Disembowelling the body politic

The Ambiguities of Power - Class Warfare - Powers and Prospects
November 22, 1996

Noam Chomsky's first entry in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations pertains to the following two sentences: (1) colourless green ideas sleep furiously; (2) furiously sleep ideas green colourless. He wanted to make the point that these is no simple identity between the grammatical and the meaningful. These two sentences, he argued, are equally nonsensical - ecologists may disagree - but only the first is grammatical. Chomsky burst into print 40 years ago. After that, colourless green ideas slept furiously on. Given his subsequent trajectory, it is deeply ironic (or perhaps ironically deep) that this spooky grammaticism should become, if not his most celebrated, then certainly his most anthologised maxim.

Yet it is also appropriate. Those of us whose primary interest lies in Chomsky the frondeur - more ubiquitous and more dangerous than any of his fellows - need to remind ourselves that, intellectually, he has led a double life. As David Barsamian remarks chummily to his interviewee in Class Warfare: "You've made a bit of a name for yourself in the field of linguistics and language." What are the connections between these lives, between the day life of the grammarian and the night life of the libertarian, the linguist and the anarchist, the verballer and the verballed? First of all, as might be expected, Chomsky is keenly attuned to the expressive phrase, and forages far and wide to find them. Once located, they are put through the Chomskian mincer. They are trapped, stunned, eviscerated and exhibited with a certain calm satisfaction all over his writings. Thus "secular priesthood'' (Isaiah Berlin), "voluntary censorship'' (George Orwell), and "masters of mankind'' (Adam Smith). "The bad poet imitates,'' said T. S. Eliot, "the good poet steals.'' Chomsky is a ravenously good poet - and a meticulous acknowledger of sources - the poet of the "non-people'' (Noam Chomsky, after Orwell). There is a characteristic exchange in Class Warfare - characteristic of the man and of the book - where Barsamian puts to him, by way of a question, "One of the heroes of the current right-wing revival - I'm not going to use the term 'conservative' - is Adam Smith. You've done some pretty impressive research on Smith that has excavated, as the postmodernists would say, a lot of information that's not coming out. You've often quoted him describing the 'vile maxim of the masters of mankind: all for ourselves and nothing for other people'.'' Chomsky replies: "I didn't do any research at all on Smith. I just read him. There's no research. Just read it. The version of him that's given today is just ridiculous. But I didn't have to do any research to find this out. All you have to do is read. If you're literate, you'll find it out."

Famously, Chomsky is also interested in the language and silence of political discourse - a kind of developmental psycholinguistics for children of all ages. "The propaganda system'' is part of the deep structure of his thought; "manufacturing consent'' not only his most apt coinage but also his most resonant idea. Indeed it may be that "consent'' and "dissent'' represent the essential - one might almost say existential - Chomskian choice. In our disciplined intellectual climate, most of us consent, in one way or another. Not Chomsky. "Discipline'' of that sort, malign and insidious, is Chomsky's bete noire. In this sense he is incorrigibly undisciplined, a chronic dissenter. Interestingly, if there is an affinity with postmodernism here, it remains unexplored. As an engaged scholar, Chomsky is in many ways surprisingly traditionalist, even fundamentalist, in his outlook and operation. He is more likely to be familiar with Bentham's panopticon than Foucault's prison.

His strongest affinity is perhaps with Orwell. Their writings manifest many of the same qualities: a ruthless simplicity, an absolute implacability, a curious blend of humility and hubris, a deliberate incitation. An Orwellian footnote even contains a remarkable prefiguration (hitherto unnoticed) of Chomskian linguistics. "One can cure oneself of the not un-formation by memorising this sentence: a not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.'' In fact, much of Chomsky's project (a usage Orwell would surely have deplored) is anticipated, and, it must be said, condensed in Politics and the English Language. "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible ... Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase - some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse - into the dustbin where it belongs."

In several obvious ways, Orwell is Chomsky's lodestar. Both Class Warfare and Powers and Prospects bristle with contempt for the corrupt language of the "aristocrats'' (Thomas Jefferson), beginning with the shop-soiled "national interest'', "a residual Orwellism that should be removed, in the cause of semantic hygiene''. Chomsky's point is that the interests involved are not national at all, but sectional, "an insight that we can trace back at least as far as that unregenerate Marxist extremist Adam Smith''. Similarly "peace process'' - the Middle East variety - the subject of much discussion, some of it overlapping, in both books, is dismissed as "a standard Orwellism'' meaning "whatever the US leadership happens to be doing at the moment'', or more pithily "what we say goes'' (George Bush). "Stability'' means "whatever serves the interests of power'', or simply "US control''. "Radicalisation'' means "unacceptable forms of independence'', of which "fundamentalism'' is a specially unacceptable case. Elsewhere Chomsky plays serious games with the key words of the cold war, adapting and inverting "containment'' and "rollback'' (as previously "deterrence") to his own stinging purpose. "For years we've been involved in containment of democracy, freedom, human rights, and even markets, and now we're going to roll them back."

