ISBN: 978-0-241-96524-5. “Power Systems” – conversations between David Barsamian and Noam Chomsky – was published by Penguin in 2013 (from an original 2012 US publication by Metropolitan Books). Once again another outing for the “world’s greatest public intellectual” although not an original book written by the great man himself. On this occasion we see his thoughts extracted from a collection of conversations between 2010 and 2012. This is as up-to-date as you get. Like a great deal of his more recent work we can witness his greater concern about environmental issues in this book. For the first time he reviews the impacts of fracking and talks at length about climate change and how fossil fuels must be kept in the ground. It seems that, with age, Chomsky just gets better and better. The book boasts eight separate conversations parts of which had already appeared in the International Socialist Review as well as airing on Alternative Radio in the USA.
“Power systems, whatever they are, very rarely abdicate their power cheerfully. They usually resist.”
Hence we must fight back…
The first three topics cover “American Imperialism”, “Chains of Subservience” and “Uprisings”. Familiar topics with this little highlight from the first chapter:
“Take a dangerous radical like, say, Adam Smith, whom people worship but don’t read.”
Chomsky really loves to use the weapons of the Right against them and has done more than anyone in demonstrating that many of the founding fathers and classical philosophers were not quite as we reinvent them. Chomsky moves on at one point to ponder the meaning of US geopolitical “loss” as in
” “..the loss of Latin America,” “the loss of the middle East,” “the loss of” certain countries, all based on the premise that we own the world and anything that weakens our control is a loss to us and we wonder how to recover it.”
Well that is American foreign policy in a nutshell. Yet the context for this is a question about whether American power is waning. He concludes:
“Is America over? It’s a kind of paranoia, but its the paranoia of the superrich and the superpowerful. If you don’t have everything, it’s a disaster.”
Hence this singular point-of-view tells us everything and nothing in global affairs. Take the word “stabilisation“:
“..for example, one of the charges against Iran, the big foreign policy threat, is that it is destabilising Iraq and Afghanistan. How? By trying to expand its influence into neighbouring countries. On the other hand, we “stabilize” countries when we invade them and destroy them.”
“And if anyone questions that, it leads to near hysteria and often charges of anti-Americanism or “hating America” – interesting concepts that don’t exist in democratic societies, only in totalitarian societies and here, where they’re just taken for granted.”
So we move onto “Domestic Disturbances” and the Occupy movement about which Chomsky is deeply approving. However he makes the following point twice through this book:
“..a tactic has a half-life. It works for a while, and then you see diminishing returns.”
This is a fact of life that extends way beyond social protest movements and is true of economic dogma. It is true of Socialism and long proven true of Neo-liberal economics. It might have been a revolution for long lasting positive effects for about ten years. But to be flogging that dead horse a quarter of a century later seems to be a waste of time as nothing further is to be gained. It is no longer effective yet it achieves some narrow objectives to which Chomsky returns later in the book. Austerity is just another chapter in the war against the poor and the social contract. In the USA Chomsky talks of the one-sided class war being fought by Capital against Labour. Organising a union is subject to punishment:
“The punishments are illegal, but when you have a criminal state, that doesn’t matter. The state doesn’t enforce the laws.”
It is a matter worth some expanding upon – the state as criminal side-kick to big business – but no more is said about such a provocative statement here. America may not be at an end but is Capitalism? Chomsky says ‘no’ because our modern state capitalism is not the “capitalism” of the fairy tale. But can capitalism, or whatever version we have, be adapted to modern environments?
“…there’s no justification, economic or other, for the enormous and growing role of financial institutions since the 1970s. Even some of the most respected economists point out that they’re just a drag on the economy.”
Our economic system is not efficient but it is orientated to achieve specific political purposes in the interests of a minority.
Next up we get chapters on “Unconventional Wisdom” dealing with events in Turkey and Central Asia, and “Mental Slavery” covering elements of modern culture such as Twitter. From the latter we are surprised to learn that Chomsky describes himself as an “old-fashioned conservative” because he believe in the values of Magna Carta and the Enlightenment. These are the traditional values he upholds, even if they are increasingly unfashionable amongst the peculiar breed of modern “conservatives“. So why is Chomsky seen as a radical?
