Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky

ISBN: 1565847032
ISBN 13: 9781565847033
By: Noam Chomsky Peter R. Mitchell John Schoeffel

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About this book

The best of Chomsky's recent talks on the past, present, and future of the politics of power. In a series of enlightening and wide-ranging discussions, all published here for the first time, Chomsky radically reinterprets the events of the past three decades, covering topics from foreign policy during Vietnam to the decline of welfare under the Clinton administration.

Reader's Thoughts


Want to understanding international politics? Want to know how to read between the lines of the days headlines? Want to know where to start with Noam Chomsky? The answer to all those questions is: Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky.

Konstantinos Chatzigeorgiou

Chomsky's best political book out there.It's comprised by a series of interviews and discussions that took place almost 20 years ago. The tone is simple and the discussions are concise and cogent. Chomsky comes out as a very down to earth intellectual who is very involved in every day issues and not at all detached from reality. For somebody who doesn't really know much about his ideas, this is the best place to start, since you'll get a good grasp of all his major contributions such as the propaganda model, the parallels between Western intellectuals and the Leninist intelligentsia, libertarian socialism, the distortion of classical liberalism etc. You'll also get some great commentary on past political and economic issues which is -as always- very enlightening. What was most interesting for me, were his notions on human nature, his criticisms of sociobiology and some philosophical discussion towards the end, where Chomsky actually talks about vegetarianism and abortion though not in great length. What's most surprising, is how relevant this book really is. His analyses on our socioeconomic reality which depicted a very gloomy future indeed, perhaps weren't taken 100% seriously two decades ago, but look at us now. I mean, damn!


Without a doubt one of the most important books I've ever read in my life. This has blown my mind open to some of the realities of how the world works, and in particular the disasters caused by corporate capitalism and US foreign policy.I'm not one to typically get suckered in with things like this, I have to roll my eyes a little at things like Zeitgeist and some of Michael Moore's work. But Chomsky comes from a completely different intellectual level that its very difficult to refute.It took me a long time to get through this because it is actually quite a large book. In normal page and print size it would possibly come to around 800 pages. 800 pages absolutely packed with Chomsky's insights over a 10 year period. Insights on activism, the media and his Propaganda Model, the Middle East, the massacres in East Timor and Cambodia, US gun smuggling to contra armies in Nicaragua, their decimation of Haiti and the impact of neoliberal fiscal plans imposed on 3rd World Countries around the world, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the social inequality planned by the 1% and the absolute mockery of American 'democracy'... I mean, I can't immediately touch the surface of what is packed in this book. So much of what I thought I knew about the world since WWII has been completely skewed. And more than that, this book—and Chomsky's other literature and videos that I've delved into with gusto after really discovering him—has taught me to look at everything in a completely different way. To read the media in a different way, and to question everything.There is a quote on the back of the book that I must have read 100 times now. "Not to have read him [Chomsky] is to quote genuine ignorance."Having now read him, I can absolutely see the truth in that seemingly hyperbolic statement.


Having only read Chomsky in snippets here and there, I thought this book was a broad, accessible introduction to Chomsky's thoughts on the issues for which he is best known in pop culture (those relating to politics and power). Regardless of what one ultimately thinks of Chomsky's opinions (and he reiterates constantly that his intent is to provoke discussion, not to provide all the answers), the man is at least important to understand for modern democratic citizens. His knowledge of global current events (political, social, economic, military) is prolific and unparalleled, and his analyses of these phenomena are valuably thought-provoking. Chomsky does tend, in my opinion, to err on the side of the conspiratorial at times; though he constantly claims to be simply describing "how things work" in government, he often imputes nefarious motives and disingenuity to individuals and institutions without giving any consideration to their actual guiding principles. Chomsky (perhaps unintentionally, and I think to his detriment) creates an air of lofty malevolence around institutions and arrangements of power, thus alienating the reader from such groups and arrangements. Political change requires an intimate understanding of one's opposition, and the dark picture Chomsky paints is, though sometimes accurate from a certain moral democratic standpoint, ultimately obscuring of the powers-that-be.That said, it was an extremely informative read, written in an entertaining and engaging conversational style. Chomsky's thoughts on the media are the transcendently valuable core of the book, and his thoughts on global politics and power are original and merit careful consideration. If Chomsky aims to provoke critical thought and discussion, then he achieves his aim here.

