Bernard E. Harcourt | Noam Chomsky and the Common Good

By Bernard E. Harcourt

In his Dewey lectures from 2013, Noam Chomsky embraces anarchism as, what he calls, “a reasonable approximation of the common good.”[1] He traces modern anarchism historically to the classical liberal tradition that emerged in the Enlightenment, and argues that it forms part of a larger category of political thought which favors genuinely participatory democratic processes that “lead very naturally to a vision of society based on workers’ control of productive institutions.”[2] That category includes not only anarcho-syndicalist thinkers and actors (such as Rudolf Rocker), but also truly democratic thinkers within classical liberalism (such as John Dewey), and liberal economic thinkers (such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, properly read).[3] Chomsky maintains that anarchism, properly understood, forms part of this genuine libertarian tradition. And he argues that it is our closest approximation to the common good.

Let me start by saying I agree with Chomsky. I want to start here because I would like to critique an aspect of his argument, but I want to be understood as doing so in solidarity and in a constructive manner. I would like to sharpen Chomsky’s argument, if possible, which I take it is Chomsky’s own ambition as well since, as he writes or complains, “terms of political discourse are hardly models of precision.”[4] I also want to reconcile his position with the purpose of this seminar, Utopia 13/13.

Distinguishing two elements

I think there are two separate elements that constitute the political vision that Chomsky—and I—embrace: first, a critical challenge to institutionalized forms of social order demanding that any inequalities and hierarchies be justified and if not, dismantled[5]; and second, a reconstructive project of bottom-up cooperative mutualist forms of social organizing.[6]

This first element has always been central to Chomsky’s thought, political engagements, and embrace of anarchism. As I noted earlier, it is one of the most constant and important threads that traverses Chomsky’s political interventions, one he has emphasized repeatedly: any form of hierarchy or domination must be justified by those who benefit, and if they cannot, then those institutions or practices must be eliminated. This first element can be called deconstructive, dismantling, or even abolitionist. It corresponds, in W.E.B. Du Bois’s thought, to the “negative” element of abolition: the need to eradicate slavery and its afterlives, in his time convict leasing and plantation prisons, today those same plantation prisons, racialized mass incarceration and policing, and systemic racism. The first element aims to dismantle forms of power that create racial and social hierarchy and inequality.

The second element is the reconstructive project that, at least on my reading of Chomsky—and my own political beliefs—is characterized by a bottom-up, cooperative, mutualist, self-determining, form of participatory democratic decision-making that gives all persons a say in our social organizing. Chomsky draws on the words of Rudolf Rocker to articulate this reconstructive project: “an alliance of free groups of men and women based on cooperative labor and a planned administration of things in the interest of the community.”[7] In fact, Chomsky cites this passage twice, giving it real interpretive privilege.

Together, the two elements form what Chomsky refers to as “anarcho-syndicalism.” Notice that the term has two components, and that the prefix “anarcho-” tends to be associated with the deconstructive side, while the second term (syndicalism) is clearly reconstructive.

On my reading of Du Bois and Angela Davis, there is the same structure to the neologism “Abolition Democracy.” As I proposed throughout Abolition Democracy 13/13, the term “Abolition Democracy” has both a deconstructive or negative element and a reconstructive element. It includes “(1) the (negative) abolition of institutions of domination, (2) the (positive) creation of new social institutions, and (3) the radical transformation of our political economy.” Here too for anarcho-syndicalism. And, I would argue, there is a productive tension (earlier, critical theorists might have said a dialectical relationship) between the dismantling element of anarchism and the reconstructive project of syndicalism.

Solidaristic critique

Now, in his Dewey lectures, Chomsky at times refers simply to the term “anarchism” and at other times refers to “anarcho-syndicalism” when he is describing his conception of the common good.  This is in large part because, as he explains, the first term “anarchism” has many interpretations and ranges widely from what he calls left anti-Bolshevik Marxism to anarcho-syndicalism.[8]

What is confusing, to me at least, is that these terms are being used in different ways.

Chomsky uses the term “anarchism” in two different ways: in some places to describe what other people refer to as “anarchism” (which means that its meaning is diffuse and meaningless, as in, in his words, “impossible to give meaningful answers”[9]), for instance when he engages in the history of classical liberal ideas; at other times, to describe what he himself believes in as the common good.

Chomsky also (at least implicitly) refers to the common good in two different ways: in some places as simply anarchism; in other places as anarcho-syndicalism (surely when he focuses on the Rocker passage).

