Let’s Celebrate Noam Chomsky, the Intellectual and Moral Giant

More than any other thinker in the postwar era, Noam Chomsky has embodied Karl Marx’s favorite dictum: “nothing human is alien to me.”

Noam Chomsky in Bonn, Germany, June 17, 2013. (Brill / ullstein bild via Getty Images)

It’s hard to imagine a world without Noam Chomsky. For over sixty years, he has been the most visible and prolific left intellectual on the planet. There is scarcely a corner of the world where his writing and tireless fight for justice hasn’t touched people’s lives.

My mother was once sitting in a café in a tiny little Midwestern town, having a conversation with a friend about him, when someone two tables away turned to her and asked, “excuse me, are you talking about Noam Chomsky?” And with that, a two-way conversation became communal, involving people who were complete strangers moments ago now forming an instant bond. There have only been a handful of intellectuals in modern history with this kind of reach, this kind of resonance for millions upon millions of people.

More than any other thinker in the postwar era, Chomsky has embodied Karl Marx’s favorite dictum: “nothing human is alien to me.” Noam hasn’t just pointed to injustice where he saw it, no matter how remote — he has felt it. The Vietnamese, the Palestinians, the East Timorese, the Kurds — all of them saw Noam adopt their struggle as his own, with a passion that only comes from someone who sees their suffering as an affront to his own sensibility. And for that, everyone with any humanity returned their love and respect to the man.

The parallels with Marx don’t stop there. No intellectual since Marx combined breadth and depth the way Chomsky has. He doesn’t just have educated opinions on a bewildering array of topics and geographical regions — he has real expertise. This is what has made him such a towering figure — he has been a one-man think tank, doing the work of dozens, churning out commentary and analysis at a pace that no other contemporary thinker has been able to match. In many ways, his commentary is itself an archive. As any historian knows, only the tiniest fraction of the documentary record actually makes it into the official archives. The vast majority is destroyed or, in many parts of the world, simply lost. And not a small portion are preserved for the official record specifically for their propaganda value. Chomsky’s commentary is a kind of counterarchive, an unofficial documentation of the course of events, which future historians can lean on to fact-check the official record as they try to reconstruct the past. His cataloging of American criminality in Vietnam or Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians will be no less important than Marx’s journalism about the Arrow War in 1856 or the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857.

While Chomsky shares with Marx an extraordinary breath and prodigious energy, there are also interesting contrasts. Most obvious is the fact that Marx explicitly denied having a moral basis for his criticism of the capitalist system and its depredations. Even while his analysis was driven by outrage at capitalism’s brutality and his texts suffused with a sense of urgency, his explicit statements on the subject warned against taking his criticisms as moral condemnation. And famously, he never wrote anything on morality per se, except when he was lampooning other progressive intellectuals who made their normative stance more explicit. Chomsky diverges from Marx in this very important respect. He has explicitly embraced the ethical responsibility that comes with being an intellectual and, far from lampooning other morally engaged intellectuals, he turned his ire to those who deny having a normative agenda. As he said on several occasions, intellectuals and academics comprise a very privileged stratum within modern society, and with that privilege comes a responsibility — a moral obligation, if you will, to expose and fight against illegitimate authority.

His embrace of that responsibility and his withering critiques of US aggression have led many of his critics to charge him with basically being little more than a hard-working moralist. It is not uncommon to find descriptions of Chomsky as a journalist peddling highly charged condemnations of American power, but with little theoretical analysis. In the event that his underlying framework is taken seriously, it is often described as a conspiracy theory.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. The charge of conspiracy has been a convenient ruse to summarily dismiss Chomsky’s devastating criticisms of the institutions that he is examining. And, in truth, it is abetted by his own very deflationary stance toward his theoretical framework and of social theory generally. Chomsky in fact has a clear structural theory of capitalism and the state, but unlike most academics, he didn’t dress it up in indecipherable prose or bury it under a hundred qualifications. Instead, he would quickly lay it out as a premise and then spend most of his energy showing how it played out blow by blow in historical events.

Chomsky’s Theory

Chomsky has abided by what one might call a plain-speaking Marxism, even though he has generally decried such labels. At the core of it is a simple proposition: in any modern market society, political power flows from economic power, and economic power rests in the hands of the holders of capital. It follows that politics will be dominated by these holders of capital, and they will use their considerable resources to bend the political process to their own ends. And what are these ends? He has liked to quote Adam Smith, whom he takes to be one of the most perceptive theorists of capitalism: the holders of wealth, Smith observed, follow “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind: all for ourselves, and nothing for other people.” This “vile maxim,” Chomsky pointed out, ought to be the anchor for any political analysis of modern society.

