Noam Chomsky: The Kind of Anarchism I Believe in, and What's Wrong with Libertarians

Disclaimer: This is an article posted on AlterNet which I could tell had a lot of important things within it, but the message was held hostage in the worst formatting of a (presumably) recorded interview ever. I only took the time to format it myself because I really wanted to untangle what Chomsky had to say, and break the word-wall down into digestible paragraphs. I also made some edits for the sake of clarification, so it's not all completely original. I tried to contain my edits within brackets. I don't understand why the person who seemed so keen on interviewing Chomsky didn't find it important to make sure his audience wanted to slog through the mess of words. In any case, I fixed it. Here's the original article if you're interested, and below is something you can actually read.


So many things have been written about, and discussed by, Professor Chomsky, it was a challenge to think of anything new to ask him, like the grandparent you can’t think of what to get for Christmas because they already have everything.

So I chose to be a bit selfish and ask him what I’ve always wanted to ask him. As an out-spoken, actual, alive-and-breathing anarchist, I wanted to know how he could align himself with such a controversial and marginal position.

Michael S. Wilson: You are, among many other things, a self-described anarchist — an anarcho-syndicalist, specifically. Most people think of anarchists as disenfranchised punks throwing rocks at store windows, or masked men tossing ball-shaped bombs at fat industrialists. Is this an accurate view? What is anarchy to you?

Noam Chomsky: Well, anarchism is, in my view, basically a kind of tendency in human thought [that] shows up in different forms in different circumstances and has some leading characteristics. Primarily, it is a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy. It seeks structures of hierarchy and domination in human life over the whole range, extending from, say, patriarchal families to, say, imperial systems, and it asks whether those systems are justified. It assumes that the burden of proof [lies on anyone in a position of power or authority]. Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it; a justification. And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just. 

And, as I understand it, anarchy is just that tendency. It takes different forms at different times. Anarcho-syndicalism is a particular variety of anarchism [that] was concerned primarily—not solely, but primarily—with control over work, over the work place, over production. It took for granted that working people ought to control their own work [and] its conditions; they ought to control the enterprises in which they work, along with communities, so they should be associated with one another in free associations, and… democracy of that kind should be the foundational elements of a more general free society. And then, you know, ideas are worked out about how exactly that should manifest itself, but I think that is the core of anarcho-syndicalist thinking. I mean, it’s not at all the general image that you described — people running around the streets, you know, breaking store windows — but [anarcho-syndicalism] is a conception of a very organized society, but organized from below by direct participation at every level, with as little control and domination as is feasible, maybe none. 

Wilson: With the apparent ongoing demise of the capitalist state, many people are looking at other ways to be successful, to run their lives, and I’m wondering what you would say anarchy and syndicalism have to offer, things that others ideas — say, for example, state-run socialism — have failed to offer? Why should we choose anarchy, as opposed to, say, libertarianism? 

Chomsky: Well what’s called libertarian in the United States, which is a special U. S. phenomenon, it doesn’t really exist anywhere else — a little bit in England — permits a very high level of authority and domination but in the hands of private power; so private power should be unleashed to do whatever it likes. The assumption is that by some kind of magic, concentrated private power will lead to a more free and just society. Actually, that has been believed in the past. Adam Smith, for example, one of his main arguments for markets was the claim that under conditions of perfect liberty, markets would lead to perfect equality. Well, we don’t have to talk about that! That kind of — 

Wilson:  It seems to be a continuing contention today … 

Chomsky: Yes, and so well that kind of libertarianism, in my view, in the current world, is just a call for some of the worst kinds of tyranny, namely unaccountable private tyranny. Anarchism is quite different from that. It calls for an elimination [of] tyranny, all kinds of tyranny, including the kind of tyranny that’s internal to private power concentrations. So, why should we prefer it? Well I think because freedom is better than subordination. It’s better to be free than to be a slave. Its’ better to be able to make your own decisions than to have someone else make decisions and force you to observe them. I mean, I don’t think you really need an argument for that. It seems like… transparent. 

