The Mad Monk and direct action, The ALP and direct democracy

The Mad Monk claims that the Tories want to embrace direct action — as a means of responding to an environmental crisis he doesn’t believe in. John Faulkner invokes direct democracy as a necessary response to a Labor Party in crisis — but only as a sop to members who are fleeing in large numbers (The Wran speech: the full transcript, June 9, 2011).

A review of the ALP’s performance in the 2010 federal election — conducted by Faulkner, Steve Bracks and Bob Carr — made various recommendations. An editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald laments the fact that these recommendations — like those of previous reviews charting the party’s internal decline — will likely be ignored. The response of factional bosses seems to confirm this: in fairness to Mark Arbib and Kim Carr, they have a point when they dismiss proposals which will erode their dominance. After all, while all ALP members are equal some — including these bright sparks — are more equal than others.


The average age of ALP members is 50, and the average age of Liberals, at least in Victoria, is more than 60. And, as we report on the Focus page today, the haemorrhage of members has become dire in the Victorian ALP. Of the 13,000 party members last year, 2100 – 16 per cent – did not renew this year. The number whose membership is the result of branch stacking is unknown, but some estimates place it as high as one-third of the total. It is hardly a picture of a party in good health, and astonishing for a party that holds office nationally and, until recently, governed in all states as well.

Yeah well: maybe. But it’s certainly possible for political parties to be both empty of active members and to successfully capture government, The Corrupt Knight’s assemblage of various chancers being a case in point. Further, the ALP will always likely dominate the trade union movement, and in general union leadership is a strictly ‘no ticket, no start’ proposition.

Otherwise, Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno reckon that the Australian Labor Party remains work in progress (The Australian, June 11, 2011):

When the Australian two-party system emerged in 1909, Labor was the party of Australian nationalism; strong on defence and nation-building yet loyal to the British Empire. In 1910 it became the first labour or social democratic party in the world to form a majority government. But World War I proved a rugged testing ground for Labor’s philosophy and machinery, and the party split over conscription for overseas service.

Noticeable by its absence in this account is the commitment which Labor shared with its ‘conservative’ counterparts: the White Australia policy. Joolya shares in this historical amnesia:

The signature values of nations are often defined by the circumstances of their birth.

This is as true for Australia as for other countries.

And for us there’s one value above all others that we identify with as truly our own.

It’s the value that emerged out of the circumstances of Federation, which coincided with the industrial turbulence of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

That value is fairness. Or as we like to put it: ‘the fair go’.

Which is all rather odd, especially given that — as angry White men across the country know — one of the first Acts of Federal Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act. This Act (together with the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901) formed the legal cornerstone of the White Australia policy; the Conciliation and Arbitration Act — which in Labor Party mythology has ensured a ‘fair go’ for ‘working families’ for the bulk of the country’s history — was only assented to by Edward VII in 1904. Further, while 100 years ago the Gub’mint couldn’t get rid of the Pacific Islanders quick enough, they now wanna import them — albeit if only for a coupla years…

One of the other problems with Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno’s account is the way in which it credits internal party reform for the (party’s) successes of the late 1960s and mid-1970s, while simultaneously ignoring the fact it was during this period that vital ‘new’ social movements emerged, ones from which the ALP was better able to attract votes, and which transformed Australian society and politics in important, if not necessarily fundamental, ways: a narrative in which, inter alia, ‘working class progressives’, in particular, are written out of history.

See also : The ALP facing extinction? (January 31, 2009) | How Labour Governs, Vere Gordon Childe (1923).

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2018 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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6 Responses to The Mad Monk and direct action, The ALP and direct democracy

  1. @ndy says:

    Faulkner’s Seinfeld moment — it’s all about nothing
    Guy Rundle
    June 10, 2011

    Good god there must be some snappy way to open a piece on John Faulkner’s Wran oration, something piquant expressing the paradox about the way in which the most admirable figure in the Labor party has delivered a set of solutions which simply recapitulate and deepen the problem. But I got nothing, nada, zip.

    It’s just very depressing to have to echo, of all people, Mark Latham, to speak of, of all people, John Faulkner: the address Annabel Crabb describes as the “speech of his life” is, in fact, his Seinfeld moment: it is a speech about nothing.

    Faulkner’s Wran oration says little more than commentary on the Labor Party has been saying for the past two decades — that it is becoming a narrow professional outlet, separated from a dwindling membership base, steered by daily public opinion and reliant on an increasingly personality-focused media.

    Indeed, this recitative has now become a part of Labor tradition itself, stretching back to Gordon Childe’s How Labor Governs of 1912 [sic], his excoriating attack on Queensland’s professional machine Theodore government. Labor, in this account, is always fallen from its former view of purity and intent. Labor loves these Eeyore moments — it appeals to its mendicant Catholic Irish soul.

    That notion of original sin is never very helpful in getting a clear-eyed view of what’s gone wrong, and never more so than now. For Labor genuinely is in dire straits, subject to a double whammy — having become the depoliticised machine that Childe slated early on, it has now ceased to be an effective version of it. The tragedy of modern Labor is that it does nothing well, neither holding a political-ethical line, nor delivering sure and steady governance and reform.

    Disentangling that double problem is tricky, and the arguments Faulkner brings to it don’t do the trick — indeed he has no arguments about why this has occurred, merely a recitative of what has occurred. To a degree this represents one of the problems that has beset Labor: it is not that Bondi flotsam such as Karl Bitar washed up on the shore of the party, but that the people who most want to reform it lack even the ghost of a theoretical framework to reflect on how modern society and parties work.

    Faulkner, like many of the activists Labor attracted in the 1970s and ’80s, were those who always cleaved to the anti-theoretical side of life. Emerging from the social movements of the day, they were never attracted to the Marxist tradition — and the declining theoereticism and sectarianism of that period propelled them further away, not merely to being anti-big-T-theory, but to anti-systemic thinking. To linger on anything other than practical reform was held to be self-indulgent.

    Perhaps I exaggerate and someone will dig up various writings by Faulkner and others in that spirit — but let’s stipulate for the record that there is nothing of that sort in the Wran oration. Faulkner cannot even understand his own causes, and older models of Labor, except in that dissected, atomised way. Here for example is Faulkner on what Labor used to stand for, and actively debate:

    Opinions, however, varied on what should take priority in that struggle, and what policies and legislation would best achieve it. Ending Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, defending unions and unionists in the workplace, fighting apartheid in South Africa, free tertiary education and health care, decriminalising homos-xuality, better sewerage for the suburbs, workplace equality for women, preserving Australia’s environmental heritage, modernising Australia’s censorship laws, preventing nuclear proliferation — the list of Labor’s concerns was a long one.

    It should be obvious to anyone that practically all these issues are isolated social movements (albeit with some kick-on), which have little to do with what should be Labor’s core mission — advancing the notion of a good society based on universal human flourishing, collectively and individually, achieved largely, but not exclusively, by redistributing economic power to create something approaching genuine democracy. State socialism, and then social democracy, were two ways of trying to do that, but they should not be confused with ends in themselves.

    Faulkner can only figure that core aim as a defensive one — defending unions in the workplace — and their practical applications, free education and healthcare.

    What he figures as vigorous debate between the factions, about these issues, wasn’t per se about these issues — it was about two differing conceptions of the political role held by two factions, the Catholic Right and the Socialist Left, who would otherwise have been different parties.

    The Catholic Right had a conception of labourism that was conservative not emancipatory: based on Rerum Novarum, it asserted that Labor’s role was to limit the nihilistic process of capitalism in the name of an ordered society, extending positive freedom — freedom from hunger, freedom from penury — to the working class. The Socialist Left — stretching back to the decision of the Victorian Socialist Party to join with Labor in the 1910s (bringing a young John Curtin with them) — had an entirely different conception of the political, even if this came and went.

    They were not communists, but they shared a conception of political possibility with the communists to a greater degree than current political history is willing to admit (both Chifley and Curtin, for example, were interested in, if barely informed of, the Italian Communist Party’s gradual creation of an alternative model to Stalinism, which would eventually become eurocommunism).

    The main game was not per se Vietnam or apartheid — it was what Tony Benn once succinctly summarised as the purpose of genuinely progressive Labour parties: to create permanent irreversible change in the periods when it was in power, even if that meant spending a lot of time out of it.

