I recently listened to the audiobook version of a series of lectures and Q&A with Noam Chomsky. If you have problems with being depressed into immobility by world politics and economics, I don’t recommend it. This is a sort-of review of the audiobook, with some comments by me and some quotes, and I plan to, over time, post a few passages from it.
All quotes are from: Understanding Power, The Indispensable Chomsky [audible]. I came away with a weird feeling about Chomsky, which is that he’s wasted his time and I think he knows it. Part of that may be due to the narrator of the text, who is as wooden and boring a speaker as Chomsky, himself. It’s like being dispassionately thrashed with a tire-chain. Ho hum here we go again.
It’s also undeniably brilliant, Chomsky at his best. He has a way of explaining the world behind the world clearly and tying his analysis to easily fact-checkable information from which he built his case. That makes it devastating and depressing, because his analysis is an endless and detailed litany of horrors. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Chomsky sounds defeated and helpless – in some of the Q&A sessions he is asked to defend his anarchism and all he can summon up is some dispassionate waffle to the effect of “well, we can’t overthrow government because that results in totalitarian dictatorships so about all we can do is reduce government wherever we can.” That’s weak sauce indeed. Basically, “you may as well remain a wage slave, because the food pellets are better than nothing.” I hate to hear that, because I think he’s right and I have had the same thoughts and reached the same conclusions – which lead me inevitably to the conclusion that anarchism is anti-social because it implies complete destruction and restructuring of civilization/society and there’s no way that’s going to have a positive outcome. Chomsky reminds me, unfortunately, of Bernie Sanders: someone who has been part of and inside the system for a long time, seen too much, and has realized that he’s ineffective and has adopted the role of The Wheel That Squeaks, knowing full well that his squeaks won’t even get heard by the masses. In the Q&A Chomsky is repeatedly asked “what can we do?” or “lead us!” and demurs, it’s just not going to happen. His advice is relentlessly practical and defeatist: organize, build popular movements. None of the questioners asked him, “Noam, you keep saying ‘build popular movements’ while simultaneously talking about how the popular movements around the world are wiped out by authoritarians with guns.”
It may be the downbeat narration, but it sounds to me as if Chomsky has given up, which is pretty reasonable, really, and then you hear the date of the interview: a lot of this stuff is from the 80s – Chomsky has been stuck in this depressing rut for a very long time. For someone like me, who basically agrees with his analysis, that’s not a heartening realization. He’s saying what Pvt Hudson said: “Game over, man!” Imagine 30 years of Pvt Hudson’s highly motivating analysis; Chomsky just makes me want to hide under the bed and take drugs that wipe out my mind. So does Bernie, for what that’s worth: look at the shitshow of Biden trying to get any significant legislation through, and imagine how Bernie’d have fared with all his grand-sounding plans for America. Yawn.
So, I accept that Chomsky has given up and offers nothing but clarity of analysis, which is considerable. For those who wish to engage in the rough-and-tumble of public argument, Chomsky presents a masterclass in how to argue: he ties everything to huge numbers of accurate facts, so it’s hard for anyone to call him a liar or argue he’s wrong. Chomsky’s analysis, I think, is so tight that about all you can do to refute it is ask, as I did above, “so what?” His world-view is of a world dominated by constructed power arrangements that have such a thorough grip on all aspects of society that you have no chance of changing anything except for the worse – and there’s no point in doing that because the authoritarians are already working on it. So: hide under the bed and take drugs.
Let me just tell you one piece of it, that was revealed about a year ago [In the 1980s] In the 1980s– Operation Mongoose practically blew up the world. I don’t know how many of you have been following the new material that’s been released on the Cuban missile crisis (1962) but it’s very interesting. There have been meetings with the Russians, now there are some with the Cubans, and a lot of material has come out under the Freedom of Information Act here and there’s a very different picture of the Cuban missile crisis emerging.
One thing that’s been discovered is that the Russians and the Cubans had separate agendas during the course of the crisis. See, the standard view is that the Cubans were just Russian puppets well, that’s not true. Nothing like that is ever true. It may be convenient to believe but it’s never true. And, in fact, the Cubans had their own concerns. They were worried about an American invasion and now it turns out that those concerns were very valid. The United States had invasion plans for October, 1962. The missile crisis was in October, 1962. In fact, American naval and military units were already being deployed for an invasion before the beginning of the missile crisis. That’s just been revealed in Freedom of Information Act materials. Of course it’s always been denied here. Like, if you read McGeorge Bundy’s book on the military system [National security advisor, co-architect of the Vietnam War] he denies it, but it’s true. And now the documents are around to prove it. And the Cubans, doubtless, knew it. So that was what was motivating them. The Russians, on the other hand, were worried about the enormous missile gap which was, in fact, in the US’ favor and not in their favor as Kennedy claimed. So what happened is, there was that famous interchange between Kennedy and Krushchev in which an agreement to end the crisis was reached. Then, shortly after that, the Russians tried to take control of their missiles in Cuba, in order to carry through the deal they had made with the United States. See, at that point, the Russians didn’t actually control the missiles – the missiles were in the hands of the Cubans and the Cubans didn’t want to give them up, because they were still worried, plausibly, that there would be an American invasion. So, there was a standoff between them, early in November, which even included an actual confrontation between Russian and Cuban forces about who was going to have physical control of the missiles. It was a very tense moment and you didn’t know what was going to happen. Then, right in the middle of it one of the Operation Mongoose activities took place: right at one of the tensest moments of the missile crisis, the CIA blew up a factory in Cuba with about 400 people killed, according to the Cubans. Well, fortunately, the Cubans didn’t react. But if something like that had happened to us, at the time, Kennedy certainly would have reacted and we would have had a nuclear war. It came very close.
Alright, there’s a terrorist operation that might have set off a nuclear war. That wasn’t even reported in the United States when the information was released about a year ago.
That’s just a tiny bit of the picture Chomsky sketches out, then fills in, of a world dominated by secret government power and overt economic power. A world in which ordinary people have absolutely no chance to be anything but cogs in the machine, good consumers, or perhaps they can complain a bit so long as they don’t appear to be on course for actually doing anything. It’s incredibly bleak.
The whole book is 22 hours long in audio format, which is a whole heck of a lot of bleakness to listen to. I honestly felt that Chomsky didn’t say a single encouraging or hopeful thing in the entire 22 hours. But he said a lot of things that made sense and seemed to exactly match the reality we experience.
One of the pieces (I will try to post extracts from it, eventually) that really made me sit up in surprise, was Chomsky’s point that we are already living in a fascist government. Remember, this was mostly recorded in the 80s. Chomsky’s argument is that the main characteristics of fascism are a strong coupling between state control of production and extreme militarization. Put that way, yes, the US has always been fascist. But what are we supposed to do about it? Well, obviously nothing has worked so far, so I guess crawling under the bed and doing drugs is as effective a response as anything else. Chomsky definitely tells us, over and over, that we are the baddies.
Operation Mongoose [wik] –
Operation Mongoose consisted of a program of covert action, including sabotage, psychological warfare, intelligence collection, and the creation of an internal revolution against the communist government. The U.S. still lacked the capability of effectively getting information to the majority of the Cuban people. They had a trade embargo, denial of bunkering facilities, increased port security, and control procedure on transshipment, technical data, and customs inspection. The U.S. also used diplomatic means to frustrate Cuban trade negotiations in Israel, Jordan, Iran, Greece, and possibly Japan. From the outset, Lansdale and fellow members of the SG-A identified internal support for an anti-Castro movement to be the most important aspect of the operation. American organization and support for anti-Castro forces in Cuba was seen as key, which expanded American involvement from what had mostly been economic and military assistance of rebel forces. Therefore, Lansdale hoped to organize an effort within the operation, led by the CIA, to covertly build support for a popular movement within Cuba. This was a major challenge. It was difficult to identify anti-Castro forces within Cuba and there lacked a groundswell of popular support that Cuban insurgents could tap into. Within the first few months, an internal review of Operation Mongoose cited the CIA’s limited capabilities to gather hard intelligence and conduct covert operations in Cuba. By January 1962, the CIA had failed to recruit suitable Cuban operatives that could infiltrate the Castro regime. The CIA and Lansdale estimated that they required 30 Cuban operatives. Lansdale criticized the CIA effort to ramp up their activities to meet Operation Mongoose’s expedient timelines. Robert McCone of the CIA complained that Lansdale’s timeline was too accelerated and that it would be difficult to achieve the tasks demanded in such a short timeframe.
I keep saying that the US is the largest exporter of state-sponsored terrorism, worldwide. The CIA is the worst collection of human rights violations ever.