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Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky

4.42  ·  Rating details ·  7,394 ratings  ·  538 reviews
A major new collection from "arguably the most important intellectual alive" (The New York Times). 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 assem ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published February 1st 2002 by The New Press
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This really is the indispensable Chomsky. It's a summary of his views on just about everything.

Many of Noam's views are very left wing, progressive, anti-American policy, anti-Israel policy ... so a lot of people care not much for him. He is to me the most rational, truth seeking person I've read.

The book is not "writings" of Chomsky's. Rather it is edited transcriptions of Q&A sessions from a great number of teach-ins and college talks that he has given over the years. The editing has been done
David M
Jun 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
First read Chomsky as a teenager. At first I couldn't believe what he was saying.

I never wanted to be a radical; it's just that when I started checking the footnotes I couldn't stop.
Leonard Gaya
Nov 30, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Apart from his scientific work on linguistics (notably his groundbreaking generative grammar theory), Noam Chomsky has always been quite outspoken about his political views, ever since his criticism of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He also contributed quite substantially to media studies and the questioning of propaganda in America (see Manufacturing Consent). Today, albeit in his 90s, Chomsky is still quite combative and a towering — in fact, a rock-star-like — figure in left-libertarian ...more
Apr 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Want to understanding international politics? Want to know how to read between the lines of the days headlines? Want to know where to start with Noam Chomsky? The answer to all those questions is: Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky.
Thomas Ray
Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, 2002, based on talks he gave 1989–1999. 401 pages. isbn 1565847032. 449 pages of footnotes at

Real power is not in the political system. It’s in the private economy: that’s where the decisions are made about what’s produced, how much is produced, what’s consumed, where investment takes place, who has jobs. Political changes can make only a minor difference. So long as power remains privately concentrated, everybo
Dec 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own, government

Chomsky is a national and international treasure. It saddens me that his life won't go on for another 50 years.

There's so much good content here so I'll just pick one passage. Chomsky is speaking no later than 1999:

Actually, I think that the United States has been in kind of a pre-fascist mood for years--and we've been lucky that every leader who's come along has been a crook. See, people should always be very much in favor of corruption - I'm not kidding about that. Corruption's a very good thi
Aug 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Understanding Power is quite brilliant. Chomsky is a damn intelligent and refreshingly frank human being; I simply can’t recommend this enough.

Here are some of the choicest points Mr. Chomsky made:

"Look, every government has a need to frighten its population, and one way of doing that is to shroud its workings in mystery. The idea that a government has to be shrouded in mystery is something that goes back to Herodotus [ancient Greek historian]. You read Herodotus, and he describes how the Medes
Kaelan Ratcliffe ▪ كايِلان راتكِليف
The Future Of History

I believe this to be the ultimate way to understand and experience Chomskys work. It strikes the perfect balance. For those who find his lectures / talks too dry and dull, yet struggle with his written work due to its academic nature, this provides an excellent compromise. By transcribing many conversations the Professor has had over the years, we as readers are able to read - in a relatively informal language - dozens of topics discussed by the man.

My attention never w
I'm always afraid of reading political things (A) because I'm scared of it being completely over my head and (B) because I'm aware that I have a tendency to uncritically accept what people say [which makes for a lot of fun if you read different points of views because everything everybody says (even the contradictory stuff) sounds 100% right:].

This book was very conversational (partly due to format, transcribed Q&A sessions and I imagine partly due to Chomsky's dislike of the idea of an 'intelle
The Good:
--From reading Chomsky to watching his lectures, this superbly edited volume of his lectures (in particular his Q&As with audiences) is the most concise.
--Another brilliant intro to pair this with is on “the Economy”: Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works - and How It Fails
--The essential Chomsky: power must always prove its legitimate uses, media propaganda model, depoliticized public, power in international affairs/foreign policy, history and changes in a
Jul 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book is a feat of editing. It condenses aspects of Chomsky's talks from across decades and references them at a separate website, Here are some favourite quotes:

You should not expect an institution to say, "Help me destroy myself," that's not the way institutions function. And if anybody inside the institution tried to do that, they wouldn't be inside it much longer.

