Noam Chomsky: Mutual Aid Is Rising — and It’s Key to Our Survival

Mutual aid is a word that has been getting tossed around during the time of COVID-19. Groups that are currently providing aid, such as the Indigenous Mutual Aid Network, are reminiscent of when the Black Panther-inspired and anarchist-based Common Ground Relief collective came together after Hurricane Katrina, and organized distribution centers, health clinics and legal aid, as well as cop-watch, eviction defense and bioremediation efforts.

In this interview with world-renowned linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky, the public intellectual discusses the continuing legacy of anarchism, from public misconceptions to how anarchism is embedded in groups doing on-the-ground work.

Chris Steele: My first question is about anarchism. You were exposed to anarchism at an early age. I was wondering, how has anarchism progressed and where do you see its role in the future?

Noam Chomsky: Well first of all, we should bear in mind that the term “anarchism” covers quite a wide range of thinking and activities. The term itself has a derogatory connotation, thanks to the workings of the whole world propaganda system over the years. The term anarchism has come to mean to people something like violence and terror, destruction, elimination of all order and organization and so on, but that’s not what the mainstream of anarchism ever was — fringes were, but anarchism calls for a highly organized society, but organized by the participants without illegitimate hierarchy and domination. That calls for a high degree of organization, but based on solidarity, mutual concern, cooperation, shared information and understanding and so on. How’s that changed? It always exists in human life, but it doesn’t exist as a recognizable element of society. In the ‘60s, it began to change because the activism very much took these forms, even if the word wasn’t used.

The Freedom Riders in the South [in 1961] would say we’re living in a society that they created of mutual aid and support and common decision making and so on. The early feminist movement had some of the same properties and so on, and it’s happening again today, especially with the rise of the environmental movement among young people, but much beyond that, there are things developing in the world that we don’t call anarchism but are elements of a potential anarchist society. Take things like when the big steel mills shut down in Youngstown, Ohio. They had been built by the community, they were the major contribution — they were a community creation to a large extent, and the community fell apart — not just the workforce. But instead of just disintegrating and disappearing, they began to organize in a participatory form. This was with the help of intellectuals who were interested in it — Staughton Lynd, labor activist and lawyer [and] Gar Alperovitz, who had been working on ideas of this sort for a long time and have now developed [them] in Youngstown — in fact, [in] the former Rust Belt altogether, including Cleveland, [has seen] a network of worker-owned, worker-managed enterprises which are based on participatory mechanisms, of course embedded in the broader state capitalist society, but those are the kinds of things that are pretty anarchist.

The 19th century figure Mikhail Bakunin was talking about (when he referred to the task of trying to build the “germs of the future”) the elements of the future within the existing society, and I think there are many ways in which this has taken place and it’s the kind of ideas that have come to the surface more than in the past (the recent past at least). Of course, there are independent developments that have been pretty exciting, like most recently, in the Kurdish areas of Syria, the Rojava area, where they’ve tried to institute a strongly feminist, communally based [system] on the model of Murray Bookchin’s work, a society which has now been betrayed to its worst enemies by Donald Trump. [But] something may survive.

Do you have reflections on the mutual aid organizing that is currently underway? Not from government associations, but communities assisting each other and the usefulness of anarchist organizing in the age of COVID?

Haven’t done a study, but there have been interesting reports from around the world of communities self-organizing to deal with the crisis — to help people in need, to keep communities functioning, with the government doing nothing, or worse.

One dramatic example is the Rio favelas. Awful slums, little water, people jammed together. The government is horrible. Finally, an organized group took over some of the favelas to impose a lockdown and provide some rudimentary services: the crime gangs that have been terrorizing the communities. Apparently, they were doing a pretty good job until heavily armed police broke in and started killing lots of people.

I’d like to talk about the value of internationalism and mutual aid and how these tactics could aid Palestine. We often see internationalism going in the wrong direction with the Israel Defense Forces training police officers in the U.S. on repression techniques, but the scenario is often flipped, like when Palestinians and communities in Ferguson, Missouri, (with Black Lives Matter) showed solidarity and shared tactics. Can you speak on this internationalism in Palestine?

Well, as you correctly pointed out, there’s two kinds of internationalism: there’s the internationalism of the powerful and the repressors, [and] there’s the internationalism of those struggling for freedom and elementary rights — that’s always been true. So, go back to the American Revolution, for example. There were the British that were fighting with forces from Germany — Hessians. The Americans had supporters from France like Lafayette, and it goes on like that. Through history, we see both tendencies; the rich and the powerful had shared interests and they cooperate and try to achieve them.