The thing you need an argument for, and should give an argument for, is… how [we can] best proceed in that direction. And there are lots of ways within the current society. One way, incidentally, is through use of the state, to the extent that it is democratically controlled. I mean in the long run, anarchists would like to see the state eliminated. But it exists, alongside of private power, and the state is, at least to a certain extent, under public influence and control (could be much more so). And it provides devices to constrain the much more dangerous forces of private power. Rules for safety and health in the workplace, for example. Or insuring that people have decent health care, let’s say. Many other things like that. They’re not going to come about through private power… quite the contrary. But they can come about through the use of the state system under limited democratic control, to carry forward reformist measures. I think those are fine things to do.

They should be looking forward to something much more, much beyond […] larger-scale democratization. And that’s possible to not only think about, but to work on. So one of the leading anarchist thinkers—Bakunin in the 19th century—pointed out that it’s quite possible to build the institutions of a future society within the present one. And he was thinking about far more autocratic societies than ours. And that’s being done. So for example, worker- and community- controlled enterprises are germs of a future society within the present one. And those not only can be developed, but also are being developed. 

There’s some important work on this by Gar Alperovitz who’s involved in the enterprise systems around the Cleveland area [that is] worker and community controlled. There’s a lot of theoretical discussion of how it might work out, from various sources. Some of the most worked out ideas are in what’s called the “parecon” — participatory economics — literature and discussions. And there are others. These are at the planning and thinking level. And at the practical implementation level, there are steps that can be taken, while also pressing to overcome the worst… the major harms… caused by concentration of private power through the use of state system, as long as the current system exists. So there’s no shortage of means to pursue. 

As for state socialism, depends what one means by the term. If it’s tyranny of the Bolshevik variety (and its descendants), we need not tarry on it. If it’s a more expanded social democratic state, then the comments above apply. If something else, then what?  Will it place decision-making in the hands of working people and communities, or in hands of some authority? If the latter, then — once again — freedom is better than subjugation, and the latter carries a very heavy burden of justification. 

Wilson::  Many people know you because of your and Edward Herman’s development of the Propaganda Model. Could you briefly describe that model and why it might be important to [college] students? 

Chomsky: Well first look back a bit — a little historical framework — back in the late 19th-, early 20th century, a good deal of freedom had been won in some societies. At the peak of this were in fact the United States and Britain. By no means free societies, but by comparative standards quite advanced in this respect. In fact so advanced, that power systems — state and private — began to recognize that things were getting to a point where they can’t control the population by force as easily as before, so they are going to have to turn to other means of control. And the other means of control are control of beliefs and attitudes. And out of that grew the public relations industry, which in those days described itself honestly as an industry of propaganda. 

The guru of the PR industry, Edward Bernays — incidentally, not a reactionary, but a Wilson-Roosevelt-Kennedy liberal — the maiden handbook of the PR industry, which he wrote back in the 1920s, was called Propaganda. And in it he described, correctly, the goal of the industry. He said our goal is to insure that the “intelligent minority” — and of course anyone who writes about these things is part of that intelligent minority by definition, by stipulation, so we, the intelligent minority, are the only people capable of running things, and there’s that great population out there, the “unwashed masses,” who, if they’re left alone will just get into trouble. So, we have to, as he put it, “engineer their consent”; figure out ways to insure they consent to our rule and domination. 

And that’s the goal of the PR industry. And it works in many ways. It’s primary commitment is commercial advertising. In fact, Bernays made his name right at that time — late 20s — by running an advertising campaign to convince women to smoke cigarettes. Women weren’t smoking cigarettes, this big group of people who the tobacco industry isn’t able to kill, so we’ve got to do something about that. And he very successfully ran campaigns that induced women to smoke cigarettes; that would be, in modern terms, the cool thing to do, you know, that’s the way you get to be a modern, liberated woman. It was very successful.

Wilson:  Is there a correlation between that campaign and what’s happening with the big oil industry right now, and climate change? 

