in areas of Northern Catalonia and to an extent was successful. Though, of course it was a very brief experiment in self-organized society because they lost the war. The Franco won and the fascists defeated them, so that system of organized society was not allowed to continue. So, a genuine experiment of anarchism has never taken place. I would suggest that the circumstances of the twenty-first century means that anarchism is more relevant today than it has been in the past, in that we have a highly connected global society where because of the nature of globalization—that our problems our global in their origin and therefore in their solution—that actually states are becoming less effective. They are not dealing with climate change or economic volatility. These things are getting worse. So what would be an alternative approach that might deal with these issues? And paradoxically, you would think that maybe the answer is world government. Indeed, this is the approach, in a sense, that the European Union is taking. In the response to the economic crisis they are facing, they are saying let’s gather power even more closely together and have a banking or fiscal union. That is profoundly undemocratic. Europeans will not be allowed to vote on that. So I think there is a deep contradiction of world government; it’s not democratic and cannot possibly be democratic. This is a profound flaw.
Thus I believe that the way to address these problems, which governments and states are less and less able to address, is in fact, through mass movements, local agents organizing together to address these things directly. It is not looking to other people to solve them. It is addressing them directly in their own local circumstances in their own local way. I think that is a plausible mechanism of change. I do accept that it has not really been tried to its fullest extent, but I do not accept this belief that humans cannot be trusted with their own affairs, that humans have always demonstrated that they are violent and prone to conflict. Well, we are in perpetual conflict now. We have a society that is pretty tense and fractured, where there is a kind of notable, palpable hostility in the public space. I do not think we have stability and peace now. In fact, I think many of the things that the state is doing is deepening the sense of instability. So why not give this alternative a try? We do not have to get rid of everything. We can just start doing this at a local level and see what comes of it. Maybe it will emerge into a broader system, where authority and states are not actually necessary. Personally, I think states are going to disappear. They are going to become ever smaller. You see this trend everywhere of separatism. Scotland, for instance, is likely to become a separate state. This is because people want more control. Globalization is making them feel like they have less and less control. People want to pull down agency and power to a level that is more meaningful to them. It’s only a natural human urge, and actually it might be a plausible way of getting into grips with these problems.
Aside from presenting a new political model, your book opens up possibility for a new economic model. Of course, politics and economics are two sides of the same coin. But tell me about alternative banking. You are involved in a project to set up community style “Occupy Bank.” What has the process been like? Where are you now with it? How will this bank differ from the ones that already exist?
Sure. Good questions, to which I cannot provide very clear answers because we have not yet decided exactly what we want out of the bank we wish to have. Instead, we are actually trying to design a participatory process for all the members of the bank—the people who would use it—to decide what kind of bank it would be. That is not an easy thing to design. It has taken us a lot of discussion to get there. The process is not particularly easy because working with a group of self-selected volunteers, you have got to work hard to find consensus. That is sometimes quite a grueling process. But the fundamental belief of the group is that money is a public good. It is the basic means of exchange between us. It has become appropriate to buy small oligopoly of for-profit banks who cannot be trusted for that responsibility, who have messed up that responsibility, and who have exposed the whole world economy to astonishing risk. The financial crisis caused enormous damage to the world economy, above all to the poorest. That systemic risk will not be removed by Dodd Frank or frankly any other financial regulation that we might see emerge from capitalism, precisely because J.P. Diamond has much more influence there than we in the Occupy working group have. So our view is why not try to build a better form of banking from the bottom up, that would be transparent, democratic, accessible to everybody, that would not use practices like the kind of extremely risky derivatives trading that nobody understands, for instance. Not doing things like that that would expose everybody else to systemic risk. You take those principles and start to envisage what kind of bank that would look like. That’s what we’re working towards. I am not saying we will succeed. Other people should try it too, because it will take minds greater than mine to make this work—and greater than ours in the group to make it work. But I think it is the correct objective. I think that the appropriation of the control of money by a few profit-seeking entities is not a successful way—it does not produce a system which is operating in everybody’s interests.
In your book, you also make the claim that though globalization has created some benefits for society and has made the world smaller on one hand, it has also been responsible for making the world more atomized, fragmented, and inegalitarian. Is there a way to resolve this paradox, to make “globalization” (which seems to be a very heavy and compounded term to begin with) work? Do you see Occupy, which has spread worldwide, as addressing this issue?
That is a very difficult question, partly because as you correctly say, “globalization” is a rather big term, used for a lot of different things.
Is there a way to define “globalization?”
Global phenomena, I suppose—whether it is global trade, global economy, and global environment—these are functions of globalization. We are now looking at global systems rather than systems that can be best understood or best managed at an international or smaller level. That’s my rough and ready definition.
There is a way of making it work, but it is a paradoxical way, which is to go down to a much more grassroots approach to political change. Rather than opening at the United Nations or the European Union, or the nation state itself to be able to produce a global solution to a global problem—perhaps they may be a part of it, but actually we cannot absolve ourselves of that responsibility ourselves because it is not working. To leave it simply to that level of government or international organizational management is not succeeding. It is not working in controlling these very fundamental severe problems like, for instance, climate change. And I think that acceptance that it is not working is terribly important in the first place and it says to us that we have to find better ways, and I think that human ingenuity, its ability for collaboration, has a plausible chance of being able to solve some of these problems. So let’s actually pursue that as a method of change, instead of relying on a very ossified, static model of change, which is what we have been by tradition and history predetermined to do.
I spent my freshman year of college at NYU abroad in Paris. I remember the day when Francois Hollande was elected the next President and when, in his acceptance speech, he told the people of France that the austerity measures would stop. Crowds stormed to the Bastille landmark celebrating his election and the new government, and with it the hope of new economic policies it would bring. It was really a thrilling experience for anyone that was there to witness it. The people in France and elsewhere seem to have realized and they know that austerity measures simply do not work in a time of recession or great economic hardship. Do you think that the European Central Bank is intentionally acting in a way that creates a deeper divide between the rich and the poor?
I don’t know. I do not have much insight into the private thinking of the ECB. I doubt that it is intentionally doing that. I really do doubt it. I am sure the people who are in it are sincerely trying to do what they think is best. Also, the ECB has a very tight constitutional mandate. It can only do certain things, and many people would argue that it is already overstepping its mandate in terms of basically trying to address monetary policy—reflation essentially—through monetary policy by recapitalizing different banks, etc. That is basically what it is being asked to do by politicians, and that is not fundamentally, as I understand it, its original responsibility. So I don’t think necessarily that the ECB is deliberately seeking to do that. I mean the key is not the ECB; it is Germany. They hold the keys to EU wide policy, macro-economic policy, policy to manage the Euro zone, and they have chosen a policy of fiscal restraint, of budgetary-rigor and discipline, as a way out of this crisis. And I think one of the reasons you saw that incredible upsurge for Hollande and the incredible kind of sense of political momentum was because in Europe, at least, it is very clear that it is not working. It is pulling Greece’s economy into an absolute disaster, and at the moment, it is pulling other economies too into disaster. Spain had a very solid budgetary situation. It was not hugely overspending like, for instance, Greece was, and yet it is being pulled down by the requirements of budgetary restraint and there other factors as well, not only austerity. But it is being pulled down into a situation of economic collapse. It is very severe what is happening in Spain, and who knows who is next—perhaps Italy, perhaps Ireland. Austerity also imposes very severe social costs. It is not just a budget line being cut. It’s people losing work. It’s people having less. It’s people suffering. It’s people in privation. Grave psychological distress. There’s a real price for it. And I think the evidence from the EU is that it has not worked and that there has to be a more aggressive reflationary strategy.
You have made it very clear that all systems of hierarchy usually embody oppression and thus should be eliminated. What are your thoughts on the prison industrial complex, a term coined by Angela Davis, who argues that it is essentially an extension of slavery in the United States and elsewhere? Should it be abolished?
It is an extension of slavery, in the sense that, like slavery, it is morally justified by the people who practice it. They think that they have a moral justification for locking up people for very long periods. I do not think they are morally justified. I do not think we have a right to do that to each other. I think the necessary social pressure for people to behave correctly is not best served by punishment. And the more acute aspects of the military industrial complex, which I think is a great term by the way, is that the prison industry now has economic interests of its own in expanding the prison population and certainly keeping it as high as it is now. There has been a massive increase in prison population in America in the last ten-twenty years, and that has been co-incident with the massive increase in the privatization of the prison industry, where you have got now large private companies who are lobbying in Congress who have their own lobbyists for longer prison sentences for more new prisons to be built. This is an extraordinary aspect of the marking interfering with a fundamentally social challenge for society—how to keep order. So I think it is a really grotesque phenomenon that we are witnessing now, and of course there is a deeply racial aspect to it. I do not think it is a coincidence that the war on drugs was declared more or less as the battle of the civil rights that was successful. It was a new way of keeping the minority population down, in a sense. And I think it is very clear that African Americans, Black Americans have been totally disproportionately targeted by prison policy. Everybody knows, for instance, about the distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Everybody knows that African Americans are much more likely to be stopped and searched—something like 40 times more likely than white people. How can that possibly be indicative of anything other than a prejudiced approach to criminal policy?
So when you say that the prison industrial complex has certain economic interests to expand, when you say that there is a certain prejudice involved—and of course the prison industrial complex is part of government—does that suggest a possible intention? I feel that government wants to expand those interests, even if those interests interfere with, obviously, people at the bottom, whose interests are different. That people who want power keep it and intentionally disregard the people with whom their interests are in conflict.
