Image by Andrew Rusk, via Wikimedia Commons
The gross and ever-increasing degree of economic inequality in the United States has become a phenomenon that even the country’s elites can no longer ignore since the explosive publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. The book’s highly technical marshaling of data speaks primarily to economists and secondarily to liberal policymakers. Piketty’s calls for redistribution have lead to charges of “Marxism” from the other end of the political spectrum—due to some inevitable degree to the book’s provocative title. Yet in the reckoning of actual Marxist Slavoj Žižek, the French economist is still “a good Keynsian” who believes that “capitalism is ultimately the only game in town.” While the Marxist left may critique Piketty’s policy recommendations for their reliance on state capitalism, another fierce leftist thinker—Žižek’s sometime intellectual rival Noam Chomsky—might critique them for their acquiescence to state power.
Chomsky’s role as a public intellectual has placed him at the forefront of the left-anarchist fight against neoliberal political economy and the U.S. foreign and domestic policies that drive it. Whether those policies come from nominally liberal or conservative administrations, Chomsky asserts time and again that they ultimately serve the needs of elites at the expense of masses of people at home and abroad who pay the very dear cost of perpetual wars over resources and markets. In his 2013 book On Anarchism, Chomsky leaves little room for equivocation in his assessment of the role elites play in maintaining a state apparatus that suppresses popular movements:
If it is plausible that ideology will in general serve as a mask for self-interest, then it is a natural presumption that intellectuals, in interpreting history or formulating policy, will tend to adopt an elitist position, condemning popular movements and mass participation in decision making, and emphasizing rather the necessity for supervision by those who possess the knowledge and understanding that is required (so they claim) to manage society and control social change.
This excerpt is but one minute example of Chomsky’s fiercely independent stance against abuse of power in all its forms and his tireless advocacy for popular social movements. As Henry Giroux writes in a recent assessment of Chomsky’s voluminous body of work, what his many diverse books share is “a luminous theoretical, political, and forensic analysis of the functioning of the current global power structure, new and old modes of oppressive authority, and the ways in which neoliberal economic and social policies have produced more savage forms of global domination and corporate sovereignty.” And while he can sound like a doomsayer, Chomsky’s work also offers “the possibility of political and economic alternatives” and “a fresh language for a collective sense of agency and resistance.”
Today we offer a collection of Chomsky’s political books and interviews free to read online, courtesy of Znet. While these texts come from the 1990s, it’s surprising how fresh and relevant they still sound today. Chomsky’s granular parsing of economic, social, and military operations explains the engineering of the economic situation Piketty details, one ever more characterized by the title of a Chomsky interview, “The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many.” See links to nine books below. To read, click on links to either the “Content Overview” or “Table of Contents.” The books can also be found in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.
Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (1989): Based on the Massey Lectures, delivered in Canada in November 1988, Necessary Illusions argues that, far from performing a watchdog role, the “free press” serves the needs of those in power.
Deterring Democracy (1991): Chomsky details the major shift in global politics that has left the United States unchallenged as the preeminent military power even as its economic might has declined drastically in the face of competition from Germany and Japan. Deterring Democracy points to the potentially catastrophic consequences of this new imbalance, and reveals a world in which the United States exploits its advantage ruthlessly to enforce its national interests — from Nicaragua to the Philippines, Panama to the Middle East.
Year 501: The Conquest Continues (1993): Analyzing Haiti, Latin America, Cuba, Indonesia, and even pockets of the Third World developing in the United States, Noam Chomsky draws parallels between the genocide of colonial times and the murder and exploitation associated with modern-day imperialism.
Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture (1993)
What Uncle Sam Really Wants (1993): A brilliant distillation of the real motivations behind U.S. foreign policy, compiled from talks and interviews completed between 1986 and 1991, with particular attention to Central America. [Note: If you have problems accessing this text, you can read it via this PDF.]
The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many (1994): A fascinating state-of-the-world report from the man the New York Times called “arguably the most important intellectual alive.”
Secrets, Lies and Democracy (1994): An interview with David Barsamian
Keeping the Rabble in Line (1994): Interviews with David Barsamian
Excerpts from Powers and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order (1996): A scathing critique of orthodox views and government policy. See full text in pdf form here.
And for exponentially more Chomsky, see Chomsky.info, which hosts well over a hundred of his topical articles from the Vietnam era to the present.
Watch Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992)
Noam Chomsky Calls Postmodern Critiques of Science Over-Inflated “Polysyllabic Truisms”
Filmmaker Michel Gondry Presents an Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky
Clash of the Titans: Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault Debate Human Nature & Power on Dutch TV, 1971
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
Disappointed to see Zizek name lower the quality of this post. No march for a thinker like Chomsky, insulting even to mention together with such a amateur pseudo philosopher
same here. i just hate that the people in this page are putting “Žižek”, a lunatic, childish old man, on the side of one of the greatest intellectuals in human history.
