Everyday Anarchist: The Modern Success

Interview with Noam Chomsky, published on Modern Success (now on ZNet), by Michael S. Wilson, April 14, 2013.

Everyone knows what one looks like.  They’ve got the leather boots.  Maybe some chains.  Trench-coats.  They wait in dark alleys with perfectly-spherical bombs.  A lot of ‘em like to spike up their hair, or shave the side of their head, or do weird things like that to their appearance.  You know what I mean.  Everyone knows.

That’s what an anarchist looks like: … //

… Whatever the case, I had the pleasure of interviewing him as I sat in Memorial Union and he in his university office in Boston.  So many things have been written about, and discussed by, Professor Chomsky, it was a challenge to think of anything new to ask him:  like the grandparent you can’t think of what to get for Christmas because they already have everything.

So I chose to be a bit selfish and ask him what I’ve always wanted to ask him.  As an out-spoken, actual, live-and-breathing anarchist, I wanted to know how he could align himself with such a controversial and marginal position: … //

… MS:  With the apparent ongoing demise of the capitalist state, many people are looking at other ways to be successful, to run their lives, and I’m wondering what you would say anarchy and syndicalism have to offer, things that others ideas — say, for example, state-run socialism — have failed to offer?  Why should we choose anarchy, as opposed to, say, libertarianism?

  • NC:  Well what’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.  Well, we don’t have to talk about that!  That kind of —

MS:  It seems to be a continuing contention today …

  • NC:  Yes, and so well that 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.  Its’ 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.
  • The thing you need an argument for, and should give an argument for, is, How can we best proceed in that direction?  And there are lots of ways within the current society.  One way, incidentally,  is through use of the state, to the extent that it is democratically controlled.  I mean 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.  There’s a lot of theoretical discussion of how it might work out, from various sources.  Some of the most worked out ideas are in what’s called the “parecon” — participatory economics — literature and discussions.  And there are others.  These are at the planning and thinking level.  And at the practical implementation level, there are steps that can be taken, while also pressing to overcome the worst … the major harms … caused by … concentration of private power through the use of state system, as long as the current system exists.  So there’s no shortage of means to pursue.
  • As for state socialism, depends what one means by the term.  If it’s tyranny of the Bolshevik variety (and its descendants), we need not tarry on it.  If it’s a more expanded social democratic state, then the comments above apply.  If something else, then what?  Will it place decision-making in the hands of working people and communities, or in hands of some authority?  If the latter, then — once again — freedom is better than subjugation, and the latter carries a very heavy burden of justification.

MS:  Many people know you because of your and Edward Herman’s development of the Propaganda Model.  Could you briefly describe that model and why it might be important to the students at the UW-Madison?

  • NC:  Well first look back a bit — a little historical framework — back in the late 19th-, early 20th century, a good deal of freedom had been won in some societies.  At the peak of this were in fact the United States and Britain.  By no means free societies, but by comparative standards quite advanced in this respect.  In fact so advanced, that power systems — state and private — began to recognize that things were getting to a point where they can’t control the population by force as easily as before, so they are going to have to turn to other means of control.  And the other means of control are control of beliefs and attitudes.  And out of that grew the public relations industry, which in those days described itself honestly as an industry of propaganda.
  • The guru of the PR industry, Edward Bernays — incidentally, not a reactionary, but a Wilson-Roosevelt-Kennedy liberal — the maiden handbook of the PR industry which he wrote back in the 1920s was called Propaganda.  And in it he described, correctly, the goal of the industry.  He said our goal is to insure that the “intelligent minority” — and of course anyone who writes about these things is part of that intelligent minority by definition, by stipulation, so we, the intelligent minority, are the only people capable of running things, and there’s that great population out there, the “unwashed masses,” who, if they’re left alone will just get into trouble:  so we have to, as he put it, “engineer their consent,” figure out ways to insure they consent to our rule and domination.  And that’s the goal of the PR industry.  And it works in many ways.  It’s primary commitment is commercial advertising.  In fact, Bernays made his name right at that time — late 20s — by running an advertising campaign to convince women to smoke cigarettes:  women weren’t smoking cigarettes, this big group of people who the tobacco industry isn’t able to kill, so we’ve got to do something about that.  And he very successfully ran campaigns that induced women to smoke cigarettes:  that would be, in modern terms, the cool thing to do, you know, that’s the way you get to be a modern, liberated woman.  It was very successful —

MS:  Is there a correlation between that campaign and what’s happening with the big oil industry right now and climate change? … //

(full long interview text).

(To read more about Chomsky’s ideas, there are literally hundreds of places to do so. He has written dozens of books about American military imperialism, the hegemony of the poor, the advertising and PR industry and their connection to news media in particular, and … The list goes on.  Most of his books can be found in Madison at Rainbow Bookstore. To search through subjects about which he has written, you can visit his website at Chomsky.info, where you will find thousands of articles, interviews, and outside news commentary on Chomsky. My personal favorite introduction to Chomsky is the film, Manufacturing Consent: Chomsky and the Media, still considered one of the top-ten documentaries of all time).

(My comment:

  • for me, an anarchist is someone able to introduce the unknown into our common life without feeling guilty;
  • pour moi un anarchiste est quelqu’un capable de ramener l’inconnu dans le quotidien sans ressentir envers les autres de la mauvaise conscience;
  • für mich ist ein Anarchist jemand, der ohne schlechtes Gewissen das Unbekannte in unser aller Alltag hineinzieht – Heidi).


A Word In Your Ear, on ZNet (first on english.Le Monde Diplomatique),  ), by Serge Halimi, June 01, 2013;

From College to Reality: A Radical Transition, on UTNE, by Shayna Gladstone, May 29, 2013;

The Case for Hope, Continued, on UTNE, by Rebecca Solnit, May 21, 2013.

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