ISBN: 978-1-60846-363-3. “Masters of Mankind – Essays & Lectures, 1969 – 2013” by Noam Chomsky was published by Haymarket Books in 2014. Such a collection by Chomsky needs almost no introduction from me so we’ll kick off with the origins of the book’s title. How many of you guessed that it was lifted from Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations“? It comes from a section in which Smith writes of the “vile maxim” of his time which he describes as “all for ourselves, and nothing for other people“. Smith was writing about the rise of modern Capitalism out of the ashes of feudalism. Commerce and manufacturing (ie, the industrial revolution) allowed the “great proprietors” to gather un-earnt rents from their capital without any compulsion to share the profits with their fellow man. Adam Smith was utterly repelled by such vileness. It is hardly a concept that we would associate with the father of the free market and its invisible hand. Modern capitalism is what Chomsky labels “really existing Capitalism”. ‘REC’ for short. Chomsky & Smith are of one mind on this matter. Will we survive REC?
This book gives us seven slices of Chomsky genius plus a foreword by Marcus Raskin. Raskin focusses on the integrity of the intellectuals that Chomsky criticises:
“…how much risk to the intellectual is really involved? After all, the national security state clings to the ornamental trappings of constitutional democracy as long as they don’t get in the way of power. For those in the middle-class, the United States is not a totalitarian state within its own borders. Those who adopt a contrary of sceptical stance need not fear for their lives. Perhaps that is why Chomsky holds so many intellectuals in disdain. They really would risk little if they would act other than as the clerks for power.”
Thus we enjoy little or no risk for our dissent, yet we fail to dissent, why? The first three works do focus on the role of intellectuals in the period 1970 to 1987 but these are by far the least interesting elements of this collection. [We shall skip over them here as they add little to contemporary understanding of power on the modern world. We shall take it as given that people who should know better do not agree with Chomsky.] So let’s move on to pick up the narrative from the fourth essay called “Consent Without Consent” (from the 1996 Cleveland State Law Review no less) where we see a reflection upon the then state of American democracy.
Casting our minds back to that period is to recall the presidency of one Bill Clinton. Chomsky demonstrates the bizarre reaction of the US media to the new presidency as it seemed surprised that a Democrat could be so staunchly pro-Big Business. Once again Chomsky is drawn to pointing out the obvious from the opinion polls: people may have voted for liberal policies but that is not what they get. Ever. However the people’s anger at the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer is defused by a peculiar if obvious deceit. The Americans pretend that all this anger is against big Government not Big Business. This is a living fairy tale where all of the anger will be settled if only the mega-rich could get the Government off their backs through such intrusive behaviour as raising taxes and enforcing environmental regulation. It is a predictable doctrine implanted into the heads of the public – that it is not THEIR government and that Government is a problem. We would argue that this is right for the wrong reason. Government is of the Corporations & the moneyed elite, not the people. Yet this is not a problem that can be solved with less governments and more corporations. In this fairy tale there is no such thing as private power.
Chomsky turns to America’s Founding Fathers to illustrate how far such a dystopia has drifted from their philosophy
“…Alexis de Tocqueville, [..] like Jefferson and Adam Smith, regarded equality of condition as an important feature of a free and just society. He saw the dangers of a “permanent inequality of conditions” and an end to democracy if “the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes”, “one of the harshest that has ever existed in the world,” should escape its confines.”
Chomsky goes on to illustrate the ill-health of American democracy (in 1995) by describing the ruling elite’s obsession with the budget deficit. Polls showed that the public cared nothing for this matter with only 5% raising it as a concern:
“But the 5 percent who were obsessed with the budget happened to include people who matter. “American business has spoken: balance the federal budget,” Business Week announced, reporting a poll of senior executives. And when business speaks, so do the political class and the media, which informed the public that “Americans voted for a balanced budget,” detailing the required cuts in social spending pursuant to the public will…”
The pertinence of this to modern austerity Britain in 2015 is clear. Once again the deficit is the obsession of the Treasury. That is all we need to know, the master has spoken.
Chomsky quickly moves on to his favourite topic of ill-placed American exceptionalism as it attempts to export “democracy” to the furthest corners of its empire. As illustration Chomsky uses the example of the US withdrawal from the compulsory jurisdiction of the World Court. A State Department legal adviser explains that this was because most members of the UN were no longer aligned with the United States and no longer “shared its views regarding world order“. Basically the World stopped ignoring American military expansion, war crimes and human rights abuses committed outside of mainland USA. Such statements are an admission of guilt by the US in its role in committing crimes that the world community considers to be criminal. Hence it goes without comment.
