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What Noam Chomsky Actually Says About Power

January 20, 2011

Noah Millman’s response to the deBoer post is thoughtful and perceptive — liberals take heed! — but I think he misrepresents the New Left somewhat, particularly Noam Chomsky:

For a young member of the commentariat, a big part of the appeal is going to be feeling like one is in the arena – having an influence on events through one’s commentary. The powerful radical thinkers on the left – folks like Noam Chomsky – are not especially useful for this, because they are not advancing a program for taking and using power, but rather opposition to power as such. And if one is going to have influence from a position of opposition to power, one is much more likely to be effective as a vituperative liberal like Glenn Greenwald, whose most powerful attacks involve bringing a liberal political order face to face with its most egregious violations of its own purported ideals.

Chomsky’s view of power is, as I understand it, quite a bit more nuanced than Millman makes it out to be. To quote Wikipedia, Chomsky believes that, “unless justified,” power is “inherently illegitimate” and that “the burden of proof is on those in authority.” Chomsky is not contending that power should under no circumstance be taken and used, but that its use must be justified. Thus, while Chomsky aims in his speeches, interviews, and writings to expose the many instances in which US power is unjustified (frequently by using the strategy Millman attributes to Greenwald), he does not reflexively oppose the use of state power for progressive ends. Here is an excerpt from an interview last March:

Advocacy requires more than just proposal. It means setting up your goals (proposal), but also sketching out a path from here to there (that’s advocacy). And the path from here to there almost invariably requires small steps. It requires recognition of social and economic reality as it exists, and ideas about how to build the institutions of the future within the existing society, to quote Bakunin, but also to modify the existing society. That means steps have to be taken that accommodate reality, that don’t deny it’s existence (“Since I don’t like it, I’m not going to accommodate it”). These are the only ways to be effective.

You know, you can see that if you look at, you know, the serious, substantial anarchist journals. Like, take, say, Freedom in England, which maybe is the oldest or one of the oldest anarchist journals, that’s been around, you know, forever. If you read its pages, most of it is concerned with mild reformist tactics. And that’s not a criticism. It should be. It should be concerned with workers rights, with specific environmental issues, with problems of poverty and suffering, with imperialism, and so on. Yeah, that’s what it should be concerned with if you want to advocate long-term, significant social change towards a more free and just society, and I can’t think of any other way to be effective. Otherwise, the insistence on purity of proposal simply isolates you from effectiveness in activism, and even from reaching, from even approaching your own goals; and it does lead to the kind of sectarianism and narrowness and lack of solidarity and common purpose that I think has always been a kind of pathology of marginal forces, the left in particular. But it is particularly dangerous here.

So, in a sense, Chomsky agrees with Millman. Denunciations of power are empty apart from proposals. And the long-term goals identified through proposals are, in turn, empty without a willingness to “accommodate reality” — however antithetical state and corporate power might ultimately be to such goals.

It’s pretty basic stuff, isn’t it?

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