The Victors:part II
by Noam Chomsky
Z Magazine, April 1991
... I [have] raised the question that at once comes to mind
amidst the cheers for the glorious victory of the West in the
Cold War: how are the victors faring at the moment of their triumph?
A survey of the domains of the state capitalist industrial societies
provides a stark answer: we find an "unrelenting nightmare,"
in the accurate words of those who have enjoyed the kind tutelage
of the West. The catastrophe of capitalism could not be more vivid
Notice that the question raised is precisely the right one.
One will learn next to nothing from a comparison of Eastern and
Western Europe. In contrast, it is quite reasonable to compare
regions that were more or less similar in relevant respects 80
years ago, but have since followed a different course: subjugation
to Leninist-Stalinist tyranny and its aftermath (the USSR and
Eastern Europe), or domination by the state capitalist democracies
(the conventional Third World).
Neither of these regions is homogeneous, and their prior histories
differ as well. But to a first approximation, it is reasonable
to describe large parts of both regions, before World War I, as
roughly comparable in social and economic development, and relation
to the West. At the time, Russia was developing, though it was
far more backward than Western Europe and not closing the gap,
and by 1914, "becoming a semi-colonial possession of European
capital," historian Teodor Shanin observes. Making a similar
point, economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron notes that "in
1913, that is, thirty-five years after Bulgaria's liberation,
nearly 80 percent of all the plows used in Bulgarian farming were
most primitive wooden implements," and in the 1930s, "wooden
plows were still more numerous than the iron ones." Similar
observations hold generally, so it appears, though comparative
studies seem to be few.
It is therefore of some interest to ask how Guatemalan peasants
or Brazilian slum dwellers would react, were they to find themselves
suddenly transported to Poland or Bulgaria or the Ukraine. We
learn a good deal about ourselves by pursuing the inquiry, and
also by observing how the obvious questions are stifled and eliminated
in the chorus of self-adulation.
Some Unheard Voices
The victims, of course, do not join the chorus, but as always,
their voices remain unheard. Thus, there is much pretense of concern
over the murder of the Jesuit intellectuals in El Salvador, but
it does not reach as far as attending to anything they say on
any topic, including this one, even though -- or rather because
-- one might learn a good deal from the exercise. On the question
at hand, the journal Proceso of the Jesuit University UCA in San
Salvador, where the priests were assassinated, has this to say:
"The so-called Salvadoran `democratic process' could
learn a lot from the capacity for self-criticism that the socialist
nations are demonstrating. If Lech Walesa had been doing his organizing
work in El Salvador, he would have already entered into the ranks
of the disappeared -- at the hands of `heavily armed men dressed
in civilian clothes'; or have been blown to pieces in a dynamite
attack on his union headquarters. If Alexander Dubcek were a politician
in our country, he would have been assassinated like Hector Oquel
[the social democratic leader assassinated in Guatemala, by Salvadoran
death squads, according to the Guatemalan government]. If Andrei
Sakharov had worked here in favor of human rights, he would have
met the same fate as Herbert Anaya [one of the many murdered leaders
of the independent Salvadoran Human Rights Commission CDHES].
If Ota-Sik or Vaclav Havel had been carrying out their intellectual
work in El Salvador, they would have woken up one sinister morning,
lying on the patio of a university campus with their heads destroyed
by the bullets of an elite army battalion."
The comparison between the Soviet and U.S. satellites is so
dramatic that it takes real dedication not to perceive it, and
outside of Western intellectual circles, it is a commonplace.
A writer in the Mexico's leading daily comments on the "striking
contrast" between Soviet behavior toward its satellites and
"U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere, where intransigence,
interventionism and the application of typical police state instruments
have traditionally marked Washington's actions": "In
Europe, the USSR and Gorbachev are associated with the struggle
for freedom of travel, political rights, and respect for public
opinion. In the Americas, the U.S. and Bush are associated with
indiscriminate bombings of civilians, the organization, training
and financing of death squads, and programs of mass murder"
-- not quite the story in New York and Washington, where the United
States is hailed as an "inspiration for the triumph of democracy
in our time" (New Republic).
A prominent Latin American theologian, Pablo Richard, also
fails to see matters as he is informed he does by the New Republic
commissars. Richard is professor of theology at the National University
of Costa Rica and a leading figure in the formation of the base
Christian communities, a prime target of the U.S.-backed savagery
of the Reagan-Bush years (enthusiastically supported by the New
Republic and others who now bask in their inspiring triumph) because
they sought to organize the poor, threatening to bring democracy
and social reform, the ultimate crime. Richard compares the current
situation of the Third World to that of the early Christians under
the Roman Empire, which Christians saw as "the Beast, a murderous
idolatrous Beast," who could not be confronted with force,
because it is far too powerful and violent, but must be confronted
ethically and spiritually: "This new way of confronting imperialism
in the decade of the `90s, which emphasizes cultural, ethical,
spiritual, and theological confrontation, challenges in a special
way the [Christian base communities] and the Church of the Poor,"
Others use different terms to express similar perceptions.
