Sunday, May 22, 2011

probal 1996 deccan herald article on chomsky's politics and linguistics

The Law and not the State: Principled Anarchism

Probal Dasgupta

Noam Chomsky is visiting India. This is a good time to remind ourselves how coherent and far-reaching his voice has been since his name hit the Vietnam war protest headlines in 1965, as a major MIT-based professor of linguistics opposing any US intervention, direct or proxy, in Asia.

His 1967 classic _American power and the new mandarins_ presented what one might call his first politics. It was a coherent message. And it opened many fronts.

The early Chomsky compared the Soviet and American imperial systems. Both of them posed as saviours and developers of their satellite nations – and of their domestic oppressed classes – in the name of a social scientific wisdom about the true path of development.

In both superpowers, the new mandarins, intellectuals pontificating about this true path, legitimized the state. But he noted that while the Soviet system frankly suppressed dissent, the US system stage-managed an appearance of free debate in the media. Only careful analysis shows how this managing is done, by the state aided by intellectuals who sell themselves in return for the comfort of being pets of the system and the virtuous sense of participating in ‘debates’. On issues where the elite itself is divided, the media in a democracy feature differing views within a narrowly defined range determined by elite interests. For example, when the Vietnam war became expensive and unwinnable, the US elite split into ‘hawks’ who wanted to bomb their way to victory and ‘doves’ who felt it was a shame one couldn’t win the war but preferred to write it off as a bad investment. The apparent ‘debate’ between them completely silenced those who felt the intervention was simply immoral and should be stopped regardless of America’s chances of winning it.

Also crucial to Chomsky’s first politics was an emphatic and principled nonviolence (we cannot compete with the state on that score, he said to his fellow protesters, finding it ironic that some of those who wish to stop state violence should indulge in brutal counter-violence at all) implying advocacy of co-operative rather than competitive mechanisms of social articulation. His programme was inspired in part by the early anarchist thinker Kropotkin, who celebrated the co-operative instincts of ordinary people. His other hero, the anarchist pioneer Bakunin, had urged the public to beware of intellectuals, who if rewarded with power willingly accept the job of keeping quiet or even justifying the crimes of the state to the public. Such a critique of the state and its mandarins lay at the heart of the early Chomsky’s view that global discussion options were stifled by a ‘liberal-Leninist’ consensus. Liberal Americans and Leninist Russians agreed that the state, a neutral machine, is to be legitimately used by ‘our side’ to attain just goals.

Thus the world public was deceived into assuming a radical difference between the two cold war powers. In fact, they used different management techniques for similar ends.

Chomsky’s own anarchist position holds the state to be consistently a corrupt and distortive system that coerces, manipulates, deceives.

Those seriously working for the public good cannot attain fair ends by such foul means. This view distances Chomsky from communist images of an intellectual-led revolution founding a scientific state that abolishes all evils. He works instead to strengthen the public’s spontaneous loyalty to justice and legality.

“What legality without the state”, did you say? Chomsky would find this naive. Governments are the criminals who get away with their crimes, he argues in _Pirates and Emperors_.

One factor that might discourage states from routinely committing crimes would be the growth of a world-wide public opinion that favours giving real teeth to interstate institutions like the United Nations and the World Court. Such a climate might stop governments from flouting all the laws they swear by. This public consensus will grow only as people begin to see through the lies they are cynically fed by the media. People don’t always understand the big frauds that all governments perpetrate on them. Consider the asymmetry – exposed by Chomsky’s analyses – between the media’s overcoverage of Khmer Rouge atrocities in Kampuchea and undercoverage of Indonesia’s equally barbaric genocide in East Timor. Unbalanced reporting produces unbalanced public awareness. As the desire of the public for true liberty and civil rights for everybody grows, people will demand accurate information as a right.

For this outcome, a lot of developments need to synchronize. A society must get out of grinding poverty, war, and other emergencies so that its public can begin to worry about issues like civil liberties or the struggle against official deceit. At the top of the global system, international legal arrangements have to emerge from principled negotiation between nations willing to subordinate their sovereignty to the general good. The need for this general good has to be felt by responsible negotiators and the publics they speak for. The public perceives this need, as in the case of ecology, most directly in relation to a home town whose well-being they, as a community, take pride in. Such public interest in the physical and social welfare of communities and their home regions grows as the public starts taking part in economic-political decision-making.

