Philosophy Weekend: Chomsky the Hopeless Anarcho-Syndicalist

I wish I could love Noam Chomsky, the American political philosopher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of important books about revolutionary politics like Hegemony or Survival and Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky made his name decades ago as a psychological linguist, but then like Bertrand Russell he risked his academic reputation by speaking out and eventually writing popular and controversial books about politics. Today, Chomsky’s career operates on two levels: he remains highly respected among academics as an authority in linguistics, and is also well-known in the United States of America as an angry critic of the country’s aggressive foreign policy and banal two-party system.

I wish I could love Noam Chomsky because he is a self-described anarcho-syndicalist, which means that he favors a society with minimal government — not a state of pure anarchy, but as close as can be safely and reasonably acheived — and a cooperative, share-based economy that would enforce social justice not by coercion but by mutual agreement of the citizens. Anarcho-syndicalism is a friendly political ideal that emphasizes idealism within realistic boundaries, and has proven effective as a loose ideological backbone (to the extent that any such single ideological backbone exists) for movements like Occupy Wall Street.

Anarcho-syndicalism is often seen as a form of liberal/left-wing ideology, but its emphasis on individual freedom and small government ought to make it appeal to idealists of any wing, including conservative libertarians and open-minded Tea Partiers who don’t believe the hype that all liberals favor large government. In an anarcho-syndicalistic world, there would be virtually no federal government (this is anarchy, after all) but everyone would be expected to voluntarily follow rules and pay taxes in compliance with whatever social groups they choose to be a part of.

Everybody would not have to be equal in an anarcho-syndicalist economy — there’s no reason a person who works hard shouldn’t earn greater reward — but nobody would be as rich as Mitt Romney, because history shows that a healthy society cannot sustain that kind of wealth disparity. Anarcho-syndicalism is a “kumbaya” sort of political philosophy — and what’s wrong with that? I find it easy enough to believe in the possibility of an anarcho-syndicalist future because I am a natural optimist, and I know our planet is capable of being more peaceful, cooperative and ecologically sensible than it currently is.

But if I were not a natural optimist I don’t see how I could be an anarcho-syndicalist, because the philosophy is based on trust in human goodness. This is why Noam Chomsky’s political writings often frustrate and disappoint me, because he is clearly a pessimist, and I’m not sure where he stands on human goodness. I don’t understand how you can be an anarcho-syndicalist and a cranky pessimist at the same time. The two things would seem to cancel each other out.

A 1976 interview published on Chomsky’s own website shows the conundrum. After a long and very intelligent discussion about the meaning of anarcho-syndicalism, here’s the big closer:

QUESTION: And finally, Professor Chomsky, what do you think of the chances of societies along these lines coming into being in the major industrial countries in the West in the next quarter of a century or so?

CHOMSKY: I don’t think I’m wise enough, or informed enough, to make predictions and I think predictions about such poorly understood matters probably generally reflect personality more than judgment. But I think this much at least we can say: there are obvious tendencies in industrial capitalism towards concentration of power in narrow economic empires and in what is increasingly becoming a totalitarian state. These are tendencies that have been going on for a long time, and I don’t see anything stopping them really. I think those tendencies will continue. They’re part of the stagnation and decline of capitalist institutions.

Now, it seems to me that the development towards state totalitarianism and towards economic concentration — and, of course, they are linked — will continually lead to revulsion, to efforts of personal liberation and to organizational efforts at social liberation. And that’ll take all sorts of forms. Throughout all Europe, in one form or another, there is a call for what is sometimes called worker participation or co-determination, or even sometimes worker control. Now, most of these efforts are minimal. I think that they’re misleading — in fact, may even undermine efforts for the working class to liberate itself. But, in part, they’re responsive to a strong intuition and understanding that coercion and repression, whether by private economic power or by the state bureaucracy, is by no means a necessary feature of human life. And the more those concentrations of power and authority continue, the more we will see revulsion against them and efforts to organize and overthrow them. Sooner or later, they’ll succeed, I hope.

This is a depressing conclusion to an uplifting piece: basically, our totalitarian government will have to become even more oppressive, and then everyone will finally wise up and revolt. Noam Chomsky has continued to predict our future in the same bleak tones since this interview was published in 1976. Does he really believe that we need to wind our planet up to an apocalyptic level of public rage and frustration before the revolution can begin?

Can’t we dream better than that? Why can’t the revolution begin tomorrow? How do we know it didn’t begin yesterday? And, most importantly, how can a revolution possibly live up to its ideals if it is born of such abject misery? In fact, this terrible experiment was already tried; it was called the Paris Commune.

