Quotes from Understanding Power, by Noam Chomsky

“WOMAN: Noam, since you’re an anarchist and often say that you oppose the existence of the nation-state itself and think it’s incompatible with true socialism, does that make you at all reluctant to defend welfare programs and other social services which are now under attack from the right wing, and which the right wing wants to dismantle?

CHOMSKY: Well, it’s true that the anarchist vision in just about all its varieties has looked forward to dismantling state power-and personally I share that vision. But right now it runs directly counter to my goals: my immediate goals have been, and now very much are, to defend and even strengthen certain elements of state authority that are now under severe attack. And I don’t think there’s any contradiction there-none at all, really.

For example, take the so-called “welfare state.” What’s called the “welfare state” is essentially a recognition that every child has a right to have food, and to have health care and so on-and as I’ve been saying, those programs were set up in the nation-state system after a century of very hard struggle, by the labor movement, and the socialist movement, and so on.

Well, according to the new spirit of the age, in the case of a fourteen-year-old girl who got raped and has a child, her child has to learn “personal responsibility” by not accepting state welfare handouts, meaning, by not having enough to eat. Alright, I don’t agree with that at any level. In fact, I think it’s grotesque at any level. I think those children should be saved. And in today’s world, that’s going to have to involve working through the state system; it’s not the only case.

So despite the anarchist “vision,” I think aspects of the state system, like the one that makes sure children eat, have to be defended-in fact, defended very vigorously. And given the accelerating effort that’s being made these days to roll back the victories for justice and human rights which have been
won through long and often extremely bitter struggles in the West, in my opinion the immediate goal of even committed anarchists should be to defend some state institutions, while helping to pry them open to more meaningful public participation, and ultimately to dismantle them in a much more free society.

There are practical problems of tomorrow on which people’s lives very much depend, and while defending these kinds of programs is by no means the ultimate end we should be pursuing, in my view we still have to face the problems that are right on the horizon, and which seriously affect human lives. I don’t think those things can simply be forgotten because they might not fit within some radical slogan that reflects a deeper vision of a future society. The deeper visions should be maintained, they’re important-but dismantling the state system is a goal that’s a lot farther away, and you want to deal first with what’s at hand and nearby, I think. And in any realistic perspective, the political system, with all its flaws, does have opportunities for participation by the general population which other existing institutions, such as corporations, don’t have. In fact, that’s exactly why the far right wants to weaken governmental structures-because if you can make sure that all the key decisions are in the hands of Microsoft and General Electric and Raytheon, then you don’t have to worry anymore about the threat of popular involvement in policy-making.

So take something that’s been happening in recent years: devolution — that is, removing authority from the federal government down to the state governments. Well, in some circumstances, that would be a democratizing move which I would be in favor of-it would be a move away from central
authority down to local authority. But that’s in abstract circumstances that don’t exist. Right now it’ll happen because moving decision-making power down to the state level in fact means handing it over to private power. See, huge corporations can influence and dominate the federal government, but even middle-sized corporations can influence state governments and play one state’s workforce off against another’s by threatening to move production elsewhere unless they get better tax breaks and so on. So under the conditions of existing systems of power, devolution is very anti-democratic; under other systems of much greater equality, devolution could be highly democratic-but these are questions which really can’t be discussed in isolation from the society as it actually exists.

So I think that it’s completely realistic and rational to work within structures to which you are opposed, because by doing so you can help to move to a situation where then you can challenge those structures.”

“Of course, the “free market” ideology is very useful-it’s a weapon against the general population here, because it’s an argument against social spending, and it’s a weapon against poor people abroad, because we can hold it up to them and say “You guys have to follow these rules,” then just go ahead and rob them. But nobody really pays any attention to this stuff when it comes to actual planning-and no one ever has.

So there was just a British study of the hundred leading transnational corporations in the “Fortune 500,” and it found that of the hundred, every single one of them had benefited from what’s called “state industrial policy”-that is, from some form of government intervention in the country in which they’re based. And of the hundred, they said at least twenty had been
saved from total collapse by state intervention at one point or another. For instance, the Lockheed corporation was going under in the early 1970s, and the Nixon administration just bailed them out with public funds. Okay, so they’re back in business. And now they stay in business because the public
pays for C-130s [military aircraft], and upgrading F-16s, and the F-22 project, and so on-none of which has anything to do with a “free market” either.

