Tag Archives: anarchy

An Interview with Jason McQuinn (1998)

On September 3, 1998 Mark B. interviewed Jason McQuinn in Columbia, Missouri for his booklet Passionate and Dangerous: Conversations with Midwestern Anti-Authoritarians and Anarchists, which included interviews with people in Chicago, St. Louis, Tennessee, Detroit, Columbia, Missouri and Bloomington, Indiana. A few copies of Passionate and Dangerous are still available directly from CAL Press for $3.00 postpaid in the US or $6.00 postpaid outside of the US.

Mark: You’ve been publishing Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed since 1980.

Jason: Yes.

Mark: What have been your goals in publishing Anarchy?  It started off as a small, sporadic publication. It’s grown quite considerably since 1980.

Jason: Originally, Anarchy was supposed to be a local newsletter, very practically oriented actually, for getting anarchist projects, or anarchist slants on projects distributed in the local Columbia community. Pretty early on it became quite obvious that people outside of Columbia were more interested in the newsletter. So the dynamics  of the newsletter changed to make us feel that a tabloid would be a more practical format, to reach the people we wanted to reach, and to give us the space to have longer articles which people outside Columbia were more interested in, and eventually a magazine format made more sense, because of interest around the world. At this point, hardly any copies are distributed in Columbia.

Mark: This was in spite of the fact that there was an anarchist grocery, an anarchist housing cooperative, Third Avenue.

Jason: We had a pretty tight anarchist community when the newsletter started, but that community has evaporated over the years. The magazine has thrived based on interest in other places. I think there’s only one place in town that distributes the magazine. We get almost no feedback in town. There’s very little interest in the state of Missouri itself. So the magazine is really a means of getting thoughts out to the East and West Coast, England and other places around the world.

Mark: I guess in the Midwest often there’s a lack of activists who are interested in radical ideas.

Jason: A lot of people who become interested in radical ideas and practice tend to move to the East or the West Coast. There are fewer people in the Midwest who are interested in those ideas, perhaps because a lack of exposure but partly because the culture is more conservative. There are a significant number of people who are involved in things, more than people realize. In 1975, there was an anarchist gathering outside of Columbia, and there were about 60 people who came.

Mark: Do you think that so much work was put into the newspaper that not enough time was put into reaching out to the community and getting other people involved?

Jason: We had a lot of projects going at various times, but it all depends on people who are interested in participating in and expanding those projects. When too many people leave and are no longer interested projects can’t be kept going.

Mark: A couple of years ago you started Alternative Press Review. What was your goal behind starting that publication?

Jason: The first issue came out in ’94, so it’s been more than a couple of years. There were three goals. One, the Utne Reader was becoming more and more popular, and it defined itself as “the best of Alternative Press.” Depending on how you define alternative press it could be true or a very big distortion. I found it to be a distortion. You never found anything from the most exciting or most experimental part of the alternative press in the Utne Reader. I wanted to get that part of the alternative press that was getting anarchistic ideas more well known out there. Also, I think it’s important to not just have political magazines out there that are only oriented towards reproducing a particular political ideology, and alienating all the people who are being inundated with that perspective, or only the narrow range of issues seen from that perspective.

Mark: So it’s not out of any fear of the term “anarchy” that you came up with the title.

Jason: It was in order to be able to be more creative, be less exclusive… It’s really not a magazine that focuses on political idea of anarchy, it’s a magazine that tries to encompass a wide range of libertarian ideas and impulses and let people get a taste of different perspectives that they normally wouldn’t come across in a single publication. The third reason that I started Alternative Press Review is that I was becoming a little bored with being limited by the content in Anarchy magazine. I wanted to be able to address wider issues and not have to always do it within the framework of a specifically anarchist magazine.

Mark: Have you been able to get it into a wider range of bookstores and libraries?

Jason: It kind of surprised me. I thought that Alternative Press Review would easily get into more places than Anarchy magazine. Two things happened: first, Anarchy magazine ended up getting into more places than I ever expected it to. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that Anarchy would be picked up by major bookstore chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders. Second: It’s been harder to get Alternative Press Review out to places Anarchy doesn’t get to. There’s probably only a differential of two thousand extra copies of Alternative Press Review that go out to bookstores that don’t take Anarchy.

Mark:  How many issues do you print of Alternative Press Review?