    Indeed, by the time of the period Faulkner is talking about, the late ’70s and into the ’80s, when he remembers bitter factional disputes, that debate was already over. In the mid ’70s, the whole spectrum had been radical and transformative — the Whitlam government was pursuing the idea of buying up the entire resource base of Australia, and pursuing the Swedish “Meidner” plan of buying up the private sector through the stockmarket to socialise it. Bob Hawke’s ACTU was pursing the model of creating a producer-consumer circuit via worker-owners such as Bourke’s department store, and the Solo petrol station chain. An impossibly radical plan today, at that point it was being attacked from the left as lacing people into consumption.

    With the collapse of the left very rapidly in the 1970s, an entirely different idea of Labor’s path to redistributing power took over, one conceptualised within the “social market” neoliberalism of Hawke-Keating. Ostensibly more radical it was limited in aim — conforming society to market-generated ideas of human being and the good life. Labor became an agent of means, not ends.

    Not only did left and right collapse into each other within the Labor party, but Labor essentially conformed itself to the explicit agenda of the non-Labor forces, who saw no contradiction between the market and the good life. But to acknowledge this is to acknowledge a collapse within Labor that cannot be reversed by the mean contained within its own structures — administrative reform, reconnecting with the activists, etc.

    Were the Labor Party to have a genuine idea of a better way of living, it would be able to reach effortlessly to reconnect with people who were once its constituents, but who can no longer be described as a unified working class (a point I’ll return to on Monday). They don’t want state socialism or even social democracy, but they would go for permanent irreversible change in the fabric of their lives — like using the power of the state to create affordable housing by fixed rate state mortgages, compelled land release, large-scale urban replanning and the like.

    Labor should use this and public bond issues to guarantee everyone can get a first home, close to good facilities in any major city for $150,000. If it partnered that with extended paid parental leave, mandated flexible working hours, and real action on climate change, it would be in power for ever.

    In that situation, it wouldn’t matter a damn about the decay of Labor cadres, the profusion of maggots at the top, focus group obsession, etc. A philosophy of life that flows to policy is what Labor needs. The rest is noise — and sadly Faulkner’s Wran oration adds to it.

  2. Angry Guy says:

    So long Labor you fucken scumbags. It’s been real:)

  3. @ndy says:

    Rundle: what’s wrong with Labor? There’s no reason to join
    Guy Rundle
    February 23, 2011

    Where do ceremonies come from? They start as real functional events, then the world changes and they lose their function. Crucially, at some point, everyone forgets what the thing was for in the first place, at which point it becomes a venerated ritual. Thus Christmas, the actual summoning of the sun at the winter solstice by a celebration of rebirth. Thus, also, Labor Party reviews.

    These will continue for centuries with the form they have now acquired. Labor grandees, who have run the party as a bureaucratic/administrative machine to manage GDP growth and foreign wars, will be summoned together to meet in camera for several months. No one will remember why, least of all they. Eventually they will emerge and intone the sacred texts —  “grow the membership … re-connect with the public … outreach to youth” — in a language they no longer understand (unaware that no one ever understood them). Then everyone will go about their business as before, as if nothing has happened.

    Judging by the Bracks-Faulkner-Carr review, this process is 80% done. The preliminary report has the same ritual dances and chants, as ever: more power to the members, specific grants for outreach, a national organising officer and so on and so forth. All that’s missing is a response to the core question: why would anyone join Labor now in the first place? What is it for? What would be the meaning of such an act in someone’s life?

    The answer to those questions are the questions themselves. There is no reason to join a party that has no ambition but to narrowly manage a peripheral capitalist economy, introduce the mildest of tinkering reforms, and march in lockstep with an increasingly discredited and confused US.

    The membership figures bear this out.

    As the report reveals, and contrary to some expectations, membership rose during the Howard years, after a dip, and began to full precipitately after the 2007 election — by 20%, from 50,000 to 40,000. Some of the rise and then fall was due to the manic branch-stacking required to get a few dozy right-wingers over the line — most of that bewildered Turks being minibussed up and down the Great Ocean Road — and whose membership was then allowed to lapse, but far from all of it.

    The only conclusion one can make is that people joined the ALP in the Howard years because, by default, it stood for something — that is, for not being the Howard government. Once it came to power and continued many of its policies in whole or part — on asylum seekers, Afghanistan, school funding and the NT “intervention”, inter alia —  membership fell off the cliff.

    Labor had acquired an identity, defined against Howard’s positive one. Once Labor had to act in its own right the emptiness at the core of the party was laid bare. Joining Labor these days has all the existential heft of taking an entry-level position at a photocopier repair company, with branches in six states. You’re either after a permanent job, or you’ve made a fundamental error of judgement.

