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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 ›
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How can we promote the creation of new neurons - and why is it so important?
- Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth.
- After birth, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain: the olfactory bulb (which is responsible for our sense of smell) and the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory, spatial navigation, and emotional processing).
- Research from the 1960s proves creating new neurons as adults is possible, and modern-day research explains how (and why) we should promote new neuron growth.
Two parts of the brain can continue growing through neurogenesis<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkyMzk2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwOTAwODc1MH0.4GDLlZmkwuD0-pJ0s0UWcUoYXMy95a-AM61a_QAlAeA/img.jpg?width=980" id="2e77e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4e23499fdf3b2185533979083fd02db7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="brain made of twigs and plants concept of neurogenesis" />
Neurogenesis is still possible well into adulthood in two very important parts of the human brain.
Image by EtiAmmos on Shutterstock<p>Although most people are aware that aging or bad habits such as heavy alcohol use can contribute to the deterioration of our brains, not many of us give thought to how we can generate new brain cells.</p><p>Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth. </p><p><strong>After birth, however, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain:</strong></p><ul><li>The olfactory bulb, which is a structure of the forebrain that's responsible for our sense of smell. </li><li>The hippocampus, which is a structure of the brain located within the temporal lobe (just above your ears) - this area is important for learning, memory, regulation, of emotions and spatial navigation. </li></ul><p>Of course, when this information first came to light <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13860748" target="_blank">back in the 1960s</a>, the next natural question was: How do we promote neurogenesis in those areas where it's still possible? </p><p>Researchers today believe there are activities you can do (some of them may be things you already do on a daily basis) that can promote neurogenesis in your brain. </p><p><strong>Why is it important to promote the growth of new neurons in adulthood?</strong></p><p>We produce an estimated 700 million neurons per day in the hippocampus - this means by the time we reach the age of 50, we will have exchanged the neurons we were born within that area of the brain with new (adult-generated) neurons. </p><p>If we don't promote this exchange with the growth of new neurons, we may block certain abilities these new neurons help us with (such as keeping our memory sharp, for example). </p>
4 ways to promote neurogenesis in your brain<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkyMzk2Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTE3NjczNH0.qyzh_AIUPKfaQIa1QEq4yTNCAAK9nYkH3HFV9vWXwww/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C104&height=700" id="64a68" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee1307fe2dd61ae425552da56db3c5ff" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="child playing trumpet concept of learning a new instrument neurogenesis" />
Learning a new instrument helps promote neurogenesis.
Photo by DenisProduction.com on Shutterstock<p><strong>Intermittent fasting</strong></p><p><a href="https://law.stanford.edu/2015/01/09/lawandbiosciences-2015-01-09-intermittent-fasting-try-this-at-home-for-brain-health/" target="_blank">A 2015 Stanford study</a> examined the link between <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-ways-to-do-intermittent-fasting#section1" target="_blank">intermittent fasting</a> and neurogenesis. Calorie restriction and fasting can not only increase synaptic plasticity and promote neuron growth but it can also decrease your risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases and boost cognitive function. </p><p><u>Two of the most common ways you can intermittently fast are: </u></p><ul><li>16 hours per day every day - this is a method where you are able to eat for an 8 hour period of the day and fast for 16 hours of the day. Many people begin their "fast" after dinner, pushing their morning meal far enough towards lunch that most of their "off" eating time happens while they are asleep anyways. </li></ul><ul><li>24 hours every week - this is a method where once a week you fast for an entire day. Some people prefer this method because the rest of the week can resume as normal - but for many, this is a difficult way to fast. </li></ul><p><strong>Traveling to new places</strong></p><p>While traveling is something many of us enjoy — scenic routes and new fun experiences — these things also promote neurogenesis while we're on vacation. <a href="https://www.chicagotribune.com/travel/ct-xpm-2014-01-28-sc-trav-0128-travel-mechanic-20140128-story.html" target="_blank">Paul Nussbaum</a>, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that the mental benefits of traveling are very clear.<br></p><p><em>"When you expose your brain to an environment that's novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts. Those new and challenging situations cause the brain to sprout dendrites (dangling extensions) which grow the brain's capacity." </em></p><p><strong>Learning a new instrument</strong></p><p>The mental health benefits of music have long been studied, but did you know that learning a new instrument can promote new neuron growth? </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996135/" target="_blank">this 2010 study</a>, learning to play a new musical instrument is an intense, multisensory motor experience that requires that acquisition and maintenance of skills over your entire lifetime - which of course, promotes the new formation of new neural networks. </p><p>When is the best time to begin learning a new instrument? Childhood, of course. </p><p><em>"Learning to play a new musical instrument in childhood can result in long-lasting changes in brain organization," </em>according to the study mentioned above. </p><p>While learning an instrument in adulthood will also promote neurogenesis, children who began training with a musical instrument before the age of 7 have shown that they have a significantly larger corpus callosum (the area of the brain the allows communication between the two hemispheres of the brain) than many adults. </p><p><strong>Reading novels</strong></p><p>A study from <a href="http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-novel-look-at-how-stories-may-change.html" target="_blank">Emory University</a> showed there was an increase in ongoing connectivity in the brains of participants after reading the same (fiction) novel. </p><p>In this study, enhanced brain activity was observed in the region that control physical sensations and movement. Reading a novel, according to lead researcher Gregory Berns, can transport you into the body of the protagonist. </p><p>This ability to shift into another mental state is a vital skill that promotes healthy neurogenesis in those areas of the brain. </p>
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- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
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