Readings and Re-Readings

March 16, 2004

Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 2003.

I don’t especially care for the style of argument that bloggers have come to call “fisking”, at least not when it sets out to deliberately miss the forest for the trees.

Yet, I find it difficult to know what to do when someone views my substantive or overall reading of a text to be incorrect. When the text in question is an academic monograph, close reading often does not suffice to resolve the disagreement. This is both because academic writing usually contains sufficient qualifying statements to cancel any straightforward critique of an argument or analysis, and because many particular claims in academic monographs, examined closely, are unobjectionably if uninterestingly true. I was just struck recently, working with students in one of several independent study courses I am running this semester, how two of the monographs we were discussing lavished a tremendous amount of analytic and lexical sturm und drang on claims that amounted to saying that certain common abstractions or generalizations did not apply to the historical particulars of the case they were examining. A valid enough point, but also in many cases something a commonsensical and truistic observation.

Still, close reading seems the only way to resolve two competing interpretations.

The problem comes up for me with this book because I’ve been told that my highly critical reading of Chomsky’s arguments about global politics is premised on an unfair misreading of him. So I set out to look again at Hegemony or Survival recently. After doing so, I don’t feel I got him wrong, either in general or specific. I won’t make any statements about the “left” in general here. I honestly don’t know whether Chomsky is a singular isolate, or speaks for a meaningful political or social fraction.

Whatever might be the case as far as that goes, I only know that the critique Chomsky offers is exactly the vision I personally want little to do with. It’s not that I want to be in the middle between him and the neoconservative follies of the Bush Administration, it's just that I'm not happy with either of them as critical responses to the present. More relevantly in this context, I'm unimpressed with the book itself.

The entire book (and most of Chomsky’s political oeuvre) is suffused with a preemptive strike on any possible counter-argument. Most of the arguments I might make about Chomsky or the larger issues he has addressed are characterized sweepingly by him as instrumentally created by hegemonic interests protecting their own narrow and anti-democratic domination over both domestic and international publics, as part of the “polyarchy”. Chomsky’s work allows no legitimate disagreement about the motives and nature of United States policy in the postwar era (or its place within his very particular conceptualization of modern Western history): in his view, I would have to be either an innocent dupe or a conscious hegemon in order to question all but a few details of the sweeping case he makes.

Were I to follow the path of the fisker, I would leave only a precious few of the paragraphs in Hegemony or Survival unmolested. Some of my responses are modest complaints or about relative emphasis. Others are substantial disagreements about the factual accuracy or fairness of the broad simplifications Chomsky employs, say for example quickly glossing Vietnam’s intervention into Cambodia as authentically humanitarian in comparison to the actions of the US and its allies in the post-1945 era. A few paragraphs would be full-out antagonistic disagreements with the substance and slant of the argument. It’s hard for me to tolerate the wild attention-deficit disorder leaping about of the case he makes.

Take his first chapter, which rockets from Ernst Mayr’s thoughts on SETI, a hodgepodge of points about the US after 9/11, a somewhat inaccurate characterization of “Wilsonian idealism”, a summary of Walter Lippman’s views in which Lippman is made out to be a perfectly typical representative of American public intellectuals in the 20th Century, a collapsing summary of liberal democracy that has James Madison and David Hume being substantively if not specifically identical to the “Reagan-Bush sectors” in a long unbroken lineage of elitist ruling-class faux-democrats, and the naming of a nebulous something called “world public opinion” as a second superpower. And yet, what is the point of such a fisking, if Chomsky isn’t interested in the kinds of standards of fact that I am interested in, and isn’t interested in my basic point of philosophical origin? Chomsky leaves no room for me to disagree on the facts or the fairness of his points: he rules me and anyone like me out of the debate before we even strap on the gloves.

