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Book Review: Hopes and Prospects by Noam Chomsky

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Noam Chomsky’s Hopes and Prospects is a dazzling, informative, arresting piece of work that serves to confirm why one of America’s leading dissident voices may be, according to the New York Times Book Review, “one of the most widely read American voice(s) on foreign policy on the planet today.”

The book is incredibly timely and incredibly thorough, reserving safe ground for no-one and exploring the challenges and problems facing us in today’s changing world.

Hopes and Prospects is essentially a collection of essays that Chomsky has adapted and/or expanded to meet more modern purposes. As the title might suggest, Chomsky is intent on providing a dividing line between the “hope” offered by traditional politicians like Barack Obama and the actual “prospects” for that process of hope. With copious examples from U.S. and Western foreign policy, the author proves once again that there’s a lot of space between stated intentions and realized facts.

As is usually the case with Chomsky’s works, the amount of information present can be a bit staggering and a bit exhausting to digest. He’s included over 30 pages of copious references and notes on his points, thankfully, and uses a variety of reputable sources to flesh out the details.

The book begins with three essays taken from a series of lectures in Chile in 2006. The essays have been “updated to 2010 and considerably expanded” to include gallons of new information and perspective. Chomsky thoroughly outlines how American foreign policy interacts with and obstructs Latin American policy, for instance, and weaves in examples from history to back his points.

Hopes and Prospects goes on through its first part, primarily focusing on American relations with Latin America and relating the legitimate hope he sees in the subcontinent with the “business as usual” approach he observes in the United States’ political structure.

Noting the irony of the stated American policy goal of “spreading democracy” as the United States openly overthrows parliamentary democracies in Iran, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, and others, Chomsky precisely targets the “dominant operative principle” of American imperial tendencies as “policy conforms to expressed ideals only if it also conforms to interests.” Adding more razor-sharp observations, he adds that the term “interests” doesn’t mean the interests of the domestic population.

The second part of the book deals with revised talks and articles from 2008 to 2009. These are all updated to include context from 2010, of course. Covering domestic U.S. and international affairs, Chomsky outlines the realities of development and democracy in out world, describing the North American free trade agreement by the notion that the only accurate words are “North American.”

Chomsky, as mentioned, doesn’t spare anyone from his crucial examination. Obama’s outlines on various policies are rigorously and thoroughly criticized and explored, with no stone left unturned in discussing the real nature of the president’s “hope and change” and the reality behind his policies as relate to the rest of the world. The mind-blowing military spending, for instance, remains a constant reminder of just how “peaceful” the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s designs actually are.

Hopes and Prospects is another essential Chomsky work. It is informative, enraging and thorough. Chomsky remains cool and collected as always, remaining an enduring testimony to the prevailing powers of real democracy and the real power of the people. This book is vital, timely and indispensable.

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About Jordan Richardson

  • So do tell me, Jordan. Does he foresee resolution of these problems within the political system as given, to include “the rules of the game”?

    Furthermore, does he look beyond the political system to include a major revamping the ways of capitalism?

  • Jordan Richardson

    It’s more that Chomsky sees hope in the movements of the people, I’d say. Obviously the current political system in the United States isn’t representative of the people’s wants.

    Chomsky frequently refers to the people becoming “participants” rather than “spectators” in the book, pointing out polls on public opinion on various issues (like Afghanistan, Lebanon, etc.) that reflect the public’s opinion in the U.S. to be closer to that of world opinion than that of their government’s foreign policies.

    As for capitalism, the book doesn’t really focus on specific economic systems necessarily. I’m also unsure of what you mean by “the ways of capitalism.” Chomsky seems, rightly I believe, more interested in ensuring the public’s actual participation in democracy is sound rather than labeling a particular political or economic system as the “right course.”

  • Well, yes, he’s a believer in liberal democracies – if and only if, under “ideal” conditions.

    So at least on that, I regard, superficial level, the first order of business would be mobilize public opinion to a political purpose. But first, we’ve got to overturn the popular mindset, from that of being mindless consumers to responsible citizens.

  • Great review, Jordan. I am surprised and delighted to see a review of Chomsky on BC.

    Roger, Chomsky is an anarchist. He is not interested in revamping capitalism.

  • Well, yes, he’s a believer in liberal democracies…

    I think that is your impression. He is an anarchist.

  • Well, that’s not what came across from Jordan’s review, and I was dealing with that alone.

  • And yes. You knew, Cindy, that Jordan is a progressive. That was never in doubt.

  • Some very progressive progressives like and understand Chomsky. Myself included until about 2 years ago.

  • Now I not only appreciate Chomsky, I also appreciate his choices.

  • “The progressives” are too tame for me. They’re too beholden to the system. If you want links, I’ll be happy to provide you with some.

    As to Chomsky’s choices, or more importantly, solutions, I’m afraid I’m at a total loss.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Please bear in mind that this is a book review, designed to get people to read the book. It was never my intention to summarize the book or lay out Chomsky’s arguments in detail. It was my intention to review the book, not its author.