Zach Cohen

This is the best single source of Chomsky's work I've come across. A triumph of editing, this book is made up of excerpts of talks Chomsky gave throughout the 80s and 90s. Loosely organized by topic, the book is highly flowing and readable. It includes an encyclopedic reference section available online that is longer than the main text of the book. This is where I recommend anyone not familiar with Chomsky's work to begin; it's the most comprehensive and accessible compilation of his thoughts. Many of the discussions quoted within were in question and answer format. The audience participation is included in the text. Many of the audience questions are obvious questions anyone unfamiliar with the subject matter would have, and the opportunity to read Chomsky's detailed responses to a huge range of questions offers much deeper understanding than simply reading one of his books by yourself.Understanding Power is a glimpse into the mind of one of the most brilliant, profound, and insightful social critics of our time. He touches on virtually every influential issue in US history, and readers are bound to walk away with a much deeper appreciation for how power functions in society, and how divergent American standard explanations of the world are from reality.

Robb Seaton

Look, you don't need to read this book. Here's how Chomsky works:1. Identify an authority.2. Is it necessary? If not, dismantle it.How do you identify an authority? Watch when someone gets fired, put in prison, forced to resign, etc. What aren't you allowed to say or do? What happens when you push something too far? Now, I'm partial to this algorithm, but it's not at all obvious that it's a good idea, for all the same reasons that it's not obvious that it's a good idea to eradicate an unnecessary animal.Plus, the book is decidedly useless when it comes to, you know, understanding power. "Because they're evil" is not analysis, and I wasn't at all impressed with Chomsky's scholarship, unlike many other reviewers. Chomsky draws almost no connections between his own narrative and work in other disciplines. Economists, he says, are brainwashed, so why listen to them? Very convenient.If you're on the left and want to listen to someone agree with you, sure, then read this. Or if you're interested in the history of activism, read it -- that's essentially what Chomsky is, a historian specializing in activism. Otherwise, I'd recommend just watching the movie *Manufacturing Consent*.

Alessandro Pellizzari

Inquietante e spaventoso. A volte si dice senza pensarci troppo "la realtà supera la fantasia", ma leggendo questo libro ci si rende conto di quanto sia vero. Sconsigliato a chi soffre di crisi depressive e di manie di persecuzione, perché potrebbe portare al suicidio. L'autore (o meglio "il protagonista") esprime naturalmente la sua opinione su molti dei punti discussi, e si tratta di un punto di vista da "anarchico". Su ogni argomento si può concordare o meno, ma i fatti che riporta sono perlomeno verificabili e documentati e descrivono una situazione descrivibile solo con le prime due parole di questa recensione.


Most definitely essential reading. If there is one book that you read of Chomsky's or on the topic, then this is the one. It's a very important book in my opinion. Good news is that it's very easy to read but I don't think it's for everyone because it's very hard to feel the same way about the world after knowing what you learn from this book. Since the book is basically transcripts of Chomsky's answers to questions, it has a few distinct features that set it apart from a regular book. One it's very easy to read because it's conversational. Two, topics are covered in summaries rather than chapters so they are concise. If you want a comprehensive coverage of a particular topic this isn't the right book. Three, it's a little all over the place and sections of the book are for name sake. The sections are fluid and it touches upon a very wide variety of topics. All of the above factors about the format of the book work very well for me but might not work for everyone. Obviously this format has its pros and cons.


Cuốn sách chủ yếu nói về tình hình chính trị - xã hội và cách thức đối ngoại của nước Mỹ. Nó cho thấy một hình ảnh xa lạ về nước Mỹ, đất nước hùng mạnh nhất thế giới. Nước Mỹ, kẻ luôn cho mình có sứ mệnh bảo vệ nền hòa bình của thế giới thực ra lại là nước gây chiến tranh, xung đột và chia rẽ chủ yếu. Nước Mỹ, kẻ luôn nói rằng mình đang chống lại chủ nghĩa khủng bố một thập kỷ vừa qua, lại là nước nuôi dưỡng, ủng hộ những chế độ khủng bố, độc tài, diệt chủng trên khắp thế giới. Nước Mỹ, và bản thân chính Noam Chomsky cũng tự hào về điều này, là nước có sự tự do ngôn luận rộng rãi nhất thế giới, nhưng toàn bộ hệ thống truyền thông lại vô cùng một chiều và bị thao túng sâu sắc. (Cũng tương tự như cuốn "Tin tức trái đất phẳng" của Nick Davies, truyền thông ngày nay chỉ là một công cụ tinh vi để "định hướng dư luận" và bảo vệ giới tư bản nắm giữ tài sản, không còn nhiệm vụ đưa tin trung thực). Nước Mỹ, đất nước có GDP lớn nhất thế giới, lại là nước có tỷ lệ người nghèo, vô gia cư và tỷ lệ trẻ em chết khi sinh cao nhất trong số các nước phát triển, hệ thống phúc lợi xã hội rất yếu kém. (Lại nhớ năm vừa qua có tin là chính phủ Mỹ cắt bỏ chính sách "Tem phiếu thực phẩm", đẩy hàng triệu người nghèo vào cảnh khó khăn). Nước Mỹ hiện đại vẫn còn sự phân biệt rất lớn giữa người da trắng với người da đen và Mỹ Latin. Các chính sách trừng phạt áp dụng cho những người này luôn hà khắc hơn so với cho người da trắng. Ở nước Mỹ hiện nay đang có một cuộc chiến lớn vẫn diễn ra từ ngày lập quốc, đó là cuộc chiến giữa chính phủ và người dân....


