20 December 2005

Chomsky on opportunities for change

By Tapani Lausti

Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Anarchism. Selected and edited by Barry Pateman. AK Press 2005.

We live in a remarkably visionless age. In Finland, for instance, most politicians can only muster up empty phrases about the benefits of globalisation, liberalisation of labour market or competitiveness in the world market. At the same time health and social affairs experts sound alarm bells about the increasing number of children taken into care and growing alchohol, drug and mental health problems. They warn against a culture of selfishness and money grabbing. The political left, however, is strangely void of any inspiration in a situation which calls for critical social analysis. Probably one reason for this helplessness is the way the left has long ago turned its back on the best radical social thought.

Guides to this tradition are widely available but politicians show no interest. And one might well ask, why should they? They are, after all, mostly agents of the status quo. Change will probably come through more popular democratic means than through social tinkering by hierarchical political parties.

In this welcome collection of articles, speeches and interviews on anarchism, Chomsky charts the ways in which the world has gone wrong and how we could possibly begin to approach a different kind of future. In his introduction, Barry Pateman sets the tone by writing about the way Chomsky sees a fundamental human decency in people: "A decency that has somehow survived, and will continue to survive, all the weapons that capitalism can throw at it. From this decency comes ways of being that can operate within capitalism and point the way to a future of anarchy." (p. 8)

The quote may confuse people who equate 'anarchy' with 'chaos'. This is a common misunderstanding. Chomsky points out that Bakunin and Kropotkin, the two early Russian anarchists, had something else in mind: "They had in mind a highly organized form of society, but a society that was organized on the basis of organic units, organic communities. And generally they meant by that the workplace and the neighbourhood, and from those two basic units there could derive through federal arrangements a highly integrated kind of social organization, which might be national or even international in scope. And the decisions could be made over a substantial range, but by delegates who are always part of the organic community from which they come, to which they return and in which, in fact, they live." (p. 133)

One reason for the chaotic nature of the world we live in is that politics is fundamentally divorced from people's real interests. Representatives of huge economic forces and interests pursue their own path promoting social inequalities, deepening feelings of alienation and creating dangerous confrontations. They are mostly out of control of decent humanity. The politicians, who need red carpets to walk into silly summit conferences, have illusions about their ability to understand the forces shaping the world. In an early famous essay "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" Chomsky said that this much is clear: "there are dangerous tendencies in the ideology of the welfare state intelligentsia who claim to possess the technique and understanding required to manage our 'post-industrial society' and to organize an international society dominated by American superpower." (p. 74)

Modern welfare states can be made to look benign when there is relative social peace. It is possible to forget, as Chomsky puts the point "crassly", that "unless the rich and powerful are satisfied, everyone will suffer, because they control the basic social levers, determining what will be produced and consumed, and what crumbs filter down to their subjects." (p. 158) In another interview Chomsky says: "What is called 'capitalism' is basically a system of corporate mercantilism, with huge and largely unaccountable private tyrannies exercising vast control over the economy, political systems, and social and cultural life, operating in close cooperation with powerful states that intervene massively in the domestic economy and international society." (p. 188)

Chomsky's attitude towards state power has created some confusion and has also been target for some criticism. In an interview from the 90s he explains how he shares the anarchist vision of dismantling of state power, but admits the existence of tension: "My short-term goals are to defend and even strengthen elements of state authority which, though illegitimate in fundamental ways, are critically necessary right now to impede the dedicated efforts to 'roll back' the progress that has been achieved in extending democracy and human rights. State authority is now under severe attack in the more democratic societies, but not because it conflicts with the libertarian vision. Rather the opposite: because it offers (weak) protection to some aspects of that vision. Governments have a fatal flaw: unlike the private tyrannies, the institutions of state power and authority offer to the despised public an opportunity to play some role, however limited, in managing their own affairs. That defect is intolerable to the masters, who now feel, with some justification, that changes in the international economic and political order offer the prospects of creating a kind of 'utopia for the masters,' with dismal prospects for most of the rest." (p. 193)

In a recent interview with the editor of the book, Barry Pateman, Chomsky shows signs of optimism: "... my own subjective, low-credibility judgement is that the opportunities for peaceful change are considerably greater now than they have been in the past. The reason for that is that the repressive apparatus of state and corporate power has been reduced." (p. 229)

A more profound reason for optimism for Chomsky has always been the human nature. Even if we still lack adequate social theory for action, our understanding of human mind has been growing: "Despite conventional empiricist and behaviourist dogma, we should not be startled to discover that the mind and brain are like everything else in the natural world, and that it is a highly specific initial endowment that permits the mind to develop rich and articulated systems of knowledge, understanding and judgement, largely shared with others, vastly beyond the reach of any determining experience." (p. 175)

Anarchism is widely seen as something which belongs to history and has no relevance to modern societies. Yet Chomsky sees signs that people are ready for radical change. However, in a society where people have to rely on information channels dominated by corporate media or plagued by a tendency to shy away from difficult and controversial matters, it is difficult for citizens to formulate common paths to action: People lack "resources to discover what they think and believe in interaction with others, to formulate their own concerns and programs, and to act to realize them." (p. 171)

In addition to the above-mentioned essay "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship", this collection includes a couple of other gems from the past decades, namely "Language and Freedom" and "Notes on Anarchism".

Visit the Noam Chomsky section of the archive

[home] [archive] [focus]