The reason why such abuses are OK? Not only are they acceptable because WE are (obviously) the good guys but they are also beyond judgement because the US reflects a “higher interest“. The fact that such statements are made without everyone bursting out laughing is astonishing. Hence any abuse, massacre or genocide is OK because there will be some happy ending that makes it alright. So there. No doubt that is of enormous comfort to the dead and their families who will obviously NOT now resort to terrorism having lost everything else from their lives. It is doubtful they see any upside at all.
Chomsky returns Stateside to quote Gordon Wood as saying “the Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democractic tendencies of the period“:
“…delivering power to a “better sort” of people and excluding “those who were not rich, well born, or prominent from exercising political power”.”
Thus the crisis of democracy that has arisen since the turn of the century (19th to 20th) that created Fascism, two World Wars, a Cold War and the rise of late 20th Century neo-liberalism – all resulting from a desire to rest democratic control away from the masses and preserve it as the tool only for the establishment. The trick is to get the masses to consent to regimes that no one in their right mind would vote for. Hence the appeals to nationalism invoking fear of outsiders or big Government – all the time diverting attention from what is really happening right under our noses.
As illustration Chomsky writes of the triumph of the economy of Virginia versus the failures of that in Maryland. The Wall Street Journal declared that this was because Maryland was “antibusiness” although Chomsky reveals something more disturbing. Virginia had focussed on its military-industrial base whereas Maryland had chosen hi-tech life-sciences. It was a classic case of backing war versus health. And war won because it benefits from a massive Pentagon spending spree which, as Chomsky rightly observes, is derived from the Government spending of tax dollars. It has absolutely nothing to do with the free market or entrepreneurs. Indeed it was the pharmaceutical entrepreneurs in Maryland that were paying the price of backing human health in the free market. Yet the Wall Street Journal still felt it appropriate to endorse a fairy tale version of those two economies. There was nothing antibusiness about Maryland, they had backed the entrepreneurs of the free markets but lost out because they had not sniffed out the tax dollars being pumped into the defence industry by central government.
Thus we learn that Government intervention is the rule not the exception. There is no level playing field. At least the Chinese are honest about being a one-party State under Communism. America pretends that the USA is different. America promotes the virtues of ‘free trade’ on a global stage whilst violently protecting its own markets at home. It was also true of the British Empire in India where ‘markets’ were praised whilst Britain protected its own industries at home (thus destroying the more-competitive equivalents in India). It really is instructive to ignore doctrine and observe what really happens.
Chapter five delivers Chomsky’s Frumkes Lecture at New York University in 2004 on the cultural use of platitudes in international politics. Hence we return to the topic of deeds versus words, this time less about economics & democracy, and more about the war on terror. Thus in this New World Order the enlightened states will rescue the poor people of the world from their demonic regimes using the exact same rhetoric and excuses as those used previously by Imperial Japan, Italian Fascists and German Nazis – all without any sense of history or irony. By way of contrast Chomsky recalls the 1970s and the actions of Vietnam in Cambodia and India in Bangladesh. Both interventions genuinely were for humanitarian reasons. Far more so that today’s examples yet they are ignored. Why? Well, as Chomsky explains, they were conducted by the wrong people, “them not us“. Both were harshly condemned by the USA and western elites. Of source if we had intervened in this fashion it would have been explained to us that this was for the noblest reasons.
Chomsky takes us on a trip to further illustrate the lack on “universality” in applying international norms such as in the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi War Criminals (the crimes carefully edited so as to ignore any crimes the Allies were equally guilty of), the Mai Lia massacre in Vietnam (soldiers punished not Generals), Kissinger and the bombing of Cambodia and the Milosevic Tribunal after the Balkan war. Cases where our massacres by carpet bombing do not count as massacres and any ample evidence to the contrary is simply ignored in western Media and in any polite conversation.
“One moral truism that should be uncontroversial is the principle of universality: we should apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others..”
This normally goes with saying. It is assumed we do, yet there is abundant evidence to the contrary. Thus when America was found guilty by the World Court of “unlawful use of force” in Nicaragua (aka “International Terrorism”) the US ignored the outcome claiming that its slaughter of the innocents in Central America was a “domestic” matter “as determined by the Unite States“. By the same logic I could travel to a house five miles away to punch a complete stranger in the face then ignore the guilty verdict of affray claiming it was a private matter. You can do that if you are the USA but not as a private individual or another country like, say, Cuba, Korea or Iran. What is worse – such a guilty verdict is
“..consigned to the ashcan of history by the educated classes in the usual manner of unwanted truths, along with two supporting Security Council resolutions vetoed by the US, with Britain loyally abstaining.”
