Chomsky, ‘materialism,’ and the Israel lobby thesis

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One way to approach Noam Chomsky’s views on Israel, the power of the Lobby, and U.S. foreign policy would be to more carefully and specifically define him as a “materialist” in relation to both his linguistics and his politics. Yes, Chomsky is a materialist in the least vulgar and dogmatic, and most practical and scientific uses of the word. His groundbreaking exploration of the physical correlates of language development left no doubt that language (and much else) cannot be learned, but rather is acquired through an endowed maturational process. 

And while Chomsky is (correctly) an epistemological rationalist rather than empiricist, he ultimately obliterates the mistakenly imagined boundaries between physical phenomena and human development, cognition, and behavior. Chomsky argues (convincingly I think) that the mind-body problem (“ghost in the machine”) cannot even be stated because there is no coherent notion of body that will allow it. Quoting I. B. Cohen, he speaks of a science in which the goal is not to seek ultimate explanations but to find the best theoretical account we can of the phenomena of experience and experiment.

Nevertheless, this sort of “materialism” has not prevented Steven Pinker from saying that, in addition to being a rationalist, Chomsky is a romantic—emphasizing feeling and individuality—which I think is correct. That is, Chomsky’s work on language and human nature bends inexorably toward the fundamental fact of human freedom. It is a freedom generated and given meaning by the systematic and discrete limits which our capacity for language impose on our thoughts and actions. In historical/psychological context, Chomsky challenged the vulgar behaviorism of Skinner and the racial determinism of Herrnstein and Jensen, proposing a grounded view of free will that is again (meaningfully) shaped by the limits of biology, culture, society, and history. 

None of these dimensions is without a hypothetical if poorly understood material aspect (poorly understood due—again—to severe physical limitations on human rational capabilities, an understanding of which makes Chomsky an extremely cautious scientist, especially among cognitive scientists). Nevertheless, none of these fields of inquiry can (or should) reduce voluntary actions to mere prediction, or social inquiry to the “control” of human behavior.

It is on this basis in human nature that we can begin to understand Chomsky’s political allegiance to 19th century European libertarian socialism and socialist anarchism, rather than authoritarian and statist interpretations of Marxism or socialism. Left and right are meant to describe a continuum from human freedom to authoritarianism, regardless of the practical size or function of governmental institutions.

Nevertheless, the vicissitudes of human political freedom under capitalism again beg for a rational material analysis, perhaps better called geopolitical and institutional. Chomsky clearly has an affinity for the critique of global neoliberalism of the Marxist anthropologist David Harvey, and for Thomas Ferguson’s “investment theory of (political) party competition.” To those must of course be added Chomsky’s (with Edward Herman) own theoretical elaboration of the “manufacture of consent” by the mainstream media.

All of these “material” (but ultimately not rigidly deterministic, as we can now see in the Arab world) contexts present severe challenges to human potentials that although “natural” are also dependent on favorable material conditions and freedom-nurturing forms of social solidarity. Chomsky does not, however, accept Marx’s notion of “the materialist conception of history.” Chomsky denies the existence of “scientific socialism” and says he doesn’t even understand what “dialectical materialism” can be. Furthermore, while taking class struggle seriously, Chomsky wouldn’t admit that the term capitalism can be more than descriptive, while suggesting that the current form is far from the form that existed in Marx’s time.

At any rate, Chomsky surely does not define corporate and state actors as materialist in the sense of being “greedy.” Nor does he, in the case of Israel or elsewhere, take terribly seriously the notions of “identity” or “loyalty” as primary or determining factors in state-level policies. Chomsky simply does not view either corporations or states as “moral actors.” State policy is formed for the advantage or benefit (in wealth and power) of dominant social groups, however much interests are “… sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” i.e., propaganda—even Lobby propaganda. Chomsky frequently quotes Thucydides, from the Melian dialogue: “The strong do as they can, while the weak suffer what they must.” Neither individual nor collective greed is fundamental to the manner in which the government pursues the common interests of the corporate state, which can conflict with those of one sector or segment. Hence geopolitics.

It is in this analytical context that the more explicitly articulated “passions” of nationalism and other forms of group identity and loyalty—even if accorded sincerity or nobility—can be seen as subordinate to the calculated material interests of elites and resulting geopolitical strategies. But more to the point, these passions and affiliations (including and especially those of the institutional Israel Lobby) can also be placed in the material (geopolitical, institutional) contexts of global capitalism, the corporate state, and the military-industrial complex. 

