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


I came to know and appreciate Chomsky's ideas via some of his interviews. This was my first book by Chomsky. Its a collection of his lectures in the 90's, compiled such that you clearly follow the flow of ideas. I guess even if somebody remotely follows politics through the media, this book is must. The book provides with the basics of trying to read between the lines... not just following what “they” present. It also gave me some confidence to question the ideas behind governments, ideas that I took for granted. The book nicely explains how the rich become the ruling class even in the so-called democratic systems, how the system is actually initially designed to preserve the balance of wealth and power and how the working class is systematically marginalized. I read somewhere this is good starting point on Chomsky, and after reading the book, I cant agree more. Most of the ideas and also the language used was accessible and comprehensible.


All right, here we go:I'm not a political scientist -- probably this works in my favor -- so I can't level this kind of assessment with anything like authority, but for what it's worth, I think Chomsky's mostly right about most everything he talks about.BUT. Rather than attempt once again to articulate an objection that's always struck me as sort of obvious every time I've dipped into one of his books (and I have read a few now, sure. I really like the guy), I think I'll let him make my point for me. This is from page 213:"[I:]n fact, a lot of things go. Anybody who's pretty seriously involved in political activity or organizing knows that a lot of things just go, like personal lives sometimes. . . . [P:]ersonal relationships do suffer. . . . Actually, it was kind of striking to watch it during the Sixties––all of a sudden a lot of people really threw themselves into activism, and when I think about it, very few of the couples made it through. Very few. Not because they hated each other or anything––it was just that it was too much of an emotional burden, even if both of them were involved, and something snaps. In fact, it was like a tidal wave right through that period, particularly after some of the big political trials. So couples would stick together for as long as the trial was going on, and immediately afterwards get divorced––it was just too much. And that's a reflection of what tends to happen when you get really seriously involved."Again, I'm pretty sure the guy is right about just about everything. I'm just not entirely sure what the vast majority of humanity is supposed to do with this information.

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*.


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....

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!


Intentions Good, Views Dangerous: Understanding Power is, without question, the most comprehensive and compelling presentation of Noam Chomsky's ideas. Reading this book will change the way you see the world. If you are interested in Chomsky, it is likely that you are a noble person who genuinely cares for others and yearns for a better world. Beware, reader, and make sure you choose the right vehicle for your hope. While his intentions are for a peaceful, safe, and healthy world, Chomsky's political writings systematically assume conscious malevolence without evidence, ignore context, and romanticize Third World struggles, regardless of their goals. Let's briefly examine some of his convictions on a pressing topic: the War on Terror. Following the September 11th attacks, Chomsky immediately presented them as our fault: the result of U.S. Middle East policy, and equally evil U.S. Cold War efforts (training Mujahadeen to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan). His presumption here is that if the United States changes its behavior, that terrorist attacks will then cease. Islamic terrorists, in fact, want a pan-world government under Talibanesque repressive sharia law, a vision that mandates the overthrow of all free nations beginning with ours. These facts are easily learned by reading about the historical development of Islamic radicalism, which is rooted in reinterpretations of the Qur'an's dictates for action, NOT in wishes to live peacefully in a U.S.-free Middle East. These facts, however, do not enter into the Chomskyan world-view, which romanticizes Third World underdogs as brave and legitimized no matter what they stand for. The linguist also described the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan as a conscious "silent genocide," predicting wrongly that millions would be severed from food supplies. As is typical, Chomsky here focused solely on the negative aspects of the situation, those for which the U.S. deserved his bitter recrimination. For a man who lives prosperously in America and is supposedly the voice of the downtrodden, Chomsky certainly did not put himself into the shoes of the Afghan women. For them, whose existence was akin to slavery, the liberation was a cause for great joy. Actual sentiments were fully antithetical to Chomsky's condemnatory remarks to his villainous U.S. government, which he and he alone believed was consciously bent on killing as many innocent Afghans as possible. Omitting what is significant (the liberation of people living under tyranny, in this case) to emphasize his often ludicrous misperceptions about American motives and motivations is a constant in Chomsky's writings. His Cold War depictions are even more stunning, as Understanding Power's abundant examples attest. In the case that you are already entrenched in his manner of thinking, at least admit that Noam Chomsky MIGHT be wrong, and see if his positions hold up under review: read Chomsky's articulate, sane critics. If he is perfect, then you have nothing but gain to acheive from this exercise; it will only serve to strengthen your ability to effectively argue and implement Chomsky's ideas in the world. After clear-eyed reassessment of his political writings, if you STILL think he's on-point, then all the best to you. If, however, you reevaluate his "wisdom," you will have saved yourself from much needless confusion and despair. Were Chomsky's views simply false, there would not be need for this posting. They become perilous, however, in their blind, wholesale demonization of the United States. Chomsky's own fear and anger about the state of our world are projected, with great urgency: anger at and fear of U.S. "elites" is the Chomsky program. The result is often flat-out hatred. What would Chomsky do were he President? We do not know; he avoids that inconvenient question by telling us that were he to run (which he admits he would never do), the first thing he would do is tell us not to vote for him. Furthermore, why does Professor Chomsky not include himself in the "elites" so prominent in his analyses? Does he not pay taxes, and drive a BMW, and teach at a cushy, prestigious university? The questions may seem too simplistic, but they point to a core issue: if Chomsky cannot look into the mirror regarding his own status and societal position, then how much more impaired must his assessments be of things outside of himself? On paper, it is unclear exactly what Chomsky IS calling for, and putting aside the constant onslaught of judgment-filled writings and audio programs, neither does his life provide us an example of what he conceives to be right-action. Those who want an idea of who believes IN Chomsky, however, need look no further than Hugo Chavez, who recently proclaimed allegiance and military support to his "brother" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad, for anyone who needs reminding, daily denies the Holocaust, and calls for the destruction of Israel and the United States. Is it a coincidence that those who love Chomsky also embrace a world-view rooted in blame, anger, and vilification? Good and evil do exist in this world, but Noam Chomsky is not capable of distinguishing between the two. The U.S.A. is not perfect, and never will be. Nevertheless, if we fail to recognize the good that IS here, we may soon lose our nation. Chomsky's writings are little more than a good reminder that appearance is not essence. It is worth noting as well, that Chomsky is an avowed atheist, and believes that life is meaningless. If we bear in mind that evil is in the eye of the beholder, then Chomsky--an American, an Israelite, a millionaire--is instantly unmasked in all of his self-revulsion. Understanding Power should be retitled as "Understanding Blame." Stear clear and take heart, reader; there is hope in this world, and your country is good, but you will discover neither in Avram Noam Chomsky.


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.


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.

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.)


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.

David Cupples

Read Chomsky and be simultaneously inspired and humbled. Understanding Power is, as noted, a compendium of Q&A sessions between NC and groups of presumably quite liberal activists. His answers to the questions are eloquent and enlightening almost beyond belief -- this is truly an arch example of Jung's "wise old man." (Editorial inserts are made but for the most part the text seems to be close to verbatim translations of the talks.) Chomsky is monolithically focused on US abuse of power, not because he is "anti-American" but because as an American, this is what he (and we) should focus on, that which we are responsible for and with effort may be able to change for the better. This postulate seems beyond challenge.The wide range of topics are those familiar from other Chomsky books, i.e. the full panoply of major issues in the world (related to US foreign policy) since the founding of the nation. That covers immense ground. The genocide of Native Americans and the Pol Pot genocide in Cambodia. The Middle East, of course. Capitalism. "Imperial ambitions." East Timor and "mass murderers at Harvard." Vietnam - did we really "lose" that war? Texaco and the Spanish Revolution.Right-wing types might be gratified to discover that the ultra-lefty anarchist Chomsky shows a lot of understanding, even compassion, for "greedy businesspersons" because under the system as it is, greed is inbuilt and cannot be majorly circumvented.To read Chomsky is to open oneself to discovering the world as it is - and perhaps glimpse what it might become.Review by the author of: Stir It Up: The CIA Targets Jamaica, Bob Marley and the Progressive Manley Government

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/.


For a long time I was searching, trying to find some understanding of the way the world works. Conspiracys, Ron Paul, Alex Jones ... all had varying degrees of influence on me, some for good others for bad. Chomsky and this book I can genuinely say, finally allowed me to find some real understanding.


In this book Chomsky covers a wide variety of topics that all are related to power in some way or another. The style is interesting, it is basically a book full of transcripts from various talks he has given. Unlike a lot of books in this genre it is very easy to read and understand. He also provides a lot of citations and sources to back up his information. I learned quite a bit from this book, but at times I wished that there was interactions between Chomsky and those that may disagree with him. At one point he talks about how he doesn't want people to look to him for answers, but that is difficult to do, and in a way this book doesn't help. It seems like he is there providing the answers for you. He certainly has some good analysis, but I think we should also follow his advice and look into these things ourselves. This is certainly worth reading again.On a slightly unrelated note, I read this with my kindle and was kind of disappointed by the organization of the book. It didn't seem to know where the chapters started and began, which made it difficult for me to determine how much time I had left in a given chapter. However, this didn't really take away from the content.

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