How the World Works by Noam Chomsky

Summary and takeaways from the book.

The book is a unique insight into how the world works as it is based on declassified documents where "planners were talking to one another."

The books shows what was being planned without any filters or rhetoric or obfuscation.

ISBN: 978-0525566700
Published: September 20, 2011
Pages: 336
Available on: amazon

The book is a collection of "intensively edited speeches and interviews, this book offers something it’s not easy to find—pure Chomsky, with every dazzling idea and penetrating insight intact, delivered in clear, accessible, reader-friendly prose."

The book is a unique insight into how the world works as it is based on declassified documents where "planners were talking to one another." The books shows what was being planned without any filters or rhetoric or obfuscation.

"To pacify the public, it was necessary to trumpet the “idealistic slogans”" into public messaging. But, the documents from planners gives unfiltered insights.

US Hegemony

Author explains the origins of US Hegemony: "World War II was a real watershed, so let’s begin there.

While most of our industrial rivals were either severely weakened or totally destroyed by the war, the United States benefited enormously from it. Our national territory was never under attack and American production more than tripled. Even before the war, the US had been by far the leading industrial nation in the world—as it had been since the turn of the century.

Now, however, we had literally 50% of the world’s wealth and controlled both sides of both oceans. There’d never been a time in history when one power had had such overwhelming control of the world, or such overwhelming security.

"The people who determine American policy were well aware that the US would emerge from WWII as the first global power in history, and during and after the war they were carefully planning how to shape the postwar world."

"We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity... To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives... We should cease to talk about vague and... unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better."

"We have to first separate ideology from practice, because to talk about a free market at this point is something of a joke. Outside of ideologues, the academy and the press, no one thinks that capitalism is a viable system, and nobody has thought that for sixty or seventy years—if ever."

"Our actual economic policy is a mixture of protectionist, interventionist, free-market and liberal measures. And it’s directed primarily to the needs of those who implement social policy, who are mostly the wealthy and the powerful."

"there’s no such thing as a purely capitalist society (nor could there be)"
USA is not driven by any particular ideology, only by the needs to serve the wealthy and powerful.

USA also used the spoils to invest in technology and get a leading edge. This technology allows them to dominate even more.

Role of the Rest

The USA envisioned rest of the world in a "service role—that is, “to complement the industrial economies of the West.”"

"The US has been willing to tolerate social reform—as in Costa Rica, for example—only when the rights of labor are suppressed and the climate for foreign investment is preserved".

The USA envisioned rest of the world in a "service role—that is, “to complement the industrial economies of the West.”"

As part of this, "install governments that favor private investment of domestic and foreign capital, production for export and the right to bring profits out of the country."

"The US has been willing to tolerate social reform—as in Costa Rica, for example—only when the rights of labor are suppressed and the climate for foreign investment is preserved. Because the Costa Rican government has always respected these two crucial imperatives, it’s been allowed to play around with its reforms."

"Another problem that’s pointed to over and over again in these secret documents is the excessive liberalism of Third World countries. (That was particularly a problem in Latin America, where the governments weren’t sufficiently committed to thought control and restrictions on travel, and where the legal systems were so deficient that they required evidence for the prosecution of crimes.)"

"The United States was not, however, lacking in compassion for the poor. For example, in the mid-1950s, our ambassador to Costa Rica recommended that the United Fruit Company, which basically ran Costa Rica, introduce “a few relatively simple and superficial human-interest frills for the workers that may have a large psychological effect.”

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles agreed, telling President Eisenhower that to keep Latin Americans in line, “you have to pat them a little bit and make them think that you are fond of them.”

There is no value in democracy for anyone. Not good for people, and not good for USA.

"Given all that, US policies in the Third World are easy to understand."
"We’ve consistently opposed democracy if its results can’t be controlled. The problem with real democracies is that they’re likely to fall prey to the heresy that governments should respond to the needs of their own population, instead of those of US investors".

"A study of the inter-American system published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London concluded that, while the US pays lip service to democracy, the real commitment is to “private, capitalist enterprise.” When the rights of investors are threatened, democracy has to go; if these rights are safeguarded, killers and torturers will do just fine."

"No country is exempt from this treatment, no matter how unimportant. In fact, it’s the weakest, poorest countries that often arouse the greatest hysteria."

"The Vietnam War emerged from the need to ensure this service role. Vietnamese nationalists didn’t want to accept it, so they had to be smashed. The threat wasn’t that they were going to conquer anyone, but that they might set a dangerous example of national independence that would inspire other nations in the region."