Chomsky: These are just a few examples. These are the origins of what became a huge industry of controlling attitudes and opinions. Now the oil industry today, and in fact the business world generally, are engaged in comparable campaigns to try to undermine efforts to deal with a problem that’s even greater than the mass murder that was caused by the tobacco industry, and it was mass murder. We are facing a threat, a serious threat, of catastrophic climate change. And it’s no joke. The oil industry is trying to impede measures to deal with it for their own short-term profit interests. And that includes not only the petroleum industry, but the American Chamber of Commerce — the leading business lobby — and others, who’ve stated quite openly that they’re conducting—they don’t call it propaganda, but what would amount to propaganda—campaigns to convince people that there’s no real danger and we shouldn’t really do much about it, and that we should concentrate on really important things like the deficit and economic growth (what they call “growth”) and not worry about the fact that the human species is marching over a cliff which could be something like [human] species destruction, or at least the destruction of the possibility of a decent life for huge numbers of people. 

And there are many other correlations. In fact, quite generally, commercial advertising is fundamentally an effort to undermine markets. We should recognize that. If you’ve taken an economics course, you know that markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices. You take a look at the first ad you see on television and ask yourself, “Is that it’s purpose?” No, it’s not. It’s to create uninformed consumers making irrational choices. And these same institutions run political campaigns. It’s pretty much the same; you have to undermine democracy by trying to get uninformed people to make irrational choices. And so this is only one aspect of the PR industry. 

What Herman and I were discussing was another aspect of the whole propaganda system that developed roughly at that period, and that’s “manufacture of consent,” as it was called. [Consent] to the decisions of our political leaders, or the leaders of the private economy, to try to insure that people have the right beliefs and don’t try to comprehend the way decisions are being made that may not only harm them, but harm many others. That’s propaganda in the normal sense. 

And so we were talking about mass media, and the intellectual community of the world in general, which is to a large extent dedicated to this. Not that people see themselves as propagandists, but […] that they are themselves deeply indoctrinated into the principles of the system which prevents them from perceiving many things that are really right on the surface; [things] that would be subversive to power if understood. We give plenty of examples there, and there’s plenty more you can mention up to the present moment; crucial ones, in fact. That’s a large part of a general system of indoctrination and control that runs parallel to controlling attitudes and […] consumeristic commitments, and other devices to control people. 

You mentioned students before. Well, one of the main problems for students today — a huge problem — is skyrocketing tuition. Why do we have tuition that is completely out-of-line with other countries, even with our own history? In the 1950s the United States was a much poorer country than it is today, and yet higher education was […] pretty much free, or low fees, or no fees for huge numbers of people. There hasn’t been an economic change that’s made it necessary, now, to have very … tuition far [higher] than when we were a poor country. And to drive the point home even more clearly… if we look just across the borders, Mexico is a poor country yet has a good educational system with free tuition. There was an effort by the Mexican state to raise tuition, maybe some 15 years ago or so, and there was a national student strike which had a lot of popular support, and the government backed down. Now that’s just happened recently in Quebec, on our other border.  Go across the ocean: Germany is a rich country. Free tuition. Finland has the highest-ranked education system in the world. Free… virtually free. So, I don’t think you can give an argument that there are economic necessities behind the incredibly high increase in tuition. I think these are social and economic decisions made by the people who set policy. 

And [these hikes] are part of, in my view, part of a backlash that developed in the 1970s against the liberatory tendencies of the 1960s. Students became much freer, more open; they were pressing for opposition to the war, for civil rights, women’s rights… and the country just got too free. In fact, liberal intellectuals condemned this; called it a “crisis of democracy.” We’ve got to have more moderation of democracy. They called, literally, for more commitment to indoctrination of the young. Their phrase: We have to make sure that the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young do their work, so we don’t have all this freedom and independence. 

And many developments took place after that. I don’t think we have enough direct documentation to prove causal relations, but you can see what happened. One of the things that happened was controlling students — in fact, controlling students for the rest of their lives by simply trapping them in debt. That’s a very effective technique of control and indoctrination. And I suspect — I can’t prove — but I suspect that that’s a large part of the reason behind [high tuition].

Many other parallel things happened. The whole economy changed in significant ways to concentrate power [and] to undermine workers’ rights and freedom. In fact the economist who chaired the Federal Reserve around the Clinton years, Alan Greenspan — St. Alan as he was called then, the great genius of the economics profession who was running the economy, highly honored — he testified proudly before congress that the basis for the great economy that he was running was what he called “growing worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, they won’t do things, like ask for better wages and better benefits. And that’s healthy for the economy from a certain point of view… a point of view that says workers ought to be oppressed and controlled, and that wealth ought to be concentrated in a very few pockets. 

So yeah, that’s a healthy economy, and we need growing worker insecurity, and we need growing student insecurity, for similar reasons. I think all of these things line up together as part of a general reaction — a bipartisan reaction, incidentally — against liberatory tendencies, which manifested themselves in the 60s and have continued since. 

Wilson:  [Finally], I’m wondering if you could [end with some advice for today's college students]. 

Chomsky: There are plenty of problems in the world today, and students face a number of them, including the ones I mentioned — the joblessness, insecurity, and so on. Yet on the other hand, there has been progress. In a lot of respects things are a lot more free and advanced than they were not [long] ago. So many things that were really matters of struggle… in fact even some barely even mentionable, say, in the 1960s… are now partially resolved. Things like women’s rights, gay rights, opposition to aggression, concern for the environment… which is nowhere near where it ought to be, but far beyond the 1960s. 

These victories for freedom didn’t come from gifts from above. They came from people struggling under conditions that are harsher than they are now. There is state repression now, but it doesn’t begin to compare with, say, Cointelpro in the 1960s. People that don’t know about that ought to read and think to find out. And that leaves lots of opportunities. Students, you know, are relatively privileged as compared with the rest of the population. They are also in a period of their lives where they are relatively free. Well, that provides for all sorts of opportunities. In the past such opportunities have been taken by students who have often been in the forefront of progressive change… and they have many more opportunities now. It’s never going to be easy. There’s going to be repression. There’s going to be backlash. But that’s the way society moves forward.

Views: 795

Comment by Misty: Baytheist Living! on May 30, 2013 at 3:03pm


Thanks for the 'Hasty generalization!' 

Drink up! 

Comment by Adam on May 30, 2013 at 5:15pm

You obviously don't know much about folks from the Y and Z generations, especially the huge numbers who will never move out of their parent's homes or get meaningful jobs

You should seriously shut your trap before you go collect your medicare and social security for the next 15 years. It's generation Z and Y that is left with the burden of paying for all of that.

This is what's wrong with the Baby Boomer generation. They have become quite condescending and least empathetic group of people who now try to blame the younger generations as "lazy" and "narcissistic" and do not realize that Generation Y has been hit by an economy hanging by a thread, where jobs and employment have become nonexistent, created by the destruction of Baby Boomer failures to the run the country efficiently. 

Comment by CJoe on May 30, 2013 at 7:11pm

@Adam, I appreciate where you're coming from (Baby Boomers blaming X&Y gen for their mismanagement), but please don't tell someone to shut their trap. I would much rather things remain civil, even if we feel passionately. :)

That said, I do think it's pretty ridiculous to blame a generation--that's only JUST coming of age--that everything is their/our fault, and they're/we're all just lazy. A lot of people my age graduated from college right around the time the Recession hit. And it was our parents/teachers/mentors, etc who told us we could be whatever we wanted to be, and that education was an investment, and that we shouldn't settle, etc. Our parents/teachers taught us to have the bad attitude we now apparently have.

My generation worked HARD to get through college, only to be told there are no jobs... certainly not jobs that would pay down the massive debt we ended up with after believing the promise that college would lead to a job that could pay that debt off. You want us to go clean houses for a living, or mow lawns? That's not going to even put a small dent in our debt, not to mention living expenses. We don't just feel entitled to better paying jobs... they're an absolute necessity. Taking what we can get just won't cut it. It won't help. Working 40 hours a week for minimum wage is a waste of time because it pays for NOTHING. In fact, paying that little a month only means the interest will add up to be more and more and more. Promises were made and broken. If we're living with our parents, it's because we can't afford to live on our own; our education loans are eating us alive.