Along with such coruscating linguistic cleverness, however, goes a peculiar form of linguistic deafness. The problem seems to be partly his own tongue, which might be called mandarin Chomskian. In this language, it is customary to employ rhetorical flourishes signifying opprobrium, ridicule and disdain, in close conjunction, repeated like a litany to create a certain impression. A sample: "as every literate person knows'', "the rule of force'', "atrocities'', "near-genocide'', "Washington terror state'', and a personal favourite, "trivially obvious''. Some of this, no doubt, is deliberate provocation; and all of it is dwarfed by the corruptions Chomsky has set himself to expose. Nevertheless, for that very purpose - and for one who has fundamentally rewritten the rule-book of language - his own use of it is not above reproach.

But the deafness is more profound than that. Chomsky has attained guru status and the condition can most easily be studied through his epigones. One of them is Mark Curtis. Broadly speaking, The Ambiguities of Power seeks to do for British foreign policy what Chomsky has been doing for American, using somewhat similar, if blunter, instruments - in short, to examine the entrails. The book begins (and continues) as follows: "In attempting to understand Britain's role in the world, two approaches are possible. In the first, one can rely on the mainstream information system, consisting primarily of media and academia, where commentators are presumed to provide analyses of current affairs independent of the reasoning and priorities of the state. This is deemed to be consistent with notions of a 'free press' and 'political science'. In the second approach, by contrast, one can consider the facts of the real world. The two approaches lead to vastly different conceptions of the nature of British foreign policy and international affairs.'' This way of framing the argument would be sufficient to alert even the most torpid first-year undergraduate. Who decrees these approaches? Why only two? Why not, for the sake of example, 17? Or, indeed, an almost infinite number? And as for the facts of the real world, Curtis cannot be serious, can he? Baudrillard would be laughing his socks off. And imagine what fun Chomsky would have with "the facts''.

Well, imagine. Chomsky's Deterring Democracy begins: "The great event of the current era is commonly taken to be the end of the cold war, and the great question before us therefore is: what comes next? To answer this question we have to begin by clarifying what the cold war has been. There are two ways to approach this prior question. One is simply to accept the conventional interpretation; the second is to look at the historical facts. As is often the case, the two approaches yield rather different answers.'' And he is still at it. In Powers and Prospects there is a lengthy essay on "The great powers and human rights: the case of East Timor''. The opening is predictable. "There are two versions of the story. The official one is familiar: upholding human rights is our highest goal, even 'the soul of our foreign policy', as President Carter put it. And if we are at all at fault, it is in maintaining this noble standard too rigorously, to the detriment of the famous 'national interest'. A second version is given by the events of history and the internal record of planning.'' How extraordinary that someone so preoccupied with mediation, manipulation and the manufacture of consent should habitually present such a biblical view of the world - black and white, damned and blessed.

Like Chomsky, Curtis is properly concerned with human rights and therefore with policy towards the Third World ("aggression against the South"). Like Chomsky, he is "a moral agent and not a monster'' (Chomskian for the responsible intellectual, and incidentally a self-description). Like Chomsky, he is uncompromising, on the policy itself and on its intellectual confinement. "The central features of British foreign policy in the Third World since 1945 have included brutal military interventions, large-scale abuse of human rights, and opposition to economic development benefiting the poor. Analysis of the historical record reveals that the early postwar interventions in, for example, Malaya and Kenya, were far more brutal than customarily presented and that the pursuit of elementary 'national interests' has contributed systematically to human rights abuses throughout the postwar period, for example in South Africa, Indonesia, Chile and Uganda.

Other aspects of British policy studied in this book are rarely, if ever, considered in academic works: for example, the 1953 intervention to overthrow the government of British Guiana, and the removal, beginning in 1965, of the population of Diego Garcia. Consideration of declassified planning documents ... throws much new light on British interventions in the Middle East, especially in Iran, Oman, Jordan and Kuwait."

Both authors, it will be observed, make some play of their planning documents - Curtis more than Chomsky - and both contrive to give the impression that they alone are divulging something new. Actually, protestations of independence notwithstanding, they are only doing what any hard-pressed, cash-strapped, overwrought and underwritten academic ever does: that is, playing the "library-cormorant'' (Samuel Coleridge, not yet on Chomsky's mincing list), and fishing in the published volumes of Foreign Office and State Department documents for whatever they can find in answer to a few leading questions. Chomsky himself is prone to wax eloquent on one particular "state paper'', as he calls them, which he thinks has evaded full textual scrutiny (the nefarious NSC 68), but which has in fact been worked over virtually line by line ever since it first saw the light of day over 20 years ago.

Here too, perhaps, Chomsky is more traditional - and more fallible - than he often appears, especially in his own writing. Despite his anathematising, he is no saint, not even a plaster one, but human after all. He is doing what he has to do. For that we have cause to be grateful. It is as Henri Bergson said of Paul Valery: "What Chomsky has done had to be attempted."

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy since 1945

Author - Mark Curtis
ISBN - 1 85649 347 4 and 348 2
Publisher - Zed Books
Price - £39.95 and £14.99
Pages - 250

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