above: an image of the author: Christian Peirson
The author is a young college student with a keen interest in libertarian socialism
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Avram Noam Chomsky is considered one of the greatest intellectual minds of our time. He is a world renowned professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has authored over eighty books. Apart from being a professor Noam Chomsky is a well known political activist, dissident, and anarchist. Since the 1960’s Chomsky has been a key figure head of the libertarian socialist movement in the United States.
In this paper, I will explain the dynamics of libertarian socialism along with the common misconceptions that are often attached to its name. Moreover, I will be constructing a concise overview of Chomsky’s background and life. Then I will be reviewing the accomplishments of Chomsky to setup a framework for the discussion of libertarian socialism. I will also explain why libertarian socialists are often opposed to capitalism and to the state by citing several examples of how modern states control and suppress their populace by the manufacture of consent. I will examine of the public relations industry and the multi-national media to show the process of indoctrination in the United States.
By setting up a framework for the study of libertarian socialism I will then proceed to show why this extension is applicable to the United States system of government. This paper will also cover the fundamental ideas and core values of libertarian socialism. I will be explaining what exactly is the goal of libertarian socialism and if the system is sustainable in the long run. I will also be showing the development of libertarian socialism throughout history. I will do this by briefly examining the philosophical contributions of Bakunin, Proudhon and Kropotkin. This is to show the development of the anarchist tradition as well as the libertarian socialist ideology that is closely related to anarchist values. In conclusion, I will be demonstrating the effectiveness of libertarian socialism by looking at the 1936 Spanish Civil war and how the citizens handled themselves for three war-torn years. Finally I will be providing an alternative to our current economic system.
Fundamentals of Libertarian Socialism
To understand the proposal of libertarian socialism one has to understand what exactly libertarian socialism is. David Blake, writer for Z Magazine defines libertarian socialism as: “A group of political philosophies that aspire to create a society without political, economic, or social hierarchies, i.e. a society in which all violent or coercive institutions would be dissolved, and in their place every person would have free and equal access to tools of information and production.” (Blake 1) In other words, libertarian socialism is an anti-authoritarian social system. Liberty, freedom and the right for workers to fraternize and organize democratically are the core principles of this political philosophy. Libertarian socialists see mankind divided between two different social classes. The large majority of people who make up the working class who have little or no real power over their destinies and follow orders and do not benefit fully from their labor. Conversely, the rich minority are property owning individuals who reap the benefits of production and exercise decision making power over the majority.
This tradition could be traced as far back as ancient Greece. Zeno of Citium directly opposed Plato’s idea of a State-Utopia with his idea of a free community without government. He repudiated the intervention of the state and asserted that the sovereignty of the moral law rests in the hands of individuals. “Zeno argued that although the necessary instinct of self-preservation leads humans to egotism, nature has supplied a corrective to it by providing man with another instinct— sociability. Like many anarchists, he believed that if people follow their instincts, they will have no need of law-courts or police, no temples and no public worship, and use no money. (Piering, Cynics)
The anarchist tradition, though often underground, continued throughout modern history, including movements such as the “Free Spirit” in the middle age and the “Diggers” during the English Revolution. This train of thought continued up to the early 19th century when Pierre Joseph Proudhon adopted the term anarchist in its modern day meaning. Proudhon is best known for asserting “Property is Theft” in his essay “What is Property?” Published in 1840. He later published a famous essay ‘What is Government” where he proclaimed:
“To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place[d] under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality." (Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century)
Proudhon was the first prominent anarchist to assert such radical claims dealing with the nature of government and he laid the foundation for other philosophical successors and advocates of libertarian socialism.
The next major leap in the libertarian socialist tradition came from two prominent Russian philosophers. These men were Mikhail Bakunin, the intellectual heir of Proudhon, and Peter Kropotkin, a scientist. Bakunin was the first major proponent of the philosophy of libertarian socialism during the 19th century working class movement in Russia. His philosophy can be summarized by the following quote: “We are convinced that freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice and that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality”. (Bakunin, Conflict with Marxism) Peter Kropotkin is known for adopting the term “Mutual Aid,” which gave an alternative view social Darwinism by concluding that people are socially evolved to cooperate for the benefit of the group and individual alike. His idea of mutualism also offered a fundamental concept of the invention of labor insurance systems and trade unions to be used in democratically controlled enterprises.
Philosophical Contributions of Noam Chomsky
At the point I think it is important to begin to introduce and demonstrate the fundamental structure of Chomsky’s political philosophy. Before fully outlining his intellectual accomplishments, theories, and work, I believe one has to examine Chomsky’s early life to understand where he draws his intellectual viewpoint and analysis from.
Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1928. He received his early education at Oak Lane Country Day School and Central High School, Philadelphia. He continued his education at the University of Pennsylvania where he studied linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1955, he received his Ph. D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Since receiving his Ph. D., Chomsky has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he now holds the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Language and Linguistics. (Goodman, The Life and Times)
Chomsky made his reputation in linguistics. He learned some of the historical principles of linguistics from his father, William, who was a Hebrew scholar. In fact, some of his early research, which he did for his Masters, was on the modern spoken Hebrew language. Among many of his accomplishments, he is most famous for his work on generative grammar, which developed from his interest in modern logic and mathematical foundations. As a result, he applied it to the description of natural languages. As a student, Noam was heavily influenced by Zellig Harris, who was Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. It was Chomsky’s sympathy to Harris’s political views that steered him toward work as a graduate student in linguistics. (Goodman, The Life and Times)
From an early age Chomsky was interested in politics and it is said that politics was what brought him into the linguistics field. His political tendencies toward socialism and anarchism are a result of what he calls "the radical Jewish community in New York." (Lyons 6) Since 1965 Chomsky has become one of the leading critics of U.S. foreign policy. He gained fame for publishing a book of essays in 1965 called “American Power and the New Mandarins” which is considered to be one of the most substantial arguments ever against American involvement in Vietnam. Since then Chomsky has become one of the world’s major voices condemning state terrorism and American foreign policy. (Chomsky, Responsibility)
Chomsky’s most important work is “Manufacturing Consent”, which he co-authored with Edward S. Herman. In this book he argues that since mass media outlets are now run by large corporations, they are under the same competitive pressures to produce a profit as other corporations. This pressure to create a stable, profitable business structure invariably distorts the kinds of news items reported, as well as the manner and emphasis in which they are reported. Chomsky argues that this distortion is not a result of conscious design but rather a consequence of market selection. The businesses who happen to favor profits over news quality survive, while those that present a more accurate picture of the world tend to become marginalized. Chomsky demonstrates his thesis by citing numerous case studies dealing with U.S. news coverage of the Vietnam War and other major conflicts since then.
The book further points out issues with the dependency of mass media news outlets upon the government as the major source of news. If a particular outlet is in disfavor with a government, it can be subtly marginalized, which leads to a loss in viewers and readers and thus result in the loss of advertising revenue, which is the primary income for mass media news outlets. To minimize the possibilities of lost revenue, corporations will tend to report news in a tone more favorable to government, business and state administration and giving unfavorable news about government and business less emphasis.
Core Principals of Chomsky’s Thought
Chomsky points out that the core principle of anarchism is the justification of power. Power, unless justified, is inherently illegitimate. The burden of proof is on those in authority to demonstrate why their elevated position is justified. If this burden can't be met, the authority in question should be dismantled. Authority for its own sake is inherently unjustified. An example of a legitimate authority is that exerted by an adult to prevent a young child from wandering into traffic. This idea of power is applied to all forms of governments, social organization and other political institutions and is also applied to anyone who exercises power and dominance over others. To further demonstrate this point further those who are favor state power must meet the burden of proof. The argument that consistently comes up in favor of state power is that governments protect the security of the populace. However nearly 80 percent of the United States population distrusts their government, in turn they see their government acting contrary to the interests of majority while favoring the business interests of the minority. The essential objection that people have regarding power structures is the face that they have little or no influence over decisions that affect them. (Chomsky, Notes on Anarchism)
Libertarian socialists seek to replace unjustified authority with direct democracy, voluntary federation, and popular autonomy in all aspects of life, including communities and economic enterprises. This brings one to examine the next point about libertarian socialism which explores the problems of work relations under capitalism and the economies of nation states. Then it is equally important to present an alternative to this system that is applicable to highly industrialized state structures.
Criticisms of market capitalism
Some problems that are associated with capitalism include: unfair and inefficient distribution of wealth and power, a tendency toward market monopoly or oligopoly, imperialism, and various forms of economic and cultural exploitation. The phenomena such as social alienation, stratification, inequality, unemployment are a result of market instability. This is why there is an inherent tendency towards oligopolistic structures when laissez-faire policies are combined with capitalist private property. An essential aspect of economic freedom is the extension of freedom to have meaningful decision-making control over productive resources. Economist Branko Horvat asserts that it is now well known that capitalist development leads to the concentration of capital, employment and power. It is somewhat less known that it leads to the almost complete destruction of economic freedom.
In contrast, there are many problems regarding the current economic system. However there is an alternative and that alternative is anarcho-syndicalism. The basic principles of anarcho-syndicalism are worker’s solidarity, direct action and democratic self management. Workers solidarity means that all workers regardless of gender or ethnic group are in a similar situation in regard to work management. In the capitalist system, any gains or losses made by some workers from or to management will affect all workers. Therefore, to liberate themselves, all workers must support one another in their class conflict. This goal can be obtained through direct action through trade unionism. This system has vast implications for the workplace because when people employ the basic power of direct decision making power regarding their workplace then this can be carried over to other institutions in society. (Rocker, Anarchism)
Criticisms of Libertarian Socialism
In essence, these are the fundamental values that are held by Noam Chomsky and other libertarian socialists. The conventional view is that libertarian socialism is inherently flawed as a social system. Although this is more often assumed then argued I want to mention a few of the arguments and show that they are shallow and incoherent.
One of the most common arguments that arise when examining libertarian socialism is that free market capitalism will arise when it is suppressed. This argument is inherently true because the free market does arise when the population is suppressed. An example of this would be the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, the misconception is that libertarian socialists want to get rid of capitalism and the state system. Libertarian socialists do not want to get rid of the principles of free market capitalism but only want to see fundamental changes within the workplace. They advocate self-management, direct democracy and worker’s solidarity within the workplace. The same thing goes for the state system. Chomsky and others would like to see fundamental changes within the state structure, and in time eventually reduce the scope and power of the state structure.
Some capitalist libertarians argue that freedom and equality are in conflict with another, and that promoting equality will inherently require restrictions on liberty, forcing society to choose one or the other as their primary value. This is another good point because historically there are examples of this. During the French revolution, for example, the National Assembly valued equality over freedom, and this led to despotism and tyranny. However, the same situation can be applied to the United States. The Constitution protects freedoms, but does not apply those freedoms equally. This is clearly shown by the discrimination against African Americans when there was still slavery in place during birth of the nation.
However libertarian socialists dismiss this perceived contradiction between freedom and equality as a red herring. Noam Chomsky states that, “human talents vary considerably, within a fixed framework that is characteristic of the species and that permits ample scope for creative work, including the appreciation of the creative achievements of others. This should be a matter of delight rather than a condition to be abhorred.” (Peck 8)
Strengths and Weakness Regarding Libertarian Socialism
After examining the fundamentals of libertarian socialism one can draw its strengths and weaknesses. Some of the strengths include direct democratization of the workplace and community. Here the decision making power is in the hand of each and every individual. With that being the case, people would have more power to control their own destinies. Another major strength of this philosophy is that it is applicable to almost any society. However, since the time it would take to transform an industrialized state to a libertarian society would be long, this can be seen as a weakness. To put in place this ideology would require completely reforming the cultural mindset regarding work relations, politics and other philosophical issues.