Jason:  I think 7,770 copies of the current issue. It’s been more and less than that in the past depending on relationships with the distributors. I expect that will hit 10,000 copies within a year from now given the improved access to distributors right now.

Mark: That’s pretty impressive for a magazine that’s only been around for four years, compared to Anarchy, which has been developing for 18 years now.

Jason: Well, with Anarchy, we never intended for it to be distributed nationally or internationally. And so it was a long time developing that. At  first we made no provision for subscriptions because we didn’t want to have subscriptions, but people kept demanding subscriptions from other states because they wouldn’t get a copy otherwise. So we started. It was a very gradual and reluctant thing to get into the extra work and finally doing distribution to bookstores and distributors. It was a situation where we got pushed into it. We weren’t looking for a national or international audience, the audience came to us. We weren’t interested in that at first. It took a long time for us to develop that interest and see what we could do with it.

Mark: What kind of anarchism would you say comes out of Anarchy and Alternative Press Review? Some people describe it as having  a tad bit of anarcho-situationism. You don’t have to use a label….

Jason: My personal perspective is anti-ideological. I have no great love of the word “anarchism.” I personally don’t like any kind of “ism” as a word for describing any kind of milieu that I would feel like being involved in. I feel that it’s much more important to have independent yet communal people who are capable of thinking on their own, acting on their own, while simultaneously thinking and acting with other people and not being dependent upon a particular ideological perspective.  

My personal perspective is anti-ideological. I have no great love of the word “anarchism.” I personally don’t like any kind of “ism” as a word for describing any kind of milieu that I would feel like being involved in. I feel that it’s much more important to have independent yet communal people who are capable of thinking on their own, acting on their own, while simultaneously thinking and acting with other people and not being dependent upon a particular ideological perspective.

So that’s my orientation. There’s a lot of influences on Anarchy magazine. Just because I have a certain perspective doesn’t mean that other perspectives don’t get published in it. I certainly don’t agree with everything that gets published in it. It wasn’t meant to be my magazine only. My personal perspective is fundamentally what would be termed Stirnerist or Stirnerite. Also I’ve been heavily influenced by Situationists seen from a Stirnerite perspective.

Mark: Could you elaborate?

Jason: Max Stirner had an extreme criticism of ideology, of moralism per se, and I think it’s a very important critique that people don’t get exposed to as much as I would like. It’s one of the driving forces behind my involvement in Anarchy magazine, to help more people understand what is destructive — self-destructive — about ideology and morality, about all the ideologies and moralities as well.

Mark: That’s interesting because some anarchists, the syndicalists, are thinking about workers. I don’t know if the concept of workers exists any more. Others think more of community organizing. You come from the perspective of ideologies and moralism and how it effects us….

Jason: I would dearly love to see more people who were capable of standing on their own  feet and not having their activities relying on morality and ideology which are abstractions that really enslave people on a certain level. I would really love to see a world where there were more people relating to other individuals who were relating to each other from a position of strength rather than having their thoughts and actions determined by abstract structures of thinking.

Mark: How would you extend that to for example, organizing , or a cooperative? Do you have any comments on people who say that the main thrust of anarchism should be organizing? Is that a contradiction or just two different perspectives on the same thing?

Jason:  I think most anarchists tend to be leftists to a large degree and they want to develop structures and organizations that have a certain image that’s different from the actual social relations of the people involved. I find that to be at the least off-putting, if not a very manipulative kind of process. I would like to see people organize themselves with other people without the idea that they are going to manipulate other people into joining an organization, without the idea that they want to radicalize people in some manipulative way or they want to win people to some kind of radical program. I think it’s much more important for people to be genuinely interested in joining other people as human beings to achieve common ends, and in doing so be transparent about what their motives are and renounce other attempts to politicize other people or manipulate other people into following an agenda that might not be in their own best interests. So I think there’s a minority in the anarchist milieu who feel similarly to me and who would like to try to extensively criticize this leftist organizing the constituencies to that kind of perspective.

Mark: So more honesty and humility than anything else.

