Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance
by Noam Chomsky
Hamish Hamilton £16.99, pp278
Whatever other crimes it committed or covered up in the twentieth century, the Left could be relied upon to fight fascism. A regime that launched genocidal extermination campaigns against impure minorities would be recognised for what it was and denounced.
Not the least of the casualties of the Iraq war is the death of anti-fascism. Patriots could oppose Bush and Blair by saying that it wasn't in Britain's interests to follow America. Liberals could put the UN first and insist that the United States proved its claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the court of world opinion. Adherents to both perspectives were free to tell fascism's victims, 'We're sorry to leave you under a tyranny and realise that many more of you will die, but that's your problem.'
The Left, which has been formally committed to the Enlightenment ideal of universal freedom for two centuries, couldn't bring itself to be as honest. Instead millions abandoned their comrades in Iraq and engaged in mass evasion. If you think that it was asking too much to expect it to listen to people in Iraq when they said there was no other way of ending 35 years of oppression, consider the sequel. Years after the war, the Kurdish survivors of genocide and groups from communists through to conventional democrats had the right to expect fraternal support against the insurgency by the remnants of the Baath Party. They are being met with indifference or active hostility because they have committed the unforgivable sin of cooperating with the Americans. For the first time in its history the Left has nothing to say to the victims of fascism.
Defeat explains much of the betrayal. The past 20 years have witnessed the collapse of communism, the triumph of US capitalism and the recognition of the awkward fact that many Third World revolutions are powered by a religious fundamentalism so strange the traditional Left can't look it in the eye. The result of the corruption of defeat is an opposition to whatever America does; a looking-glass politics where hypocrisies of power are matched by equal hypocrisies in the opposite direction.
The contortions are almost funny. In the Eighties, when the US and Europe were the de facto allies of Saddam, the Left wept rivers for his Kurdish and Arab victims. The concern dimmed when Saddam spoilt everything by invading Kuwait and turning himself into America's enemy. In the Nineties, the tyrant of Iraq was no longer responsible for conditions in the tyranny of Iraq. Its suffering was the fault of UN sanctions. By the spring of this year, evasion had reached outright denial as the reflection in the looking glass completed its about turn and opposed the only means of overthrowing Saddam.
Noam Chomsky is the master of looking-glass politics. His writing exemplifies the ability of the Western Left to criticise everything from the West - except itself. He is immensely popular; but his popularity is mystifying on the first reading. His work is dense and filled with non sequiturs (here he seeks to use the Cuban missile crisis to explain the Iraq war, which is a little like using the first Moon landing to explain the dotcom boom). He claims to confront the comfortable with uncomfortable facts they don't want to face. Yet his audience is primarily a comfortable Western audience.
The appeal lies in the simple argument that underlies the convoluted prose. Capitalism, particularly American capitalism, is responsible for the world's problems, it runs. Resistance, however perverted, is inevitable. If the resistance is barbaric the barbarism is the fault of capitalism.
Most of the time, the argument is hidden because, although it can stand up in a many circumstances, it is an absurd universal claim. But every now and again, the veil lifts and the professor is explicit. 'Recognition that control of opinion is the foundation of government, from the most despotic to the most free, goes back at least to Hume,' he writes. 'But a qualification should be added. It is far more important in the most free societies, where obedience cannot be maintained by the lash.'
Got that? Not that propaganda is more subtle in the United States than, say, China, or harder to detect in Britain than say, North Korea, but 'more important'. To the far Left, accustomed to decades of defeat, Chomsky's account of the brainwashing of the dumb masses provides an excuse for failure. For others he presents a curiously ethno-centric and soothing view of the world.
The lesson of 11 September is that no constraints of morality or conscience would stop al-Qaeda exploding a nuclear weapon. If however, it is all our fault, as Chomsky says, perhaps we can avert catastrophe by being nicer and better people. Perhaps we can, but Chomsky is as reluctant to admit that al Qaeda is an autonomous movement as he is to admit the existence of the democratic and socialist opposition to Saddam Hussein.
He wasn't always so coy. In his younger and better days he condemned the dishonesty of intellectuals who went along with America's crimes in Indochina and South America. It would be heartening if he could apply the same standards to himself. Just before the war, Jose Ramos-Horta, one of the leaders of the struggle for independence of East Timor, looked on the anti-war protesters and asked: 'Why did I not see one single banner or hear one speech calling for the end of human rights abuses in Iraq, the removal of the dictator and freedom for the Iraqis and the Kurdish people?'
Perhaps Professor Chomsky would like to carry on his campaign against hypocrisy by answering him.