Friday, October 17, 2014

Chomsky Thoughts

Noam Chomsky is a highly respected political commentator and activist over a number of decades. Chomsky has often often dubbed as the world's greatest living philosopher, a man who is steadfastly opposed to icons of any description, to human sheep following political shepherds. He even opposed the documentary about the book he co-wrote with Edward S. Herman (Manufacturing Consent) on the grounds that it personalised grand political issues. Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most important intellectual figures in both the sciences and the humanities, and one of the ten most quoted writers of all time, ranking with Marx, the Bible and Shakespeare, has admitted that his speeches are very boring. But, he says, that’s the way he likes it. It means that, when people turn up to listen to him, and millions do, they’re doing so because they’re interested in the issues Chomsky is talking about, not in Chomsky himself as some kind of intellectual celebrity. Therefore it is always surprising to witness the degree of personal adulation bestowed on this man by many people. We do not underestimate the immeasurable contribution that Noam Chomsky has made, and is making, to radically change the world, but to treat him as a saviour is to misunderstand his arguments.  His popularity cannot be doubted. Books and lectures are bought and attended in the thousands and he has a strong influence amongst the left and anarchists. But mere anti-capitalism is not enough as it can encourage reformism.

Chomsky's opposition to the wages-system is always clearly put: "I don't think that many people ought to be forced to rent themselves in order to survive", as he once put it. He's quoted at on point as saying, "capitalist relations of production, wage labor, competitiveness, the ideology of 'possessive individualism' - all must be regarded as fundamentally antihuman." Another time he said “Presupposing that there have to be states is like saying, what kind of feudal system should we have that would be the best one? What kind of slavery would be the best kind?"  Noam Chomsky puts it, “the effort to overcome ‘wage-slavery’ has been going on since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, [and] we haven’t advanced an inch. In fact, we’re worse off than we were a hundred years ago in terms of understanding the issues.” Chomsky is right, and it’s the reason we in the Socialist Party devote so much of our time and energy to promoting an understanding of the issues. We seem, in fact, to be the only political organisation in this country to take this task at all seriously.

Chomsky has argued that the problem of human rights abuse was just a necessary consequence of having a system run by bankers not by philanthropists or moral philosophers, yet the reformers want him to approve of huge human efforts to plead with governments to act more kindly. Chomsky seems to treat legal interference with capitalism as an unreliable solution to the problems of human rights violations. Chomsky patiently explains there was no convincing evidence that governments could be persuaded by moralists to run capitalism in accordance with anything but the principles of accounting. Many people on the Left  have an unwarranted optimistic view of what can be achieved by using the law to tame and control commerce. History has shown them to be nothing but disposable guarantees whenever they prove an inconvenience to the ruling class. Chomsky's analysis of capitalist society broadly hits the mark and socialists could find little to disagree with generally. However, the leftist and anarchist supporters who look to Chomsky for inspiration miss the wider point. While Chomsky blames capitalism for poverty, human rights abuse, limited democracy and so on, his adherents support  fruitless reformist campaigns banging the capitalist table with a begging bowl, waiting for some new "right" like a dog barking for a crumb from his master's plate. To blame Chomsky for his supporters may seem a touch harsh, especially as he has consistently spoken out against the following of leaders. many who read or hear Chomsky will arrive at something close to anti-capitalist conclusions but without the aim of abolishing capitalism itself this means relatively little. If Chomsky can be accused of a fault it is he does little to redress this.  He does not oppose reformism as such and so unfortunately his analysis serves to assist futile reformism, however much this may not be his aim. While Chomsky's anti-leadership, anti-capitalism stance is sincere it runs counter to the adoring leftists who persist in quoting his analysis while campaigning for minimal gains and not for the abolition of the system which creates the need for such demands that seek to address problems which capitalism inevitably cannot solve.

According to Noam Chomsky, writing in On Power and Ideology and referring to the US as a 'capitalist democracy', true capitalism isn't possible, state intervention being a necessary component for several reasons: to regulate markets, to support business interests and to employ its means of violence in the international arena on behalf of  business. Many would agree with this assertion and with his comment that democracy is a commodity – you can have as much of it as you can afford. It is probably pertinent to add to Chomsky's statement that true democracy also is not possible in capitalism because the system (and the market) is manipulated by the capitalists to fit their agenda by use of media, advertising and lobbying. The incompatibility of capitalism and democracy, which follow opposing principles, render democratic capitalism an oxymoron.  Chomsky has said, 'Propaganda is as necessary to bourgeois democracy as repression is to the totalitarian state.' The purpose of both to keep control.

He is scathing of the so-called libertarians . “If you care about other people, you might try to organize to undermine power and authority. That’s not going to happen if you care only about yourself. Maybe you can become rich, but you don’t care whether other people’s kids can go to school, or can afford food to eat, or things like that. In the United States, that’s called “libertarian” for some wild reason. I mean, it’s actually highly authoritarian, but that doctrine is extremely important for power systems as a way of atomizing and undermining the public.”

Socialists aren't the only people pointing out that it is useless pleading with governments to end the problems which are endemic to capitalism. Noam Chomsky reiterates this. Chomsky’s conception of socialism is not quite the same as ours. He is against the idea of providing a detailed plan of a future society, preferring to rely on general principles. He favours making changes piecemeal, since we cannot know the effects of large social changes; and if one change works out well, make further changes. But he does not explain how a major change to abolish the wages system could be carried out piecemeal.  Many anarchists also disagree with him when he advocates defending and strengthening some aspects of state authority. His stance is that only the (US) federal government can protect people from the tyranny of corporations. Chomsky has also often expressed his support for 'left wing' governments such as Lula and Chavez. He gives the example of environmental regulations, but admits that these have only a limited effect. Chomsky points out that in capitalism "politics takes place in the shadow cast by big business". His objective is to get out of that shadow. “Once democracy has been enlarged far enough for citizens to control the means of production and trade, and they take part in the overall running and management of the environment in which they live, then the state will gradually be able to disappear. It will be replaced by voluntary associations at our place of work and where we live.”

The main criticism to level at Chomsky, although he would not see it as a criticism at all, is that he is insufficiently Marxian. He understands, as he puts it in the book, that many of the crimes he documents are “rooted in deeper features of prevailing socioeconomic and political systems”. But he is unconvinced of the power of Marxist theory.  It means that Chomsky is able to applaud efforts to democratise capitalist commodity production, without having anything much to say about whether it might be necessary to go beyond this if humanity is ever to achieve a truly free society.

 Capitalism subverts human need to profit and this is at the heart of the problems Chomsky so ably denounces. No amount of tinkering within capitalism can change this essential characteristic. Two centuries of hope has produced nothing but more capitalist misery and failed reformist efforts. Only organisation for socialism will do. The working class must organise not to reform capitalism but to abolish it and establish a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of productive wealth. A society of free access and real democracy and an end to classes, states, governments, frontiers, leaders and coercion. A world without vested "interests" and freed from the constraints of profit.

The last word should be left to Chomsky:
“There are no set anarchist principles, no libertarian creed to which we must all swear allegiance. Anarchism - at least as I understand it - is a movement that tries to identify organisations exerting authority and domination, to ask them to justify their actions and, if they are unable to do so, as often happens, to try to supersede them. Far from collapsing, anarchism and libertarian thought are flourishing. They have given rise to real progress in many fields. Forms of oppression and injustice that were once barely recognised, less still disputed, are no longer allowed. That in itself is a success, a step forward for all humankind, certainly not a failure.”