Asking a question like Who Rules the World? is as complex as answering it is ambitious — nevertheless, this is the title of Noam Chomsky’s latest book. Chomsky is one of those few intellectuals in the contemporary world who have the guts to raise this bold question, when identifying the forces that rule the world is an act of defiance in itself. Chomsky is also one of those very few academicians who can do justice to such a question, with a narrative free from any kind of official influence justifying his wide acclaim as a critic of American foreign policy. He does not respond to this question bluntly by declaring that the US rules the world. Instead, he opens the debate by saying that “among states, since the end of WWII the US has been by far the first among unequals, and remains so.” This inequality identified by Chomsky forms the very foundation on which the US has built its hegemonic power to substantially influence, if not to dominate, the entire world.
Before criticising American foreign policy, Chomsky clarifies that American democracy is not as representative as it appears in theory or in state-sponsored rhetoric. Elite business interests have a deep impact on government decision-making processes. This results in a general apathy among the masses towards their political system as a whole. Former American vice president and climate change activist, Al Gore, has raised similar concerns in his polemic The Future by saying that “American democracy has been hacked,” and that the US Congress “is now incapable of passing laws without permission from the corporate lobbies and other special interests that control their campaign finances.” Early 20th century American philosopher, John Dewey, has also expressed similar views by saying that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.”
Noam Chomsky’s latest book is a compilation of essays that seeks to answer questions such as Who Rules the World?
Chomsky further strengthens his point by highlighting the fact that “big money” in the US is least bothered in addressing the real problems affecting their economy. For example, according to recent polls, a large majority of Americans (72pc) favour addressing the budget deficit by taxing the very rich. Moreover, around 70-80pc Americans oppose the decrease in government funding for public health programmes like Medicaid and Medicare. However, for several decades, government policy has not catered to public opinion in these matters. Chomsky ascribes this shift to the decade of the ’70s, when the US economy shifted toward financialisation and offshore production, resulting in the concentration of wealth — and political power — in very few hands; the top 0.1pc of the population. Nobel laureate in economics, Joseph Stiglitz, is in agreement with Chomsky and has stated that “we [the US] had become the advanced country with the highest level of inequality, and we had among the lowest levels of equality of opportunity,” and this “widening and deepening inequality is not driven by immutable economic laws, but by laws we have written ourselves.” Commenting on the woes of financial capitalism we are witnessing today, Chomsky quotes another Nobel laureate in economics, Robert Solow: “the successes [of the financial sector] probably add little to real economy, while the disasters transfer wealth from taxpayers to financiers.”
This makes it clear that it is not the American masses who formulate policies that result in negative perceptions about the US globally. In fact, it is their elite class, as has been the case throughout the history of empires that not only attempt to shape the world the way it suits their interests but also manipulate their fellow citizens by effective propaganda schemes and ‘media management’.
As far as promoting democracy abroad is concerned, Chomsky says that US support for it “is the province of ideologists and propagandists”. “In the real world,” he clarifies, “elite dislike of democracy is the norm.” Democracy is supported “only insofar as it contributes to social and economic objectives”. The US supports their favoured dictators as long as they can maintain control (as in the major oil states) and safeguard American interests in the country.
“From the outset of the war, in 1939, Washington anticipated that it would end with the United States in a position of overwhelming power. High-level State Department officials and foreign policy specialists met through the wartime years to lay out plans for the post-war world. They delineated a ‘Grand Area’ that the United States was to dominate, including the western hemisphere, the Far East, and the former British Empire, with its Middle East energy resources. As Russia began to grind down Nazi armies after Stalingrad, the Grand Area goals extended to as much of Eurasia as possible — at least its economic core, in Western Europe. Within the Grand Area, the United States would maintain ‘unquestioned power’ with ‘military and economic supremacy,’ while ensuring the ‘limitation of any exercise of sovereignty’ by states that might interfere with its global designs.” — Excerpt from the book
Chomsky also explores US support for Israeli terrorism in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. He highlights the biased role that Western media plays when reporting on the Palestine-Israel crisis. He unveils American euphemisms used to hide their barbaric acts. One of the examples quoted by Chomsky is how a former justice of the US Supreme Court, Joseph Story, described Native Americans in these words: “the wisdom of Providence caused the natives to disappear like the withered leaves of autumn even though the colonists had constantly respected them.” Chomsky is very right to point out that this statement is not only a blatant lie but that it disgraces humanity by dehumanising native populations by comparing them to “withered leaves” that are destined to be dispersed by the winds and disappear.
Chomsky concludes his chapter on human rights violations and the torture regime of the CIA on this tantalising note: “historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.”
Discussing the Arab Spring, Chomsky openly states that “the United States and its Western allies are sure to do whatever they can to prevent authentic democracy in the Arab world.” It is because of such American imperialist policies that for much of the world, the US has become, in the words of Chomsky, “the rogue superpower”.
After the 9/11 attacks and the launch of the ‘war against terror’, many in America declared it a ‘war of civilisations’. Chomsky favours the view of The New York Times columnist, Anad Giridharadas, that “it was not and never a war of civilisations or between them. But a war FOR civilisation against groups on the other side of that line.” Chomsky views American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — with costs estimated as high as $4.4 trillion — as a major victory for Osama bin Laden, whose announced goal was to bankrupt America by drowning it in the trap of global conflict.
Chomsky’s critique of American power politics on the international arena does not promote the fallacy that American government is all powerful. In fact, he has devoted a couple of chapters to probe into an apparent decline in American power. After the end of the Cold War, the world is increasingly being seen as becoming multipolar. Chomsky states, “the commonly drawn corollary — that power will shift to China and India — is highly dubious. They are poor countries with severe internal problems. The world is surely becoming more diverse, but despite America’s decline, in the foreseeable future there is no competitor for global hegemonic power.”
As the book is a collection of essays that can be read as standalone pieces; lacking a defined structure, it has a repetitive character with similar issues being discussed in chapter after chapter. Nevertheless, the diversity of the issues discussed in the book — ranging from American imperialism to the rise of China, the role of the US in Latin America to the Middle East, US domestic economic policy to climate change politics — is symptomatic of the complexity of the world we inhabit today. What can be inferred from the book is Chomsky’s vision of a future, better world where the question, ‘what principles and values rule the world?’ would be more relevant than the more crude question, ‘who rules the world?’
The reviewer is a civil servant and a freelance writer.
Who Rules the World?
By Noam Chomsky
Metropolitan Books | Macmillan, USA
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 11th, 2016