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A case against self-annihilation
Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky

Reviewed by Piyush Mathur

Keep your critic close to you - s/he beautifies your yard;
without water or soap, s/he cleanses you!

- Kabeer Das

In a spot-on essay titled "The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky", Arundhati Roy dared to state the obvious: Noam Chomsky, the globally celebrated pro-democracy activist and intellectual from the United States, remains isolated at home even as the nation continues to tout its democratic traditions (The Hindu, August 24, 2003). As if in a compensatory gesture of superlative recognition from the rest of the globe, Roy noted, "When the sun sets on the American empire, as it will, as it must, Noam Chomsky's work will survive."

Roy's conviction aside, the posterity of Chomsky's work - its future survival - is as open a question as the end of US hegemony; Chomsky's isolation in the Anglo world, on the other hand, received fresh certification in the early reviews of Hegemony or Survival.

For instance, Nick Cohen of The Observer (UK) spent more than half of his review on a vague diatribe against "the Left" and chastised Chomsky for being "the master of looking-glass politics" (December 14, 2003). Samantha Power, writing for the New York Times, was hardly charitable (January 4, 2004).

"But for all that is wrong with Hegemony or Survival," Power conceded only "two reasons" for "reading Chomsky today": one, the fact that "his critiques have come to influence and reflect mainstream opinion elsewhere in the world", and two, the catastrophe that "the radicalism of the Bush administration has laid bare many of the structural defects in American foreign policy, defects that Chomsky has long assailed".

Cohen's venomous and thoroughly convoluted vagueness is thus matched by Power's peculiar specificity: She narrowly frames Hegemony or Survival as a critique of US President George W Bush's foreign policy - and rationalizes Chomsky's significance in terms of his global popularity or diplomatic image-value for the US (rather than truth-value, ethics, or genuine national introspection). Either way, a strangely defensive and rather parochial posture vis-a-vis Chomsky is on display on the part of both Cohen and Power - even though it is entirely in line with the reception Chomsky has generally been accorded in the Anglo-American world.

Beyond parochialism
In approaching the generality of Hegemony or Survival one should not - contra Cohen and Power - be blinded by the specificity of the subtitle America's Quest for Global Dominance. I say that despite the public knowledge that Chomsky is a long-term critic of US foreign policy, a role that this book only reaffirms. I say that also while being in receipt of an e-mail message by Chomsky (dated February 25, 2004) in which he underlined that "one theme of the book, stressed from the outset, is that the basic Bush Doctrines are not at all new, and in fact trace right back to the earliest days when the US began to be a global power, under FDR [president Franklin D Roosevelt], before US entry into [World War] II".

The reasons why the book definitively goes beyond its central theme are as follows.

There is something in the sheer spirit of genuine self-criticism that allows the critic - Chomsky the US citizen, in this case - to transcend her object and local context of critique and to show absolutely everyone else a way beyond parochialism. Chomsky's criticism of US foreign policy is therefore his way of providing a proper audit of global politics as a whole: no responsible thinking mind could continue to work merely with nationalistic or ethnocentric categories of policy analysis past reading Chomsky.

Second, the general thrust of the book's title is only qualified, not canceled, by the specificity of the subtitle: and so the reader is licensed to think through the book about the choice between hegemony and survival as a matter of human interest - cutting across governments and communities worldwide. So, even as Hegemony or Survival mainly provides a contemptuous lowdown on the hegemonic priorities of US foreign policy, its critical comments on repressive regimes around the world need not be ignored, nor should its criticism of the European role in world politics be slighted.

Third, Chomsky explicitly frames the whole issue of US foreign policy - policing? - as already a matter of broad evolutionary concern at the planetary level. As such, it is significant for a book in political critique to begin with a discussion of the biologist Ernst Mayr's observation that "the human form of intellectual organization may not be favored by selection" (page 1) and to end with a note on the connection between the global grassroots movements - "the emerging global bonds of sympathy and solidarity" - and "the future of our endangered species" (page 236).

Onset of global terror or ... 
Written against the backdrop of the Bush administration's response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 (including the Iraq war), Hegemony or Survival traces the penchant for supremacy and control as an element historically central to the US polity. This penchant has typically pushed US governments domestically to support "polyarchy" - "a system of elite decision-making and public ratification" - and to intervene globally to install regimes reflective of US interests (page 5). The US polity has thus twice betrayed its self-professed ideal of democracy.

On the surface it may seem that Chomsky is out to expose US political hypocrisy - the gap between its stated ideals and actual policy. What he delivers, however, is a chilling expose of the connectivity between America's governmental rhetoric of hegemonic control and implemental reality especially through World War II (but in fact going way back to the colonization of North America by European settlers).

In the latter instance, his critique of rather contemporary US interventions - such as the war on Iraq - merges with a well-illustrated denunciation of Western colonization and imperialism.

On the whole, then, the book foregrounds the continuum not only between US domestic politics and foreign policy, political rhetoric and action, but also between the old European imperialism and the global US domination past World War II. The US comes off here as the new leader of the older practice of imperialism - now overlaid with a great deal more moralizing and political evangelism than ever before: "An era of enlightenment and benevolence was upon us, in which the civilized nations, led by the US, then 'at the height of its glory', acted out of altruism and 'moral fervor' in pursuit of exalted ideals" (page 51).

Armed interventions: 'Failed' and 'successful'
Chomsky debunks the idea that such a pursuit has succeeded; in fact, and as if by way of contrast, he reminds the reader that since World War II, "there have been two major examples of resort to force that really did put an end to terrible crimes, in both cases arguably in self-defense: India's invasion of East Pakistan in 1971, ending a mass slaughter and other horrors, and Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in December 1978, terminating Pol Pot's atrocities as they were picking up through 1978. Nothing remotely comparable took place under the Western aegis in the 1990s" (page 22).

Elsewhere, he points out that "when a US-backed South African invasion came close to conquering newly independent Angola, Cuba sent troops on its own initiative, scarcely even notifying Russia, and beat back the invaders" (page 94). In a rather significant political compliment, he declares:

"The defense of Angola was one of Cuba's most significant contributions to the liberation of Africa" (page 94).

As for the Anglo-American intervention in World War II, Chomsky emphasizes that "the US and British governments, the business world, and a good deal of elite opinion" had generally harbored a favorable view of fascism for long (page 67). "By 1943," he reminds us, "the US and Britain had begun their efforts, which intensified after the war, to dismantle the anti-fascist resistance worldwide and restore something like the traditional order, often rewarding some of the worst war criminals with prominent roles" (page 69).

The highlights
The above details apart, most of the book comprises winding, original discussions of key events in the history of US foreign policy past World War II. These discussions expose many political and diplomatic myths opportunistically popularized by several quarters, especially the American state, establishment intelligentsia, and corporate media.

One such myth, for example, is that capitalism has clearly succeeded over communism as a system. Comparing them both as systems of domination - and keeping in mind that colonization and slavery provided the bedrock for the rise of Western capitalism - Chomsky concludes that "communism's ruins have many advantages over the regions that have been under unbroken Western domination for centuries" (page 146).

Akin to the above educative insight are illuminating analyses of the character and outcomes of the US interventions in the Philippines, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, East Timor, Turkey, Indonesia, the former Yugoslavia, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, Indonesia, Angola, Nicaragua - and Iraq. Overall, a rather disturbing picture emerges in which the US appears constantly striving to perpetuate what Chomsky calls its "imperial grand strategy" (page 12).

Central to that strategy is the drive for "global management" - whose "basic missions ... endured from the early postwar period [include]: containing other centers of global power within the 'overall framework of order' managed by the US; maintaining control of the world's energy supplies; barring unacceptable forms of independent nationalism; and overcoming 'crises of democracy' within domestic enemy territory" (page 16). Chomsky undertakes to unmask precisely that imperial grand strategy, peppering it with facts presumably uncomfortable to the US political establishment.

Those facts include, for example, Bob Dole's visit and assurance to Saddam Hussein in April 1990 that "a commentator on Voice of America who had been critical of him had been removed" (page 112). Also included are many eye-opening accounts of dictators intimately supported by several US governments.