    The ritual BFC review has the same powerpointy obsession with form as does any organisation devoid of real content. Recommendation after recommendation is concerned with nothing other than jiggling the machine and hoping that somehow this will make it work better. Voting ratios, conference procedure, outreach, community dialogue … how did anyone even manage to write this stuff down without being overcome by a sweeping sense of futility?

    There is a prior step to working out why ALP membership is falling off a cliff — identify what the thing is that people are being asked to join. Labor has had several incarnations — Imperial Socialist Party from 1901-1942; Nationalist Social Democracy 1942-1983; Nationalist Social Market Party 1983-1996; £$%*&^! 1996-present.

    Each incarnation may have been honoured more in the breach, but at all times there was, at the base, and however rudimentary, a theory and an ethic — an argument about how society worked, and how it should be changed, in line with an idea of how it should be. Even the third “social market” period — when Labor fell in love with neo-liberal globalisation — had an idea of how the proceeds from such should be plugged back into some form of social nation-building. It was pretty threadbare, but at least you could argue with it.

    Now? Zilch. Nor is there any framework to develop one, which is in part why the two people who, in different ways, tried to create one — Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd — came to grief. There was no context which would have welcomed their ideas and thereby mitigated their personal failings. But it’s also the reason why developing ideas became such an idiosyncratic, individualist process in the first place — because the party, as a whole, has simply given up the practice of really doing it.

    Nor will it start now. Labor will have to go through really bad times before it gets serious about really renewing itself as a party — through both retheorising society and rethinking how its ethic expresses itself in the 21st century. The ALP benefits from a unique quadruple lock of compulsory voting/exhaustive preferences/public funding/union dues — which can then be augmented with business contributions. Thus armoured, it can stagger on as an elite quasi-state apparatus run by a caste of life-long devotees for quite a while to come.

    Many of its apparatchiks actively want a smaller party, one which can be manoeuvred more easily, which is why they always consent to reviews of the ALP’s arcane and impacted bureaucratic procedures by grandees who succeeded by mastering its arcane and impacted bureaucratic procedures. The genuine alternative would be a real and sustained series of conferences and conventions by the party, drawing in supporters and sympathisers, to try and define what sort of society it should be working for.

    The party was founded in an era of collectivised class life, shaped by various religious, racial and imperial identities. That conception — dropping the racial bit — survived through to the ’80s. Partly because of global social and economic change, and partly because of the policies the Hawke-Keating government ramrodded, that collectivised base has utterly fallen away.

    Now, to echo some points by m’colleague Keane, we live in a profoundly individualist and atomised society, in which people build identity through media and markets. Everyone now realises that this creates a cultural crisis of meaning. The Right deals with that by fusing free-market individualism with conservative ideals — patriotism, etc — which free-market individualism undermines.

    Labor offers a pallid version of this. Sooner or later it will have to come up with something else — a genuine program which posits new ways of putting society together to respond to human needs and desires that atomised market life cannot offer.

    Sooner rather than later, because eventually, also, the cash machine will stop working. Another global recession, a Chinese stall, and Australia will join the rest of the world in a fairly sluggish downturn. At that point Labor will be utterly discredited and new groups will emerge in its heartlands, drawing populist policies from both Left and Right in a new mix. Having lost its inner-city/left activist base to the Greens, it will lose its working-class base to the new populism. The forces that sustained it from 1967-1996 will squeeze it from both ends.

    Should Labor renovate its ends, then its means will matter less. When it cannot think about its ends, then the focus on means becomes a fetish, obsessive and pointless, an empty ritual for a purpose long forgotten. There is no better demonstration of it than the questionable, in some ways tragic, history of the principals involved in the review.

    Bracks is a nice guy manoeuvred into place like a cigar store Indian on a trolley, who led a government with no aspiration other than to manage. Bob Carr, who in his current role as Dymocks’ [shill], trashes not only PIR but any notion of cultural protection — and beneath it, the notion that anything distinctively Australian is worth holding back from the market.

    And most tragic of all, John Faulkner, who probably inspired many people to join the party by taking the fight to the government in the Howard era — and equal or greater numbers to quit perhaps — by taking the job of running a pointless and wanton war in Afghanistan in the years since. If they want this review to be more than an empty ceremony, they could start by acquiring a mirror.

