On Language, Democracy, and Social Justice

Noam Chomsky’s Critical Intervention- Foreword by Peter McLaren- Afterword by Pepi Leistyna

by Pierre W. Orelus (Author) Noam Chomsky (Author)
©2014 Monographs XXI, 174 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 458


Every century has witnessed the birth of a few world-transcending intellectuals as well as talented emerging scholars. Noam Chomsky and Pierre W. Orelus are no exception. Using dialogues exchanged over the course of nine years, combined with heartfelt critical essays, Chomsky and Orelus analytically examine social justice issues, such as unbalanced relationships between dominant and subjugated languages, democratic schooling, neoliberalism, colonization, and the harmful effect of Western globalization on developing countries, particularly on the poor living in those countries. On Language, Democracy, and Social Justice offers a unique perspective on these issues. Educators and scholar-activists interested in challenging the long-standing status quo to inspire transformative social, educational, and political change must read this book.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Authors
  • About the Book
  • Praise the Author
  • This Ebook Can Be Cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword
  • References
  • Introduction
  • Overarching Goals of the Book
  • Overview of Chapters
  • Intended Audience and Final Thoughts
  • References
  • 1 Professional and Personal Encounters With Noam Chomsky: A Critical Self-Reflection
  • My First Encounter With Noam Chomsky
  • My Second Encounter With Professor Chomsky
  • My Third Encounter With Noam Chomsky
  • References
  • 2 Noam Chomsky and the Linguistic, Political, and Activist World: A Critical Analysis
  • Noam Chomsky: A Short Biographical Note
  • Noam Chomsky and the World
  • The Conspiracy Against Chomsky’s Progressive Ideas
  • The Influence of Chomsky’s Work on My Political Awareness
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • 3 Democracy, Schooling, and U.S. Foreign Policy
  • Context of Dialogue
  • The Dialogue
  • 4 Democracy and Language Rights of Minority Groups
  • Democracy: Whose Definition and Whose Interests Does It Serve?
  • Toward a Democratic and a Linguistically Equitable Society
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • 5 Neoliberalism: The Rich Over the Poor
  • Context of Dialogue
  • The Dialogue
  • 6 Market Democracy in a Neoliberal Order: Doctrines and Reality
  • Notes
  • 7 Third World Countries Under Western Siege
  • Context of the Dialogue
  • The Dialogue
  • 8 Re-Envisioning Social Justice
  • Context of the Dialogue
  • The Dialogue
  • 9 What Should Be the Role of Intellectuals in the Twenty-First Century?
  • The Role of Third World Intellectuals in a Neoliberal and Neocolonial Era
  • References
  • Afterword: Passing the Torch
  • Notes
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix → Image ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Image

This book would not have been a reality without the support of many people. I wish to begin by thanking Professor Noam Chomsky for all of his support; I feel deeply indebted to him. I also want to thank Peter McLaren for gracefully agreeing to write the foreword. Likewise, I am deeply grateful to Professor Pepi Leistyna for writing the afterword. Moreover, I want to sincerely thank Professors Henry Giroux and David Barsky for endorsing the book. A sincere thanks goes to Anthony Arnove for his genuine help with the book contract and beyond. Also, I wish to thank Shirley Steinberg and Chris Myers for their support and the trust they placed in this book project. Finally, I want to thank my partner, Romina Pacheco, for her support. ← ix | x →

← x | xi → Image FOREWORD Image

by Peter McLaren

Noam Chomsky is widely held to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest luminaries. His genius, perhaps more than that of any other contemporary figure, epitomizes the ideal of social justice. He is considered to be among history’s most influential and impassioned critics of U.S. foreign policy and an outspoken opponent of the abuses of authority. Few scholar-activists have exposed with such nuanced singularity the contradictions and limitations of liberal democracy and its culture of diminishing expectations of what it means to be human. A diversely talented polymath, Chomsky is a seminal figure in linguistics but is held in equally high regard for his scathing attacks on war, imperialism, and the illegitimate use of political authority. Aside from Bertrand Russell, no contemporary scholar has stepped as far outside of political convention and displayed such contempt for society’s most powerful factions and institutions and the political orthodoxies that sustain them—and achieved international renown within his own lifetime for his forays into polemics—as Noam Chomsky. His knowledge of political history and geopolitics is without precedent, and his book with Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent is considered a paradigm of political criticism. Deploying a staggering knowledge of history that he can recall effortlessly, even at the age of 84, Chomsky has vigorously debunked the strategies and tactics of the world’s greatest terrorist states, including the United States. Of course, one of the primary means by which the U.S. security state can manufacture consent is through the use of the media. Citing the work of Barry Sanders, P. Ramesh (2003) notes that ← xi | xii → television “does not stimulate the brain; ‘it feeds both stimulus and response into the infant-child brain as a single-paired effect.’ Even the video game does not have ‘active’ let alone ‘interactive’ participants, for the simple reason that ‘the rules of the game dominate as thoroughly as any totalitarian regime.’” Ramesh continues: “TV creates the most vicious of cycles: it makes a person more susceptible to manufactured images by diminishing that person’s ability to generate his own, a condition akin to the suppression of the immune system, a kind of electronic AIDS.” During the twentieth century, human beings were slaughtered in wars at rates exceeding anything known in modern history. And our historical segue into the twenty-first century has shown little to convince us that the bloody history of humanity will be abated. Human beings have been reduced in the scientific worldview to inert statistics, and in religious worldviews to “terrorists” or enemies of Christ. Sanders (2010) writes:

