Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Noam Chomsky:
Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance [2003]

      The general feeling of our group is that while this book does have some shortcomings, overall it is very good and important. On our scale of 0 to 10 our group average was 8.1—which is quite high for us.

      A few months ago the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, stood up at the UN and strongly recommended that everyone read this book. Taking note of that, John recommended it to our group. John thought that there were a lot of good points in the book, especially about the abuses of the U.S. in Central America, and of Israel's behavior (with U.S. backing) toward the Palestinians. However, while he did give the book a high rating of 8, he also thought that Chomsky's attack on the U.S. hegemony in the world was somewhat one-sided because "every neighborhood needs a cop", and the world needs a cop too. But some of the rest of us disagreed with that and feel that the U.S. is not so much acting like a cop, but rather more like a tyrant or a gangster. Furthermore there is the UN which is supposed to be the "cop" that keeps order in the world, if the U.S. and other imperialist powers would stop vetoing so many decisions and allow it to do so.

      Rosie objected to Chomsky's style. She said that "All Chomsky's books are the same; they are meticulously researched and provide a wonderful breath of spring. But after making his point he has to 'twist the knife', and go overboard." In particular, he has a tendency to throw short extracts from multiple different quotations together and thus construct a composite remark that no one other than Chomsky himself actually said. Scott agrees with this particular criticism of Chomsky, but thinks that Chomsky feels—generally correctly—that in doing this he is nevertheless fairly presenting the real essence of the position he is attacking. Still, this particular technique is quite overused by him.

      Ron also had a little trouble with Chomsky's style of presentation. He also felt that Chomsky was saying that "there are other ways to get the job done", such a via the UN, the World Court, and so forth. Given that—as Chomsky recognizes—the U.S. tends to dominate the UN and most other international agencies, this does seem to raise two important issues: 1) What really is the difference between the U.S. playing the role of "hegemon" via the UN, etc., and doing so all on its own? But 2), it does show the arrogance of the U.S. that even dominating the world through international organizations it largely runs is still "not good enough" for it.

      Barbara only read part of the book and was less impressed by it than most of the rest of us. She felt that Bush's wars developed because he was only trying to save the country from further terrorist attack.

      Kevin S. liked the book, and especially the Afterward. In reply to John's statement about the need for a "world cop", Kevin said this "need" is mostly self-created by the U.S. I think the idea here is that if the U.S. is going around and appropriating oil and other goods for itself through its world hegemony, then naturally it is going to have to try to keep down all the people of the world who start to seriously object to this U.S. plunder.

      Kevin expressed tremendous anger at the current Bush administration, in particular, and wishes that they could get what they really deserve. He raised the interesting question of what the world would be like if the U.S. didn't act like it does. And as for the Middle East in particular, the U.S. should just get the hell out of there!

      Rich thought that it was a pretty good book, and that it is important for Americans to read a book like this. At the same time he felt it was not as objective as it could be, and was not particularly well written.

      Maria hadn't read the book and didn't comment on it directly. But she remarked that she thought many Americans were brainwashed about the actual deeds and role of the U.S. in the world. She added it would be much better if the U.S. got the hell out of other countries and stopped interfering with them.

      Kirby made some detailed notes about the book, the first time he has done this, he says, for the nearly 100 books our group has read together. One thing that annoyed Kirby was the book's disorganization and Chomsky's tendency to jump around both geographically and chronologically. Scott thinks Chomsky does this in order to try to draw generalized conclusions about the U.S. attitudes and behavior. If the U.S. acts more or less the same way, in a particular regard, in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Iraq, it does indicate that the activity in just Iraq, say, is not some aberation. Still this constant jumping around can give a rather chaotic and disjointed feel to the discussion.

      However, Kirby complains that Chomsky never comes out and says just why he believes the U.S. leaders act in the deplorable ways that they do, over such a long period of time, and in all parts of the world. Scott thinks this criticism actually brings out a deep and basic problem with Chomsky's worldview. It actually is rather superficial in some respects. While Chomsky talks about the "imperial grand strategy" he shies away from talking about "U.S. imperialism" directly or the "imperialist system", as Marxists do. It seems that for Chomsky, the imperialist actions of the U.S. are mere policies which could be ended if the leaders chose to end them, rather than being something inherent and necessary to the dominant capitalist powers in this era, as Lenin argued. That is, Lenin tried to get beneath the surface and day-to-day events to work out an overall social theory about what was going on; but Chomsky seems unable to either go along with that or to work out any coherent theoretical alternative.

      Scott views Chomsky as being superb when it comes to documenting many of the specific crimes of U.S. imperialism, and also those of its junior partners such as Britain and Israel. And because this is so extremely important to do, Scott rates the book as a 10. But Chomsky is notoriously weak when it comes to theoretically summing up what lies behind all these horrible imperialist crimes, or in suggesting how they might be ended once and for all. Whereas Chomsky refers to the U.S. neglect or spurning of the World Court and the UN, Scott points out that these agencies were also set up by the imperialist powers, and serve to support the continuation of capitalist-imperialism (if not U.S. hegemony specifically—which is what the U.S. finds to be so lacking in these agencies!). Scott says that the only real solution to this problem of not just "U.S. world hegemony", but of the capitalist-imperialist system that lies behind it, is social revolution. Whereas Chomsky rarely seems to talk about social classes or revolution, the basic problem in both this country and the world, says Scott, is the continued rule of the capitalist-imperialist class, and the basic solution to that problem is for the working people of the world to overthrow that murderous ruling class.