  4. usevalue says:

    @ndy, your analysis is crippled by your resistance to historical materialism. For instance, Julia’s identification of “fairness” with “racism” is a perfectly solid position. We merely have to understand the concept of “fairness” as a historically constructed entitity, rather than as a transcendent truth (which Julia might claim it to be, but make no mistake, that’s just ideological fodder for the middling and lower classes; the bourgeoisie are all dialecticians: fairness means what they say it does).

    So, even as we must (as good dialecticians) understand fairness’ historical role as fairness for some and unfairness for most, we must understand “Labor party” today as meaning “Party of the managers of the Labor force”. Shedding a bit of excess chaff probably doesn’t matter, unless those 2100 were all CFMEU shop stewards or something, which would probably signify something interesting. It’s not like “party” has meant “mass-membership organisation” for a long time, anyway.

    On another note, your use of interesting but misleading titles to lead me to your blog is reactionary badthink. Further instances will result in your deportation to the appropriate labour camp (the postmodern state does NOT lump commie/muzlim/jew/hippies into one category, but rather sorts and subdivides them most obsessively to better “celebrate” their differences… celebration is historically determined).

  5. @ndy says:


    As a Groucho-Marxist, I adhere to hysterical materialism.

    WOMAN: Noam, apart from the idea of the “vanguard,” I’m interested why you’re so critical of the whole broader category of Marxist analysis in general—like people in the universities and so on who refer to themselves as “Marxists.” I’ve noticed you’re never very happy with it.

    CHOMSKY: Well, I guess one thing that’s unattractive to me about “Marxism” is the very idea that there is such a thing. It’s a rather striking fact that you don’t find things like “Marxism” in the sciences—like, there isn’t any part of physics which is “Einsteinianism,” let’s say, or “Planckianism” or something like that. It doesn’t make any sense—because people aren’t gods: they just discover things, and they make mistakes, and their graduate students tell them why they’re wrong, and then they go on and do things better the next time. But there are no gods around. I mean, scientists do use the terms “Newtonianism” and “Darwinism,” but nobody thinks of those as doctrines that you’ve got to somehow be loyal to, and figure out what the Master thought, and what he would have said in this new circumstance and so on. That sort of thing is just completely alien to rational existence, it only shows up in irrational domains.

    So Marxism, Freudianism: anyone of these things I think is an irrational cult. They’re theology, so they’re whatever you think of theology; I don’t think much of it. In fact, in my view that’s exactly the right analogy: notions like Marxism and Freudianism belong to the history of organized religion.

    So part of my problem is just its existence: it seems to me that even to discuss something like “Marxism” is already making a mistake. Like, we don’t discuss “Planckism.” Why not? Because it would be crazy. Planck [German physicist] had some things to say, and some of them are right, and those were absorbed into later science, and some of them are wrong, and they were improved on. It’s not that Planck wasn’t a great man—all kinds of great discoveries, very smart, mistakes, this and that. That’s really the way we ought to look at it, I think. As soon as you set up the idea of “Marxism” or “Freudianism” or something, you’ve already abandoned rationality.

    It seems to me the question a rational person ought to ask is, what is there in Marx’s work that’s worth saving and modifying, and what is there that ought to be abandoned? Okay, then you look and you find things. I think Marx did some very interesting descriptive work on nineteenth century history. He was a very good journalist. When he describes the British in India, or the Paris Commune [70-day French workers’ revolution in 1871], or the parts of Capital that talk about industrial London, a lot of that is kind of interesting—I think later scholarship has improved it and changed it, but it’s quite interesting.5

    He had an abstract model of capitalism which—I’m not sure how valuable it is, to tell you the truth. It was an abstract model, and like any abstract model, it’s not really intended to be descriptively accurate in detail, it’s intended to sort of pull out some crucial features and study those. And you have to ask in the case of an abstract model, how much of the complex reality does it really capture? That’s questionable in this case—first of all, it’s questionable how much of nineteenth-century capitalism it captured, and I think it’s even more questionable how much of late-twentieth-century capitalism it captures.

    There are supposed to be laws [i.e. of history and economics]. I can’t understand them, that’s all I can say; it doesn’t seem to me that there are any laws that follow from it. Not that I know of any better laws, I just don’t think we know about “laws” in history.

