Cohen and Rogers on Noam Chomsky I

William S. Lear rael at
Sun Dec 6 19:13:58 PST 1998

Scanned by Bill Lear, December 1998. Note: the page numbers appear as they did in the *Review*, at the bottom of each page. Footnotes have been moved to the end of the document, with original numbering.

*New Left Review*, Number 187, May/June 1991.

Joshua Cohen Joel Rogers

Knowledge, Morality and Hope: The Social Thought of Noam Chomsky

In his first published essay on politics, Noam Chomsky announced his conviction that "[i]t is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies." [1] Acting on that conviction, Chomsky has long supplemented his work in linguistics with writing on contemporary political affairs, focusing principally on the politics of the Middle East, the immorality of US foreign policy, and the role of American mass media and intellectuals in disguising and rationalizing that policy.[2] By contrast with his work in linguistics, which is principally theoretical, Chomsky's political writings in the main address more straightforwardly factual questions. As he emphasizes, these can be settled without special methods or training, and their significance can be appreciated through the application of common-sense norms and beliefs (for example, that aggression is wrong, concentrated power is dangerous, and citizens have greater responsibility for the policies of their own country than for those of other states), as aided by "a bit of open-mindedness, normal intelligence, and healthy scepticism."[3]


The characteristic focus, intensity and hopefulness of Chomsky's political writings, however, reflect a set of more fundamental views about human nature, justice and social order that are not simple matters of fact. This article explores these more fundamental ideas, the central elements in Chomsky's social thought. We begin (section I) by sketching the relevant features of Chomsky's conception of human nature. We then examine his libertarian social ideals (section II), and views on social stability and social evolution (section III), both of which are animated by this conception of our nature.

To anticipate what follows, we take Chomsky's social views to be marked by four key claims: (1) human beings have a "moral nature" and a fundamental interest in autonomy; (2) these basic features of our nature support a libertarian socialist social ideal; (3) the interest in autonomy and the moral nature of human beings help to explain certain important features of actual social systems, including for example the use of deception and force to sustain unjust conditions, as well as their historical evolution; and (4) these same features of human nature provide reasons for hope that the terms of social order will improve from a moral point of view. Thus stated, these four claims are clearly neither concrete nor precise. But neither are they vacuous. They provide what we take to be a distinctive, optimistic perspective on human beings and human possibilities. The exposition that follows aims principally at a sympathetic clarification of this perspective. While our discussion is often critical, the criticisms themselves are intended to clarify Chomsky's views and to underscore deeper points of agreement with them.

Before turning to that discussion, however, a cautionary remark about the character and self-conception of Chomsky's work in this area is in order. Most important, Chomsky does not have a theory of society or justice, in the sense of a clearly elaborated and defended set of fundamental principles. In fact, he believes that significant progress in ethical and social inquiry requires a systematic theory of human nature, something that does not now (and may never) exist,[4] and that in the absence of such a theory social and ethical thought must rely on relatively speculative and imprecise ideas ("guesses, hopes, expectations"[5]). Moreover, Chomsky denies any originality for his social and ethical views, identifying himself as a merely "derivative fellow traveller"[6] in the anarchist and libertarian socialist traditions.


Finally, and no doubt in part owing to his conviction that his social and ethical views are neither systematically developed nor original, Chomsky presents those views in an occasional and sketchy fashion. Almost always announced as speculative, and often advanced only in response to promptings from interviewers, their presentation commonly takes the form of quotation from and endorsement of certain views of other thinkers (for example, Rousseau, Kant, Humboldt and Marx).[7] Apart from creating natural difficulties for any attempt at systematic summary, the character of Chomsky's presentation underscores the need for caution in reading more into, or expecting more of, his work in this area than he invites. We hope that we have heeded our own warning in what follows.

I What Can We Know? Rationalism Romanticized

As already noted, Chomsky believes that a substantive conception of human nature must play a central role in both the ethical assessment of social arrangements and in the explanation of their operation. By a "conception of human nature" he means an account of the biological endowment of the human species, and in particular the aspects of that endowment that figure in the development of human cognitive systems --- aspects that are common to all human beings (excepting those suffering from pathologies) and perhaps unique to the human species. At its core, Chomsky's own conception of human nature draws together a romantic emphasis on the distinctive human capacity for creative expression and a rationalist contention that there is an intrinsic and determinate structure to the human mind.[8] In his work, these romantic and rationalist strands are joined through the contention that the intrinsic structure of mind provides a framework of principles that underwrites the possibility of the relevant forms of creative activity, while at the same time limiting the attainable forms of human expression.[9]

This conception of human nature is most fully developed in Chomsky's linguistic theory, which emphasizes both the *creativity* exhibited by normal human language use and the *modularity* of the human language faculty.[10] According to Chomsky, the "fundamental


fact about the normal use of language"[11] is its "creative aspect". Human beings have the capacity for a potentially *unbounded novelty* in the production of utterances that are appropriate to their circumstances, but that are not *controlled* by immediate stimuli (though they are commonly prompted by such stimuli). The linguistic knowledge expressed in such creativity is acquired by virtually all human beings in a relatively short period of time, and in the face of unstructured and impoverished inputs from the environment. Given this "poverty of the stimulus", Chomsky argues that language acquisition can plausibly be explained only on the assumption that human nature includes a language "module" --- an innate system of language-specific principles, or "universal grammar".

Chomsky's more general remarks about human nature are fuelled by the speculation that these ideas about creativity and modularity in the domain of language might have more general application, and that the theory of language might suggest a paradigm for a more general account of our nature. Thus he notes that "at some very deep and abstract level some sort of common-core conception of human nature and the human drive for freedom and the right to be free of external coercion and control" of the kind that figures "in a relatively clear and precise way in my work on language and thought" also "animates my social and political concerns".[12]

Language and Human Nature

To understand how the ideas featured in the linguistic theory might be extended to provide a broader account of human nature, consider first the modularity hypothesis. In areas other than language --- for instance, vision, scientific reasoning, aesthetic and moral judgment --- human beings might be thought to attain complex and determinate cognitive systems in the face of relatively impoverished data, thus suggesting the presence of modules governing cognitive development in these other domains as well. For example, human beings appear to


have a moral nature. That is, there appears to be a natural human tendency to interpret human interaction in moral terms --- to display a concern about the justifiability of actions in light of their effects on the well-being of others. That concern is manifest in, among other things, complex systems of moral judgment that are deployed in response both to actual problems and to the hypothetical cases of moral philosophy; furthermore, these systems appear to go well beyond anything that might plausibly be found in the "impoverished and indeterminate" data available to a child who receives moral instruction.[13] The hypothesis of moral modularity would explain the acquisition of a system of moral understanding in part in terms of a set of intrinsic features of mind that are specific to morality. A characterization of the moral module would of course need to be consistent with the variety of moral systems, but it would also impose limits on possible human moralities. Thus, features of it might help to explain certain formal properties that are allegedly displayed in systems of moral understanding (for example, why moral conceptions are either deontological or teleological, or why moral norms feature elements of symmetry, generality and impartiality) and/or certain substantive features that seem to be common in moral systems (for example, prohibitions against killing innocents, wantonly imposing pain, or enslaving members of the community).[14]

Consider next a natural generalization of the creative aspect of language use. Here the thought would be that, by underwriting the acquisition of a variety of complex cognitive systems, our nature enables us to engage in creative activities that deploy those systems. Thus creativity would be a feature not just of language use but of moral judgment, common-sense understanding, and the use of that understanding in productive work, artistic activity and scientific achievement. Of course, a human potential for creativity might be joined with a desire for habit and repetition and a hatred or dread of novelty. But Chomsky's contention is that, associated with the intrinsic possibilities for human creativity and underscoring their relevance for ethics and social explanation, there exists an innate propensity to pursue the forms of creative expression for which our nature suits us. Borrowing a phrase from Bakunin, Chomsky sometimes refers to this as an "instinct for freedom".[15] Elsewhere he suggests that we have not merely an instinct towards but also a need for such free activity, and that the failure to accommodate that need results in individual and social pathologies.[16] Taking the remarks about instinct and need together, Chomsky appears to endorse the view, associated with Aristotle, that human beings enjoy the exercise of their natural powers, with enjoyment perhaps scaled in part to the complexity of the activity in which those powers are engaged, and that we enjoy as well


the exercise by others of their powers, at least when we have the opportunity to engage in like activities ourselves.[17]

