“Hopes and Prospects” by Noam Chomsky

Chomsky_Hopes_and_ProspectsISBN 978-0-141-04530-6. “Hopes and Prospects” by Noam Chomsky was published by Penguin Books in 2010. It must be, say, over five years since we read one of Chomsky’s books. He remains a publishing phenomenon although lately his books have been compiled by his publishers & not directly from the pen of the man himself. This collection of his essays & talks dates from the period 2006 to early 2010. As such it brings us into the Obama Presidency – a man Noam Chomsky recognises as far better educated than his predecessor, although he remains somewhat trapped by the forces that control that office. It is these forces that govern all our lives because that is the way the world works. Simple… Let me show you some examples…

The book is in two parts. The first 120 pages covers a series of lectures & one videoconference delivered in Chile and concern Latin America. The balance is dubbed “North America” but more accurately covers an array of topics concerning US Foreign Policy in the middle-East. This second section is compiled from essays originally appearing in Z Magazine & International Socialist Review as well as some talks delivered in the UK & US.

Nobody really understands the MIT Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky until they have really read him. Most other people think they know – they don’t. He is easily dismissed as a conspiracy theorist but he is far, far from that. One of his more recent collections of essays & talks is called “How The World Works” and this remains probably the most useful description of all his writings.

I read a lot of his books up until a few years ago when I simply became over-loaded. Chomsky-fatigue sets in if you over-dose. It is useful to take a break. His high volume of written works does necessitate some repetition – but probably not as much as you think. He continues to amaze as he delivers a never-ending stream of thoroughly well researched factoids from numerous hundreds of sources. We can only imagine he must have a large office staff and an army of research assistants. But the core of his philosophy remains his own. In short: he is the man who explains how the world works. And it isn’t very comforting.

I would probably go as far as saying that you really do not know what is going on in the world until you have had it explained to you by Noam Chomsky. He strips away all the nonsense and spells out how power operates. It is like a powerful natural undercurrent of governance that rules are lives. It needs no conspiracy; it just IS. This work is sprawling and delves into numerous US & ‘imperial’ foreign policy narratives spanning the globe – all within a historical context. This is not only how the world works. It is how it always works.

It is this sad truth that probably tempers any ambition Chomsky may have had to deliver some ultimate truth or objective. He has had no real political cause and is no cheerleader for any specific “ism”. He preaches not solutions, he just paints pictures of problems. His pallet is hypocrisy. The events and policies he describes drown in hypocrisy. If we really told ourselves the truth as depicted here, our world would fall apart. It is not a comfortable ride. It is like peeking behind a curtain that most of us would prefer kept drawn.

So let us focus on some nuggets from the first few chapters to give us a taste as to how the world works. Let us start with none other than the darling of right-wing idealogues, Adam Smith:

“…who observed that the “merchants and manufacturers” of England were “the principal architects” of state policy, and made sure that their own interests were “most peculiarly attended to,” however “grievous” the effects on others, including the people of England.”

And so it is. Chomsky has a canny gift for studying the great works of philosophers past to expose how they too saw how the world worked. And it isn’t pretty. He so often chooses his evidence-base from within the ranks of the heroes of neo-liberalism. In essence he turns the beast on itself to prove that THIS beast is a very modern invention:

“Smith was referring to the mercantilist system, but his observation generalises, and in that form stands as one of the very few authentic principles of the theory of international relations, alongside another fundamental principle, the maxim of Thucydides that the strong do as they wish, and the weak suffer as they must.”

Chomsky, of course, then goes on to deliver page after page of historical examples of how the strong have done as they wished and the weak have suffered. All with citations. He makes nothing up. He doesn’t have to. He just doesn’t ignore inconvenient truths that our culture has taught us do not exist. These truths must not exist because if they did they would destroy the entire edifice of our civilisation. Everything we thourght to be true about ourselves is not. We are not the good guys and we never have been. As such he moves on to the mention the barriers the rich nations erect around themselves to keep the poor people out – something the politicians cannot really justify because it was…

“…the observation of Adam Smith that “free circulation of labour” is a foundation stone of free trade.”

Yeah, right, but he wasn’t talking about OUR “free trade”. Our version is not ‘free’. It isn’t even ‘trade’. It is a fiction designed to serve the needs of power. It is riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions that Chomsky exposes. In the middle East the US punished the Palestinians for electing the wrong government whilst the Americans praised themselves for their “idealism” in promoting “democracy” to which Chomsky observes:

“Easy tolerance of contradiction is an important talent to acquire, the talent for Orwell’s “doublethink”: the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, while accepting both of them.”

Such it is that hypocrisy and denial loom large as themes through all of Noam’s work.