    There’s nothing about socialism in Marx, he wasn’t a socialist philosopher—there are about five sentences in Marx’s whole work that refer to socialism.6 He was a theorist of capitalism. I think he introduced some interesting concepts at least, which every sensible person ought to have mastered and employ, notions like class, and relations of production …

    WOMAN: Dialectics?

    CHOMSKY: Dialectics is one that I’ve never understood, actually—I’ve just never understood what the word means. Marx doesn’t use it, incidentally, it’s used by Engels.7 And if anybody can tell me what it is, I’ll be happy. I mean, I’ve read all kinds of things which talk about “dialectics”—I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is. It seems to mean something about complexity, or alternative positions, or change, or something. I don’t know.

    I’ll tell you the honest truth: I’m kind of simple-minded when it comes to these things. Whenever I hear a four-syllable word I get skeptical, because I want to make sure you can’t say it in monosyllables. Don’t forget, part of the whole intellectual vocation is creating a niche for yourself, and if everybody can understand what you’re talking about, you’ve sort of lost, because then what makes you special? What makes you special has got to be something that you had to work really hard to understand, and you mastered it, and all those guys out there don’t understand it, and then that becomes the basis for your privilege and your power.

    So take what’s called “literary theory”—I mean, I don’t think there’s any such thing as literary “theory,” any more than there’s cultural “theory” or historical “theory.” If you’re just reading books and talking about them and getting people to understand them, okay, you can be terrific at that, like Edmund Wilson was terrific at it—but he didn’t have a literary theory. On the other hand, if you want to mingle in the same room with that physicist over there who’s talking about quarks, you’d better have a complicated theory too that nobody can understand: he has a complicated theory that nobody can understand, why shouldn’t I have a complicated theory that nobody can understand? If someone came along with a theory of history, it would be the same: either it would be truisms, or maybe some smart ideas, like somebody could say, “Why not look at economic factors lying behind the Constitution?” or something like that—but there’d be nothing there that couldn’t be said in monosyllables.

    In fact, it’s extremely rare, outside of the natural sciences, to find things that can’t be said in monosyllables: there are just interesting, simple ideas, which are often extremely difficult to come up with and hard to work out. Like, if you want to try to understand how the modern industrial economy developed, let’s say, that can take a lot of work. But the “theory” will be extremely thin, if by “theory” we mean something with principles which are not obvious when you first look at them, and from which you can deduce surprising consequences and try to confirm the principles—you’re not going to find anything like that in the social world.

    Incidentally, I should say that my own political writing is often denounced from both the left and the right for being non-theoretical—and that’s completely correct. But it’s exactly as theoretical as anyone else’s, I just don’t call it “theoretical,” I call it “trivial”—which is in fact what it is. I mean, it’s not that some of these people whose stuff is considered “deep theory” and so on don’t have some interesting things to say. Often they have very interesting things to say. But it’s nothing that you couldn’t say at the level of a high school student, or that a high school student couldn’t figure out if they had the time and support and a little bit of training.

    I think people should be extremely skeptical when intellectual life constructs structures which aren’t transparent—because the fact of the matter is that in most areas of life, we just don’t understand anything very much. There are some areas, like say, quantum physics, where they’re not faking. But most of the time it’s just fakery, I think: anything that’s at all understood can probably be described pretty simply. And when words like “dialectics” come along, or “hermeneutics,” and all this kind of stuff that’s supposed to be very profound, like Goering, “I reach for my revolver.”

    MAN: I find it very reinforcing that you don’t understand the word “dialectics, ” it sort of validates me.

    CHOMSKY: I’m not saying that it doesn’t have any meaning—you observe people using the term and they look like they’re communicating. But it’s like when I watch people talking Turkish: something’s going on, but I’m not part of it.

    Actually, occasionally in interviews I’ve said this about not understanding “dialectics,” and I get long letters back from people saying, “You don’t understand, here’s what ‘dialectical’ is”—and either it’s incomprehensible, or else it’s trivial. So maybe I’ve got a gene missing or something—like people can be tone-deaf, they just can’t hear the music. But everything I encounter in these fields either seems to be sort of interesting, but pretty obvious once you see it—maybe you didn’t see it at first, and somebody had to point it out to you—or else just incomprehensible.

