December 29, 2005

Government in the Future - Chomsky

Recently I read a very fascinating book called Government in the future by Noam Chomsky. While I was not able to agree completely with all the positions established in the book, I found it extremely thought provoking and cogent. It was an honest book in the sense that certain ends were taken to be desirable and achievable in a society and then certain systems were presented as the proper means to achieve those ends. I strongly encourage anyone who thinks about these things to read this book. It is extremely small and can be read in one sitting.

I will first describe the essential points in the book linearly and after that I will present my own assessment.

The book is based on a talk that Chomsky gave in 1970 and it presents four possible structures that a society can be built upon and analyzes each of them separately. These four are:

Classical Liberalism
Libertarian Socialism
State Capitalism
State Socialism

Classical Liberalism: Chomsky presents this as an idea that originated during the Enlightenment and which is put forth most eloquently by Wilhelm von Humboldt, notably in his 1792 book Limits of State Action. The essential character of man, according to Humboldt, is his freedom and all human pursuits revolve around man's two central activities - to inquire and to create. Consequently, Humboldt adds, all human achievements spring from a man's ability to act on his free will and no lasting contributions can result from subjecting a man to external and artificial contrivances. These views are endorsed by Chomsky.

At this point, however, Chomsky derives an interesting conclusion. Contrary to the widely held belief that the above discussed liberalism finds its best expression in free market capitalism, Chomsky asserts that free market capitalism is fundamentally opposed to the above ideas. He reaches this assertion by interpreting aspects of Humboldt in a certain Marxist fashion. Humboldt, after asserting the supremacy of human will, goes on to add that a wage laborer, in spite of being politically free, is unable to act on his free will. Chomsky then draws a parallel with Marxist concept of "alienation of labor". Essentially, Chomsky's position is that a man is born to inquire and create of his own accord, and a free market capitalist society enslaves majority of the population in indirect but significant ways, so that they are not able to indulge in their fundamental human impulses. A natural solution for Chomsky at this point is to significantly increase the role of workers in the organization of an industry.

Libertarian Socialism: Developing from the notions of classical liberalism as presented above Chomsky arrives at libertarian socialism as the correct structure of a society where the human beings can realize their true natural potential. The basic organizing principles of libertarian socialism are: minimal role for state in the affairs of the society and democratic organization of the industry. The following passage from The State: Its origins and Function by William Paul captures the true nature of a libertarian socialist society.
The revolutionary Socialist denies that State ownership can end in anything other than a bureaucratic despotism. We have seen why the State cannot democratically control industry. Industry can only be democratically owned and controlled by the workers electing directly from their own ranks industrial administrative committees. Socialism will be fundamentally an industrial system; its constituencies will be of an industrial character. Thus those carrying on the social activities and industries of society will be directly represented in the local and central councils of social administration. In this way the powers of such delegates will flow upwards from those carrying on the work and conversant with the needs of the community. When the central administrative industrial committee meets it will represent every phase of social activity. Hence the capitalist political or geographical state will be replaced by the industrial administrative committee of Socialism. The transition from the one social system to the other will be the social revolution. The political State throughout history has meant the government of men by ruling classes; the Republic of Socialism will be the government of industry administered on behalf of the whole community. The former meant the economic and political subjection of the many; the latter will mean the economic freedom of all---it will be, therefore, a true democracy...Socialism will require no political State because there will be neither a privileged property class nor a downtrodden property-less class; there will be no social disorder as a result, because there will be no clash of economic interests; there will be no need to create a power to make 'order'. Thus, as Engel shows, the State will die out.

This description of "council communism" closely resembles the libertarian and socialist doctrine of anarchism and according to Chomsky (who is an anarchist) this represents the natural form of revolutionary socialism in an industrial society. Further, he claims that this has been realized in spontaneous revolutions "several times", for instance in Germany and Italy immediately after World War I, and in Catalonia in 1936.

This series of thoughts is surely radical and it requires proper analysis. I will write more on this, but let me first complete the description of the book with Chomsky's ideas on state capitalism and state socialism.

