Noam Chomsky: Philosophy, Anarco-Syndicalism, and Truth to Power

One of the most significant political theorists in recent memory is Noam Chomsky. Noam Chomsky is known for his contributions to linguistics, philosophy, history, and political discourse. Most notably, Chomsky is a proponent of the political ideologies of Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism, which are critical of centralized governmental and societal institutions and call for decentralized power structures. Chomsky was influenced by many sources ranging from philosophers such as William Goodwin to political theorists and economists such as Karl Marx. Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism are two political theories that are not widely explored by mainstream political theorists and philosophers. Despite the lack of understanding behind both theories, Noam Chomsky continues to have an influence on politics at all levels and is widely considered to be one of the most influential political theorists of the last few decades.

Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia on December 7, 1928. Chomsky grew up during the depths of the Great Depression alongside his younger brother David in a middle-class family. During his upbringing, Chomsky witnessed massive worker strikes and substantial political reform pushed forward by the government at all levels. His mother, Elsie Chomsky had been involved in the radical politics of the time and was a noted political activist within their community. Chomsky attended a progressive school and wrote a well-researched paper on the Spanish Civil War at the age of 10. Additionally, Chomsky was influenced politically by his uncle, who owned a newsstand where politics were frequently discussed.

At the age of 16, Chomsky graduated high school and soon enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where he excelled in classes in diverse subjects such as linguistics, philosophy, and mathematics. During his time at the University of Pennsylvania, Chomsky read works by figures such as Nathan Fine, Nelson Goodman, and W. V. Quine. These experiences made Chomsky come to the conclusion that human language was innate in every human’s mind and that language is influenced by the environment and evolves accordingly. Chomsky’s master’s thesis The Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew focused on the evolution of language. Chomsky eventually received his Ph. D from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955 and began teaching at MIT a year later. During this period, Chomsky became known for works such as the Aspects of the Theory of Syntax and several linguistic theories such as “extended standard theory”, “generative” and “transformational” theories.

Noam Chomsky, circa 1967, in an interview discussing The Responsibility of Intellectuals.

By the 1960s, Chomsky began to make his mark as a political activist due to his opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam War and staunch support for the Civil Rights Movement. In his 1967 essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Chomsky denounced the aggressive nature of American foreign policy throughout the world and spoke of the need for the intellectual community to come together to challenge the status quo American foreign policy. Additionally, Chomsky is further known for his book Manufacturing Consent, in which he criticizes American Media as biased and siding with US power structures. Chomsky’s criticisms of the American political system are rooted in the fact that the distribution of power within the US is biased in favor of the wealthiest and most powerful individuals. As a result of such factors, Chomsky has made his life’s work to side with the oppressed and focusing on how different factors such as media coverage impact this unequal balance of power. Chomsky is still active in worldwide political discourse and is frequently interviewed on a diverse array of topics, ranging from political theory to linguistics, to philosophy.

Human Nature

The early 20th Century Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin is one of the main figures who influenced Noam Chomsky’s political philosophy.

Noam Chomsky’s view on human nature is unique in the realm of philosophy. Chomsky believes that humans are innately linked with the natural work. Additionally, Chomsky believes that genes influence any organism, just like bees or geese, and that there are outside factors that enter into any organisms growth and development. Three important factors being the genetic composition, environmental effect, and lastly the way the laws of nature work. Chomsky also notes that there are fundamental roots in human nature and cites the idea of mutual aid. As discussed by the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin in the 1902 book Mutual Aid A Factor of Evolution, mutual aid is the voluntary exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit.  Chomsky applies this concept to humans to explain why individuals build communities to help each other survive and defend ourselves from outside threats. Chomsky also discusses how many people form their view of human nature from religion and how that can mislead in the fact that we just don’t know have much certainty in human nature. Chomsky believes there must be some kind of framework for mortality and altruism as a base. Chomsky follows and favors the Humboldtian concept of how language forms and how it is a generative process which people use words in an “infinite use of finite means.”  This concept views language as more plastic and changing all the time. The change is how we view words and how we interpret our lives with language.

Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism?

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is one of the founders of Anarchist political thought.

Noam Chomsky is known for his views on Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism. Anarchism is the idea of being free and separated from a large federal government. The founder of Anarchist political thought is considered to be Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a 19th-century French political writer, and socialist. Proudhon argued that the real laws of society have nothing to do with authority but rather stem from the nature of society itself. Additionally, he foresaw the eventual dissolution of authority and the emergence of a natural social order.” Proudhon thinks of a society that is organized on an egalitarian basis, with difficult tasks diffused throughout society. This society would also be based on decentralized communities of worker associations and small communities. Decisions and other activities are done in cooperation and common interest rather than laws. Proudhon also rejected Parliamentary systems as ineffective. Another contributor to Anarchist political theory is William Goodwin, an English philosopher active during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Goodwin argued that governmental authority inherently goes against human nature and that social evils exist solely because people cannot act according to reason. As a solution to this predicament, Goodwin feels that a decentralized society of small communities is far more effective in promoting societal peace and stability.   

