“Serpents All”: More on The Guardian’s Mock Interview with Noam Chomsky

Seeing that multiple sources have been dumping upon fellow ZNet blogger Noam Chomsky of late (some of which were to be expected, some of which were not, while others are mere hard-ons with a blog—“hiss for hiss returned with fork’d tongue/ To fork’d tongue,…Serpents all”); seeing that, this past Tuesday, November 8, NC delivered a lecture at Georgetown University under the title “Democracy Promotion: Reflections on Intellectuals and the State” (a lecture which, in retrospect, I would have loved to catch); and seeing that NC’s original lecture by this same title, the Huizinga Memorial Lecture that he delivered at Leiden University back in December 1977, has never been added to any of the impressive electronic oeuvres that bear his name (for example, ZNet’s Noam Chomsky Archive); I thought I’d transcribe a brief passage from his 1977 lecture here, by way of highlighting the enduring crises associated with the “American way of life” and the kind of services performed by “intellectuals” on its behalf. Above all, by way of highlighting why a fellow who has done so much to illuminate the many facets of this complex of power and ideology over the years not only generates so many detractors and so much vitriol from so many different quarters. But also deserves his many detractors. Has earned them. Indeed. Has every right to them. And knows that he would be failing at his task, were he to kick around the specimen living beneath the rocks and the fallen trees and find flatterers staring back up at him instead.

The more, the merrier—in other words. My only regret at the moment is that I haven’t bothered to transcribe a lengthier passage. (Perhaps another time?)

Anyway. Noting that he would “discuss the roles that intellectuals often tend to play in modern industrial society,” the rise of what Mikhail Bakunin had called a “new class,” a “new hierarchy of real and counterfeit scientists and scholars,” what we in more recent decades would call the intelligentsia, including “their contributions to constructing the moral and ideological framework that will be appropriate to the tasks of the American state in the ‘post-Vietnam era’”—an era that is still with us, even today, notwithstanding all of the nonsense the past 15-years-plus about the “end of the Cold War,” and the current nonsense about the rise of the “Neoconservatives”—Chomsky observed:

Contrary to the illusions of the postindustrial theorists, power is not shifting into [the intelligentsia's] hands—though one should not underestimate the significance of the flow of trained manpower from university to government and management for many decades. But the more significant function of the intelligentsia is ideological control. They are, in Gramsci’s phrase, “experts in legitimation.” They must insure that beliefs are properly inculcated, beliefs that serve the interests of those with objective power, based ultimately on control of capital in the state capitalist societies. The well-bred intelligentsia operate the pump handle, conducting mass mobilization in a way that is, as [Harold] Lasswell observed, cheaper than violence or bribery and much better suited to the image of democracy.

I have been speaking so far only of those who are sometimes called the “responsible intellectuals,” those who associate themselves with external power or even try to share it or capture it. There are, of course, those who combat it, try to limit it, try to undermine or dissolve it, to help clear the way for an effective democracy which, in my view at least, must incorporate the leading principles that [Anton] Pannekoek outlined. There is a revealing analysis of these several roles in the major publication of the Trilateral Commission, a private organization of elites of the United States, Western Europe, and Japan founded at David Rockefeller’s initiative in 1973, which achieved some notoriety when its members captures the posts of President, Vice-President, National Security Adviser, Secretaries of State, Defense, and Treasury, and a host of lesser offices in the 1976 U.S. presidential elections.

This study, called The Crisis of Democracy, is the work of scholars from the three trilateral regions.[1] The crisis of democracy to which the refer arises from the fact that during the 1960s, segments of the normally quiescent masses of the population became politically mobilized and began to press their demands, thus creating a crisis since naturally these demands cannot be met, at least without a significant redistribution of wealth and power, which is not to be contemplated. The trilateral scholars, quite consistently, therefore urge more “moderation in democracy.”

The lesson is similar to one offered to the underdeveloped world by another distinguished political scientist, Ithiel de Sola Pool, who explained in 1967 that

In the Congo, in Vietnam, in the Dominican Republic, it is clear that order depends on somehow compelling newly mobilized strata to return to a measure of passivity and defeatism from which they have recently been aroused by the process of modernization. At least temporarily, the maintenance of order requires a lowering of newly acquired aspirations and levels of political activity.

