If you want to make money writing or on the lecture circuit, do not become a linguist. With the rare exception of books like Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct or John McWhorter’s Power of Babel, the general reading public does not have a strong appetite for the latest innovations in syntax. Modern linguistics is highly technical, and despite their study of language, linguists have a remarkable inability to write approachably. Except, it seems, when writing about politics.
A surprising number of contemporary linguists have made names for themselves offering social and political commentary that, though credible and compelling, can only occasionally be described as linguistic. While this is in no small part due to a considerable methodological consistency across the social sciences, it is doubtful that any of them would have written so confidently outside their field if not for the Abraham of linguist-as-public-intellectual, Noam Chomsky.
While there is ample debate regarding Chomsky’s contribution to both linguistic and political theory, there is none about his influence. It has now been fifty years since Chomsky waged an assault on behaviorism from which it has only recently begun to recover. ‘It’s not controversial’ (a preface he gives to his most controversial generalisations) that for the past fifty years, linguistic theory has been decidedly Chomskian. Human language is inborn; not simply a conditioned response in the way a dog learns to sit. Children learn the structure of a language (its syntax) far too quickly and from far too crude a source (the yammering of their parents) for the fundamentals of that structure to be anything but the native cognitive melody on which all the world’s languages orchestrate and embellish.
That, at least, is a sketch of what Chomsky has at times called ‘generative grammar’ and what, for the past fifty years, mainstream linguistics has sought to find underneath languages as different as Japanese, Hittite, Latin and Chechewa. Though some of the steam of Chomsky’s half-century has dissipated, he remains a giant in the field and has capitalised on this eminence to cultivate equal influence as a thinker of the political left.
Indeed, Chomsky is his most prolific in his political writings, which have sought to expose atrocities and corruption everywhere from Vietnam to East Timor to Haiti to Iraq to the United States. Particularly after 9/11, Chomsky’s output of books, speeches and interviews has intensified. He has also been the subject of at least three recent documentaries focusing on his critiques of the United States as an imperial ‘terrorist state’ whose military-industrial elite ‘overwhelmingly staff the executive (assisted increasingly by a university based managerial class) and remain in power no matter whom you elect’. Of the 9/11 attack itself, Chomsky remarks that it was a ‘terrible atrocity, but unless you’re in Europe or the United States or Japan, I guess, you know it’s nothing new. That’s the way the imperial powers have treated the rest of the world for hundreds of years’. This trenchant critical reflex is what makes a recent title of his, Government in the Future (2005; 1970), so compelling. Just what is Chomsky’s aspirational project?
Chomsky labels himself a ‘libertarian socialist’ and strongly identifies with the labour and anarchist movements of the nineteenth century and philosophical Marxism more generally. Government in the Future, based on a talk he gave in 1970, patterns itself after the third part of the Communist Manifesto, and proposes to set up four straw forms of government—classical liberal, libertarian socialist, state socialist and state capitalist. This discussion begins with an attempt to reclaim the legacy of classical liberalism from modern conservatives, who identify Smith, Mill and Locke as the philosophical ancestry of laissez-faire capitalism. Chomsky admits that classical liberalism does advocate
that state functions should be drastically limited. But this familiar characterization is a very superficial one. More deeply, the classical liberal view develops from a certain concept of human nature, one that stresses the importance of diversity and free creation, and therefore this view is in fundamental opposition to industrial capitalism with its wage slavery, its alienated labor, and its hierarchic and authoritarian principles of social and economic organization.
Chomsky singles out Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767- 1835) as expressing ‘classical libertarian thought’ in its ‘most profound form’. This choice is conspicuous not only because of Humboldt’s modest notoriety among late Enlightenment thinkers but also because Humboldt did not build his career as a political theorist, but as a linguist. Indeed, in On the Structural Variety of Human Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind, Humboldt posited a ‘constant and unvarying’ mental process underlying all language, one which Chomsky himself has identified as the progenitor of his ‘generative grammar’.
In his political writings, Humboldt was staunchly libertarian, in whatever sense the word is taken. His Limits of State Action confines the state to the very narrowly defi ned ‘maintenance of security’, which is ‘nothing more than leaders in war, and judges in times of peace’. Humboldt candidly admits that he would allow all sorts of social and economic ills in which the state nevertheless should not intervene, because ‘it is not enough to justify such restrictions, that an action should imply damage to another person; it must, at the same time, encroach upon his rights’. These ‘rights’ extend to no more than the equally narrowly defined rights to property and freedom.
Chomsky interprets Humboldt’s exaltation of freedom as an indication that ‘state intervention in social life is legitimate “if freedom would destroy the very conditions without which not only freedom but even existence itself would be inconceivable”, which are precisely the circumstances that arise in an unconstrained capitalist economy’. He argues further in a rather paradoxical passage: ‘Nor did Humboldt understand in 1790 that capitalist economic relations perpetuated a form of bondage that, as early as 1767, Simon Linguet had declared to be even worse than slavery.’ According to Chomsky, the late eighteenth century did not confront the commodification of labour and ‘had no conception of the forms that industrial capitalism would take. Consequently, in this classic of classical liberalism Humboldt stresses the problem of limiting state power, and he is not overly concerned with the dangers of private power.’ These are pre-industrial libertarians, tending to their gardens.
This revisionism, however, is hardly supported by the historical record or the writings of Humboldt’s contemporaries. Multinational corporations, often with their own private armies, have existed for at least four hundred years and it was their very state-like qualities that prompted their intense state regulation until nineteenth-century reforms. Adam Smith’s (1723-1790) critiques of labour regulation directly (and without much need for extrapolation) developed into the ‘freedom of contract’ that stifled minimum wage and maximum hours laws for over a century, and Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) blithely acknowledged that the poor were ‘rather worse than better’ as a result of their working in ‘large manufactories, unfavourable both to health and virtue’. Because such a struggle to subsist builds social dynamism, however, Malthus argued that this kind of extreme inequality should not only be tolerated, but fostered.
So it is not clear that Chomsky’s notion of the yeoman libertarian is wholly accurate. No educated person living at the end of the eighteenth century would be na√Øve about the costs of free enterprise. Nor is it clear why he feels the need to tie his libertarian socialism to the Enlightenment. Like Marx, Chomsky calls not for reform but for revolution; it is a status quo built on the Enlightenment that both Marx and Chomsky seek to upend. What need is there for the bourgeois philosophy of imperial Europe in a ‘popular revolutionary movement [that is] rooted in a wide strata of the population and committed to the elimination of repressive and authoritarian institutions, state and private’? Indeed, Marx ridiculed the political thinkers of Humboldt’s Germany as excessively pedantic and expressive not of ‘the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of human nature, of man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical phantasy’.
Perhaps this dissonance occurs simply because universal principles, like universal grammar, give Chomsky a foundation to advocate the ‘humane and rational use of our material wealth and power’. As he asserts elsewhere: ‘David Hume, two hundred and fifty years ago, pointed out that the foundation of morals must be what we nowadays call generative grammar. He didn’t call it that, but it must be some set of principles that we’re capable of applying in novel situations—again, without limit.’
Universal grammars and principles imply a far more attractive array of philosophical possibilities than does behaviourism, and the universal humanism of the Enlightenment can be anything from the left’s universal human rights to the ‘universal human values’ and ‘universal human hopes’ of which George W. Bush speaks. Unsurprisingly, Chomsky agrees with Bush that the most universal of all principles is ‘the call of freedom [that] comes to every mind and every soul’ or, in the words of the other, ‘the essential and defining property of human beings is their freedom’. It is not enough to say that Bush is cynical. If one begins from a concept as vague (and yet so fundamental) as freedom, its orchestrations and elaborations are likely to be as mutually incomprehensible as Japanese and Hittite.
For Chomsky, the true successor of Enlightenment libertarianism is not liberal capitalism but libertarian socialism, in which ‘state power must be eliminated in favour of democratic organization of industrial society, with direct popular control over all institutions by those who participate in — as well as those who are directly affected by — the workings of these institutions’. Chomsky’s description of what exactly this means is primarily philosophical, relying on a series of anarchist and Marxist thinkers, and displays particular historical affection for the Paris Commune and the anarcho-syndicalist collectives of civil war Spain. He explains,
So one might imagine a system of workers’ councils, consumers’ councils, commune assemblies, regional federations, and so on, with the kind of representation that’s direct and revocable, in the sense that representatives are directly answerable to and return directly to the well-defined and integrated social group for which they speak in some higher order organization—something obviously very diff erent than our system of representation.
Chomsky expresses an optimistic belief that history is on his side and writing in 1970, this was perhaps reasonable. The student riots in France, the AEFU movement in England, and the anti-war movement in the United States at the end of the 1960s were the political highwater mark of the radical left. Thirty-fi ve years hence, however, Chomsky’s council system appears as quaint (and plausible) as the model of direct democracy outlined in Muammar Qaddafi’s Green Book.
So why does Chomsky publish this now? He attempts to counter arguments about the implausibility of direct democracy by characterising objections as either disparaging of the freedom ingrained in human nature, or as narrow concerns about practical efficiency. He responds: ‘It is a bit difficult to take seriously arguments about efficiency in a society that devotes enormous resources to waste and destruction.’ This fatally misses the point, however. The issue is not efficiency but viability. The Paris Commune was crushed after two months, unable to withstand the assault of the Versailles government in part (according to Fredrick Engels himself ) because its very fractiousness hampered its ability to wage a strategic defence. Likewise, the anarchist collectives of Civil War Spain lost popularity and ultimately succumbed to the far better organised Communists in their resistance to the Fascists. Chomsky proposes a form of government which, though perhaps virtuous, rapidly collapsed in the face of competing social and political forces whenever attempted. Problematic, as the security of the state is the state’s primary function, according to none other than Humboldt.
Instead of engaging deeply with these objections, Chomsky merely goes on to curse the sea. The second half of Government in the Future (which is ostensibly about State Socialism and State Capitalism) presents the driving condemnation of the (then) contemporary military-industrial complex for which Chomsky is famous. Robert McNamara takes the place of Donald Rumsfeld. ‘[A] small industrial elite of huge conglomerate companies is gobbling up American business and largely destroying competitive free enterprise’, he argues, though certainly the American businesses he is thinking of in 1970 (e.g. General Motors, IBM, AT&T, etc.) would have diff erent counterparts today. Sycophant legislatures blindly defer to the executive’s military priorities. ‘The Cold War’, instead of the ‘War on Terror’, ‘is important in providing an ideology for empire, the government subsidized system here, and for militarized state capitalism.’ Chomsky’s dragons remain to be slain. With Government in the Future, he reminds us that he has been a consistent and charismatic champion of the left’s opposition to them.
Indeed, to understand Chomsky’s appeal one really must see him. His tone of voice is so professorial that he mutters even his most controversial and conclusive assertions with the blasé clinicism of an entomologist describing the breeding of ants that gives him an overwhelming air of moral clarity. He is at his most dynamic in interview situations or when taking questions from an audience, giving answers that rapidly string together facts of such vast scope that one feels compulsorily convinced (though not entirely sure of what the question had been). Chomsky’s appeal is much like that of the equally prolific Hunter S. Thompson (who died on 21 February 2005). Their unequivocal candour about that which is normally euphemised, their embrace of extremism and their repudiation of irony convey a sincerity that make them appear as outlaws for truth in a frontier administered by spin.
It also cannot be said, despite appearances to the contrary, that Chomsky is merely a stalwart of the Old Left. His rhetoric drips with Marxism, and yet his thought is profoundly anti-Marxist. The Communist Manifesto makes clear that Communism is a materialist (indeed behaviourist) conception of history. Chomsky has made his career as a critic of determinism and was indeed at odds early in his career with Old Left thinkers such as Michel Foucault on this very point. His politics, as founded on universal principles of conscience, are far more in keeping with Gustavo Gutiérrez’s liberation theology than the New Economic Policy. Only in the past twenty-five years have the intellectuals of the secular left replaced class struggle with the primacy of human rights.
As with his linguistics, however, Chomsky’s universal political theories prove too idealised and unwieldy to implement coherently. Humboldt ultimately served in government, as did Smith and Hume. Chomsky, for all of his activism, has never had to make the hard choices and compromises that accompany political responsibility, and his writing reflects that. It is not his prescriptions that have made him a Brahmin of the left but his keeping close tabs on the sins of its enemies. While that is a vital contribution that Chomsky makes remarkably well, his pugilism leads those predisposed to agree with him to believe that any opposition is either malevolent or ignorant of the facts. His is the ‘with us or against us’ clarity that is becoming dangerously common in this century.
Michel Paradis is an American MPhil student studying Linguistics at Balliol College, Oxford. His academic interests include the linguistic analysis of law and computational linguistics.