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Chomsky speaking at Canterbury University, 1998

In late 1998 Noam Chomsky briefly visited New Zealand, receiving star treatment. The writer of this article attended Chomsky’s ticket-only performance in Christchurch and was less than dazzled. While we respect Chomsky’s long anti-imperialist record, there are also some important weaknesses in the man’s analyses. The article is part of our series of reprints from our print predecessors such as The Spark, revolution, MidEast Solidarity and Liberation; this piece appeared in issue #8 of revolution (Dec 1998/Feb 1999).

by Grant Cronin

Noam Chomsky certainly hit the big time when he visited recently to be a special presenter at the New Zealand Media Peace Awards in Auckland. His arrival was heralded by adulatory coverage in newspapers not usually known for their progressive politics, as well as a feature in The Listener. A few hastily-organised public meetings drew packed halls. In Wellington more than 1500 people turned out to hear him.

Originally trained as a philosopher, Chomsky subsequently made his mark in the early 1970s as a linguist, with his theories on language acquisition. Over the last three decades he has also established himself as a leading and often insightful critic of US foreign policy. His book At War With Asia was an important intervention in the public debate over Vietnam. Subsequent works, such as Manufacturing Consent, have been damning indictments both of US foreign policy and of the way in which the media effectively collaborates to create public consent – or the appearance of it – to the American ruling elite’s bloody wars and exploitative policies across the globe. Chomsky has also been a critic of many of the most glaring iniquities of the capitalist system. Through his outspoken criticisms of US foreign policy and championing of liberal causes he has also become a worldwide media star. For instance, Chomsky t-shirts were on sale after his talks.

At Canterbury University, Chomsky only had 50 minutes to speak before catching a plane back to Auckland. Of course, 15 minutes of it had to be taken up by the inevitable and totally apolitical Maori greeting which would have been accorded to him even if he had’ve been a representative of the US government. Unfortun ately, there was very little time left for discussion as a result. More sadly, there was little in his speech that could be called startling or revolutionary.

Chomsky began by outlining what he sees as the two major crises facing humanity. The first is nuclear weapons, which he described as “monstrous devices” – Chomsky is a supporter on the Non-Proliferation Treaty – and the second is the environmental crisis. While he conceded that there is uncertainty about the extent of environmental damage he emphasised the need for prudence and rationality in regards to the environment and that these things cannot be left to the market. The attack on the market principle was the main thrist of Chomsky’s comments culminating in the assertion that “the market ideology is a fraud”.

revolution has consistently argued that there is no such thing as the ‘free market’ under capitalism and that private capital all over the world, including New Zealand, has been able to survive only through massive state handouts. The recent selling of state assets at knockdown prices amounts to little more than a handout to private capital which could not and would not have been able to create those infrastructures without public money.

Chomsky still adheres to the Marcusean notion popular with the American left in the sixties that free choice is both constrained and created by the actions of certain power elites within capitalist society. Using the example of the American car industry he showed how they colluded to effectively destroy public transport and supported state efforts to build the gigantic interstate highway system. He labelled this an example of “state social engineering”. This may be true, but would we really be better off today without cars and highways?

Chomsky pointed out that in spite of the rhetoric of rolling back the state the scope and size of the state in most OECD nations has grown, its burden shifting from social spending to spending on the needs of private capital.

After a brief history of the American labour movement he concluded that the liberalisation of finance capital undermines spending on social programmes. Now, he argued, with the Bretton Woods agreement gone, capital flow is no longer regulated. This leads to an increase in speculation and the buying and selling of shares which, he claims, is harmful to the real economy.

Chomsky ended his talk by arguing that there is nothing inevitable about these trends. Increasing worker insecurity and falling wage rates are not the result of economic laws or laws of nature buit are instead, in his view, the imposition of the will of certain power elites.

