Month: June 2014

Graham Purchase: Primitivism, post-Modernism, Chomsky and anarchism

Primitivism, post-Modernism, Chomsky and anarchism

by Graham Purchase

Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #51, Winter, 2009

a review of

B. Paterman, ed., Chomsky on Anarchism, AK Press, $16.95.

The dismissal of the working classes is currently popular among “radical” intellectuals. Some of the stupidest political ideas and outlooks maybe found among primitivists (back-to-the caves) and post-modernists. A few individuals mistakenly believe themselves to be avant garde anarchist thinkers or philosophers. Post-modern `anarchists’ (a tiny clique embedded in the academy) believe class analysis is passé and the working classes largely irrelevant and/or virtually non-existent. Primitivists believe workers exist but are just human robots within our evil industrial-technological civilization, which will end with our return to the caves. Quizzed about his views on such nonsense, Chomsky sensibly replies that “post Modernism is gibberish” (216), and primitivism would entail “the mass genocide of millions” (226). For Chomsky, “technology is a pretty neutral instrument,” utilizable for both good and evil ends. (225) He dismisses the post-modernist denial of “fundamental class differences.” He hasn’t “much problem in discerning class differences and their significance. In fact we see class issues rising all the time.” (228)

Barry Pateman, the editor and compiler of Chomsky on Anarchism, is clearly unsympathetic to Chomsky’s commonsensical views on class, culture and social change. Pateman takes the liberty of using his Introduction (pp. 7-10) to rebuff Chomsky’s remarks about post-class-ism elicited in Pateman’s own interview with Chomsky in 2004 (presumably undertaken to supplement this book’s meager offerings of new material)

Quoting George Woodcock, Pateman states in his Introduction, “Chomsky’s equation of anarchist struggle with a single class fails to see how anarchism appeals to the people of all classes who seek a society where the potentialities of existence are varied and liberated, a society to he approached by lifestyle rebellion as well as economic struggle.” (7) This is unfair. One might reasonably accuse Chomsky of confusing liberalism, humanism and anarchism, but not of ignoring non-economic factors, thinking and movements necessary for progressive social change. Throughout the book, Chomsky champions “classical liberalism.” (191) He repeatedly cites Dewey and Bertrand Russell, who stressed the importance of attitudinal change leading to both community and individual lifestyle experimentation in sexual mores, gender equality and core social and developmental processes, particularly the reform of primary education. Libertarian lifestyle change and experiment evolve hand in hand with economic liberation and empowerment because they are all essential pathways through which humanity socially self-organizes a libertarian, humane and wise society.

But, as Chomsky repeatedly argues, economic or capitalist class hierarchies are the most prevalent and important obstruction to the obtainable dream of a new collaborative libertarian order, an order made possible through self-organization of working people in both traditional and service industries. It is these economic or capitalist class hierarchies that obstruct the overthrow of the corporate capitalist structures of local, national and global political oppression and economic exploitation. The systems are based upon “unaccountable control pyramids,” “largely business-run private totalitarian dictatorships” or “tyrannies” (188, 192 and 213), aided by compliant nation states and media and university spin doctors, employing force and indoctrination dedicated to ensuring that big money states, people and corporations stay on top forever.

The editor is unhappy with Chomsky’s perfectly clear and orthodox syndicalism. He feels that Chomsky’s stress on economic class and workerism makes him more Marxist than anarchist. But Chomsky states that he holds traditional anarchist beliefs, and the text shows that he is an unadulterated disciple of Rocker, Bakunin and classical liberalism. Although occasionally quoting agreeably libertarian passages from Marx or one of his acolytes, Chomsky is primarily a supporter and student of syndicalism, with a particular interest in scholarship of its historical achievements, political role and significance during the Spanish Civil War.

Pateman feels Chomsky’s class analysis “could be a little tighter” and substantially improved by greater consideration of the “complexity” and phenomenology of class “experience.” This is a polite way of saying that Chomsky’s ideas on anarchism and class are one-dimensional, simplistic and economically essentialist or deterministic. Chomsky, Pateman continues, does not fully appreciate how working-class identities are not only an “economic” category, but also “cultural states.” Post-modernists balk at Chomsky’s `economic essentialism’ and `workerism,’ thinking working class identities are historically dated and primarily culturally and semantically determined inter-subjective social-psychological states. The working class, according to the post-moderns, is not an objectively existing entity (economic or otherwise), but some historical-cultural-semantic label or identity — one historical-cultural identity, psychological state or semantic construction among many that change over time and by which people routinely classify or rank themselves and others.

Post-modernism is pure sophistry. With a few intellectual tricks and fancy long words, the post-modernists talk the workers out of existence. This is the very antithesis of Chomsky’s unwavering anarchism and syndicalism that hopes someday the self-organization of labor will place workers at the center-stage of human social and economic existence. Pateman suggests that class analysis is old-fashioned and inadequate: “Chomsky’s perception of class as the central tenet of anarchism is out of synch with Woodcock and some elements of contemporary anarchism.” (8)

But what Chomsky correctly says (citing Bakunin and Rocker in support of this thesis) is that, the “leading traditions” of “traditional anarchism” (179 and 191) present us with a revolutionary socialist movement based upon the idea of peasant-agricultural laborers and the industrial working class organizing themselves democratically into syndicates in order to fight for their liberation from state capitalism. Individuals who deny the existence or relevance of the working class, have no justification for calling themselves anarchists, because they deny the essence of what anarchism has historically been all about. Where there is capitalism, there are workers, and in an era of global capitalism it is not difficult to find them suffering among the poor, underpaid and unemployed.

The question of state power

The dominant thread binding Chomsky’s many works of contemporary political commentary is: The Statue of Liberty is a prostitute pimped out to the “private dictatorships” and “totalitarian organizations” (213) constitutive of corporate capitalism. This is also a major unifying theme of Chomsky on Anarchism, insofar as there are any in this haphazardly conceived book.

In his early essays, Chomsky allies himself with anarcho-syndicalism, but over time progressively adopts a purely syndicalist position. He focuses on corporate capitalist tyrannies and is open-minded on questions of the compatibility of the state and the future possibility of a comparably large non-hierarchical libertarian welfare structure run by public workers’ syndicate and administering pensions and healthcare or providing coordinated inter-regional relief in natural disasters and other large-scale emergencies. Once the capitalist monster has been decapitated, workers can utilize the established civic body of a now headless workers’ state to concentrate largely upon administration and coordination of useful, socially productive basic services.

Unlike anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, syndicalists have generally felt happy to leave the question of the fate of the state unanswered. Syndicalists consider overthrowing and supplanting capitalism work enough, and view the perhaps utopian vision of a stateless workers’ society as a much more distant or larger project. With regard to the future of the state, syndicalism can he flexible and does not hold to the either/or position of anarcho-syndicalism. In fact, syndicalists may even contemplate the idea of strengthening the welfare state. Chomsky is of this view, believing that the welfare state at least establishes some sort of “public arena” and provides considerably more relief to the poor than the bread crumbs handed out by big business. Minimizing the welfare “state,” Chomsky asserts, would result in “increasing an even worse power [private capitalism].” (214) In contemporary capitalist society the worker is left with little else but the state to provide relief in difficult times. Observing this predicament, Chomsky believes we should not he too inflexible over our principles with respect to our visions and goals. Instead, we must take a “practical” (190) approach to assisting the working classes because they are currently facing the daunting prospect of having to continue to cling onto the edges of the welfare state frying-pan or he tossed into a capitalist inferno.

Anarcho-syndicalism is syndicalism enriched and empowered by the diversity and wealth of anarchism. Syndicalism has a very narrow tactical, industrial or workplace focus, whilst anarchism is a broad and inclusive political movement historically and ideologically embracing and influencing many different philosophical and cultural movements, outlooks and activities.

Syndicalists assume that without international capital and faced with the non-cooperation of the workers of the world, the political power of the most powerful states would be reduced to nil. Anarchists believe that capitalism is a fundamental part, but not the whole, of the nation state system, representing in their view a different and possibly greater evil than corporate capitalism. For anarchists, the workers’ revolution involves a fatal blow to the body that unites the two-headed monster of state-capitalism.

Chomsky was at one point a member of the syndicalist organization, the Industrial Workers of the World. Private tyrannies are the exclusive target of the IWW’s efforts, with campaigns aimed at inspiring workers to educate, agitate and organize grass-roots union networks for their protection and to overthrow the employer class. In contrast to their anarcho-syndicalist cousins, the syndicalist IWW members, or Wobblies, have always maintained an ambivalent, wait-and-see attitude to the fate of the state. The elimination and replacement of the capitalist system, not the nation-state, is the syndicalists’ focus and priority.

Chomsky implies that syndicalists, unlike some anarcho-syndicalists, have shied away from “detailed programs” (221) or social-economic blueprints as to how the post-capitalist worker-run society will emerge and organize itself, including whether it will retain a state-like structure or civic body Revolutionary syndicalism can be distinguished from more reformist versions of syndicalism that simply call for local shop-floor democracy and militant unionism as the only way for the worker to live a decent life within state-capitalism.

The editor of this compilation mistakenly believes that in placing greater emphasis upon the evils of capitalism than those of the nation-state, Chomsky has gradually come to embrace Marxism, when, in fact, Chomsky has become more purely syndicalist. Chomsky is clearly attracted to the tactics and less utopian vision of syndicalism, but he seems equally strongly drawn to libertarian-liberal or progressive literature, networks and movements, historically spawned, inspired or organized by anarchists.

Syndicalism and anarchism are complementary, but not identical, political theories of social and democratic transformation. Anarchists of all descriptions seek to eliminate state functions and institutions. But many disparate anti- or non-state world views are unified in the madness of armchair pseudo-anarchism. In the Anglo-American world, anarcho-syndicalists are confronted by the intellectual equivalent of pathological lunacy in the bipolarity of libertarian free-marketeers and libertarian survivalists (primitivists), both asserting a clearly unfounded claim to carry the anarchist flag. Anarchism, according to these ways of thinking, is either back to the caves or back to the market! Non-anarchist syndicalism provides an opportunity and an ideology, albeit a somewhat narrow one, to bypass such idiotic, impractical and contradictory pseudo-anarchist positions. The worst enemies of anarchism are often the “anarchists” themselves. Chomsky appreciates this depressing situation and has reacted by warming towards the IWW/syndicalist position, to which Chomsky, as a lifetime disciple of Rocker, has always been sympathetic. Chomsky and Rocker blend an open-minded and open-ended libertarian approach to their concepts and exploration of culture and freedom, while calling for practical, effective industrial and syndicalist concepts, tactics and methods for the realization of a free and equal society.

Liberalism and freedom

Hand in hand with early socialism, the assumptions and outlooks of classical liberal writers provide an underlying world-view and ideological source for the anarchist and many other 19th and 20th century political and philosophical traditions. The predominant subject of several of the essays in this collection is liberalism and our understanding of the instinctive experience in striving and satisfying our deep-felt need for freedom of thought, action and in conducting ourselves as we feel best. Chomsky’s analysis of freedom and classical liberal literature isn’t straightforwardly about anarchism because the great liberal thinkers (with the exception of Dewey and Russell) predate the anarchist movement.

Bakunin, Chomsky (121-2) and almost everyone else can readily agree that, at an instinctual level, everybody desires and seeks freedom. The struggle to enlarge or defend individual and collective freedoms is a defining feature of human nature, individual and social aspiration, such that it is a major force behind the great historical changes in human civilization. But anarchism differs from liberalism in its core assertion that freedom will only be achieved when the working classes liberate themselves by their own agency and self-organization. Anarchism disputes the idea that the democratic and libertarian visions of the great liberal dreamers can be realized under the torpor of the nation-state-capitalist system. Anarchists insist, instead, that the state should be replaced by a technologically savvy and “rational social order” (114) , developing out of the revolutionary syndicates and neighborhoods organized by the people in mass, open and constructive revolt against institutions that have failed to deliver housing, health care, bread, freedom or democracy for all in an age of global communication and potential plenitude.

In these essays, Chomsky takes several historical tours of liberal-minded thinkers familiar to most undergraduate students of political philosophy (Rousseau, Kant, Bentham and Mill), but more unusually, he pays considerable attention to the much-less-known (outside of Germany) Humboldt, for whom Chomsky clearly has great admiration. In his sadly neglected masterpiece, Nationalism and Culture, Rocker “describes Humboldt as `the most prominent representative in Germany of the doctrine of natural rights and of the opposition to the authoritarian state– (117, note 15). Kropotkin despairs in his Ethics at how Humboldt’s books lie neglected and “moldering” upon library shelves while many lesser thinkers have become fashionable. The great French geographer E. Reclus also greatly admired Humboldt. Reclus had been a Paris Communard, a confidant of Bakunin, and also worked closely with Kropotkin. Reclus’ first geographical book, The Earth (1868-9), received nearly universal praise from the scientific establishment. One prominent reviewer of the time thought Reclus’ work “as worthy of figuring as one of the monuments of science alongside Humboldt’s Cosmos.”

There is no mention whatsoever in this anthology of ecology or the environmental movement/crisis. Chomsky seems unaware of the direct and profound links between the great anarchist geographers and Humboldt’s life and ideas. Humboldt, like Kropotkin, had been a Siberian explorer. Humboldt and Reclus are justly remembered for their contribution to the integrated geographical and scientific study of the Earth’s systems and phenomena at the local and global level.

Chomsky tells us how he took on his anarchist political ideas as a “young teenager” and hasn’t “seen much reason to revise those early attitudes since.” (178) But in the more than half-century since Chomsky became an anarchist and syndicalist convert, the scientific and public perception of an approaching environmental crisis has gradually crawled to center stage.

Chomsky became a disciple of Bakunin and Rocker as a teenager because he was sympathetic to industrial syndicalism, and he remains so today. Unfortunately, the industrial bias of syndicalism in the late 20th century resulted in a widespread tendency to express antagonism toward or dismiss the environmental movement. This occurred in reaction to the predominantly middle-class liberalism of that movement, which almost instinctively ignores the needs and views of the working classes and is often indifferent to the inherent ecological evils of the capitalist system. Unfortunately, in the last quarter of the 20th century, dogmatic and provocative anti-technological diatribes championing pseudo-anarchist primitivist-survivalist idiocy also helped to widen a sectarian divide between sensible ecological anarchists and industrial syndicalists. The late Judi Bari was the most active and coherent advocate in the early 1990s of the urgent need for radical environmentalists and industrial unionists to join hands and organize.

Chomsky often quotes Rocker and Bakunin, who had nothing to say about environmental issues. He mentions Kropotkin in passing, and Reclus not at all. Reclus and Kropotkin, rather uniquely for their time, stressed the need to integrate and harmonize the natural and non-natural, or human, environment. Kropotkin’s general idea of the democratically self-governing, bio-regionally integrated and self-sufficient green city-region (serviced by inter-communal and international industrial syndicates) must, in my opinion, form the material basis and lie at the heart of any modern and realizable conception of anarchism.

Chomsky believes in essentialism, rationalism and universalism (all vehemently opposed by post-modernists) , examining how apparent “restraints” or “restrictions” have been compatible with bio-linguistic evolution and human freedom. Chomsky attempts to reconcile Bakunin’s idea that the “essential and defining property of man is his freedom” with Chomsky’s equally long-held view that the human mind’s linguistic abilities are systems of innate developmental properties of the species-specific human mind, in the form of a “universal grammar.” (101-4) These ideas, Chomsky argues, are allied with Humboldt’s concept of an abstract and “fixed form of language as a system of generative [developmental] processes or innate properties of mind but permitting an infinite use of finite means.” (113-15)

Since Chomsky originally expressed these thoughts, the field of semantic biology has been greatly enriched by M. Barbieri’s The Organic Codes, an extraordinarily fertile work described by Chomsky as “intriguing” and “fascinating.” Barbieri discusses how life diversified and evolved by means of creative, cooperative and locally autonomous epigenetic or developmental systems of social meaning and biological reconstruction. The extraordinary diversity of life occurred through the developmental integration of a complexity of coded semantic exchanges between molecules and cells freely exploring, interpreting, refining, discovering and inventing infinite possibilities, despite the apparently restrictive, finite nature, or grammar, of the DNA code or language. This, Barbieri contends, parallels human linguistic diversity, despite the innate and universal nature of the epigenetically or developmentally reconstructed “human species-specific mind.”

In addition to his linguist achievements, Chomsky is also known as an intellectual opponent of the Vietnam War. Oddly and awkwardly for a book about anarchism, this anthology begins with a detailed 30-page scholarly analysis of establishment ideology justifying the continuation of the Vietnam war some 40 years ago. Chomsky’s overview of modern elite theory concludes that the New Mandarins, the term he uses for America’s intellectual and bureaucratic servants, were motivated in Vietnam by ideals and goals that were undemocratic and illiberal.

I am too young to know anything much about the Vietnam era, other than that America and Australia lost the war. For the upcoming generations, Vietnam is a distant historical event known about only through war movies. This long essay introduces a book called On Anarchism, but it is not about anarchism and does not even mention the word. Some sort of introduction about how this history relates to anarchism is badly needed. Specifically, I would at least expect some background about what led to the war, and why and how resistance to it became one of the major causes of 1960s youth or student rebellion, resulting in a brief resurgence of libertarian thinking in Australia and the United States.

The first half of this book consists of essays from two recently republished books: The New Mandarins (1969) and Reasons of State (1970). Only one section concerns Chomsky’s anarchism, and it is a wholly derivative work of anarchist historical orthodoxy analyzing liberal historical scholarship surrounding the early and revolutionary period of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1937). Chomsky draws upon standard or classic anarchist studies (Rocker, Peirats, Leval, Richards) and contemporary journalistic accounts (Orwell, Borkenau). Chomsky sympathetically presents the anarchist account, but like the Vietnam material, this essay does not serve as a clear or inspiring introduction to those who are ignorant of revolutionary Spain, and Chomsky reveals nothing new to those already familiar with this history and scholarship.

“I don’t really regard myself as an anarchist thinker. I’m a derivative fellow traveler.” (135) This is how Chomsky described himself in 1976 at the beginning of an interview hosted by the BBC’s London Weekend Television. The text is the fourth chapter of Chomsky on Anarchism and was previously anthologized in Radical Priorities (republished by AK in 2003). As Chomsky recognizes, he has little original to add to the insights of Bakunin and Rocker. Instead, he remains happy, like most of us, to have been their lifelong fellow worker and fellow traveler.

I doubt very much that Chomsky was inclined to articulate his present views about his long-held anarchist political beliefs had they not been gently coaxed out of him. Chomsky has not written much about anarchism; rather most of his reflections on anarchism have appeared in the course of interviews for a couple of anarchist journals. Without these brief statements, Chomsky’s 1960s essay on Spanish anarchism and his brief introduction to Guerin’s book Anarchism (1970, republished 2003) would have remained his primary contribution to anarchist literature. Recent interviews conducted by anarchists represent only a tiny fraction of this book, which consists primarily of old and recently republished essays of no direct relevance to anarchism. (Despite the paucity of both new and anarchist material, the editor, Pate-man, failed to include two interviews with Chomsky conducted and published by the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review.) The publisher of this anthology, AK Press, has republished several classical anarchist works and some excellent historical studies. But their catalog offers little sensible, new, specifically anarchist analysis and theory. Unfortunately, Chomsky on Anarchism does little to fill this need.

Anarcho-syndicalist Chomsky: critique of post-modernism


This text has circulated quite a number of times on Usenet, and so far as I know is authentic. This version (less, of course, the HTML airs and graces) was posted by one to rec.arts.books, 13 Nov 1995 03:21:23 -0500, message-id 486v63$ Jenm289 wrote: “The following was written several months ago by Noam Chomsky in a discussion about po-mo and its contribution to activism et al. The discussion took place on LBBS, Z-Magazine’s Left On-Line Bulletin Board (contact to join).”

I’ve returned from travel-speaking, where I spend most of my life, and found a collection of messages extending the discussion about “theory” and “philosophy,” a debate that I find rather curious. A few reactions — though I concede, from the start, that I may simply not understand what is going on.

As far as I do think I understand it, the debate was initiated by the charge that I, Mike, and maybe others don’t have “theories” and therefore fail to give any explanation of why things are proceeding as they do. We must turn to “theory” and “philosophy” and “theoretical constructs” and the like to remedy this deficiency in our efforts to understand and address what is happening in the world. I won’t speak for Mike. My response so far has pretty much been to reiterate something I wrote 35 years ago, long before “postmodernism” had erupted in the literary intellectual culture: “if there is a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to the conduct of foreign affairs or the resolution of domestic or international conflict, its existence has been kept a well-guarded secret,” despite much “pseudo-scientific posturing.”

To my knowledge, the statement was accurate 35 years ago, and remains so; furthermore, it extends to the study of human affairs generally, and applies in spades to what has been produced since that time. What has changed in the interim, to my knowledge, is a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call “theory” and “philosophy,” but little that I can detect beyond “pseudo-scientific posturing.” That little is, as I wrote, sometimes quite interesting, but lacks consequences for the real world problems that occupy my time and energies (Rawls’s important work is the case I mentioned, in response to specific inquiry).

The latter fact has been noticed. One fine philosopher and social theorist (also activist), Alan Graubard, wrote an interesting review years ago of Robert Nozick’s “libertarian” response to Rawls, and of the reactions to it. He pointed out that reactions were very enthusiastic. Reviewer after reviewer extolled the power of the arguments, etc., but no one accepted any of the real-world conclusions (unless they had previously reached them). That’s correct, as were his observations on what it means.

The proponents of “theory” and “philosophy” have a very easy task if they want to make their case. Simply make known to me what was and remains a “secret” to me: I’ll be happy to look. I’ve asked many times before, and still await an answer, which should be easy to provide: simply give some examples of “a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to” the kinds of problems and issues that Mike, I, and many others (in fact, most of the world’s population, I think, outside of narrow and remarkably self-contained intellectual circles) are or should be concerned with: the problems and issues we speak and write about, for example, and others like them. To put it differently, show that the principles of the “theory” or “philosophy” that we are told to study and apply lead by valid argument to conclusions that we and others had not already reached on other (and better) grounds; these “others” include people lacking formal education, who typically seem to have no problem reaching these conclusions through mutual interactions that avoid the “theoretical” obscurities entirely, or often on their own.

Again, those are simple requests. I’ve made them before, and remain in my state of ignorance. I also draw certain conclusions from the fact.

As for the “deconstruction” that is carried out (also mentioned in the debate), I can’t comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies — of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren’t, a possibility to which I’ll return.

These are very easy requests to fulfill, if there is any basis to the claims put forth with such fervor and indignation. But instead of trying to provide an answer to this simple requests, the response is cries of anger: to raise these questions shows “elitism,” “anti-intellectualism,” and other crimes — though apparently it is not “elitist” to stay within the self- and mutual-admiration societies of intellectuals who talk only to one another and (to my knowledge) don’t enter into the kind of world in which I’d prefer to live. As for that world, I can reel off my speaking and writing schedule to illustrate what I mean, though I presume that most people in this discussion know, or can easily find out; and somehow I never find the “theoreticians” there, nor do I go to their conferences and parties. In short, we seem to inhabit quite different worlds, and I find it hard to see why mine is “elitist,” not theirs. The opposite seems to be transparently the case, though I won’t amplify.

To add another facet, I am absolutely deluged with requests to speak and can’t possibly accept a fraction of the invitations I’d like to, so I suggest other people. But oddly, I never suggest those who propound “theories” and “philosophy,” nor do I come across them, or for that matter rarely even their names, in my own (fairly extensive) experience with popular and activist groups and organizations, general community, college, church, union, etc., audiences here and abroad, third world women, refugees, etc.; I can easily give examples. Why, I wonder.

The whole debate, then, is an odd one. On one side, angry charges and denunciations, on the other, the request for some evidence and argument to support them, to which the response is more angry charges — but, strikingly, no evidence or argument. Again, one is led to ask why.

It’s entirely possible that I’m simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I’m perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made — but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I’m missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it’s all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I’m just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I’m perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).

Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I’m missing, we’re left with the second option: I’m just incapable of understanding. I’m certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I’m afraid I’ll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out.

Again, I’ve lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called “philosophy” and “science,” as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won’t spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of “theory” and “philosophy” to justify their claims — to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.

Specific comment. Phetland asked who I’m referring to when I speak of “Paris school” and “postmodernist cults”: the above is a sample.

He then asks, reasonably, why I am “dismissive” of it. Take, say, Derrida. Let me begin by saying that I dislike making the kind of comments that follow without providing evidence, but I doubt that participants want a close analysis of de Saussure, say, in this forum, and I know that I’m not going to undertake it. I wouldn’t say this if I hadn’t been explicitly asked for my opinion — and if asked to back it up, I’m going to respond that I don’t think it merits the time to do so.

So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain, as noted. Again, sorry to make unsupported comments, but I was asked, and therefore am answering.

Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I’ve discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven’t met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones — the kinds where I give talks, have interviews, take part in activities, write dozens of long letters every week, etc. I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish. When I proceed as I do in other areas where I do not understand, I run into the problems mentioned in connection with (1) and (2) above. So that’s who I’m referring to, and why I don’t proceed very far. I can list a lot more names if it’s not obvious.

For those interested in a literary depiction that reflects pretty much the same perceptions (but from the inside), I’d suggest David Lodge. Pretty much on target, as far as I can judge.

Phetland also found it “particularly puzzling” that I am so “curtly dismissive” of these intellectual circles while I spend a lot of time “exposing the posturing and obfuscation of the New York Times.” So “why not give these guys the same treatment.” Fair question. There are also simple answers. What appears in the work I do address (NYT, journals of opinion, much of scholarship, etc.) is simply written in intelligible prose and has a great impact on the world, establishing the doctrinal framework within which thought and expression are supposed to be contained, and largely are, in successful doctrinal systems such as ours. That has a huge impact on what happens to suffering people throughout the world, the ones who concern me, as distinct from those who live in the world that Lodge depicts (accurately, I think). So this work should be dealt with seriously, at least if one cares about ordinary people and their problems. The work to which Phetland refers has none of these characteristics, as far as I’m aware. It certainly has none of the impact, since it is addressed only to other intellectuals in the same circles. Furthermore, there is no effort that I am aware of to make it intelligible to the great mass of the population (say, to the people I’m constantly speaking to, meeting with, and writing letters to, and have in mind when I write, and who seem to understand what I say without any particular difficulty, though they generally seem to have the same cognitive disability I do when facing the postmodern cults). And I’m also aware of no effort to show how it applies to anything in the world in the sense I mentioned earlier: grounding conclusions that weren’t already obvious. Since I don’t happen to be much interested in the ways that intellectuals inflate their reputations, gain privilege and prestige, and disengage themselves from actual participation in popular struggle, I don’t spend any time on it.

Phetland suggests starting with Foucault — who, as I’ve written repeatedly, is somewhat apart from the others, for two reasons: I find at least some of what he writes intelligible, though generally not very interesting; second, he was not personally disengaged and did not restrict himself to interactions with others within the same highly privileged elite circles. Phetland then does exactly what I requested: he gives some illustrations of why he thinks Foucault’s work is important. That’s exactly the right way to proceed, and I think it helps understand why I take such a “dismissive” attitude towards all of this — in fact, pay no attention to it.

What Phetland describes, accurately I’m sure, seems to me unimportant, because everyone always knew it — apart from details of social and intellectual history, and about these, I’d suggest caution: some of these are areas I happen to have worked on fairly extensively myself, and I know that Foucault’s scholarship is just not trustworthy here, so I don’t trust it, without independent investigation, in areas that I don’t know — this comes up a bit in the discussion from 1972 that is in print. I think there is much better scholarship on the 17th and 18th century, and I keep to that, and my own research. But let’s put aside the other historical work, and turn to the “theoretical constructs” and the explanations: that there has been “a great change from harsh mechanisms of repression to more subtle mechanisms by which people come to do” what the powerful want, even enthusiastically. That’s true enough, in fact, utter truism. If that’s a “theory,” then all the criticisms of me are wrong: I have a “theory” too, since I’ve been saying exactly that for years, and also giving the reasons and historical background, but without describing it as a theory (because it merits no such term), and without obfuscatory rhetoric (because it’s so simple-minded), and without claiming that it is new (because it’s a truism). It’s been fully recognized for a long time that as the power to control and coerce has declined, it’s more necessary to resort to what practitioners in the PR industry early in this century — who understood all of this well — called “controlling the public mind.” The reasons, as observed by Hume in the 18th century, are that “the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers” relies ultimately on control of opinion and attitudes. Why these truisms should suddenly become “a theory” or “philosophy,” others will have to explain; Hume would have laughed.

Some of Foucault’s particular examples (say, about 18th century techniques of punishment) look interesting, and worth investigating as to their accuracy. But the “theory” is merely an extremely complex and inflated restatement of what many others have put very simply, and without any pretense that anything deep is involved. There’s nothing in what Phetland describes that I haven’t been writing about myself for 35 years, also giving plenty of documentation to show that it was always obvious, and indeed hardly departs from truism. What’s interesting about these trivialities is not the principle, which is transparent, but the demonstration of how it works itself out in specific detail to cases that are important to people: like intervention and aggression, exploitation and terror, “free market” scams, and so on. That I don’t find in Foucault, though I find plenty of it by people who seem to be able to write sentences I can understand and who aren’t placed in the intellectual firmament as “theoreticians.”

To make myself clear, Phetland is doing exactly the right thing: presenting what he sees as “important insights and theoretical constructs” that he finds in Foucault. My problem is that the “insights” seem to me familiar and there are no “theoretical constructs,” except in that simple and familiar ideas have been dressed up in complicated and pretentious rhetoric. Phetland asks whether I think this is “wrong, useless, or posturing.” No. The historical parts look interesting sometimes, though they have to be treated with caution and independent verification is even more worth undertaking than it usually is. The parts that restate what has long been obvious and put in much simpler terms are not “useless,” but indeed useful, which is why I and others have always made the very same points. As to “posturing,” a lot of it is that, in my opinion, though I don’t particularly blame Foucault for it: it’s such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that he fell into it pretty naturally, though to his credit, he distanced himself from it. As for the “corruption” of this culture particularly since World War II, that’s another topic, which I’ve discussed elsewhere and won’t go into here. Frankly, I don’t see why people in this forum should be much interested, just as I am not. There are more important things to do, in my opinion, than to inquire into the traits of elite intellectuals engaged in various careerist and other pursuits in their narrow and (to me, at least) pretty unininteresting circles. That’s a broad brush, and I stress again that it is unfair to make such comments without proving them: but I’ve been asked, and have answered the only specific point that I find raised. When asked about my general opinion, I can only give it, or if something more specific is posed, address that. I’m not going to undertake an essay on topics that don’t interest me.

Unless someone can answer the simple questions that immediately arise in the mind of any reasonable person when claims about “theory” and “philosophy” are raised, I’ll keep to work that seems to me sensible and enlightening, and to people who are interested in understanding and changing the world.

Johnb made the point that “plain language is not enough when the frame of reference is not available to the listener”; correct and important. But the right reaction is not to resort to obscure and needlessly complex verbiage and posturing about non-existent “theories.” Rather, it is to ask the listener to question the frame of reference that he/she is accepting, and to suggest alternatives that might be considered, all in plain language. I’ve never found that a problem when I speak to people lacking much or sometimes any formal education, though it’s true that it tends to become harder as you move up the educational ladder, so that indoctrination is much deeper, and the self-selection for obedience that is a good part of elite education has taken its toll. Johnb says that outside of circles like this forum, “to the rest of the country, he’s incomprehensible” (“he” being me). That’s absolutely counter to my rather ample experience, with all sorts of audiences. Rather, my experience is what I just described. The incomprehensibility roughly corresponds to the educational level. Take, say, talk radio. I’m on a fair amount, and it’s usually pretty easy to guess from accents, etc., what kind of audience it is. I’ve repeatedly found that when the audience is mostly poor and less educated, I can skip lots of the background and “frame of reference” issues because it’s already obvious and taken for granted by everyone, and can proceed to matters that occupy all of us. With more educated audiences, that’s much harder; it’s necessary to disentangle lots of ideological constructions.

It’s certainly true that lots of people can’t read the books I write. That’s not because the ideas or language are complicated — we have no problems in informal discussion on exactly the same points, and even in the same words. The reasons are different, maybe partly the fault of my writing style, partly the result of the need (which I feel, at least) to present pretty heavy documentation, which makes it tough reading. For these reasons, a number of people have taken pretty much the same material, often the very same words, and put them in pamphlet form and the like. No one seems to have much problem — though again, reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement or professional academic journals don’t have a clue as to what it’s about, quite commonly; sometimes it’s pretty comical.

A final point, something I’ve written about elsewhere (e.g., in a discussion in Z papers, and the last chapter of Year 501). There has been a striking change in the behavior of the intellectual class in recent years. The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like “mathematics for the millions” (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns. That’s not a small problem. This country, right now, is in a very strange and ominous state. People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused. That’s an organizer’s dream, as I once heard Mike say. It’s also fertile ground for demagogues and fanatics, who can (and in fact already do) rally substantial popular support with messages that are not unfamiliar from their predecessors in somewhat similar circumstances. We know where it has led in the past; it could again. There’s a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems. It has ominous implications, in my opinion.

End of Reply, and (to be frank) of my personal interest in the matter, unless the obvious questions are answered.