On Chomsky and Hobsbawm (cont’ned)


Upon visiting the splendid mosaics in Villa Romana del Casale (Piazza Armerina), one is reminded very clearly of the intelligent remark made by Karl Marx  according to which work had no social relevance in the ancient world. Because of oversupply due to slave labour, no place for the creative activity of man was on display in the ancient world – there simply was no place for it.

Take now another of Marx’ great insights (from the ‘Grundrisse’, as quoted in George Lichtheim, ‘A Short History of Socialism’ pp. 100-101):

What appears as surplus value on the side of capital, appears on the workers side as surplus labor … beyond the immediate requirement for the maintenance of his existence. The great historic side of capital is to create this surplus labor, superfluous labor from the standpoint of mere use value, mere subsistence; and its historic destiny is fulfilled as soon as, in the one hand, needs [wants] have been so far developed that surplus labor beyond necessity [subsistence] has itself become a general need [want] … on the other hand, the general disposition to work [industriousness] has, through the severe discipline of capital … been developed into the general property [possession] of the new breed of men [ des neuen Geschlecht] – finally, when the development of labor productive forces … has reached the point where the possession or maintenance of societal wealth requires a diminishing quantity of labor time, and where the laboring society takes up a scientific attitude to the process of its progressive reproduction … where consequently the kind of work man does, instead of letting it be done by things on his behalf, has come to an end.

Again quoting Lichtheim (loc. cit. p. 101) ‘from the standpoint of the mature Marx, capitalism appears as a historically conditioned mechanism for developing society’s productive power to the point where the subordination of labor to capital, of living people to dead matter, will become unnecessary’. A splendid contribution on this direction, focusing in particular on the changing nature of ‘time’ in the upcoming industrial society is in the influential article by Edward P. Thompson “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (1967).

The question is then: what can we do with Noam Chomsky’s remark about distributed, horizontal, vertically-free organization of social labour? The global supply chain that I hold in my hand when I use my Android – can we really do without the kind of pressure that capitalism extracts from the worker? the kind of productivity tyranny it imposes on the men and women composing the human mass it insists upon?

“It is not important what we cover, but what you discover” (Victor Weisskopf)

Otium, in ancient Roman time, was the time productively spent pursuing the agenda of your personal growth – be it the cultivation of your garden or the virtuous studium of arts & science. This concept was clearly coming from the greek “paideia”: in XIX century’s Germany it will be given a new incarnation in Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s foundation of the modern University.

It is easily forgotten that, when one attends a research seminar, one is simply following on the footsteps of that venerable tradition.

A good metric for the rationality of a social system could in principle be based on what is the ratio of aggregate time spent by the economic agents in jobs perceived as conducive to personal growth as opposed to jobs perceived as mere toil.

The (social) target function to minimize would then involve not the time spent on the job market, but the toil itself, something Keynes was hinting at in his famous piece on the “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (1930).
Clearly a necessary condition for that is again and again that technology reaches a stage where all the toil is left to automata. The Human Use of Human Beings is just that.

Chomsky & Hobsbawm or: Homage to Catalonia


Let’s start again with late Tony Judt’s comment about Eric Hobsbawm autobiography, where one can read the following:

Eric Hobsbawm is decidedly a man of order, a “Tory communist,” as he puts it. Communist intellectuals were never “cultural dissidents”; and Hobsbawm’s scorn for self-indulgent, post-anything “leftism” has a long Leninist pedigree. But in his case there is another tradition at work. When Hobsbawm scornfully dismisses Thatcherism as “the anarchism of the lower middle class,” he is neatly combining two anathemas: the old Marxist abhorrence of disorderly, unregulated self-indulgence; and the even older disdain of the English administrative elite for the uncultivated, socially insecure but economically ambitious service class of clerks and salesmen, formerly Mr. Pooter, now Essex Man. Eric Hobsbawm, in short, is a mandarin—a Communist mandarin—with all the confidence and prejudices of his caste.

At the beginning of the seventies, there was a remarkable confrontation on those topics among Noam Chomsky and Eric Hobsbawm.
The former, along with a piece on Anarchism during the Spanish Civil War (pdf), contributed a second one where the basic idea was that, with respect to theorization about the social fabric, the apparent void in the anarchist camp was not so, for

One might […] argue rather differently: that at every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to—rather than alleviate—material and cultural deficit.

Amongst other things, Chomsky stressed that a generalized rise in the intellectual and moral conscience of the mass of the population is a necessary condition for any society which is meant to advance on the current one and delegation will simply perpetuate the usual gap.
Hobsbawm contributed two pieces which are also freely available online on, respectively, the role of anarchists in the Spanish Civil War (as a reply to Chomsky’s first) and on general reflections on anarchism (as a reply to Chomsky’s second I believe).
The first (pdf) stressed the usual “primitive rebels” argument which he had already expounded in “Primitive Rebels (1959) in force of which

Spanish anarchism is a profoundly moving spectacle for the student of popular religion — it was really a form of secular millennialism — but not, alas, for the student of politics. It threw away political chances with a marvellously blind persistence. The attempts to steer it into a less suicidal course succeeded too late, though they were enough to defeat the generals’ rising in 1936.

