Great soul of power
By Noam Chomsky
Clearing House" -- -- IT IS a challenging task to select a few themes
from the remarkable range of the work and life of Edward Said. I
will keep to two: the culture of empire, and the responsibility of
intellectuals — or those whom we call "intellectuals" if they have
the privilege and resources to enter the public arena.
The phrase "responsibility of intellectuals" conceals a crucial
ambiguity: It blurs the distinction between "ought" and "is." In
terms of "ought," their responsibility should be exactly the same as
that of any decent human being, though greater: Privilege confers
opportunity, and opportunity confers moral responsibility.
We rightly condemn the obedient intellectuals of brutal and violent
states for their "conformist subservience to those in power." I am
borrowing the phrase from Hans Morgenthau, a founder of
international relations theory.
Morgenthau was referring, however, not to the commissar class of the
totalitarian enemy, but to Western intellectuals, whose crime is far
greater, because they cannot plead fear but only cowardice and
subordination to power. He was describing what "is," not what
"ought" to be.
The history of intellectuals is written by intellectuals, so not
surprisingly, they are portrayed as defenders of right and justice,
upholding the highest values and confronting power and evil with
admirable courage and integrity. The record reveals a rather
The pattern of "conformist subservience" goes back to the earliest
recorded history. It was the man who "corrupted the youth of Athens"
with "false gods" who drank the hemlock, not those who worshipped
the true gods of the doctrinal system.
A large part of the Bible is devoted to people who condemned the
crimes of state and immoral practices. They are called "prophets," a
dubious translation of an obscure word. In contemporary terms, they
were "dissident intellectuals." There is no need to review how they
were treated: miserably, the norm for dissidents.
There were also intellectuals who were greatly respected in the era
of the prophets: the flatterers at the court. The Gospels warn of
"false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly
are ravening wolves. By their fruits ye shall know them."
The dogmas that uphold the nobility of state power are nearly
unassailable, despite the occasional errors and failures that
critics allow themselves to condemn.
A prevailing truth was expressed by US President John Adams two
centuries ago: "Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast
views beyond the comprehension of the weak." That is the deep root
of the combination of savagery and self-righteousness that infects
the imperial mentality — and in some measure, every structure of
authority and domination.
We can add that reverence for that great soul is the normal stance
of intellectual elites, who regularly add that they should hold the
levers of control, or at least be close by.
ONE common expression of this prevailing view is that there are two
categories of intellectuals: the "technocratic and policy-oriented
intellectuals" — responsible, sober, constructive — and the
"value-oriented intellectuals," a sinister grouping who pose a
threat to democracy as they "devote themselves to the derogation of
leadership, the challenging of authority, and the unmasking of
I am quoting from a 1975 study by the Trilateral Commission —
liberal internationalists from the US, Europe and Japan. They were
reflecting on the "crisis of democracy" that developed in the 1960s,
when normally passive and apathetic sectors of the population,
called "the special interests," sought to enter the political arena
to advance their concerns.
Those improper initiatives created what the study called a "crisis
of democracy," in which the proper functioning of the state was
threatened by "excessive democracy." To overcome this crisis, the
special interests must be restored to their proper function as
passive observers, so that the "technocratic and value-oriented
intellectuals" can do their constructive work.
The disruptive special interests are women, the young, the elderly,
workers, farmers, minorities, and majorities — in short, the
population. Only one specific interest is not mentioned in the
study: the corporate sector. But that makes sense. The corporate
sector represents the "national interest," and naturally there can
be no question that state power protects the national interest.
The reactions to this dangerous civilising and democratising trend
have set their stamp on the contemporary era.
For those who want to understand what is likely to lie ahead, it is
of prime importance to look closely at the long-standing principles
that animate the decisions and actions of the powerful — in today’s
world, primarily the United States.
Though only one of three major power centres in economic and most
other dimensions, it surpasses any power in history in its military
dominance, which is rapidly expanding, and it can generally rely on
the support of the second superpower, Europe, and Japan, the second
largest industrial economy.
There is a clear doctrine on the general contours of US foreign
policy. It reigns in Western journalism and almost all scholarship,
even among critics of policies. The major theme is "American
exceptionalism": the thesis that the US is unlike other great
powers, past and present, because it has a "transcendent purpose":
"the establishment of equality in freedom in America," and indeed
throughout the world, since "the arena within which the US must
defend and promote its purpose has become worldwide."
The version of the thesis I have just quoted is particularly
interesting because of its source: Hans Morgenthau. But this quote
is from the Kennedy years, before the Vietnam war erupted in full
savagery. The previous quote was from 1970, when he had shifted to a
more critical phase in his thinking.
Figures of the highest intelligence and moral integrity have
championed the stance of "exceptionalism." Consider John Stuart
Mill’s classic essay, "A Few Words on Non-Intervention."
Mill raised the question whether England should intervene in the
ugly world or keep to its own business and let the barbarians carry
out their savagery. His conclusion, nuanced and complex, was that
England should intervene, even though by doing so, it will endure
the "obloquy" and abuse of Europeans, who will "seek base motives"
because they cannot comprehend that England is "novelty in the
world," an angelic power that seeks nothing for itself and acts only
for the benefit of others. Though England selflessly bears the cost
of intervention, it shares the benefits of its labours with others
Exceptionalism seems to be close to universal. I suspect if we had
records from Genghis Khan, we might find the same thing.
The operative principle is illustrated copiously throughout history:
Policy conforms to expressed ideals only if it also conforms to
interests. The term "interests" does not refer to the interests of
the US population, but to the "national interest" — the interests of
the concentrations of power that dominate the society.
In the article "Who Influences US Foreign Policy?," published last
year in the American Political Science Review, the authors find,
unsurprisingly, that the major influence is "internationally
oriented business corporations," though there is also a secondary
effect of "experts," who, they point out, "may themselves be
influenced by business." Public opinion, in contrast, has "little or
no significant effect on government officials."
One will search in vain for evidence of the superior understanding
and abilities of those who have the major influence on policy, apart
from protecting their own interests.
THE great soul of power extends far beyond states, to every domain
of life, from families to international affairs. And throughout,
every form of authority and domination bears a severe burden of
proof. It is not self-legitimising.
And when it cannot bear the burden, as is commonly the case, it
should be dismantled. That has been the guiding theme of the
anarchist movements from their modern origins, adopting many of the
principles of classical liberalism.
One of the healthiest recent developments in Europe, I think, along
with the federal arrangements and increased fluidity that the
European Union has brought, is the devolution of state power, with
revival of traditional cultures and languages and a degree of
regional autonomy. These developments lead some to envision a future
Europe of the regions, with state authority decentralised.
To strike a proper balance between citizenship and common purpose on
the one hand, and communal autonomy and cultural variety on the
other, is no simple matter, and questions of democratic control of
institutions extend to other spheres of life as well.
Such questions should be high on the agenda of people who do not
worship at the shrine of the great soul of power, people who seek to
save the world from the destructive forces that now literally
threaten survival and who believe that a more civilised society can
be envisioned and even brought into existence.
Noam Chomsky, the author, most recently, of Failed States: The
Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, is emeritus professor
of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology in Cambridge, Mass.