Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 4-2012, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

Noam Chomsky
A Radical Critic from, of, and for the Land of the Free

Noam Chomsky is a rare bird indeed. On the one hand, he is an established intellectual, a member of the respected academic elite; on the other hand, he is a world-famous, radical leftist critic — especially of the U.S. On the one hand, he is a professed anarchist and socialist whose critical views lie far outside the mainstream, having nothing to do with the typically constructive proposals usually offered to business and the state. On the other hand, he insists that his anarchist and “libertarian socialist” views are anything but extreme, but rather merely express the natural desire of all mankind: the desire for freedom. Chomsky regards himself as part of an intellectual tradition that is as humanistic as Europe and as American as apple pie, a tradition that includes intellectual luminaries such as Humboldt, Schelling, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Jefferson, J.J. Rousseau or Michael Bakunin. For Chomsky, regardless of the theoretical and practical disputes between these thinkers, as ardent advocates of freedom they agree on the most important point of all: “‘Man is in his essence a free, searching, self-perfecting being…’ [whose] true end [consists in] the full harmonious development of human potential in its richest diversity.” (Chomsky, quoting Wilhelm Von Humboldt, in a 1970 lecture, “Government in the Future.” Poetry Center, New York. February 16, 1970)

For Chomsky, therefore, free will represents much more than a banal fact about human consciousness. It does not merely characterize the fact that humans are conscious creatures who develop particular interests on the basis of particular needs; who reflect on the means needed to pursue those interests and the circumstances in which they do so; and who finally formulate concrete aims and pursue them. Instead, Chomsky regards freedom as the most essential content of a person’s will; the essence of what it is that people want and pursue is their freedom to want something and pursue it. He even regards the freedom of the will as a kind of independent entity that determines what it is that people do with their will, one that “tends constantly to become broader and to affect wider circles in more manifold ways.” (“Notes on Anarchism” in Daniel Guérin, Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, 1970) In Chomsky’s eyes, freedom is a life-long undertaking, the plundering of an inner treasure chest filled with material and moral properties and capacities. Quoting Rudolf Rocker:

“For the anarchist, freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account.” (“Notes on Anarchism”)

It is telling that Chomsky, quoting Rocker, feels the need to deny that he and his fellow anarchists are floating up in the thin air of philosophical abstractions when they place freedom at the centre of all human wants and needs. After all, what could be more abstract than viewing the mere truism that people formulate their own thoughts and set their own aims as the essence of those thoughts and aims, as if the content of what people think and want, i.e., their concrete thoughts and aims, were merely an accidental fact and not the entire point of people’s materialism. What could be more philosophically abstruse than taking the bare fact that people determine their own aims as a reason to think of the will as a kind of commanding authority that orders individuals to reach into the profound depths of their own souls in order to uncover what mother nature has deposited there — and to do so in perfect harmony with other people who do the same.[1] As if people’s materialism was not about achieving specific aims and satisfying particular needs, but instead about uncovering what it is they do not yet need and have not yet sought to achieve; as if materialism did not mean satisfying this or that need, but in satisfying yet another need, not developing this or that skill, but uncovering yet another skill. Chomsky’s concept of freedom, therefore, does not capture a single aim that people actually pursue, but he feels that he is being “vital” and “concrete,” because he sets everything that people do and want, no matter what they actually do and want, in relation to his own philosophical freedom-fetish. Regardless of what people actually do and have to do, Chomsky’s concern is whether and to what extent these actions manifest the true motive of all human action, the motive that underlies everything that people do, whether they know it or not: freedom. In that sense, for Chomsky freedom is everywhere.

Of course, this anarchist philosopher is not alone in thinking this way. When the working day is done, it is quite common for everyday heroes of economic competition to recast their efforts to cope with the demands of getting by as more or less successful attempts at self-fulfillment, insisting that when they go to work and when they spend their free time, they are living out their own freedom — at least “actually” and “in the end.” These people thereby reinterpret all the constraints of a capitalist economy in a very affirmative manner, viewing the necessities of finding employment and satisfying the employer, of earning the money one needs and beating out one’s competitors, as so many opportunities and challenges to be mastered by free individuals in their own personal pursuit of happiness. The only difference between this everyday illusion and Chomsky’s celebration of freedom is that he takes it to a philosophical extreme, casting freedom as “the full development [of] all … powers, capacities, and talents,” (“Notes on Anarchism”) in order to then condemn the constraints of capitalist society for standing in the way of people’s urge to be free. With this apotheosis of freedom in mind, he casts his critical gaze at the capitalist democracies of the West — after all, these are the nations that claim that their political-economic order and the authority that enforces it are nothing but a service to human freedom. And as soon as it comes to actually criticizing the goings-on in these nations, Chomsky unveils a much more modest version of his grandiose notion of freedom, subjecting these nations to the following litmus test: Are the people involved in the decisions that determine their lives? For Chomsky, the people must be made the co-authors of their social circumstances, regardless of how these might be constituted. Only by exercising this kind of self-determination can people truly bring to fruition their inner urge for freedom in solidarity with others. And conversely, if they do enjoy this kind of self-determination, the realization of that urge is assured.

The answer that Chomsky gives to his own question about the capitalist democracies of the West — an answer he presents in countless public talks, interviews, and publications — is entirely negative. He views these societies — especially the U.S. — as having little to do with their self-image as homelands of free, autonomous individuals. On the contrary, these countries represent a systematic hindrance to mankind’s striving for freedom. In their “free market economies,” tyranny abounds; their democratic institutions are empty shells for the dictatorship of the wealthy; their free world-order is dominated by economic predators, it suppresses any efforts to achieve democracy, and crushes any strivings for liberation. Because of his condemnation of the U.S. and its capitalistic peers in the West, Chomsky not only attracts the disdain of rightwing Americans, but also enjoys worldwide recognition and even admiration. This is nicely captured in the following review by John Pilger of Chomsky’s book, Hopes and Prospects: “This is a classic Chomsky work: a bonfire of myths and lies, sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky is an enduring inspiration all over the world to millions, I suspect for the simple reason that he is a truth-teller on an epic scale.”

The kind of “truth” referred to here is that these countries systematically fail to deliver on what Chomsky regards as the promise of democracy: to enable people to freely decide on their own lives. This lament is expressed by his entire body of work. Whatever Chomsky has to say about capitalist society, democracy, imperialism, and the media ultimately serves as material for illustrating a single negative judgment: bourgeois democracy, the capitalist market economy, foreign policy, and the free press are not what they pretend to be. They are not the realization of freedom. No deed performed by those in power can escape his critical eye — nor is it capable of shaking his belief in the promise of freedom and democracy. Chomsky’s work is indeed a case study “on an epic scale,” for it demonstrates how worthless this kind of critique is and how much it affirms the very things it aims to condemn.

I. Capitalism: not a democracy

“Profit Over People” —
a class antagonism without its economic content

When Chomsky looks at the modern market economy, he sees something entirely different from what his colleagues in the intellectual guild see: not the economic realization of free and equal self-determination, but rather a class society. On the one side, there stands the tiny minority of the “rich and privileged”; on the other, people without any means of providing for themselves, who are thus “compelled to rent themselves to owners of capital in order to survive.” (Chomsky on Anarchism) The type of freedom enjoyed by wage-laborers is a cruel joke; after all, it

“perpetuates a form of bondage which, long before that in fact, as early as 1767, Simon Linguet had declared to be ‘even worse than slavery’, writing … ‘He is free, you say. That is his misfortune. These men, it is said, have no master. They have one, and the most terrible, the most imperious of masters: that is, need. It is this that reduces them to the most cruel dependence.’” (Government in the Future)[2]

Therefore, the freedom that the market economy purports to fulfill in fact stands

“in fundamental opposition to industrial capitalism with its wage slavery, its alienated labor and its hierarchical and authoritarian principles of social and economic organization.” (Government in the Future)

That is a scathing judgment indeed of the relationship between employers and employees in the free-market economy. It is also a sobering clarification of how the freedom enjoyed by wage laborers is connected to the drastic situation that their capitalistic exploitation creates and reproduces. Their exclusion from the means of production forces them into a state of dependency and places them under the commanding power of owners of capital. In order to live they have to work — not for themselves, but for the enrichment of capitalists.

