Linguist of dissent

Chomsky's Politics
October 4, 1996

Milan Rai asserts that the "Chomsky problem" is to account for how and when the distinguished linguist and the ferocious critic of US foreign policy meet. Chomsky himself has made clear that he is intellectually much more interested in linguistics than politics - an assertion that Rai could have subjected to greater probing. Nevertheless, Chomsky's Politics offers an effective distillation of the central tenets of his thinking on politics. But reading a commentary on Chomsky's work tends to denude it of much of its power. The Chomsky worldview laid bare loses his trademark, biting irony.

The centrepiece of Chomsky's writings, as arguably the foremost US dissident, is an exploration of American foreign policy. Oriented around questions of "power" and "ideology", Chomsky's analysis has sought simultaneously to explore the domestic moral and intellectual culture of the US and its interrelationship with the (illegitimate) exercise of US power overseas. In particular, through the work on the "propaganda model" of the mass media, developed with Edward Herman, there is the attempt to capture the manufacturing of consent and the complicity of intellectuals in such processes.

The role of intellectuals in the manufacturing of consent and how the intellectual infrastructure of the US sustains and perpetuates particular visions and practices is both a central theme and a central experience in the reception that Chomsky's work on politics has received. His political writing has always been better received outside America, and in the academic study of US foreign policy Chomsky's name is absent from the reference lists of set texts.

Rai has produced a thorough exposition of the Chomskyan world-view. Unfortunately, his admiration for his subject leads him to paper over the inconsistencies in Chomsky's politics. By attempting to give an equal treatment to all facets of his work, Rai exposes the paucity of Chomsky's thinking in some areas and as a consequence there is a relative understatement of the significance of other fields of inquiry. In particular, Rai is most charitable to his subject on "visions". Despite the centrality of alternative futures embedded within Chomsky's thinking this is also where Chomsky's thinking is least developed. Perhaps the best summation of the value of Chomsky's political writing, and the maxim that should guide successive commentaries on him, is Rai's assertion that Chomsky's writings "are themselves a course in intellectual self-defence, helping to build up sceptical reflexes".

Richard Whitman is lecturer in international relations and diplomacy, University of Westminster.

Chomsky's Politics

Author - Milan Rai
ISBN - 1 85984 011 4 and 011 6
Publisher - Verso
Price - £34.95 and £10.95
Pages - 225

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