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Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy

by Noam Chomsky

(Hamish Hamilton / 320pp. / £17.00)

Review by Simon Kovar

ONE of the peculiarities of contemporary ‘dissident’ literature on the left is the extent to which it reflects remarkably mainstream political prejudices. Noam Chomsky is supposedly the author of “chronicles of dissent” and an oracle of denied and elided truths; yet on Iraq, it is not difficult to find those claiming that the war was illegal, or that our political leaders lied, or that the UN is the fount of all wisdom in international affairs. In this, Chomsky, a recent dinner companion of Hassan Nasrallah, is at one with politicians as drearily moderate as Menzies Campbell and Kenneth Clarke. Such views are neither dissenting, nor particularly critical, nor for that matter particularly left-wing, given that they amount to praise for a decidedly inegalitarian and illiberal status quo ante. Similarly, John Pilger, Chomsky’s shadow in the UK, describes criticism of Israel as “the last taboo”, when surely “praise for Tony Blair” more closely fits the bill.

Much of Chomsky’s critique ought to be taken seriously by liberals. He makes a series of compelling points about the corrosive effect of the public relations industry on American politics, and points out that “corporatised state capitalist democracy” and what is called ‘neoliberalism’ are antithetical to both the classical liberal commitment to individuality (as against the anti-humanism of industrial society) and free trade (which stands opposed to the monopolistic concentrations of economic power), citing in support Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Yet despite frequent reference to what Chomsky calls “elementary moral truisms”, his ‘logic’ often fails him in remarkable ways.

Chomsky argues that post-9/11 American foreign policy displays a “basic continuity” which reflects the interests of dominant domestic sectors, namely private business corporations. State power does not serve ideals, but rather the interests of concentrated power. ‘Rationality’ and ‘logic’ therefore dictate that any claim on, say, the moral imperative of humanitarian interventionism cannot be taken seriously. But if US policy-making is simply and predictably dictated by underlying structures of power, where does that leave the moral judgment (and therefore culpability) of individual politicians who are simply obeying the logic of the system in which they find themselves? Where, moreover, is the responsibility of Osama bin Laden if his actions are simply dictated by the logic of certain strategic imperatives? Most crucially of all, what room is left us in Chomsky’s analysis for the crucial distinction between liberal democracies – however flawed – and totalitarian tyrannies?

Chomsky argues that moral principles should be applied equally to all, describing the principle of “universality” in this sense as “the most elementary of moral truisms”. Most of us can probably accept that Western states often fail to live up to their stated ideals – this much is a truism about state power – but does Chomsky live up to his own standard? The American, British and Israeli governments are readily condemned as being in violation of the standards of international law; but when Chomsky suggests that Syria and Hezbollah are not implicated in terrorism, or that Slobodan Milosevic wept for Bosnia’s Muslims, or that the West coerced Serbia into carrying out atrocities in Kosovo, one wonders if the same standard is being applied across the board. The issue is not simply one of equivalence. Rather, Chomsky seems reluctant to hold despotisms to the same moral standards he applies to liberal democracies. Indeed, given his belief that states by their nature act in the service of powerful “interests”, it follows that – in moral terms – openly despotic states might be regarded as simply more honest.

It is important to remember that although Chomsky quotes liberal-democratic norms in support of his arguments, he is himself not a liberal in politics. Thus when he argues that the United States is not a “functioning democracy”, we ought to remember that liberal democratic theorists never pretended to be “democratic” in the sense that Chomsky understands the term. This is not simply because such individuals were out to protect property rights; rather, they held a genuine concern about the tyrannical potential inherent in popular democratic politics. When Chomsky quotes public opinion – making extensive use of polling data – and cites Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s popular support as evidence of their legitimacy, he displays precisely that tendency which those early liberals warned against: popular acclaim does not equal moral legitimacy. Perhaps Chomsky’s favoured analogy with Nazi Germany can at least be quoted in support of this point.

Failed States is archetypal Chomsky: contentious opinions are often placed in the mouths of others (such as “serious analysts” or “close observers”) and the dense text is lent seeming intellectual weight by some 500 footnotes (many of which are self-referential). Finally, for all his talk of humanity and solidarity, Chomsky’s cynical-realist-rational worldview leaves the reader feeling strangely cold. For his is a world somehow devoid of humanity, with all its nuance and ambiguity and moral struggle, and ruled rather by the simple logic of calculated interest and power.

Simon Kovar is a Contributing Editor of The Liberal.

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