Although Chomsky mentions the economic content of this relation of domination when he speaks of “owners of capital” who exploit the poverty of wage laborers for their own business aims, that is not what he regards as the essence of this relation. For Chomsky, what is important is the mere fact that in the market economy, “the most cruel dependence” reigns, much more important than the gentle reminder of what that dependence actually consists in. The terms “dependence!” and “subordination!” express all that needs to be said about this economic system: it fails to realize the ideal of free and equal self-determination. Whereas Linguet at least points how much bourgeois freedom and economic dependence are functionally related to each other, Chomsky holds his ears and uses as many drastic sounding superlatives as possible, so that the scandalous nature of the capitalist market economy can speak for itself: a mode of production whose sole purpose supposedly consists in denying to people that which is most holy to them, i.e., their self-determination. And just to make sure that nobody can possibly fail to recognize this scandal, Chomsky addresses the relation between poverty and wealth — and it is no wonder that capitalism can hardly be recognized in these descriptions:

“To put the basic point crassly, unless the rich and powerful are satisfied, everyone will suffer, because they control the basic social levers, determining what will be produced and consumed, and what crumbs will filter down to their subjects. For the homeless in the streets, then, the primary objective is to ensure that the rich live happily in their mansions.” (Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 158) … “Everybody, everybody, has to be committed to one overriding goal: and that’s to make sure that the rich folk are happy, because unless they are, nobody else is going to get anything. So if you’re a homeless person sleeping in the streets of Manhattan, let’s say, your first concern must be that the guys in the mansions are happy, because if they’re happy, then they’ll invest, and economy will work, and things will function, and then maybe something will trickle down to you somewhere along the line. … Basically that’s a metaphor for the whole society.” (Understanding Power, p. 63)

What is Chomsky talking about? Is he citing a Republican ideology, according to which the notorious losers in this best of all economies should cross their fingers that the wealth of the happy few will continue to grow, so that some of it might trickle down to the poor? Is he perhaps exaggerating this ideology a bit in order to unmask its cruelty? Unfortunately, no. This distorted image of capitalism is how Chomsky himself — “crassly” — understands its essence. The way that Chomsky discusses the very real dependency of all members of capitalist society on the success of business ignores the way capitalism really does productively combine poverty and wealth. In the image that Chomsky presents, wealth and poverty show up as personified extremes; here the wealthy and the poor clearly have no relation to each other whatsoever. And for Chomsky, that is what is supposed to make the perverse nature of the relation between rich and poor painfully obvious: not only are the rich incredibly rich and the poor incredibly poor, the latter also have to want the rich to get richer and richer! By treating the relation between rich and poor in this way, the philosophical anarchist eliminates the economic nature of class rule, turning it into personal domination of the cruelest sort — one in which the ruling class forces the rest of mankind to accept and consent to its own suppression. For Chomsky, expressing the rule of the “rich and powerful” over the poor and wage-dependent majority “crassly” does not mean criticizing the capitalistic purpose of this rule, but rather the mean spirit in which it is exercised — and for Chomsky, this mean spirit is supposed to be the entire content of this economic domination.

Even when Chomsky turns to how the wealth upon which this rule is based gets produced, he does so on the same moralistic level, on which there is precious little to say about the purpose of economic domination, but all the more about the ruthlessly egotistic manner in which it is exercised.

“A business or a big corporation is a fascist structure internally. Power is at the top. Orders go from top to bottom. You either follow the orders or get out.” (The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many, p. 20)

Aside from the fact that the principle of command and obedience does not quite capture the nature of “fascist structures,” is it really true that a young and ambitious manager essentially does the same thing as an officer in the SS? Does unconditional willingness to sacrifice and total dedication to the Führer really capture the way a capitalist employer commands the labor of his employees? Don’t these commands have any economic content and purpose? What Chomsky is alluding to is of course something that workers experience every day: as soon as they walk through the factory gates or into the office, they are at the disposal of their employer. Nothing they do in the workplace is done on their own initiative; not only are they subjected to the aims established by the company, but the labor process they must undergo has also been determined down to the last detail, facing workers with a complete ensemble of guidelines and demands that they must obey if they want to see any wages. And the sole economic purpose of all these measures is to ensure that the work the employees perform pays off for the company, i.e., for its profits. The interpretation Chomsky employs to present this situation to the masses takes the despotism of capital and subtracts the capitalist purpose of this form of rule — the very purpose that constitutes the reason for this economic form of domination in the first place. What remains is the sheer will to despotism, something that capitalists allegedly share with evil-doers throughout history — which is probably why Chomsky picks out the fascists as his point of comparison in the first place, since these bad guys guarantee the greatest amount of disgust.

However, Chomsky does not mean to say that the moral perversion he regards as the essence of capitalism merely results from the personal vices of capitalists. Instead he claims that the objective social relations prevailing in capitalist society are what cause the rich and powerful to violate reason and human decency in their quest to secure their rule:

“It’s not that these people are stupid, it’s that to the extent that you have a competitive system based on private control over resources, you are forced to maximize short-term gain. That’s just an institutional necessity. … I mean, suppose there were three car companies: Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford. And suppose that one of them decided to put its resources into producing fuel-efficient, user-friendly cars which could be available ten years from now, and which would have a much less destructive impact on the environment — suppose Ford decided to put a proportion of its resources into that. Well, Chrysler wouldn’t be putting its resources into that, which means that they would undersell Ford today, and Ford wouldn’t be in the game ten years from now. Well, that’s just the nature of a competitive system … that’s just part of the institutional irrationality of the system. … In fact, here I must say I would like to complain about a recent cover of Z Magazine. I had an article in there, and on the cover was the title: “Corporate Greed”. But that’s just an absurd phrase. I mean to talk about “corporate greed” is like talking about “military weapons” or something like that — there just is no other possibility. A corporation is something that is trying to maximize power and profit: that’s just what it is.” (Understanding Power, p. 391)

A capitalist’s main job might be despot, but at the same time he is a C.E.O., whose

“job is to raise profit and market share, not to make sure that the environment survives, or that his workers live decent lives. … In fact, if the C.E.O. of General Electric started making decisions on that basis, he’d be thrown out of his job in three seconds. … Those goals are simply in conflict. (ibid. p. 87)

It is obvious that Chomsky is attempting to criticize the capitalist system as a whole; instead of merely moralistically lamenting this cruel world and calling for a better one, he seeks to identify a constraint that must be abolished in the interest of establishing a more rational society. However, what is also obvious is the place where Chomsky seeks this constraint: not in the economic matter with which the agents of the capitalist system struggle to cope, but in the egotistical manner in which the dominant agents deal with the private power of money and in the use that they make of it. When it comes to the objective purpose of a company like General Electric, he discovers a conflict between the mere self-interest of the company on the one hand, and both basic and loftier needs on the other. He regards the decision-makers as being systematically forced to place the company’s particular self-interest over the needs of the community; and yet behind this systematic compulsion lies nothing but the personal interest of the company owners, who determine the services their C.E.O. must provide for them.

Using the example of Ford, Chomsky reduces the rule of exchange-value over commodities’ use-value — which merely functions as a vehicle for the money to be earned by selling them as commodities — to an opposition between short-term profit making and long-term efforts at sustainability and user-friendliness. This opposition, incidentally, reveals how little Chomsky knows about the actual strategic calculations of automobile companies. That is why when it comes to competition between companies, Chomsky is not interested in the logic of how capital grows, which, after all, is the aim pursued in this competition, but in how competition supposedly compels companies to think short-term, which Chomsky finds irrational because it supposedly prevents a better solution.

Finally, his criticism of the title of the “Z-Magazine” issue expresses the essence of his conception about the objective constraints of the capitalist economy: he rejects the notion that a corporation could choose not to be greedy; instead he claims that this vice — a subjective attitude belonging to the category of egomania — makes up the entire economic purpose and substance of a corporation. That defines its objective essence. Chomsky thereby fails to capture, first, the character traits cultivated by capitalist owners and managers as a result of their profession — which include forms of an elitist sense of entitlement that go far beyond the relatively venal sin of avarice. Second, and more importantly, Chomsky misses the capitalist substance and aim of the “profit and market share” that make up what capitalist enterprises are all about, and which definitely do not consist in a kind of impersonal avarice. In fact, the interest pursued by entrepreneurs when they work for the success of their companies consists in nothing more and nothing less than the subjective dimension of an activity objectively determined by the economic material of that activity; the latter does not implement a moral or immoral principle, but the inherent necessities of the accumulation of capital. The substance and the logic of these necessities do not derive from the fact that a “competitive system” compels competing firms to be insatiable, but from the nature of what constitutes wealth in this society: the commanding power of private property — guaranteed by the state, materialized in money, and striving for its own increase.

