Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On Chomsky's Driving Forces in US Foreign Policy

On Chomsky’s “Driving Forces in US Foreign Policy.” This talk is from last summer, but it just caught up to me now.  I've summarized bits of the 2-hour long talk and discussion.  It's all Chomsky's words, but the paragraphs are differently ordered under headings below:

On Global Warming and Nuclear Weapons 

The security of state power and concentrated private power is a driving force in state policy. What about security of the population? It’s easy to demonstrate that that’s a minor concern for state policy planners. Any literate person should be doubtless aware that global warming and nuclear weapons are dire threats to the security of the population. State policy is dedicated to accelerating the threats in both cases in the interest of primary concerns: it’s state power and concentrated private power that largely determine state policy.

In the case of global warming, it’s so obvious. It does illustrate very clearly the concern for security and certainly not for the population. It also illustrates the moral calculus of contemporary neo-liberalism of state capitalism. The fate of our grandchildren counts for absolutely nothing in comparison with the need to make more money tomorrow. That’s the driving principle of what’s called capitalism today.

It’s interesting to look at how the propaganda works. In the United States there’s a policy, there’s nothing secret about it, to try to convince the public either global warming isn’t real at all, or if it is, it has nothing to do with human activity. The policy has had some impact. The United States ranks lower in public concern of global warming…..It’s stratified, so among Republicans it’s one of the lowest in the world. The Columbia Journalism Review has a current article about this: one piece requires a counter piece, which leads to confusion on the part of the population. But there’s certainly no doctrine of fair and balance reporting in everything. If an article is denouncing Putin, there doesn’t have to run an opposing piece. The actual media doctrine of fair and balance holds in one case: when the concerns of private power are threatened. Nowhere else.

For the first time in history, we face the possibility of destroying decent existence, and NOT in the distant future. For this reason alone, it’s imperative to sweep away the ideological clouds and face honestly and realistically how policy decisions are made and what we can do to alter them before it’s too late.

On Western Control 

The Arab Spring broke a logjam in the Arab world. …The west is certainly going to try to prevent independent developments, but they may not succeed. There’s one striking example that you should pay attention to, and that’s South America. For 500 years, since the conquistadors, South America has been controlled by central powers, and for the last century and a half, largely the United States. Now South America has become the most free part of the world. In the western hemisphere, the United States and Canada are more isolated. Take a look at hemispheric conferences. The US and Canada are alone against the rest of Latin America. There was a dramatic illustration of this recently: Open Forum did a study of rendition: one of the most extreme forms of barbaric torture humans have developed. If the US wants someone tortured, they send them to countries to be tortured there so we can say we didn’t have anything to do with it.

Most of Europe participated in rendition by cooperating with the United States. One region of the world refused to participate: Latin America. Which is amazing. First of all it’s been under total US control for the last century, and during this period, it was the world center of torture…. Now it’s the one region that refused to participate in US administered torture. That’s the kind of thing that could happen – and it could happen in the Middle East….

In the history of imperialism, most crimes were carried out by mercenaries. Black fighters were used to control groups in South Africa. In India, Indian fighters were used. The US deviated from the pattern by sending its own soldiers. But you can’t take people off the street to turn them into fighters. The US army fell apart – soldiers began killing officers, got hooked on drugs. So they moved to a professional army in more recent years, back to imperial patterns and mercenaries.  They're called contractors now [like Blackwater / Academi]. Look at Iraq and Afghanistan, they have many contractors – but that’s the traditional imperial pattern. It makes sense to keep your own civilians away from the fighting and hand that out to professional killers.

We don’t have to tolerate that, of course. That’s up to us.

On Saviours

It’s true that people are always waiting for a saviour, and no saviour’s going to come. That’s not how things work. People can create the conditions under which some decent person may become a spokesperson, but they don’t come from above and organize the movement. Take Martin Luther King, a very significant person. I respect him a lot, and he would be the first to tell you that he did not create the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was created by young black activists in the south that sat in at lunch counters, rode freedom buses, got beat up and killed,…. and Martin Luther King was a spokesperson for them. That’s how leaders come. But notice what happened with Martin Luther King – there’s a national holiday…but the rhetoric stops with his ‘I have a dream speech’ in Washington….he didn’t stop there.

