The influence of Noam Chomsky’s thought over the past half century on the scope and focus of public debate, as a leading intellectual and widely respected figure in many fields, is surely immeasurable. A long time political activist with a background in linguistics, his contributions to cognitive science, history and philosophy have cemented him as a titan among modern thinkers. For those interested in learning more about his take on politics, or about world politics more generally, you could do worse than to pick up last year’s release “Optimism over Despair”. Presented as the transcript from a series of interviews conducted with political scientist C. J. Polychroniou over the last four years, the conversations are deep and wide-ranging while remaining followable even for one (such as your reviewer) not well-versed in political history.
Going into the opening chapters of the book, one wonders if it wasn’t the publisher’s decision to change the title from “Despair over Optimism”, or simply “Despair”. Chomsky wastes no time presenting a comprehensive picture of the world in its present state, highlighting the major problems that it faces. In the richer parts of the world there is wealth inequality, the return of the far right and distrust of politicians and the media, while the poorest are ravaged by climate change and illegal wars, as the ever-present threat of nuclear proliferation looms in the background. In each case Chomsky seeks to identify the root causes from a historical or sociological perspective. His frequent use of historical examples and his ability to make connections between them feels like a crash course in twentieth century political science, but with a deliberate focus on current events that keeps the reader engaged.
Of particular emphasis in his analysis is the role of the United States in international affairs and the detrimental effect its meddling has had on countries across the globe. Chomsky blames an imperialist-colonialist mentality that has persisted since the time of the first European settlers, as well as a tightly bound military-industrial complex, the influence of which dominates foreign policy discussions. This becomes a central theme in his examination of each pickle the western world appears to have gotten itself into. Another ongoing motif he uses is what he sees as the blind acceptance of capitalist globalisation among western politicians, and the important distinction between its ideals and the reality of how the system has evolved to protect the rich and powerful, what he calls “really existing capitalism”. To some, these concepts will be familiar, in part due to the long influence Chomsky has had on the activist community dating back to his opposition of the Vietnam war. The ideas he presents are not new, but after saying them for decades, they are very much his own.
While Chomsky is known to present a leftist perspective, he is not one to carelessly align himself with any pre-existing political parties or movements, as evidenced by his harsh criticism of the Obama administration (much loved by many who hold themselves to be left of centre), especially its foreign policy decisions, and his cool-headed reception of even Bernie Sanders’ success, recognising the similarity in his proposals to those of past presidents and arguing that building a long term movement is much more important than supporting a presidential candidate. Chomsky may be a leftist but he puts his commitment to his carefully considered – almost scientific – approach before any liberal or socialist allegiance, which makes his words a most valuable commodity; they are those of a truly independent voice. It is clear that he holds to a high standard anyone offering solutions to be able to prove their worth to him, as with his own opinions he expects his readers to do the same.
If there is one shortcoming to the book, it is that Chomsky’s own thoughts on how to remedy the ills of the twenty-first century are only touched upon lightly in a few places, the bulk of the detail spent on cataloguing the underlying issues. It is a careful and masterful analysis, but in the absence of a more positive vision to contrast it against the whole comes across as somewhat bleak. If the book captures your interest, it might be worth reading another Chomsky title to get a deeper feel for his own beliefs about the kind of society we should be fighting for instead. What the interviews lack in positivity, they make up for in providing the feeling of having really learned something. Agree with him or not, Chomsky’s work is methodical and his conclusions demand attention. This book is recommended reading for anyone wanting to better understand the forces that shape our world.