This amounted to a simple and basic theory of the state, both for analyzing domestic affairs and also foreign policy. In both domains, we should expect to find that parties, organizations, and institutions are shaped and reshaped around the economic interests of the ruling class, not the general public. And these interests he took to be the overriding prioritization of profit above all else, whatever its cost — human and environmental.

What is true in domestic affairs will also hold true in foreign policy. Chomsky has summarized his approach very clearly: “If we hope to understand anything about the foreign policy of any state, it is a good idea to begin by investigating the domestic social structure: who sets foreign policy? What interests do these people represent? What is the domestic source of their power? It is a reasonable surmise that the policy that evolves will reflect the special interests of those who design it” — and those designing it are of course the same crew that designs domestic policy. Both domains — the national and the international — are therefore dominated by the capitalist class. “If we do not adopt Smith’s method of ‘class analysis,’” Chomsky warns, “our vision will be blurred and distorted. Any discussion of world affairs that treats nations as actors is at best misleading, at worst pure mystification, unless it recognizes the crucial Smithian footnotes.”

The dominance of the ruling class in both dimensions of policy, domestic and foreign, is the baseline condition. There will be plenty of instances and states of affairs where ruling class preferences don’t run the show, when ordinary working people are able to have a say in social affairs. But this will not be the norm, because such influence is not built into the system. In fact, the rules of capitalism work to press workers into the service of the wealthy, not because of false consciousness, but because it’s the most sensible thing for them to do. To reverse this, to achieve any kind of say in political and economic life, workers and ordinary citizens have to find a way of banding together, to collectively take on the power of their bosses and their political servants in the state. But this is of course not only hard, but dangerous — bosses aren’t fools, and as soon as they see even the glimmer of a challenge, they do whatever is necessary to squelch it. And so, for most working people, the sensible thing to do is to keep their head down and do what they have to in order to keep their heads above water. This, in turn, means that challenges to power will be the exception, not the rule.

It is his appreciation of the hard choices faced by ordinary people, the impossible situation in which they had to navigate, that makes Chomsky deeply respectful of their everyday rationality. You never see him reverting to the paternalism and condescension that many radical sophisticates exhibit. Insofar as working people accepted the line fed to them by the media, he never takes it to be because of their docility or their credulousness, but because of the great effort it took to find alternative avenues of information. He has said over and over again that it took enormous time and energy to go beyond the mainstream media and acquire more accurate knowledge of elite machinations, and it was usually people with resources or unusual dedication who were able to muster the capacity. And to the extent that working people consented to their domination by elites, it was a kind of coerced consent, not an active acceptance of their place through some sort of false consciousness.

The Ruling Ideas

And this is what has elicited Chomsky’s withering contempt for people employed as intellectuals. He understands that academics, journalists, and media figures had the time and the resources to acquire fuller and more accurate presentations of political events than the typical citizen. They were in positions of great privilege. And with this, he argues, should come a moral responsibility. “If you’re more privileged,” he once explained, “you’re more responsible. . . . The people who are sitting in places like MIT have choices. They have privilege, they have education, they have training. That carries responsibility. Somebody who is working fifty hours a week to put food on the table and comes back exhausted at night and turns on the tube has many fewer choices.” It wasn’t that the person working fifty hours was an automaton: “Technically, this person has choices,” Chomsky observed, “but they’re much harder to exercise, and therefore he has less responsibility. That’s just elementary.” When professors, journalists, and others like them participated in elite deceptions, they were making a choice — it came from their prioritization of professional success over a baseline decency. And this brought on his scorn.

This is where we see another convergence with Marx. Few thinkers have been as contemptuous of the intelligentsia as Chomsky and Marx. Maybe this was because they had to interact with that stratum more than any other, and had to witness its cowardice and avarice, the pursuit of material rewards, which in the scheme of things amounted to nothing more than a pittance. They saw how entire careers were shaped around minuscule increases in status, at the cost of even minimal standards of decency. And in return, both have been among the most reviled and hated by professional academics and opinion makers, even as they have been loved by the wider public.

