Saturday, May 7, 2011

Chomsky on Democracy and Education

I'm not much of a fan of Naom Chomsky. We are of different political persuasions and his beliefs and ideologies often seem to ignore reality altogether. Nevertheless, he is a man who thinks deeply about many things, and when I found this lecture, 'Democracy and Education', I thought it might be interesting to hear what he had to say. And indeed it was. I find some of it confused. He talks about the disaster of US and UK policy- naked pursuit of money- for families and children, comparing their situation unfavourably with their European siblings under 'social democracy.' He backs this up, however, only with a few rather odd and clearly irrelevant anecdotes. He doesn't seem to realise that what most people actually want is the chance to earn a living wage without having to worry too much about anything, and for the government to leave them alone. But he says some interesting things about both democracy and education, and quotes some earlier thinkers who are mostly forgotten, or misremembered. I wonder how right he is about Adam Smith. I don't recall the ideas he imputes to Smith from my flicking through 'Wealth of Nations' but I'm open to correction.

I offer the article, through the link, for what it's worth, and below I pick out a few bits to comment on. The stuff in italics is mine, the non-italics is Chomsky, and in inverted commas ar ehis quotes from other people.

"The ultimate aim of production is not production of goods, but the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality." This basic commitment, which runs through all of Dewey's work and thought, is profoundly at odds with the two leading currents of modern social intellectual life, one, strong in his day -- he was writing in the 1920s and 1930s about these things -- is associated with the command economies in Eastern Europe in that day, the systems created by Lenin and Trotsky and turned into an even greater monstrosity by Stalin. The fetishism of equality does not tend to lead to freedom, and the only useful purpose of production is wealth, but Chomsky seems to recognise that the statement is false, and he calls the society created by Stalin a 'monstruosity.' A good start.

The goal of education, to shift over to Bertrand Russell, is "to give a sense of the value of things other than domination, to help create wise citizens of a free community, to encourage a combination of citizenship with liberty, individual creativeness, which means that we regard a child as a gardener regards a young tree, as something with an intrinsic nature which will develop into an admirable form given proper soil and air and light."

The first clause is very odd, but the rest sounds pretty good, even though there are important things missing, whose absence might lead the policy astray if it were used as a starting point.

a pre-capitalist thinker like Adam Smith, with his stress on sympathy and the goal of perfect equality and the basic human right to creative work, (I'll take Chomsky's word for that, for the moment)

"when you sell your product, you retain your person. But when you sell your labour, you sell yourself, losing the rights of free men and becoming vassals of mammoth establishments of a monied aristocracy that threatens annihilation to anyone who questions their right to enslave and oppress. Those who work in the mills ought to own them, not have the status of machines ruled by private despots who are entrenching monarchic principles on democratic soil as they drive downwards freedom and rights, civilization, health, morals and intellectuality in the new commercial feudalism." Just in case you are confused, this is long before Marxism. This is American workers talking about their experiences in the 1840s.
Adams didn't foresee the sophisticated techniques that would be developed in the twentieth century to ensure that policy remains insulated from politics as the franchise was extended through popular struggle and to guarantee that the general public would remain marginalised and disaffected, subdued by the new spirit of the age and coming to see themselves not as free people who have a right to dignity and independence but as atoms of consumption who sell themselves on the labour market, at least when they're lucky. (Why does he think we've had leftwing governments in most democratic countries at some time or other, if not because policy and politics are to some extent linked in those countries? And how are people supposed to live if they don't 'sell themselves on the labour market'?)
Lansing warned of the danger of allowing the "ignorant and incapable mass of humanity" to become "dominant in the earth," or even influential... (Despite the tone with which he quotes lansing, Chomsky doesn't seem any too keen himself on giving any power to those who haven't been educated in his own values.)
In a free and democratic society, Dewey held, workers should be the masters of their own industrial fate, not tools rented by employers. (There are many free and democratic societies in the world now, and most of the people who live in them prefer to rent themselves out to employer, rather than be masters of their own industrial fate.)
The horror at the thought of anyone else having money and power is there in this piece, naturally; he cannot accept that someone getting obscenely rich does not harm the normal people, and well be good and useful to them (Bill Gates' enormous wealth has given us ordinary types the pleasure and comfort of global communication at a very low price, and it's given a lot of people jobs, some of them very good jobs), but preventing anyone at all from getting rich is bad for everyone. When the mass of Homo macrocarrus claphamensis becomes poorer, or does not become richer, because of these measures his health, comfort and freedom are affected directly and clearly.

It also seems to me that what he calls 'private power' is simply freedom, at least when it is opposed to state power. Governments do not represent their people and never have. Even in liberal, prosperous  democracies most people would not choose to do what the government forces them to do

Incidentally, I have always understood capitalism to mean the use of money to create markets, not to create production. Perhaps this is why I can't make sense of most of the arguments put forward by anti-capitalists.

In the later sections he forgets all about the subject of his talk and launches into the usual unsupported diatribes against against America and people whose hard work brings them success (as opposed to people who work hard but achieve less, who are the apple of his eye), his ignorant defence of Fidel Castro, and the mishmash of dogma that he strives to force into every sentence. The first half, though, is well worth a read.


Vincent said...

I notice that you misspell the names of those whose views you disapprove! Should be Noam not Naom.

He does not mention Fidel Castro, in fact, though he is clearly on Cuba’s side in the USA’s overt and undercover activities with Cuba. Is that ignorant? Then please forgive my ignorance too!

CIngram said...

Hmm... And I was initially trying to be generous to Chomsky, finding a text I could engage with and discuss, rather than just rant about. I should have stopped as soon as my ears began to steam.

He doesn't mention Fidel by name, but he's talking about his regime in a way that shows ignorance and a shocking lack of concern for the lives of the people who suffer under it.

I don't defend, or even understand, the US embargo, which seems to have achieved nothing. It is, I think, purely for internal US consumption, but it is an embargo, not a blockade, and there are many countries, including, especially, Canada, that trade freely with Cuba. The real problem is that, by the wonders of communist economics, Cuba, in 1959 one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America, produces almost nothing to trade with.

As to the spelling thing, it must be psychological. The unconscious expression of a desire to denigrate. I even checked just to be sure.