A Person Reflection on "Failed States" by Noam Chomsky: published by Hamish Hamilton, 2006

Whenever I read anything by
Chomsky, I feel very uncomfortable, partly because he keeps telling me
that the world is in a mess, but mainly because I do not know what to
do with this knowledge. I suspect many others feel the same. Chomsky's
latest book "Failed States" is no different. Although I learned
a few new details, the general picture was familiar to me, and will be
familiar to many Sun readers. I do not think it unfair to summarise the
book as follows: the United States is a hypocrite on a grand scale. The United States is fast becoming the world's pariah. And the United States has given itself the right to be the unique exception to international law and standards.

Now, if what Chomsky says is
true, where does this leave us? Will Americans vote Bush out of office?
And would that make much difference, given that, for the foreseeable
future, anyone occupying the White House is likely to continue with
neoliberal policies and to use the military as a blunt instrument to
get America's way. Although there is massive disenchantment with, and
disengagement from, mainstream politics in the USA, this has yet to translate into fundamental policy shifts. Meanwhile, let us look at some of detail in Chomsky's message.

A New World Order?

When the Berlin Wall was pulled
down in 1989, we were left in no doubt that there was to be a "new
world order" and that this would be shaped and led by the world's
remaining superpower, the United States. To ram the message home, Frank Fukuyama told us, in The End of History,
that the American version of free-market capitalism would be at the
heart of the new order, and that it was the only game in town. What
Frank did not tell us was that this would be a new order of
unprecedented hypocrisy, violence and greed.

It did not take long for the
new world order to become the new world nightmare. The end of the
Second Millennium saw wars raging in Asia, Africa, South America and Europe.
Inequality within and between nations was at record levels, and the
environment and planet were more threatened than ever, as were
indigenous and national cultures the world over. It should not have
surprised us that some small groups felt the need to take matters into
their own hands, by starting their own wars. As we now know, when a
state prosecutes violence, it is called "war" when the violence is done
to other countries and "justice" or "law and order" when the violence
is done to its own people. When small groups do the same, it is called

The main difference between
state violence and small group violence is that the former is regarded
as "legitimate" (even when, by international standards, it is often
illegal) and usually very destructive, while the latter is
"illegitimate" and usually much less destructive. The slaughter of the
innocents in New York on September
11th, 2001, is put into uncomfortable perspective when set alongside
the slaughter of a much larger number of innocents in Fallujah, Iraq,
in November, 2004. However, the slaughter carried out by the small
group of Saudis received unprecedented media attention, whereas the
slaughter carried out by the United States
military received relatively little. The former has gone into history
as "9/11," while the latter will no doubt be airbrushed into oblivion,
as so often happens. How many Americans know, for example, that
9/11/1973 was the date on which the US-backed overthrow of a
democratically elected government took place? The government was in Chile, and the overthrow was followed by a slaughter of more than 10,000 innocents by an army supported by the United States.

This is one of the points that
Chomsky makes - that the American version of history bears very little
relation to reality. Anyone who has read Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" will know what Chomsky means. In what is a difficult read, Zinn shows that the USA
was founded not so much on "freedom and democracy," but more on
violence and greed. The genocide of Native Americans was one of the
major holocausts of modern times. Perhaps it makes sense, after all,
that America chose, as one of her heroes, a man who ordered and condoned the killing of tens of thousands of people when he landed in the West Indies.
Every year on Columbus Day, Native Americans from Alaska to New Mexico
jam the phone lines of radio stations complaining that the USA sets
aside a day for a mass murderer. In their view, it is rather like the
Germans deciding to have a Hitler Day.

