Sunday, April 25, 2021

Noam Chomsky on Anarchism

Ezra Klein interviewed Noam Chomsky for his podcast, and in this interview Chomsky gave a better explanation on his beliefs than any of his writings I have read.

Ezra Klein
You’re an anarchist. How do you define anarchism?

Noam Chomsky
Anarchism, the way I understand it, is pretty close to a truism. That’s it. And I think everybody, if they think about it, will accept at least this much. We begin with assuming that any structure of authority and domination has to justify itself. It’s not self-justifying. It has a burden of proof. It has to show that it’s legitimate. So if you’re taking a walk with your kid, and the kid run in the street, and you grab his arm and pull him back, that’s an exercise of authority. But it’s legitimate. You can have a justification. And there are such cases where there is justification. But if you look closely, most of them do not. Most of them are what David Hume, Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann, Adam Smith, and others have been talking about over the centuries. Namely, illegitimate authority. Well, illegitimate authorities should be exposed, challenged, overcome. That’s true in all of life. We’ve talked about a few cases. Like, say, the workplace, where it’s illegitimate, should not be tolerated, wasn’t tolerated, until it was driven out of people’s heads by force and violence. Well, OK, what’s anarchism? Just pushing these questions to their limit.

Ezra Klein
Who decides when authority is legitimate? In some of the more classic theories of democracy, if you have the consent of the governed and the exercise of authority on their behalf is legitimate. I think there are many of those cases that you wouldn’t agree with. So under anarchism, how are those decisions made?

Noam Chomsky
Here, we go back to the first question you raised, about the unique human properties, like the capacity for thought. You have to think it through. There’s no algorithm. Life is too complicated for simple algorithms. You take a look at the situation, think it through, deliberate it with others in a free society, where people have access to information, have gained control of their lives. They think it through and decide. Take the case of subordinating yourself to a master for most of your waking life. Well, workingmen, in the 19th century, young women from the farms, factory girls that were called. They did think it through. And we can see what their thinking was by reading the very eloquent and forceful literature that they created. They bitterly attacked the imposition of what they called monarchic rule in the workplace, where their basic rights were taken away by subordination to a master, which they regarded as not fundamentally different from slavery, except that it was maybe temporary, you could get free of it. The working people held that we should move towards, what they called, a cooperative Commonwealth, where people control their own lives. Workers should control the enterprises in which they work. Their conception was that anyone who appropriates the labor of someone else is in a position of illegitimate authority. And out of that came the whole picture. Well, that’s how you answer the questions, by deliberation among people who are putting their minds to work. Can you assure the right answer will come out? Of course, not.
As history that is a bit tendentious, but not entirely wrong; there certainly were such movements. Here's my question, which we'll come back to: why didn't that happen? Why did industrial production move instead toward every bigger factories and ever greater concentrations of capital?

Ezra Klein
But people do come to very different answers with this. I mean, you talk about anarchism is the libertarian wing of socialism. And then I know people who end up being the libertarian wing of capitalism and end up very much on the other side. And they’re smart folks, too. And one of the critiques you’ll hear is that you need a certain amount of hierarchy and organization, which I think in many cases, you would call domination, for complex economic levels of structure. So say, developing and then distributing an mRNA vaccine during a pandemic, you need a certain amount of a true hierarchy for that. And not everybody can be equal in that decision-making. Somebody needs to run the organization. Somebody needs to run the lab. And that’s difficult if you’re sort of doing every decision sort of from scratch in real time. How do you think about that trade-off between complexity and deliberation? 

