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Radical human nature

Noam Chomsky

The power of indoctrination is shown by the fact that most people don’t consider themselves radical leftists, socialists, or anarchists. The way they act shows that basically they are, only they don’t know it. They think that authority not only isn’t self-justifying (to quote Chomsky’s definition of anarchism) but is often or usually unjust, and merely has to be tolerated because it can’t realistically be dismantled. Democratic values spontaneously appear whenever people get together: they listen to each other, try to respect each other as equals, organize democratically to get things done, and resent people who act autocratically. This is anarchy in the positive sense, or anarchism in action. Grassroots organizing is ‘anarchy,’ in that top-down authority or bureaucracy is not the operative principle. In fact, one can argue that ‘democracy,’ ‘anarchy,’ and ‘morality’ are but different terms for the same thing, or terms that emphasize different aspects of the same intuition about how humans ought to behave. Respect and compassion for others, openness to new ideas, the positive valuing of free communication, resistance to arbitrary authority—this whole complex of interrelated ideas, which together are mere common sense, is quintessentially anarchistic. Nearly every valorized kind of behavior is anarchistic, while authoritarian behavior is maligned. If people deny that society as a whole ought to be governed from the grassroots up and not from the top down, they’re contradicting their own more fundamental adherence to democratic, anarchist values.

Or consider the concept of socialism. Centuries of discipline and propaganda have not persuaded most people that having a boss is a good thing. Far from it. Bosses are frequently detested, and people hate the boss system itself. They hate having to follow the orders of a “superior,” and would much rather be in control of their own economic life. This simple, obvious desire is the intuition behind socialism: workers controlling their own work, and people democratically deciding how to use resources. The practicability of such a system is shown by the success of worker cooperatives (typically more successful than capitalist businesses) and of various large-scale experiments in socialism, such as in Catalonia in 1936 (before being crushed by the forces of reaction). In any case, whatever people explicitly think about the widely misunderstood concept ‘socialism,’ their basic acceptance of its values—when not slandered as ‘socialist’—should be obvious from their preferences about how to organize the workplace, viz., democratically.

As for the “radical left” in general, people’s understanding of social dynamics and consequent disgust show that at bottom they have a semi-Marxist conception of the world. Judging by public opinion polls, the large majority of the population understands what intellectuals often don’t, that government is largely run by and for the rich, and that the economy functions to benefit primarily the rich. And they hate this fact. Okay, they’re Marxists, at least on the inchoate level of emotion and barely-articulated understanding of society. Moreover, their broadly left-wing, social democratic values are shown by hundreds of polls in the last fifty years. (See, e.g., Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (1986).) Incredibly, according to Gallup polls a majority of Americans even supported labor unions in every single year from the 1930s to 2013, except in 2009, when only 48 percent approved of them. The average rate of approval has been 62 percent. This is despite massive business propaganda against unions, and a massive disinformation campaign by the media since the 1980s.

The main point, to repeat, is just that the natural, quasi-instinctual, default way for people to think and behave with each other—and the morally valued way—is the freedom-loving, anti-authoritarian, far-left way. Only when authoritarian institutions muddle our thinking and behaving do we get confused and start to malign the values we’re implicitly most committed to.

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