Something that’s always new, that’s immune to habit, that never gets old. That’s something worth having. Because habit is what destroys the world. [. . .] Trees, stop signs, people and books grow old, crumble and disappear inside our habits. The reason old people don’t mind dying is because the time you reach eighty, the world has basically disappeared. (Michael Clune, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin. Quoted in Miranda Critchley, “Don’t Be Dull.” London Review of Books 36.21 [November 6, 2014]: 41.)
The Foreword to Jérôme Baco’s elegant new book, Invisible, tells us that what follows will be split: between “deliberately propagandistic imagery [and] texts of absurd realism”; between “portraits of revolutionaries [. . .] disembodied and dehumanized” and “the human, simple, obvious the one we glance furtively at each morning in the mirror and hasten to make disappear” (17). One might add that it is also split, for instance, between languages, as each individual text is offered successively in French, Spanish, and English. Moreover, the book offers us nothing like a linear, coherent narrative. What we get are fragments, chronologically and spatially unmoored, from what appear to be many positions, a multitude of perspectives, albeit all cast in terms of a shifting first-person subject: a “moi confundu” or “confused I”; a “confusión pronominal” or a “mistaken pronoun” (19, 20). So if this is what we see when we glance in the mirror, then it’s a cracked glass indeed, and perhaps the result is less “simple” or “obvious” (even less “human”?) than it may seem.
First, the images. These are forty-one black-and-white portraits of revolutionaries or radicals, who range from the familiar (Che Guevara; Nelson Mandela) to the relatively obscure (Mélida Anaya Montes; Ali Shariati). Almost always these figures are portrayed head and shoulders, from the front or very slightly to one side. They are abstracted from any social context or interaction: there is no visual background, and the only information provided about them–in two indexes, at the back of the book–is their names (“qui/quien/who” ) and their countries of origin (“où/dónde/where” ). Otherwise they are, almost quite literarily, icons: both in the sense that they are images that are to stand in for and simplify a much more complex reality; and in that they acquire a quasi-religious aura, inviting a kind of supplication. This feeling is only enhanced by the fact that every image is in some way distressed, as though many hands (or lips) had already touched their surface and worn them down. In sum, though the figures they portray end up appearing distant, even inaccessible, the pictures themselves remain tactile and convey a sense of their own materiality. We are never led to confuse the signifier with the signified, the icon with the saint. As with (say) Andy Warhol’s screenprints, what comes to the fore is the iconography, the ways in which the image ultimately acquires a life of its own.
But what the book’s title suggests is that the hyper-visibility of these images, precisely the ways in which they call attention to themselves, obscures something else. And perhaps that something else surfaces in the texts that surround them, texts whose connection to the portraits is seldom if ever obvious, though may do make us think in new ways about the icons they accompany. Opposite Che’s image, for instance, is a reflection on “the immortal” that becomes a meditation on suicide (64). And the portrait of Mother Teresa follows what is effectively a miniature story or micronarrative entitled “The Little Thief of the Poor,” in which the discovery of a “vaccine against poverty” enrages the average Leftist: “How could they do this, to him! He who never stopped talking about social justice!” (88). And in the end it is unclear how much this is a critique of those who venerate charity, or just as much of those who work for charity themselves. Equally, the brief fable that goes with the picture of Martin Luther King plays on the notion of kingship (“the king of the what” who wants “the what to be king”) and ends “speechless” (160). Is this an alternative King to the one who looks out on the facing page, or just another way to tell the same story of the charismatic leader who goes “to the mountaintop” but is denied the promised land?
So it is not exactly as though the texts render visible in any precise way what is obscured in and through the icons. Rather, perhaps, it is in the fractures and folds themselves–between propaganda and realism, between languages, between word and image, between times and places–that the invisible can be not so much seen as dimly perceived, viscerally sensed, irredeemably insurgent.
“The sphere of political representation has come to a close,” announce the Invisible Committee early on in their short book The Coming Insurrection. All we can expect from the political parties is empty posturing, lifeless formulae of statistical correlation. “From left to right it’s the same nothingness striking the pose of an emperor or savior, the same sales assistants adjusting their discourse according to the findings of the latest surveys” (23). Against such empty theatrics, the book argues instead for the virtues of obscurity and opacity, for “turning the anonymity to which we’ve been relegated to our advantage” (113). “Sabotage every representative authority,” the book advises, not least also “the unions and the entire micro-bureaucracy whose job it is to control the struggle” (121). Against the politics of recognition (“from whom do we seek recognition?” it asks ), The Coming Insurrection promotes the “joy” of “being nobody” (114).
No doubt this is why its authors choose to remain invisible, though the French domestic security services have alleged that they are in some way connected to the so-called “Tarnac Nine.” Vice Magazine’s ”Vive Le Tarnac Nine” is a good account both of the tiny village of Tarnac in Central France, and of the small group that briefly made it famous: “young people with a history as squatters and anarchist activists who had left the bustling Parisian metropolis to go and live in a forsaken village in mountains that had been, historically, a site of guerrilla warfare.” When, in late 2008, police discovered an attempt to interfere with the high-speed railway lines that pass nearby, nine of these dissidents (who also happened to run the village shop and bar) were rounded up and put on trial for supposed terrorist offences. The Coming Insurrection was presented in court as exhibit A for the prosecution. All of which ensured, of course, that these nobodies became more like somebodies while the book itself was soon more visible than ever.
The notion that this is some kind of terrorist handbook, however, is frankly silly. It’s much more interesting–and serious–than that. It’s unabashedly Communist (“All power to the communes!” it ends ), but not conventionally Marxist, though it does endeavour to revive the concept of political economy. Its critique of capitalism has less to do with any concept of exploitation that with the forms of subjectivity that the labour relation engenders. For production today is not so much a matter of the creation of commodities for the market, than it is concerned with the construction of the self, as both producer and consumer: “Producing oneself is becoming the dominant occupation of a society where production no longer has an object” (49). What we sell is “oneself rather than one’s labor power, to be remunerated not for what one does but for what one is, for our exquisite mastery of social codes” (50). This is the truth of “human capital,” the outcome of a never-ending manufacturing process, which occupies our so-called leisure time as much as our work time, in which “you are yourself a little business, your own boss, your own product” (51). In short, the problem of representation is not merely a question of political theatre, but also of everyday life as we are endlessly enjoined to polish our CVs, our social media profiles, and make ourselves adaptable, employable. We are being consumed, or rather emptied out, by our own self-representations. Those who can’t make it–or, more precisely, those who cannot make themselves–are left on the scrapheap. This is capitalism’s own mechanism of terror, by which “on the one hand, ghosts are brought to life, and on the other, the living are left to die. This is the properly political function of the contemporary production apparatus” (51).
What then is to be done? Form communes, of course. “Communes come into being when people find each other, get on with each other, and decide on a common path” (101). This also involves an exodus from the regime of the individualized self, but what counts is ultimately what they affirm rather than what they might (somewhat incidentally) negate. What matters and what defines a commune is “the density of the ties at [its] core” (102). And this in turn is what the book, perhaps surprisingly, describes in terms of a form of truth, for “there’s a truth beneath every gesture, every practice, every relationship, and every situation. [. . .] An isolated being who holds fast to a truth will inevitably meet others like her. In fact, every insurrectional process starts from a truth that we refuse to give up” (97-98). In contrast, then, to a revolutionary tradition that tends to stress sacrifice, here it is tenacity that is the ultimate virtue. And while both sacrifice and tenacity may be forms of selflessness, here that is because what is refused is the imposition of a self (or an injunction to self-fashioning) that takes us away from a truth that is always impersonal, shared, held in common.
This discourse of truth may seem strangely staid, perhaps even quasi-religious (fundamentalist?). It’s not what we usually expect of contemporary French philosophy–and interestingly, The Coming Insurrection also features a short but sharp critique of “postmodernist thinkers” for promoting a “total absence of certitude.” “Western imperialism,” we’re told, “is the imperialism of relativism, of the ‘It all depends on your point of view’” (92). At which point the danger is that the Invisible Committee, like denizens of hippie communes in the 1960s, fall into the celebration of an exotic and largely imaginary version of non-Western certitudes, perhaps centered around a localist relation to the Earth or Nature. But the truths affirmed here are always relationships rather than essences, and however much the book argues for blocking the flows that define the capitalist metropolis (hence allegedly the link between this book and the sabotage of the French railway network) it has little time for “local slowness and rootedness” (109). A commune is not a withdrawal or retreat (a “return to the land,” say); it involves taking up arms, if silently and invisibly, such that “the expansive movement of commune formation should surreptitiously overtake the movement of the metropolis” (109).
The Invisible Committee’s subsequent publication, To Our Friends, opens with the declaration that “The insurrections have come, finally.” And indeed it’s true that the years following the 2007 appearance of The Coming Insurrection have seen not only the Arab Spring but also the rise of movements such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. But are these constituted by communes as envisaged here? Too often–not unlike Corbyn in the UK, as well as Sanders and even Trump in the USA–what they claim is in fact to reinvigorate political representation, to make hegemony fit for purpose once more. As such, we are still some way from this book’s “dream of an age that is equal to our passions” (84).
Slavoj Zizek famously said of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire that it was “the Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century.” With Declaration, Hardt and Negri apparently repudiate Zizek’s praise, as they argue that manifestos are “obsolete” in that they “provide a glimpse of the world to come and also call into being the subject, who although now only a specter must materialize to become the agent of change.” But that subject is with us here and now, they claim: “Agents of change have already descended into the streets and occupied city squares, not only threatening and toppling rulers but also conjuring visions of a new world” (1). So it is not a manifesto that we need, but an updated Declaration of Independence, and Hardt and Negri unabashedly take the US Declaration as their model when they write that:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are equal, that they have acquired through political struggle certain inalienable rights, that among these are not only life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but also free access to the common, equality in the distribution of wealth, and the sustainability of the common. (51)
On this basis, they call then for a new constitution, and begin to outline some of its possible features (again) on the lines of the US model, examining in turn the requirements of an executive, legislature, and judiciary in a federal structure that would “constitute the procedural horizon of a participatory democracy of the common” (84).
But not so fast. Who are these “agents of change” who are already among us? It turns out that they are in the first instance the multitudes who participated in the wave of protests, encampments, and rebellions of 2011: from Tunisia and the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street or the Spanish indignados. Declaration, published in 2012, is written in the heady aftermath of these movements. Five years on, however, in each case disillusion and even disaster are the order of the day: the Arab Spring has left us with new forms of authoritarianism or bloodshed in Egypt, Libya, and Syria; there may be something of the spirit of Occupy in Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign in the primaries, but the US is likely to end up with Clintonian business as usual or, worse, Donald Trump; and in Spain (as in Greece) the initial radicalism of the indignados has devolved into the tepid compromises with a dominant political order negotiated by Podemos (and Syriza). The subject of any Declaration of Independence is once again more spectre than actuality: it refuses to go away, but it is not exactly fully here. There may still be room for a manifesto or two. The Revolution is almost as distant as ever, and that is not simply because the structures of power remain as resilient as ever, but also because the revolutionary subjectivities that would overthrow them are perhaps somewhat less tangible than Hardt and Negri would here have us believe.
In fact, in practice Declaration recognizes this dilemma. The best parts of the book are not so much its re-imaginings of specific constitutional arrangements (which become increasingly vague and repetitive) as its analyses of the ways in which multitudinous subjectivity is (still) captured, mystified, and folded in upon itself in contemporary neoliberalism. Hardt and Negri thus offer a typopology of neoliberal subject positions, all of which we collectively inhabit to one degree or another: the indebted, the mediatized, the securitized, and the represented. Debt prevails as “rent, not profit” increasingly drives the capitalist economy (12); unlike traditional wage exploitation, it produces subjects whose productivity is obscured as they see themselves only as consumers. The media, meanwhile, shape subjectivities that are not so much alienated as co-opted, “constantly absorbed in attention” (16); here it is their affective capacities that are hidden and betrayed. Surveillance society generalizes fear but also makes us all would-be vigilantes; we find ourselves “deprived of every possibility of associative, just, and loving social exchange” (29). Finally, representation “gathers together the figures of the indebted, the mediatized, and the securitized and, at the same time, epitomizes the end result of their subordination and corruption” (25); here it is political action that is proclaimed to be forever inaccessible to ordinary folk.
Each of these four mystifications, however, is equally an index of powers of the multitude that can no longer be simply repressed or ignored: the powers of productivity, affect, association, and constitution. In brief, just as Hardt and Negri (somewhat heretically) overturn the Marxist Labour Theory of Value, because it is no longer simply labour that produces value for capital, so they aim to expand our sense of the powers that can be put to the building of a new society. So instead of the “lament” to which the Left always tends (as left-wing parties “lament the destruction of the welfare state, the imperial military adventures, [. . .] the overwhelming power of finance” and so on [87-8]), Hardt and Negri ask us to prepare for the event that will “completely reshuffle the decks of political powers and possibility” (102). Ultimately this is how they see “the cycle of struggles of 2011,” as “preparing ground for an event they cannot foresee or predict” (103). They tell us that history is full of such unforeseen events and assure us that “you don’t have to be a millenarian to believe that [. . . they] will come again” (102). Maybe not. But it sure helps if you are.
Gioconda Belli ends her “memoir of love and war” with the electoral defeat of the Sandinista revolution and her subsequent move to the USA with her American husband, a journalist whom she’d met while he was covering the Nicaraguan conflict. As she points out, this transition represents the culmination of something like a personal “revolution” in the old-fashioned (and original) sense of a return to the former state of things: “Had my life come full circle? (358). Indeed, when she arrives in Los Angeles and moves into “a house that was exactly like the homes of all [her] teenage friends in Managua: one-story, 1960s-style, with straight lines, a yard in the back,” she muses that she “felt like [she] was back in the past after such a long, circuitous trip through so many other dimensions. [. . .] Funny, I thought, that my life would take such twists and turns. But I remained the same” (362).
What, however, does it mean to “remain the same” in this context? For no does she note the remarkable similarities between the US West Coast and the tranquil suburbia of her own privileged childhood than she also starts to mark the differences between North and Central American cultures. When the Santa Monica earthquake hits in 1994, for instance, she observes that her neighbours “shared a legacy of civic trust and public safety that [she] completely lacked” (364). Whereas they “were confident that their houses were well built, that the firemen would always answer their call, that the police were there to help them,” by contrast she “was frightened by the possibility of anarchy and chaos” (365). Or, rather less flatteringly to the US, she notes the “tanned, muscular men and women” around her, devoted to “healthy diets” and personal self-discipline (366), and she waxes nostalgic about the energies that, in Nicaragua, she has spent in pursuit of a collective project, “the exaltation and joy that comes from joining others in the effort to change the world” (367). Seeing her fellow citizens “with bottles of Evian water tucked under their arms” she thinks back to the days when she “transported weapons, carried a machine gun on [her] shoulder” and asks herself “if [she is] the same person.” “I can’t help but wonder,” she writes, “if a stroke of fate granted me not one but two lives” (366).
A memoir tends to assume–better yet, it actively constructs–a unitary subject, the first-person “I” that stitches together a diverse range of experiences and unites them under the sign of the same grammatical subject. But this is a memoir about a self that, more than many others, frequently flirts with dissolution and division. Or rather, perhaps, with multiplication: not one, but two; not even two, but many. Indeed, at the very outset of the book Belli notes that it was her “destiny to be drawn to the warmth of the crowds” (ix). And it is this impulse that perhaps explains both aspects of what is from the start a dual autobiography: of love and war. For her “response to the multitude” leads her to seek to break out of the stifling cocoon of bourgeois feminine comfort in which she is raised, and (as she puts it) to be “attracted to the world of men, biological functions and domestic life notwithstanding” (ix). Her twin passions, then, are political activism and, well, passion itself. For this is an account of her involvement with the revolution by way of a series of romantic relationships with the powerful men who lead it. Yet these two impulses are as likely to tear her apart as they are to reinforce or strengthen each other.
To take only the most dramatic example: the initial triumph of the Revolution in July 1979 almost passes Belli by. For she is involved in a somewhat torrid affair with a senior Sandinista comandante, “Modesto” (Henry Ruíz), who forms part of the initial National Directorate, and she finds that her “obsession” for him “possessed [her] and robbed [her] of the elation and novelty of that period.” As she puts it: “I did not breathe in the crisp, fresh air of rebirth that was pervasive in those first few weeks. [. . .] Such maddening, all-encompassing love monopolized all my senses and robbed me of energy” (259). Yet soon and unsurprisingly enough, as part of a litany of accounts of the ways in which revolutionary men take women for granted, Modesto discards her. Ultimately, she doesn’t fit his image. So just as the “real revolution” then begins with the first literacy crusade, so Belli’s own personal revolution (now in the sense of change, rather than restoration) can only truly be launched once she realizes that her “love for him was like a disease that was slowly consuming [her, that] if [she] didn’t exorcise him from [her] body, [her] identity would slowly burn away into nothing” (288).
Ultimately, what’s interesting about this book is the way in which it remains torn, incomplete or (perhaps better) excessive. Belli tells us at almost the same time both that her goal is “reconciling [her] two lives” (x) and that she has “discovered the joy that comes from surrendering the ‘I’ and embracing the ‘we'” (xi). I rather doubt both these propositions, however serene (or sometimes more banally self-justifying) the net her recollections cast over her past adventures. There is in fact as much anxiety as joy over the dissolution or multiplication of the self. And there is much here that is unresolved, even unexplored or insufficiently analyzed. We don’t, in the end, get all that far “under [Belli’s] skin,” or rather what is presented as depth is too often sentimental and glib. But she knows this. Or perhaps it is the book itself that betrays her and stands as evidence that the revolution with all its threatening disarray continues, la lucha sigue.
See also seduction.
The Spanish Civil War is edging towards the far horizon of living memory. There are no more than a dozen veterans still alive. They include Fernando Macarro Castillo, better known as Marcos Ana, a poet who signed up with the Republican Army and later spent twenty-three years in one of Franco’s jails. He is now 96 years old. And José María Gárate Córdoba, who fought on the Nationalist side and went on to be a military historian. He is 97. Or the Englishman Stanley Hilton (now living in rural Australia) who, at nineteen, jumped ship in Alicante and joined the International Brigades. He, too, is 97 years old. No doubt there are others who were only children at the time, indelibly marked by the first “total war” to be fought on European soil, in which civilians were directly targeted as in the infamous bombing of Guernica. But there cannot be many left. Next year there will be fewer. Very soon there will be none. And then the conflict will have passed fully into history.
But history has a way of catching up with us. Live Souls (Ronsdale Press, 2015), a collection of photographs (plus brief memoir) by Alec Wainman, who served in Spain as a volunteer ambulance driver and interpreter, is a reminder that the past is nearer than we think, the repercussions of this internal conflict broader than we might imagine. For the struggle between Franco’s insurgent Nationalists and Spain’s legitimate Republican government was always an international affair, as the former were enthusiastically backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Mexico and the USSR weighed in for the latter, and the rest of the world watched on and waxed sanctimonious. In some ways, the war of 1936 to 1939 was a dry run for the subsequent World War Two, as what would become the Axis powers tried out novel tactics of aerial bombardment and mass terror, while the true stakes of Allied anti-fascism were laid bare: the UK and France (among others) chose not to intervene where they felt their national interests were not at stake. In frustration and anger, thousands of (mostly) young men such as the Anglo-Canadian Wainman, fresh out of a Modern Languages degree at Oxford, travelled to Spain to help in any way they could, believing that the Republican cause transcended national boundaries.
But the global impact of the Spanish Civil War is not measured in geopolitics alone. The Republic’s defeat prompted a diasporic exodus of its adherents: throughout Europe but also to many countries of Latin America. And those who had fought alongside them also ended up at all four corners of the world: Stanley Hilton in a remote town on the border between Victoria and New South Wales, and Wainman on what must have seemed the equally isolated Canadian Pacific Coast, about as far away from the battlefields of Madrid, Catalonia, and Valencia as one could imagine. Here, in Vancouver, he dedicated himself to teaching Slavic languages and culture at the University of British Columbia, apparently telling few of his friends or colleagues of his experiences back in the heady days of 1937 and 1938. He died in 1989 and his archive of 1600 photographs taken in Spain with a trusty Leica was thought lost until, very recently, his son (who goes by the name of Serge Alternês) tracked them down, salvaged from the home of a retired London publisher. Now available, together for the first time, in this handsome volume, these images chart the tenacious persistence of memory, the resonance of surprisingly intimate encounters that radiates outward from then to now.
With few exceptions, almost all these pictures are portraits. The first, indeed, is the figure of the photographer himself, snapped close-up (a “selfie,” perhaps?) on a Barcelona street car. His head is back, and he looks somewhat warily at the camera lens from behind glasses that reflect the light from the street and so render the photographic subject slightly opaque, reticently fleeing our gaze. Equally, another photograph that features Wainman, in his khaki shorts, leaning on the bonnet of the ambulance he drove, is strangely out of focus and blurred. This is a portraitist who happily effaces his own image and subjectivity in order all the better to let those portrayed fix their own self-representation. On the page facing the picture of Wainman with his ambulance, for instance, is an image of John Cornford, the British Marxist poet whose “Full Moon at Tierz” and “To Margot Heinneman” are classic meldings of politics and romantic elegy. To add to the mythos of doomed romanticism, Cornford famously would go on to be killed in action at twenty-one. But in this picture, he’s perhaps surprisingly smiling, raising his fist in a salute that seems almost comic, self-consciously humorous. Wainman’s portrait opens up a perspective that goes beyond the time-worn cliché.
And so it is throughout the collection. We perpetually get the sense of a curious eye that lets itself be drawn by its surroundings and by the dispositions of those who are facing the camera. In nearly every case, the people we see are aware that they are being seen, and so participate in their self-representation. The cover image is another good example: it shows what appears to be a veteran militiaman, with an ammunition belt over his shoulder, amusedly looking at us with half-closed eyes as he takes a drag of a cigarette, while next to him a younger man, barely out of adolescence, extravagantly strikes a pose with his fist in the air. Behind them, a small crowd cheerily look on, observing this to-and-fro between photographer and his subjects, self-fashioning and its capture on film. The glory of this book is not that it shows us its varied array of combatants, volunteers, nurses, patients, peasants, children, and so on as they actually are, but rather that it allows them to show themselves as they want to be seen, devoid of any particular propagandistic intent.
Hence perhaps the book’s title. The “life” of these live souls comes through in the poses they strike, and in the freedom that the photographer gives them to strike them. If this is a claim to authenticity, it is so in that it is the record of a series of interactions: the truth of the encounter, of bodies that meet and become subjects through the medium of the camera gaze. The very last image, for instance, is of a young girl in the Basque country in 1939, at war’s end. She stands in front of a laden donkey, her head slightly bowed, her feet a little askew, one arm behind her back but the other (she hopes) almost nonchalantly balanced on the basket by her side. With a broad smile she looks directly at the camera. Here I think the caption gets it wrong in stating that “life remained the same as before for those children who were not orphaned or evacuated.” How could it? But what we see, in all the tension between the awkward pose and the beaming face, is the determination that, despite everything, life will go on. And this book, too, is the product of a similar determination: that even as the past slips into history, as memory becomes unreliable and at best second-hand, the soul of Republican Spain should continue to resonate into the future.
Reposted at The Volunteer, the journal of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.
Noam Chomsky is no doubt the most famous left-wing academic in North America–perhaps, in the English-speaking world–and also surely one of the most unusual. For his politics seem, at least at first glance, to have little to do with his academic work. He is, in other words, a “left-wing academic” in a very different way than (say) Eric Hobsbawm, Fredric Jameson, Ernest Mandel, or Howard Zinn, or whoever else may have been claimants to this title over the years. Hobsbawm, for instance, was a historian whose writings on History were infused with and informed his commitment to laying bare the working of Capital and the progress of global class struggle. Chomsky, by contrast, is a Linguist whose academic work has little obvious bearing on his political commitments. He is a left-wing academic in the way in which one might be a left-wing electrician or postal worker. He does his politics on the side. He is, in short, more activist than theorist or researcher.
At the same time, there is no doubt that Chomsky benefits from his academic prestige and pedigree. His short book, Occupy, is less a monograph than a collection of speeches and interviews, in which he is frequently addressed as “Professor Chomsky,” with all the dignity and weight that such an appellation confers. At one point, someone even calls him “Sir” (43). So much for the egalitarianism for which Chomsky himself otherwise advocates! Yet to be fair, he is keen to play down any heroic role for himself, and quick to point to other academics (in this book, above all the University of Maryland political economist Gar Alperovitz), whose work he champions and recommends. Indeed, Chomsky would surely be the first to note that there is little particularly original in his contribution to political debate–even his best-known popular book, Manufacturing Consent was co-written by the economic historian and media analyst Edward Herman–and that his role is more as a conduit and synthesizer of the ideas of others. And in this work of relaying and popularizing what others have done, he happily turns to his advantage the renown he has gained as Institute Professor (now Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As such it is perhaps unsurprising that, for all his reputation as a radical, Chomsky takes positions that are remarkably pragmatic. He recognizes his own limits, as well as those of the causes he supports. Of the “Occupy” movement, for instance, he has little time for the notion that it is a “precursor to revolution” (58). He argues, instead, that “to have a revolution–a meaningful one–you need a substantial majority of the population who recognize or believe that further reform is not possible within the institutional framework that exists. And there is nothing like that here, not even remotely” (59). And for all his critiques of the established political process, not least what passes for democracy in the USA, let along the party that calls itself “Democratic,” he has hardly insists on ideological purity. Several times, for example, he points approvingly to the Spanish worker-run conglomerate Mondragón, while noting that “of course, it’s part of an international capitalist economy which means that you can argue the ethics of it, since they do things like exploit labour abroad and so on” (166). But it’s clear that Chomsky himself, for now at least, has no interest in “argu[ing] the ethics.” The point is that it’s a step in the right direction.
This surely also explains Chomsky’s celebrated anarchism. More precisely, this is a rejection of Marxism. About Anarchism itself he has very little to say beyond the notion that it “has a very broad back. You can find all kinds of things in the anarchist movements” (64). But fundamentally, and despite being a thinker of systems (if not always in the most effective or interesting ways), and even despite his reiterated emphasis on the centrality of the Labour Movement to any wholesale change, his stress is always less on systematic transformation–on revolution, in other words–than on building connections and improving social relations, if in a piecemeal way. This is what he repeatedly singles out for praise from the Occupy movement: “the bonds and associations being formed” (74). And it’s perhaps no wonder that Chomsky sees this as a welcome change from the stress elsewhere on the potential powers of social media, which he sees as “very superficial” (117). By contrast, “one of the main contributions of Occupy [. . .] was that it brought people together in face-to-face contact. People were actually working together to do something in common, with mutual support, with solidarity, and that’s something that’s pretty much missing in this society” (117).
Ultimately, then, there’s something strangely conservative in this firebrand of the Left. He ends up sounding oddly like someone like Robert Putnam, whose celebrated Bowling Alone was fuelled largely by nostalgia for a postwar heyday of so-called “civil society” in which people were supposedly much more involved in (what were then often highly segregated) religious groups, volunteer organizations, sports leagues, and the like. Chomsky doesn’t have the same affection for the 1950s–for him it was when, with the onset of the Cold War and the growth of the military industrial complex, everything started going downhill–but there is enough similarity between the twin critiques of contemporary atomization and social anomie to give us pause. And so perhaps Chomsky’s linguistic postulates, which propose a “universal grammar” common to all human language, have more relevance to his political stances than one might imagine. Is he not, after all, imagining a world before Babel, before the mythic division of mankind into mutually incomprehensible and uncomprehending language-based groups?