Friday, June 10, 2005

Book review

If you're looking for an interesting read on world politics, I recommend Hegemony or Survival, by Noam Chomsky. It's a fascinating read on the concept of Wilsonian idealism, as posited in world politics, and especially as posited in American politics.

If you're not familiar with the term "Wilsonian idealism", here is a good passage from the book (page 5):

Controlling the general population has always been a dominant concern of power and privilege, particularly since the first modern democratic revolution in seventeenth-century England. The self-described "men of best quality" were appalled as a "giddy multitude of beasts in men's shapes" rejected the basic framework of the civil conflict raging in England between king and Parliament, and called for government "by countrymen like ourselves, that know our wants," not by "knights and gentlemen that make us laws, that are chosen for fear and do but oppress us, and do not know the people's sores." The men of best quality recognized that if the people are so "depraved and corrupt" as to "confer places of power and trust upon wicked undeserving men, they forfeit their power in this behalf unto those that are good, though but a few." Almost three centuries later, Wilsonian idealism, as it is standardly termed, adopted a rather similar stance. Abroad, it is Washington's responsibility to ensure that the government is in the hands of "the good, though but a few." At home, it is necessary to safeguard a system of elite decision-making and public ratification - "polyarchy," in the terminology of political science - not democracy.

The first phrase in that quote, "controlling the general population has always been a dominant concern of power and privilege", might seem a bit extreme, if you haven't been studying such things. But this is the central point he goes on to prove through the rest of the book: Everything America does, it does to retain its power over the world (especially it's financial control). It does this externally, by sponsoring death and destruction in other countries, and it does it internally, by misinforming its population on the issues.

(My reading on such things lately has led me to believe that Bush II has taken things to new extremes, when it comes to disinformation. However, Chomsky points out, through numerous examples and documentation, that it's something Washington has always done.)

Another point that may surprise you, if you have a TV (and have therefore been subject to American rhetoric for your entire life), is that the leaders in America don't really care too much for democracy, because when people are given the right to vote, there's always a chance they might vote in their own interests, rather than in the interests of Washington.

As an example, he mentions Turkey, who refused to allow give America everyhing it wanted when it came to the war in Iraq. Why? Well, because the population of Turkey was overwhelmingly opposed to the war. But Washington did not like this! They were furious with Turkey's leaders, for submitting to the will of their democratic people. As Chomsky says (p. 136):

The presuppositions are clear. Strong governments disregard their populations and "accept the role" assigned to them by the global ruler; weak governments succumb to the will of 95 percent of their population.

Chomsky, an American, also takes a hard look at 9-11. Especially at the view that the world was different after 9-11 (p.191):

Let us turn to the belief that 9-11 signaled a sharp change in the course of history. That seems questionable. Nevertheless, something dramatically new and different did happen on that terrible day. The target was not Cuba, or Nicaragua, or Lebanon, or Chechnya, or one of the other traditional victims of international terrorism, but a state with enormous power to shape the future. For the first time, an attack on the rich and powerful countries succeeded on a scale that is, regrettably, not unfamiliar in their traditional domains. Alongside horror at the crime against humanity and sympathy for the victims, commentators outside the ranks of Western privilege often responded to the 9-11 atrocities with a "welcome to the club," particularly in Latin America, where it is not so easy to forget the plague of violence and repression that swept through the region from the early 1960s, or its roots.

Although I don't have any quotes handy, you should know that one of the most important points Chomsky makes in this book is that America is the biggest sponser of terrorism in the world, by a large factor; the only difference is that when America does it, it's called "counter-terrorism", whereas when anyone else does it, it's called "terrorism".

When the attitude in Latin America is "welcome to the club", it can't be surprising, when you consider how many hundreds of thousdands (millions?) of Latin Americans have been killed, either directly or indirectly, by America. (When I say "indirectly", I mean that someone else did the actual killing, but America gave them the money, the weapons, and in many cases even the training.)

So how did America's leadership respond to 9-11? On page 217, we see the following:

Those at the center of power relentlessly pursue their own agendas, understanding that they can exploit the fears and anguish of the moment. They may even institute measures that deepen the abyss and may march resolutely toward it, if that advances the goals of power and privilege. They declare that it is unpatriotic and disruptive to question the workings of authority - but patriotic to institute harsh and regressive policies that benefit the wealthy, undermine social programs that serve the needs of the great majority, and subordinate a frightened population to increased state control. "Literally before the dust had settled" over the World Trade Center ruins, Paul Krugman reported, influential Republicans signaled that they were "determined to use terrorism as an excuse to pursue a radical right-wing agenda." He and others have documented the relentless pursuit of that agenda. A natural reaction of concentrated power to any crisis, it was unusually ugly in this case.

Same story, different day.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't have a happy ending. As the title implies, Chomsky's thesis is that America has a choice: Continue down the road of hegemony, and thus destroy the world, or give up on it, and survive. Chomsky believes the leadership is going to continue down the same path it always has.

To move to another domain, the Bush administration has been widely criticized for undermining the Kyoto Protocol on grounds that to conform would harm the US economy. The criticisms are in a sense odd, because the decision is not irrational within the framework of existing ideology. We are instructed daily to be firm believers in neoclassical markets, in which isolated individuals are rational wealth maximizers. If distortions are eliminated, the market should respond perfectly to their "votes," expressed in dollars or some counterpart. The value of a person's interests is measure the same way. In particular, the interests of those with no votes are valued at zero: future generations, for example. It is therefore rational to destroy the possibility for decent survival for our grandchildren, if by so doing we can maximize our own "wealth" - which means a particular perception of self-interest constructed by vast industries devoted to implanting and reinforcing it. The threats to survival are currently being enhanced by dedicated efforts not only to weaken the institutional structures that have been developed to mitigate the harsh consequences of market fundamentalism, but also to undermine the culture of sympathy and solidarity that sustains these institutions.

(from pages 234-235)

The central goal of Washington is to maintain control over the world, and that won't change. Chomsky mentions grassroots movements as a potential solution to American hegemony, but personally, I have my doubts. If such movements take place outside of America, they won't do as much good to change it from the inside; on the other hand, Americans, even with the best of intentions, can't be trusted to give up their own wealth and luxury.

Even the poorest in America live better than most of the world, and I don't see Americans being willing to give that up. But that's just me.

I wish I could the book better justice in this post, but in order to do so, I'd have to post the whole thing... If you'd like more information, you can go to the book's web site.