Noam Chomsky's Government in the Future is a small book based on a talk that he gave in New York in 1970 in which he asks "What is the role of the state in an advanced society?" To answer this, he gives his views on four major political positions-classical liberalism (libertarianism), libertarian socialist, state socialist, and state capitalist.
He makes his personal preference known from the outset. He states that he believes
libertarian socialist concepts (left-wing Marxism through anarchism) are funamentally correct and are the proper and natural extensions of classical liberalism into the current era of advanced industrial society
He then begins his look at classical liberalism. He says
Classical liberalism asserts as its major idea an opposition to all but the most restricted and minimal forms of state intervention in personal in social life. This conclusion is quite familiar. However, the reasoning that leads to it is less familiar and I think a good deal more important than the conclusion itself
This reasoning for limited state intervention, Chomsky explains, was that man's most important attribute is his freedom. Citing the 18th century libertarian Alexander von Humboldt,
To inquire and to create-these are the centers around which all human pursuits more or less directly revolve.......Whatever does not spring from a man's free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness
Chomsky then compares Humboldt's statements with those of Karl Marx, born a half a century later, who speaks of
the alienation of labor when work is external to the worker, ...not part of his nature,....[so that] he does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself...[and is] physically exhausted and mentally debased
Robert Tucker, for one, has rightly emphasized that Marx sees the revolutionary more as the frustrated producer than as a dissatisfied consumer. And this far more radical critique of capitalist relations of production flows directly, often in the same words, from the libertarian thought of the Englightenment. For this reason, I think, one must say that classical liberal ideas in their essence, though not in the way they developed, are profoundly anticapitalist. The essence of these ideas must be destroyed for them to serve as an ideology of modern industrial capitalism.
Writing in the 1780s and early 1790s, Humboldt had no conception of the forms that industrial capitalism would take. Consequently, in this classic of classical liberalism he stresses the problem of limiting state power, and he is not overly concerned with the dangers of private power. The reason is that he believes in, and speaks of, the essential equality of conditions of private citizens. And of course he had no idea, writing in 1790, of the ways in which the notion of a private person would come to be reinterpreted in the era of corporate capitalism. He did not foresee-I now quote the anarchist historian Rudolf Rocker-that "Democracy with its motto of 'equality of all citizens before the law,' and Liberalism with its 'right of man over his own person,' both [would be] shipwrecked on the realities of the capitalist economic forum." Humboldt did not foresee that in a predatory capitalistic economy, state intervention would be an absolute necessity to preserve human existence and prevent the destruction of the physical environment....Humboldt also did not foresee the consequences of the commodity character of labor,the doctrine,again in Polanyi's words, that "it is not for the commodity to decide where it should be offered for sale, to what purpose it should be used, at what price it should be allowed to change hands, and in what manner it should be consumed or destroyed." But the commodity is, of course, in this case, human life....
I'll stop there for the reasons of length, but Chomsky continues in much the same way for two more pages, until he reaches the concluding statement
Classical libertarian thought seems to me, therefore, to lead directly to libertarian socialism, or anarchism if you like, when combined with an understanding of industrial capitalism
He then begins his discussion of libertarian socialism. This collection of ideas
reflects the intuitive understanding that democracy is largely a sham when the industrial system is controlled by any form of autocratic elite
Chomsky then goes on to explain some of the basic thinking associated with libertarian socialism and discusses some events in history related to the ideas or those who held them. I won't go into those ideas here, partly for length and partly because I will have another book review in the next month on a book that deals primarily with these concepts. He then addresses two counterarguments against this sort of social system, those being that such an organization is contrary to human nature, and that it is incompatible with the demands of efficiency.
Chomsky ends the book by looking at state capitalism and state socialism. But rather than discuss these ideas abstractly, he looks at the behavior of the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1970 when he gave this talk it was surely a good way to discuss these issues, but I didn't find this small section particularly illuminating, perhaps because I've heard Chomsky and others discuss these issues in much greater detail than is allowed in a public talk.
In conclusion, I thought it was a good read. I had gone into the reading thinking that he might make predictions about the government in the future, but instead he simply discussed some major political philosophies. However, in hindsight, this is the logical thing for him to do. The government of the future is for us to decide, and the first step towards a decision is to hear about all the options.
I wouldn't recommend buying the book though. It's only 67 pages long and there isn't even that many words per page (like I said, it's a speech). Get it at the library if you can and read it, it won't take more than an hour. Also, you can listen to an audio version of the speech at the last link on the page here. In my opinion it's somewhat hard to listen to the talk because Chomsky intermingles a lot of quotes of people in his talk and without the ability to see it separated as you do in a book, or see Chomsky reading from his notes (as you would in a talk), it can be hard to distinguish when he's talking and when he's quoting someone.