Versions of Freedom: Noam Chomsky and Liberation Politics, Val Plumwood

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Author: Val Plumwood in Versions of Freedom, 1996, Visions of Freedom Collective (eds)
Originally Published: 1996
Obtained from:

Noam Chomsky and Liberation Politics
Val Plumwood

1: Chomsky and Democracy
Noam Chomsky has been the most consistent and penetrating critic of American foreign policy this century. For over twenty years his biting and carefully-documented essays have exposed the moral outrage of American (and other western nations) active support for human-rights violating regimes of privilege, in Vietnam, the Middle East, Central and South America and the Caribbean, and, closer to home, in East Timor. Chomsky’s work shows that the “free world” policies of support for these oppressive regimes have been extensive, systematic, and continuing, established outcomes of liberal institutions. They cannot be dismissed as mere exceptions, minor flaws in an otherwise largely satisfactory record, or leftovers from an unenlightened, Cold War past. The horror story Chomsky outlines of the frustration of movements for social change and popular control by means of overt and covert invasion, murder and atrocity, is made bearable for his readers by the controlled anger of his bitter irony.

What makes Chomsky such an important political activist and thinker for our time is the juxtaposition of his powerful, activist-flavoured exposure of the contradictions of the liberal effort to “promote democracy, human rights, and free markets world wide” with the strength of his own thought on liberal and radical democracy. Particularly useful has been his strategy for contesting the key idea of democracy, which never makes the mistake of conceding it to the opposition or of identifying democracy with its dominant capitalist form (which Chomsky terms “procedural democracy”). Chomsky’s political work shows us the dirty underside of liberal democracy in the area of foreign policy, and confronts us with the central fact of contemporary political life, that democracy under capitalism has failed the expectations and hopes for justice and equality held by its founders and by the radical movements of the past. But what makes the course Chomsky charts on democracy so important for the future is that he has been able to show us this failure without causing us to lose sight of the value of democracy itself.

Thus Chomsky neatly sidesteps the dilemma over democracy which has paralysed so much of the left for so long. For despite his revelations of the colossal contradictions of the liberal/capitalist version of democracy, Chomsky avoids the destructive cynicism about political democracy which has afflicted the Marxist left. This cynicism, which derides political democracy as hollow and valueless, an empty bourgeois show, has impeccable credentials from Marx himself, and has played a major role in the failure of Marxist societies to develop an alternative democratic theory and political practice. But at the same time, while insisting on the centrality of democracy, Chomsky avoids the other problematic left course of uncritically idealising the liberal public sphere and its impoverished and inconsistent concept of freedom, a course which has lead social democratic thinkers to overestimate the potential for achieving change in liberalism and ultimately toward acquiescing in the inequalities and silencing of oppressed groups instutionalised there. Chomsky’s work points toward radical democracy as the solution to this dilemma : it helps suggest the direction such a reclaimed and redefined concept of democracy might take and some of the alternative strategies it must try to explain and avoid.

Although he has won academic respect as a leading theorist in the area of theoretical linguistics, in the area of his political work Chomsky’s powerful combination of activist comment and democratic commitment has met with silence and dismissal . Chomsky’s approach to political issues offends and disrupts the academic game in several ways. A striking feature of political philosophy as it is done in the contemporary liberal academy is its insulation from the rougher realities of contemporary liberal society. In this self-enclosed world, professional theorists mostly address one another, ignore the impact of their theories on the lives around them, and rarely interrogate the genial claims of theory to see how they might correspond to the experiences liberalism generates for less protected groups. If liberal-democratic theory proclaims justice and equality to be its core values, most theorists will be content to accept that they are indeed so, and to treat the debate as an abstract one about how these might be understood in theoretical terms, rather than about how far they are applied in practice.

Reality testing is someone else’s department : but that someone else is likely to be constrained, as an empirical researcher, in ways which are different but which similarly delegitimate or compromise political critique. As an “expert” subject to the iron rule “stick to your field”, he or she will be legitimated to speak only about a minute piece of the puzzle, and the obligatory “value-free” stance will normally be taken to involve accepting the effects of power. In contrast, Chomsky’s political writing “in dissent” engages the non-professional reader and forces a way through this neat academic system for defeating popular participation and protecting power via disciplinary division and academic conventions of disengagement. Although his eminence and daring have made it possible for him to bring this off and to win a wider audience, academic political philosophy has not forgiven this dangerous flouting of its conventions and has still to address Chomsky’s political work and the embarassing phenomena it discloses. But, as I shall argue, the unwillingness to take Chomsky’s political work seriously is also made easier by the limitations of its interrogation of power.

