Chomsky: Work Might Be More Meaningful (Within Voluntary Socialism)

‟My guess is that a fair amount of it can be made entirely tolerable.

A lot of work is onerous and even "self-destructive" within Capitalism, but things can change once "human intelligence is turned to the question of how to make the necessary work of the society itself meaningful", Chomsky argued.

About the author (click)
Noam Chomsky (1928) is an American linguist, philosopher, social critic, anarchist thinker, one of the most cited scholars in history and author of over 100 books on topics such as linguistics, politics, US foreign policy and mass media.

An extract from an a 1976 interview with Noam Chomsky by Peter Jay (BBC), on the possible politics and economics of anarchism. Michael Albert called it Chomsky's "most extensive interview regarding what a desirable society might look like". Read passages from this interview on the nature of work below, the complete interview here and Albert's praise and criticism of Chomsky's ideas here.

On Anarchism

QUESTION: Professor Chomsky, perhaps we should start by trying to define what is not meant by anarchism — the word anarchy is derived, after all, from the Greek, literally meaning “no government.” Now, presumably people who talk about anarchy or anarchism as a system of political philosophy don’t just mean that, as it were, as of January 1st next year, government as we now understand it will suddenly cease; there would be no police, no rules of the road, no laws, no tax collectors, no post office, and so forth. Presumably, it means something more complicated than that.

CHOMSKY: Well, yes to some of those questions, no to others. They may very well mean no policemen, but I don’t think they would mean no rules of the road. In fact, I should say to begin with that the term anarchism is used to cover quite a range of political ideas, but I would prefer to think of it as the libertarian left, and from that point of view anarchism can be conceived as a kind of voluntary socialism, that is, as libertarian socialist or anarcho-syndicalist or communist anarchist, in the tradition of, say, Bakunin and Kropotkin and others. They had in mind a highly organized form of society, but a society that was organized on the basis of organic units, organic communities. And generally, they meant by that the workplace and the neighborhood, and from those two basic units there could derive through federal arrangements a highly integrated kind of social organization which might be national or even international in scope. And these decisions could be made over a substantial range, but by delegates who are always part of the organic community from which they come, to which they return, and in which, in fact, they live.

QUESTION: So it doesn’t mean a society in which there is, literally speaking, no government, so much as a society in which the primary source of authority comes, as it were, from the bottom up, and not the top down. Whereas representative democracy, as we have it in the United States and in Britain, would be regarded as a from-the-top-down authority, even though ultimately the voters decide.

CHOMSKY: Representative democracy, as in, say, the United States or Great Britain, would be criticized by an anarchist of this school on two grounds. First of all because there is a monopoly of power centralized in the state, and secondly — and critically — because the representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere. Anarchists of this tradition have always held that democratic control of one’s productive life is at the core of any serious human liberation, or, for that matter, of any significant democratic practice. That is, as long as individuals are compelled to rent themselves on the market to those who are willing to hire them, as long as their role in production is simply that of ancillary tools, then there are striking elements of coercion and oppression that make talk of democracy very limited, if even meaningful.


On The Nature of Work Within Anarchism

QUESTION: If the basic defense is the political appeal, or the appeal of the political and economic organization, perhaps we could look in a little more detail at that. You wrote, in one of your essays, that “in a decent society, everyone would have the opportunity to find interesting work and each person would be permitted the fullest possible scope for his talents.” And then, you went on to ask: “What more would be required in particular, extrinsic reward in the form of wealth and power? Only if we assume that applying one’s talents in interesting and socially useful work is not rewarding in itself.” I think that that line of reasoning is certainly one of the things that appeals to a lot of people. But it still needs to be explained, I think, why the kind of work which people would find interesting and appealing and fulfilling to do would coincide at all closely with the kind which actually needs to be done, if we’re to sustain anything like the standard of living which people demand and are used to.

