Two short essays on Noam Chomsky
I have now read “The Manufacture of Consent.” I hope you believe me when I tell you that I read it with an open mind because I was disappointed, not, however, because I could not agree with it. I can respect an argument I disagree with if it is a strong argument, one that forces me to reconsider my own principles or to think deeply about how to reaffirm those principles. Rather, I was disappointed in Chomsky because his argument is weak. I expected better.
His argument is weak because it rests on an a priori assumption, something which can neither be proved nor disproved but which needs to be believed in order for his argument to work. He states this a priori assumption quite baldly as “Violence, deceit, and lawlessness are the natural functions of the state, any state”(p. 126). Once you believe this, then it follows that liberal critics who complain about the lack of decency of those in power are simply providing cover for the state and deceiving people into believing that the state could be otherwise. But Chomsky never actually defends this proposition. He merely gives copious examples of states acting in this way and assumes his case is proven. But it is not. The fact that states do behave this way is not proof that this behavior is their “natural function.” It is quite easy to look at events after the fact and claim them as evidence for your assumption. It’s like claiming that Jews are bad people and then pointing to bad things done by Jews as proof. I was disappointed to see Chomsky indulging in this kind of intellectual laziness.
Chomsky’s assumptions lead him down some other questionable paths. He also asserts that the only function of educational institutions is “to serve power and privilege.” I can agree that they do serve this purpose to some degree, but is that their only function? Educational institutions also turn out people who are critical of power, and, indeed, the entire Western intellectual tradition is one of criticism. But to Chomsky, all criticism merely reinforces the legitimacy of state power, so he can only imagine the one function for any educational institution. This argument is circular as well as weak. The one assumption depends on the other’s already being accepted.
There are moral problems with Chomsky’s position as well. Since the state is necessarily evil in his view, all evil flows to the pole of state power, and all good flows to the pole of the powerless. Nowhere is the weakness of this argument more apparent than in his discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The US and Israel are evil because they are states, while the Palestinians are virtuous because they have no state. Chomsky can find nothing critical to say of the Palestinians and expresses a naïve faith in Yasser Arafat. His argument makes him blind to the corruption of the powerless while he denies the possibility of any kind of political process within a state.
Chomsky’s vision of state power leads to some peculiar imaginings. He tells us:
Since the state lacks the capacity to ensure obedience by force, thought can lead to action and therefore the threat to order must be excised at the source. It is necessary to establish a framework for possible thought that is constrained within the principles of the state religion. These need not be asserted; it is
better that they be presupposed, as the unstated framework for thinkable thought. (p.132)
Beware the passive voice and conspiratorial tones! Who exactly is constraining our thought in this way? Who is establishing these frameworks? The state? Is the state a self-conscious body capable of acting this way? Are we really as incapable of independent thought as Chomsky asserts? Anyone who disagrees with Chomsky, then, is simply the slave of state thought control. This paradigm is straight out of The Matrix, with Chomsky as Neo.
Chomsky’s argument is a traditional Anarchist argument, no different from what was said by Proudhon and Bakunin in the 1870s. There has been a lot of history since then that Chomsky has ignored. Specifically, there is a well-defined Marxist critique of this position, which he needed to address if he were going to make it yet again. In short, the Marxist critique is that class is the issue, not the state. The state tends to support the dominant class, but not always. It is capable of being transformed through class struggle, and is not, therefore, inherently evil. If you are attracted to Chomsky’s argument, then I suggest you read some of the Marxist critiques of the Anarchist position before you make up your mind.
Chomsky says of liberal critics:
The great achievement of the critics is to prevent the realization that what is happening today is not some departure from our historical ideals and practice, to be attributed to the failings of this or that individual. Rather, it is the systematic expression of the way our institutions function and will continue to function unless impeded by an aroused public . . . (p. 126)
Here, then, is Chomsky’s vision of political activity: arouse the public to impede the functioning of institutions. It sounds very much like the people who jump up and down, yelling and screaming at the meetings of the World Trade Organization whenever it meets. No wonder Chomsky is the darling of what has been called the “infantile left,” those whose only program is to confront state power and who are blind to the real menace of the world around us.
This letter is on response to the Chomsky-Foucault debate which is available on multiple internet sites.
From my point of view, I say – a plague on both their houses. I disagree with what they agree about and disagree on the points for which they take each other to task.
Both agree that institutions themselves are agents of oppression. I agree that institutions do behave in this way. But it doesn’t follow that oppression is their sole function as both Chomsky and Foucault allege. Interestingly, Chomsky identifies himself as an anarcho-syndicalist. I had seen in some other of his writings a straight anarcho-syndicalist line, deviating little from Bakunin, but I had not heard him identify himself so baldly with anarcho-syndicalism. They believe that destroying institutions and state power will liberate the human spirit, leading to a world of peace and justice. So political activity consists of attacking, whack-a-mole fashion, any manifestation of state power. His belief in innate human qualities, which he declined to justify, is support for this belief. Ultimately, he is guilty of sentimentality, which leads to his blind support for the powerless and the condition of powerlessness, however corrupt.
Foucault repeats his attack on psychiatry, which he deems purely an agent of social oppression. The converse of which is his belief, stated many times, that mental illness is a form of social criticism. What appalls me about Foucault is his insensitivity to the misery of mental illness. He cannot see psychiatry, however flawed, as an attempt to relieve the real misery of real people. There are many reasons for the normative diagnostics of psychiatry, having to do with the nature of the medical business and the flawed medical science which serves that business. His elevation of this issue to a grand abstraction leads to the trivialization of mental illness and shows his lack of regard for human misery. Does he consider misery merely an illusion? I wonder how he would have welcomed the support of Tom Cruise.
Their discussion of justice and innateness was revealing. I was surprised that Chomsky didn’t throw out the justice system with other institutions and instead described it as groping towards “an innate human thirst for justice.” His a priori belief in innateness is similar to his work in linguistics in which he posits an innate human capability for grammar and syntax, equally controversial. Innateness is a discussion stopper since it can neither be confirmed nor denied. I find his belief in innateness a species of sentimentality, the natural goodness of mankind to be liberated by jumping up and down at meetings of the World Trade Organization at Davos, Switzerland.
Foucault denies the existence of innate human qualities, an equally unarguable position, and claims that the concept of justice as we know it would disappear in a classless society. Here again is the French oscillation between the meta-concept and its negation. In his appeal to the classless society, he identifies himself with the vulgar Marxists who see the classless society as the culmination of human history, the apotheosis beyond which all will be revealed in its infinite purity: there will be no justice because there will be no injustice; all meta-concepts will be negated. Marx, himself, saw the victory of the proletariat as the beginning of human history, as providing a context in which age-old conflicts could be resolved, although there’s no guarantee. For Marx, I would say, justice is something we have learned about in the struggle with the bourgeoisie, which will be invaluable once that struggle is completed if it ever is. For Foucault, justice is something that leads us to the Promised Land of the classless society but remains on Mt. Pisgah while the Israelites cross the Jordan.
Ultimately, Foucault is right to challenge Chomsky’s appeal to the innate just as Chomsky is right to challenge Foucault’s appeal to the ineffable. Both concepts are ahistorical and otherworldly. There is another position which acknowledges the world and its history. Humanity is a project under construction. Human characteristics are real and have been formed and are being formed through struggle, but are not necessarily innate. Those characteristics have a lot to do with the nature of the struggle. Marx’s great contribution was to characterize that struggle as a political struggle of social classes as long as social classes exist, since social classes create false distinctions within the human species. Chomsky’s innateness infers an ideal existence before history which history will reveal, a Christian concept very much like the fall from Grace. Foucault infers a point beyond history when the struggle is over. Both are illusory.