Posts Tagged ‘Noam Chomsky’

Chomsky’s Hamster-Work

April 20, 2010

A friend sent me this article on Noam Chomsky.

The author, Chris Hedges,  is notably uncritical of the great man, and I myself would not normally criticise Chomsky.  He does his thing brilliantly  and is rightly revered for that.  But as it came from a friend who knows my work and what I am trying to do, I thought I’d respond to him with a few comments.  And then the comments seemed worth making into a post.

The article states

“he ( Chomsky) steps outside of every group and eschews all ideologies.”

But this  is not strictly true. Chomsky says he is an  anarcho-syndicalist.  And that makes him highly ideological.

As an  anarcho-syndicalist, he vigorously analyses and attacks the evils of existing systems of politics and government but, like all anarchists,  he declines to offer an alternative system of government that could be  viable, just and sustainable AND worth voting for. That for me is his great weakness, and what turns his writings and speeches into an – admittedly exalted – form of what I call “Hamster-Work”. Like a hamster on its wheel, he goes on and on and round and round, and in the end – nothing

It was Marx who said

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

As a post-grad student, Chomsky offered an alternative, and still in some ways controversial, new paradigm to that which was dominant in linguistics at that time. Inevitably, fellow-linguists have challenged and modified  Chomsky’s alternative model, and he himself has substantially updated it,  but for over fifty  years it has provided an invaluable and still valid basis for research and inquiry.  Thus,  did he change the world of linguistics by heroically leading his colleagues into territory which until that time had not been identified still less explored.

That’s the kind of leadership I’d like to have seen in his political writings. But he never allows himself to take the lead, never offers an alternative model that would be open to rigorous analysis, criticism, development and  debate. Instead, although he

curtly dismisses our two-party system as a mirage orchestrated by the corporate state, excoriates the liberal intelligentsia for being fops and courtiers and describes the drivel of the commercial media as a form of “brainwashing.”

that’s as far as he goes. And today that is old news for many millions of people.  That quote from Chomsky sums up my view of local and national pseudo-democraticgovernment and politics back in the mid-1990s.  In “Gaian Democracies: Redefining Globalisaiton and People-Power” 2002/3) we discussed the complex, component and disastrous consequences of this system and offered a alternative model of democracy from which citizens could co-create just and sustainable societies.

Now, the Chomsky quote is a barely contested truism, representing something near the majority view in the USA and far beyond. . In constantly rehearsing and re-stating these and related arguments, Chomsky is never “wrong”, of course. His always safely cocooned within the outrage that a mere recital of the facts can generate.  However,when Chomsky asserts

that power, unless justified, is inherently illegitimate. The burden of proof is on those in authority to demonstrate why their elevated position is justified. If this burden can’t be met, the authority in question should be dismantled.

he raises profound questions that his  anarchist ideology allows him to ignore. Questions such as:

“If we dismantle illegitimate  forms of authority, then what?  What forms of power and authority would be legitmate in the face of the challenges we face in the 21st Century?”

These were the question that “Gaian Democracies” tried to tackle.  Yet Chomsky shirks them and even seems to think them not worth discussing. I wish that he would address those  and related questions, but it seems that his anarchist ideology prevents him from doing so.  Consequently  it condemns him and millions of his admirers to the ultimate futility of “Hamster-Work”.


Dissolving the USA’s Utterly Broken Systems

January 18, 2010

No-one skewers the con-men and phonies as well as Naomi Klein. Introducing the new edition of her classic “No Logo” in Saturday’s Guardian, she goes after “Obama” as a global brand with panache and precision and righteous anger.

For 4500 words, Ms. Klein itemises the sickening truth of how the global popularity of this super-cool political brand has facilitated – at least for a time – the seamless continuation of the particularly brutal form of crony capitalism that led George W. Bush and his neo-con crew to be so universally despised and the USA itself to be justifiably reviled,

For Ms. Klein, as for me, Obama is a lost cause, But what of the millions of people worked so hard to get Obama elected?

[They] do not want markets opened at gunpoint, are repelled by torture, believe passionately in civil liberties, want corporations out of politics, see global warming as the fight of our time, and very much want to be part of a political project larger than themselves.

