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American Anarchist

Monday evening, in a standard Massachusetts Institute of Technology auditorium of muted colors and uncomfortable chairs, a wizened, stooped, silver-haired man in an ugly sweater held a packed house of nearly 300 people—most of them young, fashionably dressed, and capable of affording to attend one of the most prestigious private universities in the country—spellbound for about an hour and a half. That man was Noam Chomsky, and his subject was anarchism.

Chomsky has had an influential academic career in linguistics, but achieved celebrity status as a political philosopher and activist, beginning with his opposition to the Vietnam War and continuing through today with the charges of imperialism he levels at American foreign policy, and the criticism he makes of capitalism, and the totalitarian strains he traces through both the left and the right.

He was introduced by Nathan Schneider, a journalist who covered the Occupy movement for The Nation, Harper’s, and the Boston Review. Schneider described how Occupy activists had a kind of “amnesia” about leftist activism, knowing little of the history and practices of previous generations of activists since few of them had any prior experience. Chomsky, Schneider said, represents that neglected tradition. He also pointed out that anarchism has been revived as a term of abuse, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) derided Tea Partiers as “anarchists,” and some Republicans have made the same charge against North Carolina union organizers.

The main body of Chomsky’s talk was an outline and definition of the anarchist intellectual tradition, which he said was centuries old, though “terms of political discourse are hardly ones of precision.” He continued, “that’s even more true of ‘anarchism.’ It resists any characterization.”

The main currents of anarchist thought were derived from classical liberal ideas that emerged in the Enlightenment and the Romantic era. The central idea, Chomsky said, was that “institutions that constrain human development are illegitimate unless they can justify themselves.” Anarchists seek to challenge those institutions and dismantle the ones that cannot be justified, while creating new institutions from the ground up based on cooperation and benefits for the community. This tradition of libertarian socialism or anarcho-syndicalism was still alive, Chomsky claimed, despite challenges and suppression.

Paraphrasing the German-American anarchist Rudolf Rocker, Chomsky said that anarchism seeks to free labor from economic exploitation and society from ecclesiastical guardianship. This meant that workers struggle for their well-being and dignity—“for bread and roses,” as he put it—while rejecting the convention of working for others in exchange for money, which he described as a kind of slavery. The other opposition, to ecclesiastical guardianship, he explained as not necessarily an opposition to organized religion—he praised Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement and the Christian anarchism of the Basque Country. Rather, Chomsky articulated an opposition to the idea that society should be regulated by an elite group, whether they are liberal technocrats, religious clerics, or corporate executives.

Chomsky also addressed some of the issues confronting anarchist activism, noting that while anarchists stand against the state, they often advocate for state coercion in order to protect people from “the savage beasts” of the capitalists, as he put it. Yet he saw this as not a contradiction, but a streak of pragmatism. “People live and suffer in this world, not one we imagine,” Chomsky explained. “It’s worth remembering that anarchists condemn really existing states instead of idealistic visions of governments ‘of, by and for the people.’”

He then connected the libertarian socialist tradition to currents in American thought, quoting the philosopher John Dewey as saying that “Power today resides in control of the means of production, exchange, communication and transportation … workers should be the masters of their individual fates.” To Chomsky, “Dewey was American as apple pie.”

He contrasted Dewey’s critique of power with the ideals of the liberal/progressive tradition in the United States, noting that many of its leading lights, including Walter Lippmann, Samuel Huntington, and Woodrow Wilson, held extremely dim views of the majority of people, considering them dangerous, ignorant, and in need of control. Despite the historical tendency of elite groups of “ecclesiastical guardians,” like liberal technocrats or the Iranian Guardian Council to which he compared them, to seek control over society, he saw continued resistance. He finished his remarks on an optimistic note by pointing out that the anarchist critics of power are always recurring—during the English Civil War a “rabble” appeared that didn’t want to be ruled by either the king or Parliament—and that anarchism is like Marx’s old mole: always near the surface.

