Conversations Between Michael Albert and Noam Chomsky Pt. 1
[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published January, 1993.]
In January 1993 Michael Albert and Noam Chomsky recorded a series of conversations which were later distributed by Z Magazine. Here we present a transcription of some material from the 1993 tapes, essentially verbatim, in three parts. Some of the topical material is now historical, of course, but the rest is as timely as when first discussed. It is divided into three parts: Part I -- Part II -- Part III
You once wrote an essay called "Responsibility and Intellectuals". Perhaps we could start by talking a little bit about that. First of all, what makes a person an intellectual in the first place. What is an intellectual?
It's not a term I take all that seriously. Some of the most intellectual people I've met and known in my life were very remote from the so-called intellectual professions. Plenty of people who are called intellectual workers, who work with their minds, not their, say, hands, are involved in what amounts to clerical work. An awful lot of academic scholarship, for example, is basically a kind of clerical work.
Suppose we use the word positively.
With a positive connotation I would want to talk about whoever it is who's thinking about things, trying to understand things, trying to work things out, maybe trying to articulate and express that understanding to others and so on. That's intellectual life.
So "things" could be society, it could be quarks ...
It could be music.
It could be sports. So basically, arguably, just about everyone.
Except that an awful lot of the activity of most of us is routine, not considered, not directed to problems that really do concern us and not based on efforts, maybe even opportunities to gain deeper understanding.
So intellectuals have a whole lot of time to do this part of life that we all do some of the time.
There are people who are privileged enough to be able to spend an awful lot of their time and effort on these things if they so choose. They rarely do. They often do turn to routine kind of hack work, which is the easy way.
So supposing a society like ours does give some people the opportunity to spend more time doing intellectual work, then I guess that's the context in which we raise the question, What's the responsibility of a person like that, a person who is free to have that time?
We can distinguish what we you might call their "task" from their moral responsibility. Their task, that is, the reason why social institutions provide them with this time and effort, their task is, say, so that they can support power, authority, they can carry out doctrinal management. They can try to ensure that others perceive the world in a way which is supportive of existing authority and privilege. That's their task. If they stop performing their task, they're likely to be deprived of the opportunities to dedicate themselves to intellectual work. On the other hand, their moral responsibility is quite different, in fact, almost the opposite. Their moral responsibility is to try to understand the truth, to try to work with others to come to an understanding of what the world is like, to try to convey that to other people, help them understand, and lay the basis for constructive action. That's their responsibility. But of course there is a conflict. If you pursue the responsibility, you're likely to be denied the privileges of exercising the intellectual effort.
It's pretty evident, not hard to understand. If you're a young person, say, in college or in journalism or for that matter a fourth grader, and you have too much of an independent mind, meaning you're beginning to fulfill your responsibility, there is a whole variety of devices that will try to deflect you from that error and, if you can't be controlled, to marginalize and eliminate you some way. In fourth grade you may be a behavior problem. In college you may be irresponsible and erratic and not the right kind of student. If you make it to the faculty you'll fail in what's sometimes called "collegiality," getting along with your colleagues. If you're a young journalist and you're pursuing stories that the managerial level above you understands, either intuitively or explicitly, are not to be pursued, you can be sent off to the police desk and advised that you are not thinking through properly and how you don't have proper standards of objectivity and so on. There's a range of devices. We live in a free society, so you're not sent to the gas chambers. They don't send the death squads after you, as is commonly done in many countries ... you don't have to go very far away to see that, say in
But certainly intellectuals aren't only journalists, economists, political scientists and the like. That's one set in the social sciences. But then there's also hard scientists. There's biologists and physicists and the like. There it would seem that there's less of a social control problem, and so maybe you get a different kind of behavior. Are the intellectuals in the linguistics department comparable to the intellectuals in the economics department?
First of all, there is a social control problem. It's just that we've transcended it. Galileo faced it, for example. You go back a couple of centuries in the West and the social control problem was very severe. Descartes is alleged to have destroyed the final volume of his treatise on the world, the one that was supposed to deal with the human mind, because he learned of the fate of Galileo. That's something like the death squads. The Inquisition was doing precisely that. Okay, that's past, in the West, at least. Not everywhere.