This argument leads to the ideal of self-governing communities, running their economies locally, resisting the wiles of big business and centralized governmental systems. Thus you end up wanting these anarchist arrangements if you really want massive state-and-media deceit to stop. Outsiders running your affairs always manipulate you, and you in your dependence get taken in. Even if you vaguely see what they are doing, you often let them get away with it. Chomsky, an optimist, believes that in the long run people do get acutely angry and impatient with this state of affairs and steadily struggle their way towards self-managed lives. This self-management which he believes will prevail is going to be based on shared principles rooted in universal human common sense.

This deep faith in the power of common sense – rather than the special expertise that intellectuals claim – receives some support from Chomsky’s professional work as a scholar in linguistics. In an unprecedented series of interventions since the 1950s, he single-handedly reversed the earlier tendency to treat languages as well-defined and closed systems that could become the object of description, manipulation, and control by foreign or otherwise alien ‘experts’ – this tendency, known as ‘structuralism’, had attempted to reduce the body of language to a corpus and its principles to a structure. Chomsky created a living discipline, generative grammar, to which he attracted many of the best minds of the time. That line of inquiry made it clear, from the 1950s onwards, that a language is not a dead set of forms that can be circumscribed; it is a living creativity wherein all members of the community have an equal, common, human share, regardless of who the stars are and who the fools. We will return to this topic, to show how Chomsky’s academic work exemplifies the principles of his politics.

Of the many fronts Chomsky’s early politics had opened, he later fought most energetically on a few. It became his main task, as a leading dissident, to set all intellectuals an example of how to make responsible use of the familiar resources of democracies and turn their power against the crimes of the state and its adjuncts like the media.

Issues arise all the time; one need not invent them. It is enough if, on every major issue, those who hold coercive power in the state and intellectual power in the media are held to account.

Your task, as a thinking person, is to expose their crimes publicly according to the known, typically clean rules of the law they claim to abide by. Such exposure keeps demonstrating to us that those who claim to be experts knowing what is best for us in fact consistently cheat us. Thus the public hardens its resolve to be vigilant and prevent such hoodwinking by forcing the system to follow its own rules and be accountable.

The later Chomsky, then, has been working hard to ground our skepticism about governments in our ever deeper loyalty to the law which they claim to defend, but chronically violate.

For him, respect for the law begins in the pan-human search for a transparent, understandable set of living arrangements consistent with common sense.

The end of this search is in sight. Humankind has painfully attained international legal mechanisms, born out of the universal revulsion at such grotesque state crimes as the Holocaust and Hiroshima. To strengthen the hold of the law on human minds, it is vital that responsible thinkers should help the public, on major issues, to see through official verbiage and get at the truth. They must restrain their intellectual flights of fancy. One should not dissipate public energy on adventurous ‘alternatives’ which either collapse without yielding durable arrangements or which, following a frequent route, initially whip up popular enthusiasm for a manifestly good cause but later leave the public chained to a powerful centralised state. Thus Chomsky does not support such gestures as anarchist deschooling or anticapitalist attacks on production as such. In his vision, communities freely labour to produce things for their own and each other’s use, harnessing ever improving technology to these human ends, extending the range of normal scientific means and not wildly abandoning them. This sober approach is crucial to his version of nonviolence.

Chomsky does not blindly endorse all the pollutive doings of the industrial-scientific tradition, of course. He wants environmental health and women’s rights as a matter of the self-improvement of the Enlightenment programme, not as a departure from it. The vigilant self-governing communities he envisages organise the modes and goals of their productive labour. In his vision, this provides a transparent guarantee of a truly environment-friendly, sustainable and fair industrial arrangement that can remove uneven development in all its forms.

However, Chomsky has not pleaded for his vision by producing complex arguments to impress fellow intellectuals.

