Notes on Chomsky’s 2013 talk: “What is Anarchism?”

Anarchism, Chomsky says, is an idea that, over the centuries, has “been not only subject to varied use but also quite extreme abuse, sometimes by bitter enemies, sometimes, unfortunately, by people who hold its manner high.” Anarchism, furthermore, resists “any simple characterization.” Considering this, Chomsky precedes to answer the question posed as the topic of the discussion, “What is Anarchism?” If left in too general terms, defining anarchism is too broad an inquiry to comprehensively discuss in only a half hour let alone a single book. Thus, Chomsky narrows the discussion and proceeds to “try to identify some leading ideas that animate, at least, major currents of the rich and complex and often contradictory traditions of anarchist thought and crucially anarchist action,” throughout contemporary western history.

Chomsky begins with a quotation by Rudolf Rocker, who describes anarchism as not as a fixed self-enclosed social system” with answers to the world’s myriad problems, “but rather as a definite trend in the historic development of mankind, which strives for the free unhindered, unfolding, of all the individual and social forces in life.” Chomsky then remarks that such ideas “are not new;” indeed, they’ve been expressed well before the 20th century (and throughout all history in one way or another), although it took form as a definite political philosophy in reaction to evolving, modern-state systems. Although “anarchism” has not always been called anarchism, its contemporary themes have been expressed throughout history, nonetheless.

Chomsky draws a thread through overlapping themes of a sort of “classical liberalism” of Wilhelm von Humboldt, who professed the absolute importance of “human development in its richest diversity,” sentiments which were generally echoed in fragments of the philosophies of John Stuart Mill, and Adam Smith, however, often ignored for obvious reasons. What classical liberalism implies, Chomsky says, is a freedom from “illegitimate” authority that would not allow for free, unhindered, individual and social development and diversity, themes of classical liberalism. Furthermore, understanding the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate authority is central to understanding Chomsky’s political and social philosophy.

Chomsky says:

“The core of the anarchist tradition, as I understand it, is that power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate. So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.”

States, in Chomsky’s view, constitute illegitimate authority. Elsewhere, Chomsky’s said, States “don’t have a concern for justice. States don’t act on moral grounds;” they “are instruments of power and violence, that’s true of all states; they act in the interests of the groups that dominate them.” That’s the purpose of states. States exist to protect the interests of and provide security for wealth and power. The State is wielded to control the “rabble,” the “democracy.” This is why States, to a great degree, exist; and thus, their authority, which universally claims to exist for the good and security of “the people” or “masses,” but clearly does not, is, therefore, illegitimate.

Legitimate authority, however, would be a source of authority that one either has over their self or others, which performs the authoritative functions it claims to and is self-justifying. For example, Chomsky says:

“If I’m walking down the street with my four-year-old granddaughter, and she starts to run into the street, and I grab her arm and pull her back, that’s an exercise of power and authority, but I can give a justification for it, and it’s obvious what the justification would be.”

Thus authority must be self-justifying; States, clearly, are not. Their justifications invariably end in contradictions, not, however, because they’re the wrong justifications, but, rather, because states are inherently anti-democratic and entirely against individual and collective self-determination, which are, Chomsky believes, central themes of anarchist thought, very generally speaking.

With this in mind, Chomsky says, “institutions that constrain…human development,” such as States and other oppressive forms of socio-political organization, “are illegitimate, unless, of course, they can somehow justify themselves.” In these terms, expressed in even some mainstream strands of classic liberal thought, Chomsky says, anarchism:

“is a tendency in human development that seeks to identify structures of hierarchy, domination, authority, and others that constrain human development, and then it seeks to subject them to a very reasonable challenge: justify yourself, demonstrate that you’re legitimate — And maybe in some special circumstances or conceivably in principle, and if you can’t meet that challenge, which is the usual case, the structures should be dismantled.”

Chomsky adds, furthermore, that not only should illegitimate structures be dismantled, but they should, rightly, “be reconstructed from below.” Which means that authoritarian structures cannot be dismantled through the hierarchical systems of state power that claim to work for the interests of the demos, or the democratic will of “the people” or “democracy,” but only by the empowerment of a self-determining populace seeking to once and for all, dismantle an oppressive state, which limits the “free, unhindered, individual and social development and diversity” of the population for the sake of the “free, unhindered” development of the state for the sake of the wealth and power of an extreme minority.

