Review: Noam Chomsky – “How the World Works

How the World WorksHow the World Works by Noam Chomsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you think this book may be too old to read, think again. From the foreword, by Arthur Naiman:

Although the talks and interviews compiled in this book originally took place in the 1990s (and some even in the late 1980s), I think you’ll find Chomsky’s take on things more insightful than virtually anything you hear on the airwaves or read in the papers today. His analyses are so deep and farsighted that they only seem to get more timely—and startling—with age. Read a few pages and see if you don’t agree.

One of the things that I like the most about Chomsky, is his ability to sift through thousands of pages and deliver a paragraph of two that have the power to knock you straight over, such as this one:

A fascist coup in Colombia, inspired by Franco’s Spain, brought little protest from the US government; neither did a military coup in Venezuela, nor the restoration of an admirer of fascism in Panama. But the first democratic government in the history of Guatemala, which modeled itself on Roosevelt’s New Deal, elicited bitter US antagonism. In 1954, the CIA engineered a coup that turned Guatemala into a hell on earth. It’s been kept that way ever since, with regular US intervention and support, particularly under Kennedy and Johnson.

One aspect of suppressing the antifascist resistance was the recruitment of war criminals like Klaus Barbie, an SS officer who had been the Gestapo chief of Lyon, France. There he earned his nickname: the Butcher of Lyon. Although he was responsible for many hideous crimes, the US Army put him in charge of spying on the French. When Barbie was finally brought back to France in 1982 to be tried as a war criminal, his use as an agent was explained by Colonel (ret.) Eugene Kolb of the US Army Counterintelligence Corps: Barbie’s “skills were badly needed….His activities had been directed against the underground French Communist party and the resistance,” who were now targeted for repression by the American liberators. Since the United States was picking up where the Nazis left off, it made perfect sense to employ specialists in antiresistance activities. Later on, when it became difficult or impossible to protect these useful folks in Europe, many of them (including Barbie) were spirited off to the United States or to Latin America, often with the help of the Vatican and fascist priests. There they became military advisers to US-supported police states that were modeled, often quite openly, on the Third Reich. They also became drug dealers, weapons merchants, terrorists and educators—teaching Latin American peasants torture techniques devised by the Gestapo. Some of the Nazis’ students ended up in Central America, thus establishing a direct link between the death camps and the death squads—all thanks to the postwar alliance between the US and the SS.

And more home truth:

I think, legally speaking, there’s a very solid case for impeaching every American president since the Second World War. They’ve all been either outright war criminals or involved in serious war crimes.

He also mentions big US media, like the New York Times, and their hand in not divulging crimes committed by the US government, as in Indonesia:

Suharto’s 1965 coup in Indonesia was particularly welcome to the West, because it destroyed the only mass-based political party there. That involved the slaughter, in a few months, of about 700,000 people, mostly landless peasants—“a gleam of light in Asia,” as the leading thinker of the New York Times, James Reston, exulted, assuring his readers that the US had a hand in this triumph.

Also from the Chicago Tribune:

The financial editor of the conservative Chicago Tribune has been stressing these themes with particular clarity. We must be “willing mercenaries,” paid for our ample services by our rivals, using our “monopoly power” in the “security market” to maintain “our control over the world economic system.” We should run a global protection racket, he advises, selling “protection” to other wealthy powers who will pay us a “war premium.” This is Chicago, where the words are understood: if someone bothers you, you call on the Mafia to break their bones. And if you fall behind in your premium, your health may suffer too.

Also, where is the US taxpayer’s money going?

After the invasion, Bush announced a billion dollars in aid to Panama. Of this, $400 million consisted of incentives for US business to export products to Panama, $150 million was to pay off bank loans and $65 million went to private sector loans and guarantees to US investors. In other words, about half the aid was a gift from the American taxpayer to American businesses.

And on “the war on drugs”:

So internationally, “the war on drugs” provides a cover for intervention. Domestically, it has little to do with drugs but a lot to do with distracting the population, increasing repression in the inner cities, and building support for the attack on civil liberties.

That’s not to say that “substance abuse” isn’t a serious problem. At the time the drug war was launched, deaths from tobacco were estimated at about 300,000 a year, with perhaps another 100,000 from alcohol. But these aren’t the drugs the Bush administration targeted. It went after illegal drugs, which had caused many fewer deaths—3500+ a year—according to official figures. One reason for going after these drugs was that their use had been declining for some years, so the Bush administration could safely predict that its drug war would “succeed” in lowering drug use.

On TV and other mass media:

The doctrinal system, which produces what we call “propaganda” when discussing enemies, has two distinct targets. One target is what’s sometimes called the “political class,” the roughly 20% of the population that’s relatively educated, more or less articulate, playing some role in decision-making. Their acceptance of doctrine is crucial, because they’re in a position to design and implement policy. Then there’s the other 80% or so of the population. These are Lippmann’s “spectators of action,” whom he referred to as the “bewildered herd.” They are supposed to follow orders and keep out of the way of the important people. They’re the target of the real mass media: the tabloids, the sitcoms, the Super Bowl and so on. These sectors of the doctrinal system serve to divert the unwashed masses and reinforce the basic social values: passivity, submissiveness to authority, the overriding virtue of greed and personal gain, lack of concern for others, fear of real or imagined enemies, etc. The goal is to keep the bewildered herd bewildered. It’s unnecessary for them to trouble themselves with what’s happening in the world. In fact, it’s undesirable—if they see too much of reality they may set themselves to change it. That’s not to say that the media can’t be influenced by the general population. The dominant institutions—whether political, economic or doctrinal—are not immune to public pressures. Independent (alternative) media can also play an important role. Though they lack resources, almost by definition, they gain significance in the same way that popular organizations do: by bringing together people with limited resources who can multiply their effectiveness, and their own understanding, through their interactions—precisely the democratic threat that’s so feared by dominant elites.

