Noam Chomsky, anarchist, on the impossibility of anarchism

Article by Charles Davis.

I’ll always respect Noam as the leading critic of U.S. foreign policy during the latter Cold War period. He also has a much better understanding of the relationship between the state and business power than many leftists do.  He rejects the “Israel exception” ethos that many Jewish-American leftists seem to hold to. I’ve corresponded with him and like him personally as well. That said, we need much better spokespeople for the anarchist perspective than Chomsky with his “anarcho-social democratic” outlook. Anarchism is more than just leftism and it is certainly more than just anti-capitalism.


After my last typically tedious post about Noam Chomsky, a blogger friend who took issue with my taking issue with the professor — meaning he’s of course now dead to me — sent along another interview with the Chomster on what anarchism means to him. To clear up any misconceptions: I realize Chomsky is well aware of the corporate-state nexus. My issue is not his analysis of the status quo, but his solution to it, which he reiterates yet again in this excerpt:

Q: As far as we favor a stateless society in the long run, it would be a mistake to work for the elimination — I’ve said that it would be a mistake to work for the elimination of the state in the short run, and we should be trying to strengthen the state, ’cause it’s needed on the check of power of large corporations. Yet the tendency of a lot of anarchist research — my own, too — is to show that the power of large corporations derives from state privilege, and governments tend to get captured by concentrated private interests. That would seem to imply that the likely beneficiaries of a more powerful state is going to be the same corporate elite we’re trying to oppose. So if business both derives from the state and is so good at capturing the state, why isn’t abolishing the state a better strategy for defeating business power than enhancing the state’s power would be?

Chomsky: Well, there’s a very simple answer to that: it’s not a strategy, and since it’s not a strategy at all, there can’t be a better strategy. The strategy of “eliminating the state” is back on the level of “let’s have peace and justice”. How do you proceed to eliminate the state? Okay? Can you think of a way of doing it? I mean, if there were a way of doing it in the existing world, everything would collapse and be destroyed. You just can’t do it. I mean, there is nothing to replace it. If there was a rich, powerful network of, you know, cooperatives, community organizations, worker-controlled industry, you know, extending over the whole country, and the whole world, in fact, yeah, then you can talk about eliminating states. But to talk about eliminating the state in the world as it exists is simply to keep yourself in some remote academic seminar or small group, you know, saying, “Gee, this would be nice.” It’s not a strategy, so there can’t be a better strategy. We are faced with realities. What is described here, and in fact it’s true (I’ve written plenty about it, too), is that we have a number of systems of power, closely interlinked. One of them’s corporate power, business power. That’s by far the most dangerous of all. That means, effectively, unaccountable private tyrannies. A second, pretty closely linked to them, is state power. And the comment is correct (as the commentator says, I’ve written about it, too, a lot) that state power tends to be overwhelmingly influenced by concentrated private power.

Hey, Noam: You’re an anarchist, bro! So why are you so condescendingly dismissive of strategies to eliminate the state? Peace and justice are also long-term, elusive goals, and yet we strive for them anyway — and, importantly, we do so not by advocating more conflicts and instances of injustice, politicians and professional pundits excepted. Fighting wars to end war hasn’t turned out so well and, mock though you may the smash-the-state crowd, Noam, increasing the power of the institution with a legal monopoly on the use of violence, the state, as part of a strategy to eventually abolish it — which, if Chomsky’s anarchism is anything more than intellectual pose, we can only assume is his goal as well — is fraught with the same error in logic.

That is not to say corporate power is not a great evil. It undoubtedly is. But it is an evil enabled by the institution of the state; when I rail against the latter, I am railing against the former. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that the target of my blogging wrath is the corporate-state nexus Chomsky identifies, for without the coercion and legal cover government currently provides in the form of everything from the police and military to intellectual property and the tax code, corporations as we know them could not exist.

Argue all you want about which is the greater evil, but it’s about as useful as debating which came first, the chicken or the egg. Atomic weapons, for example, may be built by nominally private companies, but it’s the U.S. government that provides the tax money that makes them possible — and the only institution that has actually used them. Private prisons may be evil, but it is the state that fills them with prisoners. Rather than adversarial, the corporate-state relationship is symbiotic.

Chomsky’s own work shows this, which is why I find it all the more irksome he chooses to argue against what seems to me an anarchist strawman. There may be a few anarchists who would like to smash the state tomorrow, but most that I’ve come across believe an anarchist society can only come about after the long-term process of creating a society of anarchists and the building up of institutions, like cooperatives and mutual aid associations, built on consensus, not coercion. We talk about eliminating the state because that is a long-term goal to strive for, like peace and justice, not because it’s something we think can or should happen overnight.

Yet all Chomsky seems to have is disdain for the mere talk of a stateless society as he argues against an anarchist caricature, falsely suggesting those anarchists who do not share his opinion on the wisdom of increasing state power would like to keep intact all the corporate privileges it provides; as if their enemy is corporate taxes, not corporate personhood.

And while Chomksy casts himself as wisely pragmatic, the more I read about his solutions the more I find them naive and indistinguishable from those offered by a standard-issue liberal. Indeed, later in the interview excerpted above he even bemoans the loss of the loathsome Martha Coakley in the Massachussets Senate race a few years back, complaining that the electorate yet again voted against its own self-interest — as if the Democrats, and former prosecutor no less, favor anything more than a marginally more subtle assault on those interests.

If one wants to be pragmatic, there are many ways a philosophical anarchist can act that don’t depend on the dubious notion of short-term increases in state power. Economist Dean Baker details this in his new book, from patent reform to removing tax loopholes, and I’d argue they’re at least as politically viable as instituting a the type of national health care system Chomsky favors. Indeed, when Democrats took back the White House and both chambers of Congress and had the opportunity to implement that very health care reform, which Chomsky accurately notes enjoys broad public support, they instead turned around and only increased the power of pharmaceutical giants and corporate insurance providers, even mandating the purchase of the latter’s products.

And that illustrates a key point: increasing the power of the state, as the individual insurance mandate indisputably does, has historically been accompanied not by a decrease in corporate power, but an expansion of it. Just as wars for peace have only led to more wars, expansions of state power often enable only greater economic exploitation. While the state may be subject to influence as Chomsky contends, it’s those with the most money who tend to do most of the influencing — and who in turn use the state to ensure their power is not subject to the nuisance of labor unions and general strikes.

So who’s really naive: the person who wants to limit corporate power by decreasing the power of the state, historically its chief enabler, or the one who believes that this time around the power of the state can be harnessed for good — and that the road to a less coercive society depends on increasing the power of an institution whose unique feature is its legal monopoly on coercion?

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