Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Thoughts on Noam

Noam Chomsky has been celebrated as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century and one of the ten most quoted writers of all time, ranking with Marx, the Bible and Shakespeare. His popularity cannot be doubted. Over the years, Chomsky has been described in various ways: as “the medic trying to cure a national endemic of selective amnesia”; as “the most dangerous man in the US”; as “the little boy who told the emperor he was naked” and, as “an exploder of received truths”. Chomsky's analysis of capitalist society broadly hits the mark and socialists could find little to disagree with generally. By his early teens Chomsky was not just opposed to Stalinism but was also in his own words "a pretty committed anti-Leninist".

In contemporary capitalism, as Chomsky has pointed out, the ideal is that each person should be alone in front of a screen, subject to what they see and hear, deprived of opportunities to discover what they really think through communication and interaction with others. This is very much part of the alienation process in what Noam Chomsky refers to as "a reflection of depoliticisation". He argues that faced with "… an inability to participate in a meaningful fashion in the political arena… people will find some way of identifying themselves with others, taking part in something. If they don't have the option of participation in labour unions, political organisations that actually function, they'll find other ways. Religious fundamentalism is a class example". Also to his credit Chomsky advocates free speech for fascists, his position being much the same on this issue as ours. And again he can be praised for recognising that “It’s a truism, but one that needs to be constantly stressed, that capitalism and democracy are ultimately quite incompatible.” Noam Chomsky execrates the unaccountable and deadly rule of corporations with powerful well-practised and passionate arguments.

While Chomsky blames capitalism for poverty, human rights abuse, limited democracy and so on, many in his ranks of supporters engage in 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. Granted, 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. To blame Chomsky for his supporters may seem a touch harsh, especially as he has consistently spoken out against the following of leaders but Chomsky fails to come to the conclusion that his analysis deserves. While Chomsky's anti-leadership, anti-capitalism stance is sincere it runs counter to the adoring hoards of trendy 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. Although Chomsky consistently states the limitations of legal and other changes to capitalism, he does not oppose reformism as such and so unfortunately his analysis serves to assist this futile reformism. Although he puts poverty, hunger, human "rights" abuses and the rest down to capitalism and its organisation, he does not see reformism and moralistic campaigns as a damaging side-track to the conclusion that capitalism itself is the problem and as such attracts the adulation of single-issue reformists. Chomsky's support for allegedly-progressive reforms, in fact, do not challenge the power of the capitalist class or modify the subordinate status of workers. Chomsky warmly supports Cuba's defiance of the US, but can be criticised for staying stoically silent on Cuba's internal regime, save that it is a matter for Cubans themselves. Like Chomsky, many take an anti-American reflex and root for the underdog versus the hyperpower: excusing the repressive parts of Castro's regime as mistakes, or excesses of siege warfare.

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 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. Elsewhere, he questions whether it even is a theory (he means he is doubtful that it can serve anything like the same role as theory in the natural sciences). This 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.

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