Monday, August 15, 2005

My debate with Noam Chomsky

Since I mentioned Noam Chomsky in my last post, I figured, why not share a brief "debate" I've had with him -- a public one, not confidential. I wrote a letter responding to an article he submitted in the literary journal The Sun, and he published a reply to my comments. This was my letter, as I submitted it:

Re: “Hidden Power: Noam Chomsky on Resurrecting the Revolutionary Spirit of America.”

Noam Chomsky is consistently interesting to read when he’s speaking about domestic politics. But his cold, intellectual response to human suffering is always infuriating. He says that “The system of governance within the corporation is as close to totalitarianism as anything humans have devised,” because orders comes from above while people “rent” themselves at the bottom. Only an intellectual enjoying physical safety could speak about totalitarianism as if all it required were hierarchy and a suffering proletariat. Chomsky says that a corporation is as close to totalitarian as anything devised in the Soviet Union or Communist China. Yet who could talk about those systems without speaking of the suffering they caused? Totalitarianism is not just verbal orders or propaganda, or even exploitation. Its central aspect, everyone now knows, is suffering. It is murder, imprisonment, and abusive power.

As the Soviet archives are opening, and even before China’s archives have opened, we are learning that these two totalitarian systems together murdered about 100 million people in the 20th century, within their own borders, and quite apart from what they did in foreign wars. That’s a number roughly equal to all the deaths in all the international wars of the last century. You couldn’t live under these systems without pervasive fear, even if you were part of the ruling elite. Yet I have worked at large corporations without fear. Chomsky thinks that if he can establish some parallels through mental tricks, the suffering can be laid by, without a human response. As someone of an intellectual temperament, I have made such mistakes, and can see them. It is self-flattering to say, for instance, that because propaganda in this country is more subtle and pervasive than anything in Hitler’s regime, then we are living under a new Hitler. It gives us a cheap way of feeling, without having to work for it, that we are smart, and that our lives and actions are important to history. If you’re an intellectual, or a member of a privileged class, and you observe that our mental lives are beset by propaganda less gross than Stalin’s, you conclude that our lives are beset by a danger more insidious than anything in communism. But what is more insidious than a form of government that treacherously promises salvation but actually liquidates a hundred million human beings?


Life is more than the verbal, mental, or even the emotional aspect. Life is experience – too much of it unimaginably painful, especially to those of us who live either in our heads or in a physically safe environment.

I realize this was too personal. Here is the edited version published by The Sun:

Noam Chomsky is interesting to read when he's speaking about politics, but his cold, intellectual response to human suffering is infuriating. He says that "the system of governance within the corporation is as close to totalitarianism as anything humans have devised," because orders come from above while people "rent" themselves at the bottom. But totalitarianism is more than hierarchy, propaganda, and a suffering proletariat. Totalitarianism is murder, imprisonment, and abusive power. In the twentieth century the Soviet Union and China together murdered about 100 million people within their own borders. You couldn't live under a totalitarian system without experiencing pervasive fear, even if you were part of the ruling elite. It is easy to say that because propaganda in this country is more subtle and pervasive than anything in Hitler's regime, we are living under a new Hitler. It makes us feel that our lives are best by a danger more insidious than Nazism or even Soviet communism. But what is more insidious than a form of government that kills millions of its own citizens?

And finally, Chomsky's reply:

Totalitarianism, democracy, dictatorship, and so on, are forms of social organization. "Murder, imprisonment, and abusive power," are hideous crimes, but a different matter. There have been relatively benevolent dictatorships -- which is no argument for dictatorship -- and the world's leading democracy tolerated literal slavery for much of its history, and tolerates to this day slavery's disgraceful residue, not to speak of the fate of what John Quincy Adams called "that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty." The world's leading democracies continue to be responsible for horrendous crimes outside their borders.

As for the 100 million deaths attributed to Soviet and Chinese communism, 25 million of them resulted from the Chinese famine of 1958-1960, which is properly regarded as a political famine by economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. But Sen and fellow economist Jean Dreze attribute 100 million more deaths to India, over China, from independence to 1979 -- also political crimes, they point out, resulting from democractic capitalist policies.

Corporations have not refrained from violence, but mostly rely on powerful states to exercise violence on their behalf, with grim consequences. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, one of the leading advocates of the dominant state-corporate system, says, "The market requires a hidden fist. McDonald's can not flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15."

It's quite appropriate to condemn the crimes of the state's official enemies, as Soviet commissars did. What we should find "infuriating" is our own "cold, intellectual response to human suffering" when that suffering is caused by systems we support.


There is much in Chomsky's reply that I disagree with. I think he's misrepresented Friedman's point, though that's the least of it. He's put democracy on par with communism in several misleading ways: by invoking the widespread deaths and murders of Native Americans, without specifying that the causes were complex and the number of killings much smaller than those under communism by many, many magnitudes (a ratio of 1,000 to 1 would not be out of place); by invoking American slavery without noting that the gulag reintroduced lifelong slavery into the West; and by charging democracies with widespread killing outside their own borders, without noting that the 100 million deaths attributed to communist nations occurred within the technical boundaries of those nations, which included conquered nations such as Tibet and Ukraine. The worst crimes of Mao and Stalin were perpetrated in these foreign nations, but technically these nations were conquered territories so we recognize them as part of the Soviet Union and part of China -- and that's an insult to them. It is particularly insulting to Tibet -- I never see a map or globe that delineates Tibet in its own color, as its own nation. As many as 1 million people have been killed there since Mao's invasion.