Will disappointment with Obama persuade many of them that there is no point in becoming politically active? As Obama plumbs the depths of betrayal (or smiling impotence) ever more deeply, will the most idealistic of them

succumb to a mood of bitter cynicism and do what young people used to do during elections: stay home, tune out

Perhaps not, because, as Bernard Weiner , points out, once the veils have been removed

One sees the system exposed, all the warts, jerry-rigged structures, thievery, manipulation, corruption, etc. We saw American capitalism naked, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Still, these financial players (“too big to allow to fail”) rule the roost, along with similar behemoths in the fields of energy, pharmaceuticals, insurance, the military-industrial complex, etc.

Congress takes no effective action even while smoldering rage and resentment and desire for political vengeance is building around the country,

Or as Ms. Klein puts it:

… the economic model that dominates around the world has revealed itself not as “free market” but “crony capitalist” – politicians handing over public wealth to private players in exchange for political support.

What used to be politely hidden is all out in the open now. Correspondingly, public rage at corporate greed is at its highest point not just in my lifetime but in my parents’ lifetime as well.


the system itself is utterly broken.

So, where is all that rage, that resentment, that desire for political vengeance, that new understanding that the whole system is ‘utterly broken’, to find a meaningful expression?

Here’s where the clarity and intelligence that Ms. Klein, Dr. Weiner [and others it has to be said] bring to their accounts of the veil-stripping consequences of the Obama-Cheney-Bush-Greenspan-Geithner- Bernebanke-effect loses traction.

Ms. Klein tells us that

… transformative goals (sic) are only ever achieved when independent social movements build the ­numbers and the organisational power to make muscular demands of their elites.

Say that again!!

“.. independent social movements build the ­numbers and the organisational power to make muscular demands of their elites.”

Hello??!! This makes no sense.

What is meant by “their elites”? Their country’s elites? Are these the same elites that Obama is fronting for? If those ‘elites’ are not somehow part of the movement then why should they listen even to the most ‘muscular demands’? Who are they? Why are they still – evidently – in power, still running the system that we all agree is ‘utterly broken’? If they are, why should they change the way they think and act? They’ve got much more ‘muscle’ than any independent social movement ever had.

If the best that progressive movements can do is make ‘muscular demands’ on the existing elites controlling the ‘utterly broken’  system, then the kind of energy, anger and awareness that she and Dr. Weiner describe will be betrayed again – and again and again and again.

Why shouldn’t the elites that are in power actually belong to those movements?  Why should they not have been elected to represent those movements? Why can’t they be committed to changing the system to one that is genuinely democratic and just and sustainable?

Dr. Weiner goes a little way down this path and says:

We have to organize the anger and show our fellow citizens (using what we’ve now learned) who the real villains are and how to send them packing.

That may (MAY???!!!) mean running for office, actively helping choose and support good candidates, organizing locally around local issues, contributing money, taking our money out of the half-dozen largest banks and investment houses and putting in into local community banks and credit unions… founding bartering societies and community gardens, launching affinity groups, writing letters and articles, organizing creative demonstrations, using the internet to communicate political ideas more widely, and …

evidently as an afterthought,

beginning to think seriously about the founding of a broad populist-democratic party, whatever.

Doncha love that final “whatever”?

It says, perhaps, that apart from the myriad of practical difficulties there would be very real physical dangers in trying to found a broad populist-democratic party. From the outset, its founders, supporters, workers and candidates would have to confront the malignant hostility of the jackals who serve the elites who run the USA’s current system. Remember the FBI’s murderous COINTELPRO programme against the Black Panthers in the 1960s? That was 40 years before the draconian provisions of the Homeland Security Act defined peaceful protesters as potential terrorists, and thus the prospects for those who take the path Dr. Weiner suggests are not a little terrifying,

That may also be one of the reasons why Ms. Klein fails to mention Dr. Weiner’s electoral politics option, even as an afterthought. But, from my reading of her work over the past decade, there is another, far more profound, reason. Engaging in electoral politics is incompatible with her basically anarchist value-system. As with the anarcho-syndicalism of Noam Chomsky, many leading progressives and environmentalists oppose forming political parties, oppose contesting elections, and above all, oppose taking political power.