This is not mere dogma, but what “we have learned in the past thirty years of intensive empirical study of contemporary societies.”[2] The trilateral scholars are proposing, in essence, that the same lesson be applied in the centers of industrial capitalism as well.

Earlier precedents come to mind at once—for example, medieval attitudes towards the third estate. The “qualities which bring credit to ‘this low estate of Frenchmen’” are “humility, diligence, obedience to the kind, and docility in bowing ‘voluntarily to the pleasure of the lords’”—[Johan] Huizinga’s characterization, citing the chronicler Chastellain.[3] Correspondingly, on the underdeveloped periphery of modern civilization, the natural state of passivity and defeatism must be restored. And at home, in the version of democracy expounded by the trilateral theorists, the commoners may petition the state, but with moderation. It is unnecessary for these scholars to stress that other social groups, somewhat better placed, will not temper their demands, though the American contributor does recall, with a trace of nostalgia perhaps, that before the crisis of democracy had erupted, “Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers,” a happy state to which we may return if the commoners cease their indecent clamor.

In is in this context that the Trilateral Commission study turns to the intelligentsia, who, according to their analysis, come in the familiar two varieties: (1) the “technocratic and policy-oriented intellectuals,” responsible, serious, and constructive; (2) the “value-oriented intellectuals,” a sinister grouping who pose a serious danger to democracy as they “devote themselves to the derogation of leadership, the challenging of authority, and the unmasking and delegitimation of established institutions”—even going so far as to delegitimate the institutions that are responsible for “the indoctrination of the young”—while sowing confusion and stiffing dissatisfaction in the minds of the populace.

Speaking of our enemies, we despise the technocratic and policy-oriented intellectuals as “commissars” and “apparatchiks,” and honor the value-oriented intellectuals as the “democratic dissidents.” At home, the values are reversed. Ways must be found to control the value-oriented intellectuals so that democracy can survive, with the citizenry reduced to the apathy and obedience that become them, and with the commissars free to conduct the serious work of social management….

It is interesting that the term “value-oriented” should be used to refer to those who challenge the structure of authority, with the implication that it is improper, offensive, and dangerous to be guided by such values as truth and honesty: The trilateral scholars nowhere attempt to show that the value-oriented intellectuals they so fear and disdain are wrong or misguided in their conclusions. It is also striking that subservience to the state and its doctrines is not regarded as “a value,” but merely the natural commitment of the intelligentsia, or at least their more honorable representatives.


1. M.J. Crozier, S.P. Huntington, and J. Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission (New York: New York University Press, 1975).
2. Ithiel Pool, “The Public and the Polity,” in Pool, ed., Contemporary Political Science: Toward Empirical Theory (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967).
3. Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (London: Arnold, 1924).

*** Excerpted from: “Intellectuals and the State,” Noam Chomsky, Towards A New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got There (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), pp. 60-85. Here, p. 60; pp. 67-69. (This collection was republished in 2003 by The New Press, along with an Introduction by John Pilger.)

Mikhail Bakunin, Anarchy Archives (Homepage)

Antonio Gramsci, Marxist Internet Archive (Homepage)

Anton Pannekoek Archive (Homepage)

“Thick as Autumnal Leaves”: The Guardian‘s Mock Interview with Noam Chomsky, ZNet, November 6, 2005
“Serpents All”: More on The Guardian’s Mock Interview with Noam Chomsky, ZNet, November 12, 2005

Postscript (November 17): This morning greeted me with the news (among other items forwarded to me by friends in the U.K.) that The Guardian not only has issued a formal retraction of Emma Brockes’s deceitful Halloween-day interview with Noam Chomsky (“The Greatest Intellectual?” Oct. 31)—though in The Guardian‘s parlance, the retraction takes the form of a correction and a clarification. But, more strikingly, that the editorial mucky-mucks at The Guardian have decided to remove Brockes’s mock interview from their website—a fact that you can easily confirm, if you click any of the several links that I have been providing to it over the past 18 days. (“Sorry,” The Guardian‘s website now tells us. “We haven’t been able to serve the page you asked for.”)

Corrections and clarifications: The Guardian and Noam Chomsky,” as posted to The Guardian, November 17, 2005

Chomsky Answers Guardian,” as posted to ZNet, November 13, 2005

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