JR'S Free Thought Pages
Ruminations on Anarchism in Light of Living in a FUBAR World with the Worst Yet to Come
The Philosophy of Freedom, Anti-Authoritarianism and Real Democracy
By JR, August 2022
Resist much, obey little. Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved – Walt Whitman
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power - George Orwell, 1984
For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory For Ever – Mathew 6:13
My seemingly innate sceptical tendencies immediately kick in when I read so-called leftist writers who begin with “we are losing our democracy”. But surely anyone paying attention to states of affairs locally or globally cannot sensibly refer to our neo-liberal capitalist bureaucracies as being even remotely democratic, however loosely democracy is defined. Let’s face the unpleasant facts about our political institutions, including our alleged so-called democracies throughout history. This surely includes our current oligarchic corporate capitalist states throughout the current world that include institutions of culture, various levels of governance, churches, corporations, financial institutions, schools, businesses, the workplace and the police and military that serve and protect long-standing wealth, power and privilege. Capitalist states have three undeniable features in common – hierarchy, authoritarianism and undemocratic illegitimate power. Consider for example the history of psychology and psychiatry. There have been numerous exceptions such as Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm and Thomas Szasz, but throughout much of its history psychiatry with the complicity of its professional practitioners has been employed primarily to control, subjugate and even criminalize recalcitrant, anti-authoritarian and freedom loving rebellious people who challenge the status quo. Recall the movie One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest that exposed the horrors of so-called insane asylums. In many cases those pathologized were merely people who held sceptical, radical political or anti-religious views – or were merely eccentric individuals. Blasphemy laws, the demonizing of atheists, communists and anarchists and two hysterical Red Scares following World War I and II are just a few of many examples of marginalization of “undesirables”. This practise continues today as children who challenge authority are being prescribed Ritalin and Adderall for a pathology called ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder). These are primarily precocious, curious, inquiring kids who question things, which is what an education is allegedly about. The huge pharmaceutical companies make billions from these drugs which turn inquisitive children into docile compliant zombies well-suited for the indignities and banalities of the starvation wage capitalist workplaces. The implementation of logic and critical thinking courses into our public schools has been systematically blocked by powerful conservative structures within society that include the churches. George Carlin, in his own unique way, explains why:
Here is renegade clinical psychologist, anti-authoritarian and author of several revealing and enlightening books, Bruce E Levine, from his closing remarks in a 2019 article on Counterpunch titled ‘Tom Paine, Christianity, and Modern Psychiatry’ (click on the link for the complete article):
In closing, an odd connection between psychiatry and Thomas Paine in the person of Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), who is well-known among psychiatrists as “the father of American psychiatry,” his image adorning the APA seal.
After Paine immigrated to Philadelphia in 1774, he and Rush became friends. At first somewhat protective of the audacious Paine, Rush cautioned Paine against his use of the then-taboo word independence in Common Sense, but Paine disregarded Rush using that word many times in it. Later on, after The Age of Reason made Paine an outcast, Rush refused to see Paine.
In addition to abandoning Paine, Rush attempted to gain favor with the new ruling class in the United States another way. In 1805, Rush diagnosed those rebelling against the newly centralized federal authority as having an “excess of the passion for liberty” that “constituted a species of insanity,” which he labeled as the disease of anarchia—this an earlier version of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). In this and several other ways, Dr. Benjamin Rush is the perfect person to be the father of psychiatry.
Rush was a progressive of his era, but “liberal” in the same sense that Phil Ochs—nicknamed “Tom Paine with a guitar” —mocked hypocritical liberals. For example, Rush proclaimed himself a slave abolitionist, however, he had purchased a child slave named William Grubber in 1776, continued to own Grubber after he had joined the Pennsylvania Abolition Society a decade later, and would own Gruber until 1794 when he freed him for compensation. Rush’s “progressive” views on race also included his idea that blackness in skin color was caused by leprosy, and Rush advocated “curing” skin color, changing it from black to white. Rush believed he could abolish slavery by curing black people’s blackness.
Rush also invented some frightening treatments. Based on an earlier imbalance theory that improper flow of blood caused madness, Rush devised two mechanical devices to treat madness: a “tranquilizing chair” and a “gyrator,” not any fun for patients unless they enjoyed being strapped down, immobilized, and violently spun.
Rush considered himself as an expert not just on madness but on every illness, and for virtually all of them, Rush utilized bloodletting as his primary treatment, even at a time when bloodletting was falling out of favor. In “Benjamin Rush, MD: Assassin or Beloved Healer?” (2000), physician Robert L. North reports that in Rush’s era, “The majority of the medical community, especially the members of the College of Physicians, rejected Rush and his cures, using terms and phrases like ‘murderous.’”
William Cobbett, a journalist in Rush’s era, mocked Rush’s treatments (which also included mercury) as “one of those great discoveries which have contributed to the depopulation of the earth,” and Cobbett accused Rush of killing more patients than he had saved. (Cobbett is better known today for his ill-fated plan to provide Thomas Paine with a proper heroic reburial by moving Paine’s remains back to England.)
By the early twentieth century, medical historians were viewing Benjamin Rush as one of the most embarrassing figures in the history of American medicine. North quotes the 1929 History of the Medical Department of the United States Army on Rush’s disastrous impact: “Benjamin Rush had more influence upon American medicine and was more potent in propagation and long perpetuation of medical errors than any man of his day. To him, more than any other man in America, was due the great vogue of vomits, purging, and especially of bleeding, salivation and blistering, which blackened the record of medicine and afflicted the sick almost to the time of the Civil War.”
You would think that the American Psychiatric Association would not want such an historical embarrassment as their father figure. But perhaps the APA believes that the prestige of Rush being a signer of the Declaration of Independence trumps both his being a slave owner and his lethality as a physician.
Actually, Rush was not a complete loser, as he sued the journalist Cobbett for libel and won; and perhaps this legal triumph is inspirational for the APA and modern psychiatrists—providing them with hope that they too can triumph over truth tellers.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the 18th Century Enlightenment, if not the greatest of all time, wrote in his essay Perpetual Peace , "That kings should be philosophers, or philosophers kings is neither to be expected nor to be desired, for the possession of power inevitably corrupts reason's free judgment." Of course power in and of itself is not necessarily bad, such as the power over one’s nasty habits and potentially bad character behaviours and anti-social episodes. One of the most revealing tests of one’s character and moral rectitude is discovered when they are granted power over others such as in the workplace. Does power corrupt? All anarchists would claim that it does - in almost all cases.
Kant’s reference to kings could be equally applied to popes and other theocratic leaders in the church hierarchy, monarchs and the financial oligarchs and other multi-millionaire and billionaire ruling elites of authoritarian capitalist political arrangements that control our political apparatus, a system which has become both tragedy and farce in the past four or five decades. Yes, there have been minor breakouts of compromised democracy which were merely all too brief intervals of fear of the masses rising up such as the three decade post World War II era. But that brief interval of democracy breakout and concessions to the working class has been rolled back and pretty much been obliterated. Will it get worse in the race to the bottom of the 99%?
When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion – C P Snow
In any conversation in which you happen to mention that you are an admirer of anarchism most people are inclined to give you strange looks at best or question why you would embrace chaos, disorder, immorality and reject the rule of law. Notwithstanding the ambiguity and origins of the rule of law, this reaction is typical of someone who has internalized the liberal and conservative ruling classes distorted and inaccurate conception of anarchist thought and philosophy. And what is the “rule of law” other than what the ruling classes have encoded to serve their hierarchy and entrenched elite interests throughout recorded history. Anarchists are not only deeply ethical people, but given their love of freedom and contempt for coercion, they have a sanguine view of human nature, that most people are innately benevolent, generous, compassionate and caring, given the chance. Even most children have an innate sense of injustice but, like their equally innate sense of curiosity, that is soon beaten out of them. After all, the real existing Golden Rule, a minimalist ethical imperative for any civilized society, is not, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself” but rather “People that have the gold make the rules”. All anarchists hold to the first conception of the Golden Rule, which is a fundamental moral principle that capitalists cannot adhere to without the entire amoral enterprise collapsing within a week. And if you want chaos, simply observe the machinations of capitalist mega-machine with its endless market gyrations and manipulations and "booms, bubbles, busts and bailouts" iterations. Capitalism is at best a deeply immoral ideology and manner arranging society.
Anarchists generally agree that power corrupts and that the externally imposed global capitalist governments and the state are illegitimate authorities. Anti-authoritarian clinical psychologist Bruce E Levine argues in several books and articles that many psychiatric survivor activists agree that the externally imposed institution of psychiatry is an illegitimate authority. Both groups, in addition to other formations of anarchism such as the libertarian socialism and syndicalism of Noam Chomsky vigorously oppose coercion and hierarchy and all anarchists passionately advocate for freedom of choice and mutual aid. Beyond these ideological agreements, my from my reading of anarchist philosophy that many philosophers and adherents have not only achieved the sublime state of not giving a damn about the coercive intent of conventions such as religion, gods, nationalism, patriotism, bosses, police, military and pledges of allegiance and the authoritarians primarily holding wealth and privilege that endorse and promote them but who have consistently and actively challenged and resisted them.
As mentioned earlier, anarchism is a deeply principled perspective. From a very fundamental initial position an anarchist is merely someone who questions all unjustified power and authority. In one essential sense, anarchism is a political philosophy about how society ought to be organized, but in another sense, it is a conviction about human nature, namely a trust in the innate decency, empathy and kindness of human beings.  Certainly anarchists, being anti-authoritarian, hold theocracy, monarchy and the most recent tyrannical dictatorship of money called capitalism, in utter contempt. On the political continuum, anarchism is firmly positioned on the left and is more or less consistent with what many call libertarian socialism. Socialist philosophy has been in existence for a very long time, certainly long before the brilliant writings of Marx and Engels. It can be traced back to hunter gatherer societies and most indigenous cultures in North America before the racist, rapacious and genocidal Christian White Man arrived. Sadly socialism that long preceded it, never recovered from the collapse of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Following the death of Lenin, the vicious Civil War of 1918-21 and the takeover of Joseph Stalin Russia was transformed into a totalitarian state capitalist dystopia. Certainly if Karl Marx had been alive during the Stalin years he would not recognize any of what he implemented as “socialism”.
What before 1917 had been an inspiring and golden vision of the Socialist Commonwealth promoted by people as diverse as William Morris [1a], Gerrard Winstanley, Oscar Wilde, Eugene Debs and Joe Hill was now tainted by association with a one-party state and political repression. From the 1920s socialists who did not support Leninism or the Dictatorship of the Proletariat had to explain that their political philosophy was “democratic” or “libertarian socialism” to differentiate it from the undemocratic version. The result was a massive perversion and de-legitimization of the libertarian or any other democratic socialist ideal. Why, then, did so many decent and honest socialists and communists throughout across the globe support what Stalin had done, at least up to the revelations of Khrushchev in 1956?
After the death of Lenin and emergence of Stalin, most of the original Bolsheviks were, like Leon Trotsky, either banished from Russia or murdered. Trotsky was a brilliant Renaissance man, skilled writer and passionate anti-fascist. But to fully understand the collapse that worsened after the Second World A War and the murderous Cold War that followed I urge the reader to consult the best book by I’ve read so far on the anti-communist/anti-socialist hysteria and shocking murderous campaigns of the US, CIA and NATO called The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World by Vincent Bevins. The real genius of Trotsky arises from his struggle against Stalinism during t he 1930s, his prescient and insightful warnings about Italian, Spanish and German fascism and his unflagging resistance, even as his friends and family were murdered around him and to Stalin’s massive distortion and denigration of real socialism. During that period, most especially in his collaborative work with the American left-leaning liberal John Dewey on exposing the criminal frame-up of the Moscow Trials, he achieved the moral and intellectual stature of a Cicero, Michel de Montaigne, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Bertrand Russell or Noam Chomsky, people of intelligence and integrity who told the truth as they perceived it. Many of Trotsky’s works, especially History of the Russian Revolution, Literature and Revolution, My Life and his writings on Germany and Britain, are worth rereading today as they contains insights for ant-capitalists and other anti-authoritarians struggling with the forces of conservatism , its fascistic offshoots and the corporatist limousine liberals with multi-million dollar annual paychecks plus bonuses and stock options that predominate so-called “liberalism” today. 
Following Nikita Khrushchev’s clandestine speech in 1956 and the acknowledgement of Stalin’s many crimes, the myth of the Soviet Union took a severe blow. The New Left which emerged in the early 1960s drew intellectual sustenance from a diverse range of thinkers, such as the neo-Marxist philosophers Herbert Marcuse, sociologist C. Wright Mills, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall and historian of the British working class E.P. Thompson. Anarchist Noam Chomsky embraces what he calls anarcho-syndicalism, a form of Council Communism which is “the natural form of revolutionary socialism in an industrial society. It reflects the belief that democracy is severely limited when the industrial system is controlled by any form of autocratic elite, whether of owners, managers, technocrats, a vanguard party or a state bureaucracy.” As comedian, social justice advocate and anti-authoritarian Russell Brand wrote of the neo-liberal capitalist model, “It is fucked, is fucking us and is obsolete”.
