Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Noam Chomsky: Who Rules the World? [2016]

Our group felt this book was quite good on presenting facts and exposures of the self-proclaimed “masters of the universe” but that it had various shortcomings and suggested no solutions to the deplorable situation it discussed. On a scale of 0 to 10 our ratings ranged from 5 to 8, with the group average being 6.43.

Rich recommended this book because of the election of Trump, which is requiring everyone to think more about politics than they might otherwise be inclined to do. Rich said that the book is an interesting one and that it is from a perspective that most of us don’t usually see. He added that “We want to believe that the United States is a source of good, but that’s not really the case.” Most of the book is actually about the actions of the U.S. and its presidents before Trump, but the afterward about Trump at the end of the book is “right on”, says Rich. He rated the book a 7.

Kevin felt that the book is definitely a view from the “far left”. He felt that Chomsky’s political leanings were getting in the way of bringing the information he talks about to his audience. This results in Chomsky “preaching to the choir”, Kevin says. He didn’t find any information in the book that he didn’t already know. Kevin says that Chomsky is correct about the U.S. and the other imperialist powers. But he was not impressed by the book. He gave it a 5.

Kirby didn’t read much of the book except for the first few pages and the afterward about Trump, and therefore didn’t give it a formal rating. However, he agreed 100% with that summation about Trump and the reasons for his election. On the other hand, Kirby criticized Chomsky’s tendency toward “savage attacks” on his targets.

John read about half of the book and gave it a rating of 5. He found it a “depressing book which says that everyone’s evil and nobody’s any good”. [Scott’s response to this, which we’ll let him interject here, is that Chomsky is not talking about “everybody” in the world, only about those who are currently running and ruling it. And they are indeed evil people bent on exploiting and oppressing as many others as they can. Of course truths such as this can be very depressing, especially when one has no idea how to change the situation.] John added that Chomsky has no solutions to the problems he talks about. He added that the book did make some good points about the economy and the [neoliberalist] policies which are attacking workers’ wages and benefits even while so many jobs are disappearing. [John himself was just recently laid off. —Ed.] But overall John didn’t like the book that much.

Rosie said the book was obviously very painful to read. She doesn’t like Chomsky’s sarcasm. And she doesn’t agree with his analysis of the motivations of the individuals he is criticizing. On the other hand she accepts as truthful and valid the large amount of factual material that Chomsky presents. However, she wishes that he could change his style so that he could have more of an influence. She rated the book a 6.

Barbara gave the book an 8, and said that it was very informative. She felt that the answer to the question in the title of the book, “Who Rules the World?”, comes down to the presidents of the United States, past and present. Curiously (for some of us) she didn’t seen to think that was wrong. Barbara said that the information in the first two chapters was very depressing; she could barely stand to read the details. And the book as a whole had a lot of new information for her.

Vicki said the writing style was not always clear, and that it felt dense. Many sections of the book were interesting to her, however. But she felt Chomsky’s presentation was often one-sided. “We [the U.S. and Israel] are not always 100% wrong; Hamas is also wrong”. She felt the strongest chapter was on the Magna Carta. Vicki rates this book a 6, and says that she would recommend other books by Chomsky above this one.

One of the criticisms from our group in general is that this book is somewhat repetitious and disorganized, and jumps around a lot from topic to topic. Scott points out that in part this is because the different chapters were originally separate articles which appeared in a variety of places. However, he agrees that better editing of the book could have helped mitigate this problem.

Whereas Kevin thought the book was from the viewpoint of the “far left”, Scott thinks Chomsky and his book really represent only a liberal perspective—but a very radical form of liberalism by contemporary American standards, a form that actually takes traditional liberal principles seriously. And this is because Chomsky, unlike almost all other American liberals, is not apologetic for American crimes internationally or at home. Because of its extreme rarity, this is viewed as absolutely shocking and even outrageous or wildly bizarre by other liberals. Hence the common opinions that Chomsky is so “one-sided”, so “unbalanced”, so “sarcastic”, so prone to “savage attacks”, so “intemporate”, so “impolite”. Scott comments that personally he sees no requirement to be “polite” when we condemn such extreme crimes as mass murder and genocide. In fact, being “restrained” or “moderate” in tone when you do that would in effect make you at least somewhat apologetic for, or even complicit in, those crimes. Yes, that’s the typical American liberal way, but to his credit it is not Chomsky’s way.

