Chomsky on Cognitive Science, and Anarchism

Noam Chomsky interviewed by blog posters.

Submitted by Choccy on July 28, 2011

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Reddit Blog, March 12, 2010

Q: Do you currently see an elephant room of cognitive science, just like you named one 50 years ago -- I guess that's a reference to my critique of radical behaviorism -- something that needs addressing that gets too little attention?

NC: Well, one thing that I think gets too little attention in the room of cognitive science is cognitive science. Most of the work that's done just doesn't seem to me to bear on cognitive science. I could pick up a couple of journals here and give examples.

Cognitive science ought to be concerned -- should be just a part of biology. It's concerned with the nature, the growth, the development, maybe ultimately the evolution, of a particular subsystem of the organism, namely the cognitive system, which should be treated like the immune system or the digestive system, the visual system, and so on. When we study those systems, there are a number of questions we ask.

One question is of course, you know, what they are: can we characterize them? But that's almost totally missing in cognitive science. I mean, take my own particular area of interest, language. A ton of work in what's called "cognitive science" on what they call "language", but it's very rare to see some effort to characterize what it is. Well, if you can't do that, it doesn't make much difference what else you do.

The second kind of question you have to ask about any organ, if you like (some use the term loosely), subsystem of the body, is how it gets the way it is. So how does it go from some initial state, which is genetically determined, to whatever state it assumes? And in investigating that topic, there are a number of different factors that you can take apart for analytic purposes. And one is the specific genetic constitution that's related specifically to this system. It doesn't mean that every piece of it is used only for this system, but just whatever combination of genetically determined properties happens to determine that you have a mammalian rather than an insect visual system, for example, or a gut-brain, or whatever it may be. That's one. The second is whatever data are outside that modify the initial state to yield some attained state. And the third is: how do laws of nature enter into the growth and development of the system? Which of course they do, overwhelmingly. I mean, nobody, for example, assumes that you have a particular genetic program to determine that cells split into spheres, not cubes, let's say -- that's due to, you know, minimization of energy, other laws of nature. And the same holds throughout the course of development. Of course, the same is true for evolution. Evolution takes place with a specific physical, chemical channel of options and possibilities, and physical laws enter all the time into determining what goes on.

And the third question is that -- it's kind of like a "why" question: why is the system this way and not some other way? Well, there again you go back into -- at this point you really are facing, first of all, just historical accidents like, you know, an asteroid hit the Earth. But more significantly, how do the physical and chemical properties of the universe enter into determining that certain evolutionary changes take place under particular circumstances?

Well, that's the array of questions that ought to be asked. It is very hard to find any focus on these questions, at least in the areas of cognitive science that I'm particularly interested in, like language, for example. What you have is extreme efforts, which are sometimes extremely strange, to try to show that trivial problems for which we basically know the answers, and have for 60 years, can be somehow dealt with by massive data analysis. And so I could give examples, but -- and, in fact, I've written about examples. But I think it's kind of off track.

I'd like to see cognitive science focus on the topics that it ought to be addressing. Now, this is a very broad brush, so a lot of it does, and there's very good work in cognitive science, but it's in my opinion much too restricted, and a lot of time and effort is spent -- in my view largely wasted -- on the peripheral issues which just don't make any sense which [when] you look at them, and efforts which just collapse, and constantly. In fact, many of them are a kind of a residue of the radical behaviorism that the field sought to overcome as it developed. I could give examples, but it's -- a very general, broad-brush feeling -- unfair to a lot of very good work. But we're trying to pick out tendencies which I think are off track and missing things.

Q: What are some of your criticisms of today's anarchist movement? How to be as effective as possible is something many anarchists overlook, and you're perhaps the most prolific voice on this topic, so your thoughts would be very influential.

NC: Well, don't agree with the last comment, but my criticisms of today's anarchist movement are a little bit like the critique of cognitive science. What is today's anarchist movement? I mean, there's quite a lot of people, in fact, you know, an impressive number of people, who think of themselves as being committed in some fashion to what they call "anarchism". But is there an anarchist movement? I mean, can one think of -- you know, is there something like, say, during the day -- .

Twenty years ago I happened to be in Madrid. That happened to be May Day. And there were huge demonstration -- May Day demonstration, hundreds of thousands of people from the CMT, the old anarchist labor organization. Well, you can have all kinds of criticisms of the anarchist movements in Spain and so on, but at least there was something to point to, there was something there, there was something to criticize or to support or to try to change or whatever.

But today's anarchism in the United States, as far as I can see, is extremely scattered, highly sectarian, so each particular group is spending a great deal of his time attacking some other tendency -- sometimes doing useful, important things, but it's extremely hard to -- . I think what is -- this is not just true of people who think of themselves as anarchists, but of the entire activist left. Count noses. There's plenty of people, I mean, more than there were at any time in the past that I can think of, except for maybe, you know, tiny, ["pyoosh"], very brief moment late '60s, or CIO organizing in the ' 30s, and things like that. But there are people interested in all sorts of things. You know, you walk down the main corridor at this university, you see, you know, desks of students, very active, very engaged, lots of great issues, but highly fragmented. There's very little coordination. There's a tremendous amount of sectarianism and intolerance, mutual intolerance, insistence on, you know, my particular choice as to what priorities ought to be, and so on.

So I think the main criticism of the anarchist movement is that it just ought to get its act together and accept divisions and controversies. You know, we don't have the answers to -- we have, maybe, guidelines as to what kind of a society we'd like, not specific answers; nobody knows that much. And there's certainly plenty of range -- of room for quite healthy and constructive disagreement on choice of tactics and priorities and options, but I just see too little of that being handled in a comradely, civilized fashion, with a sense of solidarity and common purpose.

As to how to be as effective as possible, yeah, that's exactly the point: what should we address? You don't have to give a list of severe problems that the world faces. Some of them are extremely severe. So, for example, there are really questions of species survival, literally, at least two, maybe more. One of them is the existence of nuclear weapons. Somebody watching from Mars would think it's a miracle that we've survived for the last 60 years, and it's extremely dangerous right now, so I can't see how that can fail to be a priority. And the other is a looming environmental crisis. And that is something that anarchists in particular should be very dedicated to addressing, because it involves -- on the one hand, it does involve questions of technology, like, you know, can you get solar power to work and so on.

And the antiscience tendency in anarchism, which does exist, is completely self-defeating on this score. I mean, it is going to take, it is going to require sophisticated technology and scientific discoveries to create the possibility for human society to survive -- I mean, unless we decide, well, it just shouldn't survive, we should get down to, you know, 100,000 hunter-gatherers or something. Okay, except for that, if you're serious about, you know, the billions of people in the world who -- and their children and grandchildren, it's going to require scientific and technological advances.

But it's also going to require radical social change. I mean, there's been a -- particularly in the United States, but it's true elsewhere, too, there have been, you know, massive state-corporate social engineering projects -- very self-conscious; they don't hide what they are doing -- since the Second World War to try to construct a social system that is based critically on wasteful exploitation of fossil fuels. You know, that's what it means to suburbanize, to build highways and destroy railroads, and so on through the whole gamut of planning that's been undertaken. Well, you know, that means very substantial social changes in order, and anarchists ought to be thinking about it.

You know, thinking about it doesn't just mean I'd like to have a free and just society; you know, that's not thinking about it. We have to make a distinction if we want to be effective. That's the question: if we want to be effective, we have to make a distinction between what you might call proposals and advocacy. I mean, you can propose that everybody ought to live in peace, love each other, we shouldn't have any hierarchy, everyone should cooperate, and so on. Okay? It's a nice proposal, okay for an academic seminar somewhere.

Advocacy requires more than just proposal. It means setting up your goals (proposal), but also sketching out a path from here to there (that's advocacy). And the path from here to there almost invariably requires small steps. It requires recognition of social and economic reality as it exists, and ideas about how to build the institutions of the future within the existing society, to quote Bakunin, but also to modify the existing society. That means steps have to be taken that accommodate reality, that don't deny it's existence ("Since I don't like it, I'm not going to accommodate it"). These are the only ways to be effective.

You know, you can see that if you look at, you know, the serious, substantial anarchist journals. Like, take, say, Freedom in England, which maybe is the oldest or one of the oldest anarchist journals, that's been around, you know, forever. If you read its pages, most of it is concerned with mild reformist tactics. And that's not a criticism. It should be. It should be concerned with workers rights, with specific environmental issues, with problems of poverty and suffering, with imperialism, and so on. Yeah, that's what it should be concerned with if you want to advocate long-term, significant social change towards a more free and just society, and I can't think of any other way to be effective. Otherwise, the insistence on purity of proposal simply isolates you from effectiveness in activism, and even from reaching, from even approaching your own goals; and it does lead to the kind of sectarianism and narrowness and lack of solidarity and common purpose that I think has always been a kind of pathology of marginal forces, the left in particular. But it is particularly dangerous here.

