(Part two, on Mark Fisher, Ran Prieur Caitlin Johnstone and Dark Mountain here, and part three — responses from Media Lens, Paul Kingsnorth, Ran Prieur, Jonathan Cook, Noam Chomsky, Caitlin Johnstone and David Graeber — here. An update on their shameful non-response to the poor-annihilating, system-enhancing coronavirus lockdown can be read here.)
What follows are brief critical overviews of seven unofficial socialists; Noam Chomsky, David Graeber, Media Lens, Dark Mountain, Mark Fisher, Ran Prieur and Caitlin Johnstone (I’ll sometimes refer to these as ‘unofficials’). Chris Hedges, Naomi Klein, Jonathan Cook, Kerry-Anne Mendoza, Glenn Greenwald and others are also unofficials and so this criticism more or less applies to them too.
While unofficial socialists are either unemployed, or employed by a university, official socialists (or ‘officials’) are employed by a state or a corporation. These latter are easy to identify, because they usually call themselves socialists, democratic socialists or communists, or strongly ally themselves with socialist political thinkers and politicians. Unofficial socialists tend either to not call themselves anything at all — perhaps ‘lefties’, or ‘on the left’1— or they incorrectly call themselves anarchists. The reason for this is that unofficials don’t want to identify themselves with official socialists, upon whom they focus their critical attention. Unofficials point out, quite rightly, that officials are constrained by the state or corporation they work for, cannot criticise the state with any freedom, cannot seriously jeopardise the profits of the media corporation which employs them and cannot step out of collective state-corp groupthink. Some thoughts, say unofficial socialists, cannot be expressed within an institution without losing your job. Further, unofficial socialists point out that the official state-corporate system, being geared to rewarding only those ideas which are officially sayable, only allows those who have internalised their conformity to such ideas, who are unable to say the unsayable, to rise into positions of influence, which is why they feel free, and often declare that ‘nobody tells me what to think.’
When officially socialist politicians and left-wing corporate journalists hear such criticisms from ‘the far left’, they react predictably. Usually they either ignore them completely or they greet them with the feeble put-downs and moronic sniggering that mainstream thinkers take for argument and wit. Cherry-picking, ad-hominems and breezy dismissals of a critique based on how it sounds or how it feels are also common. If officials do deign to respond to unofficial scrutiny they say that they ‘have a platform’, that they are ‘getting socialist ideas out there’ or that unofficial criticism amounts to ‘infighting’ that falls into the hands of the right, the target of their criticisms. In the most extreme cases official socialists will actually accuse unofficials of being on the right (Putin’s puppets, anti-semites, genocide deniers, etc.).
The basic reason then why unofficial socialists are often uncomfortable with the label of socialism is not because they are above labels, but because they wish to signal their independence from state-corporate employees. This independence is no bad thing, which is why unofficial criticisms of official socialism is usually so trenchant — in the same way that what official socialists say about the right is also usually quite accurate. But it’s a limited form of independence.
Unofficial academics — employees of universities — are only relatively free to speak or, more critically, discover and experience the truth. They are freer than those directly employed by the state or by private companies, but genuinely free and morally courageous thinkers must pass through the same implicit filters in their rise to exalted academic positions as state-corporate employees do, resulting in the same kinds of mediocrity at the top of the pyramid. A willingness to keep within unspoken intellectual limits, a preference for bureaucratic management over actually engaging with other human beings and an ability to win grants and please crowds keeps genuine dissidence out of the higher realms of academia, as does the usual workist restraints on activity; academics are rarely afforded freedom to gad off for years at a time, spend their days doing as they please, or seriously investigating and expressing the depths of life.
Academics are institutional men and women par excellence. They spend their lives transporting ideas from paper to paper. This is why almost nothing of significant, vital originality ever comes from them and why they have such predictable herd-like attitudes towards civilisation, gender, God, mental illness, consciousness, love and other matters of foundational importance. There are exceptions of course, but very close to nil. A great artist, writer or philosopher, someone with their own insights into the living source of life, someone with something actually original to say, fresh, genuinely insightful, who rises through the education system, through the grades of university up to elite professorial tenure is roughly easy to find as a profound professional footballer, or a sweet-natured prime-minister.
Unemployed unofficials aren’t really independent either. There’s not a clear dividing line between writers like Media Lens, Caitlin Johnstone, Craig Murray and Naomi Klein surviving on royalties and donations and Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, Amy Goodman, Afshin Rattansi, Jonathon Cook and company employed by universities and independent media outlets. They form a group, constantly quoting and endorsing each other (just as official socialists do), and relying on the interest and support of their readers; which means they are subject to pressures to conform. A genuinely independent opinion generates fear.2 I know, because I have felt that fear — writing beyond the limits of an established nexus of opinions guarantees you’ll lose the (democratic) support of those who hold to it. The needy little heart of the writer, even the most radical writer, sniffs out an ‘unpopular opinion’3 before it leaves the lips or the fingers. Just as with officials (or with fascists, or Standard Anarchists, or Christians…), it’s very hard to have such an opinion and reach a prominent position within the group, even if the group is relatively small or without prestige. People with ideas further to the left of unofficial socialism do not get their thoughts pinged around the unofficial socialist twitter-sphere or they shed readers like autumn leaves (2020 update: As I did publishing this very piece!).
So what is socialism, or leftism, and how is it different from the anarchist position I am taking here? Socialism means two things. First of all it means workers owning and controlling the means of production and, ideally, surplus. This is, to coin a clumsy word, ‘workism’, the idea that egalitarian social relations are based on the activity we ordinarily call ‘going to work’ or ‘having a job’.4. Secondly — and of far more functional importance among ordinary socialists — it means state control of common resources5 which is to say statism. Karl Marx, the prototypical socialist, made a few vague gestures towards the state ‘withering away’, but he saw, and crucially he acted as if, engagement with the state — taking over its mechanisms and institutions — was the only means by which a stateless society can be effected.
The workism and statism (implicit or explicit, theoretical or practical) of socialism goes hand-in-hand with a cluster of related beliefs and values. Socialists are nearly always civilians, for example — by which I mean they support civilisation — and democrats, they are very often professionals or supporters of professional power and expertise6 and they are usually technophiles, supporting the necessity and utility of industrial technology. Finally — and this is a subtle but profound characteristic — unofficial socialists are, like the middle-class as a whole, nearly always rationalists and relativists (I look at the latter in my critique of Johnstone and Dark Mountain; but, despite being foundational, relativism is beyond the scope of this piece). Like all concepts the idea ‘socialism’ is a cluster of related ideas, values and standards which can evolve and admit all kinds of exceptions — all of the thinkers in this piece are clearly quite different — but what most people mean when they think of socialism is this; acceptance of and support for civilised, technocratic, democratic, professionally-managed states which should be managed ‘by and for the people’7 This is roughly what official and unofficial socialists have in common.
Another commonality is either a positive attachment to identity politics or a notable unwillingness to criticise it. None of the writers and thinkers we’re going to look at have anything really negative to say modern feminism, intersectionalism or BLM. They either enthusiastically support these divisive religious movements — religious in their defence of totems and attacks on taboos (see this account) — or, like a stupendous number of influential folk, are afraid of losing favour with them and pull what feeble punches they make. They’d all like to see a left-wing labour or democrat government — suitably staffed with the requisite number of minorities — but don’t seem to be too bothered about what that would mean in practice.8
I mentioned above that a few unofficial leftists like to call themselves ‘anarchists’. The most famous examples today are Noam Chomsky and David Graeber, although there are many others. These people are functionally socialists — they support democracy, [sometimes] work in large institutions, refuse to significantly criticise professionalism, are often technophiles, often vote and support the state (again implicitly), focus all their activism and interest on state / corporate politics, are intense relativists and conformists (in the sense of psychological dependence on the group9) — but they are basically ashamed of the label, and so they sneakily call themselves anarchists. I shall tackle this in the section on Noam Chomsky below. The point here is that anarchism is not the same as socialism. They overlap at the rightmost edge of the former and the leftmost edge of the latter (and into that overlap rush people like Chomsky and Graeber), but they are, finally, as different as other such distinct-but-overlapping concepts (chair-stool, child-adult, English-Scottish, etc, etc.).
