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Tomgram: Noam Chomsky, The Challenges of 2016

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[Note to TomDispatch Readers: The remarkable Noam Chomsky has a new book out: Who Rules the World? It's almost too obvious to say, but it's a must-read! I'm particularly pleased that TomDispatch is excerpting the book's final, monumental essay, "Masters of Mankind," as a two-parter, the first of which appears this morning. Let me just remind TomDispatch readers who use Amazon that if you go to that site to buy the Chomsky volume (or anything else under the sun, including Nick Turse's new Dispatch Book) via a TD book link like the ones above (or the cover image embedded in any TD piece), we get a tiny cut of your purchase at no cost to you. It's a small way to contribute to the site. Otherwise, go to your local bookstore and grab a copy of Who Rules the World? Whatever you do, don't miss it! Tom]

The other day I pulled a tattered copy of The Chomsky Reader off a bookshelf of mine. Leafing through some of the Vietnam-era essays collected in that 1987 paperback brought to life a young Tom Engelhardt who, in the mid-to-late 1960s, was undergoing a startling transition: from dreaming of serving his government to opposing it. Noam Chomsky's writings played a role in that transformation. I stopped at his chilling 1970 essay "After Pinkville," which I remember reading when it came out. ("Pinkville," connoting communist influence, was the military slang for the village where the infamous My Lai massacre took place.) It was not the first Chomsky essay I had read. That honor may go to "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," which he wrote in 1966. ("It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious.")

"After Pinkville" still remains vividly in my consciousness from that long-gone moment when a growing sense of horror about a distant American war that came to feel ever closer and more brutal swept me into antiwar activism. Its first sentences still cut to the heart of things: "It is important to understand that the massacre of the rural population of Vietnam and their forced evacuation is not an accidental by-product of the war. Rather it is of the very essence of American strategy." Before he was done, Chomsky would put the massacre of almost 500 Vietnamese men, women, and children into the grim context of the larger crimes of the time: "It is perhaps remarkable that none of this appears to occasion much concern [in the U.S.]. It is only the acts of a company of half-crazed GIs that are regarded as a scandal, a disgrace to America. It will, indeed, be a still greater national scandal -- if we assume that possible -- if they alone are subjected to criminal prosecution, but not those who have created and accepted the long-term atrocity to which they contributed one detail -- merely a few hundred more murdered Vietnamese."

So many decades later, something still seems painfully familiar in all of this. Thanks in part to the nature of our media moment, we remain riveted by acts of horror committed against Europeans and Americans. Yet "concern" over what the U.S. has done in our distant war zones -- from the killing of civilians at weddings, funerals, and memorial services to the evisceration of a hospital, to kidnappings, torture, and even the killing of prisoners, to drone strikes so "surgical" and "precise" that hundreds below died even though only a relatively few individuals were officially targeted -- seems largely missing in action. Unlike the Vietnam era, in the present moment, lacking the powerful antiwar movement of the Vietnam era, "none of this," to quote Chomsky, "appears to occasion much concern." Indeed.

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There are, however, exceptions to this statement and let me mention one of them. A half-century later, Noam Chomsky is still writing with the same chilling eloquence about the updated war-on-terror version of this American nightmare. His "concern" has not lagged, something that can't be missed in his new book, Who Rules the World?, which focuses on, among other things, what in the Vietnam-era might have been called "the arrogance of power." At a moment when the Vietnam bomber of choice, the B-52, is being sent back into action in the war against the Islamic State, he, too, is back in action. And so here is the first part of an overview essay from his new book on American power and the world. (Expect part 2 on Tuesday.) Tom

American Power Under Challenge
Masters of Mankind (Part 1)
By Noam Chomsky

[This piece, the first of two parts, is excerpted from Noam Chomsky's new book, Who Rules the World? (Metropolitan Books). Part 2 will be posted on Tuesday morning.]

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When we ask "Who rules the world?" we commonly adopt the standard convention that the actors in world affairs are states, primarily the great powers, and we consider their decisions and the relations among them. That is not wrong. But we would do well to keep in mind that this level of abstraction can also be highly misleading.

States of course have complex internal structures, and the choices and decisions of the political leadership are heavily influenced by internal concentrations of power, while the general population is often marginalized. That is true even for the more democratic societies, and obviously for others. We cannot gain a realistic understanding of who rules the world while ignoring the "masters of mankind," as Adam Smith called them: in his day, the merchants and manufacturers of England; in ours, multinational conglomerates, huge financial institutions, retail empires, and the like. Still following Smith, it is also wise to attend to the "vile maxim" to which the "masters of mankind" are dedicated: "All for ourselves and nothing for other people" -- a doctrine known otherwise as bitter and incessant class war, often one-sided, much to the detriment of the people of the home country and the world.

In the contemporary global order, the institutions of the masters hold enormous power, not only in the international arena but also within their home states, on which they rely to protect their power and to provide economic support by a wide variety of means. When we consider the role of the masters of mankind, we turn to such state policy priorities of the moment as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the investor-rights agreements mislabeled "free-trade agreements" in propaganda and commentary. They are negotiated in secret, apart from the hundreds of corporate lawyers and lobbyists writing the crucial details. The intention is to have them adopted in good Stalinist style with "fast track" procedures designed to block discussion and allow only the choice of yes or no (hence yes). The designers regularly do quite well, not surprisingly. People are incidental, with the consequences one might anticipate.

The Second Superpower

The neoliberal programs of the past generation have concentrated wealth and power in far fewer hands while undermining functioning democracy, but they have aroused opposition as well, most prominently in Latin America but also in the centers of global power. The European Union (EU), one of the more promising developments of the post-World War II period, has been tottering because of the harsh effect of the policies of austerity during recession, condemned even by the economists of the International Monetary Fund (if not the IMF's political actors). Democracy has been undermined as decision making shifted to the Brussels bureaucracy, with the northern banks casting their shadow over their proceedings.

Mainstream parties have been rapidly losing members to left and to right. The executive director of the Paris-based research group EuropaNova attributes the general disenchantment to "a mood of angry impotence as the real power to shape events largely shifted from national political leaders [who, in principle at least, are subject to democratic politics] to the market, the institutions of the European Union and corporations," quite in accord with neoliberal doctrine. Very similar processes are under way in the United States, for somewhat similar reasons, a matter of significance and concern not just for the country but, because of U.S. power, for the world.

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The rising opposition to the neoliberal assault highlights another crucial aspect of the standard convention: it sets aside the public, which often fails to accept the approved role of "spectators" (rather than "participants") assigned to it in liberal democratic theory. Such disobedience has always been of concern to the dominant classes. Just keeping to American history, George Washington regarded the common people who formed the militias that he was to command as "an exceedingly dirty and nasty people [evincing] an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people."

In Violent Politics, his masterful review of insurgencies from "the American insurgency" to contemporary Afghanistan and Iraq, William Polk concludes that General Washington "was so anxious to sideline [the fighters he despised] that he came close to losing the Revolution." Indeed, he "might have actually done so" had France not massively intervened and "saved the Revolution," which until then had been won by guerrillas -- whom we would now call "terrorists" -- while Washington's British-style army "was defeated time after time and almost lost the war."

A common feature of successful insurgencies, Polk records, is that once popular support dissolves after victory, the leadership suppresses the "dirty and nasty people" who actually won the war with guerrilla tactics and terror, for fear that they might challenge class privilege. The elites' contempt for "the lower class of these people" has taken various forms throughout the years. In recent times one expression of this contempt is the call for passivity and obedience ("moderation in democracy") by liberal internationalists reacting to the dangerous democratizing effects of the popular movements of the 1960s.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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