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Why Chomsky’s Wrong to Think of Russian Influence On US Elections as Small Beer

By Robert Paul Wolff.

Now, as to that clip from Noam Chomsky, which you can view here. Noam starts by pooh-poohing the foofaraw about Russian interference in the 2016 election, indicating by his tone of voice as much as by what he says that he considers it pretty small beer. [How’s that for two old fashioned slang expressions and one cliché in a single sentence?] Then he moves on to a recent scholarly study that shows in granular detail the influence of money in American politics, which he suggests is much greater than any effect Russian efforts at interference might have had. The second part of the short interview concerns the shape of post-war European power politics. Let me say something about the first two points.

Were it not disrespectful to someone whom I like personally and for whom I have the very greatest esteem, I would be tempted to respond, “Duh!” Big money plays a big role in American politics! Who knew? The ability of big money to shape politics is a fundamental structural fact not only about American politics but about the politics of all capitalist states. The state exists in a capitalist economy for the purpose of facilitating the smooth and unchallenged exploitation of the working class, and one of the principal ways in which Capital accomplishes this in capitalist democracies is by shaping electoral outcomes. Big money in American politics, to use again a catchphrase I have invoked before, is a feature, not a bug.

Does it therefore make no difference how that money is allowed legally to influence elections? That depends on whether you think there is any point in trying to make American capitalism less harsh, less exploitative, less inhumane, even though those ameliorations are only at the margin. I do think so. Hence, for example, I decry the notorious Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Did corporate and private wealth play a major role in American politics before that decision? A silly question. Would it continue to do so if the decision were reversed? Equally silly. Does the decision therefore matter? That is a question worth debating. My answer is yes. Hence, I think it matters who sits on the Supreme Court. Now, it goes without saying that every member of the Supreme Court now and for as long as matters has been nominated by a President, Democrat or Republican, who was committed to the capitalist exploitation of labor [though not of course under that description.] I think we can also agree that all of the ice at the North and South Poles will have melted [and hell, correspondingly will have frozen over] before there is a workable majority on the Supreme Court ready to rule that capitalism is unconstitutional.

So I quite agree that the effect of the Russians on the 2016 election, whatever it may have been, pales into insignificance [another cliché] next to the influence of money. Why, therefore, do I care about it?

The answer is simple. I think Trump is a more serious threat to everything I care about than Clinton would have been, bad as she is and was, and I think his manifest conspiring with the Russians, which has taken place in plain view, may yet bring him down. That’s it. That is why I care. Not because I believe it is besmirching the purity of the American political system, envy of the world; not because I think once he is gone America’s role as The Leader of the Free World, A City Upon a Hill, The Last Best Hope of Humanity, will be restored. Just because I think the Russia thing may bring him down.

But if that is why I care about collusion, why don’t I care about Stormy Daniels and hush money? Why don’t I care about the use of New York apartments to launder the dirty money of Russian oligarchs? I do care! And for exactly the same reason. As the talking heads have now become fond of observing, it was tax evasion that sent Al Capone to jail.

I have had my say on the last part of Noam’s comments, concerning post-war Euro-American power politics, so I will pass on that.

As I have observed before, political change is not like brain surgery, in which the slightest slip of the hand can mean death or terrible injury. I prefer to liken political change to a landslide, in which an entire mountainside is transformed by an enormous flood of boulders, uprooted trees, rocks, clods of earth, but also pebbles and grains of sand, all tumbling, rolling, bouncing, pitching down a slope. In the Civil Rights Movement, the greatest popular political movement of my lifetime, one sees huge boulders like John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King rolling down the mountainside, along with small trees, like my UMass colleague in the Afro-American Studies Department Mike Thelwell, who ran the SNCC office in D. C. for a while.

But if nothing moves save for those few big objects, the result is not a landslide, and the mountainside is not transformed. For that transformation to happen, everything, small as well as big, must be in motion. If you are one of the pebbles or grains of sand, your participation in the landslide will make little or no observable difference, but without you and all the other pebbles and grains, it will not be a landslide.

The greatness and also the besetting sin of intellectuals is that they try to think about everything, not merely about something. If all you are doing is thinking, then of course the one is as easy as the other. But when it comes to political action, for most of us it is all we can manage to do just something – to be a pebble or a grain of sand. The trick, if you are intellectually inclined, is not to make the mistake of imagining that arguing in grand terms about everything is any sort of substitute for actually doing something.

That is why I spent several days writing and merge printing some fundraising letters for young Ryan Watts here in the NC 6th CD, which, Lord knows, is about as pebbly a thing as it is possible to do.

Now, I am, for better or worse, an intellectual, so I will continue to opine on the big picture, since that is what we intellectuals do. But I am not going to get into arguments about that big picture with folks who, I hope, are tumbling down the mountain with me. It is enough that we are tumbling down the same side.


As Robert Paul Wolff observed in one of his books, in politics he is an anarchist, in religion he is an atheist, and in economics he is a Marxist. He is also, rather more importantly in his own estimation, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a violist.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 25th, 2018.