How the World Works – Noam Chomsky: A Review

Date finished: September 1st 2016

I’m not a big fan of chimpanzees, but even I have to concede that any man who has a chimp named after him is probably a decent guy. Nim Chimpsky was a chimp who linguists attempted to teach sign language in order to ascertain the language capacity of the species. Noam Chomsky is the man the ape was named after, and he is Professor Emeritus at MIT known for his work on linguistics (hence the chimp pun) as well as in politics and philosophy. Having read Media Control earlier in the year, I was intrigued to delve further into his work.

How the World Works is a collection of four of Chomsky’s earlier works, originally published between 1992 and 1998. This does somewhat date the content, with examples running up to Clinton’s presidency. But the political insight, analysis and condemnation is still an intelligent and necessarily scathing attack on the crimes of the governments of the Free World.

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We start with What Uncle Sam Really Wants, a brutal account of postwar US foreign policy: it’s wars and why it conducted them; it’s meddling in third world countries (particularly Central America), controlling states and brutally repressing progress; and how it’s able to justify its actions at home through propaganda, silence and misdirection. It’s a harrowing look at the lengths to which the US has gone to protects its “interests” which in reality are the interests of big business. Much of the USA’s activity, legally justifiable as war crimes, has been to suppress progress elsewhere in order that it’s own populace doesn’t get any ideas above their station.

This is followed by The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many which is comprised of interviews with Chomsky on various topics including the globalised economy, the US-Israel relationship, the legacy of colonialism and much more. The interview format may sound off-putting but Chomsky elucidates at length in response to infrequent questions which only serve to direct the conversation. The level of insight Chomsky gives remains as detailed and as interesting as his writing in the first volume.

Secrets, Lies and Democracy comes next, and it’s at this point you realise that, rather than being distinctly separate ideas, each Chomsky book is very much related, because the symptoms of democratic decay that he diagnoses are the root causes of many of our global problems. Time and time again these come down to an elite that seeks to govern whilst limiting the power and knowledge of the masses whilst keeping big business placated. However, in this volume, he focuses more directly on the American working class and how they are kept down and manipulated by various facets of the establishment, before moving on to the illegal, immoral and inexcusable actions of the US abroad, destroying the economies and lives of many in developing third world countries.

Finally, we come to The Common Good which is arguably the stand-out volume of the four. How and why is hard to relate: the topics remain more or less the same, analysing big business’ stranglehold on US and global politics, as well as a touching briefly upon a plethora of other subjects – from sports to postmodernism. It just seems that Chomsky’s a bit more riled up in The Common Good and the weight of his words is heftier. It gives a great book an even better ending.

How the World Works proves to be a fantastic introduction to the ideas of Noam Chomsky. These edited volumes dispense with overanalysis (and sources, though Chomsky provides extensive citations in his work usually) and unnecessary depth to provide a great overview of the theories and ideas that Chomsky has pursued over the course of his career, as well as a harrowing look at the real political goals of the West. This is a book we would all do well to read.

What Uncle Sam Really Wants – 8/10

The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many – 7/10

Secrets, Lies and Democracy – 8/10

The Common Good – 9/10

Overall: 8/10

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