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 dont 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.
reading seems the only way to resolve two competing interpretations.
The problem comes up for me with this book because Ive been told that my highly critical reading of Chomskys 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 dont feel I got him wrong, either in general or specific. I wont make any statements about the left in general here. I honestly dont 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. Its 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.
entire book (and most of Chomskys 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. Chomskys 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 Vietnams 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. Its 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 Mayrs thoughts on SETI, a hodgepodge of points
about the US after 9/11, a somewhat inaccurate characterization of Wilsonian
idealism, a summary of Walter Lippmans 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 isnt interested in the kinds of standards of fact that I am
interested in, and isnt 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 theyre 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 theyre not; the only way to tell someone isnt 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 declarewithout concern for skeptical domestic commentsthat 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 isnt 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 Chomskys knowledge even exist in the first place? If its because hegemonic power is incomplete or partial, youd never know it from Chomskys account. If its 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: its 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 theyre 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.