Jun 10, 2011

Chomsky on intellectuals, power, understanding and public engagement

Some notes from Chomsky's conversation with Michael Albert (co-developer of the idea of participatory economy (parecon), writer and speaker with leftist, socialist ideas).

Intellectuals - those who think about things, try to understand things, to work things out, maybe articulate and express that understanding to others and so on. Society gave them the opportunity to think (they have time, money, job security, etc. to do so). Chomsky distinguishes the task of intellectuals from their moral responsibility. Their task, based on why social institutions grant them this opportunity to do intellectual work, is to support existing authority and power. Their moral responsibility is the opposite, to try to understand the truth, convey it to other people and lay ground for constructive action. There is a conflict and society usually tries to control intellectuals and eliminate those who follow their moral responsibility too much.

In the social sciences (economics) intellectuals provide ground for ideology (e.g., free market), which is used to control population and prevent social spending, but the actual economic practice doesn’t have to correspond to ideology. Chomsky gives an example of the US steel industry, where not free market but mostly planning exists.

For “honest intellectuals”, e.g. those who are committed to enlightenment values, values of truth, liberty and justice, and don’t want to submit to power, it’s hard to remain within the system. The institutions are not going to welcome serious critics.

Another important point: there are different ways of reacting to societal problems. Activism is one of them, but Chomsky chose a different one. Speaking, writing, commenting on issues. Contributing intellectual activity is important, but there is a danger of it transforming into the quest for power. Chomsky also talks about motivations to engage in what he does - not very convincing.

Chomsky's view on the legitimacy of power and authority: Every form of domination and hierarchy, every authoritarian structure has to justify itself. And we have to constantly ask questions about authority, about how things work in the hierarchical relations, particularly with regard to those who are in the lower positions (workers, animals, etc.). Chomsky is very suspicious about the claim that people don't have knowledge, skills or desire to make decisions (in economics, politics, science). He argues that we can get understanding about our own nature not from reading books (or doing research I should add), but through experience, historical and personal because we’re embedded in our own culture. This means that people have more understanding than authorities are willing to acknowledge. In the situation when somebody says that people don’t have knowledge, etc., they have to prove it. The burden of proof is on those who make those claims. With regard to science, it is obvious that people don't have specialized knowledge. Then my question is - does it inevitably imply that they can't participate in decision-making? How can you prove that?