Understanding Power, by Noam Chomsky

Understanding Power

Understanding Power consists of edited transcripts of Noam Chomsky question-and-answer sessions from about 1989 to 2001.

I’ve read a good number of Chomsky books, and I would recommend this one and Manufacturing Consent as the meatiest, as the best overviews of his ideas.

As I read, I took note of various elements that struck me as some of the main pillars of the Chomskyan worldview, or maybe in some cases were just points I found particularly interesting. So for the remainder of this piece, I’ll toss out some of these points. The vast majority of Chomsky’s main ideas I agree with, though here and there I have some doubts, or at least I can imagine a halfway plausible devil’s advocate point one could make in response.

• Government secrecy virtually never has to do with hiding things from enemies in other countries, but instead is about hiding things from our own population. This is easy to see when you study documents when they are declassified decades later. Routinely they are things that enemy countries were well aware of, but that would have been politically damaging for our domestic population to have found out about.

• Modern political language is consistently Orwellian. The United States and favored countries like Israel are always using force for “defense.” “Peace process” just means whatever the United States favors at a given moment. By definition, the U.S. never opposes a “peace process,” while its enemies always do.

• Just because a given country might have “Socialist” or “Communist” in its official name, it doesn’t follow that if they are hellholes then this discredits socialism or communism. Such countries generally also claim to be “Democratic” in their name, but no one says that discredits democracy.

This is a point I have made many times.

• The worst disaster areas in terms of economic status and human rights are the former colonies of the West, like in Africa and Latin America. Countries that either were never conquered or were under the Japanese Empire have fared far better. Japan was a brutal conqueror in a lot of ways, but unlike the West it allowed economic development in the conquered countries of a comparable nature to development in Japan itself.

• The main purpose of U.S. military aid is to establish close ties with militaries around the world. Not just governments, but militaries specifically, because when governments get out of line, the military can then be called on to overthrow them in the interests of the U.S. (or really in the interests of capital, which is multinational, not in the interests of the “99%” of the U.S. population).

He applies this to the Iran-Contra case, arguing that the purpose of making secret arms deals with the Iranian military was not just to raise money illegally for the Contras (or to pay ransom for hostages, which there is some evidence happened), but to strengthen U.S. ties to the Iranian military, which could be exploited in the future.

• It may sometimes seem as though dissent is ineffective when it comes to war; for instance, all the protests across the country and around the world didn’t stop Bush, et al from starting a particularly absurd and unjustified war of aggression based on lies. But actually dissent has done plenty. It has made the leaders pick their battles carefully rather than just do anything they want. At the very least it has caused support for dictators, war, torture, etc. to remain covert when in the past it would have been more open. If you compare, for instance, the Kennedy era with the Reagan era 20 years later, Kennedy had a free hand even in an unimportant area like Vietnam, whereas Reagan had to deal with a great deal of pushback and constraints on his actions in our backyard in Central America.

• If you look at opinion polls on issues, the U.S. general population tends to be far to the left of the government or the media.

I’m not so sure. Certainly I think that the population would be much farther to the left on most issues if people weren’t stupid and uninformed, and if they weren’t propagandized to their whole lives. But he’s not making that hypothetical point; he’s saying they’re well to the left of the two major political parties and the mainstream media and such now.

I think it varies from issue to issue, and depends on such things as how the poll questions are worded. Certainly you can cherry-pick plenty of polling evidence that people are a lot more skeptical about wars than is the Establishment, a lot more convinced that the economic system is rigged in favor of the rich, etc., but I suspect you could also find plenty of poll results to support a conclusion that most of the population is center-right.

I don’t want to overrate the importance of anecdotal evidence, but I certainly don’t feel as I go through life that I live in a population of leftists. The people I’m closest to no doubt are disproportionately leftist, but if I think about all the people I’ve ever interacted with enough or observed enough to have some awareness of their political leanings—and I’m talking about people in real life, not people in the media or people I’ve been told about by the media—if anything I’m surprised we don’t elect even more hard core right wingers. I consistently feel like I’m surrounded in this country by people who regard a huge number of conservative positions—on guns, Christianity, race, etc.—as self-evidently true, and who are committed to them at a deep, emotional level, such that I avoid even engaging with them because I know it’s only going to generate hostility.

I mean, maybe the bulk of them are just waiting for the right Bernie Sanders-type to lead them in an attack on the Establishment from the left, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way.

• If you want to get a sense of how the mainstream media is biased and to what degree, examine side-by-side how they treat similar cases that involve the U.S. on the one hand, and some country or other entity that has been deemed an enemy of the U.S. on the other. For example, compare the coverage of the Soviets shooting down flight KAL 007 with instances of the U.S. and its mercenaries shooting down civilian aircraft. The former got massively more coverage, with all ambiguities being resolved against the official enemy. The latter get largely ignored, and if they are mentioned at all, it is always in a way that implies the only possibilities are that it was justified or that it was an understandable mistake that was really no one’s fault.