Noam Chomsky
I don’t think it’s a trade-off if it’s done in a free democratic society. A free society can select people to have administrative and other authority to take over parts of the concern for the common good. And they can be recalled. But they’re under popular control. They’re not there because their grandfather built railroads or because in some, they managed to finesse the market so that they ended up with a ton of money. They’re not there for that reason. They’re there because they’re delegated under popular authority, not of any amount of structure of hierarchy and domination you want. You have this in, for example, a worker controlled enterprises. Some of them huge. Take, say, Mondragon, the largest of them, been around for about 60 years in Northern Spain, worker-owned, worker-managed, huge conglomerate, industrial production, banks, housing, hospitals, everything. It’s not perfect by any means, but it does have— it’s based on the fundamental principle of popular democratic control and authorization to carry out managerial functions when needed. And it actually have that in just about any decently functioning research lab in a University, works pretty much the same way. Maybe a department chair was chosen to handle the administrative work, if faculty doesn’t like to pick somebody else. These are certainly possible structures of all kinds. They don’t undermine the possibility of organization. In fact, anarchist society should be highly organized, but under popular control of a free informed community, which can interact without illegitimate forces controlling them.

Of this I have to say that I used to work for a worker-owned company, and it made no difference whatsoever; I never felt in the slightest way empowered by it, plus it meant most of my retirement savings was tied up in the stock of a single company that I would not have chosen to invest in.  Once you get past a certain size, any organization becomes hierarchical and bureaucratic, no matter who owns it. The only way ordinary worker/owners could have influenced company policy would have been to put a lot of effort into getting organized and chosing a slate of directors to elect that we would have to trust to put that policy into effect. Much like, say, representative democracy. And Klein had the same thought:

Ezra Klein
If it trends back in that direction, how do you keep it from becoming representative democracy again?

Noam Chomsky
Representative democracy does not exist. Let’s take our democracy, is that a representative democracy?

Ezra Klein
Not really.

Noam Chomsky
And for fair good reasons, we can discuss it. But if you had a real representative democracy, then it would be very much like this. The community wouldn’t select people to carry out this test because they’re good at it or maybe they want it, and others don’t, others want something else. But it would be under popular supervision, recall, if necessary, and constant interaction. So I think there should be participation at all points. Now, take your own example, distributing a vaccine. Well, people should have to have some say in this. How do we want it to be done? If somebody refuses to accept the vaccine, what should we do about it? Well, that’s a life problem right now. Almost half of Republicans are going to refuse to accept the vaccine. What that says is we’ll never get out of the COVID crisis because we’ll never get a level of immunity, which will make it kind of like flu, maybe you take a shot every year. But it’s not lethal. We’ll never get to that. Or suppose some individual says, I’m not going to wear a mask, what do we do about it? Well, those are problems that the community has to decide. Suppose somebody says, I’m not going to obey traffic laws, I don’t like them. I’m going to run through red lights and drive on the left side of the road. I want to be free. Well, I have to make decisions about that. Saying, I’m not going to wear a mask is not very different from that. Says, I’m going to go out to the shopping mall, and if I infect you, it’s your problem. Well, communities are going to have to make decisions about things like this.

Ok, sure representative democracy is something of a fraud, as smart people have been pointing out in various ways for 250 years. But Chomsky's alternative is vague hand-waving about "the community has to decide." How? Public meetings? Our experience shows that if you ask people to attend more than about one public meeting a year most stop going and only the most ambitious and most radical turn out, leading to profound distortions. Chomsky has argued in many places that this is a problem with our society, where our work places huge demands on our time and we have no fellow-feeling with our neighbors, etc. Ok, fine. But that is our society, and how are we going to change that? It is this transition period that always strikes me as the weak link in every theory of anarchism. I simply cannot imagine any real American community working out its problems in a coherent way, so even if anarchists are right that people who grew up in their system would think and act differently, what happens for the first fifty years?

Because that is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union. The original Bolshevik constitution imagined a nested series of committees, starting with neighborhood committees and workers' committees in every workplace, which would report to higher level committees, and so on up to the Politburo. But this led to chaos and economic collapse. So Lenin and his men set up a parallel structure within the Communist Party to monitor all those committees, and of course a powerful secret police force to monitor the Party, enforcing discipline with great brutality. That got the economy headed back in the right direction, but at the price of effectively ending popular participation. 

The people, Lenin found, can't be trusted to do the right thing.

What would happen under Chomsky's system if a "community" decided, freely, to respond to Covid-19 by expelling all Asians and banning the sale of goods produced in China? Would that be, in Chomsky's terms, "legitimate"? Or would he want the guiding hand of the Anarchist party to step in and set the people straight?