2 : Limitations of Chomsky’s Vision
Despite his exemplary activism and the strengths of his thought in the area of democratic politics, Chomsky’s thought in a broader liberation context shows some serious limitations and incompletenesses, so that he is hardly the new Messiah that some on the left have proclaimed. Not only does he lack a broad theory of oppression which might be able to unite the concerns of oppressed groups, but also in some areas his thought contains elements of insensitivity to certain forms of oppression or is downright inconsistent with liberation perspectives. For example, in the main area in which he is lauded in academia, he has progressively (and needlessly) modified his account of syntax and criteria for language use so as to deny the key elements of linguistic capacity to non-human animals. Thus he has done much to reinforce a traditional mechanistic account of animals which denies them access to reason and presents humans as discontinuous from the “lower” animal world. Historically, this treatment of the animal (and of oppressed human groups identified with animality or nature) as radically other has been a key element in denying kinship, blocking identification and sympathy, and maintaining the structures of oppression for animals, for nature and for those human groups (such as women) assimilated to them. Similarly, Chomsky has been unwilling to carry his critique of managerial and knowledge elites through in a thoroughgoing way to an interrogation of the modes of rationality associated with them, which lie behind the foreign policy decision-making he detests. He regularly castigates intellectuals for their lack of concern and responsibility, but he does notfollow his critique of the knowledge elite through to a critique of their stock-in-trade of rational disengagement. He understands that his colleagues are blinkered, but aims to explain this, in simple economic reductionist terms, as a product of their capitulation to privelege. But it is too simple to depict the knowledge and opinion elites (including academics and journalists) as merely servants of power, each individually conforming to whatever is in their economic interests to believe, as he suggests. To explain the complicity of the knowledge elite and the academy in systems of oppression, we must look not only to their individual and collective economic interest but also to the systems of rationality into which they are inserted.

Dominant market, bureaucratic and scientific systems of rationality are each, in their own ways, instrumental to privelege, and each has developed ways to render marginal or obscure the experience and interests of oppressed groups, thus standing in the way of theoretical solidarity with them. The framework of disengagement and objectivism is itself problematic, as feminist and other critics have pointed out, cloaking priveleged perspectives as universal and impartial, and marking marginalised perspectives as “emotional”, “biassed” and “political”. But the powerful have the advantage of inertia, whereas the oppressed must act to disrupt the status quo from a passion for change. The demand for disengagement thus tends to favours the speech of the powerful, who have only to announce the realities created by power and to employ the well-practiced conceptual and emotional distancing mechanisms which legitimate the exploitation of the oppressed. These distancing mechanisms of instrumental reason include the construction of oppressed groups as radically other, and their treatment as available without constraint to serve the oppressor’s interests, which are in turn conceived as radically separated from the well-being of others. It is precisely this instrumental type of reasoning that informs the morality of the foreign policy decisions Chomsky exposes, as illustrated in the famous Woolcott cable of August 17th 1975 advising the Australian government not to protest the Indonesian invasion of East Timor and suggesting a grab for the Timor Gap oil. Woolcott, architect of Australia’s policies on East Timor, justified this calculating and ruthless instrumentalism and disregard for the rights of the Timorese with the supposedly “non-ideological” comment “I know I am recommending a pragmatic rather than a principled stand, but that is what national interest and foreign policy is all about”.
What we need to understand here is how reason has been constructed as one of the master’s tools, and how an instrumental version of reason has evolved which supports a culture of rational meritocracy in which those considered “more rational” have the right to dominate those constructed as less rational. For twentyfive centuries or more the essence of humanity has been identified with reason, which has in turn been identified with elite groups, and the contrasting concepts of body, emotion and nature identified with those they dominate, with men over women, European over “barbarian”, civilisation over primitivism, and human over animal. It is not just a mistaken belief system we have to deal with here, one that we can set straight by claiming women, for example, to be equally rational ; for, as feminist philosophers have argued, the resulting exclusions have deeply affected the dominant construction of reason in the west, and thus both who and what is seen as reasonable. Yet it is the framework of a singular, unquestionable model of disengaged reason which has somehow escaped political influence in its formation that Chomsky himself passionately defends in his castigation of those critical theories he terms “postmodernist”. Chomsky and others associated with him seem to use this highly problematic term “postmodernism” as a punching bag which offers a diversion from and an excuse to avoid serious consideration of the important new critiques of modernity, reason and science which have emerged from feminist, critical and anticolonial sources.