How did we arrive at a state of affairs so catastrophic that fathers, sons, husbands, wives, daughters, lovers and friends—the rag and bone of human existence—could have collapsed so conclusively into images, pixels, ciphers, ghosts, gross numbers, into the palatable euphemisms of death? Why does virtually every loss of human life now resemble that frightening model of anonymity from the inner city, the drive-by random assassination, where, once again, victims do not die but get “dusted,” or “wasted,” “popped” or “blown away,” and nobody is responsible? Under every hoodie, we have begun to believe, lurks a hoodlum: a case of our own fear turning us into racial profilers at the level of the street. We walk our neighborhoods unarmed, most of us, but still feeling trigger-happy. We drive the streets feeling somewhat safe, most of us, but still shaking in our shoes. Ghosts haunt us in the airport and at the supermarket; they stalk us on the sidewalks and in the shadows. Just past the edge of our well-tended lawns, a clash of civilizations, a war of terror, rages endlessly. We live in fear, and come alive in anger. How did we lose our substance and our identities so immaculately? Where have all the human beings gone? In short, when did we stop caring?

Chomsky is one who has never stopped caring. As a renowned scholar whose political activism challenges all forms of media disinformation and falsehoods, including those spawned by society’s most powerful factions and their institutions, his aggressive disclosures have been discredited and his character impugned by reigning institutional powers, and his ideas are rarely voiced within the establishment media. And when they are voiced, the criticisms are mainly directed at the hallmarks of his presentation style, which in the hands of the corporate media pundits can become crude caricature: a lack of expressiveness in his delivery, a biting sarcasm, a sweeping knowledge of facts, incessant finger-pointing at those whom he considers responsible for injustice, a withering repetition of the horrors of war and cruelty resulting in a desensitizing effect, and a tendency toward argumentative simplicity. These criticisms are to be expected of an iconoclastic activist who has arguably done more to educate readers worldwide about the perils of abuses of authority and the contradictions of liberal democracies than any other ← xii | xiii → single person, bringing to mind such slogans as: “Whoever you vote for, the Government gets in,” “If voting could change anything, it would be made illegal,” and “Guy Fawkes was the only person to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”

Critical educators such as Pierre Orelus have consistently challenged the colonial matrix of power in an attempt to redress the crisis within the geoculture of the modern/colonial world, and in doing so have challenged epistemologies of power and the social relations of production in which these epistemologies are forged. Professor Orelus is from Haiti, and his interest in learning more about the colonization of his homeland is what first led him to become interested in Noam Chomsky’s work. Very little is known among the U.S. public at large about the political history of Haiti. Haiti is often caricatured in U.S. popular culture as a land where zombies reign. In keeping with the popular emphasis on Haiti as one of the birthplaces of the zombie, specifically within Haitian vodou (the other being the continent of Africa), I would like to use the figure of the zombie to emphasize the horror of capitalism and its casualties.

Capitalism was not given birth to by a mad scientist in a Gothic cape whose laboratory is filled with the crackling electric currents of a Jacob’s Ladder, bubbling beakers, flasks, cathode ray oscilloscopes, and electrodes designed to reanimate dead tissue. Unlike a horror film, where there is always an imperfection in the makeup or the plot or the acting, the horror of capitalism is perfect. Even its imperfection is perfect. This horror is cleansed of any supplementarity, it rationalizes away all criticism, it is completely hygienic. It is beyond ideology. Capitalism delivers a measure of objectivity. It knows what it wants—surplus value at all costs and as such it devours all living labor—whether proletarian or cognitarian. The horror of capitalism severs all nouns from their corresponding verb forms: Alienation is never alienating, democracy is never democratizing, emancipation is never emancipatory. Every action or activity within the orbit of capitalism is turned into pure commodity. All of our heroes give capitalism endless chances to redeem itself, and we simultaneously look to capitalism to redeem ourselves.