Chomsky also makes mention of the state in connection with his moralistic theory of objective constraints. And here as well, he applies the same theoretical logic. He regards the state not as the organizer and guardian of a national economy in which everything depends on the growth of capital, such that the common good ultimately consists in the accumulation of capital. Instead, Chomsky sees a legislative authority that forces economic decision-makers to make the kind of irrational decisions they are forced to make anyway as the agents of a prevailing system of egotism:

“A core doctrine of corporate law is that the directors are legally obligated to pursue only material self-interest. They are permitted to do ‘good works’, but only if that has a favorable impact on image.” (Hopes and Prospects, p. 30)

Therefore, corporations are “required by law to be what we would call pathological in the case of real human beings.” (Interview with Z-Net Germany, May 18, 2005)

Chomsky cites the letter of the law as well as the watchwords of political economy in order to prove the systematic harm done by capitalist business, without ever putting aside his moralistic critique of the ruling class. What he regards as the fatal economic substance of the market economy is the dominance of corporations’ merely “material interests,” without his having anything more to say about this self-interest than that the lust for ever greater “profits and market shares” definitely is not in the general interest. He is not content to morally accuse the rich and powerful of greed, because he regards capitalism as an entire system of greed, that reprehensible attitude. That is what “profit over people” means — not only when Chomsky deplores it.[3]

What Chomsky has to say about the capitalist mode of production essentially amounts to a handful of metaphors and analogies intended to capture the scandal to which he reduces the entire capitalist economy: a tiny majority has all the say, and the others have none — which for Chomsky is best summarized by Adam Smith’s “vile maxim of the masters of mankind … All for ourselves and nothing for other people…” (Wealth of Nations, Bk. III Ch. IV, which Chomsky quotes in lots and lots of his works). For Chomsky, to say that this attitude prevails in the capitalist system is almost pleonastic:

“I mean, as long as power is narrowly concentrated, whether in the economic or political system, you know who’s going to benefit from the policies — you don’t have to be a genius to figure that out.” “If a decision is made by some centralized authority, it is going to represent the interests of the particular group which is in power. But if power is actually rooted in large parts of the population — if people can actually participate in social planning — then they will presumably do so in terms of their own interests.” (Understanding Power, p. 60 f.)

Apparently, whoever wishes to know why this “power” and these “decisions” bring about such a consistently asymmetrical distribution of benefits needn’t know anything further about either. The substance and purpose of these decisions made by a “centralized authority” do not seem to matter at all. Conversely, one needn’t know a thing about the interests of the population, other than that they are the interests of the majority, which puts these interests beyond repute and makes the majority deserving of authority. The antagonism that Chomsky presents by employing images of concentrated economic power and one-sided decision-making power thus has no economic content at all, so that capitalism only consists in the following:

A Violation of Democracy

“In a democracy the people rule, in principle.” (Necessary Illusions, p. vii)


“The phrase ‘capitalist democracy’ is virtually a contradiction in terms, if by ‘democracy’ we mean a system in which ordinary people have effective means to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and that engage their communities.” (Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 150)

After all,

“you don’t have democracy unless people are in control of the major decisions. And the major decisions, as has also long been understood, are fundamentally investment decisions: What do you do with the money? … What’s produced? How is it produced? What are working conditions like? Where does it go? How is it distributed? Where is it sold? … Unless that range of decisions is under democratic control, you have one or another form of tyranny. That is as old as the hills and as American as apple pie. You don’t have to go to Marxism or anything else.” (Class Warfare, p. 203 f.)

Where he’s right, he’s right. You really do not need to study Marx for that. The entire science of political economy is entirely superfluous if producing goods and investing money, distributing products and selling them for money are to be regarded as the same thing; if one doesn’t see any need to explain the fact that in capitalist society, production and consumption are a matter of making and having money, and are thus subordinated to the purpose of accumulating money. If one abstracts from everything that makes a capitalist society a capitalist society, then theory really is a waste of time.[4] The only thing Chomsky cares to point out about the substance of these “decisions” is that they are the “most important” ones; the only thing that interests him is whether all the people are involved in making them. And yet, if production and consumption are a matter of having and spending money, then all the essential things about this economy have long since been decided — regardless of who and how many people are involved in making these economic decisions. If the decision to produce goods is an “investment decision,” then for all the diverse commodities to be found in the market economy, there really is only one answer to the question, “What do you do with the money?” You invest it as capital in order to make a profit. Turning an invested sum of money into more money is the economic purpose that gives this economic system its name, and to which all other needs and interests are subordinated. If that is the purpose of production, then the question, “What are working conditions like?” has already been answered: If the purpose of production consists in the success of investments, then labor must be profitable, meaning that as much labor as possible needs to extracted for as little money as possible. And if that is the case, then there is no need to even ask where and how “it is distributed.” It gets distributed wherever it gets sold for money — to those that have the money to realize the profits of the company. Otherwise, it doesn’t get distributed to anybody at all!

But again, for Chomsky these are all merely “important decisions,” a bunch of open questions that should be decided upon by those affected, but that are in fact decided upon solely by a minority of those in power. After Chomsky thus transforms the capitalist economy into an empty, one-sided relation of domination, he can then erase the word “rule” from “rule of the people” and instead “understand” democracy to be a system consisting of nothing but the invitation for all to take part in the most important decisions to be made. That is the “contradiction in terms” Chomsky is getting at: an economic system defined solely by the fact that only the few make the decisions conflicts with a political system that represents nothing but systematized self-determination: “Achieving real democracy will require that the whole system of corporate capitalism be completely dismantled — because it’s radically anti-democratic.” (Understanding Power, p. 140)

Or at least “in principle.” After all, even in capitalism with its “possessive” and “predatory individualism,” the anarchist is called upon to seek out the “vital concrete possibility” of freedom. From that perspective, the very system that was just described as being hermetically sealed off from any self-determination and any possibility of “doing good” now becomes a condition for self-determination, though it might be a relatively unfavorable one. Once the “corporate” is removed from “corporate capitalism,” things look much better: a truly free market, upon which approximately equal economic subjects rather than massive corporations compete, would be a first big step towards freedom for all.[5] For instance, unemployed workers could take over the factories that companies shut down and run them as self-managed, “worker-owned” companies — which is already happening in parts of the Third World and even in the American heartland! Of course, these enterprises would still be all about “profit and market share,” and the use of labor would still be subject to the exact same criteria, but at least the workers could decide for themselves “what you do with the money.” And if we gaze long enough through the anarchist’s eyes, take up a somewhat more historical perspective and practice the art of comparison, then we can even find traces of “libertarian socialism” right in the middle of garden-variety capitalism!

“There was a big growth period in the United States, the largest in history, during the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, there was also egalitarianism: the lowest quintile did as well as the highest quintile and it absorbed into the mainstream society.” (Occupy, p. 86) “That went on up until the early seventies. At that time, there began a major reaction in order to destroy democracy, … and to undermine the system that allowed governments to respond to the public to create welfare- state systems.” (Interview with Z-Net Germany, May 18, 2005)

What was that again about “wage slavery,” the “most terrible, the most imperious of masters”? Apparently, the worse the rule of capital becomes today, the more egalitarian things were yesterday.

So it turns out that it is astoundingly easy to fulfill the promise of democracy after all. For Chomsky, it does not matter whether freely associating workers cooperate in order to fulfill their needs, “worker owned” companies compete against each other for market share, economic competitors of the same weight class encounter each other on the market, or wage raises are at least proportional to the rise in profits achieved through the use of their labor. He regards these merely as gradations of the same imperative: a person must be able to decide over his own life, thus proceeding through more or less advanced stages on his way to the free development of “all his powers, capacities, and talents.”

II. The democratic state:
not a true case of the “rule of the people,” but still a bitter necessity for the children

The anarchist as a judge on good rule

Chomsky is a professed anarchist, and as such, he rejects the state: “The anarchist vision, in almost every variety, has looked forward to the dismantling of state power. Personally, I share that vision.” (Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 192 f.) A clear enough statement. And like any vision, you “share” it with others. With this ideal of free self-determination in mind, Chomsky casts a critical glance at the democratic state — but not in the sense that he investigates the reasons for this power structure, analyzing its purpose and the relationship to its subjects and coming to a negative verdict on both. Instead, Chomsky thrusts the burden of proof onto the state, demanding that the rulers, if they wish to continue their reign, show evidence that they contribute to his ideal of free self-determination. For Chomsky, that is the

“essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met.” (Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 178)

Chomsky’s analysis of the state thus begins with a sheer illusion. With impressive nonchalance, he simply stands the real relationship between rulers and ruled on its head: unlike other subjects, the anarchist is not subjected to a state power that determines how he must live, granting rights and enforcing duties. On the contrary, the anarchist poses as a make-believe judge who decides on the existence of state power; he dictates conditions to the state — not the other way around. And after having thoroughly reviewed contemporary democratic states’ contributions to the self-determination of their subjects, the anarchist reserves the right to grant or revoke a state’s license to rule. Chomsky thus completely ignores the real reasons for the existence of the democratic state, insisting all the more that it offer good reasons for its existence. Chomsky does not then go on to deny the legitimacy of all state rule; rather he offers a kind of unilateral disarmament to the “power structure” whose right to exist he has subjected to a thorough review and then ultimately affirmed. Before Chomsky’s critique of the state even gets off the ground, it gets reduced to a list of conditions under which he would be willing to accept subordination to such a “concentration of power.” The grandiose pose in which this anarchist rejects rule per se and then declares himself the authority that determines whether the state has a right to exist or not thus shrinks down to its “essence”: a merely conditional rejection of rule. It is fitting that this visionary anarchist then takes back the burden of proof and goes on to find his own good reasons for the existence of state rule. He subjects the services that these “actually existing democracies” provide to his ideal of the self-determination of freedom-starved humanity to an unrelenting analysis — and he turns out to have a correspondingly dialectic understanding of state power.