Noam Chomsky is a respected linguist who is also known as a political dissident and writer. His best-known work is probably Manufacturing Consent, in which Chomsky and Edward Herman examined “how the media ought to function and how they do function” within a framework of propaganda.Years ago, I remember picking up something by Chomsky and finding it very academic and dry. Understanding Power, on the contrary, is infinitely readable. Discussions among groups of activists, from dozens of “Teach-ins” and question-and-answer sessions, were transcribed and organized into a readable format.From the editor’s preface: “Chomsky’s great contribution is his mastery of a huge wealth of factual information, and his uncanny skill at unmasking, in case after case, the workings and deceptions of powerful institutions in today’s world. His method involves teaching through examples—not in the abstract—as a means of helping people to learn how to think critically for themselves.”Chomsky never offers specific solutions to specific problems; rather, he reveals underlying power structures and suggests that his audience trust their own judgments and believe in their own ability to see, understand, and dig deeper for the truth. Consistently, Chomsky takes a positive view of where we are in the struggle for human rights and democracy, and his overarching concept is that change comes through the hard work and combined efforts of many (often anonymous) people.The main reason I decided to start getting involved in my community was because of Chomsky’s stance that effective social and political change can only happen when people work together. Alone, one is easily overwhelmed by the world’s problems: what could I possibly do about these huge, complicated issues? Chomsky seems to suggest that you won’t know what you could accomplish until you sit down with others and try to work it out.He doesn’t focus on sustainability issues per se, but one of the main themes that emerges is that our current political and social system is not viable.

Randy Cooper

This is the second time through this book for me. I met Noam in the 70s through professor types who revered him (justifiably) for his talents in linguistics. He has a range of knowledge amazingly far reaching and is a very engaging person to have dialogue with. This book is worth the ride if only for the footnotes @ http://www.understandingpower.com/.


Let me start of by saying I didn't agree with everything he says in this book, but we should not only read things we agree with. We should strive to seek NEW information. This book definitely expanded my mind.While Chomsky definitely has a cynical view of the US and the world, this book still contains great insights into all sorts of things. For instance, he talks about the military-industrial complex, tons of references to Orwell's 1984, propaganda, any people from other countries perceive us as they do. And sometimes he even has a flair for dramatic stories like Holden Caulfield: "Well, the woman started presenting her dissertation proposal, and you could just see people turning pale. Somebody asked her, 'What's your hypothesis?' -- you're supposed to have a hypothesis -- and it was that the media coverage of South Africa is going to be influenced by corporate interests. People were practically passing out and falling out the windows."In the book he mentions that he's not a US hater, in fact he sees problems all over the place, but he focuses on the US because he's a US citizen. Moreover, it's easy to pick on other countries and not so easy to criticize your own. This point should have been mentioned earlier the book so the reader doesn't think he's just super negative.

Justin Mitchell

What can I say? Chomsky blows apart every bourgeois preconception you never thought you had, and leaves you wondering how you never saw the light until now. My only criticism is that at 400 relentless pages, it's a bit overwhelming!


Everytime I read Noam I get more depressed. But, I can't help myself. The problem is not that we are in such difficult situations as a body-politic but rather that we don't know what a deep hole we are in and we keep shooting oursevles in the foot. {Please ignore mixed metaphore, thanks.) Because Noam is never completely pessimistic you just keep reading hoping for some light at the end of the tunnel.Maybe next time we won't get into an endless war with no point and no money. Maybe next time our best minds will work at making our country better. Maybe next time somebody other than Noam will take the time to investigate before marching into oblivion and taking everyone with them. Maybe next time the perpetrators will take the time to go on a fact finding mission like Noam always does before all of the hand-wringing and denial.Beware of reading this book--but do it anyway.

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