Chomsky, Chomsky, Chomsky. How I have despised your iron hold over American linguistics! With the convoluted contortions of generative grammar and that ridiculous Universal Grammar theory and the pretentious way you write your papers… and yet, I never knew much about your political science career. You know, the one you are famous for amongst everyone who is not a linguist.
And so, when my Reed alum book group decided to read Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (or ‘Chompsky’ as we like to pronounce it – the title of this post is in honor of Gavin and Thuy’s silliness), I was pleasantly surprised by the conversational tone and the seeming lack of intellectual elitism. He just strings together facts into logical sequences, so that he appears to have no political theory or agenda at all, beyond revealing the truths that power seeks to hide. I admire his encyclopedic memory, but the straightforward presentation obscures his own biases, conscious or unconscious. What facts he relates and what facts he leaves out are an editorial decision that craft a neat story that suits his purposes. He often attributes intention where they might only be accident, and active malevolence where they might be simple apathy or a complex of shifting, interacting interests. No surprise, then, that I found him the most engaging and enjoyable when he is talking theory and opinion instead of hiding behind some false sense of objectivity.
‘”Libertarian” has a special meaning in the United States… What’s called “libertarianism” here is unbridled capitalism… And if you just read the world that they describe, it’s a world so full of hate that no human being would want to live in it. This is a world where you don’t have roads because you don’t see any reason why you should cooperate in building a road that you’re not going to use… If you don’t like the pollution from somebody’s automobile, you take them to court and you litigate it. Who would want to live in a world like that? It’s a world built on hatred.’ (200)
This reminds me of the Daily Show sketch of the correspondent from the libertarian alternate universe, where everything is made of guns (including cell phones!) and everything is on fire. But it also seems to me that the (American) libertarian line is at face value the same as the anarchist, namely that certain kinds of institutions are unjust and should be replaced by the right kind of institutions. Libertarians want government replaced with corporations, anarchists want corporations replaced with populist organizations – but either way, they ultimately want to put power into the hands of people. Then again, the definitions of ‘people’ differ fundamentally: libertarian humans are autonomous self-interested individuals, and anarchist humans are social creatures with interests beyond themselves. But the idea that new institutions would be better seems to ignore the tendency for institutions to get kludgy and uncaring as they grow. If institutions ran on different incentive systems, would they get better? Or would they forever be mutating into ultimately self-serving entities that transcend the human beings they’re composed of? It’s worth a try, but I have to agree with Chomsky that the only way to figure out what works is to experiment at smaller scales and longer time-frames – evolution instead of revolution.
‘Since we’re dealing with complex systems which nobody understands very much, the sensible move I think is to make changes and see what happens – and if they work, make further changes.’ (201)
And now for a quick lesson in using incentive systems (learned from game design!) to encourage our congressional representatives to make choices in the Everyman’s interest:
But I’m reminded of the difficulty in balancing even a simple board game. Human society is levels of magnitude more complicated. Either because it wants to be – that is, social structures tend to emerge out of human interactions with a given level of complexity – or because humans want a certain level of complexity in their lives and therefore complicate the social structure until it provides a satisfying level of challenge to work out. I kind of love the idea that we create social systems as a puzzle to keep from getting bored:
‘It reminds me in some ways of things that you find in non-literate or non-technological cultures… where for example, you get extremely elaborate kinship systems… And when you look at the structure of them, they seem like a kind of mathematics. It’s as though people want to work out mathematical problems, and if they don’t have calculus and arithmetic, they work them out with other structures… Or another thing you sometimes find in non-literate cultures is developments of the most extraordinary linguistic systems… And what all these things look like is that people just want to use their intelligence somehow, and if you don’t have a lot of technology and so on, you do other things.’ (99)
‘Classical liberalism (which remember is pre-capitalist, and is in fact, anti-capitalist) focused on the right of people to control their own work, and the need for free creative work under your own control – for human freedom and creativity. So to a classical liberal, wage labor under capitalism would have been considered totally immoral, because it frustrates the fundamental need of people to control their own work: you’re a slave to someone else.’ (216)
‘For classical liberals in the eighteenth century, there was a certain conception of just what human beings are like – namely, that what kind of creatures they are depends on the kind of work they do, and the kind of control they have over it, and their ability to act creatively and according to their own decisions and choices… Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that you can have systems in which “the art advances and the artisan recedes,” but that’s inhuman – because what you’re really interested in is the artisan, you’re interested in people, and for people to have the opportunity to live full and rewarding lives they have to be in control of what they do, even if that happens to be economically less efficient.’ (222)
Classical liberalism resonates with me. Not to say that I think its ideas are correct, because it just smacks of those idealistic young Romantics who never had to do any actual hard labor… then again, I am basically one of them. (My fake best friend is Mary Shelley!) I don’t know, maybe you could have a society composed entirely of artisans. But as Chomsky points out, it would mean sacrificing technological progress. And isn’t the direction of human society since the dawn of agriculture prioritizing the creation of stronger and more stable power structures over individual and community wellbeing, all through the miracles of better stuff?
And finally, some of my favorite quotes, removed from their context for your enjoyment and thought-provocation:
‘The terminology we use is heavily ideologically laden, always. Pick your term: if it’s a term that has any significance whatsoever… it typically has two meanings, a dictionary meaning and a meaning that’s used for ideological warfare.’ (37)
‘There’s something really hopeless about contemporary life that’s new, I think.’ (47)
‘So what in fact happened is these two huge waves of immigrants were just herded into concentration camps, which we happen to call “cities.”‘ (48)
‘It’s been known since the Great Depression that anything like free-market capitalism is a total disaster: it can’t work. Therefore every country in the world that has a successful economy is somewhere close to fascism – that is, with massive government intervention in the economy to coordinate it and protect it from hostile forces such as too much competition.’ (72)
‘Overwhelmingly international terrorism comes out of Washington and Miami.’ (77)
‘Anybody who wants to become your leader, you should say, “I don’t want to follow.” That’s like a rule of thumb which almost never fails.’ (138)
‘Awareness is only the beginning, because people can be aware and still not do anything – for instance, maybe they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs. And obviously you can’t criticize people for worrying about that; they’ve got kids, they’ve got to live. That’s fair enough. It’s hard to struggle for your rights – you usually suffer.’ (187)