The zombie represents the abject victim of all colonial encounters, the expelled worker from the capitalist plutocracy, whose agency is vomited up like a magmatic eruption; the naturalization of the unreal, the ghostly other of capitalism and colonial violence that returns to haunt the very process that created it. The vast indefiniteness that is the zombie thus must be put back into the service of capital as a perfect colonial “everyman” whose cauterized brain removes the zombie from any form of protagonistic agency. In early zombie accounts (i.e., The Magic Island, the 1929 novel written by William Seabrook, the journalist who is often credited with importing zombies to the United States), we are compelled to treat the zombie as an enemy of colonial progress and to restore the zombie to the status of willing, rather than unwilling, slave of capital.

← xiii | xiv → Examining zombie stories and films in relationship to the geopolitics of neoliberal capitalism has been a recent project of David McNally in his important work Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Marx describes capital as a “mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories,” where workers become “conscious organs of the automaton.” He brilliantly illustrates how workers have become mere appendages of the “animated monster” of the market and how they have become, in David McNally’s words, zombified, that is, reduced to “dismembered body-parts activated by the motions of the grotesque corpus of capital,” to “become nothing but bearers of undifferentiated life-energies, dispensed in units of abstract time” (2011, p. 142). In the jaws of this capitalist beast, “abstract time, time measured and calibrated according to mathematical efficiencies, becomes the basis of concrete activity” (p. 142). McNally identifies a powerful connection between Marx’s description of what capital does to workers to what witches are said to do when they create a zombie. Broadly speaking, McNally sees the process of zombification as the reduction of behavior to basic motor functions and social utility to raw labor. According to McNally’s provocative thesis, zombie myths most often associated with Africa and the Caribbean, but also those reflected in recent Hollywood films, have embedded within them “poetic knowledge” of some of the most axiomatic features of capitalist modernity.

The occult ability of capitalists to purchase labor-power as a commodity and “squeeze more from it than the value of the wages paid”—that is, the ability of capital to add value to itself—happens, as McNally puts it, “in the darkness of the hidden abode of production” and constitutes the “invisible powers of capitalist exploitation and accumulation” (p. 145). McNally’s intention is to provide a type of “dialectical optics” or “night vision” that can shed light on this nocturnal abode of capitalist production.

In order to appreciate McNally’s thesis, we need to look briefly at Marx’s value theory of labor. According to Marx’s provocative thesis, the production of value is not the same as the production of wealth. The production of value is historically specific and emerges whenever labor assumes its dual character. This is most clearly explicated in Marx’s discussion of the contradictory nature of the commodity form and the expansive capacity of the commodity known as labor power. In this sense, labor power becomes the supreme commodity, the source of all value. For Marx, the commodity is highly unstable, and non-identical. Its concrete particularity (use value) is subsumed by its existence as value-in-motion or by what we have come to know as “capital” (value is always in motion because of the increase in capital’s productivity that is required to maintain expansion).

McNally stresses how, for Marx, it is imperative not to confuse the value of something with its material being. Value is supra-sensible—it is spectral—since every conceivable good can possess a marker of it universal exchangeability because all value-bearing goods in a world of commodity exchange do not reside in ← xiv | xv → any of their material properties. Value is invisible and intangible and operates by means of what Marx called a “phantom-like objectivity” (McNally, 2011, p. 206); value, in other words, is something all commodities share “irrespective of their sensible differences” (p. 206). The gods of capital and value are clearly elevated above sensuous human agents as a strange and esoteric process of sorcery. The process of fetishization is not what is commonly viewed as commodity fetishism: the worshipping of the material object of human labor instead of worshipping—as Luther would have us do—God’s creation of nature. Rather it is but the opposite—it is attributing supernatural powers to an immaterial, spectral-like substance: value. It is conducting daily life as if the transactions of capital possessed extraordinary phantom-like powers. Capitalism could therefore be considered a religion of the non-sensuous that contrasts sharply with African religion and its worship of the irreducibility of the material and the corporeal. According to McNally, Marx located fetishism in the process of de-valuations and dislocations of human activity and in the denigration of the human that occurs within capitalism “when people become subordinated to things and powers of their own making” (p. 207). Protestantism fetishizes the immaterial and invisible process of value production and sees the products of human labor as artificial and impure. The African tales of the zombies “carry a defetishising charge in their insistence that something strange and mysterious, something that threatens the bodily and moral foundations of social life, is at work in the global circuits of capital-accumulation.” According to McNally,

