Noam Chomsky is universally accepted as one of the preeminent public intellectuals of the modern era. Over the past thirty years, broadly diverse audiences have gathered to attend his sold-out lectures. Now, in Understanding Power , Peter Mitchell and John Schoeffel have assembled the best of Chomsky’s recent talks on the past, present, and future of the politics of power.
In a series of enlightening and wide-ranging discussions, all published here for the first time, Chomsky radically reinterprets the events of the past three decades, covering topics from foreign policy during Vietnam to the decline of welfare under the Clinton administration. And as he elucidates the connection between America’s imperialistic foreign policy and the decline of domestic social services, Chomsky also discerns the necessary steps to take toward social change. With an eye to political activism and the media’s role in popular struggle, as well as U.S. foreign and domestic policy, Understanding Power offers a sweeping critique of the world around us and is definitive Chomsky.
Characterized by Chomsky’s accessible and informative style, this is the ideal book for those new to his work as well as for those who have been listening for years.
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Read an Excerpt
Based primarily on discussions at Rowe,
Massachusetts, April 15-16, 1989.
The Achievements of Domestic Dissidence
Woman: Noam, I think the reason we've all come out here to spend the weekend talking with you is to get some of your perspectives on the state of the world, and what we can do to change it. I'm wondering, do you think activism has brought about many changes in the U.S.A. in the past few decades?
Oh sure, big changes actually. I don't think the structure of the institutions has been changedbut you can see real changes in the culture, and in a lot of other ways too.
For instance, compare two Presidential administrations in the 1960s and 1980s, the Kennedy administration and the Reagan administration. Now, in a sense they had a lot in common, contrary to what everyone says. Both came into office on fraudulent denunciations of their predecessors as being wimpish and weak and letting the Russians get ahead of usthere was a fraudulent "missile gap" in the Kennedy case, a fraudulent "window of vulnerability" in the Reagan case. Both were characterized by a major escalation of the arms race, which means more international violence and increased taxpayer subsidies to advanced industry at home through military spending. Both were jingoist, both tried towhip up fear in the general population through a lot of militarist hysteria and jingoism. Both launched highly aggressive foreign policies around the worldKennedy substantially increased the level of violence in Latin America; the plague of repression that culminated in the 1980s under Reagan was in fact largely a result of his initiatives.
Of course, the Kennedy administration was different in that, at least rhetorically, and to some extent in practice, it was concerned for social reform programs at home, whereas the Reagan administration was committed to the opposite, to eliminating what there was of a social welfare system here. But that probably reflects the difference in international affairs in the two periods more than anything else. In the early 1960s, the United States was the world-dominant power, and had plenty of opportunity for combining international violence and commitment to military spending with social reform at home. By the 1980s, that same opportunity wasn't around anymore: the United States was just not that powerful and not that rich relative to its industrial rivalsin absolute terms it was, but not relatively. And there was a general consensus among elites, it wasn't just Reagan, that you had to break down the welfare state in order to maintain the profitability and competitiveness of American capital. But that difference apart, the two administrations were very similar.
On the other hand, they couldn't do the same things. So for example, Kennedy could invade Cuba and launch the world's to-date major international terrorist operation against themwhich went on for years, probably still is going on. He was able to invade South Vietnam, which he did after all: Kennedy sent the American Air Force to bomb and napalm South Vietnam and defoliate the country, and he sent troops to crush the peasant independence movement there. And Vietnam's an area of minor American concern, it's way on the other end of the world. The Reagan administration tried to do similar things much closer to home in Central America, and couldn't. As soon as they started moving towards direct intervention in Central America in the first few months of the administration in 1981, they had to back off and move to clandestine operationssecret arms sales, covert funding through client states, training of terrorist forces like the contras in Nicaragua, and so on.
That's a very striking difference, a dramatic difference. And I think that difference is one of the achievements of the activism and dissidence of the last twenty-five years. In fact, the Reagan administration was forced to create a major propaganda office, the Office of Public Diplomacy: it's not the first one in American history, it's the second, the first was during the Wilson administration in 1917. But this one was much larger, much more extensive, it was a major effort at indoctrinating the public. The Kennedy administration never had to do that, because they could trust that the population would be supportive of any form of violence and aggression they decided to carry out. That's a big change, and it's had its effects. There were no B-52s in Central America in the 1980s. It was bad enough, hundreds of thousands of people were slaughteredbut if we'd sent B-52s and the 82nd Airborne, it would have been a lot worse. And that's a reflection of a serious rise in domestic dissidence and activism in the United States over the past twenty-five years. The Reagan administration was forced into clandestine tactics rather than direct aggression of the sort that Kennedy was able to use in Vietnam, largely in order to pacify the domestic population. As soon as Reagan indicated that he might try to turn to direct military intervention in Central America, there was a convulsion in the country, ranging from a massive flow of letters, to demonstrations, to church groups getting involved; people started coming out of the woodwork all over the place. And the administration immediately backed off.
