Noam Chomsky's Theory of Justice
Forthcoming in the Encyclopedia of Social Justice, Springer Publishing, The Hague, Netherlands, 2011
Although Noam Chomsky (1928- ) is most renowned in academia for his linguistic theory, it is his political writings that have made him most revered with both activist and public readers. This is in part due to the fact that Chomsky does not theorize in the traditional sense of the word. In other words, he does not seek universal, a priori principles or superstructures of thought as part of his critical analysis. Rather, his political analyses come directly from empirical observations conjoined with a comparative method of government proclamations with their actions.
Part of the reason Chomsky disdains theorizing about issues such as justice comes from his intense opposition to what he calls "the intelligentsia" or "the liberal intelligentsia." By this term, he refers to academics and even reporters, placing them under the umbrella of "propagandists" "for the state." Whether or not this charge holds up under critical scrutiny, it deeply influences how Chomsky approaches political analysis: in a word, un-theoretically. In using this approach, Chomsky openly acknowledges the influences of socialist thinkers from Karl Marx to Mikhail Bakunin; from Wilhelm von Humboldt to Daniel Guerin and Rudolf Rocker.
Consequently, when it comes to Chomsky's philosophy of global justice, it is most effectively understood as being innate in his political writings. His overt concern has consistently been quite specific: U.S. government moral hypocrisy regarding its stated values compared with its foreign (and in many cases, domestic) policy. Rather than base his political positions on the classical liberal values of liberty and equality, Chomsky founds his political ideas on his understanding of human nature, the essence of which is free, creative self-expression, and voluntary association with others. This leads him to embrace what he refers to as anarcho-syndicalism (sometimes called "libertarian-socialism"). Thus, for Chomsky, the value of freedom, while primary in his understanding of justice, is itself functional: it is the means by which humans are able to fulfill their nature, not an end in itself.
Thus, "justice," although a term Chomsky rarely uses due to his avoidance of abstract theorizing, would be engaged when social structures are in place to allow the "full flowering of human freedom." This entails dissolving all illegitimate authority in all institutional structures; in particular the existence of the state and the capitalist economic system, in that each of these structures prevents human nature from reaching its full creative potential. In its place, Chomsky advocates an anarcho-syndicalist social structure, whereby the workers control the means of production and directly control their representatives.
In historical fact, the state and the capitalist system, particularly in the United States, have combined to concentrate power for the benefit of those who have it—i.e. the wealthy. The method Chomsky uses to demonstrate the abuses of state and capitalist power is to delineate numerous single acts of brutality and oppression that issue from the corporate state. Because he is an American citizen, he focuses on the abuses of power and the oppression of people done by the U.S. government. He compares such acts against the "elementary moral truism" that what one nation does it must condone all others doing. When this maxim is violated and undermined, injustice reigns.
When it comes to global justice then, Chomsky would maintain that there can be no justice as long as the inherently oppressive state continues to exist, which acts solely in the interest of corporations while denying other nations and peoples the ability to act for their own perceived good. The U.S. in particular judges states "unstable" when they do not allow U.S. corporations to have open access to their resources and markets (e.g. U.S. position during the Cold War regarding the Soviet Union), and uses terms such as the "national interest" to disguise the interests of the economic elite in dictating foreign policy and the choices of those states against whom they wish to war.
With his unrelenting attack on the contradictions of U.S. government policies when compared with their stated values, it is unsurprising that Chomsky has drawn many critics. These critics charge him variously with one-sidedness (highlighting only U.S. immoralities), not defining significant terms (in fact, he does not define most of his terms; e.g. he never defines a "state" while attacking its crimes), being too utopian, using assertion as proof, and even falsifying evidence. While some of these charges are themselves one-sided and poorly supported, some of them do carry weight. For example, Chomsky could stand to define his terms instead of side-stepping the "liberal intelligentsia" when they demand a bit more structure in his political analyses. Part of what draws such attacks is by Chomsky's own making, in that he engages in stinging vocabulary and cynical remarks to make points that could be made in a less inflammatory manner.
Furthermore, he does frequently make sweeping statements and engage in somewhat sloppy reasoning. To name but an example or two from many possibilities, in Language and Politics, he casually dismisses those intellectuals who maintain the doctrine of Realpolitik as "a form of idiocy." Additionally, he makes frequent claims to "overwhelming" evidence for his position without offering it.
