“Making the Future” by Noam Chomsky

Chomsky_Making_FutureISBN 978-0-241-95258-0. “Making the Future – Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance” by Noam Chomsky was published by Penguin Books in 2012. Edited by John Stickney. Noam hasn’t written a book in years so this is yet another compilation of his written works. You get 52 bite-sized essays from the great man – all of which have appeared previously in other places – namely Chomsky’s syndicated monthly op-eds for the New York Times. This is the second such compilation, the first being “Interventions” (banned in Guantanamo don’t-you-know). This takes us from April 2007 through to October 2011. A slice of history that covers the Occupy movement & the Arab Spring.

The front cover has an excellent quote from John Pilger in which he describes Chomsky as “a truth teller on an epic scale”. If there was something for your gravestone then that would be a good starting point. It is probably the most succinct and telling description of the man’s work: epic truth telling.

The topics covered in “Making the Future” range far and wide. [Some of it covers US domestic issues that you may wish to gloss over.] The syndicated op eds cover North Korea, Mexico, Israel/Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Latin America. We learn of his views on free trade agreements, the Arab peace process, democracy USA-style, the election of Barack Obama, the financial crisis of 2008, nuclear proliferation, the war in Libya, corporations, events in China, the Arab spring and, finally, the Occupy movement.

The very last essay “Occupy the Future” is adapted from a talk that Chomsky delivered to the Occupy Boston camp as part of the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series. Given such a broad brush it is hard to pick out a specific narrative. It is easier to cherrypick a few sections as typical of what the reader should find inside.

So let us start with Chomsky’s analysis of events in Somalia [2007] and the battle of Mogadishu famously portrayed in “Blackhawk Down”. US operations in that country were very bloody. By the time of the US withdrawl they had lost 34 soldiers. The Somalis lost between 7,000 and 10,000 militiamen and civilians. A kill ratio very much of the norm for any modern empire. After the Americans left… the Islamists moved in. Their six-month rule was described as Somalia’s “golden era” as it was the only peace that nation had experienced for years. Conditions there improved under the Islamists. Then Ethiopia invaded. The Islamic fundamentalists rose to power upon a seed-bed of discontent resulting from Somalia having its financial lifeline cut off by actions taken under George Bush II’s “war on terror”. Hence we created our own enemy. How useful. And so Somalia suffered. Yet another sorry slice of history in which it is very hard to tell who the good guys are. Truth telling on an epic scale.

Fast forward a year to the crash of 2008 and Chomsky unearths an obscure study that shows just how “normal” Bank bailouts are in the course of state-capitalism. Researchers found that

“..at least 20 companies in the Fortune 100 would not have survived if they had not been saved by their respective Governments and many of the rest had gained substantially by demanding that governments ‘socialise their losses’ as in today’s taxpayer-financed bailout.”

These things are never unprecedented. An epic truth that few of us are ever conscious of. You need an epic truth teller to reveal this.

“…the US Treasury now regard free capital mobility as a ‘fundamental right,’ unlike such alleged ‘rights’ as those guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human rights: health, education, decent employment…”

…and other such fantasies derided by the neocons as nothing more than “letters to Santa Clause”. Around this Chomsky forms a new theory of the evolution of economic and social power since the demise of the Bretton Woods agreement. In the 18th century the absence of universal suffrage meant that the powerful elite could socialise its risks upon the public without risk of reprisal. However, by the time of the original Great Depression that option was closed down. World War Two changed everything and a new pact was sought – the Bretton Woods agreement. Hence the “limits on capital mobility substituted for limits on democracy as a source of insulation from market pressures.” In plain English this meant that a nation’s people had sovereign domain over their economic fortunes. This was dismantled in the 1970s hence our democracy became restricted. Our economic fortunes were thrown open to the vagaries of the markets.

“It has therefore become necessary to control and marginalise the public in some fashion, processes particularly evident in the more business-run societies like the United States.”

The post-war period was a time of optimism when even conservative Presidents like Nixon expanded legislation on human and environmental rights. This process has begun with the popular struggles of the 1930s when militant labour was organised. Such popular pressure resulted in the New Deal in the USA which substantially improved people’s lives. Today this hope has been replaced by hopelessness. Since the 1970s a process of de-industrialisation has been put in place where wealth generation has been left to the financial sector. Financial institutions expanded and wealth became concentrated there. As their wealth exploded so did their campaign contributions and their influence over the democratic process. In the end Wall Street got everything it ever wanted. Everything it paid for. The rest of us just looked on – powerless to do anything about it. The policies Wall Street and the City of London paid for could only lead to disaster. Real income for the 99% declined and the new serfdom was born. Chomsky goes on to describe the farcical “electoral extravaganza” of US democracy which he dismisses:

“…progressive legislation and social welfare have been won by popular struggles, not gifts from above.”