So perhaps larger points are the more important ones. Certainly there are structures to the arguments he employs that I find questionable, and would find questionable even if I agreed with the general substance. But the larger problematic arguments and flaws that I see sweepingly through the book are:

1.The entire concept of “world public opinion”, frequently deployed throughout the book. Basically, Chomsky uses this to argue that elites on the side of "world public opinion" are legitimate until they’re not, and that statements by elites are democratically representative of this shared, unified public opinion until that opinion is an opinion he thinks is wrong. There's nothing here that allows Chomsky to more systematically characterize what "world public opinion" is or how we know what it is. He identifies it either as a nebulous holding category for everything and anything which is counter-hegemonic to US domination or at best occasionally references polls of public opinion in non-US societies.

2. In Chomsky's view, there is no moral vector in the world that matters save the United States or at a pinch “the West” save the dialectically opposite “world opinion” which is moral always and intrinsically by its very nature. Elites elsewhere and in the domestic US are compradors and polyarchs until they’re not; the only way to tell someone isn’t a comprador is that he opposes the US. No non-comprador does anything which could be judged as morally problematic: there is no room in Chomsky's bipolar moral world for criticizing Robert Mugabe, for example. What is Chomsky's view about why someone would oppose the US? Intrinsic moral courage and possibly a rational agreement with intellectuals like Chomsky that long-term survival outstrips short-term compensations from the hegemon at this historical juncture. Genuine democracy elsewhere is defined only and exclusively as democracy which contradicts and contests everything the US speaks for; anything which coheres or agrees with US policy or hegemony is not democratic by definition.

3. There is no causality in the world save that which emanates from either the United States or a dialectically opposite “world opinion”. Power knows what power needs; power does what power must. Hegemony is seamless in his characterization. Chomsky often uses the passive voice when characterizing the actions of hegemons or polyarchs: all manner of things happen just when and how they should. He has no real account of political or social process situated within meaningfully specific historical or institutional structures. In Chomsky's account, power makes no mistakes or miscalculations, and is frustrated in its goals only by resistance. So Bush's landing on the aircraft carrier, p. 19, is seen as making Bush “free to declare—without concern for skeptical domestic comments—that he had won a ‘victory in a war on terror'”, when in fact the gesture was immediately met with criticism and has since become an embarrassment to him.

4. Reading over Chomsky's history of the last 50 years, I keep wondering things like, why was Lieutenant Calley put on trial? Why isn’t Chomsky dead? Why is the New York Times allowed to report facts that Chomsky reports as truth? Why are polls carried out by US polling companies of "world public opinion" permitted to accurately record, in Chomsky's view, the actual state of "world public opinion"? In fact, why is any organ or entity allowed to report useful truths and evidence? Why does Chomsky’s knowledge even exist in the first place? If it’s because hegemonic power is incomplete or partial, you’d never know it from Chomsky’s account. If it’s because resistance exists, what is the basis of a resistance that is located in the New York Times, major polling firms, and the other sources Chomsky draws upon for the basis of his authority? (Hint: it’s got to be the very liberalism and its associated rights-practices that Chomsky casually tosses into the hegemony bin.)

5. This is a smaller point, rather more like "fisking", but in Hegemony or Survival, experts are often cited and quoted as documentation or evidentiary confirmation when all they’re offering is a characterization or opinion, sometimes a rather tentative one, in fact.

6. Chomsky invariably sees the gap between theory and practice, or official definitions of terms and ideas and governmental practices related to those ideas as possessing singular and wholly ideological meaning. I remember as an undergraduate excitedly relating to one of my professors that I'd realized that every religion that I knew of had a major difference between its theology and its practice and that this was significant. He was a very tolerant guy but he sort of stared at me like I'd just excitedly noticed that men sometimes had facial hair or that the sun appeared to rise in the east and set in the west. If you're going to make a big deal out of the mere fact of a gap, you have to make a big deal out of all such gaps, and make them all out to be ideological artifacts. If not, you need a much more systematic account of ideology and the state than Chomsky has to offer in order to explain why some gaps are meaningful and others are ordinary.

Stacked up against this, I'd agree that Chomsky asks cogent questions about the nature, limits and sustainability of interventionism, makes a reasonable (e.g., arguable but legitimate) indictment of the West for its moral inconsistency, and offers a reasonable (e.g., arguable but legitimate) assault on the Bush Administration for pretending that it is concerned with moral issues in Iraq. But I think there are other books that do those things better, more deeply, more usefully.