June 26th, 2010

S.C. Hickman

A Libertarian Revolution? - Chomsky and Rothbard: Siamese Twins?

"The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may agress against the person or property of anyone else.'"
                    - Murray Rothbard 
Libertarian socialism... "looks forward to a community of free association without coercion by the state or other authoritarian institutions, in which free men can create, inquire, and achieve the highest development of their powers.'"
                    - Noam Chomsky
At the extreme edges of social thought we find two forms of Libertarian ideology: Libertarian Socialism and Libertarian Capitalism. Noam Chomsky eloquently portrays the libertarian socialist vision in his short book: Government in the Future; and, Murray Rothbard, the libertarian capitalist vision in his book: For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. Both visions are centered on a view of human nature, on a vision of freedom and the individual which are both diametrically opposed to Statism as it is now lived in both the Communist and neo-liberal Capitalist countries. Can there be any form of dialogue between the left and right of this libertarian vision? Do Chomsky and Rothbard have anything to offer us in our struggles for a vision of liberty and freedom as we move into the 21st Century? And, if so, which of the two visions, if either, offers a way out of the quagmire of our current world predicaments?

For Chomsky, industrial capitalism, is the key. He starts with the classical liberal view which "develops from a certain concept of human nature, one that stresses the importance of diversity and free creation, and therefore this view is in fundamental opposition to industrial capitalism with it wage slavery, its alienated labor, and its hierarchic and authoritarian principles of social and economic organization." He goes on to tell us that the classical liberal view "seeks to eliminate social fetters and to replace them with social bonds, and not with competitive greed, predatory individualism, and not, of course with corporate empires - state or private." And, for him, this tradition of classical libertarian thought leads toward a libertarian socialism.

For Murray Rothbard the libertarian vision is a combination of left and right tendencies. In its staunch defense of "civil liberties": freedom of speech, publish, assemble, and to engage in spurious or "victimless crimes" (pornography, sexual deviation, and prostitution); as well as, its defense against all forms of slavery and the mass murder of civilians in wars of any type the libertarian is on the Left. Yet, in the libertarian defense of the rights of private property and government interference with the economy through controls, regulations, subsidies, or prohibitions the libertarian vision is on the right. He does not see this as a duplicitous or inconsistent vision: "the libertarian sees no inconsistency in being "leftists" on some issues and "rightist" on others. On the contrary, he sees his own position as virtually the only consistent one, consistent on behalf of the liberty of every individual." As he sees it the libertarian "while opposing any and all private or state aggression against the rights of person and property, the libertarian sees that throughout history and into the present day, there has been one central, dominant, and overriding aggressor upon all these rights: the State."

Chomsky would agree that Statism in any form is the enemy of liberty. "A consistent anarchist must oppose private ownership of the means of production... and will also oppose 'the disorganization of production by the Government.'" Taking his que from William Paul, one of the founders of the British Communist Party, Chomsky iterates: "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." Any form of government, Socialist or Capitalist, will always lead to oligarchies, ruling elites dictating their vision of politics and economics over the masses: "Human beings will not, in other words, be free to inquire and create, to develop their own potentialities to their fullest; the worker will remain a fragment of a human, degraded, a tool in the productive process directed from above." He goes on to tell us that Classical liberalism and libertarian socialism are in agreement ideologically: "they are in agreement that the functions of the state are repressive and the state action must be limited. The libertarian socialist goes on to insist that state power must be eliminated in favor of democratic organization of industrial society, with direct popular control over all institutions by those who participate in... the workings of these institutions."

Chomsky envisions some form of "workers' councils, consumers' councils, commune assemblies, regional federations, and so on, with the kind of representation that's direct and revocable, in the sense that representatives are directly answerable to and return directly to the well-define and integrated social group for which they speak in some higher order organization - something obviously very different than our system of representation." This vague and ill-defined regimen of ideas he leaves to the reader's imagination to envision. Latter on he opposes the 'system of representation' in both is public and private, political and economic, aspects: the political "consists in principle of elected representatives of the people who set public policy; the economic, in principle, is a system of private power - a system of private empires (corporatism) - that are free from public control, except in the remote and indirect ways in which even a feudal nobility or a totalitarian dictatorship must be responsive to the public will."

Both the political and economic systems center of forms of Power and Control, they create "an authoritarian cast of mind" in the populace: "the belief that one must obey arbitrary dictates and accede to authority. Through a system of political and economic controls and regulations the public coerced by authoritarian modes of power, given narrow democratic options, and shaped by the propaganda of a mass media controlled by the ruling elite. His book, written during the Cold War, emphasizes how a systematic policy of domestic control was used through the use of propaganda techniques that developed a "climate of paranoia and psychosis in which the taxpayer" was willing to subsidize the Military-Industrial-Complex allowing greater governmental control and bureaucracies to arise and dominate the American public.  

Chomsky sees no way out of this quagmire unless we delegitimize the political and economic power of the ruling elites who have enslaved us through their networks of propaganda and mystifications. As he says, "We have today the technical and material resources to meet man's animal needs. We have not developed the cultural and moral resources- or the democratic forms of social organization- that make possible the humane and rational use of our material wealth and power. Conceivably, the classical liberal ideals as expressed in their libertarian socialist form are achievable. But if so, only by a popular revolutionary movement, rooted in a wide strata of the population and committed to the elimination of repressive and authoritarian institutions, state and private. To create such a movement is a challenge we face and must meet if there is to be an escape from contemporary barbarism."

Rothbard would agree with Chomsky up to a point. For him the prime task of a libertarian is to educate the public, to "spread the demystification and desanctification of the State among its hapless subjects." For him all forms of government "subsist by exploitive rule over the public; and that such rule is the reverse of objective necessity." The new libertarian would educate the multitude by showing them that "the very existence of taxation and the State necessarily sets up a class division between the exploiting rulers and the exploited ruled." That the corporate and NGO think tanks of pseudo-intellectuals, as well as the media conglomerates, are the new court  intellectuals "who have always supported the State" and are the very progenitors of mystification who weave a tapestry of illusions that benefit the political and economic powers they serve.

So what are we to do? Rothbard tells us that we must educate not only our fellow citizens, but all the citizens of the world. And to do this we must developer both "theory and activism" hand in hand: "True education cannot proceed without theory and activism, without an ideology and people to carry that ideology forward." That theory without action is sterile and void; and, action without theory, is vain strivings of an ill-informed mob is the danger of any libertarian movement. Only through education can we begin to accomplish the goals of a truly libertarian vision of freedom. He sees this as a twofold process: "One is the refining and advancing of the libertarian "theory"- the goal and purpose of our whole enterprise. Yet, without a living movement, an open and active group of individuals participating in the growth and educational process,  correcting errors as they arise, networking, providing newsletters and magazines, and in our age of the internee websites and forums for debate and discussion the very theories would die on the vine. It must be an ongoing process of deliberation and activism, education and theory, debate and study, connecting to as many people as will listen and begin to awaken from their apathetic sleep of the status quo.

F.A. Hayek once stated that we "must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage." What we lack is a libertarian Utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of the status quo nor a dream of social justice, but a truly libertarian radicalism that is not afraid to take its ideas from the left or right- and, unafraid of the powers that be, either political or economic. We need a multitude of voices,  women and men, who are prepared to resist the global influence of power elites and are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be women and men of principal, who are willing to struggle for the full realization of liberty for all humans on this vital planet. For as Hayek says: "Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark."