Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Social & Political Philosophy: Chomsky & Foucault

Today we consider two thinkers who are not only affiliated with anarchism but increasingly important today: Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. Both criticize the way power and information are held in society and the oppressive nature of human institutions. However, Chomsky is very much a positivist who believes that there are true human rights and objective facts while Foucault is very much an existentialist and Nietzschean who believes that any conception of true rights or objectivity is itself oppressive in the same way as all human institutions. Both agree that power as it is practiced today marginalizes the truth, perspective and reality of the oppressed, but they disagree over whether this is monstrous or all too human. This is an important debate within not only anarchism but many other schools of thought. Are human beings always dominating and marginalizing, or are there just forms of social life that liberate us from domination? Are there true human rights, or are human rights another form, perhaps more evolved, of political domination and control? On the one hand, with positivism, we can agree that there are human rights and social forms we believe in and push for, but on the other, with skepticism, we know that America, Britain and the Soviet Union have paid great lip service to human rights while ignoring and marginalizing brutality and domination at home and abroad. Either way, we should push for the good while maintaining skepticism.

Noam Chomsky (1928 – present)
Chomsky, who has openly declared himself an anarchist, is one of the foremost critics of American empire and colonialism as was the late Howard Zinn. He first became famous and secured tenure at MIT in the 50s as a linguist and philosopher of language with his theory of universal grammar, also called x-bar y-bar theory (essentially, that there are basic structures of grammar inherent to all human language such that ancient Chinese has nouns and verbs just like modern English). In the late 60s, he gained far more fame across many academic disciplines and the reading public as a critic of the Vietnam war and American empire. One of his most famous books is Manufacturing Consent (1988) that he co-wrote with Edward Herman, which argues that the American mass media maintains silence about the brutality of our military, corporations and allies while repeatedly putting the brutality of our enemies and opponents on display. For example, TV news programs and newspapers devoted many minutes of airtime and inches of print discussing suppression of dissent in communist countries while maintaining media silence about the same forms of suppression here at home and in Central and South America.

Chomsky on Anarchism
Chomsky states that all forms of authority and domination should be challenged and if the forms are unjustifiable they should be dismantled. Chomsky clearly has the political, economic, and military domination of America over much of the rest of the world in mind. Because power is by nature domineering and potentially abusive, the burden of proof should be on the authority itself to justify its own existence and importance. Chomsky is consistently critical of academic journals maintaining silence as he is of the mass media, arguing that even left-wing academics are either brainwashed into believing that the West and America stand for freedom and democracy in the face of the evidence he collects or know what not to say and practice self censorship to maintain and advance their careers. Chomsky criticizes forms of democracy and libertarianism as practiced in America and Britain that give property rights overriding support (like Locke) while maintaining silence about poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor, as well as Soviet communism for being an enemy of true socialism. Chomsky argues, unlike Foucault, that there is a true human nature and that unjust institutions contradict and violate this nature, however he does also say that we do not know enough about human nature to know whether it is basically anarchistic and libertarian or oppressive and domineering. In other words, he hopes that Mencius is right but we do not know enough to rule Xun Zi out.

Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984)
Foucault is now a very celebrated and well studied thinker not only in philosophy but also in history, sociology and political science. He also taught briefly at Berkeley. His books are critical historical studies of social institutions and practices such as prisons, psychiatric hospitals, science and sexuality. Foucault called himself a Nietzschean (a follower of Nietzsche, who we will study next class along with how some Nazis misused his philosophy) and his critical philosophy centers on the idea of the human tendency to privilege what is labeled as good while marginalizing and dominating what is labeled as evil. The famous story is that Foucault went on vacation to the Riviera and brought Nietzsche, who he had not yet read, with him, and then stayed in his hotel room the entire time reading Nietzsche. As a Nietzschean, Foucault is deeply critical of any claim to absolute or objective knowledge, distrusts binary dichotomies such as good/bad, true/false, opinion/knowledge or sane/insane, and understands truth as a struggle between competing forces, institutions and interpretations. Institutions must support binary divisions to maintain power and pronounce themselves objective holders of genuine knowledge and truth. This bends our view of reality such that the dominant system (religion, science, politics, etc) is simply identified with truth and the messy historical process and evolution of systems of thought is obscured.

For Foucault knowledge is always involved with serving power, just as for Nietzsche truth is always involved with desire. We have all heard ‘Knowledge is Power!’ as a good thing, but for Foucault knowledge is not only power, it is domination. He states that truth is not outside power, but is a thing of this world. Foucault studies the complicated historical situations when one form of power, knowledge and dominance shifts to become another form as circumstances change. A dominant theme of his work is that with industrialization people have to learn to police and dominate themselves and the authorities have to convince them that it is their own idea and independence. Marcuse describes something similar in One-Dimensional Man. Thus, science such as psychiatry serves powerful interests while baptizing itself as disinterested objective truth, and the average person believes that they are smart and free for believing what they are told in a magazine rather than understanding the complicated and brutal process of various forms of truth that compete with each other. However, Foucault believes that we should push for what we want and strive for greater understanding while knowing that we are naturally greedy, abusive, marginalizing, and ignorant. Power is not just a negative thing, but everything, so the form of the bad is the form of the good. Thus, communists who declare themselves to be liberators are also oppressors, and people who feel oppressed by society are also helping to oppress themselves through fear and desire. Human nature is neither good nor evil, but the two together. While not openly calling himself an anarchist, Foucault distrusted all forms of authority and became disenchanted with communism and other forms of left wing thought. His conception of power is very similar if not identical to anarchist criticisms of society.