Noam Chomsky and How the World Works

“The real drama since 1776 has been the relentless attack of the prosperous few upon the rights of the restless many.”      Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is a political activist whose criticisms of U.S. foreign policy are often controversial. An advocate for popular struggle to achieve real democracy, he is also scathing in his critique of what passes for democracy in the U.S.

In this post I outline three of the key positions that Chomsky has held for decades and invite you to comment on these controversial but crucial issues. Do you agree with Chomsky that this really is how the world works?

The U.S. government is subordinate to private power

According to Chomsky, corporations set the conditions within which the U.S. government operates, and control it to a large extent. In his view, more and more power has been put into the hands of unaccountable corporations whose primary function is generating profits for their shareholders rather than delivering any public good.

Chomsky also argues that there is no such thing as a free market economy. If there were such a thing, he says, it wouldn’t last three seconds – mostly because business wouldn’t let it. Instead, corporations rely on powerful governments to protect them from free markets. What exists in the U.S., and what has spread around the world in recent decades, is not free market capitalism, but giant corporations that are supported by, and rely on, governments.

As evidence for this Chomsky argues that every single one of the companies on the Fortune 100 list of the largest transnational corporations has benefited from interventionist industrial policies, and that many would be out of business if it weren’t for public bailouts.

The parts of the US economy that are able to compete internationally are primarily the state subsidised ones: capital intensive agriculture, high-tech industry, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology. This system of public subsidy and private profit is what is called free enterprise.

On U.S. political parties, Chomsky believes that there is little difference between the Republicans and Democrats, both of which primarily represent the interests of big business. That said, while there are plenty of things wrong with government, Chomsky holds that it is the only defence people have against corporate power.

photo credit: Andrew Rusk via photopin cc

photo credit: Andrew Rusk via photopin cc

The US government uses war as a tool of economic policy

“I think legally speaking there’s a very solid case for impeaching every American President since the Second World War. They have all been either outright war criminals or involved in serious war crimes.”                Noam Chomsky

U.S. Policy Planning Study 23, written by George Kennan for the State Department in 1948, stated: “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population… Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity… “

Chomsky quotes Kennan’s policy paper, and argues that the way the U.S. has maintained this disparity has been by intervening repeatedly in the affairs of countries around the world. This intervention has been carried out both covertly and through the use of military force.

The U.S.’ wars of economic domination have been particularly damaging in three regions of the world, Chomsky argues – Central and South America, the Middle East, and East Asia.

He points out that parliamentary governments were barred or overthrown with U.S. support in Guatemala in 1954, in the Dominican Republic in 1963 and 1965, in Brazil in 1964, and in Chile in 1973, among others. In Central America, the number of people murdered by U.S.-backed forces since the late 1970s was around 200,000, as popular movements that sought democracy and social reform were decimated.

In the Middle East, Chomsky holds that the U.S .has as much control and domination of the region as any outside force could hope to maintain. ‘Our outpost there, Israel, is by far the main military, technological, industrial and even financial centre. The huge oil resources of the region are mostly in the hands of family dictatorships, brutal tyrannies that are highly dependent on the US and subordinated to its interests. ‘For over half a century, he argues, the U.S. has achieved its major goals in the Gulf – ensuring that the enormous energy resources of the Middle East remain under U.S. control, and that the profits they produce flow into the economies of the US and Britain –through support for local tyrants and the use of force.

According to Chomsky, the U.S. wars in Indochina fall into the same pattern. He cites U.S. support for the Suharto takeover in Indonesia in 1965, and U.S. backing for the overthrow of Philippine democracy by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. Suharto’s coup involved the slaughter, in a few months, of around 700,000 people, mostly landless peasants. In Cambodia, the US supported the Khmer Rouge after the genocide under Pol Pot. Writing about Indochina, Chomsky has said, “We killed a couple of million people and destroyed three countries [Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos] and left them in total wreckage and have been strangling them ever since.”

Inequality is written into the system by the rich

“There’s a constant battle between people who refuse to accept domination and injustice and those who are trying to force people to accept them.”            Noam Chomsky

According to a recent Oxfam report, the wealth of the world is divided in two: almost half going to the richest 1%; the other half to the remaining 99%. In the U.S. the wealthiest 1% captured 95% of post-crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90% became poorer.

For Chomsky, this inequality is not an accidental side effect of capitalism, but a direct consequence of the fact that the powerful have been writing the rules for their own benefit. Chomsky argues that there has been a very committed effort to convert the U.S. into something resembling a Third World society, where wealth is highly concentrated, resources are used to protect the wealthy, and the general public finds itself disempowered and struggling to make ends meet.

