Who Owns The World?

In a new book, Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian deconstruct the notion of a declining United States.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky's new book discusses challenges to the United States as a global power. (Andrew Rusk / Flickr / Creative Commons).

Excerpt­ed from Pow­er Sys­tems: Con­ver­sa­tions on Glob­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Upris­ings and the New Chal­lenges to U.S. Empire, is a col­lec­tion of recent con­ver­sa­tions between Noam Chom­sky and David Barsami­an, direc­tor of Alter­na­tive Radio.

If you study international relations theory, there's what's called the 'realist' school, which says there is an anarchic world of states, and those states pursue their 'national interest.' It's in large part mythology. There are a few common interests, like survival. But, for the most part, people within a nation have very different interests. The interests of the CEO of General Electric and the janitor who cleans his floor are not the same.

David Barsami­an: The new Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism seems to be sub­stan­tial­ly dif­fer­ent from the old­er vari­ety in that the Unit­ed States is a declin­ing eco­nom­ic pow­er and is there­fore see­ing its polit­i­cal pow­er and influ­ence wane.

Noam Chom­sky: I think talk about Amer­i­can decline should be tak­en with a grain of salt.

World War II is when the Unit­ed States real­ly became a glob­al pow­er. It had been the biggest econ­o­my in the world by far for long before the war, but it was a region­al pow­er in a way. It con­trolled the West­ern Hemi­sphere and had made some for­ays into the Pacif­ic. But the British were the world power.

World War II changed that. The Unit­ed States became the dom­i­nant world pow­er. The U.S. had half the world’s wealth. The oth­er indus­tri­al soci­eties were weak­ened or destroyed. The U.S. was in an incred­i­ble posi­tion of secu­ri­ty. It con­trolled the hemi­sphere, and both the Atlantic and the Pacif­ic, with a huge mil­i­tary force.

Of course, that declined. Europe and Japan recov­ered, and decol­o­niza­tion took place. By 1970, the U.S. was down, if you want to call it that, to about 25 per­cent of the world’s wealth – rough­ly what it had been, say, in the 1920s. It remained the over­whelm­ing glob­al pow­er, but not like it had been in 1950. Since 1970, it’s been pret­ty sta­ble, though of course there were changes.

With­in the last decade, for the first time in 500 years, since the Span­ish and Por­tuguese con­quest, Latin Amer­i­ca has begun to deal with some of its prob­lems. It’s begun to inte­grate. The coun­tries were very sep­a­rat­ed from one anoth­er. Each one was ori­ent­ed sep­a­rate­ly toward the West, first Europe and then the U.S.

That inte­gra­tion is impor­tant. It means that it’s not so easy to pick off the coun­tries one by one. Latin Amer­i­can nations can uni­fy in defense against an out­side force.

The oth­er devel­op­ment, which is more sig­nif­i­cant and much more dif­fi­cult, is that the coun­tries of Latin Amer­i­ca are indi­vid­u­al­ly begin­ning to face their mas­sive inter­nal prob­lems. With its resources, Latin Amer­i­ca ought to be a rich con­ti­nent, South Amer­i­ca particularly.

Latin Amer­i­ca has a huge amount of wealth, but it is very high­ly con­cen­trat­ed in a small, usu­al­ly Euro­peanized, often white elite, and exists along­side mas­sive pover­ty and mis­ery. There are some attempts to begin to deal with that, which is impor­tant – anoth­er form of inte­gra­tion – and Latin Amer­i­ca is some­what sep­a­rat­ing itself from U.S. control.

There’s a lot of talk about a glob­al shift of pow­er: India and Chi­na are going to become the new great pow­ers, the wealth­i­est pow­ers. Again, one should be pret­ty reserved about that.

For exam­ple, many observers com­ment about U.S. debt and the fact that Chi­na holds so much of it. A few years ago, actu­al­ly, Japan held most of the U.S. debt, now sur­passed by China.

Fur­ther­more, the whole frame­work for the dis­cus­sion of U.S. decline is mis­lead­ing. We’re taught to talk about a world of states con­ceived as uni­fied, coher­ent entities.

If you study inter­na­tion­al rela­tions the­o­ry, there’s what’s called the real­ist” school, which says there is an anar­chic world of states, and those states pur­sue their nation­al inter­est.” It’s in large part mythol­o­gy. There are a few com­mon inter­ests, like sur­vival. But, for the most part, peo­ple with­in a nation have very dif­fer­ent inter­ests. The inter­ests of the CEO of Gen­er­al Elec­tric and the jan­i­tor who cleans his floor are not the same.

Part of the doc­tri­nal sys­tem in the Unit­ed States is the pre­tense that we’re all a hap­py fam­i­ly, there are no class divi­sions, and every­body is work­ing togeth­er in har­mo­ny. But that’s rad­i­cal­ly false.

In the 18th cen­tu­ry, Adam Smith said that the peo­ple who own the soci­ety make pol­i­cy: the mer­chants and man­u­fac­tur­ers.” Today pow­er is in the hands of finan­cial insti­tu­tions and multinationals.

These insti­tu­tions have an inter­est in Chi­nese devel­op­ment. So if you’re, say, the CEO of Wal­mart or Dell or Hewlett-Packard, you’re per­fect­ly hap­py to have very cheap labor in Chi­na work­ing under hideous con­di­tions and with few envi­ron­men­tal con­straints. As long as Chi­na has what’s called eco­nom­ic growth, that’s fine.

Actu­al­ly, Chi­na’s eco­nom­ic growth is a bit of a myth. Chi­na is large­ly an assem­bly plant. Chi­na is a major exporter, but while the U.S. trade deficit with Chi­na has gone up, the trade deficit with Japan, Tai­wan and Korea has gone down. The rea­son is that a region­al pro­duc­tion sys­tem is developing.

The more advanced coun­tries of the region – Japan, Sin­ga­pore, South Korea and Tai­wan – send advanced tech­nol­o­gy, parts and com­po­nents to Chi­na, which uses its cheap labor force to assem­ble goods and send them out of the country.

And U.S. cor­po­ra­tions do the same thing: They send parts and com­po­nents to Chi­na, where peo­ple assem­ble and export the final prod­ucts. These are called Chi­nese exports, but they’re region­al exports in many instances, and in oth­er instances it’s actu­al­ly a case of the Unit­ed States export­ing to itself.

Once we break out of the frame­work of nation­al states as uni­fied enti­ties with no inter­nal divi­sions with­in them, we can see that there is a glob­al shift of pow­er, but it’s from the glob­al work­force to the own­ers of the world: transna­tion­al cap­i­tal, glob­al finan­cial institutions.

Excerpt­ed from Pow­er Sys­tems: Con­ver­sa­tions on Glob­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Upris­ings and the New Chal­lenges to U.S. Empire. Inter­views with David Barsami­an by Noam Chom­sky. Pub­lished by Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books, an imprint of Hen­ry Holt and Com­pa­ny, LLC. c.2013 by Avi­va Chom­sky and David Barsami­an. All rights reserved.

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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