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Optimism of the will

Noam Chomsky's Hopes and Prospects (Hamish Hamilton), reviewed by Nick Dearden

September 27, 2010
5 min read


Nick DeardenNick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign


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The great genius of Noam Chomsky is his way of presenting supposedly radical politics as so reasonable as to be obvious, showing with great clarity how the ‘mainstream’ political establishment is truly extremist.

Hopes and Prospects lacks the painstaking detail of earlier works, based as it is on a series of lectures. To readers of Red Pepper, the book’s topics will also be nothing new – from Latin America to Palestine, the election of Obama to the 10th anniversary of the fall of Soviet communism.

But even if the information is not completely new, the clarity with which Chomsky exposes the hypocrisy, illogic and lack of democracy inherent in the current political and economic system makes you feel like you’re hearing the arguments for the first time.

Famously, Chomsky calls the current economic system ‘socialism for the rich’, and in this book he elaborates how this form of ‘state capitalism’ has created the wealth that our development is based on. ‘In the phrase “North American free trade agreement” the only accurate words are “North American”,’ says Chomsky, characterising the current trading system as constituting a series of top-down charters for investor rights.

In fact, US power has been constructed on heavy state intervention in, and protection of, the economy. Cotton production, a key element of the industrial revolution, more or less occupying the role of oil today, was facilitated through slavery and the elimination of native Americans – ‘rather extreme forms of market interference’. Even sectors of the economy regarded as textbook examples of entrepreneurialism today, like IT and communications, developed through massive military spending and state development. Paid for by taxpayers, the rewards are handed to the richest.

Chomsky considers the crucial role of the media in ‘manufacturing consent’ in modern capitalism by looking at Israel and Palestine. The consistent failure of western media to report fairly on the occupation is highlighted by its emphasis on the kidnap of Corporal Shalit in justifying Israeli aggression, while totally ignoring the capture of two Gazan civilians by Israeli forces just one day before. In reporting on Iran, the media ignores repeated attempts by Arab states, Iran and most countries in the world, excepting successive US administrations, to seek a Middle East free from all weapons of mass destruction.

In fact, increasing global militarisation is consistently supported by the US, with allies like Britain, in the teeth of opposition from most countries and people. Through their military strategy, their contribution towards climate change and their support of increasingly dangerous forms of capitalism, it is indeed these western countries that threaten the extinction of civilisation.

Chomsky will disillusion anyone who places hopes in the election of Obama. Obama’s first appointments included Rahm Emanuel, pro-war and pro-Wall Street; Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, major de-regulators of the financial sector; James Jones, fierce advocate of the expansion of Nato; and Dennis Blair, formerly a strong supporter of US ties with the barbaric President Suharto of Indonesia.

Obama’s view of the world is nothing new, excepting some rhetoric: the policy of arming and training Palestinian security forces on the West Bank to maintain tight control of society; the vilification of Iran; the support of friendly thugs such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; the use of terror centres (just not in Guantanamo); and support (albeit indirect) of the violent coup in Honduras.

This should come as no surprise, according to Chomsky, as Obama’s campaign was above all a public relations triumph (and named so by that industry – he beat Apple as ‘marketer of the year’ in Advertising Age): ‘Obama’s message of “hope” and “change” offered a virtual blank slate on which supporters could write their wishes.’ Chomsky contrasts Obama’s election with the 2005 election in Bolivia, where the campaign ‘was focused on crucial issues, very well known to voters: control of resources, cultural rights, questions of justice’.

Such a critique might be expected to depress, but the anger Chomsky’s writing provokes is complemented by an incredible hope. In particular, Chomsky never blames ordinary people, highlighting opinion poll after poll pointing out the deep desire for a more peaceful, equal and generous world.

Ultimately, however, this might be Chomsky’s biggest flaw. It is difficult to square the existence of an all-seeing, all-controlling, death-driven capitalist system with a real opening for the kind of radical change that is so necessary. The system makes no mistakes in Chomsky’s analysis – from Vietnam to Iraq, ultimately the Empire gets what it wants.

In societies where people’s emotions and drives are so expertly manipulated, it takes a real leap of faith to see these same people as agents of change – almost a belief that some innate goodness will overpower the social conditioning that keeps us passive and ineffective.

Indeed, Chomsky seems to have the same concerns, as when he invokes biologist Ernst Mayr, who speculated that higher intelligence might be an evolutionary error, incapable of survival. Perhaps ultimately he is expressing no more than the necessary optimism of the will that governs most activists’ work. With these concerns in front of us, Chomsky nonetheless remains the sharpest, clearest and most inspirational thinker the movement has. Hopes and Prospects will keep you going through a good few dark hours.

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Nick DeardenNick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign


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