Chomsky starts a fire
In a previous post, I wrote about how a chance viewing of a documentary about Noam Chomskyhad radicalised me. This post takes up that thread again and starts to fill in the gaps between Chomsky and my trip to Paris 11 months later where I witnessed the great general strike
It's 2.30 a.m. on a Tuesday night in January 1995 and the final credits of Manufacturing Consent have just started to roll. I am in a very excited state. My mind is racing. I pace back and forth along the length of my tiny apartment. I cannot sleep. Indeed, I do not even think of sleeping. The morning cannot come soon enough.
At 7.30am I leave and walk the few hundred metres along Fenian St to Trinity College and arrive at the Berkley library. It is still months until exam time and I am thus the only person waiting. The doors open at 8am. I enter the library, sit at a terminal and type "Chomsky”. The small, old-fashioned tubular display informs me, in tiny green text, that a half-dozen of his books are available on the public shelves of the library, with a dozen more in "Stacks" - the TCD book depository. I hunt down the publicly available ones and gather them into a big pile on my desk. Next I return to the terminal and type "anarchism". This time there are a dozen results or so, but only 3 of them are on the public shelves. I hunt them down too and add them to the pile. Then I sit there and start to read.
I do not know how long I sat there for. The library closed at some stage and I went away and got a few hours sleep before returning. Or maybe it closed a couple of times. Those details were blanked out because I was intensely focused on the material in those books - taking it in, processing it, trying to organise it into compartments in my head.
I couldn't. It just didn't work. My internal model of the world had fallen to pieces and I couldn't put it back together again. I had just learned that the world I had imagined I lived in was a mirage. How could this have happened? How could I not have noticed any of this? It just didn't make any sense.
For the next few weeks, I walked around in a state of shock. I returned to the library every day and worked my way through the rest of the books. Having gone through everything that I could find by Chomsky and all those books that had "anarchism" in their titles, I started following threads and reading likely sounding books that were referenced from my initial haul.
Eventually, my adrenalin dissipated, my reading tempo slowed and I returned to a routine that was less frenzied, less obsessively hungry for information. Although I displayed a state of external calm, my internal state of shock remained. My mind continued to race as it worked feverishly to try to organise all of this new and unexpected information into some coherent model of the new, changed, reality that I found myself in.
I don't remember exactly which books I read in that period, as they all blended together into a great blur of information. Necessary Illusions and After the Cataclysm were among them, that much I remember. In any case, by the time I had finished going through the books in the TCD library, I had absorbed all of Chomsky’s major political ideas. In his books, he exuded a clear sense of intellectual integrity which made a great impression upon me. And behind his sparse and measured prose there was clearly a razor-sharp scientific mind which delivered those ideas with relentless force.
At the time, I was so pre-occupied with sucking up information that I had no time for reflection, but I have since tried to understand why all of this had such a great impact upon me. In order to explain this, I need to briefly describe the ideas that I found in those books.
The essential Chomsky - in 3 bullet points
Chomsky's core argument can be summarised as 3 basic hypotheses.
- When it comes to international affairs, the US can be considered to be an empire whose actions are purely focused on extending its power, just like any other historical empire.
- When it comes to internal affairs, the business and political elites within the US can be considered to act as crude “reverse Marxists” - their first instinct is to protect and entrench the position of the powerful against the mass of the population.
- Power weighs heavily upon the mass media through a great many channels (ownership, advertising, lobbying, PR, security, political ....) and this has the effect of making its output as aligned to the interests of the powerful as is possible.
I'm not going to go into Chomsky’s ideas in any detail here – he does a very good job of piling up evidence to support his claims. There is a principle in science that theories should be as simple as possible but no simpler. Suffice to say that it’s difficult to find many situations where Chomsky’s theories are too simple to provide good general guides as to why stuff happens the way it does. If you assume the first two are true and just ignore everything in the mass media, everything starts to make a whole lot more sense.
A paradigm shift in thinking
Very few of the ideas in our heads are things that we put there by choice. Many of our most basic concepts are inferred by our subconscious, factored out from the assumptions that underpin the information that we absorb. We do not even know they exist because they are implicit in collective communication – the idea that, for example, human rights and democracy and international law are important concepts in understanding how the world works.Such ideas are almost never stated because the great majority of public discourse is based upon them and simply takes them for granted.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn described the process whereby ‘paradigm shifts’ have, from time to time, reshaped the world of science. In Kuhn's model, foundational ideas provide a basis on which other ideas are built, like nodes at the base of a lattice. When a foundational idea changes – for example when quantum and relativistic physics arrived on the scene – the whole of science is thrown into question as all of the ideas built upon the older foundations become infected with uncertainty.
The same model that Kuhn applied to the evolution of ideas within the scientific community can be equally applied to the individual. When foundational assumptions are changed, everything based upon them is called into question – suddenly we do not know what to believe; things that seemed obvious become filled with doubt.
