Noam Chomsky on anarcho-syndicalism and libertarianism

The famous linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky describes his own political stance as that of anarcho-syndicalism and he is no fan of libertarianism. In an interview with Chomsky, Michael S. Wilson says that in the US, anarchists are largely seen as consisting of “disenfranchised punks throwing rocks at store windows, or masked men tossing ball-shaped bombs at fat industrialists”. Wilson asks Chomsky what he thinks the two positions represent and why he favors the former and dislikes the latter.

First up, Chomsky discusses anarcho-syndicalism.

[A]narchism is, in my view, basically a kind of tendency in human thought which shows up in different forms in different circumstances, and has some leading characteristics. Primarily it is a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy. It seeks structures of hierarchy and domination in human life over the whole range, extending from, say, patriarchal families to, say, imperial systems, and 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. Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And 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. And, as I understand it, anarchy is just that tendency. It takes different forms at different times.

Anarcho-syndicalism is a particular variety of anarchism which was concerned primarily, though not solely, but primarily with control over work, over the work place, over production. It took for granted that working people ought to control their own work, its conditions, [that] they ought to control the enterprises in which they work, along with communities, so they should be associated with one another in free associations, and … democracy of that kind should be the foundational elements of a more general free society. And then, you know, ideas are worked out about how exactly that should manifest itself, but I think that is the core of anarcho-syndicalist thinking. I mean it’s not at all the general image that you described — people running around the streets, you know, breaking store windows — but [anarcho-syndicalism] is a conception of a very organized society, but organized from below by direct participation at every level, with as little control and domination as is feasible, maybe none.

He then moves on to libertarianism and points out that in the US it has features that are somewhat peculiar, that make it quite authoritarian.

[W]hat’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 — 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. The assumption is that by some kind of magic, concentrated private power will lead to a more free and just society. Actually that has been believed in the past. Adam Smith for example, one of his main arguments for markets was the claim that under conditions of perfect liberty, markets would lead to perfect equality.

[T]hat 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. Anarchism is quite different from that. It calls for an elimination to tyranny, all kinds of tyranny. Including the kind of tyranny that’s internal to private power concentrations. So why should we prefer it? Well I think because freedom is better than subordination. It’s better to be free than to be a slave. It’s better to be able to make your own decisions than to have someone else make decisions and force you to observe them. I mean, I don’t think you really need an argument for that. It seems like … transparent.

That worship of private power by libertarians in the US is most visible in the Ayn Rand cult that has led to the quip that libertarians are simply right-wing ideologues who like to smoke pot.

Chomsky then goes on to discuss how we might get to the kind of anarcho-syndicalist society he envisages,

[In] the long run, anarchists would like to see the state eliminated. But it exists, alongside of private power, and the state is, at least to a certain extent, under public influence and control — could be much more so. And 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, let’s say. Many other things like that. They’re not going to come about through private power. Quite the contrary. But they can come about through the use of the state system under limited democratic control … to carry forward reformist measures. I think those are fine things to do. they should be looking forward to something much more, much beyond, — namely actual, much larger-scale democratization. And that’s possible to not only think about, but to work on. So one of the leading anarchist thinkers, Bakunin in the 19th cent, pointed out that it’s quite possible to build the institutions of a future society within the present one. And he was thinking about far more autocratic societies than ours. And that’s being done. So for example, worker- and community- controlled enterprises are germs of a future society within the present one. And those not only can be developed, but are being developed. There’s some important work on this by Gar Alperovitz who’s involved in the enterprise systems around the Cleveland area which are worker and community controlled.

I am embarrassed to say that I was not aware of the things he was referring to that are going on in my own backyard in Cleveland. I have got to look into it.

He goes on to discuss the media propaganda model that he and the late Edward Herman developed in their book Manufacturing Consent, something that I have discussed extensively in past posts. He discusses many things there but one new (to me at least) thing that he said was his suggestion as to why college tuition in the US is so high, not only in comparison to other countries but also compared to its own recent past. He says that tuition costs were raised in a backlash to the rise of democratic movements by young people in the 1960s which were condemned by liberal intellectuals as a ‘crisis in democracy’, i.e., people wanted too much democracy.

You mentioned students before. Well one of the main problems for students today — a huge problem — is sky-rocketing tuitions. Why do we have tuitions that are completely out-of-line with other countries, even with our own history? In the 1950s the United States was a much poorer country than it is today, and yet higher education was … pretty much free, or low fees or no fees for huge numbers of people. There hasn’t been an economic change that’s made it necessary, now, to have very high tuitions, far more than when we were a poor country.

They [i.e., the ruling classes] called, literally, for more commitment to indoctrination of the young, their phrase … we have to make sure that the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young do their work, so we don’t have all this freedom and independence. And many developments took place after that. I don’t think we have enough direct documentation to prove causal relations, but you can see what happened. One of the things that happened was controlling students — in fact, controlling students for the rest of their lives, by simply trapping them in debt. That’s a very effective technique of control and indoctrination. And I suspect — I can’t prove — but I suspect that that’s a large part of the reason behind [high tuitions].

