In a book of interviews published a few years ago, Chronicles of Dissent, Noam Chomsky recounted a childhood incident that shaped his life. One day during first grade, a group began taunting a fat boy from his class. Chomsky wanted to defend him but fled instead. Following the event he was totally ashamed, and he determined never again to run away. “That’s the feeling that stuck with me,” he says. “You should stick with the underdog.” Sixty-five years have passed, and Chomsky remains faithful to that commitment, as evidenced by Profit Over People, his new book.
Since the demise of the cold war, received wisdom suggests that we are witnessing a rapid growth in democratization. Yet, if democracy is not merely a term attributed to a set of political procedures but also involves concrete “opportunities for people to manage their own collective and individual affairs,” then democracy, according to Chomsky, is actually under attack.
Chomsky argues that there is an ongoing conversion of people from participants to spectators, maintaining that this trend is also found in Western industrialized countries. In the United States people have fewer opportunities to influence policies because of what Chomsky calls the “corporatization of America.” By reducing “big government,” decisions are transferred from the one form of power that happens to be somewhat accountable to the public into the hands of corporations, whose CEOs are, politically speaking, like tyrants, having little if any respect for the American public.
The ironic twist about this trend is that corporations have not acquired their power through fair play in the free market but rather as a result of government assistance. By making this claim Chomsky goes beyond Susan Strange’s important book The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power in the World Economy (1996). Strange depicts international political economy as a confrontation between big business, international bureaucrats and insurers on the one side, and state sovereignty on the other. She argues that economic actors have in many ways managed to usurp the power that had previously been in the hands of political actors. Chomsky’s nuanced analysis of current political trends discloses a slightly different picture. He suggests that there is an alliance between the state and economic players. Although corporations support minimizing government, they want governments to maintain a degree of power since government intervention and not the rules of the free market insure a corporation’s dominance.
Thus, contrary to the dominant neoliberal doctrine, which suggests that economic globalization points to the demise of the nation-state and to the free market’s success, Chomsky shows that globalization is the result of ongoing government interference and precipitates poverty and ecological destruction. By disclosing the overarching patterns of neoliberalism, Profit Over People complements a number of studies–for instance, Thomas Klak’s Globalization and Neoliberalism: The Caribbean Context (1997) and Gerardo Otero’s Neoliberalism Revisited: Economic Restructuring and Mexico’s Political Future (1996)–that have examined neoliberalism’s effect on specific areas.