“…policy conforms to expressed ideals only if it also conforms to interests. It is important to stress again that the term “interests” does not refer to the interests of the domestic population, but from the interests of the concentrations of power that dominate the domestic society.”

Whilst respectable society dismisses this as a conspiracy theory Chomsky goes onto quote research into the domestic influences on US foreign policy by Lawrence Jacobs and Benjamin Page who concluded

“…that the major influence on policy is “internationally oriented business corporations” though there is also a secondary effects of “experts,” who, they point out “may themselves be influenced by business.” Public opinion, in contrast, has “little or no significant effect on government officials,” they find.”

No surprise there then. It is a demonstrable fact. Chomsky relishes demonstrating this through numerous opinion polls. Each show, strikingly, just how far apart public opinion and foreign policy are. Most of the problems of this world would be solved if it was up to people. It is power that is malignant.

A short while after the Palestinian elections of 2006 the New York Times published a review of some of Osama bin Laden’s perspectives. The reviewer declared that bin Laden had descended into evil because he claimed that the US public were fair game for a terrorist attack on the logic that the US is a democracy and the public share a responsibility for the Governments that attacked his people. The same paper reported two days later that the US & Israel had announced that

“…all Palestinians bear responsibility for the government they had just elected, so they are all fair targets for terror and economic strangulation. [..] In one case, it is ultimate evil; in the other, it is noble idealism. The determining factor is agency.”

Of course this is not meant to be seen as support for terrorism – as touched on above, the foreign policies of Governments have little to do with the wishes of their people. Hence they are not culpable. It is “democracy” but not as we know it. And so, as it was in George Orwell’s “1984” our democracies must always find a new enemy to fight. Bolivian President Evo Morales said

“..he had witnessed US soldiers accompanying Bolivian troops who fired at his union members. “So now we’re narcoterrorist.” he continued. “When they couldn’t call us communists anymore, they called us subversives, and then traffickers, and since the September 11 attacks, terrorists.”

Yet the USA persists in interfering in Central America under the pretexts of a war on drugs. If the tables were reversed and the Bolivians went to Los Angeles to fight a war on tobacco or alcohol…

“The idea that outsiders should interfere with the production and distribution of lethal substances in plainly unthinkable. The fact that the US justification for its drug programs abroad is accepted as plausible, even regarded as worthy of discussion, is yet another illustration of the deep roots of the imperial mentality in Western culture.”

Which moves us neatly onto the topic of globalisation and free trade that Chomsky tackles in chapter 3:

“One prominent economic historian, Paul Bairoch, argues that protectionism, paradoxically, has commonly increased trade. […] protectionism tends to stimulate growth, and growth leads to trade; while imposed liberalisation, since the eighteenth century has fairly consistently had harmful economic effects.”

This is certainly something we have seen from the works Ha-Joon Chang (see “Bad Samaritans“) whom Chomsky goes onto quote.

The hazards of what is now called “neoliberalism” were recognised quite early. One prominent example is Adam Smith. The term “invisible hand” appears only once in his classic Wealth of Nations. His primary concern was England. He warned that if English merchants and manufacturers were free to import, export, and invest abroad, they would profit while English society would be harmed. But that is unlikely to happen, he argued. The reason is that English capitalists would prefer to invest and purchase in the home country, so as if by an “invisible hand”, England would be spared the ravages of economic liberalism. The other leading founder of classical economics, David Ricardo, drew similar conclusions. Using his famous example of English textiles and Portuguese wines, he concluded that his theory of comparative advantage would collapse if it were advantageous to the capitalists of England to invest in Portugal for both manufacturing and agriculture. But, he argued, thanks to “the natural disinclination which every man has to quit the country of his birth and connections,” and “fancied or real insecurity of capital” abroad, most men of property would “be satisfied with the low rate of profits in their own country, rather than seek a more advantageous employment for their wealth in foreign nations,” feelings that “I should be sorry to see weakened,” he added.”

Hence true liberal capitalists (according to Ricardo) would be localists. That was his preference! So not only is neo-liberalism a very modern invention (designed to serve the needs only of power) there is another aspect that Chomsky describes as:

“…neoliberalism as an enemy of democracy. […] Just about every element of the neoliberal package is an attack on democracy.”

..and referring to companies in private hands…

“…in still more democratic societies, which barely yet exist, they would be under the direct control of “stakeholders”: workers and communities.”

And this may sound like communism to some but the model closest to Chomsky’s heart is closer to the modern concept of the co-operative. He goes on to lament that private corporations are only regulated by weak regulatory mechanisms “thanks to the overwhelming influence of the concentrated private capital on the state.”

