"Common Cause proposes a simple remedy: that we stop seeking to bury our values and instead explain and champion them."
"In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured; they may well be essential to survival."
I think "ineffective and irrelevant" (TBG) is hardly a fair way of describing Chomsky:
Chomsky is one of the most globally famous figures of the left, ... He has a very large following of supporters worldwide as well as a dense speaking schedule, drawing large crowds wherever he goes. He is often booked up to two years in advance. He was one of the main speakers at the 2002 World Social Forum. He is interviewed at length in alternative media. Many of his books are bestsellers, including 9-11.
The 1992 film Manufacturing Consent, was shown widely on college campuses and broadcast on PBS. It is the highest grossing Canadian made documentary film in history.
... Chomsky is widely read outside the US. 9-11 was published in 26 countries and translated into 23 languages; it was a bestseller in at least five countries ...
Perhaps TBG would also consider Aristophanes (thanks to Helen for the link) "ineffective" and "irrelevant", after all, "he lost":
The ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes spent his life battling the assault on democracy by tyrants. It is disheartening to be reminded that he lost.
But I'm with Chris Hedges in thinking that what Aristophanes did was important and inspirational, like Chomsky's work:
... unless we adopt the radicalism held by Aristophanes, unless we begin to hinder the functioning of the corporate state through acts of civil disobedience, we are finished.
Chomsky would agree. During the Vietnam War he wrote approvingly of civil disobedience, remarking that he was "a minor - and, to be honest, reluctant - participant":
In the days between April 19 and May 3, several hundred thousand people demonstrated before the Capitol building, veterans testified at official and unofficial Congressional hearings, and thousands participated in lobbying and passive civil disobedience at government offices. The Mayday actions involved more than 15,000 people, many of whom submitted to repeated arrest and atrocious treatment. Elsewhere, there were supporting events. The demonstrations in San Francisco were the largest ever held there.
He is modest about his own role generally and emphasises the co-operative nature of what he does and gives credit to people who do the daily grind which makes change possible:
I come in and it's a privilege for me to be able to join them for an hour, but that's easy. You know, get up and give a talk, it's no big deal. Working on it day after day, all the time, that's hard, and that's important, and that's what changes the world, not somebody coming in and giving a talk."
But they DO invite HIM to talk and many people around the world clearly value what he has to say.
Psychology and politics
It is rare for an intellectual to be at the centre of public excitement. Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on a tour of India for the second time in five years, has evoked public enthusiasm on a scale that few intellectuals can dream of. For Indians troubled by the happenings in Afghanistan and craving for an alternative view of what is really happening there, Chomsky's three-week-long tour has been a deliverance. The polymath - pioneer in the field of linguistics, social theorist, political and media critic and above all, the most consistent and powerful voice against the American establishment - addressed audiences in Delhi, Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram.
"Tom Crompton of WWF, who is making the radical and unheard of suggestion (unless you read ET) that psychology may have something useful to contribute to political theory."
It's not "unheard of" nor that "radical"; from a review of the "Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology":
"Fortunately, during the last half-century, a tremendous amount of exciting research has conducted psychological analyses of a range of important political phenomena, from intergroup conflict to international relations to public opinion and elections and much more."
Changing social ethics
TBG also claims that:
"Social ethics have changed out of all recognition over the last century - and bizarrely, hardly anyone has commented on this."
To cite just one example, Chomsky has commented on this and how to bring about such changes:
Go back to '62, there was no feminist movement, there was a very limited human rights movement, extremely limited. There was no environmental movement, meaning rights of our grandchildren. There were no Third World solidarity movements. There was no anti-apartheid movement. There was no anti-sweat shop movement. I mean, all of the things that we take for granted just weren't there. How did they get there? Was it a gift from an angel? No, they got there by struggle, common struggle by people who dedicated themselves with others, because you can't do it alone, and made it a much more civilized country. It was a long way to go, and that's not the first time it happened. And it will continue.
Arguably Chomsky played a significant role (for one individual) in bringing about such changes in attitude. Lots of the people who read him are themselves people who help shape wider attitudes: academics, media people, etc.
TBG starts his bullet points with:
There's a massive distance between Enlightenment notions of rationality, and how people actually act, both individually and in groups.
In fact the Enlightenment was not the bastion of rationality as in the Romantics' stereotype of it.
Contrary to a traditional `rationalist' picture of the Enlightenment, what emerged from the middle of the 18th century--the heart of the Enlightenment--was an anti-system ideology that took its model from a purpose-driven organic realm. Reill's treatment of the Enlightenment development of organic models reveals a continuity with Romanticism that has been little suspected until recently.
Of course it has long been accepted that people don't make choices solely on purely rational grounds - cf. the Sophists (also usually stereotyped, based on Plato), the Roman emperors' "bread and circuses" policies, Machiavelli:
Since he understood actions to be the outcomes of emotions, Machiavelli's advice to political leaders included a great deal of material on how to manipulate the passions of subjects to keep public order.