A few of Noam Chomsky’s core arguments help to explain why he is such a pessimist regarding our chances for evolutionary redemption. First, he believes that the United States of America’s foreign policy is rotten to the core, bought and sold and tied up with a big ribbon for the benefit of imperialist military-industrialist corporations and government departments. (Unfortunately, I sadly believe Noam Chomsky is completely on target about this.)

Chomsky also believes that the USA’s two-party system is a fraud, and that our mass media is so beholden to military/corporate powers that it cannot be trusted to report the truth. I’m less convinced here, and I think these underlying beliefs helps to explain his lack of hope for positive evolutionary change.

Evolutionary change would seem to require both a participatory government and a truthful media. Since Chomsky clearly believes that both our elected officials and journalists are completely “in the tank”, he may have no alternative but to believe our society will have to sink into deeper dysfunction before revolution against the totalitarian state becomes possible.

But I tend to think that Chomsky oversteps on both of these critiques of the USA. First, I don’t think we can blame our two-party system for our political problems. I think our political problems have more to do with the prejudices, ideological confusions and errors of judgments of our voting citizens than with the flaws of the electoral system. For instance, even though the majority of voters in the USA did not actually vote for the obviously unqualified George W. Bush in 2000, the majority did vote for him in 2004. What’s up with that? (Of course, a Chomskyite would reply here that there was no difference between George W. Bush and either of his Democratic party opponents anyway. However, I believe there are significant differences between the Republican party and the Democratic party in the USA.)

As for our mass media’s banality: I have spent years working for major news organizations like Time Inc. and Washington Post, and have seen with my own eyes how giant media conglomerates work. Their output is often unimpressive, but it’s usually not because the conglomerates are getting indirectly funded to “manufacture consent”. More often, it’s because individual publishers, editors and journalists fail to do their jobs well. And, blessedly, sometimes they do manage to do their jobs well (the fact that Noam Chomsky gets steady media coverage — he’s no Lady Gaga, but he gets a few headlines — is an example of this).

I’ve been reading up on Chomsky since he began a little beef with Slavoj Zizek a few weeks ago. Interestingly, my political ideals are closer to Chomsky’s than to Zizek’s, but I much prefer reading Zizek to Chomsky. At least Zizek has a great sense of humor. He also understands the entertainment value of a good movie reference.

I respect Noam Chomsky’s ideals, but his political writings often read mechanically, like pamphlet manifestos. Chomsky is obviously a deft psychologist — his early linguistic discoveries prove this — but he does not seem to want to engage his psychological wit when discussing politics. This often leaves him grasping for insight.

I recently reread a Noam Chomsky article originally published in the New York Review of Books in September 1973, Watergate: A Skeptical View. This was written about halfway through the two-year Watergate crisis, when Richard Nixon was still President but increasingly embattled. One would think that liberal and Vietnam War protester Noam Chomsky would have been ecstatic to see war criminal Richard Nixon fall so brilliantly from grace in 1973. But Noam Chomsky even sounds like a sad sack in the thick of Watergate:

Nixon’s personal authority has suffered from Watergate, and power will return to men who better understand the nature of American politics. But it is likely that the major long-term consequence of the present confrontation between Congress and the president will be to establish executive power still more firmly.

Why does he believe that Watergate will strengthen the president’s powers? Because, in September 1973, Noam Chomsky is still betting on Nixon to win:

If the choice is between impeachment and the principle that the president has absolute power (subject only to the need to invoke national security), then the latter principle will prevail. Thus the precedent will probably be established, more firmly and clearly than heretofore, that the president is above the law, a natural corollary to the doctrine that no law prevents a superpower from enforcing ideological conformity within its domains.

Nixon resigned in August 1974, eleven months later, and Chomsky’s intuition in September 1973 was proven wrong. I trust in years to come we’ll prove that Chomsky’s pessimism about the likelihood of a peaceful and successful transition to an anarcho-syndicalist future society also wrong.

14 Responses

  1. Great read, Levi.
    Great read, Levi.

    I disagree that Chomsky is a pessimist. Webster dictionary defines “realism” as:

    “the theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization.”

    I think classifying him as a realist, and not a pessimist, is more accurate.

    Also, in 2004, didn’t the supreme court actually grant Bush his second term, and not the voters? That is what I remember. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  2. Well, Woho, if one is a
    Well, Woho, if one is a natural pessimist than one will call another pessimist a realist! Works the same way for an optimist, I’m sure.

    I just think that a study of mankind’s recent history shows many sudden epiphanies and moments of vast cultural change. So I don’t know why Chomsky or anyone wouldn’t feel hope for similar peaceful change in our near future.