In the second piece (pdf) he argued that a minimal level of organization is a necessary condition for any social movement that intends to be effective, hence the spontaneous flowering of workers and peasants communes in 1936-1937 Catalonia could not have possibly worked – and it didn’t, any more so than the Paris student rebellion of May 1968.

The problem with Hobsbawm’s argument is that he tends to theoretically magnify a historically contingent accident – technology had not yet reached the stage of today’s peer-to-peer ubiquity – into an insurmountable fallacy of every movement that attempts at reorganizing the social fabric without a stratum of apparatchik.

The problem with Chomsky’s argument –at that time – was that technology had not reached a level of sophistication high enough to cut off the managerial stratum which acts as the information broker. But Noam may have been hinting at our time when in his celebrated discussion with Michael Foucault in 1971 (here a transcript) he presciently spoke  about information networks, data processing etc to the effect that

It seems to me that modern technology, like the technology of data-processing, or communication and so on, […] implies that relevant information and relevant understanding can be brought to everyone quickly. It doesn’t have to be concentrated in the hands of a small group of managers who control all knowledge, all information and all decision-making. So technology, I think, can be liberating, it has the property of being possibly liberating; it’s converted, like everything else, like the system of justice, into an instrument of oppression because of the fact that power is badly distributed. I don’t think there is anything in modern technology or modern technological society that leads away from decentralisation of power, quite the contrary.

This is the usual Norbert Wiener’s argument, on “The Human Use of Human Beings”, but there is more. There is the idea of the possibility to “uberize” the social fabric, turning it into a peer-to-peer arrangement where the brokerage functions previously intermediated by an ad hoc stratum are now accomplished by technology.

The main point is not about raising the level of consciousness of the average man (certainly a noble attempt if the Leninist trap of “What to do?” is to be avoided) but about the direction that technology has taken or could take from now on. Briefly, it can be instrumental at reducing labor bargaining power  in the direction of more managerial strata, or can be a wedge that reduces the necessity of the intermediation/brokerage function itself.

That was analyzed, in the sense of a study of industrial automation, by US scholar David Noble, in “Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation”.

Things have indeed changed since the time Noam and Eric wrote their articles – probably in a qualitative way, to the effect that those pioneering suggestions seem closer home.  See this related post.

“To enquire and to create”

There used to be an old concept in classical philosophy, the concept of the full and meaningful life, creative and inquisitive. German classical philosophy recovered that from the ancient Greek civilization, in particular from Ⅴ century Athens. Unfortunately, that was a hugely unequal society, where a minority of optimates could freely dispose of most of the other’s time and lives. The modern world put an end to this non-sense, with obvious repercussions (see here). Marx’s “Entfremdung” concept grew out of his acquaintance with Hegel’s reflections on classical Greece, and the perceived cultural inferiority of the modern world against the old polis. Can we recover the lost integrity of classical society in the industrial world which is obviously based on the division of labor? This is Marx starting point. Similar reflections were voiced earlier by Wilhelm von Humboldt


one of the founders of modern higher education, which he based on a concept of humanity closely related to the ancient civilization paradigm (Paideia). The birth of Germany’s Bildung is here. The following excerpt from “Limits of State Action” (1792) is very explicit.

“To inquire and to create, these are the centers around which all human pursuits more or less directly revolve.” “But all moral cultures spring solely and immediately from the inner life of the soul and can never be produced by external and artificial contrivances. The cultivation of the understanding, as of any of man’s other faculties, is generally achieved by his own activity, his own ingenuity, or his own methods of using the discoveries of others.[…] Man never regards what he possesses as so much his own, as what he does, and the laborer who tends the garden is perhaps in a truer sense its owner than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits. And since truly human action is that which flows from inner impulse, it seems as if all peasants and craftsmen might be elevated into artists, that is men who love their labor for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius and invented skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their character and exult and refine their pleasures, and so humanity would be ennobled by the very things which now, though beautiful in themselves, so often tend to be degraded. Freedom is undoubtedly the indispensable condition without which even the pursuits most congenial to individual human nature can never succeed in producing such salutary influences. Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being but remains alien to his true nature. He does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness. And if a man acts in a mechanical way, reacting to external demands or instruction, rather than in ways determined by his own interests and energies and power, we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is.” (W. von Humboldt, “Limits of State Action”)

Enter Chomsky now. His wavelength is the same.
In “Government in the Future”, Noam Chomsky outlines the core ideas of a plan which, in his own words, puts the burden of proof on the shoulders of authority.

The problem that Noam does not appear to discuss in his long talk is (of course) the Division of Labor and the specialization that it implies. It is not clear to me whether a technologically advanced society can do without.