If by “economic inequality in the United States”, you mean that Bill Gates (for example) has a lot more money that I (for example) do, I think your assertion is indisputably correct. But what perplexes me is why that fact is something we “can no longer ignore”. In the U.S., the question isn’t whether one has less than his neighbor, but whether he would be better off (materially, at least) somewhere else with a different economic system. As to that question, I think the economic data show fairly conclusively that the answer is no.
As for Chomsky, it is very nice to drone on about scenarios of class warfare and oppression — be they real or (more likely) imagined — but if he has a concrete proposal for a better political or economic system than exists in the U.S., I have yet to hear it.
“In the U.S., the question isn’t whether one has less than his neighbor, but whether he would be better off (materially, at least) somewhere else with a different economic system.”
I’d call that a misdirection. There’s plenty that can be done within a capitalist framework to mitigate inequality without positing a utopian alternative. In the US, lowering the minimum income for applying estate tax and raising the highest applicable break would be just one example. Raising the minimum wage would be another.
“As for Chomsky, it is very nice to drone on about scenarios of class warfare and oppression — be they real or (more likely) imagined — but if he has a concrete proposal for a better political or economic system than exists in the U.S., I have yet to hear it.”
The OC poster chose to frame this article with a reference to Piketty, but Chomsky rarely discusses inequality directly; he certainly doesn’t “drone on” about it. Most of his writing address imperialism (note the books listed above), which of course results in inequality and actual warfare. He does discuss income inequality from time to time, usually in interviews where he’s asked about it, but he’s never published a work of economic analysis.
For many reasons, I do not support wealth redistribution policies. As I see it, if an individual is bothered because he does not have as much as his neighbor, the best way to “mitigate” that inequality is to work harder. As for the rest of us who are content, we can wish our fellows who have more well, and busy ourselves with more important things.
While I’m pretty dubious of Zizek’s credentials as an “actual Marxist” (more like enfant terrible clown of the bourgeois West), there can be no denying the erudition and strengths of Chomsky’s critiques. And despite his claims of being an anarchist, clearly he’s much more of a Man of the Left than the the likes of Piketty, Krugman, etc who dominate the discourse today
…to be imformative…
thank you for givern us apotunity to say something
Chomsky is a great man , for his just stands to support who have been oppressed and suffered injustice is really and highly appreciated , I am a staunch reader and follower of Chomsky approach .
N. Chomsky is a brave and intelligent man. His ideas of justice are crystal-clear and honest in his written work. I started reading his work on linguistics but I´ve also read his political work since “Desert Storm” in Irak. I wish the United States gave birth to more valuable men and women like him. MB.
Most Americans would indeed be better off in most any other economy even though relative per capita income is very high here. We ranked 10th in 2014 but first among major economies. But that statistic has to be measured against things the average american doesn’t have and must pay for out of pocket, like universal health care and access to affordable higher education, etc., which other modern economies offer their people because the ethic is that investing in the citizenry will ultimately benefit the entire economy. Chomsky talks about class warfare because that’s the ultra rich are waging the war against the middle class — at least by most objective measures, like like stagnant wages, declining savings, high personal debt driven among other things by insanely high tuition – while their income skyrockets. America’s youth is being burdened with crushing debt before they’re 25 years old. It’s a disgrace. Call it class warfare or whatever you want but anyone who can’t see the injustice or the long term negative impact of this situation, has to be blind or brainwashed.
Thank you to him the education grown for the good of humanity
Some very enlightening comments here.
“clearly he’s much more of a Man of the Left”
“good of humanity”
I feel so inspired. :’)
I know right; most people dont even know his groundbreaking work on Syntatic theory and X-Bar theory.
At least thats what brought me here.
Actually, Chomsky has proposed plenty of better economic and political systems. He has proposed versions of anarchism, and is very convincing in his assertion of them.
See also his books, such as: https://www.amazon.com/Anarchism-Noam-Chomsky/dp/1595589104
This simply isn’t true. The notion that people are poor because they are lazy and don’t want to work does not bear scrutiny. Not everyone was born into the same advantages. It can be almost impossible to pull oneself out of the ghetto or poor white neighbourhoods or even formerly prosperous cities where industry has moved on. Especially since 2008.
The current super wealthy did not get there by hard work but by manipulating the systems because they could. Even Warren Buffet admits that they have had windfall profits since and before the bailout. These have occurred on the backs of the rest of the population, which many of the super rich are quite unconcerned about, preferring to think that the 99% are just lazy. Doesn’t make sense.
Is there a way to contact Mr. Chomsky?
Would also love to contact Mr. Chomsky. Is there a way?
One doesn’t need to propose an entirely new system of government to comment on inequality. Chomsky is not proposing equal outcome, he is proposing equal opportunity. The mondragon corporation is one example.
Democracy does not exist in any true form if you have concentrated power. Whether that power is in the hands of a few families (oligarch) one family (monarchy) or corporations (plutocracy) the results have been historically poor for those in the working class.
Presumably, despite these inequalities, you believe the bottom half is better off. That is not so clear. Wages have been stagnate for a number of years, a once bustling heartland is now a wasteland, and the U.S. is currently ranked 77th on the world’s happiness index.