Democratic libertarian socialism existed long before Leninism, Maoism or even the existence of states and will outlive them. It has been richly expressed in the work and thought of socialists, freethinkers, anti-authoritarians and anarchists such as Spinoza, Robert Owen, William Morris, Thomas Paine, Eugene Debs, Edward Carpenter, Sylvia Pankhurst, Jean Jaurès, Pierre Joseph Proudhon [3b], Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin [3b], Bertrand Russell, Emma Goldman, Errico Malatesta, [3c] George Orwell, Aneurin Bevan, Murray Bookchin, Irving Howe, E.P. Thompson, Malcolm X, MLK, Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, Tony Benn, Nelson Mandela, Tommy Douglas, George Carlin, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and David Graeber. I would add many freedom loving anarchic indigenous people to this list that would include Sitting Bull, Tecumseh, Chief Joseph, Crazy Horse, Louis Riel and many others. This tradition encompasses libertarian Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Raya Dunayevskya and Maurice Brinton, as well as Marx himself in much of his work such as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and the Grundisse. There is no internally consistent doctrine of socialism or anarchism and in important respects – most obviously, the role of the capitalist state – some of these writers disagree with each other. Certainly reformists such as the social democrats who believed a human face could be implanted on capitalism have been proven wrong. The revolutionary socialists – the communists – have been redeemed in the sense that they realized capitalism had to be destroyed. One only needs to look at the historical record of the hard fought reforms of capitalist predation that emerged out of the Great Depression and in the 30 year period following World War II. Many people were killed or died early deaths working in unbearable conditions and were brutalized and shot by police on picket line and demonstrations. The history of the labour movement was a very violent one. The hard won reforms of those dedicated courageous people on the political left were one path to social and political liberation, a route map and general guide but in the past four to five decades pretty much everything has been taken away as we are now facing creeping fascism (in many cases an outright return of the fascism of the early 20th century) and other forms of authoritarianism such as religious fanaticism, financial parasitism, plutocracy and corporate oligarchy. Our current global socio-economic system is systemically corrupt, unjust and beyond redemption. It can only be taken down as the moral rot in the system continues unabated. There is widespread unrest and abhorrence of a depraved system but insufficient solidarity and cohesion.
These diverse anarchist and socialist values were expressed by two members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonikova who were jailed for two years by the oppressive state machine of Vladmir Putin, who as an ex-KGB chief is literally the political heir of the Cheka, KGB, Dzerzhinsky and Lenin. At their trial for a direct-action propaganda protest, Maria Alyokhina said in her closing statement:
“Because all you can deprive me of is ‘so-called’ freedom. This is the only kind that exists in Russia. But nobody can take away my inner freedom. It lives in the word, it will go on living thanks to openness [glasnost], when this will be read and heard by thousands of people. This freedom goes on living with every person who is not indifferent, who hears us in this country. With everyone who found shards of the trial in themselves, like in previous times they found them in Franz Kafka and Guy Debord. I believe that I have honesty and openness, I thirst for the truth; and these things will make all of us just a little more free.”
Anti-authoritarians and anarchists have few problems with those who are AN authority such as a physician, physicist, plumber or evolutionary biologist, but more specifically those who are IN authority. There is a big difference in these conceptions. As Noam Chomsky rightly argues, most authority in the second sense is illegitimate. There are many nuances to anarchism but one idea they all agree on is that “power corrupts” with the corollary that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. All anarchists reject cynical moral notions such as the Christian deception of “original sin” - that people are inherently depraved and selfish from the time of birth. There is no reason to believe this cynical view about human nature. Most toddlers seem to have an innate sense of fairness and justice but will soon enough discover the real world of capitalist exploitation and greed is neither fair nor just. Their entire education, with rare exception, will be to internalize these undemocratic and unethical social, political and economic capitalist arrangements. Even those who are anti-capitalist such as yours truly cannot avoid some complicity with the only game in town. The alternative is no financial security and relegation to the margins of society.
The grim realities of war, imperialism, the climate crisis, ongoing corona virus pandemic and widespread militarized police violence have laid bare the inadequacies and failures of the current capitalist system and their sycophants in our phoney “democratic” governments, neo-fascist political ideologies and farcical elections. Whether or not we achieve a historical reversal to a fundamentally different society will depend on avoiding fear which is a long standing mechanism for control and coercion of the masses. Moreover, we need to maintain unrelenting creative political pressure in the streets and elsewhere while simultaneously building forms of counter-power, counter-institutions, and organizations pre-figuring the anarchist vision of a genuine free society. Al power is not negative, especially power over oneself and power required to bring down an unjust malevolent capitalist system which for the past four or five decades at least has embraced a creeping fascism. Yes, fascism is back.
Anarchism is a longstanding philosophical, political, economic and social life-stance tradition based in rejection of all top-down hierarchical systems and institutions such as religions, states, capitalism and class, racist or gender domination. Anarchy is generally attributed to the Greek conception which means “without rulers.” These ideas of anarchism are anathema to power elites that inhabit not only traditional hierarchies such as monarchies, theocracies and other undemocratic coercive institutions and forms of authoritarianism, but also capitalism which is not only global, oppressive and unjust, but profoundly immoral.
My first encounter with anarchist thought came from an unusual source. It was a charismatic outspoken Mathematics professor of a graduate course in probability theory that focused on conditional probability and Bayesian analysis. In addition to being a skilled teacher and mathematician, he enjoyed getting off topic in order to attempt to explain to uninformed naïve students such as me what it means to be an anarchist, recommending great anti-authoritarian icons such as Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman. The professor advised, among others, we start with Bakunin’s God and the State, Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and Goldman’s Anarchism and other Essays. Having little time, I did read these three remarkable books as my brain morphed into a different universe, challenging pretty much everything and the masses of indoctrinated bullshit and propaganda that had been hammered into my cranium regarding the meaning of freedom, human nature and “democracy”. Since retirement freeing up time I’ve read voraciously on anarchist thought (and much else) with my library overflowing with anarchist philosophers and history. I consider Emma Goldman to be one of the most interesting, insightful and important thinkers in history, one of the earliest feminists and proponent of women’s rights which are now being rolled back by the draconian Christian conservative dominated US Supreme Court. Her two volume autobiography (here and here) and the biography by Vivian Gornick are riveting reads.
Free association is a vital feature of anarchist thought which is sanguine about humanity and its capacity to cooperate rather than conflict. In Emma Goldman’s essay “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For,” she wrote: “Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.” “Anarchism,” according to lifelong anarchist cohort and onetime lover, Alexander Berkman, “means that you should be free; that no one should enslave you, boss you, rob you, or impose upon you. It means that you should be free to do the things you want to do; and that you should not be compelled to do what you don’t want to do. It means that you should have a chance to choose the kind of a life you want to live, and live it without anybody interfering. It means that the next fellow should have the same freedom as you, that everyone should have the same rights and liberties. It means that all men are brothers, and that they should live like brothers, in peace and harmony. That is to say, that there should be no war, no violence used by one set of men against another, no monopoly and no poverty, no oppression, no taking advantage of your fellow-man.” Of course, Berkman, a great writer himself, clearly meant to include all genders; otherwise he would not have had Emma Goldman’s lifelong loyalty. I urge readers to check out the amazing book by Paul and Karen Avrich called Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman.