On how to discover and know the truth:

You can also do your own research. Don’t just rely on the conventional history books and political science texts—go back to specialist monographs and to original sources: National Security Memoranda and similar documents. Most good libraries have reference departments where you can find them. It does require a bit of effort. Most of the material is junk, and you have to read a ton of stuff before you find anything good. There are guides that give you hints about where to look, and sometimes you’ll find references in secondary sources that look intriguing. Often they’re misinterpreted, but they suggest places to search. It’s no big mystery, and it’s not intellectually difficult. It involves some work, but anybody can do it as a spare-time job. And the results of that research can change people’s minds. Real research is always a collective activity, and its results can make a large contribution to changing consciousness, increasing insight and understanding, and leading to constructive action.

On the effects of capitalism and the power of corporations with Mexico as an example:

Quite likely the effect will be to accelerate just what you’ve been describing—a flow of productive labor to Mexico. There’s a brutal and repressive dictatorship there, so it’s guaranteed wages will be low. During what’s been called the “Mexican economic miracle” of the last decade, their wages have dropped 60%. Union organizers get killed. If the Ford Motor Company wants to toss out its work force and hire super cheap labor, they just do it. Nobody stops them. Pollution goes on unregulated. It’s a great place for investors.

Is the USA itself safe from harm? Of course not:

A couple of years ago, Boston City Hospital—that’s the hospital for the poor and the general public in Boston, not the fancy Harvard teaching hospital—had to institute a malnutrition clinic, because they were seeing it at Third World levels. Most of the deep starvation and malnutrition in the US had pretty well been eliminated by the Great Society programs in the 1960s. But by the early 1980s it was beginning to creep up again, and now the latest estimates are thirty million or so in deep hunger. It gets much worse over the winter because parents have to make an agonizing decision between heat and food, and children die because they’re not getting water with some rice in it.

On the UN:

The US never gets condemned by a Security Council resolution, because it vetoes them. Take the invasion of Panama. There were two resolutions in the Security Council condemning the United States for that invasion. We vetoed them both.

Is Europe without blame? Hell no:

The Europeans destroyed what was in their way. That was true over almost the entire world, with very few exceptions. European wars were wars of extermination. If we were to be honest about that history, we would describe it simply as a barbarian invasion. The natives had never seen anything like it. The only ones who were able to fend it off for a while were Japan and China. China sort of made the rules and had the technology and was powerful, so they were able to fend off Western intervention for a long time. But when their defenses finally broke down in the nineteenth century, China collapsed. Japan fended it off almost entirely. That’s why Japan is the one area of the Third World that developed. That’s striking. The one part of the Third World that wasn’t colonized is the one part that’s part of the industrialized world. That’s not by accident.

To strengthen the point, you need only look at the parts of Europe that were colonized. Those parts—like Ireland—are much like the Third World. The patterns are striking. So when people in the Third World blame the history of imperialism for their plight, they have a very strong case to make.

On corporations and their wealth:

Today, the top two hundred corporations in the world control over a quarter of the world’s total assets, and their control is increasing.

Actually, in 2011, 147 corporations owned half of the world’s wealth. I don’t think that number’s gone down.

On unions, and anti-union work by big companies:

There’s been significant union-busting in Mexico.   Ford and VW are two big examples. A few years ago, Ford simply fired its entire Mexican work force and would only rehire, at much lower wages, those who agreed not to join a union. Ford was backed in this by the always-ruling PRI [the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which controlled Mexico from 1929 to 2000]. VW’s case was pretty much the same. They fired workers who supported an independent union and only rehired, at lower wages, those who agreed not to support it. A few weeks after the NAFTA vote in the US, workers at a GE and Honeywell plant in Mexico were fired for union activities. I don’t know what the final outcome will be, but that’s exactly the purpose of things like NAFTA.

Street-level crime vs white-collar crime:

The media pays a lot of attention to crime in the streets, which the FBI estimates costs about $4 billion a year. The Multinational Monitor estimates that white-collar crime—what Ralph Nader calls “crime in the suites”—costs about $200 billion a year. That generally gets ignored.

To end things, a good question:

In Elaine Briére’s documentary film on East Timor, Bitter Paradise, you say, “The press isn’t in the business of letting people know how power works. It would be crazy to expect that….They’re part of the power system—why should they expose it?” Given that, is there any point in sending op-ed pieces to newspapers, writing letters to the editor, making phone calls?

They’re all very good things to do. Our system is much more flexible and fluid than a real tyranny, and even a real tyranny isn’t immune to public pressures. Every one of these openings should be exploited, in all sorts of ways.

Very, very recommendable.

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