When the U.S. backs a right-wing military coup in some Latin American country, that’s mutual aid of the rich and powerful. During the 1980s, we saw a pretty amazing development which is rarely discussed because it’s much too frightening. This was the first time in history that mainstream, ordinary people by the thousands went to a country that was under attack by the wrong state — not only to give some aid, but even to try to participate in their lives, to give what help comes from having a white face in your midst. And [hardly anybody in the U.S.] ever thought of going to a Vietnamese village — or in France, to an Algerian village, when the United States was destroying Indochina and France was crushing Algeria. These are ideas that never came to people’s minds. But in the 1980s, it happened by the tens of thousands in the United States, and from all over the country — Evangelical churches in rural Kansas for example. It wasn’t just the young people who were derided as Sandinistas; that’s an amazing phenomenon of internationalism and mutual solidarity — very important, which is one of the reasons why it’s kind of written out of history — it’s not the kind of thing that people are supposed to have in their minds, but it’s there and it came. Nobody could have predicted it, it came out of nowhere, it’s right below the surface, I think, all the time.

You’ve rightfully called Tucson, Arizona, “occupied territory,” and all of North and South America is Indigenous land. With the current situation of children dying and being imprisoned on the border, can you speak about how this is part of the ongoing legacy of colonialism and genocide, and what you see being done about rectifying colonialism and bringing justice to stolen land?

Well that’s another pretty amazing phenomenon. Arizona all together is not exactly a leftist paradise, but if you take Tucson, where we’re living, the solidarity with the most reviled people is quite extraordinary — nobody is as reviled in the American propaganda system as much as refugees fleeing for their lives from the countries we’ve destroyed in the south. I don’t have to tell you about it, it’s shocking, but there are groups here in Tucson, one group called No More Deaths, mostly young people, some others, who go out into the desert, which is very harsh and forbidding, set up camps where refugees can come and receive a little medical aid, a little food, a place to rest and send them on their journey through the territories controlled by very brutal border controls. They leave bottles of water in the desert, which is a crime, [and] some are brought to court.

There’s been a couple of federal trials recently, one ongoing now. The support for the defendants is pretty strong. Drive around the city [and] you see on people’s lawns signs saying, “Humanitarian Aid is Not a Crime.” In fact, in the major federal trial just a couple of months ago, [Scott Warren] had a felony charge with a possible 20-year sentence for giving assistance to people fleeing, trying to survive in the desert. It was a jury trial and [Warren] was freed by the jury by two to one. So, you have that, but you have the opposite, too, of course, but those again are examples of spontaneous, dedicated, very courageous international solidarity. My wife Valeria and I visited one of these camps a couple months ago out in the desert before it was dismantled by the Border Patrol; it was pretty impressive, very primitive of course, but met the possibility for some help and salvation for desperate people.

With the recent escalation in Iran, people are having recollections of the anti-Iraq War protests, which were the largest in history and didn’t stop the war. You’ve mentioned that an important, overlooked part of the Pentagon Papers is towards the end, where advisers worried that if protests kept escalating in the U.S., troops would need to leave Vietnam to fight protesters or “uphold peace” in the U.S. My question is, what does an effective antiwar protest look like in this current age?

Well you know, I think that is a part of the Pentagon Papers which is almost never mentioned. It’s the very last part of the Pentagon Papers, after the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam when the government [under] Lyndon Johnson was thinking of sending 100,000 more troops and the joint chiefs of staff were opposed. They were concerned that they’d need them for civil disorder and control in the United States. There’s also mounting evidence first brought to attention by Dan Ellsberg, now more evidence for it, [that] the Nixon administration was thinking seriously of nuclear weapons but was talked out of it, essentially by the massive antiwar demonstrations in Washington after the Tet Offensive, [and] the government began again to slowly disentangle itself from the crimes in Indochina. Plenty of them continued, but they gradually started to de-escalate.

By the 1980s, [the] popular movement that I described I think [was] actually an outgrowth of the Vietnam antiwar movement. There have been careful studies of public opinion on the Vietnam War starting in 1975 when it officially ended, going on for many years. It’s pretty surprising when you look at it; it turns out that roughly 70 percent of the population regarded the war as, I’m quoting, “Not a mistake, fundamentally wrong and immoral.” Those are words you can’t find in the intellectual community, the intellectual journals, except on the left. In the public media you don’t find that, but that’s the public and that lasted through the ‘80s, certainly, at least by the polls, and I think it was a considerable part of the background for the general popular movement of solidarity and direct engagement in Central America. It beat back Reagan’s programs. His initial programs were to duplicate what the United States had done in Vietnam, but they backed off pretty quickly because they realized they can’t get away with it in the temper of the times.

When you get to Iraq, as you said, it’s the largest demonstration in imperial history, protested before the war was even officially announced, now generally described as a “failure,” but I don’t believe that. I think [protest] put constraints on what the government can do. It was bad enough but it was nothing like what Kennedy and Johnson did in Vietnam before any protest developed, so I think it was a partial success in that respect, and I think we’re seeing the same now. There’s a wave of protests in the country — some of it visible in demonstrations, much of it just detectable in people’s general attitudes — saying they don’t want another war in the Middle East. Maybe that’ll have an effect. That’s really up to people like us, to activists and organizers who can commit themselves to trying to turn this from a general attitude of discontent and opposition to an active movement of another very direct protest that can change things.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.