The essential points, again, are a commonplace outside of disciplined
Western circles, mired in ideological fanaticism and blind to
the elementary (but unacceptable) realities of the world.
Latin America and the Soviet Bloc
The social, economic, and ecological catastrophes resulting
from traditional Western imperialism and its more recent variants
go a long way towards explaining the reluctance of many in the
Third World to join the celebration of victory, and their tendency
to regard the victims of Soviet tyranny with a degree of envy.
Furthermore, the state terror faced on a daily basis by Latin
Americans who dare to raise their heads has been qualitatively
different from the repression in Eastern Europe in the post-Stalin
period, terrible as that was in its own ways; and they do not
share our reluctance to see the powerful and systematic influence
of Washington and U.S. corporations in establishing and maintaining
the grim conditions of their lives.
Another comparison that might be addressed is suggested by
the huge flow of capital from the Third World to the United States
and the West generally. Latin America alone transferred some $150
billion to the industrial West from 1982 to 1987 in addition to
$100 billion of capital flight, a capital transfer amounting to
25 times the total value of the Alliance for Progress and 15 times
the Marshall Plan, according to Latin Americanist Robert Pastor,
director of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs for the National
Security Council under the Carter administration. The Bank for
International Settlements in Switzerland estimates that between
1978 and 1987, some $170 billion in flight capital left Latin
America, not including money hidden by falsified trade transactions.
The New York Times cites another estimate that anonymous capital
flows, including drug money and flight capital, total $600 billion
to $800 billion. This huge hemorrhage is part of a complicated
system whereby Western banks and Latin American elites enrich
themselves at the expense of the general population of Latin America,
saddled with the "debt crisis" that results from these
manipulations, and taxpayers in the Western countries who are
ultimately called upon to foot part of the bill.
Again, the situation in the Soviet satellites is different.
One commentator on their affairs, Lawrence Weschler, observes
"Poles, like most Eastern Europeans, have long lived
under the delusion that the Soviets were simply bleeding them
dry; in fact, the situation has been considerably more complex
than that. (The Soviet dominion was in fact that unique historical
perversity, an empire in which the center bled itself for the
sake of its colonies, or rather, for the sake of tranquility in
those colonies. Muscovites always lived poorer lives than Varsovians.)"
Throughout the region, journalists and others report, shops
are better stocked than in the Soviet Union and material conditions
are often better. It is widely agreed that "Eastern Europe
has a higher standard of living than the USSR," and that
while "Latin-Americans claim mainly economic exploitation,"
"Soviet exploitation of Eastern Europe is principally political
and security-oriented" (Jan Triska, summarizing the conclusions
of a Stanford University symposium on the USSR in Eastern Europe
and the U.S. in Latin America).6 In the decade of the 1970s, according
to U.S. government sources, the Soviet Union provided an $80 billion
subsidy to its Eastern European satellites (while their indebtedness
to the West increased from $9.3 billion in 1971 to $68.7 billion
in 1979). A study done at the Institute of International Studies
of the University of California (Berkeley) estimated the subsidy
at $106 billion from 1974 to 1984. Using different criteria, another
academic study by Paul Marer and Kazimierz Poznanski reaches the
estimate of $40 billion for the same period, omitting factors
that might add several billion, they note. When Lithuania was
faced with Soviet economic retaliation after its declaration of
independence, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Soviet
subsidy to that country alone might approach $6 billion annually.
Such comparisons cannot simply be taken at face value; complex
issues arise, and they have never been properly addressed. The
only extensive scholarly study attempting to compare the U.S.
impact on Latin America with that of the USSR on Eastern Europe,
to my knowledge, is the Stanford symposium just cited, but it
does not reach very far. Among many striking gaps, the contributors
entirely disregard repression and state terror in Latin America
and the U.S. role in implementing it. Writing in May 1986, the
editor states that "some left-wing forces in Latin America
and all dissidents in Eastern Europe have little hope of bringing
about substantive changes, either peacefully or through violence."
One contributor even takes seriously (though rejecting) the absurd
statement by Mexican writer (now Nobel Laureate) Octavio Paz in
1985 that it is "monstrous" even to raise the question
of comparing U.S. policies with those of the Soviet Union. Most
take it as obvious, hence needing no real evidence, that U.S.
influence has been disinterested and benign. In fact, this 470
page study contains very little information altogether.