We should choose to manufacture our own destinies. Chomsky wheels out his old favourite about political economist Thomas Ferguson’s “investment theory of politics” which he uses as an effective predictor of the outcome of “democratic elections”. It is always won by the guy who spends the most money. The one that got the most money from Campaign Donors. For Obama it was his Wall Street backers who purchased the election for him. Hence Wall Street got the bailouts and the light-touch regulation it was after. No bankers would go to jail under this system. The best democracy money can buy.

“The theory interprets elections as occasions on which segments of private sector power coalesce to invest to control the state.”

Moving on to the era of Barack Obama and Chomsky is remarkably measured in his description:

“Barack Obama is recognised to be a person of acute intelligence, a legal scholar, careful with his choice of words. He deserves to be taken seriously…”

Indeed most of Chomsky’s polemic is somewhat muted throughout his op eds for the New York Times Syndication. Of course Chomsky is well know for his diplomatic nature, he lets the facts speak for themselves. Of free trade agreements Chomsky trots out his line about these being “investor-rights arrangements” which we first witnessed him describing in “How The World Works“. [Those of us who are Chomsky-complete-ists will know that someone as productive as him will end up repeating himself. This isn’t really his fault it is just that his many fans crave endless new material. As prolific as one man can be these endless books compiled out of every conversation, chat show and op ed will inevitably contain the same points over and over again. You can’t blame the great man. For many readers – who may only ever dip into and out-of the works of Chomsky – this is probably quite alright and can’t really be levelled as criticism.]

So we have “investor-rights arrangements” paid for political investors who buy elections to put in place the regimes that will be most profitable for them. Wall Street buys a system where obscene profits can be made from taking absurd risks because they can run to the nanny state to bail them out when it goes wrong. And it will go wrong. This can only lead to one inevitable conclusion: what economists Peter Boone and Simon Johnson described in the Financial Times (in 2010) as a “financial system running a doomsday cycle”. Moral peril on a truly epic scale. Chomsky goes on to extend the Doomsday Scenario to the way American big business objects to action on Climate Change: it can only lead to self destruction in the pursuit of short term profits.

“…..the fate of the species is an externality that executives must ignore, to the extent that market systems prevail. And there will be no one to ride to the rescue if the worst-case scenario unfolds.”

Environmentalism is not a central tenet in Chomsky’s work but it does get a look in every now and again: Chomsky airs his view that Climate Change and environmental destruction are the inevitable externalities resulting from our self destructive state-capitalist system.

“Concentration of income confers political power, which in turn leads to legislation that further enhances the privilege of the super-rich: tax policies, deregulation, rules of corporate governance and much else.”

Chomsky declares this a “vicious cycle” driving political parties of every colour to court the corporate sector for funds. Remarkably this doomsday cycle seems no longer to result in community activism. There is no struggle as the population appears co-opted by the system. A delusion that maybe even they can come out on top. An unreality that cannot happen. What little political grassroots activism we see results counter-intuitively in support for the North American “Tea Party” and a European nexus of far right parties such as the BNP, EDL, National Front and UK Independence party. Chomsky recalls the

“…terrifying days of Germany’s descent from decency to Nazi barbarism…”

The distinguished scholar of German History Fritz Stern is quoted by Chomsky:

“In a 2005 article, Stern indicates that he has the future of the United States in mind when he reviews ‘a historic process in which resentment against a disenchanted secular world found deliverance in the ecstatic escape of unreason’…”

So, whilst the Nazis might not be literally marching back into power the lessons of history are all there. When people lose hope in the politics of the left and the right they resort to the politics of fantasy.

“No shortage of tasks waits for those who seek to present an alternative to misguided rage and indignation, helping to organise the countless disaffected and to lead the way to a better future.”

So, what is to be done? Chomsky told his audience in the Boston Occupy movement that:

“Karl Marx famously said that the task is not just to understand the world but to change it. [..] if you want to change the world you’d better understand it. That doesn’t mean just listening to a talk or reading a book, […] You learn from participating.”

This is a common theme from this epic truth teller. Don’t just listen to him – do something. Chomsky is no demagogue. He peddles no easy answers. No philosophy that cures the worlds ills. Reading his work is bitter sweet. The truth is all there and it is ugly. But for solutions we must all draw upon each other and come together. The chances of that happening without some cataclysm is remote. This is not a great message of hope. There are no easy answers. Something is coming. Something awesome and scary. We’ll see it in our rear-view-mirror when it has swept all our lazy assumptions away. Change comes when everything goes wrong. Everything is already wrong but it has gone wrong so slowly that we have allowed it to happen.

This book comes recommended from me – but it is maybe for the collector only. However, this work is up-to-date and relevant. Also – if you have read little other Chomsky then these bite-sized chunks are easily digested… So this might serve as a starter for the novice. Just don’t expect any happy endings.

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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