Throughout his talk Chomsky described how he became involved with anarchism. His extended family was involved in left-wing movements in Philadelphia and New York before World War II, and he spent time in New York’s Union Square, where many Leftists congregated—including Catalonian anarchists fleeing reprisals from Francisco Franco. He also pointed out that many working class people of the era were involved in high culture and were familiar with sympathetic poems such as Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, which memorialized the Peterloo Massacre.

It was a theme he returned to with the first question, which was about contemporary engagement with the arts. He contrasted two films from 1954, On the Waterfront and Salt of the Earth. The former was about a worker standing up to a corrupt union, had a wide release, and starred Marlon Brando. The latter was about union workers on strike and was effectively banned in the United States.

“When people in power believe something firmly, that’s worth investigating,” Chomsky said.

Finally, he was asked about the growth of surveillance and the militarization of the police.

“The phenomenon itself shouldn’t be surprising—the scale was surprising—but the phenomenon itself is as American as apple pie,” Chomsky said. “You can be confident that any system of power is going to use technology against its enemy: the population. Power systems seek short-term domination and control, not security.”

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston and also writes about urbanism and history.

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36 Comments To "American Anarchist"

#1 Comment By Michael N Moore On November 22, 2013 @ 8:13 am

It should be noted that Mr. Chomsky’s long and lonely critique of Israel has proven prophetic with the rise of the Likud Party and West Bank settler fanaticism.

#2 Comment By David Naas On November 22, 2013 @ 11:12 am

It was, was it not, the short-lived Ann Arbor Anarcho-Libertarian Coalition from the late 1960’s that devolved into the Libertarian Party? I seem to recall a CYR Midwest convention at the time where they were handing out literature.

#3 Comment By cdugga On November 22, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

“The central idea, Chomsky said, was that “institutions that constrain human development are illegitimate unless they can justify themselves.” Anarchists seek to challenge those institutions and dismantle the ones that cannot be justified, while creating new institutions from the ground up based on cooperation and benefits for the community. This tradition of libertarian socialism or anarcho-syndicalism was still alive, Chomsky claimed, despite challenges and suppression.”
Where is it still alive? I see GOP obstructionism combined with starve the beast, but I do not see any creation of new institutions to tackle the problems the old institutions being dismantled through lack of funding are charged with. I don’t see any community spirit other than bombastic and empty critiques of community organizers in favor of the free market anarchy concentrating money and power to a small percentage of people who easily buy anything, including grass roots credentials.
“People live and suffer in this world, not one we imagine,” Chomsky explained. “It’s worth remembering that anarchists condemn really existing states instead of idealistic visions of governments ‘of, by and for the people.’” This applies to idealistic ideas of anarchy as well, and in my opinion, even more so.

#4 Comment By Adam On November 22, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

“When people in power believe something firmly, that’s worth investigating,” Chomsky said.

We give people(and institutions) in positions of power too much deference in this country. We don’t question the motivation or incentive of particular belief structures that are “what everyone knows to be true.” “What everyone knows to be true” often turns into exactly the opposite over time, often with the added benefit of discovered graft and rent seeking that should have been obvious were we to take a closer look at the underlying motivations of the proposed solutions.

#5 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On November 22, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

Chomsky said, “The main body of Chomsky’s talk was an outline and definition of the anarchist intellectual tradition, which he said was centuries old, though “terms of political discourse are hardly ones of precision.” He continued, “that’s even more true of ‘anarchism.’ It resists any characterization.”

Beware affiliation with that with “Resists any characterization.” That which resists characterization is usually revealed to be a tactic. Or as they say in law enforcement, a con.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 22, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

Say what you like about Chomsky, the Right’s ever-unread bete noir; whether or not you agree with his prescriptions, his detailed critiques of corrupt power are unassailably accurate. Appearing decades ago on William F.Buckley’s Firing Line, he reduced the usually intellectually dominating Buckley to silence, speechless with a series of frenzied tongue in cheek facial contortions. His grasp of detail and depth on issues so far exceeded WFB’s that it was stunning. We weaken our potential for having the strength of truth behind us, when we consider too much the source rather than the arguments.

#7 Comment By Reinhold On November 22, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

Standard fare for those who follow Chomsky’s work, but I’d like to strongly contest Schneider’s charge of activist amnesia: many of the people I spoke with, at least at the New York occupation, were very conversant in the history of labor and social struggles, which were referenced almost constantly during tactical and strategic discussions. Given the liberal press’ terrible coverage of the protests, Schneider’s very liberal dismissal of those who organize and participate in popular protest is typical but still pathetic: liberals love to pretend that the Liberals in office are much more Significant when it comes to progressive reform and helping the people, but as Chomsky and other actual leftists have been pointing out for decades, this attitude barely conceals their contempt for populism.

#8 Comment By Michael MacLeod On November 22, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

In 1972 I was one of the founders of the California Libertarian Party, along with about 100 others in a stuffy Howard Johnson’s conference room in Burlingame, California. I then left the party to drink alone after I saw it infested with Standard Oil lawyers and other unsavory types.

In my own long march I seem to have wound up in Robert LeFevre’s “autarchist” camp, which I take to be more about one’s own heart rather than others’s vitals.

I did want to offer one of his oft-quoted quotes as an astringent encapsulation of the reason for the persistence of both left and right hemispheres of the Beast’s brain – and the cyclic nature of the battle for and against them:

“And so we see that government is both protector and predator. It starts by protecting one group from another, and ends by protecting itself from everybody.”

#9 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On November 22, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

Oops! That is the author quoting Chomsky, not Chomsky quoting himself.

#10 Comment By Reinhold On November 22, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

“I then left the party to drink alone after I saw it infested with Standard Oil lawyers and other unsavory types.”
This is the narrative I suspect regarding the Tea Party: in the beginning, a genuine, though small, organizational effort to lower working-class peoples’ taxes (property taxes, I would imagine) and to reduce federal debts, which are serviced by the taxpayers and not those who took them out. Then, because these cohere with very corporate interests, the organizations were more or less co-opted by big business, to very malicious ends. It is interesting to consider that the attempts of the Democratic party to co-opt the radicalism of the Occupy Wall St. protests did not go so well––Obama, despite Breitbart’s claims, did not pull a Koch, but actually consented to a coordinated crackdown on the camps in Novemeber––and mostly it lended itself to increased labor campaigns like unionizing and raising the wages of low-wage workers at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. (Though the charge that it was funded and engineered by the ‘professional left’ is comical: the unions weren’t even involved until October).

#11 Comment By Gerry T. Neal On November 22, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

“Rather, Chomsky articulated an opposition to the idea that society should be regulated by an elite group, whether they are liberal technocrats, religious clerics, or corporate executives.”

Someone might articulate an opposition to the idea that the earth should revolve around the sun – not suggesting that it does not but that it should not – but nothing can be done about it. Unless a group is small enough to have its entire membership meet together to discuss every single issue that comes up and talk their way into a unanimous consensus apart from which no action can be taken every group will be led and directed by an elite of some sort. Even if they are small enough to operate by the consensus model, those skilled in creating consensus,themselves a minority, will control the group, and hence be an elite. What Robert Michels called “the iron law of oligarchy” cannot be broken.

#12 Comment By Dan Clore On November 22, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

[1]
The Nature of Anarchism
by Dan Clore
(The following is a bit of “boilerplate” that I use to answer questions about anarchism. It is intended to provide a concise explanation of anarchism. Any suggestions as to how to improve it would be welcome.)
There is a great deal of misunderstanding of the nature of anarchism.

Anarchists (also known as libertarians or libertarian socialists, in the original sense of socialism as worker-ownership-and-control of the means of production) oppose illegitimate authority and hierarchy, and therefore oppose capitalism and the state; anarchists do not oppose all organization: anarchists favor voluntary, non-hierarchical, self-organization. Anarchists do not oppose all rules and laws; anarchists oppose rules and laws imposed involuntarily by illegitimate authorities, such as the state, and favor voluntarily-agreed upon rules and laws.