Q: As far as we favor a stateless society in the long run, it would be a mistake to work for the elimination -- I've said that it would be a mistake to work for the elimination of the state in the short run, and we should be trying to strengthen the state, 'cause it's needed on the check of power of large corporations. Yet the tendency of a lot of anarchist research -- my own, too -- is to show that the power of large corporations derives from state privilege, and governments tend to get captured by concentrated private interests. That would seem to imply that the likely beneficiaries of a more powerful state is going to be the same corporate elite we're trying to oppose. So if business both derives from the state and is so good at capturing the state, why isn't abolishing the state a better strategy for defeating business power than enhancing the state's power would be?

NC: Well, there's a very simple answer to that: it's not a strategy, and since it's not a strategy at all, there can't be a better strategy. The strategy of "eliminating the state" is back on the level of "let's have peace and justice". How do you proceed to eliminate the state? Okay? Can you think of a way of doing it? I mean, if there were a way of doing it in the existing world, everything would collapse and be destroyed. You just can't do it. I mean, there is nothing to replace it. If there was a rich, powerful network of, you know, cooperatives, community organizations, worker-controlled industry, you know, extending over the whole country, and the whole world, in fact, yeah, then you can talk about eliminating states. But to talk about eliminating the state in the world as it exists is simply to keep yourself in some remote academic seminar or small group, you know, saying, "Gee, this would be nice." It's not a strategy, so there can't be a better strategy. We are faced with realities. What is described here, and in fact it's true (I've written plenty about it, too), is that we have a number of systems of power, closely interlinked. One of them's corporate power, business power. That's by far the most dangerous of all. That means, effectively, unaccountable private tyrannies. A second, pretty closely linked to them, is state power. And the comment is correct (as the commentator says, I've written about it, too, a lot) that state power tends to be overwhelmingly influenced by concentrated private power.

Okay, those are real problems. Now we face strategies. So, for example, say -- take, say, health care, okay? Right on the front pages. What's the strategy for dealing with the fact that tens of millions of people can't get -- the best health care they can get is to be dragged to an emergency room when it's too late to do anything? I mean, that's a real problem, and that's a huge part of the population. Second problem is that in a privatized, unregulated health-care system like the United States' -- I shouldn't say "like," because it's the only one. In a privatized, unregulated health-care system where the drug companies are so powerful that the government isn't even allowed to negotiate drug prices, in that kind of system, first of all, health care is strictly rationed by wealth, very strictly, and secondly, it is designed in such a way that the federal budget is going to be destroyed. You just take a look at the tendency lines. There won't be anything left for schools, for Social Security, for worker safety, anything. What'll be left is for the military. That's untouchable. It keeps going up -- another problem we've got to look at. Obama has the biggest military budget since the Second World War. But as long as that is over there, untouchable, another elephant in the closet, the radically inefficient privatized, unregulated health-care system, is extremely harmful for people, except for the wealthy -- you know, they do fine -- and is also going to destroy everyone else.

So what we do about it? Well, it's not a strategy to say, okay, let's abolish the state. That doesn't do anything about it, and in fact it's just a gift to the corporate state power sector 'cause it offers nothing. A short-term answer is to do what the large majority of the population has wanted for decades, namely, to develop a sensible national health-care system of the kind that every other industrial country has, one variety or another. Well, it happens to be a large majority opinion, so you don't have to break down many walls to organize people about it. It has been for decades. It's strongly opposed by the corporate-state nexus, but that's not unbreakable; you know, bigger victories have been won. We could go into details, you know, like what you do about the fact that the Democrats have sold out, for obvious reasons, on even minor palliatives like a public option and so on. What do you do about the fact, a very concrete fact -- . There was just an election in Massachusetts which surprised everyone totally -- almost completely misrepresented, but I won't go into that. But one of the striking things about the election was that the union members, Obama's natural constituency, most of them didn't bother voting 'cause there was tremendous apathy in the poor, working-class areas. (The election was won by the wealthy suburbs.) But of those who voted, most of them voted for Scott Brown, the Republican, against the Democrats -- shooting themselves in the foot, incidentally, 'cause one of the first things that happened is to knock off one possibly pro-union member from the National Labor Relations Board. But they had reasons, and the reasons are very clear -- just read the labor press. The reasons are that Obama made it very explicit that he was willing to compromise or give up on everything except one thing: taxing union members for their health-care plans. So, sure, people are enraged about that. I mean, why shouldn't they be? It's not an anarchist position; it's just a simple, elementary, human position.

Well, okay, if you're interested in the long-term project of the questioner, namely dissolving state and corporate power, you should be paying attention to that and you should be organizing workers on that. You shouldn't leave it to Rush Limbaugh to organize people with real legitimate grievances -- you know, that's the way to fascism. You should be out there organizing them themselves, on their concerns. You know, their concerns can be related to, and easily related to, much longer-term anarchist-style projects, but that's where anarchists should be working. And the same is true in every other part of the society.

