Book Review

On Anarchism by Noam Chomsky

In this small book you will learn that Chomsky considers an anarchist a ‘socialist libertarian.’ Put differently, a person who intends to organize society around democratic principles.

Chomsky-On-Anarchism-He suggests building this democratic foundation from the ground up, where the majority of the population not a small cadre of elites make decisions and reap the rewards of their participation in the political arena. Since it is impossible to literally involve the entire population in every single matter relevant to the community, a small group of people is indeed necessary to represent the concerns and ideals of the many. Chomsky asks whether these representatives ought to be average, that is, similar to the common people they intend to represent, or better, smarter, kinder, stronger, wealthier, and so on.

He doesn’t answer the question he raises in this book. Although he does indicate that this group needs to be elected by an informed majority, and that elected officials must serve temporary terms in office. According to Chomsky, an anarchist is a person who is not against power per se, but who is against absolute power, or power that can neither be questioned nor modified. For anarchy to be successful, any group of people that end up representing the majority must always remain within the same boundaries of the law that govern everyone else.

The role of the state is another interesting aspect of Chomsky’s understanding of anarchy. Far from restricting its powers, anarchists, says Chomsky, need to consolidate it further because it is the only weapon available at the moment to combat “predatory capitalism.” Even though the state colludes with big business the fact that it overpowers corporations means that weakening the government lessens the people’s chances to suppress the power of private companies. He writes, “dismantling the state is a goal that’s a lot farther away, and you want to deal first with what’s at hand and nearby.” It’s not a contradiction for an anarchist to bolster the power of the state because the government has the power to help and reach people in need. Welfare, subsidies, and other social safety nets are currently in the domain of the government. And Chomsky writes, “There are practical problems of tomorrow on which people’s lives very much depend, and while defending these kinds of programs is by no means the ultimate end we should be pursuing, in my view we still have to face the problems that are right on the horizon, and which seriously affect human lives.”

My concern is with what happens when those who have consolidated the powers of the state forget about their commitment to dismantle it after a while. One might argue that something similar happened after the Bolshevik revolution, when in order to combat capitalism Marxists consolidated the power of the state and then kept it. Another event occurred in Egypt when Hosni Mubarak called a state of emergency, giving himself and his party members enough power to confront the immediate effects of Islamic terrorism from which his predecessor was murdered in 1981, and then simply kept renewing this state of emergency for more than thirty years, until he was ousted by the populace.

Certainly it is important to think about immediate concerns, especially with regards to the lowest and weakest strata of the population, but I don’t think that anarchists should consolidate any form of power, especially not under the pretext of fighting an immediate threat. The idea that one has to fight fire with fire will yield even more transgressions against the law, against freedoms, against our wellbeing and our rights to pursue fulfillment and it will demand more and more submission. It is true that the goal at present is not to dismantle the state, but the opposite — strengthening the state — is likewise not the solution. Instead, the first step in my opinion is dismantling — in a democratic manner — the power of the bogyman that the state is using to ransom the freedoms of civilians.

If in the United States corporations that are too big to fail represent this monster, then anarchists need to unite against that target, they need to awaken the population, mobilize the masses, and generate people-power in order to win the battle against the state in the near future; not to strengthen the enemy they intend to face at a later date (the state), because they’re too weak to battle the smaller one (corporations) in the present. In the Middle East, the same could be said of Islamic fundamentalism. For instance, in 1981, when Hosni Mubarak came to power, the people should have riled up against the “state of emergency,” they should have created village and town committees, they should have told the state that they were going to make their communities safe themselves, and in return, they did not want their rights, freedoms, or power revoked in the name of “national security.” The thing about democracy is that it will never succeed if the people expect a slave or a master to do their work for them. Democracy is responsibility, it is active participation in one’s community, it is the active participation of the majority all the time, not once or twice a week. It can’t work with superheros. It can’t work if people only want to be active on holidays or after disasters.

There can be no anarchy, whether one calls it libertarianism, socialism, individualism, objectivism, or anything else, when the people remain weak, fearful, and indolent. The first step of changing the social order, in my opinion, is changing the social consciousness. No matter what external power claims to fight for the people, until the people learn to fight for themselves, that external power will always claim its position above the people, not as a servant or a protector, but as a nouveau despot if not a classical one.

With regards to the chapter on language, my biggest issue — aside from the gaps he himself comments upon — is the reference to the Enlightenment’s ideas about human nature, with which I am growing more and more disillusioned. I don’t believe that the determination of our individuality, uniqueness, or even cosmic value, ought to be orchestrated in binary structures, or in antithesis to our animal brethren. I do not even believe anymore that it is our intellectual faculties (mind, thus thought, thus language) that is the most distinctive aspect of our species. I think we need to view our species through cooperative lenses, and to reinterpret our capacity for free will / thought in terms that highlight compassion rather than intellect or objectivity, and “Man” as an organism, as an integral part of the wider cosmos, not as the nucleus and center — thus, not as “Man,” not even as “Human.” In contrast to the intellectuals who sold us the fiction of the Enlightened self, or the dogmatic scholars who preceded them, those who touted enslavement of humanity to a religious establishment or a socio-political one, I suggest reinterpreting the nature of the species in terms of kindness, and a collective or shared cosmic destiny. This might be the task of comtellectuals (erudite teachers who prioritize the values of our collective, cooperative, and compassionate natures).

Yeah, I like coining new words.

On Anarchism. Noam Chomsky. London: Penguin Books, 2013. Print.

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Note: I bought the paperback edition from Kinokuniya, Dubai.

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