But what caught my interest above all was the statement about China and India, partly because it was unclear in a basic sense: I didn't know what it meant to attribute "100 million more deaths to India, over China, from independence to 1979". Did this mean 100 million more deaths in India than in communist China? That would mean something like 150 million deaths in India.

At first I thought Chomsky was referring to Amartya Sen's claim that over 100 million women, mostly Asian, were "missing". Sen meant that in China, India and other parts of Asia men far utnumbered women for unclear reasons, though he argued for misogyny as the primary cause: perhaps Asian countries were mistreating their young girls, for instance by feeding them less than their sons in times of famine (the worst of these famines being induced, as Chomsky concedes, by a Communist government in China), or failing to take sick girls to doctors as regularly as their sick sons. Sen added that there were fewer missing females when a society gave them independence and private control over their lives. He reported his work in The New York Review of Books. I learned about it in an article at Slate.com, "The Search For 100 Million Missing Women", which presents Sen's ideas along with a very different theory by another economist, Emily Oster. It seems that Asian countries with a high incidence of hepatitis B have a high ratio of infant boys over girls, perhaps because the virus causes more miscarriages of girls. A population of Alaskan natives with a high incidence of hepatitis B and a high boy-girl ratio started producing a normal ratio of infants when immunized extensively for hepatitis B. That would seem to rule out, at least in Alaska, the possibility that mistreatment of girls or even female infanticide accounted for the original gender gap. However, the hepatitis B theory accounts for about half of the missing Asian women; the rest were probably victims of sexism and perhaps other unidentified killers. Hepatitis can account for 75% of the 50 million women missing in China, and only 20% of the 37 million missing in India.

But Chomsky was probably referring instead to a 1989 paper by Sen, in which the economist estimates that India's mortality rate for both sexes was exceeding China's by as much as 4 million per year, until 1979 (the last year included in the study). Sen does not calculate how many more "unnatural" deaths in total occurred in India than in China from the time of India's birth as a democracy in 1947, but Chomsky and others have cited the total as 100 million -- and in Chomsky's reply to me, that number serves to counteract the 100 million attributed to communism. The two systems, communism and democracy, once again seem equal. But obviously not all deaths carry the same moral weight. As Chomsky himself says, 25 million of the Chinese deaths can be attributed to a state-induced famine; that leaves 75 million killings for which he does not give a mitigating description. The vast majority of these deaths were the result of imprisonment, torture, slave labor, and execution. Sen's description of Indian mortality has nothing to do with the state using its firepower to control people. What he notes is that India's government failed to distribute resources successfully or equitably, so that many of the poorest died what might be defined as unnatural deaths. China's use of force to distribute goods and to do so equally gave that country a lower mortality and higher standard of living when compared to India, but not when compared to successful democracies like the U.S., Taiwan, Japan, and of course France or Britain. Chomsky is using the example of India, a country suffering from deep poverty with complex causes, to describe capitalism in general. Yet in his work I've seen no exploration of a crucial issue: India was born as a democracy in name, but its economic policy was largely socialist. India was not communist, so its government could not resort to the level of force that, besides destroying freedom, would indeed have given even the poorest of the poor -- at least in years between massive famine -- enough to scratch by and live into "old age"; but India never freed its economy from the state, either, so poverty endured.

Comparing Indian and Chinese mortality rates ultimately fails, on the level of morality. If you give everyone crumbs, they will all live, on average, a longer life; but doing so by force means that they live as wards and slaves of the state. We can compare numbers of deaths until the sun goes down, but in the end we have to ask whether people prefer to live free lives, even if these are shorter and more beset by risk or suffering, or lives in slavery -- tens of millions of which end up being cut off prematurely by the gun, the truncheon, or permanent imprisonment anyway. We can say truly that China's system of education was better than India's, in certain respects, and still question the value of an education in which history books were edited or written by a totalitarian government. India never suffered a famine because its free press always forced the otherwise ineffective government to do something; and further in India's favor, we have to add the fact that China's famine was state-induced. India's mortality may be described, at worst, as a problem resulting from poor modernization; but communist China created its own famine, and made the hunger so destructive, by embarking on a wholesale and violent restructuring of society.

The comparison between China and India is ultimately a comparison of two socialist countries, one communist and the other not. India is a true democracy, with a free press and free elections, but that does not mean its economy is free: no one would ever say that India in its early decades was capitalist (and I'm not sure it is capitalist even today). When Chomsky says that Sen regards the premature deaths in India as political crimes resulting, in Chomsky's words, from "democractic capitalist policies", a little context is needed: Sen is referring to the fact that India was born as a democracy and tried to make a transition to capitalism. Sen is not saying that premature Indian deaths occurred because of capitalism; he calls precisely for modernization combined with greater freedoms for individuals than India currently offers. But for some reason Chomsky wishes to set India against China, as a representative of democratic capitalism. Something is amiss, and unequal, in Chomsky's comparisons of human societies.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Ryan said...

I would like to begin in an uncharacteristic way. I usually point out what I perceive as wrong and do my best to show why. This time I’ll start with a few compliments. First, I admire Noam Chomsky as an intellectual, particularly as a linguist. And his steadfast stance against U.S. foreign policy is, I think, fundamentally sound. He hinted at this stance responding to Kevin when he mentioned the “horrendous crimes” for which the “world’s leading democracies” are “responsible.” It is of little comfort that these crimes occurred outside their borders, though this might be relevant when comparing “democracy” to communism.

I also think Kevin did a fine job revealing the weaknesses of Chomsky’s reply in The Sun. Additionally, Kevin correctly realizes that India implemented a socialist economic policy after gaining its independence and that this is the reason poverty persisted in that country. But if I agreed with everything there would be no purpose for this post.

Kevin wrote that “no one would ever say that India in its early decades was capitalist” and he doubts if that country may properly be described as such today. I am not so sure that ‘no one’ would call India of the Fifties, Sixties, or Seventies capitalist. I would not put it past Chomsky and others who delight in denouncing “capitalism.” The problem lies in the meaning of “capitalism,” as I know Kevin is aware. The term has been used to characterize very different economic situations, sometimes with adjectives, sometimes without. This usage is unfortunate because it creates confusion. One ought to refrain from calling two different things by the same name, especially when perfectly good terms exist to describe accurately those different things. Not even Chomsky would have labeled India ‘laissez fair’ or described it as having a free-market economy after independence or to this day. But in some quarters one can get away with slapping the ‘capitalist’ label on Hitler’s Germany so long as the appropriate adjectives are properly placed. Thus we find, along the same lines, that millions of deaths in India resulted from “democratic capitalist policies.”

Also unfortunate is that a celebrated linguist is so sloppy with words. Hence he writes, “Totalitarianism, democracy, dictatorship, and so on, are forms of social organization.” Not exactly. Totalitarianism is the unlimited exercise of state power. It really has nothing to do with “social organization” and does not even describe a form of government, though it is more likely to arise in some forms of government than others. Democracy might fairly be described as a method of governing, which requires a government of a particular form. It may surely be authoritarian and therefore oppressive, but is unlikely to rise to the level of totalitarianism because the people would unlikely allow the oppression to get that out of control.

This leads to Kevin’s implicit defense of democracy and implicit condemnation of communism. He takes offense that Chomsky indicts the two systems with equal disapproval. This raises a few issues. First, it seems that Kevin treats democracy and communism as opposites or at least as in conflict with one another. He never expressly states this so it is difficult to tell, but from what is written and what I know, it seems to be the case. The problem here is that the two terms relate to different things and the presence of one does not exclude the existence of the other.

Communism is an economic system whereas democracy is a political arrangement. If we say a country is communist we know nothing of its political arrangement. Likewise, if we say a country is democratic we know nothing of its economic system. Now, experience indicates that countries which people call “democracies” tend to have freer economies than countries called communist. Experience also indicates that communist countries tend to concentrate political power in one ruler and tend to be more repressive than democracies. But this need not be the case.

One could imagine a representative assembly elected by the people to control a communist economy. In today’s parlance, this hypothetical country would be described as a democracy because it consists of a legislature chosen by the people. One might nonetheless object to attaching the term ‘communist’ to it, reserving that appellation for the economic systems of Cuba, Soviet Russia, Maoist China, and North Korea. Although there is popular support for this reservation, no theoretical or philosophical basis for it exists. Excluding the means of achieving the communist state, whether it be done by this or that type of worker, with or without violence, and ignoring the type of oppression inevitably resulting from its implementation, communism, as its name indicates, is the communal ownership of the means of production and distribution. In its most basic and general sense, communism is synonymous with socialism and is not incompatible with democracy.

Although many today use the term ‘democracy’ loosely, it has a precise meaning. In fact, the hypothetical country mentioned above may not precisely be called a democracy. The term ‘representative democracy’ would be more appropriate. Moreover, there is nothing inherent in a democracy, or even in a representative democracy, worth defending. Kevin doesn’t think so either. Indeed, virtually no one does. When he uses the term ‘democracy’ he means a constitutional representative democracy wherein the power of the legislature is limited by a written document, which also secures various rights of the individual. I highly doubt he would advocate or defend a political system consisting merely of a legislature and a ballot box, with an unrestrained legislature theoretically empowered to pass any law, limited by nothing save a yearly vote of the people. True democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch. True representative democracy is two wolves and a sheep electing agents to vote on what to have for lunch. This scenario is unappetizing, unless you’re a wolf.

It is liberty that ought to be defended, not some form of democracy. It is liberty that allowed the West to flourish. It was a lack of liberty that led to all those deaths under communism. It is a lack of liberty that still afflicts India. Democracy has not and will not cure its ills. Liberty is the answer.

August 23, 2005 12:11 PM  

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