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On ‘On Western Terrorism’ (2013) by Chomsky and Vltchek

(c) James Bridle (2013), "A Quiet Disposition"

On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare
by Noam Chomsky and André Vltchek.
(Pluto, 2013)

Rally round and settle in, once again, to hear the West’s most popular critic on his specialist subject: the barely recognised crimes of rich democracies. (Note, however, that this isn't really a book: it's a transcript of Chomsky in discussion with someone with even less ideological care than he. Also, the title is cool but misleading, since they don't actually go in to the plausible claim that the West's foreign policy has been terroristic, and since I don't think drones come up at all.) It is selective as history and nearly worthless as economics, but I do not begrudge Chomsky continuing his fifty-year marathon of talking about covert realpolitik: these sorts of manipulations are almost unreported at the time, go wholly unpunished, and are rapidly forgotten, but for him and his.

Like what? Well, begin with Leopold II, skip to the Enola Gay, or Britain's Palestine, Operation Boot, Operation PBFORTUNE, Lumumba, the Plain of Jars, and the long systematic atrocity "Operation Condor" (involving us and Pinochet, Noriega and Just Cause, Suharto, El Salvador), or that Iraq matter.

But even though it handles these demonstrably real Western crimes, On Western Terrorism turns out to be an echo-chamber - a mix of apparently detailed research (e.g. they appeal to some 'declassified embassy reports' to back up some claims) and pervasive confirmation bias.


The main problem's exaggeration. In one breath they move from a righteous skit on the original colonial genocides to a view of world politics in which everything that happens now is the outcome of decisions in Brussels and Washington. From “The West has, historically and recently, been hypocritically violent and anti-democratic” to “Everything bad in the world is due to the West”. That sounds like a sure straw man, but here’s the man himself:
The great majority of events that were causing the suffering of countless human beings all over the world were related to greed, to the desire to rule and to control coming almost exclusively from the ‘old continent’ and its powerful but ruthless offspring on the other shore.
(Oh? malaria? dysentery? precarious subsistence farming? Hutu-on-Tutsi genocide?) He’s at it again here:
although it is mostly Rwanda, Uganda who are murdering millions of innocent [Congolese] people, behind this are always Western geopolitical and economic interests.

Well. It's true that, as well as the flat-out murders in the links above, our governments bear shame for ignoring unbelievably destructive ongoing wars in e.g. the Congo. But failing to prevent murder is not murder, nor necessarily accessory to - especially if we remember that C&V’s judicious attitude to military intervention would have precluded direct action anyway. There is a logical chasm between what one could only perhaps prevent - given enough luck and blood - and what one is the cause of. (I agree that the two situations place similar responsibilities on us, by the way - but in the absence of simple solutions, that hypothetical responsibility does not make them the same.) Similarly: capitalism produces enormous inequality but mostly inadvertently relieves poverty: poverty is our default from before there was a world-system. But C&V and others of the demagogic school persist in blaming all the world's ills on rich bores whose uncaring exploitation often works better for the poor than altruistic direct action. (This is very counterintuitive; so much for intuition.)

Why do I disagree? They say it’s cos I’m a dupe:
There have been very sophisticated propaganda systems developed in the last hundred years and they colonized minds including the minds of the perpetrators. That’s why the intellectual classes in the West generally can’t see it.

I say it’s because while their description of our foreign policy is (depressingly) fair, on the foreign policy of rival governments they are uncritical, whitewashing, and on historical alternatives to our type of society they are naive and cherry-picking, where they give evidence at all. What might a real radical say in response to my aspersions? "Fuck balance! Balance is what lets them get away with it! Fuck evidence! Evidence is what makes people think I’m wrong!"

Vltchek is much more skewed than Chomsky. He’s earnest, and clearly devoted to first-hand reporting of the abuse of powerless people. But, oddly, depressingly, this immersion in the frontline has robbed him of perspective (and in fact it doesn't get more front-line: he was tortured in East Timor in 1996). He suffers the defining mistake of recent leftism: the enemy of my enemy error, where you'll approve of anyone who resists the West. In fact, his comments, taken over the whole book, amount to a flirting defence of totalitarianism - he romanticises the Soviets, Assad's Syria, and Ecuador. Both of them exchange the Eurocentric rose-tint of our mainstream for lenses warped in the reverse direction. And it all rests, ultimately, on tacit belief in the 'superior virtue of the oppressed' - the strange belief that being bombed makes the bomb recipient better than you. (Sure, they’re probably more virtuous than the bombers, but that’s not saying much.) Our governments being awful does not mean that others are not. Quite the reverse.

