Noam Chomsky: Profit Over People (Book Review)

If there’s anything reading a Chomsky work can guarantee, it’s a sense of deep unsettlement. Chomsky is one of the most renowned public intellectuals of the world and a vehement critic of the manner in which the capitalist class (of the USA, as well as the global capital) has played the game of power. A Google search of the words will auto-suggest “the man who is tall happy”, “is a liar”, “is wrong”. If the first suggestion flummoxed you as it did me, it’s the name of film “Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky.” Unlike his critics would have you believe, though, Chomsky isn’t a paranoid, anti-Semitic, anti American, anti Israel, anti capitalist (1) conspiracy theorist, nor is he the last totalitarian (2), or even an intellectual coward (3). Throughout the 160 odd pages of Profit Over People, (4) i didn’t ever feel that i was being discouraged from thinking. Quite to the contrary, Chomsky continuously exhorts his readers to question the whys and wherefores of the state of inequality in the world, how the status quo is maintained – or disparities widened, and to look towards the roots of problems, and draw connections where connections are not patently obvious unless the subtle patterns are regenerated. It is advisable, though, to read Chomsky being keenly aware of his dramatically flourished weltanshuung, else one lies at risk of seeing the world painted into black (the Evil capital) and white (the Good crazies), which isn’t a fair world view, nor a fair reading of his work.

Profit Over People (1999) is a collection of articles by Chomsky written over the years 1996, ’97 and ’98. Through these series of articles, Chomsky aims to point out the difference between the methods and aims of classical liberalism (such as Adam Smith and even James Madison) and that of neoliberalism. Chomsky’s main thrust is towards showing how farcical the democracy that is allowed to be practiced is in industrial nations (5), how the media is a tool of hegemony and is used to consciously manipulate the organized habits and opinions of the masses in democratic society (propaganda, a lesson well learned by WWII), and how USA’s foreign policy, in the name of spreading democratic values and freedom via encouraging “free market” practices of neoliberalism, is just a form of neo-imperialism. (6) So what Chomsky is clamouring for is democracy: a form of government where the state is accountable to the people, where the rulers wield power at the pleasure of the people, and not the other way around.

Building his argument from the beginning of America, Chomsky posits that while Madison, from his classical liberalist point of view, had expected the rulers would be the intellectual elite, he had hoped they would ““refine” and “enlarge” the public views, guarding the true interests of the country against the “mischiefs” of democratic majorities, but with enlightenment and benevolence”. He saw how wrong he had been when the “opulent minority” took charge of dominating/ dictating State policy in their own interests. There is a global pecking order, where the industrialised economies are allowed to feed on the developing economies, and they gain a stranglehold on their economic policies by bullying into existence a small elite which benefits from the profits of the private industry, not unlike how the British created the class of Zamindars via the Permanent Settlement Act to gain support of the powerful classes who in turn subjugate the rest of the population, driving income and status inequalities even farther apart on the pretext of decentralization (then) and democratization (now). (7) Chomsky points to the Washington consensus as an array of market oriented principles whose basic rules are: liberalization of trade (eliminating barriers to trade), letting markets set the price, allowing inflation, and privatizing. All of this goes hand in hand with a government that must not interfere with the interests of trade. Since the government is the only representative of the people in negotiations with private money, this effectively means that the people don’t get to have a say in policy formation or the shape of the economy that controls them: thereby undermining the very culture of democracy which they ostensibly are aiming to cultivate.

Chomsky is acutely aware of the problem of the “tyranny of the majority” but he suggests that where a State’s economic policy is concerned and the balance is between the power and influence of the capital class and the “unholy alliance of aid groups, trade unions, environmentalists and the odd conspiracy theorists”, the fear of this “tyranny” is merely an excuse to ignore the concerns of the multitudes in the face of short-term financial profits for private power. In fact, Chomsky points out the horrid reality that the immortal beings that corporations (private money) are being granted more “human rights” by courts than people have, as though it is they who are defenceless against the might of the populace. (8) Very little concern is shown to the plight of domestic industries or the living conditions of the workers when the process of industrialization is engaged in, and this is a result of the neoliberal market practices adopted and the absence (prohibition) of safeguards since a “vulnerable workforce” and “flexible markets” leads to greater profits for big business. He contrasts this with the hypocrisy of the First World countries in providing ridiculously large subsidies to their own agriculture and Agrobusinesses industries and flouting the basic principles of free markets where the outcome of doing so suits them. Chomsky clarifies that he isn’t against capital or the exportation of democracy, but he is against the kind of top-down democracy that is exported.

In one of his pieces, he points out that what multi-lateral free-trade agreements say is irrelevant, to the extent that the actual enactment of the treaties is only a function of their individual state power, and the treaty rules never apply to the biggest players. Chomsky’s work is exceptional because when saying this he does not merely offer his theory of how global order is arranged but contextualizes it against actual events as they unfold across the so-called “free world”.

In the concluding chapter of the book, Chomsky sounds much like Joseph Stiglitz will, a few years later, in Making Globalization Work (2006). Noam Chomsky has just witnessed something he had deemed impossible a few months ago: the deferment of the (unidimentional) Multilateral Agreement on Investment which was due to be signed by the OECD countries. It was unlikely that the MAI would be able to come into existence in the same forum again, due to the massive public opposition it had faced worldwide. He feels there is much to be hopeful for and learned from the fact that the OECD governments found themselves to be “… no match … for a global band of grassroots organization, which, with little more than computers and access to the Internet, helped derail a deal.” (9)

I shall conclude this review with Chomsky’s own criticism of the limitations of his work: that it focuses exclusively on the hegemonizers, and so is a partial picture as it misses entirely the rich records of the achievements of “popular struggle seeking to erode and dismantle forms of oppression and domination,10 which sometimes are all too apparent but are often so deeply entrenched as to be virtually invisible, even to their victims”.

Whether you are a beneficiary or a survivor of the neoliberal order, whichever side you may be on, Noam Chomsky will definitely make you sit up and take notice.

End Notes:

1 Google Search <Noam Chomsky is anti-> leads to the top three results given above.

2 Micheal J. Totten, Noam Chomsky: The Last Totalitarian, August 28, 2012, available online at, the interviewee is of the opinion that Chomsky thinks, despite his claims to the converse, “the last survivor of a group of intellectuals who thought systemic political violence and totalitarian control were essentially good things”. I’m wondering if we are referring to the same Chomsky.

3 Ibid.

4 Noam Chomsky, Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, Seven Stories Press, New York (1999).

5 Chomsky quoting Madison: “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both.”

6 Extremely critical of the humanitarian interventions of the US, Chomsky highlights the patterns per which aid is given to fight a war against drugs, or civil strife, or terror, which cripples the domestic industries.

7 See John L. Comaroff, Colonialism, Culture, and the Law: A Foreword, pg 306, Law & Social Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Spring, 2001).

8 Ideas that will find an echo in Baxi. See Upendra Baxi, The Future of Human Rights, pg 234-275, Oxford University Press (2002).

9 Chomsky quotes the Toronto Globe and Mail.

10 For more on bottom-up globalization, see Boaventura de Sousa Santos & Rodriguez Garavito, Law, Politics and the Subaltern in Counter-Hegemonic Globalization, Law and Globalization from Below, Edited by Boaventura de Sousa Santos & Rodriguez Garavito Cambridge University Press, New York (2005).


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