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On Anarchism cover art

On Anarchism

By: Noam Chomsky,Nathan Schneider - introduction
Narrated by: Eric Jason Martin
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Publisher's Summary

On Anarchism provides the reasoning behind Noam Chomsky's fearless lifelong questioning of the legitimacy of entrenched power. In these essays, Chomsky redeems one of the most maligned ideologies, anarchism, and places it at the foundation of his political thinking. Chomsky's anarchism is distinctly optimistic and egalitarian. Moreover, it is a living, evolving tradition that is situated in a historical lineage; Chomsky's anarchism emphasizes the power of collective, rather than individualist, action. The collection includes a revealing new introduction by journalist Nathan Schneider, who documented the Occupy movement for Harper's and The Nation, and who places Chomsky's ideas in the contemporary political moment. On Anarchism will be essential listening for a new generation of activists who are at the forefront of a resurgence of interest in anarchism - and for anyone who struggles with what can be done to create a more just world.

©2013 Noam Chomsky; Introduction 2013 Nathan Schneider (P)2014 Audible, Inc.

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Chomsky by Bird person

Dry neutral and with a constant emphasised downward inflection.
This is Chomsky narrated by bird person

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Chomsky's biases & delusions on full display

If Chomsky’s key contention is that there have been, and are, severe negatives associated with capitalism, then I wholeheartedly agree. There are many flaws in Capitalism – just as there are in all facets of human affairs. Only a right wing ideologue would be blind to this reality. But of course, as is usual with Chomsky, his intent does not seem dispassionate analysis or a desire to enlighten, but rather a desire to yet again rail against the evils of capitalism and to push his familiar barrow of biases.

There is little analysis or discussion of any benefits that may have flowed from our current system, or whether the historical record of socialist state capitalism versus that of private capitalism offers any insights, particularly in a comparative sense. I would have thought that if you are going to insist on the need upend the economic & political system, that your first responsibility is to explore the pros as well as the cons of the established order.

Not Chomsky. For instance, when it comes to societal matters, & in particular economic outcomes, human incentives matter. Like gravity, human incentives can only be defied for so long. But here there is not even a mention of the word, Another example is the criticality of the price signal, which is a key determinant in how micro-level participants produce desirable macro-level outcomes to ensure that supply meets demand. These are in fact two examples of the fundamental differences between state socialist systems, and private capitalist systems. But to Chomsky, they offer no lessons. Nothing to see here. I guess if you are an ideologue who has decided a priori that something is evil, then you will choose to see no merit in it. One can just proclaim a moral need for an entirely new system, regardless of one's economic & financial literacy. Easy to do if the betterment of society is not one's aim. As with most ideologues through history, my best guess is that his drive is the push that comes from hatred of an existing order, rather than the pull that comes from noble intentions. It does not stretch the imagination to contemplate what the world might look like if Chomsky were to be given the reins. We’ve seen that movie play out before.

Chomsky, does acknowledge some of the failings of state socialism (no doubt begrudgingly), and suggests that anarchist socialism would be the ultimate utopia, because it would do away with the worst elements of statist systems. In particular the elimination of autocracy. He blissfully glides over the fact that societal reconstruction & redesign, is inherently an autocratic process. It is about an ‘enlightened elite’ (presumably the likes of Chomsky) determining a structure and rolling it out for adoption by the less enlightened common folk. Even if well intentioned (or perhaps especially if), it requires an imposition by some actor or actors. The worst autocrats are often those that believe they know best, especially when they are full of rage & indignation - as Chomsky clearly is. There is a reason all socialist experiments have ended in autocracy - usually brutally so. But Chomsky says, oh no, we just haven’t tried the right prescription.

The reason capitalist societies have been remarkably successful, for all their failings (whether Chomsky chooses to acknowledge so or not) is that they are, to a large degree, the outcome of evolution, rather than of design or construction. Chomsky likes to emphasize the autocratic elements of private capitalism, but this actually represents a historical outcome of a dismantling of the elitist totalitarianism of the old feudal order. The Magna Carta was the result of private interests of the lower nobility seeking to enshrine their rights against the despotism of the existing aristocratic order. It was driven by self interest, not an altruistic attempt at societal reconstruction. But they were baby steps in the direction of pluralism, and they probably laid some of the groundwork for the later Glorious Revolution, which enabled further progress toward pluralistic & democratic institutions. This broader societal participation probably enabled the industrial revolution, which itself led to an explosion of wealth & an impetus for greater societal rights.

Yes, the journey was not without injustice, barbarity or inhumanity. But great progress has been made. and continues to be made - though not in a straight line. It remains a work in progress. But Chomsky, seems to me, is intent on ignoring all that, and throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Much of what Chomsky advocates, greater dignity in the workplace, freedom from inhuman work, greater autonomy and an ability to choose how & where one exercises his/her talents, are great aspirations that any decent human being should long for. But in truth, society already has been moving in that direction. Automation, in particular, has been nudging us in that direction for a long time, and the fact is that increasingly there is less need for humans to perform undignified work. But progress is not always linear, and yes, there is much progress yet to be made. But why ignore the fact that progress has been made in great strides? The statistics are clear, from worker health & safety, to our increasing tolerance of diversity and much much more.