There’s a lot of good stuff in the interview.


  1. polishsalami says

    The indoctrination of society is one of Chomsky’s key insights. Even from Australia, it’s disturbing to see how easily the US media switched from ‘Trump is a monster!’ to ‘I admire your leadership, Sir.’ after the bombing of the Syrian airbase last year. It’s like someone flicked on the PATRIOT switch, and they turned into robots.

  2. Quirky says

    Except for the sociopaths, including the cops, judges and the voting cattle, the sane people I talk to agree that it is never appropriate to initiate aggression against another. This is known as the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). I want to listen to the whole interview to see if Chomsky addresses this aspect of Anarchy.
    Government is nothing more than men and women with guns forcing the rest of us to pay them. It’s evil at its core.
    So can anyone make a moral/ethical argument for the perpetuation of the present model.

    Surely we are civilized enough in the 21st century to organize society without threats of violence and force. People should be ashamed, rather than so proud and indoctrinated that they will declare their allegiance to such violent models of Statism even to the degree of sending their sons and daughters to die for it. I hope that it is sheer nescience (in the classical sense) that causes this but I fear and in many cases know it to be outright ignorance of the truth.
    Except for the children and the retarded, who among us can honestly claim that we are rightfully nescient. (in the classical sense). But then even the children are expected to learn the NAP by the time their 2 or 3. So what does that say about the rest of humanity?

  3. says

    So can anyone make a moral/ethical argument for the perpetuation of the present model.

    Sure: because they hold civilization hostage and have made it clear that they will destroy it rather than lose control. Further, that they will not negotiate because they do not act as a unified collective. We are forced to coexist with governments because they are willing to use whatever level of coercion is necessary in order to gain acquiescence.

    One can also argue, as Rousseau does, that since government is coercive, it can be treated as an occupying power that has no legitimacy. It is therefore moral to strike against its agents whenever or however an individual can (though it would be polite to open hostilities with a warning!) -- the problem is that we’re just asking people to throw their lives away and when all the destruction is over, the establishment will remain in place. Is it moral to preach revolution when you know that the establishment will get violent? It may be better to say “hunker down and only resist its worst abuses.”

    Part of the problem is that the days are gone when one can exist, as Epicurus and his followers did, on the fringe of civilization. Civilization has become like a crime syndicate that will come and collect its tithe whether we agree with them or not.

    Here is another moral argument: nuclear-armed governments hold everyone hostage. Does anyone doubt that the US’ political leadership would not rather see the world burn than relinquish any control? But by building those monstrous weapons they show the truth of Rousseau: we are living under occupation.

  4. says

    Chomsky, by the way, has been remarkably consistent and clear in his views. That became obvious when Hitchens was so unwise as to tangle with him -- Chomsky can basically say, “as I said back in 1962…”

  5. mnb0 says

    I’ve never understood that at one hand libertarianism distrusts government and at the other hand “permits a very high level of authority and domination but in the hands of private power” (Chomsky). Does it somehow feel better to libertarianists (they can be found in The Netherlands as well, but are marginal) to get screwed by corporal powers?!
    AfaIc the principle that authority has to be justified applies to many more fields. Sure I accept the authority of MS regarding physics. It’s easy to justify. But as soon as he starts to talk nonsense about European politics I call BS. So in the previous blogpost I was once again surprised, if not shocked to read the title: “Why I Stopped Idolizing Sam Harris.” I’ve never liked him because 1. with the exception of the topic of free will he has zilch authority on anything he speaks about and 2. he presents himself as an intellectual authority on all topics without any attempt to justify it. Btw the same applies to Dawkins except for Evolution Theory and Hitchens regarding about everything.
    Though I would hesitate more than Chomsky to call myself an anarchist (even if my two of my three favourite Dutch thinkers, who influenced me most regarding atheism were also anarchists -- Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis and Anton Constandse) I totally concur that authority never ever is obvious, self-justifying. That’s btw why Chomsky is such a great thinker. He goes at excessive lengths to justify his own authority.

  6. Quirky says

    @ mnbo, thanks for the excellent article.

    I was happy to find agreement with Chomsky on the aggression/violence issue. I do wish that Chomsky and so many others would be more specific in their use of the term violence by substituting it with the term ‘force’ when discussing repelling violence.
    The term violence is related to and rooted in the idea of violation. When one uses defensive force to repel violence, i.e.a violation, such force can not be accurately described as violative.

    I was sadden by the fact that the prophecy Chomsky related by Tolstoy’s has not yet manifested.

    I know its just a matter of time. All that is really required is that humankind stop hallucinating the legitimacy of the institution we know as government and the pseudo-authority it claims for itself..

  7. Art says

    Oh please, I want to puke any time a Libertarian starts talking about non-aggression. To a man they are physical and moral cowards who are simply seeking to advance by grooming the environment to favor their strengths while skimming over their weaknesses. Their weakness doesn’t bother me. Nor does their drive to advance their own cause. What turns my stomach is that they picture themselves as morally superior.

    The strong man seeks to use his strength, possibly to simply pound a profit out of people. People with money seek a ‘fair’ market where their largess gives them a huge advantage. The talkers (preachers and politicians) seek advantage by talking people into a world-view that makes giving them money seek entirely reasonable. The legal minds wish to bamboozle people with intricate contracts. Have you sat down and read the CC or EULA you have agreed to?

    Nothing wrong with using your advantages. But excesses and exploitation to the point where others suffer has to be reigned in. Nobody needs to starve, or live on the streets, or go without medical treatment, or die alone. No regime that allows people or private entity to force others, even by way of ‘choice’ or contract, is going to be any better than the worse of the government abuses.

    Human minds are flawed and people are easy to trap through exploitation of those known flaws into giving up rights and freedoms, plundering their finances, and/or risking life and limb. Making your fellow humans suffer serious harm to benefit yourself is an act of aggression. Every bit as much as physically assaulting them.

    Taking advantage of differentials in knowledge to trick people to the point of disrupting their humanity is aggression. Economic coercion that causes suffering is every bit as bad as physical coercion. Allowing starvation, cold, and the lack of medical care do your dirty work or leverage your position is cost effective. In some minds it avoids blame. But it is evil and wasteful. Anyone doing so should be soundly thrashed.

    When all other avenues to justice are closed physical violence is the one remaining hope for redress, if not the finer points of justice,

    There is a good reason governments are easy to criticize; everyone has an inherent right to judge them. Even totalitarian regimes are products of, perhaps perverted expressions of, the will of the populous. Each is a few steps from revolution. Even non-democracies are subject to voting by way of tumbrels and guillotines.

    Beware eliminating government. Corporations are not so easy to effectively criticize and change. They have no great need to disclose what they do or how they do it. While governments leak like sieves corporations are fairly good at keeping secrets. Corrupt and vile things live in the secrecy.

  8. Quirky says

    Art, I will try to address several of the points you made.
    1) “What turns my stomach is that they picture themselves as morally superior.”
    Children (or adults) who do not initiate violence against others are morally superior. You seem to be conflating the initiation of violence with self defense. It is never immoral to use force in self defense. Force is not violence in that case as it is being used to protect rights rather than violate them. Violence presupposes the violation of another’s rights; force on the other hand is often necessary to protect the rights of others..
    2) “Human minds are flawed and people are easy to trap through exploitation of those known flaws into giving up rights and freedoms …”
    I agree, and that is why the attribute of human autonomy should never be relinquished. From there it is a slippery slope to all sorts of “exploitation”.
    3) “Making your fellow humans suffer serious harm to benefit yourself is an act of aggression. Every bit as much as physically assaulting them.”
    I agree!
    4) “Taking advantage of differentials in knowledge to trick people to the point of disrupting their humanity is aggression.”
    I agree. This is why we accept the idea that a more sophisticated individual is immoral if he convinces lets say a child to exchange a valuable toy for candy. Such an individual has a responsibility to recognize the differential. How society deals with the potential of such individuals does not however include or give rise to an authority in society to initiate violence in the First Instance as some deterrent to such an individual. Force as a mechanism to either punish or ameliorate the effects of such an individual’s actions are however appropriate. Neither does the potential of such sociopathic individuals give rise to the existence of authority in society to tax/seal/i.e initiate violence in order to establish a bureaucracy for the purpose of preventing such a potential. Simply stated, the potential of Party A to do evil does not vest Party B with the authority to initiate violence either against Party B or Parties C thru infinity.
    But that is exactly what the State claims the vested authority to do.
    5) . “When all other avenues to justice are closed physical violence is the one remaining hope for redress, if not the finer points of justice.”
    Redress is accomplished by the exercise of Force as covered above not the initiation of violence.
    6) “Even totalitarian regimes are products of, perhaps perverted expressions of, the will of the populous”
    Certainly, and this further exposes how the will of the supposed majority is exploited for the interest of the few.
    7) “Beware eliminating government. Corporations are not so easy to effectively criticize and change.”
    Corporations, being nothing more than tax subsidized artificial entities would not even exist in a stateless society. Combinations of individuals and companies might arise but the economic game table would be open equally to all competitive minded on-comers. In such a society such companies will find themselves answerable to the 1st Principles of Anarchy because the people will have already consciously matured to the acceptance of those principles at the moment they stop hallucinating and legitimizing the imaginary authority claimed by certain individuals or groups of individuals. Illegitimate combinations of economic power will be quickly seen for what they really are in the same we no one sees the Mafia as legitimate. The revolution will not be televised. It occurs in the minds of those capable of recognizing the immorality of the initiation of violence.
    8) “Corrupt and vile things live in the secrecy.”
    And there is no finer instrument by which to classify and retain secret knowledge than the imagined
    Authority of Government in the same manner that Religions of time past held access to knowledge.
    We have presently embraced a new imaginary Authority and enslaved ourselves to it by telling ourselves the lie that we are that imagined Authority..
    Truth is you have no Authority other than that limited Authority that inhered upon upon you as a matter of your human estate. That Authority does not include the right to violate the autonomy of your fellow humans. Remember, we are all equal.

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