Distinctly-speaking, anarchism is not, without any grey areas, in any sense, statist. Voting, standing for election, engaging in statist politics, proposing statist solutions to political problems may be done by anarchists — I once voted — but can never, ever, be anarchist acts, any more than blasting someone’s head off with a shotgun can be a pacifist act. A pacifist might violently kill someone, and for good reason, just as a vegan might eat a slice of bacon when they are starving, but the word ‘pacifist’ is meaningless if it includes ‘removing someone’s head with powerful munitions’.
Moving towards the overlap we find that some anarchists are civilians, some are democrats, some are industrial-technology enthusiasts, some are supporters of professional power, and many are relativists. I — and others — have argued that all of these positions are inconsistent with anarchism, that if you are to refuse domination, that refusal has to include the domesticating influence of civilisation, democratic majorities, the power of mechanised systems, professional dominance of the commons and the root coercion of the entire civilised system. But in any case, this is the kind of anarchism I am ‘coming from’ in my critique of the unofficial socialists here.10 I am here, in a sense, what they are to official socialists — further left — just as they are further left than official socialists and official socialists are further left than centrists, right-wingers and fascists. Bear that in mind because if any of them respond to my criticism you may see that it is eerily reminiscent of official socialist response to theirs: ignoring11, ridiculing (and name-calling), cherry-picking (ignoring the whole point, the entire thrust, by highlighting a few isolated errors or debatable ‘assertions’), complaining of abuse (conflating ad-hominem with ad-radicem), identifying criticism from the left with that of the right (which also includes complaints that it is somehow tactically unsound to criticise the left), sweeping dismissals founded on ‘feelings’ (‘it feels like you are saying…’ / ‘you come across as…’) and so on. Anything but deal with the whole thing.
A final point. This is a critique — it focuses on the problems and weaknesses of these thinkers, but I acknowledge their strengths and what I personally have learnt from them. I, like many others, am in grateful debt to Graeber and Fisher for their insights, Prieur for his revolutionary creative energy and brilliant observations, Chomsky for his scholarship and Media Lens for their kindness, generosity and indefatigable work unpicking the official bullshit of the UK press. I have elsewhere in my work often cited and acknowledged their contributions and don’t feel I need to go into much more detail of my debt to them here, and anyway their good qualities speak for themselves.
Noam Chomsky is not an anarchist.
Why does this matter, when he is a reasonably important intellectual — although idolised out of all proportion to his actual contribution to human understanding — who has written potent critiques of US foreign policy, made some excellent comments about the nature of intellectual conformity and social programming and has very obviously done a great deal of good? Because anarchism is the only way of life which has ever worked, or ever can, and distorting it or drastically limiting it, as Chomsky does, damages its range, subtlety and power. In addition, his lack of interest in anarchism in anything like a wide or profound sense is connected with his disastrous limitations as a thinker and writer.
It doesn’t really matter what Chomsky chooses to call himself; what matters is what he says and how he thinks and behaves — a great deal of which happen to depart from anarchism. To repeat, because I’m sure it will be misunderstood: this is more than an ideological problem. When I say that Noam Chomsky is a not an anarchist, that he is socialist who has adopted and adapted anarcho-syndicalist ideas, I am not offering a semantic or doctrinal argument, faffing about with the in-group fighting that characterises radical intellectual politics. I am, rather, using the terms ‘anarchism’ and ‘socialism’ to highlight the poverty and the weakness of Chomsky’s thought — a poverty and weakness which I think can reasonably be described as ‘socialist’ — when it comes to matters of profound importance to anarchists; such as the state, corporate control, democracy, professional authority, technology, civilisation and — a novel claim this, but an important and valid one — the human ego, which Chomsky’s hyper-rationalism cannot even perceive, let alone speak intelligently about.
Chomsky is a socialist because he supports the state. He has said that the task of dissidents is to strengthen the state,12 he has apparently declared that there is nothing inherently wrong with the state,13 and he has given his often indiscriminate support to numerous left-wing and socialist states (such as his infamous, if accidental14 and dishonestly caricatured,15 support of the Khmer Rouge). His extremely vague ideas about a revolutionary society appear to presuppose a state16. He’s certainly right behind the US state when it comes to ‘regime change’ in Libya, Syria and the Ukraine, all of which have been ruined by Chomsky-supported US interventions. He votes, and frequently recommends voting for certain candidates including Hilary Clinton and… wait for it… Joe Biden! He is in favour of globalisation.17 He holds a distinguished position in the US state-corporate system (funded, for many years, by the pentagon). He told me he spent 70 years working to overturn this system, and yet astonishingly, and quite conveniently, he managed to keep his job.
This doesn’t mean that it is necessarily wrong to, at least occasionally, support a socialist state, vote in an election (or as Chomsky says, spend a second putting a cross on a piece of paper then go back to the real work of activism), or keep your nice job at an extremely prestigious technocratic University. I think a pretty good case can be made that these things are wrong18 but I have voted19, and have taken highly non-anarchistic jobs, one or two of them quite stupendously immoral.20 None of these things, however, are anarchist acts, as Chomsky himself recognises.
Neither is having an enormous amount of money, as Chomsky does21, and as he also recognises. He pointed out to me that having wealth is an un-anarchist state of affairs, which of course I agreed with. I added that having a lot of money could still be classed as moral or fair if you give your money away or spend it anarchically (which doesn’t mean on anarchists of course). Chomsky’s reply to me? ‘I imagine I do [this] far more than your heroes.’
Chomsky is also a socialist because he supports professionalism. Not the acts of particular journalists, teachers, lawyers and so on, which he is bitterly (and brilliantly) critical of, but the existence of a professional class.22 I wrote to Chomsky to ask him about this. He wasn’t interested. He said he has spent fifty years ‘critiquing the work of academic intellectuals’ (emphasis mine). His response to the idea that their existence is inherently problematic? ‘I don’t see it’. I wonder why that is?
Chomsky is also a socialist, or leftist, because he supports democracy. Not just by voting, but generally, uncritically. The many anarchist critiques of democracy (this, for example, or this, or this, or this — all by anarchist authors that Chomsky wouldn’t dream of referencing) do not interest him, nor does the idea, often expressed, that ‘no conception of anarchism is further from the truth than that which regards it as an extreme form of democracy’23 In the real world democracy is a form of authoritarianism, and one of the worst.
All these positions put Chomsky squarely in the socialist zone of the political spectrum. His other views either place him within socialism or at the most socialist extreme of anarchism. For example, like some anarchists — but all Marxists — Chomsky is a technophile. He has no interest in the kind of analyses offered by Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Fredy Perlman, Ted Kaczynski or John Zerzan and confines his attacks exclusively to Orwellian dystopias (those of Huxley, Dick and Kafka do not deserve scrutiny). He has apparently said that cars and robotics are fine24, that ‘much socially necessary work can be confined to machines’ and that technology is neutral, a patent and quite insane falsehood exposed by the above authors. He has also spent half of his professional career developing a model of language that is digital and machine-like — an eminently technopathic, not to mention insane, pursuit (see below).
