JR'S Free Thought Pages
Confessions of a Reluctant Anarchist
With remarks on Bakunin, Russell and Chomsky
By Johnny Reb
Note: I have used the symbol * to denote footnotes which follow the paragraph(s) in which they are located.
Over the years I’ve read hundreds of books on the subjects of my intellectual obsessions* that include Philosophy, Critical Thinking, Anarchism, Skepticism (Scholarly Bullshit Detection) and The Spanish Civil War. I’m now living a life of quiet desperation during retirement attempting to work my way through all the books that I didn’t have time to digest during my working years as a wage slave - too many books, not enough time.
* I’ve more or less removed Mathematics from my list of passions since retirement. In my view, thirty years of anything – whether it’s doing Mathematics or any other activity that has become a “job” or demands more than about ten hours a week - predictably would induce most people to lose enthusiasm and interest. I’ve always believed that any endeavor, intellectual or otherwise, that’s worth doing for its intrinsic value alone demands no payment, wage, compensation or reward to engage in it.
I presume anyone who knows me well enough is aware of my skeptical and radical temperament and “shit disturbing” iconoclastic proclivities. Could bullshit detection be a genetic advantage? I expect many “people of faith” would deem it a personality defect or “sin”. A writer who has influenced me a great deal is the eminent mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell - a man with anarchistic/libertarian sympathies himself* - who once remarked in one of his many thought provoking essays that people who have independence of thought, who prefer to think for themselves, who are critical thinking curmudgeons and always insist on posing the “why questions” are managerial nightmares because they’re “awkward to manage and cause administrative difficulties.” I like to think I’ve contributed to some sleepless nights and torment for those people who have had power over me, including some of the tedious dolts I’ve worked for. Within the hierarchy of the education system workplace called a school, these robotic drone-like bullies were referred to as “principals”. Many of you have surely noticed that people in positions of power such as your boss or member of parliament tremble and break into a cold sweat of evasiveness when asked the “why question”. But drones are not paid to think are they and I guess that’s why they cringe? If they can’t change the subject, come up with an elusive answer or a red herring they’ll usually submit to the company manual.
*Bertrand Russell was attracted to anarchism and remained a lifelong libertarian despite his espousal of the idea of a World State to end war between nations. At the age of twenty-three, the young aristocrat was described by Beatrice Webb in 1895 as 'anarchic', and he later confessed to a temperamental leaning towards anarchism. Russell certainly knew what anarchism stood for. In his Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism (1918), written just before he was imprisoned for writing a pamphlet and publically denouncing the validity of the First World War, he included on the title page the sentiments of Lao-Tzu:
-Production without possession
-Action without self-assertion
-Development without domination.
In an informed and thoughtful discussion, he defines anarchism as the theory which is opposed to 'every kind of forcible government'. Liberty is the supreme good of the anarchist creed, and liberty is sought by 'the direct road of abolishing all forcible control over the individual by the community'? Russell endorsed such a view and argued that anarchism should be 'the ultimate ideal, to which society should continually approximate'.' He felt that anarchism is particularly strong in matters of science and art, human relations and the joy of life. By the way, during the six months that Russell spent in jail for writing a pamphlet condemning the First World War, Russell authored a top notch book on the Philosophy of Mathematics that is still topical and relevant today. You can read further on Russell and anarchism on my web site here.
I can’t recall exactly how and when I earned the nickname or who initiated it, but in my high school days long before I’d read any anarchist literature, many school buddies referred to me affectionately as “Johnny Reb”. I couldn’t honestly object to the title; in fact, I eventually warmed up to it. Certainly it was preferable to “asshole”. Anyway, who wants to be known to be part of a crowd of sycophantic lemmings? In those submissive conformist days of docility in the 1950s and early 60s no one would ever confess to being anything remotely resembling a radical – especially a Godless Heathen, condemned by the Christian mainstream to burn in Hell for eternity for simply not believing something for which there is not a shred of evidence. (Yikes, eternity is a long time, and I wonder what the punishment would be if you actually did something really bad, like take the Lord’s name in vain or play with your tally whacker as a child). I refer to this childish intimidation as the “Believe or Burn” proverb. It’s a dictum with which you all ought to be familiar: it’s one of the infamous ten from the Man Upstairs, each beginning with the iniquitous phrase “thou shalt not”. My best school friend and I came to the conclusion that all religion was bullshit sometime in Junior High School and that we’d take our chances with the Christian threats, bribes and bullying for the sake of our nascent intellects. We’d reached the age of rationality by that time and had little difficulty in coming to such a resounding conclusion. Hey, if God was a delusion - Santa Claus for adults - so was the rest of the mystical package. Once we discovered Bertrand Russell’s “Why I’m Not a Christian” (it was somehow overlooked by our local book burning Bible thumpers) in the school library, our intuitions were rationally confirmed.