Whatever values we have, or are lacking, are completely a result of how we were raised. Myself? My family didn't have much, so I have worked hard. I almost bought in to the college lie but stopped going when I realized it was a scam... and I still ended up with $23K of loans to pay down. Well, I'm sure as hell not going to have $100K or more to pay down only for there to be no jobs when I'm done. I have a friend who pays $1700 a month in student loans... and she's not even working in the field she went to school for! She's working along side someone who didn't go to school at all and is making the same wage.

Chomsky is right in what he says in this interview (even if he's a holocaust denier): my generation is being held hostage by debt... the debt our parents and teachers swore would be an investment. We trusted them to guide us. We got the shaft, and apparently we're the scapegoat, too.

Comment by Adam on May 30, 2013 at 7:38pm

I apologize as that was a bit harsh. I just get very heated about his concept of the older generation calling my generation lazy and whatnot without fully realizing where the problem lies and what's causing it. 

Comment by Wesley on May 30, 2013 at 8:05pm
Comment by jon0ftw on May 30, 2013 at 8:09pm

Hello TA, my first post! I enjoyed this post Cara and have to agree with what Chomsky says. I have never thought of my self as an anarchist but who knows. I don't see how this got into a battle of generations, I tend to believe more on what the OP says about the system. To me the generations are players and the governments, central banks and corporations are the game.

Comment by CJoe on May 30, 2013 at 8:13pm

Thanks, Wesley... it's nice to have some facts brought to the table. The assumption that all who are in need are just lazy is wearying... and also, ironically, lazy in itself. It's easier to paint everyone with a broad brush than research who the recipients are, or how hard they may actually be trying to get out of their pit.

Comment by CJoe on May 30, 2013 at 8:16pm

Welcome, Jon! I personally think anarchism is a bit idealist, but it does sound nice. I think regulations, and checksand balances, are always going to be required when dealing with human beings... so the system I consistently return to is Socialism. It's a nice balance of freedom and being held accountable.

What Chomsky says about student debt hits really close to home for me.

Comment by CJoe on May 30, 2013 at 10:31pm

While I completely appreciate your story and your hard work, I don't like what I perceive to be an assumption all I'm doing is piddling on TA not having found ways to look out for myself. I haven't been unemployed since I was 17. I'm now 30. I also don't watch TV, nor have I since I was 18 and Bush started a war on "Terrorism." I don't smoke or do drugs, and rarely drink. I haven't been sitting on my hands waiting for the perfect job to fall in my lap. I've been in and out of the service industry trying to put myself through school, and I'm finally a part of something I actually believe in... something I'm helping to build from the ground, up. I happen to spend 90% of my time online because that's where many jobs have gone, and specifically mine. My generation multitasks; we can be both working and interacting on a social networking site at the same time.

I can only assume you know the cost of a Ph.D today since you've paid for your son's. Do you think it's actually possible to make minimum wage now and put oneself through school and come out with no debt? Do you know that the average wage has not remotely kept up with the cost of living? This is a totally different world than the one you lived in. The system is rigged against people. Those who are doing the most backbreaking manual labor are actually the worst off, and the most looked-down upon. People willing to do anything are actually scorned. Making it in this world means looking the part. It means you have to go into debt to afford all the things one needs to get a good job (decent clothes, an education, a car, a cell phone, a computer... the list goes on). It does not merely take sweat and determination. It takes money to make money. If we don't have money, we have to borrow it. If one chooses to refrain from debt, they are unlikely to make great strides towards success because they'll lack the tools they need.

If you're interested, watch this video. [BTW, I fully acknowledge robots are here to take our jobs.]

Comment by Adam on May 30, 2013 at 11:55pm

I don't know about other fields, but nowadays in Science fields, especially Chemistry and Physics, a bachelor's degree won't even get your feet in the door. In order to get your feet in the door, you have to at least a Master's Degree. To be actually qualified competitively, you have to have a PhD. How can someone from the poor, or working or middle class afford all of that schooling, especially when 4-5 years of graduate schooling puts you in at least 100K+ debt?


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