Reading Chomsky

When I first started reading Noam Chomsky’s work it was with a large amount of, dare I say it, shock and awe. Every few sentences I went scurrying off to the copious footnotes, unable to believe that the US really sponsored THAT coup or financed THAT dictator or attempted THAT assassination.

Now the facts are more familiar to me, but still I usually get something new from his work, or at least new weaponry for an old idea. His piece in the June issue of Monthly Review, for example, produced two particularly interesting passages.

The first was a reminder that globalization and neoliberalism are misnomers:

Official globalization is committed to so-called neoliberalism, also a highly misleading term: the regime is not new, and it is not liberal. Neoliberalism is essentially the policy imposed by force on the colonies since the eighteenth century, while the currently wealthy countries radically violated these rules, with extensive reliance on state intervention in the economy and resort to measures that are now banned in the international economic order. That was true of England and the countries that followed its path of protectionism and state intervention, including Japan, the one country of the South that escaped colonization and the one country that industrialized. These facts are widely recognized by economic historians.

The simple fact that all the powerful nations in the world became powerful by protecting themselves economically, while the nations that were forced to open their doors to free trade are still recovering from it, is completely at odds with what most people in the West believe. Unfortunately conversations about 19th-century tariff regimes do not engage many people’s attention, but the point is an important one.

The second point that Chomsky makes is also something that should really be obvious but isn’t. Having explained why the US has a strategic need to control the Middle East and defeat nationalism or self-determination, and has made this the centrepiece of its foreign policy since World War Two, he says:

This is the barest sketch of the relevant global context over what to do in Iraq. But these critical matters are scarcely mentioned in the ongoing debate about the problem of greatest concern to Americans. They are barred by a rigid doctrine. It is unacceptable to attribute rational strategic-economic thinking to one’s own state, which must be guided by benign ideals of freedom, justice, peace, and other wonderful things. That leads back again to a very severe crisis in Western intellectual culture, not of course unique in history, but with dangerous portent.

I am reminded of the days before the Iraq war, when I was a student in New York and went on marches and attended debates and tried to make sense of what was happening. Try to claim that oil had something to do with the planned war and you were labelled a cynic, a hater of the West, or a conspiracy theorist. Chomsky claims that we readily attribute strategic-economic interests to our enemies, but I’m not sure that’s true. I think instead we demonize our enemies so much that their actions become completely incomprehensible except as manifestations of pure evil. Thus Iran’s attempts to acquire a nuclear capability are not seen as a rational response to open threats of aggression from the US and Israel, but as the crazy manoeuvrings of a radical Islamofascist demagogue.

One other thing worth mentioning is the delicious image of Blair’s Britain as “the spear carrier for the pax americana,” a phrase originally coined by Michael MccGwire and one I shall also be borrowing in future.

1 thought on “Reading Chomsky

  1. Chomsky quickly became a favourite alongside Fanon and Said. I love the extensive citations and footnotes which clearly demonstrate his scholarship as opposed to the hate filled diatribe of the right wing.

    I agree with you about the demonisation of “the other”. When we pursue a certain path it is because we are superior and therefore have the right to, it is in our interest etc. When “the other” does it or reacts to us they are just plain old evil! The government, media and vested interests have done such a good job of brainwashing the general populace that they readily buy into the whole sorry cycle and never ask questions.

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