Noam Chomsky: Resisting Empire for More Than Four Decades

2014 1002 choms st(Image: Haymarket Books)More than four decades of Noam Chomsky’s writings are available in a new anthology from Haymarket Books. Get this collection from the master of opposing the hubris of US empire. Click here now.

The Independent writes of Chomsky’s Masters of Mankind, “A revelation … This is a book woven through with hope and awe at all the people who slip beyond imperial control and establish real democracy … a treasure-trove.”

The following excerpt is the foreword to the Chomsky essays by activist and public intellectual Marcus Raskin:

Noam Chomsky’s political activities and his understanding of the nature of language capacity may be described metaphorically as an unbroken band labeled universality. But his universality is no mystification aimed at masking truths and marginalizing truthful inquiries, nor is it the belief that all of public life must be the same everywhere. One side of the Chomsky strip is innateness, which presents humanity with the gift of language and therefore communication. Follow that strip of universality; you will note that there is imprinted on the strip a capacity that allows for rationality and moral action that can catalyze humanity’s benign social purpose. We may even speculate that human nature contains a capacity for invariant empathy. We leap and conclude that humanity is more than a bunch of indivisible but empty monads unconnected except through their accidental collision; we further conclude that humankind is imprinted with an inexorable drive to create something better out of its raw material. We desire our shared knowledge to lead to love, and vice versa; we want power to be in service of both. Perhaps a humane world civilization might come into being in which universality does not assign a preferred place to any particular group, but in which all are joined in solidarity and mutual dignity with all others. However, when we look again we see that the strands of the strip are torn and they need repair. But how to repair them so that the band does not disintegrate? What are the tools we use to repair the tear? And who repairs the band of which we are an integral part?

For Chomsky, in the deepest personal sense, language becomes a critical means for the repair of the tear(s) of humanity; the structure of language is a wondrous feature of life that is simultaneously stable and infinitely malleable. In this, his views are radically different from those of Jean-Paul Sartre, who sees words and language as keeping us from the world as it is, or perhaps could be. For Chomsky, there are two courses in attaining repair and in creating something different, a new thing, a new organizational structure or alternative. One is in the spoken and written word, which comes from how we are hardwired. The other is the language of exemplary doing, where general propositions, for example about love and empathy, are made clear in action through lived experience. In politics, the body and mind are the tools to repair the body and mind.

For the casual observer, Chomsky seems to hold that on the one hand, there is science and analysis, and on the other hand, there are those desired values that we hold dear and preach about through different social means. In this world, the body is divided into unconnected categories where mind and heart, thinking and discernment, are separate from emotions and feeling. Is this not what the modern academy attempted to create, hoping in this way to ensure a soundness and civility, a series of golden lies, the distance of self from object and therefore a perverted objectivity, thereby protecting the scientist and her inquiries while intentionally missing the point of integration and wholeness?

His fellow academics were in for a big surprise if they thought Chomsky was domesticated to accept rationality as a division between thinking, passion, and political commitment in terms of how one leads a life of responsibility. This supreme rationalist in his actions and studies says that the basic concerns of intellectuals must be “to speak the truth and expose lies.” For him the basic concern in the political realm is to integrate knowledge, power, and love as the basis of law and value. That is to say, the ideal intellectual is to exercise responsibility through his rationality and the exercise of courage and integrity to expose lies and to tell the truth. Human responsibility beyond a designated narrow social role can be a lonely activity in a society that gets by on grease paint and self-delusion. Chomsky’s concern as a lover of wisdom that serves the wider humanity, as he knows and points out, can hit up against a stone wall where political thought and commentary is bereft of truth telling, even attempts at it.

It takes very little to find out what and whose interests are served when responsibility is defined in action as service to a master. Just spend a Sunday morning with the commentators on television whose interests have virtually nothing to do with truth telling and whose programs are sponsored by agribusiness and power companies. Responsibility morphs into servility. For many in the world of journalism and politics the consequences of what they do and why may not necessarily be known to them. The structure of Sunday morning news allows Exxon and a state apparatus to “guide” the journalist and the people listening. And this has dire consequences for a peaceful constitutional democracy. Read in Chomsky’s On Power and Ideology the words of a columnist and former ambassador, William Shannon, who asserts that for the best of motives the United States ends up supporting military dictatorships, perhaps forgetting that everyone always claims the best of motives. Throughout history American leaders have never shirked their responsibility of explaining in high-minded terms the American role in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Politics is the means that tells us how we are going to arrange and use the mirrors of everyday life. It arranges the framework that turns “ought” into “is” in culture and experience. This is why practical actions, in the sense of choosing and responsibility, determine the course of human history.

This is why Chomsky’s analysis and his practical actions are so important. They are the bellwether of what could be. His drive and commitment come from a directed use of passion, intuition, and a deeply held responsibility for others. It is what I have termed “standing with” or “withness.” But withness is more than reporting to others. Withness takes us beyond personal interest, accepting the risks of the other when there is no “pragmatic” reason to do so. Withness is an instrument of awareness that helps us to know where and who we are, for it locates ourselves with others, and asks through example that others relocate and reorder themselves. When Henry David Thoreau, protesting the poll tax, was asked by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Henry, why are you here?” Thoreau responded, “Waldo, why are you not here?” There was no need for Chomsky to commit civil disobedience during the Indochina war except as a citizen responsibility. It was his statement of withness responsibility with the unseen Other. Our government could not respond to the anguish of millions; its policy makers were the chief culprits. If Chomsky’s sensibility and drive were more infectious, it would be the saving possibility and hope of humanity. It would mean the recognition of international civil rights laws that renounced the color of legitimacy and would put an end to realpolitik from genocide to torture. It would mean an end to American military and economic imperialism; in the Indochina war, it would have meant a million lives saved. In the last decades, it would have meant that a quarter million Guatemalans would not have died with the notso- silent assent of the United States. It would mean that the United States would not supply with weapons and politically support the “stable oppression” seen throughout the Third World.

Since in Chomsky’s world the intellectual must turn his talent and spirit to the presentation of truthful accounts and acute analysis of things as they are, personal choices become obvious and inescapable. For Chomsky, inquiries are instruments that encourage the oppressed to be free to do. These inquiries mean seeing social relations and events without the opaque glasses considerately provided by closely interrelated universities, corporations, foundations, and media. On the intellectual side, rational inquiry seeks to “try to extract some principles that have explanatory force . . . thus hoping to account for at least the major effects.” This means analyzing how and to what end the United States organizes its clearly predominant global power.7With relatively free access to information, America’s role in the world can be analyzed, explained, and understood with considerable accuracy.
But for Chomsky this is only half of the story. The question for him becomes “How does one live as an intellectual and citizen in the world of the dominant empire?” Now choices requiring courage emerge. They necessitate working against the grain of established conventional intellectuals who have surrendered their critical faculties and internalized the values of the hierarchic system, to an extent that they often do not even realize. While Chomsky and others, this writer included, may have contempt for the role of intellectual scribes such as Henry Kissinger, who organized the thoughts and interests of a ruling class so that it would feel more secure, condemnation must also extend to an educational and rewards system that is eager to turn out such scribes. Fabrication is the tool of the intellectual valet in the state apparatus; he or she dresses up force in perfumed clothes. This fabrication extends to institutions and “disciplines” that enforce and coordinate state and economic power.

Thus, Chomsky is not surprised by intellectuals and a professoriate whose interests in truthful, uncontrolled inquiry are relatively modest. Such inquiry would require personal risk, perceived jeopardy of status, and confrontation with authority. But how much risk to the intellectual is really involved? After all, the national security state clings to the ornamental trappings of constitutional democracy as long as they don’t get in the way of power. For those in the middle class, the United States is not a totalitarian state within its own borders. Those who adopt a contrary or skeptical stance need not fear for their lives. Perhaps that is why Chomsky holds so many intellectuals in disdain. They really would risk little if they would act other than as clerks for power.

When Chomsky wonders in “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” why Arthur Schlesinger Jr. lied on behalf of the Kennedy administration, and was then rewarded by the academic community with a distinguished chair at a university, he is talking as the preeminent scholar who hates fraud and cowardice. He disdains intellectuals who undermine the importance and value of intellectual honesty in order to retain a place at the palace court. In this sense, Chomsky challenges the intellectual’s privileged place when he or she does not act as truth teller. For Chomsky, the intellectual has historic importance when acting as an outsider to established power. Rationality allows us to demystify social constructions and find discernible messages that lay the basis for understanding and action. It is here where the meaning of language is turned into moral action. It is here that Chomsky has chosen to show by words, lived experiences, and acts what he has in mind. Throughout the essays in The Masters of Mankind, Chomsky raises moral and legal questions about responsibility and accountability, as well as the meaning of rights embedded in law. Indeed, what does it mean to be responsible in relation to moral acts?

Chomsky knows full well the limits of leaders and of their advisors, the arrogance, posturing, and malign intentions he finds in their words. It does not matter whether these leaders are elected or appointed, or hold their office through blood or advantage of wealth or even as the result of some level of educational attainment useful to a ruling elite. He is aware that oligarchs do not rule as trustees for others, but for themselves. They have in mind the destruction of democracy if it ever proves to be more than a rhetorical fig leaf, when it means the redistribution of economic and political power along the ideological lines of Adam Smith and Tom Paine, or when it means the renunciation of imperialism. There is a direct line between the antidemocratic elites and the establishment of secret organizations such as the CIA, which know and do things that a democracy would not begin to understand or countenance—until the democracy is deadened through propaganda. The history of the American struggle with elitism is, of course, embedded in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The Electoral College, the establishment of secret agencies, and the limit of two senators per state are examples of fearing the people.

This problem became even more acute during the Cold War when the United States inherited and strove for imperial expansion. Whether it was the elitism of Walter Lippmann or the pipe-smoking spymaster Allen Dulles, secrets were deemed necessary against the public that needed “embedded” journalists to interpret reality for them. Chomsky is aware of the difficulties of concretizing ideals in practice, finding that what is propounded is not the same as what can be accommodated and accepted in practice. But even more so, he is aware of the structures and policies that patently lead in antidemocratic directions, where the rhetoric of democracy and freedom is a self-serving mask for decidedly unlovely consequences.

The imperial brand of globalism that emanates from the Pentagon and Wall Street is an example of oligarchy posing as the spread of democracy. Economically, poor nations are treated to a burlesque of Adam Smith’s ideas of a free market while in reality being burdened by colonialism and neocolonialism. More importantly, they bring into being the distortion and degradation of human possibility. Globalism in its present form is the organization of immiseration through technology and imperialism. Under corporate globalism, the humane and political potentiality of the person is turned into a bundle of unrequited desires answered only by deplorable working and living conditions.

Yet Chomsky must believe that technology and communication could be fused to create the possibility of a world civilization. Surely this must have been one of the attractions of being at MIT, that factory for the pushing of possible worlds into reality. In that milieu he witnesses a new set of relationships emerging beyond the nation-state that perhaps could give rise in the twenty-first century to anarcracies. They would be bound together by a vast interlocking communications network that could yield the creation of a world civilization with plural cultures and without the burden of the nation-state. It could be a world in which differences in principles and ways of living could bang against one another through analysis and discussion, clarifying and deepening understanding, leading to more general principles that uncover and reflect that innate capacity for decency found in people and reflected in common documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the human tragedy that these documents only seem to arise after great upheavals. They do have political weight once they come into being. They are reinterpreted through an intermingling of law and violent and nonviolent action—as, say, in the liberation of South Africa from apartheid, the moral force of the successful civil rights struggles within the United States, and the successful attempts at confronting military imperialism in and over the Third World. These struggles have led to attitudes and assumptions of scholarship as we learn more about ourselves through the quest for common enduring principles intended to liberate humanity.

