Rantin' and Rovin'

Chomsky, Democracy, and Education in America

There’s an article floating around Facebook today in which a professor of American History at Delaware County Community College, Daniel Falcone, interviews Noam Chomsky about his views on the current education system in America.  Noam Chomsky, for those who may be unaware, is one of the most well-known linguists of our time.  He is also a philosopher, political critic and generally all around genius.  One of his main linguistic theories is that of universal grammar, the idea that the ability to learn language and grammar is innate and that there are certain properties that all languages of the world share.  There’s a lot of debate surrounding all of that, and some people took his ideas to the extreme, but that’s not the main point here.

Noam Chomsky gave an interview in two parts talking about democracy and education in America.  Part one is here, and part two is here.  I highly recommend reading it just as a general citizen, but I also recommend it if you have any interest in social science.

I’m not going to go into the major details, simply because that would be an enormous post and I don’t think any of you really want to read all that.  However, one of Chomsky’s main themes in this interview is the idea that our education system does not educate us to be good thinkers, it educates us to be obedient workers.

For anyone who’s studied anthropology or sociology before, that should be sending up a huge flag with the name Foucault written all over it.

Michel Foucault was another philosopher who sometimes commented on linguistic matters and often commented on the nature of power and control.   One of his more famous works is Discipline and Punish (1977), in which he details the specific mechanisms for control, discipline, and punishment in the American prison system.  He then goes on to argue that these mechanisms also exist in schools, hospitals, and other public institutions as a way of controlling the masses and providing order to society.

According to Foucault, power is the act of forcing someone to do something, either discreetly or indiscreetly (all assertions here come from Discipline and Punish (1977)).  Those who have power are in control, while those without are controlled.  In reading Foucault, it seems that there will always be those in power and those without; there is no possibility for escape.  Yet, Foucault’s arguments do allow for situations in which neither party has control over the other.  Individuals, he says, are both unique and homogenous due to the disciplinary measures enforced by society.  They are unique so that society can identify their behaviors and control them, but they are homogenous in that, like everyone else, the individual can be molded to fit whatever shape society requires.  This creates groups of individuals that are essentially interchangeable, because they occupy similar positions in society.

Likewise, Foucault argues that power itself is locational.  Society is organized both horizontally and vertically, but those in similar structural positions hold similar amounts of power.  Therefore, it must be possible for two or more individuals to hold the same degree of power.  Situations therefore can and do occur in which neither party holds power over the other.

This is different than the Marxist notion that power struggles could disappear altogether, because Foucault does not argue that power ever ceases to exist.  While two individuals occupying structurally similar roles in society can have a relationship in which neither holds power over the other, a party occupying a higher structural role will always exercise power over them.  Likewise, in separate contexts, the two individuals could occupy structurally separate roles, and one would therefore hold power over the other.  Thus, power will always exist, even if it remains absent from certain relations.

Neverthless, it is possible for people to hold similar power relations, which would understandably lead a group of people to believe that they could eliminate the power struggle.  It takes very little to ask, “If we can get along without one of us holding more power, then why can’t everyone do the same?”  Thus, logically, the idea for the elimination of or resistance to power can exist in Foucault’s model.  If the idea exists, then is it possible for people to act on the idea?  In short, yes.  Each individual has control over his or her own actions, and can therefore do as he or she pleases.  A man can rob a bank, take a cruise, buy a car, or paint his house.  Even in the most extreme totalist state proposed by Foucault’s model, a man can still do as he pleases.  Otherwise, there would be no need for punishment.

The difference is that the man has no control over the effects or the consequences of his actions.  He can rob the bank, but society will then throw him in jail.  He can steal a car, but society will then take him to court, find him guilty, and force him to at least pay a fine if not serve time.  A man can murder another man, but society may punish him by taking away his life.  A person can rebel against the current power system, but those in dominant positions will punish them for their efforts.

One could argue that rebellion therefore did not occur in Foucault’s model because it was not effective, not because it was impossible, but this only part of the answer.  Rebellion was certainly possible, because otherwise punishment would not be required to maintain the established societal norm.  Yet, punishment also implies a fear of effective rebellion.  If punishment and discipline encourage wanted behavior while discouraging unwanted behavior, then those exercising the punishment must fear the effects of the unwanted behavior.  Otherwise, they would remain indifferent towards the action.  The presence of a system of punishment and a system of discipline means that without these systems, rebellion would be effective.  By employing an extensive system of discipline and punishment, those in power are able to keep most citizens from ever wanting to break with the norm.

