HOW NOAM CHOMSKY'S WORLD WORKS by David Hawkes
Anyone 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 capital
Occasionally, 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 Culture of Usury in Renaissance England.
The Times Literary Supplement 29 August 2012