Libertarian socialism can be seen as a very radical social and political philosophy. It advocates the restructuring of society by putting in place direct democratic rule in the workplace and community. As a result of this worker solidarity, cooperation, and empathy is produced. Without it there can be no hope for mankind being that man will always be subjected and dependent on political and social institutions that act contrary to the nature of individuals and society.
In final analysis, I would like to explore political theory in general and make three conclusions about the practice. Political Theory in general studies the questions concerning the very nature of government, politics and society. It gives us a framework for asking and solving these problems, however, I think it overlooks some problems associated with worker relationships and the power of community organization. I would also like to address the general consensus that is held by many intellectuals that the majority of people are stupid, ignorant and do not know their own interests. Finally, I want to recognize a new form of economic organization and how it relates to the values of libertarian socialism.
One of the major issues I have when reading many political theorists is that many of them have a very close minded view of the power of the individual. Many theorists and philosophers regard the individual as stupid, and ignorant. But this is inherently untrue. People are extremely creative when given the chance to explore their intuition. When they are suppressed by governments or dictators or other socially paralyzing structures they cannot strive or obtain their goals. However, I do think this trend is changing throughout the modern world. With the rise of technology and the spread of information people are able to communicate and work together like never before. This allows the opportunity for workers and citizens to change the world around them if they wish to. As long as this continues I believe that this trend will not only change the place of the individual in society but the mindset of how society itself should function. I think more will begin to question the very nature of government and their role in society and will come to conclusion that it needs drastic changes.
Secondly, I do not think that the ideas of anarchism are taken very seriously in the intellectual community. I believe there are debatable reasons for this but I want to underline why I believe anarchism can be very successful. During the 1936 Spanish Civil War millions of people were living in a state of anarchy. These people collectively bonded for three years during the outbreak of WWII. They successfully took control over industry, production, and the function of government until they were crushed in 1939. This example shows the power of collective organization without the rule of government. The point I am trying to make is that people can govern themselves if they are given the opportunity. If they are not given this opportunity then I think it is as follows that people will feel indignant towards their government until there is a social revolution.
The final point I want to address the idea of participatory economics and how it can relate to the fundamentals of libertarian socialism and political theory. Participatory economic or Parceon is an economic system that uses participatory decision making as an economic mechanism to guide the production, consumption, and allocation of resources in a society. The underlying values of Parecon relate closely with libertarian socialism because they both seek to implement equality solidarity, diversity, efficiency and worker self-management. Both systems of social and economic organization want to recognize that cooperation and solidarity are the mechanism for society. This system changes the traditional ideas concerning production and consumption. In the traditional capitalist system the buyer is trying to buy the product at the lowest possible price and the seller is trying to sell at the highest possible price. As follows there is a resentment that is between the buyer and seller. Under this system the buyer and seller would work together to reach a reasonable price for the transition. (Routledge, 221)
Another primary reason for the advocating of this new economic system is the concern for externalities that are the result of the market system. Markets by their nature operate only in the interests of buyer and seller - while the others affected by the transaction have no voice or input. For example, with regard to the automobile industry – and also the oil industry - others are affected by pollution, environmental destruction and a higher price for fuel. As a result of long-term pollution by private industry citizens and taxpayers end up bearing the costs and have to pay usually in the form of taxes. As a result of the nature of the market system it follows that this system is not self-sustainable – that its contradictions will lead to its own demise. (Routledge, 85)
In final evaluation of libertarian socialism and the fundamental teachings of Noam Chomsky I believe that there is no reason to accept the doctrines crafted to legitimise power and privilege. Decisions made within institutions that are subject to human will must face the test of legitimacy. If they do not meet the test, they must be replaced by other institutions that are freer and more just.
With that being underlined I will close by this quote:
"If you look at history, even recent history, you see that there is indeed progress. . . . Over time, the cycle is clearly, generally upwards. And it doesn't happen by laws of nature. And it doesn't happen by social laws. . . . It happens as a result of hard work by dedicated people who are willing to look at problems honestly, to look at them without illusions, and to go to work chipping away at them, with no guarantee of success — in fact, with a need for a rather high tolerance for failure along the way, and plenty of disappointments." (Chomsky, inclusiondaily)
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