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.

Chomsky, Occupy

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?


This week a small group of people have profoundly embarrassed some of us here in Vancouver. They have behaved unthinkingly, in a sort of mob mentality, with their small-town ways and their hysteria fanned by the local media. They cheer on violence and gurn for the cameras. And before that, there was a riot.

Let us be clear: the riot was a pretty pointless affray, a needless and eminently avoidable commotion that deserves no celebration.

The riot was not started by anarchists–though it’s impressive that anarchism is still, apparently, in the twenty-first century the political scapegoat of choice, and that this should be the first stereotype to which the city mayor turned. It was not political, except in the most indirect of ways. As my colleague Gastón Gordillo puts it, “the nihilism that fueled the riots is that of a popular culture that places victory in sports above anything else, in an expensive and corporatized city that does not offer its youth other sources of collective passions and identifications.” Larry Gambone argues that the riot was the expression of anomie on the part of the Canadian banlieus, disaffected young people who “have no future and somehow know that. Future means working in Walmart. Future means never being able to afford a dwelling in the Vancouver area even if they scored a half-way decent job.” But this seems to be contradicted by the news that (for instance) one of the most high profile pictures, of a young kid trying to set light to a police car’s gas tank, is in fact of a star athlete, son of a surgeon, headed to university on a scholarship.

No, the rioters were simply Vancouverites. As far as I could see, they were a fairly representative cross-section of people, men and women, of all races, all social classes, and a range of ages. They were psyched up by the occasion, much hyped by the media, and some of them had been drinking for hours. Most importantly, at least by the time that the trouble spread to the Bay department store (focal point of the riot and now of the subsequent memorialization), the police had abandoned the streets and gone into full riot mode at blockades set up on the periphery. In the space carved out by this upping of the ante, things accelerated as people found that they could do what they wanted without any immediate repercussions. They were soon acting out fantasies engrained in popular culture and modeled by millionaire sportsmen on the ice. For some, it must have felt like a carnivalesque moment in which anything was possible: an intoxicating notion, especially for the intoxicated. The media, city council, and police had together constructed a temporary state of exception–that, indeed, is what “reading the riot act” is all about. Criminalized in advance, with the cops lobbing tear gas at them from some blocks away, plenty of young people (though still by far the minority of the crowd) took advantage of the situation to break windows, set fires, turn over a few cars, and loot a couple of downtown Vancouver’s larger chain stores.

The main troublemakers–or the people who most egregiously filled the vacuum left by the forces of law and order–will no doubt be charged and prosecuted, and rightly so. I have no interest in defending the rioters. But it’s worth looking at what they did, before all traces of the violence are swiftly swept away. It’s significant that almost all the crime was against property, rather than against people (apparently the majority of the personal injuries were caused by the police tear gas and pepper spray). Also that the damage was remarkably localized and selective: the Bay was a magnet for looting probably not only because it is an establishment icon (the former Hudson’s Bay Company once had quasi-state powers under the British Empire, much as the East India Company did in the Orient), but also more banally because its ground floor show-rooms have easily-portable items of high value: perfumes, bags. This wasn’t a riot in which people were carting off consumer electronics or food. It wasn’t a riot of professionals or of the poor. Again: it was an opportunistic riot of ordinary Vancouverites.

But, with the exception of a few dissenting voices (here’s one; here’s another; and one more), almost all the post-riot response has aimed at denying this perhaps unsettling fact. And so the embarrassment begins.

The dominant post-riot response in the media and on the Internet has been that of a self-righteous lynch mob. And they have the cheek to call themselves the “real” Vancouver.

This “real” Vancouver cheers on violence. There have been those who have used the event as an excuse to call for state repression: “How about a total media blackout and we let the police REALLY do what should be done?” I have heard plenty arguing that the riot shows that Canadian society has become too liberal, too tolerant. This is no doubt music to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ears. The headline on the front page of the Vancouver Province was “Let’s Make Them Pay,” encouraging the online vigilantes who have set up Facebook groups and and websites to post images of alleged rioters in a sort of dystopian social media society of surveillance. Big Brother meets the Wild West meets Mark Zuckerberg. Nobody talks of civil liberties or little principles such as the presumption of innocence. And this is from people who claim to uphold the rule of law. Their unthinking hypocrisy is breath-taking.

For hypocrisy is the order of the day among the up-standing citizens who are so keen to express their dismay, moral outrage, and embarrassment at the so-called thugs, idiots, morons, hooligans (choose your own pejorative) who supposedly conjured up the violence out of their back-pockets with a couple of cigarette lighters and (it’s rumoured) balaclavas.

This “real” Vancouver carves the city up into an “us” versus a “them.” The double standards are everywhere evident on the boarded-up windows of the Bay that have become an impromptu shrine to civic pride and social scapegoating. The same photos that circulate online are plastered up with the slogans “We Are All Canucks… Except this Prick.” Or “We Are All Canucks… Except this Jerk.” Graffiti claiming “We Love Vancouver” and “We are One Family” is unironically scrawled next to declarations that the rioters should “Get Out of Town and Stay There.” The city is to be made whole again by banishing its undesirables and denying that they ever had anything to do with an “us” that is pure and virtuous thanks only to this kneejerk demonization.

This “real” Vancouver pits downtown against the suburbs, “real” fans against supposed anarchists, heroes against hooligans, and actively undoes the social solidarity previously promoted through the ubiquitous propaganda that “We Are All Canucks.” Frankly, though I’ve been following the team, I’ve never felt much like a Canuck; I’m not paid anything like their stratospheric salaries, for a start. The slogan was always an artificial imposition (already, Graham Lyons persuasively argues, a “mob mentality”) that tried to deny any social differences, all the better to sell us a uniform of over-priced jerseys. But those differences have been re-asserted, quite literally with a vengeance. We now have Canucks and anti-Canucks, Vancouverites and anti-Vancouverites, angels and devils in a devastatingly simplistic (and violent) division between good and bad. And the “good,” the “real” Vancouverites who set to work to clean up the post-riot debris pose for the cameras in a mirror image of those gurning in front of burning cars they so quickly replaced.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with civic volunteerism, of course. Let’s just hope that this is not simply a spectacular frenzy that is repeated only every seventeen years. Let’s just hope that these same people move on to volunteer in the Downtown Eastside, the neighbourhood that is Canada’s poorest postcode, located just a few blocks from the site of this week’s disturbances. Sadly, I doubt it. Street-cleaning, moreover, is normally the preserve of municipal crews–who were indeed already on the streets and already in action before the night of rioting was even out, long before any of the much-ballyhooed good citizens showed up. Those people deserve our gratitude, too, as much if not more than these once-a-decade volunteers; more so if anything, as they have to clear the debris after every drunken Saturday night in the Granville Entertainment district. But nobody seems to mention them. Again, it is no doubt music to Harper’s ears, as he strips our public services, to hear the fantasy that trumpets volunteerism instead of properly funded social programs as the cure to civic ills.

This “real” Vancouver depends upon fantasy: the fantasy that cheering for a professional sports team is some kind of noble cause rather than, as my colleague Alec Dawson sadly notes, complicity in “an endeavor devoted to turning public goods into private wealth.” But above all the notion of a “real” Vancouver builds on the fantasy that violent exclusion will somehow make this a “world-class” city. One of the most ridiculous, if sadly not atypical, articles published this week was written by Matthew Good (I kid you not, that’s his name) for the Guardian: his shame, he tells us, is provoked by the question of “what [. . .] the national media is going to be saying? Or, for that matter, foreign media?” But as the article’s commenters repeatedly point out, there’s no better instance of provincialism than this small-town worry about image, this all-too Canadian concern that people should like us. “World-class” cities prove their status mostly by not worrying about whether or not they are perceived to be world class. And for good or ill, it would be hard to name a major world city (Paris, London, Buenos Aires, Mexico City) that does not have its history of riots and social disturbances. Real cities, unlike this fantasy of a “real” Vancouver, have social tensions, divisions, disagreements, off-days and on-days, that sometimes erupt in violence, sometimes not. It’s the dream of purity, of niceness untroubled by difficulty and difference, that reveals continued provincialism. We saw this already with the Olympics, and the effort to present an image of the city that erased its homelessness and drug problems in favor of the literally incredible myth of “Super Natural British Columbia.”

All this should be obvious enough. A moment’s reflection would reveal that the riots tell us something about the city, a city that is rather more real than the so-called “real” Vancouver. The post-riot discourse also tells us something, of course. As UBC student Miriam Sabzevari eloquently observes, it tells us that there is a significant minority who “have a need to feel morally superior to others—and when an opportunity comes to bask in our superiority, we actually become quite relentless in it.”

These are people who really should know better. They are the ones who embarrass me.

Revised and republished at the Tyee.

See also:


Civil society theory has flourished in the social sciences in recent decades, and enjoys great influence with non-governmental organizations, social democratic think-tanks, and the like. This second chapter is a critique of that theory and the practices it fosters, arguing that it assumes a liberal compact that is too easily overtaken by its neoliberal radicalization. I first discuss the various definitions of civil society, and the reasons for the concept’s popularity: it names a sphere of mediation between state and market, private and public, and also brings with it an aura of normativity. Who would not want a more “civil” society? I go on, however, to criticize the term’s deployment, through a close reading of political theorists Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato. Their theorization of civil society reveals the concept’s profound ambivalence: it is presented as a moderating, mediating force, but depends upon what they call the “democratic fundamentalism” that drives the social movements that constitute civil society itself. For all that these movements are championed as the expression of democratic rejuvenation, they also are to be policed and curtailed to protect both state and market in the name of political and economic efficiency. I argue that the neoliberal state outflanks civil society theory with its cult of transparency that bypasses mediating institutions and breaks down the boundary between society and state. Neoliberalism and its diffuse sovereignty herald a revolution in reverse, a fundamentalism purged of affect. But that repressed affect always returns, and in counterpoint I offer an account of the Peruvian Maoists Sendero Luminoso and their relations with the neoliberal regime of Alberto Fujimori. Sendero’s baffling ferocity challenges any theory of civil society, and provide a foretaste of the global war on terror that we are all living through now.

Read more…. (long .pdf file)


Via Left Turns? (and also my colleague Max Cameron), an interesting article on “democracy promotion,” and specifically Canada’s role supporting and providing an alibi for US “overt operations” in Latin America: “Canada’s Contribution to ‘Democracy Promotion'”.

democracy cartoonWith a particular focus on FOCAL, the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, Anthony Fenton describes Canada’s role as a National Endowment for Democracy “proxy” in “this new genre of political intervention into the affairs of the nations of the Global South.”

The article is of special interest to me in part because (along with Max) the other day I met up with Carlo Dade, a former World Bank employee who is described here as “a FOCAL senior advisor” and “the main point person for FOCAL’s ‘Canada and the Rebuilding of Haiti’ program.” Dade is quoted quite unabashedly arguing for Canada’s proxy role in support of US policy objectives in Latin America:

The U.S. would welcome Canadian involvement and Canada’s taking the lead in Haiti. The administration in Washington has its hands more than full with Afghanistan, Iraq. . . This is a chance for Canada to step up and provide that sort of focused attention and leadership, and the administration would welcome this.

Dade was a nice enough guy to have a beer with, but it was indeed quickly apparent that his version of “democracy” was unashamedly tied to free markets and private sector interests.

Canada’s role in these overt operations, to push a particular formula of social governance on Latin America, is legitimized by the linguistic slip that ties the country’s self-image of itself as a “civil society” (in the sense of peaceable and polite) to the concept of civil society, or Hegel’s “bürgerliche Gesellschaft” (bourgeois society), as a bulwark against authoritarian states and radical social movements alike.


More thoughts towards a review of Tønder and Thomassen’s Radical Democracy

In a quirk of sloppy copy-editing, one of the contributions to Lars Tønder and Lasse Thomassen’s collection, Radical Democracy, bears the running header “For an Agnostic Public Sphere” instead of the essay’s actual title, which is “For an Agonistic Public Sphere.”

But this confusion between agnosticism and agonism is perhaps symptomatic of the problems afflicting the very concept of radical democracy. For though its proponents repeatedly invoke notions of political combat and engagement, they all too easily slip into quiescent indecision.

Put it this way: it is far from clear what is “radical” about radical democracy behind the rhetorical display of terms such as agonism, antagonism, pluralism, and the like.

ballot boxIs radical democracy a specific form of democracy, comparable to but different from (say) the Athenian, liberal, or neoliberal variants of democratic practice? And if so, is it a democracy still to come, to be fought for as a perhaps utopian horizon of democratic thought and struggle?

Or is it, by contrast, a form of democracy in which some groups (new social movements, say) currently engage, in other words a counter-democratic actuality that has emerged since the end of the Cold War and the bad old days of class politics?

On the other hand, could radical democracy be found less either in the future or the present, but in a return to the founding moment of the so-called “democratic revolutions”? Is radical democracy then a rediscovery of an inherent radicality democracy once provided but has now lost? In slightly different words, is radical democracy simply another name for what Simon Critchley here terms “true” democracy?

Or finally, is democracy always radical? Is radical democracy really a tautology, in that democracy properly understood and described, even as it is played out currently in the real world, is necessarily in some way radical?

anti-politics II

My earlier excerpt on Cultural Studies as an anti-politics has attracted some attention. To balance things out, I should say that Cultural Studies hardly has a monopoly on anti-politics. Posthegemony‘s second chapter is a critique of the social scientific discourse of “civil society.” If Cultural Studies is populist, I suggest, then civil society theory is fundamentally neoliberal…

What then is eliminated in civil society theory’s, and neoliberalism’s, exclusion of culture from the state? The excluded culture is above all the matter of affect, passion, and the body. This is replaced by a statistical articulation, a hyper-articulacy. Affects are replaced by reasons (by Reason) as answers are demanded to the questions of management and state direction. Opinions are solicited and constructed in society’s constant self-interrogation, that contrasts so baldly with populism’s construction of a barely articulable ontology of affect. If populism is apolitical, it is a very different form of anti-politics than that of neoliberalism. Populism is an under-articulate disposition of the body, an incorporated common sense or habit, as opposed to neoliberalism’s over-articulate frame of mind, its ability to produce opinion. Neoliberalism excludes any affective sense of bodily location. It is not that populism, with its material, bodily grounding, is somehow more natural than neoliberalism. Neoliberalism enjoys a very similar aura of the natural, of transparency, as though it harnessed a spontaneous production of popular opinion, varnished with the sense of rightness that rationalization and reason bring. Moreover, as neoliberalism’s method is so in harmony with a whole range of social scientific methods and ideologies, it gains additional purchase in as much as its constitutive distortions mirror those of its social scientific observers.

A range of experiences and affects are processed by the state and through its ancillary mechanisms, of which perhaps the most important is civil society, to construct the realm of managerial reason. Normally this process can pass more or less unnoticed, but where the state is challenged by a counter-state and thus its double appears, the constituent force of this excluded affect reappears.

[. . .]

Affect is visible with the crisis of the state. The extent to which social relations are structured in terms of affect rather than (or on another level from) discourse becomes clearer, and other logics of the social begin to emerge. But in the face of this disturbing fundamentalism, civil society theory aims to return a sense of rationality and agency to subaltern subjects: if traditional political models had assumed a vanguard role for intellectuals, who have then to bring the masses to conscientización, a focus on new social movements emphasizes rather the myriad negotiations and initiatives performed by subaltern subjects. No doubt this has been a progressive move, to counter the view that peasants (particularly) are formed by premodern communities bound by tradition and superstition, outside of history or politics. An emphasis on peasant agency and reason is a welcome corrective in this context. Yet at times it is almost as though subalterns were presented as perfect rational choice actors, conforming to the most ideal of Western liberal paradigms of reason. As Starn points out, presenting them as rational actors of this type deculturates and depoliticizes such agents by presenting them “as if they were outside culture and ideology” (“Maoism in the Andes” 405). The price subalterns pay is that their activities are recognized only so long as they accord to a notion of reason imposed upon them. (Can the subaltern act?) So long, that is, as efficiency and modernization continue to be the ground of civil society. Such actors then are to be ascribed agency, but only on the terms of the social theorist. Anything that cannot be interpreted within such a framework becomes invisible, the democratic task the substitution of a rational civil society for affective and cultural relations seen, from the perspective of the state, as distorting its managerial transparency. Most importantly, such a policy also necessarily involves a massive expansion of the sphere of the state, a wholesale elimination of culture and corruption as the sole politics.

It was perhaps for the sake of such an eliminatory program, such a single-minded prioritization of logical structure over affective relations, that Sendero Luminoso wreaked such havoc in Peru, its reason unleashing the fiercest of affects. We learn from Sendero the importance of affect in politics, as they bring us back to the relation between culture and the state, the impossibility of fixing a border between civil and political society. But surely the fundamentalism of a Sendero or an al-Qaida is not the only one imaginable. Could there be a fundamentalist program driven by vitality, affirmation, and life, rather than the death drive of mutual immolation? Another way of being multitude. Refusing the constrictions and anti-democratic democracy of civil society theory, it might be time to consider embracing the immediacy of social movements in their excessive and passionate demands. What would it mean to take on fanaticism (in a way that Sendero’s cult of reason manifestly does not)? Encore un effort. García Canclini asks how to be radical, without being fundamentalist. We might better ask: how to be fundamentalist, without being Sendero?