Review: Noam Chomsky's weak spot on political power

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Power Systems
By Noam Chomsky
Hamish Hamilton (also Penguin), 2013

Review by Alex Miller

February 26, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- This volume consists of eight interviews given by Noam Chomsky to David Barsamian in 2010-12 (in fact six of them were given in 2012). As always, Chomsky’s insights into politics and power are penetrating and insightful, and cover a wide range of topics, including the Arab Spring, Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, the role of social media like Facebook and Twitter in the atomisation of society, the Obama administration, and a host of others. As is usual in Chomsky’s books, every factual claim he makes is meticulously referenced in notes at the end.

Chomsky’s discussion of the neoliberal assault on public education is particularly incisive. He argues that (as with the attack on social security), this has little to do with “reducing the deficit” – it’s primarily a deliberate attack on the ideal of social solidarity.

In addition to political themes, one of the interviews contains as clear an introduction to Chomsky’s views on language and linguistics as you are likely to find anywhere, and the interview format is handled so skilfully that the book is a pleasure to read.

If there’s a potentially weak spot in Chomsky’s approach, it lies in his apparent view that power, independently of the specific social and economic circumstances in which it is realised, has an inner logic that inevitably compels those who wield it in the direction of exploitation and corruption. In this respect, Chomsky’s discussion of power is similar to that in Bertrand Russell’s 1938 book Power: A New Social Analysis.

Following anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, Chomsky implicitly criticises Karl Marx for holding that the workers’ movement should be led by “a kind of radical intelligentsia”, and he agrees with Bakunin’s charge that such a “scientific intelligentsia” would inevitably either degenerate into a “red bureaucracy” or itself become a servant of private capital.

This is hardly fair to Marx, given his insistence (in the rules he drew up for the First International) that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”. While Marx recognised that the radical intelligentsia might have a role to play, his view was that the working class should be led by those of its own members who had developed an advanced consciousness of the role of the working class in historical progress. But it’s clear that Chomsky wouldn’t be happy even with the idea that an advanced section of the working class might lead the class as a whole. Reflecting on the Occupy movement, Chomsky notes that “they have no mechanism for making a unified decision”, and goes on to say that “that’s a good thing. It’s better to have a variety of opinions and attitudes, as well as interchange and interaction about what to do, and to accept and tolerate opposing opinions within a general framework.”

It’s easy to understand Chomsky’s pessimism about the possibility of combining a mechanism for making a unified decision within an organisational structure that tolerates and promotes a range of attitudes and opinions. But for all that, the pessimism may not be justified: if the October Revolution of 1917 – led by an advanced section of the Russian working class – ultimately degenerated into sterile bureaucracy and capitalist restoration, that may be because it took place in a backward, near-feudal society in which the working class was numerically weak (and following the Civil War of 1918-22 almost non-existent), and not because power is governed by some special logic of its own.

That aside, this is another excellent, engaging, and highly accessible book from one of the world’s most stimulating thinkers.

[Alex Miller is an associate member of the Scottish Socialist Party.]