Who Rules the World?, by Noam Chomsky


Who Rules the World? is pretty much what you’d expect if you’re familiar with Chomsky’s writings on politics. He hits all his usual interpretive themes in addressing the current world situation.

Who Rules the World? is not a well-organized book making one coherent argument. Think of it instead as a collection of essays about what’s on Chomsky’s mind. The essays overlap, and there is not only considerable redundancy of topic but at times the same points are made with the same wording.

I always like Chomsky’s approach of asking us to consider the matters at hand as if we were people looking down from another planet, or future historians looking back long after the present societies have disappeared or evolved, in other words like people without a dog in the fight who can be objective and dispassionate about the evidence.

What you’ll find, he contends, is that the United States is absolutely not immune to the tendency of nations to construct biased worldviews that attribute to themselves—or at least to their elites—the purest of motives while assuming other nations act from amoral self-interest at best and more likely malevolent motives.

These are assumptions, double standards, so deeply engrained in the culture, so ubiquitous, so automatically adhered to by the mainstream media, political leaders, and other opinion shapers as to generally not even need to be spelled out.

The United States, for instance, has the “manifest destiny” to dominate all of the Americas, but if some other nation such as Russia, China, Japan, or Germany attempts to control any great amount of territory beyond their borders this is considered blatantly unjust and aggressive (unless at the time they are allied with the U.S.). For the Soviets to put missiles in Cuba was a horrible provocation that had to be reversed even at the serious risk of global nuclear war, but of course the United States is always justified in having missiles as close to the Soviet Union or any other country as it pleases.

One of the more interesting double standards Chomsky highlights is the perception of dissidents, depending on whether they are dissenting from us or from one of our current enemies.

For example, Václav Havel of Czechoslovakia was received as a hero when he addressed Congress in 1990 and praised the U.S. as the “defenders of freedom” around the world. This, Chomsky points out, was a few weeks after death squads in U.S. client state El Salvador murdered six leading Latin American intellectuals for standing up for freedom and justice, and, more broadly, was during a historical period when U.S.-backed regimes in Latin America far surpassed the horrible records for oppression, torture, and murder of the Soviet puppet Iron Curtain regimes. What if an El Salvadoran dissident had traveled to Moscow around this same time, after some particularly extreme state-sponsored violence in Eastern Europe, and given a speech praising the Soviets as “defenders of freedom”? Would the American media, he asks, have similarly lauded him as a hero?

Chomsky sees no significant difference between Democratic and Republican presidents when it comes to these double standards and hypocrisy, and to doing the bidding of the most powerful multinational corporations at home and abroad. To make this point he goes out of his way to include even more examples of atrocious behavior by Democrats than Republicans, and if it’s a Democrat perceived as a liberal and perhaps regarded as most likely to be an exception, then he hits him even harder. He is, for this reason, most scathing toward Kennedy and Obama.

I don’t think he’s far off here, but I do suspect he’s cherry picking to some extent to support a false equivalence. Not that the Democratic presidents don’t have a great deal to answer for, but I wouldn’t put them on the level of Republicans.

But he notes, for instance, that all the hullaballoo about George W. Bush’s administration and the “torture memos” and such is outrage that should not be limited to those folks, as execrable as they are. Torture has always been American policy; the only difference between W. and the presidents before and after him is that they typically delegated the torture to America’s minions in other countries, whereas he authorized Americans to get their hands dirty and do it themselves.

There is, as always, much that is critical of Israel in this book. He is not without hope, though, that the situation in the Middle East can get much better very quickly. The single thing that would most raise the likelihood of that happening would be for the United States to withdraw the unconditional support it has always provided the most conservative, militarist elements in Israel. The situation in East Timor improved dramatically as soon as the U.S. dropped its support for Indonesia’s genocidal policies against it, and the defeat of apartheid became realistic as soon as the U.S. finally abandoned its South African ally. You could see something similar happen, he contends, if the U.S. took a stand against Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

Among the things he says about climate change is: “Business leaders who are conducting propaganda campaigns to convince the population that anthropogenic global warming is a liberal hoax understand full well how grave is the threat, but they must maximize short-term profit and market share. If they don’t, someone else will.”

What I like about this is the last sentence especially, as it calls attention to the fact that what we’re dealing with is a systemic problem and not just a matter of individuals behaving in an evil manner. Certain societal roles with certain incentive structures create appalling behavior like this.

Yes, there have to be individuals willing to sink low enough morally to fill these roles in order for the propaganda to get created and the global devastation to occur, but given human nature there will likely never be a shortage of such people. So focusing on denouncing certain of such individuals and trying to get them removed from their position or whatever isn’t a very promising strategy, since, like Chomsky says, that just means someone else will end up in that slot and behave the same way. You have to recognize what systemic elements generate such behavior and seek to change those.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book that caught my eye, since it’s both important and true (albeit perhaps obvious): “As long as the general population is passive, apathetic, and diverted to consumerism or hatred of the vulnerable, then the powerful can do as they please, and those who survive will be left to contemplate the outcome.”

Two of the more interesting topics Chomsky delves into are the Cuban Missile Crisis and the opposition to capitalism’s restructuring of society in the 19th century.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is not something I know as much about as I should. I suppose I have a layman’s superficial familiarity with it, but it’s something I’d like to explore more.

What strikes Chomsky about it is not only how very close the world came to nuclear armageddon during that period—which is conventional wisdom, though it may not be so well known just how close we came—but also how stupid were the reasons we came so close, and specifically how unjustified the actions of the Kennedy Administration were.

Granted, Kennedy comes off sounding a lot more reasonable than all the Strangelovian characters surrounding him—though Chomsky notes this could well be because only he was aware their exchanges were being secretly tape recorded—but the point is the American position was certainly no more justified than the Soviet one and likely less justified, but the Americans rejected multiple reasonable compromises because of ego basically. They had to be perceived as being tough, they thought, or their enemies would walk all over them (domestic as well as foreign; they’d never win another election if they chose wrong when it came to “better dead than red”). To them, avoiding this loss of face was worth a substantial increase in the risk of nuclear war. We’re just very fortunate Khrushchev was bluffing, or was sane enough to back down even if he hadn’t initially been bluffing.

I think the Cuban Missile Crisis can be an instructive case when it comes to the difference between Republicans and Democrats (and not in a way that favors Democrats). Because it is so much the Republicans’ brand that they’re “tough” and willing (if not eager) to go to war, Democrats routinely seem to feel a need to prove themselves in this area more than Republicans do. Eisenhower could warn about the military-industrial complex; Kennedy felt pressured to go along with the Bay of Pigs attack. Reagan could sell arms to the hated Iranians, bail out of Lebanon after a barracks bombing (called “cutting and running” when Democrats do it), and come shockingly close to reaching an agreement with Gorbachev to abolish nuclear weapons (until his panicked advisors talked him out of it), and never lose his reputation for being maximally macho and willing to defy and even go to war against America’s adversaries.

Even Nixon’s diplomatic opening to China is kind of an example of this phenomenon. Can you imagine if the same had been done by a Democrat? (See the Panama Canal nonsense of the late ’70s and multiply by ten.)

I think about that in connection with presidential elections, including Clinton-Trump, since one of the main selling points for the Democrats is always that the Republican is some sort of hawk or madman much more likely to get us into war and much less trustable with nuclear weapons. Just as the reverse is the selling point for Republicans—that the Democrat is weaker and will not be willing to use the military when necessary to defend America’s interests.

In reality, I wouldn’t be surprised if the “having to prove themselves” factor doesn’t offset—or more—any dovish inclination the typical Democratic president might have compared to the typical Republican president.

Chomsky then goes beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis to talk about various other, much less known, incidents where we came really close to nuclear war, with maybe the most extreme one being a time when the Soviets erroneously believed they’d picked up incoming American missiles on radar. Their policy in such a case was to launch their own missiles in retaliation, and the only reason they didn’t do so on this occasion is that some Russian officer violated his orders (for which he was subsequently reprimanded) and stopped the launch sequence until the incoming attack could be verified or falsified.

It’s really chilling stuff. Again, something I—and pretty much everyone—probably should know more about.

But turning now to the 19th century labor struggles, the way Chomsky describes them you can make the case that the workers lost when it came to much of what was most important that they were fighting for, though as a consolation price they did end up getting some significant material benefits.

That is, important strides were made in the 19th century and early 20th century as far as wages, hours, child labor, etc. But what many of the people back then were most concerned with were issues of autonomy, dignity, and community. They saw society sliding into a philosophy of selfishness and war of all against all (which those at the top with the most money and power knew they’d win), where the overwhelming majority of people were faced with the choice of starvation or becoming wage slaves (which was not just a hyperbolic expression; they recognized that having to sell one’s labor to capitalists really did overlap with slavery a great deal). And on those issues, they lost.

Also noteworthy is that “The concept that productive enterprises should be owned by the workforce was common coin in the mid-nineteenth century.” That is, not owned by some Soviet-type state, but by the people who actually work there. To me this has always been a common sense notion, but nowadays it’s regarded as unthinkably radical, or as being refutable simply by citing the so-called communist regimes like the aforementioned Soviets (even though leaving workers to run their own enterprises is absolutely not what such regimes did; they just replaced capitalist bosses with state bosses).

It’s a fight, though, that doesn’t have to be regarded as over, a defeat that doesn’t have to be accepted as permanent. A world where people other than the top fraction of 1% have greater autonomy over their lives, including their work lives, which is not run according to some monstrous Ayn Randian principles of selfishness, and which is not helpless to do anything about issues like nuclear proliferation and climate change is not some ridiculous and unattainable fantasy:

There are serious barriers to overcome in the struggle for justice, freedom, and dignity, even beyond the bitter class war conducted ceaselessly by the highly class-conscious business world with the “indispensable support” of the governments they largely control. Ware [Norman Ware, author of The Industrial Worker 1840-1860] discusses some of these insidious threats as they were understood by working people. He reports the thinking of skilled workers in New York 170 years ago, who repeated the common view that a daily wage is a form of slavery and warned perceptively that a day might come when wage slaves “will so far forget what is due to manhood as to glory in a system forced on them by their necessity and in opposition to their feelings of independence and self-respect.” They hoped that that day would be “far distant.” Today, signs of it are common, but demands for independence, self-respect, personal dignity, and control of one’s own work and life, like Marx’s old mole, continue to burrow not far from the surface, ready to reappear when awakened by circumstances and militant activism.


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