Sunday, February 6, 2011

Anarcho-Syndicalism and the Intellectuals

"If it is correct, as I believe it is, that a fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work, for creative inquiry, for free creation without the arbitrary limiting effect of coercive institutions, then, of course, it will follow that a decent society should maximize the possibilities for this fundamental human characteristic to be realized. That means trying to overcome the elements of repression and oppression and destruction and coercion that exist in any existing society, ours for example, as a historical residue.

Now any form of coercion or repression, any form of autocratic control of some domain of existence, let's say, private ownership of capital or state control of some aspects of human life, any such autocratic restriction on some area of human endeavor, can be justified, if at all, only in terms of the need for subsistence, or the need for survival, or the need for defense against some horrible fate or something of that sort. It cannot be justified intrinsically. Rather it must be overcome and eliminated.

And I think that, at least in the technologically advanced societies of the West we are now certainly in a position where meaningless drudgery can very largely be eliminated, and to the marginal extent that it's necessary, can be shared among the population; where centralized autocratic control of, in the first place, economic institutions, by which I mean either private capitalism or state totalitarianism or the various mixed forms of state capitalism that exist here and there, has become a destructive vestige of history.

They are all vestiges that have to be overthrown, eliminated in favor of direct participation in the form of workers' councils or other free associations that individuals will constitute themselves for the purpose of their social existence and their productive labour.

Now a federated, decentralized system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions, would be what I refer to as anarcho-syndicalism; and it seems to me that this is the appropriate form of social organization for an advanced technological society, in which human beings do not have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the machine. There is no longer any social necessity for human beings to be treated as mechanical elements in the productive process; that can be overcome and we must overcome it by a society of freedom and free association, in which the creative urge that I consider intrinsic to human nature, will in fact be able to realize itself in whatever way it will."

--Noam Chomsky
For the full debate between Chomsky and Foucault, see:
(and it's a great debate)

This debate, if it's fair to call it a debate, regarding human nature, boils down to whether or not meaning, epistemology, and creativity, among other things, are intrinsic to it. Chomsky believes that they are; that is, he believes humanity has a need to inquire on such things. Foucault does not deny the possibility that they are, but he does deny Chomsky's ability to define human nature, in any sense, because Chomsky's definition will invariably be ethnocentric (as will anyone's). Foucault uses culture to explain culture, as it exists here and there or now and then; Chomsky uses culture to explain reality. (I know… Nietzsche wouldn't approve)

Now, in theory, anarcho-syndicalism is indistinguishable from libertarian socialism. Chomsky has a long history of regarding states as power centers, and has expressed that "no state meets even the minimal level of morality," thus the reason for his anarchist tendencies. But the more interesting part of Chomsky's argument is not necessarily his favoring a stateless society, but how he intends to get there. Chomsky has argued that it would be a mistake to attempt to eliminate the state in the short run, and that the first step towards achieving this would be to strengthen the state, because it's needed as a check on the power of large corporations. Now, the question that should be asked, or rather, the point that should be made, is why exactly is this the case given that the power of large corporations is mostly state driven. The beneficiary of a more powerful state is going to be the same corporate elite Chomsky's trying to oppose.

Chomsky is very Marxist inspired as well. He argues that the best transition would be derived from a war waged against the ruling class by the proletariat (or so that's what I make of what he says), and that this is necessary to lead to a more just society, in which the state will dissolve and in which the proletariat will be a universal class. He argues that the need for a violent revolution, and those who argue the need for a violent and bloody revolution, argue so falsely, and that there's no sense in a violent revolution, especially should there be no future justification (which would be liberation). He says that if the attainment of power by the proletariat leads to human relations being destroyed, he wouldn't want the proletariat to take power, and that the only reason for wanting such a thing is because one thinks some fundamental human values will be achieved, or realized, by that transfer of power. Then Foucault makes the point, in this case the point that I'd make and have made in the past, that there's a probable chance when the proletariat takes power it will exert violence towards the once ruling class, and in effect become what it opposed. One would definitely think that should there exist a stateless society, someone will capitalize on the opportunity to dictate that society. Historical experience tells us that a violent and bloody dictatorship of the proletariat, when controlled by self-appointed representatives of a vanguard party, has at its end this society simply being ruled by the vanguards.

Chomsky is familiar with Bakunin I'm sure, but I haven't heard him address Bakunin's criticism of Marx. How can the working class ever take over an institution as massive as the state without violence?

To digress a bit, I think Chomsky is great on foreign policy, propaganda and the media networks, the U.S. power structure, etc… but there's definitely an economic side to achieving the dictatorship of the proletariat, and economics is not Chomsky's strong suit. Also, Chomsky is a state-employed anarchist. He works for MIT, which receives most all its funding from the state. This makes me question his status of an anarchist… aren't these folks supposed to have mohawks and "walk the earth," living in emancipation from a power structure?

In regards to anarcho-syndicalism/libertarian socialism, representing his side I tend to gravitate towards, he goes on to say…

"I think it would be a great shame to put aside entirely the somewhat more abstract and philosophical task of trying to draw the connections between a concept of human nature that gives full scope to freedom and dignity and creativity and other fundamental human characteristics, and to relate that to some notion of social structure in which those properties could be realized and in which meaningful human life could take place. If we are thinking of social transformation or social revolution, though it would be absurd, of course, to try to sketch out in detail the goal that we are hoping to reach, still we should know something about where we think we are going, and such a theory may tell it to us."

There are a few intellectual tasks: One, we must envision a just society in which there exists the basic minimal moral standards of a humane egalitarian existence. Two, we must realize that this society will most likely never exist, save that there's a drastic metamorphosis of humanity (in which case we already have this ideal society envisioned). Three, and this is probably the most important, we must recognize the negative forces at work in the world, which includes looking in the mirror at our own society... the power and oppression and terrorism and destruction... and through what seems to be the most reasonable approach, via opposition and reducing the equanimity, we must fight these forces.

(I feel like now's the time where I'm supposed to rear up on my horse with my sword in the air and lead my troops into battle)

To conclude with one last quote...

"If we have the choice between trusting in centralised power to make the right decision in that matter, or trusting in free associations of libertarian communities to make that decision, I would rather trust the latter. And the reason is that I think that they can serve to maximise decent human instincts, whereas a system of centralised power will tend in a general way to maximise one of the worst of human instincts, namely the instinct of rapaciousness, of destructiveness, of accumulating power to oneself and destroying others. It's a kind of instinct which does arise and functions in certain historical circumstances, and I think we want to create the kind of society where it is likely to be repressed and replaced by other and more healthy instincts."

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