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Thoughts on How the World Works

It could induce intellectual whiplash, reading How the World Works after reading Cynical Theories. Chomsky’s views on American democracy (or, “democracy”), liberalism, “the marketplace of ideas,” “capitalism,” and the like differ starkly from those of Pluckrose and Lindsay. It’s as if these different authors live in different worlds.

Which of them is nearer to living in “the real world” seems like it must be an empirical question, at bottom. Though also, inevitably, an interpretive one. Information always has to be interpreted – “understood.”

book cover "How the World Works"

Chomsky seems to have much of the empirical evidence to back up his reading of reality: information gained through the release of public documents, regular reading of the business press, etc. The difference between Chomsky and most of the rest of us is that he has read the primary sources. Because he is that smart and information-oriented.

But Chomsky is also an outlier. Most of us are not that capable. I include myself here. Usually I think of myself as fairly intelligent, but it’s obvious to me that, compared to Chomsky, I’m no better than average. And for staying aware of “what’s really going on” in the world around us, no better than average begins to seem … subject to delusion, or perhaps the willing subject of wishful thinking. Coming to that realization was seriously depressing.

Chomsky’s also a linguist. Which, I suspect, leads him to interpret that evidence in a particular way. As a linguist, perhaps, he’s inclined to understand that people sometimes use words to mean things that different people would use different words for. As in the way he says that, these days, when politicians and pundits talk about “jobs” they mean “profits.” Or, when some people say “national interest” they mean “our friends’ interest.” So one consequence of reading this book is that I am even more aware than I was before that people don’t always mean precisely what it sounds like they’re saying.

What it sounds to me like they’re saying, that is. Maybe, as with many dialects, there’s always a group of people to whom what people are saying means exactly what it sounds like they’re saying – to those folks.

Here’s something else that kept occurring to me while reading How the World Works: when do we call “a conspiracy theory” “a conspiracy theory”? If someone – like Chomsky, clearly – perceives, and describes, a clear view of how the actors with the most money, control of institutional resources, and decision making authority routinely take decisions that affect millions of people, using criteria and values that – presumably not coincidentally – have the effect of keeping them in the money and in power – do we call that a conspiracy theory? Or do we just call that the normal policy making process?

Would we expect people, including people with money and power, to take decisions that self-harm? Except, perhaps, in the ways that people sometimes do things that have bad outcomes, that they don’t foresee? Or perhaps, in the ways that people sometimes keep on doing things that they know have bad outcomes, but they are so wedded to other, tied outcomes … ?

[I’m thinking here of global warming, for instance. That’s a bad outcome, surely. Even for “the rich and powerful,” surely. But “we just can’t seem to avoid it.” Mainly, arguably, because whoever is in a position to make the decisions that would really change things just can’t see those immediate courses of action as … positive enough for them, just now. As Theodor Adorno said – more or less – “capitalists would rather commit suicide than change.”]

If we think that way, are we being cynical? Or simply realistic?

Or are we not being sufficiently clear about the term “harm”?

If someone like Chomsky points out that corporations are authoritarian institutions, not representative ones, which make decisions that affect people in significant ways without their input or consent, what’s our response? Oh, good point? Or, “well, … what IS your point? ‘Freedom’ mean everyone gets to do whatever they want with whatever’s theirs. No one ever said ‘democracy’ should apply to the workplace. Go get your own corporation.” Or, … so, who DOES make the rules around here, anyway? Who should?

[Well … their boards and their managers make those decisions, technically, decisions being something that humans have to make. Corporations not being people. Except, legally.] [Also, technically, there have been some people who have said that democracy should apply to the workplace …]

Chomsky seems to think people, when informed and organized, can make a difference in their lives and their world. Despite the evidence of the cases he discusses, at length, most of which demonstrate that people, when they get organized and begin to be effective in changing their lives and their world, can expect to meet with violence, repression and death. As in Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, East Timor, El Salvador, Flint Michigan, Gaza, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, Oakland California [OK, I added that one myself], Panama, Vietnam … he knows a lot of public information about violence, repression and death.

Jesus would be a case in point, for that matter, although we don’t usually think of Jesus that way.

So this Chomskian perspective on how the world works probably shouldn’t surprise or dismay Christians. I confess, however, it surprised and dismayed me. That probably means I have put too much actual trust in princes – including the officially democratic analog thereof – over the course of my longish life.

Mainly the effect reading this book had on me was that I now suspect most people’s political analyses – the kind that spend all their paragraphs on public opinion and voting behavior, say – are pretty worthless. And that a lot of “political issues” are nothing but distractions. A form of entertainment. Something like professional sports.

I didn’t think of myself as naïve. But then I read this book.

Notes on:

Chomsky, Noam. How the World Works. Interviewed by David Barsamian. Edited by Arthur Naiman. Hamish Hamilton, 2011.

An installment of the Read Me Project

A tower of books with an almond-shaped opening
“Yes, I am going to read all these books.”

Images: “Book Tower,”Deror_avi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; cover, How the World Works; “Book tower,” By VitVit (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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