Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Chomsky's Folly

Chomsky's Folly

Noam Chomsky has produced a body of professional work in lingustics which is impressive and challenging. Even those who disagree with his linguistic theories are challenged to explain themselves within a style of argumentation he developed. Dr. Chomsky has recently retired from  the field, after an acrimonious parting shot (the Minimalist Program) which baffled many linguists and infuriated many for its faulty neurological claims. His unceasing Platonism undercuts his desire to see linguistics as a truly empirical science. In his rush to tar connectionists as behviorists, he has refused all calls for a more rigorous connection to genetics and neurobiology. He has now devoted his time to his first love, criticism of US foreign policy. It is clear that Chomsky does not like what we have now: he objects to fascism and to Stalinism; he calls the body of libertarian thought 'American libertarianism' with acrid disdain; he dismisses Rothbard's libertarianism with the authoritarian judgement,"so full of hate that no human being would want to live in it." Thus we could conclude he is not a minarchist, anarcho-capitalist or lassez-faire libertarian. But he has also denounced Marxism and protectionist Keynesianism. While he has developed several trenchant criticisms on the moral horrors of interventionism, it is difficult for even the most ardent fan of Chomsky the Political Writer to figure out just what kind of political system he supports.

Why should we care? Well, how else can we know if what we replace the status quo with is better? And if it is not better, we can focus on other alternatives to the status quo.

If you ask him, he would say he was either an anarchosyndicalist or a 'libertarian socialist', and most people would be content to leave things at that, even though this begs seveal unaswered questions. In fact, for someone so concerned with political economy he seems perversely proud of his ignorance of economics and his distaste for economists: "There are supposed to be laws of economics. I can't understand them." Whenever I see this I am reminded of how many people ask me: well, what is linguistics good for anyway!

Of course, Chomsky makes much of his bona fides to anarchism: the essay when he was 10; the hours of lectures at every bookstore from Amherst to Berkeley; and the #1 ranking on the most-quoted intellectuals of the world list. Of course, that list has a rather faulty methodology, considering many of Chomsky's references come from him quoting himself and citation-counting tells us nothing interesting about the substance of these quotes. I doubt any of his political fans could suffer through graf one of Syntactic Structures or The Sound Pattern of English. For someone with a masterful understanding of the mechanics of English grammar, he remains a throughly unexceptional and monotonous writer. Indeed, as a professor once told me: it's not impossible to understand Chomskyan linguistics by reading his works, but unless you have to as a linguist it is not worth the effort.

It is frankly a little surprising to someone who read A People's History of the United States in high school history class that the NY Times finds it a great revelation that the US acts imperially in supporting and committing atrocities around the world or that centralizing the news media into the hands of advertiser-supported multinationals leads to bias. Of course, there are still people who believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old, but one hopes they don't decide all the news that is fit to print.

Chomsky follows the Marxist line about the need to abolish private ownership of 'the means of production' by which he means the hard capital of machines and buildings. But it won't be the state who owns these things, a system we call state socialism, but Chomsky proposes in a typically fuzzy way, that the 'workers' collectively own the means of production themselves, of course in a non-transferable way, as that too would be capitalism.

No, this nebulous collective ownership will need an ardous period of trial-and-error as it stumbles closer to bankrupting its participants. Imagine an Enron owned by the workers, who would now share the liability and risk from torts and breaches of contract.

Anarcho-syndicalism has been called 'fascism without the fun uniforms'. Syndicalisme is a French word meaning "trade unionism", and anarcho-syndicalists believe both the state and Capitalism itself can be replaced by a co-ordinated system of unions directly managed by the workers. Along with this they will rid the world of wages and the private ownership of the means of production. Oh and, they don't believe in electing politicians to represent them just as they don't elect permanent representives. Ludwig von Mises notes in Socialism that syndicalism as an ideal society:
"is so absurd, that speaking generally, it has not found any advocates who dared to write openly and clearly in its favor."

