FWD: Cohen and Rogers on Noam Chomsky III

William S. Lear rael at zopyra.com
Sun Dec 6 19:14:35 PST 1998

investment no jobs), and thus leads workers to restrain their demands on employers and the state. It also tends to focus those demands on material gain, a concern that can be in some measure satisfied within the system. Second, the characteristic inequalities of resources between capitalists and workers systematically favour the former as collective actors, providing further obstacles to organized opposition and further bases for worker consent to the system.[74]

Assuming that such an account seems generally plausible (an assumption that we do not propose to defend here), it has an additional attraction in this discussion, namely that one can accept it as consistent with endorsing our first two criticisms of the propaganda model and embracing that model's most central claims about media bias and the narrowness of debate. That is, once explanatory emphasis has been shifted onto non-ideological sources of consent, there is no difficulty in granting that elites are often confused, and that ideologies are not always highly functional for elite interests. At the same time, the view does not exclude ideology as a possible source of consent, let alone exclude the media as a source of its propagation. Indeed, by softening some of the claims made for the importance of propaganda, while admitting the central insights of the propaganda model, such an account of consent seems to us a natural way to highlight the force of Chomsky's work in this area.

Expanding the Domain of Freedom

We come, finally, to Chomsky's views on social evolution, and the second question posed at the outset of this section. Why should one think that existing societies, structured in ways so hostile to the exercise of human freedom, might change in a direction more in keeping with that essential human capacity? Our discussion of Chomsky's view of social order (even admitting the amendments to that view we have suggested) underscores the force of this question, for it may suggest that he sees dominant groups as in some sense invincible. In light of that discussion, it is easy to see why he believes that the "struggle for freedom and social justice" is "unending, often grim",[75] and why political actors face "temptations of disillusionment ... many failures and only limited successes".[76] But it may be more difficult to understand why he also thinks the struggle against oppression is "never hopeless",[77] or to understand the grounds for his "hope that our world can be transformed to 'a world in which the creative spirit is alive, in which life is an adventure full of hope and joy, based rather upon the impulse to construct than upon the desire to retain what we possess or to seize what is possessed by others.'"[78]

In Chomsky's view, the source of hope lies in human nature itself. He


speculates that constraints on human freedom that are not "required for survival in the particular state of history" will tend to be sloughed off, as a result of the moral nature of human beings, the "instinct for freedom", and the "continual efforts to overcome authoritarian structures and to expand the domain of freedom" that result from that instinct.[79] Put otherwise, systems that impose unnecessary constraints on natural tendencies to human expression will, by that very fact, face intrinsic sources of instability. The significance of these destabilizing pressures for reform will of course depend on a range of factors relevant to political mobilization --- including the number of people who feel the constraints of existing order, the capacities for and willingness to pay the costs of collective action on the part of those who do, the willingness of dominant groups to repress or murder their own populations, the power of foreign states to thwart mass action, and the strategic choices of opponents of oppressive regimes. Still, such pressures are present, and their presence suggests a weak evolutionary tendency toward societies more accommodating of human freedom.

Illustrating these claims about basic human nature and the pressures it exerts on unjust arrangements, Chomsky suggests, for example, that the "propaganda system" in the United States --- its tremendous power and durability notwithstanding --- is "extremely unstable because of the reliance on lies. Any system that's based on lying and deceit is inherently unstable."[80] The thought that underpins this view is that lying about US policies (or disguising them in other ways, for example through covert action) is necessitated by the decency of the population, who if confronted with the truth would resist those policies. And elsewhere, in arguing (correctly, we believe) against the familiar "expert" view that the American public has recently shifted profoundly to the right on social and foreign-policy questions, he notes the continuing dissent of the population from many of the more brutal aspects of recent us policy, "despite all the brainwashing and indoctrination and so on".[81] Here again, such resilient decency, and the threat it poses to indecent institutions and policies, derive from our moral nature and our fundamental aspiration to freedom.

More broadly, Chomsky rejects the currently fashionable neo-Nietzschean view that the history of the world is merely a history of change, in which old forms of domination are simply replaced by new ones, without significant progress in meeting such fundamental human interests as the interest in freedom.[82] A "child of the Enlightenment",[83] he finds instead that human history, at least at some moments, exhibits "detectable progress in the guarantee of fundamental human rights, difficult as it may be to pronounce such words in the century that has given us Hitler and Stalin, agonizingly slow as the


process may be."[84] Such progress reflects "continual efforts to overcome authoritarian structures and to expand the domain of freedom." And those efforts, in turn, "probably (reflect) instinctual patterns that are just part of our moral nature."[85]

To us, Chomsky's "optimistic view"[86] seems highly plausible. As noted earlier, a fundamental human interest in autonomy and capacity for moral judgment appear to have played a significant role in many historical achievements in the cause of human freedom (for example, the abolition of slavery, the extension of religious and political toleration). Despite the murderousness of the twentieth century, such aspirations and capacities have clearly been operative in many of the great political struggles of the recent past --- from Third World efforts to break free of colonial bondage, to the civil-rights movement in the US, the worldwide movement for women's liberation, or the revolution against Stalinism in Eastern Europe. And whatever the political doldrums of the present, there is every reason to think they are operative now.

Chomsky has disavowed a "faith" in any project or tradition, including a faith in reason itself.[87] But his weak evolutionary theory suggests a "reasonable faith"[88] in human beings that works in support of hope about social advance.[89] While the evidence about people is not decisive, nothing that we know about human nature is inconsistent with the contention that aspirations to freedom and decency are fundamental features of that nature; and nothing that we know about social order defeats the hope that the pursuit of these aspirations will produce significant improvement in human circumstances. The fact that such hopefulness is consistent with the evidence enables children of the Enlightenment to be optimists of the will, without condemning themselves to being irrationalists of the intellect. It is Chomsky's insistence on this point, his commitment to both reason and moral hope, that we take to be his signal contribution to social thought.[90]


Notes (page numbers reflect original location of notes):

[1] "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" (1967), in N. Chomsky, *American Power and the New Mandarins: Historical and Political Essays*, New York 1969, p. 325. References to Chomsky's work that appear in the footnotes are intended only to support the claims we make about his views, not to provide an exhaustive inventory of relevant passages.

[2] Chomsky also, of course, has long engaged in more direct forms of political activism, including civil disobedience.

[3] *Language and Responsibility*, New York 1977, p. 3.

[4] Chomsky's own work in linguistics may be understood as a contribution to the development of such a theory, but he would be the first to assert its distance from a complete and systematic account.

[5] *Language and Politics*, edited by Carlos P. Otero, Montreal 1988, p. 756.

[6] "The Relevance of Anarcho Syndicalism", in *Radical Priorities*, edited by Carlos P. Otero, Montreal 1981, p. 247.


[7] See, for example, "Language and Freedom" (1970) and "Notes on Anarchism" (1973), in *For Reasons of State*, New York 1973; "The Relevance of Anarcho-Syndicalism".

[8] On the background in rationalism and romanticism, see *Cartesian Linguistics*, New York 1966; "Language and Freedom", pp. 402-403; *Language and Mind*, New York 1972, pp. 76-7.

[9] In the case of language, Chomsky's idea was to secure the connection between creativity and rules --- to show what enables us, as Humboldt put it, to "make infinite use of finite means" --- by incorporating recursive rules into a representation of the grammatical knowledge of ordinary speakers. For discussion of the role of recursive rules in solving Humboldt's problem, see *Aspects of the Theory of Syntax*, Cambridge, Mass. 1965, p. 8; *Language and Polities*, p. 146, and the striking remark: "I think that the ideal situation would have been to have someone in 1940 who was steeped in rationalist and romantic literary and aesthetic theory and also happened to know modern mathematics."

[10] The discussion that follows draws on various remarks that Chomsky makes about the connections between his views about language, human nature and politics. For a representative sample, see *Cartesian Linguistics*, pp. 24-6, 91-3; "Language and Freedom";


[10] (cont.) "Equality: Language Development (1976), Human Intelligence, and Social Organization", in *The Chomsky Reader*, edited by James Peck, New York 1987, pp. 195-9; *Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures*, Cambridge, Mass. 1988, ch. 5; *Language and Politics*, pp. 143-8, 240-46, 318, 385-7, 402-3, 468-9, 566-7, 593-4, 696-7, 755-6. In these passages Chomsky does not separate, as we do, issues of modularity and creativity in considering the relevance of the understanding of human language for a more general theory of human nature. But the passages listed above suggest the relevance of both, and they are, so far as we understand, independent. Thus, the existence of a visual module employing a rigidity principle in the interpretation of visual experience does not imply anything about the creative use of visual perception (whatever that might mean). And the absence of a module in a particular domain is consistent, at least in principle, with creativity since the latter might reflect general features of human reason (as Descartes seems to have thought). Finally, the relevance (such as it is) of the study of human language to a more general theory of human nature is not affected, so far as we understand, by the shift from a conception of language in terms of rule systems to Chomsky's more recent "principle and-parameters" view. For discussion of the shift in the account of language, see *Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use*, New York 1986; *Language and Problems of Knowledge*.

[11] *Aspects of the Theory of Syntax*, p. 57.

[12] *Language and Politics*, pp. 696-7.


[13] *Language and Problems of Knowledge*, p. 153.

[14] Orlando Patterson emphasizes that slaves are characteristically represented as outsiders to the community that enslaves them, as "natally alienated". See *Slavery and Social Death*, Cambridge, Mass. 1982, ch. 2.

[15] *Language and Problems of Knowledge*, p. 155.

[16] For example, "Language and Freedom", p. 405.


[17] On enjoying the activities of others, see "Equality: Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization", pp. 198-9. For discussions of the "Aristotelian principle" and its connection with the value of community, see John Rawls, *A Theory of Justice*, Cambridge 1971, pp. 424-33, 523-5 (the background in Humboldt is noted on p. 525, n. 4).

[18] For discussion of these features and their relevance to historical sociology, see Barrington Moore, *Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt*, White Plains 1978; Roberto Unger, *Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory*, Part 1 *False Necessity*, Cambridge 1987; Joshua Cohen, "The Moral Arc of the Universe: The Case of Slavery", n.p. 1989.

[19] Immanuel Kant, *Critique of Practical Reason*, Part I, Book I, trans. Lewis White Beck, Indianapolis 1956.

[20] *Language and Politics*, p. 756.


[21] See "Notes on Anarchism", p. 404; "Equality: Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization", p. 195; *Language and Politics*, p. 147.

[22] "Interview" (wish James Peck), in *The Chomsky Reader*, p. 29; also "Notes on Anarchism", p. 371.


[23] Our discussion of Chomsky's anarchism has been greatly aided by Michael Taylor, *Community, Anarchy, and Liberty*, Cambridge 1982.

[24] Alexander Berkman, for example, asserts that "Anarchism teaches that we can live in a society where there is no compulsion of any kind." See *What is Communist Anarchism?*, New York 1972, p. 182.

[25] "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship", in *American Power and the New Mandarins*, pp. 72-124.

[26] "The Relevance of Anarcho-Syndicalism", p. 260.

[27] Drawing on a range of anthropological and historical studies, Michael Taylor argues that virtually all anarchist communities have relied on some scheme of social controls (threats and offers of sanction) to ensure compliance, and not simply on socialization and education. See Taylor, *Community, Anarchy, and Liberty*, pp. 39, 76ff.

[28] "The Relevance of Anarcho Syndicalism", p. 250.


[29] Chomsky commonly emphasizes a general concern about concentrated power, suggesting that the nineteenth century libertarians focused on concentrations of power in the State and Church, while twentieth-century libertarians (especially socialist anarchists) have extended such concerns to the concentration of economic power. See, for example, ibid., p. 248; *Language and Politics*, pp. 301, 744.

[30] See, for example, the discussion of the possibilities of providing protection within a state of nature in Robert Nozick, *Anarchy. State, and Utopia*, New York 1974, pp. 12-17.

[31] "The Relevance of Anarcho-Syndicalism", p. 249.

[32] Ibid., p. 251.


[33] Ibid., p. 250.


[34] Ibid., p. 250.

[35] Ibid,, p. 251.


[36] Chomsky indicates that this question arises naturally, given his views on human nature; see *Deterring Democracy*, London 1991, p. 397.


[37] See "Manufacturing Consent" (1984) in *The Chomsky Reader*, pp. 131-2; *Deterring Democracy*, ch. 12.

[38] *Turning the Tide: US Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace*, Boston 1985, pp. 234-6.

[39] The term, taken from Walter Lippmann, *Public Opinion*, London 1932, provides the title for E. Herman and N. Chomsky, *Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media*, New York 1988.

[40] See, for example, *On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures*, Boston 1987, which notes that US is near the "libertarian end in the spectrum of existing societies" (p. 114) but that debate proceeds "within very narrow limits" (p. 124).

[41] Herman and Chomsky, in *Manufacturing Consent*, use the term "propaganda model" to refer just to the first of the two components discussed in the text. For reasons of terminological convenience we use the term to cover a wider range of Chomsky's views about the media. We do not assume, however, that Herman embraces all aspects of the propaganda model as it is characterized here.


[42] Herman and Chomsky, p. xv.

[43] The account of the five filters advanced in Herman and Chomsky is basically a refined version of the conception of elite interests sketched here (though we have abstracted from their fifth filter, namely anti-communism). Thus they discuss the way that news is filtered through (I) the "important common interests [that owners of major media share] with other major corporations, banks, and government" (p. 14); (2) the need of the media to sell an audience to advertisers who are interested in "audiences with buying power" (p. 16); (3) the dependence of media on government and corporate sources of information (p. 19); and (4) the requirement of sensitivity to "flak" produced by "individuals or groups with substantial resources" (p. 26). The basic, "guided market" model of explanation is that the power to fix what gets said is held by individuals and groups who have substantial resources, who have a reasonably good understanding of their interests, and who seek to ensure that what is said conforms to those interests.

[44] "Interview", p. 45.

[45] In emphasizing that this policy is deliberately pursued, we do not mean to suggest that there is a conspiracy --- that elites *explicitly coordinate* in the pursuit of a common interest in deception. On the other hand, the explanation is not a classical invisible-hand explanation, since the pattern of distortion is the result of deliberate acts of distortion by individuals.

[46] Ibid., p 39.


[47] For example, in one interview Chomsky claims that "The more intelligent people are just lying, but the less intelligent believe it." See *Language and Politics*, p. 713.

[48] "The Backroom Boys", in *For Reasons of State*, p. 3. Chomsky borrows the "lunatics" phrase from then New York Times reporter Gloria Emerson.

[49] While Chomsky's earliest political essays focused on the "secular priesthood", the emphasis in his writing shifted in the late 1970s to the role of the mass media in the manufacture of consent. At least part of the explanation may lie in the role that academic experts on Latin American politics played in opposing US policy in Central America in the 1980s. See, for example, the discussion of the report by the Latin American Studies Association in the 1984 Nicaraguan election, in Herman and Chomsky, ch. 3. For note of the relative unimportance of such opposition, however, see *Deterring Democracy*, p. 105, n. 24.

[50] Chomsky often emphasizes that illusions about the operation of the world are most pronounced among such "experts". See, for example, "Interview", p. 43.

[51] *Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies*, Boston 1989, p. 47.

[52] *Language and Politics*, p. 373.

[53] "Interview", pp. 48-9.

[54] *Language and Politics*, p. 685.


[55] Ibid., p 765.

[56] Ibid,, p, 602.

[57] Ibid., p. 765.

[58] *Necessary Illusions*, pp. 47-8.

[59] *The Culture of Terrorism*, Boston 1988, p. 3, and n. 3.

[60] *Necessary Illusions*, pp. 148-9.

[61] Chomsky himself states that he decided to focus his political writings on the operation of "ideological institutions" for two reasons. The first was a "judgment of importance", the second a matter of personal circumstances and abilities. And he says that considerations of the second kind would have been sufficient to lead him to concentrate on the ways in which schools, universities and media "serve to indoctrinate and control". *Language and Politics*, p. 372. But saying this is perfectly consistent with what we state in the text.


[62] See, for example, *On Power and Ideology*, p. 128; *Necessary Illusions*, p. 148.

[63] Herman and Chomsky, pp. xiv-xv.

[64] *Necessary Illusions*, p. 151.

[65] For Chomsky's own criticisms of media coverage of events leading up to the Gulf war, see *Deterring Democracy*, ch. 6.


[66] "The Backroom Boys", in *For Reasons of State*.

[67] Ibid., p. 66. See also Chomsky's remarks about the "persistence of ... astonishing illusions" among presidential advisors and the existence of "historical fantasies at high levels of decision-making" --- "absurdities that must be taken seriously, given the vast resources of terror in the hands of those whose decisions are guided (or justified) by them." Ibid., p. 165, n. 193, and the references there to *American Power and the New Mandarins*.

[68] "The Backroom Boys", p. 54.


[69] Adding further openness, or doubt, is the fact that American elites are divided, and what is functional for one elite group may not be functional for others. One consequence of this is that the predictive power of the propaganda model is diminished. Different popular ideologies may be equally functional for elites in general, but not for elites in particular. In these circumstances the model does not tell us which ideology will reign.


[70] Chomsky does discuss several other sources of consent, agreeing for example with our view (presented in chapter 3 of J. Cohen and J. Rogers, *On Democracy*, New York 1983) that consent reflects the fact that the operation of capitalist democracies tends to channel political action into the pursuit of interests in short-term material gain and to enable individuals to satisfy those interests. See, for example, *Turning the Tide*, pp. 233-4. This, however, is consistent with the claims we attribute to him in the text, which concern the *fundamental* sources of ideological conformity and consent.

[71] That most people, we think, take Chomsky to be making a claim of this sort provides another motivation for engaging it.

[72] For a careful discussion of this and other senses of ideology, see Raymond Geuss, *The Idea of Critical Theory*, New York 1981.

[73] Chomsky is aware of this. See, for example, *Turning the Tide*, pp. 240-45. But while he takes it (properly in our view) as a basis for hope in achieving a better political system, he does not explore the limits it suggests to his own account of the stability of that system.


[74] For such an account, see Cohen and Rogers, ch. 3.

[75] "Language and Freedom", p. 406.

[76] *Turning the Tide*, p. 253.

[77] "Language and Freedom", p. 406; *Deterring Democracy*, p. 64.

[78] *Problems of Knowledge and Freedom: The Russell Lectures*, New York 1971, pp. 110-11. Chomsky is here quoting Bertrand Russell.


[79] *Language and Politics*, p. 469.

[80] "Interview", p. 49.

[81] *Language and Politics*, p. 735; *Deterring Democracy*, p. 173.

[82] See, for example, Chomsky's summary of his disagreements with Foucault, in *Language and Responsibility*, p. 80.

[83] *Language and Politics*, p. 773.


[84] *Necessary Illusions*, p. 355.

[85] *Language and Politics*, p. 469.

[86] *Language and Problems of Knowledge*, p. 154.

[87] "Interview", p. 48.

[88] The term comes from Kant, who held that it is reasonable, on moral grounds, to have faith that God exists, that the will is free, and that the soul is immortal. See Kant, *Critique of Practical Reason*, Part I, Book 2.

[89] And, recently, he appears to acknowledge as much. See *Deterring Democracy*, pp. 397-401.

[90] We would like to thank Robin Blackburn, Robert Brenner, Edward Herman, Paul Horwich and Carlos Otero for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


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