Anarchism and the State as a Technology

‘PeculiarPhilosopher’, a participant at the Galilean Library (TGL), drew my attention to this excerpt (pp. 88-100) of an article by anarchist Bob Black in which he berates Noam Chomsky for claiming to be an anarchist while not really being one.
Black’s main gripe with Chomsky is that Chomsky is a leftist and as such adheres to moral and ideological values that are barriers to anarchism. Some of the discussion at TGL focused on the contrast between Chomsky’s leftist pragmatism and Black’s – what is it? – idealism? However, I think the difference between Chomsky’s anarchism and Black’s lies more fundamentally in the type of anarchy to which they are supposed to lead. Witness their polarised attitudes to democracy: for Chomsky, anarchy is justified as the perfection of democracy. Chomsky seems to see anarchy as the ultimate realisation of democracy. An anarchist society would be a perfectly democratic one. Democratic institutions, according to Chomsky, provide starting points where people can work within the state to “build the institutions of a future society” that would “place decision-making in the hands of working people and communities”[1]. He sees the attempts of authoritarian government and the PR/advertising industries to influence and indoctrinate people as an undermining of democracy.
Bob Black, on the other hand, seems to see these things as facets of democracy itself[2]. For him, democracy is just another device used by the state to make the people more susceptible to the propaganda of powerful elites and is something to be superseded by anarchy: “anarchism should be the threat to democracy”[3].
In Chomsky’s anarchy, there will still be professors at MIT publishing books and papers in academic journals, but in solidarity with “working people”. In Black’s, there might be none of these things. People, “working” or otherwise, will each be living their own anarchy, freed from their statist addictions which include, in addition to opportunities to answer a few multiple choice questions distilled from the sanitized, prepackaged “issues” on which the elites have deigned to consult them, financial and medical care safety nets and MIT professorships.
Just as it is incumbent upon Chomsky to persuade us that there are effective strategies for working with the state to bring about its democratic dissolution, so it is incumbent upon Black to persuade us that just dropping out of the state to live personal anarchy right now will not simply lead to some dog-eat-dog hell.
Black chides Chomsky [3] for failing to acknowledge that by far the greater part of human (pre)history took place before the advent of states and that in those days everyone lived in anarchic societies. That we’re here today to know that proves that they worked, I suppose. But what do we know about those anarchic societies? While Steven Pinker used his survey of the evidence[4] to support a rather whiggish account of history, I’ve not heard that his data are too badly flawed. He would contend that, overall, a decidedly greater proportion of people in prehistoric anarchic societies died violently at the hands of others than is the case in subsequent state societies. The state may support elites, but it also provides means of negotiation between competing interests, hence it’s less violent. Of course, Pinker’s evidence is statistical. There may have been very nonviolent anarchic societies in the mix. But if Black cares about that, it’s incumbent upon him to show us what characteristics anarchic societies must possess to avoid becoming endemically violent. Yet to do that without heading toward the moderated anarchy he so despises in Chomsky’s account could be a tall order.
While I instinctively find Black’s fauve anarchism more appealing than Chomsky’s enlightenment version, I still need persuading that it could ever persist for any significant length of time. Unfortunately, I think the evidence of history is that in the great majority of cases where an anarchic society has been in head-to-head competition with a state, the state has prevailed. That’s why today, most people live in states and why what anarchic societies there are, mostly survive at the pleasure of some state or other.
By historicising the argument for anarchism, Black attempts to cast the state as an aberration and anarchy as the ‘natural’ condition of human society. However, the state is really just a human invention – a technology – introduced as a way to make human societies more prosperous. So far, it has been rather successful in doing that. Its development is now an empirical part of the trajectory of human evolution. The state may (probably will) eventually disappear, of course, but it will not necessarily give way to anarchy. More likely, it will evolve into something else that we can presently scarcely imagine and for which we will no longer find “state” a useful name. Chomsky’s form of anarchism is perhaps more likely to have an effect on that than Black’s.


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