The government’s second role was to organize a public subsidy for high- technology industry.

Free trade is fine for economics departments and newspaper editorials, but nobody in the corporate world or the government takes the doctrines seriously. The parts of the US economy that are able to compete internationally are primarily the state-subsidized ones: capital-intensive agriculture (agribusiness, as it’s called), high-tech industry, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, etc."


Racism... "has to do with conquest, with oppression".

The "belief formation goes along with oppression".

Racism "has to do with conquest, with oppression. If you’re robbing somebody, oppressing them, dictating their lives.

A standard technique of belief formation goes along with oppression, whether it’s throwing them in gas chambers or charging them too much at a corner store, or anything in between. The standard reaction is to say: It’s their depravity. That’s why I’m doing it. Maybe I’m even doing them good.

If it’s their depravity, there’s got to be something about them that makes them different from me. What’s different about them will be whatever you can find.

And that’s the justification.

Then it becomes racism. You can always find something— they have a different color hair or eyes, they’re too fat, or they’re gay. You find something that’s different enough. Of course you can lie about it, so it’s easier to find.

Nationalism as a threat

"In one high-level document after another, US planners stated their view that the primary threat to the new US-led world order was Third World nationalism—sometimes called ultranationalism: “nationalistic regimes” that are responsive to “popular demand for immediate improvement in the low living standards of the masses” and production for domestic needs."

To counter this nationalism, USA would "install governments that favor private investment of domestic and foreign capital, production for export and the right to bring profits out of the country."

"From the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 till the collapse of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, it was possible to justify every US attack as a defense against the Soviet threat."

The crucifixion of El Salvador

"A second danger was even more threatening. In El Salvador in the 1970s, there was a growth of what were called “popular organizations”—peasant associations, cooperatives, unions, church-based Bible study groups that evolved into self-help groups and the like. That raised the threat of democracy.

In February 1980, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, sent a letter to President Carter in which he begged him not to send military aid to the junta that ran the country. He said such aid would be used to “sharpen injustice and repression against the people’s organizations” which were struggling “for respect for their most basic human rights” (hardly news to Washington, needless to say).

A few weeks later, Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying a mass.

Rev. Santiago goes on to point out that violence of this sort greatly increased when the Church began forming peasant associations and self-help groups in an attempt to organize the poor

Global terror

"When India tried to send 100 water buffalo to Vietnam to replace the huge herds that were destroyed by the American attacks—and remember, in this primitive country, water buffalo mean fertilizer, tractors, survival—the United States threatened to cancel Food for Peace aid. (That’s one Orwell would have appreciated.)

No degree of cruelty is too great for Washington sadists. The educated classes know enough to look the other way.

In many ways, Eastern Europe is more attractive to investors than Latin America. One reason is that the population is white and blue-eyed, and therefore easier to deal with for investors who come from deeply racist societies like Western Europe and the United States

Brute force over diplomacy

"The strong card of the United States is force—so if we can establish the principle that force rules the world, that’s a victory for us. If, on the other hand, a conflict is settled through peaceful means, that benefits us less, because our rivals are just as good or better in that domain.

Diplomacy is a particularly unwelcome option, unless it’s pursued under the gun. The US has very little popular support for its goals in the Third World. This isn’t surprising, since it’s trying to impose structures of domination and exploitation.”

As a result, negotiations are something the US commonly tries to avoid.

The IMF is a more cost-effective instrument than the Marines and the CIA if it can do the job. But the “iron fist” must be poised in the background, available when needed.

Scale of our problems is Global

"Throughout history, the structures of government have tended to coalesce around other forms of power—in modern times, primarily around economic power. So, when you have national economies, you get national states. We now have an international economy and we’re moving towards an international state—which means, finally, an international executive."

"To quote the business press, we’re creating “a new imperial age” with a “de facto world government.” It has its own institutions—like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, trading structures like NAFTA and GATT [the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, both discussed in more detail below], executive meetings like the G-7 [the seven richest industrial countries—the US, Canada, Japan, Germany, Britain, France and Italy—who meet regularly to discuss economic policy] and the European Community bureaucracy".

Techno-feudalism is here.

"As you’d expect, this whole structure of decision making answers basically to the transnational corporations, international banks, etc.