Also: Chomsky takes on the 'Black Book' of Communism not by challenging its accounting, but by saying that Western capitalism's toll was worse (no footnote, but see the lone India example below); and the Prague Spring is utterly minimised with the same ugly break-a-few-eggs fallacy. Vltchek:
Moscow’s invasion of 1968 to put down the Prague Spring was not necessarily something that should have happened... but there was no massacre performed by the Soviets; few people fell under the tanks. Most of what happened was accidents; some people who died were drunk.
(The direct death toll was 72 plus suicides, if that's what he means.)


That’s the first big problem. The other huge one is the complete lack of footnotes, even as they make the boldest possible claims. As a result, even I identified some errors in the course of my single superficial reading. (Ok, so some failings are just the vagaries of live dialogue as compared to writing; but Vltchek (or Pluto Press at least) would be forgiven for editing the damn thing for basic evidence.)

The only research cited in support of the claim that capitalism causes more excess death from starvation is Dreze and Sen's reputable 1981 study 'Hunger and Public Action (p.214 here). C&V use this to compare excess deaths in India (as an instance of a market democracy) in 1947-1979 with that of Communist China, pointing out that Dreze and Sen place the toll in India at some 100 million, next to China’s '25-30' million. (First cockup: citing thirty-year-old research underestimates the toll of Mao’s famine by perhaps 20m people.) But the comparison doesn't do the work they put it to (that is, condemning capitalism): India was almost an autarkic command economy (in which perhaps two-thirds of all formal, non-subsistence employment was public-sector) in that period; it does not serve them as an exemplar of neoliberal starvation.

Even if it did, we would again come up against their curious equation of failure to prevent an intractable thing with causing the thing in the first place. As far as I can tell, their reasoning really is: “Capitalism exists, and poverty exists, so, capitalism causes poverty.” But it would take one of two things for capitalism to be responsible for poverty: causation, as evidenced by e.g. a gross increase in the number of poor people under its penumbra; or its impeding a more effective solution to poverty. But the proportion of (utterly) poor people, in this supremely Late-capitalist world is the lowest it has ever been; and the remaining poverty is not at all simple to fix; and capitalist countries really did try, throwing enormous amounts of money and thought at the problem for going-on 70 years. To be responsible for poverty in the way C&V say, either capitalism or old socialism would have to be omnipotent, and - among other fairly strong disconfirmations for that idea - the 20th century shows both of those to be untrue. (The commercial success of Chomsky in his enormously capitalist society, is an extra data point toward rubbishing any strong statement about capitalism's mind-control powers.)

(Vltchek talks about global warming briefly, and I was about to reach for the recent debunking of claims of Polynesian evacuation – but in fact it turns out his sources were better; the president of Kiribati has since publicly floated a national evac plan.)

A less straightforward quibble: they think this book is about the West, I think it’s about humans with power.

I had believed Chomsky more humane than this talk makes him seem (see for example his sombre 90s piece on the Black Book) - that is, I want to pin the blame for this biased and maudlin tract on Vltchek. But his long-standing dismissal of some non-Western massacres at last makes me wonder.


On a less uninspired and dispiriting note: if there is a system less bad than Swedish capitalism, it does not exist in the past. So it must be imagined, negotiated, and tested. Chomsky and the other socially enraged ostalgiacs in his ambit are not mostly doing that; Erik Olin Wright and David Graber and Nancy Fraser and others are at least trying.

Finally, what’s so bad about being excessive and dogmatic in your criticism of awful things? (Why should anti-oppression efforts need to justify themselves? They're anti-oppression!) Well, apart from it being dangerous and ignoble to be so firmly wrong, taking this tack means that your true conclusions will be dismissed as just more of your unjustified excess.

But even given their slips, hyperbole, and complacency, there’s no way around some of C&V's key claims: Our governments have not in general been a positive force in the rest of the world; this is not well-known within our societies; as long as the US is legally immune from prosecution, international justice is a joke; we have often given money and guns to the worst people in the world; we did this for little more than control and for stuff.