The ideal for American anarchosyndicalists is the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) also known as the Wobblies. Their grand design is to have all workers join one giant union with would hold one giant strike when fully formed. It is perhaps this all-or-nothing thinking which makes the US the only industrialized nation without a labor-based political party (although most unions support the Democrats). As for the Wobblies, they could hardly be said to be anarchist as most of their leaders migrated to the Communist Party in the 1940's. Emma Goldman bitterly attested to many Wobblies shunning her and Alexander Berkman after attending the second Communist International. Arguably the best thing that can be said about the Wobblies is that they were cunning songwriters and prolific folk singers. There is little room for non-conformist bohemians in real syndicates though.

Anarcho-syndicalism is probably best known for the Monty Python bit where King Arthur encounters an autonomous commune who refuses this rule. To his growing frustration, the peasant gives a complicated description of the political organization and ratification procedures to which Arthur starts yelling at him to be quiet and the peasant declaims 'come and see the violence inherent in the system!"

Back in the real world, anarcho-syndicalism had its high point during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. But it evokes a great deal of sympathy within progressive philosophy due to its roots in the labor movement. But anarcho-syndicalism's obsession with the proletariat over all other workers and people in general has given it a degree of dogmatism unmatched by other left-leaning libertarians. To hear them say it, "all 'true' anarchists believe in syndicalism ."

Of course, it should be noted that syndicalism can exist in a free-market system, but they generally require workers with a philosophical commitment capable of withstanding the long hours, low pay and inefficient-by-design management of a co-op, all the while in competition with professional managers.

James Ostrowski:
"Syndicalists love to dream about what to do with "existing" businesses and how the workers will take control in a putsch. However, that factory was only there in the first place because some greedy capitalist thought he could make a profit selling widgets, and he invested capital he derived from prior savings. How about starting new businesses? How many workers have the capital to contribute? How many would risk that capital even if they had it, on a business "run democratically by the workers"? "

This philosophy seeks to straddle the divide between Marxism and anarchism by supposedly rejecting authoritarianism. Even the most arguably syndicalist organization in history, the CNT in 1930's Spain devolved into fascist authoritarians: they tried replacing money with coupons; they replaced the state with mini-states called committees; they are lionized by latter-day pacifists although they left at least four thousand Catalans dead. they promised individual liberty but instead started banning trade, immigration or anything considered too luxorious for the working-class.

How would anarchosyndicalism supposedly work again? Well you would overthrow the bosses and life after would be peachy. But the ones who really determine wages and working conditions in a capitalist system are ultimately not the workers or the bosses but the consumers, who exercise a virtual tyranny in a free market through their ability to choose not to purchase the factory's output. So would syndicalists and capitalists be able to co-exist: again the syndicalist is vague, wishing capitalism would go away so it would stop having to answer this question. They might end up 'American libertarians' after all if they agreed to peaceful co-existence with capitalism. What happens when a syndicalist factory produces a product which is lower in quality and higher in price than a non-syndicalist factory? It seems the only answer would be for some oppressive state-sponsored coercion so that stores sell their goods....or else.

Chomsky also uncritically accepts some other hoary Marxist chestnuts like an opposition to the division of labor ("In its early stages, the industrial system required the kind of specialized labor. Now this is no longer true.") or to mass production and a strong view of the labor theory of value, according to which the value of a business is wholly contributed by the 'workers'. Apparently, the worker known as the 'owner' does nothing but count his filthy lucre. Why the workers could show up to a vacant lot in the morning and performing the same physical motions produces the same amount of capital, right? And who needs the increased productivity of mass production? And if Chomsky really believes the division of labor is no longer necessary, I suggest he take a plumber as his general practitioner and let a lawyer pilot the next commercial airliner he takes.

Noam Chomsky is a brilliant critic of the immorality of US foreign policy, but look somewhere else for solutions that aren't punishingly regressive and authoritarian.

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