Chomsky on work, learning and freedom

by Chris Bertram on December 30, 2012

New Left Project has a wonderful interview with Noam Chomsky on work, learning and freedom. It really brings out the more attractive anarchist side of Chomsky’s personality and politics. He’s particularly eloquent on the importance of spontaneous play for children’s development and how this is being crowded out in societies like ours (a theme, incidentally of James C. Scott’s recent Two Cheers for Anarchism). Recommended.

{ 119 comments }

1

Jonathan 12.30.12 at 2:59 pm

What’s the less attractive side?

2

Z 12.30.12 at 4:23 pm

If you enjoyed the piece, you might want to listen to an old speech of him entitled Government in the Future (if you haven’t already) where much of the same themes are developed (easily available online). It’s more than 40 years but Chomsky hasn’t changed much of his philosophy since the 50s (as I happen to agree with most of anarchist philosophy myself, I don’t see this as a shortcoming ; in fact, it seems to me that there is no well-crafted philosophical political position outside of some form of libertarian socialism answering satisfactorily the points raised in this speech).

As an aside, I am very pleased to see a discussion of the philosophical work of Chomsky on CT. It’s one of the first time, if I am not too much mistaken.

3

Matt 12.30.12 at 4:24 pm

I’ll have to read the interview, but is there any reason to think that “spontaneous play” is linked to anarchism in any interesting way? I had lots and lots of that growing up, and it’s hard to imagine two less anarchistic parents than mine. Annette Lareau, of course, found it to be much more common (typical, even) in families outside the middle and upper middle class, but even there it just seems to be the “old typical” in many ways. If you look at, say, Paul Krugman’s waxing lyrical about his time growing up in the 50’s, this is a big part of what he talks about, too, and of course the 50’s are not a time associated well with anarchism or anarchist ideals. I’d worry that this is an example of taking two things the author thinks are good and assuming they must be connected, because the author thinks they are both good, while in fact they are quite distinct. It’s fine and very likely write that spontaneous play is good for kids, and is being crowded out, but the connection with anarchist ideals seems, at best, contingent and marginal.

4

Gertrude Perkins 12.30.12 at 4:46 pm

Isn’t it simply that a subset of the people who think spontaneous play is good are anarchists, and they have anarchist reasons for thinking so which other spontaneous-play-is-good types might not share?

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b9n10nt 12.30.12 at 4:47 pm

Matt: I like a metaphor of electricity. Human relations that are egalitarian, spontaneous and non-hierarchical allow a maximum of self-discovery and self-flourishing. Throughout history, these moments in the lives of humans are like lightning : they occur in flashes that interrupt (and enlighten) the base-line field of human relations. Politically, anarchy is a movement to consciously cultivate and sustain these relations. It is like harvesting and channeling electricity: a natural phenomenon that is random and fleeting will become stable and readily-available.

6

Chris Bertram 12.30.12 at 5:01 pm

Matt: an interesting question. A whole bunch of anarchist or semi-anarchist writers (Colin Ward being a prominent example) have made much of this. Their rejection of authoritarian models of schooling and parenting looks pretty closely connected to their anarchist politics (or anti-politics) to me. Many anarchist writers see their anarchism not in terms of the smashing of state power but rather as the building of new forms of association within existing societies — “internal colonization” — is Landauer’s phrase. Of course, you can be enthusiastic about spontaneous play without being an anarchist, but I guess if you’re an anarchist you’re likely to take a favourable view of it.

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Steven Tran-Creque 12.30.12 at 5:14 pm

Matt: it might be helpful to think of David Graeber’s definition of communism as any behavior in line with the principle of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”—ie, if you need directions, I give them to you and don’t ask, “hey, what do I get for that?” This isn’t the same thing Chomsky’s talking about, but this kind of thinking— experiences as small dimensions of other possible ways of organizing life—is a common theme in anarchist thinking that often seems rather alien to people unfamiliar with it.

Essentially, it’s a mistake here to assume totalizing systems (or, better put, thinking in terms of systems is a useful perspective but not always appropriate). The point of the anarchist critique is that people already experience freedom in spaces of minimal alienation in their lives—like, say, the spontaneous play of children, or Chomsky’s other example of working all week and then gardening on the weekend—and that those are, in a sense, already anarchist: they’re not coerced, not hierarchical, freely chosen, etc.

From that perspective, one should be careful not to equate work with alienation. In our society, they’re almost always coincident, but there’s no reason that has to be true, and when it isn’t, people experience work in radically different ways. Play’s just another side of that.

8

Steven Tran-Creque 12.30.12 at 5:16 pm

Speaking of Landauer, you guys should really run a book forum on Faith of the Faithless.

9

faustusnotes 12.30.12 at 5:28 pm

Chris and Steven, I think this depiction of the philosophy of anarchism is very nice, and I think it accords well with my experience of anarchsim and what anarchists want to achieve. The problem I see with anarchsim – and I don’t think Chomsky or anyone else has presented a way around it that satisfies me – is that it’s a long stretch from these ideals (especially as Steven has described them) to the more concrete roles that the state takes on in present day society. Spontaneous play or “freedom in spaces of minimal alienation” doesn’t have anything useful to tell us about, for example, how to organize vaccination policy, or what is the best way to deploy social resources for collective problems like supplying energy or handling aged care. This has always struck me as the big problem of anarchism – mobilizing these often quite profound insights about the liberating aspects of personal freedom to give any kind of coherent framework for organizing a society that can protect personal freedoms in the larger world. The ideal that work be not always alienating is a classic example of this: people may have personal experiences of being liberated through hard and dangerous work, but extending these experiences to a coherent vision of how to make industrial relations work is very difficult.

10

PJW 12.30.12 at 5:53 pm

Fascinating stuff. I don’t know how well he is received in the academy, but Huizinga’s Homo Ludens contains some provocative ideas on man at play: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_Ludens_(book)

11

Steven Tran-Creque 12.30.12 at 5:58 pm

faustus: Just to stick to the focus of the article, I think it has quite a bit to tell us about how our educational system is primarily a terrible system of discipline and how it could be (fairly easily, I think) radically transformed along Deweyite/Freieian lines.

However, I do think you’re right, to an extent, about big stuff like vaccination policy or energy supply. But I think it’s precisely here that anarchism’s shouty “smash the state” rhetoric is most incoherent: anarchists don’t actually try and smash the state—or at least I’ve never met an anarchist who wanted to smash the state so no one could get healthcare anymore (ok, not relevant in the US context, but anarchists in Europe don’t do this). And, after all, what anarchists actually spend all the their time doing is pretty much the opposite of smashing: building mutual aid networks, ensuring that communities are democratically organized, etc—essentially, Landauer’s “internal colonization” that Chris cited.

Which is to say that there isn’t really a coherent anarchist end goal vision with no state where they’ve thought up how we’re going to do vaccinations and energy infrastructure. That isn’t to say that it isn’t possible to organize those things democratically, but when you begin with horizontal practice and direct action as your first concerns, it’s easier to see how anarchists are comfortable with a kind of compromise: eg, building unalienated spaces in which to live while fighting for universal healthcare or against nuclear power.

Obviously, this sort of compromise is always in flux, and, as you say, it’s much harder to imagine this making sense while maintaining (say) the existing industrial division of labor. But this, too, is sort of the point: if the current labor system demands mass alienation, I don’t think that leaves much of a good argument for preserving it—especially when, absent coercion and massive wealth disparities, there’s no technological reason we couldn’t develop tons of robots to do all the dangerous and boring work, freeing up everyone to pursue far more unalienated lives.

12

Bruce Wilder 12.30.12 at 6:57 pm

C: ” If you work on command then of course it’s just drudgery but if you do the very same thing out of your own will or interest it’s exciting and interesting and appealing.”

My personal experience with political anarchists is that they are, on a personal level, just unpleasant people. Whatever wit they manage to manufacture from their cynical detachment is outweighed in value by their insistence on being obnoxiously unwilling to accommodate others.

I doubt very much that Chomsky’s allergy to being commanded is a universal experience. In many circumstances, cooperation by command — even, or perhaps especially, in a subordinate position — can be experienced as a relief and as an aggrandizement more than a diminution, and as comfortable and even intimate in its satisfaction of dependency as the family template from which it may draw. Drudgery is doing one’s own dishes or selling one’s own art or keeping one’s own books; doing these things for someone else is a respectable job, a skill, an art, maybe even a profession. Alienation is liberating.

The anarchist’s passion for imaginatively re-inventing every already turning wheel that squeaks, as if lubrication and hard-bargaining is not what is called for, seems to me to have something to do with their inability to deal with the realities of conflict and cost. Domination has its uses; it just tends to get a little one-sided.

Morphine has its uses, too. Synthesizing heroin doesn’t address any of its hazards, though.

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b9n10nt 12.30.12 at 7:18 pm

Bruce, I think when subordination is voluntary and explicit it can be liberating. Being a monk who completely defers to the discipline and authority of the elders, or being a soldier who does likewise, is partly a relief because the alternative is to be involuntarily subordinate to more diffuse and obscure coercion.

The anarchists question is this: What commandments should only some people be coerced to follow? Should some parents and children have access to “Deweyite” schools and others only be given the option of authoritarian pedegogy? If nobody wants to clean up road kill, but everybody wants road kill cleaned up, how should that be handled? The weak are commanded by the strong to do the dirty work, plus pretty thoughts about how noble the weak are if we just pretend they are voluntary soldier-monks?

14

William Timberman 12.30.12 at 7:33 pm

Context is everything, I think, when it comes to deciding whether to Chomsky or not to Chomsky. Management of complex enterprises, or the machinery within them, absolutely requires subordination — to principles of operation, if not to the egos of commanders, although in day-to-day affairs it’s often hard to tell one from the other. So…being proud of yourself for being a soldier in the control room army that halted a potential meltdown at Three-Mile Island makes sense, but it doesn’t say much about the processes by which it was decided that we needed Three Mile Island in the first place, and it says nothing at all about how to make a living if you don’t agree to be a subordinate part of something which you suspect ought not to exist at all. Surely we ought to have some say in when we do or do not submit to the alienation of our own labor.

An Amish barn-raising may be as oppressive in some ways as working in a place like Foxxcon, and the rules governing that oppression more obscure to a neoliberal manager, but such models of how to do things without turning people into part of the machinery as described by Marx’s capitalist relations of production shouldn’t be summarily dismissed, I think, even in the context of highly technical, and highly complex enterprises. Socialists and syndicalists, if not anarchists proper, used to take such models seriously, and speculate about how, realistically, they could be extended. It’s not at all clear to me that either they or anyone else still does, not, at least with an eye to conducting a serious dialogue with the Peter Druckers of the world. That seems a real shame to me.

15

bianca steele 12.30.12 at 7:38 pm

@BW
I suspect that Chomsky’s reasoning is the reverse of what you uncharitably attribute to him: that there’s work that objectively is drudgery but is in fact undertaken joyfully just because it’s chosen freely. Whether his argument generalizes is a different question altogether.

16

nnyhav 12.30.12 at 8:20 pm

Is libertarianism (small l, to distinguish from party, just like illiberal Dems and nonservative Reps) the uncanny valley on the way towards anarchism?

17

bianca steele 12.30.12 at 8:39 pm

I do think the way this is framed lends itself to the reversal, because it leaves itself open to the reply, “but there’s a difference between childhood and adulthood, don’t you think?”

18

Anderson 12.31.12 at 12:27 am

Anarchism is more than left-wing libertarianism? Really?

Chomsky is less annoying than Rand … I guess.

19

Mark English 12.31.12 at 12:30 am

He says he has no free time, no time to relax or go out to dinner. It’s clear he doesn’t want to stop doing this work which he sees as ‘necessary’. I don’t want to play the amateur psychologist, but you’ve got to admit that Chomsky sees himself as a very special person, a man on a mission. The trouble with his political views is that they constitute a kind of religion for him. And for someone who does not already share that complex set of doctrines and attitudes (or at least a good part of it), his pronouncements just sound arbitrary and at times arrogant.

Some of the points he makes are good, and sound quite appealing, but behind it all is a naive and unfounded idealism, an expectation that at some point ordinary workers are going to take charge and human nature will all of a sudden be transformed.

Chomsky is living a myth, living in a kind of ideological bubble. (It works for him; it may work for you…)

20

Steven Tran-Creque 12.31.12 at 1:15 am

Bianca: you may be right that it’s a kind of rhetorically vulnerable position, but childhood and adolescence feature prominently in anarchist discourse precisely because they remain relatively insulated from the more alienating forces of adult life—wage labor, debt, legal and police violence, etc.

This bit from Graeber’s introductory pamphlet on anarchism takes a similar tack:

“It doesn’t matter who started it.” “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” “Clean up your own mess.” “Do unto others…” “Don’t be mean to people just because they’re different.” Perhaps we should decide whether we’re lying to our children when we tell them about right and wrong, or whether we’re willing to take our own injunctions seriously. Because if you take these moral principles to their logical conclusions, you arrive at anarchism.

Take the principle that two wrongs don’t make a right. If you really took it seriously, that alone would knock away almost the entire basis for war and the criminal justice system. The same goes for sharing: we’re always telling children that they have to learn to share, to be considerate of each other’s needs, to help each other; then we go off into the real world where we assume that everyone is naturally selfish and competitive. But an anarchist would point out: in fact, what we say to our children is right. Pretty much every great worthwhile achievement in human history, every discovery or accomplishment that’s improved our lives, has been based on cooperation and mutual aid; even now, most of us spend more of our money on our friends and families than on ourselves; while likely as not there will always be competitive people in the world, there’s no reason why society has to be based on encouraging such behavior, let alone making people compete over the basic necessities of life. That only serves the interests of people in power, who want us to live in fear of one another. That’s why anarchists call for a society based not only on free association but mutual aid. The fact is that most children grow up believing in anarchist morality, and then gradually have to realize that the adult world doesn’t really work that way. That’s why so many become rebellious, or alienated, even suicidal as adolescents, and finally, resigned and bitter as adults; their only solace, often, being the ability to raise children of their own and pretend to them that the world is fair.

Which is a kind of reversal of the reversal: yes, adulthood is different from childhood, but why? And for whom?

21

DN 12.31.12 at 1:22 am

After reading through the interview I think there is no question Matt’s instincts are correct. Chomsky sounds exactly like every 40+ neighbor I’ve spoken with about kid’s play today. Except less knowledgeable. Where is the free time. we are destroying children’s imagination, I played with sticks outdoors, i didn’t need all these activities, etc. The difference is that people who either raised or are raising kids tend to have a more sophisticated outlook that takes into account the fear of falling most have for their children. And they recognize the oportunity for individualism hidden in many activities that look structured. In any case, he isn’t saying anything new or better in this matter. And tying it to any political philosophy is just ludicrous.

DN

22

mdc 12.31.12 at 2:44 am

“Because if you [beg every relevant moral question, and] take these moral principles to their logical conclusions, you arrive at anarchism.”

23

Tom Hurka 12.31.12 at 3:24 am

Following up mdc, Graeber’s use of “Two wrongs don’t make a right” is juvenile.

It only “knocks away the entire basis for the criminal justice sytem” if you assume in advance that punishment is a “wrong,” which is what Graeber is supposed to be proving.

It’s not just begging the question, it’s doing so with cherries on top.

24

Ktotwf 12.31.12 at 4:10 am

If you take into account each and every individual’s personal justification why their action doesn’t qualify as a wrong, then you rob “two wrongs don’t make a right” of the saying’s entire point.

The “But he deserves it!” (because he hit me first, because it is the law!) sort of justifications for violent/retributive action is what the cliché is aimed at shutting down.

25

Ktotwf 12.31.12 at 4:16 am

Or, to put it another way, the problem (if there is one) is with the saying itself, not with the way Graeber deploys it.

26

geo 12.31.12 at 4:58 am

Chomsky has said countless times that in a society rich enough to provide subsistence to all with only a few hours a day of routine labor from everyone, most of every individual’s life should consist of freely chosen, self-directed, creative activity. And I suspect he’d also affirm that there’s not much more to say about political philosophy than that. It’s pretty damned simple.

In Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, there’s a magnificent passage in which the Doctor explains to Julian West, who fell asleep in the 19th-century and woke up in the utopian 21st [!]: “If I were to give you, in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and vital as physical fraternity.”

I may be a bit simple-minded, but I tend to think that solidarity — fellow-feeling, moral imagination, compassion, or what you will — is the essential (though of course very hard) part, and after that everything will be easy, a matter of detail.

27

UserGoogol 12.31.12 at 6:14 am

I feel like there’s a distinction to be drawn between “solidarity” and “benevolence.” Solidarity brings all sorts of questionable baggage with it, since it implies some sense of ties of unity and shared obligation on top of merely valuing each others’ happiness.

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b9n10nt 12.31.12 at 6:15 am

Steven Tran-creque @ 11:

“Which is to say that there isn’t really a coherent anarchist end goal vision with no state where they’ve thought up how we’re going to do vaccinations and energy infrastructure. ”

a) Yes, there are “coherent” anarchist end-goal visions for societies with highly-specialized labor and complex and coordinated social activities. (one example: “Participatory Economics” or “Parecon” espoused by Michael Albert)

b) No, there couldn’t possibly be a “coherent” description of a radically different social organization that substitutes for every currently-vital social institution. (“You mean to tell me”, said the amused lord, “that my title will have no special provenance before the Court? Then, without my title, I would have no reason to raise loyal armies for her Majesty, and there would be no Sovereign, no Law, no Civilization at all. I’m quite sure you haven’t thought this through.”)

29

Salient 12.31.12 at 6:33 am

It only “knocks away the entire basis for the criminal justice sytem” if you assume in advance that punishment is a “wrong,” which is what Graeber is supposed to be proving.

Whooooa, that’s the kind of statement that should need no proof. How is the act of punishment not a wrong? You would not want someone to go around inflicting punishment on people. Surely you’d agree that unfair acts of punishment occur somewhat regularly and frequently in the world, and I can say that confidently without knowing precisely what ‘unfair’ means to you.

You’re assuming contexts in which punishment is not a wrong. But the whole point of the passage is to rob commonplace acts of their context–because the context is perhaps inappropriately exculpatory–and evaluate the acts in isolation.

Why do this? Maybe we get too used to how we are doing things, by default finding rightness in acts and ordinances that in isolation are cruel and hideous to us. Maybe we find ourselves baffled or upset by behaviors and practices that others take for granted, and seek some grounds on which we could protest those acts and be meaningfully understood. Maybe we’ve discovered that others are baffled by our own taken-for-granted behaviors and practices, and we want to understand them better.

I think you’re replacing the meaning of ‘wrong’ intended by the phrase, with ‘wrong’ as evaluated by your own moral code. But this isn’t a phrase you would normally say to yourself; you say it to a misbehaving kid. Presumably you are saying “two wrongs don’t make a right” to the kid precisely because their behavior was categorically unacceptable — they can’t point to other people’s bad behavior as exculpatory. But notice, to the kid, the punishment they inflicted does not seem wrong. “Tommy took my toy, so I pushed him off down and kicked him.” That’s your kid, punishing Tommy for a wrong. In the kid’s eyes, the punishment is consummate to the crime: “But it’s not wrong! Tommy deserved it!” In reply, you short-circuit this with: No, dear, pushing and kicking people is wrong, so it’s not OK to do that even if you really, truly feel Tommy ‘deserved’ it–two wrongs don’t make a right. The act of pushing and kicking somebody is essentially never OK, even though you personally feel that it would be just desert.

Ok, so you can say, that’s only because the subject was a kid, who has a lot to learn. But that’s how the phrase is used. And I don’t think it applies to kids only–violent vigilante justice, and domestic acts of terrorism, come to mind as examples of ‘punishments’ that are almost never OK, even if they feel like just deserts to us in context.

I think that’s an important and too-easily abrogated stage of moral development; apparently, so does Graeber (all I’ve done is recapitulate what’s already there). You can disagree with us… but probably not on the grounds that ‘it really was okay for your kid to push and kick Tommy, because punishment is not a wrong.’

If you want us to consider context that ‘punishment’ implies, then you have to consider the context in which someone actually utters the phrase “two wrongs don’t make a right” and means something by it. It’s only fair.

30

Salient 12.31.12 at 6:50 am

If I were to give you, in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and vital as physical fraternity.

It might be worth considering how well this statement obtains in North Korea.

(This is meant completely literally, without any of the negative insinuations that I can’t seem to edit out of the sentence. I watched A State of Mind earlier today, is why North Korea specifically.)

31

Steven Tran-Creque 12.31.12 at 6:59 am

b9n10nt: Ehh… we’ll just have to part ways on parecon. I think it’s kind of ridiculous. But, fair enough, I guess it qualifies.

I am serious, though; thinking up coherent, total utopian socio-economic systems is just not something anarchists do very much. I’m not saying that they don’t have loose visions or utopian ideas (or that they never, ever come up with more concrete stuff), but it kind of makes sense: thinking up total utopian visions—that you implicitly imagine will then be deployed whole, after the revolution—sort of implies something like a state. When you start from mutual aid, direct action, and democratic organization, it’s backwards: the larger social vision emerges from those concerns and becomes concrete through process (which is more or less what Graeber means by “revolution in reverse“).

Obviously this is kind of a crude dichotomy, but I think it makes sense that on the radical left, this is a kind of thinking more generally associated with the socialist/communist tradition.

32

novakant 12.31.12 at 7:32 am

I doubt very much that Chomsky’s allergy to being commanded is a universal experience. (…) Alienation is liberating

I’ve never seen anyone in my life who liked being commanded, except as a symptom of mental retardation. And while alienation is a matter of degree, I have yet to see any of its positive effects, and your statement is remarkably cynical, if you consider the millions worldwide who have to work under the most inhumane labour conditions.

It’s amazing how quickly left authoritarianism raises its ugly head when confronted with anything perceived as remotely threatening to the smooth functioning of society.

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faustusnotes 12.31.12 at 7:41 am

The “two wrongs don’t make a right” argument from Graeber is an example of what I was trying to say at 9. Graeber’s immediate assumption appears to be either that punishment is wrong, or that there is no context in which that wrong would outweigh another wrong. As Salient has observed, punishment is definitely a wrong, which leaves Graeber arguing for a system in which wrongs go unpunished.

I think this is a huge underlying problem of anarchism, which in my experience is hand-waved away by anarchists with arguments that in their ideal society there will be no crime. But I have yet to see a decent explanation for how an anarchist society will deal with crime. Crime isn’t going to go away in any system, and dealing with the results of crime is a grubby business that demeans us all. But “two wrongs don’t make a right” doesn’t get us to a better place.

Also, to join in the picking on Graeber, a lot of those childish sayings *do* work in the adult world, because what they are actually telling children to do is to put aside retribution, personal action and responsibility, and leave it to the adults to handle the complex stuff. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” when applied to children, is generally actually an admonishment for the child not to hit back, but instead to report it to their parents – who will exert their authority and unrivalled power to punish the perpetrator. Having learnt these lessons, when we enter adulthood we apply them to society as a whole, with the armed state in place of the parent.

Viewed in this broader context, those lessons for childhood don’t strike me as a very powerful defense of the moral force of an anarchist society…

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Chris Bertram 12.31.12 at 8:28 am

I’m not sure how this thread morphed into a discussion of David Graeber (a man with whom I don’t enjoy cordial relations as a result of the symposium on Debt that we held). However, I’m highly amused by some of the reactions, which are psychologically revealing about some of our commenters, if nothing else.

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Chris Bertram 12.31.12 at 8:46 am

Those committed, for example, to economic neoliberalism frequently seek to illustrate and justify their beliefs by pointing to the acquisitive tendencies in “human nature” and to the way people behave in the market. People rarely say that this is weird or artificial. But when anarchists link their political beliefs to some widely acknowledged goods (the value of spontaneous play, mutual aid) this is somehow cheating, because others acknowledge those goods too?

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SusanC 12.31.12 at 8:56 am

I was surprised that the article called it a “libertarian perspective”. Myself, I wouldn’t have called Chomsky a libertarian, and would reserve the term for someone like Eugene Volokh.

Whwn Chomsky talks about learning, my thought was that universities are still run on something resembling a pre-industrial model (while, for example, an automobile assembly line really is organizationally different from an artisan making a wagon in the pre-industrial era), and so are one of the few places we still get to see how a less centrally directed system works in practise. The earlier stages of the school system (high school etc.) have more fully converted to an “industrial” model. (e.g. standarized curriculum, so teachers have no discretion on what to teach; standardized testing; for the student, the objective becomes to pass the test set by the system, rather than to learn a useful skill; for thw school, the objective becomes to maximise some metric set by the system, rather than, for example, impart knowledge to students; etc.)

There are of course, attempts to impose the industrial production-line model on universities too (e.g. the increased emphasis on publications in promotion decisons. One view of this is that in the old model, the head of (for example) a physics department had to actually know some physics so s/he could tell who to hire and what projects to encourage; while the new model is that a physics department can be run by a boss who has no knowledge of science whatsoever and just loks at publication metrics — in much the same way that the owner of a car assmbly plant does not need to be a machinst themselves).

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Ktotwf 12.31.12 at 9:19 am

@36

Libertarianism started out, in Europe, as synonymous with Anarchism. Chomsky IS libertarian, he is just Left-Libertarian.

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Z 12.31.12 at 10:23 am

I’d worry that this is an example of taking two things the author thinks are good and assuming they must be connected, because the author thinks they are both good,

The connection, in Chomsky’s mind (or mine), runs somewhat like this. As was pointed out in CT comments sometimes back, our society, whether we want it or not, is like Omelas : some people have to do menial, degrading, underpaid work. So either we change that in the sense that just about everybody does a fair share of this kind of work or you accept that this is inescapable and in that case you do all you can so that it’s not you (or more precisely, your kids) who are doing the trash collection at 5am for minimal wage (I guess there is a third logical possibility, which is that trash collection is overpaid rather than underpaid, but le me ignore it for the moment). If you espouse the first view, you get the kind of left-anarchist society Chomsky envisions. If you choose the second, then it follows that you have to do all that is in your power so that your kids distinguish themselves enough so that they don’t end up collecting the trash. And so you get little league baseball rather than just playing baseball, because the former will look good on your Ivy League application (well, I guess kids genuinely enjoy baseball, so let me bring up playing violin Battle hymn for a tiger mother style, if baseball is not convincing enough). So in Chomsky’s mind, there is a direct logical connection between anarchist ideals and spontaneous play, in the sense that a non-anarchist society will (in his opinion) inevitably end up crowding out spontaneous play (or institute arbitrarily distinctions keeping some people outside society, which is the 50s solution: if women and non-white are devoted to menial jobs, then white boys can play spontaneously all they want without worries).

39

Peter T 12.31.12 at 12:10 pm

re Novakant @32 – in the course of a long working life I have met a great many people who liked being commanded, in the sense that they actively disliked or avoided taking responsibility for more than their own work. They just wanted to do some job reasonably well at whatever level they felt they could comfortably manage. Many were people I valued as colleagues or subordinates (they were usually steady and reliable), and I gave up pushing them to take wider responsibilities I realised they genuinely did not want it. I don’t thin anyone experiences alienation as positive, but some degree of subordination is often comfortable.

40

Hidari 12.31.12 at 12:27 pm

I wonder if this blog post from Chris Dillow is relevant to the “capitalism-anarchism” “taking orders-doing your own thang” debate?

“Experimental evidence shows that hierarchical organization is more inefficient than generally realized.

Ernst Fehr and colleagues got subjects to play an authority-delegation game, in which subjects were divided into principals and agents, and then asked to work on selecting projects with varying payoffs. They made two important discoveries.

First, subordinates put in less effort than you’d expect rational income maximizers to; depending on the treatment, up to half put in no effort at all, even though this was almost never the income-maximizing option.

This corroborates Jeffrey Nielsen’s claim that rank-based thinking demotivates ordinary workers – and is consistent with the BBC’s Newsnight fiasco.

One reason for this, says Fehr, might lie in regret aversion. People have an aversion to being treated unfairly – which is why they reject unfair but wealth-enhancing offers in ultimatum games – and the fear of not getting a fair reward for their effort makes them loath to work.

This suggests that the trade-off between the allocation of control rights and provision on incentives is greater than conventional theory (pdf) predicts.

Secondly, Fehr and colleagues say:

We find a strong behavioral bias among principals to retain authority against their pecuniary interests and often to the disadvantage of both the principal and the agent.

Some two-fifths of principals did not delegate even when income-maximization required it. This suggests that people get a non-pecuniary buzz from being in control, and seek this benefit at the cost of economic payoffs to themselves and others. This is consistent with the findings of other experiments by Fehr and colleagues, which suggests that hierarchy facilitates exploitation rather than pure economic efficiency.

All this represents a challenge to conventional transactions costs economics, as developed by the likes of Oliver Williamson, which predicts that hierarchy is efficient (pdf) in many plausible conditions. And this poses a challenge to defenders of hierarchical capitalism: do real-world mechanisms such as competition between firms strongly select against the adverse effects of hierarchy which we see in experiments? My suspicion is: perhaps not.”

http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2012/12/the-costs-of-hierarchy.html

http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451cbef69e2017c352174ee970b

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novakant 12.31.12 at 1:54 pm

Peter, I’ve met those people as well and I’m fine with “some degree of subordination” and agree that it can even be a comfortable position to be in.

But that’s a far cry from “Alienation is liberating” which makes me shiver, as it’s pretty close to some famous fascist slogans of the past.

42

engels 12.31.12 at 1:55 pm

Chomsky is less annoying than Rand … I guess.

It has begun…

43

chris 12.31.12 at 3:54 pm

As was pointed out in CT comments sometimes back, our society, whether we want it or not, is like Omelas : some people have to do menial, degrading, underpaid work.

Some people have to do menial work, sure. But it’s ultimately society that decides which (if any) jobs are underpaid. Degrading is a bit more complex — people experience (or don’t) degradation in different ways, but it has a lot to do with social definitions. Changing diapers is menial and disgusting, but most people seem not to experience it as degrading if it’s their own baby. I’m not sure how many people experience it as degrading to change someone else’s baby’s diapers.

It would be an interesting society where we compensated people for the menial and/or degrading nature of their jobs, rather than forcing those in the weakest bargaining positions to accept jobs that are simultaneously menial, degrading *and* underpaid and then rationalizing it as their voluntary decision. Gee, they must really love degradation and obsequiousness!

44

geo 12.31.12 at 4:01 pm

Salient @ 30: It might be worth considering how well this statement obtains in North Korea.

Does it? Wouldn’t universal mistrust and the war of all against all better characterize North Korea? Just because its official propaganda declares a country to be the incarnation of socialist equality doesn’t make it so, any more than the fact that another country’s official propaganda declares it a paragon of equal opportunity.

45

happy new year 12.31.12 at 4:02 pm

Its best to separate the journalist from the philosopher. As a philosopher he’s the highbrow equivalent of Robert Fulghum. “Everything I needed to Learn About Political Philosophy I Learned in Kindergarten.”

46

mark drago 12.31.12 at 4:13 pm

Chris:
@34
“…I’m highly amused by some of the reactions, which are psychologically revealing about some of our commenters, if nothing else.” I find the comments here neither amusing nor psychologically revealing, but familiar and well-worn. However, I was amused by Chomsky’s bemoaning, in the link–in a hoary time-honored fashion that is quite hoary–the up-and-coming generations,
” they’re either inside looking at video games…”

Parenthetically, what is the behavioral difference between someone who labels herself an “anarchist” and someone with the label “economic neoliberalist”?

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Bruce Wilder 12.31.12 at 4:51 pm

novakant: “. . . that’s a far cry from “Alienation is liberating” which makes me shiver, as it’s pretty close to some famous fascist slogans of the past.”

I thought I was saying it with a certain wry irony, but, of course, a tone of that sort does not always survive the typing of the phrase. “Alienation is liberating!” was intended by me to be read as ridicule of ill-founded, ideological sloganeering.

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bianca steele 12.31.12 at 4:52 pm

Thanks for the quote. It seems like “reversing the reversal” is a good description of Graeber generally. My point was that there’s a difference between “play” as an end-state and “play” as something that’s attractive but will lead to something else, and I still don’t know which of these Chomsky (or Graeber, but I’ll defer to Chris Bertram @ 34) is talking about. It seems to me there’s plenty to be said for “play” in general, enough that there seems to me to be no good reason to always be discussing it in connection with childhood. There seems also to be plenty of room to be discussing the various narratives “play” and “childhood” might play roles in, and no good reason to pretend that there’s only one (I think we all know better than that).

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William Timberman 12.31.12 at 5:23 pm

Wry irony is a hard sell these days. Then again, so is the human condition. No one wants to hear that he won’t reach the promised land he can already see so clearly (non-wry irony alert), but others before us have managed it without putting their fingers in their ears, and so will we. Delayed gratification, I’m told, is also liberating. ;-)

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Liberty60 12.31.12 at 5:51 pm

“Libertarianism started out, in Europe, as synonymous with Anarchism. “

This aligns with my personal experiences with disciples of both ideas, in that they both have no natural constituencies outside of academia.

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Steven Tran-Creque 12.31.12 at 7:16 pm

bianca: I think you’re closer to Chomsky and Graeber than you realize, at least in the sense that I doubt either of them would really want to draw a distinction between play-as-play and play as (eg) social creativity that leads elsewhere—indeed, I think the point is that they should be inextricable from each other with the latter always an immanent possibility.

I don’t think many anarchists think play should be relegated to childhood, either, for that matter: note the playful, carnivalesque atmosphere of Occupy and other anarchist protests, for one.

Chris: Sorry for turning this into a discussion of Graeber. I actually started reading CT because of the Debt symposium (and found the entire affair incredibly unfortunate), but as an anthropology student and an anarchist, it’s hard for me to imagine getting into this topic without mentioning him.

Some of the rest of you: “Parenthetically, what is the behavioral difference between someone who labels herself an “anarchist” and someone with the label “economic neoliberalist”?”

As much as I enjoy the self contradictory, reflexive hostility on display, this kind of illiterate, sneering contempt is getting pretty tiring. Why don’t you try reading some things?

The idea that anarchism’s natural habitat is academia, though, might be the funniest comment I’ve ever seen here.

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Chris Bertram 12.31.12 at 7:59 pm

Thanks Steven. I was very disappointed that DG reacted as he did to the symposium. There were friendly commentaries and hostile ones, but he doesn’t appear to tolerate disagreement well. His writings I find sometimes very stimulating and at other times a bit wild and unreliable. I haven’t really read anything since the spat though, as I have difficulty separating the person from the ideas.

I’d add Colin Ward to your recommendations

http://www.akpress.org/autonomysolidaritypossibility.html

And in the UK, the Anarchist Book Fair (variety of locations, Bristol in April) is always worth going to. That’s where I picked up a copy of Landauer’s Revolution and Other Writings as well as a pile of stuff by Ward, Kropotkin, Murray Bookchin and others. I didn’t see any other academics there, though I bumped into a student (we were surprised to see one another).

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PGD 12.31.12 at 8:11 pm

I think this comment thread has been fantastic (although I liked the original Chomsky article that has come in for criticsm as well). In general I think the Crooked Timber comments section gets a bum rap (starting with the often peevish reactions to criticism by the front-page posters) and is actually one of the best parts of the site. The occasional trollish derail is a small price to pay for often very well-informed commenters who are willing to be aggressively critical to get a good conversation going rather than just me-too the original post.

Chomsky rightly emphasizes those moments when the distinction between discipline and freedom seems to vanish because discipline is a voluntary expression of free desire or communal cooperation. In such moments the distinction seems artificial and discipline seems subsumed under freedom. But I think there is still some degree of tension (summarized by Faustus @9) between discipline and freedom that Chomsky is underplaying. It is true that those in power have an incentive to massively exaggerate this tension in order to preserve/expand their right to discipline others. Without opposition, those in power will radically shrink the spaces in which freedom and discpline are complementary and remove the voluntary aspect of discipline altogether if possible (or at least to the degree that this is compatible with any motivation for underlings). But that doesn’t mean that the tention doesn’t exist. It is present at both the individual level and the level of social order. Learning to discipline yourself is often an important part of realizing even genuine desires — I can’t be the only person here who sometimes has to ‘force’ himself to do repetitive or unpleasant tasks that are associated with a larger goal. (I think it’s telling that Chomsky appears to be a fantastically self-disciplined person who probably does not feel this tension very much). And on the social level even spontaneous cooperation is often underpinned by a larger committment to respect communal decisions even when you don’t like them.

The relationship between discipline, freedom, and desire strikes me as very subtle and intricate and not well represented by ideological plays that try to reduce any of these polarities to the other…there is both a mutual dependence and sometimes a tension.

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bianca steele 12.31.12 at 8:17 pm

Steve,
I don’t see that Chomsky isn’t distinguishing between them in this interview. He talks about enjoying studying, for example, which other people might not enjoy. He talks about being happy doing research he doesn’t enjoy, because it’s for a goal he wants. He talks about undirected activity, but not purposeless activity. I think of the most characteristic example of “play” as the samba schools that Seymour Papert and Richard Feynman wrote about, and a lot of Papert’s writing more broadly. But those are organized, traditional group activities, on the one hand, and as Papert describes them they involve self-selected goals and paths. I don’t see Chomsky, here, invoking any idea that goals and paths are anything but preordained as necessary. (I’ll read it a third time but I don’t think it’s there. I think if it appears to be there, it’s because education apparently came so much more easily to Chomsky than to almost all other people.)

On the other hand, he talks about enjoying ordinary activities like gardening and spending time with children, which might be considered boring and unstimulating, pleasurable maybe but not intellectual enough for some people. But this is “play” in the sense of being in the moment, not in the sense of an activity that’s goalless or unpredictable.

55

Henry 12.31.12 at 8:25 pm

Hidari, the best response to the Williamsonian “hierarchy is efficient” argument that I’ve seen is Gary Miller’s Managerial Dilemmas: The Political Economy of Hierarchy. It uses simple math to do a polite, but brutally comprehensive takedown of both Taylorism and economists’ writings about incentive-compatible mechanisms.

On the Graeber disaster – my response was very much in the ‘like what you are trying to do with reviving substantivist arguments, but think that your account of the modern world economy is a bit of a mess, and you can and should do better”
vein. But this – and it was clearly my review which got under his skin rather than the other, more directly hostile accusation of von Danikenism – was taken as a wholesale and deliberately dishonest effort to delegitimize him. Clive James has a crack about “a bad tendency, quite normal among writers even at their most successful, to take praise as [their] due and anything less as sabotage.” Graeber seems to have a rather advanced case of this syndrome. Which is a pity – there is much of interest in the book.

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Steven Tran-Creque 12.31.12 at 8:58 pm

Chris: thanks, definitely have to checked out the Ward reader. Embarrassingly, I’ve never read his stuff, but AK seems to have some kind of awesome sale right now.

PGD: I think the way you use discipline here already assumes a bit too much. From a sufficiently abstract perspective, playing video games, reading a book, and writing a paper—or, hell, my writing this response—are all equivalent tasks, at least in the sense that they require work and time. But social context—and, for my purposes, especially alienation—is what determines how you experience those tasks. Video games can become wage labor if you’re employed to test them; caring for children, as another comment pointed out, can vary wildly from demeaning and disgusting to ennobling and rewarding; even writing this post can be play (or procrastination) if I have to write a (very, very) late paper right now, but note the ridiculousness of this: I am writing to avoid the identical task of writing. Even the distinction here between work and play seems very unstable to me, at least for present purposes; rather, the crucial distinction is between alienated and unalienated work and play.

To give another personal example, last fall, the first time I visited Liberty Square in NYC, I found myself picking up picking up trash and helping out with Sanitation within a couple of hours. It’s hard to overstate just how deeply bizarre this kind of behavior is in New York: you never, ever pick up trash in New York (or talk to strangers or do any of the other things that became the fabric of normal life in that park for two short months last year). But picking up trash on Anarres has virtually nothing in common with picking up trash on Urras.

I don’t think this makes me a “fantastically self-disciplined person.” In fact, I’m pretty sure all of my professors were laugh in disbelief at that suggestion. But think of the material work of, say, being an activist: hard manual labor, running in the streets, carrying heavy things, childcare, sitting in endless meetings, writing emails—in short: labor, most of it stuff we spend most of our time trying desperately to avoid in professional/academic life. Certainly, there is activist burnout—but this is only more to the point: activists don’t burnout because they hate what they’re doing. They generally burnout because they take on too much, entirely of their own volition, for no reason other than that it needs to be done. And for the many activists who don’t burnout, this work isn’t experienced as the drudgery it would have been had they been employed to do it. I found answering emails for Strike Debt really rewarding where I imagine I would’ve hated more or less the exact same job in even a liberal/left leaning NGO.

This, I think, is what makes alienation the crucial factor.

bianca: I may be reading other Chomsky stuff I’ve read into this interview (I’ve, uh, procrastinated too much to go back and look), or just as likely I’m reading other anarchist writers into it, so you may well be right. I’m also not familiar with your Papert/Feynman example, so I can’t really comment there.

I do think, though, there there is at least an implicit idea of play as developmentally crucial, especially in his personal narrative of starting in Deweyite school in which play and work weren’t really that distinguishable (for reasons I elaborated on above). To the point, whether a five year old sits down with the collected works of Shakespeare or figures out how to play baseball with his friends without any formal structures, both are kind of goalless, unpredictable, purposeless—but are radically different from being forced to sit down and read a giant tome in a public school classroom or told how to play baseball in a formal league.

This also has some personal resonance for me, because I started in a Deweyite/Freireian school as a little kid, and it fucking ruined me for formal hierarchical education in pretty a similar way.

Speaking of being ruined for school, gonna have to check out of this thread; way behind on alienated academic labor.

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mclaren 12.31.12 at 9:37 pm

Steven Tran-Creque remarks: “Just to stick to the focus of the article, I think it has quite a bit to tell us about how our educational system is primarily a terrible system of discipline and how it could be (fairly easily, I think) radically transformed along Deweyite/Freieian lines.”

Silly naif. America has turned its schools into prisons in order to prepare them for living in the spiffy new open-air gulag of the United Surveillance of Anyone. Read Naomi Wolf’s latest article in The Guardian for details. The Global War on Terror is in reality a smokescreen for “totally integrated corporate-state repression of dissent.”

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Liberty60 12.31.12 at 9:50 pm

Sorry Stephen, but I was only commenting on my personal observations, that I have never met a self-described anarchist who wasn’t a college educated white person.

Its entirely possible that there are simply vast mobs of black or Hispanic, blue collar and uneducated anarchists outside my field of vision.

I live in a blue collar, overwhelmingly Hispanic corner of Southern California, so its possible I am in a hotbed of anarchist activity. Maybe they have their meetings at night, and since I am an early riser, that explains why I probably miss out.

I live to be enlightened, so if there are links to such groups I would gladly follow them.

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PGD 12.31.12 at 10:52 pm

@56 — thanks Steve, great reply. I think another way of formulating what I was getting at in 53 that accomodates your criticism is to say that alienation is a slippery beast that sneaks in to a lot of our even freely chosen activities. Self-alienation from our own chosen projects is a deep psychological issue — say you were independently wealthy and could work for free, and chose to spend all your time working for Strike Debt. I suspect that putting more of your ego identity into your role there might create some of the same dynamics of alienation that exist with paid work. Similarly for community participation, it’s easy to see that communal cooperation could not exist if people chose an exit option every time they felt temporarily alienated from their community.

It seems to me that learning to manage and at certain times even push aside our own feelings of alienation can be an important part of both personal and political maturity…even though never listening to those feelings is also a route to personal unhappiness and political oppression.

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Timothy Scriven 12.31.12 at 11:55 pm

Liberty60

There are lots of non white anarchists, but sadly very few without Tertiary education. Often Anarchists are poor by the standards of someone with their level of education.

Someone upthread criticised Chomsky for having a Messiah complex. Fair comment too a degree but the world does need saving and I think the whole left can acknowledge he has something to contribute to that, and he has made a big difference in many ways. Writing this on a phone makes it difficult to be very elaborate but to chuck an idea out there, is a Messiah complex always a bad thing?

61

Liberty60 01.01.13 at 1:02 am

Who are the constituents of anarchism?
Who is it intended to benefit, or liberate?
Have those people given their consent to act in their name?
Where does it exist as a political force?

62

Timothy Scriven 01.01.13 at 2:08 am

Liberty60, anarchism is strongest among activists in various direct action movements. Typical age is 24 to 40 though older and younger are common, people often get involved just after university, rather than during it. Anarchists typically come from a complex class position and have often worked a mixture of white and blue collar positions. People who grew up in poverty and made their way through uni are common, as is the inverse of people who started in wealthy families and went downhill fiscally, i.e. a lot of class mobility among them.

63

faustusnotes 01.01.13 at 7:26 am

Slightly OT I guess but:

As was pointed out in CT comments sometimes back, our society, whether we want it or not, is like Omelas : some people have to do menial, degrading, underpaid work.

This is completely wrong and a sad misreading of the woman whose work has done more than anyone else’s to further the cause of (and the critique of) anarchism. Omelas is not a bad place because “some people have to do menial, degrading, underpaid work” and there is no such implication in the story. Omelas is a moral challenge because (spoiler alert!) they keep a child in a dungeon and torture the child every day as a fetish to maintain peace and order.

That’s not the same as “some people have to do degrading work” in any way.

64

Timothy Scriven 01.01.13 at 7:52 am

The child represents exploited elements of society on some reading though the child is a minority of one while the exploited are a majority in real life so it’s unclear how this fits. Probably best not to read the story as a metaphor for anything.

65

Tim Mason 01.01.13 at 10:12 am

Anbarchism had some influence on the Spanish workers’ movement before and during the Civil War.See this (hostile) account: http://www.isreview.org/issues/24/anarchists_spain.shtml

66

Chris Bertram 01.01.13 at 10:18 am

Liberty60: your comments (and those of some others here) strike me as rather misconceived. First, note that you’ve moved the goalposts from “no natural constituency outside academia” to claiming that most self-described anarchists have a tertiary education. As it happens, a rather large proportion of the population now has a tertiary education so that’s a rather different claim to the jibe that anarchism is the preserve of pointy-headed intellectuals. But what people like Ward were keen to do was not to preach anarchism as a doctrine according to which the state would be directly confronted and overthrown by some mass anarchist movement. Rather, they argued that elements of anarchy (free association, mutual aid, etc) are present within our societies and that these extra-statist forms of communal organization should be encouraged . That’s why Ward spend much of his life writing about children’s play, allotments, squatters movement etc. Almost certainly, most of the people who participated in, say, squatters’ movements did not think of themselves as anarchists, but for Ward they are part of anarchy nonetheless.

Many of the individual elements of Ward’s (and Landauer’s and Kropotkin’s and Scott’s…) thought can be learnt from by non-anarchists (like me). But I think it wrong to say that there is no connection between their anarchism and the good things they write about that we can acknowledge. Like it or not, that egalitarian liberal (Rawlsian) and the social democrat have a project of social transformation that involves using the democratic state to organize and regulate so as best to realize egalitarian principles of justice. Extra-legal forms of activity and self-organization don’t really get a look-in in that vision which, as a consequence, has a bureaucratic and administrative feel to it. It also has the defect of focusing on the moment of transformation (the social democrats take power) after which a legislative programme can be enacted that puts the principles into operation. But like Godot, the moment never comes, and social democratic (or Democrat) administrations normally find themselves too hemmed in by circumstances to achieve much (exceptions being the New Deal in the 1930s, or British Labour in 1945).

67

Tim Mason 01.01.13 at 10:21 am

Actually, many of the most militant squatters in the late 60s in the UK were self-labeled anarchists. There were also a number of anarcho-syndicalists active in the labour movement. They tended to be rather more interesting than their Leninist counterparts.

68

Chris Bertram 01.01.13 at 10:25 am

@Tim Mason – that’s true, but Ward’s Cotters and Squatters (which is the book I was thinking about, is not about them.

69

mark drago 01.01.13 at 12:39 pm

Steven@51:
Why do you assume that my attitude is “sneering” and reflexively hostile? I am not unaware of the various senses of anarchical behavior. My question was rhetorical and in earnest.

70

faustusnotes 01.01.13 at 2:08 pm

My experience of anarchists was that they were less likely to be tertiary educated than similar-aged peers. Also quite a few of the anarchists I knew worked in a trade. Even a brief perusal of anarchist pamphlets and propaganda material will show that anarchists have much more interest in the rights of the unemployed, the homeless and those who might once have been dismissed as the “lumpen proletariat,” as well as being much, much more closely connected with movements such as animal liberation and radical environmentalism that a lot of communists and socialists (and the mainstream left) dismiss as ratbags.

Just thinking of the anarchist activists and material that mark its heyday in street activism in the UK and USA, and its links with alternative culture, it’s obvious that the movement is not confined to academia, nor ever allowed itself to be that constrained.

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bianca steele 01.01.13 at 3:59 pm

faustusnotes:
And “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is about the feelings engendered by nature and the night!

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bianca steele 01.01.13 at 4:19 pm

Chris Bertram @ 66
This makes sense to me, I guess, and I’m not an expert, but one thing that strikes me about Chomsky’s account (again, only in this interview) is that he describes lots of lucky accidents in his life as if they were in effect outside the state. For example, he was exempted from college graduation requirements by what he describes as the gratuitous decision of a professor to allow him to avoid some of them, because his desert (I suppose) was recognized. And he deplores the squeezing out of opportunities for the rules to be broken for good reasons. But in my experience, not only are such gratuitous acts required for the system to actually work, but they’re reasonably frequently perceived as something very close to institutionalized, in a way that would almost certainly repel an anarchist, if it were described as such.

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Liberty60 01.01.13 at 4:29 pm

The commenters here are much more immersed in anarchist literature and history than I am so I have to restrict my comments to my personal experiences here in America.

Anarchists seem to be self-marginalized, isolated and deliberately fringe-ish and irrelevant to the political discussion.
They don’t have any alliances, no party, no ideas that enjoy widespread support.

After what, 40 years of lecturing and talking? What have the anarchists got to show for it all?
After all this time, the proletariat- the maids, waitresses, truck drivers, farmworkers-for the most part have never even heard of Chomsky, or any of his works, or of the anarchists.

This isn’t to accuse them of failure, because I belive it is deliberate. I don’t think Chomsky, or the anarchists in general really want it any other way.
Do they want an Anarchist party, with an Anarchist Philosophy and political program, to see anarchist ideas rise up in a groundswell of support?
Are they engaged in the political process at all? Do they harbor dreams of actually governing, of managing cities or states?

Nah. Ultimately, they seem to be content to let anarchy be a tiny subset of the left/ libertarian political world, where they offer commentary and critique of the culture.
This means that it only exists, and finds it natural home among a small circle of well-educated, but disaffected intellectuals.

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engels 01.01.13 at 6:11 pm

‘Do [anarchists] harbour dreams of actually governing, of managing cities and states? Nah.’

I very much hope this is the stupidest thing I’ll read this year.

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Meredith 01.02.13 at 5:29 am

PGD@53: “I think it’s telling that Chomsky appears to be a fantastically self-disciplined person who probably does not feel this tension very much).”

I think it’s telling that Chomsky has a wife, the mother of his children, who hovers in the background of this link. I suspect she may be the organizer of visits by the grandchildren whose play he deems over-organized for them. (Hey, I share with him the inclination to read their play that way — maybe it’s generational, though he’s a good deal older than I am.) And the organizer and facilitator of much else in their lives.

Is this by her choice? Probably, is my guess. Which is nice for Chomsky (and for her). (I say that as someone with a great deal of respect for his academic and political activities — I need not agree with everything. And for women who take on nearly all the day to day responsibilities of family, especially when the husband is supremely busy and often absent.)

A lot just seems to fall his way, though. I dunno. I don’t mean to hold him or his wife (about whom I know nothing!) accountable personally! But something in this whole discussion is missing: biology, mothering, women. I get nervous.

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JW Mason 01.02.13 at 6:15 am

Spontaneous play or “freedom in spaces of minimal alienation” doesn’t have anything useful to tell us about, for example, how to organize vaccination policy

This seems clearly wrong. They tell us a lot! Do you really doubt that much of the science behind vaccination was developed by people who were freely seeking to understand the world better, as opposed to following orders or pursuing some personal advantage? Do you really doubt that vaccination and other public health programs only work today of the genuine personal desire of the people administering them for them to be successful, as opposed to external incentives?

It seems to me that people who talk about spontaneous play have a much better understanding of how real institutions work — the critical importance of intrinsic motivation in particular — than “realists” like faustusnotes @9 (who I usually agree with in other contexts.)

Fantastic interview, by the way. Thanks for linking to it, Chris.

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JW Mason 01.02.13 at 6:17 am

I think it’s telling that Chomsky has a wife

Chomsky’s wife passed away in 2008.

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Matt 01.02.13 at 7:52 am

I think it’s telling that Chomsky has a wife

Chomsky’s wife passed away in 2008.

His wife was also a successful academic linguist who taught at Harvard for many years. Interestingly, her work on language acquisition was, as I understood it, in pretty serious tension with his. Maybe she did take care of daily tasks, but I think it’s better not to speculate about the personal lives of people without evidence.

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faustusnotes 01.02.13 at 8:15 am

engels, I think it’s a little early in the year to hope that!

80

SusanC 01.02.13 at 9:31 am

@70. I’d agree with faustusnotes on the demographics of anarchists, though it probably depends on what kind of of anarchist (or libertarian) we’re talking about. Right-wing “free speech and right to bear arms” libertarians (e.g, Eugene Volokh) are possibly a different demographic from the leftist European anarchists you’ld meet through (for example) Occupy, Greenpeace, the Dale Farm protests, or the underground music scene.

‘Do [anarchists] harbour dreams of actually governing, of managing cities and states? Nah.’

Pretty funny. It does raise the question of what the success criteria might be for an anarchist movement. I don’t identify as an anarchist myself, but I would guess that pushing back the limits of what the state can effectively police, and creating areas that are in practise ungovernable by anyone (although limited in space, time, and what you can get away with before the state decides to devote resources to a crackdown), would count as a success. (cf. Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone”. And, yeah, I’m aware a lot of people think Hakim Bey is a pretty dubious character).

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anarcho 01.02.13 at 9:36 am

“Management of complex enterprises, or the machinery within them, absolutely requires subordination — to principles of operation, if not to the egos of commanders, although in day-to-day affairs it’s often hard to tell one from the other.”

Someone is channeling their inner-Engels! As for “requires subordination”, well, workplaces do need co-operation — but that can be achieved in an egalitarian manner by workers’ control. And the empirical evidence shows that workplaces are more efficient and productive when run by their workers (self-management of production being a goal of anarchism since Proudhon’s What is Property?, written in 1840).

As an anarchist and a trade unionist, I should also note that we workers have a very effective weapon called “working to rule” — they bring workplaces to halt simply by following their bosses’ orders — absolute subordination fails. I discuss this in section H.4 of An Anarchist FAQ (http://www.anarchistfaq.org.uk)

“This aligns with my personal experiences with disciples of both ideas, in that they both have no natural constituencies outside of academia.”

In reality, most anarchists are (and were) working class people. Unlike Marxists we rarely have academics in our ranks (although that is changing somewhat now). We have had noted scientists (e.g., Kropotkin, Reclus, Chomsky, Zinn) but rare is the academic.

And libertarian is the right word to use — it as first coined by a French communist-anarchist in 1858 (see 150 years of libertarian). American right-wigers stole the name 100 years later — they are better called propertarians.

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Meredith 01.02.13 at 2:45 pm

I was careful to speculate (and clear I was speculating) respectfully. The point isn’t whether his wife worked outside the home or was even a successful professional in her own right. The point was the way these discussions (including the interview with Chomsky) tend to overlook gender issues entirely.

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SusanC 01.02.13 at 3:29 pm

@Meredith: That’s a good point. At least the anarchist viewpoint seems compatible with a feminist one – once someone has asked “what about power relations within the family?” a lot follows. But it is a major omission that Chomsky doesn’t make more of this point.

One possible point of contention: an arguable advantage of having a state (and associated notions of impersonal justice etc.) is that the state can sometimes protect an individual from the tyranny of their own family (e.g. child abuse, etc.). [While noting that state institutions such as children’s homes may be, on average, substantially more abusive than the typical family. See the Bryn Estyn, Haut de La Garenne and other scandals or alleged scandals ]

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Liberty60 01.02.13 at 3:47 pm

It appears I live in a different world than most of the commenters here.

Working class anarchists? Trade union anarchists?

Where are these people? Not anywhere to be found in Southern California.
I have been involved in politics for decades, and have worked with many union organizers, and activists here in Southern California and even when I helped organize an Occupy locally I met less than a dozen self-described anarchists, every single one of which was a disaffected white middle class college graduate.

And yes, I realize the hilarity of anarchists wanting to govern- which is kind of the point. What do they hope to achieve, aside from making pointed critiques of this, that or the other? Have they, do they even want to, have any sort of impact or effect on the culture or politcal structure?

I don’t see evidence of it.

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chris 01.02.13 at 4:01 pm

Do you really doubt that much of the science behind vaccination was developed by people who were freely seeking to understand the world better, as opposed to following orders or pursuing some personal advantage? Do you really doubt that vaccination and other public health programs only work today of the genuine personal desire of the people administering them for them to be successful, as opposed to external incentives?

I think “as opposed to” is doing a lot of work here — rather, the systems you describe are as successful as they are precisely because people are able to align their personal desires with their interests and do well by doing good. Otherwise they would likely have been obliged to do what they had to do rather than what they wanted to do.

And I do think at least some of the drug/medical paraphernalia factory workers and pharmacists’ assistants (to say nothing of the transport networks, utilities, etc. without which neither the labs nor the pharmacies and clinics could continue functioning) probably are just punching a clock to collect a paycheck without any deep personal satisfaction in their jobs; fortunately, that isn’t really a problem as long as they do a decent job while they’re on the clock.

ISTM that the opportunity for some to do work they are emotionally invested in is, ultimately, founded on the existence of lots of people who do jobs that nobody really wants to do, but must nevertheless be done for society to function. That’s where the analogy to Omelas comes in (although it, like all analogies, goes only so far): the happiness of some is ultimately grounded on the suffering[*] of others and this is a necessary part of the system without which it will cease to function. Omelas is taking this property to the extreme (literal torture of a child) for illustrative purposes and that means the analogy must not be overstrained, but in real societies there is no walking away from the proletariat.

[*] The extent to which drudge-workers actually suffer at their jobs is highly variable based on the political choices made by a society, but anyone spending a substantial portion of their day at a job that isn’t fulfilling or enjoyable is probably suffering to at least some degree even if they *do* make a living wage, have job security, have safety measures to reduce their on-the-job injuries as much as practicable, can access health care when needed, aren’t continually tyrannized/bullied/humiliated by supervisors, etc.

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William Timberman 01.02.13 at 4:03 pm

anarcho @ 81

Anarchists in my view have a chicken-and-egg problem. Always have had, from day 1. I wish you well, but my experience with worker control of anything has led me to believe that more often than not it leads to either a) unproductive squabbling, or b) hierarchical arrangements not so different from those anarchists profess to be putting an end to, and which, in fact, can often be more oppressive precisely because they are less formal.

I should probably add that I don’t intend this comment as an indictment, but as a reminder that the management of collective enterprises is a damned sight more complicated than most theories, let alone ideologies, allow.

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engels 01.02.13 at 4:06 pm

And yes, I realize the hilarity of anarchists wanting to govern- which is kind of the point. What do they hope to achieve

A form of society in which nobody governs because there is no state.

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anarcho 01.02.13 at 5:00 pm

“It appears I live in a different world than most of the commenters here. Working class anarchists? Trade union anarchists? Where are these people? Not anywhere to be found in Southern California.”

As an active anarchist, I can assure you that this is the case. Sure, we can do with more people joining the movement but so can everyone!.

Simply put, there is more to the world than Southern California. Working class anarchists who are also trade unionists are pretty common across the world. Historically, there have been plenty of large syndicalist union federations and while not so large today, they are still active and organising today (CNT, USI, etc.).

And as for workers’ control not working, well, there is a substantial amount of evidence which suggests that it does and does well. I list some of it in section I.3 of An Anarchist FAQ. No anarchist said it would be easy, but the evidence suggests that it is worth the struggle. Nor, should I note, that we think it will be perfect — just better than the disorder, waste, and stupidities of hierarchical workplaces (and being a trade union rep, I can tell you how bad management decision making can be!).

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JW Mason 01.02.13 at 5:48 pm

ISTM that the opportunity for some to do work they are emotionally invested in is, ultimately, founded on the existence of lots of people who do jobs that nobody really wants to do, but must nevertheless be done for society to function.

And ISTM that this is wrong. The degree to which labor is alienated — is experienced as a necessity accepted under internal compulsion, as opposed to something freely chosen under constraints given by one’s own reason — is not determined by the physical requirements of production, but depends mostly or entirely on its social organization.

There is a wonderful passage in Studs Terkel’s Working where a stonemason recalls the best work he ever did, restoring a an old stone chimney. One task was mixing just enough ash into the mortar to match the color of the old mortar. Taken in isolation, as a task imposed by someone else, and repeated day after day, this is about as awful a job as you could imagine. But as something he’d chosen to do in order to do the job right, the guy still remembered it will pleasure years later.

We all know the difference between caring for our own children out of love, and caring for someone else’s for money.

The scope for meaningful self-directed work would be vastly greater in a society where production was organized around maximizing that kind of work, as opposed to treating workers as inanimate inputs.

Of course I don’t know if the proportion of meaningless, externally-imposed work can be reduced to zero. Certainly it can’t overnight. But it doesn’t matter — we don’t need to know the absolute limit to know we could go a lot further in that direction. In the rich countries, there is much greater scope for improving wellbeing that way than by piling up still more commodities.

Chomsky talks about this a lot in the interview. Did you read it?

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chris 01.02.13 at 11:22 pm

Taken in isolation, as a task imposed by someone else, and repeated day after day, this is about as awful a job as you could imagine.

Not only can I imagine jobs more awful than that, I’ve *held* jobs more awful than that. This is not giving me a great appreciation of your ability to appreciate the awfulness of genuinely awful jobs.

The scope for meaningful self-directed work would be vastly greater in a society where production was organized around maximizing that kind of work, as opposed to treating workers as inanimate inputs.

Greater, sure. Vastly? I doubt it. No society in history has ever succeeded in eliminating or even drastically reducing the amount of unpleasant work; granted that most of them weren’t trying all that hard (or at all), that still isn’t exactly a good sign for your craftsman’s utopia.

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Ragweed 01.03.13 at 12:21 am

@Liberty60

I would add that I have also known anarchists who are not white and college educated, some having come from distinctly poor backgrounds, in both the SF Bay Area and Seattle. Not so many trade-union anarchists, other than some involved in the IWW in some small-shop organizing (they were usually pretty against the big mainstream unions).

faustnotes is correct that anarchists frequently focus more on the “lumpen” than in the usual “working class.” You will find a lot of anarchists around organizations like Food Not Bombs (feeding homeless), Books to Prisoners, et. al.

The charge of choosing to remain fringe is not entirely true, but neither is it entirely false. One aspect of anarchism (in the US at least) is that it attracts people who are often very distrustful of authority figures and bureaucratic organizations in general. Thus they tend to be distrustful of any organization that seems to be in a position of having too much success, and thus taking too much power. This distrust is often accentuated because their “constituency”, so to speak, is often the very same people who fall outside the realm of larger, more successful organizations – the chronically unemployed, homeless, people in prisons, et al. Many anarchists are most comfortable on the fringe in part because they see the “collateral damage” from more successful organizations.

Complicating it a little further is the fact that some people who gravitate towards anarchism are dealing with some pretty significant psychological issues with authority. Some folks I knew in the Seattle anarchist scene came from horrifically abusive families, and had a very difficult time with any sort of authority or restriction. They also had difficulty separating basic health and hygiene from abuse and corruption (I can remember some who were horrified by the bourgeois suggestion that it was a bad idea to source food for a benefit dinner by dumpster diving). Even the democratic decision of a collective could be an abuse trigger, which would then be turned into accusations of authoritarianism. As a result, they were really, really difficult to deal with in any sort of organization (I suspect this was partly what Bruce @ 12 was encountering).

Psychological/social issue like this in organizations and politics is hardly unique to anarchists, and in no way invalidates the broader political movement (in fact, I suspect that many if not most people gravitate toward certain political positions or styles of organizing for equally individual reason – the personal is the political, and the political is often the personal). But I think they do play a big role in the character of many anarchist organizations, at least in the US.

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JW Mason 01.03.13 at 12:35 am

No society in history has ever succeeded in eliminating or even drastically reducing the amount of unpleasant work;

You really believe this? The end of feudalism, the emancipation of the slaves, the labor movement, social democracy — none of them affected the quality of work?

What I think is interesting is the strength of the psychological response against the idea that a freer, more egalitarian society is possible.

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Ktotwf 01.03.13 at 1:06 am

“What I think is interesting is the strength of the psychological response against the idea that a freer, more egalitarian society is possible.”

Bingo. But you see this in any situation where people have become accustomed to/rationalized to themselves the present and existing structure of things. They become defenders of the system.

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Liberty60 01.03.13 at 1:39 am

@Ragweed
When I asserted that anarchists choose to be disengaged from the political scene, I was actually trying to be polite.

The footprint of anarchism on the American political scene is effectively nonexistant. They have no linkages with activist groups, they bring no pressure to bear on the political powers, they have no members or groups or armies that can be mobilized.

This sort of invisibility and impotence can’t happen by chance- it takes committed effort and willpower to expend so much effort on books, speeches, blogs, articles and end up with such a phantom presence that the very people in whose name the anarchists speak are blissfully unaware of their existance.

Asserting that they want to change the world, to affect a sweeping revolution of culture and society would require that there be some measurement of progress, some plan of action for mobilization some goal that can be identified.

So no, I maintain that anarchists have deliberately chosen a strategy of withdrawal, disengagement, and inaction in favor of commentary and critique.

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Cranky Observer 01.03.13 at 1:44 am

= = = No society in history has ever succeeded in eliminating or even drastically reducing the amount of unpleasant work; granted that most of them weren’t trying all that hard (or at all), that still isn’t exactly a good sign for your craftsman’s utopia. = = =

Funny how much we’ve given up, to the point where we’ve stopped trying. For all their faults (and there were many), the evil, corrupt, big city machines managed to make sewer worker, garbage man (I mean, sanitation worker), beat cop, water line ditch digger, prison guard, etc honorable, respected, and reasonably well-paid jobs from 1870-1970. Certainly a job one could buy a decent house and send one’s kids to the State U. on. Today not so much (e.g. Rahm Emanual – a nominal Democrat – and privitization of Chicago city services) but it was a deliberate choice to downgrade those jobs and stop sharing the money with the populace.

Cranky

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JW Mason 01.03.13 at 1:56 am

For that matter, there was just a big and successful teachers strike in Chicago. What was it about? Money? No, it was about teachers’ autonomy and job security, that is, precisely about ensuring that teaching does not become the alienated, routinized shitwork Rahm and his buddies would like all public employment to be. My “craft utopia,” like any good utopia, is just a generalization of the fights for a better world happening all around us, if you just open your eyes to see them.

But I think Ktotwf is right: it’s hard to see the possibilities of a better world because one of the main things that helps people tolerate the crappy world we’ve got tolerable, is the idea that it’s inevitable.

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chris 01.03.13 at 4:06 am

The end of feudalism, the emancipation of the slaves, the labor movement, social democracy — none of them affected the quality of work?

Wow, nice strawman. “Affected the quality of work” is such a low bar it would be practically impossible not to get over it. None of them eliminated the concept (or the reality) of undesirable but necessary work, though. Even in the period when crappy jobs were relatively better paid than before or since, the jobs themselves were still crappy.

But by all means, go on branding anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace your vision a “defender of the system”. It’s much funnier than discussing unpleasant reality.

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JW Mason 01.03.13 at 5:21 am

From the Chomsky interview: “Take someone who can build things, fix things, they really want to do it. They love doing it: ‘if there’s a problem I can solve it’. Or just plain physical labour – that’s also gratifying. If you work on command then of course it’s just drudgery but if you do the very same thing out of your own will or interest it’s exciting and interesting and appealing.”

I believe that the abolition of slavery substantially increased the degree to which people engaged in work out of their own will and interest, and substantially reduced the amount of work done at the command of others and therefore experienced as drudgery. I believe this would have been a great step forward for human wellbeing, even if the concrete physical tasks involved in agriculture had not changed at all. In fact, of course, the organization of plantation labor changed radically to accommodate the former slaves’ new autonomy — from the gang system to self-management on individual plots – the sort of transformation chris seems to think is impossible. Like Chomsky, I believe that further progress of this kind is both possible and highly desirable.

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JW Mason 01.03.13 at 5:23 am

Incidentally I did not use the phrase “defenders of the system.” It’s conventional to use quote marks only for verbatim quotes.

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Chris Bertram 01.03.13 at 8:21 am

Lest it not be obvious, the chris who seems to think that the amount of crappy work in an economy is invariant is not me. I’m very much with JWM in this argument.

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ragweed 01.03.13 at 4:08 pm

Liberty60 – Then I think you would be wrong, or at the very least, focusing on a tiny sliver of those who identify with anarchism. The principle organizers of the WTO protests, for example, that shut down Seattle in 1999 were largely anarchists. Occupy is deeply influenced by anarchists.

But this is partly because of the self-appointed fringe of anarchists who tend to be the most outspoken and visible manifestations of anarchism. So during the WTO protests, a small group of black-block anarchists that embraced property distruction became “the anarchists” in opposition to the non-violent protesters, despite that fact that most of the people from the Ruckus Society that organized the non-violent blockade would describe their politics as anarchist. Because they believe in coalition building and don’t try to create an us-them mentality with other activists, they don’t always make a big deal about the fact that they are anarchists and they stay out of the purer-than-though “whose a true anarchist” discussions.

So if you are referring only to the black-block anarchist-symbol-on-the-sleeve anarchists, then sure, anarchists are an irrelevent fringe. But that would exclude most people who identify with anarchist politics.

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chris 01.03.13 at 4:41 pm

Chris B. @100: Lest it not be obvious, the chris who seems to think that the amount of crappy work in an economy is invariant is not me.

More straw. There’s a long middle ground between “invariant” and “abolishable”. But of course the former is *much* more convenient to argue against.

Marginal reductions in the amount of crappy work may well be worthwhile. But IMO we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking we can reduce it to zero. Crappy work will continue existing and someone will have to do it. Therefore we have to think about how to decide who will do it, and how to compensate them for the crappiness of it (if everyone else is happy craftsmen).

JWM @99: Incidentally I did not use the phrase “defenders of the system.”

True. That phrase actually belonged to Ktotwf at comment 93. When you subsequently said in comment 96 “But I think Ktotwf is right” I interpreted that to mean you thought Ktotwf was right, but maybe you meant he/she was right about something else entirely. I was responding somewhat loosely to multiple people, so I suppose it’s worthwhile to take this chance to clear up the attributions.

In any case, there’s a big difference (IMO) between skepticism about how much improvement over the status quo is possible, and defending the status quo as the best of all possible worlds. I reject the label “defender of the system” regardless of who attempts to apply it to me, because there are a lot of things I don’t like about the system as it stands.

I don’t claim that the system is already at maximum improvement — only that I expect maximum improvement to be well short of perfection. And I have little (perhaps too little) patience with what I see as pie in the sky.

Chomsky (as quoted in JWM @98): Or just plain physical labour – that’s also gratifying. If you work on command then of course it’s just drudgery but if you do the very same thing out of your own will or interest it’s exciting and interesting and appealing.

Maybe to some people some of the time. Not to enough people about enough tasks to actually get the drudgery done. I don’t really believe Chomsky finds his laundry exciting just because he does it of his own will — and if someone else does it for him, it’s even harder for me to believe *that* person finds it exciting. (So yes, alienation does have some power. But there are still some tasks that are drudgery whether alienated or not.)

But even if there is some group of people who find laundry exciting, and even if Chomsky is one of them, I doubt there are enough of them to go around. And if not laundry, there’s plenty of tasks even more unpleasant than that which people have to do (for pay or otherwise) every day.

I’m honestly surprised to encounter this much pushback to returning Chomsky to earth regarding the overlooked drudgery all around us and taking up part of all our daily lives.

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Chris Bertram 01.03.13 at 5:33 pm

True, you didn’t say “invariant”, you said ….

No society in history has ever succeeded in eliminating or even drastically reducing the amount of unpleasant work.

Your latest example of this, laundry, is, however a very bad example of this. Laundry is one area where, thanks to the invention of the washing machine, the amount of unpleasant work has been drastically reduced.

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Salient 01.03.13 at 6:00 pm

Wow, nice strawman. “Affected the quality of work” is such a low bar it would be practically impossible not to get over it.

What an absurd thing to say, chris. You said: No society in history has ever succeeded in eliminating or even drastically reducing the amount of unpleasant work;

JWM responded, You really believe this? The end of feudalism, the emancipation of the slaves, the labor movement, social democracy —

And you reply by complaining about a few pithy words that came after that dash? Whyyy?

Do you really, honestly feel that JWM was not attempting in good faith to give you four examples of occurrences in which societies succeeded in drastically reducing the amount of unpleasant work?

Do you really, honestly feel that “the end of feudalism, the emancipation of the slaves, the labor movement, social democracy” are not four examples in which societies succeeded in drastically reducing the amount of unpleasant work?

(I willfully condensed “eliminating or drastically reducing” to “drastically reducing” — I make note of this just in case you’re inclined to complain that I modified your wording.)

There’s a reasonable case to be made in the direction you’re aiming, but complaining about low-bar claims and then saying “I expect maximum improvement to be well short of perfection” is asinine. Obvs, any realizable reality is well short of perfection. The question is whether it’s possible for everyone in a society to have, in their own estimation, a flourishing life, on balance. And what would that look like? That doesn’t mean that 100% of your energy is invested into creative pursuits. It hopefully means that you can spend substantially more time and energy in the week on your creative pursuits than you expend on things you find tediously drudgerous.

Is there any reason to believe we could limit each person’s drudgerous and exhausting work to two full days (eh let’s say 16 hours) per week, allowing each person a great deal more time and energy to invest into pursuits they’ll find more fulfilling? Maybe, maybe not, but who cares about the pithy point that 16 hours/week of drudgery is nonzero and therefore not perfect? Chomsky doesn’t care. JWM doesn’t care. I don’t care. Nobody fuckin’ cares, dude. We’re all okay with everyone having to do some drudgery, and we share the assumption that an ideal society would compensate people who take on more drudgery, well enough to ensure they’re satisfied and happy with taking on an extra couple workdays per week.

If you found some sentences that makes you feel that we care about whether we can actually achieve zero hours not spent in complete freedom, let them go and let it go. If you want to argue that no society will be able to allow everybody to retain enough time and energy to invest in pursuits of their choosing, there’s a case to be made, but make the case instead of complaining about semantics. If you want to argue that no society will be able to spread drudgery work roughly equitably, there’s a case to be made there, but maaaake it thennnnn.

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Salient 01.03.13 at 6:03 pm

Seriously, it’s rich to complain about us ignoring the “long middle ground” between invariant and abolishable, and then almost immediately say

Marginal reductions in the amount of crappy work may well be worthwhile. But IMO we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking we can reduce it to zero.

There’s a long middle ground between marginal reductions and reductions to zero. (The snark writes itself!)

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engels 01.03.13 at 6:10 pm

But even if there is some group of people who find laundry exciting, and even if Chomsky is one of them, I doubt there are enough of them to go around.

Not exciting but do find it relaxing personally. (I don’t wash anything by hand and I take a book along.) All in all, I’d say I have absolutely no problem whatsoever doing my laundry. Otoh if I was doing other people’s day in day out…

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JW Mason 01.03.13 at 6:24 pm

The other important point — very clearly made by Chomsky but worth emphasizing — is that we are not mainly talking about the physical nature of work here. The exact same task can be tedious, unpleasant, degrading when done under orders from someone else but very satisfying when done of one’s own choice. Of course it is also true that the physical organization of work will be different when it is autonomous versus when it is externally imposed — that’s why I brought up the post-slavery transition from gang labor to family plots — and that kind of reorganization is important, but the essential point is about alienation, not about the material tasks in themselves.

Steven Tran-Creque makes this point very well @56 and elsewhere upthread.

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chris 01.03.13 at 10:10 pm

It looks like most other participants in this thread have a, well, drastically lower bar for what constitutes “drastically reducing”, so maybe I shouldn’t have said that, since it seems everyone else just interpreted it as “reducing” and then pointed out all the cases where drudgery has been reduced.

Which I never argued that it hadn’t been (or that it couldn’t be in the future). Confusion ensued.

Salient @105: There’s a long middle ground between marginal reductions and reductions to zero.

Right, and I only ever argued the impossibility of the latter. Seems you’re making my point for me; that long middle ground is between me (reduction is possible, but not to zero, so the plight of the drudgeworker remains as an issue needing consideration in any achievable society) and straw-me (no improvement is possible, the status quo is the best of all possible worlds and must be defended).

Salient @104: Do you really, honestly feel that “the end of feudalism, the emancipation of the slaves, the labor movement, social democracy” are not four examples in which societies succeeded in drastically reducing the amount of unpleasant work?

Yes. I would describe them instead as some reduction, some rearrangement, and a lot of old wine in new bottles. See the working class? They’re still there, under another name. The material conditions of workers have improved, thanks partly to technology and partly to social changes. And nobody doubts that the end of slavery was important. But social democracy has not gotten people to stop pushing mops or scrubbing toilets while living in subsistence conditions — it just means they now own their cheap clothes and rent their run-down apartments and buy their low-quality food (sometimes having to borrow at ludicrous rates against their next paycheck to do so) instead of being issued them by their lord/owner/the company store; and God help them if they get sick, because nobody else will. They’re free people who have to take personal responsibility for their own lives, don’t you know.

Many, many people still spend most of every day doing drudge work, even though the institutions that compel them to do so have changed.

It’s hard enough to believe that we could someday in the future achieve a society without large numbers of people living by drudgery (it would be great if we could even get it below a majority!), but sheesh, if you think we’re already there, you really don’t know the right people, and haven’t held the right jobs.

JWM @107: The exact same task can be tedious, unpleasant, degrading when done under orders from someone else but very satisfying when done of one’s own choice.

Well, this may be the real meat of the disagreement. Yes, in theory, that could happen, but I think it is likely to be rare, compared to the tedious and unpleasant tasks that remain tedious and unpleasant regardless of who makes the decision when and how to do them. That’s why the idea that dealienation could remove all need for tedious, unpleasant work strikes me as far-fetched.

Let’s leave housework for a minute and consider, say, mopping the floor of a hospital. (I assume we can all agree it must be done with some minimum frequency for sanitary/safety reasons.) Do you expect the doctors to enjoy mopping their own hospital and derive personal satisfaction from it? I don’t; if you put a mop and bucket in the doctors’ lounge and expected the mopping to get done voluntarily there’d be a round of “I didn’t go through medical school for this” jokes and then dirty floors, unless someone has the authority to write a schedule and compel them to keep it. Ditto the nursing staff. So someone else has to be brought in and hired to mop the floor.

They could be paid a decent wage, with benefits, and job security, and a retirement plan, in some other society than the one we have now. But they’d still be living by mopping floors, not following the dreams of their heart.

This remains true regardless of whether the hospital is owned by a corporation, the government, a nonprofit organization, or the doctors and nurses as a collective; in all those cases, none of the people with actual health care skills wants to waste those skills mopping the floor. Maybe, in the nonprofit case, you could find someone who valued the contribution they were able to make to the nonprofit’s cause. Would you want to count on that?

Steven’s story is interesting, but I wouldn’t bet on it generalizing widely enough to fill the needs of whole societies. He doesn’t even follow the story to its end — once he voluntarily picks up the garbage and, most likely, puts it in a garbage can, where does it go from there, without a city employee (I presume, since it was a park) to take the garbage cans to the landfill?

For that matter, where do the garbage cans come from? Some hobbyist handcrafter of garbage cans? Do you really think there will be enough of those to let the society get by without garbage can factories (especially considering handcrafters’ much lower output per man-hour, which is after all why all these industrial methods were invented)? Ditto the garbage *trucks*, which I defy anyone to handcraft without access to factory-made parts and machine tools (although they would certainly be justified in taking pride in their accomplishment if they did!).

Every day people interact with dozens, if not hundreds of products made by alienated labor. Most, if not all, of which would be impossible, impractical, or vastly less efficient to be made solely by people who enjoyed making them, acting on their own initiative with nobody giving orders. Are you suggesting giving up technological society and all its benefits? Or, if not, who makes and distributes and cleans all the things that are no fun to make and distribute and clean? (An earlier draft of this sentence included “fix”, but some people enjoy fixing things, so I’ll spot you the people who fix everything that needs fixing. Although they still need parts, and tools, and transportation to the work site, and means of communication so they can find people who have things that need fixing…)

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chris 01.03.13 at 10:12 pm

Well, that turned out rather long. The part that’s a response to JWM @107 could be split off into a separate post, I guess, but then some people get upset about consecutive posts too.

Considering how many people appeared to be misunderstanding me (at least, I hope it was just misunderstanding and not misrepresenting), I thought explaining at length was the lesser evil.

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Matt 01.03.13 at 11:13 pm

The material conditions of workers have improved, thanks partly to technology and partly to social changes.

But what technology gets developed has a lot to do with social conditions. American manufacturing has undergone a lot more automation over the past 40 years than American agriculture. It seems unlikely that this is because making cars and aircraft is universally easier than picking fruit, and therefore easier to automate. It seems quite likely that it is because people building cars and aircraft were unionized and well-paid, so there were strong incentives to eliminate work rather than just pay for it. But if you have a low-wage work force, better yet one that’s paid by the piece, there’s little incentive to provide better tools.

If hospital floor-moppers were paid like physicians, I think janitorial practice would embrace more automation. Perhaps the mopper’s role becomes something like overseer of a robotic mopping fleet. More effort might be devoted to measuring where and when mopping really needs to take place to preserve sanitation, rather than doing it everywhere on a fixed schedule. Perhaps there would be more effort put into designing floors and buildings to be easy to clean, or to require less cleaning in the first place, rather than leaving low-paid workers to deal with choices made higher up. It’s amazing how much seemingly necessary crapwork can be eliminated or improved if you suppose that anyone from undocumented immigrant to CEO may end up having to do it.

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js. 01.04.13 at 12:28 am

Matt’s point at 100 is very good I think. I’d only add that if were true that even post-automation there would be need for inherently drudge-y human labor, there’s no need to assume that some people would have to spend 40 hrs every week doing just that drudge work—vs. say, 4 times as many people doing it 10 hrs every week, thereby freeing up 30 hrs to do less drudge-y stuff.

(Obviously, the above most plausibly holds for kinds of wort that don’t require a lot of specialized training — mopping, laundry, etc. For the kind of work that does require specialized training, my inclination is to agree with JWM et al that the work experience of such work as drudgery is mostly if not entirely a result of alienated work conditions.)

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chris 01.04.13 at 1:13 pm

It seems unlikely that this is because making cars and aircraft is universally easier than picking fruit, and therefore easier to automate.

Actually, that seems completely likely to me. The fruit grows wherever it feels like and you have to perceive it before you can pick it. “Perception is hard” is one of the earliest and most stubborn results in robotics. It intuitively seems easy to humans because we have a highly developed instinct for it, but if you’re trying to design a robot to find the fruit on a tree, I’m pretty sure that’s still well beyond the current state of the art. If you want to pick only the *ripe* fruit and leave the unripe fruit on the tree to be picked next week, that’s even worse. The fact that this requires no “specialized training” from a human perspective does not, at all, make it easy for a robot.

Assembly lines, by contrast, can (and do) put all the parts in prearranged locations so the robot can just do a preset series of motions and hit the part every time.

Laundry under current technology is actually a not too bad example of the limits of automation: it’s the human’s responsibility to put the laundry and detergent in a prearranged location (inside the machine) because the machine is helpless to do those things for itself. It’s the human’s responsibility to select an appropriate set of wash settings because the machine can’t perceive what kind of laundry is inside it and deduce what settings are appropriate for it. It’s also the human’s responsibility to fold the laundry afterwards if they want it folded, because that’s a task too difficult to automate (although trivial from a human perspective).

As for the supervisor of a fleet of mopping robots, I thought about that, but wouldn’t that inherently lead to *more* alienation rather than less? Who is emotionally invested in acres of flooring spread out among 50 different buildings? And someone has to manufacture robot parts, which is back to the assembly line. (Of course, under capitalism, most of the profits will go to the business owner, and as little as possible to the robot herder. But sweeping away the institutions of capitalism is the least of the obstacles standing in the way of the hobbyist’s utopia.)

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Chris Bertram 01.04.13 at 1:53 pm

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engels 01.04.13 at 3:24 pm

Laundry under current technology is actually a not too bad example of the limits of automation: it’s the human’s responsibility to put the laundry and detergent in a prearranged location (inside the machine)… It’s the human’s responsibility to select an appropriate set of wash settings…

How does anyone manage?

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engels 01.04.13 at 4:31 pm

Do you expect the doctors to enjoy mopping their own hospital and derive personal satisfaction from it? I don’t; if you put a mop and bucket in the doctors’ lounge and expected the mopping to get done voluntarily there’d be a round of “I didn’t go through medical school for this” jokes and then dirty floors

Quite a lot of assumptions about class, status, etc packed into this… (not that I’m in proposing doctors mopping the floors).

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engels 01.04.13 at 5:29 pm

Sorry – ‘attitudes to class, status, etc’. PS- Doesn’t refute your claim but have known a few doctors, etc who spent significant time on ‘menial’ tasks which weren’t part of their job because was obvious it needed to be done and nobody else was about to do it.

Loathe the patronising coinage ‘crapwork’ btw.

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Meredith 01.05.13 at 5:38 am

Maybe I’ve spent too much time with warlords (in literature/history, sympathetically, but critically). With the response to them, like Aeschylus’ Oresteia. (Anarchia must be there; it also can’t work as a totalizing approach.) I don’t want to have to negotiate my perspectives and desires on some one-to-one basis while menstruating or carrying a child. Thank you, polity. (The beginning of a new set of negotiations. Fair enough.)
I doubt Chomsky (or his wife!) would disagree with me here. Not sure of many commenters here.
(Delayed response. Been visiting one of my children.)

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Adeyemi 01.05.13 at 9:26 am

‘A form of society in which nobody governs because there is no state.’
engels @87

‘The state’s large population also guarantees that most people within a state are strangers to each other. […] Hence states need police, laws, and codes or morality to ensure that the inevitable constant encounters between strangers don’t routinely explode into fights. That need for police and laws and moral commandments to be nice to strangers doesn’t arise in tiny societies, in which everyone knows everyone else. […]

Large populations can’t function without leaders who make the decisions, executives who carry out the decisions, and bureaucrats who administer the decisions and laws. Alas for all you readers who are anarchists and dream of living without any state government, those are the reasons why your dream is unrealistic: you’ll have to find a tiny band or tribe willing to accept you, where no one is a stranger, and where kings, presidents, and bureaucrats are unnecessary.’
Jard Diamond, The World Until Yesterday

[It might seem that Diamond is question begging when he writes, ‘Hence states need police…’ But he’s actually saying, large dense populations whose social reproduction depends on specialisation and cooperation need states and states need governing authorities in order to function.]

‘Anarchia must be there; it also can’t work as a totalizing approach.’
Meredith @ 117

Is this where the thread has settled?: ‘play where you can; occasionally walk across the grass; be helpful at work.’

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Chris Bertram 01.05.13 at 2:59 pm

Is the Diamond good Adeyemi? (There’s a slightly half-hearted review by Stephen Cave in the FT today.)

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