“Requiem for the American Dream” - Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott (2015)

Requiem for the American Dream (2015) is a documentary film offering a summary of Noam Chomsky’s current thoughts on what he sees as the dysfunctional American sociopolitical landscape.  Chomsky, of course, is a preeminent American intellectual, famous for both (a) his revolutionary contributions to the academic field of linguistics and (b) his lifelong avocation as political activist and social critic.  Indeed Chomsky’s linguistics work, already attracting attention in the late 1950s, completely recast the field in accordance with his ideas.  Although these ideas have since come under criticism [1], he is probably still the most famous figure in this field in the last century.  However, Chomsky’s fame for the wider American public rests on his relentless activities as a social critic from a leftist liberal perspective.  It is on this plane of Chomsky’s thinking that Requiem for the American Dream is focused.  This film, which was co-directed, co-produced, and co-scripted by Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, represents a summary compilation of Chomsky’s overall views on these matters.  And since Chomsky is now ninety-years-old, this may well be, as the filmmakers suggest, Chomsky’s final long-form testimony on American social issues.  In further observance of the solemnity of these perhaps final thoughts, they have also been published by Chomsky and the same filmmakers in 2017 in book form, entitled Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, and with much of the written text repeating verbatim Chomsky’s spoken words from the film [2,3].

When watching this film, it struck me that Chomsky and the filmmakers have been rather clever  in assembling a lot of disparate thoughts of Chomsky into a coherent structure.  The result is a relatively straightforward disquisition based on Chomsky’s “10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power”.  Chomsky’s basic idea is that the wealthy, self-interested elite in the United States have carefully conspired to undermine the basic, originally idealistic, principles of American society so that they can further concentrate wealth and power into the hands of the few.  Underlying this is the image of a malicious cycle of wealth bribing its way into more power, which leads to corrupt legislation that further enriches the wealthy. 

The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power that Chomsky lectures us on are as follows:
1.  Reduce Democracy
The basic goal of the wealthy elite here is to reduce democratic control over the economy and put it in the hands of a few “responsible” people.  Chomsky outlines examples of how this has been done over the years.

2.  Shape Ideology
There has always been concern among the elite about an “excess of democracy”.  So elitist leaders from both the Left and the Right have tried to influence our prevailing ideologies to correct this so-called flaw.  Chomsky specifically criticizes the Trilateral Commission as an organization with an elitist, anti-democratic agenda.

3.  Redesign the Economy
The movement to shift the economy from manufacturing (by off-shoring it) to financialization  has entailed a shift in perspective from long-term interests to short-term profits.  This Chomsky also sees as the outcome of a conspiracy.  In particular he cites economist and former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan’s, celebration of increasing job insecurity in the US.  Overall, redesign of the economy meant increasing deregulation and this led to more economic crashes.

4.  Shift the Burden
By reducing the progressive income tax, there was a dramatic increase in inequality.  This led to a shift in the burden of funding the government from the “plutonomy” to the “precariat “.

5.  Attack Solidarity
The goal here has been to attack social cohesion and instead extol self-interest [3].  Instruments along these lines have been both the increased  privatization of the public commons and the undermining of social security and public-funded education.

6.  Run the Regulators
There has been a huge increase in wealth-funded lobbying that has interfered with the proper public regulation of the economy [4].  Now it seems that with every economic bubble/crash, there is a bailout that redistributes wealth to the rich and increases inequality.  Big business has come to expect and count on crash bailouts from the government.

7.  Engineer Elections
Chomsky feels that the concentration of wealth inevitably leads to the concentration of political power.  He is particularly critical of the 2010 US Supreme Court decision “Citizens United”, which, by declaring that corporations have the same rights as individual citizens, gave them enormous power to influence and manipulate elections.

8.  Keep the Rabble in Line
In order to undermine social cohesion, the elites have long attacked organized labor.  Now only  7% of private-sector jobs are unionized.

9.  Manufacture Consent
There has long been a drive to get people to over-consume via false advertising.  The advertising media lie to the people in order to get them to waste their money.  Now these same techniques are being used to get an uninformed electorate to make irrational choices.  Given the economic decline of print media and the increased concentration of network media, the only people with the resources to run information media for the public are the wealthy elite, who are willing to run these media at a loss in order to achieve their political aims [5].  Again, the concentration of wealth leads to a decline in democratic openness.        

10.  Marginalize the Population
Of course, the goal of the elite is to keep major decision-making from the hands of the people.  One means to this end is to keep the public mired in unfocussed anger and outside of the main decision-making processes.

All along the way of this discourse,  Chomsky speaks in calm, measured terms.  It is clear that he has thought things over very carefully.  However, sometimes he makes, for me, surprising observations.  For example, he points out that Richard Nixon was the last “New Deal” American President [3]:
“In Nixon’s administration, you get the consumer safety legislation (CPSC), safety and health regulations in the workplace (OSHA) and the EPA — the Environmental Protection Agency. Business didn’t like it, of course — they didn’t like the higher taxes, didn’t like the regulation.”
Another interesting observation of Chomsky’s was his claim that freedom of speech is not in the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights.  However, First Amendment of the US Bill of Rights reads
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
And this, to me, contradicts Chomsky’s claim.  Nevertheless, Chomsky’s thoughts on freedom of speech are well developed [6], and he does positively celebrate the fact that, thanks to seminal Supreme Court decisions mostly in the 1960s, no other country’s citizens enjoy the freedom-of-speech protections that American citizens do.

But the overall vision that Chomsky puts forward is certainly bleak.  In particular he doesn’t offer a positive program or set of principles that we should all fight for.  In this connection, I would suggest that his advocacy could be fruitfully supplemented by consideration of the four core principles that I believe underlie successful rational humanist societies and which I call RMDL [7].  The four essential RMDL principles, which must operate in concert, are:
  • Human Rights.  These include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to watch and listen, freedom from torture, etc.
  • Open Markets.  There needs to be regulated markets that allow for the open exchange of goods and services across society.  This includes necessarily ensuring there is sufficient wealth equity across society so that there can be widespread, fair exchange.
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving universally inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place.
  • Rule of Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed or adjusted by the actions of a democratically-elected government.
With RMDL in mind, we all need to set about positively rectifying and saving the American Dream [8].

  1. “Universal Grammar, Criticisms”, Wikipedia, (7 August 2018). 
  2. “Requiem for the American Dream (book)”, Wikipedia, (9 October 2018).   
  3. Mark Lilla, “Two Roads for the New French Right”, The New York Review of Books, (20 December 2018).  
  4. Noam Chomsky, “In His New Book, Noam Chomsky Takes a Look at Income Inequality”, Moyers, (11 May 2017).  
  5. Erik Wemple, “The Weekly Standard is gone”, The Washington Post, (14 December 2018).   
  6. Noam Chomsky, “Crimes Again / Freedom of Speech”, Arts & Opinion, Vol. 10, No. 3, (2011).  
  7. See my discussions of RMDL, which can be accessed by clicking on the tag  “RMDL” under the “LABELS” section of this site.   
  8. David Swanson, “Noam Chomsky Wants You to Wake Up From the American Dream”, Alternet, (27 February 2016).   

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