My own view of postmodernism is that it is quite mixed in usefulness ; like any body of criticism, it includes good and bad, work that is elitist and obscure in its presentation and other work that is illuminating and useful for various activist issues. The postmodernism of the last two decades has been the riverbed along which the major currents in feminist and anti-racist thought have flowed together, and to dismiss this new confluence in its entirety is to write off some valuable work (along, perhaps, with more problematic material). The term “postmodernism” is a slippery one, which makes it easy to get away with using it to cover a general dismissal of recent feminist theory. This work is often described in hostile terms as postmodernist and rejected not so much because it fits the label as because offends variously by its critical stance towards radical feminism, Marxism, the conventional left, or fundamental assumptions of western thought. Some count the critique of rationality as the central feature of postmodernism, but this is problematic because important sources of it temporally precede postmodernism and are not identified with its characteristic assumptions, vocabulary or style. Others focus on major figures such as Derrida or Foucault in place of a definition, which is even more problematic, since this makes an entire large body of criticism deriving from many sources and influences stand or fall with the work of a few major figures. What does appear to be most valid in postmodernism is something by no means confined to it ā€” a critical stance towards the colonising record of western culture and its associated ideology in rationalist and Enlightenment thought.

But Chomsky is, as he says himself, a “child of the Enlightenment”, and most of the limitations I have stressed result from the conservatism of his philosophical thought and his refusal to critique or look beyond enlightenment rationalism. Chomsky offers a reason-based explanatory framework to account for contemporary oppression which concentrates on the “manufacture of consent” and the control of information by market, bureaucratic and knowledge elites. He is right to stress the lack of democracy and accountability in economic institutions, and their instrumentalisation of media and political life. But confinement to this framework leads to economic reductionism and cannot account for or address the multiplicity or the specific content of the particular forms of contemporary oppression. The inadequacy of this framework emerges as soon as we begin to ask questions about other forms of power, for it tells us little about the specific content of liberal/capitalist exclusions, for example, why the corporations are not run by and for blacks or women. For a fuller account of why political citizenship has been rendered unavailable to or ineffective for the excluded groups who most need to exercise it, we will have to go beyond the simple and rather question-begging account in terms of economic elites and look at associated cultural systems of exclusion : for example the rationalist dualisms which naturalise and support rational meritocracy and the resulting hierarchies of race, class, gender and nature, as well as the mind/body dualism which sustains the central liberal duality between political and economic citizenship. In short, to understand properly the failure of democracy Chomsky deplores, we need the critique of rationality Chomsky refuses.

Although Chomsky is a key political figure, he is not then, as some of his admirers have suggested, the key political figure, and to treat him in this way is to try to turn the clock back to an older and narrower conception of oppression, of politics and political leadership which has shown itself inadequate. That his perspective is both valuable and limited should not come as any surprise, and should put us in mind of the pitfalls of guruism that helped destroy Marxism. For how could one person, and that person a highly priveleged member of the earth’s most priveleged culture, possibly articulate the plurality of struggles and experiences of oppression we need to support ? Instead of expecting one brilliant white male expert to deliver the good word for us on everything from feminism and racism to science, we should approach Chomsky’s valuable activist and strategic contributions as one part of a larger field of resources which could enable us rescue the concept of democracy from the clutches of liberalism and develop a new and more inclusive synthesis, a truly liberatory theory and practice of democracy.