Many questions would arise if such comparisons were to be
undertaken in a meaningful way. Contrary to standard conventions
(generally followed in the Stanford symposium), it is hardly plausible
to regard U.S. security concerns in Latin America as comparable
to those of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, or even to take
seriously the conventional doctrine that security concerns are
"probably the greatest factor in shaping U.S. policy toward
Latin America" (Robert Wesson, presenting the "historical
overview and analysis" for the Stanford symposium). In recent
memory, the United States has not been repeatedly invaded and
virtually destroyed by powerful enemies marching through Central
America. In fact ,its authentic security concerns are virtually
nil, by international and historical standards. There are what
are called "security concerns," but as one participant
in the symposium finally concedes, after having taken them quite
seriously, "U.S. national security interests in the Caribbean
[as elsewhere in the hemisphere, we may add] have rested on powerful
economic investments" (Jiri Valenta) -- which is to say that
they are termed "security interests" only for purposes
of the delusional system. Furthermore, it makes little sense to
attribute to the United States greater tolerance for "political-ideological
deviations" on the grounds that it does not insist on "the
U.S. brand of democracy" and tolerates "authoritarian
dictatorships," while the USSR insists on Leninist regimes
(Valenta). What the U.S. demands is an economic order geared to
its interests; the political form it takes is largely an irrelevance.
Unless freed from the extreme ideological constraints of conventional
scholarship, comparative study is bound to be largely worthless.
The matter of capital flow is also complex. In the first place,
the regional hegemons are not remotely comparable in wealth and
economic level, and never have been, so that their role in economic
transactions will differ greatly. For another, investment has
intricate effects. It can lead to economic growth, benefit certain
sectors of the population while severely harming others, lay the
basis for independent development or undermine such prospects.
The numbers in themselves tell only a small part of the story,
and have to be complemented by the kind of analysis that has yet
to be undertaken in comparing Eastern Europe and Latin America.
It should be evident without further comment that the standard
comparison of Eastern to Western Europe, or the Soviet Union to
the United States, is virtually meaningless, designed for propaganda,
Latin America and the NICs
Other subordinate and dependent systems have yet a different
character. Discussing the rapid economic growth of South Korea
and Taiwan after the powerful stimulus given by Vietnam war spending,
Bruce Cumings observes that it resumes a process of development
begun under Japanese colonialism. Unlike the West, he notes, Japan
brought industry to the labor and raw materials rather than vice
versa, leading to industrial development under state-corporate
guidance, now renewed. Japan's colonial policies were extremely
brutal, but they laid a basis for economic development. Needless
to say, these economic successes, like those of Singapore and
Hong Kong, are no tribute either to democracy or the wonders of
the market; rather, to harsh labor conditions, efficient quasi-fascist
political systems, and, much as in Japan, high levels of protectionism
and planning by financial-industrial conglomerates in a state-coordinated
Comparison of the Pacific colonies of the U.S. and Japan is
not common here, but right-wing Japanese are not reluctant to
pursue it. Shintaro Ishihara, a powerful figure in the ruling
Liberal Democratic Party, which holds a virtual monopoly of political
power, observes that the countries that were once under Japanese
administration are "success stories" from the economic
point of view, while the Philippines are an economic disaster
and the "showcase of democracy" is largely empty form.
"Philippine landowners have accumulated incredible power
and wealth, siphoning everything from the ordinary people,"
while "tradition is dismantled" in favor of a shallow
and superficial veneer of American culture, "an atrocity
-- a barbaric act."
This spokesman for right-wing nationalism is plainly not a
trustworthy independent source. But there is more than a little
truth to what he says.
Comparison of the Latin American economies with those of East
Asia (the "Newly Industrializing Countries," NICs) is
another topic that has rarely been undertaken seriously. Editorials,
news reporting, and other commentary commonly allege that the
comparison reveals the superiority of economic liberalism, but
without providing the basis for that conclusion. It is not easy
to sustain, if only because of the radical departures from liberal
capitalism in the success stories of Asia. As Alice Amsden in
particular has emphasized, the highly touted economic successes
of East Asia can be traced in no small measure to the fact that
the state is not only powerful enough to discipline labor, as
is the norm, but even to discipline capital, and to compel sharp
departures from market principles for the sake of economic development.
More generally, it is virtually the conventional wisdom (and well
supported) that "late developing countries" typically
rely on extensive state intervention and coordination. In fact,
it is hard to find any exception, late or early. If the U.S. had
kept to the principles it now imposes on the "developing
world," we would probably still be pursuing our comparative
advantage in producing furs, and it is hardly likely that we would
ever have had, say, a steel industry. The same continues to be
true of advanced industrial societies, including the United States,
where the parts of the economy that remain competitive benefit
from huge taxpayer subsidies and a state-guaranteed market (high
tech industry via the Pentagon system being the most striking
case). In Germany, to mention only one feature, the IMF estimates
that industrial incentives are the equivalent of a 30 percent
tariff. IMF conditions and the like are fine for weaker economies
that we intend to exploit. The conditions greatly facilitate the
robbery of the poor. Beyond that, their merits are less than obvious.