The World's Hypocrite

The motto for the Bush government and, to be fair, for many previous US governments, should be "Do as we say, not as we do." The world looks on in astonishment as the US berates Iran
for even thinking about nuclear weapons, while it casually makes itself
the exception to the Non-proliferation Treaty. Even the Blair
government in the UK cringes in embarrassment as the USA unilaterally decides that international law applies to other countries, but not to America. In keeping with its policy of making itself the unique and privileged exception to international standards, the United States
government continues to preach "free trade," while doing all it can to
sabotage the attempts of the World Trade Organisation to create
genuinely free trade. Although most Americans will never know it,
because their media will not tell them, the United States has made
itself a laughing stock in Europe by passing what many are calling the
"Netherlands Invasion Act," a piece of legislation that authorises the
President to use force to rescue Americans brought to the International
Criminal Court in the Hague. If we are ever to have a new world order,
then it really has to be a world order, applicable to the whole world, including America. So long as America makes itself the exception to genuine international order, the world will slide into deeper chaos.

The World's Pariah

Being the world's hypocrite is, of course, a big part of the reason the US
is seen by many as the world's pariah. But there are other reasons,
which Chomsky discusses in his customary detail. For example, America
is currently the world's greatest per capita consumer of energy and
other resources, and the single biggest cause of climate change. While
it is true that there are many American cities, communities and
individuals who have signed up to Kyoto
and other planet-friendly initiatives, the overall picture is still
poor. An example that a makes Europeans raise their eyebrows is the
fact that, although Americans think they are doing well when their cars
get 30 or more miles per gallon, the equivalent figure in Europe would be 50 or more.

Climate change is one thing. America's propensity for violence is quite another. The United States has been the world's bully for as long as I can remember. As William Blum documents in his book "Rogue State," America has been at war more or less continually for the last 50 years. Some of these wars have been overt (Vietnam, Somalia, Kuwait), but most have been covert, waged under the guise of "advising" a foreign power. With very few exceptions, the United States
has taken the side of right-wing dictators against the poor and
minorities. In this, it has done exactly the opposite of what it
preaches. While it may be true that the US wants "free elections," the people better make sure that they elect the right government. If they do not (Venezuela, Bolivia, Palestine, etc.), there will be trouble. It will be interesting to see how the US reacts if progressive, enlightened government ever emerges from the carnage of Iraq.

What now?

Much of what I have said so far
will be familiar. However, it is all very well to know the truth about
what is going on in the world, but what on earth are we supposed to do
with this knowledge? For me, this is the hardest part. In the
penultimate page of his book, Chomsky gives us "a few simple
suggestions". He suggests that the United States should:

  • Accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court

  • Adopt the Kyoto protocols

  • Let the UN take the lead in international crises

  • Rely on diplomatic and economic measures in confronting "terror"

  • Keep to the traditional interpretation of the UN Charter

  • Give up the Security Council veto and "have a decent respect for the opinion of mankind"

  • Cut back sharply on military spending and sharply increase social spending

On the face of it, these seem
very sensible, but I doubt very much whether they will change anything,
for two reasons, one obvious and one far from obvious. The obvious
reason is that these suggestions will fall on Washington's deaf ears. We know, with reasonable certainty, that this is exactly what the United States will not do. How do we know this? We know because not adopting
all these measures has been at the heart of US policy for decades.
Indeed, this very fact is what has given Chomsky his rationale for
writing all his books! The less obvious reason will take longer to
explain. It is about "deeper causes.".

Identifying and Addressing Deeper Causes

I applaud what Chomsky has been
doing all these years. I have learned a lot from him. My only real
criticism is that I do not think he gets to the heart of the matter.
The problems he describes in such detail are, in my view, not the real
problems. They are "symptoms" of a much deeper, underlying malaise that
afflicts not just the United States,
but all modern societies. But, before I outline what I believe this
malaise to be, I should like to say a few words about "deeper causes,"
because I do not think we pay enough attention to this.

