Home > 2016 > People-centric Critique of US State, Democracy and Hegemony

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 26 New Delhi June 18, 2016

People-centric Critique of US State, Democracy and Hegemony

Saturday 18 June 2016


by Aejaz Ahmad Wani

Masters of Mankind by Noam Chomsky; Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, (Penguin), UK; 2015; pages 167 (paperback); Price: £ 8.99.


If you wish to take your time off from the so-called “mainstream” political and economic discourses and try to surpass its boredom, there is perhaps none better than Noam Chomsky to look for. Beyond the world of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, Chomsky, rightly described by Eduard Said as a “significant challenger of unjust power and delusions”, keeps people at the centre of all knowledge and discourses. Among his huge corpus of books, his latest book, Masters of Mankind, is yet another remarkable reflection on the nature of the American state, its power structures, democracy, culture and its place in global politics. Masters of Mankind is Chomsky’s collection of seven ‘heavily loaded’ essays and lectures from 1969 to 2013. Written by a person often referred to as the ‘father of modern linguistics’, the crispness of its language is not to be judged. In fact, this album of seven essays does a job of ‘de-mainstreaming’ of your knowledge about how the world politics works.

Elitist and Authoritarian Tendencies of Intellectuals: Need for a Relevant New Left Committed to Deliberativeness 

Chomsky opens up the book with the role of the ‘intelligentsia’ in preserving the interests of ‘significant classes’ and the role that intellectuals should play in such circumstances. He notes that the power in economic life has shifted from land to capital and now more recently to the composite of knowledge and skills—comprising the techno-structure. Those who embrace this specialised knowledge are brought to the decision-making. This intelligentsia is committed to the “predatory solution of token reform at home and counterrevolutionary imperialism abroad”. Such a society is maintained only by the national mobilisation of fear and threat.

Traditionally, the intellectual is caught between the conflicting demands of truth and power. They may act in two ways. Firstly, they may seek to ascertain truth and act in collectivity or alone, outside the corridors of power. Secondly or alternatively, they may seek power to humanise the dominant classes invoking various rhetorical solutions—revolu-tionary socialism, welfare state etc. However, such efforts have more often than not led to the partisan state or a centraliser. Here lies Chomsky’s unflinching faith in ‘horizontal democracy’. He doubts that unless the whole masses take part in the determination of all aspects of social and economic life, it will merely be a new form of repression. The role of the intellectuals and radical activists must be to assess and evaluate, to persuade, to organise, but not to seek power and rule. This remedy applies particularly to the dogmatism of the Left.

He notes that there has been a general decline of parliamentary institutions, noticeable in the Western countries with the potential threat to freedom. It has occurred in Asia also, where national governments are unable to cope up with the US-based subsidised private enter-prises. In India too, the governments have cut taxes to the prosperous farmers at a time when the incomes have been rising steadily. From a liberal technocratic perspective, it could be solved by the strengthening of the federal governments; however, the control must remain vested in the managers who are best suited to manage talents. The federal governments have done nothing but supported this private capital which ultimately benefits the technocratic elite. In a society where wealth and income becomes the overarching goal, it becomes impossible to challenge the prevailing ideology and mobilise the popular support for general welfare.

He argues, with considerable historical conviction, that intellectuals have inherent elitist and authoritarian tendencies which can be vigorously combated only if there is an active, untrammelled and energetic mass participation in planning, decision-making about recons-truction of social institutions. This alone can create a ‘spiritual transformation’.

Chomsky asserts that the Left is undergoing an intellectual bankruptcy in that they are apprehensive of confrontations that any effective political action may cause. To avoid political backlash, they delay a confrontation and essentially maintain elitist and authoritarian forms of organisation. Another such danger that Leftists are apprehensive of is co-optation, which they believe may cause integration of proletariats with the industrial society. If that be the case, then, Chomsky wonders, they are opposed to everything imaginable.