Well having been in government I don’t think that these things are ever clear as intentions inside government. They are just cultural habits inside the institutions. When I worked in a long-standing institution of government, it was very striking that some of the most important things of institutions were not what they were set up to do. It was set up to manage Britain’s foreign relations, but actually the thing that got everybody’s attentions was resources for the ministry—people’s pay. You know, what was our annual budget going to be? People got very agitated about that before they got agitated about the crisis in Iran. I’m not saying that they did not get agitated about the crisis in Iran, but there was a very clear ordering of priorities, and this is what anarchist institutional analysis tells you—institutions develop their own certain set of interests and these are separate from the purposes for which they were established. Having working in the United Nations, it’s very clear to me that the UN has a set of interests, which are different from the UN charter, for which it was established. One of the UN’s undeclared interests is the security and well being of its staff. It’s not an illegitimate interest, but it is not declared, and so I found, you know, for instance—I helped set up a weapons inspection body in Iraq. This was to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, when Iraq was run by Saddam Hussein. I was rather astonished to discover that this thing was still existing five or six years, I think, after Saddam Hussein’s regime had been gotten rid of. I helped set it up, and I never imagined that this thing would outlive the purpose for which it was established. I know of foundations that having spent all of their money—philanthropic foundations—then decided they are so useful that they need themselves to be funded. This is how institutions perpetuate themselves. They develop a set of interests, which are different from the ones that they claim. So, institutions are inherently problematic. Governments are inherently problematic. They have to be constantly checked, they have to be transparent, and above all, ideally, they should be spontaneous. And they should be abolished once the purpose for which they were established is fulfilled.
Moving on with foreign policy, in a June 14, 2011 article by CNN on the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters, you said that the Security Council had failed to act appropriately. It has been almost exactly a year since you said that. What has been the progress, if any?
Pretty much zero, tragically for the Syrian people. There has been an attempt at a peace plan formulated by Kofi Annan, which has failed. Though it’s still in play, I don’t see any plan that it would be adhered to and the fighting would stop. The fighting is intensifying, getting worse. It’s becoming more and more militarized on both sides. And the Security Council is still doing nothing. It has essentially supported the peace plan but that’s it. It has not agreed, for instance, on an arms embargo on Syria, which I think is disgraceful. It is disgraceful that Russia is still shipping significant amounts of weaponry to the Syrian regime. I think that’s despicable. At a minimum that’s what we should be doing—stopping weapons getting into the regime. This regime is killing its own people in large numbers. They should not be armed, and I think they should be targeted with specific measures to make their lives as difficult as possible—to convince them to stop, to come and negotiate with the opposition elements, to form a new dispensation.
When is it okay to interfere militarily? How do we avoid another Iraq?
My views about that have shifted. I did used to think that when circumstances were relatively clear, it was right to intervene. I am now—I think the idea of humanitarian intervention, of intervening for the better interests for the local population, has been sullied by the Iraq intervention. It has therefore become a less legitimate idea internationally. That is not to say, though, that it is not still important in some circumstances. If you talk to a Libyan from Benghazi, as I did recently, they will tell you had it not been for NATO’s intervention, they would be dead today. That is pretty compelling. I find it hard to dismiss that line of argument, and I do not condemn, routinely, all Western military activity just because it’s Western military activity, though I’ve got a great deal of criticism for most of the manifestations for most of the western military strategies today.
My last question: Margaret Thatcher—a very popular Conservative British Prime Minister—
She wasn’t that popular. It’s a complete myth. She was one of the most divisive politicians in British history. She was hated in Britain by a lot of people. So she wasn’t popular. Please do not believe that.
All right. But she is famous for expressing her belief that there is no such thing as society – there is just a collection of individuals. This I think is similar to Ayn Rand’s argument. In your book, you agree with her premise—that society is just a collection of individuals—but you disagree with her ultimate conclusion about the role of government. So I am just wondering: what leads you to agree with the premise but disagree with the conclusion?
It’s partly about the mechanisms that you choose to fulfill social purposes—the necessary purposes of living with other people—the necessary duties of living with other people. I think that it’s not just pure libertarianism—we don’t have an absolute right to pursue our own ends to their fullest, regardless of other people. We have a duty to consult other people, to consider them, and to take care of them—if they are vulnerable, weak, or suffering. So these things do fit together with my vision of the individual at the heart of freedom—the expression of what it is to be human.
Curiously, although now ostensibly libertarian—a bit like the Republicans who claim to support individual freedom—but at the same time they actually support a very authoritarian view of government. A very heavy hand in terms of criminal justice, for instance. A very moralistic view of society and what society’s moral rules should be, imposed from above, not generated indigenously, as I would suggest is much better, much more during, and much more supported by the population itself. So I think there are grave inconsistencies in her philosophy. She believed in a government or society or individuals but ruled with a very firm rod by Margaret Thatcher herself—the schoolteacher—the headmistress in chief.
Mr. Ross, thank you very much.
 Chomsky, Noam, and Edward Radzivilovskiy. “After Thirty Years of Class War.” Occupy. Brooklyn: Zuccotti Park Press, 2012. 53-67. Print. Occupied Media Pamphlet Ser.
 Chomsky, Noam, and Edward Radzivilovskiy. “After Thirty Years of Class War.” Occupy. Brooklyn: Zuccotti Park Press, 2012. 53-67. Print. Occupied Media Pamphlet Ser.
 Hollis, Martin. The Cunning of Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. Print.