Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek. Published by Pluto Press 2013.
Reviewed by Jane Shallice
On Western Terrorism is a printed version of an extended conversation between Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek, a film maker, political commentator, journalist and novelist which took place in 2012. As ever when you read Chomsky you know how important he is to us all as a public intellectual, one who has written and spoken out consistently since the Vietnam War as an activist and his anti-imperialist / anti colonialist stance is second to none. Over two days Chomsky and Andre Vltchek had a filmed conversation debating “the responsibility of western nations for the countless onslaughts and for centuries of terror that they spread all over the world.” Whilst the catalogues of horror they discuss could lead to inertia and feelings of helplessness, Chomsky returns again and again to the position that there is always a choice: to do something or to do nothing. At least in the attempt to do something, this could change the outcomes.
This is also a discussion between two activists, who start from the position that as a result of Western colonialist and neo colonialist wars since 1945 between 50 and 55million people have died, whilst many more millions have died or have led impoverished lives due to the practices of the colonialist states. The context of such calculations is framed by Chomsky’s reminder that there have been genocides against the indigenous populations of the Americas since the 15th century, only to be followed by the extermination policies of the US government against the native north Americans in the 19th century. But he also emphasizes that there are millions dying today from diseases and conditions of life that could be easily rectified given the resources of the planet and the knowledge that we now have. He then states that we are moving to what could be the ultimate genocide the extermination of life on this planet itself. For him, the problem is the lack of any rigorous analysis of the use for example of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions driving global warming. …“these are very fundamental problems. They are kind of intrinsic in the market-oriented societies , where you do not consider what we call externalities. Things that don’t enter into any particular transaction, those that affect others: that is not included”.
The discussion ranges over the actions of the USA and its cohorts over the last forty or fifty years and is an important prompt for those of us who have been active for many years. They refer to Orwell’s term “unpeople” to describe those people who, for the imperialists, “do not matter”, those who are the poor and the oppressed; the expendable.
A significant area which is well covered is that of Indonesia, too seldom described or analysed by the left. Some attention was paid when there was the break away of East Timor, but relatively little is given to one of the largest Muslim states and little written about the legacy of another colonialist operation which took place with devastating results in 1965. After 1945 the US had decided to support Sukarno at a time when the US was opposing the old imperialists in the region, as they were considered to be blocking the way for the penetration of US imperialist aims. In 1958 Eisenhower supported a coup attempt to break away the outer islands, which were rich in mineral resources but this failed. However the coup in 1965 again with US support, did not fail and there was a resultant massacre of the Communists, the intellectuals and the Chinese minority population. It is argued that this was a precursor for the economic policies that we later saw in Chile in 1973, which is always stated as the way that the neoliberal policies of the US were trialed. In Indonesia however eight years before Chile there was “the imposition of an extreme pro market economic system force fed by the university of California at Berkley through its Indonesian collaborators at the client institute of the university of Indonesia.” A clear neoliberal agenda was enacted. Both men wanted to stress the importance of the linkages of policy between Eastern Asia and Latin America, with them emphasizing that the Brazilian coup occurred the year prior to 1965. Since Suharto Indonesia, the largest Muslim state, has developed into been seen as a “rising Asian economy”, with its economy rising by around 6.5% pa until 1997 when following the Asian financial crisis Suharto was ousted. It is a state, which Pankaj Mishra in the LRB 10 Oct 2013, has described as a mix of lunar landscapes, with all the ravages evident of a neoliberal exploitation of resources, and a place where low cost airlines bring in the shoppers to spend. As he describes it is “a democracy fundamentally designed to give ever more power to the rich”.
Despite the analysis of Indonesia, there is a however an absence in the book; whilst describing and analysing the colonial and neocolonial relationships, almost nothing is said about the economic system which generates this form of domination and exploitation. There is hardly a mention of capitalism and nothing about the vital drive to, as Marx said in Capital, “Accumulate , accumulate! This is Moses and the Prophets”. There will be no let up from these interventions while capital’s life blood requires the control of productive factors and markets. The significance of this lacuna is important, because if there is no recognition and understanding of that which drives the imperialists to maintain and increase the inequality of relationships between states, the import of these events is somehow never revealed. In much of Chomsky’s writings one feels this is a significant absence.