“Natural rights, rooted in human nature, which is part of the natural world”
Noam Chomsky (1928-) is one of the world’s leading intellectuals – a linguist, philosopher, historian and social critic whose political thought has been guided since his childhood by anarchist principles.
He has long been a trenchant critic of imperialism, particularly US neoliberal imperialism, and of the way that corporate media unquestioningly reproduces the thinking of the capitalist elite.
From an organic radical perspective, Chomsky is important for the way he has insisted, in the face of contemporary hostility, that human nature not only exists but is also the basis for an anarchist vision of the future.
In a TV debate (1) with postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault in 1971, he declared: “I think it would be a great shame to put aside entirely the somewhat more abstract and philosophical task of trying to draw the connections between a concept of human nature that gives full scope to freedom and dignity and creativity and other fundamental human characteristics, and to relate that to some notion of social structure in which those properties could be realised and in which meaningful human life could take place”. (2)
Like Peter Kropotkin, Chomsky sees an innate and invisible structure within human minds and communities, which means we have the capacity to live harmoniously as a social organism.
The key word here is “capacity”, for it is clearly not always the case that this mutual aid tendency comes to the fore.
Here Chomsky’s political thinking echoes that of his linguistic work. People are not born with the knowledge of any particular language, he has stressed. What is innate, however, is the capacity to learn a language – any language – which will be activated by interaction with a specific language and will thus take on a definite content.
As Robin Robertson put it: “Noam Chomsky has developed a model of deep structure which he asserts underlies all language; he argues that this deep structure is an inherent, inborn, structure of the human mind… Chomsky’s work points to a deep underlying structure that eventually shows itself as language”. (3)
In his 1970 essay ‘Language and Freedom’, Chomsky explicitly made the connection between his linguistic theory and the universalism and humanism underpinning his political beliefs.
He wrote: “It is appropriate to regard universal grammar as the study of one of the essential faculties of mind. It is, therefore, extremely interesting to discover, as I believe we do, that the principles of universal grammar are rich, abstract, and restrictive, and can be used to construct principled explanations for a variety of phenomena…
“Language, in its essential properties and the manner of its use, provides the basic criterion for determining that another organism is a being with a human mind and the human capacity for free thought and self-expression, and with the essential human need for freedom from the external constraints of repressive authority”. (4)
This idea that there is an “essential need for freedom” innate to humankind is a key foundation of anarchism (and therefore of organic radicalism). Mikhail Bakunin also wrote of the deep-rooted human instinct for freedom.
But, along with universalist concepts such as justice and natural rights, it has long been dismissed as invalid by what Chomsky terms “conventional and behaviorist dogma”. (5)
In his 1990 essay ‘Containing the Threat of Democracy’, Chomsky explored why this might be the case.
He first summarised the traditional idea that people have intrinsic rights: “Any authority that infringes upon these rights is illegitimate. These are natural rights, rooted in human nature, which is part of the natural world”. (6)
He continued: “This picture contrasts with a conflicting one that has dominated much intellectual discourse: the view that people are empty organisms, malleable, products of their training and cultural environment, their minds a blank slate on which experience writes what it will.
“Human nature is, then, a historical and cultural product, with no essential properties beyond the weak and general organizing principles with which the largely vacuous system may be endowed. If so, there are few moral barriers to compulsion, shaping of behavior, or manufacture of consent.
“From these assumptions, we derive a different conception of a legitimate social order, one that is familiar in our daily lives. This too is an attractive view – from the standpoint of those who claim the right to exercise authority and control. Looked at in this way, the empty organism view is conservative, in that it tends to legitimate structures of hierarchy and domination”. (7)
Speculating who benefits from the wide acceptance of the “empty organism” theory, which denies the existence of innate human capacities, he stressed: “We have already seen a plausible answer: the beneficiaries are those whose calling is to manage and control, who face no serious moral barrier to their pursuits if empty organism doctrines are correct”. (8)
This brought him back to the same conclusion he had reached twenty years previously, when he had identified a connection between the “empty organism” doctrines and systems of authority which deny essential human freedom: “If in fact man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the ‘shaping of behavior’ by the state authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee”. (9)
In other words, the “official” philosophies of capitalism, which stand directly opposed to the anarchist vision of a natural capacity for mutual aid and organic social cohesion, have been deliberately formulated to defend that system.
As Chomsky put it in his 1969 essay ‘Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship’: “In general, one would expect any group with access to power and influence to construct an ideology that will justify this state of affairs on grounds of the general welfare”. (10)
The ideological manipulation of the population by those in power is a recurrent theme in Chomsky’s work. He explained how people are indoctrinated into a belief in their own powerlessness: “The public must be reduced to passivity in the political realm, but for submissiveness to become a reliable trait, it must be entrenched in the realm of belief as well. The public are to be observers, not participants, consumers of ideology as well as products”. (11)
Part of this manipulation comes from the infiltration of dominant ideology into the thinking of those who are supposed to be opposing the capitalist system.
He said in an interview: “Lots of young radical activists are simply intimidated by the incomprehensible gibberish that comes out of left-wing intellectual movements… which is just impossible to understand.
“It makes people feel they’re not going to do anything because, unless I somehow understand the latest version of post-modern this and that, I can’t go out on the streets and organize people, because I’m not bright enough. It may not be intended this way, but the effect is a technique of marginalization and control and self-interest”. (12)
If this was true in 1996, when Chomsky gave the interview, it is doubly so today, when the babble of “incomprehensible gibberish” increasingly risks drowning out any coherent voice of real social dissent.
Another key manipulative role is played by the mass corporate media, as Chomsky and Edward S. Herman set out in some detail in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
They explained: “The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace.
“It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.
“In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda”. (13)
3. Robin Robertson, Jungian Archetypes: Jung, Gödel, and the History of Archetypes (York Beach, Maine: Nicolas-Hays, 1995), pp. 105, 107.
4. Noam Chomsky, ‘Language and Freedom’, Chomsky on Anarchism, ed. by Barry Pateman (Edinburgh, Oakland and West Virginia: AK Press, 2005), pp. 101, 106.
5. Noam Chomsky, ‘Containing the Threat of Democracy’, Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 175.
6. Chomsky, ‘Containing the Threat of Democracy’, Chomsky on Anarchism, p.173.
7. Chomsky, ‘Containing the Threat of Democracy’, Chomsky on Anarchism, p.174.
9. Chomsky, ‘Language and Freedom’, Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 114.
10. Noam Chomsky, ‘Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship’, Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 13.
11. Chomsky, ‘Containing the Threat of Democracy’, Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 155 .
12. Noam Chomsky, ‘Anarchism, Intellectuals and the State’, Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 217.
13. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, (New York: Pantheon, 2002) p. 1.