Noam Chomsky is great. Manufacturing Consent is a masterful look at how the mainstream media in America subtly and not so subtly serves the interests of the state and its corporate puppeteers. He has long been one of the most trenchant critics of the U.S. empire, a fact that’s led to him to be ostracized from respectable political discourse – good riddance – and to be ridiculed by Weekly Standard neocons and Mother Jones liberals alike.
But – and with effusive praise like that, you just had to know there’d be a “but” – because I think he’s generally on the side of Truth and Justice, like a relative or loved one (not always the same thing) he’s thus open to more withering criticism from yours truly than your average tenured professor, Melissa Harris-Perry excepted.
My chief issue with Uncle Noam comes down to the fact that, while his analysis of the state often charms this anarchist’s black heart, his professed allegiance to anarchism as a philosophy often appears like a lot of folks’ professed Catholicism: something one claims allegiance to in order to keep up appearances – be it to before one’s radical readers or just dear mother – but which one doesn’t think twice about on weekdays, outside of May Day or Christmas.
By that I mean, while Chomsky professes anarchy to be his end-goal, his strategy on how to get there doesn’t strike me as substantively different than the Marxist-Leninists he mocks. That is, he views the state as a necessary bulwark against the privations of corporate capitalism; a necessary evil that ought to be maintained and even strengthened in order to prevent private tyranny. But, like the communist he derides for believing the dictatorship of the proletariat – or rather, the dictatorship of the Party – will voluntary wither away and cede power to a society of anarchists, Chomsky never really elaborates on how to get from a system of centralized power and coercion to a decentralized world of consensus.
“What, is the state just going to give up that power all on its own?” Chomsky might witheringly ask.
Take the good professor’s response when asked about “the prospects for realizing anarchism in our society”:
Prospects for freedom and justice are limitless. The steps we should take depend on what we are trying to achieve. There are, and can be, no general answers. The questions are wrongly put. I am reminded of a nice slogan of the rural workers’ movement in Brazil (from which I have just returned): they say that they must expand the floor of the cage, until the point when they can break the bars. At times, that even requires defense of the cage against even worse predators outside: defense of illegitimate state power against predatory private tyranny in the United States today, for example, a point that should be obvious to any person committed to justice and freedom — anyone, for example, who thinks that children should have food to eat — but that seems difficult for many people who regard themselves as libertarians and anarchists to comprehend. That is one of the self-destructive and irrational impulses of decent people who consider themselves to be on the left, in my opinion, separating them in practice from the lives and legitimate aspirations of suffering people.
Insofar as Chomsky asserts that there is no one easy, “right” answer to this question, I agree. While I think it’s important to lay out a vision for the world you would to build, I personally see anarchism as a process: I would like to minimize the centralization of power and use of coercion in society, as I believe both lead to great evils in the hands of flawed, fallible human beings. In that sense, I see the use of co-ops in Nicaragua’s Ometepe, for instance, as an example of anarchism in actiom. a significant step toward a world based on consensus, no coercion, where people can be free and self-reliant, dependent on neither politicians nor capitalists.
At the same time, though, I take issue with Chomsky answering a question on how to realize anarchism almost entirely with an attack on his fellow anarchists. And I find particularly irksome his seeming acceptance of the left-liberal framing of the state as the common person’s last best defense against corporate power. I believe Chomsky himself would admit – and the much less radical, left-liberal economist Dean Baker details in his latest book – that it is the state which is in fact the chief enabler of that power, from “intellectual property” laws that guarantee monopoly profits to drug companies to the doctrine of “corporate personhood” that enables those very companies to skirt full financial and legal responsibility for their actions.
As an anarchist, Chomsky ought to have detailed why the divide between “public” and “private” power is less than meet the eye; that, in fact, the state and corporation collude to screw the public and to redistribute wealth from the lower classes to the wealthy; that, in fact, there is no real distinction between the two at all. The Federal Reserve is a perfect example of this: a government-chartered institution that is almost entirely run by the quasi-private banking industry to — surprise! — the benefit of bankers.
While those who would remove limits on corporate power while keeping in place the privileges are worth criticizing, Chomsky attacks “libertarians and anarchists” with far too wide a brush, most irksomely by deploying a red-flag raising phrase like “a point that should be obvious” and a groan-inducing appeal to those who “think children should have food to eat.” Really, Noam?
My other point of contention is Chomsky’s contribution to the sort of political in-fighting he often decries, namely his denunciation of anarcho-capitalism, a system that he says, “if ever implemented, would lead to forms of tyranny and oppression that have few counterparts in human history.”
First things first: I’m no anarcho-capitalist. I think those who adopt that label often have an almost self-parodying view of the role markets and the profit motive play in society, every potential problem that might arise discussed by pointing to how a private company could meet Social Demand X or Y, complete with the appropriate citation of some book by Murray Rothbard. Many, though not all, seem to leave no room for other forms of social cooperation, anything that doesn’t involve a profit appearing suspiciously commie. And many do not seem to have ever questioned the moral basis for private property and the role the state has played in upholding that particular institution – and in determining who has come to hold property – and whether it could truly be maintained in a world free of coercion and the subsidy of state protection.
I also recognize that it’s just a label; that some anarcho-capitalists or market anarchists could very well read the preceding paragraph while nodding their heads. I also recognize that, differences aside, I have a lot in common with these people. Indeed, Chomsky himself admits – when not suggesting anarcho-capitalism would be on par with the evils of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia – that he finds himself “in substantial agreement with people who consider themselves anarcho-capitalists on a whole range of issues,” and that for awhile they were the only ones he would publish his work. He also concedes that there may very well be a role for markets in his ideal anarchist world.
So why the over-the-top, tyranny “with few counterparts in human history” denunciation? While I’m no stranger to hyperbole, and I too have my qualms with anarcho-capitalists, I find it hard to believe that, at its worst, an an-cap world would be any more tyrannical than the one we have now, what with its state-privileged corporate monopolies and standing armies and massive prison complexes. Chomsky’s critique, then – and the mirror image attack on anarcho-syndicalism from the clowns at the Mises Institute – strikes me as not unlike the bickering between Monty Python’s Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea, where radicals that agree on 90 percent of the issues hate each other more than their shared enemy: the corporate state. Or was it the Romans?
Anarchists should be free to criticize other anarchists. Debate is good and keeps people honest. But let’s not lose sight of the common foe: coercion, be it perpetrated by state or corporation, recognizing, I would add, that you can’t have the latter without the former. Sure, we can and should debate the merits of syndicalism and the wisdom of municipal versus privatized police forces. But guys! We’re a long way from there. We have a lot of coercion to remove from society before we get to the point where those debates will have real world consequences. We can discuss the workability of everyone’s desired dream anarchist world as soon as we, say, live in a world where U.S. military bases are only to be found in the United States, okay?
And Noam, buddy: let’s not forget, because I know you’re aware of this, that right now at this moment the state is the chief deployer of coercion and, far from its foe, the chief enabler of corporate power. No, let’s not do away with the social safety net or regulations that, however feebly, restrict corporate excess, at least not without first doing away with corporate privilege. But let’s also not forget that, historically, increasing the power of the state as you would like to do has not been found conducive with minimizing coercion or corporate power in society. And as for reducing that power once you’ve increased it: ask your Marxist-Leninist friends how that worked out.