“The Look of Silence” and Antonio Gramsci


Watching the stunning documentary “The Look of Silence” by Joshua Oppenheimer is a moving experience. Of almost enlightening nature.
The titles at the end, full of “Anonymous” references, are a powerful reminder that the grim events of  Indonesian genocide of the year 1965-1966 keep resonating today, almost 50 years hence.
In “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship“, Chomsky advances the following point:

“The Spanish Civil War is one of the crucial events of modern history, and one of the most extensively studied as well. In it, we find the interplay of forces and ideas that have dominated European history since the industrial revolution. What is more, the relationship of Spain to the great powers was in many respects like that of the countries of what is now called the Third World. In some ways, then, the events of the Spanish Civil War give a foretaste of what the future may hold, as Third World revolutions uproot traditional societies, threaten imperial dominance, exacerbate great-power rivalries, and bring the world perilously close to a war which, if not averted, will surely be the final catastrophe of modern history.

In the 1960s in Indonesia you had a powerful left-wing party which wanted to redress the balance of power in an essentially agrarian society, whose economy was entirely subservient to the Western dominated colonial logics. The whole social contract was at stake.
Listening to the Indonesians talking in the documentary, one hears constantly the equivalent of words like “Ideology”, “Revolution”, “Party”. Their sound is almost the same as in any other Western language, as a testimony to the fact that they were entirely foreign concepts, superimposed on an agrarian society by the Western inspired Third World revolutions leaders (here the Communist Party).  But words are like stones, and they contain world views which cannot simply be translated from a society to another.

Palmiro Togliatti, head of Italian Communist Party, was in Spain during the Civil War. He knew what it means to confront deep-seated ideas – like the religious ones – heads on. The Spanish democratically elected government started doing that in 1936.  They ended up with Francisco Franco. That is why, sitting in the Italian Constitutional Assembly, he did not want the Communist Party to confront the Catholic Church and Article 7 incorporated Mussolini’s Lateran Treaty into the Republican Constitution.

Franco LoPiparo analyzed the mechanisms of Cultural Hegemony and their root in language (pgg. 19ff.) in the philosophy of Antonio Gramsci. Words are powerful collectors of images, society debris, thoughts. Uprooting the vocabulary top-down cannot work.
It seems fair to say that the Indonesian Communist Party leaders would have done better reading Gramsci first.

See also this post.

At every stage of history

One of my all time favorite sentences by legendary MIT linguist (whose opus is now preserved here) is the following (from Introduction to D. Guerin. “Anarchism”). It describes what our ‘practical reason’ target should be in life.

“At every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to — rather than alleviate — material and cultural deficit”


Another remarkable contribution of his genius is the conference Democracy and Education, which remains (for me) one of the very best description of what an authentic growth process for a human being should be, in the spirit of John Dewey and Bertrand Russell.

The problem is how to link the hope that this is the right way to be alive, the right way to walk amongst fellow human beings, with a theoretically sound precept. It may well be that, in Kant’s words, there cannot be ‘pure’ construction of any practical reason. Nonetheless, Chomsky’s maxim keeps resonating.

The concept of limit

In the introduction to “Anarchism” by D. Guerin, Chomsky stresses the existence of a cultural tradition going back to Rousseau (“Discourse on Inequality, 1754), Von Humboldt, “The Limits of State Action” and chiefly Immanuel Kant on the French Revolution remarking that freedom is the precondition for freedom. That stands in marked contrast to Hegel (and before that Machiavelli and the “principato nuovo”) where servitude is the precondition for freedom.
Another example of the same dichotomy is the following (in reversed order):
the Freudian lineage of “Civilization and its Discontents” says that repression of instincts is what drives society forwards, and culture, from Hammurabi Codex onwards, is but a way to constrain the instincts. On the contrary, in the preface to Wilhelm Reich, “The Imposition of Sexual Morality”, the author says that the line consisting of Morgans-Engels-Malinowski and himself asserts that society is essentially repression which must be overcome. What is the position of Chomsky on that, in particular in his debate with Foucault? See

Here a short remark of Freud is apt again: he says (in “Civilization and its Discontents”) that one of the major problems of our time is that work is mostly perceived as toil and not as self-fulfillment. That implies that the psychic contents of most people are going in a direction which is not that of their potential.

Chomsky again states that very clearly when he writes the following very perceptive words. No answer unfortunately is known. The question may well be too deep for our feeble Reason. Here is wonderful Noam, again:

“I would like to assume on the basis of fact and hope on the basis of confidence in the human species that there are innate structures of mind. If there are not, if humans are just plastic and random organisms, then they are fit subjects for shaping behavior. If humans only become as they are by random changes, then why not control that randomness by the state authority or the behaviourist technologist or anything else? Naturally I hope that it will turn out that there are intrinsic structures determining human need and fulfilment of human need”.