3 Towards a New Synthesis : Chomsky and Radical Democracy
Such a synthesis must include both new and old elements, because although it must involve continuity with older radical traditions which have stressed democracy, such as anarchism, a radical account of democracy must immediately confront the inadequacy of the old political labels that preceded liberation politics, including the “anarchist” and “libertarian socialist” positions Chomsky invokes. For an account of democracy responsive to the concerns voiced by a range of excluded groups must involve more than extending democracy and equality to the community and to the economic and workplace decision-making male anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist thinkers have historically stressed. To take up feminist criticisms, it must aim to extend democracy and equality to the further domestic areas of life and relationship conceived as “private” and hence, like the “private” economy, as beyond the reach of democratic principle. To avoid the familiar traps of economic and political reductionism it must extend its scope to democratic culture as well as political and economic relations. Feminist critiques of liberal democratic methods also point to the need for major structural changes in the area of representation to deliver a politics of presence, a politics of difference, and a politics of liberation. And much, much more.

How far does Chomsky’s work provide sustenance for such a new synthesis ? Chomsky’s work suggests a basis for viewing actually existing liberal democracy as an incomplete and corrupted form which can never realise the radical potential of democracy for liberation. But his theoretical framework tends to appeal to a variety of older traditions rather than envisaging such a new synthesis. Thus he has variously pointed to anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, libertarian socialism, liberal socialism, radical democracy, and recently classical liberalism, as sources of his ideas. The last suggestion may be truest to his rationalist commitments, but seeing Chomsky as the defender of liberalism in its true and original form also seems the least satisfactory interpretation of his insights on equality and of the kind of radical participatory tradition he represents. I shall argue that what may account best for these insights is the emerging account of radical democracy.

Chomsky clearly appeals to a radical liberatory tradition of democracy, but it seems to me a mistake to identify this potentially liberatory form of democracy, as Chomsky now suggests, with the classical liberalism expressed by such figures as John Locke and Adam Smith. Feminists have argued that the worm was already at the heart of liberalism in its classical form, which from the beginning involved a conflict-ridden combination of inclusion and exclusion. The confinement of political citizenship and the franchise to men of property and the exclusion of women, the colonised and working people (“the rabble”) was taken for granted in the work of classical liberals (with the arguable exception of J.S. Mill). Liberalism as a form of democracy which legitimates capitalism has historically striven to contain the subversive democratic imagination unleashed by the French Revolution, and to protect decision-making from any real popular control or participation. This containment has been achieved by a number of strategems, of which the control of information Chomsky stresses is one. Others include the distinction between political and economic equality and citizenship, which has been supported by the liberal conception of individual freedom as private self-containment. The private individual and his private freedom are realised in terms of legal rights against the public (variously identified as the state or civil society). The result is a conception of free social organisation as the outcome of an essentially private, formally “free” system of contract which excludes from its purview the social relations of inequality between the contracting parties, and hence permits the flourishing of capitalist, and patriarchal, contractual forms.

From a radical democratic perspective our present limited and conflicted form of democracy reflects the contradictions in the development of liberal democracy as the historical vehicle of a priveleged, property-owning “middle” class ā€” simultaneously both an insurgent class needing to employ a universalist discourse of recognition and equality against monarchy and various kinds of despotism from above, and also a class of dominance aiming to maintain its own privelege against others such as women, “savages”, and animals, and to resist the extension of this universalising democratic discourse to excluded groups below it . We can picture this most easily perhaps in terms of a tableau, in which the main actor is the master subject of liberalism, the man of property, in two personae, exhibiting both a fair and a foul face. In the first persona, the fair-faced hero of reason confronts monarchy and hereditary privelege, rejecting their authority and invoking the concept of oppression. Having spoken thus fairly against the arbitrariness and absolutism of the despots, he faces his brothers-in-property and speaks fairly of equality, universality and freedom as the birthright of all beings possessed of reason. This part of his fiery speech has a familiar ring, and is elaborated in the modern rationale for liberal institutions and their accompanying traditions of rhetoric.
In the second persona, as the man of property and holder of economic and domestic power, he turns right around, and presents to an audience of women and other colonised and subordinated groups his foul face, excluding them from this discourse and refusing them recognition as fellow subjects and rational agents to be included in the reach of the freedom he has lauded . The foul face exhibited by the second of this Janus-faced pair expresses liberalism’s liaison with and formation through economic and other forms of domination and commands a conceptual and a social structure which systematically silences and excludes the others this power has marginalised as outside reason. Chomsky’s work draws sharply the contrast between the principles of the fair face and the practice of the foul face. But once we take into account the forms of oppression internal to liberal democracy, it is clear that we can’t theorise this contradiction just in terms of hypocrisy and lies, any more than in Marxist terms, as a contrast between a “real” foul face and a “sham” fair face. In a way, both faces are equally real ; liberal democracy does provide some genuine benefits, but in a very selective way. The two faces reflect in part the experiences of different groups, and the gap between them is mediated by forms of silencing and denial in the formation of the liberal public sphere at least as much as by deliberate deception.