    And no, it was in 2000 and not in 2004 that the Supreme Court put Bush in the White House. Check Wikipedia …

  3. hahaha Levi! You’ve got me
    hahaha Levi! You’ve got me all figured out. Although, I reject the duality of pessimism and optimism. I don’t think anybody is all one or all the other. I think we’ve all got some tendencies towards gray areas of the two. What do you think?

    Thank you for the clarification on the Bush thing. That correction in mind, makes it much more interesting.

    Hope is as hollow as fear.


  4. “Hope is as hollow as fear” –
    “Hope is as hollow as fear” — that’s a good line. There must be a poem in there somewhere.

    Well, again, when I try to justify my optimism I look to history. Who in early ancient Athens could have predicted the arrival of a guy named Socrates? Who in Europe in the mid 15th Century could have predicted the Florentine Renaissance? Who in the early 1990s guessed that the Internet was about to change the world? I was around for the last one, and I know that nobody expected that change to occur — not even the “pundits”.

    So, again, I just don’t understand why anybody aware of cultural history would declare that the future will resemble the past. It never does. Human society is susceptible to very rapid change.

    World peace is heading your way, Wojo. Hold on to your hat, you and Noam.

  5. Levi,
    I don’t believe Chomsky wants power and wealth disparities to get worse before some sort of revolt, I think he has seen that throughout history, it takes a hell of a lot for a country’s people to rise up.

    From my conversations with him, I concluded that he sees that as long as Americans have McDonald’s and Walmart, revolution is a long way off. I also wouldn’t judge a intellectual by his references to movies, but hey, if its entertainment we’re looking for, well…

    Anyhow, I think with media he has a great point. I have also worked in journalism and found that there is a lot of self-censoring going on. Anarchists believe (oh, if they all could only believe in the same or similar things) that the culture is partially coerced by entertainment and news. Why would a reporter ask the CEO of General Electric (owns NBC, MSNBC) or the CEO of Disney (owns ABC) why he doesn’t believe unions would be an overall good for his associates and for America in general, when Americans in general think unions are just a bunch of corrupt Hoffa’s who end up taking money from the worker for his/her own benefit (the corporate line on unions).

    Kids shows and movies often aim to leverage the power they have via the attention they get, by coercing through the plots, themes and tensions to get their viewers to watch more, buy more, listen to certain bands, buy products that the stars wear and, of course, watch the star (i.e. brand) more. I mean, these huge companies have a great asset, which is the power to convince its viewers what to watch, how to think. Is changing the system anywhere near their interest?

    Hey, nice hit on the Flavorwire, Levi!


  6. Hi Eamon — well, thanks for
    Hi Eamon — well, thanks for the feedback. I know that Noam Chomsky has many friends and admirers and supporters, and I suppose it does mean something that you consider his ideas persuasive. I still feel the way I feel, but I’m glad you’ve presented your point of view.

  7. I sure do hope world peace is
    I sure do hope world peace is coming. i’m praying for it, but not placing any bets on it.

    that hope is as hollow as fear is indeed a great line. but i cannot take credit for it. it comes from Lao Tzu in the 13th verse of the Tao Te Ching:

    Success is as dangerous as failure.
    Hope is as hollow as fear.

    What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
    Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
    your position is shaky.
    When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
    you will always keep your balance.

    What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
    Hope and fear are both phantoms
    that arise from thinking of the self.
    When we don’t see the self as self,
    what do we have to fear?

    See the world as your self.
    Have faith in the way things are.
    Love the world as your self:
    then you can care for all things.

  8. I found Hegemony or Survival
    I found Hegemony or Survival at a bookstore at the Heathrow Airport! Although I found it Chomsky’s writing a little long in the tooth, it is eerily prescient of the drone war technology.
    Chomsky writes with a very long timeline. I was surprised to find this today. The style is excellent and the facts almost make this American patriot–in deed & solely unplanned–want to hang his head in shame.

  9. I meant to say Chomsky writes
    I meant to say Chomsky writes with an eye on the entire timeline of US history. Also, I never read anything of his that wasn’t superbly written.

  10. It’s easy to see that based
    It’s easy to see that based on the state of our government- the total hegemony that corporations have over politics, people, and their desires- it’s easy to think that the future isn’t bright. But… terrible things don’t necessarily last forever. Feudalism had to be overthrown for something better. It would only take a few major laws to put the U.S. back on track towards a fair democracy where every citizen has a voice and an opportunity, and the amount of power one person can have is limited. My worry, (and I am victim to this also) is that everybody is so busy watching American Idol, reading Self magazine and Hunger Games, and enjoying huge greasy hamburgers that “politics” is really more like a game show than something real that effects our lives. Immediate gratification and entertainment are so interwoven in daily activities, the modern tribe is shattered, and everybody is isolated in their own self-consciousness. Maybe some people just don’t realize that we could all have it so much better.