Why is it past? In other words, what is it about a society in the West that enables at least that kind of pursuit of knowledge to be free to go wherever it goes, but not in, say, Moslem society?
There are a number of reasons. One of them is just increase in freedom and enlightenment. We've become a much freer society than we were in absolutist times. Popular struggles over centuries have enlarged the domain of freedom. Intellectuals have often played a role in this, during the Enlightenment, for example, in breaking barriers and creating a space for greater freedom of thought. That often took a lot of courage and quite a struggle. And it goes on until today. But there are other factors, too. It's utilitarian. It turns out that with modern science, especially in the last century or two, the ability to gain deeper understanding of the world has interacted critically with modern economic development, modern power. In fact, the course of science and the course of military endeavors is very close, way back to Archimedes. Archimedes was after all designing devices for military purposes. And military technology and science, their history closely interweaves in the modern period, particularly since the mid-nineteenth century. The sciences have actually begun to contribute materially to industrial development. So there are utilitarian purposes, but I wouldn't overexaggerate them. It's like the kind of result that led to freedom in other domains, like slavery, let's say. Or after a hundred and fifty years of American history women were allowed to vote. Things like that. These are significant.
Back to the point, especially after the great scientific revelations of the seventeenth century, it got to the point where you simply couldn't do science if you were subjected to the doctrinal controls that are quite effective outside the hard sciences. You can't do it. You try to be a physicist after
In fact, there is a funny problem in the natural sciences. That is that there is an internal conflict. The goal, and in fact what you're being paid for, to put is crassly, why you're being given the opportunities, is to find out the truth about the world. And you can't do that under doctrinal constraints. So there's a tension. On the one hand it just has to be free, and it just has to encourage independent thought. On the other hand, people with power and authority want it to be constrained. That contradiction is much more striking in the natural sciences than it is in the social sciences or humanities. You can tell falsehoods forever there.
But that implies that in the social sciences and economics and so on, to be crass, what they're being paid for is not to find the truth but something else.
They are performing their role as long as they provide ideological services. To make it simple, take, say, modern economic theory, with its sort of free-market ideology. Planners in business and government are not going to waste their time following those rules. So the
How does it happen? Here we have students who finish undergraduate work and decide they want to be an economist. So they go to, let's say, Harvard or MIT or some other school in economics. Presumably when they come in they have some notion of doing something that's relevant to society, to making life a little better, something like that, at least a reasonable number of them. When they come out, they're either going to teach at some small community college or they've learned the correct lesson. But no one gets up in front of the class and says, We will henceforth serve the interests of capital.
It happens in a lot of ways. Let me tell you a story I once heard from a black civil rights activist who came up to Harvard Law School and was there for a while. This must have been twenty years ago. He once gave a talk and said that kids were coming in to
Sometimes it takes two years.
Sometimes it takes two years; that's overdrawing the point. But those factors are very influential. I've fought it all my life. It's extremely easy to be sucked into the dominant culture. It's very appealing. And the people don't look like bad people. You don't want to sit there and insult them. You try to be friends, and you are. You begin to conform, to adapt, to smooth off the harsher edges. Education at a place like Harvard is in fact largely geared to that, to a remarkable extent. I was a graduate student there. There was an organization called the Society of Fellows, which is a research outfit that selects a couple of people from all fields over the year. It was a remarkable opportunity to work. You had all the facilities of Harvard available and basically no responsibilities. Your only responsibilities were to show up for a dinner every Monday night which was sort of modelled on the Oxford-Cambridge high table. You spent the evening at the dinner with a couple of senior faculty members and other distinguished people. The purpose of that was basically socialization. You had to learn how to drink port and how to have polite conversations without talking about serious topics, but of course indicating that you could talk about serious topics if you were so vulgar as to actually do it. There's a whole set of mannerisms. In those days you had to learn how to wear British clothes. That was the appropriate affectation.
And it's very rare for a person to do all that and not begin to rationalize and think, This is really pretty good. Aren't I something for all this? And to begin to be impressed.
It kind of seeps in. They've had, for example, back in the early forties ... in the 1930s of course there was pretty big labor strife and labor struggle and it scared the daylights out of the business community because labor was actually winning the right to organize and even legislative victories. There were a lot of efforts to overcome this. Harvard played its role. It introduced a trade union program which brought in rising young people in the labor movement, the guy who looks like he's likely to be the local president next year. They're brought to Harvard, they sit in the business school and the dorms. They go through a socialization process. They're brought to share some of the values and an understanding of the elite. They're taught, our job is to work together. We all are together. There are two lines. One line, for the public, is, we're all together. We're all cooperating, joint enterprise, harmony and so on. Of course, meanwhile, business is fighting a vicious class struggle on the side, but that's in a different corner of the universe. That effort to socialize and integrate union activists, I've never measured its success, but I'm sure it was successful. It's pretty much the way what I experienced and saw what a Harvard education. There's much less of that at MIT, naturally, for exactly the reason you said: They're not training the people who are going to rule.
It reminds me of 180 degrees opposite, when people started to become politicized in the early and mid-sixties there was an intellectual component that was trying to understand society. There was a whole set of lifestyle acts, ranging from long hair to having a mattress on the floor to various other kinds of behavioral traits. Most parents were sophisticated enough to get much more upset about the lifestyle acts than about the ideas that were being phrased. Because they had a tremendous tenacity. Once you had a community that had these lifestyle ways of behaving and ways of getting along and ways of identifying one another and being part of the same thing, you could escape the more mainstream behaviorisms far more easily. You could look at the accepted roles as being silly or false or whatever, and it was no longer so attractive. That has been absent since about 1970. I don't think the left has had anything much to compete with, the sort of general life definitions of the mainstream and the right. So o the left you don't have a strong lifestyle and an identity to make it easy to ignore the seductions. What you have is ideals but no counteridentity.
That's partly because the alternative lifestyle simply was commercialized and absorbed into the mainstream culture, selling clothes and that sort of thing.
That was part of it. It was also partly because the alternative lifestyle was never the wonderful lifestyle it was cut out to be. Instead of defining something positively, it was defined as the opposite of what is. The opposite of something that's horrible isn't always so wonderful. So there were many components of the way we lived and acted in the late sixties that were not very well conceived as ways to live and act over a long period of time. They worked for a time, but over the longer haul they often just weren't very fulfilling.
What you're saying is no doubt true. The thing has been commercialized and cheapened. Still, life's a lot easier than it was forty years ago. If I think back to those days, if I look at pictures from the early 1960s, I can hardly believe it, how disciplined everything was, how deep the authority structures were just in personal relations, the way you looked and talked when you went out with your friends. There's been very significant ... I think very good changes as a result of what took place in the 1960s that in turn spread around the whole society. Maybe the spread of some of the gains meant that young dissidents couldn't identify themselves so easily, but it's in part because the society got better.
But it's distracting and sort of disturbing. I mean, it's true, and when I talk to students I try to convey the difference between a time when everybody thought that every lawyer was honest and forthright and deserved obedience and so on and that doctors were out for nothing except to help humanity, that business people cared about consumers, and so on, to a time, now, when people know much more than that, to a time, now, when people are sort of passive and laid back. But then it's distracting that with those changes you don't have a parallel change in an organized and aware, self-conscious and critically aware left. On the one hand we do have a lot of left activists. But we don't have something that is a national left.
I agree with you, of course. But it seems to me what's happened, as I try to understand what's happened since the sixties, is that there has been among the general population, excluding those who are considered responsible intellectuals, meaning the ones filling their tasks, excluding power structures and the intellectuals who serve their interests, for the general population, there has been something of almost a revolutionary change in moral values and cultural level and so on, and a great improvement. It has taken no institutional form at all. On the one hand, the ideological institutions are firmly in the hands of the extremely narrow liberal-to-reactionary spectrum, and very tightly controlled. There's no identifiable point of view or ways of thinking or by and large even journals outside them, very little. On the other hand, the general population has become extremely dissident and has absorbed many of the values that people were struggling for in the sixties, and you can see it in just about every area.
But the thing that seems to be missing is that then people thought that you could win a change.
I think they did win a change.
Yes, but it was in considerable part because they also believed they could, understood they could. But now people tend not to believe they can, and so have little incentive to try.
I don't think they've recognized what changes are already achieved. If you take almost any area you think of, whether it's race or sex or military intervention, the environment--these are all areas of awareness and concern that didn't exist in the early sixties. You didn't even think about them. You just submitted, without even knowing that you were submitting. You just accepted. And people don't any more. Take the original sin of American history: what happened to the native population. It's a remarkable fact that until the 1960s the culture simply couldn't come to terms with it. Not at all. When I grew up, I would go out with my friends and we'd play cowboys and Indians and shoot the Indians. Scholarship was the same. Until the 1960s, with very rare exceptions, academic scholarship was grossly falsifying the history, suppressing the reality of what happened. Even the number of people was radically falsified. As late as 1969, in one of the leading diplomatic histories of the
But somehow it's as if, in a phrase I once heard, we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. People have this perception of accomplishing nothing or very, very little, and begin to get burned out and to retain some of the values and commitments but begin to feel that you can no longer really struggle for change bcause we're not succeeding. This is a common sentiment. It's certainly a common sentiment among people I know, not always voiced, I think, but there. And yet if you look objectively at the thing, like you're trying to do now, you see that if you don't have an outrageously inflated view of how fast change takes place, then you can understand that change has been dramatic. It isn't so obvious what the mechanism is that causes people to be so oblivious to their own effects.
Partly it's that there's nothing in the official culture that's ever going to tell you you succeeded. It's always going to tell you you failed. The official view of the sixties is it's a bunch of crazies running around burning down universities and making noise because they were hysterics or were afraid to go to
But there's an element of truth in that, though perverse. Of course, short of a revolution any change that occurs is going to occur how? Immediately, because an elite makes a decision to enact a change. They're going to make the decision because of the pressures of social movements. But they are in a position to deny the influence of the movements and claim credit for themselves down the road a ways.
But really, they bowed to pressures.
That's right. When you read the histories, they don't talk about the pressures from social movements. Instead elites simply talk about their profound wisdom in taking this next step.
We ended slavery because we were such great figures that we decided that we didn't like slavery.
And the real cause of it is gone.
Let's say the slave revolts.
And sure, we saw that on a not trivial scale in the last thirty years. So this combination of a kind of a, in my opinion, really close to revolutionary change in moral values and cultural level has gone on without any lasting institutional change.
And the lack of institutional support for the changes in ideas and values allows the official culture to drive home its message, which is, you guys are worthless and can't do anything, why don't you just shut up and go home? And steadily they undermine the progress.
I want to go into some of that when we talk about movements and what should happen. But let's just go back to this broad question of intellectuals. What about left intellectuals? If an intellectual is somebody who spends time trying to understand, and a social intellectual tries to understand society, what's a left intellectual? Are there any?
I've never been very happy about words like "left" and "right," but let's use it in the conventional sense. One of the very few predictions in the social sciences that I know of that ever came true was one of Bakunin's over a century ago in which he talked about what the intellectuals were going to be like in modern industrial society. He predicted that they would fall into two categories. There would be the left intellectual. They would be the ones who would try to rise to power on the backs of mass popular movements, and if they could gain power they would then beat the people into submission.
Yes, what he was predicting was Leninism. And if the inelletuals find that they can't do that, or that it is too dangerous or costly, they'll be the servants of what we would nowadays call state capitalism. He didn't use the term. Either of the two intellectuals, he said, will be "beating the people with the people's stick." That is, they will still be presenting themselves as representatives of the people, so they'll hold the people's stick, but they'll be beating the people with it. He didn't go on with this, but I think that his analysis has turned out to be true. And it follows from his analysis that it would likely be extremely easy to shift from one position to the other. It's extremely easy, that is, to undergo what nowadays is called the "God-that-failed" syndrome. You start off as basically a Leninist, someone who is going to be part of the Red bureaucracy. You see later that power doesn't lie that way, and you very quickly become an ideologist of the right and you devote your life to exposing the sins of your former comrades who haven't seen the light and haven't shifted to where power really is. In fact, we're seeing it right now in the
It doesn't take a long indoctrination period to learn the new style.
And this has been going on for forty years. It's become a kind of a joke. Where does that leave what you might call "honest intellectuals"? They're usually outside the system, for good reasons. There is no reason to expect institutions of power and domination to tolerate people trying to undermine them. Quite the opposite. So therefore you quite typically find the honest and serious intellectuals, people who are commited to, I think, enlightenment values, values of truth, freedom, liberty, and justice, there would be major efforts made to marginalize them.
Who are they?
All the people who have done anything that's ...
Who, which people, groups?
Take, say, the SNCC activists. They were serious intellectuals. They made a big change in the world. The people of your generation, who did the work that led to the changes we spoke of earlier... work that didn't just mean running around the streets waving signs. It also meant thinking about things and figuring out what the problems were. Those people made a change. A certain number of them did filter their way into the institutions. For example, if you take universities or newspapers or television today, you usually find people in there, almost always, who have been through those experiences and have remained true to them. They've got to adapt their behavior in various ways to get by. But many of them do it very self-consciously, very honestly and even very constructively. So there's a kind of an honest intelligentsia if you like, meaning not serving power, either as Red bureaucracy or as state capitalist, commissar equivalents. Such people exist, sometimes in the institutions, but most of the time out of them, for almost trivial reasons. The institutions are simply not going to welcome serious critics. They're constructed in such a way as to make it difficult or impossible for people who are going to undermine those institutions to survive. How could it be otherwise? It's just like you're not going to find a militant labor activist as chairman of the board of General Electric. How could it be?
It seems straightforward to me as well. But we come to the question, are there some left intellectuals who rise to a position of relative prominence, so they're visible. SNCC activists are anonymous, in a sense, socially anonymous.
They're marginalized, but they're important. Some of them are still around, doing important things.
But in a sense it's an activist group who is not highlighted and made publicly visible. And some leaders might be.
Like Rosa Luxemburg, say, who got killed.
Right. So there's a figure in history who we could say, She's one of the people who I would pick...
She was murdered. That's the point.
Typical. This raises the question, Can we only find dead ...?
No. First of all, if you look back through history ...
Let's look now.
Now? You find people all over. It's claimed now that there's less of a left intelligentsia than there was thirty years ago. I don't believe a word of it. Take a look at the people who they're calling the left, the big thinkers of the 1950s. Who were they? They were intelligent people. Ed Wilson is an intelligent person, but a left intellectual? Mary McCarthy? A smart person who wrote some nice novels. But not a left intellectual. In fact, what you have now is much more serious activists in many more places. I travel all the time and give talks all over the place. I've been amazed to go to places throughout the 1980s ... take, say, the
I can't even tell you their names. There are too many of them. Also, I'm not even sure that the word "left" is the right word for them. A lot of them were probably Christian conservatives, but they were very radical people in my view. Intellectuals who understood and who did a lot. They created a popular movement which not only protested
So if a person comes along and says the left intellectual community is gutted, there's very little of it, what they must in fact be saying is something like--the number of people who call themselves leftist and who are visibly notable is small. Which, of course, in your analysis may well be an indication that there's a growing left intellectual community which is, of course, being isolated and not labeled anything publicly and not given any public visibility.
That's right. What will be labeled "left" and given publicity is something ugly enough that people can be rallied to oppose it. So Stalinism, for example. Books will come out, and are coming out, about the left intellectuals in
But if by left you mean people who are struggling for peace and justice and freedom and human rights and so on, and for social change and elimination of authority structures, whether it's personal life or institutions or whatever, if that's what the left is, there are more of them around than I remember in my lifetime.
In coming to this kind of perception of the thing, you have a real advantage, you personally, relatively speaking. You personally, as compared to one of those individuals, do have a lot of the visibility and a lot of the access that somebody might attribute as the critical ingredient needed to impact on a wide audience in our society. These other people feel isolated. They feel relatively uninfluential or unable to express their opinions to a wider audience.
Visibility, that's putting the cart before the horse. The reason I have visibility is because there are a lot of people around, a lot of groups around, who come and ask me to speak, or because people ask me to write. I don't have visibility in the mainstream institutions.
But there has to be a distinction between you and those people you mentioned in Omaha or Anchorage or wherever who may know more than you, or at least a lot, about Central America and who are never asked to speak.
We pick different ways of living our lives. In the early sixties, I was an MIT professor. But when I started giving talks about the war or organizing tax resistance or getting involved in the foundation of RESIST, national resistance support groups, or being faculty advisor for the Rosa Luxemburg SDS at MIT, I didn't have any visibility. There are choices to be made. Some of my close friends who have the same status and chance for visibility that I had actually picked a different way and devoted their lives to organizing and activism. Louis Kampf and I are old friends. We taught courses together for years at MIT, courses which you took years ago. We just went different ways. He devoted himself primarily to real activism and organizing and keeping groups and journals functioning and so on. I tried that and I wasn't any good at it. I found that I was much better at other things, and that there seemed to be a demand for the other things, so I just went that way. That ends up in me being visible. He's visible in other circles than the ones that I'm visible in. But those are just different ways of reacting to the same sorts of problems, depending on your personality and your particular abilities and the kinds of things you can do and the kinds of things you can't do and so on and so forth. The visibility is a surface phenomenon. Visibility is the result of the existence of an active, lively left. If what I've been talking about as the left were to disappear, I would no longer be visible.
As a political commentator.
Yes, I could still appear in linguistics and philosophy meetings, but I would certainly not be visible as a political commentator, because there would be nowhere for me to open my mouth except to my friends. It would be back to the early sixties, when I could talk to people in the living room. The reason that it has changed is because there are opportunities that in fact call for this kind of participation, so that makes people look visible. We mentioned SNCC before. Why did Martin Luther King become visible? Because there were SNCC workers down in the South. And he could appear and serve a role for them.
It seems to me there is a positive and negative side to that. The positive side you've described: there's a political context and it draws people in different ways and people participate. But the negative side seems to me to be, you gave the example of Martin Luther King and yourself. There's a need for a particular visible organizer or a particular visible speaker and proselytizer of information, a presenter of information. But once those slots are filled, then there's a tendency for people to cling to the individuals who are filling those slots. For a long period of time, depending on a number of factors, the number of slots might not broaden out. Nowadays if a group in
It's not. It's hard to break through. There are people who we know in fact who are highly qualified to do lots of things and are eager to do it but sort of can't pass over that barrier. I don't know exactly what the reason for that is, frankly, because all of us had to pass over that barrier at some point. Part of the reason is, the fact of the matter is there haven't been a lot of people available. Take, say, the last ten years, when there's been a lot of activism, a lot of it having to do with
Or we can name the ones we know, but it may well be there are a good many more and we can't name them. That's the problem.
There are a good many more who would be highly qualified and maybe even would like to do it. The question we're asking, and I don't know what the answer is, is how come they don't. First of all, I don't think it's all that hard. Take, say, people who weren't known very well, like Holly Sklar, who probably wasn't known fifteen years ago. She got plenty of invitations all over the place. She became visible. There are others like her. Take my friend Norman Finkelstein on the
It's somewhat difficult. I do think that there's a dynamic there that closes it off.
The bad dynamic, what you're pointing to, is the "star story. It's standard when a popular movement takes off for people to show up and say, OK, I'm your leader. A Eugene McCarthy type, say. Here's a big popular movement. Fine. I'm your leader. Give me power. If you can't give me power I'll go home and write poetry and talk about baseball. And if you can give me power then I become your leader and now you look up to me and you go home and put the power in my hand. That's a familiar dynamic, and Bakunin's Red bureaucracy, no matter what its politics are. It could be right wing, it could be left wing. But there's a better dynamic, which is that the popular movements continue and strengthen, and where there are people around who, for whatever reason or quirk or privilege or whatever it may be, can contribute to them by intellectual activity, they do a part of it. That's all. They're not stars. They're not leaders. They're just contributing in the way that they know how to contribute. That would be a better structure. But it can tend to degenerate into this other very quickly, especially in a culture which is reinforcing their worst tendencies by trying to create an imagery of leadership and stars and heroes and so on.