Chomsky’s Proposal

Note: I have embedded footnotes into the text using asterisks for formatting issues and general readability.

Concerning Social Structure

There is no royal road between the facts and their interpretation. The stars may shine, but their light does not automatically bring the constellations with it (2013).

– Greg Burris, ‘Chomsky or Žižek: Can’t we have both?’

Tech-nol-o-gy n. According to Webster’s: industrial or applied science. In reality: the ensemble of division of labour/production/industrialism and its impact on us and on nature. Technology is the sum of mediations between us and the natural world and the sum of those separations mediating us from each other. It is all the drudgery and toxicity required to produce and reproduced the stage of hyper-alienation we live in. It is the texture and the form of domination at any given stage of hierarchy and commodification (2012: 91).

– John Zerzan, ‘The Nihilist’s Dictionary

Where the previous essay examined Chomsky’s ontological claims regarding human nature, this essay seeks to show what underpins the normative claims he generates from this understanding. I first identify how the structural nature of Western societies is corrosive to human nature by examining Chomsky’s views on the institutions he has written most prolifically on: the state and the media. Thereafter, I consider the role of ideology in his analysis by exploring a 2013 argument with Slavoj Žižek, before turning to analyse the implications this has for Chomsky’s proposed anarcho-syndicalist solution.

Structural Analysis

In the contemporary anarchist discourse we see two opposing trends of analysis, upon which we can map Chomsky’s own. Gordon distinguishes them as:

on the one hand a centrifugal trend that draws attention away from forms of power located specifically in the state, and thus leads to accounts that reduce its centrality; and a centripetal trend that draws attention directly to the state, and maintains its centrality (Gordon, forthcoming).

It would be too hasty to characterise Chomsky’s analysis as belonging solely to either. As we shall see, there are elements of both trends at play.

1.The State

Unsurprisingly, Chomsky sees the main function of the state as control. In Year 501, he writes of a ‘state-corporate nexus’ (2015: 137-165), most evident in United States’ (US) foreign policy appointments. The influential policymakers are almost exclusively from a small corporate sect – an elite with business interests abroad (Chomsky and Roy 2003: 63).  However, Chomsky also stresses a relative level of state autonomy in identifying those interests, and thus does not view the corporate elite as a rigid monolithic entity. Dispute is permitted, though never against capital interests. Edgley summarises this relationship as ‘symbiotic’ spheres of mutual, though unequal, support (2002: 82).

Chomsky believes the most prominent example of this is the so called “free-market” economy – an illusory piece of propaganda. Instead, he writes of a ‘really existing capitalist democracy’ (RECD) (Chomsky: 2013). He does so for two reasons. The first: historical facts. The development of the industrialised societies never conformed to free-market principles. As one example, Chomsky cites the high trade tariffs England used to protect their cotton industry and the state subsidies which allowed them to overtake and outcompete their rival poor nations*. The second: this substantial state intervention continues today in the form of bailouts and technology subsidies – à la the military-industrial complex – which limits market dependence and maintains the private profit system. The state is thus a key instrument in maintaining the system’s survival.

*Relatedly, Chomsky discusses institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which advance the neoliberal agenda by promulgating and pushing markets onto developing countries as preconditions – ransom – for development funds. Funds which rarely reach the country’s poorest citizens.

What is also clear to Chomsky, as a keen observer of opinion polls, is the level of public awareness of the fact. In this area, he charts the extraordinary level of alienation*. Chomsky cites the consistently low approval ratings in Congress, and the high levels of distrust and belief that politicians work for big business (Chomsky 2013b).

*Alienation defined as a deprivation of awareness, not an awareness of deprivation.

2. The Media and ‘The Ideological Institutions’

For Chomsky, ‘it is a mere truism that the state represents only one segment of the nexus of power’ (Chomsky and Pateman 2005: 157). Manufacturing Consent (1984), the book co-authored with colleague Edward Herman, deployed the propaganda model – Chomsky’s contribution to an analysis of alienation and a more centrifugal focus on power.** 

**One should, however, be careful to infer too much from the idea. As Herman has stated: ‘critics failed to comprehend that the propaganda model is about how the media work, not how effective they are’ (see Herman 2003).

For Chomsky, the media works in concert with the state. It is a well tuned appendage, a piece of state apparatus which gives the important appearance of debate, whilst ultimately being a mirage. This is not to say the media’s institutions are not filled with autonomous individuals. On the contrary, Chomsky places an importance on agency, however, all ideological institutions – the university, the corporation, and so on – have a filtration process ‘to prevent people from perceiving reality’ (Chomsky and Otero, 2006: 542). There is an element of self-selection (the poor student who does not apply for the top university due to various psychological factors engendered by their society), but mainly Chomsky speaks of an ‘organisational culture in which reporters internalise the ideological norms of their corporate employers, rise through the ranks, and then can be trusted to follow the appropriate line’ (Chomsky and Otero, 2006: 55). He explains the media’s filtration process most clearly in Understanding Power:

First of all, the agenda-setting institutions are…mega-corporations, which are highly profitable – and for the most part they’re also linked into even bigger conglomerates. And they, like other corporations, have a product to sell and a market they want to sell it to: the product is audiences, and the market is advertisers. So the economic structure of a newspaper is that it sells readers to other businesses. See, they’re not really trying to sell newspapers to people – in fact, very often a journal that’s in financial trouble will try to cut down its circulation, and what they’ll try to do is up-scale their readership, because that increases advertising rates. So what they’re doing is selling audiences to other businesses, and for the agenda-setting media like the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, they’re in fact selling very privileged, elite audiences to other businesses – overwhelmingly their readers are members of the so-called “political class”, which is the class that makes decisions in our society (Chomsky and Schoeffel 2002: 14)

We can also add elite advocacy to the model – US liberal Walter Lippmann originally coined the phrase “manufacturing consent” and advocated for technocratic government on the basis that the public were a malleable herd who should be confined to ‘interested spectators of action’ (1965: 368). With such observations in mind, Chomsky asks what image the intelligent Martian observer would expect to come out of such an arrangement. Sure enough, it is ‘one that puts forward points of view and political perspectives which satisfy the needs and the interests and the perspectives of the buyers, the sellers, and the market’ (Chomsky and Schoeffel 2002: 14)*.

*Rai quotes Chomsky who notes that the model, by social science standards, is ‘one of the best-confirmed theories’, and its ‘predictions are often considerably surpassed’ (Rai, 1997: 23).

Lewis Call in Postmodern Anarchism quotes Chomsky as saying ‘the entire spectrum of thinkable thoughts is now caught within the propaganda system’. Call rightly states that this assertion ‘bears remarkable similarities to Foucault’s discussion of the functioning of the episteme in The Order of Things’ (2003: 28)*. However, the role ideology plays in Chomsky’s structural analyses deserves further comment. It is clear that Chomsky eschews a patronising class naivety which suggests the Masters of Mankind (2014) are unaware of their role. Instead, there is a level of intentionality combined with an internalisation of institutional norms. The elite must retain ‘a certain grasp of the realities of the world, or they will be unable to perform their tasks effectively’ (Edgley 2002: 118). As Edgley notes, Chomsky ‘concedes a dialectical relationship between such intentionality and Rai quotes Chomsky who notes that the model, by social science standards, is ‘one of the best-confirmed theories’, and its ‘predictions are often considerably surpassed’ (Rai, 1997: 23). Call includes Chomsky in his ‘Postmodern Matrix’ (2003:12) of thinkers for expanding the analysis of power relations ‘beyond the boundaries of the state’ – an attempt to overcome what Call labels ‘the rational semiotics’ which ‘haunted’ classical anarchism (Ibid : 16-17).  In other words he claims that intentions not only affect social and economic structures but are formed in and by them’ (2002: 118).

*Call includes Chomsky in his ‘Postmodern Matrix’ (2003:12) of thinkers for expanding the analysis of power relations ‘beyond the boundaries of the state’ – an attempt to overcome what Call labels ‘the rational semiotics’ which ‘haunted’ classical anarchism (Ibid : 16-17).

It would appear that Chomsky’s position emphasises ideology as epiphenomenal to existing social relations – to an institutional order which assigns a mythology that aggrandises the leadership and other elements of the role – and perhaps to neurology. One can see a connection between his thoughts on morality* and ideology, whereby ideologies harness the intrinsic and reflexively self justifying aspects of our nature**. This approach is reminiscent of the false consciousness Marxist proposition, and it is also where Chomsky has drawn the most flak (Walford 1977).

*Which is itself tied to the modularity thesis established in the previous essay.

**Chomsky cites the offenders of humanity’s worst atrocities to show that even the perpetrators rationalised their actions. The American slave owners, for example, argued on ethical grounds that it would be improper to free their slaves, thus compelling them to market forces and no guarantee of the care that came with ownership. A dubious argument to say the least, but an argument and hence Chomsky’s point (Chomsky and Otero 2006: 468-469).

In 2013, a dispute between Chomsky and the continental philosopher Slavoj Žižek flared up after Chomsky repeated previous claims that he saw no theory in the work of scholars like Žižek, Lacan, or Derrida, only ‘posturing’ (Žižek 2013). Chomsky’s intransigence over postmodernism and certain critical theory approaches is often chalked up to an annoyance that they do not produce falsifiable hypotheses. However, this is a mistake. What Chomsky objects to is the pretension of many theorists, indeed scholars whom he has met, to produce novel and radical insights which when translated into monosyllables are truisms about, for example, how power works.

Wilson has made the same critique of the post-structuralists (specifically Newman and May), who make confusing statements about power only being ‘productive, not repressive’, and who negate classical anarchists’ nuanced understandings of Foucauldian-type power (Wilson quotes Bakunin as an example). On the whole they portray anarchists’ understanding of power too simplistically. Which is itself tied to the modularity thesis established in chapter one. Wilson states that a lot of these insights are embedded in the anarchist common sense* (Wilson 2014: 111-123). Chomsky believes such pretence gives the appearance of being radical whilst really only being comprehensible to a select few – a move likely intertwined with careerist ambitions in the academic ivory tower, something highly detrimental to the masses who benefit from truly novel insight.

* What Wilson means by the anarchist common sense is not clearly laid out. We might assume it to be the intuitive utterances derived from internalised understandings of, often, essentially contested concepts by people in the movement(s). As oppose to the fully fleshed out theories of professional academics.

Žižek admits much of what Chomsky says about continental obscurantism, but he maintains that Chomsky fundamentally does not understand his point. Both exchanged letters and beyond the name calling induced by pithy caricatures of the other’s life’s work, there is a substance which underlies Žižek’s rejoinder upon which we might mount a more comprehensive critique.

To reiterate the previous point, Chomsky establishes himself as external to ideology. The propaganda machine is the serious inhibitor to critical thinking, cloaking reality as it does in Necessary Illusions (1989). To overcome them, Chomsky assails his opponents ‘with a seemingly endless series of facts and counter-facts, with data proving the propaganda false’ (Burris 2013). Hence, one only need apply their ‘Cartesian common sense’ to realise reality* (Chomsky 1983). However, Žižek believes this is insufficient. He writes: ‘one has to conclude that what Chomsky is doing in his political writings is very important, I have great admiration and respect for it, but it is emphatically not a critique of ideology’ (Žižek 2013).

*Chomsky observes that people seem to apply this common sense intelligence all the time in other areas, such as sports. They do not simply acquiesce to the designated experts – the managers, professional pundits, and so on. They call in on the post-match radio show and berate the tactical decisions made, exhibiting ‘exotic information about the most arcane issues’ (Chomsky 1992), something far removed the docility and apathy displayed in the traditional political domain.

For Žižek, Chomsky cannot circumvent ideology merely by criticising another, because Žižek’s point is that one cannot escape ideology; there is no punctum archimedis, no point at which we can fly high and survey the scene below. Žižek’s point is that all empirical facts are contaminated by ideology. Hence his approach is to analyse the mechanisms which opt for and prioritise certain facts over others, to examine the contours which pre-determine the selection of available decisions in everyday life. As Burris explains, ‘Chomsky does not arrive at his distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims * from an objective analysis of the cold, hard facts. Instead, even the most seemingly objective analyses always involve a host of invisible biases, assumptions, and processes running unnoticed in the background’ (Burris 2013).

* The distinction Chomsky and Herman make in Manufacturing Consent  to show that the media prioritise victims of strategic importance to the US.


Nowhere are Chomsky’s own ideological presuppositions more prominent than in his anarcho-syndicalist proposal. With a tentative approximation of human nature and how RECD subjugates it, Chomsky’s proposal is as follows:

[…] in the technologically advanced societies of the West we are now certainly in a position where meaningless drudgery can very largely be eliminated, and to the marginal extent that it’s necessary, can be shared among the population.

[…] now a federated, decentralised system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions, would be what I refer to as anarcho-syndicalism; and it seems to me that this is the appropriate form of social organisation for an advanced technological society, in which human beings do not have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the machine. There is no longer any social necessity for human beings to be treated as mechanical elements in the productive process; that can be overcome and we must overcome it by a society of freedom and free association, in which the creative urge that I consider intrinsic to human nature, will in fact be able to realise itself in whatever way it will (Chomsky, Foucault, and Rajchman, 2006: 37-39)

Such a statement contains a series of implicit premises which can slide past the reader. The overarching one is a general neutrality thesis which permeates anarcho-syndicalism (AS), specifically viewing technology and science as neutral and “redirectable”. It is to these premises the remainder of this chapter now turns.

Underlying Premises

Chomsky’s proposition holds a premiss that today’s science* can simply be redirected and assigned new tasks. Implicit in his thesis, which he expounds upon in an interview aptly entitled ‘The Relevance of Anarcho-Syndicalism’ (Chomsky 1976), is the notion that science and technology are neutral. In fact, Chomsky has previously stated as much: ‘technology is basically neutral. It’s like a hammer. The hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or whether on torture […] the hammer can do either’ (Chomsky 2014b). Unless Chomsky believes ‘an advanced technological society’ is one where hammers are the exemplar tools, such a simplistic example is at best irrelevant.

*In this context it is suitable to interchangeably use ‘science’ and ‘technology’.

He is bypassing a rich literature which focuses on the distinction between the missions science sets itself internally and its own epistemological nature and its nature as a social enterprise. I want to explore the opposing the view which iterates that the acquisition of political power – the workers taking over the factory, for example – as the telos of social struggle is a myopic vision. Chomsky shares this view; one of his most quoted remarks on libertarian socialism is that it inaugurates ‘an unending struggle, since progress in achieving a more just society will lead to new insight and understanding of forms of oppression that may be concealed in traditional practice and consciousness’ (Chomsky 1986). However, if such eloquence is to be more than lip service, this nuanced understanding of domination cannot be underpinned with such a narrow view of technology, which further substantiates the previous criticisms that Chomsky is often blind to ideology. ‘Technology is the new ideology’ for primitivists like Zerzan (2012: 43; my emphasis), who, moreover, points out that subscribing to the neutrality thesis often just precludes any examination into the ‘truth claim that technology is positive’ – which is actually what adherents to neutrality want to say (Zerzan and Kintz 2002: 43-44).

The epigraph quotation encapsulates the broad strokes of the primitivists’ diametrical opposition to modern technology. Put simply, primitivists see the transition to domestication from egalitarian band societies as a wrong turn; the ultimate Faustian pact. It causes Zerzan to ask ‘to what degree can it be said that we are really living?’ (Zerzan and Kintz 2002: 1). His polemical writing often derides the ‘syndicalist blockheads’ who simply want to ‘organise their alienation via unions, councils and the like’ (2012: 77). Zerzan’s philosophical forebear Fredy Perlman sardonically concurs, ‘they would not call this arrangement a State. The name-change would exorcise the beast’ (Shantz 2010: 31). Both agree with Adorno and Horkheimer’s realisation in the Dialectic of Enlightenment that under technology reason tends towards control and detachment (Horkheimer 1972: 35). However, as Sheppard notes, there is surely a difference between ‘a hierarchical, authoritarian society based on violence, in which nearly everyone who works must follow orders in an almost military manner, and a society in which people freely and collectively control their own work lives, and in which no government intrudes into our private lives’ (Sheppard 2007). His retort perhaps aggrandises the extent to which freedom and collective control can exist if we are to debunk the neutrality thesis, but the point exemplified here is the internecine strife primitivism causes inside anarchist circles.

Gordon therefore notes that using anarcho-primitivism (AP) as ‘a basis for a broad-based approach’ for a critique of technology is untenable because it is ‘so thoroughly integrated’ into this divisive critique of civilisation (2010: 110). To disentangle AP from the discussion of technology we can turn to critics who, without endorsing AP, ‘show sympathy for the general programme of deindustrialisation’ (Truscello 2011: 252).

Rejecting technological determinism, Langdon Winner wrote of two ways in which artefacts have politics. The first: ‘the invention, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system becomes a way of settling an issue in the affairs of a particular community’ (1985: 22). One of Winner’s examples is Cyrus McCormick’s introduction of pneumatic moulding machines in his reaper manufacturing plant in the 1880s. McCormick was embroiled in conflict with the National Union of Iron Moulders, and these new and untested machines gave him the ability to remove the skilled workers organising the union. The unskilled labourers who took over proceeded to produce inferior and more expensive castings (Ibid: 24). What is important to note is ‘the technical arrangements precede the use of the things in question’ (Ibid: 25).

Winner’s second reason details how some technologies are inherently political, ‘man-made systems that appear to require or to be strongly compatible with particular kinds of political relationships’ (Ibid: 22). For the anarcho-syndicalist who takes the factory, industry, or more broadly, economic relations in general, as their locus of organisation, this is highly significant. As Winner makes clear even Engels was aware of the relationship between the complexity of a technical system, such as the factory, and the level of centralised, hierarchical control it requires in order to run. And Engels is not only referring to the brutal production pace enforced by the factory owner, but the logistical physical reality of the factory’s structure:

[…] on its way to becoming finished thread, cotton moves through a number of different operations at different locations in the factory. The workers perform a wide variety of tasks, from running the steam engine to carrying the products from one room to another. Because these tasks must be coordinated and because the timing of the work is “fixed by the authority of the steam,” labourers must learn to accept a rigid discipline […] The automatic machinery of a big factory,” he writes, “is much more despotic than the small capitalists who employ workers ever have been (Ibid: 30).

Elsewhere, Brian Winston has written on society’s ability to suppress a technology which threatens to enhance freedom, and not just by improvement in existing capitalist relations and efficiency. Winston writes:

On the one hand, although perhaps with an increasingly jaundiced eye, we still believe in the inevitability of progress. On the other hand we control every advance by conforming it so that it “fits” to pre-existing social patterns. The same authorities and institutions, the same capital, the same research effort which created today’s world is also trying to create tomorrow’s (1998: 11).

In what he calls the ‘law of the suppression of radical potential,’*  Winston talks of two opposing forces at play (Ibid). A ‘supervening social necessity’ – social factors such as commercial interests or an agent working to assist in the innovation and diffusion process. This is the “accelerator”. It is responsible for ‘transforming the prototype into an invention and pushing the invention into the world – causing its diffusion. But there is also a “brake”: this operates a third transformation, wherein general social constraints coalesce to limit the potential of the device radically to disrupt pre-existing social formations’ (Ibid).

*Although it is really more of a principle than a law.

One of Winston’s most illustrative examples is the electronic telegraph. We are led to believe Morse  invented it in 1844, yet Winston shows that its birth had actually occurred nineteen years before in Germany and twenty-eight years before in the London garden of Francis Ronalds (Ibid: 253-60). As David Noble acutely summarises: ‘a technology is deemed viable if it conforms to the existing relations of power’ (Noble 1995: 75).

We began this critique with Chomsky’s redirection premiss. What should be clear, beyond its repudiation in multiple ways, is that it is the epistemology that needs to change. Moreover, if we see technology as a linear derivative of science, we must accept that the science practiced in an anarchist society would clearly take a different form with the inherent limitations addressed. In debunking the neutrality thesis, Winner wrote thirty years ago that critics of technology should be seen in the same light as critics of literature, music, or art (1985: xi). In other words, as trying to overcome those limitations. With technology incorporated into every facet of modern life, our reliance imbued within it, Winner warned of a ‘technological somnambulism’ – the idea ‘that we so willingly sleepwalk through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence’ (Ibid: 5).

Aside from primitivists, then, anarcho-syndicalism, for many, fails to address this vital question. It connotes a stale alternative mired in “more of the same”. Bookchin, for example, saw syndicalism as ‘simply archaic, both as a movement and as a body of ideas’ (1997: 58). His solution also turned to liberatory technology, but while we might fault his means, his ends are the broadly shared concerns of all progressives: overcoming a pervasive biocentrism and the perhaps now unstoppable ecological collapse brought on by climate change. We can add to that worry the panoply of options still on the table for a ‘technologically induced hara-kiri’; nuclear armageddon, resource wars, bioterrorism etc. (Winston: 1998: 11). None of which will ebb away unaided. Sally Gearhart writes that we probably cannot ‘undo Western science […] the train rushes downhill too fast’ (1993: 84). If that is the case, the question turns towards how to salvage some scraps of freedom in a world of declining freedom and declining prosperity. The post-anarchist/post-left suggestion that the movement requires a paradigm shift in revolutionary strategies must then be heeded, and Chomsky’s vision narrows further.

Concluding Remarks

In this chapter we have seen Chomsky’s institutional structural analysis is a multifaceted approach tied to the weak essentialist model identified in the previous chapter. He emphasises the non-monolithic status and flexibility of institutions, whilst identifying certain core characteristics which allows for an illuminating insight into their coercive behaviour. We have also been able to draw a rough line between the institutional order and the type of alienation it, broadly speaking, produces, whilst always under the proviso that it is not a one-way affair, there is a high level of contingency, and things can change.

However, upon turning to inspect ideology’s role in Chomsky’s structural analysis we saw, at best, a lack of understanding, exemplified by his simplistic stance on technological neutrality. When one tugs at the seams, the disagreement inevitably comes back to the Anglo-American versus the continental school. But Burris, summing up the spat with Žižek, is right: ‘existing structures of power do not limit their operations to only one level of abstraction and neither should we’ (Burris 2013). With regards to Chomsky’s overly dismissive attitude to other ways of understanding and building critiques, we can end by giving Wittgenstein the last word: ’whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ (2004: 173).

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