When I grew up during the Cold War I was lead to believe that it was the veto of the USSR that so hamstrung the Security Council. It is only in the last fifteen years that I have read of Britain and America’s role in shaping international security through the use of their own veto to ignore resolutions on terrorism and human rights. Our media glossed over these issues. Our own crimes are not to be talked about. Chomsky goes onto describe the role of our “free” Western media in selectively choosing which stories to promote and which to hide. He describes the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Romero in 1980 at the hands of Washington trained, armed and backed paramilitaries. The matter is almost unknown in North America.
“Suppose that in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, security forces armed and trained by the Kremlin had assassinated an Archbishop who was known as “the voice of the voiceless”, then proceeded to massacre tens of thousands of people, consummating the decade with the brutal murder of Vaclav Havel and half a dozen other leading Czech intellectuals. Would we know about it?”
Rhetorical question of course. Darn straight we would have known about. So much so that Chomsky speculates if such actions would not have lead to nuclear war.
“The distinguishing criterion is, once again, crystal clear. The crimes of enemies take place: our own do not, by virtue of our exemption from elementary moral truisms.”
Likewise we are asked to recall the differing treatments of Syria and Israel under UN Resolution 520 passed in 1982. The Resolution was against Israel yet that nation deliberately flouted international law with its occupation of the Lebanon. Yet the incursions by Syria won it membership of the axis of evil – a terrorist state. Israel went unpunished – as usual. Likewise the anti-State-terrorism UN Resolution of 1987 was opposed by Israel and the USA on the basis that the UN definition of “terrorism” included the actions of Israel in occupied Palestine as well as South African Apartheid. Since the UN applies its rulings universally and these are upheld my most nations as a moral truism the motion was voted in with 153 for and 2 against.
Likewise anti-Cuban terrorists operate openly in the USA with impunity. If the laws under which the USA thinks it can operate were to be applied universally then Castro would have long ago bombed and invaded the USA. But such a concept would be ridiculous. Thus this “crucial exemption to the principle of universality”
“..so deeply entrenched in the reigning intellectual culture that it is not even perceived, hence not mentioned.”
“..the right of aggression must be reserved to the US, perhaps delegated to chosen clients.”
Others must do as they are told, not do what we do. Hence when the CIA blow up a car bomb outside a mosque (Beirut in 1985) killing 80 it is as if it never happened. One American dies the same year on the cruise ship Achille Lauro and it is big news. Israel bombs Tunis killing 75 in 1985 – again, it is ignored. One American dies in a hijacking in 1985 = BIG news. Our crimes simply do not “pass through the filters” as Chomsky puts it. No wonder we think we are the good guys. Chomsky concludes that the “principle of universality has a crucial exception, and that rejection of elemental moral truisms is so deeply entrenched that even raising the question is considered an unspeakable abomination.”
“That is yet another instructive comment on the reigning intellectual and moral culture, with its principled rejection of unacceptable platitudes.”
Chapters six and seven leads Chomsky onto talking about the environment and Climate Change through a lecture delivered at the University of North Carolina in 2010 and another at University College Dublin in 2013. Chomsky described the belief of “the grand old man of American biology” Ernst Mayr who argued against Carl Sagan about the possibility of finding intelligent life in the universe. Mayr believed that intelligence is a lethal mutation that is so precariously balanced upon the top of its evolutionary tree that it is not resilient enough to survive its own self-inflicted injuries. Chomsky clearly has sympathy for this view.
Describing US Corporate CEOs campaigning against action on Climate Change on the basis that it is some “liberal hoax“:
“They know as well as you and I do that it’s real and that the threats are very dire [..] In fact, they’re threatening what they own: they own the world, and they’re threatening its survival. This seems irrational, and it is, from a certain perspective. But from another perspective it’s highly rational. They’re acting within the structure of the institutions of which they are a part.”
Hence the role of the market is to ignore externalities. “It’s not because they’re bad people or anything” because if they don’t do it they will be fired and the shareholders will bring in someone who will. Hence this drive for short term profit and market share are the actions of irrational institutions that “are designed to crash“. Such vulnerabilities persist through the spread of neo-liberal ideologies which are
“..very attractive to concentrated wealth and privilege, hence their success..”
This all came crashing down in 2008 when the market failed in catastrophic style. The intellectual edifice collapsed in a manner Chomsky believes is unprecedented in history yet
“Interestingly, it has no effect. It just continues. Which tells you that somehow it’s serviceable to power systems.”
It is the new norm, even when it fails there seems no other alternative hence we embrace a system with built-in obsolescence. On auto-pilot we are unable to learn the lessons thus we are doomed to fail. It is a cruise to disaster.
“But there’s nobody around to bail you out of an environmental crisis. The externalities in this case are the fate of the species.”
Such vulnerabilities were not built-in by accident.
