Sunday, December 16, 2012

Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire by Noam Chomsky

Having read a few books by Chomsky in the past I approach his polemical style as I do any other literature that deals with historic topics, or current events that are rooted in history (practically all of them), as a historian would. Chomsky has a lot to say on a variety of topics, so it's hard to address all of his ideas. His problem, unfortunately, is that when dealing with current issues he's mostly relying on what is called the 'first rough draft of history', journalism. Much of the source material that's presented in the endnotes is either his own work or journalistic pieces from within the last decade. Thus, while much of what he has to say is interesting and provocative, that's pretty much a result of the fact that he's relying on what newspapers and weeklies are supposed to produce and sell as a product (perhaps all that "manufacturing consent" he's going on and on about is going right over his head when it's information that's supportive of his views/ideas). But the ideas and stories he's delving into will change ten years from now, and will be unrecognizable half-a-century down the road. So in a way Chomsky is helping to change the story that we're familiar with (the growth of China and India put into perspective, the war in Afghanistan, unions, labor, etc.) but it's a step in a direction that one cannot yet call 'right' or 'wrong' until more time has passed and historians have been able to view all the variables, which Chomsky himself has admitted are not yet visible (especially when dealing with China).

While throughout the text there are are interesting 'nuggets' of information offered they are also weakened by various factors. A case in point is when Chomsky discusses why Canada has a national health care system while the United States doesn't. He points to unions, which in Canada petitioned for health care for the whole country while in the United States unions made a deal with corporations for their own health care. When those corporations decided to change the deal, there was little unions could do. Unfortunately this entire section is without endnotes or citations. Thus the usefulness of this information is immediately questionable. But one also must keep in mind that this discussion is centered around the early-to-mid-nineteenth-century, thus it is history and not original or new, therefore this information is removed from current events and readily verifiable. And yet, as already mentioned, it's unsourced.

Then there are instances of what should be clearly understood and recognized, yet is often missed due to the rhetorical fog our society has created around these issues. For instance, the idea that single mothers who are taking care of children don't deserve welfare or the idea that markets work like economic textbooks teach us. In the first case, being a single mother who needs to take care and provide for her children is a tough enough position to find oneself in. But, more importantly, how that child is raised, under what conditions, will affect what they do later in life. Are we interested in a society where single mothers have to neglect their children and constantly work or search for jobs, or mothers who make the best of the situation they've found themselves in, with support and help from the government, and raise children who will add to civil society and the work force rather than look for ways to fight the society that's put them in a position of constant neglect, moving toward delinquency? As for markets, as Chomsky states, the idea behind them is based on an informed public making rational decisions to fulfill their needs. But in truth the propaganda bombarding the population on television and other media outlets is full of lies, misconceptions, and delusions to try and trick the public into creating a need where there isn't one and a market for kitsch.

Overall I found the book very provocative. A lot of things to think about, especially in terms of education and labor. The way things are going, it is easy enough to see that there is a type of 'conflict' that's going on against anything that has 'public' attached to it. Be it health or education. That our schools and universities are turning their backs on what they were originally created for, while simultaneously spurring attempts to change the way we educate our 'future generations', is widely evident by poor performance and the anti-intellectual culture that has permeated media rhetoric for years. The answer is not privatization and capitalistic for-profit motivation. When people begin to realize that civilization and civil society were not created by today's financial institution and corporations perhaps they'll change their attitudes about both and their usefulness for the future.

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