Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 1: Inept Empire

This is meant as a look at some of the areas where Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti differ most visibly in their analysis and biases. Given their similarities, comparing the two provides a rare opportunity at substitution analysis: to quote Chomsky himself, “you can’t do experiments in history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us.” In short, the differences in Chomsky versus Parenti’s positions makes for a useful case study in what ideas genuinely make one a candidate for marginalization, versus what ideas are actually quite acceptable despite their transgressive veneers. Click here for an all-in-one post.

There’s a very popular theory of politics that sees the destruction and misery wrought by regimes like the Wars on Terror and Drugs, compares the professed motives with the outcomes, and concludes that those in power are some combination of utterly incompetent, shortsighted, and ignorant of how to build a decent world. The image offered by journalist Jeremy Scahill, in response to yet another US military intervention in the Middle East/North Africa region (MENA) in 2014, was the classic gag of Simpsons villain Sideshow Bob repeatedly stepping on dozens of garden rakes. Kevin Dooley termed this idea the “Inept Empire” theory, and “the implication is, of course, that the ruling elite are a bunch of fucking morons.” According to proponents of “inept empire,” real-world proof is everywhere. The fact that the War on Drugs has had no impact on drug use, but instead created a permanent, almost-entirely black underclass comprised of many millions is such proof. The fact that the War on Terror has destroyed multiple societies and only created more terror is further evidence. The old sawhorse-turned-bumper sticker that schools have to hold bake sales to raise money but the air force has unlimited funds to buy bombers is essentially an iteration of this idea.

This theory of power finds greatest purchase among prominent liberals and the permissible left. Chomsky is currently an advocate of this theory, arguing in 2015 that “destabilization and what I call the ‘creation of black holes’ is the principal aim of the Empire of Chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere, but it is also clear that the US is sailing in a turbulent sea with no sense of direction and is, in fact, quite clueless in terms of what needs to be done once the task of destruction has been completed.” In other words, “chaos and destabilization are real, but I don’t think that’s the aim. Rather, it is a consequence of hitting fragile systems that one does not understand with the sledgehammer that is the main tool, as in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere.”

Vijay Prashad, a Marxist historian who enjoys a large platform courtesy of institutions like AlterNet, Verso Books, and Trinity College among others, argued over the course of a week that “Obama said something about success of US strategy in Yemen and Somalia? Somalia continues in distress; Houthi rebels just seized state TV. US bombing is an easy way to ‘do something.’ Won’t improve situation on the ground. Increases chaos, moves more fighters to extremism. I fear this bombing run is going to escalate frenzy on the ground—price for this bombing is going to be paid with terrible violence. Obama didn’t mention Libya in his speech (once briefly at end on Israel-Palestine). US policy in Syria is set to produce another Libya.” Prashad typically issues what sound like scathing criticisms of the existing system, as in a 2013 speech with Noam Chomsky when Prashad said “the political establishment is full of shit.” Still, for Chomsky, Prashad, Scahill, Wire creatorDavid SimonJohn “the War Nerd” Dolan, and countless other high-profile commentators, as bad as the ruling elites are, the idea that their functionaries would intentionally make the world as it is seems a bridge too far.

Chomsky has not always taken this position. In 2002, speaking on comparisons between the upcoming invasion of Iraq and the war on Vietnam, Chomsky argued that “The United States went to war in Vietnam for a very good reason. They were afraid Vietnam would be a successful model of independent development and that would have a virus effect—infect others who might try to follow the same course. There was a very simple war aim—destroy Vietnam. And they did it. The United States basically achieved its war aims in Vietnam by [1967]. It’s called a loss, a defeat, because they didn’t achieve the maximal aims, the maximal aims being turning it into something like the Philippines. [But] they did achieve the major aims.” What Chomsky is pointing out is that there are often hidden rationales for doing things like destroying an entire country and unleashing almost-genocidal violence against its people. Though the outcome would seem like a human rights-atrocity to any decent person, the ruling class that drives policy sees a handsome return-on-investment. It’s no stretch of imagination that a capitalist state will act to maximize profits of its corporations. It’s a fundamental rule of economics that one is either making money or not, and in any capitalist society, the profit motive is paramount. That’s why corporations are legally required to maximize profits, and while most corporations willingly maximize shareholder value, a company can be taken to court for not doing so. One sees corporations make mistakes, even New Coke-sized ones, but the biggest and most successful ones don’t repeatedly act contrary to their own interests—and if something enriches their shareholders, that means it’s working. Even single-celled organisms are capable of avoiding negative stimuli, and will do so in order to prolong their survival. A state and its executive bureaucracy is a gargantuan and often-unwieldy entity, but there’s no reason to assume that this is the only body that isn’t governed by simple laws of cause and effect.