”Anarchy 101”, an excellent introduction to anarchism, can be found here:
[2]

“An Anarchist FAQ”, giving an in-depth treatment of anarchism, can be found here:
[3]

*****

News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
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#13 Comment By John Drinkwater On November 22, 2013 @ 11:44 pm

cdugga,

You are very, very confused. When Chomsky discusses the traditions of libertarian socialism and anarcho-syndicalism, he most certainly is NOT referring to the House Republicans. Couldn’t be further from it.

A recent article at Counterpunch explains the history of anarchism and how it has nothing to do with Republican obstructionism:

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#14 Comment By WorkingClass On November 23, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

The next incarnation of OWS will know that they must occupy something they can defend against the police. And they will have to be prepared to provide security and BE the government in occupied territories. Much of our urban geography is ripe for such occupation. If occupiers are able to provide clinics, shelters, security and legal assistance to the locals they are very difficult to dislodge. Our rapidly developing shadow economy is quite capable of supporting a shadow government.

#15 Comment By SecurityEcology.org On November 23, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

Robare paraphrasing Chomsky:
“Anarchists seek to challenge [corrupt] institutions
and dismantle the ones that cannot be justified,
while creating new institutions from the ground up
based on cooperation and benefits for the community.”

Michael MacLeod quoting Robert LeFevre:

“[G]overnment is both protector and predator.
It starts by protecting one group from another,
and ends by protecting itself from everybody.”

Robare quotes Chomsky’s reply, when
“asked about the growth of surveillance
and the militarization of the police:”


“You can be confident that any system of power
is going to use technology against its enemy: the population.
Power systems seek short-term domination and control,
not security.”

Back in 1993, before the web,
“Computer-assisted Crises”
charted and predicted the growth
of a corporate/government Panoptic Information Enclosure movement
in the then-emergent Power Vacuum we now call the internet.

It pleaded: “Somehow the technologies of control must,
themselves, be brought under social control.”

Ted Roszak (Making of a Counterculture)
pithily nailed-down the issues of Computer-assisted Crises in 1995:


“Clearly, computers are now a mature technology.
I define a mature technology as one that
causes as many problems as it solves.”

Institutions and Technologies both weave “social trajectories”;
they are weapons and architectural substrates (“playing fields”)
for social conflicts. So the dynamics of human conflict ecology
that Chomsky describes are 100% natural and predictable:

Institutions and Technologies both reach stages
where they cause as many problems as they solve.

Western political philosophy has yet to say anything wiser
than Ibn Khaldun’s 14th century “social cohesion” theory,
relating the scale (size) of Institutions to their
infiltration, colonization, corruption and decay.

Khaldun was correct: As the largest Institution,
the organs of the State (including “captured” bureaucracies)
naturally attempt to maintain a (federated) monopoly on injustice.

#16 Comment By Jason On November 23, 2013 @ 10:25 pm

What a fraud Chomsky is. He talks about exploitation of the worker while at the same time he pockets millions from the government and business while sharing little of it with the common man.

#17 Comment By Sanjay Kripalani On November 24, 2013 @ 5:45 am

Fran Macadam’s post said it perfectly. So many “conservatives” are so repulsively blind and self-righteous they resemble the far left in their infantile, impenetrable self-regard. Chomsky’s takedown of WFB was indeed a sight to behold.

#18 Comment By Puller58 On November 24, 2013 @ 8:50 am

Chomsky is about as relevant as Ralph Nadar. While having some worthwhile critiques, both come up short on doing much about the state of things.

#19 Comment By James Marshall On November 24, 2013 @ 11:40 am

Chomsky reminds me of something I read in Mortimer J. Adler’s “How to Read A Book.” It’s one thing to read something and regurgitate the material and claim to be intellectual, and something entirely different to actually learn from it and use that information in innovative ways and to refresh one’s own thoughts. It’s utter nonsense to claim that an anarchist can legitimately condemn one function of state and nurture a different function of state, and still be true to a valid definition of anarchist.

Chomsky and his cohorts are every bit as supportive of enforcing their political agenda via the barrel of a state gun as the people and institutions they criticize. It’s more like the pro-Bolshevik mindset Chomsky and his friends won’t admit to having. It’s the mindset that murdered about 66 million Russians and tried to destroy the Russian Orthodox church. I mention the Bolsheviks because people like Chomsky pretend the world has never seen where his views will lead it.

I read RT.com and used to watch RT-TV for many hours. The organization has little in common with what the majority of Russians believe, but it’s a great example of those who share Chomsky’s agenda. Those people are hardcore Marxists and pro-Bolsheviks, not anarchists.

Although I enjoy Alex Cockburn’s writing and find him to be much more likeable than Chomsky, Cockburn would also define anarchism in ways that are invalid in my mind. RIP, Alex. It’s a tactic, part of the manipulation. I mention Cockburn and RT because these people are all linked to together. They’re no different than any other extremists who try to take advantage of one’s vulnerability in a time of political upheaval and unrest.

#20 Comment By James Marshall On November 24, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

I didn’t see cdugga’s post before my previous comments. At least he’s reading something more intellectual and creative than The Daily Beast, Salon or HuffPo. Personally, I think Jeffrey St. Claire and Cockburn are leaps and bounds above someone like Chomsky in insight and intellect. It’s preposterous to me that someone hiding in universities for his entire life would claim to be an anarchist. It’s actually a bit humorous to see the pro-Marxists resist the truth and claim that single-payer national healthcare is somehow consistent with anarchistic agenda. huh?

Alex Cockburn, was the Director over at Counterpunch, before his death. So Obama is an anarchist? Is Nancy Pelosi and anarchist? I don’t see where the linked article does anything but support the premise that too many people see dictionaries in the same light as the US Constitution, “living” and not absolute documentation. We can’t have absolutes until we have the Marxist grip firmly upon the throat of society, then there will be plenty of absolutes. As I wrote previously, it’s not as if we’ve never seen this all before.

#21 Comment By James Marshall On November 24, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

Oops, sorry. That was John Drinkwater and not cdugga getting into the Red kool-aid.

#22 Comment By Reinhold On November 24, 2013 @ 11:16 pm

“It’s more like the pro-Bolshevik mindset Chomsky and his friends won’t admit to having….I mention the Bolsheviks because people like Chomsky pretend the world has never seen where his views will lead it.”
This is ignorant, and here is the reason: who do you think Lenin was talking about when he condemned the ‘infantile leftists’? Answer: the anarchist faction in the Bolshevik party. This faction caused tension during the Civil War and the Kronstadt rebellion, and was banned in 1921; they did not govern Russia at all from then on, and the Bolsheviks were not firmly in power until after they won the war anyway. So you dramatically underestimate the factional distinctions between these two socialist factions, namely anarchists and Leninists. Surely, you are confused because anarchists and Leninists both advocate revolution; but they differ in their approaches to it. Chomsky’s anarchist ideas do not lead to Bolshevism, they lead to things like the Free Territory in Ukraine during their own revolution, which was an anarchist-controlled region later destroyed by the Red Army itself.

#23 Comment By genetuttle On November 25, 2013 @ 6:51 am

For a linguist, Chomsky seems over reliant on “apple pie” as a simile for Americanism. And — in this report at least — he practically makes anarchism an all-encompassing synonym for any movement that wants to make government better serve “the people.”

#24 Comment By J.D. On November 26, 2013 @ 12:13 am

Love or hate Chomsky, but the guy is anything but a Bolshevik. There’s a great video on YouTube where an audience member denounces him for criticizing Lenin, and his response is withering.

#25 Comment By Rachmiel ben Ariel On November 27, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

We exist in a world with Chomsky and others like him who would, were they to see a boa constrictor preparing to devour a human infant, vehemently protest any form of intervention on the grounds that behavior such as this may restrict the snake’s point of view. Theirs is a political philosophy as rational as the square root of minus one—it need not be discussed here!

