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Noam Chomsky and the Public Intellectual in Turbulent Times

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Posted on May 12, 2014

Photo by Andrew Rusk (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

Noam Chomsky is a world renowned academic best known not only for his pioneering work in linguistics but also for his ongoing work as a public intellectual in which he has addressed a number of important social issues that include and often connect oppressive foreign and domestic policies—a fact well illustrated in his numerous path breaking books. In fact, Chomsky’s oeuvre includes too many exceptionally important books to single out any one of them from his extraordinary and voluminous archive of work. Moreover, as political interventions, his many books often reflect both a decisive contribution and an engagement with a number of issues that have and continue to dominate a series of specific historical moments over the course of 50 years. His political interventions have been historically specific while continually building on the power relations he has engaged critically. For instance, his initial ideas about the responsibility of intellectuals cannot be separated from his early criticisms of the Vietnam War and the complicity of intellectuals in brokering and legitimating that horrendous act of military intervention. Hence, it becomes difficult to compare his 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, coauthored with Edward S. Herman, with his 2002 bestseller, 9/11. Yet, what all of these texts share is a luminous theoretical, political, and forensic analysis of the functioning of the current global power structure, new and old modes of oppressive authority, and the ways in which neoliberal economic and social policies have produced more savage forms of global domination and corporate sovereignty.

His many recent books, articles, and interviews have addressed how the new reign of neoliberal capital is normalized not only through military and economic relations but also through the production of new forms of subjectivity organized around the enslavement of debt, the security-surveillance state, the corporatization of higher education, the rise of finance capital, and the powerful corporate-controlled cultural apparatuses that give new power and force to the simultaneously educative and repressive nature of politics. Chomsky does not subscribe to a one-dimensional notion of power that one often finds among many on the left who view power as driven exclusively by economic forces. He keenly understands that power is multifaceted, operating through a number of material and symbolic registers, and he is particularly astute in pointing out that power also has a pedagogical function and must include an historical understanding of the public relations industry, existing and emerging cultural apparatuses, and that central to matters of power, agency, and the radical imagination, are modes of persuasion, the shaping of identities, and the molding of desire.

Rooted in the fundamentals of anarcho-syndicalism and democratic socialism, he has incessantly exposed the gap between the reality and the promise of a radical democracy, particularly in the United States, though he has provided detailed analysis of how the deformation of democracy works in a number of countries that hide their diverse modes of oppression behind the false claims of democratization. Chomsky has attempted to refigure both the promise of democracy and develop new ways to theorize agency and the social imagination outside of the neoliberal focus on individualization, privatization, and the assumption that the only value that matters is exchange value. Unlike many intellectuals who are trapped in the discourse of academic silos and a sclerotic professionalism, he writes and speaks from the perspective of what might be called contingent totalities. In so doing, he connects a wide variety of issues as part of a larger understanding of the diverse and specific economic, social and political forces that shape people’s lives in particular historical conjunctures. He is one of the few North American theorists who embrace modes of solidarity and collective struggle less as an afterthought than as central to what it means to connect the civic, social and ethical as the foundation for global resistance movements.  Implicit to his role as a public intellectual is the question of what a real democracy should look like, how are its ideals and practices are subverted, and what are the forces necessary to bring it into being?

As someone who has been writing about youth, neoliberalism, disposability, the rise of the punishing state, the centrality of education to politics, and the notion that politics is about not only the struggle over power and economics but also the struggle over particular modes of culture, subjectivity and agency, his work has been invaluable to me and many others. While it is often pointed out that he is one of the most influential left critics of American foreign policy, what is unique about his ongoing analyses is that his work is layered, complex, often connecting issues far removed from more narrow analyses of foreign policy. For Chomsky, crises are viewed as overlapping, merging into each other in ways that often go unrecognized. Accordingly, in this paradigm, the war on education cannot be understood if removed from the war on the social state, just as the rise of the punishing state cannot be removed from a harsh and punitive survival-of-the-fittest ethic that now characterizes a mode of savage neoliberalism in the United States in which the ruling classes no longer believe in political concessions because their power is global while politics is local and colonized by neoliberal geopolitical power relations.  In fact, Chomsky often brings together in his work issues such as terrorism, corporate power, United States exceptionalism, and other major concerns so as to provide maps that enable his readers to refigure the landscape of political, cultural and social life in ways that offer up new connections and the possibility for fresh modes of theorizing potential resistance.

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He has also written about the possibility of political and economic alternatives, offering a fresh language for a collective sense of agency and resistance, a new understanding of the commons, and a rewriting of the relations between the political and the up-to-date institutions of culture, finance and capital. And, yet, he does not provide recipes but speaks to emerging modes of imaginative resistance always set within the boundaries of specific historical conjunctures. His work is especially important in understanding the necessity of public intellectuals in a time of utter tyranny, cruelty, financial savagery and a mode of soft authoritarianism. His work should be required reading for all academics, students and the wider public. Given that he is one of the most cited intellectuals in the world suggest strongly that his audience is general, diverse and widespread, inhabiting many different sites, public spheres and locations.


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