... Throughout, Machiavelli stressed that fear provides a particularly reliable motivation, and envy a well-nigh universal one.
But TBG derides "manipulation" in favour of ? Is anyone clear about this ? There's vague talk about "calibration of internal models" but also implied medical treatment of "sociopaths".
It's not a simple choice between rational presentation of facts and appeals to feelings and values, as Tom Crompton in the Common Cause report says:
It should be reiterated that none of this is to suggest that campaigners can afford to be slap-dash with the facts of their case. Factual accuracy is, of course, an ethical imperative.
Democracy with a true universal franchise is a relatively recent idea ... In reality it's so exceptional that it has never happened before - and that makes it more fragile than it looks.
If you just focus on "total universal franchise", democracy might seem a "fragile", recent flower. But of course it's firmly rooted in a long tradition, through which it became universal in its later forms and these have spread very quickly and widely recently - partly due to global media.
Ignoring those deep roots and making alarmist claims about fragility is not the best way of defending it; such long traditions are something to be used in strengthening people in their efforts to further develop democracy, cf. Chomsky:
That was a strong, rich American culture, which was crushed by violence. The United States has a very violent labor history, much more so than Europe. It was wiped out over a long period, with extreme violence. By the time it picked up again in the 1930s, that's when I personally came into the tail end of it. After the Second World War it was crushed. By now, it's forgotten. But it's very real. I don't really think it's forgotten, I think it's just below the surface in people's consciousness.
Harry Kreisler: This is a continuing problem, and something that emerges in your scientific work, also, namely, the extent to which histories and traditions are forgotten. To define a new position often means going back and finding those older traditions.
"Calibration" and intuition
Social and personal reality have never been calibrated. In the same way that you can't make measurements in science without accurate references, you can't create a rational political and economic system without good models of social psychology that take into account both innate and social distortions of perception and desire.
What is "personal reality" ?
I wonder why they have never been "calibrated" ? Could it be that such things cannot be subjected to anything resembling what's normally understood by "calibration" ? TBG uses it again: "The answer isn't more rhetoric and persuasion, but a calibration of the unexamined internal models that shape how people really think."
"Unexamined" ? How does this differ from the study of ideologies, for example ? But, wait a minute, doesn't this sound like an "enlightenment approach" - dropping all that old "rhetoric" and getting rational, even precise and "calibrating" "internal models" - in order to entirely "reinvent politics and economics" - no less !
People intuitively understand complex issues involving their fellow human beings, it's an appropriate mode in relation to human affairs . This is not to say, of course, that intuition is always correct, but in relation to human affairs it is often all we really have (see Chomsky, below) and can be very effective. The Common Cause report acknowledges the intuitive understanding and practical success of some politicians, etc.
This understanding, of the limitations of the presentation of facts, is something that effective advertising people, public relations experts and politicians, have long recognised and incorporated into their communications and campaign strategies.
... effective politicians are highly aware of the way in which they can use political communications and, indeed, public policy itself, to further embed those values that resonate with their political convictions and which will therefore serve to build further public support for their political programmes.
Aristophanes understood such things very well, though even putting his views powerfully in dramatic terms couldn't guarantee success in the face of the powerful forces controlling his society:
Aristophanes saw the same psychological and political manipulation undermine the democratic state in ancient Athens. He repeatedly warned Athenians in plays such as "The Clouds," "The Wasps," "The Birds," "The Frogs" and "Lysistrata" that permitting political leaders who shout "I shall never betray the Athenian!" or "I shall keep up the fight in defense of the people forever!" to get their hands on state funds and power would end with the citizens enslaved.
"The truth is, they want you, you see, to be poor," Aristophanes wrote in his play "The Wasps." "If you don't know the reason, I'll tell you. It's to train you to know who your tamer is. Then, whenever he gives you a whistle and sets you against an opponent of his, you jump out and tear them to pieces."
What the Common Cause report comes up with is not so new: people can be divided into general categories:
Our social identity is formed by a mixture of values. But psychological tests in nearly 70 countries show that values cluster together in remarkably consistent patterns. Those who strongly value financial success, for example, have less empathy, stronger manipulative tendencies, a stronger attraction to hierarchy and inequality, stronger prejudices towards strangers and less concern about human rights and the environment. Those who have a strong sense of self-acceptance have more empathy and a greater concern about human rights, social justice and the environment.
No surprises there and the suggested remedy of "championing our values" has been understood by politicians long before Ed Miliband:
Common Cause proposes a simple remedy: that we stop seeking to bury our values and instead explain and champion them.
Ed Miliband appears to understand this need. He told the Labour conference that he "wants to change our society so that it values community and family, not just work".
Chomsky very clearly "champions" freedom and democracy, while exposing how those in power, while paying lip-service to these same values, hypocritically subvert them.
