Chomsky: Hopes and Prospects

For over 40 years, MIT linguists professor and activist, Noam Chomsky, has been a powerful voice of dissent in the United States and around the world. The New York Times has called him, “perhaps the most important intellectual alive.” He has published over one-hundred books, is the most quoted living scholar.

His most recent book, “Hopes and Prospects” (Haymarket Books, 2010), is one of his best. This new Chomsky book is broad in scope. It covers neocolonialism in Latin America, recent development in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a critique of President Barack Obama, analysis of the “torture debate,” among other topics. Here are some highlights from the book:

Doctrines of Power – And How the World Really Works:

  • The Adam Smith Principle: The principal architects of state policy—today’s mega-corporations—will always make sure that their own interests are most peculiarly attended to, however grievous the effects on others. (p.15); the Maxim of Thucydides: The strong do as they wish, and the weak suffer as hey must. (p.16)
  • Historical Amnesia: Those who hold the clubs can carry out their work effectively only with the benefit of the self-induced blindness, which includes selective historical amnesia to evade the consequences of one’s actions (p.16); historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that lie ahead (p.268).
  • The Idea of America: Expansion is the pathway to security—security, not for the population, but for corporate interests; seizing land and resources from others is done out of benevolence, “responding to the pleas of the miserable natives to be rescued from their bitter pagan fate.” (p.21, 27)
  • The Clinton Doctrine: The United States is entitled to resort to unilateral use of military power to ensure uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources. (p.24)
  • The Threat of Democracy: A major concern of policy makers after World War II was what the State Department called “the philosophy of the New Nationalism, [which] embraces the policies designed to bring about broader distribution of wealth and to raise the standard of living of the masses.”
  • The Founding Principle of Corporate Law: Corporations are granted the rights of persons under the law, with rights far beyond those of human beings; directors are legally obligated to pursue only material self-interest, and to act in ways that would be regarded as pathological by real persons; limited liability allows corporations to commit serious crimes while the shareholder remain largely immune; in truth, corporations are state-created private tyrannies, unaccountable private concentrations of power (p.30-31, 33)
  • The Mafia Doctrine: The Godfather does not easily tolerate disobedience, which could spread; the “domino theory” is the convention version: a rogue state might topple dominos nearby, and soon become a threat to us (p.55); throughout the Cold War, a primary concern of U.S. policy makers has been the “threat of a good example”; that is, a nation that is democratic, and acts independently of Washington (p.37); the main concern is the good example might infect other with the dangerous idea of taking matters into their own hands (p.53); policy makers feared that if the U.S. could not control Latin America, it could not expect to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world (p. 53)
  • American Exceptionalism: The U.S. is unlike other great powers, because it has a transcendent purpose; hence, the U.S. has as solemn duty to maintain its international primacy for the benefit of the world. (p.39-41); high-level planners and foreign policy advisers determined that in the new global system the United States should hold unquestioned power while ensuring the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty by states that might interfere with its global designs (p. 54); problems are caused by the annoying population who dislike being bombed by an increasingly hated enemy from the other side of the world (p.241); who could possibly have a right of self-defense against the United States or its clients? (p.250)
  • The Requirement of Hypocrisy: A dominant principle of imperial culture is to have laser-like focus on the crimes of enemies, and on our high-minded and courageous condemnation of their crimes—but crucially, make sure to never look at ourselves (p.269); focus on their crimes, with ours far removed from sight or memory (p.271).
  • The Real Ideals: policy conforms to expressed ideals only if it also conforms to [economic] interests (p.46-47); it is the very nobility of our ideals that leads us to violate them regularly (the U.S. has consistently acted in violation of its ideals of freedom and democracy, yet people assume its leaders are committed to these ideals) (p.39-41); democracy is promoted by the U.S. government if, and only if, it conforms to strategic and economic interests; in fact, where U.S. influence was least, progress toward democracy was greatest, and vice versa (p.45); the U.S. regularly overthrows democracies often installing or supporting brutal tyrannies: Iran, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, a long list of others (p.46);
  • The Grand Prize: It was recognized early on that control of Middle East oil was to be “a stupendous source of strategic power” and “one of the greatest material prizes in world history, and would yield “substantial control over the world.” (p.54-55)
  • Tacit Assumption of International Affairs: We own the world, so what does it matter what other people think? They are unpeople. (p.133)
  • The “Special Interests” are women, workers, farmers, the young, the elderly, minorities, majorities—in fact, the general population; the “National Interest” is defined by those who own and run the society
  • A basic principle of modern state capitalism is that costs and risks are socialized to the extent possible, while profit is privatized (p.114); pure laissez-faire for others, not for themselves. (p.219)
  • The important work of the world is the domain of “responsible men,” who must live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd,” the general public, “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” whose “function” is to be “spectators,” not “participants.” (p.121)
  • Necessary Illusions: It is important that the attention of the herd be diverted elsewhere (p.122); the general population is to be satisfied with necessary illusions and emotionally potent oversimplifications (p.220).
  • Public Relations: The task of PR is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices, thus undermining markets as they are conceptualized in economic theory, but benefiting the masters of the economy; it also undermines democracy by creating uninformed voters who make irrational choices between the two factions of the business party. (p.210)
  • The Essential U.S. Principle of Democracy: Do what we say, or else.(p.145)
  • Change of Course: The U.S. government sometimes makes mistakes, its intentions are by definition benign, even noble; but don’t worry about the mistakes, things will be different moving forward. (p.190); the president urges us to look forward, not back—a convenient doctrine for those who hold the clubs (p.261).

These insights are discussed with historical examples and scholarly research throughout the book. Chomsky doesn’t just tells us how the world works and remind s of all the bad new in the world. He also reminds us that change is possible, and there are great things happening in the world. He ends chapter one with this hopeful statement:

“There is no reason to subjugate ourselves to the doctrines of the powerful. U.S. courts are quite right to warn that an ‘aroused public’ may restrict or even entirely dismantle power concentrations and their privileges, and work to construct a domestic and global society that is more free and just. That has often happened in the past. Latin America, today, is the scene of some of the most exciting development in the endless struggle for freedom and justice. At last, the region is moving to overthrow the legacy of the conquests and the external domination of the past centuries, and the cruel and destructive social forms they have helped to establish…Popular struggles in Latin America show real promise as an inspiration to others worldwide, in a common quest for globalization in a a form that should be the aspiration of decent people everywhere. (p.38)