Thursday, June 08, 2006

Book Review: Government in the Future by Noam Chomsky

     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

Chomsky continues

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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review. The book/talk sounds interesting. I will definitely at least listen to it some time soon.

It is true that it is up to us to decide what the next economic/government/political system would be, but I think that part of the reason why many of the critics of the current system are reluctant to offer concrete alternatives is that there aren't many/any...

I took an extremely brief look at Parecon a few years back and I wasn't very impressed, yet Chomsky had this to say about it:

"A great many activists and concerned people ask, quite rightly, what alternative form of social organization can be imagined that might overcome the grave flaws -- often real crimes -- of contemporary society in more far-reaching ways than short-term reform. Parecon is the most serious effort I know to provide a very detailed possible answer to some of these questions, crucial ones, based on serious thought and careful analysis."

Anonymous said...

It truly is a great speech, and if you have read anything by Chomsky, and would like to hear him expand on his political/philosophical perspective, this is a gem.

I didn't realize that it had been published in book form. It is freely available audio at Znet here:

breakerslion said...


LBBP said...

Just curious, do you personally advocate libertarian socialism, or are you just interested in it from an intellectual perspective. From your other posts, I have always considered you a progressive democrat. Whereas, I can appreciate an intellectual interest in libertarian socialism (anarchism), I find efforts to try and convince people to convert now, such as Lew Rockwell or etc., to be rather naive. I am particularly interested in the section of the book you mention which addresses the "against human nature" argument, because to me, that is the principle argument against anarchism.

Delta said...


I'm not sure that I agree with you that there aren't any good alternatives out there. Perhaps some of the ideas don't seem perfect and you might say "well how the hell is this part of it going to work?" And it may be a valid point, but we don't need perfection to improve on the current situation. However, I have a lot of reading and thinking to do before I can really say with confidence that I believe such and such system is the best. I haven't looked at parecon and other alternatives in a very deep way yet, and I look forward to exploring some of these issues with you as I do so.

As I mentioned above, I have a ways to go before I feel completely comfortable saying that I advocate libertarian socialism. I've reading various books and juggling some ideas in my head. However, it seems to me that once the dust clears I'll consider myself an anarchist, particularly of the anarcho-syndicalist variety. In fact, I already do label myself as such but haven't posted it anywhere on my blog because I'm still in a cautious, transitional stage.

I do not feel that this is something that can be done immediately. I think a libertarian socialist system would be the ideal with which to make progress towards, but I do not believe that implementing it tomorrow would work. Luckily the change needed for it to come into existence can't really even occur until a large enough portion of the population understands it well enough to make it work. I was going to cover this in more detail come election time, but I am also supportive of voting in elections. I see the point of view of those who say that it's a waste to vote and simply endorses the current system, but I think that voting can have at least some small positive effects. While democrats are very similar to republicans, they are a little different, and this difference can translate to important differences in policy and its affect on people. But I only think voting for democrats makes sense if they stand to lose to a republican. Otherwise I support voting for 3rd party candidates, like the Greens. This has the dual advantage of 1) voting for candidates that actually represent some of your views in at least a watered down way and 2) it forces the democrats to look to the "left" in a hope to get some of the votes.

So yeah, I don't feel that implementing it now is a good idea. But it's important for me to understand if I think those concepts are something to work towards, or whether they are things with which I should avoid. When I do my book review of the anarchism book I'm reading right now I'll try to make sure to discuss the issue of it being against human nature.

And thanks for the comments everyone, I appreciate it!

Anonymous said...


I am by no means an expert on the subject and I too need to spend some time looking into available/proposed solutions. I'll be looking forward to your posts on this subject and will try to provide my uneducated opinions when I can. :-)


tn said...

Wonderful review! It's sad that the book isn't longer, but I'll definitely see if it's at my local library. Years ago I picked up my first Chomsky book, enjoyed it immensely, then delved deeper into the libertarian socialist literature. His argument of the progression of individualism, from liberal to libertarian, from libertarian to libertarian socialist, is inspiring. You touch on it for a good deal and give a nice collection of quotes. I'll be steering some friends over to read your review.

I’ve loved his talks so much that I’ve even considered applying to colleges that have joint classes with MIT to get his linguistic lectures. He gives a very persuasive argument, but as I've said occasionally to those that inquire, I consider myself an agnostic libertarian socialist. I'd like to see our government retrofitted to that economic and social structure, yet I fear it's a mere utopia. I don’t know what would happen in reality if it were to be implemented, but it sounds like a good turn of events. Until then, I'll be voting for either the Green or Libertarian tickets. I'm not ready to be completely disenfranchised. I can’t wait for your next review. Will you give us a little hint on the author?

Perhaps the book would serve better as a birthday gift or stocking-stuffer than a real read. Someone in my family is getting a 67-page present for Christmas!

Delta said...

Thanks for the comments drunken tune! I'm currently reading this.

beepbeepitsme said...

Thanks for the article about Chomsky. I was personally interested in his defence of classical liberalism, which the rightwng has managed to pervert so that it means something entirely different.

I have always considered myself to be a liberal under this definition.

LIBERALISM: A political theory founded on the natural goodness of humans and the autonomy of the individual and favoring civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority.

A 19th-century Protestant movement that favored free intellectual inquiry, stressed the ethical and humanitarian content of Christianity, and de-emphasized dogmatic theology.

Certainly the propagandized version from the rightwing, is nothing like this definition.

Aaron Kinney said...

Chomsky is such a brilliant critic of government. I love so many things he has written. But Chomsky doesnt understand the key moral issue here: that the only legitimate transaction is one that is consented upon by all involved parties. Thus, a socialist anarchy would be bad, bad, bad. Chomsky needs to realize that a free market anarchy would be superior because it provides for the most freedom. And freedom is something that Chomsky is a strong proponent of. Freedom means freedom of choice, which means consent is paramount, which means a socialist state would not be moral, because a socialist state would ignore consent.

Consent = private property = competition = free association = free market = freedom = moral.

Coercion = socialism = force = monopoly = no choice = slavery.

Delta said...

Hey AK,

But Chomsky doesnt understand the key moral issue here: that the only legitimate transaction is one that is consented upon by all involved parties. Thus, a socialist anarchy would be bad, bad, bad.

What makes you think that a socialist anarchy is going to be imposed on anyone?

Chomsky needs to realize that a free market anarchy would be superior because it provides for the most freedom

Like I've said other times, I don't see any reason to believe that free markets can exist. And even if they were possible, it'd be another question as to whether they would be desirable.

Freedom means freedom of choice, which means consent is paramount, which means a socialist state would not be moral, because a socialist state would ignore consent

Neither I, nor Chomsky, is advocating a socialist state. And so I agree with you that this would be immoral in my opinion. But socialism from below, chosen by those who are participating, is certainly not immoral.

Consent = private property = competition = free association = free market = freedom = moral

I don't see how you could tie "consent" with "private property". Property over your personal items fine, but over the means of production? Property that you simply use to get the work of others to benefit you?

Even if you were to advocate this type of property protection, it seems like you would have to be outraged at the current system and want all the land to go back to the Native Americans. Or does their property not count? If property theft is okay, then I say let's do it one more time.

Coercion = socialism = force = monopoly = no choice = slavery

Again, socialism with coercion isn't what anyone is looking at.

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