Defending the Welfare State: “Expanding The Floor Of The Cage”

Understanding Power (2002), Pgs. 344-346, “Defending the Welfare State”:

Question: Noam, since you’re an anarchist and often say that you oppose the existence of the nation-state itself and think it’s incompatible with true socialism, does that make you at all reluctant to defend welfare programs and other social services which are now under attack from the right wing, and which the right wing wants to dismantle?

Chomsky: Well, it’s true that the anarchist vision in just about all its varieties has looked forward to dismantling state power and personally I share that vision. But right now it runs directly counter to my goals: my immediate goals have been, and now very much are, to defend and even strengthen certain elements of state authority that are now under severe attack.

What’s called the “welfare state” is essentially a recognition that every child has a right to have food, and to have health care and so on – and as I’ve been saying, those programs were set up in the nation-state system after a century of very hard struggle, by the labor movement, and the socialist movement, and so on.

In my opinion the immediate goal of even committed anarchists should be to defend some state institutions, while helping to pry them open to more meaningful public participation, and ultimately to dismantle them in a much more free society.

And in any realistic perspective, the political system, with all its flaws, does have opportunities for participation by the general population which other existing institutions, such as corporations, don’t have. In fact, that’s exactly why the far right wants to weaken governmental structures – because if you can make sure that all the key decisions are in the hands of Microsoft and General Electric and Raytheon, then you don’t have to worry anymore about the threat of popular involvement in policy-making.

So take something that’s been happening in recent years: devolution — that is, removing authority from the federal government down to the state governments. Well, in some circumstances, that would be a democratizing move which I would be in favor of-it would be a move away from central authority down to local authority. But that’s in abstract circumstances that don’t exist. Right now it’ll happen because moving decision-making power down to the state level in fact means handing it over to private power. See, huge corporations can influence and dominate the federal government, but even middle-sized corporations can influence state governments and play one state’s workforce off against another’s by threatening to move production elsewhere unless they get better tax breaks and so on. So under the conditions of existing systems of power, devolution is very antidemocratic; under other systems of much greater equality, devolution could be highly democratic-but these are questions which really can’t be discussed in isolation from the society as it actually exists.

So I think that it’s completely realistic and rational to work within structures to which you are opposed, because by doing so you can help to move to a situation where then you can challenge those structures.

But to say, “Okay, let’s just get rid of the federal government as soon as we possibly can,” and then let the private tyrannies take over every thing – I mean, for an anarchist to advocate that is just outlandish, in my opinion.

Supporting these aspects of the governmental structures just seems to me, to be part of a willingness to face some of the complexities of life for what they are – and the complexities of life include the fact that there are a lot of ugly things out there, and if you care about the fact that some kid in down own Boston is starving, or, that some poor person can’t get adequate medical care, or that somebody’s going to pour toxic waste in your backyard, or anything at all like that, well, then you try to stop it. And there’s only one institution around right now that can stop it. If you just want to be pure and say, “I’m against power, period,” well, okay, say, “I’m against the federal government. ” But that’s just to divorce yourself from any human concerns, in my view. And I don’t think that’s a reasonable stance for anarchists or anyone else to take.

How the World Works (2011), Pgs. 256-257, “Brazil, Argentina and Chile”:

The Argentine government is in the grips of a neoliberal frenzy, obeying the orders of international financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. (Neoliberalism is basically nothing more than the traditional imperial formula: free markets for you, plenty of protection for me. The rich themselves would never accept these policies, but they’re happy to impose them on the poor.)

So Argentina is “minimizing the state”—cutting down public expenditures, the way our government is doing, but much more extremely. Of course, when you minimize the state, you maximize something else—and it isn’t popular control. What gets maximized is private power, domestic and foreign.

I met with a very lively anarchist movement in Buenos Aires, and with other anarchist groups as far away as northeastern Brazil, where nobody even knew they existed. We had a lot of discussions about these matters. They recognize that they have to try to use
the state—even though they regard it as totally illegitimate.

The reason is perfectly obvious: When you eliminate the one institutional structure in which people can participate to some extent—namely the government—you’re simply handing over power to unaccountable private tyrannies that are much worse. So you have to make use of the state, all the time recognizing that you ultimately want to eliminate it.

Some of the rural workers in Brazil have an interesting slogan. They say their immediate task is “expanding the floor of the cage.” They understand that they’re trapped inside a cage, but realize that protecting it when it’s under attack from even worse predators on the outside, and extending the limits of what the cage will allow, are both essential preliminaries to dismantling it. If they attack the cage directly when they’re so vulnerable, they’ll get murdered.

That’s something anyone ought to be able to understand who can keep two ideas in their head at once, but some people here in the US tend to be so rigid and doctrinaire that they don’t understand the point. But unless the left here is willing to tolerate that level of complexity, we’re not going to be of any use to people who are suffering and need our help—or, for that matter, to ourselves.

Thanks for reading,


Understanding Power (2002) PDF

How the World Works (2011) PDF

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