Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 6: Description vs. Prescription

This is meant as a look at some of the areas where Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti differ most visibly in their analysis and biases. Given their similarities, comparing the two provides a rare opportunity at substitution analysis: to quote Chomsky himself, “you can’t do experiments in history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us.” In short, the differences in Chomsky versus Parenti’s positions makes for a useful case study in what ideas genuinely make one a candidate for marginalization, versus what ideas are actually quite acceptable despite their transgressive veneers. Click here for an all-in-one post.

If you haven’t seen it before, and even if you have, take the opportunity to watch this brief clip of Michael Parenti discussing the Cuban Revolution, from a 1986 lecture:

While this clip represents Parenti at his best, it’s quite typical of his work. In addition to being well-informed and well-argued, Parenti is passionate and inspiring. Watching this video would make most listeners feel quite good about what humanity is capable of when we band together and demand our fair share. If this segment has any shortcomings, it’s that it doesn’t convey how funny Michael Parenti is. It also contains a clear prescription: if people want to enjoy lives of safety, welfare, and dignity, they can do as Cubans did in 1959—organize and seize society’s productive forces from the exploitative ruling class, and employ those forces for the good of the many. Keep this clip in mind for later.

Unlike Parenti but like his fellow extremely anguished liberal thinkers, Noam Chomsky is vague about the best way to create a progressive society. However, he’s quite clear on what people should not do. Of course, Chomsky has two sets of standards, one for the United States and one for the rest of the world (and possibly a third for Latin America, for which Chomsky like many progressives has a soft spot). So while Chomsky praises the Sandinista “guerilla force” for fighting a “brutal dictatorship,” that prescription carries no weight beyond Nicaragua–after all, he claims the West is very free. He presents socialism as akin to fascism, so communism is unacceptable. Chomsky also argues against many forms of direct action, as in the case of deceased hacker Aaron Swartz. Swartz committed suicide in the midst of an extremely punitive federal prosecution relating to Swartz’s downloading and sharing of JSTOR documents—an action that Chomsky slams as theft, among other things. “There’s a lot of misrepresentation” in Chomsky’s account, according to Tarzie:

We know by the end of Chomsky’s reply what he meant at the outset when he said Swartz is ‘a different case.’ He meant he wasn’t a real dissident. He was a ‘kid,’ in thrall to the anti-collective ‘spirit of the age,’ out for himself, too young and selfish to realize that there is only one way to democratize academic information: spend a lifetime petitioning the state to subsidize it. If he were a real dissident, he might have only been marginalized, subject to ‘not much punishment, frankly’ instead of driven to bankruptcy and suicide by vindictive prosecutors. What happened to Swartz was a tragedy, ‘a terrible event,’ but it wasn’t repression. The United States is a free country.

There are more items on Chomsky’s list of undesirable resistance. In an interview on the anti-Vietnam War movement, Chomsky says “you have to make a distinction between two kinds of tactics: you could call them feel-good tactics — makes me feel good about myself — and do-good tactics, does something for somebody else. Well, you know, the antiwar movement dissolved to a large extent into feel-good tactics, which were harmful.” Chomsky is ostensibly prioritizing tactics that are effective and actually do good over things that are performative and useless. This is a reasonable distinction, but Chomsky continues: “In fact, the Vietnamese were aware of it. I talked to them. What they liked was quiet, non-violent demonstrations which, you know, a group of women standing quietly somewhere. What they didn’t like was what was being done. Say, Weathermen… They were frustrated, they were bitter, nothing was working, OK, let’s go out and smash some windows. Or let’s go out and have a fight in a 3rd Avenue Bar and show the people we’re authentic and so on… So, a lot of it was just self-destructive.” Chomsky is eliding the vast majority of anti-war activism with his bizarre dichotomy of women standing silently versus someone randomly starting a bar fight. However, much of the anti-war agitation that most scared the US regime was far closer to the latter than the former. Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr.’s Black Against Empire describes some of these protests:

A quarter million people turned out on April 15, 1967, for the Spring Mobilizations against the War in New York and San Francisco—the largest antiwar protest to date in American history. As [Stokely] Carmichael spoke, members of the crowd shouted out “Black Power!” He called the war “brutal and racist” and demanded an end to the draft. Many marchers took up the chant started by SNCC: “Hell No, We Won’t Go!” Some protestors displayed flags of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam. In San Francisco, a contingent of black nationalists led the march carrying a streamer that read “The Vietnam N.L.F. Never Called Us Niggers.” [p. 130]

Following the ghetto rebellions in July, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), a national coalition of peace organizations [and the largest antiwar coalition in the US at the time], announced at a press conference that it supported the urban uprisings and said that the actions planned for October would “obstruct the war machine.” MOBE proclaimed there was “only one struggle—for self determination—and we support it in Vietnam and in black America.” A new spirit had swept the antiwar movement. That October, draft card burnings increased almost tenfold… Thousands of draft resisters stormed the Pentagon. Military police and US marshals beat the demonstrators and released tear gas, reoccupying the grounds yard by yard. Among the protestors, 647 were arrested and 47 hospitalized. A line had been crossed. No longer were the students and antiwar activists simply Americans expressing their view within established channels. Now, inspired by Black Power and emboldened by the ghetto rebellions, many antiwar activists declared themselves revolutionaries, seeking self-determination through resistance. [p.133]

A component of resistance to American imperialism in Indochina was the revolt of black GIs, violent uprisings that occurred throughout the military and among veterans at home, and included the now-infamous “fragging” of superior officers in-theatre. All this is to say that historical facts would indicate that much of the most effective resistance was strident, loud, and forceful, contre Chomsky’s claim that it was quiet people peacefully holding signs that made a difference. As is the case when he is preaching compliance, Chomsky stops burdening himself with any of the voluminous evidence he applies elsewhere. The best he can offer is claiming to know the feelings of “the Vietnamese”—he talked to “them,” after all. If these Vietnamese are any more real than Slavoj Žižek’s black friend, it’s a mystery who “they” are. Bigger still is the mystery of how “the Vietnamese” came to see “a group of women standing quietly somewhere” as the indispensible American allies in the anti-imperialist struggle, over the activists and resisters who actually threw themselves on the gears in order to make the machine stop, to quote an activist of the era. Chomsky’s statement, which his interviewer accepts at face value, is a very clumsy inversion of reality; defining resistance as harmful “feel-good” nonsense, and building an ineffective tactic into a brave and decisive act that “the Vietnamese” love.

Even certain forms of non-violent action are out of bounds for the dissident academic. Chomsky opposes a cultural boycott of Israel, part of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement, itself a non-violent international solidarity component of the Palestinian liberation struggle. “Just as I do not suggest boycotting Harvard University and my own university, even though the United States is involved in horrific acts. […] You might as well boycott the United States,” the academic adds. This comparison, often trotted out in defense of the Israeli settler-colony, betrays a lack of rudimentary knowledge of the contours of the Palestinian freedom movement, and the role that BDS plays in this struggle. However, if the American Indian Movement, Aztlán, and the Republic of New Afrika were waging a liberation struggle that foreigners could aid by boycotting American institutions, then Chomsky’s analogy would make more sense. And if this were the case, and Chomsky rejected this non-violent struggle, one would have to wonder how much of an ally he really was. It would certainly invite questions of how much he knows beyond casualty figures trotted out on Democracy Now for the purpose of wringing anguish from his audience.

For those seeking to substitute the American regime for something more progressive, Chomsky is largely at ease with doing what he does best: imparting information. In a 2006 interview with Michael Hastings, the late correspondent asks Chomsky why the antiwar movement of the 1960s was so much more successful than the modern antiwar movement. Chomsky replied “I think it’s the other way around. The United States attacked Vietnam in 1962. It took years before any protest developed. Iraq is the first time in hundreds of years of European and American history that a war was massively protested before it was launched. There was huge protest in February 2003. It had never happened in the history of the West.” This reflects ideas Chomsky articulates elsewhere, about how “popular reaction” keeps the state from going too far. In discussing reasons for optimism in a 2001 interview, Chomsky cites changing perceptions of the conquest of the Americas. The academic explains that for most of American history, the mainstream perception totally whitewashed the staggering genocide of the New World’s indigenous people. However, “In the 1960s, that changed. For the first time in hundreds of years of American history, consciousness changed significantly about that. It is still pretty awful—I do not want to say it is utopia—but for the first time there was a willingness to recognize that something pretty horrible had happened. Those are big changes—a lot to be optimistic about.” As of this month, things seem to getting even better in the “power of public perception” department. Just as Chomsky claims that public opinion makes us freer than ever at home, so too does it worldwide. In a wide-ranging piece promoting his new book Who Rules The World?, the professor reports that as “the US is losing its tight grip on power,” world public opinion has become a “second superpower,” which is able to constrain the worst impulses of men like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. This is a breath of fresh air for readers given to despair over contemporaneous pronouncements like “The world that we’re creating for our grandchildren is grim,” and his accurate perception that climate change threatens to exterminate most life on Earth.

Chomsky’s take on the 2003 anti-war movement seems starry-eyed in retrospect, as the vast majority of protestors were merely liberals objecting to one particular Connecticut Texan and his neocon buddies prosecuting the war. Today, protests are increasingly skipping directly to the arrests and brand-building spectacle without any of the controversial defiance whatsoever. The “consciousness shift” Chomsky saw taking hold in the ‘60s and ‘70s didn’t effect any material benefits for American Indians, either. It didn’t free or resurrect any of the activists who fell victim to COINTELPRO, and today Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has the lowest standard of living in the Western hemisphere after Haiti. So despite Chomsky’s optimism, these don’t seem like big changes at all; in fact, the evidence suggests these changes are entirely superficial. Just like the professor can issue a damning indictment of the American system and then describe things as freer and more democratic than ever, so does he see a grim, almost Apocalyptic vision of the future made rosier by vague grassroots tempering influences. In Chomsky’s class-free view of the world, the fact that the American military empire is being challenged by regional powers equals a victory for wider humanity. Over the course of his long “Who Rules the World?” disquisition, he hits on many of headlines familiar to regular news readers: the American War of Independence, the rise of China, Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” the War on Terror, the Monroe Doctrine, Cuba, the TPP, NATO, 9/11, etc. This all sounds very substantive, but at no point does Chomsky explain how these or any other event demonstrates a victory for the rest of us. The headline asks “Who rules the world? America is no longer the obvious answer,” and the reader is left with a mishmash of historical events and a vague feeling that they have learned something.

In contrast, Michael Parenti holds no such comforting, baseless illusions. As someone who rightly perceives the cause of human freedom in class terms, Parenti sees that “the empire is doing very well. The empire is racking up victory after victory.” The destruction of intransigent states, the presence of fascists backed by American oligarchs in the Ukraine and India, the dominance of neoliberal and neoconservative forces throughout the North Atlantic treaty powers, the counter-revolutionary forces arrayed against Latin America’s fledgling social democracies—these are successes “because the goal or the function of the state in the empire is to advance the interests of the empire, and those interests are to make sure that the – as I said – the land, the labor, the natural resources, the human resources, the social organization of culture. The markets of every country should be a part of, and in the orbit of this giant US imperial state.” This is the goal that is being pursued regardless of whatever momentary inconveniences are so heartening Chomsky. Neither is the US government in any way going to tolerate these challenges. As @Cordeliers points out: a “bloodcurdling new defense budget request indicates US has abandoned ‘strategic rebalance’ and intends to pursue Full Spectrum Dominance on multiple fronts. No more redistribution of assets and relying on proxies. US imperialism is going for broke.”

Let’s return to the clip of Parenti that opened this section, and contrast it with typical commentary from Noam Chomsky. If one so wishes, they can watch a bit of this clip from a 2014 appearance on Democracy Now, discussing Gaza:

This clip is essentially everything that Parenti’s comments were not. It’s neither passionate nor inspiring. It is also quite long, continuing for several repetitive minutes where a briefer recapitulation would suffice. Chomsky’s comments contain a lot of information, presented as a succession of gruesome things. Tarzie memorably dubbed Chomsky “the merchant of horror” for this sort of misery-heavy engagement. It reminds me most of a joke from Futurama, where the professor takes a phone call that takes a hilariously grim turn: “Oh how awful. Did he at least die painlessly? To shreds, you say? Well, how is his wife holding up? To shreds, you say?” There is no effort at offering a solution, only more bathos. Where Parenti’s comments are inspirational and provide a clear path, Chomsky’s only offer more hand-wringing. The only thing they’ll inspire a listener to do is feel terrible about the state of the world—and maybe open a new browser tab in the meantime, or take a nap.

With these two kinds of speaking in such stark contrast, it’s necessary to descend momentarily into the gutter of style critique. This sort of analysis is only done grudgingly, since style criticisms are usually substance-free tone policing, as is often the case with Chomsky’s critics from the right. However, it’s necessary to discuss Chomsky’s style because with him, the medium is very much the message. For discerning, progressive media consumers, Chomsky stands in stark contrast to the typical, banal offerings of Faux Snooze and the corporate news giants. There is a spectrum, with bright lights and sexy graphics on one end and substantive, methodical speech on the other. This December 2006 Daily Show segment illustrates the attitude. In it, correspondent Samantha Bee meets with the anchors of the then-new Al Jazeera English channel, and offers them tips to make their network more appealing. By recommending that they adopt pretty trifles like insipid theme music, scrolling news chyrons, cynical scaremongering tactics, and folksy affectations, Bee conveys that these things mark news as “unserious” for the type of people who watch The Daily Show. Chomsky presents the other ends of the spectrum. The fact that he speaks monotonically and dispassionately while sharing a river of information is proof that he is the real deal in much the same way that a shaky camera in a film conveys verité-style realism.

Chomsky himself ratifies this perception. Asked by an interviewer if he ever considers sounding more exhortative, Chomsky replied: “No. People say, ‘Look, he’s not a good speaker,’ and I’m happy about that. If I knew how to do it, I wouldn’t. I really dislike good speakers. I think they’re dangerous people. Because you shouldn’t be exhorting people by the force of your rhetoric. You should be getting them to think about it so they can figure out what they want to do. The best way to do that, that I can imagine, is to say, ‘Why don’t you think about these questions?’ Quietly, not screaming. ‘Think about these questions. Figure out for yourself what’s the best way to deal with them.’” Chomsky believes that inspiring speakers are likely snake-oil salesmen trying to push a bad bill of goods. In this, Chomsky is very much like America’s democracy-abominating founders, who feared masses animated by passions and sought to rule their empire through the “cool” faculties of reason.

This is part of Chomsky’s service that lends him such a platform. As Tarzie explains, “Chomsky’s celebrity marks a turning point, or an innovation, in the containment and shaping of middle class dissent, through the commoditization of revulsion, and the reconfiguration of handwringing as resistance.” Chomsky was given his perch when previous generations of radicals were all murdered, jailed, intimidated away, or co-opted. Many of these activists were unalloyedly socialist and committed to their causes, since they had no other choice. They wielded megaphones, advocated clear paths to a better world, and came to prominence with the rise of their mass movements. Chomsky heralded a new generation of prominent critics. These critics came to the public eye from journalism or academia, had less invested in radical change, and like Chomsky were overwhelmingly rich, white, and male. In lieu of prescription, they had information—ever more news, leaks, and reports. Today, as Tarzie has said, the permissible left looks more like a cargo cult, devoted to the perpetual release of more information. New generations look more like what Tarzie calls “the mutant love child of liberalism and libertarianism,” with the liberal’s love of American military power as a civilizing force and the libertarian love of private-sector solutions. With his comments about knowing “the Vietnamese,” Chomsky even anticipated today’s State Department-adjacent liberaltarian hawks, who claim that 1) they know Syrians; 2) their Syrian friends want US intervention; so 3) they can plausibly claim to speak for the Syrian people collectively when they demand foreign regime change in Syria.

The current left (whether one calls it the Celebrity Left, the pseudo-Left, or something else) is increasingly distant from the ruling class’s worst nightmare: socialism. In this, Chomsky was an innovator. That Chomsky’s analysis is generally nation-based rather than class-based has been discussed before, but it’s worth touching on one last time. In a typical essay, Chomsky will promise to expose the US government’s real motives behind what it does. What American “motives actually are is rarely discussed, and one has to look at the documentary and historical record to unearth them,” he will tantalizingly offer: “What then are US motives? At a very general level, the evidence seems to me to show that they have not changed much since the high-level planning studies undertaken during World War II,” when the US consolidated its superpower position and decided to maintain it. So the American system was instituted post-WWII, and it has been perpetuating itself ever since in order to remain on top. But why? After several hundred words, Chomsky offers that the US sought terms in Iraq that would grant “indefinite access and must privilege American investors.” Later, he mentions “hydrocarbon reserves.” To summarize, in an interview purporting to expose the truth behind US motives, there are  scattershot mentions of the ruling class’s rapacious economic hungers. Chomsky often refers to “the mafia principle” as the theory underlying US global hegemony, which sounds lucid enough on first glance. However, as he uses it, it has a tautological quality that erases the ruling class (the latter three being words he uses extraordinarily rarely): the US brooks no opposition because it is hegemonic, the US is hegemonic because it brooks no opposition. While he will make reference to “business interests,” they are interwoven occasionally with the rest of the information presented. To read Chomsky, US power sounds like a dynamo that has been set in motion and continues due to existing momentum and nudges from various vague sources. That US foreign policy is structured in order to benefit the super-rich is a primary concern for Marxist commentators like Parenti, while it is at best an aside for Chomsky. Chomsky’s new book, Who Rules the World?, looks to be much of the same mealy-mouthed, largely class-free analysis. If an article titled “Who Runs the World?” answers anything but “the ruling class,” then the reader is being bamboozled; Chomsky includes a jab at “The neoliberal programs of the past generation [which] have concentrated wealth and power in far fewer hands while undermining functioning democracy,” and nothing else useful or new.

In an interview on Manufacturing Consent with David Barsamian, Barsamian asks the celebrity academic:

Antonio Gramsci, who helped popularize the term “hegemony,” wrote in 1925, “A main obstacle to change is the reproduction by the dominating forces of elements of the hegemonic ideology. It’s an important and urgent task to develop alternative interpretations of reality.” How does someone develop “alternative interpretations of reality,” as Gramsci suggests?

Noam Chomsky: I respect Gramsci a lot, but I think it’s possible to paraphrase that comment, namely, just tell the truth. Instead of repeating ideological fanaticism, dismantle it, try to find out the truth, and tell the truth. Does that say anything different? It’s something any one of us can do. Remember, intellectuals internalize the conception that they have to make things look complicated, otherwise what are they around for? But it’s worth asking yourself how much of it really is complicated. Gramsci is a very admirable person, but take that statement and try to translate it into simple English. Is it complicated to understand, or to know how to act?

All the information needed to damn the current system a thousand times over is already available: people need it synthesized and they need a solution. They need what Gramsci called “alternative interpretations of reality.” As a Marxist commentator who is Chomsky’s superior in every conceivable way, Michael Parenti offers such an alternative to the status quo. Chomsky, in contrast, see much of the same conditions as does Parenti, and leads others away from solutions which might actually threaten to change the system too much. As Tarzie points out, “Chomsky has been given a wide berth because he helpfully provides a Marxist analysis free of a Marxist solution.” Chomsky makes clear that a lucid analysis without a firmly socialist solution scares the ruling class not one whit. If humanity is to kill capital before it kills humanity, it’s time to realize that and keep it perpetually in the foreground.

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One thought on “Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 6: Description vs. Prescription

  1. Pingback: The Mainstream and the Margins: Noam Chomsky vs. Michael Parenti | Popaganda

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