Africa continues to be plundered for the products of nature: ivory, rubber, diamonds, cocoa, cotton, gold, oil. Digging, cutting and pumping, slashing through forest and jungle, blasting great holes into the earth, capitalism in Africa seems intent on nothing less than a veritable war against nature. And, with each manic effort to seize their continent’s natural wealth, Africans have been captured, whipped, beaten, worked to death, structurally adjusted—all so that nature might be despoiled, people might be downtrodden, and capital might accumulate. The fury directed against nature and laborers has swelled into a monstrous system of violence and mayhem: private militias, state and colonial armies have marauded across the continent, insuring that the natural resources ripped from the earth stay in the hands of the richest and most powerful. (p. 208)

Those Africans who were not enslaved during Africa’s insertion into the European world-economy were the victims of colonial taxation, dispossessed of their land and forced to work in the textile or palm oil industries, or other industries. The most potent of the zombie tales coming from Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere render zombies as forced laborers, as “unseen laborers of a global imperial economic order” (p. 211) who, lacking in identity, self-consciousness, memory, and agency, nevertheless perform drudging labor for others. Here we recognize how wage labor “obliges workers to treat their creative, corporeal energies as divisible bits to be auctioned off” (p. 147).

← xv | xvi → Analee Newitz (2006) wonders why “monster stories are one of the dominant allegorical narratives used to explore economic life in the United States.” For Newitz, the capitalist monster that has been haunting America since the late nineteenth century has been “mutated by backbreaking labor, driven insane by corporate conformity, or gorged on too may products of a money-hungry media industry” (2006, p. 2). These fiends “cannot tell the difference between commodities and people…they confuse living beings with inanimate objects” (p. 2). Furthermore, “because they spend so much time working, they often feel dead themselves” (p. 2). These “capitalist monsters embody the contradictions of a culture where making a living often feels like dying” (p. 2). Newitz elaborates that the narratives of the capitalist monster genre are often too violent to fit within “the usual aesthetic system,” but “such violence offers an intensely raw expression of what it means to live through financial boom and bust, class warfare, postcolonial economic turmoil, and even everyday work routines” (p. 5). Drawing from Marx’s concept of capital as dead labor, Newitz describes the process of moving from life time into working time as “a symbolic death.” She writes that “capitalism, as its monsters tell us more or less explicitly, makes us pretend we’re dead in order to live” (p. 6). Newitz warns that this “pretense of death, this willing sacrifice of our own lives simply for money, is the dark side of our economic system” (p. 6).

Filmic representations of zombies could be found in Depression-era America, such as the classic I Walked with a Zombie, by Jacques Tourneur (1943), which depicted the decline of colonial capitalism. Around this time, as McNally points out, a new and innovative “zombie music” was emerging along with new practices and cultures of resistance among African Americans. McNally describes the jazz of Thelonious Monk as quintessential zombie music in its “angular phrasing, highlighted by unusual intervals, dissonance and displaced notes” (2011, p. 262). Here Monk’s music expresses “the rhythms of a world out of joint, a space of reification in which people are reduced to things—and in which they violently awaken from their frozen state.” McNally writes that

in Monk’s compositions, we hear not only the jarring sounds of things coming to life; more than this, we heed the rhythms of zombie-movement, the ferocious sounds of the dance of the living dead. It is now widely recognized that the entire African American experience is bathed in living death, in the “double consciousness” of being both person and thing. And Monk’s music captures this in the monstrously beautiful cadences of the banging, smashing, crashing chords of an emerging African-American protest music, one that gave a new urban cadence to ‘the rhythmis cry of the slave,’ to use Du Bois’ apt expression (p. 263)


XXI, 174
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2013 (July)
neoliberalism colonization globalization democratic schooling schooling
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 174 pp.

Biographical notes

Pierre W. Orelus (Author) Noam Chomsky (Author)

Pierre W. Orelus is Assistant Professor in the Curriculum and Instruction Department at New Mexico State University. He is currently the co-chair of the Paulo Freire Special Interest Group at the American Educational Research Association. Professor Orelus has received several awards and fellowships, including a New Mexico State University Early Career Award for Exceptional Achievements in Creative Scholarly Activity. His most recent books include Whitecentricism and Linguoracism Exposed: Towards the De-centering of Whiteness and Decolonization of Schools (Peter Lang, 2014). Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards and has written and lectured widely on linguistics, philosophy, intellectual history, contemporary issues, international affairs, and U.S. foreign policy. Among his more recent books are The Essential Chomsky (2008); Hopes and Prospects (2010); Gaza in Crisis (2010); How the World Works (2011); 9-11: Was There an Alternative? (2011); Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire, and Resistance (2012); The Science of Language (2012); Peace with Justice: Noam Chomsky in Australia (2012); and Power Systems (2014).


Title: On Language, Democracy, and Social Justice
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