“It happened by a huge social engineering project.. [..] It was a very systematic effort to redesign the society so as to maximise the use of fossil fuels.”
This is the very sort of modern norm that we are attempting to export globally – thus eradicating the sort of diversity that holds (within it) the key to our future.
“..the only counterweight is a very substantial popular movement that is not just going to call for just putting solar panels on your roof – though it’s a good thing to do – but will have to dismantle an entire sociological, cultural, economic, and ideological structure that is just driving us to disaster.”
Hence Chomsky neatly sums up everything Post-Carbon Living is all about. (Just in case anyone wonders about the relevance of all this to PCL!)
Finally we move onto Chomsky’s “really existing Capitalism” (as opposed to the fairy tale version we are taught at school, universities and in the media). PCL has often referred to the concept of “reality-based economics” as opposed to neo-liberal faith-based economics that is predominant currently. I really do believe that free markets are a wonderful thing. Maybe we should try them one day. But we don’t. Not really, not if we were honest with ourselves. I associate (in my naivety) the word “capitalism” with GENUINE structures of free enterprise and entrepreneurship. Hence I strongly object to writers like Naomi Klein kidnapping the word in her book “This Changes Everything – Capitalism vs Climate”. We first have to realise that we have a version of Capitalism. It takes the genius of Chomsky for the apparent differences between versions to be spelt out.
This final chapter by Chomsky is actually entitled “Can Civilisation Survive Really Existing Capitalism?” and this sounds like a much better title for Klein’s book by far. Her conclusion? “No.” Chomsky’s is little different – but how you frame the argument is everything. I prefer Chomsky’s take:
“There have been serious debates over the years about whether capitalism is, in principle, compatible with democracy. If we keep to really existing capitalist democracy – RECD for short (pronounced “wrecked”) – the question is effectively answered: they are radically incompatible.”
Hence to my point earlier – the most successful capitalist nation today is a Communist one – China.
This yields a unique end point for me personally as I began my journey so many years ago with a reading of “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” by Thomas Friedman. He concludes the opposite of course. Time has shown him to be demonstrably wrong. Democracy is a massive challenge to ‘really existing Capitalism’ in that it threatens the elite monopoly over wealth and power. True democracy would invest far more power into the State to check the balances and tilt the market in favour of the vast majority of mankind. Democracy need not be a challenge to free markets or entrepreneurs – indeed the western post-war settlement saw both State and private sector in good health – partnering in an age of unprecedented prosperity and equality. We live in an age where even the IMF and the World Bank have concluded that inequality hurts the economy.
In the USA Chomsky contends that public opinion is quite close to international norms in terms of support for renewable energy and understanding of the scientific realities of Climate Change. Yet the American Government is the last to act. Chomsky argues that this threat of democracy is “deeply troubling to those who dominate the economy and state policy“. Hence the move in some parts to balance school education into science with faith-based systems such as climate denial and Creationism. Reality must not get in the way of the fairy tale.
“Within RECD it is of extreme importance that we become the stupid nation, not misled by science and rationality, in the interests of short-term gains of the masters of the economy and political system, damn the consequences.”
Chilling. Thankfully he refers to the USA but where they lead others wish to follow: notable the UK, Canada and Australia. (Leaving us to muse as to what is it about the English-speaking world that makes it the most suicidal?) Hence the rich and powerful lead the effort to intensify the prospects for disaster..
“Leading the effort to preserve conditions in which our immediate descendants might have a decent life are the so-called “primitive” societies: First Nations, tribal, indigenous, aboriginal.”
This was also Klein’s conclusion yet these mean nothing to northern Europe where it is the sole preserve of the liberal-left and a minority of enlightened conservatives (such as us) to lead the charge. I have no idea what that tells you. The rest…? Well Chomsky concludes that those of us who struggle to protect the future for our descendants are being scoffed at by the “civilised and sophisticated” for our “silliness“. This is the “distorting filter” of the RECD.
“Master of Mankind” is easily Chomsky at his best. It represents distilled pearls of wisdom and better describes his view on environmentalism than did “Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe”. The latter was a disappointment so it is great to see a couple of recent lectures here by Chomsky that more directly relate to these matters.
Clearly the matter of the survival of our species is so closely inter-woven with our economics fairy tale that we cannot ignore ‘really existing Capitalism’. This does not mean, as Klein implies, that Capitalism has to end. It certainly means that we have to use our democracy to change our version of capitalism to one that is less part of the problem and more a tool that is part of the solution. Blaming Capitalism is like blaming the internet for pornography or your television for violence. What we are witnessing is the long slow rumble of a crisis of democracy. We must stop believing the fairy tales. Chomsky shows us the reality. For that alone this is required reading. Utterly essential.