Likewise, like some anarchists but all socialists, Chomsky has an uncritical approach to civilisation. The catastrophe of agriculture, the limitations of civilised language, literacy and symbolic thought, the means by which civilisation domesticates and infantilises man — particularly through inherently ruinous [industrial] technology25 — the various forms of (entirely anarchic) resistance to civilisation that have arisen throughout its ten thousand year history26 none of these concerns — those of ‘anarcho-primitivists’ like myself — interest Chomsky. His response (to me), was ‘just tell 7 billion people in the world that the problem is that they exist’, and that [these ideas] are ‘completely irrelevant for the modern world for perfectly obvious reasons.’ I pointed out that no sane anarcho-primitivist recommends the entire world immediately returning to the trees (even if something similar may very well end up happening), that anarcho-primitivism focuses on how small groups were able to maintain egalitarian relations with each other (including egalitarian sexual relations), how they reached decisions together (without voting), how they managed to cooperate together (perhaps the word ‘federate’ could be used) why so-called ‘mental illness’ did not arise, or coercive control, their ‘relationship’ with nature and culture (which appeared to be the same), their diet and their psychology; all of which are completely relevant to the modern world, ‘for perfectly obvious reasons’. Not obvious to Chomsky though, who sees in all this nothing more than a recommendation for mass genocide,27 the ravings of those ‘way out on the fringe’.
Another attitude of Chomsky which puts him at the disastrously socialist end of anarchism is his hyper-reductive rationalism28, his total lack of interest in the arts, or in comedy (which he told me was ‘way out at the margins of the lives of almost all people’), or in religion (which he offers an extremely crude critique of, focusing, like Dawkins and Hitchens do, entirely on Abrahamic absurdities), or in love, or in death, or in sex or in gender. None of these things are important to Noam Chomsky. They are, for him, outside the ‘serious’ concerns of anarchists. Anarchist authors like Shelley, Tolstoy, Morris and Wilde29, along with revolutionary artistic movements (such as situationism — or even Monty Python), revolutionary spiritual movements (such as the radical Christian revolts of the late middle ages), along with the teachings of people like Lao Tzu or Ramana Maharshi… none of this is sufficiently ‘serious’. He draws his knowledge from the ‘enlightenment,’ one of the most horrific periods in world history. The disastrous legacy of its chief thinkers — Chomskian heroes Descartes, Locke, Humbolt and Hume30 — we are living with now, but which, for Chomsky, is ‘very positive.’
Finally, of the ideas which situate Chomsky at the Marxist end of anarchism, we turn to anarcho-syndicalism. This is the ‘workist’ belief — largely grounded in nineteenth century thought — that a better world can be built through the activity of powerful worker-run unions and democratic, mainly industrial working-class organisation and agitation. This almost entirely socialist ambition is not just a subset of the principles of anarchism or of classic currents of anarchist thought — which stress total decentralisation of power, and a far wider conception of revolutionary activity than working-class organisations — but has frequently been in opposition to it.
Anarcho-syndicalism inspired the most successful anarchist revolution of modern times, the Spanish revolution, and it does have much to recommend it, particularly in its ‘looser’ forms. It’s hard to imagine a factory — if such a thing really can exist in a sane world, which is unlikely — intelligently operating any other way. But it remains a limited, largely communist, ‘work-based,’ civilised, reformist and bourgeois subset31 within the anarchist tradition.
Chomsky’s favourite modern anarchists are anarcho-syndicalists; specifically Rudolf Rocker and Daniel Guérin. Guérin, for whose history of Anarchism Chomsky wrote an introduction, was also a communist who came to embrace anarcho-syndicalism; which he called ‘the path of reality’. For Guérin, for whom Anarchism started with Bakunin, ended at the Spanish civil war, and is comprised entirely of the trade-union movement and syndicalist agitation, everything else — such as the ‘utopian’ ideas of Peter Kropotkin, or the critiques of anarcho-syndicalism by Enrico Malatesta — is ‘sectarian’ or ‘purist’ fantasy, or simply does not exist. It’s not on his and Chomsky’s non-sectarian ‘path of reality’.
George Woodcock, one of the greatest anarchist writers of the twentieth century, whose history of anarchism is a well-regarded classic, and whom Chomsky claims to admire, suggests that Chomsky calls himself an anarchist32 because he is embarrassed by statist communism33 and wishes to mitigate its contradictions and absurdities by borrowing from anarchism. This seems very likely to me, almost certain, but in any case, Woodcock is correct; by borrowing in this way Chomsky tragically diminishes the potency and scope of that which claims to be representing, ‘reducing it from a comprehensive philosophy of living, embodying [amongst other things] a many-sided strategy of social change, to a mere cluster of tactical concepts’ (which he also does with language: see below). Chomsky finds Woodcock’s claim that he is ‘not an anarchist by any known criterion’ to be outrageous ‘sectarian dogmatism’. He says that Woodcock is decreeing, from on high, what anarchism is, and ruling out Chomsky’s anarchism from a position of intolerable inflexibility.
Chomsky isn’t inflexible though, or sectarian, or a ‘purist’. Oh no! Anarchism has, in his words, ‘a broad back’ (like socialism does for people like Oliver Kamm and Nick Cohen). It just doesn’t include any artists, any anarcho-primitivists, hardly any anarchist thinkers of the past fifty years, any radical critics of democracy or technology, or anything at all prior to the writings of Proudhon, including anything relating to the most successful anarchist societies of all time, those which humans lived in for several hundred thousand years prior to civilisation.
Some elements of Chomsky’s thought are anarchist — and so, strictly speaking (something that Chomsky does a lot, strictly speak), Woodcock may be wrong — but in a limited and highly socialist-friendly sense. The rest is out-and-out socialism or leftism, a chronically impoverished and highly destructive nexus of ideologies (which I investigate more fully here). Again, by saying, as I do, that Chomsky is not really an anarchist, it is this that I wish to highlight, the profound flaws in his approach to life, not in how pure he is or how perfectly he fits my model of The True. Chomsky promotes a limited and futile ideology, called socialism, under an extremely misleading facade of anarchism.
This does not mean that I am dismissing his work helping poor peasants in far-away places, his radically-minded acts at work, his fine media criticism, his voluminous and devastating writing on American foreign policy and perhaps even his occasional vote. Nor I am arguing for Standard Modern Anarchism (the juvenile black-flag brigade obsessed with identity issues and fighting the pigs). Nor am I dismissing Chomsky’s character. I do find him humourless, hyper-literal and intemperate — in his penultimate email to me for example he asked me, before writing again, to send him a list of all the revolutionary acts ‘that you and others way out at your fringe of the anarchist movement carry out. Otherwise don’t bother’ — kind of a twattish demand — but I still think he is a great man, an inspiring activist, no doubt a friendly companion and certainly a fascinating thinker.
Just not really much of an anarchist.34
And not a much of a linguist either.
Chomsky’s work in linguistics is often said to be revolutionary, the work of a genius, equal to Einstein and so on. Not having studied Chomskian linguistics since university, and then not with much enthusiasm, I can’t really offer much by way of comment, although it’s clear, from what I do know, that his work contains little of real human importance. Language, for Chomsky35 amounts to ‘knowledge of recursive syntax that cannot be explained by logic, history, culture, society, physics, or any experience of the speaker outside of the mastery of their native language before puberty.’ Nothing very human. Certainly no engagement with existential realities, which Chomsky doesn’t have the slightest interest in. All that we think and say boils down to computer code in a machine. Chomsky’s grammar does not include or involve consciousness in any meaningful way, nor anything else that is recognisably human. Not hard to see why the military funded him for so long.
