IN JULY, 1996, the United Nations reported that the combined wealth of the world's 358 billionaires exceeds that of fully 45% of the world's population. As for the richest nation in history (the USA) - home to some 149 billionaires, "a child dies from poverty every fifty-three minutes."
The 1995 issue of Fortune reported that 500 corporate profits were up 540% over the previous year. In the mid-1970s chief executives in the United States earned thirty-five times as much as the average worker; they now earn more than 120 times as much.
Faced by inequality and injustice on this scale, most political commentators remain content to earn their keep by debating the virtual politics of "feel- good factors". Fortunately, Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics at MIT, is an outstanding exception. Over the course of some thirty years of dissent, his tireless effort has undoubtedly made a major personal contribution in exposing capitalist hypocrisy. It was Chomsky, after all, who, in 1979, wrote the very first article in the US focusing on the Western-backed bloodbath in East Timor, so laying the basis for the global resistance movement.
IN CLASS WARFARE Chomsky reveals the attempt by corporate and state élites "to roll back everything connected with the social contract that had been won by working people over a century of struggle."
Contracts, sick pay, annual leave, maternity leave, pensions, job security, unions, health and safety: everything is being subject to a vicious class war fought with what amount to "Star Wars" weapons of the new global economy: GATT, NAFTA, G7, the IMF and the World Bank. The corporations, Chomsky says, think "that they can destroy human rights, eliminate the curse of democracy, except in a purely formal way, move power into the hands of absolute, unaccountable institutions which will run the world in their own interests." All driven through on the basis of what Adam Smith called "all for ourselves and nothing for the people".
And who is to stop them? "The Western democratic tradition", perhaps? Chomsky reports that the US population is overwhelmingly opposed to just about everything proposed by both Democrat and Republican parties. Policy is designed by, and for, multinational megacorporations, 'incredible private tyrannies. They make totalitarian states look mild by comparison" which, trading upwards of a trillion dollars' worth of capital every day, override all domestic political systems. Russians, Poles, Haitians, you and I, may not like what is being done to us - no matter, the clout of transnational power ensures that "policy is insulated from politics", as The Economist puts it.
No surprise, then, that two-thirds of the US population regularly fail to vote, while latest polls suggest that 82% believe that government is "run for the benefit of the few and the special interests, not the people." This extreme cynicism and indifference to politics has suited corporate power down to the ground, promoting what Chomsky calls "anti politics". So long as people are worrying about the dangers of big government, and feeling apathetic or hostile towards all politics, private power can continue to drag us back to the dark ages divided and conquered.
Chomsky has had relatively little to say about the environment, although the implications should be clear enough. His main concern has been that the economic and political system standing over us is driven by short- term profit.
The media continue to underplay the dangers of corporate power, sniping sporadically from the sidelines; the problem being that the media is a corporate media, an integral element of the corporate system - not by any stretch of the imagination can it be considered free and independent.
To read any book of conversations with Chomsky is to connect with a great and humane mind. He chats about his famously teetering piles of "urgent reading", from which books are given to toppling over in the middle of the night (startling Mr and Mrs Chomsky awake). We cannot help but be infected by Chomsky's energy and alertness. The point is that to read someone this awake is to become a little more awake ourselves.
IN POWERS AND PROSPECTS - Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order, the chapters on linguistics provide arresting glimpses of how human nature can sometimes be seen in tiny grains of language. Chomsky informs us that when we say "brown house" we mean that the house has a brown exterior; this being only one example of how human beings the world over tend to think of objects as their exteriors. When we say "I climbed the mountain", we all know that we actually mean we went up the mountain. This sentence therefore remains appropriate even when we are still on the mountain, going down. Chomsky - insists that his training as a linguist has not assisted his political writing. And yet the study of language clearly does teach us to approach the commonplace and "normal" as mysteries to be investigated. In this world, common-sense phrases and ideas become little packages waiting to reveal secret and unsuspected truths. It is exactly this ability, in heaps, which has helped Chomsky win the "George Orwell Award" for exposing political double- speak, twice.
As never before, Powers and Prospects reveals the contrast of styles in Chomsky's work. As a linguist, Chomsky is cool, calm and humorous. The political chapters, by contrast, boil with barely restrained moral outrage and passion. Significantly for his critics, however, the same basic rules of logic and reason are adhered to throughout.
What to do? As ever, Chomsky repeats the usual call to action grounded in compassion and an understanding that nothing worthwhile has ever come easily where the struggle for freedom is concerned. Chomsky's advice, as he knocks out another two or three books on politics, a couple on linguistics, and the usual endless speeches and interviews, is "get to work on it", because "there has not in history ever been any other answer."
David Edwards is the author of Free To Be Human and is currently writing a book on thought control in democratic societies.