Neither Chomsky nor any other anarchist I have read has an answer to this, except to say that if the people were really trusted to run their own lives and govern their own communities they would respond by becoming more moral and caring.

I don't believe it. 

I furthermore don't believe that much of what we like about the modern world, from vaccines to airplanes, could be created by non-hierarchical cooperatives. I think those workers' commonwealths were swept away because in a time of extremely rapid technological change they simply could not keep up with mobile capital using mobile workers. Such entities survived in a few places, mainly where there was little technological change; a famous example was Cuban workshops where workers hand-rolled expensive cigars.

I am attracted at times to the anarchist notion that a job is a kind of slavery, which is of course what Aristotle would have said. But, again, I can't see any way to make the modern world function without tying our subsistence to productive labor.

Mixed capitalism has many flaws, but it works. So far as I can tell, nothing else comes close, no matter how good it sounds.


G. Verloren said...

From these descriptions, Chomsky sounds to me less "Anarchist" and more "Anarcho-Syndicalist" - but maybe that's just me and my understanding.

I am attracted at times to the anarchist notion that a job is a kind of slavery, which is of course what Aristotle would have said. But, again, I can't see any way to make the modern world function without tying our subsistence to productive labor.

Automation is one hope, coupled with a conscious focus on fairly distributing resources.

We've already been employing robots to perform static, repetitive tasks for a long time. We're currently working on getting them to perform variable task with essentially perfect reliably. Simpler sorts of tasks, like navigating a road according to the rules of traffic, are already getting close to maturity. More complex tasks will likely roll in over the course of the next century.

There will come a point, perhaps within a few generations, where our vital productive industries (agriculture, mining, energy, construction, transport, etc) will be chiefly automated and require only minimal investment of human labor for oversight and maintenance, and needed resources will simply arrive ready for us to make use of. Jobs in said fields are going to get scarcer and scarcer, and people are going to work fewer and fewer hours.

In response, human labor will shift to areas where automation remains noncompetitive - to where human sociality, creativity, ingenuity, etc, are the dominant factors over simple and predictable manipulation of physical objects. We're going to have fewer lumberjacks and more carpenters; fewer farmers and more chefs; fewer miners and more sculptors; fewer soldiers and more diplomats; etc.

Just as humanity's shift away from hunting/gathering to food production produced a surplus of available labor which could then be devoted to specialization, so too will our shift from manual resource gathering/production to automation change how we allocate our time, and which tasks receive priority instead - and it will do so naturally, without needing to try to force any such change via political imposition.

David said...

This interview with Chomsky is confirming for me my general thinking that broad philosophical positions are of lesser important in politics than specific allegiances and preferences. Chomsky claims to be against coercion, but it's pretty clear that what he's really against are certain types of coercion that he hates, mainly those associated with large-scale capitalism. He seems perfectly fine with other types of coercion, such as forced vaccinations (a type of coercion that I, too, am more or less fine with; but I don't claim to be an anarchist). He's able to rationalize his preferences, but these seem to me to be just that--rationalizations (for all that I sympathize with his positions).

Incidentally, I think there is something to that general picture of worker horror at their new subordination without rights (except the right to quit, which for many on the edge of survival was no right at all) in the capitalist workplace during the nineteenth century. Karen Orren's excellent "Belated Feudalism" describes what seems to be a legal movement, buttressed by certain key court decisions, to place wage workers under the traditional rubric of servants, who in common law were more or less at the mercy of their employers, rather than under newer rubrics like citizen, or older rubrics with rights, like vassal or tenant. I say all this with some tentativeness, since I haven't finished the book; but I will say it's very interesting and readable legal history.

John said...


I agree that the workers' commune movement was important, but I do not think they could have so easily been defeated politically if they had remained economically viable. I think the increasing speed of technological change and the growing size of the most productive factories did more to defeat them than legal chicanery by capitalists.

John said...

Consider small farmers, who have been destroyed by agribusiness despite huge efforts by national governments to preserve them.

David said...


Probably you're right. I don't know much about worker's communes and am not devoted to the idea. But I still think Orren's point is very interesting. And the law is important.