The distinguished MIT linguist Noam Chomsky delivered a broad-ranging indictment of the global economic system and American foreign policy in a discussion today at a freshman seminar on capitalism and 20th-century history.
Railing against the “exploitation of natural resources, which has defined the relationship between the West and the Third World,” Chomsky condemned what he perceived as the “hypocrisy” of western nations.
“In the late 19th century, West Africa and Japan were at the same level of state and economic development,” Chomsky told the Freshman Seminar 47v, “Understanding Twentieth-Century Capitalism Through History.”
“But Japan was not conquered, and that led to the differences we see today,” he added to students from the seminar and others who crowded into the Emerson Hall classroom.
Chomsky pointed to Congo and Somalia as African countries that have been particularly affected by Western imperialism.
“The great advantage of Western Europe was savagery and warfare,” Chomsky said when questioned by an undergraduate about why Europe rose to power in the modern era. “People the world over were astonished at the brutality of Western Europe.”
Asserting that the U.S. had high tariff levels up through the 1950s, Chomsky attacked today’s global economic system for having served to transfer wealth from developing nations to the developed world.
He argued that the West had grown rich by relying on tariffs and industrial policy, and that whatever economic growth the developing world had seen following World War II had resulted from their use of similar protectionist trade policies.
“When these measures were banned during the neoliberal period of the 1970s, growth rates in the developing world decreased dramatically,” Chomsky said.
He said that if African nations want to achieve higher rates of economic growth, they should “look to the East Asian Tigers in the 70s and 80s, who expanded economically by violating the [World Trade Organization] rules.”
Chomsky also criticized American foreign policy, saying that the U.S. intervenes abroad because it is convinced of its own righteousness.
“There’s a hidden assumption that if we do something, it’s good because we’re a benign superpower,” he said, saying this form of thinking dates to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.
But the future of American foreign policy is unclear, Chomsky said in an interview after the speech.
“We can be a constructive force in the world, but only if we choose to be,” he said.
“Americans will decide what the role of America is in the coming century.”
Listeners said they respected Chomsky’s intellect, even if they did not agree with his all of his views.
“I wanted to bring in someone with a critical view of the United States in global affairs,” said Max A. Likin, the leader of the seminar and a Lecturer on History and Literature. “I think he hammers home the same messages, one of which is that empires have a way of acting unilaterally and changing the rules when it suits them.”
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