In 1976, looking a bit like Buddy Holly, Noam Chomsky gave Peter Jay what I think may be his most extensive interview (audio of interview available here)regarding what a desirable society might look like. I believe the views he offered are still dear to him as well as to many other anarchists. They are dear to me, as well, and have influenced my own commitments, albeit with some changes.
Chomsky offers his observations as part of the heritage of “libertarian socialist or anarcho-syndicalist or communist anarchist views,” following “in the tradition of Bakunin and Kropotkin and Anton Pannekoek” favoring “a society organized on the basis of organic units, organic communities.”
Chomsky adds that he means “that the workplace and the neighborhood, are central, and that “from those two basic units there could derive through federal arrangements a highly integrated kind of social organization which might be national or even international in scope.”
Chomsky adds that “decisions could be made over a substantial range…by delegates who are always part of the organic community from which they come, to which they return, and in which, in fact, they live.” While some anarchists entirely reject the idea of representation, clearly Chomsky doesn’t, nor would I.
Chomsky also clarifies that “representative democracy, as in, say, the United States or Great Britain, would be criticized by an anarchist of this school on two grounds. First … because there is a monopoly of power centralized in the state, and second… because the representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere.”
Thus Chomsky’s, Kropotkin’s, Bakunin’s, and Pannekoek’s liberated society doesn’t reject institutions. It does, however, reject political or economic entities that are divorced from and rule over the population.
Chomsky adds, that “anarchists of this tradition have always held that democratic control of one's productive life is at the core of any serious human liberation, or, for that matter, of any significant democratic practice.” He continues, “as long as individuals are compelled to rent themselves on the market to those who are willing to hire them, as long as their role in production is simply that of ancillary tools, then there are striking elements of coercion and oppression that make talk of democracy very limited, if even meaningful.”
I think pretty much all anarchists and indeed anti capitalists of all types would agree. However a question arises. How does one organize an economy in accord with the need for “self-management, direct worker control, … personal participation in self-management.”
Asked for an example, Chomsky replies “A good example of a really large-scale anarchist revolution… is the Spanish revolution of 1936….” which was “in many ways a very inspiring testimony to the ability of poor working people to organize and manage their own affairs, extremely successfully, without coercion and control,” though, “how relevant the Spanish experience is to an advanced industrial society one might question in detail.”
For himself, Chomsky thinks that “self-management … is precisely the rational mode for an advanced and complex industrial society, one in which workers can very well become masters of their own immediate affairs, that is, in direction and control of the shop, but also can be in a position to make the major, substantive decisions concerning the structure of the economy, concerning social institutions, concerning planning, regionally and beyond.” But he adds that, “at present, institutions do not permit workers to have control over the requisite information and the relevant training to understand these matters.”
And so again an obvious questions surfaces, how does one structure an economy so it conveys the “requisite information” and “relevant training”?
Asked to switch fill out his vision of anarchism, Chomsky replies, “Let me sketch what I think would be a rough consensus, and one that I think is essentially correct. Beginning with the two modes of organization and control, namely organization and control in the workplace and in the community, one could imagine a network of workers' councils, and at a higher level, representation across the factories, or across branches of industry, or across crafts, and on to general assemblies of workers' councils that can be regional and national and international in charter. And from another point of view, one can project a system of government that involves local assemblies — again, federated regionally, dealing with regional issues, crossing crafts, industry, trades, and so on, and again at the level of the nation or beyond.” I agree with Chomsky that this is likely a rough consensus among anarchists, and rightly so, in my view.
Chomsky continues, an “idea of anarchism is that delegation of authority is rather minimal and that its participants at any one of these levels of government should be directly responsive to the organic community in which they live. In fact, the optimal situation would be that participation in one of these levels of government should be temporary, and even during the period when it's taking place should be only partial; that is, the members of a workers' council who are for some period actually functioning to make decisions that other people don't have the time to make, should also continue to do their work as part of the workplace or neighborhood community in which they belong.” Again, this is unobjectionable.
