Friday, July 18, 2014

Noam Chomsky: "Chomsky on Anarchism": Book Review

As Barry Pateman, Emma Goldman archivist, notes in introducing these eleven pieces (red cover above, AK Press; mostly interviews and lectures) from 1969-2004, while some repetition occurs, this 2005 anthology offers a sustained explanation by Noam Chomsky of the philosophy and practice of anarchism. He reminds us he's a fellow traveler, for anarcho-syndicalism and left-libertarian attitudes overlap along the continuum, with libertarian communist, anti-statist, and even cooperation (as in voting on crucial referenda, supporting alternative candidates, and local policies) with the state. Pateman in his own interview explores this and shows how some advancement in Chomsky's view of the state in order to contain dangerous tendencies against progressive activism might be justified for the future advance of leader-free or consensual practices of liberty.  He's a pragmatic as well as intellectual thinker, and many of the less formal interviews in the latter pages, with Irish activist Kevin Doyle, scholar Ziga Vodovnik (I reviewed his "Living Spirit of Revolt"), and Pateman capture for me a more avuncular, warmer presence than the scholarship  accumulated in some lectures.

However, these are valuable. They show the trajectory of the liberal elite's capitulation to the political and corporate interests in power. Whether allied to push policy in Vietnam, approve as Gabriel Jackson's book did the clampdown on Spanish and Catalan anarchists by Stalinists during that civil war, or prop up the US military in Central America and the Middle East, this is consistent. Chomsky shows the consistent defense of US power against the spontaneous and the insurrectionary forces that seek freedom. This may not be surprising, but he looks at how intellectuals and advisors from academia as liberals choose to deny liberty.

He examines Rousseau's 1775 Discourse Against Inequality, Jeffersonian fears of big government, federalism, and the need articulated in language for freedom. This gets a bit academic, as one may expect, but the shorter chapters lighten the tone. Here, he finally addresses workplace issues. It's a bit dated in parts as it seems the auto factory floor remains the metaphor, tellingly, for an earlier US era we are now watching in the rear mirror more than through the windshield. Yet, in entries closer to now, you get some sense of how globalization's balance sheet pits American workers against or alongside Third World workers. More on this and contemporary impacts, as the workforce diminishes and as work itself changes boundaries, is still an underexamined aspect of many anarchist discussions in print. Chomsky, at least, tries to speak in terms understandable by everyday folks. 

Handling questions from audiences, discussing the key struggle against "red bureaucracy" as Bukharin fought for anti-authoritarian social revolution rather than a top-down cadre acting on supposed behalf of the workers and peasants, and admonishing those who place too much faith in leaders, Chomsky remains relevant in these talks, even if they needed an index (Amazon US 6-12-14)

The next book, from 2013 ("A" cover in colors; New Press), overlaps a lot. A spirited introduction by Nathan Schneider (see my reviews of his fine 2013 Occupy study "Thank You Anarchy" and in longer form at New Clear Vision) places this in context of events that in Schneider's view widened anarchism's range so many curious or hostile were confronted for a time with its presence downtown. As his book had advised, Schneider here suggests churches as examples of successful mutual aid independent of the state, and how the left might overcome its tendency to reject such models as part of a "functional resistance movement." He reaches out to the libertarian capitalists who briefly tried to find common ground with OWS activists and anarchists, and he encourages the "anarcho-curious" who found that movement intriguing to contemplate more efforts to expand their impact. Chomsky himself sums anarchism up: "people have the right to be free, and if there are constraints on that freedom, then you've got to justify them." (33) He wants no more wage slavery, but work as willed.

As Schneider notes (and many of Chomsky's critics on the left, who find this inconsistent), Chomsky pragmatically or strategically accepts working within the system so as to prevent right-wing restrictions or for public safety (he uses an example of a rabid raccoon resisting humane traps so he and his neighbors agreed to call authorities to deal with it after local attempts had failed), "because by doing so you can help move to a situation where you can then challenge these structures." (41)

As for the contents, 3/5 are repeated entries from "Chomsky On Anarchism" (AK Press, 2005; none of the articles appearing there are credited as such in the acknowledgements although other reprints and their original sources are cited.) "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" (1969) reveals how elites and think-tanks support US foreign policy in Vietnam by "the new mandarins"; "Language and Freedom" (1970) uses linguistics and politics to examine Rousseau, Descartes, and Humboldt. "Notes on Anarchism" (1970/3) is a revision of an introduction to Daniel Guerin's anthology of anarchism.

The new inclusions appear to be a 2002 excerpt from "Understanding Power" and a 2002 interview with Harry Kreisler from his book Political Awakenings (2010). These, as many of the AK Press entries, often repeat themselves, but it makes for a briefer book than its predecessor, probably published to take understandable advantage of the post-OWS interest in Chomsky and these topics. (Amazon US 6-26-14)

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