Interspersed with wry humor and sarcasm, Chomsky's narrative successfully shows that the American emperor, while preaching modesty to the rest, himself struts about rather ostentatiously. Central to that narrative are the following themes: America's self-exclusion from many key global treatises; the embrace of preventive (rather than preemptive) war; the use of foreign aid as a way to manipulate the domestic politics of other nations; America's refusal to pay reparations to Nicaragua as ordered by the World Court and endorsed by the UN Security Council (the US veto notwithstanding); the US establishment's prioritization of its own international credibility over the consideration for casualties from the use of military force in the foreign lands; the exercise of democracy by many nations against US pressure; and the consistent refusal of the US establishment to learn the right and honest lessons from the nation's history.

Protecting America from itself, preserving humanity
A diehard rationalist, Chomsky views the American state, a superpower, as an institutionalized irrationality that needs to be prevented from both self-destruction and world destruction - through strategic recourse by all thinking minds to the "second superpower": "world public opinion" (pages 253, 10). He backs up even this philosophical-sounding claim by invoking the massive empirical evidence of global opinion polls that have typically cast a thoroughly negative light on the actions of the US government.

Chomsky deems US polity destructive because its "basic principle is that hegemony is more important than survival" (page 231). As such, he views the peculiar framework of the economic globalization of the 1990s, orchestrated to a great extent by the US ruling elite, as yet another step toward self-destruction - especially because it equates the economic structure of the neoclassical market with the political structure of democracy.

In this setting, "the interests of those with no votes are valued at zero: future generations, for example. It is therefore rational," Chomsky argues, "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" (pages 233-234). "The threats to survival," he goes on to underline, "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" (page 235).

In words reminiscent of Rajni Kothari, Chomsky sums up by arguing that there are "two trajectories in current history: one aiming toward hegemony, acting rationally within a lunatic doctrinal framework as it threatens survival; the other dedicated to the belief that 'another world is possible', in the words that animate the World Social Forum ..." (page 236).

Going by Chomsky's vote - for the latter of the above two - the world should gear up to save the Unites States from itself in order to save itself from the United States. President Bush's fervent appeals for international help through his rather intractable Iraqi crisis suggest that Chomsky may just have a point.

Chomsky's critics tend to accuse him of simplification, cynicism, overly idealistic reasoning (amounting to anarchic irrationality), and even anti-Americanism. As far as the accusation of anti-Americanism or lack of patriotism is concerned, I only need to urge those critics to pull themselves out of their parochial slumber and cultivate the maturity necessary to appreciate genuine criticism. If those critics succeed in accomplishing the above, they might just be able to figure out how Chomsky's reflexive criticism more than qualifies to command global significance as an intellectual and humanitarian achievement.

In relation to the other charges, it is painful to come to terms with Power's usage of words such as "raging" and "seethes" to characterize the expression of Hegemony or Survival, a book written in patently non-sentimental register (admittedly sprinkled with sardonic humor). Equally painful is the import of simplistic reductionisms into, and their imposition upon, Chomsky's highly nuanced analysis - by both Power and Cohen.

Nothing short of ideological or personal bias or lack of reading skills could lead Power to suggest, blandly, that for Chomsky "the world is divided into oppressor and oppressed", and that he considers it "easy to get the balance right between liberty and security, or democracy and equality - or to figure out what the hell to do about Pakistan".

Power also actively misrepresents Chomsky in suggesting that he can't distinguish between US air strikes in Serbia from the September 11 attacks, and in intuiting that he thinks "that individuals within the American government are not thinking seriously about the costs of alliances with repressive regimes".

There is no evidence in this book to validate the foregoing claims about Chomsky by Power; outside this book, if Chomsky were to choose the path of analytical simplicity, he would not have spent his lifetime attempting to challenge conventional explanations offered by US state agencies, mainstream media, or, for that matter, by the global ruling elite.

For all that, and contra Power, Chomsky is anything but "accustomed to preaching to an uncritical choir".

Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company: New York, 2003; 278 pages. Price: US $22 (hardcover).

Piyush Mathur, PhD, an alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Virginia Tech, USA, is an independent observer of world affairs, the environment, science and technology policy, and literature.

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Jul 10, 2004


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