Michael Parenti’s comments on IMF structural adjustment programs “not working” apply just as easily on the subject of imperial ineptitude: “In their perpetual confusion, some liberal critics conclude that foreign aid and IMF and World Bank structural adjustments ‘do not work’; the end result is less self-sufficiency and more poverty for the recipient nations, they point out. Why then do the rich member states continue to fund the IMF and World Bank? Are their leaders just less intelligent than the critics who keep pointing out to them that their policies are having the opposite effect? No, it is the critics who are stupid not the western leaders and investors who own so much of the world and enjoy such immense wealth and success. They pursue their aid and foreign loan programs because such programs do work. The question is, work for whom? Cui bono?”

When looking at the Wars on Drugs or Terror, it’s worth asking the same question. Indeed, when one drops the comforting notion that the elites are gravely concerned about the lives of Iraqis, Hondurans, or black Americans, there’s ample evidence that things are working, and little evidence of ineptitude. It’s true that decades into the Drug War, Americans have access to more and higher-potency drugs than ever. To proponents of the Inept Empire theory, this is often singled out as a tremendous waste of police resources and taxpayer dollars—a multi-generational, trillion-dollar testament to the Empire’s ineptitude. However, this system was also developed as the consensus around Jim Crow collapsed and evolved into a “colorblind” war on crime. Prior to the official inauguration of the War on Drugs, the FBI claimed in one of its leaked COINTELPRO documents that “for maximum effectiveness of the Counterintelligence Program, and to prevent wasted effort, long-range goals are being set” for “spying & disruption” of black radical groups. That this preceded the ultimate incarceration of one-in-nine African American men is an argument that when it comes to protecting its own interests and that of its owners, the state generally demonstrates great foresight and efficiency.

For more than two decades, influential people have been advocating the carving-up of the greater Middle East into pliant rump states. In 1992, only a year after arrival of unchallenged American global hegemony, influential trans-Atlantic intellectual Bernard Lewis published an article in Foreign Affairs magazine titled “Rethinking the Middle East.” In it, Lewis called for the “Lebanonization” of states throughout MENA, in a reference to Israel’s policies in the Lebanon War of the 1980s. According to Lewis, “most of the states of the Middle East—Egypt is an obvious exception—are of recent and artificial construction and are vulnerable to such a process. If the central power is sufficiently weakened, there is no real civil society to hold the polity together, no real sense of common identity…The state then disintegrates—as happened in Lebanon—into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions, and parties.” Lewis specified that Lebanonization “could even be precipitated by [Islamic] fundamentalism.” By 1996, prominent neoconservatives had codified Lewis’s ideas into policy.

By the mid-‘90s, “Lebanonization” became known more commonly as “Balkanization,” a reference to the fate of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. According to Michael Parenti, “the US goal has been to transform the Yugoslav nation into a Third-World region, a cluster of weak right-wing principalities with the following characteristics: incapable of charting an independent course of self-development; a shattered economy and natural resources completely accessible to multinational corporate exploitation; an impoverished, but literate and skilled population forced to work at subsistence wages, constituting a cheap labor pool that will help depress wages elsewhere; dismantled petroleum, engineering, mining, fertilizer, and automobile industries, and various light industries, that offer no further competition with existing Western producers. US policymakers also want to abolish Yugoslavia’s public sector services and social programs—for the same reason they want to abolish our public sector services and social programs. The ultimate goal is the privatization and Third Worldization of Yugoslavia, as it is the Third Worldization of the United States and every other nation.” Similar effects have been felt throughout the War on Terror. Former NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark tells a story of being present in the Pentagon days after the 11 September attacks, and being privy to plans to attack 7 nations in 5 years (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran). Though all those countries have not been subjected to actual large-scale invasions, all have had varying degrees of destruction and deprivation imposed on them. Most have been split into smaller and weaker states, been rendered unable to resist Western designs, and seen their material wealth stolen.