He went on to confront class issues in the North. When he was assassinated, he was supporting a public sanitation workers strike – and he was on his way to lead a march on Washington to form a poor people’s movement to strike at class issues. He was assassinated. The march took place anyway led by his widow. That part of Martin Luther King’s history is gone. It’s fine to attack the racist chair of Alabama, but don’t look too closely of what we’re doing. That’s the fault of people like us who didn’t do the things we should have done. You won’t get a leader who will save you until you do the work, and then you’ll get a spokesperson.

On Personal Efforts:  Political Transparency, OWS, Revolutions, and Capitalism

Samuel Huntington said, “Power must remain in the dark. Exposed to the sunlight, it begins to evaporate.”  That’s what lies behind what we’re talking about. One thing you can do is to expose power to the sunlight to let it evaporate. Exposing power to the sunlight has to be a preliminary to the only thing that has ever worked in history: mass popular organization. And that has achieved plenty of results…. The power is actually in the hands of people like you, but it has to be exercised. And that requires organization and action. As an individual you can do very little. But when you get together you can do almost anything. And that’s been demonstrated over and over again through history.

You mentioned Occupy, and that’s interesting and important. If I had been asked myself should people occupy Zuccotti Park in New York, I’d say no and I would have been wrong. It was remarkably successful. Within days, weeks, there were hundreds of occupy movements across the country and worldwide. I actually spoke at an occupy event in Australia. It lit a spark which had a real impact and it changed a lot of things: it changed the discourse and put equality on the agenda for the first time, and now phrases like the 1% is common coin. But remember that occupy was a tactic, not a movement. Every tactic has diminishing returns, and this one in particular couldn’t continue over the winter. So it has to turn into a movement, and to some extent it has.

There are no magic tricks. That’s the one that’s worked throughout history. There’s always regression – power systems don’t say, “Thank-you we’re going to give you the power.” They try to maintain themselves, and that’s class struggle. It goes on through history, and it will continue.

As individuals there’s very little we can do to confront the problems we face, but if people get together, then they can do a great deal. They belong to something. It’s happened all the time in the past – for thousands of years. It’s how feudalism was overthrown, it’s how slavery was overthrown in recent years, it’s how women were able to get minimal or relatively equal rights.

During the French Revolution, people carried things forward, but there was a regression, which is very common. Power systems do not give up willingly. They’ll fight back. We can then go on from a higher plane. Capitalists will only win if you let them win.

We should recognize that what exists isn’t remotely like capitalism. There is a system of corporate power but …lots of ways to overcome it and remove it, and some of them are happening right now. Take the United States, the industrial region has declined seriously because of a decision to undermine manufacturing – there is a reaction – worker-owned industry which is spreading over the region. A couple years ago Obama nationalize the auto industry….He could have handed it over to the work-force to let them produce the things that the country really needs. That could have been done, and would have been done – but we can only blame it on the failure of people like us to do what we should have been doing.

Look at the women’s movement in US history just after the American Revolution. According to British law, women were not person, but the property of her father, which was handed over to the husband. One of the arguments against women having the vote is that it would be unfair to unmarried men, because married men would get two votes because obviously the property votes as the owner does. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it totally collapsed….And then as recently as 1975, the supreme court recognized that women are legally called peers… that’s a big change….When I started at MIT in the 1950s, the halls were full of white males, obedient, deferential. Today it’s half women, one third minorities, and informal relations, which matters a lot. Those are big changes. They came by organized, activist efforts, which met a lot of resistance, but won a lot of games.

[Refering to the number of people at his talks:] People are interested but atomized, not organized. You have to have enough privilege to spend your time doing research. That’s how popular movements get organized. And when they’re powerful enough, change happens. Pick the forms of activism that makes sense.

There are no formulas. And there are no limits.


  1. Much to think about in the New Year, Marie. May yours be a happy one.


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