A Narrow Band of Liberties

Glen Newey

  • Profit over People: Neo-Liberalism and Global Order by Noam Chomsky
    Seven Stories, 175 pp, £26.00, October 1998, ISBN 1 888363 82 7
  • Acts of Aggression: Policing ‘Rogue’ States by Noam Chomsky and Ramsey Clark, edited by Edward Said
    Seven Stories, 62 pp, £4.99, May 1999, ISBN 1 58322 005 4
  • The Umbrella of US Power: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Contradictions of US Policy by Noam Chomsky
    Seven Stories, 78 pp, £3.99, December 1998, ISBN 1 888363 85 1
  • The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo by Noam Chomsky
    Pluto, 199 pp, £30.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 7453 1633 6

In Being and Nothingness Sartre has an admirable passage about the stubborn human tendency to ‘fill’, the fact that a good part of human life, in politics as elsewhere, is devoted to ‘plugging up holes’. Holes are vacant, and the humdrum psychopathy of political life seeks them out, in the cause of repletion – by contrast, the bore of omnipresence, as Sartre implies later when speculating about what life as the Almighty must be like, is that you just don’t get out enough. The Balkan hole-plugging exercise carried out by the US was power-play thinly disguised as moralism. Some truisms can’t be reiterated often enough, and we have anarchists like Noam Chomsky to thank for one of them: when the powerful talk of ‘liberation’, you can be sure that somewhere, in a state near you, odd-jobmen and peasants in uniform are clapping on the cangue and bilboes. Under what global dispensation could the abuse of power be subjected to any effective check? This question becomes the more obvious when the choice is between a behemoth and a monotreme, or as they are also respectively known, the US and the UN. The error, as others besides anarchists can see, lies in the thought that morality could be enforced by political power, and is the more glaring when the form that power takes is force majeure. Contra Thomas Nagel and other US liberals, leaders who can segue fluently from blowjob to prayer-breakfast should give us pause for thought. The gospelling blag takes a darker turn in ‘the new military humanism’ or, in other words, killing people as an act of charity. The propensity of morality to efface itself grows directly in step with its reliance on power to get what it demands. Understood as a datum of the political life, anarchism is not merely true, but a truism.

After all, the likes of Saddam Hussein and Henry Kissinger aren’t the likeliest incarnations of Kant’s ‘moral politician’. These grotesques manifest what in private life would amount to a criminal tendency. And given the less than intergalactic psychic distance between political and random violence, some wise fools might wonder whether there was that much to choose between the vigilant readiness of the Nato leaders and a psychopathic tendency. The euphemism used in Nato briefing-speak to accentuate the gap was ‘bringing the Serbs into compliance’. Kant’s political idealism and wised-up Machiavellian cynicism about political thuggery are not enemies, but bedfellows, and the rutilant dicta of the Dear Leaders are their misbegotten by-blow – as in the well-known military annex to the Rambouillet accords, discussed by Chomsky in The New Military Humanism, demanding Milosevic’s assent to the allied Anschluss of Serbia as a condition of ‘compliance’.

Chomsky – like a lot of contemporary political theorists – sees one half of this predicament clearly: the half which shows the use of power as surd and brute. What about the other half? It is not the banality that the world is not all that nice, or that those who help to run states are often not people you’d want round for a cup of Earl Grey and a garibaldi. It is that power, and the fall-out from its use, is not just a bit of bad luck, to be put behind us in some happier future state of the world. Our misery is endemic. It takes its rise from what Hobbes called a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death. Hobbes’s state of nature is often thought to rest on controversial claims about human nature, but does not really do so – in a Hobbesian world, where there are no coercive structures, where the things which people value (such as security) are relatively scarce, and more of them can be got by deceit than co-operation, conflict must ensue. The choice is not between power and nothing, but between power and power.

This suggests that the landscape is more restricted than it may look. Two main views of international law currently circulate. One sees the limits of state obligation as drawn by self-interest: they’re taken to encompass a limited degree of altruism by citizens towards their compatriots, but not to extend as far as the woaded inhabitants of ‘bongo-bongo land’, or even the members of the next Neighbourhood Watch. The other view takes it that international law is an applied branch of natural law, construed in more or less explicitly moralistic terms; its rhetorical progeny includes the ‘ethical foreign policy’, making the world ‘safe for democracy’, the ‘New World Order’ and Operation ‘Just Cause’. To be sure, this second view has enjoyed greater entrée of late in the modish salons. But the two are not so unalike, granted the premise that ethical egoism prevails in international relations. Pre-Kosovo it was asked what ‘we’ should do, the assumption being that ‘we’ should ‘do something’ about Milosevic, and that nothing ‘we’ could do could be worse than nothing. The post-history of the Kosovo campaign indicates otherwise: accelerated ethnic cleansing, inaccurate bombing with collateral damage, an embittered Serbia, the less than staggering revelation that estimates of the killings of ethnic Albanians were wildly exaggerated in the prelude to the war (100,000 against a verified total of 3000, according to a recent report). Whatever else is to be made of Milosevic’s recent replacement (by another hardline Serb nationalist), it’s not plausibly seen as an outpouring of gratitude by the Serbian people towards Nato for having bombed them.

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