I mean, look, some of the things that are going on now are kind of surreal, but would offer real opportunities for anarchist organizing. So let me take another one. The tendency in the economy for the last 30 years by state-corporate planning -- and these things don't happen from out of the blue -- has been towards financializing the economy. And corollary to that is undermining domestic production. Okay? The two go together. So, for example, the share of financial institutions in GDP, you know, gross domestic product, was maybe 3 percent back in 1970; now it's approaching a third. And, concomitantly, productive industry is being dismantled, which is fine for the owners, you know, great with them if they can produce in, you know, Mexico or in China or something, but it's terrible for communities and workers. At the same time, it's finally being recognized -- even by the corporate elite, which has been fighting bitterly against it for years -- that there's a real environmental crisis coming, and they're going to lose what they own. So they want to do something about it. And so what they're now kind of timidly saying is, well, we shouldn't -- not be the only country in the industrial world that doesn't have high-speed rail; we should have high-speed rail -- a minimal but significant move towards dealing with a severe potential crisis. Well, right at this moment the government and the corporations are dismantling productive industry, say in Michigan and Indiana, by closing GM plants and so on and sending the production abroad, or -- you know, they're doing that; that's one thing they're doing. The other thing that's happening is that Obama's transportation secretary is in Europe, in Spain, using federal stimulus money, namely taxpayer money, to try to get contracts for Spanish firms to provide high-speed rail that the United States needs. Can you think of a better -- I mean, it's hard to think of a more dramatic criticism of the state-corporate socioeconomic system. Here are communities and workforces being destroyed, while we, while their tax money goes to purchase in Spain what they could be producing themselves.

Now, if you can't organize about that, you're really in trouble: you're not a movement at all. Of course, should the -- take, say, the workers in Gary, Indiana, or Flint, Michigan, and so on. Do they have to just sit and watch this happen? No. They can take over the workplaces, the factories. They can run them themselves. They can convert them. It's been done before, with much greater conversion, during the Second World War, to wartime production. They don't need state support for that, 'cause that's the only institution that exists and the only one that people can influence. You can't influence a private tyranny. You can influence the government. It's often been done. It would take some support, but nowhere near as much as bailing out Goldman Sachs and so on. It would take some, it would take a lot of popular support, but it can be done. I mean, it can even be done within the framework of conservative economic theory, which is pretty straight about this. I mean, you read textbooks on corporations that say, well, you know, it's not graven in stone that they should work only for the benefit of shareholders, which means a tiny percentage of wealthy shareholders; they can work in the interests of stakeholders, meaning workforce and community. And they're not going to decide to do that, but the workforce and the community can decide it for them. Those are perfectly feasible efforts. In fact, it's been done; you know, there are cases where it's been done. There's cases where it's even been tried on a very large scale. Like, U.S. Steel came close to succeeding, and could with more corporate support.

Well, you know, these are -- I could go on with this, but these are real organizing strategies which combine short-term efforts, which confront real problems that people face in their everyday lives, with long-term objectives like creating part of the basis for a society based on free association and solidarity and popular control and so on, and it's sitting right there in front of our eyes. Those, in my view, are the things we should be looking at, not abstract questions like should we try to destroy the state, for which we have no strategy. My feeling is that's the kind of direction in which thinking ought to move. It doesn't mean giving up your long-term goals. In fact, that's the way to realize them. And if there's another way to realize them, I've never heard of it.


I guess the question that comes to mind that just grows out of these comments is there's a very large number of people who are committed sincerely and rightly to the kind of long-term objectives that anarchists have always tried to uphold. And the question is: why can't we get together and decide on -- and instead of, you know, condemning one another for not doing things exactly the way we do, why can't we try to formulate concrete proposals which combine two properties? One, dealing with the real problems that people face in their immediate, daily lives -- if you're going to get anywhere, you're going to have to deal with those, and it's not just for tactical reasons, it's also out of simple humanity. So on the one hand those, while maintaining as your guidelines the conception of the kind of just and free society that you would like to bring into being through these steps. And sometimes the two are very close together, as in the case that I mentioned, like takeover of a productive enterprise by a workforce and communities, which is not -- you know, it's a feasible objective, and one that has great deal of appeal, or would have if it were put forward, as do others, and combines both long-term vision and the short-term dealing with real, existing grievances and problems. And there are quite a few things like that. So the question is: why not focus on that rather than on abstract questions, such as what's the best strategy for destroying state? Answer: well, no best strategy, 'cause nobody's proposed any.