Thus, Chomsky in no way claims that either expanding state power for the sake of wealth and power or for the sake of increasing free social development and diversity may be a means to dismantling the illegitimate state. There is, in reality, therefore, either two choices for substantial political action: either support the aims of the state, namely, to secure and increase wealth and power for an extreme minority (the plutocracy) against a great majority (the demos) or support the aims of the majority, which may mean, perhaps, providing basic resources, things like income, education, healthcare, food, and shelter, things of which the state and corporations have a virtual monopoly. Some may argue, however, that there are other ways to address current problems. One may resist participating in state politics altogether as much as they’re able or they can simply do nothing. Both of these approaches, however, especially for those with a relative degree of privilege within society, merely end at upholding oppressive state forces by allowing them to fester and grow, and thus decrease the size and brutality of “the cage.” In other words, one can either acknowledge the oppressive elements of which their privilege is granted and work actively against such forces or they may not. The latter does little in the way of dismantling wealth and power, but the former may, however. To act against illegitimate authority, therefore, is moral, and to not act against it or act to support it (by ignoring it) is thus immoral, within this framework. But I digress.

The high ideals of the enlightenment and romantic eras as regards “individual and collective liberty” and self-determination, however, “foundered on the shoals of rising industrial capitalism,” which is completely antithetical to the central aims to much of classic liberal social and moral philosophy, generally. Nevertheless, Rocker argues, Chomsky says, “quite plausibly,” that the central themes of classic liberalism “remain alive in the libertarian socialist traditions,” which “range pretty widely…they range from Left anti-Bolshevik Marxism…anarchosyndicalism” to “worker-controlled enterprises” within the United States, Mexico, Spain, and cooperative movements throughout the world, including within feminist and human rights activism, to name a few. Chomsky’s view of libertarian socialism in the tradition of Rocker is thus, a broad and relatively comprehensive form of “anti-statist” anarchism’s. Which are subject, moreover, to the overarching power of existing oppressive state systems which now have a monopoly on the world’s resources, to include outer space.

Thus, Chomsky asks, “Why should anyone defend illegitimate state structures? No reason, of course.” Thus it is a truism that as moral agents who believe in the principles of self-determination we should “challenge coercive institutions of all kinds” and demand that they “justify themselves,” and commence to “dismantle” and “reconstruct” them into communal, anti-state forms if they cannot. This is easy to say Chomsky says, but not easy to “act on in practice,” however.

Rocker says anarchism, furthermore, seeks to free labor from “economic exploitation…and to free society from… political guardianship.” Thus it follows, whatever form a state guardianship assumes, it is by its nature antithetical to certain philosophies of classic liberalism and the aims of libertarian socialism, namely, “an alliance of free groups” of all people “based on cooperative labour and a planned administration of things in the interest of the community.” Moreover, Rocker, says Chomsky, was not only a theorist of anarchism but also an activist who urged the workers and their organizations to create “not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself within the current society.” If one wishes to seriously change the structures and dynamics of political power, to create political and ideological change “within the current society” seems obvious.

Chomsky, furthermore, says that anarchists today, who envision an end to states, also, see it as their duty to use whatever means necessary to “chip away” at totalitarian forms of power whenever possible. Since the state has a virtual monopoly on the means of socio-political control, whether it’s resources, violence, or propaganda, to name a few, those are also the means by which are available to anarchists, if they should choose to employ them. Thus, for instance, given the choice between supporting an unpopular “socialist” running for city counsel who “promises” to fight for increasing social services and a popular capitalist who promises to further strip social services, an anarchist should of course support that which promises to distribute more resources to the poorer majority rather than the wealthier minority. The third option, of course, is to not do anything and thus maintain one’s relative privileges and traditional state power. People, after, “live and suffer and endure in this world…not some world we imagine.” Therefore, “all the means available should be used.” This is not a contradiction to the anarchist principles Rocker and others put forward, Chomsky says. They are, quite the opposite, they’re in line with their aims. The “state,” in this sense, becomes an instrument that can either be used wholesale against the majority, or it can be used, in certain instances, to provide a modicum of security, resources, or protections for portions of society or the environment. There are, at this point, no discernable alternatives. An anarchist from a distance may ridicule Native American activists for demanding the state block a corporation from building a pipeline through their Sacred Lands and waterways, but the result may mean the difference between fresh or poisoned water, furthering settler colonialism or preserving Sacred commons.

