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Understanding Power summary

Noam Chomsky, Peter R. Mitchell & John Schoeffel

The Indispensable Chomsky

4.5 (113 ratings)
18 mins

Brief summary

Understanding Power is a thought-provoking book that delves into the workings of power and its influence on society. It challenges commonly held beliefs and offers a fresh perspective on political and social structures.

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    Understanding Power
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    The power of the people

    In an era when so much power is wielded by the very few, it’s easy for the individual to become disillusioned. If you’re not a politician or a lawyer, you might wonder what you can do to fight for the causes you believe in. You see people protesting on the news – you might even attend rallies yourself – but you’re yet to see the change you want. The status quo never significantly shifts.

    Well, it might feel that way, but let’s lay two examples of US military action side by side and play “spot the difference.”

    In the 1960s, there was certainly public outcry against the Vietnam War. But its voice had limited access to the media. US president Kennedy could essentially run the show how he wanted to, by taking aggressive military action.

    In the 1980s, President Reagan had to try a different tactic when it came to his agenda in Central America. He needed to establish a propaganda office to indoctrinate the public, who weren’t prepared simply to accept that military action was necessary. And that’s because the new generation of adults in the 1980s had been children during the Vietnam War. They’d lost loved ones because of a war beyond their homeland. And they’d interrogated the validity of that loss.

    Reagan knew he couldn’t take direct military action in Guatemala, as Kennedy had done in Vietnam. There’d be widespread pushback from the population if he did. So, the operation became a covert one, acted out on the president’s behalf by foreign advisors and counter-insurgency agents, who carried out genocide in Guatemala.

    Around 100,000 people were killed during these military operations – a significant number. But this figure would’ve been much higher if Reagan had dispatched troops directly, as Kennedy had done. The impact in Guatemala would have been far worse since Central America is much closer to home than Vietnam. It also has much greater economic benefit for the US in the form of cheap labor. But the power of public dissonance kept Reagan in check. The government feared the public voice because it knew it could put them out of their job.

    This fear is still very much present in every democratically elected government. As a result, governments have developed a habit of secrecy – and not just for security reasons. Typically, when classified documents are made public after 30 years in the US, they’re rarely about security matters. Rather, they contain information that the government didn’t want the public to know in case it caused backlash.

    In fact, creating the illusion that secrecy is necessary for safety is a technique that’s been used for centuries to subdue populations. A population frightened by a perceived fearful enemy will loyally obey its leader. This technique can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece. Historian Herodotus wrote of how creating the institution of royalty was a way to shroud power in mystery. By presenting power as only for the elite and ordained, it becomes beyond the comprehension of everyday people, and therefore something best left to the select few.

    So, the level of secrecy a government feels it needs actually reflects the strength of activism in that country. You may never know how many lives public dissonance has saved but you can guarantee that it’s more than if a government took direct military action. And that means everything to those whose lives were spared.

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    What is Understanding Power about?

    Understanding Power (2002) is a compilation of discussions and seminars by Noam Chomsky curated by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel. Throughout this collection, Chomsky delves into a wide range of topics, primarily focusing on how power and politics shape societies – critiquing media, corporate power, and governmental control, all while examining how these forces influence public opinion, policy, and democracy. With a focus on America, it reinterprets events of the past concerning foreign and social policy, highlighting the many challenges that Americans continue to face.

    Understanding Power Review

    Understanding Power (2002) is a thought-provoking exploration of the nature of power, its uses, and abuses. Here are three reasons why this book is worth reading:

    • It provides in-depth analysis of the structures and mechanisms of power, offering valuable insights into how power operates in society.
    • The book seamlessly weaves together historical context, case studies, and Chomsky's own perspective, making it a comprehensive and informative resource.
    • Critiquing and challenging mainstream narratives around power, the book keeps readers engaged and encourages critical thinking, ensuring it never becomes boring.

    Who should read Understanding Power?

    • Political and sociology students
    • Citizen historians interested in America
    • Changemakers and activists

    About the Author

    Noam Chomsky, one of the most influential intellectual figures in modern times, is known for his extensive work in linguistics, philosophy, and political activism. Now an Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT, he is the author of over 100 books concerning war, politics, linguistics, and mass media, including Who Rules the World?, Fateful Triangle, and Deterring Democracy. Chomsky's writings consistently challenge mainstream narratives and offer deep insights into power structures and media in society.

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    Understanding Power FAQs 

    What is the main message of Understanding Power?

    The main message of Understanding Power is to critically examine the structures and dynamics of power in society.

    How long does it take to read Understanding Power?

    The reading time for Understanding Power varies, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Understanding Power a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Understanding Power is worth reading for its thought-provoking insights into the mechanisms of power in society.

    Who is the author of Understanding Power?

    Understanding Power was written by Noam Chomsky, Peter R. Mitchell, and John Schoeffel.