Work, Learning and Freedom

In this often personal interview, renowned linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky outlines a libertarian perspective on work and education, arguing that freedom is the root of creativity and fulfilment – Published on New Left Project, Michael Kasenbacher interviews Noam Chomsky, December 24, 2012.

The question I would like to ask is what is really wanted work? Maybe we could start with your personal life and your double career in linguistics and political activism? Do you like that kind of work?

  • If I had the time I would spend far more time doing work on language, philosophy, cognitive science, topics that are intellectually very interesting. But a large part of my life is given to one or another form of political activity: reading, writing, organising, activism and so on. Which is worth doing, it’s necessary but it’s not really intellectually challenging. Regarding human affairs we either understand nothing, or it’s pretty superficial. It’s hard work to get the data and put it all together but it’s not terribly challenging intellectually. But I do it because it’s necessary. The kind of work that should be the main part of life is the kind of work you would want to do if you weren’t being paid for it. It’s work that comes out of your own internal needs, interests and concerns … //

… How do you think it is possible in our society, not just in education, for people to counteract all this structuring, this tendency for us to be driven into situations where people don’t know what it is they want to do?

  • I think it’s the opposite: the social system is taking on a form in which finding out what you want to do is less and less of an option because your life is too structured, organised, controlled and disciplined. The US had the first real mass education (much ahead of Europe in that respect) but if you look back at the system in the late 19th century it was largely designed to turn independent farmers into disciplined factory workers, and a good deal of education maintains that form. And sometimes it’s quite explicit – so if you’ve never read it you might want to have a look at a book called The Crisis of Democracy – a publication of the trilateral commission, who were essentially liberal internationalists from Europe, Japan and the United States, the liberal wing of the intellectual elite. That’s where Jimmy Carter’s whole government came from. The book was expressing the concern of liberal intellectuals over what happened in the 60s. Well what happened in the 60s is that it was too democratic, there was a lot of popular activism, young people trying things out, experimentation – it’s called ‘the time of troubles’. The ‘troubles’ are that it civilised the country: that’s where you get civil rights, the women’s movement, environmental concerns, opposition to aggression. And it’s a much more civilised country as a result but that caused a lot of concern because people were getting out of control. People are supposed to be passive and apathetic and doing what they’re told by the responsible people who are in control. That’s elite ideology across the political spectrum – from liberals to Leninists, it’s essentially the same ideology: people are too stupid and ignorant to do things by themselves so for their own benefit we have to control them. And that very dominant ideology was breaking down in the 60s. And this commission that put together this book was concerned with trying to induce what they called ‘more moderation in democracy’ – turn people back to passivity and obedience so they don’t put so many constraints on state power and so on. In particular they were worried about young people. They were concerned about the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young (that’s their phrase), meaning schools, universities, church and so on – they’re not doing their job, [the young are] not being sufficiently indoctrinated. They’re too free to pursue their own initiatives and concerns and you’ve got to control them better.
  • If you look back at what happens since that time there have been a lot of measures introduced to impose discipline. Take something as simple as raising tuition fees – it’s much more true in the US than elsewhere, but in the US tuition is now sky high – in part it selects things on a class basis but more than that, it imposes a debt burden. So if you come out of college with a big debt you’re not going to be free to do what you want to do. You may have wanted to be a public interest lawyer but you’re going to have to go to a corporate law firm. That’s quite a serious fact and there are many other things like it. In fact the drug war was started mainly for that reason, the drug war is a disciplinary system, it’s a way of ensuring that people are kept under control and it was almost consciously designed that way… The idea of freedom is very frightening for those who have some degree of privilege and power and I think that shows up in the education system too. And in the workplace… for example, there’s a very good study by a faculty member here, who was denied tenure unfortunately, who studied very carefully the development of computer controlled machine tools – first developed in the 1950s under the military where almost everything is done…

What is his name?

  • David Noble. He has a couple of very good books – one of them is called Forces of Production. What he discovered was that as these methods were devised there was a choice – whether to design the methods so that control would be in the hands of skilled machinists or whether it would be controlled by management. They picked the second, although it was not more profitable – when they did studies they found there was no profit advantage to it but it’s just so important to keep workers under control than to have skilled machinists run the industrial process. One reason is that if that mentality spreads sooner or later workers are going to demand what seems obvious to them anyway – that they should just take over the factories and get rid of the bosses who don’t do anything but get in their way. That’s frightening. That’s pretty much what led to the New Deal. The New Deal measures were to some extent sparked by the fact that strikes were reaching the level of sit down strikes, and a sit down strike is just one millimetre away from saying, ‘Well why are we sitting here? Let’s run the place’.
  • If you go back to the 19th century working class literature, by now there’s quite a lot of working class literature, there’s quite a lot of material on [these ideas]. This is mostly right around here where the industrial revolution first started in the United States. Working people were bitterly opposed to the industrial system, they said it was taking away their freedom, their independence, their rights as members of a free republic, that it was destroying their culture. They thought that workers should simply own the mills and run them themselves. In the 19th century here, without any influence of Marxism or any European thinking, it was pretty much assumed that wage labour is about the same as slavery – it’s different only in that it’s temporary. That was such a cliché that it was a slogan of the Republican Party. And for northern workers in the civil war that was the banner under which they fought – that wage slavery is as bad as slavery. That had to be beaten out of people’s heads.
  • I don’t think it’s far under the surface, I think it could come back at any time. I think it could come back right now – Obama pretty much owns the auto industry and is closing down auto plants, meanwhile his government is making contracts with Spain and France to build high tech rail facilities which the US is very backward in – and using federal stimulus money to pay for it. Sooner or later it’s going to occur to working people in Detroit that ‘we can do those things – let’s take over the factory and do it’. It could lead to industrial revival here and that would be very frightening to the banks and the managerial class.

What is your personal work routine? How do manage to work so much?

  • Well my wife died a couple of years ago and since then I’ve done nothing but work. I see my children once in a while but almost nothing else. Before that I worked pretty hard but had a personal life outside. But that’s unique.

How many hours of sleep do you get?

  • I try to get about six or seven hours of sleep if I can. It’s a pretty crazy life – tremendous number of talks and meetings so I don’t have anywhere near as much time as I’d like to just plain work because other things crowd in. But I nearly never have any free time – I never go to the movies or out to dinner. But that’s not a model of any sane kind of existence.

(full interview text).

Links:

Global Capitalism and the Left, on New Left Project, by Jamie Stern-Weiner, Leo Panitch, December 20, 2012;

The ITU could put the Internet behind closed doors. Watch the video to find out how, 4.08 min, on FightForTheFuture, or on WhatIsTheITU;
see also What to Watch at WCIT, 5 pdf-pages; Webcast and Captioning on ITU; and AccessNow.org;

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