The comparison between Latin America and East Asia was addressed
at a conference on global macroeconomics in Helsinki in 1986.12
Several contributors observe that the situation is complex, and
conclude that the disparities that developed in the 1980s (though
not before) are attributable to a variety of factors, among them,
the harmful effects of greater openness to international capital
markets in large parts of Latin America (as in the Philippines),
which permitted vast capital flight, but not in the East Asian
economies with their more rigid controls by government and central
banks. In South Korea, for example, export of capital can carry
the death penalty. Again, the standard story seems to be virtually
the opposite of the truth.
Comparisons and their Pitfalls
The complexity of the issues that arise is shown in a revealing
study of Indian development, in comparison to China and others,
by Harvard economist Amartya Sen. He observes that "a comparative
study of the experiences of different countries in the world shows
quite clearly that countries tend to reap as they sow in the field
of investment in health and quality of life." India followed
very different policies from China in this regard. Beginning at
a comparable level in the late 1940s, India has added about 15
years to added life expectancy, while China added 10 or 15 years
beyond that increase, approaching the standards of Europe. The
reasons lie in social policy, primarily, the much greater focus
on improving nutrition and health conditions for the general population
in China, and providing widespread medical coverage. The same
was true, Sen argues, in Sri Lanka and probably Vietnam, and in
earlier years in Europe as well, where, for example, life expectancy
rose rapidly in England and Wales after large-scale public intervention
in the distribution of food and health care and expansion of public
But this is not the whole story. In the late 1950s, life expectancy
in China plunged for several years to far below that of India
because of a huge famine, which took an estimated 30 million lives.
Sen attributes the famine to the nature of the Chinese regime,
which did not react for three years, and may not even have been
aware of the scale of the famine because the totalitarian conditions
blocked information flow. Nothing similar has happened in India
with its pluralist democracy. Nevertheless, Sen calculates, if
China's lower mortality rates prevailed in India, there would
have been close to 4 million fewer deaths a year in the mid-1980s.
"This indicates that every eight years or so more people
in addition die in India -- in comparison with Chinese mortality
rates -- than the total number that died in the gigantic Chinese
famine," the worst in the world in this century.
In further confirmation of his thesis, Sen observes that life
expectancy in China has suffered a slow decline since 1979, when
the new market-oriented reforms were undertaken. Another relevant
example is the Indian state of Kerala, long under leftist rule
and with "a long history ofextensive public support in education,
health care, and food distribution." Here, improvement in
life expectancy is comparable to China, though it is one of India's
These are all serious and difficult questions, with far-reaching
human consequences. The development strategies imposed upon the
Third World by Western power, implemented by the international
economic institutions or the states and corporations themselves,
have enormous effects on the lives of the targeted populations.
The record shows plainly enough that the policies that are advocated
or enforced by the Western powers, and the confident rhetoric
that accompanies them in official pronouncements and other commentary,
are guided by the self-interest of those who hold the reins, not
by any solid understanding of the economics of development, or
any serious concern for the human impact of these decisions. Benefits
that may accrue to others are largely incidental, as are the catastrophes
that commonly ensue.
As the collapsing Soviet system resumes traditional quasi-colonial
relations with the West, it is coming to be subjected to the same
prescriptions -- in part by choice, given the intellectual vacuity
that is one of the consequences of decades of totalitarian rule.
But imposition of Third World norms is bound to meet resistance.
One Polish critic writes that if the popular Chicago School
"words become flesh, this government would be the first
in the history of the world to adhere firmly to this doctrine.
All developed countries, including those (such as the Federal
Republic of Germany) whose governments pay obeisance to the liberal
doctrine, apply a wide spectrum of government interventions, such
as in resource allocation, in investments, in developing technology,
income distribution, pricing, export and import."
If resistance follows the path often taken in the Third World,
it is likely to elicit the classic response.
On a visit to Europe a few days before he was assassinated
by elite government forces in San Salvador in November 1989, Father
Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of the University of Central America,
addressed the West on the underlying issues. You "have organized
your lives around inhuman values," he said. These values
"are inhuman because they cannot be universalized. The system
rests on a few using the majority of the resources, while the
majority can't even cover their basic necessities. It is crucial
to define a system of values and a norm of living that takes into
account every human being."
In our dependencies, such thoughts are subversive and can
call forth the death squads. At home, they are sometimes piously
voiced, then relegated to the ashcan in practice. Perhaps the
last words of the murdered priests deserve a better fate.