Is this a utopian view? Maybe Chomsky reminds us that this is the American dream:

It is worth remembering that such ideas have deep roots in American history and culture. In the early days of the industrial revolution in New England, working people took it for granted that “those who work in the mills should own them.” They also regarded wage labour as different from slavery only in that it was temporary – Abraham Lincoln’s view as well. The leading twentieth-century social philosopher, John Dewey, basically agreed. Much like nineteenth-century working people, he called for elimination of “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents and other means of publicity and propaganda.” Industry must be changed “from a feudalistic to a democratic social order” based on workers’ control, free association, and federal organisation…”

Hence for a “real” democracy to work it has to be truly democratic. A truism if ever there was one, but worth repeating lest we misidentify the charade we have today for something like a democracy. Such things “barely exist yet” – maybe they should. Not only do we not have this true democracy we don’t even have capitalism. Instead Chomsky argues, we have “state capitalism“. He illustrates thus:

Under the rules of the Western-run international economy, investors make loans to third world tyrannies, and since the loans carry considerable risk, make high profits. Suppose the borrower defaults. In a capitalist economy, the lenders would incur a loss. But the existing capitalism really functions quite differently. If the borrowers cannot pay the debts, then the IMF steps in to guarantee that the lenders and investors are protected. The debt is transferred to the poor population of the debtor country, who never borrowed the money in the first place and gained little if anything from it. The method is called “structural adjustment.” And taxpayers in the rich country, who also gained nothing from the loans, sustain the IMF through their taxes. These doctrines do not derive from economic theory; they merely reflect the distribution of decision-making power.

You and I do not have that power. So it is that Chomsky goes on to tackle the rest of the financial sector:

“Two prominent international economists added that “there is a growing recognition that our financial system is running a doomsday cycle. Whenever it fails, we rely on lax money and fiscal policies to bail it out. This response teaches the financial sector: take large gambles to get paid handsomely, and don’t worry about the costs – they will be paid by the taxpayers” through large bailouts and lost jobs, and the financial system “is thus resurrected to gamble again – and to fail again.” “

…but at least we are not poor people in poor countries…

When crises hit the South, the master of the international economy turn to the IMF solution. The costs are transferred to the public, which had nothing to do with the risky choices but is now compelled to pay the costs: the poor countries are instructed to raise interest rates, slow the economy, pay their debts (to the rich), privatise (so that western corporations can by their assets), and suffer. The instructions for the rich are virtually the opposite: lower interest rates, stimulate the economy, forget about debts, consume, have the government take over…”

Increasingly Chomsky is turning his attention to the effects this distorted morality is having upon the environment. If it was not for Noam Chomsky I would never have learnt about peak oil. He argues that business executives are complicit in the USA in lying to public about climate change:

“The standard explanation for the willingness of business executives to dismiss the fate of their grandchildren and even destroy what they own is that short term profits outweigh long term considerations. That is not false: as noted earlier, institutional structures virtually requires conformity in principle. But the answer is incomplete. Once again, the choice results from the fundamental market inefficiencies: the pressure to ignore the impact on others in undertaking transactions, if one wants to stay in the game. In this case, the externalities happen to be the fate of the species, but the logic is the same.”

Oh to be gifted with a turn of phrase like that!

“A serious approach would surely move with dispatch towards conservation and renewable energy, along with dedication of substantial resources to technological innovations – harnessing solar energy…”

Well you would have thought so… Like all good Chomsky books this one beats you round the head until you are senseless. Yet everything I understand about the world I only know through the words of Noam Chomsky. You haven’t been born until you have suffered these rites. The world really is based upon…

“…political economist Thomas Ferguson’s “investment theory” of politics, which holds that policies tend to reflect the wishes of the powerful blocs that invest every four years to control the state…”

We are sold a lie about the world by the ad agencies:

“The industry’s regular task is to create uninformed consumers who make irrational choices, thus undermining markets as they are conceptualised in economic theory, but benefitting the masters of the economy.”

So it is and always will be. Welcome to the real world. We are unable to solve global problems because these problems don’t harm the very people who hold the power to solve them. This requires NO conspiracy. It’s obvious. A truism. That is how they became problems in the first place! That is how it is – deal with it. Hence we have to do two things; firstly demonstrate that it is in their interests, ie, they will suffer. Secondly we have to create our own power and do it locally within our communities. This subverts the normal way the world works. It might make us feel impotent but that is only because we are sold the meme of our own powerlessness. Feeling impotent is an important part of maintaining the status quo. It doesn’t mean it is real.

Knowing this isn’t real is what empowers me. It gets me out of bed in the morning. Chomsky is enlightening. You cannot subvert “the way things are” until you understand the way the world works. It won’t be solved by template “isms” or revolutions. This are just another sticking plaster. If there is to be capitalism then it will be a true system of genuine free enterprise, a ‘community capitalism’ not the present ‘state capitalism’.

If we want solutions then THIS is how the world works.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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