He argues that universities are the spaces where the transformation can be brought and an agency or base for social change. This alone can reinvigorate the New Left with some real intellectual skills committed to deliberativeness. The Left needs to understand the present badly and the possibilities of the alternatives. The authoritarian tendencies of intellectuals are deeply grounded but not inescapable.

Legitimate Wars: Debating Legitimacy of Pre-emptive Strikes

In the second essay, Chomsky revisits the standard rules of a just war, particularly Michael Walzer’s views on ‘pre-emptive strikes’ (right to strike if there is “a manifest intent to injure or a degree of active preparation...that greatly magnifies the risk”) which is being considered as a latest ‘morally justifiable’ addition in the just war theory.

According to Chomsky, in a review of 2500 years, Walzer finds only a single example of aggression involving no direct use of force, that is, the Israeli pre-emptive strike of June 4, 1967 against Egypt. For Walzer, this constitutes a moral revision of the legalistic standard. Chomsky argues that such an argument is more than an academic one. First, Walzer’s analysis is based on Israel’s point of view; it squarely ignores the Egyptian side of the story, that an exchange of fire between them was followed by Israeli intervention. Walzer also ignores the Israeli attack on the Jordanian village, Es Samu, in November, 1966. Second, the commander of the Israeli Air Force of that time as well as the US intelligence reports indicated that there was no real threat that would have threatened the very existence of the state of Israel and no evidence that Egypt was planning an attack on Israel. Third, there was considerable agreement in the international community that Egypt’s proposal to try Israel in the ICJ had more plausible weight. Thus if this example is removed, Walzer’s extension withers away.

Furthermore, contrary to Walzer’s point that terrorism as a wanton killing of people is a post-war phenomenon, Chomsky argues that it was prevalent well before that. He acknowledges Walzer’s argument that contemporary terrorist campaigns focus more on those whose national existence has been devalued, but adds that it applies to Palestinians no less than the Jews of Israel. Israel forms the ‘’moral world” of Walzer’s analysis and this reflects the pathology of intellectual and moral bankruptcy.

Divine License to Kill: Pathologies of Christian Realism

In the third essay, Divine License to Kill, Chomsky investigates the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous American theologian who presented a ‘devastating’ critique of idealism and introduced ‘Christian realism’, a sort of realism based on Christian ideals. Niebuhr writes elsewhere: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. This understanding is conditioned by the “sinful nature of man” on earth and the “taint of sin on all historical achievements”, of ‘human possibilities’ and ‘human finiteness’. Chomsky finds Niebuhr’s ‘soothing doctrines’ devoid of historical sensi-bilities and facts, based rather on professed ideals of Christianity. The implication of such a construction is that it not only messes up the history, society and politics of America, but also presents its enemies as ‘ruthless foes’ (parti-cularly Lenin and Trotsky) who ‘swindle people by the romantic dream of ending all problems’.

Chomsky masterfully wraps up Niebuhr’s Christian realism by commenting that Niebuhr’s ‘contribution’ taught Americans how to play the ‘hard ball’ while maintaining their ‘faith’. Since the international system is anarchical in nature (given the evil nature of human beings), there is a pertinent need to make a ‘conscious choice of evil for the sake of good’. For Chomsky, this is a divine license to kill, to prescribe how to play in a criminal world without tainting oneself. This argument makes sense in the backdrop of Niebuhr’s unflinching ideological support to America against the Soviet Union.

Consent without Consent: The Catch in American Democracy

In the fourth essay, Chomsky dissects the American democracy in theory and practice. That American democracy, Chomsky notes, is marked by a lag between public preferences and public policies. Contrary to the ideals of the founding fathers of America, it has ended up as a democracy controlled by the corporates who have carried on a significant depoliticisation of the American society. The citizens are supposed to be passive and their active avatar is deemed as ‘crisis of democracy’. This has led to the conflict between the government, the enemy, and those who are living the ‘American dream’ because a majority of the people in the US believe that the economic system is ‘inherently unfair’ and that rich are getting richer and poor poorer.

