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Noam Chomsky Gets Realistic

April 5, 2010

Noam Chomsky debunks a fellow anarchist:

Q: As far as we favor a stateless society in the long run, it would be a mistake to work for the elimination — I’ve said that it would be a mistake to work for the elimination of the state in the short run, and we should be trying to strengthen the state, ’cause it’s needed on the check of power of large corporations. Yet the tendency of a lot of anarchist research — my own, too — is to show that the power of large corporations derives from state privilege, and governments tend to get captured by concentrated private interests. That would seem to imply that the likely beneficiaries of a more powerful state is going to be the same corporate elite we’re trying to oppose. So if business both derives from the state and is so good at capturing the state, why isn’t abolishing the state a better strategy for defeating business power than enhancing the state’s power would be?

NC: Well, there’s a very simple answer to that: it’s not a strategy, and since it’s not a strategy at all, there can’t be a better strategy. The strategy of “eliminating the state” is back on the level of “let’s have peace and justice”. How do you proceed to eliminate the state? Okay? Can you think of a way of doing it? I mean, if there were a way of doing it in the existing world, everything would collapse and be destroyed. You just can’t do it. I mean, there is nothing to replace it. If there was a rich, powerful network of, you know, cooperatives, community organizations, worker-controlled industry, you know, extending over the whole country, and the whole world, in fact, yeah, then you can talk about eliminating states. But to talk about eliminating the state in the world as it exists is simply to keep yourself in some remote academic seminar or small group, you know, saying, “Gee, this would be nice.” It’s not a strategy, so there can’t be a better strategy.

Nor is “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” or “three acres and a cow” a strategy. As much as I would like a one-way ticket to Utopia (the Greek word for no place), that flight won’t be boarding any time soon. So you and I can either stand around at the space station and complain — as the anarchists, communists, and distributists tend to do — or make the best of life here on our home planet.

I recently heard health care reform described as “a step backwards for any type of progressive reform movement” due to its concessions to “American capitalism and its Healthcare and Pharma lobbies.” Certainly, it does make concessions. Vis-à-vis the gold standard of single-payer, the bill is an abysmal failure. Vis-à-vis what could be realistically achieved given the present limitations, however, I don’t see how it can be described as anything other than a resounding success. For the left, it was not a choice between the real and the ideal, but between the real and the unreal. The same holds true for climate change, financial regulation, Afghanistan, and a host of other challenges.

Meanwhile, there is no reason you or I can’t begin to build the “rich, powerful network” of cooperatives, community organizations, and worker-controlled industries that Chomsky mentions here. As Dorothy Day once said, change begins with oneself.

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