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Noam Chomsky: Writer, linguist... anarchist?
Throughout his career, the famous philosopher has been trying to correct people's misconceptions about anarchy. Here's some of his thinking.
- Anarchism is usually connected to violence and chaos, but as a philosophy, its tenets are more nuanced than mere destruction for destruction's sake.
- It may surprise some to find out that Noam Chomsky, famous for his innovations in linguistics and philosophy, describes himself as an anarchist.
- Whether you agree with him or not, understanding anarchism can lead to a better understanding of our society and its politics.
What comes to mind when we think of an anarchist? Most likely, it's some punk wearing a bandana throwing Molotov cocktails at riot-control officers. We don't typically imagine anarchists as elderly, soft-spoken professors, but there's probably more of the latter than one would think.
Best known for his revolutionary work in linguistics and cognitive science, Noam Chomsky is an avowed anarchist. It seems a like a contradiction. Anarchy is so often portrayed as chaos for chaos's sake, a perverse impulse to implode a society that's the product of thousands of years of social progress. What business does a celebrated thinker have advocating for something that seems so fundamentally thoughtless?
Our conception of anarchy has been colored by its most visible proponents — the black-clad protester breaking shop windows with a baseball bat and spray-painting a circled "A" in red. But, like most philosophies, anarchism and anarchists come in a variety of flavors. Mohandas Gandhi, for instance, has been described as an anarcho-pacifist. Noam Chomsky is an anarcho-syndicalist.
What is anarchism?
While anarchism may not be 100 percent focused on dismantling the current system, it would be disingenuous to say that that is not a fundamental tenet. In a 2013 interview, Chomsky explained how he sees anarchism and its role:
"Primarily, [anarchism] is a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy. It seeks structures of hierarchy and domination in human life over the whole range, extending from, say, patriarchal families to, say, imperial systems, and it asks whether those systems are justified. Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And if they can't justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just. And, as I understand it, anarchy is just that tendency. It takes different forms at different times."
By labeling himself as an anarchist, Chomsky is stating that he doesn't believe the institutions and systems that underpin our society are just. In essence, this is the heart of anarchism; the current system is illegitimate and must be dismantled to be replaced with something better. Popular culture just has a tendency to focus on the dismantling part rather than the illegitimacy part.
A Brazilian protester holds up a black flag with the anarchism symbol. This may be the popular vision of an anarchist, but it would be an oversimplification to paint all anarchists with the same brush. Photo credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP / Getty Images
How is anarcho-syndicalism different?
So, what does Chomsky advocate as a replacement to the current system? Here's where the "syndicalism" part of "anarcho-syndicalism" comes in. Chomsky and others in his school of thinking argue that capitalism is inherently exploitative and dangerous: a worker rents their labor to somebody higher up in the hierarchy — a business owner, say — who, in order to maximize their profit, is incentivized to ignore the impact of their business on the society around them. Instead, Chomsky argues, workers and neighbors should organize into unions and communities (or syndicates), each of which makes collective decisions in a form of direct democracy.
Chomsky's arguments, though, like many philosophers' arguments, often fails to dive into the nitty-gritty of how such a world would actually function. Fortunately, we don't have to speculate: an anarcho-syndicalist government has existed before. During the Spanish civil war, eight million Catalonians actually established an anarchist society, albeit briefly. There was no hierarchy; rather, farms, factories, and businesses were all managed by the people who worked them as equals. Writers such as George Orwell described the Catalonian anarchy in glowing terms, but we also have to attribute these sources with a certain amount of bias (Orwell had fought for the anarchists during the war, after all). And, only 10 months after it started, the anarcho-syndicalist society was undermined by Stalinists and promptly dissolved.
An anarchist militia part of the National Confederation of Labor and Iberian Anarchist Federation (CNT-FAI), two long-standing, affiliated anarchists organizations that established a brief anarcho-syndicalist government during the Spanish Civil War. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Like any revolutionary idea, Chomsky's anarcho-syndicalism has its criticisms. In whatever socialized version of the future it produces, for instance, how would a nation defend itself? First, Chomsky points out that the U.S. Defense Department has very little to do with defense—rather, it preserves American interests abroad and contributes to the economy through the production of weaponry. To this point, Chomsky admits the possible failures of anarcho-syndicalism:
"I don't want to be glib. It might need tanks, it might need armies. And if it did, I think we can be fairly sure that that would contribute to the possible failure or at least decline of the revolutionary force […] That is, I think it's extremely hard to imagine how an effective centralized army deploying tanks, planes, strategic weapons, and so on, could function. If that's what's required to preserve the revolutionary structures, then I think they may well not be preserved."
This problem, though, is just an aspect of a larger issue with the political philosophy. How will a nation-wide collection of unions and communities coordinate to address big issues, like climate change or planning the economy? To deal with this, Chomsky suggests we broaden our concept of what a union or worker's council might be: "Let's take expertise with regard to economic planning, because certainly in any complex industrial society there should be a group of technicians whose task it is to produce plans, and to lay out the consequences of decisions […] They produce plans in exactly the same way that automakers produce autos. The plans are then available for the workers' councils and council assemblies, in the same way that autos are available to ride in."
That's all well and good, but without the promise of a wage, why would anybody want to produce economic plans or build cars? And what about unpleasant work such as garbage collection? Here, Chomsky suggests that most people underestimate how much people value work for its own sake. He suggests that people would do hard work because freely choosing to do hard work can be intrinsically rewarding. As for the truly nasty work like cleaning and garbage collection, Chomsky suggests that every member of a community should contribute equally to accomplishing these unpleasant chores. He also points out that though this would be unpleasant, it would be preferable to the current system, where only those who will starve to death without a wage would choose to undertake such tasks.
The big picture
Whether you agree with Chomsky or not, considering his arguments for a different society can be beneficial. At the core of anarchism is the rejection of unjust hierarchies. Often, defenders of capitalism will say that it may not be the best system, but it's the best one we have. (As a quick note, Churchill is often misattributed as saying "Capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others"; he may not have actually said this, but the sentiment of the quote is germane). This might be true, but it's also easy to use this as an excuse to allow its inherent injustices to go unchecked. Understanding how an intellectual giant like Chomsky could reasonably consider a crazy, radical system like anarchy can underscore the failings in our current system — that way, we can at least start working toward making a better society, which is really what all political arguments are about anyhow.
- Big Think Sits Down With Noam Chomsky - Big Think ›
- What happens when anarchists run a country? - Big Think ›
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.