“How the World Works” by Noam Chomsky

Chomsky_How_the_World_WorksISBN 978-0-241-14538-8. “How The World Works” was compiled from interviews with Noam Chomsky by David Barsamian, edited by Arthur Naiman with some extra material by Noam Chomsky (published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books 2011). This is yet another compilation of material that originates from transcriptions of Noam’s talks and interviews from the 1980s & 1990s. Arthur Naiman put this together after having been struck by how accessible Chomsky’s ideas were from his talks rather than his written words. This book delivers exactly what the title suggests: it tells you how the world really works. It might seem a bit dated now but it is a good guide.

This is actually a compilation of compilations consisting of four separate books: “What Uncle Sam Really Wants” (1992), “The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many” (1993), “Secrets, Lies and Democracy” (1994) and “The Common Good” (1998). It might seem a little dated but, if you know Chomsky, then you know this is just a small part of a continuous narrative that doesn’t really change; it is just the examples that get refreshed each time. The central principles remain as true today as they were twenty years ago when most of this was spoken.

So, how does the world work? The transmitted wisdom is that Chomsky is an intellect of the left however, as the great man himself points out in this book; the old definitions of left & right have largely ceased to have any meaning. I would agree. Taking myself as an example: I would regard myself as conservative in the mould of revolutionary Thatcherism circa 1982 – my formative years. However I see nothing that deeply contradicts my central beliefs in democracy and free markets in the works of Chomsky. What he shows so well is that what we call “democracy” is not very democratic because it is not pluralistic. Neither do we have true free markets – what we have is state capitalism, an enormous oligarchy of mega-corporations that control our economies through a network of private power. This is socialism for the rich and free markets for the poor. As such it pains me greatly to see our great liberal dreams destroyed by a realpolitik that pretends that “free markets” will fix everything. It would be nice to have free markets but that is a utopia that is still a long, long, way away.

So why do so few of us see that this is how the world works? Because it is in the interest of elites to obscure this reality. It requires NO conspiracy. It is just that our society’s “norm” finds such realism unacceptable. Hence WE are always the good guys and the people who rule our world are benign. However the facts bely how the world really works. To pick one example commonly quoted by Chomsky; our voting record in the UN during the Cold War. Whereas popular belief informs us that the Soviets were the bad guys at the UN the truth was far uglier & embarrassing:

“For many years, the UN has been blocked by the great powers, primarily the United States – not the Soviet Union or the Third World. Since 1970, the United States has vetoed far more Security Resolutions than any other country (Britain is second, France is a distant third and the Soviet Union fourth). Our record in the General Assembly is similar. And the “shrill, anti-Western rhetoric” of the Third World commonly turns out to be a call to observe international law, a pitifully weak barrier against the depredations of the powerful.”

This truth is simply “barred by the guardian of political correctness who control the means of expression with an iron hand“. This truth is so incredible that we simply prefer not to belief it. Hence it doesn’t need big, powerful, systems of totalitarianism to deny us the truth. The UN voting record is in the public domain. WE choose to ignore it. It is inconvenient. It tells us something about us and our Governments that we do not wish to believe is true. In the same breath we readily accept these ‘truths’ of our official enemies – no questions asked.

One of our favourite works ever is Orwell’s “1984” and so we much enjoyed the section starting on page 63 entitled “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” This is where Chomsky lets rip on the single aspect of our daily lives that so annoys US personally; the re-invention of our language to distort all meaning. Welcome to Newspeak. Chomsky’s take on “Free Enterprise” is thus:

“…a system of public subsidy and private profit, with massive government intervention in the economy to maintain a welfare state for the rich.”

Likewise you will enjoy Chomsky’s definition of “against aggression”, “peace process”, “special interests”, “conservative” & “democracy”. When we go to war against aggression we are the aggressors. The peace process is whatever does not yield peace. Democracy is whatever keeps most members of society out of deciding their own fate. Special interests are whatever the interests are of most of the people. Conservatives are people who advocate a powerful state & huge state expenditure. Of course some of this may seem strange. You have to remember that Chomsky is writing about the USA and, in context, the USA of the late 1980s. Hence the meaning of “conservative” in Britain is closer to the classic meaning.

[Note: Chomsky can write fluently and authoritatively about the history of many countries around the world but he still insists on calling Britain “England”. It bugs me.]