Jason:  Honesty, transparency, none of this kind of image-building where it doesn’t matter what the organization really is, if only the image of the organization is good then people will join. I don’t like that idea at all. It’s too pervasive. Most groups are more concerned with the image they project than the work they’re doing. I’m for totally ignoring as much as possible the public relations image aspect of things. For instance, in Anarchy magazine, some people have been uncomfortable with some of the topics discussed, not because they shouldn’t be discussed, but people are afraid other people are going to get a “wrong idea” of what anarchy is, as if there is a completely “right idea,” and as though there should be an image of anarchy put forward that wouldn’t hurt people’s tender sensibilities.

Mark: We shouldn’t talk about our problems.

Jason: We shouldn’t talk about certain social problems because they’re too complex or it could lead to baiting by authoritarians, or critiques that shouldn’t be made because they’re likely to alienate people with a more narrow idea of what anarchy is. There’s all kinds of things that come into play. I think that if there’s going to be an anarchist milieu worth existing, it has to be open to all kinds of problems and situations and not be afraid of public criticism of the anarchist movement, the criticism that people who are anarchists are criminals, or terrorists, or whatever. I think the movement should be as honest as possible and appeal to non-anarchists who share similar ideas to what we have.

Mark: So how would you describe anarchism to the average person? What about a critique of power?

Jason: What I”m saying is that I don’t consider myself first and foremost an anarchist.  And there are lots of things anarchism means in different places and different contexts.  And I don’t want to defend in all contexts the term anarchism because I don’t particularly like it. I much prefer the idea of anarchy as a description of potentially a very desirable state of social existence, where there is no centralized power that determines what people do but rather an existence where people get together cooperatively to run their own lives and to fulfill their desires and projects.

Mark: What about power? Most anarchist say they are opposed to power, but what about the power called into question when you’re working with a group? Should a person who has more invested in the project have more power?

Jason: There are different definitions of power, and some anarchists think power should be abolished which is a difficult position to explain I guess. Some anarchists think that all power should be generalized and no one should have too much power over other people’s interests. My preference is to consider power as something that isn’t in itself undesirable; people should have power. I don’t like ideas that go along with the term “empowerment,” but you have certain powers with your body, powers of movement, speech, experience. I don’t think power should be a bad word, because then you limit what you can do severely.

Mark: So perhaps there’s two classes of power: power of authority and hierarchy, and power of speech and experience.

Jason: I think everyone should develop their powers as much as possible and at the same time realize that in a very important sense gaining too much power over others really impoverishes you more than it empowers you. You can start by looking at… oh, I won’t even get into that, it’s too philosophical (laughs). Anyway, anytime you have someone you want to manipulate there are certain things that you give up in that relationship. Being able to manipulate that person is much more dissatisfying than relating to that person as a fairly equal, autonomous human being within a common culture or community. You lose more than you gain, to my mind. The most important thing in Anarchy magazine and Alternative Press Review that I want to express is that insight, in all its forms. I want to encourage people to see what they’ve lost. We live in a culture where autonomy is laughed at and suppressed. The whole idea of people as equal, autonomous human beings making their own decisions and relating to other people without an external higher authority calling the shots. How beautiful, how exciting that could be to live in a world where people wanted to run their own lives. That dimension is almost entirely lacking. Most people are so depressed, so enslaved, so domesticated within the present system that they can’t see that possibility. Whenever it does show it’s face there are a whole number of pressures to stop people from doing that, including the media. Any substantial freedom is ridiculed as being impossible, or labeled as some sort of perversion, or libertinism. There’s hundreds of ways for the media to express their displeasure at the concept of people being free other than through the empty concept of voting.

Mark:  It sounds like your main emphasis is moralism and dealing with concepts of power, which is in a certain sense very personal. It almost sounds like you’re not interested in building alternatives…. But in our earlier discussion it sounds like you are actually balanced in thinking about the personal as well as the more societal, like “How can we build towards an anarchist society?”  I don’t want to get into these big, syrupy discussions of Bookchin.  People call it “Lifestylism.”

Jason: Not at all. The whole idea of “lifestylism” as Bookchin employs it is a way of sticking what most people would consider a bad label on to something that really doesn’t have much to do with the label itself. I’ve always been for combining personal and social perspective. Without the existence of any kind of personal freedom, there won’t be social freedom. Without an idea and a goal of social freedom, personal freedoms become highly inhibited and narrow. One free person in a society where millions of people are unfree is kind of an absurd notion. I don’t think that people when having a notion of an anarchist lifestyle… I really don’t know how to put this because it’s just not something anybody thinks of. People don’t go out and say “I want to be an anarcho-lifestylist, but I want to leave society the way it is.”  A few people might do that, but they don’t even consider it that way.  It’s because they don’t think about it that they limit themselves in that way. There are no lifestylists who go out and say “I’m an anarcho-lifestylist.”  It’s an absurd notion.

Mark: I guess it’s just that capital has its way of undermining opposition and selling commodities of empty rebellion.

Jason: Yeah, I mean, it makes sense to criticize people if they lose sight of an overall societal goal and all the implications that are involved in that and only consider an idea of anarchism that is limited to anarcho-consumerism or anarcho-lifestylism. The whole criticism of that is made from any kind of perspective that values a free society, not even primarily from a leftist positon, or a social ecology position. So it’s kind of at the least misleading to criticize Anarchy magazine as a “lifestylist magazine.”

Mark: Do you spend much time thinking about an anarchist economy, or a freer economy and how that might work?

Jason: No, because I think it’s a less important question than others, but I do think it’s an important question. The main thing in my mind is the ideas that people have about economy need to be subordinated to a fuller sense of society and social life and not be a determining factor in societal decisions the way it is now. The idea of economy has become so isolated, so deified, cut off from the rest of life, that people act like it’s a thing in itself rather than an important aspect of general social life. So people make decisions based on economy that hide the connections between what those decisions mean for the production of goods and services and also the whole rest of social life.  I think it’s more important for people to start with the perspective of “how do I want to live?” and “how people in general can be able live more freely?” in a different set of social relations than it is to consider what an anarchist economy per se should look like.

Mark: What do you think about the whole cooperative movement in which these little cooperatives are attempting to function and the members are equal? Obviously they’re still limited by being based in capitalism.

Jason: Basically as long as you’re talking about cooperatives that perform some kind of service that involves the transfer of money, they’re always going to be primarily capitalist enterprises and I think the most important thing to realize is you can’t escape that as long as you’re operating within a capitalist system and don’t act like that factor doesn’t exist. I think cooperatives are great for people to learn the skills of negotiating with other people, expressing their interests, listening to other people’s interests and working out common ground, perspectives, projects. It’s real important because people don’t have these skills and in most situations in society people assume that it’s impossible for people to work together. So, cooperatives are in part good on that level and I think people should organize cooperatives as many ways as they can in as many different spheres as they can to replace hierarchical institutions to give people an opportunity to develop their social skills and to give them a center, a sense of community. But it’s also extremely important to remember that cooperatives are not in themselves radical in a sense of undermining capitalism, unless they can consistently undermine capitalist social relations which means attacking the whole cash and commodity nexus. That’s so extremely unlikely as to almost be impossible because you almost have to have a society of anarchists before the understanding that would need to be involved and autonomy of action would be strong enough to overcome the pressures of capitalism. People should do what they can, utilize cooperatives as much as possible but always clearly recognize the limitations and realize a free society would not have cooperatives organized on a capitalist basis.

Mark: But your main thrust today is educational.

Jason: You mean with Anarchy magazine? Sure, as an anarchist project, if you call it education. I think it’s a matter of helping people communicate and helping people find resources in understanding society that they otherwise might not come across. In a sense the whole idea of education is a little bit manipulative. It sounds like you’re trying to indoctrinate people into a particular view that they don’t currently have. I see it differently and don’t use the term “education” because of that. I think it’s more helping people who have similar interests to explore and find out new information, new perspectives while I’m at the same time doing the same thing. I just happen to be putting a lot of the information together that people send me — that people express interest in and that I found previously by corresponding to or talking to other people — in a format that allows it to be distributed in a wider way than if I was just talking to people or sending them mail.

Mark: So now you been searching for a couple of people to help you and now you’ve found a couple of people, Chuck Munson…

Jason: Chuck Munson, and Tom Wheeler.

Mark: Chuck Munson and Tom Wheeler to help you with Alternative Press Review.

Jason: Alternative Press Review is going to move to the East coast and I’ll just be one member of a editorial and production collective that should allow the magazine to cover more ground in a better way. Having three confident people publishing a magazine is much better than having one person and all his/her limitations.