If you're getting accepted in elite circles, chances are very strong that you're doing something wrong
Keyur Prabhu
May 25, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This should definitely be your starting point for Chomsky if you are interested.
Robb Seaton
Look, you don't need to read this book. Here's how Chomsky works:

1. Identify an authority.
2. Is it necessary? If not, dismantle it.

How do you identify an authority? Watch when someone gets fired, put in prison, forced to resign, etc. What aren't you allowed to say or do? What happens when you push something too far?

Now, I'm partial to this algorithm, but it's not at all obvious that it's a good idea, for all the same reasons that it's not obvious that it's a good idea to eradicate an unnecessar
Nov 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a necessary, indispensable book for modern mankind. You must read it.

Noam Chomsky is now 91 years old. His voice has become faint and slow and I suspect he will not be with us much longer, but what a contribution he has made not only in his professional life studying language but in his private life as the premier critic of the American way of life and the American empire. The man is not simply a genius, but broadly so and of a kind beneficial to all of us. He holds the title at MIT of "
May 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: academic, non-fiction
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 ...more
An eye-opening book which is accessible for almost everyone to read without too much trouble and a great introduction to many topics surrounding the politics of Power. Packed within these 400 pages, Chomsky discusses US foreign policy & US politics in general, Israel, Palestine & the Middle East, histories of labour and social movements, propaganda techniques of the mainstream media, the military-industrial complex and the UN to name just a few. He also talks about activism and the need for peop ...more
Nov 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Cautionary tale: If you are a conscientious liberal person believing in human rights , reading this book will fill you up with unbridled rage.

It's a collection of Chomsky's talks with general public over two decades or so. Chomsky basically reveals things what nobody else will tell you, because the media tells you only what the power wants it to tell. He will tell you how the big corporations run the 'military -industrial complex' for their own profit, and keep the public soothed by framing the
Aaron Gertler
Dec 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
"I never wanted to be a radical; it's just that when I started checking the footnotes I couldn't stop."

Statements about power that are often true:
* Power is brutal.
* People with power use it brutally.
* People who have been powerful for a long time have also been brutal for a long time.

Noam Chomsky writes about power, and the way it has been used (brutally) by the United States. He also writes about language, and how we settle into ways of using it that distort our perceptions. This is one
Tadas Talaikis
Summary of some points in my own words:

1. Nothing is hidden in the public records about imperial terrorism network, because officials are disciplined. Problem is that average Americans never look or read them.
2. Manufacturing consent. If you lose trust of people when using power, then you just need better indoctrination through highly centralized and concentrated corporate media propaganda.
3. American "democracy" is a belief that people should be ruled by a class of "elites". Translating from Am
Mar 03, 2010 rated it liked it
Chomsky is one of the critical deans of American political history: ironic and pessimistic; forever probing and analyzing the decrepitude, deceit, and delusion rife within the ready presentation and understanding of the United States as an exceptional force of good in the world, and a constant decrier of the various means and manipulations the government and media undertake to stoke this view; content in generally limiting himself to pointing out the flaws in the system, the hypocrisy and moral ...more
Jan 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Not assembled by Chomsky, but by some genius editors who organized and very precisely cut pieces of many interviews with him. I loved the format. The covered a much broader range of topics than I expected and the more conversational style made it a lot easier to swallow.

Now, to the more complicated part of the review – the content itself. Based on knowing a little bit about Chomsky, my approach to listening the book was to pay closer attention to the facts and explanations how and why the works
Jan 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
If you haven't read Chomsky, this is a good place to start. It's a well-edited collection of Chomsky's talks, so it's rather wide-ranging, but it always circles back to the same themes so it doesn't seem scattered. I started this a few days after the presidential election, hoping it could help me with the universal question: "What the Fuck?" It did, sort of. Take this, for example:

I think that the United States has been in kind of a pre-fascist mood for years -- and we've been very lucky that e
Zach Cohen
Dec 30, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This is the best single source of Chomsky's work I've come across. A triumph of editing, this book is made up of excerpts of talks Chomsky gave throughout the 80s and 90s. Loosely organized by topic, the book is highly flowing and readable. It includes an encyclopedic reference section available online that is longer than the main text of the book. This is where I recommend anyone not familiar with Chomsky's work to begin; it's the most comprehensive and accessible compilation of his thoughts. M ...more
May 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Literally changes your world view. I've seen a lot of people mention how they became disillusioned at mainstream media and even stopped following politics and news in general because this book showed them how hopeless the status quo is. But I arrived at the exact opposite conclusion. Chomsky reads between the lines, and breaks down events in a lucid and satisfying way. You need not give up on news altogether, just need to learn how to process it. 10/10 highly recommended for anyone ...more
Jul 03, 2010 added it
Intentions Good, Views Dangerous: Understanding Power is, without question, the most comprehensive and compelling presentation of Noam Chomsky's ideas. Reading this book will change the way you see the world. If you are interested in Chomsky, it is likely that you are a noble person who genuinely cares for others and yearns for a better world. Beware, reader, and make sure you choose the right vehicle for your hope. While his intentions are for a peaceful, safe, and healthy world, Chomsky's poli ...more
Avi Singh
Jun 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites, non-fic
Understanding Power is a collection of discussions sessions that Chomsky has had with attendees of his talks. The discussions covered in this book happened in 1989-1999, and discuss US policies in the 1960-1990 period. The central thesis behind Chomsky's arguments is that the US is essentially a plutocracy, and is backed up with a lot of evidence - a substantial portion of which comes from those in power itself - declassified documents, memoir written by bureaucrats, articles in right-wing news ...more
Jul 28, 2010 rated it really liked it
Having only read Chomsky in snippets here and there, I thought this book was a broad, accessible introduction to Chomsky's thoughts on the issues for which he is best known in pop culture (those relating to politics and power). Regardless of what one ultimately thinks of Chomsky's opinions (and he reiterates constantly that his intent is to provoke discussion, not to provide all the answers), the man is at least important to understand for modern democratic citizens. His knowledge of global curr ...more
Feb 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
See, there's an experiment going on. The experiment is:

Can you marginalize a large part of the population, regard them as superfluous, because they're not helping you make those dazzling profits and can you set-up a world in which a production is carried out by most oppressed people with the fewest rights in the most flexible labor markets for the happiness of the rich people of the world?

Can you do that?

Can you get women in China work locked into factories where they're burned to death in fi
Redouan Elkham
Aug 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics
If you want to have a clear, total , clever understanding of what does world policy stands for or how powerful countries enslaving poor people in and out the borders, Chomsky's books are the best to get all the enlightenments you need.
Thanks Chomsky and all the intellectuals who are aiming at serving humanity with no fear or hesitation.
AbdulRahman AlHamali
Nov 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Understanding Power is a series of transcribed discussions between Chomsky and activists that occurred during the late 80's and the 90's. In these discussions, Chomsky explains his opinions about how the media works, and about the power dynamics in our current world. In addition, Chomsky discusses thoroughly his beliefs about the state of activism in the world; how it has helped change our world, how it can remain effective, where is stands nowadays, and what challenges it faces.
The book is a gr
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Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, political activist, author, and lecturer. He is an Institute Professor and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Chomsky is credited with the creation of the theory of generative grammar, considered to be one of the most significant contributions to the field of linguistics made in the 20th century. H

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“Look, part of the whole technique of disempowering people is to make sure that the real agents of change fall out of history, and are never recognized in the culture for what they are. So it's necessary to distort history and make it look as if Great Men did everything - that's part of how you teach people they can't do anything, they're helpless, they just have to wait for some Great Man to come along and do it for them.” 48 likes
“...the qualifications that I have to speak on world affairs are exactly the same ones Henry Kissinger has, and Walt Rostow has, or anybody in the Political Science Department, professional historians—none, none that you don't have. The only difference is, I don't pretend to have qualifications, nor do I pretend that qualifications are needed. I mean, if somebody were to ask me to give a talk on quantum physics, I'd refuse—because I don't understand enough. But world affairs are trivial: there's nothing in the social sciences or history or whatever that is beyond the intellectual capacities of an ordinary fifteen-year-old. You have to do a little work, you have to do some reading, you have to be able to think but there's nothing deep—if there are any theories around that require some special kind of training to understand, then they've been kept a carefully guarded secret.” 31 likes
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