Human brains want to put order on ideas, to build simplifying models that allow them to navigate the great complexity of a chaotic world. When their models break down and everything is thrown into question, it is a very unsettling experience.
Chomsky’s theories not only challenge fundamental commonly held assumptions about the world, they undermine faith in the mass media – the means by which we are aware of the world beyond us. By calling into question these information channels, he threw extra doubt on all sorts of ideas in my head that were already destabilised through the undermining of their conceptual foundations. Experiences like this are not all that uncommon – many people go through life events that shatter their illusions, often in cruel ways. The most common response is to grasp for another framework to replace the existing one – anything to put order back on one’s mental model of the world. Some people take comfort in the apparent certainty offered by religion or conspiracy theories. You can almost hear their brains screaming "there must be order, somebody in control, somebody orchestrating things!" Happily, I have always been of sceptical disposition and I was never in any danger of falling into one of those particular holes. In any case, at the same time as he had shattered the stability of my old world-view Chomsky had supplied me with a new answer – anarchism.
The end of history
No matter how impressed I was by Chomsky, however, I wasn’t going to run out and sign up to something just because he said it was so. The rapidity with which I took to anarchist ideas had its roots elsewhere. The early 1990s were a highly depressing time for anybody who was even mildly leftist in disposition. With the USSR out of the way, the sole remaining super-power was in rampantly destructive mode. The collapse of the Warsaw pact countries had been followed by a rampant looting of their economies and a collapse in their societies. Although their Stalinist regimes had been hard to love, they had at least held those societies together and maintained much of their high culture – now all that was in ruins. The Nicaraguan Sandinistas, the great left wing hope of the 1980s, had finally been crushed by the US superpower and Latin America was once again dominated by dictatorships and death squads. The first gulf war had come and gone with huge media hype – but it was more of a crude slaughter than a war. All over the world, leftist and social democratic parties were throwing in the towel, dissolving, or declaring a new-found love for the "new world order". It was the end of history.
Hunting for a new framework
Anarchism neatly fit into the gaping hope-shaped hole that the world presented to me at this time. It appeared as something genuinely different, something that at least purported to explain the collapse of the Soviet system and the progressive sell-out of the left-wing parties. In this at least, Chomsky was pushing at an open door.
However, when it came to actually figuring out what to do about it, things were a lot more difficult. Chomsky addressed anarchism briefly in a couple of passages here and there and referred to the Spanish Civil War in particular, but there was not enough there to grasp what he was talking about. The few books that I found about anarchism were a motley selection - some old polemical texts from the 19th century; some works of abstract philosophy which treated it as an anthropological curiosity and were barely able to describe what it was; some histories of the Spanish civil war. Those last books, while not being particularly sympathetic to anarchism, contained the most interesting information. I learned that there had been, in 1936, a Spanish anarchist organisation, the CNT, which had boasted between 1 and 2 million members. My mind was once again blown. How could this be? An entire political tradition had, apparently, built a massive and powerful movement in Europe, only a couple of generations ago. I, who had always had an interest in politics and history, had not even known it existed. This seemed further validation of Chomsky’s hypothesis – this whole tradition had been airbrushed from history.
But, although what I read was certainly enticing, it was all historical. I wanted something in the here and now – for having learned about the world and its injustices, I was now clearly obliged to do something about it. I certainly had no idea what to do on my own. I had to find some remnants of an actual anarchist movement to guide me. But, how I should go about this was not at all obvious. I thought it was a safe assumption that there was no such thing in Ireland. Nowadays such things are easy – you just type “anarchism” into Google and hundreds of thousands of pages will be presented to you.
However, it’s not entirely true that I had nothing to go on. The previous Summer, while on a train trip around Europe, I had been in Paris and had sat out one evening in Notre Dame square drinking bottles of cheap red wine. There I had met a guy who had been a year ahead of me in school called Alan Toner. He had been living in the old Shakespeare and Co. bookshop on the banks of the Seine at the time. I recalled that he had told me that he was an anarchist – the one and only time that I had heard that word in my life before Chomsky had uttered it. I had not taken Alan remotely seriously and had dismissed him out of hand and thought little of it. I had assumed that he was just trying to make himself sound rebellious. Now, with my eyes newly opened, I felt remorseful. I resolved to track him down and to get him to introduce me to this brave new world of which I knew nothing.
And so I set out into the world to find this anarchism and to learn about it, with a mind that was newly opened to ideas and ready to reconsider everything. This journey of discovery was to take me to new and unexpected places. The next two years saw me travel through the sub-cultural urban under-belly of Europe’s great cities – through squats and social centres and a life on the fringes - and introduce me to a bewildering mass of new ideas on the way.
That journey will be the subject of the next few installments in my story.