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

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!


I have strong feelings moving in both ways on this book, as whilst Chomsky does make very good points on multiple issues, his attempts at modesty occasionally fall flat as it becomes apparent that he thinks he understands the whole world order more than he does. I do feel that his analysis of the media is by and large correct - if one is funded by advertisers, those advertisers must be pleased and they will not be pleased if you run the wrong messages. I know plenty of people who simply swallow assumed 'common sense' knowledge without questioning it and this is in part indoctrination. As Chomsky notes, governments have in the past been relatively open about the need for propaganda to keep the public doing what they should and keep them from interfering in politics.I do not believe Chomsky is the be all and end all - he over-generalises and he writes off some theorists as being ridiculous because they are not directly useful for campaigning, whilst showing in a similar example that the 'hard sciences' work in the same way entirely with his support. This is just one example, but my overall view is that anyone who follows the 'bible of Chomsky' without critically engaging and coming up with their own version has made a big mistake. But then that is something on which both Chomsky and I would wholeheartedly agree upon.


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.


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.


This book is a feat of editing. It condenses aspects of Chomsky's talks from across decades and references them at a separate website, understandingpower.com. Here are some favourite quotes:You should not expect an institution to say, "Help me destroy myself," that's not the way institutions function. And if anybody inside the institution tried to do that, they wouldn't be inside it much longer.If you're getting accepted in elite circles, chances are very strong that you're doing something wrong - I mean, for very simple reasons. Why should they have any respect for people who are trying to undermine their power? It doesn't make any sense.Part of the whole technique of disempowering people is to make sure that the real agents of change fall out of history, and are never recognized in the culture for what they are. So it's necessary to distort history and make it look as if Great Men did everything - that's part of how you teach people they can't do anything, they're helpless, they just have to wait for some Great Man to come along and do it for them.If power is actually rooted in large parts of the population - if people can actually participate in social planning - then they will presumably do so in terms of their own interests, and you can expect the decisions to reflect those interests. Well, the interest of the general population is to preserve human life; the interest of corporations is to make profits-those are fundamentally different interests.Either control over these matters is left in the hands of existing power interests and the rest of the population just abdicates, goes to the beach and hopes that somehow their children will survive - or else people will become sufficiently organized to break down the entire system of exploitation, and finally start putting it under participatory control. One possibility will mean complete disaster;the other, you can imagine all kinds of things. For example, evenprofitability would no longer be all that important - what would be important is living in a decent way.As the first Secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington, put the matter very plainly back in 1948, he said: "The word to use is not 'subsidy,' the word to use is 'security.'The world does not reward honesty and independence, it rewards obedience and service. It's a world of concentrated power, and those who have power are not going to reward people who question that power.If you look at the results of human nature, you see everything:you see enormous self-sacrifice, you see tremendous courage, you see integrity, you see destructiveness, you see anything you want. That doesn't tell you much.When someone comes along claiming a scientific basis for somesocial policy or anything else having to do with human beings, I'd be very skeptical if I were you.For people to have the opportunity to live full and rewarding lives they have to be in control of what they do, even if that happensto be economically less efficient.The idea of developing the kind of society that Orwell saw and described in I think his greatest work, Homage to Catalonia - with popular control over all the institutions of society - okay, that's the right direction in which to move, I think.The ones who are ruthless and brutal and harsh enough to seizepower are the ones