Game of hegemony

Print edition : January 26, 2007

A scholarly work that traces and analyses the policies of the Unites States in its quest for global dominance.

NOAM CHOMSKY'S insightful and scholarly Hegemony and Survival created yet another round of worldwide debate after Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, recently held up a hardback copy of the book in the United Nations General Assembly for the world to see, as a corroboration of the United States' aggressive quest for dominance and its violent pursuit of policies across the world as well as the resistance from Latin America. Being ardent critics of neoliberal globalisation and U.S. foreign policy, both Chavez and Chomsky regard the U.S. as the leading terrorist state in the world and challenge its unjust power.

When I asked Chomsky recently about his views on U.S. foreign policy in Asia in the wake of the Latin American Left forming an alliance against American unilateralism, he replied: "Washington is no doubt deeply concerned by the developments in South America, which, for the first time since the Spanish conquests, is not only moving towards greater independence but also integrating, at least to some extent. But I do not think this is the prime motive for U.S. efforts to improve its strategic-economic position in Asia, to counterbalance China. That would have proceeded in about the same way, I suspect, even if Latin America remained under control." In the face of a persistent obsession with an enemy that is about to destroy them, the Americans have always laboured under fear and mistrust, a driving force behind their role in international politics. It is a game of hegemony and survival that works in tandem to counter paranoia, which, as Chomsky argues, "when combi ned with immense power and an extremely cynical and violent leadership is a dangerous combination, no doubt". Even if one's motives are the promotion of democracy, the use of bloodshed as intimidation makes it very difficult to predict how one's enemies will react. The counter-insurgency in Iraq exemplifies this.

Whether it is Asia or Latin America, the motives are the same. The operation of ideological hegemony to maintain power over public opinion has been largely responsible for the brainwashing of a majority of Americans as well as millions around the world into believing that Iraq had amassed weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the 9/11 massacre.

Hegemony thus operates through mechanisms including the media, education systems and newspeak with the primary function of maintaining public support for the dominant socio-economic system in the U.S. And sometimes, if need be, force is employed to make nations and peoples fall in line. Chomsky succinctly points out: "Attack is therefore defence, another logical illogicality that becomes coherent once the doctrinal apparatus is properly understood."

As Alexander Hamilton (the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury) writes, the "great beast" (he means the people) had to be kept within convenient confines. Power resides in the hands of a few or, as Woodrow Wilson and George Washington both maintain, those who are "good" and behind "polyarchy". The elite decision-making reinforces the hegemonic/repressive rule of the state. However, in open societies, brutal force cannot be tolerated by the masses, and thus subtle means of ideological state apparatus begin to be strategically employed to control opinions and attitudes. Such self-righteousness of the state is visible within the state or outside it when powerful nations, in the name of democracy, intervene or resort to military action for self-promoting agendas. Walter Lippman's notion of the "manufacturing of consent" is thereby vindicated in the state machinery's success in casting a network of false consciousness over the public. American altruism is only a sham. The media-elite nexus concentrates on the common interests of the media and the corporate world. It is a known fact that The New York Times, a deeply right-wing paper, allows adversarial opinion only as eyewash. The truth is that not a statement made by Edward Said or Chomsky in the post-9/11 months found any space in The New York Times. It is obvious that journalists of the mainstream press internalise the myth about a liberal society that pretends to regard all issues objectively. The happy complacency of the reader is a top priority, and care is taken not to allow over-radical views to destroy it. For instance, all intellectuals in the West have supported the war on terrorism, but any questions that involve the terrorism of the state are conveniently kept out.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ of Venezuela holds a Spanish-language version of "Hegemony and Survival" while addressing the 61st session of the U.N. General Assembly in 2006.-JULIE JACOBSON/AP

Hegemony and Survival also takes into account television news that is often taken as natural and obvious, dependent on "certain preferred definitions of reality and these definitions have profound implications for the cultural reproduction of power relations across society". The truth claims of television news are taken to be authoritative, credible and factual, making it thus a potentially hegemonic agency used for the reproduction of oppressive relations of power across society, an everyday experience in relation to social divisions and hierarchies. The media, therefore, are instruments used for the naturalisation of power relations, working in a way so as to bestow ideological validation onto a range of social disparities and thus setting out to create a world of make-believe impartiality. It works to project the most even-handed and wise "truths" in order to replicate the essentials of hegemony. Antonio Gramsci explains this phenomenon of power dynamics in our society as a "... `spontaneous' consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is `historically' caused by the prestige (and conse quently confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production".

The lackadaisical approach of the Bush team towards global warming is again an instance of "profit over people", which ruthlessly ignores "extreme risks for the United States, Europe, and other temperate zones". The Kyoto treaty is meaningless to President George W. Bush. The threat to the survival of the human race is as immediate in the present times as it was when the Bay of Pigs incident almost triggered a nuclear war; the U.N. took pains to ensure that such disasters do not endanger the human race in the future and, therefore, went on to ban the militarisation of space, but the U.S. blocked these efforts. The invasion of Iraq evoked warnings of a human disaster, but it fell on deaf ears. As Chomsky reiterates, specialists warned that U.S. "belligerence, not only with regard to Iraq, was increasing the long-term threat of international terrorism and proliferation of WMD". The response to this foreseeable catastrophe was to declare "the right to resort to force to eliminate any perceived challenge to U.S. global hegemony". Iraq became the first victim of this "grand strategy".

The weeks immediately following the 9/11 tragedy saw the provocation of worldwide public opinion that opposed the rising power of America and its unscrupulous policy of entering a war on the pretext of checking Saddam Hussein's designs of bringing havoc to the Western world. It was the power of a mighty state against international opinion. The world has veered to a position where it is Bush who has metamorphosed into an antagonist more hateful than Saddam. Only a few months ago when I was at Lake Como (near Milan, Italy), I was witness to the damning of the political leadership in the U.S. when American and Canadian academics gathered there distributed badges at the breakfast table inscribed with slogans such as `Impeach Bush' and `Bush must go'.

Chomsky surveys the unfolding events over the last few years that he takes to be a valid reason for the global hatred and fear generated by the arrogant hegemony of a nation that is prepared to stop at nothing. "Dismissal of elementary human rights and needs [is] matched by a display of contempt for democracy for which no parallel comes easily to mind." But it is of no surprise to Chomsky who emphasises that "there is ample historical precedent for the willingness of leaders to threaten or resort to violence in the face of significant risk of catastrophe. But the stakes are far higher today. The choice between hegemony and survival has rarely, if ever, been so starkly posed".

The polemicist in Chomsky underscores the hypocritical strategies followed by the American state in its blatant dismissal of elementary human rights, evident in the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay debacles, and its simultaneous support for democracy and human rights. Chomsky also details the history of the U.S. trajectory, after the Second World War, towards becoming the most powerful state in history by using military and economic policies that were anything but democratic. As argued by him, the actions and guiding doctrines of the U.S. are of prime relevance to those institutions still operating to maintain global peace and order as well as to the general public that can be the only truly counter hegemon to Washington.

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