A comment on Chomsky: I am with Jefferson

A comment on Chomsky:

Last night at Drinking Liberally, Randolph Fritz was extolling Chomsky as a marker of the extreme left.  In doing this, Randoplph described Chomsky as an anarchist.  This surprised me as I have never equated Chomsky , with either the Ayn Rand crowd or with the made eyed wavers of the black flag.   I had not known that Chomsky was seen by some of his supporters as an anarchist.  In terms of Randolph’s spectrum, I fail to see how he can posit anarchism of any sort as “left” vs “right.

Randolph directed my attention to this interview with MIT’s prophet: (excerpted from interview with by Tom Lane, December 23, 1996Chomsky:

No one owns the term “anarchism.” It is used for a wide range of different currents of thought and action, varying widely. There are many self-styled anarchists who insist, often with great passion, that theirs is the only right way, and that others do not merit the term (and maybe are criminals of one or another sort). A look at the contemporary anarchist literature, particularly in the West and in intellectual circles (they may not like the term), will quickly show that a large part of it is denunciation of others for their deviations, rather as in the Marxist-Leninist sectarian literature. The ratio of such material to constructive work is depressingly high.

Personally, I have no confidence in my own views about the “right way,” and am unimpressed with the confident pronouncements of others, including good friends. I feel that far too little is understood to be able to say very much with any confidence. We can try to formulate our long-term visions, our goals, our ideals; and we can (and should) dedicate ourselves to working on issues of human significance. But the gap between the two is often considerable, and I rarely see any way to bridge it except at a very vague and general level. These qualities of mine (perhaps defects, perhaps not) will show up in the (very brief) responses I will make to your questions.

This is quite a wonderful paragraph, but it shows a major failing in Chomsky’s strength as a source for ideas about how governance is to be achieved. Chomsky’s definition of “anarchism” is not at all what most anarchists mean.  They mean that society will benfit from the least possible government.  Chomskey means that society needs to take anarchy as a goal and that devices like the Chinese politburo, Ashoka’s rule by monk, and even our own republic must be seen as experiments.  This makes him anything but is anything but an Ayn Rand follower.

Chomsky is a lot like my teacher, BF Skinner.  Skinner’s behaviorism insists that to learn about behavior we must apply strict rules of science and avoid any constructs .. e.g, Freud’s ego and id, that can not be defined in testable ways.  Skinner’s approach led to a set of rules, if you will “facts” that described how we all behave,.  E.g. he explained why we have religion and why we gamble.  These discoveries have gone on to be used by evolutionary biologists to propose genetic sstructures in our brains that may explain this behavior.  In a similar manner, Chomsky  insisted that order can be discovered even in language.   He too made behavioral discoveries that have fitted in with modern neurbiology and genetics.

Like all great science, these simple observations of reproducible patterns of phenomena, led to additional hypotheses and  experiments that have “grown” a theory that is very powerful.

As I read him, NM is trying to apply the same sort of objectivity to society.   But to discover a scientific principle, one needs to define what is being tested.   I have not read enough of NM to know how well he achieves for societies>   I think, however, that  this insistence on avoiding unprovable theories as a basis for government is what he means by “anarchism”. Rather, NC’s “anarchism” is an open minded attempt to ask how society can be structured to optimize welfare   measured by individual freedom, maximization of human achievement, and absence of what Buddha called “suffering.”    He not really an anarchist in claiming not to believe in structure as much as he insists on skepticism of ALL forms of government.

In terms of Randolph’s spectrum, I fail to see how he can posit this as “left” vs “right.”   Certainly the rightist proponents of Ayn Rand base their ideas on something like Chomsky but so do the current dictators of China. A similar set of premises, led Skinner to propose Walden 2, a utopia based on the idea that wise leaders, motivated by the same ends as Chomsky .. i.e.optimizing welfare, would use the scientific method to leas the evolution of society.  Even with the best of intentions, theories of governance fail if they do not propose some form of leadership.

I suspect he would distrust his own leadership too.  He sees as a flaw in Lenin and Marx, their inability to describe anything other than a miracle as the means of transitioning from dictatorship to utopia .  I do not know if NM is aware of the history, but Emperor Ashoka tried something very similar by imposing Buddhism, itself a scientific approach to minimizing suffering, on India. Sinner’s Walden 2 proposes leadership of a scientific society by an individual with many of the omniscient properties of a deity.   Ashoka’s regime, like that of Lenin, like Mao, Pol Pot, Napoleon, or perhaps even Justinian failed not because it did not share Chomsky’s ideals but because dictatorships under well intentioned and even very good people, lead to class tructures where a few fiolks “know” they are right.
We may be seeing yet another attempt at top down imposition of a beneficent social system.  China’s leaders claim, once again, to be motivated by the best for all.  They see the way to achieve this as application of their own rule .. another dictatorship.  China claims that the material benefits of their well intentioned leadership justify the thought control and deprivation of freedom.  Again, by a poorly stated miracle, China claims that the current fascist state will evolve into a democracy.

Personally, I think the Chinese oligarchy could be right.  The world has never seen fascism based on Confucian principles. Maybe the mix of hierarchical respect for talent with communist idealism can solve the problems.  On the other hand, the growth of a class system in China is all too evident.

The problem with Chomsky’s idealism is that he does not offer a structure for implementing it.  His idealism mirros that of my own favorite .. Jefferson.  Unlike Chomsky, however, Jefferson proposed and supported a well defined experiment.  Where the two men might come together is in believing that governmant structures need periodic revolutions to avoid turning into classiest dictatorships that reward some with privilege.

Put another way, Chomsky’s ideals are very important, as long as they are never achieved.  Jefferson’s ideals were a lot like Chomsky’s. but, to the benfot of all mankind, Jefferson saw the need to propose a real experiment, one we are still part of.

I am with Jefferson.

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    (Very late reply. I’m cooling my heels in Oakland Airport.)

    Collectivist anarchism has a long history. Some of the anti-Federalists (for instance, Tom Paine) and the Friends (“Quakers”) were its precursors. Chomsky is very much in the line of Kropotkin, Bakunin, Emma Goldman, and IIRC in some ways Trotsky–collectivist anarchism, the historically older thread of anarchism. The atomistic anarchism, to give it a name, you are thinking of as the most common sort is largely a modern development. There are not many societies in which atomistic anarchism could emerge. In most previous societies, wealth and survival depended too obviously on cooperation, and the argument was over how to do it.

    I have come to believe that omitting the left, even the moderate left, from common political discourse is a huge problem in the USA. We lose our history, many ideas that would help in our criticism of the abuses of power, and the context that would enable us to recognize figures like Chomsky as extreme but not unprecedented. We become unable to distinguish between radical but essentially peaceful activists and thinkers like Chomsky and radical but violent activists like, for instance, the members of The Weatherman.


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