Also, the Reagan military budget had to level off by 1985. It did spurt, pretty much along the lines of Carter administration projections, but then it leveled off at about what it would have been if Carter had stayed in. Well, why did that happen? Partly it happened because of fiscal problems arising after four years of catastrophic Reaganite deficit spending, but partly it was just because there was a lot of domestic dissidence.
And by now that dissidence is kind of irrepressible, actually. The fact that it doesn't have a center, and doesn't have a source, and doesn't have an organizational structure, that has both strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are that people get the sense that they're alonebecause you don't see things happening down the street. And it's possible to maintain the illusion that there's no activism going on, because there's nothing dramatically visible, like huge demonstrations or something; occasionally there are, but not most of the time. And there's very little in the way of inter-communication, so all sorts of organizing can be happening in parallel, but it doesn't feed into itself and move on from there. Those are all weaknesses. On the other hand, the strength is, it's very hard to crushbecause there's nothing to cut off: if one thing gets eliminated, something else just comes up to take its place.
So looking over a long stretch, I don't think it's true that things have gotten more passive, more quiescent, more indoctrinated and so on. In fact, if anything, it's the opposite. But it's sort of neither more nor less, really, it's just different.
And you can see it in all kinds of ways. I mean, public opposition to the policies of the Reagan administration kept risingit was always very high, and it rose through the Eighties. Or take the media: there have been slight changes, there's more openness. It's easier for dissidents to get access to the media today than it was twenty years ago. It's not easy, like it's 0.2 percent instead of 0.1 percent, but it is different. And in fact, by now there are even people inside the institutions who came out of the culture and experiences of the Sixties, and have worked their way into the media, universities, publishing firms, the political system to some extent. That's had an effect as well.
Or take something like the human rights policies of the Carter administration. Now, they weren't from the Carter administration really, they were from Congressthey were Congressional human rights programs which the Carter administration was forced to adapt to, to a limited extent. And they've been maintained through the 1980s as well: the Reagan administration had to adapt to them somewhat too. And they've had an effect. They're used very cynically and hypocritically, we know all that stuffbut nevertheless, there are plenty of people whose lives have been saved by them. Well, where did those programs come from? Where they came from, if you trace it back, is kids from the 1960s who became Congressional assistants and pressed for drafting of legislationusing popular pressures from here, there and the other place to help them through. Their proposals worked their way through a couple of Congressional offices, and finally found their way into Congressional legislation. New human rights organizations developed at the same time, like Human Rights Watch. And out of it all came at least a rhetorical commitment to putting human rights issues in the forefront of foreign policy concerns. And that's not without an effect. It's cynical, doubtlessyou can show it. But still it's had an effect.
The U.S. Network of Terrorist Mercenary States
Woman: It's curious that you're saying that, because I certainly didn't have that impression. The only human rights issue the Reagan administration seemed to be concerned with was that of the Soviet JewsI mean, they resumed funding the terror in Guatemala.
But note how they did it: they had to sneak it in around the back. In fact, there was more funding of Guatemala under Carter than there was under Reagan, though it's not very well known. See, the Carter administration was compelled to stop sending military aid to Guatemala by Congressional legislation in 1977, and officially they didbut if you look at the Pentagon records, funding continued until around 1980 or '81 at just about the normal level, by various forms of trickery: you know, "things were in the pipeline," that kind of business. This was never talked about in the press, but if you look at the records, you'll see the funding was still going through until that time. The Reagan administration had to stop sending it altogetherand in fact, what they did was turn to mercenary states.
See, one of the interesting features of the 1980s is that to a large extent the United States had to carry out its foreign interventions through the medium of mercenary states. There's a whole network of U.S. mercenary states. Israel is the major one, but it also includes Taiwan, South Africa, South Korea, the states that are involved in the World Anti-Communist League and the various military groups that unite the Western Hemisphere, Saudi Arabia to fund it, PanamaNoriega was right in the center of the thing. We caught a glimpse of it in things like the Oliver North trial and the Iran-contra hearings [Oliver North was tried in 1989 for his role in "Iran-contra," the U.S. government's illegal scheme to fund the Nicaraguan "contra" militias in their war against Nicaragua's left-wing government by covertly selling weapons to Iran]they're international terrorist networks of mercenary states. It's a new phenomenon in world history, way beyond what anybody has ever dreamt of. Other countries hire terrorists, we hire terrorist states, we're a big, powerful country.
