Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Noam Chomsky and Mild Reformist Tactics

The following was inspired by a recent interview with Noam Chomsky which was coordinated by people working through the anarchist subreddit at Reddit dot com.

As a chronicler of modern history, Noam Chomsky is something of an icon. The number of people he has influenced with his writing in favor of general social justice is probably beyond measure. He has highlighted things with his political writings that may otherwise not have received the attention they deserve, and I'm sure he'll be the first to admit that they still do not get all the attention they deserve. He's talking about very serious things in terms of apartheid, genocide, and war.

Unfortunately, with his latest interview, he has proven that simply being aware of many serious problems does not necessarily give you any real insight on how to effectively deal with them. And I might point out... some of the issues he brings up in passing, like environmental degradation, seem to be thrown in as a token for the effect of appearing comprehensive. On the particular subject of environmentalism, for instance, he offers nothing substantive with his suggestion that anarchists should be concerned with such issues. Unsupported by what human beings have already done, he suggests that humanity will be able to technologically engineer it's way into a more peaceful, less polluted, less devastated world. Perhaps so, but that's pretty vague, at best.

What really stuck in my craw was a couple of points in particular. The first was his explicitly stated support for "mild reformist tactics." In a more ideal world, under more ideal conditions, this might be as reasonable and cool-headed as he intends it to be. Unfortunately, this is a far from an ideal world and he should know that beyond a doubt. If I may be so bold, as someone who tries to highlight these issues on a regular basis, please allow me to try and summarize some of the pressing issues facing humanity today.

A) More people are starving today than at any other point in history OR pre-history (both in total numbers and per-capita). It is estimated that 1 billion people live with issues of chronic hunger. That's more than 1 out of every 7 people, alive today, who are aren't getting a basic human requirement for life.

B) The environment is being ravaged in no uncertain terms. The myriad of issues are almost too great to even begin listing... climate change, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, deforestation, desertification, and the Pacific trash vortex are just the starters of what's seriously jeopardizing the ability to sustain life on this planet. Indeed, we are currently experiencing the most devastating period of mass extinction since the dinosaurs died out.

C) War. Although sometimes related to the two preceding items, war by itself is an occurrence which effects the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Around the world, in forms old and new, wars rage. And the weapons which could destroy every person on this planet are being improved upon and spread to evermore groups. One could debate the effects of global thermonuclear war or a limited strike, but it would be a fools errand. The potential for global devastation must be defused -- but proliferation continues.

D) The general conditions of life for billions of people (even if they are not immediately and directly effected by hunger, war, or a polluted water table) is such that many are still veritable, if not actual, slaves. Never mind the millions who get cycled through the prison-industrial complex each year (or the constant police presence in every American city), many people have few alternatives beyond working on the assembly line for all their waking days. And that's even before considering the most atrocious sweatshops or mines or fields that many people are forced to work in.

In the light and shadows of this reality, Chomsky calls for mild reformist tactics. He even digresses into talk about healthcare reform!

This is the icon of the left (who even has the ear of would-be radicals) that is propped up as the preeminent intellectual of our era. This is, from what I understand, the most quoted person alive. But what is he really saying that will actually inspire a much needed difference? And why on Earth would anarchists, of all groupings, try to claim him as one of their own?! In this recent interview he even reaffirms his support for strengthening the state! The situation is beyond ridiculous and even has Orwellian undertones.

He actually goes out of his way to insult the modern anarchist movement as it exists within the confines of the United States. He suggests we haven't got our act together because we haven't been able to muster the same large protests as some European anarchists -- but he fails to point out that we face a far more militarized and draconian police force in this nation. We suffer high levels of infiltration in our daily lives and then suffer state violence at protests merely for showing up. And he certainly isn't giving any support for the thousands who do actually show up and protest things like the RNC, DNC, G20, et cetera. If he's going to criticize us for a lack of it, then maybe he should give us some support in these regards and not dismiss us like the mainstream media. But he is not at all talking about protest (which has historically brought about great change), he's talking about "mild reformist tactics" and "small steps." He wants us to be reasonable, and practical, and work on things like healthcare reform or worker control of the factories with the support of the state.

In my attempt to be thorough allow me to digress... I won't even comment on the likelihood or the potential harm that could be caused if industrial consumerism was perpetuated by worker control of factories with the support of the state. But the focus on healthcare reform as a worthwhile effort (and it would certainly be hard to achieve and maintain) needs to be commented upon...

It is true that "The radically inefficient, privatized, unregulated healthcare system is extremely harmful to the people, except the wealthy." But why in the world would we trust the U.S. government "to develop a sensible national healthcare system?" Even if it does somehow get implemented, for all our reformist efforts, are we supposed to discount the rising probability of the economy in the United States crashing in a way that the Soviet Union never did? I'm reminded of all the people who established pensions through their unions only to find out one day that all the funds have been magically deleted by the stroke of a bankers pen. So how much effort should we put into establishing such things? Even if fully successful, what will the long term effects of such placating policies have on the general public? Don't get me wrong, I think people should have health care -- but we will need far more fundamental change overall before we actually get it. And healthcare won't mean much if any of the larger problems we face come to their logical outcomes.

In all honesty, even I have suggested ways that reformism could have a place in creating long-term social change for the general benefit of humanity. But it's not an either/or situation, and that's how Chomsky frames it by discounting and failing to promote regular demonstrations of people in the streets. He does not speak to the practicality of such mass movements and the manner in which they can inspire reform like no other action.

The problem with reformism isn't really that we want too much in terms of issues being resolved, the problem is that we NEED these issues resolved, in short order, for our long term survival as a species. We need a general movement of people in the streets making it clear that we see through the fascistic oligarchy that is wreaking havoc around the world. Simply put, we need the masses in the streets making it clear that we won't take any more of the rampant general corruption and villainy which presides over our daily lives. And we need to get into the streets sooner rather than later.

Piecemeal reformism without mass protests won't do anything because we all know, everybody knows, the government can simultaneously undo progressive reform while it concedes a hard won reform somewhere else. The question isn't whether or not we should be in the streets, the question is how long we should be there and how much change is needed before mild reformist tactics make sense. My guess is that we'll need to be there a long time, under hard conditions, and we'll need to go back often. The slogan of the anarchists used to be "perpetual revolution!"

Mass demonstration protests, i.e. general strikes, are not easy undertakings. But their great potential makes them more practical in terms of a risk/reward analysis. It may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but it's easier to protest in mass with solidarity than it is to spend every free hour writing to (or campaigning for) your particular politician. And mass protests show real sacrifice and commitment. Without showing that commitment, without people taking risks and making sacrifices, the politicians can ignore and manipulate at their discretion because there is no consequence or embarrassment for them.

And we must demand a total revolutionary change in the social structure because those in power may try to only meet us half way -- and that's a start, a reformist start. Fortunately, there are many relatively depoliticized groups of people who will be willing to start undertaking these mass demonstration projects with us -- the unemployed, the evicted, the victims of the police state, the unions, the people who lost their pensions, the anti-war activists, the health care reformists, students, environmentalists, and on and on and on. We do need to organize with these people and we need to make it clear that we are working for a thoroughly comprehensive change of a thoroughly corrupt system. Yes there will be resistance. Yes it will be difficult. But the longer we wait to take to the streets the worse the aforementioned problems will get and the harder they will be to remedy.

I see no point in further discussing Chomsky or paying any attention to his pacifying drone. His proposed solutions and methods of acting are hollow. He sounds calm and reasonable but he's an empty academic suit and the epitome of an ivory tower intellectual with no practical advice for effectively bringing about real change.

In regard to how we long should stay in the streets, I will close with a rallying cry from the Paris insurrection of 1968... "Underneath the paving stones, the beach!"