Of course we’d never admit to anyone we were atheists, or acknowledge any of many other contrarian heretical positions we held. Again you must remember that this was the stifling sanitized environment of the 1950s. We feared that if we revealed our atheism even to our parents, we’d be institutionalized for some sort of neuroses or other mental affliction. You mean you don’t believe in an Invisible man in the Sky?! Of course we thought it was the religious who ought to be taken away by the guys in the white suits and sent to the Funny Farm. We were puzzled by the fact that so many people could act rationally six days a week, be skeptical on a used car lot or of the latest over the counter drugstore remedy - but then all of a sudden on a Sunday morning these same people were compelled to get on their knees, pray and pay homage to a man who claimed to be the son of an invisible celestial omnipotent omnipresent tyrant, born of a virgin, to have sacrificed himself on a wooden cross for the sins of all mankind (caused by an amorous couple who were curious and bit into an apple) and then rose from the dead for a few days, then vanishing forever. The believer would thereby be rewarded with eternal life if they just simply believed this fairy tale. It’s called “faith”. Whoa - that wasn’t for us in spite of the enticing bribe - which was about as believable as an Elvis manned flying saucer striking the Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman in a single day.
I can recall as a teenager the gruesome scene in the 1960 movie Spartacus, with Kirk Douglas brilliant as usual in the title role, in which Spartacus and thousands of his followers were crucified like Jesus one hundred years later on crosses for miles and miles on a road heading out of Rome. I thought to myself that Spartacus had died for promoting a much more noble and lofty principle than Jesus, namely freedom from power, slavery and oppression. He seemed to me a martyr much more worthy of praise and reverence - and his story didn’t require anyone to suspend their critical faculties by being required to believe in mythological and metaphysical nonsense - fairy tales about virgin births, resurrections and miracles. In our so-called democracies and the resulting freedoms that we all venerate today, why is not that cross and that crucifixion with Spartacus that hangs from our necks or rear view mirrors today rather than Jesus? Was it because Spartacus was a slave leading a revolt against the tyrannical ruling classes and this is clearly not something those same reactionary ruling classes down through the ages have wanted to promote?
Speaking of politics and those who have power over us, at about that time we also decided to embrace Socialism because Tommy Douglas seemed to be the only honest politician in Canada at the time (and since then by the way) – and everything he said about social justice, caring, compassion for the less fortunate and the hypocrisy and greed of conservative power elites seemed to make so much sense. He was also a great orator and had some cool jokes.
Years later, after returning to our home town in Northern BC following completion of our second year at UBC, there was a provincial election brewing so a University buddy and I decided to go to an NDP rally sponsored by the IWA which at the time basically ran the party in Prince George. We were naïve and idealistic in those days so when the NDP executive was looking for someone to run their campaign, we eagerly raised our hands to volunteer and were, to our bewilderment and amazement, selected. It was quite an experience – we learned how to use the silk screen for lawn signs, knock on doors and sermonize on the evils of capitalism and virtues of socialism. I even wrote some speeches for the NDP candidate. But in spite of our confidence, optimism, hard work and enthusiasm, we lost the election to the Social Credit candidate who had held the seat in the Prince George riding for as long as I can remember.
Prince George was (and remains) a working class town but the deluded propagandized PG working stiffs still insisted on voting for the right wing conservative Social Credit candidate Ray Williston – who, like all conservatives, couldn’t have given a rat’s ass about their concerns. But propaganda and indoctrination is a powerful device – and sadly, quite obviously works all too well. Although not so dreadfully ubiquitous and dominant as they are today, all the local and provincial newspapers and media were essentially platforms for conservative interests. My father at the time was the general manager of a Ford dealership in Prince George and when I was a 15 year old kid working on the car lot during the summers I can remember the owners warning their employees that if they didn’t vote Social Credit, they would lose their jobs and that the end of the world would be imminent. It never fails to mystify me why working stiffs seem incapable of abandoning their faith and credulity, taking off their rose-tinted spectacles even for a moment - and thinking the obvious. Why do they continue to believe the Orwellian rubbish churned out by their wealthy bosses and politicians, vote against their economic interests and continue to support right wing regressive lizards like Stephen Harper and Gordon Campbell? Are these frauds the advocate of Joe Six Pack? C’mon wake up people!