We last heard mention of “anarchist thinker” Bakunin in our review of “The Village Against the World” by Dan Hancox and he does pop up here again in a very short section where Chomsky talks about the definition of the word “socialism”. Our propaganda system has convinced us all that the old Soviet Union was “socialism”. After all it was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. However Chomsky describes this as “doctrinal doublespeak” because genuine socialism in Russia was dismantled by Lenin and Trotsky in the October 1917 revolution. Socialism was destroyed by the Bolsheviks but they kept the name for its “moral prestige” much in the way that state capitalism retains phrases like “democracy” and “free markets”.

“…Bakunin had predicted that the emerging intellectual class would follow one of two paths: either they would try to exploit popular struggles to take state power themselves, becoming a brutal and oppressive Red bureaucracy; or they would become managers and ideologist of the state capitalists societies, if popular revolution failed.”

So, it seems, we live in a world where popular revolution failed. The same people have ended up in charge. The result is the same. In the West the term “socialism” was distorted to mean the “Bolshevik dungeon”:

“..to undermine the popular belief that there really might be progress towards a more just society, with more democratic control over its basic institutions and concern for human needs and rights. If socialism is the tyranny of Lenin and Stalin, then sane people will say: not for me. And if that’s the only alternative to corporate state capitalism, then many will submit to its authoritarian structures as the only reasonable choice.”

From this point onwards Chomsky makes numerous references to several classical economists (primarily Adam Smith but also Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Wilhelm von Humbolt and John Dewey) to demonstrate how today’s version of state capitalism diverges so far away from the classical liberal economist’s definition of the source of the wealth of nations. [Chomsky says of Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey “They’re as American as apple pie. But when you read them today, they sound like crazed Marxist lunatics.”] Adam Smith pointed out that social policy is class-based and he denounced the mercantilist system and colonialism because these doctrines stood in the way of free trade (which he favoured). He went onto condemn what became modern state capitalism by pointing out that:

“..the mercantilist system and colonialism were very beneficial to the “merchants and manufacturers…the principal architect of policy” but were harmful to he people of England.”

Chomsky goes on:

“Adam Smith pointed out that British Merchants and manufacturers used state power to make sure that their interests were “most peculiarly attended to,” however grievous the impact on others – including not only people in the Third World, but also in England. The “principal architects of policy” got very rich, but the guys working in the satanic mills and in the British Navy surely did not. Smith’s analysis is truisms…”

“Adam Smith’s advocacy of markets was based upon the assumption that under perfect conditions of perfect liberty, free markets would lead to perfect equality of income, which he believed was a good thing.”

“Milton Friedman is smart enough to know that there’s never been anything remotely resembling capitalism, and that if there were, it wouldn’t survive for three seconds – mostly because business wouldn’t let it. […] All this talk about capitalism and freedom has got to be a conscious fraud.”

The ultimate zero-state capitalist model society advocated by the likes of Milton Friedman and the ultra-right would be a society that “couldn’t survive, and even if it could, it would be so full of terror and hate that any human being would prefer to live in hell“. Chomsky goes on to write about the views of Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Wilhelm von Humbolt and John Dewey and their basis for a “decent society”:

“These ideas […] are deeply anti-capitalist in character. Adam Smith didn’t call himself an anti-capitalist because, back in the eighteenth century, he was basically pre-capitalist, but he had a good deal of scepticism about capitalist ideology and practice. […] He worried about the separation of managerial control from direct participation, and he also feared that these joint stock companies [fore-runners of today’s corporations] might turn into “immortal persons”. “

But the corporations did indeed become immortal and these “private tyrannies” now rule our world. The victory of this pro-BIG-business doctrine is so all-pervading that few can see how the world works. It now seems natural to blame BIG-Government but not BIG-Business. Chomsky says:

“When somebody wants to vent his anger at the fact that his life is falling apart, he’s more likely to put a bomb in a federal building than in a corporate headquarters. There are plenty of things wrong with government, but this propaganda opposes what’s right with it – namely, that it’s the one defence people have against private tyrannies.”

Not only should we hate our Governments for being “big” we should fear each other because of the:

“…very effective propaganda campaign to make people hate and fear the poor.”

…there is no suggestion that we should hate or fear the corporations. Their propaganda victory is complete.

“The goal is a society in which the basic social unit is you and your television set. If the kid next door is hungry, its not your problem.”

“There’s a very committed effort to convert the US into something resembling a Third World Society.”