The Israeli kibbutz system is considered to be a possible societal model according to Noam Chomsky.

Noam Chomsky explored this theme in his book On Anarchism. In the book, Chomsky discusses the concept of the kibbutz, a communal form of living seen in many Jewish communities in Israel, where people are highly interdependent and live communally in small villages. The problems of isolation and huge social stigma if you do something wrong on the kibbutz is terrible. It will destroy you if you stray to much from the community. But in Chomsky’s view, it is not perfect and needs to be worked out. Despite his view that collectivism is in many ways beneficial to society as a whole, Noam Chomsky is critical of Marxist political thought.  Although Chomsky views Marxism as enabling individuals to reach the point in which they can solve their problems in an effective manner, he also feels that Marxism is, at times, an authoritarian ideology that directly against the ideas of Anarchism such as opposition to centralized power.

Here is an interesting quote discussion Chomsky’s view on Marxism:

Actually, I’m not a great ethousists of Marx, but what he one comment he made seems appropriate here. I’m quoting him… but somewhere or other he said: socialism is an effort to try to solves man’s animal problems, and after having solved the animal problems, then we can face the human problems..socialism is an effort to get you to the point where you can face human problems” .

Throughout his writings, Noam Chomsky shows contempt for the modern system of capitalism, viewing it as an imperfect and flawed system, Much like with all systems and societal structures, Chomsky feels that the capitalist system can be improved through experimentation, but that a system based on Anarchism is perhaps the system that should be the goal of society to eventually move towards. William Goodwin, an English Anarchist,  makes classical anarchist arguments that authority is against human nature and that social evil exists because people cannot act according to reason which is why a decentralized society of small communities is more natural and more effective. Chomsky belief of working inside the system (liberal reform) and radically changing the system (Marxist), can be confusing and at times hard to understand.  

The Economic, The Political and the Social

Noam Chomsky is a self-described Anarcho-Syndicalist and is sympathetic to many of the ideas promoted in Libertarian Socialism. Chomsky wrote On Anarchism which discussed many of his thoughts on Anarchism, as well as the ideas unique to his own political philosophy. Chomsky’s works have been influenced by many different political perspectives, ranging from the more radical perspectives such as Marxism to Libertarianism. Chomsky was highly influenced by Anarchist theorists such as Goodwin and Proudhon. Chomsky does not believe there is a contradiction between pursuing certain reforms such as social welfare programs and single-payer health care systems that expand state power but benefit the public, to long-term implementation of increasingly Democratic institutions over time that gives workers more power until the point of system overthrow. The view held by Chomsky is that power is inherently evil in nature and that the federal government, while holding much power and often being illegitimate in terms of its overall structure, serves the purposes of protecting people from rampant, unregulated capitalism. An example of this philosophy could be the EPA stopping General Motors from poisoning rivers in Michigan, it would be very difficult for average citizens to undertake that. While the federal government structure, a tyranny in itself might be illegitimate, a private tyranny is worse and can only be checked by the power of a strong and active federal government.

In order to illustrate this point, Noam Chomsky uses an interesting metaphor:

I’m not in favor of people being in cages. On the other hand I think people ought to be in cages if there’s a saber-toothed tiger wandering around outside and if they go out of the cage the saber-toothed tiger will kill them. So sometimes there’s a justification for cages. That doesn’t mean cages are good things. State power is a good example of a necessary cage. There are saber-toothed tigers outside; they are called transnational corporations which are among the most tyrannical totalitarian institutions that human society has devised. And there is a cage, namely the state, which to some extent is under popular control. The cage is protecting people from predatory tyrannies so there is a temporary need to maintain the cage, and even to extend the cage”.

Chomsky points to a broad range of examples for a basic moral philosophy that seems self-evident to people around the world on issues that directly affect them. This is a very bare bones again, not a judgment on human nature as good but having some kind of structure. Something similar to the golden rule appears in many societies and a conceptualization of right and wrong that does not allow for some level of abuse.  An example could be small peasant farmers in Guatemala condemning Nestle for buying up their water supply, which results in water shortages and an angry. He would say that is a human reaction to something perceived as an unfair use of resources that belong to the community. Chomsky often points on examples of corporate greed in his works and how people believe it is immoral. A company like Exxon spilling thousands of barrels of oil into the ocean and getting to write it off for taxes and some years not paying taxes, as one of the largest corporations of the world, he would say humans naturally believe something like that is inherently unfair and wrong. 