The vision of a society without coercion is attractive to many people -intoxicatingly attractive to some people like yours truly. And anarchism’s attractiveness makes it so threatening for various authoritarians – even among some of the oppressed working classes who seem to fear freedom - that anarchism is their common enemy. For example, in the 1930s, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, Stalinist Soviet Union, Western capitalist nations, and the Catholic Church all played a role in destroying a successful anarchist society in Spain. And as for socialism, that was destroyed by the anti-communist zealotry of the USA who murdered every leftist they could find on the planet, especially in the Third World liberation and anti-colonial movements that emerged after World War II. Read the recent book The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World for all the gory disturbing details. Some estimates are 30 million dead, thanks to the hysterical genocidal anti-communist blood lust of The United States of MAGA – two million in Korea and Indonesia - and five million in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia alone.
What’s most appealing about anarchism for me is its trust in human beings who organize themselves without fear, fear of thought and external coercion. This is a radical notion, because people are so accustomed to being controlled by fear and power elites that they are subconsciously not even aware of it. Wake up people! The state, whatever ideology it claims, keeps people in line using fear, indoctrination, religion, propaganda, police forces that protect privilege, wealth and power and the infamous cages we call prisons. Orthodox religions have and continue to be mechanisms of control for ruling classes by the fear of a vindictive all-powerful God, pompous clergy and the convenient fictions of heaven and hell as the carrot-stick reward punishment ruse. Our schools , both public and private keep students in line using indoctrination, grades, suspensions, expulsions and threats to withhold diplomas which have become passports to material success. And employees are kept in line by their fear of being fired and falling into poverty, perhaps living on the streets as many do. Ruling classes, capitalist oligarchs, Christians and other authoritarians routinely smear anarchism as advocating chaos and violence. Some of these authoritarians are ignorant of anarchism, while others are not. It is true some anarchists have used violence to achieve their aims, but anarchists generally do not invoke violence and the absurdity of a chaotic no rules society.
 Bertrand Russell in an essay written in 1934 remarked about the great Thomas Paine, “He had faults, like other men; but it was for his virtues that he was hated and successfully calumniated”.
From my personal experience in the workplace and other hierarchical environments, I can relate to this seemingly paradoxical remark. If you are someone who speaks out against injustice, there will be people who will hate you for it. After all, those “yes men”, “boot lickers” and “moles” that are looking for advancement and promotion will invariably side with management (or whoever holds power) regardless of the ethical issue(s) involved. Those who are skeptical, comfort the afflicted and inflict the comfortable, challenge illegitimate authority, question policy, unreasonable demands and are generally non-compliant are typically put on a pathology list (shit list). This stigmatization has reached the level of absurdity today as many precocious recalcitrant school children are being diagnosed with ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder) and recommended for prescription drugs such as Ritalin and Adderal, turning them into docile zombies.
I’ve had ODD all my life and am thankful for it despite the many times I was sent to the principal’s office for the standard 10 on each hand with a razor strap. Often asking the wrong question in class like I frequently did would get you ushered to the infamous principal’s office. One of these occasions occurred in the mid to late 1950s when in grade six I questioned the boring daily bible readings and another was in grade four or five when several of us were sent to the office for throwing snowballs. This latter crime violated one of the many inane school rules. One of us in the group was the school bully who we all feared. When it was his turn for the 10 on each hand he began to cry after the third or fourth strike of the strap. Once that news got out, it was the end of his bullying career – at least in the Connaught Elementary School in our Northern British Columbia town of Prince George. It wasn’t until 1972 when the progressive NDP government was elected in BC, overturning the crony capitalist Social Credit, a creepy mutation of the former Conservative Party in BC. Within a year after becoming Premier of the Province, the affable former social worker Dave Barrett banished from the public schools the barbarism of the strap and corporal punishment in general. I don’t know what was worse, the strap or the mind numbing morning holy babble readings? But Barrett only lasted three years as day after day he was relentlessly crucified by the calcified conservative big business press relentlessly no matter what he did. But he was able to implement many reforms to the existing draconian policies in education and other aspects of the big business dominated province that still functioned as though we were locked into the 19th century.
My friend Gil, who was a teacher for 39 years, proposed that there are three groups of character traits of people in the world. He made this claim which I certainly cannot refute, from his and my own 30 year long career in the classroom. Gil said one-third of people you cannot trust, the sociopathic types that are forever looking out for #1 and any advantage at self-promotion – perhaps future “entrepreneurs” (aka con men) in our dissolute capitalist system of rapacious greed and nihilism. You can never turn your back on these kids in the classroom as they are likely the future assholes * and proverbial neighbor from hell. Another third will, like the courageous Will Kane character played by Gary Cooper in the great 1952 movie High Noon, who consistently do the right thing regardless of the consequences for their own personage. If only obnoxious cops today behaved like the town Marshall in High Noon? These are people with moral and intellectual integrity and sense of responsibility who care about others. ** By the way, Gary Cooper’s new bride was the movie debut of the beautiful Grace Kelly who with equally beautiful Mexican actress Katie Jurado is superb. The final one-third of people is the ambivalent group that just doesn’t give a shit and often exists (you can’t call it “living”) in a state of blissful ignorance about the dismal state of the world as long as their own lives are tolerable. This third category of people has always bothered me even more than the psychopathic first group described by my friend Gil. It’s this disengaged group that is perhaps why we have never had democracy and never will. Two of the many great scenes in High Noon are here and here, the second with several key clips including the character played by Lon Chaney who describes quite well the pathetic un-inquisitive “don’t give a shit” disengaged third group. An interesting analysis of the movie’s many moral messages is here:
Here is the song “Do Not Forsake Me” sung by the great Frankie Laine and written by Tex Ritter who sung it in the movie.
I was about 9 or 10 years old when my movie buff mother took me to see this wonderful movie that had such a huge impact on me at the time even though I didn’t understand all the moral and character type implications. She also took me to Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, The African Queen, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Show Boat and several others of the era which are still among my favourite movies of all time. The entire movie High Noon takes place in a single day which adds to its unique appeal and simply one of many reasons I never tire of watching it. Gary Cooper is simply brilliant as the man of responsibility and integrity, Will Kane. After all, what is freedom without responsibility? Many people haven’t figured this out yet – like most capitalists and the patriotic Canadian Convoy Trucker flag waving anti-vaccination morons. Perhaps rather than Gil’s three, one could divide how people behave into multiple categories, perhaps just two. By the time I was in my teens I noticed a division between those who took punitive risks by challenging authority v those ass kissers and suck holes who compromised basic ethical imperatives and would descend to any level to get ahead. For the latter category, “might is right” and “what’s in it for me?” which for most conservatives are their only two rules in life. Emma Goldman, an amazing woman, lover of life and anarchist with an acute intellect to match claimed that by the time she was 23 had met two types of men, “vulgarians and idealists”. But as a new immigrant from Russian and living in New York at the time she was broke and needed to make a living. She tried prostitution and in 1892 as she was walking up and down the streets of Manhattan she met a potential customer who informed here she didn’t have the personality for such a job, gave her $10 and told her to go home. This to her was a “new type of man” - perhaps not unlike Che Guevara who envisioned a “new man” - and revolutionized her manner of thinking. Movies that have been invariably loved and have watched multiple times featured caring courageous highly principled people who stood up against injustice that generally entailed challenging the status quo. Think of Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Kirk Douglas as the slave in Spartacus, Al Paciuno as the whistle blowing ethically motivated renegade cop Frank Serpico exposing rampant corruption in the NYPD in the movie Serpico, Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind, the Defence lawyer Major played by Kirk Douglas in the great anti-war movie Paths of Glory and of course Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane in High Noon.
Returning to High Noon, here is the beautiful Katy Jurado who takes down Lloyd Bridges. It’s a great scene of a woman putting down a pompous ass.
* My father rarely offered advice or wisdom but I do vividly recall him telling me as a young teen on one of our fishing trips, ”John, you’ll soon discover that there are more horses asses in the world than there are horses”
I did not take long to discover this truism.
** One of the important litmus tests for determining a person’s ethical stature and moral integrity is what they do with power. In the workplace, for example, it’s not difficult to notice the Jekyll-Hyde transformation of many former colleagues when they are promoted to management positions. Most of us have noticed those people who rarely question illegitimate power, especially the aforementioned yes men and ass kissers who rarely if ever question anything regardless of the injustice or oppression. These are people “without conscience” as UBC professor emeritus Robert D Hare, expert on psychopathology put it in his research and books. Others have expanded on his theses, arguing that psychopaths are more prevalent than we once thought. Hare found that those in positions of power, regardless of context - whether your boss, a politician, police or military officer or corporate CEO have a higher percentage of psychopaths than in the general population. These are people who clearly get their rocks off wielding power over others. Then there are the seemingly increasing control freaks and authoritarian personalities, perhaps correlating with the vile form of exploitive greed driven corporate and financial vulture capitalism that has become global in the past few decades. We have all surely noticed the changed behaviour of certain people - those yes men and moles who were colleagues and even friends in the workplace - who end up as assholes in management. It’s not a pretty sight.
 I’ve never been able to warm up to any form of conservatism be it the irrationalities and fanaticisms of religion or its lifeless tedious political calcification. The 19th century liberal icon who wrote a favorable book on socialism referred to the British Conservative Party as “the stupid party”. Who can disagree? Some people, such as yours truly are “conservative” in their personal habits but have utter disdain for the political virus. Growing up in the boring stasis and banality of the 1950s I and a few of my irreverent and precocious friends discovered Mad Magazine which began publication in 1952. Although we didn’t fully understand the subtleties and nuances of the satire, critiques and brilliant lampoons, it incited in us the will to challenge pretty much everything we experienced in the culture that included the banality of the mind-numbing schools and its regimentation that extended to the broad culture including the mind destroying the boy scouts and air head cadets. For some of us it was the genesis of our future radicalization and contempt for the status quo; thank you Alfred E Newman and Melvin Furd, two of the many characters in Mad – and Stan Freberg and Ernie Kovacs who on records and TV mimicked the absurdity and madness of “Mad”. Freberg’s “John and Marsha” and his spoof of the inane TV series “Dragnet” was hilarious, at least as pre-teens we thought so.
 In practice, liberalism has been a colossal failure, even in light of the enlightenment conceptions articulated by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty. Notwithstanding the abominations of modern conservatism expressed by Machiavelli, Hobbes, Edmund Burke and more recently William F Buckley, Robert Nozick and Roger Scruton, one of the best contemporary forensic analyses and take-down of the dominant narrative of liberalism is Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. Even as an inquisitive teen, I’ve never even remotely entertained the regressive calcified conservatism that prevailed and have never referred to my political outlook as “liberal”. This book by Losurdo has taken me to arguments and historical precedents of which I was not aware and perhaps explains why I have contempt for liberalism, not so much in theory, as has been demonstrated throughout history in practise. It’s a brilliant and engaging exposé of the real history of liberalism as an ideology, in contradistinction to the hagiographical and justificatory self-descriptions that liberals usually pontificate on it. Almost all systematic histories of liberalism and liberal thought, with perhaps the exception of Marx, have been written by liberals or its sympathizers, and therefore Losurdo's critical narrative is a welcome antidote. He skewers classical liberals such as John Locke, De Tocqueville, Montesquieu, Macaulay, Jefferson, Franklin, Lecky, Adam Smith and several other famous liberal icons for their contradictions and hypocrisies - and even John Stuart Mill who, despite the inspiring pronouncements in On Liberty, was an apologist for colonialism and slavery. These elitist bourgeois views have navigated to the current time with even more authoritarian and subversive ideological formulations in the current mutation of neo-liberalism.
Consider John Locke, the English philosopher of early classical liberalism. Locke returned from exile in Holland along with William Of Orange in the 1688 Glorious Revolution in which the English peacefully replaced a Catholic Stuart regime with a Protestant one while violently repressing religious dissenters and Catholics, lifting restraints on enclosure and the displacement of the poor from common land to permit private profit and promoting a policy of mass murder towards the Irish as they sought to take their lands away from them to benefit English landlords and Protestant settlers. All of this had Locke’s complete approval and he extended this appalling behaviour to the American colonies as he offered a philosophical justification for the extermination of Native Americans, theft of their land and resources and the large scale deployment of slave labour from Africa, all with the blessings of the Catholic and Protestant churches. When modern American capitalists, the corporate oligarchs, rentier class and financial vampires attempt to justify their exploitive practises they often appeal to Locke and other so-called liberals as a sympathetic philosophers of “liberty” to justify every form of exploitation, imperialism, colonialist barbarism, parasitism, plunder and theft.
Losurdo provides us with the sordid history of the actual practise of liberalism realistically and within the restrictive context of “freedom” of capital and capitalists to exploit with impunity. More realistically for most of the great liberal thinkers, the exclusionary aspects of their hagiographic thought were not just flaws or personal prejudices, but were in fact intrinsic and essential parts of their philosophy and worldview, and they knew full well that such exclusion was absolutely necessary to maintain the bourgeois world order that liberalism was invented to establish and defend from the very beginning following the French Revolution. States of exception in fact became the rule as class division, racist imperialism and genocidal aspects of liberalism are no mere misjudgement or a peculiarity of a particular time and place. Many conservatives and self-described liberals were supporters of fascism and admirers of Hitler and Mussolini in the early 20th century, if only motivated by fear of the popularity of unions and left wing politics, including communism. The two hysterical Red Scares and concomitant fear mongering following both World Wars are a testament to this support for fascism, demonstrating that liberals will do anything it takes to maintain the capitalist world order. They even conspired to assassinate FDR for his “socialist” New Deal when he was really only trying to save capitalism from its many contradictions and systemic failures. As one can plainly see in the modern formulations of liberalism, in particular the vile injustice and depravity of neo-liberalism implemented over the past four to five decades combined with the dominance of the United States, NATO and its cohorts in Canada and Europe and the hyper-capitalist military techno-surveillance mega-machine as simply another variation on global exploitation and plunder that took place under 500 years of colonialism.
In the summary of Losurdo’s masterful condemnation of liberalism, which we have come to take for granted - and the founders who we assume with equal conviction to be the embodiment of some uplifting philosophy of freedom and democracy - are left with only the most tenuous of connections to any set of the alleged noble principles regarding the freedom, justice and egalitarianism of humankind. Liberalism ultimately was the product of a social and political revolution which did not involve any emancipation of coloured people, working classes and the poor, but rather the reverse for those social and ethnic groups outside of the new capitalist elite. What emerged from liberalism was "herrenvolk" democracy – a “democracy” restricted to the new “masters of mankind” as Adam Smith called the ruling classes of his era the apotheosis of which is has become the neo-fascist corporate capitalist dictatorship and the oligarchic multimillionaire and billionaire classes which we witness today.
Fascism is often characterized more broadly as a complete rejection of liberal thought and the Enlightenment. From the perspective of a truthful examination of history, this is patently false. Socialism, on the other hand, is described as the real fulfillment of the liberal project, especially its more radical elements and freedom that are inclusive. Fascism on the other hand, has an equal claim on the inheritance of liberal tradition. Everywhere today the liberal project is in shambles and political dysfunction widespread throughout the neo-liberal capitalist world. For decades now, Western states have been dismantling the concessions won from them by workers movements in the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. The labour movements were extremely violent episodes of history as capitalist elites and their governments with police and military if needed were regularly invoked to beat down ad kill with impunity. In the United States, this rollback of worker’s rights and emergence of corporate oligarchy is essentially complete. Now even the rhetoric of social liberalism is disappearing from the political sphere, left only to a few marginal ephemeral figures.
I also highly recommend Losurdo’s War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century and Democracy or Bonapartism: Two Centuries of War on Democracy.
[3a] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a French politician, philosopher and early proponent of cooperative or mutual aid economic policies, adopting the name “anarchism” in the mid-nineteenth century as an anti-authoritarian, egalitarian and libertarian ideal and used it to make his case against private property and the legal framework and governance that imposes its implementation and sustainable authority. He argued from an ethical perspective of “limits” and “”boundaries” that individuals should not be able to accumulate without constraints to the point that reduces others to dependence and precariousness. His famous claim that “property is theft” embodies his objection to the notion that most indigenous cultures adopted; namely, that no one has the right to own any part of the earth, thus creating injustice and unnecessary inequalities. The property ownership he opposes is that which is unearned, including things like interest on loans and income from rents and inheritance and something he could never have conjured up in his day – intellectual property, the absurdity of actually taking ownership of knowledge. Inherited and unearned property such as that taken by power or force by force leads to the division of society into two classes: those who live off the proceeds of their capital and those who are obliged to sell their labor. The relation between property and labor, he argued, is one of deep inequality, and it is enforced and maintained through legal domination. According to Proudhon, immoral government inhibits individual by severing communal bonds. This is characterized by its location of authority in the state’s public officials who control behavior with fixed, general rules, enforced by threats of physical punishment. One feature of the just society frequently emphasized by Proudhon is the existence of mutual respect among its members, arising from the individual’s capacity to recognize and value in others the distinctively human dignity he finds in himself. Under current neo-liberal corporate capitalist oligarchies and parasitic financial mafia, any form of genuine democracy is farcical at best.
[3b] An enlightened vision of what anarchists are proposing is contained in early twentieth-century Russian scientist, activist and essayist Peter Kropotkin’s entry on anarchism in the 1921 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Here he refers to “free agreements” and “interwoven networks” of bottom-up federations or councils aimed at meeting the requirements of anarchism:
“Anarchism is a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being. In a society developed along these lines, the voluntary associations which already now begin to cover all the fields of human activity would take a still greater extension so as to substitute themselves for the state in all its functions. They would represent an interwoven network, composed of an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes and degrees, local, regional, national and international – temporary or more or less permanent – for all possible purposes: production, consumption and exchange, communications, sanitary arrangements, education, mutual protection, defense of the territory, and so on: and, on the other side, for the satisfaction of an ever increasing number of scientific, artistic, literary and sociable needs.”
These early proponents of anarchism by William Godwin, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin and Kropotkin from the mid 19th to the early 20th century presented anarchism as a variant of libertarian socialism opposed to all forms of illegitimate authority, social and economic inequalities, political hierarchy, capitalist accumulation and exploitation, and the coercive state to be pursued by means of direct action by the working class and the peasantry by way of cooperative organizations.
[3c] Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman and Errico Malatesta all developed theories of anti-statist socialism and contributed towards creating a theory and practice of anti-authoritarianism, freedom and equality that is opposed to hierarchy and committed to decentralization. They far beyond Proudhon in the emphasis they placed on cooperation and interdependence as a required feature of real democratic societies. This freedom from coercion, mutualism and cooperative interdependence are crucial features of anarchism, which has a distinctly relational approach to freedom and social order. From the anarchist point of view, solidarity is the foundation of freer, safer and more equal societies where children who have an innate sense of justice are brought up in an environment with values of good will and cooperation rather than conflict and competition. . Anarchism offers a distinctive model of social order, one in which people do not see their relationships between each other as defined by the authority of the state, the law, police and military that uphold those mechanisms. Instead people act through free agreements that they make between themselves. This quote from the work of early twentieth-century Bavarian anarchist Gustav Landauer captures the anarchist sense of the revolutionary significance of building free relationships:
“The state is a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to one another; and one destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving differently to one another.”
Human actions and relationships are the means of shaping and ordering collective life. Thus, from this perspective, political change is a program of relationship transformation. The point, from the anarchist view, is that we have choices about the kinds of societies that we live in, choices that we can exercise through the way that we relate to each other. As Malatesta wrote:
“Abolition of government does not and cannot signify destruction of the social bond. Quite the opposite: the cooperation which today is forced and which is today directly beneficial to the few, will be free, voluntary and direct, working to the advantage of all and will be all the more intense and effective for that … Out of the free collaboration of everyone, thanks to the spontaneous combination of men in accordance with their needs and sympathies, from the bottom up, from the simple to the complex, starting from the most immediate interests and working towards the most general, there will arise a social organization, the goal of which will be the greatest well-being and fullest freedom of all … . Such a society of free human beings, such a society of friends, is Anarchy.”
Through the work of Kropotkin in the late nineteenth century, free agreement through mutual aid organizations in particular came to be strongly associated with anarchism. Worker cooperation through labor cooperatives, unionization efforts, mutual saving funds, emergency funds, skills sharing, cooperative educational organizations, health care and credit cooperatives were not novel, or necessarily anarchist, but anarchists like Kropotkin radicalized the meaning of these institutions. His book Mutual Aid emphasized the human propensity for voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit and put it at the centre of the anarchist alternative model of human social order. His ideas fitted into an emerging, influential evolutionary world view popularized by Charles Darwin’s work on natural selection. Kropotkin emphasized evolutionary findings that illustrated the significance of cooperation in the struggle for survival. He was a geographer and a biologist and challenged the ways in which Darwin’s theory of evolution had been interpreted. He argued that the Social Darwinist focus on competition overstated just one aspect of evolution, ignoring the significance of cooperation within (and often between) species: ‘sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle”.
Starting with an examination of non-human animals, Kropotkin claimed that ‘natural selection continually seeks out the ways precisely for avoiding competition as much as possible.’37 He argued that few animal species exist by directly competing with each other. In fact, he argued, those who practice mutual aid (within and across species boundaries) are likely to experience the best evolutionary prospects. Contemporary biologists might describe this in terms of co-evolution or symbiogenesis which are natural systems comprised of evolving relationships and connected growth. Kropotkin framed human practices of mutual aid as evolutionarily pivotal by linking cooperation (rather than competition) to survival, progress and civilization. These ideas proved very popular in an era of dramatic economic restructuring, migration and social dislocation. From the late nineteenth century until the Second World War, these ideas and practices were widespread in the European workers’ movement and within communities of migrant workers, and also in parts of the colonized world where the nation-state was deemed too weak to protect workers from foreign economic penetration. They have emerged again, more recently, in response to meeting needs during corona virus pandemics.
Since around 1980 wealth has been flowing upwards from poor countries to rich countries in accelerating patterns of transfer. Within rich and poor countries, wealth has flowed upwards to corporate and financial elites. In the words of medical anthropologist and global health campaigner Paul Farmer: “In the course of these events, progress toward tolerable levels of inequality and sustainable development virtually stopped. Neocolonial patterns of center-periphery dependence, and of debt peonage, were reestablished, but without the slightest assumption of responsibility by the rich countries for the fate of the poor.”Thomas Piketty tells a similar story about national and world-resource flows in his 2014 economic study Capital in the Twenty-First Century. This is the context in which global anarchist social movements re-emerged in the 1990s.
Following the 1999 anti-globalization protests in Seattle, which targeted the meeting of the World Trade Organization, there has been a re-emergence of interest in anarchist thought. Self-identified anarchist groupings have played key roles in the disruption of a series of major economic summits associated with neoliberal globalization (World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, etc.). The resurgence of anarchism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries can be understood as a response to the imposition of neoliberal economic politics, the impact of increasingly globalized capital, the restructuring of state–society relations and the related emergence of new forms of authoritarianism and social control.45 The movement aimed to expose neo-colonial global power relationships and draw attention to the growing distance between political decision makers and the public as systems of representative democracy became less able to meet citizens’ needs.46 Recently, awareness of this growing distance has become even more acute as whistle-blowers begin to reveal the role of data analytics firms like Cambridge Analytica in influencing voting choices.
Anarchism today is at work through a global network of collectives, communities and individuals. Many social movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have exhibited significant utilizations of anarchist theory and practice, including rejection of nation-states and neoliberal economic policies, resistance to war, the use of direct action, organization through cooperative association, horizontal structures, commitment to bottom-up organization, decentralization, voluntary association, mutual aid, the rejection of any idea that the end justifies the means, consensus decision making and network models of organization. They have been inspired by anti-neoliberal movements like the Zapatista movement in Chiapas (which rebelled against the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement by the Mexican state in 1994), the indigenous rights and anti-privatization movements in Bolivia (who organized mass protests in 2000 and 2003 against the privatization of water and gas), and the Indian Karnataka farmers’ movement (which stresses independent, democratic village communities and opposition to neo-liberalism and capitalism). The Occupy movement also utilized some distinctively anarchist modes of organization and analysis. This renewal of the socialist project (alongside ecological, anti-nuclear and anti-war movements) in the context of neoliberal policy agendas, has intersected with a variety of movements concerned with the needs and interests of women, people of color, emigrating people, indigenous people, homeless people, LGBT groups and animals. Fabian Scheidler’s recent book The End of the Megamachine: A Brief History of a Failing Civilization provides a uniquely comprehensive picture of the roots of the dark side and exploitive history of five centuries of colonialism underwritten by duplicitous bourgeois liberalism, the dictatorship of money, financial predation and the destructive capitalist forces that are now causing ecosystem collapse, global warming and species extinction which will inevitably threaten the future of all humans on our planet. There is no planet B. Spanning 5000 years of history this book explains how four tyrannies of militarized police states, capital accumulation, financial swindles (concomitant with the boom-bubble-bust-bailout iterations) and ideological power have been steering both ecosystems, increasingly authoritarian political systems and societal dysfunction to the brink of collapse. With the growing instability of the Megamachine in the 21st century new perils and threats open up as well as new possibilities for systemic change to which anarchism has had much to say. Sadly, as many climate scientists and others have claimed we have very likely crossed too many tipping points and the worst is yet to come. All we can do is prepare for the worst and mitigate the misery, death and destruction we all face
 Most teachers I’ve had were sufficiently competent to teach the mostly boring uninspiring curriculum but the best teachers I’ve been fortunate enough to have at both K-12 and university have been eccentrics, contrarians and radicals who would stray from the boring curriculum and provide us with wisdom and something esoteric. As Paul Simon remarked in one of his brilliant songs, “when I think of all the crap I learned in high school, I wonder how I can think at all”. There are anti-authoritarian educators who have the courage to publicly assert the authoritarian nature of standard schools. John Taylor Gatto after accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990, stated: “The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions.” Sadly our public schools (even worse in private schools) teach docility, hierarchy, obedience to authorities for whom one does not necessarily respect and didactic regurgitation of meaningless factual material void of context, conceptual clarity or causation. The grade is the end game.
Mathematics for example has been taught for years by rote and recipe rather than explained within a historical and philosophical context. The important “why” question is often excluded from exposition and debate. The standard classroom socializes students to be passive, be directed by others, take seriously the rewards and punishments of authorities; pretend to care about things that they don’t care about and that one is impotent to change one’s dissatisfying situation. In a hierarchical society, prestigious schools confer prestigious awards for conformity and compliance. Ralph Nader whose progressive parent encouraged him to question everything had utter contempt for Harvard Law School which he saw as narrowing minds and producing drone-like lawyers to serve corporations. And with respect to all his standard schooling, Nader observed, “With the exceptions of some marvellous teachers, our many hours in class teach us to believe, not to think, to obey, not to challenge.”
Noam Chomsky in his book Understanding Power (2002) wrote: “The institutional role of the schools for the most part is just to train people for obedience and conformity and to make them controllable and indoctrinated—and as long as the schools fulfill that role, they’ll be supported.”
Noam Chomsky (1928 - ) although little know in his own country, having become a pariah to the corporate mass media and the oligarchy that controls it, he nevertheless may well be the most famous and admired modern American anarchist and anti-authoritarian and is arguably the most famous intellectual of the past 60 years for those at least outside the USA. Given his political stances, honesty and ethical integrity (anathema to the corrupt financial parasites in the corporate world and Wall Street, it is remarkable that he has survived and flourished. In the early 1960s, Chomsky challenged and resisted the US government’s abominable mass murder (five million dead and toxicity throughout the country sides of the countries the US military bombed into oblivion, that included Laos and Cambodia) in the Vietnam War at a time when very few Americans were criticizing the Vietnam War, risking an academic career in linguistics in which he had become highly esteemed internationally for his cutting edge contributions. Since his entrance on the political public stage, Chomsky has used his platform to challenge illegitimate authorities, including the US government and oppressive brutal neo-fascist regimes throughout the world, many installed by the US military and the CIA. He has expressed consistent contempt for ruling elites, its rapacious greed, exploitation and the countless atrocities, in addition to its murderous subversion via anti-communism (read the important recent book The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World) any movement on the political left, trade unions and working-class autonomy.
The very young Noam was seen as an exceptionally intelligent child prodigy in his community. Bea Tucker, who worked as William Chomsky’s secretary, recalled a conversation with Noam at age seven. Tucker pointed to Compton’s Encyclopedia and asked Noam if he had looked through any of the volumes, and Noam responded. “I’ve only read half of them.” Between age two and twelve, Noam went to Oak Lane, a John Dewey experimental school where children were encouraged to think for themselves and where creativity was more important than grades. All schools, Chomsky believes, could be run like Oak Lane but won’t because no society “based on authoritarian hierarchic institutions would tolerate such a school system for very long.”
At Oak Lane, when he was ten, Noam published an article in the school newspaper about the fall of Barcelona to fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War—an influential event for Chomsky then and throughout his life. Later as a teenager, Noam read Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War and the briefly successful anarchist society in Spain. Chomsky’s early understanding that people can rise up against oppressive systems and create cooperative organization among them became part of the basis for his belief in anarchism as a real possibility.
At age twelve, Noam entered Central High School in Philadelphia, a highly regarded school but one that he hated, “It was the dumbest, most ridiculous place I’ve ever been, it was like falling into a black hole or something. For one thing, it was extremely competitive—because that’s one of the best ways of controlling people. So everybody was ranked, and you always knew exactly where you were. . . . All of this stuff is put into people’s heads in various ways in the schools—that you got to beat down the person next to you, and just look out for yourself.”
The young Noam Chomsky remained in school but recalled losing all interest in it; instead, he self-educated during his adolescence. At age 13, Noam commuted alone by train to New York City to visit relatives. He spent many hours with an uncle who ran a newsstand in Manhattan on 72nd Street, which was a lively “literary political salon” where Noam was exposed to radical politics and Jewish working-class culture.
At age 16, Chomsky began undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, but he soon became discouraged. He recalled, “When I looked at the college catalogue it was really exciting—lots of courses, great things. But it turned out that the college was like an overgrown high school. After about a year I was going to just drop out and it was just by accident that I stayed in.” He recalled later, “The vague ideas I had at the time were to go to Palestine, perhaps to a kibbutz, to try to become involved in efforts at Arab-Jewish cooperation within a socialist framework” (in 1953, he did live for six weeks in a left-leaning kibbutz but was disappointed by racist attitudes there). In 1947 at age 19, he began dating Carol Schatz, whom he would marry, and they would have three children together. Also in 1947, Noam met Zellig Harris, a charismatic linguistic professor, which resulted in Noam remaining in academia—and ultimately becoming a renowned linguist.
His most important biographer Robert Barsky concludes, “Chomsky’s early life, indeed his whole life, was and has been literally consumed by a desire for understanding and a penchant for political commitment.” Chomsky’s early interests were political, not linguistic. Chomsky recalled, “I had, from childhood, been deeply involved intellectually in radical and dissident politics, but intellectually.” Ultimately, intellectual involvement was not enough. Chomsky tells us, “I’m really a hermit by nature, and would much prefer to be alone working than to be in public.” However, some instinct told him that he needed to transcend his comfort zone and actively engage the world.
One of the earliest influential authorities Chomsky challenged was behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner. Skinner’s 1957 book Verbal Behavior, with its view that language was learned through behavior modification, was for Chomsky patently absurd, denying a fundamental characteristic of human beings—creativity. And in 1971, with many other humanists, Chomsky confronted the totalitarian nature of another popular Skinner book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity.
While Chomsky was bothered by irrational notions in linguistics, he was enraged by illegitimate authority in the political realm, especially when it came to the Vietnam War. Chomsky recounted, “I knew that I was just too intolerably self-indulgent merely to take a passive role in the struggles that were then going on. And I knew that signing petitions, sending money and showing up now and then at a meeting were not enough. I thought it was critically necessary to take a more active role, and I was well aware of what that would mean.” For ten years, Chomsky refused paying a portion of his taxes, supported draft resisters, was arrested several times, and was on Richard Nixon’s official enemies list.
Given the potential consequence of his political stand, Noam and Carol Chomsky agreed that it made sense for her to return to school and get a PhD so she could support the family if he was put in prison. He later recounted, “In fact, that is just what would have happened except for two unexpected events: (1) the utter (and rather typical) incompetence of the intelligence services. . . . [And] (2) The Tet Offensive, which convinced American business that the game wasn’t worth the effort as it led to the dropping of prosecutions.” Carol Chomsky ultimately secured a position at Harvard’s School of Education, and went on to have a successful academic career. And so with luck and wise choices, the Chomsky family had two excellent incomes and financial security.
Chomsky continued his public attack on authoritarian policies and propaganda. In 1988, Chomsky and co-author Edward Herman published Manufacturing Consent, which describes a “Propaganda Model” of how the media creates a distorted view of reality that maintains the status quo for the ruling class. Chomsky will be 94 this year but his radicalism and anti-authoritarianism has diminished not one whit as his remarkable mind remains as sharp as ever.
Further reading from earlier posts: