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How Noam Chomsky’s World Works

By mute, 5 November 2012
Noam Chomsky's political writings are extremely useful for any understanding of the crimes of US imperialism. But his
scientific work, whose political implications Chomsky denies, have been coming under
increasing criticism from the left.Recently an academic Marxist author managed to
get an interesting critique of Chomsky into The Times Literary Supplement. It raises
some interesting concerns.

HOW NOAM CHOMSKY'S WORLD WORKS by David HawkesAnyone following the career of Noam
Chomsky is soon confronted with a problem. In fact, it has become known as the
“Chomsky problem”. Chomsky has achieved eminence in two very different fields,
theoretical linguistics and political commentary. The “Chomsky problem” is that his
approaches to these fields appear to contradict each other. In politics Chomsky is a
radical, but in linguistics he takes positions that can easily be characterized as
reactionary. He treats linguistics as a branch of biology. He traces language to a
“Universal Grammar” resident in the physical brain. He believes that our linguistic
nature is hard-wired into our genes. Because they diminish the influence of
environment on human behaviour, such claims can be used to suggest that certain
modes of social organization are natural and immutable. As a result, they have often
been associated with conservative politics.

Chomsky himself professes to see no problem. He believes that linguistics is a
natural science, and research in the natural sciences must be objective and based on
the evidence alone. Indeed, part of the researcher’s job is to divest himself of his
cultural and political prejudices before entering the laboratory. These
methodological principles were established by the seventeenth-century scientific
revolution of Newton and the Royal Society, which was in Chomsky’s view a
progressive development and an immeasurable boon to humanity. He sees no reason why
the methods of the natural sciences should not be applied to the study of the human
mind.

His critics caution that empirical science is closely linked, certainly historically
and perhaps conceptually, to capitalist political economy. These discourses both
emerge in late seventeenth-century England, and they conquer the world together.
Surely this suggests an affinity that ought to trouble those who advocate one but
castigate the other? The interviews now published as The Science of Language and How
the World Works show that this paradox is at least playing on Chomsky’s mind. The
conversations range promiscuously, and although one book is largely concerned with
linguistics while the other is mainly political, Chomsky seems happier than usual to
discuss the mutual implications of his two fields of interest.By issuing such
collections of informal discussions, transcribed and edited by others, Chomsky is
presumably attempting to reach a popular audience. He certainly exploits the
pedagogical potential of dialogue to impressive effect. Yet he cannot entirely hide
the Brahmin’s disdain for the ways of the Untouchable. In How the World Works he
avers that, although “I like to watch a good basketball game and that sort of thing
. . . spectator sports make people more passive”, because sport indoctrinates “them”
with “jingoist and chauvinist attitudes”.

Throughout his career, Chomsky has depicted a world ruled by demonic forces of quite
incredible malice and guile.

This ideological chasm between the American Left and its putative constituency yawns
nowhere wider than in Chomsky’s withering references to popular religion. He cites
the fact that “about 75% of the US population has a literal belief in the devil” as
the clearest possible example of American ignorance and stupidity. But is it really
so different from his own beliefs? Throughout his career, Chomsky has depicted a
world ruled by demonic forces of quite incredible malice and guile. Whatever is
running the world Chomsky describes is undoubtedly a very greedy, violent and
selfish entity – it would be hard not to call it “evil”, or even Evil, were such
tropes not sternly prohibited by the monochrome literalism of our age.
The incarnate, worldly identity of this terrifying power is less clear. Sometimes it
is “the US government”, which Chomsky depicts as a cartoonish amalgamation of petty
spite and cataclysmic violence, determined to crush the slightest remnant of human
decency still cowering in any corner of its empire. “When the Mennonites tried to
send pencils to Cambodia, the State Department tried to stop them”, while the CIA
allegedly trained its Central American death squads by forcing recruits to bite the
heads off live vultures. As Chomsky puts it, “no degree of cruelty is too great for
Washington sadists”. The America described here is a crazed, bloodthirsty monster,
hell-bent on the destruction of humanity.

But Chomsky is not so silly as to ascribe a monopoly of malignity to any single
nation. He traces the roots of American turpitude back to medieval Europe, which
“had been fighting vicious, murderous wars internally. So it had developed an
unsurpassed culture of violence”. As a result, European colonialism unleashed a wave
of unprecedented horror on a hapless world: “European wars were wars of
extermination. If we were to be honest about that history, we would describe it
simply as a barbarian invasion”. Here, at least, Chomsky does not discuss the ways
in which empirical science both facilitated and rationalized the European conquest
of the globe.

In any case, the degree of historical blame accruing to either Europe or America is
unimportant. The important question, surely, is what made these polities so
fearsomely aggressive? Chomsky usually locates the source of modern evil in
economics rather than politics, assigning ultimate blame to the pursuit of
self-interest, which he sometimes presents as a manifestation of human nature, and
sometimes as a historical aberration. He refers to “class war” but does not identify
the classes he believes to be engaged in warfare. He frequently describes our
oppressors as “investors” or “the people in charge of investment decisions”, as if
the problem were a group of nefarious individuals. But he concedes the futility of
convincing an individual capitalist of the error of his ways: “What would happen
then? He’d get thrown out and someone else would be put in as CEO”.

if we want to understand the atrocities that Chomsky documents, we must not look to
human nature, but to the nature of capitalOccasionally, Chomsky implies that the
pursuit of self-interest is, like language, simply in our genes. But he is far too
sophisticated to be satisfied with such Hobbesian speculation. Nor does the problem
lie with the ethical failings of any nation, bloc of nations, social class or
malignant cabal. The problem lies with the power that motivates the malignity. The
problem is capital itself. Although Chomsky calls capital a “virtual Senate” and a
“de facto world government”, he does not follow through to the conclusions involved
in this position. If the nominal possessors of capital are in reality its slaves, if
their actions are determined by its demands, and if we want to understand the
atrocities that Chomsky documents, we must not look to human nature, but to the
nature of capital.

