Year 501: The Conquest Continues
By Noam Chomsky
London: Verso, 1993. 331 pp. $29.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
1992 was the 500th anniversary of the arrival in the "New World" by Columbus. Noam Chomsky in Year 501 once again stands against the flood of political lies and historical amnesia which has threatened to swamp the evidence of the real aims and costs of the ensuing rampage by the wealthy.
As Chomsky argues, one society's "discovery" was another's "conquest" — the "conquest of the New World" meant the "virtual destruction of the indigenous population of the Western Hemisphere" through slaughter and slavery, from Columbus to "warrior merchants" such as the British East India Co in the 17th century, to the economic and military plunderers of their modern-day successors. As always, "the priorities are profits and power".
Neither has the language of the conquerors changed. From the war against the American Indians to the US-led assault against Iraq, "the record to this day is replete with appeals to the divine will, civilising missions, partnerships in benevolence, noble causes and the like".
Sometimes there is not even much effort to conceal the reality behind the rhetoric. The US desire for global hegemony, for example, is no secret — "the intentions were articulated plainly and illustrated consistently in action" from the interventions in the Philippines and Hawaii in the 19th century to Central and South America and elsewhere at later times.
Following on from the standards set by previous global superpowers, since World War II the US has been "the global enforcer", in the process compiling "an impressive record of aggression, international terrorism, slaughter, torture, chemical and bacteriological warfare, human rights abuses of every imaginable variety". This result "is not surprising; it goes with the turf" of being the biggest tough in the world of geopolitical gangsterism.
What brings on this wrath by the US, says Chomsky, is not the crimes of official enemies like Saddam Hussein but their attempts to encroach on US turf. Their crimes, however, do provide a convenient pretext for engendering "fear of some Great Satan, followed by awe as our Grand Leaders heroically overcome him".
Other tyrants, who do respect the boundaries of US interests, sometimes commit the "bad form" of shooting people or beating US journalists in front of TV cameras. But this only calls for the conventional remedy of "an inquiry to whitewash the atrocity, a tap on the wrist for the authorities, mild punishment of subordinates, and applause from the rich men's club over this impressive proof that our moderate client is making still further progress". Six weeks after the Dili massacre in November 1991, Australia and Indonesia had approved six contracts for oil exploration in the Timor Gap. The old priorities — "profits and power" — at work again.
A leaked draft Pentagon document in 1992 caused much embarrassment on this score by its frank advice that the US should "address selectively the wrongs" of other countries depending on whether they favour US business interests (Indonesia in East Timor) or harm them (Iraq in Kuwait).
An even bigger threat than clients who get too greedy are independence movements, radical nationalists and socialist-inspired rebellions. It is "the elements of success" of Cuba, Nicaragua or Vietnam that disturb their US would-be masters and threaten that "stability" which ensures "a favourable business and investment climate".
This radical challenge triggers "savage violence" to quash "the threat of a good example". Direct invasion, proxy wars, trade and aid embargoes are among the weapons of organised brutality, although "democracy" and "the market" may be allowed a guernsey "as long as the tilt of the playing field guarantees that the right folks win".
Even Vietnam may now be allowed to return to the fold, as key US business groups oppose "the fanatical commitment to 'bleed Vietnam'" so that "they can get their fair share of trade in Vietnam". The IMF will carry on where the B-52s left off and ensure "stability".
John Pilger once praised Chomsky for "liberating the obvious" about imperialist power and naked economic self-interest. The ideological managers of imperialist power, have, however, been successful in obscuring the obvious. Half of all US citizens believe that foreign aid is the largest element in the federal budget, and the most commonly believed figure for the number of Vietnamese killed in the Vietnam War is 100,000 (there were 2 million) which is like believing that 300,000 instead of 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, Chomsky is not overawed by the power of the media to keep "each person an isolated receptacle of propaganda". The rapid rise of opposition to the Gulf slaughter in 1991 showed a healthy radicalism and independence. Chomsky also argues from US trade union history that real democracy and a lively working class culture thrive when unions are strong, and this offers a hopeful direction for today.
Chomsky's only glitch is when the "libertarian" aspects of his libertarian socialism mar his historical accuracy. His generalised invocations against "power" bring him headlong against working-class parties, as in his demonising of the Bolsheviks who "quickly destroyed any semblance of working class or other popular organisation" in Russia in 1917. This will hardly do as a balanced assessment of a period when a mass revolutionary party won widespread support for its genuine commitment to "every cook" running society, when they had to make anguished choices for survival or bloody defeat as their experiment with socialism remained isolated and attacked, its working-class core weakened by war, blockade, disease and famine and finally crushed as a bureaucratic counter-revolution under Stalin's leadership grew from a society of want and exhaustion.
But for an ally in today's struggles against the heirs of Columbus, there are few writers more morally robust, politically committed and talented with the pen than Chomsky. Year 501 confirms his stature.