Certain features of this view strike us as significant and plausible. Much historical sociology testifies to the claim that there is a fundamental human interest in free activity (alongside other interests in some level of material comfort and in being treated with respect by others), and that human beings have a moral nature in the sense just described.[18] It is, for example, not implausible to explain the destruction of slavery, the development of religious pluralism, and the evolution of democratic ideals and their (admittedly highly imperfect) expression in social and political arrangements, in part by recourse to these basic features of human beings. It is less clear, however, that these matters are illuminated by considerations of modularity and creativity drawn from the theory of language. It may be the case, for example, that human beings have a moral nature but lack a specifically moral module. What underlies our acquisition of moral systems might instead be, as Kant supposed, intrinsic features of human reason as such. On this account, the construction of moral systems would not involve the deployment of principles specific to a moral faculty, but rather the application of a "pure reason" to matters of human action.[19] This might be sufficient to account for moral competence --- for the complexity and determinateness of human moralities, and the capacity to respond to novel cases in ways that transcend specific instruction --- even if the parallel contention about the acquisition of linguistic knowledge is not at all plausible. We do not wish to defend this alternative perspective, but only to stress that the important contention that human beings have a moral nature does not depend for its plausibility on the assumption of a moral module.

Similarly, reflection on the creative aspect of language use does not seem to help in understanding human aspirations to self-directed activity --- the fact that "people really want to control their own affairs ... [and] don't want to be pushed around, ordered, oppressed, etc."[20] What is central to linguistic creativity is the capacity for unbounded novelty. But what matters to people in their aspirations to self-direction --- to form conceptions of a decent life and to act on those conceptions --- appears not to depend on the prospect of novelty of expression. For example, even if one were persuaded that one's artistic, craft or intellectual activities would issue in nothing novel, one's interest in pursuing that activity free of external control, without being "pushed around", would be likely to remain undiminished.


In sum, we agree with Chomsky's claims about our moral nature and "instinct for freedom", but are less persuaded by the suggestions about how these features of human nature might be understood on the model of the theory of language. Reflecting this conclusion, our references in what follows to Chomsky's "conception of human nature" will be confined to the fundamental points of agreement.

II What Ought We to Do?

Chomsky's normative views, and in particular his account of a good society, are set against the background of his conception of human nature, and the conception of an instinct for freedom that lies at its heart. In outline, Chomsky takes freedom to be the supreme human good, and endorses the libertarian principle that the evaluation of social arrangements should proceed by considering whether those arrangements impose tighter limits on human activity than are necessary, given existing material and cultural constraints.[21] This, of course, is not an especially determinate view. Embracing the supreme value of freedom, and endorsing the principle that unnecessary constraints on it should be eliminated, does not settle issues about the appropriate treatment of time trade-offs (for example, the relative importance of freedom for present and future generations) or distributional issues (in particular, whether it is legitimate to trade the freedom of some for the freedom of others). Still, the conception is not empty. According to Chomsky, indeed, it supports a particular ideal for human beings operating under the material and cultural constraints of modern industrial societies --- namely, socialist anarchism. The best known of his ethical-political views, Chomsky's anarchism is worth exploring at length.

It may be useful here to distinguish two conceptions of anarchism, each of which figures in Chomsky's work. In the first, anarchism is represented not as a substantive "doctrine" but as a "historical tendency", a "permanent strand of human history".[22] Reflecting the human aspiration to freedom, this tendency underlies the emphasis on freedom as the supreme value in assessing social forms, and encourages scepticism about familiar contentions of the "necessity" of social arrangements constraining freedom. To endorse anarchism in this sense is straightforward enough; it amounts to endorsing a critical standpoint in social thought and action, rooted in a concern to eliminate unnecessary constraints on human freedom.

The second sense in which Chomsky (more tentatively) invokes anarchism is less straightforward. Here anarchism does appear as a substantive, libertarian socialist, ideal of social order. Chomsky's anarchism is socialist in that it endorses the social ownership of the means of production, a form of ownership permitting the extension of democratic procedures to economic decisions both in individual


workplaces and across the economy as a whole. What that means in detail is not explored at any length in his writings, but the essential principle is clear enough. The content of the more specifically *anarchist* aspect of his views, however, is less clear.