#26 Comment By William Hazlitt On November 29, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

Has Chomsky ever taken a position on international politics that Fidel Castro would disagree with? I don’t thinks so. Chomsky’s “anarchism” is a transparent attempt to cover his long time sympathy for Communist regimss. More recently he, like most of the totalitarian left, has become an apologist for Islamist terrorism.

#27 Comment By chris mahoney On November 29, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

“He also pointed out that many working class people of the era were involved in high culture and were familiar with sympathetic poems such as Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, which memorialized the Peterloo Massacre.”
Ah yes, the undying myth of the worker-student-intellectual alliance, so European in nature, and so foreign to America. The American left has been frustrated for 150 years by the unwillingness of the American working class to develop class-consciousness. Today, the working class is solidly anti-leftist, anti-Obama, anti-elite and anti-multiculturalist. Has Noam ever met Ted Nugent?

#28 Comment By chris mahoney On November 29, 2013 @ 7:41 pm

WorkingClass says: “The next incarnation of OWS will know that they must occupy something they can defend against the police. And they will have to be prepared to provide security and BE the government in occupied territories. Much of our urban geography is ripe for such occupation. If occupiers are able to provide clinics, shelters, security and legal assistance to the locals they are very difficult to dislodge. Our rapidly developing shadow economy is quite capable of supporting a shadow government.”
I recommend Detroit. Plenty of space to occupy,and a crying need for security. The bearded professors will be welcomed with rose petals.

#29 Comment By Reinhold On November 29, 2013 @ 9:11 pm

“More recently he, like most of the totalitarian left, has become an apologist for Islamist terrorism.”
The leftist response is obvious: explaining something is not apologizing for it. I would assume that when professional psychologists explain the motives of serial killers, they are not justifying the crimes. Likewise, if you think anyone on the Left supports sharia law and Islamist dictatorship, I assure you, we had a meeting, and we decided that Iran is basically not a right-wing theocracy. The same cannot be said of the U.S. government, which continues to support Saudi Arabia, despite it being an Islamist theocracy, a bit more brutal even than dread Iran.

#30 Comment By Reinhold On November 29, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

*correction: “we had a meeting, and we decided that Iran IS basically a right-wing theocracy”

#31 Comment By Jamie Estevez On December 1, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

I have respect for Professor Chomsky. I disagree with his politics to be sure, but I respect his intellectual honesty and integrity and the fact that he doesn’t pull punches whether those punches are directed at a conservative or liberal political establishment. I wonder what Chomsky thinks of G.K. Chesterton and Distributism?

#32 Comment By Ax123man On December 2, 2013 @ 10:15 pm

“while rejecting the convention of working for others in exchange for money, which he described as a kind of slavery”

Hard to take the guy seriously after that. Best stick with linguistics. Chomsky has no sound, overall philosophy. He’s full of contradictions, making it up as he goes along.

#33 Comment By Reinhold On December 3, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

“Hard to take the guy seriously after that.”
Really? The comparison of wage labor to slave labor is hard to take seriously? Read up on your Reconstruction history, since a lot of freed slaves felt the same way in the years after the Civil War. I’ve never personally been enslaved to a master, but I’m pretty sure the closest thing to it in our day and age is having a boss and a job. In either case, you’re doing work in exchange for your livelihood, but in one case, you’re owned, and in the other, you’re rented.

#34 Comment By Traveler On December 6, 2013 @ 6:52 am

Great comments, but they sure demonstrate the urgent need for an edit function here. Very frustrating to read someone’s post only to later realize s/he didn’t exactly mean what was originally posted. Some exceptional thinking here is handicapped by 2 decade old interface. Very frustrating.

#35 Comment By The Sanity Inspector On December 16, 2013 @ 3:42 pm

If America were as tyrannical as pampered academic radicals like Chomsky say, he would have been turned into bones in a Langley forest long ago.

#36 Comment By Adam Weissman On April 21, 2014 @ 12:27 am

“If America were as tyrannical as pampered academic radicals like Chomsky say, he would have been turned into bones in a Langley forest long ago.”

You clearly haven’t read his books or listened to his speeches:

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