I wish I could love Noam Chomsky, the American political philosopher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of important books about revolutionary politics like Hegemony or Survival and Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky made his name decades ago as a psychological linguist, but then like Bertrand Russell he risked his academic reputation by speaking out and eventually writing popular and controversial books about politics. Today, Chomsky's career operates on two levels: he remains highly respected among academics as an authority in linguistics, and is also well-known in the United States of America as an angry critic of the country's aggressive foreign policy and banal two-party system.
I wish I could love Noam Chomsky because he is a self-described anarcho-syndicalist, which means that he favors a society with minimal government -- not a state of pure anarchy, but as close as can be safely and reasonably acheived -- and a cooperative, share-based economy that would enforce social justice not by coercion but by mutual agreement of the citizens. Anarcho-syndicalism is a friendly political ideal that emphasizes idealism within realistic boundaries, and has proven effective as a loose ideological backbone (to the extent that any such single ideological backbone exists) for movements like Occupy Wall Street.
Anarcho-syndicalism is often seen as a form of liberal/left-wing ideology, but its emphasis on individual freedom and small government ought to make it appeal to idealists of any wing, including conservative libertarians and open-minded Tea Partiers who don't believe the hype that all liberals favor large government. In an anarcho-syndicalistic world, there would be virtually no federal government (this is anarchy, after all) but everyone would be expected to voluntarily follow rules and pay taxes in compliance with whatever social groups they choose to be a part of.
Everybody would not have to be equal in an anarcho-syndicalist economy -- there's no reason a person who works hard shouldn't earn greater reward -- but nobody would be as rich as Mitt Romney, because history shows that a healthy society cannot sustain that kind of wealth disparity. Anarcho-syndicalism is a "kumbaya" sort of political philosophy -- and what's wrong with that? I find it easy enough to believe in the possibility of an anarcho-syndicalist future because I am a natural optimist, and I know our planet is capable of being more peaceful, cooperative and ecologically sensible than it currently is.
But if I were not a natural optimist I don't see how I could be an anarcho-syndicalist, because the philosophy is based on trust in human goodness. This is why Noam Chomsky's political writings often frustrate and disappoint me, because he is clearly a pessimist, and I'm not sure where he stands on human goodness. I don't understand how you can be an anarcho-syndicalist and a cranky pessimist at the same time. The two things would seem to cancel each other out.
A 1976 interview published on Chomsky's own website shows the conundrum. After a long and very intelligent discussion about the meaning of anarcho-syndicalism, here's the big closer:
QUESTION: And finally, Professor Chomsky, what do you think of the chances of societies along these lines coming into being in the major industrial countries in the West in the next quarter of a century or so?
CHOMSKY: I don't think I'm wise enough, or informed enough, to make predictions and I think predictions about such poorly understood matters probably generally reflect personality more than judgment. But I think this much at least we can say: there are obvious tendencies in industrial capitalism towards concentration of power in narrow economic empires and in what is increasingly becoming a totalitarian state. These are tendencies that have been going on for a long time, and I don't see anything stopping them really. I think those tendencies will continue. They're part of the stagnation and decline of capitalist institutions.
Now, it seems to me that the development towards state totalitarianism and towards economic concentration -- and, of course, they are linked -- will continually lead to revulsion, to efforts of personal liberation and to organizational efforts at social liberation. And that'll take all sorts of forms. Throughout all Europe, in one form or another, there is a call for what is sometimes called worker participation or co-determination, or even sometimes worker control. Now, most of these efforts are minimal. I think that they're misleading -- in fact, may even undermine efforts for the working class to liberate itself. But, in part, they're responsive to a strong intuition and understanding that coercion and repression, whether by private economic power or by the state bureaucracy, is by no means a necessary feature of human life. And the more those concentrations of power and authority continue, the more we will see revulsion against them and efforts to organize and overthrow them. Sooner or later, they'll succeed, I hope.
This is a depressing conclusion to an uplifting piece: basically, our totalitarian government will have to become even more oppressive, and then everyone will finally wise up and revolt. Noam Chomsky has continued to predict our future in the same bleak tones since this interview was published in 1976. Does he really believe that we need to wind our planet up to an apocalyptic level of public rage and frustration before the revolution can begin?
Can't we dream better than that? Why can't the revolution begin tomorrow? How do we know it didn't begin yesterday? And, most importantly, how can a revolution possibly live up to its ideals if it is born of such abject misery? In fact, this terrible experiment was already tried; it was called the Paris Commune.
A few of Noam Chomsky's core arguments help to explain why he is such a pessimist regarding our chances for evolutionary redemption. First, he believes that the United States of America's foreign policy is rotten to the core, bought and sold and tied up with a big ribbon for the benefit of imperialist military-industrialist corporations and government departments. (Unfortunately, I sadly believe Noam Chomsky is completely on target about this.)
Chomsky also believes that the USA's two-party system is a fraud, and that our mass media is so beholden to military/corporate powers that it cannot be trusted to report the truth. I'm less convinced here, and I think these underlying beliefs helps to explain his lack of hope for positive evolutionary change.
Evolutionary change would seem to require both a participatory government and a truthful media. Since Chomsky clearly believes that both our elected officials and journalists are completely "in the tank", he may have no alternative but to believe our society will have to sink into deeper dysfunction before revolution against the totalitarian state becomes possible.
But I tend to think that Chomsky oversteps on both of these critiques of the USA. First, I don't think we can blame our two-party system for our political problems. I think our political problems have more to do with the prejudices, ideological confusions and errors of judgments of our voting citizens than with the flaws of the electoral system. For instance, even though the majority of voters in the USA did not actually vote for the obviously unqualified George W. Bush in 2000, the majority did vote for him in 2004. What's up with that? (Of course, a Chomskyite would reply here that there was no difference between George W. Bush and either of his Democratic party opponents anyway. However, I believe there are significant differences between the Republican party and the Democratic party in the USA.)
As for our mass media's banality: I have spent years working for major news organizations like Time Inc. and Washington Post, and have seen with my own eyes how giant media conglomerates work. Their output is often unimpressive, but it's usually not because the conglomerates are getting indirectly funded to "manufacture consent". More often, it's because individual publishers, editors and journalists fail to do their jobs well. And, blessedly, sometimes they do manage to do their jobs well (the fact that Noam Chomsky gets steady media coverage -- he's no Lady Gaga, but he gets a few headlines -- is an example of this).
I've been reading up on Chomsky since he began a little beef with Slavoj Zizek a few weeks ago. Interestingly, my political ideals are closer to Chomsky's than to Zizek's, but I much prefer reading Zizek to Chomsky. At least Zizek has a great sense of humor. He also understands the entertainment value of a good movie reference.
I respect Noam Chomsky's ideals, but his political writings often read mechanically, like pamphlet manifestos. Chomsky is obviously a deft psychologist -- his early linguistic discoveries prove this -- but he does not seem to want to engage his psychological wit when discussing politics. This often leaves him grasping for insight.
I recently reread a Noam Chomsky article originally published in the New York Review of Books in September 1973, Watergate: A Skeptical View. This was written about halfway through the two-year Watergate crisis, when Richard Nixon was still President but increasingly embattled. One would think that liberal and Vietnam War protester Noam Chomsky would have been ecstatic to see war criminal Richard Nixon fall so brilliantly from grace in 1973. But Noam Chomsky even sounds like a sad sack in the thick of Watergate:
Nixon's personal authority has suffered from Watergate, and power will return to men who better understand the nature of American politics. But it is likely that the major long-term consequence of the present confrontation between Congress and the president will be to establish executive power still more firmly.
Why does he believe that Watergate will strengthen the president's powers? Because, in September 1973, Noam Chomsky is still betting on Nixon to win:
If the choice is between impeachment and the principle that the president has absolute power (subject only to the need to invoke national security), then the latter principle will prevail. Thus the precedent will probably be established, more firmly and clearly than heretofore, that the president is above the law, a natural corollary to the doctrine that no law prevents a superpower from enforcing ideological conformity within its domains.
Nixon resigned in August 1974, eleven months later, and Chomsky's intuition in September 1973 was proven wrong. I trust in years to come we'll prove that Chomsky's pessimism about the likelihood of a peaceful and successful transition to an anarcho-syndicalist future society also wrong.
This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Your Frame of Reference. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Slavoj Zizek and the Dream of Yugoslavia.