Australian Outlook

In this section

Book Review: The Precipice: Neoliberalism, the Pandemic and the Urgent Need for Radical Change

29 Nov 2021
Reviewed by John Chiddick

Through this collection of interviews, Chomsky highlights many issues facing contemporary society. The book discusses the pandemic and the rise of right-wing populism, with a particular focus on the effects of the Trump presidency.

The Precipice: Neoliberalism, and the Pandemic and the Urgent Need for Radical Change comprises a series of interviews with Noam Chomsky conducted by the American journalist C. J. Polychroniou covering the duration of the Trump presidency. There are thirty-six interviews in total, with participation by lesser-known figures in a few cases. The subtitle is somewhat misleading, since much of the discussion covers a much wider range of questions than indicated, although opposition to neoliberalism is a recurring theme throughout. It is fair to say that Polychroniou comes across as an acolyte, assuring us in his foreword that the interviews offer “brilliant analyses, immense insights, and breath-taking critiques by a staggering genius” on the topic of Trump’s presidency. A diametrically opposed view of Chomsky is not uncommon, for example in Tony Taylor’s characterisation of him as one of the “knee-jerk anti-western crusaders” in his book, Denial: History Betrayed (Melbourne University Press, 2008). This latter view derives much of its force from Chomsky’s downplaying of Khmer Rouge atrocities in 1970s Cambodia, a stance which attracted much condemnation.

The interviews in the book indeed afford evidence of a visceral aversion to the United States, or at least to those who guide its destinies, even when the point Chomsky is making does not depend on such hostility. Discussing allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, he correctly notes the long history of American meddling in overseas elections, going back to the efforts to secure Communist defeat and Christian Democratic victory in the 1948 Italian election. He then weakens his case by presenting all such American interventionist policies as designed to “block the threat of radical democracy and social reform,” as though America’s enemies in such places as Greece and Indochina were appropriately described as “radical democrats” rather than the hard-line Communists they actually were. Yet alongside such romanticism we also find more perceptive observations not often evident in the mainstream media.

In his critique of the Trump administration specifically, Chomsky says its two most dangerous features are its readiness to expand America’s nuclear capacity , and its disregard for the consequences of global warming – the “environmental catastrophe” in his words. On the nuclear weapons question, he contrasts Trump with earlier Republican figures Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan, who acknowledged the importance of treaties limiting nuclear arsenals. By contrast, he quotes Trump’s pronouncement “Let it be an arms race – we will outmatch them at every pass,” and is understandably not comforted by attempts by the White House staff to explain that the president didn’t mean what he said. As for policies implemented, he notes the “highly provocative installation of a missile defense system” on Russia’s borders, on the pretext of defense against “non-existent Iranian weapons.”

On environmental issues, Chomsky deplores the administration’s apparent disregard for scientific warnings about climate change, and its weakening of environmental protection agencies in the United States itself. In an interview conducted early in 2015, he described Trump as “a complete disaster” on climate change but did not distinguish him in this respect from the rest of the Republican leadership, for every candidate in the Republican primaries “either denied what is happening or said…we shouldn’t do anything about it.”

On other matters which Chomsky sees as of great but lesser importance, he is equally critical, such as his assessment of the tax policies of the administration, and its treatment of immigrants on the Mexican border, many of whom, he judges, were fleeing from the consequences of American policies. In all these respects, Chomsky’s assessment does not diverge very much from what one would expect from the left-liberal wing of the Democratic Party. But there is another side to his analysis. Throughout the interviews is recurring evidence that he sees merit in those of Trump’s pronouncements that point to diminished enthusiasm for overseas military adventures.

Asked shortly after Trump’s inauguration whether he thought the new president would be more or less militaristic than his immediate predecessors, Chomsky replied that he could not answer with any confidence, because Trump was too unpredictable – a judgement hard to gainsay. But soon Chomsky was commenting that the Democrats seemed anxious to extinguish “one of the few rays of light in the Trump performances,” namely his expressions of interest in reducing tensions with Russia. He also jibbed at the phrase “infatuation with Vladimir Putin,” thus pushing back against a standard trope of the Democrat and liberal media characterisation of Trump’s relations with Moscow. Later, he found Trump’s treatment of Russia merely confused, on the one hand recommending reduction of tensions, but on the other sending arms to Ukraine and building up NATO forces on Russia’s borders, both likely to have the contrary effect. The Democratic elite demonstrated their bankruptcy by their “obsession” with alleged Russian meddling in American elections, the extent of which seemed nugatory. Those concerned with such interference, he suggested, would do well to direct their attention to Israeli attempts to influence the US political process, such as Binyamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress designed to undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to secure a nuclear deal with Iran.

Similarly, Chomsky commends Trump for aspects of his policy towards North Korea, in which he sees “some rays of light” such as his apparent acceptance of moves towards rapprochement between the two Koreas. Again, he saw the Democrats trying to “outflank Trump from the Right” by their belligerent stance on North Korea. All in all, then, Chomsky cannot be charged with what has been termed “Trump derangement syndrome”  – the condition in which liberals and leftists are so consumed by hatred for Trump that they oppose policies they would normally support simply because they are associated with Trump.

Chomsky’s unhappiness with the Democrats does not arise solely from their foreign policy stances. In the past forty years, he complains, they have abandoned “pretty much whatever commitment they had to working people.”. Nonetheless, before the 2020 presidential election he rejected the abstentionist position adopted by some sections of the Left, arguing there were “colossal” differences between the two main candidates on the issues he had earlier identified as of overriding importance, namely the environmental crisis and the threatened dismantling of the international arms control regime. Presumably, then, Chomsky voted for Biden.

The interviews in this book are not, I suspect, intended mainly for an academic readership, although there is a brief digression on the realist-idealist dichotomy in international relations theory, and Hans Morgenthau’s place therein. The book is likely to draw its readers from activists and others already sympathetic to Chomsky’s worldview. It is unlikely to convert those not so disposed. Nonetheless it has virtues crossing ideological boundaries, including the rare one of clarity. One is never in doubt about what Chomsky is saying, and his work is not burdened with the mind-numbing polysyllabic jargon associated with some of the intellectual fashions of the past few decades. Further, he does not appear to be particularly preoccupied with the obsessions of identity politics. In these respects, indeed, he is a somewhat old-fashioned kind of radical, and none the worse for it.

This is a review of Noam Chomsky and C. J. Polychroniou, The Precipice: Neoliberalism, the Pandemic and the Urgent Need for Radical Change (Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2021) ISBN: 9781642594584

John Chiddick is an Honorary Associate at the Department of Politics & Philosophy at La Trobe University, Australia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.