“Because holding on to traditional values is a very radical position. It threatens and undermines power.”
Make of that what you will but they are words to live by. It is in this latter chapter that Chomsky turns to multiple environmental crises. He is clearly well read about Climate Change and quotes the International Energy Association as being a quite “conservative agency” (which we know from their record in downplaying peak oil). Chomsky’s angle is that the media is pretending that there are a few scientists versus a few denying politicians creating a false debate to confuse the public. The public (at least in the USA) are not informed about the many well-informed voices that state that the impact of Global Warming has been grossly under-estimated. He goes as far as saying that any further enthusiasm for extracting fossil fuels is like saying “Fine, let’s commit suicide“.
This describes the contradiction of pro-fossil fuel voices being the same people so concerned about climate change. They don’t join the dots.
“…their institutional role makes such positions a social or cultural necessity. They could make different decisions, but that would require real rethinking of the nature of our institutions.”
There follows a chapter concerning Chomsky’s work in linguistics (“Learning how to Discover”) that, at first, seems completely out of place in this context. Indeed it is quite dull for a good twenty pages before the questioner moves onto talk about the intersections between linguistics and politics. In answering Chomsky quickly moves on to the spirit of scientific enquiry – being “puzzled” as he puts it. He describes Galileo proving a point about gravity that was counter-intuitive. “…just about all intuitions are wrong” states Chomsky sweepingly. Thus doctrines can be treated the same way in the political sphere. Scientific enquiry can prove whether our dogma is true or not.
“Of course, if you take that stand, you’re excluded from polite discourse – just as, incidentally, Galileo was. He couldn’t convince the funders, the aristocrats, that any of his ideas made any sense because they were so counter to common sense. He suffered for it under the inquisition..”
In is within the context of this same chapter that Chomsky describes the Americans’ view of their government – the state.
“When people talk about the government in the United States, they’re talking about some alien force. Hatred of democracy is so deeply embedded in the doctrinal system that you don’t think of the government as your instrument. [..] It’s taken a lot of work to make people hate democracy that much.”
So we move onto a Chapter entitled “Aristocrats and Democrats” that much like the others is so wide ranging that the title itself gives little insight. In it Chomsky turns back to the topic of fossil fuel abuse and the tar sands of Canada. Again he addresses our institutional desire for fossil fuel extraction including the office of the President of the United States:
“He (Obama) didn’t talk about what kind of world it would be in one hundred years if we use these fossil fuels.”
In short order Chomsky returns to a topic we mentioned earlier concerning how the Neo-liberal economy is inefficient as it is driven by dogma not pragmatic economics. The economic policies of the past forty years, on balance have been a “class-based failure“. They are only a success for the top ten percent of society. We have not chosen alternatives that would have worked better for the majority. Capitalism, as we have re-invented it, relies upon constant growth that is self destructive. These impacts can be delayed but they are contradictions “inherent to capitalism“.
Only a few short pages later and Chomsky is quoting our favourite Anarchist – Bakunin. Bakunin predicted that “a new class of scientific intelligentsia” who have all knowledge would lead to two possible outcomes. Either a “red bureaucracy” of oppressive rule in the interest of the working classes, OR as the servants of capital. Something Chomsky says was a “pretty good prediction“.
And there you have it – our whistle-stop tour through another little bite-sized chunk of modern Chomsky. More of the same – but less of it. Any other reader could run through it and choose twenty different highlights from ours. Our selection is nothing but an impression – a few points that we enjoyed reading of.
Noam Chomsky is now mostly retired from teaching and devotes a lot of his time to talking and writing short articles. It is worth keeping tabs on his output which remains prolific even if he doesn’t deliver a new book every year. If all we have are collections like this then so be it. Rather this than nothing at all. His mind remains razor sharp and he retains his crown the world’s “number one intellectual“. His never-ending modesty would forbid him from doing anything other than laughing at such a claim. He remains likable and his work essential – in whatever form it takes. Recommended. (As usual.)