So this creates some confusion, but I think it can be easily remedied by being clear about the meanings in which these terms are being used. If we untangle this, I think it is possible to say that: Chomsky embraces as the common good a form of anarcho-syndicalism (that has always been part of the broad category that people refer to confusingly as anarchism) that includes both the dismantling of unjustified forms of power and the reconstruction of a cooperative society from below. The goal is to “reconstruct from below, while also changing industry ‘from a feudalistic to a democratic social order’ based on workers’ control, respecting the dignity of the producer as a genuine person, not a tool in the hands of others, in accordance with a libertarian tradition that has deep roots.”[10]

The Project of Utopia 13/13

The project of Utopia 13/13 is to explore this reconstructive project–the second element–specifically to study such reconstructive projects that have been put in place and exist. We set out to identify and discuss what we have been calling “concrete utopias”: “not just ‘real utopias’ in the sense of articulated, formulated, well-thought-through blueprints of a utopian condition, but ‘concrete utopias’ in the sense of really-existing, functioning, already-working practices, institutions, models and exemplars of a just society.” The idea underlying Utopia 13/13 is that the best way to ignite social transformation is to highlight the fact that it is possible and that it is happening all around us. So we have explored, with guests, Cooperation Jackson in Jackson Mississippi, the Longo Maï and TERA eco-cooperatives in Southern France, the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, the Freelancers Union, and Starbucks unionization right here in NYC, as well as the Columbia Student Worker’s Union right here at Columbia – representatives of which have all joined us at Utopia 13/13 – with the goal of showing that concrete change is possible, is here, and can help guide us toward more social change.

I now believe, with these clarifications, that Noam Chomsky should be fully on board with our project—though I do not want to speak for him—and that what we are calling “concrete utopias” actually corresponds to the projects associated with the second, reconstructive element of Chomsky’s view of the common good or of what he calls “anarcho-syndicalism.” As Chomsky emphasizes:

anarcho-syndicalism […] crucially includes the practical achievements of revolutionary Spain in 1936, reaching further to worker-owned enterprises spreading today in the U.S. rust belt, in northern Mexico, in Egypt, and many other countries, most extensively in the Basque country in Spain, also encompassing the many cooperative movements around the world and a good part of feminist and civil and human rights initiatives.[11]

Those are precisely the kinds of practical achievements that we have been calling “concrete utopias.” They represent and reflect the society of cooperation that many—myself included, especially in my forthcoming book Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social Theory—passionately embrace.

I look forward to exploring whether this seems correct to Noam Chomsky!

Welcome to Utopia 6/13!


[1] Noam Chomsky, “What Kinds of Creatures Are We?”, Journal of Philosophy CX, no. 2 (2013), p. 56.

[2] Chomsky, “What Kinds of Creatures Are We?”, p. 49.

[3] One can also include in this category: “G. D. H. Cole’s guild socialism and left anti-Bolshevik Marxism, and such current developments as the participatory economics and politics of Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel, Steven Shalom, and others, along with important work in theory and practice by the late Seymour Melman and his associates, and Gar Alperovitz’s valuable recent contributions on the growth of worker-owned enterprise and cooperatives in the U.S. rust belt and elsewhere.” Chomsky, “What Kinds of Creatures Are We?”, p. 50.

[4] Chomsky, “What Kinds of Creatures Are We?”, p. 43.

[5] See Chomsky, “What Kinds of Creatures Are We?”, p. 43-44 (“This broad tendency in human development seeks to identify structures of hierarchy, authority, and domination that constrain human development, and then to subject them to a very reasonable challenge: Justify yourself. Demonstrate that you are legitimate, either in some special circumstances at a particular stage of society, or in principle. And if they cannot meet that challenge, they should be dismantled.”)

[6] See Chomsky, “What Kinds of Creatures Are We?”, p. 44 (“And not just dismantled, but also reconstructed, and for anarchists, “refashioned from below”).

[7] See Chomsky, “What Kinds of Creatures Are We?”, p. 44 and 48.

[8] See Chomsky, “What Kinds of Creatures Are We?”, p. 43.

[9] See Chomsky, “What Kinds of Creatures Are We?”, p. 43.

[10] Chomsky, “What Kinds of Creatures Are We?”, p. 56.

[11] See Chomsky, “What Kinds of Creatures Are We?”, p. 43.