The Limits of Chomsky’s Anti-Imperialism

In my last post, I argued the lesser-evil advocacy forced on Americans during election season helps to obstruct any significant moves towards the construction of a strong socialist movement in the United States. I specifically highlight the influence of Noam Chomsky who uses his singular intellectual and moral reputation to deliver this message to skeptics who may not accept the same argument from a more obviously compromised source.

While I believe this kind of advocacy is of particular significance during this stage of the election, Chomsky’s enduring influence on left politics in general is hard to overstate. I imagine the vast majority of those who find themselves to the left of mainstream liberal opinion have had at least some kind of interaction with Chomsky’s political philosophy.

These days, my interest in his work is mostly geared toward his critiques of US foreign policy, which has earned him a worldwide reputation on the left as the conscience of America. I think the image of Hugo Chavez holding Chomsky’s book Hegemony or Survival as he mocked Bush during an address to the UN General Assembly clearly shows his unique reach.

Like many others, my exposure to radical ideas began with Chomsky. Certainly a lot of what attracted me to him was his lucid presentation of new historical narratives backed up by mountains of concrete evidence. It was like being introduced to a living compendium of hidden imperial crimes. And while the details of his analysis are often dense, the fundamental principle that guides his opposition is remarkably simple:

My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.

On its surface, I think this is a useful guide for people working to emerge from the kind of chauvinism Americans are deeply steeped in their entire lives. But I also think it contains subtle ideological content that has made it more difficult for many people to develop what I would consider actually principled anti-imperialist politics.

Chomsky’s principle is commonly expressed on the “progressive” side of what remains of the anti-war left in the US. I find this cluster amorphous enough to avoid a detailed accounting of their politics, but it’s clear to me that this idea certainly has influence in sectors of the left not even nominally anti-capitalist, and may even be influential to a lot of libertarians.

If I hadn’t already gone through Chomsky, I’m certain my introduction to this idea would have come from Glenn Greenwald, perhaps the most influential of the celebrity left, largely due to his central role in the Snowden spectacle. As is standard for celebrity lefts, Greenwald keeps his politics obscure enough to maintain his adversarial street cred, while also refusing to take a hard-line on anything but free speech rights, which keeps him well within permissible boundaries. Still, his opinions are relatively antagonistic by mainstream standards, and Greenwald can often be seen linking to this quotation on twitter in order to explain his posture towards American foreign policy whenever challenged:

The commitment to this kind of opposition is also shared by Greenwald’s colleague at The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill, as seen here while casually engaging the most toxic of the celebrity left, Molly Crabapple:

Setting aside any kind of guilt by association, my issue with Chomsky’s principle is that it helps instill a weak understanding of imperialism and the nature of power in general in the minds of people seeking out a new perspective. Chomsky believes he is primarily responsible for the crimes of his own state, not necessarily because he lives in the imperial core of the most gangster state in history, but because he’s in a unique position to do something about it. Given the enormous democratic deficit, alongside the most complex surveillance and propaganda systems ever devised (not to mention the more overt forms of fascism directed at a significant portion of the population, including the police murdering black people at a staggering rate, and the internationally exceptional carceral state we’re living in), it’s hard for me to see how the left is currently in any position to force concessions from the masters of mankind.

The reasoning for Chomsky’s emphasis on the crimes of his own state brings to mind the use of the word “we” as it pertains to collective guilt and responsibility, which is particularly prevalent in Western liberal discourse. I’m not prepared to trace its entire history here, but I will attempt to show how deeply rooted this idea is in Chomsky’s thinking, which is really to say the thinking of a significant bloc of the Western left.

As far as I’m aware, Chomsky’s usage of “we” first dates back to his seminal essay ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals,’ where he demonstrates the way intellectuals serve an important role in justifying and selling the violence of their own states. In this particular case, Chomsky focuses on the war being waged on Vietnam by the US up to 1967. Here are his opening remarks:

TWENTY-YEARS AGO, Dwight Macdonald published a series of articles in Politics on the responsibility of peoples and, specifically, the responsibility of intellectuals. I read them as an undergraduate, in the years just after the war, and had occasion to read them again a few months ago. They seem to me to have lost none of their power or persuasiveness. Macdonald is concerned with the question of war guilt. He asks the question: To what extent were the German or Japanese people responsible for the atrocities committed by their governments? And, quite properly, he turns the question back to us: To what extent are the British or American people responsible for the vicious terror bombings of civilians, perfected as a technique of warfare by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, surely among the most unspeakable crimes in history. To an undergraduate in 1945-46—to anyone whose political and moral consciousness had been formed by the horrors of the 1930s, by the war in Ethiopia, the Russian purge, the “China Incident,” the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi atrocities, the Western reaction to these events and, in part, complicity in them—these questions had particular significance and poignancy.