But the truth is that even if Chomsky had never said anything to directly denigrate the intelligentsia, he would have still been scorned by them. This has to do with his analysis of their social function. Like Marx, Chomsky takes the basic function of intellectuals to be that of serving dominant class interests. And this they can only do by distorting and suppressing basic facts about reality. “An ideological structure, to be useful for some ruling class,” he has insisted, “must conceal the exercise of power by this class either by denying the facts or more simply ignoring them — or by representing the special interests of this class as universal interests, so that it is seen as only natural that representatives of this class should determine social policy, in the general interest.” This is presented as a functional argument, much as we see in Marx’s writings. But Chomsky has worked out in great detail the causal channels by which the intelligentsia are brought into the orbit of the capitalist class, so that they can be a reliable agent. This is his famous theory of the media, which he labeled the propaganda model.

Chomsky centers his analysis of ideology on the media because this is the most important channel by which elites try to garner support for their strategies. Because he has called it the “propaganda model,” it has been denigrated as a kind of conspiracy theory about how the media functions, and as a story of ideological manipulation. Both claims are quite mistaken. First of all, like this analysis of capitalism, the media theory does not rely on conspiracy, nor does it claim that the public is duped by it. It is instead a highly structural theory of how ownership and the pursuit of individual interests explain the media’s docility.

Privately owned media entities function like any other corporation, in that owners hire people whom they can trust because these people’s interests and outlook are aligned with their own. They don’t make phone calls every day telling their editors what to publish. Just as CEOs vet their top-level managers, media owners vet their editors before they hire them. They can trust them because the editors are of class backgrounds like their own, with political outlooks like their own, and who in turn hire reporters whom they feel have an ideological outlook or career ambition that will make them trustworthy.

Media owners don’t have to micromanage anything, don’t have to tell anyone what to say or do. All of those possibilities are ruled out at the hiring decision. The higher up you go in the food chain, the more agreement you’ll find on basic issues, because interests are aligned. Of course, sometimes people are hired who don’t play along, or whose views evolve so that they diverge from owner interests. In this case, they don’t have to be fired or punished, though of course this might become necessary. A more subtle mechanism is available, which is a slower path of career advancement: as Chomsky has noted, “People who break away from the consensus have dubious prospects in the media or the academy, in general.” So there doesn’t have to be a “ministry of propaganda” as there was in Nazi Germany. The one-sided presentation of facts is assured by media people following their own class interests. In his “propaganda model,” there are actually four structural filters that function to weed out dissenting views from the media, so that what comes out is mostly propaganda. But in fact, as he liked to point out, it’s the very one — private ownership and the hiring decision that comes with it — where most of the outcomes are assured.

If we look at the other end of the process, the reception of ideas, Chomsky is often accused of a social manipulation theory of media. But this is also untrue. His theory is about the production of ideas, not their reception. He has had very little to say about the latter issue, except that elites are far more likely to believe ruling-class narratives than are the masses: “There’s really two separate questions about the media which are usually muddled. One is what they’re trying to do and the second one is what’s the effect on the public. The effect on the public isn’t very much studied but to the extent that it has been it seems as though among the more educated sectors the indoctrination works more effectively. Among the less educated sectors people are just more skeptical and cynical.” Thus, if media does produce “consent,” it is more among the privileged classes than it is among ordinary people. In fact, Chomsky has argued, given the saturation of the airwaves by elite perspectives, it was in fact quite remarkable how popular opinion still managed to be as critical as it is. On issue after issue, popular views remain amazingly resistant to indoctrination. It is among the more privileged strata that you find a slavish adherence to dominant classes’ ideology.

So why study the media at all, if we don’t know how effective it is in socializing the masses? Because the first obligation of an intellectual is to understand how power works — how classes strive to maintain their dominance. The point of studying the media or the state or the corporation is to understand the interests of dominant groups and the strategies they deploy to maintain their power. So, to go back to Marx’s aphorism, if the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class, then one task of critical intellectuals is to uncover the channels by which the ideas achieve their currency. This leads us straight to the need for a theory of the media, since that is the main instrument by which this currency is achieved. It is part of generating the structural theory of capitalism, which was the challenge to which Chomsky devoted himself in his social theory.