State Capitalism (or modern Welfare State): Chomsky very persuasively argues that state capitalism and (his idea of) democracy are fundamentally in contradiction. There are two centers of power in such a system: the political class and the industrial class. The former consists of elected representatives who control public policy and the later is a system of private power with absolutely no direct public control. Increasingly the range of authority that the elected representatives have to set the policy narrows and hence the role of the public in running a society is diminished. And then the power is held by smaller and smaller group of people. Chomsky quotes an interesting study by Richard Barnet which finds that "of the top four hundred decision makers in the postwar (World War II) national security system, most have come from executive suites and law offices withing shouting distance of one another in fifteen city blocks in New York, Washington, Detroit, Chicago and Boston." Further, the magnitude single industrial units increases drastically, increasing their clout on the political class proportionately. According to a study by Federal Trade Commission at that time, by the end of 1968, the two hundred largest industrial corporations controlled 60 percent of the total assets held by all manufacturing corporations. At the beginning of World War II the same amount of power was spread over a thousand corporations. Furthermore, these two hundred corporations are partially linked with each other and with other corporations in ways that may prevent or discourage independent behavior in market decisions. According to another reference in the book (from Foreign Affairs), on the basis of the gross value of their output, US enterprises abroad in the aggregate comprise the third largest economy in the world - just behind the US and the Soviet Union. All this concentration of private power is crucially detrimental to democratic habits of a society.

Chomsky also briefly writes about how the governments, at the behest of the war industry, whip up the passions in the population to justify ridiculous amounts of military spending. (I am tempted to refer to this quote by Edward Abbey in this context - A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.)

After all this Chomsky concludes that a system of state capitalism is unsuited to modern industrial society (given his convictions).

State Socialism: Chomsky does not spend much time on this, presumably because according to him its evilness is obvious. He refers to Bolshevism as an instance of state socialism and given his anarchist leanings and emphasis on freedom of human beings, it is easy to dismiss state socialism as horrendous.

Having described the basic points raised by Chomsky in the book, let me now try to present my own perspective on them.

The most fundamental questions seem to be the following:

1. How are the resources (means of production) of the society to be distributed? Essentially, this amounts to the question of what is the maximum utopia that can be realistically achieved in the society.
2. Which is more important in the final analysis - equality or freedom?
3. What is the role of individual brilliance in the society?

Let us see how Chomsky would answer these questions. His notion of libertarian socialism provides an answer to the first one. He is saying that there is to be no private ownership of resources and that this is achievable. Because of this answer to the first question, the second question becomes largely inconsequential: there is an inherent equality in his society and there is no road block to freedom (as he views it) as well. The freedom to create something when there is no popular support for it is not granted by his system. And this is tied to my third question. In Chomsky's Utopian world there seems to be no place for individual brilliance.

Imagine an individual who has a great vision and that greatness of his vision escapes everyone else. Now, whether realizing that vision contributes to the general good of the society or not, in a system of libertarian socialism it is going to be incredibly hard for him to achieve his goal. It is immaterial whether his idea will advance the general welfare of the society or not - simply because in either case the majority will never get it. How will he fare in other systems? I will describe that presently, but let me first complete the critique of Chomsky's analysis.

The crucial position of Chomsky, from which everything else follows, is his demand that democracy be implemented in an industrial environment. This is coming from his concept of how society's resources should be distributed and what will enable a man's human existence. He is not satisfied by the following: the resources are controlled by a relatively tiny part of the population and the rest are living in comfortable situation, that is under "benevolent" rulers and "soulful" corporations. This position consists a highly desirable (and the most realistic) state of affairs for many, but Chomsky flatly rejects it. He insists on more equitable distribution as a necessary condition for an existence suited to human beings.

I must, after careful thought, reject his insistence on equitable ownership of resources as a precondition for free society. Take an individual who does not own any resources. As long as certain conditions prevail in the society (in his relation to the class which owns property, which I will elaborate below) there is ample scope for him to engage his "inquiry" and "creativity" fully. It is impractical to tie all human aspirations (and indeed all human existence) to economics. A minimum level of economic well being is definitely indispensable, but requiring that ownership (in a very obvious economic sense) is essential for everything in human life is unrealistic. While in a way, I see the utopia of libertarian socialism, I must reject it because of its impracticality and the above mentioned restrictions it places on individual brilliance.

