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?