Even the new jargon in the report, "deep frames", seems pretty intuitive, and also rather like "ideology":
George Lakoff describes the distinction between cognitive and deep frames in this
"Surface [or cognitive] frames are associated with phrases like `war on terror' that both activate and depend critically on deep frames. These are the most basic frames that constitute a moral world view or a political philosophy. Deep frames define one's overall `common sense'. Without deep frames there is nothing for surface frames to hang onto. Slogans do not make sense without the appropriate deep frames in place" (Lakoff, 2006: 29).
To take Lakoff's example, the phrase `war on terror' was in effect a choice of words, just one possible way of framing the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The policy response to the event could have been framed as a crime.
Chomsky, like others, has noted such framing and argued that 9/11 should be framed as a crime, and the attack on Iraq reframed as a "major crime", like the Vietnam War:
Political activist Noam Chomsky says that although President Obama views the Iraq invasion merely as "a mistake" or "strategic blunder," it is, in fact, a "major crime" designed to enable America to control the Middle East oil reserves.
In fact some recent research has confirmed what we know anyway about people and their intuitive understanding (and indicates psychologists' interest in persuasion):
"Psychologists have devoted entire careers to finding out how people can be persuaded, but far less time investigating what people know intuitively about persuasion.
Now Karen Douglas and colleagues at Kent University have bucked this trend with a paper which they say shows people have an intuitive understanding of how a person's thinking style affects their vulnerability to persuasion, known formally as 'the elaboration likelihood model'.
"Need for cognition"
What do you know, it also finds that some people respond well to "intelligent arguments".
This is the idea, supported by research findings, that people who have a greater inclination for thinking things through tend to be less swayed by adverts that use superficial tricks like beautiful models and slick graphics, but are more persuaded by adverts that make an intelligent argument. The jargon for the character trait in question is 'need for cognition'.
It's no surprise that Monbiot, despite his comments on the Common Cause report, quickly returns to the kind of rational, detailed political analysis, serving the "need for cognition", which one gets from Chomsky, and he refers to similar work by Naomi Klein:
The government's programme of cuts looks like a classic example of disaster capitalism: using a crisis to re-shape the economy in the interests of business.
In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein shows how disaster capitalism was conceived by the extreme neoliberals at the University of Chicago.
It's noted there that, also Chomsky-style: " A fully referenced version of this article can be found on George Monbiot's website".
Science and human affairs
Just how are we to create models taking account of "innate and social distortions of perception and desire" ? Such things are of course infinitely variable and constantly changing, not to mention the problems of distinguishing the innate from the social and getting agreement about what are "distortions" rather than views we don't agree with. The notion that there is some way to make a "calibrated" science out of this is just another example of supposed "Enlightenment rationalism" and in fact "pseudo-scientific posturing".
Chomsky is all for science, but understands its limits when applied to the study of human affairs:
"... I wrote 35 years ago, long before "postmodernism" had erupted in the literary intellectual culture: "if there is a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to the conduct of foreign affairs or the resolution of domestic or international conflict, its existence has been kept a well-guarded secret," ...
To my knowledge, the statement was accurate 35 years ago, and remains so; furthermore, it extends to the study of human affairs generally, and applies in spades to what has been produced since that time. What has changed in the interim, to my knowledge, is a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call "theory" and "philosophy," but little that I can detect beyond "pseudo-scientific posturing."
Generalizations, if carefully reached, can be quite useful. It's certainly not impossible to theorize about human action. We all do it all the time, informally and intuitively, and in the social sciences and psychology it's done more self-consciously. They're by no means fraudulent in general. The question that arises is whether they reach the level of depth of explanation and understanding so as to merit honorific terms that are often thrown around loosely ("theory," "science," etc.).
What is understood, pretty well, is how institutions function and set constraints on policy choices. And that tells us quite a lot about how the world works.
"Tools of emancipation"
While continuing his specialised studies in linguistics, Chomsky has worked, to impressively wide appreciation (see opening quotation), to provide insight to a wider public about some of the most important political issues of the day, continuing an important tradition, and regretting that too many left intellectuals not only do not continue this tradition, but even denigrate important "tools of emancipation":
... many scientists, not too long ago, took an active part in the lively working class culture of the day, seeking to compensate for the class character of the cultural institutions through programs of workers' education, or by writing books on mathematics, science, and other topics for the general public. Nor have left intellectuals been alone in such work, by any means. It strikes me as remarkable that their left counterparts today should seek to deprive oppressed people not only of the joys of understanding and insight, but also of tools of emancipation, informing us that the "project of the Enlightenment" is dead, that we must abandon the "illusions" of science and rationality - a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use. They will be no less delighted to hear that science (E-knowledge) is intrinsically a "knowledge system that legitimates the authority of the boss," so that any challenge to such authority is a violation of rationality itself - a radical change from the days when workers' education was considered a means of emancipation and liberation. One recalls the days when the evangelical church taught not-dissimilar lessons to the unruly masses as part of what E. P. Thompson called "the psychic processes of counter-revolution," as their heirs do today in peasant societies of Central America.
A great many of us are glad that he has done this work and has not waited until we have "calibrated social and personal reality" - an absurd distraction which would also "gladden the hearts of the powerful".