Then, however, comes a point of possible concern. Chomsky says, “As for political parties, my feeling is that an anarchist society would not forcefully prevent political parties from arising. In fact, anarchism has always been based on the idea that any sort of Procrustean bed, any system of norms that is imposed on social life will constrain and very much underestimate its energy and vitality and that all sorts of new possibilities of voluntary organization may develop at that higher level of material and intellectual culture.” So far so good, though the minimal not “forcefully prevent” formulation foreshadows what follows when he adds, “but I think it is fair to say that insofar as political parties are felt to be necessary, anarchist organization of society will have failed.”
Why would people forming a political party be a sign of failure?
Chomsky explains, “it should be the case, I would think, that where there is direct participation in self-management, in economic and social affairs, then factions, conflicts, differences of interests and ideas and opinion, which should be welcomed and cultivated, will be expressed at every one of these levels.”
Agreed. But then Chomsky adds, “Why they should fall into two, three or n political parties, I don't quite see. I think that the complexity of human interest and life does not fall in that fashion. Parties represent basically class interests, and classes would have been eliminated or transcended in such a society.”
Of course I agree to the elimination of parties as agents of class interests. But does that imply that the existence of parties would indicate failure? Chomsky is saying he thinks human preferences are so diverse and varied that the only reason a considerable number of folks would share a set of views consistently contrary to those that other sets of people hold would be if the folks were in a different class due to occupying a structurally different economic position, thus having opposed economic interests. I don’t think so.
Imagine a party forming around some new values that the participants are seeking to advocate and introduce into social life. Perhaps it is animal rights, as but one possible example. Or perhaps a new economic value – to equalize pleasure, say. Or maybe the issue is abortion, or something about space flight, or something to do with the rights of future generations compared to present populations. People form a party because they agree on some views and think other folks are wrong in not agreeing on those views, and because they want to make their case in concert with one another. Why must such a constituency be a class, or even any group within some hierarchy of power? Why can’t it be that it is simply a group with a view that they deem very important but that others differ from?
However, as long as he says factions are welcome, I think the values underlying what Chomsky is saying and what I am amending are in accord. What I am calling a party is just a large faction that crosses neighborhoods and workplaces and which, for some purposes, wants to coordinate their collective efforts on behalf of ideas they share. So, if that is welcome, there is no real dispute, I think.
Chomsky also indicates that he is “unpersuaded that participation in governance is a full-time job. It may be in an irrational society, where all sorts of problems arise because of the irrational nature of institutions. But in a properly functioning advanced industrial society organized along libertarian lines, I would think that executing decisions taken by representative bodies is a part-time job which should be rotated through the community and, furthermore, should be undertaken by people who at all times continue to be participants in their own direct activity.”
As to how much time will have to go to adjudicating disputes, dealing with anti social actions, determining legislation for steadily altering circumstances, and implementing collective projects, I don’t know, but I suspect it will be whole lot more than Chomsky seems to suggest. He is certainly right, however, that much and likely most of what current governments do will no longer be needed. He is also right that all people in all political functions, like for all other functions, must be well prepared to do their tasks well, and must be engaged in those tasks in ways and with responsibilities that do not elevate their power or wealth or their capacity to amass privilege either for themselves or for others, or to have say over outcomes beyond what is appropriate for all actors. Of course, how to accomplish all this is the meat and potatoes of the assertion that it must be so.
Chomsky pinpoints a broad underlying insight, I think, when he says, “it seems to me the natural suggestion is that governance should be organized industrially, as simply one of the branches of industry, with their own workers' councils and their own self-governance and their own participation in broader assemblies.” Again, this is unobjectionable as long as we keep in mind that an airplane pilot, a steel worker, a doctor, or a governance worker, all need to have appropriate skills and knowledge, on the one hand, but also roles that give them no more overall power or privilege than any other citizen, on the other hand.