Max Stirner: the anarchist every ideologist loves to hate

by Jason McQuinn

"Max Stirner" - print by Cliff Harper
“Max Stirner” – print by Cliff Harper

Max Stirner (pseudonym for Johann Caspar Schmidt) is best known as an early European anarchist and as a central figure in the dissolution of the post-Hegelian philosophical milieu during the years leading up to the Prussian Revolution (and wider revolutionary events) of 1848. Born in 1806, he went to gymnasium (somewhat equivalent to U.S. high school) and universities in an education system dominated by Hegelianism, studying philosophy, philology and theology – at times in lectures from G.W.F. Hegel himself. After achieving only limited success in his university exams, Stirner taught at a girls’ gymnasium in Berlin by day while frequenting coffee houses and wine bars during his off hours. Here he began associating with die Freien (“the Free,” a group of Young Hegelians), often at Hippel’s wine bar on Friedrichstrasse, where he developed friendships with some of the major members of this rebellious intellectual circle like Bruno Bauer, Friedrich Engels (with whom he became duzbruder, addressed with the familiar “du”), and Arnold Ruge.

Stirner’s notoriety is almost entirely due to his masterwork, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (literally, “The Unique One and Its Property”), which is usually translated into English under the misleading title of The Ego and Its Own. Although Stirner had written and published earlier essays and reviews, the appearance of this book in late 1844 came as a shock to both his comrades of die Freien and the larger liberal and radical sociocultural milieu in contemporary Prussia. Not only was his text far more radical than any other of the time (or, arguably, since), but it dealt devastating critical blows to Hegel’s philosophical system, the humanism of Ludwig Feuerbach, the critical criticism of Bruno Bauer, the communism of Wilhelm Weitling, the mutualist-anarchism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and even the nascent Feuerbachian communism of Karl Marx. Following the immediate reactions to his text by Moses Hess, Feuerbach and Bauer, Stirner published a reply titled “Recensenten Stirners” (“Stirner’s Critics”) in 1846 to clarify their rather obvious misreadings. Once Engels’ initial enthusiasm for Stirner’s text had been disciplined by Marx he recruited Engels to write with him a monumentally incoherent polemic in response which, unfortunately, Stirner was never able to see, not least due to the unpublishability of Die Deutsche Ideologie, much later translated into English as The German Ideology. (Even after Marx became a god in the lands of the Communist gulags, commissars and secret police, allowing The German Ideology to finally appear in print as a textual equivalent to religious revelation, it almost always appears with the nearly unreadable bulk of the book dealing with Stirner expurgated.) Then as quickly and surprisingly as Stirner’s amazing text had appeared in 1844, it was overshadowed and eventually almost forgotten during the uprisings and confrontations of the 1848 revolutions, and the reaction which followed, only to be resurrected more than once in later decades up to the present day.

There had certainly been plenty of de facto anarchists before the European anarchist milieu began to arise at the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s – most notably throughout prehistory. However, Max Stirner was not only one of the first to elaborate a consistently anarchist theoretical orientation, he was also the most sophisticated and important anarchist critic of philosophy then and since. However, his influence both within and without the anarchist milieu has almost always been extremely controversial. Stirner’s descriptive, phenomenological egoism and absolute refusal of any and all forms of enslavement have been a perennial source of embarrassment for would-be anarchist moralists, ideologues and politicians of all persuasions (especially leftists, but also including individualists and others). By clearly and openly acknowledging that every unique individual always makes her or his own decisions and cannot avoid the choices of self-possession or self-alienation and enslavement presented at each moment, Stirner scandalously exposes every attempt not only by reactionaries, but by self-proclaimed radicals and “anarchists” to recuperate rebellion and channel it back into new forms of alienation and enslavement. In Der Einzige und sein Eigentum Stirner has harsh criticisms of moralists who attempt to legislate slavery through the imposition of compulsory morality, ideologists who attempt to justify submission to the political state and capitalist economy (or equivalent institutional forms), and politicians who ride herd on the rabble in an attempt to keep everyone in line. Throughout their history, Marxist ideologists, militarists and politicians have treated Stirner as the arch-anarchist. But amidst the anarchist milieu, from Proudhon to Bakunin, from Kropotkin to Faure, from Maksimoff to Arshinov, and especially amongst the rank-and-file ideologues of the anarcho-left throughout the twentieth century the words of Max Stirner have been anathema or worse!

Still, (and quite infuriatingly to the left-anarchist milieu) there has always been a minority of spirited radicals, including the undomesticated and undisciplined uncontrollables among the anarchists, who have heeded Stirner’s warnings and criticisms and refused to allow any words, doctrines or institutions to dominate them. As Stirner proclaimed, “Nothing is more to me than myself!” Which clearly implies, I am only free when I choose how to live my own life. Politicians, economists, ideologists, priests, philosophers, cops and every other con-man with or without official papers, plans and/or bombs and guns, get the fuck out of our lives! And that includes any fake “anarchists” who think they can pull the wool over our eyes!

(This short essay was written — at the request of the editors — for Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed double-issue #68/69 as a short introduction to Max Stirner in order to preface my much longer essay, Part I of “John Clark’s Stirner” — which itself appeared under the Anarchy editors’ preferred title of “John Clark’s Spook.” Unfortunately, although “Max Stirner: The anarchist every ideologist loves to hate” has been posted and reposted many times on the web, every other version begins with the Anarchy magazine editors’ mangled first line that appeared uncorrected in Anarchy magazine. The original, correct version appears here. If anyone who has posted this essay elsewhere happens on this site, can you please repost the original version of this essay!)


Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed ARTICLE ARCHIVE

Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed — ARTICLE ARCHIVE

Articles will be posted as text and pdf scans as time allows. Currently no Issue scans are completed, but we hope to begin posting selected issues in the near future in the Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed Issue Archive. Our goal will be to post at least one individual article or issue scan each month. Select from the linked articles below!

A brief interview with Noam Chomsky on anarchy, civilization and technology — with AJODA staffers Lev Chernyi, Toni Otter, Noa and Avid Darkly, from Anarchy #29, Summer 1991, pages 27 & 29. Chomsky interview – pdf version.


A brief interview with Noam Chomsky on anarchy, civilization & technology

This very brief interview was obtained immediately after Noam Chomsky arrived in Columbia, Missouri to deliver a lecture on “The New World Order” on April 1, 1991. Unfortunately, when taping began in the middle of our conversation, Noam announced that he had to leave in 5 minutes, so any plans for a more organized and extensive interview had to be scrapped. Anarchy magazine staffers Lev Chernyi, Toni Otter, Avid Darkly and Noa participated in the discussion. This is what we talked about once the recording began – as Noam answered a question regarding his perception of North American anarchists.


Noam Chomsky: …I think if you counted up the number of people who would regard themselves as involved or sympathetic you’d get a pretty large number, but this doesn’t necessarily mean much, because the connections are pretty weak.

Lev Chernyi: I was curious if you try to any extent to keep up with the anarchist press in the U.S. or North America?

Noam: Yes, I guess I subscribe to most of it – more out of duty than anything else I guess.

Lev: Do you ever read Fifth Estate, for example?

Noam: Yes.

Lev: Do you have any sympathy for their anti-civilization perspective?

Noam: Not a lot. I mean I’ve always felt much more attuned with the parts of the anarchist movement that were interested in and took for granted the existence of industrial society and wanted to make it free and libertarian. So at least that’s why I’ve always been inclined much more toward the anarcho-syndicalist tradition. I don’t think that there’s anything else that has any real relationship with ongoing life. Something’s got to happen to the 5 billion people in the world. They’re not going to survive in the Stone Age.

Lev: Have you ever read anything by Fredy Perlman, by any chance?

Noam: Years ago.

Lev: Like for instance his pamphlet The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism? Have you seen that one?

Noam: I wouldn’t be surprised, but I don’t remember it well enough to comment on it.

Lev: Have you seen his book Against His-Story, Against Leviathan?

Noam: I saw that too, but again I don’t remember it well enough to comment. You know, the theme of Against Leviathan … I don’t understand what it means exactly. Civilization has many aspects to it. It doesn’t mean anything to be for it or against it.

Lev: To some degree it’s a question of semantics. It depends on what people are defining civilization as.

Noam: Well, to the extent that civilization involves oppression, sure, you’re against it. But then the same is true of any other social structure. You’re also against oppression there.

Lev: I’ve seen remarks of yours before in which you were speaking mostly of Western European civilization. Your remarks could sound like there might be some attempt at a critique of civilization overall, rather than thinking of everything as being within civilization and only criticizing the most hierarchical aspects.

Noam: But how can you give a criticism of civilization as such? I mean, for example, an anarchist community is a civilization. It has education. It has culture. It has social relations. It has a lot of forms of organization. In fact, if it’s an anarchist community it would be very highly organized. It would have traditions … changed traditions. It would have creative activities. In what way isn’t that civilization?

Lev: If you’re using the term civilization as describing what’s grown up from the beginning of the city-state and the growth of the state, or counterpoising to that more primitive, primal type social structures and groups that to some extent still exist in the niches and crannies around the world, then also….

Noam: Well, which ones do you mean? Some of those are very sordid. Some of the worst forms of oppression and brutality are in pre-technological societies.

Lev: I guess one major difference is that their forms of warfare and other things aren’t set up to wreak mass destruction. It’s more of a….

Noam: That’s not true! I mean their forms of warfare can often be genocidal. Read the Bible, for example. That was pre-technological, and it’s the most genocidal book in our canon, or in existence.

Lev: I guess, what I’m also saying, though, is you’re talking about the…

Noam: These were tribes coming into the desert.

Lev: …primal or primitive societies that are on a more anarchistic side of….

Noam: Oh, I don’t know. You’ll find all kinds of things. You’ll find contemporary communities which are libertarian, and they’re right in the middle of modern industrial society.

Lev: So basically, you’re just saying that you don’t see any worth at all in pursuing a type of critique of modern civilization from the perspective of going way back to the beginnings of civilization.

Noam: You know when you go back to the beginnings of civilization you find all sorts of things. I mean what do you call the beginnings of civilization? How far back, is it the Stone Age? For example, there were thousands of years of peasant societies before the formation of city-states, before the invention of writing and so on. Well if those peasant societies are anything like the ones that we see, they’re very ugly places. Peasant societies can be quite vicious and murderous and destructive, both in their internal relations and in their relations with one another. The image of peasant societies as peaceful, friendly places is very misleading. There are some, you know, but by no means generally….

Toni Otter: Peasant societies are relatively recent.

Noam: There are peasant societies that go back seven or eight thousand years, to the beginnings of agriculture.

Toni: Yeah, but let’s say tribal Europe before the Roman Empire. I mean, sure, there’s a mix of brutality and…or let’s just say if you look at the Aztecs or the Incas. Now they were relative imperialists of their time…

Noam: And they were murderous.

Toni: …and they were murderous….

Noam: Part of the reason why the Spanish explorers had such an easy time of it was that they easily picked up collaborators who wanted to overthrow Incadom.

Toni: And some of the collaborators may have been just murderous and…

Noam: They might’ve, but the point is that they, you know the Aztecs in particular were recent conquerors, fairly recent conquerors, very brutal ones.

Toni: …and they had probably conquered some people who were hunters and gatherers and some who were horticulturalists, and those people may have been, as you were saying, relatively libertarian in that time…

Noam: Not all.

Toni: …just as now it’s a mix in terms of what culture is. It seems to me sometimes when people critique civilization they’re critiquing the growth of statist structures, of certain kinds of social structures which have grown up especially in the modern industrial age. But, you know, you can critique capitalism, but then you have to critique patriarchy, and you have….

Avid Darkly: Well, it seems to me that critiquing capitalism and patriarchy are critiquing aspects of civilization. Then we have to look at the tool of critiquing things. We’re looking for what it is we’re going to sieve out of the compost heap of history to make our relationships on, our highly alienated relationships on. Are we critiquing civilization to hold up the Kalahari Bushmen as a model for the world. I mean maybe in some small aspect of the relationship. I mean what is it? Criticizing civilization has merit if it’s in mind what it is that we’re….

Noam: Well, suppose it turned out that the Kalahari Bushmen were living in an absolute utopia. That’s not true, but suppose it turned out to be true. What would we…that wouldn’t tell us anything about this world. It’s a different world. I mean you have to start, if you want to be related to the world in which people live, you have to start with the existence of that world and ask how it can be changed.

Noa: OK, let’s say we start with the existence of that world. Take something like Jacques Ellul’s critique of technique in The Technological Society, where technology itself is seen as having a life of its own much like capital, which is a destructive…

Noam: Do you believe that? I don’t believe that. I think technology itself is essentially neutral. You can use technology for very good things.

Noa: Well, to the extent that technology means…in terms of Ellul’s critique, he’s saying that technology that develops much beyond a certain organic relation to its creator – much like, take the metaphor of capital being removed from human control and taking on a life of its own, then it becomes a force of domination. But technology….

Toni: Ivan Illich in Tools for Conviviality, for example, talks about a lot of the same things, it seems like.

Noam: It can, but it depends upon the social institutions in which it exists. I mean, for example, a libertarian society would want to make use of the most advanced technology there is, and in fact would want to advance it further. Take something like, take a real contemporary technology like, say, information processing technology. You know, that can be used for oppression; it can be used for liberation. I mean, it could be used, for example, as a device for having real … take, say, self-organizing in the work place … I mean that is the device that might make it realistically possible for working people to have real time information to enable them to take part democratically in controlling the work place and production in a serious way. Without that technology….

Toni: But what it meant for me was that our workload increased four times. They fired bookkeepers. They incorporated that into my…

Noam: That’s right. That’s right, because it’s inside the institutions that exist. But the technology itself was quite neutral. The very same technology could have been used to democratize the workplace. The technology itself is neutral. You can use it for either…

Lev: To a certain degree you could. But do you have any way of considering how all the mining and factory work that goes into creating that type of technology fits in? Do you think that there could be a libertarian society that would be possible where people would still participate in the type of work that would be necessary, the type of assembly-line work….

Noam: But that’s just what advanced technology ought to get rid of. Most of the assembly-line type of work could be eliminated with the appropriate use of high-technology, for example robotics. I mean that could eliminate a lot of the work that human beings shouldn’t do.

Lev: Do you see no problem at all with that kind of technology – robotics on a mass scale – being even more out-of-control than the situation now because…?

Noam: That’s a truth, absolutely. In a hierarchic, oppressive society robotics will mean mass destruction. But the question is, what are the institutions? Robotics itself is neutral. Robotics itself could be used to eliminate degrading labor. It could be used to oppress people. And the question is in which social institutions is it going to develop?

Lev: I guess the real question for me would be how would people really, in any direct sense, be able to control that…?

Noam: In a free society they would control it democratically. For example, take Mondragon (which isn’t a real co-operative, but it’s partially there). Suppose we have Mondragon, it still has managerial control and so on, but if we had that you can imagine in that kind of society the workforce getting together and deciding to kick out the managers in favor of worker decision-making, using real-time information that’s available with high technology and eliminating the crazy degrading jobs with robots. That’s possible. At least that would be an ideal objective to work for, and they’d want the best possible technology.

Lev: Do you see that as being a way for a society that was organized in a relatively free way to actually control the direction of how much technology was used? And that it wouldn’t just be like the technology had a momentum of its own, where it would be hard to have any real control? For instance, like the automobile. Automobiles have basically redesigned all cities in industrialized countries to their needs….

Noam: Well it’s not automobiles that have done it; it’s corporation executives who run automobile companies. I mean getting rid of the public transportation system in Los Angeles wasn’t a decision by the automobile. It was a decision by the General Motors’ management.

Avid: Saint Louis was similar.

Noa: But, one thing you’re saying that I can’t buy is that technology is neutral, because technology is a historical process, the development of technology. So automobiles were developed as a mass business, say by Henry Ford or whoever, to serve certain needs in a certain way. In other words there’s a political agenda behind the very existence of the automobile. And that agenda leads to pollution of the earth. It leads to isolation of people from one another.

Noam: In this particular set of institutions it does. But it doesn’t have to in another set of institutions. As the technology develops it’s part of a system of social institutions and therefore has a certain character depending on those institutions. That’s not a problem in the technology. That’s a problem in the social institutions. Not all technology, like artillery, that has no useful use. But, say, automobiles, robotics or information processing, there you can have a liberatory technology. They have liberatory potential.

Avid: Well it seems that if people had a loyalty to environmental concerns then we could put a brake on technology in terms of…

Noam: Not only that, but the only thing that can possibly resolve environmental problems is advanced technology….


At this point the interview was ended as Noam left to prepare to meet with the organizers of his lecture and other planned events at the University of Missouri. The group publishing Anarchy magazine, C.A.L., was one of the many co-sponsors for Chomsky’s appearance at the University. The interview originally appeared in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed #29, Summer 1991, pages 27 & 29.