  • Cool, Jordan. Sorry I got carried away.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Chomsky in a Washington Post “Chat With Chomsky” from March of 2006 responds to a question about where he is “located” in terms of political philosophy (if he’s an anarchist, communist, socialist, progressive, whatever) with this:

    “The terms have been so debased that they are hardly usable. I think a decent society should protect rights to private property within limits, but not concentrations of private power that infringe on the freedom and rights of others, including exploitation of labor, and that convert any democratic forms into what have been called sometimes ‘hierarchical democracies,’ like ours, in which some have vastly greater influence over public policy than others. Spelling all of this out is a complex matter that raises many issue and problems that are impossible to address here.”

    As to whether I personally am “a progressive,” I guess I’ve just never thought about it. I tend to believe that terms and labels are useless with respect to my political understandings, as they (my political understandings) remain rather fluid as I digest new information and so forth. I’d rather not suggest that I commit to any system or political structure wholeheartedly save for one that represents and meets the needs of the people.

    I find this sort of labeling outdated in our modern world and I leave that sort of discussion to the crusty “philosophers” who desire to peg others into boxes for purposes of “winning arguments” on internet message boards and the like. Perhaps more accurately, I guess I just lack the wholesale ideological commitment to pin myself in one place – politically, religiously, economically, or otherwise.

  • Jordan Richardson

    All good, Roger. Please don’t think I’m condemning the discussion as a whole. Just want to clarify my intention with the review.

  • I perfectly understand. I got carried away.

  • 10 – Roger,

    Chomsky makes his position clear. You heard him say to Foucault that he thinks the right choice for a technological society, such as ours, is anarcho-syndicalism.

    He states many time he is a libertarian socialist. He explains also the meaning of this is the same as what is called an anarchist in Europe.

    If you want to know what his views are, he’s pretty available.

    You can also probably read him (as a liberal) and never understand he is an anarchist.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Seems to me that Chomsky and other intellectuals in America suffer from the basic problem of one “side” wanting to claim him or her as their own. I think this approach is often disingenuous and overly simplistic, as Chomsky as said numerous times (not just in what I’ve quoted above in #13) that these sorts of terms are meaningless today.

    To say he’s a ____ is, I think, a little misleading. While he has called himself a “fellow traveler” to the anarchist tradition, more recent works seem to demonstrate that these terms and labels are no longer sufficient. Perhaps the best and most consistent way in which to describe Chomsky’s views on a broad scale is to say that he favours direct democracy.

    This interview from Reddit Blog from March of 2010 describes Chomsky’s critiques of the modern anarchist movement in the United States.

    Quoting partially:

    “today’s anarchism…is extremely scattered, highly sectarian, so each particular group is spending a great deal of his time attacking some other tendency…”

    and further,

    “There’s very little coordination. There’s a tremendous amount of sectarianism and intolerance, mutual intolerance, insistence on, you know, my particular choice as to what priorities ought to be, and so on.”

    This is certainly true of all movements, of course, and it is where I run into trouble with subscribing to any ONE of them ideally.

    Further down in the same interview, Chomsky addresses what I believe to be a considerable problem with these sorts of movements:

    “Advocacy requires more than just proposal…It requires recognition of social and economic reality as it exists, and ideas about how to build the institutions of the future within the existing society, to quote Bakunin, but also to modify the existing society. That means steps have to be taken that accommodate reality, that don’t deny it’s existence (‘Since I don’t like it, I’m not going to accommodate it’). These are the only ways to be effective.”

    As someone who believes in this sort of social change, this is where the “a progressive” label comes into play I think. I am considered a progressive seemingly because I am “too beholden to the system.”

    This isn’t accurate. Instead, I believe in the prospect of what Chomsky refers to in the interview of “small steps.” Do I have a broader vision of what an ideally changed world would look like? Sure. But I don’t deny or refuse to coexist within the current construct of modern reality and I don’t discount all other courses to that end that don’t line up with my philosophies and ideas.

    Furthermore, my ideas and philosophies are constantly absorbing information and, thus, remain in a fluid state because I refuse to be dishonest with myself. My principles and ethics – that I am in favour of true democracy and support human rights causes, etc. – are never threatened because that is my moral centre. But the roads are many, I think, and it’s misleading to assert that only one road can lead to a certain end. This is an obstacle to cooperation, in my humble opinion, and only serves to further divide us as a society.

    We need to (quoting Chomsky again) stray from the “insistence on purity of proposal” because it “simply isolates you from effectiveness in activism, and even from reaching, from even approaching your own goals.”

    As Chomsky details from reading Freedom in England, “most of it (the anarchist journal) is concerned with mild reformist tactics. And that’s not a criticism. It should be. It should be concerned with workers rights, with specific environmental issues, with problems of poverty and suffering, with imperialism, and so on. Yeah, that’s what it should be concerned with if you want to advocate long-term, significant social change towards a more free and just society, and I can’t think of any other way to be effective.”

  • mike darlington

    Can’t wait to read it. Stoked!

  • Dhaarna Gupta

    In ‘Hopes and Prospects’, Noam Chomsky surveys the threats and prospects of our early twenty-first century. Exploring challenges such as the growing gap between North and South, American exceptionalism (even under Obama), the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli assault on Gaza and the recent financial bailouts, he also sees hope for the future and a way to move forward – in the so-called democratic wave in Latin America and in the global solidarity movements which suggest ‘real progress towards freedom and justice’. “Hopes and Prospects” is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the primary challenges still facing the human race and is wondering where to find a ray of hope.