Noam Chomsky recently visited New Zealand as a guest of the Peace Foundation. He spoke to overflowing audiences eager to hear his critique of the US role in imposing the neo-liberal New World Order on the rest of the world. While Chomsky has a long track record in exposing the lies and hypocrisy of the US in its exercise of power, he cannot explain why the US behaves like this. Nor can he explain where we go from here, or what to do. We argue that Chomsky's vision is blurred.
The core of Chomsky's argument is the US drive to dominate the world in the post-WW2 period by subordinating the rest of the world to its global plan. fact the beginnings of globalisation. The world was partitioned so that the developing countries would serve as suppliers of raw materials and labour for the developed countries. This exploitation of the third world required political policies that did not allow the populations in these countries to opt out of this global plan. The IMF and World Bank and its more recent offspring NAFTA, WTO the MAI etc, were the instruments of this plan. Against this third world nationalism backed by the Soviet Union was identified as the main enemy. US backed coups and the cold war to isolate and ultimately destroy the Soviet Union were the tactics designed to keep this global plan on track. Chomsky's writings over the last 30 years are really no more than documentation of the application of these policies in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
In a recent article in the New Left Review (No 230 July/August 1998) Chomsky develops this analysis further. He argues that the mechanisms for imposing this global plan are increasingly secret and outside democratic control. NAFTA and the MAI are examples of new agreements designed to force small states to accept trade and investment on the US terms that were conceived in secret. Resistance to these agreements only arose after their existence was 'leaked'. On the MAI Chomsky states: the MAI "would constitute a major attack on democracy; it would shift the decision-making power over social and economic affairs even further into the hands of private tyrannies that operate in secret, unaccountable to the public. Corporations had been granted the rights of immortal persons by radical judicial activism early this century; but the MAI grants them the rights of states" (p.25).
Chomsky concludes: "The long-term goal of such initiatives is clear enough to anyone with open eyes: an international political economy which is organised by powerful states and secret bureaucracies whose primary function is to serve the concentrations of private power, which administer markets through their internal operations, through networks of corporate alliances, including the intra-firm transactions that are mislabeled 'trade'. They rely on the public for subsidy, for research and development, for innovation and for bail-outs when things go wrong. They rely on the powerful states for protection from dangerous 'democracy openings'. In such ways, they seek to ensure that the 'prime beneficiaries' of the world's wealth are the right people; the smug and prosperous 'Americans'; the 'domestic constituencies' and their counterparts elsewhere." (p.27)
But what causes this power surge, and what do we do about it? Where do we go from here? Chomsky is a radical democrat; some would say an anarchist or libertarian socialist. He is certainly hostile to Marxism and Communism, which he associates with the Soviet Union. His solutions are to rally the citizenry to the cause of democracy and to bring these power plays under the control of the people. "There is no reason to doubt that it (this excessive power) can be controlled, even within existing formal institutions of parliamentary democracy (my emphasis). These are not the operations of any mysterious economic laws; they are human decisions that are subject to challenge, revision and reversal. They are also decisions made within institutions, state and private. They have to face the test of legitimacy, as always; and if they do not meet that test they can be replaced by others that are more free and just, exactly as has happened throughout history." (p.27)
Chomsky's logic is classic social democrat. Once the masses are informed, and reject the exercise of arbitrary power, then they can use the institutions of bourgeois democracy to "challenge, revise and reverse" such power. Here Chomsky detaches the state (and private) institutions from the 'political economy'. Lenin said that politics is concentrated economics. Chomsky reverses the power flow from 'political' to the 'economic'. There are no 'mysterious economic laws' he says. There is just the zero-sum game of a struggle for scarce resources. Who wins this struggle has the power. Therefore economics becomes reduced to politics – to decisions taken in secret, that can however be exposed and made public. So economic problems can be resolved by means of realising the ideal of parliamentary democracy.
What's missing from this analysis is any understanding of the economic social relations that motivate the power struggle. Already under capitalism, social relations exist depending upon whether one owns the means of production or not. Therefore power flows from the ownership of private property that enables the capitalist class to force wage-labour to work and produced surplus value, to politics. This power relationship cannot be reversed or revised by parliament. In fact parliament functions to defend this power relationship by defending private property. Parliament can respond to democratic demands only when private property is not challenged. But once workers become 'informed' i.e. class conscious, and begin to 'challenge, revise and reverse' existing power relations, the threat to the property relations, upon which such power rests, will ensure that the state renounces its democratic trappings and imposes direct rule upon its subjects.
That's why in the postwar period that Chomsky documents, no successful challenge to US power by means of parliamentary institutions has occurred inside or outside the US. The only successful challenges, all of which failed ultimately, arose from the exercise of non-democratic challenges; that is challenges that did not result from the existence of parliamentary democracy. They arose either from undemocratic elite opposition, such as that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or from mass struggles that by-passed the trappings of formal parliamentary democracy – street protests or civil disobedience in the US, or popular uprisings and mass movements such as in Cuba, Vietnam, Palestine, etc. Nor can it be argued that these social movements have succeeded in 'renewing' parliamentary democracy. The fate of the ex-SU and other so-called 'socialist' states proves this fact. Whatever the failings of so-called 'socialist' regimes - their non-democratic and bureaucratic nature etc - the return to 'democracy and free markets’ is an unmitigated disaster; unmitigated by any exercise of democratic rights in moderating the devastating impact of the market.
The failure of these radical movements which threatened to overturn bourgeois states is not due to their non-democratic form, but due to their suppression by the military might of imperialism in the name of 'democracy'. Therefore, it is naive and ultimately self-defeating for popular movements to have illusions in parliamentary democracy. The foundation of 'actually existing capitalism', as Chomsky calls it, is not an aberrant concentration of power that can be corrected by democratic process. No it is the underlying property relations, defended by the capitalist state, which can only be "challenged, revised and reversed" by extending the struggle for democracy to socialist revolution. Smashing the capitalist state, and creating a planned economy in which production is for need and not profits.
From Class Struggle, No 25, Dec 1998-Feb 1999