      Kirby also had a large number of specific criticisms. He pointed out that Chomsky admitted (p. 148) that U.S. economic dominance had fallen from 50% at its post-World War II high to only about half of that in 1973. Doesn't that show that the U.S. is doing a pretty crappy job of dominating the world, Kirby asks? Scott's view about this is that despite its overwhelming military strength at present, the U.S. is in fact suffering a relative decline economically. In the age of capitalism it is quite possible for the dominant military power in the world to begin to lose out economically to other countries, as the top dog in the 19th century (Britain) lost out to the rising economic strength of Germany and (especially) the U.S. (This is related to Lenin's "law of the uneven development of capitalism".) On the other hand, we should not jump to the conclusion that this process has gone as far as those 50%/25% figures might suggest; a good chunk of the actual ownership of industry in Europe and elsewhere, for example, is really owned by U.S. "multinational" corporations. Still, there is no doubt that much of the U.S. and world's production is being shifted to Asia, and especially China, these days, and the U.S. economy is losing ground. Chomsky tends to be weak on matters of political economy; his strength lies in pointing out the political and military crimes of the great powers.

      In a similar vein, Kirby wonders "why there is such a huge national debt and trade deficit if the U.S. is so in control of the world economy?" Again, Chomsky doesn't attempt to answer a question like this, because he tends to avoid theoretical issues, says Scott. (That's a very big criticism of Chomsky, and U.S. intellectuals in general!) To answer a question like this you have to get into the nature of the capitalist system and why even those who are running the government, and even the capitalists who own and control the corporations, cannot really control the overall economy (at least permanently). Capitalism has its own internal laws of development which are inherent to it, and which can no more be repealed than the law of gravity can. (Scott can get more into this with Kirby on a one-to-one basis if he so desires. But beware! Marx's name will be coming up in a big way!)

      Kirby also wondered why Chomsky didn't give an answer to other basic theoretical questions, such as just what the motivation is for so many other countries to kowtow to the U.S. for such prolonged periods. "How do we pull so many strings?" It is true that Chomsky doesn't answer obvious questions like that very well, says Scott. In his opinion it is mostly done by setting up compliant (lackey) regimes in so many countries of the world, and then replacing them (either via CIA coups or military intervention) if they start to ignore too many U.S. orders (like Saddam Hussein began to do). The technical term for this is neocolonialism. Officially these Third World countries are independent; but if the local rulers get too far out of line they are replaced by the "hegemon" (dominant imperialist power that is really running things, at least where its own interests are concerned).

      Kirby asks, does Chomsky "not believe that any other country manipulates events to their own advantage? Is he just pissed because we're better at it?" Scott thinks this is a little unfair to Chomsky, who does talk about Britain, Israel, and other countries manipulating events to their own advantage when and where they can do so. He also wrote extensively about other countries doing this, and especially the old Soviet Union doing so, in some of his many earlier books and articles. But this book is specifically on the U.S. role in the world today, and its role as the top dog, the "hegemon", the big imperialist boss. So naturally the great emphasis is on what the U.S. has done and is continuing to do today.

      Kirby thought that Chomsky's writing style was rather hard to follow, which is "surprising for a linguist and prolific author". Kirby also thought that Chomsky gave the "dumb-ass" currently in the Oval Office way too much credit as being the author of the current plans and actions by the U.S. government. Other people remarked that George W. is probably not the originator of much of anything, though he is the one responsible for giving the final OK on Iraq war and elsewhere.

      Kirby also said that Chomsky gives the impression that there is a giant, successful conspiracy running things in this country, which has been in place for at least 60 years, or 100, or maybe 200! Scott comments that, actually, Marxists are more likely to get this charge directed at them than Chomsky, although Chomsky has been accused of this before as well. Marxists get accused of this because they talk about a "ruling class", which some people naively assume must mean that all the top capitalists secretly get together in a big room and decide all the big issues. In this book, at least, Chomsky does not talk about the "ruling class" at all (nor the "bourgeosie", the "capitalists", the "imperialists", nor even any other class, not even the "working class"). Chomsky does not habitually think in class terms. In Scott's view this is more clear evidence of Chomsky's theoretical impoverishment. Instead, following standard bourgeois political science norms, Chomsky talks only about "elites". But what Kirby is sensing here (thinks Scott) is that if the U.S. is actually dominating the world, and doing so for at least 60 years now, then there has to be some continuing, coherent political body within the U.S. that is coordinating all this. And Kirby is right; this body is the U.S. capitalist-imperialist ruling class which rules via its two main political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, as well as through its ownership and control of almost all the media, education, and so forth.

      After quite a long list of criticisms of Chomsky's book, which have been summarized above, Kirby finally gave his rating: 10! At first the rest of us were astounded! But in a way what Kirby did was what most of us did: We found many things to criticize in Hegemony or Survival, and yet we still think the book is so important that as a group we highly recommend it to everybody!

Return to our complete list of books.

Return to our Science Group home page.