Chomsky Lecture

Text of lecture given at Nezahualcóyotl Hall, National Autonomous University of Mexico
September 21, 2009

In thinking about international affairs, it is useful to keep in mind several principles of considerable generality and import. The first is the maxim of Thucydides: the strong do as they wish, and the weak suffer as they must. It has an important corollary: every powerful state relies on specialists in apologetics, whose task is to show that what the strong do is noble and just, and if the weak suffer it is their fault. In the contemporary West, these specialists are called "intellectuals," and with only marginal exceptions, they fulfill their assigned task with skill and self-righteousness, however outlandish the claims, a practice that traces back to the origins of recorded history.

A second leading theme was expressed by Adam Smith. He was referring to England, the greatest power of his day, but his observations generalize. Smith observed that "the principal architects" of policy in England are the "merchants and manufacturers," and they make sure that their own interests are well served by policy, no matter how "grievous" the effect on others, including the people of England, but most severely those who suffer "the savage injustice of the Europeans" elsewhere. Smith was one of those rare figures who departed from the normal practice of depicting England as an angelic power, unique in world history, which was selflessly dedicating itself to the welfare of the barbarians. One telling illustration was John Stuart Mill, one of the most decent and intelligent of Western intellectuals. In a classic essay, he explained in these terms why England had to complete its conquest of India for the purest humanitarian ends. He wrote right at the time of England's worst atrocities in India, when the true end of the further conquest was to enable England to gain a monopoly of opium and to establish the most extraordinary narcotrafficking enterprise in world history, in order to force China with gunboats and poison to accept British manufactures, which China did not want.

Mill's oration is the cultural norm. Smith's maxim is the historical norm.
Today, the principal architects of policy are not "merchants and manufacturers," but rather financial institutions and multinational corporations. A sophisticated current version of Smith's maxim is the "investment theory of politics" developed by political economist Thomas Ferguson, which regards elections as occasions when groups of investors join together to control the state, by essentially buying the elections. It is a very good predictor of policy over a long period, as he has shown.