Trevor's Reviews > Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy

Failed States by Noam Chomsky
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Jun 10, 08

bookshelves: economics, social-theory

Reading Chomsky always disturbs me. I’m left feeling washed out and despondent. He presents the problems of the world so vividly that it is impossible not to be confronted by the enormity of the issues that confront us. He re-values and re-evaluates received wisdom, the sorts of views we get from watching news programs or reading current affairs articles, to such an extent that one is left wondering if everything we are ever told is basically just another lie. Because that is it – one comes away from reading a book by Chomsky knowing that one has been lied to – and feeling furious at those who have done the lying.

How much easier the world must have seemed when the evil empire was the Soviet Union and that was where Orwell’s vision of 1984 was being played out. Now, we are all Winston Smiths – though some of us haven’t worked out just how many lies we have been told, are being told, need to be told.

This might make reading Chomsky sound like reading a book by the ultimate conspiracy theorist. No, the most frightening thing about Chomsky is that he does not require there to be a conspiracy – the system maintains itself, the system is self-correcting.

This is even a more shocking book than Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. Why? It is hard to say. Perhaps it is because I came away from reading Chomsky feeling that there is little or no hope for the world. Chomsky has hope, it is just this is based on people doing what is right – and I’ve seen too little evidence that people will, when confronted with an alternative, chose right. Want proof? Count the SUVs in your street. I’m thinking of having stickers made up that read, “I’m an Environmental Terrorist and I Vote” to put on the windscreens of these hideous monstrosities.

Take Chomsky’s view of the possibility of there being a nuclear war. Since the end of the Cold War one would be excused for thinking that this would seem like an incredibly unlikely outcome – that it would seem to have been an eventuality that we have somehow managed to avoid. But, as Chomsky makes plain, we are at greater risk now than ever before – partly because we think we are under no threat at all. Nuclear disarmament – that’s so 1980s.

The sub-title of this book is The abuse of power and the assault on democracy. The main thesis is that the United States fits the criteria generally presented as a failed state, however, when the US does its stuff, both at home and abroad – this dysfunctional society stuff Bush seems to have become a specialist in – it is ignored, or in fact, not even noticed, on the basis that as the world’s only super-power, as the world’s centre of power, the US can simply write its own rules to suit.

Sometimes I meet up with a group of guys I used to work with and have a curry for lunch and we talk furiously about the state of the world. At these times I quickly learn the gaps I have in my knowledge of recent events. I take an interest in politics, but it is as if the world is set up to confuse and misinform. At one of the more recent lunches we were discussing Kosovo and how the NATO intervention had to happen to protect the region from ethnic cleansing and genocide. Here, at least, one of my friends argued, is a case of pure beneficence on the part of the US acting as it ought to act elsewhere. Furthermore, it was an act that was unlikely to present the US with any ‘benefit’ in and of itself. There is no oil in Kosovo and therefore any aid the US presented was obviously done purely for altruistic motives.

Chapter Three of this book Illegal but Legitimate puts paid to this argument, unfortunately. The fact that there was no ethnic cleansing prior to the NATO bombing, that the NATO bombing was clearly designed to incite precisely this response, that much of what is said about this war is written backwards – as if the convenient excuse for the bombing was manifest in what actually happened, rather than completely contradicted by events – all of this is explained in gut wrenching detail.

The most shocking facts in the book, however, are about the assault on democracy that occurs in the US itself. During the last presidential election in the US Kerry made sure that his policy to expand health insurance wouldn’t result in a new government program as there was ‘clearly no support for such an idea’. However, surveys conducted prior to the election point out that two-thirds of the electorate not only would favour extended health insurance – they actually thought it was already a right of all Americans. Whence this disjunct between what the public believe are the key issues (and there are pages and pages of similar statistics) and what their politicians feel even able to discuss? Chomsky’s answer is that corporatism is perverting the course of democracy away from what the people want and towards what provides corporations with more power, more money and more control.

If Chomsky proves one thing, I think it is that Orwell was too optimistic in 1984. In that book Orwell assumed that people would seek the truth, eventually they would react to the totalitarian tactics of those seeking to rule over them and rebel. How naïve! Now we don’t even care that we are being lied to. Our governments can take us to war in search of ‘WMD’ and if they don’t find any they don’t even bother seeking to build their own ‘Iraqi’ weapons site – they just say, “Bugger, oh well, Saddam was a bad man anyway and once he even threatened to kill my daddy.” And people accept it. At least in Orwell’s 1984 those who rule find it necessary to lie – we are so contemptible this is no longer felt to be necessary by our masters in the worst of cases.