Contrary to what few may view the ‘welfare state’ as a ‘correction’ of the capitalism, Chomsky warns that if at all there are concerns regarding this lag in American democracy, it is just what he calls as “benevolent autocracy” that holds the power of “calling off the capitalist game” just to keep off the threats of democracy. In fact, the founder of modern political science, Harold Lasswell, urged policy-makers to devise means of new social control in order to control people whom he called ‘ignorant and stupid’ and who needed to be tamed by ‘intelligent minorities’.

Thus, Chomsky concludes, the implementation of the corporate agendas and business policies against the will of the public takes the form of what he calls as “consent without consent”. Being in a state is taken as a tacit consent to mould the minds of the masses as per the dominant interests. For instance, the sale of arms to the undemocratic countries is opposed by around 96 per cent of the populace; yet, given the tacit consent available to the government at all times, this is portrayed as a ‘job programme’ meant for profits. Notwithstanding this peril in today’s American democracy, Chomsky is still optimistic of its slow progress.

Simple Truths and Hard Problems

In the 1990s some of the self-designated ‘enlightened states’ unleashed a ‘normative revolution’ in international affairs that goes by the name of ‘humanitarian intervention’—a ‘humanistic urge’ to liberate the ‘oppressed people’ from the clutches of diabolical rulers. However, Chomsky raises a pivotal question in the fifth essay: why did this ‘normative revolution’ emerge in the 1990s and not in the 1970s when the fact is that the latter period was riper for it? He argues that this is a simple truth that the guiding factor for creating norms is that these are made by the powerful.

Two of the significant military interventions led by the US in Vietnam and Cambodia occurred in the 1970s but they simplistically overlooked the ‘awesome crimes’ which explains why such a ‘normative revolution’ didn’t undergird the foreign policies of the states such as the US in the 1970s, which carry the ‘saintly glow’ in popular discourse. The harder problem, as Chomsky notes, is that the definition of the phenomenon of terrorism is based on the convenience of the American foreign policy. Even then, by its own standards, Chomsky argues, by investigating some crucial cases that the US not only engenders but also engages in large scale inter-national terrorism.

Who will Bail you Out from Environmental Crisis? 

In the sixth essay, Chomsky attempts to address the paradox that if the environmental crisis is lethal for the human beings at large (as we all know that), why is human intelligence focused on short-term benefits to the relegation of long- term ones? He acknowledges the ‘Third World Interest’ that the developed world caused it in the first place but warns that it would be the developing world that would be hit hard. Apart from the Third World concerns, the role of America is huge in disrupting the global conferences on environmental issues. The fact of the matter is that the ideology of neoclassical economics breeds irrationalism by convincing people that climate change is not real. In case of the environmental crisis, there would no one to bail it out. Chomsky appreciates the fact that European countries and China are spending huge amounts on green technology but the US is merely importing them but not producing them. In fact, there is a reversing trend in that the US investors are investing in China’s green technology ventures.

Can Civilisation Survive?

The last essay in the book is dedicated to the ultimate question: Can civilisation survive? Chomsky forcefully rips apart the practical logic of ‘free market capitalism’, which he claims does not exist in practice. Instead what really exists is the monopoly of the top business enter-prises giving an oligopolistic character to the global economy. The untrammelled capitalism has wrecked havoc with the environment signalling the potential dangers on the human civilisation, but, as Chomsky believes, the urge for preservation of the planet is recurrent in countries which have huge tribal, indigenous, and aboriginal populations. The irony is that even though the concern of nature is stronger among the tribal and aboriginals, the ‘civilised and sophisticated world’ laughs at their ‘silliness’.

In sum, Chomsky’s masterful analysis forces readers to ‘think for themselves’. It is a robust people-centric critique of American state, its democracy and its hegemony.

The reviewer studied at the Political Science Department, University of Delhi. He has authored the book Political Process in India. He is also the contributing author of the forthcoming book Modern South Asian Thinkers being published by Sage. He has contributed to Economic and Political Weekly and Mainstream.