Reading Chomsky

The Good (in churlish brevity)

I’ve just finished reading Noam Chomsky’s Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World (it was a Christmas gift). Unsurprisingly, nearly all of it is excellent, and I highly recommend it. Chomsky lucidly explains how u.s. foreign policy is not only imperialist now but has been so since the beginning; and he shows how the u.s. perpetually justifies its expansionism by exaggerating the threat posed by its victims. (The u.s. comes across a bit like the Daleks – immensely powerful but constantly in hysterical panic.) Admittedly it’s not one of Chomsky’s most important works – its just a collection of interviews – but it’s a quicker read than, and might work well as an introduction to, those more important works.

Noam Chomsky: Imperial Ambitions

But rather than elaborating on the 97.3% that’s terrific in the book, I can’t resist grumping about the 2.7% that is not so great.

The Ugly

Probably the worst item in the book is this one: “I was never against the draft, and I’m not against it now. If there is going to be an army, I think it should be a citizens’ army, not a mercenary army.” (p. 132) Chomsky doesn’t say what penalty he proposes to inflict on those who refuse the call-up. But the prospect of the u.s.’s most prominent anarchist endorsing forced labor – particularly forced labor that involves killing and being killed – is a bit stomach-turning. I don’t want to go to war today, but the lord of the lash says nay nay nay – and the lord of the lash turns out to be Noam fucking Chomsky! Good grief. (And his later effusive praise for the courage of draft resisters (p. 156) only makes it creepier.)

The Merely Bad

His support for military slavery aside, my other gripes, as with my previous criticisms of Chomsky (see here and here), concern those areas where Chomsky seems either to fall into left-conflationism or to lack the courage of his anarchist convictions by overestimating the merits of governmental solutions. (But maybe those are just two different sides of the same mistake.)

Chomsky certainly isn’t consistently conflationist; on the contrary, in this very book he writes, about the Bush administration:

They don’t want a small government any more than Reagan did. They want a huge, massively intrusive government, but one that works for them. They hate free markets. (p. 113)

And he offers insightful analysis of some of the ways in which corporatism operates (see, e.g., pp. 56-58, 193-195).

Yet on the other hand he condemns Republican faux-privatisation efforts for “transferring decisions out of the public arena into private hands” (p. 15), as though the government represented a public arena in any meaningful sense – even though Chomsky has done as much as anyone to show that it doesn’t. (Actually, transferring decisions from governmental to private hands would make for far more accountability – much more of a public arena or (in Mises’ sense) an economic democracy – if what were involved were a genuinely freed market rather than, as it actually is, a morass of corporate privilege.)

Moreover, Chomsky offers up a bizarre pæan to Social Security:

Social Security is based on a principle that is considered subversive … the principle that you care about other people. Social Security is based on the assumption that we care about each other, that we have a communal responsibility to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves …. We have a social responsibility to pay for schools, to ensure day care …. Social Security was created in response to pressure from popular, organized social movements – the labor movement and others – that were based on the idea of solidarity and mutual aid. … At one time, the principle of solidarity was taken for granted. It was a fundamental feature of popular movements. … And ever since the 1930s, the privileged and wealthy have been dedicated to trying to eliminate this principle. … And that’s what really lies behind the attack on Social Security. (pp. 145-7; cf. p. 25)

Even leaving aside the fact that Social Security has always been marketed (albeit dishonestly) as a forced-saving scheme rather than a redistributive one – Chomsky’s supposed link between Social Security and mutual aid both ignores the distinction between coerced and voluntary exchange, and defies the historical record. Social Security and other such coercive welfare programs were part of a concerted effort – mostly on the part of the “privileged and wealthy” – to displace the voluntary programs of solidarity and mutual aid. The A.M.A., for example, used its government-granted licensing powers to threaten physicians with the destruction of their careers if they dared to undercut the revenue of the privileged by signing up with fraternal societies. Why is an anarchist praising such solidarity-smashing policies? (For more skeptical anarchist assessments of Social Security, see David Beito and Kevin Carson.)

Now I’d understand if Chomsky were simply saying that, given that the state has deprived us of voluntary alternatives, we need to keep Social Security and the like at present – essentially, that a government that breaks your leg and then hands you a crutch is better than a government that breaks your leg and then doesn’t hand you a crutch. But that doesn’t seem to be what he’s saying.