All these structures raise decision making to the executive level, leaving what’s called a “democratic deficit”— parliaments and populations with less influence

Parliament, senator, capitol hill, President, Chief Minister, Prime Minister, congressman, MP have no power. They can help with small tasks like bribing a judge in property dispute or off-court settlement in murder case etc. That is all.

"And that’s just a part of the task that lies before us. There’s a growing Third World at home. There are systems of illegitimate authority in every corner of the social, political, economic and cultural worlds.

For the first time in human history, we have to face the problem of protecting an environment that can sustain a decent human existence. We don’t know that honest and dedicated effort will be enough to solve or even mitigate such problems as these.
"We can be quite confident, however, that the lack of such efforts will spell disaster."

Protests and pressure

"In any country, there’s some group that has the real power. It’s not a big secret where power is in the United States. It basically lies in the hands of the people who determine investment decisions—what’s produced, what’s distributed. They staff the government, by and large, choose the planners, and set the general conditions for the doctrinal system.

One of the things they want is a passive, quiescent population. So one of the things that you can do to make life uncomfortable for them is not be passive and quiescent. There are lots of ways of doing that. Even just asking questions can have an important effect.

Demonstrations, writing letters and voting can all be meaningful—it depends on the situation. But the main point is—it’s got to be sustained and organized.

If you go to one demonstration and then go home, that’s something, but the people in power can live with that.

What they can’t live with is sustained pressure that keeps building, organizations that keep doing things, people that keep learning lessons from the last time and doing it better the next time.

Any system of power, even a fascist dictatorship, is responsive to public dissidence. It’s certainly true in a country like this, where—fortunately—the state doesn’t have a lot of force to coerce people

At the highest level, "When you get to that level, policy is decided almost totally by the wealthy and powerful people who own and manage the country."

System and peripheral changes

"someone asked you about the power of the system and how to change it. You said it’s “a very weak system. It looks powerful but could easily be changed.” Where do you see the weaknesses?

In the early 1960s, the South was a terror state; it’s not at all like that now. The beginnings of some kind of commitment to decent medical care for the entire population only go back to the 1960s. Concern for environmental protection doesn’t really begin until the 1970s.

All those changes took place because of constant, dedicated struggle, which is hard and can look very depressing for long periods. Of course you can always find ways in which these new attitudes have been distorted and turned into techniques of oppression, careerism, self-aggrandizement and so on. But the overall change is toward greater humanity.

Unfortunately, this trend hasn’t touched the central areas of power. In fact, it can be tolerated, even supported, by major institutions, as long as it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter—their power and domination over the society, which has actually increased. If these new attitudes really started affecting the distribution of power, you’d have some serious struggles.

Change occurs and has occurred but not yet reached to central parts of the system. The victories have been superficial for 100 years or more

System change

"The current tendencies, many of which are pretty harmful, don’t seem to be all that substantial, and there’s nothing inevitable about them."

"Alternatives have to be constructed within the existing economy, and within the minds of working people and communities. The questions that arise go to the core of socioeconomic organization, the nature of decision-making and control, and the fundamentals of human rights. They are far from trivial".
"People need organizations and movements to gravitate to."

"If people become aware of constructive alternatives, along with even the beginnings of mechanisms to realize those alternatives, positive change could have a lot of support".
The current tendencies, many of which are pretty harmful, don’t seem to be all that substantial, and there’s nothing inevitable about them.

That doesn’t mean constructive change will happen, but the opportunity for it is definitely there.

Why slow pace of change

"One factor is the power of business propaganda in the US, which has succeeded, to an unusual extent, in breaking down the relations among people and their sense of support for one another".

People addicted to comfort of mass media and looking for a youtube link or facebook like button to change their lives.

"Traditionally, campuses have been a major source of resistance. Yet a new study from UCLA says that student activism is at an all-time low, and that interest in government and politics has plummeted. It also states that students academic involvement has gone down as well....They’re watching more TV".
Students are neither studying nor involved in ideal dreams of utopian world. They are just on their phone, doom-scrolling trashy spiritual entertainment.

"There’s still plenty of intellectual ferment, but it doesn’t have the enthusiasm and the optimism of those days (although you can hardly call Fanon very optimistic).

It had more of a revolutionary edge back then.

but remember that since then there’s been a period of extreme terror throughout much of the Third World —in which we’ve played a prominent part—and that’s traumatized a lot of people.

In January 1994, right before the Salvadoran election, they held a conference on the “culture of terror.” They said terror has a deeper effect than simply killing a lot of people and frightening a lot of others. They called this deeper effect the “domestication of aspirations”—which basically means that people lose hope. They know that if they try to change things, they’re going to get slaughtered, so they just don’t try.
"When we do something, do we have to have a clear idea about the long-term goal in order to devise a strategy?"