This frequent reaction to Chomsky reminds Scott of the response of the genteel British and American “political class” in the 1770s to Tom Paine’s great pamphlet Common Sense: “The first thing which contemporaries noticed about Common Sense was its tone of outrage.... What contemporaries described as Paine’s ‘daring impudence’ and ‘uncommon frenzy’ was far removed from the legalistic, logical arguments, the ‘decorous and reasonable’ language, of previous American political pamphlets.” [Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1976), pp. 82-3.] In Scott’s opinion, if Chomsky is to be faulted, it should be for not being even more outraged and for not constantly calling for mass protest and social revolution against American imperialist crimes. It is truly amazing to Scott just how calm and measured Chomsky actually is in both his writings, and even more so in his speeches—given the endless evil actions that he chronicles.

So Scott disagrees with Rosie’s suggestion that Chomsky would be more effective in getting larger numbers of Americans to oppose U.S. crimes if he were less sarcastic or more moderate in his tone. Scott thinks Chomsky would actually be less effective in that case. We have to remember that most Americans today have been indoctrinated to automatically reject most criticism of American foreign policy no matter how “moderate” that criticism is, and to totally reject even the most elementary truthful language about it—that the U.S. is a vicious, murderous imperialist power which is probably more responsible for all the misery in the world than all other sources put together. Who, indeed, could we point to as being more effective in exposing and condemning American crimes than Noam Chomsky? He is world famous for being by far the most prominent intellectual critic of American foreign policy.

However, Scott adds, it is really true that Chomsky is only a liberal. He is not a Marxist, not a genuine revolutionary, not even truly opposed to the capitalist-imperialist system. In this book, as in his other writings, Chomsky often avoids the word ‘imperialism’, preferring the more polite terms such as ‘empire’ or ‘hegemony’. And even when he does use the word ‘imperialism’ it is not in the Marxist-Leninist sense of being the modern stage of capitalism, but rather in the old, far less profound sense, of merely one country bossing others around or stealing some of their wealth. And while Chomsky does criticize capitalism, like all liberals he is not really opposed the entire capitalist system itself in all its nefarious aspects. Instead he is primarily opposed only to the excesses of capitalism, such as those encompassed by the term neoliberalism.

Furthermore, Scott says, Chomsky does not at all understand that the increasingly serious economic and financial crises are inherent in capitalism; instead he joins with other liberals in blaming such things as the Great Recession on the reckless lending by banks (which presumably can easily be prevented through better regulation of the financial system). This is an example of his basically liberal reformist approach.

In several places in the book Chomsky states that the two biggest dangers facing the U.S. and world today are the possibility of nuclear war and climate change. These are indeed huge dangers. But because he doesn’t really understand and completely oppose capitalism he fails to see that there is one more huge danger to also focus on: the still developing world capitalist economic crisis (along with the rapid disappearance of jobs under modern capitalism). This is actually an even bigger danger than global warming, though not quite as desperately dangerous as the increasing probability that capitalist-imperialism will lead to nuclear war during the next few decades. Moreover all three of these huge dangers for humanity are the direct result of the capitalist system, and can only be prevented by social revolution—which Chomsky is apparently unwilling to call for, at least in this and many others of his books.

Scott notes that Chomsky is a world famous and innovative theorist in linguistics, so it is quite surprising that with regard to society and social problems he is such a conventional and poor theorist. Even when it comes to trying to answer the question in the title of this book, “Who Rules the World?” Chomsky does a very poor job. Although he admits that things are more complicated than just talking about which country [the U.S.] is ruling the world, that’s still basically what he ends up doing. He is not theoretically sophisticated enough to think in class terms and to understand that it is the ruling classes of the world, the separate bourgeoisies running the most powerful countries, who are really ruling the world. (For Scott’s general summation of Chomsky, see the entry on him in the Dictionary of Revolutionary Marxism.)

Nevertheless, weak in social theory as he unfortunately is, Chomsky is extremely important for his vast work in exposing the day-to-day crimes of American imperialism and Zionism especially. Scott says he has already added a number of direct quotes from this book to his Dictionary and plans to add a number more. For his impressive and sustained criticism of such crimes against humanity Chomsky certainly deserves to be lauded and widely read and promoted. And that goes for this specific book too.

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