Ironically, even here Chomsky proves that most Americans actually believe in the rule of law – even support the United Nations role in International Relations. Yet another example of the undemocratic disjunct between the US government and the will of the US people.

Democracy is a gift from our forefathers; it is too precious to give away without a fight. If you are not sure what it is that we are going to lose then this is a good book to read. It really is time to become angry, there is too much at stake otherwise.

Many people I know make the smug statement that – as everyone knows – Americans just don’t get irony. Chomsky proves that this isn’t the case. His book has moments of blinding irony. But the point is that idiots don’t get irony – but that is because they have been trained by our media, by our culture, not to think. Whether they are in the US or Australia or Britain – too many people are expected to disinherit themselves from the democratic process. We must resist this – despite the fact elections today are often anything but ‘democratic’ – we must do what we can to focus the minds of those being elected onto the issues that directly impact on the majority of the citizens of our countries.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Helen (Helena/Nell) Oh dear. Yes and yes. I should read this book.

Trevor Be warned, it is unrelenting.

Helen (Helena/Nell) Like life itself...

Trevor The other disturbing thing about this book that I failed to mention was his take on the ‘problems of an ageing population’ and the inevitable societal pain this will cause when baby boomers retire. He points out that despite all of the hype around this, it is grossly exaggerated and unlikely to have any of the dire consequences often stated with QED written after them. It is the way these notions become received wisdom that is truly disturbing, especially when they hardly stand up to scrutiny. He makes the interesting point that this particular crisis should have already happened, as there was a time when the baby boomers were children – and therefore dependant on society and unable to economically contribute to society – and yet the world didn’t end.

Or did it?

message 5: by George (last edited Jun 15, 2008 05:47PM) (new)

George The most depressing thing about the Kosovo issue was the readiness with which "the serious press" and "thinking people on the left" embraced the blatant propaganda of human rights, ethnic cleansing, humanitarian intervention etc with which the US dressed its aggression. Even a cursory attempt to follow the actual thread of events would have made it crystal clear that "ancient ethnic hatreds" were being systematically bred and manipulated to justify intervention [read dismemberment] by the Enlightened West. I remember arguing with a lot of people who would readily concede the US's unrelenting past record of imperial terror but believed that somehow, on this occasion, they were doing the "right thing". The inculcated belief that "it was all too messy, its the Balkans after all", opened the space for the triumph of one-liner discussion stoppers like "Would you rather we just stood by and let it happen?", "The US is damned if it intervenes, and damned if it doesn't", and so on. Of course all this training of world public opinion was a preliminary to doing "the right thing" whenever we needed to reclaim our oil from under their sand. You are right Trevor, Orwell was an optimist. Perhaps the spirit of our times is best summed up in this four liner by Harold Pinter:


There's no escape.
The big pricks are out.
They'll fuck everything in sight.
Watch your back.

Harold Pinter Februrary 2003"

message 6: by Tim (new)

Tim Haha! Fantastic quote!

message 7: by Tim (new)

Tim Every time I listen to Chomsky talk I am reminded that I have made the right decision to never bring children into this world. The problems we now face just seem so vast and overwhelming.

Trevor Can't really agree, Tim - I've two and a life without them is unthinkable.

message 9: by Tim (new)

Tim I'm sure. I don't doubt that, and a part of me envies you. I guess my choice was made partly due to the fact that I live in Africa. Things can fall apart so quickly here. The stress we all live under places enormous strain on relationships. My friends with children worry terribly about the future and what our country will be like when their children grow up. And on a personal level, I find it hard enough, as an artist of very limited means, to look after two dogs.

message 10: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Tim wrote: "Every time I listen to Chomsky talk I am reminded that I have made the right decision to never bring children into this world. The problems we now face just seem so vast and overwhelming."

My mother studied with Chomsky and that was exactly what she said about having children! Coincidence -- or NOT?!

Trevor We can all be glad your mum stopped listening to him then, Miriam.

message 12: by Ted (new)

Ted I didn't grow up until I started becoming familiar with Noam Chomsky. That was what, no more than 10 years ago? I'd heard of him, but never heard him speak, or read anything by him. So you see, it takes some people an awful long time to lose their naivete. (I'm 67 now.)

Trevor If you can get a chance to see Manufacturing Consent - seems to be available here I can't recommend it too highly. Fascinating stuff about the media and remarkably similar to the views on the subject by my mate Bourdieu.

I've been meaning to write a review of the Foucault / Chomsky debate on Dutch television which I read recently - but just haven't had time.

message 14: by Ted (new)

Ted I finished reading his Understanding Power a while ago, which might summarize his thoughts on a host of issues - since everything really is about power, those who have it, and the rational things they do to keep it. Unfortunately I haven't been able to face up to reviewing it yet.

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