Or take the fact that so many people live in the suburbs and everybody has to drive their own car everywhere. Was that a result of the “free market”? No, it was because the U.S. government carried out a massive social-engineering project in the 1950s to destroy the public transportation system in favor of expanding a highly inefficient system based on cars and airplanes-because that’s what benefits big industry. It started with corporate conspiracies to buy up and eliminate streetcar systems, and then continued with huge public subsidies to build the highway system and encourage an
extremely inefficient and environmentally destructive alternative. That’s what led to the suburbanization of the country- so you get huge shopping malls in the suburbs, and devastation in the inner cities.

But these policies were a result of planning-they had nothing to do with the “free market.”

Actually, the most dramatic example of these “market distortions” that I can think of-which I suspect is never even taught in economics courses- concerns the reason why the United States had an industrial revolution in the first place. Remember, the industrial revolution was fueled by textiles,
meaning one commodity: cotton. And cotton was cheap, that was crucially important. Well, why was cotton cheap? Was it because of market forces? No. Cotton was cheap because they exterminated the native population here and brought in slaves-that’s why cotton was cheap. Genocide and slavery:
try to imagine a more severe market distortion than that.”

“Question: But if we ever had a society with no wage incentive and no authority, where would the drive come from to advance and grow?

Chomsky: Well, the drive to “advance” – I think you have to ask exactly what that means? If you mean a drive to produce more, well, who wants it? Is that necessarily the right thing to do? It’s not obvious. In fact, in many areas it’s probably the wrong thing to do – maybe it’s a good thing that there wouldn’t be the same drive to produce . People have to be driven to have certain wants in our system – why? Why not leave them alone so they can just be happy, do other things?

Whatever “drive” there is ought to be internal. So take a look at kids: thye’re creative, they explore, they want to try new things. I mean, why does a kid start to walk? You take a one-year-old kid, he’s crawling fine, he can get across the room he likes really fast, so fast his parents have to run after him to keep him from knocking everything down – all of a sudden he gets up and starts walking. He’s terrible at walking: he walks one step and he falls on his face, and if he wants to really get somewhere he’s going to crawl. So why do kids start walking? Well, they just want to do new things, that’s the way people are built. We’re built to want to do new things, even if they’re not efficient, even if they’re harmful, even if you get hurt – and I don’t think that ever stops.

People want to explore, we want to press our capacities to their limits, we want to appreciate what we can. But the joy of creation is something very few people get the opportunity to have in our society: artists get to have it, craftspeople have it, scientists. And if you’ve been lucky enough to have had that opportunity, you know it’s quite an experience – and it doesn’t have to be discovering Einstein’s theory of relativity: anybody can have that pleasure, even by seeing what other people have done. For instance, if you read even a simple mathematical proof like the Pythagorean Theorem, what you study ub tenth grade, and you finally figure out what it’s all about, that’s exciting – “My God, I never understood that before.” Okay, that’s creativity, even though somebody else proved it two thousand years ago.

You just keep being struck by the marvels of what you’re discovering, and you’re “discovering” it, even though somebody else did it already. Then if you can ever add a little bit to what’s already known – alright, that’s very exciting. And I think the same thing is true of a person who builds a boat: I don’t see why it’s fundamentally any different – I mean, I wish I could do that; I can’t, I can’t imagine doing it.

Well, I think people should be able to live in a society where they can exercise these kinds of internal drives and develop their capacities freely – instead of being forced into the narrow range of options that are subjectively available – like, how are people allowed to think, how are they able to think? Remember, there are all kinds of ways of thinking that are cut off from us in our society – not because we’re incapable of them, but because various blockages have been developed and imposed to prevent people from thinking in those ways. That’s what indoctrination is about in the first place, in fact – and I don’t mean somebody giving you lectures: sitcoms on television, sports that you watch, every aspect of the culture implicitly involves an expression of what a “proper” life and a “proper” set of values are, and that’s all indoctrination.

So I think what has to happen is, other options have to be opened up to people – both subjectively, and in fact concretely: meaning you can do something about them without great suffering. And that’s one of the main purposes of socialism, I think: to reach a point where people have the opportunity to decide freely for themselves what their needs are, not just have the “choices” forced on them by some arbitrary system of power.”

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