This Chomsky cannot do. The logical conclusion of his political commentary is that
capital acts as an independent agent, insinuating itself into the human mind and
systematically perverting it. But this is incompatible with his scientific
assumption that the mind is merely an “emergent property” of the physical brain. As
Chomsky himself reminds us, the idea that human beings are purely physical entities,
devoid of discarnate qualities such as mind, spirit or soul (or indeed ideas), has
become plausible only over the past three centuries. Thomas Kuhn refers to this as a
“paradigm shift”, but Chomsky rejects the concept because it implies that scientific
truth is historically relative. For him, the Galilean revolution of the seventeenth
century was simply an unprecedented, almost miraculous leap forward, and he sees it
as his task to extend this revolution to areas, such as linguistics, in which its
impact has been delayed. He does not attempt to explain why it occurred in the first
place.

Both his science and his politics have seemed the poorer for his neglect of the
connections between them, and the main attraction of these books is that they go
some way to remedying that deficiency. Along with the Galilean revolution in
science, economic systems based on wage labour have rapidly spread throughout the
world over the past three centuries. A wage labourer must think of his time – which
is his life – as a thing that he owns and can sell. He must conceive of his self as
an alienable object. And Chomsky’s scientific approach enthusiastically endorses the
conception of human beings as objects. His linguistics proposes that our thoughts
are produced by the material brain, and that biology holds the key to our nature.
His scientific assumptions prevent him from considering the possibility that the
kind of human being he describes might be the result of capitalism, rather than its
cause.

Chomsky is hardly alone in this, of course. In fact the “Chomsky problem” is
arguably the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist age. With the relaxation of
the laws against usury in early modern Europe, money became an autonomous power,
acquiring its own interests and making its own demands, as if it were alive. Money
behaves like a living creature when it takes on the definitive characteristic of
life: the ability to reproduce. But money is not part of the natural universe. No
one can touch or taste a piece of financial value. Money is merely a sign
representing alienated human life, and “capitalism” is the name we give to the
process of our own objectification. Chomsky understands that this process is the
source of the quasi-metaphysical evil he describes in his political work, but he
does not acknowledge that it is also the ideological precondition of the method he
practises in his science.

Yet his own observations point directly to that conclusion. Chomsky has often noted
the similarities between modern wage slavery and chattel slavery. As he remarks in
The Science of Language:“In a market society, you rent people; in a slave society,
you buy them. So therefore slave societies are more moral than market societies.
Well, I’ve never heard an answer to that, and I don’t think that there is an answer.
But it’s rejected as morally repugnant – correctly – without following out the
implications, that renting people is an atrocity. If you follow out that thought,
slave owners are right: renting people is indeed a moral atrocity.”Furthermore, wage
labour has now become almost universal, so that “wage slavery seems to be the
natural condition today”. As Chomsky recalls, Aristotle defines a slave as one who
does not pursue his own ends, but whose activity is subordinated to the ends of
another. According to this classical definition, all wage labour is piecemeal
slavery. The worker’s time, his life, is not his property while he is at work.
Chomsky has always been clear about this indictment of wage labour. Yet he has never
taken the next logical step in the argument. The classical tradition assumes,
plausibly enough, that the condition of slavery has certain psychological
consequences. Slaves conceive of themselves as objects, for the very good reason
that legally they are objects: commodities to be traded on the market. Aristotle’s
Politics therefore associates slavery with corporeality: “that which can foresee by
the exercise of mind is by nature intended to be lord and master, and that which can
with its body give effect to such foresight is a subject, and by nature a slave”.
Aristotle famously distinguished between “legal” and “natural” slaves. “Legal”
slavery was the empirical condition of objectification – being turned into an object
– and “natural” slavery was its psychological equivalent. Each could exist without
the other. For Aristotle, the natural purpose of a human being was the cultivation
of the soul. A slave is by definition a person who does not pursue the proper ends
of humanity. Those proper ends are intellectual or spiritual, while the ends pursued
by the slave will be purely physical. In fact, the slave will instinctively reverse
the proper relation of means to ends, and make his entire soul the slave of his
body. This association of slavery with physicality spans two millennia. It acquired
racist overtones with the burgeoning of the Atlantic trade, and declined only as
wage slavery became universal.

Today, most educated Westerners find an intuitive truth in science’s proposition
that they are objects, identical with their bodies. Why have we arrived at this
historically unique opinion? If it is true, as Chomsky believes, that we have now
reached a condition of virtually universal slavery, we must surely assume that
mental slavery will have become as ubiquitous as its economic counterpart. The
psychological manifestation of slavery is objectification. The materialist method
practised by Chomsky the linguist is thus part of the same more general, more
sinister, tendency as the reified economics denounced by Chomsky the activist. By
bringing the two sides of his career together in ways that his specialist works have
eschewed, the conversations recorded in these books remind us that the “Chomsky
problem” is no individual foible, but the deepest ideological contradiction of our
age.

David Hawkes is author of Ideology, John Milton: A hero for our time and The Cultureof Usury in Renaissance England. The Times Literary Supplement 29 August 2012