In conclusion, it is more appropriate to say that one may construct a Chomskian theory of global justice from elements present in his critique of the state, than to discuss his notion of global justice per se. That Chomsky would have it no other way may be easily seen by his position concerning theories: "social and political issues in general seem to me fairly simple; the effort to obfuscate them in esoteric and generally vacuous theory is one of the contributions of the intelligentsia to enhancing their own power and the power of those they serve" (Language and Politics, p. 345).
For more on Chomsky's rejection of theorizing, see his: "On Terrorism: Noam Chomsky Interviewed by John Bolender," Jump Arts Journal, January, 2004, and also Chomsky, Language and Politics, ed. C.P. Otero (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2004), passim.
For more on Chomsky's admitted influences, see his: Chomsky on Anarchism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2005), "Notes on Anarchism," pgs. 118-132, "Language and Freedom," pgs. 101-117; Radical Priorities, "The Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism, pgs. 211-216.
For more on Chomsky's method of pointing out U.S. hypocrisy as a form of analysis, see his: Radical Priorities (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2003), "On the National Interest," pgs. 51-54; "Humanitarian Imperialism: The New Doctrine of the Imperial Right," Monthly Review, September, 2008; Radical Priorities, "The Carter Administration: Myth and Reality," pgs. 119-144; Language and Politics, "On Human Rights and Ideology," pgs. 253-258, and "Human Rights and American Foreign Policy," pgs. 277-286; Chomsky on Anarchism, "Containing the Threat of Democracy," pgs. 153-177.
For more on Chomsky's views of human nature, see his: Language and Politics, "Language, Theory, and the Theory of Justice," pgs. 203-220; Chomsky on Anarchism, "Language and Freedom," pgs. 101-117, and "Notes on Anarchism," pgs. 118-132.
For more on Chomsky's anarcho-syndicalism and/or libertarian-socialism, see his: Chomsky on Anarchism, "Notes on Anarchism," pgs. 118-132; Radical Priorities, "The Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism, pgs. 211-216.
For more on Chomsky's views of freedom, see his: Chomsky on Anarchism, "Language and Freedom," pgs. 101-117, "Notes on Anarchism," pgs. 118-132, "Anarchism, Intellectuals, and the State," pgs. 212-220, and "Containing the Threat of Democracy," pgs. 153-177; Language and Politics, "Language, Theory, and the Theory of Justice," pgs. 203-220; James Peck, ed. The Chomsky Reader, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), "Interview," pgs. 1-56.
For more on Chomsky's avoidance of theory and his attitude toward "the intelligentsia," see his: Chomsky on Anarchism, "Anarchism, Intellectuals, and the State," pgs. 212-220; Language and Politics, "Politics and Science," pgs. 341-348, and "Political Discourse and the Propaganda System," pgs. 549-553; "On Terrorism: Noam Chomsky Interviewed by John Bolender," Jump Arts Journal, January, 2004; The Chomsky Reader, "Interview," pgs. 1-56.
For more on Chomsky's thoughts concerning the state and capitalism, see his: Radical Priorities, "On the National Interest," pgs. 51-54; Chomsky on Anarchism, "Notes on Anarchism," pgs. 118-132, "Anarchism, Intellectuals, and the State," pgs. 212-220, and "Containing the Threat of Democracy," pgs. 153-177; Language and Politics, "Linguistics and Politics," pgs. 103-118; Radical Priorities, "The Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism, pgs. 211-216; "Humanitarian Imperialism: The New Doctrine of the Imperial Right," Monthly Review, September, 2008; Language and Politics, "On Human Rights and Ideology," pgs. 253-258, and "Human Rights and American Foreign Policy," pgs. 277-286; Failed States (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).
For more on Chomsky's critics: for his one-sidedness, see Stephen Morris, "Whitewashing Dictatorship in Communist Vietnam and Cambodia," The Anti-Chomsky Reader, Peter Collier and David Horowitz, eds. (Encounter Books, 2004); for his undefined terms, Morris, S. "Chomsky on U.S. Foreign Policy," in Harvard International Review, December-January, Vol. 3, no. 4 (quoted in Allison Edgley, The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky, [London: Routledge, 2000], p. 100); for his utopianism, "Introduction" of Chomsky on Anarchy; see also Chomsky, Radical Politics, p. 219; for his using assertion as proof, Heiko Khoo, "Noam Chomsky and Marxism," www.marxist.com, October, 2004; for his falsifying evidence, Thomas M. Nichols, "Chomsky and the Cold War," The Anti-Chomsky Reader, ch. 2.