    I’m skeptical: I think one has a right to be skeptical when you don’t understand something. I mean, when I look at a page of, say, quantum electrodynamics, I don’t understand a word of it. But I know what I would have to do to get to understand it, and I’m pretty confident that I could get to understand it—I’ve understood other complicated things. So I figure if I bothered to put myself through the discipline, and I studied the early stuff and the later stuff, I’d finally get to the point where I understood it. Or I could go to someone in the Physics Department and say, “Tell me why everybody’s excited about this stuff,” and they could adapt it to my level and tell me how to pursue it further. Maybe I wouldn’t understand it very deeply, or I couldn’t have invented it or something, but I’d at least begin to understand it. On the other hand, when I look at a page of Marxist philosophy or literary theory, I have the feeling that I could stare at it for the rest of my life and I’d never understand it—and I don’t know how to proceed to get to understand it any better, I don’t even know what steps I could take.

    I mean, it’s possible that these fields are beyond me, maybe I’m not smart enough or something. But that would have kind of a funny conclusion—it’s nothing to do with me. That would mean that somehow in these domains people have been able to create something that’s more complex than physics and mathematics—because those are subjects I think I could get to understand. And I just don’t believe that, frankly: I don’t believe that literary theorists or Marxian philosophers have advanced to some new intellectual level that transcends century after century of hard intellectual work.

    MAN: Do you think the same thing about philosophy in general?

    CHOMSKY: There are parts of philosophy which I think I understand, and it’s most of classical philosophy. And there are things that I don’t understand, because they don’t make any sense—and that’s okay too, these are hard questions. I mean, it’s not necessarily a criticism to say that something doesn’t make sense: there are subjects that it’s hard to talk sensibly about. But if I read, say, Russell, or analytic philosophy, or Wittgenstein and so on, I think I can come to understand what they’re saying, and I can see why I think it’s wrong, as I often do. But when I read, you know, Derrida, or Lacan, or AIthusser, or any of these—I just don’t understand it. It’s like words passing in front of my eyes: I can’t follow the arguments, I don’t see the arguments, anything that looks like a description of a fact looks wrong to me. So maybe I’m missing a gene or something, it’s possible. But my honest opinion is, I think it’s all fraud.

    MAN: I think you may be glorifying the scientists a bit by projecting them as somehow kind of pure. For example, take Newtonian mechanics: Einstein came along and showed how it was wrong, but over the years the scientific community did refer to it as “Newtonian” mechanics.

    CHOMSKY: That’s an interesting case, because Newtonian mechanics was treated as kind of holy—because it was such a revolutionary development. I mean, it was really the first time in human history that people ever had an explanation of things in any deep sense: it was so comprehensive, and so simple, and so far-reaching in its consequences that it almost looked like it was necessary. And in fact, it was treated that way for a long time—so much so that Kant, for example, regarded it as the task of philosophy to derive Newtonian physics from a priori principles, and to show that it was certain truth, on a par with mathematics. And it really wasn’t until the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century that the fallacy of those conceptions became quite clear, and with that realization there was a real advance in our conception of what “science” is. So science did have kind of a religious character for a period, you’re right—and that was something we had to get ourselves out of, I think. It doesn’t happen anymore.

  6. usevalue says:

    1. Even if we admit that Newtonian mechanics is “wrong”, we may still use it as a useful tool for everyday situations. It’s only a problem if we surrender our ability to reason to someone else’s reasoning (which wouldn’t be very Marxian of us).

    2. Whether or not Noam Chomsky likes or understands something has very little impact on anything. Apart from Noam Chomsky. His homespun truthiness is about as attractive as George W. Bush’s when he gives an utterly naive account of the War on Drugs (he essentially claims it’s a big conspiracy theory; there are conspirators, to be sure, but not enough to run the war).

    3. He’s probably right about jargon. I’m working my way through a book which I’ve had to read three other books to understand, and the political concepts are roughly as useful as crimethinc (which, to be fair, I’ve developed a soft spot for… did you know they’re turning into insurrectionists?). On the other hand, one could use his line of reasoning to say “Shakespeare uses a sonnet to express his desire to bone to his mistress. He should have just written ‘fuck me’ and left it at that. It’s a waste of time studying his poetry when you could be reading bathroom graffiti”. Of course, if Chomsky has the power of his convictions to make that case, I’ll tip my hat to him. As soon as I remember where I left it.

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