Chris Knight recently released a flawed but interesting and detailed book, called Decoding Chomsky in which he places Chomsky’s linguistics within the context of his academic career at MIT, a massive technocratic institution heavily embedded in, and for significant periods, well funded by the US military-industrial machine. I’m not able to comment on many of Knight’s specific claims, but the central thrust of his analysis make sense and Chomsky’s response was interesting:
Knight’s crucial charge… is that military funding influenced my scientific work. There is a very simple way to verify the charge: determine whether (and if so how) the work changed from the time I was a graduate student at Harvard with no military funding, to my early years at MIT, when its funding was quite generally military, to subsequent years when I received no military funding at all. Answer: not in the slightest relevant way — which is doubtless why Knight evades this test.
In the same way, the chief editor of the New York Times could protest ‘my way of thinking before I was employed by The New York Times was the same as it was during my employment, as it was after.’ The point here is not that Chomsky’s work was intended for military use but that it already fit with the requirements, demands and fundamental philosophy of the US military. Obviously it did; if it was useless and antagonistic, funding would have been withdrawn. The military was and is heavily invested in precisely the same elitist technocratic reductionism as Chomsky, which is why they were interested in the idea of language and meaning as something which could be machine encoded, reproduced, transmitted and decoded36 — and only really understood by paid professionals.
Reducing ‘the language faculty’ to a kind of computer and meaning to the binary-digital framework of a mathematically pure vision of language has other problems, apart from iffy moral consequences. One is that it is beyond ridiculous. Did you know that Noam Chomsky, the genius that he is, believes that carburettor and bureaucrat are innate concepts? He really does! Listen:
Furthermore, there is good reason to suppose that the argument (that children learn language so quickly because they already know what words mean) is at least in substantial measure correct even for such words as carburetor and bureaucrat, which, in fact, pose the familiar problem of poverty of stimulus if we attend carefully to the enormous gap between what we know and the evidence on the basis of which we know it… However surprising the conclusion may be that nature has provided us with an innate stock of concepts, and that the child’s task is to discover their labels, the empirical facts appear to leave open few other possibilities.
That is quite surprising Noam. Daniel Dennett was shocked too, that ‘Aristotle had an innate airplane concept… a concept of wide-bodied jumbo jet [and] the concept of an APEX fare Boston/London round trip?’ I’m not one to dismiss insane-sounding ideas, and I even believe that, in some way, everyone has access to all experience, but that children are born with, in Chomsky’s words, a ‘conceptual structure’37 which requires experience to activate is risible for what must be obvious reasons. Again, obvious to everyone but Chomsky.38
Another non-trivial problem with Chomsky’s theories is that they don’t work and have been shown to be wrong; these include such key ideas such ‘deep structure’, ‘surface structure’, ‘meaning-preservation’, ‘transformational rules’, ‘universal grammar’ (which was taught to me uncritically at university in the 1990s), the ‘structure preservation principle’ and so on, all which have all been abandoned… by Noam Chomsky! Not that this bothers him; he’s not interested in testing his ideas or referring to them to reality, applying consciousness to them, or, particularly at the start of his career, to consider real-world applications for them; because those applications were likely to be military ones.
Please don’t ask me for details about Chomsky’s output on linguistics. I’ve got only a vague idea what any of the above jargon refers to and have no interest in studying it in any depth.39 I have better things to do, and if Chomsky himself has turned his back on it, why bother? It’s beyond the ken of mortals anyway. Chomsky, who, continually criticises Orwellian Newspeak wraps his output up in insanely complex technical terms of his own devising, robbing ordinary language of its power to express reality. This is Illichian Newspeak (see here for the difference). Noam Chomsky says the ordinary use of language ‘is a totally useless concept’, that really it is a system of rules — his rules — and in fact is (get this) not even a means of communication. The idea that it is, is a ‘dogma’, a silly relic from yesteryear propounded by people who don’t understand that the entire purpose of language is to talk to yourself, and that the study of language must be left in the hands of responsible specialists with the correct training; ordinary people are not invited. How anarchist.
For Chomsky reality incarnate, the nature of consciousness, the actual world of humans, culture and all our attempts to experience and express what is most important and true in life have no significant bearing on language, communication and meaning, just as they have no significant bearing on Chomsky’s life. He, like most people who have spent their lives in institutions, has very little to say about any of them. What he does say, quite rightly, is that science has nothing to say on matters of real importance to human beings, such as society, consciousness, death, beauty or any other existential, aesthetic or ethical reality. Here it is Knight, faithful to Marx’s monstrous belief that life and science should rest on the same basis, whose views are distorted, while Chomsky’s humble realism is salutary (although that doesn’t stop him endorsing preposterous illusions like ‘Universal Moral Grammar’). Science is, as Chomsky says, extremely, outrageously, limited; but this certainly doesn’t mean that the questions that scientists pointlessly ask — What is consciousness? What is love? What is morality? How did the universe begin? How did life begin? — are impossible to solve, or, as Chomsky continually tells us (for example in his recent address to the Vatican), forever beyond us. They are beyond Chomsky though, for sure, as he never asks them.
To summarise then. Chomsky’s linguistics takes no account of society, nature, consciousness or any kind of reality beyond his own abstract mind, which, for him, as far as language is concerned, is the only thing which can be experienced or meaningfully known. His account of language and meaning — which, in the form of semantics, is largely absent from his work — is an abstract model posited in an abstract organ or ‘faculty’. His theories are, by his own admission or activity, mostly wrong, with no application or bearing on the world, neither testable in a standard scientific manner (he is indifferent to evidence) nor comprehensible to ordinary people. He says that language, as ordinary people understand the word, does not exist and that linguistics is not about language: it’s really an elusive theory that you need his mind-boggling algebra to understand. Chomsky himself has no interest in art, symbolism or literature, very little in anthropology and has nothing interesting to say about the origins of language. Yet he is said to be the most important linguist in the past hundred years. Hard to see how, but there you go. Perhaps if I returned to one of the books that Chomsky himself has disowned I’d change my opinion, although, rather oddly, I’d then end up being at odds with Chomsky himself.
How radical is Chomsky?
Noam Chomsky once wrote:
‘If I started getting public media exposure, I’d think I were doing something wrong. Why should any system of power offer opportunities to people who are trying to undermine it? That would be crazy.’
Generally speaking, he has a point. He’s not a regular in the paps, certainly not these days. Official socialists — employees of the state-corporate system — tend to give space and coverage to those who do not threaten profits, expansion or capitalism, either private capitalism (the ‘free market’) or state-capitalism (communism or official socialism). Such people can be trusted to ‘say what they think.’
And yet. Firstly, Noam Chomsky was employed for his entire career by MIT, and for many years funded directly by the pentagon: only possible because, in his horrible universe, language is a morality-free, culture-free, context-free, meaning-free computer code. The pre-eminent system of world-power gave him extraordinary opportunities.
Secondly, Chomsky is an enormously popular writer and speaker. His lectures and books sell out (Dana O’Hare of Pluto Press said, apparently: ‘All we have to do is put Chomsky’s name on a book and it sells out immediately!’) and earn him a lot of money. He has somehow managed to find a way to appear in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and on the BBC. On numerous occasions. He is everywhere. The reason for this is that what Noam Chomsky has to say about US foreign policy and the media and academic output of the official left is superbly accurate, which is why those who oppose the official left (which is to say the unofficial left) read him, listen to him, support him and ‘offer him opportunities.’ But if he were to tell the truth about them too, if his institutional analysis extended into the deepest layers of the system, if his radicalism reached into the depths of human nature; he would be ignored.
David Graeber’s writing meanders around and around and around, often through fascinating discoveries and ideas (which I have referenced on several occasions) but, in the end, going nowhere. Threads and themes are introduced and abandoned, avenues opened up which lead nowhere, it’s all very exciting but the mind kind of slips off of it. John Zerzan has called him a bad writer, and I think this is what he means; there’s a frustrating sense that nothing is quite connecting up, that there isn’t actually a point here.
