A critique of Chomsky: On Anarchy

When I picked up Noam Chomsky’s On Anarchy I was looking for a book from Lifehack’s 10 Books You Should Read to Get Rich. You could call it an airport acquisition. I needed something for a bus trip.

His name was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. He introduces himself as quite an important fellow, world-renowned, one of the most read, a modern influencer among Gen Y’s political circles. Honestly, I don’t often jump in to reading political or philosophical arguments because it’s so easy to be wound into speculative hypothesis (where we might learn occasionally, but often we’re burning time rehashing and rebuilding ideas instead of constructing solutions.) And I’m also driven to argue the point, because I find so much to question and disagree with. Hence..

Reading this book I could certainly see how Chomsky’s ideas might connect him in good favour, with a more learned, intellectual opinion coinciding with popular contemporary counter-culture and anti-establishment thinking.

For example: he drops kudos to Anonymous and the Occupy movement, trashes the American duopoly, the Republicans and Ron Paul’s interpretation of libertarianism. But his teeth are blunt.

Noam’s arguments predominantly come down to: ‘We really need to focus on being nice to people. And then destroy any
institutions we deem unnecessary. But make sure we take care in disassembling social niceties such as welfare so that they might easily be rebuilt into voluntary syndicates.’

I was personally stumped by his perception of classical liberalism as being based on hate. He introduces a parable which I’ll share: two libertarians refuse to form government to build a shared road, instead building a private road for themselves and then charging people if they would like to use it. Sure, it’s easy to demonstrate that working together can result in a more cohesive civilisation, with benefits for all but I think Chomsky misses the point. No-one is saying that a collective cannot be voluntarily formed, in fact libertarians are quite in favour of this – take a look at the Free State movement. It’s simply the exception of social obligation – let people go their own way, for better or for worse.

Roads always seem to be taken up as an easy target when speaking against libertarianism because we really do all use them. Private roads have quite limited use, and many people can build them. Let me propose an alternative idea: You invent a soft drink. It’s great, your friends love it, you take it to market and make millions. I suppose you could give all that money away in an attempt to benefit humanity as a whole, but you’re not obligated to. And is that really going to help further humanity, in the long-term? It depends on who you give the money to, sure. Or you could keep it and do more as one person who knows how to get things done. Regardless – it is your right to decide.

At least half of the book turns to an examination of accounts on the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s. Chomsky argues that many writers on the subject are tainted by their subjective political bias, and demonstrates this from every side. The greater truths I noticed was the demonstration of the acquisition of power in a vacuum: the strongest and most efficient will always seize power in any given situation, by any means available to them. Which was the same reason I abandoned anarchist ideals as a teenager: humans love power structures. Or perhaps it would be better to say, we form them by default. You either have a god or you are one, in many, many respects.
Chomsky’s view of the revolution seems to be that once the government was essentially destroyed, for a short time, a true collaborative state of anarchic utopia emerged. Farmers and merchants formed voluntary collectives. But then communism seeped into the foundling government under the guise of supporting these ideals, while providing a means for those who were originally in power to secure it under a new brand.

Personally I find that the prevailing idealism exemplified by Chomsky is overlooking that very fact which he is demonstrating.

Anarcho-socialist ideals tend to embody a fear of the threat of power, perceiving money as a tool of the prevailing manipulators. Businessmen and corporations are perceived as evil because they wield power over and manipulate others for the benefit of themselves. But the alternative they suggest proposes mob rule, a messy democracy of pigs savaging the troughs once owned by a farmer. And once the troughs are empty, the pigs volunteer to work in utopian unision, working for and feeding themselves. But not all pigs were made equal. One pig turns out to be another farmer – anyone bold and smart enough to manipulate their way into leadership – proposing that they can make things even better, and so the utopia is quickly destroyed.

Orwell, whom ironically Chomsky mentions in a fond context, made this argument with Animal Farm.

I notice these competing offerings: a possible anarchy featuring free trade in property, enshrining individuals in which there is no fairness but the equal right to live, work, and trade. In this case, one might argue, we are ruled by money or the one most cunning in manipulating it. On the other side of the field, a collective wants to eradicate the individual because they don’t trust humanity, or themselves. They hope to enshrine fairness where no-one is left behind. In the process, some group enslaves another. And groups tend to nominate leaders.

I do have an alternative, based in part on Chomsky’s propositions: We swap in members of the public quite often into a parliament where public service really is seen as both a right and duty of the members of society. Everyone takes a turn. These are a watchful jury of which impartiality is demanded. Secondly, not out of distrust, but out of recognition of humanity’s fallibility, I would propose putting no human in charge. We should be using our technology to develop the ability to model a society, proposing the question: what system of government or what order of society will now produce the best outcome for all individuals? Unfortunately I can’t see it taking place because of conflicting and competing vested interests (and the very fact we would be developing such a system, as humans), but I think such an impartial evaluation and direction of society is the only true route for an objective fairness.

As it is, I came to be a libertarian when I perceived individuals as unique, and valuable, an atomic element deserving of indisputable human rights. I perceived these as often violated or argued against, by even well-meaning folk.

Most liberal-minded individuals (using that term very loosely) want to protect some group from perceived slights. But we’re often simply arguing with different modes of ethics.

Heading back to the concept of being nice: I think humanity is desperately searching for a means to rise above it’s roots. Some of us won’t even admit that humans are essentially animals, albeit perhaps, the highest order. There’s a motivation to justify our existence and make our antecedents proud. We can either be thoroughly nice, cure everyone of cancer, and feed everyone (though the incapable can’t feed themselves so there’s some unfairness going on in there..), and even eliminate death.. and destroy our entire resources in the process. Or we make sacrifices. We have experience in that in terms of martyrdom and genocide. To be fair to all humans, while still enabling protection of the innocent, the focus really needs to be on the best outcome for the entire species. Some people may die – people do that. It’s irrational and irresponsible to seek infinite life and expansion without the resources to support it. We should enable our tools to tell us what to do since clearly, we can’t settle the dispute, we’re too hung up on greed or fear or compassion.

Chomsky belongs to a clique whom sympathises with, if not advocates for, a more democratic control of human systems, from the ground up. Workers owning the means of production, the businesses, the people truly being their own government.
For all the complexity of our social systems I wonder if this is enough. Citizens in western democracies, for all our entitlements, decry our leaders for their broken promises and corruption. We despise our governments for their control while gratefully accepting their dispersals (and it occurs to me, we’re not unlike rebellious teenagers with their parents..) But for the ineffectual bureacracies.. all of these problems and you want to expand that control system?

Let me relate a concept I believe is commonplace in Hollywood: the more writers on a film, and especially if there are multiple un-related directors, the worse the outcome. Have you seen those hatchet jobs where a bad script has passed through the hands of seven writers to make it somehow digestible or at least palatable to the board of a corporation seeking a best outcome. A public corporation, by design, is not too far from a democratic organisation. What would be doing but smashing skyscrapers to rebuild the same city starting with mud huts?

Chomsky attempts to prescribe a sense of injustice in earning a wage. That, by “renting” our time and effort to others we’re essentially slaves. Uh, wait. We’re being paid, right? If you build clocks for a living and someone else is profiting on those clocks.. you still haven’t built them for nothing, you’ve essentially sold your investment of time and energy, your share in the product for your wages.
I feel it is necessary to defend this concept of trade between effort and recompense. There’s no loss of dignity here. Many of us desire a free world where we can all trade and benefit – as you learn the skills to develop your own products and mind the business skills necessary to work for yourself.. no-one is keeping you tied down but you. If you’re miserable with your daily wages, stop pissing them away and find a meaningful way to invest them. Life is your own road to define. Set some lights, stop imagining it’s a tunnel to death 🙂

I will admit that I was apparently unaware of the original definitions of anarchist and libertarian. Chomsky claims them for the socialist bent. My notion is that anarchism, and libertarianism, to an extent, are essentially a fluid concept, often subjected to many subspecies of -isms. They cover the expanse of liberal thinking in terms of: notions of a society unconstrained by unnecessary authority, defined by different constraints and perceptions of what is necessary.

Given our broad differences in the concept of human rights and freedom, it’s possibly inevitable that the sole concept we really agree on is this: Authority should always be questioned. Decisions which are not our own but make impact on us should be critiqued. Justification is mandatory; we need to ensure the freedom and rights of ourselves and those about us aren’t violated by ignorance or apathy. If an authority is not fit to the task, they should be dismissed or ignored.

Chomsky offers a quote from Rousseau which felt particularly poignant:

True, those who have abandoned the life of a free man do nothing but boast incessantly of the peace and repose they enjoy in the their chains . . . . But when I see the others sacrifice pleasures, respose, wealth, power, and life itself for the preservation of this sole good which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see animals born free and despising captivity break their heads against the bars of their prison; when I see multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European voluptuousness and endure hunger, fire, the sword, and death to preserve only their independence. I feel that it does not behoove slaves to reason about freedom.

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