CHOMSKY: Well, there’s a certain amount of work that just has to be done if we’re to maintain that standard of living. It’s an open question how onerous that work has to be. Let’s recall that science and technology and intellect have not been devoted to examining that question or to overcoming the onerous and self-destructive character of the necessary work of society. The reason is that it has always been assumed that there is a substantial body of wage slaves who will do it simply because otherwise they’ll starve. However, if human intelligence is turned to the question of how to make the necessary work of the society itself meaningful, we don’t know what the answer will be. My guess is that a fair amount of it can be made entirely tolerable.
‟It has always been assumed that there is a substantial body of wage slaves who will do [the necessary work of society] simply because otherwise they’ll starve.
It’s a mistake to think that even back-breaking physical labor is necessarily onerous. Many people, myself included, do it for relaxation. Well, recently, for example, I got it into my head to plant thirty-four trees in a meadow behind the house, on the State Conservation Commission, which means I had to dig thirty-four holes in the sand. You know, for me, and what I do with my time mostly, that’s pretty hard work, but I have to admit I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I’d had work norms, if I’d had an overseer, and if I’d been ordered to do it at a certain moment, and so on. On the other hand, if it’s a task taken on just out of interest, fine, that can be done. And that’s without any technology, without any thought given to how to design the work, and so on.

QUESTION: I put it to you that there may be a danger that this view of things is a rather romantic delusion, entertained only by a small elite of people who happen, like professors, perhaps journalists, and so on, to be in the very privileged situation of being paid to do what anyway they like to do.

CHOMSKY: That’s why I began with a big “If”. I said we first have to ask to what extent the necessary work of the society — namely that work which is required to maintain the standard of living that we want — needs to be onerous or undesirable. I think that the answer is: much less than it is it today. But let’s assume there is some extent to which it remains onerous. Well, in that case, the answer’s quite simple: that work has to be equally shared among people capable of doing it.

QUESTION: And everyone spends a certain number of months a year working on an automobile production line and a certain number of months collecting the garbage and…

CHOMSKY: If it turns out that these are really tasks which people will find no self-fulfillment in. Incidentally, i don’t quite believe that. As I watch people work, craftsmen, let’s say, automobile mechanics for example, I think one often finds a good deal of pride in work. I think that that kind of pride in work well done, in complicated work well done, because it takes thought and intelligence to do it, especially when one is also involved in management of the enterprise, determination of how the work will be organized, what it is for, what the purposes of the work are, what’ll happen to it, and so on — I think all of this can be satisfying and rewarding activity which in fact requires skills, the kind of skills people will enjoy exercising. However, I’m thinking hypothetically now. Suppose it turns out there is some residue of work which really no one wants to do, whatever that may be — okay, then I say that the residue of work must be equally shared, and beyond that, people will be free to exercise their talents as they see fit.

QUESTION: I put it you, Professor, that if that residue were very large, as some people would say it was, if it accounted for the work involved in producing ninety per cent of what we all want to consume — then the organization of sharing this, on the basis that everybody did a little bit of all the nasty jobs, would become wildly inefficient. Because, after all, you have to be trained and equipped to do even the nasty jobs, and the efficiency of the whole economy would suffer, and therefore the standard of living which it sustained would be reduced.

CHOMSKY: Well, for one thing, this is really quite hypothetical, because I don’t believe that the figures are anything like that. As I say, it seems to me that if human intelligence were devoted to asking how technology can be designed to fit the needs of the human producer, instead of conversely — that is, now we ask how the human being with his special properties can be fitted into a technological system designed for other ends, namely, production for profit — my feeling is that if that were done, we would find that the really unwanted work is far smaller than you suggest. But whatever it is, notice that we have two alternatives. One alternative is to have it equally shared, the other is to design social institutions so that some group of people will be simply compelled to do the work, on pain of starvation. Those are the two alternatives.

QUESTION: Not compelled to do it, but they might agree to do it voluntarily because they were paid an amount which they felt made it worthwhile.

CHOMSKY: Well, but you see, I’m assuming everyone essentially gets equal remuneration. Don’t forget that we’re not talking about a society now where the people who do the onerous work are paid substantially more than the people who do the work that they do on choice — quite the opposite. The way our society works, the way any class society works, the people who do the unwanted work are the ones who are paid least. That work is done and we sort of put it out of our minds, because it’s assumed that there will be a massive class of people who control only one factor of production, namely their labor, and have to sell it, and they’ll have to do that work because they have nothing else to do, and they’ll be paid very little for it. I accept the correction. Let’s imagine three kinds of society: one, the current one, in which the undesired work is given to wage-slaves. Let’s imagine a second system in which the undesired work, after the best efforts to make it meaningful, is shared. And let’s imagine a third system where the undesired work receives high extra pay, so that individuals voluntarily choose to do it. Well, it seems to me that either of the two latter systems is consistent with — vaguely speaking — anarchist principles. I would argue myself for the second rather than the third, but either of the two is quite remote from any present social organization or any tendency in contemporary social organization.

☞ Read the entire interview on 
☞ Or listen to the audio of the interview on Internet Archive


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