Friday, October 21, 2011

Politically-Minded: A Review of Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy by Noam Chomsky

Title: Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy
Author: Noam Chomsky
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Metropolitan Books (2006)
Pages: 311
Challenges: 2011 GoodReads Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: At one point I was doing a Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Chomsky’s name came up frequently because of his work with language, but I was more interested in him because of his work as a political scholar. This book was obtained from the library as part of the research for a book that I’m working on.

I couldn't resist using this picture.

About the Author: Noam Chomsky is the author of numerous best-selling political works, from American Power and the New Mandarins in the 1960s to Hegemony or Survival in 2003 and Imperial Ambitions in 2005. A professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT, he lives outside Boston, Massachusetts.

Synopsis: The world’s foremost critic of U.S. foreign policy exposes the hollow promises of democracy in U.S. actions abroad—and at home.

The United States has repeatedly asserted its right to intervene militarily against “failed states” around the globe. In this much-anticipated follow-up to his international best-seller Hegemony or Survival, Noam Chomsky turns the tables, showing how the United States itself shares features with other failed states—and therefore is increasingly a danger to its own people and the world.

Failed states, Chomsky writes, are those that are unable or unwilling “to protect their citizens form violence and perhaps even destruction” and “regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law.” Though they may have democratic forms, Chomsky notes, failed states suffer from a serious “democratic deficit” that deprives their democratic institutions of real substance. Exploring the latest developments in U.S. foreign and domestic policy, Chomsky reveals Washington’s plans to further militarize the planet, greatly increasing the risks of nuclear war; assesses the dangerous consequences of the occupation of Iraq, which has fueled global outrage at the United States; documents Washington’s self-exemption from international norms, including the UN charter and the Geneva Conventions, the foundations of contemporary international law, and the Kyoto Protocol; and examines how the U.S. electoral system is designed to eliminate genuine political alternatives, impeding any meaningful democracy.

Forceful, lucid, and meticulously documented, Failed States offers a comprehensive analysis of a global superpower that has long claimed the right to reshape other nations—toppling governments it deems illegitimate, invading states judged to threaten its interests, imposing sanctions on regimes it opposes—while its own democratic institutions are in severe crisis, and its policies and practices recklessly place the world on the brink of nuclear and environmental disaster. Systematically dismantling the United States’ pretense of being the world’s arbiter of democracy, Failed States is Chomsky’s most focused—and urgent—critique to date.

Review: As an undergraduate, I majored in Anthropology for about three years…until I finally came to my senses and admitted how much I despised it. Honestly, I think the discipline is interesting, but the program at my college was not the greatest and I take issue with some of the ways anthropologists have done business, both in the past and even to the present day. The class that really did it for me was one that was taught by a professor who was too Liberal even for me. I went to the first day of class, decided it really wasn’t worth it, and dropped the class the next day. Failed States was one of the books on the syllabus and, now that I’ve read it, I’m convinced it would have been the only one I had to read for that class that I would have actually liked.

While the issues discussed in Chomsky’s book are slightly outdated (it’s a criticism of George W. Bush’s presidency), much of the argument that he constructs is still relevant. Coming at the topic of the U.S. as a failed state from a historical as well as a contemporary perspective, Chomsky creates a well-argued book that explores the damaging effects of U.S. foreign policy that has implications for both the present and the future. While at times dry and difficult to get through, overall I found this to be a highly readable and engaging text that resonated with me as a citizen and voter of the self-proclaimed “greatest country in the world.”

The introduction to Failed States lays out three different criteria upon which a determination about a country’s failed state status can be made. From there, Chomsky proceeds to present an impressive amount of evidence derived from the Bush presidency, as well as previous administrations (going as far back as the early days of the nascent United States), to back up his claim that the U.S. is, ostensibly, a failed state. Given its position in the global arena, it could even be argued that it is the largest and greatest of failed states. Delving into topics like the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the treatment of Native Americans under Andrew Jackson, and the fight against Communist infiltrators, among others, Chomsky paints a depressing portrait of Washington’s detrimental effect on both its own people and on the rest of the world at large. Interventionism and war (preemptive or otherwise) are explored at length.

I really enjoyed this book, but, as I said earlier, I found parts of it to be hard to get through. Chomsky is a great writer, but at times his style became dry and, dare I say it, boring. The subject itself remained interesting, but his presentation of the material fluctuated throughout the book. I also took issue with the way he used end notes (this has been a recurring problem for me; see here and here). His book is well cited and he used a broad range of sources, but he falls into the habit of directing readers to his earlier book, Hegemony or Survival, for many of his citations. I fully intend to read that book, but if you’re citing something in the work that I’m presently reading, I expect to not have to refer to a different book in order to find out what your source is. If I have to see the words “See my Hegemony or Survival for…” one more time, I might scream.

Chomsky is very critical of the Bush administration, but he has no love of other presidents either. From Jackson to Reagan, from Kennedy to Clinton, he constructs a narrative of deception, interference, and anti-democratic actions throughout U.S. history. And he does it well. While I may have disagreed with him here and there, the overarching merit of his argument was never in question. Those of us who were politically cognizant in the last twenty years know that things have been rotten in Denmark for a while and have seen the changes that have been brought about as a result of corruption and foreign intervention. I think many who read this book will find themselves nodding and “mmm-hmm”-ing chapter after chapter.

I’m giving Failed States 4 out of 5 Gabriels. This book may not be for everyone, but it’s a fascinating read, especially now that we are out of the Bush era and are able to look back at everything that has happened as a result of his actions both at home and abroad. While I had a few issues with it, I would still recommend it, especially to those interested in politics, history, foreign relations, or current events.



  1. I'm pretty much certain that I'll be reading Chomsky in the not too distant future. He seems to be popping up a lot in what I'm reading and that usually means I need to slow down and pay attention.

  2. I love Chomsky- at college I was taking like 4 different subjects and he came up in every one of them (Philosophy, Psychology, English Language...) so yeah, he's kind of awesome. This book sounds totally interesting, so I may well have to look into getting a copy...

  3. Satia: I'll be reading Hegemony or Survival sometime in the next few months and I'm really looking forward to it. He brings an interesting perspective to so many things.

    Laura: Same here. I haven't read any of his work with language, although I've heard great things about it.