1990s >> 1998 >> no-1128-august-1998

Chomsky’s weakness

Noam Chomsky has been celebrated as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century 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 encourages reformism.

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 ranks of supporters support anarchist sects and 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 (in fact opposing a documentary for raising him up like an icon and personalising political issues), but Chomsky fails to come to the conclusion that his analysis deserves. Knowledge of how capitalism works and oppresses is not enough. Without an alternative, opposition to capitalism leads nowhere. A”right” here or there in capitalism has the unerring habit of suddenly disappearing when profit is hindered.

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. Chomsky does little to redress this.

Although consistently stating the limitations of legal and other changes to capitalism, 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 hoards of trendy leftists who persist in quoting his analysis while campaigning for minimal gains (e.g. pro-drugs, human rights, Law Society and other assorted moralists) 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. 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.

In general, Chomsky traces the origin of the abuses prevalent in modern capitalism to property. land and trade and the interests of a small commercial and industrial class (capitalists, i.e. those parasites who live by extracting surplus value from the working population) which run counter to those of the majority of the people (the working class). Big business and the interests of a corporate elite feature strongly in Chomsky’s analysis. For example, he highlights numerous cases of US foreign policy which are clearly followed in the interests of profit and plunder but which are mysteriously absent or fudged over in the world media. Haiti is an obvious example where workers were plainly inconsequential and dispensable pawns in the capitalist pursuit of profit, policy being chopped and changed according to what would be likely to create the most conducive environment for profit-making. Harsher governments are regarded as eminently suitable for investment because of the strong control they exercise over the population and the absence of trade unions, while broadly progressive governments which offer basic rights to workers are regarded as bad investment areas due to higher costs in terms of wages, taxes, tariffs etc.

Elite control
Chomsky has stated his opposition to the “renting” of workers for their abilities in return for survival. He also opposes the state as a form of social organisation and suggests that alternatives may exist that are greatly preferable to the present system of organised robbery. 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.

This is not to deny Chomsky’s, at times, outstanding analysis of capitalism and of the motives of its leaders and their sidekicks. In a pamphlet Media Control he discusses the nature of democracy under capitalism, coming to the conclusion that, in the capitalist state, democracy is devoid of any meaning as far as popular participation is concerned. This Chomsky puts down to the various “democratic” theoreticians who justify control by a Leninist-type elitism whereby the ruling elite are assumed to know what is best for the majority (over jobs, investment, welfare cuts, etc); under capitalism there is an unconscious movement towards policies which benefit the capitalists and keep the majority enslaved to interests which do not serve them but which are nonetheless applied in the “national interest”.

Chomsky goes on to discuss the highly efficient elite control of the media and the role of education and other institutions in maintaining capitalism, citing the billions of pounds spent on public relations every year.

Chomsky himself has often been the victim of the capitalist propaganda effort as he has commented in interviews with David Barsamian. In capitalism, propaganda is not carried out by central state institutions but by exclusion from mass media which is monopolised by the owning class:

“Our system differs strikingly from say, [the former] Soviet Union, where the propaganda system literally is controlled by the state . . . Our system [western capitalism] works much differently and much more effectively. It’s a privatised system of propaganda, including the media, the journals of opinion and in general including the broad opinion of the intelligentsia, the educated part of the population” (Chronicles of Destiny).

However, on how to halt the tide of capitalism, Chomsky is incredibly weak:

“[on the] issue of human freedom, if you assume there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, etc., there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world” (Chronicles of Dissent).

Hope is not, however, enough. A century 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.


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