Although they may be unaware of
it, most people, most organisations and most governments try to solve
problems by addressing symptoms rather causes. That is neither
effective nor sustainable. Treating the symptoms may seem to make
things better for a while. It may even give the impression that the
problem has been cured once and for all. But if the deeper causes are
not addressed, the symptoms will inevitably return, often worse. The
analogy with medical treatment is instructive. In busy, overstretched
healthcare services, it is rare that we identify and treat the root
causes of illness, which are often cultural, economic, emotional or
spiritual in nature. Services that focus largely on the provision of
medical treatment (this is where nearly all the money goes) is simply
not equipped to address the causes of illness. All it can hope to do is
to keep symptoms at bay. A service focused on health, on the other
hand, would do things very differently. It would go as deep as it could
into what causes illness and into what promotes health and it would put
its money and attention into these two areas.

As a society, we tend to deal
with illness, poverty, crime, drugs and pollution as if they were the
problems themselves, when in fact they are more likely to be symptoms
of something going wrong at a deeper level. They reflect an underlying
malaise. The intelligent thing to do is to find out what this malaise
is and then do something about it, even if it might mean facing up to
some uncomfortable truths about our beliefs and behaviour and about the
direction of our policies and strategies. Meanwhile, crime, for
example, is typically addressed by recruiting more police, building
more prisons and imposing tougher sentences, all because criminal
behaviour is seen as the problem rather than as a symptom of something
deeper. What is true for crime is equally true for all our other
problems. Prevention is better than cure. But if you have to cure,
better to address the underlying causes. Having said this, dealing with
symptoms is undoubtedly appropriate when the symptoms have become
life-threatening or intolerable. But we should remind ourselves that,
in many cases, it is we who have allowed them to get to that point. And
this brings me neatly to the "deeper, underlying malaise" I mentioned

Hard as it may be for many to accept this, I think we are part of the malaise, collectively and individually. While it is true there is much about America
that is hypocritical, who among us can put his hand on his heart and
say that he is not a hypocrite? Very few of us, I suspect. Indeed,
hypocrisy has become a major issue in Europe as the very journalists
and politicians preaching to us about climate change and social justice
are discovered to be flying frequently on cheap flights to their second
homes in France and Spain!
Not all of us can afford to do this, of course, but how many of us
would not like the "good life" if we could afford it? For me, the main
problem in the world today is not unscrupulous politicians or business
leaders. It is our own addiction to a lifestyle that it both
unsustainable and spiritually deadening. To be fair to politicians and
business leaders, many of them believe that are giving us what we want.
After all, large numbers of us vote them into office and even larger
numbers buy their products. So, while Chomsky is quite correct to point
out that there is a huge disconnect between public policy and public
opinion (especially when it comes to healthcare and social provision),
the fact remains that too many of our own behaviours feed this

So, when you find yourself
criticising anyone, be it George Bush or Exxon, stop what you are doing
immediately, and think instead about yourself. Is your own behaviour
beyond criticism? If it is, you are very fortunate and very unusual! If
it is not, stop thinking about Bush and Exxon and all the others out
there, and direct all your attention on to yourself. For the fact is
that the world will change only when you change. If we are serious
about wanting to create a world in which people and planet are
enhanced, rather than exploited, then each of us has to live our lives
as if this were already a reality. If we are waiting for our political
and business leaders to make a better world for us, then we shall wait
an eternity.

I cannot finish
without saying a little more about the "deeper, underlying malaise." In
a word, I think it is "modernity." Clearly, this requires some
explanation. I am involved in an unusual project called "The Second
Enlightenment." The essence of the project is to find ways to go beyond
modernity and our obsession with materialism. There is not the space
here to go into detail, but I am keen that we do no throw the baby out
with the bathwater, because, for all its shortcomings, modernity has
given us a lot. However, without ever intending to, the first
Enlightenment (sometimes called the Scottish Enlightenment), in
spawning the beliefs, values and behaviours that we call "modernity,"
set in motion a dynamic that effectively removed some very important
parts of our lives. They removed, or at least devalued, deeper meaning, wisdom and ecology. With
such important things pushed to the margins, it is hardly surprising
that we have become the most dangerous, destructive species on the
planet. I am convinced that any "Second Enlightenment" will largely be
about bringing wisdom, deeper meaning and ecology right into the heart
of our lives and work. How we will do that is beyond the scope of this