(Chomsky also tosses off in passing the economic howler that free trade can’t work in the context of free capital movement (p. 147) – as though imaginary lines on a map could magically defeat the mutually beneficial nature of voluntary exchange.)

In addition, Chomsky describes Social Security, risibly, as “a highly efficient government system, with very low administrative costs.” But Chomsky seems to be as inconsistent on the state’s efficiency as he is on its beneficence. On the one hand, he clearly grasps the La Boétian/Humean point (even citing Hume) that:

[I]n any state, whether a democratic state or a totalitarian state, the rulers rely on consent. They have to make sure that the people they are ruling do not understand that they actually have the power. That is the fundamental principle of government. (p. 153)

Yet on the other hand, Chomsky seems to ignore this insight in exaggerating the effectiveness of centralised power. For example, he expresses surprise at the inability of American military force to put down the insurgency in Iraq:

[T]o my amazement, the occupation is not succeeding. It takes real talent to fail in this. For one thing, military occupations almost always work. … Furthermore, Iraq is an unusually easy case. Here is a country that has been decimated by a decade of murderous sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left the whole place in tatters, devastated by wars, and run by a brutal tyrant. The idea that you can’t get a military occupation to run under these circumstances … is almost inconceivable. … The occupation of Iraq has been an astonishing failure. The administration’s original planning … amazingly looks like it isn’t going to work. … It’s a big surprise to me. I thought this would be a walkover. (pp. 46-47)

Between the informational diseconomies of scale involved in top-down control and Chomsky’s own invocation of a governed populace’s La Boétian/Humean ability to resist such control, it’s odd that Chomsky should be surprised at the failure of military occupation. Wasn’t the ineffectiveness of top-down occupation one of the lessons of Vietnam? Well, not for Chomsky:

I’m one of the few people who don’t agree that the United States lost the war in Vietnam. … There is no way for a huge, powerful state to lose a war against a defenseless enemy. It just can’t happen. (pp. 120-121)

What happened to the power of the ruled and the impotence of the rulers being the “fundamental principle of government”? If it really is impossible for a subject population to prevail against a powerful state, as he asserts here, then Chomsky’s entire political career has been a futile endeavour. But against this defeatist Chomsky, awed by the majesty of the state, who tells us that there is “no way for a huge, powerful state to lose a war against a defenseless enemy,” I would quote the more optimistic and more anarchistic Chomsky who understands that “in any state … the rulers rely on consent” and “have to make sure that the people they are ruling do not understand that they actually have the power.” It’s as though Chomsky sometimes remembers his anarchist analysis and sometimes forgets it.

It is perhaps significant that one of Chomsky’s books features on its cover, in Chomsky’s words, “a U.S. soldier …. with a rope pulling a skinny, half-naked Vietnamese captive behind him” (p. 119), while Kevin Carson considered using for the cover of his most recent book a photo of “a tiny teenage Viet Cong girl leading an enormous captive American soldier.” The contrast between those two images eloquently sums up the difference between an anarchism that stands in awe of the state and one that holds it in contempt.

Two visions of Vietnam: Chomsky's and Carson's

Chomsky’s tendency to leave his anarchism in the lurch also manifests itself in his insistence on the importance of voting for the lesser of two evils. With regard to the Bush-Kerry race, Chomsky grants that the two sides are “not fantastically different,” but nevertheless insists that since Kerry would be “more likely to protect some limited form of benefits for the general population,” it would be irresponsible not to vote for Kerry:

Anyone who says, “I don’t care if Bush gets elected” is basically telling poor and working people in the country, “I don’t care if your lives are destroyed …. because from my elevated point of view I don’t see much of a difference between the two candidates.” That’s a way of saying, “Pay no attention to me, because I don’t care about you.” Apart from its being wrong, it’s a recipe for disaster if you’re hoping ever to develop a popular movement and a political alternative. (p. 114)

Here Chomsky makes it sound as though he recognises no way of working to improve the lives of the oppressed except through electoral politics. Of course he doesn’t think any such thing consistently; on the contrary, he praises SNCC and the feminist movement for campaigns to change the culture that went far beyond the ballot box. (pp. 155-160) Yet at other times he seems to think that the point of cultural change is simply to serve as a handmaiden to the ballot box after all: “Unless you develop an ongoing, living, democratic culture that can compel the candidates,” he solemnly informs us, “ they’re not going to do the things you voted for.” (p. 91) Yet surely for an anarchist, particularly one who understands the La Boétian/Humean insight that the power of the rulers depends on the acquiescence of the ruled, the point of developing an “ongoing, living, democratic culture” should be not to direct the state but to render it irrelevant by withdrawing support from it in favour of voluntary, egalitarian relationships and institutions.

