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The Stale Defeatism of the “Chomsky/Carlin Thesis”

While criticizing the United States, Chomsky, Senator Bernie Sanders, those at outlets such as The Grayzone, and some of my friends have defended the likes of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro.”

What do Noam Chomsky, arguably the Left’s greatest living intellectual, and the late George Carlin, one of the United States’ most beloved comedians have in common? They both make convincing indictments of the United States in their respective academic work and comedy routines. The idea that the United States is irredeemable and controlled by special interest groups, Wall Street, and Corporate America is the linchpin of this Manichean mindset. Even though Chomsky believes change is possible (while Carlin asserts that the United States’ redemption is a lost cause), they remain disgruntled citizens. Many American actors and musicians, including ones I know, share this worldview. They choose to live in a nation they claim to find reprehensible, one that has blessed some of them with success unattainable elsewhere, rather than reside in a country that seeks to live up to their Marxist or Leninist sentiments. Additionally, though they put forward many criticisms of the United States, almost everyone who subscribes to this mindset is short on solutions other than demanding a revolution they are too lazy to start. 

Many of my music industry associates deify Chomsky, who, like Karl Marx, is a conflict theorist. When my music career faltered as New York’s finest recording studios closed and were converted into condominiums in the early 2000s, I decided to take control of my life situation. In 2004, I took a government job while remaining partially in the music business, relegating playing the bass guitar to something I did in my spare time. After a 35-year music career, this was not an easy decision. I also earned my college degree in 2017; by 2023, my annual income had doubled. Many of my musician friends did not take similar steps and are now not doing well financially. Rather than take some of the blame for their predicament, they find it easier to blame the country or its government. They constructed a narrative that shifted responsibility away from themselves and ascribed the blame to shadow forces allegedly controlling the United States of America. 

By latching onto the ideas of Chris Hedges, Carlin, Chomsky, and Democracy Now, these disgruntled individuals cobbled together a bleak and objectively inaccurate worldview. Very little of their own thinking was involved. I have labeled the collective viewpoints they espouse the “Chomsky/Carlin thesis.” The first part of it is the asinine view that the United States government is not a democracy but, rather, a kleptocracy. Second is the idea that both political parties are the same and controlled by Corporate America and special interest groups. Flowing from this view is the claim that voting is farcical, and participation in the democratic process is a waste of time. (To be clear, Chomsky would not endorse this idea of not voting, which is the Carlinesque aspect of this idiotic ideology.) Third, they claim that the United States is founded on slavery, genocide, and wars of hegemony. For them, the United States stands alone as the national personification of evil.

While criticizing the United States, Chomsky, Senator Bernie Sanders, those at outlets such as The Grayzone, and some of my friends have defended the likes of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. They are not willing to reckon honestly with the hardships these leaders have caused. And despite his anti-Bolshevism, Chomsky has still described himself as an anarchist with radical Marxist sympathies.  

Marx is considered by his acolytes (and even some of his detractors) to be the foremost intellectual of the 19th century, and Marx is—in many ways—the intellectual antecedent to Chomsky. Chomsky, in fairness, has been critical of aspects of Marxism. Despite the notable failures of Marxism throughout history, however, Marx’s ideas live on, and his devotees await the proper savior (or despot) to implement his ideas as intended, with messianic zeal. As a sociologist interested in studying social groups and classes, I have always preferred a Weberian rather than a Marxian lens of analysis; in fact, I wrote a research paper about the shortcomings of Marxism in my senior year at Columbia University titled “It’s Marx, But It’s More Complicated Than That.” Marx believed that the dialectical nature of history is defined by class struggle, and Marx’s economic determinism asserted that there were only two primary social groups, which he referred to as classes. Marx reduced all cultural and historical complexities to a single cause and one unilinear historical process.

In contrast, in an essay written shortly before World War I and published posthumously in 1920 as a part of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, Max Weber acknowledged complexity and multi-causality with his three-component theory of stratification. Weber believed that all of world history was a movement toward capitalism. He suggested that social groups and classes were in the sphere of power and connected to power distribution. Marx saw social classes also as economic groups (defined by relation to the means of production), as well as the primary basis for community and group identity, and as the most critical aspect of organized political action. Weber separated these elements into class (economic opportunities available to individuals), status (a cultural and social set of behaviors that are expected of members of a given class), and party (groups comprised of individuals whose goal is to gain power and control). Social stratification has multiple and overlapping dimensions, along with a complex set of relationships. Weber’s comprehensive analysis illustrates how—via rationalization (the systematic organization of life in a modern world)—a divided working class can methodically use the means of power at its disposal to form groups to thrive and provide insulation from markets and the effects of capitalism.