With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.

The issues that Macdonald raised are as pertinent today as they were twenty years ago. We can hardly avoid asking ourselves to what extent the American people bear responsibility for the savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population in Vietnam, still another atrocity in what Asians see as the “Vasco da Gama era” of world history. As for those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as this catastrophe slowly took shape over the past dozen years—on what page of history do we find our proper place? Only the most insensible can escape these questions. I want to return to them, later on, after a few scattered remarks about the responsibility of intellectuals and how, in practice, they go about meeting this responsibility in the mid-1960s.

And he concludes with the following:

In no small measure, it is attitudes like this that lie behind the butchery in Vietnam, and we had better face up to them with candor, or we will find our government leading us towards a “final solution” in Vietnam, and in the many Vietnams that inevitably lie ahead.

Let me finally return to Dwight Macdonald and the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who burst into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. “Why should they? What have I done?” he asked. Macdonald concludes: “Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.” The question, “What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities in Vietnam—as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.

A couple of years later, in 1969, Chomsky appeared on a show William F. Buckley hosted called Firing Line as something of a representative of the New Left.  At the beginning of the debate, Chomsky clearly laid out how he views the collective burden the American people share deep into the war of aggression on Vietnam (I copied the transcript from Democracy Now):

Buckley: You say the war is simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men.

Chomsky: Including all of us, including myself.

Buckley: Well, then -—

Chomsky: Including every —- that’s the next sentence.

Buckley: Yeah.

Chomsky: The same sentence.

Buckley: Oh, sure, sure, sure. Sure, because you count everybody in the company of the guilty.

Chomsky: I think that’s true in this case.

Buckley: Yeah, but then -—

Chomsky: You see, one of the points I was trying —-

Buckley: This is, in a sense, a theological observation, isn’t it?

Chomsky: No, I don’t think so.

Buckley: Because if someone points out if everyone is guilty of everything, then nobody is guilty of anything.

Chomsky: No, I don’t -— well, no, I don’t — I don’t believe that. See, I think that — I think the point that I’m trying to make and I think ought to be made is that the real, at least to me — I say this elsewhere in the book [American Power and the New Mandarins] — what seems to me a very, in a sense, terrifying aspect of our society and other societies is the equanimity and the detachment with which sane, reasonable, sensible people can observe such events. I think that’s more terrifying than the occasional Hitler or LeMay or other that crops up. These people would not be able to operate were it not for this apathy and equanimity, and therefore I think that it’s in some sense the sane and reasonable and tolerant people who should — who share a very serious burden of guilt that they very easily throw on the shoulders of others who seem more extreme and more violent.

In my opinion, Chomsky’s most memorable use of “we” was articulated during the very early stages of the latest US war on Afghanistan that is somehow still going on. The following is the end of his response to a series of hostile questions from an audience member not on board with Chomsky’s supposed blame America first compulsion:

When The New York Times tell us that food shipments have been cut back to the point where the number of people now at risk of starvation since September 11th has increased by 50% to 7.5 million, that’s another 2.5 million people at risk of starvation since September 11th, as a result, as they point out correctly of the threat of US bombing and the terror its caused and so on, and the withdrawal of aid, and of international workers. Well, those people are not defending bin Laden. Those are perfectly innocent civilians who have nothing to do with it, except that they’re victims of the Taliban, who we, meaning you and I, not some abstract entity, are consciously acting to murder. Okay, if we can’t face that, we have no right talking about this problem.

There are a few objections I have to this kind of framing, but the most central one is the idea that imperial violence forced by ruling class interests are really the collective crimes of the American people. Imposing this kind of guilt on the classes that have nothing to do with designing or implementing imperial policy functions in a similar way as his lesser-evil advocacy. In the case of Trump, Chomsky is isolating a figure from his long-held position within the confines of the ruling class to warn of the unique danger he poses, and in the case of war guilt, he’s doing the opposite by merging all of the classes together in order to share the burden of responsibility for the empire’s shameful legacy of global destruction, plunder and immiseration.