In her Guardian piece, Ms. Klein refers fondly to

Tens and then hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were making their case outside trade summits and G8 meetings from Seattle to New Delhi, in several cases stopping new agreements in their tracks.

From all of those events, Ms.Klein argues elsewhere that the emergent activist model mirrored,

the organic, decentralized, interlinked pathways of the Internet .. a model of coordinated decentralization that is entirely lost on those looking for leaders and puppet masters. (My emphasis)

She describes a model of protest that is ‘a coalition of coalitions’ mostly made up of

NGOs, Labour unions, students and anarchists. (my emphasis)

Look again at that little list. Ms. Klein is suggesting that anarchist groups are qualitatively the same as NGOs, labour unions and students. She seems not to see that anarchists bring with them, and act within the framework of their very particular political ideology, whereas the other three types of organisations are invariably issues-led.

There is a strong whiff of musty  top-hats and elastic-sided boots when Ms. Klein says,

If neoliberalism is the common target there is also an emerging consensus …that participatory democracy at the local level — whether through unions, neighbourhoods, farms, villages, anarchist collectives or aboriginal self-government — is where to start building alternatives to it.’ (my emphasis)

Whatever the reason, in her thousands of articles, interviews and speeches, Ms. Klein has consistently rejected even the very limited electoral strategies that Dr. Weiner suggests. Dr. Weiner’s tentativeness is understandable because, as he says, it is only:

once every 10 or 20 years, at least in America, the veils part a bit and we can see the scarifying reality of how our government really work: the Army/McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, Watergate and the Pentagon Papers in the early-1970s, Iran-Contra in the early-1980s, and the Cheney-Bush era of the past eight years.


Now Obama’s the object of anger. There is major anti-Administration activism coming from both the Left and the Right, including even a budding Know-Nothing party or faction forming on the tea-bagging extreme — all signs that indicate the presence of major seismic activity under the tectonic plates of the American political process.

It is still early days for those who are trying to think what they should do about the horrific reality that the parting of the veils has revealed. Moreover, the revelations that flow from this parting of the veils are different from those of the past. Today’s revelations are not just about particular villains or policies or even institutions, they have to do with the basic properties of the US system of government.

There is no way to fix a system that is “utterly broken” by “making muscular demands” on its elites. Obama did not break this system. Nor did the Bushies, nor Clinton, nor, even, Reagan and the neo-liberal ideologies he brought back into power A new Roosevelt backed by a quasi Social-Democrat Congress to implement a New-New Deal could tinker with the system and try to make it less corrupt, less inhumane, less inefficient, less destructive, less unjust, less flat-out dumb. But they would not succeed because, to paraphrase Bucky Fuller,

you cannot fix a system that is utterly broken by fighting the existing reality. To change a broken system, you have to build a new model that makes the broken system obsolete.

These appalling realities that have emerged from behind the veil, arise from and are embedded in the hugely complex nature of the socio-political-technological- ecological systems that have co-evolved over the past 400 years. None of those complex, ill-defined, loose-boundaried  systemic problems are  ‘solveable ‘ in the traditional conventional sense.

As the great British cybernetician Stafford Beer put it, such complex, systemic problems can only be ‘dissolved‘ , not ‘solved’.

Thus the new political movements that will emerge in the USA, and the governments they form at every level,  will succeed where the 19th and 20th Century models will fail, because,  using the rules of systems and cybernetics in participative processes, they will fundamentally reconfigure the unjust and unsustainable systems that are giving rise to today’s appalling problems.

To paraphrase the 1992 Clinton campaign, “Its the system, stupid“.

Thus, though the spirit underlying what Dr. Weiner says is admirable, the fundamental flaws in the USA’s broken systems of politics, business, economics and governance can only be addressed by developing models that are attuned to 21st Century realities and knowledge rather than 20th Century models and myths. And indeed, the people of the USA and the human family in general, deserve nothing less

What those 21st Century models of politics, business, economics and governance could be is the topic of a future essay. At this stage, I will merely preview say that they would consist of a global network  of diverse and self-organising VIGDEOCs: Viable Innovative Gaian Democracies Enterprises Organisations and Communities.