So there is ample evidence that things are turning out quite well for the class of super-wealthy capitalists who disproportionately influence the course of Western governance. The fact that plans for Middle Eastern “chaos” have been on the books for decades, and these policies have made the world’s richest much richer, compel a serious thinker to treat the notion that the Empire’s functionaries are largely bumbling and myopic as facile. On this subject, Michael Parenti has been a lucid and incisive critic for years. Parenti has long advocated that progressives and leftists drop the idea that Republicans like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush are stupid. In a 2004 interview, Parenti claimed “I’m not one of those critics that believes U.S. foreign policy is confused, or stupid, or misinformed, or well-intentioned but it goes awry. I think it’s a brilliant policy filled with many brilliant, terrible, horrible victories.” In order to further the interests of the super-rich, destruction is imposed when it “systematically undermines any movement, any country, any leadership, any popular group that tries an alternative way of self-defining, self-developing, using the resources, the markets, the labor of their society for their own needs, rather than for a multi-corporate global system, a neo-liberal system, which seems to be the goal of this reactionary clique in office today.” For this reason, according to Parenti in 2011, “the Iraq war has not been a mistake.” The US invasion was not quick, easy, or dearly welcomed by Iraqis, but it “destroyed a country that had the audacity to retain control of its own oil supply, kept its entire economy under state control, did not invite the IMF or the giant transnational corporations in [and] charted an independent course. So he and his country have been correctly destroyed in keeping with the interests of the US-led global empire.” The same is true in Afghanistan. When an interviewer asked Parenti how Afghanistan could be seen as a success rather than a quagmire, Parenti responded that “They are going to lose Afghanistan, but they do succeed, they succeeded in stopping the betterment of the masses of people.” Parenti explains that “When the productive social capital of any part of the world is obliterated, the potential value of private capital elsewhere is enhanced — especially when the crisis faced today by western capitalism is one of overcapacity.” Thus, “To destroy publicly-run Yugoslav factories that produced auto parts, appliances, or fertilizer—or a publicly financed Sudanese plant that produced pharmaceuticals at prices substantially below their western competitors—is to enhance the investment value of western producers.” In concrete terms, this happened in Yugoslavia when NATO bombed the state-owned DIN tobacco company and the local Zastava motor works for the sake of Phillip Morris and Ford; Greg Elich recounts how DIN was rebuilt and “made fit for privatization by a new Western-friendly government, as 1,400 employees were thrown out of work. In October 2003, DIN was purchased by Philip Morris, which six years later eliminated a third of the remaining workforce.”

“The national policies of an imperialist country reflect the interests of that country’s dominant class,” argues Parenti in “Costs of Empire and Role of IMF”:

Class, rather than nation-state, is often the crucial unit of analysis for studying imperialism. And if you understand that then you will avoid the mistake of a lot of liberal writers who say ’empire doesn’t make sense, it costs too much! It’s irrational.’ It’s been pointed out that from 1950 to 1970, the US government gave the Philippines $3 billion in aid when the US has only a billion dollars of investments in the Philippines. ‘See, it’s irrational, it costs more than what we’re getting back!’ That’s the liberal view. Now, if you think with Marx, if you think in terms of class, you understand that that is not irrational at all, because the people who are paying the 3 billion are not the same as the people who are making the 1 billion investment. The people who are paying the 3 billion are us. And the people who are making the 1 billion are Exxon and ITT and IBM and General Dynamics and General Motors and General Electric and all the other Generals! And they’ll spend 3 dollars of your money to protect 1 dollar of their money. They’ll spend 4 dollars of your money, 5 dollars, 6 dollars—in fact, when it comes to protecting their money, your money is no object!

