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Powers & Prospects

Powers & Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order by Noam Chomsky. 244 pp. Boston: South End Press. 1996. $16.00 paper.

In this new collection, Noam Chomsky analyzes the increasingly evident, if not blatant, harm caused daily by powerful institutions helped along by apologetic academic or silenced journalistic panjandrums. This theme is not new for him, or to any who routinely read his provocative, logical essays.

Staying abreast of Chomsky's inquiries into power is less taxing than keeping up with the late I. F. Stone, a no less valued essayist. He blistered much the same crowd almost weekly. Since Chomsky's political writing appears infrequently, and seldom, if ever, is in the nation's popular press, the wait between collections increases his value to us.

However, these essays are more an accumulation than a coherent set. Moreover, the forward is misdirecting. Agio Pereira, executive director of the East Timor Relief Association [ETRA], opens the book with an appreciation of Chomsky for bringing his considerable reputation to the side of the national Council for Maubere Resistance in the still bloody Timorese struggle for freedom. He leaves the impression the essays following will be devoted to that continuing, often forgotten fight. Not so. But in fairness to Pereira, the material for this work comes mostly from speeches Chomsky gave during a week's visit to Australia in January, 1995, arranged under the auspices of ETRA.

The first two essays are on language, thought and nature, elaborations on Chomsky's brilliant, much earlier Russell lectures which appear as Problems of Knowledge and Freedom [1971]. The third is a sobering reminder to writers of our intellectual responsibilities. In the fourth, "Goals and Visions", Chomsky argues today's "committed anarchist" should "defend some state institutions from the attack against them" by corporations, banks, governments themselves, "while trying at the same time to pry them open to more meaningful public participation - and ultimately, to dismantle them in a much more free society…." In the fifth essay, Chomsky returns to a topic familiar to even his most casual readers, the American government's bloody role in international affairs. As in For Reasons of State [1973], he supports a relentless attack on U.S. policymakers with admissions, facts, quotations from a range of sources even Stone would admire for both depth and date. Not much evidence escapes Chomsky's notice. In chapter six, Chomsky turns to the Middle East where, he concludes, the so-called "peace process" means "what we say goes," Nobel Peace Prizes notwithstanding. Finally, in the book's last two chapters, we get to East Timor. Here he accuses the United States and Briton of state violence and war crimes, as defined by international rules of law, in an effort to gain full control - and profits from - the strategic oil reserves in the Timor Gap.

Separately, the subject of each essay is but superficially touched, as Chomsky himself acknowledges. Each is worthy of detailed attention, a book, if you would. Surely, the editors at South End Press must realize a week's worth of diverse lectures in Austrailia is a slim thread by which to bind a book. Did their desire to rush "something" into the marketplace with Chomsky's name on it override sound editorial judgement?

For instance, Chomsky goes to some length to place his anarchist "vision" within the Enlightenment and classical liberalism. This is an intellectual bed I assume many readers of Social Anarchism share. He is particularly drawn to Rudolf Rocker and to John Dewey. So am I. In their working lives as teachers - Rocker at Jubilee Street Club in the East End of London and Dewey at countless university classrooms in New York or Chicago - express in deed and word the need for workers' control over labor, capital, technology, the resulting product and profit. Both Rocker, the avowed anarchist, and Dewey, the devoted democrat, elaborate theories which frame and support their practical expressions of this combination of powerfully evocative ideals.

Imagine a Chomsky essay devoted to the meaning of their work and theory as applied in today's world? Or an essay on the knowledge necessary to own and to control one's own labor and technology? Or one on language which reclaims the vernacular of work ownership rather than perpetuating today's rented labor argot? Or suppose he writes about what Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are alleged to have done to overthrow and death of Salvadore Allende, and thus abort his stated political goal of transforming the Chilean economy into a federation of workers' enterprises? And what if these essays were collected and published? In the end, such seemingly mundane, yet practical tasks are still to be learned if Chomsky's often stated philosophic vision is to be realized.

We'd all be the wiser if even one of his editors has the temerity to ask Chomsky to devote his astonishing ability for research, his gift for collecting and synthesizing, his capacity to explain directly and clearly, to such an essay. Instead, Chomsky is allowed to summarize what anarchosyndicalism meant 60 or 100 years ago. Enough of that writing already!

 
 
 

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