who are going to survive. The ones who try to associate themselves with popular organizations and help the general population itself become organized, who try to assist popular movements in that kind of way, they're just not going to survive under these situations of concentrated power.Notions like Marxism and Freudianism belong to the history of organized religion. So part of my problem is just its existence: it seems to me that even to discuss something like "Marxism" is already making a mistake. Like, we don't discuss "Planckism." Why not? Because it would be crazy.It's extremely rare, outside of the natural sciences, to find thingsthat can't be said in monosyllables.Eighty percent of Americans literally believe in religiousmiracles. Half the population thinks the world was created a couplethousand years ago and that fossils were put here to mislead people orsomething - half the population. You just don't find things like that in other industrial societies.If we ever had a popular reform candidate who actually achieved some formal level of power: there would be disinvestment, capital strike, a grinding down of the economy. And the reason is quite simple. In our society, real power does not happen to lie in the political system, it lies in the private economy: that's where the decisions are made about what's produced, how much is produced, what's consumed, where investment takes place, who has jobs, who controls the resources, and so on and so forth. And as long as that remains the case, changes inside the political system can make some difference - I don't wantto say it's zero - but the differences are going to be very slight.Look, G.A.T.T. is something of major significance. The idea that it's going to be rammed through Congress on a fast track without public discussion just shows that anything resembling democracy in the United States has completely collapsed. There is never any point in getting some person into office unless you can continue forcing them to be your representative, and they will only continue to be your representative as long as you are active and threatening enough to make them do what you want, otherwise they're going to stop being your representative.There are parts of philosophy which I think I understand, and it's mostof classical philosophy. And there are things that I don't understand,because they don't make any sense - and that's okay too, these are hard questions. I mean, it's not necessarily a criticism to say that something doesn't make sense: there are subjects that it's hard to talk sensibly about. But if I read, say, Russell, or analytic philosophy, or Wittgenstein and so on, I think I can come to understand what they're saying, and I can see why I think it's wrong, as I often do. But when I read, you know, Derrida, or Lacan, or AIthusser, or any of these - I just don't understand it. It's like words passing in front of my eyes: I can't follow the arguments, I don't see the arguments, anything that looks like a description of a fact looks wrong to me. So maybe I'm missing a gene or something, it's possible. But my honest opinion is, I think it's all fraud.Anybody who wants to be President, you should right away say, "I don'twant to hear that guy any more." You should say, "I don't want to listen to that person any more." Anybody who wants to become your leader, you should say, "I don't want to follow." That's like a rule of thumb which almost never fails.People should not be asking me or anyone else where to turn for anaccurate picture of things: they should be asking themselves that. Sosomeone can ask me what reflects my interpretation of the way things are, and I can tell them where they can get material that looks at the world the way I think it ought to be looked at - but then they have to decide whether or not that's accurate. Ultimately it's your own mind that has to be the arbiter: you've got to rely on your own common sense and intelligence, you can't rely on anyone else for the truth.I think the smartest thing to do is to read everything you read - and that includes what I write, I would always tell people this - skeptically. And in fact, an honest writer will try to make it clear what his or her biases are and where the work is starting from, so that then readers can compensate - they can say, "This person's coming from over here, and that's the way she's looking at the world, now I can correct for what may well be her bias; I can decide for myself whether what she's telling me is accurate, because at least she's making her premises clear." And people should do that. You should start by being very skeptical about anything that comes to you from any sort of power system - and about everything else too. You should be skeptical about what I tell you - why should you believe a word of it? I got myown ax to grind. So figure it out for yourself.


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.

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.


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.

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/.

Adam Roan

Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism. - Noam ChomskyAfter reading five or six Chomsky books - this is without a split-second of thought his best, most highly honored and important texts assembled to date.I'm not sure who(m)ever edited this book, it seems to be cut with precise trimming. The rhetoric speaks with a strong appeal (fulfilling pathos, ethos and logos) to help engage the reader indefinitely. Yes, Chomsky's monologues can be a bit dry because they are so factually inclusive; but this book does capture Chomsky's emotional sense of self-identity... in particular, his rhetoric isn't fluff, it doesn't drill into emotions too much, and it doesn't always point the finger and demonize a single individual. The idelogue is all there, patiently waiting for you to read it and eventually surrender to much of the obscenities in the world.It also sticks to the facts.What I love most about the book: the frequent theme of Americans attack on foreign soil democracies. Even when a nation shows any interest in developing a real democracy, with honest people and a leader who promises to give voice to his own bourgeoisie, it's been proven repeated again and again that Americans invade and take dispose of those who show this type of mentality. (most of this happens inside latin america, for instance.) Military-industrial complex is a oft-repeated "theme." Basically: we not only experience military-industrial complex from a conscious, direct, and typical method of looking at the military and how it uses the government as a crux to feed itself. It's a logic that precedes our health care system and our banking system; much of our country is built on industrial institutions. Here's a creative flow chart displaying how Chomsky explains it using five key points:http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_jgo6O_e8NtA...Certainly his ideologue about neo-conserativism is quite venerable, passionate... it's important to embrace this in a strong light. He argues that neo-liberalism (which represents the entire spectrum of popular political thought) is dangerous, so dangerous in fact that he puts conservatives in their proper place when speaking of Adam Smith's "Wealth Of Nations." Many neo-cons, when given the criteria of "Wealth of Nations," completely botch the text with their own private agenda. They might read the text to only charm themselves with a taste of what the book really has to offer... they don't actually recognize what Smith was aiming at: division of labor is not the solution but actually symptomatic of itself.I must mention this: the text is not for the faint-hearted. This is not a Zeitgeist-lets-exploit-sensationalism. It's purely, from an insider-looking-out perspective, a text to be absorbed at only an intellectual depth (deductive reasoning.)


When we are asked about the state of the world, we come across different answers. Some people might say something like "You know, this is all a big conspiracy and we are the pawns in some game played by the big guys - and those are the ones who rule the world"; others say "Things are exactly what they are, what they seem to be, no more, no less; some people just like to make things up" Well, if you want to begin somewhere, if you constantly inquire about the state of the world, politics, history, economics and morality, I strongly recommend this book. If you are an activist or something and still haven't heard about Chomsky (which I greatly doubt) then just go read it right away.Noam Chomsky has not invented any new philosophic field, nor has he a different political or economic stance: he just happens to know a vast amount of facts and events that happened throughout history, then he links them up and unmasks deception. That's it. He's an intelligent, remarkably cult and sensible guy who encourages you to escape indoctrination (read: thinking for yourself "de novo", not with "a priori" frameworks established by Media, society, etc). So, I read this book after "A Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan, and I couldn't avoid finding some similarities - Sagan talks about science and emerges a bit in politics, while Chomsky talks about politics and emerges in science sometimes; they also share some values regarding education, science, democracy and morality.I will absolutely continue to follow Chomsky's talks and works.No shadow of doubt: 5 stars.

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.


I'm always afraid of reading political things (A) because I'm scared of it being completely over my head and (B) because I'm aware that I have a tendency to uncritically accept what people say [which makes for a lot of fun if you read different points of views because everything everybody says (even the contradictory stuff) sounds 100% right:].This book was very conversational (partly due to format, transcribed Q&A sessions and I imagine partly due to Chomsky's dislike of the idea of an 'intellectual' class apart from common folks), so it didn't run into the over my head problem.Good interesting stuff, very grounded (it seems), very sane. This is extremely different from the sort of attitudes I got from socially conscious types I met at University. I'd always reacted a bit badly to them (while largely agreeing) because it felt like they were attacking Big Evil Names (I dunno, the IMF is EVIL or something) without putting things into perspective, seeing the big picture etc. Now it turns out that they were most likely the ones who knew what they were talking about and I was the ignorant one, but [and forgive me for committing this sin of stupid debating:] there was always something about their /tone/ that rubbed me the wrong way, something kind of well-meaning-but-stupid. Anyway point is that this sort of tone is totally absent from the book. Well-meaning-and-tremendously-well-informed (and now makes me feel a bit guilty for my negative reaction to the dreadlocked vegans of my past).I particularly like the idea that it's not so much that certain individuals or organisations are evil, but about institutions that reinforce/encourage/perpetuate evil behaviours (eg. CEO of BP is probably a perfectly nice chap, but...). It's also a bit uncomfortable to see how clueless I am about the kind of stuff that goes on in the world. Oh well.It'd be nice to see what happens when smart right wing friends read this.

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