ReConsidering Chomsky and the Left

The Great Chomsky-Foucault Debate of 71

I had heard something many years ago in the companion book that was spun off from the documentary film Manufacturing Consent Noam Chomsky and the Media about the famous Chomsky Foucault debate of 71 (1).

The book talked about the debate which had two of the great critical thinkers of our times. Unfortunately the way clips on YouTube left me feeling like it was very cumbersome to understand their points and to see them in a larger context. It did not help that one was speaking in French and the other in English. Regardless of the difficulty of the presentation of the debate and their ideas in the debate, in my view they are both great intellectuals and people who I admire for their efforts to bring critical thinking forward in the human consciousness. Yet I think the resistance I felt towards what they were saying is worth more discussion: why was it not more simply said and presented?

Constructive Criticism verses Ruthless Honesty

At one of the Arcosanti decision making groups (Arcosanti Leadership Team or ALT) they say one of their organizing principles is brutal or ruthless honesty – something to that effect and I am reading this what a crappy way to express the value of being honest with each other. I suspect that if we are going to have to resort to being ruthless or brutal with each other in order to be honest that we are not going to want to be honest with each other very much.

Because we have not really as a species figured out how to be compassionately and thoughtfully critical of each its no wonder we usually avoid the whole matter of critical thinking all together. Any that is reflective, honest, candid and uncomfortable, we label as negative and we must get it out of our lives. I know there is something to this idea of being negative without bounds.

Chomsky and Foucault remind me that while their work is great, notable, noble and inspirational, maybe they (and the Left in general)  find it too easy to criticize and not so easy to actually work together to create a working alternative to what they criticize as the mainstream society? All this presses the need for a more constructive and compassionate way to communicate honest feelings and observations in societies whether they be within the Arcosanti community, amongst the larger progressive community or the mass mainstream society.

In the “great debate,” Chomsky talked about his general beliefs that humanity must move towards more decentralized anarcho-syndicalist systems of governance and economic development. To the limited extent I understand those complex word phrases, I’m definitely aligned with that perspective.  Yet I feel the need to do something more specific than just go around talking about how imperialistic the US is and to speculate vaguely about the future socioeconomic system for humanity. I see such forms of discourse as “armchair critical thinking” and as a major attributes of what is termed so-called “Old Left thinking”.

A Practical Idealist and Holist Critique of Chomskyism

Chomskyism, while deeply probing and fascinating, was so absent of holistic thinking and ecological concepts of the green design movement, that it only served to reinforce the dialectical reactionary loop of historical Leftist thinking. The key pattern is the martyrdom syndrome by which the Left pasted on from generation to generation was enabled by a certain victim mentality. This mentality in turn was tied to the Left’s collective inability to deal with the current and perpetual dismal reality of the so called civilized society. The role of drugs, sex and alcohol thus remain vital utilities in medicating the depression of those who can’t deal with the reality of how the world is governed. Through these physical and behavioral dysfunctions – which which we share collectively and uncritically via our intellectual passivity as card carrying Old-Leftists – we in effect sublimate the externally disruptive attributes of conventional social behavior and modify it to suite our particular needs and desires for victimhood. However it is very important in this process of sublimation, that we mask the fact that our copying the dysfunctions of the society and making them our own is a survival mechanism. Such an admission would only serve to remind us of our complete defeat by the ravages of the established order and/or status quo. This gets back to the difficulty of honest and candid communications – we are reluctant to be reminded of what it is that makes us who we are and the reality of how we actually operate.

The Importance of Group-Think in Sustaining the Status Quo

We revert to simply criticizing the status quo as part of our internal-collective addiction matrix. At Arcosanti I feel the social and establishment status quo is more in your face and more biting. Obviously there is not a Left and a Right at Arcosanti but there are those who are more socially conservative and other who are more free spirited in how they live or at least think. Somehow despite all the wrongness of the mainstream society, the closeness to any sense of wrongness at either the social or administrative level at Arcosanti is more direct and I would say that it has to do with the fact that we are more emotionally intimate with each other.

I would say that the patterns are similar because the issue is not really about political ideology but rather group-think – its about how established groups make decisions within social systems. If you do not address the core element that sustains the establishment group-think at the root psychological level, then the same social patterns will manifest regardless of your progressive credentials and superficial slogans, ideologies and platforms. Similarly, those who seek change often see a mirror image in terms of patterns of power and how it is maintained at the base level within both the mainstream and Arcosanti societies. The “mainstream Left” which includes the Green Party, its academic elements the Leftist Democrats, Unionists and Field Activists is blind to the fact that its rhetoric as being driven by its sense of victimhood – is a primary driver of its continued political irrelevance and marginalization in mainstream politics. Sure the Left says things that the mainstream does not like to hear and that is a factor in its political marginalization. However, the real issue is the language of the Left does not inspire the necessary leadership needed to solve the nation’s challenging problems. This is key to understanding the blindspot on the Left – its easier for us not just as progressives but as humans to find fault with what is wrong political, culturally, aesthetically or economically, rather to figure out how to be a model of a alternative way of doing things. Leftist need to find that Third Way and begin to get their hands dirty building the socioeconomic framework for Chomsky’s Anarcho-Syndicalism.

Understand the Dialectic of Avoidance of Solutions-Based Thinking

In my view the book Natural Capitalism is one example of a roadmap for a sustainable global society that is trying to bridge the gap between theory and practice. In terms of the ecovillage and hippie commune/intentional communities movements; Arcosanti and Auroville are more specific examples of how groups of people have sought to build a sustainable human habitat that reflects their concerns values and aspirations of the need to create an alternative system to what now passes for the socioeconomic status quo. Yet we also know that Arcosanti’s counter-cultural linkages were never really affirmed or appreciated by Soleri, hence the reluctance to really accept that Arcosanti is or was in fact a community of people trying to create a better world for humanity – it was a construction site and nothing more!

There are two sides to this dialectic of why more Leftist “Chomskyites” have not come to Arcosanti. In terms of academics we have had our share of religious scholars (John Cobb), Hollywood intellectuals (Francis Ford Coppola), nationally known political left leaning moderates (such as Clinton’s Interior Sect Bruce Babbit and CA Governor Jerry Brown) have experienced in participated in Arcosanti as with past conferences such as Paradox I, II and III as well as the Minds for History Conference in the late 80s – I’m just wondering why more leading Leftist intellectuals have not? I think there are two main reasons for the lack of dialog among the Left about Arcosanti and places like it.

First there is a reactionary tendency in the progressive movement. Progressives tend to focus on what they stand against. One example of this is even poured over into the moderate Democratic Class: Obama was able to raise huge sums of money via the grassroots. I often consider that these sums of money if they were invested in creating an alternative economy to grow a culture and way of living, might have had a better payoff then in investing in trying to change the ways things are done in Washington. Don’t get me wrong I am NOT thinking the answer is to avoid all things Washington or that smell of establishment politics, but rather to consider carefully the implications of what we do and how we invest our time and energy in life both as individuals on the micro scale and collectively at the macro.

The other element is Arcosanti itself which is defined by the same problem basically, which is talking about humanity’s problems in a very esoteric way so that there is no comparison made between what exists at Arcosanti and the larger vision of Arcology.

Both Chomsky and Foucault despite their perceived differences I think reflect the mentality of the old Left in that they speak of the need for change, while avoiding any real investment in the infrastructure of change. Its sort of like this pattern of thinking which if we don’t acknowledge and confront becomes a silent killer than prevents our idealism from ever making developing past the intellectual contemplation stage. Foucault in the Great Foucault-Chomsky Debate of 71, could not even go as far as Chomsky did in speaking vaguely of a “anarcho-syndicalist regime change.” Foucault thought that we were not at an advanced enough stage to start visioning the groundwork of a socially just society.

Practical implementation remains the challenge and that is our blindspot as progressives in that we talk a lot but never can make the transition to transform the talk into practical models. What are the mechanisms for social transformation?

Breaking through the Silos of Ivory Towered Intellectualism

Education according to Chomsky is a system of imposed ignorance. What I think he meant by this is (or at least in particular) established educational systems like say MIT. Chomsky still teaches at MIT and that often made me curious from my perspective – if you are really serious about “being the change,” wouldn’t you or with similarly minded colleagues create your own institute from which to gather the pioneers of a new way of doing things that is more holistic and people friendly? At least to have your feet planted in the two worlds – one in which we begin to experiment with the alternative culture/society/economy and then the other in taking more established institutional roles such as teaching as MIT.

The Problem with Leftist Utopianism

When we retreat from actively figuring how to solve the problems of the real world we expand into visionworld of Utopia. Paolo Soleri when he was still more in the world of doing things at Cosanti and early Arcosanti, developed a severe distaste for Utopian thinking. Its easy to understand why, because utopian thinking had an history of being forwarded by ivory tower intellectuals who did not really know what a real days work was out in the field or say pouring a slab at Arcosanti. Anarcho-syndicalism much like Arcology has become little more than an lofty and vaguely articulated dream in a distant and far off future. On this level Chomsky, Soleri and Foucault all seem to have one thing in common they are more visionary idealists than practical idealists. Their role is to attempt to further thread together the collection of ideas that have bandied about in the dissident community for eons now and seem to have taken on certain stale stagnacy. Sort of like when you go up into your grandparents attic or cellar space and smell all that musty staleness.

I would like to suggest that Chomsky come to Arcosanti so we can look at some of the issues that have kept us from moving towards that goal. I could see a conference forming in which we seek to better link the Leftist intellectuals with the green politicians/activists as well as entrepreneurs and designers of the new green economy/society.

To end with a positive thought, I think their way forward must be appreciated but at the end of the day, it is not about academic papers and books but rather the hard work of dealing with people to overcome our social decay and dysfunctionalities to create a powerful positive new pathway for living prosperously in harmony with each other and the planet.


  1. The book and documentary (Manufacturing Consent Noam Chomsky and the Media) was done by Mark Achbar who I met at a conference in Portland in the 90s. He later went on to do “The Corporation” a documentary outlining the darker side of Corporate Culture.
  2. The documentary Manufacturing Consent Noam Chomsky and the Media is available for download.
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media

Film poster
Directed by Mark Achbar
Peter Wintonick
Starring Mark Achbar
Noam Chomsky
Release date(s) 1992
Running time 167 minutes
Country Australia
Language English

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media

  1. Chomsky Lecture at Linguistic Dept at UofA in Tucson
  2. Chomsky Lecture Simulcast in Chandler
  3. Chomsky Lecture at ASU Law School in Tempe

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