This can mean that there isn’t a final point to be made, that a writer is gesturing towards something elusive in life. More often, though, it means that he is either not perceptive enough to reach a point or that he is ashamed of what it is. This seems to be the case with Graeber, who is for civilisation, which means for the mass domestication of nature, and of man, and for the dominator consciousness which gives rise to this domestication. Obviously he doesn’t want to say this outright — and would vehemently deny the charge — so his prose slides over the surface of the matter.
In his now widely-shared essay, How to Change the Course of History40 Graeber presents an apology for agriculture, progress and urbanisation by distorting our understanding of our paleolithic past, and downplaying the shift towards the domestication of nature and human nature that agriculture, and early civilisation, represent. In effect Graeber (and his co-author David Wengrow) tells us that there was never a time when we were socially and, critically, psychologically free, that advanced civilisation is how it is meant to be, that human society has always been kind of unequal and that there wasn’t really an ‘agricultural revolution’ anyway.
As evidence against the ‘Rousseauian’ idea41 that societies have been fundamentally egalitarian and psychologically innocent, Graeber and Wengrow offer a cluster of cherry-picked discoveries of well-provisioned graves which, they tell us, demonstrate that kings and big men have always lorded it over the little people — the only difference, they tell us, is that in the past this behaviour was provisional and seasonal. This, to be sure, is an important point, or at least an interesting idea — perhaps we did ‘play’ at being hierarchical and corrupt, only to put away our toys at the end of the ‘game of thrones’ and return periodically to our anarchistic ways. But this speculation doesn’t wipe away the profoundly egalitarian nature — and human nature — of simpler, older, hunter-gatherer bands. That Graeber seems to think it does is telling.
Graeber and Wengrow don’t tell us that the graves they refer to are nearly all from the beginning of the neolithic period, nor do they make a meaningful distinction between simple hunter-gatherer societies and complex ones (the former — which he ignores, because they are truly anarchic and egalitarian — being far more numerous and significant in pre-history), nor do they point out that all this evidence is a tad ambiguous (although they do concede it is extremely scanty). Could these people have been given special clothes and grave gifts for some reason other than that they were powerful monarchs?
With the idea that the move to agriculture has been overly simplified in popular and academic discussions of the past, Graeber is on surer ground. As James C. Scott points out, forms of agriculture stretch far back into pre-history, long before what we call the neolithic, ‘civilised’, phase of settled human life and, on top of that, the move from small simple hunter-gatherer bands, to the complex horticultural / hunter-gatherer societies that Graeber misleadingly focuses on, to the ‘full-blown’ civilisation of settled agriculture often took a very long time — many millennia — making it, in one sense, silly to talk of a ‘revolution’. In another critical sense, however, the effect of intensive agriculture on society (and vice versa) is clearly worth investigating as it clearly represents a seismic, epochal shift in human life — one which the simpler tribes that later civilisations overwhelmed did have to rapidly transition to.
Graeber focuses on agriculture because this, the ‘Rousseaians’ assert, was the cause of our downfall. This, indeed, is an overly simplistic picture — the fall of mankind began earlier, and was far subtler. The reason that Graeber wishes to dismiss the over-simplifications of ‘hunter-gatherer good, agriculture bad’ is because he wants to deny there was ever any kind of fall, that humanity was once innocent. On the one hand we have, he wants us to believe, always been kind of corrupt while, on the other hand, cities, or proto-cities, have always been kind of egalitarian. The paucity of evidence to support this view, and the wealth of evidence to support the opposite does not interest Graeber, neither does the decisive evidence of self-knowledge.
Despite appearances to the contrary, David Graeber isn’t actually very interested in the origins of human society — because for Graeber there were no such origins. We were always kind of civilised, kind of fucked-up, so no need to investigate, either objectively or subjectively, how the fucked-up civilisation we have began. He doesn’t want to criticise the nightmares of early civilised life and the transparent psychological descent that mass-domestication represented. He likes civilisation. He likes cities (In the above essay he praises the Aztec city of Tlaxcala as a model of democracy!). Like other goodies of mainstream socialist-anarchism, he likes fighting ‘fascists’ and ‘sexists’. He likes being a famous professor at the London School of Economics (formerly Goldsmiths and… Yale!42) He likes being important — and makes many coy allusions to it (‘Imagine my surprise when I found out I’d accidentally changed the world!’ — that kind of thing).
Graeber avoids criticising civilised professionalism; his book Bullshit Jobs doesn’t have a critical word to say about teachers, doctors or the technocratic class of professionals which now rules society. If he did get to the root of institutionalism, he wouldn’t keep (or have been able to get appointed to) his prestigious job. He probably wouldn’t be published either, or welcomed by the Guardian (although not being employed by the latter, he criticises them often and seems to have burnt his bridges with them) or feted by the long list of socialists who praise his work (such as the terrifying war-monger Paul Mason43).
Bullshit Jobs contains, like all of his books, some marvellous observations, but is essentially a more trendy version of Alain de Botton’s centrist bolus, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. It has almost nothing on the fundamental cause of pointless work. He focuses on fascinating but secondary matters, such as how inequality creates ‘managerial feudalism’ (useless and well-paid placeholder tasks) and how the insane debt-economy creates jobs which serve bureaucracy.44 Technocracy, domestication and ego have no place in his analysis. He has no interest, for example, in analysing the rise of the techno-bureaucratic elite and its alienating effect on public life, which is why what he has to say about bureaucracy, technology and work never really feels rooted, or real — always interesting, but always peripheral. Like Chomsky, he doesn’t seem to have read Mumford, Ellul, Illich or anyone who understands nature, human nature or the catastrophic destruction of both under the hammer of techno-bureaucratic power, or if he has, he clearly doesn’t believe that their peerless analysis is very important.
Graeber’s politics are basically those of Chomsky. He digs technology (veering towards the demented jabber of the ‘fully automated luxury communist’ brigade; see this review of Graeber’s Utopia of Rules). He calls himself an anarchist, yet spends an astonishing amount of time engaged in statist politics (from a socialist standpoint). His twitter feed is jammed with comments about the Labour party. He talks about what ‘we should allow’ in other countries. He has nothing intelligent to say about a society that could actually work. He is really, as Bob Black points out, a social democrat. (Graeber: ‘Anarchy and democracy are — or should be — largely identical.’ And yes, he does mean civilised democracy).
Bob Black is one of the most important contemporary anarchists, as is John Zerzan. Significant then that Graeber also has an odd, but revealing beef with both of them. The work of John Zerzan45 Graeber sweepingly dismisses as ‘ridiculous self-parody’, and that of Bob Black, apart from hat-tips to Black’s legendary work essay, is ignored also. Graeber describes Black as ’one of those I-hate-everybody people’ and says that ‘all he does is insult people’. This certainly does have some truth to it; Bob Black spends an extraordinary amount of time insulting his ‘enemies’, but I fear that Graeber’s antipathy towards Black goes deeper than name-calling. Decide for yourself.
Talking of insults though and hating and what not, take a look at Graeber’s twitter feed — at the Tweets & Replies bit — and get a whiff of his tone, his character. You could take a look at his face too — character made flesh. Are those eyes sparkling with friendly aliveness, loving kindness, conscious presence? The standard line is that such matters — tone and character — are completely irrelevant to matters of academic importance. I couldn’t disagree more. If your work touches on human nature, so does your human nature, which is why we find that Graeber, like many leftist academics, has almost nothing meaningful or interesting to say about it. He never references anyone who does speak meaningfully about human nature, he avoids the deep psychological reality of hunter-gatherer life, and he refuses to address it, because conscious reality is of little interest to him. It’s the facts which interest him, as it does all academics. He plays lip-service to qualities, realities, essences and so on, but in the end such things are for airy-fairy folk who, for some strange reason, can’t seem to get tenure.