"No Gods, No Masters" is a traditional anarchist slogan, expressing the belief that Religion, God, Politics, the State and all power is hot steaming bovine excrement, devised to make coercion, submission and slavery tolerable. In fact slavery was the cornerstone of both Christianity and Capitalism for centuries. Some argue that it still is. Many anarchists, like myself, were atheists first and became anarchists later. After rejection of the heavenly tyrant, the celestial dictatorship of divine authority, I had cleared the path for rejection of human power and authority as well.
But in spite of our aversion to authority or anything representative of it, my high school buddy and I decided that putting on a uniform might attract girls. Not a wise decision! Somehow I did manage to endure a few days of the Army Cadets (I loathed all that marching and saluting pretentious dolts with room temperature IQs and personalities of speed bumps). And, someone should have informed me that you can’t tell a Staff Sergeant to “eat my shorts”. However, I did manage to suffer a few weeks of the Boy Scouts (God dam but that was monotonous!). That lasted until I couldn’t bear any longer the god fearing troop leaders insistence on having us mindlessly sing “God Save the Queen” and “Oh Canada” at every session (“we stand on guard for thee” – who’s the cretin that came up with that soggy sycophantic line?). That was mind-numbing, sheer torment – for as long as I can remember I’ve always been uncomfortable joining in unison singing national anthems and other drivel associated with duty, obedience and emotion as substitutes for independent thought and action - which in this case invariably implies dutifully killing people and getting killed for God, Queen and Country for no good reason. Of course the not so subtle messages in those songs were directed only to the working classes, not the wealthy conservative elites who owned the country, controlled the government, started the wars and wouldn’t be caught dead in military garb. Chicken hawk assholes like Stephen Harper, George Bush and Dick Cheney would never put on a uniform and put themselves in harm’s way. Paying taxes and going to war is for the “little people” as multi-billionaire “Queen of Mean” slumlord Leona Helmsley called the working classes.
The lyrics to those national hymns are so disgraceful – has anyone taken the time to write them down and actually read them carefully? It’s like a judicious reading of the violence, persecution, murder, moral atrocities and mayhem of the Old Testament. If you read that gruesome book called The Holy Babble from cover to cover, you’ll be converted to atheism faster than reading Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins. Jesus Murphy, not only are the lyrics to our national anthem banal, they’re depraved. No thinking person who values freedom can handle much of that sort of mindless reverence for bogus authority and patriotic obedience . It’s devious indoctrination and subtle submission of the worst sort! Back then I couldn’t really articulate to myself why I hated such rubbish but now I know only too well.
Not surprising for me I suppose, one of my “near death experiences” came back in the late 1960s when at the end of a beer drinking binge at the Sunshine Coast Legion I refused to stand up for the ritual playing of “God Save the Queen” at closing time. This was during a weekend of my first visit with my future in laws. “I don’t believe in either God or the Queen”, I protested, as my burly future brother in law rescued me from a certain meal of knuckle sandwiches by monarchist flag waving god-fearing rednecks. I now try to be a little more diplomatic in the autumn of my life, but detest such pathetic hogwash more than ever.
The source of my attraction to anarchism is perhaps an inherited characteristic (is there a contrarian anti-authoritarian gene?) and grounded in what seems like a lifelong aversion to arbitrary authority. Hey – make that any authority! For hierarchical oppressive centralized systems, particularly religion, militarism and all other doctrinaire closed systems of thought and any species of totalitarianism or utopian social or political organization I have always had nothing but the utmost contempt. Sorry to disappoint you quixotic optimists and inflexible status quo conservative types, but there are no salvation plans or all encompassing moral schemes* for saving the human race. And that applies above all to religion in addition to the many secular dogmatisms, the latest edition which is called global capitalism** and its unjust precursors and subsequent mutations - as well as Marxism in its multiple formulations. During my undergraduate years at UBC a free thinking professor introduced me to the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin. Although my intellectual mentor, Bertrand Russell, was at a dissident and contrarian and at the very least congenial to anarchism, Bakunin, for the first time, provided me with the intellectual and philosophical foundations for my radical views and deep seated aversion to power and authority. It’s only since retirement that I’ve really had the time to engage in an intensive study of political philosophy and, in particular, read Bakunin in more depth and study many of the other great anarchist philosophers such as Emma Goldman, Errico Malatesta, Murray Bookchin, Noam Chomsky and so many others. As well, my study of the Spanish Civil War and the role played by anarchists in that conflict has been both instructive and fascinating.