The basic idea of anarchism is that social cooperation can and should proceed without a state. But the content of that idea depends on the underlying conception of the state and its offending aspects --- what is to be eliminated --- and this has no single interpretation within the anarchist tradition. To locate Chomsky's views, it may help to begin by distinguishing three aspects of states that an anarchist might seek to eliminate --- that states exercise coercive power at all, that they claim a legitimate monopoly on the exercise of coercive power, and that they specialize in the exercise of coercive power.[23] Corresponding to these three aspects of states are three distinct visions of social order, each of which has a claim to capture the basic anarchist ideal of state-free cooperation.

Conceptions of the State and Social Order

The first conception is a *coercion-free system*. In such an order there is no state, in that socially organized coercion does not exist at all and is in fact unnecessary, since the members willingly comply with rules and standards that are publicly announced.[24] Chomsky's endorsement of anarchism seems not to depend on the thesis that a coercion-free system is possible. For example, he often cites the 1936 Spanish anarchist experiments as exemplary of anarchist practice, but they were hardly free of coercion.[25] Furthermore, while he assumes that an anarchist order will reflect and further a "spiritual transformation" of human beings, registered in much greater self-confidence and voluntary cooperation among them,[26] he seems to agree that it would be unreasonable to expect complete civic consciousness and a fully harmonious coordination of interests in a social order that operates on the scale of a modern society.[27] Thus he notes the likelihood that (in part because of popular empowerment) "factions, conflicts, differences of interest and ideas and opinion" will be expressed throughout a libertarian socialist society.[28] Especially given his recognition of such a high degree of disagreement and conflict, it seems safe to assume that Chomsky recognizes as well the need for the continued existence of some agencies with powers of enforcement --- if only to


assure those who were willing to comply that others would not take advantage of their compliance.

A second possibility, then, is a *dispersed-coercion system*. Recognizing the need for powers of enforcement, but concerned about the dangers of a concentration of power,[29] the anarchist might identify the ideal of statelessness with a condition in which no single institution successfully claims a legitimate monopoly on the use of force. Instead, enforcement powers would be dispersed across a set of institutions, each of which would nevertheless be specifically political --- that is, defined chiefly by its administrative and enforcement powers. One example of a dispersed-coercion system might be an order governed by a variety of administrative agencies, each with its own enforcement capability. Another would be a territory featuring a variety of specifically protective associations, each providing security for certain people in the territory, but none with a monopoly on powers of enforcement.[30] But this view also fails to capture the core of Chomsky's anarchism. To see why, let us contrast it with a third interpretation of the ideal of state-free cooperation.

This third possibility is a system with *dispersed coercive powers*, but in which those powers, and all other traditionally political powers of collective decision-making and administration, are dispersed over institutions that do not *specialize* in the performance of political functions. Rather, on this conception, which we take to be Chomsky's own, political powers are exercised by institutions that also, and perhaps chiefly, perform other (for example, productive, associative) functions. Here, the "statelessness" of society is achieved neither by the abolition of coercion (the coercion-free system), nor by the multiplication of its authoritative dispensers (the dispersed-coercion system), but by the transcendence of the traditional division of labour in governance between specialized political institutions that rule, and the rest of a society subject to their rule.

Several elements of Chomsky's view underscore the importance of the elimination of specialized political institutions, the distinguishing feature of this third interpretation of anarchism. Thus, he supports political representation, but imagines representation to be based on such "organic groups" as workplace or community associations, and to feature a "rather minimal" delegation of powers.[31] He sees the need for administration, but thinks that it ought to be a rotating "part-time job" performed only "by people who at all times continue to be participants in their own direct activity" (that is, who act in other capacities as well).[32] And while he does not think that political parties


could legitimately be banned in an anarchist order, he does think that if parties, or any other specialized organizations with an exclusive devotion to political affairs, were "felt to be necessary", then "the anarchist organization of society will have failed".[33]

Within this conception, for example, workers' councils and their representatives might have responsibility for economic planning, and the elaboration and enforcement of rules governing workplace relations (such as rules on occupational safety and health). Tasks traditionally assigned to local governments (the maintenance of local order, sanitation, primary education and the like) would devolve to neighbourhood associations composed of citizens active in other affairs. Regional and national tasks of government would be handled through recallable representatives of such groups. National defence would be assured through citizen militias. And so on. What is essential is that all traditional functions of government would be discharged by groups whose members also engaged in non-governing activities.