This use of “we” functions as a rebuke of internationalism as I’ve always understood the term. Since Americans ostensibly live in some kind of democracy, with a state in some way accountable to the popular will, then “we” is not meant to represent the global masses enduring life under capitalism. Instead, it’s used as a national identification that removes class barriers in effect linking ordinary people with the capitalists who rule them. The erasure of the clear differences in political, social and economic status within a society does a lot of damage to people’s ability to see how the interests of the ruling class are necessarily in conflict with their own class interests. It also makes it difficult to see how people all over the world are linked in a common struggle against capitalism and all those dedicated to its survival.

No matter how sustained, aggressive and well-sourced Chomsky’s criticism of imperialism is, when he filters all this information through this lens, seemingly designed to obscure the true nature of ruling class hegemony, he’s making it harder for workers to separate themselves and their interests from those of the reactionary core of their own society.

There is another feature of Chomsky’s politics that plays a significant role in the way he practices anti-imperialism. In this strong essay, Michael Parenti looks at the anticommunist tendency on the left, specifically referencing Chomsky multiple times. It’s perhaps a slightly broad designation in Chomsky’s case, because he does at times offer support to actually existing socialist movements, particularly in Latin America. But there is no question that he was staunchly opposed to the Soviet Union.

Parenti uses the occasion to put forth a convincing defense of the Soviet Union. He concedes that there were of course many problems with the USSR (as is the case of every other society forging a path of independent development), but he also points out that it’s very easy to criticize any political experiment by placing it in a vacuum. Parenti argues that any serious analysis of a revolutionary movement must first center the role of imperialism before analyzing any internal problems.

In the case of the Soviet Union, the imperial menace was relentlessly dedicated to sabotaging it because it stood as a successful model of revolution put into practice. I’m sure Chomsky would concede that point, but he also regarded the Soviet Union as a major barrier to the creation of real socialism because the word had become identified with the authoritarian organization of that society. Chomsky actually went as far as to call the collapse of the USSR “a small victory for socialism.” Parenti addresses this position at the end of his piece:

The overthrow of Eastern European and Soviet communist governments was cheered by many left intellectuals. Now democracy would have its day. The people would be free from the yoke of communism and the U.S. Left would be free from the albatross of existing communism, or as left theorist Richard Lichtman put it, “liberated from the incubus of the Soviet Union and the succubus of Communist China.”

In fact, the capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe seriously weakened the numerous Third World liberation struggles that had received aid from the Soviet Union and brought a whole new crop of right-wing governments into existence, ones that now worked hand-in-glove with U.S. global counterrevolutionaries around the globe.

In addition, the overthrow of communism gave the green light to the unbridled exploitative impulses of Western corporate interests. No longer needing to convince workers that they live better than their counterparts in Russia, no longer restrained by a competing system, the corporate class is rolling back the many gains that working people have won over the years. Now that the free market, in its meanest form, is emerging triumphant in the East, so will it prevail in the West. “Capitalism with a human face” is being replaced by “capitalism in your face.” As Richard Levins put it, “So in the new exuberant aggressiveness of world capitalism we see what communists and their allies had held at bay” (Monthly Review, 9/96).

Like Chomsky, I consider myself an anarchist, so actually existing socialism in the Soviet Union hardly corresponds to my imagined ideal either. But I think anti-imperialism in practice should be far less concerned with the internal structure of any given society, and far more concerned with its right to self-determination. If one is, for whatever reason, specifically concerned with the authoritarian nature of a state, I still think the focus should be on highlighting and opposing the role of imperialism. Threats to sovereignty of course force less powerful states into defensive postures, which has all sorts of consequences internally. Opposing the existence of an empire at all should be the obvious task of radicals everywhere, no matter how different people’s visions of a decent society are.

A couple of posts I’ve read recently that I think practice anti-imperialism in a principled and approachable way include this piece from twitter user @RancidSassy comparing the conditions in Iraq under Saddam Hussein to its current straits, and this one on the history of North Korea by Stephen Gowans.

Gowans offers an illuminating history of the DPRK that challenges the images we’re fed of an isolated, authoritarian dystopia filled with a brainwashed population led by a series of deeply corrupt eccentrics. Even a lot of radicals (myself included) reflexively accept some of these premises in the process of opposing imperial machinations on the peninsula. It’s obviously important to stand with targeted states against imperialism, but the way you do so is also important. Reinforcing imperial propaganda while you’re attempting to resist imperialism obviously blunts any opposition you’re prepared to offer.

@RancidSassy makes the case that Iraq was far better off under Saddam than it is now after being bludgeoned by the empire for at least a quarter century. He does so in a way that concedes nothing to imperial bogeyman tropes common even on the anti-war left, showing that alongside all the repression and state violence, Saddam’s government “presided over massive development and social equality gains” that were erased by US imperial aggression.