Excerpted from Understanding Power by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel. Copyright © 2002 by Noam Chomsky, Peter Rounds Mitchell, and John Schoeffel. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have strong feelings moving in both ways on this book, as whilst Chomsky does make very good points on multiple issues, his attempts at modesty occasionally fall flat as it becomes apparent that he thinks he understands the whole world order more than he does. I do feel that his analysis of the media is by and large correct - if one is funded by advertisers, those advertisers must be pleased and they will not be pleased if you run the wrong messages. I know plenty of people who simply swallow assumed 'common sense' knowledge without questioning it and this is in part indoctrination. As Chomsky notes, governments have in the past been relatively open about the need for propaganda to keep the public doing what they should and keep them from interfering in politics.The reviewer below me crowingly states: " "...Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today. He is also a disturbingly divided intellectual. On the one hand there is a large body of revolutionary and highly technical linguistic scholarship, much of it too difficult for anyone but the professional linguist or philosopher; on the other, an equally substantial body of political writings, accessible to any literate person but often maddeningly simple-minded". Haha, Professor Chomsky: Caught red-handed! *Now* who is "manufacturing consent"? "Unfortunately said reviewer does not seem to have picked up that in the film 'Manufacturing Consent', Chomsky makes exactly the same point and laughingly explains that the publishers insisted on using that quote on the back and that the NYT actually slated him. Indeed he also explains in several places in the book and film responses to the criticism that he does get a lot of coverage in the media. The idea that Chomsky is not allowed to point out that anti-socialists pick inappropriate examples (i.e. not socialist countries, just countries that call themselves socialist) seems to be missing the point entirely to me.As I say at the beginning of my review, I do not believe Chomsky is the be all and end all - he over-generalises and he writes off some theorists as being ridiculous because they are not directly useful for campaigning, whilst showing in a similar example that the 'hard sciences' work in the same way entirely with his support. This is just one example, but my overall view is that anyone who follows the 'bible of Chomsky' without critically engaging and coming up with their own version has made a big mistake. But then that is something on which both Chomsky and I would wholeheartedly agree upon.
Before reading Understanding Power, I knew of Noam Chomsky only by his (formidable) reputation as a linguist and author of Manufacturing Consent, which I had not, at the time, read. In truth, I was prompted to buy Understanding Power - said to be a good collection of his works, having read, and been perplexed by, Chomsky's effusive praise of a less-than-convincing book about the nastiness of corporations ("The Corporation", by Joel Bakan.) I was curious as to how such a respected, academic, intelligent commentator could come to be praising such a bone-headed book. Well, I am curious no more. This is a nicely edited, packaged edition, which benefits from the fact that it seems to contain mostly transcripts of Socratic-style "teach-ins" (love-ins, more like) that Chomsky has conducted over the last few years. It's conversational and very easy to read: far from being weighed down by the carefully premeditated prose of a stuffy academic, Understanding Power positively zings with invective, humour, and oratory. Parts of it are funny (not always intentionally so), parts fascinating, Chomsky's command of the "received" facts of recent political history (and his self-declared "true" ones) is consistently impressive. Not only does this book give you a very clear exposition of Chomsky's perspective, it is very entertaining as it does it. Credit, therefore, to the editors who have presumably sifted through weeks of audio tape, and have cleaned up and contextualised to add to the reading pleasure. They've also compiled footnotes of greater length than the text, which are available for spods online. While his facts maybe impeccably marshalled, many of the conclusions at which Chomsky arrives - particular in the field of economics - are obviously baloney (it is basically conspiracy and paranoia writ on a scale even James Ellroy would baulk at) but it's maddeningly difficult to nail down exactly why. But this evening, in a taxi on the way home from my wage-slavery (ahem), on page 216, I nailed it: Chomsky's richest polemic is almost all unfalsifiable. There are no conceivable facts you could present to Chomsky that would lead him to say, "You know what? You're right! I've got this all completely wrong!" Arguing against Noam Chomsky would be like arguing against a born-again Christian. Facts are construed to fit the theory, and not the other way around. That quality - falsifiability - is what distinguishes valid argument from dogma. The fact that something is capable of being proven false is what gives it explanatory traction in the world. If a statement is true for all possible circumstances, it's either circular, tautological or it bears no relation to the world we live in. So when the stooges in his audience meekly suggest that his proposal for how to really manage an economy (namely: everyone pulls together and works towards the common good, no-one fights, no-one wants more than their fair share, everyone co-operates - utterly brilliant, isn't it?) has been tried in a few places, and it fell apart pretty quickly, Chomsky's retort is 'but that wasn't REALLY socialism! That was actually disguised CAPITALISM!' hence - objection is defined away, as opposed to being defended. Nonetheless, there are still some glaring facts which Chomsky can't explain away: The most obvious is that if the media and corporate elites are so indoctrinated, so suppressive of "dissident" views like Chomsky's, then how can Chomsky himself have been such a roaring success? A search within Amazon on "Noam Chomsky" lists 536 books (ten times as many as for "Rush Limbaugh", five times as many as for "P J O'Rourke", and only 8 fewer than for "George Bush"!). Chomsky is a global superstar, an arch propagandist, a fantastic brand, and though he commends his disciples not to take his word for it, legions of them (most notably the slurpers who sit cross-legged at his feet in the pages of this book) simply do. No-one subjects his patter to sustained criticism - possibly becaus
This is the first book by Chomsky that I've read. His explanations of power and politics are thought provoking. This book will make you question a lot that is going on in the world today. A must-read for all.
This really is the "indispensable" Chomsky. I would recommend this to anyone interested in hearing Chomsky's ideas, or even those who have read him before. Just a great collection, an easy read (Q&A format)and a true beacon of hope.