To make out the foul face more clearly, we would have to look harder at the increasingly important internal forms of oppression and silencing that Chomsky does not consider sufficiently. We can’t hope to understand the mechanisms which enable the image of the liberal master subject to be superimposed on that of distant populations abroad unless we can understand the mechanisms which enable this image to be superimposed on the internal Others of liberalism. We need to understand the cultural mechanisms which hide oppressed experience of work, welfare, citizenship, of policing and repression in the liberal criminal justice system, and of the patriarchal family. What is pertinent here is cultural analysis which shows how the perceptual and conceptual politics of the liberal public sphere makes priveleged experience appear to be universal experience and systematically silences, denies or misrepresents oppressed experience.

The contradiction between the claim to universality in the application of liberal democratic principles and the reality of their incomplete and exclusionary application in actually existing liberal democracy is also disguised by the exception clauses which create the Others of liberalism. There are four major areas where these exemptions from democratic and humanist principles of equality appear in liberal societies: the exemption of those held to be of lesser reason (which has been applied to exclude women and various colonised others) ; the exemption of areas designated as private (applied to the economy and to the family) ; the exemption of the area of “national interest” and foreign policy (applied to foreign populations) ; and the exemption in the area of criminality (applied especially to the liberal poor). Criminality is increasingly defined to include those “non-contributor” populations not useful to capitalism, and extended, along the lines of the “carceral continuum” described by Foucault, to provide a basis for ever closer regulation of the lives of the poor, especially through the welfare system .

Following out these insights suggests the need to distinguish between radical democracy and liberal socialism. The conception of our present form of democracy as incomplete is a widespread and appealing aspect of radical democratic worldviews, but there are two importantly different ways to develop this insight, which correspond I think to liberal socialism and radical democracy respectively. The liberal socialist sees liberal/capitalism as involving an incomplete form of democracy ; the liberal public sphere is basically OK but mechanisms to achieve forms of economic democracy and perhaps extra excluded group representation need to be added. Such additions, according to the kind of extended liberalism espoused by liberal socialists such as Chantal Mouffe and Paul Hirst, will create a more inclusive form of liberal democracy, which is otherwise benign and substantially in order. Radical democracy proper, in contrast, would see the liberal/capitalist form of democracy as involving both an incomplete inclusionary and an inconsistent exclusionary movement. Thus, the radical democratic project must involve more than completing the inclusionary movement begun by the first persona. It must also involve disentangling the identities of the fair and the foul personae, and making visible the forms of exclusion and silencing institutionalised as the foul face of liberal democracy.

This is one of the points where Chomsky’s work is particularly useful in pointing the way forward. For Chomsky takes an unflinching look at the foul face of liberal democracy, as it turns its gaze outward to colonised populations external to the great power states, and his work reveals the exclusionary aspects which the school of thought which hopes to reformulate socialism as simply an extended form of existing democracy has overlooked. Even given the incompleteness of Chomsky’s vision, it is not possible to come away from reading him with the liberal socialist belief intact that everything in the house of liberal democracy is fundamentally in order, except perhaps for some fancy new furniture we need to order, in the shape of a few extra elements of representation. Although a lot more remains to be done in establishing directions for a politics of radical democracy, Chomsky’s work has much to contribute, and his voice remains one any attempt to think through a new liberatory alternative must attend to with care.

Note : This paper was written as a contribution to the Visions of Freedom Conference (Jan 17-20 1995 in Sydney, Australia) which featured Noam Chomsky as the major speaker, and was presented in absentia. Val Plumwood is currently Visiting Professor of Women’s Studies at North Carolina State University, and is the author of several books including Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (Routledge 1993).