How plausible is this conception? Anarchist views are typically criticized for resting on implausible accounts of human motivation, for being inattentive to the ways that decentralization can exacerbate political and material inequalities, and for ignoring the attractions and requirements of economic efficiency. Chomsky's conception avoids at least the most obvious versions of these objections. As noted earlier, for example, he appears to reject accounts of human motivation that would deny the persistence of conflict and disagreement under anarchy. He endorses the idea of a framework of basic rights, and reasonably encompassing arrangements for making collective decisions and administering those decisions, and in these ways addresses some concerns about the pathologies of decentralization. And, responding to concerns about economic efficiency, he stresses that his view does not imply primitive communitarian economic production (the denial of all economies of scale and specialization), and indeed welcomes technological development and increased productivity, which contributes to free social cooperation by limiting the need for human toil. In fact, he thinks that anarchism really comes into its own as a social ideal only with a high level of development of the productive forces of society.

The Weaknesses of Chomsky's Anarchism

We, however, are less convinced than Chomsky of the attractions of anarchism, for three reasons. First, we are simply unpersuaded that policies of, for example, economic coordination, environmental protection and public health are most efficiently made in the absence of specialized bodies, devoted to formulating policy alternatives and to assessing the likely consequences of their implementation. Assuming conditions of large-scale social interdependence, there are likely to be problematic third-party effects or "externalities" in each of these areas (for example, a significant degree of pollution, affecting large populations, resulting from the actions of individuals and enterprises).


Such externalities, and the complex problems of policy planning and evaluation they pose, are not solely attributable to "the irrational nature of [present] institutions"[34] and the incentives to selfish behaviour that they generate. In some important measure, they are intrinsic to social interdependence itself. If only because of problems of imperfect information, they can be expected to appear in an interdependent and technologically advanced society even under the most favourable of motivational conditions (for example, perfect altruism). Given the persistence of externalities and their attendant complexities, however, we doubt that any reordering of social institutions, however welcome, will simplify public policies to the point that reasonably efficient governance can become simply a "part-time job".[35]

Second, we would expect tensions between the proposed dispersion of political responsibility and the effective exercise of that responsibility. Underlying this concern is our assumption that actions needed to enforce the terms of order would be costly; that is, both detecting violations and sanctioning violators would generate costs for enforcers. For reasons familiar from the theory of public goods, the coexistence of dispersed benefits (those accruing to citizens in general from enforcement of the terms of the order) and concentrated costs (incurred by those who engage in enforcement) presents a situation ripe for "free-riding", and a concomitant failure to provide appropriate levels of enforcement.

Such problems are, it should be said, much less pervasive in smaller-scale associations. Reduction of scale almost certainly makes violations more apparent, thus reducing the cost of their detection. And since association norms can be invoked in a process of informal sanctioning, this is also likely to reduce the cost of imposing sanctions, including sanction of those who decline to sanction others. But we are assuming a fairly large and complex association. Here, we believe, the problem of providing incentives to enforce the terms of the order has real bite. And here, a natural solution to the enforcement incentive problem is to establish specialized agencies for administration and enforcement. The specialization of agencies eases the task of providing incentives to enforcement, since those who work in them can be held accountable for their failures (for instance, by being removed from their positions). And it greatly simplifies the problem of monitoring enforcement performance, since the division of political labour enables citizens and their representatives to focus their inquiry on particular institutions and individuals.

Third, we doubt whether the proposed anarchist order would encourage the motivations necessary to its stability, in particular whether it would encourage the formation of a sense of justice comprehensive enough to include all members of the order. We noted earlier that Chomsky supposes that an anarchist order will encourage a "spiritual transformation" of human beings. But it remains unclear how the sort of anarchism he endorses would elicit motivations of the required


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