In his view the real question for every country is simple: can they control their own wealthy? If not, democracy will continue to be undermined, leaving the majority of people in a position of subservience to the powerful few. Chomsky’s concerns echo those of US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who said in the early years of the 20th century, ‘We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.’

Is Change Possible?

The key to progress, Chomsky urges, is popular politics that represent the majority, rather than being captured by a tiny minority. He reminds us that the current economic and political systems are not based on laws of nature. The processes, and the institutions that engender them, could be changed. But that will require major cultural, social and institutional changes, he argues, including democratic structures that go far beyond periodic selection of representatives of the business world to manage domestic and international affairs.

While Chomsky welcomes the real advances that have been made in securing the rights of African Americans, women, and gays and lesbians in the United States, he warns that these very positive changes can occur, but still leave the centres of power untouched. Obama has become President – and maybe Hillary Clinton will too – but their rise to the highest position of power in government may leave the basic facts of how the U.S. economic and political systems works totally unchanged.

So is this how the world really works? Please share your views…

Quotes are taken from Noam Chomsky, How The World Works, Hamish Hamilton, 2012

DisorderedWorld is a site dedicated to exploring the damage that psychopaths and narcissists cause in our world. For those new to the site, here is a list of the Top 10 most popular posts. The list covers Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, Islamic State, narcissistic bosses, religion and evil, and more…

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11 thoughts on “Noam Chomsky and How the World Works

  1. i agree with chomsky that this is in fact how the majority of the world works—bullies always seem to have the edge somehow–there are glimmers of hope here and there but the question is how to effect lasting change—i dont know if i’ll see it in my lifetime

  2. I agree with Chomsky.
    His analysis is certainly true of the UK. The recent Gagging Bill which is about to be adopted by the government is further evidence of this. This will ensure that before the next general election the amount of say that the public has in forming opinion will be drastically reduced.
    We are the most spied on by our government of any state in the world. The government has even been found to be hacking into our iphones. There are cameras everywhere on our London streets.
    The public does not want nuclear power. The government is planning to give vast subsidise to foreign nuclear power stations to build 10 new plants in the UK. They have to subsidise them to get them built since they are so dangerous that no one will ensure them.
    The government does not want endless wars. The government starts illegal and criminal war without consulting the people.
    Unknown to the vast majority of citizens the government spends their money helping the UK arms manufacturers. The business secretary says if we do not send arms to dictators someone else will! And so on….

    Jim McCluskey BSc, MICE. MIStructE, MIHT, ALI.
    Author of ‘The Nuclear Threat’.

  3. Chomsky may be on the left but he is right!

    Look at the repeal of Glass-Steagal so that big banks could ‘leverage’ little people’s savings for high risk investments (done under Clinton)

    Look at Obama’s ‘centrist’ policies on Guantanamo, drones and continuing Israeli colonisation of the West Bank – and what’s a centrist other than someone who favours the status quo with better management of public relations?

    Chomsky’s views on income inequality are reinforced by Robert Reich (who would have a different political outlook) in his movie Inequality for All which illustrates the consistent relative impoverishment of American families over the last 30-40 years.

  4. It seems Chomsky’s views on the U.S.’ use of war as a tool for economic domination are almost becoming mainstream. Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, wrote in a recent edition of Politico magazine, ‘One myth that habitually infects U.S. foreign policy discourse is the myth that U.S. foreign policy is powerful shaped by moral concerns. Nothing could be further from the truth: The United States has allied with brutal dictators, killed millions in illegal wars and through economic sanctions, and turned a blind eye to various atrocities whenever U.S. interests weren’t involved. Like with other great powers, in short, U.S. foreign policy is driven primarily by realpolitik; by the desire to maximize U.S. power and primacy for as long as possible.’ http://politi.co/1kwNwJy

  5. I also broadly agree with Noam Chomsky. I hear his opinions somewhat regularly on NPR programs here in the States. However, while I agree with his basic premise almost all the time, one thing I wish he (and others) would do is to articulate a coherent, realistic, strategy for an alternative to what is now the status quo.

    To take an example: Chomsky is regularly to be heard excoriating US policy regarding Israel, and Israel’s own policies. I don’t argue with this. What I wish he would do though, is also state firmly that rocket attacks on Israel are wrong, and indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians are also wrong (and counter-productive). He needs to make the point that non-violence is the only way to a last and just solution, on both sides, and include in his criticisms the self-defeating Palestinian actions, which just make things worse for the Palestinian population at large.