Capitalist class-based material interests dictate that social passions take any form other than the class solidarity that would illuminate and challenge those interests. Thus we have corporate political parties, and the current populist, inchoate anger directed at both parties, which Chomsky views empathically and in terms of organizational/movement opportunity—indeed, he does so much more honestly than many of those who call themselves “progressive,” who unwisely demonize those who call themselves libertarians.

Given Chomsky’s long-term “materialist” perspectives on these fundamental issues, from human nature to society, it is not at all surprising that he interprets the power of the Lobby within the framework of U.S. strategic geopolitical interests, namely the control of (to be distinguished from access to) Middle East oil. It is not a matter of individual/corporate greed and/or religious/group loyalty, but class interests and the institutional structures that perpetuate them, including the Lobby. It’s two sides of the same “material” coin, albeit the side of relatively long-term corporate profits clearly subordinates transient institutional expressions of loyalty—“pure” or otherwise—to strategic geopolitical interests. Thus the geopolitical adage that we have “not permanent allies, but permanent interests.”

As quoted on this website two years ago, Chomsky has stated: “As I’ve mentioned several times, if the thesis about lobby power were correct, it would be a great relief to me and others who have been actively engaged for years in trying organize popular pressure to lead to abandonment of US rejectionism. We could stop all of that, just go to the corporate headquarters of Lockheed Martin, Intel, Microsoft, and others and explain to them that their interests are harmed by US support for Israel, so they should terminate their investments in Israel and use their political and economic clout to put the lobby out of business. Anyone with a little familiarity with American society and political economy knows that they could do that in their sleep. That in fact is the sole activist-related conclusion that follows from the thesis. But none of the believers do it. Why?” 

Marx pointed out (when he was a young man) that “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” And the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie–corporate class, if you prefer–may not be identical with the interests of any one corporation or industry. (The major oil companies, for example, seem to have had some trepidation about the invasion of Iraq.)

Thus Chomsky’s analysis—again what Phil Weiss calls “materialist”—is in fact geopolitical and institutional. It describes what American planners have been doing at least since the “Grand Area Planning” of World War II. And those plans are less driven by passion–greed, chauvinism, or something else–than by a certain form of rationality. Since Weber, we’ve spoken of one form of rationality that is a matter of fitting means to ends, and of another that consists of choosing proper ends or goals. 

American Mideast policy is thoroughly rational, and hardly swayed by passion at all in terms of either greed or loyalty. The end–control of energy—is clear, and it is to be accomplished (to borrow a phrase) by any means necessary. Planning is discovering what means are necessary. 

But in another (moral) sense, American policy is deeply irrational, and Chomsky makes that the major theme—announced in the title—of Hegemony or Survival (2003). “America’s Quest for Global Dominance” (the subtitle) threatens our very survival. Chomsky’s analysis—convincing to me—is certainly not materialism in the sense of a reductionist economism. It’s rather an institutional analysis, if we recall that the sociologists say that an institution is just a patterned way of doing things. And we can certainly make mistakes as we try to descry the pattern.

Alternately and radically (and morally and passionately), Chomsky has for decades articulated a view of human nature, freedom, and potential—and its political logic. In Government in the Future (1970) he concluded: “We have today the technical and material resources to meet man’s animal needs. We have not developed the cultural and moral resources–or the democratic forms of social organization—that make possible the humane and rational use of our material wealth and power. Conceivably, the classical liberal ideals as expressed and developed in their libertarian socialist form are achievable. But if so, only by a popular revolutionary movement, rooted in wide strata of the population and committed to the elimination of repressive and authoritarian institutions, state and private. To create such a movement is a challenge we face and must meet if there is to be an escape from contemporary barbarism.” 

One must cautiously hope that these words describe something about current events in the Middle East and North Africa, and will sooner rather than later describe events on the ground in Palestine and Israel—regardless of votes and vetoes from on high at the United Nations. Indeed, a just settlement for the Palestinians ultimately cannot possibly depend on a hegemonic international body, but only on the regional winds of freedom that are shaking the foundations of that hegemony and its so-called national interests.

David Green ([email protected]) lives in Urbana, IL. Carl and Leigh Estabrook of Champaign, IL provided editorial and material assistance in the writing of this article.

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