Sunday, 20 August 2017

Class Warfare - Noam Chomsky


You can't really beat a good clenched-fist salute, can you? Power to the people and all that. Che Guevara? Power to the people! Wolfie Smith? Power to the people! Noam Chomsky? Power to the people! Jeremy Corbyn? Er...
The thing about Noam Chomsky is that for the past forty years or more he's been the holder of the crown for the world's foremost heavy-weight political thinker and whenever anyone steps up to challenge or criticise him they're fully aware of this. Or they should be. For this reason any critic or challenger is almost always going to be viewed as trying to make a name for themselves on the back of defeating Chomsky in an argument or even as a contender for the title.
In a lot of instances it's patently obvious that the challenge being made to Chomsky's political analysis is purely for the kudos in throwing a hat into the ring, so as to somehow prove the challenger or the critic is not intimidated by Chomsky and that they are, in fact, Chomsky's equal if not intellectual better. Apart from this there's nothing really to be gained from having a go at Chomsky. There's certainly nothing to be gained politically, which means the challenge or the critique is only being made as a bid to shoot Chomsky down.
Whenever Chomsky is in a position to be able to offer a reply (particularly in live situations) he will very calmly draw a pen from his pocket, tap it on the table, and in his typical mild manner, very politely tear the challenger or the critic apart like a Samurai warrior drawing his sword and cutting down a would-be assassin. More often than not, the challenger/critic is left hapless and exposed by Chomsky as the intellectual pygmy they always turn out to be. See Chomsky's interview on YouTube with BBC journalist Andrew Marr as a perfect example.

In Class Warfare, Chomsky touches upon this subject and admits that it worries him: 'There's a real invisibility of left intellectuals who might get involved.' he says to David Barsamian "I'm not talking about people who want to come by and say, okay, I'm your leader. Follow me. I'll run your affairs. There's always plenty of those people around. But the kind of people who are just always doing things, like whether it was workers' education or being in the streets or being around where there's something they can contribute, helping organizing - that's always been part of the vocation of intellectuals from Russell and Dewey on to people who are doing important things. There's a visible gap there today, for all kinds of reasons.'

Another problem he highlights in the book is the 'personalization' involved in the public talks he gives and the gap between the huge audiences that attend the talks and the follow-up, as in the far lower numbers actually physically getting involved with things politically.
This is evident with events such as the annual Anarchist Bookfair in London where thousands of people pass through the doors of whatever venue it's being held at but when it's all kicking off the following week or whenever, they're nowhere to be seen. All those thousands of people never seem to make an appearance on the street. You see some, of course, and you subsequently get to know them but for the vast number, you never catch sight of them again - until the next bookfair.

Not that Chomsky is infallible at all, as evidenced only recently with the social media kerfuffle following Chomsky's remarks about Antifa being a "major gift to the Right, including the militant Right, who are exuberant." Such a comment would be par for the course from most other quarters but because it came from Chomsky it was immediately controversial. Just search the Internet for the arguments it caused. As a caveat, however, Chomsky does always say "Don't believe anything I say. Go out and find out yourself."

For all that, Class Warfare as the title for this book is a bit of a misnomer as it hardly touches the subject at all. In fact, the only time Chomsky actually mentions 'class warfare' is when describing corporate propaganda: 'The U.S. has a much more class-conscious business community, for all kinds of historical reasons. It didn't develop out of feudalism and aristocracy. So there weren't the conflicting factors you had in other places - the highly class conscious business community, very Marxist in character, vulgar Marxist, fighting a bitter class war, and very aware of it. You read international publications and it's like reading Maoist pamphlets half the time. They don't spend billions of dollars a year on propaganda for the fun of it. They do it with a purpose. For a long time the purpose was to resist and contain human rights and democracy and the whole welfare state framework, the social contract, that developed over the years. They wanted to contain it and limit it. Now they feel, in the current period, that they can really roll it back. They'd go right back to satanic mills, murdering poor people, basically the social structure of the early nineteenth century. That's the situation we're in right now. These huge propaganda offensives are a major part of it.'

Apart from this, it's business as usual with Chomsky being questioned about the manufacturing of consent, American government policies, Indonesia, and the Middle East. One of the most interesting parts is when he talks about an address he'd made at an anarchist conference in Australia where he'd spoken about how he'd like to strengthen the federal government: 'The reason is, we live in this world, not some other world. And in this world there happens to be huge concentrations of private power which are as close to tyranny and as close to totalitarian as anything humans have devised, and they have extraordinary power. They are unaccountable to the public. There's only one way of defending rights that have been attained or extending their scope in the face of these private powers, and that's to maintain the one form of illegitimate power that happens to be somewhat responsive to the public and which the public can indeed influence. So you end up supporting centralised state power even though you oppose it.'
The relevance of this in the wake of Brexit and the backing of Corbyn by a lot of anarchists in the last General Election is glaring.

The best bit in the book, however, is probably what appears to be almost an aside that Chomsky makes, when he says: 'The question that comes up over and over again, and I don't really have an answer is: 'It's terrible, awful, getting worse. What do we do? Tell me the answer.' The trouble is, there has not in history ever been any answer other than: Get to work on it.'
And that's as good advice - if not better - as any that could be given.
John Serpico

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