For the glorification of the market or of undemocratic central planning by states or by private think tanks to stop, and for the co-operative alternative to receive widespread public support, he feels, ordinary public debate must give the new option a truly unshakable footing. Intellectuals can at most aid. They should not seek to lead. Social questions are matters of public decision, not privately discoverable fact, Chomsky believes as a scholar. ‘Behavioural scientists’ who offer a scientific basis for policy recommendations strike him as managers of behaviour and manipulators of opinion trying to subvert freely debated democratic decisions and impose their own views instead. In his early scientific work Chomsky subjected behaviourist psychology to a devastating critique from which behaviourist ideology never recovered. Psychologists still read his 1959 review of B.F. Skinner’s _Verbal Behaviour_ as the classic paper that terminated the behaviourist adventure. The critique of behaviourism rests, as do the arguments for a generative linguistics of living speakers against a structuralism of dead texts, on a breathtaking ‘Chomsky revolution in linguistics’. This revolution, too, focuses on conserving energy, refraining from wild gestures and overextensions, and developing an autonomous alternative by open debate and collective inquiry. The result, a self-sustaining ‘generative enterprise’ of international scientific study of the universal nature of human language, has been a fortress against potential invasions from systems of management, ‘teaching’, ‘control’, and ‘psychology’. The generative picture shows the native speaker of a language as uncontrolled, self-driven, spontaneous. The growth of language in each mind is rooted in an innate biological endowment and spontaneous curiosity reaching out to tune into other active minds. The person is not mechanically ‘taught’ language, but vitally grows it, independently of the tutelage of church, school, or other representatives of the state-machine posing as a nation-community. The generative characterisation of this vitality is widely accepted as the single most insightful picture anyone has ever drawn of language as a ‘mental organ’, as Chomsky puts it, comparing it with the heart or the lungs.

By steadily pleading lack of interest in just how such a linguistics can assimilate into broader (and thus inevitably managerialised) systems of thought – concerning language teaching, or writing ‘complete’ descriptive grammars, or placing language on media-friendly maps of the commonplaces of ‘culture’ – Chomsky and his colleagues everywhere, by visibly focusing on the strengthening of the autonomy of the generative scientific community, by refraining from diluting, mixing, packaging, selling managerial byproducts or otherwise taking populist advantage of the prestige of their research, have been directly practising a positive politics of dignity. The moment they stop insisting that the study of human mental phenomena is modular and that the language module we linguists study is unamenable to the routines of interdisciplinary journalism, generative linguists may have their sharp voice – speaking for the innate autonomy of the rich capabilities of the human mind for self-expression – drowned in the system-driven chorus of various ‘innovative and effective methods’ whereby the manipulators and modifiers of behaviour can tell people what to do. Or so the picture looks to the Chomskyan eye. Surely this is a coherent politics. For some reason, many observers misread the generative enterprise as an ostrich-like modelling of language as a mathematics divorced from social reality and perhaps amounting to reactionary escapism. These are odd, and possibly ill-informed, charges. Chomsky does plead for a linguistics that works with the hard sciences. But that is because the research programme, under his leadership, has been drawing a conclusive, hard-nosed, rich portrait of the human mental endowment with which to effectively challenge the natural sciences to offer biochemical infrastructures that can plausibly underwrite these demonstrated formal capabilities. Thus, in a central domain, Chomsky and his colleagues have forced the techno-industrial system, in this case its scientific sector, to play by rules it claims to uphold. A softer or compromised linguistics would be unable to issue or sustain such a challenge, for it would dissolve into adventurism. Chomsky may not have directly contributed to the ecological wing of the progressive endeavours of our times. But his sustained exemplification of a sustainable politics, on public issues and in his scientific work, leads to the steady and principled growth of local autonomies, to a responsible and non-adventurist support for human spontaneity as the mainspring everywhere of untutored/ authentic action, and thus to a world of healthy environments that learn not to imperially coerce or blackmail each other, but to co-operate. This may not be perfect, or complete, or proof against all criticisms. But I have yet to hear of any other programme that remotely matches its degree of coherence, continuity, reach, and rootedness in everybody’s ordinary, but powerful, shared human attributes.

Deccan Herald 21 January 1996, Sunday Herald section, pp 1 and 4



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