Change is slow because:

Families are dysfunctional, society is broken, and our sense is distorted.

People and students are on youtube and facebook waiting for link or button to change their lives, and doom-scrolling trashy spiritual entertainment.

The intellectuals don’t have the same brilliance or edge.

People have memory of terror and trauma from 1980-90s.

There is no strategy.

No magic bullet or easy answer

"We learn by trying. We can’t start now, with current understanding, and say, Okay, let’s design a libertarian society. We have to gain the insight and understanding that allows us to move step-by-step toward that end. Just as in any other aspect of life, as you do more, you learn more.

You associate with other people and create organizations, and out of them come new problems, new methods, new strategies.

If somebody can come up with a general, all-purpose strategy, everyone will be delighted, but it hasn’t happened in the last couple of thousand years.

If Marx had been asked, 'What’s the strategy for overthrowing capitalism?', he would have laughed.

How could there be a general strategy for overcoming authoritarian institutions? I think questions like that are mostly asked by people who don’t want to become engaged. When you become engaged, plenty of problems arise that you can work on.

But it’s not going to happen by pushing a button. It’s going to happen by dedicated, concentrated work that slowly builds up people’s understanding and relationships, including one’s own, along with support systems and alternative institutions. Then something can happen.

Top down strategies doomed

"Urvashi Vaid, author of Virtual Equality, castigates what she calls the “purist left” for waiting for the perfect vision, the one and only answer, as well as a charismatic leader".
"Not waiting for a charismatic leader, or the perfect and complete answer, is good advice. In fact, if it comes, it will be a disaster, as it always has been."

"If something grows out of popular action and participation, it can be healthy. Maybe it won’t, but at least it can be. There’s no other way.

You’ve always seen top-down strategies and movements as inherently doomed. They can succeed very well at exactly what they’re designed to do—maintain top-down leadership, control and authority. It shouldn’t have come as a tremendous surprise to anyone that a vanguard party would end up running a totalitarian state.

Example of this is the country Georgia.

Difference between privileged and less privileged people

"a very striking difference between talks I give to more or less elite audiences, and meetings and discussions I have with less privileged people."

Less privileged people: "They say, Here’s what I’m doing. What do you think about it? Maybe they’d like reactions or suggestions, but they’re already dealing with the problem. They’re not sitting around waiting for a magic answer, which doesn’t exist."

Elite privileged people: "They want some sort of magic key that will solve everything quickly, overwhelmingly and effectively. There are no such solutions."

"privileged audiences often don’t want to hear that. They want a quick answer that will get the job done fast."

Decisions made in East Coast USA

"It doesn’t matter much to the power centers what people are talking about in Laramie, Wyoming.

The East Coast is where most of the decisions get made, so that’s what has to be kept under tight doctrinal control

Start here

"Speaking truth to power makes no sense.

There’s no point in speaking the truth to Henry Kissinger—he knows it already.

Instead, speak truth to the powerless—or, better, with the powerless. Then they’ll act to dismantle illegitimate power

"But you have to do something—you can’t just sit around waiting for a savior.

There are lots of opportunities. Compared with people in other countries, our resources and options are so enormous that we can only blame ourselves for not doing more.

Speaking truth to power makes no sense.

There’s no point in speaking the truth to Henry Kissinger—he knows it already.

Instead, speak truth to the powerless—or, better, with the powerless. Then they’ll act to dismantle illegitimate power.

You are depressing

"A Canadian journal called Outlook ran an article on the talk you gave in Vancouver. It concluded with quotes from people leaving the hall: Well, he certainly left me depressed. And: I’m more upset than I was before I came. And on and on. Is there any way to change that?"

Elites and privileged people want spiritual entertainment, moral self indulgence, and catharsis. They also want positive psychology – a fake psychology that says it is all great and people power will change things for the better.

"So I just try to describe as best I can what I think is happening. When you look at that, it’s not very pretty, and if you extrapolate it into the future, it’s very ugly."

* * *

"If you go to one demonstration and then go home, that’s something, but the people in power can live with that."

Protest and demonstrations have almost no effect. They can be useful as part of bigger strategy, but on its own without a strategy, it is of no value.

"it’s not inevitable. The future can be changed."
Our future depends on whether we work together, get organized, and work systematically with a strategy.

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