Chomsky has largely favored worker coops and companies like the Mondragon Corporation in Spain which came out of the period of Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Chomsky views worker coops, or worker councils, workers managing the company and often owning the company equally as a style of capitalism to push as a short-term solution. Gar Alperovitz is considered similar where he has been helping create worker coops in Ohio. Chomsky is not in favor of capitalism nor is he in favor of markets. He often cites the fact that true markets do not exist and that when markets do exist, companies are often heavily subsidized or there is little to no competition. An example of this in the realm of international politics would be third world nations being prevented by larger powers from developing and having to rely on outside powers to subsidize them and provide them only a meager existence. Chomsky is critical of Neo-liberalism and its policies across the globe, noting that these politicians do little more than enrich the power elite at the expense of poor and vulnerable people. Instead, Chomsky favors a model based in part on Contemporary Liberalism because it does far more to help ordinary people throughout the world and helps to equalize the distribution of power and resources.

Here is an example of Noam Chomsky discussing the negative effects of Neo-liberal economic policies after the 2008 economic crisis:

So, for example, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, at the time when he was still “Saint Alan” – hailed by the economics profession as one of the greatest economists of all time (this was before the crash for which he was substantially responsible) – was testifying to Congress in the Clinton years, and he explained the wonders of the great economy that he was supervising. He said a lot of its success was based substantially on what he called “growing worker insecurity”. If working people are insecure, if they’re part of the precariat, living precarious existences, they’re not going to make demands, they’re not going to try to get better wages, they won’t get improved benefits. We can kick ’em out, if we don’t need ’em. And that’s what’s called a “healthy” economy, technically speaking. And he was highly praised for this, greatly admired”.

As noted above, “worker insecurity’ is the main theme in Chomsky’s philosophy, where you cannot always seek perfect solutions you seek better ones than neoliberal policies. Authors like Naomi Klein who wrote The Shock Doctrine emphasizes a similar philosophy of how neoliberalism uses various tools to unfairly rig markets to favor often the rich and powerful people. The book emphasizes how neoliberal policies are used to smash economies and push in policies that normally wouldn’t be put into place through “shock and awe”. She brings up the takeover of charter schools after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where “The Friedmanite American Enterprise Institute enthused that “Katrina accomplished in a day … what Louisiana school reformers couldn’t do after years of trying”, meaning privatize the school systems, which was largely against what the public had previously wanted. Chomsky has seen the transitions from the New Deal to the Clinton years of NAFTA, which he views as very different forms of capitalism requiring different approaches to understand.  

War, Peace, and Patriotism  

Noam Chomsky has also left a profound impact in the realm of international politics. Chomsky has been a lifelong critic of warfare and American foreign policy. He has written many works on this topic, most notably  Masters of Mankind; Essays and Lectures 1969-2013, Who Rules the World?, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media and many more. The topics of these books focus on power, global economic systems and criticism of the power dynamics that often favor societal elites.  Patriotism, according to Chomsky, combined with fear is dangerous.

Chomsky gives a definition of patriotism that states:

For those whose instincts are democratic rather than totalitarian, “patriotism” means commitment to the welfare and improvement of the society, its people, its culture. That’s a natural sentiment and one that can be quite positive. It’s one all serious activists share, I presume; otherwise why take the trouble to do what we do? But the kind of “patriotism” fostered by totalitarian societies and military dictatorships, and internalized as second nature by much of intellectual opinion in more free societies, is one of the worst maladies of human history, and will probably do us all in before too long”.

Noam Chomsky views patriotism (depending on the tendency of individuals) as having the potential to do good, often in democratic and local levels, rather than the national level. The view he has of nationalism is highly critical of American foreign policy, which is what he calls jingoistic, especially in the post-9/11 world.  Foreign policy should be more measured in Chomsky’s opinion and less focused on the use of force for private gain and instead more on cooperation. Many anarchists and Marxists leaning philosophers have had similar sentiments on war and many were locked up during World War I, the most famous being the 1912 and 1920 Socialist Party Presidential candidate Eugene Debs.

In conclusion, Noam Chomsky is one of the most influential political theorists and philosophers in recent memory and is a leading intellectual force on many different topics. Chomsky is known for promoting the political theories of Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism, which are critical of state power and favor a more decentralized power structure based in part on voluntary institutions. Chomsky holds a philosophy that brings truth to power, stands up for the oppressed, and is rooted in diverse intellectual traditions. Noam Chomsky promotes his ideas through numerous writings on topics such as economics, philosophy, American foreign policy, and political theory. Moreover, Chomsky’s political views were shaped in part by events such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the rise in Neo-liberal economic policies during the last few decades of the 20th Century. Chomsky’s political philosophy still remains influential to this very day in the realm of Anarcho-syndicalism and will continue to influence future generations of political scientists and activists alike.

Bibliography

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Chomsky, Noam. “A Conversation with Noam Chomsky on Organizing for a Next System.” TheNextSystem.org. March 24, 2016. Accessed March 01, 2018. https://thenextsystem.org/conversation_with_noam_chomsky.

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(Edited by Matthew Rose on 3/20/2018 🙂 )

 

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Senior Completing Under Graduate in Political Science Minor in Sustainability at MU Competition is for the Weak. Jobs are for the sick. Hammers, Nails, One Tool, One Solution. Homo Homini Lupus.

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  1. Christina on May 8, 2018

    Notihng I could say would give you undue credit for this story.

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