domingo, 12 de septiembre de 2010

Deterring Democracy by Noam Chomsky

It is almost twenty years since Noam Chomsky published Deterring Democracy. Its contemporary context is an important starting point in the understanding of its position since most of the material seeks to analyse and contextualise United States foreign policy in the post-War years to the early nineties. In 1991 the United States under George Bush was embroiled in the First Gulf War. I must stress the word “first”, since this gives a clue to the book’s eventual prescience.

Also in 1991, a dim and distant past when the new millennium was not yet a talking point, a bi-polar world, whose permanence and assumed conflict provided the framework for all political analysis, was already being transformed. The Soviet Union had already ceased to be, but the years of Yeltsin’s IMF poverty lay ahead, as did those of Putin’s new pragmatic if demagogic prosperity.

Regimes of all political stances came and went in Central and South America. But all of them were classified as good or evil by the Manichean filter of the age. Occasionally, a convenience of political pragmatism offered re-branding, as in the case of Jamaica, where Michael Manley, a leader once undermined as a leftist was reinstated with eternal backing after Edward Seaga’s neo-liberal experiment predictably burnt out. Chomsky’s record of Manley’s second era being that of his violin phase is extremely succinct. He was put up by the left, but played by the right.

Descriptions of prevailing issues in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala figure large, of course. But Chomsky also visits the Dominican Republic, the Philippines and Europe to illustrate his central point. And it is a point that he makes and re-makes, a point that he still makes today. His analysis, simply put, is that an alliance of elite interests involving legislators, the powerful and those who own and control big business drives the US foreign policy agenda. The elite’s sole aim is to preserve and further its own power, influence and prosperity. The fact that it does not always speak with a consistent voice is merely evidence that within the group there remains competition. Indeed, the group is neither particularly stable nor permanent. It is rather a loose alliance of interest, perhaps heavily reliant on birthright, but not determined by it. Notions of freedom, democracy, individual or collective rights and even development are peddled, attached like advertisers’ catchlines to the same product every time it is recommended. To maintain its ascendancy, this ideology that fosters profit via power needs an enemy to provide a shield behind which it can hide its pursuit of self-advancement. The Soviet Union sufficed for most of the second half of the last century, but since then others have had to be identified to fulfil this essential role. It will not require much imagination to identify the current dark threats.

The population at large, meanwhile, has to be sold these ideas. When threat of nuclear war between super-powers loomed large, it was not difficult to fix the framework. How much easier is it now, when the current all-powerful, all-pervading enemy might just be within and among us? This low-intensity, back-burner threat continues to mask the activity that fuels an ever-increasing concentration of power and wealth. The people of the democratic, individualistic West are perfectly willing to stand by as recession bites, banks declare deposits worthless, pension funds dwindle, retirements recede and wages stagnate while those who perhaps cause these strictures luxuriate in ever-increasing, often self-granted rewards.

And, in a truly prescient passage, Chomsky describes this submissive, passive mentality perfectly. “For submissiveness to become a reliable trait,” he writes, “it must be entrenched in every realm. The public are to be observers, not participants, consumers of ideology as well as products. Eduardo Galeano writes that ‘the majority must resign itself to the consumption of fantasy. Illusions of wealth are sold to the poor, illusions of freedom to the oppressed, dreams of victory to the defeated and power to the weak.’ Nothing less will do.” In this context, is it any surprise that the average contemporary consumer knows more of celebrity gossip than political option?

Deterring Democracy is packed – perhaps over-packed – with detailed evidence. Chomsky makes his point repeatedly and forcefully. I was once privileged to co-host the author as chair of a London conference. At first hand I can vouch for the sincerity and passion that underpins these views. I can also vouch for the solidity of the evidence upon which they are based.

Noam Chomsky is not anti-American. It is the exploiters of self-seeking power and self-deferential influence who deserve that label. Noam Chomsky is a man of the people, intensely humanistic and fundamentally democratic. He seems to maintain that if people turn their backs and refuse to acknowledge the obvious, they will have foregone a real opportunity to realise something more sustainable than the current illusion. And, along the way, they will probably have said goodbye to their principles, along with their bank deposits, pensions, retirement and freedom. At least they can talk about their woes on their latest-model mobiles, if, that is, they can still pay the bill. When you read Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy, give its arguments a chance to register. Then see if they ring true.

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