Foucault also argues that the prison system actually creates and perpetuates delinquency: chances of recidivism are high, the prison often fails to train inmates for an occupation outside the institution, and the conditions under which inmates are held encourage the formation of group loyalty during times when inmates are held together, such as during meals or work.  The prison also indirectly produces delinquents by removing a working member of a family, often causing that family to fall into poverty and resort to petty crime for survival.  While this may seem counter-productive – since it leads to an increase in unwanted, rebellious behavior – it is actually yet another mechanism for combating rebellion.  Delinquency is a type of illegality that society and the dominant powers can control.  By creating delinquency, society is keeping its more rebellious citizens from committed crimes that could be more dangerous to the norm.

Thus, by demonstrating that rebellion is futile, by punishing those who rebel, and by occupying its more rebellious citizens with acts of delinquency instead of more socially dangerous crimes, those in power constantly broadcast the message that any attempt at rebellion would be ineffective and therefore useless.  That being the case, most people would resist rebellion both because they know it is futile and because they fear the punishment.  Thus, a lack of the potential for an effective rebellion coupled with the potential consequences of a failed attempt lead to a lack of desire to rebel in the first place.

Now let’s take a look at Chomsky.  In his interview, he’s quoted as saying:

Here, one of the great successes of American sort of ruling institutions in ideology is that it’s kind of disaggregated people. They’re atomized, you know, and there’s very little memory. So, every time a group of students gets involved in a protest, it’s from the beginning. You know, there’s no memory of how you did it before. Nobody remembers how to, you know, organize or put out leaflets, where do you go and so on…. And that’s lacking here and so, it’s a part of the social doctrinal policy which is sort of directed to destroying this. The attack on unions is a case in point. You don’t want unions because they do have this kind of memory. They’re democratizing forces. They bring people together and so on…. And so, it’s been a real success – one of the great business successes in the United States – to break down organization, to separate people too: it’s part of consumerism. If you can drive people toward individual consumption, that’s the highest goal in life. And furthermore, drive them into debt so they’re trapped. You don’t have to worry about a democracy function because people are trapped and they’re alone…. For example, I don’t remember the exact figures, but a pretty substantial part of the population, you know, like maybe a third or some more think that the Bush administration had some responsibility for 9/11. That’s a pretty striking fact. I mean, here is a big part of the population thinking the government is a gang of mass murderers who are trying to kill Americans. And do they do anything about it? I mean, does it even occur to them to do anything about it? You know, like do they even march on Washington and storm the White House and take the guys out?

So, we’re run by a bunch of mass murderers who want to kill us all. Let’s go onto the next television program. You know, that’s, I mean, this sense of a kind of infancy: I can’t do anything; it’s all out there; I’m just a victim,. It is a pretty striking victory of the strongly anti-democratic forces that essentially run things.… The country was founded that way, after all. You know, Madison’s view was essentially that the most powerful force in the country ought to be the Senate, not the Legislative branch because it is sometimes said that the Senate and not the House because the Senate piece of it is composed of the wealth of the nation, the most responsible group of men, those who have respect for property and so on. So, they’re the ones who really ought to be in charge. In fact, if you take a look at the framing of the Constitution, you know, it’s basically the powers, the executive who was supposed to be like an administrator. And the House of Representatives, which is more responsive to the population, was marginalized. They’re the danger. But the Senate is the solid core of, you know, the wealthy and the responsible.

I mean, probably the most striking case and the most important one is the leading public intellectual of the 20thh century in the United States, Walter Lippmann, who was, you know, the kind of archetypal wise man. He also, was a progressive, you know, a Wilson, Roosevelt, progressive. He wrote an order called progressive essays on democracy. And they’re very explicit. He’s writing from the kind of liberal progressive end of the spectrum. He says the population has to be kept out of the political arena. They’re too stupid and ignorant. They’re what he called ignorant and meddlesome outsiders. That’s the population. Democracy will function only if it’s in the hands of the responsible men, people like me, you know, whatever he writes about this is always part of it. And we have to be protected from the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd and how do we do this? Well, he was the one who invented the phrase “manufacturer of consent.” He said we can’t do it by force, you know, too many, too much freedom.

So, we have to manufacture consent, the public relations industry which developed at approximately the same time – the 1920s – its leading figure was another liberal progressive, Edward Bernays, and he said that the real function of the public relations industry is engineering of consent which is necessary to make sure that the intelligent minority runs things and not the mass of people out there. They have to be spectators, not participants…

See the connection to Foucault?

I can write other pieces centering around their arguments, but I must say I was a bit surprised to find such similarity between Foucault and Chomsky, and to find it expressed so strongly in Chomsky’s interview.  I suppose I always thought of them as separate entities, two very different philosophers with two very different ideas.  I probably got that from their linguistic work, which does not have the sort of striking similarity that these arguments have.  But I definitely see it now, and that’s pretty neat (along with the actual conclusions they draw and the importance of hearing those conclusions in our society today).

And now I just hope Chomsky doesn’t mind that I’ve linked him so strongly with Foucault.  Honestly, it only makes both of them even more impressive than I already thought they were.

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