Partial Objects takes on Chomsky
Somebody with the unfortunate handle of “Pastabagel” has written a delightfully snarky post about Foucault vs. Chomsky, where he identifies Chomsky’s core audience (socialist teens who think the United States is a kind of global father figure) and makes some accurate (and depressing) observations about political power.
The root problem with Chomsky is that he either doesn’t understand or is deliberating obscuring the difference between “force” and “coercion.” He doesn’t want to acknowledge the difference between voluntary and involuntary action. No choice is completely uncoerced. By Chomsky’s definition, hunger is a form of coercion. Scarcity is coercion. So the only way to achieve his perfect world would be to abolish scarcity.
Libertarians make a much more limited distinction between voluntary and involuntary action. You signed a contract because you’re hungry, but you signed the contract. Your employer is getting a bargain because you’re hungry, but he didn’t directly cause your hunger. All we can do is make sure you’re free to find another job once your belly’s full.
Conditions imposed by scarcity are not force. These conditions are imposed by nature, not man. We can’t dictate political terms to nature. We can’t abolish scarcity by popular vote. Politics only applies to the actions of human beings.
We can’t abolish hunger by popular vote — all we can do is make violence, fraud and theft illegal, and focus our attention on fighting scarcity.
Only crazy libertarians believe that, of course. The last 100 years of political thought, the entire foundation of our modern world is based on the idea that we can abolish scarcity by popular vote.
The Western world is so in love with this, so committed to the idea of voting away scarcity, they have borrowed trillions of dollars, destroyed decades of productive capacity, and created gigantic bureaucracies trying to turn lead into gold.
Even now, at the end, we’re committed to it. We’ve reached demographic critical mass, when the ratio of workers to consumers has become unsustainable. We’ve tried every trick in the book — shifting blame, unbalancing trade, and finally printing money, but the laws of nature remain the same.
We’re so determined to vote ourselves rich we’ve actually made it easier for human beings to enslave each other. We’ve created regulatory levers that concentrate power in the hands of bureaucrats who can be bought, sold, and traded like baseball cards.
Why bother competing in the marketplace when you can just fly on down to Washington and make your competition illegal?
We’re wasting trillions in productive capacity deciding how to carve a finite loaf of bread while fewer and fewer people are devoted to baking it.
But Pasta isn’t talking about money or scarcity, he’s talking about power — about the fundamental laws that create power and the prerogatives of those who wield it.
Chomsky is presented as the starry-eyed teenager who wants the world to be fair and Foucault is the cynical adult who wants to deal with the world as is.
The video clip below illustrates this fundamental conflict between “should” and “is.” Foucault is saying that even if Chomsky were to wave a magic wand and abolish “the system” tomorrow, the ostensibly neutral institutions of psychiatry and university education would rebuild it.
Foucault is referring to the educational system as an oblique source of power, but in my lifetime it’s become overt. The monolith of public education is obvious, but the university system is now about as “private” as the NHS.
Pasta is annoyed by all this talk of “should.” People with guns and money make the rules and people with guns and money are allowed to break them. Democracy was supposed to be our ultimate hedge against this tendency, but a funny thing happened on the way to the coliseum.
This is the crisis point we find ourselves at today. The utopians may have lost a few battles, but I think they won the war. Politicians who’ve spent a century telling us we can vote ourselves rich are now facing a population who believes them. Europe finally reached a point where even the most fervent true believers were forced to acknowledge the reality of scarcity.
They bit their lips and implemented “austerity” — 4% cuts in response to 40% deficits — and voters are rioting in the streets. Austerity parties in Spain, Germany, Greece, and the UK are all facing disaster at the polls. You told us we could take 8 weeks off and retire at 55 and that’s damn well what we’ll have. Scarcity is somebody else’s problem.
We’re about to face a crisis that democracy can’t solve. And I’m not just talking about Europe.