Even if it is misplaced moral fervor or Machiavellian cleverness justifying the use of overwhelming force, that language of justification becomes the basis upon which succeeding generations build their struggles for expanded human rights. The oppressed ask, “If freedom and justice apply to oligarchs, why can’t they apply to us?” Chomsky understands that law itself has two aspects. One is the politics and power struggles of the past frozen into rituals, laws, and court decisions, the conclusions of which are reified and laid onto the future: law as restraint that from time to time needs direct challenge. In this sense, the civil disobedience actions that Chomsky undertook as a conscientious citizen (with his Hush Puppies and book bag) were meant as a way to reshape the law, seeing it less as the consensus between competing powerful and often unaccountable interests or prejudices written in legal language, and more as law in a second sense, as the basis upon which civilization must function. Law and lawmakers need a nudge to arrive at a level of respect for freedom and dignity—concepts linked in Chomsky’s political actions—so that law advances society to its next stage of freedom. Law in the hands of judges who take seriously the Bill of Rights and the preamble to the Constitution, as well as other foundational documents, takes on that meritorious purpose. It organizes a set of rituals and words that reflect the inquiry and actions of dignity and liberation. It seeks to influence practice constituted as extending freedom and holding at bay the dogs of oppression and war. Thus, the task of the “jurisprude” is the setting of new boundaries, internalizing the spirit of freedom in those boundaries so that they become more than Sunday school rhetoric. They are guides based on felt injustice and inquiry. Or, to stick with our metaphor, they are the threads of the Möbius strip that may or may not be seen but are recognized and repaired through our actions and those of our social and legal structures.

A new generation might ask whether the positive features of enlightenment can be used and expanded in this century. I suspect Chomsky might say yes in more optimistic moments. For there is within human nature the capacity for betterment, empathy, and active caring. This nature can be fulfilled through our reason and those feelings that Mikhail Kropotkin described at the beginning of the twentieth century that would lead to wholly different but not utopian institutions. After all, Chomsky shows in these essays and in his body of work that practical paths can be found without demanding sainthood from each person. Rather he tells us that political action tied to demystification and analysis clears a path through the underbrush of mistakes and lies. Chomsky has acted as the wise catalyst for this necessary purpose. His thought and actions have made an indelible mark on two generations, and no doubt will do so for generations to come. In another time and in another tradition, we might have said that Chomsky’s focused energy derived from a religious calling, a comment that Chomsky would surely scoff at and reject. His mastery of public texts is as awesome as scholars who analyze and interpret the words of the Talmud. His commitment to truth and justice is no less a religious calling than Reinhold Niebuhr’s was to the idea of the Christian God as the hope of humankind, and without the muddle-headed contradictions that Niebuhr offered as practical guides to the perplexed and the opportunistic.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates expresses great fear about democracy because it is, in his mind, synonymous with freedom. The result is tyranny. But modern times have brought us a different understanding of democracy as an ideal. It is how to give the appearance of democracy yet deny it in practice, ensuring that democracy in its false form gives consent by the people to a small group, the oligarchs. This is accomplished through a combination of the people’s silence and a rigged system that changes a working democracy of public participation and deliberation to a charade. In his essay “Consent Without Consent” in this volume, Chomsky exposes for us what all should know, but that the middle class, if it is doing well, has a tendency to forget: the two major political parties are business-oriented parties identifying in their soul with the centrality of big corporations as the engine of American life. Of course, in the workplace standards have always been rock solid. There is to be no kidding around about democracy. The workplace is the very definition of top-down authoritarianism. In this case, labor and the union movement have been in a continuous struggle around how deeply authoritarianism can extend into the lives of the workers—not whether it should exist. The business classes are forever conscious of class struggle and the importance of winning it.

Chomsky has not been alone in understanding the nature of class struggle and the baleful effects of a greedy oligarchy. Tom Paine understood the American Revolution as the struggle over democracy and the need of the people to judge, participate, and deliberate on their own destiny. Even James Madison, who best reflected the melding of aristocracy and republic as the way to ensure stability and to keep the barbarians away from power, was shocked to find that the real barbarians were sitting inside, not outside, the gate. In the twentieth century, John Dewey understood that those who held the keys to production, distribution, publicity, and transportation arrogated to themselves the role of rulers of the country. We may go one step further. The oligarchic national security state has turned the public election system into a wholly ornamental activity that we might term “politainment,” politics as entertainment. Given control over the public discourse, it is relatively easy to change the channel of concern, changing the “discourse” like a child who might otherwise be caught out in a lie. This skill should not be underestimated and is really part of the genius of American advertising and state propaganda.

A large part of US history, like that of other nations, can be read as a narrative of imperial hubris. But in every case there were also individuals who argued with and confronted this hubris. Chomsky is one of them.

Full footnotes to this foreword can be found at the end of Masters of Mankind.

Copyright 2014 of Noam Chomsky. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.