The point of this kind of analysis isn’t to offer an unqualified defense of whatever these targeted states do. Instead, it’s to put their organization and behavior into its proper historical context so we can attempt to understand the world outside the imposed limits of imperial propaganda intended to destroy solidarity and the prospect of learning from existing forms of resistance.

Another issue I have with Chomsky’s foreign policy analysis is that he doesn’t always see American power as a reactionary force in world affairs. He exposes a lot of his weaknesses in a recent exchange with Mehdi Hasan for Al Jazeera. In part one of the interview, when asked if he takes a principled stand against all use of military force by Western powers Chomsky says, “I’m not an absolute pacifist.” And while discussing the US campaign against ISIS, Chomsky says this of American bombing inside Syria: “Defending the Kurds against the ISIL attacks, yes, that’s legitimate.”

The difference between his position and a hard-line anti-imperialist position isn’t tactical. What he’s arguing is simply a violation of anti-imperialist principles based on a fundamentally different understanding of what can drive the empire to act in the world.

In part two, Chomsky argues that Islamophobia not only harms Muslims all over the world, but it also harms the West itself:

Just take a look at what its led to in the last 15 years. There’s been what’s called a global war on terror. When it began – there’s been one device to deal with it: sledgehammer. Smash ’em up, don’t find out what’s going on, smash ’em up. What’s happened? 15 years ago it was confined to a tiny tribal area in Afghanistan. Now it’s all over the world. Every time you hit it with a sledgehammer, you expand it. Every single time. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, everywhere. Can you learn something from that?

I’d like to pose the same question to Chomsky because it’s obvious to me that he hasn’t learned anything from American foreign policy since 9/11. This is a deeply ideological presentation of the interests driving the war on terror that accepts the empire at its word that it’s committed to ending the threat terrorism poses to the world. Apparently US policies for the last 15 years have been a series of disastrous blunders, destroying state after state to everyone’s detriment. But there go the imperialists again, acting against “our” interests because of short-sighted racism. When will they learn?

It’s frustrating to see Chomsky making this kind of argument when he has correctly pointed out in the past that you can determine intention by looking at the predictable  consequences of one’s behavior. The following quote is excerpted from some comments he made on what lies behind the seemingly failed strategy of the war on drugs:

When people carry out a so-called war for years and years when they know what the consequences are going to be and they have plenty of evidence that’s exactly what the consequences are, and it has no effect on drugs, a rational person will begin to ask themselves, is this a war on drugs?

He goes on to answer that question by correctly pointing out that it’s really a war on the underclass domestically and cover to conduct operations like chemical warfare on farms in Columbia in order to force peasants off the land, opening up space for profitable exploitation.

One of the clear lessons to take away from the post 9/11 period is that ruling class interests in MENA have little to do with ending terrorism. Their interests are maintaining their hegemony, crushing any moves towards independent development, and exploiting the region’s resources for their own benefit. Nothing has changed but Chomsky’s ability to point out the obvious.

His blind spot when it comes to the war on terror is hard to comprehend given his history of mostly solid analysis of American imperialism. Assuming good faith, I guess weak fundamentals eventually have consequences. People who take Chomsky seriously should pay close attention to the ideological foundations of his arguments if they want to avoid the dead ends he’s supposed to help you out of.

Chomsky will remain the most important radical voice in American politics until the day he dies. As he passes the torch to figures like Greenwald with far more compromised politics, I continue to think it’s important for radicals to work in the opposite direction by practicing principled, confrontational politics, especially when they have little mainstream resonance. The seeds of resistance have to be planted somewhere.

Related Reading:

I recommend Tarzie’s series ‘Passing Noam on My Out,’ where he analyzes (among other things) Chomsky’s tendency to whitewash domestic repression: https://ohtarzie.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/passing-noam-on-my-way-out-part-1/ https://ohtarzie.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/passing-noam-on-the-way-out-part-2-chomsky-vs-aaron-swartz/

I also want to recommend another stand-out piece from Tarzie called ‘White Supremacy and Magic Paper’ that critiques other elements of Chomsky’s politics like free speech absolutism and the idea of won freedoms: https://ohtarzie.wordpress.com/2015/03/27/white-supremacy-and-magic-paper/

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11 Responses to The Limits of Chomsky’s Anti-Imperialism

  1. roastyagain says:

    This is fantastic stuff Kevin- particularly from the standpoint that we as anarchists have a hard time separating principled anti-imperialism from knee-jerk anti-state reactions. Some of the most principled anarchists I know have a massive blind spot in this respect – “Assad is terrible!” say my anarchist friends as an example, ok maybe but hey the Empire is worse, and not just in a “more/less evil” way, but in that imperial forces fundamentally change the nature of what an anarchist project would even look like in Syria- and you can’t ignore that. I don’t think that Crabapple, Graeber, etc are in any way arguing in good faith, obviously, but a lot of their admirers *are* in good faith thinking that anarchist = opposing Assad categorically, without really thinking about that opposition lining up with imperial interests. Yes, I’m an anarchist, and yes that has ideological impact on how I view the world, but if my ideology falls back to “damn the man, save the empire!” (to quote a terrible and wonderful 90s movie), then my ideology needs to be modified. No wonder so many communists can look at anarchism and dismiss it – because so many anarchists fail to have even an iota of radical analysis outside of “fuck authority”.

    Great stuff.

    • Hey, thanks for checking in. I think the tension between the need to support existing forms of resistance and our desire to see our politics materialize in real political projects is very interesting. These days I find myself closer to people I have fundamental disagreements with because they simply have a stronger grasp of imperialism. The fluid nature of anarchism has always been something that attracted me to the ideology, but it also leaves people open to manipulation in the ways you correctly point out. I definitely think it’s important for those of us who sympathize with the good faith anarchists that are deeply suspicious of state power to help clarify current dynamics as much as we can so this lazy “fuck all sides” attitude can be intelligently resisted.

      I’ve tried to avoid commenting on Syria because I just don’t feel like I know enough to be of any use. But it seems clear to me that the correct anarchist position as far as Rojava is concerned is that they should form a tactical alliance with the Syrian state, as opposed to one with the forces attacking Syria. The defense of Syrian sovereignty should be paramount, even if the Kurds in that region are only concerned with their own autonomy. I imagine they could use their leverage by offering qualified support to the Syrian state in exchange for autonomy of their territory in any future negotiated settlement. It seems obvious that this is the best way to protect what they’ve built because I think all relatively informed radicals can agree that the empire isn’t going to allow the survival of a libertarian socialist enclave in Syria in the event the state were to fracture along sectarian lines.

      • This is a great post, thank you. The use of “we” as a way of destroying class analysis is pernicious and reactionary. “We” revolutionarily minded people have to do better.

        Regarding Rojava, I question why Kurdish Syrians should settle for something of such of such questionable value as autonomy. Why not instead ally with other Left forces in Syria, such as the Syrian Communist Party, to deepen proletarian democracy throughout Syria? Only a solidly anti-capitalist central government will have any hope of resisting imperial capital over the long term. Once such a government is obtained, local autonomy would be more likely to generate positive results of Kurdish Syrian workers.

        • Well I’m all for that and would love to see as much collaboration between radical movements as possible, especially in places like Syria. I guess I should have qualified my response even more than I did because I really don’t know enough to give an informed opinion on what is tactically wise given the most recent circumstances. I just assumed that any kind of alliances they would form during the war will either serve the interests of the Syrian state or the interests of the imperialists. Perhaps that’s a false choice that doesn’t account for all the forces currently at play. I personally have trouble seeing how alliances between Syrian Kurds in Rojava and the Syrian Communist Party is going to be a faction powerful enough to meaningfully assert their interests without first collaborating with the strongest resistance to the reactionary forces attacking Syria, which is the SAA.

          So I’m happy to support any tactically sound moves that are going to improve the lives of people all over Syria. I guess my understanding is that things are so grave that the prospect of expanding what has already been achieved in Rojava by linking with other parties is basically a pipe dream, and they were really just out to defend what they already have. I’d obviously love to hear I’m wrong about that because I have no interest in defending Assad from a real popular movement inside Syria that doesn’t collaborate with the interests of western imperialism.

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  6. Matthew says:

    This is a great blog addressing issues that have been infuriating me for years. Thank you.

    A question I often pose to Chomsky acolytes, a question that has had me banned from forums such as Media Lens, is;

    “Bearing in mind Chomsky and Hermans indispensable propaganda model detailing the way in which institutions are able to filter voices and opinions – setting the limits of permissible opinion, why is Chomsky immune to these powerful forces? How does Chomsky manage to be a leading critic of American imperialism whilst working at MIT a university that receives more funding from the Pentagon than any other university. To put it more succinctly, why does the military industrial complex sponsor its most prominent critic; “the English-speaking world’s foremost radical dissident intellectual”? I’ve yet to receive an intelligent response.

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