“Actually existing democracy”:
an accomplice to private tyranny …

In the first instance, the “actually existing democracies” of the West represent “authoritarian structures” in which citizens enjoy only marginal self-determination, since “the governed have the right to consent, but nothing more than that. In the terminology of modern progressive thought, the population may be ‘spectators’, but not participants.” (Profit Over People, p. 44) That captures “the real meaning of the doctrine of ‘consent of the governed’: The people must submit to their rulers, and it is enough if they give consent without consent.” (ibid., p.  45) If one were to take that seriously as a judgment about democracy, then it would be clear that democracy is a technique of rule that mobilizes the will of the ruled for the purposes of the rulers. That would also answer the question as to whether the “governed” might be able to expect much else of life under that authority. But that’s not how Chomsky sees it. With his lapidary remark “nothing more than that,” he retracts his verdict, as if the circumstances he criticizes were not the whole point of this form of rule, but rather a promise to truly “involve” the citizens that had only been partially fulfilled. According to this perspective, a voter is not the object of rule by virtue of being the subject that decides who rules, but merely a spectator of a process whose true purpose is to enable his own self-determination. The fact that a democratic state grants its citizens the right to express their non-binding opinions and periodically allows them to choose between competing candidates for ruling positions is for Chomsky a very limited form of self-determination. Nevertheless, as a form of self-determination, it is a step toward

“libertarian socialism, a social form that barely exists today though its elements can be perceived: in the guarantee of individual rights that has achieved its highest form — though still tragically flawed — in the Western democracies.” (The Essential Chomsky, p. 87)

Chomsky’s critical remarks about the democratic state represent a constant retreat from his vision of liberty, his grandiose claim to seek the abolition of the state. He thus sees the rule of the state not so much as the rule of the state itself, but as the rule of the notoriously “fascist structures” he finds in the economy, which maintain control of “the most important decisions” in society. Because these private tyrants control the economy, they also determine the state’s use of political power:

“They demand and receive critical support from the powerful states over which they cast the ‘shadow’ called ‘politics’, to borrow John Dewey’s aphorism, giving no little substance to the fears of James Madison 200 years ago that private powers might demolish the experiment in democratic government.” (Rogue States, p. 117) “As long as you have private control over the economy, it doesn’t make any difference what forms you have, because they can’t do anything. You could have political parties where everybody gets together and participates, and you make the programs, make things as participatory as you like — and it would still have only the most marginal effect on policy. And the reason is, power lies elsewhere.” (Understanding Power, p. 62)

An interesting variety of anarchism indeed. Not only does this anarchist view the state’s monopoly of force as a mere “shadow,” i.e., as an authority whose power is entirely dependent and derivative, but essentially as something that is critical of rule, i.e., “the experiment in democratic government,” which for the last two hundred years has been dying in the chokehold of “private power.”[6] This idealist of democracy is so disappointed by how the state supposedly abuses its political authority by acting as a willing lackey of corporations that he denies that this authority is an independent agent of the suppression he diagnoses. Seeing as how the state is simply powerless in the face of corporations, he also discards his own claim that the state could be an instrument of emancipation that needs to be taken out of the hands of corrupt elites. But Chomsky wouldn’t be Chomsky if he let that be his final word about the state. This professed anarchist can also cast the very same state that he accuses of kissing the ass of every capitalist that happens to walk by in a very different light.

… and an indispensable means of protection against it

“The state is an illegitimate institution. But it does not follow from that that you should not support the state. Sometimes there is a more illegitimate institution which will take over if you do not support this illegitimate institution.” (Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 212)

No matter how much you might get accustomed to how Chomsky can only judge political rule by imagining himself as a superordinate licensing authority, and how he can only imagine criticizing a ruling authority by revoking its imagined license to rule, it is hard to get used to the fact that even in this imaginary realm in which the moral value of ruling authorities gets judged, the logic of the lesser evil is supposed to apply. Chomsky simply ignores the real relationship between the private power of capital and the political power of the bourgeois state — even though he himself mentions that states “traditionally have been defenders of private power.” (Interview with Znet Germany, May 18, 2005) He overlooks the fact that the exclusion of the workers from the means of production and their dependence on owners of capital — though both are occasionally mentioned in his writings — are based entirely on the state’s enforcement of private property. And although we have just learned that private corporate interests dominate in and with actually existing democracy, the efforts of major corporations to monopolize the political power in society is supposed to turn this same democratic system into a means to prevent such a coup. That alleviates democracy of its lack of legitimacy, and obligates all true anarchists to engage in the struggle for “state authority” — especially since the corporations are only attacking it because of the aid it provides to upstanding enemies of the state:

“State authority is now under severe attack in the more democratic societies, but not because it conflicts with the libertarian vision. Rather the opposite: because it offers (weak) protection to some aspects of that vision. Governments have a fatal flaw: unlike the private tyrannies, the institutions of state power and authority offer to the despised public an opportunity to play some role, however limited, in managing their own affairs.” (Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 193) “In fact, protecting the state sector today is a step towards abolishing the state because it maintains a public arena in which people can participate, and organize, and affect policy, and so on, though in limited ways. If that’s removed, we’d go back to a … dictatorship or say a private dictatorship, but that’s hardly a step towards liberation. (ibid., p. 213)

A successful crash course on how radical idealism and hardcore affirmation go hand in hand: on the one hand, the state represents a restriction on people’s self-determination, which is why it must be abolished — if only because by selling out to the corporate enemies of self-determination it has betrayed its own baby steps toward realizing the autonomy of its citizens. On the other hand, if one were to imagine that the state had been abolished, then the even worse oppressor would remain; so Chomsky puts the state back into the equation, and voilà: it has been transformed into a bulwark against the total suppression of people’s autonomy. The state then represents a defender of freedom that needs to be supported now in order to fight against it in the long run. This argument has the advantage that it allows critics of the state to remain critical and not have to paint a pretty picture of anything that capitalist democracies do in order to affirm them; the protection that these states promise against the enemy does not even have to be very credible, as long as there is no other protective authority on offer. And if Chomsky’s anarchist allies refuse to follow his inane logic, then Chomsky knows how to go after their conscience:

“If you care about the question of whether seven-year-old children have food to eat, you’ll support the state sector at this point, recognizing that in the long term it’s illegitimate.” (ibid.)

Or, alternatively, he can show off his poetic side and tell us a magical tale, the logic of which has confounded generations of conscientious objectors:

“I don’t like to have armed police everywhere, I think it’s a bad idea. On the other hand, a number of years ago when I had little kids, there was a rabid raccoon running around our neighborhood biting children. Well, we tried various ways of getting rid of it … but nothing worked. So finally we just called the police and had them do it: it was better than having the kids bitten by a rabid raccoon, right? … Well, we happen to have a huge rabid raccoon running around — it’s called corporations. And there is nothing in this society right now that can protect people from that tyranny, except the federal government.” (Understanding Power, p. 344)

III. US Foreign Policy: “Containing the Threat of Democracy” — An all-out assault on the self-determination of sovereign states

Criticizing imperialism in the name of its own principles

What has made Chomsky a world famous critical intellectual is primarily his critique of US foreign policy — especially in Latin America. And whenever the US wages a war that does not suit European leaders and the media, his publications storm the European bestseller lists. His critique is aimed at the fact that the US portrays its entire foreign policy as a service to humanity and insists that the rest of the world acknowledge that both in theory and in practice. Every American war serves to defend the homeland of freedom and democracy, and to protect international law and human rights. The world economic order installed by the US aims to organize a worldwide arena of free trade, development, etc.

Chomsky counters America’s image of itself, which is not only held by its political leaders, with the comprehensive and very well researched accusation of hypocrisy. Chomsky goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the US practices just about every evil of which it accuses its enemies. Whenever the US demonizes the leaders of foreign states, Chomsky shows that the accusations could just as easily be aimed at America’s leaders. So the US accuses enemy states that neither obey international law nor respect human rights of being “rogue states,” while the US ignores both law and right as soon as it sees itself restricted by them. It justifies the wars it wages as a struggle against tyranny, while at the same time supporting the most brutal of tyrants and repeatedly overthrowing democratically elected governments. It denounces both state and non-state violence against US interests as terror — and combats it with a kind of violence that only differs from the violence of its foes by its greater scale. Finally, it accuses countries that do not open their economies to American companies and investors of “protectionism” and even “mercantilism,” while at the same time the US economy secures its own success by employing the very same forms of state intervention.

That is how Chomsky demonstrates that the political-moral principles that the US invokes are not at all the real reason for their worldwide activities, but instead represent propaganda. And this is also the fatal mistake in Chomsky’s indictment of American imperialism. Although one can find in Chomsky’s writings explanations of what the American superpower’s real motives and interests are, that is in no way the point that Chomsky is interested in. Whatever Chomsky uncovers in terms of America’s real foreign policy goals only serves to illustrate a single negative judgment: the US is not interested in defending the higher values it constantly invokes. Here as well, Chomsky is often content to merely point to the mean spirit at the heart of America’s evil deeds: “The strong do as they wish, while the poor suffer as they must.” (Hopes and Prospects) Here as well, Chomsky’s aim is to denounce the illegitimacy of US foreign policy; the only difference is that in this case, the condition that this foreign policy must satisfy in order to find approval with this critical anarchist turns out to be relatively easy to satisfy: the US must realize the very principles that it has declared as the precepts of its own world order: the sovereignty of nations, and the guidelines for the free world economic order established in Bretton Woods. For Chomsky, respecting and enforcing these principles represent a service to the freedom of mankind; unfortunately, US foreign policy constantly violates these principles. The very way that Chomsky points out that one mustn’t fall for the lies spread by those in charge demonstrates that he himself falls for the lie that the actual purpose of US foreign policy is to realize these higher values, even if its policies have deviated from that purpose from the very start. Chomsky takes these values very seriously — but not as idealistic expressions for imperialist purposes that he rejects, but as the true task that the American superpower should in fact fulfill, but never does.

So it is only logical that Chomsky’s critique of US imperialism ultimately amounts to the demand that the US take its own propaganda seriously: “For profession of high principles to be taken seriously, the principles must first and foremost be applied to oneself, not only to official enemies.” (A New Generation Draws the Line, p. 9) The US must therefore cease to do what it condemns its enemies for doing. “Among the most elementary of moral truisms is the principle of universality: we must apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others, if not more stringent ones.” (Failed States, p. 3) At least, if not more! After all, the US is better than that. And if it fails to live up to these strict standards, then it fails to live up to its mission to better the world. With great power comes great responsibility:

“The backward countries have incredible, perhaps insurmountable problems, and few available options; the United States has a wide range of options, and has the economic and technological resources, though, evidently, neither the intellectual nor moral resources, to confront at least some of these problems.” (The Responsibility of Intellectuals)

This makes apparent how much Chomsky is a disappointed patriot who identifies with his nation and is ashamed of its deeds. He sees the leaders of the nation screwing up their glorious mission, so Chomsky gets to work cleaning things up by tearing away the veil that the powerful have used to cover their deeds. That is his “reasonable methodological principle: to evaluate the praise for the ‘political and economic principles’ of the world dominant power by keeping primarily to illustrations selected by the advocates themselves.” (Profit Over People, p. 113) Again, his verdict turns out entirely negative. But there is an exception that should not go unmentioned, namely the very war that made America the ruler of the world. Here as well, Chomsky does not want to claim that the US actually pursued noble goals in its war against Nazi Germany, but in this case, the superior firepower of the US military was just the thing for putting an end to the reign of the rabid Nazi raccoon. Regardless of the imperial aims that Chomsky might discover in this war, in this case the propaganda matched Chomsky’s idea of an entirely legitimate war: a struggle against evil in the name of free self-determination. But apart from that, America’s report card does not look so good.

Two exemplary cases:
the “Cold War” and the “neoliberal world order”

During the Cold War, the US fought against the USSR under the banner of “freedom and democracy,” accusing the Russians of suppressing other nations. But according to Chomsky, right after the US had finished performing its great service to mankind, its various wars and its policy of containment served to combat freedom and the self-determination of peoples wherever the US saw a threat to strategic and economic interests — in Italy, France, Greece, Vietnam, and throughout its “backyard” in Latin America. America’s true enemy, and the real danger from which the US sought to defend itself and the world, was not in fact Soviet imperialism, but the existence of independent states and their independent development:

“The fact that Russia had pulled itself out of the West’s traditional Third World service-area and was developing on an independent course was really one of the major motivations behind the Cold War.” (Understanding Power, p. 144) “The origin of the Cold War — and in fact the stated concern of American planners throughout — was that a huge area of the traditional Third World had extricated itself from exploitation by the West, and was now starting to pursue an independent course. So if you read the declassified internal government record … you’ll see that the main concern of top Western planners right into the 1960s was that the example of Soviet development was threatening to break apart the whole American world system, because Russia was in fact doing so well.” (ibid., p. 143) “The nationalism we oppose doesn’t need to be left-wing — we’re just as much opposed to right-wing nationalism. I mean, when there’s a right-wing military coup which seeks to turn some Third World country on a course of independent development, the United States will also try to destroy that government.” (ibid., p. 65)

These dangers are especially widespread in Latin America.

“State Department documents warned that Latin Americans prefer ‘policies designed to bring about a broader distribution of wealth and to raise the standard of living of the masses’ and are ‘convinced that the first beneficiaries of development of a country’s resources should be the people of that country.’ These ideas are unacceptable. The ‘first beneficiaries’ of a country’s resources are U.S. investors, while Latin America fulfils its service function without unreasonable concerns about the general welfare or ‘excessive industrial development’ that might infringe on U.S. interests.” (Profit Over People, p. 23) “As accurately observed by Gordon Connell-Smith in his study of the inter-American system …, the ‘United States concern for representative democracy in Latin America [as elsewhere] is a facet of her anti-communist policy,’ or more accurately, the policy of opposing any threat to U.S. economic penetration and political control. And when these interests are safeguarded, democratic forms are not only tolerated, but approved.” (Necessary Illusions, p. 111) “Latin Americans should be free — free to act in accord with our wishes. We want them to be able to choose their own course freely, unless they make choices that we don’t want, in which case we have to restore the traditional structures of power — by violence, if necessary.” (Rogue States, p. 206)

On the one hand, Chomsky puts his finger on America’s real imperialist claim, which demands that the interests of all sovereign states conform to Washington’s economic and strategic interests. And that really is irreconcilable with a “path of development” that hinders American companies’ access to local sources of wealth or that deviates from the strategic role assigned to it by US foreign policymakers. Countries that follow that path, even if they are democratically constituted, really do represent a threat to American interests. And if this kind of compliance with American demands is the condition that must be fulfilled if the US is to recognize them as democracies, then democracy apparently stands for nothing but the successful implantation of American interests in other countries’ raison d’état.

On the other hand, what Chomsky is interested in here is merely the cynical, biased, and hypocritical stance the US takes up toward its own ideal of democratic self-determination. In the true purpose and usefulness of democracy for America’s foreign policy, Chomsky can only see disrespect for his ideal of the “right to self-determination.” So it is only logical that he follows up his critique with the demand that America respect the self-determination of all countries that seek their own “independent path.” Chomsky’ anti-imperialist critique can’t seem to do without putting an ideological polish on America’s enemies — without a moment’s thought on who determines who when sovereign states enjoy self-determination. Chomsky transforms the wars and military interventions of the US and its junior partners against other states’ economic and strategic interests into the prevention of state deeds that he regards as good and useful for the mere reason that they are self-determined. Chomsky needn’t say a word about these deeds, for in his logic, if the US is against these deeds, then they must be good for these people!

This undermining of the sovereign self-determination of nations — especially in the Third World — is at the core of Chomsky’s objection to the neoliberal world economic order that the US has established with its “Washington Consensus.”

“The concepts of democracy and development are closely related in many ways. One is that they have a common enemy: loss of sovereignty. In this contemporary world of state-capitalist nation-states — a crucial qualification — loss of sovereignty can entail decline of democracy, and decline in ability to conduct social and economic policy and to integrate on one’s own terms into international markets. That in turn harms development, an expected conclusion that is well confirmed by centuries of economic history. The same historical record reveals that fairly consistently, loss of sovereignty leads to imposed liberalization, of course in the interests of those with the power to institute this social and economic regime. In recent years, the imposed regime is commonly called ‘neoliberalism’.” (Hopes and Prospects, p. 75)

As soon as Chomsky turns to global politics, he abandons his entire critique of capitalism, class society, wage slavery, etc. When it comes to the world stage, states are transformed into actors of self-determination; capitalist progress becomes “development.” Global capitalism and the world market spread their blessings as long as states are free to pep up their economies at their own discretion and to compete on the world market on their own terms. Here Chomsky casts the states of the world in a new light — not merely as institutions that grant their citizens a “however limited” amount of free self-determination, but as actors whose success in competition on the world market is almost entirely equated with the well-being of their inhabitants. In short, when it comes to his critique of imperialism of all things, that is, the competition of states for power, Chomsky’s anarchist plea for human self-determination becomes nothing but a plea for a strong, independent state and its success on the world market.

Chomsky sees the proof for his claim that what people need most of all is the sovereignty of their state in the success story of the East Asian “tigers” in the 1990s. Although we find nation-states and powerful corporations here as well, unlike the Latin American states that, according to Chomsky, have been subjected or have subjected themselves to US-dominated liberalization programs, the East Asian tigers successfully managed to insist on their self-determination, deviate from the “the religion of free markets,” and violate the “Washington Consensus.” And the proof is in the pudding: compared to the misery that prevails in America’s backyard, the “amazing achievements” of the East Asian tigers deserve some serious respect. Chomsky cites the liberal American economist Joseph Stiglitz:

“‘No other region in the world has ever had income rise so dramatically and seen so many people move out of poverty in such a short time.’ The ‘amazing achievements’ are highlighted by the tenfold growth of per capita income in South Korea in three decades, an unprecedented success, with ‘heavy doses of government involvement.’ … The comparison of East Asia and Latin America is striking. Latin America has the world’s worst record for inequality, East Asia among the best. The same holds for education, health and social welfare generally. … The problem of Latin America is not ‘populism,’ Brazilian economist Bresser Pereira points out, but ‘subjection of the state to the rich.’ East Asia differs sharply.” (Profit Over People, p. 32 f.)

So a few East Asian states managed to “develop” into “emerging markets” with the active participation of international capital, massive support on the part of the US, and an economic policy that harnessed their entire countries and their human material for capitalist exploitation. The “heavy doses of government involvement” included the establishment of working conditions that Chomsky himself would probably describe with the term “Manchester capitalism,” the ruthless suppression of any resistance by workers, unions or any other oppositional movement to this new “independent course.” The pitiful kind of “well-being” brought about thanks to a mercilessly inexpensive mass of people that was exploited more extensively and successfully than the Latin America masses; the fact that here as well, the exploitation served the capitalist success of “private tyrannies” supported by these states — Chomsky needs only compare all that with what he regards to be even worse conditions elsewhere in the world, and with economic policies that are “even more illegitimate,” because they have been imposed from abroad, in order to find the rise of these nations “amazing” and celebrate the self-determination of these states as the source of the well-being of their citizens.

In the face of the liberalization of the world market, the “economic order formulated at Bretton Woods” might not transform itself into a wonderland of self-determination, but it does become a concrete bulwark against private tyranny. After all, the most important ways to

“reduce sovereignty in favor of private power … was the dismantling of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s by the United States, Britain, and others. That system was designed by the US and Britain in the 1940s. It was a time of overwhelming popular support for social welfare programs and radical democratic measures. In part for those reasons the Bretton Woods system of the mid-40’s regulated exchange rates and allowed controls on capital flow. The idea was to cut down wasteful and harmful speculation, and to restrict capital flight. The reasons were well understood and clearly articulated — free capital flow creates what is sometimes called a ‘virtual parliament’ of global capital, which can exercise veto power over government policies that it considers irrational. That means things like labor rights, or educational programs, or health, or efforts to stimulate the economy or, in fact anything that might help people and not profits (and therefore is irrational in the technical sense). The Bretton Woods system more or less functioned for about 25 years. That’s what many economists call the ‘golden age’ of modern capitalism (modern state capitalism, more accurately). That was a period, roughly up until about 1970, a period of historically unprecedented growth of the economy, of trade, of productivity, of capital investment, extension of welfare state measures, a golden age.” (Rogue States, p. 212 f.)

The same logic with which Chomsky transforms the state into a bulwark against private tyranny of big corporations at home also functions when it comes to foreign policy. Here as well, you only have to ignore the fact that the Bretton Woods agreement established the world market upon which a nation’s capitalist can and should do their business worldwide. So the establishment of the world market, by which the US made free competition the law for the entire world of states and thereby secured its own dominance, is supposed to be a way of preventing the freedom of finance capital unleashed by the liberalization of the world market? When states use their power to furnish the necessary economic and social-state preconditions for the ability of capital to generate its own growth at home and abroad, then this is supposed to be a good deed for their citizens? And when these states — because of their same interest in ensuring their attractiveness as locations for international capital investment — begin to cut all sorts of social expenditures that they no longer regard as sustainable in the face of international competition, then this is supposed to represent these states’ powerlessness to serve the needs of their citizens?

IV. The Free Press: no servant to the enlightenment of the people

Idealizing the masses as freedom fighters that must be controlled …

Chomsky’s work touches on every element of modern bourgeois society: capital and wage labor, the state and democracy, economic and social policy, and the economic and strategic dimensions of imperialism. Though the object of his studies might be “epic” in scale, the worldview he presents in this work is abstract and wrong. On the one side, there are “the people” who pursue the true cause of humankind by seeking to realize their nature as free beings and strive for ever greater autonomy. On the other side stand the rulers — the “masters of the universe” — who want everything for themselves and mercilessly suppress the majority.

Chomsky sees all kinds of indicators that the people are in the process of standing up to their rulers and throwing off the shackles that have been placed on them. This is especially true in the Third World, but also in the US. Chomsky has little interest in what it is that moves these movements in particular, whether it be an attempt at a socialist revolution or a plea for more respect and care from their rulers, whether they call for more equality of opportunity in economic competition, long for a new and different kind of rule or for rulers that are truly their own — in all of these cases, people are on their way toward realizing the anarchist’s vision of freedom:

“As soon as you recognize illegitimate power, challenge and overcome it, you are an anarchist. Most people are anarchists, I don’t care what they call themselves.” (“Students should become anarchists,” Interview with ZEIT-Online, June 18, 2011)

When it comes to the “masters,” it does not matter what the purpose of their rule is or how they intend to make productive use of their subjects — according to Chomsky’s worldview, they are primarily concerned with “containing the domestic enemy,” i.e. the “great beast” that is the people, who are constantly looking for a chance to take away the fruits of their rule, and perhaps even the ruling power itself.

Chomsky thus takes all the phenomena found in capitalist democracies — economy and politics at home and abroad — and turns them into the object, means, and expression of this abstract antagonism. On the one hand, these phenomena contain the promise of democracy, which the people struggle tenaciously to redeem. On the other hand, they remain in the hand of the powerful, who use them in the interest of maintaining their rule, and therefore abuse them in order to break the promise of democracy. Life in capitalist democracies is therefore defined by the cynicism of the rulers — but also by the spirit of anarchy. In the very places that it gets abused, channeled, and thus prevented from coming to fruition, the spirit of freedom is at work. For instance:

“A lot of the progressive social change of the past century isn’t anarchist. Progressive taxations, Social Security isn’t anarchist, but it’s a reflection of attitudes and understandings which, if they go a little bit further, do reflect anarchist commitments. They are based on the idea that there really should be solidarity, community, mutual support, mutual aid and so forth — opportunities for creative action. They are all based on these. They are subdued, channeled and modified so they never take real libertarian forms, but they are there and they lead to social change.” (Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 231)

Of all things, when the state takes money from its citizens and administers capitalistically produced poverty, Chomsky sees the anarchist principle of humanity at work, the spirit of charity and solidarity. And if the difference between the functionality of taxes and social policies for the dominant system and the expression of anarchist convictions merely consists in the fact that this spirit merely needs to “go a little bit further,” then the masters are on thin ice indeed. When the rulers do all this under the close inspection of the ruled, who are always rearing to overthrow their masters once they have recognized them as such, then the masters have one big problem: keeping their subjects in check. When it comes to suppressing these notoriously rebellious freedom fighters, the rulers in “actually existing democracies” don’t have it easy, for democracy is a tool of oppression that is extremely tricky to operate:

“In what is nowadays called a totalitarian state, or a military state, it’s easy. You just hold a bludgeon over their heads, and if they get out of line you smash them over the head. But as society has become more free and democratic, you lose that capacity. Therefore you have to turn to the techniques of propaganda. The logic is clear. Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” (Media Control, p. 14)

Now, has Chomsky — this meticulous analyst of power structures worldwide — ever seen a dictatorship that did without propaganda? And has this anarchist really failed to notice that democracies have never done away with the bludgeon? Of course Chomsky is aware that dictatorships not only preach consent to their rule, but also insist on willing agreement to it by invoking a higher common goal that the rulers use their power to achieve. But in this case, Chomsky regards the lie as so obvious that it is useless as a means of oppression. And Chomsky is just as aware of the acts of violence of which democratic governments are capable when they see themselves faced with actual resistance on the part of their subjects. But in this case, he regards violence as useless, because he falls for the ideal that democratic rulers preach, namely, that the force of the democratic state actually serves mankind’s self-determination. Because the people insists on democracy, the rulers have to prove their service in order to survive. It is impossible to beat democratic subjects into giving up their aversion to being ruled, but apparently it is possible to manipulate them so that they don’t even notice that they are being ruled in the first place.

