Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Review: Chomsky's Power and terror

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Matt Dobson reviews: Power and Terror: Conflict, Hegemony, and the Rule of Force, by Noam Chomsky

In response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Bush neo-con administration unleashed a military onslaught on Afghanistan and Iraq that seemed to display invincible power. Writers churned out articles and books predicting the dawn of a “new world order”. Commentators claimed the US ruling elite was building a Roman-like empire that would exert hegemony for decades across the world. What a different world we live in today!

This collection of Chomsky’s essays, interviews and lectures shows how much can change in ten years. Chomsky highlights the change in the balance of power in terms of inter-imperialist relations. The US empire is now in decline. US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are besieged garrisons. But he never fully explains the changed world situation and the change in the imperialist policy of the US ruling class.

Throughout the last decade the Socialist Party and the international organisation to which it is affiliated, the CWI, pointed out that the US ruling class would not be able to dominate world relations indefinitely.

We also said that it would face resistance, highlighting the example of the Vietnam conflict, and would come up against the contradictions its policies had created.

Chomsky eloquently exposes the brutal nature of imperialism. For him, imperialism is the moral hypocrisy of powerful regimes using “power and terror and the rule of force” to further their political and economic aims. This cannot be disputed but for socialists there is more to it.

As Lenin explained, the capitalist class also turns to imperialist policies under pressure from the contradictions of their own system and as a way out of the limitations of the nation state. They are compelled by the threat from their rivals to seek out new markets and maintain dominance over areas.

The US ruling class, while loudly proclaiming their unchallenged authority and satisfying their hunger for prestige, was also compelled by unsustainable economic problems that came to the surface in 2007-8, to embark on imperial adventures.

A commendable thrust of Chomsky’s arguments is against the hypocrisy of liberal intellectuals who critically supported the neo-cons’ imperialist strategy. As a consequence he has suffered isolation from mainstream debate in the US.

Chomsky reacts to US imperialism’s brutality and uses ‘moral authority’ to condemn but never provides a solution or a strategy for defeating imperialism. His limitations are exposed. A discussion on “how should we respond?” solely focuses on what citizens in the west can do to restrain the imperialist policies of ‘their’ governments. The only idea discussed is individual boycotts of arms companies.

The recent revolutions in the Arab world have seen mass movements developing where workers and the poor decisively entered into struggle and toppled or weakened seemingly all powerful dictatorships propped up by imperialist powers. In the light of those developments, Chomsky’s ideas appear out of tune and out of date.

This is an interesting read but Chomsky’s analysis and reliance on individual moral solutions is limited. Those coming into struggle against imperialism and capitalism today will require a collective strategy based on mass action.

Power and Terror: Conflict, Hegemony, and the Rule of Force, essays, interviews and lectures in the ten years since 9/11, Noam Chomsky, Pluto Press, 2011


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