There is, therefore, no contradiction in the using “any means necessary” to gain freedom from state oppression so long as one has as their aims the end of such oppression and conscious awareness that such ends will not ultimately be achieved through only existing structures and mechanisms. The abolition of chattel slavery was a great victory, to be sure, yet was not put to an end wholly outside existing structures and systems, but through the many channels of state bureaucracy and violence. This is not to say that the methods employed to “chip away at” and ultimately end slavery outside the state systems, such as the countless slave rebellions and the Underground Railroad, were not instrumental forces, but that it was not finally terminated solely outside the traditional mechanisms of the state, i.e., political and legal changes and extreme violence culminating ultimately in a Civil War. Thus, any means should be employed to “safeguard and benefit” people “even if the long-term goal is to displace” the state’s devices. Workers at a corporation, for example, may be trying to unionize in order to gain a greater degree of security and resources, which may come down to either supporting the workers’ right to unionize, siding with the state and corporation, or advocating against working through traditional, legal channels because “the state cannot be dismantled through the state.” The first option may end with a worker’s union and increased protections; the second option supports wealth and power; and the third supports wealth and power. The difference in anarchist opinion here, it seems, is in the belief that state mechanisms can effectively dismantle the state or understanding that they can’t, but that they, nevertheless, can still be used, indeed, should be used to help the disenfranchised public whenever possible, that is, if we take the “freedom of self-determination” seriously. If the public says it wants bread and roses, help them get them. Thus, the choice between working strategically within certain state structures or not, oftentimes comes down to the degree of one’s privileges. If relatively privileged “anarchist” chooses not to support a strategy that uses the state to combat wealth and power for a particular “victory,” they may perhaps feel they’ve lost nothing; however, it does not follow that others have not lost nor gained. Chomsky says:

The more power and privilege you have, the less it’s necessary to think because you can do what you want anyway. When power and privilege decline, willingness to think becomes part of survival.”

In other words, if someone without the privileges I have, consequently, by virtue of their not having privileges, determines for their self that voting to maintain the local school-lunch program will help them here and now in the actual world and “not some distant world,” then it is my obligation as one who believes in certain principles of anarchism, those of free self-determination, to set aside my pride and use my privileges to help, whenever and wherever I may.

The idea, furthermore, that allowing the state to self-destruct will lead to an increase in anarchism, democracy, socialism, or communism is baseless. Quite the contrary, there is far more evidence that an authoritarian and “capitalist” state left alone without the threat of democratic challenges will quickly increase its authoritarian and fascist nature. But again I digress.

To describe the relationship between power and wealth, and democracy regarding the state, Chomsky uses a metaphor from “the Brazilian worker’s movement.” In Brazil:

“millions of workers have become organized into rural unions which are very rarely discussed. One of the slogans that they use which is relevant here, is that we should “expand the floor of the cage.” We know we’re in a cage. We know we’re trapped. We’re going to expand the floor, meaning we will extend to the limits what the cage will allow. And we intend to destroy the cage. But not by attacking the cage when we’re vulnerable, so they’ll murder us. That’s completely correct. You have to protect the cage when it’s under attack from even worse predators from outside, like private power. And you have to expand the floor of the cage, recognizing that it’s a cage. These are all preliminaries to dismantling it. Unless people are willing to tolerate that level of complexity, they’re going to be of no use to people who are suffering and who need help, or, for that matter, to themselves.”

It is a truism, thus, that people, in order to grow, organize, and fight must not only be able to eat but indeed, live. That there can be no freedom from the cage if people are not able to thrive is obvious. If consciousness of the cage depends, as some believe, on the cage getting smaller and thus, existing within the state becoming increasingly insufferable, then such a consciousness will spring, far too late, within an emaciated and dying population; which, moreover, are far more likely to turn naturally on each other or support wealth and power as resources diminish, so history proves. Another state or power, then, will likely sweep in to take over the failing system, or, all systems will end together, which seems to be the direction the current leading state-imperial system is carrying us. An alternative, perhaps, is a caged society becoming stronger and growing larger, healthier, and more organized, and more conscious within the cage while at the same time planning and aiming to overturn the cage altogether. The abolitionist movement helped to extend the cage as the slave masters continued to decrease the cage; the feminist movement expanded the cage enough to build support for women’s rights as the masters fought to decrease women’s rights; the expansion of the cage has been used to guard Native American’s and their Sacred Lands from complete annihilation and subjugation by wealth and power; the examples are myriad. This is hardly an apology for “state interventionism,” the nature of the imperial state, but one for strategic approaches to increasing self-determination and protection when the expansion or retraction of public resources is the only immediate option, in the real world. More often than not, the state is the only mechanism many have at their disposal, as disgusting as that fact may be for some anarchists, it is true nonetheless. Thus, a population having no immediate options to guard against the ravages of wealth and power or the corporation other than the state or federal government, is not a failure on the population, but on those conscious activists who failed to prepare alternate sources of power for the majority oppressed by the state, those “savage beasts roaming outside” the cage, “namely, the predatory, state-supported, capitalist institutions.” Even the most minor reallocation of resources from the private wealth to social systems may mean the difference between bread or nothing.

Now, given the historic context of the expansion of the US cage, there is, it seems, two approaches. One is the most prevalent and ultimately destructive, and it comes in the form of US liberalism and progressivism, which views the cage as a natural, necessary, and inevitable means to socio-political organization. This is quite different than the far less popular approach, namely, that of anarchism, which not only views added resources to the general population as a positive means to creating and expanding anti-capitalist and anti-statist social movements but that crucially, the aim of dismantling the cage altogether must be kept at the forefront. Thus, the aims of the progressive end at expansion of the cage without a goal of dismantling it, therefore, protects the cage, the state, through reformations and nationalist allegiances, while the anarchists “intend to destroy the cage.” It is not enough, history shows, to ask an indoctrinated population to expand the cage with the hopes of liberation and destroying systems of oppression piecemeal over generations because it merely reaffirms the very design of the myth of “democracy” and progress. One must go further, and declare that the aim is the destruction of the cage. These are major differences. One method reinforces the cage while, at times, expanding it, but mostly superficially. The other method expands the cage while also weakening it by furthering a growing interest in upending it. One would be hard-pressed to find any mainstream liberal or progressive nowadays who would say that “workers should be the masters of their own industrial fate.” That is a certain way to be expelled from the liberal-conservative establishment. Thus are some of the differences between the two cage “expansionist” philosophies, it is the difference between struggling not “just for bread, but for roses” as well.

All of the various forms of “guardianship,” Chomsky says, whether it’s the aristocracy, technocracy, the Roosevelt, Wilson, Kennedy the liberal intelligentsia, are among those who “seek to put the public in their place” and are “free from democratic dogmatisms about the capacity of the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders to enter the political arena.” There are, however, disputes amongst the planners and managers of the state regarding who should run society. The liberal “intellectual” vie for a technocratically run system, while others think bankers or corporate executives should. “In other versions,” some think it should “be the Central Committee or the guardian council of clerics,” for instance. The point being, all of the political philosophies that require a top-down, centralized form of authoritarian government, where an abstract state, or whatever it may be called, are systems in which few have power over every particular individual, in theory. Furthermore, they are all “examples of the ecclesiastical and political guardianship that the genuine libertarian tradition seeks to dismantle and reconstruct from below, while also changing industry from a feudalistic to a democratic social order, one that’s based on workers control, community control,” and “respects the producer as a genuine person, not a tool in the hands of others, in accordance with a libertarian tradition that has deep roots, and like Marx’s old mole, is always burrowing quite close to the surface and ready to spring forth.”