“The importance of ‘controlling the public mind’ has been recognized with increasing clarity as popular struggles succeeded in extending the modalities of democracy. … Propaganda provides the leadership with a mechanism ‘to mold the mind of the masses’ so that ‘they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction’.” (Profit Over People, p. 53, quoting Edward Bernays, regarded as the father of public relations)

… and a contemptuous apology for the people as victims of manipulation

It is no secret to Chomsky that there is little evidence of resistance in the ordered democracies of the West; that the majority of these anarchists-at-heart are mostly busy with conforming to the rules and do not even make a mental distinction between themselves and their oppressors. But Chomsky does not need to spend even a second considering what these people actually think in this regard, to say nothing of accusing them of making a mistake. Instead he simply assumes that these people definitely cannot be the authors of their own thoughts. Chomsky deals with the “false consciousness” of the masses only to the extent that he asks the absurd question of how these thoughts ended up in the heads of the people, where they don’t belong, and how the organs of the media managed to put them there.

“I will be primarily concerned with one aspect: thought control, as conducted through the agency of the national media and related elements of the elite intellectual culture.” (Necessary Illusions, p. viii)

Chomsky finds the answer to this question not so much in a theoretical analysis of the bourgeois media; rather he lets the ideologues of the American PR industry speak for themselves. He cites strategists such as Bernays, who have let their ideal of manipulation go so much to their heads that they regard thoughts as being something like modeling clay that can be shaped at will by those who are skilled in the art, i.e., the engineers in charge of forming the public mind. When these technicians of consciousness gush about the “necessary illusions”[7] they use to lure and condition the masses, Chomsky actually takes that to be the truth about how people develop their thoughts and their will — after all, the PR guys say it themselves! That explains why the masses are constantly straying from the path of resistance and instead line up behind those in power.

“Over the last ten years, every year or two, some major monster is constructed that we have to defend ourselves against. There used to be one that was always available: the Russians. But they’re losing their attractiveness as an enemy, and it’s getting harder and harder to use that one, so some new ones have to be conjured up … So it was international terrorists and narco-traffickers and crazed Arabs and Saddam Hussein, the new Hitler, is going to conquer the world. They’ve got to keep coming up, one after another. You frighten the population, terrorize them, intimidate them so that they’re too afraid to travel and cower in fear.” (Media Control, p. 43) “The ‘war on drugs’ also had an important domestic component: much like the ‘war on crime,’ it served to frighten the domestic population into obedience as domestic policies were being implemented to benefit extreme wealth at the expense of the large majority.” (Failed States, p. 107)

So if you can drive genuine anarchists into the arms of the state by stirring up fears of rabid raccoons, then you can also do the same with inherently anarchist Americans by conjuring up enemies of the state. But you can also take this odd species of freedom lovers who are inherently on their way to the barricades and lure them into the shopping mall.

“This kind of consumerism is based on the fact that our society is dominated by business interests. There is massive propaganda urging everybody to consume. Consumption is good for profits and for the political establishment … Consumption distracts people. You can’t control your own society with the army, but you can distract it through consumption.” (Interview with Der Spiegel, October 6, 2008)

Chomsky’s sympathetic, though critically detached, understanding for the effects of these illusions demonstrates his extremely elitist contempt for his audience. In Chomsky’s version of the notion of “necessary false consciousness,” which Marx used to define the conformity of the citizens to the necessities of capitalism, nothing remains of people’s consciousness. Whereas Marx sought to criticize the wrong judgments of wage workers about this system of business and state power, Chomsky sees people’s trust in the system betrayed through propaganda and lies. The fact that these people line up behind their rulers makes perfect sense to Chomsky; he just thinks that they are misplacing their trust. But they cannot know that, because when it comes to making up their own minds, they depend on input from the intellectuals, who then exploit the people’s structurally weak intellects in the interest of the rulers. And whereas Marx called this wrong consciousness necessary because the living circumstances of capitalist society force people to conform if they are to survive, Chomsky regards these “illusions” as indispensable for getting the people to betray their own true will.

From the critique of the moral treason of intellectuals to their calling …

Chomsky fills his books with accounts of the propaganda spread by the American media — especially about their bias for the interest of powerful American corporations and their proponents in government. According to the needs of the rulers at home and abroad, the media distinguish between good dictators and bad dictators in Latin America and South East Asia, as well as between “worthy and unworthy victims,” i.e., between those who deserve our sympathy and those who were either not ripe or a danger for democracy. For all the pages Chomsky writes about this propaganda, he boils it all down to a single finding: the media cover the lies of the rulers instead of exposing them and reporting about their dirty deeds in an unbiased and honest way. Since the masses are not able to recognize, challenge, and overcome illegitimate rule on their own, since according to Chomsky they cannot know any better, the intellectuals are left to save the day:

“It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious … Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.” (The Responsibility of Intellectuals)

This is the issue at the heart of Chomsky’s work: the responsibility of the intellectuals for enlightening the people, or rather their failure to do so. The “truism” of which Chomsky reminds the “modern intellectual” has a name: Noam Chomsky. After all, he persistently and resolutely seeks to fulfil the freedom-loving, anarchist, and arch-democratic task of tearing away the veil covering the ugly face of oppression — so the other intellectuals simply have to do the same time. He does justice to the privilege of being able to understand structures of power by searching and finding the “truth” — which is less the outcome of a theoretical explanation of domination than it is the fruit of an unerring kind of gazing and pointing at the fact of domination. And if Chomsky can do it, so can the other intellectuals. Just like every moralist with a mission, Chomsky views his own actions as the exemplary fulfillment of a duty that others have as well; and like every disappointed moralist, he asks himself why so few take up the crusade of enlightenment and follow him. When these intellectuals not only fail to uncover what Chomsky regards as the scandal of modern society — the obvious gap between the promise and the reality of democracy, between the noble ideals of American world order and its terrorist practices — but also contribute to the lies of those in power, then for Chomsky it is obvious that they only do this against better knowledge. Chomsky does not concern himself for a moment with their reasons for collaborating with the rulers, rather he does what he does best: he uncovers yet another gap between the actual purpose and the actual act — and he asks himself why these intellectuals have betrayed their true task of serving the masses. And here as well, he is not content to point out these intellectuals’ bad intentions, rather he develops a theory that makes this intellectual treason understandable:

“Institutional critiques such as we present in this book are commonly dismissed by establishment commentators as ‘conspiracy theories,’ but that is merely an evasion. We do not use any kind of ‘conspiracy’ hypothesis to explain mass-media performance. In fact, our treatment is much closer to a ‘free market’ analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces. Most biased choices in the media arise from the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power.” (Manufacturing Consent, p. lx)

Who would have thought? Even the commanding heights of free expression have been conquered by corporate power. And their representatives have created a complex and comprehensive “system of filters” that systematically block the expression of critical views and instead present a picture of the world that merely conforms to the “view of those in power.”

“What picture of the world do you expect to come out of this arrangement? Well, a plausible answer is, one that puts forward points of view and political perspectives which satisfy the needs and the interests and the perspectives of the buyers, the sellers, and the market. I mean, it would be pretty surprising if that weren’t the case. So I don’t call this a ‘theory’ or anything like that — it’s virtually just an observation. What Ed Herman and I called the ‘Propaganda Model’ in our book on the Media [Manufacturing Consent] is really just a kind of truism — it just says that you’d expect institutions to work in their own interests, because if they didn’t they wouldn’t be able to function for very long. (Understanding Power, p. 14 f.)

Reporters cannot tell the harsh truth because they work for media outlets that are themselves major corporations and thus have no interest in supporting dissent. And the bosses of these corporations also have their hands tied, because they do not earn money by selling papers to their readers, but by selling advertisements to major corporations. Most newspapers do not have the resources to carry out more critical reporting, and therefore have to rely on politicians and corporations to tell the truth. Of course, there are more critical journalists who would like to be more critical, but in the face of so many structural filters, they cannot manage to get through. And even if there aren’t that many critical journalists after all, then that’s because they have already internalized these filters.

Chomsky is probably right that this is how things work in the editorial offices of this world. The occasional exposé gets dropped because of concerns about advertisers and a paper’s standing on the market of opinions. For the same reasons, however, a good number of scandals get uncovered — which Chomsky also recognizes and writes off as a diversion and a placebo, since they do not get at the one big scandal, namely, that “special interests” determine the fate of the community. However, Chomsky does not draw the obvious conclusion that the reporting and the commentaries that fall victim to an editor or his boss, the directives of the publisher or the pressure exerted by an advertiser, are not exactly suited for calling into question or threatening the state, the system, or anything else about corporate capitalism and American imperialism. Chomsky is simply kidding himself if he believes that reports about the lies of the rulers could undermine consent to the market economy and the state that rules over it. He does not even realize that he himself, as a conditional supporter of the great state hunter of “rabid raccoons,” represents an exemplary case of affirmative thought in the spirit of the responsibility of rulers: he is a living refutation of the notion that a capitalist pseudo-democracy risks its own downfall by allowing the existence of an intellectual elite and would teeter on the edge of an anarchist revolution if it was not for the market and its filters and system of dependencies. For Chomsky, the existence of such a system is living proof that what this system attempts to prevent must actually exist: a look at the realities that would bring about a revolution. To that end, Chomsky exaggerates his findings in the everyday productions of the media and interprets them as an intellectual refusal to recognize reality:

“Leaders of the media claim that their news choices rest on unbiased professional and objective criteria, and they have support for this contention in the intellectual community. If, however, the powerful are able to fix the premises of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed to see, hear, and think about, and to ‘manage’ public opinion by regular propaganda campaigns, the standard view of how the system works is at serious odds with reality.” (Manufacturing Consent, p. lix)

… to the profession of an uncomprehended principle of partiality for business and power: to patriotism — best of all close to home.

