Monday, 15 May 2017

Attending a lecture by Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is 88 years old. Born in 1928 he witnessed the bulk of 20th century history, not through the eyes of a passive observer but as someone who was actively involved and also constantly reflecting intelligently on the events unfolding throughout what was undoubtedly one of the most dramatic centuries in human history.

On 10th May 2017 he gave a lecture entitled "Racing for the Precipice: Is the Human Experiment Doomed?" at The Concert Hall in Reading, England. I was lucky enough to have been offered a ticket by someone with the foresight to buy a few before they all sold out. It was a memorable evening. Chomsky is of an age where if you haven't seen him in the flesh yet you don't really expect you will get the chance. Kropotkin lived until he was 78, so did Malatesta (dying when Chomsky was aged 4) and even the old man Rudolf Rocker died 3 years younger than Chomsky is now. He's doing exceptionally well for an anarchist, (it's only a shame he hasn't chosen to grow a huge beard!) so it was a real treat and a surprise to get the chance.



The theme and Chomsky's introduction instantly reminded me of Kropotkin's 'species-ism' outlook found in books like 'Mutual Aid - A Factor of Evolution' and 'Conquest of Bread'. The idea of stepping back and looking at humanity as a species and asking the questions, where have we come from and how has this shaped us? Where are we destined to end up? And ultimately, what kind of species are we, can we pull together to survive and thrive or will we fail?

The diagnosis was less optimistic than 100 years ago when Kropotkin was giving his last lectures. We may be an intelligent species but intelligent species don't necessarily fare better, in fact it's the most simplistic species that go on for millions upon millions of years. We've already surpassed our life expectancy. Not only that, but now, through the looming dangers of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe we have directly threatened our own existence in a very real and concrete way, and the one weapon we have in our favour, democracy, is failing. 

This grim take on the prospects for the human species aptly reflected the mood in the car on the way there as we'd discussed the prospects for the coming UK general election with most people having already conceded it to the Conservatives who remained stubbornly ahead in the polls by a margin of up to 20 points (although this is dropping now). The idea that we as humans might be fundamentally selfish/ idiotic/ stubborn probably seemed plausible enough to most of the enlightened, well educated audience members. 

Here is where this approach can hit the limits of how far it's going to take us. By treating humanity as one big lump, (or at best divided between a minority of progressive individuals and a mass of idiots) we naturally move on to supposing that we, as humans, mostly have relatively fixed attributes - whether these be for the better as in Kropotkin or for the worse as in Chomsky's lecture. 

So if we really are a recklessly short sighted and short tempered and possibly short lived species it's hard for a person to know what to do. If you've decided that you don't want to see the end of life on earth as we know it, if you think you've got an idea of what kind of social system could take us back from the precipice and allow us to go on to survive and thrive, then what? How do we get from here; at one and a half minutes to midnight on doomsday clock, to there; peace and harmony and justice?

The options seem limited, do we try to persuade people? If so who? In a world where some people have much more power and influence or sheer money to do something about all this than others then surely them? Or do we start to think about how we could protect ourselves and the people we care about from impending doom? Or do we prefer to try to to stay pure, and to at least ensure that if the world is going to die it's not going to be our fault? 

Chomsky's voice is silent on this issue, like a last warning from a person who has seen us repeatedly refuse to learn lessons from the past intentionally leaving us to frantically search for the answers ourselves if we want to prove him wrong.

Proving such a pessimistic assessment from such an intelligent man wrong will be no easy task. As the capitalist system enters what must surely be it's final decades before we face the crossroads of revolution or collapse we will need now more than ever to be armed with the right analysis and theory and be ready to take the right actions derived from it. Both Chomsky and Kropotkin's methods of analysing human history undoubtedly have a basis in science but neither of them seem willing to engage with and contribute towards a whole field of study set up to answer these questions; scientific socialism. Anarchists everywhere avoid it, probably because it sounds exclusively Marxist and so arrogant but it's a treasure trove. 

I've found (to my gratification) that in general people don't listen to someone ranting on at them trying to convince them to think a certain way. They have to grab hold of questions for themselves, wrestle with them, attack the key texts, fight the seminal thinkers and come out the other side and face the original problem again. 

To deal with the challenge that Chomsky left in this lecture, and for another way to approach the problem in itself I recommend starting with this short pamphlet from Engels: Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

Don't take my word or Engels word or Chomsky's for anything, see what you think.