But not only is technology increasingly freeing humans from undignified work, it is increasingly empowering them to provide their services and talents in a manner that Chomsky should be very supportive of. The question of human dignity in the work place has many elements, including the power imbalance between a business & an individual. An ability for a human to walk away is key, & perhaps a solution here will come through a UBI set at a high level. As societies become more automated & industrialized, a high water-mark UBI becomes an increasingly possible & perhaps even essential prospect. Who knows, maybe the future will have much in common with Chomsky’s vision (in terms of human dignity) – I actually hope so. My point is that we are, taking abroad view of history, already on that trajectory. Evolution has been proven to be the answer – not radical redesign. I'd argue that It is the increasing prosperity delivered through our pluralistic capitalist systems that are unlocking the doors to these possibilities. The last thing we need, I suggest, is to destroy the golden goose before we get the keys. And certainly, I suggest we don't want an abolition of the entrepreneurship or individual risk-taking that capitalism implies.

Chomsky seems to be placing freedom of the individual as his highest ideal. Yet he has nothing to say about how this might clash with the abolition of private property. How might the freedom to pursue one’s own enterprise exist without the right to private property? How might the abolition of “wage slavery” clash with the freedom to offer one’s labor because one does not have the energy, talent or interest, to apply initiative, & one just wants the low-stress route of getting paid for a days work without higher considerations. Chomsky seems not to ponder these practical matters. Further, like Marxists the world over, Chomsky thinks workers can just take control of the ‘means of production’ as if these just exist without ever having been created. As if none of those ‘means’ are the outcome of individual passions, initiative, effort or risk-taking. They are just there – for the taking. I have to ask, if they are the outcome of prior actions and efforts, why does anyone have a right to just take them? How is that consistent with individual rights or freedoms?

But it’s worse than that. If the ‘means’ exist as a consequence of prior actions, they are also maintained as a consequence of these same actions acting continuously. The forces that lead to the creation of enterprises do not suddenly become redundant once these enterprises are up and running. The forces of entrepreneurship, the profit motive and competition ensure that the owners have the incentive to be constantly on their toes, or else they may be usurped. Schumpeter's creative destruction, or the threat of, is a real thing.

State socialist systems, have not by and large failed because they are autocratic. They have failed because these forces have been absent, and so the incentives for renewal & reinvention have been absent. But Chomsky seems unaware, or perhaps thinks we can just ignore that.

Chomsky likes to highlight 1930s Barcelona as a practical example of successful anarchism. But given the short lived nature of the anarchist ‘experiments’ in 1930s Spain, I think Chomsky is drawing a long bow. The dysfunctionality, or otherwise, of a society (especially with respect to the incentive that are created) can take decades, perhaps even generations, to manifest. The Soviet Union was not dysfunctional purely as a consequence of the top-down, central & authoritarian structure. Whilst these in and of themselves did introduce very substantial dysfunctional incentives, dysfunctional incentives were manifest throughout the economy & society (at the micro level & the macro level). Restaurant workers choosing to have lunch at the busiest period, even if it meant loss of the bulk of daily revenues, were being driven by dysfunctional incentives that had little to do with central planning. The rot can set in quickly, but the collapse can take a very long time. The USSR did not collapse over night. I say again, in the long run, outcomes are driven by the incentives at play.

Chomsky also blissfully ignores that those anarchist in 1930s Spain were commandeering assets (‘means of production’) that were pre-existing. Assets that were themselves the consequence of a set of incentives, as indeed was their durability & ability to function within a competitive landscape. Chomsky does not seem to contemplate whether ‘the workers’ would have the skills or incentives to sustain or further these enterprises. The long haul requires one to combat the constant forces of complacency, bureaucratization, internal politics & indeed entropy. Humans will always be human, & so no perfection is possible, but the sense of ownership that comes from placing one’s own neck on the line (capital, time, energy etc) is the best way to ensure vigilance & interest in the sustainability & durability of an enterprise, & is the best antidote to this decay. Of course, there is nothing to stop a worker from being an owner – but the employee function is distinct and has a different mindset from the ownership function. There is nothing automatic about the transition from one to the other. Ownership has to be earned - & employment does not automatically confer that privilege. Of course, there are benefits to having workers feeling like, and being, owners. But that benefit would largely be lost if ownership was automatic. The crucial ‘earning’ principle would be lost.

Chomsky also seems to not care about the justice of having one’s hard earned assets simply expropriated. Presumably this is because he believes that all private property is the result of exploitation. But this is an absurdly ideological simplification. Sure, there does exist much excess in capitalism, as there does in all human affairs. But this does not invalidate the truth that ‘the means of production today’ are, in the main, the result of personal sacrifice, vision & very hard work by people in the past. Chomsky’s approval of one injustice (theft) does not make up for another injustice (exploitation). Is it any wonder that Marxism has failed everywhere is has been attempted, when its very foundation rests on theft.

The irony is that, much as Chomsky has a distaste for capitalism, it is the democratization of capitalism that has, more than anything in history, allowed for the widespread participation of the broad population, in ‘the means of production’. Chomsky likes to distance himself from Marxism, but in the sense that Marx believed the ‘proletariat’ should commandeer the ‘the means of production’, he is very much aligned. And like Marx, he seems not to give a second thought to how those means came about in the first place or what factors lead to their sustenance. Human incentives do not seem to enter the lexicon. In human affairs, such as how to structure society, that’s a fatal flaw. It should also be an obvious one.

In the main this book is a collection of disparate aspirational thoughts on a "better" society, which has been lumped under the banner of "anarchism". If it stopped there it would be a perfectly good book and worthy of contemplation. Unfortunately, it also pretends to be an antidote to the ills of capitalism. In this latter sense it fails miserably.

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informative and inspiring

good narration throughout, very easy to listen to while going about the daily grind. some very worthwhile points especially toward the later parts. an overall great listen from one of the most forward thinkers of our time.

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  • 05-03-2019

Essential ideas in understanding our world.

As ever, Professor Chomsky provides challenging, enlightening and essential thought provoking ideas which, in my humble opinion, must form part of the educational foundation of our new generations across the world.

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