With his “propaganda model,” Chomsky formulates a critique of media bias toward the interests of those in power — one that in no way deals with the substance and logic of what the media produces and the majority of the population agrees with, since it reflects that which unites the rulers and the ruled, i.e., the national “we.” The reason why Chomsky fails to even deal with this ideology is simple, and can be seen in his analysis of an exemplary propaganda victory:

“There was a major strike, the Steel strike in western Pennsylvania at Johnstown. Business tried out a new technique of labor destruction, which worked very well. Not through goon squads and breaking knees. That wasn’t working very well any more, but through the more subtle and effective means of propaganda. The idea was to figure out ways to turn the public against the strikers, to present the strikers as disruptive, harmful to the public and against the common interest.

The common interest[s] are those of “us,” the businessman, the worker, the housewife. That’s all “us.” We want to be together and have things like harmony and Americanism and working together. Then [there are] those bad strikers out there who are disruptive and causing trouble and breaking harmony and violating Americanism. We’ve got to stop them so we can all live together. … That was essentially the message.” (Media Control, p. 23 f.)

Chomsky paraphrases the media’s criticism of the union’s struggle in the name of national unity with a good deal of quotation marks and evident disgust. And what does he conclude from it?

“A huge amount of effort was put into presenting [this message]. This is, after all, the business community, so they control the media and have massive resources. And it worked, very effectively. It was later called the ‘Mohawk Valley Formula’ and applied over and over again to break strikes. They called it ‘scientific methods of strike-breaking,’ and [it] worked very effectively by mobilizing community opinion in favor of vapid, empty concepts like Americanism. Who can be against that? Or harmony. Who can be against that? Or, as in the Persian Gulf War, ‘Support the troops.’ Who can be against that? Or yellow ribbons. Who can be against that? Anything that’s totally vacuous. … That’s the point. The point of public relations slogans like ‘Support our troops’ is that they don’t mean anything. They mean as much as whether you support the people in Iowa. Of course, there was an issue. The issue was, Do you support our policy? But you don’t want people to think about that issue. That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a quest that does mean something: Do you support our policy? That’s the one thing you’re not allowed to talk about. So you have people arguing about the support for the troops? ‘Of course I [do not] not support them.’ Then you’ve won.” (Media Control, p. 25 f.)

Who would ever want to be against Americanism? Anarchists perhaps? Oh, but they are merely opposed to state power. When Chomsky declares Americanism to be an “empty concept” and regards slogans like “Support the troops!” as meaningless, then this time Chomsky’s the one doing the lying: these terms and slogans are not at all empty for him; he looks past the nationalism so obviously contained in these phrases because he regards patriotism from below as a morally valuable virtue. After all, it is the “concrete and vital possibility” of solidarity, it is the consciousness of the great collective against the particular interests of the powerful. If the people’s love for “America” and its boys in uniform includes the rejection of strikes and support for wars that only serve the powerful, then that is a violation of this innocent love of country. On the one hand, Chomsky fails to recognize the fact that a feeling of the national “we” represents a bond between rulers and ruled. Patriotism is nothing but the loyalty of the masses to their rulers. Chomsky can only explain their support for power, brought about by their patriotic convictions, as the result of a big deception on the part of the rulers and their lackeys in the press. On the other hand, the reason that Chomsky misses this fact only proves that his whole sense of responsibility as an anarchist enlightener, who is constantly exposing the supposed unity between rulers and ruled as a lie, represents nothing but the ideal “essence” of this national “we” — the ideal of a true unity between rulers and ruled.

And this brings us to the last condition that a system of rule must fulfill if it is to pass the anarchist’s litmus test:

“One of the healthiest developments in Europe in my opinion is the process of a kind of devolution which is proceeding at various rates in different parts of Europe. So in Spain, for example, Catalonia, the Basque country, and to a more limited extent others, are developing a substantial degree of autonomy. … By now Scotland has a degree of autonomy, Wales has a degree of autonomy and I think these are natural developments back toward forms of social organization more related to real human interests and needs. … Not that anybody wants the Ottoman empire back, but they had the right idea about many things. One was that they left people alone … So in a particular city, the Greeks would take care of their affairs, and the Armenians would take care of their affairs, and others would run their part of the city. … That’s probably the right form of organization for that part of the world and probably every part of the world.” (Interview, Z-Net Germany, May 18, 2005)

That’s quite a trajectory — from a decisive no to rule per se to a healthy yes to rule for us: this anarchist can’t see the unconditional will to rule at work when separatist nationalists seek to dismantle the state. Rather he finds the narrow-minded, ethnic character of these collectives fascinating, since evil rulers are thus cut back to what they have always promised anarchists, i.e., a cute little “form of organization” which reflects the genuine human need for harmony between rulers and ruled.

No wonder this radical critic of power is so popular.


[1] Chomsky has a rather complicated view on whether such a human nature actually exists or not. When faced with the popular Hobbesian notion that “man is a wolf to his fellow man,” and that humans thus have a natural need for economic competition and for a state authority that maintains order, Chomsky insists that science has not yet been able to make any reliable claims about human nature. But once he is faced with objections to his own account of human nature, he insists that he needs such a construct and thus assumes it — “with some confidence” — to be valid. Those in the know might recognize the connection with his linguistic work:

“A vision of a future social order is in turn based on a concept of human nature. If in fact humans are indefinitely malleable, completely plastic beings, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then they are fit subjects for the ‘shaping of behavior’ by the state authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee. Those with some confidence in the human species will hope that this is not so and will try to determine the intrinsic human characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement, and participation in a free community.” (“Language and Freedom,” lecture, 1970)

This anarchist simply cannot imagine any other way of criticizing political domination than by accusing authorities of violating the orders of an even higher authority that grants humans free will as their sacred birthright. Hence he is incapable of criticizing that ideological construct that posits a kind of human nature that corresponds to capitalism and state power; instead he counters it with his own biased, ideological construct of human nature.

[2] Chomsky takes this quote from Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value, Chapter 7.

[3] This is the mistake that has made Chomsky a popular intellectual for the “Occupy” movement, whose main complaint, “Profit Over People,” is also the title of one of Chomsky’s best-selling books.

[4] Chomsky refuses to recognize any real economic differences between various modes of production. He condemns Soviet communism just as abstractly as he does capitalism. For Chomsky, this kind of socialism consisted in a “red bureaucracy” in which party rulers had no respect for the rights of workers to make decisions on matters of production and consumption. Here as well, Chomsky does not need to know anything about the socialist economy in order to be certain that it was all about securing the privileges of the party leaders. And that doesn’t surprise Chomsky either; after all, “concentrations of power” existed in the Eastern bloc as well, where power was concentrated in the state. Chomsky thus invokes the warning of the godfather of anarchism, Michael Bakunin: “Take the most radical revolutionary and place him on the throne of all Russia … or give him dictatorial power, and before a year has passed he will become worse than the Czar himself.” (Government in the Future)

Conversely, “libertarian socialism,” which for Chomsky represents the fulfillment of free and equal self-determination in the economy, is the abstract opposite of what he finds missing in modern capitalism: a system of values — the very same values propagated by classical liberals such as Adam Smith: “At least in its ideal form, classical liberal thought is opposed as well to the concepts of possessive individualism that are intrinsic to capitalist ideology. It seeks to eliminate social fetters and to replace them by social bonds, not by competitive greed, not by predatory individualism, not of course by corporate empires, state or private. Classical libertarian thought seems to me, therefore, to lead directly to libertarian socialism or anarchism, if you like, when combined with an understanding of industrial capitalism.” (ibid.)

[5] This is especially true when it comes to the world market, for then the subordinate countries in the Third World and elsewhere would have more of an opportunity to succeed. We will return to this issue in more detail in the following section.

[6] “The reigning doctrine was expressed clearly by the President of the Continental Congress and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay: ‘The people who own the country ought to govern it.’ The main designer, furthermore, was an astute political thinker: James Madison … ‘The primary responsibility of government is ‘to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,’ Madison declared. That has been the guiding principle of the democratic system from its origins until today.” (Profit Over People, p. 46 f.)

[7] Chomsky takes this term — which is also the title of one of his books on the American media — from Reinhold Niebuhr, a famous American political scientist and rabid anti-communist. Niebuhr writes: “Because of the stupidity of the average person, they follow not reason, but faith. This naïve faith requires necessary illusions and emotionally potent oversimplifications, which are provided by the myth maker to keep the ordinary person on course.”