  11. What did the arrival of
    What did the arrival of Socrates did to save the Athenian democracy from the Spartan, then Roman militarism? Did the efflorescence of Florentine Renaissance humanism do anything to save the Florentine Republic from the tyranny of the strongmen, then domination and conquest by the French and the Spaniards? Yes, the internet came around; did it make the world necessarily ‘a better place’ save for easily accessible pornography and 24 hours videos of cute animals?

    “I just don’t understand why anybody aware of cultural history would declare that the future will resemble the past. It never does. Human society is susceptible to very rapid change.” I agree, and so does, I think, Chomsky. But I think it’s just as reckless to say such changes necessarily mean overall improvement of the human condition and dignity as to drone about how the history repeats itself.

  12. Having read rather depressing
    Having read rather depressing and ideologically simplistic works under the umbrella term of realism, I’d like to make a few points:
    1. OP is right in calling Chomsky a pessimist – calling him a realist should not be mutually exclusive. I retain full ability to preach nihilist doctrine while only dealing with objective fact.
    2. A key aspect of realism is ‘denial of Nietzsche’s worlds-behind-the-screen,'(Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p10) or rejection of symbolism. While Chomsky may actually adhere to this, his belief in the inherent ability of the individual to posses knowledge that one simply uncovers (he specifically uses the concept of grammar as is adapted in an average child’s youth) seems to indicate a more transcendentalist approach – the inherent ability of man (pardon the non-neutrality) to accomplish feats unthinkable to any other animal.
    3. A realist would definitely take issue with Chomsky’s philosophical leanings. While some, if not all, of his inflammatory comments (especially regarding 9/11 and the bombing of a pharmaceuticals factory) have had to do with the complex ethics of accountability, realist literature eschews any type of philosophical ethical framework for decision – making — a good example of this would be Ambrose Bierce’s “Parker Adderson, Philosopher” or even Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel.” Characters in each of these short stories are either portrayed as morally compromised or out of place when they make ethical assumptions or attempt to find moral value in an event.

  13. Really, I hate to necro this
    Really, I hate to necro this post, but I can’t resist a hit at my old bud Noam. There are a few (divergent) articles I think anyone who read this article would find interesting. First is a debate between Foucault and Chomsky. (for anyone who doesn’t know of Foucault, he’s a historiographer-possibly-turned-vocal-critic-of-the-state (depending on who you ask). I think his works are applicable to modern power structures. Anyways.) It’s a great interview with a fantastic overview of how each approaches alternative modes of government. Foucault really doesn’t provide a wonderful vision of his future society, instead preferring to engage in critique of ‘benign’ power structures in order to ensure the ‘biopolitics’ exercised by these institutions, really just apparatuses of the State, isn’t reproduced. (Biopolitics (or biopower) is a foucaulty word for the control a government (sovereign, state, whatever) has over the right of its citizens to live and die – exercised through what he refers to as subject formation, or subjectivity). Chomsky basically doesn’t answer this and continues on about how great anarcho-syndicalism is. For the record, I think anarcho-syndicalism is a fine plan – I also believe that there is a significant risk of either economic or societal manipulation by the ‘syndicates’ / ‘labor unions’ left over post-transition – on top of this, our route to transition may be rockier than we wish.

    Now that I’ve finished ripping on Chomsky (too much, I think) I have another anecdote (sorry y’all I just like this). A while ago, Chomsky got into a particularly one-sided debate against Sam Harris. For anyone who DOESN’T know Sam, I’d recommend keeping it that way. Mr. Harris is doubtlessly educated, but prefers to use his education and questionable experience defending american power projection. He recently instigated a publicised debate between himself and Chomsky which, for his effort, he tried very little in. Chomsky would make a well-warranted argument which Harris would either ignore or defend with a bogus claim or statistic.

    I suppose that in the end, everyone’s decisions are intelligent only relative to their surroundings, but I still fail to see why a young man like Sam Harris would instigate an argument with Chomsky – who at least left the 1977 debate with Foucault continuing to hold SOME respect – and then proceed to publicize it.

    Oh well. I guess everyone’s a critic.

    1. that sick debate – really, I’d skip through the first half if you want to contrast their views on government, but the whole thing is really interesting
    2. the less-productive debate – really, I’d just skip this altogether – Harris is quite stupid

  14. A natural interview question
    A natural interview question for him would be why he hasn’t learned Esperanto.

    Many years ago I asked him, via snail mail, why he didn’t learn Esperanto. He replied that he was sorry to disappoint, but that ‘we all have our priorities, otherwise life would be impossible’.

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