Noam Chomsky is an energetic presence on the left, adding his voice to many protests against injustice around the world. He can be relied upon to sign open letters and to speak on political platforms devoted to progressive campaigns. He stands four-square against imperialism, and in this respect he is a valuable player in the anti-globalisation movement that claims that another world is possible, another world to capitalist globalisation in which there are genuine bonds of international solidarity. In this capacity as activist, he is known to be some kind of anarchist, though it is not always clear to those who invite him to speak what that means. And, as an added ingredient of his well-earned authority, of status that he brings to many campaigns, Chomsky is also known to be a respected academic, a distinguished researcher in the field of linguistics, of the study and theory of how language works. But, in fact, although Chomsky works on linguistics as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and even though he has plenty to say about the use of propaganda as a key part of imperialist power, he has nothing to say about the link between language and politics. That gap, that refusal to say anything about the link between his academic and political work, enables us to see something important about the role of ‘globalisation’ today, how it works, and how it relies on forms of expertise that marginalise people around the world.
Chris Knight’s new book ‘Decoding Chomsky’ examines the gap between linguistics and politics, and spells out some of the consequences, expanding arguments that have already been rehearsed by Knight in journal articles and in video presentations. Knight is in a strong position to make this argument, a respected academic stalwart of the ‘Radical Anthropology Group’ and long-standing activist who put his political work on the line against the academic institution. Past editor of the magazine of the tiny Trotskyist group ‘Chartist’ and then a leader of the ‘Chartist minority tendency’, he has continued linking theoretical critique with radical activism, flirting with a number of different groups since. His book on Chomsky is a thoroughly researched impassioned critique of the separation between academic knowledge and radical politics, but it fares less well in dealing with an equally problematic aspect of Chomsky’s work that replicates and reinforces that separation, that is, the separation between the global and the local, between globalisation and indigenous knowledge. One would expect that Knight as a trained anthropologist would be a bit more canny about this, and be able to home in on the way that Chomsky ends up trumpeting Western science in the field of linguistics over how different language groups actually speak.
This is a vitally important question for any genuinely internationalist revolutionary movement that has learnt from the history of colonialism and imperialism and that reflects for a moment on how the Western left is implicated in that history. Globalisation today is a process of insidious control that continues the dynamic of market expansion that Marx noticed back in the first volume of Capital; it forces local cultures around the world to adapt to the market, and to the dominant ideological parameters of what it is to be a good economically active citizen as specified and managed by the old imperial centres, in Europe and then the United States, and in the new imperial states, such as Russia and China that mimic the old powers in order to push capitalist growth. That process of globalisation today entails its own peculiar forms of ‘recuperation’ of local economies so that what is ‘indigenous’ does not pose a threat to industrialisation but is harnessed to it. And so it is, for example, with the phenomenon of ‘glocalisation’ which is able to get niche markets to work in the service of what is, at its base, a commodified standardised world culture governed by and feeding the super-rich.
Chomsky himself is deeply contradictory on this score. At the one moment hailing indigenous struggles as the cutting edge of popular resistance against globalisation, and, at the next, explicitly proclaiming himself to be in favour of globalisation. Knight’s book does help make sense of that paradox, but there are limits to his critique. Before we return to that blind-spot in Knight’s account, let’s look at some of the paradoxes he does neatly identify in Chomsky’s work that throw more light on this particular problem of globalisation.
Knight’s argument is that Chomsky’s work on a universal grammar funded by the Pentagon – and there is no doubt about this, Chomsky is quite open in citing military support for his revolutionary work on syntax – is systematically sealed off from Chomsky’s own anti-war activity. The theoretical and practical stakes of this are high, the linguistic work on universal syntactical structures was part of the Pentagon project to develop a basic machine language that would enable the development of a human-machine interface with weapons technology. That is, the Pentagon knows better something about the connection between theory and practice than Chomsky. This is, in some senses, Knight claims, a choice made by Chomsky that repeats the choice that the French philosopher René Descartes made in separating mind from body. That separation was made in the context of what Descartes was learning about the suppression by the Catholic Church of Galileo’s work, and Descartes drew the conclusion that it was prudent to speak about the body in such a way as to keep it well out of the domain of theology.
No wonder, then, that Chomsky takes Descartes as one of his intellectual heroes. And when Chomsky is asked about the connection between his theories of abstract global grammar and his political work, he says that he doesn’t make the connection – he claims that his mind works like a computer with two separate buffers – and he scorns the contribution of anyone who is not an ‘expert’ to his intellectual field. The weird separation, between Chomsky’s linguistics and his politics, also has dramatic consequences for each sphere of work. On the one hand, the linguistics is abstracted and theoretical, having no connection with actual spoken languages. Chomsky is against anthropological research of that kind. And, on the other hand, the critique is antithetical to any kind of connection between the personal as political, or to feminist ‘standpoint’ theories which ask how and why certain kinds of knowledge are produced.
Language is at the heart of recent transformations in left politics, but as language intimately connected with practice. That understanding of language is precisely the reverse of the way that Chomsky plays it. This is why Chomsky has, on those rare occasions when he has strayed into debate with so-called ‘post-structuralist’ theorists of knowledge and power like Michel Foucault, resorted to claims about science and human nature that ends up reifying both, treating both as unchanging bedrock of reality, a reality that is rooted in a particular conception of the world that makes it seem as if the West tells the truth and it is the job of the rest of the world to catch up.
A bizarre twist toward the end of Knight’s book ‘Decoding Chomsky’ is that the same universalist motif is wheeled out, repeating arguments he is best-known for in anthropology from his book ‘Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture’. This is all the more bizarre because claims from anthropology are used by him to tell us what biological imperatives underpinned matriarchal societies at the dawn of human history. This biological argument is a brave attempt to provide the evolutionary theory of language development that Chomsky assiduously avoids, but it falls into the trap of taking what Western anthropologists think they have discovered about indigenous cultures, piecing it together as an academic theory and then selling it back to the world as global knowledge.
Knight’s book pits itself against Chomsky but reiterates the underlying ideological motif of globalisation; the language, knowledge and practice of the West will rule, and the local will be understood and managed in line with that. Revolutionary socialists are not against globalisation as such, of course, but our internationalism is for the globalisation of another world of struggle and solidarity which brings together the diverse strengths of each culture, of each local culture as, in some senses, simultaneously indigenous and dislocated, in its place and moving beyond it. And that means speaking out against the globalisation of our languages, either in the attempt to make them conform to a standard Western conception of what language is or in the attempt to reduce them to biologically wired-in relationships between women and men. That means reclaiming the space for diverse indigenous struggles and ways of being in line with some of the more really radical anthropological research that also connects with politics and turns against abstracted academic models of who we are and could be.
This is one of a series of keywords for a new revolutionary left, you can find the list so far here