In my review of Hancox’s “Village Against The World” I wrote of how state capitalism had taken us a long way along the road to serfdom. It was economist Friedrich von Hayek who wrote in “The Road to Serfdom” (1944) that tyranny would inevitably result from government control of economic decision-making through central planning. Our modern neo-liberal system uses this threat to build a disastrously un-equal society that is the very vision of serfdom we wished to avoid. The only way to square this circle is to see how the world really works. Modern state capitalism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It hides inside the language of the classical liberal economists but it bears no resemblance to their vision.

Chomsky spoke in praise of Gandhi:

“…positive things – for example, his emphasis on village development, self-help and communal projects. That would have been very healthy for India. Implicitly, he was suggesting a model of development that could have been more successful and humane than the Stalinist model that was adopted (which emphasised the development of heavy industry, etc.).”

Amen to that. Our own model of development still faces this serious question today as we face up to the challenges of the great transition to the path of the third industrial revolution. Will our version of a democracy get us there? Chomsky says:

“Any form of concentrated power doesn’t want to be subjected to popular democratic control – or, for that matter, to market discipline. That’s why powerful sectors, including corporate wealth, are naturally opposed to functioning democracy…”

Modern democracy has to be kept free of the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” (ie, us – Chomsky quoting Walter Lippmann). Lippmann’s democratic theory stated that the public are to be:

“…spectators, not participants. They’re supposed to show up every couple of years to ratify decisions made elsewhere, or to select among representatives of the dominant sectors in what’s called an “election”. “

This is the system that perpetuates the infinite-growth economy on a finite planet. Chomsky does not write at length here about environmentalism (although he has elsewhere) but he does devote a short section on page 201 (he visits it again briefly on pages 244 & 245) to “Consumption vs well-being”

“A huge amount of business propaganda – that is, the out-put of the public relations and advertising industry – is simply an effort to create wants.”

…and this is the rich man’s problem because we consume more. It is unhealthy for people in the long term.

Chomsky tackles a vast array of topics. At one point he shows the fundamental lack of democracy in the disposal of nuclear waste but he is also clear that he is not anti-nuclear as such. His reasoning is perfect:

“I don’t think anybody’s in favour of nuclear power, even business, because it’s too expensive. But what I am in favour of is being rational on the topic. […] There’s a range of other alternatives, including conservation, solar and so on. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. But imagine that the only alternatives were hydrocarbons and nuclear power. If you had to have one or the other, you’d have to ask yourself which is more dangerous to the environment, to human life, to human society. It’s not an entirely simple question.”

Well that really is it in a nutshell. Chomsky has such enormous breadth. He understands so much so well. He has enormous credibility. I don’t always agree with some of his emphasis (he is anti-big-business although I think his portrayal of corporations is mythical – he clearly has never worked in one) but his thrust is always spot on. When questioned about the value of the internet he likened it to a hammer. If you are building a house it is a good thing, if you are a torturer it is a bad thing. The same could be said of nuclear. Or television.

So, what is to be done about this world and they way it works? Chomsky has no magic solutions. It seems that it is only wealthy westerners who ask for the magic solution. The poor in the majority south are too busy working on a thousand different solutions to ask that question.

“…it’s not going to happen by pushing a button. It’s going to happen by dedicated, concentrated work that slowly builds up people’s understanding and relationships, including one’s own, along with support systems and alternative institutions. Then something can happen.”

Chomsky advocates picking your cause and then volunteering to work for a group that’s working on it. Much like Transition. We need a lot of people and a lot of time to build alternative institutions to replace the faulty ones we have today. Chomsky’s very last sentence of the book?

“Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.”

So there you have it – how the world works.

As pointed out up front this book is dated now but (as the editor hoped) it does succeed in delivering the core of the Chomsky philosophy in an accessible way. If it seems overly-long then remember this is four books joined together. You do therefore get an occasional piece of repetition. That aside “How the World Works” delivers upon its promises. It is your essential guide for deciphering the language of the modern political economy. Nothing is quite as it seems. Everything you read in the newspapers or see on TV is the result of “spin”. Everything has been washed clean through layers of doctrinal filters that deliver content that is acceptable based upon our society’s “norms”. You do NOT know how our world works by reading and watching traditional media. They can only represent a pale shadow of things as they truly are.

You cannot make the world anew if you do not understand how the world works. This is a good place to start. But it won’t be easy.

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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