Given the extent to which Chomsky seems un-anarchistically impressed by the merits of conventional political action, he comes across as somewhat unfair in complaining that people in the u.s. are always asking him what they can do about the political and social problems he discusses:

After every talk I give in the United States, people come up and say, “I want to change things. What can I do?” I never hear these questions from peasants in southern Colombia, Kurds in southeastern Turkey under miserable repression, or anybody who is suffering. They don’t ask what they can do; they tell you what they’re doing. Somehow the fact of enormous privilege and freedom carries with it a sense of impotence …. There is no difficulty in finding and joining groups that are working hard on issues that concern you. (p. 90; cf. p. 39)

Chomsky seems not to have considered the possibility that the answer to this question is less obvious than he supposes. Sure, it’s easy to find “groups that are working hard on issues that concern you”; but what strategy are they pursuing? Are they working to get nicer masters into the top slots of the power structure, or are they working to undermine the power structure as such? Anarchism is the only political philosophy that doesn’t require its adherents to gain control of the state apparatus (whether through violent revolution or “peaceful” elections) in order to implement it. As an anarchist, Chomsky should be open to the possibility that the best strategy for sociopolitical change might be different from those based on the “political means.” To drag out again two of my favourite anarchist quotations:

The state is a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to one another; and one destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving differently to one another. (Gustav Landauer)

A free society cannot be the substitution of a ‘new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of social life. (Paul Goodman)

In this light the question of what to do becomes more pressing, and the answer “join a group that’s working on your issues” seems less than helpful. The real question is: should I join a group that’s mainly about “entering into other relationships” and the “extension of spheres of free action,” or one that’s focused primarily on changing the personnel roster of the corporate state?

(As for the greater tendency for the question “what can I do?” to be asked by the more privileged, this might well be explained less by a sense of impotence than by the existence of a greater range of options. The more options one has, the more advice one needs as to which option to pick.)

Noam Chomsky

I have a related concern about Chomsky’s remarks on ideological change. In response to Antonio Gramsci’s call to “develop alternative interpretations of reality” in order to counter “the reproduction by the dominated forces of elements of the hegemonic ideology,” Chomsky is surprisingly dismissive: all one has to do is “tell the truth,” he says, and Gramsci’s concern is just an example of how “intellectuals internalize the conception that they have to make things seem complicated. … How complicated is it to understand the truth or to know how to act?” (pp. 63-64) “There are no techniques” for countering propaganda, “just ordinary common sense.” (p. 32)

My worry here is that when people are in the grip of a particular picture of the world, merely reciting facts to them, even if they’re persuaded, is going to be of limited utility; if one has been conditioned to believe that existing power structures are essentially benign, then one will tend to treat counterexamples as accidental, as exceptional, as “a few rotten apples” or “waste, fraud, and abuse” or “friction” rather than as symptomatic of an inherently flawed system.

And Chomsky sometimes knows this; he reminds us, for example, that “journalists generally have professional integrity” and “are honest, serious professionals who want to do their job properly,” but “most of them reflexively perceive the world through a particular prism that happens to be supportive of concentrated power.” (p. 150) So just throwing facts at people who will view those facts through their distorting prism fails to address the problem of the prism itself.

Now it’s true, as I’ve discussed before (see here and here), that repeated and prolonged exposure to anomalous cases can make it easier for those in the grip of a flawed conceptual scheme to find their way out of it. But it’s equally true, as Thomas Kuhn points out, that people are generally reluctant to abandon a conceptual scheme unless there is an alternative to switch to – and this is the Gramscian point that Chomsky is dismissing. It’s a fatal dismissal, because, as I’ve been trying to show, Chomsky does not really have a consistent alternate scheme himself to offer; instead he vacillates between two incompatible schemes – one progressive-reformist and one anarchist.

Let me close by reiterating that what is valuable in Chomsky’s book far outweighs what is flawed. So go read it!

, , , , , ,

18 Responses to Reading Chomsky

  1. Sapper January 12, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    Let me close by reiterating that what is valuable in Chomsky’s book far outweighs what is flawed.

    I have to admit that after reading your review I find it hard to believe. I get the impression that what is valuable in the book is probably considered common knowledge to someone already of the anarchist persuasion. While what is bad in the book seems atrocious.

  2. Comic Book Guy January 12, 2011 at 7:02 pm #

    Worst. Anarchist. Ever.

    • Roderick January 12, 2011 at 7:04 pm #

      Worst. Anarchist. Ever.

      If only that were true.

  3. Black Bloke January 12, 2011 at 8:23 pm #

    So are you also going to get around to writing a reply to Chomsky’s video “answer” to your inquiry?

  4. MBH January 12, 2011 at 9:48 pm #

    I think that the Open Source Ecosystem is a viable alternative and represents that impossible angle which avoids statocracy, plutocracy, and corporatism.

    It’s clear that Chomsky is either unaware of it or doesn’t understand it since he cannot register why the Iraqi insurgency is successful. My “boss” John Robb wrote a fantastic piece in the NY Times in 2005 about the Iraqi’s Open-Source war.

    Roderick writes,

    Anarchism is the only political philosophy that doesn’t require its adherents to gain control of the state apparatus (whether through violent revolution of “peaceful” elections) in order to implement it.

    That’s not entirely true: eclipsing the currency platform — in the Hayekian/OSE sense, not the Misesian/Rothbardian sense — would work just the same.

  5. Mike Gogulski January 12, 2011 at 10:32 pm #

    “if one has been conditioned to believe that existing power structures are essentially benign”

    Perhaps worse is the position of those who believe that such are natural and/or inevitable. Came up on a Facebook conversation recently, left me speechless.

    Also, there’s an additional piece of related reading here:

  6. Josh January 13, 2011 at 1:24 am #

    You must also realize that Paul Goodman was all for reform! There simply is no way to topple the state at the present moment and replace it with some kind of anarchist utopia. And one can work at reforming the system as well as building the structure of a new society in the shell of the old. It’s not a case of either/or–an 80-year old living on social security will, most likely, not give a damn about some abstract vision of a future society. What do say to the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) living in with those conditions (and conditions like them): I’m an anarchist, so I don’t care if you drop dead? In the short term, there is no large scale anarchist alternative to social security.

    • Roderick January 13, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

      There simply is no way to topple the state at the present moment and replace it with some kind of anarchist utopia.

      There’s no way for any individual to do that, true. But there’s no way for any individual to reform the system either. A large enough group could reform the system. But a large enough group could also topple the state and replace it with an anarchist society (I’m not sure what you mean by “utopia”). So what is the contrast you have in mind?

      In any case: like the man said, gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice.

      In the short term, there is no large scale anarchist alternative to social security.

      Fine, but then irrelevant as a criticism of my point. Recall what I said in the paragraph beginning “Now I’d understand if Chomsky were simply saying….”

      • MBH January 14, 2011 at 1:13 am #

        A large enough group could reform the system. But a large enough group could also topple the state and replace it with an anarchist society […]

        I don’t understand this.

        (1) 50 million people operating inside the system could elect Roderick Long president. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, you would most order an end to the state.

        (2) 50 million people operating outside the system would have to wage war against the armed forces.

        How does (2) offer less resistance than (1)?

        • Roderick January 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

          As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, you would most order an end to the state.

          Whereupon I would immediately be impeached or assassinated.

          50 million people operating outside the system would have to wage war against the armed forces.


        • MBH January 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

          Whereupon I would immediately be impeached or assassinated.

          Which would reinforce the population’s belief that the state is evil. You’d be a martyr and we’d end up with thousands of Roderick Longs across the u.s. The state couldn’t just keep killing elected officials and avoid all-out revolution.

          Why [would 50 million have to wage war against the armed forces]?

          Because even if the Agora grows to that size, the owners would fight to “their” death (since the owners wouldn’t have to actually fight themselves) to preserve their privileges. Why would they see it in their interest to not use force?

          OTOH, if an OS currency platform takes root, then the owners would be pretty helpless in subverting that paradigm once it enters the mainstream. If you can see that the Agora = the OSE, then our three year debate might end in agreement — so long as you recognize the net plus of pushing the OSE into the political realm. Can you handle — paradoxically — agorism within the system? Or are you gonna go paleo on me Rothbard-style?

      • Josh January 14, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

        Take a look at the Civil Rights Movement: yes, there were many, many revolutionaries involved (like Stokely Carmichael) but there weren’t then (and there isn’t now) enough of them to offer up an alternative system. Do we chastise them today for seeking so much reform? It’s not just a matter of numbers; it’s also a matter of what seems possible to the majority of the citizens. And right now it remains the dominant view-point that the state can and should be reformed. Now, of course, we know there are limits to reform–I believe Chomsky points this out in other interviews/books–and that sooner or later the populace as a whole will see the limits and will begin to work outside the system. At least, that’s the hope, because traditional anarchism education has failed to capture the attention of the majority (or even a reasonable minority).

        (As for the utopia bit, I was using the term loosely. I don’t actually think anarchism is, primarily, a utopian project, but I meant to say that at this point an America in which poor people can live decent lives without Social Security seems rather utopian, i.e. unrealistic.) The march towards anarchy has itself been frustratingly gradual, like a leaking faucet slowly filling a sink. As much as I would like the current Tunisia revolt to turn towards some form of direct democracy where the schools and factories are taken over by students and workers, respectively, history shows why that (in all likelihood) won’t happen (May ’68). So I’ll be happy if they get even a halfway decent social safety net out of all the senseless state violence.

  7. Flex January 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm #

    Interesting write-up. Just to register a minor note of surprise: his advocacy of “voting for the lesser of two evils” is actually an interesting change in his position over the last 10 years or so. I seem to recall seeing interviews with Chomsky where he advocated using the voting process to elect the worst possibly people in order to speed along the downfall of the gub’mint.

    I’m mostly ambivalent about voting versus not voting – the system is constructed either way to affirm the validity of the state (in the eyes of the state, natch), so I just think people should do whatever the hell they think is best for their own peace of mind – but it’s interesting that Chomksy formulates whichever position he takes as one in which voting can make a meaningful difference.

  8. Bystander January 14, 2011 at 12:30 am #

    I’ve followed Chomsky for some time, and cannot recall his ever advocating “greater evil voting.”

    I should note that left anarchists have also knocked him for making reformist/progressive noises. I’ll conced that it doesn’t cohere with other parts of his analysis, but, like Roderick, this is a minor problem for me.,

    • Flex January 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

      Hmmm, I think you’re right. I thought I remembered him making those comments circa the 2000 election, but it would appear he’s always been pretty clear that he favors a “lesser of two evils” approach.

      It’s funny the memories we can just invent out of nothing.

  9. Scott January 14, 2011 at 9:16 am #

    I recently had an email debate with Chomsky in which he defended smoking bans for bars and restaurants. Some anarchist he is…

    I guess over the years Chomksy has drifted from anarcho-syndicalism to plain old syndicalism, leaving open the possibility that a society with a state could be just.

  10. rmangum January 19, 2011 at 8:59 pm #

    I recently heard Chomsky on Democracy Now bemoaning the opposition to extpand unemployment insurance, when he insisted that “standard capitalist economic theory” (i.e. Keynesianism) recommended defecit spending in recessions to offset unemplyment. Of course, I thought, this statement contains an important truth: Keynesianism is a particular (liberal) variant of capitalism, rather than, as both its detractors and supporters would often have it, some kind of socialism. But at least since stagflation in the 1970’s clearly exploded the notion of a simple tradeoff between inflation & employment, the value of defecit spending is 1) controversial even within mainstream economics (and Chomsky probably knows better) and 2) fairly irrelevant from either a left-anarchist or Marxist perspective. The radical left doesn’t make policy perscriptions to a capitalist government.

    But this leads me to an idea about this perplexing “anarchist” Chomsky, one that is analogous to Rothbard’s critique of the “Objectivist” Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Just as Greenspan could not in practive be the Rand acolyte who wrote in favor of the gold standard, execpt in some ideal world that will never come into being, so Chomsky cannot be an anarchist while simultaneously being an admired critic of U.S. policy to American progressives. Progressives have always loved centralized institutions and have no understanding of the decentralist concepts that inform all variety of libertarians, from Colin Ward to F.A. Hayek.


  1. Attack the System » Blog Archive » The Contradictions of Noam Chomsky - January 15, 2011

    […] Excellent, comprehensive take down of the High Priest of Left-Anarchism by left-anarchist Roderick T. Long. […]

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes