An article by Noam Chomsky appeared on Alternet yesterday titled “The Kind of Anarchism I Believe in, and What’s Wrong with Libertarians.” I read with baited breath. See, I used to be what you might call a “vulgar Chomskyite,” meaning I was an enthusiast, but had a crude unsophisticated understanding of what he was talking about. Then, years ago, I had the privilege of hearing him speak at UC Berkeley. That’s when I realized that despite all his erudite pontification, I could not make heads or tails of what principles he actually advocated. I suddenly suspected that I had been taken in by well footnoted rhetorical candy with no nutritional value whatsoever. So, I devoured this new article eager for him to pay off the promise in the headline, but was ultimately disappointed.
Noam Chomsky is one of a small number of high profile self-described anarchists, specifically an anarcho-syndicalist, or so-called “libertarian socialist.”
Anarcho-syndicalism is another one of these strange candies I’ve never been able to wrap my head around. Adherents describe it as a strategy whereby worker’s unions seize control and replace State capitalism with a “democratically self-managed society” composed mainly of local committees. As far as I can tell they differ from Marxists only in that they reject the temporary “dictatorship of the proletariat,” preferring direct action because they recognize that the State is inherently corrupt. So, perhaps of all the left-anarchist schools they deserve the prefix “anarcho” most of all.
It always comes down to private property. I respect it, and they don’t. They believe the State protects it, and I believe the State violates it. I’ve been told private property is itself a State because it requires force to defend it. Apparently unfamiliar with the distinction between aggressive force and defensive force, they usually backpedal when I point out that survival requires force in the face of a murderer, and abstinence requires force in the hands of a rapist. But surely, an intellectual of Chomsky’s caliber can rectify my confusion.
Here’s how he describes anarchism:
“Anarchism is… a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy… It asks whether those systems are justified. It assumes that the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them… 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.”
I cut out a lot of fluff, and that is the closest thing to a definition he offers. No clear principle. No philosophical underpinnings. Just a human tendency, like instinct, to question authority. Noble if it’s true, but hardly a concise definition. Maybe there’s some clarity in his description of anarcho-syndicalism:
“Anarcho-syndicalism is a particular variety of anarchism which was concerned primarily with control over work, over the work place, over production… Working people ought to control their own work, its conditions… They should be associated with one another in free associations… Democracy of that kind should be the foundational elements of a more general free society.”
That’s it. When Chomsky promises to give us “the kind of anarchism I believe in” that’s what he gives us: question authority and a worker’s democracy. So, it seems he ought to question the authority of democracy, if he’s going to be consistent. Direct democracy may not be a system of hierarchy, but it’s certainly a system of domination. Conspicuously absent from Chomsky’s definitions is any mention of violence. He’s phenomenal at identifying the ill effects of aggression in US foreign policy, but turn the magnifying glass on domestic policy and suddenly the aggression is invisible to him.
What of libertarianism? Chomsky promised to tell us “what’s wrong with libertarians.” Let’s see shall we. He writes:
“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.”
He’s playing word games now. That’s simply not true. Ludwig von Mises was Austrian. Frederic Bastiat was French. The Instituto Ludwig von Mises Brasil is in, you guessed it, Brasil. I personally know active free market libertarians in Germany, Japan, Honduras, Chile, Egypt, Qatar, and Canada. I’m sure our readers could name a dozen more. Ironically, Chomsky wants those who reject physical property to possess intellectual property of the term libertarian.
Here’s his actual substantive critique:
“(Libertarianism) 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… 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.”
That’s it. Barely more than a tweet. Go and read his entire article, and that’s the only payoff we get of the headline. According to Chomsky, libertarianism is private power, and private tyranny. No explanation, and none of that lovely skepticism we went on about before.
The anarchy I believe in is characterized by a single guiding principle. The use or threat of aggressive force is always illegitimate. Everything beyond that is purely speculation. Do you think libertarians care whether or not a union of workers open a factory and run it by committee? Not in the slightest. In fact, I’d make popcorn and pay to watch a reality TV show based on it, just as a proof of concept. Although if I paid them they might think they were exploiting me. Libertarianism doesn’t permit domination by unaccountable private tyranny, because the workers are always free to go and work in the anarcho-syndicalist’s factory.
Before the syndicalists say that forcing workers to leave the job is economic violence, consider that Chomsky just said workplaces should be free associations. If either party in a free association wants to disassociate that’s not violence against the other party. If it is then refusing to open your own democratic factory is also economic violence. You are forcing the persecuted labor class to work in the capitalist’s factories by refusing to open your own. You can’t tell me for one second there aren’t enough syndicalists to pool your resources and open a Che Guevara t-shirt factory. Chomsky probably makes enough in book sales and speakers fees alone. So get to work. Prove us wrong.
Chomsky makes no attempt to define his terms. He just throws around words like “subordination” and “slavery.” He writes, “It’s better to be able to make your own decisions than to have someone else make decisions and force you to observe them” with no recognition whatsoever that that’s exactly what democracy is. But then he jumps the shark:
“How can we best proceed in that direction? One way, incidentally, is through use of the State.”
No Noam, it’s not “incidentally” it’s “contradictory.” The one saving grace syndicalists had over Marxists was they understood that using the State was untenable as a temporary solution to societal ills. Chomsky favors the State because it is “under public influence and control” which is exactly the deception syndicalists and advocates of direct action were supposed to have seen through. He continues:
“Anarchists would like to see the State eliminated, but… 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… they can come about through the use of the State system under limited democratic control… I think those are fine things to do.”
The most consistent market libertarians are ready to turn the switch and disarm the State tomorrow, because we believe in emergent order. The best protections for our health, security and dignity can be achieved by peaceful means, and it is the State that thwarts those means. Why then doesn’t Chomsky have the courage of his convictions, to trust that the systems he advocates can emerge without force?
This is anarcho-syndicalism’s champion? Chomsky is not an anarchist. He is a reluctant Statist. He doesn’t even satisfy his own whitewashed definition of anarchy as a tendency to question authority and domination. He doesn’t question the authority and domination of the State programs he favors. No skepticism. No free association. Chomsky needs the State’s authority and hierarchy to dominate those who believe in private property.
If the burden of justification rests on the one who dominates, where is his?