The prolific author, linguist, and political activist Noam Chomsky asks us in the title of his recent book, ‘Who rules the world?’ But, what he really means is more precisely ‘Who should rule the world?’ or at least ‘What are the consequences of the decisions of today’s rulers?’
We know that this is the case because Chomsky is not the slightest bit ambivalent that an answer to the book’s title is readily available: a small elite in the United States as well as a handful of other Anglophone countries. Chomsky is particularly critical of post-World War II foreign policy planners in the United States and proponents of neoliberal economics. The former made the assumption that the world was the United States to control while the latter is responsible for reviving the laissez-faire economics of the 19th century that includes slashing tax rates, eliminating trade barriers and business regulation, and shrinking the role of the government in economic affairs. If a typical person in the world were asked the question, “Who rules the world?” they might well answer the United States. But, a core part of Chomsky’s argument is that the plight of individual people matter more than the artificial state, but matter less to policy planners. Most Americans have suffered, according to Chomsky, right along with other victims of American power.
Of course, those that Chomsky claims to be victims of their own country are often the first to defend it. The feeling abounds in the United States that it is a special country, even one with divine blessing. Early on in the European colonization of North America, it was popular to compare the area to Christ’s parable in the Sermon on the Mount in which he speaks of the “shining city upon a hill” that sends out its light for the world to see. John Winthrop originally made the comparison in 1630 and it was a particular favorite of Ronald Reagan. The tragic irony, as Chomsky points out, is that even while these myths were being formed, a genocide of historical proportions was being carried out against the native populations – first in what was to become the United States, then in Canada, and finally in Australia. While Spanish and Portuguese colonization is hard to be praised, in areas of the world where they ruled the native populations intermarried with settlers. In areas like the United States, they were systematically exterminated. In one telling passage, Chomsky mentions the Great Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that depicts a Native American with a scroll emerging from his mouth that reads: “Come over and help us.” The clear lesson is that America routinely excuses its behavior by declaring it to be ordained by God for the beneficence of “less developed” cultures and the world at large. Since native populations weren’t creating value through private ownership of the land it was incumbent on settlers to improve things.
The Great Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1629. Several unfortunate realities of the world today are then traced to the founding myth of the United States including the United States’ policy in the Middle East and Latin America – a policy that is often anti-democratic while claiming to be the opposite. Significant time is spent in the book on hypocrisy in the United States’ dealings with Israel. While Israel builds settlements and keeps the Palestinian population in subservient poverty, the United States looks the other way and continues generous aid programs to Israel. Dictators from Chile to Indonesia have been embraced in exchange for their anti-Marxist viewpoints. Democracy itself is opposed since the vast majority of the world views American power with suspicion.
Examples of this suspicion include Iran, which Chomsky clearly does not see as a threat. Following the invasion of Iraq by the United States and its’ allies, it was only natural that countries like Iran and North Korea would develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Other examples are given of the American viewpoint of China, where the United States often sees as its right the unfettered access to waters near the Chinese coast, but would never accept Chinese ships in the Caribbean.
Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Oval Office in 2010. Neoliberalism is another of Chomsky’s targets. That new school of laissez-faire economics has been resurgent since the 1970s and is largely responsible for the significant off-shoring of manufacturing capacity from the rich to the poor world. While Chomsky believes that it is harmful to the United States as a whole, it’s been incredibly helpful in increasing wealth among the already ultra-rich. The best illustration of his view is in his discussion of the “tragedy of the commons,” with a wildly different take on the concept than the one you learned in basic economics. The tragedy of the commons is typically seen as the result of a misalignment of incentives through common ownership of land – since land commonly owned did not provide private incentives, its’ users often over-consumed and ruined the land. Chomsky returns to the time of the Magna Carta when a companion document, the Charter Forest, preserved the rights of free men to have access to Royal forest lands for firewood, livestock grazing, agriculture, and lumber. Chomsky sees the Commons as functioning just fine until commodity capitalism privatized vast swaths of land and encouraged wasteful and exploitative use. All of this bodes poorly for the future as continued American hegemony could spell the end of the environment as fossil fuel use continues unabated.
Chomsky may be too hard on the United States, or at the least critical of that country to the exclusion of others. It is, for example, true that American conduct in the Middle East has been atrocious. But, that does not fully explain the rise of radical Islamism or terrorism. The people committing these crimes are personally culpable no matter their motivations. And while Iran may be rational in its search for nuclear weapons, the human rights abuses of that regime are in no way a direct consequence of the United States. (It is true that American support for the Shah paved the way for the Ayatollah, but the regime targets freedom and human rights with no encouragement from the West.)
Doubtless, Chomsky in no way favors terrorism in any form, nor does he advocate theocracy or authoritarianism. His book focuses on the United States, seemingly, because its readers can easily find polemics attacking other forces of evil in the world. But, most Americans will never read anything critical to the core of their ideology or one that challenges the myths the United States has taken on for itself.
While migration is not a subject considered in-depth, there is a telling and somewhat haunting passage in the book:
“Much the same appears to be happening in Europe, where racism is probably more rampant than in the United States. One can only watch with wonder as Italy complains about the flow of refugees from Libya, the scene of the first post-World War I genocide, in the newly liberated east, at the hands of Italy’s Fascist government. Or when France, still today the main protector of the brutal dictatorships in its former colonies, manages to overlook its hideous atrocities in Africa while the French President Nicolas Sarkozy warns grimly of the ‘flood of immigrants’ and Marine Le Pen objects that he is doing nothing to prevent it.”
The book is bookended by a discussion of the responsibilities of intellectuals. This has been a theme of Chomsky’s since he came into public view in the 1960s. Writing at the time of the Vietnam War, Chomsky said:
“Let me finally return to Dwight Macdonald and the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who burst into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. “Why should they? What have I done?” he asked. Macdonald concludes: “Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.” The question, “What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities in Vietnam—as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.”
The best image of how Chomsky believes the United States government sees the world is when he says:
“Namely, knowing that you are massacring them but not doing so intentionally because you don’t regard them as worthy of concern. That is, you don’t even care enough about them to intend to kill them. Thus when I walk down the street, if I stop to think about it I know I’ll probably kill lots of ants, but I don’t intend to kill them, because in my mind they do not even rise to the level where it matters.”
Undoubtedly, this is largely accurate. Since the peak of American power directly after World War II, the world has slowly moved into a multi-polar state, yet, America remains far and away from the most powerful and influential country on the earth. Chomsky believes that despite the rise of India and China, those countries are not in a position to immediately take the mantle, leaving the United States at the top of the heap for the foreseeable future. All too often, people of influence in America de-humanize the rest of the world to justify their own selfishness. They see themselves as engaging in games of Risk or Monopoly, except the moves they make to take over Broadway and Park Place or install a dictator in Indonesia or Chile can have catastrophic effects on the lives of the powerless. Only by acting with rationalism fused with compassion can each of us feel at liberty to distance ourselves from these policies.
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Even when you want to disagree with Chomsky, his arguments are highly persuasive. If you fundamentally disagree with him, then you should have the self-confidence to at least consider an intelligent viewpoint in opposition to your own. Who Rules the World? is as good of an exposition of Chomsky’s worldview as any book he has written, perhaps excepting Manufacturing Consent and Hegemony or Survival. The internet has unleashed an explosion of space for non-mainstream viewpoints, such that almost everyone is free to explore viewpoints from across the spectrum. Even in that noise, however, Chomsky’s writings continue to be a source of fresh air in challenging us morally while most everyone else only seems interested in figuring out what we want to hear and giving it to us.