* Consider The Ten Commandments. The alleged divine decrees are well over two thousand years old and undeniably irrelevant to any secularized enlightened world view. In fact, only one or two of them at most have anything to do with ethics and the punishments for violating any of them such as disobeying your parents, working on the Sabbath or worshipping the wrong God is particularly nasty, typically death by burning in hell for eternity. The punishment for adultery (for women only) is stoning to death (by men).Oh, and do not covet another man’s possessions such as his oxen, slaves or wife. George Carlin in one of his witty cynicisms explains this position probably as well as any moral philosopher. You can listen to it here. In spite of this obvious fact, many American politicians demand they be posted in jury rooms and public schoolrooms. Anyone who believes the Ten Commandments or the Bible ought to serve as a moral guide for the 21st century can read a rebuttal that has been around for as long as Plato here.
**That’s become patently evident with the recent global economic collapse, stock market meltdown and massive movement of capital upward to the already privileged conservative plutocrats and big corporations in recent decades. In the United States 1% of the population now controls more wealth than the bottom 90% - feudalism anyone? Then here are the $hundreds of billions$ in bailouts (the inverse Robin Hood Plan that robs the public treasury to bailout the rich) of larcenous banks and other villainous financial institutions - yeah, that’s your hard-earned taxpayer money. Rewarding failure has always been a big part of the Conservative program of Socialism for the wealthy. The Conservative Corporate Welfare State (link to my paper) is alive and well folks! Capitalism has once again been exposed as one big sham, façade and con game. If real free enterprise existed, the state supported capitalist system of welfare for the wealthy and reward for incompetence and inherited privilege - the system as we now know it - would collapse in a heartbeat.
On Mikhail Bakunin
What attracts me to Bakunin is his rejection of all-encompassing world views and closed systems of thought. He was not a systematic thinker and never claimed to be one. He thought of himself as a revolutionary, not an inventor of systems bordering on mysticism like Adam Smith (the “invisible hand of the marketplace”) or Karl Marx (dialectical materialism). He refused to recognize the existence of any pre-conceived or preordained laws of history or economics and rejected the whimsical view that social change depends upon the gradual unfolding of “objective” historical conditions. He believed, on the contrary, that people are capable of shaping their own destinies, that their lives cannot be squeezed into a Procrustean bed of abstract socio-political formulas. “No theory, no ready-made system, no book that was ever written will save the world,” Bakunin declared. “I cleave no system, I am a truth seeker.” In God and the State Bakunin renounced authority and coercion in all its multifarious forms. In a contemptuous passage he vents his spleen on all the tormentors, all the oppressors and all the exploiters of humanity – especially conservatives and other advocates of the status quo including priests, clerics, monarchs, statesmen, huge landowners, soldiers, police, public and private financiers and entrepreneurs, officials of all sorts, gendarmes, jailers, executives, judges, executioners, monopolists, economists and politicians of every stripe. But the leading perpetrators of man’s enslavement – “my two Bête Noires” he calls them – are the Church and the State. Every state, says Bakunin tells us, has been an instrument by which the privileged few have wielded power over the vast majority. And every church has been a loyal obsequious ally of the state in the subjugation of mankind. Governments throughout history have used religion both as a means of keeping people in docile ignorance, thus providing a “safety-valve” for human misery and frustration. Religion, no less than the state, is the total negation of freedom and equality. Thus if God really exists, Bakunin concludes, inverting Voltaire’s famous dictum, “it would be necessary to abolish him.” Government and religion have always worked hand-in-hand to keep the status and power of a privileged minority intact and the rest of us in chains.
Get over it folks – as Bakunin has convincingly argued and history confirms - there are no salvation plans, grandiose schemes or Archimedean points from which we can solve the world’s problems. What we need is critical skepticism (yeah that’s right - thinking is hard work – no one ever claimed that authentic democracy was ever going to be easy) so we have to glean from these numerous secular systems a hybrid set of non-authoritarian beliefs that will promote genuine democracy, equality of opportunity, egalitarianism, and general happiness for the vast majority of citizens within a community as are humanly possible. Although I don’t believe in any linear progression of moral progress or historicism, we still must be diligent and skeptical, prepared to adapt quickly, to revise and change as evidence and conditions dictate. That’s what every good scientist hopefully does. As I have argued elsewhere, Conservatism is reactionary and regressive, anathema to and the very antithesis of the scientific outlook. The essence of conservatism is graphically revealed in Margaret Thatcher’s doctrinaire TINA principle – “there is no alternative” (to unfettered capitalism and privatization of everything on the planet). And if we presently examine who President elect Obama (another conservative wearing a liberal mask) has chosen for his cabinet, not much will “change” as he had incessantly preached during his Wall Street financed election campaign. It looks like it’s going to be business as usual (literally!) – it’s the same old system of privatizing profits and socializing costs. We’ll continue to be shackled by the same old problems of corporatism, the marriage of corporate and political corruption, militarism, imperialism, economic disparities, grinding down of genuine democracy, economic growth as a dogmatism, environmental degradation, poverty and creeping fascism. In other words, more pain for Joe Six Pack. Michael Bakunin believed that the true mission of science and learning was not to control men but to rescue them from all superstition (especially religion) and release them from drudgery, wage slavery, boredom, coercion, oppression and disease.
Here is the great Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta:
None can judge with certainty who is right and who is wrong, who is nearest to the truth or what the best way is to achieve the greatest good for each and everyone. Freedom coupled with experience, is the only way of discovering the truth and what is best; and there can be no freedom if there is a denial of the freedom to err.
But when one talks of freedom politically and not philosophically, nobody thinks of the metaphysical bogyman of abstract thought who exists outside the cosmic and social environment and who, like some god, could do what he wishes in the absolute sense of the word.
When one talks of freedom one is speaking of a society in which no one could constrain his fellow beings without meeting with vigorous resistance, in which, above all, nobody could seize and use the collective force to impose his own wishes on others and on the very groups which are the source of power. (From Umanita Nova 1920)
Remarks on Noam Chomsky
MIT professor Noam Chomsky has been one of my intellectual heroes for decades. I deeply admire his remarkable intellect, courage and facility to articulate truth to power, something he has been doing effectively for decades and even now as he reached his 80th year. Like his philosophical mentors Von Humboldt, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, Chomsky is a child of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and shares its endorsement of skepticism, reason, science and technology to improve the human condition. As a world renowned eminent professor of linguistics at MIT, exceptionally articulate Cartesian rationalist, radical humanist and persistent and formidable gadfly, he has remained the most influential anarchist critic of American corporations and the US government and their ruthless policy of world domination.
Chomsky could have easily and safely stayed within the cloistered existence of his comfortable academic career at MIT as the world’s most respected authority in linguistics. As a linguist, he is principally known for his generally accepted thesis that all human beings have an innate `universal grammar' which enables them to learn their different languages. At the same time, he shares Bertrand Russell's 'humanistic conception' which regards the young as a gardener regards a young tree, an organism with the potential to be nurtured and encouraged. He has been deeply impressed by Wilhelm von Humboldt's attempt to draw The Limits of State Action and by his emphasis on the importance of the free choice of the individual. But he freely admits that he has been most influenced by Rudolf Rocker, whom he refers to as the “last serious thinker'” in the direction of anarcho-syndicalism. Ultimately, he bases his libertarian socialism on a belief that all human beings have “intrinsic needs for liberty and the ability to exercise control over themselves.”
He continues to teach at MIT and is still regarded as the most well known and respected linguist, intellectual, social and political critic and anarchist in the world today. When this man passes on it will be a huge loss to the cause of humanism, skeptical criticism and an effective voice for justice and democracy throughout the world. It’s ironic that Chomsky is known far more outside his own country. This is primarily due to the right wing press and media in the United States who do everything in their power to marginalize him because of his truthful critique of US culture, politics and especially its brutal imperialistic foreign policy.
Anarchism can be defined simply as extreme skepticism of authority. Its basic idea is to abolish domination and coercion in favor of a society based on voluntary co-operation. As Chomsky explained in a 1995 interview:
“I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations (the basic moral imperative behind the environmental movement, in my view), and much else. Naturally this means a challenge to the huge institutions of coercion and control: the state, the unaccountable private tyrannies that control most of the domestic and international economy, and so on - but not only these. That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met. Sometimes the burden can be met. If I'm taking a walk with my grandchildren and they dart out into a busy street, I will use not only authority but also physical coercion to stop them. The act should be challenged, but I think it can readily meet the challenge. And there are other cases; life is a complex affair, we understand very little about humans and society, and grand pronouncements are generally more a source of harm than of benefit. But the perspective is a valid one, I think, and can lead us quite a long way.” ["Chomsky on Anarchism, Marxism and Hope for the Future", Interview in Red & Black Magazine 1995]
Chomsky has tried to formulate a biological concept of “human nature” with its own innate intellectual and cognitive aspects. In his view, only humans have an ability to use language creatively. He claims that there is no inconsistency in believing that the “essential attributes of human nature give man the opportunity to create social conditions and social forms to maximize the possibilities for freedom and diversity, and individual self-realization”. To support his views, Chomsky has quoted Bakunin's view of liberty as the full development of all the powers that are latent in each person, a form of liberty that recognizes no restrictions other than those determined by the laws of our own individual nature, which cannot be regarded as restrictions since these laws are not imposed by any outside legislator or anything above us.
Rather than trying to develop a rigorous philosophical foundation for his social beliefs, Chomsky has chosen to express his libertarian sympathies in a persistent critique of American culture and politics. He has been particularly critical of the servility of the American intellectual establishment and the American media who hide their real interests behind a mask of “liberal objectivity”. Such intellectuals have come to form a secular priesthood who try to justify the inhuman policies of the State by disguising them in morally acceptable terms.* Chomsky has also been one of the most trenchant critics of American administrations, especially in their execution of an aggressive foreign policy from Vietnam to the current US imperialistic ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. The key problem lies in what he calls “military Keynesianism”, that is, the need for the military-industrial complex in America to find an enemy in order to maintain a high level of military spending.
*One such conservative wolf wearing a liberal mask is intellectual pimp, former Harvard professor and present federal Liberal Party leader in Canada, Michael Ignatieff. While at Harvard he wrote a pamphlet supporting the invasion of Iraq and later an apologist tract in justifying torture. Ignatieff has argued that Ignatieff argues the Bush administration mantra that Western democracies may have to resort to "lesser evils" like indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations (a sanitized euphemism for “torture”), targeted assassinations, and pre-emptive wars in order to combat the greater evil of terrorism. Sieg Heil! The 'Lesser Evil' approach has been rightly criticized by several prominent human rights advocates, like Conor Gearty, for incorporating a problematic Orwellian form of moral rhetoric that can be used to legitimize various forms of torture.
Noam Chomsky, schooled in classical anarchism from his early teens as a child prodigy, was impressed by the social experiments during the Spanish Civil War. He has been the most influential critic of capitalism in the US from a libertarian point of view. In a long series of books on the media and American foreign policy, he has resoundingly demonstrated how Western elites have supported genocide, wars and repression throughout the world in the name of liberal democracy and Western civilization. He has shown how both 'liberal' and 'conservative' opinion in the US is committed to a State capitalist ideology which seeks to establish a global system in which US-based corporations can operate freely. The “fifth freedom” of the US constitution, he says, is the freedom to exploit and dominate other peoples.
Chomsky has vividly demonstrated how corporations have joined governments to manipulate the media in order to promote their own interests, thereby perpetuating injustice and inequality and blocking any attempts to create a more direct and participatory democracy. He has repeatedly stressed the double standards of the US government, which rhetorically promotes freedom and democracy abroad yet supports some of the most tyrannical regimes in the world if they further its interests. In Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (2003), he presented a scathing overview of American foreign policy and its imperial ambitions since the Second World War.
Chomsky has never claimed to be an original anarchist thinker, preferring to call himself a “derivative fellow traveler”. Even so, he has long aligned himself with the anarchist tradition, and has been particularly influenced by Bakunin, Kropotkin, Rudolf Rocker and Daniel Guerin's anthology of anarchist writings No Gods, No Masters. By the age of twelve or thirteen, he admits identifying more fully with the anarchist cause. While he often calls himself a libertarian socialist, he is particularly critical of right-wing libertarians who would inevitably create “private tyrannies” and an all-encompassing form of command economics. Indeed, if the ideals of the US Libertarian Party were realized they would create “the worst totalitarian monster that the world has ever seen”.
Chomsky still recognizes the reality of a class struggle in existing society, since there is a huge difference between giving orders and taking them. On the other hand, he sees little difference between wage slavery and slavery itself. Like his father, a Jewish émigré from the Ukraine, he has long been a member of the Syndicalist Wobblies (IWW) and still stresses the relevance of anarcho-syndicalism and council socialism to advanced capitalist societies like the US. He would like to see “centralized power eliminated, whether it's the state or the economy, and have it diffused and ultimately under the direct control of the participants”. Political power is always illegitimate and the essence of anarchism is the conviction that “the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met”. Nevertheless, Chomsky is not an uncompromising anarchist. In his view, a degree of State intervention will be necessary during the transition from capitalist rule to direct democracy. While his long-term goal is to abolish the State, he is prepared to defend and even strengthen elements of existing State authority in order to protect the human rights, welfare, social security and limited democracy that have been won through past popular struggles. Chomsky is also a pragmatist by refusing to sketch out the nature of a future anarchist society, except to say that by general agreement “whatever social structures and arrangements are developed, they ought to maximize the possibilities for people to pursue their own creative potential”.
Chomsky has remained a scourge of the media. His analysis of how the mass media are Manufacturing Consent (1988) and Necessary Illusions (1989), followed by How it Keeps the Rabble in Line (1994). Not unlike George Orwell, he is particularly persuasive in showing how governments and corporations attempt to use the language of the media to distort systematically the fundamental meaning of words and thereby cloud an understanding of social reality. In this way, “democracy” means the rule of an elite rather than the direct participation of the people in running their own affairs; the “war on terrorism” really signifies the use of State violence against dissidents; and the “war on drugs” targets potentially subversive groups and criminalizes certain substances as means of social control. Many people are so brainwashed by State propaganda, the media and public relations that they are not even aware that they are oppressed themselves. They become atomized, passive and docile consumers – in short, voluntary slaves. Chomsky often celebrates the value of the consciousness-raising of the women's movement in making women realize the magnitude of their oppression.
Chomsky opposes censorship and believes in the free exchange of ideas - to the extent that he refuses to take legal action against those who may libel him under the present laws. He still argues that the majority of Western intellectuals - the “new mandarins” - work behind a veneer of objective scholarship for the State and corporate power and interests. Moreover, while he is personally committed to the pursuit of truth and knowledge, he does not believe that it is the special preserve of intellectuals and experts but can be discovered by anyone with an open mind and a degree of common sense. Where many contemporary anarchists adopt a poetic, ranting and declamatory style, Chomsky is remarkable for his careful reasoning, clear analysis, adherence to rules of evidence and transparent style.
Chomsky's libertarian sympathies are clearest in his unwavering critique of power and in his view that all States of whatever complexion are controlled by privileged elites who rule in their own interest. Along with Chomsky, I contend that, with the rare exception of some indigenous societies, has been the case throughout recorded history.
Anarchism and the future
It is on the issue of the State that Anarchists part company with their liberal and socialist allies. Liberals maintain that a State as a compulsory legal order is necessary to protect civil liberties and rights, to deal with disputes and conflicts in society with an unfettered economy. As the liberal thinker L. T. Hobhouse wrote:
“The function of State coercion is to override individual coercion, and, of course, coercion exercised by any association of individuals within the State. It is by this means that it maintains liberty of expression, security of person and property, genuine freedom of contract, the rights of public meeting and association, and finally its own power to carry out common objects undefeated by the recalcitrance of individual members."
Anarchists have few illusions about the nature of liberal democracy and representative government. Their arguments apply equally to capitalist and socialist states. Both endorse government power and bureaucracy – it’s just a matter of whose interests are to be served. Moreover, anarchists argue that even the most minimal “night watchman” State advocated by modern libertarians would be controlled by the rich and powerful and be used to defend their interests and privileges. The primary role of the State has always been to limit freedom and maintain inequality. However much it claims to protect individual rights, the government will always become an instrument in the hands of the elite ruling classes to maintain power over the people. Any dispassionate analysis of liberal democracies around the world cannot avoid this sad conclusion. In recent decades the neo-conservative agendas of Reagan and Thatcher and their successors have created huge economic disparities and thrust any semblance of a liberal democracy into an escalating plutocracy, bordering on fascism. The last eight years of George W Bush have now propelled us into a global economic meltdown that may take decades to repair.
Although anarchists believe that representative liberal democracy is preferable to theocracy, monarchy, aristocracy or despotism, they still consider it to be essentially oppressive. They reject the twin pillars of the democratic theory of the State - representation and majority rule. In the first place, no one can truly represent anyone else and it is impossible to delegate one's authority. Secondly, the majority has no more right to dictate to the minority, even a minority of one, than the minority to the majority. Anarchists also reject the liberal theory of a social contract articulated by Locke and Rousseau. No government, in their view, can exercise power over any individual who refuses his consent and it is absurd to expect someone to give his consent individually to all the laws.
Although during the Spanish Civil War anarchists did participate for a short while in the republican government in order to fight Franco's fascists, the historic anarchist movement has consistently preached abstention from conventional politics. Hence the popular slogans: “Whoever you vote for, the government always gets in”, or better still, “If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal”.
The American iconoclast Lysander Spooner exploded the contractual theory of the State by analyzing the US Constitution. He could find no evidence of anyone ever making a contract to set up a government, and argued that it was absurd to look to the practice of voting or paying taxes as evidence of tacit consent. The US Constitution is exposed as even more spurious when one realizes that the working classes, those who did not own land, indigenous peoples, black Americans, women and many others had no say in the drafting of it and were not protected by its covenants. The reality is: the US Constitution was drafted by and for the privileged class of wealthy white slave holding and landowning aristocracy. And any rights that these disenfranchised groups have gained since the Constitution was drafted were hard won from below by decades of dissent and civil disobedience, often resulting in imprisonment and death at the hands of the leaders of the so-called liberal democracy.
Power may best be defined as the ability to impose ones will. Power is different from authority for where the latter asserts the right to command and the right to be obeyed, the former is the ability to compel compliance, either through the use or threat of force. In general, anarchists believe not only that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but that power destroys both the executioner and victim of power. Their awareness of the corrupting nature of power is the basis of their criticism of concentrated power and their reluctance to relinquish any power to leaders and rulers. The State is and always has been nothing more than a small minority of wealthy elites who control the vast majority of a country’s wealth and the machinery of politics and government.
But power is not only political. Bertrand Russell defines power as “the production of intended effects”. Power in this sense in existing society is ubiquitous, diffuse and often concealed. Power over human beings may usefully be classified by the manner of influencing individuals or by the type of organization involved. An individual may be influenced by direct physical power over his body, (army and police); by rewards and punishments which act as inducements (economic organizations); by the sway of opinion or propaganda (schools, churches, political parties). Indeed, the distinctions between the organizations are not always so clear cut as they often use different forms of power at the same time. Within society, there is also traditional power (an ancient form based on custom); newly acquired power (such as law based on coercive power of the State or “naked” military power); and revolutionary power (of party or group). Anarchists condemn all three. However, while opposing power over others most anarchists, I would suggest, are certainly not averse to power over oneself in the form of self-discipline, self-management, or self-determination.
In general, anarchists see no contradiction between freedom and equality, but believe that one reinforces the other. Over the last two centuries, they have extended the principle of equality to embrace all humanity. At the same time, their concern with individuality has prevented them from calling for absolute economic equality. While advocating the impartial consideration of everyone's worth and need, they do not insist on equal treatment and equal shares. They would accept John Rawls' principle in his definition of justice as fairness that each person has “an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all”, although they would add the proviso that any inequalities in a free society would ideally be the result of voluntary agreement.
Our ability to examine the world objectively and critically has been seriously impaired by centuries of religious superstition, propaganda, indoctrination, custom, practice and cultural bias. We regularly mistake capitalism for democracy, religion and gods for meaning in life, technology for science, money for happiness and wealth, profit and price for value, profit for freedom, economic growth and modernization for progress, desires for rights and parliament for real representative governance. Too many of us suffer from a chronic optimism and believe we live in the Leibnitz “best of all possible worlds”, causing us to acquiesce to the status quo of power and privilege and shrink from our dreams of what is possible and desirable. Religion (the handmaiden of secular power), the conservative oligarchs and those at the apex of the economic order want you to have faith in them. Voltaire in his magnificent skewering of Leibnitz’s “best of all possible worlds” hypothesis in Candide and pessimists everywhere fear that this hypothesis is true. Why did Leibnitz believe this? He conveniently brought God into the equation of course and since God is perfect, the world must be perfect – QED. The anarchist critique throws God in the trash bin where he belongs and puts dreams back on the negotiating table. Its critique of the state, the church, of capital and all other instruments of power and coercion is a compelling one, and the lessons of anarchism are constantly relearned through experience: people who do not benefit from the system will organize to challenge it and create alternatives.
Just as conservative oligarchic elites in so-called democratic states have done to leftists, labor leaders and “Reds” of every stripe during the past 200 years (do I need to mention McCarthyism and the countless Red baiting episodes throughout United States history?) with the help of instruments of state terror such as the CIA and FBI in the United States and the RCMP in Canada, it was similarly done by Bolshevists who found it expedient soon after they came to power, to turn their secret police, the Cheka, against anarchists, shutting down their newspapers, breaking up their meetings and throwing their leaders to rot in the same dungeons and jails the Romanoff monarchy and tsars had reserved for them - without charges being laid. Guantanamo Bay anyone? This denial of freedom of expression and violations of their constitutional rights has been a regular practice by power elites in so-called democratic states for 200 or more years – and continues today unabated. Witness the Bush Patriot Act and Pledge of Allegiance, mechanisms unique to police states and fascist totalitarian regimes, not a functioning democracy.
Shortly after Bakunin’s death, anarchists played a crucial role in the fight for the eight-hour work day in the United States. Four courageous anarchists were rewarded for their efforts by a show trial and the hangman’s noose in the aftermath of the Chicago Haymarket affair. One of the four hanged on 11th of November 1887 left his young widow Lucy Parsons who helped found the most important American expression of anarchism, the Industrial Workers of the World, in 1905.