Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy by Noam Chomsky



Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy
Noam Chomsky
(Owl Books (Henry Holt and Company), New York City: 2006)

Part of the American Empire Project.

READ: April-May 2008

I studied Mass Communications in my undergrad, and I remember having to read a bit of Chomsky. I didn't like him. I had no idea what he was talking about. Only much later, when I rediscovered Chomsky, did it occur to me - I had only ever been exposed to Chomsky the linguist and never[1] Chomsky the media theorist or Chomsky the political junkie.

There's a number of his books on our bookshelves, and I am looking forward to eventually making my way through them. Chomsky is just too right too much of the time. This was a very good read.

In Failed States, Chomsky traces how the United States is increasingly fitting the profile of what are generally considered to be "failed states". Some salient points that stuck with me:[2]


  • US military expenditures approximate those of the rest of the world combined, and the alleged fears over other countries strengthening militarily are likely less of a threat than the fact that the US already controls so much (shipping, etc.);

  • the derision and outright aggression directed toward those intelligence experts who have exercised caution or tried to understand the roots of terrorism (i.e., anything beyond an "us versus them" mentality);

  • Washington's long-standing habit of exempting itself from international law when appropriate;[3]

  • negotiations surrounding the Non-Proliferation Treaties of the late '90s and early '00s;[4]

  • the credibility of intelligence in various international conflicts;

  • the promotion of democracy and institutionalization of state-corporate control;

  • the incredible lack of health care;[5] and,

  • the intricacies of country-to-country relations (e.g., NAFTA, Cuba-Venezuela, etc.).


I'm a left-leaning small-l liberal who believes that corporate interests have taken over way more of our daily life than is healthy. So needless to say, I agree with Chomsky a lot. But even for those who might not agree so readily, he's pretty hard to argue against. His information is all painstakingly footnoted and documented. While no doubt there is a certain level of spin applied to what he is saying, you can't dismiss him as a crank. He is obviously knowledgeable and clearly interested in the future of the US. He also writes clearly (unlike his linguistics work which, having recently returned to one text out of simple curiosity, I still can't make heads or tails out of) and compellingly. Even for those who may not be hugely political persons, this book will surely interest and captivate.


[1] Or, to be fair to my program, never as far as I can remember, some 15 years later.

[2] Somewhat unfortunately, I am writing this book review almost two years after reading the book. I don't remember many details. However, somewhat fortunately, I did make liberal use of sticky tabs whilst reading this book.

[3] The particular passage that I marked had a mention of Michael Ignatieff, now the leader of the Liberal Party, and his apparent support of some of the violations of the Geneva Convention (see p. 54). I really must learn more about this.

[4] Including a quote from the recriminations from the head of Canada's delegations, Paul Martin (see p. 77). Yay for Canada references!

[5] Keeping in mind I read this book two years ago, that was waaaay before Obama's health care reform was even a twinkle in the electorate's eye. And it was hugely overdue (and one of the better signs of real common sense that I've seen coming out of the US in a really long time).

1 comment:

Mark Reynolds said...

A couple of things: I wonder how well his analysis would hold up in the post-Obama/health care/rise of China world?

Also: for some reason, while your individual posts are appearing in my blogger reader, they aren't on your actual blog.