Chomsky and the Mandarins

This is why the mandarin class would have despised Chomsky no matter what — his theory of the intelligentsia goes against their own self-image. Chomsky has exposed the role that highly celebrated and feted intellectuals play in reproducing the power of dominant groups. It is no wonder that they have dismissed his profoundly structural theory as nothing more than conspiracy; that they have described him as a moralist, rather than a morally motivated scientist; that they have dismissed him as a crank instead of an intellectual of the first order. But it isn’t just the content of his work. It is also his style. We shouldn’t underestimate how much of their ire has derived from Chomsky’s rejection of the typical accoutrements associated with celebrity intellectuals. Noam has simply been an embarrassment to academic culture. The way he has carried himself is a constant reminder to the professoriate of the chasm separating its self-presentation from its actual practice. He speaks in simple, clear language; he is a genius of epochal rank, yet he shows open disdain for the pretentiousness of what is called “social theory”; he answers every question thrown his way with utter sincerity, without ever talking down to his interlocutor; he famously answers every letter or email he received, usually within a day or two, sometimes with hours. All of this — every day, every time he has done it — is a rebuke to the mandarins in their institutions.

In spite of the extraordinarily powerful theory that he draws upon and that he in turn has developed, Chomsky hates long discussions of social theory. Why is this? There are many reasons, including those of his temperament. Some of it has derived from his disdain for the pretentiousness of credentialed intellectuals; some from his belief, which is correct, that compared to the more established sciences, social inquiry has few principles that are genuinely deep or generated surprising results. But a lot of it has to do with his desire to encourage ordinary people to take up the task to which he has devoted his life. He believes, again correctly, that even though socialists possess a very powerful theory of capitalism, the essentials of that theory are exceedingly simple and easily grasped by anyone willing to put a little bit of effort into it. The problem is that, instead of finding ways of making the theory accessible and putting it in the hands of ordinary people, many intellectuals spend most of their time mystifying it and warning the general public that this is a task best left to those with the right credentials.

For Chomsky, the way out of this is to present the theory as quickly and simply as possible, and then engage in the more important task of exposing the lies propagated by power centers and the scribes who orbit around them. It is through the exposure of these lies that working people can understand that their cynicism is warranted, that the whole thing is in fact rigged, so that they might be motivated to develop an alternative perspective as part of the political struggle to democratize our world. Hence, the solution is to state the basic principles in summary fashion and then to show in great detail how they work themselves out in case after case, instance after instance, in every part of the world: to show that rulers everywhere follow the same logic and working people everywhere are subject to very similar constraints.

One, Two, Many Chomsky’s!

For those of us working in the realm of ideas, it is true that there is a kind of repetitiveness to Chomsky’s empirical work. We sometimes feel a sense of ennui when we encounter yet another tract where he exposes ruling-class depredations. But that is only because journalists and academics spend a great deal of their time reading, and reading his work in particular. For the overwhelming majority of Chomsky’s audience, who don’t pore over all of his writing as part of their job, there is no such feeling of repetition. They come to him when they need him, and when they do, they find what they are looking for — a confirmation that their instincts are right, that they have been lied to yet again. Noam shows them in extraordinary detail, and with clinical precision, that the narratives they are fed by the media are little more than a justification for the relentless pursuit of power, of that “vile maxim” that Smith articulated so long ago: “everything for us nothing for you.” We can fancy it up all we want, add all the nuance that intellectuals love, but at the end of the day is there any aphorism that describes the neoliberal era better than this?

There will likely never be another Noam Chomsky. That combination of genius, moral integrity, endless energy, and longevity is virtually never seen. It’s only every few generations that someone comes along with anything approximating that combination. But that’s a high bar. Chomsky’s entire life has been dedicated to insisting, and showing, that the essence of his project is something to which any decent person can aspire, and every single person in institutions of learning should take as not only an inspiration but a duty. It is highly unlikely that the credentialed professionals calling themselves intellectuals will ever engage in this task as a group. But it is not hard to see Chomsky’s influence on the emerging generation of activists today.

Nowhere is it more apparent than in the groundswell of support for the Palestinian cause and the extraordinary exposures of mainstream media’s defense of Israel’s brutality in Gaza. So many of Chomsky’s arguments, indeed the very phrases that he used, are becoming commonplace. Even while he is not directly quoted, his shadow looms large and his presence is ubiquitous. I can’t imagine that he has been anything but delighted in seeing an army of media critics and uncredentialed commentators sprouting up to pick up the mantle of criticism and informed dissent.

True, there will never again be a Noam Chomsky. So we should all be Noam Chomsky.