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Who Rules the World?

Noam Chomsky


From the Introduction

The question raised by the title of this book cannot have a simple and definite answer. The world is too varied, too complex, for that to be pos­sible. But it is not hard to recognize the sharp differences in ability to shape world affairs, and to identify the more prominent and influential actors.

Among states, since the end of World War II the United States has been by far the first among unequals, and remains so. It still largely sets the terms for global discourse, ranging from such concerns as Israel-Palestine, Iran, Latin America, the "war on terror," international eco­nomic organization, rights and justice, and others like them to the ultimate issues of survival of civilization (nuclear war and environmen­tal destruction). Its power, however, has been diminishing since it reached a historically unprecedented peak in 1945. And with the inevi­table decline, Washington's power is to some extent shared within the "de facto world government" of the "masters of the universe," to bor­row the terms of the business press—referring to the leading state capi­talist powers (the G7 countries) along with the institutions they control in the "new imperial age," such as the International Monetary Fund and the global trade organizations.1

The "masters of the universe" are of course very far from representa­tive of the populations of the dominant powers. Even in the more demo­cratic states, the populations have only limited impact on policy decisions. In the United States, prominent researchers have produced compelling evidence that "economic elites and organized groups representing busi­ness interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence." The results of their studies, the authors conclude, "provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism." Other studies have demonstrated that the large majority of the population, at the lower end of the income/wealth scale, are effectively excluded from the political system, their opinions and attitudes ignored by their formal representatives, while a tiny sector at the top has overwhelming influ­ence; and that over a long period, campaign funding is a remarkably good predictor of policy choices.2

One consequence is so-called apathy: not bothering to vote. It has a significant class correlation. Likely reasons were discussed thirty-five years ago by one of the leading scholars of electoral politics, Walter Dean Burnham. He related abstention to a "crucial comparative peculiarity of the American political system: the total absence of a socialist or laborite mass party as an organized competitor in the electoral market," which, he argued, accounts for much of the "class-skewed abstention rates" as well as the downplaying of policy options that may be supported by the general population but are opposed to elite interests. The observations reach to the present. In a close analysis of the 2014 election, Burnham and Thomas Ferguson show that rates of voting "recall the earliest days of the nineteenth century," when voting rights were virtually restricted to propertied free males. They conclude that "both direct poll evidence and common sense confirm that huge numbers of Americans are now wary of both major political parties and increasingly upset about pros­pects in the long term. Many are convinced that a few big interests con­trol policy. They crave effective action to reverse long term economic decline and runaway economic inequality, but nothing on the scale required will be offered to them by either of America's money-driven major parties. This is likely only to accelerate the disintegration of the political system evident in the 2014 congressional elections."3

In Europe, the decline of democracy is no less striking, as decision making on crucial issues is shifted to the Brussels bureaucracy and the financial powers that it largely represents. Their contempt for democ­racy was revealed in the savage reaction in July 2015 to the very idea that the people of Greece might have a voice in determining the fate of their society, shattered by the brutal austerity policies of the troika— the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the Inter­national Monetary Fund (specifically the IMF's political actors, not its economists, who have been critical of the destructive policies). These austerity policies were imposed with the stated goal of reducing Greece's debt. Yet they have in fact increased the debt relative to GDP, while Greek social fabric has been torn to shreds, and Greece has served as a funnel to transmit bailouts to French and German banks that made risky loans.