1990s >> 1995 >> no-1092-august-1995

Noam Chomsky: Rights and Lefties

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 reiterated this during a recent talk – pity his audience didn’t appreciate his point!

There was something vaguely comical about the atmosphere in the Central Hall, Westminster on the bright June evening when Prof Noam Chomsky was to deliver his talk on the theme “Human Rights in the New World Order”. All the fashionable stewards wore black T-shirts with the following imperative in small white lower-case letters: “defend diversity”. There were scores of people dressed in this uniform.

Chomsky’s address was part of a Human Rights convention which had been sponsored by the Observer and the legal campaign group Liberty. This event was attended by a wide range of left-wing lawyers, radical journalists, professional campaigners, and post-post-modern pundits. Most of the famous names were there to lead seminars or workshops.

Noam Chomsky, often dubbed as the world’s greatest philosopher, is a man who is steadfastly opposed to icons of any description, to human sheep following political shepherds. He even opposed the superb documentary about the book he c-wrote with Edward S. Herman (Manufacturing Consent) on the grounds that it personalised grand political issues. It was therefore incredible to witness the degree of personal adulation bestowed on this man by many of the people there. The man in front of me kept taking photographs of Chomsky during the talk. At the end of the talk hundreds of people tried to get the philosopher’s autograph.

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. Chomsky was on his feet for two hours. He gave a coruscatingly good analysis of modern capitalism. and showed how the origins of sustained human rights violations can all be traced back to struggles over property rights, land rights, rights of trade and so forth. It was, therefore, utterly dispiriting for socialists in the audience (and probably for Chomsky himself) when his blisteringly articulate condemnation of capitalism drew nothing but fairly dull questions from the audience. Each of the few questions seemed to come from various left-wing, reformist activists, and betrayed an apparent incomprehension of what had been said in the talk.

Chomsky’s arguments

Chomsky began by pointing out that in capitalism “politics takes place in the shadow cast by big business”. He concentrated on American foreign policy showing how, for example, such policy in Haiti was formed and reformed in accordance with the interests of the super-rich both there and in America. The ordinary population of Haiti was treated as a dispensable element in the process of making a few people very rich. The American government like countries with which it does business to be “stable”. The stricter the government, the better. A strong military government is fine, a fascist regime will do nicely. No trade unions to interrupt the wealth-creating process, and a large armed police presence all the time will produce just the sort of disciplined order and reliable “economic miracle” that American investors would be prepared to rely upon.

With fastidious detail, and supporting his every proposition with demonstrably accurate data (often adducing facts and figures released by the American government itself), Chomsky showed how “liberals” like Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton had condoned mass murder, torture, and savagery by the deals they did, in Brazil and Colombia respectively. “If the Nuremberg laws were applied,” as Chomsky commented on another occasion, “then every post-war American president would have been hanged.”

He then gave a frighteningly grim picture of life today for many Americans. The recession has produced armies of politicians and “experts” who favour social policies of “tough love”. This means being cruel to be kind. Taking away the nanny state in order to teach people the virtues of self-dependence. No free school, no free medicine. Win in the rat race or curl up and die. “Tough love is what they call it for a good reason,” said Chomsky, “because the rich love it and it’s tough on everybody else.” The irony is, as he pointed out, that these policies were put forward in the name of “family values” and yet their direct and clearly predictable result has been to assist in the destruction of that institution in America. Fathers who have been conditioned to see themselves as breadwinners have no employment, mothers work long, part-time sessions, and children are supervised by television sets. Fathers get drunk and depressed, wives work themselves into a torpor, and the kids end up as unsocialised, illiterate delinquents. And all this in the cause of promoting God and the family.

Why should workers be afforded the luxury of employment contracts and their associated legal rights? Ask the new economists. We should all become part of a more “flexible economy”. Chomsky explained the rationale for this: “the bosses want you anxious as hell when your head touches the pillow each night, worrying whether you’ll be at work the day after tomorrow, as there’s nothing quite like that worry to get you worrying like mad”.

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. Many of his ideas appear succinctly in a book which is a commentary on the documentary Manufacturing Consent. The book is Noam Chomsky and the Media edited by Mark Achbar (Black Rose Books, Montreal/London) and the “rent” quotation is on page 215. Again, consider his views on the need for government:

    “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?” (p. 208)

At the meeting Chomsky revealed two telling figures from a recent opinion poll in the United States. He noted that 82 per cent of the respondents thought that most politicians were in politics for their own gain, and that 83 per cent of respondents thought that “the current economic system is inherently unfair”. It could hardly have been plainer that Chomsky’s identification of the reasons for human rights violations was the essential nature of capitalism. It was not an unacceptable face of capitalism, something that needs adjusting with a legal instrument, it was the system itself.

Yet, after two hours of quietly, cogently, and often hilariously, showing that the social system was necessarily slanted against human rights, campaigners stood up at the end of the talk and asked for Chomsky’s blessing for a variety of foredoomed crusades. Chomsky had 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 wanted him to approve of huge human efforts to plead with governments to act more kindly.

To his great credit, Chomsky seemed to treat legal interference with capitalism as an unreliable solution to the problems of human rights violations. Although he spoke for two hours he only came to the matter of law in the final sixty seconds of his talk. He picked up a piece of card and referred to some specific questions involving legal strategies which he had been invited to address by the organisers, said, in effect, that they weren’t very important in the context of capitalism, and concluded his opening remarks. Those lawyers who had been manning the expensively-decorated recruiting stall of the Law Society (the solicitors’ trade union) in the foyer before the talk must have felt rather let down.

The first questioner, from the audience of 2,000,  introduced himself as a spokesperson for the “Luton Peoples’ Collective”. He said that some people in Britain had been victimised by the police for illegal drug use. Was this branch of human rights designed to intimidate all deviants from conventional behaviour into conforming to capitalism? Having travelled 3,000 miles to talk about human rights in a world suffering from such enormous problems as starvation somewhere in the world), carnage, ethnic cleansing, forced female circumcision, and the catalogue of crimes exposed by Amnesty International, Chomsky was visibly disappointed with the first question. But the questions did not improve.

The second questioner asked whether Chomsky favoured the London-based campaign to stop the Cuban government buying certain sorts of missiles? A possibly rather gutted Chomsky patiently explained to Private Eye’s Dave Spart that, as had been pointed out in the talk, there was no convincing evidence that governments could be persuaded by moralists to run capitalism in accordance with anything but the principles of accounting. And so the questions continued. I wanted to ask Chomsky to comment on the sort of society he wanted to see at the end of the “long road” he had said we would have to travel before becoming civilised; and how we should travel there. Alas, despite 20 minutes of impersonating a flagless semaphorist, I was still not chosen by the steward to ask a question. Perhaps I should been wearing a T-shirt bearing a single demand from capitalism as its slogan.

Many people on the left in politics have an unwarrantedly optimistic view of what can be achieved by using the law to tame and control commerce. The law cannot do that. As a socialist I do not support the campaign for human rights, for two reasons.

First, the whole idea of getting down on your knees and asking someone or something for your “rights” is undignified. It presupposes that the giver or rights (he, she, they, or it) is superior to the supplicant. I am a human being and I don’t want a society where I have to depend upon John Major, the Lord Chancellor, Bill Clinton or the chief judge in Strasbourg to finish a plate of lobster and then tell me whether I have the right to breathe, work, be free, protest, or anything else. Rights are for the meek.

They are also for the unrealistic. The second objection to rights is that history has shown them to be nothing but instantly disposable guarantees. The American constitution in 1776 declared that “all men are born free”, yet slavery was still an institution for almost another century, swiftly followed by universal wage-slavery. The left’s hapless “right to work” campaign fizzled out in the 1980s when it became apparent to even the most bigoted SWP member that capitalism does not and can never guarantee such rights. Go to any country in the world which boasts a constitution guaranteeing the right to life and you will find the bodies or the statistics to debunk the paper right.

Jeremy Bentham, the nineteenth-century reformer, and the man who wrote that “property and law are born together and die together”, had a clear understanding of legal rights. He said that they were “nonsense” and that the idea of basic human rights was “nonsense upon stilts”. There’s no point in calling them rights if getting them enforced is only a pious hope. A call for rights is a plea to a recognised superior. Let’s forget “rights”, and get up off our knees.

Gary Jay

Leave a Reply