The Stack

Masters of Mankind by Noam Chomsky

“The intellectual has, traditionally, been caught between the conflicting demands of truth and power. He would like to see himself as the man who seeks to discern the truth, to tell the truth as he sees it, to act — collectively where he can, alone where he must — to oppose injustice and oppression, to help bring a better social order into being. If he chooses this path, he can expect to be a lonely creature, disregarded or reviled. If, on the other hand, he brings his talents to the service of power, he can achieve prestige and affluence.”

BY: STEPHEN BARRY

In his decades-long career, Noam Chomsky has transcended academia into pop culture; in effect he has become the epitome of the modern American intellectual. Through his scholarly work in the fields of linguistics and philosophy, and his willingness to challenge the political status quo, Chomsky has made a name for himself as one of the most articulate critics of contemporary society. Masters of Mankind reads like a greatest hits of Chomsky’s essays and lectures, with the seven collected in Masters of Mankind ranging from 1969 to 2013, covering a diversity of topics, all of which are explored with intelligent insight.

The opening essay, ‘Knowledge and Power: Intellectuals in Welfare-Warfare State,’ was written against the backdrop of 1960s radicalism on campus, provides a critique of America’s intelligentsia. Using logic and reason, Chomsky deconstructs the conceptual role of intellectuals in society. As the thinkers, it is their role to guide popular will toward causes that are just and rational. However, this position will inevitably bring them into conflict with figures of authority and power. The question is then, do you resist coercion or do you buy in and sell out?

“The intellectual has, traditionally, been caught between the conflicting demands of truth and power. He would like to see himself as the man who seeks to discern the truth, to tell the truth as he sees it, to act — collectively where he can, alone where he must — to oppose injustice and oppression, to help bring a better social order into being. If he chooses this path, he can expect to be a lonely creature, disregarded or reviled. If, on the other hand, he brings his talents to the service of power, he can achieve prestige and affluence.”

To this end, Chomsky considers this role in the context of the welfare-warfare state. The natural sense of moral outrage against imperialism is strong, particularly in a system that incentivizes exploiting the weak. The radicalism that springs from this outrage can lead to action, a-la the Bolshevik Revolution. However, whether the radical gains control by force or if the thinker tries to undermine the system from within, the temptations of power will inevitably corrupt his cause. Thus, ultimately:

“The role of intellectuals and radical activists, then, must be to assess and evaluate, to attempt to persuade, to organize, but not to seize power and rule.”

The opening quote to ‘Consent without Consent: Reflections on the Theory and Practice of Democracy’ is as relevant now as it was twenty years ago:

“The current moment is an opportune one to reflect on the core issues of American democracy.”

The essay examines conflicting understandings of what democracy means, both in theory and in practice. The principle idea Chomsky builds, is that democracies are not truly ruled by ’the people,’ but rather by a small business elite. Through a mix of advertising, propaganda, and lobbying, the American business community has enshrined their interests in the national interests, and turned public opinion against those who oppose it. Chomsky summarizes the popular narrative as:

“The conclusion drawn was that people are angry at ‘their well-paid politicians’ and want more power to the people, not more power to the government. That interpretation of popular discontent with the economic system reflects two essential principles that doctrinal institutions have labored to implant in the public mind. The first is that government cannot be of, by, and for the people, responsive to their interests and subject to their will and influence; rather it is their adversary. The second principle is that private-power does not exist, even though the Fortune 500 control almost two-thirds of the domestic economy and much of the international economy, with all that entails.”

In essence, this notion of unfettered business is the basis of the post-cold war neoliberal order; a rising [economic] tide lifts all boats. However, the promise of the rising tide will only float, so long as the economy doesn’t sink.

As the invisible hand of the international political economy deals resources and capital around the globe, the winners and losers of this economic system are being reshuffled. Chomsky outlines the way anger is often misdirected at ‘malign forces;’ immigrants and minorities. To compensate, socially-democratic policies are adopted, or at least rhetorical referred to, as a means of generating positive PR.

Chomsky argues that this is not a flaw in American democracy, but rather, an intended construct.

“All of this is good Wilsonian doctrine. Wilson’s own view was that an elite of gentlemen with ‘elevated ideals’ is needed to preserve ‘stability and righteousness.’ … This ‘specialized class’ of ‘public men’ is responsible for the ‘formation of a sound public opinion’ as well as setting policy, and must keep at bay the ‘ignorant and meddlesome outsiders’ who are incapable of dealing ‘with the substance of the problem.’ The public must ‘be put in its place’: its ‘function’ in a democracy is to be ‘spectators of action,’ not participants, acting only by ‘aligning itself as the partisan of someone in a position to executively,’ in periodic electoral exercises.”

This view would seem at odds with how many of us would like to think of democracy, but it holds certain truths. Comparing these ideas to imperialism, in which a minority of western powers impose their will on the world, Chomsky goes on to describe what this understanding means in the context of ‘the consent of the governed.’ If this system ultimately benefits subjects in some form, such as with free compulsory education, competitive enterprise, and equality before law, they are said to have accepted this world order; consent without consent.

“With a proper understanding of the concept of consent, then, we may conclude that implementation of the business agenda over the objections of the public is with the consent of the governed, a form of ‘consent without consent’. And in the same sense, ’society has consented to grant to ‘leadership and propaganda’ the authority to ‘mold the mind of the masses’ so that they will perform their duties in our free society as do soldiers in a disciplined army.”

While this assessment is rather bleak, Chomsky discerns that not all is lost:

“Nonetheless, with all the sordid continuities, an optimistic soul can — realistically I think — discern slow progress, and there is no more reason now than there has ever been to believe we are not constrained by mysterious and unknown social laws, not simply decisions made within institutions that are subject to human will.”

The intellectual insight and argumentative depth of Noam Chomsky’s essays and lectures are greater than can be covered in a 1,000-word review. Masters of Mankind is expansive in range; other matters explored include climate change and the purpose of moral truisms. A worthwhile read, Masters of Mankind provides a comprehensive introduction to one of the most prominent thinkers of the past century.

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