Stephen Gowans observes that “the costs of military intervention are what economists call externalities—costs created by a firm, an industry or a class, but borne by others.” If these costs are internalized then it makes no sense economically since its costs exceed its returns. But if the costs are externalized—left to society as a whole to absorb—a policy becomes an attractive way for oil companies to turn a profit.

Here’s the parallel with military intervention. The giant engineering firm Bechtel would absorb virtually none of the costs of a successful war on Iran, but if one happens, Bechtel is likely to reap enormous profits in contracts to rebuild the infrastructure that the US Air Force would raze to the ground. For Bechtel, then, US military intervention in Iran would be highly profitable, even though it might not make sense economically when viewed from the perspective of the United States as a whole. Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon—the top five defense contractors–don’t foot the Pentagon’s massive $700B per annum bill, but large portions of that budget are transferred to them in the form of contracts for military hardware. While bloated military expenditures make no sense from the point of view of the country as a collectivity, major defense contractors reap enormous profits from them.

The problem, then, of arguing that military intervention in Iran would make no sense because the costs would exceed the economic gains that would accrue to the United States as a whole, is failure to recognize that the country is class-divided, and that the gains of war are internalized within the dominant class while the costs are externalized to the bottom 99 percent. Hence, war doesn’t make sense for the bulk of us, but the problem is that decisions about military expenditures, foreign policy and war are in the hands of the top one percent and their loyal servants, who privatize the benefits and socialize the costs. When liberals say US foreign policy makes no sense, they’re being misguided by a set of erroneous assumptions: that the United States has only one class, the middle-class, that it is not class-divided, that everyone within it has the same middle-class interests, and that the state rules in the interests of all.

Unlike Vijay Prashad’s works, Stephen Gowans’ two books are self-published and offered free on his blog. When looking at what ideas render a thinker a candidate for marginalization, it’s clear that belief in the Empire’s ineptitude is one of the prerequisites for some sort of mainstream acceptance. As Parenti and Gowans point out, this is because the Inept Empire theory is a liberal one, premised on a nation-based reading of society rather than a socialist, class-based one. As such, the liberal theory creates an artificial sense of identification between the different classes of a nation, whitewashing the class antagonisms that would motivate upheavals for a more equitable system. Even a relatively clear-eyed critic of Empire must believe good faith-motivation on the part of our rulers—at worst, they must be incompetent, rather than evil.

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2 thoughts on “Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 1: Inept Empire

  1. Pingback: The Mainstream and the Margins: Noam Chomsky vs. Michael Parenti | Popaganda

  2. lots of good stuff here. many of us cut our teeth, baby teeth maybe, on chomsky. some of the stuff you quote of his is truly mystifying (like the Vietnamese protestors thing; perfesser, please). letting go of (or maybe being much more critical about) chomsky can be like rejecting the “incompetence” vs “evil” thing. incompetence, misguidance vel sim perhaps can be reformed or somehow procedurally addressed (legal action, etc.) very, very comforting notion, to which chomsky’s presence & prestige in the ivory-towered university kind of lends some credence. we may even be able to *vote* to “fix” it, as chomsky quadrennially suggests. how you “reform” people shooting DU all over the place (or napalm or agent orange or glyphosate or tomahawk missiles or…) is like the mystery of transubstantiation: i ain’t ever seen it happen, but the priests tell me it does, so keep genuflecting?!? ahh, but the reformers would say, what about the civil rights movement? (like those who question the beneficence of US militarism or foreign aid being bashed w/the noble world war 2 & utterly altruistic marshall plan). asking such a person, “what good is your brown vs of board of ed [or whatever] doing NOW, this shit you cling to from 50 plus years ago? aren’t we supposed to learn anything about the nature of power from how these now ancient legal victories largely don’t mean anything today?” hear the crickets chirping, see the eyes blinking blankly…or outrage. how dare i piss all over their sacrifice? from my web browser????

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