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Reviewed by Lawrence Davidson, professor of political science (ret.), West Chester University
Metropolitan Books, 2016. 320 pages, $28.00, hardcover.
Noam Chomsky is an encyclopedic scholar who tirelessly researches the political and economic facts of our world and then, just as tirelessly, lays them out for the educated public in books, articles and public talks. The volume under review is the latest, a collection of essays on a wide range of topics, from class relations to climate change. All of them speak to the book's title: Who Rules the World? They also explore the consequences of the answer. Chomsky's persistence has turned him into something of a gadfly, a Cassandra, the incarnation of some Old Testament prophet, pointing an accusing finger at those who do in fact rule the world — and in consistently abusive ways. One would think that anyone interested in the future of our planet would pay attention to his admonitions. Of course, some do. His works sell well and are housed in every respectable library worldwide. However, they apparently have no substantial impact on the way politics and economics are practiced.
This indicates a persistent futility in Chomsky's efforts. I am sure he senses this fact. He once suggested that those who speak the awful truth to power should understand that power already knows the truth and does not care (chomsky.info/20100603/). Why does Chomsky continue shouting his messages? (1) Socially responsible people have a duty to speak out (as those ancient prophets did) and let people know into what sort of future their leaders are dragging them. (2) There is a duty to record the foibles of the powerful for the edification of those who manage to survive their crimes. (3) Someone in power might listen and alter behavior. (4) Even less likely, sporadic public upheavals might trigger social change and, in the process, Chomsky's words will prove influential. He probably carries on for all of these reasons.
Most of the 23 chapters in this book emphasize one key fact: those in power act to preserve their positions and the prosperity of those who directly support them. Democracy is not a primary interest of these elites. Stability is primary; hence the long history of Western support for dictators and other forms of authoritarianism. In this process, which targets the control of resources and a monopoly on financial transactions, the United States has been dominant since the end of World War I, reaching an apex of power right after World War II. There have, however, always been rivals; after World War II, the Soviet Union. Since its demise in 1991, China and India have sometimes been presented to the American people as rivals, generating anxiety that the United States might be in decline.
Chomsky believes this story of decline is exaggerated. Even if there has been a marginal fall-off in U.S. economic power relative to the 1950s, "for the foreseeable future, there is no competitor for global hegemonic power" (p. 57). Alleged rivals such as China and India are, he points out, "poor countries with severe internal problems" (p. 57).
Yet there is always resistance to U.S. hegemony, and those who practice it today are the subject of Washington's worldwide "war on terror." In this war, the United States and its allies, particularly Israel, are themselves purveyors of terror on a large scale. Chomsky characterizes some of this action as "murder with foreknowledge but without specific intent" (p. 30). For instance, when President Bill Clinton "order[ed] the  bombing of the al-Shifa [pharmaceutical plant in Sudan] it was obvious that it would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe." However, the people who subsequently died from lack of drugs were not the targets; they were "collateral damage." Nonetheless, in Chomsky's view, those who caused their deaths are purveyors of terror.
This same clarity of perception characterizes his treatment of the so-called "torture memos" presented by the George W. Bush administration as a rationale for the illegal treatment of prisoners in a vain attempt to connect Iraq to the September 11, 2001, airliner attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. After 9/11, there was nothing particularly new about the use of torture by operatives of the CIA. What was novel was the administration's clumsy public attempt to justify it as legal. It was clearly not the case, whether under U.S. or international law. This is true, whether practiced by Americans during the Bush era, by foreign subcontractors under previous administrations or the Obama presidency. In Chomsky's view, this makes these "rulers of the world" and those who assisted them in this regard, criminals.
Chomsky also takes up the issues of climate change and the ever-present threat of nuclear war. He is pessimistic about both. He lists some of the numerous instances of technical errors that have come close to triggering nuclear missile launches, making the case that fear of a nuclear Iran pales in significance. As to climate change, Chomsky shows that the elite addiction to short-term thinking raises the probability of disastrous global warming in the long run.
To this Chomsky adds his assessment of the state of Western liberties. In an essay entitled "Magna Carta, Its Fate and Ours" (pp. 84-99), he traces how the "Great Charter is being shredded before our eyes." The heritage in danger here is twofold: first, the assertion that "the law is sovereign, not the king [or elites]," a principle underpinned by England's Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, and second, the principle that "the commons" — resources that "provide sustenance for the general population" — had to be protected from private exploitation. In Chomsky's view, both principles have been undermined in the West in ways that have preserved the illusion of democracy, mainly through the manipulation of media and other forms of propaganda. Thus, "the process of shaping opinions, attitudes, and perceptions" is used to "engineer consent" (p.88), even as age-old liberties are eroded. As a result, the great mass of American citizens ask no questions about the assignment of terrorist labels to organizations that may be fighting for the same national rights fought for in America's own Revolutionary War. And, when their own right of Habeas Corpus was fatally undermined by the Bush administration and a willing Supreme Court (p. 94), there was hardly a hiccup.
Perhaps the most depressing essay in Chomsky's book is the first one, "The Responsibility of the Intellectuals, Redux" (pp. 5-21). This is a reference to intellectuals of the past, such as French writer Emile Zola, whose 1898 "Manifesto of the Intellectuals" (p. 5) bravely defended the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus. In Chomsky's view, the role of modern intellectuals has been undermined and corrupted. He tells us there have long been two kinds of intellectuals: first, those who conform "to official aims and ignore or rationalize official crimes." Such people predominate among the intellectual class and are "honored and privileged in their societies" (p. 20). On the other hand, a minority are "value-oriented" thinkers who persistently question authority. They are often punished and may be defamed as eccentrics or even traitors, fired from their jobs and even imprisoned. Chomsky himself is too well-known to be seriously punished. He is simply ignored by the powers that be.
In the West, the illusion of democracy created by an alliance of elites and media has succeeded in maintaining majority support for the political and economic system. This is so despite a decline in general prosperity and repeated wars that, at best, have been indecisive. Chomsky hopes that deteriorating political, economic and climatic conditions will encourage Western populations to think more seriously about "who rules the world." Short of catastrophe, however, it is hard to believe they will act. Thus, there is no indication that masses of people listen to Noam Chomsky. This is a sad fact, for he is a very wise, far-seeing and value-oriented intellectual.