The historical record has proven that many of the claims and stances of both Marx and Chomsky are flawed. When writing about the events in Cambodia in the latter part of the 1970s, Chomsky accused American journalists and scholars who reported on the murders committed by the Khmer Rouge of producing atrocity propaganda. No honest admission of faulty thinking was forthcoming, and apologists explained away Chomsky’s mistakes. In reality, Chomsky’s life, his venerated status among members of the Left, and his successful career have much more to do with Weber’s ideas than Marx’s. The fact that Chomsky and individuals like him can criticize the United States without repercussions attests to America’s greatness, and Chomsky is undoubtedly not a revolutionary but, instead, a beneficiary of the very system he has spent a lifetime attacking.

Does the Chomsky/Carlin thesis hold up under scrutiny? Upon examination of the facts, it does not. For one, voting matters. Suppose one lives in New York and votes for Democrats. In that case, this results in illegal immigrants sheltered in hotels, lax enforcement of the law for street crimes, and the endless pursuit of criminal charges against former President Donald Trump for financial fraud, as well as for the Stormy Daniels debacle. Moreover, there are stark differences when comparing state income tax levels in New York as compared to a Republican-leaning state such as Florida (a top rate of 10.9% in New York as opposed to 0% in Florida). At the federal level, if one had re-elected President Trump, one would receive a continued federal death penalty and a withdrawal from the World Health Organization. A vote for then-candidate Joe Biden yielded the opposite. As a close friend recently contended, saying that both parties are the same was “once a contrarian position one could advocate if you wanted to sound smart, but now it is a tired and grossly inaccurate bromide.”

In the final analysis, the hypocrisy of individuals who do not practice what they preach renders the Chomsky/Carlin thesis ineffectual. Authenticity is important. Americans have grown weary of politicians calling to defund the police but hiring private security or forcing Americans to wear masks while dining mask-free in fancy restaurants. Similarly, Chomsky talks a good anti-capitalist game, but selling his wage labor as a professor and utilizing the techniques of the bourgeoisie has made him a wealthy man who is, at this very moment, comfortably enjoying his retirement. The same is true for my radical chic music industry peers who use social media to criticize the United States and have become wealthy by hiring investment advisors, touring the world, and playing on Broadway. Like corporate America, they have learned that being a social justice warrior and a critic of America can be good for business

I do not endorse Chomsky’s one-sided moral perspective and wrath, which typically only apply to Western liberal democracies. I am aware of the misdeeds of the American government. In contrast, Chomsky is oblivious to the misconduct of the nations he champions. The United States is the greatest country in the world, and I am not the only person who thinks this. I challenge my America-hating friends to name another civilization in the history of the world in which the problems of oppressed groups and minorities are as much a subject of concern as in the United States. Some of my detractors assert that I am not qualified to say all of this because I have only lived in the United States. I respond that the United States has been very good to my family, Chomsky, and the late Carlin; I have no desire to live elsewhere.

I will continue to extol the United States’ virtues and point out its weaknesses. There is no discrepancy between what I say and how I live my life, which is more than I can say for individuals like Chomsky and countless academics who claim to hate the United States but refuse to relocate to the utopia of their choice. Indeed, this country has serious problems, from gun violence to inadequate health care systems. However, these problems will not be solved by disengaging from our political system, calling for a libertarian anarchist revolution, or resorting to defeatism.

On the other hand, while Marx and his class conflict perspectives are essential in understanding the story of social stratification throughout world history, the Chomsky/Carlin thesis does not adequately explain it. Putting it another way, it is Marx (and Chomsky), but it is more complicated than that. Sometimes, when trying to understand the root causes of inequality and lack of success, looking in the mirror is the best place to start. Academics, musicians, and actors who believe in an American society built on enforced equality and social engineering experiments must practice what they preach before lecturing others. Moreover, if they are unwilling to participate in our democracy or, worse, assert that the United States is not democratic or is inherently evil, I implore them to relocate to a country that meets their high expectations. I will even start a crowdfunding campaign to hasten the process.

Tony D. Senatore graduated from Columbia University in 2017, at the age of 55. He is also a bassist and songwriter. He lives in New Jersey. 

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