• U.S. foreign policy is based on the principle that countries cannot be allowed to act independently and succeed, as this sets a bad example. If countries deviate from their assigned roles of allowing exploitation of their natural resources, providing cheap labor, and providing markets—if they seek to serve the interests of their own population instead of the interests of international capital—the regime causing this trouble must be destroyed and replaced by one that understands its place. Even when direct or indirect military intervention isn’t used to destroy them—though it often is—capital will flee to more advantageous places and their economy will collapse.

I suppose if there’s a single most fundamental premise of the Chomskyan worldview, this is it.

• The point about countries not being allowed to deviate from what is most advantageous to capital also applies to the U.S. itself. If by some miracle we actually elected some left wing president and a left wing, filibuster-proof, Senate majority, etc., and there were an actual threat of leftist economic policies being implemented, the rich would tank the economy. So in a sense even the poor person, the unemployed person, the homeless person, needs to root for the rich to get all they want to keep them happy, as that’s the only way he’ll have a chance at some dead-end job or the only chance there will be any tax revenue available for very modest social programs to help him.

Why does this seemingly work so much better in the U.S. and the Third World? Why hasn’t this dynamic kept Sweden, Denmark—even France and Germany—from being as socialist as they are? I mean, all such countries have a mixed economy, not all that much a socialist one, but they’re far more economically progressive than the U.S. in most respects. I’m not sure what explains this as far as Chomsky’s theories, how they’ve managed to get away with as much as they have without receiving devastating punishments from capital.

• Evidence for his worldview is often hidden in plain sight. If you take the time to read unclassified and declassified government documents, the business press where capitalists in effect are talking to each other, etc., you can find plenty of instances where the powers that be are quite explicit about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

I don’t doubt this. But again I’m wary of the possibility of cherry-picking.

If you looked through all these sources and found that 99 times out of a hundred when taking action against the dictator of Ubekibekistanstan was advocated, his atrocious human rights record was cited, and one time alarms were raised about how he was redistributing wealth to the common people in a way that was disadvantageous to international capital, how would you know that that one time is the real reason, and the other 99 are the propaganda?

(Well, to answer my own question, I suppose you’d look at the fact that the same folks never seem bothered in the slightest by human rights atrocities when they’re committed by regimes that more obediently fulfill their assigned roles in the capitalist system. But I suspect there will still be many ambiguous cases where it’s not so clear which are the documents that can be taken at face value as reflecting the actual motives of the government and its puppetmasters, and which are the smokescreen.)

• The alternative to unbridled capitalism isn’t state-control of the economy by some undemocratic Soviet-type regime, as that can be just as exploitative. “On the other hand, if nationalization of industry was based on actual popular control over industry—workers’ control over factories, community control, with the groups maybe federated together and so on—that would be a different story. That would be a very different story, in fact. That would be extending the democratic system to economic power, and unless that happens, political power is always going to remain a very limited phenomenon.”

Agree completely. I’ve always thought a hierarchical economic system of owners/employers on top and workers on the bottom, with wealth being transferrable at will and inheritable and such, is as unjust as a political system based on hereditary monarchs and the like.

Article Four of the Constitution requires each state to have a republican form of government based on the consent of the governed. A state isn’t free to have an unelected governor rule as a dictator. I think there should be a similar rule for businesses. Maybe for businesses above a certain size, businesses that are incorporated, whatever. They should be required to have a democratic structure where the people who own it are the people who do the actual work, and they elect their own bosses.

As I say, I find myself in agreement with Chomsky far more often than not. There are times, though, that I find his explanations a little too pat, or unfalsifiable in a conspiracy theorist sort of way.

For example, he contends that the Vietnam War only ended when the economic elites turned against it due to its continuation no longer being in their interest, and that Watergate was only pursued and Nixon driven from office because those same elites believed he had betrayed them by taking the U.S. off the gold standard and so they were getting their revenge.

Maybe. But surely if the opposite had happened—the Vietnam War had continued another five or ten years, Watergate had blown over as only a minor scandal and Nixon had served out his second term—that would equally well fit the theory that the elites always manipulate things to get their way.

Also, as much as Chomsky speaks in favor of activism, and insists that history shows that dissent has become more effective over the years and such, there’s still something really hope-destroying about his worldview. Sometimes the forces he describes seem so powerful and amoral as to be permanent (at least until they wreck everything and possibly render the human species extinct). I know it’s not accurate to classify him with the conspiracy theorists—the main distinction being a massive difference in evidence for their conclusions—but I can get that same depressing 1984 feeling from him as from them.


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