The next natural step for me is to accept the situation I mentioned as the most desirable state of affairs: the resources are controlled by a relatively tiny part of the population and the rest are living in comfortable situation, that is under "benevolent" rulers and "soulful" corporations. This much, I believe, must be ensured, and in such a way that there are enough opportunities for the majority to pursue their aims and aspirations in a fair atmosphere. The two possible paths to achieve this, it seems to me, are state socialism (in a vastly different sense than what was mentioned above) and state capitalism.

Before I embark on an elaboration of that, let me briefly discuss a system which did not directly figure until now. How does a system of complete free market capitalism (laissez-faire capitalism or anarcho-libertarianism) answer our fundamental questions? Just as libertarian socialism errs with individual possibilities to excel, I think laissez-faire capitalism errs with a requisite amount of welfare in a society. The single answer we get for any question about this system - namely, market will take care of everything - seems to me woefully inadequate. Given the boundlessness of human greed, the possibility of placing no legitimate controls on it is terrifying. In addition, there are many other consequences of free market capitalism which are genuinely disconcerting. For instance, a relentless exploitation of natural resources without consideration for the harmony of the nature can have deadly consequences. An individual, completely on his own, can not be trusted to place more importance on the need to ensure the continued welfare of the environment than on his immediate profits. Also, it is a reasonable assumption that any period of control-free market system will result in harmful monopolies and the resultant possibilities of exploitation. For all these reasons and many more, this system is equally undesirable.

I will now come to a conclusion of my remarks by analyzing the pros and cons of state capitalism and state socialism. First let us be clear on what we mean. A good representation of state capitalism, in the sense I am talking about here, is the economy of the US, with all its advantages and disadvantages. And by state socialism, I mean a democratic system with progressive taxation and strong labor unions. Such as in most of Europe, particularly in the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands.

Now my three questions assume lot of significance. First, a state capitalist system does not significantly attempt to alter the existing picture of resource-ownership and in this sense, it is fundamentally conservative. It is rare to see major resource-acquiring in these societies and the rich tend to get richer. On the other hand, one of the more important aims of state socialism is a more equitable distribution and the resulting equality. This is done mainly by progressive taxation (particularly high inheritance tax). This is tied to my second question too. What is more important - equality or freedom. If a rich man is to be given complete freedom, then it entails him to leave his fortune to anyone (often to his children). But this in some sense engenders inequality, because just by being born in some families some people are richer and their origin is shifted to their advantage (through no real contribution from them). A system where this is very common or unregulated will naturally face the prospect of being more and more unequal. So inheritance tax plays a crucial role in checking this.

Basically, a choice between these two systems would depend on one's value judgements. On the other hand, it is conceivable that one can study these two systems in detail and from that study say something about relative merits. In spite of what such a study might say about their relative levels of efficiency, I personally would prefer a system which actively tries to redistribute its resources.

Finally, regarding the third question. I imagined the case of an individual with a great vision to discredit libertarian socialism. Let us see what his prospects are in state socialism and state capitalism. Both of these systems have private centers of power (resulting from their ownership of resources). So this individual definitely has a much better chance, because now he needs to potentially convey the greatness of his vision to significantly smaller group of people. So these systems definitely have an active role for individual brilliance.

Well, this turned out to be much longer than I intended it to be! This, in a way, brings together the various (often chaotic and clumsy) strands of my thought on these issues. Admittedly, the scope of these remarks is very narrow and covers only a part (mostly economic) of the variables that define a society. Further, I do not also claim that I considered all the facets of the issue. There are, as always, two levels on which these things are assessed. One is of course one's own value judgments. The other is the logical coherence of the argument. Even if you disagree with my value judgments, I hope these remarks are logically coherent. Please feel free to comment.


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