‘I do not think we’re losing much if we admit that humans never really lived in the garden of Eden,’ says Graeber. And it sounds factually true, so reasonable and rational — for aren’t those people who say we did live in a ‘Garden of Eden’ silly sentimental types? Or, even more absurdly, theists?
And yet, how does he know? How does Graeber know that, say, twenty thousand years ago, or thirty, or forty, or fifty, that humans (some? most? all?) were not basically in a kind of paradise? He does know that there were no rigid hierarchies, no warfare, no sexual exploitation, no repression of children, no alienation and no ill-health, such as agricultural and industrial (aka civilised) people knew. All anthropologists know this. He even knows that there’s no reason to rule out an inherently playful universe. So how does Graeber know that, going further back in time, that alongside these measurable aspects of peace and happiness we were not immeasurably happy, sensitive to each other and to nature, intelligent beyond the capacity of literate moderns to comprehend and psychologically free to play in ways that became impossible as the civilised world developed?
He doesn’t know, but he doesn’t want to talk about it.
(2021 edit: Here is my long review of David Graeber’s ‘magnum opus’, the Dawn of Everything.)
For a long time Media Lens — David Edwards and David Cromwell — helped me with my work. They shared and reshared many of my articles and books. There’s a chance you are reading this because you came from one of their retweets or Facebook posts. Not long after I wrote this piece all that stopped.
Media Lens (ML) have more or less dedicated their lives, at least for the past couple of decades, to critiquing official socialism; so-called ‘left-wing’ media in the UK. Their regular alerts are some of the best writing that can be found on this media. They focus not on the transparent horrors of the right wing press, but on The Guardian and the BBC, and very often the leftmost voices within these outlets, such as Adam Curtis and George Monbiot, in order to highlight, first of all, the limits of dissent — lefter than their left is madness — and, second of all, how propaganda works in a democracy; by applying Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model to the terrifying hive-mind of the official left the entire official system is exposed.
This model, if you’re not already familiar with it, outlines an unspoken framework to news production which filters out information and viewpoints which threaten the advertising revenue of media companies, the interests of their corporate owners, their links to the state, and so on. By pointing out this unspoken framework, by reminding writers like Owen Jones and Paul Mason that they are corporate employees, by widening focus beyond the Concerns of the Day, ML have shown journalists up for the chronically compromised systemoids they are, which makes for some interesting exchanges. Nowadays left-wing journalists don’t engage with ML, but it used to be quite entertaining. ML aren’t intellectual giants, so they don’t crush their opponents like Chomsky does, they’re just right; simply, courteously, honourably and directly. Even sweetly.
But just as they criticise the official left, ML themselves are part of the unofficial left. They rely entirely on donations from the left, which gives them one kind of independence at the cost of another. They occasionally do write stuff slightly beyond the pale, but they are quite aware of the constraints that relying on popularity puts upon them. Usually though, this is not a problem, but if they ever began seriously and consistently questioning their own socialist priorities and assumptions, and those of their audience (which seems unlikely) they’d feel the pinch.
One these priorities and assumptions is democracy. ML support it, and are exclusively focused on changing or influencing the world through its mechanisms. Not that there is anything wrong with the odd vote here and there. A Corbyn government, for example, would have seriously hobbled the UK’s war machine, and provided life-or-death help to an enormous number of British people who, under a Tory government, are suffering dreadfully. But meaningfully change the system? Edwards and Cromwell are unwilling to critically investigate what democracy actually means; but then nobody is, because it’s indefensible.
I repeat; a Corbyn-led labour would have been a good thing, relatively speaking. I briefly joined Labour to get Corbyn in, because I’d like a few friend to survive a bit longer, and my life in the prison, like that of many others, would improve if that kind man had some power. But seriously address inequality, alienation, the misery of work, human-domestication, the nightmare of advanced technology, the innate iniquities of all institutions (including socialist ones) and guide us out of the collapsing international omni-prison? Really? Is that going to happen? I’m pretty sure that ML, being sane, don’t think so, but they certainly don’t dwell on the matter.
Another blind-spot for ML is professionalism, or class. Edwards and Cromwell tend to steer clear of both topics, particularly class. As far as I can tell they are both middle-class (ex) professionals; they certainly exhibit many professional attitudes and assumptions. Another is civilisation, also unexplored by ML. Another is technology, which ML appear to be against, but they don’t publicly investigate the matter. References in the work of ML to those thinkers who do critically unpick these subjects are nearly nil, as it is for all socialists, both official and unofficial.
Generally speaking then, the critique of ML only goes so far. It’s very much focused on a few players in the drama (politicians, mainly), never on the directors (WEF, Davos and the like) and never on the play itself, except in the vaguest of senses. Both Edwards and Cromwell deny they are socialists but the compass of their critique precisely spans that of all socialists.
The socialism of ML came under some criticism with the rise of Greta Thunburg and Extinction Rebellion (XR), promising that most dangerous and pathetic of psychological states, ‘hope’ — or rather, to be more specific, the psychotic social variant popular across the political spectrum, ‘democratic hope’. By putting democratic pressure on governments, XR say, by setting up ‘citizen’s assemblies’ — and by ‘getting the message out’ that civilisation is about to collapse — we can change things. ML uncritically retweeted all the positive publicity that Thunburg and XR received, publicity from such radical outlets as The Guardian, Forbes, BBC and the Financial Times, at one point backing George Monbiot’s dismissal of Cory Morningstar’s article criticising the corporate interests swirling around Greta Thunburg. ML touched on one dubious claim in it (just the one!); there are probably others, I have neither the time nor inclination to check. The whole thing could be full of lies — but the basic point, that corporate powers are working on directing the new green movement, is obviously one to take very seriously; not because of what Morningstar writes but because it’s bound to happen. It can’t possibly not happen. ML’s response? ‘We’ve written before about corporate hijacking of green movements.’ Yet, weirdly, silence on this case.
When asked about uncritical (indeed fawning) support for XR-Thunburg in the paps, ML even claimed in a tweet — almost unbelievably — that the propaganda model had broken down!46 That, faced with the impending collapse of civilisation, journalists had collectively decided to sweep away the monolithic pressures upon their institutions, to courageously ignore owners, advertisers, state-links and so on and, almost miraculously, tell the truth. The BBC, The Guardian and so on were, in their support for XR, not distorting reality, not ignoring facts incompatible with the system they represent, their interests and those of their class — all this had magically melted away, overnight.
ML were also publicly unconcerned that XR’s demands were and are idiotic; achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2025 (which means not eliminating them), setting up a ‘citizen’s assembly’ to tackle the extinction problem, and appealing to governments to deal with the situation. ML were also, apparently, fine with the links between XR leadership and corporate power, and that some of XR’s members were standing in EU elections. Finally ML had nothing to say about the make-up of XR, that it is almost entirely a middle-class phenomenon (ML’s successful strategy of comparing cases seemed to elude them; the difference between how the media had presented the working-class yellow vests and middle-class XR wasn’t of interest). Instead, they focused entirely on the fact that ‘millions of people in numerous countries who have woken up to the very real horror of near-term climate collapse under the label ‘XR’, determined to secure real change saving their lives and those of their children.’
So? First of all — that was bound to happen. ML drew an analogous link between being on a ship, like the Titanic, which was about to sink and kill everyone on-board and on which everyone was pretending that nothing was happening, while people like Media Lens (and indeed myself) were running round saying ‘we’re all going to die’47 while the passengers laugh and wave and smile as if in a nightmare. Of course when the boat slides far enough into the sea, eventually a few people will see we’re doomed, and, a little after that, everyone will go out of their minds. We’re into that stage now — is it a reason to celebrate? Well, okay, it is nice that the nightmare of denial is ending, and mass horror might get a few laws passed that protect the bees — very good — but does it mean that something is going to happen which actually addresses the problem? Are we going to sort this all out? Absolutely no chance.
Millions of people in numerous countries have been aware, for thousands of years, that the world is completely fucked up. There have even been times when the masses have ‘woken up’ and realised that their civilisation is doomed, that they were — and we are — headed straight to hell. The problem here is not with ‘the people’, the members of the Labour Party, the unhappy masses, the now climate-woke ‘millions’ (well, it is, but let’s put that aside for a moment) but with the leadership. In this case, XR is being led, if not by a council of twelve, then by those members who control the website and twitter feed, those who appear on the news, those whose ideas bubble up to the surface, those who run for election, those with more money or even just those who form an assembled majority.48 It might well include those, as Morningstar alleges, who are trying to form themselves into a new green capitalist class. This is a de facto leadership, no matter how egalitarian and lively the grassroots meetings are. ML blended the leadership with the membership and then reacted that criticism of the former impugns the latter, that it falls into the hands of our enemies to make a discerning critique, that it is demoralising. Sound familiar? It should do to Media Lens! These are exactly the arguments offered by corporate journalists when they are criticised by Media Lens. Every day a corporate socialist says ML is stifling change by attacking prominent socialist voices, supporting state enemies, dragging us all down. But apparently this is all irrelevant; because apparently the propaganda model may no longer apply. Corporate journalists are waking up… there is… hope?
In any case, Edwards was right, it is good to have the end of the world on telly for a change. And it’s also good that those people who understand that message are getting together in the non-virtual (sometimes called ‘real’) world, sharing tents in Hyde park and so on. Who knows what might come from that? It’s unlikely to be very much, but you never know. The window will close very soon, but perhaps, before official socialists, centrists and the right colonise the Green movement completely, something — unlike XR — that is genuinely effective, radical and meaningful49 can pop up from what’s going on? Finally, there is a distant possibility that a few relatively simple goals, such as halting an extra runway at Heathrow or cutting down on pointless and ruinous food exports, can be achieved. As with halting the Vietnam war (see inset), mass movements can effect change with such relatively small things.
But halting the system? Halting civilisation? Completely banning all cars? Doing away with all petrochemical products (all the plastics, fertilisers, detergents, dyes, preservatives, resins and lubricants made from them), halting the market, meaningfully allowing the wild to return everywhere? Massive and radical degrowth, instantly? In essence returning the entire world to, at best, a medieval-level economy, in ten years, perhaps even five? What kind of hope is this? It’s not hope, it’s madness, or masturbation. Certainly nothing to do with reality.
I mentioned above that the leadership is the problem at issue with XR, but the problem, with the world I mean, is not so easy to identify. Following Barry Long, I call it the Unhappy Supermind. You could also call it civilisation, or the system; the ten millennia project to completely domesticate the earth, including the earth in men and woman, and replace reality with an ego-generated simulacrum. Media Lens, like many unofficial socialists, don’t like to seriously investigate the idea that this is the worldly source of the ignorance they struggle against. They may accept it somehow, but their narrow focus on media indoctrination obscures the fact there is an unconscious suffering groupmind which directs society — through voting, through unspoken social laws, through widespread misery and hard-heartedness — and which is as immune to lies as it is to truth.50 Certainly the non-stop bullshit of the media-machine does alter opinion and mislead the weak-minded and may even be decisive in influencing mass opinion when, for example, there’s an election; but most people don’t read the Guardian or the New York Times or Das Spiegel, or watch the BBC or ABC or or CNN or whatever to acquire their world-view, they consume news to confirm it. If man were not already domesticated he would never accept the justifying lies of the system. As Marcuse put it indoctrination ‘does not start with the mass production of radio and television and with the centralisation of their control. The people enter this stage as preconditioned receptacles of long standing’. Not an idea likely to appeal to two men who have devoted their lives almost exclusively to the lies of radio and television. Focusing on these may help us see it for what it is, but it also minimises the real problem, which goes far deeper than mere opinion and belief-shaping, and trivialises human psychology, implicitly putting sensitivity, consciousness and love on the same level as opinion and belief. All this makes solving our collective ills all but impossible.
This [implied] idea, that the perceptions, feelings and actions of mankind are chiefly the result of intellectual indoctrination, and not domestication, is actually a middle-class totem. The bourgeois left doesn’t like to dwell on the consciousness-warping effects of technology or the inherently coercive nature of professional institutions, or any other deep conditioning which undermines the middle-class, so they tend to focus on relatively superficial matters, like media programming. Another bourgeois totem, one of Media Lens’ favourites, is extreme pacifism, the bizarre idea that violence is always wrong. Extreme pacifism tends to be promoted by the institutionalised mind because it upholds the state, justifies the immense cowardice of the professional class and, in its milder form — ‘tolerance’ — is a necessary concomitant to the formal, intellectual control of late-capitalist ‘multicultural’ societies. Gandhi, hero of very nice people like Media Lens, advocated pacifism as a tactic, not as an absolutist creed. He rejected pacifism in cases where it couldn’t work.
Their ‘cogitations’ are also alright. These are short essays investigating wider concerns, outside criticism of official socialism. Most (I think perhaps all) are by Edwards, exploring themes inspired by Eastern mysticism. Edwards is not erudite, and he over-relies on limited sources (Fromm, Osho and Eckhart Tolle come up again and again), but he writes with an easy simplicity and honesty, and he often makes good points about his four favourite topics: mindfulness (although again, uncritical), growing up outside the mainstream, having the courage to leave work or the pitfalls of fame. He takes a small step out of the unofficial — resolutely secular and a-cultural — socialist bubble, and make some interesting points about religion and psychology. This open-mindedness is, I venture to suggest, the reason why Edwards, of all the unofficial socialists mentioned here was the only one who had any serious interest in what I write.
Edwards makes good sense and makes some good points; but something is missing. Take, as one example, his most recent essay, Human Alchemy — Field Notes on Watching Emotions. In this he lists several situations, one of them quite funny, in which he overcame a difficult situation by mindfully containing his emotions. It’s nice, but there’s no action. Actually doing something about your problems. Not that action alone achieves anything, as everyone running round and round doing nothing testifies, but mindfulness is useless unless you can act to get your life right; but getting your life right starts to encroach on lots of other subjects which ML aren’t quite willing to go the full distance with, in their cogitations or elsewhere. Their explorations of gender, sex, love, civilisation, ancient history, anthropology, art, literature, nature, death, mental illness, race, the nature of childhood, bizarre psychological realities and transcendence are fleeting and shallow. ML do not seriously, deeply, offensively investigate the reality of these matters because that would open the floodgates of anarchy and that Media Lens aren’t prepared to do.
Part two — Ran Prieur, Caitlin Johnstone, Mark Fisher, Dougald Hine, Paul Kingsnorth and Alastair McIntosh — here
Here is a follow-up with a response to the article from Media Lens, David Graeber and Noam Chomsky, here is an update on the outrageous non-response the lockdown left to the greatest state-corporate crime of the twenty-first century, and here is an update on the update.
- Terms which here I use to describe a certain group of people. I am well aware that ‘left’ and ‘right’ are problematical terms, with very different meanings to fifty or a hundred years ago and, as they all rest on the same domesticated foundation, ultimately irrelevant. In the context of this essay however (and my work generally and in fact most ordinary conversation) the terms do have meaning, which is why I use them and why, unless you are the kind of person who goes running to a dictionary to settle arguments — i.e. a child — it should be quite clear here what I mean by them.
- David Edwards of Media Lens, who writes on some non-standard socialist topics — and is the only unofficial socialist to have expressed enthusiasm for my work — has expressed this fear to me in an email.
- Or, more subtly and powerfully, an unpopular joke, story, song, etc.
- This — something that socialism, fascism, capitalism, totalitarianism and a good many forms of monarchism all have in common — is outside the scope of this essay. Please see 33 Myths of the System for more on the subject of work.
- Communism = complete control, democratic socialism = mitigated control.
- Or middle-class or supporters of the middle-class.
- And, as I say, I am adding to this an underlying postmodern relativism. This doesn’t figure in most people’s conscious definitions of socialism, but it certainly does in their visceral reaction to the middle-class left. Again, not the place to go into this here.
- No space here to go into details; see the later chapters of 33 Myths of the System for details.
- For example the so-called ‘anarchists’ who live on the streets of Madrid or who wear V-for-Vendetta masks, wave black flags and direct massive quanta of revolutionary ire at hating ‘pigs’ — all listen to the same loveless music, wear the same ugly clothes, think the same loveless thoughts and adopt the same loveless poses of their fellows.
- My version of anarchism, outlined here, is as much a condition than an ideology; like ‘truth’ it describes everyone at some point and, in this world at least, no-one most of the time. Critics will of course point to the second aspect, claiming I am only describing myself! Note also that anarchism as I present it honours leadership — complete rejection of which is an expression of herd-mentality.
- Generally this happens when the criticism comes from someone below the fame-threshold (such as me!). As soon as a critic’s reach extends beyond a certain critical mass, the tactic is abandoned.
- He just waves away objections that corporate power (to to mention egoic power) arises from and would inevitably co-opt a stronger state. He says that abolishing the state is ‘not a strategy’ — that it can’t be done. It certainly can’t be done with that attitude Noam! In any case, it certainly will be done, and very soon, as I outline here.
- According to John Zerzan, who mentions a date of 28th January 1988 for this claim. I can’t find the source, but it is consonant with Chomsky’s outlook. Zerzan told me that he wrote this piece many years ago for Fifth Estate, which didn’t accept references and they’ve since been lost. Who knows, but I do trust Zerzan’s scholarship.
- In that he didn’t know the atrocities the KR were committing and obviously if he had, he would have condemned them. The problem was they he assumed there were no such crimes and dishonestly tried to discredit reports that there were.
- Much like his noble and unwavering support for free speech, even for voices he despises, such as holocaust denier Robert Faurisson whose right to be published Chomsky defended.
- Appear: I’m not entirely sure they do. Bob Black makes a fairly good case for Chomsky’s support for law and national planning being statist.
- Like the entire socialist left. The only people who oppose an internal system of technocratic-economic integration — organised by states, presumably — are, says Chomsky, ‘dedicated hermits.’ — which, to be fair, has some truth to it.
- Even, according to Guérin, the Spanish anarchists said voting was wrong.
- Once; and I kind of regret it, but at least I can say it was in the only election that Alan Moore has voted in.
- I worked for a year for Saudi Aramco. Not proud of it, but there you go.
- Apparently he invests in all sorts of shady places, but I have no idea.
- He supports schooling. When asked about his views on Ivan Illich: ‘Deschooling society is taking away from people some of their major opportunities for individual growth and social interaction.’
- George Woodcock.
- Again according to Zerzan, although again I can’t find a source.
- Chomsky: ‘Technology is usually fairly neutral. It’s like a hammer, which can be used to build a house or to destroy someone’s home. The hammer doesn’t care. It is almost always up to us to determine whether the technology is good or bad.’ The stupidity of this position — completely ignoring how hammers have to be made, how society has to be deformed in order to make them, and how they interfere with the social relations and even the consciousness of their users — has been exposed time and time and again; of no interest to Chomsky.
- such as described by James C.Scott — whose work Chomsky claims is not criticising civilisation.
- And other absurd straw-men that leftists set up to attack anarcho-primitivism.
- Here I am talking about Chomsky’s approach to reality, not his specific philosophy, which, like most academics, is a mix of rationalism (basing opinions on reason and logic, rather than on emotion or religious belief) and empiricism (appealing to the objective, sensory world for evidence; as well as ‘the passions.’). Actually both of these are fundamentally the same; the former takes isolated, relative, egoic thoughts as the acme of truth, the latter takes isolated, relative, egoic emotions, sensory experiences and the like, as the basis for reality. Both are isolated, relative and egoic. I attempted to point this out to Chomsky. His response: ‘I am not understanding what you have in mind’.
- Wilde, Morris and Tolstoy either called themselves socialists or did not identify as anarchists; but an enormous amount of what they said was anarchistic, as is widely recognised.
- He doesn’t cite enlightenment celebrities Voltaire, Comte and Bentham. I wonder why?
- One that is, it must be added, increasingly irrelevant in the distributed world of late-stage capitalism.
- Although Chomsky calls himself an anarchist he doesn’t actually say a whole lot more. His anarchist writings form a minuscule body of work. You could fit his entire output on anarchism, over seventy-odd ludicrously prolific years, into a slim, 200 page, volume. Which is what Penguin did.
- Which, as Michael Parenti points out, he has a rather crude hatred for.
- Dec 2021 update. Over the past six months Chomsky has revealed himself to be an institutionalised authoritarian. He now support segregation for people unwilling to take a useless experimental gene therapy even if they starve to death as a result.
- in Daniel Everett’s words
- Knight suggests that this was the real reason for the cultural shift away from behaviourism which Chomsky spearheaded; such requirements are incomprehensible within behaviourist frameworks.
- in New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind; my emphasis.
- Knight argues persuasively that Chomsky is forced into this stupid position because if he accepts that carburetor and bureaucrat are acquired from experience, then he has to accept that all kinds of other things are, perhaps even everything that can be rationally known in this way.
- I freely admit that some of the above is coming to me second hand, via Knight, Everett, Black and others. Chomsky’s work fills bookshelves, so it’s quite possible he hasn’t quite abandoned his earlier ideas, or that he has in some way tested his theories.
- Also published in the New Humanist under the title Are we City Dwellers or Hunter-Gatherers?
- Rousseau is normally trotted out to malign the demonstrable fact that we were once far saner, healthier and freer than we are now or have been since the dawn of the neolithic period, 10,000 years ago
- Which dumped him. He got within reach of tenure there though.
- pro-NATO, pro-Zionism, pro-nuke, etc, etc.
- Both of these observations I mention and reference in 33 Myths of the System.
- Graeber claimed, bizarrely, but again, quite self-importantly, that Zerzan was ‘stalking’ him.
- In the subsequent Media Alert David Edwards stepped back on this absurd claim, offering a more qualified ‘may start to break down’ — although he was unable to offer any other explanation of why state-corporate media swooned over XR.
- Not that I ‘run around’ doing this anymore. Pointless.
- Principally Gail Bradbrook, Roger Hallam and Robin Boardman-Pattision. See this critique from Out of the Woods, although remove their leftist blather about intersectionality and safe spaces and so on.
- on an inevitably tiny scale — certainly not a ‘mass movement,’ which is impossible; there is no hope for the masses. They will only change when we’re in the middle of the nightmare. Nor is there any hope for civilisation — and who but a maniac would want there to be?
- Jonathan Swift said, famously, that ‘Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.’ The complement is also true: Reasoning will never make man acquire a Good Opinion which by Reasoning he never forfeit.