But who rules the world? Well… not girls. Not boys. Who rules this mother, according to elderly-yet-vital Noam Chomsky? It’s more like ‘…the top ranks of increasingly monopolized economies, the gargantuan and often predatory financial institutions, the multinationals protected by state power, and the political figures who largely represent their interests.’ Yes. We’re still waiting for that particular single to drop.
What’s satisfying about diving into backlist Chomsky is that new titles keep appearing. He’s 88 to Beyonce’s 35 but still prolific, offering in the past few years primers and conversations and pocket-sized explications on Anarchism, on Occupy, on Palestine. At this point most people seriously interested in politics, history, literature, poverty reduction, climate change or just generally in life itself on this planet have read Chomsky, or — and bless their hearts, we’re all hardworking people — feel they’ve read Chomsky. A vague memory coheres around key terms such as ‘power systems’. A far-off reading list materializes. Someone you admired, or someone you wanted to sleep with, or someone mansplaining loudly in a pub might have produced a battered copy of Chomsky. Did you pick it up? Now more than ever it’s important to read the words rather than luxuriate in a memory, especially since members of Trump’s cabinet seem to have emerged, untouched, straight from these predatory financial institutions and rapacious multinationals. In vertiginous times, we face the danger of actually living inside a Chomsky paragraph come to life, jolted into existence by the dark energy of an orange politician. If you remember Chomsky is relevant, that his thinking might have shaped you in some dusty moment in the past, go back to the text.
In vertiginous times, we face the danger of actually living inside a Chomsky paragraph come to life, jolted into existence by the dark energy of an orange politician.
The Backlister was first introduced to Manufacturing Consent in the early nineties, so Chomsky will forever be associated with damp basement flats where Ani DiFranco seemed to play constantly on someone’s stereo. It was around the time Jennifer Baichwal’s film version of Manufacturing Consent appeared, Chomsky grew into a figurehead. Because he could eloquently draw a line from Howard Zinn back to David Hume, he was regularly denied airtime on shouty news channels. On the other side of the political spectrum, Chomsky suffered from deification. The lefty family at the heart of the recent film Captain Fantastic celebrates Chomsky Day instead of Christmas. ‘You would prefer,’ Viggo Mortensen’s character asks his children, ‘to celebrate a magical fictitious elf instead of a living humanitarian who’s done so much to promote human rights and understanding?’ This worship was not always helpful. To the left, Chomsky began to resemble something fictitious, if not an actual elf, then a legendary untouchable figure, as if his work was finished. His books still breathe, and now can act as a corrective to the unfolding American narrative. When people ask ‘How did we get to this point?’ it’s worth reminding him the events of Trump’s presidency are tethered to the past. Chomsky is there, crooking his finger: Go back. Follow the path.
Reintroducing Chomsky into your life will rouse dormant emotions. His dry humour will elicit a few bitter laughs. He will make you angry, despondent, then angrier, and even more despondent. He will remind you of US involvement in Central and South America in the 8Os in such a vital way you might even, like I did, begin to envision Oliver North, like a ghostly vision from the past, raising his hand to testify in the Iran-Contra affair. One of the notes I scrawled as I made my way through the book read ‘look into what happened to those Salvadoran bishops’. I have; it’s not good.
But just when things are getting bad, in a world of Trumpery and intellectuals working in service to the power establishment, Chomsky offers a droplet of hope. He quotes the wonderfully named Thorstein Veblen, who mentions that we regular people make up ‘the underlying populations’ and we may hope to overcome the power of business and nationalist doctrine to emerge, in Veblen’s words, ‘alive and fit to live.’ The current president likes to brag of his love for the forgotten man and woman, but his policies show he’d like more of them to remain forgotten — or to absent themselves from the national conversation if not the entire geography of the United States. Recently a staffer for a congressman described the effect of constant phone calls from the members of the community recounting personal stories of immigration. En masse, they’re unignorable, and who is making these phone calls if not ‘the underlying population’? Of course, after quoting Veblen in his text, Chomsky returns to tone down our happiness with his next line: there is not much time. There was not much time when the book was published. On the 26th of January, 2O17, the Doomsday Clock, created in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to warn us of the catastrophic nature of nuclear weapons, was set ahead 3O seconds, to two and a half minutes to midnight. That’s the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953.
In Who Rules The World, Chomsky allows for equal opportunity criticism. We all might feel early nostalgia for Obama — Don’t go, smooth-talking Barack, and leave us with the current menace. But hold up, Chomsky reminds us. Resist the tendency to see individuals instead of power structures, the tendency to overlook convenient continuity. What Obama’s ‘ban on torture’ eradicated was torture performed by Americans, not the bulk of it, which is still ‘handled and outsourced to foreigners under US patronage.’ Obama just, well, ‘repositioned’ torture and it’s worth remembering that, even when we shudder at a president who shrugs and celebrates waterboarding.
Whatever you think of Chomsky’s politics, in these later years of his life, it’s evident he remains anti-pain, anti-murder but never gives in to sentimentality. Please look at the facts, the books announce. Here they are again. At the end of Who Rules The World, The Backlister felt a strange sort of vacillating feeling towards the US. There’s the Age of Trump, of course, and the rise of demagoguery. But where else in the world could a man like this produce such a body of work?