The selection of issues that should rank high on the agenda of concern for human welfare and rights is, naturally, a subjective matter. But there are a few choices that seem unavoidable, because they bear so directly on the prospects for decent survival. Among them are at least these three: nuclear war, environmental disaster, and the fact that the government of the world’s leading power is acting in ways that increase the likelihood of these catastrophes. It is important to stress the government, because the population, not surprisingly, does not agree. That brings up a fourth issue that should deeply concern Americans, and the world: the sharp divide between public opinion and public policy, one of the reasons for the fear, which cannot casually be put aside, that “the American ‘system’ as a whole is in real trouble—that it is heading in a direction that spells the end of its historic values [of] equality, liberty, and meaningful democracy.”1
The “system” is coming to have some of the features of failed states, to adopt a currently fashionable notion that is conventionally applied to states regarded as potential threats to our security (like Iraq) or as needing our intervention to rescue the population from severe internal threats (like Haiti). Though the concept is recognized to be “frustratingly imprecise,” some of the primary characteristics of failed states can be identified. One is their inability or unwillingness to protect their citizens from violence and perhaps even destruction. Another is their tendency to regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law, and hence free to carry out aggression and violence. And if they have democratic forms, they suffer from a serious “democratic deficit” that deprives their formal democratic institutions of real substance.2
Among the hardest tasks that anyone can undertake, and one of the most important, is to look honestly in the mirror. If we allow ourselves to do so, we should have little difficulty in finding the characteristics of “failed states” right at home. That recognition of reality should be deeply troubling to those who care about their countries and future generations. “Countries,” plural, because of the enormous reach of US power, but also because the threats are not localized in space or time.
The first half of this book is devoted mostly to the increasing threat of destruction caused by US state power, in violation of international law, a topic of particular concern for citizens of the world dominant power, however one assesses the relevant threats. The second half is concerned primarily with democratic institutions, how they are conceived in the elite culture and how they perform in reality, both in “promoting democracy” abroad and shaping it at home.
The issues are closely interlinked, and arise in several contexts. In discussing them, to save excessive footnoting I will omit sources when they can easily be found in recent books of mine.3
Copyright © 2006 by Harry Chomsky, as Trustee of Chomsky Grandchildren Nominee Trust