The reason this strikes a chord with New Zealand liberals – he received a standing ovation – is because it points the finger at the speculators as the ‘bad guys’ and finally forms the backbone of an argument for a return to welfare state capitalism. Overall, Chomsky’s presentation was disappointingly a litany of the social democratic and Keynesian economic ideas still popular in these circles in New Zealand.

But, as revolution has often pointed out, the reforms of welfare capitalism were possible in the unique period of the postwar boom, a boom that has passed away. Capitalism today has returned to its normal features of falling profitability and economic crisis. Thus when Chomsky points out that financial speculation is harmful to the ‘real economy’ he is actually reversing the situation. Increased financial speculation is a result of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in the ‘real’ (productive) economy. It is this tendency, endemic to capitalism, which explains the increase in financial speculation and also the slowdown in the real global economy.

It is only by understanding the true nature of capitalism and its crises that one can point the finger at the real enemy: not the power elites, but the system of capitalist production itself.

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Comments
  1. Peter says:

    Interesting piece from the archives. I think it is a little unfair in its depiction of Chomsky’s social theory, which is actually more complex than ‘elites rule the world and tell us what to do’. His well-known analysis of media and pop culture is especially instructive.

    That said, I’ve increasingly found Chomsky to be a utopian thinker. He seems to favour an approach to social change that is essentially the accumulation of ad-hoc, semi-radical actions by isolated groups (be they workers, consumers, or citizens). In time these groups will supposedly form networks of opposition, that will ultimately bring down the old regime and replace it with one more akin to Chomsky’s libertarian socialism. While all movements probably pass through this stage initially, without a guiding ideology or system of thought they are easily diverted by opportunism (such as MANA), or captured by the very power structures they seek to overthrow (innumerable examples: the Chinese and South African Communist Party’s seem two of the obvious candidates).

    I don’t want to be accused of theory-snobbery here, because action is important and even seemingly-isolated efforts can have a far greater potential than first appears. But without an analysis of the system you face, including its power structures and how they are negated/captured, then failure can only follow. While Chomsky has contributed some excellent thoughts to our understanding the capitalist system, he seems to naively follow this up by imploring us to ‘just do something’, with only a leftist idealism as our guide. It’s a start I suppose….

  2. Phil F says:

    I typed up Grant’s old article a few nights ago and when I was typing it up I did think it was a little harsh.

    One of the things about Revo was that we were dedicated to critique and I think our unfavourable attitude to most of the NZ left got transferred a bit to Chomsky. Having said that, I remember Grant going to the Chomsky talk on campus and being distinctly unimpressed. And Grant certainly wasn’t hostile to Chomsky and probably was better disposed to him before he heard him speak in person.

    I have some problems with Chomsky’s view of ideology in terms of the Chomsky-Herman manufacturing consent stuff. At some point I may get round to converting into an article the powerpoints from a course I ran on ideology in Community Education at Canterbury in the late 1990s and a course me and another comrade ran several years later on a similar theme and which looked at Chomsky. The ‘manufacturing consent’ paradigm has some valuable things going for it, useful insights, but its weakness is that it seems to assume that the minds of the masses are rather blank canvasses and elites can paint all kinds of things on those canvasses if they have enough money, power and control.

    I think ideological hegemony is more complex and you need Marx, Lukacs and Gramsci as well as Chomsky/Herman.

    Phil F

  3. Harry says:

    “would we really be better off today without cars and highways?”

    “It is a fundamental mistake to look at cars and their attributes in a rational way.”

    –US Automotive executive Bob Lutz:

  4. harold says:

    “would we really be better off today without cars and highways?”

    Apparently not:

    [W]e are living in the most explosive era of road and infrastructure expansion in human history – from the plains of the Serengeti to the rainforests of Sumatra. By 2050, [experts] estimate, there will be an additional 25 million kilometres (15.5 million miles) of new paved roads globally, enough to circle the Earth 600 times.

    (extracted from the carmageddon blog at deathbycar.info)