    Second example: Chomsky rightly argues that US democracy is a sham and that its foreign policy is not morally based but purely based on self-interest. Again, quite true and hard to argue with. But it would also be more even-handed to note that (essentially) every country conducts its affairs in this way. China, Russia, UK, France etc all base their foreign policy on their perceived self-interest, not on any other motive.So the US is no worse (or no better) in this regard. While again the US is an easy target to rail against (with plenty of justification), other countries are equally as culpable. I think this should not be forgotten. And I don’t excuse smaller countries from this either!

    I still think that Western democracy is the only reasonable (least worst) alternative for a modern society and that the duty of people like Chomsky is to continually point out its (many) failings, and keep pressure on our elected officials. And on that front, I think the major problem in the States today is that democracy isn’t functioning – in two senses: money rules the elected officials (almost all of Congress are millionaires!) and there has been so much gerrymandering (on both sides) that it is almost impossible to force major changes in the House.

    Perhaps this reflects the pathological tendencies that exist to some degree in nearly all people in power today, Ian, care to comment?

    • Thanks for your comments James. I believe strongly in democracy as a defence against people with dangerous personality disorders. Democracy allows us to choose our leaders and, crucially, to get rid of them at the next election. But I also agree that democracy is an imperfect defence. There can be little doubt that U.S. democracy is failing to protect not only many Americans, but many people in other parts of the world who fall victim to U.S. power.

  6. I read Chomsky a lot in the ’90s and he really made an impression on me. Unusually for someone in his position he also responds to correspondence. I wrote asking various questions and he wrote back basically saying my assumptions were wrong. His stance is that before you want to change the world, you have to understand it. So I’m not surprised by the title of this book.

    Basically, I agree with Chomsky. That the mess the world is in is fundamentally down to institutions behaving psychopathically and the economic system surrounding them, which compels institutional participants, and frequently individuals, to behave in certain ways.

    Although I’m not denying psychopaths exist or have influence, I don’t think ridding goverments, corporations, religious orgs etc of disordered people will really change the world. The real problem is sane, balanced people who behave, when that behaviour is filtered through institutions, like psychopaths. So change the institutions if you want to change the world.
    I’ve looked at this issue in my own blog: http://idealoblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/will-disordered-always-rule-us.html

    I’m looking forward to reading your book when it comes out

  7. The one thing I have learnt is that you can do very little alone that is why I am still passing out membership forms to join a union,whether you are in work or not.People can achieve change through team-working for a collective mission.I will say it again.Join a union.

    • Unions become abusive through criminal infiltration and union bosses drunk on power and money. They extort dues from the rank-and-file, who are their pawns in a vast game of blackmail against businesses. “Collective” missions are tantamount to a plague of locusts devouring all within reach, with no regard for the long range of a society’s balance and sustainability. Unions are just as subject to cancerous growth to psychopathic proportions as are any other organisms.

      • I think you both are making important points. The first is that only collective resistance to pathological elites has any chance of succeeding. The efforts of isolated individuals may provide inspiration for others, but only collective action will shift the balance of power.
        But of course any mass organisation provides opportunities for psychopathic, narcissistic and paranoid individuals to team up and take control. This is happening continually and unions are no less susceptible than any other type of organisation. Democracy, accountability, transparency, and first and foremost, quality of leadership are all vital safeguards, but they are not foolproof.

  8. I totally disagree with Noam Chomsky, and to debunk his irritating one-sided views, I refer to two articles by Brad DeLong named ‘Why I am allergic to Noam Chomsky’ or some such. Chomsky’s conscious half-truths are exposed there very effectively. I find it totally OK a socialist view point is present in the US, but I find it sad he holds the moral authority that he does nowadays – after whining how the Left does not get a chance in the media. Every frigging Barnes and Noble has shelves full of the radical tomes of this man. He is a genius linguist, but nothing but a political anachronism. He got stuck in the viewpoint of his uncle’s New York 20s council communist book store. It’s as if you were raised a fundamentalist Christian and never questioned the beliefs you grew up with. How so a ‘critical mind’? Like many scientists, Chomsky does not understand either people or the real world at ALL. Hardly any philosopher in any country is more famous than Noam in the USA. His constant whine bout how a Left view is suppressed in that country makes him lack any and all credibility. He rules; yet whines he is not heard. This is AFTR the CNN interviews, I guess. Oh, by the way, Brad de Long debunks this George Kennan nonsense. And the ‘US is Fascist’ nonsense.

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