Noam Chomsky, so I am told, is much admired as a truth-teller among young people looking for accurate explanations of what is going on in America politically and economically. His basic thesis is that the small number of people who are in power in this country exert their interest in enriching themselves by pursuing imperialist policies abroad and oppressive policies at home. They keep down poor and even middle class people both foreign and domestic. I think this view is mistaken. Rather, Chomsky is just repeating shibboleths that were inaccurate when they were first enunciated by Lenin and then, for a later generation, by C. Wright Mills, who wrote in “The Power Elite”, in the Fifties, that militarists dominated the United States government and fomented wars so that they could increase the defense budget as well as keep America in control of third world countries, the natural resources and domestic labor of these countries that fell into the American sphere of influence thereby available for exploitation. Let us deaggregate this point of view into distinct propositions and hold them up for examination.
First is the idea that the United States turns underdeveloped countries into colonies so that it can steal their natural resources and employ their work forces at very low wages. Chomsky, in “Who Rules the World?”, applies his brush of derision for United States foreign policy very broadly and very thinly, to Haiti, to Cuba, to Palestine, and even to the springboards for 9/11. The United States just can’t do anything right. But foreign policy is more complicated than that. Barrington Moore, Jr. showed long ago that homelands spent more on their colonies than the wealth they brought in from them (with the possible exception of Belgium’s grim rule of the Congo, which much enriched the royal family). For the most part, colonies were ways of increasing national pride, especially among the newly enfranchised working classes which would therefore vote for jingoistic politicians. As far as the United States is concerned, it acquired from Spain its Caribbean and Pacific empire at the end of the nineteenth century because some nation was going to take it away from Spain and it might as well be us, we not wanting Europeans to be involved in the Americas and when it was clear that Japan was the rising power in Asia and we did not want the Philipines to fall to them. As usual, the explanation for American foreign policy is geo-political, a calculation of realpolitik, which means what is in our national interest, whatever the claims of morality or of economics. The United States has been bailing out Puerto Rico ever since it took over the island.
That insight applies to our Cuban policy, much chastised by Chomsky for having turned against Castro because he was going to distribute land to the peasants. Batista, whom Castro overthrew, had served the interests of the United Fruit Company, the Bell Telephone Company, and American sugar interests. But those corporations had made use of the opportunity to invest in Cuba rather than were the cause of our engagement with Cuba. Yes, one issue that led to a severing of relations with Cuba after Castro took over the government (not mentioned by Chomsky perhaps because he was not familiar with the fact) was that Castro did not want to honor the sugar quota that had limited exports of Cuban sugar to the United States so as to protect the American domestic sugar industry. But protectionism is not imperialism. Moreover, the break with Cuba was over political matters. Liberals like myself, who were reluctant to regard Castro as a menace or see him as a Communist until he declared himself to be one (and even then wondered whether he was saying that just to curry favor with his new masters in the Kremlin) were appalled by the show trials Castro staged immediately after taking power. Batista officials were tried in football stadiums, rapidly convicted and quickly thereafter executed. Castro also clamped down on the press and began a persecution of gays. Castro showed himself not to be a small “d” democrat, but just another Latin American strong man, this time the client of our arch enemy, the Soviet Union, and it made no sense for the United States to allow Soviet penetration into the Caribbean, the Cold War waging all around the globe, from the Caribbean to Europe to Afghanistan, to Vietnam and Korea and the Horn of Africa. There was more at stake than the price of sugar.
If there is imperialism in the world today, it does not involve the developed world exploiting Latin America and Africa; it is in Europe. The North of the continent exploits the South of the continent by offering it loans that it knows can not be paid back and then, like American bankers, foreclosing or threatening to foreclose on the Greek or the Spanish economy unless those countries engage in painful austerity measures to allow them to repay their debts at least in part. But the more important message is that the European Union never learned the lesson demonstrated by Alexander Hamilton when he helped to further the cause of the new union of American states by having the federal government assume the debts of the states, thereby making the federal government the center of economic power and stabilizing the currency and increasing commerce. Rather, Brussels was too hesitant to federalize economic policy and so keep Southern member states from borrowing more than they could afford. As with the American mortgage crisis, don’t blame the people who take out loans but those who offer them to borrowers they know cannot pay them back.
The second and conjoined idea is that the rich people get richer by making poor and middle class people poorer right back here in the United States. That is certainly what Republican tax policy adds up to. Chomsky makes the idea that the rich rule the country for their own benefit by blaming it, in his book “Requiem for the American Dream” (2017), on the shift in power from the industrialists to the money managers, those same people responsible for the Great Recession. But both Chomsky and Bernie Sanders are wrong to think that the extravagant salaries and bonuses the rich bestow on themselves is what makes everybody else worse off and that thereby the incomes of the rich need to be curtailed except to the extent that they can provide the wealth, through taxation, to build infrastructure, fund entitlement programs, and improve the lives of the poor and middle class. Rather, Hillary Clinton, however flawed as an explicator of her own policies, was closer to the mark. What the poor and middle class need are higher basic standards of living and a promotion ladder that allows them to improve their condition of life over the course of a work life. That is why a much higher minimum wage, expanded healthcare coverage, and scholarships to community colleges where people can learn a trade, are more important than reducing the wealth of those on top. How does making the rich suffer help the poor and middle class except, as I say, by providing more taxes to support programs that help the poor and middle class? Punitive taxes don’t accomplish anything except to make radicals like Chomsky feel satisfied that they are creating a more just system simply by making rich people suffer. Rather, look at what the poor and middle class need and go from there.
So, in short, Chomsky supplies neither a detailed study of particular issues or a sustained exercise in creating an analytic framework within which to place these issues, even if any number of social commentators on both sides of the political aisle, such as John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen and William Graham Sumner have done just that. Rather, Chomsky is doing on the left what William Buckley, Jr. and Barry Goldwater did two generations ago on the right. He is just pushing out platitudes that those who are already convinced that there is something rotten in Denmark can glom onto without needing to think through. Let us hope he is not as successful as they were in providing the rhetoric that would get Presidents elected.