The Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Peter Jay
The Jay Interview, July 25, 1976
Parts 5 & 6:
CHOMSKY: [continued ...] Precisely because much of the most meaningless drudgery can be taken over by machines, which means that the scope for really creative human work is substantially enlarged.
Now, you speak of work freely undertaken as a hobby. But I don't believe that. I think work freely undertaken can be useful, meaningful work done well. Also, you pose a dilemma that many people pose, between desire for satisfaction in work and a desire to create things of value to the community. But it's not so obvious that there is any dilemma, any contradiction. So, it's by no means clear -- in fact, I think it's false -- that contributing to the enhancement of pleasure and satisfaction in work is inversely proportional to contributing to the value of the output.
QUESTION: Not inversely proportional, but it might be unrelated. I mean, take some very simple thing, like selling ice-creams on the beach on a public holiday. It's a service to society: undoubtedly people want ice-creams, they feel hot. On the other hand, it's hard to see in what sense there is either a craftsman's joy or a great sense of social virtue or nobility in performing that task. Why would anyone perform that task if they were not rewarded for it?
CHOMSKY: I must say, I've seen some very cheery-looking ice cream vendors...
QUESTION: Sure, they're making a lot of money.
CHOMSKY: ... who happen to like the idea that they're giving children ice-creams, which seems to me a perfectly reasonable way to spend one's time, as compared with thousands of other occupations that I can imagine.
Recall that a person has an occupation, and it seems to me that most of the occupations that exist -- especially the ones that involve what are called services, that is, relations to human beings -- have an intrinsic satisfaction and rewards associated with them, namely in the dealings with the human beings that are involved. That's true of teaching, and it's true of ice cream vending. I agree that ice cream vending doesn't require the commitment or intelligence that teaching does, and maybe for that reason it will be a less desired occupation. But if so, it will have to be shared.
However, what I'm saying is that our characteristic assumption that pleasure in work, pride in work, is either unrelated to or negatively related to the value of the output is related to a particular stage of social history, namely capitalism, in which human beings are tools of production. It is by no means necessarily true. For example, if you look at the many interviews with workers on assembly lines, for example, that have been done by industrial psychologists, you find that one of the things they complain about over and over again is the fact that their work simply can't be done well; the fact that the assembly line goes through so fast that they can't do their work properly. I just happened to look recently at a study of longevity in some journal on gerontology which tried to trace the factors that you could use to predict longevity -- you know, cigarette smoking and drinking, genetic factors -- everything was looked at. It turned out, in fact, that the highest predictor, the most successful predictor, was job satisfaction.
QUESTION: People who have nice jobs live longer.
CHOMSKY: People who are satisfied with their jobs. And I think that makes a good deal of sense, you know, because that's where you spend your life, that's where your creative activities are. Now what leads to job satisfaction? Well, I think many things lead to it, and the knowledge that you are doing something useful for the community is an important part of it. Many people who are satisfied with their work are people who feel that what they're doing is important to do. They can be teachers, they can be doctors, they can be scientists, they can be craftsmen, they can be farmers. I mean, I think the feeling that what one is doing is important, is worth doing, contributes to those with whom one has social bonds, is a very significant factor in one's personal satisfaction.
And over and above that there is the pride and the self-fulfilment that comes from a job well done -- from simply taking your skills and putting them to use. Now, I don't see why that should in any way harm, in fact I should think it would enhance, the value of what's produced.
But let's imagine still that at some level it does harm. Well, okay, at that point, the society, the community, has to decide how to make compromises. Each individual is both a producer and a consumer, after all, and that means that each individual has to join in these socially determined compromises -- if in fact there are compromises. And again I feel the nature of the compromise is much exaggerated because of the distorting prism of the really coercive and personally destructive system in which we live.
QUESTION: All right, you say the community has to make decisions about compromises, and of course communist theory provides for this in its whole thinking about national planning, decisions about investment, direction of investment, and so forth. In an anarchist society, it would seem that you're not willing to provide for that amount of governmental superstructure that would be necessary to make the plans, make the investment decisions, to decide whether you give priority to what people want to consume, or whether you give priority to the work people want to do.
CHOMSKY: I don't agree with that. It seems to me that anarchist, or, for that matter, left-Marxist structures, based on systems of workers' councils and federations, provide exactly the set of levels of decision-making at which decisions can be made about a national plan. Similarly, state socialist societies also provide a level of decision-making -- let's say the nation -- in which national plans can be produced. There's no difference in that respect. The difference has to do with participation in those decisions and control over those decisions. In the view of anarchists and left-Marxists -- like the workers' councils or the Council Communists, who were left-Marxists -- those decisions are made by the informed working class through their assemblies and their direct representatives, who live among them and work among them. On the state socialist systems, the national plan is made by a national bureaucracy, which accumulates to itself all the relevant information, makes decisions, offers them to the public, and says, "You can pick me or you can pick him, but we're all part of this remote bureaucracy." These are the poles, these are the polar opposites within the socialist tradition.
QUESTION: So, in fact, there's a very considerable role for the state and possibly even for civil servants, for bureaucracy, but it's the control over it that's different.
CHOMSKY: Well, see, I don't really believe that we need a separate bureaucracy to carry out governmental decisions.
QUESTION: You need various forms of expertise.
CHOMSKY: Oh, yes, but let's take expertise with regard to economic planning, because certainly in any complex industrial society there should be a group of technicians whose task it is to produce plans, and to lay out the consequences of decisions, to explain to the people who have to make the decisions that if you decide this, you're likely to get this consequence, because that's what your programming model shows, and so on. But the point is that those planning systems are themselves industries, and they will have their workers' councils and they will be part of the whole council system, and the distinction is that these planning systems do not make decisions. They produce plans in exactly the same way that automakers produce autos. The plans are then available for the workers' councils and council assemblies, in the same way that autos are available to ride in. Now, of course, what this does require is an informed and educated working class. But that's precisely what we are capable of achieving in advanced industrial societies.
QUESTION: How far does the success of libertarian socialism or anarchism really depend on a fundamental change in the nature of man, both in his motivation, his altruism, and also in his knowledge and sophistication?
CHOMSKY: I think it not only depends on it but in fact the whole purpose of libertarian socialism is that it will contribute to it. It will contribute to a spiritual transformation -- precisely that kind of great transformation in the way humans conceive of themselves and their ability to act, to decide, to create, to produce, to enquire -- precisely that spiritual transformation that social thinkers from the left-Marxist traditions, from Luxembourg, say, through anarcho-syndicalists, have always emphasized. So, on the one hand, it requires that spiritual transformation. On the other hand, its purpose is to create institutions which will contribute to that transformation in the nature of work, the nature of creative activity, simply in social bonds among people, and through this interaction of creating institutions which permit new aspects of human nature to flourish. And then the building of still more libertarian institutions to which these liberated human beings can contribute. This is the evolution of socialism as I understand it.
QUESTION: And finally, Professor Chomsky, what do you think of the chances of societies along these lines coming into being in the major industrial countries in the West in the next quarter of a century or so?
CHOMSKY: I don't think I'm wise enough, or informed enough, to make predictions and I think predictions about such poorly understood matters probably generally reflect personality more than judgment. But I think this much at least we can say: there are obvious tendencies in industrial capitalism towards concentration of power in narrow economic empires and in what is increasingly becoming a totalitarian state. These are tendencies that have been going on for a long time, and I don't see anything stopping them really. I think those tendencies will continue. They're part of the stagnation and decline of capitalist institutions.
Now, it seems to me that the development towards state totalitarianism and towards economic concentration -- and, of course, they are linked -- will continually lead to revulsion, to efforts of personal liberation and to organizational efforts at social liberation. And that'll take all sorts of forms. Throughout all Europe, in one form or another, there is a call for what is sometimes called worker participation or co-determination, or even sometimes worker control. Now, most of these efforts are minimal. I think that they're misleading -- in fact, may even undermine efforts for the working class to liberate itself. But, in part, they're responsive to a strong intuition and understanding that coercion and repression, whether by private economic power or by the state bureaucracy, is by no means a necessary feature of human life. And the more those concentrations of power and authority continue, the more we will see revulsion against them and efforts to organize and overthrow them. Sooner or later, they'll succeed, I hope.
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